Bell Creek Community Church

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

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What Seminary Didn’t Teach Ligon Duncan

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 8:57am

In this new video, Ligon Duncan—Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and TGC Council member—reflects on the things he didn’t learn in seminary.

Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Order today!

Ministry Is Not a Place to ‘Find Yourself’

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 12:05am

“Is this some sort of attempt to find yourself?”

I can clearly remember my mom asking teenage-me this question as I had been caught getting into trouble for the umpteenth time. My parents had watched their boy change his persona, his appearance, and his crew, all in his grunge-fueled efforts of self-discovery.

To be fair, it must have been strange for my suburban, godly parents to suddenly have a teenager who liked cigarettes, dirty clothes, scowled expressions of self-loathing, and shouty songs about how much I hated “the man.”

I resented the question my mom asked me, because I knew she was on to something. I was trying to “find myself.” I wanted to know where I fit in the universe and how I could feel more secure and complete. I thought I’d finally found a tribe in which to run, where this quest of self-discovery would come to some sort of conclusion.

It never really did.

There was a real, clear danger that the disciples would find their identity in ministry. If that was possible for them, how much more so for us today?

The angst burned away, and by God’s grace the cigarettes and poor hygiene routines did too. But the deep desire for self-actualization, self-realization, and self-worth remained. I’m sad to say that I carried it with me into church leadership and church planting.

Thankfully, Jesus was having none of it. He graciously stood in my way, refusing to allow me to find myself in those marvelous endeavors. I’m really glad he did.


Jesus warned us about this very thing. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). The context of that remarkable warning is the Lord sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey without him.

Jesus was clear: this mission was to be marked by self-denial. The disciples were to lose themselves in pursuit of his kingdom. In so doing, they would find who they truly were as servants and sons of God.

There was a real, clear danger that the disciples would find their identity in ministry. If that was possible for them, how much more so for us today? Our hearts twist the words of Jesus, and we begin to believe that finding our lives will somehow result in something other than losing them.

True, biblical church planting is profoundly others-centered. It’s about the glory of God and the good of others.

True, biblical church planting is profoundly others-centered. It’s about the glory of God and the good of others. Therefore, church planting ought to be one of the most self-denying causes we could ever pursue. But somehow, we manage to make the glorious story of the progress and prevailing of Christ’s bride about us.

Warning Signs

So, here are some warning signs—things I’ve recognized in myself—that signal we might be attempting to “find ourselves” in ministry.

1. We’re tempted to treat our people as a platform.

There’s a real danger that the people the Lord entrusts us to shepherd end up serving our own interests; they begin to look like book-buyers, sermon-point-retweeters, and resume-builders ensuring conference speaking invites.

There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with people buying your books and retweeting your points of significant profundity. But, first and foremost, they are a people God has called you to shepherd and pastor, and most of that work should be in person and anonymous.

I love what Eugene Peterson said about the nature of pastoring, which is the primary role of a planter. He said, “Pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job.”

2. We fear the concept of anonymity.

What ends up being more terrifying to us than the thought of not doing a good job is the thought of not being seen to do a good job. In our hyper-connected, selfie-obsessed culture, we’ve imported the fear of “not being seen to be awesome” into ministry.

3. We struggle to celebrate the success of others.

There are always going to be success stories of other people’s churches. When we hear of these, do we rejoice at the advance of the gospel and the flourishing of Christ’s bride? If not, we need to ask if we’ve subtly turned Christ’s bride—the people for whom he bled and died—into “our” bride.

If we feel diminished because of other’s success, we’ve probably turned the church into a means to our self-centered ends.

If we feel diminished because of other’s success, we’ve probably turned the church into a means to our self-centered ends.

4. We don’t lead in robust biblical plurality.

If we end up building around our preaching, our vision, our insight, and our authority—and don’t build good systems of mutual leadership where all of those things can be lovingly challenged in a plurality—then we have to ask why.

Maybe we see any challenge to our vision and strategy as a challenge to who we are. Such is the danger of allowing who we are to intermingle with what we do.

5. Our spiritual temperature waxes and wanes with our ministry success.

Fluctuating numbers, rebellious and biting sheep, and many other ministry variables end up deeply affecting our sense of being loved and called by God.

Friends, Jesus loves us. He also loves his bride, and he won’t allow us to use her as some sort of self-realization quest. He will oppose us, insisting that he alone gets glory as the head of the church. We might experience this through church planting failure, or—perhaps more frightening—through the hollow and unsatisfactory experience of church planting success.

Either way, he will ensure his church is about him, and he won’t allow you to base your sense of worth, value, dignity, and purpose on anything other than himself.

So, I will let my mom ask you. . . “Is this some sort of attempt to find yourself?”

Please don’t let your church plant serve that end. Find yourself in the wonder and magnificence of a Savior who laid down his life for you. Then plant churches free from the burden and distraction of having to find you.

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands—Including Your Kids

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 12:00am

Parents are responsible to provide and care for their children. We are the primary disciplers of our kids. But parents are most fundamentally stewards. Though we’re called to faithfulness with our kids, they ultimately belong to a promise-keeping God who is more faithful than we are.

As Psalm 127 says, our children are a heritage from the Lord, an unmerited reward from him. The older our kids get, the more it becomes clear we can’t control their destiny. It doesn’t rest in our decisions or in theirs’. Our children’s future, their health, their skill, their will and desires for life, who they will choose as a spouse, and even how long they will live—all this belongs to God.

The enemy of stewardship is entitlement mixed with sentimentalism. An entitled dad with a sentimental vision thinks, This kid is mine. He’s going to be just like me. He’s going to be into the music I like. He’s going to love Alabama football just like I do. But when Dad’s expectations aren’t met and his kids don’t turn out the way he hoped, he’s angry, and he doesn’t know how to engage his child.

Likewise, the entitled mom thinks, I deserve better than this. Don’t you know how I suffered to bring you into the world. When her teenager rebels, she can turn bitter and feel lost with God.

Scary Stewardship Vision

A stewardship vision of parenting—one that says my kids belong to God—is scary, since God doesn’t always meet our expectations. He doesn’t see as we see, nor should he. His vision for our lives is better. Embracing this truth is ultimately freeing, and it will lead us to gratitude.

James K. A. Smith wrote the following in a letter to young parents in his church:

You’re going to think it’s incredible when Liam smiles, or says “Mama,” or rolls over on his tummy, but let me tell you: that won’t even compare to the afternoon when, in what feels like an out-of-body experience, you realize you’re having a conversation with this man—you might be sitting on the front porch talking about Mumford & Sons or Andy Warhol or World War II artillery, and for a moment you can hardly believe that the little bundle you brought home from the hospital has grown into this beautiful, mystifying, wonderful young man. And you realize that, in your son, God has given you one of your best friends in the whole world, and you try to suppress your smile while thinking to yourself, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A covenantal way of thinking frees us from the pressure to get everything right with our parenting. In a fallen world, some kids will be sick, and some will fall away from the faith. We can never accomplish all our good goals for their health, education, manners, and athletics. Even the kind of future relationship Smith describes isn’t guaranteed. But a stewardship vision frees us to be thankful and enjoy God’s good gifts when they do come, because our kids (and all good things they bring into our lives) are undeserved gifts. As Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Three Confessions

In the Baptist tradition, the practice of child dedication in corporate worship can help us to stop and begin to cultivate an attitude of grateful stewardship. It’s a way of publicly celebrating the good gift of children before our people. It’s a way of publicly practicing gratitude for our kids rather than complaining about them. It’s also a public confession that any good we receive at our children’s hands comes from the God who gave them to us.

Here are three confessions that can be made in a child dedication service.

First, God wants our kids, and ultimately their hearts and lives, to belong to him. So we confess together, “God, all we have—even our children—belongs to you. Everything we have is yours.”

Second, we don’t just dedicate our children; we dedicate ourselves. So we confess and affirm our God-given responsibility as parents.

Third, we ask for help in the form of a commitment from our local church, the believing community. So we ask them to confess, “We’re standing with you. We’re partnering with you as you raise your children in the faith.”

May the Lord inspire and encourage you as you consider planning a child dedication service for your church community.

How to Preach to the Secular Age

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 12:00am

Amid everything else Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age attempts to accomplish, at its base, it helps the spiritual leader see that our modern society has come to embrace “self-sufficient humanism.” According to Taylor, “I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true” (A Secular Age, 18).

In other words, our neighbors don’t find meaning and significance in anything beyond the immanent sphere—beyond success, sex, power, and relationships. Yet, at the same time, there is a “malaise” amid this self-sufficient humanism: “The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, that we are living behind a screen. . . . I am thinking much more of a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world, a sense of it as flat, empty, a multiform search for something within, or beyond it, which could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence” (302).

There is a fear and anxiety that “our actions, goals, achievements, and life, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there” (307). There is, then, a temptation among the secular toward transcendence. We cannot seem to live without it.

There is a temptation among the secular toward transcendence. We cannot seem to live without it.

