Phillip E. Johnson died peacefully in his sleep on Friday, November 1, at the age of 79 at his home in Berkeley. Phil will probably be remembered publicly as the author of Darwin on Trial (1991), or as the godfather of the Intelligent Design movement. That’s fair, but behind those accomplishments was a remarkable life, and at the center of that life was a remarkable conversion.
Phil became a Christian at age 38, and took the truth claims of the Christian religion seriously in a way that perhaps only an adult convert can. By that age, Phil had already been a law professor for more than a decade at the University of California, Berkeley. His path to the professorate was properly credentialed, from a Harvard A.B. to a University of Chicago J.D. He clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court, and wrote a widely used criminal law casebook for classroom use. As he told me once, he succeeded at everything he tried. In his early years he simply never met an intellectual challenge that could slow him down. Phil had a great brain, after all. By natural gifting he had those two traits that somebody has identified as the secret of Winston Churchill’s success: genius and plod. Phil could get a flash of insight, and he could dig in to do the work of following up on it. The combination is unstoppable.
But in his 30s, things fell apart. His marriage dissolved, and though his academic career was well established, it came to seem like nothing worth having. “I think my motives for going into it, for everything I did, were rather shallow. I was basically an academic careerist seeking tenure, writing law review articles and a casebook. I had the career, but I was bored with it.”
By natural gifting Phillip E. Johnson had those two traits that somebody has identified as the secret of Winston Churchill’s success: genius and plod.
In a 2002 interview, Phil described the strange crisis of his own success:
This, I think, is true of many people; what leads you to a conversion is the loss of your faith in something else. My faith had been, “If you’re a bright person with the right credentials, you’ll have a happy and meaningful life.” I expected that I would go from one distinguished position to the next, advance my career, be happy and satisfied, and that’s what life would be about. It seemed to me that wasn’t happening, and I was just going to be a law teacher for the rest of my life. It wasn’t very meaningful or as good as I thought it would be. So I lost faith during that pragmatic period. Instead, I thought, “What makes me think that what I have is better than the Christian life?”
He did a modern, academic, and intellectual version of 1 Thessalonians 1:9: he “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Phil became a Christian, joined the Presbyterian Church, met and married Kathie, and began for the first time in his life to look for something inherently meaningful to do with his great brain. He was finished with careerism and game playing.Christian Thinker
Gradually he began to find his project. “One of the good things about the Christian life,” he said, “was that it opened up a whole world of intellectual input that previously had been closed to me. I began to understand what was actually wrong with the academic culture, and to put a name on my uneasiness.” He had always been a good legal thinker, but the Juris Doctor is neither a research degree nor a course of study especially designed to nurture the philosophical mind.
Now, with Christianity as a reference point, he saw that it was worthwhile to dig down deeper into the actual philosophy of law. He immersed himself in the Critical Legal Studies movement, which was a kind of postmodern theoretical project in the discourse of jurisprudence. Phil appreciated the critical edge of this movement, and recognized that some of its analytic tools and skeptical methodology were ideal for exposing the sham neutrality that the modern world had a vested interest in leaving unexamined. He jokingly referred to himself as “the entire right wing of the Critical Legal Studies movement.” Of course with his Christian commitments, his targets for deconstruction were different from the conventional targets of the movement.
Looking back on these first steps as a Christian thinker, Phil said: “I became acutely aware that what we think is reasoning is very often rationalization.” He was conscious of moving within a certain kind of postmodern theory, in the sense of finding a place to stand that called into question high modernism. But Phil’s use of postmodernism didn’t stop at cynical skepticism about the possibility of knowing reality. Quite the opposite:
When you speak of rationality, there are two very distinct components. One is logical reasoning, which is about going from premises to conclusions, conclusions that should be as good as your premises. Thus, logic will get you into insanity if you’ve got the wrong premises. The other component of rationality is having the right premises. How do you get them and how do you determine that they are right? Not by logical reasoning, surely, because then you would be reasoning from other premises in order to justify them. There is an instinct, or revelation, or whatever you want to call it, that underlies your thinking, and the only interesting problem in philosophy is how you get that.
Because of his conversion, Phil had gone from just working the academic system like a pro, to having strong opinions about what counted as “the only interesting problem in philosophy.” That was the decisive turn in his life, the moment of insight (there’s the genius) that he would spend the rest of his life following up on (there’s the plod):
My conversion was gradual, not dramatic. The central issue for me was whether Christianity was real or imaginary. I lived in a society at the university that mostly assumed an easygoing agnosticism. So I felt it was necessary to come to a conclusion on whether Christian metaphysics were real or imaginary, or if I would be throwing my brains out the window and adopting a myth because it satisfied my personal needs.
In a fairly quiet way, and at a high level of philosophical abstraction, in these first years after his conversion Phil made a series of judgments about the most important things in the intellectual framework of his era. None of these mental moves would’ve made Phil famous. But this is where the real revolution happened.
What followed was in some ways almost an accidental application of his decisions to a specific field. But it was a strategically important field.Darwin on Trial
In 1987 Phil and Kathie spent a sabbatical in England, and Phil began indulging a side interest in evolutionary theory. He read Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and was struck by how it seemed so invincible on one reading and so defenseless on another. Phil knew he was no scientist, and that the relevant evidence was outside his area of expertise. But his area of expertise included knowing how liars argue, and some of these books on evolution argued surprisingly like liars. “Something about the Darwinists’ rhetorical style made me think they had something to hide.” So he started a personal re-education project, reading everything he could get his hands on.
So Phillip Johnson’s conversion to Christianity, which started with his disillusionment about hollow success, worked its way through his intellectual apprehension of reality, and found its meaningful project: he would challenge the philosophical underpinnings of Darwinism and draw the metaphysical conclusions. “I wanted to know whether the fundamentals of the Christian worldview were fact or fantasy,” he said. “Darwinism is a logical place to begin because, if Darwinism is true, Christian metaphysics is fantasy.”
From there he emerged into the remarkable public role he would play for the next decade or so, from the 1991 publication of Darwin on Trial until a first stroke curtailed his academic activities somewhat in 2002. Phil tirelessly gathered friends and cobelligerents into his personal magnetic field of inquiry. His way of questioning Darwinism was unique, and it propagated among a diverse set of thinkers and activists. As participants recognized, it was a kind of phylogenesis, the appearance of a new form of vital intellectual life.
The broad, basic outlines of creation had to be established if Christian theology was to win any kind of hearing.
Phil fundamentally altered the conversation because of his natural broadmindedness and his talent for strategic thinking. He could see at a glance that all the lines were drawn in the wrong places. Creationists were wasting their time fighting each other over Bible interpretation, while a diversity of scientists and philosophers were maintaining an artificially united front despite deep internal disagreements. How could he unite the divided and divide the united? By asking The Right Questions (the title of his 2002 book).
One of the most useful questions Phil focused on was whether actual scientists needed to be committed to “methodological naturalism.” If all that means is that scientists don’t wait for miracles to happen in the lab, then sure. But if it means that every scientist must be committed to the proposition that methodological naturalism is appropriate because there is nothing beyond nature’s closed sequence of causes all the way back, then surely not. In fact, lab scientists are often pretty offended when informed by the popularizers of scientism that what they’re actually up to in the lab is an exercise in applied naturalistic philosophy.
Once this distinction drives its wedge into the modern mind, new cracks appear and people notice they’re on different teams than they first thought. Before long, the intelligent design movement coalesced around Phil because he had gotten to the bottom of things (“the only interesting problem in philosophy”). And he had gotten to the bottom of things because he had been given a new starting point for his life at the exact moment that his life had shown itself to be otherwise pointless.Personal Encounter
I met Phil around 1996 when I moved to Berkeley to start a PhD in theology. Actually our wives met first, volunteering at a homeless meal, and their friendship drew our families together at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. I admired Phil right away, and enjoyed weekly Bible study breakfast meetings with the four of us. Phil showed real interest in my work on trinitarian theology, but he wanted me to understand that it would always sound imaginary to anybody who had already had their intellects formed by a prior decision against the metaphysics of Christian truth. He was right. The broad, basic outlines of creation had to be established if Christian theology was to win any kind of hearing.
The Johnson household was a non-stop engine of good works and big ideas.
Phil approached a question like Darwinism not in the squinty way that is all too common, but from an extremely wide, philosophical perspective. And he was such an exceptionally good writer that his books and essays will continue to find audiences.
Phil’s breadth of vision is what accounts for his key role in launching the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. It was Phil and Kathie who connected Torrey’s founder, John Mark Reynolds, with the funders and decision makers who would put into operation Reynolds’ visionary program of honors-level general education that starts with Homer and reads the greatest hits of western civilization (including Darwin) in order to form the next generation of Christian leaders. And it was Phil and Kathie who sent me to join the program a few years later. Like a lot of people who came under his influence, my wife and I literally don’t know where we would be without Phil.
