The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Mon, 15 May 2023 08:26:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why I Loved Caring for My Aging Parents Mon, 15 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Seven years of caregiving was extremely difficult every day and on every level. But if I could do it all over again, I would.]]> For seven years, I served as a caregiver for my parents. One with dementia and one with kidney failure, one a believer and one not—both of whom I was called to care for until their deaths. I was completely dedicated to their care, and even with the Lord as my source of strength, it was extremely difficult every day and on every level. But if I could do it all over again, I would.

Perhaps you’re called to a season of caring for a Christian parent with whom you’ve always had a great relationship, so there’s deep, reciprocal love and devotion. Although caregiving is still challenging, it likely comes with joy. But perhaps you have a painful and strained relationship with one or both of your parents that makes caregiving more complicated. Perhaps, like me, you have a parent who doesn’t know the Lord, and caregiving is harder because his life is marked by sin and unbelief.

When we offer ourselves as caregivers, image-bearers receive care and dignity, our good works testify to our faith, and our care could become a means of grace for the Lord to save unbelieving parents. But caregiving isn’t just a blessing to our parents—the Lord uses it for our good too.

Why We Care for Our Parents

Throughout my childhood, my father made some decisions that brought harm to our family. My siblings and I were deeply hurt by him. Maybe you can relate. But as real as our feelings are, remember that how we feel about our parents isn’t what determines whether we honor them. Rather, we care for our parents out of obedience to the Lord’s command: “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12).

How we feel about our parents is not what dictates whether we honor them.

Sometimes there’ll be circumstances that make it impossible or even unsafe to provide care for a parent. But God’s command doesn’t make exceptions for parents who didn’t raise us in the Lord, or with whom we didn’t have a close relationship, or who weren’t good parents. Christians who are able are responsible for the care of our parents.

Because my father didn’t know the Lord, his thoughts and behaviors were consistent with the nature of an unbeliever. But I do know the Lord, and I have a new heart along with the mind of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Caring for my dad was consistent with my new nature, even if his nature didn’t change.

How Caregiving Blesses Us

One of my constant prayers while taking care of my dad was that the Lord would use me to save him, so I shared the gospel often, answered his questions, and tried not to compromise my witness. Sadly, my dad didn’t come to faith, but that doesn’t mean my time and effort spent caring for him were wasted.

Regardless of how an unbelieving parent responds to us or to the gospel, the Lord uses our care in his or her life—and in ours. Consider these three blessings of caregiving.

1. We Glorify Our Heavenly Father

We were created to glorify God. Our lives can glorify God in many ways, including by taking care of the ones that God appointed to care for us. When we honor our earthly parents, we honor our heavenly Father. Caregiving is so hard and so all-encompassing that God’s glory has to be the motivation. Those in close proximity will see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

2. We Learn About Godly Love

Caregiving taxes us physically and stretches us spiritually. It calls us to make sacrifices to love and care for an image-bearer with a love that cannot always be returned in the same way. This love requires patience, calls for kindness, has no room for envy or pride, and is not self-seeking. It can’t afford to be easily angered and makes a conscious decision not to keep a record of wrongs. This love has its trust in the Lord and fixes its hope on hearing “well done” from him. This love perseveres. This is the kind of love we’ve received from the Father, and as we give it to our parents, we understand God’s love more deeply.

3. We Grow in Maturity

Caregiving is a serious trial, and before it produces anything in us, it reveals something about us—it will test our faith. We’ll quickly learn what our true spiritual condition is, and that’s a good thing. Wherever we are in our faith, caregiving is like adding more weight to the spiritual bar. And as we endure by God’s grace, our spiritual muscle will get stronger and more defined so we reach a new level of maturity. James says that when we let perseverance have its perfect work, we’ll be complete and lacking nothing—strong in faith, able to endure hardships with joy, and mature (James 1:2–4).

Regardless of how our unbelieving parent responds to us or to the gospel, the Lord uses our care.

I spent seven years caring for my parents, and every single day I needed the Holy Spirit’s help. Isn’t that the ideal position for a Christian—being needy? I learned what the apostle Paul came to learn as the Lord declared to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

As we give ourselves joyfully to caring for our parents—the one who knows the Lord and the one who doesn’t—our souls will reap the benefit and God will get the glory.

What My Dad Taught Me About Successful Ministry Mon, 15 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The people my dad met at church, around town, at the hospital, or in homeless shelters meant more to him than attendance, programs, or money.]]> For the entirety of my life until last year, my father served as a pastor in small churches in the Northeast. I watched him lead through the worship wars of the 1990s, through 9/11, and through the COVID-19 pandemic. After 41 years in the pastorate, he retired.

Over the summer, my mom, my brothers, and our families gathered to celebrate. It was an intimate gathering at the family camp we attended each summer since I was a boy. We also compiled a video of people from the three churches he served. Each story was unique, but I was struck by a common message. People talked about a pastor who was also a friend—someone who made them laugh, provided godly help, and walked with them through their dark and difficult days.

As I watched my dad tearfully receive those words of thanksgiving, I considered his view of success. In him, I’ve seen a way of doing ministry that strengthens the soul and builds endurance for finishing the race. It involves a healthy view of rest, humble love, and a faithful walk with God.

Healthy Rest

Hebrews 4 describes the rest we enter because of Christ’s finished work on the cross. Verse 10 says, “Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”

Rest is tricky, but throughout my dad’s career, he made sure to take days off. He used his vacation time and took sabbaticals when they were available. This required trusting God with his work enough to confidently walk away from it for a day, a week, or even three months. It took humility to know he wasn’t so important that the ministry wouldn’t continue without him.

A benefit of this view of rest was my dad’s presence in our family life. We spent days off together. Family vacations were a yearly tradition, and Dad was at all my major life events; I never remember feeling like his work at the church was more important than our family.

Insufficient trust and humility can lead to overworked, tired, and burned-out pastors. Jesus tells us the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). We’d be wise to listen and enjoy the gift. Sabbath may not make sense in today’s economy, but stepping away from our work will only make it better.

Humble Love

My dad loves people. He’s a faithful shepherd who would disciple anyone willing to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Whenever I asked my dad how work was, he’d have a story about someone growing in his faith or coming to know Jesus. The people he met at church, around town, at the hospital, or in homeless shelters meant more to him than attendance, programs, or money.

The people my dad met at church, around town, at the hospital, or in homeless shelters meant more to him than attendance, programs, or money.

It wasn’t just his love for people that stood out—it was his humility toward them. He considered others’ needs more than his own. He patiently led people and congregations through the long, slow work of discipleship. He never viewed them as a means to an end.

How often have we known or been the type of leader who sought personal gain? Are we obsessed with networking, increasing our influence, or finding fulfillment in church growth? When we are, our lack of humility can tempt us to lose patience with those we lead. But when we humble ourselves before God and others, we find the freedom to love and lead without expecting something in return.

Faithful Walk

I have vivid childhood memories of waking up to find my dad sitting in silence and solitude with his Bible and a cup of coffee. He was consistent in his walk with God, and he led others from an overflow of the Spirit’s work in his life. His devotion has become even clearer to me in the last year. In retirement, nothing has changed. I see it, and his grandkids see it. When we’re in the same house, he’s still the first person awake with his Bible and coffee. Dad may have retired from ministry, but his walk with God continues.

I’ve learned the hard way that my walk with God matters more than my work for him, and I can’t do the latter without the former.

I often do my work for God, not with him. My study, prayer, and spiritual practices are more connected to my ministry than I’d like to admit. I’ve learned the hard way that my walk with God matters more than my work for him, and I can’t do the latter without the former. We work with God by abiding in the Vine, dependent on the Spirit to grow his fruit in us (John 15:4; Gal. 5:22–23).

How do we measure success? Results are often the barometer of success in churches because they’re easier to measure. But God measures by faithfulness rather than results (Matt. 25:23). As I saw in my dad, he asks us to finish the race, not win it.

For Adoptees, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Are Complicated Sun, 14 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The combined feelings of loss and gain, joy and sorrow remind adopted children that, although we’re not with the ones who bore us, we are with the ones who chose us.]]> “What are you planning to do tomorrow for the one who brought you into the world?” That’s what a woman I’d just met asked me the day before Mother’s Day a few years ago. I wished I had an answer, but I didn’t. I briefly told her my Mother’s Day plans and left with a sense of sadness and confusion.

The answer to her question was far more complicated than she realized. How was she supposed to know I’m adopted, especially since I look so much like my adoptive mother? How could she know the following day would bring streams of tears as I reflected on my birth mother’s neglect alongside my adoptive mother’s love?

As occasions that celebrate the gift of family, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day don’t only bring up emotions in parents. For children who have been adopted, these days may evoke grief, loss, and confusion as we’re reminded of the absence of our biological parents. But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day also remind adopted children of the presence of our adoptive parents. The combined feelings of loss and gain, joy and sorrow remind adopted children that, although we’re not with the ones who bore us, we’re with the ones who chose us.

As adopted children, how can we wisely navigate these familial holidays? And how can the church be more sensitive to the mingling of joy and pain that surrounds the adopted on these days?

Grieve Your Loss

Although adoption is full of beauty, it’s only a reality because the world is broken. A child who’s adopted has endured the traumatic experience of losing his or her biological parents. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day remind us of that loss. These holidays are times to celebrate, but it’s also appropriate to take time to grieve. Lamenting on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day doesn’t have to ruin the celebratory day for our parents. Lament and joy can flow together.

Although adoption is full of beauty, it’s only a reality because the world is broken.

Godly sorrow is a necessary step on the road to healing. However, this godly sorrow isn’t the same as worldly despair. Godly sorrow is grieving with confidence, knowing our grief doesn’t go unseen by the Father. As the psalmist explains, “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless” (Ps. 10:14, NIV). We grieve by bringing our losses before the Father, trusting our grief isn’t the end of the story.

Rejoice in Your Gain

While Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days to grieve the necessity of adoption, they’re also times to rejoice in the gift of adoption. They’re occasions for adoptive children to joyfully reflect on the sacrificial love of our adoptive parents. It’s a reminder that although we’ve experienced tremendous loss, we’ve also received great gain.

These are days to dwell on God’s goodness and grace, to praise God for the help he provides those in need:

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the LORD. A father to the fatherless, . . . God sets the lonely in families. (Ps. 68:4–6, NIV)

It’s fitting for us to show gratitude to God as we reflect on the truth that although adoption is caused by brokenness, adoption isn’t defined by brokenness. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days of rejoicing as we reflect on the loving presence of the family that chose us.

Hope in Your Future

Adoption reveals the fragility of family on earth while pointing to the stability of the family that is to come. Our earthly families are a reflection of the eternal family we’ll join when Christ returns.

Knowing our future with Christ gives us hope in the moments when we’re overwhelmed by the fragility of earthly families, for we know our security: “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (Ps. 27:10, NIV). These holidays should point us to our heavenly Father who asks us, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isa. 49:15, NIV).

How the Church Can Help

As we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in our churches, it’s important to remember that not all families are able to participate with pure joy and thankfulness. So how can the church be more sensitive to the adopted on these days?

Adoption reveals the fragility of family on earth while pointing to the stability of the family that is to come.

Acknowledge the adopted among the groups who may be grieving on these days and pray for us. Consider ahead of time who you know in your church that’s adopted and be ready to listen and offer comfort. The adopted shouldn’t have to walk through these days alone. With a little intentionality, the church can be ready to rejoice, grieve, and hope with adopted children on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

“What are you planning to do tomorrow for the one who brought you into the world?” If someone were to ask me this question again, I’d have an answer: “I plan to pray for her and grieve her absence. As for my adoptive mother, I’m planning to celebrate her presence.”

Don’t Let Urgent Matters Keep You from Eternal Ones Sat, 13 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 No, you’re not too busy to share the gospel.]]> Do you know anyone who would say he’s not busy? With the exception of older saints, who are more vital to the church than they often realize, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say life is slow and he has plenty of time. The busy life is the normal life. And it’s sad.

Let me tell you the story of a Christian friend of mine. Ben insisted he had no margin in his life. Yes, he knew he should take time to share the gospel with others. Because he’s a friend, I rather boldly asked him to look at his smartphone to see how much time he had spent on it in the recent past.

He went to Screen Time and was shocked to see these weekly averages:

  • Social media: 5 hours 32 minutes
  • Games: 2 hours 41 minutes

The busy life is the normal life. And it’s sad.

I asked if he looked at social media on his laptop, and he responded sheepishly, “Yes, probably 30 minutes a day.” That’s another 2 hours and 30 minutes per week. Do you see? Ben was spending 8 hours a week on social media and almost 3 hours a week on games.

He turned red when I gently asked if he watches television or a streaming service. He nodded affirmatively and muttered, “Yeah, a couple hours a day.”

Here’s Ben’s annual time log for these areas of his life:

  • Social media: 416 hours
  • Games: 139 hours
  • Television/streaming: 730 hours

That’s 1,285 hours of margin per year from just these three areas. How much unrealized margin do you have? Though I’m not suggesting you do away with social media or entertainment, you can certainly carve out some time for more important aspects of your life—including evangelism.

But I’m Afraid!

I admit I haven’t confirmed the number, but different sources I checked said “Do not fear” appears in the Bible 365 times. That’s one admonition and encouragement for every day of the year.

God knows we have to deal with fear. It’s a normal emotional reaction to many challenges in life. As an introvert, I fear going to social events where I’m expected to carry on small talk with people I hardly know. When I was a child, I remember fearing something would happen to my parents.

Fear could very well be a reaction you have to sharing the gospel. The first time I told someone about Christ as a young adult, I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. Then the unexpected words exited my mouth: “You don’t want to go to hell, do you?” Oh, dear. God still used that moment of fear to bring my friend Jim to salvation in Christ. He calmly responded, “No, I don’t. Can you tell me how to go to heaven?” There you go.

Pray that God will either remove the fear or use it as you seek to become a more obedient Great Commission Christian.

Multiplying Excuses

I wish I could say I have a good excuse when I’m negligent about sharing my faith. The real issue is that I just don’t do it.

Excuses come naturally to us. We’re too busy. We don’t know what to say. We don’t have any unbelievers in our lives. We don’t know how to deal with objections. We don’t want to offend people. We don’t want people to see us as crazy or weird.

Perhaps you’ve used one or more of those. Or perhaps you’re more like I am. You really don’t have an excuse. You simply fail to be obedient at times.

Perhaps you’re more like I am. You really don’t have an excuse. You simply fail to be obedient at times.

I remember several years ago thinking my main challenge in being a Great Commission Christian was finding the time to witness. My excuse was that I was too busy. Then I started praying that God would give me opportunities to share Christ amid my busyness. Since that prayer, I’ve been blessed by one opportunity after another.

Ask God to work amid your excuses. You’ll be amazed to see how he answers that prayer.

Use Your Margin

I hope you already have margin built into your life so you can deal with these immediate moments of need. Urgent matters don’t have to stop evangelism. Indeed, it’s possible that in a crisis you’ll find opportunities to be a Great Commission Christian.

Pray for wisdom when urgent matters arise. Look for gospel opportunities in them.

Why Is the SBC Membership Declining? Sat, 13 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Three factors are making it increasingly difficult for the denomination to thrive.]]> The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released its annual statistics about membership, attendance, baptism, and other matters this week. The data paints a portrait of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States undergoing a significant decline in a relatively short period of time.

That hasn’t always been the case, however. For decades, the Southern Baptists enjoyed extraordinary growth. In a 26-year period running from 1946 to 1972, the number of Southern Baptists more than doubled, from 6 million to 12 million. Then the membership figures continued to rise, peaking at 16.3 million members in 2006.

Around 2010, membership began to noticeably decline, with about 100,000 members lost per year. Then those losses began to accelerate. By 2019, the annual drop was more than a quarter million members. In the last three years, the shift has been staggering: 435,000 lost in 2020, 410,000 in 2021, and then 484,000 in 2022. In total, the SBC has lost more than 1.3 million people in just three years.

There’s no single cause for such a steep drop in membership, but the data suggests some contributing trends.

1. Decline in Institutional Trust

If there’s one main feature of American life in 2023, it’s that people don’t trust institutions. Data from the General Social Survey indicates trust in banks, education, Congress, major companies, the media, and medicine is down precipitously from a few decades ago. That’s true for baby boomers and millennials alike.

Trust in organized religion is down, as well. Breaking the data down into five-year birth cohorts makes that clear. For those who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, trust in religion declined when they were in their 30s and 40s but has stayed relatively stable from that point forward. The same isn’t true for younger Americans.

For instance, among people born in the 1980s, over 40 percent expressed a great deal of confidence in organized religion when they were coming into adulthood. From that point forward, trust has taken a nosedive. Now less than 20 percent of these birth cohorts think they can trust organized religion. Younger generations express the same level of distrust.

While the SBC has a congregational polity where local churches have autonomy, it’s still seen as a large religious institution by outsiders. That perception is especially acute given the recent sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the SBC and led to a Department of Justice investigation.

2. Demographics

One of the realities facing many Protestant denominations—including the SBC—is that their membership is aging.

On the one hand, this reflects the general demographics of America as the large baby boomer generation pulls the statistics toward the older end. But on the other hand, the percentage of adult SBC members aged over 65 (33 percent) is significantly larger than the percentage of adult Americans over 65 (22 percent).

In a decade or two, it’s likely half of the oldest age group will be unable to attend church services for one reason or another. Another 26 percent have seen their 55th birthday. In the average SBC church, three out of five adults are 55 or older, while just 25 percent are under the age of 45.

For churches to maintain their membership, they have to offset every death by one new member. Often, those new members come through raising up children in the faith. But that becomes harder when the demographics are tilted so much toward seniors.

3. Nones and the Nons

Another way for a church to offset the losses of an older generation is through new converts. However, recent years have seen fewer converts in increasingly secular America. The rise of the nones indicates a large share of young people who declare themselves unwilling to entertain religious faith.

Among Generation Z—those born in 1996 or later—the share who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular has risen from 39 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2022. This means nearly half of the youngest adults have walked away from religion entirely.

They aren’t the only ones to join the ranks of the nones, however. The percentage of millennials who have no religious affiliation has also risen, from 33 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2022. Even Gen X and baby boomers are more likely to be nonreligious now than a decade ago.

What may be an even bigger threat to the SBC is the dramatic rise in nondenominational churches. When looking at the size of every major Protestant tradition over the last 14 years, the common thread is decline. Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are all a smaller share of the population now than they were in 2008. The only exception is nondenominational Christians. They were 7.1 percent of the total population in 2008, but that number has risen to 8.6 percent in 2022.

One advantage of nondenominational churches is that they don’t have institutional baggage like many denominations, including the SBC. While people are skeptical of putting money in the offering plate and having some of it go to a head office hundreds of miles away, in nondenominational churches those leadership decisions are handled by people sitting in the pews each weekend. In a time of declining trust in institutions, nondenominationals are well-positioned, and are reaping the benefits through rising attendance and giving.

But the disadvantage of nondenominational churches is that they don’t carry the same influence as churches that are banded together. They don’t have the same ability to do missions, influence culture, or care for humanitarian needs as a denomination, nor are they accountable to any outside authority.

The Southern Baptist Convention is facing the same headwinds plaguing nearly every other religious institution in the U.S. The decline in institutional trust, the aging of an unusually large generation, and the rise in atheism make it increasingly difficult for denominations to thrive.

But there’s some good news for Southern Baptists. The attendance that declined sharply during COVID bounced up a bit, as did small group attendance. Baptisms also increased, though not yet to pre-COVID numbers. For the Southern Baptists to recover their losses, trends like these will have to continue and increase.

Transformed by the Love of Christ Fri, 12 May 2023 04:04:55 +0000 How do we abide in the love outlined in 1 Corinthians 13? ]]> In his message from TGCW22, Irwyn Ince explores the characteristics of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 and explains how to abide in that kind of love.

Ince discusses the importance of love in relationships, specifically within the body of Christ, emphasizing the transformative power of God’s love, which changes self-centered individuals into self-sacrificial lovers of God and neighbor. He proposes that love isn’t based on likeness or attraction—instead, true love overcomes divisions and reconciles those who may have nothing in common except for Christ.

The hope for Christians is the full expression and experience of the love of God in and through Christ, which endures forever. There’s a day coming, Ince urges, when all doubts will be gone, and we’ll see love face-to-face in the person of Christ. Until then, focusing on Jesus and abiding in his love is how we endure life on this side of eternity.

Jon Guerra’s ‘Ordinary Ways’ Is a God-Centered Masterpiece Fri, 12 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 ‘Ordinary Ways’ is an extraordinary gift. To listen to Jon Guerra’s new 14-song album—as lyrically profound and musically brilliant as anything from any artist this year—is to have one’s own affections for God unavoidably stirred. ]]> “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

I often return to these words from C. S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms. They sum up why I love being an arts and culture critic. It’s one thing to watch a stellar film or discover something arrestingly beautiful on Spotify. But to be able to praise these things publicly and celebrate their virtues communally—that’s when the enjoyment feels complete.

Lewis goes on,

It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

Lewis’s insight here captures how I’ve felt about Jon Guerra’s new album, Ordinary Ways (out today) since I first started listening to an advanced copy. It’s been hard not being able to share it with others (until now!), because it’s just that good—even better than Guerra’s rightly acclaimed previous album, Keeper of Days.

But Lewis’s quote also, in a way, sums up why Guerra’s new album is so good. Because Ordinary Ways perfectly captures the infectious alchemy of where worship and enjoyment meet. This is seriously devout and joyful music. Part of the album’s power is just how captivated it is by the God to whom every lyric is directed and every note offered. To listen to Guerra’s collection of 14 psalm-like poetic prayers—which are as lyrically profound and musically brilliant as anything I’ve heard from any artist this year—is to have one’s own affections for God unavoidably stirred.

Emotions are contagious, and our tendency to be affected by the affections of others is how we’re wired. This is why, like the Psalms themselves, the personal musical prayers of an exceptional artist like Guerra are so potent when they’re shared.

Contemporary Psalms

In describing the genre of his music, Guerra opts for “devotional music,” which he says is “less Sunday morning worship music and more Monday morning prayer music.” In my 2020 interview with him for The Gospel Coalition, Guerra (based in Austin, Texas) describes devotional music as “highly personal” in nature—songs birthed out of no intention other than devotional intimacy with God:

[Devotional music] has no practical boundary, just one large spiritual boundary: prayer. The music, language, style, and personal expression are, ideally, all alive with prayer. It takes cues from the Psalms.

Indeed, the Psalms are all over this album—explicitly and in its overall tone. Lead single “Let a Little Light In,” for example, shifts musically in its latter half to a rousing riff on Psalm 23:6. Final track “One Thing I Have Asked” is an anthemic setting of Psalm 27:4. The poetic lament “How Long” takes inspiration from Psalm 13. The confessional, repentance-celebrating “Illness of the Heart” wrestles with sin in the vein of Psalm 51.

To listen to Guerra’s collection of 14 psalm-like poetic prayers is to have one’s own affections for God unavoidably stirred.

Taken as a whole, the psalm-like sonic prayers of Ordinary Ways are an extraordinary gift. Guerra and his musically gifted wife, Valerie, sometimes release songs under the name Praytell and also compose music together for Terrence Malick films. They’re inspiring powerhouses of contemporary sacred art. And this album, I’d submit, is their greatest offering yet.

Wherever Jon and Valerie’s songs started in private—born out of personal pain or anxiety, late-night exhaustion or early-morning epiphany—they’re now facilitators of worship for souls far and wide. They’ve already ministered to me as I’ve listened to them in a roller-coaster season of stress and exhaustion, and I have no doubt they’ll minister to listeners around the world in whatever they’re going through.

God Is the Focal Point

Why will these songs inspire listeners to worship God? Because they aren’t songs about Jon Guerra. Though written from a personal vantage point, this is an album squarely, unapologetically, and very counter-culturally about God.

This is clear from the album opener, “The Lord Will Provide.” With an eclectic mix of subdued acoustic lyricism and cacophonous horns and drum machines reminiscent of Radiohead, the song kicks off a theme of praising God amid our pain and suffering, in a way that puts the accent not on our predicament but on God’s provision. The first lines of the album declare, in faith, “In some way or another, the Lord will provide / It may not be my way / It may not be your way. But he will.”

From there, the album begins a worshipful journey that unfolds like an extended conversation with God. The songs are ordered, often, such that a lyric or question posed in one song is answered in the next. Consider the pairing of tracks 5 and 6: “My Transfiguration” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” In “My Transfiguration,” Guerra paraphrases Luke 1:1 in asking God, “Teach me how to pray in the ordinary ways.” Naturally, the next track is Guerra’s gorgeous, Nick Drake–esque rendition of the prayer Jesus recites in response to his disciples’ inquiry (Luke 11:2–4).

This is an album squarely, unapologetically, and very counter culturally, about God.

Tracks 9 and 10 (“Like You, Lord” and “You Are All I’m Worth”) feel like a diptych reflection on identity. One of the album highlights for me, “Like You, Lord,” mulls the paradox of being image-bearers of One who is immeasurably greater than us (“Who is like you, Lord?” is repeated throughout the song, echoing a familiar Psalms refrain). “Will I ever be / Who I’m meant to be?” Guerra asks, ultimately landing in the consoling reminder of the Heidelberg Catechism: “I am not my own.”

This is counter-cultural in a world where the expressive, autonomous self is so emphasized, yet Guerra doubles down on it in the next track, “You Are All I’m Worth.” Echoing Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, the song is exactly what its title would indicate. As if to emphasize what’s clearly a key idea in the album at large, the chorus simply repeats this assertion nine times: “You are all I’m worth.”

Radical in a world of expressive individualism, Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: Finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ. If Christ is the truest human who ever lived, then Christ in us (Gal. 2:20) is the closest any of us will get to authentic humanity.

Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: Finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ.

In the album’s stunning penultimate song, “Thank You, Lord,” Guerra picks up the theme again, summing it up with the lyric “What am I? / I am yours.” It’s as simple as that. The thing that matters most about us, in the end, is that we are not our own. We belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to Jesus Christ.

As the song’s gorgeous twinkling piano pirouettes against the acoustic guitar through-line, Guerra suggests our best response to life’s ups and downs is gratitude to God. In what may be the year’s most beautiful worship chorus, Guerra sings, “This is life / This is love / To be still and know you / All that’s lost will be gained / Thank you, Lord.” Guerra captures a similar sentiment in “My Transfiguration”: “This is my transfiguration: To receive all things as grace / Whether toil or joy or pain.”

These aren’t treacly sentiments; they’re expressions of battle-weary wisdom. It’s the insight of a soul not unfamiliar with faith struggles, yet one who ultimately affirms the truth of Proverbs 3:5–8. Health comes not from an orientation around our own understanding, but in full trust and submission to him.

Trust in the One from Nazareth

Throughout the album, Guerra manages a tone of joyful gratitude and full trust in God, even as he still has questions and references suffering.

Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ.

In “Nazareth”—perhaps the bounciest and most musically catchy song on the album—Guerra oscillates between feeling God’s distance and yet knowing his nearness. Guerra sings, “I cannot face the mystery / I cannot change the history / But I name the love behind everything / When I praise the One from Nazareth.”

Praise illuminates. Shifting our gaze from ourselves and our mess, and toward the “love behind everything,” has a way of reframing life’s chaos. There’ll always be tensions and mysteries as we seek God—parts about him we can grasp and parts we can’t. Nevertheless, all things converge in him, and “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in [him],” to quote Augustine. Guerra meditates on this in “Blueprint,” a soaring, spacey M83-esque anthem that cultivates a heavenly ambiance and repeats the phrase “You are the all that all my soul is reaching for” even as it rehearses the paradoxes that perplex us.

We can love and trust God fully and unquestionably, even amid our questions. We can find peace and joy as we worship him, even amid our fears and laments. In today’s “throw the baby out with the bathwater” world of deconstruction and faith abandonment, this is a sorely needed message.

Yet as timely as it is, Guerra’s Ordinary Ways is also absolutely timeless. It’s basic Christianity, basic trust, basic worship, humbly set to song. It’s a slice of one bard’s devotional life in 2020s Texas, yet it joins a chorus of awestruck praise that has been unceasing for centuries and will echo on in the heavenly throngs, world without end.

Ground Your Kids in the Story of Creation Fri, 12 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Our kids will encounter countless wonders in their lives. The only question is whether we’ve trained them to ride the wave of wonder to a place of deep gratitude and affection for their Maker.]]> Have you seen the children’s show Bluey? In one episode, Bluey and her little sister, Bingo, convince their dad, Bandit, to play along with their game and pretend he was born “yesterday.” Bandit, being a good sport, goes along with their antics.

As they go about their day, Bandit is delightfully confused by everyday things like private property and the sun. The girls instruct him on how to deal with each thing he encounters, and he plays along, immersing himself in their world and seeing it through their eyes.

What stands out in the episode is a moment when Bandit holds a leaf up to the sun and stares at it in wonder. The sunlight embosses the veins, turning the ordinary into something magical. After playtime is over, Bandit’s wife catches him still gazing at the leaf, completely entranced. “I feel like a new dog!” he exclaims as he finally comes back to reality.

Bandit’s innocent wonder as he holds that leaf is why I spend so much time talking about creation with kids. Why emphasize this tiny portion of Scripture? Why obsess over the intricacies of a passage every churchgoer already knows? If we want our kids to experience the world through new eyes, there’s nothing more useful than a solid grounding in the story of creation. Here are three reasons why.

1. Teaching Genesis fosters biblical literacy.

Cover to cover, the Bible is filled with references to the book of Genesis. You can hardly find a page of Scripture that can be understood without some knowledge of the Bible’s first book. Each of Genesis’s first 11 chapters (except chap. 8) is referenced directly in the New Testament, and every New Testament author refers to this grouping of chapters at least once.

Creation is one of the special covenant moments in the history of God’s people that form their relationship with him. Genesis’s early chapters have so formed the imagination of the biblical authors that they come back to them again and again.

Genesis’s early chapters have so formed the imagination of the biblical authors that they come back to them again and again.

It’s well understood that all Scripture is a story about Jesus. It’s equally true, but less often understood, that creation forms the context for this story. The truth is self-evident, which is why it’s often missed. All Scripture (and all of life) takes place in the context of God’s creation. This can be as simple as showing kids differing views on the details of the creation story. When we show them we can disagree on interpretation while affirming essential truths like “God is creator,” we reinforce for them that the Bible is trustworthy from cover to cover. If your kids know Genesis’s stories and are formed by them, they’ll be better prepared to read fruitfully from the whole Bible. When they see how God’s Word holds together, they’ll be ready to fall in love with the One who holds the world together.

2. Teaching Genesis fosters biblical identity.

It’s not just the Bible we want our kids to understand. We want them to see themselves, and all life, in its light.

Genesis helps kids learn what it means to be human. We learn humans are the climax of God’s creation work, and we learn that the creation of the woman is the pinnacle of the creation of humans. We learn humans are made from dirt and God’s breath, an unlikely combination that results in the miracle of life. We see God giving us bodies as a gift. We see God creating with endless variety. We see his affection for all he has made, and we learn to trust in his affection for us as well.

All these truths run counter to the world’s assumptions, biases, and ideologies. If we don’t intentionally provide our kids with a creation lens on life, they’ll falter. But by placing the gospel within the Bible’s creation framework, we see Christ’s story with its all-encompassing and life-giving texture. Your kids need to see there’s nothing abstract about the gospel, and a robust understanding of creation will help.

3. Teaching Genesis fosters a sense of wonder.

Consider Psalm 104:10–13:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

For the psalmist, these words flow freely, but we rarely hear such phrases in contemporary prayers. You could attend church for decades and never hear anyone pray or sing about thirsty donkeys and songbirds.

That’s a loss. Our attention always limits our affection. We certainly can’t give our kids affection while denying them attention. Likewise, our attention to the Maker’s work is a limiting factor in our affection for him. Our kids will encounter countless wonders in their lives. The only question is whether we’ve trained them to ride the wave of wonder to a place of deep gratitude and affection for their Maker.

Our kids will encounter countless wonders in their lives. The only question is whether we’ve trained them to ride the wave of wonder to a place of deep gratitude and affection for their Maker.

There’s too much cynicism in the world. Often, there’s more than enough cynicism in the church as well. At least part of the antidote is raising kids who are enthralled by God’s creation, enraptured by the wonders of the Maker.

When we teach our kids to look at the ordinary through the lens of God’s goodness, they’ll see it embossed by the light of his glory. When we do that intentionally, consistently, and tenaciously, we just might see them, like Bandit, holding a leaf up to the sun for hours. And when kids experience wonder like that, you’ll know you’re laying a foundation that can last a lifetime.

Potential Dangers of ‘Applying Scripture to My Life’ Thu, 11 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Instead of applying the Bible to our lives, we should consider applying our lives to the story of God.]]> A few years ago, I was preparing for a small group Bible study on Luke 14:26 according to my church’s recommended steps. The Bible study steps culminated with “application” (i.e., “How can you apply this to your life?”), which is common in contemporary Bible studies. Yet I struggled to understand how to “apply to my life” Jesus’s call to “hate . . . [your] own life.”

As I wrestled with the text, I began to see the limitations of the practice of “application” (at least, as it was presented to me). Throughout Scripture, the Lord calls us to more than minor tweaks and slight adjustments to our already stable lives. Instead, Jesus’ call in Luke 14 (and in all of Scripture) is much deeper, wider, and even more practical than the language of “application” captures.

3 Common, Faulty Assumptions

Again, my concern isn’t about the importance of “practicing Christian doctrine” (to borrow Beth Felker Jones’s helpful phrase). Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ changes every aspect of our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture helps us see the many outworkings of that.

My main concern with the language of “application” is that it can carry faulty—and harmful—assumptions about how we approach Scripture. Here are three.

Assumption #1: I should start with me and my questions.

The task of application implies using an external object to support a person and his or her purposes (e.g., applying sunscreen or a productivity technique). “Applying Scripture” can therefore assume a prioritization of me and my life as the starting point—from which I can utilize the external object of a biblical truth. We often begin with our own perception of the world and then read the Bible to discover “what it means to me,” looking to address our lives, our questions, and our problems.

The danger is this assumption makes me the center of the interpretive solar system, with everything revolving around me and my life. The more a truth “applies” to my life, the more gravity it has. Anything that seems unapplicable to me gets dismissed and is relegated to the status of space debris.

Proposed alternative: Start with God.

Rather than allowing our questions and assumptions to have the first say, so that we “eclipse the biblical narrative,” we can begin with God’s story and the reality of the world as he established it. We start reading Scripture with God as the fundamental reality, just as the Bible begins to tell the story: “In the beginning, God” (Gen. 1:1).

This doesn’t mean we can’t bring our questions or present our problems to God as we read Scripture (e.g. turning to particular Psalms in seasons of pain, fear, or grief; or reading Proverbs in family devotions to cultivate habits of wisdom). But it does mean we “seek first the kingdom” and consider our questions and problems within that orientation. We should avoid what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the “unbiblical” search for a solution from the “vantage point” of humanity. 

It’s likely many of our questions will be addressed when we locate ourselves within God’s story, the true story. Yet it’s also possible the Lord’s response to us—like his responses to Job and Peter (Job 38–41; John 21:22)—isn’t a direct answer to our questions or an immediate solution to our problems but rather an even greater solution: his presence.

Assumption #2: The Bible is (primarily) a collection of principles.

Shallow approaches to application make assumptions about the object of our search. We turn the Bible into an answer key, a collection of principles, or “eternal truths” waiting to be “discovered” and “applied.” We read biblical stories, poetry, prophecy, epistles, and apocalyptic literature and ask, “What nugget can I take away from this?” Sometimes it seems Scripture would be better suited to us if it were in the form of an Excel spreadsheet—a series of lists of statements, rules, principles for life, and facts of the world ready to be applied to any given situation with a quick Control+F.

Like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus looking for some sage insight he might use in his already decent life (Mark 10:17–22), we come to the text of Scripture looking for a principle we might apply to our lives, our jobs, and our cars’ bumpers. Yet in doing so, we too may miss out on the life-engulfing invitation of God in Scripture.

Proposed alternative: Scripture is (fundamentally) the story of God and his work.

My attempts to use Scripture primarily as a collection of principles can dull its living and active power (Heb. 4:12). Are there principles in Scripture? Certainly. But it’s fundamentally an account of who God is and what he has done to redeem creation from the deleterious effects of sin.

Scripture is, as has become popular to say, a “story” or “drama” of God. Rather than picking out principles from the story (leaving the story behind once we’ve derived the principle, like it’s the kernel in a husk), the nature of this story inclines us (with all of ourselves) to be engrossed by it and to encounter its Author.

Assumption #3: The goal of reading the Bible is improving my life.

With this assumption, the application of Scripture ends up being more like a divine stamp of approval on pursuing my own goals for my own benefit. This reflex has led to an onslaught of (both good and bad) books and sermons on the “biblical way” to do X (whether X is to make money, vote, dress, raise kids, do business, or even diet). Having been trained in these “application habits,” I open my Bible and look for immediate personal benefits from the words of Scripture—such as three takeaways or one minor behavioral change I can make on the spot.

It’s unsurprising we find it difficult to appreciate the aspects of Scripture that seem to defy immediate application—the Old Testament’s peculiar stories, Israel’s ceremonial customs, and the early church’s apocalyptic expectations. These need not be shunned by the church because of their seemingly limited applicability but rather embraced as parts of God’s story and God’s work to redeem creation.

Imagine asking a friend how her day was and two minutes into her summary interjecting, “Wait, tell me how this applies to me?” We’d never do this. And yet we do it to God. We exchange the feast of relational intimacy and holistic formation for the porridge of minor behavioral change and practical nuggets for our optimized life.

We exchange the feast of relational intimacy and holistic formation for the porridge of minor behavioral change and practical nuggets for our optimized life.

Proposed alternative: The goal of reading the Bible is communing with God.

When we start from our problems and perspectives, looking for principles to improve our lives, we often miss God’s invitation in Scripture to know and commune with him. God reveals himself in Scripture not primarily to make some aspect of our lives better on our terms but to bring us to himself—to reveal his love for us and his desire to be with us.

This is where we find true “improvement”—the abundant life in Jesus (John 10:10). Yet we don’t come to the abundant life by gradual life hacks toward our own goals on our own terms. We die to ourselves and find our lives in Christ (Gal. 2:20), orienting all aspects of ourselves toward God himself and communion with him.

Reorienting Our Reading

I’ve grown to love Scripture (and the God of Scripture) more as I upend the three faulty assumptions listed above. As we reorient our Bible reading, we begin to see the activity more like reading a good autobiography—where we get to know and love the author—than an instruction manual. Reading Scripture shouldn’t lead to changing one aspect of our character or giving up some small amount of time; it should remind us that Jesus is calling us to give up everything (Phil 3:8-10), even our own lives (Luke 14:26), so that he might change all of us (1 Thess. 5:23).

As Dorothy Sayers says, “Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.” So, if we must choose between “applying the Bible to our lives” and “applying our lives to the story of God,” Sayers asks us to consider the latter—to orient ourselves toward God, his true story of the whole world, and communion with him.

Let’s Use Biblical Theology to Spark Scripture Engagement Thu, 11 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 A new survey reveals that while many Americans are curious about the Bible, relatively few regularly engage with God’s Word. Could introducing them biblical theology reverse that trend?]]> The Story: A new survey reveals that while many Americans are curious about the Bible, relatively few regularly engage with God’s Word. Could introducing them to biblical theology reverse that trend?

The Background: The State of the Bible, a survey by the American Bible Society and Barna Group found that for most of the last decade, about half of Americans said they used the Bible three or more times per year. This low bar of engagement qualified them, by the survey’s definition, as “Bible Users.” In the previous poll (covering the year 2021), that number dropped 10 points, with only two in five Americans (39 percent) being Bible Users. In 2023, the responses matched that low point of 39 percent. Only about 63 million American adults (24 percent) use the Bible—on their own, outside of a church service—at least once a week.

According to the survey, women (41 percent) are more likely to be Bible Users than men (36 percent). Never-married people (30 percent) are least likely to use the Bible, yet people who are separated (52 percent) are most likely. Black Americans (57 percent) are most likely to be Bible Users, while Asians (27 percent) and whites (35 percent) are least likely.

Bible Use seems to increase with age, as elders (aged 77 or over, 48 percent) are most likely and Generation Z (30 percent) least likely to turn to Scripture. With regard to religious identity, evangelical (70 percent) and historically black (68 percent) Protestant denominations lead the way in Bible use, while Catholics (37 percent) remain low.

Despite the low level of engagement with Scripture, nearly three in four Americans (71 percent) are curious about the Bible or Jesus, with more than one in four being “very” (17 percent) or “extremely” (22 percent) curious.

What It Means: If most Americans are curious about Jesus or the Bible, why do so few engage with Scripture? One possible reason is that they may not know how to approach the Bible because they’ve never been exposed to the study of biblical theology.

Nearly three in four Americans (71 percent) are curious about the Bible or Jesus.

Biblical theology has been defined as the study of how the whole Bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ. Jesse Johnson explains: “Biblical Theology approaches the Bible as a cohesive narrative, with a crisis, conflict, climax, and resolution; it then interprets stories not in isolation, but rather as they relate to the whole. It intentionally approaches the Bible as one complete book, rather than as an anthology of short stories.”

Unfortunately, the “anthology” approach is the way most Americans approach the Bible. They assume the important parts are found only in the New Testament, especially the Gospels since they tell us about Jesus directly. Modern Bible readers have a difficult time understanding the significance of the Old Testament, though they may acknowledge it has some value as moral literature.

To effectively reach this group of unengaged Americans, Christians need to develop a more cohesive understanding of biblical theology. This will allow us to show how the entire Bible is about Jesus and why that matters for people’s lives. Two primary ways we can do this are by learning how to explain the larger narrative of Scripture and being able to show how we see Jesus in every book of the Bible.

Some helpful resources from The Gospel Coalition on these topics include the following:

Essay: Christ in the Old Testament by Stephen M. Coleman

Article: Your Whole Bible Is About Jesus by Matt Smethurst

Article: What Do You Mean When You Talk About Christ in the Old Testament? by Nancy Guthrie

Podcast: Nancy Guthrie on Developing Skills of Seeing Christ in the Old Testament

Book: The Scriptures Testify About Me edited by D. A. Carson

Course: God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible

Course: KINGDOM: The Story of Scripture

Courses: Biblical Theology: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced

People are curious about Jesus and the Bible, so let’s reward that curiosity by showing them the depth, majesty, and cohesiveness of God’s Word. Exposure to the grand narrative of the Bible will make them more, not less, interested in engaging with Scripture.

As Jim Hamilton asks,

Do you want people to think that everything that is interesting or artistic or brilliant comes from the world? Dumb down the Bible. Do you want them to see the complexity and simplicity of God? The sheer genius of the Spirit-inspired biblical authors? The beauty of a world-encompassing metanarrative of cosmic scope?

Then, says Hamilton, “Teach them biblical theology.”

How to Find Relief from Guilt Thu, 11 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Drop the weight of sin and shame. Let Jesus carry it for you. He’s ready to forgive.]]> I had just started a new job at my church. I was partly responsible for college ministry and my boss was out of town, so he asked me to use his truck to pick up students from campus and bring them to church.

Sunday came. I picked up and dropped off the students, then headed to the back of the church to park the truck. Suddenly, I heard a dreaded, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound: me creating two long scratches along the side of his formerly pristine truck.

My heart raced. Had I ruined my relationship with my boss on one of my first weeks on the job? Could I repay him for the damage? Not likely, given my seminary-student budget. But I knew there was no way around it. I had to tell him what happened. I got out my phone, texted to say what happened, apologized, and offered to pay for the damage. And then I waited . . .

He texted back, “No problem, David! These things happen. I hope the morning went well!” My fear was relieved by his forgiveness. A couple of weeks later, he asked me to use his truck to pick up students again.

It may seem like a trivial example, but when I reflect on that day, it reminds me of a particular psalm.

‘I Kept Silent’

In Psalm 32, David describes how he felt before confessing his sin to God: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:3–4). Today we might say something is “eating us up inside” or that we feel “crushed by guilt.”

Do you ever feel like that? I do all the time. I have that thought again, speak those words again, or do that thing again. Then comes the crushing weight of shame. When we feel this way, it’s tempting to respond as David does here. We ignore, rationalize, or hide our sin. We keep silent before God. Our prayer goes to zero.

But we can’t hide our sin from him. Such attempts only lead to feeling dried up, our spiritual bones wasting away.

‘I Acknowledged My Sin to You’

The good news is this isn’t where the psalm ends. We don’t have to spend our lives in the misery of verses 3–4. Psalm 32 ends with rejoicing (v. 11). So how do we get from the agony of verse 3 to the joy of verse 11, from feeling God’s heavy hand to experiencing his blessing?

The key is verse 5: “I acknowledged my sin to you.” It’s that simple! David moves from silence before God (v. 3) to speaking to God (v. 5)—from covering his sin to acknowledging his sin and letting God cover it (v. 1). The secret to experiencing God’s blessing is to own your sin before him.

And this change—from silence to speaking, from hiding to owning—is what brings about one of my favorite lines in the entire book of Psalms: “And you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (v. 5). I love that there’s zero space between David’s confession and God’s forgiveness. Confession is met with instant forgiveness—no hesitation, no delay.

Confession is met with instant forgiveness—no hesitation, no delay.

That’s radical forgiveness. When I texted my boss, I had to wait 45 agonizing minutes for his gracious reply. But with God, there’s no wait, no “. . .” in his text response, no pause for him to think. There’s no “I’ll forgive you as long as it’s not too bad” or “I’ll forgive some things, but not that.” Just pure, unqualified pardon.

Costly Forgiveness

Now, maybe you’re thinking, That’s great, but you don’t know what I’ve done. If you knew me—if you knew the darkness inside—you wouldn’t be so sure. Here’s why I’m sure: God’s forgiveness doesn’t finally depend on you. The pardon he offers has nothing to do with what you have or haven’t done but everything to do with what he has done.

The pardon he offers has nothing to do with what you have or haven’t done but everything to do with what he has done.

I don’t know what you’ve done, but I know what God has done in Christ. His life, death, and resurrection are the golden key that unlocks the wonder of Psalm 32. Jesus experienced the heavy hand of God so you might experience his mercy. He groaned and cried out in agony so you might shout for joy. He was shamed so you might rejoice. His strength was dried up so you might have life. He willingly gave his life so that now, because of his death in your place, you can be forgiven no matter what. You can drop the weight of sin and shame because Jesus will carry it for you.

‘Shout for Joy!’

David concludes with a ringing call: “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (v. 11).

He goes from groaning to shouting for joy, from feeling God’s heavy hand to rejoicing, from his bones wasting away to being glad in the Lord—all because he simply turned to God with his sin. Acknowledge your sin to him today, friend, and then rejoice with David: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven!”

Who Are the Dechurched in America and Why Did They Leave? Wed, 10 May 2023 04:04:48 +0000 Jim Davis, Ryan Burge, and Michael Graham discuss the dechurched in America—who are they and why did they leave?]]> In this episode of As In Heaven, host Jim Davis welcomes guests Ryan Burge and Michael Graham to discuss the dechurched in America—who are they and why did they leave? They discuss detailed insights about the 40 million adult Americans who have dechurched in the last 30 years and talk in-depth about the four different profiles of dechurched evangelicals.

Episode time stamps:

  • Episode and guest introduction (0:00)
  • Defining “dechurching” and why it matters (2:36)
  • The research and how to understand the data (7:36)
  • Six main profiles of the dechurched in America (14:04)
  • A deeper look at cultural Christians (17:36)
  • Understanding mainstream evangelicals (22:15)
  • Demographics of people leaving the church (28:03)
  • Opportunities to better engage the dechurched (33:06)
  • Defining and understanding the BIPOC group (38:18)
  • Understanding dechurching among the Catholic group (42:22)
  • The role of education in the dechurching movement (44:49)
  • College students and religious literacy (47:01)
  • Closing thoughts and looking forward (48:02)
Communion as Apologetic Wed, 10 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 When a church is filled with a multiplicity of ethnicities, the world glimpses something supernatural at work, regardless of whether they admit what they’re seeing. ]]> The room was dark and the lights were dim. For months I (Jamaal) had wanted to visit this church. After sitting down, I felt weird because I didn’t see another person of color there and because I was the only person in a suit (I’d come straight from preaching at a local black church). But I was also excited. The church had a reputation not only for faithfulness to Scripture but also for contributing to the community.

The service was spiritually uplifting. I was spiritually fed, and I could see why people spoke highly of the church. Then, after the sermon, something strange happened.

People started walking to the front of the sanctuary, just like the congregants in my historically black church did during offering. But this wasn’t time to tithe. They were going to the front to take and eat; it was time for communion.

Those participating in communion tore off a piece of bread from a common loaf. They then dipped the bread in wine or juice. Finally, they ate as they returned to their seats. The way this church practiced communion was initially off-putting to me. I’m too concerned about hygiene to drink after anyone. Why would I eat bread torn from a loaf 500 other people have touched?

Nevertheless, their communion service that day underscored a powerful spiritual reality. It was a tangibly gritty reminder of what Jesus did not only in his death but also in his ministry. Communion is a powerful apologetic for the gospel, an apologetic that depends less on how your church serves the communion elements and more on the beautiful diversity of people God brings together at the table.

Communion Is Not a Place for Division

Some congregations rip the bread and dip it while others disagree with that practice. Some faithful churches drink from a common cup, and still others use prepackaged wafers and juice. We’re not interested here in defending one particular way of conducting a communion service. But we do want you to see that when first-century Christians gathered for communion, the diversity of those who gathered was a testimony to the truth of the gospel.

Early Christians shared an agape meal or “love feast”—an entire meal that included the Lord’s Supper. The meal was meant as a time of fellowship. But for the church in Corinth, the meal became a source of division. The problem in Corinth was that the higher social classes treated the Christian love feast like a pagan banquet. The wealthy ate first and consumed the finest parts of the meal, then the socially and economically disadvantaged went hungry (v. 21). At best, they scraped a meal together from the leftovers.

In response, Paul tells the people they’re despising the church and undermining the gospel. When instituting the Lord’s Supper, Christ said,

This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Cor. 11:24–25)

This “remembrance” included Christ’s sufferings, but it wasn’t limited to Christ’s sufferings. It also remembered what he taught and how he lived. Jesus spent his life serving the marginalized, the overlooked, and the diseased (Mark 1:32–34; 2:15–17; 7:26–30). To celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that reinforces classism or segregation rejects the meal’s meaning. In the Corinthian church, the Lord’s Supper had come to defeat its very purpose.

To celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that reinforces classism or segregation rejects the meal’s meaning.

That’s why Paul charges the Corinthians with sinning against the “body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). He commands, “When you come together to eat, welcome one another” (v. 33, CSB), meaning honor one another by eating together, making sure the haves and the have-nots enjoy the same meal. Then and now, communion is a reminder that Christ has broken down the barriers between us in his body and through his blood.

Witness of a Diverse Communion

What would Paul say if he toured your city and stopped in a few churches on Sunday? Would he see people from the same ethnicity and same socioeconomic class eating this ancient meal? Or do your communion tables bring together the tax collector and the zealot, the hip-hop-culture kid and the Latino immigrant, the bank president and the hotel maid?

Neighborhoods in our city (Louisville, Kentucky) are racially divided. The neighborhoods in your city are probably similar. These divisions shape people’s habits, which in turn shape their lives. White lives don’t naturally intersect with black lives, and we don’t naturally develop diverse relationships.

Because of the ethnic divisions fragmenting our world, a multiethnic community of faith participating in communion together pictures the gospel’s unifying power. When a church is filled with a multiplicity of ethnicities, the world glimpses something supernatural at work, regardless of whether they admit what they’re seeing. A diverse church doesn’t prove the full truth of the gospel, but it does call into question secular explanations of how such a community can be formed and sustained.

When a church is filled with a multiplicity of ethnicities, the world glimpses something supernatural at work, regardless of whether they admit what they’re seeing.

Nearly a decade after my first overdressed communion at that church with the common cup, I became the lead pastor there. At first, my germophobic tendencies kept me from appreciating how Sojourn Church Midtown practiced communion, but it eventually grew on me. There’s something powerful about watching everyone come forward and partake of the same bread.

And now, years later, there’s something even more powerful in seeing a multiethnic, multisocioeconomic, multigenerational congregation take communion together. By God’s grace, at Sojourn Church Midtown we’ve seen a growth in diversity, and every time we take communion we get hungrier for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Little by little, God is filling our church with people who have a variety of shades of skin, and we’re thankful. We’ve come a long way, but Lord knows we still have a long way to go.

The Great Imbalance in the Amazon Rainforest Wed, 10 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 One cause for gospel poverty around the world is that God’s people are consumed with nationalistic concerns.]]> There’s a reason not a lot of people live in the Amazon. The world’s largest rainforest is also one of its most aggressive physical environments—certainly the most aggressive I’ve ever experienced.

After flying on a puddle jumper into a remote village, a small group of us walked down to the Amazon River, where a couple of long, motorized canoes awaited us. We climbed in, each of us carrying a small backpack with filtered water bottles, miscellaneous snacks, a change of clothes, and a small camping hammock.

We started down the river with a couple of indigenous men who would be our guides and become our friends on the journey, and we soon found ourselves walled in by dense undergrowth and towering trees. Occasionally, a clearing opened to reveal homes nestled together on the riverbanks. The dwellings were made of plaster with metal roofs. But as we traveled deeper into the interior, any signs of village life became few and far between.

Once deep in the heart of the rainforest, we arrived at the starting point for our trek. Our guides beached and secured the boats, then we hoisted our packs and started walking.

Entering the Amazon

Within seconds, we were swarmed by more species of biting and stinging insects than I knew existed. And those bugs were hungry! I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, but somehow they still made their way through my clothes to feast on my flesh. I’d been told to spray a lot of DEET on my clothes, which I’d done with the utmost care, but evidently, these bugs eat DEET for breakfast.

The bugs were a nuisance, for sure, but I was far more concerned about the jaguars and venomous snakes I’d read about in preparation for this trip. Were they hiding in the thick brush, just waiting to strike? The indigenous guides (who, by the way, were trekking in sandals and shorts, often without shirts) tried to encourage us. “Don’t worry,” they said through a translator. “The most dangerous animals sleep during the day.”

That was comforting—during the day. But it didn’t exactly alleviate my anxiety about the night, when the jaguars and snakes would be most awake and I’d be least conscious, dangling in a hammock like dinner on a platter.

After hiking for hours through the forest, we arrived at our campsite and hung our hammocks between trees. (With tarantulas and other critters crawling around, the ground wasn’t an ideal place to sleep.) When it was time to retire for the night, we climbed into the cocoons of our hammocks, pulled mosquito nets over our bodies, and cinched them behind our heads. While I was thankful for the protection from the bugs, I knew that net wasn’t posing any threat to a jaguar.

As I closed my eyes and prayed against jaguar hunger, I discovered the sanctifying experience of simply falling asleep in the Amazon. Lying there in the pitch-black dark, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, but you can hear everything—and the Amazon comes alive at night. You hear rustling above and below, the whines, buzzes, and clicks of insects nearby, and the lunatic roaring of howler monkeys in the distance. I prayed one prayer over and over again until I fell asleep: “Oh God, please get me through this night.”

The following morning, I woke with boundless gratitude for daylight breaking through the trees. I’d made it, and so had all my fellow travelers. An hour or so later, we were on our way.

Learning About Jesus

Each day, we hiked, and each evening, we sat around a campfire with our guides—truly amazing men who call the rainforest home. Together we ate noodles cooked over an open fire. To the soundtrack of crackling wood and the jungle life all around us, these men shared fascinating stories about their families, their ancestry, and their way of life in one of the most remote places on earth.

One night, after we’d listened raptly to their tales, Bieto, one of our guides, asked me whether I had any good stories to share. I was glad to oblige, and I told them four short stories from Mark 4–5 about how the Creator of this rainforest had come to the world as a man named Jesus and how he had power over nature, evil spirits, disease, and death.

The following night around the fire, another of the guides, Luan, recalled the stories I’d shared. “When you were telling those stories,” he said, “I had an unusual feeling inside, like my heart was beating out of my chest.”

When you were telling those stories, I had an unusual feeling inside, like my heart was beating out of my chest.

“These stories have that kind of effect on people,” I said. Then my fellow trekkers and I took turns sharing the larger story of the Bible—the good news of how Jesus lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death for sinners, and rose from the grave in victory over death.

On the last night of the trek, Bieto spoke up again. “When you share these stories about Jesus, I feel like I have a dirty heart. Is there a way my heart can be made clean?”

“That’s the good news about Jesus,” I said. “The reason he came was to give us a totally new heart.”

That’s when Luan said words I’ll never forget. “These stories about Jesus are so good,” he said with wonderment. “And they seem so important. I just don’t understand why we and our tribes and all our ancestors before us have never heard them until now.”

Cause of Gospel Poverty

Consider Luan’s question: Why do you think approximately 3.2 billion men, women, and children like these men and their families have never heard the good news of Jesus?

My contention is simple. While many factors contribute to “gospel poverty” in jungles, villages, and megacities around the world, one of the primary reasons—if not the primary reason—that billions of people remain unreached by the gospel is that the global purpose of God has always faced resistance from the nationalistic people of God.

The global purpose of God has always faced resistance from the nationalistic people of God.

From the nation of Israel in the Old Testament to the early church in the New Testament to the current church in the United States, people of God have continually desired the preservation of their nation more than the proclamation of the gospel in all nations. And just as generations of God’s people before us needed to do, God is calling us to place less priority on our beloved home country—a country that will one day fall—and more priority on a global kingdom that will last forever. Not only is doing so urgent for billions of people in need of the gospel, but it’s also necessary in order to overcome sickness in the church.

It’s time for us as the people of God to recalibrate our priorities and realize our purpose. Whether you’re a student, a senior adult, or anywhere in between, it’s right to praise God for the gifts he’s given you and me in a country that has freedom, resources, and opportunity like no other in the world. It’s good to pass on these gifts to the next generation of Americans. Yet it’s infinitely more important, satisfying, and unifying to give our lives to passing on the good news of Jesus to the Bietos and 3 billion others whose eternity hinges on hearing and believing the gospel.

Why the Church Needs Pastor-Theologians Tue, 09 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Surveys show most Christians today are theologically illiterate, malnourished by the people called to feed them.]]> Twenty years ago, I taught a seminary course in which I gave the students an in-class assignment. I had them jot down a list of their favorite theologians from throughout church history. Then I asked them to identify the ones who worked primarily in ecclesial vocations (as pastors, bishops, and other teachers of the church).

This proved to be a life-changing exercise for many. When I asked the students to share what they’d written, names like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Spurgeon, and King echoed across the room. When the students stopped and considered how many of these individuals worked primarily as clergy, my point was made before the lecture began.


Most people from church history who continue to inform Christian thinking today worked mainly as ministers in ecclesial settings. Some taught from time to time in Christian colleges and seminaries. Most wrote books. But they spent the bulk of their time with their parishioners, preparing to teach and preach in ways that met their daily needs, helping them to do all Jesus had commanded, and praying God would bless their efforts for his glory.

During the past two centuries, things have changed. Christians today don’t look primarily to pastors as their most important intellectual guides. Professional academics and social media influencers have usurped the role clergy formerly played.

There are understandable reasons why this has occurred, and we can’t simply return to how things were before. But neither should pastors see this as a reason to abdicate their charge to serve the whole counsel of God’s Word to God’s people. There are modern ways for pastors to take the lead once again in renewing and informing the intellectual lives of God’s people.


In the wake of the Enlightenment, when Christendom dissolved, modern research universities rose to great prominence, and technological changes facilitated democratizing trends across the globe, the clergy began to lose the cultural authority they’d formerly taken for granted.

Christians today don’t look primarily to pastors as their most important intellectual guides. Professional academics and social media influencers have usurped the role clergy formerly played.

Luther and Edwards enjoyed legally sanctioned status as intellectual leaders. The laity were expected, often required, to attend and support their teaching ministries. People’s livelihoods and prospects depended on compliance with the state-church structures that organized their worlds. As a result, pastors could serve most citizens a well-balanced diet of divine revelation, interpreting and applying it to the struggles of their everyday lives.

When these state-church structures were removed, however, the laity no longer had to eat what they disliked. Church leaders now had to use voluntary means to gain a hearing from the public. It’s hard to persuade those who don’t have to be there—who don’t have to do anything they don’t like—to choose intellectual effort and theological nourishment in Sunday morning services. It’s easier to draw a crowd and hold their attention with the biblical equivalent of fast food, pandering to unhealthy tastes.

That’s what many evangelical churches did. As a result, over time, most people looking for experts on life’s big questions went elsewhere for nourishment. They consulted academics and public intellectuals with big media footprints.

The consequences for everyday discipleship and witness have been tragic. Surveys show most Christians today are theologically illiterate, malnourished by the people called to feed them.


Our churches need pastors who will lead theologically. “For though by this time [our laypeople] ought to be teachers, [they] need someone to teach [them] again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12).

We can’t go back in time. Nor do many of us want to. The specialization of disciplines in modern universities and growth in human knowledge during the last two centuries have proved a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. We now know more about the Bible, the history of Christianity, and the world than we did before.

We’ll always need schools to offer specialized training to our ministerial leaders. Seminaries especially offer such a rich curriculum of specialized studies in subjects that pertain to our Christian lives and ministries—Hebrew, Greek, church history, philosophy, psychology, hermeneutics, intercultural studies, and more—that it’s hard to think of teaching God’s people without them.

Surveys show most Christians today are theologically illiterate, malnourished by the people called to feed them.

But the kind of education God’s people need today is too important to be left to academics and other non-ecclesial thinkers. Such people often hold to Christian orthodoxy lightly, if they value it at all. Their work is often energized by secular concerns. They’re motivated by tenure and promotion within their schools, fame and fortune in the media. They’re not driven mainly by the needs of church people.

Let’s work for a day when professors in the seminaries deem themselves handmaids to pastor-theologians—and pastor-theologians take the lead in informing God’s people theologically. Pastors are generalists. They’ll always have to rely on the findings of experts as they carry out their work. But they ought to be the first stop for people who are wrestling with life’s biggest questions.

The Lord has told us to feed people the whole feast of faith—vegetables and all. Let’s help one another be faithful to the task. The vitality of the church depends upon it.

