“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
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?
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.
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.
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:
- Supernatural Power for Everyday People: Experiencing God’s Extraordinary Spirit in Your Ordinary Life
- The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together
- Gospel Wakefulness
- The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables
- The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles
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.
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.
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:
- See me, not a sin. My extra weight may or may not be tied to indwelling, unrepentant sin. Don’t assume.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
“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.
- Just Drop the Blanket (Jason Soroski)
- Tired Just Thinking About Advent? Slow Down and Savor Christ. (Adam Ramsey)
- Have Yourself a Subversive Little Christmas (Dave Harvey)
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
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.
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.
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.
Follow your heart. It’s the message of every Christmas Hallmark movie. Stop listening to your head when your heart knows what’s best. Be true to yourself. Go with your gut.
Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell sat down to talk about this message that pervades our culture. They look at what the Bible has to say about our hearts, indwelling sin, and the heart of Christ. But they also talk about how to pursue guidance in making decisions and acting on desires that aren’t sinful.
Barry called me every day for 11 years, usually more than once, sometimes up to 20 times a day. When Barry didn’t call, I thought something might be up. When Barry didn’t answer my call, I knew something was. After one particular day of radio silence, I went by Barry’s apartment. It was on the ground floor, which meant I could bang on the windows when he didn’t answer the door.
On this occasion, I glimpsed Barry huddled under a windowsill to stay out of my sight. Barry was 6’3″ and weighed 360 pounds, so he looked like a grizzly bear trying to hide behind a lampshade. I was filled with righteous indignation (at least that’s how I justified it).
“I know you’re using in there, Barry!” I yelled. “You can pretend you’re not in there, but God is—he sees you right now! A holy God is in that apartment while you light up!” Barry responded, “You just don’t understand, man. You don’t know what I’ve been through and how hard it is.”
It stings to admit I acted this way as a 23-year-old seminary student. I felt prophetic at the time, but I was a fool. I thought I was standing in Peter’s line calling “Repent!” when in reality I was far closer to the Pharisee: “Thank God I’m not a sinner like this.”
Only as I arrived to pick up Barry one Sunday morning did I begin to understand the depth of his struggle. I found him sprawled across the table with both arms gashed open, blood everywhere. Life was barely clinging to him. I called 911, and then lifted his arms above his head to slow the blood flow. As I hugged my dying friend, the depth of his pain was excruciatingly evident. Barry wasn’t spending his days marking out dark plans for his next hit. The next hit was a mirage of relief. He was chasing an illusion of freedom—freedom from memories of abuse, from sins of the past, and from harsh realities of the present.Friends on a Mission
Barry and I became friends when his first pastor called me. Barry needed distance from the trials and temptations of the neighborhood. The old bar around the corner and the old friend next door pose a challenging atmosphere to a young believer. Barry moved a couple miles away into my neighborhood—a long way when you ride the bus or walk—in order to create helpful space for new habits and relationships to grow.
Our friendship sprouted from God’s Word. I would drop by and read the Bible with Barry. We’d read, talk, pray and then grab a bite at the deli down the street. Barry would try his most recent rap on me over a coney dog, or we’d throw a fishing line in the Detroit River to see if anything was biting.
Barry and I became partners in the gospel as the Spirit used our different gifts and strengths to help each other. Barry had a heart for the broken, the needy, the downtrodden. He knew their struggle, largely because it mirrored his own. He was always stepping out to help them.
Until the day Barry died—of sepsis in March 2018—he lived on less than $1,000 of income and government assistance per month, yet I saw him give food away nearly every week. I saw him give the good news about Jesus away even more. When I introduced Barry to a man just released from prison, Barry gave him a bed in his apartment within five minutes. The mission fused our friendship. I’d studied farming; Barry could see the harvest. God used us together in ways I never could’ve imagined. But he also used Barry to change me.Friendship as a Mirror
I inhaled one piece of cheese bread after another as I stood by the kitchen sink. My wife told me to grab a plate, sit down, and slow down. I had tunnel vision. A complex counseling situation was crushing me. I was responding the way I’d responded so many times before: with food.
Suddenly, it dawned on me just how similar Barry and I were. Where I grew up, you didn’t deal with stress through drugs or alcohol. Those things weren’t acceptable, but other sin was. I ran to pizza because no one raised me to run to dope. But make no mistake: my kitchen counter was Barry’s corner. His bar was my pizza shop. My sin was more culturally acceptable, but it was no less lethal when I leaned on it rather than God.
My sin was more culturally acceptable, but it was no less lethal when I leaned on it rather than God.
