The Story: A significant portion of practicing Christians reject evangelism. Could it be because they also reject the doctrine of hell?
The Background: A new Barna report, based on research commissioned by Alpha USA, looks at the views on evangelism by practicing Christians (defined in the report as those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church within the past month).
Almost all practicing Christians believe that part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (ranging from 95 percent to 97 percent among all generational groups), and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94 percent to 97 percent). Almost all practicing Christians (ranging from 86 percent to 92 percent) also say they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith, and a majority of each generational group (ranging from 56 percent to 73 percent) believes they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people
Yet despite recognizing the importance of telling people about Christ and claiming to know how to share their faith, a significant portion of practicing Christians say it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.
Almost half of all Millenials (those ages 20 to 34) say it is wrong to share one’s beliefs, as do more than one in four (27 percent) Gen-Xers (ages 35 to 53), and one in five Boomers (ages 54 to 72) and Elders (age 73 and older).
What It Means: As Penn Jillette, half of the magician duo Penn & Teller, once asked, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” the famous atheist said. “I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”
Perhaps it’s the case that many evangelicals truly do hate their neighbors. But the more likely explanation is they do not believe in the existence of hell.
We know hell exists because Jesus—the one through whom all things were created (John 1:3; Col. 1:16)—tells us that hell exists. For example, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
In fact, Jesus has more to say about hell than he does about heaven. Jesus uses the term gehenna (which is translated as “hell”) a dozen times in the Gospels, and uses synonyms involving fire about 20 times. He also describes it in vivid detail, saying it is a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), and eternal torment (Luke 16:23). He says it is where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42), and a place from which there is no return, even to warn loved ones (Luke 16:19–31).
More than anyone else in the Bible, Jesus talked about the doctrine of hell because he wants us to take it seriously. As Leslie Schmucker explains,
Jesus has to talk about hell because it is the fate that awaits all people apart from him. Because of Adam’s sin, we’re all guilty and deserve God’s eternal punishment. Contrary to popular belief, hell is not a place where God sends those who have been especially bad; it’s our default destination. We need a rescuer or we stand condemned.
You cannot believe in the Jesus of the Gospels and not believe in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option. You can also not love your neighbor and be apathetic about their spending eternity in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option either. If we believe Jesus and love our neighbor we will bring the doctrine of hell back into our churches.
“[W]e should shudder at churches that don’t know what it means to shudder about hell, Trevin Wax says. “I don’t know how you can take Jesus’s message seriously and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. Mock ‘fire and brimstone preachers’ all you want, but take care that in the process, you’re not mocking Jesus himself.”
If Christianity is true, why do so many Christians act in horrific, un-Christlike ways? Why has Christian history been so consistently tarnished with war, violence, and oppression? Why should one believe Jesus is God if so much evil has been done in his name?
These questions represent one of the most popular objections to Christianity today. They are good questions: questions Christians should take seriously and know how to answer; questions that should chasten us and cause us to commit to living in ways that don’t besmirch the name of Jesus.
Thankfully, an excellent new documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined, features Christians honestly and soberly considering these questions.Christian History: The Horror
A production of the Center for Public Christianity (CPX), an Australian Christian nonprofit devoted to using media to enhance the public understanding of Christian faith, the documentary is hosted by John Dickson (CPX founding director), Simon Smart (CPX executive director), and Justine Toh (CPX senior research fellow). It opens in Jerusalem with a description of one of the many atrocities of the Crusades, and for the next 90 minutes it does not shy away from the ugly episodes of Christian history.
The film crisscrosses the globe, recounting various dark episodes in Christian history. In Belfast, for example, Smart ponders the religious violence that occurred in Northern Ireland over three decades. “How do people who claim a religious faith reconcile what happened here with what they believe?” he asks.
John Lennox, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and whose family’s store was bombed for employing both Protestants and Catholics, is interviewed in the film.
“I’m utterly ashamed of it,” he says. “I’m ashamed that the name of Christ has even been associated with a bomb or an AK-47. For the simple reason that people who do that are not following Christ. They are disobeying him.”
Shame indeed. So many horrors have been committed by people who claim the name—and even more troublingly, the cause—of Christ: wars, slavery, colonial oppression, the subjugation of women, segregationist policies, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and on and on. How do we reckon with all this? For the Love of God leans into this question.Christian History: The Heroic
But just as the documentary doesn’t shy away from the evils done by so-called Christians in history, neither does it shy away from celebrating the many ways Christian influence has shaped the world positively.
The film notes how ideas taken for granted in today’s world—universal human rights, the innate dignity of persons regardless of their utility, or even that humility is a desirable quality—came from Christianity. The arrival of Christianity and its theology of imago Dei revolutionized the way vulnerable populations fared in the Greco-Roman world, where barbaric practices like infant exposure were normal and equality between the sexes was a foreign concept.
The film shows how Christ’s teachings to love your enemy (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38–40) inspired the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., while the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 (among other teachings) inspired a humanitarian emphasis that has characterized Christianity throughout its history. From early Christians in Rome caring for the sick and dying (not just their own, but everyone) to Mother Teresa and modern-day Good Samaritans like Kent Brantley, Nancy Writebol, and Rick Sacra, followers of Jesus have constantly been inspired to enter harm’s way to care for the vulnerable.
Throughout Christian history, followers of Jesus have constantly been inspired to enter harm’s way to care for the vulnerable.
Though at times the “good Christian” examples are a bit too predictable (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr.), the documentary does shine the light on lesser-known heroes. I enjoyed learning about Father Damien of Molokai, who gave his life to serving a leper colony in Hawaii, and the Serampore Trio of English missionaries (including William Carey) whose impact in India included launching a college and succeeding in efforts to outlaw infanticide and the killing of widows through the practice called sati.
There are countless other examples, of course. A film of this topic really could (should!) be a multi-season, long Netflix documentary (For the Love of God does have a longer version of four one-hour episodes). But with limited time, this film does a good job selecting illustrative examples and moving the narrative along at a concise clip.Tuning Our Song to Jesus
As documentaries go, For the Love of God is well-produced and compelling. It features a who’s who of historians, philosophers, and theologians weighing in on the good and bad of church history—scholars like David Bentley Hart, Lynn Cohick, William Cavanaugh, Miroslav Volf, Rodney Stark, and Christopher Tyerman, among many others. Some are more generous than others as to how Christianity comes off in the final analysis, but none is utterly damning in their critique. This is one area where the film could have been even stronger, perhaps: a willingness to give voice to truly stinging, well-articulated critiques of Christianity and its oft-ugly legacy. If Christians are to winsomely answer these arguments, we need films like this to engage them, presenting the strongest version (not the easily refutable version) of the anti-Christian critique.
What is the best answer to these critiques? This documentary uses a helpful musical metaphor to suggest a possible response.
“It’s easy to dismiss the religion of Jesus Christ on account of the many sins of his followers,” Smart says in the film. “But perhaps it’s too easy, like judging a piece of music on the basis of a bad performance.”
As we watch a cellist performing Bach, Smart continues: “A bad delivery doesn’t diminish the genius of the original composition.”
A bad delivery doesn’t diminish the genius of the original composition.
How consistently have Christians played the melody of Jesus, the new tune he gave the world? It’s an open question—a convicting question the film carefully engages.
“When Christians have played out of tune with Jesus,” Toh observes, “the results have been disastrous.”
Indeed. The dissonance of Christians living “out of tune” with Jesus has often sounded like nails on a chalkboard to the world—repulsive noise that attracts no one to the gospel. But when Christians have played the tune well, in harmony with Jesus, the song has been beautiful—an attractive symphony that can soften hearts to the gospel.
Are we playing in tune with Jesus, or are we hijacking his melodies to riff in our own way? For the Love of God challenges us to consider this question. For the love of God, and for the love of his world, may our lives sing a Jesus song.
“If you and your ministry consist only of doctrinal correctness and brilliant communication and organizational savvy—all of which matter—but if that’s all you cultivate and develop and lay hold of, it will hollow you out.” — Ray Ortlund
Date: October 17, 2018
Event: 2018 TGC West Coast Conference
Recommended in this podcast:
- “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way” by Francis Schaeffer in No Little People
- True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer
- Schaeffer on the Christian Life by William Edgar
- “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God” by Jonathan Edwards
- George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival by Arnold Dallimore
- Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain Murray
- Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden
- Here I Stand by Roland Bainton
- Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown
Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.
In Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, Katherine Gerbner, assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota, debunks a common myth: that early 18th-century Protestant missionaries to the New World laid the foundations for later abolitionism.
The dark reality is that many of them helped form a pro-slavery ideology that for decades would be used to defend the compatibility of Christianity and slaveholding.From ‘Protestant Supremacy’ to ‘Christian Slavery’
Gerbner’s argument traces three historical steps in the transition from the belief in “Protestant supremacy” to a full-fledged defense of “Christian slavery.” Along the way, she shows how the formation of racialized slavery in the Atlantic world was closely tied with shifting definitions of what it meant to be a Christian. Though she focuses on Anglican, Quaker, and Moravian missionaries, she demonstrates how their formulation of Christian slavery shaped and anticipated the thinking of key Great Awakening leaders like George Whitefield.
In the first step, many settlers and planters in the New World created an identity around the idea of “Protestant supremacy.” They tied their belief in the superiority of Protestantism to their belief in the superiority of white ethnicity and culture. They exploited this connection to assert their superiority not only against other religions like Roman Catholicism and Judaism but also against other ethnicities like the Native Americans and black Africans (they typically associated “inferior” race with “inferior” pagan religion, deeming them “hereditary heathens”).