4 Loves Hymns Gave Me Tue, 09 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Many of these hymns are doing theology. They lead students to imbibe the words of theologians throughout the centuries of the church.]]> There were a lot of givens in my childhood education. I knew if I got to school early, I could play on the field. I knew that at 7:50 every morning, the teacher on duty would blow a whistle three times, signifying the start of school. I knew Bible was always the first class of the day, and I knew we always started class by singing the hymn of the month. Thanks to my music teachers, hymns were as routine as lunch, carpool, and wearing a tie each Friday.

Eight years after graduating from Providence Christian School of Texas, I was delighted to learn my childhood music teachers, David and Barbara Leeman, had published an improved version of the hymnal that was central to my childhood. The publication of Our Hymns, Our Heritage: A Student Guide to Songs of the Church has given me occasion to reflect again on the formative power of hymns.

How can hymns influence a child? As the Leemans explain, they teach children to “love what is excellent” (13). Here are four excellent loves these hymns from my childhood have given to me.

1. Love of My Heritage

Our Hymns, Our Heritage offers a contextual experience of hymns. With each song in the hymnal, there’s a helpful “text and tune” paragraph describing the hymn’s history: the places and times in which it originated. Hymns didn’t arise in a vacuum. Each one has a story, and learning these can help children see how God reveals himself through story.

Children will see the continuity of the church throughout history: “This book is like a family picture album with great-great-great grandparents you have never met, as well as gifted relatives who are still alive” (11). Children who treasure the inheritance of their faith family learn gratitude and affection for fellow “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Consider how “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” grounds future hope in God on his help in his historic faithfulness:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

As we rehearse heritage-rich hymns, we give glory to God for his providence throughout church history and say with Samuel, “Till now the LORD has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12).

2. Love for Scripture

The Leemans have chosen many hymns that put Scripture to music, which help Christians to internalize the language and truth of the Bible. When a child revisits these hymns, she lets “the word of Christ dwell in [her] richly” (Col. 3:16).

Hymns help Christians to internalize the language and truth of the Bible.

Singing and listening to such hymns reminds Christians of the Bible’s great worth, and they encourage believers to memorize Scripture. As “Thy Word Is Like a Garden, Lord” declares,

Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
And jewels rich and rare
Are hidden in its mighty depths
For every searcher there.

In listening to hymns, we can develop a love for the words of God, saying with the psalmist, “More to be desired are they than gold” (Ps. 19:10).

3. Love of the Liturgical Calendar

Our Hymns, Our Heritage is divided into four main sections: The Church Year, God Is, We Respond, and Spirituals. The first of these categorizes hymns by their location in the liturgical calendar, bringing color and shape to an otherwise flat experience of time by placing the Christian into the story of Jesus. Whether one belongs to a liturgical tradition or not, a familiarity with the church calendar reinforces a Christ-centered experience of time. When we sing along with the calendar, we confess with “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated,”

Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Singing the movements of Jesus’s life helps children develop a deeper love for Christ and learn to offer him one of their greatest resources: time. Since I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church, these hymns were my first point of contact with the church calendar. Eight years later, I can trace my appreciation of liturgy to this hymnal.

4. Love for God

The Leemans offer a doctrinal experience of hymns. Christians don’t worship an unknown God (Acts 17) but One who has made himself known to us clearly in Scripture. The “God Is” section of Our Hymns, Our Heritage names God’s attributes through hymns.

In listening to hymns, we can develop a love for the words of God.

Many of these hymns are doing theology. They lead students to imbibe the words of theologians throughout the centuries of the church: “In so doing, they create a [theological] reference point in the pathways of their minds, construct a framework in the core of their spirits, lay a foundation in the soils of their souls” (15). Consider the creational theology in “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is your health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Join me in glad adoration.

Hymns with sound doctrine teach Christians that God is Lord, King, Creator, Healer, and Savior. They instill in the minds of children that God is omnipotent and worthy of praise. When we sing theologically rich hymns that name God’s attributes, we praise God with our minds and lodge truth about God deep in our hearts.

Hymns have helped me to love what is excellent. I’m indebted to the Leemans for making this collection of hymns an integral part of my early education, and I urge Christian parents to pick it up to supplement their family life with hymns, whether this means rehearsing them at a Christian school or bringing them into the home.

What Happened to Historian Molly Worthen? Tue, 09 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Collin Hansen talks with historian Molly Worthen about her scholarship as well as her experience in the church and academy. ]]> For 20 years, I’ve felt like Molly Worthen and I live parallel lives. We graduated college the same year. We wrote for some of the same publications, on some of the same subjects. But I chose to head into church ministry, while she settled into the academy and earned her PhD from Yale.

Molly is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You may have read her work in the New York Times, Slate, or Christianity Today. She is perhaps best known for her award-winning book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013). In that book, Molly wrote that evangelicals “craved an intellectual authority that would quiet disagreement and dictate and plan for fixing everything that seemed broken with the world. They did not find it, and are still looking.”

In his critical review for The Gospel Coalition, Al Mohler wrote,

This is a book to be reckoned with. In terms of its comprehensive grasp of the evangelical movement, its detailed research, and its serious approach to understanding the evangelical mind, Apostles of Reason stands nearly alone in the larger world of academic publishing. Any serious-minded evangelical should read it.

He also described the book as infuriating and criticized Molly for sometimes being snarky toward evangelicals.

Well, much has changed in a decade. Molly joined me on Gospelbound to discuss her scholarship as well as her experience in the church and academy—along with a major shift in recent months. 

Is It Wrong to Switch Jobs Just for Better Pay? Mon, 08 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 As God’s people, we’re called to live with different priorities than the world around us.]]> Is it sinful to change your place of employment based on pay alone?

This is a great question. As God’s people, we’re called to live with different priorities than the world around us. We’re called to live for God’s kingdom, not our own. We’re called to prioritize faithfulness over success, obedience over wealth.

With that in mind, the decision to change your place of employment based on pay alone may still have acceptable—and even godly—reasons behind it. Here are two important questions a Christian should consider first.

1. How will a job change affect your ability to live for God’s mission?

Consider your work relationships. If you’ve established meaningful connections with your coworkers, a job change will affect those relationships. Where is God moving? Are there people at your workplace he’s calling you to care for and witness to? Of course, there are people to reach wherever you go—but it’s worth considering your current relationships.

I once changed jobs based on pay alone. I provided in-home therapy for a boy with autism and had worked with him three to four days a week for eight years. He was like family, so leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It felt like a betrayal.

But there was an important reason I chose to leave. His school district would no longer fund the type of therapy I provided. They offered to keep me on as an aide, a position that would decrease my pay by 60 percent. I wanted to stay. I deeply loved the boy I worked with and vehemently disagreed (as did the family) with the school district’s decision. But my husband and I were in the midst of paying for an international adoption. He was already working extra hours, and we depended on the income I contributed. I just couldn’t take a 60 percent pay cut when we were already struggling to cover adoption expenses.

As God’s people, we’re called to live with different priorities than the world around us.

I wanted to help ease the transition as best as I could. So I worked at the reduced rate for the summer, before taking a new job that offered much better pay. I anguished over the decision. And unfortunately, I think the family saw it as a betrayal. It looked like my decision was just about money, because in a way it was just about money. We had to make sacrifices to complete our adoption, and the deepest sacrifice I made was leaving a job—and a boy—I loved.

So maybe you should leave, but don’t leave lightly. Consider the people you’re leaving behind.

2. What’s driving your desire for more money?

Money itself isn’t bad. It helps provide for our families, bless our neighbors, feed the hungry, and build the church. We’re not called to take vows of poverty but rather to use whatever we’ve been entrusted with to serve the Lord. God will give some of us opportunities to make more money than others, because he calls us to stewardship in a diversity of ways. Yet we also must remember this warning:

Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:9–10)

This passage should sober us. We must humbly recognize our own weakness. None of us is above the temptation to wander from the faith in pursuit of riches. Just like every other temptation, greed is subtle, stealthy. It’s not going to be obvious at first.

Take time to pray for the Holy Spirit’s help and conviction. Humbly evaluate your motives: Are you excited to grow as a faithful steward, or are you chasing your own comfort? Seek counsel from godly brothers and sisters in Christ. The temptations associated with money are too dangerous to face alone.

Remember, Only Jesus Satisfies

To those who’ve been given the privilege of opportunities and choices, it’s tempting to continually be on the hunt for something more. But exploring “better options” can become a maddening rabbit hole.

Changing jobs for a better salary might yield new challenges. Sure, the money is better. But maybe the boss or the schedule or the workload isn’t. Whether you decide to leave or stay, remember that true contentment and satisfaction and fulfillment will only ever be found in Christ.

How Pastors Can Equip Women to Teach the Bible Mon, 08 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Women are a vital part of God’s mission to seek and save the lost. Let’s help identify, equip, and encourage those who are gifted to lead and teach.]]> I was in my late 20s when a pastor in my local church called and asked if I would teach a Wednesday night class. I was terrified. But I said yes because he told me he thought I could do it, and he said he would help.

We met at McDonald’s, and he walked me through his plan for the class. He told me to teach as long as I wanted, and then he would wrap up the class when I finished. So I studied and prepared all week long. I wrote out my lesson. When that Wednesday night arrived, I was nervous. I took my prepared lesson, taught for five minutes, and sat down. The pastor must have been a bit shocked and even ill-prepared to carry the last 45 minutes, but he never made me feel bad or even hinted that my five minutes wasn’t the contribution he was looking for.

Despite how little I brought to the table, this pastor allowed me to continue teaching. My five-minute offering grew, and, eventually, I was invited to teach some Sunday school classes and weekly Bible studies. The first women’s retreats I spoke at were born out of these opportunities. As women moved away, they began to call and ask if I would come teach at their new churches’ women’s retreats.

When I look back, I see two elements that helped me discern areas of gifting and grow in my ability to use those gifts. First, it took an invitation from someone significantly more experienced in ministry—my pastor. Second, he offered encouragement and real help.

We Need Help Discerning Our Gifts

God is on an epic, global, eternal mission to seek and save the lost. He’s forming a people for himself, and he uses his people to accomplish this grand mission. He uses the old and the young, the rich and the poor, people from every nation and language—and he uses both men and women.

When we look back to Eden, we see God had created a world that was very good. But there was one thing in Eden that wasn’t good. It was “not good that the man should be alone.” So God said, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). God created Eve to help Adam fulfill the mandate to fill the whole earth with other image-bearers. Adam couldn’t have done that alone, and, in a similar way, women are still vital to the fulfillment of God’s mission to go into all the earth and make disciples. One way women do that is by teaching and discipling other women in the local church.

For me to start teaching, it took an invitation from someone significantly more experienced in ministry—my pastor.

But when it comes to leadership and teaching, women may be particularly hesitant to put themselves forward. Many leaders and teachers in women’s ministry have stories similar to mine. They only started serving in these ways because someone in their local church saw potential and asked them to give it a try. We need the body of Christ to help us discern our gifts.

We Need Help Honing Our Gifts

My pastor not only helped me identify my gifting by inviting me to teach but also helped me develop it. He gave me ample opportunity to try, fail, get help, and try again. We all need space to learn and grow. One of my seminary professors observed that most of us have far too few opportunities to receive meaningful feedback on our teaching. What this pastor gave me was invaluable!

As we seek to hone the gift of teaching, two things are particularly beneficial: feedback and continuing education. In other words, we always need to keep learning.

When I teach, I’ve found it helpful to ask for feedback in three areas: structure, content, and delivery. Was the structure clear and helpful? Did it follow the structure of the text? Was the content solid, true, and from the text? And was anything about my delivery distracting?

But we don’t just need to learn about our teaching—we also need to continue to grow in our understanding of Scripture. This can happen formally (through seminary or Bible college) or informally (through reading good theological resources and discussing them with a pastor or ministry leader).

At The Gospel Coalition, we periodically offer an eight-week cohort called “How to Teach the Bible.” This cohort is designed to help women gain and sharpen the tools needed to teach. Even if we know the basics, we can always be challenged to apply that knowledge in new ways. I don’t think we ever “arrive” as Bible teachers. Some of the best Bible teachers you and I know still ask for feedback, still pursue learning, and still practice honing their skills.

How Pastors Can Help

My pastor was instrumental in helping me identify and develop my gift of teaching, and all pastors have the opportunity to help women in their churches.

My pastor was instrumental in helping me identify and develop my gift of teaching, and all pastors have the opportunity to help women in their churches.

Perhaps there’s a woman who’s gifted to teach but needs to be offered an opportunity. Perhaps there are women who are already teaching who would benefit from feedback and encouragement. Even something as simple as offering access to commentaries and theology books could be a huge help as they continue to learn and grow. Or maybe the church could pay for women to attend a TGC cohort or seminary class.

Women are a vital part of God’s mission to seek and save the lost. Let’s help identify, equip, and encourage those who are gifted to lead and teach. And may many women be strengthened and established in their faith as a result.

The Growth of Good Theology in Africa Mon, 08 May 2023 04:00:33 +0000 It’s easy to despair over the way prosperity preaching has overrun Africa. But in places like Kenya, good theology is staging a comeback.]]> If you listen to enough stories of Kenyans converting to Christianity, you’ll start to see a pattern: most of them thought they were Christians already.

“I was a weed-smoking, girl-chasing rebel,” said Ken Mbugua, who grew up going to church. “I was always getting into trouble, and then I’d pray to God and ask him to please bail me out.”

His culture is thick with Christianity—in 2010, 9 out of 10 Kenyans said they’d been raised Christian and remained Christian. Most of the population thought Christianity was gaining influence in the country (67 percent) and that was a good thing (64 percent). Christians were—and still are—seen as honest, devout, tolerant, and respectful of women.

Even though none of those words described Mbugua, he had said the sinner’s prayer and marked the date in the front of his Bible, so he figured he was a Christian. Facing his third threat of expulsion toward the end of high school, he planned to ask God to rescue him again.

Ken Mbugua and his wife, Arlette / Courtesy of Arlette Mbugua’s Facebook page

“I started thinking that I was going to pray to the King, to the Father, but I loved the stuff he hates,” Mbugua said. “I boasted about it. I was famous for it. And I liked it.” That’s when it dawned on him: I don’t have a relationship with God. He isn’t my Father. He isn’t really my King.

“I cried out to God and asked him to save me—and everything changed,” he said.

The outline of Mbugua’s story is a familiar one in the capital city of Nairobi. It’s also familiar to anyone who experienced the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, when more than 90 percent of the population identified as Christian. Most adult conversions then weren’t people who had never heard of Jesus but rather those who tipped into believing the salvation story they’d already memorized.

There are other similarities. America and Kenya both share a penchant for health-and-wealth theology, which began as a Pentecostal offshoot in post–World War II America and established itself through Trinity Broadcasting Network television preachers in both countries.

And increasingly, they share the Reformed resurgence. Kenyan pastors are beginning to quote Calvinist theologians and pastors (who often quote African theologians such as Tertullian and Augustine). A network of gospel-centered churches begun in 2017 reaches more than 1,000 local pastors. A publishing company has produced more than 100 titles, including R. C. Sproul’s The Whole Counsel of God and Greg Gilbert’s Who Is Jesus? College ministries are asking pastors for messages on the authority of God or the sufficiency of scripture.

A lot of this work is connected to Mbugua, who leads the largest Reformed church in Nairobi—a city so culturally and economically important it functions as a type of New York City for eastern Africa.

“The Lord has continued to allow truth to spread in the city,” said Mbugua, a founding Council member of The Gospel Coalition Africa. “We are seeing continued spread and growth and influence of these pastors [in Nairobi]. There is a hunger—a continued and sustained hunger—for truth, for a God who is transcendent above all the trifling.”

Christianity on the Continent

Christianity came late to sub-Saharan Africa, smoldering for generations as it slowly worked its way from the coasts inland. And then, in the 1900s, the whole place caught fire.

From 1900 to 2020, the number of Christians skyrocketed from about 7 million to about 645 million—in other words, from about 9 percent of the population to just about 60 percent, according to the World Religion Database.

The growth doesn’t show signs of stopping. By 2050, the number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to top a billion—which would mean that four out of every 10 Christians on the planet would call sub-Saharan Africa home.

“It is the fruit of initial missionary work that took place from the 19th century into the early 20th century,” said TGC Africa Council member and Zambian pastor Conrad Mbewe. “And then in the first fifty years of the 20th century, churches and missions work were handed over to indigenous leaders, who took the ball and ran with it. They saw it as their responsibility to share the gospel message with others.”

It helps that there hasn’t been a lot of government or societal opposition in Kenya, he said. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, it’s easy to feel kindly toward a religion that so publicly cares for the sick and educates the children.

And, hey, maybe it can make you rich.

Prosperity Theology

In the 1990s, preachers like Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar appeared on African televisions and scratched just the right cultural itch.

Those in poverty are nearly always hungry for promises of wealth, Kenyan pastor Christian Lwanda said. And those promises sometimes seemed to pay off—while African poverty isn’t dropping as quickly as in other areas of the world, conditions are improving.

“People would start hearing this stuff at church, and a certain number of them were already working hard or good at business,” he said. “Now you are crediting your upward mobility to this new gospel. And pastors could point to these businessmen—look how they thrived because of this prosperity gospel.”

Even more importantly, the prosperity gospel’s focus on manifesting reality fits well with African culture, he said. “In African traditional religions, you have a kind of mystic, spiritualistic understanding of the world—an animistic cosmology.”

From 1900 to 2020, the number of Christians skyrocketed from about 7 million to about 645 million—in other words, from about 9 percent of the population to just about 60 percent.

Animism teaches that humans need to “discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power,” writes Nick Moore, academic dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe. It’s a payment system—I do this, or say this, or believe this, and I’ll get a reward.

That’s why animism involves “a lot of shouting, pleading, screaming, and emotion,” Lwanda said. “And here these prosperity guys are doing the same thing to ask God for what you need.”

Prosperity theology “is like the Arabian camel that gave the impression it simply wanted a little space in the tent, but now the whole of it is inside and the true gospel is outside,” Mbewe told TGC. “Everywhere, especially on radio and television, almost all you hear is this message about how God in Christ wants us to be physically healthy and materially prosperous.”

That’s what Mbugua was watching and listening to when he became a Christian. “My most frequent prayer in the first year of being a believer was that the Lord would make me very wealthy as a businessman and that I’d use all that money to get missionaries to go to the hardest places in Kenya that have not heard the gospel,” he said. So when pastors in his life kept noticing his gift for ministry, he told God he wanted a sign.

“If you are calling me to be a pastor, let a child in my Vacation Bible School class become a Christian,” he told God one summer. The next day, two girls in his class told the pastor’s wife they wanted to become Christians.

“Those don’t count,” Mbugua told God. “If you really want me to be a pastor, let seven kids tell me they want to become Christians.”

At the end of the week, he asked the kids to raise their hands if they wanted to become Christians. Nine hands shot up. “I couldn’t even pray with them,” he said. “I had to step out because I was bawling.”

The effective-atheist-turned-prosperity-Christian was headed to Bible college.

Theological Reformation of Ken Mbugua

Mbugua enrolled at a little Bible school in Nairobi. When he attended a Baptist pastors’ conference a few months later, someone handed him a copy of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

“The Lord used it to expose me to the beauty of conversion—to the much bigger doctrine of election—and it really caught my heart,” he said. The conference also introduced him to expository preaching.

Mbugua graduating from Central Africa Baptist University / Courtesy of Arlette Mbugua

Realizing there was a lot more to learn than he’d thought, Mbugua enrolled in Central Africa Baptist University in Zambia. There, a professor gave him a copy of Desiring God, and the little understanding he’d had of big God theology exploded.

“I was like a rocket that disappears into the night sky,” he said. “The school had a WiFi plan of six gigabytes per month, which is very little. My friend and I would download audio files from D. A. Carson—I had so many D. A. Carson audio files—and any other T4G [Together for the Gospel] or TGC speaker we could get our hands on. We downloaded John Frame’s whole section of lectures on philosophy. Once we were done with classes, I’d be on my earphones doing my chores while listening.”

The classes were good, but it was the internet that gave Mbugua most of his Reformed theological education.

“I graduated with my bachelors,” he said, “and went back to Kenya reformed.”

Reformation in Nairobi

Kenya’s location on the eastern coast of Africa—and Nairobi’s location at the railroad hub in the middle of the country—make it an important economic and transportation center. That’s maybe why Christianity grew so quickly, from 2 percent of the population in 1900 to more than 80 percent today, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

But when Mbugua returned to be a youth pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church (EBC), he felt completely alone.

“I saw a vision for church and theology in my mind,” he said. “But I knew what was waiting for me in Kenya was wilderness.”

His wife, Arlette, explains it like this: “Many Kenyans think they can be saved by being a good person, going to church, or not being a Muslim. People aren’t trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus for their salvation. They’re trusting in other things.”

Chris Kiagiri (right) teaching the Bible study on Romans / Courtesy of Chris Kiagiri

A few months in, after a long week with kids at a summer camp, a tired Mbugua was forced by a rainstorm to accept a friend’s invitation to a Bible study. He listened as a guy named Chris, who worked for Google, opened up the book of Romans and led a group of about 30 young professionals through an expository study.

Mbugua just about fell off his chair.

“I’m just like, How in the world is there a group like this in the city I’m serving?” he said.

He wasn’t the only one wondering that. For a long time, the only Reformed Baptist church in Nairobi was Trinity, planted in the late 1970s by a British missionary named Keith Underhill. A few months earlier, two of the guys from the Romans Bible study found it and asked if they could become members.

Underhill couldn’t believe it, they reported. In more than 30 years of ministry, he’d never met a single Reformed person in Nairobi that he hadn’t personally taught about the doctrines of grace.

“The new Calvinism explosion that was happening in the US—TGC, T4G, Sovereign Grace music, Christian hip-hop—all of that stuff was happening here at the same time,” Mbugua said. It was also happening in the same way, through the internet.

But what the young, restless, and Reformed in Kenya didn’t have was a group of older men to teach and lead them. Or established churches besides Trinity. Or seminaries, conferences, and books.

Reformation of Emmanuel Baptist Church

Mbugua took a job as an assistant pastor at EBC, a primarily expatriate international church of about 150 members. The lead pastor, an American who had grown up in Kenya as a missionary kid, was generous in sharing the pulpit.

“He knew my convictions were different from his, and he was open to say, ‘Show me from the Bible,’” Mbugua said. “The places where we disagreed, he’d say, ‘Ken, you do those things when I leave.’ He knew the church would change.”

Indeed, it was already changing. As Mbugua preached—“My style was influenced by John Piper at that point”—it began resonating with pockets of people. The church grew.

Mark Dever, Ken Mbugua, and Chris Kiagiri at a conference in South Africa in 2013 / Courtesy of Chris Kiagiri

At a conference in South Africa, Mbugua met Mark Dever. The next year, he flew to Washington, DC, to do the Capitol Hill Baptist Church internship, coming back with 9Marks ecclesiology and an American wife. Soon after, he became the lead pastor.

“I’ve watched the church culture change,” his wife, Arlette, said. “I’d call it a revitalization.” Mbugua introduced more meaningful church membership and discipline. He led the church to move from a single-pastor model to a plurality of elders. He focused on relationships and community, exhorting members to confess sin and to pray for one another.

“It’s been a testament to the power of the gospel preached and the church led by faithful leaders,” Arlette said. Former members “who would come back now would not recognize it.”

EBC gained a reputation for being gospel-centered. And since Mbugua was young and Kenyan, it started attracting those young Kenyans who were learning about the doctrines of grace online.

“They all wash up on the shores of Emmanuel Baptist Church,” said Lwanda, who was one of them. He grew up in a Christian home, converted to Christianity in high school, and ran across Francis Chan on the internet while working as an assistant youth pastor.

Christian Lwanda / Courtesy of Christian Lwanda

Through Chan, he found Piper and Keller, Carson and Begg. “I couldn’t unsee this stuff,” he said. He started preaching the doctrines of grace in the church where he was serving. The congregants wanted more, but eventually the leaders recognized his trajectory was different from theirs.

“I went to EBC, and it was like a cold cup of water in the middle of the Arabian peninsula,” said Lwanda, who now does ministry in the United Arab Emirates. “I can’t say enough about Ken Mbugua’s great patience. Many people had questions about this theology which they knew to be true but struggled to understand. He was never once impatient with the barrage of questions that came his way. He understood his context well enough to know that those poor sheep had been swimming in the cesspool of prosperity theology, and it would take great patience before they grasped these truths.”

Over the years, the EBC community became “rock solid,” he said. “The people have confidence—I’m not sure I’d ever seen that before—confidence that God will do whatever he wants, and they’ll be fine.”

These days, EBC has shifted from about 70 percent international to 90 percent Kenyan. It has about 350 members, though weekly attendance often tops 450. (“Parking is a nightmare,” Lwanda said, laughing. “People are parking everywhere. They’d park on trees if they could.”)

Growth often provides doors of opportunity, and Mbugua started flinging them open.

Ekklesia Afrika

“We started an internship program, because who doesn’t once you’ve been with Mark Dever?” Mbugua said.

Then EBC started planting. So far, they’ve launched four churches—all in different parts of Nairobi—with another planned for 2023.

Mbugua launched Ekklesia Afrika in 2017, “born out of a burden to provide access to theological resources and wanting to see churches become healthier,” he said. With copyrights from Crossway, he started printing ESV Bibles and titles such as Church Membership, Church Discipline, and What is a Healthy Church?

A panel on the Holy Spirit, the sovereignty of God, and traditional African religion at Ekklesia Afrika’s September conference / Courtesy of Ekklesia Afrika’s Facebook page

Before, books had to be purchased and flown in from another country. Now, Ekklesia is printing and distributing them in Nairobi, which makes them available and affordable. Over the last five years, they’ve printed more than 100 titles.

The next step was obvious: “We organized them into a curriculum and made it a four-year program,” Mbugua said. Pastors read a book a month—David Helm on expositional preaching, Deepak Reju on counseling, John Piper on missions—and then write an essay and discuss it twice a month with a learning cohort.

On a continent with inadequate theological education, the program immediately grew numerically and geographically. Today, there are 1,108 Kenyan, Ugandan, South Sudanese, and Malawian pastors in the program.

“It’s not the most ideal,” Mbugua said. He’d prefer full, in-person theological education. But, he continued, “People are reading, discussing, and being exposed to the truth. This morning we talked about expository preaching, and one pastor said he needed to apologize to his church because for 18 years he hasn’t been telling them what the Bible says. We’ve even had some guys wanting to shut down their churches because they weren’t sure their group of people was even functioning as a church.”

The teaching is already making a difference. “There are now a lot more churches who are not Reformed but will have biblical sermons,” said Chris Kiagiri, the Google manager who taught the Romans Bible study that surprised Mbugua. “You’ll find among any number of nondenominational pastors a good number who would embrace the Reformed label, even if their churches wouldn’t. And I’m thankful for that.”

Normalizing Reformed Theology

The seeds planted through the internet and watered by churches like EBC and ministries like Ekklesia Afrika are bearing fruit all over Nairobi.

Mbugua preaching at EBC / Courtesy of EBC

“Initially, everybody you’d talk to would tell you they came to gospel-centered theology through people and places such as Piper, T4G, TGC, or Ligonier,” Mbugua said. “Now people are not saying that. Many are coming to these biblical truths through the African people who came to those truths before them. It seems to be a wave.”

It’s especially true on college campuses, he said.

“I think good theology appeals to university students because it’s rigorous and engages the mind,” Kiagiri said. “There has been a rise in university fellowships trying to find guest preachers who are faithful expositors, including those at Trinity and Emmanuel.”

It helps that they “don’t have to leave Kenya to attend a good Bible conference or to obtain good, affordable books,” he said. “Reformed theology used to be a sort of strange thing for a very niche population of Christians. Now, while it’s not mainstream, it’s certainly something most Christians in Nairobi would be familiar with or have heard about. That’s all happened in the space of 15 years. Just this past week I dropped in on a Simeon Trust workshop at Emmanuel that had more than 100 pastors. I never thought I’d see something like that.”

The wave of good theology is also washing back in the other direction. Lwanda spoke at the T4G conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2022. Mbugua taught at the Sing! Global conference in 2021 and is slated to be a main-stage speaker at the TGC conference in Indianapolis in September.

Conrad Mbewe speaking at the TGC National Conference in 2011 / Courtesy of TGC

In fact, Lwanda first found out about Mbewe through his influence in the West. “I saw Don Carson having an interview with Conrad Mbewe—I was like Who is this?” Lwanda said. “I Googled him, and it turns out he’s been a faithful [Reformed African Christian] for longer than I’ve been alive.”

The growth of good theology is important anywhere, but in Kenya it’s especially hopeful, said Mbewe, who has been praying for this for decades.

“In East Africa, Kenya is the decisive country,” he said. “It’s the hub of economic strength, and wherever you have that, you tend to have a country that is going to impact other countries in the region. . . . So the Reformed faith growing in that country means it will impact the rest of the region. It’s only a matter of time.”

To be living in Africa now feels like “living in a day of opportunity,” he said. “Like Paul said, it’s like a door has been opened for us in this region. And now the Lord is answering our prayers beyond what we were able to ask or imagine.”

8 Reasons Women Should Attend TGC23 Sat, 06 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 TGC23 is a time for women to slow down and satiate our dry hearts with abundant reminders of the gospel—giving ourselves sustenance in the wilderness.]]> As we journey through life’s wilderness, there are times when our souls are obviously parched with thirst. Other times, we barely notice the drought. We ignore our need for spiritual refreshment and just keep moving. As women, it’s easy to focus on our next work deadline, our kid’s next soccer game, or the next church event we’re organizing without remembering we need the good news to replenish our souls.

Women tackle hard issues day after day in a world that only grows more complex. We need refreshment. The Gospel Coalition’s 2023 Conference is a time to slow down and satiate our dry hearts with abundant reminders of the gospel—giving ourselves sustenance in the wilderness as we await our true home.

This year’s conference will feature more than 40 microevents. These sessions, led by different ministry partners, will allow attendees to explore specific topics in-depth.

If you’re a woman attending TGC23, you’ll benefit from many of these sessions. Here are just 8 microevents that might especially pique your interest.

1. For Women: Cultivating Your Gifts of Leading and Teaching

Speakers: Courtney Doctor, Melissa Kruger, Rebecca McLaughlin, Jen Wilkin, Elizabeth Woodson
Hosted By: Lifeway Women

Join several female theologians to celebrate and cultivate the gifts that God has placed in you to lead, teach the Bible, and create spaces for others to thrive. In this microevent, you’ll be encouraged and equipped, and you’ll have the opportunity to connect with like-minded women. We’ll tackle two topics that are part of every woman’s leadership development journey: perseverance and preparation.

2. Hope (and Help!), for Women’s Ministry

Speakers: Ligon Duncan, Nancy Guthrie, Melissa Kruger, Leigh Swanson
Hosted By: Reformed Theological Seminary

A strong theological foundation plays a vital role in encouraging and sustaining hope. This session provides practical advice and encouragement for pastors, elders, women’s ministry leaders, and others who desire to start and sustain biblically faithful and theologically rich women’s ministries in their congregations.

3. Gathered, Not Scattered: Parenting Toward a Shared Family Identity in an Age of Individualism

Speaker: Jen Wilkin
Hosted By: Lifeway

Today’s family sits squarely in a world that values charting your own path, being your own person, and pursuing what makes you, the individual, most happy. Jen Wilkin helps us consider how this affects family relationships and how to regain a deep focus on the shared space we call home.

4. Shepherding Women in the Church

Speakers: Courtney Doctor, Vanessa Hawkins, Melissa Kruger
Hosted By: The Gospel Coalition

Women make up more than 50 percent of most congregations. Yet it can be hard for ministry leaders to know how to best support, encourage and care for them. Whether you’re a pastor, a director of women’s ministry, or someone who invests in the lives of the women in your local church, this session will discuss the best practices for supporting and caring for the women you’ve been called to shepherd.

5. Hope, in Confusing Times and Suffering

Speakers: James Anderson, Ligon Duncan, Nancy Guthrie
Hosted By: Reformed Theological Seminary

Christians dwell as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) in a world that’s increasingly complex to navigate while maintaining biblical convictions for faith and life. In this two-part session, James Anderson will begin by examining how to cultivate a biblically formed understanding of our present cultural realities—and how such an understanding helps us maintain a confident and hopeful witness when we might otherwise be tempted to despair. Ligon Duncan and Nancy Guthrie will then follow with a discussion of theological foundations and pastoral approaches for helping our fellow brothers and sisters as they walk through suffering.

6. Pastoring School Choices

Speakers: Winfree Brisley, Courtney Doctor, Jared Kennedy, Bill Kynes
Hosted By: The Gospel Coalition

The education of our children is vitally important, but the decision about how to educate them can be challenging. As church leaders, you’re likely asked to help those in your sphere of influence navigate their educational decisions. Join us as we discuss the pros and cons of different choices as well as biblical principles that can help inform our decisions.

7. Raising Kids in Ministry: Insight from Pastors’ Kids

Speakers: Winfree Brisley, Megan Hill, Gavin Ortlund
Hosted By: The Gospel Coalition

Are the kids going to be all right? Especially in ministry, we worry about raising kids who rebel wildly or who become perfectly behaved hypocrites, who buckle under the pressure of congregational expectations or who nurse life-long bitterness against the church. In this panel discussion, three grown-up pastors’ kids (some now the parents of pastors’ kids) discuss what their parents did well, what they wish was different, and how they’d encourage ministry families today with the hope of Christ.

8. Pilgrim’s Perseverance

Speaker: Ruth Chou Simons
Hosted By: Harvest House

Every pilgrim has a story about how God’s ways, his character, and his attributes helped her press onward in her journey. Join Ruth Chou Simons to explore how beloved theological truths serve as guideposts of God’s grace and presence for every journey, from beginning to end.

This is just a small selection of the 40-plus microevents happening during the three days of the conference, On top of this, you’ll hear excellent keynote speakers like John Piper, David Platt, and Miguel Núñez, as well as worship led by CityAlight from Sydney, Australia. Put TGC23 on your calendar and reserve your tickets! Find out more and register soon, before prices increase again on May 11. Let’s take some time to slow down and be poured into this fall, untangling the threads of the complex wilderness we walk in.

Embracing the Power of Repentance and Forgiveness Fri, 05 May 2023 04:04:53 +0000 If we’ve lost our joy, let us confess our sins and run to God in repentance.]]> In his message at TGC Chicago’s 2022 Regional Conference, H. B. Charles explains what happens in David’s heart during his prayer of confession in Psalm 51. Through this psalm, we learn that confession and repentance can lead us to joy as we follow David’s example.

First, David prays, “Forgive me,” which is essential to moving forward in our relationship with God once we’ve sinned against him. He prays based on God’s character—knowing God is full of abundant mercy. This confession allows David to take full responsibility for his sin and frees us to do the same when we’ve sinned.

Second, David prays for a “clean heart,” asking God to change him. This is a divine miracle of spiritual transformation, which is impossible without prayer and trust in the Holy Spirit’s power.

Last, David asks to be used for God’s glory. Grace and the power of forgiveness should be what motivates us to evangelism and care for others.

“The prayer of confession is intricately tied to the prayer of intercession,” says Charles. Closing with this challenge, he says, “Godliness is characterized by joy, but joy and sin cannot coexist.” If we’ve lost our joy, let us confess our sins and run to God in repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus that saves us.

What I’ve Learned About School Choice Fri, 05 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 As we’ve found by trying nearly everything, there’s no perfect school setting. But God is sovereign over our children’s lives, no matter where they go to school.]]> Before we had kids, my husband and I assumed our children would go to public schools just as we had. In the places we grew up, nearly everyone—even in our churches—went to public school. But by the time our oldest son was nearing kindergarten, how to educate your children had become a hot topic in Christian circles.

At the time, our church had three pastors. One sent his children to public school, one sent his to private Christian school, and the third pastor’s children were homeschooled. It was clear to us that education is an area of Christian freedom, but it wasn’t clear to us what we should do.

What We’ve Tried

We searched the Scriptures, we prayed about it, we read books like Perspectives on Your Child’s Education, and we talked to older parents in our church who chose different school options. Did I mention I’m a former teacher and had taught in both public and private Christian schools? Surely my experience would count for something. But at the end of it all, we still didn’t have a clear conviction about how to educate our children.

So we tried to apply wise decision-making principles and decided on a public school for Spanish language immersion. But a couple of years in, COVID hit and everything about our school experience changed. Given some new challenges, we decided to homeschool while we considered our options.

After a wonderful year of homeschooling, we enrolled our two older boys in a private Christian school where their youngest brother will join them next year. Lord willing, our boys will continue there through high school. But if our school journey thus far has taught us anything, it’s that we can research and plan, but the Lord establishes our steps (Prov. 16:9).

What I’ve Learned

I don’t know what our school experience will ultimately look like, but here are a few things I’m learning along the way.

1. School isn’t a right and wrong decision.

As we initially considered school options, we felt pressure to make the “right” decision so our kids would be well-educated and prepared for career success while also making sure the Christian worldview we’re trying to instill wouldn’t be corrupted. Not to mention that kids need healthy opportunities for socialization, access to athletics and the arts, and enough technology integration so they can keep up in the modern workforce but not so much screen time that their brains turn to mush. It seemed if we made the “wrong” decision we would disadvantage our kids for life—both earthly and eternal.

Of course, deciding how to educate our children is a responsibility parents should consider carefully. But we need to remember it’s an area of wisdom and conviction, not of right and wrong. As our family has found by trying nearly everything, there’s no perfect school setting—so we can take the pressure off. God is sovereign over our children’s lives, and he’s working all things for their good, no matter where they go to school. We can ask the Lord to give us wisdom and then make a decision. And if our decision is different from another Christian family’s, it doesn’t mean one of us is right and the other is wrong.

2. School isn’t necessarily a one-and-done decision.

Looking back, part of the reason school choice felt so weighty was that I viewed it as a one-time decision. It seemed that once we set our oldest son on an educational path, the course was charted for all of our children for their entire K–12 education. Certainly, there can be advantages for children to start in one type of school and have consistency all the way through. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The reason school choice is a choice at all is because we have the blessing of multiple options. And, as our family found, there’s flexibility to reassess and make a different choice as you go.

No matter how much we research and plan for school, there are factors that remain unknown. We might find out one of our children has special learning needs that can’t be accommodated in the school we originally selected. Health struggles for a parent or child might mean homeschooling is no longer feasible. Changes in a school’s leadership or educational philosophy may introduce new concerns. So we make the best decision we can at the time and trust the Lord to provide if we need to make a change later on.

3. School isn’t entirely our decision.

As my husband and I navigated our original school decision, we quickly confronted the reality that school choice isn’t entirely up to the parents. Our options may be limited by various factors outside our control. We might like to send our kids to public school, but if the ones in our area are physically unsafe or philosophically unsound, that may not be a viable choice. Or we might prefer private school, but if we can’t afford the tuition or our children aren’t accepted to the school we want, we’ll have to choose another option.

Where we live, the needs of our kids, our financial resources, and our own abilities are all limits on our choice. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. God has providentially ordained all of these aspects of our lives, and he may use those very limits to guide our decision-making. If we realize the option we want is not available to us, we can receive it as from the Lord and trust his sovereign care.

4. School isn’t a salvation decision.

As Christian parents, school choice isn’t just about setting our kids up to get into a top-tier college or to be well-rounded in extracurriculars. One of our deepest desires is for our children to love and serve the Lord. So we rightly consider how various environments and influences will either support or challenge the biblical worldview we’re trying to pass on to them.

But if we’re not careful, we can assign too much weight to those influences. Each time we’ve reassessed our school choice, I’ve had to remind myself that where we send our boys to school will not determine where they spend eternity. Christian school will not save our kids. Homeschool will not save our kids. Public school will not separate our children from the love of God. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Ps. 3:8), and he chose his people before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He’s saving people from every nation, tribe, tongue—and school. Whether our children walk with the Lord is ultimately about his choice, not ours.

Where we send our kids to school will not determine where they spend eternity.

Our oldest son is nearing the end of third grade, and he’s already attended three different types of schools. Very little about our school journey has gone as we planned. Sometimes I look back and wish we’d chosen the Christian school our boys attend now from the start. But if we had, we would have missed the opportunity to experience the Lord’s kindness and provision for our family through all the twists and turns. We’ve learned a lot by navigating school choice—about education, about our kids, and about the Lord who is sovereign over it all.

The Longings Behind Pop Culture’s Nostalgia Obsession Fri, 05 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Rather than blame audiences for craving sequels, franchises, and nostalgia over original stories, we should seek to understand why this is the case. ]]> Every movie these days feels like a trip back to my 1980s childhood. Air took me back to my Chicago Bulls fandom and the Jordan sneakers that defined my boyhood. The Super Mario Bros. Movie had me smiling with glee because it triggered memories of Nintendo worlds I explored 30-some-odd years ago. And even though Tetris is less about the Soviet game and more about the fascinating Cold War history behind its origin, it had me itching to return to those childhood hours of Game Boy play on road trips.

These are far from the only films leveraging nostalgia to entice audiences. In the genre of “’80s toys turned movies” alone, 2023 has also seen a Dungeons & Dragons film and will still see the release of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts on June 9, Barbie on July 21, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem on August 4. There are also movies inspired by Hot Wheels and Play-Doh (yes, Play-Doh) in the works.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of blockbusters are reboots, sequels, or franchise films that mine popular intellectual properties for new profits. All of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2022 were sequels or reboots. Most analysts expect the 2023 box office will be similarly dominated by superhero sequels or reboots (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash); aging action movie franchise sequels (80-year-old Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones 5, 60-year-old Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 7, 68-year-old Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3); Disney reboots (The Little Mermaid) and rides-turned-movies (Haunted Mansion), and the 10th (10th!) installment in the Fast & Furious franchise.

Hollywood is a business that responds to markets, and the market has made clear its desire: the old and familiar, not the new and unknown.

It’s become expected, at this point, for critics to say something like “Hollywood is out of new ideas” or “Originality is dead.” But I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not that creativity is suffering among artists in Hollywood; plenty of highly original stories are being told, in daring and exciting ways. It’s just that Hollywood is a business that responds to markets, and the market has made clear its desire: the old and familiar, not the new and unknown.

Rather than blame audiences for this inclination toward the known and disinclination toward original stories, we should seek to understand why this is the case.

For Overstimulated Souls, Old Narratives Are Easier

Why are appetites for “new” culture waning, while hunger for nostalgia and franchise familiarity is surging? Perhaps it’s because our brains are so overstimulated, so overtaxed in the digital age’s information glut, that we struggle to have the capacity or energy to process anything novel.

Instead of wrapping our minds around a totally new narrative world, with its own “rules” and characters and unknown textures, it’s easier to encounter a new entry in an old story; we have existing categories we can file that into, frames of reference that more easily make sense of what we’re seeing. Given that mental energy and available units of attention are increasingly scarce resources (and cognitive overload is a common struggle), it’s no surprise the majority of moviegoers opt for stories that fall lighter on their brains.

I suspect this is also related to trends of polarization in our culture, in which people cope with the mental exhaustion of the information glut by gravitating toward tribes (and especially tribal leaders) who do the thinking and interpretation for them. I wrote about this a few years ago:

When a relentless barrage of information hits our brains, it’s easier to file things away in tidy narrative boxes (“This is proof of that”) than to lay them out on a table and see what reality emerges from the evidence. Quickly plugging data into established narratives is a coping mechanism in a world of information overload.

Consider the way people have shifted toward preferring “narratives” over “news.” In one of the most prescient works of media analysis in recent years (“How Stewart Made Tucker”), Jon Askonas argues that audiences want “narrative development” from their news media more than objective reporting:

In the digital age, you really don’t need anyone to read the news to you. What you need is to understand how you should feel about it and what story it tells. For most readers, including many in journalism, the details will simply make no difference in their day-to-day lives. Presented with a massive overload of isolated facts, they will simply want to make sense of them. Helping them do that is the most valuable, and most revenue-generating, function of journalism today.

We prefer narrative development over hard news for the same reason we prefer sequels and franchises over original stories. Life in the maelstrom of digital buzz is too overwhelming, and our brains are too stressed, to bother with the expense of energy required to make sense of a complex news headline or a complex new movie narrative.

DIY Identity Exhaustion

Another explanation for the growing hunger for nostalgic, familiar pop culture surely has to do with the dizzying, destabilizing effects of the digital age on our identity. A few generations ago, the frames of reference for how we understood ourselves were more limited. Our identities largely depended on the unchosen physical and proximate webs we entered at birth: family, place, local culture, religious tradition.

But in the digital age, the tools for identity construction are limitless, unbound by the givenness of unchosen factors that previously defined us (e.g., our biological sex). “Who I am” is now as fluid and malleable a question as I want it to be, subject to the whirling array of arguments, influencers, pseudo-events, and microcommunities that come across my feed from any number of multiverses.

In the digital age, the tools for identity construction are limitless, unbound by the givenness of unchosen factors that previously defined us.

As appealing as this freewheeling identity construction might seem, in practice it’s a source of great emotional stress, spiritual angst, and existential anxiety. To cope with the heavy burden of a “you do you” world—and the loneliness that results from valuing untethered autonomy over relationships of inconvenient accountability—we crave nostalgia. It reminds us of a time when identity was simpler.

In a recent newsletter, Chris Martin shared a Marshall McLuhan quote from a 1977 television interview that speaks to this dynamic: “One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia. And so revivals in every phase of life today—revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything—we live by the revival. It tells us who we are, or were.”

Martin goes on to ponder whether “the light speed with which we consume content and information today has, in a sense, left us longing for the simplicity of the past. When we knew who we were.”

He’s right that we long for the “simplicity” of the past in a digital world that presents us with horrors, contradictions, fake news, and inflammatory narratives of every sort on a constant feed. But the identity-longing we feel—of which nostalgia is a sort of “signal of transcendence,” to quote Os Guinness’s fantastic new book—also has a lot to do with longing for the sort of community of shared culture we once had.

Longing for Community

Part of why we hunger for the latest Disney princess reboot, the latest Marvel or DC entry, or further movies about the treasured toys of our childhoods is that they invite us into existing traditions and established communities, in ways that make us feel less lonely. They invite us into conversations where there’s already a shared vocabulary and ongoing interpretive tradition.

I have a buddy who grew up, like I did, in the pop culture of the ’80s and ’90s. He and I have a lot of overlap in our movie tastes. Yet we rarely talk about the latest new indie movie I’ve seen or the buzzworthy Netflix series he recently watched. When we talk pop culture, it’s because we’re lamenting how bad the latest Jurassic Park movie was compared to the majestic 1993 original (which we saw when we were 10-year-old boys). We assess the latest entries in the Star Wars universe or ponder what’s next for Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. In other words, we connect on shared history and shared pop culture language.

Our hunger for familiar franchises and nostalgic sequels has a lot to do with our longing for a community in which we can better understand our world and ourselves.

This is a big purpose culture serves: community and connection. And in a world of increasingly solitary media consumption, our hunger for familiar franchises and nostalgic sequels has a lot to do with our longing for a community in which we can better understand our world and ourselves.

In the end, constructing bespoke identities around hyperspecific personal tastes and eclectic curation of pop culture is lonely and unsatisfying. We long for culture that connects rather than isolates. And right now, the culture that does this most readily is heavy on nostalgia and familiar franchises.

Takeaway for the Church

While the critic in me wants to lament the situation I’ve described above—in which original storytelling is disincentivized by the market’s hunger for franchise familiarity—the church leader in me finds reason to hope.

Why? Because what we’re seeing in pop culture is a longing for established narrative worlds and existing communities of interpretation, because the digital world is too overwhelming to navigate alone or from scratch. This sounds like a need the church was designed to fill.

Is there any established narrative world and shared discursive vocabulary more ubiquitous than the biblical narrative and Christian interpretive tradition? Are there any cultural liturgies of fandom or consumerism more satisfying or shaping than the communities of worship that gather to praise the living God and unpack his living Word? In a rootless world of self-made identity, the church offers a constant invitation for nomad-consumers to find their place in a stable, welcoming, committed community with a shared narrative that has proven compelling and transformative for billions across the world for 2,000 years.

Right now, the lonely and rootless sojourners of a post-Christian digital world are flocking en masse, as if on pilgrimage, to the sacred spaces of nostalgia and the comfort food of pop culture “universes.” The church shouldn’t see itself as an “alternative” to Mario or Barbie movies in satisfying these longings, as if a Sunday worship service is on par with a Nintendo product or Mattel toy. But we can recognize that when these pop culture nostalgia trips fail to address the longings of this lonely, meaning-hungry generation, the church will still be there—doors open wide, ready to point people to the Savior more real than any superhero and a narrative more true and powerful than any mere entertainment.

The FAQs: Supreme Court to Hear Case on Limiting Power of Federal Agencies Thu, 04 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that may challenge Chevron deference, which has had wide-ranging effects on administrative law—and on religious liberty.]]> What just happened?

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a case, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, that could significantly scale back the authority and power of federal agencies. The case has the potential to overturn or restrict the legal standard known as “Chevron deference,” which has had wide-ranging effects on administrative law—and could have important implications for religious liberty.

What is ‘Chevron deference’?

Chevron deference is a legal doctrine that affects legal interpretations, particularly in the realm of administrative law. The doctrine was created by the Supreme Court in the 1984 case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

The Chevron doctrine consists of a two-step analysis. The court must first determine whether the statute (a written law passed by Congress) in question is clear and unambiguous. If the statute’s meaning is clear, the court must apply the law as written and the agency’s interpretation is irrelevant. However, if the court finds the statute to be ambiguous, it must then determine whether the agency’s interpretation of the statute is reasonable. If the agency’s interpretation is deemed reasonable, the court must defer to that interpretation, even if the court might have reached a different conclusion.

What was the ‘Chevron’ case about?

The Clean Air Act, which regulates air pollution at the national level, includes a requirement that states establish a permit program regulating “new or modified major stationary sources” of air pollution. The Carter administration defined “stationary source” as any device in a manufacturing plant that produced pollution. But after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, his EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)—which was headed at the time by Justice Gorsuch’s mother, Anne M. Gorsuch—said that “source” meant the entire plant.

The Natural Resources Defense Council challenged that redefinition in federal court and won. The company Chevron, which was affected, appealed and the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in 1984 that when Congress passed a law that didn’t have a clear meaning, the courts should defer to reasonable interpretations by the federal agency applying the law. The Court said, “The EPA’s interpretation of the statute here represents a reasonable accommodation of manifestly competing interests, and is entitled to deference.” This standard has since been referred to as Chevron deference.

What are the arguments for and against Chevron deference?

Some of the arguments made in favor of Chevron deference include the following:

  • Appeal to expertise: The world is complicated, which complicates the application of regulations. Federal administrative agencies are presumably staffed with experts who possess specialized knowledge in their respective fields and therefore are in a better position to know how to interpret and apply regulations. In contrast, most courts often lack the same level of expertise necessary to make adequate interpretations. Chevron deference presumably acknowledges this reality and allows agencies to fill in the gaps left by Congress in a way that’s consistent with their expertise.
  • Flexibility: Chevron deference provides federal agencies with the flexibility to adapt their interpretations and regulations as conditions within society change. This flexibility allows them to respond to new scientific discoveries, technological advancements, and evolving social norms more effectively than if the courts were to interpret the statutes without deference.
  • Political accountability: Administrative agencies are part of the executive branch and are therefore more directly accountable to the president, who is in turn accountable to the electorate, than are federal judges. Chevron deference recognizes that agencies, as part of the political process, are better suited to make policy choices than unelected judges.
  • Consistency and predictability: By deferring to agency interpretations, courts can promote consistency in the application of federal regulations. This helps create a more predictable legal environment, which is beneficial for individuals, businesses, and other stakeholders.

Some of the arguments made against Chevron deference include the following:

  • Separation of powers: Critics argue that Chevron deference undermines the separation of powers by allowing the executive branch to encroach on the judiciary’s role in interpreting the law. Under the Constitution, the role of interpreting statutes falls to the courts. By deferring to agencies, courts may inadvertently be abdicating their responsibility to ensure laws are interpreted and applied according to the Constitution and legislative intent.
  • Concentration of power: Chevron deference effectively concentrates legislative, executive, and judicial power within administrative agencies. This concentration of power has often led to a lack of checks and balances, making agencies less accountable for their actions. Critics argue agencies have exploited Chevron deference to expand their authority, leading to bureaucratic overreach and abuses of power.
  • Giving power to unelected bureaucrats: A central concern is that Chevron deference has empowered unelected bureaucrats to make policy decisions that should be reserved for Congress or the courts. As part of the executive branch, federal agencies are subject to political pressures that influence their decision making. By deferring to agencies, courts could allow unelected officials to shape policy without direct accountability to the electorate.
  • Arbitrary decision making: Another concern raised by critics is that Chevron deference has lead to arbitrary decision making by federal agencies, as their interpretations change with each new administration. This lack of stability has created uncertainty for individuals, businesses, and other stakeholders affected by these regulations. Courts may be better positioned to provide a more stable and neutral interpretation of the law.

Why should Christians care about Chevron deference?

Whether persuaded by the arguments for or against this legal doctrine, Christians should be aware of how Chevron deference can lead to negative outcomes for religious people, particularly when federal agencies interpret and enforce statutes involving religious practices or beliefs. By deferring to agencies’ interpretations, courts might uphold regulatory actions that undermine religious freedom.

For example, the Affordable Care Act required most employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception at no additional cost to their employees. While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created some exemptions and accommodations for religious employers, the HHS’s interpretations were subject to Chevron deference. This deference led courts to uphold the agency’s interpretation, even though the mandate and its accommodations still infringed upon the beliefs of religious employers.

Another example is the control federal agencies can have over religious employers, such as churches and religious schools. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. Chevron deference can affect religious liberty when the EEOC interprets the statute in a way that limits a religious organization’s ability to make employment decisions consistent with their religious beliefs.

Such threats, whether in the past or in the future, are a primary justification for asking the Supreme Court to carefully examine the implications of Chevron deference on religious liberty and other fundamental rights.

How to Raise Pastors’ Kids with Gospel Hope Thu, 04 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Church leaders who bring their children to Jesus are desperate. That’s just as it should be.]]> I know pastors’ kids—of all ages—who are doing well. Kids who love Christ and obey his Word. Kids who serve the church and who seek God’s glory.

I know other pastors’ kids—of all ages—who aren’t doing well. Kids who can’t be bothered to examine their own hearts or to get up for church on a Sunday morning. Kids who resent God’s commands regarding sexuality or his call for us to suffer. Kids who want to be loved by the world and who want nothing to do with the love of Christ.

Simply being the child of a church leader is no guarantee of spiritual health—and parents know this all too well. So where can we go for help?

Children Were Brought to Jesus

The familiar story in Matthew 19 provides hope and encouragement for ministry families who are raising children:

Then children were brought to [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matt. 19:13–15)

Parents who brought their children to Jesus had no illusions about their children’s well-being. They recognized that their kids had needs beyond their human ability to meet. By faith, they knew that Jesus was their kids’ only recourse. The parents in this story were probably not serene and smiling, as they often appear in children’s Bibles; like us, the parents in this story were desperate.

The parents were probably not serene and smiling, as they often appear in children’s Bibles; like us, the parents in this story were desperate.

And so they overcame every obstacle to bring their children to Jesus and plead for his help. They packed up children and supplies; they traveled dusty and dangerous roads; they refused to take the disciples’ no for an answer. Like the men who clawed a hole in the roof for their paralyzed friend (see Mark 2:1–12), and the mother who willingly compared herself to a dog to beg for relief for her demon-possessed daughter (see Matt. 15:21–28), and the woman who elbowed through the crush of people to tug at Jesus’s robe for healing from her decade-long affliction (see Matt. 9:20–22), these parents wanted Jesus’s mercy—and they wouldn’t be dissuaded.

And as he did for so many others who sincerely sought healing and salvation, Jesus responded to them with love. He welcomed the children, testified to their eternal value, prayed for them, and invited them to belong to his kingdom.

Let the Children Come

We bring our children to the same Jesus today. As we urge them to worship, pray for them, speak God’s Word to them, and press them to trust him for salvation, we present them to the only Savior of sinners and look for him to work in their hearts.

We do this by our example. We do this by our discipline. We do this in family worship and at mealtime prayer. We do this by bringing our children under the Word in corporate worship. We do this in faith.

Like the parents in today’s passage, we face obstacles to our task. Our kids’ rebellious attitudes, spiritual disinterest, or lethargy regarding the means of grace often make it hard. But Matthew 19 assures us Jesus loves to hear and answer the prayers of desperate parents.

Open Your Church Service with a Gospel Welcome Thu, 04 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 How could we bear making anyone wait before experiencing the welcome of Jesus?]]> Many of us experience a form of social anxiety. We’re about to arrive at a social event and we find ourselves having second thoughts. We wonder if we’re really wanted or whether the host is just going through the motions inviting us over. We fear there may be awkwardness or that we might not gel as well with our hosts as we thought.

Many of those fears can be put to rest with the right kind of welcome. If the door is opened and we’re immediately made to feel valued, we know we’re wanted, among friends, and safe. The relief can be palpable. If we’re the host, this is exactly how we want our guests to feel. We want our homes to be places people feel dignified and desired, welcomed and wanted.

The same should be true of our churches. We want them to be easy places for people to come the first time, or on their own, or with heads full of doubts, or with unconfessed guilt. That instinct is biblical. Paul writes, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7).

New Gospel Ground Rules

Let’s think about those opening moments of a church service. They couldn’t be more important. They’re the storefront window of Christ’s welcome for people who often walk into church feeling like outsiders.

In Romans, Paul didn’t write, “Welcome one another like people at the fitness club down the road do.” We’re not conveying our welcome but Christ’s welcome. It’s not about exchanging a cultural pleasantry but declaring a heavenly reality. We’re meant to invite brokenhearted sinners to collapse into Jesus’s open arms.

We want our homes to be places people feel dignified and desired, welcomed and wanted. The same should be true of our churches.

The start of our gathered worship is possibly the most precious moment in the whole service. We have only a minute to make it a gospel moment. With God’s help, we want to rearrange people’s spiritual reality right from the get-go. They might be thinking,

I don’t know why I came this week. This isn’t for me.
I’m just no good at Christianity. No one here gets me.
How long will I be stuck here?

We want to lead them to instead think,

You mean Jesus is really like this? I’m so relieved I came.
I so need this. Maybe there is hope for me.
I can’t wait to come back next Sunday.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the welcome at the start of the service and how much is lost when it isn’t handled carefully, pastorally, and with gospel intentionality.

The opening moments of our services are when we can establish new gospel ground rules for why and how we gather as Christians. We’re not here to do God a favor, to give him some company for an hour or so, to make him feel better. We’re not here to pay a weekly religion tax so he gets off our back for the next six days. We’re not here to get our respectability card stamped for another week. We’re here for just one reason: Christ has welcomed us. We need to wrap our brains around that good news.

Gospel Welcome from the Start

Some might think we don’t necessarily need to make the gospel the issue at the welcome when there are songs, prayers, sacraments, and a sermon that will declare the gospel. Surely we can trust the rest of the service to bring home the reality of grace.

But there’s an urgent reason why the welcome is consequential: How could we bear making anyone wait before experiencing the welcome of Jesus? It isn’t a formality. His gracious welcome is the whole point.

I’ve found over the years that it can sometimes take most of the service for people to get to where they start to believe God truly loves them. Perhaps by the end of the sermon. Perhaps in time to enjoy the final song. But what if, with God’s help, we usher the people into this gospel glory right at the start? What if, instead of them slowly warming up over the course of an hour or so, they start out experiencing Christ’s welcome? Then, for the rest of the service, they can bask in it.

I’m writing this amid a European heat wave, while on vacation in a musty old building that’s never heard of air conditioning. My only way to cope has been to periodically slip into the pool to cool myself down. Refreshing, cool water on a hot, sticky body is utterly blissful. I often linger there, marveling at how good it feels.

That’s what a church refreshed with gospel welcome feels like to exhausted sinners. They aren’t standing by the side of the pool, being told how cool it is, and only after a while getting in. From the first moment of the service, they’re welcomed in. The pastor gently, sincerely declares Jesus’s refreshing grace. And he washes it over the people’s weary souls from the outset.

Welcome to the Savior

This is an area where I’ve changed as a pastor. I used to think I was welcoming people to church. Romans 15:7 has made me realize I’m welcoming people to Christ. I’m not trying to break the cultural ice; I’m aiming for spiritual renewal right then and there. I’m longing for the welcome of Jesus to be a felt reality from the opening seconds.

How could we bear making anyone wait before experiencing the welcome of Jesus?

There are many ways to provide such a gospel welcome. Each church will rightly have its own traditions, personality, denominational responsibilities, and so on. This isn’t about being a little more Baptist here or Anglican there. It’s about establishing clearly, from the first moment the pastor steps up in front of the congregation, that this isn’t like any other gathering around the city. Our meeting doesn’t revolve around a shared interest, common cause, or cultural expectation. We’re in church because Jesus’s heart-melting welcome has pulled us in. Where else would we be?

The pastoral welcome isn’t the only time and place where we want the welcome of Jesus to be unmissable, of course. After all, Paul’s command to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” applies to more than the pastor and more than a church service. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pastoral welcome Sunday by Sunday became the jump-start for our week-long intention to make the welcome of Jesus less theoretical and more personal? Having received the welcome of Christ in church, it becomes a lot easier to share the welcome of Christ all week long.

Introducing ‘As In Heaven’ Season 3 Wed, 03 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Jim Davis, Mike Aitcheson, Michael Graham, and Skyler Flowers give a preview of the third season of ‘As In Heaven,’ which focuses on dechurching in America.]]> In this episode of As In Heaven, Jim Davis, Mike Aitcheson, Michael Graham, and Skyler Flowers give a preview of the third season of the podcast, which focuses on dechurching in America. 

The hosts define key terms used throughout the season and discuss who the decurched are, how we can help, and where we’re headed as the church in America.

The bad news is bad—roughly 40 million people have left the church over 30 years. But the good news is good—there’s something we can do as the body of Christ to bring people back and love them in a gospel-centered way. 

Episode time stamps:

  • Introduction to the show and hosts (00:00)
  • Overview of the season topic and episodes (3:40)
  • Michael Graham’s favorite episodes (5:16)
  • Mike Aitcheson’s favorite episodes (5:56)
  • Skyler Flowers’s favorite episodes (7:58)
  • Jim’s favorite episodes (9:38)
  • Invitation to the next episode with Ryan Burge (11:32)
Tips for Leading a Short-Term Missions Trip Wed, 03 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 For a successful short-term missions trip, you need to meet regularly as a team and then seek to meet the partner missionaries’ strategic needs.]]> Spring is here, the time when many churches are preparing for short-term missions trips. A staggering 2 million or more Americans go on these trips each year.