The Johnson household was a non-stop engine of good works and big ideas. In Torrey Honors, our students are sorted by houses, and one of ours is named the Johnson House, in Phil’s honor.Happy Warrior, Resting Saint
One final reflection comes to mind on Phil’s life and character, here in the week of his death. At the height of his powers, Phil was unflappable and impossible to discourage. He simply blossomed under attack. He loved it. He genuinely gauged victories by the prestige and competence of his opponents. When his work was attacked in a book published by a university press, he only lamented that it wasn’t a better book from a better press. He was the “Happy Warrior” of the Wordsworth poem, “whom neither shape or danger can dismay.” As an adult convert, Phil had already counted the cost and knew what he was in for. But partly it was owing to his iron temperament.
After Phil’s first stroke in 2002, the most surprising thing to his friends was that in spite of a wonderful recovery, he somehow lost some of this imperviousness. He was suddenly capable of being discouraged. He was more tender in several ways. He noticed this about himself, and reflected on it.
Phil knew that his habitual source of power and self-confidence had been proven to be a fragile thing. He responded beautifully, with trust in God and a childlike confession that he was in God’s hands.
I think it all came back to his big brain. For most of his life, he had been confident that his big brain was more than adequate to meet any challenge. He was right! I routinely name Phil as the smartest man I’ve ever known, bar none. But a stroke brushes the brain itself, and even with a good recovery, Phil knew that his habitual source of power and self-confidence had been proven to be a fragile thing. He responded beautifully, with trust in God and a childlike confession that he was in God’s hands.
He had always been in God’s hands after all: even before he opened his eyes to Christ; during all the years when his big brain was capable of anything; in the years of retirement from active engagement; and now, at last, in final repose and eternal life.
Genius, and plod, and trust in God. Rest in peace, happy warrior.
What just happened?
Last week the Trump administration announced that televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Paula White had been selected to head up the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. White, who is said to be President Trump’s spiritual adviser and personal pastor, will work in the Office of Public Liaison, and with the Domestic Policy Council.
A day after the announcement was made, White’s ministry emailed supporters under her name asking them to donate $3,600 to achieve “opportunity and favor” from God. As Nicola A. Menzie reports, the email states: “During this season something so supernatural will take place and it will literally shift your life in a very positive way, IF you have ears to hear and connect to the prophetic moment. Friend, YOU MUST STAY CONNECTED TO ME DURING THIS PROPHETIC SEASON!”
White’s email says that to receive the blessing, the supporters must follow her instructions:
Friend, you must understand the instruction that follows in order to align yourself with this SUDDENLY. You cannot ignore the prophetic and apostolic instruction that follows. You are a spirit being and I must be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit of God. This is how He commissioned me to process this to you.
The additional instructions include fasting for three days and a “prophetic demand” to give to her “sacrificially.” White’s supporters are required to give $3,600, $300, or—“if you are limited severely”—$70. White provides the dollar amounts based on the number of animals sacrificed by a follower of God in 2 Chronicles 29:27–36.
What is the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative?
The Faith and Opportunity Initiative is similar to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was created under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama as the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Nine days after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush created the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative with the stated purpose to “lead a determined attack on poverty, disease, and other social ills in partnership with faith-based and other community organizations (FBCOs).” Prior to this initiative, there was often little to no direct engagement between the efforts of the federal government and community faith-based organizations. Bush’s executive order created centers for the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI) in five federal agencies that administer a broad range of social service programs.
Regulations and practices previously discouraged many faith-based groups from partnering with government, even when the local organization was more effective in providing solutions to social issues such as substance abuse, homelessness, or natural disaster recovery. In 2002, Bush announced that religious groups would be eligible to receive federal funding to implement programs usually carried out by secular non-profit organizations.
Under President Barack Obama, the initiative was renamed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Obama also created an Advisory Council that included former megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, World Vision president Richard Stearns, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis.
Although President Trump did not abolish the initiative, he left it dormant for the first 18 months of his presidency. In May 2018 he issued an executive order re-establishing the program and renaming it the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. White is the first head of the program since it was reintroduced a year and a half ago.
What is the current role of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative?
According to President Trump’s executive order, the initiative will consult with and seek information from experts and various faith and community leaders from outside the federal government on a variety of issues, including poverty alleviation, religious liberty, strengthening marriage and family, education, solutions for substance abuse and addiction, crime prevention and reduction, prisoner re-entry, and health and humanitarian services.
The initiative also notifies the attorney general of concerns raised by faith-based and community organizations about any failures of the executive branch to comply with protections of federal law for religious liberty. The initiative is also responsible for identifying and proposing means to reduce burdens on the exercise of religious convictions and legislative, regulatory, and other barriers to the full and active engagement of faith-based and community organizations in either government-funded or government-conducted activities and programs.
Additionally, Adviser White is tasked with making recommendations to President Trump, through the assistant to the president for domestic policy, regarding changes to policies, programs, and practices that affect the delivery of services by faith-based and community organizations.
Is it constitutional to give federal funding to faith-based groups?
As the United States Government Accountability Office notes, each year the federal government gives billions of dollars to organizations that provide social services to needy families and individuals. The funds are usually issued to organizations through competitive grants and contracts. Because of the First Amendment, the federal government cannot discriminate against an organization simply because it is religious in nature.
In 1996 Congress also enacted “charitable choice” provisions, which allowed religious organizations to compete on the same basis as other organizations for federal funding under certain programs—without having to alter their religious character. For example, faith-based organizations are allowed to retain religious icons and symbols in the facilities where they provide services and generally aren’t prohibited by federal law from making employment decisions based on religious grounds, even after receiving federal funds.
However, they are prohibited from providing “inherently religious” activities such as prayer, worship, proselytization, or religious instruction with direct federal funds. Government-funding rules require that any inherently religious activities the organizations might offer be separate in time or location from services eligible to receive federal assistance. These organizations must also not discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion.
I spend a lot of time with church planters. Whether it’s Acts 29 assessment conferences or Portico Church’s own residency efforts, I’m privileged to invest in the next generation of pastors. So many of these young church planters I encounter are full of David’s heart, Moses’s humility, and Elijah’s conviction.
A few months ago, I watched Ray Ortlund and Sam Storms answer questions about enduring in ministry. With more than 70 years of vocational ministry between them, Ray and Sam reminded me that church planting isn’t just about sowing seeds up front—it’s also about the harvest at the end. Many of us start strong but finish weak. As my first boss used to say, “Some say they’d rather burn out than fizzle out. But either way, they’re out!” The point is, stay in. Early zeal matters little if you fail to finish well.
After 25 years of vocational ministry—including 15 in church planting—I’ve at least learned what not to do. Here are three common pitfalls young church planters face, and some suggestions on how to remedy them.1. Know when ‘good’ is good enough.
Author Eric Ries first introduced me to the concept of the MVP—minimum viable product—in The Lean Startup. When starting a business, you can’t afford to chase perfection. An MVP must have the necessary basic features for early adopters to lead you to the next stage of development. This means that, early on, you can’t quibble over trivial concerns.
If you’re less than two years into your church plant, you need to think about your young church as an “MVP.” One can argue about what features are essential in a young church—things like clear gospel teaching, commitment to discipleship, and a healthy understanding of what constitutes a church—but your sermon series’ title sequence probably doesn’t make the cut.
Even the obsession over the “perfect building” is often misplaced. At Portico, we’ve been incredibly nomadic. We’re in our seventh location in 15 years. At one point, I preached in a dusty warehouse under a disco ball. Yet people kept showing up. Ensure your early priorities make sense when you factor in size and stage. And put perfectionism to death by the grace of Christ. Sometimes “good” really is good enough.2. Get help in appointing elders.
Hopefully, you’re convinced of the biblical case for appointing a team of elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The necessity of the office, however, must be combined with an imperative concerning timing—as Paul exhorts Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22). That directive is part of his instruction about common problems that arise among elders and their congregations. Why do we keep rushing eldership before we and our churches are ready for it?
When you combine a godly imperative (appoint elders) and a sense of personal loss (I have no friends), it makes for a dangerous combination.
Many pastors parachute into a new place to plant a church. Some, like myself, come from a large church with a robust community. Suddenly, the phone calls and text messages stop. When you combine a godly imperative (appoint elders) and a sense of personal loss (I have no friends), it makes for a dangerous combination. Perhaps we too quickly gather people around us to cure our sense of isolation rather than to provide healthy leadership. But neither we, nor those candidates, nor our congregations are ready.3. Emphasize character and competence.
Gene Getz was an adjunct professor at Moody Bible during my graduate days, and I was blessed to have him speak into my life personally and professionally. Gene’s emphasis on character has been my go-to for sanctification and leadership development for many years. His book The Measure of a Man is still my first resource in elder development. We’ll never graduate from the school of character.
We’ll never graduate from the school of character . . . but we also must not underestimate the need for pastoral competence.
At the same time, we mustn’t underestimate the need for pastoral competence. Paul talked about “rightly handling” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), and the apostles demonstrated a high level of strategic competence as they cared for neglected widows (Acts 6:1–7). The gospel-saturated ministry of the Word should yield workers equipped “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).