This move had troubling consequences that anticipated later forms of white supremacy. For example, Gerbner identifies a change in the laws of 17th-century Barbados that moved from defining Christianity doctrinally to making it an indicator of ethnicity and class. The later laws juxtaposed “Christian” with the word “negro,” indicating that Christians were free whites and that blacks were non-Christian.
This shift was in response to a growing tension that questioned the legitimacy of Christians enslaving other Christians. So by contrasting “Christian” with “negro,” these laws “invoked Christianity as an indicator of ethnic identity” rather than doctrine in order to justify the enslavement of (non-Christian) blacks (45). The early planter classes also tied Christian identity with freedom, and this made many resistant to evangelizing their slaves, because they feared conversion would give them grounds to demand emancipation.
The second step complicated the first. Over time, an increasing number of enslaved and free blacks in the New World did convert, get baptized, and join a church. Their conversions undermined the foundations of Protestant supremacy by confounding the assumed bond between Christianity and white ethnicity. In response, the white plantocracy altered the definition of Christianity to include a wider ethnic diversity. However, they also altered the relationship between Christian identity and freedom, basing free status and social hierarchy no longer in religion but in race—i.e., no longer in their exclusive Protestant identity but in exclusive whiteness. In the 1690s and early 1700s, for example, they passed new laws in Barbados that excluded nonwhites from owning land, using racial categories rather than religion to establish the social hierarchy.
The third step is where the missionaries come in. Facing resistance from the plantocracy to evangelize slaves, missionaries of various Protestant backgrounds cast a vision for what Gerbner calls “Christian slavery.” They tried to assuage the fears of the plantocracy by arguing that Christianity and slavery were compatible, and that conversion wouldn’t grant slaves freedom or social equality. Many even promoted legislation that ensured baptism wouldn’t lead to manumission. They argued that while Christian conversion made slave and master spiritual equals, it had no bearing on social equality this side of heaven, which was determined by racial difference.
Moreover, rather than hurt the institution of slavery, they insisted that Christian conversion would produce harder-working, virtuous, and more obedient slaves. They advocated for Christian masters to assume a paternalistic role to care for the spiritual needs of their slaves like they would for their children, and to treat them more humanely with Christian virtue. Conversion would profit both slaves and masters. When properly done, they argued, Protestantism and slavery weren’t just compatible; they were conducive for the flourishing of a Christian society.Well-Argued Case
Gerbner’s book makes an important contribution to the history of religion and slavery in the Atlantic world. She draws on an impressive breadth of source material—from treatises on slavery and evangelism by leading religious leaders to legal codes, letters, church records, and missionary accounts from the Caribbean and North American colonies—and deftly sets her findings in conversation with the existing scholarship on the period. She doesn’t pick low-hanging fruit but instead builds her case researching the two groups that scholars have long assumed laid the groundwork for progressive Christian antislavery thought: the Quakers and Moravians.
At points her historical analysis could benefit from a deeper grasp of theology. For instance, she largely bases a major claim of her eighth chapter on what I think is a misreading of August Gottlieb Spangenberg’s 1788 account of Moravian missions. She interprets his story of a black woman’s conversion (73–76 of his Account) to mean that he outright opposed literacy for blacks and concludes that “Moravians redefine[d] ‘true’ conversion to exclude reading the Bible” (166).
She’s right that Moravians reduced the importance of teaching literacy to nonwhite converts over the years in order to placate elite whites who feared literacy would lead to slave rebellion. But she doesn’t address how the important and nuanced differences of Moravian understandings of Scripture informed Spangenberg’s account, and she missed his actual point—not that converts shouldn’t learn to read the Bible, but that literacy shouldn’t be a prerequisite for baptism. Spangenberg was merely reiterating a common evangelical impulse that faith is chiefly of the heart, not just the head.
Gerbner’s conclusion indicates that Moravians departed from the standard Protestant position that true conversion requires reading the Bible, but this wasn’t standard at all (they knew, of course, that the illiterate could hear the Word and be converted). Again, this doesn’t negate her main point, but closer attention to the theology might’ve sharpened it.Taking Stock
Her conclusion is haunting, and evangelicals should ponder it carefully:
The irony is dark and yet unambiguous: the most self-sacrificing, faithful, and zealous missionaries in the Atlantic world formulated and theorized a powerful and lasting ideology for a brutal system of plantation labor. (198)
Evangelicals engage culture with the gospel. But as this history shows, an evangelical penchant to compromise with the culture in order to achieve greater ends—like conversions or cultural influence—can often undermine the mission and reap lasting and destructive consequences. The gospel that should reconcile all peoples was compromised and weaponized to enforce racial hierarchy.
And if we’re tempted to think cultural compromise was a problem of the past and not consider its warnings for the way we go about church, missions, race relations, and cultural engagement today, woe to us.
It sounds so heartening when you first hear it: “No creed but the Bible.” You’re a young Christian, you love the Bible, and you’re eager to be around people who share your passion for the Word. But as time goes on, you realize there are some problems with this seemingly innocent sentence. “No creed but the Bible” actually functions as a governing theological statement that norms all others. In a dazzling burst of irony, “No creed but the Bible” fails its own test, because it is a creed.
Then you study a little evangelical history. You realize as you read up on the 20th-century controversies between evangelicals and Protestant liberals that “No creed but the Bible” was used over and over to steer churches away from sound doctrine. When seminaries and colleges hired professors who taught liberal ideas, evangelicals in the Northern Baptist movement—for one example—tried valiantly to lash their movement to a confession of faith in the 1920s. The motion failed. Why? “No creed but the Bible” won the day.
Today the Northern Baptists are a shell of what they were; they’ve been gutted by theological liberalism. Their schools are in many cases out of business; members have departed in huge numbers over the decades. This isn’t a strange outcome for the “No creed” movement. This is the same song, thousandth stanza. Unsound doctrine kills.Misleading Mantra
There is no text like Scripture. The Word of God is theopneustos, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Its holy origin speaks to its holy character. As the reformers understood, Scripture alone—sola scriptura—has authority to norm the doctrine of God’s people. Old and New Testament together bear nothing less than divine weight, teaching us the ways and will of God. No other source, authority, or voice comes close to the authoritative power of the Bible, which alone reveals Christ the alpha and omega (Rev. 22:13).
From the earliest days of the early church, Christians have been a Scripture people. Yet as unsound teaching arose millennia ago, church leaders recognized the need to standardize gospel doctrine to separate false teachers from true teachers. Tertullian promoted the “rule of faith,” a summary of core Christian truth. The apostles’ creed and four ecumenical creeds continued this standardizing work, helping the church distinguish false Christology and counterfeit Trinitarianism from the biblical Christ and the biblical Trinity.
In the era of the Protestant Reformation, the recovery of scriptural soteriology and ecclesiology fueled the rise of confessional groups. The English and American Baptists, for example, produced no less than three hefty confessions to guide and protect their churches (London 1644 and 1689, Philadelphia 1742). The Reformed movement looked to the rock-ribbed Westminster Confession of Faith. Believers from past generations didn’t think these foundational documents normed the Word of God; they did believe these statements “confessed” the core teaching of the Scripture, and did so with particular reference to areas where the faith might suffer attack.
The strangest thing happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. With the rise of liberal theology, different groups moved away from doctrinal standards. “No creed but the Bible” gained popularity in this age, as noted. It sounded so good: The person using this phrase valued the Word so highly that the Bible alone functioned as their confession. Their theology was so pure, so untouched by human opinions, so unsullied by human interpretation, that it couldn’t be reduced to a few hundred words on a sheet of paper. But in truth their theology was far from pure. The same theologians and pastors who deployed this statement to shut down debate were in fact revising the traditional doctrine of the Word. The Bible that supposedly was their “creed” was errant. Biblical authors weren’t fully trustworthy. Once the doctrine of inerrancy is denied, other doctrines necessarily follow. So it was among the Protestant liberals, as Jeff Straub and Greg Wills have shown.Biblical Creeds Give Life
Liberal theology steers clear of “systematic” theology, seeing it as manmade. But in doing so, liberal theology steers clear of apostolic teaching. When Paul speaks of the “deposit” of gospel teaching, for example, he’s referencing a standard, a proper conception of the message of Christ (2 Tim. 1:13–14). When he speaks of “another Jesus” that unsound teachers preach, he’s referencing the need for a right understanding of Jesus—a normative understanding (2 Cor. 11:4). When Peter tells us that false prophets “promise freedom,” he is communicating the need to distinguish between the truth and a lie (2 Pet. 2:19). Confessions and creeds help the church heed these apostolic mandates (and many others we could mention).
“No creed but the Bible” doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation. The apostles not only allow believers to systematize their doctrine—they demand the church do so. This isn’t because they wish to squelch joy. It’s because they want believers to know the truth, believe the truth, love the truth, and be set free by the truth (in fulfillment of John 8:32). They don’t want precious souls drawn off by wolves. They want men and women to flourish in Christ, and to be presented spotless on the last day (Phil. 2:15). Doctrine doesn’t get in the way of this lofty end; doctrine is the gateway to it. Unsound doctrine kills; sound doctrine gives life.
‘No creed but the Bible’ doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation.
“No creed but the Bible” may be used by some good-hearted, God-loving people. But all too often, schools and churches that embrace this creed end up teaching unbiblical ideas: annihilationism, inclusivism, biblical errancy, the denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the acceptability of homosexuality and cross-gender identity, the denial of a wrath-bearing substitutionary atonement, and more. These same schools and churches seem to speak softly, but their classrooms and pulpits conceal thunder. They foment unbelief. They reverence doubt. However well-meaning, they turn the hearts of the people away from God and his righteousness.
