“Since Moses descended from the mountain with two loose-leaf stones under his arms,” Tony Reinke says, “all literature can be divided into two genres: Genre A: The Bible . . . Genre B: All other books.” Most every Christian recognizes the need to read the Bible. But to fully develop our faith and to grow in wisdom we should read from both of these genres.
The Bible is naturally the most important. We would be better off, as Charles Spurgeon claimed, to lose all that is beautiful, cheering, or profitable in human literature rather than “lose a single syllable from the mouth of God.” Scripture is the most important element in the formation of our imaginations. Yet works from “Genre B” also have value, even when they come from pagan or secular authors.
In Exodus 3:22, God tells the Israelites, “Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” Throughout church history, Christian thinkers have used this passage as an analogy for the way in which God’s people can use the best things of this world, and especially the wisdom of the world, for the sake of God’s glory. For example, Augustine argued in On Christian Doctrine that Christians should “plunder the Egyptians”—with the wisdom of their thought the “gold being plundered—and use them for God’s purposes:
Moreover, if those who are called philosophers . . . have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had . . . vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God . . . in the same way all branches of heathen learning . . . contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.
Here are five ways we can “plunder the Egyptians” in our reading of works by non-believers:
Read in the light of the Bible — All our reading, though especially works by non-Christian authors, must be read in light of Scripture. As Reinke adds, “Scripture is the ultimate grid by which we read every book. Scripture is perfect, sufficient, and eternal. All other books, to some degree, are imperfect, deficient, and temporary.”
Read for shared truth — Because all truth is God’s truth, we can search for what is the works of non-Christians. John Calvin reminds us that “in reading profane [i.e., non-Christian] authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”
Read for common life experiences — Although there is a wide gulf in our spiritual experiences, Christians and non-believers share a broad range of common life experiences. We all have much in common in the way we fall in love, suffer hurt and pain, sire and raise children, grieve loss and death. For this reason we can learn much about life through the experiences of others who don’t share our faith in Christ.
Read for an understanding of our shared history — Since before the days of Noah, the lives of believers, scoffers, and skeptics have been intertwined in the making of history. If we limit our understanding of human history to the perspective of Christians we miss out on a broad and valuable range of presentations and interpretations of facts and events. Because God is sovereign over all human life, we can learn from any worthy historical account.
Read for an understanding of sin and grace — G. K. Chesterton once noted, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” While they may deny the term and the doctrine, non-believers can’t deny the consequences of sin. While we should avoid books that glorify sinful behavior or that can tempt us to sin ourselves, we can learn much from reading about how rebellion against God affects our world. We can also gain a greater appreciation for the grace of God and for the one who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Many of us who have seen “Christian paintings,” watched “Christian movies,” and heard “Christian music” may be skeptical about Christian art. As Gregory Thornbury has quipped, “Christianity is the greatest of all nouns, but the lamest of all adjectives.”
But is there a way to envision “Christian art” as something more than misty fairytale cottages or contrived plotlines where typecast God-haters join in a tearful Jesus anthem before the credits roll?
I believe there is, but it won’t happen unless we first develop a more robust theology of art. Here is a brief, two-minute sketch of what that might look like.God Is an Artist
The first time we meet God in the story of Scripture, we meet him as an Artist. “Created” is the first verb in the first sentence on the Bible’s first page. Out of the flurry of God’s imagination, the heavens and the earth burst into existence and teem with diversity and beauty. God could have easily spoken a monochrome cosmos into being. He could have made an all-gray universe—gray planets, gray animals, gray-on-gray rainbows in a gray sky. Even oranges would be called “grays.” This Graytopia could’ve been perfectly efficient and functional from an engineering perspective. Why, then, make our multi-hued universe? Why the color spectrum? Why red strawberries, orange oranges, and yellow lemons? Why mandarinfish, peacocks, and chameleons? Because, as Genesis 1 repeats seven times, “God saw that it was good.” Evidently, God cares about more than efficiency and functionality. He also cares about beauty.
God cares about more than efficiency and functionality. He also cares about beauty.
Taylor University philosophy professor James Spiegel has made the case that when God said “it was good,” he was not making a moral, legal, political, or prudential claim. He was making an aesthetic claim. It’s not like saying that the boy who ate all his vegetables “was good” for obeying Mommy, or the Magna Carta “was good” for society, or the Large Hadron Collider “was good” for quantum research. It’s more like beholding a Titian canvas or a sunset over the Pacific and saying, “That’s good.” And God made this aesthetic declaration even before he made Adam and Eve! It follows, then, that something can be truly beautiful even if no human being is around to behold and declare it so. Beauty, then, is not merely something we as humans dream up (though thankfully we can); it’s also something we can discover, something beyond and even before us.We Don’t Fabricate Beauty. We Find It.
This means when the Hubble satellite left our atmosphere and started relaying space pictures back to us, there was nothing arbitrary or artificial when we collectively exhaled, “Beautiful!” When human beings over the last 30 years first beheld the sprawling fuchsia clouds of the Orion Nebula, the cobalt pupil and auburn iris of the Helix Nebula, or the somber towering gas pillars of the Eagle Nebula—with their speckles of pink fire and wispy sea-green auras—we did not fabricate beauty. We found it. They were beautiful long before Hubble left our atmosphere, and they would stay beautiful even if we all went blind tomorrow.
Why? In a biblical view of the universe, it is because God cares about beauty and declares things beautiful even when we cannot. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholders—us—but in the eye of the Beholder. From this perspective, we enter the world not merely to impose our ever-changing constructs of beauty on some aesthetic void. Beauty is already there, and it will impose itself on us and refashion our constructs into something more noble and towering and true, if we dare let it.
Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholders—us—but in the eye of the Beholder.Creativity and Christlikeness
The first command from God to a human being was to do something creative: “Name the animals.” Next come commands to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and steward creation—God’s call to make something of the world. Later Bezalel and his sons live out that calling as God’s Spirit gave them the aesthetic skill to make Temple décor. Israel’s God was not worshiped in a drab, hollow cube. Then we find invitations to worship the creative God creatively: “Sing to him a new song, play skillfully on strings with loud shouts.” “Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.” “Praise his name with dancing” (Pss. 33:3; 98:5; 149:3).
God never limited himself to didactic prose when revealing himself to Israel. He tells multisensory truth, truth with fire-cooking meat, blood painted on doorposts, talking donkeys, vomiting fish, hungry bears, wandering goats, crucified snakes, burning plants, thunder, smoke, rocks, bugs, milk, and honey. He tells truth in vivid images—skeletons coming to life, apocalyptic sea monsters, and menstrual rags. Then there’s the prophetic performance art. Isaiah wanders naked for three years. Hosea marries a well-known harlot.
God never limited himself to didactic prose when revealing himself to Israel.
Turning to the New Testament, we learn that the masterful Creator we met in Genesis 1 is actually Jesus Christ (John 1:3; Col. 1:15–17; and Heb. 1:8–13). Glowing space nebulae, rainbows, the flavor of watermelon, and coffee beans were his idea (in creative collaboration with the Father and the Spirit). The Son took on created flesh. He spent most of his career as a tekton, a craftsman who could make both small and large-scale projects with stone, wood, and metal. Then when his public ministry started, Jesus taught mostly in parables, painting mental pictures that have lived in our imagination for more than two millennia. His greatest commandment to love God with all of ourselves includes the imaginative and creative parts too, as it most certainly did for him. Creativity and Christlikeness go hand in hand.
Many of us have a nasty habit. We domesticate God.
The irony is that it stems from a good motive.
We want to know God, even have a relationship with him. So, we evaluate our human experience not only to see if we are Godward, but also to gauge whether God is in it. That motive may be right and good, but if we aren’t careful, we can assume that what’s true of our human experience must also be true of God the Creator.
Why do we do this? We might never admit it, but we often assume God is just a bigger, better version of ourselves. If we have love, he just has more; if we have power, he just has more; if we have knowledge, he just has more. It is the all-too-common superhero syndrome. The difference between you and God, in this mindset, is merely quantitative.
This tendency, though common, is grossly mistaken. God is not a bigger, better version of you—that simply creates a God in your own image, which Scripture calls idolatry. The God of the Bible, by contrast, is a different type of being altogether; indeed, he is Being itself (or absolute Being, as the church fathers liked to say). There is none like him. He’s in a class of his own. The difference, then, is not merely quantitative; it’s qualitative. As the medieval theologian Anselm put it, God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived. He is the Perfect Being.
Why is this?Infinite Incomprehensibility
God is the Perfect Being because he’s not merely unlimited in size but also infinite in essence. While we are finite creatures, bound by limitless limitations, God has none. His essence is inestimable, immeasurable, unfathomable. Or to put it positively, God is his attributes in infinite measure (Ps. 147:5).
That means, then, that anything and everything that would limit God—change, emotional fluctuation, divisible parts, dependence on others, a succession of moments, restriction to a locale, lack of knowledge, wisdom, power—cannot be true of him, lest he no longer be the perfect, infinite Being. But it also means, most fundamentally, that our God is incomprehensible. If he is infinite, then he cannot be exhausted by our finite minds. Even Moses, who was perhaps the closest a mere mortal ever came to approaching the immortal Creator, could not see God’s glory and live (Ex. 33:18, 20).
The minute you think you’ve comprehended all of God, think again, for it’s not God you’re comprehending.
Israel struggled to learn this. She groped after the gods of the nations, gods she could see, touch, and manipulate, gods she could even create with her own hands (Isa. 40:19–23). Not Yahweh, though; he is the “everlasting God” whose “understanding is unsearchable” (Isa. 40:28). He is ineffable. The minute you think you have comprehended all of God, think again, for it’s not God you’re comprehending. For “the infinite cannot be contained in the finite,” Thomas Aquinas observed. “God exists infinitely, and nothing finite can grasp him infinitely.”Rethinking our God-Talk
What does this infinite distance between finite and infinite mean for our knowledge of God? It means that the way to seek him is not by pretending we can conquer his essence. Instead, we know him according to his revelatory works.
If we know anything about God, it’s only because he has revealed it to us. It is only because he has—to use John Calvin’s imagery—stooped down so low as to lisp to us, like a nurse lisping to a newborn. Those humbled by his infinite incomprehensibility know this to be true: Revelation is a gift.
How should this affect the way we talk about God? If he’s the infinite Creator, and we the finite creature, then our knowledge of him—even our language about him—cannot be univocal, as if we know things just as God knows them. Impossible. Instead, our knowledge of God and our talk about God is always analogical. In other words, something can share similarities with something else even though it’s not identical.
That shouldn’t surprise us. We are not God, but we are made in his image, designed to reflect him in some way. Our makeup is analogical by nature. So too our words. While our finite words don’t exhaust the glory of our Creator in and of himself (univocal), they can say something true about him, even if in part (analogical). Not only do we see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:1), but we stammer through words obtusely, echoing the “heights of God as best we can” (Gregory the Great).
What might this look like in practice?1. Grasp Who God Is Not
First, it means we should understand who God is by talking about what he is not. Have you ever noticed how certain attributes—attributes that protect God’s incommunicable being—do just that? We are finite creatures and therefore change, for better or worse; we are mutable. Not God. He does not change; he is immutable. We are finite creatures and therefore fluctuate emotionally; we are passible. Not God. He does not experience emotional change; he is impassible. We are finite creatures and therefore depend on God for our existence and fulfillment. Not God. He does not depend on anyone; he is a God of aseity—self-existent and self-sufficient.