At the same time, we Christians live and breathe in this secular age as well. This self-sufficient humanism becomes part of the muscle memory of our own souls, even if we are often unconscious to its effect. What Taylor tells us about secularists hits awfully close to home in the pews. So, then, while modern self-sufficient secularists are tempted toward belief, believers are constantly tempted toward self-sufficiency.

The task of the preacher, it seems, is to aim at this dual temptation. We speak to the longings of those outside the faith and the wanderings of those inside. Taylor is a guide of sorts for pastors, providing an imprecise description of how our hearts have been formed as a society. I don’t say “imprecise” in critique; I’m simply observing that what he says about society in general, pastors will have to explore in particular through personal stories and histories.

Within Taylor’s 800 pages can be found helpful narratives and categories that provide deeper insight into our cultural moment. We have become a disenchanted age, and Taylor shows us why and how.

I want to narrow down three basic elements of Taylor’s project that will seem more immediate for pastors and preachers in their work: (1) The Buffered Self, (2) The Malaise of Modernity, and (3) The Age of Authenticity.

Buffered Self

The basic difference between a buffered self of the modern age and a porous self of earlier eras is the question of vulnerability. In previous centuries, it was assumed that we were vulnerable to spirits, both evil and good, and could be a affected by the “presence” of something beyond the human and physical. For example, not only did Martin Luther throw ink wells at the Devil while he translated the New Testament in the 16th century, he also ministered to communities who believed the forest was enchanted with ghosts and goblins. Ancients and pre-moderns believed in an enchanted world and saw themselves as vulnerable and porous selves. The powers could be malevolent or benevolent, pagan or Christian. A porous self sees not only that he is vulnerable to danger from these powers; a porous self also gains meaning and significance from outside himself.

But this sense of vulnerability has disappeared with the buffered self. “Things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’” (38).
 A buffered self “sees itself as invulnerable, as master of the meaning of things for it” (38).
 That last sentence is important: The self becomes the “master of the meaning of things.” In other words, belief in God has not completely disappeared; we simply no longer need him for meaning and significance. A buffered self “blocks out certain ways in which transcendence has historically impinged on humans, and been present in their lives” (239). To put it more directly, here we have what Robert Bellah calls “expressive individualism” (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life).

This form of individualism sees its highest devotion to personal human flourishing. If one is to believe in God or a god, it must primarily be in service to human flourishing. The modern person, a buffered self, who sees personal human flourishing as his or her highest commitment then sees every relationship or obligation (personal, relational, religious, or communal) as merely and only as an enhancement to the primary commitment to personal flourishing. “Thus, by a variety of routes, one could end up rejecting Christianity, because in calling for something more than human flourishing, it was the implacable enemy of the human good; and at the same time a denial of the dignity of the self-sufficient buffered identity” (264).

Christianity is not a means to human flourishing. In fact, Christianity instructs us to die to self, consider others more important, turn the cheek, offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, enter into weeping and sadness with others. This, of course, creates a conflict with the modern buffered self. The buffered self sees God and neighbor as enhancements that we can take or leave when they become burdensome or demand sacrifice. Christianity sees them as obligations rather than enhancements. Meaning, morality, and satisfaction come from without the self in Christianity. A buffered self seeks all that from within.

Christianity is not a means to human flourishing. In fact, Christianity instructs us to die to self, consider others more important, turn the cheek, offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, enter into weeping and sadness with others.

Pastors and other church leaders must recognize that their neighbors have internalized this way of thinking and often view any religious commitments as intruding on their self-sufficiency. But we must also see that our churches are potentially filled with people who see their current church commitments and investments into community as enhancements to their flourishing. When these “enhancements” begin to impede our “flourishing” by asking for sacrifice and demanding discomfort, the temptation will be to put off faith as an intolerable intruder to their buffered self. This may not be a conscious or explicitly stated condition. But it is the way hearts are formed in the West today, whether or not someone is religious.

Malaise of Modernity

A buffered self offers many benefits. It provides a sense of freedom from the traditional mores of authoritarian societies and the “unenlightened masses,” a “sense of power, of capacity, in being able to order our world and ourselves,” a sense of invulnerability that takes away a fear of a world of spirits and forces, a “sense of self-possession, [and] a secure inner mental realm” (300-301).

However, with that freedom comes a sense of “missing something, [being] cut off from something, [like] that we are living behind a screen” (302). It is what Taylor calls a sense of “malaise,” which senses the world to be a flat, empty place, where what we’ve gained with our buffered selves doesn’t compensate for what we’ve lost with transcendence.

The malaise deepens because even though we have given up on transcendent reality, we haven’t given up on transcendent feelings and experiences. We instead look for transcendence within an imminent frame, which only exposes the smallness of our reality and intensifies the sense of loss. Taylor describes the malaise in three forms” (308-09).

First, we struggle to find significance in life. How do we gain a “higher goal” that transcends and gives meaning to all the lower ones? You could say, without a telos from some transcendent place outside ourselves, our lives have a fragility of meaning. Is my life going somewhere? A minister will need to consistently point to the fragility of meaning outside of transcendence.

Second, crucial moments in life such as birth, marriage, and death heighten the sense of malaise. Traditionally, we have solemnized these moments by connecting them to something transcendent. “But an enclosure in the immanent leaves a hole here. Many people who have no other connection or felt affinity with religion, go on using the ritual of the church for these rites de passage” (309). Third, we perceive a lack in everyday moments, in the mundane. “[S]ome people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society” (309). There is an “emptiness to the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture” (309). We, as buffered selves, sense a malaise, but because we seek solutions from within the immanent frame, our solutions do not work.

Pastors and other spiritual leaders must recognize and show their congregations the unsatisfying end of the buffered self, which sees human flourishing as its ultimate commitment and all other commitments (communal or religious) as mere enhancements that can be discarded when they no longer enhance. The buffered self ultimately alienates us from meaning, satisfaction, intimacy, and love.

The buffered self ultimately alienates us from meaning, satisfaction, intimacy, and love.

A buffered self has been freed from transcendence and all its moral and religious obligations, but it has also been emptied of fullness along the way, leaving only a nagging sadness. The pastoral work for ministers is to tempt the secularist with fullness and joy to follow Christ, who had joy set before him, even while he set aside human flourishing as he endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). Christians have known all along that human flourishing (or fullness) comes indirectly. Christianity teaches that if you die to yourself and participate with Christ in faith and obedience, you get human flourishing in the form of joy, a fruit of the Spirit. But if you aim at human flourishing, you will only get malaise.

Age of Authenticity

“Let’s call this the Age of Authenticity,” Taylor says (476). We’re committed to personal human flourishing, and we find that flourishing within ourselves. So our spirituality must be driven by “authentic” emotions that come from within, never from mere obedience or “theological correctness” (448). Our sexuality, likewise, is faithful primarily to internal desires, not to cultural or moral expectations. To put it differently, our modern secular culture disciples our hearts to be true to ourselves, to reject all outside intrusions.

There is a form of authenticity that attracts Christians and churchgoers without reference to Christian ethics. This authenticity boasts of the “weakness” or “messiness” of life. Leaders can gain a following by showing the “raw” elements of their life, the imperfections, the “beauty of the chaos.” But this too is often a form of the buffered self. These confessions of imperfection come on our own terms. It is a laissez-faire spirituality that boasts of weakness but is buffered from criticism and reproof. Christianity is quite different. Christianity, too, boasts of weakness (see the apostle Paul), but makes the self vulnerable (different from merely authentic) to change and transformation.

The authentic self says, ‘This is me; you must accept me as I am.’ The vulnerable self says, ‘This is me; take me and transform me.’

The authentic self says, “This is me; you must accept me as I am.” The vulnerable self says, “This is me; take me and transform me.” The vulnerable self comes in the form not merely of confession but of repentance. It looks not to self for power and affirmation, but to divine help and deliverance.

None of these three elements will necessarily surprise the Christian minister. The Bible shows that these issues are more ancient than uniquely modern. Yet Taylor shows us how they manifest themselves today and how we might aim the truth of Christ with more precision. The Bible already warns us the self is impoverished apart from the riches of Christ. Taylor, however, shows us how individuals in Western society are feeling the impoverishment, even though they may not articulate it that way. He gives the pastor or church leader tools to tempt buffered selves with fullness of joy.

Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback) and WTS Books. Other excerpts:

What Seminary Didn’t Teach Mark Dever

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 11:06am

In this new video, Mark Dever—founder of 9Marks and TGC Council member—reflects on the things he didn’t learn in seminary.

Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Order today!

A Walk through the Museum of the Bible with Scott Redd

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:01am

In November 2017, the Museum of the Bible opened its doors in Washington, D.C. With more than 430,000 square feet and eight floors, the stunning structure has the stated purpose to “invite all people to engage with the Bible.”

I asked Scott Redd, president of Reformed Theological Seminary Washington, D.C., to walk through the museum with me on a search for what is there that might be helpful to Bible teachers. In our short time, we only scratched the surface, spending all of our time on the third floor: the “Narrative of the Bible” gallery. The story of the Old Testament is presented in a 30-minute experience punctuated by videos. The story of the New Testament is told in a 12-minute video.