I’ve seen much heartache caused by a lack of character over the years. I’ve also seen a lot of frustration due to lack of competence. I urge young pastors to stay curious and vocationally hungry. Never stop learning. Keep working at your craft. And then, as the Lord allows, develop an apprenticeship program for pastoral training. Pastors aren’t born; they’re compelled and trained. And that training should emphasize both character and competence.It Actually Is About You
Church planting is about the glory of God. In that sense, it’s not about “you.” But church-planting pastor, it’s also true that your heavenly Father delights in you. In you. The psalmist tells us that God “takes pleasure in those who fear him” (Ps. 147:11)—which includes pastors. A wise pastor once reminded me, “God cares more about his work in you than your work for him.” Now there’s something to tell yourself daily.
We mustn’t forget that, before we’re conduits of God’s grace to others, we ourselves are recipients of it. That’s how God designed it. So, as George Mueller said, make your “first great and primary business” each day to have your soul happy in the Lord. After all, in Christ, he’s eternally happy with you.
My grandmother was one of the strongest people I ever knew. Growing up, we were almost inseparable. Right before she died, she clenched my hand as I sat with her—and it reminded me of what the Bible says about the glory of growing old:
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isa. 46:4)
It’s tempting in our technologically rich society to treat old age as a burden and nuisance rather than something to be embraced. Many of us dread going gray and not being able to do the things we did when we were younger. We seek to mask or overcome old age with anti-aging remedies and revolutionary medical breakthroughs. Yet as Proverbs 20:29 tells us, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.”
God casts a rich vision for growing old—one Christians should champion in a world that fears, fights, and attempts to hide aging.Utopian Dreams
Generation after generation has sought to overcome aging with elixirs, medicine, and even by chasing the “fountain of youth.” In contemporary times we chase this elusive “fountain of youth” as we clamor to develop anti-aging solutions and to transcend, with technology, humanity’s natural limits.
Tech titans such as Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, as well as prominent futurists such as Yuval Noah Harari, are fascinated with these types of life-extending technologies, which in many ways perpetuate the transhumanist goals of upgrading humanity. Utopian dreams of overcoming aging and death have captured the attention of many, who believe old age is something to be avoided at all costs rather than humbly embraced.
Entire segments of medical technology research focus on anti-aging drugs and treatments. Biotech company resTORbio has been conducting clinical trials of a drug called RTB101, which seeks to slow the age-related decline of the immune system. While the drug has successfully extended the lifespan of yeast, worms, and mice, it remains unclear if it will work on humans. The drug’s ultimate goal is to prolong our lives by keeping us healthier for longer.
Others deny that living a long life is worth it. Medical ethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel, who served as a chief architect of Obamacare, argues that life after 75 isn’t worth living, because you become more of a drain on society’s resources. He famously promised to refuse all heroic medical interventions, vaccinations, and antibiotics after the age of 75. Without an active and engaged contribution to society, our lives just aren’t worth living. True and fulfilling life, in his disturbingly arbitrary view, ends at 75 years.
But as dystopian as that idea may sound, the underlying utilitarian premise is widespread: your worth is based on what you can contribute. This worldview––increasingly pervasive in our technological society—is one Christians should completely reject.
A utilitarian basis for the value of human life runs contrary to the vision of dignity found in Scripture—which situates our value on the fact that we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). This means that even if you have nothing to offer society, you are still infinitely valuable, because God crafted you in his image. He alone determines your value and your days.
A utilitarian basis for the value of human life runs contrary to the vision of dignity found in Scripture.Embracing Gray
Even Christians can subtly buy into these utilitarian ideas. Too often we clamor for the same life-extending medical treatments and treat older people as burdens to be managed rather than image-bearers to be cherished. We downplay the elderly’s God-given talents and contributions to church life by preferring to highlight the gifts and preferences of the young. We over-prize youth by elevating untested leaders to prominent positions of authority, rather than seasoned leaders who have been tested and refined (1 Tim. 3:6; 5:22).
But Christians shouldn’t follow the world’s pathetically low view of aging. For Scripture calls us to a radically higher view instead (Lev. 19:32; Ps. 71:18).
Pursuing restorative uses of technology, such as artificial organs and limbs, can be a good thing—a way we promote the sanctity of life in a world ravaged by sin. Medical technologies that fight the effects of aging can express God’s common grace if they are developed and deployed in ways consistent with the biblical paradigm that all life is valuable and ultimately points back to our Creator. But as many evangelical leaders recently proclaimed in a statement of principles on artificial intelligence, we must emphatically deny “that death and disease—effects of the fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ.”
If we live as if this life is all there is, we will naturally seek to extend it as long as possible. And if we live as if the value of human life is determined by contributions or strength, then we will seek to end it when their perceived worth to others is gone. But if we instead let Scripture guide life, we will see that old age is not something to avoid but rather to embrace, for to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).
And what is the gain? It’s better than any utopian, transhumanist dream. We will forever enjoy the One who created us and who himself determines our value and dignity.
A church that looks like a country club will definitely appeal to some people. Think of it as an aspirational church, the kind of place people want to join in order to make the right kinds of friends and contacts. But to the outside world, it’s not going to look distinct as a church; it’s going to look like a country club. And you don’t need the resurrection of Jesus to start or sustain a country club.
But what about a church for the downwardly mobile? A church for people who can’t enhance your résumé or boost your bottom line? A church where serving the weak and the poor exposes your own sin and need for the Savior? Now that’s a church that grabs the world’s attention. And it’s the kind of gospel-centered church that The Gospel Coalition exists to support.
My guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is Vermon Pierre. He’s lead pastor of Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and a TGC Council member. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Living, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point three, countercultural community, from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry. This might not be the most provocative or controversial section of our Theological Vision for Ministry. But if not, it’s close. And you’ll see why in this interview with Pierre.
In Charles Spurgeon’s day, ministry and merriment didn’t often mix.
Evangelicals, particularly those of the Reformed variety, weren’t exactly known for their sense of humor. In his autobiography, Spurgeon quipped that the 12th commandment must have been, “Thou shalt [wear] a long face on Sunday.”
But Spurgeon bucked the trend. He was quick-witted—and it showed in his sermons. The great Spurgeon took the gospel with blood-earnest seriousness, but didn’t take himself seriously at all.
Speaking of preaching, Spurgeon said it’s “less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour’s profound slumber.” He confessed to one listener who’d objected to a witty comment he’d made in the pulpit:
If you had known how many others I kept back, you would not have found fault with that one, but you would have commended me for the restraint I had exercised. . . . Were I not watchful, I should become too hilarious.
Did Spurgeon use humor gratuitously? Wasn’t he aware of the dangers of too much mirth when dealing with the deep things of God? In his biography of Spurgeon, Tom Nettles says the Prince of Preachers saw humor functioning as a sort of bait for his gospel hook:
These touches of humor, as low as some might find them to be, Spurgeon defended, sprinkling his messages with humor as the use of “gathering bait” to make the fish come. [Spurgeon said] some of [his] contemporaries were “so dull, so monotonous, so long, and so sour,” that he did not wonder that their pews were so sparsely populated.
Should preachers today emulate Spurgeon? Is there a place for lighthearted laughter in sermons? I think Spurgeon himself had the healthiest view of laughter in the pulpit: use it if it fits your personality, but take care never to let it distract from or undermine sublime gospel truths. Susie Spurgeon perhaps said it best of her husband’s view of humor in the pulpit: “Charles never went out of his way to make a joke—or to avoid one.”
I’m definitely not the funniest man in the world (ask my kids!), but I do enjoy laughter and I appreciate serious-minded people who don’t take themselves too seriously. I agree with Spurgeon that humor, rightly wielded, can make preaching more engaging. Consistent with Spurgeon, here are four guidelines I’ve found helpful in governing humor in my own preaching.1. Use humor only if it’s natural to your personality.
Here’s how not to do it: I once heard a speaker, known for blood-earnest seriousness, try to make a joke about his wife. It fell flat, and he came off sounding mean-spirited. The silence that greeted his attempt at humor must’ve embarrassed him—it would’ve me.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who was not against all humor in the pulpit—see Preaching and Preachers) is helpful here:
The most one can say for the place of humor is that it is only allowable if it is natural. The man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to to enter a pulpit. The same applies to the man who does it deliberately in order to ingratiate himself with the people.
There are plenty of examples among modern evangelical preachers who employ humor effectively because it’s part of who they are: Alistair Begg (surely the Scottish accent accentuates his humor), Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, Russell Moore, Trip Lee, and the late R. C. Sproul.2. Use humor sparingly.
There is humor in the Bible. Some proverbs paint a picture of the absurdity of the unwise life. To the shiftless, for example, Solomon says: “Go to the ant, you sluggard, and consider her ways” (Prov. 6:6). And Jesus employed sanctified satire when telling the Pharisees (and us) to remove the power pole from their own eyes so they can see clearly enough to get the speck out of another’s (Matt. 7:1–5). Other examples could be multiplied.
Still, humor in Scripture is pretty rare. God’s Word overall is serious business—which our preaching should reflect in proportion.3. Don’t use humor gratuitously.