God is not a bigger, better version of you—that simply creates a God in your own image, which Scripture calls idolatry.
Our God-talk will be improved if we keep ourselves from ascribing limitations to God by first saying what he is not. Even when you do meet in Scripture divine attributes that are communicable—reflected in you, the creature, in some small way—always remember, they are true of God in a way that they are not true of you. You may love, but God is love, and he is love in infinite measure. You may become holy, but God is holy, eternally and immutably; he is holy in infinite measure.2. Don’t Read Literalistically
Second, it means we should read Scripture to understand what is literally true without reading Scripture literalistically. You may not know it, but you do this already. When Scripture says God has eyes, hands, or ears, you naturally assume something analogical is at play. When David prays, “Keep me as the apple of your eye” (Ps. 17:8), you don’t conclude God has physical eyes. You understand the infinite Being has no body; he is spirit (Deut. 4:12–16). David is employing anthropomorphic language, language that uses human characteristics not to attribute flesh to God but to metaphorically convey something true of him. In Psalm 17:8, David is praying for God’s steadfast love, his covenant blessing. And what better way to ask for it?
We get it.
Oddly enough, we don’t get it when we read passages that ascribe change or human emotion to God. When we read that God “repents” or “regrets,” we wonder if God has changed his mind or made a mistake. When we read that God “grieves,” we assume he must be emotional and suffer loss. But just as anthropomorphic language utilizes human characteristics, so anthropopathic language employs human emotions. That’s not because God is a passible, emotional being; as the eternal, immutable God, he is impassible, so maximally alive that he cannot become his attributes any more than he already is eternally.
Why then is this figurative language used? When God says he regrets that he made Saul king (1 Sam. 15:11), for example, the author is grasping for the strongest word in our human experience to convey that the eternal, immutable, and impassible Lord now stands in judgment over Saul for his treason, and God’s plan all along to raise up a king after his own heart is now at hand (15:28). As I say in None Greater, “Rather than witnessing a change in God—and an emotional one at that—we are witnessing the effects of God’s will on his creatures.”
It’s clear there is no change in God when Saul tries to beg his way back, as if he can manipulate God like the passible gods of the nations. Samuel corrects Saul’s doctrine of God, and perhaps ours, too: “The glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:29).We See Light in His Light
As modern evangelicals, we need to hear afresh this warning from Tertullian (AD 160–220):
[It is] palpably absurd of you to be placing human characteristics in God rather than divine ones in man, and clothing God in the likeness of man, instead of man in the image of God.
If our God-talk doesn’t respect him who is incomprehensible, we risk worshiping a glorified version of our own likeness. But if our posture is one of humility—faith seeking understanding—then our stammering turns into worship. We stand in awe and confess with Paul that our God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16). Only in his “light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9).
“I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan to afflict me as I have found him since I came [to jail]; for look how fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements, yea, when I have started, even as it were at nothing else but my shadow, yet God, as being very tender of me, hath not suffered me to be molested, but would with one scripture and another strengthen me against all; I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake.” — John Bunyan
Date: October 17, 2018
Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.
- 12 Faithful Men
- How to Endure Suffering in Ministry
- Tim Keller on the 3 Dangers for Anyone in Ministry
- Not Growing Younger? Grow Newer
Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.
With recent church sex-abuse scandals, unprecedented numbers of Christian couples living together before marriage, and the #ChurchToo movement, there’s no doubt the church needs reform on sexual issues. But what kind of reform?
Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints, The New York Times bestselling author, conference speaker, and public theologian, answers this question in her latest book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. She argues that Christians need to abandon what the church has traditionally taught about sex and gender and to forge a new Christian sexual ethic.
Endorsed by progressive heavyweights such as Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Richard Rohr, and Austin Channing Brown, I predict this book will be wildly popular. It’s well written, funny, down to earth, and peppered with F-bombs. If someone is looking for a way to hold on to the title “Christian” while being able to freely indulge their sexual appetites in any way they believe promotes their sexual flourishing, Shameless will be their manifesto.Rejecting the Church’s Teaching
Shameless begins with Bolz-Weber describing the church’s traditional teachings on “God’s plan” for sex. She sums up and rejects that teaching in the Denver Statement, which she co-wrote in response to the Nashville Statement. In part it reads,
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gender, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married.
She doesn’t believe that God’s design for sex is between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. She believes that what the church has traditionally taught about sex is harmful, needing not just a makeover, but an entire overhaul. Or, “Let’s burn it the f*** down and start over,” to quote her precisely.
There are many stories and illustrations in Shameless that conservative readers would find shocking, and I don’t doubt many reviews will highlight them. However, I’d like to interact with the fundamental beliefs that rest beneath the arguments. That is where the most danger lies. Rather than nudging her readers toward obedience to God and the teachings of Christ, Bolz-Weber gives them permission to follow their hearts and base their opinions about sex on their own feelings and desires. She does this in three subtle ways.1. She Promotes an Unorthodox View of the Bible
As a child, Bolz-Weber was taught that Eve’s entire purpose and identity was to be a “grateful helper” to Adam: “God gave her to Adam, like a mail-order bride. Adam was her purpose” (33). And because Eve “screwed it up for the rest of humanity” by eating the fruit (42), women should focus on looking pretty, being quiet, and forever being subservient to and dominated by men.
I don’t doubt this was what Bolz-Weber was taught in Sunday school. But her experience doesn’t faithfully represent what the Bible actually teaches about the garden of Eden. She seems more interested in dismantling the historic Christian sexual ethic than in correcting faulty interpretations of Scripture, correcting some missteps of the purity movement, or diving deep into the Bible to exegete what it teaches about sex. Although Bolz-Weber claims to love the Bible and regularly preaches from it, she doesn’t see it as a cohesive whole. In an interview with the LGBT publication Out in Jersey, she said:
The Bible’s not clear about s***! The Bible is a library. Let’s say you have this huge library in your house and ask, “What’s the clear message my library has to say about ‘gender’?” The poetry is going to say one thing, history says another, prose says something, science fiction says something else.
She also doesn’t see the whole Bible as authoritative for Christian life. She describes one of her parishioners tearing out the eight pages of the Bible that mentioned homosexuality. The parishioner threw them into the fire, finally “allowing herself to be free.” Then, tearing out the four Gospels, she clutched them to her heart and, in one cathartic motion, chucked the rest of the Bible into the fire (71). Bolz-Weber writes:
There are those who will say that it is “dangerous” to think we can decide for ourselves what is sacred in the Bible and what is not. I reject this idea, and here’s why. (72)
Her “why” is her view of biblical authority. She defines the four Gospels as the most authoritative books. The closer a text is to that story, the more authority it has. The farther away, the less. So it’s no surprise that many of the arguments in the book are anecdotal, rather than biblical.
With the Bible out of the way, readers can now look to their own autonomy to guide their views on sex.2. She Champions a Faulty Definition of Sexual Flourishing
Bolz-Weber’s new sexual ethic isn’t based on biblical guidelines, but on “concern for each other’s flourishing” (12). For a definition of “sexual flourishing,” she turns to the World Health Organization (WHO) for guidance and sums up their definition this way:
Consent (enthusiastic consent—not merely the absence of “no”) and mutuality (enjoyment by both parties) are what the WHO says constitute a baseline sexual ethic. (11)
Without any clearly defined boundaries for sex, she writes, “Whatever sexual flourishing looks like for you, that’s what I would love to see happen in your life” (60).
Yes, we need reform. But what Bolz-Weber offers is not reformation. She has recycled a sexual ethic as old as paganism itself and rebranded it as Christian.
This definition of sexual flourishing plays out when Bolz-Weber writes that looking at pornography in moderation isn’t necessarily harmful, depending on someone’s personality, history, and relationships. She recalls giving her 18-year-old daughter permission to spend the night at her boyfriend’s house, advising her to speak up in bed so she can learn to communicate her desires to her future lovers. She writes about her own divorce and the sexual fulfillment she finally experienced when she started seeing her boyfriend: “It was like an exfoliation of my entire spirit. It softened me and opened my heart and cleared away the gunk in my head. It was good” (59).
But as the originator and architect of sex, God is the one who gets to define sexual flourishing and decide what is “good.” From Genesis to Revelation, his Word is clear and unified in its sexual ethic. In Matthew 19, Jesus himself affirms the purpose of sex and marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Jesus also condemned “sexual immorality,” which would’ve been understood by his listeners to be any sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman.
To define it any other way is to put one’s own opinion above God’s.3. She Advocates an Erroneous Understanding of God’s Holiness
Holy holy holy Lord God of power and might Heaven and earth are filled with your glory Hosanna in the highest
After quoting the above prayer, Bolz-Weber defines holiness as “the union we experience with one another and with God. Holiness is when more than one become one, when what is fractured is made whole” (19). She then relates this with the sexual union of “two loving individuals” as holy because they are “unified in an erotic embrace” (20).
She makes a distinction between holiness and purity by surmising that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from” (26). The problem with this definition of holiness is that it’s pulled out of thin air and contradicts what the Bible teaches.
Biblically, the holiness of God has everything to do with separation. It requires that God have no unity with sin. As one theologian explains, “God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.” This idea is expressed throughout the Bible, starting with the veil of separation in the tabernacle that cordoned off the “most holy place,” where God himself dwelt. It culminates in Revelation which predicts a time when all things will be made right and holy—when everything on earth will be separated from evil once and for all.
The apostle Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15). In other words, be separated from sin, because God is separated from sin.Abortion
Any treatise bent on destroying the Christian sexual ethic will inevitably defend abortion rights. Bolz-Weber writes that “Christians originally believed that life begins at birth” and that the evangelical support of the pro-life position is a modern political invention (117). She traces the history back to 1968 when Christianity Today featured an article in which a professor from the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary was quoted as saying that fetuses don’t have souls.
It’s true that evangelicals were inconsistent in their views on abortion in the early 1970s, but it’s demonstrably false to claim that this was the original position of Christians. The earliest Christians were unanimously opposed to abortion, which, along with infanticide, was a common practice in the first-century Roman Empire. As early as the Didache (AD 80–120), every Christian writer in antiquity who mentioned abortion forbade it. As Albert Mohler notes, “There can be no question that historic Christianity condemned abortion and affirmed the sanctity of human life, born and not yet born.”God’s Plan
Bolz-Weber writes that sex is a gift from God. I agree. God invented sex, gifted it to creation, and blessed it as a good, holy, beautiful, pleasurable, and fruitful endeavor. But God didn’t give us sex in isolation. It’s not like he handed Adam and Eve a candy bar and said, “Eat for pleasure—just don’t eat so much you get sick.” He told them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Although sex was pleasurable, pleasure wasn’t its only or ultimate purpose. Its ultimate purpose was multifaceted—intimacy in marriage, binding two people together for life, companionship, pleasure, and procreation.
So, in seeking reform, do we throw out what Scripture testifies to from cover to cover and go our own way? As followers of Jesus, we must consider what he taught about sex and embrace that teaching as life-giving and right. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (John 14:15). We simply don’t have the option to pick and choose which of his teachings to follow.
Scripture doesn’t promise everyone sexual fulfillment in this life.
