Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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When Christian Comfort Hurts More Than It Helps

9 hours 1 min ago

Article by: Gaye Clark

Several months after my husband died, a friend helped me sort through his belongings. She plowed through his jackets and winter coats at lightning speed while I picked up the last shirt he wore and brought it to my face. It still smelled like him. How could he be gone? Despite my medical knowledge of what happened, why, and when, it still felt like he’d simply vanished. I wiped my tears with his shirt, unaware my friend had seen me. I gave an embarrassed smile.

She dropped the last of the jackets into a box, folded her arms across her chest and looked at me. “What’s God been teaching you through all this?”

I shook my head. What was the right answer? Was she looking for something specific? Some glaring flaw I couldn’t see until now? Would any object lesson soothe my ache? The Lord promises to draw near to the brokenhearted and rescue those crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18). I needed compassion, not a spiritual assessment.

How Did It Become Popular?

I’m not sure how “What’s God been teaching you?” grew to be the thing to ask a sufferer. Perhaps it was in response to The Problem of Pain, where C. S. Lewis wrote:

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

But is God shouting some spiritual insight or is he a gentle Father calling us to himself? In his new book Struck [read TGC’s review], Russ Ramsey writes:

Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Lover of our souls.

Often in the crucible of pain come no answers save God’s sufficient power made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Perhaps it’s not the question itself that’s ill-advised, but the timing. These concepts are hard to articulate after loss.

What’s God been teaching you? The same question had slipped out of my own mouth when I sought to point an afflicted friend to Christ. But being on the receiving end of the question, particularly at a time when rational thought took profound effort, I had another perspective. It sounded like inquisition.

How Do We Respond?

What does the gospel look like in these moments? How should we respond when a friend says the wrong thing at a painful time?

We can choose to absorb the injury and say nothing, or tell our friend her words were hurtful. Before taking either option, consider how the friend’s very presence communicated love, even if her words did not. Whether we choose to speak or not, Ephesians encourages our interactions to be humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).

A gospel-informed response to this question might consider these five things:

1. Assume the best.

Caring for someone in pain can be like trying to hug a porcupine. Grieving people are prickly, even on a good day. The kindest words can be taken for ill. Despite this, my friend had chosen to draw near to me when many turned away. In that most tender moment, she could’ve played it safe and talked about the weather. Instead, she took a risk and sought to move my eyes heavenward. True, she stumbled in the process, but the desire of her heart was for my good.

2. Openly admit your frailty.

Without an answer to my friend’s question, I let my guard down and shed more tears. It’s okay to flunk the spiritual measurement test someone might unintentionally administer. We can be vulnerable with imperfect people because our righteousness is Christ’s finished work, not our current emotional stamina in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

3. Don’t neglect prayer.

Whether you opt to speak or not, invite your friend to pray with you. Before I could speak, my friend moved closer and wrapped her arms around me and began to pray, “Forgive me for seeking to comfort another in my own strength. I’ve been no better than a friend of Job. We need you, Lord. Oh, how we need you.”

I squeezed my friend’s hand and smiled. “Lord, help my heart not become a minefield where my friend has to tread so carefully, lest the least thing be taken for ill. Amen.” In the Lord’s presence, the tension between us eased. I’m sure my friend prayed before she came. Perhaps she asked others to pray as well. But praying with me ushered us both into God’s presence when no other salve would do.

4. Love—when you choose to speak.

If there is a pattern of hurtful interactions, it may be time to speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15). In my case, tears had spoken for me. My friend knew she hadn’t been helpful. But more than one person asked me this question. In other situations, I had to use words.

5. Love—when you choose not to speak.

Love covers a multitude of sins, and you may opt to absorb the injury (1 Pet. 4:8). Perhaps it’s unusual for your friend to say something hurtful. You might have misunderstood her meaning. Or, maybe you lack the energy to have a difficult conversation in a loving manner. Ask the Lord to speak with your friend in his timing and his way and to keep you from dwelling on the encounter.

Two Sinners, One Savior

Without Christ, we can neither give nor receive true comfort. Without Christ, comforters can be friends of Job, adding layers of hurt to an already anguished soul. And without Christ, sufferers can ascribe the cruelest meaning on another’s good intentions.

Both persons need a Savior. It shouldn’t be a rare event to approach him at the same time and place. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Related:

​Gaye Clark works as a cardiac nurse Augusta, Georgia, and as a parttime correspondent for WORLD magazine in the area of sex trafficking. She also volunteers with iCare, a local faith-based organization that provides assistance to trafficked victims. She writes in her free time. She has two adult children, Anna and Nathan. You can follow her on Twitter.

Help Me Teach the Bible: Miguel Núñez on Teaching the 5 Solas from Scripture

9 hours 2 min ago

Article by: Nancy Guthrie

This is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so it is a year that Bible teachers might want to consider teaching through the five solas of the Reformation—sola fide, by faith alone; sola scriptura, by Scripture alone; solus Christus, through Christ alone; sola gratia, by grace alone; and soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone.   In the episode I talked with Dr. Miguel Núñez, TGC Council member and senior pastor of the International Baptist Church in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, about how to teach the five solas in a text-driven rather than solely doctrinal way. We also discussed how the Reformation—which essentially skipped Latin America in the 1500s—is spreading through the Latin American world today. (See his excellent article, “The One Thing Needed for Latin America’s Reformation.”)    Núñez is the author is Enseñanzas que transformaron el mundo: Un llamado a despertar para la iglesia en Latino América (Teachings That Transformed the World: A Wake-Up Call for the Church in Latin America).   More Resources on the Reformation

You can listen to the episode here.

Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her home church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, as well as at conferences around the country and internationally, and through books and DVDs in the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament series. She offers companionship and biblical insight to the grieving through Respite Retreats that she and her husband, David, host for couples who have faced the death of child, through the GriefShare video series, and through books such as Holding on to Hope and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow.

Get Off the Hamster Wheel and Rest

9 hours 2 min ago

Article by: Kimberly Girard

In the midst of our busy lives, there’s a lot of talk about rest. We have a problem—an ongoing, never-ceasing, hamster-wheel experience in everyday life. 

Sometimes rest feels like another item on our endless to-do list.

The Hamster Wheel

This was going to be an article on how God provides us rest, but how we often don’t see or take it. Just as the piece was nearly wrapped up, I asked my husband to read it. When he finished, he gently asked, “But what’s at the heart of your hamster-wheel running?” 

Sigh. It’s much easier and prettier to talk about how rest might look than to delve into my own issues. Why am I running so hard that I don’t feel I can rest? Even in writing this, I’ve seen Jesus cut through my pretenses. He gets straight to the heart, which he’s tenderly pursuing.

And as I’m exploring why I can’t rest, I’m finding at the heart of everything—all my racing around, striving, and lack of rest—that I’m trying to justify myself when he has already justified me. As Paul declares, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

Court of Heaven

To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. It’s a verdict that comes to us through faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. He alone has made me right in the sight of God.

Yet rather than resting secure in the righteousness of Christ, I often decide I’m the best judge. I use my own standards to decide if I’m worthy. Consciously or unconsciously, I have a list of criteria I need to meet in order to feel I’m living up to my standard of being a wonderful mother, wife, friend, neighbor, church member, Christ-follower . . . fill in the blank.

In order to justify myself, I become enslaved to hamster-wheel living: I need to follow up with that person to ensure they didn’t misunderstand me or to ensure they feel I loved them well. I need to spend more time with my kids so they know how loved they are. I need to serve the people around me better. I need to volunteer for another activity. The list never stops. 

When I live under the impossible weight of trying to justify myself before others, there’s never rest. I’m always bumping up against my failure to live up to my own expectations. I want to hear someone say, “Okay, you’re good. You can stop and rest now.”

And yet Jesus already has. He was perfect for me. He was and is more than enough for all that I lack.

Get Off the Wheel

On the cross, Jesus justified me once and for all; he paid all there was to pay for my sins. He made me a co-heir with him of all the promises of God. Through Jesus, God has secured an eternal rest for me in heaven—rest from tears, from death, from mourning, from crying, from pain (Rev. 21:4).

God also secured a present rest for me. In the here and now, I can rest because Jesus has made me right with God. I have nothing left to prove to anyone, including myself (1 Cor. 4:4). That’s hard for a hamster-wheel runner like me to accept. But it’s true and bears repeating: Those in Christ have nothing left to prove. Jesus has rescued us from our restless striving now and forever. 

I can step off my hamster wheel and stop racing after all the things I think I need to do to make myself right since I’ve already been declared right before God. I am his child—completely seen, completely forgiven, completely justified. That is why I can rest. You can too. 

Still, resting in Christ doesn’t mean we cease working.

From Not For

Paul explains that we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). How do we knead this truth into our daily lives? When we rest from our futile attempts to justify ourselves, we can freely and gladly step into the work God has for us. His Spirit, not our own striving, empowers our effort.

None of this means our labor is easy; it’s still labor. But it’s now being poured through a filter of rest in God. No longer restlessly working for acceptance, we work from acceptance. Again, there’s nothing to prove. Our work can be freely given—without resentment or strings attached—because we have freely received. 

Rather than run in frantic circles on the hamster wheel of life, let us run with endurance the race set before us (Heb. 12:1–2). 

Kimberly Girard is a wife, mother to two sons and a daughter, writer, and blogger, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find her at loudsinging.com and follow her on Twitter.

Stop Overspiritualizing ‘Calling’

9 hours 4 min ago

Article by: Bethany Jenkins

My brother and I both took piano lessons when we were growing up. Starting with scales, we tried to master the basics. At first it was boring—not to mention, unpleasant to hear. After a few lesson books, Zach quit. But I continued.

My first recital piece was Kokomo by The Beach Boys, but over time I played increasingly difficult pieces, moving from pop music to classical. If I was working on Bach or Chopin, for example, I’d do deep work—slowing down, taking each measure at a time, and playing the notes deliberately and repetitively until I mastered them. Then I’d move to the next measure. It was painstaking.

As I mastered the instrument, I began to have fun. My teacher had two grand pianos, and we’d sight-read duets together, enjoying our efforts and laughing at our mistakes. For my final recital piece, I memorized and performed Beethoven’s Pathetique with sheer joy.

My brother didn’t have the same experience because he didn’t put in the hard work. To be fair, he worked hard in baseball and, as a result, was named all-state in Florida. But he never came to experience the joy of playing the piano.