The Spirit began using Barry to expose my sinfulness. At a heart level, he and I were no different. We had different mentors, knew different neighborhoods, and were taught different ways to cope. My life was a mountain of undeserved kindness. I was raised in church; generations of my family knew Jesus; my education was phenomenal; my upbringing was sheltered.
Not so for Barry. His upbringing was different in almost every way. Yet there I was, nursing the same sinful habits with more culturally acceptable nameplates. Replacing God brings judgment, regardless of whether we use carbs or cocaine.
A psychologist might call my misunderstanding of Barry the Fundamental Attribution Error. When other people fail, you point to their flawed character or harmful intentions. Their failure is a problem with who they are or an expression of their hostility toward me. When I fail, however, I point to the circumstances and pressures in my life. You’re late because you’re lazy or don’t care. I’m late because I’m busy and it’s been a crazy week.
My pride told me that Barry was naïve and too soft on people, that his struggles were personal discipline problems. That man Barry housed straight out of prison? He stole Barry’s coat. Those people who needed food? They could somehow afford cigarettes. My clinical analysis saw through them. In fact, I saw only the worst in them.Other Side of the Tracks
Barry would often gently remind me: “You gotta remember, Wavey Gravey (his nickname for me), God gave you loving parents and a safe home and so many blessings. Lots of people are just trying to survive. They’ve almost never felt safe and they’ve never been taught.”
I can’t remember those words without tearing up. He was correct. I grew up on the “right” side of the tracks. I had—and still have—so much to learn. Barry wanted me to treat others in light of the grace God had shown me. The Spirit had created a gentle, merciful heart in that mountain of a man. Without Christ, Barry embraced the harsh facade a drug dealer wears to survive the street. God mercifully stripped Barry of that and replaced it with a Spirit-wrought gentleness toward the least, the last, and the lost. And he used Barry to strip away the pride in me.
God used Barry to strip away the pride in me.
The Spirit used Barry’s understanding of the gospel to transform my perspective of myself. In Christ, we can both see sin clearly and also show mercy gently. Every person is a complex combination of villain and victim. They have done horrible things. Horrible things have been done to them. They need to turn from sin to Jesus Christ.
Every month I helped Barry with his budget. I did this for 11 years. And every month for 11 years I would bust him over spending more than he had on stupid stuff. But as I sat with a young man in seminary this morning, I told him, “You know what, Barry never got that stinkin’ budget in order. Despite all that time I spent harassing him about it, he never got it down. But what does it matter now? Barry is with Jesus! He’s experiencing unending joy in the presence of our King. Jesus didn’t stiff-arm Barry at the door because his budget was out of whack—he embraced him with the love bestowed upon a righteous son. I see it now! The God who began a good work in Barry completed that work (Phil. 1:6) without needing me to get him all spiffed up and squared away.”
God’s truth deserves obedience and demands declaration. But sometimes, people like me need to take a chill pill and walk gently with those who struggle. The Spirit’s the barber, and he’ll get everyone lined up right in the end.
These lessons have transformed how I’ve gone about planting our church. You can’t plant a church without gentleness (okay, you can, but you certainly won’t lead it well). Gentleness is treating others in light of God’s kindness toward you. A gentle man knows that God has produced the good in him—against his best efforts. A gentle man knows he’s more sinful than others perceive. A gentle man understands the magnitude of God’s mercy given him in Christ.
And this was Barry. Was he a messed-up sinner? You bet. But he knew it. And he reveled in the grace of God in Christ. Because of that, he was gentle. He’s gone now, but I’m praying that God would make me more like my late, gentle friend.
“Books are long enough to change you.”
I can’t determine who originally said this (and neither can the internet), but it’s something I firmly believe—and never more so than today.
In her recent book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (Harper, 2018), Tufts University professor MaryAnne Wolf examines how digital distractions are rewiring our brains, and we’re losing the ability to do deep, sustained reading. While much of her focus is on raising little ones in this new media landscape, she worries that
[W]e, their guides, do not realize the insidious narrowing of our own thinking, the imperceptible shortening of our attention to complex issues, the unsuspected diminishing of our ability to write, read, or think past 140 [now 280] characters. We must all take stock of who we are as readers, writers, and thinkers.
This is no less an issue for the books editor at The Gospel Coalition.
Sometimes the best wisdom I give TGC readers is to stop reading TGC—and all other digital voices demanding our attention now. TGC’s desire for our local and national events, as well as the books, curriculum, articles, podcasts, videos, and reviews we publish, is to resource (but never replace) the local church. Each year we review around 300 titles between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section, so we’re firmly committed to the written word as a means of supporting church leaders. And at the end of each year we take stock of the most helpful titles across various categories, using the following fourfold criteria:
- offer gospel-centered argument and application;
- include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
- foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
- encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.
