Puritan theologian William Ames (1576–1633) offered my favorite definition of theology: the art of living well. Robust theology ought to lead to robust living. Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker) [read TGC’s review] characterizes this truth well.
Barrett had an awakening in the years before he became a scholar to the God of the Bible and now he’s seeking to make his character and attributes clear and accessible to laypeople so that learning the attributes of God transforms people’s lives.
I interviewed Barrett—associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—about his new book and theology for laypeople in general. We discussed his desire to write theology for the local church, justification by faith, whether it’s possible to talk Christian living without talking theology, and more.In the introduction to None Greater, you recount an experience prior to entering ministry that opened your eyes to the greatness of God. Talk a bit about that.
As a young Christian attending evangelical churches, I noticed there was a main objective whenever Christians talked about God: He must be relatable and relational, intimate and immanent. That often meant you determined who God is by looking to your human experience. So, if we experience love, God just has more love. If we have knowledge, God just has more knowledge. This also worked in the other direction: If we grieve or suffer, God grieves or suffers too. What kind of God does this leave us with? A God who is just a bigger, better version of ourselves.
But then I (accidentally!) read Augustine’s Confessions. I had read my Bible for years, but Augustine opened my eyes afresh to the God of Scripture. Augustine taught me that God is not just our ideal version of ourselves; he is an altogether different kind of being. He is not the finite creature but the infinite Creator. He is not merely greater in size but in essence; in fact, his essence is immeasurable and unbounded, incapable of being limited by human experience.
God is not just our ideal version of ourselves.
Then I stumbled across Anselm, who said God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived; he is the perfect, infinite being. Anything that would limit God cannot not be true of God. That means certain perfect-making attributes must follow, attributes that shield God from limitations like change, emotional fluctuation, divisible parts, dependence on the creature, lack of knowledge, a succession of moments, and so on.
This turned my world upside down. I thought I knew God, but I was surprised by God. This left me frustrated—how could I be in church for so long and have read my Bible so many years and never heard of attributes like immutability, impassibility, simplicity, aseity, and timeless eternity? But this discovery also left me thrilled—this God is far greater than I ever imagined and must be worthy of worship. After this discovery, my Bible became a strange new world.One of the best features of your book is the target audience: it’s a volume on the attributes of God that is impeccably researched but written for laypeople. How important is it for academic theologians to serve the church in this way?
So important. I often hear scholars lament how shallow church is these days and how little theology churchgoers (or even pastors) know. Yet they do nothing about it. That must change, but it won’t unless scholars who spend their lives studying Scripture and theology start lisping to novice students, pastors, and churchgoers. When we look back at the greatest revivals of theology in church history, they occurred in part because scholars communicated truth to those in pews and then mounted pulpits. The church fathers who wrote the Nicene Creed, for example, understood the survival of the church itself was at stake. Reformers like Martin Luther may have started off writing theses for academic debate, but they quickly realized the Reformation would only take root if its ideas (and its Bible) were put in the vernacular. I could go on. Point is, scholarship divorced from the church is a bad hangover from the Enlightenment. In most of history, scholarship was for the church.We don’t often talk in church about things like the aseity or the simplicity of God. How have you sought to make those things accessible to lay Christians?
There is a popular caricature that says the doctrine of God is some abstract theory that has nothing to do with the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mentioned how I providentially read Augustine, but keep in mind that his Confessions are biography in the form of prayers. That’s right, prayers! As he prays, he puts his theology on full display. Apparently, the greatest minds of the church thought who God is has everything to do with the Christian life.
We see this with God’s attributes. Ask yourself, what are the consequences of rejecting attributes like aseity, simplicity, immutability, or impassibility? The consequences are devastating. If God is not life in and of himself, self-sufficient, and self-existent—but a God who depends on us finite creatures—then he is a God who needs saving just as much as we do. If God is not simple—but instead is composed or compounded by parts—then he is divisible. Frankly, this is a God who will fall apart on us, for he is destructible. If God is not immutable—but changes—then how do we know whether we can trust him? Will he come through on his saving promises? If God is not impassible—but suffers alongside us—how can we have any assurance that he can or will overcome the suffering we experience in this world? Is he not just as much a victim as we are, and should we not feel pity for him rather than pray to him?
In short, everything from Christian assurance to the gospel itself hinges on who God is eternally. To undercut these attributes is to rob the believer of gospel promises that not only give him confidence in the moment, but hope for the future. Why in the world would we not cherish such attributes in church and proclaim them from the pulpit?Do you think the way we often talk in church about God is faulty? We often hear him spoken of as “the man upstairs” or something similar. I heard a woman many years ago who encouraged a Sunday school class to call God “buddy.” How can we help people in our churches think (and talk) more reverently about God?
Our God talk betrays us. This is a God made in the image of our culture, but it’s not the God of the Bible. This type of God is more like the pagan deities of the nations around Israel, gods these nations created and could control or manipulate. But when we open the Scriptures, we see a different picture of God. He is the God of Moses: no one can see his glory and live. He is the God of Isaiah: high and lifted up. He is the God of Jeremiah: there is no one like him.
Only when we stand in utter awe of his transcendence—saying, with Isaiah, “Woe is me!”—will we be baffled by his gracious immanence. Only when we grasp that he is the infinite Lord will we be amazed that he would stoop so low as to speak to and save sinners.
The God talk we’ve imbibed from the culture is ironic. In our desperation to make God immanent, we’ve lost immanence altogether. We’ve domesticated him, making him safe and tame. Why are we surprised that we have little desire to worship this God, let alone fear him?I heard a statement from a person defending a wildly popular book written by a Christian giving advice on everyday living. It went something like this: “This book is not about theology, so it shouldn’t be critiqued as a work of theology.” Is it possible to write about everyday living as a Christian while remaining atheological?
Don’t take the bait! Any book that claims to talk about God, his people, or the Christian life is a book that cannot escape things theological. It’s main purpose may not be to expound theology itself, but to pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is (that is what theology is, after all) is to write like an atheist.
To pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is is to write like an atheist.
It’s also dangerous. It gives people the impression that the books that really matter are those you see in the “spiritual life” or “Christian living” section of bookstores. Meanwhile, books on “theology” are reserved for those who sign up for cemetery—I mean seminary. Again, don’t take the bait. One of the wisest things C. S. Lewis ever said (you can read it in his preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation) had to do with his discovery of old books of theology. He was far more likely to hit his knees in prayer when he had a pencil in hand with a tough bit of theology than he ever did with the latest, hippest book on spirituality.
Theology exists because worship does not. Theology should always lead to doxology. If not, then you are either not studying the God you think you are studying, or you are trying to study God without knowing God. Both are tragic in God’s eyes.
One last thing: If spending your time learning about the very character of God is not relevant to what it means to be a Christian, then honestly, I don’t know what it means to be a Christian anymore, nor am I sure I want to be one.You have another book that recently released on Justification by Faith. Talk about that one a bit. Why is it so important that we assert and reassert that critical doctrine every few years?
That’s right! If you enjoyed None Greater, then consider working through The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls (Crossway, 2019). I’ve asked some of the best minds in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology to come together and write a positive presentation of the doctrine of justification.
Protestants since the Reformation have rightly believed that the church stands or falls on this doctrine. If we get justification wrong, it’s just a matter of time before we misunderstand the gospel and its power to make us right with God. Few doctrines have come under such severe attack today as our doctrine of justification. I fear that the Reformational view of justification—which I believe is the biblical view—is so muddied by competing interpretations that not only the churchgoer and pastor but the student and scholar are left in ambiguity, not sure what to believe anymore. So, it seemed wise to gather a team that could clear away the fog and give a positive case for justification—one that returns to Scripture afresh and does so with theological rigor.
Prayer is an old-fashioned Christian virtue that we retain today because we know we should. “I’ll be praying for you,” we tell our friends who are facing trouble. Yet how much effort do we later expend? Even worse is the expression, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to you”—an offering so bland that even unbelievers can use the verbiage when tragedy strikes. Modern prayer has become mere well-wishing.
Of course, there are certainly some legitimate prayer warriors in our midst. The church always has its Daniels. Yet most of us wish we were better at praying. It’s not that we don’t do it; we just don’t do it with the power and energy that such a central aspect of the Christian life deserves.
Our problem isn’t new. Previous generations faced it as well. We know this because D. L. Moody (1837–1899) wrote a book about it: Prevailing Prayer: What Hinders It? His searching question—what makes our prayers triumph instead of fail?—is one we still ask today. And Moody provided answers just as relevant now as when he penned them back in 1884. His wisdom from those bygone days of top hats and muttonchops still applies in our age of hipster beards and skinny jeans. Prayer is a constant struggle in the Christian life.Prayer as Warfare
The term prevailing was a Gilded Age way of speaking about victory in combat. Google’s analytics of English word usage show a steady decline in the use of prevail from 1800 to today. Yet the meaning is clear enough. It means winning or triumphing, especially in a warfare situation. Prayer was envisioned as a kind of battle, an endeavor in which we could win or lose. For Moody’s original hearers, the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so it made sense to think about life in martial terms.
But the image of prayer as combat is familiar to us, too, even if we don’t always speak that way. Why? Because it’s biblical. In the Old Testament, prayerfulness was intimately connected to Israel’s triumph over enemies. When God’s stubborn people finally reached the limits of their oppression by foreign powers or warlike neighbors, they turned to the LORD in prayer. Only then did he raise up a deliverer or give victory in battle. Prayer was the mechanism by which Israel “prevailed.”
And combat imagery wasn’t limited to Old Testament battles of thundering chariots and armor-clad soldiers. The spiritual warfare of New Testament believers also relied on prayer. Such language is common today. Referring to gospel evangelization, John Piper can speak about “Winning Battles through Prayer.” Or again, he can reflect on “Prayer and the Victory of God.” This isn’t just a quirk of evangelical parlance. Catholics use the concept, too: “The Battle of Prayer” is a major part of the modern catechism. It’s a universal Christian theme, because it is found in the Bible.‘What Hinders It?’
One of the questions asked in the Catholic catechism is, “Why do we complain of not being heard?” Moody was asking the same question back in the Victorian era. His brother-in-law, Fleming H. Revell, had established a publishing house in 1870. One of his first bestselling authors was the famous Chicago evangelist who had married his sister. To answer the eternal question of what hinders victorious prayer, Revell published Moody’s book in 1884. Today, an updated edition is available from another ministry birthed in the age of Moody and Revell: Moody Publishers (my current place of employment).
The thing you notice immediately when you pick up this forgotten classic is that Moody had no doubts about prayer’s efficacy. He cites with approval the 19th-century aphorism, widely quoted as early as 1836, that “prayer moves the arm that moves the world.” When earnest prayers go up to God, divine answers roll down like rainfall. The reason Christians do not prevail in prayer, Moody believed, is simply that they don’t do it. And he’s right. Isn’t this precisely what Scripture teaches? The apostle James reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2)
Yet even when we do bother to ask things of God, we sometimes find he doesn’t answer. James goes on to tell us why our prayers are hindered: We ask wrongly, to spend our gain on selfish passions (4:3). Moody would’ve agreed. Prayers that get answered by God have a certain disposition, without which they will not prevail. Ultimately, this disposition is the simple belief that prayer actually works (James 5:13–18). “[T]hrough all the Scriptures,” Moody declares, “you will find that when believing prayer went up to God, the answer came down.”Nine Requirements for Victorious Praying
For Moody, the prayer warrior’s simple confidence is structured around nine different attitudes—and actions—that must be present for the prayer to be efficacious. He details each in turn. Some will be known to modern readers through the popular acronym ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), which is widely used today but actually goes back to publications from Moody’s era. To these four, he adds a few others. His expanded list is:
- Adoration: “Let us, as Christians, when we draw near to God in prayer, give him his right place.”
- Confession: “[Y]ou will find that the men who lived nearest to God, and had the most power with him, were those who confessed their sins and failures.”