But not only this: They carry a big stick. They fiercely police their boundaries. They expel sound voices. They say they love tolerance and debate, but often act intolerantly to shut it down. They do all this, in many cases, quietly. They network and speak with exceeding shrewdness in public before evangelical parents, assuring them of their fidelity to God’s Word. But behind the scenes, many are enacting revolution, starting fights over truths once cherished and plotting the victory of a new creed and an altered Christianity. But not only altered—for, as J. Gresham Machen prophetically said, this Christianity rapidly ends up no Christianity at all.Rise Up
Let’s do better than “no creed but the Bible.” Let’s not fall prey to the old traps. Let’s raise up churches full of believers who search the Spirit-inspired Scriptures with affections entranced by the majesty of God and the mercy of Christ. Let’s stop serving up soft targets to unsound teachers. If our churches and institutions have strayed into falsehood, let’s take them back.
Let’s not send our beloved sons and daughters to colleges, universities, and seminaries as lambs to the theological slaughter. Let’s send them, with love and prayers, to be instructed in the most holy faith so that they trust the Bible and esteem the creeds and confessions that witness to the Bible.
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Ps. 127:3)
Between deep breaths and tears, I mentally quoted this verse as I stared at the pink plus sign that had ominously appeared on the pregnancy test in my hand.
While Abraham and Sarah laughed in disbelief over the idea of having a child in their old age, I stood frozen in sheer panic, weeping. Our house was still covered in unpacked boxes from our cross-country move to plant a church in Maryland. With no family or friends around to support us, welcoming child number five wasn’t part of our church plant’s strategic-growth initiative. And yet, here we were, pregnant with a baby we hadn’t expected.
I’d prayed for plenty of potential Abrahams and Sarahs who would’ve loved the surprise of a late-in-life pregnancy, but I wasn’t one of them.
I knew what to expect from my past pregnancies: the extended months of “morning” sickness, bedrest stints, home health-care workers in and out while I homeschooled, premature labors, NICU stays, followed by postpartum depression. As thankful as we are for each of our children, pregnancy has never been a Hallmark moment in our family.
Pregnancy has never been a Hallmark moment in our family.
In theory, I knew my baby was a blessing and a life created by God. But honestly, facing this unplanned pregnancy terrified me.Pregnant with Emotions
I dreaded making the announcement. I thought of all the times in the past five years I’d answered the “Are you done having children?” question, confidently (foolishly) assuring people we were. Everyone knew how difficult my pregnancies had been and how crazy it would be to add a baby. It was no secret; this baby was a surprise.
From the moment that little line turned pink, I knew I’d spend the next nine months answering a slew of awkward personal questions about how we’d arrived in this predicament and laughing uncomfortably at inappropriate birth-control jokes. Yes, I know how babies are made.
Then there was the unhelpful consolation I frequently received when I did choose to open up:
- Maybe this will be your easiest pregnancy ever!
- Wouldn’t it be wonderful, after three boys, if God were surprising you with a girl?
- You’ve done this so many times before, this should be a cinch!
- I’m sure God knows you could handle more. You’re so patient.
Nice thoughts, but they likely wouldn’t be reality.
It was also tricky to work through my feelings of grief within the church. Many of my friends had dealt with infertility and miscarriage, and I feared my news and hesitant rejoicing would cause them further grief and pain. Admitting that my blessing felt more like a burden would seem ungrateful to God and insensitive to others.
In those first months of processing God’s plan, I was desperate for someone to both understand the burden on my shoulders and speak God’s truth directly to the fear in my heart.
If you are facing an unexpected pregnancy, stuck in grief or struggling to rejoice, here is some good news.He’s with You
In Luke 1:28, when the angel Gabriel appeared with an unexpected pregnancy announcement for the virgin Mary, he led with words of comfort: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
You don’t walk this road alone. Just as the Lord was with Mary, he will be with you. Take comfort in knowing God will not leave you or forsake you (Josh. 1:5).He’s Sovereign over Your Life Story
Proverbs 16:9 instructs, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” When God interrupts your plans and establishes the course of your family’s life in a way you didn’t anticipate, remember that while your plans were rearranged, his were not. Avoid the temptation to consider the “if only” thoughts, blame circumstances, or fantasize about what could have been. Trust that nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign plan: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa. 14:24).He’s Strong When You’re Weak
As a Christian you haven’t been promised an easy road. So recognize—and embrace—the moment when you’re at the end of yourself. The Lord promised Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” and Paul responded, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Let your weakness lead you to Jesus.Children Are a Gift and a Heritage
God gives life and breath (Acts 17:25), and in his wisdom he has given you this baby’s life. What joy to know he fills the womb with treasure and reward (Ps. 17:14; Ps. 127:3).
Don’t think only of poopy diapers, buckling car seats, and sleepless nights. The hard work ahead of you shouldn’t eclipse your eternal perspective or prevent you from rejoicing over the coming joy of teaching one more child about Jesus, seeing her first smile, hearing his first words, or delighting in all the laughter, hugs, and kisses to come.Christ Is Bigger Than Your Fickle Feelings
In this fallen world, where there’s pain in childbearing and the ground fights back against the work of our hands, child-rearing is painful. No wonder we grieve the laborious trials ahead. But we needn’t be ashamed of our feelings of trepidation. Christ is sympathetic to our struggles (Heb. 4:15) and uses our fickle feelings to lead us to his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).
Christ is sympathetic to our struggles and uses our fickle feelings to lead us to his throne of grace.
It’s been three years since the news of my coming baby rocked me. Without a doubt, baby number five is indeed God’s good plan for the Carlson family. (A blessing who is deep into the “terrible twos” and recently projectile-vomited on me.) Without hesitation, I’m grateful for his life. I never could’ve expected this curly haired, blue-eyed blessing would bring us such immense joy—and sanctification.
Behold, unexpected babies are a heritage from the Lord, too. Acknowledge your surprise, yes, but then press on toward faith-filled rejoicing.
In 2016, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy [read TGC’s review] was hailed for explaining the “Trump voter” to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times readers on the other side of America’s class chasm. Vance explained his family’s slide into dysfunction, aided in part by dried-up factory jobs. White-collar professionals far from Appalachia devoured the book and testified to their newfound empathy for the working class.
Now meet Hillbilly’s wonkish cousin who works for a think tank, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America by Oren Cass. Like Vance, Cass writes to one side of America on behalf of the other. He explains why a good job is hard to find for more and more of our countrymen, especially those who don’t aspire (or aren’t able) to work in knowledge industries. He pleads for new policies that will create a new kind of labor market.Problem with Our ‘Prosperity’
The Once and Future Worker follows a problem-solution script. To explain the problem, Cass tells the story of how two economic ideas converged to create a problematic “prosperity.” First, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) became the favorite indicator of economic health. GDP tells us how much the economy as a whole is producing, the size of our “economic pie.” As GDP grew in the 20th century’s postwar booms, the second trend took hold: the rise of the American consumer. Of course, every individual is both producer and consumer, but public policy focused more and more on encouraging consumption.
Cass names the child of these two ideas “economic piety”: grow the pie (GDP) and make sure everyone gets to eat their fair share (consumption). And it worked! We have the world’s biggest economy. Our standard of living is higher than any before in history, providing affordable comforts like flat-screen televisions and smartphones for all. Our social safety net makes sure everyone gets a slice of the pie. We’re the most prosperous society in history, so what’s the problem?
The problem is what’s missing. Economic piety ends up sounding something like this: So long as the economy as a whole is producing (GDP), we don’t care if each individual is able to produce. We only care if she is able to consume. But “consumption without production creates dependence and debt,” whereas production (work) is good for individuals and communities in ways that can’t be neatly tallied. A prosperity that doesn’t include the ability to work is no prosperity at all.
Economic piety ends up sounding something like this: as long as the economy as a whole is producing (GDP), we don’t care if each individual is able to produce.
A better prosperity would ensure that everyone is productive. It would provide ways for laborers and their families to live self-sufficiently and contribute to the common good. The thick part of the book, then, is a raft of policy proposals to encourage work and self-sufficiency. Cass explains how environmental policy, education, immigration, labor law, and entitlements all affect the labor market. For each area, he proposes changes or new policies to get blue-collar Americans working again.Echoes from Eden
The Once and Future Worker is written for a broad, politically informed audience. I see several reasons to hope that Christians will be part of the readership.
First, its underlying premise is consistent with biblical wisdom. Cass is noticeably silent on philosophical or religious claims to support his assertion that work in inherently good. He states it as a matter of fact, then cites a convincing array of research. In taking this route, The Once and Future Worker sits in the “common sense” tradition that has long dominated American public dialogue, where self-evident truth plus more evidence is the way to persuade.
But this approach still leaves nagging questions: Why is a person’s work worth more than their tiny, fractional addition to GDP? Why is consumption without production bad for people? Thoughtful Christians will know the answer, for Cass’s findings ring with echoes from Eden. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Work is part of how we image God.
Work is part of how we image God.
Something is lost if this is left unsaid. I couldn’t help but wonder that if a culture loses sight of the dignity of work (grounded in the dignity of each individual, which is grounded in the image of God), is it any wonder that they create a “prosperity” that leaves some people without dignity? I’m not suggesting that Cass should have made this point. I’m suggesting that Christians should make it; we have unique wisdom to offer, sourced in Scripture, that isn’t common sense but is essential to the common good.Public Policy Education
Even when we see the God-given dignity of work, we might not know how that dignity translates into policies and politics. This leads to the second reason The Once and Future Worker deserves reading: It’s a crash course in “how things work!” In sections on the environment, education, immigration, labor law, and the tax code, I left with a better understanding of how our current policies came to be and their effect.