So here’s my advice this year: Buy one or more of these books (preferably in print); log out of social media; and recapture the joy of immersing yourself in a book.
As our attention spans decrease and we’re sucked into the social-media vortex with its trivialities and Outrage of the Day, one way we can quietly resist is by reading a book. Such a small act, when joined to an abiding walk with Jesus and a life of service in his church, makes a radical difference in our lives and those around us.
Congratulations to the winners of our 2018 TGC Book Awards.Christian Living
Hannah Anderson. All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2018. 224 pp. $13.99.
Have we lost the ability to choose well? Polarized by tribalism and paralyzed by false dichotomies, this generation desperately needs to develop discernment. Thankfully, Hannah Anderson helps us to do just that by teaching us to identify and appreciate goodness wherever it can be found. All That’s Good wisely and winsomely shows how discernment enables us to engage the world with the truth of Scripture. For anyone wanting a life filled with truth and beauty (and who doesn’t?), this book is an invaluable resource. [Read Jen Pollock Michel’s review.]
Matthew McCullough. Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 192 pp. $19.99. [Read Phil Letizia’s review.]
Judges: Megan Hill, Jasmine Holmes, Winfree Brisley, Ameen HudsonAcademic Theology
Michael J. McClymond. The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018. 1376 pp. $90.
It’s not uncommon to hear some book touted as “definitive” or “magisterial.” Usually the hype is overblown. Every now and then, it’s not. This is one of the exceptions. The Devil’s Redemption truly is, as the back cover states, “the definitive treatment on universalism for years to come.” Nearly 1,400 pages, McClymond goes wide and deep to survey the history of universalist ideas. He shows how universalism necessarily impinges on other doctrines, and he exposes the tragic irony that universalism, far from preserving grace, eclipses it. One judge put it well: “I’m struck by the book’s relevance. Universalism, I’m convinced, is likely to grow in its threat to orthodoxy, particularly in the Western church—and I’m not sure we’re prepared for it. Indeed, many Christians today wish they (or God) could be a universalist. Historical examination, rather than biblical/systematic theological argumentation alone, helps locate this false doctrine in social and intellectual context; it reminds us that, given the right conditions today, its re-emergence is always lurking around the corner.” [See Justin Taylor’s interview with McClymond.]
Michael Horton. Justification. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018. 672 pp. $74.99.
Judges: Matt Smethurst, Rebecca McLaughlin, Duke Kwon, Thomas SchreinerPopular Theology
Mike Cosper. Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018. 208 pp. $16.99.
It’s a brave new world in the late-modern West. Not too long ago, being a churchgoing person was an asset on a social résumé; today it’s increasingly a liability. This isn’t entirely bad, of course; nominal Christianity has wreaked untold havoc in the church, and its death is long overdue. Nevertheless, we face serious challenges to gospel faithfulness that demand fresh wisdom and courage. Faith Among the Faithless is medicine for the moment. Writing with trenchant insight in a breezy style, Cosper unfolds the story of Esther with exegetical rigor, cultural analysis, and pointed application. From beginning to end, he sounds the right notes. Here’s one example: “Cultural assimilation is a failure of nerve, and cultural isolation is a failure of heart. The former fails to resist; the latter fails to love” (43). Amen. [Read Jasmine Holmes’s review.]
Alastair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson. Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 176 pp. $17.99. [Read G. Geoffrey Harper’s review.]
Judges: Matt Smethurst, Rebecca McLaughlin, Duke Kwon, Thomas SchreinerMinistry
John Ownuchekwa. Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway/9Marks. 144 pp. $14.99.
There has been much to say about prayer, and there is much yet still to say. Onwuchekwa infuses rich cultural motifs with a necessary spiritual discipline to create this small but powerfully helpful book. Moreover, the origin of the book (his own suffering in the loss of his brother) and the size of the book make it the first one pastors may want to give their congregations. Many books rightly focus on the individual nature of prayer, but this little work shows what a powerful tool every congregation possesses in the gift of prayer. [Read 20 quotes from the book.]
John Piper. Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 336 pp. $29.99.
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Mike Bullmore, Jason Cook, David SchrockHistory & Biography
Michael J. Kruger. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic. 256 pp. $30.00.
A masterful account of the church in the second century, this book skillfully describes Christianity’s movement into the wider pagan world and provides insight into the development of doctrine, formation of the canon, and Christian worship and practices. With an excellent summary of contemporary research on the second-century church, Christianity at the Crossroads could also be a manual for the church of the 21st century. [Read David A. Evans’s review.]