- Restitution: “It may be that there is something in our lives that needs straightening out; something that happened perhaps 20 years ago, and that has been forgotten till the Spirit of God brought it to our remembrance. If we are not willing to make restitution, we cannot expect God to give us great blessing. Perhaps that is the reason so many of our prayers are not answered.”
- Thanksgiving: “Here we are, getting blessings from God day after day; yet how little praise and thanksgiving there is in the church of God!”
- Forgiveness: “I believe this is keeping more people from having power with God than any other thing—they are not willing to cultivate the spirit of forgiveness.”
- Unity: “Where there is union I do not believe any power, earthly or infernal, can stand before the work. When the church, the pulpit, and the pew get united, and God’s people are all of one mind, Christianity is like a red-hot ball rolling over the earth, and all the hosts of death and hell cannot stand before it.”
- Faith: “Unbelief sees something in God’s hand, and says, ‘I cannot get it.’ Faith sees it, and says, ‘I will have it.’”
- Petition: “Some people think that God does not like to be troubled with our constant coming and asking. The only way to trouble God is not to come at all. He encourages us to come to him repeatedly, and press our claims.”
- Submission: “All true prayer must be offered in full submission to God. After we have made our requests known to him, our language should be, ‘Thy will be done.’ I would a thousand times rather that God’s will should be done than my own. I cannot see into the future as God can; therefore, it is a good deal better to let him choose for me than to choose for myself.”
A final chapter on “answered prayer” highlights Moody’s timeless reminder that the struggle to wait for God’s blessing is difficult—though never futile. “If our prayers are not answered,” Moody writes, “it may be that we have prayed without the right motive; or that we have not prayed according to the Scriptures. So let us not be discouraged, or give up praying, although our prayers are not answered in the way we want them.” God’s timing is always his own—and always best.
Throughout its pages, Prevailing Prayer overflows with explanations of the Good Book that Moody, the uneducated shoe-salesman-turned-international-preacher, knew so well. He also supplies the reader with many homely tales and illuminating episodes from his long and amazing ministry. Quotations abound from the pantheon of Protestant saints, reflecting Moody’s deep-seated ecumenism. He cites Anglican prelate Jeremy Taylor; Puritan theologian Richard Baxter; Presbyterian biblical commentator Matthew Henry; and Plymouth Brethren evangelist and orphan-care advocate George Müller, just to name a few.
Although published 135 years ago, Prevailing Prayer is still relevant today. Perhaps an exhortation from Moody’s opening chapter is the right way to sum up the book: “As we go to the throne of grace, let us remember that GOD ANSWERS PRAYER.”
All we have to do is get on our knees and start expecting big things.
My journal entries and emails to close friends in my first six months as a pastor included a fair amount of anguish as I wrestled with challenges I’d previously only prepared for intellectually. Still, I’m extremely grateful I’d been instructed about many of the challenges I would face as a new pastor.
I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I hadn’t at least engaged in that intellectual preparation.
I’m too new at this to propose “the seven most important dynamics a new pastor should prepare for,” but here are seven things I experienced acutely in my first six months in pastoral ministry.1. I Was Surprised by Loneliness
Know where you’re going to turn when you’re struggling.
When you repeatedly get your wires crossed with a fellow staff member, and you can’t figure out why you keep offending them, you’ll want to talk to somebody. But at church, where everyone knows them, you’ll be hesitant to share anything that might paint them in a negative light.
Consequently, you’ll turn to people outside the church—your friends from seminary or from years gone by. It will feel good to get your struggles off your chest. However, because your friends have never met your fellow staff member, you’ll find their ability is limited to offer helpful analysis about a relational dynamic they haven’t witnessed firsthand.
If you have a spouse, she’ll naturally be your most trusted confidant. Even so, there are several reasons you’ll want to be wise about how extensively you share your relational conflicts with her. If she isn’t party to the reconciliation process when the conflict ends, will she be able to let it be over? And is it fair to ask her to carry all your burdens in addition to her own? It can be exhausting to be married to a minister who comes home and vomits frustrations evening after evening.
What’s more, you won’t experience loneliness only amid conflict. Someone will question a decision you’ve made, and your impulse will be to so thoroughly explain your decision-making process that the doubter’s jaw will drop in amazement at the brilliance of your intellect. But when you realize this impulse is rooted in a desire for self-glory, you’ll keep secret the behind-closed-doors conversations that factored into your decision-making. As much as this may hurt, it’s wise: You can’t take back what you’ve overshared with someone who will subsequently mishandle your words.
Loneliness in ministry is unavoidable. Let it drive you to prayer, where you’ll be forced to rely more than ever on Christ’s supernatural comfort.2. I Must Learn to Prioritize
Build preaching-and-teaching skills that will sustain you through years of ministry.
Unless you have a very narrow, specialized role, you’ll likely be swimming in more responsibilities than you can fit into a week. Learn what to prioritize. After your walk with the Lord, make preaching and teaching the “first big rock” you put in your jar.
I was extremely blessed that my senior pastor encouraged me to do just that. Consequently, I’ve established a rhythm of thoroughly working through passage after passage. I’m keeping my ability to work with the languages. I’m making notes in Amos that will keep me from error when I preach Acts. I’m getting untied from my manuscript. And I’m making myself useful to the body by becoming a preacher who can open the Bible and lead listeners to say, “I shoul’ve seen that! I can’t wait to read my Bible this week.”
But the first six months of sermons are not the time to swing for the fences. Knowing I might make that error, a friend wisely encouraged me to write my first sermons looking for “base hits.” In the words of Tim Keller, this is the quest for good preaching (not necessarily great preaching).
So how does a new pastor prioritize his development toward good—that is, faithful—preaching and teaching? I benefited from two critical homiletical exhortations.
First, solicit brutally honest feedback. Before I preached my first sermon, I recruited a seven-person feedback team. These seven varied in age, gender, theological acuity, and ideological persuasion. For the first six months, I sent them each sermon draft two weeks in advance and asked for their comments. This team has kept me from creating a great deal of confusion, not a few ghastly errors, and plenty of unnecessary offense.
Second, learn the congregation. Get in their homes. Schedule meetings over breakfast, lunch, and coffee. You’re likely to find the people who are actually sitting in the pews are different people than you thought. You’ll cultivate a tender affection that will help you preach to them instead of preaching at them.3. Weekly Rhythms Are Important
Don’t try to schedule every week from scratch.
In most cases, your first ministry position is going to involve more meetings and administrative duties than you imagined possible. That work will swallow up every day of your week if you don’t intentionally reserve time away from it. To do this, reserve the same blocks of time on the same days each week if possible.
Your supervisor(s) will need to be on board with your plan; talk it through with them and draft a weekly schedule that’s agreeable to everyone. Realistically, the weekly rhythm you establish early won’t prove optimal in the long run. Still, there’s value in establishing (imperfect) weekly rhythms from the outset. Even if you find your time isn’t being optimized, at least the tyranny of the urgent won’t completely swallow it up.
Talk to other pastors. When do they take their rest days? How do they carve out time to study?4. The Role of a Number Two Involves Glad Submission
Don’t give your supervisor unnecessary reasons to be frustrated with you.
In your first pastoral position, you’re likely to be working under someone older than you. This means there may be some generational suspicion to overcome; we millennial pastors aren’t always known for our hard work, timeliness, appropriate dress, or honoring of authority figures.
We might be tempted to discuss some of these differences this way: “We want a healthier ‘work–life balance’ than another generation of pastors had.” Or, “We want to connect with ordinary people in a way another generation of pastors didn’t.” There are at least two pitfalls in framing generational differences this way. First, we may be guilty of viewing our cultural conventions as morally right, when some may be neutral. Second, we may not be treating our most important work relationships with the priority they deserve.
I don’t want my supervisor to be frustrated with me. But at some point, I know he will be. When that day comes, I want him to be upset with me because I’m suggesting a God-honoring change that makes him temporarily uncomfortable, not because I’m lazy or habitually late, or because I embarrass him with my casualness, or because I don’t show him proper respect in front of people. If I have a choice to remove all those possible barriers from our relationship, why wouldn’t I? What does it really cost me to tuck in my shirt and communicate with him using his preferred methods?
Setting aside our preferences is a matter of basic neighbor love and honoring authority figures. We should need no more reason than that to lay down our “right” to wear jeans or to handle important business over text messages. And there’s an added benefit to such deference: You’ll likely increase your supervisor’s receptiveness to what you’re wanting to change in the future.
There is a limit here. If you’re working for a supervisor who writes you emails seven days a week and expects a prompt response all seven days because he doesn’t personally observe a Sabbath rest, then for the sake of your soul and for the glory of God, you’re going to need to have a hard conversation with him. But in many situations involving generational differences between a supervisor and supervisee, I think we number-twos would do well to get off our high horses and do what’s expected in our church cultures.5. I Must Take the Posture of a Learner
Study the church’s culture before you start blowing things up.
In past endeavors, I’ve always blown things up and asked questions later. I’ve embraced the approach: “If it’s not broken, let’s break it so we can fix it.” However, when I went to seminary, I heard more than a few professors suggest, “Don’t propose any major changes for six months to a year in your first pastoral position. Just learn the culture.” I took this as the Enemy’s attempt to temper my “prophetic edge.”
I went back and read some emails I had written to my pastors years earlier, at the height of my reforming zeal. Much to my dismay, I saw much that looked like self-righteousness and little that looked like Christlikeness. That was the tipping point: I needed to humble myself and learn for a season at my new church before proposing extensive changes.
You’ll be grateful if you learn this lesson before your first pastoral position. Sure, it may pain you to see so much paper wasted every meeting. But do you want to immediately spend your relational capital pushing the church to learn how to use Google docs? Sure, you may think the paint color in the conference room is appalling. Who cares? Did you know the senior pastor’s wife selected it because it’s her favorite color?
In most situations, it’s wise to try what the church has already been doing for at least a year before proposing changes. After you participate in a full annual cycle in the church, you may have a different order of priorities in the changes you want to make.
That said, there’s a limit to going slow. After a year and a half of patient and deliberate diplomacy, I received anger at some tame, measured things I said from the pulpit. That made me wonder: Have I been too slow to rock the boat on things that really matter? We don’t love our people well when we withhold the hard words they most need.6. I Must Not Fear People
Fight for self-forgetfulness.
It’s worth reading Tim Keller’s short work The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness the week before starting a new job. Any decent seminary teaches that the temptation to find your identity in what others think about you is one of the great hazards of ministry. Indeed, Satan will work you over in that area as long as you are in ministry. In the first six months, however, he has a distinct advantage, since you don’t know the people in your congregation.
There will be a group of people who love you and think you’re the greatest thing that ever happened to the church. They are going to gush about you to an inappropriate degree, despite your redirecting their praise toward God and giving credit to those around you.
I thought I was prepared for that challenge. I was trying to take my thoughts captive: “I see this as the trap that it is. I’m not going to read my own press.” But deep down, when a few of these folks praised my preaching, I’d think, Here’s somebody who really gets it. Here’s somebody with a discerning ear for preaching, somebody who really loves the Word.
Then I went and visited an elderly woman who admired my preaching as she was recovering from surgery. She was eager to tell me how distraught she’d been to miss church the weekend after her surgery because I was preaching. (God bless her and her love for the Word, I thought.) As it turns out, she was equally eager to tell me she’d made up for her absence by watching sermons from her favorite TV preacher: Joel Osteen.
In his grace, God will sometimes seize your heart when you’ve been blind to your love for people’s praise—and thinking you’re winning the battle. If you’re going to be self-forgetful, you have to fight for it. It won’t come naturally.7. Ministry Involves Sleepless Nights
This job isn’t like any other you’ve had.
I’ve always been someone who could fall asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. But in my first weeks as a pastor, I spent hours lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling.
A struggling couple came to me today in a last-ditch effort to speak into their relationship. Their marriage hangs in the balance. Did I ask the right questions? Did I say what they needed to hear?