Cass’s question is always, “How does this affect laborers?” How does our education system prepare—or not prepare—people to find sustainable work? How does immigration policy affect immigrants and existing workers?
Looking through this lens leads Cass to conclusions that challenge orthodoxy on both the left and right. His most audacious chapter proposes a wage subsidy, that government should sometimes “pay for jobs.” He argues this would be more effective than the anti-poverty programs loved by Democrats, but he also allows that it would intervene in the free market often celebrated by Republicans. (Although he is essentially conservative, much of Cass’s quibble is with libertarian-leaning Republicans. The most robust critique of his ideas has also come from that stream.)
How is wrestling with all this helpful to Christians? Perhaps it could introduce more subtlety into our political logic. For example, in a chapter on the environment and the economy, Cass shows how stricter air-quality standards have curtailed manufacturing, which means there’s a trade-off between cleaner air and jobs. Based on Genesis 1–2, I’ve long believed in creation care, and I’ve tended to support environment-friendly policy. But what about the value of a stable, well-paying job to a blue-collar worker? Isn’t this also an implication of Genesis 1–2? This I had not seen as clearly, and Cass’s analysis left me chastened.Cross-Cultural Education
This leads to the last reason The Once and Future Worker deserves reading. Cass knows why I’m inclined to see the value of clean air but miss the value of a blue-collar job. It’s because I’m not blue-collar. As an educated knowledge worker, America’s job market serves me just fine. In a recent interview, he noted:
What we’ve done is to build a society oriented entirely toward the needs and preferences of highly educated people. We’ve created the conditions for a labor market in which those people do really well. If you go back to that list of policy areas I mention in this book for altering labor market conditions to create more of the jobs we need, they were mostly areas where the people who are thriving would have to make concessions for the sake of others.
I’m guessing that many of my fellow TGC readers are among the educated, “doing okay” crowd. The Once and Future Worker was a cross-cultural education for me. As Christians, we more than anyone else, should want that.
You might have noticed a recent trend in commercials: robots. It was a noticeable theme among Super Bowl ads this year. From Intuit’s RoboChild to SimpliSafe’s robopocalypse, these ads are playing on growing fears about technology and the rise of artificial intelligence: fears about losing jobs, feeling unsafe, being outsmarted, or being beaten in sports (as in Michelob’s Super Bowl ad).
Fears about the technological future are nothing new, and they reveal more about us than what the future might hold. I believe many of these fears stem from a faulty understanding of human nature and what it means to be God’s image bearers in this broken world.What’s Your Value?
Recent commercials have depicted advanced robots with human-like intelligence and emotional capacity. Intuit’s robo-child wakes up her “dad” to tell him she is hungry and can’t sleep, while SimpliSafe posits a future where robots take our jobs and even sit next to us at little-league games. These admittedly extreme, sci-fi visions nevertheless capture reasonable worries about how artificial intelligence (AI) will revolutionize society. But as AI changes so much about our world, we must remember that some things that will never change, no matter how blurred the lines become between humans and robots.
Scripture tells us God created humans in his image, giving us a responsibility to be his representatives on earth (Gen 1:26–28). Nothing else in creation was made like us, and nothing will ever be able to take the unique image of God from us. While God made certain parts of creation stronger, quicker, and more agile than humanity, he didn’t make anything as valuable and significant.
Human uniqueness isn’t based on the fact that we have the highest reasoning or intellect, because what would that say about our brothers and sisters with mental and physical disabilities? Is someone less human because they don’t have the mental capacity of another? And what if AI eventually gains higher reasoning and intellectual capacity than humans? Would that make robots more human than humans? No.
Our efficient, technological age tempts us to place ultimate value on one’s ability to contribute to society. We already see this faulty mindset in things like abortion and euthanasia. But while it may be true for how we view robots and other technological tools—that their worth is tied to their usefulness—it is certainly not true for us. Human utility does not determine our value; our identity as divine image bearers does.
Human utility does not determine our value; our identity as divine image bearers does.Misunderstanding Our Role
Technology can be a wonder—an impressive display of humanity’s creative brilliance. But it can also be a horror, as creepy robot commercials, sci-fi movies, and shows like Black Mirror can attest. Technology can be used in ways that dignify people; but because we live in a fallen world, it can also demean and deceive. For instance, Amazon just scrapped an AI system that demonstrated bias against women in hiring recommendations. AI also allows for the creation of deepfakes, where someone can appear to say and do things they never did. And these are just two of many examples.
Because we are called to love our neighbors, Christians must engage the conversation about how technology is being used for good and for ill, specifically in the emerging area of AI. Christians have rightly focused on dangerous aspects of technology like online pornography and excessive screen time. But we often miss the more subtle ways technology is redefining what it means to be human—and how AI specifically is raising urgent theological, ethical, and anthropological questions.
Christians must engage the conversation about how technology is being used for good and for ill, specifically in the emerging area of AI.
Every Christian does not need to become an AI expert, but we do have an obligation to our neighbor and those in our churches to learn how technology is affecting (and will affect) the ones that we love. We should read books and articles (e.g., Byron Reese’s The Fourth Age; Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers; Henry Kissinger’s Atlantic piece, “How the Enlightenment Ends”) on these emerging technologies, and spend time reflecting on what is changing and what will never change.Humanity Redefined
To many in the AI field, we are nothing more than fancy “organic algorithms” or hyper-advanced computer systems, with our bodies as the hardware and our minds the software. Elon Musk worries about how we’ll be able to upgrade humans to keep up with machines. Ray Kurzweil dreams about uploading our minds to computers so we can live forever. As believers, we must engage these dangerous and nihilistic ideas of the future with the unchanging truth of the gospel.
Jobs are going to be lost, but likely not at the rate some have predicted. You will daily interact with AI at some point in your future job, if you don’t already (and it will probably make your day easier). You may even be woken up by a robot one day soon (though hopefully not by a creepy robo-child). But regardless of how advanced AI may become, God created humans uniquely to exercise dominion over the world, stewarding it as his irreplaceable representatives.
Christians need not fear technology; we just need to approach it wisely. We need to be engaged in the conversations and working in the industries where these technologies are being crafted. God designed us to create and harness technology in ways that honor him and dignify our neighbors. Now more than ever before, Christians must commit to that task.
Devastating recent news of abuse has shown that wickedness can seep into any movement, whether the most developed hierarchy or movements characterized by autonomy. There is no silver bullet. Polity alone is no protection against evil and sin. Too often those who have committed abuse move to new churches and ministries with little personal consequence.
While some church plants belong to denominations with clear accountability structures for churches, pastors, and other leaders, plants from free church or baptistic traditions that value local church autonomy must be thoughtful and intentional to have clear accountability structures in place from the earliest days.
Establishing systems of accountability will prepare churches to protect people, and to pursue justice should abuse occur.Clear Policies and Procedures
From the earliest days of planting a church, policies and procedures for accountability and church discipline ought to be expressed—with clarity and precision—in a church’s bylaws and policies. In my experience, existing churches are often open to sharing their policies with new church plants. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on these matters, especially for church plants with a direct relationship to a sending church.
These policies and procedures ought to include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Conduct criminal background checks on all staff and ministry leaders. This is essential for all volunteers who serve in children’s ministry—for anyone who participates in church nursery/child care on any level.
- Develop and enforce a child safety policy for adults serving in children’s ministry and nursery/child care. This is the type of policy that states two adults must be present with minors at all times, etc.
- Train children’s ministry volunteers to recognize signs of abuse, and give them clear channels for reporting abuse.
- Know your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. These are a baseline minimum for reporting. If you have any doubt at all, report to authorities, and tell the victim that you intend to do so.
- Require mandatory reporting on any child abuse. Have a clear policy on how to handle adult victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse as well. Be prepared to contact authorities and to help victims through the difficult process of reporting to police and considering whether to press charges.
- Have a clear policy on how the church will handle registered sex offenders.
- Never guarantee confidentiality. In our discipline policy it is explicit that appeals will be made to authorities when necessary (Rom. 13:1–7).
- Develop relationships with local counselors and therapists for the sake of referrals and a resource to get advice.
Even with the best policies and procedures in place, it is essential that accusations of abuse be addressed with seriousness and sobriety.Plurality of Elders
In autonomous churches, the importance of a plurality of elders and meaningful membership is heightened. A true plurality of elders is a necessary and biblical form of accountability at the highest level of church leadership.
From the beginning, a focus on cultivating a broader leadership culture of elders and deacons—and other ministry leaders, including both men and women—will help to foster greater openness and accountability throughout a church.
For church plants at early stages that do not yet have a plurality of elders or covenanted members, it’s helpful to have a direct relationship with a sending church that provides accountability and support for the planter. Even with an emphasis on autonomy, we see the importance of interconnectivity in the early church and in the work of church planting (Acts 13; 15).
With or without that connectivity, it’s crucial that a church plant know to whom appeals can be made if clear sin or abuse is exposed.Meaningful Membership
Every member of the church is a member of Christ’s body, so their sin and pain affects the rest of the body (1 Cor. 12:22–26). Even pastors are first and foremost members of the church, and therefore subject to the discipline and policies of the church.