I didn’t foresee that joy when I started taking piano. In retrospect, after 13 years of lessons and thousands of hours of practice, I saw that my love for the piano wasn’t forged by a desire for self-expression but by discipline, perseverance, and deep work. Passion often comes after mastery and control—we love doing things we can do well, and doing things well takes time, effort, and faithfulness.

Called to Be a Pianist?

In college, I briefly considered majoring in music, but I ended up studying Spanish and international studies. Although I’d occasionally waste hours in a practice room at the music school, I didn’t make it a priority. Today I don’t have a piano at home, my talent is rusty, and, therefore, playing isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

Did I forsake my calling as a pianist? Did God create my hands—with abnormally long fingers that are able to palm a men’s basketball—to play the keys? Was I disobedient to God’s call?

Instead of becoming a pianist, I’ve worked in a variety of industries—government, education, communications, law, and non-profit. In each of these places, I’ve applied the same deep-work philosophy I did with the piano—going slow, being deliberate, and focusing on mastery. In each case, even if I didn’t start out loving a particular job, I increasingly enjoyed it because I got better at it.

In any given season, we usually must choose a single vocational path, but the reality is most of us can do a great number of things. We have many latent talents and gifts. When we work hard at them, our passion for them grows. What we do or how we start matters far less than what we do once we’ve started. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

How We Work

As a Christian, whether I’m called to be a pianist or a writer is incidental to my main vocation—to be a child of God. When the Scriptures speak of “calling,” they mainly speak of our fundamental call to know Christ. As William Taylor writes:

There are at least 51 uses of the word “calling” in the New Testament. Forty-six refer to becoming a Christian (e.g., Rom. 1:7), and four to living a holy or peaceful life (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:15). In just one case (1 Cor. 7:20), it’s used to speak of the station for which we have been appointed.

In 1 Corinthians 7, he continues, Paul is explaining that people are called to various stations—single and married, circumcised and uncircumcised, slavery and freedom. What matters more than our particular situation, Paul says, is how we live out our calling as God’s children in that situation. As Paul writes, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor. 7:19–20).

There’s No Job Charming

This doesn’t mean that we can never change jobs or that we don’t serve a God who calls. It does mean, though, that work isn’t a means of expressive individualism but of faithfulness. God’s far more concerned with how we work—with faith, hope, and love—than with what career we have.

Too often we overspiritualize “calling” and make it about self-expression instead of faithfulness to God and service to others. We search for the perfect job—just what we’re “called” to do—and use “calling” as a trump card to replace perseverance, risk, and qualification.

Yet there is no Job Charming. Most of us could do any number of things. We simply must make a vocational choice (using the classic disciplines of prayer, community, and Scripture reading), work deeply at it, and be faithful in it. As Paul summarizes, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).

Even if we feel “called” to a particular work, we usually experience that “calling” in retrospect. It’s far easier to look at the past and see confirmation than to look into the future and feel confident. Yes, the Lord speaks to us and calls us in advance, but the primary way he does so is through his Word. We step out in faith, work heartily, and—in retrospect—feel increasingly confident that we’ve been faithful and obedient in our vocation. Such humility recognizes that time, experience, and community are vital pieces of our vocational formation.

Let’s not, then, overanalyze or overspiritualize “calling” in our lives. Our primary calling is to know Jesus Christ. That’s his resounding voice in his Word. Yes, in addition to his Word, he has given us gifts and talents—as well as prayer and community—and called us to different stations. But there’s no perfect job and, even if we love our work, we often only experience that in retrospect after years of deep labor, working heartily as unto the Lord.

Related: 

Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.

6 Surprises Every Premarital Counselor Should Cover

9 hours 4 min ago

Article by: Dave Harvey

Kimm and I had one premarital session before our wedding. It lasted maybe five minutes, just long enough for the well-meaning counselor to hand us a crate of cassettes and urge us to listen. We threw them in the trunk. One day, nine months later, he wanted them back. Not a problem, since they were right where I left them—in the trunk, unopened and unused.

It’s frightening to think how unprepared we were for marriage. I don’t blame our counselor. I’m not sure he had premarital counseling either. But as I reflect back on the last 35 years, there have been a few surprises it would have been helpful to know about.

Here are six surprises I believe every pastor or premarital counselor should cover:

1. The Sin Surprise 

Engagement is like walking through an amusement park with fogged-up glasses. There’s so much you don’t see clearly, but who really cares? You’re having fun! Here’s the truth: Your fiancé is more sinful than you know. If their sin hasn’t already surprised you, get ready: it will. I’m not saying your future spouse is hiding something. You just don’t have eyes to see what’s there. This is why you should seek counsel from friends, family, and the church before a relationship gets serious.

Borrow others’ glasses to look at your loved one through their eyes. Also, be sure to talk about the “three P’s” of past sin—patterns, partners, and particulars. Don’t be unnerved by what you uncover. Your beloved is a sinner just like you. Remember: Our sin is horrific enough to require Christ’s blood to take it away. But God’s grace has power over the “sin eruptions” you couldn’t see before your wedding day. Don’t be afraid. The fallenness you uncover becomes a theater for displaying Christ’s redemption.

2. The Conflict Surprise

I thought the early years of marriage were about how Kimm needed to improve. You can guess where that led. According to marriage gurus, our early conflicts simply indicated a lack of communication skill. But the Bible says, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not your passions at war within you?” (James 4:1–2).

Fights and arguments happen when we don’t get what we desire. My early conflicts with Kimm revealed what I craved. I got angry with her, because, well, I had an entitled heart. I wanted Kimm to respect me. I thought being respected was some kind of inalienable right grounded in both Scripture and the American constitution. But it didn’t take long before I saw how a good desire can corrupt into a harmful demand.

I thought each biblical command for my wife revealed a need in me and a right I possessed. But I came to see this takes God out of the picture—and puts me in his place. Sure, a respectful wife contributes to marital harmony. But God’s commands for Kimm exist to help her grow in love for him. They weren’t given for me to manipulate to my own ends.

3. The ‘Slow-Change’ Surprise

Walk in a dark room and throw on the switch. What happens? The room instantly transforms. We want spiritual change the same way: Hear a passage, throw on the switch of application, and change comes within the hour. That would make sense if Christianity were a vending machine. Put in your quarters and wait for the sanctification soda.

But God orders the pace of change according to factors we can’t see. Sometimes he gives it slowly to humble us. This reminds us we aren’t him. Sometimes he gives change slowly to tutor our spouse in patience, love, and mercy. When two people are yoked together, God’s growth of one always has the other’s soul in view. Demanding immediate change in a new spouse is a great way to introduce other problems into the marriage.

Since change takes time, we must help young couples cultivate confidence in the good news, lest they be tempted to grow weary or angry. The gospel has appeared, and it teaches us to live upright and godly lives while we wait for Christ’s appearing (Titus 2:11–13). The change Christ will bring is worth the wait.

4. The Sex Surprise

Here’s the sex surprise. You get married with a Disney mindset. You expect it’ll all happen perfectly and you’ll live happily ever after. But sex is unpredictable. Some discover their bodies were made to be intertwined, and the honeymoon begins a life of sexual adventure. They’re surprised it works so well; it was meant to be. But for many, sex is far harder than they imagined—whether it’s the past, physical pain, inhibitions and shame, difficulty finding a rhythm, or the cloud of sexual abuse.

You’re surprised the marriage bed requires so much assembly—so much commitment and work. For many Christians, sex is “meh.” In the first century, Paul had to talk to the Corinthian church about sexual misunderstandings and expectations (1 Cor. 7:3–5). Life hasn’t changed much since. It’s a surprising reality young couples need to be prepared for.

5. The Parents/In-Laws Surprise

Marriage shuffles your relational network. No one feels it more than your parents. Jesus said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). God designed marriage to create new families. And to start one family, you must leave another.

Typically, people reduce this to geography: “I’m moving out of my parent’s house and in with my new wife across town.” But “leaving and cleaving” also alters your parents’ authority and responsibility. Once a couple gets married, there’s a seismic shift in the parents’ role. They don’t stop being Mom and Dad, but they can’t expect to be honored the same way they were when the kids were young. How time is spent, the frequency of being together, where holidays happen, expectations for seeing grandchildren, the way counsel or opinions are shared—all of these glorious blessings must move out of the realm of expectation and into the realm collaboration.

6. The ‘Forgiveness Is Costly’ Surprise

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea,” C. S. Lewis observed, “until they have something to forgive.” Perhaps the most painful and courageous part of forgiveness is when we must absorb the cost of a spouse’s sin. The pain of being sinned against doesn’t go away quickly. Words spoken, money lost, vows broken—these pains get stuck on “repeat.”

Heartache and mental anguish can break into your mind unannounced. It creeps up when you’re down and can greet you the moment you wake. But biblical forgiveness absorbs at least two costs. First, a spouse must say, “I’m not going to punish you.” There’s not a person among us who hasn’t mentally prosecuted a spouse and delivered the verdict spoken by the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:28: “Pay what you owe!” But for forgiveness to happen, we must deny our instinct to throttle a debtor and release them from punishment.

Second, we must say, “I will pay the debt for this sin instead.” See, debt doesn’t just mysteriously evaporate. If I loan you 10 bucks and you refuse to pay, the money doesn’t magically appear back in my wallet. Someone has to eat it. This often trips up reconciliation. We want to forgive, but we assume it shouldn’t cost us. We feel that sheer willingness to not retaliate is sufficient. We instinctively react to the injustice of absorbing a debt: “You did it! Now I pick up the tab?” To treat our spouse as their sin deserves (with anger, withdrawal, or emotional punishment) seems more fair and equitable. But when you do this, you’ve forgotten just how much you’ve already been forgiven. You’ve forgotten the debt Christ paid for you. You were forgiven a great debt. Marriage often means doing the same.

Remove the Blinders

Many young couples head into marriage with blinders—believing their marriage will be the fairy tale they dreamed of as they planned a Pinterest ceremony and momentous honeymoon. But the truth is marriage reveals our sin, exposes our desires, challenges our relational network, and requires us to regularly practice costly forgiveness. Engaged folk need to know that marriage is a call to ministry where two sinners learn—till death parts them—how to apply the gospel of grace.

If you’re a pastor or premarital counselor, tell them about the surprises that marriage will inevitably spring. It will prepare them for the greater wonder of how Jesus works through broken people to reveal his matchless love (Eph. 5:31–32).