As a field worker for the last 20 years, I believe there are two key elements for such a trip to be successful. First, your team needs to meet regularly. Second, you should seek to serve the partner missionaries’ strategic needs.

With those priorities in mind, here are some basic tips for before, during, and after the trip.

Before You Go

The first question to ask is this: Where does your trip originate? Was it your idea, your church’s, or your partner missionaries’? There are many decisions to make: when you’ll go, what you’ll do, and how many people will participate. But this preliminary question will make all the difference.

It’s best not to do anything until you talk with your partner missionaries. Ask them how a trip could help their strategy. Be aware that missionaries often think they’re expected to provide satisfactory trip opportunities for churches or else they’ll lose the partnership. You need to assure them this isn’t the case. Instead, take their lead.

Hopefully the missionaries know their needs and how your team can strategically help. Align your expectations to those needs. For example, ask the missionaries how many people should come. Most likely they’ll prefer a smaller team, which is often more manageable and effective.

Think about how you can prepare your team to fulfill the missionaries’ strategy. How can they be spiritually ready? Can you provide opportunities to pray together about the trip? Should you provide theological, evangelistic, or skills training? How much of the language and culture can you teach them about before they go? Can you provide some cross-cultural experiences before they leave home? Most churches that do short-term trips well provide at least four pretrip meetings to equip the team.

Most churches that do short term trips well provide at least four pretrip meetings to equip the team.

While You’re There

While you’re on the field, keep your team meetings going. I love seeing teams who debrief daily so they know what is and isn’t going well. More importantly, this is a tremendous discipleship opportunity. Involve the missionaries in these times to teach cross-cultural skills. Your team will learn skills they can apply in their lives back home.

Again, be sure to follow the missionaries’ lead throughout the trip. They know the place and the people. They know potentially dangerous situations and what to do in a crisis. Listening to them and doing what they say is usually the best way forward during the trip.

To reciprocate for all the missionaries do for you, the team should go ready to serve. Missionaries often labor in difficult circumstances year-round. Are there ways you could help them during your stay? Consider offering to watch their kids one night so they can go on a date. Perhaps take their whole family to a fun place—and pay for it. The best teams that came while my family was overseas loved our children well, and our kids loved them in return. Plus, it gave our children the opportunity to be cultural guides and translators. It’s a win-win.

After You Return

Once you’re home—you guessed it—keep meeting. Continue to debrief. This can be done individually or as a group. Either way, talk about what they’ve learned and how they can apply it. God may be leading some of them to consider long-term missions.

The best teams that came while my family was overseas loved our children well, and our kids loved them in return.

Celebrate the trip with your church, whether by creating a short video, having the team visit small groups, or inviting them to share their experience at an event. This will do wonders in creating missions awareness in your church.

Find a way for trip participants to continue serving in your church or community at a deeper level. Don’t let the only next step be taking them on another short-term trip. Instead, help team members connect the dots of how to apply their missions experience to where they live.

Packing Tips

Perhaps I can best sum this up with a few packing tips. Work hard to see that your team packs things like humility, listening skills, a learning mindset, a servant attitude, and plenty of flexibility. Take care that they don’t pack pride, rigidity, or the need to be right, comfortable, and in control.

They may bring back some great “souvenirs,” like a more mature worldview, a practical understanding of how to live on mission here at home, and a heart for all nations. That’s a week well spent.

3 Reasons to Sing the Apostles’ Creed Wed, 03 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 We’re like people singing their national anthem during a time of occupation, confident liberation is coming.]]> Why should we say or sing the creeds in public worship? Surely creeds are something you keep in your back pocket—just in case. They’re a kind of yardstick to ensure our churches and their leaders stay on track.

But if that’s it, why not keep them in a drawer until they’re needed? Everyone recognizes you need a set of rules to play football, but fans don’t chant those rules in the stands. So why sing the creeds? Here are three reasons.

1. The creeds celebrate the gospel.

The Apostles’ Creed, for example, is in the form of a story. It begins with God and creation. It moves to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus as well as looking forward to his return. And it tells the story of the Spirit’s involvement in our lives now—speaking through the Bible, gathering the church, reassuring guilty hearts, and filling us with hope.

To say or sing the Apostles’ Creed is to retell the story of salvation. Yes, creeds refute error, but they do so by declaring the glories of the gospel story.

2. The creeds unite us to the worldwide church.

Of course, many of the songs we sing in church tell the gospel story. But the creeds do so as a shared affirmation. It’s not just me, or even my congregation, who believe this. This is the faith of the church throughout the ages and across the world. The Apostles’ Creed is perhaps the earliest creed we have outside the New Testament. Here are truths both ancient and always fresh. They’re hundreds of years old, yet as relevant as ever.

Creeds refute error, but they do so by declaring the glories of the gospel story.

We’re part of a chain that spans the pages of history. We received these truths from those who proclaimed them to us, and the people who proclaimed them to us received them from previous generations. This should humble us, for it reminds us the gospel didn’t start with us.

Reciting the creeds also reminds us we, too, are links in this chain. “What you heard from me,” says Paul in 2 Timothy 1:13–14 (NIV), “keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

A few verses later, he adds, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2, NIV). It’s our responsibility to guard these truths and pass them on to future generations. And that challenges us. We shouldn’t let the gospel stop with us.

3. The creeds are subversive.

By declaring these convictions, we’re disavowing the ideologies of our culture. We’re saying, “The triune God proclaimed in the creed is our God, and we will not worship the gods of this age.”

We say this to the world as an act of defiance. But we also declare this allegiance to our own hearts. That’s one purpose of worship: to call one another not only to the worship of God but also away from the worship of the destructive ideologies of the world and its empty priorities.

By declaring these convictions, we’re disavowing the ideologies of our culture.

So in the Apostles’ Creed, every “I believe in God” implies a corresponding rejection of false gods. And every “I believe in God” is laying a firm foundation for the ups and downs of life.

In the face of materialism, we declare, “I believe in God, the Father almighty”. To those who claim we’re self-made, we declare, “I believe in God . . . creator of heaven and earth.” When pluralists claim all religions are essentially the same, we declare, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son.” Amid the moral relativism of our culture, we declare, “I believe . . . he will come to judge the living and the dead.” When the church seems powerless, we declare, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” When guilt threatens to overwhelm our souls, we declare, “I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins”. And when death comes knocking at our doors, we declare, “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

Sing of Victory

We’re like people singing their national anthem during a time of occupation, confident liberation is coming because we believe “Jesus Christ . . . who will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In this sense, a creed is also a victory shout. The song I cowrote with Emu Music (watch below) sets the Apostles’ Creed to music, helping your congregation to proclaim the victory of the gospel.

So let’s take the ancient creeds out of the drawer, dust them down, and let them be heard in our congregations—said, sung, and celebrated as shared affirmations of the gospel story.

4 Ways Counseling Can Help Your Doubt Tue, 02 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Exploring your questions about God’s plan for your life with a faithful, believing counselor can be a means to anchor your heart to God’s good news.]]> Do you think of biblical or Christian counseling mainly as something to pursue when you’re in a personal crisis? Do you think of it primarily as designed to help with emotional, mental health, or relational struggles? While those can all be benefits, counseling can also be an unexpected resource for discipleship and for strengthening your faith.

Our faith can be tested by many everyday questions and challenges. Believers wisely seek answers to their doubts and questions about God in prayer, Bible reading, and their church communities. But God can also use counseling to strengthen you in the following four ways.

1. Counseling can provide deeper understanding.

When you meet with a biblical or Christian counselor, you open an avenue for gaining a deeper understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and of how they affect your relationship with God. A trained counselor can help you identify patterns of thinking and behaviors that may be contributing to your faith struggles. She assists with making the necessary connections between your personal history, current struggles, and God’s Word.

As a counselor, I’ve found exploring biblical examples of other believers (psalmists, prophets, apostles, and Christians) who struggled with their faith honestly before the Lord to be helpful for those wrestling with weak faith. By considering your unique struggles, a counselor can help you engage with God more personally.

2. Counseling can provide a safe place to express doubts and questions.

Every Christian has doubts, but knowing who to talk to about our doubts can be tricky. Some find it difficult to talk to others in their church or small group for fear they’ll dismiss the doubts or jump to conclusions. You may feel shame just for having doubts. Church leaders can especially struggle because others see having confidence in God as part of their job description.

A trained counselor can help you identify patterns of thinking and behaviors that may be contributing to your faith struggles.

Finding a safe, confidential place where you can vocalize doubts and wrestle with questions without judgment is a first step toward getting through seasons of doubt. When you talk with a counselor who is anchored in the truth of Scripture, he can help you confidently pour out your heart to God (Ps. 62:8) and gain the courage to share your struggles or honestly confess your failings with others without fear (James 5:16).

3. Counseling can teach us how God uses others to increase faith.

Struggling with doubts can lead to isolation. When you see others who appear to be thriving, you feel alone. But Christianity is a faith built on community, connection, and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). God can use counseling to allow you to experience the patience and encouragement of another person during seasons of doubt (1 Thess. 5:14). In turn, you’re better equipped to understand others and offer support in similar ways.

The spiritual support you receive in counseling reminds you God is at work amid your days of doubt. God can use this to increase your faith and strengthen bonds of community and belonging. You were never meant to live life alone. You need others, and others need you.

4. Counseling can promote a fresh vision for the gospel.

Exploring your questions about God’s plan for your life with a faithful, believing counselor can be a means to anchor your heart to God’s good news. As you grasp God’s redeeming work through Jesus and gain confidence in the Spirit’s transforming power, you’ll want others to experience it as well (Acts 1:8). Through the gospel, God offers us grace for our doubts and his Son, our Savior, for our troubled world (John 16:33). This compels you to share the good news of Jesus with others who are searching for answers and lasting hope.

Exploring your questions about God’s plan for your life with a faithful, believing counselor can be a means to anchor your heart to God’s good news.

James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2–4)

Life is full of challenges, and it can be difficult to find the strength and resilience we need to overcome them when our faith is faltering. But counseling is a valuable resource and a pathway to joy in seasons when your faith is weak.

When you engage in counseling that’s rooted in biblical truth, not only is your faith strengthened but you become better equipped to serve God and love others who may also be struggling with their faith.

TGC Norden: The Beginnings Tue, 02 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Only a big God and his big gospel can explain what’s happening in the Nordics.]]> I’ve never been a fan of big Christian conferences. I’d prefer just to watch the content afterward. For me, conferences mean crowds of people, frenzied activity, lots of strangers, and a flood of information I’ll never remember. When I lived in the United States, I never made it to The Gospel Coalition National Conference because, well, I’d rather read the website!

So how does someone like me become the founder and a council member of TGC Norden? Because of our big God.

Preparing the Way

TGC Norden seeks to serve Christians in the countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland. My name is Carl Jan Christian Roth, and the story of TGC Norden’s beginnings is much like a biblical story—one of God preparing the way, of his power made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12.9). In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul admitted he’d come to them not with eloquent speech or “plausible words of wisdom” but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Cor. 2:1–4). As our brother Tim Savage clarifies in his book on gospel ministry from 2 Corinthians, Paul wanted to distance himself from the self-exalting sophists of Corinth and simultaneously dismantle the criticism he was receiving from the church by providing this paradox: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

When I first showed up in Copenhagen with my wife, Stephanie, we felt our weakness profoundly. I was an Americanized Swede lost in Denmark. A friend of mine who’d worked as an evangelist for decades in Denmark told me my vision of seeing 10 churches planted in 10 years was a pipe dream. There had been three or four other Acts 29 church plants in the area that had wonderful support from an established and encouraging congregation, but they’d eventually sputtered out and stagnated. Meanwhile, my very articulate (in English) wife struggled to learn Danish, sounding like a toddler to our friends. Then came COVID lockdowns and a new baby for our family. But God was preparing the way.

I was an Americanized Swede lost in Denmark.

During this time, I heard a story about a group of churches starting a TGC chapter in southeast Europe. I reached out to a friend of a friend and finally connected with J. D. Gilmore, who was helping in this effort. He tasked me with surveying pastors around the Nordics about what value they might see in a similar coalition. The response was more positive than I expected—alongside some heated dialogue. A few months later, I met Tim Savage. God had recently called Tim to move to England, and he’s now helping oversee the development of European branches of TGC. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Gospel Fellowship

Tim started joining our meetings. He turned out to be just the encouragement we all needed while nearly all churches in Denmark were locked down and many church planters were struggling to know how to meet people. “Preach the gospel of a big God,” he told us. “Look for what God is doing, who he is raising up. This begins with faithful pastors meeting together and locking arms in gospel fellowship.”

And that’s what we’ve done. Many of us who preach the Word and stay centered on the gospel in the Nordics can feel like we’re the only ones doing it. (Sometimes, it’s like you’re the only one in your whole country, as a brother in Iceland shared with me.) In countries like Sweden, being a complementarian feels like something you have to keep in the closet. The dominant national churches of Norway, Denmark, and Finland also seem to water down Christianity in our culture. In the Faroe Islands, it can feel as if Christians are watching the Nordics moving further and further down the path of the secular creed.

But the big God of Scripture isn’t finished with the Nordics.

The big God of Scripture isn’t finished with the Nordics

We’ve already hosted a conference in Copenhagen with Tim Savage, Collin Hansen, and Mark Dever, with over 150 total leaders and pastors (online and in person) joining hands and hearts in worship. We’ve formed a council and met in Oslo to pray and dream together. And we’re eager for more resourcing, more preaching, and more laboring together for the gospel across national boundaries and even across denominations. We who preach the Word in each of these traditions have more similarities than differences, because our hearts beat for the same gospel, the same theological vision for ministry, and the same doctrines of grace.

I’m thankful my first TGC conference was a small one, gathering 100 or so pastors in Copenhagen. Though we were small in number, the shared worship and vision for reaching the West with the gospel were sweet. I have to admit, although I still feel a bit shy with the crowds and the loud music, the TGC conference experience is growing on me.

An Easier Way to Read Revelation Tue, 02 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Revelation isn’t meant to be read merely as a chronology of fantastic events. It should be seen as one set of events repeated seven times, each with increasing intensity.]]> Imagine watching the final play of a football game from several different camera angles.

Angle one from the pylon cam: a player scores a rushing touchdown.

Angle two from behind the goalposts: he scores the touchdown and spikes the ball.

Angle three from the blimp: he scores a touchdown, spikes the ball, and the crowd rushes the field and fills the stadium.

Our understanding of this one event grows in intensity and meaning as it’s shown from multiple angles. In his classes at Reformed Theological Seminary, Michael Kruger uses this helpful metaphor to explain a biblical literary device called recapitulation.

Recapitulation is the act or instance of summarizing and restating a narrative to give a different emphasis or perspective. One biblical book that employs recapitulation with stunning effect is Revelation.

Seeing the World Through 7s

Revelation is notoriously confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, there are dragons, angels, antichrists, and (seemingly) multiple returns of Christ. But if we read this book through the lens of recapitulation, it becomes easier to understand.

It’s widely agreed that Revelation is structured by the repetition of sevens—seven churches, trumpets, bowls, and so on. But questions arise about the sequence and scope of the successive sevens. How do they hold together? When do they occur? How far does each one extend? Recapitulation helps us answer these questions.

Revelation isn’t meant to be read merely as a chronology of fantastic events. It should be seen as one set of events repeated seven times, each with increasing intensity.

Revelation isn’t meant to be read merely as a chronology of fantastic events. It should be seen as one set of events repeated seven times, each with increasing intensity. Revelation is apocalyptic—a genre defined by images, symbols, and references to the Old Testament and John’s ancient world. It’s intended to help the churches to whom it’s written see the world in a different way.

As Richard Bauckham writes, “The effect of John’s visions . . . is to expand his readers’ world, both spatially (into heaven) and temporally (into the eschatological future).” This accords with other ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature (like Daniel and some extracanonical books), but unlike extrabiblical literature, Revelation remains distinctly Christian and Christ-focused.

What Do the 7 Sections Depict?

The seven sections depict the two advents (or arrivals) of Jesus and the time between them. In different ways, they each tell the same story of Jesus returning to save and judge. Read this way, we see John’s clear and repeated emphasis on the final judgment, and we see the one event of Jesus’s return in its all-encompassing beauty.

1. Revelation 1:1–3:22

From the beginning of the book, the number seven holds symbolic weight. Bauckham argues that the seven spirits before the throne (1:4) symbolize the Holy Spirit in the fullness of his power and presence to the churches. Moreover, Jesus addresses seven churches. These churches represent all churches that will exist in the inter-advent period, or the period between Jesus’s first and second comings.

We know this because in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the number seven represents perfection or wholeness. It’s no coincidence there are seven churches, lamp stands, seals, scrolls, and days of creation; seven-times sprinkling at the altar; and seven years of jubilee. As G. K. Beale notes, “Seven in the OT and Revelation figuratively refers to completeness and fullness.”

2. Revelation 4:1–7:17

The second section features the scroll, the seven seals, and the 144,000. The scroll represents God’s plan for the inter-advent period.

The seven seals represent the trials placed on earth during the inter-advent period, culminating in God’s judgment. As the seventh seal is opened, we see our first angle of Jesus’s return.

The 144,000—12,000 from each tribe multiplied by 12—shows the fullness of God’s people in Israel and the church (12 tribes and 12 disciples). The focus isn’t on numerical precision but on a group so large that no one can number them, from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

3. Revelation 8:1–11:19

The seven trumpets are blown. John transitions to a different angle of the inter-advent period, with a pattern that holds the same across each series as the individual trumpets are blown. As Beale states, “Toward the end of each series, there’s a description of judgment followed by a depiction of salvation.”

The focus isn’t on numerical precision but on a group so large that no one can number them, from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

The trumpets usher in God’s judgment in seven areas of creation—the earth, sea, rivers, heavens (sun, moon, and stars), pit of the abyss, river Euphrates, and lightning and hail. In chapter 11, we also see Jesus’s return from a second angle increasing in intensity as the 24 elders worship God. The final judgment leads to a rewarding of saints small and great. The words here for the final judgment are used again in 20:12, clueing Revelation’s reader into the reality that the judgments of Revelation 11 and 20 are the same event viewed from different angles.

4. Revelation 12:1–14:20

This section features the second coming again, as the great dragon, Satan, persecutes the church. If this event is meant to follow chapter 11, the chronology would be confusing. It’s better to see this section as another recapitulation, and the intensity increases as John uses the imagery of a bloody winepress for God’s great harvest judgment.

5. Revelation 15:1–16:21

In this fifth section, John describes the seven bowls that represent God’s wrath poured out. They climax in the great battle of Armageddon.

In 16:17, the voice from the throne says, “It is done!” If read chronologically, it would be difficult to understand the finality, but this is another camera-angle vision of the end.

6. Revelation 17:1–19:21

Recapitulation is especially clear here. As J. D. Shaw points out, rather than seeing the events in succession, the vision returns to chapter 12. All the characters on Revelation’s world stage begin to fall. Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, and (as we’ll see in chapter 20) the Devil himself are cast into the lake of fire. The only two characters left on the stage are the woman and the child. This is the great battle and the marriage of the church to the Lamb.

7. Revelation 20:1–22:21

The battle again! This final vision highlights the triumph of Christ and the ultimate victory of God’s redemptive plan. It includes the binding of the great dragon (20:1–3), which shows Christ’s victory over evil. Satan is restrained and unable to deceive the nations or hinder the advance of the gospel for a thousand years. Lastly, the new heavens and new earth are revealed. God dwells with his people, and there’ll be no more sin, suffering, or death. 

Throughout the book, when John uses phrases like “after this” or “after these things,” he’s not denoting the historical chronology of the events he describes. Rather, he’s chronicling the order in which he saw a series of visions. The different angles display God’s judgment and ultimate triumph in Jesus Christ—the one great event of his return.

5 Ways Your Church Can Support Foster Care Mon, 01 May 2023 04:03:00 +0000 May is Foster Care Month. Here are five ways your church can support those in the foster care system. ]]> There’s an awareness month for everything these days. May alone is devoted to skin cancer awareness, teen self-esteem awareness, and zombie awareness, among other causes.

May is also Foster Care Month.

We know from Scripture that caring for vulnerable children and their families is precious in God’s sight. We serve a God who “upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Ps. 146:9), and it’s the church’s responsibility to “go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). God has so identified himself with the plight of vulnerable children and single moms that he won’t receive worship from those who fail to bring justice and plead on their behalf (Isaiah 1:11–17). Jesus’s own brother said it this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Supporting foster care is a beautiful way Christians can advocate for the fatherless, and May is an opportunity to heed God’s invitation to plead for and bring justice to those in the foster care system. Here are five ways your church can offer “pure and undefiled worship” by engaging this cause.

1. Highlight Foster Care Month.

Church leaders shouldn’t be captive to highlighting every awareness month or #hashtag campaign, but you can use May to help your people honor God by caring for children and youth in foster care. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Show a video that highlights the realities of families experiencing foster care.
  • Invite a trusted foster care organization to come share at your church.
  • Interview a fostering family at your church and ask them why they’re foster parents.

2. Honor foster parents in your church.

Foster families are on the front lines of demonstrating God’s tender care for the fatherless. They’re a beautiful example of God’s command to “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Unfortunately, their work often goes unnoticed within the church. Foster Care Month is a great time to honor their commitment to this work of Christlike compassion, mercy, and justice. Consider these ideas:

  • Invite them up to honor them with a gift like flowers or a gift card to a good restaurant.
  • Celebrate Mother’s Day by acknowledging the emotional sacrifice of a foster mom who pours herself out for children who’ll one day move on to new families.
  • Pray publicly for foster families as they do the hard work of helping to restore broken families back to health.

For more ideas on supporting foster and adoptive parents, listen to Tony Merida, Rosaria Butterfield, and Dennae Pierre on the TGC Podcast.

3. Research foster care needs in your area.

Be aware of your community’s specific needs. Before churches cast a vision and recruit people to serve in foster care, they need to first ask good questions. Often, well-intentioned Christians sign up to serve in areas where there isn’t a need. Some families start the process of becoming foster parents, hoping to be placed with a newborn baby or a toddler under the age of 2. While this desire is commendable, in some counties in the U.S. there’s little need for more foster families who aren’t willing to take older children.

Be aware of your community’s specific needs. Often, well-intentioned Christians sign up to serve in areas where there isn’t a need.

In my experience, social workers often have negative experiences of Christians wanting to foster, because many of them aren’t open to sibling sets or children over the age of 5. I once asked the social worker who oversees foster care placements for all of Orange County, California, how the church could help. Her exact words were “Please don’t send me any more Christians who only want healthy babies.”

Let’s do the work of being informed so we can truly be a blessing to those we serve. Here are a few steps:

  • Research foster care statistics for your area to know the greatest needs.
  • Contact your county’s children and family services department and ask how the church can help. Meet the needs they have.
  • Connect with a local foster family agency or bridge organization. Many of these organizations have programs specifically designed to empower faith communities and engage local churches.

4. Drip feed, don’t downpour.

When churches address foster care, they tend to only talk about it once a year (possibly only during the awareness month). Yet most people need to hear about the need for foster parents multiple times before they’ll consider action. Here are some natural ways to keep the vision before your church:

  • Appoint a local champion or foster care advocate at your church.
  • Mention the practical work of foster care in your sermon when the text engages the plight of orphans and widows.
  • Read Jason Johnson’s short and immensely helpful book Everyone Can Do Something to get practical ideas on how your church can make a difference in foster care.

5. Connect foster care to the gospel.

There are ample ways to do this, but here are a few to get you started:

  • Jesus loved us at great expense to himself so we would have new life under his care. Foster care is willingly carrying the pain of traumatized children so they’ll find new life under your care.
  • Jesus freely welcomed us into his family when we needed a home. Foster care is sharing your home with children who need a safe place to live.
  • Jesus not only reconciled us to the Father but restored our relationships with one another. Foster care is working to restore a broken family to health.

May the Spirit of Christ grant you and your church the courage, grace, and vision to join our good Father in upholding the widow and the fatherless.

Westminster Confession of Faith: Faithful, Pastoral, Global, and Enduring Mon, 01 May 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Only a doctrinal statement written by pastor-theologians who are true and experienced doctors of the human heart could contain such pastoral wisdom and precision.]]> In the 19th century, theological liberalism undermined European and American confidence in the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. Amid that crisis, the theologians of Princeton turned to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Men like A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield retrieved and reasserted Westminster’s doctrine of Scripture. That recovery informed a century of Protestant pastors and perhaps even foreshadowed and assisted the work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy at the end of the 20th century.

Today, the Confession bears lasting fruit. Its doctrine of God, which reflects classical Christian theism and the mature fruit of post-Reformation theology’s articulation of the being and works of the triune God is enjoying a renaissance in our time. It has provided protection from sub-biblical and ill-informed conceptions of God.

As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “To an extraordinary degree [the Westminster Divines] studied in depth the same issues which trouble and challenge the church today, and their work continues to serve as an invaluable guide.” It’s well worth our time to acquaint ourselves with the Confession and its history, content, and influence.

History and Content

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), along with the Larger and Shorter Catechims, stands at the end of the Reformed tradition’s confessional age. It builds on over a hundred years of Protestant theological reflection and formulation in Europe, while also incorporating the rich legacy of historic creedal Christianity stretching back to the early church councils and fathers.

The Confession has provided protection from sub-biblical and ill-informed conceptions of God.

The Confession of Faith derives its name from the Westminster Assembly (1643–49/52), which met in London’s historic Westminster Abbey. The Assembly was an ecclesiastical council appointed by “the Long Parliament” of 1640–48 to recommend reforms in the doctrine and practice of the Church of England.

We can sum up the Westminster Confession’s 33 chapters in two parts, not unlike some of Paul’s epistles: doctrine (chapters 1–18, 32–33) and duty (19–31). The confession summarizes for us what the Scriptures teach us to believe (the theology of the faith) and how we’re to live (a practical Christian ethic).

The Confession contains 186 paragraphs and at least 205 distinct theological propositions, but it can be broadly outlined in eight sections: Scripture (chapter 1), God (2–5), man and sin (6), Christ and salvation (7–13), our God-enabled response to God’s salvation (14–18), the Christian life (personal, familial, and social, 19–24), the Christian life (ecclesiastical, 25–31), and last things (32–33).

The Westminster Catechisms, too, follow this outline. The Shorter Catechism could be summed up as what Christians believe (Questions 1–38) and how Christians are to live (39–107). The Larger Catechism’s structure is similar, with sections dedicated to doctrine (Questions 1–90) and duty (91–196).

High Doctrine of Scripture

The Confession begins by making the case for the necessity of Scripture, God’s written special revelation and inscripturated self-disclosure. The first chapter goes on to state the contents of Scripture positively (what books are in the Bible) and negatively (what books are not). Then it shows in consecutive sections why we believe the Bible is authoritative, true, sufficient for salvation and Christian living, clear, immediately God-breathed, providentially preserved—even while it must be translated into common languages.

The chapter concludes with a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation—Scripture infallibly interprets Scripture—and the powerful assertion that the Bible is the sole final authority in all matters of theological dispute. It’s the norma normans non normata (the norm that norms and cannot be normed). That is, because Scripture is the Word of God, it has the final word in all matters of faith and practice.

This chapter’s 1,000 words on the doctrine of Scripture, and the density and detail of the argument, make evident how important the Scriptures are for the Divines. B. B. Warfield cited A. F. Mitchell, a 19th-century historian of the Assembly:

If any chapter . . . was framed with more elaborate care than another, it was that which treats ‘Of the Holy Scripture.’ It was considered paragraph by paragraph—almost clause by clause—by the House of Commons as well as by the Assembly of Divines, before it was finally passed.

Philip Schaff also considered the Confession’s teaching on Scripture to be the definitive Protestant counterpart to Roman Catholic teaching on the subject: “No other Protestant symbol has such a clear, judicious, concise, and exhaustive statement of this fundamental article of Protestantism.”

Pastoral Concern

You can’t read the Confession carefully and miss its pastoral attention. This isn’t surprising given that the 16th-century Puritans in England and Presbyterians in Scotland represented a movement that has bequeathed to us a tradition of pastoral theology unsurpassed in English-speaking Christian history.

The Confession begins by making the case for the necessity of Scripture, God’s written special revelation and inscripturated self-disclosure.

In the Confession’s chapter on God’s eternal decree, which deals with the Reformed doctrines of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and preterition, the Divines are concerned these doctrines be taught in such a way that what’s often a matter of theological disagreement will produce “humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel” (WCF 3.8). In passages like this, the Confession frequently and directly connects theology to practice. It shows what truth is meant to produce in Christians’ lives.

Another example is the chapter “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” Often, Christians are unsettled by their doubts, troubled by ongoing struggles with sin, and unsure of their salvation. The Confession, however, gives beautiful, biblical, and realistic comfort:

Yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF 18.4)

Only a doctrinal statement written by pastor-theologians who are true and experienced doctors of the human heart could contain such pastoral wisdom and precision. This sort of care for souls is evident throughout the confession.

Global and Multidenominational Influence

The Divines aimed to bring about unity between all the Protestant churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. They failed in that aspiration, but they couldn’t have imagined their influence on global Christianity today.

Their theological formulations inform and encourage more than 70 million Christians in numerous denominations worldwide. There are more Korean Christians in churches that subscribe to the Confession than there are Britons and Americans. There’s a growing Reformed movement in India, China, and Southeast Asia. There are more Brazilians and Mexicans in denominations that acknowledge the Confession than in the U.S. and Canada, and Africans outnumber them all.

The Confession has also influenced multiple Protestant church traditions. Many associate the Confession with Presbyterianism, but Westminster has shaped the theology of Congregational, Baptist, and Anglican churches through confessions they’ve adapted. There has always been a stream of Anglicanism with high regard for the Confession, and the late J. I. Packer, an evangelical Anglican, did as much as anyone to popularize it in the larger evangelical world.

Only a doctrinal statement written by pastor-theologians who are true and experienced doctors of the human heart could contain such pastoral wisdom and precision.

Movements and organizations like Ligonier Ministries, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, the World Reformed Fellowship, the International Conference of Reformed Churches, and the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have helped spread awareness and reception of the theology of the Confession worldwide. Seminaries with multidenominational constituencies and global reach have also helped broadcast awareness and foster the embrace of the Confession’s theology around the world and into numerous church bodies.

There’s a sense in which we’re living right now in a golden age of availability of published works on the Confession, the Assembly, and its theologians. The recent rediscovery and publication (in 2012) of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (1643–1652) by Chad Van Dixhoorn and his subsequent research are significant parts of this.

Enduring Fruit

When I’m asked by seminary students to define Reformed theology, I often describe it as a school of historic, orthodox, confessional, Protestant Christianity in which the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, God’s grace in salvation, the necessity and significance of the church, and covenant theology are maintained and emphasized. All these are special emphases of the Westminster Confession, and the Confession has proved persuasive of these doctrines in the church at large today.

What has been called the “Reformed awakening” or the “Reformed resurgence” of the last 50 years, or even what people designate as “Big God Theology,” gives evidence of the widespread influence of the Confession’s teaching on God’s sovereignty and grace.

No wonder the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith and Catechisms have been called “the finest and most enduring statements of early modern Reformed theology,” and “by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history.” The influence of the Confession shows no sign of slowing down in our time. May it continue to bear gospel fruit pleasing to God.

David Livingstone Brought the Gospel to My Country Mon, 01 May 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The missionary died 150 years ago today, but his gospel legacy lives on.]]> David Livingstone (1813–73) is known as a missionary, explorer, and abolitionist. He was the first missionary to bring the gospel to my beloved country, Malawi, in 1859. He also explored routes that would open Africa for trade with the rest of the world. Inspired by a British member of Parliament, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Livingstone was committed to abolishing the Arab and Swahili slave trade and bringing “three Cs” to Africa: Christianity, commerce, and civilization.

A lot could be said about the man, but on this day—the 150th anniversary of his death—I want to reflect on his work as a missionary.

Livingstone was born on March 19, 1813, in Blantyre, Scotland. He grew up Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland until he became a Congregationalist at age 15. Coming from a poor background, he worked hard in a cotton factory to save money for medical school. After completing his medical studies at Anderson’s University in Glasgow, he joined the London Missionary Society with the intention of going to China as a medical missionary. But the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and a persuasive interaction with another renowned British missionary, Robert Moffat, changed Livingstone’s plans and sent him to Africa instead.

Into Parts Unknown with the Gospel

On March 14, 1841, Livingstone arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. Not long after, he was mauled by a lion, injuring his left arm. Although the arm healed, it troubled him for the rest of his life.

As he received treatment for his arm, he met his wife, Mary, daughter of Robert Moffat. They married in 1845. In 1852, Livingstone sent his family to London as he continued preaching, establishing mission stations, and exploring southern Africa, only briefly returning to Britain in 1856. This is a dark stain in Livingstone’s story: sadly, his great missionary labors were at the expense of his family.

On September 17, 1859, he arrived in Malawi. And he brought the gospel with him.

In 1858, he returned to Africa with the focus of exploring routes on the Zambezi River to enhance trade between Britain and Africa. The challenge of navigating the river, however, turned Livingstone’s interests to the Shire River and Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) instead. On September 17, 1859, he arrived in Malawi. And he brought the gospel with him. I’ve visited a tree in Cape Maclear under which he used to sit and study Scripture in preparation for his evangelism efforts among the Yao people of Malawi.

Home Is Where the Heart Is (Literally)

In 1861, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa—an Anglican mission agency—sent a team of missionaries to Malawi to establish the first mission station in Magomero, Chiradzulu. Livingstone’s wife, Mary, returned in 1862 to join him but died shortly thereafter in Shupanga, Mozambique. He returned to Britain for the second time in 1864.

In 1865, Livingstone came back to Africa for the last time. By April 1873 he was increasingly ill with malaria and other infections. On May 1, 1873—150 years ago today—Livingstone entered the glory of his Master. He died at Chitambo village in Zambia. Oral tradition says he was found in a kneeling position by his bed, as if in prayer. The tradition also says the British asked for his remains to be expatriated to England, but the Africans insisted he was to be buried in Africa—where his heart was. After going back and forth, the groups compromised: the Africans buried his heart in Chitambo and the British buried his body in Westminster Abbey. 

Lasting Influence

Livingstone remains a favorite of many in southern Africa, particularly in Malawi. The commercial capital, Blantyre, is named after his birthplace. I’m delighted and humbled to labor as a pastor in this city. The history of the church in Malawi cannot be written without mentioning Livingstone. The British government ended the Arab slave trade because of his efforts. He championed the dignity of Africans because they’re created in God’s image just like every human being.

The history of the church in Malawi cannot be written without mentioning Livingstone.

Above all, Livingstone’s life is a great demonstration of Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30–32. Surely he didn’t know how much the seed sown in southern and central Africa would grow. I doubt he ever envisioned his labors would influence the entire nation of Malawi. In one journal entry, Livingstone wrote, “I will place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ.”

By God’s grace, the kingdom is no longer a tiny mustard seed in Africa. It has grown and put out large branches all across the continent. Praise God for his faithful servant.

How Cancel Culture Points to the Gospel Sun, 30 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Instead of waving away the claims of cancel culture, let’s use it as an opportunity to share the gospel.]]> In the age of social media, cancel culture has become a societal norm. For better or worse, the power to complain, speak directly to power, or question what’s happening behind the scenes is in the hands of everyone with a smartphone.

On one hand, social media has given a voice to those who once lacked it. On the other hand, our posts can blaze a never-ending warpath for those seeking vigilante justice. But what if a more deep-rooted, human need lies beneath the surface of cancel culture? What if cancel culture isn’t only a social issue but also a gospel opportunity?

When we hear about the latest person being canceled, we often either roll our eyes and move on or make a snap judgment and choose a side. Instead, here’s how we can think it through—and perhaps talk it through with others—in light of the gospel.

How Did We Get Here?

Many of us may wonder how cancel culture began. In short, this phenomenon is an undercurrent of the pluralist and postmodern waters we swim in every day. To explain, let’s wade into a little philosophy. But don’t worry; we won’t get too deep.

Paul Hiebert identifies two kinds of postmodern worldviews:

  • Skeptical postmoderns reject moral, objective truth and lean toward nihilism—the belief that life is meaningless. And that belief breeds despair.
  • Affirmative postmoderns are more idealistic. They believe humanity will improve through access to tools like science, education, and social justice.

Younger millennials and Gen Z lean toward affirmative postmodernism and care a great deal about justice. Without a moral authority, like Scripture, to guide them, they must construct and implement their own understanding of justice—which is incredibly difficult in our complex world. Cancel culture simplifies this process by making things black and white. Suddenly, one’s conscience or social circle serves as judge, jury, and executioner on moral matters.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Though the term “postmodernism” has only existed since the 1950s, post-truth logic is nothing new. The same conflict of justice and truth plagued Pontius Pilate in the Gospels.

In his role as judge, Pilate resisted the Jews who accused Jesus because he felt Jesus was innocent. Pilate later questioned Jesus himself, begging Jesus to give him a reason to release him. In the end, the conflicted Pilate bemoaned, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Pilate couldn’t find Jesus guilty, but he also didn’t have a solid foundation for truth—even though it was staring him in the face. Because of his difficult political position, Pilate washed his hands of responsibility and deferred to public opinion to crucify Jesus.

As people made in God’s image, culture warriors hunger and thirst for righteousness. But as broken people in a fallen world, they might not know how to find it. So they deal with the problem the only way they know how: by canceling what seems wrong in their own eyes.

As people made in God’s image, culture warriors hunger and thirst for righteousness. But as broken people in a fallen world, they might not know how to find it.

Instead of lashing out or flippantly dismissing cancel culture, we should meet accusations (from the right and the left) with compassion and unfailing gospel truth. If done well, these conversations display the beauty of the gospel—where justice and mercy meet.

What Cancel Culture Gets Right

Like most cultural elements, cancel culture does get some things right. Throughout Scripture, we’re reminded that injustice and evil should be uncovered and eliminated. Though we may not affirm its methods, cancel culture points to the truth of human depravity and the prevalence of injustice in our world.

Instead of immediately dismissing the accusations of cancel culture, Christians should listen carefully. Because our justification is secure in Christ, we can listen to accusations knowing we’re not condemned by our true Judge. If wrongs exist and need to be righted, we should want to know. Where sin exists in our lives or communities, we should mourn, confess, repent, and rebuke as necessary. Christians, of all people, should be well practiced in repentance. God doesn’t turn a blind eye to evil, nor should we.

What Cancel Culture Misses

But cancel culture also misses the mark, particularly by offering only bad news. As the margin of error gets smaller and smaller, even one poorly worded comment online can condemn the most righteous among us. Eventually, everyone who falls under the microscope of cancel culture fails.

Christians, of all people, should be well practiced in repentance.

Cancel culture offers condemnation with no hope for redemption. Like the law, it reveals our brokenness but offers no solution. We’re left to slowly cancel everyone in an effort to assert our own righteousness—to prove we’re just enough, conscientious enough, woke enough, or conservative enough to call out others. This raises the question, Is anyone worthy? And here in the confusion, the light of the gospel shines most brilliantly.

Justice and Mercy Meet in Christ

The only solution to the brokenness around us and in us is Christ. The cross is proof that God hasn’t given up on mankind—though he rightly could. At the cross, God’s righteous anger is satisfied. And his loving-kindness provides a way forward for the condemned.

God proves himself to be who he says he is—“merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but . . . by no means [clearing] the guilty” (Ex. 34:6–7).

In his kingdom, God is righting wrongs and making all things new. So we can be honest about the depth of our sin and proclaim with hope the depth of God’s grace.

Only these redemptive truths can satisfy people’s desire for justice, so let’s communicate them clearly. Instead of waving away the claims of cancel culture, let’s use it as an opportunity to share the gospel. Let’s point out how the desires behind cancel culture are only satisfied in Christ. There’s good news for cancel culture after all.

Strengthen Your Marriage by Rehearsing the Covenant Sat, 29 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 No matter how good you think your marriage is, you and your spouse are still sinners. You need the words of law and gospel inherent in the covenant commitment you made.]]> Charlie was a quiet man who loved God and people. Even in his late 60s, he worked to provide for his family and served faithfully as a deacon at church. When Charlie’s mom got sick and there was no one to take care of her, he moved into her place to help her with toileting, showering, and dressing—all the things she’d done for him when he was a child. Charlie fulfilled a godly duty to his mother, but because she lived far away, this meant sacrificing time with his wife.

When Charlie began to care for his mom, his wife became difficult and overly dependent, seemingly needing constant attention. She was embittered toward Charlie and his ailing mother. Charlie confessed to his friend Levi how hard it was to endure this criticism when his mother clearly needed help. His wife wasn’t working or helping him care for his mom. Charlie also confessed he preferred time at his mother’s home. After all, she was kind and appreciative, and his wife wasn’t.

Levi asked him, “What will you do after your mother passes?” He expected Charlie to say he wouldn’t go back home to his difficult wife. Charlie’s actual response was astounding: “I made a commitment to my wife before God and his people. I won’t leave her. I love her. That promise holds me.” If you’re enduring a difficult marriage, rehearsing that covenant promise can hold you too.

Sacrificial Covenant

There are times—amid infidelity, abandonment, or abuse—for a married couple to separate (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15). But too often in our culture, a marriage has simply become a contract of convenience that can be discarded. Biblically speaking, covenants should be different. Biblical covenants are a binding agreement with blessings when kept and curses when broken (Deut. 28). Throughout the Bible, God relates to his people through covenants, and we’re told marriage ultimately serves as an illustration of Christ’s covenant love for the church.

I made a commitment to my wife before God and his people. I won’t leave her. I love her. That promise holds me.

As newlyweds begin their life together, they celebrate joy and the beginning of a new family. They also make binding covenant promises because married life is never easy. It demands our life and all. Husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25–30).

Marriage doesn’t exist so a man and woman can pretend like they’re a power couple. Marriage exists so sacrifice may be put on full display. Whether or not you said the old vows’ words—“love and cherish” through “rich or poor, in sickness and in health”—your marriage still requires that encompassing commitment. You must die to self through the work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13).

Demanding Covenant

No matter how good you think your marriage is, you and your spouse are still sinners, and you need to rehearse your vows. You need the words of law and gospel inherent in the covenant commitment you made.

Look at what the law of Ephesians 5 demands. Wives, submit (v. 22). Husbands, love (v. 25). We’re told to do this because our sinful desires run contrary to God’s covenant love. We want what we want, and when we don’t get it, we get cranky. So God tells us what to do. Wives are told to submit to their husbands as Christ lovingly submitted to the Father, his covenant head in his work of redemption (1 Cor. 11:3). Husbands must speak and show love to their wives in ways that put Christ’s love for his church on display (Eph. 5:25–33).

Husbands, serve your wife with your words. Ensure your words to your wife reflect God’s words. Speak with gracious words to “wash her” (v. 26) and aid her holiness. Speak with words that encourage her. Jackie and I have a son with autism, and when days are long and hard, it’s important for me both to take my share of caretaking responsibilities and to encourage her with the truth that the final resurrection is coming and the brokenness will end.

Wives, help your husband both by listening to him and by speaking bolding. On those dark days when he’s not communicating well but you know he’s hurting, look for the nonverbal cues that let you know he needs you. On my dark days (or just when I’m not getting what I want), Jackie’s quick to remind me to turn from my anger and to turn toward Christ’s love. When I’m doubting, she reminds me of the gospel truths that I’ve spoken to her and preached to our church: “You’re raised with Christ and that’s enough.”

Couples, know that God’s demands for marriage aren’t ultimately about you or your spouse. They’re about Christ and his church. We’re caught up in something so much bigger than we are, and these spiritual realities ground the practical, daily work of marriage. Do you simply want to learn how to “put up with” your spouse, or do you recognize that marriage is more? Ask instead, “How can I display God’s love by loving my spouse?”

Gracious Covenant

How do we obey these impossible commands? We cling to the gospel. Charlie, in his simple yet profound way, understood the meaning of covenant. He understood grace is one-way love grounded in Someone greater than us. Because of Jesus’s death for us, Christians understand that he holds us fast. He’ll never leave nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5), but we still need to rehearse the story of Christ’s love on a regular basis.

No matter how good you think your marriage is, you and your spouse are still sinners. You need the words of law and gospel inherent in the covenant commitment you made.

In the same way, spouses should regularly rehearse and renew their marriage vows with one another. Don’t wait until your relationship is at emergency level to “work on” your marriage. When you feel your relationship is in a good place, remember God’s goodness and rehearse your promises. Like a strong tree, absorb the sunshine so you can stand through the storm.

Find God’s grace in the church as well. At a wedding, couples make their vows publicly because they’re held accountable by God’s people. Accountability from the church should continue throughout the marriage. Look for models in your church who have strong marriages centered on Christ. Look for people who have suffered well and connect with them. Let them love and support you. Seek out godly mentors who can speak hard truths into your life and arrange regular meeting times with them. Be vulnerable to trusted Christians and let them care for your marriage.

God’s steadfast, covenant love fuels us when we’re depleted, and rehearsing both his covenant promises (and our own) can help to uphold and strengthen any marriage, no matter the challenges that arise.

Christians on the Run in Sudan Fri, 28 Apr 2023 04:05:15 +0000 ‘Whatever the church in Sudan goes through is allowed by God because he wants to see a stronger church.’]]> The last three days were supposed to be a cease-fire in Sudan, where two factions are fighting for control of the military and government. While the fighting—gunshots, explosions, and fighter jets—never did cease, thousands saw this week as their opportunity to evacuate from Khartoum, the country’s capital and the center of the conflict.

They’re fleeing a rapidly deteriorating situation. Khartoum’s morgues are full, dead bodies lie in the streets, and the healthcare system is collapsing. Electricity and running water are often unavailable, food is growing scarce, and the internet is unstable.

Among the refugees is a small band of Christians. There weren’t many to begin with. Sudan is mostly Muslim; Operation World estimates just 2.5 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. On top of that, Sudan’s ethnic and religious persecution was so severe that in 2011, the majority-Christian South Sudan broke away to form their own country.

That didn’t make things safer for Christians left in Sudan. Christian women and girls are in danger of rape and forced marriage. Christian men and boys have been beaten and imprisoned. In 2023, Sudan ranked in the World Watch List’s top 10 hardest places in the world to be a Christian.

Until this week, most of them lived in Khartoum.

Like others, they’re on the run. A few days ago, one pastor led a group about 120 miles southwest to the city of Madani, said David Fugoyo Baime, a Council member of The Gospel Coalition Africa and vice president for programs and development at African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries.

“The pastor said the conditions are not good,” Fugoyo told me. “They don’t have even mattresses to sleep on, and they are running out of food. There are many of them and not enough money. The situation is not good.”

Fugoyo lives and works in Uganda but was born in Sudan (now South Sudan) and grew up in Khartoum. He was there a few weeks ago to encourage and teach church leaders. I asked him what was going on, how it was affecting Christians, and what he told Christian refugees this week. (The following has been adapted for readability.)

What is going on in Sudan? Is there a side Christians can support?

Not really. After the ouster of President al-Bashir in 2019, the commander of the army took over control of the government. He also still controlled the army. But he didn’t control the separate paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF. These forces, established by al-Bashir in 2014, are empowered, wealthy, and well-armed.

The plan is for the military government to transition over to a civilian government. As part of that process, the army and RSF are supposed to merge into one force. But the two leaders disagree on the process and length of time it should take—the army said a few months, the RSF said 10 years. The disagreement escalated to what we’re seeing today. The two armies are now fighting, and each leader wants the other to surrender and be arrested.

How is this affecting the few Christians in Sudan?

After South Sudan won its independence from Sudan, Christians in Sudan suffered. Pastors were arrested. Other Christians were denied their basic rights as citizens. Church properties were closed or taken by people linked to that [government] system.

Now, they are just trying to survive the fighting.

You spoke to some of these Christians yesterday. What did you tell them?

I told them two things.

First, I reminded them of what I told them a few weeks ago when I was with them in Khartoum. I met with around 80 Christians, and I talked about how to be a good leader and the importance of discipleship. More importantly, I talked about why God allows hardships. I told them that whatever the church in Sudan goes through is allowed by God because he wants to see a stronger church.

Whatever the church in Sudan goes through is allowed by God because he wants to see a stronger church.

Maybe God was using that message to prepare them for this. I told them to reflect on that—God knew this was coming.

Second, the Bible shows us God allows these situations not because he wants people to be killed but because he wants to change something that isn’t good in their lives. The people in north Sudan have often attacked those in the east, west, and south parts, often without thinking of the damage they were causing. Now the war is taking place in their territory. It might be time for them to see how horrible it is when war happens in your own city. Perhaps after this, they will not be so quick to fight.

How can we pray for Sudan?

Pray that God will protect the vulnerable. Pray that he will manifest himself in miraculous ways. Pray for hearts to be melted and reformed by God. Also pray that the people who participated in the atrocities will repent from what they have done.

Pray especially for the Christians, that they will remember God has not left them and the body of Christ worldwide is praying for them. Pray that God will protect them from diseases, because now they are drinking unclean water and sleeping where there are mosquitos. Please pray that God will lessen their trauma and strengthen them.

Sudan has been in a civil war for 46 of the last 70 years. It seems unlikely this will be resolved quickly. What’s next?

Either one of the military leaders will be captured or killed, or the two of them will listen to the international community, stop fighting, and talk. The latter seems unlikely, so this could continue for many months and cause a lot of damage. I don’t see the light yet.

The Christian refugees I talked to in Madani have already met with Christians in that city and joined their weekly fellowship and small groups. They’re encouraging one another and becoming bold in talking about Christ. Since everyone is occupied with the fighting, nobody is following them or trying to arrest them. So they’re singing and sharing the gospel with people in the neighborhood who are asking about their gatherings.

Remember that the church in the book of Acts was persecuted after the death of Stephen. The Bible says those who were scattered went around preaching the gospel. The Sudanese refugees know it might be a good time for them, despite the difficulties, to preach the gospel. They have already been boldly speaking about their faith.

Where to Find True Hope Fri, 28 Apr 2023 04:04:56 +0000 Rebecca McLaughlin teaches on the importance of placing all our hope in Jesus in order to live a fulfilled life.]]> In this TGCW22 session, Rebecca McLaughlin teaches on how the apostle Peter offers hope to those feeling hopeless in today’s world, by reminding us of our living hope—Jesus Christ.

McLaughlin explains that hope in Christ always runs to Jesus, breeds holiness, requires ransom, and springs eternal. She emphasizes the importance of setting our hope fully on the grace that will come at the revelation of Jesus, not on earthly things like careers, marriage, or children.

By fixing our eyes on Jesus and hoping in him alone, we can live an increasingly obedient life. McLaughlin reminds us that without Jesus, all life is meaningless. In Christ, we have hope and a purpose.

How Do Church Networks Cultivate Renewal? By Planting Churches Fri, 28 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 For the church to be truly healthy, it must exist for something outside itself. Multiplication catalyzes church renewal.]]> Years ago, I read Alonzo L. McDonald’s chapter in the book No God but God where he introduced the idea of a ministry “life-cycle.” When I adapt McDonald’s life-cycle concept to teach about a ministry shelf life, I use five Ms: minister, ministry, movement, machine, and monument. 

Gospel movements typically begin with an individual minister whom God calls. Through a communication gift and the clarity of a compelling vision, the leader catalyzes gospel activity. Like a tractor beam, people are drawn to him, and the individual multiplies himself. He plants or cultivates growth in a church. The minister has become a ministrythe person leads a people—and a unifying gospel cause inspires and coalesces their energy. Over time, that group’s synergy can even kindle a movement. A single church can birth a network, partnership, or denomination—a fresh, prophetic, future-oriented, and expanding ministry work that may stretch beyond the leader’s original vision.

But as this growth comes and time passes, the need to organize arises. Authority must be mapped, beliefs defined, and culture codified. Vital steps toward institutionalizing must be taken to protect the quality and sustainability of the movement. Sadly, if leaders don’t work hard to cultivate ongoing ministry life, the movement can become a machine and then finally a monument—a motionless statue fit only to be eulogized by those who remember its history. 

What do leaders in churches and ministries need to be aware of to guard themselves against the slow death McDonald described? What means has God given network leaders for pursuing ongoing renewal?

Guard Against the Dangers of Institutionalism

Abraham Kuyper once called the church an “organized organism.” To organize, churches, and the networks who serve them, must institutionalize. The danger comes when institutionalizing becomes institutionalism. I call this the “machine” stage—when the organic is organized right out of ministry, when mechanization devours dynamic life. Institutionalism occurs whenever a ministry or organization begins to exist more for those it employs than for those it serves. Polity and policy exert supremacy over the movement dynamics that once energized the cause.

This sets the stage for the final M: monument. When a machine runs too long without the fuel of renewal, what was once a movement grinds to a halt and becomes a shrine to a former period in the organization’s life.  

Don’t misunderstand me. The pursuit of organization and institutionalizing doesn’t automatically trigger the vice of institutionalism. Like people, ministries age. The older people, families, churches, or networks get, the more they need to organize to truly flourish. Embracing systems and policies doesn’t automatically send us from movement to machine. The question isn’t whether a movement will institutionalize but whether it will do so wisely. 

Multiplication: Central Dynamic for Renewal 

Renewal begins with remembering the gospel and depending upon God in prayer. But we can’t stop there. A key organizational habit that pushes partnerships toward renewal and away from institutionalism is multiplication. 

Even in a fallen world, healthy organisms multiply. God designed it this way from the beginning. In Genesis 1, God multiplied his image by creating man and woman. Then he commanded our first parents to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  

It shouldn’t surprise us when we arrive in the New Testament that God calls the Twelve to multiply. Jesus commands multiplication in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Then, in Acts, “the word of God increases and multiplies” (2:24)—believers multiply and churches multiply. In 2 Timothy 2:2, we’re called to multiply ministry to the next generation. It’s hard to read our Bibles and miss God’s commitment and call to multiplication. 

Paul’s Commitment to Multiplication 

It’s hard to read our Bible and miss God’s commitment and call to multiplication.

In Romans 15:19, the apostle Paul says, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” It’s as if Paul looks back at the last stage of his ministry and hangs up a “Mission Accomplished” banner. How can this be? Is the ministry of the gospel ever done?  

Illyricum was the region above Macedonia that ran parallel to Italy. Paul says the ministry of the gospel had been fulfilled from Illyricum all the way back to Jerusalem. What created this sense of accomplishment? Paul’s extraordinary statement can only be assigned to one reality. Paul had planted churches from Jerusalem to Illyricum.  

The churches Paul started were in strategic centers. Paul was confident people in each region would hear the name of Christ through the evangelistic efforts of the churches. For this reason, he could say the ministry of the gospel was complete. For the first apostles, pursuing renewal through church planting was the center point of Great Commission strategy. Multiplication should be our focus too.

Right now, there are pastors and leaders praying, “Lord, help our church and network to be on mission. Help us to put the Great Commission into action.” Friends, the way we do mission today is the same way it was done in the New Testament: We multiply. We plant local churches. 

Megavitamin of Multiplication 

Here’s where we return to the lifecycle. Multiplication is both a mission to the world and a megavitamin for renewing churches and networks. For a partnership to be truly healthy, it must exist for something outside itself. Multiplication catalyzes renewal. When we neglect multiplication, our churches bend inward and we’re unable to see beyond ourselves.

But when we pray and plan for multiplication, we enjoy the revitalizing nourishment that can only come from an outward push.

We’ve all seen it. Church planters start their work through the generosity and the sacrifices of others but once their church is established, they lose the burden to do the same for the next generation. Or local churches settle for community, care, and corporation but see the cause of mission as too costly. In both cases, there’s a larger undetected cost.

For a partnership to be truly healthy, it must exist for something outside itself. Multiplication catalyzes renewal.

Local churches settle for community, care, and corporation. What’s missing from that list is the cause of mission. The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are both fed from the same source, but the Sea of Galilee is teeming with life while the Dead Sea, aptly named, is dark and, well, dead. What makes the difference? Outlets. When life flows into and from the body, it’s sustained within the body.

The same is true for churches and the partnerships which unite them. Multiplication becomes the outlet allowing renewal nutrients to flow. When life flows into and from the body, churches multiply. Partnerships thrive. The lifecycle continues.

Western Culture Is Christ-Haunted Fri, 28 Apr 2023 04:02:19 +0000 Our apparently self-evident commitments to equality, progress, and compassion are Christian artifacts, even as our relationship with the faith that bequeathed them to us comes unstuck.]]> The Western world’s relationship to the Christian faith is like a celebrity marriage—complicated.

At one level, our culture’s rejection of its ancestral faith has never been so enthusiastic, so complete, so aggressive. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like an acrimonious divorce. And yet our world remains deeply Christian.

We continue to use the convictions, the thought forms, and even the metaphysics of the faith we’re so keen to reject. Our apparently self-evident commitments to equality, progress, and compassion are Christian artifacts, even as our relationship with the faith that bequeathed them to us comes unstuck.

If these values are Christianity’s children, their paternity is contested. Their family resemblance to the faith of Scripture isn’t recognized because the image of their father has become so grainy and low-resolution in our minds that no memory is jogged. Our collective ignorance of Christianity’s influence is so complete that we don’t even stop to wonder where these values came from. We imagine these things are just there. Like a fish in water. Like the air we breathe.

Enter Glen Scrivener’s new book, The Air We Breathe.

Debt to Christianity

Scrivener provides a compelling, well-researched, and confident account of the West’s debt to Christianity in general and to Christ in particular. He calls out the negligent parents, produces the DNA test, and gently suggests to the readers some of their options in light of the results.

We continue to use the convictions, the thought forms, and even the metaphysics of the faith we’re so keen to reject.

Glen Scrivener is an Australian-born evangelist and apologist, now based in the U.K., whose suite of resources includes some brilliant spoken-word evangelistic videos on topics such as Halloween and Christmas, which I often share during the relevant seasons. His latest book has been widely acclaimed, winning both The Gospel Coalition’s and Christianity Today’s 2022 book awards in the evangelism and apologetics categories.

When it comes to the West’s strange silence on the source of many of its most treasured values, Scrivener joins a growing host of whistle-blowers. Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books, 2019) is a magisterial account of similar space from a secular perspective. John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan, 2021) comes from the perspective of a Christian historian, and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009) from a theologian. Scrivener comes in as a straight-up evangelist. And it works. Brilliantly.

The writing is full of pluck and warmth. Despite its intellectual rigor, the book’s tone is more that of an animated late-night argument in a pub— friendly but with no holds barred. It’s written to be read. And the chances you’ll finish it having started it are extremely high. The hard-to-put-down force is strong with this one.

Mixed Audience

Scrivener has three audiences in mind: the “nones,” the “dones” and the “wons.” The “nones” are that increasing group who answer “none” when asked about their religion. These are the book’s primary target group—those (often left-leaning) secular Westerners who are simultaneously the most enthusiastic about many uniquely Christian values and the least likely to know where those values came from. These “nones” often carry an unreflective assumption that the equality of all humans, the value of compassion, and the hope of progress are self-evident. Scrivener means to disabuse them of this assumption.

The “dones” are those who were once Christian or Christian-adjacent but are now done with it all. This depressingly fast-growing group (like their secular progressive counterparts) doesn’t usually wander off into some post-ethical wasteland. More often than not, they double down on particular values, such as freedom and concern for people on the margins, even as they consider themselves “done” (for whatever reasons) with the faith that first gave those values prominence.

And the “wons” are those who have been won by Christ. For this last group (which probably includes the majority of those reading this review), Scrivener means to fortify our hearts and fill our cups with confidence and evangelistic spunk.

Haunted by Christ

Scrivener explores seven deeply held moral or epistemic convictions: equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom, and progress. In each case, he demonstrates that these values, far from being as self-evident as “the air we breathe,” are the products of Christianity. He explores how Christ continues (as Flannery O’Connor puts it) to haunt our culture.

The argument is compelling and communication style vivid and energetic. The chapters move more or less chronologically from the birth of Christianity to the present day. We begin with a picture of the ancient world, and, like a printing press adding one color after another, the book slowly composes a rich picture of how we got from the classical world to our world.

How did we come from a world in which equality was unthinkable, compassion undesirable, and consent unimportant to one in which, on May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd sent us into collective convulsions of moral outrage? Such a response was, in the classical world, unimaginable. By 2020 it was inevitable. Why? The reason, in a word, is Christ.

Scrivener means to fortify our hearts and fill our cups with confidence and evangelistic spunk.

Some books on this topic are written in service of the culture wars, providing a theological argument for why the “West is Best.” This isn’t that book.

Others in this genre can be overly timid, addressing the modern, secular person as if Christianity was the beta version of the moral certitudes progressive secularists now enjoy. “Christianity wasn’t quite feminist, or LBGT-affirming, or 100 percent against slavery, but, hey! Look at the trajectory! Can we please have partial credit?” This isn’t that book either.

Scrivener’s book is neither cultural warrior nor apologetic apologist. It’s evangel. It’s pugnacious, confident, and willing to call out the assumptions and blind spots of its reader. It leaves us neither sentimental about our past nor smug about our present. It challenges us, calling the reader (respectfully and generously) to be more evidence-based, more critical, and less susceptible to the kind of magical thinking that says these things just are.

The Air We Breathe is a swashbuckling adventure ride of a book. It’s academically grounded, culturally attuned, and full of evangelistic chutzpah. I’d put this into the hands of any of my secular friends in a heartbeat.

Heaven’s Flavor Simmers in the Church Thu, 27 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The body of Christ invites the world to the feast of life in the kingdom.]]> Samin Nosrat, in her terrific culinary book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, writes,

James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. If only one lesson of this book stays with you, let it be this: salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient.

Nosrat asserts, “In fact, we’re hardwired to crave salt to ensure we get enough of it.”

Christians understand “the salt of the earth” as one of the master metaphors of our relationship to wider human society. When the church’s witness with respect to the unbelieving world is discussed, our calling as “salt and light” is often one of the first identifications to be invoked, and rightly so.

The Lord Jesus designates his disciples as the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13–14) immediately following the mountaintop benediction he pronounces upon them in the Beatitudes (vv. 1–12). If the Beatitudes are the kingdom constitution, then being “salt and light” is how the citizens of the kingdom are to walk in holy distinction from the course of a world that has its own charter centered in the sinful self with its deceitful desires (cf. Eph. 2:2; 4:22).