A church plant must thoughtfully implement clear and documented standards for membership, what decisions members will have a voice in, how leaders will be held accountable, and what mechanisms (i.e., regular members’ meetings) will be used to report on church matters. Moreover, all child safety policies should be shared with the entire congregation, to communicate to parents and non-parents alike that this is something the church takes seriously.
There will be times when matters of unrepentant individual sin and church discipline must be brought to the whole membership of the church. But these times of sorrow and mourning together offer opportunities for corporate repentance and a reminder of the gospel. Clear pathways for discipline and reporting will also help protect the church from ongoing sin.Protect the Flock
The call to pastors and elders is clear: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The church was bought at a great price. Therefore, when any sin—especially the grievous sin of sexual abuse—is committed, we must take it seriously. God will hold leaders accountable for the souls entrusted to their care (Heb. 13:17).
The newness of a church plant is no excuse to leave God’s sheep unprotected from those who would do them harm. Church planter, pastoral ministry requires the courage to confront sin and protect God’s people. We must take this responsibility seriously, especially in the most severe cases. The glory of God’s name and the good of Christ’s bride are too important to do anything else.
I returned to the church at age 25, with a buried abortion story and a 2-year-old in tow. In my mind, God was like many of the men I’d encountered in my short years—power-hungry and eager to take what didn’t belong to him, while giving no thought to the mess left behind.
I confessed these thoughts to the small group I’d begun to attend, and the men and women around me responded with compassion and understanding. The Lord awakened my heart to faith through the preaching of the gospel at that church, and in this tear-filled moment and the many that followed, the healing process began.Unrelenting Headlines
Sexual assault and abuse have filled news headlines over the past few years. While the #MeToo movement gains traction with more and more women sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault, many of the 1 in 6 women who have been victims of an attempted or completed rape remain in hiding, in large part due to the grievous ways their accusations are received.
In recent weeks, abortion has taken center stage with the Reproductive Health Act passing in New York, the same month as the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. One in 4 women will have an abortion by age 45, and memories can haunt us as people debate the issue on their news feeds.
Women affected by these issues are sitting in your church. We limp into the pew having been assaulted by headlines and social-media commentary—words and pictures that trigger memories, shame, fear, and disgust. Despite the healing power of the gospel, the effects of our traumatic experiences linger. Our consciences accuse us day and night, and we are spiritually weary. We doubt our belovedness; we wonder if we really belong to Jesus; we wonder if the gospel is sufficient to heal our bleeding wounds.
I’ve been blessed over the years to sit under the loving care of wise and compassionate pastors and elders. I’ve witnessed great humility in these men as they’ve listened to my story and grown in wisdom and understanding in their pastoral care for women. It hasn’t always been perfect, and we have hurt and misunderstood each other.
But they did a few things that ministered to me and other women in our church.1. They Discerned the Power of Their Words
Trauma leaves marks on the brain and body, and words and phrases can trigger a physical response the listener is unprepared for. They activate the brain’s stress circuits, throwing a person into a state of panic, unable to hear the words that follow.
Consider the effect of the word whore on a woman who has received that word as abuse, or how the Bible’s stark description of sexual violence affects women who are victims of sexual assault. Consider the shame that post-abortive women can feel as abortion is lamented from the pulpit.
The Bible is filled with words that elicit responses from a congregation. My pastors didn’t water down the offense of the gospel, nor did they ignore the unsavory parts of passages. But as they learned more about the women in our congregation, they gave more thoughtful care to the ways their words would affect them.
One Sunday several years ago, an elder at my church spoke out against abortion. He told the truth about its evil and lamented the ways we are complicit. He called the church to pray. But then he spoke a tender word of compassion and hope to post-abortive women. He proclaimed the gospel, carefully applying it to the hearts of those who desperately needed to hear it in that moment. And, after the service, he reached out to ask how I was doing, inviting feedback about how he could grow in being a compassionate preacher.
In his book Preaching the Whole Counsel of God, Julius Kim calls men to be sympathetic preachers:
Reveal your care and kindness throughout the sermon. It may be obvious, but being a sympathetic preacher is important . . . . You are a shepherd first, preacher second. . . . Good preaching involves revealing compassion, warmth, tenderness, and understanding in both your words and your deeds. (159)
Pastors who have taken this counsel to heart won’t always be able to guard against trauma-induced responses. But as they discern the power of their words, they will build deepened trust with their congregation. In my case, the words of these men became one of the instruments the Lord used to continue my healing (Ps. 107:20).2. They Distinguished between Victims and Perpetrators
Everyone in the congregation needs to hear a call to repentance and receive the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. But abuse and assault victims often believe the lie that they were the ones at fault.
It’s powerful and necessary for these victims to hear a word from outside of themselves. Their victimhood doesn’t render them sinless, but, in addition to an assurance of pardon for their own sins, they need an assurance of justice for the sin committed against them (1 Thess. 4:6; Rom. 13:4).
A wise pastor understands the complexity of trauma and its victims. I’ve been privileged to be part of churches who have a pastor designated to focus on the counseling needs of the church. These men seek to grow in their understanding of the issues facing both men and women (through resources like this book and this one, for example).3. They Demonstrated Genuine Concern
As my church and I fumbled through these difficult issues, it went a long way that my pastors demonstrated genuine concern. They didn’t always understand my struggles, or see the ways their words affected me. Sometimes I was overly sensitive, and often I communicated poorly. But my pastors stood humbly with me before the cross.
Their care came from the pulpit, and it also extended from there. They saw the women in our church as sisters, and we were welcomed into their families. They communicated a desire to understand and care, even when they weren’t sure of the right words to use. They sought the counsel of wise women in our congregation to help them see blind spots and receive assistance in caring for women in need. They prayed for the women in our congregation and considered their needs as they crafted sermons.
The Great Shepherd has compassion for his people (Matt. 9:36), and he has appointed undershepherds to carry out that compassion. The Lord has used the careful words of his undershepherds to warm my heart to the gospel and bring about continued healing. In this day of unrelenting headlines and social-media commentary, the need is acute. But when these things are done well, women with trauma can feel loved by their pastors and, ultimately, by Christ himself.
“This is the air all of us breathe. This is the vision of selfhood present in the world around us, and if you buy into this vision of selfhood, here’s how you will hear the seventh commandment: God’s asking me to be inauthentic. God’s asking me to deny my true self.” — Bob Thune
Text: Exodus 20:14
Preached: March 4, 2018
Location: Coram Deo Church, Omaha, Nebraska
More than a year ago, I left a financial-planning firm after working as a creative director and wealth coach. I only worked there for a year, but I learned more in one year about financial stewardship than I’d learned in my first 29 years of life.
I quickly learned that money problems expose marriage problems. When couples came into the firm for money counseling, we told them about the correlation between money counseling and marriage counseling—you can’t offer a married couple the former without providing the latter.
This truth is at the center of Art Rainer’s new book, The Marriage Challenge: A Finance Guide for Married Couples. “Financial conflicts in marriage are usually symptoms of something more significant,” Rainer explains, “something more foundational.” The Marriage Challenge helps couples identify those foundational conflicts and work through them successfully. Rainer, vice president for institutional advancement at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is undoubtedly qualified to write on the topic. He holds a doctorate in business administration from Nova Southeastern University, an MBA from the University of Kentucky, and is married with three children.Comprehensive Guide
The Marriage Challenge contains 16 chapters divided into three sections. The first offers a theological and philosophical foundation for marriage and money. Rainer explains that “a financially healthy couple doesn’t start with a checking account. It starts with unity.” Even a couple who earns a bunch of money and wisely budgets for years will continue to fight about money if their priorities aren’t aligned.
The second section is centered around Rainer’s practical plan to guide couples to a financially healthy and generous life. If you’re familiar with Dave Ramsey’s seven baby steps, Rainer’s eight money milestones will be familiar, but with notable distinctions.
In the final section, Rainer calls couples to destroy four marriage dividers at the root of most money problem—poor communication, selfishness, distrust, and unrealistic expectations.Narrative Structure
The Marriage Challenge is structured around the story of Chris and Claire, a young married couple who discover on the first day of their honeymoon a dark secret related to the other’s money. Fortunately, at their resort they meet Terry and Mary, an older successful couple who agree to spend time with and give advice to the couple during their stay. By the end of the book, Terry and Mary’s guidance proves invaluable to the young couple.
The story of Chris and Claire is both the greatest strength and weakness of the book. Rainer tells the story with many cliffhangers, which keep the narrative engaging, but they make it challenging to remember and appreciate Rainer’s reflections and practical advice that often follow. Moreover, when I finally reached the end, a story that was once relatable became unbelievable. Nevertheless, the story served its purpose, and while it was distracting at times, this is a minor critique of an overall beneficial and helpful book.Ramsey vs. Rainer
My first exposure to personal finance content was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. While I’m deeply grateful for Ramsey’s advice, as soon as I was introduced to The Marriage Challenge, I knew I had a new recommendation for married couples.
What sets the book apart from Ramsey is its accessibility, focus, and emphasis. It’s accessible to almost any audience because it doesn’t have the self-help tone that turns many off to Ramsey. It’s specifically focused on the context of marriage, equally calling both husband and wife to action, rather than motivating one while leaving the other behind to play catch up. Finally, it emphasizes God-centered generosity from beginning to end. Ramsey doesn’t get enough credit from his critics for his emphasis on generosity, but Rainer makes it clear why we’re generous. As he reminds us, “God designed us not to be hoarders but conduits through which his generosity flows.”
If you’re married and looking for a book on money, The Marriage Challenge will provide the biblical principles and practical wisdom necessary to put your family on the path to financial health. It’s now my go-to recommendation for married couples.