When I first began preaching, a longtime pastor advised me to buy a joke book and fill my mind with as many hilarious anecdotes and stories as possible. “I start each sermon with several jokes to kind of warmup the crowd,” he said. “Then I get serious.” Thankfully, the example of men I’d grown up listening to, such as Adrian Rogers and my family’s pastor, spared me from finding his advice compelling. Humor should accentuate our communication, not dominate it.
Humor should accentuate our communication, not dominate it.
Both the no-nonsense Lloyd-Jones (who did have a humorous side) and the lively Spurgeon agreed that a preacher should never solicit laughter for the sake of lightness. Humor in the pulpit should never equal frivolity. Listen to Spurgeon:
God’s servants have no right to become mere entertainers of the public, pouring out a number of stale jokes and idle tales without a practical point. . . . To make religious teaching interesting is one thing, but to make silly mirth, without aim or purpose, is quite another.
Lloyd-Jones too is wise:
I would not dare to say that there is not place for humor in preaching; but I do suggest that it should not be a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the truth with which we are dealing.4. Never allow humor to distract from the seriousness of God’s Word.
Well used, humor offers listeners’ minds something of a breather—but it can also provide further light for the truth, particularly as it applies to daily living. It must be handled with care, though. I would never use humor if I were preaching on hell. Nor would I use it at certain junctures of the sermon, such as when expounding God’s holiness, driving home the deadliness of sin, or calling for repentance.
I once heard a sermon on hell in which the preacher basically told numerous jokes. It so distracted from the solemnity of the subject that it undermined the whole sermon. Death is not funny. Nor is God’s wrath against sin.
Every use of humor, then, should be properly timed and carefully expressed.Squibs and Caricatures
In his day, Lloyd-Jones heard preachers criticized for making people laugh. Yet the possible abuse of mirth, he insisted, is no reason to forbid it:
[Be] careful not to overcorrect [the abuse of humor] to such an extent as to become dull, colorless, and lifeless. As long as we forget ourselves, and remember the devil, we shall never go wrong.
And while Spurgeon’s ebullient personality bled through in his sermons, it was never the dominant note. Reflecting on church history, he observed that God has used humor to bring light to gloom and to caricature to the absurd—for example, through Martin Luther:
Sometimes [laughter] is the brightest weapon of righteousness, lancing both gloom and sin. . . . I do believe in my heart that there may be as much holiness in a laugh as a cry. . . . I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon against him. I will venture to affirm that the Reformation owed almost as much to the sense of the ridiculous in humans as to anything else, and that those humorous squibs and caricatures, that were issued by the friends of Luther, did more to open the eyes of Germany to the abominations of the priesthood than the more solid and ponderous arguments against Romanism.
Amen. We serve a sovereign—and yes, a happy—God. Let’s be quick to laugh at ourselves, and at the days to come (Prov. 31:25).
It’s a popular quote, commonly attributed to Charles Spurgeon: “Discernment is not simply telling the difference between right and wrong; it’s telling the difference between right and almost right.”
This maxim, I’d suggest, also applies to ministry paradigms and practices.
In his book A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters, Stephen Witmer argues that when it comes to missions and church planting today, the prevailing paradigm that focuses on reaching urban centers of size and influence is, well, almost right—but it may be missing some important things.Methods of Ministry
Such issues, of course, aren’t new. They’ve been with us since at least the day after Pentecost.
How shall the church decide carry out its central calling of preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations? The questions in the Book of Acts swirled around the mission beyond Jerusalem and Judea to Gentile people and places. To whom should the message be taken, what exactly should the message be (i.e., how much Moses?), and what should be the method? Answers that may seem fairly obvious can turn out to be only “almost right” after all. Trying to distinguish the things that differ and to discern what is best (Phil. 1:10) may well require biblical exegesis that pays closer attention to the difference between what’s descriptive and prescriptive—a distinction more easily affirmed than applied. It’s one thing to note that the apostle Paul ministered the gospel in major cities of the Roman Empire; it’s another thing to demonstrate that theological-philosophical perspectives were guiding those decisions.
Take the significant example of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1–2. The apostle has done his demographic study and cultural analysis. He knows what would be more strategic, in pragmatic terms at least, and he’s made crucial distinctions, differentiating between what would “work” for Jews (miraculous signs) and what would ring true to Gentiles (higher wisdom expressed in approved rhetoric). All of this, so far, is prudent and plausible.
The apostle Paul’s method was profoundly shaped by the message he was proclaiming. But it also worked the other way: Paul believed his method also said something crucial about his message.
But what comes next is a rather significant surprise. For just after describing the Corinthians’ pedigree (“not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential”), the apostle upends his previous analysis of his target audiences: “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
The point is that Paul’s method was profoundly shaped by Paul’s message. But it also worked the other way: he believed his method said something crucial about his message.Ministry in Small Places
Here’s how Witmer—pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts—expresses this perspective in relation to gospel-advancing ministry to “small places” in our own day:
Ephesians 3 shows that the purpose of the church is to manifest God’s glory. Can any one church or any one kind of church capture all of it? God used four Gospels to reveal Jesus. Might he choose to place his multifaceted glory—his power, creativity, love, patience, kindness, gentleness—on full display through many different kinds of churches in many different kinds of places? Wouldn’t we expect God to show forth various aspects of his character with particular clarity through churches wealthy and poor, big and small, in big and small places, of various cultures and ethnicities and classes? I think the answer is yes. One of the great purposes of any church, no matter what kind, is to become see-through to distinctive aspects of the character of God as revealed in the gospel. (73)
Clearly the kind of factors emphasized in the “urban priority” literature (e.g., what’s strategic and prudent) are relevant, but books like this one remind us that when it comes to the ways of God in the mission of the gospel, his “hidden wisdom” must also be deliberately considered.
We must pause to reflect, amid our planning and vision-casting, that we serve a Savior who showed up in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem; whose own perspective on carrying out his mission included leaving the 99 to find one lost sheep; and whose primary method for conquering was suffocating on a tree. It’s also worth remembering that—in a way no strategist’s whiteboard would have drawn it out—the gospel’s arrival in the heart of the Empire happened through an arrested apostle chained to a praetorian guard. What, then, does it mean to take seriously, in our ministry perspectives and methods, that divine power “works best in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NLT).
As Witmer puts it, the application of this gospel-shaped paradigm is that
the more podunk the place, the more clearly the world will see God’s prodigality in blessing it with a servant-hearted church, a gospel-centered pastor, and leaders committed to its good. When the answer to the question, Why is your church there? couldn’t possibly be to get rich, become famous, gain influence, or maximize growth potential (all reasons the world understands), there’s a precious opportunity for the gospel’s logic to be heard: because God offered his Son for the people who live here. (82)Small-Town Jesus
The perennial challenge in any enterprise or mission is to move from good, to better, to best when it comes to paradigms and practices. And the same is surely true for a commission as great as the one Jesus (of Nazareth!) entrusted to his disciples.
Witmer’s cultural analysis, theological reflection, sketching of related issues, and practical applications will benefit those in pastoral ministries of any size. He encourages us all to consider what it means to be gospel-centered in ways that may lay beneath the surface, and to move beyond what is “almost right” to a more profound way of seeing and doing. Witmer helpfully builds on all the important insights of the “urban priority” paradigm, but then invites us to consider what we might have missed.
For if it’s true that “the method is the message,” there may indeed be more for us to learn from the One who was sent from heavenly glory to, of all places, rural Galilee.
I’m increasingly convinced that proximity to one’s church is exceedingly valuable. It allows for greater investment in a familiar location, for easy invitations to church, and for developing community with a flavor that’s being lost. My wife and I have no kids and are considering what’s next for us in terms of where we should live. Our church is in an urban setting, making places in close proximity and of decent space (for a budding family and for hospitality) very expensive. On just the other side of the highway—within a mile yet outside the church’s “neighborhood”—are houses both bigger and cheaper. How can we balance a wise use of money with a sense of conviction about being near our church?
These are great questions! Though I live in the suburbs, my husband and I considered participating in an urban church plant and spent many hours discussing the same issues.
My first practical suggestion is to invite your pastor to weigh in. Perhaps he’s been praying for a church member to get a bigger house that can be used for ministry initiatives, or perhaps he’ll share your concern that moving to the other side of the highway will inhibit your ability to connect neighbors with the church. He won’t tell you what to do, but he’ll probably offer input and ask questions that will help you weigh your options. Also talk with other families in your church—both those who live in close proximity and those who don’t. There’s much wisdom to garner from others when we think to ask.
In addition to that, here are two questions to explore.1. How Can I Best Serve?
God has given each of us gifts for serving the church and advancing its mission. While we’re called to many things simply because we’re Christians—generosity, hospitality and service—we’re usually gifted in some ways more than others. And the size, cost, and location of our homes affects how we steward God’s gifts.
When we’re inclined to extend hospitality in one-on-one or small-group settings, a large home usually isn’t necessary. However, when we need a spare room because we hope to welcome foster children, or exchange students, or recovering addicts, a larger house better equips us for those purposes.