Whenever and whomever presents the Bible’s story in this brief way has to make choices about what is included and what is left out, what is emphasized and what is diminished. We found some of those choices interesting and believe that Bible teachers could refine their own ability to present the story and thrust of the Bible’s story by observing, experiencing, and thoughtfully critiquing how it is done at the Museum of the Bible.

You can listen to the episode here.


Trusting God between Breakfast and Eternity

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:00am

“Friends, if he gave you breakfast this morning, and he’s given you life everlasting, can you not trust him with what comes in between? If he has demonstrated his love and his concern by even dying on a cross to give you life everlasting, can you not trust him with your concerns?” — James Forsyth

Text: 1 Samuel 21:1–22:5

Preached: February 25, 2018

Location: McLean Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia

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


Living the Christian Life with C. S. Lewis

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:00am

The best books about C. S. Lewis make us want to turn, or return, to Lewis himself. Joe Rigney’s new book, a sort of systematic theology for Lewis, does just that. Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God is an irresistible hook for those less acquainted with Lewis (who will now scramble to read him) and a familiar feast for old Lewis friends who wish to study his thoughts on the Christian life in a single commentary.

Pastor at Cities Church and assistant professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Rigney is a veteran fan and disciple of Lewis. He’s also the author of Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles, which proved I can love reading about Narnia almost as much as I enjoy reading Narnia itself. Still, I was skeptical as I cracked Lewis on the Christian Life. Why would I read several hundred pages about Lewis? Why not just read Lewis? I feared this book would be but the tinny echo of a grand cathedral bell.

I was quickly surprised. Rigney goes far beyond merely summarizing Lewis. He expounds. Explains. Extrapolates. He offers plenty of his own invaluable insight. He faithfully mirrors and magnifies Lewis like the final movement in a sonata. Lewis is the exposition, Rigney the recapitulation. Much of my delight came in hearing the same truths spoken in new words, after all.

Sorting Lewis

The book’s first, most obvious triumph is its skillful organization. The topical structure is amazingly helpful. For one, it’s just plain fun to spelunk around in everything Lewis wrote concerning redemption, atonement, the incarnation, the church, liturgy, faith, imagination, reason, love(s), the resurrection, damnation, and the diamond-hard realness of heaven. Along the way, Rigney interacts heavily with Lewis’s key theological works: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, The Problem of Pain, Letters to Malcolm, and others. (Notably, he omits The Chronicles of Narnia, because he has already explored these elsewhere. Go read Live Like a Narnian!) Rigney weaves their truths together in such a way that you feel (as he hopes in the introduction) “the organic unity of Lewis’s thought.”

The deep-dive approach also allows Rigney to unite Lewis’s thoughts on trickier subjects into single, coherent explanations. For example, Lewis’s view of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, taken one analogy at a time sprinkled throughout his writings, might easily be misunderstood. But by clustering Lewis’s treatments, Rigney allows them to play in concert and so clarify each other, creating a lucid picture.

Within each topic, Rigney pushes the issue of “the Choice,” the fundamental fork in the road to which Lewis relentlessly drives us. The Choice is this: God or self. In every circumstance, the options are only two: Will we put God at the center, or ourselves? The Choice confronts us at every turn: pride or humility, forgiveness or resentment, obedience or betrayal, self-forgetting love or vampiric affection, heaven or hell.

Rigney’s goal for the reader, as the subtitle suggests, is that you become “truly human,” that you become more yourself—the God-cast, Christ-bought, Spirit-tempered creature you are meant to be—by seeing the Christian life through Lewis’s eyes.

As I mentioned, Rigney offers plenty of his own insight. I want to mention two observations that particularly struck me.

Joy of Invulnerability

Discussing The Great Divorce, Rigney notes the mirth and invincible joy of the saints in glory. In heaven, we’re untouchable. No longer can we be harmed by manipulations, accusations, and jealousies from others.

But perhaps the best part is that we don’t need to die to receive this protection. The resurrection’s shining immunity is designed to work back into our earthly lives. “The invulnerability of heaven . . . flows from the joy of being forgiven,” Rigney explains. “Rooted and grounded in the love of God, we are freed to love manipulators without being manipulated.”

In other words, the love and forgiveness bestowed on us are meant to transform not just us. God also intends, through this love and forgiveness, to transform others while still on this side of heaven.

Because we have been freely loved, we’re free to love without fearing whether that possessive mother will exploit our love, or stressing over whether that annoying friend will be appropriately grateful, or any such thing.

We’re free. Freely forgiven, free to forgive.

Self-Ingesting Gollums

Lewis depicts hell as an everlasting plunge into self-consuming nothingness and evil. Rigney draws a dramatic connection between this picture and the prophet Joel’s depiction of the day of the Lord as devouring famine followed by Yahweh’s devouring army:

What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)

More frightening is Lewis’s next observation, which Rigney paraphrases:

We are the hungry child and the innocent villager, yes. But we are also the drought, the locust, the barbarian. The army that Yahweh leads against us consists of the inhuman and decayed versions of ourselves. (emphasis mine)

But it was Rigney’s next inference that grabbed me by the throat: “Perhaps hell is simply the devouring, with no sense of the damned ever being finally devoured.” I don’t think hell has ever been darker, deader, more horrific.

Then, having painted this grisly scene, Team Rigney-Lewis refuses to let us dodge the truth. “This [isn’t] about your wife or son,” Lewis asserts, “nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me.” Will it be hell or heaven? The Choice is ours.

Indeed, the Choice is ours not simply at the last split second before death (assuming we were granted that split second to repent) but every second of every day. Choices pile up. Every fork in the road splits off into more forks, and more, so that your micro-decisions lead you higher into God or lower into self.

There is no moment, no seemingly irrelevant byway, in which you are not becoming your true self in the presence of God, or a self-ingesting Gollum.

Become yourself, or eat yourself forever.

Respectful Disagreement

A final important note: Rigney is no blind follower of Lewis. He’s not a yes-man. He respectfully conducts himself as a likeminded critic—just the sort of jolly, sharply analytical, keenly Bible-centric friend Lewis so enjoyed. Rigney offers iron to Lewis’s iron. Where he disagrees with Lewis, he says so.

Take, for example, Lewis’s puzzling fumble with the issue of penal substitution. Rigney’s courteous takedown is superbly helpful for wide-eyed Lewis-lovers who might scratch their heads in dismay as they wonder, “Can I really disagree with C. S. Lewis?” Yes, you can, and you should. But do it like Rigney, with a twinkle in your eye and a cheerful pint raised to Jack sitting opposite you by the fire.

Just Go

This lush National Geographic to the world of Lewis is filled with close-ups and angles we might have never seen, or perhaps they’re ones we’ve witnessed a hundred times. Either way, having flipped through the photos, let’s double-knot our shoes and go walking with Lewis himself as he does his best to lead us to our Real Country.

Rigney points to Lewis, Lewis points to Christ—a three-tiered waterfall. It’s tempting to stop at each one, thinking This is it! But look higher. There’s more. As Rigney writes, “True personality lies ahead.” Because up ahead waits a Person.

Jesus’s Compassion for Those Who Love Porn

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:00am

For more than a decade I silently wrestled with a fixation on pornography and sexual exposure. From 8 to 18 I quietly sought out and filled my eyes, my mind, and my heart with shameful things. I learned to please my own body, sought out others to please it for me, and ultimately worshiped lust and lonely pleasure at a shadowy and anonymous altar.

But at the root, I knew it was empty. I knew it was debasing. I knew it was temporary and unfulfilling and demoralizing. I felt void of actual love. I didn’t think I was worth much to any man unless he first knew I was valuable sexually.

What my eyes had taken in for years and years, my heart had translated into feelings of insufficiency, into dependence on affirmation from others consuming the same perspective-warping things.

But then Jesus collided with my story.

His Compassion

At 19 I met a King who stared right at my sexual brokenness, filth, and defiled body, and then picked up my heart and called me redeemed. It was radical love, radical grace that changed everything. Just as Jesus met the woman at the well and offered her living water. Just as he cast no stone at the guilty adulteress.

Just as he used Rahab, the prostitute, in the lineage of the Messiah—he met me in my wandering. The fact that he stood amid my filth—mercy outstretched and immovable—began to peel back the scales from my eyes in understanding how God responds to sexual sin.

All throughout Scripture we see Jesus traveling from town to town, place to place, having compassion on the afflicted, the sick, the lame, the suffering. And all throughout Scripture we see his love and mercy colliding with their trust in him to bring about miraculous and life-changing healing.

The culture in which Jesus was carrying out his ministry, and the religious culture we live in now, are different in detail but unbelievably similar in the big picture. A culture plagued by unrealistic expectations and rigid rules enforced by religious leaders that motivated behavior modification rather than renewed and reverent hearts that longed to serve a loving God. And as a result, people were—and are—weighed down by shame, guilt, desensitization, and ostracism. People pumped full of rules but robbed of guidance toward the greater why will always be dehydrated of love and afflicted with desperation, addiction, and a lack of direction in their lives.