The priority of evangelism is incontrovertible according to the Bible. And yet, most Christians probably feel they don’t do enough of it.
Perhaps one reason is that we tend to think of evangelism as an individualistic endeavor. Yes, we must share the gospel as individuals. But exclusively lone-ranger evangelism is far from the biblical ideal.
While some people prioritize individual proclamation, others emphasize the importance of community in evangelism. Both are good ways of thinking. But we see the most evangelistic fruit when we merge the two together in the local church.Revolutionary Equation
Anyone who has listened to or read Ray Ortlund probably, like me, has a barrel load of admiration for him. He’s said many things that have helped all of us—especially young church planters like myself. But nothing has stuck with me like the equation he wrote near the start of his little book The Gospel.
- Gospel doctrine – gospel culture = hypocrisy
- Gospel culture – gospel doctrine = fragility
- Gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power
I’ve found that equation immensely helpful as I’ve led our young church plant. If we proclaim the gospel but fail to live it out, we’ll become hypocritical: people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Conversely, if we live out the gospel but don’t proclaim its truth, we’ll become fragile: people who jump from the latest fad to the next. But if we both speak and embody the gospel, we’ll be a church through whom others can both hear and experience the good news of God’s grace in Jesus. And when that happens, it’s powerful.Gospel Doctrine
Therefore, when thinking about how we do evangelism, we must begin with doctrine. Our church plant is part of Acts 29, which means we’re convinced God’s people are at the heart of God’s mission. In other words, the church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
The church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
Even the briefest biblical-theological overview shows this centrality. In Eden, God planted Adam and Eve to bear his image in creation (Gen. 1:27). In the Old Testament, he chose Israel to be his light to the nations (Isa. 49:6). In the New Testament, he purposed the church to proclaim his excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9). And in the new creation, his purified bride will display the radiance of his glory (Rev. 21:9–11).
From Genesis to Revelation, then, the Scriptures teach us that God makes himself known in his world through his people—plural.Gospel Culture
We plant churches to that end. But as we do, we must guard against the rampant individualism of our day. If we’re not careful, our church plants will perpetuate the same kind of sinful self-centeredness we see all around us. And this can seep into our evangelism.
If it really is through our life together that God makes himself known, then we can’t settle for lone-ranger evangelism. Again, I’m well aware of the need for individuals to share the gospel in their everyday spheres of life. I’m emphatically not arguing against that need. But if we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate, not overwhelmingly individualistic.
If we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate.
And church plants can make that ambition a reality. Every church should begin with a specific evangelistic focus—to make Jesus known within a specific geographical area or, if overseas, among a specific people group.
As we plant churches, we’re not merely gathering a crowd to attend weekly services, nor are we gathering servants to run weekly programs. We’re gathering Christ’s ambassadors, who through their shared lives will represent their Savior to their neighbors and the nations.
So we share our dinner tables together. We wait at the school gates together. We serve our community together. We become regulars at the local coffee shop together. We have BBQs together. We watch sports together. We exercise together. We live our lives together so that our unbelieving friends might not just meet one Christian, but might meet the church.
In a gospel culture, church planting won’t allow for rampant individualism, especially not in the realm of evangelism. We’re not a bunch of individuals trying to talk about Jesus in isolation. Rather, we’re a chosen people through whom God intends to display his glory (1 Pet. 2:9–10). This truth transforms evangelism from whom I want to reach to whom we want to reach.Real Power
And when we live like that, it’s powerful. Our church recently saw an example of this power. About 18 months ago, one family in our church introduced a man to our church community. He’d never been to church in his life, but on the final Sunday of 2018, he professed faith in Christ.
When I asked him more about it, he said: “Through the church I’ve heard the gospel and it makes sense to me. But what convinces me it’s true is the community you share.” Through the doctrine of our church he heard the gospel message; through the culture of our church he saw the gospel’s truth; and through his salvation we experienced the gospel’s power.
Or, in Ray’s words: gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power.
“She’s fun to talk to—always so relatable.”
“I really like her Insta account. It’s so funny and relatable.”
“She’s my favorite teacher—her stories are so relatable!”
If you want to give high praise to another woman, call her “relatable.” The idea behind being relatable is exactly what you’d expect: establishing a point of connection with the person you’re talking to. It means identifying with them in some human struggle or circumstance. It means not being up on a pedestal while everyone else is down below. It means being normal (or abnormal) and not pretending otherwise.
In a digital world where filters reign and manicured feeds rule, relatability is often an antidote. It’s a way of pulling back the curtain on all those perfect images and saying the obvious: laundry exists, we have bad days, work is work, we’re often the punchline to a joke we weren’t intending to tell, and we’re all in it together.
At its best, relatability is a transparent humility that aims to serve others by providing a starting point for relationship. At its worst, it’s a longing for others to relate to our sin in a way that minimizes it. It’s a species of manipulation.Dangerous Side of Relatability
“Oh, you yell at your kids, too? What a relief. Let’s have a laugh. So relatable.”
“Oh, you’re pouring a glass of wine and telling everyone they’re on their own for supper? Me too. I’m so sick of this everyone-needs-to-eat routine. Hahahaha. So relatable.”
“Oh, you’re binge-watching Netflix for the fourth night in a row because you just. can’t. even? Me too. So relatable.”
At its best, relatability is a transparent humility that aims to serve others by providing a starting point for relationship. At its worst, it’s a longing for others to relate to our sin in a way that minimizes it. It’s a species of manipulation.
But this way of relating doesn’t pull back the curtain quite far enough for any of us to actually experience each other’s sin or to have to walk with each other in repentance and reconciliation.
The sharing of “bad moments” is also curated and carefully chosen. It often maximizes humor and minimizes consequences. The point of sharing self-deprecating stories is to get people to like us more, not less.
That’s the power of being relatable—we love to relate to people (from a distance) who mess up like we do and who sin in the same ways we do. But we hate to be in actual relationship with people when they sin against us or we against them.
It’s not nearly as funny in real life.Relating to Each Other in Christ
Christian women relate to one another in a different way—as set-apart women who hope in God. We will have common temptations and trials that we ought to confess and share––and our transparency can help others––but only if it leads us to our Savior together. Rather than sharing a hearty laugh over how altogether common and predictable our sin is, we join together in the uncommon holiness we’ve been given because of God’s Son who saved us from those sins (Gal. 1:4; Titus 2:11–14). Ultimately we relate to one another because we’re actually related in the family of God—by faith in his Son.
Our deepest loyalty isn’t to the shallow sisterhood of relatability or our common sin, but to our Father, who freed us from sin and made us blood-bought sisters in Christ. And yes, holy women also laugh, but not at deadly sin. We laugh at what’s to come, we laugh at what has come, we laugh at ourselves, and we laugh with a clean conscience.
When I reflect on the women and men who’ve had the most acute and lasting influence on my life, it isn’t their disarming humor and relatable stories that most influenced me.
Paul had an interesting way of relating to the church. He was quick to be transparent about his past, calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But he was also unafraid to call people away from themselves to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Many of us tend to think of humility as the thing that draws attention to our shortcomings. But Paul shows us something different. Humility is forsaking our sinful ways and following Jesus’s holy ways. It’s being honest about our inability to save ourselves. And it’s magnifying the real and powerful work of God in our lives so that we too could say to a younger believer, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
When I reflect on the women and men who’ve had the most acute and lasting influence on my life, it isn’t their disarming humor and relatable stories that most influenced me. In many cases, I couldn’t relate to their experiences at all. I can’t relate to Betsy ten Boom’s contentment in a concentration camp, or Elisabeth Elliot’s weathering the loss of a murdered husband while ministering to the ones who murdered him, or even John Piper’s forsaking a television. I can barely relate to my own mom’s endless service of babysitting at the drop of hat or my dear friend’s unwillingness to go near anything that has even the faintest whiff of gossip. And that lack of “typicality”—the fact that I can’t immediately relate—is precisely what calls me away from the longing to be normal or relatable or typical and into greater desire for holiness and greater desire for the God who empowers such atypical living.
In their set-apartness, they beckon me to Christ, the ultimate sympathetic high priest, who relates to us in the most powerful way of all. He became one of us to show us the way out of our common, relatable sin and into his uncommon, joyful holiness. Sisters, let’s follow him.
One of the most challenging responsibilities is reporting the misconduct of a minister. Ministers are to possess the highest moral character (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9) and are to set believers an example (1 Tim. 4:12). Ministers are God’s appointed means of declaring his Word to his church and world, and are thus to be trustworthy (1 Cor. 7:25), having good reputations with all (1 Tim. 3:7).
Consequently, whenever a minister is found guilty of moral failure, the damage can be catastrophic. Depending on its nature and extent of awareness, not only can the reputation of the minister be irreparably harmed, but the reputation of his church—as well as its purity and peace—can also be seriously damaged. Reporting ministerial misconduct to church leaders can be difficult and intimidating; yet, for the church’s health, the minister’s reclamation, and God’s glory, it must be done.
The questions are many: What sins need to be reported? When is it to be done? How is it to be done? Certainly, not every sin a minister commits is to be reported to church leaders. After all, Solomon teaches it’s the glory of the believer to overlook a transgression (Prov. 19:11). And similarly, Paul tells us to “bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, to forgive each other, just as God has forgiven you” (Col. 3:13).What Kinds of Sins Should Be Reported?
There are three categories of moral failure that should be reported.1. Persistent Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing the same sin over and over again after being spoken to about it in private—which must first take place if the sin is known only to a few (Matt. 18:15)—it must be reported. This is because ministers are to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), and to be above reproach means to be marked by guiltlessness.
