The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Wed, 06 Dec 2023 07:13:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Welcome and Witness: How to Reach Out in a Secular Age Wed, 06 Dec 2023 05:04:55 +0000 Rebecca McLaughlin critiques some of our attitudes toward church and personal evangelism and offers encouragement to keep proclaiming Christ even when it feels fruitless.]]> What’s special about church? For this final episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson are joined by Rebecca McLaughlin, author of Confronting Christianity and The Secular Creed.

They discuss the unique nature of the in-person church as the place where the vertical dimension of worship meets the horizontal dimension of embodied community. Reflecting on the long history of Christianity, they acknowledge that the church simply “doing its thing” has a transformative, leavening influence on the world.

McLaughlin critiques some of our attitudes toward church and personal evangelism and offers encouragement to keep proclaiming Christ even when it feels fruitless. Scrivener examines how our fear of being labeled “bigots” can lead us to disqualify ourselves from sharing the gospel, even though our friends might be more receptive than we imagine.

The podcast ends on a hopeful note: we’re actually living in pre-Christian times—Jesus is Lord, he is returning, and summer is coming.

Advent Meditation: Behold the Father’s Love Wed, 06 Dec 2023 05:03:00 +0000 ‘Father’ isn’t a random nickname for God. It’s who God fundamentally is.]]> Read

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)


Early in the morning, I wake and quietly make my way to the gray wing chair in my home office. I’m determined to be productive in these precious predawn hours.

Only a few minutes into my routine, however, the door next to me slowly opens and my 4-year-old son walks in, bleary-eyed. All he wants to do is crawl into my lap and put a tired head on my shoulder. My plans for this moment are spoiled, but I couldn’t care less. Why? Because I’m this boy’s father, and he’s my son, and that’s enough to make me welcome his intrusion with joy.

One of the reasons we miss drinking more deeply of God’s love is that we forget to think of him as Father. We may know it’s true because we’ve read our Bibles, but our intuitions still imagine God as a more distant figure. This isn’t merely a shortcoming in our thinking; it’s a tragic distortion of our view of God.

“Father” isn’t a random nickname for God. It’s who God fundamentally is. He is Father. God the Father has eternally begotten God the Son. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father.” Why? Theologian Michael Reeves puts it like this: “This is who God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father.”

One of the reasons we miss drinking more deeply of God’s love is that we forget to think of him as Father.

Not all of us have fathers who loved and protected us. For many, the word “father” is a pain, not a comfort. God sees this pain. He is the perfect Father, the One our hearts were made to know.

Understanding the perfect, fatherly character of God awakens the love of God in us. Jesus reminded us: if even sinful human fathers can genuinely love their children, our heavenly Father is infinitely more eager to shower unfathomable riches of love on us (Matt. 7:11). We’re not tolerated employees or hired hands but adopted sons of the Father (Rom. 8:15).

God’s love for his people isn’t something he was manipulated or forced into feeling. God the Father, in his perfect, insurmountable fatherly compassion, sent his only begotten Son to the world to die so that dying spiritual orphans, enslaved to sin, could become his children and hear their Father singing over them (Zeph. 3:17). Savor your position in the household of God—he delights in you, he loves you, and he welcomes you into his presence.

When we look at the Christmas manger, we need to see more than a baby. We need to see a heavenly Father, the One who gave his only Son to us so we might become adopted sons and daughters. Could a Father this good, who gave this much, be anything but perfect for our weary, sinful, broken hearts?


How does knowing God as Father change how you feel toward him? How does it change what you think he feels toward you?


Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are and have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

– Prudentius (trans. J. M. Neale), “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”

Robust Biblical Theology Runs Along Diagonal Lines Wed, 06 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Many of the things human beings tend to conceptualize as opposites can be overcome when viewed from a biblical perspective that refuses to accept the (humanly constructed) opposition.]]> The summer of 2020 is memorable for many reasons, none of them positive: COVID-19; the death of George Floyd; and social turmoil across many Western countries, focused particularly on the colonial past of Europe and the United States. Amid all the chaos, the term “critical theory” (CT)—specifically in the form of “critical race theory”—entered common parlance.

While CT was once a highly specialized phenomenon of little interest outside postgraduate seminars in the humanities, suddenly everyone—especially those with Twitter accounts and personal blogs—was an expert in the field. Most surprising of all was how many Christians seemed eager to be in on the action.

So CT moved into the mainstream, becoming a point of conflict at school boards; higher education institutions; and churches, both locally and at the denominational level. It became a shibboleth, a tribal marker, with the question “Are you for it or against it?” requiring a simple yes or no answer as a test of orthodoxy on both sides of the discussion.

Yet CT isn’t a unified phenomenon, nor is its literature easy to understand. With one stream of CT finding its roots in Hegel and the other in French post-structuralism, the field is rife with rebarbative prose, opaque arguments, and slippery conclusions.

The highly politicized role CT has come to play in current cultural discussions makes it hard to find a reliable guide to the issue or, more importantly, a sound proposal for a Christian response and alternative. Christopher Watkin seeks to address this lacuna in his major book Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture.

Guided by Augustine

CT has two basic goals. It strives to expose the contingent nature of the reality we as human subjects experience and in which we participate, and it aims by so doing to alter the way we think and relate to the world around us.

Further, at the core of CT, whether of the Marxist variety associated with the Frankfurt School or the post-structuralist variety connected to Michel Foucault, is the notion that power and manipulation lay behind the apparently natural but in reality socially constructed world we inhabit. So understood, CT has clear affinities with Christianity. Christianity claims the world and our perception of it are distorted by sin, that we live according to lies, and that all human relationships are marked to some degree by selfishness. What Watkin does is build on these and other affinities to move beyond knee-jerk and simplistic “Boo!” or “Hooray!” alternatives and to mark a path forward.

Watkin moves beyond knee-jerk and simplistic ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hooray!’ alternatives to mark a path forward.

The guiding light of Watkin’s project is Augustine, whose City of God is arguably the first and greatest example of what a Christian CT might look like. In the course of that work, Augustine debunks the myths Rome told about itself, often by way of what later critical theorists would dub “immanent critique,” exposing the contradictions of Rome’s own narrative as a means of clearing the ground.

Augustine uses the biblical plotline to provide a grand explanatory scheme for his relativization of Rome and his assertion of the superiority of the gospel, something the contemporary theologian John Milbank refers to as “out-narrating.”

Watkin deploys all these elements in his development of a biblical CT. Using the overarching biblical metanarrative to frame his analysis, he moves deftly from Christian doctrine to critiquing the most pressing issues of our day. Much of what the book contains will be familiar to TGC readers as it’s solid biblical theology. The discussions of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation follow familiar lines, along with discussions of key biblical genres, such as prophecy and wisdom.

Indeed, it’s in his discussion of the prophets—the great exemplars of biblical CT—that Watkin excels. If, as Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach state, the point isn’t to describe the world but to change it, then the prophetic imagination is surely critical.

Key Framework: Diagonalization

So what is it about Watkin’s work that makes it “critical” and not simply a re-presentation of standard biblical theology? The answer lies above all in his deployment of what he calls “diagonalization.” If a broadly covenantal scheme shapes the narrative, it’s diagonalization that drives the analysis. This is the idea that many of the things human beings tend to conceptualize as opposites can be overcome when viewed from a biblical perspective that refuses to accept the (humanly constructed) opposition.

Many of the things human beings tend to conceptualize as opposites can be overcome when viewed from a biblical perspective.

In one sense, this is a repackaging of a perennial problem: How does one reconcile the one and the many, being and becoming, freedom and determinism, autonomy and dependence? These questions have preoccupied philosophers since the era of the pre-Socratics.

Watkin’s approach is to begin with God, in whom things dwell in perfect harmony—even though we sometimes place them in opposition to each other (his love and his justice, for example). Watkin then demonstrates how modern culture demands we either affirm one or the other or adopt a synthesis of the two that produces an unsatisfying compromise—a tertium quid, or “third thing,” to use the technical theological term (“neither fish nor fowl,” to use the untechnical, nontheological expression). Finally, he moves to showing how the truths that exist harmoniously in God are manifested in the gospel, albeit in an unexpected way.

The obvious example is the cross. Fallen human beings often place mercy in opposition to justice or develop a synthesis that’s neither just nor merciful. The cross binds both together, but, as the reactions of Greeks and Jews show, it does so in a way that’s unexpected and incomprehensible outside the context of faith.

There are many other places where this can be seen throughout Scripture. Watkin ends his book with a discussion of attitudes to culture, noting the West tends to see itself as normative and superior while others make all cultures equal. The gospel refuses this dichotomy, however, proposing a transcultural message that places under judgment all human efforts to make God in man’s image.


This is a rich volume on a complex subject, and any complaint that “the author missed this topic” risks sounding gratuitous. Nevertheless, the book provoked several thoughts in me that the reader might wish to reflect on further.

First, it’s odd that little to no attention is paid to the Frankfurt School. This is no doubt a function of Watkin’s work in French studies and his familiarity with and skill in expounding French critical thought. Further, as there are a number of affinities between the two streams, this is in no way a serious flaw.

Yet the Hegelian Marxist stream has much to offer any discussion of CT, and its commitment to the dialectical movement of history is helpful in understanding why, for example, culture changes over time and the oppositions Watkin identifies shift and morph. Redemptive history has clearly differentiated epochs, each with its own theological logic. But profane history is messier, and analyzing how concepts such as love and justice are understood in different times and places is a historical task.

Watkin does cite Terry Eagleton numerous times, and he has certainly drawn positively from the early critical theorists and Frankfurt School associates, particularly Walter Benjamin, but it’s odd there isn’t more interaction with this stream.

This raises a second area of interest. Diagonalization seems to work best where the categories being “diagonalized” are both morally equivalent and stable. Yet often neither of these applies.

As to equivalence, I wonder, for example, if “conservative/evolutionary progress” and “progressive/revolutionary transformation” are really parallel (554), given the latter has accounted for incalculable suffering and bloodshed compared to the former. Watkin may not intend to indicate moral equivalence, but the reader could be forgiven for drawing that conclusion.

As to stability, given there’s often no agreement (and there’s sometimes fierce debate) about how terms such as “justice” and “racism” should be understood, the possibility of diagonalization seems to be put into serious question as a practical strategy.

Further, human beings are complicated, inconsistent creatures. Nobody is a pure individual or completely subsumed by the community. All of us live in different realms—family, workplace, geographic location, online. Life doesn’t consist of polarized opposites but of overlapping identities that sometimes reinforce each other and sometimes contradict each other. Life, in short, is complicated. And that means there’s always a danger a theoretical model can become not merely a helpful heuristic device but a tool for eliminating necessary complexity.

For instance, Watkin’s reference to Brexit, dividing the sides into those who prioritized the local and the particular over those who prioritized the universal, is far too simplistic (363–64). Issues of geography (London versus the rest), economy (those who do well out of globalization versus those whose jobs have been eliminated or jeopardized by it), workplace (the so-called laptop class who can work anywhere versus the worker who has to be in a certain location), and politics (those who prize technocracy versus those who value democracy) were all part of the Brexit phenomenon. To simplify it into local versus universal is naive, misleading, and not actually “critical” at all.

The analytical model seems to function here not to illuminate but to demand a complicated issue conform to a procrustean bed predicated on uncomplicated categories. It left me wondering if a critical theorist of a different stripe might not accuse Watkin’s diagonalization of being exactly what he insists it isn’t: an inoffensive “third way” that serves primarily to bolster his own kind of evangelicalism (19–21).

Ongoing Conversation

None of this is meant to detract from Watkin’s remarkable achievement. This is a learned book, replete with stimulating arguments and ideas. These criticisms are intended not to highlight fatal flaws but to indicate, as Watkin himself urges, that the conversation about CT in Christian circles should continue.

This is a learned book, replete with stimulating arguments and ideas.

Indeed, his hope in writing Biblical Critical Theory is to make it “just a little easier for others to come after [him] and do the real labor of deploying a range of biblical figures as they carefully and painstakingly work through complex social questions” (605). And so, as that important task proceeds, we can be grateful it will now do so enriched by Watkin’s graceful volume.

Ordinary Faithfulness (Even in Middle Age) Is Extraordinary Wed, 06 Dec 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Small, persistent acts of faithfulness accumulate to extraordinary ministry over time.]]> I used to be a tough college athlete, but recently I injured my index finger scrolling on the wheel of my mouse. This isn’t what I imagined being an adult would be like. Life comes at you fast. And it doesn’t always live up to our expectations.

In Just Show Up: How Small Acts of Faithfulness Change Everything (A Guide for Exhausted Christians), Drew Dyck writes about the goodness of ordinary faithfulness.

The book could be described as an exposition of Paul’s admonition to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). It’s encouragement for Christians to persevere in ordinary life when faithfulness doesn’t feel radical.

Dignity of Ordinary Faithfulness

We often conceive of faithfulness as doing big things for God. Dyck’s understanding changed when his wife asked him to list the people he most admired. He realized his list “didn’t contain one person who was powerful or famous” (15). Instead, they were people faithful in the crucible of ordinary life.

The book begins with what Dyck, an author and editor, calls a “midlife manifesto” (11). He contrasts the idyllic, world-changing dreams he had as a young man with his decidedly narrower life in middle age. Life is now about diapers, Zoom calls, “fancy dinners” at Olive Garden, a mortgage with a yard to mow, and time with his wife squeezed in among work, chores, and parenting.

This brief book’s dozen chapters explore what showing up looks like in different areas, such as encouraging in-person service to others, letting things slide when necessary, and remaining faithful in the face of doubts. Each chapter is concise, clearly written, and the right length for someone to read in the waiting room before an annual physical.

Small Truths We Need

Many of us get discouraged by what we could call “faithfulness envy,” which social media incubates. We don’t only want someone else’s life—whether their house or hair, their career achievements or washboard abs—but we envy the God-given callings other Christians have received. To borrow Paul’s metaphor, the foot feels pressure to be a hand and the ear feels shame for not being an eye. Just Show Up reminds us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22).

The book repeatedly illustrates “just showing up” as being faithful to what God has put in front of you, not what God has put in front of others.

Be faithful to what God has put in front of you, not what God has put in front of others.

For example, Dyck tells us about his father, a man who struggled greatly in school, especially in seminary. It would have been easy for him to give up because the academic side of training for ministry came with difficulty compared to his peers. But he kept plodding. And because he did, he became a wonderful pastor. Dyck writes, “Every church he led—from the tiny rural congregation to a large, prestigious church in the city—flourished” (21).

In a world that celebrates heroic achievement and judges the weary and burned out, Just Show Up is a reminder that persistent faithfulness matters more than flash and talent.

Humorous Encouragement

Just Show Up is salted with Dyck’s humor. Much like his social media persona, this book is playful, family-oriented, and self-deprecating yet serious about Christ and full of love for the local church. Imagine if Jim Gaffigan were a thoughtful Protestant evangelical. For example, Dyck pokes fun at himself because a smelly homeless guy sits next to him in a coffee shop, and Dyck wonders how long he must sit there before he “can leave without hurting his feelings” (39).

But the book doesn’t merely entertain; it encourages. In the providence of God, Just Show Up showed up in my life at just the right time. While it’s often lighthearted, I frequently wanted to cry as I read it—the good kind of cry, the kind of cry by a father who’s about to send his oldest daughter away to college. The kind of cry when he knows he’s left much unsaid and undone and has little time left with her and yet all the while has so many other duties clamoring for his attention that he can hardly keep up with all the places he needs to be and the things he needs to do.

As I preach each week to a church full of ordinary and exhausted Christians, I remember I’m an ordinary and (sometimes) exhausted pastor. Our church just planted a church, which is great, but it took a ton of work to keep all the regular ministries going while preparing to send away a pastor and 50 people. Sometimes showing up takes a lot of willpower.

A cynic might argue that “just showing up” is a coping strategy for those of us who haven’t made it to elite status. I disagree. And so does the One who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” to the man who earned two talents instead of five (Matt. 25:23).

Practical Application

In another era, church attendance might have been the act of faithfulness a Christian author could presume as he went on to write about other ways to serve Christ. But that day is long gone. For all the ways we can show up, I appreciate that Dyck gave a whole chapter to gathering in person with your local church, what Matt Smethurst calls “the ministry of attendance” (104).

A cynic might argue that ‘just showing up’ is a coping strategy for those of us who haven’t made it to elite status. I disagree.

As I think about my congregation, there’s a faithful fraction that participates in meaningful ways nearly every Sunday. These are the ones who seem to progress more steadily in their sanctification, find the most joy in the gospel, best weather seasons of suffering, and make the largest difference in their community because they just show up.

Dyck’s book doesn’t invent a new paradigm for ministry faithfulness. It doesn’t present any theological innovation. But it’s the sort of book that feeds the soul in a desert of discouragement.

‘Fight the Good Fight’: Pauline Metaphor with Greco-Roman Roots Tue, 05 Dec 2023 05:03:00 +0000 Paul urges Timothy to ‘fight the good fight’ against false teachers for the sake of the King.]]> The expression “fight the good fight” is often used in Christian circles and in the wider Western culture. While perusing Amazon, I found at least 31 books with the title “The Good Fight” and at least 10 with the fuller title “Fighting the Good Fight.” Some were overtly Christian in nature, but many weren’t.

The origin of the phrase is 1 Timothy 1:18 (and perhaps 1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7). In 1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12, Timothy is exhorted to “fight the good fight”; in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul says he himself has “fought the good fight.” (Various Scripture translations are used throughout this article, including the author’s own.)

In 1 Timothy 1:18, the phrase “fight the good fight” is composed of a verb (στρατεύω) and a noun (στρατεία), which is a cognate word with the verb. The repeated use of the noun “fight” after the verb “to fight” in this phrase is a figure of speech, whereby there’s “a repetition of the same basic word with the same sense” to underscore the meaning of the redundant wording.

The wording had a ring to it, so I decided to see if it was used elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world, since it didn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament or the Greek Old Testament. What I found surprised me and encouraged my faith. I hope your faith is also encouraged amid the trials of this world.

This redundant wording was frequently used from the fifth century BC up to the third century AD and even onward. In its various contexts, the expression can be translated as “battle the battle” or “serve as a soldier in warfare” or, more generally, “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” The wording is typically a patriotic warfare idiom for good character revealed by persevering through not merely one battle but military campaigns extending over a period of time.

Honorable Service

For example, in the classical work of Hyperides, people who have “fought [the] fight” (στρατεία . . . τῶν στρατευομένων) in past battles to provide liberty for their country (Greece) are to receive “praise.”

In Athens, Herakleides Salaminos of Charikleidos is said to have “loved honor for the benefit of the Athenian people,” and due to this he received “a gold crown” and became a “patron and benefactor of Athens.” As a result, he and his descendants had the right “to wage wars [στρατεύεσθαι αὐτοὺς τὰς στρατείας] and pay property taxes with the Athenians.” These and “other praiseworthy things” about him were to be “engraved” in a “decreed writing by the Athenian presidencies.”

Thus, Herakleides’s “waging of wars” was among the honorable and praiseworthy activities for which he was honored by having this privilege of “waging war” being written on a stone stele.

A military commander named Astyphilus “fought first at Corinth, then in Thessaly and again throughout the Theban war, and wherever else he heard of an army being collected, he went abroad holding a command.” Afterward, “he was fighting in other war campaigns [στρατεία + στρατεύω] and was well aware that he was going to run risks on all of them.” Then, “he was about to set out on his last expedition, going out as a volunteer with every prospect of returning safe and sound from this campaign,” when he finally died in battle at Mytilene. His patriotism is expressed both through his amazing perseverance in fighting for his country until death and his religious and civic commitments.

Under the Roman military system, in times of danger from foreign powers, citizens who enlisted in the army were “obligated to serve as soldiers in warfare service [στρατεύω + στρατεία] for twenty years,” though only 10 years were required for being “eligible for any political office.” The point was that an extended period of military service was a requirement for political office since it demonstrated a person’s honorable character as a loyal citizen, willing to persevere in service to protect his home country.

Under the Roman military system, an extended period of service was a requirement for political office since it demonstrated a person’s honorable character.

Similarly, the Roman commander Pompey affirmed he had received “the greatest honor” as a result of “the battle campaigns he had fought” (στρατεία + στρατεύω). On another occasion, while dying, a Jewish martyr suffering execution by the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes encourages his brothers to persevere in their faith, to be “of good courage,” and to “fight the sacred and noble fight for godliness” [ἱερὰν καὶ εὐγενῆ στρατείαν στρατεύσασθε περὶ τῆς εὐσεβείας; 4 Macc. 9:24].

Likewise, Marcus Cato, a Roman commander, sought “high repute in battles and campaigns against the enemy,” having “fought [his] first campaign [τὴν πρώτην στρατεύσασθαι στρατείαν] when he was seventeen years old.” Such battle renown added to “the weight and dignity of his character.”

The emperor Tiberius “waged war with distinction [στρατείας ἐπιφανῶς στρατευσάμενον], served in the second place as the high priest of Asia, and presided over the games and acquired the office of imperial commissioner of the most distinguished cites” of Asia. Thus, Tiberius’s battle reputation is inextricably linked to religious and political positions, the epitome of the loyal citizen.

Honorable War

In a Greek papyrus from the second century, a father writes a letter to his son who was “persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight [ἐστρατεύσω] at [a city called] Klassan.” The father “grieved” over what appeared to be his son’s lack of patriotism. The father said,

From now on, take care not to be so persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight, or you will no longer be my son. You know you have every advantage over your brothers, and all the authority. Therefore, you will do well to fight [στρατεύω] the good fight [στρατεία]. . . . Therefore, do not transgress my instructions and you will have an inheritance.

The son’s willingness to “fight the good fight” will certainly enhance his reputation before his father (enough to receive the father’s inheritance) and likely in the eyes of others. “Good fight” refers here to a war in which it’s “honorable” to participate because fighting for one’s country (or city) and overcoming the enemy is “good.” Once again, the idiom demonstrates a person’s good character as a loyal citizen to his king and kingdom.

“Fight the good fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18 refers to the same thing as in the papyrus letter (with the identical three words in Greek), though the warfare is spiritual and is conducted against false teaching opponents (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:3–6, 18–20; 6:20–21; 2 Tim. 3:7–14). Like in the papyrus letter, Paul considers Timothy and Titus each to be a “true child,” though a child in “the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4).

Both also are promised an inheritance if they persevere. This is clearest in 1 and 2 Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:8, after saying he has “fought the good fight,” Paul says, “In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord . . . will award to me on that day.” Like Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7–8, if Timothy perseveres in “fighting the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12), he’ll finally receive an inheritance—he’ll “receive [attain to] the eternal life to which he was called.”

As with Paul’s command to Timothy to “fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18, so likewise the father’s use of “fight” has an imperatival sense because of the immediate context. The papyrus letter gives a striking parallel to the idiom of “fighting the good fight” in the Pastoral Epistles.

Loyalty to the King

The idiom of “fight the fight” occurs 40 times in the Greek world (including in the father’s letter to his son) as a patriotic warfare idiom for one who perseveres in loyalty to king and country by fighting war campaigns to preserve the welfare of the kingdom. As a result, a person earns a reputation as a good and honorable citizen.

Paul applies the idiom to fighting for God’s kingdom instead of for an earthly kingdom. He’s referring to a “fight” against false teaching to maintain and foster “godliness.” Thus, this is a “good” fight or extended “war campaign” through which Timothy is to persevere, which will demonstrate his good Christian character and reputation over against the false teachers’ bad character.

Paul applies the idiom to fighting for God’s kingdom instead of for an earthly kingdom.

“Good” is further defined in 2 Timothy 2:3–4, where Paul exhorts Timothy to be “a good soldier” and then defines part of what such a “good soldier” is: “No soldier while being engaged in a war campaign entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” Thus, the warfare is also “good” because the divine Commander who enlisted the Christian soldier to fight wouldn’t enlist anyone if the warfare wasn’t a “good” one in which to engage.

Ultimate loyalty in this world is to be given to the divine king and not to earthly authorities (though there’s a place for submitting to earthly authorities, as explained in Rom. 13).

Paul in 1 Timothy 1:18 gives Timothy a “command” to uphold true doctrine for the purpose that he might “fight the good fight.” The “command” picks up the earlier use of “command” in 1:3 and 1:5 (respectively the verb παραγγέλλω and noun παραγγελία), which reinforces this is a “command” to fight for truth against false teachers.

It’s likely not coincidental that the main point of the preceding paragraph (1:12–17) ends with praise of God as “King” and that the warfare idiom occurs directly afterward in verse 18. As the main point of verses 12–17, God as “king” is surely still in view as Paul “commands” Timothy in verse 18, so that the “command” can be viewed implicitly to have its origin with the “King,” for whom Timothy is to fight.

The only other place in the Pastoral Epistles where “king” is used (excepting 1 Tim. 2:2, where the reference is to human kings) is 1 Timothy 6:15–16, where the reference is to God and the doxology is extended as in 1:17 and has several verbal parallels with 1:17 (e.g., “the only” God, “King,” “invisible, “honor . . . forever. Amen”). In addition, 6:15 forms a nice epistolary bookend with 1:17, since “fight the good fight” in 6:12 also occurs in close connection to praise of God as “King.”

Furthermore, there’s the parallel of Paul giving another “command” to Timothy (6:13), as in 1:18 (see also “the command” in 6:14). As the climaxing part of the bookend in 6:15, the kingship of God is emphasized with synonyms (as in 1:17): “The only ruler, the king of kings and Lord of lords.” It’s clear that Timothy and Paul are citizens of a “kingdom” in which they’ll participate consummately at Christ’s final coming (2 Tim. 4:1, 18, though this kingdom is likely inaugurated).

God as “King” in 6:15 is closely linked to the imperatival form of the battle idiom in 6:12 (and to the imperative there to “receive eternal life”), since “I command you” in 6:13 and “keep the command” in 6:14 include the imperatival idiom in their purview. As we’ve seen, God as “King” in 1:17 is in the immediate purview of the “soldier in warfare” idiom of 1:18.

These links between 1:17–19 and 6:12–16 show that Timothy’s “fighting the good fight” against false teachers is for the King and the welfare and protection of the kingdom. And since they form bookends for 1 Timothy, this theme should be seen as a major theme of the book.

Themelios 48.3 Tue, 05 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 The new December 2023 issue of ‘Themelios’ has 240 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews.]]> The new December 2023 issue of Themelios has 240 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

1. Brian J. Tabb | Dealing with Criticism: Lessons from Nehemiah

This column reflects on how Nehemiah responds to criticism and opposition and considers lessons that ministry leaders today may glean from Nehemiah’s example.

2. Daniel Strange | Strange Times: Skin in the Game?

Strange reflects on his heritage and on challenging contemporary dialogues about race and ethnicity. He cautions against privileging the ministerial authority of experience over the magisterial authority of Scripture and urges readers to ground their identity in Christ and resolve with each other to interpret the world through the Word and build on that solid themelios (foundation).

3. Andreas J. Köstenberger | Geerhardus Vos: His Biblical-Theological Method and a Biblical Theology of Gender

This article seeks to construct a biblical theology of gender based on Geerhardus Vos’s magisterial Biblical Theology. Köstenberger sets forth five hallmarks of Vos’s method: (1) putting God first, (2) focusing on the text, (3) viewing Scripture as progressive divine revelation, (4) displaying a historical orientation, and (5) believing in the practical utility of biblical theology. He then develops a biblical theology of gender as Vos might have developed it in keeping with the four major scriptural movements of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

4. David V. Christensen | The Lamblike Servant: The Function of John’s Use of the OT for Understanding Jesus’s Death

Christensen argues that John provides a window into the mechanics of how Jesus’s death saves, and this window is his use of the Old Testament. When interpreters look through this window and ask how John understands Jesus’s death, our eyes see—by the passages John chose—substitutionary atonement as essential to the inner mechanism of how Jesus’s death saves.

5. G. K. Beale | The Greco-Roman Background to “Fighting the Good Fight” in the Pastoral Epistles and the Spiritual Life of the Christian

What does Paul mean by the expression “fight the fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18 (NASB)? Beale explains that the Greek verb στρατεύω with the noun στρατεία can be also rendered “battle the battle” or, more generally, “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” This expression occurs often in Greco-Roman literature as a patriotic warfare idiom for good character revealed by persevering through warfare or military campaigns. It also occurs in legal contexts to affirm someone’s innocence and good reputation before the court. This idiom is applied to Timothy to demonstrate his good Christian character and reputation over against the false teachers’ bad character.

6. Jeremy Sexton | Postmillennialism: A Biblical Critique

Postmillennialism had been pronounced dead when R. J. Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionists resuscitated it in 1977 with stimulating though nonexegetical publications. In the following decades, many in Rushdoony’s train added innovative biblical arguments whose interpretive methods don’t withstand scrutiny. Sexton examines the hermeneutical idiosyncrasies and exegetical fallacies displayed in defenses of postmillennialism by Greg Bahnsen, Kenneth Gentry, David Chilton, Keith Mathison, Douglas Wilson, and others. Postmillennialists routinely keep textual details out of focus or interpret them tendentiously, in service of the belief that the prophecies of worldwide righteousness and shalom will reach fulfillment on earth before rather than at the second coming.

7. Jason G. Duesing | Beacons from the Spire: Evangelical Theology and History in Oxford’s University Church

Thought to be the most visited church in England, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford has hosted, from its pulpit, noteworthy figures of English church history. Duesing applies the metaphor of a signal beacon to trace the development of evangelical history and theology by examining significant sermons preached in St Mary’s by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century, John Owen in the 17th century, John Wesley in the 18th century, the evangelical response to the Anglo-Catholics in the 19th century, and C. S. Lewis in the 20th century.

8. N. Gray Sutanto | Cultural Mandate and the Image of God: Human Vocation Under Creation, Fall, and Redemption

While the term “cultural mandate” is well recognized as a way of understanding the relationship between Christianity, culture, and human vocation, its origins from within the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition are less known. Drawing from this tradition, then, Sutanto sketches the logic of a neo-Calvinistic account of the cultural mandate through the states of creation, fall, and redemption.

9. John Jefferson Davis | Is the One God of the Old Testament and Judaism Exactly the Same God as the Trinitarian God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—of the New Testament and Christian Creeds?

This article argues that the One God of the Old Testament and Judaism is exactly the same God as the Trinitarian God of the New Testament and Christian creeds. Davis presents new arguments supporting the unity and coherence of Old and New Testament revelation, employing (1) new analogies from modern physics and (2) new philosophical insights concerning the properties of objects nested in a larger whole and how those objects are to be properly counted in relation to the larger whole.

10. Gary J. Cundill | Do Companies Have Social Responsibilities?

Business and Christianity don’t always enjoy the most comfortable of relationships. One approach Christians have taken when considering business’s place in the world is to describe it in terms of corporate responsibility—that business has a responsibility not merely to deliver financial returns but to offer broader societal benefits. Cundill surveys the biblical evidence for such a view and finds it unconvincing. Rather, it’s evident that Christians, not businesses, have social responsibilities and can and should discharge these in the world of business.

11. Jonathan D. Christman | A Biblical Framework for Deciding Workplace Moments of Conscience

A well-known Christian intellectual and cultural commentator, John Stonestreet, has often publicly spoken of the need for Christians to develop a theology of “getting fired.” This call isn’t one for a mass exodus of Christians from the workplace. Rather, this call recognizes that more and more Christians are facing moments of conscience in their workplaces, when the obligations of a job—one’s current calling or vocation—come into conflict with one’s beliefs or convictions. Grounding both calling and convictions in Scripture, Christman proposes an overarching framework and practical guide for analyzing, assessing, navigating, and deciding those workplace moments of conscience. Doing so entails both individual and corporate dimensions that are grounded in wisdom, humility, the means of grace, and life-giving community in the body of Christ.

12. Robert P. Menzies | Pentecost: Not Really Our Story After All? A Reply to Ekaputra Tupamahu

Menzies responds to Tupamahu’s post-colonial critique of the Pentecostal reading of Acts and the missionary enterprise. According to Tupamahu, the disciples are marginalized Galileans who move from the periphery to the center of the Roman world. Thus, white American Pentecostals need to rethink their vision of the expansionist mission. Menzies argues that Tupamahu’s racially colored, post-colonial reading of Acts distorts Luke’s intended meaning, reflects a diminished view of the gospel, and betrays the legacy of Pentecostal leaders like William Seymour. In Acts, the disciples are commissioned by Jesus (Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:4–8). Their mission centers on the Spirit-inspired proclamation of the gospel. Luke emphasizes that their mission is our mission (Luke 10:1–16; Acts 2:17–18). Thus to reject our mission is to repudiate the significance of our message and to resist the leading of the Spirit.

Featured Book Reviews:

Why Ligon Duncan Is Still Building Institutions Tue, 05 Dec 2023 05:00:00 +0000 In an age of individual platform building, Ligon Duncan is still all in on building organizations other people started.]]> If anyone ever asks you which living theologian you’d most like to have lunch with, you may want to consider choosing Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) chancellor and CEO Ligon Duncan.

Here’s why: Ligon is warm, engaging, and quick to laugh. He remembers your name, tells funny stories, and can talk about nearly any topic, from the covenant idea in ante-Nicene theology to NASCAR. He’s friendly and easy to be friends with.

“Lig is one of the kindest, most gracious, most encouraging men I know,” Kevin DeYoung said. “And that’s saying a lot considering he is also whip-smart and in charge of such a large, sprawling institution.”

You can tell Ligon likes people by looking at his bio page: He’s been involved in more than 35 book projects, but nearly every one was a collaborative effort. He’s been the moderator for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly and for regional presbyteries but has spent far more hours on nearly a dozen denominational committees, considering issues from strategic planning to missions to psalmody. And his friendship with Mark Dever and others was strong enough to build a conference on.

Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan at T4G / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

“I like working in a team setting,” said Ligon, who celebrates a decade of leading RTS this year. “I love the nonloneliness of a local church and of the seminary, where there are colleagues collaborating and working together. I just love that environment.”

That’s not the only thing he loves about institutions. He loves the accountability, the slower process of growth, and the sanctification that happens when students or elders or ministry partners work and argue and agree together.

“I’ve always enjoyed investing in things that were good and godly and helpful—things that other people laid the foundations for and I could be part of,” he said.

That’s not to say institutions are perfect. Ligon works every day to keep the eight RTS campuses on the same page. He helped lead the corporate repentance for his church tradition’s history of embracing chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws. And he watched his father, an eighth-generation southern Presbyterian ruling elder, agonize over leaving his denomination when they no longer upheld the inerrancy of Scripture.

But even though it’s been frustrating and painful, even though “40 percent of the people out there are always going to disagree with you,” there’s a reason you won’t find Ligon Duncan Ministries anywhere.

“Lig is one of the guys whose influence for good often goes unnoticed because he loves to platform others and never toots his own horn,” DeYoung said.

In an age of individual platform building, Ligon is still all in on building institutions other people started.

Tradition, Gospel, and Gospel Tradition

For Americans, the Duncans are unusually anchored in history. Ligon can trace his family tree back to the 1700s, when his ancestors immigrated from Scotland to the New World. They took their denomination with them, and unbroken generations of Duncan men have served as elders in southern Presbyterian churches ever since.

Even Ligon’s name is a heritage—he’s the third Jennings Ligon in a row. “Growing up, family and friends called my dad ‘Big Lig,’ and Ligon ‘Little Lig,’” explained Ligon’s youngest brother, Mel.

Big Lig was a World War II vet who met Shirley Ledford—a Southern Baptist musician—on a blind date. Even though Calvinism wasn’t widespread in the SBC, she was more Reformed than he was—her childhood pastor quoted Spurgeon nearly every week, while Big Lig’s Presbyterian denomination was sliding away from orthodoxy.

Ligon with his parents / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

Shirley had a master’s degree in church music from Southern Theological Seminary and had been serving in Southern Baptist women’s ministries for nearly 10 years by the time she met Big Lig. But he had seven generations of Presbyterianism behind him, so they ended up at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Part of what enabled her to leave her Baptist roots was that she so respected Gordon Reed’s preaching,” Ligon said. Reed, who held to the inerrancy of Scripture, was revitalizing the church through expository sermons and catechism teaching. He sealed Shirley’s approval by introducing her to the work of Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Shirley threw her support wholly behind Reed. She directed church music, taught women’s Bible studies, and led Sunday school. Her three sons grew up chasing each other around the churchyard, singing in the choir, and listening to theological conversations over Sunday dinners.

Ligon’s father, Jennings Ligon Duncan Jr. / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

Those weren’t easy discussions—even before Ligon started kindergarten, his pastor and his parents were worried about the slipping orthodoxy of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

“The day before Christmas 1962, the Presbyterian Outlook published a cover article that said, ‘Do we need an infallible Bible?’” Ligon said. “And they had articles by four professors from the major southern Presbyterian seminaries, all of whom answered that question: No.”

Right away, conservatives began working on plans for a new seminary that would teach biblical inerrancy. Two years later, RTS was off and running. Seven years after that, Gordon Reed was one of the 30 teaching elders who founded the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

“It was a gut-wrenching time for my father—his whole family was in the PCUS,” Ligon said. “I can remember my dad sitting in his wingback chair, just agonizing over the decisions he was going to have to make.”

In the end, his father picked the gospel over his denomination.

“It was a matter of conviction for him,” Ligon said. “That was a very good thing for me to see.”

From the South to Scotland

Ligon grew up steeped in the traditions of the American South in the 1960s and ’70s. Even after Jim Crow laws were overturned and schools integrated, remnants of racism remained. Some white people were still openly hostile; some doctors still segregated waiting rooms; and some churches, such as First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, didn’t allow black people into the sanctuary.

Some of those same people—such as Ligon’s dad’s cousin, who was the minister at First Presbyterian in Macon, Georgia—were bright, effective preachers; serious proponents of missions; and founding elders in the PCA. It was sometimes hard to distinguish which of their views were cultural and which were biblical.

John, Ligon, and Mel Duncan with their mother, Shirley / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

For a long time, Ligon didn’t even think to ask. He had other things to think about—at school, he was outgoing and popular, played offensive line for the football team, and worked as the DJ for the school radio station (radio name: “Live Lig”).

He’d made a profession of faith at 10 years old but struggled to know if he was really saved until he heard a pastor at a youth conference preach on Ephesians. Suddenly, he caught what he’d been taught all his life.

“I understood then that before I had ever trusted in God, he had already reached out in grace to me,” Ligon said. “Before the foundation of the world, God loved me, and he chose me. And that’s why I had trusted in him. That was huge. That was formative for me.”

Ligon kept growing. He taught Sunday school with his dad, sang in the choir for his mom, and went on family vacations to the PCA’s annual General Assemblies. He read all kinds of books, laughed with his friends, navigated relationships with girls, and coached his little brother’s basketball team. Later, he graduated from Furman University with a BA in history, then from Covenant Seminary with an MDiv and, a year later, an MA in historical theology.

It wasn’t until he landed in Scotland to work on his PhD at the University of Edinburgh that his cultural expectations became uncomfortable.

Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan at Wartburg castle in Eisenach, Germany / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

“The things I was assuming were just normal for everyone were not,” Ligon said. “I was around theologically conservative Christians, but they had very different cultural values and views than I had grown up with. . . . That helped me to reflect critically on my own upbringing and culture and have a wider view of the world.”

He wasn’t exposed just to Scottish Christians but also to students from Africa and Russia and Britain. And he met another Southern boy—a Baptist named Mark Dever—who was studying at Cambridge and loved church history as much as he did. They hit it off immediately—both wanted to do things like trace the path of The Canterbury Tales—and Mark started introducing Ligon to everyone he knew.

“The world got bigger for me,” Ligon said. “That was an important part of my education.”

Starting Out

Years ago, someone gave Ligon a personality test to figure out what work motivated him the most. The answers: teaching and travel.

Sure enough, months after he was ordained—and before he’d even finished his PhD—Ligon took a job teaching at RTS in Jackson. Back then, RTS was smaller—just over 600 students on two campuses.

“I’d wake up at 4:00 in the morning and try to get lectures ready for class—I taught 14 different courses in my first three years,” Ligon said. “I had a lot of preps. I can remember ripping the paper with my lecture off the dot matrix printer and walking into a classroom with the paper still warm.”

Ligon with his father / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

He’d teach all day at his full-time job, then go to work at his part-time job as assistant pastor at an area church. Around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., he’d get home, pop in a TV dinner, watch CNN for half an hour, and head to bed.

When a friend asked how his social life was, Ligon told him, “I don’t have one.”

His friend came right to the point. “Well, do you want to be married?”

Ligon did, and he started circling around a graduate student in the marriage and family therapy program. Her name was Anne Harley, and even though she wasn’t in any of his classes, he had to ask the dean’s permission to date her.

“It took me a long time to get up the courage to ask her out,” Ligon said. “I realized I needed to be serious about dating or I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put a student, or myself, or the seminary in that situation.”

Their first date was toward the end of the spring semester—and before the end of winter break, they were married.

She was just as hard-working and serious about education as he was. The following Monday, they were both back in the classroom.

Teaching and Preaching

In 1996, Ligon received a call to be the senior pastor at the historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. It was a great opportunity at a huge church—around 60 elders served a congregation of 3,000. But when RTS board member Richard Ridgway heard about it, he was upset.

“I picked up the phone and called [then RTS board chair] Bob [Cannada],” Ridgway said. “I said, ‘They’re taking one of our best future scholars and theologians and making him a pastor!’”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Cannada, who was also an elder at First Presbyterian. “We all belong to the Lord, and he moves us around like pawns on a chessboard wherever he wants us.”

It seemed as if God had Ligon on multiple squares at once, moving between institutions and groups of people. During his 17 years of leading First Presbyterian, Ligon continued to teach classes at RTS. He served as president of both the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He worked on PCA committees, was elected moderator of the General Assembly, and joined dozens of book projects. He formed T4G with his friends, helped to start The Gospel Coalition, and traveled to speak on both sides of the Atlantic.

In every one of those endeavors, he was building something with somebody else.

Chancellor and CEO

One of Ligon’s favorite things about institutions is the accountability they provide.

“I remember watching a guy several years ago on a podcast talk about how he established accountability in his organization,” Ligon said. “And the little bubble above my head was, ‘Bubba, if you’re the one establishing accountability in your organization, there is no accountability in your organization.’ And that’s one reason I love institutions.”

That attitude is also one reason why institutions love Ligon. When RTS began looking for its next chancellor and CEO in 2013, the board wanted a man who could submit himself to authority. For many pastors, especially those without a strong elder board, this can be a challenge.

RTS chancellors Ric Cannada (2002–12), Ligon Duncan (present), and Luder Whitlock (1978–2001) / Courtesy of Ligon Duncan

For Ligon, this was no problem.

“He understands authority,” Mel said. “He is not threatened by it. He exercises a lot of it in his life, so he’s not afraid to have to submit to it.”

His first act of submission was to apply.

“When I asked Ligon if he’d consider it, he said, ‘I was hoping and praying you would not ask me this,’” Ridgway remembers. “He wanted to retire as pastor of First Pres.”

But his friend Al Mohler, who had become the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, told him he had to do it. RTS’s position in evangelicalism—as a smaller Reformed seminary with an outsize influence—meant it had to stay gospel-centered, Mohler told him.

So 10 years ago, Ligon took on the most challenging, complicated role of his life.

“We’ve got 175 full-time employees spread across eight campuses, plus global stuff, plus the doctoral program in Brazil and the Center for Reformed Theology in Indonesia,” he said. “It’s a challenge to keep everybody rowing in the same direction. And then you have to go out and raise money and recruit students. And then you have to be involved in the life and ministry of the church.”

But because he’s part of an institution, he doesn’t have to do those things alone. On the RTS board of about 20, members commit to six-year terms but are expected to serve for life. That ensures they’re always considering long-term solutions—many will be there after Ligon is gone. In addition, a smaller committee regularly goes over his schedule, helping him decide on commitments and direct his time. Each day, his assistants help prioritize his tasks.

But while biblical accountability helps, Ligon knows it’s not a guarantee against cultural pressures or institutional sin.

Racism and Repentance

In 2015, Ligon and his friend Sean Lucas introduced a personal resolution at the PCA’s General Assembly.

The PCA wasn’t around during the civil rights movement, they said. But many of its churches were. And some of them “actively worked against racial reconciliation in both church and society,” Ligon and Sean wrote. They called for confession and repentance.

Within the next year, both the PCA and First Presbyterian Jackson did so.

Ligon at T4G in 2018 / Courtesy of T4G

Later, before 12,000 T4G attendees, Ligon addressed the issue again: “Leading up to 1837, both Baptists and Presbyterians decided that slavery and slave-holding [were] dividing the church.”

In the interests of “unity,” they found a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor, Ligon said. “So if you get all antsy when somebody starts applying the second [great] commandment here, it’s because they taught you well. They taught me well. It has taken more than three decades for God to bring this blindness off of my heart.”

Many affirmed Ligon’s stand—but not everyone.

“I knew there would be some blowback, but I didn’t expect it to be what it was,” Ligon said. Social media posts and blogs wondered aloud if the stalwart conservative had veered liberal, and some of his conference speaking invitations disappeared. Still, he doesn’t regret it.

“Christians cannot afford to overlook any area of our hypocrisy, either personally or institutionally,” he said. “Because when people see our hypocrisy, and we try and pretend like it’s not there, that undermines the truth claims that we so deeply care about in the Bible.”

Just like his dad, Ligon chose the gospel over his heritage.

Upside Down

If you need more proof that Jesus’s kingdom is counterintuitive, here’s some: When you choose your institution over the gospel, you get neither. But when you choose the gospel over your institution, you may get both.

Over the past 50 years, the PCA has grown from 260 churches with about 40,000 members to more than 1,600 churches with close to 400,000 members. The denomination has more teaching elders, more adult baptisms, and more giving than it did even five years ago.

Ligon talking with RTS students / Courtesy of RTS

RTS is thriving too. Over the past 10 years, enrollment is up 12 percent, to nearly 1,150 students. MDiv enrollment jumped 34 percent to 530 students. The school also added more campuses—in New York City and Texas—and sold more credit hours of education last year than ever before.

That’s because of the grace of God, who is using Ligon, Ridgway said. “He has the reputation, the ability to speak, the theological chops, the ability to build camaraderie and unity within the organization—Lig is the whole package.”

He’s aware of what’s going on. Ligon can see the culture losing trust in nearly all institutions, including in-person education, churches, and denominations. Still, that’s where he’s investing his time, money, and considerable energy—and not just because he likes people and accountability.

“Institutions actually are the engines that allow movements to continue on into the next generation in a healthy, flourishing way,” he said.

But that’s not because institutions themselves are flawless.

Eventually, Ligon will retire from RTS. When he does, how will he ensure the seminary continues in a healthy way? What’s the most important trait RTS will need in a future leader?

Ligon thought a minute before he answered, “Theological centeredness.”

Encouragement from Paul’s Final Words Mon, 04 Dec 2023 05:04:32 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss 2 Timothy 4:9–22, uncovering the weight of Paul’s personal instructions to Timothy—his last words before martyrdom.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss 2 Timothy 4:9–22, uncovering the weight of Paul’s instructions to Timothy—his last words that shed light on Paul’s character and personal life.

Whether you’re seeking to enrich your pastoral leadership journey or strengthen your faith, this conversation is for you.

Recommended resource: Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness by Gavin Ortlund

Advent Meditation: The (Only) Place to Find Peace Mon, 04 Dec 2023 05:03:00 +0000 In the final analysis, peace is only found in the Prince of it.]]> Read

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isa. 9:6–7)


Peace, as an idea, is immensely popular. We love talking about it, posting about it, dreaming about it, planning for it.

But it sure can be elusive, can’t it?

Despite its universally beloved status, peace doesn’t mark our world—and I don’t simply mean unsettling headlines from distant lands. Peace eludes those in the securest neighborhoods, the richest professions, the most advanced nations. Peace eludes us even when we’ve arrived.

In his 2009 NBA Hall of Fame speech, Michael Jordan called the game of basketball his “refuge.” He said, “[It’s the] place I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” A few years later, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, the restlessness remained. In a candid interview with ESPN’s Wright Thompson, Jordan pondered aloud, “How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me? How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?”

The answer, it turns out—both for Jordan and for us—is found in an ancient scroll.

Seven centuries before the Messiah’s birth, Isaiah the prophet issued a divine forecast. Addressing the Israelites, who were about to be exiled for their rebellion and idolatry, he pointed them to a future time when a solution—an undeserved remedy—would descend from God himself. He even hinted the remedy would be God himself.

This coming gift is cosmic in proportion and yet intensely personal. Notice the recipient: “to us” (v. 6). Israel’s name is on the label. And the contents are divine: the promised child will be none less than the “Mighty God.” Moreover, it’s a gift tied to the very thing that eludes us. The promised child will also be called the “Prince of Peace”—a fitting title because, for his people, there will be no end to “the increase of his government and of peace.” No exceptions, no elusiveness, no expiration date.

The incarnation was an invasion, both a dawning of peace and a declaration of war.

And the reason this promise will hold is because the gospel is bigger than a nativity scene. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was an invasion, both a dawning of peace and a declaration of war. The baby in the manger didn’t stay there, after all—he grew up and obeyed his Father to the point of death, even death on a cross. Suspended on Roman wood, he made peace between God and man (Eph. 2:14–17).

No other religion teaches anything like this. Each one insists, in some form or another, that you must achieve the peace of God, some semblance of transcendental tranquility—which is also why it never happens. How could it? As a sinner, you’re the problem in this equation, not the solution. In Christianity, however, you can

  • receive the peace of God, through trusting Jesus;
  • enjoy the peace of God, through following Jesus; and
  • spread the peace of God, through proclaiming Jesus.

Friend, if you want to experience the peace of God, you must know the God of peace. And if you want to know the God of peace, you must embrace his only begotten Son.

Real peace isn’t found in a basketball arena or a Hall of Fame ceremony. It’s not found in a successful job or a secure neighborhood. It’s not found in food or exercise or travel or holiday cheer. It’s not even found in a loving family or a vibrant ministry. In the final analysis, peace is only found in the Prince of it.


In what created thing has your heart been seeking peace? How might the gospel of grace liberate you from that exhausting pursuit—reordering your loves and redirecting your allegiance to the Prince of Peace?


Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings

– Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

David Strain: ‘I’m Thankful to Be Turning 50 with the PCA’ Mon, 04 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 We need to carve out space for gratitude (and even qualified optimism) as we reflect on five decades of faithfulness to the gospel in the PCA.]]> The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is one year older than I am. At 49, I have to confess the prospect of turning 50 doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, despite the declining capacities my older friends gleefully tell me to expect as I cross that dreaded threshold, the PCA at 50 shows every sign of continued vigor and spiritual vitality.

As the PCA ages, there are definite threats to the unity, worship, and witness of the denomination, and faithful churchmen will not allow the excellencies that adorn the PCA to blind them to those dangers. But at a time when our society is polarized and fractured, and cynicism and negativity dominate much of our public discourse, we need to carve out space for gratitude (and even qualified optimism) as we reflect on five decades of faithfulness to the gospel in the PCA.

Let me highlight four things I see in the PCA for which I give thanks.

1. Unwavering Faithfulness

I’m grateful to God for the PCA’s continued faithfulness to its confessional foundations. Yes, there’s some diversity of opinion among elders and deacons in the PCA, but it’s typically on a relatively small number of doctrinal issues.

Sessions (the Presbyterian name for elder boards, serving in local congregations) and presbyteries (representing the PCA congregations in a given region) are required to weigh carefully whether an elder or deacon candidate’s stated differences with the Westminster Standards represent a departure from those doctrinal standards of sufficient gravity to bar him from office. While some leeway is permissible, the PCA continues to affirm the Standards without exception or qualification as the confession of its faith and the sense in which it understands the Bible.

We need to carve out space for gratitude (and even qualified optimism) as we reflect on five decades of faithfulness.

Other presbyterian denominations have felt the need to amend the Standards to reflect the changing times and their changing convictions, but the PCA continues to find remarkable utility in our Confession and Catechisms. The Westminster Standards’ resilience as an expression of the PCA’s theological conscience can be seen clearly in the study committee reports produced on a host of pressing subjects over the years.

While these are typically the fruit of considerable debate within the PCA, their findings represent solid biblical and confessional conclusions that have steered the PCA in continued paths of faithfulness. Whether it’s the Federal Vision controversy, the Insider Movement, the role of women in ministry, or the urgent questions facing the church surrounding human sexuality, when doctrinal debates call for a denominational response, the PCA, again and again, finds in its confessional standards a source of biblically faithful and remarkably prescient wisdom.

If we seek an explanation of the PCA’s continued growth, church planting efforts, pastoral formation, missionary labor, and service to the wider evangelical movement in America and around the world, we must look first to our stable confessional moorings.

2. Connection of Churches

I love the connectionalism of the PCA. Part of the genius of presbyterian polity is the interconnectedness of our congregations, who submit to one another and cooperate in a shared mission and mutual accountability. Partly in reaction to abuses in the mainline denomination from which they emerged in 1973, the PCA has carefully avoided a centralized power structure. We’re generally allergic to top-down control imposed on congregations.

The members of each congregation elect their own ministers, elders, and deacons; property belongs to the congregation, not the denomination; and a congregation can leave the denomination at any time for any reason the church’s members deem wise. But for all its aversion to central control, the PCA hasn’t disintegrated into a loose federation of independent churches. The essential elements of presbyterian government are prized and practiced. Sessions exercise pastoral oversight over the members of the local church, presbyteries over the churches within their bounds, and the General Assembly over the church at a national level.

We continue to confess that local churches are bound together and are responsible to and for one another. Though the PCA is far from perfect in this, it remains true that presbyteries and the General Assembly provide much-needed checks on the dangers of ecclesiastical tyranny and pastoral abuse. Standards for ordination are upheld across the denomination, and pastors have formal structures of support and appeal beyond the leadership of the local churches they serve. Our connectionalism is a precious gift.

3. Evangelistic Outlook

I’m grateful for the ongoing drive in the PCA for evangelism and church planting. While growth has slowed in recent years, the PCA still bucks the general pattern of numerical decline seen in other evangelical denominations in today’s America. Membership in the PCA grew to 390,319 last year—an increase of 11,930. In 1974, 200 congregations founded the PCA. Now, after 50 years, the denomination has grown to just shy of 2,000 congregations (including 305 mission churches).

There’s a spectrum of philosophy of ministry in the PCA, and there are important differences of conviction on the nature and limits of contextualization, styles of worship, and to what extent the church should speak prophetically and counterculturally.

Nevertheless, all parties in the denomination affirm their deep and urgent commitments to church planting and global mission. Our outreach ministries continue to grow. Reformed University Fellowship, which reaches thousands of students on American college campuses; Mission to North America, which facilitates domestic church planting; and Mission to the World, which sends missionaries around the globe all work hard to fulfill the Great Commission.

4. Future Generation

A new generation of leaders is emerging. The 50th anniversary of the PCA was bittersweet. Just before the celebrations at the General Assembly, Tim Keller, Harry Reeder, and Stephen Smallman all went to their eternal rewards. These men were leaders whose ministries extended well beyond the denomination’s bounds. They were fathers in the faith to many, and the PCA owes them an incalculable debt.

We continue to confess that local churches are bound together and are responsible to and for one another.

The second generation in the PCA has now largely handed the baton of leadership to a new generation. As I assess the PCA, I’m grateful for thoughtful brothers who care deeply about the church and its polity, confession, and testimony and who are resolved to engage in denominational debate with dignity, charity, and conviction.

I see rising scholars, preachers and authors, and churchmen and missionaries who have the best interests of the gospel cause at heart, who love our confession of faith, and who are passionate about the glory of Christ in the salvation of the lost. I’m excited about the ways God will use them for the extension of his kingdom.

No doubt, the PCA at 50 still has a long way to go as we strive to be “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission,” as our motto says. There are differences of opinion among us on the nature of the church’s mission. We still must learn how best to welcome, reflect, and celebrate the rich diversity of ethnicity, culture, and experience found in the communities we seek to reach for Christ. Like other evangelicals, we’re struggling to respond effectively to growing biblical illiteracy, pragmatism, progressivism, and Christian nationalism.

But, on the cusp of 50 myself, I rejoice over the PCA at 50: a confessional, connectional, missional church with whom Christ, the King and Head of the church, is far from finished.

The Gospel Coalition 2023 Book Awards Mon, 04 Dec 2023 05:00:55 +0000 The Gospel Coalition is happy to announce the winners of our 2023 annual book awards.]]> “Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12).

Qoheleth’s proverbial warning is a reality for many bibliophiles. The flood of recently published books is generally good news for evangelicals. However, so many helpful books come out that it’s hard to know which to invest in and which new book to read next. (We’ll discretely overlook the pile of previously purchased books accumulating on our shelves.)

The abundance of quality evangelical books became more real to me this year as I’ve stepped into the role of books editor for The Gospel Coalition. I hear about many more books than I did in my previous life. One of the most exciting parts of my job is overseeing TGC’s annual book awards. A big team of book lovers puts in a lot of work behind the scenes. We receive nominations from publishers in 12 categories. Then our editors work together to recommend finalists in each category. A panel of judges carefully reads these finalists before casting their votes.

The books are evaluated for the way they

  • offer gospel-centered argument and application;
  • include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
  • foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
  • encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.

The result is a list of 24 books we recommend as helpful resources for the church and for individual believers. We hope you enjoy and are edified by them.

Congratulations to the winners of the 2023 TGC Book Awards.