Because it’s so foundational, understanding the nature and purpose of the image of “salt” in Matthew 5:13 is vital. The church fulfills her calling as “the salt of the earth” in serving as the taste of the kingdom of heaven, and that in doing so the body of Christ invites the world to the feast of life in the kingdom.

“Salt” in Matthew 5 isn’t referring to the flavor and seasoning believers bring to human life and society. It’s rather to be taken as signifying the beginnings of the heavenly banquet whose foretaste is found in the church of Christ. Like the pomegranates, figs, and grapes brought back to Israel in the wilderness by the spies (Num. 13:23, 26), believers’ communion in life as the “salt of the earth” is a proleptic experience of the fullness of the age to come.

Taste of the Coming Age

There are various functions salt serves, but the particular aspect of the salt to which Jesus is referring is its taste: “If the salt has lost its flavor . . .” (μωρανθῇ).

The body of Christ invites the world to the feast of life in the kingdom.

If the danger is for the salt to become tasteless or flavorless, then by implication the Lord is commanding the disciples to keep their distinct flavor. And what is that flavor? To continue to walk in the way of blessedness as unpacked in verses 1–12. This is the way to exhibit the “salt life” of God’s redemptive kingdom. Don Garlington helpfully writes,

Because they exhibit the qualities signaled by the indicatives of Matt 5:3–12, the disciples are proof positive that the kingdom is a reality in the world. It is just in their capacity as “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and the “persecuted” that Jesus’ followers are salt and light and, as such, the eschatological reality of the kingdom is actualized in their persons as the subjects of his reign.

Thus, Jesus isn’t referring to salt penetrating or permeating the earth so that his disciples show forth a “sweetening and wholesome influence.” Instead, the salt represents the savor of the age to come, and the disciples walking in the ways of the kingdom of God are calling those from the kingdom of this world to leave the bitter course of the place of darkness (cf. Matt. 4:15–16).

There’s an implicit invitation contained in the “salt of the earth” image: as the nations are being discipled (28:19), they share in the “salt life” of the new order inaugurated in Christ. Rudolf Schnackenburg concludes, “Together with the image of the lamp, it [the salt] is an appeal to the community of disciples to bear witness to the gospel, in the midst of a world still averse to it, by living a life in conformity with Jesus’ instructions.”

Furthermore, the flavor of the salt will be to practice the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). This fits with one of the larger themes in the Sermon on the Mount: the kingdom that Christ is inaugurating stands in continuity with “the Law and the Prophets”—as Jesus comes not to abolish but to fulfill them (v. 17); at the same time, this kingdom supersedes the prior expression of God’s reign as revealed at Sinai (cf. vv. 38–42).


The warning of Jesus concerning the salt may be the most significant clue concerning the purpose of this image. There’s a double entendre in μωρανθῇ: it’s both “losing flavor” and “becoming foolish.” Paul writes, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools [ἐμωράνθησαν].” Robert Gundry, in a thorough study of “fools” and “foolish” in Matthew, concludes that “fool(ish)” is always associated with those who are outside the kingdom of heaven. It’s possible for those who are called to be salt to lose flavor in severing themselves from Christ and the wisdom revealed in him (cf. Gal. 5:4; 2 John 8).

Here the Lord appears to be hinting at the failure of Israel to maintain fidelity to the covenant. The order of the Beatitudes and the warning given in Matthew 5:13 reflects the prayer of restoration of the psalmist: “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly” (Ps. 85:8).

“If the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13). This serves to alert the disciples (the new Israel) to vigilance and also as a harbinger of what will become of the old Israel that rejects Christ and his kingdom. John the Baptist had earlier announced, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (3:10). Jesus prophesies concerning the unbelieving Jerusalem and her inhabitants, who have definitively rejected his words: “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).

Later in Matthew, Jesus teaches in parables and likens the kingdom of heaven to a “king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servant to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come” (Matt. 22:2–3). Some are foolish (δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν ἦσαν μωραί) in failing to be ready to meet the bridegroom (25:2). Those who fail to share in the joy of the messianic coming are culpably foolish.

But though the original parties reject the invitation, the wedding feast will still be held:

“The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you can find.” And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. (22:8–10)

The salt which stands for the flavor and fullness of the kingdom of God will be tasted by many who are far off (cf. Rom. 15:20–21; Eph. 2:17).

Setting the Kingdom Table

In my estimation, it’s best to take salt in Matthew 5:13 as an example of metonymy: “A figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.”

For example, God’s “right hand” stands for his incontestable power (cf. Pss. 98:1; 108:6). To hear of the Lord’s “right hand” is to be summoned to consider the royal strength and sovereignty of the Most High.

Those who fail to share in the joy of the messianic coming are culpably foolish.

“Salt,” rhetorically speaking, opens the door to the setting of the kingdom table: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table” (Prov. 9:1–2). Jesus has already in Matthew 5 introduced the image of appetite and provision: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (v. 6). Salt according to the terms of this “language game” isn’t found in the cupboard or in the shaker, waiting to be dispensed; instead, it belongs to the flavor ready to be tasted on the chef’s table—that is, already present in the life of the new creation reign of God in Christ.

If indeed the salt of the earth” metaphor is to be taken as the call for the church’s continued testimony to and participation in the flavor of the kingdom of heaven, we should be wary of appropriating this verse as endorsing the idea that the church qua church exists to promote general human flourishing.

Cultural and societal influence cannot be used as a barometer of the “saltiness” enjoined in Matthew 5:13. Inasmuch as the church is faithful in “making 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 [Jesus has] commanded [us]” (28:19–20), the unparalleled flavor of the kingdom of God, with the Savior-King himself, will be present to the end of the age.

The FAQs: Anglican Group Calls on Church of England’s Leader to Repent Thu, 27 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 A conservative Anglican group issues a strong rebuke to the archbishop of Canterbury and others who reject the ’truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture.’]]> What just happened?

The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) recently met in Kigali, Rwanda, for its fourth meeting. During the event, attendees crafted and released a statement called the “Kigali Commitment 2023.” The statement comments on eight separate topics, including the current crisis within the Anglican Communion, the failure of the current archbishop of Canterbury, and steps necessary for “resetting the Communion.”

“The Kigali Commitment reflects the mind of the 1300 delegates here at this conference. They in turn represent most of the world’s worshiping Anglicans (estimated to be around 85%),” says Michael Stead, bishop of South Sydney and chair of the GAFCON Statement Committee.

“It is clear from this conference that most of the world’s Anglicans have lost confidence in the Archbishop of Canterbury to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture,” says Bishop Stead. “This grieves us, but it is they who have walked away from us.”

What is GAFCON?

GAFCON is a movement of Anglican churches and leaders who hold to a biblically orthodox view of Christianity. It was formed in 2008 in response to what its members see as a drift away from biblical truth within the Anglican Communion. GAFCON seeks to unite and strengthen biblically orthodox Anglicans worldwide and to provide a platform for theological discussion and debate. It has established new Anglican jurisdictions and structures for faithful Anglicans who are pressured by or alienated from revisionist dioceses and provinces. GAFCON holds a regular conference and has its own primates’ council (a primate is the chief archbishop or bishop of a province).

What was said in the Kigali Commitment?

The fourth GAFCON ended with a reading of the Kigali Commitment, a document outlining the issues orthodox Anglicans have with the Communion and the steps needed to restore unity. Some of the main points of the document are as follows:

  • The Anglican Communion has experienced persistent departures from the authority of God’s Word, and warnings from most Anglican primates have been disregarded.
  • The latest departure is the General Synod of the Church of England’s majority vote in February 2023 to enable same-sex couples to receive God’s blessing.
  • The archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders of the Church of England have betrayed their vows to uphold and defend the truth taught in Scripture by publicly supporting same-sex blessings.
  • The Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ, and the call for “good disagreement” is rejected.
  • Repentance is necessary for those who have denied the orthodox Christian faith, and until they repent, the Communion remains broken.
  • The GAFCON primates have recognized new orthodox jurisdictions for faithful Anglicans and reiterate their support for those who are unable to remain in the Church of England.
  • Appropriate pastoral care affirms faithfulness in marriage and abstinence in singleness, and it’s unloving to lead people into error by pretending God blesses sexually active relationships between two people of the same sex.
  • Due to departures from orthodoxy, the archbishop of Canterbury can no longer be recognized as the “first among equals” of the primates, and the Communion needs to be reset and reordered.
  • The future of the GAFCON movement will prioritize discipleship, evangelism, and mission; raising up the next generation of leaders; youth and children’s ministry; affirming and encouraging women’s ministry; demonstrating the compassion of Christ; supporting bishops’ training; and building the bonds of fellowship and mutual edification.
  • The establishment of a foundation endowment is endorsed to pursue these priorities and grow the work of the GAFCON movement.
  • The group commits themselves “afresh to the gospel mission of proclaiming the crucified, risen and ascended Christ, calling on all to acknowledge him as Lord in repentance and faith, and living out a joyful, faithful obedience to his Word in all areas of [their] lives.”

What is Anglicanism?

The Church of England and those churches with historical ties to it or who share its beliefs, modes of worship, and organizational structures are collectively referred to as belonging to the Anglican tradition within Christianity. After the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglican faith is the third-largest Christian communion in the world, with an estimated 85 million adherents worldwide (counting both those inside the Anglican Communion and Anglicans outside of it).

What is the Anglican Communion?

The Church of England and other national and regional Anglican churches in full communion with that mother church make up the Anglican Communion, a global organization of churches. All communicant Anglicans are eligible for full participation in the sacramental life of each church and are in agreement on all fundamental principles, according to the state of full communion. There are other groups whose affiliation with the global Anglican Communion is still being discussed, such as those connected to the Continuing Anglican movement or the Anglican realignment.

Some member churches ordain LGBT+ clergy or wed same-sex couples. These include the Episcopal Church (which has 100 dioceses in the U.S. and 12 additional dioceses or jurisdictions spread across 15 countries in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe); the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil; the Anglican Church of Canada; the Scottish Episcopal Church; the Church in Wales; and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia.

What is the significance of the archbishop of Canterbury?

The churches of the Anglican Communion are “linked by affection and common loyalty” and in communion with the See of Canterbury. The term “See” refers to the seat of a bishop, thus the “See of Canterbury” refers to the position held by the archbishop of Canterbury—the highest-ranking bishop in Canterbury, one of two ecclesiastical provinces which constitute the Church of England.

Since there’s no binding authority in the Anglican Communion (the archbishop of Canterbury has no authority outside of his own province), the “Instruments of Unity” serve to hold the various churches and provinces together: the Lambeth Conference is a gathering of bishops, meeting every 10 years; the meeting of primates (in which the archbishop is primus inter pares, the first among equals) takes place every two or three years for consultation on theological, social, and international issues; and the Anglican Consultative Council brings together bishops, presbyters, deacons, lay men and women, and youth to work on common concerns.

What is the possible significance of this response for the Anglican Communion?

The Anglicans within GAFCON have boldly placed the blame for disunity within the Communion on those who are choosing to abandon the authority of Scripture.

“The current divisions in the Anglican Communion have been caused by radical departures from the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” notes the Kigali Commitment. “Some within the Communion have been taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophies of this world (Colossians 2:8).” The statement adds that “fellowship is broken when we turn aside from God’s Word or attempt to reinterpret it in any way that overturns the plain reading of the text in its canonical context and so deny its truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency, and thereby its authority.”

While the changes proposed by GAFCON will have significant effects on the structure of the Anglican movement, the most important effect is that it shows church discipline sometimes needs to be implemented on a large scale—and that even the highest leaders in an organization can be called to repent when they abandon God’s Word.

Church discipline should be a deliberate, forbearing, and loving process. Over the past 25 years, orthodox Anglicans have met that standard by patiently calling their fellow believers within the Communion to repent and to once again submit to the authority of Scripture. Regrettably, their calls have been largely unheeded—even by the archbishop of Canterbury—and so the Anglicans in GAFCON must separate themselves from the unrepentant (Matt. 18:17).

The process of separation will be painful for them and will likely take years to complete. But their example is showing Christians around the globe what it looks like to remain faithful to Christ in an age of compromise.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Christian Nationalism Thu, 27 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Why do so many Christians disagree about Christian Nationalism? Patrick Schreiner suggests much of the problem has to do with our terms and definitions.]]> What is Christian Nationalism? Maybe this is a tired question, and you’re weary of reading about the topic. But in some ways, our perspective on the issue is clearer now than it was in the weeks and months and years since the phrase came into the national spotlight. The dust has somewhat settled, and the time for hot takes has ended.

“Christian Nationalism” has become a junk box into which everyone piles his own conceptions. But it’s not monolithic. Three dominant perspectives on Christian Nationalism have arisen over the past several years. Some equate Christian Nationalism with rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Others say it’s any attempt to enforce God’s law in a country. Others claim it’s advocating for Christian values on issues such as abortion. How you view the movement depends almost entirely on your circles.

To maintain the unity established by the Spirit, Christians must ask what a person means by a phrase before we jump to judgment. We want to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:9). We should hear out three different forms of Christian Nationalism and evaluate each one.

Although different Christian traditions view the church-state relationship dissimilarly, my analysis comes from a Baptist perspective. Baptists have long advocated for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Baptists have been wary of theonomy, but have supported governments instituted by God while engaging in political dissent as needed.

Good: Influence of Christianity in American Civil Life

For some, Christian Nationalism simply means that Christianity has influenced and should continue to influence the nation. They argue America was founded on transcendent Christian principles. The Declaration of Independence affirms “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Such a principle is worthy of Christian advocacy alongside a biblical view of issues like marriage, sexuality, and abortion. Our nation would be improved by affirming the goodness of natural law principles.

In the best sense, this form of Christian Nationalism doesn’t attempt to dominate the political process or to make the nation completely Christian but seeks instead to bring change by persuasion. Rather than trying to overthrow the government, adherents advocate their cause by supporting laws, electing candidates, podcasting, writing, and developing think tanks. They won’t force their opinions, but they also won’t back down from arguing for them.

Religion will always have a place in politics. Everyone has a “religion” she promotes. The best form of Christian Nationalism advocates for Christian principles just like secular nationalism advocates for secular principles.

Religion will always have a place in politics. Everyone has a ‘religion’ she promotes.

If a Christian Nationalist is someone who believes that as citizens our views should influence our nation, then surely every Christian falls under that label. But this isn’t what most people mean by Christian Nationalism.

Bad: Fusion of Christianity and American Civil Life

Some view Christian Nationalism as a fusion of Christianity with American civil life. Although this might not sound different from the above, a fusion means Christianity and American life should coalesce. The political process should be overhauled to serve God. The laws of the United States should be explicitly Christian.

The fusion view is flawed in at least three ways. First, it contradicts the Christian philosophy of witness. Christ’s kingdom is to be advocated by persuasion, not power. Conversion must be a free choice, not instituted by command—compelled by the Spirit rather than instituted by human law. According to John in Revelation, Christians follow Christ in his victory primarily by witnessing to the reign of Christ, not by enacting laws. We follow a politic of persuasion all the way down. Revelation 12:11 says we conquer by the “word of [our] testimony.” We imitate Christ’s victory through suffering. This is our main political witness. We conquer not by fighting the culture war but by embodying Jesus’s cross-shaped victory. His blood declares him the King of the universe, and our blood speaks to our solidarity with him. We continue to speak of and demonstrate Jesus’s cross in our own lives and so remain faithful in a pagan society.

Second, the fusion view doesn’t respect the temporal distinction between this age and the age to come. We live in the gap between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. In this time, religious freedom, diversity, and pluralism are blessings to God’s people who wish to live a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2). In this age, we can’t institute or codify God’s law in totality. That day will come, but it will be done by Christ himself––the true King. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we point forward to the kingdom but never forget the age we inhabit. We live in the age of choice. God has honored humans enough to give them time to repent. This doesn’t mean neglecting the natural order God created for humanity’s good, but it also doesn’t mean seeking to establish the theocratic state.

Third, this form of Christian Nationalism goes against key features of the American experiment, mainly pluralism and religious liberty. The First Amendment of the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Although America does have a distinctly Christian past, this form of Christian Nationalism overlooks the pluralism and religious liberty for which many founding fathers advocated. Eliminating all dissent might sound attractive, and it certainly would allow governing authorities to get things done more quickly. But squashing dissent violates human liberty, equality, and the vision of the founding fathers. It requires coercion of and change from those who dissent. If taken to its logical conclusion, this Nationalism undermines the foundation of a free society. Should such a fusion dominate American civil life, it would divide the nation rather than unify it. Uniformity in some aspects of national life isn’t all bad, but that must always exist beside diversity.

For all these reasons, this form of Christian Nationalism is unbiblical, idealistic, and philosophically unsound. Yet this view remains “bad” and not “ugly” because they’re not trying to overthrow the government. Our critiques of the fusion view, then, should sound different than our rebuke of a darker form of Christian Nationalism.

Ugly: Dominion of Christianity over American Civil Life

Christian Nationalism can also turn ugly. It can become a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of Christianity with American civil life and does so by dominion. This is the type of Christian Nationalism exhibited by some on January 6. This is the complete conflation of God and country and advocating for it by force or violence when deemed necessary.

The critiques of the second position apply here as well, but the phrase “Christian Nationalism” is, at its core, a confusion of categories. Although we can affirm and even celebrate the role Christianity has played in America as a nation, America can’t ever be described as a “Christian nation.” No nation-state can be a Christian nation-state, because Christianity doesn’t work that way.

As Lee Camp and I have suggested, Christianity and nation-states are two vastly different entities. In terms of access, people enter Christianity by voluntary intention (faith and baptism) but usually enter nation-states by arbitrary historical accident (being born in the region). Geographically, Christianity is transnational and bounded by no lines, but all nation-states are defined by borders.

Nation-states defend their borders by using military might and building walls, but Christianity breaks down ethnic barriers and crosses borders to welcome all who repent and believe. Unlike nation-states where the citizens are largely monocultural, Christianity encourages diversity and multiformity.

Nation-states are interested in their own agendas, but Christians put others before themselves. Nation-states see their own shortcomings as not living up to their ideals and potential, but Christians recognize their shortcomings stem from their corrupt nature. The hope of nation-states is utopia by their own ingenuity, but Christianity says utopia will only be brought by another.

The following table summarizes these differences:

The Difference Between Nation-States and Christianity
Category Nation-States Christianity
Entrance Arbitrary historical accident Voluntary intention
Geography Borders Transnational
Defense Army, military, building walls Erases borders, breaks down walls
Citizens Monochromatic Multiform
Agenda Their own interests The interests of others
Shortcoming Not living up to potential and ideals Corrupt nature
Hope In their own ingenuity In the work of another

To claim America is a Christian nation confuses categories.

To claim America is a Christian nation confuses categories.

It’s wrongheaded to try to enforce the fusion by force. Jesus explicitly said his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his servants would fight (John 18:36). We advocate for the end of abortion, but we don’t kill doctors who perform abortions. We can march and protest, but we don’t form mobs of destruction. We work to elect candidates of integrity and conviction, but we don’t harass public officials at town halls or school board meetings.

When Jesus was arrested, his disciples asked him, “Shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). Then Peter struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). No biblical view of Christian political engagement can include violence as endorsed by the dominion view.

More Definition, Not Less

To speak of “Christian Nationalism” is to open the door to disagreement. We must define what we mean by our terms. John Wilsey is right to say Christian Nationalism “has often been articulated in ways that pervert Christianity’s message. But we should work to understand it, and when we condemn it, we should do it in precise terms.”

By using these three categories for understanding Christian Nationalism and critiquing each one on its own terms, we can remain hopeful for change and clarity as we continue to discuss the relationship of Christianity to politics.

Why Use Bible Commentaries? Wed, 26 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Trusted commentaries are an essential part of a theological library.]]> Pastors and theological students have long prized commentaries. Charles Spurgeon called biblical commentators “a glorious army . . . whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit.” He remarked that Matthew Henry’s work should be “chained in the vestry for anybody and everybody to read” and considered John Trapp his “especial companion and treasure.”

While pastors today still read Henry, Calvin, and other classics from centuries past, numerous commentary series and stand-alone volumes published in recent years offer students of the Scriptures a wide range of options—and opinions. To adapt the words of the ancient Preacher, “Of making many commentaries there is no end.”

The practice of commenting on important works goes back to ancient Athens and was advanced by literary scholars in Alexandria. Antiquity’s most prolific commentator, Didymus of Alexandria, wrote between 3,500 and 4,000 works. Early Christian commentators include Hippolytus of Rome (on Daniel) and Origen (on Matthew, John, and Romans) in the early third century.

Purpose of Commentaries

Most fundamentally, commentaries seek to explain the sense of a written work. In his work on The Iliad, Aristarchus of Samothrace tried “to explain Homer by Homer, to interpret him by himself.” In the biblical tradition, commentators take their cues from the Levites who “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8, NIV).

Commentaries are written on texts that are important for a community of readers and require explanation due to factors such as historical distance, differences in language, and challenging subject matter. First-century Hellenistic readers sought commentaries to make sense of Homer and Aristotle. How much more necessary are good commentaries that help contemporary Christian readers understand the authoritative canonical texts written thousands of years ago in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

There are various sorts of biblical commentaries and series that reflect distinctive emphases. Some seek to illuminate the text’s historical-cultural context (e.g., The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary). Others help readers navigate its original language and syntax (e.g., Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament and Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament). Others review the text’s reception history (e.g., Hermeneia and Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries). Still others focus on the text’s contribution to biblical theology or its enduring theological and pastoral significance (e.g., Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary).

Some well-rounded series are particularly well suited to the needs of pastors and theological students, such as the Baker Exegetical Commentary, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary, and New International Commentary.

Regardless of commentaries’ intended scope and audience, they share a common concern to orient readers to the text and clarify its meaning.

Limitations of Commentaries

G. K. Chesterton famously quipped, “Though St John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators” (a sobering word as I write a commentary on the Apocalypse). It’s a daunting task to write a commentary (unless your name is Didymus), and many critics have chastised commentators for their deficiencies and limitations.

Good commentaries help contemporary Christian readers understand the authoritative canonical texts written thousands of years ago.

For example, Marita Mathijsen rehearses the “seven deadly sins” of commentary writing:

1. Assembling a hodgepodge of facts in search of comprehensiveness

2. Offering dictionary definitions for terms without really clarifying the text’s meaning

3. Including anecdotes and other information that’s interesting but not essential for understanding the text

4. Failing to explain terms, customs, institutions, and actions in their historical context

5. Proposing solutions to riddles that introduce further riddles (which she likens to the mythical Hydra that grows new heads after the first is cut off)

6. Presenting condensed textual explanations that include a dizzying maze of abbreviations and references to various other works

7. Presenting various lists, references, and facts in an arid style that doesn’t serve the reader

New Testament commentators may also go astray by treating the text in a fragmented, atomistic way that leads readers to miss the forest for the trees and by adopting new hermeneutical fads in their search for novelty or originality.

Essential Tool, Poor Substitute

Stated positively, a good commentary faithfully and lucidly explains the meaning of the biblical text in its literary and historical-cultural context. It doesn’t simply rehash the opinions of all who’ve gone before but offers fresh insights based on rigorous and careful examination of the text with awareness of the larger scholarly discussion.

Trusted commentaries are an essential part of a theological library, taking their place alongside standard lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and works of historical, systematic, biblical, and pastoral theology. While consulting commentaries is valuable, it’s a poor substitute for doing the hard work of carefully and prayerfully poring over the biblical text in its original language and in good translations.

As Johann Albrecht Bengel famously said, “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” Once pastors and theological students have reflected deeply on a text’s literary context, considered its flow of thought, and wrestled with its meaning and significance, they’re ready to receive the full benefits of wise, learned commentaries.

10-Point Vision for Missionary Teams Wed, 26 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 William Carey’s ‘Serampore Form of Agreement’ was truly ahead of its time, and it remains valuable today.]]> William Carey (1761–1834) is often called the father of modern missions. Indeed, he proved innovative in founding the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and through pioneering Bible translation in India. Carey also broke new ground in 1800 when he helped launch the Serampore mission—a team of three families that lived and served together in the Danish colony of Serampore near Calcutta.

While forming a missionary team in his day was already innovative, Carey’s 1805 draft of the “Serampore Form of Agreement” was also ahead of its time. Following a brief introduction acknowledging God’s sovereignty in salvation and the imperative to proclaim the gospel, Carey laid out 10 “great principles”—a mix of convictions, values, and strategies—for the Serampore team in India.

Article 1: Lostness

Emphasizing the “value of souls,” Carey kept the spiritual lostness and eternal destiny of the peoples of India before their team so they would labor with urgency. Without losing that focus, he also encouraged his colleagues with the truth of the resurrection and God’s mighty power to save. A reflection of his Reformed theology, these values also inform his famous maxim “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for him.”

Article 2: Ethnography

The Agreement advocated learning Indian cultures, worldviews, and religions to “be able to converse with [Indian peoples] in an intelligible manner.” Carey called his team to be students of their host culture by dialoguing with local people, reading books by Indian authors, and cultivating the habit of observation. Today, we call this ethnographic study that leads to cultural intelligence. Though Carey was never formally trained in cultural anthropology, because of this value, he served for 30 years as a professor of languages and culture at Fort William College.

Carey called his team to be students of their host culture by dialoguing with local people, reading books by Indian authors, and cultivating the habit of observation.

Article 3: Contextualization

Carey called the Serampore team to emulate the apostle Paul, becoming “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). As well as building bridges, Carey added that they should also “abstain from those things which would increase . . . prejudices against the gospel.” In the Hindu context, this meant avoiding cruelty to animals and refraining from attacking Hindu beliefs.

Article 4: Diligence

Carey recognized that the team could become complacent with mediocre attention to ministry or even become physically fatigued because of the hot Indian climate. He exhorted his colleagues to pursue “all opportunities of doing good”—to work hard and be diligent every day in preaching the gospel and carrying out their ministries.

Article 5: Proclamation

Though Carey felt it was vital to understand and connect with Indian culture, he believed that the central focus of their message—“the great subject of our preaching”—should be “Christ the crucified.” Following the apostles, Paul, the Protestant Reformers, and John Wesley, Carey believed the most important message a Hindu could hear was that Christ had died and paid the penalty for sins.

Article 6: Relationships

Carey believed that in addition to hearing the gospel message, the Indians should observe the reality of Christ in the Serampore team. This could only happen through deliberate relational proximity. Carey wanted their Indian friends to “feel quite at home in our company” and for the team to be “easy of access.” In this sense, they imitated Paul’s posture toward the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, NIV).

Article 7: Discipleship

Carey also emphasized discipleship—“to build up, and watch over . . . souls.” Like spiritual parents, the team should be patient and walk with new believers. They ought to nurture their disciples in the Scriptures and in following the example of Christ. Carey believed discipleship should also be holistic. Along with teaching Scripture, the team would help their disciples to become good citizens, honor the authorities, and find gainful employment.

Article 8: Indigeneity

In the longest article in the Agreement, taking up nearly a quarter of the entire document, Carey emphasized that India should be reached through indigenous missionaries. He wrote, “It is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.”

In addition to hearing the gospel message, Carey believed the Indians should observe the reality of Christ in the Serampore team.

Anticipating the three-self strategy articulated in the mid-19th century (that churches should be self-led, self-supporting, and self-propagating), Carey believed national church leaders ought to “choose their pastors and deacons from amongst their own countrymen, that the word may be statedly preached, and the ordinances of Christ administered, in each church, by the native minister.” This should be done “without the interference” of foreign missionaries.

In addition to setting apart national pastors, Indian missionaries should also be sent “to the extremities” of the country, engaging the culture and preaching the gospel. With these values, Carey anticipated Hudson Taylor’s vision to reach all of China and the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference’s watchword, the “evangelization of the world in this generation.”

Article 9: Translation

To reach all of India, the Serampore team needed to “labor with all [their] might in forwarding translations of the sacred Scriptures” in every national language. Though Carey wasn’t trained in linguistics, he worked on Bible translation in 36 Indian languages, including a full Bible in three languages and a complete New Testament in 23 languages. Once translation had been completed, Carey also developed a strategy for distributing Scripture throughout the country.

Article 10: Spirituality

Carey urged that the work of mission in India must be accomplished through fervent prayer and the “cultivation of personal religion.” To be faithful and even effective missionaries, the Serampore team should first attend to their spiritual lives.

Still Valuable

Carey concluded the Agreement with a commitment to pursue mission work to the glory of God. The Serampore community remembered their vision and calling by reading the document at three set times a year during Lord’s Day worship.

While some of Carey’s principles (e.g., ethnographic study, national missionaries, and Bible translation) were quite innovative to early 19th-century missions, the Agreement was probably more groundbreaking because it integrated Christian spirituality, a passion for God’s glory, a burden for souls, theological reflection, and missiology in a single document. The Agreement became a concise strategic plan—a memo of understanding—for the Serampore team. To this day, it remains a useful model for mission teams and is worthy of our careful reflection.

Find Your People . . . Offline Wed, 26 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Our lonely cravings to ‘find our people’ will not be satisfied through screens.]]> Over the last quarter century, the internet and social media have transformed our understanding of community. At first, it seemed like a promising transformation. The geography-transcending ease of online connection made it possible to quickly find people with shared passions and interests. Communities started forming around every conceivable pop culture or sports fandom, political perspective, social justice cause, hobby, fetish, philosophy, or religious inclination.

Now, with the aid of tailored-to-you algorithms, search engines, and niche subreddits of every sort, it’s easier than ever to “find your people”—whatever you want “your people” to be.

The impulse isn’t bad. To be human is to long for connection with other humans. And yet as Jennie Allen’s recent book and Drew Holcomb’s recent song (both titled “Find Your People”) suggest, the longing is increasingly pronounced in a digital world more connected than ever but somehow simultaneously more isolating too.

Why is finding our people so hard today? Because we’re looking in the wrong place. You’ll find oodles of fans, “friends,” followers, subscribers, and avatar interlocutors online. But most likely, you won’t find “your people” there. At least not the ones who will transform your life in positive and long-lasting ways.

Internet Community Can Be Great

There are positives to the possibilities of online community. For people coping with rare or chronic illnesses, it’s never been easier to find communities of support and shared struggles where tips can be swapped and mutual encouragement offered. For trauma or abuse survivors, persecuted religious minorities, or other marginalized or vulnerable groups, finding community online can be a lifesaver.

Even something like The Gospel Coalition likely wouldn’t exist today were it not for the internet’s knack for fostering connections and forming tribes (in this case connecting broadly Reformed people who share a certain theological vision for ministry). TGC is one of the millions of examples of nuanced and specific corners of the internet that sprung up once people could experience that “you too?” discovery of like-minded solidarity on a previously impossible scale.

The internet has allowed me to make connections with kindred spirits who became trusted friends—people in other parts of the country or world whom I otherwise could never have known. Yet in each of these cases, what might have started online eventually led to an in-person, offline connection: meet-ups whenever possible, even if only once every couple of years when we’re in the same city or at the same conference. This layer of embodied reality has been indispensable to the relationship’s health long-term.

Physical Community Is Better

In spite of the benefits and affordances of online connection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that physical, proximate, in-the-flesh relationships are far, far better for us. Screen life isn’t real life, and virtual relationships—while beneficial in some ways—are no substitute for incarnate relationships.

Consider the rising rates of loneliness in what some have called a loneliness epidemic. In a world where it’s so easy to find whatever people you want to find (online) or join whatever hyperspecific niche community suits your interests, why are people lonelier than ever?

Perhaps it’s because the more human way to form a community isn’t around shared interests, in virtual reality, but around shared place, in physical reality. In relationships that help us grow, maybe proximity matters more than affinity.

In relationships that help us grow, maybe proximity matters more than affinity.

To be sure, proximate relationships are harder and more painful. It’s much easier to go online for on-demand doses of relational connection, on your terms, with a bunch of contacts who will affirm you and give you the intoxicating experience of feeling “seen.” But feeling seen is different than being seen. And being seen is, in the end, less vital than being known. My contention is that local, in-the-flesh relationships, while potentially more of a headache, are where we can actually be known: embraced, prayed for, cared for, cried with, seen in the eyes, challenged face-to-face, received in the fullness of our fleshly fragility.

In good times, it’s easy to feel like we don’t really need in-person relationships. But in times of crisis, it becomes obvious we do. In times of pain and suffering, we can’t feel the comforting embrace of a TikTok follower or pray on in the living room of a Facebook follower; our Instagram “connections” offer little consolation beyond a passive heart to “like” our carefully constructed expressions of emotion. As Chris Martin observes in his new book on social media, “A retweet by a person on Twitter shouldn’t be seen as the same as a shoulder to cry on. To see such things as equal is to have a fundamentally broken understanding of what it means to be friends with someone.”

While it’s relatively easy to gain a social media following and call that “community,” it’s also easy to be rapidly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ultimately discarded by those followers. Online social dynamics are fickle and fragile—and depending too much on them erodes our integrity. Better to surround yourself with trusted, committed friends offline than depend on the volatile mood of the digital masses.

The more I work and live in a mostly online world, the more certain I am that my life’s most important relationships are those grounded in physical proximity: People I can grab coffee with without getting on a plane. People I pray with in a living room or church sanctuary on a weekly basis. People who know me not just as a purveyor of “content” but chiefly as a person: red-headed husband; father; church elder; frequenter of Brot and Hidden House coffee shops; lover of hiking, gardening, good food, and going to the movies.

5 Offline Places to Find Your People

In a manner similar to what the philosophy of subsidiarity would suggest, relational bonds tend to be thickest and most life-giving when they’re most local and proximate. So look for “your people” closer to home. Here are some places to start your search.

1. Family

Perhaps it’s obvious, but your immediate family (or extended family who live nearby) represents the greatest potential for relational intimacy and longevity. The givenness of family frees us from the burden of choice: our parents or siblings or cousins might not be the people we’d choose to do life with, but they’re the people we’ve been given. And for better or worse, they tend to know us better than anyone else. They often feel most comfortable speaking hard truths to us and pulling us off the ledges of self-deception and unwise living. This makes family relationships painful at times but also invaluable.

2. Local Church

The people the Holy Spirit gathers together in the ecclesia are often a hodgepodge assortment of ages, ethnicities, classes, and cultures. This is why it’s such a rich place to forge family-like bonds. Similar to the unchosen givenness of blood family, a healthy church is an unchosen gift of unlikely brethren. Church relationships are powerful precisely because they’re relationships we wouldn’t choose with the algorithmic help of Google. Sometimes the people we most need in our life are the ones we don’t know we need. But God knows. And by his grace, he places us in just the right church family—one that will shape us profoundly if we’re willing to set our consumer preferences aside and give our full selves to it.

3. School or Work

The venues of school and work provide natural opportunities for developing meaningful relationships. These are people you see on a daily or weekly basis, with the potential of relationships spanning many years. The proximity of classmates or coworkers also means you can do human things together like engage in impromptu hallway or water cooler conversations (without having to schedule a phone call or Zoom chat), celebrate birthdays and other milestones, or converse over a lunch break. The stranger you sit by on the first day of class and the coworker whose cubicle happens to be next to yours aren’t people you choose based on personality compatibility inventories. But we do have the choice to get to know these strangers, not because they’re like us but because they’re next to us.

4. Neighborhood

It used to go without saying, but the people who happen to live in your cul-de-sac or apartment complex can be an important part of your relationship circle. You don’t choose them, but you’ll need them. Whether it’s the occasional egg you need while baking, a person to water your flowers when you’re out of town, or (in my family’s case) neighbors who can come over to babysit our kids on short notice, neighborhood relationships carry huge practical value. Beyond the practical, these are people who often minister to you relationally through front-yard or over-the-fence conversations, neighborhood social events, or small group studies. They’re next door or down the street when you need them, and that matters.

5. Third Spaces

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. As a remote worker with no home office, the third spaces of local cafes are my daily sanctuary. I haven’t met best friends in these places, but I’ve had memorable human interactions with people sitting across the table from me, and the baristas know me by name and ask about my family and work. If it’s not a coffee shop for you, maybe it’s a Cheers-like neighborhood bar, a gym, a civic organization (e.g., Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club), or a members-only club. The people you rub shoulders with in these places sometimes align with you in interests or background, but often they’re very different—the sort of unexpected friendships we’d never script for ourselves.

Supplement, Not Replacement

Am I saying online relationships are always bad? No. Am I negating the experiences of people whose lives have been enhanced by totally virtual relationships? No. My life has been enriched by virtual relationships!

They’re next door or down the street when you need them, and that matters.

I’m just suggesting that as people made by an intentional Creator to have bodies and to live in physical places, it’s likely our most meaningful and reliable relationships will be embodied and proximate.

Insofar as social media or digital technology helps supplement these embodied connections, facilitate offline connection (e.g., using social media to arrange meet-ups or advertise in-person events), or maintain relationships in seasons of physical distance (e.g., Skype or FaceTime), we can embrace their relational potential. But virtual connection should never replace embodied community. Our lonely cravings to “find our people” will not be satisfied through screens.

Is the ‘Seed of the Woman’ Individual or Collective? Yes Tue, 25 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The existence of the collective offspring depends ultimately on the work of the individual offspring, Christ.]]> The past 30 years have provided something of a renaissance in the interpretation of Genesis 3:15, with many evangelical scholars providing sound exegetical and theological argumentation that this verse explicitly anticipates a future individual offspring of the woman. However, many scholars still strongly affirm the collective understanding of the seed of the woman.

Another view proposes that the expectation of the seed of the woman is both individual and collective. In this interpretation, the verse anticipates (1) an individual coming Deliverer who will be at enmity with and exchange blows with the Serpent and (2) a collective group associated with the individual coming Deliverer who will participate in this enmity against the Serpent and his seed.

Several New Testament passages allude to Genesis 3:15 and demonstrate a collective and individual application of its outworking. Here are seven examples.

1.  Opponents of Jesus as Offspring of the Serpent

The Gospel accounts display an ongoing enmity: Jesus and his followers (seed of the woman) on one side and Satan and his agents (seed of the Serpent) on the other. On several occasions, Jesus identifies his opponents as children or offspring of the Devil. In attributing their spiritual parentage to the Devil, Jesus declares his opponents are thinking and acting like the Devil.

Jesus directly addresses the Pharisees as “serpents” and a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33; cf. 3:7; Luke 3:7). A Jew identifying someone as the offspring of a serpent is, in view of the broader context of the Old Testament, quite possibly alluding to Genesis 3:15 to some degree. These statements don’t necessarily address whether the seed of the woman is individual or collective, but they do suggest Jesus understands his opponents to be representative of the offspring of the Serpent.

In John 8, Jesus identifies the Jewish religious leaders with the offspring of the Serpent in his heated dialogue with “the Jews” (also identified as the Pharisees in v. 13) who insist they’re the offspring (σπέρμα) of Abraham (vv. 33, 39). Though Jesus concedes these “Jews” are offspring of Abraham in a physical sense (v. 37), they’re not truly “Abraham’s children” (τέκνα τοῦ Ἀβραάμ) because they don’t do “the works Abraham did” (v. 39).

True offspring of Abraham wouldn’t seek to kill Jesus, a man who speaks God’s truth (vv. 37, 40). Furthermore, God cannot be their father (v. 41) since they’re rejecting Jesus, the One whom God had sent (v. 42). Instead, the Devil is their father, since they fulfill his desires in their opposition to Jesus (v. 44).

Jesus points out the two primary sins of the Devil that solidifies their connection to him: he was a “murderer from the beginning,” and he is “a liar and the father of lies” (v. 44). The Jews’ intent to murder Jesus (vv. 37, 40, 44, 59), their rejection of his truth (vv. 37, 43–47), and their propagation of lies (vv. 41, 48, 52) demonstrate their character reflects the character of the Devil. The Devil, then, is their spiritual father, and they’re his offspring.

Because Jesus is certainly alluding to the Serpent’s actions in Genesis 3 in identifying the Devil as a liar and a murderer, he’s likely thinking of that chapter in referring to the unbelieving Jews as children of the Devil—the offspring of the Serpent.

“Enmity” describes Jesus’s relationship with such offspring of the Serpent. When Jesus confronts the offspring of the Serpent, he doesn’t come peaceably; rather, he engages in a harsh war of words in which he identifies and overcomes the agents of Satan.

This enmity doesn’t end with the Serpent’s seed’s rejection of Jesus; it continues with the offspring of the Serpent persecuting, flogging, killing, and crucifying Jesus’s messengers (Matt. 23:34–35). If these entities are representative of the offspring of the Serpent and if they’re at enmity with the individual Messiah, then these references appear to support the idea of the individual offspring of the woman being fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus presents these as enemies not only of himself but also of his followers. Therefore, throughout Jesus’s ministry, the offspring of the Serpent are at enmity with Jesus and his followers.

Throughout Jesus’s ministry, the offspring of the Serpent are at enmity with Jesus and his followers.

Though Jesus’s followers aren’t specifically identified as “offspring of the woman,” their position of enmity with the offspring of the Serpent assumes this identification. It isn’t necessary for Jesus to say, “You, my disciples, are offspring of the woman” in order to understand that the theme of enmity promised in Genesis 3:15 is being displayed in the Gospels. These conflicts support the idea of enmity between both individual and collective offspring.

2.  John’s Theology of the World (Gospel of John)

John’s theology of the world also reflects the individual and collective enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent. John presents Satan as the ruler of the world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 John 5:19), who works in direct opposition to Jesus. The “world” in this sense in John refers not to the created universe but to the sinful people and the systems that stem from those sinful people (and from their ruler, the Devil).

John positions the world in direct opposition to Jesus. Not only does the world hate Jesus (John 7:7; 15:18–24), but the world also hates believers—those who follow Jesus (John 15:18–24; 17:14; 1 John 3:13).

If Satan is identified as the Serpent from Genesis 3, and those who follow after him are identified as his “seed” or his children (or “the world”), then it seems consistent to understand John’s theology of the world as unfolding the concepts presented in Genesis 3. Satan and the world persist in their enmity toward Jesus and believers. The world “hates” Jesus and his people. Satan and the sinful leaders of this world put Jesus to death (striking his heel), but Jesus ultimately is victorious over the Devil (striking his head) and overcomes the world (John 16:33). Christians participate in this victory as they also overcome the world (1 John 2:13–14; 4:4; 5:4–5).

Though John doesn’t specifically identify believers as “offspring of the woman,” he clearly states they’re at enmity with the Devil and those who follow the Devil. To say Satan and his “children” are at enmity with God’s people is to identify God’s people as the offspring of the woman who are at enmity with the Serpent’s seed.

3. Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:25–28)

The parable of the weeds (or tares) among the wheat provides a subtle allusion to Genesis 3:15. In this parable, an “enemy” comes and sows weeds among good seed (Matt. 13:25–28). Jesus is the One who had sown the good seed (identified as the “sons of the kingdom,” v. 38), and the Devil is the Enemy who sows the weeds in an effort “sabotage the harvest.” The weeds themselves are “the sons of the evil one” (i.e., seed of the Serpent, v. 38).

Jesus ultimately is victorious over the Devil (striking his head) and overcomes the world. Christians participate in this victory as they also overcome the world.

Because the weeds are so intermingled with the wheat, they must grow together until the judgment. The sons of the Evil One cause sin (σκάνδαλον), a phrase which likely refers to people who lead others into sin. The point is that Satan seeks to perpetuate the existence of sons of the Evil One in the world to oppose God’s redemptive purposes.

It’s striking that this parable presents the same key entities present in Genesis 3:15: the Son of Man (Matt. 13:37), the “sons of the kingdom” (v. 38), the “sons of the evil one” (v. 38), and the Devil (v. 39). Furthermore, the two heads of the group (the Son of Man and the Devil) are opposing each other, and the two groups who follow the heads are both identified as a type of “seed.”

In the end, the seed of the Devil will be judged. In relation to Genesis 3:15, it may also be noteworthy that the Devil is identified as “an enemy” (Matt. 13:28, 39; ἐχθρός / אֹיֵב), which reflects the language of “enmity” in Genesis (ἔχθρα / אֵיבָה). Though the “seed” in the parable is obviously an agricultural reference, the use of the term in addition to the other key themes in this section seems to present a strong allusion to Genesis 3:15.

4. Children of God and Children of the Devil (1 John 3:8–13)

In 1 John 3, John clearly has the early chapters of Genesis on his mind. He speaks of the Devil who “has been sinning from the beginning” (3:8), and then he moves to a discussion of Cain, who murdered his brother (vv. 11–13).

John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil” (v. 8). This statement should certainly be understood to refer to the individual seed of the woman who will crush the head of the Serpent. John then proceeds to contrast two different collective groups—the children of God and the children of the Devil (v. 10). The children of God are born of God, and they don’t make a practice of sinning; the children of the Devil are the ones who don’t practice righteousness.

John, therefore, presents the same entities spoken of in Genesis 3:15: (1) the Son of God, who destroys the works of (2) the Devil, (3) the children of God, in whom God’s seed abides, and (4) the children of the Devil. The allusion to Genesis seems clear, based on the presence of these entities placed in antithesis to each other, with one side ultimately being victorious over the other.

It would be exegetically naive not to see an allusion to Genesis in these statements. Jesus clearly represents the seed of the woman who’s crushing the Serpent, and his children are clearly set in opposition to the children of the Serpent. If John is describing the outworking of Genesis 3:15, then he appears to understand the seed of the woman in that verse in both an individual and a collective sense.

5. Crushing Satan Under Your Feet (Rom. 16:20)

Most interpreters acknowledge an allusion to Genesis in Romans 16:20, although the language of Paul’s promise isn’t the same as the language in Genesis. The LXX rendering of שׁוף as τηρέω in Genesis 3:15 is known to be problematic. Therefore, it seems likely Paul chose a Greek word that would more accurately translate שׁוף: συντρίβω, which means “to crush.”

In the context, Paul seems to be representing the heretics in Romans 16:17 as agents of Satan, an idea supported by other Pauline statements identifying false teachers as agents of Satan (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:14–15). In this sense, these two collective groups are at enmity with each other. It’s noteworthy in Romans 16:20 that both an individual (the God of peace) and a collective group (the church) are involved in crushing Satan, though the key actor in the victory is God.

If Romans 16:20 is an allusion to Genesis 3:15, which seems probable, then it’s presenting both an individual and a collective understanding of the identity of the seed of the woman.

6. Seed and Seeds (Gal. 3:15–29)

Galatians 3 doesn’t contain a direct allusion to Genesis 3:15, but it’s relevant in a discussion of whether the seed is individual and/or collective.

In the same contextual section of Galatians, Paul clearly uses “offspring” (σπέρμα) for an individual, “referring to one, . . . who is Christ” (3:16), as well as for the collective group of the Galatian believers: “You [plural] are Abraham’s offspring” (v. 29).

It seems best to see the reference to the individual offspring in Galatians 3:16 as “an exegetically grounded interpretation of Gen 17:8 (and/or 13:15; 24:7) within its broader literary context, especially 3:15 and 22:17–18.”

The existence of the collective offspring depends ultimately on the work of the individual offspring, Christ. Thus, based on his reading of key passages in Genesis, Paul interprets the Abrahamic promises with the expectation of both an individual, Jesus the Messiah, and a collective group, the people of God, as “offspring.”

7. Cosmic Drama (Rev. 12)

Revelation 12–13 describes the outworking of Genesis 3:15 so vividly that it may be said to represent a “midrash on Genesis 3:15.” Paul S. Minear argues “it is Genesis 3:15–20 that dominates the whole of Revelation 12.”

The existence of the collective offspring depends ultimately on the work of the individual offspring, Christ.

The same four entities from Genesis are active in these two chapters in Revelation, in which the individual offspring of the woman wounds the head of the dragon (13:3). “The dragon and his angels” engage in this conflict, representing the offspring of the Serpent (12:7–10), and they’re waging war with the collective offspring of the woman, identified as “the rest of her offspring” (v. 17).

In Revelation 12, a “woman clothed with the sun” gives birth to the Messiah, at whose birth the dragon unsuccessfully attempts to devour him (vv. 1–5). Upon the Messiah’s ascent to heaven, war arises in heaven, and Michael and his angels defeat “the dragon and his angels,” who are thrown down to the earth (12:7–9). This dragon, identified as “the Devil” in verse 12, pursues the woman and then goes “to make war on the rest of her offspring [σπέρμα], on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17).

In a context that clearly describes the outworking of Genesis 3:15, a reference to a collective group of godly people as “the rest of her offspring” certainly supports the idea of an expected collective offspring of the woman. G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough comment, “Such a contrast between individual and corporate seeds is supported by the fact that 12:17 is an allusion to Gen. 3:16, where John would have seen that Eve’s messianic seed has both individual and corporate meaning.”

The two beasts aim to carry out the dragon’s work “to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (Rev. 13:7) for 42 months (vv. 1–18). If Genesis 3:15 is the basis for this text, then the collective groups on both sides seem to be engaged in the outworking of the promised enmity.

One critical point in Revelation 13 is that the head of one of the beasts “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed” (v. 3). Beale notes that “such a wound on the head of the grand nemesis of God’s people reflects Gen. 3:15, especially when seen together with Rev. 12:17.”

In spite of the apparent victory of the beast, who is “allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (13:7), the saints are ultimately victorious over the beast (15:2). When the beast kills the martyrs, “the beast’s apparent victory is the martyrs’—and therefore God’s—real victory.”

Bauckham explains, “The point is not that the beast and the Christians each win some victories; rather, the same event—the martyrdom of Christians—is described both as the beast’s victory over them and as their victory over the beast.”

In this way, the victory of the saints over the beast follows the pattern of the victory of Christ over Satan—Satan appears to be victorious at Jesus’s death, but Jesus’s death (and resurrection) is actually the critical event in his victory over Satan. And this reflects the fullest sense of the promise from Genesis 3:15, that the Serpent would strike the offspring of the woman but the offspring of the woman would emerge as the ultimate victor. The individual offspring of the woman, the One sitting on the white horse, accompanied by his army, defeats the armies of the beast and his prophet (19:11–20).

Though it’s difficult to know exactly how the original readers of Genesis would have identified the offspring of the woman, the fuller revelation of the canon of Scripture seems to draw attention to a fulfillment in both an individual and collective offspring.

Themelios 48.1 Tue, 25 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The new April 2023 issue of ‘Themelios’ has 261 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews.]]> The new April 2023 issue of Themelios has 261 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 | Editorial: Comments on New Testament Commentaries

Tabb reflects on the purpose, value, and limits of biblical commentaries and provides three commentary recommendations for each New Testament book, with pastors and theological students in view.

2. Daniel Strange | Going Deeper

A central issue facing the church in its third millennium is “What is a human being?” Strange challenges readers to “go deeper” theologically, affectively, historically, and “fellowshiply” as we grapple with the seismic individual, cultural, and political implications of this question.

3. Jonathan M. Cheek | The Individual and Collective Offspring of the Woman: The Canonical Outworking of Genesis 3:15

Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group. The key words and concepts from Genesis 3:15 recur in numerous instances in the Old and New Testaments, which support the idea that the offspring of the woman should be understood both as an individual and as a collective group. Cheek surveys the key arguments for each view and presents four arguments in support of the idea that the intent of Genesis 3:15 is to speak of a collective offspring of the woman in addition to an individual offspring.

4. Paul A. Himes | Failure to Atone—Rethinking David’s Census in Light of Exodus 30

Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24. Taking Exodus 30:11–16 as the starting point, Himes argues that David was supposed to take the census and that, as with the situation with the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21, David’s role was meant to be that of one who atones for the nation’s sins, turning away God’s wrath. The final section answers potential objections such as the role of Joab.

5. Greg Palys | Christ’s Surpassing Glory: An Argument for the “Inappropriateness” of OT Christophanies from Exodus 33–34 and 2 Corinthians 3:7–4:6

Did the preincarnate Christ reveal himself in the Old Testament? Many believe that visible manifestations of God in the Old Testament must be manifestations of the Son. Surely if this is true, then we would be able to identify Christ most clearly in the Old Testament’s grandest manifestations of God’s glory. However, Paul’s reflection on the Sinai theophany identifies that which was revealed to Moses as a lesser glory, one we cannot equate with Christ’s surpassing glory. If Christ’s greater glory was inappropriate for the Sinai theophany, then it follows that all other lesser “Christophanies” would be equally inappropriate.

6. Ken Montgomery | “You Are the Salt of the Earth” (Matthew 5:13): Influence or Invitation?

Jesus identifies the disciples as “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), which many commentators understand as a call for believers to be a part of preserving and influencing human society for the good. Montgomery argues that “salt of the earth” is to be read as the church’s calling to participate in the flavor of the redemptive kingdom of heaven and by extension to invite those outside to share in the feast of the new creation reality. This reading interprets the metonymic “salt” saying in light of the new temple theme in the Sermon on the Mount.

7. Hallur Mortensen | Seeing Is Not Believing: Apocalyptic Epistemology and Faith in the Son of God in Mark’s Gospel

Following recent discussions on the nature of the apocalyptic, Mortensen argues that it primarily has to do with revelation of hidden things. This means that at the core of the apocalyptic is epistemology, and it’s thus argued the Gospel of Mark is apocalyptic essentially in its epistemology rather than eschatology. Mark’s parable theory, and hence the responses to Jesus, are examined in this light. The question as to why some respond in faith in Jesus as the Son of God while others respond with fear, hardness of heart, and unbelief is answered by Mark’s apocalyptic epistemology: Jesus’s divine sonship must be revealed in order to be believed.

8. David Shaw | The Eagle Has Landed: 3 John and Its Theological Vision for Pastoral Ministry

Shaw argues that when 3 John is read in light of John’s Gospel, it can be seen to have rich theological foundations and to offer a vision for ministry that’s the natural and fitting trajectory of the Gospel. These are especially evident in 3 John’s depiction of the ministry of individuals, the conflict their ministry provokes, their practice of hospitality, their rejection of self-love, and the pattern of imitation in the life of the church.

9. Jared M. August | What Shall We Remember? The Eternality of Memory in Revelation

August considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death. Although numerous resources address the topic of the resurrected life, few consider the Bible’s teaching on the permanence of memory. By considering key passages from the book of Revelation, this study attempts a brief overview of the topic. August proposes that Revelation depicts the believer’s eternal memory as detailed, correspondent to objective reality, experienced communally, and healable by God.

10. Randall K. Johnson | Christological Arguments for Compatibilism in Reformed Theology

Christian compatibilists believe human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism—that is, a robust account of divine sovereignty. Whereas most arguments for compatibilism stem from considerations about divine providence, human nature, or sin, we ought not to neglect christological arguments. Johnson presents the christological arguments for compatibilism from three prominent theologians in the Reformed tradition: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and Jonathan Edwards. He concludes with some reflections on the power of christological arguments for compatibilism.

11. Stephen Estes | Christ for Us: An Analysis of Bonhoeffer’s Christology and Its Implications for His Ethic

This study analyzes the Christology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who stood against evil in a day when his contemporaries failed. Estes traces the outline of Christology, including its dual emphasis on the transcendence and the immanence of God in Christ. Along the way, he also contrasts Bonhoeffer’s theology with popular theologies of his day, including those who used the “Orders of Creation” as a theological defense of Nazism and those within the Confessing Church who resisted but nonetheless didn’t recognize the importance of standing with the Jews in their persecution. He concludes that Bonhoeffer’s exceptional ethic was the natural outworking of his robust Christology.

12. Nathan D. Shannon | Genealogy and Doctrine: Reformed and Confucian Sociologies of Knowledge

This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge. Shannon first proposes a three-part Reformed theology of theological tradition in terms of historically successive communities. He then presents relevant material from the Analects of Confucius, focusing on Confucius’s own sociology of learning and instruction. Striking similarities between these two models come to light, as well as significant differences in the areas of unity and truth, ontology and office, and sin and grace.

13. Kevin DeYoung | The Case for Christian Nationalism: A Review Article

For all the fine retrieval work Stephen Wolfe does in parts of The Case for Christian Nationalism, the overall project must be rejected. DeYoung offers a substantive critique of this book under four headings: nations and ethnicity, the nature of the church, Protestant political thought, and the way forward. While it’s right to pray for a great renewal, we must remember that the most needed renewal in our world and in our land is the restoration of true doctrine, the reformation of our lives, and the revival of that divine and supernatural light shining in our hearts to show us God’s glory in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Featured Book Reviews:

GAFCON IV: Lessons from a Communion in Birth Pains Tue, 25 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 ‘Despite 25 years of warnings by most Anglican primates, repeated departures from the authority of God’s word have torn the fabric of the Communion.’]]> In AD 597, the bishop of Rome sent a missionary named Augustine to evangelize the Anglo people of southern England. Augustine’s mission base became known as the See of Canterbury, his office the Seat of Canterbury, and the global church that grew from it the Anglican Communion. There are now around 85 million Christians who are part of the Anglican tradition, making the Communion the third-largest Christian denomination in the world.

Sadly, the Anglican Communion is in crisis. Across the world, many Anglican bishops, pastors, and institutions have turned from the authority of Scripture and rebelled against both biblical teaching and church doctrine—especially in matters of human sexuality. The most recent example is the vote by the general synod of the Church of England to allow pastors to bless same-sex unions.

Those of us who gathered last week in Kigali, Rwanda, for the fourth Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON IV) are believing and praying this crisis is the birth pains of a renewed Communion, not its death throes.

I grew up in the Anglican Church, was ordained there, and now pastor one of its congregations. What happens to the Anglican Communion certainly matters to me and my congregation. It also matters to the broader church. Here’s what I experienced at GAFCON IV and what all believers can learn from global Anglicans in this important moment.

Resetting a Global Communion

From April 17–21, 1,302 delegates from 52 countries—including 315 bishops, 456 members of the clergy, and 531 laypeople—gathered in Kigali for GAFCON IV. These leaders attended on behalf of 85 percent of worldwide Anglicans.

Launched in Jerusalem in 2008, GAFCON stands as a response to the crisis in our Communion. Its goal is to offer a biblical counter to progressive Anglicans’ errors in doctrine and practice and a spiritual home for the faithful.

Bishops gathered at the first GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem in 2008

Foley Beach, the archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America and former chairman of GAFCON, said in his opening address that it’s “time to move on past Canterbury.” The Kigali Commitment, released on the final day of the conference, affirms this judgment and calls the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to repent: “Despite 25 years of persistent warnings by most Anglican Primates, repeated departures from the authority of God’s Word have torn the fabric of the Communion. These warnings were blatantly and deliberately disregarded and now without repentance this tear cannot be mended.”

Historically, the archbishop of Canterbury has been seen as the “first among equals [leaders/primates]” by Anglican provinces. Fellowship in the Communion was tied to provinces being recognized by him. But Archbishop Foley and the Anglican primates of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Myanmar, Brazil, Chile, the Province of the Indian Ocean, and others now find the historic Seat of Canterbury empty:

‘Despite 25 years of persistent warnings by most Anglican primates, repeated departures from the authority of God’s word have torn the fabric of the Communion.’

We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him (the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings) are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ.

Bishops setting up for their conference photo at the 2023 GAFCON IV gathering in Kigali

It’s unclear how other Anglican leaders will respond to the Kigali Commitment or how GAFCON and other orthodox Anglicans will organize fellowship “after Canterbury.” What’s clear is that GAFCON Anglicans will not abandon their church but are rather seeking to reset structures of authority and fellowship:

Resetting the Communion is an urgent matter. It needs an adequate and robust foundation that addresses the legal and constitutional complexities in various Provinces. The goal is that orthodox Anglicans worldwide will have a clear identity, a global “spiritual home” of which they can be proud, and a strong leadership structure that gives them stability and direction as Global Anglicans.

Lessons from GAFCON IV

What can we learn from this tragic but ultimately hopeful moment in the Anglican Communion?

1. Faithfulness to God’s Son is inseparable from faithfulness to his Word.

Listening to theologically liberal Anglicans can be confusing. They speak of loving Jesus, hearing Christ speak in Scripture, and commitment to Christ’s mission—all things an attendee at GAFCON would also affirm. But listen longer and the tune changes: Jesus, Scripture, and God’s mission are shaped in the image of the liberal Anglicans and their ideologies, rather than those leaders being shaped by God’s Word.

The decisive issue for Anglicans today is the same as during the Reformation: the authority of the Bible and its plain interpretation. The Bible doesn’t sit below or alongside human reason and tradition. It isn’t interpreted like a piece of modern art—so that meaning lies in the experience of the reader. Rather, as the Kigali Commitment states,

The Bible is God’s Word written, breathed out by God as it was written by his faithful messengers (2 Timothy 3:16). It carries God’s own authority, is its own interpreter, and it does not need to be supplemented, nor can it ever be overturned by human wisdom. God’s good Word is the rule of our lives as disciples of Jesus and is the final authority in the church. It grounds, energises and directs our mission in the world. The fellowship we enjoy with our risen and ascended Lord is nourished as we trust God’s Word, obey it and encourage each other to allow it to shape each area of our lives. This fellowship is broken when we turn aside from God’s Word or attempt to reinterpret it in any way that overturns the plain reading of the text in its canonical context and so deny its truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency, and thereby its authority.

We must have this clarity. Knowing Christ and faithfulness to him are inseparable from submitting to “the plain reading of the [Bible’s] text in its canonical context.”

2. A healthy church needs strong leadership.

The archbishop of Canterbury’s equivocation, and now outright dissent, from Christian teaching stands in stark contrast to the clear and courageous leadership of the men who have led the GAFCON movement. Peter Jensen, Peter Akinola, Ben Kwashi, Foley Beach, and others have sacrificed much to shepherd God’s flock toward good pasture.

The decisive issue for Anglicans today is the same as during the Reformation: the authority of the Bible and its plain interpretation.

GAFCON IV reminds us God has structured the church by giving it pastors and shepherds (Eph. 4:11). These leaders are qualified by two attributes: godly character and rightly handling God’s Word (Titus 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:2–7). For their stewardship of this high calling, they’ll be judged strictly (James 3:1).

The failure of the Anglican Communion has been a failure of its leaders. Watching this failure and the response of godly men reminds pastors and teachers that we must tremble before our calling. It should remind church members of the need to pray regularly for their shepherds.

3. Local discipleship benefits from global Christianity.

Humans are social creations, and our discipleship is shaped by our context. While in Kigali, I listened to and prayed with Christians from Myanmar, Nigeria, northern Sudan, Australia, Rwanda, and the United Kingdom. They revealed some blind spots in my own discipleship ministry.

Two pastors from Africa reminded me it’s neither unexpected nor unusual for the Bible’s sexual ethic to sit awkwardly within a culture. For over a century, churches in parts of Africa have faced the complexity of bringing the Bible’s teaching about monogamous marriage into settings where polygamy was normal. Those of us in the West should remember that tension between a biblical sexual ethic and the surrounding culture is to be expected, not seen as a reason to jettison the faith (Acts 15:20; 1 Cor. 6:9).