Someone clearly dissatisfied with the direction of the church inappropriately confided in me today, thinking I was going to side with them. This kind of conversation could easily split a church! Did I handle it with enough firmness, truth, and love?
In situation after situation, the enemy is everywhere and the stakes are high.
Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task is an indication that you’re in the right line of work.
Of course, a healthy pastor doesn’t get consumed by it all, doesn’t take it all on his shoulders, doesn’t let it crush or overwhelm him. But if you get through your first six months without experiencing those things Paul talks about—the sleepless nights, the daily pressure of concern for those under your care—without ever crying out to God in desperation on behalf of your people, it may be wise to ask, Why am I doing this? Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task is an indication that you’re in the right line of work.Don’t Forget God
For most of us, our first six months in ministry will be some of the least effective, least fruitful months of our ministry lives. Our skills are underdeveloped, our relationships untested, our theology half-baked. As such, how foolish would it be for a new minister to neglect his personal relationship with God for the sake of stretching his work hours to generate some paltry amount of additional ministry success?
Above all, at the outset of your new role as an undershepherd of God’s people, prioritize building lasting habits of intimacy with God.
It had been three days since Jesus was crucified and buried. Two former followers packed their bags and began the seven-mile trek to their hometown of Emmaus. There was no need to be in Jerusalem any longer. Jesus was dead—and his kingdom wasn’t coming. Shortly after they set out, an unfamiliar person joined them. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing” that it was the resurrected Jesus (Luke 24:16).
The disciples were baffled that this mysterious man hadn’t heard of all that had happened in Jerusalem. As readers, we’re baffled they can’t see whom they’re speaking with! In mercy, Jesus opened the Scriptures and began what must have been the most epic Bible study of all time, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Let’s imagine what he may have said.
He may have begun with Genesis by showing himself as the second Adam who resisted temptation and obeyed God’s commands (Gen. 2–3; 1 Cor. 15:45–48). He is the promised seed of woman who crushed the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; 1 John 3:8) and the greater Ark in whom we hide by faith to escape the waters of judgment (Gen. 6–9; Col. 3:3; 1 Pet. 3:20–21). He could have shown how Abraham rejoiced by faith to see his day (John 8:56; Rom. 4), or how he is the promised lion of the tribe of Judah from whom the scepter shall never depart (Gen. 49:10; Rev. 5:5). Or maybe that he is the greater Joseph, beloved of the Father, betrayed by his brothers, exalted among the Gentiles, and the One who gives bread to a famished world.
Then in Exodus he could have shown that he is the greater Moses who leads his people to escape judgment by hiding under the blood of the Passover Lamb on their way to the Promised Land (Ex. 12; John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 3–4; 1 Pet. 1:19). Or how he is the true manna from heaven (John 6:31–35), and the water from the rock that will never leave them thirsty again (John 4:14; 1 Cor. 10:4).
Then he might have turned to Leviticus to show that he is the fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system (John 1:29; Heb. 4–10). He is the unblemished offering that was a pleasing aroma to the Father (1 Pet. 1:19; Heb. 9:14–27). He is the greater scapegoat on whom the sins of the nation were laid (Lev. 16; Heb. 9–10). He is the greater high priest who not only presented an offering but who offered himself for us (Heb. 7–8).
Then he may have taken them to Numbers where he could’ve shown that he was like the bronze snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness, who would bring healing from the serpent’s fatal bite if looked to in faith (Num. 21:4–9; John 3:14–15). Or that he is the star promised to arise from Jacob to crush the head of God’s enemies (Num. 24:17; Rev. 22:16).
Then he could have gone to Deuteronomy to show how he is the prophet like Moses of whom the Father says “this is my beloved Son . . . listen to him” (Deut. 18:15–20; Matt. 18:5; Acts 3:23). Or how he is the true city of refuge to whom sinners flee in their guilt (Num. 35; Heb. 6:18).
Or how he is the greater Joshua who came to lead God’s people through the mighty Jordan into Canaan and receive their long-promised rest (Heb. 4:1–10).
In Judges, we see glimmers of him as the One whom God would raise up to deliver Israel from the oppression of their enemies and to rule over them in righteousness (Isa. 32:1; Luke 1:71).
Then in Ruth, we see how he is the greater kinsman-redeemer who took a Gentile bride to himself so she could share in the wealth of Israel (Matt. 1:5).
In 1 and 2 Samuel we find that Jesus is the greater David who was after the Father’s heart and who courageously slew the greater Goliath of Satan to deliver God’s people from the shame and slavery of their sin (Luke 1:32; John 6:38; 14:31).
Then he may have gone to Kings and Chronicles to show that he is the faithful King who never compromised God’s law, but boldly leads God’s people to honor and obey the Lord in all things (John 18:26–27; Rev. 19:16).
Then he may have spent time showing how he is the greater Ezra, who served as a priest and wept over Jerusalem because of her disobedience and rejection of God (Matt. 23:37; Heb. 5:7).
Or how he is like Nehemiah, who cleansed the temple of God and rebuilt the walls to protect the worship of God, all while refusing to retreat from the work he came to do (Neh. 6:2–3; Matt. 27:42).
He is the greater Esther, who courageously surrendered her life to save God’s people from the deceitful scheme of Satan, the greater Haman. He is also the greater Mordecai who was despised and headed for the gallows, yet was delivered and exalted to the throne, accomplishing salvation for the people of God.
Then he could have shown himself to be the greater Job who suffered, not because of his sin, but because of his righteousness. And though he was misunderstood, God raised him off the ash heap of shame to intercede for those who’d formerly opposed him (Job 42:1–17; Heb. 7:25).
He may have then given a tour of the Psalms, reminding them how in Psalm 2 he was spoken of as the begotten Son before whom all must bow (Phil. 2:4–11; Rev. 5:13–14), and how his resurrection was foreshadowed in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:24–28). Or maybe how Psalm 22 provides a prophetic picture of the innocent One whose hands and feet were pierced by evildoers (Luke 23:33; John 20:25), yet in Psalm 110 he is exalted at the right hand of Father to forever serve as Priest and King (Heb. 5:1–10:39). Or surely from Psalm 118 how he is the stone the builders rejected that would become the cornerstone on whom God would build his church (Matt. 21:42; 1 Pet. 2:4–7).
He could have kept going to Proverbs and shown himself to be the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–26), or to Ecclesiastes as the one who gives us abundant life instead of vanity (John 10:10), or to Song of Solomon as the greater bridegroom who showers his bride with steadfast love (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 21:2, 22:17).
Then he could have turned to the prophets and shown in Isaiah that Immanuel was born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23), was indwelt by the Spirit (Isa. 11:2–4; Matt. 3:16), was the anointed root of Jesse (Isa. 11:10; Rom. 15:8–13; Rev. 22:16), and healed the blind, deaf, and lame (Isa. 35:5–6; Matt. 11:2–5). He is the Prince of Peace who rules the everlasting kingdom of righteousness (Isa. 9:6–7; Rev. 11:15), and the Suffering Servant who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:3–9; Matt. 27:27–60; 1 Pet. 2:23).
In Jeremiah and Lamentations, he is the weeping prophet who entered into our sorrow and lamented over sins that exiled us from God, as a way to prove the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness (Jer. 13:17; Lam. 3:23; Luke 19:41).
In Ezekiel he is the true Shepherd-King who cares for and feeds the flock who had been neglected and afflicted by abusive shepherds (Ezek. 34:1–24; John 10:1–18).
In Daniel he is the stone who smashes the kingdoms of the world (Dan. 2:34–35; Matt. 21:44), the authoritative Son of Man who will judge all people according to what they’ve done (Dan. 9:7–14; Matt. 26:64), and the Anointed One who was cut off by his own people (Dan. 9:26; Mark 9:9–12).
In Hosea he is the faithful husband who was betrayed by an adulterous bride, yet still loved and pursued her to have her as his own (John 4:1–45; Rom. 9:25–26).
In Joel we see that the promised Day of the Lord’s judgment fell on Jesus on the cross, and that at his ascension he would send the promised Spirit to all who would repent (Joel 2:28–32; Luke 24:49; Acts 2:16–21).
He may have shown how he embodies the message of Amos as he came to rescue the poor and oppressed and bring the justice Israel’s leadership had neglected to render (Luke 4:16–20).
Or how he was foreshadowed in Obadiah as the One who would bring low God’s proud enemies and then lead God’s people up Mount Zion to inherit God’s eternal kingdom (Heb. 12:18–24).
In Jonah we see him as the faithful prophet who won’t run from unworthy sinners but instead was swallowed by the whale of God’s wrath until he came forth alive three days later to call people to repentance. And rather than pouting outside the city in rebellion, his blood was poured outside the city to redeem them (Matt. 12:41; Luke 19:10; Heb. 13:12).
In Micah he was the ruler promised to be born in Bethlehem (“house of bread”) and was himself the bread of life given from heaven to feed a famished world (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:1).
His work was foretold in Nahum as the One who took on himself the just judgment God’s enemies deserved in order to make them his friends (Rom. 5:8).
In Habakkuk he was the One whom the prophet pointed to when he said the righteous shall live by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38), and the One whom God used evil for good in a way so marvelous that no one would believe even if they were told (Hab. 1:5; Acts 13:41).
In Zephaniah he is the sovereign Lord who establishes the kingdom by taking the judgment the people deserve and restoring to them all that sin has stolen away (Acts 15:12–17; Heb. 12:13).
In Haggai he is alluded to when the prophet promised the glory of God would come to the temple. He is that glory who entered the temple as the greater Zerubbabel (Matt. 21:12–17).
In Zechariah he is the victorious King who comes humbly riding on a donkey. He is the mighty branch who would spread out its limbs and build the Lord’s temple. And he is the One they should look on and see that they had pierced, and it should lead them to mourn and grieve bitterly over him (Zech. 9:9, 11:12–13; Luke 19:35–37; Matt. 26:15).
And then he would have concluded in Malachi, showing that he is the faithful priest who stood up in Lord’s temple and rebuked the people for their lame and empty offerings—and then offered himself as the perfect sacrifice (Matt. 21:12–13; Heb. 9:14–27). His forerunner, John the Baptist, came in the promised spirit of Elijah to point Israel to Jesus as the Sun of Righteousness who rose with healing in his wings (Luke 1:17, 78; Matt. 11:14; John 1:4; 8:12; Rev. 22–24).
As Jesus walked with those disciples on the Emmaus road, he interpreted for them the golden thread of grace that holds every bit of the Old Testament together. He opened their eyes to see that every prophecy, picture, and promise of God finds its “yes” and “amen” in himself (2 Cor. 1:20).
Reading the Old Testament to find Jesus isn’t meant to be like playing “Where’s Waldo?”—looking behind every tree for a cross or every chair for a throne. We do, however, find both explicit teachings and also implicit themes that push us to know that something, or someone, greater must come to fulfill them. Jesus proved this true that day following his resurrection.
Let us be people who read the Old Testament with eyes opened, anticipating the Christ to whom its pages point.
If you’d like to learn more about how to read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ’s fulfillment I commend the following works:
- How Does the Old Testament Point to Jesus? by Bryan Chapell (video)
- How Jesus Fulfills the Law by Don Carson (audio)
- Developing the Skill of Seeing Christ in the Old Testament by Nancy Guthrie (audio)
- Jesus on Every Page by David Murray (book)
- The Unfolding Mystery by Edmund Clowney (book)
After an outbreak of measles cases originating in Orthodox Jewish communities, lawmakers in New York voted last Thursday to end religious exemptions for immunizations.
Calling it a public health emergency, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health,” Cuomo said in a statement, adding that the new law “will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”
New York joins Arizona, California, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia in disallowing exemptions on religious grounds.What are vaccines, vaccinations, and immunizations?
A vaccine is created from the same germs that cause disease, using extremely small amounts of weak or dead microbes such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins. A vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly as it would if you were exposed to the disease. After getting vaccinated, you develop immunity to that disease, without having to get the disease first.