Andrew Spencer
Books Editor


Paul E. Miller, A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World (Crossway)

It’s no secret that Christians struggle to pray. But churches are increasingly prayerless as well. Discouragement, distraction, and ministry demands all push prayer out of its proper place in our worship, leadership, and fellowship. Miller’s magnificent book stands as a compelling wake-up call. Addressing church leaders in a post-Christian culture filled with discouragement, cynicism, and unbelief, Miller challenges self-sufficiency and rallies leaders to their knees. He pleads with pastors and congregations to “go low, to descend into the hidden room of prayer, to slow down [their] entire ministry and learn how to pray together.”

A Praying Church begins with a gospel grounding for prayer—a theology of the church and the Spirit that clearly shows its readers why corporate prayer is essential. It closes with an abundantly practical section that will help ministry leaders structure both their personal prayer lives and the corporate prayer lives of their churches. Miller’s book will help congregations make prayer the nuclear core of all they do. It will inspire them to more fully depend on the Savior’s presence, not because of crushing guilt but out of grace-fueled desire.

Award of Distinction

Jeremy Writebol, Pastor, Jesus Is Enough: Hope for the Weary, the Burned Out, and the Broken (Lexham)

Jesus’s letters to the churches in Revelation 2–3 aren’t the first place church leaders turn for pastoral encouragement, but Writebol helps us to see they’re a rich and stirring exhortation. The book is theologically stout but wonderfully devotional, biblically tethered but highly applicational. It’s a beautiful and evergreen work of shepherding through writing. As the tide of evangelicalism shifts once again away from interest in the sufficiency of the gospel, this book powerfully urges repentance, return, and recommitment to the good news at the heart of pastoral ministry.

Judges: Paul Gilbert, Jared Kennedy, Brad Wetherell, Jared C. Wilson

Evangelism & Apologetics

Joshua D. Chatraw and Jack Carson, Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith (Brazos)

Some people are abandoning the Christian faith without really evaluating it. They’ve been sold a version of Christianity that seems restrictive and doesn’t tolerate honest questions. Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson aim to help those leaving the faith consider the historic riches of Christianity. They offer a helpful way of expressing doubt without moving directly to one of the popular landing places for those deconstructing the Christian faith: New Atheism, open spirituality, mythic truth, and optimistic skepticism.

Chatraw and Carson don’t simply eliminate the options; they investigate the historic foundations of the Christian faith. They explore whether Christianity helps explain the world we live in. Surprised by Doubt is a carefully researched but engaging solution to the problem of deconstruction. Its honesty in wrestling with the hard questions of Christianity makes this a safe book to hand to a hardened skeptic or a believer in anguish about his doubts. It answers one of the predominant challenges of the hour and will remain a useful resource for years to come.

Award of Distinction

John Van Sloten, God Speaks Science: What Neurons, Giant Squid, and Supernovae Reveal About Our Creator (Moody)

Depending on who you talk to, the greatest threat to religion is science, or vice versa. People on both sides of the issue describe science and orthodox Christianity as being at war with one another. But what if exploring the world through empirical research was actually a pathway to understanding the One who created and sustains everything? That’s John Van Sloten’s thesis in this engaging book.

Vivid exposition of various scientific ideas will be enough to intrigue the curious, apart from any spiritual value. This book touches on topics like radiation therapy, knees, giant squid, and neuroscience. Van Sloten shows that we take the incredible complexity of God’s creation for granted. The way neurons fire and talk to each other inspires wonder as we consider that these intricate, minute, and mysterious events came from the mind of God.

There’s no “God of the gaps” in this book. Instead, we have a God who’s more clearly known as we fill in the gaps. Each chapter begins with a testimony from a faithful expert in the field in question and concludes with a suggested prayer and an invitation to ponder the wonder of God. God Speaks Science is a reminder that all creation belongs to God, so we delight in knowing more about it.

Judges: Kristie Anderson, Michael Philliber, Anthony Rhone, Andrew Spencer

Public Theology & Current Events

Jim Davis and Michael Graham, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? (Zondervan)

The Great Dechurching provides profound insights into one of the most significant religious shifts in American history: the millions of people across the theological spectrum leaving churches. This comprehensive study delivers data-driven clarity on who exactly is “dechurching,” why they’re leaving, and how we might thoughtfully engage them. It’s a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the real people behind the statistics.

Far from a dry sociological analysis, The Great Dechurching brings the data to life through engaging stories that help readers develop a deeper understanding of the dechurched. Davis and Graham balance rigor with relatability, managing to be both academically sound and pastorally sensitive. Their insights on topics like social media algorithms, mental health, and marriage should spark reflection and conversations in local churches across the country.

Perhaps most importantly, while the scope of dechurching is sobering, this book offers multiple reasons for hope. With thoughtful exhortations for church leaders and practical ideas for reengagement, The Great Dechurching will inspire and equip Christians to faithfully embody the gospel in this cultural moment. The Lord doesn’t give up on bringing those he died for back to himself—and neither should we.

Award of Distinction

Katie J. McCoy, To Be a Woman: The Confusion over Female Identity and How Christians Can Respond (B&H)

This powerful book offers deep wisdom and gospel truth for navigating today’s confusing cultural conversations around gender and identity. Katie J. McCoy confronts the self-focused individualism behind expressive gender identities with the biblical truth that we’re made for self-giving love. To Be a Woman thoughtfully examines the theological, biological, philosophical, social, and relational factors that shape how women and girls understand themselves. With academic rigor yet accessible prose, she traces the roots of modern gender theories back to ancient worldviews that denigrated the body. In contrast, she presents a holistic Christian framework that honors our physical selves as part of being made in God’s image.

Though unafraid to challenge problematic cultural narratives, McCoy’s compassion for those struggling with gender dysphoria shines through. She earnestly attempts to understand real human experiences with nuance and grace, moving well beyond abstract theories. To Be a Woman will equip readers to understand the cultural chaos, speak truth in love, and point people to the One who fashioned male and female in his image. Those who want to gain wisdom for responding to gender confusion in a way that honors God and cares for people should rush to get this book.

Judges: Joe Carter, Hannah Daniel, Dennis Greeson, Jake Meador

Popular Theology

Kevin DeYoung, Impossible Christianity: Why Following Jesus Does Not Mean You Have to Change the World, Be an Expert in Everything, Accept Spiritual Failure, and Feel Miserable Pretty Much All the Time (Crossway)

Given the dizzying array of expectations about what it means to be a faithful Christian, it’s easy to feel like a constant spiritual failure. We’re bombarded with messages about what we must be doing and must be concerned about. The implication is that if you aren’t doing X or concerned about Y—and demonstrating so publicly—you’re a hypocrite. But the Bible doesn’t call every Christian to radical involvement in every good cause.

This isn’t a hall pass to apathy—it’s an acknowledgment that we’re finite. With characteristic clarity and verve, DeYoung writes to liberate true believers from burdensome yokes so we might be freed to enjoy the One whose yoke is easy and burden is light (Matt. 11:30). Believe it or not, obeying your Master is possible. Pleasing him is possible. Will you do it perfectly? No. Will you need grace upon grace? Of course. Will it require effort? Yes. But is it possible? Absolutely. Jesus didn’t die and rise so his people would feel like failures all the time. Repenting sinners can live under his smile. In an age of extrabiblical burdens and stifling demands, Impossible Christianity is a breath of fresh air.

Award of Distinction

Jen Wilkin and J. T. English, You Are a Theologian: An Invitation to Know and Love God Well (B&H)

For many Christians, the word “theologian” conjures up images of stuffy libraries and bespectacled sages. Jen Wilkin and J. T. English want to change that. Everybody who bears the name of Jesus, they contend, also bears the title of theologian—a God talker. With wisdom and warmth, they break down the “ologies”—Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and more—for everyday believers. Learn about who God is, how he’s revealed himself, how he views sin, what he’s done to redeem his people, and how he plans to make all things new.

This is a brilliant book for beginners—and for all people who know they’re always beginning in their understanding of God. You Are a Theologian should become a staple resource for church discipleship programs.

Judges: Joshua Chatman, Clarissa Moll, Juan Sánchez, Matt Smethurst

Bible Study & Devotional Literature

Liz Edrington, Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R)

Every day, teens face fearful thoughts: What if I’m awkward? What if I fail? What if I don’t make friends? What if I’m crazy? What if I’m rejected? In this life-giving, clinically sound, and teen-appropriate book, Liz Edrington answers these questions with biblical truth, grounding them over and over in their identity in a God who’s never anxious. Teens will pick up this book out of desperation, and they’ll finish it with a knowledge of God’s redemptive story, an incredible awareness of his presence, and an arsenal of effective tools and biblical thinking to combat their anxiety.

Edrington uses the Old and New Testaments to help teens understand both God’s nature and their own, employing accessible and current language. Teens will learn to couple care for their body’s physical symptoms of anxiety with care for their heart’s symptoms of anxiety. They’ll find a framework to think through this struggle biblically, with their relationship to Christ—not their struggle with anxiety—as their primary identity. Her “anxiety toolkit” gives immediate and practical steps for help in the moment. This devotional is a fabulous resource not only for teens but for anyone struggling with anxiety.

Award of Distinction

Rebecca McLaughlin, Navigating Gospel Truth: A Guide to Faithfully Reading the Accounts of Jesus’s Life (Lifeway)

What if your Bible study didn’t just help you understand a passage of Scripture but equipped you with tools to thoughtfully navigate entire books of the Bible on your own? In Navigating Gospel Truth, Rebecca McLaughlin uses the eye of a scholar to tell us how to read the Gospels instead of focusing primarily on the content of each Gospel. This study is masterfully done, with a variety of engaging elements, relatable examples, and invaluable bite-size commentary throughout. Although the study is focused on the Gospels, McLaughlin artfully weaves in verses from the whole counsel of Scripture.

McLaughlin equips readers to approach various genres of Scripture with wisdom, confidence, and care. As she walks through the Gospels, she acknowledges every elephant in the room and offers readers the courage to stop ignoring them. She answers our questions and even our doubts with grace, validating our curiosity and desire to understand by clearly explaining history and context.

This is a wonderful study for anyone wanting to read and better understand the Gospels, no matter if you’re just beginning to read at a deeper level as a high school or college student or have been reading the Gospels for decades.

Judges: Missie Branch, Christine Gordon, Karen Hodge, Joanna Kimbrel, Abbey Wedgeworth

Missions & the Global Church

Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement from the West: A Biography from Birth to Old Age (Eerdmans)

Everywhere you turn, Western evangelicals are talking about post-Christianity. Some lament; others foment. In such a time as this, we stand to benefit from a global and historical perspective. Though not written to directly address these contemporary concerns, The Missionary Movement from the West by Andrew Walls offers just that, helping us see beyond our short-sighted fears.

As Walls demonstrates, long before the West was won, Christianity “spread across much of Asia and a substantial part of East Africa.” Later, through the influence of the modern missions movement, the Western church contributed significantly to what we now know as “global Christianity.” This latter reality is the focus of his posthumously published work, edited by Brian Stanley. It’s a collection of Walls’s essays and lectures on the history of Western missions.

Following the metaphor of a life cycle, Walls traces the complex development of this movement, including discoveries of uncharted lands, troubling colonialism, vast migrations of people, and the unprecedented advance of Christianity in the non-Western world. Missions history should give the post-Christian West reason for hope. And it should help us as we seek to learn from and partner with our brothers and sisters around the world.

Award of Distinction

Vance Christie, David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist (Christian Focus)

One of the most famous figures in Christian missions history is David Livingstone. This Scottish physician and missionary pioneer took the gospel into the heart of the African interior in the 19th century, documenting its cultural features and discovering natural wonders along the way. His amazing feats made him a hero in Victorian Britain, both in the church and broader society. But in more recent years, his legacy has been questioned and his work criticized.

In this detailed biography, Vance Christie gives a balanced account of Livingstone’s life. Using comprehensive research from numerous original sources, Christie provides a transparent telling of the man and his mission. Readers will no doubt see Livingstone’s flaws, but they also come away with an appreciation of his passion, convictions, accomplishments, and even humor. This in-depth biography is likely to become the standard work on Livingstone for generations to come.

Judges: Elliot Clark, Jenny Manley, Conrad Mbewe, J. D. Payne

Academic Theology

Brandon D. Smith (ed.), The Trinity in the Canon: A Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Practical Proposal (B&H Academic)

Christians have long been accused of foisting a theology of the Trinity onto the text of Scripture after its later development in the Christian tradition. Even for Christians who deny such accusations, refuting those claims and recognizing the Trinitarian grammar of the Scripture can seem elusive. The Trinity in the Canon provides a resource for curious Christians, church practitioners, and academics to uncover the theological riches of the Bible and discover that the Trinity was there all along.

The twin strengths of this book are its wide range of contributors—who bring their own excellent insights to their sections—and its systematic treatment of the Bible, leaving no section of Scripture untouched. This approach helps the busy pastor or teacher quickly navigate to a particular chapter and determine how the doctrine of the Trinity is advanced in that portion of the text.

Award of Distinction

Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach (Crossway)

What themes are drawn out in Zephaniah? How does the order of the biblical books affect our interpretation? What ethics does Malachi set before us? If you’ve ever looked for theological overviews of the books you’re reading or teaching, Biblical Theology offers an informative and rich resource that will help you identify key biblical themes and interconnections between biblical books.

Köstenberger and Goswell engage with the paratext, including the canonical book order and book titles. Although these details aren’t inspired, they influence our interpretation, whether or not we’re conscious of this. Ultimately, Biblical Theology brings the issue of ethics to the foreground. A true biblical theology has to connect the Bible’s grand narrative to the “so what?” of our daily narratives. This reference book—especially with its detailed outline for quick reference to individual books of the Bible—will support the work of serious students, pastors, and teachers alike.

Judges: Paul Jeon, Jared Oliphint, Phil Thompson, Christine Thornton, and Taylor Turkington

History & Biography

Andrew Wilson, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West (Crossway)

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner opined. “It’s not even past.” Andrew Wilson’s Remaking the World is a remarkable undertaking, weaving together historical and social analysis across centuries to diagnose and explain how the West became post-Christian, starting at 1776. His explanation of the causes of the contemporary situation in the Western world is varied, nuanced, and persuasive.

Most striking is Wilson’s insistence that as Western societies have rejected Christianity, they haven’t offered anything to replace it, and their anti-Christian alternatives all have a distinctly Christian basis. This enables him to conclude on a hopeful note—the Christian gospel offers a more profound freedom than what the post-Christian West offers, an antidote to self-righteousness and works-righteousness in the form of a genuine gospel of grace, and an ultimate standard of truth in contrast to the meaningless Western attempts to see truth as entirely individual and self-constructed.

Remaking the World is an imaginative work of cultural apologetics that every church leader should grapple with. In what feels like a strange breaking point of Western culture, Wilson’s work helps us make sense of how we arrived at this moment and how we can move forward in faithfulness.

Award of Distinction

Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Zondervan Reflective)

Collin Hansen offers an unfamiliar perspective on a familiar figure as he traces the spiritual and intellectual development of Tim Keller. Truly understanding Keller requires reading his library, not just his works. Hansen provides a roadmap. It’s a fascinating walk through the major influences on Keller’s life—Kathy Keller, Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis, Ed Clowney, Elisabeth Elliot, Richard Lovelace, Barbara Boyd, and R. C. Sproul, among others.

To read this work is to encounter Keller again, not as a singular figure but as a person in process, molded and formed by the gospel. The work traces Keller’s influences in the areas of family, institutions, and key friendships, but the greatest influence of Keller’s life is the same one who stood at the center of his preaching: Jesus Christ.

Judges: Claude Atcho, Simonetta Carr, Donald Fairbairn, Ivan Mesa, Obbie Todd

Christian Living

John Starke, The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ (Zondervan Reflective)

Our contemporary vice isn’t that we let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. It’s that we make sure everyone else is aware of it as well. Like pointing out the air we’re breathing, The Secret Place of Thunder forces readers to contemplate the ways they may perform their holiness in public for the eyes of many rather than in private for the eyes of one.

Whether it’s a photo of your carefully staged morning quiet time, a humble-brag post about what God is teaching you, or simply the desire to be seen at all the right conferences with all the right speakers, we can fall into the trap of pursuing spiritual disciplines for the wrong reasons. As an antidote to the poison of an attention-seeking culture, John Starke offers a deeper and quieter way. He reminds readers that God isn’t found in the limelight but in the secret place of thunder (Ps. 81:7). He invites us to step back from grasping the world’s attention and to rest under the Savior’s tender gaze.

Award of Distinction

Jasmine L. Holmes, Never Cast Out: How the Gospel Puts an End to the Story of Shame (B&H)

Satan loves to lurk in the murky places—sowing confusion around the borders of thought and emotion where the lines of right and wrong aren’t immediately obvious. Shame is one of those shadowy places.

In Never Cast Out, Jasmine Holmes accomplishes a difficult task—she uses the metanarrative of Scripture to present a theology of shame and shine a bright light on Satan and his tactics. Her careful categories surrounding the types of shame and the reasons for shame help readers think through their vague feelings of guilt and offer clarity about what they’re experiencing. In our moment of deconstruction and dechurching, Holmes invites readers to experience a freedom rooted not in leaving the church but in the restorative power of the gospel. Her discussions of shame in the context of parenting also offer help for parenting shame-prone children.

Judges: Matthew Boga, Winfree Brisley, Megan Hill, Elizabeth Woodson


Laura Wifler, Like Me: A Story About Disability and Discovering God’s Image in Every Person (Harvest Kids)

Like Me is a story about disability told with clear-eyed compassion and candor. Focusing on one family on a cold winter day, it teaches the universal truth that every person, regardless of ability or disability, is an image-bearer of God. Through the perspective of an older brother, readers witness the challenges of family life with a disabled child (his little brother tears down his tent and hits him so hard it hurts) and its joys (the same little brother gives the best hugs because “he means them more than anybody [he knows]”). The warm and engaging illustrations will prompt rereadings, reinforcing the message that “it’s a privilege to know another human being, no matter what they look like or how they act.”

Award of Distinction

Alyssa Clements, The Size of Everything: Ginormous Galaxies, Itty-Bitty Quarks, and Me (Tyndale Kids)

The Size of Everything teems with interesting facts about God’s creation, organized in order of size from microscopic to galactic. Did you know that a T-Rex was about the size of a school bus? Or that Jupiter’s red spot is twice as big as our own planet? Although human beings are neither the biggest nor the smallest of God’s creatures, the book explains we hold a unique place in creation as image-bearers of God. Readers who don’t like to experience awe and wonder should stay far away from The Size of Everything.

Judges: Ginger M. Blomberg, Jason Duesing, Betsy Childs Howard, Shar Walker

Arts & Culture

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art (Baker Academic)

Redeeming Vision addresses “believing viewers” with a clear gospel imperative: “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor” in how you learn about and learn from works of art. In this way, the book elucidates and models an inquisitive approach to images that accounts for both their deep influence on us and their ability to help us reach out to our world.

Weichbrodt’s prose is so approachable, her explanations so clear, and her project so well woven that you might not realize how powerfully it could reframe a Christian’s engagement with art. Redeeming Vision equips its reader with tools for looking; expands the reader’s acquaintance with historical, global, and contemporary art; and explores the entanglement of visual culture with social and historical problems. But before and beyond any questions of art appreciation, expanded horizons, and honest reckoning, Weichbrodt proposes a deeply Christian orientation to visual culture—because the gospel changes how we see everything.

Award of Distinction

Jeremy S. Begbie, Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionist World (Baker Academic)

Already one of the most reliably brilliant voices in contemporary “arts and theology” discourse, Jeremy Begbie’s latest contribution doesn’t disappoint. Even by Begbie’s high standards, Abundantly More raises the bar and pushes the conversation forward in timely, helpful, and theologically rigorous ways. The richly written, scholarly book is partially a scathing indictment of the reductionist, materialist spirit of the age. But mostly it’s a compelling positive argument for how the arts challenge these tendencies and bear powerful witness to the uncontainable, infinite, and beautiful Trinitarian God.

Judges: Melissa Schubert Johnson, Joshua Leventhal, Brett McCracken, Taylor Worley

First-Time Author

Matthew T. Martens, Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal (Crossway)

Perhaps no word has become more loaded in the American lexicon in recent years than “justice.” It carries a lot of weight—heated emotions, frustrated hopes, and, for some, a Sisyphean weariness. Is achieving justice even possible? Or is our system so broken we need to throw it away and start over?

Yes and no, answers Matthew Martens, who has spent his career in both prosecution and defense. He takes readers inside the system, from the crime to the jury selection to the sentencing. He uses stories and statistics to explain how the system is supposed to work and how it breaks down. The result is a practical, hope-filled approach to a system that’s flawed—but not fatally.

To some extent, all Americans participate in our justice system—from voting to serving on juries. As Christians, we can do this with wisdom, peace, and hope. We can love our neighbors well as we point to the perfect justice of the God who justified us. Martens shows us how.

Award of Distinction

Amy Baik Lee, This Homeward Ache: How Our Yearning for the Life to Come Spurs On Our Life Today (B&H)

Amy Baik Lee is a stunning writer. Her sentences are well crafted, and she captures what many feel but can’t describe. The result is that Homeward Ache is timeless yet especially relevant to our current cultural restlessness. Lee encourages readers to lean into that dissatisfaction, that God-shaped hole in the heart, that “homeward ache” for a better eternity, and subsequently to live fuller lives in the present. As she carefully explores biblical truths, the beauty of Jesus comes through. Equal parts compelling and comforting, this book is genuinely true, good, and beautiful.

Judges: Amy DiMarcangelo, Jen Oshman, Greg Phelan, Jordan Raynor, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Model Faithfulness Sun, 03 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 The example of my dad’s faithfulness helped me to be disciplined and fight for my time with God.]]> It was past midnight when I got home after a long shift at the hospital. As I quietly unlocked the front door and stepped inside, soft lamplight illuminated the living room, revealing my dad’s work clothes, shoes, and belt laid neatly on the couch. In several hours, he’d wake and head to the factory where he worked, picking up a coworker along the way. After work, he’d help my mom with supper and dishes, then mow the lawn or tend to other chores. He’d do it all over again the next day, and the next, and the next.

On the surface, my dad’s routine seems simple. But it represents a striking contrast to my generation. Gen Z isn’t known for its faithfulness. Young people are frequently characterized as noncommittal, distracted, and fickle. Both FOMO (fear of missing out) and FOBO (fear of better options) run rampant in our minds as we navigate the world of social media, only adding to our internal angst. We’re often thought to lack work ethic and fidelity—perhaps that’s why my father’s faithfulness had such an effect on me.

Faithful Father

My dad’s work ethic is second to none, and it pours over into everything he does, whether it’s mowing the lawn just right or reading the Bible in the mornings as he eats breakfast. My dad’s faithfulness in every area of life has influenced how I approach work and school.

My dad’s faithfulness in every area of life has infuenced how I approach work and school.

Even more, though, his faithfulness has influenced me spiritually. My dad’s example of faith and discipline in reading the Bible and living the Christian life has continued to encourage me to be faithful in all I do, reflecting the words of Luke 16:10: “Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much” (CSB).

Faithful in Discipleship

My dad made a point to read the Bible to our family at the end of supper each night. His faithfulness to engage us with God’s Word greatly improved my biblical literacy. It taught me from a young age the importance of reading the Scriptures daily as a foundation for spiritual growth.

As I progressed through nursing school, it was tempting to let my Bible reading and church involvement fall on the back burner amid the demands of my program. But the example of my dad’s faithfulness helped me to be disciplined and fight for my time with God—and I was richly rewarded for it. Where other students had anxiety, I had peace. Where other students chased the highs of partying and fleeting pleasures, I was helped by my dad’s faithful example to focus on Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

Faithful in Service

My dad is faithful in caring for those who are less fortunate in our community and in the world. For years, he served on the board of our church’s outreach and missions organization. This meant he was gone more often than not on Saturday mornings, packaging food for the less fortunate in Haiti or renovating a home for a member of our community. I got to help him on some of these occasions and was continuously struck by his humility and by the excellence he applied to his work.

The example of my dad’s faithfulness helped me to be disciplined and fight for my time with God.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now understand my dad was living out the love of Christ by exemplifying Proverbs 14:31: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” This example of humility and kindness has pushed me to be considerate and compassionate toward others, especially those less fortunate than me.

It should be clear my dad is a godly man and faithful in many ways. But as great as I think my dad is, he isn’t godly because he’s so pious or because he works hard. No, my dad is a godly man because he’s been changed from the inside out by God, who removed his heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). My dad is faithful because the One who called him is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24). May he alone get blessing, honor, and glory for all the things my dad has done right.

Jason Helopoulos: ‘I Love the (Imperfect) PCA at 50’ Sun, 03 Dec 2023 05:00:00 +0000 I have no illusions that we have everything correct or do most things, let alone everything, well. Yet the PCA is the church I know, belong to, and love.]]> My beloved denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), turns 50 this year. Anyone who knows me knows I love the PCA. It has been my spiritual home for close to 25 years.

The PCA is far from perfect (as evidenced by counting me among its members), but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The very things that attracted me to the PCA years ago continue to excite me most about it today.

1. The PCA is biblically minded.

The PCA began with a desire to be true to the Scriptures, and it continues to uphold that commitment. It proves no small thing for a denomination to persevere in holding to the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of the Scriptures in its faith and practice.

I can truly say I don’t know a single pastor, elder, deacon, or PCA church that would deny the authority of the Word of God. Whether I’m in a PCA congregational, session, presbytery, or General Assembly meeting, a biblical argument is a winning argument.

As a whole, the PCA knows it received a gift passed along by previous generations of the church. The denomination makes a concerted effort to remain unashamed of the gospel—“the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). The PCA maintains a high view of God, a robust view of grace, and a low view of human ability.

2. The PCA is productively Presbyterian.

At first glance, this may appear to be an oxymoron. Presbyterians rightfully earned a reputation for moving slowly and cautiously. However, I’ve come to the conviction through the years that we benefit from our Presbyterianism.

Presbyterianism, by definition, necessitates connection with others—not just people in my local church but other churches and presbyteries. Churches in other parts of the country, throughout the state, and in neighboring cities are connected. Churches in rural and urban, college and blue-collar, politically progressive and politically conservative populations are all united as one. Churches among different ethnicities, languages, and socioeconomic classes are linked in the courts of the church.

We’re connected. Yet no bishop rules over this family of churches. No edicts or judgments come from “on high.” Presbyterianism requires continual compromise. Most issues facing the church find resolution through clear articulation, informative discussion, and even heated debate.

The PCA maintains a high view of God, a robust view of grace, and a low view of human ability.

As I reflect on my experience, I realize how I often need to be pushed and pulled in different ways. Discussion and debate sharpen, refine, and helpfully define. I need people both to the left and to the right of me theologically. I benefit from people who think differently from my treasured assumptions and natural inclinations. As a sinner, I’m too often blind to my failings and faults.

Yes, it takes longer to make decisions than it would if we operated independently or under the direction of a single man. At times it can feel as though the denomination is fraught with constant friction, which leads to frustration. Yet time and again, the Lord works in this to lead us to better and more fitting places as a denomination and as individual Christians.

Though our movements are slow, it proves productive to be connected and in communion with others. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). It bears fruit in the soul and to the glory of Christ.

3. The PCA is confessionally committed.

Despite the benefits of the push-and-pull dynamic, we should only be willing to go so far. Compromise only proves beneficial if it remains within bounds.

As a confessional church, the PCA commits itself to the historic Westminster Standards. Each officer within the PCA promises to stay firmly within those bounds by taking this vow at his ordination:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery/Session the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of your ordination vow?

Each officer in the PCA pledges commitment to our historic faith. This confessional integrity provides for and maintains unity even amid our differences. The PCA hasn’t and doesn’t shy away from the importance and necessity of doctrinal fidelity. It blesses my soul to be united with believers who “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

4. The PCA is evangelistically motivated.

I was first won to the PCA by observing within it a true mind for God wedded with a fervent heartbeat for people. Some of the best theologians, scholars, thinkers, and authors in the Reformed world reside in the PCA. It remains rightly serious about doctrine. Yet one would be hard-pressed to characterize the PCA by the familiar pejorative “frozen chosen.” From its inception, the PCA has proven as serious about evangelization, church planting, and missions as it is serious about sound doctrine.

The PCA has proven as serious about evangelization, church planting, and missions as it is serious about sound doctrine.

The PCA is motivated by true love for the lost and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Our Lord’s commission—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”—hasn’t been viewed as the “Great Suggestion” (Matt. 28:19–20). Rather, it has motivated congregations to prayer, action, and sacrifice. Entire communities, cities, states, and countries would look drastically different apart from its ministry among them.

The PCA isn’t perfect. I have no illusions that we have everything correct or do most things, let alone everything, well. Yet the PCA is the church I know, belong to, and love.

If the PCA continues to uphold these characteristics, we may be used for the glory of Christ in the small part of the vineyard we occupy, until the day our King returns. Lord, may it be.

Advent Longing / Christmas Joy: New 100-Song Playlist Sat, 02 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 The 100 songs in this playlist are structured in two halves: 50 songs evoke the mood of Advent longing; 50 songs celebrate Christmas joy.]]> One thing I love about the Advent season is that it welcomes the whole range of human emotions. Advent fully embraces our agonized longing for hope on the other side of present pain. Our world is rife with sin, sickness, and suffering. We groan—along with all creation (Rom. 8:22)—for deliverance. And even as we know the light of the world already came and our hope is secure, the world’s darkness feels oppressive and life’s burdens feel weighty. So we long for the second coming of Christ. We ache for war to give way to peace, tension to resolve, everything sad to come untrue. Advent welcomes this longing.

But of course, Advent longing isn’t the full story of this season. We also have the unadulterated joy of Christmas: the festive season of all festive seasons, when we rightly celebrate the “good news of great joy” that our Savior is born (Luke 2:10), that the true light, “which gives light to everyone,” came into the world (John 1:9). This means we can be confident that sin and death will not have the last word. Jesus conquered both. We can be honest about the darkness in our world while having buoyant assurance that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it (John 1:5).

Advent fully embraces our agonized longing for hope on the other side of present pain.

It’d be wrong to only experience this season with a melancholy spirit of agonized groaning. Because Christ came! Likewise, it would be odd to pretend that all is merry and bright and that sadness has no place in this season. Because Christ is coming again! (But not yet.)

That’s why, for The Gospel Coalition’s Advent playlist this year, I decided to embrace the pull of the two poles of Christmastime emotion: longing and joy. The 100 songs in the playlist are structured in two halves: 50 songs evoke the sober mood of Advent longing, and 50 songs lean more into the festive joy of Christmas.

Listen to the playlist now on Spotify or Apple Music.

Depending on your temperament or season in life, you may gravitate toward the mellow, plaintive first half of the playlist or to the more exultant, upbeat second half. That’s fine. But I’d encourage you to listen to all 100 songs at some point this December. Let their artistry guide you through the beautiful range of “already, not yet” worship between Christ’s two advents: groaning and gratitude, aching and adoration, reflection and celebration, minor falls and major lifts.

May these songs minister to you in the downs and ups of this season, stirring your heart’s affections toward the Son we were given: our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).

Part I: Advent Longing

  1. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Hillside Recording, Eliza King
  2. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” The Gray Havens
  3. “Emmanuel,” Future of Forestry
  4. “Come to Us O Lord,” Young Oceans
  5. “Come Jesus Come,” Stephen McWhirter
  6. “Lord Jesus Come,” Caleb Crino
  7. “Deliver Us,” Andrew Peterson, Scott Mulvahill
  8. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” Sarah Sparks
  9. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” John Van Deusen
  10. “Where the Light Is Gone,” The Wood Drake Sessions, Kirk Sauers
  11. “Benedictus,” The Porter’s Gate, Nick Chambers, Pages CXVI
  12. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Wilder Adkins
  13. “Christmas Bells,” Joel Ansett
  14. “O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines,” Claire Holley
  15. “Carol I, Desire of Nations, Come,” Providence
  16. “Lord Remind Me,” Jon Guerra, Praytell
  17. “Snow,” Sleeping at Last
  18. “Silent Night,” Manchester Orchestra
  19. “Still, Still, Still,” Anna Palfreeman
  20. “Branch of Blessing,” Andrew Joseph Connell
  21. “Jesus, Messiah,” Providence
  22. “God Bless Us Every One,” Haddon, Jimmy Clifton, Will Clifton
  23. “Little Drummer Boy,” John Van Deusen
  24. “White Horse,” Over the Rhine
  25. “Until He Comes Again,” Sandra McCracken, Andrew Osenga
  26. “Christmas Communion Song,” Paul Zach, Lauren Plank Goans
  27. “O Magnum Mysterium,” Morten Lauridsen, Vienna Brass Connection
  28. “The Advent Song,” Future of Forestry
  29. “Come, Lord Jesus, Come,” Steve Thorngate
  30. “Come Thou Almighty King,” Advent Birmingham, Sarah Hydinger
  31. “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  32. “O Jerusalem,” The Porter’s Gate, Greg Thompson
  33. “Felt,” Andrew Joseph Connell
  34. “With Death in Mind,” Ordinary Time
  35. “You Were Born to Die,” Providence
  36. “Here/Now,” Joshua Leventhal
  37. “Our God Came Down to Us,” Sarah Sparks
  38. “Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait),” Rain for Roots, Flo Paris
  39. “Hope for Soon,” The Calendar Years
  40. “Soon,” Brooke Ligertwood
  41. “Father Winter,” Pacific Gold
  42. “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” Thomas Aston, One Hope Project
  43. “Once in Royal David’s City,” Sandra McCracken, Matt Papa, Laura Story
  44. “The Christmas Song,” Vince Guaraldi Trio
  45. “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” Over the Rhine
  46. “O Holy Night,” Josh Garrels
  47. “This Is the Truth Sent from Above,” Choir of King’s College
  48. “Silent Night,” Brian Fallon
  49. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Future of Forestry
  50. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Ben Fuller

Part II: Christmas Joy

  1. “Joy to the World,” Aretha Franklin
  2. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Kingdom Kids, Shane & Shane
  3. “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee,” Maverick City Music
  4. “Oh for Joy,” Folk Hymnal
  5. “Ding Dong Merrily On High,” Rend Collective
  6. “Christmas Morning,” The McClures
  7. “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery,” The Gray Havens
  8. “Magnificent, Marvelous, Matchless Love,” Keith & Kristyn Getty
  9. “O Holy Night,” TAYA
  10. “Hope Is Alive,” Ellie Holcomb
  11. “Jesus Christ Is Born,” Mac Powell
  12. “Christ Is Born,” Mill City Music
  13. “In the Fullness of Time,” Matt Boswell, Matt Papa
  14. “Baby Son,” John Mark McMillan
  15. “Ways,” Jason Hofer
  16. “Jesus Born on this Day,” Mariah Carey
  17. “O What a King,” Katy Nichole
  18. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Mahalia Jackson
  19. “Ring Them Bells,” Ben Fuller, Jonathan Traylor
  20. “Deck the Halls,” Forrest Frank
  21. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Folk Angel
  22. “Come Adore the Humble King,” Matt Boswell, Matt Papa
  23. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Johnnyswim
  24. “Good Christian Men Rejoice, Rejoice,” John Fahey
  25. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Keith & Kristyn Getty
  26. “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” Sandra McCracken, Joseph Bradshaw
  27. “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” Nathan Drake
  28. “Away in a Manger,” Forrest Frank
  29. “The First Noel,” Special Musick
  30. “Little Drummer Boy,” Blessing Offor
  31. “What Child Is This,” Andrea von Kampen
  32. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Jeremy Riddle
  33. “Magnificat (Glory to God),” Tenielle Neda, Jon Guerra, Praytell
  34. “Excelsis Deo,” CalledOut Music
  35. “Joy Has Dawned / Angels We Have Heard on High,” Keith & Kristyn Getty
  36. “Joy to the World,” The Gray Havens
  37. “Joy (As Far as the Curse Is Found),” Caroline Cobb
  38. “Away in a Manger (All Glory to Jesus),” Sovereign Grace Music
  39. “Manger Throne,” Phil Wickham
  40. “Come, Let Us Gather,” Jonathan and Emily Martin
  41. “O Come All You Unfaithful,” Travis Cottrell, Brooke Voland
  42. “All Things Are Possible (Gabriel),” Melanie Penn
  43. “Glad Tidings,” Ellie Holcomb
  44. “Hallelujah, Christ Is Born,” Caroline Cobb
  45. “Hallelujah,” Chris Tomlin, Blessing Offor
  46. “Handel’s Messiah,” Jenny & Tyler
  47. “Immanuel,” Beautiful Eulogy
  48. “Joy to the World (Joyful, Joyful),” Shane & Shane, Phil Wickham
  49. “Who Would Have Dreamed,” Sovereign Grace Music
  50. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Kings Kaleidoscope
Sean Lucas: ‘I’m Grateful for the PCA’s 50-Year History’ Sat, 02 Dec 2023 05:00:00 +0000 The PCA has far surpassed what its 20th-century founders envisioned.]]> In August 1971, the leaders of the conservative movement within the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) announced plans for a “continuing Presbyterian church.” It was a difficult decision that carried great risk and brought great opposition. As one of the new denomination’s founders, Paul Settle, remembered, “Before the final vote, [the leaders] dropped to their knees and prayed. Many wept.” (This and all subsequent quotes appear in my book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.)

Erstwhile conservative leaders like Nelson Bell and Andrew Jumper publicly disagreed with the decision to form the new denomination. And the steps along the way to December 4, 1973, when the first General Assembly met at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, were fraught. Only 41,000 members identified with what was then called the National Presbyterian Church.

Flash forward 50 years. The initial 41,000 who formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973 have become nearly 400,000 total members. With almost 2,000 churches and church plants, over 5,000 pastors and nearly 1,000 ministry candidates and licentiates, the largest Anglo-American Presbyterian mission force, and the largest Reformed college ministry in the world, the PCA has far surpassed what the founders envisioned.

The 70 children of Jacob went to Egypt and emerged as over 600,000 fighting men with women and children besides. Likewise, the Lord has faithfully multiplied and established the work of our founders. We should rejoice and give thanks to the Lord for his faithfulness.

As we reflect on the PCA’s beginnings in this golden anniversary year, there are four areas of our founding for which we might be thankful—and they chart the pathway for our future.

1. Founded by (Flawed) Heroes

As we age, we more clearly see our earthly fathers’ flaws. So it’s been with our understanding of the history of the PCA. Many have become aware of the sinful flaws of some in the generation that founded the PCA, especially around racial justice, and we’ve sought to confess and repent of our covenantal relationship to those sins.

But make no mistake: that founding generation was heroic. Those pastors, elders, and church members took a bold stand for the truth of the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God. They defended the gospel of Jesus Christ and the fundamentals of the faith. They were willing to step out in faith, believing in a big God who was able to do far beyond what they could ask or imagine. They lost church buildings and pensions, but they gained a true Presbyterian church. That’s something to recognize and celebrate.

2. Founded out of Gospel Priorities

Right at the beginning, the PCA took as its motto “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” This speaks to the gospel priorities the founding generation feared were being lost in the old church and sought to conserve in the new denomination.

The three parts of the motto hang together. From the 1920s to the present day, the conservatives who would fight for, establish, and then lead the PCA stood for Scripture alone as the supreme authority in the church, the norming norm for theology, witness, and life.

This was the central disagreement with progressives in the southern Presbyterian church—does Scripture supply the norms for renewing the church and transforming the world? As one PCA church leader put it, “The basic divergence has to do with attitudes toward the Bible—on the one hand the full integrity and authority of the Scriptures, and on the other, varying degrees of rejection, from belief that the Bible contains the Word of God (but is not the Word of God), down to the viewpoint that the Bible is no longer relevant to today’s world.” While the Presbyterian conservatives who formed the PCA might have disagreed about much, they were all united on sola scriptura.

While the Presbyterian conservatives who formed the PCA might have disagreed about much, they were all united on sola scriptura.

The founders held to the Reformed faith as given in the Westminster Standards. As the first moderator of the PCA General Assembly, W. Jack Williamson, noted, “We believe the faith we prize is clearly and comprehensively systematized in the subordinate standards which are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechism. We make no apology for our determination that this Church will be thoroughly Calvinistic in doctrine and intensely Presbyterian in government.”

Fearful that the loss of Calvinistic fundamentals would lead to the decline of the church, the founders desired a church to maintain the Reformed faith.

3. Founded for Missional Partnership

These gospel priorities would lead to gospel outreach. Throughout the 20th century, Presbyterian conservatives stood for the “spiritual mission of the church,” which they believed meant the church shouldn’t concern itself with social or political issues primarily but with religious ones. They believed the only way to renew American culture was through evangelism.

That’s why these Bible-believing Calvinists passionately supported Billy Graham in the 1950s and 1960s. They saw in Graham’s ministry what they desired for themselves: firm belief in an inerrant Bible fueling love for lost souls and a willingness to go with the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.

That’s also why one of the organizations Presbyterian conservatives started prior to forming the PCA was one for international missions, the Executive Commission for Overseas Evangelization, which would be adopted by the newly formed PCA as Mission to the World.

But the founders also wanted to partner with other organizations, Reformed and otherwise, to further the gospel. Our denomination has long recognized we don’t need to agree on every jot and tittle to advance the gospel cause. Ours was a broad-minded gospel mission and outreach because we knew the kingdom of God was bigger than our branch of the visible church.

4. Founded for Mainline Influence

There was a great concern for these founders to maintain engagement with, influence on, and custodianship over American culture. Essentially, they saw themselves as a mainline Presbyterian body, just as mainline as the northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA and the southern PCUS that would form the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983. That’s what they meant when they claimed the PCA was a “continuing Presbyterian Church.”

Our church has long recognized we don’t need to agree on every jot and tittle to advance the gospel cause. We knew the kingdom of God was bigger than our branch of the visible church.

Their orientation toward American culture is unmistakable in the pages of conservatives’ primary organ, the Presbyterian Journal. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Presbyterian conservatives bemoaned the decay of American civilization and blamed the church for its failure. Yet southern Presbyterian conservatives felt they had the solution: the warm and winsome gospel rooted in the inerrant Word and preached with evangelistic passion.

While they would declare this gospel in generally Calvinistic terms, they also saw their place within the larger world of the new evangelicalism emerging in the 1950s. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry—these were the people most of that founding generation identified with.

This would be the way the PCA would steward its cultural influence: through a clear proclamation of the gospel that would influence genuine cultural and social change in the United States. The denomination didn’t want to retreat to the margins or become a “sideline” Presbyterian body. Rather, its members saw their mission as national, even international, in scope. They were willing to fight in the early days of the denomination to keep the PCA in the middle of the evangelical world, where they might exert the most influence for the advancement of the gospel.

Continued Ideal

These four areas represent an important reminder in our golden anniversary year. There are many of us who still believe in and desire to work for this founding ideal: that we might be a church pure in doctrine and comprehensive in scope, a national denomination that aggressively works together for mission with a shared doctrinal commitment to the Westminster Standards.

I’m thankful for the founding generation—for their heroic stand for the gospel, for missional partnership, and for mainline custodianship. I trust that our generation might build on their foundational ministry.

Making Sense of God Fri, 01 Dec 2023 05:04:57 +0000 In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen discusses Tim Keller’s insights into cultural apologetics and mission in a post-Christian era.]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen discusses Tim Keller’s insights into cultural apologetics and mission in a post-Christian era, focusing on the background of Keller’s book Making Sense of God.

Keller, influenced by thinkers like James Davison Hunter, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Philip Rieff, and Robert Bellah, critiques the Enlightenment and its inability to provide meaning and justice in the absence of Christian resources.

Hansen outlines seven steps inspired by Keller’s approach, including challenging prevailing social assumptions, integrating multidimensional faith, and demonstrating Christian community. He emphasizes the urgent need for apologetics in a cross-pressured, secular age.

Advent Meditation: Christmas Was Made for Laughter Fri, 01 Dec 2023 05:02:00 +0000 In truth, religious Christmas includes both ‘Silent Night’ by candlelight and the pile of gifts around the tree. ]]> Read

You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. (Ps. 4:7)


When I was younger, Christmas seemed to have a split personality. Religious Christmas was deep and serious. It was weeks of waiting, candles in the dark, and four-stanza hymns. It was extra church services and listening to Luke 2 (again) before opening gifts. It frowned on things like commercialism, Santa Claus, and saying “Happy Holidays!”

Secular Christmas, on the other hand, was bright and glittery. It was lights, parties, and kitchen countertops loaded with cookies and chocolate. It was snowmen with black hats and reindeer with red noses. It was cousins to play with and a mountain of presents under the tree—some from Santa.

It can almost make you wonder if Christians know how to have fun. Is Christianity just a bunch of rules keeping you from the real pleasures of life? Don’t buy too much. Don’t believe in magic. Don’t drink too much. Don’t have sex with your boyfriend. Don’t swear. Don’t gamble.

But if you dig into this, even a little bit, the lie gives way. The lesser amusements we turn to for happiness—sex, alcohol, a perfectly clean house, a new car, a bigger bank balance—deliver a burst of bliss that quickly wanes. Secular Christmas, with its enthusiastic sparkles, dumps us into the cold gray of January.

Christian joy is much weightier, more durable. It comes from a clean conscience washed by Jesus’s blood (1 John 1:7), from confidence in a future God controls (Prov. 19:21), and from knowing we cannot be separated from a God who’s working everything for our good (Rom. 8:28, 38–39). Christian joy is also fun. “You shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days,” says Leviticus 23:40. “Shout for joy!” exclaims Psalm 32:11. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion,” the Lord declares in Zechariah 2:10.

For comparison, here’s a quote from Ruhollah Khomeini, the grand ayatollah of Iran.

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious. Islam does not allow swimming in the sea and is opposed to radio and television serials. Islam, however, allows marksmanship, horseback riding and competition.

Place that next to Isaiah 65:18: “Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” Or David dancing before the Lord with all his might (2 Sam. 6:14). Or the Israelites whose “mouths were filled with laughter, [their] tongues with songs of joy” (Ps. 126:2, NIV).

Secular Christmas, with its enthusiastic sparkles, dumps us into the cold gray of January. Christian joy is much weightier, more durable.

Our Creator is the One who invented jokes and belly laughs and parties. He gave us friendships, dance moves, and the ability to come up with a perfectly timed one-liner. Jesus’s first miracle wasn’t to destroy the wicked or even to feed the hungry but to add wine to a week-long wedding party. When he returns for us, the celebration is going to be even more magnificent (Rev. 19:6–9).

I used to think Christmas had a split personality, but it doesn’t. In truth, religious Christmas includes both “Silent Night” by candlelight and the pile of gifts around the tree. It’s both serving at the food pantry and platters of food at Grandma’s house. It’s both “Joy to the World” and “Jingle Bells.”

The solemnity of Advent wreaths and Bible reading add to the joy of family celebrations, twinkling light displays, and penning Christmas cards. Out of the deep joy of being right with God springs laughter and lightness. A heart that rests secure in God is best positioned to enjoy family events (even difficult ones), to sing loudly, to delight in the gifts others receive, and to savor homemade cookies fresh out of the oven.

The Lord has put more joy in our hearts than they have when grain and wine abound.


Which religious aspects of the holiday seem dull or tedious beside the shine of secular Christmas? How can you remind yourself that a heart filled with joy in the Lord produces the best laughter?


Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo

– James Chadwick (English paraphrase),
“Angels We Have Heard on High”

Reintegrating the Atonement in Missions Fri, 01 Dec 2023 05:00:00 +0000 The various dimensions of Christ’s atonement can provide unique entry points to the gospel in different contexts, but we must bring the gospel back to the heart of the atonement and preach Christ’s penal substitutionary death for sinners.]]> After a long day of travel on a dusty mountain road, a local pastor and I finally walked toward his village. He described how the gospel first came to this remote area two decades earlier. His parents had been devout followers of Hindu gods, but that changed when they were unable to conceive children. They tried various remedies to appease the spirits, whom they viewed as the source of the problem, but nothing worked. Finally, they heard from a Christian in a neighboring village that they should ask Jesus to help them since he’s more powerful than the Hindu gods. His parents prayed, conceived, and had a son. As a result, they gave their allegiance to Jesus.

Over the years, I’ve heard many stories like this, but what stood out to me was what the pastor said next.

Even though his parents identify as followers of Jesus, it wasn’t until recently that they began to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross. For them, Jesus was primarily a god who was more powerful than the other gods. However, if you were to ask them why Jesus died for them, they couldn’t give even a basic answer. They wanted to follow Jesus because of the power he could give them over sickness and spirits. But if Jesus can give healing and power because of who he is, why did he need to die on the cross?

For missionaries in contexts like this one, there’s a related question: How should we proclaim the gospel in a culture dominated by fear and power? More specifically, how should we explain the atonement?

Danger of Reductionism

In recent years, there’s been a growing emphasis on contextualizing the atonement doctrine across cultures. Many have highlighted that the atonement is like a multifaceted diamond that shines with unique glory depending on the angle of view. Just as sin and its effects are multifaceted, Christ’s work on the cross addresses all the problems caused by sin. The atonement doesn’t only provide forgiveness of sins for the guilty; it gives us victory over sin, Satan, and death and removes our shame before God and others.

Furthermore, some missiologists argue Western theologians have truncated the gospel message by focusing only on penal substitutionary atonement, reducing the atonement to only one dimension.

Admittedly, there have been times throughout church history when the atonement has been reduced to only one theory or model, especially when polemics prevailed. For instance, in the 20th century, many theologians responded to C. H. Dodd’s reformulation of God’s wrath and thus rejection of penal substitutionary atonement. Those who defended the traditional atonement view, such as Leon Morris, conceded that the response was so focused on this one aspect that it resulted in a functional reductionism. The other metaphors of the atonement were affirmed by those who held to penal substitution, but in practice, they were sidelined.

Still today, missionaries who maintain a priority for penal substitution must guard against reducing the atonement to only one dimension. Recognizing the many facets of the atonement enables us to proclaim the full glory of what Christ achieved on the cross. This multidimensional reality enables evangelists to tap into different groups’ values and concerns, providing us with an opportunity to contextualize the gospel.

Contextualizing the Atonement

One book that tries to help missionaries do this is The 3D Gospel by Jayson Georges. It explains the three major atonement theories recognized throughout church history: ransom, satisfaction, and penal substitution. Georges emphasizes we need all three aspects to fully grasp the gospel’s multifaceted glory. However, while he contends we shouldn’t truncate the gospel to only one dimension of Christ’s atonement, his 3D model for contextualization may lead practitioners to make this very mistake.

Missionaries who maintain a priority for penal substitution must guard against reducing the atonement to only one dimension.

Georges argues that people in different contexts are likely to understand one of these atonement metaphors better than the others. Therefore, missionaries should proclaim the most culturally plausible one.

In a fear/power context (i.e., one dominated by traditional religion and the fear of spiritual powers), we should preach the atonement metaphor of ransom, or Christus Victor, which focuses on Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death. Meanwhile, in a shame/honor context, Georges believes missionaries should use the satisfaction metaphor, focusing on our debt of honor to God and on Christ’s payment of that debt. Finally, for a guilt/innocence culture, he suggests penal substitution would be most appropriate.

Georges is right to highlight the atonement’s multidimensional reality. Different aspects or features may resonate with different cultures. Yet there’s an inherent weakness in this contextualization model: it’s built on a relativistic atonement theology.

Danger of Relativism

Missiologists who take the approach proposed by Georges utilize what’s sometimes called a “kaleidoscopic view” of the atonement. This perspective gained a wider audience around the turn of the century, following the release of Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Green and Baker argue the Bible uses many different metaphors to describe the atonement’s nature. Therefore we shouldn’t elevate one motif over another. While this approach avoids the error of reducing the atonement to only one aspect, it swings too far in the other direction by relativizing the atonement themes.

I don’t mean that this approach assumes those themes are void of any objective truth (i.e., postmodernism) but that the themes aren’t shown to have an intrinsic relationship or logical order among them. According to the kaleidoscopic view, there’s no scriptural (and transcultural) framework for how the atonement metaphors might be integrated.

Furthermore, even though Green and Baker indicate all metaphors should be considered valid and utilized where appropriate, they reject penal substitution as a biblical metaphor. For them, penal substitution is a cultural product of life in the West rather than a biblical doctrine to be taught in every context.

While Georges doesn’t reject penal substitution in The 3D Gospel, he does approve something similar in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, a book he coauthored with Baker. He writes, “When people absolutize this theology [penal substitution] contextualized in the West, elevate it to the level of biblical truth and export it internationally, [it leads] to a type of theological/cultural colonialism.”

Integrated Atonement Theology

Contrary to this dis-integrated and relativistic approach to the atonement, several theologians in recent years have shown how the various aspects of the atonement are integrated in Scripture.

For instance, in The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat demonstrates how penal substitution provides the necessary mechanism for the Christus Victor motif. Similarly, Joshua M. McNall shows in The Mosaic of Atonement how the atonement metaphors fit together and how each is necessary to make sense of the others.

Notably, both authors point to Revelation 12 as an example of this intrinsic relationship between the metaphors. In that passage, John depicts Christ’s sacrifice in cultic, legal, and military terms, revealing believers have victory over Satan because of Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice. This is nothing less than the culmination of Scripture’s entire redemptive-historical narrative from Genesis 3:15 on—Christ defeats Satan and death through his suffering in the place of sinners. Penal substitutionary atonement is, therefore, foundational to and necessary for our victory.

The reason humanity is enslaved to sin, Satan, and death isn’t merely because we’re victims who need to be rescued. Rather, we’re rebels who have caused disorder at a cosmic level (Rom. 8:20–21). It’s because of Adam’s sin against God that we lost dominion over the earth and are now born as slaves who need to be redeemed (Eph. 2:1–3). Satan, the Accuser, can inflict fear on us because we’re under just condemnation before God (Heb. 2:13–15).

We can only find freedom and deliverance from the powers of darkness when this root problem of our sin against God is dealt with. Jesus accomplished this by disarming the powers and authorities through his substitutionary sacrifice that removes our sin debt (Col. 2:13–15).

Substitution’s Centrality in Atonement Theology

Christ’s substitutionary death isn’t foundational and indispensable only for the Christus Victor dimension of the cross but for all other dimensions. Jeremy Treat rightly points out in his latest book, The Atonement: An Introduction, that “we must acknowledge the key distinction between what Christ accomplished (the outcome) and how he accomplished it (the means).”

The atonement’s outcome is multifaceted. Yet beneath all outcomes is the means by which God secured them: Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. This isn’t one dimension among others that can be set aside depending on the cultural context. It’s central and necessary for rightly communicating any dimension of the atonement.

Substitution’s centrality is confirmed from both the testimony of Scripture and the doctrine of God. First, Scripture establishes a substitution pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, in Genesis 3:15, after the fall, God promises he’ll crush the Serpent’s head through the sacrifice of a promised seed. Furthermore, God clothes Adam and Eve with the skins of animals who died to cover them.

In the New Testament, the biblical authors repeatedly point to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. Jesus himself indicates this when he says he came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” an allusion to Isaiah 53 (Mark 10:45). The New Testament writers portray Christ’s sacrifice as the great exchange. Jesus takes on himself the penalty of sin we deserve, and we receive his perfect righteousness.

Additionally, a biblical doctrine of God reveals that God is unable to overlook sin. If he’s to save sinners, he must provide a perfect substitutionary sacrifice. Christ’s death achieves many things, but it’s the “self-substitution of God” (to borrow John Stott’s phrase) that satisfies God himself and thus enables all the atonement’s benefits to be applied to his people.

Contextualized and Integrated

This brief sketch shows the atonement metaphors are interconnected; we can’t understand them rightly in isolation from one another. We should reject any atonement theology that reduces or relativizes the biblical framework of the cross. An intrinsic and causal relationship exists between the atonement metaphors, and penal substitution is central to them all.

Yes, Christ’s work on the cross does achieve more than the removal of our guilt before God. But only once our guilt is addressed can all other derivative problems, such as shame and fear, be resolved.

The atonement metaphors are interconnected; we can’t understand them rightly in isolation from one another.

If we’re to preach the gospel across cultures faithfully, we may begin by connecting with the issues that most resonate with people’s hearts in their cultural contexts. But then we must move to the core of our sin problem and show why Christ’s penal substitutionary death on the cross solves their guilt before God and results in the benefits championed by the other atonement metaphors.

In the case of my friend from the village, his family was drawn to Jesus because of a desire for power over spiritual forces. When ministering to others like them, it’s certainly appropriate to present the gospel in terms of Christus Victor, explaining that one of the reasons Jesus died on the cross was to overthrow the powers of darkness and deliver us from fear and bondage. This could be a powerful connection point.

However, we shouldn’t evangelize in a way that isolates the atonement motifs. In explaining why we’re in bondage to Satan and spiritual powers or why there’s sickness and suffering in the world, we’ll need to explain humanity’s rebellion against God and our guilt before him. As we explain the victory Jesus has won, we need to explain how that victory was achieved through his penal substitutionary death on the cross.

Preaching the Cross

With that in mind, here are three key suggestions for contextualizing the cross.

1. Remember Christ’s atonement is multidimensional.

As missionaries, we must guard against the tendency to reduce the atonement to only one dimension. Those in the West must remember that the gospel not only removes our guilt before God but also addresses our fear and shame. Meanwhile, those in the East should remember they need a perfect righteousness for their guilt, not merely greater power or honor.

