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Holiday Check-In: Navigating Big Conversations with Your College Student

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 12:04am

Christmas decorations are up, lists are coming together, and Christmas music rings through the stores. The holidays are fast approaching. It also means your college-age child is coming home, maybe for the first time all semester. You’re excited to have them home, but you may also be a little nervous about how your relationship is changing. Will they just sleep all day? Will they eat everything in sight? Is an outburst for independence on the way? Will they actually tell you how they are doing? Will they even talk to you?

These are all questions many parents wrestle with this time of year. You want to welcome your child home with open arms, but you also want to give them space to rest, see old friends, and continue to grow. As parents of growing adult children, we have to learn how to interact with them in new ways. At the same time, they’re still your children, and you still have a lot to offer them as they learn more of who they are.

So how do we navigate this new parenting territory?

I recommend focusing on three areas of conversation: their mission, their mates, and their Master. Seeking to gently learn about these three particulars will give you more information than you might realize. You don’t need to bombard them with all the questions at once. Getting caught up with your college kid’s life won’t happen instantly; it will take days if not weeks.

As we look into these three areas, think about how you might ask simple questions that will encourage your child to share openly. And if your child isn’t home for Christmas, you can use these practices the next time you talk on the phone or video chat.

Their Mission

It really is okay if your college student doesn’t know what they want to do long-term when they head off to college, or even as they enter their second or third year. It’s daunting to ask an 18-year-old to decide what they want to do the rest of their lives. The reality is this current generation will probably have jobs in multiple vocations. What’s comforting as a parent is knowing they’re surrounded by information and tools to equip them well in whatever vocation they choose.

Going off to college opens doors they might have never have thought about before. Maybe your child has always been interested in science but never knew what was out there. Or they love writing but were never told they were good enough. Or maybe they’re discovering their passion for justice and want to explore a life of seeking to make the world a better place.

College is a time for them to discover, to be creative, to try things out. Remind your child, in their conversations with you over the holidays, that they don’t have to have it all figured out. Just view this time as a brainstorming season and bounce ideas around.

And be sure to encourage them in the talents and unique gifts God has given them. Though they may not seem like they care about your opinion, it means so much to them.

Talking with your child about his or her mission is a great way to enter into conversation about what they’re thinking for the future—even if they’re still unsure. It’s a softer way of approaching a daunting question. Asking about their passions, dreams, and what they enjoy can help them process the information they are receiving. Remember, choices are wonderful, but they can also be paralyzing. They already feel the pressure of the future, so you want to enable them to tackle it, not be suffocated by it.

Their Mates

We become like those with whom we surround ourselves. Your community and friend group matters, especially in college.

Your student will learn how to develop and sustain friendships over the years and the miles during their time in college. They will see how unique things bring people together. They will grow in their ability to build community and cultivate relationships. But it can be scary and daunting. Instead of asking 1,000 questions, enter the conversation with your own story. Tell of your own friendships from their age and what you learned. Sharing your experiences with friends in those young-adult years—both the good and the bad—gives them tangible and relatable examples to filter their own experience.

Another way to know your child’s friends is to invite them over if they’re local, or even invite them to come to your home for part of the break if they live further afield. This will allow you to get to know them better in the comfort of your home.

Their Master

Finally, college is a time when your child’s faith is tested. They are away from home, have new influences, and may struggle with a new environment and new people. They’re no longer under your roof and have the responsibility to make decisions on their own. This includes going to church and spending time with the Lord. The reality is this may be the first time they “own” their faith. It’s intimidating and unknown. But it’s a process they have to go through. As a parent, you have the chance to ask them who or what is guiding their actions.

During the holiday break, you might find out your child doesn’t go to church, but they do attend a campus ministry regularly. Ask them all about that: what they have been learning, who they have met, what the director/campus minister is like. Campus ministry is no substitute for the local church body, but guilt won’t help your son or daughter find a church. They have to experience the feeling that something is missing. College students are always around their own age group, and soon they will realize they need more diverse friends who come from the local church.

The trick to the “who is your master?” conversation isn’t guilt or judgment. It must be filled with love and understanding, as your child is growing in their faith and into the person God desires them to be.

A way to help your child in this journey is to encourage them to take a leadership role on campus or participate in a service event or mission trip. I’ve found those experiences mature students and help them realize it’s not all about them. College can produce tunnel vision for some; as a parent, you can help bring light to the tunnel to reveal all that’s around them.

As you welcome your college student back home with hugs, kisses, and heaps of mashed potatoes, remember to be intentional in learning about who they’re becoming by asking about their mission, their mates, and their master. It’s exciting having your child back home. Enjoy it!

Persecuted Chinese Pastor Issues a ‘Declaration of Faithful Disobedience’

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 12:03am

The Story: A persecuted Reformed pastor in China issued a letter explaining the meaning and necessity of faithful disobedience, how it is distinct from political activism or civil disobedience, and how Christians should carry it out.

The Background: Earlier this month Wang Yi, his wife Jiang Rong, and more than 100 Christians who attend Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested in the city of Chengdu by Chinese authorities. The members of the congregation were charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” According to China Aid, this is a charge often handed to Chinese Christians because the Communist Party views religion as a threat to their ideological control. If convicted, Wang and his parishioners could face up to 15 years in prison. Some of the church leaders and members have since been released but remain under house arrest.

The Chinese government began a renewed and vigorous persecution of Christians earlier this year by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religion materials, and closing churches. Chinese law requires Protestant Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a state-sanctioned body for the organization of all Protestant churches in China. But many millions belong to underground “house churches” that defy government restrictions. The term “house church” refers to any unauthorized church, regardless of size or meeting location. Some house churches in China have hundreds or even thousands of members.

In 2005, when he converted to Christianity, Wang was a human rights lawyer, law professor, and one of the most influential public intellectuals in China. In 2008 he founded and served the Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church (later renamed the Early Rain Covenant Church), and in 2011 he was appointed to be the senior pastor.

In 2015, Wang and other pastors at Early Rain released a document online entitled “Reaffirming our Stance on the House Churches: 95 theses.” As Chloë Starr of Harvard Divinity School says, “the document can be seen as a milestone of house church belief, broadcasting its challenge to the state and to the state-registered Protestant church in China.”

The Letter: Earlier this year Wang wrote the declaration “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” a letter to be published by his church should he be detained for more than 48 hours. The full text of the letter is reprinted below. This English translation was originally published on the China Partnership Blog on December 12, 2018, and is replicated here with permission. TGC thanks Brent Pinkall and the China Partnership translation team for their work.

My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience

On the basis of the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the authorities God has established in China. For God deposes kings and raises up kings. This is why I submit to the historical and institutional arrangements of God in China.

As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.

For all hideous realities, unrighteous politics, and arbitrary laws manifest the cross of Jesus Christ, the only means by which every Chinese person must be saved. They also manifest the fact that true hope and a perfect society will never be found in the transformation of any earthly institution or culture but only in our sins being freely forgiven by Christ and in the hope of eternal life.

As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.

For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.

At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.

But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.

As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.

For the mission of the church is only to be the church and not to become a part of any secular institution. From a negative perspective, the church must separate itself from the world and keep itself from being institutionalized by the world. From a positive perspective, all acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world. The Bible teaches us that, in all matters relating to the gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men. For this reason, spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King.

This is why I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China. I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change. Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience. For the entire commission God has given me is to let more Chinese people know through my actions that the hope of humanity and society is only in the redemption of Christ, in the supernatural, gracious sovereignty of God.

If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good.

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power. For the Bible teaches us that God establishes governmental authorities in order to terrorize evildoers, not to terrorize doers of good. If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society.

I also understand that this happens to be the very reason why the Communist regime is filled with fear at a church that is no longer afraid of it.

If I am imprisoned for a long or short period of time, if I can help reduce the authorities’ fear of my faith and of my Savior, I am very joyfully willing to help them in this way. But I know that only when I renounce all the wickedness of this persecution against the church and use peaceful means to disobey, will I truly be able to help the souls of the authorities and law enforcement. I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what crime the government charges me with, whatever filth they fling at me, as long as this charge is related to my faith, my writings, my comments, and my teachings, it is merely a lie and temptation of demons. I categorically deny it. I will serve my sentence, but I will not serve the law. I will be executed, but I will not plead guilty.

Moreover, I must point out that persecution against the Lord’s church and against all Chinese people who believe in Jesus Christ is the most wicked and the most horrendous evil of Chinese society. This is not only a sin against Christians. It is also a sin against all non-Christians. For the government is brutally and ruthlessly threatening them and hindering them from coming to Jesus. There is no greater wickedness in the world than this.

If this regime is one day overthrown by God, it will be for no other reason than God’s righteous punishment and revenge for this evil. For on earth, there has only ever been a thousand-year church. There has never been a thousand-year government. There is only eternal faith. There is no eternal power.

Those who lock me up will one day be locked up by angels. Those who interrogate me will finally be questioned and judged by Christ.  When I think of this, the Lord fills me with a natural compassion and grief toward those who are attempting to and actively imprisoning me. Pray that the Lord would use me, that he would grant me patience and wisdom, that I might take the gospel to them.

Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family – the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.

And so, respectable officers, stop committing evil. This is not for my benefit but rather for yours and your children’s. I plead earnestly with you to stay your hands, for why should you be willing to pay the price of eternal damnation in hell for the sake of a lowly sinner such as I?

Jesus is the Christ, son of the eternal, living God. He died for sinners and rose to life for us. He is my king and the king of the whole earth yesterday, today, and forever. I am his servant, and I am imprisoned because of this. I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.

First draft on September 21st, 2018; revised on October 4th. To be published by the church after 48 hours of detention.

Appendix: What Constitutes Faithful Disobedience

I firmly believe that the Bible has not given any branch of any government the authority to run the church or to interfere with the faith of Christians. Therefore, the Bible demands that I, through peaceable means, in meek resistance and active forbearance, filled with joy, resist all administrative policies and legal measures that oppress the church and interfere with the faith of Christians.

I firmly believe this is a spiritual act of disobedience.  In modern authoritarian regimes that persecute the church and oppose the gospel, spiritual disobedience is an inevitable part of the gospel movement.

I firmly believe that spiritual disobedience is an act of the last times; it is a witness to God’s eternal kingdom in the temporal kingdom of sin and evil. Disobedient Christians follow the example of the crucified Christ by walking the path of the cross. Peaceful disobedience is the way in which we love the world as well as the way in which we avoid becoming part of the world.

I firmly believe that in carrying out spiritual disobedience, the Bible demands me to rely on the grace and resurrection power of Christ, that I must respect and not overstep two boundaries.

The first boundary is that of the heart. Love toward the soul, and not hatred toward the body, is the motivation of spiritual disobedience. Transformation of the soul, and not the changing of circumstances, is the aim of spiritual disobedience. At any time, if external oppression and violence rob me of inner peace and endurance, so that my heart begins to breed hatred and bitterness toward those who persecute the church and abuse Christians, then spiritual disobedience fails at that point.

The second boundary is that of behavior. The gospel demands that disobedience of faith must be non-violent. The mystery of the gospel lies in actively suffering, even being willing to endure unrighteous punishment, as a substitute for physical resistance. Peaceful disobedience is the result of love and forgiveness. The cross means being willing to suffer when one does not have to suffer. For Christ had limitless ability to fight back, yet he endured all of the humility and hurt. The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him.

I firmly believe that Christ has called me to carry out this faithful disobedience through a life of service, under this regime that opposes the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the means by which I preach the gospel, and it is the mystery of the gospel which I preach.

The Lord’s servant,

Wang Yi

MultiChurch a More Biblical Version of Multisite?

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 12:02am

At first there were churches. Christians glanced at their clocks Sunday morning, realized the family was about to gather, and hurried down to the meeting place. “Hello, church. Great to see you.”

In the 1960s and ’70s multi-service churches showed up. They provide a convenient and cost-effective way to grow a congregation, even if everyone can’t meet at the same time. “Wait, you’re a member, too? Do you come to the 9:30 or the 11 a.m. service?”

A decade later, multi-site churches followed. They divide a congregation not chronologically but geographically. “One church, multiple locations” is the motto. People can meet closer to their homes, and they might have their own dedicated set of pastors. “I attend Trinity North, but I have a couple friends across town at Trinity South.”

Brad House and Gregg Allison, two ecclesial pioneers, want to lead the wagon train one mountain farther—to the land of the multichurch, in their book MultiChurch: Exploring the Future of Multisite.