Dave Harvey is executive director of Sojourn Network, teaching pastor at Summit Church in Fort Myers/Naples, Florida, and founder of AmICalled.com. He has also authored several books, including When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press, 2007), and Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls (Zondervan, 2016) with Paul Gilbert. You can follow him on Twitter.

3 Ways a Senior Pastor Can Champion Youth Ministry

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 1:03am

Article by: Chelsea Erickson

Stories from the trenches frequently involve youth ministers feeling unsupported or unseen in their work. Youth ministry can easily be disconnected from the rest of church life, leaving youth workers on the verge of burnout.

The apostle Paul stands against this sort of marginalization when he writes that the church is a body, with each believing member contributing uniquely as part of the whole (1 Cor. 12:12–14).

Paul goes on to explain that in the economy of the kingdom of God—as in our physical bodies—we can’t do without the parts that appear weaker. The true church can’t look at any of its members and say, “I don’t need you” (1 Cor. 12:21–26). Paul’s counsel regarding unity in the body compels churches to include all sorts of people and groups, including young people. Sadly, many youth ministers don’t experience this kind of cooperation and regard, for their students or themselves.

When I talk with other youth workers about this problem, I’m overcome with thankfulness for the church I serve. Both our senior pastor and also our associate pastor advocate for students, as well as for me.  

Here are three things our senior pastor in particular does to champion our church’s ministry to students:

1. He knows the youth and children in our church. 

Recently, our pastoral staff facilitated a discussion for third graders and their parents about communion. As we talked with the class of a dozen or so students, it became clear our senior pastor already knew a majority of them by name. He actively cultivates relationships with them, asking how their sports seasons are going or laughing over an inside joke. The way he relates to our students demonstrates they’re an integral part of the church as they are right now.

Senior pastors do well to foster these warm relationships with their youngest parishioners. As the 17th-century English pastor Richard Baxter wrote, “To this end it is necessary that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them?” Making the effort to know believing children and youth affirms their value as part of the church community.

2. He encourages our church in intergenerational fellowship.

On my first morning at our church, our senior pastor commissioned not only me, but also the whole congregation. He said caring for students wasn’t a project for one person or team; it’s a shared calling for our entire church family. By refusing to relegate youth ministry to a far-flung, poorly ventilated room in the back of the church, our senior pastor has dignified students in a profound way. Our congregation increasingly sees itself as being responsible for the care, teaching, and empowering of our young people thanks to his teaching.

In contrast, many youth ministers I know are out on a limb in caring for the students in their church. Often the budget, location of the youth room, difficulty in recruiting lay leaders, and resistance of leadership to include students in broader church life tell a sad story: Students are an afterthought rather than celebrated members of the body.

Senior pastors can change their churches by actively helping integrate students. When they do, the whole church will be a more healthy, more vibrant, and more welcoming community. As the authors of Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church have wisely noted, “Regardless of your context, our research has us convinced that the hinge point separating churches that grow old from those that grow young is priority.”

In other words, if you want to cultivate a healthy, growing church, you need to prioritize the inclusion of young people.

3. He treats me as a partner in the gospel.

Our church structures our leadership to keep the responsibility of incorporating our youngest members at the forefront of our work together. My position on staff is integrated so that youth ministry is a visible priority. By regularly giving me opportunities to take part in the care and equipping of our church family, our senior pastor continually sanctions the ministry I lead as necessary for the health of the congregation.

His door is (literally) always open for me to holler across the hall between us, or to pop in for a longer chat; he’s an ally in day-to-day matters. He speaks well of me to our congregants and celebrates advances in our work with students and their families. Far from youth ministry being an island unto itself, adults in our community readily follow his lead, coming forward to offer their support, encouragement, and prayer.

Senior pastors set the tone for how youth ministers will be regarded in their congregations, just as Paul endorsed Timothy to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 4:17). By celebrating their work and looking for opportunities to collaborate, senior pastors can become youth ministers’ best allies—for the health of the church and to the glory of God.

Chelsea Erickson (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) serves as youth pastor at First Congregational Church of Hamilton, Massachusetts. She’s a contributor for Rooted Ministry and blogs at Where the Cloud Settles.

The Hypocrisy of Phariseephobia

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 1:02am

Article by: Jay Harrison

“People may say that sin is sin, but homosexuality—that’s different. Homosexuality is worse than all the others.”

My face fell as she said it. Having struggled with homosexuality ever since puberty, I bit my lip as I entertained the thought of being “harder to forgive.” I knew I was saved by God’s grace. I knew I’d been forgiven of my past and given grace to live in obedience. But I was still hurt. Why did this person believe so firmly that the sins I struggle with are worse than anyone else’s? All of us are fallen in our sexuality; none of us is perfect.

This person seemed to have compassion on everyone she met—that is, everyone who wasn’t gay. This made me angry, but it gradually dawned on me: Because she thought of me as the worst person, I’d begun thinking of her as the worst person. 

I was being a hypocrite.

Judging the Judgy

I too had compassion on everyone—that is, everyone who wasn’t like her. I was condemning those who condemned me, those who insisted non-heterosexual people are in a sense “worse sinners” and ought to be generally avoided. Sadly, I encountered this thinking a lot in the circles I grew up in. People would even call LGBT+ individuals “zombies,” and, on one occasion, some folks I knew felt no sorrow for a man’s tragic death simply because he was gay.

This perspective is essentially a form of self-righteousness: “You’re not straight; therefore I am better than you are, and you are to be avoided.” In fact, this kind of attitude sounds much like a group of people Jesus often encountered: the Pharisees.

The Pharisees could have been labeled “sinner-phobic.” Blind to their own depravity, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be the first to cast stones at others. Though any Sunday school graduate today would view them as “the bad guys,” these people were the most respected religious leaders of their day.  

Luke’s Gospel records a remarkable encounter between Jesus, a Pharisee named Simon, and a sinful woman who was likely a prostitute. In Luke 7:36–50, Jesus is dining with Simon when the woman enters the room and wipes Christ’s feet with her tears. Horrified at the scene, Simon wonders why Jesus would allow such a dirty person to touch him. Christ’s response? “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed 500 denarii, and the other 50. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41–42).

Simon had been thinking he was only 50 denarii in debt, while the sinful woman knew her debt was 500. In reality, Jesus knew both of them were equally sunk, and he was there to offer forgiveness for their enormous debt.

Pharisee Toward Pharisees

We have a similar paradigm today. The sort of person I encountered growing up might think, “I’m only 50 denarii in debt, but non-heterosexual people are 500 denarii in debt.” Though this attitude angers me, I often end up thinking the reverse: “I’m 50 denarii in debt, but bigots are 500 denarii in debt.” I had hypocritically become a bigot toward bigots, and a Pharisee toward Pharisees. The reality is that we’re all on a level playing field.

Not that long ago, many considered homosexuality to be the worst sin. Today, culture has shifted to view bigotry as the worst sin. But it’s clear Jesus didn’t rank sinners on a scale from “better” to “worse.” Sins may vary in some respects, including the consequences they can have in this life, but they’re all equally deserving of God’s judgment.

The Pharisee and the heterosexual-and-proud-of-it person, the prostitute and the homosexual person—all are equally human and equally fallen. Each of us owes a great debt we can’t pay on our own. Jesus never intended for the church to spend time ranking sins on a scale. Instead of asking “Which sin is greater?” we should instead proclaim that God’s grace is greater than any sin.

The Bible isn’t about “good guys” versus “bad guys.” There is only one good guy, and his name is Jesus Christ, the one who offered grace to both the sexually broken and the bigoted. So let’s drop our labeling and condemning, our anger and hypocrisy, and turn to Christ’s overwhelming grace. Let’s say with the guests at Simon’s house, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”

Jay Harrison is currently a college student. 

Religious Freedom and Discrimination: Why the Debate Continues

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 1:00am

Article by: Albert Mohler

This is a first for me—writing a book review while flying over the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m returning to the United States after responsibilities in the United Kingdom, speaking mostly to pastors and other Christian leaders. Everywhere I went, from central London to rural Kent, the same urgent question was asked: “Can religious liberty survive the LGBTQ moral revolution?” 

Winston Churchill famously believed in the basic cultural unity of those he called the “English-speaking peoples,” meaning, most specifically, Britain and the United States. We’ve historically shared a basic commitment to moral truths including human dignity and liberty, and these commitments have been enshrined in our laws and social life. But Christians in both countries now face the prospect of a disastrous collision between the new sexual liberty prized by the LGBTQ revolution and religious liberty—long recognized in the United States as the first and most foundational freedom.

Long before the Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage, the inevitability of the collision was anticipated by both sides in the debate. LGBTQ advocates had already made clear their intention to advance from the legalization of same-sex marriage to press for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in all relevant civil rights laws and regulations. Even then, the collision with religious liberty was inevitable. Even then, we were warned religious liberty would have to give way to newly constructed and judicially mandated sexual liberties.

In the brief two years since Obergefell, we have seen Christian cake bakers, wedding photographers, florists, county clerks, judges, and a host of others face civil—and in some cases criminal—prosecution. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1993 with no negative votes in the House of Representatives and only three in the Senate, is now seen by the revolutionaries as radical legislation that must be curtailed, if not overthrown. Religious adoption agencies and schools are now warned to either surrender to the revolution or, with the passage of SOGI laws, face penalties or extinction.

Two Sides of the Debate 

Is it too late for a debate? The lines of argument are hardening, to be sure. This is partly attitudinal, with some LGBTQ advocates contending that reverse discrimination against conservative Christians is to be celebrated. The moral progressives, as they see themselves, are in no mood to compromise.

We’re now presented with two stark alternatives, and two competing visions of our social compact.

Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination—released virtually on the second anniversary of Obergefell—is a state-of-the-art presentation of both sides of the argument. The authors are current, candid, and clear. One on side, philosopher John Corvino argues for SOGI laws and, while claiming to respect religious liberty, openly calls for RFRA to be revised and for religious liberty claims to be demoted from the standard of “strict scrutiny” to “heightened scrutiny.” That may sound innocuous, but it means government authorities (specifically judges) would have greater power to disregard claims based in religious liberty.

On the other side, Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation and legal scholar Sherif Girgis make the case for religious liberty, against SOGI laws, and against what they call the “Puritan mistake.” As they see it, the LGBTQ advocates, like the Puritans who fled Europe for the New World, are now making the mistake of protecting their own liberties, while denying liberty to others.