2. Connect aspects of the atonement with cultural values.

The various dimensions of Christ’s atonement can provide unique entry points to the gospel in different contexts. By connecting with the issues that resonate with your audience (fear, shame, etc.), you can gain a hearing and show how the gospel addresses the problems people face. (Georges’s 3D model aligns with these first two points but differs with my third and final recommendation.)

3. Proclaim an integrated atonement theology.

We mustn’t reduce the gospel to only penal substitution, nor should we ignore its absolute necessity and centrality. Without Christ paying the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross, there’s no victory over sin, Satan, or death. There’s no removal of our shame or restoration to honor.

We may start our contextualization process by connecting with a cultural value through a corresponding atonement metaphor, but we must always bring it back to the heart of the atonement and preach Christ’s penal substitutionary death for sinners. Only then can we proclaim the cross’s full glory and make disciples with a true understanding of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Should I Obey When I Don’t Feel like It? Thu, 30 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Emotional honesty and godly obedience aren’t opponents in a tug-of-war—they’re on the same team.]]> I recently chatted with a godly young woman in her 20s about what the Lord was teaching us. She pondered a question aloud: “What if I don’t feel like changing, or being obedient, or acting kind? Should I do something when my heart’s not in it? Isn’t that being fake?”

I appreciated her honesty. It’s a question worth grappling with, and it’s become a common one as our culture kneels at the altar of authenticity. Even those of us who know the answer can admit we struggle to apply it.

The simple answer according to the Bible is that being kind when we don’t feel kind isn’t being inauthentic—it’s an act of love. No lack of integrity is in play. Instead, the fruit of the Spirit is bursting forth from our lives when we act in accordance with the nature of Christ rather than with our sin nature.

What About Our Feelings?

A generation that rightly values emotional health may scoff at the suggestion that our feelings aren’t a factor. Didn’t Jesus condemn the Pharisees for hypocrisy when they obeyed the law but not from the heart? So how should Christians understand the relationship between authenticity and obedience?

When we don’t feel like obeying, the answer isn’t to disobey, nor is it to dismiss our feelings. Emotional honesty and godly obedience aren’t opponents in a tug-of-war—they’re on the same team. The psalms make it clear that God calls us to come to him not with pasted-on smiles but with appropriate sighs and questions. He gathered the tears of the psalmist (Ps. 56:8), and he welcomed my younger friend’s vulnerable question.

Emotional honesty and godly obedience aren’t opponents in a tug-of-war—they’re on the same team.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, weren’t emotionally honest. Most were fakers, trying to hide their sins and appear righteous before men. Their hidden motives warranted censure from Jesus. But when one of them came by night to ask honest questions, the Teacher welcomed him, and that’s what he does for us (John 3:1–15).

God wants the “real you” so he can transform it into the “real you” he created you to be. When a funk of irritation, selfishness, lust, or sloth settles in and it’s hard to obey, we should pray honest prayers: “Here’s my heart, Lord, with all its entanglements and temptations. Help!” Our Father answers that cry, forgiving us and empowering us to do what he’s called us to do. Then in faith, we move our hands or feet or words or thoughts down the path of obedience. That’s honest Christianity.

True to the New Self

But even if we’re being emotionally honest, is obeying God when we don’t feel like it inauthentic? The trendy but tricky word “authentic” is about being genuine and true to yourself. As Christians, we should ask which self we mean—the old or the new?

In Ephesians 4:22–24, Paul instructs the church, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and . . . be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and . . . put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Being true to the new self often means rejecting selfish urges and inclinations that feel like comfy old blankets. It means helping someone when we feel like curling up in a ball of self-pity, expressing gratitude when we feel like complaining, and serving when we’d rather be served. These choices are beautifully unnatural to the old self but completely authentic to the new self as we grow in Christlikeness.

Although we’re being “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV), we won’t be fully perfected until heaven, and our first inclinations in this life will often be to “not feel like it.” Parents don’t wait for toddlers to feel like obeying before they train them to do what’s right. Feelings don’t have to precede actions.

Scripture teaches that denying our own will in favor of God’s is proof of faith and maturity (Luke 9:23). That means the grinding of gears we often experience as we follow God’s commands isn’t cause for questioning our authenticity—it’s a reason to celebrate. We’re moving in the right direction.

God Will Help Us Feel like It

Obedience to God doesn’t produce lifeless religion, dry as tree bark. Jesus promises the opposite: rivers of living water will flow from our hearts (John 7:38). As we make difficult, unnatural choices to honor Christ by the power of his Spirit, we begin to love what he loves.

In one of the most encouraging passages for struggling sinners, Philippians 2:13 assures us that God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God helps us not only to obey him but to want to obey him. From his storehouse of riches in glory, he generously provides the new inclinations we can’t drum up on our own (4:19).

God helps us not only to obey him but to want to obey him.

In his grace, God called us to come to him even when we didn’t feel like it. The One who intercepted our sprint toward hell welcomes us into his presence through Jesus. Now, every time we struggle with our crooked hearts and warped inclinations, we can run to him for love, help, power, and comfort. As we confess our sins and failures, he gathers us up, reminds us of who we are, and shows us the right way to go. Heeding that voice is authenticity at its best.

Advent Meditation: Hope Fulfilled Wed, 29 Nov 2023 05:03:00 +0000 The real story of Christmas isn’t a story of surprise but of fulfillment.]]> Read

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)


One of our favorite family stories is about the time my husband’s cousin made a particularly ambitious Christmas list. He copied down practically every item from a thick toy catalog. Then he added one final request: surprises.

Many of us go to great lengths to pull off a Christmas morning surprise. Even now, you may have gifts hidden away, tucked into nooks and crannies, or delivered to a neighbor’s house for safekeeping. Perhaps you’ve hunted down a gift that’s nearly impossible to secure. Maybe you’ll be up late on Christmas Eve doing a last-minute assembly.

Surprises can be delightful to give and receive, creating a sense of wonder and excitement around Christmas. But as we enjoy them, it’s good to remember that the advent of Christ wasn’t meant to be a surprise. God had been promising his people a serpent-crushing offspring from the earliest pages of the Bible (Gen. 3:15). The real story of Christmas isn’t a story of surprise but of fulfillment.

The real story of Christmas isn’t a story of surprise but of fulfillment.

Through the Old Testament prophets, God revealed quite a bit of information about the coming Messiah. Jeremiah said he would be a king from the line of David (Jer. 23:5–6). Micah foretold he would come from the town of Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). Years ahead of time, God promised his people a Savior and gave specific details about his coming.

So when Philip went to share the news that Christ had come, notice what he said: “We have found him of whom Moses . . . and also the prophets wrote” (John 1:45). He didn’t say, “Surprise! God sent a Savior.” He said, “We have found him.” They knew the Messiah was coming. They were expecting him. Finding Jesus, for them, was confirmation of God’s faithfulness.

And that’s the story of Christmas for us too. The advent of Christ is a vivid reminder that God does what he says he will do, down to the last detail. Don’t skip over the details the Gospel writers record about the birth of Christ. It’s not extra fluff to fill out the story. In Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth, five times he writes something like “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (see Matt. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23). Why does Matthew repeatedly point out the fulfillment of prophecy? Because it shows us God’s faithfulness.

The advent of Christ is a vivid reminder that God does what he says he will do, down to the last detail.

God’s faithfulness in the Christmas story gives us hope in our own stories. Just as God promised to send Jesus, he promises to be with us now through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus came the first time, he promises to come again. We can look forward in hope, confidently anticipating Christ’s second coming and the fulfillment of his promises to dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:3).

God may not give us everything on our wish list, but we can be sure he’ll fulfill all the promises he has made. Great is his faithfulness!


How have you seen God’s faithfulness to you in the past? In what areas of your life are you struggling to believe God’s promises? What might it look like for you to find hope in God’s faithfulness today?


Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Great is Thy faithfulness!

– Thomas Chisholm, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Faith and Fruitfulness: How to Thrive in Our Cultural Moment Wed, 29 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 How can Christians offer grace, freedom, and truth in this current cultural moment?]]> How can Christians offer grace, freedom, and truth in this current cultural moment? In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson get practical.

If their books are correct in diagnosing the 21st-century West as post-Christian, what effect can this have on our approach to everyday evangelism, preaching, and parenting? Scrivener and Wilson return to the observation that it’s refreshing to be able to say to people “Here’s why you’re right” rather than “Here’s why you’re wrong.”

They tease out the unique challenges of our current context and the need for Christians to offer countercatechesis. Scrivener shares examples of fruitful conversations he’s had with friends and strangers, and Wilson reflects on how to engage with casual visitors in our churches—people who might not call themselves Christians but who are recognizing the radical and foundational nature of biblical teaching.

Why I’m Hitting Retirement Running Wed, 29 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Though we may step down from our professional careers, we should never retire from serving the Lord.]]> A few weeks ago, I retired from a more-than-full-time job. For decades, I was an endocrinologist, first in New Jersey and then in Santo Domingo.

As I told people I was retiring, it was interesting to hear the similarity of their reactions: “Great—you’ll have more time to relax.” “Now your schedule will be less intense.” “Finally, you can slow down.”

In some sense, they’re right. My physical body is getting older. The longer I live, the more slowly I’ll move. But for now, I’m still active. And these comments made me evaluate what I think about work, retirement, and the Bible’s teaching.

Biblical Examples and Directives

I looked first to the Bible for examples. The apostle John was writing—including books of the Bible—into his 90s. Moses was 80 years old when the Lord used him to free the Jews, a journey that lasted another 40 years. Daniel was in his 80s when he was thrown into the lion’s den. Anna and Simeon didn’t depart from the temple even in their later years—and in response to their obedience, the Lord allowed them to identify the Messiah.

Other saints have followed their examples. Polycarp, a first-century Christian bishop of Smyrna, testified that he’d served the Lord “eighty and six years” as he was being martyred. Even in recent years, we’ve seen many Christian leaders continuing to work well into their golden years—including John Piper and Joni Eareckson Tada.

But maybe those were unusual cases. After all, I’m not an apostle or a martyr. Are normal people supposed to keep working after they retire? What does the Bible say?

I’m not an apostle or a martyr. Are normal people supposed to keep working after they retire?

Although there are several principles that could be applied to this stage of life, the only passage I found specifically on retirement was Numbers 8:23–26. The Lord tells Moses the Levites should begin their work at the tent of meetings at the age of 25. At 50, they should withdraw (retire), but verse 26 clarifies this phrase: “They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service.”

What does that tell us? The Levites continued to work—but in a different capacity. Instead of doing heavy labor, they supervised or directed. They used their knowledge, experience, wisdom, and discernment, which they should have learned over the years, to mentor the next generation. Their work responsibility didn’t end but simply changed.

The apostle Paul is another example of this shift. As he traveled, he evangelized and planted churches. When he was jailed, he continued evangelizing, although to different groups of people, such as the Praetorian guards (Phil. 1:12–13). But he also discipled the churches through his writings. Paul understood well what John the Baptist said: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). At any age, he was willing to obey what the Lord asked him to do.

Biblical Understanding of Work

The world will tell you retirement is meant for stepping away from work altogether and finally doing those things you’ve always wanted—traveling or reading or lounging. Those things aren’t wrong. But the desire to get away from work is built on a misunderstanding.

God instituted work before the fall. Though our tasks are often made difficult or painful by sin, the activity of work is—and always has been—good and purposeful. Work done well brings us joy and satisfaction. We can enjoy the process as well as the rewards. Losing ourselves in a task, puzzling through a challenge, or creating something new brings us God-honoring joy.

The desire to get away from work is built on a misunderstanding.

Even though we may retire from our professional careers, we should never retire from serving the Lord. As a physician for more than 40 years, I was in contact with disease, pain, and death. I was able to help people deal with the effects of the fall. It was an exhilarating experience to contribute not only to curing or managing diseases but also to helping many face and accept death. There have been opportunities to share the Lord with those who are hurting, insecure, and questioning why they’re going through their trials. The Holy Spirit has opened the eyes of many, allowing me to watch the God of peace crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20).

As I came to the end of the road in medicine, I saw an expanding opportunity to work for the Lord in church ministry, training others to fight the good fight. Though the work is different, it’s still good.

Work of Retirement

We retirees need to do our own work—to leave behind the professional identities we’ve spent years building and instead enrich and fortify our eternal identities. For many, career identities have been idols we’ve fought for generations. Retirement is the time to finally destroy them and to fully embrace our identities as children of God. It’s no diminishment of who we are but rather a fuller, more freeing understanding of ourselves.

Revelation 22:3 informs us that in the New Jerusalem, we’ll serve the Lamb who sits on the throne. Let’s do that even now, worshiping and adoring him who is worthy of much more than we could ever give, in any opportunity he brings our way.

Is the Trauma Narrative Helpful? Tue, 28 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 While trauma absolutely affects us, it doesn’t get the final word on who we are.]]> In recent years, trauma has become a dominant lens for how we interpret and communicate our experiences to one another. We find it in books and podcasts, therapy and counseling offices, and everyday conversations with family and friends. Given its widespread influence, it makes sense to pause and consider: Is viewing trauma as the defining characteristic of our lives helpful?

There have been echoes of concern as the wider culture wrestles with this question. Articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and Vox have offered critique, noting that current views of trauma have reshaped how we view the human experience and that “trauma” has even become a meaningless term because it’s used so often.

The book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been a significant voice in popularizing the term “trauma.” Positively, Van der Kolk’s work helps people understand the physiological effects of trauma. As a counselor, I’ve found value in the increasing awareness of how trauma can affect a person. But I’ve wondered if trauma-directed narratives can skew our understanding of ourselves and others.

How the Trauma Narrative Helps and Hurts

On one hand, the growing awareness of trauma makes good sense. When you’ve experienced something painful—or traumatic—of course it affects you cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, and physiologically. These experiences can and do shape our lives in various obvious and inadvertent ways.

Our society hasn’t historically understood or responded with consideration for all the ways trauma can affect a person. A course correction is helpful. To whatever degree others may have dismissed or misunderstood painful events in a person’s life, it’s good for us to have a better understanding of how he or she is affected by trauma.

On the other hand, we increasingly relate to one another through the lens of trauma and use that lens to develop self-understanding. Why do I do the things I do and think the way I think? Why do I respond in this particular way in these kinds of situations? Books like Van der Kolk’s are sought for guidance on how to understand trauma’s effects and for solutions to navigating life after trauma. But these issues are worldview-laden. How we answer questions about people and our response to suffering are rooted in assumptions about God, the nature of humanity, and the world. So as Christians, it’s wise to ask: How does the trauma lens fit with a biblical worldview? How does the gospel relate to trauma?

The Bible affirms the beautifully complex way we’ve been created, acknowledging the role of the spiritual, social, and physiological spheres, while simultaneously teaching we have some autonomy to choose how we respond to the world around us. If the current views of trauma compel us to focus primarily on one dimension of our humanity (our experiences and physiological responses), we risk a reductionist view of ourselves and others. We take one truth about ourselves, make it the primary influence of our lives, and end up with a skewed picture of the human experience.

What the Bible Says About Trauma

We take one truth about ourselves, make it the primary influence of our lives, and end up with a skewed picture of the human experience.

It’s important to realize the Bible does speak to trauma. It doesn’t use that word, but biblical authors are honest about the full range of painful and shocking experiences people can walk through. The Bible uses the lens of suffering for trauma—suffering due to the sins of others, suffering due to living in a fallen world, and suffering due to our sinful choices. Traumatic experiences can fit all three categories.

The consistent message of the Bible is that all of life exists in relationship to God. Suffering is no exception. We see both in the Bible and in our lives that God often relates to us through trials and suffering (trauma) in specific and meaningful ways.

Current secular literature on trauma will obviously neglect this point. It can still be helpful, as current theories and narratives on trauma will validate our pain and offer explanations for our responses. But if we stop there, we’ll miss the bigger and more hopeful picture of how God relates to us in our suffering. As Christians, the most important things we consider in our painful traumatic experiences are who God is, how he meets us in our pain, and how he uses our suffering to form us.

Four Biblical Responses to Trauma

What then does a Christian response to trauma look like? I suggest four actions that can help us process our pain biblically.

1. Continually turn toward the Lord in suffering.

The Psalms offers dozens of examples of how to honestly explore our pain with the Lord, ask for his help, and remind ourselves of God’s goodness, worthiness, and faithfulness amid our pain. Throughout the Bible, we’re continually implored to engage relationally with God in suffering, and the Psalms gives us many illustrations of lament. That the longest book in the Bible is devoted to examples of prayer in all circumstances should encourage us to engage honestly and fully with God in our pain.

2. Consider how the situation can make you more like Jesus.

If the goal of our lives is to glorify God, what does that look like in a traumatic situation? To be clear, glorifying God includes living in grace and truth toward others. Abuse requires us to be honest about the reality of our situation with ourselves, with proper authorities, and with people who can help. It requires us to seek counsel and to take wise steps to prevent such mistreatment from occurring again.

But where the world would compel us to believe hope is found in healthier relational experiences or finding emotionally satisfying resources within ourselves, we should recognize that solutions pointing primarily to other people or ourselves are limited and often skewed. We may need help in determining what growing in Christlikeness looks like in our particular context, but this remains God’s goal for us in trials (Rom. 8:28–29).

3. Consider spiritual realities alongside physical ones.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, he describes a great deal of suffering—floggings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, sleeplessness, hunger, and more (2 Cor. 11:23–27). This makes what he says earlier in the same letter much more astounding. Paul encourages us with hope that transcends suffering, explaining, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:17–18, NIV).

Scripture assures us that Christ, our high priest, sympathizes with us and cares for us in times of need (Heb. 4:14–16). But it also continually points us to unseen spiritual truths that give us hope amid suffering (Eph. 1:3–14).

4. Reduce suffering where possible.

Our ultimate goal cannot be relief from suffering. And yet if there are steps we can take to mitigate our own or someone else’s suffering while pursuing the glory of God, we should always, always do so. Jesus had compassion on the lowly, the suffering, the sinful, and the hurting. He eased burdens while pointing people to himself and to the hope we have in his life, death, and resurrection.

The point isn’t that trauma is OK because God has purposes in it. And yet trauma doesn’t get the final word.

There must be balance as we seek to understand ourselves and our experiences through the lens of trauma. The point isn’t that trauma is OK because God has purposes in it. And yet trauma doesn’t get the final word on who we are and what we do. God doesn’t save us from trials, mistreatments, or suffering—but he is at work in them, and he redeems through them. In Christ, we aren’t merely victims of our experiences. We were designed to glorify God and live in relationship with him, and that should fundamentally shape how we think about trauma.

What Motivates Us to Preach the Word? Mon, 27 Nov 2023 05:04:47 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the guidance of 2 Timothy for pastors, emphasizing preaching, patience, and understanding in ministry.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the timeless relevance of 2 Timothy for pastors, especially its guidance for preaching in various seasons. They highlight the importance of patience and understanding in pastoral ministry, addressing cultural trends where people seek teachings that align with their passions.

Their discussion ends with reflections on Paul’s perspective on impending death, emphasizing a sense of calm and fulfillment in ministry and the anticipation of a crown of righteousness for those who await the appearance of Jesus.

Recommended resource: The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken

Gen Z Is Looking for Friends Sun, 26 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 To a generation starved for relationship, even regularly saying hello may be more important than we realize.]]> Just outside the city of Minneapolis, my small blue Toyota Corolla trundled into the extensive parking lot of one of the largest high schools in Minnesota. Locking my car among a sea of vehicles, I secured my mask and walked through the piercing winter wind with the throng of faceless individuals into the school’s main doors.

In the fall of 2021, COVID-19 protocols still lingering in public schools, I was a student teacher in an 11th-grade classroom. This school boasted it was one of Minnesota’s most diverse public high schools, and I had the privilege of engaging with an array of students representing a number of countries, backgrounds, and belief systems.

When my last day of student teaching arrived, I was taken aback by some of the responses from my students—the ones who expressed the most remorse over my departure were the students who’d hardly spoken a word the entire semester. They made efforts to stop by the classroom and say goodbye to me, dropping off little gift bags and notes. One of the students, a recent refugee from Myanmar, wrote me a letter in broken English that said, “I will miss you, your soft sweet voice saying ‘Hi’ everyday and the tap tap on your computer. You made class feel like home.”

I was stunned. My heart, captured by warmth and wonder, pondered her response. I made class feel like home? And for a refugee—a student who hasn’t been able to call somewhere “home” for who knows how long?

To further my bewilderment, out of all my students, she was one I rarely got the chance to interact with—she attended the single class I never taught but merely observed. When she walked in, I greeted her by name. That was about as far as our interactions stretched.

Since then, I’ve considered the power and radical ordinariness of relationships. If merely showing up daily and greeting my student was important, what would have happened if I got to be part of her life and was in a setting where I could share the gospel with her? What if the way to reach hearts begins with simply showing up day after day and taking an interest in someone’s life?

Gen Z Needs Friends

As I reflected on effective ways to reach Gen Zers, I asked family and friends for their thoughts, and their responses all boiled down to the same thing: relationship. Many Gen Zers are suffering from disconnection and isolation, living according to blatant lies that color their reality. Self-hatred and self-obsession simultaneously reign in their beings, and they’re clouded by confusion.

How do we evangelize to a generation living in this dichotomy? How do we participate in painting life and beauty into the picture of their lives?

Through relationships.

In Tim Keller’s sermon “Mary’s Song,” he emphasizes how, when Mary is informed by the angel Gabriel that she’ll be the mother of the Messiah, she obediently submits with the words, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). We don’t witness vivid emotion on her part. However, immediately following that encounter, she “arose and went with haste . . . and greeted Elizabeth” (vv. 39–40). After Elizabeth hears the news from Mary, she erupts with praise toward God for what he has done. It’s not until then that we read Mary’s poetic song of overwhelming joy and humbled praise to the Lord in Luke 1:46–55.

Keller emphasized that we don’t fully experience the beauty and nearness of God unless we’re in fellowship with other believers.

We don’t fully experience the beauty and nearness of God unless we’re in fellowship with other believers.

In a world where the individual is prioritized, how could Christ be magnified if we sincerely prioritized cultivating fellowship—what the Oxford Dictionary defines as “friendly association”? In our everyday lives, this could look like learning and remembering names, smiling and waving, greeting and taking an interest in the lives of our neighbors and coworkers, cashiers and fellow gym-goers.

Gen Z Needs Older Friends

As believers called to disciple making, we take this friendliness even deeper in our inner circles. Evangelism through fellowship and hospitality—the building of relationships through receiving someone, whether at home, school, work, or elsewhere—is a profound means of grace to reach the hearts of wanderers. Despite what many people think, Gen Zers crave this kind of relationship, especially with older and wiser adults who take the time to know them and speak into their lives.

Some of my most formative moments in high school were when my mentor did this for me. I spent time with her at her house, with her young kids running and screaming and playing. Amid the chaos, we talked about God and life, and I found a space that felt like home—a place where my affection for the Lord was stirred.

Gen Z Needs Ordinary Friends

In Jesus’s ministry, we see radical ordinariness—how it was a regular practice that “many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Mark 2:15). Often we fall into the temptation to “spot treat” the problems of friends and unbelievers from afar rather than walking with them through their lives and trials. We can discount the wildly influential and ordinary practice of simply being with people—the ministry of presence. We’re more comfortable giving words, not time.

Often we fall into the temptation to ‘spot treat’ the problems of friends and unbelievers from afar rather than walking with them through their lives and trials.

Most Gen Zers we encounter aren’t literal refugees like my student was, but they are in the metaphorical sense: they’re isolated, often feeling displaced and unsettled, lonely and eager for the comfort of something or someone familiar and safe.

Making and forming disciples happens in the toy-littered living room, the sticky-countered kitchen, and the coffee shops and walking trails and break rooms where we share boosts of encouragement to endure everyday life. Gen Zers crave the simplicity of hospitality. It’s where hearts begin to open and affections are stirred for something more than what the world offers.

What if we resolved, with God’s help, to start being hospitable, welcoming, relationship-oriented people anywhere, to whomever God puts in front of us on a regular basis? It may be that even those who seem the shyest or least interested will be affected the most.

Was the Rise of Christendom Inevitable? Sat, 25 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 This is definitely a good book and a learned one. But it’s also one that must be read with a critical eye.]]> A historian discovers an arrowhead in the ground. Where, when, and how was it likely used? Was the archer viciously attacking the innocent, nobly defeating evildoers, or responsibly feeding his family? Perhaps he might have been a she, and the untold history of female archers needs to see the light of day.

Whatever view is taken, some evidence will be highlighted as primary while other facts will be backgrounded. The historian’s perspective about what should “really count” will determine the story that gets told.

Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300 is a prime example of how historians put their personal stamp on the evidence to construct an overarching narrative. The author, Peter Heather, is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He’s a seasoned scholar whose breadth and depth of research are brought to bear on his interpretation of history.

Heather’s reading can be supported by the evidence. Furthermore, his complex retelling of the church’s story is more compelling than some simplistic versions that present a monolithic and ever-triumphant Christianity.

And yet the materials of ecclesiastical history might support less suspicious retellings that also make sense of the available evidence. Readers must remember Heather has a point to make, which encourages a critical reading of his argument.

Heather is presenting a more skeptical view of Christian history, which, in his view, helps explain the religious trends in recent decades. He writes that the book is “a response to . . . the pressing intellectual challenge of reassessing Christianity’s rise to pre-eminence in the light of its modern eclipse” (xx).

Not-So-New Ideas

Heather’s goals in writing Christendom are clearly stated. He’s presenting a history that rejects the inevitability of Christianity in the West. He argues Christianity has been variegated throughout its existence so there’s sometimes little connection between the Christianity of different eras. Heather also presents it as one among several religious options of the West, arguing that something besides its inherent excellence is the cause of its historical popularity.

Heather sets out to undermine the triumphalistic Christian Grand Narrative that existed among Christians “around 1900” or “a century ago” (xviii). According to that narrative, Christianity had a straightforward, linear expansion based on its divine destiny and innate superiority over all other faiths. Heather rejects those Gilded Age pretensions.

Oddly, Heather presents his position as something new. Yet almost all scholars and professors in the past half century (even faithful Christian ones, which Heather acknowledges he isn’t) have already rejected that simplistic way of unfolding church history. For example, Richard A. Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion (1998) has long since undermined the earlier glib account of Christianity’s trajectory of inevitable success.

The book too often tilts at creaky, rusted windmills whose sails haven’t spun for years. Instead, the book’s strength is the masterful and detailed way it tells an already widely accepted story.

Constantinian Christianity

Heather’s historical work begins by questioning Christianity’s rise to prominence in the West. He addresses the role of Constantine and the Romanization of Christianity. “Romanization” for Heather refers to the intertwining of the church with the official state apparatus of the Roman Empire. He suggests it was Constantine’s genuine conversion that led to such widespread adoption of this faith, especially among the landowning elites. It wasn’t something inherent in the juggernaut of Christianity.

The book’s strength is the masterful and detailed way it tells an already widely accepted story.

To support this conclusion, Heather downplays statistical models that might indicate massive numbers of Christians across the realm. The truth is, the old gods hung around for a lot longer than we often think. And when the gods like Jupiter and Mars were ultimately vanquished, it happened more by Christian deceit, coercion, and violence—for example, the destruction of Alexandria’s Serapeum—than by eloquent evangelistic speeches and winsome gospel presentations.

Imperial Christianity Falls

No sooner did Christianity establish a strong foothold in the Roman Empire than it reached its natural end—in other words, it “fell.” By this common term, Heather doesn’t mean the empire toppled all at once like Goliath struck by slingstone. Instead, it unraveled over the course of the fifth century as a newly arrived warrior society from northern Europe worked with the existing landed elite to create a patchwork of successor states.

Heather undermines narratives that powerful popes with Nicaean theology quickly transitioned Europe into an orthodox, Trinitarian unity after the fall of Rome. Instead, he argues the so-called Arian Christianity of the northern newcomers posed a serious threat to orthodoxy that must be taken into account as a legitimate alternative.

Here again, Heather continues to present this material as news, when professional historians (and many interested laypeople) have known for decades that neither the fall of Rome nor the rise of medieval Christendom was an easy, overnight process. Peter Brown made this clear as early as 1971 when he popularized the concept of Late Antiquity.

Rejecting the ‘Dark Ages’ Label

Heather’s description of the West’s fall to the Germanic tribes is followed by a turn to the medieval situation. He argues that while there wasn’t yet a centralized papacy pulling the strings of statecraft, the sixth and seventh centuries don’t deserve the ugly label of “the Dark Ages.”

Early medieval intellectual life continued to thrive, even if we don’t have as many manuscripts as we might wish to prove it. Literacy was widespread; poetry and the arts flourished; the great classics were still being enjoyed. While educational structures surely had declined, people were still engaging the written word.

The gloomy shadows cast over this era by 19th-century medievalists—though not by professional historians in more recent decades—reflect an unfair and biased reading of the evidence. Heather argues that far from lapsing into darkness, the early medieval church managed to survive the fall of Rome nicely. But it did so only by reimagining from top to bottom what it meant to be a Christian.

Tightening Rome’s Hold

The last two chapters of the book describe two vastly different ways Rome tightened its grip on Europe’s religious imagination in the High Middle Ages. On the positive side, the popes of that era proved remarkably flexible and tolerant in embracing revivalist preaching and popular religious movements, especially the Franciscans and Dominicans but even the Waldensians to a certain degree.

Lay spirituality, including female piety, began to have a greater influence on the church. Bottom-up religious enthusiasm now complemented the church’s previous emphasis on top-down methods for expanding Christian devotion.

But on a much darker side, religious coercion reared its head in hideous new ways during the 13th century. “At the same time as the new Franciscan and Dominican preaching orders were winning hearts and minds in the parishes of Catholic Europe,” Heather writes, “the ecclesiastical establishment also began to exercise much tighter corrective discipline against identified heretics” (560).

The tools of coercion ranged from excommunication from the church’s saving sacraments to military crusades against internal enemies like the Cathars to secret regimes of anonymous denunciations and investigations by torture with few legal safeguards for the accused. “Inquisitio, then, was specifically developed as a practical tool for enforcing compliance with the required set of religious beliefs and practices” (565). In time, the Inquisition’s demand for proper beliefs brought not just heretics but even Jews and everyday fornicators into the brutally coercive hands of the medieval church.

Heather ends Christendom on a sad, though surely not unintended, note. The high medieval Western church is characterized more or less like Communist Russia or contemporary North Korea as a dictatorship whose “universalizing, monolithic ideology was used to generate a clear profile of model behavior” (583).

One Interpretation Among Others

What can be said about Christendom? In one sense, it’s hard to argue with the premises of so erudite a book as this one. The author lays out a whole lot of evidence. He clearly has mastery of his sources, both primary and secondary.

Readers can only marvel at the wide-ranging scope of topics Heather covers and the detailed attention he devotes to each. The narrative of this book spans 587 pages, and not one of them is wasted. The dense text takes the reader into many fascinating aspects of the church’s rise in the empire and its displacement of traditional pagan religion, both Greco-Roman and Germanic.

Readers can only marvel at the wide-ranging scope of topics Heather covers and the detailed attention he devotes to each.

Yet one can still wonder about other possible explanations of the evidence, approaches that might give a more generous read to the sources, such as that found in Tom Holland’s Dominion (2019). Without denying the reality of forced conversions, other religious alternatives on the medieval landscape, the drastic adaptations of Christianity over time, and the church’s close brushes with extinction, readers of Christendom must still assess the degree to which they’ll accept the arguments Heather lays out.

Facts are one thing; interpretations are another. This is definitely a good book, certainly a learned one. But it’s also one that must be read with a critic’s—or even a skeptic’s—eye.

‘Prince of Egypt’ and Appreciating Imperfect Bible Movies Sat, 25 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Released 25 years ago, ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is an underrated biblical epic and a reminder of the value of Bible movies, even when they’re flawed.]]> The Prince of Egypt released 25 years ago this year. A quarter century later, it remains one of the greatest biblical epics created on film. With careful discernment and conversation with children, this film can offer a powerful visual of God’s incredible power.

This animated adaptation of the story of Moses and the exodus gets a lot right. It also gets a few things wrong. This is pretty much what could be said of any Hollywood adaptation of the Bible.

Films like this prompt us to consider an important question: What sort of creative license should we be willing to accept when it comes to biblical adaptations?

Truth That Sparks Imagination

Part of what makes The Prince of Egypt powerful is that it employs show-stopping music and compelling visuals to help guide its story. Sunday school flannelgraphs can only go so far in helping us imagine the breadth of God’s power on display in the exodus story. The use of these combined elements serves not as a pen to rewrite the story but as a lens by which to view it in a creative way.

Films like this prompt us to consider an important question: What sort of creative license should we be willing to accept when it comes to biblical adaptations?

The film opens with a sequence that feels ripped out of the opening of Les Misérables. Slaves are worked and whipped to the sound of a full orchestra playing “Deliver Us,” an epic song of Israel crying out to God. We learn time and time again in Exodus that God’s chosen people are quick to complain when things are difficult. Yet this opening song displays a powerful balance of faith and uncertainty. We can still trust God to deliver us even as our agonizing yearning for help is real and expressed.

Later highlights include the hair-raising music cue that introduces the burning bush and the jaw-dropping majesty of the parted Red Sea. As a kid, watching The Prince of Egypt helped inspire my imagination and encouraged me to embrace the reality that my brain could never begin to scratch the surface of comprehending God’s full power.

The film does an excellent job of exploring the character of Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer). In Exodus 3, it’s clear Moses is only an echo of the true Deliverer who would one day come. He’s flawed and obviously not thrilled with what God is calling him to do. When God appears in the burning bush, Moses denies the wisdom of God’s choice three different times, ultimately leading to Aaron’s involvement to speak on his behalf. While the film doesn’t include the call of Aaron, it does make clear that Moses is more concerned with his own strength than with the strength of God on display through him. It’s an important reminder of our own temptation to doubt God’s ability to use us.

Scripture Must Come First‬‬‬

When adapting an existing story to film, it’s important to stay true to the source material. However, even when a film gets a number of things right, it can be tough to look past glaring inaccuracies.

Take another film about the exodus story, for example. In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Moses isn’t the hesitant and unsure servant who comes to find courage in the power of God. He’s a courageous and wise hero played by the strong-jawed Charlton Heston. While it may seem like a small change, it can make a substantial difference in how audiences view this biblical story. It quickly becomes less about God working in those who are weak and broken and more about how God chooses those who are already strong and capable of leading by themselves.

So where does The Prince of Egypt miss the mark? Some story additions are questionable at best.

Every film needs a dramatic inciting incident. In this film, that moment is Moses discovering who he really is, a Hebrew who was sentenced to die by Pharaoh. While we don’t know for sure, most scholars believe Moses would have been aware of his heritage, having been nursed and cared for by his Hebrew mother for the early part of his life (Ex. 2:6–10).

Another of the film’s questionable storylines is the close relationship between Moses and the new Pharaoh (voiced by Ralph Fiennes)—something never referenced in Scripture. This confusing choice turns Pharaoh into a character who demands a certain level of empathy from Moses and the audience.

Finally, the catchy main song, “When You Believe” (a version of which was released by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey), has a big issue at its core. The chorus of the song declares, “There can be miracles when you believe. . . . Who knows what miracles, you can achieve / When you believe.” This may sound nice and inspiring, but in reality, God is going to do what God is going to do.

God doesn’t depend on our belief to perform his wonders, and we aren’t the ones who catalyze those wonders (Ps. 50:10–12; Acts 17:24–25). As you watch the film with your children, especially if they start singing this catchy song, it may be worth discussing the important theological nuance.

Creative License in Biblical Storytelling

If you’re a fan of books like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, you’ve experienced firsthand the impossibility of full accuracy when translating a story into a film. People will read books in small chunks over days or months but will only sit to watch a movie for a two- to three-hour stretch. This means writers adapting from page to screen must selectively convey the most important character elements and story beats that stay true to the source narrative, even as they find ways to keep an audience engaged for an uninterrupted few hours.

The same principle applies to adapting biblical stories. Do we expect biblical adaptations will only use dialogue explicitly taken from the pages of the Bible? Is there no leeway to fill in the details of what a Bible character’s personality might have been like, as long as the creative liberties taken don’t contradict anything asserted in Scripture?

Consider any recent Bible adaptation on screen: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, or Dallas Jenkins’s The Chosen. Each of these works has inspired much conversation and critique, often focused on the notable additions or unique interpretations of Bible characters or scenes. This sort of critique is fair—especially when an instance of creative liberty with the biblical text has problematic theological implications. But we can sometimes be so concerned with word-for-word, beat-for-beat accuracy that we miss the value in these works to bring the pages of Scripture to new audiences and ultimately point people back to the Bible.

We can be so concerned with word-for-word, beat-for-beat accuracy that we miss the value in these works to bring the pages of Scripture to new audiences and ultimately point people back to the Bible.

If you’ve ever watched a film that says “based on a true story,” you’ll likely wonder at different moments in the movie, Did it really happen that way? One of the best things about biblical stories on screen is that they often prompt us to ask, “Is that really in the Bible?” or pique our interest about what exactly Scripture does say about this character or that scene.

When Noah was released in 2014, it drew plenty of ire from Christians for Aronofsky’s wild take on the Genesis narrative. But it also sent audiences to Scripture, with YouVersion reporting a 300 percent increase in people opening Genesis 6 in the days after Noah released.

This is the power of God’s story. No matter who tells it and no matter how wrong an adaptation may be, audiences intuitively know the source material is worth checking out for itself.

In this way, bringing the stories of Scripture to the screen can serve as powerful conversation starters with believers and unbelievers alike: What does the Bible actually say about this, and how does this movie or TV rendering interpret it? Does the story on screen evoke a sense of wonder or curiosity about God? Does it lead me to think about things I’ve never considered about the story when I’ve read it in my Bible? Does it prompt me to ask better questions and trust God more deeply? Is my heart stirred to worship God?

These are some of the questions you might ask as you watch The Prince of Egypt or any other biblically inspired movie or TV series. As Christians, we shouldn’t expect to love or agree with everything Hollywood produces that takes the Bible as its source material. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate what we can about these works and invite others—our kids, our nonbelieving friends or loved ones—to watch and discuss with us.

So while it may not be perfect, The Prince of Egypt offers more than a heart-pumping soundtrack and masterful visuals; it presents a signpost that points back to Scripture for anyone whose heart is moved by the power of God’s story.

Tim Keller and American Neo-Calvinism Fri, 24 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 James Eglinton delves into Tim Keller’s evolving relationship with neo-Calvinism.]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, James Eglinton delves into Tim Keller’s evolving relationship with neo-Calvinism. He recommends Center Church as the primary source for understanding Keller’s mature theological voice and the biblical basis for his ministry.

Eglinton discusses the evolution of Keller’s thinking, showcasing a shift from a distant association with neo-Calvinism to Keller explicitly identifying as a neo-Calvinist in later years. A careful examination of both explicit and implicit engagements with neo-Calvinist thought in Center Church is essential to understanding Keller’s theological journey.

Why Were American Evangelicals Late to Adopt C. S. Lewis? Fri, 24 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 C. S. Lewis was a literary man, a writer of imaginative works, and a Christian apologist. How could it take so long to realize his genius?]]> C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton are two of the most often quoted Christian writers. That’s not because they both used initials for their first two names. It’s because they, among all the Christians one might quote, had a superior ability to pithily communicate the truths of the faith.

Both show up continually wherever and whenever Christians write or speak. We like to bring them alongside to bolster our own messages. Lewis’s works, though, are probably better known; his influence on Christians, particularly in America, has been profound.

Americans are privileged to have the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College as a repository for all things Lewis, as well as for Chesterton and five other key British writers. Each year, the center hosts a lecture series, courtesy of the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship, that focuses on one or more of those writers.

In 2022, Mark Noll, professor emeritus at Notre Dame and one of the most renowned Christian historians in America, presented lectures on how Lewis was received by Americans in the early years of his writing career. Those lectures have now been turned into a book—C. S. Lewis in America: Readings and Reception, 1935–1947.

Noll’s exacting research makes clear that Lewis’s writings were eagerly received by Americans in this era, first by Catholic theologians, then by scholars in academia and the secular mainstream media, followed later by mainline Protestants and evangelicals. It’s surprising, given Lewis’s current reception by evangelicals, that they were the last group to appreciate what he had to offer.

Timely Arrival

Why write a book about Americans’ reception of Lewis? Why choose these specific years? What did Noll seek to accomplish in his lectures?

Truth be told—and here the reviewer’s bias is revealed—this is a fascinating topic for me because of a question that arose in my mind about a decade ago. I wondered, as Alister McGrath noted in his Lewis biography, why Lewis’s reception in America was more enthusiastic than in his own nation.

That question led me to research the issue and come up with my book on the subject, which Noll graciously acknowledges in his introduction. Noll takes what I and others have found and adds greater depth, showing how different groups in the American reading public responded to Lewis.

Those specific years, 1935–47, are the foundation for why Lewis has remained so influential ever since. He grabbed the attention of Americans during a time of tremendous stress: the Great Depression, World War II, and the aftermath of the war. What he offered spoke to many. Lewis’s popularity grew in each of those years, culminating in his image appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1947, thereby providing Noll with a proper end point for his research.

Roman Catholic Interest

Noll’s chapters divide neatly into the distinct groups that Lewis influenced: Roman Catholics first, followed by the secular media, and finally Protestants, with the subset of evangelicals trailing behind.

Why Catholics first? Why not the Protestants? After all, Lewis was an Anglican Protestant. And he’s certainly now considered one of the luminaries of evangelicalism.

Catholic reviewers saw a lot they liked in Lewis. Although Noll’s treatment is thorough, one example will suffice. Catholics loved Lewis’s defense of the concept of natural law, especially as it was laid out in The Abolition of Man.

Lewis was a sign that walls between Christians were beginning to break down.

Notre Dame professor Leo Ward wrote, “For our part we take the statement of natural law by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man as the most thoroughly existential and contextual statement in recent times.” Ward thought Lewis did a better job of stating the principle than most Catholic authors had done. Noll notes this opening within Catholicism to someone like Lewis was a sign that walls between Christians were beginning to break down.

General Appeal

Lewis appealed to Americans in general in three ways: as a literary man; as a writer of imaginative works, with The Screwtape Letters leading the way; and as a Christian apologist.

Since Lewis wrote for various audiences, his fame became widespread. For those outside of literary academia, their attention was captured by good tales such as the Space Trilogy or by a pithy, well-argued case for Christianity.

With respect to the Protestant world that eventually caught up to Lewis’s writings, the surprise, for Noll (and probably for the rest of us), is that it was the mainline churches, not the evangelicals and fundamentalists, that initially gave Lewis a positive reception. Most readers today probably classify Lewis primarily as writing for that latter group, yet they took time to be won over by the Catholic-lauded Anglican.

Fundamentalism had arisen in response to liberal theology. The fundamentalists sought to maintain the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Sometimes, though, the nature of fundamentalism was rather strident and anti-intellectual. Those who agreed with fundamentalists with respect to their rejection of liberal theology but who sought to do so in a less strident spirit eventually diverged into what is now termed “evangelicalism.”

As Noll explains it, the relatively late adoption of Lewis among evangelicals may have been because that group was just beginning to emerge out of fundamentalism as his writing reached the U.S. A turn toward Lewis was indicative of the move by leaders like Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham toward fellowship through affirmation of the faith—a focus on the shared doctrines rather than division based on differences—that marked the formation of the neo-evangelical coalition.

As evangelical Christians shifted their focus toward social engagement, Lewis demonstrated how it could be done. For example, those in Christian higher education were drawn to Lewis because he “demonstrated that orthodox Christianity could be fully compatible with advanced learning, literary creativity, frank psychological insight, and even wit” (121).

Though they came late to the party, evangelicals adopted Lewis because, in many ways, he represented what they desired to become.

Thorough, Yet Accessible

Noll’s research goes wide and deep, seemingly incorporating anyone—Catholic, mainstream secular, Protestant, evangelical—who was significant to his thesis during this era. The documentation is extensive throughout, yet the footnotes don’t overwhelm. Noll’s writing, while certainly academic, isn’t the type that should discourage the general reader. He tells a good story along the way, and “story” is what audiences like best.

For each lecture, a Wheaton professor was chosen to provide a response to what Noll had said, which was then included in the book. These allow the reader to think more about the facts Noll presents and to get another take. Don’t skip these responses; they help illuminate the thesis.

Mark Noll concludes C. S. Lewis in America with words that reveal why Lewis was positively received and continues to be widely read among American evangelicals:

C. S. Lewis took great care in preparing his writings for the public. He certainly knew that many readers and listeners found them arrestingly illuminating, gratifyingly helpful, and singularly life-giving. Yet as he wrote to Sister Penelope, he seemed most concerned not with the success of the writings but with the soul of the writer. All who in our different circumstances aspire to speak, write, and publish for the cause of Christ and his kingdom would do well to follow that example. (128)

This book helps explain why so many of us love Lewis. C. S. Lewis in America is likely to be most interesting to those concerned with the academic study of the Inklings, but Noll also explores what any writer or speaker can learn from Lewis’s example.

How to Give Thanks When You’re Far from Home Thu, 23 Nov 2023 05:00:58 +0000 How can we sing Zion’s songs by Babylon’s rivers? Because we can’t be so far from home as to be far from God.]]> One of the basic experiences of exile is the longing for home. Whether it’s Tolkien’s Pippin musing on “second breakfasts” or a refugee missing home as he struggles to adjust to a foreign land, the longing for home defines the hardship of exile. Holidays, with their expectations of joy and togetherness, can magnify the exile’s ache.

The Americans I know in Kenya often enter a trance of sorts as they describe the different types of food they miss from back home. They appear to be momentarily lost in the ether as they describe the cheesy “this” or the crunchy “that” before they eventually come back down to earth or, more specifically, down to Kenya.

While some of our longings are little more than nostalgia, the Jews had painful memories. They were forcibly removed from their homes by the Babylonians. As they fondly remembered their homeland by the rivers of Babylon, their captors tormented them with demands to “sing [them] one of the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3). The response of God’s people in that moment captures the heart of the question we’re faced with: How do we sing when we’re in a strange land (v. 4)?

Acknowledge Exile

We do well to grapple with this harsh paradox. For the Israelites, Jerusalem was the place of worship, but the temple had been destroyed. Zion was the city of God, but now they were exiles in a foreign land. How then were they to worship?

Holidays, with their expectations of joy and togetherness, can magnify the exile’s ache.

The psalm that follows begins to answer this question: “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise” (138:1). God’s people can and should worship the Lord in exile when surrounded by their enemies, when those around them are given to the worship of numerous other gods.

Praise an Omnipresent God

Then, in Psalm 139, we’re given the answer, as it were, to the question of the exiles in Babylon—and of us today—by showing that the God of Israel isn’t like the gods of the nations. Exiles can worship their God in any place because their God isn’t tied to a house made with human hands like the gods of the nations. His presence fills the whole earth. Listen to David musing on the presence of God:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (vv. 7–12)

How can we sing songs of Zion by the rivers of Babylon? Because we can’t be so far away from home as to be far away from God himself. He is with us and has attached himself to our exile. That means our longing is mingled with some resting in God. Our darkness has some light. Our exile has a taste of home in it, for God is right there with us.

So we sing despite the darkness, despite the pain, despite the deep longings for satisfaction. We sing because we’re not forsaken. We’ve been united to God and nothing can separate us from him.

Harrison Scott Key Tells the Most Insane Love Story Ever Told Thu, 23 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 This surprising love story about a marriage that survives infidelity is a powerful reminder that every marriage is part of a bigger community and a broader story.]]> In contemporary pop culture, celebrations of marriage are hard to find. The opposite, though, is everywhere: devastating indie films about marriages collapsing (see Marriage Story), tabloid buzz about Britney Spears’s latest divorce, viral TikTok posts about the perks of the unmarried life, defiant post-divorce pop anthems celebrating unmarried self-love.

Rare are works that viscerally capture the gift and goodness of marriage. But that’s what makes Harrison Scott Key’s How to Stay Married so refreshing. In a culture that holds matrimony in ever lower esteem, Key’s book makes a case for marriage in perhaps the unlikeliest of ways. He sketches the pain and struggles of being married with unflinching detail and yet celebrates it anyway as good and commendable.

I don’t think I’ve read (or rather, listened to) a more engaging book this year. It’s the first audiobook I’ve experienced that felt more powerful than reading a physical book. There’s one moment in particular—and I won’t spoil it—when the narration takes a turn that took my breath away.

In whatever format it’s accessed, Key’s book is quite the experience: hilariously tragic, tragically hilarious, deeply personal, widely resonant, irreverently reverent. It’s a book that one day might be a time capsule of sorts, part of a tide-turning moment when the institution of marriage—battered, bruised, and left for dead by the sexual revolution—began to stage an unlikely comeback in the post-Christian West. 

Most Insane Love Story

Key was the 2016 winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor (for The World’s Largest Man), and he’s as skillful a humorist as anyone else writing today. And so the first thing to say about How to Stay Married is that it’s funny (reader warning: the humor is sometimes crass). It’s all the funnier for the audacity of its ambition: a comedic but theologically insightful page-turner about the harrowing marital drama that unfolds between the author and his wife, Lauren.

I don’t think I’ve read (or rather, listened to) a more engaging book this year.

Befitting its subtitle (The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told), the book’s story really is insane. It includes plenty of plot twists and made-for-TV melodrama, involving an aloof writer husband, a desperate housewife of Savannah, and a cargo-shorts-wearing, normcore neighbor named Chad. But the “insane love story” also works on a theological level, because another “insane” love on display in the book is the love of a church community that comes alongside the couple when they need it most. Above all, the book shows the relentless love of God, whose endless mercy in pursuit of his unfaithful bride truly looks crazy to our mortal minds.

Though written by a Christian and never shying away from talking about God and faith, How to Stay Married is nevertheless a mainstream memoir that will be read by plenty of non-Christians. I hope the book does for others what it did for me: increase my appreciation of the beauty of “for better or worse” covenantal love, both in the context of a marriage and in the context of God’s pursuing love for his chronically unfaithful people.

Robust Theology of Sin

Speaking of chronically unfaithful people, this is one of the most vivid and refreshing themes in How to Stay Married: the inarguable truth of total depravity.

Key doesn’t want his readers to gawk at his personal marriage spectacle. He wants them to know this could happen to them too. He bluntly writes, “Don’t assume your partner is cheating. Assume your partner will, eventually. Assume you will, too” (295). This sort of sober, humble self-assessment—an unflinching awareness of our naturally wayward hearts—is a key ingredient in what ultimately saves Harrison and Lauren Key’s marriage.

Far from portraying himself as the victim in an unjust tale of contemporary cuckoldry, Key acknowledges his sin throughout. He devotes an entire (hilarious) chapter to an A-to-Z catalog of his faults. He never positions himself or his wife as exemplary of anything—only as the fortunate recipients of a supernatural grace that empowers their radical reconciliation.

Occasionally, however, Key’s realism about sin veers into a sort of fetishizing of “brokenness” (a word that often functions as a softer, more therapeutic term for sin). This linguistic move psychologizes certain bad behaviors as largely the result of trauma and father wounds. One byproduct is an expectation that guilty parties will be met with gentle, “handle with care” responses as opposed to tough talk and direct calls to repentance.

We see this in chapter 13 (“Exile from the Magic Kingdom”), when Key ridicules church discipline and likens the prospect of excommunicating unrepentant sinners to something archaic that “might have worked a thousand years ago.” In what feels like a tired caricature, he describes a church he left as being a “Disney park” of inauthentic fakery, where “brokenness must be banished” (110).

Near the end of the book, Key writes, “Our brokenness, it turns out, and our confession of that brokenness, and the love we experienced from those around us, despite the brokenness, or perhaps because of it, is what saved us” (298). To ascribe salvific power to “brokenness” feels off to me. Yet it’s in keeping with our therapeutic age, where we often forget that raw, honest, “authentic” self-awareness is a starting point for growth, not an end unto itself.

Helpful Wisdom

The cover design—which foregrounds “How to Stay Married” in white while almost hiding the subtitle in black—probably conveys what the Keys hope for this book. Though at times the story might feel awkwardly voyeuristic and a bit too at ease with turning private pain into a page-turning drama, in the end the “most insane” prose isn’t the point of the book. The point is how the Keys’s story speaks bigger truths about marriage and God in ways that might help others.

The final chapter (“How to Stay Married”) proffers a scattered array of proverbial wisdom about marriage. Some of it is comically wise (“Parents are like arms. You can swing it with one but two works best and three would be weird,” 290). Some of it is sociologically perceptive (“Everybody likes to talk about how money can end a marriage. Nobody talks about how money can help save one,” 292). Some of it comes from wise others, like this countercultural gem from Alain de Botton: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition” (297).

But the part that stood out to me, and which ties into the book’s aforementioned emphasis on human depravity, is when Key talks about the sanctifying power of marriage as opposed to its self-actualizing potential:

The prophets of this present age would have us believe marriage should exist solely for the benefit of the people in it, for their emotional, psychological, and carnal empowerment, as though matrimony is merely an extended couple’s spa experience featuring orgies and explosive self-actualizations that you can exit whensoever your heart desires. What if the prophets are wrong? Are we not freer than ever in human history, and sadder, and more anxious, more wretched? What if marriage, at its very best, exists to remake us into beautiful new creatures we scarcely recognize? What if, in some cosmically weird way, escaping a hard marriage is not how you change? What if staying married is? (296)

This is wise and helpful. Marriage isn’t meant primarily to serve you. It’s meant to shape you—and serve others: your spouse, your kids, your community, and the broader society.

Centrality of the Church

The Keys’s Presbyterian church—Christ the King Savannah—figures into their story in a beautiful way. “What did our church do for us, exactly?” Key writes. “They came when I called. Handed children to their spouses and got in the car” (298).

Marriage isn’t meant primarily to serve you. It’s meant to shape you—and serve others.

Christ the King’s vested interest in the Keys’s marriage speaks to the fact that no marriage is ever just about the husband and wife. A marriage is a foundation that holds up the structure of a family and is intertwined with the health of the larger community. It’s a building block on which stable societies thrive.

This realization is vital for how, and why, we stay married. It’s not just about us. It never was. A traditional wedding’s bridesmaids and groomsmen, flanking the couple at the altar, convey this visually: every marriage is part of a bigger community and broader story.

In that way, maybe it’s not so weird that Harrison and Lauren Key would turn their personal marriage story into a cautionary-tale comedy memoir for the masses. Maybe they’re remembering something too many of us forget: that a marriage bears witness to something and has a purpose beyond itself.

Selves and Psychologies: The Rise of the Post-Christian Self Wed, 22 Nov 2023 05:04:27 +0000 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson are joined by Carl Trueman to discuss how individualism has become such a prominent feature of Western thought.]]> “Be true to yourself” is a dominant refrain in the Western world, but how has individualism come to be such a prominent feature of Western thought? To what extent is that individualism Christian?

Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson are joined by Carl Trueman, author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Strange New World, to answer those questions and continue their discussion of our post-Christian world.

Beginning with Rousseau, they trace the ways our idea of the modern self has transformed and shaped our understanding of anthropology. Particularly touching on the transformations in our understanding of marriage, divorce, and sex, they ask how the church has become complicit in these changes and to what extent these individualistic assumptions have shaped both the church and the world.

What We Can Learn from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Conversion Wed, 22 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 The Jesus of the Bible came to do something far more radical than save the West.]]> Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a woman who has fallen victim to some of the worst of religious fundamentalism. At age 5, she experienced the horrors of female genital mutilation, performed at the wishes of a family member in Somalia. At 34, she experienced the brutal death of a friend when a Muslim extremist shot her filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, before pinning a note to his dying body with a knife. It was a note to Hirsi Ali, informing her of her impending execution as an apostate to the Muslim faith.

And yet, for the past two decades, Hirsi Ali has been an advocate for Muslim women, a champion of human rights, and, until recently, an outspoken New Atheist. That final descriptor is why her latest article has created such a fuss online: “Why I Am Now a Christian.”

Is Hirsi Ali Now a Christian?

“The only credible answer [to the decline of the West] . . . lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Hirsi Ali writes in describing her conversion. “My atheist friends failed to see the wood for the trees. The wood is the civilisation built on the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

It’s a moving essay that was probably difficult to write—Hirsi Ali has multiple fatwas against her for her outspoken criticism of Islam and the “prophet” Muhammad, and her conversion to Christianity hardly signals a step away from controversy.

Yet as I read her explanation of her newfound faith, one thing stood out: she only mentions the name of Jesus Christ once. This may explain some skeptical reactions from certain corners of the internet: Washington Post columnist and Islamic scholar Shadi Hamid lambasted Hirsi Ali’s conversion as “completely instrumental,” further asserting that her narrative lacked “the slightest sign of sincere belief.”

More charitably, Rod Dreher saw Hirsi Ali’s conversion as mirroring much of his own imperfect journey into faith. “Very few of us came to faith in a clean, intellectually respectable conversion,” Dreher writes. “She is imperfectly Christian today; she may be more perfectly Christian tomorrow.” Hirsi Ali’s conversion has also elicited speculation from evangelical Christians trying to figure out if the newcomer is a true believer or a pretender.

Let’s be clear: I’m not here to nitpick conversion stories. If there’s one thing I’ve come to understand from talking with fellow Christians, it’s that God uses all types of backgrounds, experiences, and gifts as catalysts to usher people into the light of his truth. If the desire to save Western civilization leads someone into the arms of Jesus, praise God.

Christianity and the West

Yet the question raised by Hirsi Ali’s journey to Christ is far bigger than the story of any singular person, even an intellectual caryatid like her. It’s a question for all of us who lash our Christian faith to the mast of social critique and sail the oft-stormy seas of political life: Are we using Jesus as a tool by which to save Western civilization, or have we looked into the deep pools of Western thought and found Jesus at the bottom?