Like the multisite model, the separate locations of the multichurch call themselves one “church”—singular. They, too, are connected by a budget, brand, and board. They share a theology, vision, and philosophy of ministry, as well as the administrative mechanism for coordinating their work together. But unlike the multisite church, they name their sites or campuses “churches.” These different locations possess more authority to make location-specific decisions than what you’ll find on the campuses of a multisite church.

The authors illustrate the model: Emma shares the gospel with her cousin Courtney, who becomes a Christian. Emma wants to continue participating in Courtney’s discipleship, but they live on opposite sides of the metropolis. A multichurch allows Courtney to join a “church” closer to where she lives, a different congregation than Emma’s. But the two women can “share in the same church identity” because they belong to one “church.” (Yes, the word “church” is being used in two different ways—for a congregation and for a collection of congregations.)

  • Both women have their own dedicated set of pastors or elders, and those pastors belong to a larger council of elders from all the churches (like a presbytery?).
  • Perhaps there is one senior pastor over all the congregations together, but perhaps not.
  • Neither Emma nor her particular elders will vote on Courtney’s membership (or discipline). Courtney’s own congregation or its leaders will. Yet every little “church” in the one big “church” will be informed about such decisions.
  • Each woman’s congregation will have some degree of budgetary autonomy, controlling perhaps two-thirds, ideally three-quarters of their budget. That way, each congregation can focus on the ministries most suited to its context. Yet every church in the big church will vote on the overall budget together.

The hope of the multichurch, House and Allison say, is to achieve a better balance between the one church’s centralized control and each individual congregation’s ability to own its unique ministry. The model aims for unity between congregations, not uniformity. It aims to enjoy one shared vision and set of core values, while giving freedom to each congregation to organize and pursue ministries suited to its context.

The multichurch model, you might say, wants its cake, and it wants to eat it. It wants all the advantages of interdependence and cooperation between multiple congregations, and all the advantages of location-specific ministry. Two reasonable ambitions, I think.

I suspect the term “multichurch” won’t catch on. The word itself is internally contradictory. If a multichurch is one church, then it’s not multi, but one. But if it’s multi, it’s not one. Right? Or am I just confused? I can’t tell.

Before going any further, you should know where I’m coming from. I’m one of the 14 American evangelicals left who believes that, since the Greek word for “church” literally translates as “assembly,” a regular assembly is a necessary ingredient for a church to be a church. You might call your 9:30 and 11 a.m. gatherings two “services,” but they’re actually two churches. So in fairness to the authors, having me review their book is a bit like having a Baptist review a book on infant baptism. You kinda know what you’re going to get.

Relatively Better Way

That said, House and Allison don’t appear to have aimed their book at people like me, whom they wave off as offering “hypercriticisms” and imposing “personal preferences” on the biblical text. Rather, they appear to aim at folks who have adopted the multisite model, and their purpose is to offer a better way.

My verdict? They succeed! Or, at least they succeed in offering something better than the typical multisite model. If you’re convinced that the multisite or multiservice model are biblical (and on another day I’d want to convince you otherwise), then this book points you in a better direction. I’d encourage any committed multisiter to read it.

For starters, House and Allison are honest. They rightly observe that multisite churches don’t necessarily lead toward a cult of personality or a devaluing of the pulpit. Indeed, so-called pillar churches can succumb to the same seduction. But they acknowledge that the multisite model is, perhaps, more susceptible to these twin temptations. Video-venue models in particular risk elevating the messenger over the message. They also “reduce the opportunity and motivation to develop preachers.” House and Allison also acknowledge that many forms of multisite make it easier for church members to remain anonymous and avoid personal accountability.

In other words, House and Allison believe the Bible gives us the freedom to adopt a more centralized multisite model. I disagree. Still, they reason that the practical downsides of a multisite model should push pastors, as a matter of prudence, to adopt their alternative, which I agree is better than traditional multisite (I never thought I’d type those two words together!).

Biblical Problems

That said, let me highlight a couple of problems. The most significant is the Bible problem. Huge conversation, this. But let me quickly flag four biblical problems.

First, Jesus explicitly ties his presence and authority to two or three (or two or three thousand) “gathered” in his name (Matt. 18:20). He’s “there.” He’s “among.” Spatial words, those. He doesn’t say he’s “there” or “among” the presbytery, the synod, the board, or collection of congregations. (See my book Don’t Fire Your Church Members for a discussion of these verses.)

Second, there isn’t a single instance in the Bible of the word “church” being used both for the small gathering and the big gathering. Consider, for instance, how Luke says the Jerusalem church met in houses. Fine. So does mine. We call them small groups. And I’d be happy to say our “church”—singular—meets from house to house. My small group meets on Wednesday night at the Broggis’ house, in fact.

But what makes us a church is the fact that we all meet together on Sunday in the cafeteria at Spellman Elementary. So it is in Acts. Never are those house gatherings in Jerusalem characterized as “churches.” Instead, what made the church in Jerusalem a “church” is the fact that they all met together (2:41, 46; 5:12; 6:2). Same with Corinth (see 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:18, 33; 14:23, 26). Rome, interestingly, is just the opposite. Never once do we encounter the words “the church in Rome.” Instead, the text seems to insinuate there may have been several churches in Rome (see Rom. 16:5). Notice how careful the biblical authors are?

The simple way to put this second point is that MultiChurch, like most multisite literature I’ve seen, mistakes small groups, ordinary Christian fellowship, and hospitality for churches. Yes, church members meet in houses throughout the week. That’s what Christians do.

Third, Allison, in a number of books, including this one, has argued that the words “whole church” (e.g., Acts 5:11; 15:22) are evidence of multiple sites. By that rationale, Luke must be referring to several human bodies coming together as one body when he says, “the whole body is full of light” (Luke 11:36). And he must be talking about several cities coming together as one city when he says news about Jesus was proclaimed “throughout the whole city” (Luke 8:39). I fear Allison is reading his preferences into the Word.

Fourth, the entire biblical argument for multisite or multichurch depends on phrases like “presumably they all met” and “it’s not unreasonable to assume” and “surely they could not have” and so forth. I’ve read much of the literature, even the academic stuff about the probable sizes of houses in the ancient Near East. Assumption is added to assumption is added to assumption, and suddenly we’re all certain that “the church in Corinth” consisted of five campuses. Wait, what?

Here’s an exercise: Walk through the New Testament city by city, and look for concrete evidence of two or more church gatherings doing everything churches do (like preaching and baptizing) but still being called one “church.” What you’ll find is not fluidity in how the word “church” is used, as is so often stated by practitioners and scholars alike, but extreme care in using the for a group of Christians who actually gather as one. The one exception is Acts 9:31, where the word is used as what grammarians call a collective noun with a singular verb, like “the report is spreading,” referring to multiple speech acts. [Luke, in fact, uses this device in a number of places beyond 9:31 where the preposition “throughout” (kata) is followed by the genitive case (see Luke 4:14; Acts 9:42, 10:37). Thanks to classical Greek scholar Anne Rabe for this insight, who explains all this in an appendix for a book I’m writing on multisite churches.] And it strikes me as strange to build an entire model on one use of a collective noun, particularly when the text is updating us for the first time on what happened to the church in Jerusalem after it had been scattered (Acts 8:1–3).

Word ‘Church’

Finally, I admit, I still hold to the “hypercriticism” that the multisite church and the multichurch takes the assembly out of church. House and Allison argue that this is a methodological error of defining a concept entirely by a word. For instance, we wouldn’t say “salvation” in the Bible only means an act of saving or that “justification” only means the act of justifying. No, the concepts are much larger.

Well, that’s true. But is there a form of salvation that doesn’t involve saving? Or justification that doesn’t involve justifying? House and Allison are, in fact, proposing a use of “assembly” (ekklesia) that doesn’t involve assembling. The multiple assemblies they call one “church” don’t actually assemble with each other, at least not of necessity. That makes it an assembly that doesn’t assemble.

Bottom Line

MultiChurch is a good book if you’re a committed multisiter. Indeed, it’s more biblical and more driven by theological instincts than any other piece of multisite literature I’ve encountered—by several light years. Even though House and Allison feel exasperated by people like me, their tone is gracious and kind, and their hearts are clearly pastoral.

They deny being presbyterian, because their congregation votes on a couple of things. I’d call their model a hybrid of presbyterian and congregational: multiple churches who can all vote on joint activities and who are united by a single board of elders (a presbytery).

There are further logical problems I would highlight if time permitted, such as the classification spectrum they use to define the landscape. Also, the book’s given methodology borders on incoherence. They say they want to be “biblical,” but then they establish “creativity” as the cardinal principle for building churches since God himself is creative. To this reader, that sounds like an excuse to go well beyond Scripture, which, again, I think they do. Either way, I love Gregg Allison, who was a professor of mine. He’s a wonderful teacher, godly man, and, I trust, a capable pastor. (I’ve never met Brad House.) We just have different views on this topic. I told you that’s what you were going to get. And I look forward to the day in glory when I’ll get to tell him, “I told you so.” Smile.

Editor’s Choice: The Best of 2018

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 12:00am

We knew this year would be busy for The Gospel Coalition with three major public conferences and our biennial Council meeting. We hosted our largest women’s conference and first West Coast conference. The MLK50 conference was the most-watched in TGC history. Probably no event I’ve ever helped to plan involved so high a risk and delivered so high a reward as MLK50, by God’s grace alone.

For the long term, maybe the greatest legacy of 2018 for TGC will be the launch of several new independent coalitions, websites, and translation pages around the world. This year alone our partners started independent, locally governed TGC outposts in Brazil, Italy, Africa, and Korea, and began publishing in the Chinese and Arabic languages. They join our existing sites for Australia, Canada, Francophone Europe, and Farsi speakers. International cities continue to contribute some of the most readers of London (#7 overall), Lagos (#8), Bogota (#10), Sydney (#11), Santiago (#12), and Guatemala City (#14). Nearly 20 percent of our overall site traffic from more than 21 million readers comes in search of Spanish-language content.

While planning events and helping launch international sites, out editors wrote, edited, and acquired eight books and two curricula, the most we’ve ever published in a single year.

In this annual column, I look back on the Lord’s kindness from the last year, and also celebrate the best of more than 1,000 resources planned, produced, and published by our editorial staff and columnists in 2018. It’s not exhaustive, but it reflects exhausting efforts to serve church leaders in shaping their life, doctrine, and teaching. As explained in The Gospel Coalition’s foundation documents, we pray that God would work in and through us “to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Christ so that we truly speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age.”

Thank you for reading in 2018, and especially for carrying the hope of the gospel into every corner of the world and in all of life, from church to work to family.

Where to Find Hope and Help amid the Sexual Revolution

By Sam Allberry

No one has produced a better brief overview of the sexual revolution and a proper Christian response. This article, or the audio version, needs to be widely distributed in your church.

We Shall Overcome

By Charlie Dates

I have never experienced a more intense sermon. And I was sitting in the second row. He raises questions and concerns that must be answered and addressed.

First Reformed: 2018’s Most Thought-Provoking Film So Far

Review by Brett McCracken

This is the review TGC senior editor Brett McCracken was born to write. He plumbs the depths of meaning in this tale of two churches for our dark and disturbing moment.

Ask and You Shall Evangelize

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

This feature took months to research and write. And you’ll be occupied for many more months if you pick up some of the excellent books included in this profile of changes in apologetic approaches for a secular age.

It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power

By Andy Crouch

If the fall of Bill Hybels doesn’t provoke this reckoning, then I don’t know what will. We weren’t created or redeemed for such acclaim and responsibility.

How Your Church Can Respond to the Loneliness Epidemic

By Jeremy Linneman

Americans are lonelier than ever before. Yet opportunities for social connection have exponentially increased. There’s wisdom for today in God’s familial vision for the local church.

Your Teenager Needs Discipleship

By Melissa Kruger and Jen Wilkin

You know it must’ve been a good TGCW18 workshop if it made parenting teenagers look appealing. But I wouldn’t expect anything less from two of my favorite teachers and writers.

Why We (Sometimes) Need Harsh Polemical Theology

By Joe Carter

There’s a time and place for collegiality. But sometimes the sheep must be warned of danger if they stray from safety.

The Esther Option

By Mike Cosper

Once you’ve read the essay, pick up the book. It’s one of the most insightful, timely, and enjoyable reads of 2018.