Anyone who has followed these debates closely will recognize the names. Corvino, who identifies as gay, has been very influential in framing the arguments for LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. Anderson and Girgis, on the other hand, are equally known for their defense of traditional marriage and religious liberty. For the most part, the arguments are exactly what you would expect—and what we now need, if we’re to grasp the challenges ahead.

Anderson and Girgis—who with Princeton’s Robert P. George offered the best natural law and legal argument against same-sex marriage as that question was before the Supreme Court—offer a brilliantly comprehensive argument for a policy that would protect religious liberty and conscience. They argue against SOGI laws and lay bare the reality of such measures—the curtailing of religious liberty and convictional integrity. Religious conscience will be trampled.

Great moral debates ride on arguments, but they’re decided on emotion and moral intuition. . . . The winning side in a moral crisis will never win on argument alone. Moral sentiment is more basic than moral argument.

Corvino doesn’t believe the consciences of those religiously opposed to celebrating same-sex marriage and the full LGBTQ spectrum can be fully protected under SOGI laws. To the contrary, he candidly sees the conflict—but he just as candidly defends the argument that LGBT persons deserve such protections, even with the cost to other citizens. In the end, Corvino isn’t even sure why religion should be treated as a special category.

Great moral debates ride on arguments, but they’re decided on emotion and moral intuition. That doesn’t mean arguments don’t matter—they assuredly do. What it does mean is the winning side in a great moral crisis will never win on argument alone. Moral sentiment is more basic than moral argument.

In Defense of Religious Liberty

I agree with Anderson and Girgis, not only in the framework of their major arguments, but with their most fundamental judgments and concerns. They represent stellar argumentation, blending the best natural law arguments with logic, history, and legal tradition. They’re correct on every major point, and convincingly so. They win on points, hands down. Further, they see through the fallacies of the arguments for SOGI measures.

They’re also deeply committed to human flourishing, and they surely know this sexual revolution—right down to same-sex marriage and SOGI laws—can’t deliver what the LGBTQ community hopes to gain: moral legitimacy. In fact, that’s the argument I wish they had made more directly and passionately.

No one has made the case for protecting religious liberty in this context so well, or seen the danger more accurately. Anderson and Girgis are exactly the team I would want preparing the seminal legal brief on these questions.

But the majority opinion in Obergefell, as in so many prior cases, didn’t reflect the victory of a superior legal, constitutional, or philosophical argument. We know the pattern all too well. The justices in the majority simply trumped the Constitution with their own moral judgment. The majority opinion is, more than anything else, a refection of the justices’ moral intuition and sentiment. Over and over again, that’s where the big battles are lost.

In Defense of LGBTQ Rights

This brings me to Corvino’s essays. Above all, Corvino must be an effective teacher in the classroom. He makes his arguments with verve and, most importantly, with passion.

Anderson and Girgis complain, quite rightly, that Corvino doesn’t even offer a comprehensive defense of SOGI laws, nor does he always keep his arguments straight. But he’s not trying to win on comprehensiveness and consistency. He intends to win on passion and strategic candor. He’s stunningly candid when he calls forthrightly for RFRA to be revised in order to lower the protection of religious liberty. No evasion there. He even dares to argue that, since most federal judges have undermined RFRA by applying this lower standard, RFRA should be revised to match their subversion of the statutory language.

Corvino claims to respect religious liberty, but he doesn’t see that religious beliefs deserve any particular protection. In his view, “not every religious claim is deep and important, and not every deep and important claim is religious.” This means the end of religious liberty. RFRA and SOGI laws pale in significance to the force of his assertion. If religious liberty doesn’t protect religious belief as a special category of belief, it becomes meaningless.

Anderson and Girgis offer an important argument as they contend for respect for religion and link religious conviction to moral integrity:

Our own rationale centers on the fact that religion and moral integrity are basic goods, to which the state denies citizens adequate access when it coerces conscience, which it shouldn’t do needlessly.

Corvino counters that this would open the door to countless conscience exemptions at the expense of what he defines as civil rights.

Corvino drops a few bombs along the way, leaving little mystery as to what his position—if adopted as law and policy—would mean. Christian schools can exist and operate by conviction on LGBTQ issues but must forfeit their tax-exempt status. Christians operating in the public square or in business would have no specific protections at all—at least not on religious liberty claims.

Threat of Dignitary Harm

There’s one clash of arguments in the book that may, over time, be seen as most important. Corvino presses the case for what he calls dignitary harm as differentiated from material harm. His description of dignitary harm is quite expansive:

(1) treating people as inferior, regardless of whether anyone recognizes the mistreatment; (2) causing people to feel inferior, intentionally or not; and (3) contributing to systemic moral inequality, intentionally or not.

Don’t miss what Corvino claims here: even making someone “feel [morally] inferior, intentional or not” constitutes harm. As Anderson and Girgis understand, that means the end of religion, particularly any religion based on a claim to revelation. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means the end of all moral judgment. In their words:

Religious freedom includes nothing if not the rights to worship, proselytize, and convert—forms of conduct (and speech) that can express the conviction that outsiders are wrong. Perhaps not just wrong, but deluded about matters of cosmic importance around which they have ordered their lives—even damnably wrong.

Of course, both sides in a moral conflict see the other side’s position as morally inferior. But make no mistake: this idea of dignitary harm may be the biggest single threat to religious liberty in this entire book—and in our immediate future.

This idea of dignitary harm may be the biggest single threat to religious liberty in this entire book—and in our immediate future.

Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination is timely and important, and never more so than when the debate turns to the argument over dignitary harm. The book also reveals our predicament. We have no choice but to make the right arguments and to make them well. Anderson and Girgis make their arguments extremely well, and they’re the right arguments. But Corvino asserts the case for SOGI laws, openly at the expense of religious liberty, and adds the category of dignitary harm. Thus he radically expands the reach of his argument. And he appears quite confident his side will win.

The three authors begin by asking, “Is it possible to find common ground on these issues?” By the end of the book, readers will likely conclude, with sadness, that there’s little common ground to be claimed.

John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Gergis. Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 352 pp. $21.95.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources visit AlbertMohler.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

How to Diagnose Your Hidden Superstitions

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 12:59am

Article by: Staff

“We’re not immune to pious superstition today. We’re not immune to ‘talisman theology.’ Too many Christians fall into the temptation of using good things as a loophole to rationalize our own sin.” – Scott Redd

Text: Jeremiah 7:1–15

Preached: May 21, 2017

Location: Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Maryland

Scott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth, and he regularly blogs at sunergoi.com.

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

When Parents Must Contradict Culture

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 1:03am

Article by: Jen Wilkin, Gregory Thornbury, Jason Cook

“What cultural message have you, as a parent, worked hardest to contradict?”

Jason Cook—TGC editor and pastor of preaching at Fellowship Memphis—poses this question to Jen Wilkin, author of None Like Him [20 quotes] and Women of the Word, and Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City and author of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? (Convergent, 2018).

Watch the new 10-minute video of their conversation above (or listen to the podcast).

Related:

Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom to four great kids, and an advocate for women to love God with their minds through the faithful study of his Word. She writes, speaks, and teaches women the Bible. She lives in Flower Mound, Texas, and her family calls The Village Church home. Jen is the author of None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That's a Good Thing) (Crossway, 2016) and Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds (Crossway, 2014). You can find her at jenwilkin.net and follow her on Twitter.

Gregory Alan Thornbury, PhD, is the president of The King’s College in New York City and the author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.

Jason Cook is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, focusing on pastoral ministry and integrating faith and work. He is associate pastor of preaching at Fellowship Memphis. He earned his MDiv from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he helped to build Iron City Church, a multi-ethnic ministry in one of America's most segregated cities. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi on a football scholarship. He is married to Courtney, and they have two children, Charlie and Cager. You can follow him on Twitter.

Embracing Gospel-Centeredness Behind Bars

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 1:02am

Article by: Joe Carter

There are many complexities and variations of prison life today, but the challenges of imprisonment are nothing new. For nearly 2,000 years imprisoned Christians have been reflecting on how to lead a gospel-centered life. As a full-time prison chaplain for nearly a decade, Brian J. Wright has served on staff in every security level, custody level, and gender grouping available in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has walked alongside countless individuals in the aftermath of their crimes. Wright is a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and teaches evangelism and apologetics at Palm Beach Atlantic University (Orlando) and New Testament at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (Pensacola). You can follow him on Facebook or Academia.

I asked Wright about how Christians in the prison system can learn to serve Christ in their circumstances. 

Do you see any similarities between prison life in the days of Jesus and today?

I think there are at least two significant similarities worth mentioning. Both then and now, there are various levels of custody and kinds of punishment. People are sent to different types of prisons, or even placed under house arrest. People serve long sentences, are deported, or are even put to death. 

A second similarity would be the shame and pain that comes to those in prison. There is general shame from being in chains. There is shame from the humiliation of once being a person of higher status. There is even shame that comes from family and friends.

As for pain, it is both physical and emotional. But for the most part, emotional pain is the worst. Just the other day, for example, an inmate told me the worst part of incarceration is not where he is (prison, serving his sentence), but where he is not (home, serving his family).

Where would you turn in the Bible to help someone see how to live a gospel-cenerated imprisonment?

I would probably start by turning to Acts 28 and 2 Timothy. Given the two similarities of prison life I just mentioned, the apostle Paul also experienced various levels of custody during his life. On the one hand, Acts 28 implies that Paul had a remarkably light custody, somewhat similar to a federal prison camp today. On the other, 2 Timothy points to a much more serious and extended incarceration, which ultimately resulted in Paul’s death under Nero, somewhat similar to a maximum security facility today. Yet regardless of where he was detained, Paul shows the Christ-centered hope available in every situation and how anyone can model a gospel-driven imprisonment.

What about the shame and pain you mentioned?           

Paul’s imprisonments took an emotional and physical toll on him. In 2 Timothy alone he mentions tears shed on his behalf (1:4), the suffering he endured (1:12), the abandonment he received from those around him (1:15; cf. 4:11), and the chains he bore (2:9).

Nevertheless, as he awaited his execution (4:6), he did not give up: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). Even without an out-date, Paul finished the agonizing race God had sovereignly marked out for him. He did not believe he was a victim of his circumstances or of society. Rather, God was in absolute control.

What else from these texts do you believe could help someone see what a gospel-centered imprisonment looks like?

I’ll just mention a few more from 2 Timothy.

I think it’s important to remember that while Paul was in prison, he kept his focus on the hope set before him: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul realized that his best life was not going to be his present life, for he knew what awaited him in Christ.