We see a more beautiful way in Scripture: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

When we invite the Holy Spirit to censor our lives and make sensitive our eyes, his response changes our vision.

Jesus saw the desperation of impure hearts that didn’t even know the depth of their own depravity, and he was overwhelmed with compassionate pity. His love for them revealed the deep mercy of God—and if that was Jesus’s heart toward the people then, I must believe it remains his heart toward people now.

We’re living in a society that is feeding off our sin inclinations, our easily addicted natures, and our naïveté. We, the masses, are harassed by overexposure to sexual material. We’re drowned in constant visual content that battles for allegiance and infatuation in our hearts. And we’re blinded by images that muddy the clear vision of God’s desire for purity. We’re sheep without a shepherd, addicted to our lost wandering.

But even here Jesus meets us with compassion. His grace extends salvation to us and, in the same breath, refuses to leave us the same. The compassion of a God who sees us in our filth and washes us clean has the power to alter our perspective. Because when we invite the Holy Spirit to censor our lives and make sensitive our eyes, his response changes our vision.

Reclaim Your Sight

One of the most detrimental effects of sexual overexposure is that it changes the way we think about people—far more than we even realize. Humans become objects; humans become body parts. Individuals made in the image of a holy God ultimately become things to be used rather than people to be loved, valued, and seen. And when we reach a place where we’re capable of dehumanizing others for our own sexual fulfillment, we’re not only harming others but also draining our own soul of vitality.

If we want to understand the root of so many of our sexual issues, we’d be wise to pay attention to what we see and watch and read and how we’re being desensitized.

If we want to understand the root of so many of our sexual issues, we’d be wise to pay attention to what we see and watch and read and how we’re being desensitized. Our prayer must become, God, give me eyes to see the world as you do. Then we will actually think about what we’re consuming.

When the naked man on your screen is seen as an image-bearer of the King being exploited for sexual reasons, your vision is renewed.

When the sex scene in the movie is seen as another cheap attempt by the box office to make money, your vision is renewed.

When you realize the reality TV show about singles willing to compromise just about anything to get a rose and a ring looks nothing like a pure and holy and God-honoring reality, your vision is renewed.

If we are what we see, may we fight to reclaim our sight and set our gaze on things that are true and holy.

But most notably, when you begin to see the beauty of God’s design for sex, you begin to understand why sexual sin breaks his heart.

We’re called in Scripture to guard our eyes and guard our hearts fiercely. May we have the commitment of David, who promised, “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes” (Ps. 101:3).

If we are what we see, may we fight to reclaim our sight and set our gaze on things that are true and holy (Phil. 4:8). May we fix our eyes on Jesus—the One whose love has the power to give us new eyes, new hearts, and new vision toward a world that is hurting.

Be Heavenly Minded So That You’re of Earthly Good

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:00am

“Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 1:2)! So cries the author of Ecclesiastes as he attempts to make sense of this world “under the sun.”

Looking around, it’s easy to conclude that life is absurd.

We live in a world full of injustice. Evil people prosper; good people suffer.

We live in a world terrorized by death. Life can be snuffed out unexpectedly. Death comes to everyone; no one escapes.

We live in a world that throws the unexpected at us. Our inability to control our destiny adds to our sense of despair and hopelessness. For some in difficult circumstances, death can seem better than life itself.

While Christians aren’t immune to feelings of despair and hopelessness, faith in Jesus Christ lessens the pain of pessimism and despair. Faith in the resurrected Son of God gives us confidence to trust that this life is but the prelude to something more wonderful.

City to Come

The Bible doesn’t present a vague, fuzzy picture of the life to come—although many Christians appear to be poorly informed about the future that awaits them. The apostle John’s vision of New Jerusalem abounds with symbolic reminders of how God will establish an eternal city on a renewed world, binding together heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1–22:5).

The author of Hebrews encourages us to look forward to the “city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14; cf. 11:8–16, 39–40; 12:22). The apostle Paul also believed in a future metropolis, contrasting the present city of Jerusalem with a “Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:21–31). Importantly, Paul viewed himself as a citizen of this eternal city (Phil. 3:20). For this reason, he contrasted his present “transient” experience of life with the “eternal” life to come. To comfort and encourage Christ’s followers in Corinth, he wrote:

‎So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being ‎renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal ‎weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the ‎things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen ‎are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18‎‎)

Paul understood well how a vibrant faith in the world to come can affects our lives in the present. It can be a source of deep strength when we face terrible challenges.

Focusing on the city to come prevents us from being captivated by the ephemeral attractions of this present world.

Focusing on the city to come also prevents us from being captivated by the ephemeral attractions of this present world. With good reason, Jesus warns his followers:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19–21)

Citizens of the New Jerusalem

Christians are often ridiculed for promoting a “pie in the sky when you die” mentality, especially when they speak of a future, eternal city. But such an outlook doesn’t reflect the teaching of the Bible. Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to pray, “Take me to heaven,” but rather, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

For those united to Jesus Christ, eternal life begins here and now, as does citizenship in the eternal city.

For those united to Jesus Christ, eternal life begins here and now, as does citizenship in the eternal city.

Jesus challenges his followers to pray and work for the spread of God’s rule, all the time looking forward in faith for the coming of the city of God. The latter should influence profoundly how we do the former.

  • We’re to live in this world as citizens of the world to come, influenced by its values and virtues.
  • We’re to exercise true humility, remembering that we have been redeemed from evil only by the grace of God and not by our own achievements or piety.
  • We’re to witness to an alternative worldview that promotes belief in a Creator God, highlighting the inadequacy of a purely materialistic view of human existence.
  • We’re to be peacemakers, reconciling those who are alienated, especially from God.
  • We’re to make disciples of Jesus Christ, extending God’s kingdom throughout the world through self-sacrificial love.
  • We’re to hunger and thirst after righteousness, caring for the oppressed and promoting justice for the benefit of the marginalized.
  • We’re to resist the powers of evil, arming ourselves for the spiritual battle that continues to rage until Christ returns.
  • We’re to consider ourselves exiles and pilgrims in “Babylon,” holding lightly to this life but living in this absurd and evil world in confident anticipation of all that God will yet do.
  • We’re to live holy lives, aiming for personal moral perfection and purity.
  • We’re to love others wholeheartedly, including our enemies, as an expression and outworking of our sincere love for God.
  • We’re to fulfill our creative capacity as home and city builders but ever recognizing the temporary nature of this present world.

Jesus Christ calls his followers to be kingdom laborers here and now. We labor with the confident assurance that Christ will return to address every injustice, vindicating and punishing as appropriate. Then, with the defeat of evil, God will establish his eternal city on a renewed earth.

What Seminary Didn’t Teach John Piper

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 11:35am

“There are 1,000 things you’re going to find in ministry that simply cannot be covered in seminary.”

In this new video, John Piper—founder of Desiring God and TGC Council member—reflects on the things he didn’t learn in seminary.

Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Order today!

9 Things You Should Know About David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:05am

This Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the siege on the compound of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. Here are nine things you should know about the religious sect, their leader, and the deadly standoff.

1. The Davidians are a splinter branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and were founded in 1929 by Victor Houteff. Houteff, a traveling salesman and Sabbath-school teacher from Los Angeles, produced a 172-page manuscript entitled The Shepherd’s Rod that called for denominational reform and reinterpretation of SDA eschatology. The denomination condemned the new teaching and disfellowshiped Houteff. This action prompted Houteff and his followers to move to a rural community near Waco, Texas, where they created the Mount Carmel Center.

2. In 1942 Houteff changed the name of his group from The Shepherd’s Rod to the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. The term “Davidian” was used in reference to their belief they were part of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. After Houteff’s death in 1955, another group broke away and formed the Branch Davidians, a name alluding to the anointed “Branch” mentioned in Zechariah 3:8; 6:12.

3. While in his late 20s, David Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell) moved to the Mount Carmel compound in 1981 and began having an affair with Lois Roden, who at the time was the prophetess of the Branch Davidians and in her late 60s. Koresh became convinced he and Roden would have a child who would be the “Chosen One.” However, Louis’s son, George Roden, was considered the heir apparent to the group. George forced Koresh and two dozen of his followers to leave Mount Carmel at gunpoint.

4. In 1985, Koresh moved to camp in East Texas and attracted more followers, sometimes known as “Koreshians.” He also travelled to Israel, where he claimed to have a vision that he was the modern-day Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler who liberated the Jews from the Babylonian captivity (“Koresh” is a transliteration of the Hebrew name for Cyrus, “Kuruš).

5. George Roden, threatened by Koresh’s growing popularity within the sect, proposed a contest to see which of the two men could raise the dead. When Roden exhumed a corpse for the contest, Koresh went to authorities to file charges of desecration of a corpse. He was told he needed proof of the crime, so Koresh and seven armed followers returned to Mount Carmel to get photographic evidence. When he returned to Mount Carmel, Koresh and his men got into a gunfight with Roden, who was shot in the chest and hands. Koresh and his followers went on trial for attempted murder. The seven were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in Koresh’s case.