‘An Unlikely Ally’: What a Secular Atheist Is Teaching Christian Leaders

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

You might wonder why Christian college presidents would turn to Jonathan Haidt for insight and direction. But Christians have long seen how his writing resonates with a biblical sense for the power of intuition in moral formation.

Give Your Children All of Your Attention. Some of the Time.

By Harriet Connor

It’s such simple advice. But it brought me tremendous relief. I needed to be reminded that there are legitimate and important reasons to take my focus off my children.

Are Some Determined to Believe the Worst About Reformed Theology?

Review by Don Carson

I learned the biblical basis from compatibilism from Carson, so it’s probably no surprise I’d agree with his critique of John Lennox. Someone needed to expose the reductionist arguments of the famous mathematician.

8 Works of Fiction Every Christian Should Read

By Karen Swallow Prior

Prior’s book On Reading Well was one of my favorites from 2018, and this distills some of her most beneficial insights. I love such lists from readers I trust.

Tim Keller’s Witness at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast

By John Stevens

No one can better show us how to commend the gospel to the political and cultural elites in our post-Christian, secular, and progressive liberal contexts. I’m grateful to God that Keller was afforded this highly unusual honor to speak as an evangelical to the upper echelons of the British establishment.

You Want a God of Judgment

By Derek Rishmawy

We’re often told our skeptical neighbors reject the notion of an angry God who judges sin. We imagine our age won’t abide a God of wrath. But Rishmawy shows how we rage against injustice and plead for someone who will make things right.

Why Indianapolis Megachurch Members Are Joining God in the ‘Swamp’

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Probably no megachurch encourages me more than College Park Church in Indianapolis. This feature article shows one major reason why. It’s not easy to mobilize a wealthy suburban church to engage in urban ministry the right way.

Hating ‘Them’ Is Easy. How Can Americans Live Together in Peace?

Review by Matthew Lee Anderson

Sen. Ben Sasse gave us one of the best books of 2018. And yet I still appreciated Anderson’s critique and call for churches to play their part in renewing America’s civic life.

‘Listen and Live’: The Story Behind a New Short Film

By Quina Aragon

I was blown away by this short film for the Deuteronomy theme of TGCW18. The setting is simply stunning, and the music by Aragon is so catchy my 3-year-old son could single along after only one viewing in the debut audience of 8,000.

Jonathan Haidt on the Coddling of the American Mind

Interview by Collin Hansen

In my favorite interview of the year, Haidt showed his characteristic charity and curiosity in asking me how Christians can address the lie that adult students must be protected from ideas. We need all the allies we can recruit in the fight to keep campuses open to “dangerous” ideas like the gospel that tells us we’re sinners who can only find grace and forgiveness in God through Christ.

The Unexpected Friendship That Prepared Me for Ministry

By David Doran Jr.

We don’t clean up our act to make ourselves acceptable to God. He saves us in the mess of our sin. Grace makes us gracious toward those who don’t have everything put together. And reveals where we don’t, either.

Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories

By Michael Kruger

Kruger tracks one of the most discouraging developments of our time. De-conversion stories aren’t intended to evangelize the lost but to convince Christians that their outdated beliefs should be abandoned. His five steps have been repeated time and again in efforts to undermine orthodoxy. Learn them so you can refute their proprietors.

Two Pastoral Thoughts on Justification and Sanctification

By Justin Dillehay

Maybe the debate of a few years ago has died down, but as evangelicals we’ll always need to stress the proper biblical relationship between justification and sanctification. Dillehay’s illustration of Hamilton and Jefferson offers a useful grid for evaluating our tendencies.

6 Ways to Ruin Your Children

By Jeff Robinson

Isn’t that every parent’s fear? All of us parents are sinful and flawed. So it’s a good thing the Lord uses feeble if sincere efforts to introduce our children to Jesus.

Flourish in How God Has (and Has Not) Gifted You

Sun, 12/16/2018 - 12:00am

I work in missions and global theological education. One of the hardest conversations we conduct is with men who have been in ministry 20 or 30 years and want to teach with us, but don’t demonstrate the gift of teaching. We often affirm them in other ways, but for whatever reason, no one in the church has ever addressed this lack. Of course, they are hurt (who wouldn’t be?). But why hasn’t anyone told them this before, and why do they desire to do something they’re not good at?

The answer is twofold. First, many of us operate from a principle that politeness equals godliness. In the United States, this phenomenon seems particularly operative in the South and Midwest. If someone has zeal and feels called to ministry, who am I to stop them? And as a result, the community of faith surrenders its role of calling and confirming. Thus, many seminarians arrive on campus without shepherding gifts that may be molded.

There aren’t too many books about Christian heroes who couldn’t preach.

The other reason many of us who desire to be teachers fail to assess our gifting accurately is that we put such value on the teaching gift. There aren’t too many books about Christian heroes who couldn’t preach.

Find Your True Gifting

Meanwhile, we miss the opportunity to serve the body of Christ with the gifting we actually have. We aren’t open to how God has wired us, because we’re too busy aspiring to be like someone else. We need to listen to King David:

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

Psalm 139 is not just for Mother’s Day. One of the great blessings of my life is of knowing Christians around the world and experiencing God’s creativity in how he shapes people. Our personalities are unique. We enjoy different things. Our modes of communication and the way we are taught to deal with conflict are built into us and nurtured by experience. That uniqueness is part of being fearfully and wonderfully made—all of us image bearers, expressions of God’s creative work.

This doesn’t mean gifting shouldn’t be shaped and developed. This doesn’t mean personalities don’t have deficiencies. It’s not an opportunity to be lazy. We don’t get to say, “I’m not going to evangelize, because that isn’t my gift.” You are called to make disciples, so do it in the unique way God has made you. You can be secure because of who you are in Christ—a redeemed child with gifts to serve the body.

And use these gifts humbly (Rom. 12:7–8). We must not merely think about how we’re gifted, but also how we use our gifts. Trying to be who we are not is prideful; it’s telling God and others that we are gifted in ways different from how we were formed. Being secure in who we are in Christ is of utmost importance. Being secure in how God has and has not gifted us is important, too. God has knit us together in our mother’s womb in multiple ways. We don’t need to force ourselves into roles that don’t suit us. The hand shouldn’t be jealous it’s not a foot, nor should it try to be a foot (1 Cor. 12:12). He has given us the body of Christ with each member equipped for good works, gifted to serve each other, for the increase of our mutual joy.

Against Popular Sentiment

I’ve heard some, including myself, say, “God really got the glory that time, because he used me in something I am not good at.” While this sounds humble, it’s wrong. It’s a trumpeting of 2 Corinthians 12:10 while ignoring every other passage about gifting. Yes, grace is sufficient. Yes, Jesus’s power is made perfect in weakness. Paul was weak. There were things he couldn’t do. In fact, Paul boasted in his weakness. Weakness is not a lack of gifting. Weakness is limitations and adversity.

God may ask you to do something beyond your gifting, and it may well end up blessing many. We may even have stories of God’s power at work through ungifted children. But that’s the exception. The rule is that the Father has sent the Holy Spirit to equip us to serve. And the gifting lists are long—not just spiritual gifts, but also general ways we’re wired. The Father has created us in certain ways to bless. It’s important to identify our gifts, with the help of others, to bless the body of Christ.

Run Fast or Plod with Joy

What’s the personal effect when you serve the body of Christ according to your gifts? Contentment. Joy. Peace. You stop comparing yourself to others. If a friend has gifts much stronger than mine, I can rejoice, because there’s no ranking in the body of Christ. There’s no need to be like the triumphalist Corinthians, to judge a friend or spouse or child by highlighting your gifting and personality as normative against the way God has wired them. Asked to do something that might bring us attention, but not in our skill set? We will pass.

We can celebrate those whose gifts are different than ours, count them as friends and not be tempted toward ungodly jealousy or unhelpful comparison.

Such thinking represents an opportunity to be free. You don’t have to pretend to not have certain gifting in the name of humility. You don’t have to strive to be someone you’re not. If God made you fast, run and feel his pleasure. If you are a plodder, plod along with joy. Godliness with contentment is great gain.

The 7 Most Significant Religious Freedom Victories of 2018

Sat, 12/15/2018 - 12:03am

Religious freedom is a right, given by God and guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that allows individual people or groups to practice a religion—or to practice no religion at all—both in private and also in public with a minimal amount of interference from the local, state, or federal government. The Constitution and other federal and state laws protect this right to determine both what we believe and, in a more limited sense, how we act on those beliefs.

Despite this being our first freedom, challenges to the right of individuals and organizations to practice this right arise constantly. That is why we are fortunate to have groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, working to protect our liberties.

In 2018 ADF was at the forefront of a number of important legal cases. Here are their most significant victories for religious freedom for the year:

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra — California passed a law that forced pro-life pregnancy centers to point the way to free or low-cost abortions. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law and affirmed that the government can’t force Americans to express messages that violate their deepest convictions.

See also: The FAQs: Supreme Court Ruling Protects Free Speech and Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — Colorado punished cake artist Jack Phillips—who serves everyone but doesn’t create cakes celebrating all messages or events—when he declined to sketch, sculpt, and paint a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state’s order forcing Jack to create art that violated his conscience and found that Colorado had been “neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs.”

See also: Supreme Court Provides an Important—But Limited—Win for Religious Liberty

State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers  Facing the loss of everything she owns, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, is being targeted by her state’s Attorney General after she politely declined a long-time customer’s request to create a floral arrangement at his same-sex wedding. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court that upheld the state’s hostility toward her beliefs, sending the question back to the state court to be revisited in light of the Court’s ruling in Masterpiece.

See also: Supreme Court Sends Christian Florist Case Back to Lower Court

Cochran v. City of Atlanta — Kelvin Cochran dedicated more than 30 years of his life to fighting fires and protecting the communities in which he’s lived and worked. In 2015, Chief Cochran was fired from his post as Atlanta fire chief after he wrote a men’s devotional in his spare time that briefly mentions his belief in the biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality. In October 2018, the city of Atlanta agreed to pay Cochran $1.2 million in the wake of a federal court ruling that the city had violated his constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of religion.

See also: Christian Fire Chief Receives $1.2 Million for Violations of His Religious Liberty

Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton v. Trustees of Miami University of Ohio — In March, 2018, Miami University of Ohio agreed to change its unconstitutional policies that authorized officials at its Hamilton campus to require students to post signs “warning” others about their group’s pro-life display. As part of a settlement ending a federal lawsuit that ADF attorneys filed on behalf of the campus chapter of Students for Life, the university has agreed to revise its policies to respect the free-speech rights of all students, regardless of their viewpoint.

Students for Life at Ball State University v. Hall — Ball State University Students for Life had applied to receive $300 from mandatory student activity fees to share educational resources with pregnant and parenting students; however, Ball State officials denied the club’s request, because it advocates for pro-life views. Responding to a lawsuit from Alliance Defending Freedom, university administrators eliminated its unconstitutional policies in September 2018, allowing pro-life group members to peacefully engage their fellow students.

At the Cross Fellowship Baptist Church v. City of Monroe  The city of Monroe, North Carolina, enacted an unconstitutional zoning code that barred churches from three out of four sub-districts, where churches were previously allowed, and libraries, museums, and other nonprofits would continue to be allowed. This prohibited At the Cross Fellowship Baptist Church from holding worship services in its newly rented and renovated premises. Responding to a lawsuit from ADF, the city voted August 21, 2018, to amend its code to permit churches to freely locate to best serve the community.

18 Pieces of Goodness in 2018 Pop Culture

Sat, 12/15/2018 - 12:00am

From cable news to social media, streaming sites to the megaplex, popular culture can be a dark and depressing place. But amid the glut of bad, bleak, cynical, cheap, violent, and sexually exploitative content, there are some rays of light and diamonds in the rough. Yes, there’s plenty of bad stuff Christians should identify and avoid. But there are also good things Christians can identify and celebrate.

Too often Christian “engagement” with popular culture is focused on one extreme or the other—critiquing/avoiding or celebrating/embracing—but a healthy posture does both, as I argued in my 2013 book, Gray Matters.

What follows is a celebration of the good, the uplifting, the life-giving in 2018 popular culture. The list could have been much longer that the 18 items I’ve highlighted below (in alphabetical order), but if you’re looking for something refreshing in pop culture as the year winds down, these might be a good place to start.