In a public discussion with Matthew Vines, Sean McDowell invited the audience to imagine a world in which everyone lived according to what Jesus taught about sex and marriage. He said:
There would be no sexually transmitted diseases. No abortions. No brokenness from divorce. Every child would have a mother and a father and experience the love and acceptance each parent uniquely offers. There would be no rape, no sex abuse, no sex trafficking, pornography, and no need for a #MeToo campaign. Think of the healing and wholeness if people simply lived Jesus’s life-giving words regarding human sexuality.
In that type of world, there would be no church sex-abuse scandals. Parents wouldn’t have to fear leaving their children in the care of others. The list could go on and on.
Scripture doesn’t promise everyone sexual fulfillment in this life. It doesn’t even promise a mind-blowing sex life to every couple who has “followed God’s plan.” But it does offer guidelines that are for our good, flourishing, and protection.Shameless?
Although she takes every opportunity to mock and deride “God’s plan” for sex and marriage as a harmful, impractical, and antiquated idea, the alternative that Bolz-Weber offers isn’t the answer. Simply ignoring or refusing to feel shame won’t fix the problem. That shame will return. Our biggest problem isn’t shame—it’s sin. Feeling a sense of conviction over our sin is a good thing, because it leads to the good news that Christ has taken our sin and shame upon himself. The only way to be truly shameless is to repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ. As Romans 10:11 says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
True reform wouldn’t be to abandon the Bible’s teaching, but to actually start living it.
We all have, in one way or another, messed up “God’s plan,” and I’m thankful to God for his grace and mercy to me. This is the beauty of conviction, repentance, and the forgiveness and restoration God offers his children. Yes, we need reform. But what Bolz-Weber offers is not reformation. She has recycled a sexual ethic as old as paganism itself and rebranded it as Christian. True reform wouldn’t be to abandon the Bible’s teaching, but to actually start living it.
My husband and I were both saved out of unbelief as adults, I in my late teens and he in his early 20s. Only a couple of years after becoming Christians, we met, had a short courtship, a long-distance engagement, and began married life. Ministry and parenting weren’t far behind. We were babies raising babies—not only in age but, most importantly, in spiritual maturity.
Like many other young believers, we fell into extreme legalism, wanting desperately to save our children from the mistakes we made before Christ. And then, in a quick pivot, we embraced careless permissiveness, having only the worldly wisdom of our unbelieving parents as a guide. In those early days of diapers and temper tantrums, we swung between erroneous poles.
By God’s grace, and almost a decade after that first positive pregnancy test, we’ve grown in maturity as we labor to live out the gospel in front of our kids. We’ve come to rely on three crucial things.1. God’s Word
Gospel parenting is impossible if we don’t know the gospel. Paul’s reminder to Timothy is God’s reminder to Christian parents everywhere: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Grace, law, sin, true wisdom, and salvation are found in no other book. As our children moved from crawling to toddling to walking to running, my husband and I made studying God’s Word a priority in our home. We memorized verses with our children, sang Scripture songs, and read through the Bible in our personal and family devotions.
Parenting books are helpful secondary tools, but the Bible is a first-generation Christian’s lifeline to raising a family.
Even the best Christian parenting books are just explanations of the truth found in the pages of Scripture. Such books are important and helpful secondary tools, but the Bible is a first-generation Christian’s lifeline to raising a family.2. God’s People
My husband and I are the first Christians in each of our families. We pray that someday our kids will grow up to profess tested and true faith, but until then we remain the only believers on both sides of our family. And yet the body of Christ, manifest in the local church, provides Christian family where there is none. First-generation Christian parents need the local church; in joining with those saints, we add God-fearing aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, to our fledgling Christian family.
The biblical exhortation to not give up meeting together (Heb. 10:25) is especially poignant to the first-generation Christian who didn’t grow up in a home where the Bible was taught, hospitality practiced, discipline administered, and tithes joyfully given.
The local church is an adopted heritage for first-generation Christian families.
Young mothers need the older women of God to graciously come alongside them and teach them to love their children (Titus 2:4), and young fathers need the elders to model managing their homes and exercising godly authority over their kids (1 Tim. 3:4). God uses the local church as an adopted heritage for first-generation Christian families. Let’s not neglect such a gracious gift from our Father in heaven!3. God’s Sovereignty
As new Christians, my husband and I soaked up every bit of literature we could about God and the Christian life. The only thing we knew was that we knew absolutely nothing. So we sought out men and women to disciple us, attended conferences, joined Bible studies, and read anything a mature Christian put in front of us.
But for people raised to take charge of their own lives, it was still easy to forget that we weren’t omnicompetent. Thankfully, parenting will humble you whether you like it or not. Your knees will either bow or break from the sheer weight of raising a human, so allow God’s sovereignty to humble you.
Ask the Lord for wisdom in your parenting—he promises he will give it (James 1:5)! Seek counsel from other parents, and make use of godly resources to equip you in this noble task.
Even as the first Christians in your families, you’re not alone. You have an all-powerful God who will never leave you. His Word is alive and ready to guide you, and his church will come alongside you. He will graciously accomplish his purposes through you as you raise up the next generation.
Your knees will either bow or break from the sheer weight of raising a human, so allow God’s sovereignty to humble you.
My husband and I often think about our spiritual family tree. Ours begins with us, and we’ve made the mistakes to prove it. We’ve neglected the instruction of the Lord with our kids, weary of starting these new and foreign habits in our 20s and 30s. We’ve downplayed our role in disciplining and instructing our children, believing the lie that God’s sovereignty erased our responsibility. We’ve dove into legalism, in hopes of protecting our kids from testimonies like ours—only to become overbearing and performance-driven.
We have done so many things wrong, but our Father in heaven kindly gives new mercies each morning for parenting and every other part of our lives. My hope for our family and yours is that our generation is the first of many. Pioneering isn’t easy, but our Lord is with us.
When we hear Christ presented from the Old Testament, it melts our hearts. We want more. But for many of us, a lifetime of Sunday school lessons has conditioned us to jump from an Old Testament text right to what it means for us today—without traveling through the cross.
In this workshop presented at the 2018 CCEF National Conference, I work through seven reasons we should want to see Christ in all the Scriptures, and eight different ways Old Testament texts point to Christ.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Looking for some good music to enhance your experience of The Gospel Coalition’s upcoming 2019 National Conference? We have you covered.
Inspired by TGC19’s theme, “Conversations with Jesus”—keynote speakers will look at Christ’s conversations with people like Nicodemus (John 3:1–21), Lazarus (John 11:1–53), and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42)—we curated a playlist of 120 songs to serve as a soundtrack of sorts to this event and this idea.
To compile the playlist, we collaborated to look for songs that either directly reference the words and conversations of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, or songs that are themselves conversations with Jesus: prayers to Jesus, engagement with his words, responses to his atoning work, and testimonies about his love, power, and presence in our lives.
We also selected songs that represent the vast and beautiful diversity of genres and musical traditions that “converse” with Jesus—from folk to hip-hop, Jon Foreman to Johnny Cash, Bethany Dillon to Bob Dylan, New Zealand (CASS) to Britain (Rivers & Robots), and beyond. Jesus speaks into every culture and context in our world, and these cultures and contexts speak back. We wanted to celebrate that.
Jesus speaks into every culture and context in our world, and these cultures and contexts speak back.
The playlist is ordered in 16 “movements” that follow the life of Jesus from birth to death, resurrection, ascension, and return, with “selah” sequences of worship and response interspersed throughout. Their order is listed below.
This collection of songs doesn’t only serve as a musical accompaniment to TGC19, however. We hope it will also be a devotional aid to you in this season of anticipation—songs to help you reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior as we move toward Easter.TGC19 Playlist Songs
1. Call to Worship
- “All Hail the Power,” South of Royal
- “Supreme,” Shai Linne feat. Beautiful Eulogy
- “Fairest Lord Jesus,” Sara Groves
2. Birth and Temptation
- “Love’s Coming Down,” Melanie Penn
- “Greatest Gift,” Elizabeth Grace
- “Behold the Christ,” Sojourn Music
- “At Last, the King,” The Gray Havens
- “Lent 1: Refuse the Bait,” Liturgical Folk, feat. Liz Vice
- “High and Lowly,” Bethany Dillon Barnard
3. Sermon on the Mount
- “Heaven Has Come,” Young Oceans
- “Blest are the Pure in Heart,” Josh Bales
- “Unwavering,” Bethany Dillon Barnard
- “The Lord’s Prayer,” Sandra McCracken
- “The Wise and Foolish Builder,” Rain for Roots
- “Always Faithful,” Allie Paige
- “Your Kingdom Here,” Zambroa
4. Life of Christ, Interactions, Miracles
- “Wood and Nails,” The Porter’s Gate, feat. Audrey Assad
- “Only the Sick Need a Physician,” Caroline Cobb
- “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” Sam Cooke
- “Lowly,” CeCe Winans
- “Lord, I Believe,” Bifrost Arts, feat. Liz Janes
- “We Cry Mercy,” Greg LaFollette, feat. Sara Groves
- “Walking on Waves,” Brightline
- “Holding Me Still,” Elle Limebear
- “Behold,” Taylor Leonhardt
- “Give Me Jesus,” Shane & Shane
5. Jesus, the Shepherd
- “Blessed Jesus,” Page CXVI
- “Shepherd of My Soul,” Rivers & Robots
- “The House of God, Forever,” Jon Foreman
- “Give Yourself to Jesus,” Aretha Franklin
- “With Great Gentleness,” Sandra McCracken
6. Jesus’s Invitation (Matthew 11:28)
- “Come to Me,” The Village Church, feat. Lauren Chandler
- “All Who Are Weary,” Sherri Youngward
- “Rest in You,” All Sons & Daughters
7. Jesus, the Living Water and Light of the World
- “Drink from Me,” Urban Doxology
- “Jesus Gave Me Water,” Sam Cooke
- “Illuminate,” CASS
- “Deliverance,” Strahan
- “Testify,” Jervis Campbell
8. Jesus, the Resurrection
- “Lazarus,” Zambroa
- “Lazarus,” Trip Lee, Thi’sl
- “You Came (Lazarus),” Amanda Cook
9. The Prodigal
- “The Two Lost Sons,” Caroline Cobb
- “Go Get the Lost One,” Rain for Roots
- “Prodigal,” Tina Boonstra
- “Again and Again,” Lion of Judah
- “Messiah,” Beautiful Eulogy
- “Let This Heart Not Wander,” Young Oceans
- “Loving Kind,” Antoine Bradford
- “Only You,” Young Oceans feat. Evan Wickham
- “Just As I Am (You Can Have All of Me),” Aaron Strumpel
10. Walking with Jesus
- “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” The Sing Team
- “Be My Treasure,” Emerald Hymns
- “Yes and Amen,” The Recording Collective feat. Onaje Jefferson
- “I Talk to Jesus Every Day,” Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
- “In the Garden,” London Community Gospel Choir
- “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” Alison Krauss and the Cox Family
- “I Have Decided,” Wilder Adkins
- “There’s a Light,” Liz Vice
- “Just a Closer Walk,” Bifrost Arts feat. Damien Jurado and Rosie Thomas
11. Passion Week
- “Passion Song,” Sean Carter
- “Up on a Mountain,” The Welcome Wagon
- “In My Father’s Kingdom,” Fernando Ortega
- “Jerusalem,” CityAlight
12. The Crucifixion
- “Remember Me,” Andrew Peterson
- “My God, My God (Psalm 22),” Brian Moss
- “At the Cross Her Vigil Keeping,” Josh Bales
- “Wine Mixed with Myrrh,” Quina Aragon
- “With Every Power Wide Awake,” John van Deusen
- “Were You There,” Jon Bryant
- “Well Done, Good and Faithful,” Andrew Peterson
- “Jesus, Your Blood,” Rivers & Robots
- “Nothing But the Blood,” Shai Linne feat. Eric Mccallister
- “Hymn,” Jackie Hill Perry, feat. Ambassador, Shai Linne, Da’ T.R.U.T.H.