6. Koresh identified himself with the Lamb mentioned in Revelation 5. Although this reference is traditionally identified with Jesus, Koresh believed it meant his role was to break the seven seals an open the scroll, ushering in the events leading to the Apocalypse. Koresh convinced his followers that God wanted them to build an “Army of God.” As a result, they began to stockpile large numbers of weapons, which caught the attention of U.S. authorities.

7. Koresh’s only legal marriage was to Rachel Jones, who was 14 years old at the time of their wedding. But Koresh asked his followers to embrace celibacy, nullified his followers’s marriages, and then took the women for himself—including Rachel’s 12-year-old sister, Michelle. The Branch Davidians were told that that if Koresh had sex with a woman, she was in the “House of David.” Koresh admitted to fathering 12 children by several “wives,” though other sources said he might have fathered 15 or more.

8. Federal authorities gained evidence to suggest Koresh was collecting a cache of illegal weapons inside the Mount Carmel compound. On February 28, 1993, when 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute their search warrant, a firefight broke out with the Branch Davidians that lasted two hours. During the raid four ATF agents were killed and another 16 were wounded. Five Branch Davidians were also killed, including two by their own people. This incident led to a siege that lasted 51 days.

9. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno authorized an assault to end the siege that was carried out on April 19, 1993. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team’s plan was to pump in tear gas (i.e., CS gas) in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians to leave the compound. No one left during six hours tear gas was used, and around noon three fires broke out in various parts of the building. Only nine of the Branch Davidians escaped the fire, while 75 bodies were found in the aftermath. Pathology studies concluded that at least 20 Branch Davidians—including Koresh—were shot in the head or mouth and one—a 3-year-old boy—had been stabbed in the chest. Five of the shooting victims were children younger than 14. The studies indicated that many of those who died of gunshot injuries were from close range. (The FBI claims not to have fired any shots that day.) In total, at least 80 Branch Davidians were killed during the siege, including six Davidians killed on February 28, 1993, but excluding two unborn children, one of which was near term.

Other posts in this series:

Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • 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

What Seminary Can’t Teach a Pastor

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:00am

A seminary education is immensely valuable, offering theological preparation, spiritual formation, and wise mentoring. I can’t imagine my ministry without those three years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And I’m honored today to serve students at Beeson Divinity School as an advisory board member.

But I’ve seen over the years how many recent graduates grow discouraged as new pastors when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

Because some lessons just can’t be learned in a classroom. We need help to bridge the gap between seminary training and real life.

I met Jeff Robinson more than five years ago during his first pastorate. And we immediately began to see the need for ourselves and others to equip pastors for the challenges of leading congregations through seasons of suffering, handling conflict, accepting a call, leaving a church, and more.

So it’s my honor to welcome my colleague, TGC senior editor Jeff Robinson, to The Gospel Coalition Podcast to discuss our new book, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway). It’s the first of a series of books from The Gospel Coalition that we hope by God’s grace will make pastors more faithful and effective in discharging their call to the local church. This book draws together insights and experiences from many of our mentors and heroes in ministry, including TGC Council members Albert Mohler, Danny Akin, Harry Reeder, John Onwuchekwa, Vermon Pierre, and Juan Sanchez.

Some lessons just can’t be learned in a classroom. We need help to bridge the gap between seminary training and real life.

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.

Don’t Sideline the Women in Your Church Plant

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:00am

It was a day I’d been anticipating since the dawn of our new church plant. After years of prayer and preparation, and months of building a team, we were finally starting to feel like we had a church family—a group of people we belonged to and who belonged to us. Today was the first day of community groups. My husband and some of the men on his team had been preparing for months.

“So, what’s the plan for all the kids?” I asked my husband that morning. He looked at me a little surprised and said, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that.”

We had to laugh. We live in two totally different worlds sometimes. For me, I don’t go anywhere without considering my children, because I spend all day with them. My husband, on the other hand, functions most the day only needing to think about where he has to go and what he needs to accomplish.

Church planting has given us many opportunities to recognize how unquestionably different our experience is in the world, but it has also proven how much we need one another.

Women are not only helpful to a church plant, they are essential to the call of Christ: to go and make disciples.

When we first began talking and praying about planting a church, the driving force behind our plans was that God had called us to make disciples. Church planting was a way we could heed that call. The decision was made together; we both serve, sacrifice, and invest in our local church in different ways, but to a similar degree and with a unified mission.

Man’s World?

And yet, even though we’re both devoted to local church ministry, we haven’t always had the same experience. Church planting has often seemed like a “man’s world.” The resources provided, the training given, and the relationships that form tend to be tailored primarily to men.

Many of our congregations today seem to function as if the great mission of church planting and making disciples was assigned to only a faithful few. Women tend to be underrepresented, underutilized, and silent spectators among those groups.

But my husband and I share a similar conviction: women are not only helpful to a church plant, they are essential to Christ’s call to go and make disciples. Disciple-making doesn’t happen without women. Without women, the mission suffers.

When women are underrepresented or underutilized, the church cannot bear God’s image effectively, and our collective mission suffers.

After all, the Great Commission is for the priesthood of all believers—brothers and sisters alike. Apart from the role of pastor/elder, the Bible is clear: women are called to be active participants in every facet of the life of Christ’s church. When women are underrepresented or underutilized, the church cannot bear God’s image effectively, and our collective mission suffers.

In fact, the Bible assumes women are co-laborers. Paul says Euodia and Syntyche “labored side by side with [him] in the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). Rather than seeing male headship as a contradiction to women co-laboring in the gospel, Paul taught that these two things go hand in hand.

While many pastors would agree with this point, the church’s theology doesn’t always align with its practice. It’s not enough for a pastor to notionally agree that women are permitted to participate in the church; they need to see women as essential to the mission of the church.

Church-planting pastors have a unique opportunity—as they use God-given authority to forge a new culture—to put an end to unhealthy distortions that have been pervasive within many churches for decades. And women participating in the church play a vital role in helping the pastors foster this type of culture.

Pursue Women’s Participation

For the church planter this may feel like a lofty task. Resources are few, leaders are lacking, task lists are endless. While you may not yet have formal avenues for women’s involvement, there are practical things you can be doing, even now, to form and shape your church in a way that affirms the value and dignity of your sisters. Here are three.

1. Invite women’s voices to the discussion

Women were made to reflect God’s character and nature in ways you, as a male, were not. Their contribution is vital. Consider how you are creating avenues for women to provide input. God has given you authority; use it to shepherd and lead those—especially the women—under your care.

2. Identify and invest in potential leaders 

There are unusually gifted women in your church who need intentional investment. Find those women and be intentional about equipping them for the work of ministry. Be an outspoken advocate for their growth. You will depend on them in the days ahead.

3. Integrate women into your discipleship vision

Women’s discipleship should not exist on an island but as an extension of your pastoral leadership. Take this responsibility seriously. Stay informed on what the women of your church are reading, listening to, and being resourced with. Take the lead on creating healthy structures and avenues for women to invest and be invested in, and invite women into appropriate areas of leadership and participation in the life of the church.

Word to Women

The church-planting pastor cannot bear this weight alone. He needs the willing participation of the women of his church in order to help foster a culture that prioritizes this mission. Ladies, your pastor needs you. Here are three practical ways to serve.

1. Be available

Take the priesthood of all believers seriously. The mission to go and make disciples was given to you. Let your church planter know that you understand the gravity of the call, and be ready and willing to serve. Ask questions like “How can I be most helpful?” and “What are our greatest needs as a church?” Lend your voice to the discussion in humility and wield your God-given dignity with faithfulness and respect.

2. Be teachable

Your voice will not have much effect or value if it is not informed by the Word of God. Invest in knowing the Word. Pursue biblical literacy. The church suffers when women don’t know and love the Word.

3. Be faithful

The fame of Jesus is on the line. So keep God’s divine priorities for your life in mind, and give your life to making disciples in whatever context you’re in. Church planting is messy. Programs may not be in place to ensure formal avenues for participation. But you can always invest your life in making disciples.

Rather than seeing male headship as a contradiction to women being co-laborers in the gospel, Paul taught that these two things go hand in hand.

We, as God’s image-bearers, both male and female, are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). This is a conversation not so much about empowering women, but about how the whole church can be faithful to the Great Commission.

Brothers and sisters, your joint participation and unique design is necessary to the mission of the church. We cannot have one without the other. So pastors, invite women in. Women, heed the call seriously. May our churches reflect God’s image more clearly in the days ahead.

Seminaries Don’t Make Pastors. Churches Do.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:00am

Editors’ note: This article was adapted from a new book published by Crossway under the TGC imprint, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson. Order your copy today.


You might think a seminary president would be the last person to contribute to a book on what a seminary didn’t provide for pastors. Actually, I welcome the opportunity. I have committed my life to the education of pastors through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and after nearly 25 years of leading it, I am more convinced than ever of the value of a seminary education.

But seminaries do not call pastors. God does. And seminaries do not make pastors. Churches do. Keeping that straight is important.