God uses all types of backgrounds, experiences, and gifts as catalysts to usher people into the light of his truth.

The struggle to reconcile Christian faith with political objectives has challenged many of the West’s greatest thinkers, from Wilberforce to Washington. Achieving social victory with an intact soul is no easy game. Now it’s Hirsi Ali’s turn, and our turn as well.

It’s not impossible. The fundamental objectives of the West aren’t at odds with the message of the Jesus whom I and billions of others claim as Lord and Savior. Championing the freedom of “the least of these,” protecting the human agency highlighted by the free enterprise system, and the full-throated defense of human dignity as a foil against nihilism and rabid expressive individualism—these are the goals of a Christian as much as they’re the goals of Western civilization.

The present multiplicity of threats massing against the West lays out this charge in clear lines: the barbarians are at the gates, in both distant lands and in the walls of American cities. The path forward, whether at home or abroad, involves realizing many of those barbarians see the destruction of Christianity as part and parcel of taking down the West. As attacks on the West mount, attacks on Christianity follow—it should come as no surprise that the current moment is opening evangelistic opportunities with those who see the survival of Western civilization as paramount.

Jesus Is More

But that’s where the divide emerges most profoundly: you can have Christianity without jumping into the war to save the West (though I’d argue you’re not taking the faith to its natural conclusion). But you can’t truly have Christianity without grappling with the person and work of Christ.

The Jesus of the Bible didn’t come to restore the West’s broken social institutions or fight off the ravages of true wokeness and totalitarianism. He came for something far more radical—the release of ordinary people from the power of the sin indwelling our souls. “Christ’s teaching implie[s] not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics,” Hirsi Ali continues in her conversion narrative. “It also implie[s] compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.”

The Jesus of the Bible came for something far more radical—the release of ordinary people from the power of the sin indwelling our souls.

I don’t think Hirsi Ali’s lack of focus on Jesus means she doesn’t understand or believe in his primacy to Christianity. A relationship with Jesus is far more complicated to put into earthly words than one’s relationship with Western civilization.

In his 1951 classic Christ and Culture, theologian Richard Niebuhr spoke of “the double movement from world to God and from God to world.” That’s the dichotomy all Christians, even intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, must walk daily in understanding the nature of Christianity. Is Jesus—the One we talk about on Sundays and cite as our reason for being in the political arena at all—merely a Jesus capable of fixing economies, reversing social decay, and confronting the rabid secularism of our day?

As Christians, we’re compelled to believe he’s more: the Son of God demanding allegiance above any civilization and offering life and forgiveness more eternal than that offered by any leader or government. That’s the heartrendingly beautiful part of how Christianity works—and maybe that’s the part we political Christians need to internalize more.

I Love My Transgender Child. I Love Jesus More. Wed, 22 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 When my son thought we hated him, he didn’t realize our love for Jesus (and for him) is greater than he could imagine. ]]> Jesus connects family strife to bearing a cross (Luke 14:26–27), and I’m beginning to understand these verses personally. Following Jesus has led to a type of death between my oldest son and me, my wife, and our other children.

My son professed faith in Jesus at a young age. He consistently engaged in spiritual conversations with me, our family, and our church family. We taught the Scriptures in our home through words and actions.

So it came as a shock to us when, last year, he stated he had gender dysphoria and wondered if he was transgender. Within a few months, our 18-year-old firmly believed he was transgender and that an LGBT+ identity was compatible with Scripture’s teaching.

Asking Why

My wife and I had many questions swirling in our minds: What had happened to our son? Did we do something wrong? Why didn’t God protect him? As we look back on what contributors might have led our son to this lifestyle, we can only land on a few.

First, an old friendship came back into our son’s life during COVID shutdowns and grew over time. This friend was moving through the spectrum of the LGBT+ community. My wife and I encouraged our son to be faithful to the Word, which included showing love and grace to his friend.

Second, a few other people who had meaningful relationships with my son expressed to him their belief that LGBT+ lifestyles can align with Christianity.

While my son currently believes all LGBT+ identities are compatible with Christianity, he has also admitted his relationship with Jesus isn’t great. His mom and I know that if he’s a genuine believer, he must turn from the sin he’s in, because “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21; 1 Cor. 6:9–10). If he embraces this lifestyle, he doesn’t give evidence of genuine trust in and obedience to Jesus.

Since my son made his decision, I’ve read about potential triggers and causes for why individuals can be drawn into LGBT+ identities. Whether there are real internal or external pulls, I’ve come to realize that, at some point, I have to simply surrender to the Lord that I don’t know what I don’t know. I pray that’s not a lazy response on my part but instead an admission of surrender to the Lord. He knows and he sees, and the greatest answer for my son and for my family is Jesus. But saying that is much easier than living it out.

Loving Our Son

For months after his announcement, our son was mostly closed and antagonistic toward us. As he became more confident in his views, he opened up more. Today he’s cordial, but there have been many roadblocks on this journey.

For example, when he was finally willing to talk with us, he communicated his hope that we’d call him by his new chosen name and pronouns. We knew we couldn’t do that. At one point, he said that by not using his preferred name and pronouns, we weren’t doing the bare minimum to love him.

Hearing that crushed our hearts. But we thought, How could we affirm an identity that ignores God’s goodness for him and ignores the goodness of the physical body? How can we ignore that our son is making himself central and not Jesus? And, God, why is this happening?

How can we ignore that our son is making himself central and not Jesus?

During one conversation, when we said we couldn’t use his preferred name and pronouns, he said to us, “Then I can’t guarantee I won’t kill myself.” He eventually went to his room, wailing and weeping profusely. My wife and I were also crying, feeling helpless. Certainly, it’d be easier to simply call him by his preferred name and pronouns. Certainly, it’d be easier to celebrate the things he celebrates.

In these moments, it’s hard to remember that the change he’s asking for will harm him not only spiritually but also mentally and physically.

Last year, my son suffered severe depression and suicidal ideation, admitting himself to the ER during Christmas break. It was the bleakest Christmas my family had ever experienced, and those weeks led to months of wondering if I would find my child dead in his room. Our questions persisted: Why can’t we just hold him and make everything better? Does God care?

Loving Jesus More

When my son thought we hated him, he didn’t realize our love for Jesus (and for him) is greater than he could imagine.

In Luke 14:26, when Jesus tells his disciples they’d have to “hate” their children, he wasn’t speaking of literal hatred. The Scriptures are replete with God’s good commands to enjoy and sacrificially love our children (Deut. 4:9; Prov. 17:6; Isa. 49:15–16; Mal. 4:6; Col. 3:21; Eph. 6:1–4). Jesus doesn’t contradict this. Instead, he’s emphasizing the degree of the sacrifice you make when you love Jesus. Your love for Jesus can be viewed by your family, even your children, as hatred.

The reality is that my wife and I love our son, and we’ve always wanted to love what he loves because we love him. Yet in this, we couldn’t affirm him. We couldn’t “delight in evil.” We had to “delight in the truth” even if our son felt like our love was actually hatred (1 Cor. 13).

She and I must die to ourselves for a few reasons:

1. Jesus is life and the only way to living life to the fullest.

2. Our words and actions can point our son to his need for Jesus.

3. We trust that dying to self leads to greater life and praise to God.

We know every parent has to die to self to truly love his or her child. It’s a pattern we set from the beginning. Our children don’t always know what they want or what’s best for them. And we don’t either, which is why we have to trust Jesus and his Word.

We trust that dying to self leads to greater life and praise to God.

Regularly, my wife and I admit the only way we can follow Jesus through these tumultuous waters is by the sustaining grace God gives in Jesus. My son’s struggles have shown us our dependence on Jesus. And as we gaze at our Savior, we see how Jesus’s death was the only one that blossomed into resurrection life—not only for himself but for all who trust him as their Savior and Lord.

If I’m resting in Jesus and looking to him, my continued death—resulting from my child’s spiritual blindness—can only mean more life. This doesn’t mean I’ll always get the things I think I should receive. But it does mean God wastes no deaths that share in Christ’s suffering.

Augustine’s Apologetic Vision and How Doubt Can Lead to Faith Tue, 21 Nov 2023 05:04:36 +0000 Collin Hansen asks Josh Chatraw why he thinks the best way defend our faith today can be found by visiting premodern North Africa. ]]> What if the best way to defend our faith today can be found by visiting premodern North Africa? 

That’s the premise of the latest book by the dynamic apologetics duo Josh Chatraw and Mark Allen: The Augustine Way: Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness (Baker Academic). 

This is a special episode of Gospelbound. I normally record remotely from my office at Beeson Divinity School, where I co-chair the advisory board and serve as adjunct professor. But in this episode, I was in studio at the beautiful Samford University with Beeson’s newest professor, Josh Chatraw. He serves as the Billy Graham chair of evangelism and cultural engagement. Josh is also an inaugural fellow with TGC’s Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. 

We discuss The Augustine Way and another of Josh’s newer books, Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith (Brazos).

Both books explore themes that not everyone would associate with apologetics. We often think of apologetics as rational, logical, individual proofs of Christian truth. But Chatraw argues that today, the question of Christianity’s truth is closely bound up with the question of Christianity’s goodness. He also builds on the Augustinian theme of love—we desire to love and be loved, and our reason works toward what we think will make us happy. 

Chatraw casts a vision for churches as places where we can work through doubts. Churches should nurture apologists of virtue and skill through the ordinary means of grace. I love this quote from The Augustine Way: “The church counterforms us and re-aims our hearts toward the kingdom that is to come, equipping us with the diagnostic tools to see into a society’s idolatry and forming us into a source of healing and hope for our neighbors.” 

We Need Obadiah Tue, 21 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 We know who God is and what he’s doing in the world, not in abstraction but in his mighty historical acts.]]> The opening chapter of J. L. Myres’s 1923 classic The Dawn of History reminds us that millions have lived without a sense of history. Many people think things are what they are and that they’ll never change. In their view, there’s no arc of history bending in any direction. To believe otherwise, they say, is delusion and breeds false hope. We only imagine differently because our society remains ingrained in Christianity.

But is belief in progress naive, held only because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate? Is there an end, a telos, toward which we’re carried? The short, unfamiliar book of Obadiah shows us how to develop a greater consciousness about God’s purposes in the world.

This strange little book about Edom appears dark, nationalistic, even vengeful. But it has great relevance for Christians today. Obadiah gives us several gifts. It shows us our need for history, eschatology, and Jesus.

Why We Need History

Obadiah receives not a word but a “vision” (v. 1), inspired insight into God’s purposes in history. Ostensibly addressing Edom, Obadiah encourages Judah with this insight.

The nation had just suffered an enormous blow, likely the sack of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. God’s people are reeling physically and spiritually. Did God fail? Is Baal stronger than Yahweh? Neighboring Edom gloats, loots, and participates in his brother’s doom (vv. 10–14). He seems to get away with it, and this is why Judah needs Obadiah’s message.

Does history have a purpose? Will there be justice at last? Obadiah answers with a resounding yes.

Does history have a purpose? Will there be justice at last? Obadiah answers with a resounding yes.

Speaking to a defeated nation, the prophet has the audacity to proclaim God’s universal reign (v. 15). Judah’s defeat looked like Yahweh’s defeat, but it wasn’t. When a coalition of enemy tribes approached Edom, Obadiah could see God’s hand at work. As Richard Lints suggests,

In the hands of the Old Testament prophets, history was instruction in the ways of God. . . . History was recorded because history could be repeated—not in detail, of course, but according to the principle that the past acts of God provided the hope that he would continue to be faithful to his people and his promises.

Obadiah teaches us to read history—and our own stories—with redemptive-historical goggles. We know who God is and what he’s doing in the world, not in abstraction but in his mighty historical acts.

Why We Need Eschatology

Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels declared, “Whoever says the first word to the world is always right.” History’s judgment of the Nazi regime shows us he was wrong. It’s the last word that matters most. As Christians, we have the last word. We know how the story ends. At its core, our faith is eschatological. We live in certain hope of a glorious future. There are a great many grim realities we couldn’t endure without this hope.

What hope does Obadiah offer to people in a grim reality?

The phrase “the day” appears eight times in verses 11–14, always with a negative connotation—the day of trouble, disaster, or misfortune. But in verse 15, eschatological hope breaks through: “The day of the LORD is near” (NIV). That’s the day when every “not yet” becomes “now” and “at last.” Every promise fulfilled. Every wrong set right.

Because God’s people have suffered great injustice, Obadiah wants to encourage them with God’s coming justice. As Edom has done, so it will be done to Edom (v. 15). Every debt will be paid, every account settled. We can have no hope without God’s justice. Unless God deals with human sin, heaven would quickly become hell. We long for justice today just as Judah did in the past. Every time we cry out, “Where was God when . . . ,” we’re asking for his final judgment. It’s necessary and right, an act of love that protects all who turn from evil and seek him.

But Obadiah doesn’t only promise God’s retributive justice. He foretells restoration. In the book’s last three verses, God promises to enlarge Israel’s territory until it reaches its historic borders. (What a sweet message for refugees in exile!) The land is part of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, so here God promises to restore his covenant. This side of Golgotha, we understand this restoration is about more than just acreage. God’s coming kingdom will cover the whole earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). God’s reign will expand. May his kingdom come (Obad. 1:21).

God’s reign is what we all desire. Then, justice will be done. Every wrong will be set right. There will be peace on earth—a final end to human trafficking, racism, and murder—because God will bring history to its purposed end.

Why We Need Jesus

We want justice. We want God to set things right. But we also know we’ve committed injustices. We need our own hearts to be set right. A facile reading of Obadiah divides the world into good and bad people, and this makes the prophetic message sound more like karma than grace. But there’s more to the story.

Edom’s sin was drinking on God’s holy hill, desecrating the temple mount like when Belshazzar drank from the temple’s holy vessels (Dan. 5:3). In consequence, they—and the nations—will go on drinking continually (Obad. 1:16). Drinking what? “The wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger” (Rev. 14:10). But all of us, by nature, deserve God’s wrath (Eph. 2:3). Judah’s sins were so great that God justly sent Babylon to sack them. As a result, one Israelite lamented, “You have given us wine to drink that made us stagger” (Ps. 60:3).

God’s reign is what we all desire. Then, justice will be done. Every wrong will be set right.

But a new day is coming for Israel—and all God’s people. “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more” (Isa. 51:22). How can that be? God would be unjust, and his kingdom imperfect, if he simply let his people slide.

Yet Obadiah says, “On Mount Zion will be deliverance” (v. 17, NIV), not just judgment (v. 16). How can this be? God’s righteous anger and unfailing love met at the cross of Jesus Christ. God took the cup of his wrath out of our hands and gave it to his Son to drink (Mark 14:36). So when we turn from our wicked ways to Jesus, no cup of wrath remains for us.

If God is bringing history to its purposed end, if we want the hope eschatology offers, then we need Jesus. A just God must punish our sins. A loving God sent his Son to drink our cup so we could serve as priests forever in the Lord’s kingdom.

Why the Church of England’s Same-Sex Marriage Vote Breaks My Heart Tue, 21 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 The Church of England’s vote to bless same-sex relationships will ultimately harm those it means to help: people like me who experience same-sex attraction.]]> Last week, the Church of England voted in favor of a trial of special services asking God’s blessing on same-sex couples. I was raised in the Church of England and trained at an Anglican theological college. I’ve also experienced same-sex attraction for as long as I can remember. But this vote breaks my heart.

Let me explain why.

The Bible’s ‘No’ Is Clear

Trust me, I didn’t come to the Bible hoping it would rule out same-sex marriage. At one time in my life, I would’ve been delighted to discover it didn’t. But the closer I’ve looked, the more sure I’ve become.

People sometimes argue that Christians pick and choose from the Old Testament law. Leviticus 18:22 declares, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” but Christians merrily eat shellfish, which the law also forbids. So why keep this command? The answer is that we’re following the New Testament, which releases Christians from some aspects of the Old Testament law—including the food laws—but reaffirms others, including the Old Testament commands against adultery and against same-sex sex (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9–12; 1 Tim. 1:8–11).

I didn’t come to the Bible hoping it would rule out same-sex marriage. At one time in my life, I would’ve been delighted to discover it didn’t. But the closer I’ve looked, the more sure I’ve become.

People sometimes argue that Jesus never mentioned same-sex sex, so it can’t be that important. But Jesus was addressing Jews, who knew the Old Testament command about same-sex sex, just like they knew the Old Testament commands against idol worship. When writing to the Gentiles, Paul explicitly addressed both—because Gentile Christians lived in communities where male-male sex and idol worship were common.

People sometimes argue that Scripture intends only to outlaw abusive and unequal same-sex sex—which was common in the ancient world—not loving, faithful same-sex sexual relationships. But there is no mention, in any of the verses that speak clearly to this issue, of unequal status or age. So while same-sex sex involving exploitation or child abuse is clearly covered by the ban, it can’t be limited to those scenarios.

I could go on. I’ve written a short book explaining where each of the 10 most common arguments in favor of same-sex marriage falls short. The fact is, the Bible is emphatic in its no to same-sex sexual relationships.

But that’s not all the Bible has to say about same-sex relationships. The clear no pairs with an even more emphatic yes.

The Bible’s ‘Yes’ Is Beautiful

A standard Church of England wedding kicks off with this verse: “God is love, and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God lives in him” (1 John 4:16).

It’s a great verse, and I get why it’s included. But if you read John’s letter, you’ll find he doesn’t mention marriage once. Instead, he waxes lyrical on sibling love:

  • “By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (3:16).
  • “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (4:7).
  • “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (4:11).
  • “This commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21).

Jesus himself voiced this commandment on the night he was betrayed: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13). Not all Christians are called to marriage, but all of us are called to love one another.

Not all Christians are called to marriage, but all of us are called to love one another.

The other classic Church of England wedding text is also not about marriage. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul famously declares, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1). He proceeds to describe what love looks like in action, beginning with “Love is patient and kind” and finishing with “Love never ends” (vv. 4–8). Of course Paul’s words are relevant to marital love. But Paul was single, and these words are first and foremost about love between believers in the church. The same Paul who warns strongly against same-sex sexual relationships also commands us to lean into brotherly and sisterly love.

This kind of love is modeled in Paul’s relationships. He calls Onesimus “my very heart” (Philem. 1:12). He calls three different Christian men in Rome “my beloved” (Rom. 16:5, 8, 9). He reveals how heartbroken he’d have been to lose Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:27). But none of this is exclusive or romantic love. For example, he calls all the believers in Philippi “my brothers, whom I love and long for” (4:1).

The Greek word adelphoi is inclusive, so when we read of love for “brothers” we can add “and sisters.” This sibling love is not only for believers of the same sex (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:2), but it is, perhaps, especially for believers of the same sex. To be clear, there’s no mandate for exclusive coupling between same-sex believers so long as they avoid sex. The call to love is plural and inclusive, contrasting the call to marriage, which is exclusive. On page after page, the Bible presents a glorious, life-giving vision for love between believers of the same sex. It’s just a different vision from the call to husbands and wives.

What’s more, when we look at Scripture’s vision for male-female marriage, we discover that rather than being an end in itself, it points to a greater love.

Greatest Love Story Ever Told

Some think Christians who uphold the Bible’s no to same-sex sex are hateful. Sadly, some Christians have indeed been hateful in their treatment of people who identify as gay or lesbian. The bullying, stereotyping, and mocking of those we are called to love is sinful, and Christians who have done so must repent. But when we dive into what the Bible says about sexuality and marriage, we’ll find it’s not a story of hate but a story of love—it’s just a more amazing love story than we’d imagined. It starts at the very beginning and finishes at the very end.

When Jesus is asked about divorce, he takes his hearers back to the beginning:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matt. 19:4–6)

Jesus emphasizes that marriage is male-female, quoting not only from Genesis 2:24, when the first man and woman became one flesh, but also from Genesis 1:27, when God made humans male and female. This is Jesus’s definition of marriage: a one-flesh union between one man and one woman. But even though Jesus never married in his life on earth, he stands right at the center of Scripture’s vision for what marriage is about.

When we dive into what the Bible says about sexuality and marriage, we’ll find it’s not a story of hate but a story of love—it’s just a more amazing love story than we’d imagined.

In the Old Testament, prophet after prophet pictures God as a loving, faithful husband—and Israel as his often-straying wife. This cosmic marriage is continually on the rocks because God’s people keep cheating on him by worshiping idols. It’s hard to see how the relationship will ultimately work, until—at long last—Jesus comes and calls himself the Bridegroom (Matt. 9:15). John the Baptist pictures Jesus this way too (John 3:29). Jesus is the Bridegroom come to claim God’s people for himself.

This metaphor is reemphasized when Paul calls wives and husbands to relate to one another in a way that images Jesus and his church: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:22, 25). The call to wives is extremely countercultural today. The call to husbands was countercultural in the first century. But Paul explains that God made human marriage from the beginning to picture the exclusive, one-flesh union between Christ and his church (vv. 28–33).

This means Christian marriage isn’t primarily about two people making one another happy. It isn’t even primarily about making babies—though that’s an important element of God’s design. It’s about Jesus and his people. And his eternal, death-defying, sacrificial love for us reaches across the deepest difference: though like us in his humanity, he’s unlike us in his divinity. Male-female marriage is likewise a love across deep difference: the physical difference of male and female bodies. Like Jesus and his people, marriage isn’t a relationship of interchangeable parties. It’s a love across the most profound diversity.

We see this marriage metaphor resurface with resounding force in Revelation. John writes,

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready.” (Rev. 19:6–7)

This is the marriage none of us can live without. This is the love none of us can miss. This is the most magnificent love story into which we’re all invited—male or female, married or single, regardless of our patterns of attraction—if only we’ll turn and trust in Jesus. And this is the happily-ever-after we’ll miss if we persist in unrepentant sin.

Harm Meant to Help

“Do you not know,” Paul warns, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–10).

This is the marriage none of us can live without. This is the love none of us can miss. . . . And this is the happily-ever-after we’ll miss if we persist in unrepentant sin.

This warning against unrepentant sin—including same-sex sexual sin—is stark. But Paul continues with gospel hope: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11).

The Church of England’s vote to bless same-sex relationships will ultimately harm those it means to help: people like me who experience same-sex attraction. Instead of standing with us as we fight temptation, it validates relationships that defy God’s Word and affirms people in a form of unrepentant sin that Scripture warns will keep them from inheriting God’s kingdom.

I’m thankful I came of age in a Church of England church that stuck with Scripture when it came to sexual sin of any kind. The church pointed me to that great day when Jesus will return and all our human hopes and dreams will be forgotten as we revel in his overwhelming love. I’m thankful that today I stand with countless sisters and brothers who deny themselves sexually to follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24–25). And I’m thankful for the love I get to live in with those sisters and brothers—following Jesus’s command to love one another as he has loved us.

Friends, let’s not settle for a lesser love than Jesus calls us to.

How to Stand Firm in Your Faith and Calling Mon, 20 Nov 2023 05:04:42 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of standing firm in the faith amid persecution and opposition.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of standing firm in the faith amid persecution and opposition. Pastors need to be open and vulnerable in their relationships, following the example of Paul and Timothy.

Ortlund and Allberry address the dangers of moralism and the transformative power of Scripture in the lives of pastors, emphasizing the need to hold on to the gospel and continue to follow Jesus with a strong sense of identity and mission.

Recommended resource: Evangelical Pharisees: The Gospel as Cure for the Church’s Hypocrisy by Michael Reeves

Why You Should Wait to Go to Seminary Mon, 20 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Seminary isn’t designed to disciple you in basic Christian maturity; that’s what the local church is for.]]> I’m a new seminary graduate. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma just a few months ago. It was a wonderful day. Having that piece of paper on my wall signifies I’ve been formally trained for gospel ministry.

So what was I doing before I graduated? Pastoring a church.

I’ve been in vocational ministry for 12 years, 10 of those as a lead pastor. In this time, I’ve pastored two churches through challenging seasons—building projects, replants, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a couple of contentious political seasons.

I’m odd. For the average pastor in the West, seminary typically follows a sense of call to the ministry. After all, many denominational groups require seminary training before ordination. It’s rare for it to come a decade or more after ministry work has begun.

Why would a young man wait for seminary? Could this ever be a good idea? If you’re considering seminary, or thinking about going back for another degree, here are four reasons it may be worth waiting.

1. Your vision for ministry needs to mature.

I wasn’t a church kid. I was saved as an adult, and I didn’t have a paradigm for how to be a Christian, how church should work, or what pastors do. I began my ministry path on the traditional route by going to Bible college.

I’m odd. For the average pastor in the West, seminary typically follows a sense of call to the ministry. It’s rare for it to come a decade or more after ministry work has begun.

But when I got there, I struggled immensely. I hated it. I couldn’t understand how the seemingly frivolous theological discussions, the seemingly frivolous focus on grades, and the seemingly disconnected lecture material related to peoples’ need to see Christ. As I sat in class, I’d look out the window and think about how few of the people driving by knew Jesus. How will they hear about him while we’re here learning Greek?

I dropped out of Bible college to serve as an intern at a church, and during that time, I was discipled and learned about pastoral ministry. As I met with people and provided counsel and care, I began to see how the truths discussed in the seminary classroom could shine light into the darkness of personal suffering. After “growing up” in ministry work, I was finally able to appreciate the value of formal education for ministry.

2. Your character needs to mature.

Soon after I met Jesus, I moved back to my hometown. I had Christian friends, but I didn’t have deep relationships with pastors who were pouring (and peering) into my life. If they had been, I suspect they’d have told me to wait and mature before jumping into a full-time degree program.

Many aspiring seminarians I’ve met can relate. They’re missing a key piece of their application: a whole-hearted affirmation from their local church that they’re ready for seminary.

Seminary isn’t designed to disciple you in basic Christian maturity; that’s what the local church is for. Before you jump headfirst into higher education, take the time to grow in the local church under mature Christian leaders who can endorse your call and commit to walking with you through your time in school.

3. Your study habits need to grow.

When I was in Bible college, my Old Testament professor pulled me aside after a three-hour lecture and told me, “From now on, you should stand in the back of the class pacing with a stress ball in your hand.” I served in law enforcement before I went back to school, and it had been years since I’d been in a classroom environment. Sitting and listening to a three-hour lecture was rough.

Seminary isn’t designed to disciple you in basic Christian maturity; that’s what the local church is for.

You may love to read and study theology and church history, but a seminary course load can still be difficult to keep up with. When I first downloaded all the tools for Greek vocabulary, church history reading, and other subjects, it overwhelmed me. It was certainly too much for me when I started Bible college. Even later in life, after I’d gotten used to studying more as a pastor, I needed to grow in my capacity before I was ready to be a full-time seminary student.

4. You need to first count the cost for your family and ministry.

I’d planned to go back to school to complete my studies after finishing that internship, but when it was complete, the church called me into a pastoral role. As time passed, church and family responsibilities repeatedly stood in the way of more schooling. It wouldn’t have been right for me to sacrifice my marriage and family responsibilities to add the degree.

You must also count the cost for your church. Seminary is a years-long commitment of several hours of work per week. It’s OK to pump the brakes a bit and wait before committing to such a hectic degree program. It’s OK to admit that pursuing a new degree isn’t possible when you’re also planting, replanting, or dealing with relational difficulties in your church. Challenging ministry seasons require more from pastors and ministry leaders than seasons of normalcy. If you’re in a heavy ministry time, it may not be wise to give your spare time to a seminary degree. Shepherding and caring for your church and family are the higher priority.

Seminary is a good gift from God. If you can go to a biblically faithful seminary for theological and practical ministry training, you should. But first, count the cost. It may be that waiting or taking a nontraditional route by serving in a residency or internship is the best decision. Sometimes it’s better to wait so that you, your family, and the church you serve can get the best out of your seminary experience.

Why You Shouldn’t Wait to Go to Seminary Mon, 20 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 When a young man uses his youth and zeal for the kingdom, he’s a force to be reckoned with.]]> When I took my first seminary class, I was 22 years old, fresh out of college, and had been married for just over a month. I was completely out of my depth. Despite having a biblical studies undergrad degree, I didn’t even know the correct questions to ask—You might wonder then, Why would I recommend the same, green, wet-behind-the-ears experience to other young men? It’s because I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Men have historically pursued the ministry from a young age. It’s a relative novelty in Western Christianity for men to exit careers they’ve been laboring in to get educated at seminary in preparation for the pastorate. There are obvious benefits to being a more seasoned man—you have life experience comparable with your parishioners and a few more gray hairs to garner respect. But there are substantial advantages to pursuing seminary directly out of college when you’re still young.

1. Longevity

When men enter seminary at a younger age, they’re able to labor in the ministry longer than if it’s a second career or a later-in-life calling. In a time when few ministers make it to their silver, let alone their golden, anniversaries in the ministry, a man’s faithfulness stands out as he perseveres over the long haul.

By beginning in ministry sooner, you have more time to grow and mature. You can’t learn everything there is to know about ministry even in the best seminaries. Every minister will learn on the job. If a laborer can get an earlier start in the practical work, he should have additional time to shepherd souls from a foundation of greater experience and maturity.

If a laborer can get an earlier start in the practical work, he should have additional time to shepherd souls from a foundation of greater experience and maturity.

2. Energy and Zeal

It’s been famously said that youth is wasted on the young. While this is a clever overstatement, the young do tend to have greater energy and ambition. Yet they face the temptation to be zealots. There’s good reason young men tend to be known for the “cage stage” of their theology during their seminary years. Aim to be zealous (Titus 2:14) but not a zealot, committed to Christ and his kingdom but not inflammatory about it.

When a young man uses his youth and zeal for the kingdom, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Spending such energy in the ministry, as opposed to other career paths, can be a great gift to the church. Young men, get out there in evangelism, outreach, visiting people, and spreading the love of Christ—the sooner the better.

3. Focus

Christ calls those who lay their hands to the plow not to look back (Luke 9:62). Because ministry is hard, there may be many times in a single year you want to walk away from it all. In such times, you must remember you haven’t put yourself into the ministry, and you can’t simply take yourself out. Yes, there are times when wisdom warrants (or even dictates) the need to step back. An unforeseen disability or caregiving responsibility may prevent a man or his family from giving what ministry requires. A broken relationship with a family member (especially between the pastor and his wife or child) may surface the need to focus on family. But to turn back of your own accord apart from such circumstances is to suggest the ministry is merely a job and a personal decision rather than a call. It’s not. Ordination is an act of God through his church to set a man apart for labor in the harvest field.

So how does starting one’s seminary career earlier help a young man stay focused on God’s call when difficulties come? If a man begins his training early, he’s likely to face fewer distractions from the ministry. But if you first train as something other than a minister, you may be tempted to fall back on that other career when ministry gets tough. Often skills, abilities, and experience outside the ministry carry greater financial prospects than the ministry does. While it’s not wrong for ministers to be educated or skilled outside the church, focusing on ministry earlier limits distractions and aids our endurance. 

4. Flexibility

A younger man tends to have fewer commitments outside his studies. His roots aren’t as deep in a particular location. He can more readily relocate for the best seminary education, no matter the location. I believe community-grounded education will always be superior to online alternatives.

When a young man uses his youth and zeal for the kingdom, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

This relocation won’t be possible for all ministry candidates. But if you can manage it, opt to live among your professors, classmates, and a local church community and thus benefit from a more full-orbed seminary experience.

A young family tends to be more flexible as well. Instead of a new seminarian’s wife and children pivoting from a settled life, the family grows up together, laboring alongside one another in the ministry. Adaptation and change has a tendency to be easier when you’re young, and families will cherish the unifying experience of growing into ministry together. I’ve been amazed at how resilient our young children have been through multiple moves, but the older they get, the more connected they become to a community and place. As a result, it’s been harder to uproot.

It’s a privilege to serve Christ and his church; why wait to start? It’s a joy to study God’s Word; it’s a blessing to invest in the kingdom; it’s good to be mentored by godly professors and encouraged by your peer students; it’s a benefit to God’s people to see the younger generation rising up to serve. Why wouldn’t you want to do this as soon as possible? Young men, what are you waiting for? There may never be a better time to pursue seminary education than now!

What Weak Moms Need Most Sun, 19 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Humility and grace will help moms flourish amid our weaknesses.]]> Motherhood is a gift. But it’s the most challenging, humbling, “put you flat on your face” kind of gift. As wonderful as it is, with each new season that throws me into uncharted waters, I come face to face with my limitations, weaknesses, and sinful nature.

What’s more, when I look around me, I see other moms making different choices and navigating different circumstances than I do. None of us has exactly the same answers for how to best feed, educate, and nurture our children. Watching other moms sometimes makes me question whether I’m doing things right.

The one thing I can say with confidence after 17 years of parenting is this: I am not enough.

Thankfully, I’ve learned to realize that God is.

More Grace

The apostle James tells us, “[God] gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).

Motherhood is a humbling business. But the soil of humility is where grace comes to full bloom. It’s not a grace that excuses our sin or shortcomings as moms but one that enables us to live in the freedom of God’s all-sufficient grace. By grace, we realize the Lord doesn’t expect perfection. He calls us to repentance and dependence as we lean into his strength and control instead of our own.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it’s far easier to preach this than to put it into practice.

The soil of humility is where grace comes to full bloom.

Whether we’re in the exhausting years of infancy, the physically demanding toddler and elementary years, or the mentally and emotionally taxing years of tweens, teens, and beyond, each season draws to the surface our inadequacies, weaknesses, sins, and limitations.

While we tend to assume we’re the only ones who can’t seem to get it all right, God makes it clear this isn’t what he expects of us. Instead, he calls us to humbly acknowledge our humanity and run to his plentiful grace as we navigate the ups and downs of motherhood.

But what does this grace practically look like?

While there are countless ways that God’s grace meets us in motherhood, here are a few that I believe all moms can relate to.

Grace in Strengths, Weaknesses, and Sin

Like our children, we’re uniquely wired. The strengths, weaknesses, and sinful tendencies we experienced before motherhood will find their way into our lives as moms.

One mom may be more structured, have a higher capacity than others, and thrive on order; another mom may be more bent toward creativity and flexibility, and more easily drained by the physical and emotional needs around her. One mom may find charts and schedules to be a helpful way to teach her children; another may use conversation and teachable moments as her children experience the world around them.

Some moms are strong and healthy; others navigate motherhood with weakened bodies or minds. Some moms had godly examples as they grew up; others have to work through past trauma or negative examples that were left for them.

All of us are battling sin. We’re in different places spiritually, striving to point our children to Jesus while we’re still in the process of sanctification.

The beauty of God’s grace is that he already knows our weaknesses, strengths, and battles with sin because he intimately knit us together and knows us better than we know ourselves (Ps. 139:13–16).

Instead of boasting of our strengths or beating ourselves up over our weaknesses, we can see them redeemed and used by God’s grace as we humbly submit them to Christ, acknowledging he alone is the giver of our strengths and he alone can be the strength in our weaknesses. Instead of being paralyzed by our sin, we have the gift of the gospel that allows us to seek not only the Lord’s forgiveness but the forgiveness of our children when we sin against them (1 John 1:9).

Grace in Our Parenting Styles

God’s Word gives many black-and-white instructions for parenting: We’re to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). We’re to teach our children the truth of the Word (Deut. 6:6–7). We’re to always strive to grow in Christlikeness as we point our children toward the same end (Col. 1:10).

But much of motherhood is lived in the gray: what kind of diapers we use, whether we breastfeed or bottle-feed, what type of schooling we choose, what activities we get involved in, how much screen time we give our children, the methods we use to teach the truth to our children, and so on. For every choice we make, we’ll see another mom making a different one. And unless it’s directly going against God’s commands, we have the freedom in Christ to make such choices.

Humility requires we acknowledge that much of motherhood is made up of personal convictions. It guards our hearts from pride over our way being best and from insecurity over getting it wrong if another mom chooses differently.

In the end, God’s grace in how we parent gives us the confidence to walk in the freedom of Christ and the humility to remain teachable as we continue to seek guidance and wisdom from the Lord and those around us.

Grace in Our Circumstances

Each one of us has been given unique circumstances to navigate as a mom. Some are navigating complex special needs or chronic illnesses that affect every part of motherhood. Some are living in difficult marriages; others present a united front with their spouse. Some are surrounded by a healthy community; others are in a season of loneliness. For all of us, our circumstances are like the shifting wind, constantly changing and influencing how motherhood may look in that season.

God’s grace in how we parent gives us the confidence to walk in the freedom of Christ.

During times when our son’s special needs were at their height, it affected what I could be involved in, how I could discipline, the energy I had for relationships, and the way family time in the Word could look. Some days I was 15 minutes late to church and braving the judgmental stares. Some days I had to cancel a playdate because of challenges with my child or a health flare. It was tempting to feel ashamed when I looked at everything I couldn’t manage—but God’s grace tells me he knows the specific challenges I’m facing, and humility means accepting my limitations.

As difficult as it may be to feel frustrated or ashamed about our circumstances and the limitations they bring, this is where we learn to throw ourselves on the grace of God. He doesn’t call us to live a perfect life as a mom but one of dependence on him.

Sister, may this truth strengthen and encourage your weary heart today. If motherhood is exposing your limitations, weaknesses, and sin, you’re right where you need to be to receive the grace and forgiveness Jesus has for you and your children. Being a mom isn’t about getting everything right or being everything our children need. It’s about leading ourselves and our kids to the only One who’s truly able to be and provide all we need.

For it’s in that place of humility and dependence that we’ll come to know the joy and freedom of being an imperfect mom who finds her confidence and strength in the all-sufficient grace of her perfect Father.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Ask for Forgiveness Sun, 19 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 My parents showed me the importance of apologies and verbal forgiveness by asking for my forgiveness when they wronged me.]]> Why is it so hard to ask for forgiveness? Even when we realize we’ve wronged another person, being the first to apologize is the last thing we want to do. The flare of anger, loathing, and hatred refuses to be silenced. We’d rather fixate on the sins of another, all the while repeating to ourselves, It’s not fair!

I’ve known this my whole life. Children don’t need to be taught entitlement; we’re all naturally quick to assert what belongs to us but slow to admit wrongdoing. Asking for forgiveness goes against our nature. As a child, I needed to be taught to apologize.

My parents often compelled my sister and me to apologize to each other after petty fights. I wasn’t always willing to say sorry, nor was my heart always ready to forgive. But throughout my childhood and into adolescence, my parents showed me the importance of apologies and verbal forgiveness not only by telling me to make amends but by asking for my forgiveness when they wronged me.

Recognize Sin

On one occasion, my mom reacted in anger to my sister and then apologized. My sister harbored no resentment. “It’s OK.” She was ready to move on, but my mom protested quickly, “It’s not OK.” At the time, I wondered why she had to make a big deal out of just two words. How else was my sister supposed to accept her apology?

Other times, after fights between my sister and me, my parents prompted us to apologize in specific terms. “Sorry,” I’d say, and they would cut in, “Sorry for what?” In those moments, as I fought the temptation to say something spiteful like “Sorry you feel hurt,” I wished my parents would leave it alone. Wasn’t it enough to just say sorry?

My parents weren’t enforcing a strict apology script. Rather, they sensed the tendency to hide behind imprecise, indefinite words to avoid the discomfort of confronting sin. Naming our sin feels humiliating. Yet the Bible never sweeps our sin under the rug, for all sin makes us deserving of death (Rom. 1:32). Even sins we consider commonplace―disobedience to parents (v. 30), complaining (Num. 11), impatience (21:4–6), anger (Matt. 5:21–26)―are heinous offenses against God. So-called minor sins are never minor in God’s eyes.

I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious. They apologized in specific terms: “I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you. It was wrong. I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry for being insensitive to you. I should have been gentler. Would you forgive me?” As my parents demonstrated confession without excuses or caveats, I learned that confronting sin in humble honesty is the first step toward reconciliation.

Reconcile Relationships

I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious.

A few years ago, my mom and I wept together. She’d said something insensitive to me about weight gain, not intending to hurt my feelings but with the result of magnifying one of my worst insecurities. I stormed off to my room in defensive anger, climbing into bed to face the wall and dry my tears. Angry and wounded, I stewed in self-pity and resentment, replaying her words, and when she came to my room to apologize, I refused to turn or respond. She left my room for a time and then returned once more.

This time, she not only apologized for what she said but also shared with me her own brokenness: she, too, had struggled with body image and the pressure to be thin; she, too, understood that the hurt I felt was deeper than a few careless words. She wept as she confessed to me the pain of her idolatry and her longing to be free. And she asked for my forgiveness.

My bitterness gave way. Her vulnerability made me turn around to face her, despite the shame I felt. As I nodded, indicating Yes, I forgive you, we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle. Our relationship was being redeemed and restored.

My mom didn’t have to share with me her vulnerabilities. She’d offered a perfectly adequate apology the first time. Yet she moved toward me with more than a desire to settle accounts or to do her part in making amends. She sought to reconcile our fractured relationship. She apologized and asked for my forgiveness not because she simply wanted absolution―a clean conscience―but because she wanted me.

Reflect the Gospel

In a similar way, the forgiveness we receive in Christ through his death is more than a legal pardon—it’s the beginning of reconciliation with God. Paul explains, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s forgiveness of our trespasses is a means to reconciliation―the restoration of a relationship. The shape of the gospel is relational.

As we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle, our relationship was being redeemed and restored.

As a child, I’d been taught I needed to apologize to resolve conflict. I carried this into my adolescence, knowing I was expected to at least say, “I’m sorry.” But when my heart didn’t align with my words―when visible tension and bitterness remained―my parents weren’t satisfied. Not because they’re legalistic sticklers for a kind of quasi penance but because they care about our relationship. They know true reconciliation only occurs when sin is recognized and forgiveness given.

In my relationship with my parents, I’ve felt most known and loved when I come to them in the wake of hurtful words or angry silence, confessing the guilt and destruction of my sin, asking, “Will you forgive me?” They always meet me with mercy, sometimes tearfully, sometimes with a long hug. In those moments, I know the gospel as Tim Keller puts it: “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope.”

‘Fingernails’ and ‘Love at First Sight’: Hollywood’s Answers for Marriage Anxiety Sat, 18 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.]]> Young adults in contemporary Western cultures are delaying marriage at record rates. The reasons are many, but one commonality I’ve observed is a paralyzing anxiety that makes dating (and especially marriage) a daunting rather than delightful prospect. Indeed, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents in a recent survey said they were stressed out about their love lives.

It’s the anxiety of a generation that’s grown up hearing the ominous (but inaccurate) statistic that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” It’s the compounding anxiety of the sexual revolution and resulting rampant sexual distortion and gender confusion. It’s the FOMO anxiety and commitment phobia of a digital world of infinite options, distractions, and comparisons. It’s the anxiety of wondering how you can ever know if you married the right person or if someone else out there is a better fit.

Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a “perfect match,” as validated by algorithms. Social media and online pornography wreak havoc on dating—creating unrealistic physical expectations and ever-present temptations that leave both men and women anxious about real-world physical intimacy and attraction.

Many in Gen Z (particularly men) respond to this relationship anxiety by opting out of dating. Others seek to minimize risk by (ill-advisedly) living together rather than tying the knot or by embracing new concepts of dating like the #situationship—a gray-area relationship that “solves some kind of need” for companionship but without commitment or any pressure for the relationship to be “going somewhere.”

Two recent films, Apple TV’s Fingernails and Netflix’s Love at First Sight, highlight our cultural anxiety around dating and marriage. These movies differ in tone, genre, and style, but both “romantic” explorations of modern love reveal how our post-Christian culture tries to resolve the tension between longing for committed love and anxiously fearing it.

‘Fingernails’: Can Science Give Couples Certainty?

Fingernails is part sci-fi thought experiment, part Charlie Kaufman–esque surrealist parody. The premise—that a new scientific test can definitively determine whether a couple is in love—is arguably more interesting than the narrative as a whole.

The film—directed by Christos Nikou—follows Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), a longtime dating couple who received a “100 percent positive” when they took the test (which requires the removal of a fingernail).

Couples who take the test know it’s risky. A negative result—which can be either 0 percent (neither partner is in love) or 50 percent (one partner is in love but the other isn’t)—almost inevitably leads to a breakup. On the other hand, a positive result can give couples more certainty their love is real and their relationship has a high probability of success.

Yet despite the test “validating” her and Ryan’s love, Anna feels unsure when she becomes attracted to another man, coworker Amir (Riz Ahmed).

Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a ‘perfect match,’ as validated by algorithms.

The film’s silly concept telegraphs a real cultural anxiety—a fatalistic, disempowered sense that relationships are unavoidably fragile and risky, prone to end in divorce half the time. Uncertainty about “true love” becomes debilitating. But what if objective assurance via a scientific test were possible? What if we could know whether we’d found our “soulmate”?

Throughout the film, advertisement posters tout the benefits of “the test”:

  • “Take the risk out of love.”
  • “Experts agree that getting your love validated leads to fewer divorces.”
  • “No more uncertainty. No more wondering. No more divorce. Take the test today.”

Early in the film, Anna and Ryan talk about Adam and Eve—history’s first couple, whose hunger for forbidden knowledge led to their downfall. It’s a fitting framing for the film because that’s what “the test” provides couples unwilling to live in doubt about their compatibility. And yet like Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3), Anna and Ryan end up suffering more as a result of their newfound knowledge.

In the end, Fingernails (rated R for language) concludes that being in love is necessarily unsafe and painful (the film’s last words are “This is going to hurt”). No scientific certificate of “love validation” can change the nature of our deceitful and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9) hearts. The bleak, slow-moving film offers no hope for resolving the relational anxiety that plagues contemporary couples, who are apparently hapless victims of their unpredictable passions.

Even if the film is right to challenge the notion that love can be assured by an empirical “test” (which isn’t far from what dating app algorithms and compatibility questionnaires already attempt), it’s wrong to suggest faithful, confident, committed love is impossible. You don’t “fall” into or out of faithful love; it’s built on each partner’s intentional, disciplined, “for better or worse” choice. It’s the stability of covenant rather than the fragility of compatibility.

‘Love at First Sight’: Can ‘Fate’ Give Couples Confidence?

Netflix’s sincere Love at First Sight differs from the cynical Fingernails. The feel-good rom-com shot to number one on Netflix when it debuted in September. It’s cheesy but far better acted and written than most in the “Hallmark formula” genre.

Directed by Vanessa Caswill, the breezy film follows two college students—Hadley (Haley Lu Richardson) and Oliver (Ben Hardy)—who fortuitously sit next to each other on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. Sparks fly and the story (based on a 2013 young adult novel) plays out as you’d expect (with a few twists that add welcome depth to otherwise thin characters).

If in Fingernails the answer to the anxiety of contemporary dating and marriage is a scientific “test” of compatibility, in Love at First Sight the answer is a belief in some providential force in the universe that weaves lives together in ways we could never script. An omniscient narrator (Jameela Jamil) begins the film by saying, “This isn’t a story about love. This is a story about fate.” This narrator shows up throughout the film embodied as different characters—a sort of guardian angel presence—who intervenes to nudge Hadley and Oliver toward each other at crucial points.

Why is Love at First Sight (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) such a hit? In part, it appeals because of its wish-fulfillment fantasy, in the way every corny rom-com does. But the heavy emphasis on fate or providence as an active force (literally, the third major character) makes the movie especially comforting in this moment of relational anxiety.

In a dating world where so many singles feel stuck, fearful, and unable to commit, it’s appealing to think a higher power is working behind the scenes to orchestrate your love story. Just as a positive test result offers relief for some couples’ anxiety in Fingernails, the uncanny string of coincidences in Love at First Sight helps give Hadley and Oliver—who have their own anxieties about love and marriage—reassurance their connection is “meant to be.”

In both these movies, the stressful pressure of total personal agency (“It’s all on me to find the right person and make it work”) is relieved by some external force that provides confidence and validation. Like popular matchmaking shows (e.g. Jewish Matchmaking and Indian Matchmaking), these films speak to a generation tortured by overthinking romance and longing for a simpler love.

What’s most refreshing about Love at First Sight is that the film’s third act challenges the victimhood narrative and starts to emphasize personal choice: taking tangible, risky steps in pursuit of one another. As much as fate is at work in the film, Oliver and Hadley must still choose each other.

That’s why, in the final moments of the film, Oliver does what the male protagonists traditionally do in these films: he takes initiative and pursues the girl. Audiences love this trope because it’s true to what love is: active pursuit of a beloved, not passive angst that love is outside one’s control. Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.

Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.

Love at First Sight recognizes this in the final narration, which describes how Oliver and Hadley go on to enjoy a happy, 58-year marriage and have a daughter. And “none of it would have been possible were it not for a missed flight, a broken seat belt, and a choice to love each other every day.” The film ends not with the traditional “The End” title card but instead with “The Beginning.” However this couple were brought together, the real work of their relationship is just beginning.

Biblical Hope for Relational Uncertainty

These movies are examples of how pop culture gives expression to contemporary longings and common questions among young adults today.

One survey found that among singles who desire marriage, the top two reasons they remain unmarried are “it’s hard to find the right person to marry” and “not ready for the commitment.” In our experiences discipling young dating couples, my wife and I can attest that these hang-ups are pervasive. Given that Gen Z young adults are often risk-averse and struggle with mental health, it’s unsurprising the high stakes of dating and marriage render them anxious.

So how should the church counsel this generation through their dating woes and marriage fears? A big part is casting a more positive, beautiful, Scripture-shaped vision of marriage—one that demystifies fairy tale misconceptions and defuses burdensome expectations (like the necessity of perfect compatibility and finding “the one”). When we counsel dating couples, we often return to Tim and Kathy Keller’s bountiful wisdom in The Meaning of Marriage—particularly their debunking of the myth of “soulmates” and their insistence on the sanctifying, selfless nature of marriage in contrast to the self-fulfillment shape it often takes.

Singles and dating couples should also be around healthy Christian marriages, which happens best in a local church. In an intergenerational church community, singles can witness Christian marriages that may hit road bumps from time to time, yet do not dissolve; couples who stay faithful and committed to one another even through difficult seasons of stress, hardship, or felt “incompatibility.” These examples demonstrate that love and marriage under Christ are less fragile than Hollywood might have us believe.

Movies like Fingernails and Love at First Sight might, by common grace, stumble upon transcendent truths about love and marriage (the latter film especially does). But they also often express and perpetuate the confusion of the age, leaving viewers lonelier and less hopeful about their romantic dreams. A church shaped by Scripture and the love of Christ, however—where biblical marriage is celebrated and even encouraged—can be a compass of clarity amid the confusion, a haven of hope amid the anxiety of our age.

The Pietistic Influences on Tim Keller Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:34 +0000 Michael Keller delves into how his father, Tim Keller, shaped his approach to presenting the gospel, drawing inspiration from Jonathan Edwards. ]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Michael Keller talks about the influence of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans on his father, Tim Keller, and he shares how these influences shaped the way Tim Keller presented the gospel—particularly in the context of New York City in the 1980s and beyond.

Michael Keller identifies two key piety-based innovations that Tim Keller drew from Jonathan Edwards:

1. Justification by faith alone: We’re accepted by God not because of our obedience but because of God’s grace. This was a response to the prevalent idea that being a Christian meant adhering to certain behaviors. Tim Keller’s famous phrase “You’re accepted, and then you obey” encapsulated this perspective.

2. The integration of intellectual understanding with experiential knowledge: Jonathan Edwards argued that simply knowing doctrinal truths intellectually isn’t enough—there has to be a heartfelt, experiential understanding. Tim Keller aimed to make the truth not just understandable but also experiential in his preaching, believing that if the truth about Jesus doesn’t deeply affect and change a person, he hasn’t truly understood it.

The gospel’s good news remains unchanged and doesn’t need reinvention. And yet it’s essential to present it in a way that resonates with the specific culture and audience. Throughout his pastoral ministry, Tim Keller did this gracefully.

Darrell Bock on Israel’s Role in the Land Promise Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 Israel stands at the center of the world because of her Messiah.]]> Abstract: In this essay, Darrell Bock discusses the nuanced understanding of God’s land promise to Israel. He highlights that the New Testament doesn’t dismiss the promise to Israel but contextualizes it within a larger narrative of inclusion and reconciliation among nations. The promise is rooted in God’s commitment to Abraham and extends to encompass a broader divine blessing through Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham. Bock asserts that Israel’s physical presence in the land during the New Testament period doesn’t negate the promise’s ongoing relevance but emphasizes the lack of peace that was also part of the promise. Ultimately, the promise of land is seen, Bock argues, as part of God’s grand narrative of redemption. Israel’s role is central because of her Messiah, and God’s faithfulness to his promises is a testament to his character and plan for reconciliation that includes all nations.

Israel and the land is about a divine promise including a specific people. Simply put, God keeps his promises to those who receive them. It’s often claimed the New Testament moves the land promise from being about Israel as a people in the land to being about God’s people in the world. That’s an oversimplification. The question is whether that universal expansion neuters the specific promise made to Israel of a people in a land.

It’s sometimes said that the New Testament says nothing about the land promise. This ignores a first-century New Testament reality. Israel is in the land during this time, so there’s little need to remind the nation of a promise already in place. What Israel lacks is the promised, accompanying peace. Israel as a people among the nations “certainly would not have excluded the nation of Israel.” (As Craig Blaising and I note in Progressive Dispensationalism, the New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise. This isn’t about nationalism but about reconciliation and peace among nations.)


So how widespread and specific is this land promise? The promise is specific and grounded in God’s character. God tied the promise of a people and a land to commitments made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 (all citations NET). The land issue leads off this promise in verse 1. It says, “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your fathers’ household to the land I will show you.’” The people of Israel are going to exemplify divine blessing in verse 2, specifically, “Then I will make you into a great nation.” They function as a people in witness to God. That witness isn’t just present in the person of Messiah but is part of a program of reconciliation between peoples (Eph. 2–3).

The New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise.

This very Israel is distinguished from the nations within this promise in verse 3, as blessing to the world will come through them and the seed of Abraham. Genesis 12:7 speaks of this promise as being for Abraham’s descendants or seed: “To your descendants I will give this land.” In Genesis 13:15–16, the seed promise is repeated: “I will give all of this land you see to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth.” Now in the New Testament the seed is seen as Jesus the Christ (Gal. 3:16). He is the seed par excellence as the executor of this promise. But Israel as a people among the nations remains as beneficiaries of that promise when they believe. To include others or expand the promise to the world doesn’t remove the original promise or recipients. This is especially so as Romans 9–11 looks for a response of Israel as a people to Jesus as the Christ. They will be more than the current remnant of Paul’s time.

God repeats the land promise to the patriarchs regularly. It appears in reaffirmations to Abraham (Gen. 15:5–7, 18–21; 17:1–8), Isaac (26:2–5), and Jacob (28:3-4, 13–15). So the blessing as a people involves the inclusion of a land for a nation at peace. The book of Genesis ends with a promise about this land to Joseph (50:24). This is a repeated promise for a specific nation of people among the nations.

Genesis isn’t alone. The Lord says to Moses in Exodus 6:4, “I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they were living as resident foreigners”. Also in verse 8, “I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob—and I will give it to you [plural] as a possession. I am the LORD.” Land for this people is a consistent core to the promise. So is this possession temporary and conditional?

Is the Promise of Land Ultimately Conditional?

Deuteronomy 28–32 conditions their well-being and security in the land. That involves an elevation among the nations in blessing (Deut. 28:1, 8, 12). Disobedience will lead to defeat, fleeing, and other disasters (vv. 15–37). Fleeing the land and servitude to other nations is a part of this warning (vv. 48–49). But is it permanent, and does this change the land promise’s ultimate status?

The answer is in Deuteronomy 28–32. Deuteronomy 28:62 teaches judgment for disobedience is severe; verses 63–64 say this judgment includes scattering among the nations. Is that the last word? No. Deuteronomy 30 speaks of a reversal. There the Lord brings Israel back to the land and blessing (vv. 1–4). In verse 5, this blessing is greater than that received before by their ancestors. And in Deuteronomy 32, a Song of Moses commemorates this.

Joshua 21:43 says, “The Lord gave Israel all the land he had solemnly promised to their ancestors.” This wasn’t the final fulfillment of this promise, as that included the idea of peace in the land. So we move to displacement from the land with Assyria and Babylon, and we must ask again, Did this change the promise’s ultimate status?

Promise to Regather

Jeremiah 11:1–17 describes the nation under the effects of the Deuteronomic curse for disobedience. A contrast surfaces in Jeremiah 32–33. In chapter 32, the prophet buys a field at Anathoth, symbolizing that Israel will come back to the land. Jeremiah 32:22 notes the promise of the past, and then the Babylonians are said to have come in verses 23–24 because of disobedience. Verse 25 closes the summary, noting about Anathoth, “The city is sure to fall into the hands of the Babylonians. Yet, in spite of this, you, Sovereign LORD, have said to me ‘Buy that field with silver.’”

Jeremiah 32:26–44 summarizes what’s going on. Babylon comes because of disobedience, yet God says,

I will certainly regather my people from all the countries where I have exiled them in my anger, fury, and great wrath. I will bring them back to this place and allow them to live here in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (vv. 37–38)

Verses 40–41 are more emphatic: “I will make a lasting covenant [olam] with them that I will never stop doing good to them. . . . I will faithfully and wholeheartedly plant them firmly in the land.”

Amazingly, Jeremiah 31:31–34 just mentioned the new covenant for Israel and Judah. He seals that covenant with another affirmation in 31:37: “The LORD says, ‘I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured or the foundations of the earth below could all be explored,’ says the LORD.” And now in a bookend, Jeremiah 33:17 notes the people will never be without a descendant of David once the promise comes.

