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How Does a Mom Pray as a Calvinist?

Sat, 12/22/2018 - 9:00am

How does a mom, who believes that God is sovereign over salvation, find any hope for her children? How does she not live in fear about the state of their souls every day? If only those chosen by God find eternal life in him, can she sleep at night if none of them has yet professed faith?

In a recent interview about Calvinism, Andy Stanley—senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta—posed several questions as he critiqued Calvinism from several angles. In one particular segment, he talked specifically about women, and from his vantage point women are less vocal about their belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation because of how harsh it sounds (to him). Mothers, he said, would have a hard time reconciling their maternal instinct to protect, care for, and provide for their child with a view of salvation that, as he sees it, provides little assurance that they will be saved.

Strong Mothers, Stronger God

Stanley rightly appeals to maternal instinct. A mother’s heart pulls at her in powerful ways. Why wouldn’t it? She’s created in God’s image, a God  who cited a nursing mother when he wanted to show Israel how they could trust him (Isa. 49:15). If a nursing mother can’t forget her child, how much more can God whose image she bears? Even if she does, Isaiah says, God won’t forget you.

When Jesus longed for his people to repent and believe, he said this:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:14)

Even the apostle Paul used nursing-mother imagery to talk about his tender care for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7).

The maternal instinct is strong. It makes you do things you never thought you would or could do. It’s Godlike.

The maternal instinct is strong. It makes you do things you never thought you would or could do. It’s Godlike.

So I trust God in the care of my children, because he’s good, and he gave me (an image) to my children to tell the world what he is like.

What About God’s Grace?

But just telling my children what God is like doesn’t save them, and even then I’m not a perfect image-bearer. Sometimes I show my children what God is not like. But there is another who images God perfectly. Jesus is God made flesh, everything God wanted to say about himself in a person (John 1:1-3, 14; Col. 1:15), as Sally Lloyd-Jones so helpfully says. When Jesus came he didn’t just tell us what God is like. He told us how God saves—and perhaps nowhere more helpfully than in John’s Gospel.

All throughout John we see Jesus explaining who he is and what he set out to do. But the disciples (and the entire Jewish people) don’t get it. He doesn’t leave them in their misunderstanding, though. He tells them why they don’t get it. They don’t yet have the Holy Spirit (John 16:4–15). The disciples will understand one day, but only when Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, only when he says it’s time to understand. The disciples will persevere to the end, but only because the Father has given them to the Son, and no one can take them from him (John 10:25–29).

The clarity of Jesus’s words is striking and sobering. He’s in utter control, both of the means of salvation and also the sustaining grace that keeps us to the end. Perhaps this would be terrifying, as Stanley asserts, if you don’t know the character of the one telling you how this will all play out. But we know the character of God, who preserved his people through many tribulations and endured the ultimate trial on our behalf. We can trust him with our very lives, and with the lives of our beloved children.

What Hope Do You Have?

As a Calvinist mother, I see this theology taught by Jesus playing out every day. My kids know instinctively that there is nothing they can do to make themselves obey. I know it, too. So I continue to tell them about the hope that Jesus can make them obey by taking away their broken hearts and make them new again (Ezek. 36:25-26).

I pray for them in faith, not because God plays favorites in election. Instead, I pray to a God who created us in his image, who desires us to glorify him, and made a way for us to be right with him when we wanted nothing to do with him. He loves the world he has made (John 3:16). At the same time, he is holy and just (1 Sam. 2:2). God loves us, and he is perfect in justice and holiness. He is compelled to save, and also to judge sin (Rom. 3:21-26.

How does a Calvinist mother pray? She prays like Scripture teaches us: brokenhearted by sin, anchored in God’s sovereignty, pleading for the Spirit’s mercy, and confident in the gospel’s promises that when Jesus saves he saves for good.

I pray for them in faith, not because I have “maternal instinct.” God’s Word ultimately guides my parenting. And God’s Word tells me the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of grace is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:23). God does not elect all to salvation. But it’s a miracle that he saves any, because apart from divine intervention, our foolish hearts would choose sin and destruction every single time (Rom. 1:18–32). God offers salvation freely, but we’re far too sinful—curved inward, as Augustine and later Martin Luther would say—to accept it apart from his preparatory work in our hearts.

I pray for my children in faith, not because I always understand his ways. I know his character. God is sovereign, and he is good (Ps. 25:8). God is gracious, and he is just (Ps. 145:8). God is merciful, and he is holy (Lev. 11:45, 20:7). And I trust him with the eternal life of my children.

So how does a Calvinist mother pray? She prays like Scripture teaches us: brokenhearted by sin, anchored in God’s sovereignty, pleading for the Spirit’s mercy, and confident in the gospel’s promises that when Jesus saves he saves for good.

Those We’ve Lost in 2018

Sat, 12/22/2018 - 12:03am

Over the past year the church has lost several faithful pastors and theologians who have helped shape evangelicals both in America and throughout the world. Here are four men who died this year who were particularly influential on evangelicalism.

James Earl Massey

James Earl Massey died on June 24 at the age of 88. Massey (DD, AM, BTh) was ordained in the Church of God in 1951. He served as senior pastor of Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit, Michigan from 1954-1976, principal of the Jamaica School Theology from 1963-1966, a speaker at CBH (Christians Broadcasting Hope, then Christian Brotherhood Hour) from 1977-1982, a campus minister, professor, and dean at the Anderson School of Theology from 1969 until 1995, and a professor and dean at Tuskegee University from 1984-1989.

“James Earl Massey was different than any other radio preacher I had ever heard,” said Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School. “His diction was perfect, his command of the English language was superb, and his style was lively and compelling, though never marked by ostentation. He also had a way of getting on the inside of a biblical text, of unraveling it, so to speak, not the way a botanist would study a leaf in a laboratory, but like a great singer offering a distinctive rendition of a famous song.”

Massey authored 18 books, including three textbooks on preaching, and was a research scholar for the Christianity Today Institute.

See also: Robert Smith Jr. on His Two Ministry Heroes

David J. Hesselgrave 

David J. Hesselgrave died on May 21 at the age of 94. Hesselgrave (PhD, MA, BA) spent five years in pastoral ministry before working for twelve years as a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) in Japan. He taught for three years at the University of Minnesota before coming to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he served for fourteen years as the chairman of the Mission and Evangelism Department. He also taught at Evangelical Theological College in Hong Kong and Asian Theological Seminary in Manilla.

“If you are an evangelical missiologist, you have been influenced by David Hesselgrave,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center. “David was a thought-leader in every sense of the term. Look over the curriculum in almost any Missions Department here in North America and beyond and you will likely find David Hesselgrave’s works still as foundational texts in courses. Nearly every serious missiologist I know today is indebted to David’s courageous and cutting-edge deep dive into how to engage cultures well.”

Hesselgrave was the author of numerous books, including Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally, and Counseling Cross-Culturally.

Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson died on October 2 at age 85. Peterson (MA, STB, BA) became the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland in 1962, and served there for 29 years before retiring in 1991. He also served as the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia from 1992-1998. After retiring he began writing and publishing the Gold Medallion Book Award winner The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, a paraphrase of the entire Bible.

“Christ plays in ten thousand places, so Peterson tried to preach and write in ten thousand ways,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and TGC Council member. “He played as he worked, with the joy of a Christ-soaked imagination. And, through it all, he pointed to the one sermon behind all the books and essays and messages and translations and memoirs: ‘Here he is! God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about’ (John 1:29The Message).”

Peterson was the author of numerous books, including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, The Pastor: A Memoir, and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

See also: Eugene Peterson Preached One Sermon; Eugene Peterson on the Reading and Writing Life of the Pastor; Why Eugene Peterson Has Never Stopped Reading Calvin’s Institutes

Billy Graham

Billy Graham died on February 21 at the age of 99. Graham (BA) was ordained to ministry by a Southern Baptist Church in 1939. He pastored a church in Western Springs, Illinois before joining Youth for Christ, an organization founded for ministry to youth and servicemen during World War II. In 1947, at age 30, he was hired as president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis, Minnesota—at the time, the youngest person to serve as a sitting president of any U.S. college or university. After the war he also preached throughout the United States and in Europe and became one of the most well-known evangelist of the era. Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, until relocating to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2003.

“Throughout his 99 years sojourning planet earth, Graham galvanized believers, rallied evangelical Christians, and humbly pointed them to Jesus,” said Greg Thornbury, chancellor of The King’s College. “He wanted them to be saved. And that’s all he wanted. When he stood before a stadium of thousands and preached ‘The Bible says . . .’ we believed him. We still believe.”

Graham wrote 33 books, including Angels: God’s Secret Agents, How to Be Born Again, and his autobiography, Just As I Am.

See also: 9 Things You Should Know About Billy Graham (1918–2018); An Interview with Mark Noll and George Marsden on Billy Graham; Leadership Lessons from Billy Graham; Billy Graham at 99: A Look Back at the Evangelist and the Presidents (From Truman to Trump); America’s Pastor

Christmas for the Weary

Sat, 12/22/2018 - 12:00am

Every year a debate rages across the land. When is it appropriate to start listening to Christmas music? Some are happy to play Nat King Cole pretty much any time after Labor Day. Others—how best to put this?—are more Scrooge-like in their attitude to festive songs.

When we should start preparing for Christmas is an unresolved discussion.

But God started preparing for Christmas long before we might realize. Isaiah’s famous prophecy concerning the child born to us was written around 500 years before the birth of Christ. And just as God’s people needed to have a right understanding as they looked forward to that first Christmas, so too we need that same understanding as we look back on it. Especially if we are weary.

Holiday for the Weary

Things that make life hard often feel worse at Christmastime. Culturally, we have turned Christmas into a matter of performance. There is the cultural pressure to have life at its Instagrammable best: impressive-looking homes, delicious-looking food, precocious-looking children. Meanwhile, strained relationships, bereavement, financial difficulties, and uncertainties can feel all the more pronounced. A season of presumed celebration makes the hardships even more apparent.

So Isaiah 9 is for us. Look at whom the prophecy is addressed to:

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . (Isa. 9:1–2)

Gloom, anguish, darkness. An apt description of this region. It was Galilee “of the nations” not because it was diverse and vibrant, but because geographically it was the front door of the nation: this is where invading foreign armies would show up.

We tend to think Christmas is for children, or the sentimental. In these days of concern over religious and cultural appropriation, some might think Christmas should be just for Christians. But Isaiah shows us it is for the broken. In other words, for all of us.

God didn’t come to this world to congratulate the successful and high-five those who have their lives together. He came for those walking in darkness—they have seen a great light. Not “O come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant”—otherwise none of us could be there. No. Christmas is for the faithless, joyless, and defeated.

Improbable Victory for the Weary

And what does this great light mean? Joy and freedom!

You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff of his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian. (Isa. 9:3–4)

The day of Midian was a great victory in the book of Judges, and it’s a clue that the victory Isaiah foretells will be similarly unusual and unlikely. And yet it will come, and with it the final end of all conflict (v. 5). We need this victory, not just because of the war-torn character of this world, but because of the deeper conflict and oppression under which all of us labor as descendants of Adam. As Jesus said, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). All other conflicts and oppressions derive ultimately from this one. And God will end it.

How? Through a baby. An improbable victory indeed:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6)

Marvelous Savior for the Weary

It is normal for parents and grandparents to make somewhat outlandish claims about their newborn. But Isaiah’s claims here put even the most overenthusiastic parent to shame:

Wonderful Counselor

This man’s wisdom, guidance, and teaching will be breathtaking. Indeed, those who first heard him said no one else spoke like him; his words have an effect no one else’s do. As we follow him and obey him, we too realize that his counsel to us is truly wonderful. This coming year, let’s not allow a single day to pass where we don’t sit under his counsel.

This coming year, let’s not allow a single day to pass where we don’t sit under his counsel.

Mighty God

Here is a person whom it will be utterly appropriate to worship. He is not to be revered as a merely inspired man. He is no less than God himself. No wonder his counsel is beautiful. This is the God who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. And he knows infallibly what we most need this Christmas.

Everlasting Father

Scripture will unfold to show us this man is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and yet he has father-like qualities himself. He cares for the helpless and strengthens the weak. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in his death and resurrection for us. And these father-like qualities are everlasting. He will never grow tired of caring for us. Our weariness will never deplete him.