All the more astounding is what he asks someone to bring him: a cloak, some scrolls, and the parchments (2 Tim. 4:13). Even in prison, with an opportunity to receive things from the outside, Paul chose a simple lifestyle.

When someone does him wrong, or doesn’t stand by him during a court hearing, Paul doesn’t put a hit out on them, try to settle matters himself, or seek revenge. Rather, he says, “the Lord will repay [Alexander] according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:15) and prays, “May it not be charged against them” (2 Tim. 4:16).

But where, in all this, did Paul get his strength? From the presence and power of the Lord to comfort and support him (4:17). In fact, throughout his prison writings he emphasizes his personal relationship with God the Father, through God the Son, by means of God the Spirit. Of course, it must be observed that the Lord didn’t stand by and strengthen Paul so he could simply make it through another grueling day. Rather, God strengthened Paul “so that through [him] the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (4:17).

Paul concludes by highlighting who will ultimately rescue him: the Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us what kind of rescue it will be: complete and safe. He tells us where he will end up: his heavenly kingdom. And most importantly, because of the supremacy of Christ, he can tell us how long it will last: “forever and ever” (2 Tim. 4:18).

For Christians who are not in prison but know someone who is, what advice would you give?

The majority of inmate testimonies I hear are about when someone in their family, a friend, or even another inmate shared the gospel with them. In other words, biblical truth was not initially presented to them by a chaplain, pastor, or volunteer. Therefore, I would encourage everyone reading this to continue speaking the truth in love.

One practical way you can do this is to take what I’ve shared here and discuss it with them. Either by phone, e-mail, or visitation, take the example of Paul and ask them some simple questions. 

What would be some sample questions?

Here are 10 such questions you can put into your own words and tie into your conversations at some point:

  1. Are you aware of the certainty of your own death?
  2. Do you have a personal relationship with God, through Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit?
  3. Are you committed to the gospel?
  4. If you knew God would do nothing with your case, would you still honor him with your life?
  5. Are you focusing on the hope set before you?
  6. Is your life a model of simplicity?
  7. Are you clinging to the presence and power of God for comfort and support?
  8. Are you actively involved in proclaiming the gospel?
  9. Are you finishing the race God has sovereignly marked out for you?
  10. Are you thankful for the supremacy of Christ?

I am convinced that there should be such a radical and profound difference between a true Christian in prison and all other inmates. Although prison has chains, believers have been set free in Christ. Although prison is full of darkness, believers let their light shine before others. Although prison has unpleasant smells, believers are the sweet aroma of Christ.

My prayer is that more Christians in prison—and outside of prison—would live out in practice what they are in truth.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He serves as an elder at Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.

Why Did God Allow the Fall?

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 1:00am

Article by: James N. Anderson

It’s a question that puzzles new converts and terrifies Sunday school teachers. Indeed, it’s a conundrum most of us have wrestled with, and for good reason. The fall of Adam wasn’t merely the first human sin. It was an act that was calamitous for the world and the human race. Because of the fall, “All mankind . . . lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q19).

Why would God permit such a tragic event, such an act of flagrant rebellion, in full knowledge of its horrific consequences?

A friend of mine quipped, “I can answer that one in three words: I don’t know!” Joking aside, his response does raise an important issue. Would it be a big problem if we didn’t have a good answer to that question? Would our inability to answer it give us any reason to doubt Christianity?

Hardly. In reality, every worldview raises some questions its advocates can’t answer, so the mere existence of an unanswered (even unanswerable) question doesn’t necessarily count against a worldview. It may simply imply a lack of information, which, in the context of a Christian worldview, would mean a lack of divine revelation on that particular point. We might justifiably reason like this:

  • God allowed the fall.
  • God has good reasons for everything he does, including what he allows.
  • Therefore, God had good reasons for allowing the fall, whether or not we can discern them.

Scripture doesn’t tell us directly why God permitted sin to enter the world. But it does provide us with materials from which we can construct a consistent and reasonable explanation.

One Bad Answer

One popular answer among Christians is superficial and deeply flawed. It says God allowed the fall because he wanted to make room for human free will. Free will is necessary for moral virtue and meaningful relationships, the argument goes, but it opened up the possibility we would choose evil rather than good.

This answer falls short for many reasons. I’ll mention three.

  1. Having free will does not necessarily entail the possibility of doing evil. God has free will, is morally virtuous, and can enter into meaningful relationships, yet it’s impossible for him to do evil. Couldn’t God have granted the same kind of non-evildoing freedom to us?
  2. Christians generally agree that God foreknew Adam would sin. But did God foreordain it? If we answer no, because we think human free choices are beyond God’s control, it makes little sense to ask why God permitted Adam’s sin. Any future event God foreknows must be already settled, such that not even God can change it. It’s “too late” for God to either prevent or permit it.
  3. The Bible makes clear that human free choices are not beyond God’s sovereign control (Gen. 50:20; Ezra 1:1; Prov. 21:1; Acts 4:27–28; Eph. 1:11). It was within God’s power to ensure that Adam freely obeyed rather than disobeyed. Hence, it was within God’s power to give Adam free will and to ensure that Adam did not fall, which means God must have had some other reason for allowing the fall than merely a desire to bestow free will on his creatures.
Why Does God Do Anything?

It’s vital to consider a broader question: Why does God do anything at all? What is his overarching purpose in all he does? If we can answer that, it will shed some light on our more specific concern: God’s reasons for allowing the fall.

Regarding God’s purpose in creating the world, no better answer has been given than the one developed in Jonathan Edwards’s powerful essay, The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards argues that the Old and New Testaments present one consistent picture: God created the world not primarily to promote human happiness, but to manifest his own glory. Indeed, God’s purpose in creating the world had to be his own glory, because God is by nature the greatest good and the ultimate end of all things. He is surely concerned about human happiness—it’s not a zero-sum game—but our happiness serves a higher purpose by finding its true fulfilment in God’s supreme goodness and beauty.

Scripture also gives direct insight into God’s purpose in redemption, most clearly through Paul in Ephesians 1. The apostle uses three purpose clauses to describe the salvific blessings God has lavished on us: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6) and (twice) “to the praise of his glory” (vv. 12 and 14). As in creation, God’s ultimate purpose in redemption is that his glorious attributes be showcased and celebrated.

The same theme surfaces in Romans 9:22–24, where Paul speaks of God’s purpose in election:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

God’s overarching purpose in all he does, then, is the manifestation of his glory and the delight of his creatures in his divine splendor.

O Blessed Fall

If God’s primary purpose in creation and redemption is the display of his glory, what does that tell us about why he allowed the fall? Both logically and chronologically, the fall comes between creation and redemption. Without a creation there could be no fallen creation; without a fallen creation there could be no redeemed creation. Salvation presupposes sin; restoration presupposes a fall. Thus it’s reasonable to infer that God’s primary purpose in allowing the fall was to showcase his glory both in the original creation and in his powerful and merciful restoration of that creation from its rebellion and corruption.

But was redemption really necessary for God to be glorified? Couldn’t an unfallen creation glorify God as much as a restored creation?

Reflecting on this question has prompted a number of Christian thinkers to develop what’s called the “O Felix Culpa” theodicy. (Literally “O blessed fault,” and “theodicy” is an explanation of how God can justly allow evil.) The basic idea is this: While the fall was a great evil, it made it possible for God to bring about even greater goods in its wake: the God-glorifying goods of the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and all the salvific blessings that flow from them.

One might think an unfallen creation would be preferable to a fallen creation—and all else being equal, that’s true. But all else is not equal, for our world is not merely a fallen creation. It’s a fallen creation into which the eternal Son of God has entered, taking on human nature, perfectly expressing God’s likeness in our midst, living a morally flawless life, making atonement for our sins through his sacrificial death, rising in triumph from the grave, and ascending into heaven where he continually intercedes and secures for us an eternal joyful dwelling-place in God’s presence.

A world with no fall and no salvation is altogether less God-glorifying than a world with a tragic fall but also a wondrous salvation.

A world with no fall and no salvation is altogether less God-glorifying than a world with a tragic fall but also a wondrous salvation.

Does It Matter?

What this means for us is that God has ordained a world in which we can know and intimately live with him—not only as Creator, but also as Redeemer. Theological analogies are always hazardous, but perhaps this gestures in the right direction: While adultery is a grievous sin, the grateful love of an unfaithful husband who has been completely forgiven and reconciled to his wife will be deeper and richer even than the love he experienced and expressed on their wedding day.

To know fellowship with God as a creature made in his image is a great blessing; to know fellowship with God as a redeemed sinner restored in his Son’s image is immeasurably greater.

Once we grasp that such eternal glories could not have been realized apart from the fall, we can begin to appreciate the foremost reason why our wise and gracious Creator allowed it.

James N. Anderson is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He’s the author of Paradox in Christian Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2007), What’s Your Worldview? (Crossway, 2014) and Why Should I Believe Christianity? (Christian Focus, 2016).

Why a Church Playground Matters for Religious Liberty

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 6:55pm

Article by: Joe Carter

The Story: In a key victory for religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday the state of Missouri violated the Free Exercise Clause when it excluded a church from a general program to purchase recycled tires and resurface its playground because it was a religious institution.

The Background: The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, involved a religious preschool that was rejected from a state program that provides reimbursement grants to purchase rubberized surface material (i.e., tire scraps) for children’s playgrounds. The preschool was ultimately denied the grant for its playground solely because the playground belongs to a religious organization. 

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, applied for the state’s Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours. The Scrap Tire Grant Program is otherwise neutrally available to a variety of nonprofits and Trinity’s application was ranked fifth out of 44 applications (in total, 14 grants were awarded).

Although the grant was for a secular use (i.e., making a playground safer), the state of Missouri halted the application process and denied Trinity’s attempt to participate in the program solely because Trinity is a church. The state based this exclusion from the program on Article I, § 7, of the Missouri Constitution, which states, “no money shall be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

The Court ruled that the policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the Church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. The policy, says the majority opinion, expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character.

The ruling notes that the Court has “repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.”