As sure and secure as the days and nights are, so secure are God’s promises to Israel about a king before the nations at large. God’s own Word and promise underlie this commitment. Ezekiel 20:40–41 is similar. Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of these commitments.

Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of the original commitments.

Two points remain. First, this is about Israel’s fate among the nations. The picture prevents a reading that simply absorbs Israel into the nations. Second, the original covenant promise to Abraham is the basis for the action. God keeps his Word.

Where the Promise Takes Us

The New Testament affirms this promise. Jesus and the apostles restate Israel’s role. I’ve treated this argument in detail in my chapter from The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish People in the Plan of God. That discussion adds another dimension to this question of the land. It’s the seed par excellence and those who followed him who share in this kind of hope that included Israel. Texts here include Matthew 19:28; Luke 13:34–35; 21:20–24; 22:30; Acts 1:6–7; 3:18–22; 26:7; and Romans 9–11.

The promise brings us to the land of God’s promise and presence. Unity and diversity, equality and yet distinction, a perpetual evidence of the reconciliation God brings to all and all nations through his work of new covenant in his Davidic heir in his kingdom. Israel stands at the center of the world because of her Messiah. And in it all, God has kept his Word to the patriarchs of Israel because God keeps his promises to those with whom he makes them as God works to a reconciliation that involves all the nations (Isa. 19:23–25).

Gerald McDermott on Why the Land Promises Belong to Ethnic Israel Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 There’s an abundance of biblical evidence for the land promise, the holiness of Jerusalem, and the theological significance of the land of Israel.]]> Abstract: In this essay, Gerald McDermott explores the notion of supersessionism in Christian theology, which suggests the promises made to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, including the land promise, have been superseded by the Christian church. He contends this view has dominated Christian interpretation since the fourth century, leading to the marginalization of the New Testament’s references to the land promise. McDermott posits evidence in the New Testament that contradicts supersessionism, and he argues that recognizing the ongoing significance of the land promise is vital for understanding God’s trustworthiness and the fulfillment of his promises.

Is the land promise to Abraham and his descendants also in the New Testament? Does it matter?

For most Christians and Jews since the fourth century, the answer has been no and no. No major interpreters found such a promise there, and it wouldn’t matter anyway. For what determined doctrine toward the people and land of Israel was tradition’s interpretation of biblical texts, not the texts themselves.

The tradition had developed a way of reading the New Testament text called “supersessionism,” the notion that in God’s plan, the Jewish people of Israel have been superseded by the new people (both Jew and Gentile) of the Christian church.

One implication of this theology relates to God’s promises about the land of Israel. The logic goes like this: Before the first century, God had established his kingdom on and through the land of Israel—that little strip on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean the size of New Jersey—but since the departure of Jesus from the top of the Mount of Olives, God’s attention had been diverted from that little land to the whole world. As Jesus said in one of his Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5).

Let me explain the logic of supersessionism vis-á-vis the land. According to Christian supersessionists, that is the majority of Christian interpreters since the fourth century, Jesus universalized the particular—transferring the promise of a land for the Jews in the Old Testament (the particular) to a promise of the whole world to his followers (the universal).

This logic made sense to me for several decades after I became a serious reader of the Greek New Testament in my 20s. New Testament Jesus scholars said the land promise is missing from this part of the Bible. Pauline scholars wrote that Paul abandoned Second Temple Judaism and recognized the land promise as obsolete now that Jesus had come to be Messiah for the whole world.

But one day, several decades ago, I realized a veil had been cast over my eyes, closing them to evidence of the land promise on the surface of the text of the New Testament, right in front of my eyes. How could I have been so blind?

Seeing the Land Promise

Back in college at the University of Chicago, I’d read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961), which showed that at the beginning of every scientific revolution (think of Galileo, Newton, Einstein) elite scientists already had evidence for the new theory. But they couldn’t see the evidence because the existing scientific paradigm had cast a veil over their eyes.

I realized this might have happened to biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. They weren’t able to see the land promise in the New Testament because they’d been trained not to see it.

For example, four times in the New Testament, Jerusalem is called the “holy city.” The Devil took Jesus to “the holy city” to tempt him to jump off the top of the temple (Matt. 4:5). After the death of Jesus, many bodies of the saints were raised and walked around “the holy city” and appeared to many (27:53). The Gentiles will trample “the holy city” for 42 months (Rev. 11:2), and God will bring down from heaven “the holy city Jerusalem” (21:10).

What’s more, three times the New Testament refers explicitly to the land promise. The author of Hebrews says God led Abraham to a place to receive as an inheritance and that Isaac and Jacob were “heirs with him of the same promise” (11:9). Before his martyrdom, Stephen said God promised to give Abraham this land “as a possession and to his offspring after him” (Acts 7:4–5). Paul told the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia that the God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and “after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (13:17–19).

One might ask why there are only these three explicit mentions of the land promise. Two answers are likely. First, the land promise was assumed because, for the New Testament authors, their Bible (the Tanakh) already repeated the land promise a thousand times (I’ve counted them and tabulated these references in The New Christian Zionism and Israel Matters). Second, the New Testament authors lived in the land. It was acknowledged as Judea—the land of the Jews—so there seemed no need to repeat or defend the promise.

Jesus and the Land Promise

Jesus referred to the future of the land of Israel many times. I’ll provide five instances. In Acts, the disciples asked the resurrected Messiah if he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). He didn’t dismiss this as a silly or unspiritual question (as scholars have often claimed) but said the Father has set times and seasons for that, and they weren’t to know them yet. Isaac Oliver, a Jewish New Testament scholar, argues in Luke’s Jewish Eschatology that Jesus had an earthly—if eschatological—kingdom in mind.

In Luke 13, Jesus said that one day the residents of Jerusalem will welcome him (v. 35), and in chapter 21 he prophesies Jerusalem will be trampled on by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are completed (v. 24).

The cessation of Gentiles trampling on Jerusalem means the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. This means Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem—in 1967, almost 2,000 years after Jews lost it in 63 BC to Pompey—could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.

Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.

This isn’t the same as saying the Jewish state is a direct fulfillment of prophecy. Or that the current Jewish state is beyond criticism. Or that this is the last Jewish state before the eschaton.

But it isn’t beyond imagining that on the basis of this remarkable prophecy by Jesus, we can say the rise of Jewish sovereignty over its capital after two millennia could be a “sign of the times,” the sort Jesus rebuked some Jewish leaders for not recognizing (Matt. 16:3).

Matthew has Jesus saying that in the paliggenesia, or renewal of all things, his apostles would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel, evoking not only the land of Israel but also the reconstitution of the 10 northern tribes (19:28).

As we’ve already seen, Jesus refers to the land in a verse that’s almost universally mistranslated. It should be “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land” (Matt. 5:5, author’s translation). More and more scholars are recognizing that Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11 word for word. Five times this psalm uses the phrase “inherit the land,” and each time the Hebrew word eretz refers unmistakably to the land of Israel, not the whole earth.

Jesus might have been referring to Isaiah’s prophecy that when the earth is renewed “all the Gentiles shall flow to the mountain of the house of the LORD . . . that he might teach [them] his ways” (Isa. 2:2–3).

Many object that John’s Gospel overrules these expectations of a future for the land because John’s Jesus says his body is the new temple, and true worship would no longer be restricted to Jerusalem but would be wherever there is “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 2:21; 4:21–24).

The New Testament scholar Richard Hays doesn’t think John is supersessionist on the land promise but that we should think of the Gospels as speaking on different levels. For, he points out, Mark’s Jesus declares of the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17), affirming Isaiah’s vision of an eschatologically restored Jerusalem and temple. In Matthew, Jesus surprises Christians (most have never seen this) by saying God still “dwells in” the temple of his day (23:21). So the New Testament’s composite picture of Jesus on the temple is that it’s both God’s house and also the symbol of Jesus’s body as God’s house. True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.

True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.

If Jesus clearly referred to the future of the land of Israel, so did Peter. In his second speech in Jerusalem, delivered after Jesus’s resurrection, Peter says there’s still to come a future apokatastasis, using the Greek word in the Septuagint for the return of Jews to the land from the four corners of the earth (Acts 3:21). So, for Peter, the return from exile in Babylon did not fulfill the Tanakh’s prophecies of return. Nor did Jesus’s resurrection. There was a future return to come. And we know this didn’t happen for another 1,800 years.

We’ve already seen from Acts that Paul made clear he held to the land promise. There’s further evidence in Romans. Paul says the “gifts . . . of God” are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). There’s little doubt that for Paul, the land was one of these gifts, for in the writings of prominent first-century Jews—Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian—the land was God’s principal gift to the Jewish people.

The early church saw it this way. According to Robert Wilken in The Land Called Holy, early Christians interpreted the angel’s promise to Mary that her baby would be given “the throne of his father David” and that he would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33) as indications of “the restoration and establishment of the kingdom in Jerusalem.”

The book of Revelation is replete with references to the future of the land of Israel. The two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8); the battle of Armageddon will take place in a valley in northern Israel (16:16); the gates of the New Jerusalem (which, notably, isn’t the New Rome or New Constantinople) are inscribed with “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12); the 144,000 with the names of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads stand on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (14:1); Gog and Magog will march over the “broad plain of the land” of Israel and surround the saints and “the beloved city” of Jerusalem before they’re consumed by heavenly fire (20:9). The renewed earth will be centered in Jerusalem (11:2; 21:10).

For the author of Revelation, then, the land of Israel was holy not simply because Israel and Jesus lived there but also because it would be the scene of crucial future events in the history of redemption.

In sum, there’s an abundance of evidence in the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation for (1) the land promise, (2) the holiness of Jerusalem, and (3) the theological significance of the land of Israel in the future and in the eschaton.

Why the Land Promises Matter

Does this matter? Yes, it does, for three reasons.

First, if the land promise was ended with the coming of Jesus, then God is not trustworthy. For he promised to Abraham and his seed that the land would be theirs for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8).

Second, if the land promise to Israel is broken, then so might be God’s promise to renew and restore the heavens and the earth. The land promise’s partial fulfillment—by bringing Jews from the four corners of the earth back to the land starting in the eighteenth century—is down payment on the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

Third, it is a deep theological reason why we should support Israel in this new war against the new Nazism. Jews have more title to the land than any other people. God called them to share the land in justice, and they have shown time and again that they are willing. Today 2 million Arabs are full citizens in Israel enjoying political freedoms and world-class education and health care—far more than Arabs enjoy anywhere else in the Arab world. Like Hitler’s Nazis, Hamas is conducting genocide, the attempted elimination of a whole people, the Jews. If we Christians thought it was right to destroy Nazism in Word War II, then we should support Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas, a new Nazism.

G. K. Beale on the Expected Universalization of the Old Testament Land Promises Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:03:00 +0000 None of the references to the promise of Israel’s land in the Old Testament appears to be related to the promises of ethnic Israel’s return to the promised land on this present earth.]]> Abstract: In this essay, G. K. Beale explores the Old Testament land promises to Israel, examining the idea that the promises were intended to expand beyond the initial borders to encompass the whole earth. He discusses the evolution of the land promise from a specific location in Canaan to a worldwide scope, alluding to the eschatological expansion of Israel’s borders as part of God’s predestined plan. Beale argues that in this age the promises have begun to be fulfilled spiritually in Christ and will be consummated physically in the new creation, proposing a two-stage “installment fulfillment.” He concludes that contemporary events in Israel do not represent the fulfillment of these Old Testament promises, but rather that in Christ and through the church, the expansion of Eden will be realized universally.

The inception of a land promise begins in Genesis 1–2. I’ve argued in my book The Temple and the Church’s Mission that Eden was a garden sanctuary and Adam was its high priest. Temples in the ancient world had images of the god of the temple placed in them. Adam was that image, placed in the Eden temple. His task was to “fill the earth” with God’s glory as a divine image-bearer along with his progeny as image-bearers (this seems to be the implication of Gen. 1:26–28).

Thus, he was to expand the borders of Eden, the place of God’s presence. Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through his image-bearers.

Corporate Adam Expands the Place of God’s Presence

The commission to Adam and Eve to multiply their offspring and to rule, subdue, and “fill the earth” was passed on to Noah and then repeatedly to the patriarchs and Israel. Consequently, the mantle of Adam’s responsibility was placed on Abraham and his seed, Israel; they were considered to be a “corporate Adam.” The nation was designed to represent true humanity. Starting with the patriarchs, the commission was mixed with a promise that it would be fulfilled at some point in a “seed,” but Israel failed to carry out the commission. Thus, the promise was continually made that an eschatological time would come when this commission would be carried out in Israel.

Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth, and so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through the image-bearers.

That part of the commission to expand Eden to cover the whole earth also continued, but now Israel’s land became conceived of as Israel’s Eden (as it’s called at several points in the Old Testament: Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3). This description of Israel’s land being like Eden was enhanced by the repeated descriptions of the “land flowing with milk and honey” and luscious fruit (e.g., Num. 13:26–27; Deut. 1:25; Neh. 9:25).

The key to understanding why Israel was to expand the borders of its land to cover the earth rests in the fact that Israel was a corporate Adam, and just as he was to expand the borders of Eden, so Israel was to do the same. In particular, Eden wasn’t a mere piece of land but was the first tabernacle (the place of divine presence), which Adam was to expand.

Likewise, Israel’s land was to expand because at its center in Jerusalem was the temple, in which was the holy of holies, where God’s presence dwelled. I discussed in chapter 19 of my book A New Testament Biblical Theology that Israel’s temple symbolized the unseen and seen heavens (respectively the inner sanctuary and the holy place) and the earth (the courtyard).

The purpose of the symbolism was to point to the end time, when God’s special revelatory presence would break out of the holy of holies and fill the visible heavens and the earth. Accordingly, there are prophecies that describe how God’s presence will break out from the holy of holies, cover Jerusalem (Isa. 4:4–6; Jer. 3:16–17; Zech. 1:16–2:11), then expand to cover all of Israel’s land (Ezek. 37:25–28), and finally cover the entire earth (Isa. 54:2–3; Dan. 2:34–35, 44–45).

Strikingly, the passages from Jeremiah 3, Isaiah 54, and Daniel 2 make explicit allusions either back to the patriarchal promises or to Genesis 1:28 when discussing the expansion of the land. From the perspective of the Old Testament writers, it’s difficult to know whether this complete expansion was envisioned to occur through military means or through other, more peaceful ways (e.g., through the nations voluntarily bowing to Israel and its God).

We know, at least, that Israel was to expand its beginning possession of the promised land through military means (Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 12:29; 18:14). Yet other texts foresee a more peaceful means in the eschaton whereby the nations throughout the earth become subject to Israel (Amos 9:11–12; Isa. 2:3–4; 11:10–12), with the possible implication of Israel possessing their lands.

Prophecies of the Universal Expansion

This expansive temple-land theology underlies other prophecies of the universal expansion of Israel’s land. Although not discussing the temple, Isaiah prophesies about the final resurrection of the dead (Isa. 26:16–19) that will coincide with resurrected people inhabiting the new creation. He says, “You have increased the nation, O LORD, You have increased the nation, You are glorified; You have extended all the borders of the land.” Thus, the allusion to Genesis 1:28 (“increase and multiply” and “fill the earth”), as it has no doubt been refracted through the Abrahamic promises, leads to the expansion of Israel’s land.

Amazingly, this cosmic expansion is directly linked to Israel’s end-time resurrection, suggesting that the fulfillment of the Genesis 1:28 commission to expand occurs through the resurrection of people. This pattern of multiplying and filling the earth is the same one we’ve observed in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2, where the commands in Genesis 1:28 are to be concretely carried out by expanding the Eden sanctuary. We’ve observed this same Genesis 1–2 pattern in Israel’s promised expansion over the earth and the expansion of the Jerusalem temple.

The notion of Israel’s borders being expanded to cover the earth isn’t only implied in Isaiah 26:18–19 (“deliverance for the earth” [see especially the LXX] and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits”) but is explicitly stated in 27:2–6. In this passage, Israel is portrayed in the eschaton as a “vineyard of delight” (like the garden of Eden) that God will protect and with which he’ll be at “peace” (the participial form of the noun for “delight” [ḥemed] occurs in descriptions of Eden in Gen. 2:9; 3:6.). This vineyard will expand to cover the whole earth: “In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout; and they will fill the face of the earth with fruit” (Isa. 27:6). This echoes “be fruitful . . . and fill the earth” in Genesis 1:28.

Thus, the Abrahamic promises represent a major development from Genesis 1–2 in the anticipations for the expansion of Israel’s land. Since my conclusion concerning Genesis 1–2 is that the sacred land of Eden was to be enlarged to cover the entire creation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this theme developed in the promises to the patriarchs. This is exactly what we find.

Although the initial form of the Abrahamic promise relates only to Canaan, it’s placed in a global context: “All the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). The next restatement (13:14–17) still has the boundaries of Canaan in view, but there’s an addition: “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your seed can also be numbered” (13:16). This may be taken figuratively, so that the Israelite descendants will be numerous but still fit within the boundaries of the promised land. But because it’s eschatological in nature, it’s more likely that, while still figurative, it refers to a number of Israelites so large they couldn’t fit in the land.

Multiplying to Bless

The same idea is implied by Genesis 15:5 (“Count the stars, if you are able to count them. . . . So shall your seed be”) and 22:17–18 (“I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand, which is on the seashore”). Genesis 28:14 directly connects multiplication to blessings for the whole earth (“Your seed shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed”; almost identical is 26:3–4!)

If these Genesis texts refer to the patriarchs’ seed filling not only the boundaries of Israel but all the earth, then they suggest what has been explicitly stated in some of the above passages about Israel’s end-time universalistic expansion. This idea also fits with Genesis 1–2—expanding the sacred space of Eden until Adam and Eve’s progeny “fill the earth.”

Subsequent developments of these patriarchal promises in the Old Testament make more explicit the suggestive nature of the universalizing aspect of these promises. For example, Psalm 72:17 (“And let men bless themselves by him; let all nations call him blessed”) develops the promise of Genesis 22:18 (“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves”). This is significant because the one being blessed is the end-time Israelite king (the individualized seed of Abraham) who will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). This is an explicit widening of the original borders of the promised land, which had been set “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River [Euphrates]” (Ex. 23:31).

This is summarized in Genesis 15:18 as “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” The psalm begins with the “river” (apparently of Egypt) but substitutes “the ends of the earth” for the “river Euphrates.” Again, the patriarchal promise relating to Israel’s land is universalized by the psalm. Zechariah 9:10 quotes Psalm 72:8, developing the same idea about Israel’s eschatological king: “His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Psalm 2 is also similar to Psalm 72. God’s promise to the Messiah (2:2, 7) is to “give the nations as [his] inheritance and the ends of the earth as [his] possession” (v. 8). The wording of “give an inheritance” (nātan + naḥălâ) in Deuteronomy is a typical expression used in God’s promise of giving the land of Canaan to Israel (e.g., Deut. 4:21, 38; 12:9; 15:4; 19:10; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; 29:8).

Likewise, “possession” (ʾăḥuzzâ) refers to Israel inheriting the land of promise (Gen. 17:8; Num. 32:32; Deut. 32:49). Here in Psalm 2, God’s promise of the land of Canaan as a possession is extended to the “ends of the earth.” And as in Psalm 72, the promise is made to an individual end-time Israelite king under whose rule the original boundaries of the promised land will be widened to cover the whole earth.

Expanded to the Whole World

The New Testament understands the land promise as a promise that Israel’s land would be expanded to encompass the entire world. For example, Romans 4:13 says, “For the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law . . .” (so also Heb. 11:8–16; Matt. 5:5 in allusion to Ps. 37:11).

The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form when all believers inherit the earth, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth. The physical way these land promises have begun fulfillment is that Christ himself introduced the new creation by his physical resurrection. In this connection, the Abrahamic promises concerning the land are promises to his “seed,” referring ultimately to Christ (Gal. 3:16) and those in union with him (v. 29). This explanation is in line with Paul’s assertion that “as many as are the [Old Testament] promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).

The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth.

I’ve discussed many of these promises and found that even in their Old Testament context they included not only a physical dimension but also a spiritual one (e.g., reflecting the glory of God as image-bearers). These promises have begun spiritually and will be consummated physically in the final new creation. This two-stage fulfillment can be termed an “installment fulfillment.” Even the initial, spiritual stage is part of a literal fulfillment; the Old Testament promise always had a spiritual dimension in view.

Therefore, none of the references to the promise of Israel’s land in the Old Testament appears to be related to the promises of ethnic Israel’s return to the promised land on this present earth. What’s going on in Israel today is in God’s predestined plan, but it’s not any kind of fulfillment of his promises in the Old Testament. Whereas Adam and Israel (the corporate Adam) failed to expand Eden throughout the world, it is now in Christ, the Last Adam and true Israel, and the church, in union with the Last Adam and true Israel, that Eden will finally be expanded to the ends of the earth.

Benefits and Hazards of Gen Z’s Emotionally Engaged Faith Thu, 16 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Gen Z’s fixation on mental health has its downsides. But it has also given Gen Z Christians a keen awareness of how their emotions relate to their faith.]]> I love to watch my friend Maria pray because her face is so expressive. Over the course of a single prayer meeting, her facial expressions move from impassive, to intense, to peaceful. As she praises God or cries out to him for help, her features reflect the state of her heart.

Since I’ve moved to college, the most present Christian mentors in my life have all been Gen Z Christians. These women—current seniors or recent grads—have taught me to pray longer and more fervently than ever but also how to bring everyday exhaustion, joy, discouragement, or celebration before the Lord.

My generation (Gen Z) loves to talk about mental health. We’re enthusiastic about “destigmatizing” mental health and “processing” emotions not just in a therapist’s office but publicly on social media. TikTokers share overly personal videos of themselves crying, with captions explaining how low they feel.

This culture of openly discussing mental health certainly has downsides, including a temptation to downplay the seriousness of sin by psychologizing it with therapeutic language, or denying our personal culpability by blaming past trauma.

But one upside is that Gen Z has a fluency in talking about emotions in ways previous generations did not. As a result, Gen Z Christians tend to possess a keen awareness of how their emotions relate to their faith and how to engage with God through these emotions.

Emotional Engagement with God

The Bible’s book of prayer blueprints, the Psalms, is full of emotional engagement with God. Asaph expresses confusion and loneliness to God: “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps. 74:1). David cries, “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart,” and exults, “I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” (38:8; 13:5). David asks God to change his emotions, writing, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (86:4).

In the New Testament, Paul commands Christians to give their fears to God: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God” (Phil. 4:5–6).

Like the psalmists, Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life. They’re hungry for a personal God who will take their anxieties and give them his joy.

Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life.

The Bible describes a God who wants to sanctify his people’s emotions. After instructing believers to make their requests known to God, Paul promises that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). This peace that God gives must be emotional at some level because Paul makes a point of saying it isn’t simply intellectual or logical—it surpasses understanding.

I’ve seen my family grow closer to God by bringing emotions into our faith life. Our church’s deep theology of weekly hymns and liturgy has blessed us immensely. However, my pastor recognizes that our worship can sometimes be stiff, and he encourages the congregation to kneel during confession and raise our hands in worship. In a sermon on Psalm 95:1–7, he explained how God connected our minds and bodies so our bodies can often instruct our emotions.

Going into her junior year of high school, my sister joined a youth group at a church in a different denomination. In addition to making close friends who love God, she became part of a congregation that always looks to meet God emotionally in worship and expresses that emotion through their bodies—clapping, dancing, and raising hands. In the two years since, I’ve seen her take ownership of her faith and seek intimacy with God, staying up late into the night to read her Bible and write prayers in her journal.

Emotional and theological aspects of faith shouldn’t be pitted against one another. God created us with hearts and heads, and I’m hopeful my generation will seek spiritual formation that engages both.

Healing Found Only in God

Another popular mental health buzzword for Gen Z is “self-care.” It’s the concept of refreshing your mental and emotional state by taking time to focus on yourself—by taking “mental health days” off, pursuing activities of “wellness,” spending time with friends, and journaling, among other activities. But the problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.

If our best answer in times of stress is to give ourselves permission to care for ourselves, this sets us up for disappointment. How can the self be the solution for mental struggles that originate within that same self? We need something outside ourselves to truly find healing.

The problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.

Gen Z Christians know the best self-care is to look outside of ourselves to God and refresh our souls with him. If our secular peers seek restoration by taking time to focus on themselves, Gen Z Christians seek rejuvenation by setting aside time to be with their heavenly Father. This practice comes directly from Jesus. Luke’s Gospel records six times that Jesus drew apart to be with his Father (Luke 2:46–49; 4:42; 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; 22:39–44). Many of my college friends intentionally set aside time each week not to work but to be refreshed in God through prayer, Bible reading, and eating with Christian friends.

Practicing self-care as Christians should also mean caring for others. Secular self-care proponents occasionally suggest volunteering, and numerous studies demonstrate the health benefits of regular volunteering. The world is picking up on something Christians know to be true: we’re made to serve others in humble imitation of our God (Matt. 23:11; Mark 10:45; Rom. 12:10; Gal. 5:13; Phil. 2:4). Jesus calls us to abide with him by serving our brothers and sisters (John 15:9–12). Spiritual rejuvenation from abiding in Christ goes hand in hand with obedient sacrificial love.

Gen Z, let’s be careful to not build our relationship with God solely on our emotions, especially when our emotions conflict with God’s revealed truth in Scripture. And let’s be sure we aren’t justifying selfishness or other sins in the name of self-care. We should be alert to the excesses and distortions of therapy-speak, especially if it becomes a more authoritative discourse in our lives than even Scripture. If we find that the words of a therapist loom larger in our lives than the Word of God, we know we’ve taken it too far.

But these excesses shouldn’t scare us away from the good ways fluency about emotions can enrich our faith. Let’s continue to bring God our emotions and seek refreshment from intimacy with him, casting all our anxieties on the One who cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).

Reaching the Dechurched Is a Whole-Church Effort Thu, 16 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches to reverse the phenomenon of dechurching.]]> Pastors are ghosted all the time. Some people leave and we know why. Others leave with no explanation. We hope they might return, even if they won’t return our calls. Or, at least, we hope they’ve landed in another faithful local church.

Unfortunately, the reality is that many of the regular attendees who no longer come to our churches have simply stopped going anywhere on Sundays.

In The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, Jim Davis and Michael Graham (with Ryan Burge) describe this phenomenon, which is being experienced throughout the North American church. The ominous title matches a distressing reality: people are leaving the church—many with no intention to return.

This book doesn’t merely cite data that validates an observable reality. It also provides survey results from the departing masses to discern why they’re leaving and what might bring them back again. The Great Dechurching combines a heart for the local church and a deep interest in understanding the culture with rigorous statistical analysis.

Honesty Matters

The Great Dechurching is painfully honest, a trait that’s hard to find in many corners of evangelicalism. We tend to gloss over negative trends or find excuses for them.

The authors—Davis (teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church and TGC Council member), Graham (program director for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics)—hold up the stark reality of those leaving the church for all to see. This is a different approach from a post-game press conference by a losing coach who attempts to spin the narrative of the team’s poor play.

The data suggests this dechurching is happening everywhere—not simply among one denomination or stratum of society. What might otherwise seem like mere anecdotes and assumptions become data through this book. This data, which is the result of a statistically rigorous survey, makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.

This data makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.

The book urges church leaders to lift their eyes and consider the opportunities such a cultural moment presents: “What looks like defeat to many could really be the beginning of something special.” However, something special will only happen if leaders “come to grips with some hard realities within the church” (120).

Herein lies a potential use for the book. Church leaders, elder teams, staff, deacons, and lay leaders can and should consider how their churches and communities are reflected in the stories and statistics found in The Great Dechurching.

Objective findings can create a context for honest dialogue about what’s happening and why—and perhaps some tentative conclusions about what to do now. Instead of lamenting the movement away from the church, those wanting to build a healthy future can apply biblically faithful, missiologically savvy practices that meet these trends head-on.

Relationships Matter

Perhaps the most important revelation of the book is the role relationships play, both in people leaving the church and in their likelihood of returning.

When asked their reasons for leaving church, the largest percentage noted this as the dominant motive: “My friends are not attending.” This social isolation is without question exacerbated by the multiyear disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors suggest many of the leavers are open to return if they were invited. They write, “Some people need a nudge, others need a dinner table, and others need years of patient and prayerful, consistent movement into their lives” (50).

Nudges from one person will often not be enough. To be convinced, some people may need to bounce off multiple Christians who encourage them to return to church. Reaching the dechurched will require a whole-church effort.

It’s unlikely that simply doing church better, inventing new programs or polishing old ones, or other top-down, event-driven plans are going to halt the dechurching pattern. Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.

Culture Matters

Perhaps the least surprising conclusion of the book is that many leavers cite the church’s engagement (or lack thereof) in major cultural issues as a leading cause. The church’s infatuation with political themes and partisanship is often a first domino in people’s departures. Or, just as likely, it is sometimes the leavers’ infatuation with politics that contributes to a feeling of alienation or antagonism.

The authors note, “Regardless of tradition, churches that espouse heavy, right-leaning politics will be difficult places for exvangelicals to feel at home” (74). The same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, because “there is no such thing as a Christianity with no political implications” and “the gospel comes with an ethic that will always overlap with our national political conversation” (167).

Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.

Churches and their pastors can’t merely stay out of politics. However, they must hone the skill of prioritizing the gospel center along with exhorting their congregations regarding the implications of these gospel truths, while avoiding undue partisanship.

This isn’t easy. Seasoned pastors may struggle with the rapidly changing cultural conversation. But younger pastors are at a disadvantage. Often they’ve not yet developed the discernment needed to lead multigenerational congregations made up of people with differing political presuppositions and experiences. The polarization of the prevailing culture combined with the gutting of the political center only increases the challenge for everyone.

Our Response Matters

For years, theologically conservative evangelicals have cited studies about declining attendance in mainline denominations. We’ve pointed at their faulty doctrine as a driving force in the decline. But now the decline is affecting us as well. We have to look for answers.

The value of The Great Dechurching is that it seeks to provide some of those answers, or at least raise the right questions. The data shows many of the leavers retain their orthodox doctrinal beliefs––our doctrine isn’t necessarily the biggest issue. The main problems are connections within local churches and spiritual formation. Though they could have been stronger, the book is salted with reminders that Christians are meant to be gathered together frequently. Davis and Graham note, “Being substantively plugged into a local church with committed relationships in a defined group of people is God’s plan for Christians to carry out the ‘one anothers’ and grow in Christlikeness. It helps us guard against arrogance, isolation, and flakiness” (179).

Despite its challenges, dechurching provides church leaders a unique opportunity to equip church members to make the most of their relationships so they forge robust connections with each other. We get to innovate ways to digitally disciple our churches in a world that inundates us with information. Thankfully, the church has the Holy Spirit to help with both these issues.

Progress and Progressivism: How We Got from 1776 to Today Wed, 15 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener continue their discussion on how the year 1776 has shaped our world.]]> How did the founding of America contribute to the post-Christian world we live in today? Is there something inherently post-Christian baked into the pie from the founding of the nation?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener continue their discussion of how the year 1776 has shaped our world. They trace the story forward to today as they discuss slavery, human rights, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. They talk about the apparent inevitability of progress in the 19th century and how those hopes were dashed by two world wars.

Wilson and Scrivener consider how these huge cultural and societal changes interact with the gospel, and they conclude by discussing the extent to which Christianity cannot be forced into the neat political categories of right and left, liberal and conservative.

What My Video Game Habit Revealed About My Heart Wed, 15 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Extended periods of gaming can make temptation more difficult to resist, quench the fruits of the Spirit, and deplete our affection for God and others.]]> If you did a time-tracking survey of the nearly 30 years of my life, you’d see three activities dominate—sleep, school, and video games.

From a young age, I loved video games. I loved losing myself in the stories, the challenges, and the worlds. I loved spending time with my friends while playing and, quite frankly, I loved that I was good at it. I loved the excitement of a new challenge, the focus of working on it, and the satisfaction of completion. All this was good.

One of my earliest memories is of explaining to an older kid (he was probably 6 or 7) that I didn’t read the conversations in Pokémon because I hadn’t yet learned to read. Over the next 15 or so years, I’d own nearly every major console and handheld between the Nintendo 64 and the Xbox 360, spending enormous amounts of time on each device.

I have no way to know for sure until I stand before God and give an account, but the amount of time I’ve spent gaming is probably more than 10,000 hours.

From preschool through high school, I never saw my gaming as a problem. School came easily enough that my grades were unaffected, and I was sociable enough to pass as someone who didn’t spend countless hours gaming alone. For me, gaming provided an easy way to escape from my fears, insecurities, and boredom while giving me a series of goals to focus my attention.

It wasn’t until college that I began noticing a connection between my gaming and my heart.

Enemy of My Soul

My roommate and I were invited to a Bible study with a couple of seniors, Justin and Alex, who had befriended us (and showed us what it truly meant to be good at Mario Kart). During one of those meetings, Justin observed that sinful actions and desires often have definable triggers in our hearts, and he encouraged us to trace our sinful actions to the point of conception and look for patterns in their occurrence.

As I took inventory of my own heart, I found that any period of extended gaming was accompanied by increased sin in my heart and life. When I played for a long time, temptation was more difficult to resist, the fruits of the Spirit were quenched while their sinful counterparts proliferated, and my affection for God and others felt almost nonexistent. I began to realize my love for gaming was an enemy of my soul.

I found that any period of extended gaming was accompanied by increased sin in my heart and life.

My realization did little to affect my behavior, apart from creating resentment in my heart. I still loved video games and wanted to continue enjoying them. I spent the next four years attempting to moderate my gaming, always arguing that video games were an amoral hobby I could still enjoy if I simply controlled my behavior.

This led to cycles of binging and quitting. I’d restrain myself for a week, but then my schedule would lighten or my self-control would weaken, and I’d binge—which could mean anything from 3 hours to 25 hours of gaming over a few days. Later, I’d resent myself. I even started deleting my game progress after binges to remind myself how meaningless my gaming efforts were. That would work pretty well for a specific game, but there’d always be another game to pull me back into the cycle.

My battle came to a head in 2017 after I graduated from college. I wanted to attend Southeastern Seminary in the fall of 2018, but I knew my gaming habits couldn’t continue if I wanted to love God with all my heart and pursue pastoral ministry. I also knew my time in college could have been far more fruitful if this habit never existed, and I regretted the hours spent on it.

After a final failure to control my gaming habits, I concluded that moderation was impossible for me because video games held too much of my heart. I reached out to a friend in frustration to ask if he wanted my Xbox. I didn’t even care to sell it. I wanted it gone and wasn’t sure if my will would last if a sale took too long.

Jesus says that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (Matt. 5:30). I felt that nothing less than this would work. I dropped the console off with my friend the next day and haven’t owned a console or a PC powerful enough for gaming since.

New Responsibilities

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing since then. In 2019, I almost caved and bought myself a new Xbox, but the Lord was gracious and gave my car a need for new tires instead. Mobile games have had some pull over me as well, but they don’t hold the same attraction as the high-quality games on major platforms. The Lord has blessed me with a wonderful wife, a beautiful daughter, and corresponding responsibilities that make sustained gaming impossible.

When I look back, the time I spent on video games is one of the greatest regrets of my life. While I had some great laughs and enjoyed every moment, for me, the cost was too high. I had every opportunity to learn incredible skills and build great relationships that could have given much glory to God then and now. Instead, I chose to spend my time in video games that accomplished little and served no one meaningfully. Gaming only fed my self-centered desire to be perpetually entertained and sapped me of motivation to invest in anything that mattered and required effort.

The time I spent on video games is one of the greatest regrets of my life. . . . [they] accomplished little and served no one meaningfully.

I suspect gaming is part of the reason I often struggled to form meaningful and lasting friendships in the past. I didn’t handle gaming like Justin and Alex, who were intentional about getting to know my roommate and me, inviting us to Bible studies and church, and sharing the gospel with suitemates after a few races.

Without the hard work of intentional connection, my ability to be a good friend atrophied. When it came to walking with others through pain, I knew absolutely nothing. When I finally encountered deep suffering in the context of close relationships as a young seminary student, I was either entirely useless or harmfully avoidant in responding to it. Thankfully, the Lord orchestrated those events to line up with my time in the required biblical counseling course, which equipped me with many of the relational basics needed to be a faithful friend.

The Lord has redeemed me in other ways. Before, whenever I was obsessing over a game in my heart, I was constantly irritated by any interruptions or other commitments that came up. Now, without video games constantly pulling at my heart and mind, I’m able to serve God and others with more patience and joy. I have time for more difficult but also more fulfilling and sanctifying hobbies, such as reading, spending time with my daughter, skimboarding, or finding a show my wife and I can bond over.

Dying to Idols

Because of my background and circumstances, quitting completely was the only answer. But that’s not true for everyone. Video games are a matter of practical wisdom, not explicit commands.

Parents, I encourage you to cultivate the right priorities in your children as you navigate video games. That may look like setting clear boundaries (and clear reasons for those boundaries). It could look like modeling how a love for God, neighbor, and gaming can coexist as you play games with them (making sure that God and neighbor are the higher priorities). You can also find articles, podcasts, and blogs with wisdom about navigating video games, whatever your life stage.

For anyone with a love of gaming similar to my own, I encourage you to simply press the delete button on your game or save file. Remove the temptation, and make it impossible to access without accountability. When our loves cause us to neglect what we should love, the wisdom God has given us is to deny ourselves (Luke 9:23–25). Putting something I loved too much in its proper place has been the most difficult kind of dying I’ve ever experienced. As my pastor said in a recent sermon, “Idols die hard.”

When our loves cause us to neglect what we should love, the wisdom God has given us is to deny ourselves.

In the end, the issue isn’t gaming or not gaming but the gamer’s heart. It’s not ultimately about modifying our behavior but about attending to our souls and guarding them from idols. I encourage you to heed the words of 1 John 5:21: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

To this day, I still love gaming, but I can’t regard it as a benign hobby. For me, gaming is a weight that entangles and must be laid aside (Heb. 12:1). It isn’t easy, but take it from me—it’s worth it.

How New Atheism Collapsed and Gave Way to New Faith Tue, 14 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Collin Hansen asks Justin Brierley about the ‘greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory.’]]> If you know Justin Brierley, it’s probably for the debates and interviews he hosted for many years with the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast. He interviewed some of the most outspoken atheist critics of Christianity and convened some of the most intense debates of recent memory.

During that time, however, Justin noticed a shift. The conversations changed in tone and substance—dramatically so. The bombast began to disappear. Secular guests opened to Christianity—at least its cultural and social value if not always its literal truth. They expressed concern over cancel culture and identity-based politics. Some of them made common cause with Christians. Some even became Christians.

He tells their stories in a new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again (Tyndale Elevate). Until April 2023, Justin was theology and apologetics editor for Premier Christian Radio and hosted the Ask N. T. Wright Anything podcast. He was editor of Premier Christianity magazine from 2014 to 2018.

You can tell from the title that The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God is an optimistic book. Justin writes, “New Atheism gave the Christian church a kick up the backside that it desperately needed. Arguably, the last two decades have seen the greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory as the church has risen to the challenge.” You know I love the sounds of that revival. You can see, then, why Justin says he thanks God for Richard Dawkins.

N. T. Wright wrote the foreword. He asks, “What if the Christian story is poised to come rushing back into public consciousness in our day? Could it once again nourish the hearts and minds of people who have been starved of meaning and purpose for so long?”

How amazing that would be! We discussed this hope, and more, on the latest episode of Gospelbound.

The Religion That Reads (but Doesn’t Respect) the Bible Tue, 14 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction.]]> “That’s the thickest book I’ve ever seen!”

My friend and I were discussing differences between Christianity and Mormonism, he’d just pulled the Mormon “Quad” out of his locker, and I was amazed at its heft. Roughly two and a half inches thick, this collection of Mormon scriptures includes the KJV Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

As we continued our conversation, one thing was clear: the Bible may have been bound alongside the other Mormon scriptures, but it didn’t carry the same authority.

What Do Mormons Believe About the Bible?

Article 8 of the Mormon Articles of Faith reads, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

Mormonism doesn’t view the Bible and the Book of Mormon equally. The Bible’s status as God’s Word is relativized by the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly.” The Book of Mormon is the word of God; the Bible merely contains the Word of God among the bits that are correctly translated.

Mormonism doesn’t view the Bible and the Book of Mormon equally.

Of course, this raises a question: “What does ‘translated correctly’ mean?” Mormons, or Latter-day Saints (LDS), understand that clause in various ways, but regardless, it opens the door to doubting the truthfulness of the Bible.

In talking to Mormons, I’ve encountered several objections to the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Some Mormons understand all modern translations of the Bible to be corrupt. Since the translators belong to apostate churches condemned by Joseph Smith, the translations themselves are artifacts of those apostate churches.

Others suggest “translated correctly” refers to a corrupted transmission of the text of Scripture through history. With arguments that sound similar to Bart Ehrman’s critique of the text, many Mormons assume the Bible came into the 21st century the way a message gets distorted when a bunch of eighth graders play the telephone game. The original text of Scripture has simply been lost in the dust of history. As the LDS apostle Neal Maxwell suggested, “By faulty transmission, many ‘plain and precious things’ were ‘taken away’ or ‘kept back’ from reaching what later composed our precious Holy Bible.”

Maxwell is repeating what former LDS prophets and apostles all the way back to Joseph Smith have suggested. Smith himself advanced both criticisms (errors in translation and transmission): “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers; ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.”

The Bible and the Great Apostasy

It’s important to remember that in Mormon theology, errors in the Bible aren’t just products of random translation and transmission. The church—which apostatized immediately after the time of the apostles, according to Mormons—actively corrupted Scripture to suit its own teachings. Smith even enshrined this understanding into the Book of Mormon: in 1 Nephi 13, an angel warns Nephi of the church’s apostasy and the Bible’s corruption:

Thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious. . . . And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men. Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God. (1 Nephi 13:26–28)

For this reason, many Mormons assume Scripture is corrupted wherever it contradicts LDS teaching. The Bible, then, always functionally stands under the church’s teaching and the other LDS scriptures. Mormons embrace the Bible as God’s Word only when it can be reinterpreted to support their theological agenda.

Grass Withers and Flower Fades

Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction—correction only through the restoration of the true church by Joseph Smith.

Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction.

In response to Mormon skepticism, Christians interested in exploring the translation and transmission of the Bible can find ample scholarly and apologetic works to bolster their confidence in Scripture’s veracity and truthfulness.

But even more, we can trust Scripture’s testimony about itself. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have been breathed out by God himself (2 Tim. 3:16). And his Word isn’t discarded quite as easily as Joseph Smith suggested. God promised his Word will endure: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).

Ministering in the Midst of Godlessness Mon, 13 Nov 2023 05:04:54 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the challenges of serving in a godless world and emphasize the importance of relying on Jesus for hope. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the challenges of serving in a godless world and emphasize the importance of relying on Jesus and holding onto hope. They reflect on the difficulties faced in pastoral ministry and the prevalence of self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking in society.

As they warn against counterfeit Christianity and highlight the need for authenticity and true transformation, they discuss the dangers of allowing unconverted individuals into positions of influence within the church and emphasize the importance of integrity and discernment.

Ortlund and Allberry discuss the the vital role of pastors’ spouses and the significance of unity and support within the church community when it comes to enduring in ministry.

Recommended resource: Help! I’m Married to My Pasor by Jani Ortlund

Which Jesus Do You See in Your Suffering? Mon, 13 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 When Jesus says, ‘I am with you in your sin and suffering,’ what emotions stir inside you? Comfort? Fear? Hope? Shame? Apathy?]]> For sufferers, one of the most potentially hope-giving promises is Christ’s assurance, “I am with you” (Matt. 28:20). Yet our ability to draw strength and hope from this promise rests entirely on our view of Jesus. Who exactly is this Jesus who’s with us in our suffering?

We’ve all met people whose presence makes suffering worse. They spew negativity. They drip with judgmentalism. They seem more interested in fixing us than understanding us. They might even blatantly shame us. If these people promised, “I will be with you in your suffering,” we’d cringe and hope it wasn’t true. We’d rather suffer alone than with a disparaging presence.

Others are a balm in our struggles. They’re safe. They encourage us. They ask questions and listen well. They speak words of truth and life. We say of these people, “I don’t know how I could’ve made it through that without her.”

How do you view Jesus? When Jesus says, “I am with you in your suffering,” what emotions stir inside you? Comfort? Fear? Hope? Shame? Apathy? Consider three views of Jesus, and ask yourself which “Jesus” you relate to most.

View #1: Harsh Jesus

The apostle Paul observed that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Yet sometimes the Devil doesn’t need to disguise himself—we do it for him. We grab hold of Scripture’s description of Satan, dress him up as Jesus, and then look to him in our suffering. Unsurprisingly, Harsh Jesus only makes our grief and pain worse.

This Jesus looks at us with disdain in his eyes. He doesn’t need to say a single word—we can tell by his expression that he’s judging us. He condemns us. He heaps burdens on us. He says, “Quit crying. It’s your fault you’re suffering anyway. God is getting back at you for your sin.”

Harsh Jesus hisses accusations, and we accept them as the voice of God. He’s impatient and impossible to please. He offers no forgiveness. No encouragement. No mercy. No help. This “Jesus” makes suffering intolerable.

View #2: Neutralized Jesus

Unlike Harsh Jesus, Neutralized Jesus doesn’t make suffering worse—but he doesn’t make it better either. His presence is like a wallflower, always in the room but rarely noticeable. We could live with or without him. He’s neutral.

There are many ways we neutralize Jesus in our minds. Some believe Jesus is powerful but doubt his care (cf. Mark 4:38; Luke 10:40). Others believe Jesus cares but doubt his ability to help in their (seemingly) unique situations (cf. Matt. 8:26; 14:31; John 5:6–7). Still others believe Jesus is hamstrung by their sin, unable to move in their lives until they clean themselves up (cf. John 4:13–18).

“I am with you” means little to those living with a neutralized Jesus. They say, “It’s a nice gesture, but his presence doesn’t make a difference in my broken life.”

View #3: Biblical Jesus

For the promise of Christ’s presence to fortify us in our suffering, we must reject the harsh and neutralized misconceptions of Jesus and renew our minds with the Jesus revealed in Scripture.

According to God’s Word, Jesus isn’t only with us; he’s unremittingly for us (Ps. 56:9; Rom. 8:31). His presence is always a favorable, advocating, affectionate presence—yes, even after we sin (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 2:1). Dane Ortlund remarks, “He’s not only there; he is on our team. He is for us. . . . He is looking at us and saying, ‘I am rooting for you. I am in your corner. You [can] fall into my open, nail-scarred hands any time you want.’”

In our suffering—even that which we’ve brought on ourselves by our sin—the true Jesus remains on our side. He faithfully disciplines us (Rev. 3:19) and calls us to repent and follow him—yet he does so with unmatched tenderness. Ortlund again:

Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Jesus is not a pointed finger but open arms.

In the Fire of Affliction with Us

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego gives us a powerful picture of Christ’s compassion in our suffering. God famously saved these men from a blazing furnace after they refused to worship the king’s golden statue. But how God saved them is curious and often overlooked.

Before Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were delivered from the fire, a fourth man—whom Timothy Keller and others identify as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ—appeared “walking in the midst of the fire” with them (Dan. 3:25). How strange is this? Christ could’ve easily appeared next to the king—safely and comfortably removed from the fire—and called out, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, come out of the fire!” This would’ve showcased his power and authority. Instead, Christ joined his people, preferring to endure the fire with them before saving them.

And so Jesus does for us. Our Savior refuses to sit back and watch us suffer alone. Christ became man to identify, suffer, and walk with his people before saving us, forever binding himself to us intimately.

When Jesus says, “I am with you,” he says it as One who knows the pain of suffering. He understands our weaknesses, fears, and struggles. He has felt the heat of the fire himself. And those flames were hottest on the cross, where Jesus was scorched for us so we’d never have to walk through the fire of affliction alone.

When Jesus says, ‘I am with you,’ he says it as One who knows the pain of suffering.

One day, Jesus will return to extinguish the fire of affliction forever. Until that day, we must remember our Savior is unreservedly committed to us and he walks amid the fire with us, even now.

“When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Savior. . . . Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isa. 43:2–3, 5, CSB)

Christ’s Victory over Social Media Sun, 12 Nov 2023 05:03:00 +0000 What Satan intends for anxiety and depression, the Lord is using for good.]]> You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20, NIV)

I can only imagine the gold mine Satan must have thought he hit when social media was invented. What a boon to capture the unsuspecting hearts and minds of young people by stealing their most valuable possession—their attention.

Google Scholar reports 78,000 research articles have been posted about the relationship between social media and mental health. They show a strong correlation between social media and issues like eating disorders, anxiety, depression, lowered trust and family functioning, and deep psychological distress.

But the victory of the Lord is triumphant over social media and Gen Z.

TikTok Testimony

The first time I shared my testimony, my campus ministry leader said, “I love that we see God’s grace through TikTok.” I was shocked.

But it’s true that TikTok was a catalyst for my personal walk with Jesus. After watching several videos made by Christian peers, I was encouraged to read my Bible by myself for the first time. During quarantine in 2020, amid isolation brought on by my rampantly increasing screen time, the Lord called me out of disobedience.

What Satan meant to distract me and pull me away from the truth, God meant for good, that I would know the true gospel. An invitation from a stranger on the internet spurred me on to a deep relationship with Jesus (John 17:3).

Online Encouragement and Outreach

Though social media has become riddled with negativity and isolation, nearly all Gen Zers have an account—and more than half of us spend four or more hours a day there. This space, filled with believers and nonbelievers, provides a unique opportunity for young Christians to do ministry.

What Satan meant to distract me and pull me away from the truth, God meant for good, that I would know the true gospel.

Through social networking, I’ve seen believing peers do Bible-in-a-year challenges, join support groups, provide each other with resources, and pray for each other. Satan uses internet access to isolate us in an increasingly depressed society. But where Satan tries to confine us, the Spirit creates fellowship.

After all, Paul and the other apostles were no strangers to long-distance fellowship. Timothy, separated from Paul, likely felt increasingly discouraged, yet Paul reminds him of his fellow brothers in the faith fighting alongside him elsewhere (2 Tim. 4:9–18). Just as Timothy can be connected to believers he isn’t physically with, Gen Z can use social media to encourage one another to endure the race set before them (2 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1).

We can do more than that. To see the church in places where we don’t reside casts a vision for the power of the gospel worldwide. It allows believers who feel isolated to see a unified church propelled on mission for the sake of the gospel. For example, despite growing up in a believing household, I didn’t even know I was supposed to share the gospel until I heard another young believer say it on TikTok.

Christ’s Preeminence Online

In our digital age, young believers have a special ability—and a special responsibility—to contextualize the preeminence of Christ, “for by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:16).

That includes social media. “Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Social networking certainly has dominion, rule, and authority over our lives. For us to acknowledge Christ’s preeminence is to recognize even social media has a God-given purpose, for “in him all things hold together” (v. 17).

How crazy is it that God has a sovereign hand over your Instagram algorithm? Do you consider your favorite social media platform to be through him and for him? As believers, we know God can and will use social media in our lives to accomplish his purposes (Rom. 8:28).

But that raises a question: What’s our responsibility online?

Our Obligation Online

The Great Commission begins with “go,” so Gen Z mustn’t be content with stagnation. We must choose to be mission minded. We must view social media as a resource rather than a distraction.

We must view social media as a resource rather than a distraction.

The goal isn’t to surround ourselves with believers so we can hide from the outside world but rather to view a united church as an encouragement to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). Social media is equipping us to go into all the earth and spread the gospel to the whole creation right here and right now (Mark 16:15). Where Satan seeks to draw us away from God, God gives an opportunity to encourage, equip, redeem, and send out disciple makers for this generation.

It’s no mistake I was born in this generation (Ps. 139:13–16). It’s no mistake I first deeply embraced the gospel because of a peer on social media. Though I don’t remember the poster’s name or exactly what the video said, I do remember it was the first time I felt God calling out to me for something more.

It was the victory of the Lord to use something as ordinary as another teenager on the internet to do something extraordinary and call me according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28–29). For God has called a generation of laborers to a unique harvest, with a declaration of hope in a seemingly lost place (Matt. 9:37).

What 3 Church Fathers Teach Us About Orphan Care Sun, 12 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 As my family moves through the adoption process, we’ve drawn inspiration from countless stories of church fathers who cared for orphans.]]> My family is in the process of adopting two children from Africa. Navigating their adoption has deepened our perspective on the greater work of spiritual adoption we’ve received in Christ. We too were once orphans longing for rescue and refuge until we were brought into the family of God. Our adoption into God’s family, and the amazing grace and mercy we’ve received, then compels us to care for those who are vulnerable.

On this Orphan Care Sunday, the body of Christ gives special attention to how we can care for children we might call “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Though this designated day may be an initiative of the modern church, orphan care is not. Throughout church history, the body of Christ has been on the front lines of caring for the fatherless.

As my family moves through the adoption process, we’ve drawn inspiration from stories of church fathers who cared for orphans. Here are three examples of what we can learn from them as we embrace the biblical command to care for orphans.

George Whitefield: Orphan Care Meets Physical and Spiritual Needs

Throughout church history, the body of Christ has been on the front lines of caring for the fatherless.

George Whitefield, leader of the Great Awakening during the 1700s, is well known for his care for orphans. Burdened for these children, he opened an orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. He named it Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.” He felt it was essential to meet the physical needs of the children in the orphanage, but more than that, he believed their spiritual needs were of the utmost importance. Frequently caring for more than 100 children at a time, he worked to alleviate their physical suffering and made sure they heard the gospel.

Through adoption, we too seek to create “houses of mercy” as we welcome children into our homes and families and provide for their physical needs. It’s also Great Commission work, calling us to faithfully share and live out the gospel, asking the Lord to deliver these image-bearers from the domain of darkness and transfer them to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

George Müller: Orphan Care Steps into Suffering

Born in Germany in 1805, George Müller later moved to England to serve as a missionary. Moved by compassion for needy children he saw while walking the streets, Müller opened an orphanage to provide for these orphans. It housed more than 10,000 children over his lifetime. He even lived among them himself, ensuring they were taught the gospel and were loved and cared for. Müller went to be with the Lord at age 92. At his funeral, over a thousand children followed the casket to the cemetery to pay homage to their earthly father.

Müller looked at these children with love and was moved to act in mercy toward them. It can be easy to see “the least of these” and be burdened briefly but then move on with our comfortable lives. Instead, may we, like Müller, respond with care for the vulnerable and marginalized. Perhaps the sacrifice for some may mean welcoming a child into your family.

My prayer is that the Lord will raise up many families to enter into suffering and shepherd these children to the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the love and tenderness of an earthly mother and father, Lord willing, many children will also come to know their heavenly Father.

Charles Spurgeon: Orphan Care Is Needed in Your City

Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” was born in 1834. At one point, he traveled to Bristol, England, to visit George Müller and hear him preach. After Müller finished preaching, he asked Spurgeon to share a few words. Spurgeon was unable to because he’d “been crying all the while.” He said, “I never heard such a sermon in my life.”

Spurgeon returned to his church in London and preached the following week, challenging his people to care for orphans according to God’s command. Through members’ donations, the church responded by opening Stockwell Orphanage. The children at the orphanage loved Spurgeon. They were said to crowd around him when he would come to visit. On Sundays, the children attended his church and heard the faithful preaching of God’s Word.

Culture of Adoption

Spurgeon was spurred on to care for orphan children by Müller and in turn sparked a culture of adoption within his congregation. In today’s adoption world, we often hear the term “cluster adoptions.” This refers to a culture of adoptions within churches and communities as brothers and sisters encourage one another to open their hearts and homes to children. Not every Christian is called to adopt, but every Christian can participate in fostering a culture of adoption, be it through financial support, meeting practical needs during the adoption process, or praying faithfully alongside adopting families.

Not every Christian is called to adopt, but every Christian can participate in fostering a culture of adoption.

When we care for the plight of the orphan, we echo the heart of our heavenly Father in whom “the fatherless find compassion” (Hos. 14:3, NIV), and we stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us. We do well to follow in their footsteps and point young image-bearers to the hope found only in Jesus Christ. Through God’s grace and mercy, may many orphans find their true homes as sons and daughters of God.

Welsh Christianity’s Surprising Rise and Decline Sat, 11 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Never before has the whole story of Wales’s Christian past been told in one volume and in the English language.]]> In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones walked around 25 miles to purchase a Bible in her own language. The story of the Welsh weaver’s daughter and her journey to get a copy of God’s word in her own language encouraged the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which continues to translate and distribute Bibles around the world. Acts of faithfulness, however small, can set global movements in motion.

Christianity in Wales has had a big effect on church history, not merely through a long walk by a teenager hungry for Scripture. For the first time in English and in a single volume, A History of Christianity in Wales connects stories of Wales’s Christian past to present-day readers. This engaging book is not just for historians, but for anyone who wants to be encouraged by seeing how God has worked in and through the Welsh people.

I interviewed one of the authors about the book. David Ceri Jones, reader in early modern history at Aberystwyth University in Wales, highlighted some contours of Welsh Christianity.

Many American evangelical Christians are at least aware of the Welsh revival of the 18th century. But this book traces the whole history of Christianity in Wales. Why is looking at one nation’s Christian history important?