Vaccination is the act of getting a vaccine, usually as a shot, while immunization is the process of becoming immune to (i.e., protected against) a disease.What are the benefits of vaccinations?
Vaccines have proven to be one of humankind’s greatest inventions, and the single most powerful and effective way of reducing disease and improving global health.
Annual use of recommended vaccines for children has been estimated to avert up to 3 million deaths per year globally, with even greater numbers of prevented cases of illness and substantial disability. For children born in the United States in 2009, routine childhood immunization will prevent an estimated 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease. An additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided, though, if global vaccination coverage improves.Are vaccinations required by law?
All states require children to be vaccinated against certain communicable diseases as a condition for school attendance. In most instances, state school vaccination laws apply to both public schools and private schools, as well as colleges and universities. All states also have vaccination requirements for children as a condition for child-care attendance. In about half of the states in the United States, homeschool students are not required to be vaccinated.
Many states also require healthcare workers to also be vaccinated against certain vaccine-preventable diseases.Why are individual vaccinations a matter of public health or concern?
The purpose of vaccinations is not only to immunize an individual but also to provide immunization for an entire community.
When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease (typically between 85 percent and 95 percent), the remaining members are also protected because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines—such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals (for example, children with leukemia)—get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. This is known as “community immunity” or “herd immunity” and is the primary benefit of vaccines both to individuals and also to society.What does it matter if individuals receive an exemption from vaccinations?
When parents refuse to vaccinate their children for philosophical reasons, they increase the risk of disease exposure for the entire community.
For each virus, statisticians are able to calculate the minimum percentage of community immunity necessary to achieve herd immunity and prevent an outbreak. Though we only need about 85 percent of the community to have immunity to rubella, smallpox, and diphtheria to prevent an outbreak, diseases such as whooping cough (pertussis) and measles require at least 94 percent immunity. This is why many public-health experts argue that exemptions to vaccinations should be limited to those who are unable to vaccinate because of health reasons.Are vaccines safe?
In 2011, the Institute of Medicine—the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences and an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public—performed an analysis of more than 1,000 research articles on vaccines. The analysis by a committee of experts concluded that few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines.
Like any other medication, though, vaccines can cause side effects. The review of possible adverse effects of vaccines found convincing evidence of 14 health outcomes—including seizures, inflammation of the brain, and fainting—that can be caused by certain vaccines, although these outcomes occur rarely. The most common side effects are mild, such as redness and swelling where the shot was given.Can’t vaccines cause autism?
In more than 30 years of research, there has been no causal connection established between vaccinations and autism. For example, a 2013 CDC study looked at the number of antigens (substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies) from vaccines during the first two years of life. The results showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and those who did not have the disorder.
Some people ignore the overwhelming evidence and still believe the connection exist because it was given credence in 1998 by the publication of a fraudulent research paper in the British medical journal The Lancet.
That paper was later retracted when it was discovered that the chief researcher, a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield, had manipulated the data and failed to disclose that he had been paid more than $600,000 by lawyers looking to win a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield also was found to have committed numerous breaches in medical ethics, including using some of the children named in the lawsuit in his study. In May 2010, British regulators revoked Wakefield’s license, finding him guilty of “serious professional misconduct.” They concluded that his work was “irresponsible and dishonest” and that he had shown a “callous disregard” for the children in his study.
Despite being discredited for fraud and unethical conduct, Wakefield is still considered the primary source and champion for those who erroneously believe in the connection between autism and vaccines.What about vaccines made from aborted fetal tissue?
There are currently no vaccines created by using cells directly taken from the bodies of aborted fetuses. However, there are some vaccines created from cell lines (such as WI-38, MRC-5, HEK-293, PER C6, WI-26 VA4, and Walvax-2) that were derived from tissue taken from aborted fetuses from the 1960s. As the National Catholic Bioethics Center explains:
Any product grown in these or other cell lines derived from abortions, therefore, has a distant association with abortion. The cells in these lines have gone through multiple divisions before they are used in vaccine manufacture. After manufacture, the vaccines are removed from the cell lines and purified. One cannot accurately say that the vaccines contain any of the cells from the original abortion.
The key consideration in whether using currently available vaccines is licit or immoral is whether there is material cooperation with the evil act of abortion. If the abortion were conducted in order to harvest tissues that were to be used for the vaccine, then it would clearly be immoral. But in the case of the vaccines created from the cell lines listed above, the abortion was carried out for other reasons, and the tissue was acquired post-mortem for the purpose medical research.
To determine the morality of using the tissue, it is helpful to compare it to another situation: the use of organs from a person who has been murdered. If a doctor were to offer to transplant a kidney or heart from the murder victim into a Christian, we would likely not object. The primary concern would be whether the victim consented to organ donation prior to their death. But no one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder. Nor should we be overly concerned with the “slippery slope” of people being murdered in order to expand the number of organ donations. (If we saw evidence of that happening, however, we should change our objection.)Should there be exemptions for vaccinations based on religious liberty or parental rights?
The question of whether exemptions for vaccinations should be allowed is complex. As theologian Al Mohler recently said,
I am very pro-vaccine. But I’m also pro-parental rights, and I want to be an ardent defender of religious liberty. In this kind of situation, it is so complicated that Christians of goodwill, and we need to note this, can come to different conclusions about vaccines, specific vaccines, and in specific cases even regarding specific children.
In thinking through the issue, there are four factors Christians should consider.
First, as elder and pediatric physician Scott James says, “as we who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) consider the questions surrounding vaccination, we should strive to honor him with how we use that mind.” As Christians, our position on vaccinations should be based on the best available empirical evidence and not on anti-science propaganda, anecdotes, celebrity non-endorsements, or unwarranted skepticism of government institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Second, we should strive to seek the common good (Jer. 29:7). The harm done to children from not getting vaccinated is exponentially greater than the harm—both physical and moral—of using the vaccines. Because of herd immunity, the choice to vaccinate our children protects those who cannot receive certain vaccinations due to allergies, ages, or a weakened immune system. We must always consider whether we are using our religious liberty or concern for parental rights as cover for a choice that may cause significant harm to the neighbors we are commanded to love (Matt. 22:36-40).
Third, we should remember that rather than using our liberty to avoid vaccinations, evangelicals have historically been at the forefront of promoting vaccinations. The American evangelical theologian Jonathan Edwards died in 1758 from complications that set in after the misadministration of the smallpox vaccination. Despite this setback, as Mohler notes, “Right after the death of Jonathan Edwards, evangelical Christians in the U.S. became some of the most ardent proponents of vaccines, understanding them as God’s gift through the rationality of modern medicine that reflected the orderly universe that God had given us and was a demonstration of common grace.”
Fourth, while we may have a right as parents or religious believers to forgo vaccinations, we also must accept the consequences of our actions. If we choose not to vaccinate our children then we must accept that there will be some public institutions in which they cannot participate. Also, a parent who refuses to have their child vaccinated is morally responsible for the outcome of that choice. If their child were to get sick and/or die because of the rejection of the vaccine or cause other children to become sick, they would be morally culpable.
In the United States, more women than men go to church. The reasons are varied, of course, but churches need to think deeply and purposefully about how to raise up male leaders.
Jonathan Leeman asked two TGC Council members, John Onwuchekwa and Juan Sánchez, how their churches go about discipling and training men in the faith. They discussed the need to give certain men (besides the pastor) opportunities for teaching and leadership. Pastors must avoid the temptation to micromanage everything in the church—instead giving other men chances to lead things they initiate.
Onwuchekwa says, “Our church has been really impacted by Paul’s words to Titus: ‘Encourage the young men to be self-controlled’ (Titus 2:6). And as I grew up, lots of talks about manhood start with discouragement. And I’ve just found that you never discourage anybody to faithfulness. You can’t shame them into being self-controlled. And so it starts with us just trying to praise what we want to see more of in young men.”
If there is one Old Testament passage that the New Testament invites us to read in a Christ-centered way as a paradigm of Christ’s salvation, it’s the exodus.
I’ll never forget nearly 40 years ago sitting in R. C. Sproul’s living room in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania. Alec Motyer, a British Old Testament scholar I had never heard of, was visiting. I was on the floor with a bunch of other college and seminary students, and Sproul said to Motyer, “Tell us about the connection between the Old and New Testaments.” Motyer replied something like this:
Think about it. Think of what an Israelite would say on the way to Canaan after passing through the Red Sea. If you asked an Israelite, “Who are you?” he might reply, “I was in a foreign land under the sentence of death and in bondage, but I took shelter under the blood of the lamb. And our mediator led us out, and we crossed over. Now we’re on our way to the Promised Land, though we’re not there yet. But he has given us his law to make us a community, and he has given us a tabernacle because we must live by grace and forgiveness. And he is present in our midst, and he will stay with us until we arrive home.
Then Motyer added, “That’s exactly what a Christian says—almost word for word.” And my 23-year-old self thought, “Huh.”
What can we learn from the Red Sea crossing about Jesus and our salvation?No Ordinary Religion
Christianity, which of course is the fulfillment of Judaism, is absolutely and utterly different from every other religion. I’ve been saying this for more than 30 years, and I regularly look at other religions to make sure that someone won’t pull a “preacher gotcha” on me: “What about this religion over here?” and I’d have to say, “I haven’t heard about that one. Let me read about it.” No, every other religion is like building a bridge. You build a bridge by putting pylons down, and then you build the bridge over the pylons. And if you run out of money, it’s the bridge to nowhere. There are a few like that. That is what every other religion is like. It’s a process in which you are trying to get over to the other side. You never feel like you have arrived, but you’re trying. In every other religion, people are trying to work their way across.
Not with Christianity. One minute you’re not regenerate and the next minute you are. One minute you’re not adopted and the next minute you are. Either you are regenerate and adopted, or you aren’t. There’s no process. Either you’re in the kingdom of darkness, or God has brought you into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col. 1:13). Think of all those statements and images that make Christianity unique: you either are a Christian or are not. “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
This idea of crossing over—going from death to life immediately—is something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to use as a little test or analogy. When he was talking to individuals and trying to get a sense of where they were spiritually, he would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” If they said, “Well, I’m trying” (and many people said this, especially British people, who want to be modest), then Lloyd-Jones would proceed to explain that their answer indicated that they had no idea what Christianity is about at all. Not in the slightest. What makes one a Christian is a change in status.
- You were in that kingdom, and now you’re in this kingdom.
- You were out of the family of God, and now you’re in the family of God.
- You were not born again, and now you are born again.
- You were under God’s wrath, and now you’re justified.
Bang! It happens like that. Do you know the power of this?Not Saved By Your Faith’s Strength
Cate Blanchett acted in a 2002 movie called Heaven. It’s not a well-known movie, but Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses out there. It’s a movie about a normal woman who is upset about how a drug dealer is ruining the lives of children in a particular part of the city. The police won’t listen to her, so she decides to detonate a bomb in a drug dealer’s office and kill him. But a night watchman takes the bomb out, having discovered it in a waste basket, and puts it into an elevator where it explodes and kills four people, including children. When Blanchett’s character, a woman who loves children and is doing this for the sake of children, learns that she has killed children, she collapses. Because Blanchett is such a great actress, you can see her collapse physically and emotionally. She is a smoking wreck. In one sense she goes into a hell of guilt and shame, and she never gets out of it.
Paul sensed that same guilt and shame, and yet he wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). How could he say such a thing? Paul crossed over. He didn’t say, “Well, I’ve got a lot to atone for in my life.” That is the way the heart works for a person who is in bondage to the law. But Paul was unbelievably humble about who he was, and it wasn’t false modesty. Why? Because he crossed over. He knew where he stood. Of course, Paul had only begun to change on the inside, but he knew where he stood with God. It’s astonishing.