Remember that when—by necessity or choice—we live farther from our church than we’d want, it’s vital to plan and prioritize how to be involved in our church’s community. This might mean volunteering nearby or spending time at local parks, coffee shops, and festivals. While living outside of immediate proximity to our church presents challenges (particularly in an urban context), it also gives us opportunities to build relationships with neighbors the congregation wouldn’t otherwise reach.
Consider the gifts God has given you and your spouse, and think through how you can employ those gifts in either setting. This will help “tip the scale” as you evaluate both options.2. What Do I Really Need?
Wherever we move, it’s important to think of “need” through a Spirit-transformed lens. The average home’s square footage is continually increasing in America, now ranking second-largest in the world (after Australia). This trend tempts many of us to assume we need more space than we actually do.
Though it frustrates our own sensibilities to pay more and get less, sometimes God calls us to invest in smaller homes because those are the neighborhoods where he’s deployed us. We can trust him in this, knowing that even small homes can bless our families and be used hospitably.
My relatively small house limits how we show hospitality. People end up on the floor during small-group meetings; we eat in “shifts” when families come over; and sometimes guests have to suck in their stomachs to squeeze past chairs and reach the refrigerator. I have friends with even smaller homes who practice hospitality on a regular basis. Sometimes we just need to adjust our expectations of what “hospitality” should look like.
Smallness can also be a blessing.
Smallness can also be a blessing. Having no storage space mitigates many temptations toward materialism. After all, where would we even fit that new thing we want? Having tight quarters also means no family member can hide in isolation—a reality that’s often frustrating yet encourages regular interaction. In a time when loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, this proximity is a profoundly healthy thing.
As you deliberate, keep your heart rooted in contentment, remembering that all of your resources—your house, your money, your time—belong to God. Godly stewardship might mean buying the cheaper house so that you can welcome more people and give more generously. Or it might mean stewarding your finances into a higher mortgage so that you can reach a specific neighborhood. Either way, it’s all from him, and it’s all for him.
When faced with these types of decisions, we long for a clear sense of “calling,” which God may not provide. Such lack of clarity can cripple our decision-making. Remember, though, that God has not left you alone. He has surrounded you with fellow believers who can offer counsel, and he has given you his Spirit. As the Spirit renews your mind, he also renews your ability to reason. Walk in humility, and he will help you navigate the gray areas of life with wisdom and discernment.
The world needs more rhetoric.
Yes, you read that correctly. Politics needs more rhetoric. Journalism needs more rhetoric. Social media needs more rhetoric. Our daily discourse needs more rhetoric.
Disagree? You’re not alone.
Many would argue the modern world needs less rhetoric, not more. Often cited as a major reason for today’s outrage culture, rhetoric has become a dirty word. It’s what you wield to keyboard-punch someone on Twitter. It’s how politicians utter hundreds of words while saying absolutely nothing. It’s kerosene for igniting violence and hate.
So why would I argue that society needs more rhetoric? Because in a noisy world, where loud voices vie for everyone’s attention, good rhetoric can cut through the clutter. Those who’ve mastered the art of rhetoric are, for good or for ill, the ones getting heard in the noise.Persuasion, Flattery, or More?
Though rhetoric has been around for thousands of years, the term means different things to different people.
Some view rhetoric as persuasion: delivering the right words in the right way to the right audience, to get what you want. This understanding is often traced to Aristotle: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
Rhetoricians leverage language to their advantage, Aristotle argued. Politicians persuade the masses with impassioned speeches. Advertisers convince consumers. Carefully worded press releases pluck the gossamer strings of language.
The problem with reducing rhetoric to mere persuasion, however, is that this can be used for deceit, heresy, and falsehood. A masterful rhetorician can persuade people with lies.
Socrates was concerned about this abuse. He thought rhetoric was like cooking. Both cooks and rhetoricians whip together ingredients, serve it up, and hope people enjoy it. With enough sauce, a cook may be able to serve rancid meat to unsuspecting diners. Similarly, rhetoric may be used to disguise rancid logic and serve it up in a delightful way.
Rhetoric is like cooking. . . . With enough sauce, a cook may be able to serve rancid meat to unsuspecting diners.
In one of Plato’s dialogues, The Gorgias, Socrates describes two types of rhetoric: “One, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience.”
Socrates then asks Callicles, “Have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?” Callicles responds: “But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.”
Neither Socrates nor Callicles could come up with a single person who fit this ideal form of rhetoric. According to them, no rhetorician had ever sought to improve others by speaking what is best, with a concern for truth rather than applause.
Clearly, they hadn’t met one person.Saying What’s Best
Jesus fits Socrates’s definition of the ideal rhetorician. His public speaking was persuasive and authoritative; his language clear and accessible; his teaching illustrative and profound. Jesus knew exactly when to mention Abraham, when to speak an impassioned word, and when to deploy a logical argument.
Nevertheless, his rhetoric went beyond delightful speech and persuasive sermons. Jesus was not primarily concerned with conforming his words to hearers’ ears, but with conforming his words to God’s truth.
Jesus was not primarily concerned with conforming his words to a hearer’s ears; rather, Jesus was concerned with conforming his words to the eternal truth of God.
Jesus said what is best, and improved his hearers, by proclaiming good news (Luke 8:1). Yes, his words were persuasive, authoritative, and memorable. Yet more importantly, they were good and true.Case for Christian Rhetoric
Early Christians such as Paul, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian used the tools of rhetoric to gain a hearing in a hostile culture. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr wrote, “For in these pages we do not come before you with flattery, or as if making a speech to win your favor, but asking you to give judgment according to strict and exact inquiry.” This is what Socrates had in mind: truth, not flattery.
Rather than run from rhetoric, Christians ought to redeem it. Not only is this possible, but it is also vital in a world increasingly hostile to Christian faith. Modern Christians would do well to consider three ways rhetoric might be used today.1. True > Persuasive
If rhetoric is primarily about saying what’s best by saying what’s true, then rhetoric would be a welcome addition to our daily discourse. In this sense, the world needs more rhetoric—and sooner rather than later: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Whether face-to-face or on social media, we must constantly reflect on the truthfulness of our words.2. Persuasive ≠ Lying
Persuading isn’t a sin. Sure, it can be fueled by lust, greed, and power, but it can also be undergirded by God’s truth and love, as in the example of Paul in Corinth: “He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). There is nothing wrong with intentionally seeking to persuade others. Our persuasive efforts must be aimed at God’s truth and love, however, not power and personal gain.3. Audience + Context
Paul shifted his approach in order to fit a particular audience and context: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Effective communication requires us to slow down and discern the nuances of a particular rhetorical setting and audience. Who or what is persuasive for this particular audience? How might I gain or lose a hearing in this setting? How can I best communicate the gospel of Jesus in this context? These are helpful questions to ask in both digital and non-digital discourse.
If rhetoric is about packaging falsehood with pretty words, then it is useless to followers of Jesus. But if rhetoric is about speaking what is best and what is true—persuasively—then it can and must be leveraged by God’s people in a noisy age.
On the surface the logic of the atonement is straightforward.
We sin and are therefore under God’s wrath. When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered the punishment that sin deserves. If we put our faith in Christ, we have eternal life.
If we dig a little deeper, however, we encounter a perplexing question revealed by two biblical teachings.
First, sin against God demands eternal punishment (Matt. 18:8; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:11; 20:10).
Second, Jesus died, was buried, and rose on the third day. He wasn’t punished forever. He’s no longer experiencing God’s wrath. He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father (Heb. 9:25–26).
These twin truths raise the question: How did Jesus receive the full punishment for sin (eternal damnation) if he didn’t suffer eternally? To answer it, we must ask four additional questions that get at the logic of the atonement.1. What Is Death?
Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is the punishment for rebellion against God: when Scripture talks about it, it’s not merely a biological category. God warned Adam that, if he ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam didn’t drop dead the day he ate the fruit, but he was cast out of Eden.
Death, then, is fundamentally separation from God. And in its finality, death is eternity in hell. God won’t be entirely absent; for the damned he will be present as judge and punisher.2. Why Is Hell Eternal?
Eternal punishment is fitting for at least two reasons. First, God made us to exist forever, so the choice to remain in rebellion and unbelief has eternal consequences. Second, sins committed against an infinite Creator are infinitely grievous. It would therefore seem that, to take our eternal sentence, Jesus would need to be eternally punished. From this we might deduce that either Jesus is still being punished by the Father (which the Bible denies), or his death isn’t sufficient to atone for our sins, since he didn’t receive the eternal punishment we deserve.
There’s a third option.
Sin’s punishment is eternal in relation to time, yet it is also infinite in a qualitative sense. In other words, there’s a temporal component to the punishment for sin as well as a completeness component. Imagine a teacher who punishes a student by making him write “I will not call people names” 100 times. Regardless of whether it takes 30 minutes or three hours, the punishment is not complete until he writes the sentence for the hundredth time. Something similar is going on with the atonement. If we make a distinction between the duration of punishment and the complete pouring out of God’s wrath on sin, we can understand how Christ, an infinite being, took our punishment without spending eternity under God’s wrath.3. What Is Propitiation?