Joe Rigney. Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 320 pp. $21.99. [Read Gwen Burrow’s review.]
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Nathan Finn, Diana Severance, Eric WashingtonEvangelism & Apologetics
Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen. Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 336 pp. $34.99.
This outstanding book offers a reliable map for evangelistically navigating our secular age. It manages the rare feat of being both comprehensive in its scope and accessible in its style. Its warm and humble tone commends it as much as its faithful, perceptive, and hopeful message. It is cruciform not only in what it is saying, but also in how it says it, which makes it a wonderful example for us to follow. This will be an essential resource for all pastors, but also a great help to any Christian wanting to engage constructively in apologetics today. [Read about Chatraw and Allen’s apologetic approach.]
Peter J. Williams. Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 160 pp. $17.99. [See Peter Williams’s TGC Course on gospel reliability.]
Judges: Sam Allberry, Barry Cooper, Dan DeWitt, Jared WilsonPublic Theology & Current Events
Nancy R. Pearcey. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018. 336 pp. $22.99.
There is much that needs to be said to the evangelical church—both as reminder and as fresh teaching—about developing a biblical theology of the body. This book by Pearcey, professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, provides a useful contribution to that effort. With particular tenderness and thoughtfulness to women, Pearcey addresses abortion, euthanasia, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and transgenderism in a way that is philosophically rigorous yet accessible. [Read David Shaw’s review.]
John M. Perkins. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2018. 208 pp. $15.99. [Read Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s profile of Perkins.]
Judges: Joe Carter, Vermon Pierre, Jacqueline Isaacs, Bruce AshfordChildren’s
Dan DeWitt and Catalina Echeverri. The Friend Who Forgives. Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2018. 32 pp. $14.99.
A fresh look at the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, The Friend Who Forgives presents children with an easy-to-understand, impossible-to-miss lesson on God’s forgiving grace. Children and adults alike will relate to this true tale of sin and restoration. We have all been let down by a friend, but more importantly, we have let God down. Yet we, like Peter, have been welcomed back into his family. Catalina Echeverri’s bright, humorous illustrations make this beautiful story even more compelling.
Nancy Guthrie. What Every Child Should Know about Prayer. Youngstown, OH: 10Publishing, 2018. 144 pp. $19.99.
Judges: Betsy Howard, Sarah Zylstra, Erik Raymond, Quina AragónFirst-Time Author
Jackie Hill Perry. Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been. Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2018. 208 pp. $16.99.
In stunningly beautiful prose and poetry, Jackie Hill Perry invites us into her story of redemption, finding God and his grace in the midst of gender confusion and homosexuality. She bravely invites us into her transformation at an important cultural moment, showing us both how to fight our own temptations and also how to think about identity. Courageous yet compassionate, bold without being brash, she has provided the church with the gift of seeing and worshiping the Savior who not only saves but also transforms. [Read Kristen Wetherell’s review.]
Cameron Cole. Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. 206 pp. $14.99. [Read Kristin Tabb’s review.]
Judges: Collin Hansen, Julius Kim, Christine Hoover, Trillia Newbell
It was time to say something. After months of abrasive communication coupled with borderline abusive negotiation tactics, I needed to have a heart-to-heart with my client. We are all adults here, but there is a point at which you cease being just a demanding client and become an antagonist.
She was a construction manager at a global corporation you’ve heard of. She managed several projects my company was building. I called her up.
Sharon, I need to talk to you about something. We really need to work on the way we communicate with one another. Your constant demands at all hours and yelling at my team are not helping us finish your jobs. It is a distraction. And we really need to get a foundation of respect between us.
She almost fired us on the spot. She told me she didn’t know what to do with what I had told her.
Eventually, Sharon came around. We finished the jobs we were working on in a much more civil manner. She didn’t fire us. And after I’d thought about her perspective a little more, I realized she was simply the product of a cold and inhumane corporate culture. She wasn’t trying to be mean; she was just overwhelmed by the pressure. Her higher-ups didn’t care about her, and thus she didn’t care about us.
To Sharon, it was “just business.” She had stuff to get done, and she got it done. Simple as that.
I wish I could say that I never see my own work like this, and that I don’t see fellow brothers and sisters in Christ operating in this way in the business world—but I do and I do. Our work as believers is of great importance to God; and when we ignore the purpose of work, we miss an opportunity to glorify him.
As believers, we need a biblical worldview that includes work. Our lives do not consist of work, home, and church in separate categories. Our life is just our life, and the gospel speaks to every aspect.No Ordinary People
“It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors,” C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory.