The distinctive story of the Welsh Christian past is little known beyond the borders of Wales, and sometimes even within contemporary Wales too. Many people would recognize Martyn Lloyd-Jones but might struggle to name another prominent Welsh Christian.

There are lots of reasons for this, perhaps the main one being that the history of Wales has often been overshadowed by the story of its larger neighbor––England. Wales is also a small country, jutting out into the Irish Sea, with a population of little more than 3 million people.

It’s one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for much of its history, most of its citizens have spoken a different language to the inhabitants of the rest of the British Isles.

The history of Christianity in Wales provides a case study that can help Christians understand the cultural currents that enabled the evangelization of much of the nation but later led to the drastic decline of gospel belief.

How are Welsh Christianity and the Welsh language related? How does that play out in the history of Wales and affect the way ministry occurs in the contemporary Welsh church?

For much of its history, the vast majority of Welsh people spoke Welsh and only Welsh.

When the first attempts to teach the Welsh to read took place in the 18th century, the “circulating schools” of Anglican clergyman Griffith Jones taught people to read in Welsh. This wasn’t primarily out of a love of the language but to allow Jones and other evangelical clergy to reach people more effectively with the gospel and give them the skills to read the Bible for themselves.

The linguistic makeup of Wales changed decisively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the growth of heavy industry—coal mining in particular—brought a large influx of non-Welsh speakers into the country. Some have argued the decline of the Welsh language went hand in hand with the decline of nonconformist religion in the 20th century. That may oversimplify the reasons for Christian decline, which were, of course, not peculiar to Wales.

Today, according to the latest census figures, a little less than 18 percent of Welsh people speak Welsh.

Wales is therefore a bilingual country, and gospel ministry often reflects that. In some parts of Wales, there are fairly recently established Welsh language evangelical churches, while in other parts of the country, evangelicals try to sensitively bring the gospel to speakers of both languages.

This can sometimes create tensions, and the linguistic divide can loom especially large and prove a hindrance to the expression of evangelical unity on a local level. Sadly, for the majority of Welsh evangelical Christians today, many of the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition are inaccessible as they’re written in Welsh.

The consequence is that a distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

What role did Welsh Christians play in bringing literacy to Wales? Why was that effort significant for the history of the country? How did Christian publishing contribute to the evangelization of the nation?

The pioneering schools of Griffith Jones, the vicar of Llanddowror in Carmarthenshire, made the Welsh one of the most literate peoples in the whole of Europe.

A distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

Between the 1730s and 1760s, almost 300,000 men, women, and children were taught to read—mainly in Welsh. And that in a population of not much more than 450,000 souls.

There was a direct link between this newly acquired literacy and receptiveness to the preaching of the Methodists Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in 1735 and afterward. One historian has written that it was really only at this point that the Protestant Reformation came of age in Wales. That might have been something of an overstatement, but there’s some truth to it.

The translation of the Bible into Welsh had taken place in 1588, and the Welsh had access to the Scriptures in their own tongue for almost two centuries by the time of the advent of Methodism. All the same, Protestantism hadn’t become a genuinely popular movement until the evangelical revivals brought preaching and songs to the broader culture. A close fusion occurred between popular evangelical faith and the use of the Welsh language to express the exhilaration of the experience of the new birth when the hymns of William Williams Pantycelyn were published.

Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without a revival reported in some corner of the country. These revivals produced a religious culture that was both learned and populist, and supported a high level of theological discourse through a diverse periodical press and the publication of works of sophisticated Reformed theological insight in the Welsh language. These revivals helped transform Wales into a nation of nonconformists.

Some sense of the richness of this tradition for those who don’t read Welsh may be gleaned from D. Densil Morgan’s two-volume history of Welsh theology, Theologia Cambrensis: Protestant Religion and Theology in Wales.

Who is Daniel Rowland, and why is he important in church history?

Daniel Rowland was one of the triumvirate of Methodist leaders who led the Welsh evangelical revivals of the 18th century. An Anglican clergyman, his ministry was concentrated in southwest Wales, especially his own parish of Llangeitho.

However, our knowledge of Rowland is sketchy at best. Eifion Evans’s biography is the best account of his life, but this has been largely pieced together from sources other than those left by Rowland himself. Beyond a handful of sermons, Rowland’s writings have all been lost.

Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without a revival reported in some corner of the country.

Our knowledge of him therefore comes mainly through the writings of his colleague in the revivals, Howell Harris. Harris penned thousands of letters and kept a highly detailed private diary—running to almost 250 volumes (all of which survive in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth).

Rowland’s reputation rests on his popularity as a preacher, and he frequently attracted congregations in the tens of thousands to Llangeitho, especially for open-air communion services. A fresh outbreak of revival in 1762, centered on Llangeitho and sparked by a new volume of hymns written by William Williams Pantycelyn, was the impetus for the substantial growth of Methodism. This also contributed to its eventual secession from the Church of England in 1811, albeit long after Rowland’s death.

But Rowland is only one name among many that feature in this history of Welsh Christianity, many of which deserve to be more widely known.

William Morgan, the Bible translator, did for the Welsh language what William Tyndale did for English. Harris, a layman, established hundreds of small cell groups all over south Wales that proved to be the bedrock of the Calvinistic Methodist denomination. Thomas Charles of Bala founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, while Lewis Edwards planted Welsh Calvinistic Methodism firmly within the soil of Reformed Presbyterianism, especially of the Scottish variety. All these figures and many more feature in this new account of Christianity in Wales.

What’s something you wish more Christians knew about Christianity in Wales?

Lloyd-Jones once claimed that 18th-century Welsh Calvinistic Methodism was first-century apostolic Christianity. Quite a claim!

If he was right, then the evangelical world has much to learn from the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition. It’s my hope that this volume will introduce evangelical readers to a Christian story hitherto only sketchily known. I hope it’ll whet the appetites of readers for further exploration of the people and events recorded in this whistle-stop tour of Wales and its Christian past.

Why Do I Have to Keep Forgiving? Sat, 11 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Grudges are slow killers. Forgiveness involves trusting God that he’ll make all things right and salve our wounds.]]> Why do I have to keep forgiving him?

I’ve heard it many times as a pastor. It’s said with weariness and hurt, or bitterness and anger, or confusion and longing. It can mean at least four things.

  • “It hurts too much to keep forgiving him for repeated sins.”
  • “Can’t I just overlook her sin against me?”
  • “He hurt me so deeply that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.”
  • “Why am I still hurting over an offense when I said I forgave her?”

What does God’s Word have to say about each of these situations?

1. ‘It hurts too much to keep forgiving him for repeated sins.’

First, let’s be clear: forgiveness and reconciliation are different. You can’t have reconciliation without forgiveness. Reconciliation requires repentance, a changed pattern of living, and the rebuilding of trust in addition to forgiveness.

If reconciliation is like a bridge, forgiveness is like the footing of the structure on either side of the river. Forgiveness may be able to happen without repentance (Mark 11:25), but reconciliation cannot. The bridge of reconciliation is constructed by a changed pattern of living (from the wrongdoer) and the allowance for rebuilt trust (from the victim).

We can forgive without being reconciled—the footing can exist without the bridge. Just as the construction of the footing precedes the building of the bridge, forgiveness precedes reconciliation. Forgiveness is releasing the wrongdoer from what he owes you and opening the door for trust to be rebuilt. It always hurts; it always costs something dear. We must fully release to God the justice owed us. But forgiveness doesn’t mean instant reconciliation.

Forgiveness always hurts; it always costs something dear.

The wrongdoer being unwilling or unable to change can create deeper wounds. Such persistent wounds might mean reconciliation needs to be halted. Perhaps a protective boundary needs to be put in place or a tie needs to be cut. Be brave in seeking professional counsel. We may need to allow more time for the offender to prove trustworthy through a transparent and tangibly changed life. We also must acknowledge that forgiveness doesn’t eliminate the legitimacy—or in some cases, necessity—of pursuing legal justice against a perpetrator.

Nevertheless, forgiveness hurts. If your heart is overwhelmed, it may be because you’re trying to reconcile when God is first asking you to forgive.

2. ‘Can’t I just overlook her sin against me?’

Yes, you may certainly overlook an offense committed against you. The Bible says it’s our “glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). The one who “covers an offense seeks love” (17:9). Peter tells us that as hearts overflow with the love of Christ, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

We should be careful about our motives though. To truly overlook an offense, you must forgive the individual and not hold it against her or let it hinder the relationship. In addition, you must determine that overlooking the offense is in the offender’s best interest. We might be able to truly overlook the offense but still determine that loving confrontation is best for her. Beware of overlooking an offense because of fear rather than love.

3. ‘He hurt me so deeply that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.’

You’re entirely right; none of us deserves forgiveness. The world tries to navigate forgiveness by minimizing sin, but even the smallest sin is egregious if we view it as God does. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)—there’s no sin that doesn’t deserve eternal damnation. There’s no sin that doesn’t exile us from Eden.

The answer isn’t to deny, excuse, or minimize the sin committed against us. It’s to discover the deep well of God’s forgiveness for us. This is the whole point of Christ’s parable about the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35). An important detail is that the second servant owes the wicked servant no small amount. A hundred denarii is equivalent to four months’ wages for the common laborer—more than $10,000 today. Releasing someone from a $10,000 loan is a big deal. Jesus doesn’t diminish the harm done to us and the cost of forgiving that debt.

How, then, can we forgive? Only when we consider how much God has forgiven us. The king in the parable represents God, of course. Ten thousand talents (roughly $7 billion today) is impossible to repay. Even if you earned a six-figure salary, it would take you 1,000 lifetimes to pay it off. Jesus isn’t exaggerating for effect; the cost of our forgiveness is nothing less than the death of the holy, perfect, incarnate Son of God. Christ died for us that we might live with God—and this gift is free for us. As Paul concludes Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We don’t forgive because sins committed against us are manageable or diminished but because we’ve experienced the extravagant mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

4. ‘Why am I still hurting over an offense when I said I forgave her?’

We’re told to “forgive and forget.” Isn’t that what God does? No. While God has mercifully removed our transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), he doesn’t lose omniscience when it comes to our sin. He doesn’t forget our sin—he chooses not to remember. He treats us as though we haven’t sinned and are as righteous as Christ himself. The incarnate and ascended Son of God still bears the scars of the cross in heaven. They’re healed, yet they remain.

How, then, can we forgive? Only when we consider how much God has forgiven us.

Neither are we expected to forget sins committed against us. To make excuses or pretend as though the sin didn’t happen is folly. When serious sins are committed against us, we often don’t fully comprehend the depth of the harm. It’s not unusual to forgive someone only to later realize more forgiveness is required. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process.

If someone gossips about you, for example, you might initially realize your need to forgive her for misrepresenting you—only to later realize you need to forgive her a second time for the way it’s negatively affected others’ views of you. It’s normal to feel the sting of sin against you in a fresh way as each layer of consequence is revealed.

It might take years to heal from the trauma, and even when we’re healed, we may still (like Christ) bear the scars of others’ sins against us. Bearing scars doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t forgiven.

Difficult and Painful

It’s a difficult and painful question, but the Bible graciously answers it. To forgive is, ultimately, to release control of the offender into the hands of a just and merciful Judge for perfect vindication, and perhaps retribution (Gen. 18:25; Rom. 12:19–20). To forgive is to trust our Healer that he’ll make all things right and salve the wounds inflicted on us. But unforgiveness allows us to be hurt over and over again—once by the initial offense and constantly thereafter as we hold on to it.

It’s a good thing the One to whom we turn when struggling to forgive has already forgiven us and paid the cost to repair the ways we’ve wounded him. Thanks be to God for his inexhaustible forgiveness.

Introduction to the Life and Work of Tim Keller at TGC Netherlands Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 At TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen discusses Tim Keller’s life and ministry, highlighting significant tenets of Keller’s faith journey.]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen examines Tim Keller’s life and ministry through the concept of “rings on a tree,” revealing the different influences that shaped Keller as a believer and pastor.

Hansen describes how Keller held an inspiring commitment to lifelong learning and spiritual formation, even in the face of illness, and how Keller’s final years were marked by a focus on eternity as he searched for a deeper communion with God and prepared for his own death. A strong sense of community, diverse mentors, and a great love for the gospel all shaped the influential legacy of Tim Keller.

After ‘Roe’: The Pro-Life Movement’s Next 50 Years Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.]]> Tuesday night was another blow to the pro-life movement as Ohio voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the right to abortion into its constitution.

This was the seventh win out of seven such referenda, including in many conservative-leaning states. In Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to sign a 15-week limit on abortions, pro-life Republicans both failed to flip the Senate and also lost the House, largely on the strength of consistent pro-abortion messaging by Democrats. And in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron lost to incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, who attacked Cameron for his pro-life positions.

There’s no way to sugarcoat these results. It appears that a year after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life cause is still on the defensive. Arguably, we weren’t prepared to make the case for life as we were to make the case against Roe. In at least 14 states, abortion is completely outlawed. In two states, abortion is outlawed after six weeks, and in another two states, it’s outlawed when there’s a heartbeat. There’s a strong indication these laws have made a difference. One study shows that in the two months following the Dobbs decision, there were 5,000 fewer abortions, and in the states where abortion was outlawed, there was a 95 percent reduction.

This is encouraging, but the recent electoral losses show we have much more work to do. The half-century of work by pro-life activists that resulted in the Dobbs decisions must be met with an equal commitment to building a culture of life over the next 50 years. What might building a culture of life look like? Here are a few things for those who engage in the pro-life cause to consider going forward.

1.  We must reaffirm our commitment to the cause of unborn life.

Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of abortion, but we mustn’t waver. Too often we speak with a thousand caveats, or we’re hesitant to speak out for fear of being unpopular. It’s possible to be both civil and bold (1 Pet. 3:15–16). From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture tells us how God feels about image-bearers at the earliest stages of life. Unborn children are humans with full personhood (Ps. 139:13–14; Jer. 1:5). The pro-life issue is a justice issue. It’s the human-rights issue of our time. This is righteous work.

2. We must recognize the importance of persuasion.

It’s not enough to be right. We must also creatively persuade the public of the moral importance of protecting the unborn. Those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for a long time can’t assume the public understands the arguments against abortion. We can’t assume our neighbors see the humanity of the unborn and recognize the need for protections in law.

We must persuade not only our left-leaning neighbors but also our right-leaning ones. Many vote for pro-life candidates but also vote for pro-abortion legislation when it’s a single issue on the ballot. The referenda results appear to confirm the conclusions of the The Great Dechurching study, which found a large cohort of unchurched yet conservative voters. Some Republicans consider pro-life activists to be an electoral albatross and even blame our pro-life convictions for election losses.

Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of the issue of abortion, but we mustn’t waver.

Further, we can’t attach our righteous cause to people with unsavory character. This compromise both hurts the cause electorally and also harms our goal of awakening the American conscience. Instead, the pro-life movement must be proactive in recruiting and training good candidates who believe in the sanctity of human life and embody this ethic with their personal integrity and character.

Taking up the discipleship imperative, churches must intentionally and creatively teach about the sanctity of human life. We must ask, Have church members regularly heard the Bible’s teaching on the imago Dei, human dignity, and the value of the unborn child? Evangelical churchgoers shouldn’t be confused on this issue. They shouldn’t wonder what their pastors think. They shouldn’t be ill-equipped to engage this important issue of justice.

3. We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.

Abortion is a tragic symptom of the revolution that severed sexuality from the covenant of marriage and the beautiful fruit of family life. Our culture desperately needs the church to be a counterculture, an invitation into the flourishing way of life Jesus offers.

Shaping our country’s moral imagination will require us to resist atomization and expressive individualism and instead show our culture that pursuing these dangerous paths only produces loneliness and despair. It’ll mean celebrating the reality that God intends something more for our sexuality than our pleasure. It’ll mean helping fellow citizens embrace the truths that lifelong covenant marriage between men and women helps society flourish when children have both a father and mother in the home.

We should help Americans see that there is another human inside the womb, not merely a clump of cells, to awaken their consciences to see what they don’t want to see.

4. We must continue and extend our work with crisis pregnancies.

A woman who seeks an abortion often doesn’t arrive at this decision alone. She can be under pressure from a community that can’t envision her future as a mother but only sees her unborn child as an obstacle. If she finds a Christian community that values the life within her and sees value in her, and that offers to help, she’ll often choose to keep her baby and raise her child in that community.

This work also needs to be done with young biological fathers, many of whom have little or no connection with their own fathers. Abortion strips men of their responsibility and calls them away from true masculinity. These lost boys need men in their lives who can point them to the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. They need models who will encourage them to reject the passive abandonment of the First Adam and pursue instead the righteous and obedient manhood of the Second Adam.

5. We must take the long view when it comes to building a culture of life and enacting protections into law.

After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when the first few courageous souls began their work to undo that grievous decision, they saw ahead to what no one else in society could: Roe’s end. Few political observers predicted that 49 years later, the decision would come crashing down. It did because faithful leaders, often women, refused to go away. They refused to accept that unborn babies were destined to early graves. They refused to be intimidated by media opposition, cultural scorn, and a lack of resources. They refused to let the enormity of the injustice keep them from speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.

We need a similar vision for the next 50 years. We should envision a day when abortion will be not only illegal across the land but also undesirable. Taking the long view helps us make important, strategic advances. It reminds us that every justice movement is a movement of endurance. William Wilberforce devoted his entire life to ending the slave trade. Rosa Parks understood that the fight for civil rights would outlast her bus boycott. A culture of life will be no different. It will advance step by step, with incremental victories.

Pro-life advocates may be disappointed by recent election results, but we shouldn’t be dispirited. We should understand that while we make legal and moral arguments, ultimately the battle for life is a spiritual one. The taking of innocent life is the work of the Enemy, who the Bible says “has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14). But Christ has defeated this final foe (1 Cor. 15:54). We can fight the pro-life fight joyfully in the power of the Spirit, knowing one day the One who conquered death will return to make all things new.

‘Journey to Bethlehem’ and Christmas Cringe Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 It’s the biblical nativity story in the style of ‘Glee’ and ‘High School Musical.’ What could go wrong?]]> Faith-based movies have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately—gaining ground not only in commercial viability but also in artistic credibility. To be sure, the bar has been low. Most of these movies are still not great; they’re just better than what we’ve come to expect.

Sadly, the faith-based genre’s latest holiday movie sets the genre back—considerably. Journey to Bethlehem might still find an audience, in part because of thin competition due to the ongoing actors’ strike. But even for audiences looking for feel-good family fare at the multiplex, Journey will likely be disappointing. And for critics like me who have long advocated for more faith-based entertainment that doesn’t leave audiences cringing, Journey isn’t just disappointing; it’s demoralizing.

‘High School Musical’ Meets the Manger

It’s easy to imagine the pitch meeting for Journey to Bethlehem (distributed by Sony’s Affirm Films):

Picture the nativity story done in the teen musical style of Glee or High School Musical. There’s romance, family tension, a flashy villain, supernatural angel visitations, comic relief (a sort of three-stooges rendering of the Magi), and spectacularly choreographed song and dance numbers! It’s a “Christmas musical adventure for the entire family.”

With the Christmas story already so tied in our cultural imagination to music and theatrical performance (concerts of carols, extravagantly produced church cantatas), the green-lighting of a fresh musical take on Jesus’s birth isn’t hard to understand.

Journey has other marketing distinctives going for it too. The film’s cast includes CCM stars in lead roles (rapper Lecrae plays the angel Gabriel, and For King & Country’s Joel Smallbone plays Antipater, Herod’s firstborn son). An Oscar nominee plays Herod (Antonio Banderas). The film is directed and cowritten by Adam Anders, a Grammy-nominated music producer who most famously worked as executive music producer for Glee. His cowriter is Peter Barsocchini, who wrote the scripts for the High School Musical movies.

The narrative and musical masterminds of High School Musical and Glee plus a few CCM big names plus the greatest source material of all time (the Bible). With a recipe like this, what could go wrong?

Jesus and Jazz Hands

Journey’s problem is the same one that plagues the over-the-top church Christmas pageants abounding in megachurches during December.

Often, the addition of dramatic green and red lighting, ornate choreography, theatrical maximalism, and Bob Fosse razzle-dazzle doesn’t enhance the marvelous mystery of Christ’s incarnation; it diminishes it. This well-intentioned outreach to invite people into the biblical story by means of showy entertainment often has the adverse effect of reducing an expansive, world-altering, mind-blowing, magnum mysterium to just another piece of amusing “content” to cozily consume (and perhaps vaguely be inspired by) during the holiday season, in between eggnog lattes and The Great British Baking Show.

A truly meaningful “journey” to Bethlehem would need to jarringly transport us out of the holiday hustle in all its loud consumerism and overscheduled reverie—taking us to a more contemplative place outside of time, far from the familiar, and above the plane of everyday clutter and kitsch.

Cinema has the power to do this, and faith-based filmmakers are right to pursue this transcendent potential. But Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.

Anachronisms and Muted Darkness

Aside from period costumes and sets, and vague audience awareness that the story unfolding on-screen is supposedly set 2,000 years ago, much in Journey reverberates with 21st-century Western values.

I doubt there were female soldiers in Herod’s royal palace guard, for example, but there are in this movie. Because representation matters! And I doubt Jewish girls in first-century Palestine said things like “Faith is believing what you know in your heart to be true,” but they say things like that in this movie. Because follow your heart!

Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.

In the same way that anachronistic pop music in Baz Luhrmann films (Elvis, Moulin Rouge) reflexively reinforces the movie’s artifice—essentially excusing the film (and the audience) from a commitment to historical verisimilitude—the anachronistic feel of Journey distances us from the real biblical events it ostensibly depicts.

From their first “meet-cute” scene in a street market to their requisite “falling in love” ballad (“Can We Make This Work”) to their together-into-the-sunset departure, Mary and Joseph (played by Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim) are essentially following a Hallmark holiday rom-com script. Their personal dreams and aspirations (Mary dreams of becoming a teacher, for example) are at odds with the realities pushing them together into a history-altering union they didn’t seek out. Still, they find love and embrace an unforeseen future together, in a sweet, crowd-pleasing way.

Speaking of crowd-pleasing, the movie omits a key part of the nativity story that’s decidedly not family friendly: Herod’s massacre of the innocents (Matt. 2:16–18). We do see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus take off in a wagon at the end, but they’re bathed in golden-hour light with smiles on their faces. We’re left with the catchy, pulsating lyrics of a feel-good finale song, “Brand New Life,” as the movie ends. It’s a far cry from the “refugee king” drama and “great mourning” that characterizes the account in Matthew’s Gospel (2:13–18).

Yes, the nativity story is hopeful, joyful, and uplifting. But it’s a hope and joy that lifts us up because the starting place is so bleak. The hope is more thrilling because the world is weary. The light illuminates so strikingly because it shines in the darkness (John 1:5).

Light Shining in Deep Darkness

The darkness is fairly muted in Journey to Bethlehem. The film is merry and bright from start to finish (even Herod’s villain power anthem, “Good to Be King,” is a fun, flamboyant romp), such that the arrival of Christ feels less like like a shocking intrusion of light into the terrible darkness and more like a dimmer switch turning up the brightness a bit in an already lit room.

Glittering Christmas spectacles like Journey remind me why one of my regular December disappointments is a church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service that happens with the house lights still on, only dimmed. The point of a candlelight moment is that the starting point is complete, frightening darkness, such that the lighting of the first candle—and then from there, every candle in the room—visually enacts the light overcoming the darkness. The potency of the imagery is lost when the starting point is an already lit room.

The same is true of Christian art—whether music, movies, novels, or visual works. If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.

If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.

The torrent of abundance is more glorious when we’ve felt the scourge of scarcity. If we’re trying to communicate the message of a vivid, jolting intrusion of a great light into the darkness (Isa. 9:2), it’s hard to do this in a medium where darkness is downplayed or contained within the safety of a Disney-style cartoonish villain.

Is the movie musical a genre like this? Not necessarily. There are plenty of examples that grapple honestly with real darkness and gritty human suffering, yet still entertain and inspire audiences to hope (e.g., Les Misérables). But it’s tricky to pull off, and a Christian artist adapting the Bible to the form of a theatrical movie musical should tread carefully.

Medium and Message

Beyond movies like Journey to Bethlehem, it’s always valuable for Christians to remember how vital medium is in the effective communication of a message. We see this in the various “messages” given to characters within Scripture’s nativity account. God’s message for Mary in Luke 1:26–38 would have landed differently had he chosen to communicate it through a human messenger rather than a supernatural angel messenger (Gabriel). The medium mattered.

Same with the shepherds in Luke 2:8–20. Had God simply sent another shepherd along with the message of “good news of great joy,” it might not have been taken seriously. The medium God chose—a fearsome angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host”—mattered. And of course, the incarnation itself proves the point. God didn’t take the form of a ghostly apparition or some sort of alien creature. He took the form of a human man—the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The medium mattered.

In the same way, let’s consider the medium as we go about ministry and Christian storytelling. Is a smartphone app an acceptable medium for a church service? Is Twitter a fruitful medium for theological discourse? Is a movie musical an effective genre for communicating biblical truth? While it might be a stretch to say the answer is a definitive no in each of these examples, it’s not a stretch to say we should at least be asking the questions.

1776: The Year That Shaped the Post-Christian West Thu, 09 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of seven trends that came of age in 1776.]]> Why are things the way they are?

The world often seems strange to us, and it isn’t always clear why. The most pressing questions are the most challenging, with many perspectives needed to help illuminate the bigger picture.

There are several key texts from recent decades that offer partial explanations for the strangeness of the world.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains how secularism became the intellectual “default factory setting” in Western culture. Tom Holland in Dominion describes how the West is animated by symbols, institutions, and ideas that reflect the pervasive influence of Christianity. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman narrates the development of expressive individualism and its effect on modern concepts of sexual identity.

Andrew Wilson’s book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West ties many of these existing threads together and moves the discussion forward.

Remaking the World is an origin story of our culture. It’s an intellectual history of the modern world wherein so many contemporary believers live and move and have our being.

You Say You Want a Revolution

In the English-speaking world, 1776 is best known for the start of the American Revolution, a topic Wilson discusses in his book at length. But the origins of the United States of America are only one part of a much larger story.

According to Wilson, “1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (7). He argues that various events, figures, and ideas that came of age in 1776 and the years that followed informed seven trends that now define the modern world.

Using the acronym WEIRDER, Wilson says our world is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. This concept is not entirely original to Wilson, who draws on first five letters of the acronym (WEIRD) from Joseph Henrich’s 2020 book, The WEIRDest People in the World.

Wilson, who is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London (read TGC’s profile), suggests many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends—including our commitment to liberal democracy, our appreciation for religious liberty, our individualist emphasis on morality, the expressive nature of so much of our art, and the content of our cultural tensions and debates over personal identity. The shadow of expressive individualism, coupled with greater accessibility to education and affluence, looms large.

How the West Became WEIRDER

Most of Remaking the World is dedicated to recounting the historical origins of the seven WEIRDER trends. Wilson’s metanarrative is persuasive and offers significant explanatory power in describing the world as we now know it. While his chapters don’t strictly follow the acronym, I’ll summarize their content along those lines.

Many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends.

Wilson argues the world became Western (W) because James Cook circumnavigated the globe, clarifying that there was a West (at least from the perspective of European cartographers). The values of Europe, which had traveled further and endured longer because of certain geographic advantages, increasingly shaped the values of the East and eventually the Global South.

We became more Educated (E) because of the rise of what’s often called the Enlightenment. While the name is somewhat misleading, in this period pioneering intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant and Edward Gibbon were transforming how many of us think. Gradually, the subversive ideas of the Paris salon or the London pub became the secular norms of the modern West, though the latter still echoes Christian assumptions more than is typically conceded.

Today, we’re Industrialized (I) because of inventions such as the steam engine, innovations such as factories, and economic priorities such as free markets. The pioneers of the Industrial Revolution could hardly have imagined the pace of innovation that characterizes our ongoing technological revolution.

This trend helped create the next one, as the world became Richer (R) due to what Wilson and others have called the Great Enrichment. Gross domestic product and personal wealth have accumulated at a far greater pace, and to a far greater degree, than in any previous period in history. Wilson attributes aspects of the Great Enrichment to the influence of Christianity while warning against how greed and other vices have fueled enrichment in the modern world.

The West is certainly more Democratic (D), in large part because of the American Revolution and similar movements it inspired in other nations. However, democracy has taken deepest root in nations whose soils remain nurtured by Christian assumptions, even if unacknowledged or commingled with Enlightenment ideas.

But one facet of many democracies, an emphasis on religious disestablishment, has contributed to the Ex-Christian (E) posture of the West. In the 1770s, the seeds of secularism were evident in the skepticism of many leading philosophers, including some American founding fathers, whose skepticism informed their advocacy for religious freedom. The seeds of post-Christian sexual ethics were also evident, epitomized by the depraved writings (and actions) of Marquis de Sade.

Art is both informed by culture and creates culture, and the Romantic (R) movement profoundly shaped the modern West. Wilson discusses several writers who were precursors of expressive individualism and in some cases devotees of the revolution in sexual morality.

Wilson’s narrative, though necessarily general, is nuanced. In every case, he demonstrates the dynamic interplay between Christian ideas and rival worldviews in shaping our current intellectual milieu. The upshot is that some of our assumptions are deeply Christian (even among many unbelievers), while others are sub-Christian or even anti-Christian (even among many believers). The West today isn’t so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

How Then Should We Live?

Wilson’s stated motivation in expounding the intellectual legacy of 1776 is “to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world” (12). To that end, he spends the final two chapters reflecting on how evangelicals navigated the mid to late 18th century and what that means for us today. His synthesis of intellectual history and pastoral sensibilities is both refreshing and commendable.

The West today is not so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

Remaking the World focuses on three themes: grace, freedom, and truth. Wilson recounts the flowering of evangelical hymnody in the era of John Newton, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley, with their emphasis on God’s free grace available to sinful humans. He discusses the campaign to abolish slavery in England and New England, which was led largely by evangelicals. And he discusses the apologetic for truth (including religious truth) undertaken by the little-known German evangelical philosopher Johann Georg Hamann during the height of the Enlightenment. These classical evangelical emphases are evergreen.

Today, we should remember that the same century that gave rise to our modern world also gave rise to the modern evangelical movement. The earliest generations of evangelicals flourished in the dawning days of the world in which contemporary evangelicals now live.

We can flourish similarly, though not by revising evangelicalism to jell with the assumptions of our culture. Rather, evangelicalism will thrive to the degree we offer a faithful, courageous, and winsome witness to evangelical truth in ways that connect contextually with those whose lives are shaped by the trends Wilson has so helpfully defined and described in Remaking the World.

Don’t Overlook Commuter-Campus Ministry Thu, 09 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Ministry on commuter campuses is different, difficult, and completely worth the effort.]]> I was blessed to spend 13 years working in college ministry, mostly at two large residential universities in Virginia.

Those were wonderfully sweet years of ministry for our family. We had the privilege of seeing students trust Christ, grow in their faith, become leaders, and be sent out to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives.

On several occasions, our team attempted to launch a ministry at other nearby schools, typically commuter colleges. Those efforts were generally met with frustration. When something did take off, it’d usually fizzle within a year or two. As I spoke with fellow college ministers, I realized this was a common experience. Commuter college ministry is hard.

Our family recently moved to a new city to plant a church. Although there are no residential colleges in our town, there are two large four-year commuter schools. We’ve had the opportunity to spend significant time working with students on both campuses. Here are a few reasons we’ve come to believe that ministering on commuter campuses is worth the effort—not only for campus workers but for pastors too.

Why Is It Challenging?

Why do commuter college students often seem more difficult to reach? I can think of at least three reasons.

1. They’re ‘nontraditional.’

“Traditional” college students are individuals who graduate from high school and immediately go off to college, where they spend four years before graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Students at commuter schools are more likely to be “nontraditional.” They may be older, working full-time, or taking classes part-time. They may have families or other responsibilities. Nontraditional students are less likely to have the flexibility to be involved in extracurricular activities like campus ministries. Weekly commitments and retreats are often a no-go.

Ministering to such students may require adjusting the expectations of involvement and success for your ministry.

2. They aren’t around at night.

Ministering to such students may require adjusting the expectations of involvement and success for your ministry.

Commuter students, well, commute. When they’re done with class, they head home—and home is sometimes far away. I know students who commute an hour or more to get to campus. This means most students aren’t available during the traditional time to have college ministry activities—at night.

Ministering to them will require adjusting your daytime calendar and being flexible with your schedule.

3. They don’t stay for four years.

Often students at commuter colleges are hoping (or in the case of community colleges, required) to transfer to another school after a year or two to finish their degree. This means the window to work with them is much shorter than at a residential college. Most college ministry models are structured around a four-year program and don’t necessarily translate well when turnover is faster.

To minister to these students, you may have to throw out the playbook and get creative.

Why Are They Worth It?

Despite these challenges, the effort is worth it for several reasons.

1. They’re receptive.

Students at large residential colleges are inundated with opportunities to get involved. I’ve spent more hours than I could possibly count standing at info tables on traditional campuses trying to get students’ attention—only to have 95 percent of them walk by and never make eye contact. As frustrating as this is, it’s hard to blame them. If they stopped at every organization’s table they passed, they’d never get anything else done.

This isn’t the case on most commuter campuses. Even if the student-life website boasts “over 200 registered groups,” the reality on the ground is that students encounter few opportunities to get involved in meaningful ways.

I led a weekly Bible study with a campus ministry at one of our local commuter colleges. Before our first study, I took a few minutes to walk around the library and invite students to join. To my surprise, one of the young men I invited came over and sat with us. He came back nearly every week that semester. This wasn’t an isolated incident; students at these colleges are waiting for someone to invite them to be part of a community.

2. You can minister to the whole family.

My wife met a female student on campus last year and began to meet weekly with her to study one of the Gospels. Over the course of the year, this woman decided to follow Christ and got involved with our church plant. Before long, she brought both of her sisters and her mom to various church functions.

This whole-family ministry was alien to my experience working at a residential college, where students were often hours away from their families. But it’s right at home in the New Testament, where the gospel often reaches entire families at once.

3. Students stick around.

The saddest part of ministry at traditional colleges is saying goodbye to seniors every year. From our rural town in southwest Virginia, they’re always off to Richmond, DC, Charlotte, and innumerable other places.

Students at these colleges are waiting for someone to invite them to be part of a community.

In contrast, many students at commuter schools stick around in the city where they grew up. Even if they transfer to finish their degree, they often come back. This is where they plan to get a job, get married, and start a family. Not only are there fewer “goodbyes,” but you now have the opportunity to minister to them for the long haul through the joys and pains of these next seasons.

So campus workers, church planters, pastors, and missions-minded church members, don’t overlook commuter campuses in your city. There’s exciting work to be done.

Love and Liberty: The Original Sexual Revolution Wed, 08 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener talk with historian Kyle Harper about the early Christian revolution in attitudes toward sex and sexuality.]]> Nearly a millennium before the swinging ’60s, a revolution in attitudes toward sex and sexuality transformed how we consider marriage, family, the sexes, equality, consent, and even concepts like free will and human dignity.

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener interview Kyle Harper, a University of Oklahoma historian of the classical and author of From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Harper unpacks that first revolution, how it shaped the traditional Western understanding of sex, and how it has been challenged and in some ways rejected in the past 60 years.

Help and Hope When Church Leaders Fall Wed, 08 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Even the strongest saints are wounded and vulnerable when those around them fall.]]> Our backyard forest is struggling to survive this year’s relentless Texas drought. Dead grass, withered leaves, and fallen branches litter the parched ground, and a massive hackberry tree fell this week. The familiar tree’s sudden death is sad, but most devastating is the damage left behind: saplings crushed, weaker trees bent in half with tips trapped under the trunk’s weight, and many mature trees suffering broken limbs, split trunks, and crushed crowns.

The damage done when Christian friends and leaders fall away from the faith is similarly devastating, leaving weaker brothers and sisters crushed, bent, or trapped under their weight. Let’s not forget even the strongest saints are vulnerable and wounded when those around them fall.

Psalm 12 is David’s lament over the deception, arrogance, and corruption prevailing among those once considered faithful and godly. John Calvin notes this lament isn’t about strangers but rather a “deluge of iniquity prevailing in the church of God.” When faith is proven insincere or friends and leaders publicly reject Christ, everyone grieves the “deluge of iniquity” (or, in David’s words, the flattering lips, double hearts, and exalted vileness). Psalm 12 offers strong encouragement, practical wisdom, and stern warnings for the faithful who are struggling to endure after intimate friends or trusted leaders fall.

Strong Encouragement in Persistent Grief

When someone close to us slowly disappears or suddenly falls, we’re not alone. Our churches, church histories, and Bibles are full of faithful saints with stories of enduring similar suffering. Though David’s circumstances in Psalm 12 of betrayal and distrust are unknown, we know his desperation is due to the flattering lips and double hearts of the “godly one [who] is gone” (v. 1).

A nation that rewards appearances of godliness and religious affiliation with possibilities of power, fame, and fortune will inevitably see false teachers and insincere religious leaders fall as those public opinions change. When a culture no longer regards Christianity as virtuous, people’s arrogant and deceitful hearts are revealed, even as some with sincere faith are tempted or led astray by the spirit of this age. Drift happens when godliness no longer promises gain. Then, like my hackberry, when friends and leaders fall, it causes damage to everyone around them.

Drift happens when godliness no longer promises gain.

It was reasonable for David to feel alone after those he trusted vanished or were caught lying. Pain and disorientation are expected after friends fall, especially in seasons of relentless heat and drought. Even when we feel alone, though, the strong encouragement of Psalm 12 is that we’re never alone. We have confidence in a God who promises never to leave or forsake.

This same God also gives us one another. The introduction of Psalm 12 acknowledges a choirmaster and choir proclaiming David’s laments alongside him. In verse 5, David prays for the poor and vulnerable suffering with him under the weight of fallen leaders. Then, in verse 7, the faithful remnant is acknowledged as David declares their sure defense: “[God] will guard us from this generation forever.”

Even though it’s reasonable to feel alone, Psalm 12 reminds and encourages us that we are never alone.

Practical Wisdom to Help Us Endure

The psalm ends with David’s swirling thoughts and emotions unresolved—like the external wickedness and conflicts around him. Nonetheless, he presses on in three practical ways.

1. Humbly and honestly cry and complain to God.

David admits vulnerability and loneliness, confusion and pain. He names overpowering emotions and puts words to swirling thoughts. When unsure what to do or whom to trust, start with a simple and humble cry to God. Honest cries and complaints to God are the opposite of flattering lips, boastful tongues, and the deceitful double-hearts of those who have fallen.

2. Acknowledge and seek truth, no matter how painful.

David acknowledges God’s delight in truth and declares the goodness of revealed truth—even if it causes suffering. He seeks truth by praying for deceit and corruption to end for the sake of the vulnerable, knowing it might cause additional pain. It’s good to seek truth in our land, in the hearts of our leaders, and in our own sinful hearts—even when its revelation is painful.

3. Sing the truth with (and to) one another.

David sang Psalm 12 alongside the Kushites while the weariness of the world threatened to crush him. Show up to church on Sunday and sing alongside others also fighting unseen battles. Sing when you can’t get out of bed on Monday morning, as you walk into another hostile boardroom, or in the carpool line while the weariness of the world threatens to crush you. Singing truth defends against prevailing pain and confusion while we wait on God to set all things right.

Warning in Our Vulnerability

As in David’s time, wickedness and vileness are exalted in ours. Truth is relative, flattery prevails, and godliness is leveraged for gain. Worldly knowledge and eloquent speech are valued over truth and love. Sermons are posted and measured by views and likes, tempting leaders to exult in flattery, success, performance, and empty praise. Everyone is vulnerable to the spirit of this age. If David and Calvin needed God to guard them against their generations, how much more, in this time of information deluge and instant gratification, are we utterly dependent on God to guard us?

Wickedness and vileness are exalted in our time. Truth is relative, flattery prevails, and godliness is leveraged for gain.

Fallen trees wound, and we’ll certainly feel hurt and vulnerable when those around us crash to the ground—or simply disappear. But though it’s good to realize the effect of fallen friends and leaders, we must also recognize our vulnerability and dependence on God alone even when we serve under or alongside the most faithful and godly.

Psalm 12 begins and ends with inner turmoil and external tension. There’s no resolution, just as there seems to be no end to Christian friends and leaders falling today. Charles Spurgeon captures the tension perfectly, declaring its sacred stanzas a “mingled melody of lowly mourning and lofty confidence.”

Let’s cry and complain to the Lord with bright sadness as we seek and sing merciful truth together. That’s how we’ll endure prolonged anguish caused by those who fall around us, even as we depend solely on God to hold us fast until the end.

True Blessing Comes from Countercultural Living Tue, 07 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 We’ve tried just about everything else in our changing world. Maybe we should try doing what Jesus says.]]> “Jesus hears and cares about the things that make your heart heavy and your cheeks wet.”

That was perhaps the most moving line in Alistair Begg’s new book The Christian Manifesto: Jesus’ Life-Changing Words from the Sermon on the Plain (The Good Book Company, 2023).

It’s a challenging book. It’s a sensible book. It’s a book about how we approach the world, how we engage the culture in truth and love. Above all, it’s a biblical book all about Jesus.  

Core to Begg’s manifesto is a contrast between the teaching of Jesus and the way of the world. The Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke isn’t the kind of speech that gets you elected to public office today. Jesus didn’t flatter. And he didn’t compromise. His ways aren’t always our ways. Begg argues,

The biggest reason for the ineffectiveness of contemporary Christianity is a failure to take seriously the radical difference that Jesus calls for as we follow him as King. The 21st-century Western evangelical church has too often given in to the temptation to soft-pedal Jesus’ words—to find caveats and loopholes in what he says—in order to offer the world something that sounds more palatable and less demanding. We have spent decades congratulating ourselves for being able to go among our non-Christian friends and say, “You know what? We’re just the same as you.” And they’ve said, “You know what? I think you’re absolutely right!” 

So what’s the alternative? The kingdom of Jesus! Followers of Jesus don’t get happy and sad about the same things as the rest of the world. Christians pursue ambition in ways the world regards as weak. Sometimes Jesus’s commands won’t make sense to others. Sometimes they don’t even make sense to his followers. And yet we trust him and obey. We’ve tried just about everything else in our changing world. Maybe we should try doing what Jesus says. Here’s Begg again:

I’ll show you how to make an impact on the culture, says Jesus. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who ill-treat you. If we chose to live this out, it would cause a revolution in our culture. It would prompt a complete change in the tone that many of us adopt on social media. It would open doors of homes and make them places of welcome and restoration. It would cause bridges to be built across political divides that have caused disagreements (or worse) in the past, and it would transform relationships in the workplace into ones of collaboration and forgiveness rather than self-promotion and grudge-holding. In other words, if we chose to live this out, it would show what our Father is like: merciful. 

Alistair Begg is senior pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher at Truth for Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world. He joined me on Gospelbound to talk about Jesus, true gospel-centered living, and more.

From Shadow to Substance: Aaronic Priesthood’s Transformation Tue, 07 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 Exodus 40 is a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens.]]> Let’s say you’re reading through Exodus and you get to chapter 40, where the Levitical priesthood is being described. There you read that Aaron and his sons were to be a “perpetual priesthood throughout their generations” (Ex. 40:15). Wait, what? Perpetual? As in, never-ending—the opposite of temporary? If the Levitical priests are supposed to be perpetual, then how come we don’t have them in our churches?

This same question arises for other related issues. If the Levitical priesthood is perpetual, then one would think the tabernacle in which they worked would also be perpetual. Turns out it is:

  • The lighting of the golden lampstand in the tabernacle was to be a “statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel” (Ex. 27:21).
  • The Day of Atonement—the one day a year when the high priest went into the Most Holy Place to pour sacrificial blood on the mercy seat—was to be a “statute forever” (Lev. 16:34).
  • Long before that, God had told Abraham that the covenant of circumcision in his flesh was to be an “everlasting covenant” “throughout your generations” (cf. Gen. 17:11, 12).

Bible-believing Christians are perfectly comfortable living our lives and leading our churches with no Levitical priests, no golden lampstands, no Day of Atonement, and no circumcision. Why? Is it because we don’t take these passages seriously? Have we somehow embraced a “Greek” Christianity that’s shorn of its Jewish roots?

The answer is no. But the question is worth exploring because this is a test case for how to interpret the Bible. To be more precise, it’s a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens, allowing the New Testament to guide our interpretation of the Old Testament.

Later Revelation Interprets Earlier Revelation

Historically, many Christians have referred to Old Testament practices like circumcision and priestly rules as “ceremonial” or “positive laws” (as distinguished from moral laws) and have argued they’re no longer binding in the New Testament. Whether you like that terminology or not, it’s a good-faith attempt to listen to all of Scripture to understand why some laws were discontinued while others weren’t.

For example, the reason Christians don’t regard circumcision as a perpetually binding practice (despite Gen. 17:13) isn’t because of a natural aversion to being cut. Rather, it’s because of straightforward New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 7:18–19:

Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. (cf. Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Col. 3:11)

Paul takes something the Torah commanded on pain of death (Ex. 4:24–26) and basically says, “It doesn’t matter.” Unless you’re going to accuse Paul of being a false prophet who rejected the Old Testament, you have to wrestle with why he said this. What categories was he employing to arrive at such a jarring conclusion? At the very least, this should give you a starting point for why Christians don’t get their circumcision ethics straight out of Genesis 17.

This a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens, allowing the New Testament to guide our interpretation of the Old.

This principle also explains why we can’t simply go straight to the “perpetual” texts cited above and conclude, “We’ve got to obey them literally, or else we’re refusing to believe the Bible.” Later revelation must be allowed to explain earlier revelation. You can’t interpret phrases like “perpetual priesthood” and “statute forever” apart from the New Testament. The New Testament gives us an inspired interpretation of how those Old Testament ceremonies were fulfilled.

Shadows Point to the Substance

But lest this sound arbitrary—as though we were simply comparing the dates and concluding that later must be better, let’s pay attention to how the apostles reached their conclusions. Their purpose was never to critique or dismiss Old Testament ceremonies in themselves but rather to show how they were intended to point to Christ all along.

In Colossians 2:17, for example, Paul uses the language of “shadow” and “substance” to describe the relationship between Old Testament ceremonies and Christ. A shadow is cast by a substance (e.g., a body). Questions of food and drink, festivals, new moons, Sabbaths—all these were shadows cast by the approaching Christ. But Christ is the substance, and when he arrives, we aren’t to allow others to pass judgment on us in such shadowy matters.

The writer of Hebrews uses this same language to describe the relationship between the Levitical priesthood with its tabernacle context and Christ the great high priest. These earthy priests, he says “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5). Moreover, Hebrews 9 is clear that these outward types were only meant to endure “until the time of reformation” (v. 10).

So regarding the Day of Atonement, Hebrews 9 teaches that Christ fulfilled it when he entered once for all into the true holy place in heaven (vv. 11–28). This means that when Leviticus 16 calls the Day of Atonement a “statute forever,” we have to include the fulfillment in that word “forever.” What the Day of Atonement was pointing to will endure forever. But that doesn’t mean the ceremony itself would endure forever.

Once More on the Levitical Priesthood

The book of Hebrews relates Christ to the Levitical priesthood in two different ways. It not only teaches that Christ fulfilled the Levitical priesthood when he went into the true holy place in heaven to offer himself but also teaches that Christ belongs to a better priesthood than that of Aaron. Once again, the order of events in redemptive history plays a key role here.

The writer points out that before the law was ever given, Moses spoke of another priest named Melchizedek (see Gen. 14:18). Then after the law was given, Psalm 110 tells us another priest was going to arise after the order of Melchizedek. So putting all those things together—Genesis 14, which was before the law, and Psalm 110, which came after the law, the author of Hebrews reasons like this:

If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Heb. 7:11–12)

For Psalm 110 to come true, the law would have to change. In other words, the Old Testament was already indicating Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t going to last forever in the literal sense. It was bound up with the old covenant—but when the new covenant came, the old covenant would vanish away, along with its priesthood (Heb. 8:13). It would then be superseded by a better priest—a priest who’d never have to be replaced because he’d live forever.

The Old Testament was already indicating Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t going to last forever in the literal sense.

In short, the writer of Hebrews isn’t saying, “Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t perpetual after all—Exodus 40 just got it wrong.” Nor is he saying, “You would never have gotten any this from the Old Testament, but since I’m an inspired apostle, I can fill in the gaps for you.” Instead, he’s saying, “This is already there in the Old Testament. You just need to know how to put the pieces together properly.”

So when we read about “perpetual priesthoods” and “forever statutes,” we mustn’t read these promises as though Exodus were all the Scripture we had. We must heed Paul’s counsel and “remember Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:8). The One in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20). The only son of Israel who is truly “a priest forever.”

How a Gentle Spirit Silences Contention Mon, 06 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund discuss avoiding a quarrelsome spirit in Christian leadership and the need for kindness, patience, and gentleness. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund discuss 2 Timothy 2:14–26. They consider the importance of avoiding a quarrelsome spirit in Christian leadership and the need for kindness, patience, and gentleness in dealing with others. Their conversation highlights how the apostle Paul’s approach to correction is to first connect with others, not shame or reject them, and to do so in a way that makes it easy for them to repent and follow Jesus.

Recommended resource: Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp

Our First Evangelistic Task: Make Christianity Comprehensible Mon, 06 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 The beauty and goodness of the good news need to be made clear, in all its complexity and simplicity.]]> “For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life,” writes Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. This statement gets at the heart of the biggest challenge for the contemporary church.

To help our neighbors trust Jesus for their salvation, we must make the Christian gospel comprehensible.

Comprehensibility is not the same thing as making the gospel palatable or comfortable. Rather, the gospel needs to be imaginable for people who can no longer conceive of the true faith as a possible vision of reality in a secular age.

The beauty and goodness of the good news needs to be made clear, in all its complexity and simplicity. We must demonstrate a reality exists outside our minds and our experiences and that the gospel demands conformity to that external reality. This requires disrupting materialist conceptions of the Christian faith through contemplation of the gospel, teaching a robust biblical sexual ethic, and challenging the belief that we belong to ourselves.

Contemplate the Transcendent

Many of our neighbors will struggle to conceive of God as a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being who desires to know and love us as his children.

As modern people, we imagine ourselves to be “buffered,” in Taylor’s language. To be buffered means we feel we can dictate the terms by which we engage the world. This requires us to live in the immanent frame, which is to envision reality in primarily materialist terms. We’re cut off from the world beyond our own experience and interpretation.

Even for Christians, it’s difficult to imagine something like a rainbow as a sign from God. We experience it merely as a material phenomenon. Part of making the gospel comprehensible involves helping people see and experience the Christian faith as more than a lifestyle option, disrupting their conception of God by asserting his reality, identifying and challenging the immanent frame, and engaging in practices like the Lord’s Supper.

Breaking through our materialist assumptions is hard because we’ve all been sucked into the hum and buzz of a technological age, an age that demands more and more of our time and militates against contemplation and reflection. The gospel is cognitively taxing. It upsets our very understanding of ourselves.

The gospel is cognitively taxing. It upsets our very understanding of ourselves.

Breaking free from the immanent noise of technology to think deeply about the gospel requires contemplation. Ultimately, the results of any gospel presentation depend on the work of the Holy Spirit. But we must be aware that the material situation of our neighbors’ distraction actively works against the kind of thinking that allows awareness of our sin nature and our need for a redeemer.

Reaching our neighbors requires us to come up with practices that pull people away from the technology of distraction and invite them to contemplate the transcendent wonder of the gospel.

Get Sexual Ethics Right

Because we’re living through a second sexual revolution, we need to be able to communicate the beauty of a biblical sexual ethic. We must clear up confusion about what Christians believe in general (as a post-Christian culture grows), but especially in the areas of sexuality and gender.

We must be able to explain the essential relationship between marriage, our bodies, sex, and procreation. Marriage needs to be presented not merely as a license for sex or a legal bond but as a covenant grounded in the act of creation and a living metaphor for Christ’s love for his church.

Our bodies should be understood as belonging not to ourselves but to God and in some limited ways to our spouses and children. We must teach that the purpose of sex involves both the pleasure and intimacy of the couple and an openness to children. Although not all will be capable of having children, procreation should be seen as part of the nature of marriage itself. These ideas will be challenging to our secular neighbors—and to those in the church who’ve been taught that their bodies are their own and children are merely a lifestyle option.

The communication of this sexual ethic must take place off platforms that require sound bites. Social media isn’t conducive to discussions about our faith. Social media is especially hostile to explaining a robust biblical sexual ethic. Instead, the local church needs to be an example of the beauty of Christian sexual ethics. Moreover, Christian leaders need to offer lengthy and nuanced accounts of why the Bible’s sexual ethics is beautiful.

The world will grow weary of autonomy and sex positivity. The church has an opportunity to offer something true and freeing.

Remember We Are Not Our Own

To get at the root of these cultural obstacles, we need to holistically challenge the belief that we are our own and belong to ourselves.

The concept of self-ownership makes it hard for modern people to accept an external authority as a source of spiritual life. We can understand searching within for an authentic spirituality, but not outside ourselves. We imagine ourselves to be autonomous. And we’ve been taught this autonomy is our greatest liberty.

Whether it’s from the mouths of midcentury existentialists or advertisers or Instagram celebrities, we’re told we’re radically free to create our reality because we are our own. However, this ideology isn’t freeing. It’s a slow form of death, and the evidence is all around us.

Our neighbors (and many in the church) publicly rejoice in their radical autonomy. Meanwhile, they’re miserable, frail, insecure, and despairing. The French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg has persuasively argued in The Weariness of the Self that there’s a direct relationship between the modern conception of the self-created and self-sustaining person and modern expressions of depression and anxiety.

The burden of self-belonging overwhelms us. When our neighbors can see that autonomy isn’t life-giving but a form of imprisonment, the alternative—belonging to God—becomes more conceivable.

Resist Culture’s Pressures

It’s not that these three emphases define the core of the gospel or that they’re unique to Christianity. Rather, contemplating the transcendent, exhibiting biblical sexual ethics, and maintaining awareness of God’s ownership of our lives each reflects an effort to push back at three significant pressure points of our culture. None of them is the gospel, but each of them effectively displays the implications of the gospel in a way that’s distinct from the world around us.

Our neighbors (and many in the church) publicly rejoice in their radical autonomy. Meanwhile, they’re miserable.

While the church in the West faces unprecedented shifts, there are opportunities for us to offer a true counternarrative. That requires us to make Christianity comprehensible.

The gospel will always be offensive, but it hasn’t always been broadly incomprehensible as it is in a secular age. Our task is to probe and find points of tension where we can upset misconceptions, offer a beautiful alternative, challenge the prevailing social myths, and proclaim the good news.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: A Home Grounded in Reality Sun, 05 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.]]> My mom is the single greatest influence on my life, and the Lord used her in a vital way to bring me to a saving knowledge of Christ. She laid a framework that made the Christian worldview intelligible and, eventually, compelling to me. I’m certain my story is like countless others where God worked through the discipline and instruction of parents to reach their children.

But one thing makes my situation unique: my mom isn’t a Christian.

For most of my childhood, she’s been an atheist. During my growing up years, she talked about church as punishment. She’d even threaten to take me and my siblings to church when we were misbehaving. Yet in many ways, the manner in which Mom raised us betrayed dependence on a Christian outlook on reality.

We were brought up with an unshakable sense that we lived in a morally charged world—meaning was derived from the world around us, not something we imposed on the world. We heard we weren’t the only significant people but rather part of a larger network of people who are just as important as us. My mom knew the most loving way to raise us was to teach us we weren’t the center of the universe.

Home Didn’t Revolve Around Us Kids

This was perhaps most clearly evident in the decisions my mom made for me growing up. While she cared about what I wanted, she was most concerned with what was best for me. If the two were in conflict, no amount of protesting on my part would change her mind. Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.

We were brought up with an unshakable sense that we lived in a morally charged world.

I was taught to eat my vegetables, do my homework as soon as I got home from school, and get eight or nine hours of sleep each night. I might not have always appreciated the wisdom of these rules, but even as a kid, I understood at least theoretically that they existed for my good.

This was important in at least two ways.

First, it taught me there’s meaning and coherence to the world around me. I didn’t have the burden of painting meaning on the world’s empty canvas, but I did have the responsibility to live wisely (or at least follow my parents’ wisdom) in a world already colored with meaning.

Second, it taught me I didn’t know everything. There’s always some legitimate knowledge that’s foreign to me. And that reality cultivated a sense of humility—or at least caution—as I evaluated others’ ideas. Eventually, this conviction that I don’t know everything made me willing to consider the claims of Christianity, though they felt alien at the time.

Home Was Deeply Moral

My mom also insisted on a fundamentally Christian understanding of morality. When I was around 10 years old, I was a little philosopher piecing together life’s meaning in a world without God. I once confidently told my mom the purpose of life was to pursue happiness. I was sure that in a world devoid of any transcendent standards to which I might be held accountable, this was the only sensible answer to life’s meaning.

Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.

But my mom quickly rebuked her little hedonist and told me life was about more than enjoying yourself. Life is about helping others and making the world a better place, and while happiness is a good thing, it can’t be the ultimate thing. Her words rang true though I couldn’t assemble a solid foundation on which to place these ideas.

I don’t know if my mom could’ve explained where her ideas about morality were founded either. Nevertheless, that conversation put the first cracks in my atheistic worldview. It tilled the soil where the seed of the gospel would eventually take root.