This word “propitiation” is used four times in the New Testament (Rom. 3:23–25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). It refers to a sacrifice that appeases or turns away God’s righteous wrath. This sacrifice changes his relationship to us from one of anger to one of favor.
Each passage that contains this word teaches that Christ was the propitiation for our sins. As the perfect sacrifice, his death is able to reconcile God to sinners. The Bible tells us this was a one-time event. Jesus took our punishment in its fullness; the sacrifice won’t happen again, nor is it an ongoing reality (Heb. 9:24–28). This leads back to our dilemma: Can Jesus be our propitiation if he is not eternally punished? To answer, we must ponder the reality of hell.4. Why Are Sinners in Hell?
People are in hell not just because of what they have done, but because of who they are. Everything we do flows out of our hearts, Jesus taught. And all sin flows from a heart in rebellion against God. If people persist in that rebellion without repentance until death, their fate is sealed. They’re given over to what they desired in life, an existence at odds with God rather than in submission to him. They’re given over to an eternity of hatred toward God rather than worship—which is exactly what they preferred in life. No one would want to suffer the torments of hell, yet it’s true to say that God only sends people to hell who wanted to be apart from him.
A distinction is needed here. People enter hell because of their choice to sin and refusal to repent; people remain in hell forever because they are sinners. It’s not merely past sin, but also their present attitude that makes hell eternal for sinners. This is the key difference between sinful men and Jesus, the sinless man. He was perfect in every way; therefore, the duration of the punishment didn’t need to be eternal for him to absorb the complete punishment for sin.
The wrath of God was fully poured on Christ—and we shouldn’t think that’s contradicted or negated by the fact it occurred in a finite amount of time. To the contrary, the fact that Christ is no longer under the wrath of God, but seated in glory at his right hand, gives us every confidence that he is our Savior.Preach the Strange, Logical Gospel
The gospel makes sense. God doesn’t contradict himself or commit logical fallacies in his plan of salvation. And our presentation of the gospel should make sense to our hearers.
The better we understand the logic of the gospel and apply it in our own lives, the clearer we can explain it to others. Of course, not everyone who hears the gospel believes. But everyone who hears it should at least be able to grasp its message.
When we preach the gospel, it may seem strange, offensive, or downright idiotic to our listeners. But it should never be incoherent, self-contradictory, or illogical if we’ve taken the time to meditate on the stunning logic of God’s salvation plan.
Meet Roy. When he was 15, he and a group of students were attacked by a Muslim mob. Instead of renouncing his faith, the young Indonesian boldly declared: “I am a soldier of God . . . ready to die for Christ.” The last word he said was “Jesus.”
Nineteen-year-old Mee had been a Christian scarcely two months when a Communist guard in her Laotian village approached her, pointed a gun to her head, and said: “If you continue to be a Christian, I will kill you now.” Mee replied: “You can kill my body, but not my spirit.”
Over the past few years, new regulations in China have made it illegal for teens to attend church and for teachers, pastors, and parents to teach religion to anyone younger than 18. For disregarding these regulations, many have been arrested and imprisoned.
I’m 19. I’ve considered myself a Christian for almost all my life. I’ve never been persecuted, threatened, or imprisoned for my faith.
And I can’t help wondering: if I were Roy, Mee, or a teenager in China, would I follow Christ so faithfully?Changed My Walk with God
Over the past few years, I’ve intentionally become more aware of the persecuted church. Reading about how Christ followers in Somalia are killed by their families for converting from Islam, and how believers in Iran risk everything to own a Bible, opened my eyes to my own often-complacent faith.
I saw my apathy—reluctance to spend time with Christ, read his Word, and be with his people—in stark contrast to persecuted believers’ commitment to those same things. I became aware of how little I’ve actually given for Jesus in comparison to how much others have laid down.
I’m thankful for religious freedom, but freedom can also sow seeds of complacency. I don’t long for persecution, but I do long to be shaken out of my apathy. I’ve heard of Christians in China praying for persecution to come to America, since they know persecution deepens your walk with God.
I don’t long for persecution, but I do long to be shaken out of my apathy.
Too often in Western countries, the call to follow Christ looks more like raising your hand at the end of a service and less like laying down your life. But in countries like China, India, and North Korea, following Jesus looks vastly different. Admitting to Christianity means risking your life, your freedom, or at the very least your job. It can be difficult to obtain a single Bible. Meeting with other believers is a privilege, made more so for how dangerous it is.
As my eyes have opened to this contrast, I’ve begun to grasp that following Jesus means clinging to him—whatever it may cost me.Changed How I View the Church
If going to church meant risking your life, would you go?
In the United States this question is hypothetical, since there’s usually little or no risk. But for many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, it’s a real question with real consequences.
When I imagine fellow teens in China or Iran risking their lives to meet with other believers, I’m humbled and broken by the fact that teens in America are leaving the church. It’s also shocking to realize that, in order to draw teens in, many youth groups are attempting to interest them with superficial things—pizza parties, giveaways, games, and entertainment.
The lightness with which I’ve approached the privilege of gathering with other Christians is devastating in contrast with what others are risking.
Not only did learning about the persecuted cause me to value the local church, it also expanded my perspective to include the global church. The church is larger than our own congregation, denomination, and country, and we’re spiritually one body with this enormous family of Christ’s followers. Realizing this inspires us to care for the global church through fervent prayer and financial support.Changed How I Value the Gospel
Under persecution, you’d think Christianity would decline and people would choose to turn from Christ. However, in many environments of persecution, from the early church to today, the opposite has been true. Iran reportedly has the fastest-growing movement of Christianity, despite the fact that the government is highly oppressive, the Bible illegal, and Christians regularly lose their jobs due to their commitment to Christ. China has also experienced explosive growth in Christianity over the past 30 years, and though government restrictions have strengthened over the past few years, the church continues to advance.
Learning about these persecuted brothers and sisters has caused me to love the gospel more and challenged how I live it out and share it with others. Christians in China and Iran have surrendered everything for the sake of the gospel because they’ve experienced its power. They’ve laid their lives on the line to answer the call of Christ to “come, follow me” and to “go into all nations,” and they consider it worth the cost.
We who enjoy freedom of religion have a unique battle to fight against the temptation to lean back in comfort and forsake our commission, whether due to fear of ridicule or simply because it makes us uncomfortable. But the gospel is worth the fight. I’ve often declined to talk about Jesus because I felt uncomfortable in the moment. It breaks my heart that teens in other places seize opportunities to share the gospel even though it cost them their lives—while I didn’t, because I was awkward.Changed How I Live Today
I often ask myself, If I were in a persecuted country, how would I live? Would I stay strong? Would I give in? Would I be able to follow Jesus—no matter what?
Asking these questions—and learning about other teens who have to answer them—has challenged my life and faith and made me assess the way I live today. Learning about and praying for the persecuted church shook me out of my one-dimensional Christianity and gave me a broader perspective of what it means to follow Christ.
Charles de Foucauld, a martyr in the early 1900s, once wrote, “Live today as if you were going to die a martyr this evening.”
May we live with such holy boldness. May we not give up in comfort what others are suffering for, or surrender in freedom what others are dying for. May we remember that following Jesus is worth any price; may we live each day for the glory of his name. And may we learn how to faithfully stand with our suffering brothers and sisters through fervent prayers, continual support, and self-giving sacrifice.
Over the past decade, interest in astrology—especially among the millennial generation—has been on the rise. “Astrology is currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the nineteen-seventies,” Christine Smallwood says in a recent article for The New Yorker. “The shift began with the advent of the personal computer, accelerated with the Internet, and has reached new speeds through social media.”
Here nine things you should know about the ancient practice of celestial divination:
1. Astrology is a type of divination that involves the forecasting of earthly and human events through the observation and interpretation of the fixed stars, the Sun, the Moon, and the planets. Several ancient cultures developed some form of astrology, with the oldest originating during the Old Babylonian period (circa 2000 BC) in Mesopotamia (an area that covers much of modern Iraq and Kuwait, as well as parts of Syria and Turkey). Some forms of astrology posit that the stars manifest the divine will of a god or gods while others rely on a totally mechanistic universe.
2. Genethlialogy (“the study that pertains to births”) or “natal astrology” is the application of astrology to the birth of individuals, in order to determine information about the nature and course of a person’s life. The idea is that since the universe is interrelated, astronomical bodies exert an influence on newborn children. The main subdivisions after genethlialogy are general, catarchic, and interrogatory. General or mundane astrology studies the relationship of the significant celestial moments to social groups, nations, or all of humanity. Catarchic or electional astrology determines whether or not a chosen moment is astrologically conducive to the success of a course of action. Interrogatory or horary astrology provides answers to a person’s questions, usually through “chart readings” based on the alignment of the celestial bodies at the moment of their posing the questions.