Somebody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re saved by grace apart from works and your moral effort. But you’ve got to believe, don’t you? And you’ve really got to believe with all your heart because salvation is by faith.” Don’t do that. Do you know what you’re doing? Even this text tells us something about that: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:21–22). The Israelites all crossed over, but that doesn’t mean that they all crossed over with the same disposition.
- Some walked through marveling at the walls of water: “Wow! Look at that! God is on our side! Eat your heart out, Egyptians! The Lord is fighting for us.”
- Others were probably walking through like this: “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die!”
Yet they all crossed over. Individual Israelites had different qualities of faith, but they were all equally saved. They were equally delivered. Why? Because you are not saved because of the quality of your faith. You are saved because of the object of your faith: the Redeemer, the God who is fighting for you. Everything about this text says, “Grace, grace, grace, grace. Crossing over is by grace.”
Charles Spurgeon preached on Moses’s saying, “Stand firm . . . . be still” and let God fight for you (Ex. 14:13–14). When you try to add to God’s salvation, you subtract. If you try to merit God’s salvation, you haven’t believed in God at all; you are trusting yourself, even if you try to do only a little bit. At one point Spurgeon says:
I dare say you will think it a very easy thing to stand still, but it is one of the postures which a Christian soldier learns not without years of teaching. I find that marching and quick marching are much easier to God’s warriors than standing still. It is, perhaps, the first thing we learn in the drill of human armies, but it is one of the most difficult to learn under the Captain of our salvation. The apostle seems to hint at this difficulty when he says, “Stand fast, and having done all, still stand.” To stand at ease in the midst of tribulation, shows a veteran spirit, long experience, and much grace.
If you’re a Christian, you’ve already crossed over. God has dealt with sin and death, and all of your other problems are merely flea bites in comparison. That’s how you deal with your flea bites—by not looking at them as massive problems. Look at what God has already done for you.
Not long ago, relativism defined the cultural conversation. Truth was “unknowable.” Perhaps it was somewhere “out there,” but anyone’s guess as to where was as good as the next.
This is no longer the case.
Today, we’re in a new cultural moment—one marked not by relativism, but by a new phenomenon known as expressive individualism. While relativism may label an assertion of external and objective truth as arrogant, expressive individualism calls it oppressive. The relativist asks, “Who’s to say what’s true?” The expressive individualist replies, “Me.”
Look across the landscape of cultural artifacts, and you’ll find the same motif time and again: Power and freedom are found in self-discovery. As Tim Keller notes, “The only heroic narrative we’ve got left in our culture is the individual looking inside, seeing who they want to be, and asserting that over and against everyone else in society.”
So we really have moved on from relativism: Truth is now not only knowable, it’s been found. All you have to do is look inside yourself.Individualism and the Church
Many in the church can sniff out—even refute—relativism. We’ve been handed enough apologetic tools and basic reasoning skills to dismantle the notion that truth is subjective. Expressive individualism, however, is more insidious. It allows us to appear as if we’re worshiping God, when in reality we’re bowing to the god of self. It acknowledges the power of Jesus, but convinces us that he intends to use his power to further our own self-centered goals and aspirations. It agrees we can be certain about truth, but points to our own hearts as the source.
When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship.
It’s sobering to think about the church’s collusion with this framework. Rather than pushing back against individualism, congregations often subtly encourage it. When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship. If we’re not careful, we can betray the message that “Christ is king” with a method that says, “Actually, you are.”Deny Yourself
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than self and church. And it’s not as though we must wade through cloaked language to discover this antithesis. When Jesus calls us into his church, his charge is not that we discover but deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24–25). Further, when Jesus enumerates the things that spring from our hearts, truth doesn’t make the list. Only false testimony and evil thoughts do.
Or pull on any thread in Paul’s epistles, and you’ll find it connected to a call to pursue humble unity and consider others more significant than yourself. Simply put, a biblical understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to his church is incompatible with expressive individualism.
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than ‘self’ and ‘church.’
Truth is neither relative nor self-generated; it is knowable. In fact, it’s touchable. Ultimate truth exists in the form of a man, the God-man—the one who died for our sinful hearts so that we could die to them.
The fruit-desiring, lie-believing, wilderness-wandering self is the very thing we bury as we are buried with Christ. His death for us becomes our death to self, and his new life becomes our new life—a life in which we deny ourselves instead of listening to ourselves, in which we take up our cross instead of taking up our dreams, and in which we follow him instead of following our hearts.Church Planting’s Counter-Culture
Church planting has always been central to Jesus’s mission. But it’s particularly helpful and corrective in today’s cultural climate. As embodied creatures, we are formed by what we do. Our rhythms of life shape us from the outside in. What we do with our time, our hands, our lips, our money—all of it shapes our hearts. Just like the liturgy of a worship gathering, the method becomes part of the message. And both the method and also the message of church planting regularly remind us that we are not the point.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism, since it simply won’t allow us to place ourselves—our beliefs, our preferences, our desires—at the center of the church’s reason for existence.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism.
When we plant churches and press into the challenges, we invite our brothers and sisters into rhythms of life and ministry that will, slowly but surely, force the primacy of self to erode. And that will, time and again, yield the blessed—albeit painful—reminder that we are not, in fact, the arbiters of truth and goodness.
In a church plant, you have to strip away the superfluous for the sake of the essential. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with programs and production, the simplicity of a church plant offers a repeated invitation to forsake self-centeredness for self-denial.
Musical preferences begin to pale in comparison to the beautiful sound of a school cafeteria filling with gospel-proclaiming voices. Preaching “style” matters little when a living room is filled with those listening to their pastor faithfully mine the depths of God’s Word week in and week out. Life as a part of a church plant has a way of forcing us to not only keep the truth of the gospel central, but also primary. And it teaches us, in both message and method, that we must daily trust our faithful King rather than our fickle selves.
At a time when the church is, lamentably, one of the first places to capitulate to individualism, church planting gives Christ’s followers a chance to regularly exercise the much-needed practice of leading our hearts rather than following them. It takes whatever “truth” we think we’ve found within and subverts it with the pre-eminence of Christ and the truth of the gospel. And the more we keep that truth—the truth—at the forefront, the quicker the so-called truth we find “within” gets exposed for the counterfeit that it is.
Years ago, I spent some time doing mission work in a Muslim country. There was an indigenous Christian who preached with passion at a church in the capital city. There was a sense of spiritual energy, and the church was growing rapidly. The week before Easter, some of the Christians were arrested for their faith. Many prayed for them.
The next Sunday, Easter Sunday, they were released. You can imagine the electric shock of thrill that vibrated through that church. But that wasn’t all. Having been arrested, thrown in jail, and persecuted for their faith, they had witnessed to the other prisoners. And they had brought some of the prisoners with them.
I’ll never forget the way that story was told or the looks on the faces of the people. Such is the way of the Lord. Just as in Paul’s day, a prison is no barrier to the gospel. And faithful Christians around the world are either at risk of prison or are preaching the gospel in one.Methods of Evangelism
What about us in a Western civilization so influenced by certain truths of Christianity? We now often live in some understandable fear of what the culture will do if we stand up for—or speak too loudly about—Jesus Christ.
When I was in that country, I became fascinated by their evangelistic technique. I wondered whether there was something I could learn from how they were doing evangelism. The young pastor gave me something of a bemused look when I asked what his method was. “I’ll tell you our method,” he said. “We tell them they are sinners until they believe it. And then we tell them that Christ died for sinners.” Of course, I’d heard that method before. It’s called preaching repentance and faith in Christ. Not original. But powerful. And brave—in that context, how very brave. Even audacious.
That’s what I’m calling for here: Fire. Bravery. Audacity.Evangelism in the Early Church
One of the best books on evangelism is Michael Green’s classic Evangelism in the Early Church. It’s an extraordinary read from a good scholar and gifted evangelist who is now in glory. At one point, he comments on an apocryphal story about the martyrdom of the apostle Peter:
Although this story is specifically concerned with martyrdom rather than evangelism, the two cannot be easily separated. Peter was tempted to save his life at the cost of disloyalty to his commission from Christ; and a vision from the Lord suffering crucifixion for him was the compelling factor which drove him back onto the path of complete and utter dedication, even to death itself. That reflection upon the cross as the supreme impulse to costly service for others in the name of the gospel was unquestionably the greatest single element in keeping the zeal of Christians at fever pitch. (237–38)
“The zeal of Christians at fever pitch.” Zeal. Fever pitch. It’s been a while since I’ve heard those kinds of words attributed to Christians in the West.Evangelism in the West
I want at fever pitch the kind of audacity, boasting in weakness, and zeal that is biblical—not the showy, worldly counterfeit. This sort of boasting has a kind of rejoicing confidence to it. I can still see it, in my mind, on the faces of those Christians when they returned from jail and brought with them the prisoners with whom they’d been jailed.
So then the question seems to be: Can we have that kind of zeal—again—in America, Europe, the West? And if so, how? What is the right way for us to be boldly, even audaciously, evangelistic in our current cultural situation? How do we do it in a way that is missional and culturally engaged—and yet rigorously and unashamedly biblical, Christocentric, and oriented to the glory of God?
It happens as we follow what, according to Green, the early church did to promote evangelistic passion: Reflect on the cross. Let’s pray that God would give us zeal—even at fever pitch.
In summer 1935, planning and construction had begun in earnest for the 1936 Olympiad, to be held in Berlin. These games would later be called “Hitler’s Olympics,” and they were indeed a propaganda opportunity for the Nazi leader. Hitler’s associates viewed the games as a chance to prove the superiority of the regime, and along with it, the Aryan race.
The next year, the world would watch a sprinter named Louis Zamperini compete on the track (Zamperini would later become a war hero and have his story told in the bestseller Unbroken). More poignantly, an athlete named Jesse Owens—a black man from Cleveland, Ohio, grandson of a slave—would win four gold medals as Adolf Hitler and his white-supremacist allies looked on.
In the north, far away from the noise of the Olympics and the ideological battle being waged, a different war was being fought. Twenty-five young men lived in community from 1935 to 1937 on the shore of the Baltic Sea under their director and teacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer believed that the root of victory over the Nazi regime would be a spiritual one, so he fought on those front lines—equipping young men for ministry in an underground movement known as the Confessing Church (CC). Bonhoeffer’s seminary operated in safety from the Gestapo for two years until it was shut down in fall 1937.
During this time, the men studied the Word of God, the fundamentals of prayer, and the confessions. Living each day together, they had an opportunity to work out a theology of Christian community, something that Bonhoeffer captured in a short book titled Gemeinsames Leben. It would later be translated into English and published under the title Life Together.Church Life Together, Today
Today’s church culture in America is fractured at best. We’re offered any number of TV and online options at churches around the world. These resources are helpful when we’re hindered from regular fellowship by sickness, family demands, or other occasional complications. But often they can become a crutch for forsaking regular face-to-face contact with our church family.
Life Together reminds us of the sweetness of face-to-face fellowship in the church.
In these days of thin community behind the screen of a computer or phone, Life Together reminds us of the sweetness of face-to-face fellowship in the church. People separated from an embodied fellowship of believers by sickness, geography, or even a harsh political regime don’t take the gift of real Christian community for granted.
What substitute is there for a clasped hand in greeting or an arm around the shoulder in prayer? We may speak God’s Word to one another in encouragement, in rebuke, or in instruction. Those who have this advantage—a nearby body of believers—ought to take advantage of it. As Bonhoeffer wrote:
So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world . . . . The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.Life as an Individual and a Body
Bonhoeffer goes on to teach practical ways we can help the body of believers. This orientation toward the “institution” of the church can be foreign to today’s typical American Christian who has any number of church options, both in person and online, from which to choose. Christians often fall prey to a consumer mindset, shopping for the proper place to take up residence for a season. The word membership is alien to many; they’d rather remain in the category of “regular attender.” When things get uncomfortable, they can simply move on to the next option.