Prince of Peace

This baby will grow up to provide true and eternal peace between us and our God, a peace so potent it will work its way into all relationships and across all creation.

He will never grow tired of caring for us. Our weariness will never deplete him.

Four in One

These four titles are his one “name.” They are inseparable and indivisible. We can’t hope to have his peace without his deity, his death without his counsel. He is only any of these things to us because he is all of them.

And the cause of such a figure cannot fail (v. 7). His government and peace will only increase. In 2019 the kingdom of Jesus Christ will grow, not shrink. If we are on the right side of Jesus, we will never be on the wrong side of history. Let’s push all our chips onto him. He will never fail us.

All that’s left for us is to marvel at him. And to receive him. To us a son is given. And so we pray along with the carol,

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.

Searching for the Story of Home

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 12:04am

“Everyone gets home in the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or unmarried, have children or don’t have children, or are divorced or not, home was God’s first gift to his people. We’re going to go back to the beginning in Genesis to see that home was a gift that God had given to his people. And we can look forward to the end of the story, the new beginning, where God reestablishes home for his people.” — Jen Pollock Michel

Date: June 15, 2018

Event: The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference 2018

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

Related:

Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

Glimpse Grace in 5 Classic Christmas Movies

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 12:03am

Christmas movies are entertainment, but they’re also stories. And stories often tell us something about what it means to be human, our need and longing for grace, and our struggle to find meaning and significance. People are spiritual beings, so it shouldn’t surprise us when God and spiritual realities show up in the stories people write.

As my family has watched Christmas movies this December, I’ve noticed several scenes depicting God or the gospel of grace in compelling ways. Here are a few examples.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

In A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), Charlie Brown finds the Christmas season full of hype but short on hope. He wants to know why he’s depressed at a time of year when he should be happy. Various characters subtly point him to different answers.

Lucy wants Charlie to lead the school Christmas play because she thinks having a project and getting caught up in the Christmas season is the answer. Maybe busyness, or a hobby, or work can give meaning, or at least stir within him some magic of Christmas. He gives it a shot, but it fails.

Charlie’s beloved dog, Snoopy, points him to the Christmas lights contest. Snoopy is all about the bright lights, the displays, the show, and winning a prize. But Charlie grows tired of the commercialism and finds it another dead end.

Sally, Charlie’s sister, is all about gifts from Santa. Christmas is about what you get. But Charlie finds this materialism ultimately meaningless.

None of these answers and paths satisfies Charlie. None goes beyond the surface and gets at the true meaning of Christmas. None offers any real hope or meaning. Frustrated and dismayed, Charlie throws up his hands: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is really about?”

Finally, Linus steps up. He shares the real meaning of Christmas from Luke 2, reciting the Christmas story. It’s a story of God entering the darkness by becoming one of us to bring us life, peace, hope, and joy. Only in this story does Charlie find the meaning of Christmas and something that addresses the deeper questions and longings that led him on his journey. Jesus alone can provide a deep, sufficient meaning that the holiday hustle and bustle cannot.

It’s A Wonderful Life

In It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey (James Stewart) is a banker at a small family business in a town where an old, stingy man seeks to run the town and its finances. George’s uncle loses the bank’s deposits, and therefore, the bank’s money. No one knows where the money went, and they blame George. The bank is doomed. George will be taken to jail. It’s a truly hopeless situation. In despair and on the brink of taking his own life, he wishes he had never been born.

At this low point an angel of hope enters the picture in an unexpected way, gradually leading to a perspective change for George. The film’s climactic final scene pictures a gospel of free grace we cannot earn or accomplish ourselves. George still has a daunting financial debt he can never pay for himself. He needs rescue. He needs the sacrifice of someone else to pay his debt.

Deliverance comes through George’s friends and family, who show up and pay what he could never pay himself. Out of love, they assume his debt and pay it at great cost, though also with great joy. They give up their own money, their savings, their vacations, their Christmas plans. They give sacrificially to bail out George.

Though hopeless, George receives help. Though trapped, he gets rescued. All is grace. None is achieved; all is received. This grace sets George free, restores his status, and provides the joy he’s been missing. What a picture of the gospel and how Christ has absorbed our sin debt and paid it himself, allowing us to receive it freely and joyfully. Being helpless isn’t the same as being hopeless when we look to God’s grace to intervene.

Being helpless isn’t the same as being hopeless when we look to God’s grace to intervene.

A Christmas Story

In A Christmas Story (1983), the father character, Old Man Parker (Darren McGavin), is unlike God in a lot of ways. He’s often distant, impersonal, and uninterested in what the rest of the family is doing. He often gets angry, stringing together profanities and modeling some bad behaviors Ralphie picks up.

Despite his faults, there are a few moments of tenderness in which the father shows great love and kindness toward his children. On Christmas morning, after all the presents are opened and things have settled, Old Man Parker points Ralphie to a gift he’s kept tucked away. It’s the Red Ryder BB Gun Ralphie had desired throughout the film. The dad went over the top in not just getting him several gifts, but also in getting him what he desired most.

As Ralphie exuberantly unwraps his present, the dad beams with joy. He can’t contain it. Fatherly delight jumps off the screen. This scene resonated with me as a father, but it also glimpsed the Father’s love for us. His heart is kind and good toward his children. He finds pleasure in providing. He loves to love us.

The movie depicts grace another way, too. The film doesn’t go out of its way to depict Ralphie as a good kid deserving to be on Santa’s nice list. Rather, he gets into a fight and drops a series of profanities as he bloodies Scut Farkus’s nose. He abandons his friends, lies, drops the mother of all cuss words, and tries to deceive his parents to get what he really wants. There’s more than enough to land him on the naughty list.

And yet Ralphie receives grace. Despite his bad behavior, he’s given gifts—not because he earned or deserved it, not because he is good, but because he is their child. He’s loved. His parents shower him with gifts on Christmas morning not because of what he’s done but despite what he’s done. It’s a small picture of grace. 

Home Alone

Even Home Alone (1990) offers an example of the forgiveness and reconciliation we long for and need.

One of the hidden gems in Home Alone is the church conversation between Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) and Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) on Christmas Eve. It feels tonally different from the rest of the film—a sacred moment in an otherwise playful movie. The church, in this scene, is a refuge from the brokenness of the world. Marley describes it as a place where everyone is welcome. It offers refreshment to the weary, grace to the beaten down, and peace to the restless. For Kevin and Old Man Marley, it’s also a place where friendships are formed and where honest conversations sharpen and edify.

Kevin and Marley are united by common struggles. Both are separated from the family they love. Kevin’s separation is physical, having been left home alone as his family flew to France, but he realizes he’s also pushed them away and caused distance. Marley’s separation is emotional; he is estranged from his son and his son’s family due to some past wrongs. Kevin encourages Marley to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Marley fears his attempt at restoration will be rejected. Kevin assures him it’s better to confess where he’s failed and seek a restored relationship than to miss out due to fear. As the movie closes on Christmas Day, with snow falling (of course), Kevin sees the fruit of his new friend’s attempt to reconcile with his son. Through the window, Kevin sees the man’s family at Marley’s home, with hugs shared and a relationship restored.

The forgiveness sought has been granted, and those once far from one another are reconciled. The cost of humility and brokenness was worth every penny. Forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness is necessary. And forgiveness is beautiful.

A Christmas Carol

Many cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol have given their own spin to Charles Dickens’s Christmas novel. The story encourages a number of virtues, discourages a self-centered life, and shows that redemption is possible for any of us. If anyone could be defined as stuck in his ways, Ebenezer Scrooge fits the bill. But one message of this story is it’s never too late to change. Scrooge has his eyes opened and receives a fresh start.

It’s never too late to embrace God’s gracious offer of redemption.

I’m reminded of biblical parables about the grace and forgiveness available at any time. Whether it’s the prodigal son (Luke 15) or the laborers hired at the last hour (Matt. 20), both received grace even though they were late to the game. The prodigal isn’t treated as a servant, nor even a second-rate son. And the laborers who were faithful from dawn are no better than those who follow the master at dusk. It’s never too late to embrace God’s gracious offer of redemption.

Christmas is for the worst of us. It’s for the chief of sinners. It’s for those who’ve waited too long to do what they should’ve done a long time ago. Redemption is available to any and all of us. As Scrooge learned, it’s not too late. And yet there’s urgency, because it could be too late soon.

Related:

Understanding Nazi Ideology Can Help Us Avoid Its Horrors

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 12:00am

The question of why good people suffer evil has haunted human experience since Cain slew Abel. The Bible offers numerous reflections on this question, perhaps most notably Psalm 73. And it has fascinated philosophers, from Boethius onwards. Yet a more intriguing, if less frequently asked, question is surely this: Why do ordinary people do wicked things? And not just wicked things on the personal level—spousal abuse, rape, murder—but on the national and international level, too. A lot of ordinary Germans supported Hitler and were involved in implementing his genocidal policies. Why?

The most famous treatment of this issue is that of Hannah Arendt, whose eyewitness reports from Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem came to form the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s Eichmann is a buffoon, an unreflective mediocrity incapable of grasping the enormity of what he had done. In his own eyes, he was just the man who made sure the trains ran on time. That they happened to run all the way to Auschwitz was an incidental detail of no great moral moment to him.

While more recent research on Eichmann has called into question just how thoughtless and unreflective he was as he carried out his role in the Holocaust, the Third Reich still raises questions that should be disturbing to all who are confident they’re so civilized they could never be part of such horror. Germany was culturally and technologically the most advanced nation in Europe in 1900; 33 years later Hitler was its chancellor, and neither the Third Reich nor the Holocaust could have happened without the involvement of large numbers of ordinary, polite, civilized human beings. How and why?

The Christian answer is that human beings at their core are sinful, depraved, and twisted toward selfishness. That’s true; but the fact that that answer is true doesn’t mean it isn’t trite. The cause that explains everything in general explains nothing in particular. The British were similarly sinful, but they didn’t orchestrate the systematic annihilation of the Jewish population in London. The French had a worse record on anti-Semitism, but they didn’t host the Wannsee Conference. So why Germany? And what of lasting value can be learned, if anything at all, from the catastrophic crimes of such a civilized nation?

In his new book, The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi, distinguished historian Johann Chapoutot offers an account of Nazi life that attempts to answer these questions. Examining everything from the ideological premises of Nazism to its practical application at home and abroad, both in the chaos of war and the implementation of governing, Chapoutot’s work offers a comprehensive view of the world as the Nazis understood and experienced it. And therein lies salutary lessons for us all.

Understanding Nazi Ideology

There has been a temptation in dealing with Nazism to dismiss Nazi ideology as shallow, a creed designed by psychopaths and believed by idiots. This is perhaps connected to an understandable fear that explaining the attraction of Nazism might somehow become a means of excusing it. The problem with such an approach is that it feeds the mentality that sees the Nazi “them” so alien to the enlightened “us” that we might just fall into the same ditch without even noticing. Chapoutot refuses such a simplistic approach. And at a time when the public square is polarized, and the dominant voices are found at the extremes, a book that addresses Nazism in all its cultural and intellectual complexity is a most welcome addition not only to the scholarly literature but also to the world beyond academia too.

Chapoutot presents Nazism as a vast, internally coherent and rhetorically compelling system of belief and behavior that was quite capable of adapting contemporary events to become part of its grand, self-justifying narrative. Many of its elements had deep philosophical and cultural roots. Chapoutot identifies a reverence for nature at the heart of the movement. The German race was distinctive and uniquely moral. Differences between cultures were rooted in biology, and biology possessed its own hierarchy.

The Christian answer is that human beings at their core are sinful, depraved, and twisted toward selfishness. That’s true; but the fact that that answer is true doesn’t mean it isn’t trite.

This is the basic premise from which Nazism grew, and it forms the core of Chapoutot’s first chapter. In subsequent chapters in part one, he demonstrates how this premise shaped attitudes toward religion, reproductive ethics, history, legal philosophy, and judicial practices. He demonstrates how the Nazis constructed elaborate historical and biological narratives, reinforced by the medium of film, to shape the popular imagination. The men who formed Nazi (and thus German) culture were no half-wit cave-dwellers. They were often academically and professionally accomplished. It was no coincidence that eight of the 15 men who attended the Wannsee Conference held academic doctorates.