3. The most popular form of astrology in America is natal astrology, which relies on the zodiac. Within astrology, the zodiac (“circle of little animals”) is an area of the sky divided into 12 signs, each roughly corresponding to when the Sun passes through the constellations: Aries (roughly March 21–April 19), Taurus (April 20–May 20), Gemini (May 21–June 20), Cancer (June 21–July 22), Leo (July 23–Aug. 22), Virgo (Aug. 23–Sept. 22), Libra (Sept. 23–Oct. 22), Scorpio (Oct. 23–Nov. 21), Sagittarius (Nov. 22–Dec. 21), Capricorn (Dec. 22–Jan. 19), Aquarius (Jan. 20–Feb. 18), and Pisces (Feb. 19–March 20). Most modern astrologers calculate charts using the Tropical Zodiac, which is based on seasons and does not actually match up with actual planetary positions.
4. Adherents of astrology believe each of the signs in the zodiac matches up with a psychological type. They also believe a person’s personality can be characterized by the zodiac sign that was ascendant at the exact moment they were born. To account for differences in personality among people born at roughly the same, astrology fans claim that a person can take on the traits of a related zodiac signs (e.g., “born on the Gemini Cancer cusp”). As with other psychological typing methods that rely on self-assessment (such as the Enneagram), those who believe in astrology often pick and choose which zodiac traits they believe fit their actual personality and ignore those that do not.
5. To tell about a person’s character or possible future, horoscopic astrologers rely on a horoscope (“view of the hour”), a chart of astronomical bodies that shows the relative positions of the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the ascendant and midheaven signs of the zodiac at a specific moment in time. Most horoscopes are represented by a circle divided into 12 intersections, called houses. The most popular horoscopes, such as those found in newspapers, are based on the Solar House or Sun–Sign system. Horoscopes gained popularity after they began being printed in newspapers in the 1930s.
6. Astrology is mentioned in Scripture by several biblical prophets. The first direct mention of astrology in the Bible is in Isaiah 47:13 (NIV):
All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
let them save you from what is coming upon you.
Astrology is also referenced in Daniel 2:2 (NIV): “So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.” Jeremiah 8:2 (NIV) also appears to reference astrologers: “They will be exposed to the sun and the moon and all the stars of the heavens, which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshiped.” Because astrology was a form of inductive divination, it appears to be directly forbidden in Leviticus 19:26 (“Do not practice divination or seek omens”).
7. In the New Testament, the only obvious—though disputed—reference to astrologers appears in Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV): “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” Their description of seeing a celestial body as a portent of a significant event appears to be a type of mundane astrology (i.e., the study of significant celestial moments to social groups, nations, or all of humanity). Even if the magi (a term from which we get the word “magic”) were actual astrologers, this would not a biblical endorsement of astrology. Instead, it would be an example of how even pagans would recognize Jesus as God. As David Mathis says, “These magi are not respected kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus.”
8. For most of church history, orthodox Christians have uniformly opposed the beliefs and divination practices related to astrology. Augustine, who dabbled in astrology in his youth, spoke against it in both his Confessions and also The City of God. For example, in The City of God, Augustine asks:
Why, in the life of twins—in their actions, the events that befall them, their professions, arts, honors and other things pertaining to human life, as well as in their very deaths—is there often so great a difference that, as far as these things are concerned, many entire strangers are more like them than they are like each other, though separated at birth by the smallest interval of time but at conception generated by the same act and at the same moment?
Similarly, in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas denied that astrology could predict either the future or define our personality (“[I]t is impossible for heavenly bodies to make a direct impression on the intellect and will. . .”) In general, Christians have rejected astrology for numerous reasons, such as: it conflicts with the biblical prohibition against divination; has no basis in empirical observation; attributes to celestial forces some actions that should be attributed to providence; and seeks to find God’s hidden will in the movement of the stars.
9. A survey by Pew Research published in 2018 found that almost one in three adults (29 percent) in the United States believe in astrology. Despite being incompatible with orthodox Christianity, more than one-in-four Christians (26 percent) also believe in astrology, including 24 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics. At 18 percent, evangelicals are tied with agnostics as the second-least-likely group to believe in astrology (atheists are the least likely at 3 percent). At 34 percent, Protestants in historically black churches are the second-most-likely group to believe in astrology, following those whose claim their religion is “nothing in particular” (47 percent).
If you’re a student living on a college campus, you’re in one of the most strategic contexts on earth to proclaim the gospel. There are few seasons when you exclusively live in proximity to people in the same stage of life. But because students live, work, and play with their closest friends, the campus is a unique breeding ground for gospel conversations and transformed lives.
And yet, insecurities and internal myths can so easily keep us on the evangelistic sidelines. Don’t let these four common lies keep you from proclaiming the gospel during your time in college.1. They Won’t Like Me
There’s always been a part of me tempted to being overly concerned with what others think. People-pleasing has been my biggest barrier to sharing the gospel. Will this negatively affect our relationship? Will she think I’m a fanatic? Will she reject me?
But will they like me? is the wrong place to start. It’s a vague question with an uncertain response. Instead, we should ask, Is God worthy? For the answer to this question is always fixed, and remembering this truth will compel us to step out in faith.
In Galatians 1, Paul issues a stark rebuke to the church in Galatia for following those who were distorting the gospel. They gave in to their flesh—and perhaps their people-pleasing tendencies—as they followed leaders who claimed one must be circumcised to be saved. Paul reminds them that their desire to please people, at the expense of truth, is in direct opposition to serving Christ: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
We can easily let a host of insecurities, people-pleasing, and “what ifs” silence us, especially as university environments become increasing post-Christian. We can’t assume a favorable response to our faith, and social ostracism for standing with Christ is a real possibility. But we take comfort that we stand with centuries of brothers and sisters, and even Christ himself, who have gone before us and were bold in the face of criticism and ostracism (Heb. 11:32–12:2).2. It’s All Up to Me
The Great Commission is not a solo mission. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” Paul wrote (1 Cor. 3:6). Both he and Apollos influenced the same people. Neither person took sole responsibility, but both labored together as God’s coworkers (1 Cor. 3:8).
During my time in campus ministry, I noticed students were often won to Christ’s people before they were won to Christ. Hanging around with Christians, unbelievers saw an attractive community distinct from other campus groups. The love those Christians demonstrated for one another caused unbelievers to ask questions (John 13:35).
Students are often won to Christ’s people before they are won to Christ.
Don’t underestimate the power of multiple Christian influences in the life of an unbeliever. As you build relationships with non-Christians, bring them around your friends who love Jesus. As you attend campus events, hang with your teammates, play intramural sports, or go to club meetings, don’t go alone. Take other believers with you as you build relationships and share Christ together.
The campus itself is a communal environment, and students naturally do things in groups—we eat together, study together, and play sports together. Why would we not also tell people about Christ together?
The early church was characterized by a spirit of unity and cooperation. The book of Acts describes a community of Christians who worked, worshiped, and evangelized as a church (Acts 2:1, 44). On campus, we ought to follow their example.3. I’m Not Getting Results
While serving on a college-ministry staff, I met a student openly opposed to Christianity. In my sin I wrote her off as being too far gone, but one of our mutual friends continued to pray for her salvation. An entire school year went by, wherein the Lord used challenging life circumstances to cause her to start asking my friend questions about God. Before the school year ended, she became a Christian, and today she serves as a missionary overseas.
If you’re younger than 35, you’re likely accustomed to a culture of instant gratification. But spiritual transformation can be devastatingly slow. Impatience can grow quickly as we share the gospel with a friend over months or years and don’t see any evident repentance or faith. Sharing the gospel can be tiring labor, yielding little visible fruit.
We need to remind ourselves that God may be doing a thousand things in someone’s life that we’re unaware of. We can’t microwave ministry or the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life. We need his help to keep the long view in mind.
We can’t microwave ministry or the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life. We need his help to keep the long view in mind.
Even if your friend doesn’t come to know the Lord after months, or maybe even years, keep the long view in mind. Continue to engage and love well, and “walk in wisdom toward [them], making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:5). If eventually their spiritual interest piques, be the type of person they’d want to come to with their questions.4. I’m Not Qualified
When friends begin to show interest in spiritual things, it’s tempting to immediately bring them to a “more qualified” spiritual leader you trust and respect—say, a youth leader or college minister—hoping that “professional” will eloquently answer their questions and woo them into the kingdom. All the while we forget our role in their lives.
If you’re a Christian and you have the Holy Spirit, you’re qualified to share the gospel. God desires to use you to make known his name. If you want to see your classmates, teammates, and friends come to know the Lord, you likely have a role in their story.
Don’t undervalue and underestimate the gospel effect you could have even though you aren’t a well-known pastor or a particularly good orator. The gospel spread in Jerusalem, Judea, and to the ends of the earth because ordinary men and women were faithful to proclaim the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Acts 4:13).
Your campus needs faithful witnesses to Christ. Go and make disciples.