A good seminary can add immeasurably to a pastor’s ministry, and the rigorous study involved in a quality seminary education should be expected of any preacher of the Word of God. The theological disciplines are of crucial importance, and though a faithful pastor will be more than a scholar, the church learned long ago the necessity of a learned ministry. The most faithful seminary envisions itself as a servant of the churches, assisting them in making pastors. The seminary serves the church; the church does not serve the seminary.

Analysis vs. Experience   

So we should not be surprised that experienced pastors would be able to detail and document the lessons of ministry that were not learned at seminary. In some cases, this may reflect poorly on the seminary, but in most cases it points profoundly to the centrality of the local church and to the lessons of ministry that can be learned only through ministry to a congregation.

Seminaries do not call pastors. God does. And seminaries do not make pastors. Churches do.

The structure of theological education has developed into a fairly standard pattern—three years of courses separated into biblical, theological, and ministry studies. There is a wealth of wisdom in that structure, which explains why almost every seminary finds its way into the pattern.

The weakest component has always been ministry studies. This is not due to a failure of the faculty, and most pastors look back on those courses as very helpful.

So, what explains the weakness?

It’s the important distinction between analysis and experience. I didn’t identify the problem as theory as opposed to practice. Ministry studies in the seminary are not merely theoretical. But there is no teacher of ministry like the local church. The preacher should learn a great deal about preaching in the seminary, but he will become a true preacher only through the call and experience of preaching the Word to a congregation. In the best context, this means a senior pastor taking younger pastors under his care and teaching—the congregation invested fully in the perpetuation of a gospel ministry.

War Is Learned at War

There are ample analogies. The United States Military Academy at West Point exists for good reason, but officers are made by leading troops and fighting battles. I wouldn’t want to have surgery at the hands of a physician who had not graduated (with high honors) from a good medical school. But I’d also want to know the surgeon had trained with the best doctors in residency and had performed the procedure many times. You get the point.

I would actually be interested in reading a book of essays by veteran army generals on what they did not learn at West Point. It might be that West Point would gain some important information from such a book and take it to heart. My guess is that most of those essays would look back to West Point with deep appreciation and affection, while understanding that some lessons have always been learned only in the crucible of war. I’ll also bet that those generals would be incredibly glad they didn’t go to battle without that West Point education.

And so it is with the Christian ministry.

Urgent Lessons

Though a faithful pastor needs an education in exegesis, he is made in the preparation and delivery of sermons to the people of God. He needs the theological studies gained in seminary, but that theology is eventually hammered out when the pastor is called to preach the funeral of a child. A background in hermeneutics and homiletics is vital, but the preacher discovers his real method of interpretation and his real understanding of preaching when deciding how to preach a specific text to a specific people—and then preaching to the same congregation again and again and again.

I would read the What West Point Couldn’t Teach Me book with genuine interest. You will read 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me with nothing less than urgency. Don’t miss a single lesson to be learned—but keep in mind that every pastor learns the most important lessons only through years of ministry. At the same time, learn as much as you can before you hit the battlefield. It matters.

What Seminary Didn’t Teach Ray Ortlund

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 11:46am

In this new video, Ray Ortlund—pastor of Immanuel Church and TGC Council member—reflects on the things he didn’t learn in seminary.

Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Order today!

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Melissa Kruger

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:00am

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

I asked Melissa Kruger—editor and blogger for The Gospel Coalition; women’s ministry coordinator at Uptown Church (PCA) in Charlotte, North Carolina; and author of In All Things: A Nine-Week Devotional Bible Study on Unshakeable Joy (forthcoming), The Envy of Eve, and Walking with God in the Season of Motherhood—about what’s on her nightstand, biographies and autobiographies that have influenced her, her go-to book for discipling women, and more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

Currently, I’m in the middle of reading:

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich—It’s a fascinating collection of everyday reflections from Russians on the effects of capitalism and democracy.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg—I highly recommend this book just for the introduction, “When am I going to use this?” I wish it was mandatory reading for every high-school student and their parents.

The Beatitudes: An Exposition of Matthew 5:1–12 by Thomas Watson

Refresh by Shona and David Murray—I’m reading it again, because it is very needed in my life right now.

The one thing I’m missing on my nightstand is a good work of fiction—I’d welcome suggestions!

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

Biographies have shaped my Christian walk more than any other genre. To read stories of faith lived out in the midst of life’s difficulties and struggles always inspires and encourages me. Some of my favorites are Through the Gates of SplendorA Chance to Die, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, and John Paton’s autobiography Missionary to the New Hebrides.

What is a go-to book you use for discipling women?

My favorite book to use for discipling women is Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. It’s a helpful place to start because it covers so many topics: service, evangelism, Bible reading, prayer, church, and more. It’s a great mix of topics from which to discuss a person’s relationship with God, the world, and the church.

Which book do you wish every evangelical Christian would read and why?

I would encourage everyone to read J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. My husband recommended it to me when we were dating in college, and I waited 20 years to take him up on the suggestion. Now, I read it over and over. Packer’s words remind me of the beauty and greatness of God and what a wonder it is to know him personally. Don’t wait as long as I did to read it!

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

Thirty years ago, the Lord saved me. I was 14 at the time and began two daily practices: reading my Bible and writing out my prayers in a journal. I still do these simple acts of faith today—and I’m more convinced than ever of their importance. Walking with the Lord is the greatest blessing and privilege of my life. What a gift that we can speak to God through prayer, and he speaks to us through his Word! I still haven’t gotten over the fact that God chose me, saved me, redeemed me, and calls me his child. I hope I never do.

Also in the On My Shelf series: Isaac Adams • Denny Burk • Vermon Pierre • Jake Meador • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Robert Smith • Tony Merida • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • 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.

The Spiritual Benefits of Dying

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:00am

Death is a truth we’re hard-pressed to grasp. Even for the Christian, death’s entrance into our lives has the power, as Thomas Aquinas observed, to “stun the human mind” (2). No matter the person or situation, the knowledge that one is dying may be the single greatest confrontation we face. It’s the great leveler of our lives. In Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers, this confrontation visits the deathbed of an elderly clockmaker:

When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart. When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay. (33–34)

Reality demands a person recognize they’re dying, and then asks them to respond.

In Dying and the Virtues, Matthew Levering has written a remarkable new volume attempting to retrieve and uncover Christianity’s resources on dying. Not to be confused with an attempt of works-righteousness to make us more presentable to God in our death, Levering presents these resources as virtues:

These virtues, given by God, inscribe a Godward and utterly God-dependent mode of living in Christ, as members of his body. As we will see, these virtues exhibit that “it is not only the cross of Christ that makes ultimate sense of human death,” without which dying would be merely “the great wrecking ball that destroys everything.” (4)

Levering—chair of theology at Mundelein Seminary—deftly explores nine virtues: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. The book is sweeping in nature, addressing how the Christian is eternally held in the love of God, our culture’s desire to place the individual at the center of death, and how dying in Christ can and should lead to grateful living.

Fear of Dying

When it comes to death and dying, the question that weighs heavy on most is, “When and how will it happen to me?” The potential suffering we may have to endure produces a reasonable fear in all of us. It leads us to wonder about fundamental aspects of our relationship to God. To this point, one of the most intriguing sections in Dying and the Virtues is Levering’s opening chapter on Job. When we encounter extreme loss or our own mortality in potential death, the kind of suffering Job faced, what do we actually fear the most?

Levering convincingly argues that what Job fears more than anything else isn’t the loss of his family, his possessions, or even his health, but the greater potential of being abandoned and lost to God. Eternal annihilation strikes terror in his heart. He fears God will not remember him or continue to love him after his death:

My contention is that Job challenges God precisely on the grounds that it would be unloving and unjust for God to annihilate (or to permit to be annihilated) a human being such as Job, who obeys God and who yearns for an ongoing relationship with God. (14)

If we view dying as an area where we need to trust God more, then we must know that no matter what suffering we may face, or what death we may endure, God will hold us in love and raise us to new life in his kingdom. Job’s question is our question in so many ways: “If I die, Lord, will you remember me? Will you raise me up again to be with you?” If the answer is a resounding yes, than our approach to our own dying and death may radically change.

Dying is an invitation to trust the love of God in the face of life’s greatest uncertainty.

Levering concludes that even in Job’s extreme situation, God has revealed enough to Job to alleviate his deepest fear:

God’s response to Job indicates that God, as the all-powerful Giver of life, can be counted upon to order things in such a way that brings forth the joy of those who love him. Proclaiming his power to create and sustain all things, God implies that he should be trusted to sustain Job’s life after death rather than annihilating Job; but Job will have to take this on trust or faith. (26)

Dying, then, is an invitation to trust the love of God in the face of life’s greatest uncertainty.

Our culture’s current approach to dying seems to be producing a growing acceptance of the view of annihilation—that on the other side of death there is nothing. If this were true, then of course the process of dying would take on an entirely different function. Inevitably, this outlook leads to the individual being placed at the center of his or her own dying. Our relationship to God in our dying is replaced by a higher view of ourselves instead.