This is not to say, of course, that ministers are to be innocent of all sin, but that they must not be characterized by any sin. Ministers are to be marked by godliness, and godliness includes repentance, and repentance involves not just confessing sin but also turning from it (Prov. 28:13). Some common examples of persistent sin are lying, quarreling, and the use of pornography.2. Public Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any sin known to more than a few people, it must be reported. This is not only because ministers are to be above reproach, but also because church leadership must strive for the purity and peace of the church, and the public sin of a minister has the potential of seriously harming that purity and peace.
Church leadership needs to be alerted to sins such as these so that it can ensure that proper confession takes place, which always involves confessing sin as widely as the sin is known. Some common examples of public sin are gossip, slander, and outbursts of sinful anger.3. Scandalous Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any particularly heinous sin—something that, if discovered, would disgrace the name of Christ and damage the witness of both minister and church—it must be reported. This would include sins such as drunkenness, adultery, stealing, and sexual abuse.
Some of these sins, of course, will need to be reported not only to church leadership but also to civil authorities. If a minister ever violates a lawful command of the state, and the violation is something the state identifies as a crime, both the church and the state should be notified.How to Report?
But how are these sins to be reported? What steps need to be followed if a minister commits persistent, public, and/or scandalous sin?
First, be able to prove the sin from Scripture. Show you are dealing with actual offenses, deeds that can be shown to violate God’s law. If it can’t be proven to be sin, it mustn’t be reported; and if reported, it mustn’t be admitted as a matter of accusation (Matt. 18:15;1 Tim. 5:19). A wonderful help for determining if something is sinful is Westminster Larger Catechism questions 102 to 148, which lay out in great detail the duties required and sins forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
Second, obtain at least one other witness. Paul warns Timothy, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This doesn’t necessarily mean eyewitnesses of the sin, but anyone who is able to credibly testify that the sin has been committed. Those to whom the report is made must be able to determine if the report is true. If there is only one witness, and the minister denies the accusation, that determination can be challenging if not impossible. However, in such a case where there is only one witness, it should still be reported so that the leadership can investigate.
Third, report the sin to some other leader in the church and follow up. Depending on the church’s government structure, this will vary. But here’s the principle: Sin committed by a minister mustn’t be reported to any layperson (so as to avoid gossip) but only to someone who has authority to deal with it. In my case, as a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), this means the sin should be reported to another minister of the presbytery (PCA, Book of Church Order, 34–3). In other churches, the report may need to be made to an elder or to another staff member. Then, follow-up should take place, so that those aware of the sin can know it’s being dealt with properly.
If, in the unfortunate case it isn’t dealt with properly, then the one(s) who made the accusation can (in Presbyterian circles) either file an appeal or a complaint to the next higher court (PCA, Book of Church Order, Chapters 42 and 43), which in this case would be the General Assembly. In free churches, the only recourse may be (depending on the situation) leaving the church and reporting the matter to another leader or group of leaders in another evangelical church who would then try to convince leaders of the accused church to the deal with the issue properly.Tough, Essential Duty
As challenging as it may be, reporting serious ministerial misconduct is essential. Not only is it vital for the health of the church and the health of the minister, but it’s also vital for the public honor of Jesus Christ.
Ministers are our brothers, and we are our brother’s keeper. May we love our ministers enough to keep them accountable as Scripture demands.
What just happened?
On Sunday the Houston Chronicle published the first in a three-part series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in the U.S.
According to the investigation, at least 35 people who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at other churches. In some cases, church leaders failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct, and some registered sex offenders were even allowed to return to the pulpit.
What was the scope of the abuse?
Regional area: The report is based on data collected throughout the U.S., though convictions for abuse were limited to 29 states.
Time frame: The investigative reporting looked at instances of abuse from 1997 to 2018.
Alleged perpetrators: Credible accusation were made against 380 people associated with Southern Baptist churches (i.e., pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and volunteers).
Convicted abusers: Of the 380, more than 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders. (The Chronicle has created a searchable database of those who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes.)
Number of victims: Approximately 700 victims.
What abuses were uncovered in the investigation?
According to the Chronicle, many of the victims were “adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.” The newspaper notes that a few of the victims were male and female adults who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.
How was the information on sexual abuse collected?
Reporters from the newspaper searched news archives, websites, and databases from 1997 to 2018 to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors, church officials, and volunteers.
The search concentrated on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC) directory published by a state or national association. Details were verified by examining federal and state court databases, prison records, official documents from more than 20 states, and by searching sex offender registries nationwide.
What is the Southern Baptist Convention?
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a network of autonomous churches voluntarily banded together at state, regional, and national levels to engage in missions and ministry activities designed to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Each church in the SBC is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers that makes their own decisions on staffing, budget, programs, etc.
The SBC consists of approximately 15 million members in 47,000 cooperating churches, making it the largest Protestant denomination in America.
What makes a church “Southern Baptist”?
According to the SBC Constitution, a cooperating Southern Baptist church is an autonomous Baptist congregation that (1) missionally and formally identifies itself as part of the Southern Baptist fellowship of churches; (2) cooperatively affirms its willing cooperation with the Convention’s purpose, processes, missions, and ministries; (3) doctrinally embraces the biblical faith and practice by which Southern Baptists have historically identified themselves; and (4) doctrinally provides regular financial support for the Convention’s work as part of the church’s adopted budget.
The SBC refers to such churches as “cooperating Southern Baptist churches.”
Does the SBC have authority over Southern Baptist churches?
No. Per the SBC Constitution, the SBC “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”
The most the SBC can do is to disassociate from abusive churches and consider them out of fellowship.
However, the SBC recently created a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group assigned with investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses. In addition, the group will hear from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others to determine how to address issues of sexual abuse. (See also: Southern Baptists Work to Address Sexual Abuse)
How have SBC leaders reacted to the report?
On Sunday, SBC President J.D. Greear responded on Twitter. “The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil,” said Greear. In a series of tweets, he added:
There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists.
As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to ‘do better’ and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem…. It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).
“We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.”
The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse.
Greear also posted an article on how victims of sexual abuse can get help.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, responded,
We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or elsewhere, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. The church often thinks the same way. Nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’ reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden. [Emphasis in original]
Michael and Melissa Kruger’s oldest daughter will leave home for college in the fall. That kind of milestone makes a parent stop and reflect on what they’ve learned in 18 years of parenting. Melissa notes, “One of the important things for me in motherhood is to learn to be a mom who is prayerful, and a mom who’s in the Word each day. I have realized that that example for my kids will probably affect and encourage them more than having the perfect meals or the perfectly decorated home or all these other things that we can spend our time on so much as parents.”
The Krugers have three children. Michael serves as president of RTS Charlotte and Melissa holds the dual roles of women’s ministry coordinator at Uptown Church and director of women’s content for The Gospel Coalition.
Running a nonprofit ministry geared toward moms of young children means our inbox continually fills with questions about parenting and marriage. One of the most frequent is, “How do you do date night?”
As married moms of littles, we understand firsthand where this is coming from. Like our podcast listeners, we look for reasons to hire a babysitter and spend one-on-one time with our spouses. Out-of-the-house date night without children in tow feels like the secret ingredient to a healthy marriage. Marriage “experts” gush over its ability to reboot romance in any relationship, and we all eagerly agree, welcoming any change from the daily juggle of work, household chores, and family routines.
But sometimes date night—complete with the babysitter and nice dinner—just feels impossible, and our unbroken evening routine leaves us wondering: Must two tired parents go on regular date nights away from the pressures of home life to maintain the joy and intimacy of marriage? Is that the Christian ideal?
When considering date night’s role in marriage, here are four things to keep in mind.1. It’s a Fun Treat
When we can go to dinner, a movie, a show, or even a hotel without children, the world seems to slow down and blur soft around the edges. We laugh while we scoop queso onto chips and chat about the lighter side of life. With the responsibilities of rowdy children, messy kitchens, full calendars, and financial strains out of sight, we reach for each other’s hands. We might sit a little closer and connect a little deeper.
Spending time away provides a great opportunity to foster intimacy in marriage. If you’re able to make space on the calendar, by all means, do it! It’s a nice treat. After all, your marriage likely won’t suffer from too much intentional connection.
But while God can use date night as a way to treat us to the joys of marriage, he has many methods of strengthening relational intimacy and helping us thrive in marriage. Date night is just one tool in our toolkit for togetherness.2. It’s a Modern, Western, First-World Phenomenon
In our modern, Western, first-world culture, our margin for romantic love is a blessing. Many of us have the freedom to select a spouse who matches our preferences and makes us feel weak in the knees—particularly in those first few months of dating. This is a joy and a privilege. As those ideas carry into marriage, we tend to continue emphasizing the importance of romantic feelings. But are cultivating these feelings through date nights essential in God-honoring marriages?
For many married people throughout history (and even today) this type of togetherness has been unimaginable. When both spouses shouldered never-ceasing farm labor, were married and in slavery, or were bound in systems of arranged marriage, the prospect of going out on a modern away-from-home date night almost seems laughable. God still makes ways for the marriage union to flourish and display his glory to the watching world as spouses faithfully love one another and serve for the sake of the kingdom.
God’s design for marriage applies to every era, culture, and life circumstance. His truths—the ones that command us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34), to remain steadfast (1 Cor. 15:58), to spur one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and to remain faithful to each other unto death (Rev. 2:10) are relevant to every marriage and are things we don’t need a date night to pursue.3. It’s Not Always Possible (Even in Our Modern Lives)
When we assume regular date nights are the litmus test for good marriages, we cause people with fewer resources to question the soundness of their marriage. Sometimes a couple would love to spend more time together without the kids, but for a variety of reasons, that’s not a realistic option.