In part two, Chapoutot focuses on the importance of struggle to Nazi culture. If the Nordic race is truly superior to the rest, then its experience will inevitably be marked by struggle as it moves toward its ultimate ascendancy. And this would take place on two fronts: in the German heart and in the world around. Regarding the former, Germans needed to overcome any feelings of pity for those who were inferior, for such emotions were likely to undo the grand destiny of the Nordic race. It is here that the battle against Christianity was waged most strongly: Christianity, as a religion that favored the weak, was particularly pernicious.

Christianity, as a religion that favored the weak, was particularly pernicious [to Nazi ideology].

In this context, I was surprised that Chapoutot didn’t mention Nietzsche. It is well-established that Nietzsche was no anti-Semite—Nazi theoretician Ernst Krieck once sardonically commented that it was only Nietzsche’s opposition to nationalism, socialism, and racialism that prevented him from being a great Nazi philosopher. But Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to moral discourse, his focus on Christianity as slave-morality, and his insight into ressentiment as driving ethical thinking all seem to underlie Nazi thinking on Christianity and also on Judaism as a religion.

In part three, Chapoutot concludes his study by showing how the Nazi narrative justified eastward expansion. If the myth of origin lay at the foundation of Nazi thinking, so did the myth of the destined final frontier. The apocalyptic horror of the invasions and occupation of Poland was the result of a consistent working out of the Nazi narrative in practice. Like The Godfather, the story of Nazism demonstrates how the relentless logic of a false premise can transform decent human beings into monsters.

Danger of Origin Stories

There is always a danger with books on Nazism that the reader walks away with the words of the Pharisee on his lips: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.” Chapoutot’s book should provoke a different, more sobering response, for it is a clear demonstration of how the moral compass of a society can become distorted in tragic ways. The story he tells give credence to Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that moral discourse is a function of narrative. Kant’s deontological ethics only make sense in a world that tells a particular story about itself, and the same is true of the ethical thought of Aristotle and Paul and Confucius and Muhammad and Thomas Aquinas. When the world is understood in terms of a story of origin and of destiny, then moral codes come to reflect and reinforce these.

Nazism thrived on a myth of origin (the Aryan race as the pinnacle of humanity) and of destiny (the ultimate triumph of the racially superior); and it fueled these myths with ressentiment of the Jews, aided and abetted by the “criminals” of Versailles and the decadents of the Weimar Republic. In that context, ethics of common human decency simply vanished, and systematic annihilation of Jews ultimately came to make sense.

The story of Nazism demonstrates how the relentless logic of a false premise can transform decent human beings into monsters.

The subsequent Holocaust was a tragedy the scale of which is hard to conceptualize today. But the same ethical dynamic that created it plays out every day in more trivial and truly banal circumstances. And Christians might be particularly susceptible. Anyone who has ever worked for a Christian organization knows that stories of origin are powerful—whether it is a tale of sacrificial fidelity in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy or the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. And tales of destiny, frequently connected to those myths of origin, loom large in the institutional imagination.

And the danger for such is this: transcendent ethical imperatives are relativized in the service of the local narrative. There is, to borrow a term, a teleological suspension of the ethical in service of ultimate destiny. People who are perceived to be in the way get treated like dirt. Lies are told—and believed—in the service of the greater destiny. And everyone becomes slowly but surely complicit in corruption, even as the rhetoric of piety is used not to hide but rather to justify the same.

That is where Chapoutot’s book will be useful for Christians. It tells the story of the gradual, logical, coherent corruption of an entire society in the service of great evil. In doing so it not only teaches us about the rise of Nazism. It also teaches us about the dynamics of moral thinking and behavior in a way that is a warning to us all, no matter how small and insignificant the little worlds we happen to inhabit.

The Amazing Opportunity for Church Planting in the ‘Migrant Crisis’

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:04am

In last few years, the so-called migrant crisis has dominated the news. Millions of people have been displaced from their home countries, primarily due to war or economic trouble. Given the sheer scale of this phenomenon, it’s right that it be labeled a crisis.

But, as we ought to do with all cultural phenomena, the church must ask: How should we respond? Regardless of your political views, in light of the mandate to take the gospel to the nations, the church ought to see the so-called migrant crisis as an amazing gospel opportunity.

It’s a chance to display the kind of hospitality and welcome that the King has extended to us. In the gospel, we were the stranger with no homeland, but Jesus made us citizens of his glorious kingdom—all by his grace and mercy. As Christ’s people, we should be marked by that kind of love.

A number of churches in Italy are responding as such. Today, I have Rob Krause with me on the podcast to talk about church planting and ministry among migrants in Italy.

You can listen to this podcast episode here.

The Books We Enjoyed in 2018

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:03am

It shouldn’t be surprising that the editorial staff at The Gospel Coalition enjoys reading. While our team worked diligently to evaluate the Christian market for our annual book awards (see 2018 TGC Book Awards), we also read an eclectic array of titles for professional development, historical awareness, encouragement, and just plain fun. I asked our editorial team to select at least one book they read and would commend to TGC readers.

Joe Carter (Editor)

Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It (Harper Business, 2016)

Chris Voss, a former international hostage negotiator for the FBI, developed his skills dealing with bank robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists. But the lessons he offers on negotiation and conflict resolution can be applied to help you communicate better with salespeople, your business colleagues, or even your own kids. Too often, such business books have one, often obvious, idea that’s stretched out for an entire book. But Never Split the Difference includes numerous ideas you can apply immediately—as well as plenty of juicy stories about negotiating with bank robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (W. W. North & Company, 2017)

The Greeks and Romans are the Coke and Pepsi of mythology—they’re the only brands most Americans know or care about, and they aren’t all that different. If we know anything at all about Norse mythology it’s probably what we’ve picked up from Marvel Comics or while playing Dungeons & Dragons. Neil Gaiman (creator of Coraline and the Sandman comics) shows us what we’ve been missing in his retelling of several stories from the Norse canon. The stories are playfully absurd, and the cast of characters is always entertaining (especially Thor, who’s portrayed as being as thick as Scandinavian ice in the arms and head). I recommend listening to the audiobook, which is read by Gaiman.

Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (Portfolio, 2014)

Adam Smith is the most influential economist you’ve (probably) never read. His ideas about the “invisible hand,” free trade, and self-interest have become staples of modern economic thought. Yet his earlier—even less read—work on virtue and “moral sentiments” is essential to understanding how the dross of individual self-interest is spun into the gold of communal prosperity. Russ Roberts, an economist himself, explains how Smith shows us not only why we should be “lovely” but how we can curate the virtues that make us worthy of love. Always engaging and insightful, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a “self-help” book in the best sense of the term.

Bennett Hansen (Acts 29 Editor)

Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency, 2017)

No book has proven so helpful to me in thinking about what it means to think. Jacobs observes that thinking is hard work, and we’re often unaware of the assumptions that inform our efforts in this realm. Highlighting the differences between intuitive thinking and conscious reflection, he unpacks the importance of slowing down (something we’re not usually good at) in both our thinking and also our responses to others, especially those with whom we disagree. In a polarized, post-truth age, this book is packed full of sharp, timely insight for anyone who wants to learn how to think well.

Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)

In my ongoing, feeble attempt to understand the culture I’ve come to reside in as an expat, this book has been a great help. Clever, insightful, and often humorous, Kate Fox provides an in-depth study of English culture. Technically, it’s an anthropology book, but it reads more like a comedy with striking insights into “Englishness.” For anyone who has come to call this small, cold, wet island “home,” Fox’s book will surely prove useful.

Nick Jans, A Wolf Called Romeo (Mariner Books, 2014)

My love of nature writing and wolves made this a highly enjoyable read. Nick Jans tells the true story of Romeo, a black wolf who befriended the dogs and (some of) the residents of Juneau, Alaska. Jans recounts his experience of observing and interacting with a controversial mammal that has long been vilified by some and romanticized by others. Beautifully written, this is a moving account of what can happen when man and wilderness meet.

Collin Hansen (Editorial Director)

Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis (Basic Books, 2018)

Many of us know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but more famous for dissent in that troubled time was his ministerial colleague Martin Niemöller, who spent World War II in prison on Hitler’s orders. This biography isn’t quite sympathetic with the protagonist, but for that reason it’s full of humanity and complexity that makes for introspective and illuminating reading.

Alicia Chudo (Gary Saul Morson), And Quiet Flows the Vodka: or When Pushkin Comes to Shove (Northwestern University Press, 2000)

Laugh-out-loud funny, this book is also full of potent insights on politics, religion, history, and everything else that makes Russian literature so endlessly fascinating. It’s the perfect antidote to so much academic self-seriousness that masquerades as cutting-edge scholarship.

Joseph Crespino, Atticus Finch: The Biography (Basic Books, 2018)

Now that’s a novel idea: a biography of a fictional figure. But then Atticus Finch isn’t entirely fictional, as Harper Lee based him largely on her own father. Crespino shows how the publication of Go Set a Watchman was a watershed for our entire understanding of Lee and her perspective on race and religion during the civil-rights movement.

Megan Hill (Editor)

Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

I’m no stranger to the demands of a life lived with a jumble of cognitively deep and shallow tasks. I’m a mother. And a Christian. Laundry tumbles on the heels of Bible study, complex work assignments overlap with peanut-butter-sandwich-assembly, and it’s hard to get it all done, let alone produce meaningful results. Enter Deep Work, an extremely practical guide to making the most of your brain, your time, and your energy to more effectively tackle intellectually demanding projects. Newport’s engaging chapters helped me to see where I was needlessly dwelling on mindless tasks (email! group texts!) and where I could squeeze more real thinking into my days. Deep Work isn’t a “Christian” book, but it’s easy to see how worshiping and working more deeply is an eminently Christian goal—one I will continue to pursue for the glory of God in 2019.

Brett McCracken (Senior Editor)

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (Scribners, 1948)

Jarring in its beauty as well as its tragedy, this South African fiction classic tells a tale of two families whose paths intersect in ways that reflect the nation’s larger racial tensions, which persist to this day. I read the book on a trip to South Africa in May (which I wrote about for TGC), and it brought vivid context and connection to the country in a manner typical of great literature that is rooted in place.

Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018)

This was the best 2018-released book I read this year. I loved it not only because I think its thesis is right—that both conservative and progressive versions of liberalism are rooted in a form of radical individualism that will be their undoing—but because its prescriptions, primarily stronger localism and mediating institutions (the sort Yuval Levin talked about in The Fractured Republic), are much-needed.

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (IVP, 2000)

I read this book in the weeks following Peterson’s death. What a timely treasure. The book’s title and subtitle, “Discipleship in an Instant Society,” say everything about why this is such an essential contemporary classic. Following Jesus is a journey: a specific (narrow and costly) path in which short-cuts, expectations of “best life now” instant gratification, and the tyranny of one’s “authentic” feelings can undermine our growth and mission.

Ivan Mesa (Books Editor)

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf, 1982–)

I’ll cheat here and include all of Robert Caro’s published volumes in The Years of Lyndon Johnson (the fifth and final volume is still outstanding). Caro is a masterful writer and biographer, but it’s not fair to view these as simple biographies; they’re whole examinations of the times and lively accounts of the people. To read a series of books with such depth and clarity is a thrilling experience. Here I’ll consider one of the volumes, The Means of Ascent, which covers the period from 1941 until the 1948 Texas Democratic senatorial primary, between Lyndon Johnson and Coke Stevenson. Caro chronicles Johnson’s “utter ruthlessness . . . and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal.” The title brilliantly captures not just how LBJ ascended to power, but also the age-old debate over ends and means—how the dark features of LBJ’s character, like his duplicity and ruthlessness (which were rooted in deep insecurity), meshed with and ran parallel to his compassion for the downtrodden (like Johnson’s later passage of civil- and voting-rights laws and the Great Society’s help for those caught in the “tentacles of circumstance”).

Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018)

It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Inklings on the shape of today’s cultural and imaginative life. While we grieve that we only have one surviving member of the original group—Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who in the last several decades has edited much of his father’s posthumously published work (don’t miss this exquisite profile of Christopher Tolkien)—latter-day Inklings can rejoice at the publication of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which draws together essays on Tolkien’s life, influences, and philology, and reproduces personal photographs and private papers. Tied to this publication, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City will showcase a Tolkien exhibition from January 25 through May 12, 2019. Not many of us will be able to visit, but this beautifully executed book is a satisfying alternative.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie, 1862)

I’ve loved the musical version of Les Miserables ever since I was a teenager and overheard “One Day More” in a friend’s car. I’ve even read books about Les Miserables—its history, theology, and themes. So I’m surprised it took me this long to read Victor Hugo’s classic (I think the size intimidated me, so I listened to George Guidall’s narration instead). I treasure this story, and even the many tedious digressions (e.g., history of slang, Battle of Waterloo, prostitution in 18th-century France, the sewer system) invariably pay off, adding texture and pathos to the more dramatic sections of the book. While Hugo’s editorializing throughout the novel is out of fashion today, I appreciate the numerous asides that add moral forcefulness. While Hugo was anticlerical, I appreciate the central role that Christianity plays in Les Miserables, with the bishop serving the key role in the book, and Jean Valjean’s exquisite portrayal of grace (contrasted with Javert’s law). Here is a long, sometimes meandering book that pays rich dividends. I suggest picking up the Julie Rose translation.

Jeff Robinson (Senior Editor)

Bob Spitz, Reagan: An American Journey (Penguin Press, 2018) 

Ronald Reagan was the first president I was privileged to vote for, and he remains my favorite. I’ve read many Reagan biographies, but this latest may be the best. Spitz captures both the tenderness and also toughness of America’s 40th president. This book reminded me of what good leadership looks like—it’s clothed in humility and draws people with winsome, yet uncompromising firmness that never needs to remind those under its leadership that it is indeed in charge.

Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

This book kept me up late into the night as I read and then turned out the light and pondered the fate of the USS Indianapolis, the 900-plus men who wound up in the shark-infested waters, the 316 who survived, and the court case decades later that sought to exonerate ship captain Charles McVay. Vincent and Vladic present a gripping, deeply detailed (and sometimes disturbing) account of this unthinkable tragedy. If more history were written like this, more readers would delight in engaging the past.

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America (William Morrow, 2008) 

This is an older book that had been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, but on the urging of a pastor friend I read it this summer and am glad I did. Buck O’Neil is one of the great figures from the old black professional baseball leagues (he was both a player and manager) that thrived, sadly, in obscurity, until Jackie Robinson brought down the color barrier in 1947. This book is about much more than baseball. It’s about an extraordinary man who enjoyed life to the full, pursuing his great loves of baseball and jazz music, and bringing joy to the lives of seemingly everyone he met. O’Neil, who died in 2006 at age 94, was a follower of Christ who dripped the joy of one who was content in his Savior.

Matt Smethurst (Managing Editor)

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, 1960)

Simply masterful. A sweeping history of Nazi Germany filtered through a journalist’s eyes. Brisk narrative, vivid prose, illuminating explanation—this volume has it all. Best of all, Shirer lived alongside—and in some cases, through—the harrowing events he recounts. (The U.S. foreign correspondent broadcasted from Berlin for several years, from the rise of Nazism through the first year of the war.) Shirer’s journalistic expertise, amplified by firsthand acquaintance with key persons, places, and events in the story, renders The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich a unique and unparalleled work.

Andrew Gross, The One Man: A Novel (Minotaur Books, 2016)

Historical-thriller fiction at its finest, particularly if you’re interested in World War II. Harrowing (most of the story takes place at Auschwitz) and beautiful. Short chapters; fast-moving plot; I couldn’t put it down. There is one brief sex scene, though not too graphic.

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House, 2018)

Difficult to read, impossible to put down. Westover grew up as a fundamentalist Mormon on a mountain in Idaho. She had no birth certificate, never saw a doctor, and didn’t go to school. Now she has a PhD from Cambridge. The story is as heartbreaking as it is astonishing. The Hillbilly Elegy of 2018. 

Sarah Zylstra (Senior Writer)

Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (Atria Books, 2017)

Packed with surveys and statistics, Jean Twenge’s book explains the general characteristics of the generation rising up after the Millennials. The first wave of iGen, who grew up with screens, are now in college and entering the workforce. College faculty and employers I’ve spoken to confirmed this book’s observations, from fewer teen pregnancies to more anxiety to less spirituality. For parents, teachers, or youth workers, iGen offers a clear look at how smartphones have drastically affected an entire generation.

‘Joy to the World’ Helps Us Rejoice in Our Past and Future

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:02am

One of my favorite memories as a boy was singing with our church family on Christmas Eve. As the service would near its conclusion, the deacons would distribute candles while the lights grew dark. As we sang our final hymn, the room would flood with candlelight as voices announced the message of Christmas, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.” I felt a foot taller while singing with full voice among my friends and neighbors thinking about the truth and mystery of the incarnation.

The song that I sang as a boy has now been sung for more than 300 years as a beloved Christmas carol. “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts (1674–1748), who is heralded as the “father of English hymnody.” While the hymn is often featured during the Christmas season, it was originally written to be sung year-round as a metrical version of Psalm 98:4: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.” From the first time this hymn was published in 1709, to the pews of our churches today, its powerful call to “repeat the sounding joy” continues.

The joyful theme we hear in this hymn is a two-fold: it’s a joy that looks back on the incarnation and one that also looks forward to the second coming of Christ.

Joy Looking Back

Isaac Watts understood all of Scripture points to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44), so when it comes to his version of Psalm 98, he wanted to “make David sing like a Christian” by showing how Christ is the fulfillment of the passage. One of the themes we see in verses one and two explores nuances of the story of the birth of Christ. In the line “let every heart prepare him room,” we hear an echo of the innkeeper who had no room for the mother of Christ while labor was nearing (Luke 2:7). We rightly sing this lyric to our own hearts and sing it to others as an invitation to prepare room in each of us for the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The second verse reminds us that the praise of God must be in our hearts and on our lips. We’re to employ our songs of the Savior and his rule and reign. Luke records four specific songs that provide a unique contribution to the songs of the savior’s birth. Mary magnifies and rejoices in the mercy of God (Luke 1:46–55). Zechariah sings a song of prophecy that Jesus would fulfill God’s promise (Luke 1:68–79). The angels “sing” the pronouncement of the coming of Christ (Luke 2:14). And Simeon sings a prayer confessing he can depart in peace now that his eyes have seen the coming of the Christ (Luke 2:29–32).

Each of these accounts shows the resounding joy of singing the gospel of Christ.

Joy Looking Forward

The third verse of this text is often passed over because of its imagery of the curse. But without the presence of the curse (Gen. 3:16–19), the promise of deliverance loses its power (Gen. 3:15). These lines rightly point us to the day when God’s blessing (Gen. 3:17) flows as far the curse is found. We rejoice looking back on the God’s faithfulness, and we also rejoice looking forward to what God has promised in the future. We sing between what is and what will be, the already and the not-yet of our faith.

With this glorious vision, we see all the earth is called to make a joyful noise of praise to God. While the sting of sin is great, there is a greater hope: Jesus Christ, who rules the world with truth and grace. This grace causes hearts dead in sin to come alive in Christ (Eph. 2:8–9). The final two lines of our hymn don’t tie up our story neatly, but call us to marvel in “the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”

Let’s be a people who love and sing and wonder with this kind of unshakable joy (Phil. 4:4)! We rejoice in Christ by looking back and remembering his great faithfulness and love. We rejoice by looking forward to his coming again where on the shores of forever there is an even greater joy to come.

Even as a Secular Holiday, Christmas Makes the Gospel Accessible

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:02am

Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday—arguably our culture’s biggest. The result is two different celebrations, each observed by millions of people at the same time. This brings some discomfort on both sides. Many Christians can’t help but notice that more and more of the public festivities surrounding Christmas studiously avoid any references to its Christian origins. The background music in stores is moving from “Joy to the World” to “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas.” The holiday is promoted as a time for family, for giving, and for peace in the world. “Christmas is a wonderful, secular holiday,” one enthusiast wrote at the now-defunct website Gawker.

On the other hand, nonreligious people can’t help but find that the older meaning of Christmas keeps intruding uninvited, for instance, through the music of traditional Christmas carols. It can be irritating to have to answer their child’s question, “What does that music mean—’born to give them second birth’?”

Secular Holiday

As a Christian believer, I’m glad to share the virtues of the day with the entirety of society. The secular Christmas is a festival of lights, a time for family gatherings, and a season to generously give to those closest to us and to those in greatest need. These practices are enriching to everyone, and they are genuinely congruent with the Christian origins of the celebration.

Because of the commercial indispensability of Christmas, it will remain with us as a secular festival. My fear is, however, that its true roots will become more and more hidden to most of the population. The emphasis on light in darkness comes from the Christian belief that the world’s hope comes from outside of it. The giving of gifts is a natural response to Jesus’s stupendous act of self-giving, when he laid aside his glory and was born into the human race. The concern for the needy recalls that the Son of God was born not into an aristocratic family but into a poor one. The Lord of the universe identified with the least and the most excluded of the human race.

Christmas, like God himself, is both more wondrous and more threatening than we imagine.

These are powerful themes, but every one of them is a two-edged sword. Jesus comes as the Light, because we’re too spiritually blind to find our own way. Jesus became mortal and died because we’re too morally ruined to be pardoned any other way. Jesus gave himself to us, and so we must give ourselves wholly to him. We are, therefore, “not [our] own” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Christmas, like God himself, is both more wondrous and more threatening than we imagine.

Accessible Biblical Truth

Every year our increasingly secular Western society becomes less aware of its own historical roots, many of which are the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Yet once a year at Christmas these basic truths become a bit more accessible to an enormous audience. At countless gatherings, concerts, parties, and other events, even when most participants are nonreligious, the essentials of the faith can sometimes become visible.

To understand Christmas is to understand basic Christianity, the gospel.

As an example, let’s ask some questions of the famous Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” heard in malls, in grocery stores, and on street corners. Who is Jesus? He is “everlasting Lord,” who from “highest heaven” comes down to be the “offspring of the virgin’s womb.” What did he come to do? His mission is to see “God and sinners reconciled.” How did he accomplish it? He “lays his glory by,” that we “no more may die.” How can this life be ours? Through an inward, spiritual regeneration so radical that it can be called “the second birth.” With brilliant economy of style, the carol gives us a summary of the entire Christian teaching.

While few of the most familiar Christmas songs and Bible readings are that comprehensive, it remains that one season a year hundreds of millions of people, if they would take the trouble to ask these kinds of questions, would have this same knowledge available to them.

To understand Christmas is to understand basic Christianity, the gospel.

Thom Rainer’s LifeWay Legacy

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:00am

This fall, LifeWay Christian Resources started looking for a new president.

He or she will have to be a spiritual leader and a change agent, but also have financial and business acumen, according to the job description. The new president should be a strategic, humble, and inspiring leadership developer. He or she should have integrity and credibility, be inclusive, and have a good work ethic. The candidate should be a good strategizer and a good communicator, be able to hold himself or herself accountable, and possess a high emotional intelligence.

“The presidency of LifeWay is a role like none other,” said LifeWay director of strategic initiatives Jonathan Howe. “The list of responsibilities is baffling—you need Southern Baptist credentials plus wider evangelical respect plus business acumen plus theological soundness. Finding that in one person is next to impossible.”

Thom Rainer, the 63-year-old retiring LifeWay president is “a once-in-a-generation leader,” Howe said.

LifeWay president and CEO Thom Rainer / Courtesy of LifeWay

It’s hard to argue. With a background in finance, an MDiv and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and a dozen years of serving as the founding dean for the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism, it’s easy to see why LifeWay hired him in the first place.

It’s a bit harder to see why he came on board in 2005.

“LifeWay was not in the plans,” he said. “I didn’t like their resources.”

That wasn’t all he didn’t like. After publishing six books with them, concerned by the “poor services and products,” he dropped B&H (LifeWay’s book imprint) and signed his next four-book deal with rival Zondervan. He also stopped speaking at LifeWay events.

“I thought B&H was poorly managed,” he said. “Back then, they were publishing a lot of weaker books. The quality was low, the editing was low, and the relationships were weak.”

When the letter came asking him to be a candidate for president, he called it a joke and tossed it aside.

But his wife, Nellie Jo, picked it up. And just before the deadline, she dared him to apply.

“I kept this letter because I thought it would be a good souvenir,” she told him in humor. “I guess you’re not going to apply. I know you, Thomas. You’re afraid you’ll be turned down.”

Rainer looked at her.