Naturally, what is most important to the individual becomes central in the dying process. This begins to become apparent when we examine the “bucket list” approach to dying, or when we reflect back on our lives from our deathbeds.

Dying and Repentance

Levering argues that penitence must be cultivated in dying. We tend to remember a specific version of our life stories when we’re facing death. We celebrate them with our loved ones, and in many ways, rightly so.

But Levering calls us to also remember, “When in the dying process we remember our history, however, we find it to be gravely distorted by sin. Our primary task, therefore, must be repentance” (65).

Dying itself is a way to model the life of Jesus.

Levering discusses the death of Stephen in Acts 7 in an illuminating way to encourage us not only to look forward in our death with Jesus in view, but also to look back on the whole of our lives, good and bad, with Jesus in view. We’re free then to not gloss over the difficult parts of our lives or our painful histories.

The pictorial slideshows of funerals don’t have to only include the happy moments. Christians in death can rightly view the whole of their lives with Jesus at the center, growing in virtue and character while dying.

Spiritual Benefits of Dying

Dying itself is in fact a way to model the life of Jesus.

For Levering, Jesus’s death is a “new exodus.” God leads the people of Israel out of certain death in Egypt through the blood of Passover, and brings them on “a journey to the Promised Land that involves death” (123). The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land, but we know full well the journey will be difficult and deadly. Levering concludes:

In my view, this already tells us something about why it is that we die even after Christ died: there must be something about the journey of dying that is important for us spiritually, in preparing us for the promised land (eternal life). (123)

It can’t be overstated how important this idea is for the Christian church to recover. Our evangelical tradition has at times tended to focus solely on the gift of eternal life on the other side of death, without thinking well enough about the real spiritual task of dying. This makes it possible for the dying to be easily forgotten or pushed to the margins of our churches. Levering makes this point clearly:

Christians cannot treat dying persons as though they are forgotten or unimportant in the current of life. . . . Once people fall out of the stream of active life, out of the economic and political currents that fuel the powerful of this world, we are apt to forget about them or to pretend that they no longer exist. (109)

Essentially, there is something spiritually necessary for us to experience in our journey of dying. When we embrace and include those who are dying, we see new vistas of Christian virtue. Faith, hope, and love take on new depth and meaning when demonstrated by a dying believer. Penitence, gratitude, and solidarity restore us relationally and provide a gateway for Christian fellowship. Humility, surrender, and courage prepare the dying Christian to die well while growing in trust that God will eternally hold them in his love.

Dying and the Virtues is a meaningful work that should be widely read in seminaries and churches. While theologically rigorous and dense, it provides poignant cultural analysis and practical application. Protestants will no doubt disagree at times with Levering, a Roman Catholic. However, this book deserves a place in all of our lives, encouraging us to see our own future dying as the venue in which spiritual growth can make “dying an act of grateful living” (164).

Frank Questions About Pastoral Ministry

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:00am

I’m always on the lookout for quality pastoral resources to help me grow as a shepherd. I’m particularly thankful for books that bring me back to the basics of my pastoral calling.

Danny Akin and Scott Pace have helped me regain my bearings with their new book, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations For Who a Pastor Is and What He Does. With clarity, concision, and a reasonable amount of alliteration, they give pastors a reliable guide for understanding the biblical and theological foundations of pastoral work.

I recently corresponded with Akin and Pace about discerning a pastor’s call, social media, pornography, good works, and more.

​You discuss the importance of rightly discerning one’s calling as a pastor. How does a current pastor discern if he has misjudged his calling?​

The two most common reasons someone mistakenly embraces pastoral ministry as a calling is in response to the well-meaning encouragement of other people or a sincere, yet misguided, desire to maximize their usefulness to the Lord. As a result, their lack of calling is often revealed through corresponding signs: when the support of others wanes or shifts to criticism, or when ministry hardships reveal that their efforts to serve God in a ministerial capacity don’t equate to a deeper devotion for him.

Those serving in pastoral ministry can also discern their misplaced calling when they begin to recognize the absence of the necessary spiritual gifts, their ineffectiveness in vocational ministry, or a lack of genuine fulfillment in their pastoral responsibilities. If the doubt regarding their pastoral calling begins to severely discourage them or causes them to become ineffective, it may be necessary to step away for a season of discernment, renewal, or even redirection. Seeking the counsel of other trusted pastors can be extremely helpful.

Ministry will be difficult and at times overwhelming, but certainty regarding the call will determine whether we should stand firm or step down. Ultimately, we must remember that usefulness to the Lord and spiritual success isn’t measured by our position or status but by our faithfulness to God’s will.

Should pastors have a presence on social media? If so, how can they protect themselves from indulging in self-promotion?

It would be irresponsible to ignore the potential impact of social media for the cause of Christ. Posts that promote the church or ministry, proclaim Scripture, or advocate for biblical truths and worthy causes can be leveraged for the gospel. These should be favored over social soapboxes and rants, personal accomplishments, or ministry opportunities that can be interpreted as selfish attempts to gain notoriety.

Our personal posts should exalt Christ, encourage his people, and celebrate the achievements of others. When our posts center around our family or other aspects of our personal lives, they can be helpful windows of transparency for a watching world. But even these must display a spirit of humility as we honor the Lord and enjoy his blessings. It can be helpful to post through ministry accounts to deflect the spotlight and defuse misperceptions of self-promotion.

What word would you give to pastors caught in the clutches of pornography?

We all have struggles, not because we’re pastors but because we’re people. Yet the pastoral office requires our personal holiness, and sexual purity must be guarded with the utmost diligence. For those who struggle with pornography, practical steps of personal accountability, strategic safeguards, and spiritual devotion must be immediately taken to combat and overcome temptation.

Others who are suffering through a prolonged battle and continue to indulge in pornography must be willing to discreetly but honestly confess to their church leadership, subject themselves to a season of redemptive discipline, and decisively deal with their sexual sin before they can be restored. Continuing to struggle with this deadly sin in secret will only result in the destruction of your family, the collapse of your ministry, and disgracing the name of Jesus who died to rescue your from the vice of sin.

In light of 2 Timothy 2:24–26, how can pastors avoid the twin temptations of constant quarreling and cowardly compromise? How might a man know he has drifted into one or the other?

As pastors, we’re called to defend and contend for the faith (Titus 1:9; Jude 3). But we’re also called to be peacemakers and peacekeepers (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 12:18), preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). These callings require us to carefully discern which battles are worth fighting (and losing!). We must perform theological and ministerial triage to determine which things of utmost importance require our unwavering defense and support.

As we navigate debatable issues, we can’t compromise the truth or our testimony. Like Jesus, we must blend grace and truth (John 1:14), using tact and diplomacy to persuade others with a winsome, yet resolved, disposition. Scripture requires us to be gentle and not quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3), patient and not arrogant or quick-tempered (Titus 1:7), while we hold firm to our biblical convictions (Titus 1:9).

When you lead from a defensive posture, argue through hypothetical scenarios, or preach your sermons with specific targets in mind, you may have drifted into the raging waters of a quarrelsome temperament. Conversely, when you constantly worry what people think, feel paranoid about others’ actions and opinions, avoid “hard to hear” truths in your sermons, or apologize for your decisions, you may have steered into the ditch of cowardly compromise.

Paul tells Titus to be a model of good works (Titus 2:7). What does it look like for a pastor to be a model of good works?

Good works are emphasized throughout Paul’s letter to Titus. They’re evidence of genuine salvation (1:16), and they’re the practical goal of our faith (2:14). In order for us to effectively exhort our people to do good works (3:8), we must embody and exemplify the righteous deeds we endorse.

Practically, this involves demonstrating good works that exhibit humility, mercy, and justice (Micah 6:8). Pastorally speaking, we must love strangers, extending hospitality to others (1:8). We must meet “urgent needs” by caring for the sick, ministering to the hurting, and serving the underprivileged and disadvantaged (Titus 3:14; Matt. 25:34–40).

But pastoral good works also include encouraging and empowering church members by exhibiting servant leadership that embodies the kindness and humility of Jesus (Mark 10:45). We must also actively serve and support our communities, “showing perfect courtesy to all people” (3:1–2). Perhaps the greatest and most important “good work” for a pastor to model is a consistent commitment to personal evangelism, sharing the good news of God’s grace that’s available to all people through Jesus Christ (2:11).

3 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way as a Pastor

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:00am

Editors’ note: This article was adapted from a new book published by Crossway under the TGC imprint, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson with a foreword by Albert Mohler. Order your copy today.

I warned them, but I don’t think they believed me.

No doubt, they thought I was merely trying to exhibit humility or was trafficking in a garden-variety form of preacher talk. The pastoral search committee had zeroed in on me as its final candidate, but the three letters that sometimes appear to the right of my name kept hijacking our conversation: PhD.

“Should we call you doctor?” one asked. “I’ll bet you’ll really get this church going with all you bring to the table as a doctor,” another said. I fidgeted in my seat. I didn’t doubt the sincerity of their admiration, but I felt profoundly unprepared to play the role of spiritual superhero.