Maybe one spouse is deployed, works long hours, or travels. Maybe the couple doesn’t have much financial margin for a babysitter or is still trying to build a childcare network in a new community. Maybe a couple has a child with special needs, and finding a caregiver requires locating someone with special training and credentials.
When we falsely believe a date night out is the only way to grow in marriage, enjoy one another, foster intimacy, and maintain a healthy commitment, we’re bound to continually feel defeated and disappointed. God is gracious to provide many ways for couples to connect and grow deeper in their love for one another beyond a night out. In fact, date-night dry seasons might be the times we best reveal the beauty of our covenant, as we steadfastly love and serve each other in difficult times.4. God Can Bless Your Marriage in Many Other Ways
A healthy marriage isn’t created by checking the weekly “date night” box so we can say we’ve pursued each other. It’s about pursuing Christ first and reflecting his love to each another. Jesus doesn’t have to “date” his bride just on special occasions, because he’s always for her—in the mundane and the spectacular. The church doesn’t have wait for an extravagant event or spiritual revival to express love for Christ, because she should always serve and follow him in love.
With a holistic view of married love and an understanding of the way our union fits into the ultimate redemption story, spouses can labor together for the gospel—when we get a date night, and when we don’t.
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:13)
Peter begins his exhortations with an important word: “Therefore.” In light of your beautiful inheritance in Christ, what ought you to do? Set your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. A full revelation of Christ is coming, on the day of his return. Place your hope in that day, because this day may be filled with trial and sorrow. But how are you to do so? Peter specifies two ways: preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded.Prepare Your Minds
The phrase “preparing your minds for action” can be translated literally as “girding up the loins of your mind.” It’s a reference to the practice of preparing for battle. The ancients wore long robes, which would have hampered their ability to fight. Before going into battle, they bound them up around their waists to allow for freedom of motion. Entering into combat while wearing clothing that restricted their movements would have been completely foolish. Peter indicates to his hearers that having a rightly placed hope requires more than good intentions. They must be ready to fight. The battle for holiness requires that they prepare themselves as a soldier prepares for war, letting nothing encumber their ability to fight.
Note also where this battle for holiness begins. It’s the believer’s mind that must be readied for war. When we strive to live lives of holiness, we often begin by attempting to curtail sinful behaviors: I should swear less. I should stop spending impulsively.
But Peter points us to the source of our sin: our thoughts. Every sinful action we engage in is the result of a sinful thought that fed a sinful desire. If we want to set our hope fully on grace, we must deal with our sin at the source.
Temptation presents itself to the mind as a reasonable choice. We allow our thoughts to dwell on its reasonableness, fueling our desires. And as James tells us, “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). For this reason, Paul admonishes us to seek transformation not through the renewing of our actions or our desires, but through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
We see the progression from thought to desire to action all the time in our daily lives. I used to love milkshakes from my favorite fast-food restaurant. But one day, as I pulled up to the drive-thru menu, I noticed what would be the beginning of the end of my love affair with them. The FDA had mandated that the nutritional content be noted next to every item on the menu. It turns out that my milkshake was killing me. Once my mind knew what was in it, my desire to have one began to diminish, and my menu choices began to change. So it is with sin.
Understanding a sin’s consequences helps break our desire to give in to it, resulting in a turning away from what once tempted us. Once we know sin is a killer, it doesn’t look as sweet. Right thinking informs right desires, which lead to right actions. But thinking rightly will be a battle. We must be prepared to fight.Be Sober-Minded
Peter also notes that setting our hope fully on Christ requires a second type of mental preparedness: sober-mindedness. The opposite of soberness is drunkenness. Think about what a drunk person is like. His perception is skewed so he can’t think clearly, nor can he govern his desires or actions. He is a danger to himself and others, unpredictable and unreliable, unable to be swayed by wise counsel. By contrast, Peter urges his hearers to be self-controlled and single-minded as they live out their salvation.
If we are to set our hope fully on Christ, we must be fully attuned to the things of Christ with great seriousness.
It’s interesting that Peter includes the word “fully” at all. Why not just tell us to set our hope on the grace that will be brought to us? Why “set our hope fully on grace?” Because it’s possible, and indeed common, for the believer to function as one with a hope placed partially on grace and partially elsewhere. We’re prone to placing our hope on our own good deeds, or on a spouse or our children, or on a pastor or president. We may place it on a bank account or a career, or even on the size of our social media accounts. We tell ourselves that we hope in Christ, but what we mean is that we hope in Christ and __________.
We’re people of divided allegiances, divided hopes. We hedge our bets. We’re the double-minded man of James 1:6–8, tossed about by waves of doubt. We’re those Jesus warned about, storing up treasures both on earth and in heaven. Peter calls us instead to hope fully on grace, ready to battle doubt and temptation, soberly weighing the cost of divided loyalties. Those who place their hope fully on grace forgo the vain pleasures of this world and look to Christ. They treasure a future inheritance rather than seeking one in the present. Peter’s original audience was facing the loss of social, financial, and familial stability as a result of their conversion. Their current situation left little room for hope by human standards. To them, Peter’s call to a full hope in a future security would have been a mercy.
It is for modern ears, as well. We also face uncertainty and loss in this life. But we don’t place our hope in this life. Rather, we place it fully on the future grace that awaits us.
Seven years ago, my wife was five months pregnant. We were headed for an ultrasound to see the baby and have the doctors make sure everything was progressing nicely. We’d done ultrasounds three times with other children and were feeling excited. All of our children were born healthy, and we figured the ultrasound wouldn’t take long.
As we met with the doctor and ultrasound technician, they referred to what they saw as “your child.” They must have said it 50 times, saying things like “your child’s hand,” “your child’s heart.”
Then something changed.
Another doctor was brought into the room and for five minutes he stared at the baby’s heart. The room was completely silent. I could tell my wife was becoming upset, but I was oblivious and thought she was overreacting. Was I ever wrong. The doctor began to tell us there was a tumor on our child’s heart and started to run down all the scenarios we now faced.
Then the doctor said: “If the fetus is abnormal and that is a management problem for you, you have options.”No Longer a Child?
The slight change in wording tells the story. I was in too much shock to respond, but later it dawned on me what he’d done. The baby my wife was carrying was only a child if we wanted to keep it. There were more than 4,000 abortions in the U.S. the day we were given the option to add one more. We had the right to determine whether this child would be allowed to live. If we didn’t want the baby, it was only a fetus.
The baby my wife was carrying was only a child if we wanted to keep it.
Deep down, there’s a selfish side in all of us. We tell ourselves we would never do _________ in any situation. Then you find yourself in that situation and your mind wanders. You think selfish thoughts. Kids limit us, after all. A child with special needs would’ve drastically changed our lives. WebMD didn’t give us much hope that our child was healthy.
In that moment I understood, in a new way, that parenting is a joyful surrender of your time. I’ve met many wonderful families who have children with special needs, but I wondered if I would be up for the task. Would I, despite my theology, be willing to kill my child? Would I reason that it wouldn’t be a good life for my child, or that my other children would be so negatively affected that the decision was really about “management”?Lessons Learned
Three weeks later we returned for another ultrasound. The growth on the heart was not a tumor but a normal variant. In the doctor’s eyes, our fetus was a child again. In our eyes, nothing had changed. I was never given the chance to truly choose life in a hard situation; but then again, it was never my choice to begin with.
In the doctor’s eyes, our fetus was a child again. In our eyes, nothing had changed.
My son is now approaching 7, and I’ve pondered this event many times. I’m still in shock over what happened that day—not the shock of surprise, but the shock of sadness and disgust. As my wife and I have considered that conversation over the years, we’ve felt a large pull to help the Right to Life movement.
Here are a few things busy people can do to fight for the life of unborn children.Pray
Pray for moms who are considering an abortion, families who want to adopt children, and doctors who make a living aborting them.Engage
Take part in a Right to Life march. Engage your pro-choice friends in sane and calm arguments. Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture might help in this regard. The best argument is a simple one: Gently ask the people you’re debating what they think the mother is carrying. How they answer that question will guide your conversation. You never know how winning one person over to the pro-life side may impact the life of a child.Be Generous
Consider giving money to a pregnancy center for an ultrasound machine, or to a couple to help pay their adoption costs.
Debunk the myth that Christians stop caring for babies once they’re born.
Continue to debunk the myth that Christians stop caring for babies once they’re born. You might be surprised how many people believe it.Consider Foster Care or Adoption
I have friends who adopted the child of a young teenager who, despite her parents’ wishes, carried the baby to term. Our family has had the joy of fostering multiple children, bringing them home a few days after birth. We’ve loved them deeply even as we’ve sought to debunk the myth that Christians don’t care for children after they are born. We’ve been given many opportunities to talk about Jesus in a natural way as these children have entered our home.
Churches that purposefully engage in this create a culture that celebrates and encourages families to adopt or foster.Love Your Own Kids Well
They are sweet little image bearers in need of a great and merciful Savior. I don’t want to be known as an advocate for unborn children but not an advocate and provider for my own.Do More
Is there more that could be done? Yes! As we mourn Roe v. Wade and what happened recently in New York, let us engage in a variety of ways to care for the unborn, address the reasons people consider abortions, train apologists to defend the unborn, create compelling videos and print material, advocate for children who need to be protected, open our homes to orphans, vote for legislators who will outlaw murder, and more.
We cannot do too much for this cause.