- “Oh Praise the Name (Anástasis),” Watoto
- “Mercy’s War,” Jon Foreman
- “The Power of the Cross,” Keith and Kristyn Getty
- “All I Have Is Christ,” Sovereign Grace Music
- “I Am Jonah,” Lion of Judah
- “Amazing Grace,” Citizens
- “Behold the Lamb of God,” Stephen Miller
- “He Came to Die (3:21-31),” Psallos
- “Only Jesus,” Sojourn Music
- “Thy Works, Not Mine, O Christ,” The Corner Room
- “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” Matt Boswell
- “Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me,” City Alight
- “The Greatest Gift,” Sufjan Stevens
- “My Jesus I Love Thee” by Amy Grant
13. The Resurrection
- “His Heart Beats,” Andrew Peterson
- “Living Hope,” Phil Wickham
- “He Is Risen,” Caroline Cobb
- “Risen Indeed,” Andrew Peterson
- “Because Jesus Christ is Alive,” The Sing Team
- “What a Beautiful Name,” Shane & Shane feat. Bethany Dillon Barnard
- “Cadeias Quebrar (Break Every Chain),” Soraya Moraes
- “Promises,” Antoine Bradford
- “Prayer After Communion,” Greg LaFollette
14. Ascension and Reign
- “Our Hearts Still Burn,” The Gospel Coalition
- “Before the Throne,” Patriot Sail
- “Unto You (Heb. 12),” Zambroa
- “Doxology,” Sandra McCracken
- “The Five Solas,” Psallos
- “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” Page CXVI
- “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” Lauren Daigle
- “His Banner Over Me,” Christy Nockels
15. Jesus Returns
- “The Lord is Coming,” Scott Mulhavill
- “Revelator,” Josh Garrels
- “Wake Up,” Caroline Cobb
- “Burn for You,” Rivers & Robots
- “Vineyard,” Strahan
- “There Is a Day,” EUFAULA
- “When He Returns,” Bob Dylan
- “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” Wayfarer
- “Christ Be All Around Me,” All Sons & Daughters
- “Jesus, There’s No One Like You,” Sovereign Grace Music
- “Lion and the Lamb,” Shane & Shane
- “Rock of Ages,” Chris Rice
- “My All in Thee,” Young Oceans and Ellie Holcomb
- “I’ll Never Be the Same,” South of Royal
- “I Believe in You,” Bob Dylan
The burden of pastoral ministry was eating away at the edges of my joy. I felt more fatigued by the demands of leadership than ever before. I needed to fight for joy in ministry more than ever before. Here I was researching the life of Jonathan Edwards and his theology of joy—all while embroiled in a battle to guard my own joy from what felt like a slow fade.
I saw once again how the command to be joyful isn’t just a general call but also a vocational call for those in pastoral ministry. I’m supposed to shepherd the flock with joy, or I won’t benefit them (Heb. 13:17). In fact, if I don’t have joy, my ministry will be unbiblical—and unsustainable—because the “joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
I won’t last in this marathon of ministry without the strength that comes from joy in Jesus.The Quote
As I was doing some study on how Jonathan Edwards’s theology of joy enabled him to minister joyfully, even in trials, I encountered a quote that changed my life. Let us go to perhaps the lowest moment of Edwards’s pastoral life: when his church fired him as a pastor. David Hall was a member of the council that met to determine Edwards’s fate in the communion controversy. This was Hall’s testimony:
[Edwards] received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission. (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 327)
When I read that phrase, “whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies,” I literally had to sit down and turn my palms facing up into a posture of asking to receive from God. Everything in me collectively said: “I want that, Lord. Please teach me that, Lord!” That quote became a quest.The Quest
Edwards’s theology of joy sustained him in ministry because he put joy at the center of his ministry. It’s the thread that’s woven through all of his theology.
The first two essential elements of his theology of joy are the most far-reaching, but they were also the most familiar to me because of John Piper’s influence. Edwards stressed that God can’t be God without delighting in himself, and that redeemed sinners can’t glorify God without delighting in him. These twin truths are summarized well in Piper’s essay on the legacy of Edwards, “A God Entranced Vision of All Things: Why We Need Jonathan Edwards 300 Years Later” in his book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things. I will quote from Edwards and share Piper’s reflections on the effect of these truths.1. The Godness of God
Joy is part of the Godness of God. In other words, God would not be God without the infinite joy he has in his infinite perfections. God must take infinite delight in what is infinitely delightful. He must supremely value the supremely valuable. God wouldn’t be wise if he failed to delight in himself in this way. He wouldn’t be holy and righteous. He would be unrighteous and become a fallen, idolatrous fool who effectively exchanged the glory of God for created things (Rom. 1:22–23).
But Edwards went even further and deeper in his essay on the Trinity:
The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity [eternally] generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And . . . the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons. (A Treatise on Grace, 118)
I love what Piper says about this aspect of Edwards’s theology of joy:
You cannot elevate joy higher in the universe than this. Nothing greater can be said about joy than to say that one of the Persons of the Godhead subsists in the act of God’s delight in God—that ultimate and infinite joy is the Person of the Holy Spirit. (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 25)
Therefore, Edwards made joy a nonnegotiable aspect of the nature of God. Fully fleshing out this truth leads to further reflection on what is at the heart of glorifying God2. How We Glorify God
Piper claims that the following paragraph is personally “the most influential paragraph in all the writings of Edwards” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 25):
God is glorified within Himself these two ways: 1. By appearing . . . to Himself in His own perfect idea [of Himself], or in His Son, who is the brightness of His glory. 2. By enjoying and delighting in Himself, by flowing forth in infinite . . . delight towards Himself, or in his Holy Spirit . . . . So God glorifies Himself toward the creatures also in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself . . . . God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it. (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 26)
The effect of this paragraph was life-changing in that joy went from peripheral to central in Piper’s thought:
Joy always seemed to me peripheral until I read Jonathan Edwards. He simply transformed my universe by putting joy at the center of what it means for God to be God and what it means for us to be God-glorifying (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 24).3. The Web of Edwards’s Theology of Joy
These two ideas affected me greatly, but they were only the beginning. In reading more Edwards, I often stared in utter astonishment at how intricate, interconnected, and interrelated this theology of joy really was. Virtually every doctrine Edwards touched took on the bright burning glow of joy in God.
Edwards couldn’t conceive of a doctrine of salvation apart from joy. A joyless salvation is a contradiction in terms. He stressed that joy in Christ by the power of the Spirit marks every part of salvation from conversion to sanctification and glorification.
Edwards could scarcely expound on the doctrine of revelation without exulting in the feast of seeing God in his Word and in his world. Edwards insisted that meditating on the excellencies of God’s self-revelation has an expansive effect on our souls. We shouldn’t set any bounds on our spiritual appetites. As we see the divine beauty and taste the divine sweetness, our affections should rise in accord with the infinite value of these things.
Edwards couldn’t conceive of a philosophy of preaching and pastoral ministry that could somehow be separated from the joyful affections of his hearers. Listen to how he thought about his pastoral duty in ministry:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 4:387)
This helped me hone my own preparation to preach. Our goal in sermon preparation must be to raise our own affections as high as possible with affections that fit with the nature of the truth we proclaim—or we hypocritically have an aim for our hearers that we don’t have for ourselves.
Edwards couldn’t dream of a doctrine of heaven apart from joy. Indeed, heaven is the invitation to “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). Heaven is a world of joy—not just a world where you enter and have joy for God, but where you enter into the very joy of God.
But here is the question I kept asking: Are these threads strong enough when they are woven together in these ways? Or does this joy come apart at the seams when one feels tattered by trials?Joy Even in the Darkest Days
Edwards had a lot to say about how to process trials. One of the most moving to me was a letter Edwards wrote to the Rev. Benjamin Coleman. Coleman was a pastor in Boston who had just suffered the loss of his daughter, the protracted sickness of his wife that resulted in her being incapacitated, and the recent death of his associate pastor. Do not read these facts with a lifeless imagination. I tried to comprehend what I would do if my sweet daughter died, my beautiful wife became completely unresponsive, or my beloved associate pastor suddenly passed away. How would I respond? What would become of my joy? Here is what Edwards would say to us:
When you are thus deprived of the company of your temporal friends, you may have sweet communion with the Lord Jesus Christ more abundantly, and that as God has gradually been darkening the world to you, putting out one of its lights after another, so he would cause the light of his eternal glory more and more to dawn within you. (Edwards on the Christian Life, 118)
Something clicked at that point when I connected Edwards’s theology of suffering to another quote I’d read many times before:
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17:437–438)
Why can our joy be truly untouchable and out of the reach of trials? We can lose the streams of joy, but never the source. The scattered beams of joy may stop shining, but never the sun of joy itself. When the scattered beams are gone we will grieve, but not like those who have lost the sun. When the lovely streams dry up, we will grieve, but not like those who have lost the ocean. Joy is untouchable because its source is inseparable. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
Before The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson coined the term for a previously unnamed religion last month, we’d all seen signs of it—the overemphasis on “calling” and “passion,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s tweet that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” the Gen Z employees whose biggest fear about starting work is not finding a job that matches their personality.
Thompson called it workism, or the belief that work is “not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” It is “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.”
Under this mindset, work demands our utmost for its highest. We might imagine the preachers of the gospel of workism proclaiming, “It’s not about rules, it’s about a relationship.”
Under this mindset, work demands our utmost for its highest.
On the one hand, this is not a new phenomenon. Work has been a source of idolatry ever since Genesis 11, when humanity sought to build a tower to the heavens to make a name for themselves.
But in other ways, the situation seems to have changed. Work has become more than a job that provides material needs or a career that offers stability and meaning. For many, it now functions in place of spirituality.Immanent Frame of the College-Educated
Thompson notes that workism is not generally the religion of the working poor. Nor does it spring hope eternal for the middle class. Rather, its primary worshipers are among the college-educated elite.
By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. . . . The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.
What has caused this situation? Thompson rightly sees a spiritual cause, though we may disagree on the details. Perhaps, as he notes, people fill their craving for belonging through work, in the way another generation would have found belonging through church.
The immanent frame turns windows into mirrors.
Or perhaps, as philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested, the emergence of the immanent frame is to blame. When you have a closed system, with no God who transcends all reality, you have to seek transcendence within the system. Some will find transcendence in love, or music, or gazing at the stars. Others will find it through work.