Beautiful Children’s Music

Doubtless because I became a dad in 2018, I’ve started paying more attention to the quality of popular culture geared toward children. A few new albums gave me hope that my son will not lack beautiful and good music to populate his Spotify library (or whatever form music curation takes in the next few decades) as he grows up. Ellie Holcomb and Shai Linne both released children’s albums and accompanying books in 2018. Holcomb’s Sing: Creation Songs (and accompanying book Who Sang the First Song?), and Linne’s Jesus Kids album (and book God Made Me AND You), are worth checking out. (Read an interview with Linne about both projects.) I also delighted in J. J. Heller’s I Dream of You, Vol. 2, an album of lullabies that—along with Christy Nockels’s Be Held—found heavy rotation on my son’s first playlist.

Better Christian Movies

Though we have a long way to go before the “Christian movie” genre becomes synonymous with beauty and greatness, and certainly before movies like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (“The Best Christian Film Ever Made”) become the standard for faith-based film quality, 2018 saw some minor progress. Released in March, Paul, Apostle of Christ did not shy away from suffering or sugarcoat the realities of the early church’s plight. Also released in March, I Can Only Imagine represented an artistic step forward in the faith-based filmmaking of the Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn, October Baby). In April, N. D. Wilson released an excellent faith-infused nature documentary, The Riot and the Dance (available on DVD). Here’s hoping 2019 continues the trend of higher-quality Christian movies.

Christopher Robin

Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin is a thematic cousin to the director’s acclaimed Finding Neverland (2004), a film about Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie. Like Neverland, Robin—based on A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories—highlights the tensions between the protected innocence of childhood and the unavoidable pain of life. It challenges viewers to value the fanciful, the imaginary, and the spaces of play free from the “efficiencies” of adult life. As I wrote in August, Robin also captures something beautiful and true about the bittersweet losses that come with life’s changing seasons. It’s a sweet, sincere movie that—like Pooh himself—finds joy in life’s simple pleasures.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is a joyous, hilarious, moving film. It celebrates culture, family, place, and marital love in beautiful ways that have made many audiences feel seen and known by a Hollywood film, perhaps for the first time. It’s the sort of classic, sincere romantic comedy that you just don’t see often anymore. It’s also a film that delights in the specific sights, sounds, and textures of life in specific places—in this case (largely) Singapore, one of the world’s most interesting, and, yes, “crazy rich” nations. Rent on Amazon.

Dan Crenshaw and Pete Davidson Reconcile on SNL

Coming as it did on the heels of one of the ugliest midterm election seasons in memory, this Saturday Night Live clip rightly moved audiences. In the clip, comedian Pete Davidson apologizes for mocking the appearance of Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw (a war veteran who wears an eye patch) on a previous SNL episode. Crenshaw then takes some jabs back at Davidson, before ending with a moment of mutual respect and solidarity. On Veteran’s Day weekend, Crenshaw urged the audience to “never forget” the sacrifices of veterans and other heroes—like Davidson’s own father, who died on 9/11. A reconciling handshake between Davidson and Crenshaw completes the clip, a hopeful image of peace and mutual respect in our divided times.

The Great British Baking Show

This British import is the most feel-good of all reality shows. It has none of the backstabbing, crass materialism, and moral perversion of other reality TV shows. Instead, it is full of hugs, handshakes, cheerful pastel appliances, pastoral English landscapes, and lots of crème pâtissière. As I wrote earlier this year, the show—which just launched a new season as well as a holiday edition on Netflix—also celebrates the beauty of local culture in a globalized age that tends to draw our attention everywhere other than where we are. By immersing us in the delights of British baking, from Banoffee pie to Bedfordshire clangers, the show communicates gratitude for good gifts of place-specific culture and culinary creativity. Watch on Netflix.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Even though Netflix is increasingly overwhelming and anxiety-inducing in its sheer volume of (largely mediocre) content, there are still many treasures to be found. One gem is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a period romance set in 1946 Guernsey, a British island near France that was Nazi-occupied in World War II. The always delightful Lily James (Cinderella, Downton Abbey) plays a journalist who goes to Guernsey to write about a quirky literary society. She finds a story there, but she also finds love. The film is wholesome escapism of the Hallmark variety, but better made and better acted. If you haven’t already, enjoy it with your loved ones over the holidays. Watch on Netflix.

Innovative, Beautiful Worship Music

I’m always on the lookout for contemporary worship music that is both faithful and fresh, as much of it (sadly) feels musically mundane and predictable. This year three albums stood out to me as examples of artistically significant worship music. Colorado singer-songwriter Aaron Strumpel’s Mighty Refuge is avant-garde by contemporary worship standards, breathing new musical life into classic hymns (e.g., “Just as I Am,” “Be Thou My Vision”) without doing harm to their original melodic beauty. The new album Discovery, from British band Rivers & Robots, is overflowing with joy in declaring God’s goodness and provision (the crowd-sourced music video for “Provider,” embedded below, will make you smile). And while it may feel odd to categorize as worship, Sandra McCracken’s Songs From the Valley provides a fresh reminder that lament has biblical precedent and should have a place in worship.

Instant Family

This Mark Wahlberg comedy is a genuinely funny, relatively clean, often moving look at one couple’s experience of foster care and adoption. It’s a film that shows the beauty not only of a healthy marriage (Wahlberg and Rose Byrne have great chemistry) but also a healthy “instant family,” providing a beautiful picture of the theologically rich concept of adoption. The film captures the rocky realities of the adoption process, fraught with complex emotion on all sides, but the payoff is worth it. We need more films like this that celebrate foster care and adoption, perhaps inspiring viewers to personally take up this worthy cause. In theaters now.

Justin Bieber Reading Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage

Though it’s noteworthy when you see one of the world’s biggest pop stars leading worship at the Coachella music festival, or singing “Good, Good Father” on the streets of London, the latest tabloid episode in Justin Bieber’s Jesus journey is especially encouraging. In August, the tattooed superstar—then engaged to now-wife Hailey Baldwin—was filmed in Manhattan carrying Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, one of the most theologically solid and Christ-glorifying marriage books anyone could read. One hopes Bieber was reading the book to make good on his Proverbs 18:22-quoting, engagement-announcing Instagram promise “to lead our family with honor and integrity, letting Jesus through his Holy Spirit guide us in everything we do and every decision we make.” At least one hopes the appearance of a Tim Keller book on TMZ prompted a few lost souls to order the book on Amazon.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing ‘Shallow’ in A Star Is Born

Cinema is well suited for rags to riches stories like the one told in A Star is Born, the fourth version of a film whose “star” was previously played by Janet Gaynor (1937), Judy Garland (1954), and Barbra Streisand (1976). The big screen is made for the goosebump-inducing performance scenes that populate this most recent version, which powerfully showcases Lady Gaga’s raw vocal talent. Especially moving is the scene where “Shallow” is performed on stage for the first time. Cooper’s country music star character, Jackson Maine, brings Ally (Gaga) to one of his concerts, where she watches from side stage. Maine announces the song to the audience and calls at-that-point-unknown Ally out to sing it with him. What follows is electrifying. When the song—which encapsulate the film’s existential longings to go beyond the shallows of modern life—hits its climax, it’s a beautiful moment of God-given talent being revealed and celebrated widely for the first time. In theaters now.

Paddington 2

When daily headlines and social media outrage have you despairing at the world, turn on Paddington (2015) or this year’s Paddington 2. The witty, joyful films are a delight for all ages. Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is a clumsy, orange marmalade-loving, London-dwelling Peruvian bear who lives by his Aunt Lucy’s wisdom: “If we’re kind and polite the world will be right.” Though the world needs more than kindness and politeness to be “right,” it certainly could use more of these qualities. In addition to just being a joy to be around, Paddington—a bear who “looks for the good in all of us”—is a welcome model of virtue (he puts in the bear in “forbearance”) in our cynical and narcissistic age. Available on Amazon.

Paul McCartney on ‘Carpool Karaoke’

This was one of those (increasingly rare) moments where television captured something completely non-cynical, purely joyful, and almost universally appealing. To watch James Corden and Paul McCartney sing “Penny Lane” and other Beatles songs, as they meandered around the Liverpool locations that inspired them, was to participate in a bit of cultural nostalgia for a time when music was something we had more in common. But as I wrote in June, “It’s not just musical memory that resonates with us in this clip; it’s the way it captures memory generally, in all of its bittersweet complexity.” The clip reminded me of what C. S. Lewis said about nostalgia and joyful longing (he called it sehnsucht): “Our best havings are wantings.”

A Quiet Place

Can a horror movie capture goodness? A Quiet Place certainly does. The film is truly frightening (the bathtub scene!) but also very moving. It presents a beautiful picture of the nuclear family as a fundamental reality that undergirds society when all else collapses (as Trevin Wax highlighted in this article). With its strong depictions of familial love, grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice, Place is also “one of the most Christian horror movies you’ll ever watch,” Joe Carter wrote in April. In an apocalyptic world of despair and hopelessness, the family at the heart of the film clings to hope—as all of us who follow Jesus should, even when the world’s evil overwhelms.

Rap Music of Toby Nwigwe

The music of Nigerian American rapper Toby Nwigwe, a former University of North Texas linebacker, is refreshingly original, clean, and fun. His music videos—in which his wife and producer join him in funky dance moves and Sunday school-esque hand motions—are mesmerizing, and his lyrics reference everything from Frodo to Bieber to the Bible. Lots of Bible. Tobe (short for “Tobechukwu,” the Igbo word for “praise God”) isn’t too far off when he raps of his flow that “every bar is drippin / With the Holy Ghost.” In “JÔCKÎN,” Tobe references everything from the rapture to Genesis to John 5:30 (see video below). In “GROWTH” he reflects on total depravity (“Grew up jammin’ ‘So Fresh and So Clean’ but was still born filthy”). I CHOOSE YOU is about committed love (“This love thing just ain’t no grab and go”). TABERNACLE rhymes “Noah’s ark” with “Tony Stark” and “blackness” with “John the Baptist.” And that’s just the beginning.

Summer in the Forest

One of the loveliest documentaries of 2018, Summer in the Forest is a French film about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche communities he founded in France and around the world. Like Vanier himself, the documentary delights in dwelling with and dignifying the mentally and physically disabled people who live, love, and work in community at L’Arche. The film is permeated with Christ’s compassion and dignifying presence with society’s outcasts, not least in the figure Vanier himself, whose mission to these people is profoundly shaped by his Christian faith. “The weak are the foolish; they have been chosen to confound the wise and the powerful,” Vanier says in the film, paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 1:27. In a world ever prone to seek power at all costs, films like Summer in the Forest remind us of the beautiful, clarifying, and confounding wisdom of weakness. Rent on Amazon.

Virgil Wander

The latest novel from Leif Enger (Peace Like a River), Virgil Wander is a beautiful, funny, grace-filled portrait of small-town, hard-luck, rust belt America. Set in the fictional town of Greenstone, Minnesota, the story’s titular protagonist is a former seminarian who runs a movie theater and barely survived an accident where he drove his car into a lake. With its painting-with-words prose and curiosity about the quirky textures of Midwestern life, Wander reminded me of the Iowa-set fiction of Marilynne Robinson. It’s a novel that is less about plot than it is about place—rendered so lovingly and colorfully that it makes the reader nostalgic and at home, even in a place they’ve never been.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This documentary about Fred Rogers could not be more well-timed. The kindness and neighborliness Rogers modeled, through his iconic TV show but also in his life, feels (sadly) like an exotic relic from our vantage point in angry, divisive, tribalistic 2018. Even the respectful, dignifying way Rogers talked—to children, to adults, to puppets, to anyone—feels foreign to our ears today, at a time when our own president uses unthinkable language to publicly demean respectable people. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a film every American should watch, to be reminded that goodness is attractive and something we should strive for again. Rent on Amazon.

How to Communicate the Beauty of Christian Sexual Ethics

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 12:04am

“We often approach the topic of sex through the lens of truth, which is foundational. So we often are going, ‘What does the Bible say about sex?’ I don’t want to undermine what’s foundational, but I do want to supplement it, pointing out that God’s vision for sexuality is actually beautiful and good as well.” — Joshua Ryan Butler

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC West Coast Conference 2018, Los Angeles, California

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here. Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.


Let Kevin DeYoung Reintroduce You to the 10 Commandments

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 12:03am

Quick, can you name the 10 Commandments?