“Gimme that letter,” he said.

From Banking to Ministry

Rainer’s dad was a banker. So was his grandpa, and his great-grandpa, and his great-great-grandpa.

“I went to the University of Alabama and got a finance degree,” Rainer said. “I got a job with a large bank in Atlanta, and later accepted another job with another large bank. I was going up the career ladder more rapidly than anticipated for a 20-something.”

But the whole time, he kept feeling the tug to ministry.

“I came home one day and told my wife that ‘I can’t resist this call any more. We need to go into ministry,’” Rainer said. “She said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you.’ She knew before I did.”

Rainer put in his two weeks’ notice, packed up his wife and two small boys, and started driving to SBTS in Louisville. It was 1983.

Partway there, “I happened to remember that I had not applied,” he said. “We stopped in Birmingham, and I filled out an application and put it in the mail. Then we kept on driving.”

The Rainer family got to SBTS before his application was processed, but Rainer was able to beg his way into some student housing. He took a job as a janitor at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken before a bank offered him 30 hours a week as a corporate loan consultant.

On top of everything else, he went to class. But seminary was nothing like he expected.

Southern Turn

“I was naïve, thinking we’d all be holding hands and praying the whole time,” said Rainer of SBTS. “It was difficult because Southern was largely liberal at that time. Some of the professors didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection. Some of them used profane language. It was awful, but a refining time as well.”

He didn’t stop with the overachieving, stacking a PhD on top of an MDiv and pastoring two churches while in school. He was at his second post-seminary church when SBTS president Al Mohler asked him to be a founding dean at the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry.

“I was at Southern for 13 years,” Rainer said. “I saw the biblical revolution take place. . . . I got to see the beginning and end. It was an incredible story.”

Rainer was at SBTS when the LifeWay letter came, and he applied to prove he could get the job. But as the field narrowed—from 15 top candidates to 10 to 5 to 3—he started to really want it.

“I don’t know if it was a sanctified desire, or if I was just competitive, or if God was using my competitiveness,” Rainer said. “But my desire became greater.”

He was elected in 2005 and took office in 2006. That’s when the competitive fever wore off.

“Every day I’d think, Oh, no, I didn’t want to do this,” Rainer remembers. “What am I doing here?

Baptist Sunday School Board

The first time the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) tried to publish its own Sunday school curriculum, it was 1863 and the institution was less than 20 years old. The Southern Baptist Sunday School and Publication Board couldn’t gain traction in the aftermath of the Civil War and lasted only 10 years.

LifeWay founder J. M. Frost / Courtesy of LifeWay

Most Southern Baptists felt they could just use the materials printed by the northern Baptists, but pastor J. M. Frost, armed with his wife’s $5,000 inheritance and lots of determination, fought to get the Baptist Sunday School Board approved by the convention in 1891.

The deal: He could publish materials, but no SBC church was obligated to use them, and he’d have to earn his own money.

Over the past 127 years, the Baptist Sunday School Board added to books and videos and Bibles and hymnals to its Sunday school curriculum. It opened physical bookstore locations and convention centers; it built the tallest office complex in Nashville. In 1998, it changed its name to LifeWay. Today, it employs more than 5,000 people.

But it’s hard to keep energy up and sales rising and morale thriving for more than a century. By the time Rainer came on, LifeWay’s flagship resource—the curriculum for Sunday schools and Bible studies—was in a 30-year decline.

One reason for that was waning denominational loyalty across the country. But another was simply that “quality was low,” Rainer said. “Our resources have to be of the highest quality, and not from a pure marketing point of view. When someone picks up our curriculum or books, or goes to one of our events, one of the first things we want them to say is, ‘Wow. God is really honored through this.’

“Frankly, that was not the case in many areas of LifeWay.”

Rainer knew he wanted better products. “But you can’t just mandate, ‘Give us better stuff.’”

To get there, he knew he needed a different culture.

Good People

“I am not the brightest bulb in the chandelier,” Rainer said, “but I can tell you one thing I can do. I can bring good people around me.” (He may also be one of the brightest bulbs—former LifeWay vice president Eric Geiger says “you realize more and more how smart he is the more you’re around him. He’s a freak-of-nature genius.”)

Rainer hired Brad Waggoner—“one of the most unsung heroes in evangelicalism”—to start up a research branch, then hand it off to the high-profile researcher Ed Stetzer. “We wanted not only the denomination but the greater evangelical world to know that LifeWay knows our subject matter,” Rainer said.

Rainer next asked Waggoner to run the B&H Publishing Group imprint, created when LifeWay’s Broadman Press publishing arm bought the A. J. Holman Bible Company. A few years later, Waggoner passed it off to Selma Wilson and became executive vice president of LifeWay itself.

Every hire Rainer made, he was looking for three things—character, competency, and chemistry.

And that’s when everybody knew for sure the culture was changing. Because only men sat at the executive table at LifeWay, and Wilson is a woman.

“He values women,” Wilson said of Rainer. “He values diversity. . . . I’ll have people say, ‘Tell me about the conflict you had,’ but I never had conflict [on the executive team] as a woman.”

Every hire Rainer made, he was looking for three things—character, competency, and chemistry.

“I don’t think I ever made a bad character hire,” he said. “But sometimes I’d skip from character to chemistry without looking at competency. LifeWay is fun but challenging work, and it can be grueling. Since 1891, we’ve never received outside funds—what we earn is how we make our way.

“I haven’t always gotten it right,” Rainer said. “Some of the most difficult conversations are where people I have a good relationship with didn’t make it because they weren’t the right fit at the right time.”

Rainer speaks at a LifeWay chapel. / Courtesy of LifeWay

Another occasional mistake was giving too much freedom.

“You want to bring in people who, instead of goading them to go faster with a spur, you have to pull the reins and say, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “You want to err on the side of letting them make mistakes rather than controlling them to conform in your image.”

Some people’s reins had to be pulled more than others.

“When I came to LifeWay, they eventually asked me and my team to come up with some new ministry initiatives,” Stetzer said. “The first one we came up with lost $100,000.”

“Well, you learned what doesn’t work,” Rainer told him. “Let’s try something else.”

Stetzer’s next project broke even. The one after that was a new curriculum that would develop into The Gospel Project.

“There was space to fail,” he said. But not endless space.

“Certainly, if I failed five times in a row I wouldn’t be there, because LifeWay is a business,” Stetzer said. “I’ve worked at large Christian organizations where it’s really hard to lose your job. People just stay. But businesses have to make hard choices, and Thom would make those hard choices.”

Culture Change

Sure enough, with the right people, LifeWay’s culture began to change. But Rainer also made direct changes to spur that shift along.

The best and clearest example was the dress code.

An updated and casual break area in the new LifeWay building / Courtesy of LifeWay

As late as 2011, LifeWay had express dress requirements for its employees. Women couldn’t wear capris. Executives had to wear a suit and tie, and while the suit coat could be removed inside the person’s own office, it had to be donned again if the executive left the room. Fridays everyone could dress down—to business casual.

“It was extreme,” Rainer said. “It had become command-and-control dress code.”

And that’s not Rainer’s style. So one day at chapel, he made a casual, off-handed announcement.

“By the way, I’m really tired of this dress code,” he said. “Y’all are grown men and women. You know how to dress. The dress code is gone.”

He did not expect their reaction. Employees “went wild,” clapping and cheering, Wilson said.

Someone yelled out, “Does this mean jeans?”

“Sure, if that’s appropriate,” Rainer replied.

They gave him a standing ovation.

It seems like a simple change, one almost too small to note. But “it was part of the culture shift,” Rainer said. “It was a signal to the employees that we trusted them.”

Laughter

After that, Waggoner took on the rest of the policy manual.

“LifeWay had a policy that said, basically, ‘No hanging out in the hallway chatting,’ which usually ended up in laughter,” Rainer said. “Obviously, Waggoner did away with that when the policy manual was redone.”

Rainer isn’t a clown. He’s not gregarious or even extroverted. But he is quietly hilarious—he’s got a quick, dry wit and a well-developed ability to play. He’s the one who will start singing a Beatles song in the middle of a tense meeting, ask you to pray right after you take a huge bite of your sandwich, or tweet “I’m so excited the Stetzers are having twins” on April Fools’ Day.

Rainer “brought the gift of laughter to the culture of LifeWay,” said Wilson, who also loves to laugh.

“It made him more human,” Geiger said.

It’s hard to overestimate that shift.

“I was there before Thom, and LifeWay was pretty rigid and very hierarchical,” Wilson said. “He’s broken down a lot of those walls to be more collaborative and innovative.”

Which meant Rainer was right—changing the people changed the culture. Now for better products.

The Gospel Project

LifeWay’s bread and butter has always been its curriculum for Sunday school and small-group Bible studies.

But for decades, sales kept slipping. The staff chalked it up to an overall drop in Sunday school attendance and number of Bible studies. But Rainer wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

His team “recognized that we weren’t really serving as many people in our churches as well as we could,” LifeWay director for Bibles and reference Trevin Wax said.

“We didn’t want to push churches to get [our curriculum] out of denominational loyalty,” Rainer said. “We wanted churches calling us to say, ‘I want that.’”

Stetzer and Wax brought together teams of people to write and edit and coordinate an ambitious new project—a three-year, chronological, gospel-centered, missional curriculum. Everyone—preschool through adults—could use it. And the print copies would be supplemented with digital resources—images and songs and videos.

Every year since it began, The Gospel Project has been bigger than the year before.

“In the initial launch, in the fall of 2012, our hope was that maybe 40,000 or so people would buy this,” Wax said. “If we could have done that, it would’ve been the biggest launch LifeWay had seen in 12 to 15 years.”

Instead, 493,000 participants wanted The Gospel Project curriculum in the first quarter.

“We had printing issues,” Wax said. “It was crazy. . . . Every year since it began, The Gospel Project has been bigger than the year before.”

This year, about 1.5 million people are using it.

The Gospel Project’s wild success spurred LifeWay to “relaunch and reinvent” their two other major curriculum lines—Explore the Bible and Bible Studies for Life. This fall, sales in all three lines were growing.

“That put LifeWay in different posture,” Rainer said. “People started looking at us and saying, ‘Something different is happening there.’”

But even moving a lot more curriculum couldn’t solve LifeWay’s biggest financial struggle.

Amazon Challenge

“Amazon and the digital world has been our greatest business challenge,” Rainer said. He knows he’s part of the problem. “I’m a classic introvert. I don’t like the in-store shopping anywhere. I do it as little as possible.”

LifeWay moved into its new corporate headquarters in November 2017. / Courtesy of LifeWay

Because LifeWay produces its own products, and because most of its sales are directly to churches, its bookstores are a little better positioned than other brick-and-mortar Christian bookstores—such as Family Christian Resources (FCR), which closed its 240 locations in 2017. Last summer, LifeWay even opened a few more stores in vacant FCR spaces.

Under Rainer, LifeWay leaned into online sales. But it still operates about 170 stores, and the challenge of maintaining a brick-and-mortar presence in a digital world will largely be left to Rainer’s successor.

To prepare for that, Rainer has worked to get LifeWay into a healthy financial position.

That meant reorganizing departments and cutting personnel. It meant selling LifeWay’s 1.1 million-square-foot headquarters to build a 277,000-square-foot space five blocks north. It meant softening policies to let employees work remotely, which both relaxed the culture and saved on office space.

And it meant selling the Glorieta Conference Center, a 2,100-acre camp near Sante Fe, New Mexico. The conference center had lost money for 24 out of 25 years by the time Rainer decided to pull the plug.

As business decisions go, it was a no-brainer. But selling the conference center was the only time Rainer thought he might have to quit LifeWay.

Second Home

In the late 1940s, the SBC was looking for a conference center in the west to balance out Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. It charged LifeWay (then the Sunday School Board) with “raising funds, erecting buildings, developing, and operating” the campus.

And it was a raging success. In 1952, Glorieta opened a few programs and got 1,400 registrants from 18 states. Over 50 years, thousands of Southern Baptists came to Glorieta. Families pulled up in station wagons. Kids came for summer camp. Church staff arrived for trainings. For many, Glorieta started to feel like a second home—they remembered exactly where they scared the pants off another camper, where they proposed to their girlfriends, where they rededicated their lives to Christ.