It is a strange thing to consider that people are immortal beings, especially when some appear in our lives for only a moment—for example, the woman serving you coffee or the man sitting behind you on the train.
Contrast that with your boss or colleague. We spend hours with the people we work with, and they will influence us just as we influence them. These immortals have the same hunger for love, acceptance, and redemption as we do. They need God’s saving grace, just like we do. And maybe—just maybe—the Lord will use us to deliver a kind word in a hard time or to share the truth of Christ at an opportune moment.Gospel Advertisements
“We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us,” the apostle Paul wrote. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The light of Christ in us might be the only flicker our coworkers and clients ever see. That’s scary, because we bear his image in distorted ways. But the Spirit intercedes for us and helps us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26).
The light of Christ in us might be the only flicker our coworkers and clients ever see.
Charles Spurgeon called those anointed with the oil of gladness, which comes from receiving salvation, “advertisements for the gospel.” These people, illumined by the truth of what Christ has done, walk around like grace lanterns. They glow with the light of Christ, exuding peace, love, forgiveness, and power.
As ambassadors for Christ, we must understand that our actions at work paint a picture of him. It isn’t about performance; it’s about a changed heart, which comes from abundant worship of God. When we saturate our souls with worship, we will more naturally bring Jesus into every meeting, conference call, job interview, and sales call.Great Purpose
We like to think of life in big moments—weddings, funerals, and birthdays. But more often, life looks like a rainy Tuesday morning. And thus, many of us are bored. We feel we’re waiting for something, when really we’re living a divine adventure this very moment.
“It’s just business,” they say. But it’s not. When we’re dealing with immortal beings made in the image of a beautiful God, it’s never just business. It’s a divinely appointed opportunity to showcase him and share his love. It’s not about perfect performance. It’s about relishing our position as sinners saved by grace and being willing to offer the spiritual salve with which Christ has treated us—himself.
Several weeks ago, I spent some time in London. I marveled at Westminster Abbey, drifted down the River Thames, and toured Buckingham Palace. I also relished the opportunity to visit the historic Metropolitan Tabernacle, where Charles Haddon Spurgeon faithfully proclaimed the gospel for 38 years.
Many of us are familiar with Charles’s biography, preaching abilities, and prodigious writing. But few of us know much about his wife, Susie. In Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Ray Rhodes Jr. tells Susie’s compelling story by weaving together historical records, older biographies, personal writings, and family member interviews.
Susie has a full narrative to tell. Rhodes—founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Dawsonville, Georgia, and president of Nourished in the Word Ministries—vibrantly chronicles her life, bringing us into Susie’s heartbreaking yet faith-building world. She loved her God and her family with excellence despite the difficulties of life. And Susie will encourage you as you encounter her persevering faith.Suffering Well and Supporting Others
Sometimes we think encouraging books must have cheerful storylines and fairytale endings. This isn’t one of those.
Susie’s first 35 years were full of adventure. One of her favorite pastimes was walking outdoors for several miles to enjoy God’s creation. She traveled to Paris numerous times to learn the language and culture, and she was educated in music and art. But Susie’s active lifestyle abruptly ended when she suffered a life-changing medical condition—likely endometriosis or a tumor—which left her mostly homebound for the rest of her life. In spite of her suffering, she continued to serve both the Lord and others from the confines of her home. She set up a ministry to mail theological books to needy pastors, and she wrote many books and articles.
Susie wasn’t the only one who suffered. Charles often struggled with depression, anxiety, intense criticism, and horrific devastations as he depended on Susie’s wisdom, prayers, and love. She also read aloud to him from authors like George Herbert. As Rhodes shares, “Often Susie’s reading to Charles brought great conviction to their hearts, and they wept together.” Even when he was away, she wrote him letters of encouragement. Susie trusted the Lord, pressed into her sorrow, and served her family and the wider world.Encouragement for Parents and Spouses
Every believer will find deep encouragement in Susie to live in the Scriptures. Parents will be spurred on as they read about Susie leading her twin sons in reading the Bible, singing, and prayer. One of my favorite stories in the book was told by her son Thomas. Susie would sit at the piano with one boy on either side and teach them hymns. When the trio would sing “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” she’d pause before the chorus and say:
Dear boys of mine, I have no reason to suppose that you are yet trusting Christ: you will, I hope, in answer to our constant prayers, but till you definitely do you must not say or sing “I do believe, that Jesus died for me.” It’s just as wrong to sing a lie as to tell one.
And so she’d sing that line alone. After Thomas became a believer, he couldn’t wait to sing that line with his mother as loudly as possible.