The conclusion is that the “exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

Why It Matters: The issue of whether a church playground can qualify for states grant to purchase rubberized surface material seems rather trivial. So why is the decision considered a significant victory for religious liberty? Here are three reasons why this ruling matters:

1. It upholds the First Amendment understanding of religious liberty — “The case matters because the Court here recognizes the difference between a government establishing a religion and a government choosing not to penalize a religion,” says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a TGC Council member. This case is not about a state establishing a religion, adds Moore, 

Missouri wasn’t contemplating privileging Lutherans for this program, with a consubstantiation clause. Rather, the state offered a neutral program for groups—public or private—that cared for children and owned a playground. The law shut out Trinity Lutheran not because they didn’t meet the criteria for the program but simply because they are religious.

2. It’s a win for equal participation of religion — As law professor Thomas Berg explains, this is the “first time the Court has held that a religious organization, indeed a church, must be included on equal terms in a general program of government funding.” Berg notes that the Court has now rejected the previously held claim that there was no burden on religion from denial of government funding.

3. It requires the state to treat religious people fairly — At its core, the Trinity Lutheran playground case strikes at the heart of American jurisprudence, said Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that defended the case before the Supreme Court. The underling questions were: What is fair play in a pluralistic society? Can a state prohibit police from responding to a burglary at a Catholic school? Can a city stop the fire department from putting out a fire at a church?

In their decision on the Trinity Lutheran case the Court answered these questions, ruling that the government can’t discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.

“The Court’s decision is good for kids and good for religious liberty,” says Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket Law, a non-profit religious liberty law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the school’s behalf. “Trinity Lutheran was simply asking that the government play fair, treat churches equally, and help the preschool make its playground safer for children. Today’s decision does just that.”

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He serves as an elder at Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.

Bold, Strategic, Feminine—These Qualities Are Not Contradictory

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 1:03am

Article by: Carolyn McCulley

The course of human history reveals that men have consistently underrated what women can do and achieve. When Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England in 1558, she had already survived numerous political intrigues and revolts. Her reign provided relative stability and peace to England during her 44 years on the throne, and the arts flourished during this time. Yet she had to constantly overcome the low expectations of her womanliness. Her reign raised England’s status abroad, especially after the tremendous defeat of the Spanish Armada. Yet Pope Sixtus V said of her, “She is only a woman, only a mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”

“Can a woman manage?” has been a perennial question through the ages. Yet tacit denials of women’s capabilities are not found in a biblical perspective. There is no biblical prohibition against women directing the labor of men. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes,

What we find in the Bible is that God has given commands that establish male leadership in the home and in the church, but that other teachings in his Word give considerable freedom in other areas of life. We should not try to require either more or less than Scripture itself requires.

That said, we are made female in the image of God, and there’s something wonderfully distinctive about being a woman. We don’t have to mimic masculinity to manage well. In fact, mimicry will typically backfire, as it is forced and unnecessary. It also overlooks the wonderful qualities women possess and diminishes what the Lord has created in us. The warm, gracious, and encouraging confidence of a woman can go a long way toward building a good team.

Portrait of Feminine Management

My favorite biblical portrait of feminine management and initiative is found in the story of Abigail. In 1 Samuel 25, we learn she is married to a wealthy but foolish man named Nabal. We encounter this wealthy man while he’s shearing his sheep—the equivalent of harvest time. In other words, it’s payday. David sends a request to share in the feast day since his men helped Nabal’s shepherds guard his extensive flock in the wilderness. Nabal foolishly dismisses the request, provoking David to a murderous rage.

One of Nabal’s servants rushes to Abigail, an industrious woman who has already overseen the preparations for the feast of “200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five butchered sheep, a bushel of roasted gain, 100 clusters of raisins, and 200 cakes of pressed figs” (1 Sam. 25:18). He’s counting on her to forestall impending disaster for the family business. So she loads these provisions on donkeys and sends them ahead to David and his men.

Abigail is “intelligent and beautiful,” but her husband is “harsh and evil in his dealings” (1 Sam. 25:3). As we’ll see, the narrator praises Abigail for her wisdom and initiative, but says nothing beyond the fact that she is beautiful. She doesn’t trade on her physical charms, even though they’re evident to all, especially David. When she encounters him, she doesn’t use false feminine flattery or emotional manipulation to sway his purpose. She does not flirt; she does not cry. What she does is confront David to warn him of the consequences of his actions and to urge him to live up to God’s standards:

“Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The LORD your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the LORD’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the LORD has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the LORD your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.” David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands.” (1 Sam. 25:28–33)

This was a woman who used all of her resources, wisdom, initiative, and bold words to call a man to emulate a higher standard—and who trusted the Lord for the outcome. Abigail managed this situation shrewdly, and did so to protect the lives of her servants who would have been attacked by David’s army. She was bold, effective, and strategic in protecting the assets and employees of her family’s business. And thoroughly feminine. These qualities are not contradictory in Scripture. In fact, Abigail’s leadership style actually translates fairly well to modern work cultures. 

Rising to the Occasion

Obviously, Abigail had planned ahead and was properly resourced for the big event of shearing season. That’s a basic management skillset that anticipates what’s on the annual cycle. No one should be surprised by something that happens every year.

Where Abigail shines is in the crisis. Bad news is where good leadership is forged. She is decisive and diplomatic when her servant delivers bad news, and she goes in person to address the crisis herself. She does not risk misunderstanding through an impersonal communication tool like, in our modern age, text or email. If she felt scared, she tempered herself and does not outwardly indulge her fears or emotions.

And when she addresses David, she speaks to the higher mission. Now, this is where I may be stretching the biblical application a bit to compare this Old Testament narrative to a workplace conflict, but bear with me. Every woman who has to bring correction on the job knows the particular pejorative that may quickly become attached to her reputation. But Abigail’s approach helps diminish that potential reaction. For she does not make it about offense to her or her family. Nor does she make it about David’s weaknesses or failures, putting him on the defensive. Rather, she speaks to him about the higher mission he has been called to and casts a vision of being a better man. 

Women do not need to imitate drill sergeants to be effective leaders. In fact, that approach usually backfires. When women lead with clear, direct, non-emotional, and non-manipulative statements about mission-critical goals, it provides the space for those on the team to respond in kind. You don’t have to sacrifice warmth or encouragement to lead a team well. But neither should you shrink from “bringing the thunder” when correction is critically needed.

Abigail definitely did not.

And as a result, she saved her household and influenced a national leader to relent of an unrighteous plan. Most importantly, she expressed her faith in God and his purpose for David’s life—a leadership style worth emulating by every believing woman.

In this way—whether in the marketplace or at home—women have multiple opportunities every day to lead others into a faith-filled consideration of God’s character and promises.

Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank’s The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home (B&H, 2014).

Carolyn McCulley is a documentary filmmaker, women’s ministry speaker, and author of Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye?: Trusting God with a Hope Deferred (Crossway, 2004), Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World (Moody, 2008), and The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home (B&H, 2014).

The Holy Spirit Isn’t Just for Charismatics

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 1:02am

Article by: Graham Cole

Michael Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, is a prolific author. His latest work is on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

In Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life, Horton aims to explore the Spirit’s role in the external works of the Trinity. Central to his exploration is the idea that Pentecost marks a “qualitative change” (his emphasis) between the Spirit’s role in the Old Testament era and in the New, which is “the age of the Spirit.” 

He also wants to establish both the Spirit’s person and work, and he emphasizes the Spirit’s work in the ordinary, not just the extraordinary. In accomplishing these tasks, Horton shows a deep grasp of Scripture and the flow of redemptive history.

Controversial Matters

A book on the Spirit needs to deal with certain controversial matters in today’s theological climate. On the matter of cessationism and continuationism with reference to the sign gifts, Horton sees “no reason to assume that all of the marvelous signs of the Spirit’s outpouring in the apostolic era are normative today.” He argues, “There is a qualitative distinction between the inauguration of kingdom (foundation laying) and the erection of the building upon it.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t preclude the possibility that the Spirit “in his marvelous freedom” might bestow them today.

But Horton contends that the offices of apostle and prophet haven’t continued past the apostolic era. With reference to the second blessing, Horton, in his own nuanced way, follows John Stott’s theology of “one baptism, many fillings.” He’s inclined to think that New Testament tongues, both in Acts and the Pauline epistles, refer to the gospel spoken in a known language, but one unknown to the speaker. He sees no exegetical support for the Puritan notion that preaching is prophecy. 

Given Horton’s emphasis on the Spirit’s involvement in everyday life, his discussion would’ve been strengthened by some extended treatment of how Christians may sin against the Spirit by grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and quenching the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19–21). Horton doesn’t raise the question of praying to the Spirit, which is the daily practice of many contemporary Christians. Guidance on how to help those who believe they’ve blasphemed the Spirit (Mark 3:22–30) would also have been valuable. 

Theological Context

The word “Rediscovering” in the title is a little puzzling, as there are works on pneumatology that explore the Spirit’s role in the day-to-day life of the Christian (e.g., J. I. Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit). Horton’s accent on the Spirit as “God’s perfecting presence” has a long history in Christian thought, back to the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century, as he acknowledges. But Horton explores the idea in a systematic way, which is a significant strength of the book.

He writes from a Reformed theological stance, so it’s no surprise his secondary sources reflect that tradition (e.g., Augustine, John Calvin, John Owen, Abraham Kuyper, Sinclair Ferguson, Richard Gaffin Jr.). What is surprising is the relative lack of interaction in the main text with charismatic and Pentecostal scholars who are now a force to be reckoned with in pneumatology (e.g., Max Turner, Gordon Fee, Robert P. Menzies, Roger Stronstad, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Amos Yong).

Clark Pinnock is an exception. Horton offers a sustained critique of Pinnock’s putative panentheism. But he identifies Pinnock simply as a “Baptist theologian,” when Pinnock was both a Baptist and a charismatic theologian.

Profitable Read

This book is clearly written, organized, and argued. It’s a learned work that wears its considerable scholarship lightly. Enjoyably, there are striking turns of phrase, like when he writes of the Spirit, “Nature is his palette.” There are also illuminating analogies. Horton draws an analogy between the two types of speech acts of God in creation (i.e., direct and indirect) and the ones in revelation and inspiration (i.e., direct and indirect). The overall tone is doxological.

Horton writes thoughtful books that serve the church well. Rediscovering the Holy Spirit is no exception. Theological students and pastors will find it a profitable and stimulating read. 

Michael Horton. Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. 336 pp. $22.99.