Some of you who attended Bible drills as children might have your pneumonic at the ready. But many Christians are vaguely familiar with the commandments at best. Others who didn’t grow up in the church—like myself—may have never given a thought to memorizing such a list. After all, didn’t Christ come to fulfill the law? What does Sinai have to do with us?

Into this scene comes pastor and prolific author Kevin DeYoung with his new work, The 10 Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them. DeYoung isn’t interested in shaming the church for our lack of knowledge. Nor is he interested in a memorization challenge. He’s interested in equipping us for holiness and mission. He does so by clarifying points of confusion, using up-to-date examples, and pointing to the deep realities beyond the outward simplicity of the statements.

Not Our Instagram Vibe

But first, DeYoung wants to frame the larger “why” at play in studying the Decalogue. The church isn’t ignorant of the 10 Commandments because we’ve tried hard and failed. No, there is a type of apathy involved. Along with that, we have a cultural allergy to authority and rules. Thunder, lightning, a booming voice, and chiseled tablets aren’t exactly our Instagram vibe right now.

This makes the introduction of this book more important than usual. DeYoung thoughtfully meets the culture by prodding us to see that we all care about morality, even when we say we don’t. We feign open-mindedness and tolerance, while establishing new rules that are right in our own eyes. Because of this, we need universal laws—a code that is transcendent, timeless, and wise. We need to see that these laws aren’t oppressive but good, because they were designed by Someone Good. DeYoung poignantly asks, “Have you ever thought about how much better life would be if everyone kept the Ten Commandments?” (21).

Yet even more, we need the gospel. Being convinced of the law’s goodness might fool us into thinking we actually can create the type of order they describe—if not in the whole world, then perhaps in our individual lives. As Tim Keller is fond of noting, we humans tend to ping from irreligion to legalism as quick as a pinball. DeYoung is just as quick to correct this tendency: “The Ten Commandments are not instructions on how to get out of Egypt. They are rules for a free people to stay free” (24).

Thunder, lightning, a booming voice, and chiseled tablets aren’t exactly our Instagram vibe right now.

From here, DeYoung takes us chapter by chapter through each of the 10 commandments. It’s clear that this work is written by a seasoned pastor: there’s always a structure of questions, exhortations, or examples to keep the audience on track. It’s a strength that DeYoung doesn’t use the same framing for each chapter. Like a good exegete of both Scripture and culture, he anticipates the particular confusions of each commandment and plans his treatment to engage them. This is an eminently practical book.

A particularly strong example is the way DeYoung clarifies and translates the second commandment. On first blush, a 2018 reader might not understand what making graven images has to do with her life. It sounds so far away and implausible. But DeYoung shows that the heart behind this law is “against worshiping God in the wrong way” (42). We begin to see that this happens today, just in different forms.

Yet in an age of individual expression, we still need to be walked through the “why” of the second commandment. Isn’t sincerity of intention enough? Here DeYoung exposes what is at stake in keeping this word: the glory of God in the world. The reader is invited to and coached in theological reflection, which adds a depth and richness to the faithful life that rote obedience could never achieve. Such moments happen frequently through 10 Commandments, and are its chief strength.

Reclaiming Treasure

In order for an even wider audience to be able to relate to the book, I wish DeYoung had included more examples beyond the nuclear family. And given the book’s strong beginning, a more robust epilogue that reiterated how God’s good law relates the gospel would’ve been appropriate. Nonetheless, DeYoung’s book is a helpful entry into the current climate. Personal moral failings and terrible atrocities continue to fill our screens and timelines. The church and the world are hungry for true righteousness, even if they don’t realize it.

What better time for us to rediscover and reclaim the treasure of the law, rightly understood in relationship to the gospel of grace?

One Thing Jesus Didn’t Know

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 12:02am

God knows everything (1 John 3:20). God knows himself and all things exhaustively, eternally, and unchangeably. He knows his own perfections, plans, actions, and goals (Ps. 147:5; Isa. 46:10; Acts 15:18). He knows the billions of angels in light (Dan. 7:10), every corner of hell (Prov. 15:11), all of our sins (Ps. 69:5), every hidden thought (Ps. 139:2), every ounce of our suffering (Ps. 56:8). He proves his deity by infallibly knowing the past, present, and future, including all possibilities and contingent events (1 Sam. 23:10–13; Matt. 11:21), from the tiniest detail (Matt. 10:29–30) to the fact and timing of our salvation (Rom. 8:29; 2 Tim. 1:9). As the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus Christ possesses the fullness of deity, including the attribute of omniscience (Phil. 2:6; John 21:17).

How, then, are we to reconcile the comprehensiveness of Jesus’s divine knowledge with Matthew 24:36, where the divine Son of God declares to his disciples that there is something he didn’t know? “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:26; cf. Mark 13:32).

How could that be, and why did Jesus say it?

What Did Jesus Not Know?

Nearly all commentators agree that in Matthew 24 Jesus is foretelling two “judgments”—one on Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (cf. Matt. 23:38; 26:61), and another at the end of the age with his second coming (parousia) (cf. Matt. 24:3, 14, 23–27). While scholars widely disagree over which verses refer to which event, how the two judgments are related, and what it all means for Christians today, nearly all agree that Jesus’s reference to “that day or hour” describes the timing of his return to judge the living and the dead (cf. Matt. 25:31–34).

Yet the question remains: How could the One who will enact worldwide judgment be ignorant of when that day will be? Apparently we’re not alone in our trouble: likely in an effort to avoid the doctrinal difficulty, some manuscript copies of the New Testament omit the words “nor the Son.” Such redactions don’t alter the fact, though. Jesus said it. How are we to understand it?

What the Father Knows, the Divine Son Knows

The doctrine of the Trinity implies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all possess the same singular being, mind, and will. The three persons don’t constitute a kind of social committee, in which one member could conceivably withhold information from another. Instead, what one person knows the other two likewise know, exhaustively and eternally, as the one God—yet without blurring or denying their identities as distinct, mutually related persons.

Therefore, whatever Matthew 26:37 means, it doesn’t mean the second person of the Trinity is or ever has been ignorant of anything. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the full scope of biblical revelation preclude any such notion. As the infinite and immutable source of all knowledge, God never learns anything. This goes for the Son as much as for the Father and the Spirit.

Jesus Grew in Knowledge  

Yet even as the second person of the Trinity (the Logos) never changes, out of free grace he became man two millennia ago by assuming to himself “a true body, and a reasonable soul” (Westminster Larger Catechism #37)—both of which are capable of change. Now and forever, two completely different natures (divine and human) are united in the one Son of God. As a man, then, the Son “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). And like any human being after the fall, he became hungry (Matt. 4:2), grew tired (John 4:6), felt distress (Matt. 26:38), and, yes, was amazed at what he learned (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9; Mark 6:6; cf. Luke 2:46). Jesus could only have experienced such changes in his human nature.

By seeing the genuine limitations and temporal changes in Jesus’s human nature, albeit with no limitations or changes in his divine identity, we can further see that when he says he didn’t know the timing of his return, the eternal Son of God was speaking with a human mouth, out of a human soul, with limited knowledge as a man, in perfect submission to his Father’s salvation plan.

Even if Jesus’s self-reference to “the Son” is short for “the Son of God” (a common name for the divine Logos) and not “the Son of Man,” this is not an insurmountable problem for the view presented here. Scripture sometimes ascribes human attributes to the person of the Son incarnate while also identifying him according to his divine nature (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 2:8). Therefore, limited knowledge (a human attribute) may well be ascribed to Christ’s divine nature insofar as such knowledge belongs to the person of the Mediator as a man. In that carefully understood sense, then, we can say, “The divine Son was ignorant of the day of his return,” even as we affirm that the divine Son knows everything (John 21:17).

Whew! Are we done? Not quite. Jesus didn’t speak these words just to give us a theological conundrum. The really important question about Matthew 24:36 is not, “How could Jesus not know when he would return?” The most important question is why.

Jesus Was Helping Us

The context of Matthew 24 reveals that Jesus’s declaration in verse 36 is designed to restrain our vain curiosity, to bind us to his Word, and to stir us up to be vigilant and eager to meet our Lord face-to-face (Matt. 24:42, 44; 25:13, 46).

If the angels, so near to God (Heb. 12:22; Rev. 3:5) and surpassing man in power and wisdom (2 Sam. 14:17, 20), cheerfully obey him while remaining ignorant of when Christ will return, how much more should we trust him in all things? If the incarnate Son of God went to the cross looking forward to his exaltation without knowing the time of its consummation, how much more should we receive in faith whatever degree or length of suffering God has planned for us until Christ brings us home to glory? Most of all, how joyfully should we welcome each day, knowing it could be the day we’ve been waiting for ever since God welcomed us in Christ?

God’s Word tells us all we need to know about Christ’s return. He will come from heaven, on clouds, in the flesh, with glory and power, suddenly, visibly, audibly, at the end of the world, with angels and saints at his side, as Christians rejoice and unbelievers weep at his sight. Where, and especially when, this glorious event will occur, no one knows—no one, that is, except the Father, the Spirit, and now the ascended Son, our Redeemer, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Matt. 28:18). Maranatha.

When Adoption Breaks Your Heart

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 12:00am

Early on a Tuesday morning in April 2007, I got on my knees and confessed to God that my walk with him was too comfortable. I asked him to show me a way my husband and I might stretch the limits of our comfort zone, to be better contributors to his kingdom.

When I finished praying, I switched on the radio and immediately heard a woman making a plea for homes to host French students visiting America for one week. A fast answer to prayer! I talked to my husband, made the call, and, two weeks later, Celine came into our life. Two months later, we hosted Axl for three weeks, and by the start of school, Su Ying joined our family for an entire year.

Our time with these vibrant students was stretching, joyful, and a tremendous blessing. “Ask and it will be given to you” indeed (Matt. 7:7).

Opening our home to international students, however, was mere groundwork for the culminating answer to that prayer. Five months after we asked God for a mission, Jacqueline fell into our lives.

Answer to Prayer

I first saw her in the hallway of the school where I taught. She had a gigantic binder tucked under her arm as she walked to her third-grade classroom with an air of utter confidence and control. I was captivated by her impossibly huge dark eyes, wavy pixie cut, full cheeks, and tiny frame.

The next time I saw Jacqueline, she was screaming, being carried hand and foot down the hallway by two disheveled teachers who’d asked her to stay in from recess to finish her homework. Her reaction was unexpected, a response to past trauma.

On good days, Jacqueline would receive the privilege of coming into my classroom to read to Dudley, our therapy dog. On bad days, she was relegated to her own classroom, stripped of all privileges.

Eventually, we learned that Jacqueline’s hard circumstances necessitated an adoption plan. Her needs and our desire to help coincided in a way that seemed a clear answer to our prayers.

Jacqueline came into our home in the summer of 2008 and officially became our daughter one year later. She left our home in hostility in the summer of 2016 and hasn’t returned.

Didn’t We Pray?

Our experience with Jackie couldn’t have been further from our hopes, leaving us devastated and confused. Though there were times when we were optimistic about our daughter, the aggression, social-service investigations, police visits, hospitalizations, endless counseling sessions, stealing, running away, and chaos that often pervaded our home during the nearly nine years she lived with us ultimately left us with more questions than answers.

God, we wondered, did we not ask for success with our daughter? Did we not seek your face at every turn when we were raising her? Did we not desperately pound on the door of your grace with every challenge and crisis we faced?

The daughter God blessed us with rejected us at every turn, and ultimately left our home without looking back. We wondered if God’s promises had failed.

When my husband and I prayed over and for our daughter, we boldly asked God to save her from the trauma and turbulence of her formative years. We were specific. Lord, please give us the wisdom to help Jackie bridle her temper. Father, please give Jackie good success in school. Abba, please be with us in today’s counseling session, because it’s going to be a rough one.

We had a hopeful expectation that God would fulfill the words of Matthew 7, but we felt instead like we had asked and not been given, sought and not found, knocked and encountered only a barrier between us and our daughter.

Were we mistaken that Jackie was an answer to my prayer all those years ago?

J. I. Packer, in his marvelous book Knowing God, addresses our tendency to “feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us . . . and to be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future.” He writes:

And then something very painful and quite inexplicable comes along, and our cheerful illusion of being in God’s secret counsels is shattered. Our pride is wounded; we feel that God has slighted us; and unless at this point we repent and humble ourselves very thoroughly for our former presumption, our whole subsequent spiritual life may be blighted.