But the problem is that the immanent frame turns windows into mirrors. Work, love, music, and gazing at the stars are all magnificent windows, designed for us to look through to see the Creator of all good things. But when we eliminate the possibility of a transcendent being, the things themselves become opaque. They don’t lift our gaze to God; instead, they merely reflect back our own likeness.Wrong Solution
Troublesome as it is, Thompson’s central thesis is sound. We are worshiping creatures. And for many, work is the object of devotion, community, hope, and transcendence.
This, of course, is disastrous. As Thompson observes, when a culture “funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs, (it) is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”
Work, created by God as a good thing, cannot bear the load of deity. “Our desks were never meant to be our altars,” Thompson says.
His suggested solution is to make work less central through public policies like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance. He also suggests we remember one of the goals of working—it purchases us free time, which is vital for our happiness and health.
If only the solution were as simple as a few twists of the public policy knob and a public service announcement! Thompson has made the case that the problem is spiritual. But he fails to suggest that a spiritual problem requires a spiritual answer.Right Solution
This is where we can derive some help from C. S. Lewis. He saw how we tend to turn things such as dogs, alcohol, the opposite sex, and work into ultimate things—how we look to them for hope and community and transcendence. Like Thompson, Lewis realizes this is a spiritual problem. Yet unlike Thompson, he proposes a spiritual solution.
In an essay titled “First and Second Things,” Lewis explains:
The woman who makes a dog the center of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.
The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.
It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . .
You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
And therein lies the great challenge. If we want to knock work off the altar, we must replace it with something else. We only get the joy of meaningful work if we don’t worship it. We need an altar with something—or someone—more worthy.
According to Jesus, to love God is our first priority, followed by a second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. And he insisted this won’t be possible unless we surrender our lives to him. He described this surrender in different ways: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:30). “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
If we are connected to Christ’s life—through no merit or work of our own—then we will experience our life as it was intended to be. His life brings abundant life to all types of things—including everyday work.
When work becomes a window for the worship of God and an avenue to love our neighbor, it reclaims its proper, dignified place. But until first things are put first, work will remain on the altar, and the religion of workism will remain an elite—and exhausting—alternative to true faith.
“Rules don’t establish a relationship; rather, they assume a relationship already exists. Table fellowship precedes table manners.” — Antony Dandato
Text: Galatians 3:23–29
Preached: July 15, 2018
Location: Kingdom People Church, Harare, Zimbabwe
Evangelical Christians are blessed to live amid a resurgence of biblical preaching. For that we should be grateful. Preaching Scripture is the old path of God’s great servants before us. Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), and John Calvin (1509–1564), for example, saw the ministry of the Word as the great engine by which the Spirit works regeneration, reformation, and revival.
Even in a good thing, however, we can become imbalanced, and just as an imbalanced diet can stunt physical growth and lead to illness, so imbalanced preaching hinders spiritual life.
Here, then, are four lessons we can learn from the reformers. You might think of them as four vitamins for healthy preaching.Vitamin E—Expositions
First, preach expositions of the Word.
Zwingli preached through Matthew, Acts, 1 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, John, the rest of Paul’s epistles, Psalms, the Pentateuch, and then various historical books and prophets. Bullinger preached 100 sermons on Revelation, 190 on Isaiah, and 170 on Jeremiah. Calvin also devoted himself to preaching verse-by-verse through books of the Bible.
When was the last time you preached through a book or major section of the Bible? You don’t need to preach as many sermons on a book as these preachers did (they preached multiple times each week), but you should be walking your church through some portion of God’s Word on a regular basis.
Vitamin E deficiency causes neurological problems resulting in muscular weakness. Lack of expository preaching weakens the body of Christ so that its members grow inactive.Vitamin D—Doctrines
Second, preach doctrines.
This preaching shouldn’t displace regular preaching through books of the Bible. However, some of Bullinger’s most influential sermons were those published in his Decades, five sets of 10 sermons (hence the name). Each of these sermons, while opening the Scriptures, focused on a doctrine of the Christian faith.
For example, in the fourth decade Bullinger preached sermons on the gospel, repentance, the Trinity, creation and providence, the worship of God alone, the incarnation, Christ’s kingly and priestly offices, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the soul of man. It’s noteworthy that the Decades were even more popular in English Protestant and Puritan circles than Calvin’s Institutes.
Vitamin D is important for strong bones. Regular biblical preaching on the essential doctrines of Christianity strengthens the bones of faith so that we can stand against heresy. To some extent, we can accomplish this goal while preaching through books, but some doctrines will be neglected if we don’t supplement continuous preaching through the Bible with biblical preaching on the core beliefs of the faith.Vitamin C—Christ
Third, preach Christ.
This was Zwingli’s constant theme even as he preached through various books of the Old and New Testaments. We can see how Christ-centered Zwingli was in the opening statements of his Sixty-Seven Articles:
- Everyone who says that the gospel is nothing without the sanction of the Church, errs and blasphemes God.
- The summary of the gospel is that our Lord Christ, true Son of God, has made known to us the will of his heavenly Father and has redeemed us from death and reconciled us with God by his guiltlessness.
- Therefore, Christ is the only way to salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.
- Whoever seeks or points to another door, errs. Indeed, he is a murderer of the soul and a thief.
- Therefore, all who regard other teachings equal to or higher than the gospel, err. They do not know what gospel is.
- For Christ Jesus is the guide and captain, promised by God and given to the entire human race.
- That he is an everlasting salvation and head of all believers who are his body, which is dead and incapable of doing anything, apart from him. (3)
Such convictions in the heart spark preaching that, through the power of the Spirit, magnetically draws to Christ. As historian Hughes Oliphant Old observed, “Zwingli above all preached Christ and the saving power of his death and resurrection.” We must do the same.
A lack of vitamin C leads to scurvy and ultimately death. A lack of preaching Christ can lead well-informed Bible students into eternal death. As we preach expositions of God’s Word, let us make sure our listeners don’t get so inundated with details about the text that they lose sight of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life.Vitamin A—Application
Finally, preach application.
Open Calvin’s Sermons on Epistle to the Ephesians, and you’ll be impressed at how much time the Genevan reformer devoted to practical application—“application was the dominant element,” not theology or textual commentary (Gerstner). Consider a sampling of Calvin’s statements from a sermon on Ephesians 1:4–6:
We perceive then that we have so much more reason to be humbled, seeing that we were in the way of perdition till he had drawn us out of it. . . .
But yet we must always bear in mind that God’s electing of us was in order to call us to holiness of life. . . .
Moreover, let us also observe that though God has reformed us and set us in the good way and made us to feel that he has worked in us already to subdue us to his Word and to make us serve him obediently in all things, yet it does not therefore follow that we are fully reformed on the first day, no, nor yet in our whole lifetime. . . .
And, therefore, when we feel any vices in us, let us fight bravely against them, and let us not be downhearted as though we were not God’s children. . . .
Although, then, we find many miseries in ourselves to thrust us out of the way, yet let us go on, still assuring ourselves that as long as we live here in this lower world we have our journey to pursue. (36–38)
In the same way, let us preach God’s Word for God’s glory in the holiness of God’s people. Vitamin A is crucial for good vision. And without application, people begin to grow blind to their sins and the spiritual realities of true godliness.Cumulative Effect
Like a parent preparing daily meals for the family, preachers understand that they can’t “do it all” in any one sermon. Some will be more expository; others will be more topical and doctrinal. Some messages will be full of practical directions; others will simply call people to rest in Jesus Christ.
The example of the reformers calls pastors to preach messages that are biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical, so that Christ’s body grows up into communion with its living Head and displays his likeness in everyday life.
Is there a vitamin deficiency in your preaching? How will you supplement it?
Sunday night, 6:48 p.m. Starbucks.
Open laptop. Get out copy of Cal Newport’s new book on digital minimalism to write review. Launch Microsoft Word. Stare at blank document for 10 seconds. Momentary blackout.
Regain consciousness. Somehow the screen has transformed into Twitter. Twitter feed has been scrolled several hours down. Wait a second, how did I get here? Quickly close Twitter. Reopen blank Word document. Commence writing.
Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, is a clearly argued, well-researched, and inescapably actionable case against our contemporary tech culture. Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, urges his readers to repent of automatic appropriation of new tech, and instead take control of their intellectual, emotional, and social lives by relegating digital technology back to a tool, rather than a way of life.
A red circle appears at the bottom of my laptop, a crimson dot with a centered, perfect white digit: 1. One new email! Quickly open mail. Read the first line: “How can we make your life better?” It’s an ad from the software company whose product I installed earlier today. Sigh. Resume writing.Unhealthy Digital Habits
Newport’s case against digital maximalism is based on a familiar but important observation—many tech users feel anxious, distracted, and frustrated, but seem unable to do much about it. As he writes:
The source of our unease . . . becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them. Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience. (8)
If you see yourself in this paragraph, take a number and get in line behind me. Many of us know painfully well what it’s like to feel that our digital habits don’t even help or entertain us; they just exist, immovable, swallowing up time and attention as quickly and mysteriously as vanishing Christmas money . . .
Chime! My laptop whistles, and then my phone dings as if in echo. A text from my wife. Lol at a pic of my son in the bath. I reply. She replies. How funny! Now where was I?Invitation to Digital Minimalism
Newport distills the philosophy of digital minimalism into three principles:
- Clutter is costly.
- Optimization is important.
- Intentionality is satisfying.
Clutter is Newport’s term for technology (whether an app or phone or streaming service) that we adopt for the sake of minor or even hypothetical conveniences, rather than for the sake of better living out our most important values.
Optimization and intentionality are how Newport describes having a value-driven conscientiousness to how we use technology. Rather than using Twitter and Netflix the way Silicon Valley tech companies hope we use them, Newport urges us to impose our values onto our tech, and to do so as part of a quest for the good (offline) life.
Realize suddenly I haven’t updated my progress on the book on Goodreads. I make a mental note to do that tonight. Haven’t updated in a while and people are probably assuming I haven’t read anything lately.
Newport’s philosophy of digital minimalism is an invitation to both radical action and also incremental transformation. He cites testimonials from people whose 30-day digital declutter (cutting “all optional technology” out of life, especially mobile tech) totally recalibrated their mental and emotional relationship with tech. The declutter is important because, as Newport explains, automatically defaulting to checking social media or streaming YouTube is a symptom of having lost track of the joys of offline life. “For this process to succeed,” he writes, “you must also spend this period trying to rediscover what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the world of the always-on, shiny digital. . . . For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life” (71).
Digital minimalism’s potential to bring an ‘expulsive power’ to our daily habits is a seriously hopeful antidote to the anxiety and thinness of life that’s mediated by technology.
That last point is important, because the digital minimalist lifestyle isn’t one primarily of abstaining—reintroducing technology is actually the final step in the digital declutter—but of adding offline experiences that our tech addictions tend to smother, like meaningful time alone (ch. 4), physical interpersonal relationships (ch. 5), and creative leisure (ch. 6) . . .
Phew, all this writing. Breathe for five seconds. Momentary blackout.
Regain consciousness. How did these Google search results for “appendectomy” get here? Wait, didn’t the lady sitting across from me say something about it to her group? These WebMd symptoms sound familiar. Goodness, do I have a burst appendix? These commenters are pointing out . . .