Graham A. Cole (ThD, Australian College of Theology) is the dean and professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An ordained Anglican minister, he has served in two parishes and was formerly the principal of Ridley College. Graham lives in Libertyville, Illinois, with his wife, Jules. He is the author of Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Real Questions, Practical Answers, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Sam Storms

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 1:01am

Article by: Ivan Mesa

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Sam Storms—lead pastor at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and TGC Council member—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, biographies he has enjoyed, and more.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

The stack on my nightstand grows by the day. Currently it consists of the following:

And because of my love for baseball, I’m reading Keith Law’s new book, Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I’ve never been a huge fan of fiction, but when I get around to it I love all the novels of John Le Carre (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley’s PeopleThe Russia House). I’m also a huge fan of the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (which might be classified as historical fiction), especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

What books, other than the Bible, make you most happy in Jesus?

Anything by or about Jonathan Edwards (particularly Religious Affections and his “Personal Narrative”), anything by or about J. I. Packer (such as Rediscovering Holiness). The Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper is also high on my list.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you view gospel ministry?

Several books by Piper: Desiring God, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, and God Is the Gospel. I’d also include Gerald Hawthorne’s The Presence and the Power: The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

At least once a year I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I also listen to it on audiobook at least once or twice a year. I’ve been most affected by the lead character, Atticus Finch. When people ask me, “What is integrity? What does it mean to be a man of honor? How should I raise and educate my children? What is humility?” I simply point them to Atticus Finch.

I read Edwards’s Religious Affections at least annually. And when I can, I go back frequently to his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World.

What biographies have you most enjoyed?

Two biographies of Alexander Solzhenitsyn have had a huge effect on my life. The first one I read was D. M. Thomas’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. I also greatly enjoyed Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn: A Biography.

Two biographies of Charles Spurgeon have been a blessing: Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers by Lewis Drummond and Living by Revealed Truth by Tom Nettles.

George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life will always be near the top of my list.

One biography that is somewhat sad to read (but highly instructive) is John A. D’Ella’s A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America [read Themelios’s review].

There’s Leland Ryken’s recent biography J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott Hendrix is superb.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

As a pastor I’m increasingly persuaded that the one thing that will motivate and energize people to forsake sin and idolatry is having their hearts captivated by the beauty and majesty of Jesus. Angry warnings, more rules, and threats of divine judgment do little to stir our hearts to walk in conformity with the Word of God. To use the words of John Piper, “seeing and savoring Jesus Christ” in all his splendor and power and glory and honor is the only lasting and ultimately successful way to wage war against the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

Psalm 16:11 has long been my life’s verse: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” I’m increasingly convinced that it holds the key to walking faithfully with Jesus. If I can consistently communicate that to myself and to the people in my church, I think I’ll have succeeded in the calling God placed on my life.

Also in the On My Shelf series: Jen Pollock Michel • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan  • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

Ivan Mesa is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.

What You Can Learn from van Gogh’s Bloody-Eared Self-Portrait

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 1:00am

Article by: Russ Ramsey

If you’ve ever tried to make a self-portrait, here’s what you find: only the truth will work. In my high school art class I was given the assignment to draw one, and as I went back and forth from the mirror to the paper, I tried to draw what I saw. The thing is, I also wanted to improve what I saw—brighter eyes, a more chiseled nose, greater definition in my cheekbones, a little less of a baby face.

Here’s what vanity got me—a portrait of someone who didn’t really look like me, and a B-minus.

Van Gogh the Tortured Soul

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) painted more than 40 self-portraits. Some aren’t honest at all. There was one he did when he was fascinated by Japanese art, where he rendered himself with a shaved head and Asian eyes of a Buddhist monk. But one of his self-portraits stands out as brutally honest. It’s called Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. He painted it in January 1889, the same year he painted Starry Night and the year before he killed himself with a bullet to the heart.

If you know anything about van Gogh outside of his art, perhaps you know he was a tortured soul. He suffered from depression, paranoia, and public outbursts so disconcerting that in March 1889 (two months after Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear), 30 of his neighbors in his village of Arles, France, petitioned the police to deal with this fou roux (the redheaded madman). The police responded by removing him from his rented flat—The Yellow House made famous in his painting The Bedroom.

Shorty after his eviction notice, van Gogh admitted himself into an asylum for the mentally ill: the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Back in those days, most psychological maladies were simply called “madness.” Debilitating depression? Madness. Bipolar? Paranoia? Acute epilepsy? Madness. Treatment for madness often involved asylum. Labeled mad by his own community, the “redheaded madman” checked himself in and remained in Saint-Rémy for a year, from May 1889 to May 1890.

What did he do with as a patient at Saint-Rémy? He painted. In fact, van Gogh’s most celebrated works were created on the grounds of an insane asylum: IrisesStarry Night, and Wheat Field with Cypresses. He painted the asylum’s gardensgrounds, and corridors. He painted the fields he could see beyond the asylum walls and the olive groves he’d walk through when he occasionally left. He painted portraits of his caregivers and fellow patients. He painted his own versions of other artists’ work that he loved.

And he painted self-portraits. Van Gogh painted more than 140 paintings during his asylum year, one canvas every three days. So much beauty came from that season of life, but so much humiliation and public rejection facilitated it.

Van Gogh and His Ear

What drove van Gogh to check himself in to the asylum? What made his neighbors think he was mad? Why did they petition the police to remove him from their community? There were many contributing factors, but the most obvious episode came several weeks before, when he and his flatmate—the impressionist painter Paul Gauguin—had a falling out. Van Gogh took a blade to his ear, cut off the lobe, wrapped it in paper, and took it to a local prostitute named Rachel, who seemed to have been a friend in his community of folks on the fringe. When he handed her the blood-soaked parcel, he asked her to “guard this object carefully.”

Word of this outburst spread quickly, and the next morning police found him asleep in his bed, covered in blood. They took him to the hospital, where he began to count the cost of what he had lost. His roommate, friend, and fellow artist had left, and van Gogh felt responsible. His body was permanently maimed. His neighbors knew the story.

To add insult to injury, when van Gogh cut off his ear he was something of a rising star in the art world. After years of obscurity, his work had begun to catch the artistic community’s attention. He was on the verge of breaking through. So on top of everything else, his bloody-eared public spectacle—which led to his eviction and detention in the asylum—brought with it a mountain of humiliating professional shame.

Yet even in the hospital, van Gogh did what he always did: he painted. He painted at least two self-portraits with his bandaged ear, capturing the moment of his greatest shame.

Our Honest Self-Portrait

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to render an honest self-portrait because we want to conceal what’s unattractive. We want to hide what’s broken. We want to appear beautiful. But when we do this, we hide what needs redemption—all that we trust Christ to redeem. When we do this, we forget that what’s redeemed is now beautiful. 

Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear hangs in my office to remind me that if I’m drawing my self-portrait dishonestly—if I’m pretending I’m okay and not in need of help—then I’m concealing from others the fact that I’m broken.

This painting should indict all our hearts. How willing are we to admit that we’ve got a lot of things in us that aren’t right? How willing are we to admit that our wounds need binding, that we desperately need asylum? If we can’t show this honestly, how will anyone see Christ in us? Or worse, what kind of Christ will they see?

In the case of van Gogh, we find a sweet bit of irony. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, in which he willingly captures his own spiritual and relational poverty, is now worth millions. The canvas on which he captures his defining moment of shame and need for rescue has become a work of art no one I know could afford to buy.

But isn’t this how God sees his people? We’re fully exposed to him in all our shortcomings, yet at the same time we’re of unimaginable value. This is how we should see others, and it’s how we should be willing to be seen by others—broken, yet of incalculable worth.

In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote, “Our brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.” Our wounds aren’t beautiful, but the story behind their healing is.

But how can we tell the story of our healing if we hide the wounds that need it?

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2000; ThM, 2003). Follow Russ on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

9 Things You Should Know About North Korea

Sat, 06/24/2017 - 1:10am

Article by: Joe Carter

An American college student returned to the United States with severe brain damage after being held in a North Korean prison camp died last week. When Otto Warmbier, 22, arrived back home earlier this month he was reported to be in stable condition, though doctors said he had severe brain damage. Warmbier was accused of entering the country with the intent of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity” and charged with subversion and a “hostile act” for purportedly attempting to steal a propaganda banner from a hotel. After a one-hour trial Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Here are nine things you should know about North Korea, the most repressive nation on the planet:

1. North Korea was created after the country was divided in the aftermath of World War II. Following the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers, issued General Order No. 1. In this order, the Japanese empire was required to surrender all portions of Korea north of 38 north latitude to the Soviet Union and all of Korea south of that marker to the United States (the arbitrary choice of the dividing line, which has affected international relations for more than 70 years, was “recommended by two tired colonels working late at night”). That December, the Soviets installed a communist guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung as the chairman of the North Korean branch of the Korean Communist Party. When the DPRK was formed in September 1948, the Soviets recognized Kim Il-sung as the leader of Korea, both North and South. The autocratic Kim family—Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and grandson Kim Jong-un—have ruled the country every since.

2. Attempting to make his dream of unification a reality, Kim Il-sung launched the first military action of the Cold War by invading the Republic of Korea (ROK) in July 1950. The United Nations came to the aide of South Korea, with the United States providing more than two-thirds of the military forces. After four months of fighting, the DPRK was on the verge of losing when China came to their rescue. The fighting continued until 1953 when an armistice was signed that created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea. Because no peace treaty was ever signed, and because the United States has a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea, the United States is positioned to go to war if the DPRK resumes attacks on South Korea.

3. Soon after taking control of his country, Kim Il-sung developed such a strong personality cult that under the DPRK constitution he remains, even in death, the “eternal President of the Republic.” Within a year of being appointed premier, Kim Il-sung was referring to himself as “The Great Leader” and erecting statues of himself (the country now has more than 500 statues of him). His birthday is a national holiday known as the “Day of the Sun,” and in 1997 Kim Il-sung even created a new calendar that recalculated time from the year 1912, when he “came to earth from heaven.”

4. In 1972, after he surrendered his Soviet premiership and became president of North Korea, Kim Il-sung instituted the ideology known as Juche, a form of hyper-nationalistic self-reliance. As the DPRK explains, “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Writing in the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Grace Lee explains how this official autarkic state ideology is used to keep the North Korean population under control:

The Kim Il Sung regime instructed the North Korean people in the juche ideology using an analogy drawn from human anatomy. The Great Leader is the brain that makes decisions and issues orders, the Party is the nervous system that channels information, and the people are the bone and muscle that physically execute the orders. This belief system, inculcated in North Koreans since early childhood, made them docile and loyal to Kim Il Sung even in the face of famines and energy crises that have devastated the country.