We thought we knew what God was doing. The painful results of our failed adoption, however, reminded us that God is God, and we are not.

Unexpected Answers

In the two years since our daughter left, God has graciously shown us that the thing we asked him to grant—success with Jackie—wasn’t ultimate. The ultimate answer to our prayers was God himself.

In his kindness and love, he gave himself freely and abundantly. When counseling sessions loomed and police lights flashed outside the front door, we knew our weakness and his faithfulness in a way we’d never known it before.

Over time, he has enabled us to see that our consummate desire, our highest request, the objective of our seeking, the only door to eternal life, is delight in the Father through his Son and the fellowship we enjoy with his Spirit.

Elsewhere in Knowing God, Packer writes: “[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [people] to a state in which they please him entirely and praise him adequately, a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love.”

It is good and right to ask God to provide needs and wants. But ultimately, our prayers must be for his glory and his will. All other prayers—for provision and healing and safety and peace—must remain subordinate to the desire for God himself.

Whatever our circumstances, the Spirit enables us to better know God, rejoice in his plans, love what he loves, and delight in fellowship with him. Understanding that our ultimate good is knowing and enjoying God keeps us from debilitating disappointment and doubt when his provision isn’t provided in the way we expect.

We love our daughter. And we trust that God is working for good in her life and in ours, no matter what the end of our story may be. We continue to pray and hope that Jackie, like the prodigal, will return and receive the love and benefit of belonging to our family. But though currently the answer to that prayer remains a “no,” we’re grateful for the sweet comfort we have come to know from our gracious and loving Savior.

Jared Wilson on Teaching Miracle Stories

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:04am

What is more evident on the pages of the Gospels than the miracles of Jesus? Of course there are miracles in the Old Testament too—the miracles of Moses and Elijah. So what do we do with these miracle stories, especially as we teach people who are often desperately seeking a miracle from God in their own lives? How do we determine the main emphasis of the various accounts?

I posed these questions among others to Jared Wilson, author of The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles. Wilson is director of content strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, managing editor of For The Church (and host of the FTC Podcast), and director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

You can listen to the episode here.

Books by Jared Wilson:

Biblical Theology Set to Music: ‘Hebrews’ by Psallos

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:03am

Composers have been adapting and setting Scripture to music for centuries. The more poetic passages, such as from the prophetic books and the Psalms, are the most common sources. But narrative passages, too, have inspired grand works, like the Passion oratorios of Bach. As for treatments of whole books, some admirable examples from the last decade are The Book of Jonah by David Benjamin Blower and The Lamb Wins and The King Dreams by the Lesser Light Collective, musical retellings of the books of Revelation and Daniel, respectively.

What to my knowledge has never been attempted is a systematic musical adaptation of an entire epistle—that is, until Psallos came onto the scene in 2015 with their first full-length album, Romans, which was followed up in 2017 by Hebrews.

Music Interpreting Scripture

A collective of musicians associated with Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, Psallos exists to help “clarify Scripture through music” that is both “artistically excellent and theologically rich.” The group is led by Cody Curtis, a doctor of musical composition and the writer behind all the songs. Curtis’s approach is not “let’s take these words and put pretty music around them” but rather “let’s use music to exegete these dense passages in an imaginative way.”

Psallos exists to help clarify Scripture through music that is both artistically excellent and theologically rich.

The notes are not just ornamenting the words but actually interpreting them, drawing out their meaning—as are the other musical tools like tempo, rhythm, style, mode, and timbre.

Hebrews is a 90-minute art music composition for vocals, folk rock band, and chamber orchestra (listen on Spotify). The overall feel is of a Broadway musical, as the album draws listeners into a dramatic world with a lush orchestral score that moves through different moods. Strings, winds, and brass combine with piano, guitars, and drums to accompany lead singers Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren, who show amazing versatility, pulling off both quirky and grandiose. While the predominant musical style is orchestral folk, the 27 tracks also encompass bluegrass, hot jazz, rock, slow hip-hop, Irish dance, minimalism, and electronic. And then there are moments when the music gives way to sounds of live theater, such as introductory remarks, ambient noise, and spoken dialogue.

Discerning the form of the biblical letter was the first step to composing Hebrews, Curtis said, as that would determine the musical structure. He then spent time studying the book’s themes and literary features, with the aid of a New Testament professor at Union. The author of Hebrews, Curtis found, uses the rhetoric of argument and debate as well as exhortation, with theological exposition running throughout. The quality is thus sermonic. The key themes—Christ is better, the old is gone, the new has come, endure in faith—are all underscored musically. The first song, “Heaven and Earth,” swells and then bursts on the words “Son” and “better,” and it ends on an unresolved musical phrase: “Christ is better than the.” This anticipates the final song, where a list is given of all the people and things that Christ is better than: the angels, the prophets, Moses, the Levites and their offerings and prayers.

Eclectic Yet Cohesive

One of the hallmarks of Hebrews is its simultaneous eclecticism and cohesiveness. Connectivity between tracks is established through recurring musical motives and reprises. For example, there are five warnings, all scored with the same beating piano and agitated strings, suggesting a severe tone. Some of the titles bear further clues of linkage, like “Wandered” and “Wondered,” which each sets an Old Testament citation, the one bleak (“They shall not enter my rest,” 3:11), the other hopeful (“I will be merciful toward their iniquities,” 8:12). “Peace on Earth . . .” is reprised in “. . . For Heaven’s Sake” because these two texts function as bookends, framing the central narrative about Jesus as high priest and offering; the anthemic “hold fast our confession” is doubly present (4:14, 10:23).

One of the main musical themes, and perhaps my favorite, is “Before the Throne of God Above.” Charitie Lees Bancroft’s 19th-century hymn text is known today mostly from Vikki Cook’s congregation-friendly tuning of it, which is beautiful in itself, but the Psallos tune is grander, more elevated, transporting. It glimmers faintly at the end of the second warning and is then progressively developed, instrumentally, until the album closes with a full voicing.

These aren’t the only familiar hymn lyrics that appear. “Angels We Have Heard on High” receives a lyrical revision, and “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” is likewise adapted, in a jarring manner, in “The Old.”

Incarnation, Ascension, and the Triumph of the New

Among the several theological doctrines the album explores are the incarnation and the ascension. The song “Ex Paradiso” quotes Fauré’s Requiem, a mass for the dead, but changes In paradisum deducant te angeli (“May angels lead you to paradise”) to Et perducant te angeli ex paradiso (“And angels lead him out of paradise”). Whereas the musical source pertains to the ascent of the souls of believers into heaven, Psallos marries that majestic tune to Hebrews 2:5–18, making it about Christ, who descended to earth so that we can ascend to heaven. At the end, a spoken word in Christ’s voice: “Goodbye, heaven! Hello, earth.” Then, nine tracks later, we hear “Goodbye, earth,” which tags the beginning of the next track: “Hello, heaven!” Here Jesus returns to his exalted position on high (8:1).

The climax of Hebrews is “Two Mountains,” a reference to Sinai (representing the old) and Zion (representing the new). The “long ago” theme from the beginning returns, dark and shadowy, but it builds and then breaks; the shadows lift, and the Zion theme enters, bright, triumphant.

Contemporary Masterpiece

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say Hebrews is a contemporary masterpiece. The level of sophistication and intentionality executed on such a large scale is astounding. Curtis employs a musical vocabulary that’s much wider than what most Christian artists employ, and it serves the biblical text so well.

Listening to the book sung in such an intricately crafted manner enhances our understanding and appreciation of its truths.

My small group has been studying Hebrews, and we’re doing so in conjunction with this album. Listening to the book sung in such an intricately crafted manner enhances our understanding and appreciation of its truths, which, having settled into our ears and hearts, we won’t soon forget. What a gift to the church.


Why Your Church Should Invest in Church Planting Now

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:02am

Although I’ve never had the opportunity to plant a church, I’ve always been passionate about it. Church planting is nothing less than the practical outworking of the Great Commission.

God has placed me in a number of ministry assignments where I’ve been able to help connect an existing congregation to a church-planting work. Of the number of existing churches I’ve seen get involved in church planting, not one has regretted it. In fact, it has always been to their benefit.

This has led me to a simple and serious conviction: every church—regardless of size or development stage—should be involved in church planting in some way. It would be naïve (and perhaps foolish) to say that every church must plant another church; there are simply too many variables for that to be mandated. But every church should be connected to the work of gospel multiplication through church planting.

Whether it’s joining a church-planting network, starting a residency, partnering with an existing church plant, or simply committing to pray for church planters in your context or around the world, existing churches would benefit from getting involved in church planting for at least seven reasons.

1. Aligns with the New Testament pattern

In the New Testament, the Great Commission is fulfilled as churches are planted. The church in Antioch caught this vision in Acts 13. Thus they set apart Paul and Barnabas and commissioned them to plant churches, which had a far-reaching effect on both the church and the world. We see this pattern repeated throughout Paul’s epistles; he continually reminded churches of other works around the ancient world, highlighting needs and opportunities for partnership.

Want your church to be more like the early church? Get involved in church planting.

I love what Ed Stetzer said on this topic. “When the apostles and disciples heard the Great Commission, we might consider what they did in response. They did not just evangelize. They congregationalized. When the disciples heard the Great Commission, they planted churches. So should we.”

Want your church to be more like the early church? Get involved in church planting.

2. Sharpens missional edge and evangelistic zeal

Church plants have a unique opportunity to spark evangelistic zeal. It’s well documented that new gospel works do a better job of reaching the lost than established churches do. So, new churches—or even the idea of potential new churches—can serve existing congregations by getting them thinking about how to more effectively evangelize in their own context.

Every time we’ve helped someone to plant, or played any role in the preparation, they have brought energy, enthusiasm, and missional wisdom to the existing church. Successful church plants study their context feverishly and pursue the lost with fervor. Existing churches could use a lot more of that energy, regardless of their context.

3. Brings focus on generosity and leanness to budget

Church budgets can be a lot like personal budgets. They begin with dreams of generosity and simplicity before properties, staffing, liabilities, and distractions come crashing in. At some point, money stops flowing toward mission and starts to stagnate around survival.

A great way to kickstart some financial vibrancy and deeper fiscal dependence is to start channeling some of those precious funds away from ourselves and toward others—whether they be in different parts of the city, country, or world. If we’re going to teach people about sacrificial generosity in their own finances, then we have a great opportunity to model it in the finances of our churches.

4. Broadens the horizons of your people and lifts their heads to bring faith

Sometimes our church ambitions are too small. Some of us need to ponder the well-known words of William Carey: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” In the churches I’ve pastored, few things have built faith in God’s people like hearing about gospel advance in diverse contexts around the world.

This will spur gospel witness in your own context, too. It really does enliven the faith of the people I serve to have them pray for church plants in Turkey, or Malawi, or Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter.

5. Creates environments of multi-church unity, diversity, and family

With so many denominations in the global church, it can be hard for believers to have a sense of multi-church family and meaningful belonging. Church-planting networks create a unique opportunity for churches with different contexts, styles, congregational dynamics, and even some ministry philosophies to link arms together for a common cause.

A while ago, I took some leaders from the church I was pastoring in Johannesburg to an Acts 29 Global Gathering in Nashville. The impact was immense as our leaders experienced a diverse, global family of churches. This sense of a diverse family both brings comfort and also fosters courage as people see gospel siblings engaged in the same work in different places.

6. Brings opportunity for boldness in prayer and reliance on the Spirit

Small needs yield small prayers. But when needs seem enormous, even impossible, prayer becomes mandatory. Antioch’s church had a deep sense of the Spirit’s work in them as they deployed Paul and Barnabas for church-planting endeavors. If you want to experience the Spirit’s power in and among a group of people, get them involved in a work that they cannot possibly accomplish on their own.

7. Rouses unused gifting and servant leadership

Many churches have, in their seats, an abundance of dormant gifting. Some of that is due to people’s resistance to serve, but a lot of it has to do with the way we structure our churches. When we only offer opportunities to serve in the parking lot, at the coffee counter, or in the nursery, we do our people a disservice. Those are all marvelous roles, but they don’t force us to develop leaders and unearth potentially dormant gifting.

Demand almost always outweighs supply in church planting, so leaders must be developed, and gifting must be recognized and leveraged.

Highlighting a church-planting team’s needs might surprise you; it might awaken the desire to serve in some of the least likely people. Demand almost always outweighs supply in church planting, so leaders must be developed and gifting must be recognized and leveraged.