By contrast, Life Together teaches an understanding of the Christian’s role in their church as one of active participant—a committed member in the fullest sense. In day-to-day living, in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word to other members of the community, Christians live out what Christ intended for the church. As Paul teaches us, each church member has a part to play: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
In day-to-day living, in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word to other members of the community, Christians live out what Christ intended for the church.
Not only does Life Together encourage us to pursue active Christian fellowship, it also provides instruction for how to contribute to the health of the fellowship. Addressing subjects such as listening, forgiveness, meekness, helpfulness, and proclaiming the Word to one another, we’re encouraged to build one another up:
The weak must guard against pride, the strong against indifference. None must seek his own rights. If the strong person falls, the weak one must guard his heart against malicious joy at his downfall. If the weak one falls, the strong one must help him rise again in all kindness. The one needs as much patience as the other. (102)
As the Nazi regime spread across Europe and exposed the worst inclinations of humanity, Bonhoeffer sought to uphold a standard for living together in Christian community. These ideals indeed flew in the face of Nazism’s view of the world, but they have something to teach us as well. If we’re pursuing life together in the truest sense, we will inconvenience ourselves for the sake of other. We will listen well, and we will serve. And amid all of it, we will be exceedingly grateful for the gathered body we’ve been called to.
The recently concluded HBO series Game of Thrones, during eight acclaimed seasons, captured the zeitgeist and enlarged the enduring popularity of epic fantasy.
Thrones often drew comparisons to the original classic of the genre, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Indeed, the books on which Thrones is based—George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—are appreciatively indebted to Tolkien.
Yet despite their similarity, Tolkien’s and Martin’s manner of storytelling differs, perhaps most notably in their portrayal of the manifestation of evil.Evil in ‘Lord of the Rings’
Ross Douthat recently tweeted a brief but insightful comparison of the two fantasy stories that crystallized part of the Christian essence of LOTR—which Thrones de-emphasizes:
It’s true . . . that many of [author George R. R. Martin’s] villains are more interesting than Sauron. But Tolkien was very effective at dramatizing temptation and corruption among the well-meaning + the good. . . . [W]hat’s interesting isn’t the Big Bad himself, but the effect of evil on people trying to resist it.
Douthat hints at a larger point for which Tolkien has been criticized: an alleged oversimplification of evil. In LOTR, no ambiguity or drama exists in the determination of who is good and bad in Middle-earth; we never learn exactly why Sauron is evil, nor exactly what he did to earn the status of chief antagonist. The intrinsic nature of Sauron’s evil may even strike modern sensibilities as mildly unjust or at least arbitrary. Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock mused that as readers “we are not sure . . . if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told.” This is because, as another author, Fritz Leiber, put it, Tolkien “does not explore and even seems uninterested in exploring the mentality and consciousness and inner life of his chief villains.”
Bradley Birzer observes in his wonderful book, Sanctifying Myth, that Tolkien refrained from probing the depths of his evil characters by design—since the reality and, indeed, the banality of evil does not require elaborate fictionalization:
The monsters of fiction and nightmares are merely manifestations of the true, original evil—the perversion and mocking of God’s creation. In its essence, evil is and always will be merely derivative and perverse.
Rather than contriving Sauron’s particular evil actions, Tolkien portrays evil as a force, one that is “outright ominous, for it seems to be everywhere, pervading the entire landscape of Middle-earth, surrounding the Fellowship of the Ring on all sides.”
Tolkien’s view of evil as an ever-present force—represented by Sauron and by the tempting power of the Ring—both reflects the Christian view of the universality of sin and also reveals the struggle of resisting sin in a manner far closer to daily Christian experience. By the grace of God, most of us will never face an ambiguous decision of which side to join should a grand, life-threatening, political conflict arise. Nor do Christians sense the polarizing need to explain evil by examining and categorizing certain persons or groups as the oppressing villains; as Tolkien understood, evil arises merely because “creation was subjected to futility,” and the only final victory over evil we expect is a future one beyond the control of our human efforts (Rom. 8:20–21).
Nevertheless, we all battle evil daily by aiming to “walk by the Spirit” rather than “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). This, of course, is Frodo’s experience as he resists the temptation to trust the power of the Ring. One can even imagine Frodo, as he climbs the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, uttering words similar to Paul’s: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18–19).
Similar tensions confront other LOTR characters. Tolkien develops fleeting antagonists who depict the depth of human experience, including destructive concession to evil despite knowledge of good: Boromir, Saruman, Denethor, and Gollum, among others. Powerfully, these characters are uniformly objects not of hatred, but of pity for their surrender to the familiar burden of sin.
Criticism of Tolkien’s supposedly bland depictions of evil strikes me as reflecting our culture’s stunted view of evil, which isolates it as something existing only in certain persons or groups—and thus removable from our immediate world and communities. Whenever I pass a well-meaning sign that reads, “Hate is not welcome here,” I can imagine Sauron’s scorn at the notion that hate is something so discrete and excisable.
Tolkien’s depiction of evil characters may be sparing compared to the evils depicted by other authors, but his view of evil is large.
Criticism of Tolkien’s supposedly bland depictions of evil strikes me as reflecting our culture’s stunted view of evil, which isolates it as something existing only in certain persons or groups, and thus removable from our immediate world and communities.Evil in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’
To be fair to Martin (whose books I read and enjoy while abstaining from the show), his world can hardly be accused of depicting a small view of the evil of the human heart. Martin blurs the lines of good and bad in order to show that evil can occur on any side of a human conflict.
Some of Martin’s characters, though, seem unnaturally dominated by a desire to do evil. In certain actions of Cersei Lannister or Melisandre, for example, one doesn’t get the sense of sin overcoming better natures, but of a distinct class of human—or, in Melisandre’s case, representative of a particular institution, religious fundamentalism—with a special appetite for hatred and perversity. Certainly, humans who struggle with especially perverse evils do exist in history, and thus are typical in fantasy. Most of us, however, will never be called on to triumph over an evil of that magnitude. Perhaps more importantly, most of us will never be tempted to engage in evil of that sort, and prudence should warn Christians against dwelling on especially disturbing evil in fiction. In the ordinary Christian life we are called to wage war against the more subtle, yet also more pervasive, operations of sin. On this subject, Tolkien has more to say: He finds evil nearer to us all without needing to look for it in exaggerated and perverse ways, while nonetheless captivating us with the triumph over a singularly great, yet deliberately amorphous, evil.
Even at their best, Martin’s characters seem to lack much sense of innate good. Rather than a world in which humans have the natural law “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15), Martin depicts an amoral world in which political strength is the primary good, and conflict derives from tension between political ends and family honor and survival. Martin’s most compelling protagonists, such as Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, overcome great evil and harsh circumstances, yet they do so mostly by relying on their own strength in service of temporal aims. Among stories about conquering evil, Tolkien’s remains unique in its depth of focus on sacrifice and self-denial in service of higher aims.
Of course, Martin is not a Christian, and he draws on elements of medieval history realistically. One of his stated goals is to illustrate the brutality of war, which his novels accomplish perhaps too well. Yet his books cannot help but romanticize this same brutality. Martin’s characters relish violence and courage, but without also sensing innate goodness—the referent that reveals evil to be evil—these characters lack an aspect of the full human experience. Christians, therefore, must be wary of seeing themselves in characters like this—who seek victory over the evil of their enemy while often remaining blind to the evil in themselves.
Christians must be wary of seeing themselves in characters like this—who seek victory over the evil of their enemy while often remaining blind to the evil in themselves.
Though there are similarities between LOTR and GOT in their depictions of evil, their differences are telling. GOT’s more detached view ironically sanitizes the seriousness of sin by presenting it in ways that seem both foreign to our experience and also without reference to inherent good. By contrast, LOTR positions evil as a struggle with temptation, implicating us all and forcing us all—perhaps uncomfortably—to reckon with the reality of sin.
Here’s hoping the popular interest in epic fantasy spawned by GOT will send a new generation of readers to Tolkien’s classic work, and his more Christian vision of good and evil.
We’ve heard the statistics, read the articles, even seen it in our own congregations.
Teens are evacuating. Statistics claim that 70 percent of teens will stop attending church after graduating from high school.
As a teenager who’s grown up in church, I’ve had a front-row seat to this mass exodus. I’m not an expert, researcher, or pastor, but I am in the teenage trenches. There are many reasons for teens to leave the church, from hypocrisy to legalism to peer pressure. Despite these external struggles, I know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Because I’m a teenager. And I’m still in the church.
I’ve wrestled with the same issues many teens claim for walking away. But I’ve had a firm foundation to fall back on: solid teaching and biblical truths that have helped me deal with questions and doubts and grow stronger through the struggle.
Sadly, not every teen has had my experience.
Instead of undiluted biblical truths and concrete theology, many are fed a watered-down message. They’re entertained at youth group and isolated from older, wiser Christ-followers. They’re drawn in with pizza parties, games, and programs, but leave with the burning issues of their hearts still unanswered. The games and good times were never what kept me in church or helped me as I battled the tumultuous struggles of my teenage years. Instead, it was the gospel-drenched truth that kept me coming back.
As I look back on my own life and my interactions with other teens, I’ve discovered four core topics we need to hear that will help us stay strong in God and rooted in the church.1. We Need to Hear the Bible
Teenagers need the Bible. It contains the answers to our deepest questions, the wisdom for our hardest struggles. Please don’t give us an abridged version. Challenge us to read it for ourselves and model a lifestyle centered on God’s Word. Create an atmosphere of reliance on Scripture that whets our appetite and makes us hungry for more.2. We Need to Hear About Sin
The church needs to clearly tell teenagers about sin. Not in a bombastic way, but in a loving, firm, biblical manner. Our eyes need to be opened to the fact that sin isn’t a Christianese catch phrase; it’s a reality that shows up in our daily lives.
When we understand the severity of our sin, our desperate need of grace, and that Jesus is the only hope we have, our youth groups will experience a transformation. Only when we’re staring the depth of our sin in the face can the full power of forgiveness and grace be unleashed.3. We Need to Hear Biblical Truth on Cultural Topics
Teens are saturated in a culture with unbiblical views on topics like abortion, same-sex attraction, pornography, premarital sex, gender identity, suicide, and others. But the church sometimes fails to confront these topics head-on.
Through my work as an editor on a blog for Christian teens, I’ve received numerous emails about topics such as lesbianism and depression. In each email, these teens share their confusion and struggles. Their feelings of shame and cries for help are palpable. I’ve also read article pitches explaining why masturbation, homosexuality, and rebellion are all okay, because God will forgive us anyway. Are these teens confused? Absolutely. Do they need to hear biblical truth? Desperately.
Homosexuality, abortion, and suicide aren’t just shadowy ideas for teens today. They’re personified and real. These issues might show up in their friend across the street, or the new girl at school, or the video they stumble upon on YouTube. Christian teens must have real, honest, and biblical answers for tough questions.
Help them understand what Christians believe and what Scripture says on these hot-button topics. They need to know what they believe and why, because the world will scramble to undermine those beliefs. So please don’t sidestep the truth. Teens are longing for real answers.4. We Need to Hear about Radical Transformation—and Obedience
When Jesus spoke of salvation, he painted a radical picture. He spoke of being born again—a process so drastic and mind-blowing it changes one’s life (John 3:1–21). He spoke of repentance—turning away from one way of life to embrace an entirely different way (Matt. 5–7.) He spoke of bearing a cross and following Christ to the point of death—giving up everything for the privilege of knowing and loving him (Matt. 16:24–26).
This is the gospel teens need to hear. Teenagers need a gospel and a theology that will outlast shifting sands and temporal feelings. We need to build our house on the rock of Jesus Christ—or we’ll never survive the storms life throws at us (Matt. 7:24–27).
Following Jesus isn’t easy. As we learn what Scripture says about issues we daily face, we have to make hard choices. Will we be obedient, or will we compromise? Will we stand firm and risk our reputation and our friends, or will we slowly slide?
That’s why the church needs to strengthen and resource teenagers, challenging them to go to Scripture, equipping them for ministry, and teaching them solid theology. These are the things we need in order to light a churchwide, teenage revival of passion for Christ.