Home Prepared Me to Hear

Reinforced by my mom’s parenting, I came to understand reality in a way that was ultimately incompatible with my (and her) stated beliefs. As the cracks in the foundation of my atheism began to widen, I legitimately considered other perspectives that could better account for the world around me. Then, when I was 15, when God had made sufficient room in my mind for me to consider the gospel’s claims, he brought me to a church service where I heard this world’s true story.

The richness of the gospel gave me the resources to make sense of the world in an existentially satisfying way. The gospel message compelled me to explore the distinct picture of the world God paints in his Word, and eventually, Christ convinced me this picture was more true, compelling, and livable than any other.

As yet, my mom hasn’t followed me in becoming a Christian. (That fills me with both sorrow and hope.) But she’s the one who prepared much of the kindling in my life that God’s gospel later lit and fanned into flame. She’s the one who taught me to look at the world in such a way that it simply didn’t make sense without God.

The Best Hymn Writer You’ve Never Heard Of Sun, 05 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Don’t neglect the ministry of Anne Steele. She can still speak to you today.]]> She’s been called the “poet of the Sanctuary,” and even “the all-time champion Baptist hymn-writer of either sex.” She penned hymns as a contemporary of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper. Here’s a sample:

Awake, awake, the sacred song,
To our incarnate Lord;
Let every heart and every tongue
Adore th’ eternal Word.

And she also proclaims God’s amazing grace:

Lord, we adore thy boundless grace,
The heights and depths unknown,
Of pardon, life, and joy, and peace,
In thy beloved Son.

Still not jogging your memory? You’re probably not alone. These are the lyrics of Anne Steele (1717–78).

If she was so popular in the 18th century, why do few know about her today? Maybe, at least in part, because she was a Particular (Reformed) Baptist and an unmarried female (not named Fanny Crosby), and she suffered from poor health her entire adult life.

Approaching the Great Physician

Writing amid debilitating physical symptoms and emotional pain, Anne Steele didn’t spend time in the limelight. Her stepmother’s journals and letters reveal that Steele’s childhood included high fevers and fits caused by malaria—which eventually led to a nervous disorder—as well as severe toothaches, stomachaches, and other bodily afflictions. And, like most in her day, she endured the loss of family and friends in her youth.

The death of young people particularly affected her spirit. She took her pen to the Lord in the hymn “The Great Physician”:

Ye mourning sinners, here disclose
Your deep complaints, your various woes;
Approach, ‘tis Jesus, he can heal
The pains which mourning sinners feel.
To eyes long clos’d in mental night,
Strangers to all the joys of light,
His word imparts a blissful ray,
Sweet morning of celestial day!

Steele knew spiritual pain and emotional darkness. A few stanzas later, she closed with a petition about physical infirmities, showing us how to pray for the sick to get well:

Dear Lord, we wait thy healing hand;
Diseases fly at thy command;
O let thy sovereign touch impart
Life, strength, and health to every heart!
Then shall the sick, the blind, the lame,
Adore their Great Physician’s name;
Then dying souls shall bless their God,
And spread the wondrous praise abroad.

Steele was remarkably attuned to her own sin, sin’s curse on creation, and the believer’s dependence on God. In another hymn, she lamented a young person’s death:

When blooming youth is snatched
By death’s resistless hand,
Our hearts the mournful tribute pay
Which pity must demand.

And she concluded,

Great God, thy sovereign grace impart,
With cleansing, healing power;
This only can prepare the heart
For death’s surprising hour.

Steele’s words express both the gravity of the circumstance and the hope of a believer facing tragedy. (Listen also to her beautiful hymn “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” put to music by Matthew Merker.)

Affection for the Savior

Steele remained unmarried for her 61 years of life—but not for lack of courters. For example, she declined a proposal from pastor and hymn writer Benjamin Beddome. Steele was happy with the freedom of the single life as she fixed her affections on her Lord. Consider the first and final verses of “Devoting the Heart to Jesus”:

Jesus, what shall I do to show
How much I love thy glorious name?
Let my whole heart with rapture glow
Thy boundless goodness to proclaim. . . .
O teach my heart, my life, my voice
To celebrate thy wondrous love!
Fulfill my hopes, complete my joys,
And bid me join the songs above.

Steele offers a model of honest vulnerability in meditation and prayer.

Awe at the Wonder of Salvation

Living in a family of timber merchants and bivocational pastors, Steele wrote many hymns for her father’s Particular Baptist congregation in Broughton, England. This means she was a Reformed (or Calvinistic) Baptist. Steele understood God’s holiness and mercy, our great sin and our even greater Savior, and the sovereignty of God coupled with our responsibility to respond to his grace.

The first and the final two stanzas of “The Saviour’s Invitation” illustrate her theology:

The Saviour calls; let every ear
Attend the heavenly sound;
Ye doubting souls dismiss your fear;
Hope smiles reviving round. . . .
Ye sinners, come, ‘tis mercy’s voice;
The gracious call obey;
Mercy invites to heavenly joys—
And can you yet delay? . . . 
Dear Saviour, draw reluctant hearts;
To thee let sinners fly,
And take the bliss thy love imparts,
And drink and never die.

I’ve spent more than five years studying Steele and her hymns. As my sister in the faith, she has reminded me of God’s holiness that makes me tremble—and God’s compassion that never fails. Because of her ministry, I’m slower to be spiritually flippant and quicker to run to Jesus for comfort. Steele has helped me keep this life’s suffering in perspective as I look forward to heaven’s joy. She has deepened my love for the beauty of words, emotions, and God’s creation.

Though now home with her Lord, the best hymn writer you’ve never heard of can still speak to you today—even as she has to me.

Playlist: 100 Songs for New Christians Sat, 04 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The 100 songs on this playlist are designed to help new converts immerse themselves in beautiful Christian music that teaches theological truth.]]> Music shapes our hearts and minds. What we fill our ears with—for better or worse—forms who we are and what we love. This is one reason why music has loomed large in Christian worship and catechesis throughout church history. In church, we don’t only rehearse our confession by speaking creeds and hearing biblical truths preached; we sing these confessions and biblical truths. And as we sing, God’s truth roots down deeper in our souls.

As new converts navigate the jarring transition to living wholeheartedly for Christ and his kingdom, in a world where Christian values and theology are ever more alien, immersion in beautiful Christian music and worship is essential. This happens first and foremost in congregational worship settings, but it should also happen throughout the week in Christians’ homes as they dwell, in their cars as they commute, or in their headphones as they work.

In church we don’t only rehearse our confession by speaking creeds and hearing biblical truths preached; we sing these confessions and biblical truths. And as we sing, God’s truth roots down deeper in our souls.

Thanks to the accessibility of streaming music today, it’s easier than ever before to find theologically rich, high-quality Christian songs that can serve as a soundtrack for a new believer’s catechesis. But the voluminous options can be overwhelming. New adult believers unfamiliar with (or understandably skeptical of) Christian music might not know where to start.

That’s why I put together this playlist of 100 songs with a catechetical flair to them: songs that teach Christian truth and yet do it poetically, with excellence.

You can find the playlist now on Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music

While I designed the playlist with new believers in mind, it’s also a valuable curated collection for Christians at any stage. Including devotional prayers, classic and modern hymns, Scripture-based songs, and creedal anthems, these 100 songs—of various genres and from artists all over the world—are rich in nutrients for believers wherever they are on their journey of following Jesus.

Playlist Songs

Opening Prayers

  • “Come Thou Fount,” Kings Kaleidoscope
  • “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” Jadon Lavik
  • “Take My Life and Let It Be,” Paul Zach, Liz Vice
  • “All Shall Be Well,” John Van Deusen
  • “Morning Song (Give Me Jesus),” Antoine Bradford
  • “My All in Thee,” Young Oceans
  • “Thank You, Lord,” Jon Guerra

Creeds and Catechisms

  • “I Am Not My Own,” Skye Peterson, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “What Is My Hope,” Tenielle Neda
  • “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” Keith & Kristyn Getty, Matt Papa
  • “We Believe (Apostles’ Creed),” Stuart Townend
  • “Creed,” Candace Coker, Bellsburg Sessions
  • “Apostles Creed,” Liturgical Folk
  • “Apostles’ Creed,” Emu Music
  • “I Believe,” Phil Wickham
  • “This I Believe,” Shane & Shane

Five Solas

  • “The Five Solas,” Psallos
  • “Soli Deo Gloria,” Zambroa
  • “Grace Alone,” The Modern Post
  • “Faith Alone,” Willie Will, Anisa Stoot
  • “In Christ Alone,” Anchor Hymns, Sandra McCracken, Antoine Bradford
  • “Scripture Alone,” FLAME

Scripture Songs

  • “SHEMA (Deut. 6:4–7),” Will Carlisle
  • “Joshua 1:9,” Verses, Loud Harp
  • “Like a Tree (Psalm 1),” Caroline Cobb
  • “Psalm 16,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “The House of God, Forever,” Jon Foreman (Ps. 23)
  • “Dwell in Your House,” Colorvault, Young Oceans (Ps. 27)
  • “Psalm 43,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Be Still,” Loud Harp (Ps. 46:10)
  • “My Soul Finds Rest (Psalm 62),” Sandra McCracken
  • “No Place Better (Psalm 84),” Caroline Cobb
  • “Wisdom & Grace (Psalm 90),” Rain for Roots, Sandra McCracken, Sera Sage Oakes
  • “Psalm 100 (Make a Joyful Noise),” Brian Sauvé
  • “Psalm 116 (I Love You, Lord),” Mission House, Jess Ray, Taylor Leonhardt
  • “Psalm 121:7–8,” Verses, Rivers & Robots
  • “Psalm 150,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Proverbs 3:5–6,” John Van Deusen
  • “Proverbs 18:10,” Verses, Free as a Bird, Gretyl Baird
  • “Isaiah 11,” Rain for Roots
  • “Perfect Peace,” Tenielle Neda (Isa. 26:3; Phil. 4:6; Matt. 6:26–34; Rom. 12:12, etc.)
  • “Movement 3 (Isaiah 53:4–7),” The Corner Room
  • “Christ,” Poor Bishop Hooper (Matt. 1:1–17)
  • “The Beatitudes Song,” Brook Hills Worship (Matt. 5)
  • “Matthew 6,” Tekoa, Rory Mckenna, Mark Barlow
  • “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jon Guerra (Matt. 6:9–13)
  • “Find Rest (Matthew 11),” Caroline Cobb, Taylor Leonhardt
  • “John 3:16–17,” The Corner Room
  • “He Came to Die (Romans 3:21–31),” Psallos
  • “No Condemnation (Romans 8:1–4),” Immanuel Worship, Jessica Campbell Waterman
  • “Without Love,” Jonathan Ogden (1 Cor. 13)
  • “Galatians 2:20,” The Welcome Wagon
  • “Fullness of God,” JUDAH. (Eph. 3:18–21)
  • “Rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4–7),” Psallos
  • “Ex Paradiso (Hebrews 2:5–18),” Psallos
  • “Unto You (Heb. 12),” Zambroa
  • “James 1:2–5,” The Corner Room
  • “1 John 5:3–5,” The Corner Room
  • “Mercy Peace Love (Jude 2),” Psallos
  • “Is He Worthy? (Live),” Andrew Peterson, Keith & Kristyn Getty (Rev. 5)
  • “Revelation Song,” The Worship Initiative, Shane & Shane (Rev. 5:11–14; 7:9–12)
  • “Revelation 22:20–21,” The Corner Room

Hymns, Old and New

  • “How Great Thou Art,” Shane & Shane
  • “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” Sandra McCracken, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Providence
  • “It Was Finished upon That Cross,” CityAlight
  • “Grace Greater Than Our Sin,” Nathan Drake
  • “His Mercy Is More,” Shane & Shane
  • “Nothing but the Blood,” Shai Linne, Eric Mccallister
  • “Lead Me to the Cross,” sxxnt., Austin Sebak
  • “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Before the Throne of God Above,” Sojourn
  • “Blessed Assurance,” Nathan Drake
  • “Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me,” CityAlight
  • “Hallelujah! What a Savior,” Ascend the Hill
  • “Power of the Cross,” Shane & Shane
  • “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” Wayfarer
  • “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” Matt Boswell, Shane & Shane, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “This Is My Father’s World,” Wilder Adkins
  • “My Worth Is Not in What I Own,” The Gray Havens
  • “Blest Are the Pure in Heart,” Josh Bales
  • “All I Have Is Christ,” Anchor Hymns, Paul Baloche, Leslie Jordan
  • “How Long (Love Constraining to Obedience),” Wayfarer
  • “God Is for Us,” CityAlight
  • “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” Matt Redman
  • “Holy, Holy, Holy,” John Tibbs
  • “King of Kings,” Brooke Ligertwood
  • “Solid Rock,” LOVKN
  • “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” Providence
  • “Amazing Grace,” Forrest Frank
  • “Be Thou My Vision,” Citizens

Closing Prayers

  • “First Love,” Young Oceans
  • “Tethered to the Cross,” Danny O’Callaghan
  • “Thank You Lord,” CalledOut Music
  • “Beautiful Eulogy,” Beautiful Eulogy
  • “Canticle,” TAYA, Jon Guerra
  • “Great Is Your Faithfulness,” Temitope
  • “May You Be Glorified!” John Van Deusen
  • “Doxology Outro,” Shai Linne, Brooks Ritter
How to Feed Gen Z’s Hunger for Jesus Sat, 04 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Gen Z is spiritually hungry. Here are five ministry practices that can help churches and college ministries reach America’s second-youngest generation.]]> God’s Spirit is moving in the hearts and minds of Gen Z. College ministries and churches across the country have seen the impossible become reality: weekly gatherings and small groups bursting at the seams. In less than a year, our college ministry’s weekly attendance doubled in size. It seems to us the Holy Spirit is priming young adults to be more spiritually hungry than previous generations.

Our awareness of these generational hungers led us to recalibrate how we evangelize and disciple Gen Z. While those efforts cannot entirely account for the spiritual renewal we’re seeing—that’s God’s work, after all—we want to suggest five ministry practices that can help churches and college ministries reach America’s second-youngest generation.

1. Preach repentance and forgiveness as a way of life.

Gen Z is hungry for transparency in a plastic, digitally perfected world. But honesty creates tremendous risk. What if I’m excluded? What if people don’t like me? What if I’m too much? The gospel creates an environment where honesty about our imperfection doesn’t exclude the possibility of acceptance. In fact, as Tim Keller wrote in The Meaning of Marriage, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

This is why our sermons emphasize repentance and forgiveness not as a one-time event but as a way of life. On the one hand, the lifelong call to repentance reminds Gen Z they aren’t perfect and they’ve been invited by God to honestly confess their sins in community. On the other hand, the promise of definitive forgiveness communicates that no sins exclude us from either divine or human communion.

Rather than skirting around difficult issues plaguing Gen Z like sex, sexuality, gender, and addiction—which can perpetuate cycles of hiddenness and shame—we must affirm the goodness of corporate confession and absolution as an ongoing part of lifelong sanctification. What John wrote must be felt in all our sermons: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

2. Emphasize belonging.

Gen Z—exhausted by the vacuousness and isolation of online individualism—is hungry to be part of something bigger. They long not merely for an individual sense of purpose but for a communal purpose rooted in a deep feeling of belonging.

Gen Z—exhausted by vacuousness and isolation of online individualism—is hungry to be a part of something bigger.

The problem for most churches isn’t that they offer too much belonging (e.g., inappropriately inviting non-Christians to be members, take the sacraments, or teach) but that they offer too little. Not infrequently, churches create barriers by requiring belief before belonging. Moreover, they create too few spaces for belonging to develop. This is why, at our church, we plan more socials than we care to count, and we host weekend relational intensives—retreats, trips—to help Gen Z students connect. It’s why we challenge leaders and members to meet new people and make sure they never sit alone.

For the last year, we’ve repeated “You belong here” more times than we can count. We say it in sermons. We emphasize it in small groups. We make signs and take them on campus. When students show up, we greet them with those words and remind them that their longing to join a cause and do good in the world can only be satisfied by the King of justice, goodness, truth, and beauty.

Most of the conversions we’ve seen came about not because people believed the gospel and then found their place in our community. The inverse is true: they belonged with us, saw how we lived, wanted the gospel to be true, and then found out it really is.

3. Practice extravagant hospitality in church and at home.

Talking about belonging isn’t enough. Churches must be over-the-top hospitable to Gen Z. For us, this means that from the first time a college student enters our doors to the day he or she moves away, we’re extravagantly and intentionally hospitable. We smile when we greet people. We learn their names. We immediately connect them with insiders. We follow up after they leave. We let them know we miss them if they haven’t shown up for a while. We train leaders to invite students into their homes for meals.

After spending over a year isolated during a global lockdown, Gen Z is hungry for the hospitality Jesus showed to sinners, disciples, and Pharisees alike. His ministry was a movable feast, breaking cultural norms—ask the woman who cleaned his feet with her tears—so he could communicate a deep truth through action: God wants you at his table too.

Churches need to encourage and empower older generations to own this mission. Gen Z doesn’t just want a free meal; they want mentoring relationships. Older saints must be challenged not to simply retire but to use their freed-up time to pass down the good deposit of the gospel to future generations. This can happen formally through mentoring programs or by encouraging older church members to lead small groups for young people. But it can also happen informally on Sunday morning, at coffee meetups, or through an invitation to lunch.

4. Embrace expressive, participatory worship.

We want to urge caution. There will be voices claiming a certain style of music, liturgy, or lighting is what Gen Z wants. The truth, of course, is that Gen Z is diverse. Some will be drawn to low churches and others to high churches. Some will scoff at haze and lights and some will seek it. Some will want traditional instruments and voices, while others desire booming guitars and drums. From what we’ve seen, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all Gen Z worship service.

But there’s one consistent theme we’ve seen across traditions: Gen Z doesn’t want to stand on the sidelines in worship. They want to learn the songs and sing them out. They want to use their bodies—whether that means raising hands or kneeling. They want to pray and meet God in their hearts and in the congregation. They want to express what they’ve learned to be true: Jesus is King. They want to be aware of the people around them. They aren’t singing alone to Jesus. They’re singing to their people, with their people.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all Gen Z worship service. But there’s one consistent theme we’ve seen across traditions: Gen Z wants to participate in worship.

Depending on your tradition, your worship service may seem passive to the average Gen Z attendee. Whether it’s “special music” that feels like a performance, stationary bodies, or timid singing—they all communicate to Gen Z that you may not really believe what you say you believe. So don’t think of your worship service as a product for passive consumption but as a corporate act of intergenerational involvement. Invite everyone in the space to give themselves to worship, and allow Gen Z’s zeal for the Lord to encourage the hearts of worshipers younger and older than themselves. The local church is at its best when older people and younger people encourage one another by their worship.

The good news is that this can be done in churches with rigid liturgies or looser liturgies, higher traditions or lower traditions, guitars or organs. But it will often mean challenging older congregants to stretch outside their comfort zone or at least not object to those who worship more expressively.

5. Revitalize the priesthood of all believers.

Gen Z is full of young people who want to build and lead. They’re attracted to influencers for good and bad reasons. At best, it’s not because they want fame—it’s because they want to influence their world. They want to do something that matters. And rather than being cynical about institutions or deconstructing them, Gen Z may be the generation that rebuilds them. They want to be engaged in the positive project of construction and renewal. They are hungry to be on mission.

This is why we’ve tried to resist the tendency to have paid staff doing all the ministry and making all the decisions. Instead, we invite Gen Z into the war room. We challenge them to lead their peers, and we seek their input on important decisions. As much as possible, we try to give them the keys to ministry and free them to drive the car.

Of course, this produces its fair share of accidents and problems, but if we truly believe what Peter wrote—we’re a kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6)—then it’s imperative to act on it.

Keep Jesus at the Center

None of the above points is a brand-new insight. Each is rooted in an ancient tradition of the church. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Gen Z lives in the radioactive fallout left behind by the Enlightenment. The blasted landscape tells a story: God is absent or aloof, and the self is the only tenable God-substitute. This environment is hostile to life, leaving everyone (but especially the young) hungry for spiritual vitality. The nuclear desert begs to become a garden once more.

Around them are the crumbling ruins of the church. They can see that great buildings, sweeping pastures, luxuriant trees, and lush farmland once stood here. So they feel the dissonance—Why am I eating spiritual junk food in a commodified digital dystopia when something better exists?

Hunger demands to be fed. It points to the undeniable fact that it can be fed. Gen Z senses, whether or not they can find the words to say it, that they were made to eat real food, to live in real community, to cultivate real beauty, to know the real Spirit, to glorify the real God, and to enjoy the real Savior forever.

So if everything above feels like a return to the old, deeper, truer ways, that’s because it is. It’s a return to Jesus at the center of life: Jesus as the One who hears confession and forgives; the One who rescues a people and unites them to himself; the One who deserves our exuberant worship and praise; the One who calls us to mission and empowers us with his grace.

The Spirit is moving. It’s our prayer that older generations will see it as their joyful calling to set aside their interests, preferences, wealth, and time to join that movement.

Embracing God as Our Heavenly Father Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:04:52 +0000 Blair Linne teaches on the power of understanding God as our heavenly Father, particularly in the context of fatherlessness.]]> In her message at TGC’s 2022 Women’s Conference, Blair Linne teaches on the importance of understanding the role of God as our heavenly Father, especially in the context of healing from fatherlessness or difficult relationships with earthly fathers.

Linne highlights these key points:

1. Blessing of Adoption: God’s choice to adopt us isn’t based on our merit but on his grace and love. This adoption into the family of God allows us to have a rich relationship with God as our heavenly Father.

2. Role of Forgiveness: Forgiveness is essential, especially in dealing with strained relationships with earthly fathers. Linne encourages her audience to pray for their spiritually lost or emotionally broken parents, and to forgive with the understanding that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reestablishing unhealthy relationships.

3. Writing Your Story and Praying for Parents: Linne suggests the therapeutic exercise of writing your story, including any emotions and thoughts related to your earthly father. She recommends writing letters to your earthly father or to God and praying for your parents if they’re still alive.

4. Prioritizing Your Redeemed Family (the Church): Linne emphasizes the importance of prioritizing your church family, as they’re part of your redeemed family and are essential in the healing journey. She encourages seeking support and guidance within the church community.

Our relationship with God as our heavenly Father can heal and restore the wounds caused by the absence of or difficulties with earthly fathers. Knowing who we are in Christ and God’s adoption of us demonstrates his deep love and commitment.

Editor’s Pick: Advent Devotionals for Your Family Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Want to focus on Jesus this Christmas? Set aside time for individual or family worship that’s structured around the traditional Advent calendar.]]> It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The overly cheerful music blasting over the store speakers won’t let us forget that, though all we came in for was a bar of soap.

Our schedules fill up with school concerts, church events, and parties at work. The press of decorating, cooking, finding the ugliest sweater, and looking for meaningful gifts gets to all of us—even those who most strongly dislike the commercialized rush of the Christmas season.

How do we keep our focus on the incarnation? How do we use this season to teach our children the truths of the faith amid a flood of commercialism? How do we resist the pressures of the season?

One way is to set aside time for individual or family worship that’s structured around the traditional Advent calendar. Here are several resources to help keep your focus on the Savior who came so long ago and has promised he’s coming again.

1. The Weary World Rejoices edited by Melissa Kruger (TGC)

Many churches and families use Advent wreaths to help prepare for celebrating the Lord’s birth at Christmas. The evergreen wreath symbolizes eternal life and includes four candles—typically three purple and one pink, with a white candle in the middle that symbolizes the purity of Christ.

The Gospel Coalition’s editorial team wrote 25 devotional readings using the Advent wreath to focus hearts and minds on Christ during the Christmas season. These reflections are brief but encouraging, suitable for a busy family or individual. They’re structured around traditional Advent themes—hope, peace, joy, love, and faith. Each reading will help in celebrating Christ’s first coming while longing for his second. (Read sample devotionals from Melissa Kruger, Brett McCracken, and others.)

2. Journey to Bethlehem: A Treasury of Classic Christmas Devotionals edited by Leland Ryken (Crossway)

What did Isaac Watts, John Donne, and Augustine of Hippo have to say about Christmas?

In Journey to Bethlehem, noted literary scholar Leland Ryken collects readings from classic Advent hymns, sermons, and poems. Each of the 30 readings is accompanied by an explanation from Ryken, a devotional summary, and a Scripture reading that illuminates the theme of the reading.

Each of the readings in this volume stands alone, as Ryken reminds readers in the introduction. So it doesn’t matter if you miss a day, use it intermittently in a group setting, or follow a regular daily plan in the home. The quality of the readings feeds the soul, connecting contemporary readers to earlier generations’ celebrations of Christ’s incarnation. This resource is best suited for individuals or for families with older children.

3. Wonders of His Love: Finding Jesus in Isaiah by Champ Thornton (New Growth Press)

Champ Thornton, author of The Radical Book for Kids, wrote an Advent devotional geared for families with lower elementary children. With four weeks of brief devotionals for five days a week and one specifically for Christmas Day, this is an ideal resource for families on the go.

The daily readings make connections between Isaiah’s predictions of the Messiah and the fulfillment of those promises found in the Gospels. Each week has an easy craft to create a paper ornament and several other simple activities like cookie baking, a ring toss, scavenger hunts, or suggested opportunities to serve others.

4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Jonathan Gibson (Crossway)

For those seeking to add a stronger liturgical focus to their Advent season, Jonathan Gibson’s book O Come, O Come Emmanuel offers a full-service resource. The book has 40 readings, scheduled to begin on November 28 and conclude on January 6, which is the date of Epiphany on the church calendar.

Each day has a meditation from a figure from church history, a call to worship, hymns, multiple Scripture readings and prayers, a creedal focus, and a catechism question. This resource is ideal for those who want to slow down and focus on spiritual formation during the Advent season. The plentiful elements could also be used selectively based on available time.

5. The Advent Jesse Tree by Dean Lambert Smith (Abingdon)

There are a number of useful books for incorporating the Jesse Tree into family devotions. The tradition stems from the messianic prediction in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The daily reading of a selected passage of Scripture along with the visual reminder of an ornament with a symbol on it move from creation to Christ. This tradition is a great way to rehearse the grand narrative of Scripture every year, especially for families with children.

Lambert’s book offers suggestions for how to create or find ornaments to represent each day of the Advent celebration. It also has illustrations that can be used by those who haven’t had time to make or buy their own ornaments. Each day includes a Scripture reading, suggested hymns, two versions of the daily devotional (one for adults and one for children), and a prayer. The Advent Jesse Tree is a trusted resource that can become a part of the Christmas season for generations.

Bonus Recommendation: The King of Christmas by Todd Hains and Natasha Kennedy (Lexham Press)

This isn’t a devotional book, but for families with young children, this picture book is bound to be a favorite for the Advent season. The colorful illustrations leap off the page. The simple text follows the wise men on their journey to find the King of Christmas. He’s not found in the sky, the water, the palace, the throne, or the market. Instead, the King of Christmas is found in the manger.

A connection to the usual Christmas story, with Jesus being found in an unlikely place, would have been enough for some. However, this book also reminds children that the same King of Christmas was once found on the cross. He can now be found in God’s Word and among God’s people. This brings home the message that the baby in the manger is the same as the man who left the tomb empty, connecting the incarnation to the atonement for the little ones among us.

Christ’s Presence Guarantees Mission Success Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The promise of Christ’s presence in the Great Commission’s isn’t just his commitment to comfort, support, or even strengthen us. It’s his promise to be active within us, animating our witness.]]> As Jesus gave his disciples their final instructions for carrying out his mission on earth, he left them with this promise: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). But what does it mean that Christ is with us, and what does this promise mean for the success of the Great Commission?

When we think of Christ being with us, it’s easy to imagine his presence outside us. We might imagine him being with us like a loving family member who comes alongside and comforts us when we’re sad. Or we might think of him being with us like a supportive friend who encourages or strengthens us in our weakness. But Christ isn’t merely with us—he’s in us.

The promise of Christ’s presence with his disciples to the end of the age isn’t just his commitment to comfort, support, or even strengthen us. These words aren’t meant merely to motivate or inspire. Instead, they demonstrate that Christ is active within us, animating our witness. And this amazing promise guarantees that Christ’s mission will be accomplished in all the world.

Christ in Us

Deeper insight into the mystery of how Christ is with us requires the unfolding revelation of the New Testament. Before the disciples pursued their mission, Jesus commanded them to wait for the indwelling Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Spirit’s coming marked the beginning of a new age, but it also made the believer’s union with God’s Son a reality (Rom. 8:9–10). Jesus’s promise to be with his disciples was realized in a way no one could’ve imagined: Christ was with them and in them by his Spirit.

Thus, when Ananias lied to the apostle Peter, he was charged with lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Later, when Paul was persecuting believers, we’re told he was persecuting the Lord Jesus (9:4–5). This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever receives you receives me” (Matt. 10:40). It’s not just that believers represent Christ but that Christ is truly in us and we are in him (John 14:20). The Spirit-filled church is Christ’s body on earth.

When Christ lives in believers by the Spirit (Gal. 2:20), he doesn’t destroy their personhood (Col. 1:29). Rather, he transforms them by their union with him (2 Cor. 3:18). This reality establishes the primary identification for Christ’s disciples. By far, the most common moniker used by New Testament writers to refer to Christians is based on this union with Christ. We aren’t merely Christians, brothers, saints, or believers but those who are “in Christ.”

Fulfilling the Scriptures

When Jesus appeared to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, he gently rebuked them for their lack of attention to the Scriptures: “Everything written about me . . . must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). By summarizing all that was written, Jesus highlighted three pivotal events that were prophesied: the Messiah’s substitutionary death, his victorious and vindicating resurrection, and the global proclamation of repentance in his name for the forgiveness of sins.

We aren’t merely Christians, brothers, saints, or believers but those who are ‘in Christ.’

By that time, the first two had already been fulfilled. Jesus had marched to his destiny in Jerusalem with a driving fierceness (Mark 10:32). As he explained repeatedly, he’d come to fulfill the Scriptures (Matt. 5:17–18), including the fact that he must suffer (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25). More than a dozen times, events in Jesus’s life clearly fulfilled what was foretold. Our Lord pursued with somber focus the accomplishment of these first two events: his substitutionary sacrifice and victorious resurrection.

Now, only one remains. And we should expect he’ll persist with no less determination the accomplishment of the third event that was written: global gospel proclamation. According to the Great Commission, Jesus isn’t just along for the ride. He isn’t merely at our side, comforting us when we’re weak. No, Jesus is leading us and driving us from within. The Son of God is fulfilling this pivotal third leg of his mission by acting through the church.

We see this in Acts where Luke records the continuation of Christ’s activity (Acts 1:1). Paul teaches this truth in his speech to King Agrippa, explaining that “the Christ must suffer and . . . by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (26:23). Paul repeats the threefold mission of the Messiah, making it clear that Christ himself will accomplish it.

Proclaiming the Gospel

Christ’s union with believers by the Spirit has this driving purpose: the global proclamation of the gospel. Like all else foretold in the Scriptures, we can be confident of its fulfillment.

So what does it mean that Christ is with us to the end of the age? It means the accomplishment of global evangelism is as inevitable as the death and resurrection of our Lord. It will happen (Matt. 24:14). Yes, the nations will resist this; Jesus foretold it. Yet we’re more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Rom. 8:37). Jesus Christ is working in his people to accomplish the last leg of what was written.

Jesus isn’t just along for the ride. He isn’t merely at our side, comforting us when we’re weak. No, Jesus is leading us and driving us from within.

It means Christ’s presence with the church has a missions trajectory. He’s living in us and compelling us onward with all his characteristic commitment to fulfill the smallest stroke of the Scriptures. There are many important things Christians can do, but Christ emphasizes the mission of proclaiming his saving work to all nations. Missions is the alignment of our activity with Christ’s work in the world.

The Lord Jesus isn’t waiting on us to decide whether to be involved in his mission. Rather, by his Spirit, he’s animating us forward in a work of global proclamation that he’ll accomplish through us. Compelled by his love, we join the One who lives in us—that we might no longer live for ourselves but for his sake (2 Cor. 5:15).

Homemaking Is for Singles Too Thu, 02 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 I still hope to keep a house where I might nurture a family of my own. But I’ve learned that ‘making a home’ can happen across contexts and seasons.]]> The word “homemaking” once prompted visions of a house I’d inhabit with a hoped-for husband and children. I imagined joyfully making that home, reveling in its stability while I loved a godly man and we watched our children grow.

Instead, I’m now in my 30s, single, and living with three other single women in a rented house in Washington, DC—a city known for transience over permanence. I still desire the essence of those earlier dreams. I believe Scripture recognizes the unique role of a woman in keeping a home for her family (Prov. 31:10–31; Titus 2:4–5), and I earnestly hope to partake in that good work. Yet I’ve also learned that for the Christian, “making a home” can happen across contexts and seasons. Details vary, but several truths about homemaking remain constant.

Homemaking Points to a Better Home

One of the first things God did for the first man was settle him in a particular place—and it came with provision and responsibility. The garden overflowed with abundant food and beauty, yet Adam also needed to work and keep it (Gen. 2:8–9, 15–17).

Though their sin meant Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, God’s promises of redemption still included elements of home. From his covenant with Abraham for the promised land (Gen. 15:7, 17–21) to his command to Israel to seek the good of their captors’ city (Jer. 29:4–7), God has always cared about the places where his people live and work.

Then, astonishingly, God came and made his home among us (John 1:14). This was but a preview to his dwelling with us forever in a redeemed home and city that he even now prepares for us (John 14:2–3; Heb. 11:16; Rev. 21:3).

‘Making a home’ can happen across contexts and seasons.

The homes Christians occupy now foreshadow that eternal home, and we can make and steward them to point to our future hope. Whether it’s a dream house shared with a family or a temporary studio apartment, every dwelling can be a signpost of our truer home to come.

My current house, though not what I once envisioned for myself, overflows with tastes of coming glory, from my housemates’ joyful laughter to the comfort and safety the house provides. When our homes aren’t exactly what we expected or desired, we can still “dwell . . . and cultivate faithfulness” (Ps. 37:3, NASB), giving thanks for God’s good provision now even as we orient ourselves and others toward that coming, lasting city.

Homemaking Thinks of Others

Whatever your circumstances, you can make your home—house, apartment, condo, or otherwise—with a vision for sharing it. A spouse and children may not share your home, but someone ought to. The apostle Paul instructed believers to show hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9), and Scripture teems with examples of Christians eating together and opening their homes.

Are you making your home with this mindset of generosity? Have you considered that making your home comfortable and beautiful could be a means of loving those who come in?

How Christians prioritize this aspect of a home will vary, but it’s worth intentional thought. Edith Schaeffer wrote in The Hidden Art of Homemaking, “I am sure that there is no place in the world where your message would not be enhanced by your making the place (whether tiny or large, a hut or a palace) orderly, artistic and beautiful with some form of creativity, some form of ‘art.’”

Your home doesn’t need to be professionally decorated, but does it welcome people? How might decor and accents encourage conversations? Can people of varied ages and seasons relax there? My housemates and I love pictures and artwork that feature Scripture, literature, and beautiful scenery. We have a stack of children’s books we hope visiting families can enjoy. We try to use colors and candles that convey warmth and invitation.

In preparing our homes well for those who visit them, we can offer guests small foretastes of the place Jesus prepares for those who love him.

Homemaking Makes the Most of What It Has

Unlike many other homes in Washington, DC, our house has room for a long dining table. It also has ample backyard space, a true novelty here. My housemates and I have become the hosts who specialize in group dinners, bonfires, and open house gatherings because of how our space is uniquely equipped for them.

I know a house of single men who have fruitfully used their location across the street from our church by hosting a gathering every week after Wednesday Bible study. Students, visitors, and new members have commented on how those gatherings helped them meet Christians or grow friendships.

Consider what your house might be particularly suited for: Sunday lunches? Outdoor games? One-on-one conversations? Don’t be intimidated by what other people are doing and think you must copy them. Your home has gifts to offer too.

Don’t be intimidated by what other people are doing—your home has gifts to offer too.

One of my housemates loyally tends a small garden she put in our backyard. Her diligence over that little plot reminds me of faithful stewardship. We know we won’t live in this house long-term, but her work cultivates good fruit while we do.

I still hope to keep a house where I might nurture a family of my own. But I’ve also learned to cherish the sight of sunlight streaming through the windows of my rented house, of church youth group girls laughing on my hand-me-down couch, and of a housemate discussing Jesus with her non-Christian coworker. These, too, offer refreshment for me and others on the journey toward our eternal home.

Why We Share the Good News Thu, 02 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.]]> We live in a bad-news world. Each morning, we wake up and see it in the headlines on our news apps. In the evening, we see bad news again on the local news. The daily reports are relentless and overwhelmingly negative; it feels like the ratio of bad news to good is 10 to 1.

Some people suggest the reason for this disparity is simply emphasis, but I think bad news has the upper hand. It always looms on life’s horizon. Every time something good happens, it’s followed by a “Yeah, that’s good, but . . .” That’s not pessimism. It’s the reality in a broken world.

As a result, we all need to hear more good news. And not just the temporary sort that makes us feel better for a fleeting moment. Whether believers or unbelievers, we all need a daily dose of good news that transcends all the bad and puts every bit of it in a hope-filled framework. We need a message that flips the script on our bad-news world.

That’s precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ does. His message is so good that no bad news can bring it down. Here are five reasons to share his good news today.

1. The gospel comforts troubled consciences.

Every person you see today has done something wrong. For some of them, their sin is so fresh in their minds that it feels like it’s following them around, haunting them. They’re consumed with remorse and can’t escape the memories. They have anxiety about what God is going to do to them for what they did.

People laden with guilt and shame need to know that Jesus forgives sinners. They need to know there’s more mercy in God for them than there is sin within them.

People laden with guilt and shame need to know that Jesus forgives sinners. They need to know there’s more mercy in God for them than there is sin within them.

With the troubled conscience, share 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That good news will be a mending influence for unsettled souls.

2. The gospel heals hearts harmed by sin.

All the people you see today have been wronged at some point in their lives. They’ve been hurt, perhaps deeply hurt, by other people’s actions or words.

People who have been harmed need to know Jesus is going to judge everyone for every sin. No one will get away with anything. And since Jesus was totally innocent yet punished for all our sin, those who have been hurt by others’ sins can entrust those hurts to his perfect, just, and merciful judgment. When they do so, they can experience release from the desire for vengeance and relief from the pain of bitterness. They can even receive strength to forgive as they have been forgiven through Christ’s work on the cross.

With the hurting, explain Peter’s succinct statement in 1 Peter 2:24: “By his wounds you have been healed.” That good news will be a balm for the wounds in their spirits.

3. The gospel ignites life change.

All the people you see today have felt wrong inside at one time or another. They’ve been dissatisfied with their own character or struggled to kick bad habits. Some have known the agonizing powerlessness of addiction. They’ve wanted to change something about themselves but have been unable to do so.

They need to know that Jesus has the power they need to become more like him. He gives believers the power to change through the Holy Spirit who dwells in them. We can speak these words from 2 Peter 1:3 to those who are struggling to change: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” That good news will motivate them to grow in Christian virtue.

4. The gospel helps people in our fallen world to have hope.

Everyone you see today struggles with what’s wrong with the world. Some may be fighting illness or watching loved ones succumb to disease. They may be experiencing conflicts that don’t feel like they’ll ever be resolved. Their bodies may be breaking down in some way, or their souls may be in turmoil. Tragedy may have struck people they know, or they may have recently stood over the graves of loved ones.

They need to know that God has promised to undo all the effects of original sin and to lead his people into a new heavens and new earth. Tell them about Jesus’s words in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” That good news will give them the strength they need to persevere through trials.

5. The gospel refreshes your soul as you share it alongside others.

It’s not only every person you see today that needs to hear the gospel. The person you looked at in the mirror this morning needs it too. While it’s good to preach the gospel to yourself, Paul’s words in Philemon 6 indicate the best strategy for encouraging your own heart is partnering together in gospel ministry with others: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”

When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.

When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.

In this world, people face temptation and regret, pain and suffering, failure and disappointment, deterioration and death. The bad news is truly bad, but there’s a reason for encouragement in the face of it all.

His name is Jesus. He is the Lord. Jesus is putting the world right regarding sin. He’s the only One who saves sinners, and he does so by grace through faith. Jesus has overcome the world, and he’s leading his followers into a brand-new world. This message about Jesus is worth sharing every day.

Pagans and Protestants: How the West Was Spun Wed, 01 Nov 2023 04:04:28 +0000 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss how today’s slogans—Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, Kindness Is Everything—flow from a worldview thoroughly shaped by Christianity.]]> The Beatles might have claimed to be bigger than Jesus, but when they said “Love is all you need,” they were just riffing on Jesus’s words. In this episode, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss how today’s slogans—Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, Kindness Is Everything—flow from a worldview thoroughly shaped by Christianity.

They compare and contrast ancient, Christian, and secular virtues to explore the inherent inconsistencies of today’s culture, question how relativistic our society is, and describe how we’ve arrived at a new pharisaism where those who don’t get on board with the modern program are the new heretics of our secular age.

Orthodoxy in Exile: Church as an Alternative Community Wed, 01 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.]]> One day, as I was serving meals in my church for the unhoused community in East Hollywood, a man stopped me in the hallway and said, “Hey pastor, I just want you to know I’m only here to serve. I do not need the church.”

“OK,” I replied, planning to circle back later and explore his hesitation. I asked his name and we carried on serving. As I’ve reflected on that encounter, I’ve come to think it represents a broader trend in our city. People want community, and they long to make a practical difference in the city, but they despise the church. It’s not just indifference; it’s disdain.

How can the church thrive in a city that sees it as outdated, irrelevant, and morally offensive? It must be an alternative community that is different from the city but also seeks its good.

Different from the City

To faithfully represent Christ, the church must learn to stand out from its surrounding context. Unfortunately, consumerism and individualism have so infiltrated the American church that it often mirrors worldly values with a veneer of Christian spirituality. The worship service has become a social event. Pastors are entertainers and influencers. Discipleship is self-improvement. Church is merely another consumer good meant to round out my individual spirituality.

Over the last decade, the church has been exposed for this shallowness and hypocrisy, particularly in the areas of political idolatry, abuse of power, and celebrity culture. In our efforts to be all things to the unchurched, we’ve dechurched the church and lost our distinction from the wider society.

What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.

What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.

The mission of the church is not to draw a crowd, but to make disciples. We must combat the secular narratives of our day by telling a more compelling narrative, the story of God’s kingdom. We must teach sound doctrine so our congregations aren’t co-opted by secular ideologies. God’s people must embrace a distinctly Christian ethic that’s grounded in God’s Word. And we must demonstrate that conviction and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive. Lesslie Newbigin captured the need for the church as an alternative community when he said, “The chief contribution of the Church to the renewing of social order is to be itself a new social order.”

For the Good of the City

As an alternative community, the church isn’t called to be against the city but for its good. Unfortunately, many Christians have an adversarial mindset toward the city, which is why most non-Christians assume the church is against everything in the world.

This is particularly evident with the LGBT+ community, which often assumes Christians are unloving, narrow-minded, hypocrites. The church, therefore, must go out of its way to show God’s love to all people and defend the dignity all people. To do this in a way that honors God, we must understand (and teach) that one doesn’t have to affirm everything about people to love them. The church can uphold biblical truth about gender and sexuality and still love the people who disagree with us. We follow a Savior who embodies grace and truth.

Another way the church practically shows God’s love for the world is by ministering in both deed and word. Jesus was known for being “mighty in deed and word” (Luke 24:19), and his disciples should have a similar reputation. In an age when justice is a primary societal virtue, Christians can lead the way by being a people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8). And yet, the church should have a distinct approach to ethics while striving for the common good. We must be like the fourth-century African theologian Athanasius, who was against the world (i.e., its worldliness) because he was for the world (i.e., its creational good and God-given purpose).

Faithful in Exile

Our cultural moment has certainly proven challenging. Yet what’s happening in our world right now isn’t an obstacle but an opportunity for the church to rediscover its true identity as a people in exile who are called to witness to a better kingdom.

What’s happening in our world right now isn’t an obstacle but an opportunity for the church to rediscover its true identity as a people in exile who are called to witness to a better kingdom.

One beautiful example of how to be faithful in exile comes from a letter God sent to his people when they were in Babylon. Israel despised their captors, resisted settling in a new land, and longed to return to Jerusalem. Yet God sent a message to them, saying, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).

This is a vision of God’s people being a counterculture for the common good. They were called to be present but distinct. It’s a model for the church today in an exilic, post-Christian context. We’re called to be what James Davison Hunter calls a “faithful presence.” Or, as Miroslav Volf claims, “To live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so.”

In Los Angeles as It Is in Heaven

By God’s grace, I’m seeing this vision play out in our church in the heart of Los Angeles. It’s a broken and difficult city. Yet Jesus is transforming lives and building his church throughout L.A.

Our church summarizes our values with the phrase “orthodoxy in exile.” By “orthodoxy” we mean we’re unabashedly biblical, upholding the historic doctrines of Christianity and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus as the ultimate answer to sin and sorrow. Yet we’re called by God to love Los Angeles, a city where it’s not easy to follow Jesus and where it often feels like you’re living in exile. We believe God looks on our city with compassion. So, as we seek to flourish in Los Angeles, we seek the flourishing of Los Angeles.

Remember the guy who confronted me in the hallway? A few months later, as we were baptizing new believers at church, I looked over to see him standing in line. When I walked over, he apologized to me. He told me how God had changed his heart. Then we prayed together as brothers in Christ. As he came up out of the water, a demonstration of his new resurrection life in Christ, the shouts of praise from the congregation could be heard well outside the four walls of our church building in East Hollywood.

Jesus is building his church. It will look different from the world. But it’s exactly what the world needs.

Andrew Wilson on How the Year 1776 Shaped the Post-Christian West Tue, 31 Oct 2023 04:04:17 +0000 Andrew Wilson tells Collin Hansen that the West is full of Protestant pagans and that Christians are victims of their own success.]]> There’s one big idea at the heart of Andrew Wilson’s remarkable new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West (Crossway). He argues that more than any other year in the last millennium, 1776 made us who we are today in the West. 

I suppose many Americans are now thinking, Of course! The Declaration of Independence! Ron Swanson says history began on July 4, 1776. But wait, didn’t Andrew just say the post-Christian West? What does he mean? 

Andrew demonstrates a lot of courage writing about 1776 as the teaching pastor of King’s Church London. But a key point of his book is that the American Revolution was just one of many world-changing events and ideas crossing and recrossing the Atlantic in and around 1776. He argues the battles were less important than the words. Human rights; free trade; liberal democracy; religious pluralism; the preference for authenticity over authority, choice over duty, and self-expression over self-denial—Andrew traces it all back to 1776.

Ron Swanson might not be right that history began on July 4, 1776. But Andrew does argue that 1776 separates us from the past. He writes, “The vast majority of people in human history have not shared our views of work, family, government, religion, sex, identity, or morality, no matter how universal or self-evident we may think they are.”

In Andrew’s telling, the West is full of Protestant pagans, and Christians are victims of our own success. A fellow of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, Andrew joined me on Gospelbound to talk about his favorite stories and his fervent hopes. If you enjoy this episode, then you’ll love Andrew’s new podcast with Glen Scrivener called Post-Christianity?

You can watch Andrew’s keynote address at TGC23 on Exodus 32 or his microevent on 1776, and read a profile of him and his family from Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. Andrew also filmed a mini documentary, “The One Edit That Changed History.”

Chalk on the Table: The Story Behind Our Different Views of Communion Tue, 31 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Though Christians may not agree, our thoughtful conversations testify to the Supper’s importance for a Christian’s spiritual health.]]> Bruce Wayne became Batman after his parents’ tragic deaths. Peter Parker gained his “Spidey-sense” from a radioactive spider bite. All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations. One dramatic backstory is the tale of disagreement and division behind the major views of the Lord’s Table we find in Christian churches today.

In October 1529, a group of church leaders met for a colloquy—a great debate—about the Lord’s Supper. They gathered high above the winding Lahn River at the towering Marburg castle. This meeting wasn’t the reformers against Rome. No, the reformers were fighting among themselves. Who were the principals in this debate? What were the major views they discussed? What concerns influenced their arguments?


Inside the tall, stone castle, a wooden table sat in the center of a great hall. On one side stood the Lutherans: Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and their companions. On the other stood the reformers from Switzerland and southern Germany: Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Johann Oecolampadius, and others. Philip of Hesse (the nobleman who called the meeting), his secretary, and several local pastors stood at the room’s edges to watch.

All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations.

No one in the room wanted to follow the pope’s views on the Supper. The Catholic Church saw the Supper as a sacrifice that would cover the guilt of righteous people who confessed their sins to a priest. The pope and his followers taught that when a priest blesses the bread and wine, the elements’ substance (though not their look and taste) transforms, like magic, into Jesus’s body and blood. Then the priest reoffers Jesus’s body and blood to God as a good work. In this view (called transubstantiation), what takes away sin isn’t what Jesus did on the cross but the priest’s work in reoffering the sacrifice.

Because of this teaching, some medieval Catholics stood in line to adore the bread and wine before it was served. They thought a blessing would come just by looking at the elements. Others carried pieces of bread to their homes, hoping to plant it in their fields and gardens to receive the blessing of good crops, or to feed it to sick animals to help them get well. To keep from accidentally spilling the enchanted wine, some priests gave only the bread to church members and kept the cup for themselves.

Everyone at Marburg rejected Rome’s view of communion. But what teaching about the Supper should be adopted in its place?


The nobleman’s secretary encouraged the theologians to get along. He urged them as they debated to “strive for the glory of God, the common Christian good, and brotherly unity.” He hoped that when the debate was finished, the theologians would sit at the prince’s table and take communion together. Luther wasn’t convinced the debate would end in agreement. He’d read Zwingli’s books. He knew what the Swiss churches taught about the Supper.

Zwingli did believe God’s Spirit was present when believers took communion, but in his view, the ordinance was little more than a way for believers to obey Jesus. Zwingli emphasized Christ’s command to take the Supper “in remembrance of [him]” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24–25). His teaching is called the memorial view.

The Swiss reformer vociferously argued that the bread and wine couldn’t transform into Jesus’s body. That would be impossible. When God the Son came to earth, he took on human flesh. But the incommunicable attributes of the Son’s divine nature (attributes like his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence) weren’t mixed or shared with his human nature. So, Zwingli reasoned, Christ’s human body can’t be in many locations at the same time when the churches meet to take communion.

Instead, Zwingli taught that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he thought of the bread and wine as symbols. Jesus meant, “This represents my body.” When a geography teacher stands in front of a map and says, “This is Switzerland,” she knows the image isn’t actually the country of Switzerland but only a picture. Zwingli taught that it’s similar with communion. Just like the map and the country aren’t the same, Jesus’s body and the bread aren’t the same.

Sacramental Union

Luther despised Zwingli’s view. He believed it gutted the power of God’s promise to forgive from the sacrament. Before the debate, he said, “I would rather drink pure blood with the pope than mere wine with Zwingli” (LW 37:317). So, as the colloquy began, Luther took a piece of chalk and drew a large circle on the castle table. Inside the circle, he scribbled Jesus’s words from the Gospels in Latin, Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body,” Matt. 26:26). Then, as if these words were the communion bread itself, Luther dramatically covered them with a linen cloth.

Luther didn’t think the bread and wine were magically transformed as the Roman Catholics did. (He wrote hoc est corpus, not hocus pocus.) But Luther did think Jesus meant the words “This is my body” literally.

Luther rejected Zwingli’s teaching that Jesus’s human body could only be in one spot, accusing Zwingli of ignoring biblical texts that describe Jesus’s resurrected body moving through walls and doors. “You seek to prove that a body cannot be in two places at the same time. I will not listen to proofs . . . based on arguments derived from geometry,” Luther said.

He was convinced Christ gives us his presence, even if—like comic-book science—it’s extradimensional. According to Luther’s view, God somehow gives sinners “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine.” This view is called sacramental union.

The two theologians argued back and forth for days. Finally, Zwingli cried out, “Show me a text that proves your view!” Lifting the linen cloth, Luther pointed to the words he’d written when the discussion began: This is my body. For Luther, those words were a line in the sand.

Spiritual Presence

At the end of the debate, Luther and Zwingli finally wept together and asked forgiveness for the harsh words they’d spoken. They even sat down to eat together at the prince’s table. But they didn’t take communion together. In their views of the Supper, Luther and Zwingli remained divided.

John Calvin wasn’t at the Marburg Colloquy, but his teacher and mentor, Martin Bucer, was there with Zwingli. When Calvin later published his view of the Supper in his Institutes, his familiarity with the Marburg debate was clear.

Calvin taught Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises.

Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ’s physical body and blood aren’t present in the Supper. He knew that to affirm this view would wrongly confuse Christ’s divine and human natures. But despite the hard edges of Luther’s personality (and his geographic distance), Calvin also followed many of the German reformer’s emphases. With Luther, Calvin affirmed the Supper is a covenant promise and that God’s Word and presence are encountered at the Table.

Calvin believed the Supper is a means of grace for the church. He taught that Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises: “For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him” (Institutes 4.17.10).

Let the Story Inform Your Convictions

Whatever Reformation position you adopt on the doctrine of the Supper, it’s good to learn from Calvin’s generous humility. Just as hearing backstories helps us better understand our favorite superheroes, learning the stories behind doctrines can help us grow in understanding too. They can help you better appreciate your own convictions, and to understand those of your Christian neighbors.

So, if you’re visiting a different church with a neighbor or family member, listen carefully to how they talk about communion. Differences over the Supper may seem archaic, or perhaps like splitting hairs. On any given Sunday, it’s unlikely most of the members of your church are consciously threading the needle between Luther and Calvin. But things that seem trifling to the world are immensely important to believers’ souls. By listening carefully, we learn to see others’ views fairly, respect their differing convictions, and even discern when not participating in the Supper is necessary to honor other believers’ consciences, or our own.

And next time your church celebrates the Supper, remember this backstory, and think about what the elements mean. This familiar ordinance has been deeply considered by Christians throughout the centuries. Though Christians may not agree, our thoughtful conversations testify to the Supper’s importance for a Christian’s spiritual health. Take the bread in your hand, and give thanks to Christ who gave his body for you and wants to minister to you as you eat and drink.

Strengthened by the Grace of Jesus Mon, 30 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry emphasize the strength that comes from the grace of Christ and the importance of passing on the gospel to the next generation.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry continue their study of 2 Timothy, emphasizing the strength that comes from the grace of Christ and the importance of passing on the gospel to the next generation.

They highlight the significance of remembering the risen Jesus, which enables pastors to face challenges in ministry with boldness and confidence.

Recommended resource: Confronting Jesus: 9 Encounters with the Hero of the Gospels by Rebecca McLaughlin

Why You Should Join (or Start!) a TGC Regional Chapter Mon, 30 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 As pastors, we lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.]]> When I moved to St. Louis eight years ago, I was looking for a ministry role. But I knew no one. I Googled “evangelical churches,” cold-called church offices, and sent my résumé to local pastors. During the three trying months that I waited for God to open a door, I met with nearly two dozen pastors from across the city. These pastors shared three things in common: they loved Christ and his church, they were burdened to reach our city with the gospel, and they didn’t know each other.

Once I was hired as an associate pastor, I quickly realized why. Church ministry is tough and time-consuming. I had two hundred congregants to get to know and shepherd. Between leading the youth group, children’s ministry, life groups, and worship team, how would I find time for relationships with fellow pastors?

Eventually, I realized you don’t find the time; you make it. A confluence of events—growing pains in my first year as a lead pastor, a feeling of isolation during the pandemic lockdowns, and the tragic death of a prominent local pastor—finally led me to take the initiative. I reached out to a local Council member of The Gospel Coalition, Dan Doriani, and soon TGC St. Louis was born.

So what is a TGC regional chapter? And why would you want to join or start one?

What Is a TGC Regional Chapter?

A TGC regional chapter is “a local group of pastors who gather regularly for prayer, fellowship, mutual encouragement, study, and mission,” says Bill Kynes, TGC’s director of regional chapters. It’s “a place for diverse yet gospel-centered pastors across ethnic, generational, and denominational lines to connect, find resources, and encourage one another.” There are currently 18 active regional chapters scattered across the continental United States, plus TGC Hawaii and two chapters in Canada.

I’ve co-led a chapter for a few years now, and it’s been an immense help to my ministry. Here are three simple reasons to join, or—if one doesn’t yet exist in your area—start a TGC regional chapter.

1. Amid ministry’s difficulties, you’ll find supportive friendships.

One pastor in our chapter is leading his church through an abuse scandal. One recently lost his wife to cancer. Still others juggle pastoral duties while they care for children with special needs, face conflict with elders, grapple with uncertainty over whether their churches will survive financially through the year’s end, or are so depressed they’re considering throwing in the towel.

The apostle Paul was no stranger to the hardships of ministry. At one point he confessed, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul’s solution for his sorrow was to remind himself of the gospel while soliciting the encouragement and prayers of colaborers: “Comfort those who are in any affliction . . . [and] help us by prayer” (vv. 4, 11). Even as an apostle, Paul desperately relied on others’ support.

Pastors need friends. And because of the particular challenges of our vocation, pastors need friends who are fellow pastors. Even those who lead large churches will benefit from friendships outside their church and staff, men in whom they can confide and seek wisdom. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” TGC regional chapters cultivate loving friendships where brother-pastors can encourage and sustain one another when ministry adversity inevitably comes.

2. Amid today’s divisions, you’ll find gospel-centered unity.

TGC regional chapters cultivate loving friendships where brother-pastors can encourage and sustain you when ministry adversity inevitably comes.