Sam Ferguson (back right) with his small group at GAFCON IV

A Sudanese convert from Islam to Christianity reminded me that local churches aren’t for entertainment but are meant to be family. This brother shared how his Muslim family held his funeral when he converted, going so far as to bury an empty casket in a tomb that bore his name. Our local churches must be family, especially for those who will lose their families to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile culture.

Anglicanism is a historic branch of Christianity. For it to thrive in the future as a global movement will mean cultivating godly leaders who are faithful to God’s Word. During a memorable testimony at GAFCON IV, one Sudanese Anglican reminded us that will be costly: “A Christianity that costs us nothing is not biblical.” As I reflect on my time at GAFCON IV, I’d add, “A church that costs its members nothing is not the church for which Christ died.”

Though it’s costly, I pray faithful Anglicans will continue to do the hard work of humble gospel reform, ongoing repentance, and structural resetting that our Communion so desperately needs.

Should I Get Paid for Ministry? Mon, 24 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Paul—along with the rest of the Bible—simultaneously affirms that ministers deserve pay and yet that ministers ought to serve free of charge.]]> At what point should a person be paid for ministry?

This is a great question to be asked by both sides—by those who would pay and those who would be paid.

Suppose we saw somebody with the best training—taught directly by the resurrected Jesus—whose work experience included planting churches and training leadership, whose skills include supernatural powers to heal, and whose writing was inspired by God. What if that person also oversaw the health of many churches in the region, provided mentorship and guidance to the church leaders, and bore the cost of difficult decisions through shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment?

Of course, we’re talking about the apostle Paul, who according to the economics of today should be the highest-paid minister in history. But the witness of the Bible is that Paul consistently supported himself in his own ministry.

Conflicting Commands?

What’s perhaps surprising is that Paul consistently argued ministers deserve pay even as he personally ministered free of charge. Paul—along with the rest of the Bible—simultaneously affirms that ministers deserve pay and yet that ministers ought to serve free of charge.

Consider when Jesus sends out the disciples to proclaim the gospel. He tells them first, “You received without paying; give without pay” (Matt. 10:8). But he also tells them not to bring supplies with them because they should expect support. After all, “the laborer deserves his food” (10:10). Paul twice argues that “you shall not muzzle the ox” and “the worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5; 1 Cor. 9) to explain that elders who rule and teach, as well as apostles who are sent on missions, deserve financial support. Soldiers don’t serve at their own expense, and those who plant enjoy the fruit (1 Cor. 9:7–10).

Paul—along with the rest of the Bible—simultaneously affirms that ministers deserve pay and yet that ministers ought to serve free of charge.

At the same time, Paul sees working free of charge as an example that others ought to follow. He tells the Thessalonians that, while he had the right to financial support, he worked physical labor to support himself to give the church “an example to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:9). Paul famously made tents with Priscilla and Aquila to support himself while he ministered in Corinth.

There’s an important asymmetry here. Paul exhorts churches to support their elders, but he exhorts all Christians to emulate him in serving free of charge. These conflicting commands mean that, in any particular instance, determining whether somebody should be paid for ministry requires wisdom and should reflect the context of the situation. No single answer applies across circumstances.

For example, whether a particular role should be paid in a small-town, rural church with a small staff and small budget may be different from the answer for a large church with full-time professional staff and an ample budget.

With that in mind, there are a couple of questions all institutions and individuals can ask as they approach their own situations.

1. Who is burdened?

Paul tells the Thessalonians that his motivation was to not burden them, and he tells the Corinthians he didn’t want to put up any obstacle. Paul worked without pay because receiving assistance would’ve burdened the church or provided an obstacle to growth. At the same time, the metaphor of a soldier serving at his own expense means the minister, too, ought not to be burdened.

If a church will be burdened by financially supporting a minister, and if the minister would not be burdened by supporting himself, then it would be wise to minister free of charge. Even in this case, the minister still deserves honor and to enjoy the fruit of his labor, which might mean nonfinancial forms of recognition, appreciation, or support.

But the reverse could also be true. The minister may be burdened by serving free of charge. If he’s serving full-time as a way to support his family, he should certainly receive a fair wage. Even if he’s not, ministry of all kinds can be incredibly taxing emotionally and on one’s family. If a church can alleviate financial burdens, they ought to endeavor to do so.

Burdens need not only be financial. In some contexts, paying people can endow the ministry with credibility. But it may also cause resentment or a lessening of enthusiasm from volunteers who are also serving without pay. Churches should exercise wisdom in determining whether paying somebody for his work would benefit the work itself.

2. Does pay encourage greed and materialism?

We live in one of the most materialistic societies in history, so we ought to always be on guard against greed. As ministers, we need to ask ourselves if we need the pay to relieve burdens or simply want it. As institutions, we need to ask ourselves if we’re withholding pay when we could afford to give it. What’s in the budget that takes away from supporting your people?

Greed could manifest, for example, in a small church in which congregants begrudge giving the pastor a raise when they don’t get raises themselves, or when they resent that the pastor earns more than they do. But greed and materialism could also be reflected by paying a pastor too much, such as in a flashy church that boasts of having a hip, well-paid pastor with expensive sneakers and cool clothes. Paul encountered this issue in Corinth. The congregation faulted Paul because he did not burden them and wasn’t as flashy as the so-called super-apostles (2 Cor. 12).

In a greedy culture, we should be particularly attentive to the possibility that working free of charge will not only serve the church but also establish witness, just as Paul notes.

Be Generous

We should endeavor to be generous on both sides. Churches, endeavor as much as you can to provide for those who serve among you. Servants, endeavor as much as you can to serve without burdening those you serve.

Ultimately, the rewards for our labor come from the God who gives generously based on his desire to bless us, not based on the work we’ve done (Matt. 20). As we seek to bless those who labor among us and to offer the gospel free of charge without burdening others, we can have faith that, ultimately, God will provide our every need.

What to Do When Your Child Is Addicted to Video Games Mon, 24 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 If you sense something’s wrong with your child’s relationship with screens, don’t ignore that persistent inner warning—as I did for so long. ]]> We were on the road, driving our oldest son home from his freshman year in college, when the moment of clarity hit.

“Mom, I’ve been in bed for the past week,” Adam said. “I didn’t leave my dorm room. I didn’t finish my classes. That video game did something to me.”

I’ll never forget the shock I felt. What do you mean, “That game did something to me”?

At that moment, six years of conflict suddenly made sense. I finally realized: our son was trapped in his virtual world and couldn’t get out.


I should have noticed the warning signs in middle school when Adam started dropping out of sports and hobbies to play more video games. He also began choosing his gaming world over spending time with us or going to church. I hated my new job as the Game Cop Mom, setting the kitchen timer and dealing with constant conflicts over his game time.

Was it normal for a teen boy to be happily hunched over a screen in the dark basement for hours? My mom friends assured me, “At least he’s not out getting into trouble. At least you always know where he is.” I remember thinking this was setting a low bar. But he was my first child, and he seemed to be learning so much on that screen—at least, that’s what he told me.

His screen habits grew worse in ninth grade when his school, like many others, issued a laptop to all the students. That was a turning point for our family because we lost all ability to help him manage his screen time. As I walked down the school hall one day to meet the counselor to discuss the problem, I passed a row of boys, all playing Call of Duty on their school-issued laptops. I wondered how other parents were coping.

The remainder of Adam’s time in high school was filled with conflict—the push and pull of trying to manage life with his unmanageable gaming obsession. We were happy to see him off to college; we supposed he would outgrow his juvenile habit and finally start his life. But we were wrong. On that drive home, I realized we were dealing with something more serious than a bad habit. This had all the signs of an addiction.


My background is in nursing, so I took a deep dive into the brain research related to video game use. I talked to physicians and neuroscientists across the country and learned that gaming addiction includes a well-defined neurochemical component. MRIs show gaming addiction to be neurologically similar to every other addiction. Like gambling and using drugs, gaming hijacks the dopamine reward pathway. The overproduction of dopamine during gaming sets off a series of neurochemical events, leading to a craving for more. This, in turn, leads to impaired self-control and dysfunction in daily activities and interpersonal relationships—underlying factors in every addiction.

Adam wasn’t exaggerating: the game had “done something” to his brain.

I shifted from thinking in terms of parental limits—like setting a curfew or not allowing R-rated movies—to understanding the deeper emotional and spiritual implications of a child lost in the virtual world. Gaming wasn’t a neutral rite of passage. Instead, like all addictive activities, it could potentially sweep a child away from the foundation of his family and spiritual life. He becomes the god of his own universe in his daily escape. Over time, the virtual world can become so authentic and so immersive that the need for his family, for God, and for natural joy diminishes.


Even when times were dark and I felt isolated in this struggle, I knew deep down there was a greater purpose. Second Corinthians 1:3–5 tells us God comforts us in all our troubles so we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we’ve received from God. I promised myself I’d never forget the pain of this time in my life so I could help other families prevent what happened to my oldest son.

Over time, the virtual world can become so authentic and so immersive that the need for his family, for God, and for natural joy diminishes.

Fortunately, our story is filled with redemption. First, nearly 12 years later, Adam is doing well—he served five years in the U.S. Army and graduated from college. Now finishing law school, he’s also a spokesperson for ScreenStrong, the nonprofit organization we started to save kids from the path he took. Adam tells them he wishes he could reclaim the more than 10,000 hours he spent gaming and losing himself in the virtual world.

Second, because of what Adam experienced, my husband and I changed how we addressed technology with his sister and his younger twin brothers, creating for them a childhood free from video games and smartphones.

Radical? Yes. But our daughter thrived during high school without a smartphone or social media. She was never pulled into the drama of middle school text wars or the temptations older teens faced on social media. The twins are flourishing in high school, investing in face-to-face relationships with many groups of friends, coaches, and teachers. Instead of playing Fortnite for four hours daily, they compete in baseball and cross country, serve on the student council, and enjoy playing violin and piano. All these are activities Adam missed out on because of the time he’d invested staring at a screen, holding a game controller.

I’m often asked if they feel left out. No, my teens have close connections to their friends and our family. This path has led to so much joy in our home.

Third, God has used Adam’s story to reach many families. I now spend my time helping other moms and dads who are struggling with screen-time problems in their homes. Education about the effects of screens on brains becomes the light that shines in the dark places. Parents are able to understand the effects of screen overuse on the developing child and make the best decisions for their family. And through community, parents no longer feel isolation and shame. The result? Relationships are being restored.

Moving Forward

There’s no shame in making mistakes; we certainly made many. As parents, we struggle to live in the tension between God’s sovereignty over every square inch of creation (to quote Abraham Kuyper) and our responsibility to be faithful stewards of our lives and guardians of our children.

How can we do this well? The addictive and provocative elements of video games are so powerful that I think it’s dangerous to allow them into our homes as a valued activity during childhood and then expect our children to thrive. Setting our children up for failure isn’t protecting them; it’s not wise, and it doesn’t honor our Creator.

Education about the effects of screens on brains becomes the light that shines in the dark places.

Our parental responsibility is to guard our children against addictive elements of culture that harm them. Ask yourself some questions: Is game use in your home increasing over time? Is game time displacing sports and healthy hobbies? Are your child’s grades and relationships suffering? Is his gaming distancing him from God and his family?

If you sense something’s wrong with your child’s relationship with screens, don’t ignore that persistent inner warning—as I did for so long.

Adam once told me, “Mom, you will never hurt my feelings if you share my story. Please warn as many families as you can.”

Every family is facing the tidal wave of digital technology in childhood, but not every family has to be swept away by it. We can’t inoculate our teens with parental controls or more conversations. We can’t change the child development process: they’re intelligent but not mature. We can’t force children to be “wise” with screen time, as they aren’t adults with a fully connected frontal cortex.

But we can be more informed and diligent as we align our kids’ activities with our values. We can proactively avoid screen struggles and focus on healthy relationships. The solution isn’t about taking away our kids’ fun but giving back their deeper joy in real-life engagement. God created a world for them to explore and adventures for them to have in real life. Let’s point them in his direction.

And let’s keep our own eyes focused there too. Remember that God is the One who gives us new mercies every morning (Lam. 3:22–23), wisdom when we ask (James 1:5), and endurance and encouragement we can share with others (Rom. 15:5).

Gaming addiction is real; don’t be afraid to search for help from parents who have come out on the other side of their screen struggles. There is hope. By the grace of God, you can reclaim your kids and reconnect your family.

How J. K. Rowling Played, then Lost, the Polarization Game Mon, 24 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 J. K. Rowling’s journey from hero to villain is a story about expressive individualism, technology, and the inevitability of clashing personal narratives in a post-Christian world.]]> It was Gotham City’s ill-fated district attorney Harvey Dent who proclaimed, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Though the line didn’t come from a Harry Potter novel, it’s been lived out with unnerving literalness by J. K. Rowling. The uber-successful Potter author has run the gamut of public perception: from a transgressive, witchcraft-normalizing genius in the early 2000s, to a celebrity progressive in the 2010s, to a hateful, “dangerously” transphobic bigot in the 2020s. As my friend Shane Morris once quipped, “A lost time traveler in the early 21st century could just about pinpoint the year by asking who hates J. K. Rowling and for what.”

Rowling’s unexpected journey has many layers. As a new podcast series The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling suggests in its very title, the criticism she now faces for dissenting from the most fringe wings of transgender activism has reached a censorious fervor. Narrated by former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper, the series is an intelligently constructed reflection on the power of ideology; the danger of myopic, totalitarian thinking; and the peculiar challenges facing free speech among the emerging adult generation. The well-executed podcast elicits both sympathy for Rowling and sobering bewilderment at the social revolutions of our age.

But like many stories about Rowling’s showdown with transgender activists, Witch Trials misses something important: the digital polarization game was one that Rowling played and was winning—until she wasn’t.

Rowling, more so than almost any other author, leveraged the expressive individualism intrinsic to the social media age to craft, and sell, a narrative about herself and her stories. In an age in which activists will cancel and decry pop culture artifacts for being insufficiently political, Rowling’s history illustrates the danger of pandering to this phenomenon and the way both art and political discourse suffer accordingly.

Rowling’s Story

Much of the power of the Witch Trials podcast comes from the way it features Rowling herself. Her interview with Phelps-Roper shapes the entire series; Rowling’s traumatic and inspiring life story, her account of the unexpected success of the series, and her perspective as a progressive feminist are established early. “I know what it is to be a vulnerable woman,” Rowling says, explaining how her suffering at the hands of an abusive husband, and the poverty and desperation she and her children experienced once they got away, shaped her worldview.

Rowling’s story is as famous as it is inspiring. Pinching pennies as a single mother, Rowling endured several publishersrejections before finally getting her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (changed to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S. version) accepted. The rest is, literally, history.

Though the Potter stories aren’t political allegories, themes from Rowling’s personal life are evident: neglect and mistreatment at home (the Dursleys), the saving power of friendship (Hogwarts), and the necessity of doing what’s right even when it’s difficult (confronting Voldemort). It’s this last theme that Rowling and Phelps-Roper tie to the controversies over gender identity.

The podcast retraces the vitriolic criticism Rowling endured for publicly tweeting her support of policies that restrict transgendered women (biological men) from being admitted into women’s shelters. For Rowling, this stance—not against transgender ideology itself (she’s careful to say) but against the elimination of public distinctions between biological men and women—is her own personal Potter-confronts-Voldemort moment.

At multiple points, Phelps-Roper reads tweets or plays YouTube audio clips from Rowling’s critics. The content is genuinely shocking: as hysterical as it is hateful, a dizzying collage of logical fallacy and violent threats. The podcast absolutely doesn’t shy away from portraying the transgender rights movement, particularly online, as extremist.

Rowling, for her part, insists she’s always been open-minded politically. She compares Voldemort to a political dictator and casts sharp criticism on anyone who wants to shut down debate. In episode 2, Rowling says,

A sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things. You know, most of the people in movements that we consider hugely abhorrent, . . . many, many, many of the people involved in those movements understood themselves to be on the side of righteousness, believed they were doing the right thing, felt themselves justified in what they were doing.

I suppose for me, book burners, by definition (predictably), to me, have placed themselves across a line, across a line of rational debate. “I’m simply going to destroy the idea that I don’t like. I can’t destroy it, so I’ll destroy its representation. I will burn this book.” There is no book on this planet that I would burn. No book, including books that I do think are damaging. Burning to me is the last result of people who cannot argue.

Two things can be true at once: Rowling can be exactly right that suppressing speech instead of debating it is harmful to a free society, and yet it can also be the case that Rowling is rewriting her own story here. As Witch Trials makes a compelling case that the internet has helped erode the free exchange of ideas, it neglects to observe how Rowling herself often played into this dynamic.

Double-Edged Sword of Social Internet

Starting around the time of the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling leaned into rising political polarization and online fan culture to stoke in her supporters the very same tribalistic impulses she now fends off.

It was Rowling who declared (in a Q and A session in New York) that Dumbledore was gay. This revelation thrilled many, but it represented a cynically opportunist posture toward her own work. Time magazine’s Lev Grossman blogged gratefully about the announcement, but added, “If she really wanted Dumbledore to be gay . . . why didn’t she just write him that way?”

Indeed, Dumbledore’s sexual orientation was announced ex cathedra; the books themselves don’t say a word about it. Was Rowling being genuine, or was she trying to score a political point with no threat of commercial risk to her already finished anthology?

As Witch Trials makes a compelling case that the internet has helped erode free exchange of ideas, it neglects to observe how Rowling herself often played into this dynamic.

This is hardly the only example. Rowling, arguably more than any other famous novelist, has used social media to shape her public political image. She has called Donald Trump “worse than Voldemort,” compared supporters of Scottish independence to the murderous Death Eaters, and referenced her own characters to defend politically leftist views. While Rowling’s interview on the podcast suggests someone who strives for good-faith argument and open-mindedness, her track record is that of someone who’s been every bit as ideological as her critics.

Why is this? Fascinatingly, episode 3 of Witch Trials focuses on the role the internet has played, not just in the transgender movement but also in the Harry Potter fan world. Phelps-Roper painstakingly charts the growth of the online fandom and observes that the generation raised most passionately on the stories was also one of the first generations raised with the web. Not only did this create a strong network effect among Potter fans, but it led to Rowling’s personal involvement in many of these online spaces.

And here’s where the gender revolution and Rowling’s own story intersect. The social internet is what allowed Rowling to cast herself and her stories as progressive totems, and the social internet is what cultivated and weaponized transgender ideology. Digital technology’s power to polarize us is intrinsic to its nature. Through its disembodying effect, and by giving us the power to curate and control our experience of the world, this technology offers the illusion of total self-creation.

What Rowling’s story shows is that this power is a double-edged sword. When the “self” we create finds favor with the audience we’re trying to reach, it serves us well. But when our projected self is out of step with that same audience, the power of the social internet turns decidedly against us. Live by the social media sword, die by the social media sword.

Tools We Use Use Us

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote that television not only gave audiences a staged view of the world but that, by virtue of its nature, it suggested what the real world ought to look like. As TV “re-staged” the world, Postman argued, modern people started to expect their information, their conversations, and even their religion would more closely resemble the trappings of entertainment.

As I write in my forthcoming book, online technology similarly “re-stages” the world. With our hearts conditioned by the internet’s capacities and values, we begin to expect that offline reality—our politics, our relationships, even our very bodies—becomes infinitely customizable. And when things don’t yield to our command, we respond to those realities the way we respond to something unwanted on the screen: trying to erase or mute that which challenges us.

Digital technology’s power to polarize us is intrinsic to its nature.

Of course, what makes online technology so valuable is how it connects us to each other. This is what the young fans of the Potter series report in Witch Trials: the stories stirred something in them, and the internet helped them find others for whom these stories also resonated. And this is why Rowling, by her own testimony, started to go into these websites and community forums, both officially and anonymously. She was overwhelmed by seeing how her books had comforted and delighted so many.

Yet we can see how both Rowling and her fans became sucked into a whirlpool of digital polarization. Rowling reinvented herself and reinterpreted her stories to play better and better with the emerging, progressive generation. Her fans appropriated these stories as parables for their own identity quests and political beliefs, with some eventually embracing the self-creation narrative of transgenderism.

The story of J. K. Rowling’s journey from hero to villain isn’t just a story about changing political winds. It’s a story about expressive individualism, technology, and the inevitability of clashing personal narratives in a post-Christian world.

Rowling’s personal saga reminds Christians that the language of human rights becomes nonsensical when untethered from first principles. Defending the vulnerable isn’t a magic pastime. It’s a virtue rooted in transcendent truth: the intrinsic value of all human beings created in the image of a holy Maker. Rowling’s, and the West’s, political progressivism isn’t enough to protect women and girls in a digitally deconstructed society.

But it also reminds us that the tools we use may be using us. In our post-Christian age, screens do more than connect us. They teach us. Our reliance on disembodied technology to create the message or the movement we want is shaping that message and movement in ways we don’t always understand.

For J. K. Rowling, it’s been a lesson more than a decade in the making.

My Son’s Short Life Was Not a Waste Sun, 23 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Tugi’s life was full of dignity and worth.]]> Tugi Mbugua Musyimi was a part of our family for nine months. God began knitting him together in his mother’s womb at some point in July 2022. From the moment we first learned of his existence, we were excited as God answered our prayer to grow our family.

Over the course of monthly visits to the doctor, we saw Tugi develop from a little bean-shaped blip on the screen to a full-blown baby. We heard his heart beat many times and watched him play in the womb. With every willful kick and strong heartbeat was the promise of a healthy and active son. In one of the scans, we got a 3D image of his face. I concluded he looked like me. His mom protested a little but eventually accepted that, at the very least, his lips betrayed the strength of the Musyimi genes.

Together with some friends, we nicknamed him “T5,” and we brainstormed to find a name starting with a T for him. Many name ideas, mostly from me, were tried and discarded in that search. His siblings—Taji, Tami, Tia, and Tando—had a couple of name suggestions that were also, more gently, rejected.

His siblings were very excited about him joining the family. While we called him “T5,” they called him “the baby.” We must have answered a hundred questions from them about the baby: “What does the baby eat?” “Can the baby speak?” “Is the baby sleeping?” “When will the baby come out?” “How will the baby come out?” (That last one was met with an awkward silence from my wife and me, and a “Have you finished your homework?”) Tugi’s immediate predecessor, Tando, set aside a little green cup for him to drink out of. They spoke to Tugi all the time: “Hi, baby.” “Bye, baby.” “Goodnight, baby.”

Even before his birth, Tugi was contributing much fodder for conversation among our family and friends. He was loved. He was cared for. He was provided for and protected.

And then came March 22, 2023.


Unbeknownst to us, while turning and playing in his mom’s womb, Tugi got the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Slowly, his life ebbed out of him.

My wife, Mumbi, noticed later in the day that she couldn’t feel him move as much as she was used to. She’d had a busy day making final preparations for Tugi with his grandmother, so we attributed the fewer movements to his being asleep. We’d heard that at 38 weeks it was fairly common to have fewer movements as the baby fills up more space in the womb, so we decided we’d go to the doctor the following day if things didn’t improve. We went. First scan—no heartbeat heard. Second scan—a concerned look on the doctor’s face.

“We have a problem,” he said.

“Is the baby gone?” we asked.


Our world was shattered.

Afflicted but Not Crushed

Amid tears of pain and disbelief, we informed close family and friends, who quickly came to our aid. Soon after, we were at the Aga Khan Hospital maternity wing, preparing my wife to go through the arduous process of labor and delivery. An unusual degree of fortitude was needed to birth our lifeless baby. Still, by God’s mercy, she did, and 24 hours later, we held in our arms the body of our little Tugi. A week later, we held a service and buried his body at the Lang’ata Cemetery.

In the wake of our loss, we’ve received and continue to receive exceptional comfort and care from the saints of Emmanuel Baptist Church. They prayed, visited, called, texted, delivered meals, and gave financially. Our families also served us selflessly throughout the nightmarish experience. Other communities extended their care and support to us in various ways. (In case any of you are reading this, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.)

Tugi’s life was full of dignity and worth. In his 268 days lived in the womb, this is some of what Tugi did for us:

Tugi’s life was full of dignity and worth.

1. He made us see and appreciate God’s power. Every scan was a window into the wonder of God’s intricate wisdom.

2. He brought us great joy. His very being was a delight to us. The sounds of his heartbeat, his kicks and movements, the picture of his face on the 3D scan, and our projections of what he’d look and be like when born were all a source of great joy from God.

3. He made us pray. He was often the subject of our petitions and thanksgiving to God. We asked for a healthy pregnancy and God graciously gave us one in Tugi.

4. He enriched our marriage. My wife being pregnant with Tugi created many opportunities for her and me to serve each other that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. That was good for us.

5. Even in his death, Tugi faintly but distinctly reminds us of the story of the gospel. You see, there’s another who lost a son. The difference is that he lost a son so that Mumbi and I and many others could have eternal life. God the Father gave up his son Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, who died to save us. His death, unlike Tugi’s, was not an accident but a voluntary act to make atonement for all who would turn from sin and trust in him. He didn’t stay dead but rose again victorious over the grave. His resurrection guarantees that one day Tugi will also be raised along with us. We’ll be reunited once again to an indestructible life, and together we’ll behold our God.

We’ll be reunited once again to an indestructible life, and together we’ll behold our God.

Though Tugi’s life was short, it wasn’t wasted. He was a gift from God, though he was intended only to be enjoyed and stewarded for a brief time.

As for us, though we’re under dark clouds, we have received deep mercy from our Lord through his people. Our grief is great, but his grace is greater. Crushed as we are by Tugi’s sudden death, we kiss the rod that smites us and say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

No better words could be found to conclude than those of King David when his own infant son died: “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23).

Goodbye, son.

Earth Day: How Creation Care Displays Christians’ Worldview and Character Sat, 22 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The greatest task of every Christian is to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. Yet as we fulfill that mission, we should be working to bring substantial healing to all areas of the world.]]> Francis Schaeffer once told of visiting a hippie commune on a trip to speak at a Christian school. The commune and school were located on opposite sides of a ravine. But though they were neighbors, the worldviews of the two institutions couldn’t have been more different.

In the commune, the hippies adopted pagan practices and celebrated nature. As Schaeffer talked with them, he noted a stark difference between the appearance of the commune and that of the Christian school. The residents of the commune had worked to enhance and maintain the natural beauty of their land. When Schaeffer looked across the ravine at the school, he said, “I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness.” The grounds around the college buildings had no trees and demonstrated little concern for the integrity of creation.

The greatest task of every Christian is to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. Yet as we fulfill that mission, we should be working to bring substantial healing to all areas of the world, including the created order. As Schaeffer made clear, the way we treat creation reveals our worldview and our character.

Beautiful Worldview

Earth Day occurs only a few weeks after Easter. The date wasn’t selected with Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection in mind, but it’s entirely appropriate for Christians to recognize the goodness of the material world in the shadow of our celebration of Christ’s redeeming it.

The greatest task of every Christian is to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. Yet as we fulfill that mission, we should be working to bring substantial healing to all areas of the world.

Earth Day has a plurality of meanings. For pagans like those in the hippie commune, it may be a day for worshiping nature itself. For materialist scientists, Earth Day may provide a time for exploring the science of ecology. Secular humanists may lament human abuses of nature or celebrate potential solutions achieved by human ingenuity. Christians have an opportunity to point beyond creation to the Creator who made the world, sustains it through his power, and redeems both material and spiritual through his blood on the cross (Col. 1:16–20; Rom. 8:22–23).

Aspects of some Earth Day celebrations conflict with orthodox Christian theology. On at least one point, however, believers share a common cause with unbelievers. We together affirm the material world is good and worth stewarding well.

For the Christian distinctively, the goodness of creation begins with its relationship to the Creator. God declares creation good in Genesis 1. Because he made it, it reflects his goodness. God also demonstrates the continued goodness of creation, despite the effects of the fall, through his incarnation and, finally, through his resurrection.

These two events—creation and the resurrection—are significant bases for a proper understanding of our place within the environment. Other people look into the future and see only futility, but with the resurrection in our view, Christians can point forward to hope for God’s creation.

Fruitful Character

Many Christians can rattle off the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. That list includes the difficult virtue of patience, and it ends with the most challenging virtue, self-control. Paul tacks on this reminder to cap off the list: “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

We rightly see those virtues in opposition to the sensual vices Paul condemns as works of the flesh in verses 19–21. But the fruit of the Spirit evidenced by patience and self-control is demonstrated in our lives through more than avoiding sexual immorality and anger. These virtues are signs of regeneration because they demonstrate a Christian’s hope beyond the pleasures of this world.

Schaeffer believed exhibiting spiritual fruit is a critical part of caring for creation. Amid the grandeur of the Alpine landscape surrounding L’Abri, Schaeffer was struck by the way people would sometimes ignore the creation’s integrity in pursuit of immediate convenience. Mountain villages that had spent generations without electricity were in such a rush to have the latest convenience of civilization that they ignored the damage that pursuing this convenience caused. Schaeffer wrote,

They can have their electricity in about three months: just chop off everything, tear the forest in pieces, run big, heavy wires over the whole thing, and create ugliness out of what was beautiful. Or they can wait a couple of years for their electricity; they can handle the cables and the forests with more care, hiding what they need to hide and considering the integrity of the environment, and end up with something infinitely preferable.

Electrification and the benefits of technology and human ingenuity it brings are good. Yet even such goods should be pursued virtuously—with patience and self-control.

Exhibiting spiritual fruit is a critical part of caring for creation.

In a world saturated with “green” messages, Christians who forgo conveniences and delay gratification for the sake of managing God’s world with integrity will point the way toward God’s substantial healing of creation. We may even spark the kind of conversations that cause people to ask us why we care. By making creation-friendly choices in the way we live, we can show we love the creation because we love its Creator. When we live as those who have hope in creation’s coming renewal (Rom. 8:18–25), we may also get a chance to offer a defense for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).

How Discipleship Mirrors Sketch and Improv Comedy Fri, 21 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The world of comedy can help us understand planned and unplanned discipleship and how they work together.]]> I would never say discipleship is a laughing matter. It’s a glorious process in which the Spirit works to form God’s people into the likeness of Christ. It’s the call of all Christians and the purpose of every church. Discipleship is serious business, but I think comedy provides a helpful way to understand it.

Every discipling encounter takes one of two forms: planned or unplanned. I’ve come to frame these forms of discipleship as “sketch discipleship” and “improv discipleship.”

Sketch Discipleship (Set-Aside Moments to Teach)

“Sketch discipleship” refers to planned discipleship, and the name comes from a specific form of comedy.

In the acting world, a sketch is a short scene or vignette performed by a group of actors or comedians. These sketches are scripted, rehearsed, and performed within a specific time frame. Saturday Night Live is the most recognizable example.

Many of our discipling encounters take on a form similar to sketch comedy. They’re set-aside moments dedicated to reading Scripture, teaching biblical truths, praying, and facilitating Christ-centered conversation. These moments are expected, planned, and often rehearsed.

Biblical examples of this form of discipleship can be seen in the righteous man’s consistent meditation on God’s law (Ps. 1:1–3), the devotion of the early church to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the example of daily prayer given by Christ (Matt. 6:9–13).

Modern examples of sketch discipleship could include a family that schedules daily Scripture reading at breakfast or a Sunday School teacher who preps to teach a class. It could be two friends who read and discuss a classic Christian book or a parent rehearsing how she’ll lovingly correct her teenage son. No matter the location or number of people, this form of discipleship is typically mapped out. It follows a pattern and is usually predictable in its scope and outcome.

While planned discipleship might be the most common way discipleship is explained, it’s not the most common way discipleship is experienced. Broadly speaking, discipleship is formation, meaning whatever is forming our identity, character, and direction in life is discipling us. Planned teaching moments shape us, but so do life’s unplanned moments. Understanding this aspect of our spiritual formation leads us to the next form of discipleship: improv.

Improv Discipleship (Sought-After Teachable Moments)

Improv (improvisation) is an acting form in which the performance is unplanned, unscripted, and created spontaneously by the performers. Typically, the only direction given is a suggested topic or scenario. The actors must improvise and turn these minimal directions into comedy gold.

Whatever is forming our identity, character, and direction in life is discipling us.

Similarly, improv discipleship takes life’s unexpected moments and turns them into teachable moments that point to Christ. It usually involves our reactions to situations and responses in conversation.

Biblical examples of this form of discipleship can be seen in the “as you go” style of teaching the Israelites were to give their children (Deut. 6:4–9) and the theological correction Priscilla and Aquila gave Apollos after hearing him teach in the synagogue (Acts 18:24–28).

Modern examples of improv discipleship could include a father apologizing to his son after losing his temper or a grandmother pointing out God’s glory in creation while taking her grandchildren on a walk outside. It could be a college student praying for a friend after she receives bad news or a believer declaring the goodness of God in the gospel after a neighbor expresses his doubts. Often it looks like responding to news events or social media controversies with insights grounded in biblical wisdom.

In acting and in certain forms of music (like jazz), good improvisation can seem effortless. But in reality, it takes a lot of skill, cultivated and practiced over time. If we want to be more effective in improv discipleship—faithfully pointing to Christ in the unplanned moments of life—we need to develop and practice skills.

That’s why activities like personal Bible reading, prayer, and meditation are called “spiritual practices” or “spiritual disciplines.” What we discipline ourselves to practice privately will spill out of us relationally, when opportunities arise. Conversely, if we aren’t practicing spiritual disciplines and cultivating Christian wisdom in between discipling encounters, then what spills out of us in the unplanned moments of life won’t be of Christ.

How Sketch and Improv Work Together

In college, we had a comedy group on campus called “informal” that performed a mix of sketch and improv comedy. Several group members lived on my dorm floor, and I saw how well their two brands of comedy complemented each other. I learned that some of the funniest moments in their sketches were improvised and some of their greatest improvisations flowed out of their sketches. Their improvement in one always sharpened their skills in the other, increasing their overall success as a group.

What we discipline ourselves to practice privately will spill out of us relationally, when opportunities arise.

Similarly, sketch and improv discipleship differ, but they’re not designed to work in isolation. A wise disciple recognizes the relationship between the two forms of disciple making and moves seamlessly between them. I say “wise” because discipleship isn’t just a mission we pursue; it’s a skill we develop. It requires wisdom.

Wisdom is the ability to apply the right knowledge at the right time in the right way. Similar to a comedian’s ability to tell a joke with the right timing and delivery, or an athlete’s ability to adjust his playing style in the middle of a game, a wise disciple of Jesus can apply one form of discipleship then another, depending on the circumstance.

As you strive to fulfill the Great Commission, I pray the ideas of sketch and improv discipleship provide you with a helpful framework and renew your joy in making disciples.

When Life Feels Repetitive Fri, 21 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Life’s repetitiveness can wear on us and make us wonder, ‘What’s the point?’ But repetition looks different if we turn our focus to the character of God.]]> It’s a common social media experience: on an average day, we open our feed and see posts about a friend’s exotic vacation, a coworker’s engagement, and a family member’s new house. As we scroll, it can seem life is all about big, exciting moments—and everyone else is experiencing more of them than we are.

In reality though, if we count all the births, graduations, moves, weddings, vacations, and career changes, they can’t outnumber the times we wash dishes, go to work, grocery shop, help with homework, work out at the gym, sleep, and engage in conversations. Our lives are made up of these repetitive activities. And that repetition can wear on us and make us wonder, What’s the point?

But life’s repetitiveness looks different if we turn our focus to the character of God. We know God is intentional (Eph. 1:3–10) and looking to bless (Phil. 4:19). We know he is personal (Ps. 28:7) and has a great plan (Heb. 13:20–21). If these things are true, repetition isn’t pointless. Nor is it meant as a punishment or time-out until we can prove ourselves so God will do something grand in our lives. The purpose of this repetitive life is sanctification.

4 Blessings of Repetition

While God used the births of my three children and unwanted relocations to sanctify me, he uses my everyday, seemingly repetitive life to do the most work in my heart. Consider these blessings of repetition.

1. It teaches us how to act.

If repetition is part of God’s plan, we can stop fighting it and look to see what he’s teaching us, how he’s working, and whom he wants us to serve. We can have a heart of gratitude, a sense of awe, and eyes that see the small blessings we easily take for granted. Is he teaching us humility while cleaning a toilet? Servant-heartedness as we work with colleagues with whom we may not agree? Dependence with prayer as we send kids off to school? Thankfulness for our food when we’re making dinner? Kindness during an argument with a spouse?

God uses my everyday, seemingly repetitive life to do the most work in my heart.

God is calling us to live lives that please him, and by accepting the place where he has put us, we can do his good work with joyful hearts—even if it’s the same work we’ve done many times before. Repetition can teach us to trust the One who does good things in us even if what’s going on around us stays the same. A lot of life—especially the repetitive parts—can be tiring, but I feel new energy knowing God is using it for his glory.

2. It teaches us how to react.

Knowing I’m surrounded by people who are also dealing with repetitiveness allows me to show them grace, speak a kind word, and give the benefit of the doubt. Instead of feeling annoyed after I’m cut off in traffic, I consider that God may be using it to teach me patience and how to have a Christ-honoring response. Instead of being impatient with a child who has disobeyed once again, I can see it as an opportunity to show mercy while teaching them about responsibility. Instead of feeling insulted by a colleague, I can bring the offense to the Lord and ask for help in speaking clearly with grace.

3. It prepares us.

David Helm points out that while the book of Daniel highlights amazing events in Daniel’s life, surviving the lion’s den and the fiery furnace among them, there were actually just nine such events recorded over the course of his life. Nine events over 80 years. What was he doing during all that other time? “He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Dan. 6:10). Daniel made a habit of prayer, thanksgiving, and trust.

Similarly, the repetition of spiritual disciplines practiced in the easy days can prepare us for the hard days. God doesn’t waste any of our days, so the redundant days must be good for us too. The repetition of reading the Scriptures, praying, living in community, and repenting are gifts. God wants us to take advantage of these blessings daily.

4. It reminds us of God’s mercy.

We can be sure that one thing we do repetitively is sin. We could be overwhelmed and oppressed by our sin nature if not for the repetitive forgiveness of our Lord. He’s gracious toward us in the seemingly endless cycle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, even when we repeat the same sin over and over. We must remember that he delights to forgive us, remembers his covenant (Gen. 9:15–16), and removes our transgressions (Ps. 103:12).

God’s Care in Repetition

We often take for granted the repetition of nature because it’s so familiar. The changing of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, the perfect rotations that allow growth, sleep, and health. But the Creator God is amazingly intentional, and all creation is blessed by these rhythms.

The repetition of spiritual disciplines practiced in the easy days can prepare us for the hard days.

Could you imagine if we woke every morning just hoping the sun might rise? Or how unsure we would feel if we didn’t know whether to expect a blizzard or an 80-degree day? What a blessing to see God’s daily care of repetition and the strange safety it provides.

God’s gift of repetitive days mirrors his repetitive work of sanctification. It’s all for our good in becoming more like Jesus and will, thankfully, continue until we go home to glory. So be encouraged in your repetitive life, knowing that God ordains our days—even the ones that aren’t exciting enough to post about.

How to Make Sense of the Whole Bible Fri, 21 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Is there a single theme to the entire Bible? We ask this question and more in an interview with Andreas Köstenberger about his book on biblical theology.]]> Recently at my men’s Bible study, a college student explained how the “metanarrative of Scripture” made sense of the passage we were examining. Even just 20 years ago, when I was in college, I don’t recall anyone besides an occasional professor using this kind of language. Now it’s become almost normal for believers to examine the big story of the Bible and to think about the contributions of each book to the larger picture of God’s revelation.

What’s changed? How did we get to the point where next-generation leaders assume the interconnectedness of the Bible?

The assumption of the interconnectedness of the Bible—a vast book, written in multiple languages by dozens of authors, across thousands of years—shouldn’t be taken for granted. In many ways, the young leaders of today benefit from decades of work in the field of biblical theology—a discipline that played a major role in the growth of Reformed theology in the evangelical church and in the ministry of The Gospel Coalition in particular. Despite its pervasiveness, the study of biblical theology is an area where new contributions are desperately needed. And one of those new contributions comes in the form of a nearly 1000-page tome from Andreas Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach.

Köstenberger is no stranger to students of the Bible. He’s written dozens of works—Bible introductions, commentaries, hermeneutics guides, ministry resources, and so much more. Undoubtedly, Biblical Theology serves as something of a career capstone for Köstenberger, distilling much of what he’s addressed over the decades of his ministry and writing career. But along with Köstenberger, co-author Gregory Goswell from Christ College, Sydney, provides deeper levels of insight around the Old Testament. Together, these scholars of the Old and New Testaments help us listen to Scripture better.

I corresponded with Köstenberger about this new book, and he shared how this new approach gives every book of the Bible a seat at the table.

What is biblical theology and how does it differ from other disciplines such as systematic theology or movements like the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS)?

Biblical theology pursues the theology of the biblical writers themselves through sustained listening to the various texts of Scripture. The way we see it, biblical theology is about connections, while systematic theology is about construction. In our biblical theology, we draw connections between the different voices in the canon, between earlier and later Old Testament (OT) books, between New Testament (NT) and OT books and texts, and so forth. In some cases, we see a NT author cite an OT text which cites an earlier OT text.

Biblical theology is about connections, while systematic theology is about construction.

For example, Jesus’s “I am” sayings in John (6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1) likely reflect Isaiah’s language about Yahweh in Isaiah 40–66, which harks back to God’s self-identification to Moses in Exodus as “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Since biblical theology is a historical, inductive, and descriptive discipline, we seek to understand texts on their own terms and draw connections between the texts, or “intertextual connections,” delicately and with care while respecting biblical terminology, the original historical setting, and their place and time in the history of God’s dealings with his people.

Systematic theology ideally is based on biblical theology and engages in theological construction based on a taxonomy of important biblical topics such as God, Christ, salvation, the Spirit, and the church. It arranges the biblical material topically, logically, and in the contemporary context to show the relevance of Scripture in addressing today’s questions.

When it comes to TIS, the key question, as we see it, is how people define “theological.” If by that we mean we recognize God as the author of Scripture—that the Bible is revelation from God and written to reveal God, his character, and his ways—there’s much common ground between biblical theology and TIS.

We believe it’s important to recognize, however, that TIS didn’t invent the theological interpretation of Scripture. Far from it; the best commentators have always asked theological questions of the text. For TIS, starting with God is a broad, deductive presupposition when coming to Scripture, while in biblical theology, we seek to interpret texts inductively and to draw connections between related scriptural passages in keeping with the beliefs and convictions held by the biblical writers.

We certainly believe that biblical scholars, with their competence in the biblical languages and exegesis, have a vital contribution to make. Therefore we believe the best model is one of genuine partnership between the various disciplines where practitioners bring their relevant expertise to the table and work together.

For those who cut their teeth in seminary on works by Kaiser, Schreiner, Thielman, Guthrie, or Marshall, how does your approach differ from theirs? How do your ‘canon’ and ‘ethics’ sections for each book play into your unique approach?

Several of the people you mention have only written NT or OT theologies, while ours is a whole-Bible biblical theology. In fact, I believe there are only a handful of current evangelical English-speaking biblical theologies on the market. I’m thinking here of Beale, Schreiner, Thielman, and Witherington, in particular. Interestingly, in each case, one scholar (whose primary expertise, I think, is in NT) tackled the entire project. In our case, we each bring our respective areas of expertise to the table and engage in a genuinely collaborative project. Greg and I work together using a common method, which understands biblical theology as an inductive, historical, and descriptive discipline with important ethical implications.

We’re also united in our belief that canon is very important as we draw connections between various writings that together make up the biblical library of 66 books. We’re committed to allowing each one of those books to have a place at the table, which is why we start with a book-by-book approach. For each book, we discuss its major themes, ethical teachings, and canonical contribution, that is, its place in the storyline of Scripture. Then we synthesize our findings and include discussions of, say, the ethics of the Pentateuch or major themes in the Gospels.

Our final chapter provides a grand synthesis of the entire book, where we discuss about a dozen central OT and NT biblical themes such as kingdom, covenant, the cross, mission, and the love of God. Finally, we identify the love of God in Christ and God’s desire for us to reciprocate that love as being at the heart of the biblical metanarrative (though not its single center). Identifying this heart of the metanarrative, we believe, is a distinctive contribution to the field of biblical theology. To our knowledge, no one has yet argued this thesis in a major biblical theology.

You, along with Don Carson, dismiss some of the totalizing trends in biblical theology. Why do you find these kinds of efforts problematic?

As for the quest for a single center of biblical theology, Don Carson’s skepticism that the “holy grail” of a single center actually exists resonates with us, and we concur such efforts inevitably end up being reductionistic. We also agree with Carson’s wise counsel that the measure of a biblical theology is how well it handles the diversity of Scripture.

So in our biblical theology, we try to strike an appropriate balance between the unity and the diversity of Scripture. We use the metaphor of a moderated family conversation, where the parents ensure everyone has a place at the table and every voice is heard. Applied to biblical theology, we seek to moderate the canonical conversation in such a way that all biblical voices have a place at the table as we draw connections and synthesize the biblical material.

As a result, we identify about a dozen OT and NT themes that make an important contribution to the canon. At the same time, we do believe God’s love for the world is at the heart of the biblical metanarrative. Jesus taught that loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind sums up the entire OT, while Paul wrote that the greatest Christian virtue is love and John’s love ethic is well known. That said, we’ll let our biblical theology speak for itself as we discuss a large number of themes and ethical teachings in about 750 pages.

Throughout the book, you emphasize the importance of the order of the canonical books and the way that ordering shapes our understanding of the text. What’s the most significant example of where canonical ordering influences your understanding of the Bible? How do various schemas for canonical ordering affect your approach?

Let me provide a couple of examples, one from the OT and one from the NT, where the position assigned to a book has an influence on how it’s understood and how it functions in relation to other books.

God’s love for the world is at the heart of the biblical metanarrative.

The placement of Lamentations after Jeremiah in the Greek Bible makes the link with Jeremiah fundamental to a proper reading of the book. If one of the voices heard lamenting is that of Jeremiah, this leads to a rapprochement between the prophet of judgment and the people who suffered, for their suffering is acknowledged and felt by the prophet who condemned them. The position of Lamentations in the Hebrew canon reflects its liturgical use as one of five festal scrolls (Megillot). This placement doesn’t tie the book to any one historical crisis and affirms its usefulness in future crises too.

Turning to Acts, this book is never placed next to Luke’s Gospel in any ancient manuscript or canon list, despite their common authorship and a connecting verse, Acts 1:1. The Gospel and Acts lived separate lives in the NT canon, and their lack of proximity is a statement about the differing contexts in which each volume should be read. In terms of canonical relations, Acts is linked to the Gospels as a canonical block rather than to Luke in particular and helps to unify the witness of the NT by bridging the four Gospels and the letters, for it describes the mission of Paul in founding many of the churches that subsequently received letters from him.

How would you recommend a busy pastor apply the practice of biblical theology to his sermon preparation? How does a sermon shaped by sound biblical theology differ from one that isn’t?

Pastors shouldn’t merely preach expository sermons but biblical-theological ones. Therefore, whatever book they’re preaching on, they should view in its overall canonical framework. This means they’ll seek to draw connections with other portions of Scripture that are relevant to their given text.

For example, when preaching on the story of Joseph in Genesis, they should relate the story to God’s promise to Abraham earlier in the book and draw connections with the later biblical material. In particular, they’ll want to explore ways in which the story of Joseph relates to the story of Jesus. It won’t be difficult to find numerous points of connectivity.

If a preacher approaches his study and sermon preparation in this way, he’ll experience spiritual enrichment and his horizons will be enlarged. He’ll draw his readers into the biblical metanarrative and model a holistic, canonical approach that will greatly enhance their ability to understand the message of Scripture for themselves.

Such sermons will be shaped initially by the pastor conducting a close reading of the text in its original historical context and, based on such a reading, discerning genuine points of connection between the theological message of the text and people in the congregation. In our experience, people are hungry to connect with God and to have Scripture speak to them in their own life challenges and existential situations.

What do you see as the emerging trends in biblical theology that you’re most excited about? What are some new and fruitful directions you anticipate future scholars will explore over the next 20 years? Which trends in biblical theology do you see as concerning in years to come?

It’s easy to see when you survey the burgeoning field that biblical theology is a vibrant discipline with an incredible amount to offer to the church and to the academy as well. There are several book series that will continue to produce important contributions on individual themes in various books or corpora of Scripture. The Biblical Theology of the New Testament series, which I edit, awaits completion with volumes on Matthew, Hebrews, and Revelation. The Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary series is a projected 40-volume series of which only a fraction has appeared in print to date. Other helpful series include New Studies in Biblical Theology, Essential Studies in Biblical Theology, and Short Studies in Biblical Theology. Biblical theology is such a large field that, I say, the more the merrier!

Biblical theology is a vibrant discipline with an incredible amount to offer to the church and to the academy as well.

One concern is that the term “biblical theology” is capable of multiple definitions and methods. This calls for care in defining what we’re after when engaging in biblical theology and for scrupulous attention to method.

Greg and I aimed to be clear in matters of definition and method. But some practice what we’d consider a hybrid approach that collapses the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology. They presuppose a theological system and then pour biblical-theological content into this grid. The way we see it, however, in such approaches biblical theology is no longer purely inductive. We realize, of course, that pure induction is an impossibility, but still believe induction is what we should aim for while keeping presupposed theological systems at bay.

So as you’re reading this, beware: not everything sold under the banner of biblical theology is necessarily proceeding on the basis of the same definition and method.

In the last section of our biblical theology, Greg and I consider its future. We don’t claim to be able to foretell what that future holds, but we do discuss what we’d like that future to be. We believe biblical theology has a bright future and suggest things to strive for and things to avoid. Our hope is that a new generation of scholars will produce biblical theologies that are theoretically responsible, methodologically nuanced, and theologically refined. For that to happen, we hope to see more work in the following areas:

  • A clear definition of biblical theology and a proper distinction from systematic theology
  • A greater spirit of collaboration and openness to the findings of others and, conversely, less competitiveness among scholars in the field
  • Abandonment of the search for a master key and instead the adoption of a multiplex approach
  • Greater integration between biblical theology and ethics, as we’ve tried to model in our volume
  • Proper attention to the theology of each book of the Bible in conjunction with major themes, the storyline of Scripture, and canonical structure
  • Greater nuance in the way we understand OT Scripture to be related to Jesus
  • Starting biblical theology with creation, not redemption, which offers the promise of a truly global approach in which God’s love and mission receive the attention they deserve
  • Using biblical theology to serve the church, not just the academy, by nurturing a new generation of preachers, and thus entire congregations, with a fresh, exciting way of reading Scripture
Radical Christian Gentleness in an Era of Addictive Outrage Thu, 20 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Some in Reformed churches who have most celebrated Edwards have also celebrated manly militancy in ways contrary to what Edwards sees as an essential quality of a genuine child of God.]]> Anger is one of the most seductive of human emotions. The great temptation when we’re hurt, threatened, or offended is to fight back. We want to respond in kind, to give as much as we get. And especially if we’re angry in what we see as a righteous cause, we’re likely to want to stand up and fight for what’s right.

Since we live in an age marked on all sides by anger, grievance, and resentment, including among Christians, it’s especially helpful to step back and listen to Jonathan Edwards’s wisdom on this topic. Though he lived in a time very different from ours, he often encountered these perennial human traits even among the parishioners of colonial New England churches.

In a striking, but too often neglected, passage in Religious Affections, Edwards insists an essential trait of any true Christian is “the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.” He presents this point as nothing less than a fundamental of the faith. He insists the evidence in Scripture is so “very abundant” as to prove such traits are essential marks of true Christians.

Scripture’s Gentle Vision

At the heart of the gospel are the radical teachings of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, that blessedness is to be found in the meek, the merciful, and those who become like little children.

Likewise, Paul repeatedly exhorts the elect to such virtues, as in Colossians 3:12–13 (KJV), where he urges “mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving.” Or in 1 Corinthians 13, where similar traits of humility and deference to others are among the traits of true charity. Or consider the “fruit of the spirit,” which includes “love, joy, peace long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23, KJV).

These are some of the best-known biblical highlights, but Edwards offers page after page of Scripture texts showing these aren’t only Christ’s characteristics but should be evident in anyone “in Christ.”

Our Militaristic Impulse

Edwards’ uncompromising firmness on this point is particularly needed today because it’s so seldom emphasized, let alone insisted on, in much of evangelicalism. Particularly in the United States, when people speak of “evangelical” Christians, these are rarely the qualities that come to mind. The Reformed segments of evangelicals generally haven’t been exceptions. Not that these biblical teachings are missing altogether, but the radically gentle and pacific implications of our new nature are rarely accentuated, as they are by Edwards, as essential marks of true Christians.

Edwards insists an essential trait of any true Christian is ‘the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.’

Many 21st-century evangelicals have been shaped in part by the 20th-century fundamentalist heritage. Fundamentalists, having understandable zeal to defend the essentials of the traditional faith, characteristically presented their concern as a cause for militancy. They emphasized the warfare imagery from the Bible, applying it to fighting against liberalism and many modern cultural trends. Indignation over such trends could often lead to anger toward those who were undermining traditional teaching. And righteous indignation was often an effective tool in mobilizing Christians to defend the faith.

Such emphases on embattlement persist in many evangelical churches, even those who have moved beyond classic fundamentalism. Even some in Reformed churches who have most celebrated Edwards have also celebrated manly militancy in ways contrary to what Edwards sees as an essential quality of a genuine child of God.

More broadly, we live in an age when social media puts an immense premium on cultivating anger and indignation. We’re experiencing a pandemic of addictive outrage that spreads uncontrollably on the internet. Polarized political hostilities have made the situation worse, and Christians of all sorts, whether on the right or left, are hardly immune. Edwards’s emphasis on “the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ” may be needed today more urgently than ever.

What About Christian Fortitude?

Edwards anticipates some who will object that there’s also a place for “Christian fortitude and the boldness for Christ, being good soldiers in the Christian warfare, and in coming out boldly against the enemies of Christ and his people.” There indeed is, he concedes, a place for fortitude and boldness in literal warfare. But he immediately adds that “many people seem to be quite mistaken about the nature of Christian fortitude” when they make the fierce and brutal attitudes of human warfare a model for Christian attitudes more generally.

Even some in Reformed churches who have most celebrated Edwards have also celebrated manly militancy in ways contrary to what Edwards sees as an essential quality of a genuine child of God.

“Though Christian fortitude appears, in withstanding and counteracting the enemies that are without us,” he acknowledges, “yet it much more appears, in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us.” These are the enemies of pride and self-aggrandizement, the opposites of “meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of mind.” As Proverbs 16:32 (KJV) says, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

When we think of “Christian warfare” as one of the metaphors that should shape the Christian’s life, says Edwards, we also should think of our captain Jesus Christ as the model for conducting such warfare. Christ could’ve resisted his oppressors with the fierceness of a roaring lion. But he instead showed his valor as a gentle lamb. If we’re to follow Christ in boldness and valor, it should not be

in the exercise of any fiery passions; not in fierce and violent speeches, and vehemently declaiming against, and of crying out of the intolerable wickedness of the opposers, giving ‘em their own plain terms; but in not opening his mouth when afflicted and oppressed, in going as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers, is dumb; not opening his mouth; praying that the father will forgive his cruel enemies, because they knew not what they did.

Edwards concedes some true Christians may have a naturally difficult temperament and a contrary spirit so that they sometimes act contrary to Christ’s lamblike nature. “But this I affirm,” he declares,

and shall affirm till I deny the Bible to be worth anything, that everything in Christians that belongs to true Christianity is of this tendency and works this way: and that there is no true Christian on earth, but is so under the prevailing power of such a spirit, that he is properly denominated by it, and it is truly and justly his character.

At the end of the day, Edwards insists all true Christians are dominated by Christlike traits.

The FAQs: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Christian Mailman’s Case Thu, 20 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a significant religious liberty case that involves religious accommodations for a postal worker who refused to work on Sundays. Here’s what you should know about that case and why it matters.]]> What just happened?

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Groff v. DeJoy, a significant religious liberty case that involves religious accommodations for a postal worker who refused to work on Sundays.

What is the case about?

According to First Liberty Institute, the law firm arguing the case for the petitioner, Gerald Groff is a United States Postal Service (USPS) worker in Pennsylvania who firmly believes he must “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). When the post office began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays, Groff’s supervisor granted him an accommodation to observe Sunday Sabbath.

However, a few years later, the post office withdrew the accommodation and scheduled him on Sundays. Groff chose to transfer to a new post office that didn’t require Amazon delivery at that point, which meant sacrificing all his seniority on his path to becoming a full-time carrier. But then that new post office also began to require Sunday delivery.

For missing Sundays to honor the Lord’s Day, the USPS then subjected Gerald to eight separate predisciplinary reviews, each one requiring him to drive out of his way to the hub post office, adding extra driving time to his day while he was still required to fulfill his obligation to deliver his assigned route. He received a “Letter of Warning” and two separate suspensions (totaling 21 days) over the course of two years, all while working daily under the looming threat of losing his job each time he went to work.

During that time, says First Liberty, Gerald was subjected to harsh and unfair treatment, mocked by his supervisor, and docked pay without justification. After two years of progressive discipline, hostility from supervisors, and not knowing if any day was the day he would be terminated, Gerald resigned on January 18, 2019, and sued USPS for failing to reasonably accommodate his religious practice.

The lower courts refused to allow for Groff’s religious accommodation, citing the de minimis cost test that was first applied in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (1977).

In January 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case and will determine if the law requires employers to grant meaningful religious accommodations to people of faith.

What are the legal questions being considered in this case?

The questions presented before the Supreme Court are as follows:

1. Whether the court should disapprove the more-than-de-minimis-cost test for refusing religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stated in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison

2. Whether an employer may demonstrate “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” under Title VII merely by showing that the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself

What was the reaction of the justices during the oral arguments?

Three current justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch—have previously said the court should reconsider the standard set in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison. There seemed to be a similar reaction to this case.

“Some courts have taken this de minimis standard and run with it,” said Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“Maybe,” he added, “we could do a good day’s work and put a period at the end of it and say that is not the law.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett also suggested the case be sent back to lower courts with this instruction: “To be clear, de minimis doesn’t mean trifling cost.”

Why is this case important?

The case allows the Supreme Court to correct a previous ruling that undermined religious liberty protections provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on various factors, including religion. Under Title VII, employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would cause “undue hardship” for the employer. But in the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the Supreme Court instituted the “de minimis cost test” as the legal standard for determining whether the accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs would cause undue hardship.

In simple terms, it means that if an employer can accommodate an employee’s religious practices with minimal cost or disruption to the business, they must do so. If, however, the cost or burden of the accommodation is more than just minimal or insignificant, the employer might not be required to provide the accommodation, as it could be considered an undue hardship. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his dissent to the Hardison ruling, the de minimis test “effectively nullif[ies]” Title VII’s promise of a workplace free from religious discrimination.

By only requiring employers to accommodate religious practices if the cost or burden is minimal, it has become too easy for employers to claim that an accommodation would impose an undue hardship, even if the actual effect on their business is relatively minor. This has led to situations where employees’ religious needs are not met, even when accommodating them wouldn’t significantly disrupt the workplace. During the pandemic, some employers relied on this test in denying religious accommodations for vaccine mandates. It has also been used in other contexts, such as prohibiting religious garb, in objections to moral conduct, and—as in the Groff case—Sabbath observance.

The de minimis cost test can also be somewhat subjective, as it relies on courts to determine whether a particular accommodation imposes more than a minimal cost or burden. This subjectivity can lead to inconsistent outcomes, with some employees receiving accommodations for their religious beliefs while others in similar situations do not.

The de minimis cost test also doesn’t adequately account for the importance of religious practices to the individual employee. By focusing on the cost or burden to the employer, the test can overlook the significance of the accommodation to the employee’s ability to fully practice his or her religion. As a result, the de minimis cost test undervalues religious liberty, placing it at a disadvantage compared to other workplace concerns.

A more balanced approach would require employers to demonstrate that an accommodation would cause significant hardship, rather than just a minimal cost, before they’re exempt from providing it. This higher threshold could better protect employees’ religious liberty while still recognizing that employers shouldn’t be overburdened by excessive costs or disruptions.

By setting a low threshold for what constitutes an undue hardship and focusing on the cost or burden to the employer, the test may not always adequately protect employees’ rights to practice their religion and could lead to inconsistencies in how religious accommodations are provided. The Supreme Court should restore Title VII’s workplace protections for religious employees to what Congress intended before the Court changed the meaning of the statute.

When will the case be decided?

A decision is expected by the end of June 2023.

Your Conscience on a Spectrum (and a Flowchart) Thu, 20 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Introducing two tools: the ‘Conscience Spectrum’ and the ‘How Not to Judge’ flowchart.]]> I recently preached two topical sermons on the conscience: “The Conscience and the Christian” and “The Conscience and the Local Church.” To accompany the sermons, I developed two graphics that address different aspects of how we should handle our own consciences and relate to others’ consciences.

Here’s the first, which I call the “Conscience Spectrum.”

How the Conscience Works

Conscience is your inner sense of right and wrong that judges everything you’ve done or are considering doing.

Strictly speaking, your conscience delivers only black-and-white judgments (e.g., Rom. 2:15, “accuse or even excuse”). Whether looking backward at something you’ve done or forward at something you’re considering, your conscience tells you only “right” or “wrong.” To start on the left end of the spectrum, your conscience only tells you whether an action is prohibited or not. All of Scripture’s negative commands (“Thou shalt not . . .”) categorically prohibit certain actions. And on the right end, your conscience tells you whether an action is required or not. All of Scripture’s positive commands require certain actions, though some of those actions depend on prior conditions (e.g., “Husbands, love your wives” obviously depends on being married).

Conscience is your inner sense of right and wrong that judges everything you’ve done or are considering doing.

The reason I’ve filled in both ends of the spectrum with black is that in both cases your conscience is bound. Whether your conscience tells you something is prohibited or required, it constrains your behavior. It issues you a command you must heed. Whatever God’s Word prohibits, your conscience should prohibit; whatever it commands, your conscience should command. But because of sin, nobody’s conscience is perfectly aligned with God’s will. Nonetheless, God’s will is the standard to which we should continually recalibrate our consciences.