In 1913, the Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay, built the Frost Building in Nashville. / Courtesy of LifeWay

“Glorieta had a lot of sentimental and nostalgic value,” Wax said.

But as denominational numbers declined, camp attendance fell. Staff were let go, maintenance was put off, buildings fell into disrepair. By the time LifeWay started looking for a buyer in 2011, they couldn’t give it away.

Priced at $1, LifeWay offered Glorieta to every other SBC entity. When no one wanted it, the property was sold in 2013 to Glorieta 2.0, a group of Christian businessmen and camping professionals.

Some Southern Baptists were furious about the sale, blaming LifeWay for not keeping Glorieta viable. A lawsuit was filed, claiming the sale wasn’t valid because it wasn’t approved by the SBC executive committee.

“The one time I thought might leave LifeWay was when plaintiff of this lawsuit started attacking my family,” Rainer said. “Then I said, ‘This is not worth it, guys.’ But my family said, ‘We’re fine. Don’t quit LifeWay because of us.’”

“To this day we get criticism over Glorieta,” Wilson said. “I saw up close the personal pain caused by the comments Rainer and his family were getting.”

Later, when Rainer made the decision to sell the downtown office building, she knew he’d face pushback again.

“Thom, why are you doing this?” she asked him. “I knew most leaders would say, ‘No way am I touching that. I’ve had years of pain. I’ll leave this for the next leader.’”

Rainer didn’t pause.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he told her.

Writing for the Health of the Church

Rainer edited his first book—Evangelism in the 21st Century: The Critical Issues—25 years ago. Since then, he’s authored, co-authored, or edited nearly 30 more—all centered around the growth and health of the church. His 2013 title, I Am A Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes a Difference, has sold more than a million copies. (“He’s up there with Rick Warren as one of the best-selling Christian authors of all time,” Wax said.)

So when Stetzer told Rainer he should write a blog, Rainer said he didn’t have time. He also didn’t want to have to mess with the comments section.

Stetzer told him to turn off the comments.

“He kept pushing and pushing,” Rainer said. “So I started. And some of the early ones were really bad.”

But eventually, “writing blogs became part of my routine,” Rainer said. “We became a seven-day-a-week resource.”

If I was waiting on my ingenuity [to produce content], I’d be sitting at a keyboard staring at a blank screen. Instead, I’m listening.

Rainer’s online platforms get more than 10 million pageviews annually. His podcasts are downloaded more than 1.5 million times a year.

Those blogs turned out to be crucial for gauging what church leaders were struggling with or wondering about. “Through the number of views or open comment stream, they’re telling me where their pain points are or what their needs are,” he said. “If I was waiting on my ingenuity [to produce content], I’d be sitting at a keyboard staring at a blank screen. Instead, I’m listening.”

I Am a Church Member was born that way, from a blog post, dashed off at midnight for a 7 a.m. deadline.

“After seeing the response, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we have diminished what it means to be part of the body of Christ so much that they’re starving for this,’” Rainer said.

Rainer’s organization Church Answers also grew from those blog posts and podcasts. “I had so many pastors asking me questions that I couldn’t get to them all,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let’s create a 24/7 forum where you can get a question answered anytime, day or night. . . . I don’t ever want to tell a pastor we can’t help him.’”

Long Change in the Right Direction

“Eugene Peterson’s line was ‘long obedience in the same direction,’” Stetzer said. “For Rainer, it was a long change in the same direction. Make changes one at a time, kind of insist on it, and align the company.”

It worked.

“If you knew LifeWay 10 years ago and LifeWay now, you’d say this is a very different world, in a way that I think is remarkably positive,” Stetzer said. “Thom’s greatest legacy would be he just wants to help the church.”

Rainer’s not done helping. One of his heroes of the faith is Caleb, the spy who was keen to charge into the promised land at 40 years old, and who sounded even more fiercely eager at 85 (Josh. 14:6–12).

“As long as I have breath and an ability to serve God, I’m looking forward,” Rainer said. “Hindsight is 20/20, and I know I would’ve done some things differently. But I’m not going to dwell in that world. I’m looking forward.”

Rainer’s retirement plans look like two full-time jobs. “I’m going to do three podcasts, seven-day-a-week blog posts, and continue with Church Answers.”

And any future books he writes? He’ll publish with LifeWay.

“It became an A-level publisher,” he said. “I love publishing with them now.”

The Genesis of Christmas

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 12:04am

“In the declaration that God is setting enmity between the serpent and the women, we see in kernel the emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation. He does not turn to us and say, ‘Save yourselves,’ or ‘Here’s a little grace, now save yourselves.’ He says, ‘I’m going to war for you. I’m going to war against the serpent.’” — Ligon Duncan

Text: Genesis 3:1–19

Preached: December 2, 2012

Location: First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi

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

Related:

The Bread that Won’t Nourish You

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 12:03am

A few weeks ago, I interrupted the whirlwind of holiday preparations to bake zucchini bread. Bread to accompany us to potluck parties and friends’ homes, bread to stock our freezer for lazy days, and truthfully, bread just because I enjoy baking it.

As my hands mixed and stirred, Christmas planning and New Year’s resolutions were temporarily exchanged for grating zucchini and measuring vanilla.

This year, the dizzying pace of the season is compounded with preparations for the arrival of our first child. On top of rearranging furniture and managing the family shopping list, I fret about how to prepare for what, we are assured, will be an abrupt transition. Spending a few hours baking bread feels indulgent in a season where never-ending activity seems necessary to stay afloat.

Bread of Anxious Toil

The habit of striving isn’t unique to this time of the year, nor to our modern age. In the psalms of ascent, Solomon offers counsel to those made anxious by life’s ancient treadmill:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Ps. 127:1–2)

No matter how well I know this passage, anxious toil remains appealing. Rising early and crashing late reassure me that I’m doing enough to build the house, doing enough for my community, doing enough for God himself.

Recently, an evening with a friend fell through. Truthfully, it was nearly the highlight of my week; I needed a break. How often do we schedule time for respite—and what do we lose when we don’t?

Ancient believers would have received the words of Psalm 127 in the context of the Jewish day, which started at sundown. The day began by trading the tools of toil for feasting and sleep, a reminder of God’s intention for human work to flow from rest.

When we labor for laboring’s sake, we wrongly believe that the bread of anxious toil will satisfy. Like a nutritionless snack, it appeals to our immediate hunger, but lacks the nourishment we need to live.

Bread of Life

Despite our human proclivity for the unsatisfying bread of anxious toil, Scripture’s overarching story points to a God who invites his people to feast. As Israel wanders the wilderness in search of the Promised Land, God sustains them with daily manna—bread from heaven—that feeds them for 40 years and leads them to the border of Canaan.

All that’s required of them is to receive and remember that “in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (Ex. 16:12).

When they reach Mount Sinai, this call to remember is echoed in the “thou shalt” of Sabbath remembrance, a command to order daily life so as to reflect Israel’s identity as God’s people, upheld by his hand. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation, taking time to bless and hallow—set apart as holy—all he had made.

Theologian and pastor A. J. Swoboda writes:

Sabbath is the first image of the gospel in the story of the Bible. God’s grace is given first, and work comes as a result, not the other way around. As it turns out, we don’t work to please God, but we rest because God is already pleased with us.

The Old Testament rhythms of work and rest find their fullest expression in the gospel, where all are invited to receive the Bread of Life: “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).

More eternally satisfying than manna, Jesus is the bread that satisfies the deepest longings of our souls. And this bread can’t be earned. In Christ, the price to secure my seat at the banqueting table has been paid for, and all are invited to feast and drink.

Rest to Remember

My recent baking afternoon prompted me to remember the first loaf of zucchini bread I ever received. In the fall of 2010, after three international flights, I arrived in Malawi, a small country in East Africa. I was 22 years old, 13,000 kilometers from home, and all alone.

Settling into the tiny cottage where I would live for eight months as a short-term missionary, I discovered a loaf of zucchini bread in my fridge. “Some staples to help you get settled,” read the note from a woman who’d become a friend and mentor in the months that followed.

Eight years later, as I beat the eggs and fold the batter, I remember her. The stained blue notecard that contains her handwritten recipe captures the grace of her gift, but when it’s tucked away in my recipe folder, I’m prone to forget.

I forget that I had nothing to offer her in return when I arrived, and I had done nothing to deserve her welcome. Yet out of sight and out of mind, it takes the act of baking bread to remember the meaning of that first loaf.

We are a forgetful people, but our habits can orient us toward what’s true in a frenetic world. In this season of preparation—for the holidays, for parenthood, for the new year—when my greatest temptation is self-reliance, maybe what I need most urgently is to pause.

In pausing to rest, I remember that Yahweh builds the house. Yahweh watches over the city. He watches, even, over me.

Experience Still Eclipses: ‘No Place for Truth’ 25 Years Later

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 12:02am

Which should win out in the end, theology or ministry? Can you really justify reading theology books when people in your church are struggling to even tell others about Jesus or keep their marriages together? Doctrine is important, sure, but at the end of the day you must choose between either caring for real people with real problems, or kicking back and reading a dead guy argue about how another dead guy misinterpreted a third dead guy. If you’re interested in seriously studying theology, well and good—but it probably means you’re destined for the academy, not the local congregation.

The idea that you must choose between ministry and theology has been around for awhile. I’ve never been happy with it. I want to say theology matters. Yet there’s still that struggle: the feeling that I’m robbing living, breathing, bleeding people for the sake of my own edification (or worse, entertainment). But David Wells’s No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?—a book that turns 25 years old this year—helped me understand that this dilemma is relatively new, and also false.

Truth in the Church

You might be fooled into thinking No Place for Truth is simply the 1994 version of conservative Christian cultural analysis. But it’s much more. It’s certainly a remarkably insightful analysis of cultural trends that have become more fully formed in our day. For example, Wells warns how secularism’s undermining of tradition and authority has left only one “sinew” holding the body of Western society together: power (84). That observation is demonstrably true in the decline of social discourse, whether evidenced in Twitter-shame wars or the Machiavellian combat in halls where honor, tradition, and patriotism used to be constraining elements.

But Wells also evaluates how secularization, modernization, and postmodernism have infiltrated and infected our thinking about church and ministry. There is no place for truth in the church, not just in the world. According to Wells, the influence of postmodernism has left the church suspicious of robust theologizing. Delegating its doctrinal responsibility to the academy, the evangelical church has taught its leaders caution toward the pastoral tools Christ gave them.

Human experience is a useful servant, but a terrible master.

“The new script for study is human experience, not the teaching of the Bible, or for that matter, of the church,” Wells warns (122). People increasingly view their experience not just as one legitimate voice guiding their worldview, but as the only qualified voice. When human experience is treated with such inflated regard, we’ll continue underestimating the influence of human depravity on our ability to discern truth apart from divine revelation (149).

The effect is that people ask for tools to interpret their experiences instead of focusing their lives around God’s Word. This priority shift is evident even in official ministerial training. Increasingly, professional practicalities demand more time, thought, and preparation than grounding in theological method and doctrinal devotion (112). “Leadership is now substantially in the hands of the managers,” Wells observes (133). The world, the people in your church, and even your own conscience may tell you that shepherding people through their experiences is the whole of your job. Meanwhile, growing wise in the Word and equipping saints with life-giving doctrine is sidelined.

Wells also discusses the decline of functional literacy. The rise of television has given the lion’s share of the public square to populist opinions both half-baked and easily digested. How much truer is this 25 years later, in the day of social media? As thoughtful discussion is diminished and rendered irrelevant, fewer and fewer people even know how to engage in it (196–97).

Wise in the Word

Why does this matter? How does this affect ministry? Wells points out that doctrine is central to the task of a minister, since the Word is the cornerstone of Christian life. Experience is a useful servant, but a terrible master. But the cultural air we breathe tells us it must be the master.

It’s all too easy for a minister to feel guilty for spending valuable time studying—to sacrifice deliverables for long-term investment, with no obvious ministry enhancement from week to week.

Wells’s analysis exposes the subtle ways our culture teaches us to feel badly about spending hours studying God’s Word. There are always valid pressures that make it difficult to study. But combine those with the milieu we inhabit, and it’s all too easy for a minister to feel guilty for spending valuable time studying—to sacrifice deliverables for long-term investment, with no obvious ministry enhancement from week to week.