I had no idea.

At last, I said: “I’m grateful you want to honor my studies, but please don’t mistake a degree for maturity, competence, fitness for ministry, and certainly not for godliness. The one does not necessarily portend the others. All it really means is that I persevered long enough to meet some academic requirements.”

From the standpoint of interview skill, that was the correct answer. But over the next three years, God burned the truth of those words deep into the recesses of my soul.

Soon, the church called me as senior pastor. Soon, I learned that advanced degrees from a leading theological institution had not transformed me into the godly, humble, wise, selfless leader this congregation desperately needed. Soon, I realized only suffering-laden service on the front lines of ministry could make me that man. Soon, it hit me: I serve the church at war.

Sadly, my tenure in that first pastorate lasted little more than three years, due mostly to a major financial crisis in the church. Today, I am privileged to serve a different congregation. And thanks to lessons learned from many mistakes and foolhardy decisions I made in the first church, I am a different pastor.

Here are three major lessons I could’ve learned only by serving God’s people in the local church: credentials are not competence; ministry means war; and apart from God’s unilateral grace, a pastor labors in vain.

Credentials ≠ Competence

Prior to becoming a pastor, I had preached 1 Corinthians 13 many times and had seen it cross-stitched on home decor at least a thousand more. But once I began to shepherd a local flock, it became one of the most perplexing passages to me in the entire Bible. Why? It’s not difficult to interpret, but therein lies the rub; it’s difficult because it’s easier to be orthodox than it is to be loving.

It’s easier to be orthodox than it is to be loving.

And “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). As one who prizes the study of theology and church history, that phrase hits close to home. It hits home because, if God gave me one wish in a prosperity-theology sort of way, I’d be tempted to choose “have all knowledge” instead of “be loving.”

Every hour of seminary delighted my soul. It left me with much knowledge, and, as it’s designed to do, equipped me to gain more for myself. But I soon realized that my command of Greek or Hebrew or the Puritans is not enough to keep me from erupting when an angry church member brings false charges against me. Those things don’t guarantee wise leadership decisions when a deacon tells me the church is almost out of money.

Sure, my theological knowledge positions me to make wise decisions and enables me to feed the flock with healthy grass, but the maturity needed to be a godly under-shepherd comes only through days, weeks, months, and years of labor in the vineyard of the Lord. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am a man in the middle of his sanctification, just like the people who listen to me preach every Lord’s Day.

Love > Knowledge

Soon, I realized the people under my care were not all that interested in my orthodoxy, although I could never compromise it. They just wanted to know if I loved them. Once they knew I genuinely cared and saw them as cherished family in Christ—and not as mere subjects for evangelism or discipleship—they were much more willing to listen to me expound orthodoxy.

And there was only one means for building such trust: time in their presence.

I recall one particularly cranky man who just didn’t seem to like me—at first. So, taking a page from the Richard Baxter playbook, I visited his home. It was summer and we sat on his porch. We discussed Auburn and Georgia football. I listened to him talk about Dale Earnhardt. I listened to his wife talk about her family’s role in founding our church.

Before long, they seemed to move into my corner. On the day I left the church, he bear-hugged me and, through a river of tears, told me how his family had grown to love mine and how they would miss us. They would even miss my teaching.

The apostle warned me about this: “If I have . . . all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). If I do not love my people, they will not care how much theological talk proceeds from the pulpit. They will follow me only when I prove I love them and can be trusted as a mature teacher and under-shepherd.

In his excellent book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, Paul Tripp identifies a binary syndrome that too often inflicts the inexperienced but self-assured pastor. Tripp appropriately labels this dangerous malady as “big theological brains and heart disease”:

Bad things happen when maturity is more defined by knowing than it is by being. Danger is afloat when you come to love ideas more than the God they represent and the people they are meant to free. . . . I longed for [seminary students] to understand that they aren’t called just to teach theology to their people but also to do theology with their people.

After reciting his lengthy biological, theological, and experiential pedigree, Paul concluded much the same: “I have reason for confidence in the flesh, but whatever gain I had, I have counted loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:8). He possessed all the ingredients to serve as an omnicompetent pastor, yet it was all rubbish compared to knowing Christ and exhibiting his love for people.

‘Danger is afloat when you come to love ideas more than the God they represent and the people they are meant to free.’

If you have served in a local church, a second lesson will soon become axiomatic for you: ministry means war, which is to say, suffering is normal for an under-shepherd of Christ.

Ministry Means War

A. W. Tozer famously said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” In pastoral ministry, as in the Christian life, there is no crown without a cross. The great men of Scripture were formed under the lash of suffering—Job, Daniel, David, Peter, Paul, and, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The great names in church history walked the Calvary road of affliction. Luther and Calvin were forced to run for their lives. John Bunyan spent 12 years in a Bedford jail for preaching good news. Charles Simeon served an irascible congregation that once locked him out of the church. I had a friend whose church fired him because he planted grass at the parsonage without a committee’s permission. Another friend was released two weeks after being elected because a deacon found an objectionable theology book in his library as the moving van was being unloaded.

How bad can it get? The cauldron of suffering nearly drove the great Charles Spurgeon from the ministry at the age of 22. On October 19, 1856, seven people were killed and 28 injured when someone shouted “Fire!” during a service, causing hundreds of the 12,000 gathered to stampede. The depression resulting from this disaster left Spurgeon prostrate for days. “Even the sight of the Bible, brought from me a flood of tears, and utter distraction of mind.” This set the tone for his ministry, and he battled acute anxiety and dark depression for the rest of his life.

The office of elder is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous, even deadly. It will bruise the new man I’m becoming in Christ, and it will kill the old man I was before the grace of God stormed the battlements of my heart.

Seminary did not teach me how deeply ministry could wound. But it couldn’t teach me that, for seminary is to ministry what basic training is to combat: a training ground, a relatively safe place to acquire tools—Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, church history, and much more. Basic training is not war, and seminary is not pastoral ministry. Nothing but the battlefield itself could have prepared me for the pain ahead.

Had I been paying closer attention to Scripture, I would have seen the warning signs. Through the lens of Paul’s ministry, 2 Corinthians is a manual for suffering in pastoral ministry. Read a few verses and you’ll see the office of elder is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous, even deadly. It will bruise the new man I’m becoming in Christ, and it will kill the old man I was before the grace of God stormed the battlements of my heart. It is a glorious death sentence from the hand of a loving God.

War Within, Too

There will be difficult days in ministry. You will doubt your calling. You will question God’s goodness. Your heart will struggle to trust the very divine sovereignty your mouth has so often celebrated. You will fear people. You will resent the apparent ministry success of your friends, though pride will lead you to publicly congratulate them. You will want to quit, particularly on Mondays. To summarize: you will wrestle with you.

Voices will fill your ears with an alluring siren song, urging you to find, by whatever means necessary—even by small increments of theological or ethical compromise—a place where ease and prosperity reign. There, in ministerial Rivendell, you will be far from the bad deacons meeting, far from the church member whose marriage is imploding, far from the family who thinks you’re killing the church by teaching the Bible instead of building the youth group. This is the internal battle of Ephesians 6:17; it’s just intensified within the pastor because of his calling. If you are to survive this war, you must feed on God’s Word daily. You must become a man of constant prayer, of vigilant self-examination. You must live in habitual awareness that you utterly depend on grace. Paul asked the question to which you must learn the correct answer: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Absolutely nothing.

Suffering is normal in ministry. Paul suffered. Our heroes from history suffered. God will use struggles with foes from without and within to make us more like his Christ, to slay our pride, to arm us with gospel comfort so we may comfort fellow sufferers in our charge, and, perhaps above all, to provide his bride with a picture of the sufferings of his Son. Humiliation precedes exaltation, both for Jesus and for his people (2 Cor. 4:7–12). It’s the gospel way.

Affliction will either drive God’s servants to my third and final lesson or drive them from ministry.

Apart from Him You Can Do __________

One phrase a minister must burn above the doorpost of his heart is Jesus’s words in John 15:5: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” If you are to persevere in faithfulness, God’s unilateral grace must uphold you. Various studies communicate a grim but unified message: a high percentage of seminary graduates disappear permanently from pastoral ministry within five years. You will need grace upon grace upon grace.

In the context of his being lifted up to the third heaven, the apostle explains that God does not weigh strength on the same scales as we do: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).

A few days into that first pastorate, I realized that only the Lord working through his Word and his Spirit could make dry bones live. All I could do was preach, pray, and shepherd his sheep. Mercifully, the pressure is not on us to change hearts. We are not the power of God for salvation; his gospel is.

We are not the power of God for salvation.

At Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, there was once a wooden roller coaster that stood more than 300 feet tall. At the entrance, there was a sign that said, “This ride is not for the faint of heart.” Pastoral ministry is like that. It is a delightful calling with many dizzying highs. It is a dangerous calling with many depressing lows. It will rattle your bones all along the way.

But ministering God’s Word and watching him use it to transform lives is a marvel that strains the descriptive capacity of human words.