Please, hear the heart of a teen. Don’t be afraid to tackle the topics we need to hear, even if they’re hard and unpopular, even if they go against the culture, and even if it seems like we don’t want to listen.
On Father’s Day, children of all ages hit the stores looking for cards that thank our dads for being loving and teaching us the important things in life. We look for ways to honor our dads. We express our affection and the debt we owe them.
But some of us struggle to know what we could thank our fathers for.
Some dads never made an appearance in our lives. Some are barely present physically, let alone emotionally. Others might be known for their destructive words and the bruises they leave behind. Maybe they love their beer more than their babies or make it hard for us to believe any man could be gentle and loving. They don’t just make us wonder if they love us; they make us wonder if anyone could love us.
We hate this day called Father’s Day, because it reminds us of the father we never had.
But on this day, we can still be encouraged. Though we may rightly lament the pain our earthly fathers caused (and seek help if we’re in an abusive situation), we can also find hope in our sonship before our heavenly Father. Though our earthly dads fathered us in sin, he fathers us in perfection and righteousness. We aren’t fatherless.
Here are six truths to remember about our flawless Father.1. He Is Near When We’re Brokenhearted
Psalm 34:18 says, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Our dads may have made fun of our pain or ignored our cries. Perhaps they’ve continued to break our hearts over the course of years. But God is near to us when we’re crushed in spirit. He shows us compassion. When we don’t know how to pray, his Spirit helps us (Rom. 8:26–27). He doesn’t ridicule our pain but brings purpose to it (Rom. 8:28–30).2. He Doesn’t Condemn Us
As believers we will never be condemned by God (Rom. 8:1). Our earthly fathers may have found every possible fault and mistake in us because we weren’t the perfect child they envisioned. But our heavenly Father placed all of our deserved punishment on Christ. We no longer have to walk in shame; our Father sees us justified because of the righteousness of Christ. Rather than wrath and condemnation, we experience God’s loving discipline that protects, grows, and sanctifies us (Heb. 12:4–11).3. He Adopted Us
Some dads make it obvious they never wanted their children. We were a “mistake” and “unplanned,” and he would rather spend his life doing something other than caring for children. In contrast, our heavenly Father is not only involved; he’s adopted us as his own. Ephesians 1 tells us that God purposefully chose to adopt each of his children before the foundations of the world were laid, predestining them to be saved by Christ’s blood (Eph. 1:3–7). Though our self-sufficient God didn’t need us for anything, he gladly chose to set his love on us.4. He Will Never Forsake Us
Earthly dads can abandon us. They can remove themselves from our lives or remain deliberately distant. But God promises that he will never forsake us. He remains faithful—even if we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He promises to see us to completion, raised in newness (Phil. 1:6). Though our dads may give up on us, God will faithfully sanctify us.5. He Will Train Us in Righteousness
We may wish our dads had invested more time in teaching us how to love God, how to choose a good spouse, how to respect authority, or how to lead with kindness. Instead, they modeled the complete opposite. But our good and perfect Father has changed our hearts to love his law:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:26–27)
We’re unable to obey God in our own power, so he gave us both new hearts that desire to obey and his Spirit to enable us to love his law.6. He Gave His Son for Us
Earthly dads can be selfish. They may do everything for their own good—even if it’s at our expense. But our heavenly Father gave his Son for us:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:4–6)
Rather than allowing us to continue our hell-bound course in sin, God crushed his Son on the cross. He poured out his wrath on the Son to bring us near and give us eternal life. By this sacrifice, our guilt is taken away, and we receive Christ’s righteousness if we trust him (Rom. 10:9–10).
The Father loves us more than even the best earthly dad could comprehend. He has showered us in grace. Because of this, we are freed from bitterness. We are freed from anger. We can find refuge and hope in knowing the greatest Father. This Father’s Day, when the memories of our earthly dads’ failures overwhelm us, we can turn our hearts to our heavenly Father, who loved us perfectly before we loved him.
When I was discussing who God is with my Muslim barber, I was helped by my 4-year-old piping up from the waiting area: “God is a loving union of three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
“All right,” the barber said with a shrug, “I’ll go with that then.”
Ruby, the evangelist.
It’s from my shorter Shorter Catechism, also known as “The Question-and-Answer Game.” She holds each of my fingers as I ask:
- Who is God? A loving union of three.
- Who are the three? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Who is Jesus? The Son of God.
- Why was he born? To become our brother.
- What did he teach us? To love God and love others.
- Why did he go to the cross? To die our death.
- Why did he rise? To give us new life.
- Why did he go to heaven? To pray for us.
- Who did he give us? The Holy Spirit.
- What are we waiting for? Jesus to come back and make everything new.
Then you hold onto her fingers and switch roles. It’s a game, see? The Question-and-Answer Game.
Why did preparing for my parents’ visits feel like I was preparing for battle? All these years later, I can still feel the tension that came over me before they arrived. Mom and Dad were winsome and lively. My husband and I admired their zest for life. We loved them and wanted our kids to love them, too. But Mom and Dad didn’t know Jesus. How could we protect our kids from their ungodly influence and at the same time honor our mother and father?
God fulfilled our desire for our kids to love their grandparents. But predictable questions followed every visit: “Why don’t Granddad and Grandmom like our church?” “Why does Grandmom use the Lord’s name like that?” “Why did they want to watch that bad movie?” “Does Granddad really not believe in God?”
We longed for our kids to have godly grandparents, but the Lord had other plans. Over time, we learned three important lessons.1. God Designs Relationships for His Best Purposes
My parents’ role in our family’s life was not a mistake. A good God designed this relationship for our good and his glory.
And his good plan for families includes every generation. Wise parents place limits when a child’s safety is at stake. But God, not fear, must guide us. As Ron and I gave our fears over to God in prayer, problems with my parents became divine opportunities to teach our kids biblical truth with grace. My parents chose to believe that this world is all there is and to live apart from God. They had no category for sin, and therefore, no comfort in God’s grace for sinners.
In response, Ron and I learned to talk openly with our kids after our parents’ visits. We used these times not only to communicate biblical truth in light of their grandparents’ sins, but also to examine our own struggles with impatience, self-righteousness, and fear. Along with our kids, we learned that God doesn’t wait until we do right to pour out his grace on us.
Our hearts softened with compassion for my parents’ blindness and ignorance. Our relationship became an opportunity for spiritual growth. And, to our surprise, we loved my parents more, not less, after their visits.2. In Christ, We Can Be Honest and Confident in Any Relationship
Over the years, as God increased our confidence in him, my parents’ towering presence in our lives no longer intimidated us. We learned to say, “Yes, Granddad says that. We love him, but his way of talking does not honor God.” Or, “Your grandparents don’t believe in Jesus. But we know that everything God tells us about Jesus is true.” Acknowledging the problem of unbelief helped our children learn to live wisely within their own family. Anything less is dishonest and unloving.
Gradually, the questions that came up after my parents’ visits no longer threw us. We stopped changing the subject. Each visit became an opportunity to apply a biblical framework to various issues. Our confidence grew as God’s Word and his Spirit guided us into all truth.
We learned to avoid sinful criticism, but to still talk honestly with our children. Our rule became: Let the grandparents be who they are, and let our children know them this way.
Would life have been easier had my parents recognized Ron’s and my responsibility to lead our children? Of course. In a perfect world, it would’ve been great to receive my parents’ advice only when I asked them. Even so, Christian parents need not fear. God has entrusted to us the greatest influence over our children. He will help us seize teachable moments to instruct with honesty and confidence. Ask him!3. Living by Faith Honors Our Parents
To honor is to assign importance. Ron and I honored my parents when we prayed earnestly both for them and for our attitude toward them. We asked God to help us speak respectfully but firmly about how we intended to parent.
We learned to deny ourselves the luxury of demanding our rights. When a biblical imperative wasn’t at stake, we set aside our preferences.
We couldn’t agree with my parents about many things, but we could honor them even as we disagreed. I could tell my mom, “I don’t think it’s fair for the kids to hear this,” or, “Watching that movie in front of the kids could confuse them about right and wrong.” As much as possible, we privately asked my parents to do things our way.
Living by faith meant that Ron and I couldn’t push my parents aside simply because they didn’t believe what we did. God graciously taught us how to let go of the small stuff. We learned to deny ourselves the luxury of demanding our rights. When a biblical imperative wasn’t at stake, we set aside our preferences.
Fear of my parents’ influence almost kept us from entering fully into God’s purposes for our family. Sadly, my parents left this earth without our assurance of their salvation. Their choice grieves us. Yet how thankful we are that God replaced our fear with faith in his plan.
Now, as grandparents ourselves, God has given us a new role in our children and grandchildren’s lives. Do we still have struggles? Sure! But we also trust that God is accomplishing his good purposes in the next generation, just as he did in our own.
“James 3:17 says, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle’—listen to this—’open to reason, full of mercy.’ Think about the national discourse around hot topics. Does it sound peaceable, gentle? Are people open to reason when they talk about these things? Do they ever say, ‘Well, you know, that was a good point you just made?'” — Mika Edmondson
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Race, Political Partisanship, and the Unity of the Church
- Navigating Racial Tension as American Christians
- How to Showcase the Beauty of Repentance in Your Church
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
Twenty-five years ago, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won a National Book Award. It’s remarkable that a nonfiction book about disease and death, written by a surgeon and med school professor, would enjoy this sort of commercial success. In another way it makes perfect sense. Nuland recognized that a huge population was dying from the same handful of causes and in remarkably similar ways, but with little knowledge of what to expect or how to prepare.
Reading Kathryn Butler’s Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care, I often thought of Nuland’s How We Die. This is high praise, and well-deserved.
Like Nuland, Butler is a well-trained and practiced physician writing with expert knowledge and rich experience. Like Nuland, Butler has a remarkable ability to describe modern medicine in plain language. And like Nuland, Butler is tapping into a world of experience most of us will encounter and few of us feel prepared to deal with.
But there are also crucial differences between these books, differences that take us to the heart of what Butler is doing and why. Nuland focuses on the most common causes of death; Butler focuses on the most common treatments used to hold off death. Where Nuland has chapters on heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, Butler has chapters on mechanical ventilation, dialysis, and the ICU.
The reason for this focus is clear and compelling. She writes not just to teach us what to expect, but to help us make wise decisions in some of the worst moments we’ll ever face.Saving Life or Prolonging Death?
The technologies available in a modern ICU have tremendous power to preserve life. They can buy precious time for doctors to figure out what’s going on and work to resolve the problem. But these technologies also have the power to blur the line between life and death:
From the doorway of a hospital room, a patient who will recover may appear identical to one fighting for his life. In both scenarios, we may require a mechanical ventilator to breathe, and sedating medications may plunge us into unconsciousness. An array of poles with intravenous (IV) bags and pumps will surround us. Wires from monitors may coil from our chest and scalp. For the aggrieved spouse at the bedside, such foreign trappings render looming death indistinguishable from steady recovery. (27)
To the untrained eye, clouded by fear and grief, it can be nearly impossible to tell whether these aggressive interventions are saving life or prolonging death. Everything about the setting is disorienting. And so patients and their families are forced into agonizing choices that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.
Should we try resuscitation again? Do we intubate? If we turn off life support, are we killing our loved one? And if it’s right to withdraw support in some cases, how do we know when it’s time?
To face questions like this we need wisdom. And this brings me to the primary difference between Butler’s book and a book like Nuland’s. Butler knows that wisdom begins with fear of the Lord. That’s why she leads with a chapter on four biblical principles that should affect our end-of-life decision making.Four Biblical Principles
First, the sanctity of life. Because every human life is made by God in his image, every life is precious and worth saving. If an intervention buys time for a cure, we ought to intervene.