Awareness of the problem is half the cure. No Place for Truth is so useful because it will equip you to spot the subtler symptoms of postmodernism in your own mind and heart, as well as in the culture around you. Ministers and shepherds of God’s people are to be wise in the Word. Otherwise, we will have nothing of lasting value to offer them. May we be on guard against any suggestion that caring for people means there is no place in our churches for truth.

Help TGC Renew the Contemporary Church in the Ancient Gospel

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 12:00am

At the end of another year, we give thanks for how God has continued to use The Gospel Coalition to help strengthen pastors and Christians around the world, renewing the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ.

We rejoice that in 2018, TGC’s online resources, events, publications, international outreach, and women’s training network, among other initiatives, have helped equip countless thousands of Christians to grow in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus and his transforming gospel.

Below are some highlights for how God has used TGC in 2018, as well as a call for you to join us as we continue to produce gospel-centered ministry for the 21st-century church, particularly for the growing gospel movements beyond North America.

Online Resources
  • The Gospel Coalition’s website reached 23 million people in 2018, 63 percent of whom are younger than 45, and 43 percent of whom accessed the website from outside the United States.
  • TGC’s talented team of editors and columnists produced more than 1,000 resources in 2018, including articles, book reviews, podcasts, and videos on topics such as biblical theology, church membership, homosexuality, marriage, parenting, technology, vocation, and many others. See editorial director Collin Hansen’s recent recap for highlights from the last year.
  • Through a partnership with Acts 29, we produced weekly content geared specifically for church-planting pastors and other leaders.
Events
  • The MLK50 Conference in Memphis, co-hosted in April with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, sought to advance racial unity in the church and the culture. You can access media from this event, which have already been viewed more than any other TGC event.
  • In June, nearly 8,000 women from all 50 states and 27 countries gathered for three days in Indianapolis for TGC’s fourth biennial women’s conference, entitled “Listen and Live.” Plenary speakers expounded key passages from Deuteronomy. In October we convened our first-ever TGC West Coast conference, with 1,300 gathered in Fullerton, California, around the theme of “Enduring Faithfulness.”
  • Many of our regional and international chapters also hosted conferences, in places like Chicago, Miami, Albuquerque, Mississauga (Ontario), Medellín (Colombia), Johannesburg (South Africa), among many others.
International Coalitions

Many Christians and church leaders around the world are hungry for resources to help them better preach and teach the gospel, distinguish it from false gospels, and apply it to all aspects of life. This hunger is seen in the rapid growth of The Gospel Coalition network beyond North America.

In 2019 we welcomed three new self-governing, self-supporting international councils—TGC Africa, TGC Brazil, and TGC Korea—to our existing family of coalitions, which also includes TGC Canada, TGC Australia, TGC Español, TGC Italia, Evangile 21 (Francophone Europe), Evangelium 21 (Germany), and Razem dia Ewangelii (Poland).

International Resources

To help alleviate the global hunger for gospel-centered resources, TGC has also launched initiatives like:

  • New websites in Arabic and Chinese, where theological resources are freely available to help root these growing Christian populations in the gospel.
  • A new Latin American women’s theological training network to equip 2,000 women through 12 training events in 10 countries throughout the Spanish-speaking world in 2019–20.
  • A multi-year project to produce a set of concise essential biblical and theological resources for pastors around the world, first developed in English and then translated into Spanish, French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Korean to reach two-thirds of the world’s population.
Join Us

All of this content for the global church—just like hundreds of articles, videos, podcasts, courses, and other resources published annually on TGC.org—is given away for free, providing robust resources to believers who might not have access to formal theological training.

We want to keep these resources free, easy to access, and produced at the highest standards of quality. In order to do this, TGC relies on the generosity of supporters like you. As I note in the video below, everything we do depends on the generous gifts of God’s people around the world.

If you have benefited from TGC, would you consider making a year-end gift to bless the many thousands of brothers and sisters across the world who are hungry for gospel-centered resources?

Thank you for your generous support, and may God grant you and your loved ones a blessed Advent season.

The Heart Language in a Globalizing World

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 5:02pm

At the 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism, two Americans, Cindi Walsh and Noël Piper, enjoyed meeting an English-speaking Christian sister from Iraq who sat next to them in the plenary sessions. The three women also worshipped together in English until the chorus of each song, when leaders selected another language. When a chorus began in Arabic, the Iraqi woman jumped up and down and turned to the Americans exclaiming, “This is my language! This is how I worship God.”

“She was more exuberant in her worship,” Cindi said. She and Noël gained a greater appreciation for the translation projects of organizations like TGC. They had observed that language is extremely personal.

Choosing to speak or write in a particular language is about more than utilitarian communication.

The Heart Language

Personal, resonant language has traditionally been called the “language of the heart.” The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) once considered it the most important language for any given person, especially in multilingual contexts. SIL broadly defines a heart language as “the most effective language for communicating deeply as well as for learning new concepts.”

Prioritizing the heart language has decreased in popularity due to the rise of globalization and urbanization. In cities around the world, communication is becoming more singular as people learn languages such as English or French in order to participate in global commerce. As a result, societies are increasingly multilingual.

Translation organizations like SIL must now pay attention to more than just language communities (“all the people who primarily speak or identify with a certain language”). Instead, a more inclusive approach to Bible translation acknowledges all of the languages within speech communities (“networks of people who share a common repertoire of language varieties and norms for their use”). In other words, in many urban communities around the world, people will use multiple languages for different functions (i.e. trade, education, religious practices, or family life).

In a sense, globalization and urbanization are contributing to the simplification of language barriers. If communities are becoming more bilingual, the communication barrier between individuals is on the decline. At the same time, language barriers also become more complicated. If communities share a repertoire of languages, who decides which language to use in any given situation? This dilemma has further implications for heart languages in contexts like worship and education.

What does all of this mean for organizations like TGC that participate in translation projects for theological famine relief?

Case Study: Swahili

A look at the Swahili language of East Africa shows the complexity behind speech communities. In 2011, International Outreach (TGC IO) translated Finally Alive by John Piper into Swahili and distributed five thousand copies intended for pastors and church leaders in this region. In the following years, IO Director Bill Walsh heard through several missionaries that little need remained for Swahili resources because “most people in East Africa speak English.” As a result, no further Swahili projects were planned.

In 2013, Walsh attended a pastors’ conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and he happened to share a car ride with Ronald Kogo, an itinerate church planter based in this city. Though they’d never met in person, Kogo had helped translate the Piper book project and had previously emailed IO to request more Swahili resources. Walsh was able to ask Kogo about the state of the Swahili language.

Kogo explained that many Kenyan and Tanzanian people are moving to cities. A lot of these transplants speak some English by necessity. Even so, very few can read English. “It’s one thing to speak a language, it’s another to learn enough to confidently read a book in a language,” he said. “At the end of the day, their first language is not English.”

Kogo believes East Africa is one or two generations away from a day when everyone in urban areas is literate in English. Yet if that day comes, there may always be people who benefit more through Swahili.

Diverse Challenges for a Diverse World

Mark Dunker, a Tanzania-based trainer of pastors with ReachGlobal, says English is often more useful for educational purposes. “Although Swahili is the heart language for most Tanzanians, our experience is that many prefer studying in English when possible,” he said. English can be more helpful in explaining complex meanings, according to Dunker. He explained that occasionally Swahili vocabulary struggles to communicate some finer points of biblical truths.

An example of this comes from a lesson Dunker taught his marriage and family class on the concept of biblical submission. No one understood the word ‘submission’ because there is no adequate Swahili translation. The closest word they found was ‘obedience,’ which is used in Swahili translations of Scripture; “wives, be obedient to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22). But the true meaning of the original New Testament word requires more nuance.

Dunker’s observation highlights the fact that, despite a globalizing world, resources in many languages are necessary—including the heart languages. In the effort to combat theological famine, communicating biblical truth to the nations requires great wisdom as we seek to reach the hearts of people through the gospel.

Editor’s Note: With the help of ministry and translation partners, TGC is finalizing a Swahili version of Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel for distribution in East Africa. This resource will be available in 2019.

Church Planting Is Not Just About Evangelism

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:04am

When we first started our church we had to define “church planting” for almost everyone we talked to. These days church planting is so well known that it comes with a set of connotations, associations, and stereotypes—some fair and some not.

Many picture rough-and-ready teams of passionate people who, for the literal love of God, pack up their lives and move across the state, the country, or even the world, all to take the gospel where it’s needed but not well known.

It’s wonderful that we associate evangelism with church planting. Much of the world still needs to hear about Jesus, and church planting remains the most effective means to reach them. (As one missiologist put it, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”) I pray we never lose sight of this connection.

Church planting is as much about discipleship as it is evangelism.

But evangelism isn’t the sum total of church planting. Since every church plant aims to become a self-sustaining church, church planting necessarily involves everything a church is called to believe and be and do. And that means church planting is as much about discipleship as it is evangelism.

Indispensability of Discipleship

It should be neither surprising nor controversial that discipleship is indispensable for church planting. In the first place, Jesus commands it. “Go therefore and make disciples,” he says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Church planting without discipleship simply isn’t an option.

This is why discipleship was a central component of the apostle Paul’s church-planting efforts. In every town, he preached the gospel to unbelievers, discipled the new believers, then appointed elders from among the maturing believers (Acts 14:21–23). Thus evangelism necessitated discipleship that, in turn, prompted leadership development. All three are part of church planting.

The church is the context in which God’s people are enabled to grow to maturity in Christ.

Finally, the church is the context in which God’s people are enabled to grow to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16). This maturity is not only the church’s corporate calling; it’s also the goal for every individual believer (Col. 1:28). Church planting, then, is as much about “looking in” as “reaching out.”

Yet all this is just as true of established churches as it is of church plants. So what distinguishes church planting? The unique opportunities for discipleship intrinsic to the work.

Discipleship Before

As a process, church planting has a “before,” a “during,” and an “after”—and all three phases present unique occasions for discipleship. Before planting our church, for example, we discipled our team by addressing a range of heart-issues related to church planting.

So we brought the gospel to bear on the struggles of moving to a new city. We addressed fears related to leaving behind the comfort and safety of our suburban upbringing. We sought to expose and address hidden prejudices. We preached the finished work of Jesus as both our motivation for evangelism and also our consolation in the face of potential discouragement. Preparing to plant a church brought all these issues to light in the lives of people who otherwise may never have been forced to face them.

Discipleship During

Opportunities for discipleship further increased during our first years of planting. We didn’t own a building at first, so we had to set up and tear down for service each week. In the summer this meant loading a box truck that topped 120 degrees; in the winter unloading metal chairs so cold your hands were in danger of frostbite. It was highly sanctifying.

Without the challenges of church planting, many of our members might never have become the faithful servants and mature leaders they are today.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of the many other opportunities for growth through service, from childcare workers to community project volunteers to the ever-growing need for new small group leaders. Without the challenges of church planting, many of our members might never have become the faithful servants and mature leaders they are today.

Discipleship After

Finally, church planting creates opportunities for discipleship even after a plant becomes an established church. For example, we joined Acts 29 because of a shared belief in the need to plant church-planting churches. We wanted to be more of a pipeline than a cul-de-sac. Yet that kind of continual support and deployment requires continual discipleship and development.

In this way, every church plant’s “after” may become the beginning of another plant’s “before.” It’s a cycle that taps into God’s heart for the growth of his people. It addresses the world’s need for new churches. And it shows how church planting really is about discipleship.

Beware Emotional Affairs

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:03am

Josh had been at a new church for four months when Sara—his pastor’s wife—invited him to join their community group, which was a weekly gathering of both singles and married couples. Sara and her husband, Craig, wanted a group where married couples mentored singles.

Josh and Sara hit it off, and they discovered lots of common interests. Their conversation easily flowed during the fellowship time before the Bible study. Sara was surprised how much she missed Josh when he couldn’t attend. Josh realized that talking to Sara became the main reason he enjoyed the group. Not a big deal, it’s just talking.

Then the conversation time moved into texting. Not a big deal, everyone texts. But when the two of them began texting about community group issues, their sharing became more personal. Josh’s work stress and loneliness as a single man, and Sara’s challenges in being a pastor’s wife, gave them ways to grow more emotionally intimate with each other.

Then it happened. Their texting became a nightly ritual as Craig was often asleep by 9 p.m. and Sara, a night owl, would reach out to Josh to check in and see how he was in regards to his prayer requests. Their texting often lasted an hour or more. The warning line had long since been crossed.