That said, Christians’ consciences will be differently bound and unbound depending on what we understand Scripture to require and how we understand real-world scenarios. The fact that Bible-believing Christians’ consciences differ over some theological and practical issues, such as who should be baptized, or how to vote, doesn’t mean that those issues are inconsequential. I’ll say more about theological disagreement below.

Whenever your conscience isn’t bound by either a requirement or a prohibition, you’re free to act (or not to act). Here we are dealing with matters where Scripture does not bind the conscience one way or another; they are neither forbidden nor required. When a matter falls into the clear central zone, you might seek advice about whether to act, but no fellow Christian, church leader, or church standard should command you one way or the other. That would be going beyond God’s will and binding your conscience where he hasn’t.

But notice I’ve shaded in the edges of the clear space with hash marks. That’s because the boundaries are sometimes blurry. You’re not always sure what your conscience is telling you, or whether what’s weighing on you is your conscience. There are actions God’s Word doesn’t strictly forbid, but they sure seem like a bad idea. A wise friend or pastor might advise you—even warn you—not to do it, but such advice shouldn’t be taken as a divine command. Conversely, there are actions God’s Word doesn’t strictly require, but they seem sufficiently wise, profitable, and beneficial to you and others that someone might strongly encourage you to do them.

In this territory, we’re still in the realm of counsel, not command. Keeping a clear distinction between the two protects your own conscience, protects Christian liberty, and ultimately protects the gospel.

How to Handle Differing Consciences

What happens when Christians disagree about what belongs in the black, white, or shaded sections? What if you think some act is a sin but another member of your church seems not to? Here’s where the second graphic comes in, which we can call the “How Not to Judge” flowchart.



Taking our cue from Romans 14:1–15:7, the goal in this flowchart is to figure out how to respond when another believer’s sin is bothering you—and how to do so without judging him, which Paul repeatedly warns against (Rom. 14:3–5, 10, 13). Assume this person is a member of the same local church as you. You see him do something or hear him say something you think is a sin. What should you do?


Start by asking Is the sin against me? If it is, your first order of business is to forgive the person. Forgiveness is inward and vertical before it’s ever outward and horizontal.

Whenever someone sins against you, you’re obligated, within the confines of your own heart, to refuse to make her pay for her sin, to refuse to punish her for it, and to will her good in love. This is what Jesus teaches in Mark 11:25: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Tim Keller’s book Forgive is outstanding on this point.)

If the sin is relatively minor, after forgiving the person it’s often best to simply forbear. In other words, forgive and move on. No need to say anything.

If the sin is relatively minor, after forgiving the person it’s often best to simply forbear.

As Paul exhorts us, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12–13).

Reconcile (When Possible)

But forgiveness might not be all you should do. When do you say something to the person who sinned against you? The simplest answer is “When his sin continues to bother you.” It might bother you because of how seriously it harmed you. Or, even if you’re not affected personally, you might be concerned about what this sin says about the person’s spiritual state.

In any case, if his sin is serious enough that it keeps blinking on your moral and emotional radar, it’s probably best to talk to him about it. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15–17 and Luke 17:3–5. It’s an effort to extend forgiveness outwardly and horizontally.

Whether you’re able to successfully extend that forgiveness depends, first of all, on having already forgiven the person in your heart. It also depends on whether he repents of his sin and asks for your forgiveness. You can only control the former. That’s why Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

Of course, there’s a sense in which you can extend forgiveness to the person regardless of whether he asks for it. But for the relationship to be reconciled and restored, for forgiveness to be both offered and received, he must repent.

Pray and Decide Whether to Say Something

What if the sin isn’t against you? What you mustn’t do is judge, condemn, grow embittered, or harbor resentment. As the popular saying goes, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Instead, start by praying for the person and saying nothing to anyone but God.

But when should you say something? After all, as Keller puts it, “It is never loving to allow someone to go on sinning in a grievous way.” As Paul says (speaking not of sin against you but of sin in which someone’s “caught” or “found out”), “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1).

Here are two key questions to ask: (1) How confident are you that this is a sin? and (2) How serious a sin is it? The higher the sin scores on both counts, the more likely you should say something.

What if you try to talk to the other person, and it turns out you disagree about whether the act in question is a sin?

One factor to consider is whether there’s a theological difference at the root. One Christian views Sunday as the Sabbath and thinks it’s a sin to do any type of work; another doesn’t. You can address the theological issue if you like. But, like in Romans 14, recognize there are theological and practical issues Christians will continue to disagree about. We’ve disagreed over the Sabbath for 2,000 years. This might be one you have to live with!

It’s important to recognize Paul’s entire discussion in Romans 14:1–15:7 is built on the conviction that Christians should be able to live together in rich harmony, as members of the same church, despite ongoing clashes of conscience.

Christians should be able to live together in rich harmony, as members of the same church, despite ongoing clashes of conscience.

If there isn’t a theological difference at stake, make sure you agree about the moral basis of how you evaluate the issue. Your conscience works by applying a rule to a specific situation. It evaluates the particular in light of the universal. A judgment of conscience involves evaluating some situation outside the Bible with reference to a principle from the Bible. There are always two parts to the judgment.

So if you decide to pursue a conversation with the brother or sister you disagree with, try to come up with every relevant scriptural passage and principle. Lay them all out on the table and look at them together. Make sure you’re agreeing about the biblical basis for how you should evaluate the disputed behavior. Only then discuss the action. Give each person a chance to characterize it. And if you think her understanding of the behavior is defective, try to improve it, and see if she agrees with your improvement.

Preference ≠ Conviction

Even here, Christians will disagree. Is going five miles an hour over the speed limit a sin? What about jaywalking? Or not tipping at a restaurant? Recognize you can agree about the scriptural rule and disagree about its application.

Locating the source of disagreement helps contain it. Your disagreement is only there. It’s not about the lordship of Christ but about whether this action violates that rule. And remember that not every disagreement is a matter of conscience. Some are simply preferences. Not every preference is a conviction of conscience.

Does It Matter What I Do with My Hands in Worship? Wed, 19 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Our God deserves engaged, heartfelt worship.]]> As a Christian, have you ever considered how your body participates in—even facilitates—your worship?

W. David O. Taylor’s new book A Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of Our Physical Bodies in Worship thoroughly analyzes the importance of the physical body for corporate worship. Embodied worship isn’t strictly a spiritual experience—the physical body is required to praise God rightly and fully. We don’t need our bodies out of the way to truly worship; we need our bodies to lead the way.

I’ve been a believer nearly all of my life, and the question still nags me in corporate worship: What do I do with my hands? Maybe it’s fear of man, or maybe I’m too hesitant to be vulnerable, but I’m always conscious of my physical movements. Taylor’s book helps us consider what to do with our bodies when we gather for worship.

Intentionality of the Body

Taylor’s thesis is twofold. First, he argues there’s “nothing neutral whatsoever about the bodies we bring to worship” (4). He focuses his argument on organized corporate gatherings—your Sunday church service. (He’s not referring to worship as an attitude, lifestyle, or personal experience.) On Sunday, we bring bodies with particularities, limitations, and five senses that ought to be engaged. Since our bodies fundamentally shape our experience in the world, Taylor hopes readers will embrace their bodies as the wonderful means of “communion with God in the praises and prayers of the people of God” (27).

Second, Taylor argues we’re commanded to worship, designed to worship, and should delight to worship God with our bodies (5). The remainder of the book supports these three claims from historical, biblical, theological, scientific, artistic, and ethical angles. Taylor then addresses both prescriptive and spontaneous applications for the body in congregational worship.

We’re commanded to worship, designed to worship, and should delight to worship God with our bodies.

Taylor’s emphasis on the body as intended, essential, and good is relevant to contemporary Christian arguments on embodiment. His esteem for the physicality of our embodied state fits with the recent resurgence in evangelical and mainline-Protestant literature celebrating and studying human embodiment (historically, embodiment was more celebrated and studied in Catholic theological literature).

Additionally, Taylor raises questions regarding the purpose, and potential applications, of the body in worship. These questions, addressed throughout the book and listed specifically on page 137, are worth considering:

  • Have we failed to properly instruct our people in the meaning of their bodily activities in worship?
  • Have we succumbed to mindless rote behaviors?
  • Have we given rigorous attention to the body at the expense of rigorous attention to the heart? Alternatively, have we overemphasized the heart to the neglect of the body?
  • Have we begun to regard our bodily actions superstitiously? Or even incredulously?
  • Have we come to love our visible deeds for the sake of being seen and praised by others?

Any theological stream would do well to consider Taylor’s points and provide sound theological foundations for its own treatment of embodiment in corporate worship.

Limitations of the Body and the Book

Taylor’s argument is limited by his definition of worship. Yes, it’s “in and through our God-given bodies that worship and mission, work and play, relationship and service are fully realized” (63). But he shortchanges the expansive outworking of a positive, biblical understanding of embodiment to the rest of life beyond corporate worship. We can use all five senses and every act of our bodies to bring glory to God on Monday through Saturday as well.

Our entire lives are experienced in a state of embodiment—and we’ll remain embodied in a glorified state for eternity. With all the good they can influence and produce, our current bodies are innately limited.

Even before the entrance of sin into the world, humans had intrinsic limitations (ontological, physical, epistemological), demonstrating inherent dependence on God. As the all-powerful Creator, he brought humans into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo (Gen. 1); our nature is limited by this creature-Creator dynamic (ontologically). We’re limited spatially; God is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–10). We’re limited in knowledge (epistemologically); God alone is the source and revealer of truth (John 14:6). The very nature of our vulnerable existence is an act of worship to God as creator and sustainer (Acts 17:24).

As a charismatic Anglican priest, Taylor’s theological convictions undergird his recommended applications and claims regarding embodied worship. Many applications would be problematic depending on your tradition. His discussions on physical actions like burning incense, making the sign of the cross, dancing, kneeling—and especially various ways of administering the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism—wouldn’t be appropriate in many church communities. Physical liturgical practices ought to align with a church’s theological convictions.

Heart of Worship

The heart of worship isn’t attitudinal or merely spiritual (i.e., a posture of the heart). As embodied people, the heart of worship includes the posture of our bodies. Our bodies usher us into and facilitate worship, both individually and congregationally.

Physical liturgical practices ought to align with a church’s theological convictions.

It’s important, therefore, that we’re intentional and engaged in corporate worship. While many practices become familiar—even ritualized—we never want to settle for going through the motions.

Likewise, as we expand our exposure to the liturgies and activities of other confessions, we must avoid the temptation to adopt them a la carte and engage in a hodgepodge of unthoughtful, trendy practices. As Taylor successfully communicates, our bodies are more than vehicles for meaningless motion. Our great God deserves engaged, heartfelt, embodied praise.

3 Principles for Pastoral Succession Wed, 19 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Appreciation and parting sorrow signify the pastoral ministry has been a success. Pastoral succession isn’t swapping one CEO for another—it’s the kind of succession that mingles sorrow and joy. ]]> Pastoral succession is complicated. How could it be otherwise? Dealing with spiritual, emotional, and institutional dynamics at the same time is always complicated. That’s especially the case in a pastoral succession where relationships are dear. But by God’s grace, it can be a great experience.

Our leadership transition nearly four years ago at Immanuel Nashville was a uniquely joyful season in the life of our church. The elders of Immanuel, along with my predecessor, Ray Ortlund, mapped out a relationally wise, Spirit-dependent path that God used to far exceed our expectations. I see things we could’ve done better, of course, but I’d walk the same joyful path again in a heartbeat.

Here are three principles for pastoral succession based on our joyful experience at Immanuel and more than a few years of theological reflection since then.

1. Calm, Confident Faith in God

Whatever [Joseph] did, the Lord made it succeed. (Gen. 39:23)

When it comes to big changes and transitions like this, it’s easy for a church to pay more attention to its plans and processes than to Jesus himself. Against that tendency in us all, Genesis 39:23 emphasizes the Lord’s readiness to bless all kinds of faithful ways forward: “Whatever [Joseph] did, the Lord made it succeed.” This doesn’t mean Joseph could do whatever he wanted. It does mean there are many right ways to proceed faithfully with God.

Our heavenly Father magnifies his power by giving us a wide lane of blessing. So the first thing to do is relax. It’s not our great wisdom but our great God who determines success. He uses all kinds of plans to accomplish his purposes. That’s one reason we ought to be slow to commend our institutional processes. So many plans succeed not because we have the best practices but because we have the best Savior.

The first thing to do is relax. It’s not our great wisdom but our great God who determines success. He can make all kinds of plans work.

The most urgent thing in any pastoral succession is to “pay much closer attention” to the essentials of the gospel, where the power resides (Heb. 2:1). Pastoral succession shouldn’t take up all the air in the room. The calm, confident faith in God that we need in such a time is downstream from what’s most essential: enjoying Jesus Christ.

2. Earnest Prayer

Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:5)

Extraordinary needs compel extraordinary seasons of prayer. In Acts 12, the church in Jerusalem doubles down in prayer when it appears their beloved pastor, the apostle Peter, might not make it out of jail alive. The relevance of this event to pastoral succession is nearly on the nose.

An affectionate church recoils at the thought of losing their pastor—as they should. But that sense of need energizes prayer. There’s a place for planning, of course. The Bible affirms wise planning. Yet our confidence comes not from ourselves but from knowing God is with us in our plans. And the only way to access such confidence is through earnest and dependent prayer.

One practical way we sought God during our pastoral succession was by scheduling a series of church family gatherings focused on “praying down” God’s blessing. These meetings gave us an opportunity to bring updates about the pastoral succession, hear feedback, and pray frontline prayers for our church and our city. The prayer gatherings were opportunities for regular communication and for building the relational equity we’d need for the succession to succeed. Most importantly, the gatherings helped us keep the pastoral succession in proper perspective—as just one factor in our church’s much larger mission to glorify God.

3. Expressed Love

There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. (Acts 20:37–38)

Through his gospel, Jesus is creating a social ecosystem of expressed love on earth. He calls it church. This explains the poignant farewell scene between Paul and the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Saying goodbye to those who have faithfully preached the gospel to us is always a sorrow.

If you’re thinking about pastoral succession, chances are your church has been blessed by the ministry of your lead pastor. Pastoral handoffs are usually a sign of stability and maturity in the ministry and tend to entail appreciation for the outgoing pastor. Appreciation and parting sorrow signify the pastoral ministry has been a success. Pastoral succession isn’t swapping one CEO for another—it’s the kind of succession that mingles sorrow and joy.

Appreciation and parting sorrow signify the pastoral ministry has been a success. Pastoral succession isn’t swapping one CEO for another—it’s the kind of succession that mingles sorrow and joy.

One of the things my predecessor helped me see is that the only way for a church to turn the corner in a pastoral succession is to fully express her affection for the outgoing pastor. When we know we’ve done right by him, that we’ve expressed our love and given honor where it’s due, we’re free in heart to lock arms and join hearts with the next lead pastor.

I hope you can see that the most important parts of pastoral succession aren’t organizational and procedural but spiritual and relational. They don’t map neatly onto a flowchart. To further complicate matters, each church has a different relational topography, requiring a unique map for pastoral succession.

I don’t know your church, so I can’t begin to offer a map. But I pray these three principles encourage you to embrace a pastoral succession that expresses faith in God, dependence on his grace, and love for your leadership.

Demystify Mental Health for Missionaries Wed, 19 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Here are four reasons why missionaries suffer silently with mental health, as well as suggestions for how to respond.]]> It’s no secret we’re in an alarming mental health crisis.

A 2020 study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found one in five American adults experiences mental illness each year. In 2021, national leaders in the pediatric medical community declared a “national state of emergency in children’s mental health.” And lest we believe this is an issue limited to America, the World Health Organization’s numbers are similar, with reports of approximately one in five children and adolescents suffering from mental illness globally.

One in five adults. One in five children. In our families, neighborhoods, schools, pews—and in our sending organizations.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and it affects many missionaries globally. Sadly, many of these same missionaries suffer silently, and their mental concerns remain untreated. Why is this, and what can we do about it? While I can’t address every situation, I want to list four common reasons mental illness in missionaries goes unaddressed, then offer suggestions for how to serve suffering missionaries.

1. Obligation to Supporters

The reality is that stories of sacrifice and surrender sell. They soften hearts, stir empathy, and open wallets. I’ve spoken to countless missionaries who feel the pressure to “smile, stay quiet, and look busy.”

I challenge you to find one missionary update email that doesn’t reference their busyness. And I challenge you to find a church, organization, or supporter that doesn’t either overtly or subtly encourage this. We all naturally want bang for our buck. We want the exotic stories. We want proof our missions dollars are going to good use. And missionaries have learned to dutifully play along, with smiles on their faces and upbeat newsletters detailing ministry wins.

We want proof our missions dollars are going to good use. And missionaries have learned to dutifully play along.

As a Christian culture, we’ve placed missionaries on the highest pedestal. Unfortunately, pedestals are an awfully precarious place for those who feel a bit wobbly. But perhaps more tragic than a struggling missionary waving a white flag from the top of the pedestal is one who silently stands in mental anguish, terrified of being the next fallen hero.

2. Fear of Career Implications

Picture this. A 36-year-old father of three has been on the field for 10 years. He and his wife moved overseas as newlyweds just months after graduating from seminary. His life plan and career trajectory have always been missions. But now, he’s suffering from crippling anxiety. His family is falling apart. Yet his greatest fear is that word will get out to their organization. His boss will catch wind of it, and their family will be deemed unfit to stay overseas. He’ll be jobless and effectively homeless. So he stays quiet and suffers silently, undiagnosed and untreated.

When organizations send missionaries across the globe to resource-poor locations, there are obvious risks. To mitigate these risks and to protect missionaries, nationals, and organizations alike, extensive screening and reporting processes are put in place to ensure the mental and physical health of those they send. This is necessary and good. However, when missionaries are expected to go straight to their employers with health concerns, and when the help received is coming primarily from the ones in charge, a culture of distrust, fear, and secrecy can ensue.

Even when set with the best intentions, the structures to protect missionaries might inadvertently cause harm when mental illness comes knocking, especially if missionaries fear the potential loss of their careers, homes, and ministry dreams.

3. Limited Access to Resources

When mental health becomes a concern, the best practice for care often involves therapy. At times, medication. Always, self-care and community. A move overseas, however, can strip away access to each of these.

Even in these days of widespread access to virtual therapy, factors like legal barriers, unstable internet, and financial burdens can leave it out of reach. Meanwhile, the availability of medications is a wild card in many countries. Avenues and resources for self-care are limited in some settings, and advice to “enjoy nature, get exercise, and spend time with friends” may not be possible in a high-security urban setting. And let’s not forget our many missionaries in unreached locations without a local church or other believers to come alongside them in seasons of suffering.

Slowly, as doors close and resources remain out of reach, mental illness can feel exponentially more daunting for the already stretched missionary.

4. Cumulative Stress

There’s been plenty penned on the experience of culture shock. When the fresh, starry-eyed missionary hits the field, we know to expect it. What’s discussed less often is the cumulative effect of near-constant exposure to cultural stress and unpredictable conditions.

Slowly, as doors close and resources remain out of reach, mental illness can feel exponentially more daunting.

When our family first moved overseas, my husband and I referred to this as the “drippy faucet.” Our life stressors never came in a flood. Rather, we saw how the constant drip of another cultural snafu, another inconvenient power outage, and another poorly timed bout with parasites could slowly wear on us.

Despite these challenges, we simultaneously felt the cognitive dissonance of living a privileged expat life in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world. Surrounded by grief and death, we felt guilty for feeling stress in the first place. Because we didn’t have it as bad as others experiencing those “big T” traumas.

How We Can Help

Whether missionaries are facing the steady drip of cultural stress or the all-consuming waves of significant trauma, we shouldn’t be surprised if they struggle with mental health. Of course, missionaries should be prepared to suffer. But that doesn’t mean they should suffer silently. And it doesn’t excuse our lack of awareness or concern or empathy.

As supporters, we should remember the humanity of the missionary behind the prayer card. We should ask pointed questions, such as: “How’s your walk with Christ?” “What’s not making the newsletter?” “What’s felt challenging lately?” “Are you supported well?” And we shouldn’t delay in nudging him or her toward help. We can encourage rest, give money for vacations, and normalize a well-rounded ministry life.

As sending churches, we should remember our jobs don’t end when missionaries are commissioned. We should keep caring and continue shepherding, even if it means flying across the globe to sit with our people in their greatest pain. Even if it means providing housing when they unexpectedly return stateside.

As sending organizations and churches, we should broaden access to independent counseling services. We can provide avenues for support that don’t come from supervisors. We can offer names of vetted counselors and subsidize the often prohibitive costs. We shouldn’t only do this in response to problems; instead, we can promote preventative care before the crisis comes.

As caring brothers and sisters, we can demystify mental health by talking openly and frequently about it. Unwavering support will push us forward; hushed whispers never will. The one in five are worth it. Our missionaries are worth it.

How to Work Well When Your Children Are Sick Tue, 18 Apr 2023 04:05:00 +0000 God will give you grace today for what needs to be done today and grace tomorrow for what needs to be done tomorrow.]]> The phone demands my attention, interrupting the flow of the work in front of me. It’s my child’s school. As I pick up the phone, I know what they’ll say—and I’m right. He has a fever and needs to get picked up.

“I’ll be there soon,” I say automatically as I wrap up the email response I’m working on. I pull up my calendar to look at what’s still ahead in the day and to request things be rescheduled.

Meanwhile, my mind rants, Not again! How many times does that make? Ten? Twelve? When will it stop? How am I supposed to work when sickness comes around all the time?

Whether you work from home or in the office, managing work expectations and a sick child isn’t easy. Our ideal schedule is interrupted, meetings have to be rescheduled, nights are long, children are needy, and the to-dos pile up a mile high.

You may be tempted to try to do it all—and be left feeling frustrated, angry, or anxious about the things you have to do while your heart worries, fears, and tries to comfort the child in your arms.

You’re not alone. I’ve been there too. I’ve stubbornly attempted to attend virtual meetings with a feverish baby wrapped around my chest or worked incessantly at night to catch up on the day’s worth of work. But this has never turned out as I intended. I’m left feeling exhausted, unaccomplished, and guilty.

Let me share a few things I’ve learned about managing work when a child is sick.

1. It’s OK to stop.

Yes, let me say it again: it’s OK and necessary for us to stop the work we’re doing to care for our children. Children are a gift from the Lord and have been entrusted into our care (Ps. 127:3). You may think this is obvious, but for many of us who’ve bought into the world’s perspective on hustling, it’s hard to stop.

It’s OK and necessary for us to stop the work we’re doing to care for our children.

We need to remember there’s a time for everything under the sun (Eccl. 3:1–9). There are moments to work, moments to care for our children who are sick, and moments to rest. Your child is sick today, and work will be there tomorrow. It’s OK to stop.

2. Be diligent.

Stopping may seem impossible if you’re always falling behind. But Proverbs tells us how the ants, without a boss supervising them, work diligently during the summer and autumn seasons in preparation for the winter (Prov. 6:6–11).

In the same way, we must work diligently during seasons of health. That way, when the seasons of illness come, we’re prepared. This may look different depending on your work, but I’ll give you a practice I’ve found helpful. I set my work due dates two to three days ahead of the official deadline, which allows time for anything unexpected while reducing my stress around completing a task on time.

3. Ask for help.

Despite our best efforts, there’ll be times when it’s hard to stop working due to a big, important project or a fast-approaching deadline. In these times, you need to ask for help. We weren’t meant to—and cannot—do this alone.

Coordinate with your husband about which days you’re absolutely unable to miss work, or ask a coworker to cover the meeting for you. The Lord has also made us part of his body, his church, and you may find unexpected and willing help among your sisters from your local church.

4. Enjoy these times.

Although illness puts a damper on everyone’s plans and moods, having a sick child at home creates a unique opportunity for midday snuggles, and it allows us to teach our children about God’s control over all aspects of our lives. Each moment we have with our children is an opportunity to teach them to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, body, and soul. There’s no exception for times of sickness (Deut. 6:5–7).

5. Grow in dependence on our Savior.

Managing work and caring for a sick child is no easy task, and you’re not an all-powerful mother or employee. You can’t do this on your own, and you’ll probably feel frustrated and exhausted. Be patient with yourself, and come to the Lord in repentance and in your need. Remember he’s the One who sustains you, enables you, and equips you for every good deed, both in motherhood and in your workplace.

Sister, as you’ve been called to motherhood and to work, remember that in the middle of sickness or health, your identity is found in the Lord and in what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. Your life and your children’s lives are in the hands of the Lord Almighty. His mercies are new every morning, and he’ll give you grace today for what needs to be done today and grace tomorrow for what needs to be done tomorrow.

Waiting Takes a Village Too Tue, 18 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Just as the church lifts up parents-to-be, we’re called to help carry the burdens of our brothers and sisters who are waiting for children. They need a village too.]]> The announcement usually comes during prayer time. A young husband and wife exchange a knowing glance and then share the news: they’re pregnant! After bursting with congratulations, their small group leaps into planning a baby shower, organizing a meal train, and praying for the little one on the way.

Most churches know how to support couples who are expecting. We recognize the challenges of this joyful, exhausting season and rally to serve them. Who better to be their village than the body of Christ?

But not every family in church can get pregnant or carry a baby to term. Many couples struggle with infertility and miscarriage. These are heartbreaking trials that weigh heavily on a couple’s health, marriage, finances, and relationship with the Lord.

No Christian should walk through infertility or miscarriage alone.

No Christian should walk through infertility or miscarriage alone. Just as the church lifts up parents-to-be, we’re called to help carry the burdens of our brothers and sisters who are waiting for children. They need a village too.

Help for the Waiting

My husband and I have been through the valley of pregnancy hopes deferred. Though our church family wanted to help, they were unsure what would be encouraging and what would make the pain worse. Over time they learned how to weep with us and help strengthen our hold on hope (Heb. 6:18).

Here are five ways churches can support members who are longing for a child.

1. Talk less, listen more.

Infertility involves uncertainty. Couples don’t know when, how, or if they’ll have a child. Resist the impulse to fill in the blanks with advice or platitudes. Heed the wisdom of Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Instead of many words, give couples a listening ear. Sit quietly with them as they pour out their grief. The presence of a friend can remind them the God of all comfort is near (2 Cor. 1:3–4).

2. Show up physically.

Couples might not be bringing home a baby yet, but they still have tangible needs. Consider how to provide for them and show affection (Rom. 12:10–13). For example, drive them to a doctor’s appointment or help clean their house before an adoption caseworker visit.

One practical act of love is to take them a meal, a service traditionally offered to families of newborns. Some church friends did this for us after a failed fertility treatment. Never had I tasted such mercy in a burrito bowl.

3. Include them in church life.

The body of Christ is beautifully varied with different yet vital parts (1 Cor. 12:12). Unfortunately, couples experiencing infertility can feel disconnected from fellow church members. It’s hard to integrate into a family-focused environment when you don’t have kids.

Make an intentional effort to welcome childless couples, as well as single adults and others who don’t fit the nuclear family mold. Include them in small groups and fellowship events. For sermon illustrations, draw from relatable situations beyond the parenting realm. During an infant baptism or child dedication, incorporate a prayer for couples who are waiting for children.

4. Encourage their marriage.

Childbearing difficulties put marriages through the wringer. As a couple’s church family, be an advocate for their marriage in this tough season. Remind them God intends husband and wife to be one flesh (Gen. 2:24). He called his design “very good” before offspring entered the scene (1:31). Encourage them to invest in their relationship now, not someday later when or if a child comes along.

Gently suggest ideas for how spouses can show one another love. Point them toward couples’ retreats or service opportunities where they can grow their faith and enjoy each other’s companionship.

5. Pray for patience.

The Bible emphasizes the importance of praying for someone facing infertility. The stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, and Elizabeth all mention petitioning God to create life when it was thought impossible. Prayers for a couple can include asking for healing (James 5:14), wisdom (1:5), trust (Prov. 3:5), and endurance (Rom. 5:3–4).

When bringing these requests to the Lord, also ask him to give you patience with the couple you’re supporting. In their pain, they might be wrestling with sinful responses or speaking “wind words” of despair (Job 6:26). Continue bearing with them in love (Eph. 4:2–3). For we have one hope in Christ, the head of our village.

Valiant Faith Conquers Fear: The Courage of Moses’s Mother Tue, 18 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Courage isn’t developed through confidence in your own strength. It’s revealed in our faith that Christ is with us through every storm.]]> The Israelites were slaves under a tyrannical ruler in Egypt. Pharaoh attempted to oppose God, defeat his promise of salvation, and extinguish an entire people. But his plans were thwarted by one determined mother.

When Pharaoh called for “all his people” to throw every baby boy of the Hebrews into the Nile (Ex. 1:22), Moses’s mother defied his order. She kept her child hidden as long as she could, then sent him afloat on the Nile. The child’s sister, Miriam, watched over him until he landed safely at the feet of Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him into her house. In the end, the actions of this courageous mother saved not only Moses’s life but the life of a nation.

What does the Bible teach us about courage in this portrait of valiant faith?

1. Courage is making the right decision in the face of fear.

Moses’s mother chose to do what was right despite the pressure to obey Pharaoh. Exodus doesn’t tell us the penalty for defying Pharaoh’s orders, but it would’ve been harsh. Yet Moses’s mother chose to obey another ruler—God’s Word (Heb. 11:23).

To be true, courage must be rooted in a moral vision. One might ask what makes this mother’s insubordination courageous. Is this rebellion? What about the implications for the rest of her family should her resistance be discovered? Was it selfish of her to keep her son when her Hebrew sisters lost theirs? No, Moses’s mother chose the courageous path because she listened to God’s Word over Pharaoh’s. She obeyed God’s law, and her risk was justified.

Courage must be rooted in a moral vision. Moses’s mother chose the courageous path because she listened to God’s Word.

Believers may also ask, “What does courage require of us in each situation?” Answering this question can be a challenge. We need the moral instruction and wisdom of Scripture to understand our times rightly (1 Chron. 12:32). It’ll frequently call us down a path that invites disrespect, mockery, and even persecution from the world. Yet courage sees the cost of following God and obeys him still.

2. Courage comes from God.

One mother’s bravery led to an empire’s humiliation and her nation’s salvation. I love this story because it tells me anyone can have courage.

You may doubt you can be courageous, but what I’ve written above is true. You can have courage if you know where to look for it. We doubt this because we’ve adopted our culture’s view of courage. We assume it’s a trait we find within ourselves. From pop culture, we’ve learned to think that we’ll tap into a reservoir of courage if we look within.

But you find courage by looking upward, not inward. The Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh because they worshiped God (Ex. 1:17). Nehemiah called the Jews to rebuild the city wall without fear of enemies by remembering the Lord (Neh. 4:14). Likewise, we’re empowered with fortitude to run our race well when we fix our eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1–2). Courage isn’t developed through confidence in your own strength. It’s revealed in our faith that Christ is with us through every storm. If he’s with us, then we can weather the trial (Mark 4:35–40).

3. Courage is responding to the best of your ability given the circumstances.

Moses’s mother couldn’t propose opposition legislation to Pharaoh’s order. Nor was she able to lead a violent revolution against the brutal regime. Instead, she did her best given her circumstances. She rescued her own child.

Every day Christians face trials, threats, and sufferings they have little to no control over. Most of us aren’t in a position to change laws, lead armies, or steer megacorporations. Are we powerless to act courageously?

Courage isn’t developed through confidence in your own strength. It’s revealed in our faith that Christ is with us through every storm.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp, but he learned of a power Hitler’s troops couldn’t steal. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

When you have no control over your circumstances you can still choose valiant faith. For Moses’s mother, this meant sending her infant son afloat on the Nile. For Gideon, it meant going “in the strength [he had]” (Judg. 6:14, NIV). God took their small acts of faith and used them to deliver a nation. Use the strength, opportunity, and freedom you have. God receives what you can give, and he does the rest.

Courage is a Christian virtue. It isn’t reserved for heroes but for all who hope in God. As William Cowper wrote,

The Christian has an art unknown to thee;
He holds no parley with unmanly fears,
Where duty bids he confidently steers,
Faces a thousand dangers at her call,
And trusting in his God, surmounts them all.

Resolve to listen to God’s Word over the opposition’s. Obey God in every circumstance. Then you’ll discover the freedom in Christ that faces a thousand dangers and still perseveres.

Why We Need to Talk About Obedience Mon, 17 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Rejecting legalism and pursuing obedience aren’t mutually exclusive. We can cultivate a high view of obedience that more closely mirrors God’s perspective.]]> My daughter’s middle name is Grace, and I know more than one family with a child named Mercy. Grace and mercy—concepts that are pillars in the gospel, concepts beautiful enough to name a child after. But in all my days, I’ve never once met a person named Obedience.

This name was used by the Puritans for their daughters long ago but has fallen out of favor. What a shame, since obedience is a foundational idea in the Word of God. In fact, the grace and mercy we love so much were made possible by Jesus’s perfect obedience.

But this word and the concept attached to it have lost popularity. Obedience doesn’t often bubble up in casual conversation with fellow believers. It’s not regularly written into the lyrics of modern worship songs, and it’s rarely the topic of podcasts or articles.

Why has obedience taken a back seat in our regular Christian discourse?

Avoiding Legalism

A couple of decades ago, there was a trend toward exercising Christian freedom while pushing back on perceived legalistic mindsets of prior generations. Issues like consuming alcohol, practicing Sabbath rest, tithing biblically, and using curse words became hotly debated. In an effort to avoid anything that sniffed of legalism, Christians often emphasized grace and mercy over obedience.

Avoiding legalism is a worthy endeavor as we follow Jesus. Certainly, he was no legalist. At the same time, obedience to the Father was of primary importance to him, and we walk in his footsteps when we prioritize obedience as well. Rejecting legalism and pursuing obedience aren’t mutually exclusive postures. Rather, they’re nuanced attitudes that work in tandem to produce a heart of wisdom.

Giving in to Laziness

Considering what pleases God often takes intentionality. It might look like stopping—even briefly—to pray for wisdom and strength for the moment ahead. Slowing to consider things like tone of voice or whether it’s wise to click “send” after typing a text takes spiritual muscle built with repetition over time.

Rejecting legalism and pursuing obedience aren’t mutually exclusive.

Building the spiritual muscle of obedience through slow and thoughtful living in a culture of relentless busyness is challenging. But when we repeatedly favor leaning into grace and mercy with no effort toward obeying, we’re giving into laziness. Certainly, the grace and mercy of Jesus are here to cover our sins—they’re the bedrocks on which our faith is built. But they were never meant to be our halfhearted default. As 1 Samuel 15:22 explains, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”

Cultivate a High View of Obedience

Our efforts to avoid legalism and our tendency to give in to laziness can lead us to downplay the importance of obedience. But with the Lord’s help, we can cultivate a high view of obedience that more closely mirrors God’s perspective. Here are two reasons it’s worth bringing obedience back to the forefront of regular Christian living.

1. Obedience Pleases God

In Scripture, the person who willingly submits to the Lord receives the stunning blessing of walking more closely with him. Abraham was called God’s friend because he believed God (James 2:23), and that belief was demonstrated through repeated obedience. Scripture says Noah, Enoch, and Levi all walked with God, while mentioning their righteousness (Gen. 6:9; 5:24; Mal. 2:4–6).

Honestly, it’s easy to lose heart when I hear about saints like these, because I can’t seem to get through 60 seconds without disobeying God in one way or another. But let’s not read perfection into the lives of these men or any of the other people in Scripture who pleased God through their obedience.

We’re never told they were perfect—on the contrary, the Word shows us how far they were from it. But they walked with God in a steady relational atmosphere of obedience coupled with repentance. Not only were their acts of obedience pleasing to him, but their posture of regular repentance for disobedience revealed a submission to God’s commands. This cadence of obedience and repentance marks the rhythm of walking with God day by day for us too.

2. Obedience Demonstrates Belief

As Christians, we can come away from our study of Scripture, our fellowship with the brethren, our worship in church, and our private prayer time feeling spiritually strong. But when the heat is turned up through difficult circumstances, will we choose to demonstrate with our words, attitudes, and bodies what we believe in our hearts—especially when it costs us something? Obedience is the hard proof of belief—to God, to others, and to ourselves—that we take our Father at his Word and we’re willing to stake our lives on it.

In Luke 6:46-49, Jesus tells us those who don’t put his words into practice but instead live on their own terms can expect devastating effects from the storms of life. But when we live in obedience to him, we build our lives on a firm foundation. So when the storms come, we won’t be shaken. Even the smallest acts of obedience today lay a foundation that will help us stand firm in the future.

When we live in obedience to Christ, we build our lives on a firm foundation.

Obedience to God is rarely easy and even less often popular. I’ll likely never meet a kid named Obedience (although he could go by “Obed” for short). But as a means of showing our Father we trust him and are willing to do what he says even when it’s difficult, there really is nothing better. So as Christians who together make up the body of Christ, let’s talk about obedience. Pleasing God should please us too.

What Is Education For? 3 Perspectives to Teach Kids Mon, 17 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 If we want our kids to develop a true appreciation for learning, we can’t just tell them what education can do; we must also give them a vision for what education is for.]]> It’s spring. The novelty of the school year has worn off, and my kids are already counting down the days to summer vacation. Their enthusiasm has devolved into complaining, and the question has become “Why do we need to learn this stuff anyway?”

I’m tempted to address their complaints with the same advice well-meaning adults gave me when I was a kid: we go to school so we can get a nice job, earn a nice living, and enjoy a nice life. But that rationale will ultimately leave them as empty as the sugary cereal they ate for breakfast. Because while pragmatism motivates, it doesn’t satisfy.

If we want our kids to develop a true appreciation for learning, we can’t only tell them what education can do; we must give them a vision of what education is for. Here are three perspectives.

1. Education is for worship.

Question one of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, which many of us can recite from memory, is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Or, if you prefer John Piper’s nuance, “to glorify God by enjoying him forever.”

While pragmatism motivates, it doesn’t satisfy.

Humans are designed to know and enjoy God. His praise is our prize, and his supremacy is our satisfaction. There’s simply no higher calling for man. We were made for worship.

If worship is the chief end of man, then it follows that worship is also the chief end of education. Every book read, every paper written, every exam taken, every subject mastered, every degree earned . . . what’s it all for? Is the purpose not that we’d discover more of the beauty and majesty of our great God so we might enjoy him more?

2. Education is for formation.

If worship—the call to glorify God by enjoying him—is the chief end of man, then spiritual formation is a close second. This is made clear in Romans 8:28, which tells us God causes all things to work together for the good of his people so his people will be conformed to the image and likeness of his Son. That means, as I’ve argued elsewhere, your spiritual formation is one of God’s top priorities for you.

Education is certainly one of the many tools God uses to accomplish this purpose. Sure, education often leads to a better quality of life and higher earning potential; but that’s not nearly as important as education’s potential to shape the kind of person your child becomes. From our character to our worldview, the lessons we learn and the studies we undertake have a profound influence on the way we inhabit the world around us. We’d do well to consider and harness this power to not only train our children’s minds but form their souls.

3. Education is for the common good.

At the end of Genesis 1, God commissions Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller argues that God is here instructing them to create a society where human beings can flourish by stewarding and cultivating the earth so it will become more useful. A concern for the common good—the welfare of the world—was built into their vocation as God’s co-regents.

The same is true for education. God has granted us the ability to learn not simply so we can get a nice job, earn a nice living, and enjoy a nice life but so we can use what we learn to promote human flourishing.

A concern for the common good—the welfare of the world—was built into their vocation as God’s co-regents.

What do doctors, therapists, engineers, and accountants all have in common? They provide goods and services that improve and strengthen human society. Medical professionals diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries so communities can thrive physically. Counselors promote social and psychological well-being so communities can thrive emotionally. Engineers and architects design the structures we live, work, and play in, along with the transportation that moves us from place to place. Accountants provide services that promote economic well-being by helping individuals, businesses, and organizations steward their resources and assets well. All these vocations, which educational training makes possible, serve the common good.

Education prepares us for life and work, making us more useful to society as a whole. When we teach our kids to put what they learn to use for others, our neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities thrive, and everyone wins.

Case for Lifelong Learning

Prevailing attitudes about education heavily emphasize utilitarian outcomes related to getting jobs and earning money. But if this is true, then as a 36-year-old, my only motivation to continue learning is to get a better job so I can earn a better living.

If, however, I have a solid theological vision for education, I always have a reason for lifelong learning because the things I’m learning (whether formal or informal) can help me enjoy God, become like Christ, and bless my neighbor, even when I’m out of work and my quality of life isn’t what I was promised. When education is primarily self-serving, it fails to satisfy. But if it’s a means by which I can love God and love my neighbor, it becomes an act of worship.

My prayer is that parents and Christian educators everywhere would inspire children to lifelong learning by instilling in them a robust theological vision for education. When the inevitable “What’s the point of this?” questions come from our kids as they go through challenging seasons at school, let’s have a better answer than the world does. Let’s cultivate in our kids a love of learning because they see how it stems from and intersects with their love of God.

How to Know If It’s Time to Leave Pastoral Ministry Mon, 17 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Three former pastors—all of whom now teach or counsel pastors—give their best advice.]]> After five years of being a senior pastor, Brian Croft was a mess.

“There had been three different movements to get me fired,” he said. “There were threats of violence against me. The pastoral search team that led the committee to hire me was slandering my name all around the community. The church ran out of money. At the age of 34, I started having issues with my heart that doctors diagnosed as coming from accumulated stress.”

What did he do?

“I stayed,” he said. “And in year six, God turned the church around. It flourished for the next 10 years.”

And then, with a church that was financially and relationally stable, training interns, and running ministries, Croft felt it was time to leave.

In March 2022, 42 percent of surveyed pastors told Barna they’d considered quitting full-time ministry within the last year. “I’ve talked to pastors who have been serving more than 50 years, who said the combination of COVID, race relations, volatile elections, and fights over shutting down and masks created an unprecedented situation,” said Croft, who now counsels pastors. “They’d never experienced something this radically hard, this expansive. Every pastor dealt with it.”

In hard seasons—or even in healthy seasons—how does a pastor know if he’s supposed to persevere or if it’s time to be done?

The Gospel Coalition asked three former pastors—all of whom now teach or counsel pastors—for their best advice.

Don’t Quit on a Monday

“Pastors, it’s Monday,” Croft tweeted a few weeks ago. “Don’t resign. No major decisions. No hard meetings.”

Every few weeks, he posts the same encouragement. “I call it the preaching hangover on Monday mornings,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s just going to come, so you have to know how to plan your day and evaluate what is going on.”

His advice: “Hit the gym. Drink some good coffee. Prayer. Silence. Mindless administration tasks. Hang with a safe friend. Save the rest for tomorrow.”

Don’t Quit Too Soon

“If a pastor called me and said they were considering leaving the ministry, the first thing I’d want to know is how long they’d been feeling this way,” said Jared Wilson, who left local church ministry after about 25 years to take a job at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Like any work, pastoring has lean seasons,” he said. “We go through low periods. We experience anxiety, depression, discouragement, and fatigue. That is not a call away from the vocation but a call for more intense care and help from others.”

Croft, who also spent 25 years in local church ministry, advises staying at least five years—that’s how long it took him to see changes in his church. “Stay long enough to become the pastor, to earn the trust, and to see the fruit,” he said.

Care Checklist: Soul, Family, Ministry

If you’re in a rough season, check that your choices aren’t the problem.

Stay long enough to become the pastor, to earn the trust, and to see the fruit.

“Weekly, I have guys coming to me and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m burned out. I quit,’” Croft said. The first questions he asks: Are you getting enough sleep at night? (Enough sleep is more than seven uninterrupted hours a night.) Do you exercise? Do you take a day off? Do you use all your vacation time?

“The number one reason pastors have to bail is that they don’t take care of themselves,” he said. “They’re pouring out while they’re on empty.”

If a pastor is taking care of himself, Croft moves on to his second set of questions: How is your marriage? How is parenting? What’s going on in your home? How does your wife feel about your ministry?

“First Timothy 3 demands that a pastor care for his family to even qualify as a minister,” Croft said. “I remind guys that there’s always another ministry opportunity, but you only get one wife.”

If a pastor is taking care of his family, Croft has a third set of questions: How many hours a week do you work? (That number should not be higher than 50 or 55, he said.) Do you have church elders to help you?

Those sets of questions can help pinpoint the problem. Maybe what’s needed is more sleep, better boundaries, or an assistant pastor. Or maybe the problem has grown so serious—such as a crumbling marriage or thoughts of suicide—that a bigger solution is necessary.

“If any one of these three areas is in shambles, a pastor can’t stay in the ministry,” Croft said. That doesn’t automatically mean he needs to leave forever—sometimes a long sabbatical can help with physical rest, marriage repair, or fresh inspiration for ministry.

And sometimes it might be time to think about a different path.

Retest Your Calling

When Wilson was a pastor, he worked through his own seasons of suffering, exhaustion, and burnout. His elders gave him time to rest and better guardrails, but that didn’t fix his low capacity for administration or his knowledge that someone with a different set of skills was needed for the church’s next season.

The number one reason pastors have to bail is because they don’t take care of themselves.

“I found myself really underwater,” he said.

When a nonteaching job opened at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he told himself it would be for a season. Then he began taking graduate classes. Eight years later, he’s moved from taking classes to teaching them.

“I would never have thought of or aspired to teaching,” he said. “But I feel like I have been running in lanes the Lord has wired me for. He’s been very kind to confirm this was the right move, and he’s opened new doors to me.”

Jonathan Dodson also detected a shift in his calling. Even though he came back from his sabbatical in December 2021 spiritually energized and renewed, he said, “I realized that although I had come back, the vision for the church had not returned with me.”

Despite planting City Life Church in downtown Austin, Texas, 15 years earlier, “[he] didn’t know where the church needed to go.” He said, “We’d been kicked out of our rental facility. We’d always been a city-center church, and I didn’t have any direction for what to do next. I didn’t even have the desire to return downtown, which before would have been unthinkable.”

Dodson didn’t know what to do, so he asked his elders.

Ask Your Elders

One of Dodson’s best tips for pastors is to facilitate healthy, honest elder teams.

“There are impressions that come from the Holy Spirit, but they need to be tested against Scripture and community,” Dodson said. Ask yourself—and your elder board—good questions: What will the ministry be like if I leave? Will the people be well-prepared and cared for? Is there godly, healthy leadership in place? Are there sufficient finances? Am I running from something, or am I being called to something else?

There are impressions that come from the Holy Spirit, but they need to be tested against Scripture and community.

Dodson’s elder board was facing two hard decisions—how to advise Dodson on his future, and if he left, what to do with the couple hundred people who would no longer have a meeting location or a pastor.

“They were in different places about what to do,” Dodson said. Eventually, at a meeting, the Spirit moved so clearly it was obvious to everyone—they should release Dodson and close the church. The unity alone felt like an affirmation.

Croft also received affirmation from a trusted elder team. When he told them he thought God was telling him it was time to transition to full-time work at his ministry, Practical Shepherding, they told him they thought so too.

That plurality of elders is God’s design, Croft said. If you cultivate relationships with wise, faithful men, they’ll be able to see your gifts and your limitations, to long for the Lord’s will to be done in your life and in the life of the church, and to trust God in a future that includes (or doesn’t include) you as their pastor.

“God works through his elders to achieve his will,” Croft said. “Having the blessing of your elders is a great sign that you’re moving in the right direction.”

Don’t Quit—Finish

“There’s a difference between finishing and quitting,” Dodson said. “Quitting is throwing in towel because you’re emotionally overwhelmed. We typically make poor decisions then. So we need to wait for emotions to quiet so we can hear the voice of the Spirit.”

There’s a difference between finishing and quitting.

The key thing to ask yourself, according to Croft, is “Have I completed what God sent me here to do?” He continues, “I find a lot of guys leave for a new, exciting opportunity without considering that God called them to their current job. Before you leave, your conscience needs to be clear that you completed what you were supposed to do.”

That’s different for every person, he said. For Croft, it felt like the end of an era when an elderly woman in the church passed away—one who had opposed him in the beginning but, over time, softened toward him. By the end, she was one of his  staunchest allies.

“This lady was really special to me, and she symbolized my ministry there in a lot of ways,” he said. Through steady consistency, he’d built a relationship with multiple people who’d wanted to oust him. Most changed their minds about him, their trust growing as he stabilized their attendance and finances and as he started initiatives like an internship program. Their church of fewer than 100 people had sent more than 30 families to pastoral work or the mission field.

When she died—one of the last of the old guard—Croft felt he’d finished his task there and could move on to another.

For others, finishing the task might mean regaining financial footing, restabilizing church attendance, launching a major ministry—or even closing the church well.

Leaving Well

In some ways, it’s easier for a congregation to lose a pastor to the marketplace than to another congregation.

“No matter how hard a pastor works to leave well, when he leaves to go to another church, the original church usually feels like the older wife he’s leaving for a younger, prettier wife,” Croft said. “There’s no way around that.”

Leaving the ministry altogether communicates, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Still, any loss of a pastor is more unsettling than when someone like a neighbor or colleague moves on.

As with other seasons of grief, it helps to take things slowly. Giving a short two-week notice “can ruin the church for the next guy,” Croft said. After he announced his decision to leave, he gave his congregation another six months.

“I stayed until the end of the year to help them find a new pastor, and they did,” Croft said. “I also stayed because I knew my last effort to care for the people was to let them grieve me leaving.”

He did that by visiting the home of every member. “I sat with them and said, ‘Hey, tell me what you think about this,’” he said. “I asked how they felt and if they wanted to say anything to me. I needed that as much as they did.”

Dodson stayed two months after his announcement.

“That was about right,” he said. “I couldn’t have done more.”

Since the entire church was shutting down, he wondered if people would begin to drift away. “My wife got up and said to the congregation, ‘You know how everyone plows through their Halloween candy until they get to the end, and then they slow down and savor them? Let’s slow down and savor what we have.’”

They did. Nearly everyone stayed until the end, marking their last communion, their last meeting, their last service.

“We had a huge party, and people got up and shared stories of how their lives had been changed,” Dodson said. “We celebrated the 15 years of God’s faithfulness.”

Staying Well

If you want a long ministry, pace yourself, Croft advises.

“Based on 2 Corinthians 4, I see a ministry paradigm that says a pastor is called to die a little every day for the sake of his flock,” he said. Each pastor has a different capacity for that—some guys might have 15 years in them, while others might have 50.

If you want a long ministry, pace yourself.

If you don’t want to burn out, get enough sleep. Don’t work too many hours. Take vacations. Pray often, giving your burdens to God. And take breaks. Pastors are on the front lines of a spiritual battle, and “it’s OK to come off and take a break once in a while,” Dodson said. “People do it in war all the time. Come back, take a break, go to a hospital or to another city, take three months off. You won’t make it if you don’t.”

Then invest in your elders. Take a long view of your congregants. (“Judge them from glory backward, not sin forward,” Dodson said.) Remember that wounded sheep can act a lot like wolves and that only time and patience can sort that out, Croft said.

None of this has to happen tomorrow, Wilson said. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Whether you stay in ministry or not, there are always ways to contribute to a local church. Dodson was reminded of that when he walked into a new church as a visitor a few weeks ago.

“I was greeted by someone I’d never met,” he said. “They were gracious and warm. Someone prayed for me—a complete stranger. Then a pastor got up and delivered a sermon that was sensitive, pastoral, rooted in Scripture, gospel-centered. I was like, You did all that for me? A hug? A prayer? A well-prepared sermon that spoke to my heart? Where do you get that apart from the church? What a tremendous gift!”

Fuel Your Pastor to the Finish Line Sun, 16 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Churches, preach to your pastor. When you point your pastor to the goodness and sufficiency of Christ, you help him remember the reason he went into ministry.]]> Pastoring is hard work. This isn’t news to pastors. In 2022, Barna reported 42 percent of pastors have seriously considered resigning from full-time ministry. This is alarming, and the 13-point jump from the prior year gives further reason for concern.

Not only are pastors facing an alarming burnout rate but public trust in pastors is at an all-time low. A 2022 Gallup poll found only 34 percent of Americans view pastors’ ethics positively. Americans no longer see pastors as credible leaders in our society. This latter study helps to explain the former. Who wants to be the subject of intense scrutiny and be perceived cynically at every turn?

My hunch is most local church members don’t want to see their pastor burn out or fail. But how can they help their pastors stay in ministry for the long run? What can a church do to enable faithful, long-term ministry?

Paul’s directions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17–21 give us three clues for how churches can help their pastors labor well and stay in the game.

1. Pay your pastor well.

Sufficient and generous financial support is essential for pastoral longevity. A fair salary provides for a pastor’s family and frees him to focus on ministry.

Paul tells Timothy that elders who labor in preaching and teaching (usually lead or senior pastors) are worthy of “double honor” (5:17). This means more than serving the pastor an extra scoop of ice cream at the next potluck or giving him cards during pastor appreciation month. The word translated “honor” was used in the ancient world to refer to a physician’s salary. Physicians weren’t paid as much then as they are now, but “double honor” still implies paying your pastor well enough that he can labor in ministry work freely.

No one balks at paying teachers, tax advisors, or mechanics for their services. Why not bestow double honor on your pastor by giving faithfully to your church?

No one balks at paying teachers, tax advisors, or mechanics for their services. So why wouldn’t we give regularly to the local church where we’re taught God’s Word, prayed for, and given access to counseling, encouragement, and leadership? Why not bestow double honor on your pastor by giving faithfully to your church?

Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, I believe it’s honoring for a church to pay their pastor at least the median household income of the community where their church is located, if not 15–20 percent above that amount so he can serve the community well. If he’s married with children, this gives freedom for his wife not to work outside the home.

2. Protect your pastor.

Pastors need protection. Ministry can create an environment where critique, criticism, and petty gripes make the pastor die by a thousand paper cuts.

Church members may complain about everything from the pastor’s time management and application points in his sermons to all the repairs the old church building needs. Sadly, unfair critiques are often passed around as gossip. But Paul says the church should immediately shut down petty accusations against the elders (5:19). There should be no tolerance for festering grievances in the church. No room given to subtle, behind-the-back, digging comments intended to sow dissent and distrust.

I’m not saying a pastor gets immunity from critique or should be able to do whatever he’d like. Pastors’ sin needs to be checked, but as Paul makes clear, this should be done by multiple credible witnesses who lovingly confront his persistent and disqualifying sin (5:20).

One practical way to protect your pastor is to ask those who voice critiques or criticism whether they’ve spoken to the pastor about their concerns. Hold the individual accountable by going with him as he voices his concern. If the issue is worthy of merit, it can be humbly addressed. Otherwise, this will squash the unfair, lazy, or unhelpful wounds caused by careless words.

3. Point your pastor to Jesus.

Pastors feel like they must be enough for their churches. They’re called to be shepherds who see their flock mature in Christlikeness. But while trying to be enough, they sometimes forget they’re never enough for the church themselves; only Jesus is!

Paul labored to help Timothy keep his eyes on Jesus. Throughout the letter, he calls Timothy to consider Christ and his work of redemption (1:15; 2:5; 3:15–16). With his final words, he encourages Timothy to keep his eyes open for Christ’s second coming and gives a vision of the Father’s glory and majesty:

[He] is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (6:15–16)

As the eternal Son, Jesus came to reveal the Father (John 1:18). By doing so, he supplies the pastor with the “enoughness” to run the ministry race for the long haul. Paul’s encouragement to Timothy is to keep his eyes on Jesus, who has ordained him to ministry and supplies everything he needs.

Churches, preach to your pastor. When you point your pastor to the goodness and sufficiency of Christ, you help him remember the reason he went into ministry.

Churches, preach to your pastor. When you point your pastor to the goodness and sufficiency of Christ, you help him remember the reason he went into ministry.

Here are two ways you can do this: First, celebrate evidence of grace you see in your pastor’s ministry. Second, pray with your pastor. Invite him into times of intercession when you and others can pray positively and proactively for his ministry.

A woman in our church has become a spiritual mother to me in these ways. I often receive a card from her with timely words of encouragement. She’ll also stop to tell me how God has been working in her heart through my sermons. I know she prays daily for me, my family, and the church. She’ll tell me, “Pastor Jeremy, Jesus is enough.” And he is.

In these proactive ways, you can fuel your pastor to the finish line. You’ll free him to be a follower of Christ and to not attempt to be Jesus himself.

Walk by Faith, Not by Sight Fri, 14 Apr 2023 04:04:48 +0000 In order to endure in the faith, we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. ]]> “Setting our eyes on the object of our faith is the only way we will endure.” — Trillia Newbell

At TGCW22, Trillia Newbell emphasizes the importance of abiding faith in the life of a Christian. Faith is the foundation of the Christian life, and it’s through faith that we can walk with Christ and obey him. Newbell distinguishes between saving faith (saved by grace through faith) and enduring faith (remaining in Christ), and she encourages us to abide in Jesus by trusting, praying, obeying, and resting in him.

Newbell also discusses the definition of faith and the importance of studying the lives of those in the “Hall of Fame of Faith,” as detailed in Hebrews 11. Ultimately, faith is required to believe in the truth and reliability of the Bible, to trust in God’s salvation through faith, and to maintain a relationship with Jesus.

Why We Shouldn’t Gloat When Leaders Fall Fri, 14 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Our calling is never to gloat over enemies, even when the Lord brings about his right judgment.]]> John Owen, an English Puritan of the 1600s, had the opportunity to preach before Parliament the day after King Charles I was executed for treason. Owen was a minister who’d sided with Parliament over and against the King. You’d think when he had opportunity to address his fellow partisans the day after a major “victory” such as this, he’d raise the party line and rejoice, right?

Not only did Owen hold his peace about the events of the day before, he didn’t even mention them—not one reference. Instead, Owen preached repentance and humility.

Owen’s holy restraint instructs us. When leaders fall, we may be tempted to gloat. But there’s a difference between gloating, that is, rejoicing at the misfortune of others, and rejoicing at God overcoming evil. Gloating is contrary to God’s desires. He “does not delight in the death of the wicked” but would rather they turn from their evil ways and live (Ezek. 33:11). Yet, when God answers prayers that wickedness be exposed and removed, is rejoicing at the downfall of others ever appropriate? Surely it’s fitting to give thanks to God when he’s justly dealt with wrongs—but to relish someone else’s demise ought not be among the responses of the righteous.

Mourn an Enemy’s Destruction

We’re met with a similar situation to that of Owen’s in 2 Samuel 1, when King Saul finally receives his deserved end.

David, the rightful and anointed king of God’s people, gets news of Saul’s death at the hand of the Philistines days after it happens. The man after God’s own heart had been mistreated and abused by the Old Testament antichrist figure for what seemed like a lifetime, but David doesn’t rejoice at the news of his oppressor’s demise. Just the opposite. The rightful king tears his clothes, fasts, and mourns over the death of the one the Lord once anointed. It appears a strange scene given David’s history with Saul.

David, like Owen, exemplifies a better response than celebrating the destruction of sinful men who once professed to be among the Lord’s people. Proverbs 24:17–18 counsels us, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him.”

Overcome Evil with Good

These are sober words of warning. Our calling is never to gloat over enemies, even when the Lord brings about his right judgment.

Do we not hear the echo of Solomon’s wisdom as it appears in Romans 12? Paul quotes Proverbs and applies it by saying, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv 20–21).

Our calling is never to gloat over enemies, even when the Lord brings about his right judgment.

The Scriptures call us to an interesting balance. Paul tells us not to seek our own vengeance, for God alone avenges. He then doubles down by telling us to do good to our enemies, so that we might heap further judgment upon the wicked. When we do good to our enemies, we’re demonstrating the same general benevolence our Father in heaven has toward both the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 5:45), and as both Romans 12 and Proverbs 24 reveal, if we continue to speak what’s true and right and peaceable, such a posture increases the earthly judgment upon the wicked.

Guard the Church’s Witness

But there’s another reason why David didn’t raise the banner of celebration over the downfall of Saul: he didn’t want the Lord’s enemies to gloat as well. When David laments the death of his wicked oppressor, he says, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.” He goes on to give us the reason: “Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult” (2 Sam. 1:20).

Friends, the world is watching the church—whether we know it or not, whether it appears like they are or not. The world wants nothing more than for the church to be found false. So when God’s people look no different than leaders in the world, the enemies of the cross mock. David, therefore, is distancing himself from worldly gloating lest he’s seen as abetting, or even joining in one accord with unbelievers, in celebrating the tearing down of God’s people.

Friends, the world is watching the church—whether we know it or not. And the world wants nothing more than for the church to be found false.

We should be sorrowful when leaders choose the wrong path (2 Sam. 1:21, 24). They were freely offered a different road, but they opted for the wide and easy one instead. Though we may continue to hear news of how the mighty have fallen, let’s not rejoice in their undoing.

Instead, like Christ upon the cross, let’s return good for evil (Ps. 109:5; Luke 23:34). Let’s be remorseful that this outcome was necessary. Let’s examine our own hearts and walk in personal repentance and humble reliance upon the Lord Jesus. And in the meantime, tell it not in Gath.

How to Wisely Choose Kids’ Books Fri, 14 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The goal isn’t censorship or coddling; it’s discipleship—to acknowledge that what our children read shapes their minds and to guide them tenderly and deliberately through that sculpting. ]]> “Do you think they’ll like this?”

I squinted at the picture of a book cover my kids’ godmother sent me via text. At first glance, I understood why my friend had plucked it off the shelf: the cover featured a cartoonish mythical creature soaring across a salmon-pink sky. The dramatic lettering of the title shouted promises of mystery and adventure, perfect for young minds crackling with eagerness for good stories.

Sadly, I recognized the book and had to decline the gift. Unbeknownst to her, she had scooped up a children’s novel that indeed delivers adventures and fantastical creatures but also interweaves these classic elements with unbiblical sexual ideology.

“I had no idea!” my friend said, shocked as I explained my concern. I sympathized with her. In the past year alone, I’ve had to squirrel away three sets of books from well-meaning friends who gave them to my children with love, completely unaware the covers with grinning protagonists and bubblegum pink lettering housed ideas contrary to our faith. One series embraced a sexual ideology both contrary to biblical doctrine and developmentally inappropriate for my elementary-aged kids. The other two depicted characters lying, cheating, and even murdering, without denouncing such actions as clearly wrong.

Visits to the children’s section of the bookstore were once a cherished opportunity to inspire a love for words and shape kids’ hearts. Now, for Christian parents, grandparents, and educators, those trips are complicated.

Changing Landscape

My anecdotal experience occurs at a time when political controversy has gripped public and school libraries across the nation. Libraries that once quietly curated books have become battlegrounds between liberals and conservatives, with Kirk Cameron and drag queens feuding for coveted story-hour space. Calls to protect children from age-inappropriate content are countered with outrage over book bans and bigotry.