So, come on existing church. Find a way to get involved. What feels like a distraction from your mission might actually help you to sharpen it. What feels like a sacrificial cost might actually bring about tremendous generosity. What feels like it might be a further burden for your people may actually be the very thing that lifts their heads and bends their knees.

7 Ways to Love Christians Who Are Overweight

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:00am

Imagine approaching someone at church, looking her over, and telling her which sin patterns you think she’s stuck in—based solely on her physical appearance.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s not an uncommon experience for the overweight Christian.

I was 25 when a respected older woman in my church invited me to participate with her in a Christian weight-loss program. She promised this “biblical” diet (it wasn’t) would help me give my sin to the Lord and shed unwanted pounds. She thought mutual accountability would be good for both of us. Wouldn’t I like to join her?

Ouch. And no thank you, I would not.

Her invitation was presumptuous. Why had she assumed I was actively a slave to food-related sin? Of course, I knew the answer: I was overweight. Neither of us was fit and slim like many of the other women in our church, and she wrongly assumed both our problems were the result of sin.

At that point in my life I was over my ideal body weight—a postpartum, busy pastor’s wife with a sluggish thyroid—but I was not living in ongoing, unrepentant gluttony or sloth. What I needed in that season was a cup of coffee, a listening ear, and a friend who understood what I was and was not struggling with.

Too often, instead of helping Christians who are overweight, we unintentionally hurt them and create guilt and shame. We can do better.

Truth About Obesity

In the recent Huffington Post article “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” Michael Hobbes reports:

About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity” than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and HIV put together.

Hobbes states that the medical system has failed to offer patients a range of resources, support, and compassion. Rather than considering emotional, physical, and socioeconomic contributing factors, doctors simply blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we’re told, is a personal failing: just stop eating Cheetos and take a walk! But condescending and cursory suggestions offer little tangible help and rarely result in lasting change.

Inside the church we can take this callous attitude one step further—assuming that the more overweight someone is, the more sinful he or she is. Extra pounds become scarlet letters, marking saints as idolaters, gluttons, and sluggards.

Extra pounds can become scarlet letters, marking saints as idolaters, gluttons, and sluggards.

As a Christian who’s struggled with my weight all my life, my chief goal should be gaining holiness, not losing pounds. And while pursuing a healthy body as a means of stewardship is part of my progress in holiness—that I must choose to take up every day—my weight isn’t a measuring stick for my growth in godliness.

As someone who’s been hurt by well-meaning Christians who simply don’t know how to help, I concur with Hobbes’s conclusion that often “the biggest problem is our [negative] attitudes toward fat people.”

In the church, I’m afraid we’re often no more cautious or compassionate than the medical system when it comes to shepherding the growing demographic of overweight saints and sufferers in our midst.

Loving the Christian Who Is Overweight

As an overweight Christian, here are some helpful ways I’d like to see church members, lay leaders, and pastors engage with people who are overweight or obese:

  1. See me, not a sin. My extra weight may or may not be tied to indwelling, unrepentant sin. Don’t assume.
  2. Ask yourself if you are the right person to help. Weight is a sensitive subject. Just because you can see my extra pounds doesn’t mean you’ve been invited to speak into a problem. Consider your relationship with me and the role you’ve been called to play in my discipleship or accountability.
  3. Listen and learn. Avoid the temptation to “fix” physical problems with spiritual answers, or spiritual problems with physical answers. Listen first, pray for discernment, then ask how you can help.
  4. Don’t shame me. Encourage me. If I am struggling with habitual sin, shaming me isn’t the best way to help. (Yes, I know my body is a temple, but thoughtlessly tossing Bible verses is hurtful.) Remind me of the gospel and that my worth isn’t based on what I look like. “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
  5. Appreciate the burden. Grieve the trial. Understand that sin involving food is complicated in ways that differ from drugs or other addictions. We all must continue to eat daily. Every time I enter church, nourishment and temptation sit on a table near the welcome desk. Show me grace, understanding, and compassion by comforting me in my affliction (2 Cor. 1:4).
  6. Help me not to stumble. By design, food will always be a part of church. Communion, fellowship meals, and celebratory feasting are all part of our life together. And yet, not all church events need to be an opportunity for over-indulging. Be sensitive in considering which ministry events need food, and eliminate the distraction of food from events where it isn’t integral. Not every Bible study meeting requires punch and cookies. Consider contributing delicious healthy options for those trying to exercise self-control at the potluck. If you know I’m attempting to abstain from something, don’t lead me into sin by telling me “it doesn’t matter” or offering permission to indulge. It is “wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Rom. 14:20). Protect me by encouraging my self-control.
  7. Be patient. Don’t expect my lifelong struggles to be solved immediately because of one conversation. Or a few conversations. I may wrestle against this part of my flesh for years to come. The key to helping me is encouraging me to remain engaged in the fight for holiness and to not give up. Point me to God’s forgiveness when I fall, and encourage me when I stand against temptation.

To be clear, this isn’t a request to overlook sin. It’s not a bid for “body acceptance” at the cost of holiness. This is simply a plea to see people, not their pants size. The obesity “crisis” in our neighborhoods and churches is growing. Let’s be prepared to respond with countercultural empathy and compassion.

How Christmas Confronts Our Self-Salvation Projects

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

“He has spanned eternity to come among us, to be born as one of us, and now he calls us to come close to Jesus Christ. . . . God is calling us to turn away from every self-salvation project and to enter into this salvation by bowing to him as Lord. ” — David Short

Text: Luke 2:8–20

Preached: December 24, 2013

Location: St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church

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


9 Things You Should Know About the Apostles’ Creed

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

During the recent funeral of the late President George H. W. Bush, all the former presidents and their wives stood and recited the creed while President Donald Trump and his wife, Melanie, stood in silence. This sparked a minor controversy that exposed the confusions many Christians—especially evangelicals—have about the Apostles’ Creed. Here are nine things you should know about this ancient statement of faith.

1. The text of the Apostles’ Creed has minor differences based on the traditions that use it. The following is a commonly used version produced by the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) in 1988:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
[he descended to the dead.]
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

2. A medieval legend claimed that each of the 12 articles was written by one of the 12 apostles. For example, Rufinus of Aquileia (345–411) wrote,

So they [i.e., the apostles] met together in one spot and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, compiled this brief token . . . each making the contribution he thought fit; and they decreed that it should be handed out as standard teaching to believers.

Despite its title, there is no evidence the Apostles’ Creed was actually written by the apostles, and the legend was largely abandoned by scholars by the time of the Renaissance.

3. The Apostles’ Creed is a variant of an ancient baptismal confession known as the Old Roman Creed (also, Roman Creed or Old Roman Symbol). The Old Roman Creed is believed to have been created in accordance with Jesus’s command in Matthew 28:19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

4. Several Christian traditions—including some Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists—use an interrogative form of the Apostles’ Creed in their rites of baptism.

5. Although many Protestants consider the Apostles’ Creed to be merely a creed (that is, a formal statement of Christian beliefs), some traditions, such as Catholicism, also consider it to be a form of prayer.

6. Several Reformation catechisms, such as the Heidelberg Catechism and Luther’s Small Catechism, use the creed as a way of articulating the basics of the Christian faith. For example, question #22 in the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” and answers, “All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” The answer to question 23—“What are these articles?”—is the text of the Apostles’ Creed. Similarly, the Apostles’ Creed forms the answer to question #31 of the New City Catechism.

7. A common misunderstanding among evangelicals is the line that states, “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church.” In this creed the word catholic means “general, universal, concerning the whole” and does not refer exclusively to the Roman Catholic Church. (To avoid the confusion some churches say “holy Christian church.”) As the Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George explains, “When we say that we ‘believe in the holy catholic church,’ we are confessing that Jesus Christ himself is the church’s one foundation, that all who truly trust in him as Savior and Lord are by God’s grace members of this church, and that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.”

8. The most contested line in the creed is “[Jesus] descended into hell.” The basis for the line is 1 Peter 3:19, which states that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” As R. C. Sproul said, “People are making a lot of assumptions when they consider that this is a reference to hell and that Jesus went there between his death and his resurrection.” And as John Piper notes, “there is no textual basis in the New Testament for claiming that between Good Friday and Easter Christ was preaching to souls imprisoned in hell or Hades. . . . For these and other reasons, it seems best to me to omit from the Apostles’ Creed the clause, ‘he descended into hell,’ rather than giving it other meanings that are more defensible, the way Calvin does.”

9. The Apostles’ Creed, as Don Carson explains in this video, “very ably summarizes the gospel itself in just a few sentences.”

Other posts in this series:

George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) • Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

Higher Education Must Address Free Speech and Social Justice

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

With apologies to my Southern Baptist friends, I recommend readers here consume The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure like a good bourbon. Drink it too quickly and you’ll only get an irritating burn. Sit with it a bit longer, and you’ll discover a more flavorful nuance.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote Coddling as an expansion of their 2015 Atlantic article. They critique the climate of higher education and examine factors contributing to that climate. There’s plenty of burn in Coddling, including legitimate concerns about challenges to free expression on campus, like violent protests at Middlebury, Berkeley, and Evergreen.

Lukianoff and Haidt also highlight less-known examples of stigmatizing and silencing, like the skewering of untenured philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel for an article that provoked her disciplinary gatekeepers. We might also worry about more subtle pressures. As a tenured professor, I have a great deal of latitude to speak my mind and share my opinions. But I’ll admit there are some issues I don’t bother raising, because the predictable outrage isn’t worth enduring. The academy falls short of its own aspirations more than it should.

Still, readers shouldn’t content themselves with the burn of Coddling. The real payoff will come for those who linger for the nuance. We owe part of that nuance to the authors’ perspectives. Lukianoff and Haidt combine a wealth of knowledge and experience in and out of higher education. Haidt is a social psychologist whose book The Righteous Mind [read TGC’s profile of Haidt: ‘An Unlikely Ally’: What a Secular Atheist Is Teaching Christian Leaders] remains a must-read for anyone concerned with increased political polarization. Lukianoff is a lawyer who directs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends speech and expression on college campuses. Coauthored books don’t always work well, but in this case the authors’ blended expertise enhances their argument.

Social Justice Issues

Lukianoff and Haidt don’t stop with a critique of free-speech constraints in today’s higher education landscape; they also make an effort to discern what underlies the impulse to limit speech. Part of their story focuses on the formation of students before they arrive at college. But just as important is the authors’ discussion of substantive issues underlying campus unrest: “The interest and activism of teens have far more to do with social issues and injustices than with purely economic or political concerns, and the 2010s have been extraordinarily rich in such issues.”

It would be hard to overstate the significance of social justice to the formation of many of today’s college students. People can reasonably disagree about the scope and significance of any particular issue or event from the last decade. But the aggregation of these issues, amplified by a constant barrage of social media, is part of the deeply formative, lived experience of most undergraduates.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of social justice to the formation of many of today’s college students.

Lukianoff and Haidt helpfully critique vague invocations of justice-sounding words that too often mask contestable policy preferences. Christians should strive for clear and careful thinking in our words and arguments, and we should recognize that not every claim of “victimhood as moral theory” comports with a biblical framework. But Christians should also realize that some social justice aims are entirely consistent with gospel aims, such as addressing the ongoing costs of generational and structural injustices against people of color and recognizing the power dynamics and groupthink that too often underlie membership in a comfortable majority.

And this is where I most appreciate Lukianoff and Haidt’s effort toward nuance. They recognize that the problems in higher education aren’t entirely due to systemic and structural injustices, but neither are they simply the result of progressive assaults on free speech. One need not agree with every Slate and CNN story on Ferguson, #MeToo, and gay rights to recognize that the modern university isn’t exactly an idyllic haven for students of color, women, and LGBTQ students. Campus communities, much like the broader communities that surround them, are complex social environments. We will only begin to address their shortcomings when we can accurately name those shortcomings in all of their complexity.

Embrace the Complexity

I worry that some of this complexity will be lost if Coddling is read through a certain conservative Christian lens. My sense—and I would gladly be proven wrong—is that this lens will amplify Coddling’s free speech anxieties and downplay its social justice concerns. That kind of oversimplified narrative leads too many Christians to conclude that the “secular university” is beyond repair—a place where Christian faculty hide in anonymity and where Christian kids go to lose their faith.