It’s 7:30. Ugh. Okay, writing again.Learning to Live
Digital Minimalism argues for lives that unfold in this moment, at this place, with these people. While digital technology is excellent at fostering low-grade “connection,” embodied relationships meet our human needs. Contrary to what tech companies say, balancing these two experiences is almost impossible, because time is a finite resource and must be applied either to “liking” a photo or swinging by for a visit, either refreshing the page or meditating silently. Digital minimalism has a place for the App Store, but it’s a place of strategic and intentional use, rather than of default recreation or supposed necessity.
Digital Minimalism argues for lives that unfold in this moment, at this place, with these people.
Some of Newport’s recommended practices land a bit heavy-handed. For example, his model of “conversation-centric communication” forbids texting anything beyond a brief update or question. The digital minimalist will “no longer participate in open-ended, ongoing text-based conversations throughout [the] day. The socializing that counts is real conversation, and text is no longer a sufficient alternative” (148). Newport unfortunately doesn’t explore how texting specific people might be a meaningfully different experience than scrolling through Instagram.
On the other hand, the practices of digital minimalism do push us toward people and things we’re probably ignoring right in front of us. “If you adopt this philosophy,” Newport warns, “you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship. . . . This sense of contraction, however, is illusory” (149). In other words, by removing the relational and recreational phantoms of digital life—hobbies we stick with only long enough to photograph, “friends” we barely know—our time and energies are diverted to people and activities that can offer genuine satisfaction.
Mindessly binging on a show bottoms out in frustration; fixing something around the house, or learning a new skill, reconnects us with our bodies. Newport is suggesting nothing other than a radical rejection of empty consumption—a call that any Christian should resonate with deeply. Digital minimalism’s potential to bring an “expulsive power” to our daily habits is a seriously hopeful antidote to the anxiety and thinness of life that’s mediated by technology.
There’s a hipstery rock song playing six feet above my head. Catchy! I should look it up. Front page of YouTube has a recommended clip for me from Prime Minister’s Questions. How did I miss this one?
Now 8:10 p.m. Where has the time gone? Back to writing.Theology and Technology
Newport’s lack of theological reflection means his appeal to “values” is less a moral teleology and more of an expressive individualism-friendly nostalgia for the pre-Facebook era. Some Christians may be tempted to take this fact and dismiss Digital Minimalism as a well-meaning but mostly irrelevant secular jeremiad. But this would be a mistake.
How we use our technology is a theological question, because Jesus Christ claims lordship over all areas of life.
How we use our technology is a theological question, because Jesus Christ claims lordship over all areas of life and commands both supreme loyalty to himself and also a life spent in love for others. To the extent that our technological habits dislocate and distract us, they make us less human, and thus less able—and maybe even less willing—to live as who we are: special image-bearers of the Creator. Believers should follow Newport’s counsel and reject a trade-off between convenience and loss of joy, or between momentary entertainment and the loss of being prayerfully present in the quiet and mundane stretches of life.
Oh, I should tweet that. I honestly can’t believe he retweeted that ridiculous opinion. Is he even a real Christian? I should blog about it.
Digital Minimalism isn’t distinctly Christian, but it’s an insightful and well-argued strategy for flourishing in a cultural moment saturated with minutiae and starved of meaning. This is an extremely helpful book and framework for anyone who senses
Bing. New email!
their own need for peace, rest, and spiritual discipline
Chime. Better check this text.
in a distracted, dislocated, and dissatisfied time.
“Save.” Man, that was productive. Wonder what’s on Netflix?
“Oh Jesus! Jesus!”
My spirit sprung to prayer with catlike reflexes as I watched my 2-year-old daughter tumble down the 15-step staircase. I stood helpless as her little body hurled toward the hardwood floor.
She stood up without a scratch . . . but my soul didn’t.
In that moment, I was never more aware of the wound that had been festering for months.
The wound was doubt.Experiencing Doubt
I had been experiencing doubt about God’s existence and the Christianity I had believed to be true my whole life. But until that moment, I didn’t realize how deeply that doubt had wrapped itself around my mind. To the casual observer, my daughter fell, I prayed, and she was okay. But for the first time in my life, I wasn’t so sure it was divine intervention. For the first time I felt foolish . . . for praying.
I felt silly for crying out to God in that desperate moment. It was terrifying to realize the faith that had once been my identity now seemed more like a child’s fairy tale than the explanation of reality.
For me, doubt was an entirely new concept. Growing up, I watched God’s power at work in people’s lives, in my life. I knew God was real. I knew Jesus died for my sins, was resurrected, and was coming again. I knew the Bible was his Word, and I couldn’t be convinced otherwise. I was active in youth group, went on mission trips, and emerged as a trusted leader among my peers. I was the kid who no one would have dreamed would doubt her faith. I was the kid no one worried about, the one who would be just fine.
But now, in my early 30s, I wasn’t fine. I had just spent four months enduring the skepticism and intellectual attack of an agnostic “pastor” who invited me to be a part of a study group at church. A pastor who won my respect and trust had dismantled my faith, one belief at a time.Doubt Isn’t the Opposite of Faith
By God’s grace and unfathomable mercy to me, my faith was rebuilt. But during my time of doubt, I suffered from an all-too-common misunderstanding about what biblical faith is. I thought doubt and faith were opposites—that if I questioned what I believed, I’d somehow be a failure in God’s eyes. But this definition of faith has more in common with how atheists understand faith than how the Bible defines it. Atheist Richard Dawkins defines religious faith as “blind.” In a debate with John Lennox, he said, “We only need to use the word ‘faith’ when there isn’t any evidence at all.”
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the opposite of faith.
But in the Bible, “faith” means trust, not blind belief. We all put our trust in various things every single day. Every time we drive our car across a bridge, we trust it will hold up like it has many times before. We trust, not because we have 100 percent proof, but because we have good evidence to believe the bridge won’t collapse.
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the opposite of faith.
As Tim Keller writes:
A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.
According to Keller, the strongest form of faith is one that has wrestled through doubt. The Bible is full of great examples. Here are three doubters Jesus responded to with mercy.1. The Desperate Father
Mark 9 tells the story of a man desperately trying to find healing for his son who was demon-possessed. This particular demon caused the boy to become mute and would often seize him, throwing him into fire or water to kill him. The man asked Jesus to have pity on him and heal his son. Jesus responded, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Without hesitation, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24).
Help my unbelief.
It’s a simple, heartfelt prayer that Jesus readily answered by healing his son. He commanded the demon to come out and restored the boy to health and wholeness.
The man asked for help with his doubt, and Jesus came to his aid.
If you’re struggling with doubt, I encourage you to doubt toward God.2. John the Baptist
If there’s any biblical figure who should have no reason to doubt, it’s John the Baptist. This is the man who was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born. This is the the man who came out of the wilderness proclaiming the coming Messiah. This is the man who baptized the Son of God, witnessed the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and heard the audible voice of God. Yet at the end of his life, while rotting in Herod’s prison cell, he doubted. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
This is the question he sent his disciples to ask Jesus—and Jesus didn’t scold him for asking. He didn’t reply, “John, you shouldn’t doubt!” or “We don’t ask those types of questions here!” No. Jesus performed miracles in front of John’s disciples and sent them back to testify, even referencing a prophecy about himself that John would understand.
John asked for reassurance, and Jesus was happy to oblige.3. Thomas
Thomas is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas,” but I don’t think that’s accurate. Thomas was more of a skeptic than a doubter—which is quite reasonable considering the situation. The resurrected Jesus had appeared to the other disciples. When they told Thomas about it, he replied, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).
Like today, resurrections weren’t everyday occurrences in the ancient world. If they were, they wouldn’t be considered miracles. It was perfectly rational and intelligent for Thomas to ask for evidence to back up the claim of his fellow disciples. When Jesus finally appeared to Thomas, he didn’t shame him for his skepticism. Instead, Jesus said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). It was only after offering evidence that Jesus instructed Thomas to believe.
Thomas asked for evidence, and Jesus delivered it.Doubt toward God
In his book Doubting Toward Faith, Bobby Conway writes that doubt is directional. We can doubt toward God, or we can doubt away from him. If you’re struggling with doubt, I encourage you to doubt toward God. If you can’t think of what to pray, pray like the great men of faith who came before you:
- Ask for help
- Ask for reassurance
- Ask for evidence
God is waiting to help and reassure you. The evidence for his existence and the truth of Christianity is plentiful. We don’t need to be afraid of doubt—the gospel can stand up to skepticism and questioning.
Jesus could handle the doubts and questions of the desperate father, John, and Thomas. He can handle yours too.
Editors’ note: We received the following question from a reader:
Conservative Christians oppose gay marriage. Many conservative Christians in the past century also opposed interracial marriage. Is it possible that those opposing gay marriage are interpreting Scripture through the lens of their own prejudice and are wrong on this just as their grandparents were wrong on interracial marriage?
Nearly four years after the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry, many Christians still oppose homosexual unions. Why?
One view, particularly popular with the younger generation and social progressives, is that the opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in prejudice. They believe conservative Christians remain on the “wrong side of history” due simply to our prejudice—and our biased interpretation of Scripture.
The framing of this question posed by our reader shows the inductive reasoning that leads them to this conclusion. In using inductive reasoning, a person makes broad generalizations from specific observations. To make an inductive argument we present a case that, if the premises were to be true, then it would be unlikely that the conclusion is false. The reasoning behind the question goes something like this:
At time A (pre-Loving), conservative Christians opposed issue X (interracial marriage) because of the way they interpret Scripture.
At time B (post-Obergefell), conservative Christians opposed issue Y (same-sex marriage) because of the way they interpret Scripture.
Conservative Christians were wrong to oppose issue X because of their prejudice.
Therefore, conservative Christians are also likely to be wrong about issue Y because of their prejudice.
Much of this argument’s appeal depends both on how you define “conservative Christians” and also how you feel about members of this group. But I believe the key element in this reasoning is not the term “conservative Christian” but rather the phrase “way they interpret Scripture.” When we focus on that aspect it becomes clear that those who use Scripture to support same-sex marriage have a lot in common with those who used the Bible to oppose interracial marriage.Way of the Faithful Interpreter
Most Christians—whether conservative or liberal—would agree that the proper goal of biblical interpretation is three-fold: (1) to discern God’s message, (2) to avoid or dispel erroneous perspectives and conclusions about what the Bible teaches, and (3) to be able to apply the Bible’s message to our lives. The outcome of this process should be neither conservative nor liberal, so let’s instead use faithful/unfaithful to describe the way we interpret Scripture.
We can say, as do many biblical interpreters, that a faithful interpretation of the Bible is one in which the meaning of the text is based on (1) what the words and grammatical structures of the text disclose about (2) the probable intention of the author/editor and (3) the probable understanding of the text by its intended readers. An unfaithful interpretation finds the meaning of the text outside of or in contradiction to these three elements.
A faithful interpretation is also based on exegesis, the examination of a particular text of Scripture in order to properly interpret it, while an unfaithful interpretation is often based on eisegesis, the process of interpreting in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text.Noah Found Race in the Eyes of the Lord?
To support the conclusion the Bible opposed interracial marriages, interpreters had to engage in an embarrassing amount of eisegesis. For instance, since the Bible has no concept of race, white supremacists had to shoehorn the idea of race into the text.