This controversy highlights the need for discernment as we point our kids to books. In an era when ideas counter to Christianity have woven themselves into every avenue of our culture, parents can’t assume the children’s literature section features appropriate offerings. And yet, the practice of infusing our kids’ days with great books is more critical than ever.

Parents can’t assume the children’s literature section features appropriate offerings.

As fewer and fewer children seek out books for enjoyment, we need to actively encourage them to discover the echoes of God’s love reflected in beautiful language and the themes of courage, sacrifice, and compassion that spring from great stories. Ample research reveals how read-alouds nourish children’s minds; for the Christian family, they can also nourish a child’s soul.

How do we lead our kids through the firestorm to rich stories while also guarding their young minds and hearts?

Shepherding Our Readers

The call to shepherd the content of our kids’ backpacks and bookshelves is a biblical one. We’re to infuse our kids’ moments with God’s Word, teaching them when they rise, and when they lie down, and when they walk in the way (Deut. 6:6–7). Instruction in God’s Word occurs not only on Sundays in the church pews but daily, even hourly, including when our children read books under the covers with a flashlight at night. The goal isn’t censorship or coddling; it’s discipleship—to acknowledge that what our children read shapes their minds and to guide them tenderly and deliberately through that sculpting.

In many cases, shepherding our kids with regard to literature simply requires us to crack open the spine of a book and preview it before we put it into their enthusiastic hands. In such instances, Paul’s words of discernment can guide us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

Seek books with pages that overflow with the true, pure, and lovely. Search for books that explore our sinful nature with humility, point to our hope in Christ with reverence, and highlight the victory of good over evil.

Resources to Help

Thankfully, not every book requires hands-on perusal. Several ministries offer parents a welcome compendium of resources to help choose children’s books with wisdom and discernment. Such books and websites can be vital for the busy parent, whose hectic schedule and ever-growing list of obligations preclude careful previewing of books.

Gladys Hunt’s classic Honey for a Child’s Heart has aided Christian parents for decades. Updated over several editions, Honey—the title of which derives from Proverbs 16:24—offers lovely reflections on reading well with children, as well as book recommendations for all ages. In the same vein is the newly published Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, a group of essays by Christian writers, editors, and teachers that offer guidance on choosing books for children. Each chapter ends with a list of five recommended books pertinent to the discussion.

When you’re not seeking book ideas but rather need a quick, reliable summary and assessment of a book that arrives shrink-wrapped in the mail, Redeemed Reader is an invaluable resource. J. B. Cheaney and Emily Whitten started this fantastic book review website in 2011 “to shine a gospel light on children’s literature so that Christian parents, educators, and the children they nurture may read in a more redeemed and redeeming way.”

The team prioritize books most likely to populate children’s shelves now. They not only post summaries detailing content but also assess each book with a rating system based on both worldview and literary merit. It’s an incredible resource from a biblical, Christ-centered group, and one I’ve turned to again and again to make decisions about which books to welcome into our home.

Seek books with pages that overflow with the true, pure, and lovely.

Another great review site is Good Book Mom, the labor of love of Korrie Johnson, a mom in Minnesota with a heart for sharing good literature with other Christian families. She offers helpful categorizations for the books she reviews and is impressively detail-oriented in her summaries. Other helpful sites include Read-Aloud Revival, an exhaustive site with book recommendations across broad genres and age groups, and Story Warren, a blog pioneered by S. D. Smith focused on nurturing children’s imaginations for Christ’s glory.

In an era when accepted values daily slip further from the teachings of Christ, redemptive, inspiring, lovely books that focus on the good and the true are as vital as air. Thankfully, as you navigate bookshelves for your children, you’re not alone. Brothers and sisters have gone ahead of you to offer sound and wise counsel, to help point your children to the One who has gone ahead of all of us and will make all things new.

Power of Presence in Theological Education Thu, 13 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 If you can take all your seminary classes online, why bother to come in person?]]> Ever since I became the president of the Charlotte campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS)—now more than a decade ago—I’ve been committed to a basic practice. It might not seem like much. It’s not anything extraordinary. But I think it has proven to be one of the most meaningful things I do.

Here’s my practice: I have a sit-down, face-to-face meeting with every single prospective student that visits our campus.

Sure, there are more efficient ways to connect with prospective students. I could dash off an email, or send them a form letter, or point them to the website to learn more. And given the number of student visitors we have every year, I admit that a little efficiency in my crazy schedule sounds pretty good.

But even with all the inconveniences, there’s a fundamental reason I’ve stuck with this practice: The personal availability of the campus president demonstrates how much we want to stress the power of presence in seminary education.

Blessing of Online Seminary Education

I realize how countercultural this conviction is in our current climate. A number of seminaries have now gone 100 percent online. Some have sold their primary residential campuses. Even those seminaries that have stayed residential are seeing online students making up an ever-increasing percentage of their total credit hours (some as high as 70 percent).

The seminary experience is particularly effective when it involves personal interactions.

And there are valid, understandable reasons for this trend. Relocating can be incredibly expensive for students. They may want to stay close to their families and involved in their local churches. Some students are from other countries or are missionaries who cannot leave the field. In-person education isn’t an option for a lot of people. And that’s perfectly fine. In such cases, online seminary education can be a great blessing.

Indeed, it’s for these reasons that RTS was one of the first seminaries in America to offer accredited distance theological education. Back in the 1980s, we would mail cassette tapes to students. (Not sure my kids even know what a cassette tape is!) And now, our global campus has a developed and technologically sophisticated online platform. It can be an enormous blessing in the lives of many people around the world. And we’ve seen that blessing firsthand.

Even so, we have maintained a determined and intentional focus on residential, face-to-face education. This conviction lies behind our eight residential campuses in Jackson, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Washington, DC. Basically, over the last 30-plus years, we’ve literally brought campuses to the students.

Such a strategy probably looks crazy in our current digital climate. So why do we do it? Does a residential experience really still matter?

Power of Presence in Residential Seminary Education

Let me lay out a few reasons why we shouldn’t give up on the residential seminary experience just yet.

1. Basic Pedagogy

If we learned anything from online schooling during the COVID pandemic, it’s this: students learn better when sitting in a classroom with other students. Why? Because we live in a world filled with distractions—cell phones, family conversations, the dog barking, someone knocking at the door—many of which are mitigated when someone is gathered with other students listening to a professor teach face-to-face.

The Brookings Institute examined multiple studies on college-level student performance during the pandemic and concluded, “Virtually all of these studies found that online instruction resulted in lower student performance relative to in-person instruction.”

We absorb more and focus better when education involves personal presence.

2. Graduation Rates

What effect does online learning have on whether (or how quickly) students finish their programs? This is a particularly important issue for seminaries because we want students to get out into full-time ministry as soon as possible. We want the studentseducation to lead to kingdom influence.

We absorb more and focus better when education involves personal presence.

A recent study from Inside Higher Ed concluded students at online colleges “graduate at sharply lower rates than do those at institutions where in-person and blended modes of learning dominate.”

Being present and on-site (at least to some degree) is typically associated with a deeper commitment and greater motivation toward learning—often because the student has sacrificed so much to be there. In addition, students are motivated by their fellow students as they spur one another on.

3. Horizontal Learning

One of the most overlooked aspects of residential seminary education is the blessing of what I call “horizontal learning.” While most learning is from the professor (“vertical learning”)—which can be achieved, to a degree, through online education—an enormous amount of seminary education involves conversations and interactions with fellow students after class, in the bookstore, or over meals.

This matters so much because it’s the processing of what a student is learning, in community, that’s often so formative. Students discover not everyone shares the professor’s view. They learn how to debate and disagree in (hopefully) good and healthy ways. They’re forced to articulate themselves and defend their conclusions.

For distance students, some of these same things can happen in the local church—maybe with a pastor or elder. And a number of online platforms allow for some level of digital interaction between students. But it’s difficult to replace the real-time student-to-student interaction that residential education provides.

4. Relational Ballast

One of my greatest joys over the last 22 years as a seminary professor has been seeing former students at alumni gatherings. In addition to old friendships rekindled and funny stories told, I get to hear about how my former students are doing in ministry. Why are such times so special? Because I actually knew these students and they knew me. There was a relationship. I wasn’t merely a voice in their headphones but a part of their lives.

The friendships students build with one another provide much-needed relational ballast for long-term success in ministry. Our alums frequently say a big reason they’ve stayed in ministry (as opposed to dropping out) is the support they have from the friendships they built in seminary.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Does this mean we should abandon online education and move solely to residential? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Online education is essential—and a real blessing to many people. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t make the opposite mistake and give up on residential seminary education. Personal presence is more powerful than we think.

The friendships students build with one another provide much-needed relational ballast for long-term success in ministry.

At RTS, here’s what we have learned. It’s the combination of both residential and online education that seems to work best. While we have intentionally placed the priority on residential, the online courses provide a wonderful supplement. In other words, the online program is not replacing our residential degree but enhancing it.

Of course, some students are 100 percent online and may never take a residential course. And, we are delighted to serve them too. But it is worth noting that our fully online students make up only about 9 percent of our total credit hours. The vast majority of our students are still in person.

By God’s grace, this “residential focus with a robust online supplement” has been effective. While most seminaries in North America have seen notable enrollment declines over the last several years, we just reached an all-time record enrollment in 2022.

In the end, it’s a reminder of the power of presence in ministry. And this principle extends well beyond seminary education. It was modeled by the apostle Paul himself: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, NIV).

Yes, our ministries are to be centered on teaching the gospel. But that gospel is best taught when we do more than teach it. We should also live it. Together.

Must Faith in God’s Word Be ‘Blind’? Thu, 13 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Rational arguments aren’t needed for faith, even if they strengthen the faithful.]]> A seminary student raises his hand in apologetics class. “I appreciate the arguments we’re learning about the textual reliability of the biblical manuscripts, their internal markers of historical authenticity, and so on. Without these arguments, our Christian commitment would be irrational. We’d just have ‘blind faith,’ right?” Is this student correct?

Recently, I picked up the new edition of volume 7 of the works of the 17th-century Puritan John Owen. This volume includes Owen’s treatise The Reason of Faith (1677), in which he argues for a distinctively Reformed view of the relationship between faith and reason.

His position is that our knowledge of the Bible as God’s Word depends neither on “the authority of the church” nor on “a moral persuasion from external arguments and considerations.” Scripture is divine testimony, faith “is an assent upon testimony, and consequently divine faith [or, faith from and in God] is an assent upon divine testimony.” In other words, the Scriptures reveal God’s own “authority and veracity,” and they provide the “formal reason of our faith.”

I’d just been writing about Alvin Plantinga, and the more I read Owen’s The Reason of Faith (particularly chapter 6), the more I saw that Owen’s view is remarkably like Plantinga’s model of how faith and reason relate.

Ultimately, this isn’t surprising, since Plantinga was deeply affected by the Reformed tradition in his upbringing and early education. His magnum opus on Christian epistemology (the philosophy of how we can know truth), titled Warranted Christian Belief (2000), relies on authors like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Herman Bavinck, not to mention the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Still, the parallels between these two kindred spirits are worth pointing out.

3 Components of a Faculty-Based Approach to Faith and Reason

According to Owen, there are at least three “distinct faculties and powers of our souls” by which “God is pleased to reveal or make known himself, his mind or will.”

These faculties are (1) “the light of reason” by which we may “see” the truth of claims like “The whole is greater than the parts” without making any inferences, (2) “reason in its exercise” by which we discursively reason from premises to conclusion, and (3) “testimony” by which we simply trust the claims of a testifier about matters we neither “see” the truth of personally nor reason to argumentatively.

The Scriptures reveal God’s own authority and veracity, and they provide the formal reason of our faith.

Similarly, Plantinga has a faculty-based approach to faith and reason. Like Owen, he distinguishes between the noninferential and inferential powers of reason. The noninferential powers deliver us beliefs by way of perception, memory, introspection, and rational insight. The inferential powers deliver us beliefs by way of deductive and inductive reasoning. Like Owen, Plantinga takes “testimony” to be an additional source of belief that goes beyond the other two.

7 Ways Faith Relates to Reason

But Owen and Plantinga aren’t only similar because they assert reason is composed of multiple cognitive faculties. Both authors go on to apply this position to the faith-reason relationship in similar ways, giving special attention to our faith in Scripture as God’s Word.

What follows is a series of moves in Owen I found eerily similar to Plantinga’s argument.

1. Faith is trust in divine testimony.

Full stop, no further arguments needed. Like our ordinary, rational trust in human testimony, divinely produced faith needs no supporting argument to be rational or to count as knowledge.

2. Faith and reason are two ways of knowing.

Faith isn’t an intellectually substandard source of belief. Rather, it’s a different way to get knowledge. I can acquire knowledge of how my wife’s day went by simply listening to her, reposing confidence in her testimony. Likewise, I can come to know “the great things of the gospel” (Plantinga’s phrase, taken from Jonathan Edwards), and much else besides, by simply listening to and assenting to divine testimony.

3. We have no reason to think there’s an inherent faith/reason conflict.

Rather, as Owen puts it, “there is a perfect consonancy” between the deliverances of faith and reason—“They never contradict.” Instead, they “harmonize and perfectly agree one with the other.”

4. We can learn some things by faith that we can’t learn by reason.

And vice versa. After all, some rational faculties (perception) can disclose things not disclosed by the others (memory). As Owen puts it, these faculties are not “equally extensive.” Likewise, faith can enable us to know things not knowable by reason. This is perfectly normal—indeed, to be expected.

5. Faith, as a distinct way of knowing, is just as authoritative as reason.

Faith and reason are on an epistemic par. Of course, there may not be any noncircular way to prove divine testimony is reliable. But the same goes for reason. One would have to appeal to sense perception to prove the reliability of sense perception, appeal to memory to prove the reliability of memory, and so on. But this doesn’t reveal anything improper about our reliance on perception and memory. Ditto for divine faith in the Scriptures.

6. The work of the Holy Spirit is necessary for producing faith in divine testimony.

There’s no true faith—what Owen calls “divine faith”—without this supernatural influence upon us. Of course, the Holy Spirit’s work is not the formal reason why we believe. Rather, we believe the Scripture because it’s God speaking to us. But without “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” (Plantinga’s phrase, from Calvin), there’s no saving faith in this fallen world.

7. Supernaturally produced faith can be strengthened by rational arguments.

Owen devotes chapter 3 of The Reason of Faith to “Sundry Convincing External Arguments for Divine Revelation,” and Plantinga is well known for his “Two Dozen (Or So) Arguments for the Existence of God.” The point both writers make is that rational arguments aren’t needed for faith, even if they strengthen the faithful.

Rational arguments aren’t needed for faith, even if they strengthen the faithful.

Both Owen and Plantinga tap into a deeply Reformed conception of how to do the “knowledge project” in a way that upholds the rationality and perfect propriety of faith in divine testimony apart from supporting arguments.

In a world that attempts to pit reason against faith in radical ways, the philosopher’s epistemological arguments combined with the Puritan theologian’s careful Scriptural exegesis may be just what we need. No Christian, including the seminary student with whom we began, is left with “blind faith.”

Become a Sending Parent Thu, 13 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The call to raise up children to become all God created them to be includes the call to send some as missionaries. ]]> On Sunday, I’ll be handing out arrows. Two sets of parents will come forward. They’ll stand before the church holding newborns. I’ll say a few words. We’ll put an arrow in their hands. And then we’ll pray. Of course, we’ll pray for little arrows to be sent. But we’ll also pray for mighty archers to send them.

I’m speaking of what you might call “the sending parent.” This is the father and mother who accept their commission from the Lord and before the church to raise up children to become all God created them to be. And that means some of those children will grow up to become missionaries.

Call to Arms

I draw this vision from Psalm 127. It is a song of ascents, a hymn shared by the people of Israel as they drew near to worship in Jerusalem—many of them with children in tow. Together they sang,

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Ps. 127:3–5)

Here we see no defensive posture. The analogy is quite the opposite. To be a warrior with a quiver full of arrows is a picture of confidence. The Lord has boldly blessed parents. He has taken the initiative by sending them children. Therefore, they can be just as bold. After all, what’s a stockpile of arrows kept in the quiver?

Yet that’s precisely what parents often desire when it comes to God’s global mission. Having a child grow up and move far away—let alone to the Middle East—is a fearful thought. Indeed, it should be if we love our children! We don’t want them to miss Christmas. We have no desire to part with grandchildren. We cringe at the thought of their return in a casket.

But perhaps our love is not too strong but too weak.

Call to Love

Over my years working with missionary candidates, I’ve come to expect their greatest relational obstacle: unsupportive parents. Whether their parents are Christians or not, the antagonism can range from subtly manipulative comments to downright hostility. It feels like I’ve sat a hundred times with weeping pre-field missionaries, encouraging them to love their grieving parents with the same love they have for unreached peoples. This struggle can be a useful crucible, preparing them for pains overseas. But it shouldn’t be so.

Over the years working with missionary candidates, I’ve come to expect their greatest relational obstacle: unsupportive parents.

I do believe this can be redeemed. It’s possible for parents to become supportive senders. I’ve pastored them too. Watched their weeping develop traces of joy. Witnessed their own journey—going from an obstacle to an ally.

But the best-case scenario is for parents to be proactive senders, to cast a vision for missions to their children, to pull the string and release the arrow. One of the finest examples of this comes from the autobiography of John G. Paton, a Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific. Patron credited his deep sense of calling to his parents. When he finally found the courage to admit his desire to be sent, his nerves were forever calmed by their remarkable response:

We praise God for the decision to which you have been led. . . . When you were given to [us], your father and mother laid you upon the altar, their first-born, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a Missionary of the Cross; and it has been their constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls.

The Patons didn’t take a defensive posture. Rather, James and Janet Paton had long been honing their little arrow, eager to send it if God so willed. And when he did, to their delight, they became archers to the South Pacific.

Call to Sacrifice

This sacrificial sending was no less difficult for such warrior parents. Later, Paton gives an emotional description of his departure, when his father accompanied him as far as possible before their final goodbye.

His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks of which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting-place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!” Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. . . . I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as He had given me.

To this day I can’t read this without tears. It’s a song of ascents, sung to the tune of the bowstring. It’s moving not simply as an example; it draws my heart to become a more sacrificial sender.

James and Janet Paton had long been honing their little arrow, eager to send it if God so willed.

When I consider the idea of one day releasing one or more of my four daughters into the hostilities of global missions, I’m reminded it’s an offering worthy of my God—the God who first sent his Son, Jesus Christ. The pain I’ll bear in watching my child’s form disappear into the airport, then seeing her endure the daily death of a missionary, will only serve to make me more like the sending God who lives in me.

The same is true for you, dear parent. So on Sunday, I’ll be praying for archers as I hand out arrows. And maybe, one day, I’ll release a few missionary arrows myself.

A (God-Centered) Path from Anxiety to Peace Wed, 12 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 What do you do when you’re racked with worry? A few years back, the Lord led me to a practice that has made the difference.]]> Recently, while driving to an event I was leading, anxiety began quickening my breathing and tightening my core. I know, I know! Don’t be anxious, right?

But what if you are anxious? What do you do? Present your requests to God. I knew that too, so I turned to prayer. And what happened next astonished me.

Familiar Prescription

As a young girl, I had memorized Philippians 4:6–7 through song:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Those words often automatically play when anxiety strikes, pressing me toward prayer. But where in the past the prayer prescription seemed “sustained release” (or, if I’m honest, sometimes without any evident release), this time the prescription provided fast-acting peace.

In awe, I gave thanks to the Lord for leading me to a practice a few years back that I believe made the difference.

New Practice

Rewind two or three years. I became convicted my Bible reading was too often about checking the box, increasing knowledge, or preparing for a study discussion. It had become more about me and less about God, more about merely reading than about enjoying the presence of the Author. I needed to, like frantic Martha, sit at the feet of my Lord. I needed to choose the better thing that wouldn’t be taken from me (Luke 10:42).

With that desire, I made two simple changes. First, I invited God into my regular Bible reading, starting with prayer to position myself at his feet. Second, I read each passage looking specifically for what it revealed about God: what he’s called, what he’s done, what he promises, and who he is.

I read each passage looking specifically for what it revealed about God: what he’s called, what he’s done, what he promises, and who he is.

On unhurried days, this included writing out each revealed name and attribute—sometimes directly in my Bible, other times in a journal. Some passages led me to write out three separate lists for attributes of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Other passages transformed into one list for who God is and another for what he’s done.

I ended up with a sharper focus on God. I also benefited from having a list, derived from Scripture, on which to meditate and turn into praise. This practice helped me know God more intimately and praise him more specifically. It made Bible reading a richer, sweeter time of being with him.

So what does this all have to do with worry? Let’s return to my car, driving to the event with rising anxiety.

Faithful Provider

This time, when I turned to prayer, the first thing to come to my lips was who God is. You’re the God who’s always with me, who will never leave me nor forsake me. You’re the God who’s been faithful to provide me with opportunities for leadership and whose strength has been made perfect in my weakness. You have left me your Holy Spirit, who is my Wonderful Counselor.

Can you believe I didn’t even get to praying about the event or my anxiety? The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, had already filled my soul. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all forms of anxiety can be relieved in this way. Humans are complex beings, and clinical anxiety may also require medical intervention.) In this case, the prescription to “let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6) was less about the prescription and more about the One to whom I’m invited to turn. He’s the provider of the prescription, the provider of my very life and breath, the provider of my peace.

In the past, when I turned to prayer in times of anxiety, my focus largely remained on the cause of my anxiety and my desire for his peace. It remained on me, my circumstances, my desires. In fact, praying in this way often increased my anxiety.

What I needed was to shift my focus. God is so much bigger than me and anything that could make me anxious. But that wasn’t a shift I could force in the moment, even through prayer.

New Outlook

As Edward Welch describes it, I needed to have “walked among the giant redwoods”:

If you have ever walked among giant redwoods, you will never be overwhelmed by the size of a dogwood tree. Or if you have been through a hurricane, a spring rain is nothing to fear. If you have been in the presence of the almighty God, everything that once controlled you suddenly has less power.

Reading God’s Word with him—with eyes open for his attributes—took me on paths through the immensity of his glory that made previous “giants” seem small in comparison. This side of heaven, we see but a glimpse of his greatness—and yet that glimpse dwarfs any fear, worry, or anxiety we may face, no matter how large.

God is so much bigger than me and anything that could make me anxious.

While my new practice helped stunt the cause of my anxiety, it was less about the specific practice and more about the greatness of the almighty God. It was less about what I did and more about whom it led me to.

Do not be anxious, my friend. Let your requests be made known to God, and seek opportunities for him to make himself known to you. Find ways to put yourself in his presence, to walk among the greatness of his glory, to ponder his promises, to rest in who he is and what he has done. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

3 Stages of a Pastor’s Life Wed, 12 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 A seasoned pastor reflects on three stages of ministry life.]]> What does finishing well look like for pastors? That’s a question I asked myself several years ago as I pondered Paul’s exhortations to run the race in such a way as to get “the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Does it mean there are a series of hurdles a pastor must clear to make it into the pastoral “hall of fame”? Are points given to church leaders based on our number of converts, baptisms, or dollars?

I decided that finishing well means finishing with the fewest regrets. It means coming to the end of your life knowing Christ was exalted over the years, regardless of how much money you raised or how many people came through the doors of your church.

Finishing well means finishing with the fewest regrets.

So how do you know if you’re running well—or even in the right direction? It may look different depending on how far along you are in your pastoral course. But whether you’re just starting out or the finish line is in sight, it’s always a good time to assess how you’re doing. And it’s never too late to pick up the pace.

Let’s look at this in three stages of life as a pastor.

Stage 1: Imagination

The young pastor looks into the future and sees explosive growth in his church, based on his great expository and visionary skills. I call this the imagination stage.

If you’re starting out as a church planter or have taken up an existing church, here are a few ways to avoid the pitfalls.

1. Remember that all members of the body are a gift to the church.

We must never see ourselves as better than others in the body, even though we carry a great responsibility. There’s only one Savior, and you aren’t him. Enter with humility, and you’ll avoid being humbled by God.

2. Give your expectations to the Lord. It’s his church, not yours.

He may call you to preach to thousands, to hundreds, or to tens. Your writing might become a New York Times bestseller, or it may end up as an insert for the church bulletin. God can be glorified in either.

3. Build your team around humility, not talent.

It took me years to get this right. If your staff and lay leaders lack humility, even the most talented person can become more than a thorn in your side. This isn’t to downplay talent or giftedness, but if those are mixed with pride, you’re in for a long haul of sleepless nights, awkward meetings, and tension on every side of your ministry.

4. Don’t brush small problems under the carpet.

This is one of my greatest regrets. I love to make peace and tend to run from conflict. That has cost me dearly. You don’t need to chase down every concern, but when you sense something is rotten, it’s time to check it out. Stamping out a small spark is easier than putting out a raging fire. I have the burn marks to prove it.

5. Decide early how you’ll allocate your time.

Some pastors spend 30 to 35 hours per week preparing for Sunday, while others may only spend 8 to 10 so they can devote more time to hospital visits, counseling, or discipling. Scripture gives us limited direction here, but such decisions must be made based on where you’ve been called to pastor and on your own personality. No matter how much you do, things will be left undone. You must prioritize.

6. Keep careful records of all your personal meetings.

You may need them later. I’ve never been good at this, to my own detriment. Memory fades, but notes don’t.

7. Develop good relationships with those in leadership and those outside.

This will give you balance in how you perceive the state of the ministry. Church members often see things differently than those “in the know.” Leadership can’t always see the forest for the trees, and those in the pews can’t always see the trees for the forest. As with eyesight, both eyes are needed for proper depth of field. Don’t be a one-eyed church leader.

8. Seek wisdom and direction from older pastors.

They’ve been around the block a few times and know where the loose manhole covers are. Talk to them and lean on their experience.

Stage 2: Experience

The second stage of pastoral ministry is often plagued with second-guessing. You may tend to look back on your ministry and focus on the failures. That’s the Enemy’s calling card. He loves to keep you distracted. Where did I go wrong with this church? Why are people so difficult? Have I been faking it this whole time? Did I misread God’s calling? Should I have been an engineer?

Stamping out a small spark is easier than putting out a raging fire.

Instead, I love to sift my thoughts through Philippians, where Paul is writing from jail, encouraging readers to be joyful. That’s irony behind bars, and it shows a heart consumed more by what God is doing than by his own situation.

Here are a few other ways you can keep yourself from running aground during this season of ministry.

1. Take inventory of your history as a pastor.

What have you done well, and what could you improve? Where do you tend to bear the most fruit? At my 20-year mark, we had a large celebration commemorating two decades of God’s faithfulness. I had a chance to see the people whose lives had been changed, but I was reminded it had never been “The Mike Minter Show.” Hundreds of people over those years were part of the work God was doing.

2. Consider what midcourse corrections need to be made.

Seek out some honest friends who’ve observed you through the years. They know your blind spots. I’ve had dear brothers with the courage to tell me I was running on fumes and that my messages lacked depth. They knew I was tired. Ministry can drain you. I also turned in my resignation once in the early 2000s, after we lost nearly 1,000 people to a local megachurch within a few months. Talk about ministry trauma! I felt like I was failing. One of the elders threw my letter in the trash and said, “We have work to do.” Deep in my heart, I knew I was called to stay the course, but the pain of loss was difficult to bear. I was certain the ship would capsize. It didn’t, and here we are many years later. Be honest with yourself throughout your years of ministry.

3. Take note of cultural changes that have taken place.

Moral, ethical, and technological manifestations are interpreted differently by different generations and religious backgrounds. Every pastor should have knowledge of the cultural narratives pulsing through our society. You can get left in the dust if you’re not aware of them. They can slip in unannounced and, before you know it, your ministry is no longer relevant. As someone once said, “There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.” Don’t miss the train on this.

4. Spend time with the younger people in your church, and find out how they view life.

This will be an eye-opener. Obviously, this can be done at any stage, but after a decade or two it’s good to test the waters of youth. They’re living in a different world. That wasn’t true 30 years ago. Back then, it seemed generations were separated by inches. Today, the internet has separated them by miles. I’ve loved sitting down with teens and asking them what life is like in school and what battles they’re facing. Believe me, they’ll be up-front about it.

5. Be honest enough to discern whether you really had a heart for this thing called ‘ministry.’

This is a tough one, but it needs to be addressed before you build up decades of regret. Is there a fire in your belly for teaching God’s Word and caring for people? If it was there once, get counsel on how to reignite it. The Enemy loves to create doubt and question our callings. If, on the other hand, you just thought this was a way to put food on the table, it’s time to go before your leadership and seek their counsel. Resigning isn’t always the worst thing in the world. And if you aren’t called to ministry, leaving might be the best thing for your family.

Stage 3: Rearview Mirror

Stage three is for the pastor who has managed to survive 25 years or longer. I’ll refer to this as the rearview-mirror stage. There’s a greater longing for heaven and a desire to leave a legacy for your family, church, and friends. It can be the most profitable time in your life.

Resigning isn’t always the worst thing in the world.

It’s a time to gather with those you love and tell tales of bygone years. It’s a time to laugh and see life through the lens of wisdom and experience. As the name suggests, this phase of ministry also becomes a time of reflection, which can engender regrets, sometimes even leading to depression or deep sadness. Questions may arise like Why didn’t I lead better or spend more time with my people? I certainly wish I’d been better at counseling. The list of questions and doubts surface like a whale coming up for air.

Obviously, we can’t erase past failures, whether they were a result of sin, human weakness, or a lack of wisdom. Finishing well means living in daily repentance. Finishing well means maintaining a “clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). This was a supreme desire of the apostle Paul, who had persecuted the church and must’ve had many regrets in mind when he referred to himself as “foremost” among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Why did God see David as “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) but reject Saul who seemed to have fewer sins recorded? It’s because David repented wholeheartedly (as expressed in Psalms 32 and 51), yet Saul persisted in his hatred of David without repentance, making excuses for his disobedience.

Chuck Swindoll once said, “It is never too late to start doing what is right.” That’s a wise statement. No matter how old you are as a pastor (or retired pastor), you have time to make things right. A clear conscience is a key component of finishing well. No pillow is soft enough to soothe a guilty conscience.

Again, finishing well is finishing with the fewest possible regrets. Are there any relational loose ends that need to be healed? Are there people who have served faithfully and need to be thanked? Leave no stone unturned and you’ll finish well.

6 Ways Biblical Word Studies Go Wrong Tue, 11 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 As fundamental as word studies are to understanding the Bible, they carry many pitfalls.]]> Word studies done well can yield great benefits for the earnest student of God’s word. But as fundamental as word studies are to understanding the Bible—or at least, as a first step to understanding the Bible—they carry many pitfalls. Scripture was originally given in languages different from ours, so we face translation challenges. Language is always changing, so we face comprehension challenges. Language is more than mere words, so understanding a single word doesn’t resolve interpretive challenges.

Recognizing the ways we can go astray can help us avoid interpretative disaster. Here’s how not to do a word study.

1. Don’t conduct English-only word studies.

To conduct a biblical word study in English only is a fatal flaw. Every translation employs different English words for the same Greek and Hebrew words, and different Greek and Hebrew words are sometimes translated with the same English word.

The term “love” provides a good example. In Hebrew, there are two words translated as “love” in English: ahev and hesed. There are also two in Greek: agape and phileo. An English-only word study would dull the shades of meaning contained in each term. With other terms, the danger is more pronounced than merely dulling meaning. We might get it wrong altogether.

2. Don’t rely on a word’s etymology.

Etymology is the study of the origin and historical development of a word’s meaning. While such knowledge can be helpful—and is usually interesting—it can prove a distraction. Meaning isn’t primarily located in a word’s root or history.

Our Greek terms agape and phileo, for example, share no etymology but clearly overlap in meaning. Whereas the Hebrew terms lehem (bread) and milhama (war/battle) share the same root (lhm) but have no overlap in meaning. A word’s usage, not its etymology, determines its meaning. How the word is used in particular contexts must therefore take precedence over etymology.

3. Don’t be ignorant of how a word’s usage changes through time.

This pitfall is related to the last one. It’s important to be aware of how a word’s meaning may have developed and changed through history. For example, the word “silly” used to mean “worthy” or “blessed,” whereas now it means “foolish.” It means something different today than it did historically. Bible words are no different. We must be careful about reading newer meanings into older occurrences and older meanings into newer occurrences.

As fundamental as word studies are to understanding the Bible, they carry many pitfalls.

The term mashiah (anointed one) is a good case study. In early usage, it simply referred to one who had been anointed with oil to be set apart for God’s service—a person like a priest (Lev. 6:22), king (1 Sam. 24:6), or prophet (Ps. 105:15). In later usage, however, it becomes a technical term for the Messiah (Dan. 9:25–26; Ps. 132:17). We see this in extrabiblical literature and in the word’s New Testament translation “Christ” as a title for Jesus.

No good word study is ignorant of a word’s chronological development.

4. Don’t collect evidence for a word’s meaning in an unbalanced way.

When gathering evidence for your word study, it may be tempting to omit occurrences if they don’t help us say what we want or if they don’t fit what we expect to find. This error is particularly pernicious because it’s intentional, stacking the deck to make our point. We must commit before we begin a word study to let Scripture shape us, rather than us shaping Scripture.

Take the Greek term apostolos as an example. Out of around 80 New Testament occurrences, all but three are technical designations for divinely appointed messengers, the apostles. If I wanted to argue all apostles carry divine authority, I’d omit the word’s uses in John 13:16, 2 Corinthians 8:23, and Philippians 2:25 where the word simply refers to a messenger or representative. But if I’m to permit Scripture to shape my theology, I must have two categories of apostolos: the original, divinely authorized apostles and another broader category of messenger.

5. Don’t forget times when a concept is present though the word isn’t.

The occurrences unearthed by a word study alone don’t exhaust a word or concept’s meaning. It’s quite possible there may be additional information on a particular word in a passage where the term doesn’t appear; the word might be absent, but the concept isn’t. As D. A. Carson states, “As important as word studies are, it is very doubtful if profound understanding of any text or of any theme is really possible by word studies alone.”

No good word study is ignorant of a word’s chronological development.

If we’re keen to know what the Bible teaches about the church, for example, we should certainly study the term ekklesia. But our study of the single term won’t tell us all there is to know. The concept of church is larger than the word alone. Take Peter’s use of Old Testament terminology to describe the church in 1 Peter 2. He doesn’t use the term “church,” but he’s clearly teaching that the church is a spiritual house built with living stones (v. 5) and that the individuals in the church are chosen, royal, and holy and belong to God (v. 9). Our understanding of the church would be anemic without 1 Peter 2.

6. Don’t be frightened into quitting.

Reading the side effects of medication is almost enough to put you off taking it. A medicine may offer a corrective for one ailment but create the danger of new ailments. Perhaps that’s how you feel about word studies after reading this piece. Given all the pitfalls, are they worth it? Yes, they are.

Word studies provide a foundational first step into the world of deeper biblical interpretation. It’s difficult to properly comprehend phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and entire books if we don’t fully understand the words that create them. Be aware of these pitfalls, but don’t let them paralyze your Bible study.

6 Steps for Biblical Word Studies Tue, 11 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Conducting a word study is many people’s first foray into deeper Bible study.]]> Conducting a word study is many people’s first foray into deeper Bible study. You might do a word study when teaching the Bible, preparing for a small group, or reading for personal edification. Word studies can easily go awry, so here are six steps to help you conduct a word study with greater confidence.

1. Pick the right word.

The vital first step is to pick the right word (or short phrase). Avoid conjunctions (like for, and, but, yet), prepositions (by, from, in, of, on, with), and articles (a, an, the). There’s little benefit to conducting a word study here. Rather, we should hunt for words crucial to the passage we’re studying.

Conducting a word study is many people’s first foray into deeper Bible study.

These could be repeated words. If we’re studying Titus, we may note the repetition of “sound,” which appears five times over three chapters in the ESV. This word’s meaning is obviously important to understanding Titus’s message.

Alternatively, we may choose a word that we think people in our context understand differently from the original hearers, like “meditate” in Psalm 1:2.

Or we may choose a word that’s hard to understand. What does it mean when Paul says Jesus “emptied” himself in Philippians 2:7?

2. Find the Greek or Hebrew word.

To conduct a word study well, we must recognize that our English Bibles are translations. While the extent varies from translation to translation, each version may use different English words (or phrases) to translate a single Greek or Hebrew word. And often, different Greek or Hebrew words are translated with the same English word. It’s imperative to find the Greek or Hebrew word behind the English word we’re studying.

This doesn’t mean we need to learn the original languages. We can use Bible concordances, dictionaries, lexicons, and software. I’ve used the STEP Bible website. The screenshot below shows the results of a search for “sound” in Titus. Notice 2:8 isn’t highlighted in blue. This alerts us that a different Greek word lies behind the English term.

In Titus, the English term “sound” translates two related but different Greek words: hugiaino (1:9, 13; 2:1, 2) and hugies (2:8). The first term generally appears in biblical contexts referring to doctrinal health while the second occurs in contexts referring to physical health. Knowing this helps us appreciate shades of meaning.

3. Unearth other occurrences.

After finding the underlying Greek or Hebrew word, we look up other places it occurs in the Bible. Let’s consider “meditate” in Psalm 1:2. In contemporary English-speaking contexts, “meditate” generally means sitting still and silent. But what does the Hebrew word mean? As you can see below, the Hebrew word hagah used in Psalm 1:2 appears about 25 times throughout the Old Testament. It’s variously translated as “meditate,” “utter,” “plot,” “talk,” “ponder,” “mutter,” and “muse.”

If you click the link marking the number of occurrences, STEP Bible shows each passage where the word occurs. Look first at the immediate context where a word is used. In this case, that’s the Psalms. Hagah appears 10 times in the Psalms. It’s translated as “plot” in 2:1, “tell” in 35:28, and “talk” in 71:24. Perhaps the meditation of Psalm 1:2 isn’t silent.

Next, look at the wider context of the whole Bible. We discover the translations noted above are also found in uses of the word outside the Psalms: “utter” (Job 27:4; Prov. 8:7) and “mutter/s” (Isa. 8:19; 59:3). Could it be that “meditate” in Psalm 1:2 means reciting verbally to yourself?

4. Note the range of possible meanings.

Words possess a range of meanings. To discern the specific meaning of a word in the context we’re studying, we must consider the connotations of the various translation choices. Sometimes several translations may work. For Psalm 1:2, we could legitimately read most of the above translations, though each carries a different shade of meaning.

Philippians 2:7, however, is more difficult. The Greek term is kenoo. It occurs five times in the New Testament, translated as “null” (Rom. 4:14), “emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17), “deprive” (1 Cor. 9:15), “prove empty” (2 Cor. 9:3), and “emptied” (Phil. 2:7). It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus didn’t empty himself of power, and it would be wrong to conclude Jesus was proved empty. So we can immediately rule out some meanings and translations.

5. Check with the commentators.

By this stage, we have a good idea of what our chosen word means in its context. But it’s helpful to check with some trusted commentators, writers who are careful with the text and theologically faithful. If in doubt, ask your pastor for a recommendation. I’ve chosen one trusted commentator for each example passage.

On Psalm 1:2, Dale Ralph Davis writes, “The verb seems to carry the idea of muttering or murmuring in an undertone. If done with a written document, it reflects a vocal activity rather than a mere silent reading.”

On the term “sound” in Titus, John Stott explains, “In the Pastorals, however, the adjective is applied several times to Christian doctrine, which is ‘healthy’ or ‘wholesome’ in contrast to the ‘sick’ teaching of the deceivers.”

On Philippians 2:7 David Garland concludes, “Emptying himself means that he made himself null and void and renounced his privileges and rights.” Jesus willingly deprived himself of the status that was rightly his.

These readings fit with what we observed in our word studies.

6. Make your decision.

The final step is to make your decision. Having gathered the evidence and checked with the commentators, what do you think this word means in this context? Now you’re ready to state your conclusion and let it inform your teaching or study. If there’s not a consensus on a given word, you may want to hold your conclusions loosely and alert your hearers to the fact that other Bible students have come to different interpretations.

It takes time and energy to discover a word’s meaning in a given context, but with these six steps, the help of the Spirit, and the grace of God, I trust we’ll get it right more often than we get it wrong.

The FAQs: Federal Ruling Could Halt Use of Abortion Pill Mon, 10 Apr 2023 15:03:00 +0000 A federal judge in Texas issued an order late Friday afternoon (April 7) that could halt prescription use of the abortion pill. Here’s what you should know about this potential pro-life victory.]]> What just happened?

A federal judge in Texas issued an order late Friday afternoon (April 7) that could halt prescription use of the abortion pill. The judge sided with a coalition of pro-life groups that brought the case challenging the drug’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which occurred in 2000 during President Clinton’s second term. The judge has imposed a temporary injunction against the distribution of the abortion pill.

“The Court does not second-guess FDA’s decision-making lightly but here, FDA acquiesced on its legitimate safety concerns—in violation of its statutory duty—based on plainly unsound reasoning and studies that did not support its conclusions,” said the judge.

The preliminary injunction is scheduled to take effect in seven days. During that time, the Biden administration will seek emergency relief to appeal the decision. However, according to Axios, legal experts say drug manufacturers and distributors must immediately cease the sale and shipment of mifepristone for abortion use.

What is this court case about?

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the lawsuit was brought by the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine’s member organizations, which include major medical groups such as the American College of Pediatricians, the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In response to concerns about the FDA’s actions, the group submitted a citizen petition to challenge the FDA’s approval in 2002. Fourteen years later, the FDA denied their petition.

In 2016, on the same day it rejected the citizen petition, the FDA expanded the availability of chemical abortion drugs from seven weeks of pregnancy to 10 weeks, changed the dosing regimen, reduced the number of required in-person doctor visits from three to one, expanded who could prescribe and administer chemical abortion drugs beyond medical doctors, and eliminated the requirement for prescribers to report nonfatal complications from chemical abortion drugs.

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine submitted another citizen petition to challenge these changes but was again denied by the FDA.

In April 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA eliminated the remaining safeguards by removing the requirement that an abortionist physically meets with the woman and gives her the chemical abortion drugs, thus allowing for chemical abortions by mail and telemedicine. In December 2021, the FDA made this change permanent.

ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging the FDA’s approval of chemical abortion drugs and subsequent removal of the protections for prescribing the drug. ADF asked the court to order the FDA to withdraw these dangerous chemical abortion drugs from the market.

What is the abortion drug that was approved by the FDA?

An abortion drug is a type of abortifacient, a chemical or drug that causes embryonic death by either killing the child directly or by preventing implantation of the embryonic child in the uterine lining. The term abortifacient means “that which will cause a miscarriage,” derived from the Latin abortus (miscarriage) and faciens (making). (A miscarriage is a form of unintended “spontaneous abortion” as opposed to an “elective abortion,” which occurs when a person takes measures to end the life of the child in the womb.)

The most common legal drug approved by the FDA to serve solely as an abortifacient (rather than as birth control that may have an abortifacient effect) involves the use of two drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol.

Mifepristone (known as Mifeprex or RU-486) ends a pregnancy by blocking the hormone progesterone, which is needed to maintain a pregnancy. Because this hormone is blocked, the uterine lining begins to shed, removing the child (in the embryonic state) that was attached. The second step, which occurs 24 to 48 hours later, requires taking misoprostol, a drug that causes the woman’s uterus to expel the child and the uterine lining in a manner similar to a miscarriage.

Why did it take two decades for the FDA decision to be challenged in court?

On the first page of its ruling, the court asks, “Why did it take two decades for judicial review in federal court? After all, Plaintiffs’ petitions challenging the 2000 Approval date back to the year 2002, right?”

The answer:

Simply put, FDA stonewalled judicial review—until now. Before Plaintiffs filed this case, FDA ignored their petitions for over sixteen years, even though the law requires an agency response within “180 days of receipt of the petition.” But FDA waited 4,971 days to adjudicate Plaintiffs’ first petition and 994 days to adjudicate the second. Had FDA responded to Plaintiffs’ petitions within the 360 total days allotted, this case would have been in federal court decades earlier. Instead, FDA postponed and procrastinated for nearly 6,000 days. [emphasis in original]

How would a ban on the abortion pill affect abortions in the U.S.?

The two broad methods for legal abortions in the U.S. are medical and surgical. In a surgical abortion, the child in utero is dismembered and body parts are removed by suction (aspiration) through a thin tube inserted into the uterus.

The other method is a medical abortion, sometimes referred to as a medication abortion, chemical abortion, or pharmaceutical abortion. This method uses an abortifacient to stimulate uterine contractions similar to miscarriage. Medication abortion now accounts for about 54 percent of all abortions.

If mifepristone is prohibited, abortionists could still prescribe misoprostol, the other drug used in the two-drug combination. Misoprostol is already being used for medication abortions in countries where mifepristone is illegal or unavailable. However, the rate of effectiveness at causing an abortion is lower when only one of the drugs is used, and it might be more difficult to get insurance coverage for a misoprostol-only abortion due to its off-label use.

While it wouldn’t completely eliminate medication abortions, the ban on mifepristone could have a significant effect in reducing abortion and thereby protecting the lives of innocent children in the womb.

Help! I Want to Get Married, but I Can’t Afford It. Mon, 10 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 God knows what you need.]]> I’m young and want to get married soon to my amazing, Christ-loving girlfriend. But I don’t have the money to provide for a marriage. What should I do?

I love this question! It’s sincere, hopeful, Christ-centered, and practical.

I assume you’re looking for advice beyond saving up for a wedding. It seems you desire financial stability to support a family over the long haul. What you want is a good, godly thing.

Let me proceed by exploring what marriage requires and then how we can get there.

What Marriage Requires

The first and most important biblical principle regarding marriage comes from Genesis 2:24. Jesus quoted this verse in Matthew 19:5, where he gives us God’s original intent for marriage—an intimate, permanent, covenant relationship between a man and a woman. In Genesis, this verse comes after God makes Adam from the dust and Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. God states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This is the expected order of things—leaving then cleaving.

So what does marriage require? The implication is a man needs to be independent of his old family and able to support his new family. The new couple should be able to stand on their own, relationally and financially. This doesn’t mean newlyweds don’t need support from biological and church family, but it does mean they don’t set out assuming that others will regularly pay their bills.

Develop a Plan

If you’re at the age where you’re seriously considering marriage, I hope you’re already involved in some kind of education or training program or are working full-time. If not, this is the place to start. As you save for an engagement ring and a wedding, you need a steady income, or the anticipation of one, to afford a roof over your head, food on the table, and other essentials.

You don’t need to do this alone. Your future bride may want to contribute as well, perhaps by having a job or a plan to earn a degree or learn marketable skills.

Remember you don’t need to have a perfect job, or even a particularly well-paying job, to afford marriage. You don’t need to wait until you can afford a big wedding or a down payment on a house. You may be living off student loans or in a tiny apartment. Don’t confuse affording a marriage with affording a huge diamond ring or brand-new furniture. You need to provide for the essentials like food, clothing, and utilities—basically, the same things you need as a single person.

You don’t need to wait until you can afford a big wedding or a down payment on a house.

I don’t know where you are in terms of starting your career path, but I want you to know this: God has plans for you. Finding your first job is an opportunity to learn to trust God. Changing jobs as the need arises is also a chance to grow in faith. Instead of being anxious about how God the Father will provide for you and your family, trust Jesus’s words to his disciples: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). How does God normally provide for us financially? It’s through our jobs. We can look to him to give us all we need, including employment.

Can We Afford Children?

After cleaving together, Adam and Eve are told to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). As time goes on, you and your spouse will probably start thinking about expanding your family. Finances also enter into this equation.

It’s wise to consider whether you can reasonably provide for an extra mouth to feed and body to clothe. The potential loss of income or additional expenses for childcare have to be weighed carefully. But you don’t need to wait until you have a fully stocked nursery or a fully funded 529 plan to have your babies. Again, you need to be able to provide essentials such as diapers, clothing, and food.

Children are part of God’s good design. If he blesses you with a baby, whether you feel ready or not, he will provide. And the challenges of reworking budgets and making sacrifices for your precious little one will give you and your wife an opportunity to work together as a team and to grow in selflessness.

God Will Lead You

Let me leave you with this. Living God’s way, in accordance with his Word and the wisdom he provides, is always what’s best. His plans are perfect. He knows what you need because he designed you. His provision—of a godly woman to marry, of an education, of a job, of children—is something you can trust and rejoice in.

Living God’s way, in accordance with his Word and the wisdom he provides, is always what’s best.

Allow me to modify the title of a children’s book by Dr. Seuss: “Oh, the places the Lord will lead you to go!” As you consistently commit yourself and your future family to God’s purposes, he’ll provide exceedingly, abundantly, far beyond all you can ask or expect (Eph. 3:20).

Christian marriage is a great adventure where your faith will grow immensely. You’ll learn to trust God and lean on his promises. You’ll see God’s faithfulness as he leads you through every season of life. You’ll experience the joy of the Lord in your relationship and, beyond that, your marriage will cause flourishing in your community as you point to the ultimate source of all love: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

5 Reasons to Go to Prayer Meeting Mon, 10 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 None of us needs another excuse to skip our church’s prayer meeting. What we need instead are a few reasons for going.]]> None of us needs another excuse to skip our church’s prayer meeting. We have more than enough: we’re busy, it’s difficult to wrangle the kids, it’s dark and we don’t feel like going out again, we’ve got an early appointment the next day, or we’re scared of being asked to pray in front of others.

What we need instead are a few reasons for going. I’ve listed five below. I hope they motivate you to get out the door, go to the prayer meeting, and get on your knees with God’s people.

1. Prayer makes God smile.

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual for every decision we face. We spend most of our time navigating the nebulous gray, relying on wisdom from above. But isn’t it satisfying when we can know for certain that what we’re doing pleases God and meets with his approval? First Peter 3:12 says, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” In a week filled with choices we may look back on and question, we need not doubt whether God is pleased with the time we spend in prayer with his people. He loves to hear our prayers and praises.

2. Prayer strengthens our faith.

Hearing others pray can inspire us and bolster our trust in God’s promises. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. . . . The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

None of us needs another excuse to skip our church’s prayer meeting. What we need instead are a few reasons for going.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been disinterested in prayer at a prayer meeting. But God often does a wonderful thing: he works through the imperfect petitions of another dear saint to wake me out of my spiritual slumber and fill me again with confidence in his good sovereignty. Left to ourselves, we may doubt God’s ability or grow discouraged in our faith, but to see faith alive in the prayer of another reminds us we believe no fantasy. God is real, powerful, and good, and that makes us want to pray.

3. Prayer is more caught than taught.

The prayer meeting is one of the best places to go if you want to learn how to pray. If Steven Spielberg wasn’t always at the movies as a young kid, would he have grown up to be an iconic, Oscar-winning filmmaker? Composers go to concerts. Authors read books. Athletes play pickup games at the Y. When we want to get better at something, we surround ourselves with others who know what they’re doing. The same is true for prayer. The church’s prayer meeting provides an invaluable opportunity for us to learn how to speak to God from other godly saints. When we see how they weave Scripture into their praises, or how they wrestle honestly with their petitions, we’ll come to do the same.

4. Prayer fuels the church.

Paul was aware of his need and wasn’t shy in making it known to the church. He fully expected they’d keep him uplifted before the Lord in earnest petition (Eph. 6:19; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1). Paul was confident the prayers of God’s people would sustain him through the rigors of ministry and the trials of life. Why should we presume to find success apart from that same kind of intercession from the saints? Charles Spurgeon understood this well. When some ministers visited his thriving Metropolitan Tabernacle, they asked about his secret to success. In response, he took them to the basement “boiler” room where a small group had gathered in prayer. Spurgeon said the secret was simple: “My people pray for me.”

5. Prayer works.

Most importantly, let’s remember prayer isn’t an empty exercise in religious ritual. When we come to God in faith, it’s as though we tap into his cosmic power (1 John 5:14–15)—God is pleased to work out his eternal will as an answer to the prayers of people like you and me (James 5:17). What a marvel! God may use our prayers to grant healing, encouragement, comfort, victory over sin, growth in spiritual virtues, and success in ministry. If for no other reason, prayer is worth it because it works.

These reasons mean attending your church’s prayer meeting is never a waste of time.

Bright Monday: Living in the Light of Easter Mon, 10 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The resurrection teaches us to expect God to do the unexpected amid the regular, grayscale, cubicled pattern of life.]]> Yesterday morning, my family woke up with holiday excitement. My daughters zipped into Easter dresses, my wife prepared food for the feast at the in-laws, and we drove to a church packed with smiling people. We sang our hearts out, worshiping the One who died and rose for us. All day, we celebrated with joy and thanksgiving, ham and potatoes, chocolate and lilies. It was wonderful.

And then today, we woke up to work and school, laundry and dishes, homework and headaches.

Every year since the earliest centuries of the church, Christians have spun through this cycle. For some traditions, it starts back at Ash Wednesday and a long 40 days of Lenten abstinence. Then we experience the utter joy of Easter before a return to everyday life. Piety, party, and normalcy. Fast-forward to Christmas, and we’ll do it all over again.

It’s easy to move from abstinence to feasting. But how can we think about the sometimes bumpy transition from party to normalcy?

For the Eastern Orthodox, the answer is extending the party. Historically, they considered the week after Easter one long day. The churches were open, the bars were closed (at least in imperial Russia), and everyone sang praise to God all week long. These days, Orthodox-majority countries such as Greece or Romania celebrate “Bright Monday” as a public, nonworking holiday.

We’re not Eastern Orthodox. But the bright light of Easter can change the way we move through cycles of piety, partying, and normalcy.

Better Kind of Piety

When I was a teen, every year I went to a Christian camp for a week. Every year, I made bold commitments for God. Every year, I experienced God in newer and deeper ways. But every year, I came down from the spiritual mountain, and piety at the peak dwindled to vanity in the valley.

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know this reality. Sustaining spiritual disciplines may seem easy for a special week out of the year, but the rest of the year turns into an “I think I can, I think I can” sort of uphill climb.

It’s like the journey of Cleopas and his friend that day after Easter (Luke 24), just a handful of miles outside Jerusalem but a thousand miles from God in their hearts. The hopes and dreams they’d felt during Holy Week ended up dashed (v. 21). My heart aches with these disciples because I fear that the exuberance of my Holy Week will be dashed by yet another hopeless week. Are the heights of my worship on Sunday doomed to spiral back into doubt (vv. 25, 38, 41) and despair? I fear a case of the Mondays will reveal my temporary reverence and suck me away from God.

But Bright Monday gives me hope for holiness that lasts, for persistent piety. The Monday after Easter offers an opportunity to open up Holy Scripture and see in it the person and work of Christ afresh (vv. 27, 32, 45). Looking in the rearview mirror at Easter doesn’t mean we have to accept a fleeting encounter with Jesus. It means we get to relish the daily experience of our hearts coming alive as the Scriptures are opened to us by the power of the Spirit, who’s pointing us to the living, risen Son of God (v. 32).

Bright Monday gives me hope for holiness that lasts, for persistent piety.

We commute this Easter Monday, not to the wilderness where we must survive until Sunday but to a place where heaven has intersected with earth. The resurrection echoes into Monday, making every job site a patch of holy ground, every lunch room an altar of worship, every moment on the clock a call to worship, every blue-collar believer a white-robed priest (John 4:21–24; 1 Cor. 6:19–20; Col. 3:23; 1 Pet. 2:9).

Better Kind of Party

“I’d be glad to follow Jesus, but does that mean I have to stop partying?”

I remember a young guy on a subway in Brooklyn asking me this question. I’m sure I fumbled the answer. But it’s one of those questions that sticks with you. Because of Easter, because Jesus Christ has demonstrated himself to be the King of kings and Lord of lords as surely as the sun and sky are marked out from the ocean (Rom. 1:4), does this drive a stake through the heart of a life lived to the full on Monday?

In John 2, we get a picture of what Jesus does to the party life. On Saturday night, the groom gathers the bride and her wedding party. She spends the night surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. Then on Sunday, the festivities begin. Late Sunday evening, the wine is out and the party is about to come to an abrupt and embarrassing end. And in that moment when the joy of the party is about to wind down, Jesus steps up and works a miracle of new creation. He turns water into wine. The party that was about to end is only getting started. The party that everyone found satisfactory just got dialed up to 11.

Bright Monday is an opportunity to imbibe the wine of the new creation, to drink it in all of its richness and glory. The Monday after Easter allows us to savor the best wine, with aromatics and aftertaste unappreciated by those drunk with lesser wines. So as we lift a glass at our Lord’s table, we remind ourselves the real party has only just begun.

As you sit down at your desk this Monday, you have every reason to smile wider than the non-Christian who sits in the cubicle next to you. You can laugh louder at the office jokes. You can goof off with the kids; you can take yourself lightly. You can spread joy to others because the transcendent joy of the resurrection reaches into Easter Monday.

Better Kind of Normalcy

Francis Schaeffer once said that because of the uniqueness of the first creative act of God, there are “no little people.” On a similar note, the new-creation act of God—seen unmistakably in the empty tomb—means there are “no little Mondays.” Settling into your cubicle, car, cafe, or construction site will never be the same. His work forever alters ours. Something of the elevated worship of Easter Sunday comes with us into Bright Monday.

It’s an opportunity to imbibe the wine of the new creation, to drink it in all of its richness and glory.

The resurrection teaches us to expect God to do the unexpected amid the regular, grayscale, cubicled pattern of life. Instead of the nine-to-five routine, the workweek is full of adventure. The ordinary becomes an opportunity. Normalcy becomes novelty. Even the 3:00 p.m. lethargy becomes part of a bigger story, a story of redemption and restoration that has come to include our own.

The new normal for those of us who have experienced the new-creation work of Jesus is the joy of stepping each week into our varied vocations by the light of resurrection day. Bright Monday enhances and improves the cycle of party, piety, and normalcy because Easter Sunday breathes new life into all three.

3 Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection Sun, 09 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 It’s not that Christians force themselves to believe the most improbable explanation. It’s that if you reject the resurrection, you entangle yourself in more absurdity.]]> Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

For many, the White Queen is a poster girl for faith. Her imagination has colonized her intellect. She’s developed—with much practice—an alchemical ability to turn fantasies into facts. This talent is desired by some, derided by most.

Some of my friends are like Alice and they consider me the White Queen. They reckon I’ve managed to suspend or sideline my rational faculties, at least enough to make room for certain impossibilities like the resurrection. As though one day I relented, OK, fine, if this is the intellectual price I have to pay to be a Christian, let me add this item to my inventory of unpopular opinions: a corpse reanimated one Sunday morning. There!

To be clear, this is not how Easter faith works. If you want to know how it does work, let me provide a tour. For any Alices who are willing to go down the rabbit hole, here’s a journey to faith that takes in three Hs. No need to be a White Queen—reasonable people like you can believe in the resurrection. How? By considering the heavens, history, and him.


Here are three features of our world that are already Easter-like. They already have a life-from-the-dead shape to them. I don’t offer these as watertight proofs of God. But I do raise them as suggestive pointers.

Everything has come from nothing. It’s not just Christians who believe in improbabilities. We all live inside a glorious absurdity called existence. Here we are. We needn’t be. But out of nothing, everything. Out of the void, life. It’s incredibly Easter-like.

It’s not just Christians who believe in improbabilities. We all live inside a glorious absurdity called existence.

Order has come from chaos. There’s an intricacy to life and to our life-sustaining universe. Physical forces had to be “just so.” (Look up “the fine-tuning of the universe” to get a sense of how improbable a life-permitting universe is). Yet wouldn’t you know it, against all the odds—a cosmos, not a chaos! But more than such remarkable physical order, there’s also the emergence of biology.

Life has come from nonlife. As a Christian, I believe that on Easter Sunday the nonliving Jesus came to life. Out of lifelessness and entropy, an extraordinary vitality burst forth. This is undoubtedly a miracle. But a purely biological account of our origins tells a story much more extraordinary. According to a naturalistic explanation, all life has emerged from nonlife—and without a God of resurrection to work the wonder.

Since this is the nature of our life-from-the-dead universe, a different question emerges: Are things made more absurd or less absurd by believing in the God of resurrection?

But it’s not just the heavens that point the way to Easter faith—there’s history too.


Let’s explore the history of the first century and history since the first century.

First-century history. Despite his humble circumstances, Jesus of Nazareth thought of himself as the King of heaven’s kingdom, the central figure of history, and the Judge ruling God’s future. The Jewish authorities found him guilty of blasphemy and the Romans executed him on account of his claims to kingship. He died on a cross and was placed in a tomb, the whereabouts of which were well known. Three days later, that tomb was empty, and his followers had experiences of the risen Jesus which went on for another 40 days and then stopped when Christians say Jesus returned to heaven. The body was never found, and all the eyewitnesses maintained their testimony, even on pain of death.

These are the historical facts, and then the explanations begin (which are many). But a Christian is someone who considers the alternative theories—he didn’t die, his body was stolen, the disciples faked it, or they hallucinated—and judges them to be much less satisfactory, all things considered. It’s not that Christians force themselves to believe the most improbable explanation. It’s that if you reject the resurrection, you entangle yourself in more absurdity.

History since. The question we should all consider is why we’ve ever heard of Jesus. Why didn’t Christianity die with Christ on Good Friday, never to rise again? But Christianity didn’t remain dead and buried. Far from it. It has become, in the words of historian Tom Holland, “the most disruptive, the most influential and the most enduring revolution in history.” This is extraordinary when you consider its source.

It’s not that Christians force themselves to believe the most improbable explanation. It’s that if you reject the resurrection, you entangle yourself in more absurdity.

From a purely human perspective, Jesus was a penniless preacher, shooting his mouth off around some backwater of a long-dead empire. He was surrounded by losers and no-hopers. He was crucified in ignominy in his 30s. Yet he’s the most famous man who ever walked the planet. He’s built the world we live in. You may not believe Jesus turned water into wine, but here’s a miracle that’s difficult to deny: somehow Jesus has gone from godforsaken execution to world domination. How? Christians bring an explanation. Christianity rose from the dead because Christ did. Once again, this Easter faith isn’t brought forward to be embraced as an absurdity. It’s brought forward to explain an absurdity.

Finally, if you want to complete the journey to Easter faith, it must be personal.


Comic book fans love to debate the relative strengths of their superheroes. They’ll ask, “Who would win in a fight between Iron Man and Batman?” Christians do something similar when they consider the ultimate matchup: Jesus versus death.