To be sure, I know of Christian faculty who have faced serious challenges from their institutions. I know of Christian students like Isabella Chow who have been vilified by their peers. And I’ve witnessed bigotry against Christians by university faculty and administrators that wouldn’t be tolerated against any other demographic. These are serious problems, and they need to be addressed by Christians and non-Christians alike, including people like Lukianoff and Haidt. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they define the university.

I teach at what is by any measure a fairly liberal and secular university. I teach courses in criminal law (including classes on sexual assault and police shootings) and law and religion (including classes on Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop). These aren’t uncontroversial topics. And I teach these classes to bright students who are ideologically, religiously, and racially diverse. In my experience, most students are ready to engage in these issues with rigor and charity.

I don’t start my classes with a group prayer or a Gospel reading, but neither do I hide my Christian commitments from colleagues and students—I am, after all, writing for a review for The Gospel Coalition. And it turns out I’m not alone. Washington University has dozens of Christian faculty across a range of disciplines, some of whom have joined me to launch a new ministry called The Carver Project. You can also find Christian faculty at places like Harvard and MIT, Duke, Berkeley, Yale, and many other schools. Meanwhile, campus ministries and Christian study centers are flourishing around the country.

Like bourbon and books, institutions and people are usually more complex than our first impressions of them. Lukianoff and Haidt recognize the same is true of American higher education today, and Coddling captures the complicated landscape that includes both free speech challenges and social justice challenges, coddled students and courageous students, ideological extremism and principled conviction. These represent both challenges and  also opportunities. Many Christians called to today’s colleges and universities will need to venture into unfamiliar and sometimes inhospitable places, to treat the people we encounter there as the image bearers they are, and to love even those who might not love us back. If we take those challenges seriously, we will discover a lot of nuance after the burn.

Should Christians Demand That People Say ‘Merry Christmas’?

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

For many of us, Christmas isn’t quite what it used to be—the season has lost some of its luster. No, I’m not referring to the gradual disappearance of tinsel from our trees. Christmas has, like so many other subjects in modern America, become politicized and polarizing. Whether in business, government, education, or the media, referencing “Christmas” can almost seem more taboo than swearing. For Christian parents, this can be particularly unsettling. First prayer was expelled from the classroom; now in some corners of our land we’re not even sure if our kids are allowed to wish their schoolmates a “Merry Christmas.”

With this abrupt cultural transformation, believers wonder if they’ll soon be pushed clear to the edge of society or fenced out entirely. As such, the season of light is increasingly shrouded by thick blankets of shame, frustration, offense, and hesitation. But that’s not all. Even within the church, the typical Christian response to these challenges takes its own polarized form. Christians of the more conservative, aggressive stripe tend to volley arguments and defend their ground. They refuse any form of cultural concession. Meanwhile, other believers, those we might think of as progressive, may be willing to concede territory to the dominant, pluralistic society in an effort to be conciliatory. They desire to be peacemakers. What’s interesting is that these drastically different approaches are often born of the same goal: to advance the gospel and glory of Christ.

But are these approaches helpful to that end? I doubt so.

In the so-called War on Christmas (and any of the other “culture wars”), our Christian version of polarization seems to be part of the overall problem. The solution is neither passive retreat nor belligerent attack. Both further conceal the light. What we need, then, is to cultivate a more biblical method for our mission. In our increasingly hostile environment, we need to find a way of speaking the good news without being caustic, a way of being conciliatory without surrendering our voice.

Humble Appreciation

When our family lived in Central Asia, our local friends were all Muslims. Every year they’d observe the fast of Ramadan for a month, punctuated each evening by elaborate family meals and culminating in the festival of Eid al-Fitr. They’d also commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael, according to most interpretations of the Quran) with their own day of sacrifice, Eid-al-Adha.

As Christians, we wanted to respect and honor their traditions without endorsing their holidays or religious observance. I didn’t accept the Quranic story of Abraham or its depiction of sacrifice. Nor did I approve of the Islamic way of fasting. So for me, wishing my Muslim neighbors and friends a happy and holy Ramadan (using the typical Muslim greeting) was uncomfortable and would’ve been insincere. I also didn’t want to further confuse them or the gospel by commending their faith. Which meant the best I could do was, with kind authenticity, offer the local version of “Good holidays.”

I learned this generic—and incredibly useful—phrase from my Muslim friends’ own greetings to me during Christmas. Instead of our “Happy Noels,” they usually opted for “Good holidays.” And I didn’t take it as a personal offense or an attack on my belief. I took it for what it was: a kind gesture toward someone of a different faith—a faith over which we clearly disagreed.

In our increasingly hostile environment, we need to find a way of speaking the good news without being caustic, a way of being conciliatory without surrendering our voice.

This is the perspective we need in the West where cultural Christianity no longer holds sway. When people in power or the neighbors next door don’t particularly want to celebrate our version of Christmas, when they can only nod and smile with a “Happy holidays,” our first response should be to humbly appreciate their kindness and affirm their honesty.

Our job isn’t to fight for what’s lost, to perform CPR on Christian nominalism and preserve the last breaths of a fading religiosity in our land. And we certainly don’t need to lambast individuals, governments, or institutions for not celebrating a Christian holy day. After all, this is the lesson of the Golden Rule. Putting the shoe on another foot, would we really want them to coerce us, much less our kids, to celebrate Diwali or Pride?

Bold Proclamation

In our cultural moment, we should recognize the benefit of our nation’s fading allegiance to nominal Christianity. Now, more than ever, saying “Merry Christmas” means something. But saying it is also not nearly enough. Rather than conceding our losses and remaining silent, we need to actually explain to others—those who’ve perhaps never heard—the reason for the season by providing a defense for the hope in us. We’ll also need to differentiate the celebration of our Lord’s birth from other religious traditions and from the cultural clutter of Black Friday deals and “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” More than simply offering a throwaway Christmas greeting, we’ll need to declare the praises of our Savior.

More than simply offering a throwaway Christmas greeting, let’s declare the praises of our Savior.

There are many ways to do this: composing a Christmas letter, singing carols with dinner guests, rehearsing the Advent story, hosting a Christmas tea, taking cookies and a Scripture passage to neighbors. Doing these and more, we can leverage our holiday and use it to speak boldly—and winsomely—for Christ and his gospel. Meanwhile, when others—whether strangers on the train or shoppers in line—extend generic greetings, instead of being offended we can lean on the open door and ask if they too are celebrating any holidays this season. If they return the question, we might answer that we’re not celebrating Christmas per se—not in the vein of consumerist glut—but commemorating Advent. It might be the path to an unexpected gospel conversation.

The solution to a blurry and confusing season of light is neither aggression nor concession. We must repel the poles of fight or flight. This December, Christians shouldn’t shrink back in silence, ashamed of the gospel and pacifying opponents. But we also need not fight for naming rights or push for some kind of superficial social recognition. And we certainly need not argue for more religious nominalism in our land.

Instead, if we’re going to be offensive this Christmas season, let it be for the offense of the gospel itself. Let it be as we humbly explain our absurd hope in a virgin-birthed, flesh-wearing God. Let it be as we speak about the glory of a King come to die.

Look Forward to a Better Christmas

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 12:04am

On Thanksgiving day nine years ago, I had a seizure. That seizure revealed I had a tumor in my right frontal lobe of my brain. On December 4, surgeons cut out the tumor. I was 34 years old.

I awoke from surgery with some weakness on my left side. I was released from rehab on December 16 with a gnarly scar on my head, my hair starting to fall out, facing 18 months of high-dosage chemo and radiation.

The first real outing I had was a week later, when I went to Christmas Eve services at my church. As I sat at the back of the building, I could hardly hold it together.

‘A Couple of Years to Live’

It’s hard stay composed at Christmas when you’ve just heard the words, “You have a couple of years to live.” It was a difficult Christmas for our family. I was wondering if it was going to be my last. They were wondering if it was going to be my last.

But it was okay.

It was okay because the tumor, which spoiled Christmas and threatened to finish my life, didn’t take away my hope. The beauty of the first Christmas is that God put an anchor down for our souls, regardless of our circumstances.

And the beauty of Christmas is that it’s just the start of the story—not the end. The story doesn’t end with a baby in a manger or a man on a cross or even an empty tomb on a hillside.

The story hasn’t ended. It ends on a day that has not yet come, when that baby, now a man and the Ruler of heaven, will return to this world and say, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

That day all of us are so hungry for—when everything is made perfect—is coming. But it’s not going to be Christmas morning this year or next year or any year. It’ll be at the return of the King of the universe. On that day, for those who know him now and who are looking forward to his coming, there will be the perfection we are all looking for. On that day, there’ll be no more depression, no more anxiety, no more loss, no more brain tumors.

All that is sad, all that is dark, all that has gone wrong—there won’t even be a remembrance of it. All that’s been confusing, all of the moments we thought, Where are you, God? will vanish. Now, we live pressed up against a stained-glass window, and all we can see is bits of jagged glass. Then, we will be able to stand far enough back to see the beauty of it all.

Christmas is the start of that story. Since that Christmas spent with “You have a couple of years to live” rolling round my mind, I’ve loved Christmas all the more. Christmas has grown even better for me because I’ve come to appreciate that Christmas is when God got involved, gave me hope, and showed himself worthy of my trust. I love Christmas, all year round. And, yes, I love getting the decorations up way before December starts.

Ultimate Christmas Gift

There were no guarantees the chemo or radiation treatments would succeed. The side effects were often horrible. I prayed that God would help me keep knowing he was worth my trust. I prayed that God would help my family. I prayed that God would heal me. And, after nine months, the brain scans came back clear. After another couple rounds of chemo, I was given a clean bill of health. The tumor was gone.

The next November, Lauren’s step-grandmother came for Thanksgiving, and she brought a Christmas present. So we had this one present sitting in our living room on the shelf for a month, waiting to be opened. Audrey was 8 that year, and she’d just stare over at it. Even if the TV was on, she’d literally just be staring at the present. There was this kind of giddy “I can’t wait to open it” in her.

Well, two millennia ago, God came into his world. And he gave his world a present—himself. He came as a man, a man who lived and died and rose and who now reigns in heaven, and who will one day return and make everything perfect for all who follow him. If you accept this gift, you have everything to look forward to. You can always know your best days are ahead. Whatever else is going on in life, you can look at Jesus with a kind of giddy “I can’t wait for him to come back” feeling.

He Is Enough

Every December, the commercials promise us that perfection can be ours. But every Christmas, that perfection never truly comes—and it certainly never lasts. And yet perfection can be ours, forever—when Jesus comes again. So this season, you really can find all you want—not by looking to Christmas but beyond it, to the return of the one who came that first Christmas.

That year I had the tumor, it snowed a ton at Christmas—the kind of real, legitimate, you-can-actually-build-something-out-of-this snow we almost never get in Texas. On Christmas day, the kids were outside playing. I couldn’t do anything because I’d just come out of brain surgery. You don’t want to slip on the ice after that. All I could do was watch from inside, slightly dazed.

But here’s what I can tell you. Jesus was enough. He was with me. He comforted me. He gave me joy. He gave me peace. He gave me hope.

And I can tell you this: having a brain tumor shows you what’s important and what’s worth celebrating. I relaxed. We put the decorations up in November now. We watch Elf early.

I don’t know what kind of year you’ve had or what kind of Christmas you’re expecting. Perhaps it’s been truly a “joy to the world” kind of year. Perhaps your Christmas will be great. Remember that, for those who have welcomed Jesus into their life as King and asked him to invite them into his eternity, that’s all just a shadow of what’s coming when he returns. Praise God, enjoy Christmas . . . and look beyond it.

Look Forward

Or maybe you’re feeling beat up and banged up. Perhaps this is your first Christmas without a spouse. Or you’re lonely. Or you can’t get to where you’d like to be in life. Or you’re struggling. Or you’re sick or somebody you love is sick. Or something happened this year that has made you aware of how fragile things are. Remember—this is not all there is. God is involved in the mess of this world so he can share his joy with you now and bring you into his perfection one day. Invite him in, keep walking through the valleys and the peaks of this life with him . . . and look forward.

Christmas finishes quickly each year. What we look forward to soon lies behind us. But you can look forward to a day that will never end and a future that will never disappoint. The decorations will get packed away. But this year, hope and joy need not. You can look at the God who came and lay in that manger. And you can look forward to the day when he comes again.

And you can have an even better Christmas.