5. Kim Il-sung placed his son in positions of power so that in 1994 Kim Jong-il would become the “supreme leader” of the DPRK. Over the next three years, Kim Jong-il’s agricultural system would cause a famine that killed 3 million of the country’s 22 million people. (Under the idea of JucheThe Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann says, “Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population.”) In 2012 North Koreans again suffered from another man-made famine that led to mass starvation. According to a credible report by Asia Press international, North Korean authorities even imposed severe punishment for suspected acts of cannibalism and selling human meat.

6.  As his people starved, Kim Jong-il focused on a policy of songun (military first), spending about one-third of the nation’s income to maintain the world’s fourth-largest army. The citizens of the country are extremely poor (annual GDP per capita in 2014 was $538, compared to $27,221 in South Korea and $55,836 in the United States), so to keep control of the population the Kim family has maintained a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps). As Human Rights Watch explains:

Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Working conditions at these sites are extremely difficult, including exposure to harsh weather, rudimentary tools, lack of safety equipment, and high risks of workplace accidents. Death rates in these camps are extremely high, political prison camp survivors told Human Rights Watch.

7. Knowledge of the outside world is limited for most North Korean citizens. All legal televisions are tuned to state-controlled domestic programming, and outside of a closed domestic network, there is no internet access. The state maintains a network of informants who monitor and report to the authorities fellow citizens they suspect of criminal or subversive behavior, USA Today notes, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished.

8.  Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea and is, in fact, profoundly suppressed, says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The North Korean government relentlessly persecutes and punishes religious believers through arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution, USIRF adds. Once imprisoned, religious believers typically are sent to political prison camps, where they are treated with extraordinary cruelty.

9. The United Nations estimates that less than 2 percent of the 25 million population are Christian. The North Korean regime reviles Christianity the most and considers it the biggest threat, the USCIRF says, because it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. The USCIRF notes that the regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members, even if they are not similarly religious. According to the U.S. State Department, tens of thousands of Christians are in political prison and facing hard labor or execution because of their faith.

Other posts in this series: Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He serves as an elder at Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.

Social Media Isn’t Your Teens’ Biggest Problem

Sat, 06/24/2017 - 1:00am

Article by: Kristen Hatton

The fear in the room was palpable. I’d just spoken to a packed room of mothers and daughters on the topic of social media. Many of the girls present were on the cusp of their teen years, and the majority of mothers were just beginning their foray into parenting teens.

After the girls went to a separate room for a follow-up discussion with youth leaders, moms’ hands darted up in the air. The urgency in each mother’s question expressed her anxiety over social media and other teen challenges. It was encouraging to see so many moms who wanted to be better equipped to navigate the teen years. Too often I see the opposite—parents resigned to the false “teens will be teens” notion that they give up trying.

But I’m not sure these moms were anxious for the right reasons. 

Trusting in Rules

The moms who were so desperate to control and protect their children wanted me to give them a script to follow, a list of social media and phone do’s and don’ts with a guarantee that all would go well if they just follow the rules. I understand the desire for a script with a guarantee; every parent wants her teen to be safe, happy, and far from the path of destruction. But if we focus primarily on external solutions for raising our teens, we set our hope on something that can’t deliver.

Social media, mobile phones, and the selfie world we inhabit are problematic, but they’re not the primary problems for our teens. Drinking, drugs, sex, eating disorders, pornography, cutting, perfectionism, stress, and depression aren’t teens’ foundational problems, either. Jesus tells us “there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).

While outside influences are sources of temptation, our own fallen nature leads us to think and act sinfully. The negative behaviors we fear, then, are byproducts of what’s going on in our idolatrous hearts. The heart is the problem for our teenagers, and also for us.

Now, I’m not suggesting temptations shouldn’t be taken seriously. Certainly rules and boundaries should be put in place. But if we only address what’s on the surface—the easily seen sin—and don’t help our teens dig down to the ruling idols of their hearts, we will never facilitate real change.

What Rules Cannot Fix 

Idolatry is what happens when there’s something we want more than God, leading us to exchange the truth about him for a lie (Rom. 1:25). We believe the lie that he isn’t enough and that “life”—significance—is found somewhere apart from him. This is the lie all humans have bought into ever since Satan convinced Adam and Eve that God was withholding something from them.

For teenagers (and adults), this lie easily takes root on social media. All it takes is a scroll through our Instagram or Facebook feed for the ancient serpent to begin whispering:

  • “You’re not like them.”
  • “Your life is boring.”
  • “You’re not skinny enough, pretty enough, popular enough, wealthy enough.”

Whatever it is for you, fill in the blank.

The longer we compare, the likelier the lies will settle into our soul as “truth” while what God says is true will be forgotten. It’s easy to become convinced that our value is found in appearance, performance, popularity, perfection, status, or “likes.”  

But what happens when the teenager banking her worth on how many “likes” she gets on a picture doesn’t get as many on the next post? Or what about the one who craves comments on how “hot” (or skinny) she looks?

To hold on to her “secure” identity, she must look just as perfect the next day, or in the next picture. Living under this constant striving to grab what’s fleeting only intensifies the desperation to know one’s worth. But with every false source she turns to, the more insecure and empty she will feel. A sense of worthlessness will settle in.

With this root sin identified, it makes sense why a teen would fall into substance abuse, promiscuity, disordered eating, depression, or any of the other issue. There are other root sins, sure, but idolatry of some kind will always be the driving sin. It is the sin we must help our teens trace downward and excavate. It is their biggest problem, and ours.

Only One Solution

Turning to false gods and looking to secure “life” in things that weren’t meant to define us will always leave us empty. To be filled, we must peel our eyes away from self and look full into the face of the One who’s work in our place was perfect. Our soul will feel its worth only when we see Jesus for who he is—and who he is for us.

This is what I most wanted the moms gathered that evening to hear. Yes, we must pay attention to social media. Yes, it’s wise to limit and monitor phone use. But doing so won’t fix our teens’ hearts. The only solution to a heart bent toward sin is repentance and trust in the gospel. In a selfie world, let’s help our teens understand their true identity is found only in Jesus.

Editors’ note: For more insights on this topic for teens, be sure to check out Kristen Hatton’s new book, Face Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World (New Growth Press).

Kristen Hatton is the author of Face Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World for teen girls and the teen devotional Get Your Story Straight. In addition to her own blog, she is a frequent contributor to the Rooted Ministry blog and enCourage women’s blog. She resides in Edmond, Oklahoma with her pastor husband and they have three teenagers. To learn more, visit www.kristenhatton.com.

‘But This I Call to Mind’: Reflections on the Philando Castile Verdict

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 10:54am

Article by: Dante Stewart

Nicholas Wolterstorff, reflecting on grief and the death of his son, wrote, “The sharply particular words of Lament, so I have learned, give voice to the pain of many forms of loss. . . . If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.”

I couldn’t help but be moved by these words and grieve as I heard the verdict of the case in which the officer who shot Philando Castile was found not guilty on all counts. I couldn’t help but grieve that another young African-American was dead in an oft-familiar and unfortunate case of law enforcement panic. I couldn’t help but grieve as I thought about his loss in the life of his fiancée, daughter, family, and community.

Though far, his death felt near. In some way he represented my brother, my cousin, and my friend. I found myself repeating the words of Wolterstorff that “if he was worth loving”—a fellow image-bearer—“he is worth grieving over.”

As I grieved, I searched for help in navigating this grim reality. I found that help in a seemingly unlikely yet safe refuge: Lamentations 3. Here are three reflections.

1. The reality of a sinful world is a real and painful reality.

As I read through this chapter, I came to realize in a fresh way, the writer dealt with the reality of a sinful world: it was very real and extremely painful. He lived in a reality in which evil and injustice reigned under the judgment of God. He says things like, “he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2), “he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation” (3:5), and “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is” (3:17). One of the most striking things he says is, “My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me” (3:20).

Much like the context in the author’s day, we live in the same kind of reality which causes our souls to cry out as we think continually on situations like this. Our “How long, O Lord?” turns quickly into a “How often, O Lord, do we have to go through this?”

Broken people. Broken systems. Broken families. Broken hearts. This sinful world is real and it hurts. 

2. Maybe we shouldn’t start with the question “What should I do?” but “What should I feel?”

As Christians, many times when situations like these happen, our knee-jerk reaction is to wonder What should I do? As we watch videos and have conversations, we want to find a solution to the problem. I believe this can be a good thing and comes from a concerned placed. Yet, sometimes I think we’re too quickly focused with the first question and not the second.

I’m not saying we should sit back and do nothing. What I’m saying is that sometimes we should pause to reflect on and feel the gravity of this reality. This is what the writer of Lamentations did in devoting the first 20 verses to what he felt.

One friend asked, “Why watch the newly released videos?” I answered, “For proximity and lament.” It’s when my heart is in proximity to the sufferings of others that I’m able to feel the weight of sorrow rightly. It’s when I bring myself near that I’m able to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And that sometimes is one of the greatest “doings” of love.  

3. I must fight to call to mind the reality of the gospel, even when my heart doesn’t feel the hope of the gospel.

Wolterstorff shares that his lament “belongs within my story.” Not only does it belong in his, he wrote, “I struggle indeed to go beyond merely owning my grief toward owning it redemptively.” As I grieved, I wondered, How can I grieve redemptively? 

As I watched the videos and heard the verdict, my heart didn’t feel the hope of gospel. I didn’t feel that all things would be made new. I didn’t feel the nearness of God in this situation. All I felt was the numbness of seeing the video of the shooting, his four-year-old daughter consoling her mother, and the constant reminder of the harmful disposition toward fellow image-bearers. You may be in that place.

Yet as I read Lamentations 3, things begin to change: I was seeing how to grieve redemptively. The author of Lamentations writes, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope” (Lam. 3:21). He dealt with the dual reality of painful lament and redemptive hope. Where his heart didn’t feel hope, he fought to call to mind the reality of God—his love, purposes, and justice. Where there was the pain of living in fallen world and lamenting the struggles of life in it, he could find grace to live redemptively knowing God would one day make things right.

Justice seemingly delayed and denied in the court of earth is never delayed or denied in the court of heaven.

May God grant us grace as the church travel the road of lament: sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

Dante Stewart is an MDiv student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of Clemson University, where he was a student athlete and received a BA in sociology. He and his wife, Jasamine, have been married for two years. They are members of Crawford Avenue Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, where he serves as pastoral intern.

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