Husbands and wives will find a model in the Spurgeons’ deep love for one another and the ways they pointed each other to Christ. Because Susie was unable to attend Sunday church services, Charles set aside Saturday mornings to minister to her directly. He also invited her to help in his sermon preparation by having her read aloud from commentaries, about which she said:
Never was occupation more delightful, instructive, and spiritually helpful; my heart has often burned within me, as the meaning of some passage of God’s Word has been opened up, and the hidden stores of wisdom and knowledge have been revealed; or when the marrow and fatness of a precious promise or doctrine has been spread like a dainty banquet before my admiring eyes.
As I pondered Susie’s life, I thought about expectations for pastors’ wives. It’s no secret that pastors’ wives face pressure to be visible in the life of the church. I can’t imagine how Susie must’ve felt when people asked why she was absent from church services. Her heart desired to be with her church family, but her illness kept her home Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. Many people probably felt that an invalid makes a poor pastor’s wife. Yet the Lord prepared Susie to be the partner Charles needed. He used Susie’s sufferings to fill her with compassion for her struggling husband.
This was especially important when the Spurgeons faced several calamitous ministry situations. Once, seven people were killed and 28 injured at a preaching event led by Charles. Susie comforted him through the grief for the rest of his life. They also faced a prominent theological split with beloved friends and family as well as continued criticism in the papers.
If you’re a pastor’s wife, this book will likely compel you to lavishly encourage your husband. Susie shows us that we have a unique opportunity to point our pastor-husbands to God’s faithfulness after they preach a less-than-stellar sermon or when they’re harshly critiqued. They need to know we’re at their side in both the joys and also the hardships of ministry.
Rhodes’s book is well-researched and well-written. It’s a page-turner of encouragement. Buy three copies: one for yourself, one for someone going through a difficult time, and one for a ministry wife. You’ll likely read this one more than once.
Let’s be honest. Many of our relationships with our parents are challenging.
In my Chinese American family and community, parenting styles were unidirectional, with the parenting coming from above and little from alongside. This was compounded by our communication and other cultural barriers.
But just because our relationship with our parents was poor when we were children doesn’t mean the relationship can’t change. As grown children, we have the opportunity to walk alongside our parents as we seek to honor and love them as God calls us to. This is an opportunity to make Christ and his ways beautiful to them.1. God wants you to minister to them.
To my (entirely appropriate) shame, I sinfully saw my parents as people who must be endured, especially in what felt like endless lectures with wagging fingers and shaming scowls. Thank God he convicted me. I have since come to find (and create) opportunities to move toward my parents in love.
The Lord has placed us in our parents’ lives that we might minister his grace to them. They too need prayer, godly wisdom, and biblical community as they battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. It certainly takes patience, strategy, grace, and determination. But of course it would. Because God wants us to love as he loved—with grace, mercy, and fierce determination.
God has placed us in our parents’ lives that we might minister his grace to them.2. Seek to know them.
On the one hand this is a risky venture. You might ask your mom, “Tell me again, Mom, about how you didn’t have the chance to go to school,” and she might lecture and shame you in the reply: “It’s because we didn’t have the same opportunity we have given you. So you better not mess up.”
But through patience, gentleness, and genuine curiosity, your parents might be convinced you are trying to know them and love them.
I like asking my parents about specific events in their past. They’ve shared about upbringing, family history, and work history. I learned about how they set out from Malaysia to settle in London and then the United States, living in Yonkers, Dallas, and now Southern California. Hearing their stories and seeing them laugh as they reminisce about hard times and joys made it all the more enjoyable when, on one family vacation, we went to visit my parents’ old apartment in Yonkers.
The more you get to know your parents, the more accurately you’ll be able to love them in word and deed.
The more you get to know your parents, the more accurately you’ll be able to love them in word and deed.3. Try to find and bond over interests.
My relationship with my dad took a turn for the better when he started teaching me how to follow the stock market and make trades. Though it was almost 20 years ago, I still remember him teaching me like it was yesterday.
Even though I haven’t traded on my own for more than a decade, the conversations with my dad about the market have continued. I’ll get to hear not only his financial analysis but also how he is doing with the market’s ups and downs.
Our conversations about finances have paid big dividends in our relationship as father and son. In these conversations, there are opportunities to encourage with biblical truth—to steward the money God has given us while not “[setting] our hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). It has also led our conversations in other directions in which we’ve continued to encourage each other.
Find and bond over your parents’ interests and yours. As you do things together (whether trying new restaurants, going hiking, or watching movies), focus on the relationship. Hear your parents out, make conversational efforts, and build memories.4. Genuinely seek wisdom.