According to 1 Corinthians 15, death is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. It’s the “last enemy.” Without resurrection, death is Lord. But the passage goes on to declare death has met its match in Jesus. Christians know death has swallowed kings, armies, and empires. But we’ve encountered the Jesus of Scripture, and we’re persuaded he is Lord.

Whatever it is that brings everything from nothing, order from chaos, life from nonlife—whatever that generative power might be—Jesus embodies it. In the history of his incarnation, he has come to redeem and renew his world that’s been tumbling down to nothingness, chaos, and death. In other words, Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And if he is this God of resurrection, then of course he conquered death. If he’s Lord, the truly remarkable thing would be if he rotted in some Jerusalem tomb.

Christians aren’t like the White Queen. Belief in the risen Jesus isn’t one more impossibility to believe before breakfast. On the contrary, the Christian looks at the heavens and at history and finds their most fitting fulfillment in him. Easter faith makes sense of a world that would otherwise be far, far more absurd. If, like Alice, you “can’t believe in impossible things,” then I invite you instead to believe in Jesus.

Is Scripture Clear? Fri, 07 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Kevin DeYoung teaches on the importance of accurate Bible interpretation and addresses the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism within Christianity.]]> In this TGC17 breakout session, Kevin DeYoung discusses the significance of accurate Bible interpretation, addressing the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism within Christianity. DeYoung emphasizes the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture as well as the importance of interpreting Scripture alongside the creeds, confessions, and traditions of the church.

DeYoung also highlights the need for understanding church history to combat pervasive interpretive pluralism. He encourages Christians to study and become convinced in their own minds of Scripture. Ultimately, DeYoung wants to equip people with confidence in God’s Word as a result of accurate Bible interpretation.

Good Friday from 5 Angles Fri, 07 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The cross is good news for sinners and bad news for Satan, and it puts God’s glory on full display.]]> What does the cross achieve? Why does it occupy so central a place in the minds of the New Testament writers?

The Bible gives many wonderfully rich answers to such questions. Here are a few, from five distinct angles—God’s perspective, Christ’s perspective, Satan’s perspective, sin’s perspective, and our perspective.

1. God’s Perspective

In the Bible, God’s wrath is a function of his holiness. His wrath or anger isn’t the explosion of a bad temper or a chronic inability to restrain his irritability but rather a just and principled opposition to sin. God’s holiness is so spectacularly glorious that it demands he’s wrathful toward those of his creatures who defy him, slight his majesty, thumb their noses at his words and works, and insist on their own independence—even though every breath they breathe, not to mention their very existence, depends on his providential care.

If God were to gaze at sin and rebellion, shrug his shoulders, and mutter, “Well, I’m not too bothered. I can forgive these people. I don’t really care what they do,” surely there would be something morally deficient about him. Should God care nothing for Hitler’s outrages? Should God care nothing about my rebellion and your rebellion? If he acted this way, he’d ultimately discount his own significance, sully his own glory, besmirch his own honor, soil his own integrity.

It’s a glorious truth that although God is angry with us, in his very character he’s a God of love. Despite his anger as he perceives our anarchy—anger that’s a necessary function of his holiness—God is a loving God and therefore provides a means of forgiving sins, one that will leave the integrity of his glory unsullied. He comes to us in the person of his Son. His Son dies as the propitiation for our sins. He dies to ensure God becomes favorable toward us in precisely those areas where God has been opposed to us in judgment and wrath.

But this is quite unlike pagan propitiation, for God himself has provided the sacrifice. In pagan propitiation, we offer sacrifices and the gods are propitiated. In the Bible, God is both the origin and the object of the propitiating sacrifice. He provides it by sending his Son to the cross; yet at the same time, the sacrifice satisfies his own honor, and his righteous wrath is turned away without his holiness being impugned.

The apostle Paul writes, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25–26, NIV).

Observe how Paul repeatedly insists that God sent his Son to the cross “to demonstrate his righteousness”—not simply to save us—as well as to be the One who justifies those who have faith in his Son. The cross unites God’s love and his perfect holiness.

That’s one of the ways, at least, that God looks at the cross.

2. Christ’s Perspective

Here, too, many things could be said. But one of the great and neglected themes about what the cross means to the Son is the obedience of the Son. This theme surfaces with special strength in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in the Gospel of John.

There, we repeatedly learn the Father sends and the Son goes; the Father commissions and the Son obeys. The Son always does what pleases the Father (John 8:29). The most staggering commission the Father gives to the Son is that he go to the cross to redeem a race of rebels. And the Son knows this is the commission given him. Jesus came, he insists, “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The most staggering commission the Father gives to the Son is that he go to the cross to redeem a race of rebels.

But knowledge of the commission he’d received didn’t make obedience easy. He faced Gethsemane and the cross with an agony of intercession characterized by the repeated petition “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

For Jesus, the cross was not only the means by which he sacrificed himself, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18); it was also the high point of his unqualified obedience to his heavenly Father (cf. Phil. 2:8).

3. Satan’s Perspective

Revelation 12 is one of the most important chapters in the New Testament for understanding the Devil’s perspective on the cross. Satan is portrayed as full of rage because he’s been banished from heaven and knows his time is short. He hasn’t been able to crush Jesus, so he vents his rage on the church. He’s the “accuser of [the] brothers” (v. 10) who wants simultaneously to roil their consciences and to accuse God of ungodliness because God accepts such miserable sinners as these. But believers, we’re told, defeat Satan on the ground of “the blood of the Lamb” (v. 11)—an unambiguous reference to the cross.

This means these believers escape the accusations of Satan, whether in their own minds and consciences or before the bar of God’s justice, because they make an instant appeal to the cross. They sing with full attention and deep gratitude the wonderful words of Augustus Toplady’s classic hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”: “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to thy cross I cling.”

In the face of that appeal, Satan has no retort. God has retained his honor while redeeming a rebel brood. We can be free from guilt—both objective guilt before a holy God and subjective awareness of guilt—not because we ourselves are guiltless but because Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

Imagine the first Passover, just before the exodus. Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, two Hebrews with remarkable names, are discussing the extraordinary events of the previous weeks and months. Mr. Smith asks Mr. Jones, “Have you sprinkled the blood of a lamb on the two doorposts and on the lintel over the entrance to your dwelling?”

“Of course,” replies Mr. Jones. “I’ve followed Moses’s instructions exactly.”

“So have I,” affirms Mr. Smith. “But I have to admit I’m very nervous. My boy Charlie means the world to me. If, as Moses says, the angel of death is passing through the land tonight, taking out all the firstborn in the land—I just don’t know what I’ll do if Charlie dies.”

“But that’s the point. He won’t die. That’s why you sprinkled the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and on the lintel. Moses said that when the angel of death sees the blood, he will ‘pass over’ the house so protected, and the firstborn will be safe. Why are you worried?”

“I know, I know,” splutters Mr. Smith somewhat irritably. “But you have to admit there have been some very strange goings-on these last few months. Some of the plagues have afflicted only the Egyptians, of course, but some of them have hit us too. The thought that my Charlie could be in danger is terribly upsetting.”

Rather unsympathetically, Mr. Jones replies, “I really can’t imagine why you’re fretting. After all, I have a son too, and I think I love him just as much as you love your Charlie. But I’m completely at peace: God promised the angel of death would pass over every house whose door is marked by blood in the way he prescribes, and I take him at his word.”

That night, the angel of death passed through the land. Who lost his son, Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones?

The answer, of course, is neither. The fulfillment of God’s promise that the angel of death would simply “pass over” and not destroy their firstborns depended not on the intensity of the faith of the residents but only on whether or not they’d sprinkled blood on the doorposts and on the lintel. In both cases, the blood was shed, the houses marked; in both cases, the firstborn son was saved.

So also with us who have trusted Christ and his cross-work on our behalf. The promise of deliverance, the assurance we’re accepted by the Almighty God, is tied not to the intensity of our faith or to the consistency of our faith or to the purity of our faith but to the object of our faith. When we approach God in prayer, our plea isn’t that we’ve been good that day or that we’ve just come from a Christian meeting full of praise or that we’ll try harder but that Christ has died for us. And against that plea, Satan has no riposte.

For the cross marks Satan’s defeat, and Satan knows it. That’s what the cross means to him.

4. Sin’s Perspective

Sin isn’t a living thing, of course, so we can’t suppose sin literally has a perspective. But the category is useful even if it’s metaphorical, because it helps us see what the cross achieved with respect to sin.

The Bible uses many different images of sin. Sin can be thought of as a debt: I owe something I cannot pay. In that case, the cross is the means by which the debt is paid. One sometimes reads on Christmas cards this two-line poem: “He came to pay a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.” That’s exactly right. That’s what the cross achieved.

‘He came to pay a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.’

Sin can also be thought of as a stain. In that case, the dirt is removed by the death of Christ. Or sin is an offense before God. In that case, the cross expiates our sin; it cancels it and thus removes it. Regardless of what imagery is used to depict the foulness and odiousness of sin, the cross is the solution—the sole solution.

5. Our Perspective

The cross is the high-water mark of the demonstration of God’s love for his people. It’s a symbol of our shame and of our freedom. It’s the ultimate measure of how serious our guilt is and the comforting assurance our guilt has been dealt with. In the New Testament, the cross is tied to many of the most important words and concepts: justification, sanctification, the gift of the Spirit, the dawning of the kingdom.

But in the New Testament, the cross also serves as the supreme standard of our behavior. That theme is perhaps most dramatically drawn, in the New Testament, by the apostle Peter:

To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:21–23)

And of course, it’s the primary point Paul makes to the Philippians. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5, NIV), he writes, and then he drives to the cross.

How the Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement Led Me to Faith Fri, 07 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Atonement doctrine revealed both the seriousness of my sin and the incredible love of the Lamb who died in my place.]]> Growing up, one of my favorite movies was The Prince of Egypt. Countless times, I witnessed the story of the Passover unfolding before my eyes. Moses returns to the land he fled from, bringing a message from the God of Israel: “Let my people go” (Ex. 5:1). Pharaoh refuses. Moses continues to demand the release of God’s people as the Lord makes his will known through plagues.

At Pharaoh’s final refusal, God strikes down the firstborn sons of Egypt, leaving death in every house (12:30). But the children of the Israelites are spared. When the dust settles, the only difference between the dead and defeated Egyptians and the newly freed Israelites is blood—the blood of an unblemished lamb (12:5).

As well as I knew the story of the Passover, one question perplexed me: Why did God command the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts? This made no sense to me until I met the greater Lamb, the One this story is really about.

Rejecting Self-Justification

Before college, I thought I was a Christian because I believed in God, followed the rules, and was generally nice to people. When I sinned, I either denied my wrongdoing or assumed God would overlook my shortcomings on account of my overall good behavior. I vaguely felt that God loved me but had no real understanding of what it would mean for my life if I truly believed it.

That all changed when I attended a Navigators group at my college where new friends gave me a Bible and began to share their lives with me. When I read God’s Word for the first time, the gospel became real to me. My standing with God wasn’t based on my good works but rather on what Jesus accomplished on the cross. He paid the full price for my sin, and I could walk in the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation—this is the essence of substitutionary atonement. For someone used to self-justification, this truth was a breath of fresh air.

For someone used to self-justification, substitutionary atonement was a breath of fresh air.

But even as I came to know Jesus as my Savior, the temptation remained to view my or others’ works as “good enough” for God. It wasn’t until I began to see Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of redemption that I could appreciate the beauty of God’s character in atonement doctrine.

Embracing Redemption

Two years ago, I read the Bible chronologically over five months, taking in the full picture of Scripture. Afterward, I made a list of key takeaways. This was the first thing I wrote down: “Man’s history is consistently repetitive but God’s history is consistently redemptive.”

Shortly after God revealed his faithfulness to the Israelites by bringing them through the Passover and out of Egypt, Moses found God’s people worshiping a golden calf (32:19). Afterward, the history of Israel repeated itself, with brief periods of devotion to God quickly marred by injustice and idolatry brought about by the misdeeds of leaders who were supposed to be seeking the Lord.

Yet throughout their rebellion, a merciful and gracious God refused to destroy Israel and instead relentlessly pursued them. He made a covenant with Israel, giving them his law, a new land, and the promise to be their God. No sinner could look upon the holy, righteous God and live (33:20), so God instituted a system of animal sacrifices by which Israelites could commune with God.

Man’s history is consistently repetitive but God’s history is consistently redemptive.

But Israel fell short of following God’s law, and temple sacrifices were soon tainted with injustice and wicked intentions. Still, God pursued his people—calling them to repent, carrying them through exile, and returning them to the land they once possessed.

Finally, John the Baptist proclaimed the beginning of God’s ultimate solution to humanity’s biggest problem: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Just as those first lambs were deemed acceptable sacrifices to God on the basis of their physical perfection, so Jesus was an acceptable sacrifice on account of his perfect righteousness. Innocent and blameless, he was a sheep led to slaughter, sentenced to death for our sin (Isa. 53:5–7). And like the lambs of old, his blood covers his people, a sign to God to pass over our sin.

Following the Good Shepherd

But the beauty of the atonement doesn’t end there. Jesus is not only our Passover Lamb but also our Good Shepherd (John 10:11). He willingly laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:18). Jesus went to the cross “for the joy that was set before him,” enduring suffering with the knowledge that those who are called by his name would soon be free from sin and fully reconciled to the Father (Heb. 12:2).

Growing in my understanding of substitutionary atonement has left me in awe of God’s goodness and mercy to me. Like Pharaoh, my heart was hardened toward the Lord. Atonement doctrine revealed both the seriousness of my sin and the incredible love of the Lamb who died in my place. What a joy to now follow the Shepherd who relentlessly pursues his people!

How to Build a Theological Library on a Budget Thu, 06 Apr 2023 04:03:45 +0000 Building a theological library can be an expensive endeavor that takes over your living space, but it doesn’t have to be.]]> The 10th commandment prohibits coveting “anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deut. 5:21, NIV). In most situations, I find this one of the easiest commandments to keep. Indeed, I rarely need to actively avoid the temptation to covet—until, that is, I see another pastor’s bookshelf.

Seeing rows and rows of commentaries and theological monographs pushes me toward a state of envy. The struggle intensifies when I see videos of massive private libraries, such as those of Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, and Rick Warren.

There are noble reasons, of course, for desiring such a theological library. But the reasons for not acting on that desire can generally be reduced to two: a lack of money and a lack of space. I have neither the money to buy all the books I want nor the space to keep them if I did.

Building a theological library can be an expensive endeavor that takes over your living space, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little creativity and resourcefulness, it’s possible to build a comprehensive theological library on a budget.

Here are some tips for building a library when you lack both cash and shelf space.

1. Change your mindset from ‘ownership’ to ‘access.’

The most effective way to expand your library of theological materials is to change your thinking about what constitutes “your library.” If your definition includes only books you own, you’ll likely never be able to acquire what you want or need on a limited budget. But by merely shifting your definition from “what you own” to “what you can easily access,” you can expand your personal library exponentially.

If you live near a seminary or university, have a local friend who also loves books, or belong to a church with a shelf of commentaries available for use, you may already have a bigger library than you think. Although you may not “own” any of those volumes, you have the necessary access you need to benefit from them.

This may not be advice you want to hear. Yet if you want a library to serve as a practical tool, this change in mindset is the most important step you can take.

2. Focus on ebooks.

Accessing ebooks is far and away the most cost-effective means of building an inexpensive theological library. Think about ebooks in three broad categories: those that can be purchased, those that can be borrowed (free and paid), and those that can be acquired for no cost.

Ebooks for purchase

Amazon has deals on Christian ebooks every day. But keeping up with them can be a challenge. Fortunately, almost every deal is highlighted by Gospel eBooks. You can subscribe to their list by email or RSS and get daily updates on what books are available.

Most of the books highlighted are sold for $2.99 (and they’re almost always below $5). The genres of Christian living and fiction dominate, but there are enough biblical commentaries and books on theology to make it worth subscribing to the Gospel eBooks list.

Tim Challies also maintains a curated list of hand-picked Kindle deals that are of special interest to Christian readers. His list is updated daily.

(A note on buying commentaries: You’ll be tempted to buy every commentary that’s on sale for $1.99. But some aren’t even worth the reduced price. Make a habit of checking their rating on the Best Commentaries website to see how helpful other believers have found them.)

Ebooks for borrowing (paid)

Imagine if I told you that you could get access to such commentary series as the Expositor’s Bible Commentary and the Pillar New Testament Commentary; systematic theologies by Michael Horton, Ligon Duncan, and Herman Bavinck; and an audiobook version of just about every book written by R. C. Sproul—all for $8.99 a month. That’s less than what you’d pay for a single ebook on Amazon.

You can indeed get all that—and much, much more—on Scribd. It’s the best-kept secret for book lovers on the internet. And it’s truly surprising how you can get access to so much material for such a low price.

Ebooks for borrowing (free)

For decades, the theological pickings at public libraries have been slim. Rarely could you find more than a handful of quality books from an evangelical perspective. But that changed when libraries gained access to ebook services such as Hoopla and Libby. Check with your local library to see if they participate.

The Internet Archive also has a range of ebooks that can be borrowed for free, including more than 700 volumes on systematic theology.

Ebooks for free

The number of ebooks that can be obtained for free is generally limited to older works. Fortunately, there’s almost never a need to buy classic Christian works whose copyright has expired. You can acquire the majority for free on sites like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Project Gutenberg, or The Online Books Page.

Occasionally, you can find modern works available for no cost. For instance, almost all of John Piper’s books are free to download from the Desiring God website, and Vern Poythress offers more than two dozen of his excellent books for free. Some publishers, including The Good Book Company and Reformation Heritage, offer a different ebook for free each month. Logos Bible software likewise offers a monthly free book.

3. Think beyond books.

In addition to books, there are numerous resources available online for studying theology.

Theological journals

For the more academically minded, a wide range of theological journals can be accessed for free online. For example, Themelios—an international, evangelical, peer-reviewed theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith—has 48 years’ worth of articles and book reviews available online.

Your favorite seminary may also publish a free online journal. Reformed Theological Seminary publishes the journal Reformed Faith & Practice and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary publishes the Midwestern Journal of Theology. By simply typing “[seminary name] online journal” into a search engine you can uncover resources you’ve never heard about before.

Online resources

You already know that websites like The Gospel Coalition provide frequent articles on theological topics. But did you know TGC has an online commentary, essays on biblical and theological topics written by evangelical scholars, and a series of free booklets? A few minutes of digging around on your favorite Christian website can often uncover a host of hidden resources.

4. Need it in print? Buy used.

If you truly need a book in print version (for instance, when no ebook exists), try to buy a used copy. This should be obvious, but far too many people are more concerned with having a shiny new (expensive) copy on their bookshelf than they are with a functional, and cheaper, used book.

Used books can be found at local bookstores, thrift stores, and online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. Some may have underlining or highlighting, but as long as the text is legible, it can still be a valuable addition to your library.

5. Preview before you purchase.

Even a cheap book can be expensive if it wastes your most valuable resource—your time.

You can often find a preview using Google Books or Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. Taking a few minutes to judge if a book is worth acquiring can save you significant time and money.

Building an inexpensive theological library takes time and effort, but it’s a resource worth creating. By using these tips and resources, you can build a comprehensive theological library that will serve you well in your ministry and personal study.

Feast of Unleavened Bread: How a Hasty Escape Prepares Us to Wait for Christ Thu, 06 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The Feast of Unleavened Bread looks back and remembers anxiety, readiness, and waiting for an imminent journey.]]> Traffic on the highway ground to a halt—in both directions. As we sat there, the clock marching steadily on, we had a growing sense I wouldn’t make it in time for the flight. Anxiety set in as we waited for the long line of cars to begin moving. We were ready and eager to go, fearful I’d be left behind when the flight lifted off.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread looks back and remembers this kind of anxiety, readiness, and waiting for an imminent journey—Israel’s flight from slavery under Pharaoh into the worship and service of the Lord.

Contours of the Feast

Instructions for the feast are found in Leviticus 23:6–8, Numbers 28:16–25, and Deuteronomy 16:1–8. In these texts, we learn Israel was commanded to celebrate Passover at twilight on the evening of the 14th day of the first month of the year. This was immediately followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which would run for an additional seven days. On the first and last days of the feast, no ordinary work was to be done. Each day, food offerings would be presented to the Lord. During the entire period, no leavened bread was to be eaten. In fact, no leaven was to be among the people for the duration of the feast (Ex. 12:15, 19).

The Feast of Unleavened Bread looks back and remembers anxiety, readiness, and waiting for an imminent journey.

Both leavened and unleavened bread were common in the ancient Near East. Unleavened bread might be made hastily when serving a meal to an unexpected guest (Gen. 19:3; 1 Sam. 28:24). Leavened bread was made by taking a bit of old fermented dough and working it into new dough. The old yeast would cause the new dough to ferment and rise. The common use of unleavened dough when speed was required connects to the rationale for the feast, which is made explicit in Exodus 12:17; 13:3, 8–10 and Deuteronomy 16:3. The feast was to be a memorial of the Hebrews’ hasty departure, their waiting for and reception of salvation from Egyptian slavery after the final plague.

Primary Meaning of the Feast

In Exodus 12 when the Lord lays out the Passover sacrifice that Israel will offer that night and annually to commemorate their salvation, he tells them they’ll eat the Passover meal with their belts fastened, their sandals on, and their staffs in hand. It’s to be eaten in haste (v. 11). After the deaths of the firstborn sons of Egypt, the people of Israel would be expelled from the land and wouldn’t be able to wait for leavened bread to rise (v. 39). They’d come to call the quickly prepared unleavened bread of the feast “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3).

The setting and instructions of the feast help us understand its primary meaning for the Israelites. First and foremost, with its link to Passover and the departure from Egypt, unleavened bread reminded the Israelites of the immediacy of their salvation. To participate in God’s plan to transform them from Pharaoh’s slaves to his own people and nation, the Hebrews were required to launch out that very night, unprepared and totally dependent on God for the journey ahead. Waiting anxiously for the final plague to be over and for their promised protection to be realized, they ate the Passover and then carried out their unleavened dough on their backs (Ex. 12:34).

The annual requirement that no one appears empty handed at the feast (Ex. 23:15) highlighted the Lord’s provision in the journey and later in the promised land. The wilderness journey itself was a time of testing, of total dependence on the Lord for daily food and water (Ex. 16–17). Even with God’s gracious provision, one of the Israelites’ constant grumblings was for the food they left behind in Egypt (e.g., Num. 11:5). The feast’s commemoration of the Lord’s blessing was a needed reminder for a people prone to grumble. Taking them back each year to the start of their journey reminded the people of their salvation from slavery and of God’s miraculous provisions since.

Fulfillment and Application

Leaven, at its root, is a morally neutral symbol. Though most Old Testament sacrifices were accompanied by unleavened bread, leavened bread did accompany some offerings (Lev. 7:13; 23:17); it didn’t symbolize sin in the sacrificial system. The symbolism is similar in the New Testament. Though the metaphorical use of leaven is often negative, symbolizing the spread of sin (e.g., Matt. 16:6; 1 Cor. 5:6–8), Jesus also used it positively, likening the spread of the kingdom of heaven to leaven (Matt. 13:33). For these reasons, we shouldn’t understand the Feast of Unleavened Bread as related to the metaphorical use of leaven to describe the spread of sin.

The feast’s commemoration of the Lord’s blessing was a needed reminder for a people prone to grumble.

Instead, the right context for understanding the ongoing significance and fulfillment of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is the Passover. The two were not and cannot be separated. Christ is our Passover. His sacrifice secured our salvation and provided the deliverance pictured in Exodus. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a memorial to that event. It reminded Israel they had to flee slavery that very night. They couldn’t wait for their bread to rise. To depart on their journey, they had to willingly leave unprepared and dependent on God.

For us, the context is flipped. We’ve received salvation, but we eagerly await its consummation. So we’re called to wait vigilantly. Rather than knowing we’ll leave tonight, we must be found ready for Christ to return at an unknown hour (Matt. 25:1–13). Nothing must occupy our attention in a way that leaves us unready to depart when he returns and we’re called home to stand before him (Luke 21:34–36).

We must strain for the return of the King with the same effort the Israelites did that night, bread dough strapped to their backs, shoes on, and staffs in hand. Like the ready Israelites, we must refuse to let anything keep us from being ready for Christ’s sure return.

Did Celebrity Kill Jesus? Thu, 06 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 When the crowds came looking for Jesus, it led to his finest hour.]]> Popularity is dangerous. We’ve all heard the cautionary tale of a celebrity whose rising star crashes to earth. Or maybe we’ve watched narcissistic leaders who use and abuse those around them. When people start drawing a crowd, it rarely ends well.

But knowing this truth doesn’t keep us from dreaming of fame. Nor does it keep us from following the famous. As humans, we incessantly crave celebrity for ourselves or, at the very least, hope to somehow bask in its glory through others.

Of course, there’s nothing new about this phenomenon. It’s seemingly as old as humanity. But this is one way Jesus’s character is unique. He was strangely unfazed by celebrity. He never went looking for the crowds—and when the crowds came looking for him, it led to his finest hour.

Gospel of Glory

As you read the Gospel of John, it’s hard to miss the theme of popularity. Right away, John lets us know he’s a witness to Jesus’s glory (1:14). And from the outset, that glory becomes a spectacle (1:50). Jesus wows the crowds with his miracles (2:23). Immediately, some see this as a threat. The followers of John the Baptist warn that “all are going to him” (3:26). But John’s not concerned with the challenge to his personal acclaim. He’s happy to see his platform fade if Jesus’s is raised (3:30).

This contrasts sharply with the Pharisees. Throughout John’s Gospel, they consistently pursue glory from others (5:44). But they’re not the only ones. Jesus says the reason many hesitate to follow him is they love “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (12:43). Their desire for human approval manifests in fearing what others—especially the influential—might think or say or do (7:13; 9:22; 12:42; 19:38: 20:19).

Of course, we expect such cowering from the weak in society. But ironically in John’s Gospel—as in all of life—it’s the powerful like Pilate who constantly pander to the masses (18:28–19:16). Popular opinion turns everyone into a puppet.

Except for Jesus. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus lives for an audience of One. He’s clearly not out to draw a crowd. In fact, his brothers mock him for his modesty. They think he should capitalize on his celebrity, so they try to cajole him into making a name for himself. “Show yourself to the world,” they urge (7:4). Meanwhile, the bigwigs in Jerusalem obsess over Jesus’s fame in the Galilean countryside. If he takes his show on the road, they wonder if he’ll gain a following among the Greeks (7:35).

This is their great fear: that Jesus will win the popularity contest of their day. That he’ll get more glory than them. And in Jesus’s final visit to Jerusalem, the competition comes to a climax. As Jesus rides in with the crowds crying “Hosanna!” we overhear the Pharisees mumbling to themselves a version of what John’s disciples first complained: “Look, the world has gone after him” (12:19).

Greek Seekers

At this point in John’s Gospel, we realize the Pharisees have more than just a problem with pride. They have a problem with perspective. Clearly the whole world wasn’t on Jesus’s heels. It’s not as if he was making global headlines. Jesus didn’t have millions of social media subscribers. Sure, this Rabbi from Nazareth was popular. But when it comes to his following, Jesus couldn’t hold a candle to today’s celebrities and influencers.

However, the size of the crowd isn’t of primary importance. While John clearly paints the Pharisees as paranoid, he agrees with their opinion. The next line in his Gospel confirms Jesus’s global pull: “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks,” and they come looking for Jesus (12:20–21). Sure enough, Jesus isn’t drawing a crowd only from Jerusalem or Bethany where he’s just raised Lazarus from the dead. He’s drawing Gentiles from who-knows-where.

But what happens next is nothing short of amazing. When the Greeks ask for an audience, Jesus immediately starts talking about his glorification—and his death:

The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . . Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (12:23–24, 27)

Jesus isn’t enthralled by adoring fans from far away—attention the Pharisees could only dream of. Instead, these Greek seekers serve as a kind of trigger that starts the ticking clock. All throughout John’s Gospel, the reader is primed for the coming of Jesus’s “hour.” And here it is. At this very moment, when the world comes to Jesus, he must go to the cross. It’s time for the Son of Man to fall to the earth and die.

When the world comes to Jesus, that’s when he must go to the cross.

Drawing a Crowd

Readers of John’s Gospel will likely wonder what happened next to the Gentile seekers. Perhaps they met Jesus. But it doesn’t really matter. Because on that day, Jesus knew what the Greeks needed most wasn’t to meet him. They didn’t need to witness a miracle or see a sign. They certainly didn’t need to get his autograph. What they needed—what the world needed—was for Jesus to die (cf. 1 John. 2:2). That’s why he came. To deal with the glory-seeking, others-using pride in all our hearts by humbly laying down his life for the sin of the world (John 1:29).

As Jesus said, when he was lifted up, he’d draw all people to himself (12:32). So in one sense, you could say Jesus went to the cross to draw a crowd. But not because our leader is a narcissist who lives for the spotlight or demands to have his way. No, we serve a King whose finest moment was the hour of his self-giving and sacrifice. Whose lifting up was his lowering down. Whose exaltation was his suffering. Whose glory was his shame.

We serve a King whose finest moment was the hour of his self-giving and sacrifice.

At one level, Jesus died because of his popularity. It truly was dangerous. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t stand his growing influence, so they decided to silence him (11:45–53). But at another level, Jesus died because it was his purpose all along (12:27). He didn’t succumb to a Jewish plot, a Roman ruler, or an angry mob. As Jesus told pompous Pilate, no political authority or military guard could take him by force (19:11). Instead, he lay down his life out of love for the world. Yes, the crowds sent Jesus to the cross—because it was the crowds he came to save.

This is the stunning nature of Jesus’s celebrity. Here is a man unfazed by human acclaim and fearless of human indignity. Here is a God whose greatness is shown in his condescension and care. At Christmas, we’re right to remember what happened when he came to the world. But at Easter, we should celebrate what happened when the world came to Jesus. This is truly the hour of his glory.

Preacher, What’s on Your Kids’ Menu? Wed, 05 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 As you prepare a feast for your congregation, remember to include something for the kids.]]> My family loves to eat out. We love burger joints, Thai, sushi, and pizza—fine dining or fast food. If you can name it, we’ve most likely eaten it. And in our extensive gastronomic experiences, one thing has been true of every single restaurant: they all had a kids’ menu.

Restaurants understand that if they can’t feed kids, they won’t appeal to families. Likewise, when most parents visit a new church, they want to know if you have spiritual food to feed their children. Thankfully, most churches do have a kids’ menu. On it are things like children’s ministry classes, vacation Bible school, Awana, or youth group.

But one menu item is often absent: the sermon. Yes, I realize basically all churches have a sermon. Yet many (most?) sermons don’t have anything for the kids. So let me ask: Preacher, what’s on your kids’ menu?

As you prepare a feast for your congregation, remember to include something for the kids.

Do you address children in your sermons on a regular basis? When you help the adults in your congregation think about how to apply the text to their lives, do you help kids do the same? As you prepare a feast for your congregation, remember to include something for the kids.

Here are three menu items I’ve included in my preaching that have, by God’s grace, engaged the kids and grown their love for God’s Word. (You already have these items in your preaching pantry. You just need to prepare them a bit differently.)

1. Questions

Make a habit of asking kids questions about the text you’re preaching. Call on them collectively: “Kids, I have a question for you. Can any of you tell me . . . ?” You’ll want to make clear if you are asking for verbal answers (“Raise your hand if you know. . .”) or if you are asking rhetorically (“Think about whether you would. . .”). You’ll also want to consider the ages of the kids in your congregation and the types of questions they can answer. Given that cognitive abilities develop quickly during the childhood years, you might even consider posing questions to specific groups: “I have a question for the 5-to-7-year-olds . . . for the 7-to-10-year-olds . . . for the 10-to-13-year-olds . . . for the teens.” Be as specific as you like; just be sure to vary it up.

I’m currently preaching through Genesis and have asked all sorts of questions to the kids. When talking about God being a shield, I asked the younger kids what shields are used for. When discussing God’s covenant with Noah, I asked the teens to name the major covenants of the Old Testament. While explaining why Lot and Abram separated, I asked the kids what would happen if I put 10 of them in a room with only enough toys for two of them. In response, they correctly yelled, “We would fight!”

Kids love answering questions. Eyes will light up and hands will shoot up. Consistent questions do wonders for their engagement with the sermons.

2. Illustrations

Serve up some age-appropriate illustrations. Illustrations directed to kids not only capture their attention but bring to light biblical truths they might otherwise miss.

Get into their world and illustrate from there to make the meal you’ve prepared more edible.

When preparing illustrations for kids, you’ll want to use kid-friendly ingredients. Illustrations drawn from marriage, work, or current events can be just as difficult to process as the biblical truths you’re trying to illustrate. Think about the types of things that capture their imaginations.

When addressing our powerlessness to defeat sin, paint a picture for the little boys that shows how impossible it would be to defeat a massive army if they only had nerf guns and plastic swords. When talking to teen girls, tell them to imagine how amazing it would be if they were friends with Taylor Swift and could call her anytime they wished. Then tell them how much more amazing it is that they’re friends with God and can talk to him whenever they want.

From Daniel Tiger to Narnia, Dude Perfect to amusement parks, feeling scared in the dark to getting caught doing wrong, the list of ways to illustrate biblical truths for kids is endless. Get into their world and illustrate from there to make the meal you’ve prepared more edible. (A side benefit of kid-friendly illustrations is that most grown-ups can easily relate to these scenarios too!)

Don’t be afraid to get animated and be expressive. This may not come naturally to some preachers, but I encourage it. Kids love seeing stories acted out, and getting into character for a moment is a great way to make a passage come alive. The goal isn’t silliness for silliness’ sake but to capture their imaginations and fill their minds with the greatness of God.

3. Applications

I’ve saved “apps” for last. I assume you work each week to thoughtfully help your congregation apply the text to their lives. As you do, consider including a few application points for the kids.

Teach kids they aren’t spectators at church by speaking directly about how they should live in light of what the Bible says.

One of the most effective ways to teach kids they aren’t spectators at church is by speaking directly about how they should live in light of what the Bible says. Consider the various commands we encounter in Scripture—commands to put off anger, walk by faith, hope in God, and speak truth in love, among others. Brainstorm life situations in which kids can obey these commands.

For example, you can say something like this:

Kids, notice what this passage teaches us. It teaches there’s a connection between faith and being a peacemaker. Those who walk by faith will have a disposition of being peacemakers and of willingly giving up their rights for the sake of unity. Does that describe you? Would your parents say you’re a peacemaker? Do you look for ways to make peace with your siblings, or do you look for ways to get what you want? Would your siblings say you’re the type of person who willingly gives up your rights for their sake? Or do you always take the best seat, the best food, the best controller, the best clothes?

Again, you’ll want to keep different ages in mind. Application for a 9-year-old will differ from application for teens. Though you can speak to teens in much the same way you speak to adults, I’d still encourage addressing them as a group so they realize you’ve prepared part of the meal for them. Some of my most encouraging post-church conversations have been with teens wanting to think more about how to apply the sermon in their lives.

We want our kids to know the church is for them, Jesus is for them, and eternal life is for them—so let’s speak to them in our sermons. Consider adding these items to your menu, and in time you’ll find a growing appetite among the kids for the meal you’ve worked so hard to prepare.

Passover: How the Meal of Remembrance Makes Sense of Communion Wed, 05 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 If we want to understand the new covenant ceremony Jesus instituted, it’s important to first understand the Passover festival that lies behind it.]]> Jesus loved a party. Besides enjoying a good meal and fellowship, Jesus used local gatherings and banquets to proclaim his gospel of forgiveness, to show inclusiveness to those deemed unworthy, and even to perform miracles (Matt. 9:10–13; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:29–32; 19:5–10; John 2:1–12).

When the New Testament describes Jesus’s participation in the Jewish festival calendar, the Gospels focus on Passover.

Luke gives us a unique glimpse into a young Jesus, who amazes the temple teachers during his parents’ annual trek to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41–52). John uses Passover time stamps to point to various points of Jesus’s ministry: the cleansing of the temple (2:13–22), the feeding of the 5,000 (6:1–15), and several events during Passion Week—Jesus being anointed by Mary (12:1), him washing the disciples’ feet (13:1), his trial before Pilate (18:28, 39), and the crucifixion (19:14). The Synoptic Gospels describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:1, 7–15). This then serves as the background for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–34).

If we want to understand communion, the new covenant ceremony Jesus instituted, it’s important to first understand the Passover festival that lies behind it.

Passover Was Regular

In addition to weekly (Sabbath) and monthly (New Moon) holy days, the Torah identifies an annual festival calendar linked to the agricultural cycle (Ex. 23:14–17; 34:18–23; Lev. 23; Num. 28–29; Deut. 16:1–17). Three feasts stand out because they involve pilgrimages to Jerusalem for a time of communal sacrifice and celebration.

If we want to understand communion, it’s important to first understand the Passover festival that lies behind it.

Passover begins the repeated cycle in the spring, on the 14th day of the first month. The day is just before of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (days 15–21 of the first month), at the beginning of the barley harvest and lambing season. The Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, is seven weeks later in the summer, at the height of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Finally, the Feast of Booths is in the winter (in the seventh month), at the end of the wheat harvest.

Passover Was for Remembering

Though the feasts were related to the agricultural calendar, festival worship went beyond praising God for his bountiful blessings. The feasts also commemorated God’s actions in history and motivated ongoing covenant faithfulness. Through the festivals, Israel remembered their rescue from Egyptian slavery, the exodus, the covenant at Sinai, the wilderness wanderings, and their entrance into the promised land.

Passover and Unleavened Bread were first instituted while Israel was still in Egypt (Ex. 12–13). God laid out procedures for his people: sacrificing an unblemished 1-year-old male lamb from each household, wiping the blood on the doorposts with hyssop, eating the lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, and then eating unleavened bread for the next seven days.

The text describes this as an ongoing commemoration of the Lord’s redemptive actions (12:17, 26–27; 13:3, 8–9, 14–16). In the 10th plague, the death of every firstborn, the Lord had passed over the bloodstained doorposts (12:13, 23, 27; also Isa. 31:5), protecting those homes from the destroyer (Ex. 12:23).

Did the Israelites Keep the Feast?

The Lord required the people to continue to keep the feasts (Lev. 23; Deut. 16), but sadly, Israel was largely negligent (cf. 2 Kings 23:9; 2 Chron. 30:26; Neh. 8:17). Passover was at least kept in the year after the exodus (Num. 9:1–14), in the initial entry into the land (Josh. 5:10–11), and in a few high points during the kingdom years (1 Kings 9:25; 2 Chron. 8:12–13 [under Solomon]; 2 Chron. 30 [under Hezekiah]; 2 Kings 23:21–23; 2 Chron. 35:1–19 [under Josiah]).

The postexilic community also kept Passover (Ezra 6:19–22), and evidence suggests at least some Jews during the Second Temple period began taking the feasts more seriously and consistently. There was clearly development and adaption through later Old Testament history and in this Second Temple time. At some point, Passover and Unleavened Bread merged together so both names are used interchangeably in the New Testament to describe the weeklong feast (Mark 14:1, 12; Luke 22:1, 7; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7).

Passover Points to the Lord’s Supper

In the New Testament era, Passover language continues to evoke the themes of memory, redemption, new life, community, sacrifice, and celebration. Like a lamb “led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), Jesus is the ultimate Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7)—“the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Besides enjoying a good meal and fellowship, Jesus used local gatherings and banquets to proclaim his gospel of forgiveness.

Jesus ushered in a new exodus, established a new covenant, and brought us into a better kingdom and land.

As we long for the ultimate consummation of all things—to be in the presence of the slain-but-resurrected Lamb (Rev. 5:6–7) and among the eternal communion of those whose robes have been washed “in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14)—he calls us to “cleanse out the old leaven” and “celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7–8). He calls us to holiness now, knowing we were ransomed with the unblemished Lamb’s precious blood and will be given future grace at his final revelation (1 Pet. 1:13–18).

At the Passover “party,” God’s people regularly shared fellowship and food, remembering God’s redemptive work and his care for the weak. The festival provides an important backdrop for our regular remembrance during the Lord’s Supper. As we come to the communion table, as we gather and worship together, may we reflect on the blood of the Lamb shed for forgiveness as the centerpiece of salvation history. Let’s not neglect the Lord’s Table. Let’s celebrate in remembrance of him.

Find Freedom from Self-Condemnation Tue, 04 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Whatever our past, our faults, our mistakes, Christ took all of our sin to the cross and bore the punishment. It really is finished!]]> I’m a failure.
My family is better off without me.
I’m a terrible friend.
I can’t believe I messed up like that again.
Why do I even bother trying?

Have you ever said or thought any of those things? I have. I’ve uttered words I regret, berating myself for messing up again. I’ve also listened as others say things about me that simply aren’t true, accusations that hurt but have no basis. And I’ve heard judgments that are true, failures I can’t outrun or dismiss.

Sometimes these accusations can lead us down into an abyss of self-condemnation. We start to believe lies about our redemption, lies about who we are in Christ. And when we believe those lies, we’re unable to rest in the grace and forgiveness of God.

It’s complicated because there are often pieces of truth mixed in. We have messed up. We have failed. We’re not always good friends, spouses, or parents. Sin comes all too easily, and often we do need to confess. If we’re honest, we know we’ve fallen short and missed the mark. How do we sort out the lies when the accusations seem true? How can we rightly acknowledge our sin but not fall into self-condemnation?

Reality of Redemption

The Devil has a thousand tricks up his sleeve, ways he reminds us we deserve darkness instead of light, death instead of life. He can name real sins and shortcomings and point out how we’re undeserving of the life God offers. So lies and the truth get muddled together, twisted and warped, and we struggle to keep it all straight.

We might know “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), but some of us get stuck there. We forget what comes next in those verses. We see only our faults, and so we repeat words of condemnation and phrases of judgment like a broken record, wincing as the scratches rhythmically remind us of our own brokenness. We end up being so sure of our failures yet so unsure God’s grace is enough to cover them.

Eugene Peterson wrote in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

The lies are impeccably factual. They contain no errors. There are no distortions or falsified data. But they’re lies all the same, because they claim to tell us who we are and omit everything about our origin in God and our destiny in God.

There may be truth in Satan’s accusations. But he conveniently leaves out the reality of our redemption.

It Really Is Finished

There may be truth in Satan’s accusations. But he conveniently leaves out the reality of our redemption.

On our own, we stand before God filthy, covered in a mess of our own making, and he has every right to turn his face from us, every right to condemn us on the spot. Instead, he takes off our filthy rags and clothes us in righteousness—a righteousness we could never muster on our own but that comes only from the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:8–11).

God’s people before Christ longed for the day the Messiah would come as they held onto God’s promises of redemption. We get to look back at the fulfillment, the moment when Jesus cried, “It is finished.” On that day, Christ didn’t dismiss the accusations of our sin as baseless. He took all the condemnation we deserve on himself.

Whatever our past, our faults, our mistakes, Christ took all our sin to the cross and bore the punishment for it. It really is finished! As Paul explains, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And there’s nothing you or I could do to undo the work of our Savior.

Free from Condemnation

When we know and believe we’ve been redeemed by Christ who took on himself all condemnation, we’re free to grieve our sin without fear and have holy sorrow for our failures. We know the grace of God. But we don’t abuse that grace by continuing to live in sin. That would be like wearing an outfit covered in sewage when God has given us new clothes or submitting “to a yoke of slavery” after we’ve already been set free (Gal. 5:1). Rather, we confess our sin with the confidence that God will forgive (1 John 1:9) and we look to him for help to obey with the knowledge that he loves to lead us in paths of righteousness (Ps. 23:3).

Christ didn’t dismiss the accusations of our sin as baseless. He took all the condemnation we deserve on himself.

When we’re free from the burden of condemnation, we’re also free to parent, to love, to work, to live God’s way with joy, knowing the accusations of the Evil One hold no power over us. We get to give up our filthy rags and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:13–14).

I don’t know what words of condemnation nag at you. I don’t know your story of failure—maybe there’s a moment you let someone down, a day you felt like the worst parent on the planet, a constant feeling of guilt you carry. But I do know this: we can be free from the burden of condemnation because no failure is too much for the grace of God.

Open Letter to the Prayerless Church Tue, 04 Apr 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Without the ‘spark’ of prayer, the church quietly loses energy, doing only what’s humanly possible.]]> It’s been a hard few years for the church. There’s a sense in which the pandemic sped up a transition we were already in. It took out old solutions that were propping things up and made room for new ones. I’m hopeful for the church in this season.

In times like these, we pray. We pray not so much out of discipline as out of “learned desperation.” These seemingly innocuous prayers accomplish something quite remarkable: they allow the very life of Jesus, by his Spirit, to flow into our lives, our families, and our churches, reflecting “the immeasurable greatness of his power” (Eph. 1:19). Just as the gospel is power for us at the precise place of our need, so too prayer is help—real, powerful help—at our place of need and weakness.

The church is a spiritual force. It’s animated by the Spirit of Jesus in our midst. So if we want to see the church brought back to life, we must make room to listen to and be led by the Spirit as a community. The way we do this is to pray together.

How Prayer Works

In your car, the powertrain moves power from the engine to the transmission, to the axle, and finally to the wheels. It transforms gasoline into usable power. The church’s powertrain looks like this: Prayer → Spirit → Jesus → Power/Life/Glory.

You can see it concretely in Ephesians 3:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14–19, emphasis mine)

This passage reflects the third time in Ephesians 1–3 that Paul has prayed in this way (cf. Eph. 1:3–14, 16–20). The complete powertrain looks like this: Prayer → Spirit → Jesus → Power → Saints. Paul prays for the powertrain because the saints have a capacity problem (see italics in passage). We don’t have enough capacity “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” so we need to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

The powertrain transforms our prayers into usable power. Without the “spark” of prayer, the church quietly loses energy, doing only what’s humanly possible. We don’t even know why we’re so powerless, because we don’t know our own story. We’ve lost any sense of the immensity of power that’s released in the church by the Spirit of Jesus—and how praying together lets Jesus actually run his church.

How Prayer Looks

In the prayer seminars my ministry runs, we ask several confidential questions about participants’ prayer lives. After doing hundreds of seminars, we’ve found that about 85 percent of Christians in a typical church don’t have much of a prayer life. Praying communities are, perhaps, even rarer. I was taken aback by the findings of a 2017 Barna study on the state of corporate prayer in America that said 94 percent of American adults who pray do so by themselves. Only 6 percent of us are praying with someone else.

Without the ‘spark’ of prayer, the church quietly loses energy, doing only what’s humanly possible.

I’d like to give you a window into three seemingly unremarkable times of corporate prayer that are part of a typical Monday for me. My hope is their simplicity will encourage and embolden you to break the statistical pattern and not only pray but pray with a community.

Praying with My Wife

My first prayer time is with my wife, Jill. Beginning at 5:45 a.m., we take 45 minutes to read the Bible and pray together.

This is my most disorganized prayer time of the day, and yet it’s the most powerful. Jill usually leads. It took me about 10 years to realize that if I wanted to pray with her, I couldn’t organize her. Not only that, but she prays better than I do. Her prayers are almost on the verge of lamenting. She talks to God like she’s talking to me when I’ve promised to paint a room and keep postponing it. She feels the growing evil of our day and prays passionately against it. She’s a fighter.

Jesus’s repeated command to ask anything gives us the freedom to ask for even seemingly impossible things. Because of the loss of our beloved daughter Ashley to cancer, we especially pray for people battling cancer. We do have one systematic stretch of 10–15 minutes where we pray for more than 25 close family members: our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren.

Praying with My Daughter

Next, I pray with our adult daughter, Kim, who is affected by disabilities.

We pray together for barely five minutes, but I love hearing her “voice.” Using her speech computer’s icon language, she thanks God for multiple things. Usually, she slips in a prayer for our very bad Golden Retriever, Tully, who’s always stealing her things. If I’m biking to work, she prays I won’t crash. If I’m skiing at night, she prays I won’t hit a tree. She prays for her 97-year-old grandmother in London. I usually encourage her to pick one niece or nephew to pray for. She often picks one she feels is too noisy or bad. Kim looks at her nieces and nephews like wine—they get better with age.

Kim struggles with anger—it’s a symptom of her disability—but we try to not let her “diagnosis” define her, so she prays regularly for God to help her with anger. Lately, we’ve been visualizing her day together and praying for the parts where she might be tempted to get angry. That has helped. And then, as often happens, I notice my impatience, so Kim and I close by praying for each other’s struggle with impatience.

Praying at Work

My third prayer meeting is mid-morning with the ministry I direct, seeJesus. About 30 of us gather on Zoom for an hour. We spend the first half of the time hearing reports from around the world on our seminar and training ministry. It’s an open mic, so we also hear updates on personal and family needs.

As we pray together, it feels like we’re weaving a tapestry as we move from personal needs to ministry needs and then back again to personal matters. With only five minutes left, pray-ers pick up their pace slightly, a bit like the fourth quarter of an American football game. We don’t want to forget anything, so the conversation style of the prayer meeting disappears and short, quick prayers emerge to cover what we haven’t got to yet. I close our prayer time by inviting the Spirit of Jesus into our work to shape and lead us.

How Prayer Starts

Unless you’re part of the 6 percent who already pray with others, you likely feel both the simplicity and the strangeness of these prayer times as you read. How do you start to help your church or family value praying together? How do you sustain your own new hunger for prayer? The answer is simple: you begin the way Anna did—by praying.

There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband for seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)

Where did the gift of Jesus, which led to the destruction of all evil and to a new heaven and earth, begin? With Anna in the temple praying. Of course, it began from all eternity, and yet Anna’s praying was one of the sparks of the powertrain: Anna praying in the temple (2:37) → the “Spirit will come upon you” (1:35) → Jesus’s birth→ power.

How do you sustain your own new hunger for prayer? You begin the way Anna did—by praying.

All great movements of the kingdom begin low and slow, with hidden pray-ers—people just like you—who keep showing up to pray. They pray when they don’t feel like it. They pray when there’s no change. They pray when they’re discouraged. They’re continually in prayer, and then they slowly attract other pray-ers to join them.

Like never before, our churches are increasingly discouraged and dispirited. Like never before, the church needs to be connected to the glowing power center at the core of our faith. God’s strange gifts, like the COVID-19 pandemic, slow us down and help us listen to God. We become teachable.

Wouldn’t it be just like the Spirit of Jesus to use the church’s current weakness to make it a praying power center and, thus, a beacon of hope to a dying world?

Reading Resurrection in the Book of Nature Tue, 04 Apr 2023 04:00:00 +0000 We can believe in the resurrection because the Creator has rendered it in vibrant color at every corner of the universe.]]> The word “story” can sometimes be synonymous with “tall tale” or something made up. But what do we call a story that corroborates another? If it’s from a trustworthy source, we call it authentication.

What if I told you there’s a story that corroborates Jesus’s resurrection, and it comes from a source so trustworthy we can see it with our own eyes? In fact, it’s been staring us in the face our entire lives.

So if you’re like me and you sometimes find it difficult to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, might I suggest turning to the book of God’s creation? If you have a tendency to question the things you can’t see, at least give serious consideration to the things you can.

Sleeping and Waking

It might lead you to ponder something as obvious as your nightly routine. When you lay your head on your pillow every night, it’s as if you become “dead to the world.” Your consciousness leaves, you enter into a place of darkness and solitude, and you’re even lying flat and still on your back, eyes closed in a corpse-like posture.

Then comes the morning. Your eyes begin to flutter. Your body and mind stir back to life. And you rise with the sun.

If we believe God designed our bodies with utmost intentionality, then why did he design us to sleep? Any doctor or scientist could tell you the numerous benefits our bodies get from sleep. But God, the Creator, could’ve given us those benefits by any number of methods. So why did he choose sleep? Why did he create us to be functionally lifeless for a third of our lives? Could it be that in the daily cycle of sleeping and waking, God is reminding his children again and again that resurrection is not a tall tale but something woven through the fabric of his creation?

Nature’s Signs

We might ask other questions: Why did God give us seasons? Why did he design the earth with its tilted rotation, orbit, and proximity to the sun in such a precise way to give us this death-to-life cycle? Why do trees and plants wither and die in the fall and lie dormant (in many cases buried in the “grave” of dirt) in the winter, only to burst forth out of the ground, and out of barren branches, with new life in the spring? God didn’t have to design it this way. But he did.

Could it be that in the daily cycle of sleeping and waking, God is reminding his children that resurrection is not a tall tale but something woven through the fabric of his creation?

Why does the caterpillar bury itself in a cocoon and come out as a butterfly? Why does the acorn go into the ground and come out as an oak tree? Why does the bear go into a cave to hibernate and then resurface at winter’s end? Why does the sun disappear below the horizon each night and reappear the following day, spreading warmth and light into the darkness? Why do so many “deaths” in nature—forest fires, floods, decaying plants and animals—actually create ideal conditions for the generation of new life? Why is it that when a baby is born into this world, it must emerge from the depths of the womb?

All these questions from God’s creation are pointing to one answer—resurrection. And that answer is no accident.

Creation’s Story

Psalm 53:1 opens with a strong statement: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Although I’ve been a Bible-believing Christian nearly my entire life, I admit I still struggle with doubt. I’m constantly asking myself basic, fundamental questions: Is God real? Can I trust the Bible? Did Jesus actually come back to life?

In those moments of doubt, I often return to the story of creation, which helps me better understand the words of the psalmist here. It’d be foolish of me to witness these signs and wonders and still say in my heart, This is all just a coincidence. There’s no meaning or purpose to anything I see in nature. There’s no God behind this incredible design.

Paul says as much when he writes of pagans in Romans 1:19–20:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

God’s creation is such a powerful general revelation that we’re “without excuse,” Paul argues. That’s a pretty strong endorsement of nature’s potential to corroborate the truth of God’s Word.

If creation is indeed telling a story, it’s safe to say that story has an Author.

If creation is indeed telling a story, it’s safe to say that story has an Author. Christians would say it’s the very same Author as the Scriptures, which is why what we see in God’s creation supplements what we see in God’s Word.

And it’s in God’s Word that we learn how the Author became flesh and dwelt among us. He entered into the story he was already telling, the one that gave us image after image, glimpse after glimpse, picture after picture of the death, burial, and resurrection he himself would eventually endure. The death and resurrection of Christ isn’t a tall tale; it’s the foundation of our existence, the basis of our hope.

C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We can believe in the resurrection because the Creator has rendered it in vibrant color at every corner of the universe. The more we learn to pay attention to it, the more we’ll see everything else in its light.

Speaking Truth to Fear from Covenant Presbyterian in Nashville Mon, 03 Apr 2023 04:05:00 +0000 When you know how the story ends, the scary moments lose their power.]]> “The world is changed since the last time that we got together on the Lord’s Day,” Reformed University Fellowship area coordinator Britton Wood told Covenant Presbyterian Church yesterday.

None of the changes were good. A week ago, 28-year-old Audrey Hale shot through a locked door to enter Covenant’s Christian school, then shot and killed three adults and three children. One was 9-year-old Hallie, the only daughter of lead pastor Chad Scruggs.

The congregation gathered Sunday in the evening in the sanctuary of nearby Christ Presbyterian Church, just hours after the funeral of 9-year-old William Kinney was held in the space. The day before, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak’s funeral was held at Christ Presbyterian; on Wednesday, the funeral for head of school Katherine Koonce will be held there.

White candles were lit, and somber music came from a string quartet dressed in black.

“Some things are different today, but some things are the same,” Wood said. “The world has changed, but our king still reigns.”

Some things are different today, but some things are the same. The world has changed, but our king still reigns.

He spoke to a room packed with not only Covenant’s displaced congregation, but The Covenant School employees and families, first responders, and family coming from out of town.

Wood told them that when he first started doing campus ministry, he assumed that confession of sins would be more difficult for students than offering assurance of pardon. “But assurance is the hard part,” he said. “Is there really atonement? Is there really resurrection? Does Jesus really save us? Is it really all a free grace? That’s the hard part.”

He led the service, while Billy Barnes, Covenant’s executive pastor, preached the sermon. Barnes pulled from the story of the Emmaus road in Luke 24:13–35 and from The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis.

The two men walking from Jerusalem couldn’t understand the events of Holy Week, Barnes said. Neither could Uncle Andrew understand the world of Narnia or the words Aslan was roaring to wake it up.

“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are,” Barnes said, quoting Lewis.

“From where Jesus was standing, his kingdom had come,” he said. “He had gone into Jerusalem—it was Passover. They had just celebrated sprinkling the blood of the lamb over the doorposts. . . . He said, ‘My blood is going to give that blood substance.’ He had just done that. He had just purchased the salvation of all of his children—of us—but [the disciples] couldn’t hear that.”

God has given us to one another to speak the truth.

Over the past week, “we’ve all heard a lion roar,” Barnes told the congregation. “We’re here to tell you today that God is in control. And that he’s sovereign.”

He recalled a prayer meeting held in Nashville last week, where attendees stood up over and over to read Scripture’s truths to each other.

“Finally we just stopped—it could’ve gone all night,” he said. “It was the most encouraging thing that could have happened—just to hear the truth spoken over you. And that’s what Jesus did. He came alongside these people—they had no idea who he was—and he just spoke the truth to them. We’re all on the road to Emmaus together right now, and we’re all longing to hear, ‘Narnia, awake.’ And God has given us to one another to speak the truth.”

Barnes reinforced this with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. . . . The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

In a service filled with more than a dozen songs—from instrumental to congregational singing, from “God Our Hope in Ages Past” to “He Will Hold Me Fast”—Barnes ended with a quote from Andrew Peterson’s “Is He Worthy?”

His voice broke on, “But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through? We do. Do you wish that you could see it all made new? We do.”

The service ended with communion, and a final encouragement from Britton Wood.

“One of the Scruggs boys knows how to really get under my skin,” he said affectionately. “I’m a Bama fan, and almost every time he sees me says, ‘Mr. Britton, Mr. Britton, let’s watch a replay of the Tennessee-Alabama game. . . . It’s got scary moments, but he doesn’t sweat the scary moments because he knows the end. When you know how it ends, the scary moments lose their power.”

Discover Your 8th-Century Family History Mon, 03 Apr 2023 04:03:00 +0000 In Bede’s stories, we find a group of older brothers and sisters to inspire us and a reminder of the God who has been faithful to them—and will continue to be faithful to us. ]]> When I was in elementary school, my family flew to New Hampshire and took a road trip home to Colorado, stopping to see the sights along the way. As we drove through upstate New York, we stumbled across both a town and a mountain called by our last name. We stopped by the town hall to learn some of the history and discovered it had been named after our distant ancestor.

I remember feeling so important as a kid—this place was named after me! Even today, the history we saw there is especially vivid in my mind because I experienced it as my history. The people whose stories we read and whose pictures we saw were my people.

My experience the first time I read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was similar. Bede’s depiction of the process of spreading the gospel to the English people was my history. The stories of Augustine of Canterbury, Bertha, Aidan, Columba, and Caedmon captured my imagination because these men and women shared my love for Christ and his kingdom. Their lives may have looked vastly different from mine, but as children of the same Father, their stories are my family history—on a more significant level than the history of that town in New York. These people are my family by virtue of being part of God’s family.

Shared History

The monk now known as the Venerable Bede (AD 673–735) was a historian and Bible commentator who lived in Jarrow, England. Though others wrote histories of the spread of the church in Europe and the Middle East, Bede was the first to do the same for the British Isles. The book became popular almost immediately and was read in both Europe and the British Isles throughout the Middle Ages.

What’s remarkable about Bede’s history is his ability to vividly convey the stories of individuals. Bede doesn’t simply tell his story by piling up cold dates and names in a heap. Rather, readers of Bede’s history encounter a series of real people whose lives tell the story of the advancement of Christ’s kingdom to Britain.

Faithful Believers

We read of Bertha, a Christian princess sent to marry the pagan king Ethelbert of Kent. Bertha and her pastor went to a strange place under a strange ruler, but her faithful witness laid the groundwork for missionaries to build upon. Through Bertha’s ministry and the ministry of Augustine of Canterbury, Ethelbert eventually accepted the gospel, and the kingdom of Kent became the first region of the British Isles to welcome churches in their midst. We know very little about Bertha’s life aside from this, but her story reminds us small acts of daily faithfulness matter.

We know very little about Bertha’s life, but her story reminds us small acts of daily faithfulness matter.

Another of the strikingly beautiful stories from Bede’s history is the brief account of the life of Caedmon. Though Caedmon was untrained and his primary work was as a night watchman for the stable, God called him to sing. And sing he did for the glory of God. Through the faithfulness of this simple man, God’s grace was first sung in the language that would eventually become our own. Bede records Caedmon’s last hours:

Having served God with a simple and pure mind, and with tranquil devotion, he left the world and departed to his presence by a tranquil death. His tongue, which had sung so many inspiring verses in praise of his Maker, uttered its last words in his praise as he signed himself with the Cross and commended his soul into his hands. (IV.24)

Bede’s telling of Caedmon’s life provides not only an account of how the first songs came to be written in the English language but also a beautiful example of how we all might use our gifts for God’s glory.

Bede also tells the story of Augustine of Canterbury, the first missionary to Britain, who soon after his arrival requested to be sent home. This honesty about the struggles of a missionary is a welcome reminder that, while our lives look different, the challenges of living faithfully for Christ are the same across centuries. Just like us, these first generations of Christians felt discouraged.

In these stories of Bertha, Caedmon, and Augustine, as well as in the dozens of others Bede includes, I discovered a community of older brothers and sisters who served the Lord long before I did and whose faithfulness the Lord used to bring about his purposes in their world. All of us need mentors, and Bede’s history is filled with beautiful examples of love and service of Christ.

Faithful God

Even more significant for us today than the stories of faithful believers, however, is the way the book bears witness to the work of our faithful God in bringing the gospel to Britain and from there to the entire English-speaking world.

While our lives may look different, the challenges of living faithfully for Christ are the same across centuries.

Time and again, the spread of the gospel is endangered—through wars, through the deaths of leaders, through persecution, or through the sins of believers. After one of these danger points, Bede writes, “But God in his goodness did not utterly abandon the people whom he had chosen; for he remembered them, and sent this nation more worthy preachers of the truth to bring them to the Faith” (I.22). We all need this reminder of God’s goodness as we face the challenges of gospel work in our own lives.

God’s plan will ultimately prevail here and now, just as it did there and then. The beautiful thing about Bede’s history is that, unlike in our own stories, we get to see the end. As we read our family history here, may we find both a group of older brothers and sisters to inspire us to keep on and a reminder of the God who has been faithful to them—and will continue to be faithful to us.