One night Josh felt compelled to be honest and blurted out in a text: I think I’m in love with you. He waited nervously for her reply, and it came within seconds: Me too . . . my heart’s grown cold towards Craig. No one’s ever understood my heart the way you do. I need you. Her text gave Josh a rush of intoxication and yet, seeing her words jolted him: Sara was married, and her husband was his pastor!

Josh panicked. Now the reality of their too-close friendship hit him like a punch to the gut. What was so enjoyable and enriching was now an entangled mess. How would their friendship go forward? What if this got out? Would he have to leave the church? Would Sara’s marriage survive?

Discerning When Lines Are Crossed

Though Josh and Sara never touched one another, they had cultivated an unholy and messy relationship: an emotional affair. An emotional affair happens when a married person shares ongoing emotional intimacy with someone who is not his or her spouse, in a way that damages the marriage relationship. Singles can be guilty of emotional affairs, too, when they form inappropriately intimate relationships with a married person.

Many men and women miss the alarms going off when a relationship begins to cross obvious lines. They assume that because there’s no physical or sexual involvement, the relationship is okay.

But one day an awareness kicks in, and they realize it’s moving in the wrong direction.

If close friendships are an important God-given gift to us, how do we discern if boundaries are being crossed into a danger zone?

Questions to Ask

Here are some questions to help discern if your relationship has morphed into an emotional affair:

  • Is there any secrecy or deception involved in your interactions?
  • How much contact are you in (face to face, over devices, social media, and so on), and how does it compare to how much time you connect with your spouse?
  • If you are single, how does your contact with this married person compare to other close friendships?
  • Do you have romantic feeling toward her/him? Sexual chemistry? Mental preoccupation? If yes to any of these, are you seeking to feed or flee from these tempting dynamics?
  • What is the content of your communication? How would your spouse (or mentor, pastor, close friend) react if she/he saw your texts or emails, or overheard your private conversations?
  • Does this relationship inspire you to obey Christ or to turn away from him? Does this relationship propel you toward your spouse, or away? Does this relationship motivate you to invest more passionately in loving other people, or to isolate yourself and focus on this one person?

Brother or sister, if these questions (and your answers) make you uncomfortable about this relationship: PAUSE! HALT! STOP! You—and your friend—are in danger.

God wants us to have rich and meaningful relationships whether we are single or married. God delights in Christ-centered friendships that stay within the boundaries of his Word, boundaries that are healthy for both friends.

But God never intends for any of his good gifts to become a heart-hijacking reality that steals joy and betrays a spouse’s trust. He is committed to removing relational attachments which lead to sin and distraction. Emotional affairs are a cheap substitute for what God graciously gives: unfailing love and true intimacy of the deepest kind, which is ours in Christ.

Carson: We Need Jesus, So We Need the Old Testament

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:02am

If there’s a linchpin connecting the old and new covenant stories, it’s Christmas. Gospel writer Luke begins his birth narrative in the temple with the priest Zechariah, a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. At the time of Jesus’s birth, the Jews are living under the old covenant. And then, a baby. The Messiah’s birth fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus’s life fulfills the law. And his death and resurrection save believers from God’s wrath.

So what happens to Christmas if we unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament? And what happens to the gospel?

TGC president and New Testament scholar Don Carson joins me on this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast to answer a few questions about law and gospel, and about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, particularly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

You can listen to our conversation here.

Related:

When Christ Is the Cornerstone of Your Medical Practice

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:00am

“There is a heartbeat,” the ultrasound technician told me with a smile. “And there is another heartbeat.”

“Why does my baby have two heartbeats?” I may have raised my voice—I was a little stressed. Just weeks earlier I was convinced I was miscarrying again. My body seemed to be doing the very thing it had done two years earlier—losing a baby.

But this time we were seeing something different on that grainy screen. There wasn’t just one baby growing inside me, but two. Our years-long prayer for another life—and a solid heartbeat—was finally answered with twins.

Just five months later—as we prepared to meet them eight weeks before their due date—the same doctor who rejoiced over their heartbeats with us also prayed with us. As he sat beside my bed in the high-risk unit, he met my eyes and said, “This is not how we hoped it would go. I wanted them to have more time, but here we are.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d prayed with us before a surgery. And it wasn’t the last. He walked with us through many pregnancy trials, losses, fears, and joys. And because our first miscarriage was at a different clinic, in a different state, with an unbelieving doctor, we never got over the gift it was to have a doctor not only pray with us, but also invest in our family.

When we miscarried again, a year after the twins were born, he prayed with us and reassured us of the value of the life we lost—even if we never saw a beating heart.

It turns out my doctor wasn’t the only one in his medical group committed to practicing medicine with Christ at the center.

The Beginning

Most people, if pressed, would say they don’t like going to the doctor. It’s invasive. It takes time out of your day. It costs money. On top of that, you are usually there because of a problem, which only adds to the unpleasantness.

Seeing an OB/GYN is even worse. If visiting a general doctor for an everyday ailment makes you anxious, how much more a doctor who deals with even more private matters?

OB/GYNs see us in a variety of life stages, from the highest of highs (pregnancy and childbirth) to the lowest of lows (cancer, pregnancy loss, menopause) to the mundane in-between (just ask the woman who goes in for her annual appointment). This is why, for many women, finding a good OB/GYN is a gift.

I’m not the only woman in my city who counts Cornerstone Clinic for Women as a rare gift. In fact, I’m one of many.

Cornerstone started with two doctors, Orman Simmons and Douglas Smith, who met on their first day of medical school, both as unbelievers. They were friends all through medical school and residency, then went their separate ways.

Orman Simmons / Courtesy of Cornerstone

Their early days of practicing medicine were much like any other doctor’s during that period—time-consuming and exhausting.

“I wanted to be a popular OB/GYN,” Simmons remembers. “While I cared about my family, my primary focus was building my practice. Success mattered.”

Then God broke through and saved him. “We were churchgoers, but I just played the game. It was a couple of years into my practice before I met Jesus for real.” After his conversion, everything changed.

Four or five years later, in the fall of 1975, Simmons went to a medical conference in Mexico City. While there he saw a man who looked familiar, who seemed to be talking to himself.

“Once I realized it was Doug, I went up and said, ‘What are you doing?’” Simmons recalls. “He had these notecards he was reading, and he told me he was memorizing Scripture. This was not the same Doug Smith I remembered.”

Both were surprised and elated that the other had become a Christian, and soon realized their common faith only made their old friendship stronger.

Before long, Simmons suggested they should go into practice together.

Aroma of Jesus

In those early days of planning and praying, both men—and their wives—felt strongly about the importance of placing Christ at the center of their work.

“Why not name [the practice] Cornerstone, because Christ is our cornerstone?” Smith’s wife, Jane Ann, suggested. “Those who are already Christians will know what we believe; those who don’t will ask questions.”

Both men felt strongly that treating patients wasn’t their only goal. “We wanted to make it as much a ministry as it was a medical practice,” Simmons said.

Because they know that only God can be God, they are free to not have to be God for their patients.

In the fall of 1977, Cornerstone Clinic for Women opened with the express goal of being the aroma of Jesus to all who walked through the doors.

To be a patient at Cornerstone is to encounter a distinctly different kind of doctor and practice. From the front desk staff all the way to the doctors’ offices, the mission of Cornerstone is to treat people the way Jesus would.

Doctors and staff share what they’re thankful for this year. / Courtesy of Cornerstone

When my husband and I moved to Little Rock, we were in the midst of a struggle with infertility. We had already miscarried and were unable to get pregnant again. It was important to us to find a practice that would treat us with care and skill. Our doctor, Kevin Breniman at Cornerstone, came highly recommend from other friends who’d faced similar issues, so we made an appointment to see him.

Immediately we knew something was different. This was long before I got pregnant with the twins, but the level of care was the same. The doctor who displayed such Christlike compassion in the terrifying moments before delivery also displayed compassion as he listened to our story of loss and subsequent infertility. I knew I wanted him to be my doctor.

I’m not the only one.

Lindsey Greenwald has experienced this care time and again. “I have seen the doctors go above and beyond the call of duty. I’ve never been told ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you.’”

This has been a lifeline as she’s faced difficulties in both childbirth and other aspects of her health. “I look forward to going to the doctor because of the care and the environment.”

From learning a new procedure that would help her to praying with her every step of the way, Cornerstone doctors have shown Greenwald extraordinary compassion.

Cori Gladden also experienced this when she realized she needed a specific surgery before she got married, but she didn’t have the insurance or money to pay for it.

“After a few weeks I was contacted by Dr. Simmons, who didn’t know me but had heard about my situation, and he wanted to do the surgery as a wedding gift,” Gladden said. “He said no one should have to start off marriage with that kind of stress. He blessed us tremendously.”

Praying with Patients

The conviction to keep Christ at the center began with Simmons and Smith but continues today with the doctors who run the practice.

“Everyone wants to be prayed for,” gynecologist Kay Chandler said. It seems so simple, but from the beginning the doctors at Cornerstone have made it a goal to pray for their patients during times of crisis and before procedures. Chandler felt convicted early on to make praying for her patients before each surgery a priority.

Daniel and Courtney Reissig have four sons. / Courtesy of Courtney Reissig

“If it goes well, I want to give God the glory,” she said. “If it doesn’t go well, I know that I can do nothing without him.” In a moment of crisis, her patients often want the help, too—even if they aren’t believers. Once, during a particularly harrowing delivery, she cried, “God, help me!”—knowing that birth is under his lordship and power.

In addition to praying with the patients, Cornerstone doctors also pray for the patients. And when they’re unsure of a diagnosis, they’re not afraid to ask for help from one another.

“We all practice medicine and believe in modern medicine and are equipped with a skill set, but we all know the limitations of that as well,” Dr. Kristen Bracy said. “We are acutely aware of our human limitations and are willing to submit to the Lord, realizing that there is a time where this is beyond us and we just need to pray.”

Because they know that only God can be God, they are free to not have to be God for their patients. This is not only comforting; it’s also a witness.

Personal Care

My pregnancy journey didn’t end with premature twins. That was only the beginning of a years-long struggle to keep a baby and deliver a baby safely. My pregnancy stories are not the ones you swap at baby showers, unless you want to scare the new mom and make everyone else sign up for more birth control. So I know that when life and death are on the line for mom and baby, you want your doctor to acknowledge that only God is God. Otherwise, what hope do you have?

I’ve had the privilege of watching the entire Cornerstone staff live out this hope. Though I started with just one doctor, a severe pregnancy complication with my fourth child put me under the care of them all, as I spent three weeks in the high-risk unit of the hospital.

I had a steady stream of Cornerstone doctors visiting me, caring for me, and praying for me. I sensed their dependence on the Lord as they talked about the complexity of my case. My husband and I both, though scared and uncertain about the outcome for my son and for me, had absolute trust not just in them, but also in the God they trusted to give them wisdom to care for us.

Bracy was the doctor on call the night I arrived at the hospital in incredible pain and utterly terrified. As the hours dragged on, it became apparent that things were far more serious than we originally thought. We were staring at either a long hospital stay or an immediate delivery—or worse.

Only God knew what was going on inside my uterus. Bracy could only make an educated guess based on the tests and symptoms. We were at the mercy of waiting it out, and praying the wait would be worth it.

In those long weeks I saw in even greater measure what it means to practice medicine from a Christ-centered perspective. The tests are the same. The procedures are the same. But when wisdom and waiting are the best course of action, you want doctors who get that wisdom on their knees.

The tests are the same. The procedures are the same. But when wisdom and waiting are the best course of action, you want doctors who get that wisdom on their knees.

In the dark weeks after delivery, when I had to process postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress, my doctor didn’t let me go. Instead, he had me come back in, even after my six-week postpartum check-up. He referred me to counseling.

Cornerstone doctors balance the confidence of making life-and-death decisions with the humility that comes from knowing that God controls those outcomes. As a recipient of that humbly confident care, my family is forever grateful for them all.

Smith and Simmons are now retired, but their legacy lives on—both in the lives of the patients they’ve cared for and also in the doctors carrying on the vision for the clinic.

“All the credit goes to the Lord,” Simmons said. “We are so puny, but with him nothing is impossible.”

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