But, on its own, commitment to the sanctity of life can do more harm than good. Butler cites research showing that patients with high “religious coping” are more likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life care at any cost (34). Perhaps that comes from a belief that faithfulness requires doing everything we can. Perhaps it’s about buying time for God to work a miracle. But the Bible gives us a second principle, beside the sanctity of life—only God has authority over life, and in our fallen world every life ends in death. It’s no failure of faith to acknowledge that no medical intervention can give our bodies eternal life. And though God can work any miracle, “he does not need our help, nor does he call us to pursue futile interventions to give him time” (37).
This balance sets up a third principle. If preserving life is good, but ultimately impossible, how do we decide what interventions are worth pursuing? Mercy and compassion. We should avoid measures that increase suffering where there’s little hope for a cure.
Finally, the freedom we need to act out of mercy rather than life-at-all-costs desperation comes from hope in Christ, Butler’s fourth principle. We don’t have to throw everything we have against an unbeatable enemy because Christ has thrown himself at our enemy, and conquered. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14).Useful Gift
These principles frame up the central work of Between Life and Death, which shines most in its chapters on specific life-sustaining interventions commonly used in the ICU. Butler’s descriptions are consistently clear and concrete. There are stories that make the descriptions more relatable. There’s a glossary of common medical terms for easy reference.
And throughout these chapters, among the greatest strengths of the book, there is humility. As I’ve said, Butler writes to orient our thinking about a foreign world, and to give us tools to work through crucial questions. But she knows better than to answer those questions for us. Every situation is unique. That means we need good doctors to explain what’s going on with our bodies. We need family and friends paying close attention. We need faithful pastors to help us apply the wisdom of the Word. This book is meant to feed into all of these conversations, not to settle them.
Whatever your position in what you’re facing—patient, friend, or pastor—Butler has given you a wonderfully useful gift.
Last month Alabama passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation. Most legal experts believe the law will be struck down by the federal courts and that the Supreme Court will simply ignore it. But while it won’t be effective in ending abortions, the law has been successful in re-launching the decades old debate between two groups of pro-lifers: incrementalists and immediatist.
Pro-life incrementalism means supporting legislative actions that affirmatively protect the unborn and women, reduce abortion, and have the potential to pass current constitutional scrutiny. The alternative for pro-lifers is immediatism, the idea that incrementalism should be rejected and that the most, or only, moral position is the immediate and total abolition of abortion. The extreme form of this position claims that, “allowing abortion in some cases along the way to its total abolition is neither strategically sound nor consistently Christian.”
Almost all principled pro-lifers are in some sense immediatist, since our ultimate goal is the immediate end of the practice of abortion. Where the difference lies is in the question of what we should do now since we do not have the power to immediately end abortion. The incrementalist position is that we should work to save what children we can through taking actionable steps to put limits and restrictions on abortion. The immediatist position is that we should reject incrementalist legislation and work only for the immediate abolition of human abortion through constant efforts of moral persuasionThe Failure of Immediatism
The extreme immediatists believe that incrementalism is sinful. The more moderate immediatists simply believe incrementalism is defeatist. In an article for First Things, “Against Pro-life Incrementalism,” Philip Jeffery says,
Those arguing for incrementalism are right to point out that we don’t live in an ideal world and must make pragmatic calculations about how to move the pro-life cause forward. But we must escape the defeatist mentality that animates incrementalism. We are not going to make progress if we do not take bold steps forward.
Jeffery has it exactly backwards. Since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 the immediatists have made absolutely no progress, while the incrementalists have helped to save the lives of thousands of children. Over the past forty-five years, incrementalists have helped to pass hundreds of laws restricting abortion, including 45 in 2018.
The extreme immediatists would say that “number of lives saved” is not the metric by which the issue should be judged. As one immediatist group says, “This fight is not an issue of what seems practical, achievable, or reasonable. It is an issue of obedience to God. We must make no compromise with Sin or the means of fighting Sin.”
I can appreciate their appeal to purism, for Christians have too often adopted an ends-justifies-the-means approach to political action. Far too many Christians use opposition to abortion to justify supporting any incompetent, corrupt, and immoral politicians simply because they may have some indirect means of affecting the abortion debate (such as appointing judges). But the immediatists are wrong, as I’ll explain below, in claiming using legislative means to protect the unborn is in itself a “compromise with Sin.”
To their credit, though, the extreme variation is at least consistent; the more moderate immediatists are less so. The moderates claim to appreciate the fruits of incrementalism (i.e., babies not killed) while thinking the approach should have never been tried. They argue that we are wasting time and resources on passing laws when we should be changing the culture. For example, in an article titled “Why Pro-life Incrementalism Is Dead,” Ryan Everson says,
Pro-life critics of the Alabama law make a mistake common among conservatives of all kinds: They confuse political strategy with cultural strategy. Even while assuming a sharp boundary between the political fight against abortion and the cultural one, they propose an incrementalist strategy in the law as the way to victory in both battles.
Once again, though, the immediatists have nothing to show for their efforts. They’ve had four decades to “change culture” and yet polls show almost no change in the percentage of Americans who support abortion. The incrementalists have managed to spare the lives of thousands of children despite not convincing the broader culture.The Case for Incrementalism
The case for immediatism is weak. But what is the case for incrementalism?
Almost a decade ago, Justin Taylor interviewed Clarke Forsythe, a pro-life lawyer who currently serves as the senior counsel for Americans United for Life. Forsythe says that the key political virtue for citizens in a democratic republic is prudence, which is “practical wisdom” or “right reason about what is to be done.” As an intellectual virtue, says Forsythe, political prudence challenges political leaders and voters with four questions:
Are they pursuing good goals?
Do they exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible?
Do they successfully connect means to ends?
Do they preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved?
Prudence judges in any particular circumstance whether an incremental strategy is the right one, says Forsythe:
When it is not possible to completely prohibit a social evil, it is both moral and effective to limit it as much as possible. When the ideal is beyond our power, it is moral and effective to seek the greatest good possible. Prudence instructs us that an “all-or-something” approach is better than an “all-or-nothing” approach in politics. One of the reasons is that progress is almost always a result of momentum, and momentum—in the face of countervailing obstacles—is often produced by small victories.
An all-or-nothing approach, by contrast, is rarely prudent (I can’t think of an example) and rarely produces change, and when nothing is the result, it doesn’t create the needed momentum to produce change. This reality is reflected in the simple truth that it’s always good (a good goal) to limit an evil.
Most Christians are not incrementalists because we against immediatism. We simply reject immediatism because it is currently imprudent. The reality is that we don’t have the political power to save all the babies. But we can save some.
If we want to pursue the good, exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible, successfully connect means to ends, and preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved, we should continue to support pro-life incrementalism.
It’s Sunday morning and the buzzing alarm signals the beginning of an all-too-familiar battle: Your teenager has let you know in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t want to go to church. Tossing back the covers, you mentally prepare to cajole, bargain, and plead her begrudgingly from bed to car, for what will likely be a very unpleasant ride to Sunday worship.
Happy Lord’s Day.
Hebrews 10:24–25 contains the scriptural imperative that battle-weary parents are striving to uphold: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another . . . ” Christians gather together as the church to encourage one another in holiness and to proclaim and remember the powerful gospel of Christ. Saved or unsaved, your teen needs your church’s witness.
Saved or unsaved, your teen needs your church’s witness.
Parenting is packed with opportunities to persuade your child to do what’s best even when she’d rather not. As an infant, you convinced her to sleep through the night instead of partying away the night in her crib. Instead of a diet consisting exclusively of pizza, you provide healthy alternatives. And every day you drop her off at school, whether or not she’s feeling it. Parents help their children discern the good portion. If your resolve needs a little refreshing, try employing the three E’s.Empathize
Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Instead of shutting your teen down, investigate. Why doesn’t your teenager want to go to church? Ask her. Set aside a time to listen to her concerns. When she shares, empathize and help her process her feelings or find workable solutions.
Whether saved or unsaved, your teen needs the church’s witness.
Even if you love your church, there are likely plenty of Sundays you wake up and aren’t in the mood to go. Maybe you’re overly tired and would rather sleep in. Perhaps someone hurt your feelings and you’d rather avoid them. Or maybe you need a day to catch up on chores.
Instead of shaming your teen for her normal temptation, help her understand what to do with it. Teach her to recognize temptation and then deny it in favor of faithful commitment to the body of Christ.Explain
Not all conflict ends with empathy. Maybe your teen is still a hard “no” when Sunday rolls around. She may live under the impression that church is only valuable when it’s enjoyable or entertaining. When she doesn’t click with the youth group or finds your church personally unappealing, she may conclude it’s unnecessary. Just as you taught her to eat her veggies and get an education, teach her basic ecclesiology. Why is her participation in the church body good and necessary?
Christ’s followers are members of his body (1 Cor. 12:27). Each Christian is one brick in God’s spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5), built together (Eph. 2:22) on the foundation of his Son (1 Cor. 3:11). When believers devote themselves to biblical teaching, the fellowship of the believers, the breaking of bread, and the prayers of fellow saints (Acts 2:42), God increases their joy and adds new believers to the family. The church is strengthened. Because Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her” (Eph. 5:25–26), your teen needs more than attendance. She needs love for the church body.
Mothers and fathers, it may be a laborious toil to take your teenager to church. But it’s a worthy investment. Empathize, explain, exhort.
As the parent, training begins with you (Prov. 22:6). Teach your teenager God’s commands that she might fear him and keep his statutes all her days (Deut. 6:1–3), bring her up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord while not provoking her to anger (Eph. 6:4), and extend the rod and reproof that offers wisdom (Prov. 29:15), all while showing her compassion (Ps. 103:13). This training happens all week long, before church begins.
As long as your teenager lives under your roof and depends on your funds, she’s your child. Exodus 20:12 calls her to “honor [her] father and mother, that it may go well with [her] and that [she] may live long in the land.” She is to obey her parents in the Lord, for this is right (Eph. 6:1). While she may not like your methods, God’s commands are for her good. The wisdom of Proverbs 23:22, “Listen to your father who gave you life,” isn’t cumbersome, but a blessing. Your gentle insistence on church attendance demonstrates your love (Prov. 13:24).Exhort
If your teen is still averse to attending church, try exhortation. The apostle Paul describes his ministry to the Thessalonians as labor and toil, night and day. But he persists in proclaiming the gospel “like a father with his children,” exhorting and encouraging each one, charging them to walk “in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:9–12). Labor to exhort and encourage.
The church is God’s good provision for your teen. Teach her this truth. Inside the church she will find pastors who joyfully watch over her soul (Heb. 13:17), teachers who keep her from swerving from the faith (1 Tim. 6:21), and faithful witnesses who commend her to run the race of faith (Heb. 11:2). She will learn of God’s love for his people, his willingness to provide, and his covenant-keeping nature. She’ll observe persecution and affliction among God’s people and learn to navigate suffering alongside Christ. The church is the Father’s generous provision to his children.
Mothers and fathers, it may be a laborious toil to take your teenager to church. But it’s a worthy investment. Empathize, explain, exhort. Don’t withhold the discipline of church attendance from your teen; if you make him go to church, he will not die (Prov. 23:13).
I have found Andrew Sach, a pastor of Grace Church Greenwich, to be one of those teachers who repeatedly demonstrates that passages we may have heard taught the same way many times, may not actually be about what we think they’re about. And how does he go about gaining this kind of insight? His repeated admonition is to “go bigger, go older” when studying any passage in the Bible.
By going bigger, he means that we need to consider the larger chunk of Scripture in which the passage we’re teaching is found. And by going older, he encourages Bible handlers to look carefully for allusions to the Old Testament that will provide insight into the passage. These are exactly the tools Sach brought to the “I Am” statements in John in our discussion, helping us as teachers to go deeper into what Jesus was communicating about himself through vivid images such as bread, light, shepherd, door, and vine.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Books by Andrew Sach
- Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word by Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon
- Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach
- Who Is Jesus? Knowing Christ Through His ‘I Am Sayings’ by J. V. Fesko