Seeking your parents’ wisdom shows that you honor their experiences and opinions. I remember the first time I asked my parents for guidance. I was already 23 years old! What a fool I’d been for refusing to solicit their thoughts for so long.
Now, hearing their wisdom doesn’t always mean you need to heed it. If you’re living apart from your parents, one hopes they already understand that point. But they will appreciate it even more if you are living independently but still seeking their input.
There are so many things to ask them about, like what they would’ve done differently about marriage, parenting, their jobs, and so on. If they are Christians, ask them about how following Christ has affected their lives in relation to those categories. You might get great wisdom. You might not. But that’s okay. Just seeking your parents’ wisdom strengthens their confidence in you and demonstrates appreciation and respect, which honors them.5. Talk about Christ.
As a Christian, your ministry to your parents should be distinctly Christian—done in the love of Christ, speaking about the gospel of Christ, aiming for the glory of Christ.
If you are seeking to know them, bond over interests, and seek wisdom, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk from a Christian worldview about life’s most important things.
As a Christian, your ministry to your parents should be distinctly Christian—done in the love of Christ, speaking about the gospel of Christ, aiming for the glory of Christ.
Whether or not they are Christians, perhaps they might learn from you what it means to live a Christ-centered life in which the gospel transforms all facets of living in God’s world. You have the opportunity to represent your Lord and Savior as his ambassador, showing your parents that life ought to honor and be lived under the kingship of Christ.Honor Them
We know children are to honor their parents (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1). In our younger years, this pretty much means submitting to their authority. But as we enter into adulthood, honoring our parents involves a measure of maturity and ministry.
So let us honor our parents and, in so doing, honor the Lord.
Do we have a two-party political system because we love binaries? Or do we love binaries because we have a two-party system? Maybe the answer is somewhere in between. And that’s just my point.
Our affinity for binaries could result from the influence of social media and the unprecedented platform to weigh in with public comment on every headline around the world at all times. News and trends today demand a response: Are you in or out? Are you for or against? Thumbs up or down? American democracy and capitalism catechize their citizens as arbiters of success. And that instinct extends to religion: Is this view right or wrong? Is this figure good or evil? Should I fight or join this cause?
The problem is that not every answer is clear, and not every choice is binary. It’s possible that both sides have a point. It’s possible that two people with the same theological views might also inhabit different contexts and experiences, and thus derive different emphases. One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another person has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
Right and wrong are absolute. But this side of Christ’s return we only know right and wrong from the explicit teaching of Scripture. And not every trend or news event can be evaluated solely on the basis of a biblical text. Wisdom demands prudence. And courage. And humility to love another with empathy that leads to understanding, even where conviction may lead us in separate directions.
Some entries on my 2018 list of top 10 theology stories are more strictly theological, and more clearly right or wrong, than others. At The Gospel Coalition we aim to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ affects all of life. And you’ll find assumptions and beliefs about God in each of these events and trends. Consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories of 2018.
You’ll see plenty of occasions to choose sides between right and wrong. But be careful not to demand an either/or where a both/and may be warranted.10. Missionary martyr leaves behind debate over methods, theology of evangelism.
Christians hold lots of controversial views. But we face the most incredulous opposition with our belief that apart from salvation in Jesus Christ, humanity will be judged by God in hell for eternity. And it’s not just hardened skeptics but many former evangelicals who denounced John Allen Chau after he was killed in his mission to evangelize the natives on North Sentinel Island, far off the coast of India. Among those who share Chau’s sense of urgency in fulfilling the Great Commission, debate ensued over what kind of training and assurances of possible success our churches should expect in the missionaries we support and commission.9. Unprecedented year of transition opens door for next generation of evangelical leadership.
Though Billy Graham had not recently been active in ministry, his death exposed the need for a rising generation of evangelical leadership, Graham’s own Southern Baptist Convention searched for new top executives at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC Executive Committee, LifeWay Christian Resources, the International Mission Board, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. J. D. Greear won a convincing presidential election in the SBC as a vanguard for the rising generation. The path had been paved for him by an older generation of leaders such as Albert Mohler, who celebrated 25 years as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The broader evangelical community likewise saw unprecedented leadership transition as vacancies opened for top positions at Moody Bible Institute, Beeson Divinity School, Willow Creek Community Church, Park Street Church, and Christianity Today International. Many of these jobs remain open as we look to 2019.8. Book publishing catches up with shift in apologetic concerns.