The church is still reeling from recent fractures in the wake of the pandemic, racial unrest, and political polarization. That’s to say nothing of how divided we were before 2020.

With the rapid secularization and dechurching of our post-Christian society, we must ask afresh, Is the gospel that unites us truly bigger than the issues that divide us? Is the common ground we share beneath Christ’s cross sturdy enough to withstand our differences of opinion on vaccines, critical race theory, and Trump—not to mention baptism, glossolalia, and the rapture?

Before he went to the cross, Jesus’s final prayer for his church was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). He stressed that the church’s unity is its witness to the unbelieving world. As pastors, we lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded (albeit not identically minded) brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.

TGC regional chapters provide a place where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free”—where our Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, EFCA, or nondenominational distinctives aren’t the main thing “for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We still have our ecclesial and theological distinctives, but we’re able to enjoy a good Reformed catholicity.

3. Amid ministry’s busyness, you’ll find restorative respite.

Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle to pastoral fellowship is busyness. But joining—and even leading—a regional chapter need not demand hours of your time each month. While some chapters host conferences or read through books together, the only expectation of regional chapters is the commitment to gather periodically for mutual support.

We lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.

We recently made a shift with TGC St. Louis, focusing our efforts less on arranging speakers, fundraising for honorariums, or catering meals, and more on connecting as pastors. By simply gathering regularly, we’re cultivating patterns of stopping our busy ministry lives to listen to and pray for one another. We meet for lunch every other month to share personal and professional prayer requests and praises. We enjoy Psalm 133:1’s blessing together: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

Martin Luther famously quipped that he was too busy not to pray. I’ve learned the same is true of pastoral fellowship. I’m too busy not to make time regularly to be refreshed, sharpened, and encouraged by fellow shepherds.

Brother pastor, so are you.

When the Occult Moves in Down the Street Sun, 29 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The Bible offers guidelines for engaging with those in league with the Enemy—whether a neighbor or a business.]]> “You are never going to believe this,” my wife declared as she entered the house after chatting with our neighbor. “John is a satanist.”

John (not his real name) was a neighbor in our townhome community. Her revelation left me stammering. “Really? He flat-out told you that? Satan as in, like, the Devil?” I peppered her with questions.

Yes, yes, and yes—like the Devil, she told me. We were both stunned. We felt a strong call to love our neighbors and build relationships with them, but a relationship with an ally to our spiritual Enemy? That felt different.

The Bible minces no words about who the Enemy is, what he wants, and why we should never underestimate him (1 Pet. 5:8–9). When the law was given to God’s people, pagan and occult practices were all forbidden (Lev. 19:31). In the Gospels and Acts, we see the disciples offering swift discipline to those profiting off the occult (Acts 8; 13). Our Enemy is formidable.

We emailed the director of healing and prayer ministry at our church, who has a background in working with people engaged in the occult. Her recommendation was simple: pray for him and his family, be open to relationships, and be on guard.

That’s good, biblical advice if you live next to someone involved in openly pagan practices. But it’s also good counsel for those who work next to, or regularly pass by, businesses dedicated to the occult or other activities directly opposed to our faith. Since that’s a more likely scenario, let’s unpack her advice in that context.


Pray for them as often as you can (1 Thess. 5:17). Every time you check in or out of work and pass their store, pray for the folks coming in and out of the doors. Pray for those running the business, for their employees, and for the customers. All people are made in the image of God. They need God’s grace and salvation. They’re trying to make a living or provide for their needs in a way that seems best to them.

Paul’s passage about putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10–18) is instructive here, especially when prayer is coupled with a deep and abiding dependence on God’s strength—and not your own—to fight the battle. Pray for things only God can accomplish. Pray for their salvation, for them to see through the illusion of control and power that the Enemy has over them, for them to encounter the true power of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Pray for things only God can accomplish.

It helps to remember we were once all misguided in our beliefs. We may not have engaged in occult practices or operated a business that profits off the occult, but, like the Ephesians, we were all children of wrath at one point (Eph. 2:1–3). You and I needed (and still need) God’s forgiveness and grace. So do they.


We don’t see Jesus running away from or refusing to talk to those in the throes of demon possession. Instead, Jesus asks for names (Luke 8:30). He teaches the restored (v. 35). He gives back family relationships (9:42) and invites the formerly possessed into relationship with him (8:2).

This may sound counterintuitive, but as you pray for the people running or working at the business, ask the Lord for opportunities to engage. The body of Christ is fundamentally communal. The people who run that business need to meet Jesus, and they may meet him through you. I can almost guarantee that if you pray for opportunities to cross paths with and meet the people in that store, you’ll receive them. And remember: the battle belongs to the Lord, not to you.

A sensible precaution is to avoid patronizing the business or becoming overly fascinated with what they’re selling. As you engage with the folks next door, create a distinction between learning about the people (which may include why they started that business) and nurturing a curiosity about their products and services that may lead you into temptation.

Finally, be sensitive to when the Holy Spirit is leading you to engage and when to keep your distance. You’ll probably experience moments where the Spirit is saying, “Danger!” It’s wise to listen to how the Spirit is moving you in these moments, knowing that sometimes the appropriate response to the Enemy is a rebuke (Matt. 4:1–11).

Follow Where God Leads

The advice from my church director to pray, engage, and be cautious is wise whether you live near a satanist or work near an occult business, a Planned Parenthood, a casino, or any other business at odds with God’s plan for our thriving.

You don’t have to stand outside the business and decry the immorality and sin, because, Christ have mercy, we too are sinners. In humility, pray for them and be open to showing Christ’s love.

This is how we kept on with our neighbor John. We didn’t shy away from knowing him but shared chitchat with him and his kids. And we prayed relentlessly for the family. We don’t know if any of this changed his perspective, but maybe that wasn’t our part to play in his story. It might not be yours either. Pray and engage, and see where God leads.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Teaching in the Home Sun, 29 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 While homeschooling often gets a bad rap, I’m convinced my parents’ choice has made a drastic difference in my life.]]> The Lord used my parents to shape me in many ways—but one stands out. I look back and remember my brothers and I gathering around my mom on the couch as she read Little House on the Prairie to us. I remember counting plastic bears at the kitchen table when we were first learning to count. I remember analyzing historical and current events by opening God’s Word and having countless worldview discussions in our living room. I remember sharing laughter and making memories simply by being together.

One of the most influential things my parents did was homeschool me.

Value of Sacrifice

My mom was faced with a difficult decision when I was a toddler. Would she continue her education and go into her dream field of nursing, or would she stay home and homeschool me when I got older?

With much prayer and thought, my mom decided to set aside her career ambitions to pursue homeschooling. She now has a job that’s not widely recognized, has no salary, and is one of the most difficult jobs a person can have. But I’m incredibly thankful for the influence my mom’s sacrifice has had on my life.

Not only did my mom sacrifice her career, but as a family we learned to forgo various wishes so we could live on one paycheck. We didn’t go on many vacations growing up, we renovated several houses so we could have additional income, and my siblings and I learned to be content even when our friends were able to do more than we were.

My parents taught by example that we don’t need material possessions, a dream career, a vacation every year, or an abundance of spending money to lead a joyful life. My parents taught us that the Lord alone satisfies and that sacrificing to follow where he leads is always worth it.

My parents taught us that the Lord alone satisfies and that sacrificing to follow where he leads is always worth it.

Biblical Worldview

There were many times when I was working diligently on one of my school subjects when my mom stopped me. She had an article to read to us children or a current event to discuss. Being someone who loved to check off lists and get my work done so I could move on to playing, I intently watched the clock during these discussions, wondering when I’d be able to resume my work.

But I later came to realize these discussions were a fundamental part of my education. They taught me to compare everything to God’s Word and to see the world through the lens of Scripture. Because I was homeschooled, my mom was able to pour into me for many hours throughout the day, even as she taught me English, math, history, and science.

But teaching me a biblical worldview didn’t end during the school day. In many situations—during dinner discussions; while on a hike; or after watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a song—my parents were showing us that if we’re believers in Christ, the Bible must be our guide for all of life.

Growth in Relationship

Being homeschooled, I was around my parents and siblings constantly. Yes, we often got on each other’s nerves. But because we were together for the majority of each day, by God’s grace, we’ve become close as a family.

Since my dad has worked in ministry for years, homeschooling gave us the flexibility to minister alongside him. My parents taught us to work with one another, to value ministry, and to serve the Lord and others.

Now, as an adult, my siblings are my best friends. We’ve grown up doing practically everything together, especially since we were each other’s classmates up until we graduated from high school. Whether by completing our chores together, helping one another with homework, or playing pretend in the backyard, homeschooling allowed us to get to know one another on a deeper level.

My siblings are my best friends—homeschooling allowed us to get to know one another on a deeper level.

While homeschooling often gets a bad rap, I’m convinced my parents’ choice has made a drastic difference in my life. Through their example, I learned the value of sacrificing what I might think is good to follow the Lord’s leading to something better. As my parents turned my eyes to Scripture as the lens through which I view the world, I learned to rely on God’s Word as my guide. When I ministered alongside my family and lived life with them, I learned to serve God’s people and formed deep friendships along the way. I’m so grateful to God for my parents.

Golden Rule for Your Email Inbox Sat, 28 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Email isn’t primarily a task to check off but an opportunity to love and serve others.]]> The average professional receives approximately 120 emails in her work inbox daily, on top of the emails in her personal inboxes and social media DMs. Interspersed among notes from colleagues and friends is a deluge of deals and newsletters asking us to read, buy, share, and be more.

This makes us feel anxious and has led to a host of advice columns on how to tame your inbox. But when optimization is one of society’s highest values, fear of the notification icon can tempt us to neglect the calling of the Golden Rule.

How can we love and serve our fellow emailers without spending too much time in our inboxes?

Inbox Zero?

Nearly two decades ago, productivity expert Merlin Mann popularized the inbox zero method of ruthlessly eliminating or delegating your inbox down to nothing. In recent years, counteractive approaches such as inbox infinity (letting your inbox grow without addressing or even reviewing the majority of your mail) encourage users to respond to the emails they happen to see and to burden others with following up on critical matters.

Today, dozens of AI email assistants promise to free us up for more important duties by responding on our behalf. Ellie will learn your writing style and craft replies in your voice. Missive can automatically inject whimsy into your emails using template prompts like “End email with a random philosophical quote.” However well intentioned and genuinely helpful these ideas are, each one leads us to obsess over productivity instead of presence.

Love Your Neighbor

Michael Sacasas, executive director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, captured the human frustration of receiving an autoresponse through sharing a universal experience: calling a credit card company’s customer service line. After running through multiple service departments and automated menus, Sacasas reached someone who genuinely explored the issue with him.

“Efficiency and speed and optimization and profitability . . . increasingly dictate how we act and interact in many if not most of the social spaces we inhabit,” he wrote. “It can be startling, if also invigorating and life-giving, to encounter someone who will break the script and deal with you as a person in [the] fullest sense—by taking the time to regard you with kindness and respect, by offering a simple gesture of help or courtesy born out of deliberate attentiveness, by conveying care through the words they speak to us and how they are delivered.”

While walking among us, Christ always met people in the fullest sense, even those asking inane or complex questions. Matthew 22:15–46 contains a series of bitter inquiries from the temple leaders that Jesus makes time and space to answer. Amid their questioning, he summarizes the first and second greatest commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (vv. 37–39)

What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus models one way in his posture toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather than dismissing their questions or giving trite responses, he loved these men by considering their unique status, intentions, and needs. He took the time to communicate clearly and patiently. He wanted them to understand his message.

I’m not saying your email to a colleague is as life-giving or critical as Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisees. But if we take care to see our emails less as tasks and more as interactions with real people, our written words can become a small conduit for the grace of Christ.

Instead of trying to reply in as few words as possible (or ignoring the message altogether), try writing a helpful and kind message. If you have a choice between a short response and a longer one that would serve or teach better, choose the more thorough explanation. When frustrated by someone’s phrasing, assume positive intent. Believe he’s doing his best as you craft your response.

The Golden Rule cannot be automated. Relationships cannot be optimized. AI cannot respond in love the way you can.

Steward Your Time

You might be wondering, Who has time for that? If we craft kind, thoughtful emails to everyone in our inbox, that would take hours.

Stewarding your inbox while honoring others requires the humility of knowing your unique temptations and limitations. To achieve a pace that allows you to engage more deeply than widely, consider implementing the following practices:

  • Lovingly let your friends and family know your current priorities and expectations for digital communication.
  • Unsubscribe from e-commerce emails and newsletters that distract you and entice you to overconsume.
  • Set up a system to ensure messages or tasks don’t slip past you, whether it’s reading through emails at the end of each day, using folders to remind yourself of tasks, or clearing your inbox at the end of each week.
  • Practice the final fruit of the Spirit: self-control. Break your email addiction by turning off notifications and closing your inbox. Set a reminder to check your email a few times a day rather than the average professional’s habit of 11 times an hour.
  • Consider whether a loving reply for this specific person would require more or fewer words.
  • When you don’t have the answer or the time to respond, connect senders to someone who can assist with their inquiry instead of ignoring them.

Using these ideas to redirect your energy toward caring for others will allow you to find a new purpose in a seemingly endless and isolated task.

As Christians, our goal for email shouldn’t look like everyone else’s. Instead of searching for ways to expand our own productivity at the expense of someone else’s, we should be looking to serve. Instead of wasting time with endless email checks or chaotic inboxes, we should create good boundaries that acknowledge our human limitations.

And instead of bemoaning or battling email, we should see it as it is—a communication gift that needs to be brought under the lordship of Christ.

Herman Bavinck Teaches Us to Accept Science’s Limits Sat, 28 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Modern science is deluded. It assumes too much. ]]> Science in the late-modern world faces an uncertain future. Despite a slight increase during the COVID pandemic, Americans’ confidence in scientists has fallen to prepandemic levels. Driving this, in part, is perhaps the way science and ideology are increasingly commingled.

Gender theory informs care for gender dysphoria, setting up the current debate on evidence-based treatment. Scientific journals have urged researchers and editors to consider the social justice implications of their work. Indeed, these are strange times when atheist Richard Dawkins sides with Christians on notions of what’s real and true.

Christianity and Science, written by Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck over a century ago, offers prescient wisdom. This volume has been made available in English for the first time through the cooperative work of three translators: N. Gray Sutanto is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary; James Eglinton is a Keller Center fellow and a senior lecturer in Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh; Cory Brock is a minister at St. Columba’s in Edinburgh.

Bavinck argues that modern science has never been neutral. In fact, the longer science proceeds under the false assumption of neutrality, the further it departs from serving both science and religious belief. The way forward, he argues, is to pay attention to the relationship between knowledge and faith.

Limitations of Science

We most often define science as the pursuit of empirical knowledge about the world. The same was true in Bavinck’s day.

We study things through our senses, confident we can arrive at truth by touching, measuring, or even thinking. There’s good reason for this. It’s hard to contest that the physical world around us is real and knowable. But Bavinck argues that on this very point, modern science is deluded. It assumes too much, and thus it cannot arrive at true knowledge of the world. Bavinck offers several reasons why science often oversteps its bounds. Identifying them can help us think better about science.

1. Science is concerned with more than just the senses.

According to Bavinck, science is the disciplined investigation to both know and understand what’s true and real. Because we encounter the world through our physical senses, science relies on the senses to examine the world. However, as the senses only provide information to our minds that we must then process and interpret, scientific knowledge involves more than just the senses.

Modern science is deluded. It assumes too much.

All perception involves thinking, so scientific knowledge is always arrived at by cognition. We come to understand what our senses provide us by integrating such perception into what we believe we already know. Therefore, our worldview assumptions about what is knowable (epistemology), what is real (metaphysics), and what is good (ethics) are always the foundation for scientific knowledge through the senses.

This is exactly where positivist science, which posits that scientific knowledge is always objective and that empirical reality is the only thing that can be known, begins to show its inadequacy.

2. Science can never justify itself.

If science is defined from the start as only knowledge that comes through empirical investigation, then science cannot be the source of its purpose and goal. Science can help you see that others study the world to understand it. But it cannot tell you why you ought to do likewise.

We assume that the world makes sense, that we should seek to understand it, and that doing so is good and useful. For Bavinck, each of these is essential to knowing, and they’re only ever problematic if we believe certain knowledge can only come through investigating the material world. But science can never set its own limits. It cannot determine what is and isn’t knowable.

3. Science is always ‘faith seeking understanding.’

Bavinck argues all science is ultimately “built on and must proceed from faith” (58). Contrary to modern thinking, this requires brave realism rather than naivete. “No science can be imagined,” says Bavinck, “without accepting beforehand, quietly and without criticism, the reliability of the senses, the objective existence of the world, the truth of the laws of thinking, and the logical, ideal content of perceptible phenomena” (131–32).

Bavinck encourages us to think Christianly about science because of Christianity’s conviction that the world is real and knowable since the Creator has revealed himself within it. Because of the objective, historical convergence of God and creation in the person and work of Christ, only a Christian worldview can bring unity to perception and knowledge, being and thinking, faith and science.

Accordingly, Bavinck concludes that while any science offers knowledge that particular things exist and how they relate to other things, only “Christian science is a science that investigates all things by the light of [God’s] revelation and, therefore, sees [things] as they truly are in their essence” (225).

Our Context Is Similar to Bavinck’s

Bavinck’s argument presents a hopeful message for our own day. He urges us to see science as organically reliant on faith to realize that the Christian faith in particular holds the key to rescuing science from ideology. Modern science hasn’t rid society of religiosity. Rather, our society increasingly approaches science cloaked in alternative spiritualities.

Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral and we should be honest about our presuppositions of what science is and what it’s for. On this, Bavinck says, “An era that manifests such signs is not unfavorable for the practice of science in a Christian spirit” (47).

Christians should continue to investigate the world rigorously and honestly, all the while drawing attention to the worldview commitments about truth and cognition that make science possible.

Christianity Is the Only Proper Science

To some, Bavinck’s claim that only Christian science is proper science may seem like any other ideology or fundamentalism. But within the framework he presents, it’s the only natural conclusion.

Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral.

It isn’t a claim that’s provable by empirical science. Bavinck rightly believes the most compelling evidence for the truth of a Christian worldview is that it’s an eminently livable worldview. Christianity alone offers the most intellectually and existentially compelling way to unite belief and reality, and by this to live consistently with our convictions.

Christianity and Science is a helpful introduction to Herman Bavinck’s other works on worldview and knowledge. In all three, and especially in this book, Bavinck charts a needed escape from modernity’s anemic understanding of science. He helps us think better about knowledge and belief—for the sake both of better science and of a more compelling public witness.

Draw Wisdom and Strength from God’s Word Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:04:01 +0000 Bobby Scott teaches on the importance of staying grounded in the Word of God as it equips and empowers us for the work of God. ]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Bobby Scott teaches on 2 Timothy 3:10–17, emphasizing the importance of being a bearer of the gospel and living a life centered on the Word of God. He challenges believers to consider whether our actions and words reflect the beautiful message of grace found in the gospel of Jesus.

Scott focuses on how the Word leads to salvation and teaches that perseverance in the Word is crucial, especially in the face of fear and persecution. As we draw wisdom and strength from the Bible—God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness—we can keep ministering and stay grounded in the Word of God as it equips us for the work of God and empowers us to face spiritual battles in the world.

Questions to Ask Your Bookworm Teenager Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Consider asking your teens these six questions about the volumes on their nightstands or in their backpacks.]]> “Reading Level: College.” I remember those words showing up on my testing results at a young age.

My penchant for all things literary came from my mother, who passed down a love of words and read to me likely from my time in the womb. I started devouring books on my own as soon as I learned to read, and fiction was my genre of choice, particularly fantasy or adventure stories.

Many kids grow up the same way. We come back from trips to the public library with heavy bags, eager to be transported into each story. The hobby often follows us into our teenage years, where the door opens to new selections.

The stories we read can be some of the most beneficial inputs in our lives. Humans learn through stories—absorbing facts, lessons, and values often more quickly than we would from a textbook. Fiction gives us the chance to explore new worlds and lives we’d otherwise never imagine. It’s a beautiful thing.

And yet it can also be dangerous. Stories influence our thinking, and teenagers are already especially susceptible to influence.

Evaluate Stories

It’s not realistic for parents to read everything their teens are reading, but when they’re conversing about these books, they can get a productive glimpse into the worlds their children are living in and discuss the values they’re picking up on.

Consider asking your teens these six questions about the volumes on their nightstands or in their backpacks.

1. What’s the book about?

As long as you aren’t catching your teen mid-page (which many readers would say is a massive faux pas), most bookworms are more than happy to ramble on about the plot of their current read.

By simply asking your teen what the book is about, you’ll get a handle on what he’s focusing on in the book, how he’s liking it, and, of course, what the content is. Understanding the plot of the book will give you an idea of the world he’s spending his hours submerged in.

2. What do the characters care about or want most?

Character motivations fuel fiction. The plot is pulled this way and that by the lead’s goals as he fights whatever obstacles he encounters to achieve what he wants. What a character desires will be foremost in the reader’s mind, and that teaches them something about humanity—whether we want it to or not.

As she reads, your teen may start caring about what the protagonist cares about. Is that justice or revenge? Is it identity? Finding out what the characters want can be key in understanding what your teen might start considering important.

3. What’s the romance like?

Our views of love can be molded by the media we consume. From Hollywood chick flicks to Pride and Prejudice, the world is filled with depictions of what humans think love is like. More often than not, it’s nothing like what the Bible tells us about love. Perhaps one of the greatest failings of literature lies here, and it’s important to discuss with your teen how the couple she’s so ardently rooting for is developing their relationship.

The expectations we have for romance will be shaped by what we’re reading, so discuss what’s accurate and what’s not. This question can quickly lead to a conversation about love from a godly perspective.

4. Did the characters do the right thing?

It’s not always completely black and white, but more often than not, characters are brought to a point where they need to make decisions about good and evil. From deciding how to bring justice against the villains to simply considering how they treat those around them, heroes are surrounded with choices. And those choices influence your teens. Everything we consume feeds our understanding of the world, including our understanding of morality.

Everything we consume feeds our understanding of the world, including our understanding of morality.

Being able to discuss moral decisions in fiction through a biblical lens helps parents and teens break down how we can glorify the Lord in difficult situations. While most teens will never have to confront the same choices as a hero in an adventure story, they’ll face hard decisions, and the kinds of stories they read about can influence their responses.

5. Why do you think the author wrote the book?

No author writes without a purpose in mind. All writing is persuasive, to some level, and our worldviews seep into our writing as easily as blood flows from a paper cut.

This question prompts your teen to think deeper about the adventure he’s experiencing and ask himself what the purpose of the tale is. What does the author intend for him to believe? What is the author asking him to take away from the story? If her purposes for writing are flawed, chances are her views on honor, love, justice, and the world will also be flawed. These kinds of authors may not be worth learning from.

6. Is this book worth reading?

After she’s evaluated these questions about the book, the teen can offer her opinion on whether she’ll finish it. Would she recommend it to someone else? Why or why not? Sometimes, a parent will realize he or she needs to step in. But this question gives your young bookworm the chance to come to the realization on her own and think more carefully about each book she decides to read in the future.

Stories are one of the ways humanity can most imitate our Creator, by creating worlds and stories we can enjoy and learn from. Encouraging our teens to read and enjoy books is a good thing, and I’m grateful my parents did that for me.

But, like nearly every part of life, the maze of modern literature isn’t one teens can navigate on their own. Striking up these conversations and diving deeper into the meanings of the stories we love is one way Christian parents can help their children approach one of God’s gifts biblically.

Catholic, Not Roman: Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of Love for the Church Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Luther only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.]]> Some picture Martin Luther as a raging protester, eager to charge the gates of Rome and bring down the church. That caricature is far from the truth.

Luther was no sectarian or schismatic. He wasn’t trying to start a new church, nor was he attempting to divide the church, let alone bring Rome crashing down.

His intent was to reform from within, convinced Rome had turned to more modern innovations that betrayed the rich heritage of the church catholic (universal). We see that intent when Luther said at the start of his Ninety-five Theses that he was presenting them for public discussion but out “of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” Luther’s theses exhibited zeal, even serious consternation, but behind his bold discontent was a deeper motive—love. Love for God and love for his church.

Indulgences—or to be more accurate, their abuse—galvanized Luther to write these Ninety-five Theses.

The writing and posting of theses was anything but novel. It wasn’t the first time Luther had written some up for debate. Nor was Luther alone in this practice.

Many of his medieval colleagues had done the same. It’s likely Luther was imitating the examples of many who came before him. That isn’t to downplay Luther’s irritation, but he only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.

Luther only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.

Luther sent the theses to the archbishop, Albert of Brandenburg, who presided over Johann Tetzel’s indulgence preaching. He also sent them to many of his friends. That move is revealing. Some wonder whether Luther’s ultimate aim all along wasn’t academic disputation but public, pastoral clarification on an issue as significant as salvation itself. His theses, with their pastoral angle, may indicate as much.

Repentance and the Penalty for Sin

Luther’s first thesis challenged Rome’s interpretation of Matthew 4:17. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Many assumed Jesus was commanding the sinner to “do penance” (the Latin is poenitentiam agite).

Luther was unwilling to read into Rome’s entire penance system, indulgences included, a simple command to turn from sin. He preferred the alternative translation, “repent.”

He wrote, “This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.” Rather, it means “solely inner repentance.” Perhaps speaking from experience, Luther warned against “repentance” without external fruit: “Such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward modifications of the flesh.”

When Luther addressed sin, he still assumed Rome’s distinction between the guilt of sin and the penalty of sin, believing the latter remains “until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” However, Luther discouraged appealing to the pope, as if the pope could somehow rid Christians of all the penalty of sin.

Furthermore, the sinner shouldn’t think he can find remission of his guilt if he isn’t truly repentant. Luther argued, “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.”

In 1517, Luther had yet to jettison Rome’s view of the priesthood. But he was irritated with priests, especially those who abused the concept of purgatory, noting, “Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.”

It used to be the case, said Luther, that “penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.” Not anymore. That worried Luther to no end; perhaps he talked to churchgoers who assumed that once they were absolved the penalties were nothing.

Purgatory and Indulgences

Luther was convinced purgatory was approached with all the wrong motives. The preachers of purgatory—like Tetzel—used fear rather than love to convey purgatory’s purpose. Luther wrote, “It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.”

He was persuaded that people everywhere were misinformed, even misled. When the pope granted a “plenary remission of all penalties,” he “[did] not actually mean ‘all penalties,’ but only those imposed by himself.”

Luther lamented, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.”

He claimed those purgatory preachers, like Tetzel, were proclaiming lies when they promised immediate release from purgatory at the purchase of an indulgence slip. He wrote, “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

As the money chest increased, “greed and avarice” increased all the more. Luther reminded Christians that if they couldn’t even be sure their own repentance was genuine, how then could they be certain the penalty for all their sins was remitted by indulgences?

Often fiery, it seems Luther might well have flipped the indulgence tables upside down himself: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”

Fiery Language, Pastoral Heart

Luther’s strong language—damnation!—conveyed his pastoral disgust. Sinners rushed to the indulgence tables under the impression that if they had enough money to purchase the slip, they’d escape purgatory, regardless of whether they were repentant.

Some said an indulgence could “absolve a man even if he had . . . violated the mother of God” herself.

“Madness!” Luther cried. “What a total abuse of the penance system, as if satisfaction for the temporal punishment for one’s sins was for sale irrespective of genuine confession, irrespective of what sins one had committed.”

Luther objected with such vehemence because he was convinced cheap grace was offered at the expense of the heart’s sanctification.

Then Luther put forward a thesis that must have infuriated preachers like Tetzel: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”

Preachers of “papal indulgences” who refused to exercise “caution” gave the laity the impression that other “good works of love” were less important. They were not, Luther replied. And like that, Luther undermined the entire system of indulgences, throwing into question the motivation of those selling them as well as their salvific value.

Catholic, Not Roman

Did Luther have an accurate understanding of the pope and his involvement in the indulgence affair?

Luther initially gave the pope the benefit of the doubt. He assumed the pope would put a stop to the selling and buying of indulgences if he only knew how they were abused. If “the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”

Little did Luther realize how wrong he was.

At this point in Luther’s journey, he didn’t reject the authority of the pope altogether but merely clarified papal authority, which he feared had been misappropriated by others. Luther brought down the pope’s authority to the level of the common bishop: “That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese or parish.”

In Luther’s mind, he was merely a medieval man trying to renew the church by retrieving its true heritage. In time, he came to see that in order to be truly catholic he could no longer be Roman.

Luther even raised questions about the keys: “The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.”

The Ninety-five Theses reveal Luther was still a novice in his quest for reform. Beliefs he later abandoned were still present.

Nevertheless, the heart of his concerns was present and proved explosive in the right hands. In his mind, however, he was merely a medieval man trying to renew the church by retrieving its true heritage. In time, he came to see that in order to be truly catholic he could no longer be Roman.

Let’s Critically Examine Critical Theory Thu, 26 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Seek to understand and biblically evaluate critical theories instead of labeling them as either totally correct or wholly destructive.]]> Two basic problems arise in any conversation involving critical theory: (1) finding a consistent, fair representation from its advocates or critics and (2) sifting through the complex jargon to understand what the honest representation means so responsible critique can take place.

Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology––Implications for the Church and Society attempts to address both of these problems. Neil Shenvi earned a PhD in theoretical chemistry and has invested his recent years in the study of critical theory. Pat Sawyer is a lecturer in communication studies at UNC Greensboro and holds a PhD in education studies and cultural studies.

This is a long book, at nearly 500 pages. The heft is largely due to the complexity of the authors’ goals. Shenvi and Sawyer state a desire to explain “bad ideas [some Christians have] embraced” that “have been penetrating more and more deeply into our culture” (30).

They contend these ideas often lead to deconstruction, theological liberalism, and other unhealthy attitudes toward the faith. They “want to show Christians that the Bible offers better answers to questions about race, class, gender, sexuality, justice, oppression, and a host of other hot-button issues” (30).

Incandescent Arguments

Fights over critical theory often produce more heat than light.

Recent debates among evangelicals have made it clear to me that many of the most vocal critics have little or no understanding of CRT. Before you can honestly critique an idea, you have to understand it. The first half of Critical Dilemma takes up that task.

Before you can honestly critique an idea, you have to understand it.

In their efforts to adequately explain critical theory, Shenvi and Sawyer explore two specific types: CRT and queer theory. This section could have been a book in itself. The authors interact largely with primary sources and favorable secondary sources in their attempt to honestly represent academic theories often characterized by their proponents as being impossible to define.

I’m no expert in critical theory, in the sense that I don’t write academically on the subject. But I’ve read enough primary literature to have a fair grasp of critical theory and a better understanding of CRT, but little comprehension of queer theory.

Overall, Shenvi and Sawyer have captured the basic ideas of at least critical theory and CRT. Because of their success in the areas I know, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt regarding queer theory.

Some scholars will disagree with certain representations of those theories in this book. In part, that’s what academics do. Some of the disagreements will have more validity than others. These are complex ideas with substantial variations among adherents, so it’s unlikely any single presentation will satisfy everyone.

Responsible Critiques

The second half of the book is a critique of critical theories. It would have been possible to write a book that simply offers this critique. Others have done so. But this book is most valuable because the turn to evaluation comes after the careful work of understanding.

Critical Dilemma offers a nuanced approach to topics that often lead to bombastic claims from Christian supporters and detractors of critical theories. The authors have made it clear they’re ideological opponents of critical theories. Yet they offer a chapter on the truths to be found in such theories.

Proponents of critical theories are clearly not going to like the critiques offered within this book. But neither will those who support colorblindness find comfort in its pages. Though I’m not a proponent of critical theory, I fear that books critiquing it may be used as weapons against those attempting to address institutional racism. A careless reading of Critical Dilemma might lead some to such faulty conclusions, but a thorough engagement won’t.

One of the strengths of this volume is that it undermines perspectives from the right and the left that argue critical theories are either totally correct or wholly destructive. The book reflects my larger critique of critical theory, which is that it’s often effective at revealing problems in our society, but the solutions it offers have largely failed. This nuance is one of the best qualities of the book.

Potential Missteps

Despite its value, there are missteps in Shenvi and Sawyer’s critique.

For example, the authors criticize critical theory advocates for rejecting universal laws and hierarchy as hegemonic. Many critical theorists argue that “dominant social groups impose their values on society such that they are accepted as natural, normal, or even God-ordained” (92). From this standpoint, institutions like the nuclear family and natural law or religious arguments for public policy are deemed oppressive. Shenvi and Sawyer note that Scripture affirms both universal moral law and some forms of hierarchy. Thus, they argue that in some sense “the Bible itself functions as hegemonic discourse” (290). They’re right, but the primary concerns of the critical theorists are human laws, rather than supernatural. To some degree they are talking past the critical theorists.

The authors are also too quick to declare Martin Luther King Jr. a close ally to their cause related to the question of law and the universal moral law. They write, “King’s entire argument fundamentally contradicts CRT’s perspective” (327). King’s perspective contrasts with some aspects of CRT, especially because he recognizes law can be and often is based on a universal moral order. However, he was critical of some laws, recognizing that sometimes the law can be used by the majority to inflict pain on the minority. This perspective in some ways resonates with the original legal analysis of CRT. There is value in this discussion for Critical Dilemma, but it is an example of the authors painting with a bit too broad a brush.

Finally, I wasn’t convinced by their case in chapter 11 against a role for collective, ancestral guilt. This concept can be misused by activists, but too quickly dismissing the social relevance of historical racial injustice can create barriers to reconciliation. Shenvi and Sawyer are correct to note that moral guilt is resolved for each individual through Christ alone. However, in Scripture we see God’s judgment of all Israel for Achan’s sin (Josh. 7) and Daniel’s confession of the ancestral sin of his people (Dan. 9). A deeper conversation about collective guilt, especially in social terms, needs to take place to understand what role it may, or may not, play in race relations.

Worthy of Commendation

Even with these challenges, Critical Dilemma is a commendable book. It can give Christians a common footing to have a better dialogue on issues connected to critical theories.

Critical Dilemma offers a nuanced approach to topics that often lead to bombastic claims from Christian supporters and detractors of critical theories.

The book’s nuance encourages discussion. It allows us to learn about the different concerns people bring to these important issues. It helps us to engage in a careful understanding of opposing views that can help us to navigate some of our differences.

It’s not easy to take the complicated ideas within various critical theories and distill them for an educated but nonacademic audience. The authors largely accomplish that task, although some passages may be confusing to the layperson.

Their honest attempt and reasonable success in providing fair, accessible explanations of ambiguous academic theories make this a valuable volume—whether you support or oppose critical theories, whether you’re well read or not, and whether you have influence in the Christian community or you’re unknown. If you want to be part of the conversation within the church on critical theories, this is an important book.

I hope we build off this information to find solutions we can live with instead of the recriminations that so often characterize our discussions on issues of identity and oppression.

What Do Israel’s Food Laws Have to Do with Our Holiness? Thu, 26 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy.]]> When we get to Leviticus in our Bible reading plans, how many of us read every word of chapter 11?

It’s not most people’s idea of engaging literature. The Lord provides a long list of which animals were ritually pure and which were ritually impure. The pure ones could be eaten; the impure ones couldn’t.

If we do make it through the list, one of the first questions we ask is “Why? What makes an animal pure or impure?” Interpreters have ventured various guesses.

Some say it was for health reasons: pure animals are good for our health, while impure ones aren’t. But if health is a concern, why get rid of these laws in the New Testament? (And please pass the calamari as you answer.) Others say it was for cultic reasons: impure animals were used in pagan worship or represented pagan gods. But this doesn’t work when it comes to bulls, which are pure even though they were commonly worshiped in the ancient world. (Golden calf, anyone?)

Despite our best guesses, we’re not told in the Bible why the animals are impure. Instead, Scripture focuses on the goals the Lord had in view with these laws.

Testimony of God’s Holiness

A diet marks a person in a certain way. In our day, those who don’t eat meat are identified as vegetarians (or vegans). In the Israelites’ day, those who kept the diet of Leviticus 11 were identified as the Lord’s followers. It marked them as his people.

But more than that, it marked them as the people of a certain kind of God. For those following a meat-free diet, avoiding meat is a priority. For those following a gluten-free diet, avoiding gluten is a priority. The Lord put the Israelites on an impurity-free diet. Why? He wanted his people to make avoiding impurity a priority.

The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy—the opposite of all that was impure. But these laws did more than testify about God’s holiness.

Reminder to Pursue Holiness

The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy—the opposite of all that was impure.

The Lord often gives his people physical signs to remind them of other obligations or promises. Circumcision of the flesh was to remind Israelites of the need for circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16). The Lord’s Supper reminds Christians of Jesus’s sacrificial death and their covenant obligations to him and to fellow members of his body (1 Cor. 11:23–34). Such physical signs are reminders of deeper realities.

Laws on ritual purity and impurity work in the same way: by commanding the Israelites to distinguish between purity and impurity at a ritual level, the Lord was reminding them to make such distinctions at a moral level. These laws were like spiritual strings around their fingers, reminding them at every meal, “If the Lord requires me to distinguish between purity and impurity ritually—seeking one and avoiding the other—how much more should I do so morally.”

I’ve seen this work out in practice. I once taught a semester-long seminary class on Leviticus. One of the assignments was to follow as many of the laws in Leviticus as possible for a week and to keep a journal of the experience.

The students shared understandable frustrations: several noted the prohibition against clothing of two different fabrics eliminated most of their wardrobes, and one student simply commented on day two, “I really miss bacon.”

By far, however, the most common observation went like this:

Every day, I made decisions about ritual purity and impurity. By midweek, I realized I was thinking about these things all day long and in every aspect of my life, and that’s when it hit me: God cares a lot about our purity and holiness, not just from a ritual perspective but also from a moral perspective. All day long and in every aspect of life, the Lord wants me to pursue purity in my heart, in my thoughts, in my actions. He wants me to reflect his holiness in all that I do. I have been treating holiness way too lightly! O Lord, help me to be holy!

What Happened to the Dietary Laws?

Originally, the laws on ritual purity and impurity were meant to set the Israelites apart as distinct so they might be a light to the nations. But by Jesus’s day, these laws had become a dividing wall that caused them to withdraw from the nations, which they viewed as unholy and unclean.

God cares a lot about our purity and holiness, not just from a ritual perspective but also from a moral perspective.

Even Peter didn’t at first think of the Gentiles as a people group with whom he could go and share the gospel, and it took a direct vision from the Lord to convince him otherwise (Acts 10). So it isn’t surprising that Jesus explicitly sets aside these food laws when he initiates the new covenant (Mark 7:19; Rom. 14:13–15).

But even in doing so, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what these laws pointed to: the need for deep, inner moral purity. In Mark 7:21–23, he says, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In saying this, Jesus calls us to give him our hearts so he can wash them clean, and then to reflect his holiness all day long and in every aspect of life—so the nations might know we follow a holy God.

Contingencies and Convictions: The Kingdom Is Inevitable, ‘The West’ Is Not Wed, 25 Oct 2023 04:04:26 +0000 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson explore the role of geography, technology, and coincidence in the spread of Christianity, which has fundamentally shaped our assumptions about the world.]]> How did Christianity come to shape Western culture? History is often told as the story of great men and events. But did Christianity come to shape Western culture simply as a “great idea” that carried the day?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson explore the role of geography, technology, and coincidence in the spread of Christianity, which has fundamentally shaped our assumptions about the world. Geography, geology, ecology, and economics aren’t the topics you’d usually consider in a Christian podcast, but Glen and Andrew observe how those factors—along with the fundamental goodness of the gospel—combine to create an environment in which the worldview of the West was formed.

Why I Led Our Church into a Cultural Minefield Wed, 25 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.]]> When I introduced our church’s new preaching series last January, I asked our congregation to pray I’d still have a job at the end.

I was only half joking.

For the next two months, we focused on how the gospel gives us perspective for navigating some of our modern world’s most divisive and confusing issues. The ones that derail dinner conversations and clog social media feeds. The ones that stir doubts, fuel anger and suspicion, erode friendships, and generally test faith. In the series, we tackled cancel culture, politics, abortion, race, expressive individualism, homosexuality, and gender identity.

My prayer request wasn’t in vain. What happened as a result of the series was both surprising and encouraging.

Rather than encountering angry criticism or running afoul of tribal loyalties, I found the flock received these sermons with eagerness, gratitude, and even relief. They appreciated our church’s willingness to address controversial issues in a way that lowered the temperature and recalibrated us to the gospel. Several commented on how they were moved from fear and anxiety to peace and courage.

When we looked at how the gospel helps us to understand the abortion crisis in America, for example, the reaction wasn’t only a deeper resolve to protect the unborn and care for mothers. Some found the freedom to confess past abortions with confidence in Christ’s mercy.

The sermon series was risky, but Jesus moved in our church, and the congregation grew in clarity, confidence, and compassion. As difficult as it sounds to walk into a cultural minefield with the gospel, pastors should seriously consider preaching a series on tough cultural issues. Here’s why.

1. Everyone already talks about these issues.

As uncomfortable as it may feel to bring up divisive and controversial topics, the reality is that you’re not the one bringing them up.

Our news feeds and text threads are filled with endless dialogue about these subjects, and many of those threads are marked more by outrage than by insight. It’s wise and important for churches to weigh in as well—not as one more opinion in an overcrowded comment section but as witnesses to Christ and heralds of God’s Word.

We need to bring the good news of Christ to bear on each controversial matter. Otherwise, we’re leaving it to the loudest podcasters and pundits to disciple our flocks.

2. God’s people are looking for guidance.

The last thing I want is for the weekly headlines to dictate my preaching focus on Sundays. I’d much rather address issues as they arise naturally from each book of the Bible. But sometimes the cultural moment calls for more direct engagement, lest the sheep end up wandering the wilderness without a shepherd.

While there will always be some whose “itching ears” simply want you to confirm their views (2 Tim. 4:3), most are simply looking for help. With so many voices arguing confidently and obsessively, it can be difficult for many to know what to think. Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.

Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.

3. The gospel is sufficient even for controversial topics.

It can be overwhelming to think about tackling divisive and complex subjects head-on. I almost canceled the series several times before we launched. But our confidence as shepherds doesn’t come from our own expertise. It comes from the sufficiency of our chief Shepherd. Our confidence (and thus our counsel) isn’t based on our own wisdom but on the gospel.

As I ventured into each issue with our congregation, God’s Word not only pointed the way forward but also supplied the guardrails to keep us from veering off the road into either unfettered assimilation (where the church becomes indistinguishable from the world) or self-righteous condemnation (where we so distance ourselves from the world that we’re no longer acting as witnesses). Whatever the subject, the gospel frees us to simultaneously uphold the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace. It’s our hope, power, and guide for living out our faith in an ever-changing world.

Whatever the subject, the gospel frees us to simultaneously uphold the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace.

That doesn’t mean land mines will never go off. However courageous or compassionate you are in the pulpit, some may still take offense. But even then, God is giving you an opportunity to let the gospel do its refining work in both you and your hearers. Conflict is never exciting, but in the Lord, it’s never wasted (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7–18).

It’s impossible for pastors to be experts on every important subject. But take heart: you don’t have to be an expert, just a pastor. Through the truth and grace of the gospel, our Lord has given you and your flock the wisdom and perspective you need to navigate today’s cultural challenges without compromise.

Jen Wilkin and J. T. English on Why We’re All Theologians Tue, 24 Oct 2023 04:04:31 +0000 Jen Wilkin and J. T. English join Collin Hansen to discuss theological training in the church, men and women working together in ministry, and more.]]> Jen Wilkin and J. T. English have given you an invitation—they want you to know and love God well. Sounds good, right? It’s hard to imagine any of us turning down that offer.

There’s just one catch. You need to become a theologian.

Uh oh. 

But you can do it. You were built for it!

That’s their theme in a new book, You Are a Theologian (B&H). They’re bringing theology to the masses, something they’ve been doing together for many years. You know Jen Wilkin as a Bible teacher from Dallas and author of many books, including Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds. Like Jen, J. T. is a repeat Gospelbound guest. He’s a pastor in Colorado and author of Deep Discipleship: How the Local Church Can Make Whole Disciples.

This paragraph sums up their work in You Are a Theologian:

Theology is not done exclusively or even primarily in the classroom. It is done in everyday life, every minute of every day. We are doing theology when we preach, pray, and sing, but we are also doing theology when we go to work, when we take a vacation, as we care for an aging parent, as we fight sin, as we raise kids, as we mourn the loss of a loved one, as we spend our money, and as we grow old. You are a theologian, and you are always doing theology.

They deliver on the premise in this book that works well in Sunday schools, youth groups, college discipleship, leader training, and more. Jen and J. T. joined me on Gospelbound to talk about misunderstood doctrines, favorite doctrines, favorite theologians, theological training in the church, men and women working together in the church, and more.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer for Missionaries Tue, 24 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Pray for Christ’s missionaries according to Christ’s direction.]]> An email arrives from Russia. Missionaries there explain how the recent unrest causes further complications for their church planting efforts. Evangelical Christians are never completely at liberty in Russia, especially when political turmoil is added to an ongoing war. “Pray for us,” they write.

Another message comes from missionaries serving in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. For decades, they’ve lived among people captive to superstitious spirit-worship. Once again, the locals have shunned them for transgressing some unspoken taboo. “Pray for us,” they write.

A third email appears from a couple hoping to return to an unreached people group in Asia. The pandemic forced them to leave, and government regulations make it difficult to go back. But the husband has an upcoming job interview that would provide a visa. “Pray for us,” they write.

Pray for us. Pray for us. Pray for us.

How to Pray

In prayer—whether in private or with the people of God—it can be difficult to know how to bear the various burdens of our brothers and sisters laboring for the gospel in far-off places. We feel ourselves unable to pray as we ought. In this, we depend on the Spirit’s help.

But we also depend on the Lord’s direction. “Lord, teach us to pray,” Christ’s disciples once asked (Luke 11:1). And our Master graciously replied with words that guide his praying people in every age until his return.

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t simply a form of words to repeat in rote; rather, it has the greater purpose of leading Christians to the kind of petitions the Lord is delighted to answer. The Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully asks, “What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?” The answer is this: “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer, but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.”

6 Petitions

So what might the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer teach us about praying for missionaries? Let me give a few suggestions.

1. ‘Hallowed be thy name.’

The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us the aim of missions is that God’s name would be highly exalted among the nations. In Malachi 1:11, the Lord assures us this will take place: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.”

Our prayers should have this promise and God’s glory in view. We lament that so few people glorify the God who made them and we plead that the Lord would fulfill his promise to save many and make them his worshipers.

The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us the aim of missions is that God’s name would be highly exalted among the nations.

2. ‘Thy kingdom come.’

The work of missions involves kingdom conflict. Just as young men were sent to the frontlines in World War II for the greater Allied cause, so our missionaries are kingdom soldiers waging war on Satan’s realm (Eph. 2:2–3). As these missionaries translate Scripture, plant churches, and engage in gospel-centered mercy ministry, we pray fervently that those efforts will result in kingdom advance. Yet unlike other conflicts, we know the outcome is secure, so we can pray with confidence, hope, and expectation (Rev. 11:15).

3. ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The missionary’s great desire—to see more and more people brought into willing subjection to King Jesus—is the last thing sinners desire (Rom. 8:7). So how might people become responsive to their ministry? By God’s sovereign grace alone. We must plead that God would change people’s hearts so they’re willing to trust, love, and obey the Savior (Ps. 110:3).

4. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

Missionaries need housing, food, clothing, working cars, education for their children, and plane tickets back home. People are encouraged to give money for missions, and rightly so. But it isn’t ultimately God’s people who provide; rather, God does so through them (Phil. 4:19). Do you pray that the God who owns all things would provide for the daily needs of his kingdom laborers?

5. ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’

We ought to pray that missions would result in many people coming to know the forgiveness of their sins through Christ’s atoning blood and the freedom that comes through being justified by faith (Gal. 2:16). But it isn’t just people out there who need forgiveness. We also should pray that God would forgive our coldness of heart for the souls of others and our lackluster commitment to the glory of God and the Great Commission.

6. ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

Missionaries face a great adversary (Eph. 6:12). Satan tempts them in many ways: to wane in gospel zeal, to drift from biblical truth, to trust in the flesh, and to despair when God seems distant or they don’t see results. Through prayer, we come alongside our missionaries by asking God to enable them to stand in the hour of temptation and then be refreshed by the sweetness of Christ’s presence and grace (3:16).

Christ’s Direction

The next time you receive a missionary prayer letter in your inbox, or when you pray over a list of missionaries during your private devotions, or as you beseech God for the work of missions in your church prayer meeting, allow the Lord’s Prayer to give you focus. Pray for Christ’s missionaries according to Christ’s direction.

When you do, you can be sure that’s the kind of prayer our heavenly Father delights to answer. And you can be confident he has the power to bring it to pass. We don’t bring our requests to an impotent ruler but to the Great King who assures us of their ultimate success. For his is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.

How to Live Unashamed of the Gospel Mon, 23 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of not being ashamed of the gospel and the need for sound doctrine in pastoral ministry.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry delve into 2 Timothy 1:8–18 and reflect on the recurring theme of shame in pastoral ministry, particularly the fear of being ashamed of the gospel.

They discuss the temptation to feel ashamed in the face of opposition and the importance of holding firm to their faith, emphasizing that the gospel brings comfort; hope; and true, abundant life.

Recommended resource: United to Christ, Walking in the Spirit: A Theology of Ephesians by Benjamin L. Merkle

Common Fallacies in an Age of Outrage Mon, 23 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 It’s possible to be willfully gullible. In fact, it’s dangerously easy.]]> In an online world of rampant disinformation, partisan manipulation, and systemic distrust, it’s increasingly difficult—but necessary—for Christians to follow Scripture’s injunctions to discern what’s trustworthy: “do not be deceived” (1 Cor. 6:9), “keep alert” (Eph. 6:18), “try to discern” (Eph. 5:10), “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21), and “think” (2 Tim. 2:7).

What’s at stake?

First, the peace of the church. After four decades of pastoral ministry, I discovered that pandemics and presidential elections produce passionate opinions! Like many pastors, I received emails from church members with links to “well-researched” articles. I was encouraged to take greater or lesser stands on this or that. I was offered examples of high-profile pastors in other states who were courageous.

But these people I loved sent me articles that contradicted each other. It was logically impossible to agree with all of them. When I didn’t, some treasured friendships were strained. And many of us learned an important lesson: our unity largely depends on our ability to discern the truth.

The second thing at stake is our credibility. If we’re easily persuaded to believe falsehoods, why would unbelievers accept our claim that the gospel is true? Willful gullibility neglects our God-given responsibility to acquire the skills necessary to evaluate truth claims. This doesn’t mean we must be experts in every subject, but it does mean we practice strategic hesitation before accepting a claim as true and publicly endorsing it.

We don’t have to be experts in every subject, but we do have to practice strategic hesitation before accepting a claim as true and publicly endorsing it.

One critical skill for truth evaluation is biblical literacy. Along with our daily intake of news sources, we should be “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things” are so (Acts 17:11). Scripture doesn’t speak directly to every headline, but when a sitting president defends same-sex marriage by saying, “Marriage is a simple proposition. Who do you love?” scriptural competence guards us from deception.

In addition to developing biblical literacy, we can ask ourselves if we’re falling for fallacies. Here are seven that are common in our public discourse.

1. ‘Hasty Conclusion’ Fallacy

This is accepting a conclusion based on relevant but insufficient evidence. Years ago, a short in a wire caused my car horn to sound off at awkward moments. It almost got me in a couple of fights because drivers in front of me hastily concluded I was looking for one. In our “breaking news” culture, how many families, churches, and nations have been divided by an emotional rush to judgment?

James’s advice remains relevant: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Slow down, cool off, shut up, think it through. Otherwise, we’ll jump to inaccurate conclusions and make bad situations worse. Once we take a public stance, pride inclines us to double down, even as contrary facts begin to emerge.

Resist the hot take and reserve judgment until you know more.

2. ‘Argument by Repetition’ Fallacy

Believing a claim because it’s frequently and confidently repeated is to fall for the fallacy of argument by repetition. Research shows that the more we hear a lie, the more likely we are to believe it. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was frequently and confidently—and falsely—accused (Mark 14:55–59). So many believed these repeated lies that when “the chief priests accused him of many things” (15:3), no one defended him at his trial. But repeating a claim doesn’t make it true.

Adolf Hitler famously used this technique, repeating the charge of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Nazi propaganda amplified the lie, fueling antisemitism in German culture that led to the Holocaust. And lies repeated then feed deadly hatred today.

Think before receiving what’s repeated.

3. ‘Ad Hominem’ Fallacy

This fallacy occurs if a debater attacks the person rather than the argument. When Jesus bested his critics in debate, they called him a demon-possessed Samaritan (John 8:48). Insults are the last resort of a man who has no argument. Politicians skilled at name-calling effectively persuade gullible voters while escaping the hard work of debating an opponent’s positions. Believing that a pastor with a record of gospel faithfulness is a “woke Marxist” just because another pastor called him that is inexcusably naive.

Reputations are damaged and truth is eclipsed when believers fall for ad hominem arguments of the intellectually lazy.

Dismantle arguments, not people.

4. ‘Double Standard’ Fallacy

A double standard means applying a standard differently in some cases to gain an advantage. In leadership, character matters. Church leaders must be “above reproach” before they can be entrusted with authority (1 Tim. 3:2). If they betray that trust, they should be held accountable. No leader is owed special treatment because he’s wealthy, well connected, or well known. The church must “keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21).

No leader is owed special treatment because he’s wealthy, well connected, or well known.

Similarly, when Christians are persuaded to excuse the faults of their political champions while criticizing similar faults in their political opponents, the unbelieving world will perceive inconsistency and partiality as willful gullibility.

Apply the same standard equally to all.

5. ‘Suppressed Evidence’ Fallacy

This is concealing evidence unfavorable to your argument. In a justice system, two parties make their arguments before an impartial third party who attempts to discern the truth. As Solomon wrote, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). Give both sides a fair hearing.

In 1770, John Adams defended the British soldiers who fired on a crowd in the Boston Massacre. Knowing the jury would be biased against the defendants, who were accused of murder, Adams reminded them, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” After hearing all the facts from both sides, the jury found none of the despised soldiers guilty of murder.

Christians can suppress evidence by failing to take advantage of a free press. Market competition between news sources guaranteed free by the First Amendment is a check and balance, making more facts (and fact-checking) available to truth-lovers. By selecting only sources that present “friendly facts,” we tend to confirm our bias and deceive ourselves. Further, over 80 percent of Americans get their news from a digital device—news that’s being manipulated by algorithms that trap readers in information silos.

Read widely, not just deeply.

6. ‘Appeal to Celebrity’ Fallacy

Accepting a person’s claim because of his or her celebrity status, instead of the soundness of the argument, is known as an “appeal to celebrity” fallacy. Many media personalities possess uncommon rhetorical skills and are able to persuade an audience to accept opinion as settled fact. If called to account, the celebrity has a ready defense: “I am only joking!” (Prov. 26:18–19). In the name of entertaining comedy, satire, or commentary, he escapes accountability for his words.

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin created the pseudonym Richard Saunders, who predicted and published the death day of Titan Leeds, Franklin’s competitor. Leeds didn’t die as predicted, but Franklin-Saunders continued the hoax, sold lots of copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and increased his media market share. His false statements were excusable, he could argue, because the audience must have known he was joking. Mixing journalism and entertainment is a long-standing American tradition.

Mixing journalism and entertainment is a long-standing American tradition.

On the left, Rachel Maddow is a media celebrity with an engaging style that’s made her show a ratings success. When sued by another news organization for her on-air defamatory remarks, an appeals court dismissed the case, saying, “No reasonable viewer could conclude that Maddow implied an assertion of objective fact.”

On the right, Tucker Carlson was also sued for defamation. In court, his lawyers didn’t dispute the plaintiff’s claim that Carlson presented fiction as fact. Their defense was that Carlson’s audience should be aware that “he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal’ commentary.” The judge agreed and dismissed the case.

Both celebrities are perceived by their followers to be reliable news sources, though neither seems to adhere to journalistic ethics. Both courts assume Americans are responsible for acquiring the skills necessary to evaluate truth claims. Unfortunately, all the evidence many Americans need is that Maddow or Carlson said it.

See through the entertainment—entertain the evidence.

7. ‘Appeal to Motive’ Fallacy

This is when someone dismisses a proposition by questioning the proposer’s motives. Paul conceded that some preach with bad motives and others with good motives, but “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that [he rejoices]” (Phil. 1:18). It’s not that motives don’t matter. Those who preach the gospel for fame or fortune will give an account. The point is that motives don’t affect the argument. The gospel is true, no matter the preacher’s motives.

Malicious motives may drive a person to report real evidence. “Politically motivated” allegations must be supported by evidence, but if the evidence can be verified, the motives of the accuser remain irrelevant.

When Christians summarily dismiss allegations against their favorite preacher or politician because the charges are made by a disgruntled former employee, a jealous denominational rival, a desperate political enemy, or a despised media source, they’ve fallen for the “appeal to motive” fallacy.

Ignore the motive; investigate the message.

Reputation for Reasonableness

Only God knows the whole truth about every matter. More epistemic humility in our public assertions will serve us well, especially if even our fact-checking and critical thinking don’t lead us to the truth about the latest headline.

Paul instructed the Philippian believers to let their “reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5). Building a reputation of reasonableness makes us less gullible, and more persuasive, as we bear witness to the facts of the gospel.