A primary example of this sort of textual eisegeis—one still used by modern-day racists—is the claim that the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) were the forefathers of three main “races” of mankind. After the publication in 1775 of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s “The Natural Varieties of Mankind,” these three races became identified as the Caucasoid race, the Mongoloid race, and the Ethiopian race (later termed Negroid race). Blumenbach’s categorization gave a scientific veneer to a claim that, while culturally popular, was wholly foreign to the Bible. Yet many Christians latched on to this absurd and ungodly interpretation, because it fit with the dominant cultural narrative that the races were unequal and distinct, and must be kept from interbreeding.
White supremacists did not begin by reading the Bible and then decide to oppose interracial marriage. Instead, they first opposed to interracial marriage for cultural reasons and only then found within Scripture a justification for their view. The fact that it was an interpretation that previous generations of Christians had never discovered before (or found plausible since) did not dissuade them. They knew what they needed to find, and when they looked in the Bible—surprise, surprise—a culturally compatible interpretation miraculously appeared.
In other words, the white supremacists did back then what many homosexuality-affirming Christians are doing today: using a bizarre eisegetical interpretation of Scripture to force the Bible to conform to what culture says we must now believe.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, most conservative Christians are simply interpreting Scripture faithfully. It’s not that we’re allowing our prejudice against homosexuality to change how we interpret Scripture, but rather that we are merely refusing to follow the culture’s lead in twisting Scripture to claim support for what God’s Word clearly opposes.
Calvinism fills our bookshelves. Many of us pastors know the importance of connecting the doctrines of grace to our preaching, counseling, and disciplining. But the reach of these doctrines must go beyond the confines of our studies.
Calvinism is meant for more than theological headiness; it’s meant for mission.
Perhaps you affirm that statement, even with enthusiasm. But have you considered how Calvinism—the real thing, not the caricatures or counterfeits—can empower and sustain church planting?Where It Connects
Gathering a core team is not easy. Moving to the other side of the globe with your family can make your palms sweat. The attendance numbers, the empty baptistry, and the low- or high-grade persecution can cause even the strongest among us to falter. How will we make it? Calvinism connects right here.
Calvinism is meant for more than theological headiness; it’s meant for mission.
God’s sovereignty in salvation maximizes our mission. When we know that God is the only unstoppable and unfailing force in the universe—and that we are on mission with him—then our hearts and eyes widen for the lost. Far from hamstringing our efforts and endurance, the doctrines of grace energize us and remind us why we plant churches: because God saves sinners. Or, as Jonah simply puts it, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).TULIP and Church Planting
TULIP, the popular acronym for Calvinism, does more than itemize the Reformed view of salvation. It theologizes church planters, sparking their sending and fortifying their missiology.
Total Depravity, the utter sinfulness of humanity, reminds us that no one can better themselves into salvation. Whether in cities, rural areas, or the suburbs, all need to hear and embrace the gospel. Dealing with the spiritually dead and depraved will be messy. Thankfully, our Savior excels in this area. And church planting scatters local churches in order to take this message all over the world.
Unconditional Election and Limited/Definite Atonement teach us that God is going to save people from every tribe, nation, and tongue because of the cross and the empty tomb (Rev. 5:9). The supply and demand for churches will not go away until the Son returns. Jesus has sheep in every part of this world. Our task? Sound the horn. Tell them about the good shepherd. Whether in the coffee shop, the counseling room, or a dirt-floor shelter in Thailand, we are to make much of Jesus. His sheep will hear his voice behind yours (John 10:27).
Irresistible Grace eases a burden off of our backs. God will make the spiritually dead alive in Christ. The success of our ministries isn’t on us—it doesn’t finally come down to our sermons, strategies, or slick services. God—and God alone—saves. While this perspective eases a burden, it also puts our foot to the pedal. We can humbly and confidently plant churches, proclaim the gospel, and make disciples who will make disciples, because God will do what he’s promised. Church plants are greenhouses of discipleship and life with Jesus. Plant. Water. Then trust God to give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–7).
We can humbly and confidently plant churches, proclaim the gospel, and make disciples who will make disciples, because God will do what he’s promised.
Perseverance of the Saints flies the banner that God ensures we will make it to the end. But this endurance doesn’t happen in isolation. The doctrine is plural: perseverance of the saints. Endurance happens through the ekklesia—the called-out assembly. Perseverance of the saints is perseverance with the saints, meaning the local church is a crucial part of our enduring to the end (Heb. 10:24–25).
There are many Calvinists who only want to sit around and debate the finer points of Reformed theology, or critique non-Calvinists in internet comment sections. But real Calvinism is too busy for nonsense. If our Calvinism doesn’t move us away from unnecessary debates into declaring God’s grace to the lost, then it’s undercooked at best, distasteful and dangerous at worst.
Real Calvinism is missional Calvinism. It’s always been this way. Old-school Calvinism—seen in saints like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon—understood the importance of spreading the news of the risen Lord Jesus.Calvin, Church-Planting Catalyst
Calvin didn’t lock the door to his study and hide behind a hill of books. He was a pastor whose heart pulsed as a church-planting catalyst. Calvin’s ministry extended beyond his writing, sermons, and commentaries. While pastoring in Geneva, Calvin trained pastors—equipping, resourcing, and sending them out to plant churches. As John Starke observes:
By 1555, Calvin and his Geneva supporters had planted five churches in France. Four years later, they had planted 100 churches in France. By 1562, Calvin’s Geneva, with the help of some of their sister cities, had planted more than 2,000 churches in France. Calvin was the leading church planter in Europe. He led the way in every part of the process: he trained, assessed, sent, counseled, corresponded with, and prayed for the missionaries and church planters he sent.
Real Calvinists don’t clog up church planting. They catalyze it.Spurgeon, Church-Planting Catalyst
We may think church-planting residences are something new and helpful that we invented. Wrong. Spurgeon was doing this a long time ago in his Pastors’ College in England. Spurgeon wasn’t just a powerful preacher; he ran a program that sent men to the nations to plant and revitalize churches.
Spurgeon scholar Tom Nettles says, “Spurgeon greatly encouraged his students to become church planters through evangelism in difficult places with the use of aggressive and creative means” (325). Spurgeon himself, in the magazine he started, said, “Our heart’s longing is to see the College become more and more a Mission to the outlying places, both at home and abroad, and it may be, in answer to prayer, that the Lord will make it so” (293). The Lord indeed made it so.
Nettles notes that men from Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College planted churches in England, Spain, North and South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica, Turks Island, Dominican Republic, Haiti, South America, India, Canada, and the United States. In the 1891–1892 report of the Pastors’ College, almost 900 men were trained in Spurgeon’s College. And counting from 1865, almost 30 years prior, nearly 100,000 people had been baptized by Spurgeon’s planters.Longtime Friends
Calvinism and church planting are longtime friends. Calvin, Spurgeon, and modern-day Acts 29—which has 740 churches in Australia, Burkina-Faso, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Mozambique, Pakistan, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, and more—all show that Calvinists take church planting seriously.
God’s high-wattage grace is too good, too glorious, and too bright to hoard for ourselves. We must let it shine beyond our bookshelves and into our mission.
Some Christians feel confident, equipped, and ready to share their faith. But if you’re not one of those people, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority.
In this conversation, Don Carson, Rebecca McLaughlin, and Matt Smethurst talk about the difference between feeling ready to evangelize and being ready. McLaughlin admits:
I’ve been trying in various ways to share my faith for almost 30 years now. And if being ready to share your faith means having a Christian life all together, I’m not ready. If it means not being fearful, I’m not ready. If it means having all the answers, I’m not ready. . . . On the other hand, anybody who knows Jesus and has the gospel is ready to share.
You don’t have to know all the answers to tough questions in order to share your faith. You simply need to be one who was lost and is found. And you might be surprised—the person you’re most afraid to speak might be the very person whose heart God has prepared to receive the gospel.
Mentioned in this Discussion
- Marks of the Messenger by Mack Stiles
- Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles
Available for Preorder
- Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin
In 1932, the University of Southern California started stenciling “Property of USC” on athletic T-shirts for the purpose of preventing theft. The strategy backfired, however, when the stenciled attire became more popular than the original unstenciled T-shirts. So USC turned this problem into a profit by producing and selling “Property of USC” shirts to students. Today, nearly every university and sports team in the United States stocks and sells some sort of “Property of” sportswear.
The phrases “kingdom of priests” and “holy priesthood” (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:5) are like “Property of” T-shirts that God places on everyone he has chosen and purchased as his own. When God referred to Israel as a “kingdom of priests,” he was declaring them to be “Property of God.” The apostle Peter applied this terminology to the church, identifying new covenant believers as a chosen community devoted to God’s purposes.
This devotion of the whole community frees leaders and members from at least two deadly delusions about their role in the church.Delusion 1: The People Are Property of the Leader
It’s a privilege to lead the people of God, but that privilege never transforms the people into the leader’s property. Godly leadership results in humble stewardship, not prideful ownership. Church leaders are not called to stand above a conglomeration of individuals as if the purpose of these people is to fulfill our vision. Rather, God calls shepherds to serve in the midst of a flock wholly devoted to his purposes.
And yet, the delusion that the people are our property can remain a temptation.
For a pastor to treat the people as his platform is an act of treasonous theft.
Some expressions of this delusion are obvious. There’s the dictatorial pastor who’s driven to rage when people don’t measure up to his expectations; the bullying elder who silences dissent by abusing the gift of church discipline; the unaccountable leader who demands control over the church’s finances. A leader may rack up expenses on the church’s credit card that don’t clearly contribute to church purposes. In each instance, the people and their resources are being treated as if they’re the leader’s property instead of God’s.
But this delusion also manifests itself in subtle ways—ways that may be hidden or even accepted among church leaders.
Sometimes the delusion is revealed through our complaining and impatience when the church doesn’t immediately applaud our best-laid plans. In other cases, it’s seen when a church becomes a pastor’s platform to promote his own personal brand—to gain book deals and multiplied popularity in the social media world. As Barnabas Piper pointed out:
With the internet being what it is, local church ministry is no longer local church ministry. Pride is an occupational hazard for all of us: if you have a byline, if your name is on a book, or you have a podcast, it comes with pride.
It’s treating a small congregation or an associate ministry role as a passing inconvenience until a more prominent position becomes available. It’s any action or attitude that treats the church as a tool to be manipulated for our benefit, instead of a holy communion where we share a sacred stewardship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the despairing results of this delusion well:
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community . . . enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. . . . He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
The church is not a platform to send a pastor’s visionary ideals into orbit around his own wishful dreams. Neither is the church meant to serve as the source of our social stature or emotional wellbeing. The church is the blood-bought property of God. For a pastor to treat the people as his platform is an act of treasonous theft, stealing for himself that which Christ purchased at the cost of his own blood.Delusion 2: The Leader Is Property of the People
“Let me tell you something, Dr. J.” The deacon leaned over the lunch table to make certain I didn’t miss a single word he had to say. “If your wife ever has to phone me about this again, I will personally take over your calendar so that you’re home when you need to be.”
More than a decade later, I realize this threat from a deacon who loved me probably saved my ministry.
Too many churches celebrate leaders who are overly busy and fail to delegate responsibilities.
I had served four years as this church’s associate pastor when the senior pastor left to lead a church plant. The congregation eventually asked me to take his place, and I accepted the call. But there was a problem: Even after calling an additional staff member, I wasn’t letting go of the roles I had as associate pastor. In addition to leading the staff and preparing multiple messages each week, I was still overseeing monthly training sessions for Sunday school teachers, attending every youth and children’s ministry committee meeting, playing guitar in the youth worship band, and helping with the logistics for three upcoming mission trips. My wife was spending far too many evenings at home alone with our first daughter.