How can you answer objections to the Christian faith when an unbeliever wouldn’t even know enough to raise those objections? Apathy is a greater threat to our mission today than antagonism. That means we’ll need ordinary Christians equipped to listen well and ask their neighbors good questions that will help provoke deeper thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life. Thankfully publishers tapped experts from around the world to take up this challenge of evangelism in a skeptical age. Our distracted neighbors need a disruptive witness.7. Gay Christianity forces everyone to choose sides.
The clamor for clearer lines in the debate over so-called gay Christianity dates back at least to the Nashville Statement of 2017. Those demands grew much louder when a PCA church hosted the Revoice conference to encourage chaste gay and lesbian Christians. To some, the conference looked like a misguided and even dangerous attempt to address the idolatry of family at a time when public opinion in much of the world has swung against God’s created order. You haven’t seen the last of the clashes about whether the term “gay Christian” cedes the identity battle in a way that erodes biblical belief and practice.6. Tribalism wants to claim every square inch of American culture.
If a lone senator cries out in the wilderness against the tribalism that threatens to overtake our lives, does anyone hear him? The retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, advocate of the “sweet mystery of life” and principal defender of gay marriage and abortion on demand, led to the emotionally draining and enraging confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The church was no refuge from this year’s antagonism, with the polarizing appearance of Vice President Mike Pence at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Good news for principled pluralism came in the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. But the year was characterized by the ever-creeping politicization and division of family, sports, entertainment, and church. With so much energy and money invested in dividing us, and in mobilizing Christians as partisans, we’ll need many more voices calling the church to prioritize the gospel above a worldly political agenda.5. Catholic abuse scandal worsens as conservative critique of Pope Francis intensifies.
Just when you think the Catholic abuse scandal can’t get worse, we see 1,356 pages showing how nearly every diocese in Pennsylvania covered up abuse over the last 70 years. And even Pope Francis was accused of covering up for a theological ally, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, widely known to have abused young seminarians under his care. Even if Pope Francis had a record of reform in the abuse scandal, he’d still be under suspicion for trying to change church doctrine, particularly in sexual ethics. This year conservative critiques of Pope Francis raised the public specter of a Catholic civil war.4. Tough talk in the self-help genre attracts big crowds.
Call it the anti-Oprah, politically incorrect effect. But the most popular books of 2018 gave us rules and orders. Jordan Peterson offered 12 Rules for Life as an antidote to chaos and became according to at least one observer the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” Maybe even more popular among Christian readers is Rachel Hollis, whose Girl, Wash Your Face became probably the most widely discussed book in your church. Both books advocate elements of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and remind us that what passes among some today as Christian spirituality is neither Christian nor spiritual.3. Social justice strikes some as necessary implication and others as dangerous perversion of the gospel.
If we “just preach the gospel,” will society change? That’s the hope for many who denounce “social justice warriors” as abandoning proper focus on the gospel of salvation. If that’s true, does that mean evangelical churches weren’t preaching the gospel in Memphis 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while protesting unjust wages and unsafe conditions for sanitation workers? There’s more agreement on the priority of evangelism than you might think in the debates over racial reconciliation on Twitter. The main disagreements come over the application or implications of the gospel, especially as it relates to social justice. Both sides see the gospel at stake with the wrong emphasis. And both sides are working to end injustice on earth. The real difference is how they prioritize issues such as abortion, religious freedom, mass incarceration, and officer-involved shootings.2. Popular pastor wants Christians to unhitch from the Old Testament.
The most generous interpretation of Andy Stanley, perhaps the most influential American pastor today, says he wants to work backward from an apologetic emphasis on Jesus and the resurrection before getting to the authority of Scripture and the witness of the Old Testament. More skeptically, he’s falling into a familiar trap of dichotomizing the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. Even his supporters should admit that the pastor famous for being a communication savant has contributed great confusion about the New Testament and orthodox approach to the old covenant, which has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. If some have abused or tripped over the old covenant, we should labor in teaching to show them the better way modeled by so many of the church’s great exegetes.1. #MeToo claims major Christian leaders and elevates theologically rigorous advocate.
The fierce denials of Bill Hybels only temporarily deluded other Willow Creek leaders and ultimately worsened the epic decline of his famous church. The moral compromise of Hybels, so long an advocate of women in ministry even as he seduced some of them, led many to say it’s time to reckon with celebrity power. The willingness of the most popular and powerful female voices in the SBC forced a reckoning in America’s largest Protestant denomination that disgraced one of its longtime conservative leaders. From this wreckage emerged one of the most rigorous theological voices on a national stage in recent memory, as Rachel Denhollander brought a biblical account of justice to bear on maybe the biggest scandal in the history of amateur American athletics.