She tried to talk to me about releasing some of my previous responsibilities, but I didn’t see the same problems. So Rayann phoned a faithful deacon named Mark and described what was happening in our household. And that’s how I ended up being interrogated over lunch at Applebee’s about why I was spending so many evenings enmeshed in church meetings instead of heading home.
That afternoon, I began delegating and reassigning a long list of responsibilities. But I found the release to be more of a struggle than I ever imagined. After an hour or so of wrestling with the list, I came to a painful recognition: I was living under the delusion that the church could not accomplish these tasks without my direct involvement. One result was that I was living as if I belonged to the people and programs of the church, instead of living first and foremost as an adopted child of God.
In some ways, the notion of living this way seemed noble and sacrificial. I recalled older pastors boasting about spending all their evenings at church and even admonishing younger pastors, “You take care of the church, and God will take care of your family.” But Scripture doesn’t support such a split in responsibilities. Our integrity as leaders in the church, Paul says, is grounded in our habits of leadership in our homes (1 Tim. 3:4–5). A pastor who neglects his family and acts as if he is the church’s property isn’t demonstrating sacrificial love for the church. He’s revealing his unwillingness to develop and deploy the people of God for the work of God (Eph. 4:12).
The pastor is the church’s servant, but the church is never the pastor’s master.
In many cases, leaders who live as if the church depends on them are forced to live behind a mask of strength, never revealing their weakness. They cannot afford to disappoint or disillusion anyone, since they are the essential property without which the church cannot function—or so they believe. The problem, of course, is that none of us can successfully isolate our interior life from our exterior life. Whenever we neglect the unseen aspects of ministry, we eventually become unable to engage in the visible practices of ministry in the power of Christ. Too many churches celebrate leaders who are overly busy and fail to delegate responsibilities. When congregations treat their leaders as indispensable property, members miss opportunities to use gifts the Spirit has given them.Locate Your Identity in Christ
So what’s the answer to this struggle?
The pastor must learn to see his central identity not as a property of God’s people or even as a leader of God’s people but, first and foremost, as a child of God and a follower of Christ. The pastor is the church’s servant, but the church is never the pastor’s master. Leaders and laity alike are not the property of each other; together, they are the devoted property of God and God alone.
I’ve been a father for nearly 17 years, and the longer I try to parent the less qualified I feel to give advice on raising children. To put it mildly, parenting is humbling. I’m also a pastor who is often in a position to counsel parents. I desperately need friends like Chap Bettis, author of The Disciple-Making Parent: A Comprehensive Guidebook for Raising Your Children to Love and Follow Jesus Christ (Diamond Hill, 2016).
There seems to be an endless number of books on parenting—some excellent, some awful, and many in between. The Disciple-Making Parent falls into the former category and is one of my favorites. Why? It’s loaded with practical wisdom for parenting, and focuses on two critical truths we often overlook when raising kids: (1) only God can make them Christians and (2) raising children in the fear and nurture of the Lord is most fundamentally about evangelism.
Bettis’s book deals with many thorny parenting issues such as the reality of prodigal sons and daughters, how to teach children about the world, dealing with social media and electronics, explaining hypocrisy, and much more. Bettis served as a pastor for 25 years in New England before founding The Apollo Project in 2012 to equip families for discipleship, apologetics, and worldview and to help churches become more family-friendly.Why did you write The Disciple-Making Parent?
I had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home and heard the gospel in church. I believe I genuinely trusted Christ around the age of 8. But I also had a bumpy transition to an adult faith. The hypocrisy I saw in the church, combined with my own intellectual questions, almost torpedoed my faith. Thankfully, the Christians at my secular college and various books on apologetics strengthened my faith.
As a pastor, when Sharon and I were having our own children, we resolved to be intentional in passing down the gospel to our children. We had a number of good resources to help us with parenting issues, but none spoke directly and biblically to helping us disciple our children. If the Scriptures are sufficient (and they are), then surely they speak to this issue. In addition, God brought a number of likeminded parents into our new church plant. As we were all raising our children, we were searching the Scriptures for wisdom in this area.
As I started putting some of these ideas down on paper, they seemed to help other parents. The fact that we raised our children in the harsh spiritual climate of New England seems to resonate with parents today, as our country grows increasingly hostile to Christianity.
When I realized I might be able to write, I prayed it might be challenging but not guilt-inducing, saturated in timeless Scripture without being distinctly American, and aware of how sin can affect the home in significant ways. I am thankful for the feedback I’ve received, even from those in different denominations and non-Western countries.You tie evangelism to raising children. Talk a bit about that.
The noetic effect of sin blinds us to many things, including the right way to view family and children. God doesn’t just give us babies to raise; he entrusts us with eternal souls to influence. This changes all of my parenting.
The foundational Scripture for parents is not Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6, as important as those are, but Matthew 28:18–20. The Great Commission is the mission of the church and undergirds my family’s direction. Once I have that North Star to guide my parenting, I can make wise choices and stand strong in a culture that’s pushing me in many directions.
The foundational Scripture for parents is not Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6, as important as those are, but Matthew 28:18–20.
Too many pastors and parents have separated kingdom life and family life. But God intends each family to be a Trinity-displaying, disciple-making unit. Understanding this changes everything.Once parents have understood this, what are the myths you think Christian parents still believe?
Many good parents are tempted to believe that the perfect environment will guarantee that their children will walk with the Lord. Though we may not say it, our actions often show we are thinking this. But our children’s salvation is not by works—theirs or ours. Discipling our children is not like making a cake: put in the right ingredients and the right environment for the right amount of time—and out pops perfect children. Our kids have real choices they have to make.
But having warned of this danger, we must make the other point with equal strength: God can and does use means. Our duty is to faithfully discharge the duties he’s given us, leaving the results in his hands. Our job is not successful parenting per se, but faithful parenting. The Disciple-Making Parent lays out biblical principles that are true in any discipleship relationship, but especially for the children God has entrusted to us.If you could give parents one piece of advice, what would it be?
Make sure you are living the gospel at home. The number one reason kids give for walking away is hypocrisy on the part of their parents or church leaders. Lo and behold, we see in the New Testament that the first way a spiritual leader teaches is through their example. And our home is a stage where our children are studying our lives. When they are young, they are imitating us. When they are older, they are evaluating us. Do they see a genuine relationship with the Lord? Paul could say of Timothy’s upbringing that his mother and grandmother had a living faith (2 Timothy 1:5), and it was because of those examples that he was following the Lord.What would you say to parents of prodigals?
Your child’s salvation is not by parental works. My own assistant pastor, whom I respect so much, tells the story of his deliberate decision to rebel as a teen. By his own words, his parents were wonderful Christian parents. Too many times, parents of prodigals feel shame and guilt based on a misunderstanding of Proverbs 22:6. We have taken this as a promise that if we train them well, they will not depart. Therefore, we think, if they depart, we must have done something wrong.
Perhaps there is real sin to confess on our part, but we must remember our child’s salvation is not dependent on our parenting. We cannot parent so well as to give them a new heart. I want every parent to know the incredible privilege and responsibility they have been given to shape an eternal soul.
Some pastors are talkers. They stand in the pulpit with ease and fill the air with their thoughts. That’s not me. I’m not a talker, and frankly it almost kept me out of ministry. I can carry a conversation when speaking one-to-one or one-to-a-few, but when I get up to preach, I quickly run short on words.
I often say that I have the spiritual gift of brevity, the ability to reduce 15 hours of sermon preparation into a 10-minute devotional. For that reason I have written out, word for word, my sermons for 25 years. Eight typed pages, single spaced, 14-point Times New Roman font equals a 30-minute sermon for me. That’s how I discovered the benefits of writing. I began out of necessity.
I believe the benefits have served me and my congregation well. The positive effect of writing out my sermons has been so dramatic that I’ve written four books.
I’ve come to like writing, but that wasn’t always the case. I was an average student and possibly the last one my professors would have identified as a future author. After looking over my senior thesis, the professor refused to grade it, writing atop: “This is sentence salad.” But the pastoral benefits of writing have been so profound that the discipline has grown on me.
Writing has helped me as a pastor in four major ways.1. Writing Creates Clarity
Pastors are constantly asked questions about theological issues. Whether it’s the origin of evil, God’s purposes in suffering, or the freedom and bondage of the will, I write at least a couple of emails each month answering such questions. While I certainly don’t claim to have solved any great mysteries of our faith, these email dialogues force me to select my words carefully, which creates greater clarity of thought.
After about five years of ministry, I had an email file full of answers I’d written in response to congregant’s questions. My first book, Drive Thru Theology, is little more than a compilation of those answers. When it comes to tough theological questions, try writing yourself clear.2. Writing Furthers Missional Momentum
Sharing leadership in pastoral ministry is both a blessing and also a burden. Pastors share their leadership with volunteers who are constantly stepping in and out of leadership roles, which makes ministry more complex. For example, the elders I serve with are limited to four consecutive one-year terms. Such rotation makes missional momentum hard to maintain. Inevitably, decisions made by one leadership team can catch new leaders off guard, so I’m constantly trying to bring people up to speed. It’s as if I’m trying to pull people onto a moving train. It’s easy for pastors to think, I don’t have time to write. But in reality writing saves time down the road.
It’s easy for pastors to think, I don’t have time to write. But in reality writing saves time down the road.
My second book, Following Jesus, was aimed at this goal. After three years of discussing our church’s philosophy of ministry, I decided to write down what the elders had identified as our disciple-making priorities. Today, we give that little book to our Sunday morning worship guests. Having our philosophy of ministry on paper allows those new to our community of faith to get up to speed on how and why we do things. If there are issues in ministry you’re constantly having to address—issues that drain your leadership energy and kill missional momentum—try writing.3. Writing Increases Influence
Pastoral ministry has a rhythm: Every seventh day is a Sunday. This rhythm can be a tremendous blessing, but it can also become a grind. Sunday comes every week. The pressure to deliver a spiritually nourishing message is relentless. It can feel overwhelming. Pray, prep, preach, repeat—that’s the life of a pastor.
My third book, Wait . . . What? compiles what I felt were my best sermons. Offering my sermons in written form helps me feel as though my efforts week to week are having a greater influence. If you’re a good writer, and you feel frustrated by the grind of weekly sermon preparation, consider offering your sermons in written form. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you will (or should) get published. But you can still share with others what you’ve written.4. Writing Takes You Deeper
Pastors have many resources available today—far more than any previous generation. Yet information alone doesn’t produce transformation, and countless studies seem to show that the breadth of available resources hasn’t generated greater depth among pastors. This means the hard work of answering Paul’s charge to study (2 Tim. 2:15) will require more than simply reading blogs.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “If you want to grow in breadth, then read, but if you want to grow in depth, then write.” For me, writing has been a means for doing my best to present myself to God, “a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).Many Benefits
Many pastors write books in the hopes of making a little extra money. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I’m encouraging. In fact, I’m increasingly afraid money is the only reason many pastors consider writing.
Even though few people make any real money at writing, the discipline itself yields lots of pastoral benefits beyond earning a paycheck.