“Here in the United States, American believers and religious institutions, especially those who hold orthodox beliefs about human sexuality, are facing a much more polite persecution. And the question I think we face today is whether Americans who subscribe to those orthodox tenets—including the Christian faith, as well as those who are subscribed to Judaism and to Islam—whether they will have the space necessary to be able to live consistent with their beliefs in these areas. If we are going to continue to be a standard bearer in this nation for religious freedom and free expression—if we are truly committed to living out a diverse and pluralistic society, a background with all different faiths—then we must answer the question the same way we always have, which is to opt for freedom over the demands of the current cultural climate.” — Kristen Waggoner
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Counsel for Masterpiece Cakeshop Explains What’s at Stake in Supreme Court Decision
- Beto O’Rourke’s Plan to Destroy Churches
- ‘No Obvious Answer’: How Christian Colleges Are Responding to LGBTQ Regulations
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
My son hasn’t always known he was black.
For the first seven years of his life, he primarily referred to people in shades of browns and tans and certainly didn’t know that being black could mark him as a target. That only happened when we moved to the United States in the summer of 2014, the summer of the shootings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown and John Crawford. After an idyllic upbringing on a tropical island in the Caribbean, my son had all the uncertainty and excitement any 7-year-old third-culture kid would have in moving to his country of citizenship and living in a big city for the first time.
But uncertainty quickly overtook excitement as that horrible summer unfolded into a long season of black death perpetrated by police officers, culminating in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Fast-forward four years. My son recently turned 12. As much as I enjoyed celebrating this milestone with him, I couldn’t help but grieve for Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, who will never get to see Tamir as a teenager or young man. For the Rice family, all the firsts are over. What’s left is their memory of the lasts. His last hug, his last “I love you,” his last doctor’s appointment, his last field trip, his last birthday, his last funny moment, his last day on the playground with his toy gun.
When I look at my son with his red Adidas hoodie, his name-brand sneakers, his slightly baggy jeans, I see him as cute and cuddly, as he was as a toddler. But I know others may see him as a threat. My chest tightens with anxiety over his future. Will he have one, or will it be snuffed out, perhaps even by someone sworn to protect him?
There it is.
My fear on the table.
I’m sure I’m not alone. All of us experience fear in varying degrees and circumstances. All moms, I think, experience fear of one sort or another as it relates to their children. But moms of black American boys in particular live with the constant buzz of fear ringing in our ears. But what are we to do? How do I fight my fears with faith? As the mom of a black boy in America, how does God’s Word help me dispel my fears as I raise my son?
I have taken my fear to Psalm 119, and this is what the Lord has shown me.Comfort
Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant. Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight. (Ps. 119:76–77)
There is no mistaking the main actor in Psalm 119. References to God and his activity in the lives of his people abound. God works providentially in precise alignment with his Word. He does what he says, and one of the things he says to me and does for me—that gives me hope and silences my fear—is comfort. God promises to console us in our pains and afflictions and fears and sorrows. He comforts with reminders of his steadfast love, which never ceases and which even death cannot extinguish. His mercies are new every morning and attest to his faithfulness (Lam. 3:22–23). As long as his love continues, so will his comfort.
When I’m fearful about the world preying on my son, or fearful that what he wears or where he goes might get him killed, or fearful that he will be tragically misunderstood, I remember the love of God—perfect love that casts out my fear. I lay my anxieties and fears at his feet, and in his tender mercy he comforts me. I have learned how to pray with the psalmist: “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:49–50).Meditate
Let the insolent be put to shame, because they have wronged me with falsehood; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts. (Ps. 119:78)
It’s crazy to think of what swirls around in a fearful mind! I can let my fear take me down dark paths, into deep holes, around shadowy corners. To guard against this tendency, I’ve found that meditating on the Word of God refocuses my heart and mind on things that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable (Phil. 4:8).
I have discovered that memorizing God’s Word aids meditation. Whether you memorize verses, passages, or entire books of the Bible, hiding his Word in your heart is a challenge worth taking up. Fear, after all, often arises in our hearts when our minds are idle. So we can put those moments to better use by meditating on portions of Scripture that we have memorized. We can find pockets of time to meditate on God’s Word as we’re preparing meals for our family, driving on the highway, taking a shower, standing in line at the bank, waiting for the doctor, or jogging in our neighborhood. We can redeem those idle moments by meditating on God’s Word.
It is striking that in the same breath as committing to meditate on God’s precepts, the psalmist also asks God to put the insolent to shame. Who are the insolent? They are the proud, presumptuous people who talk loud but say nothing. We see the insolent in our day on television or social media, and even in our churches. Their boasts about themselves are grandiose; their put-downs of others are juvenile. They skew statistics to confirm their biases. They love evil and leave truth. But God will handle them (Rom. 12:19). Instead of fretting over what someone may say or do or tweet, we’re free to set our hearts and minds on heavenly things rather than earthly things.
Remember, God is the main actor. He will enact justice. He will humble the proud. He will silence the foe. He will avenge the evildoer. He will comfort us as we meditate on his Word.Refuge
You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. (Ps. 119:114)
I remember when I first taught Psalm 119:9 to my son. We were reading a children’s book based on this verse called The Squire and the Scroll. The story’s young squire embarked on a dangerous journey with his knight to find a special lantern stolen by an evil dragon. Returning this lantern would restore peace and joy to his homeland. The squire’s parents gave him a little scroll with rules the squire was to remember on his journey in order to keep his heart pure. Those rules saved the squire from real and present dangers on his journey.
As much as I would love to, I can’t stand in front of my son guarding him like Wonder Woman with my metal bracelets warding off the darts and arrows and shots and temptations of the world. However, God offers him protection through his Word. The Word reminds him to keep his way pure by guarding it according to the Word of God, and encourages him to seek the Lord with his whole heart and not wander from his commands (Ps. 119:9–10). There is eternal safety there, even if I can’t guarantee his safety here.
There is eternal safety there, even if I can’t guarantee his safety here.
The Word of God is a hiding place and shield for my son and for me. As the old hymn goes: “If I hold my peace and let the Lord fight my battles, Vict’ry, vic’try shall be mine.”
God calls me to stand firm in the faith, stand firm for justice, stand firm in the gospel, and trust him to keep and protect my heart as I hope in his word without fear.
Meditating on Scripture brings me comfort amid my fears and serves as my refuge as I stand for him and trust him with my son’s future. Wherever his future leads, I pray it would land him straight into the arms of Jesus, with an abiding faith that endures the hardships of this life and looks forward to eternity.
I have daughters too, and other fears for them. But raising an African American son in this country has driven me to both greater fear, and also deeper trust in the Lord, than I’ve known before. His Word spurs me on and gives me courage with this hope. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.: I want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to my son, and to the sons of others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
“The indifference of the Mexican to death is nourished by his indifference to life.” — Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner
In 2017 Pixar premiered Coco, a movie centered around the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead (read TGC’s review). With the film’s funny punchlines, likable main character, and emphasis on the value of family, Disney introduced an ancient celebration to millions around the world.
Coco was a smashing success. It became the highest-grossing animated film of all time in Mexico, won two Oscars, and earned more than $800 million at the box office.
I watched the movie with interest. The film, to an extent, Disney-fies the celebration; it mixes elements of the supernatural with a melodramatic story, sentimental music, and, of course, a lot of color. Coco is a two-hour promotion for an annual event that has real spiritual implications for our friends and neighbors.
I’m a Mexican who grew up in an evangelical family in Mexico, where I still live. Every fall, Mexican Christians must consider how to respond to this celebration in their communities. Increasingly, the Day of the Dead is part of life in U.S. communities, too. Perhaps you have neighbors who will observe the Day of the Dead.
How should you think about this celebration?New-Old Holiday
On November 1 and 2, Mexicans welcome the spirits of the ancestors to the kingdom of the living, just for a short period of time. Families build altars at home with photographs, meals, or various things the deceased liked. In some regions family members bring food to the graves, for tradition holds that, on that particular night, the dead return to life and eat what they’ve been offered.
According to the traditional narrative taught in Mexico, the Day of the Dead arose from a syncretistic mix of two things: the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1, and the celebration of death practiced by pre-Hispanic cultures for hundreds of years around the same time of year.
Formerly, Mesoamerican civilizations worshiped death and celebrated the dead during an annual festival. In the time of the Spanish conquista, Roman Catholicism was imposed on native people through a variety of means, such as mixing Christian and pagan traditions. And so the Day of the Dead was born. Mexicans have observed this modern version of the holiday since the 16th century.When Death Is Funny
Mexican culture seeks to laugh at what it finds frightening. The Day of the Dead is complex—it’s a holiday to remember dead loved ones and, for some, an invitation for the dead to return to the land of the living. But, rather than marking this occasion with tears or trembling, Mexicans celebrate with flowers, food, clothes, music, and, of course, colorful skeletons made of candy, wood, and ceramic.
One popular tradition is to compose literary calaveras, rhymes about how an individual died or might die. The sarcastic, funny rhymes are so popular they get published in newspapers. For those who aren’t Mexican, this practice may sound morbid. Mexicans, however, laugh at what frightens us. It’s part of our culture. And what can scare us more than death?
Those who reject Jesus have no reason to laugh.
In the end, though, death is not funny. And those who reject Jesus have no reason to laugh. True Christians don’t have a trivial attitude toward death, and acknowledging its sober character gives us a chance to point to its conqueror. Death has been conquered—not by us, not by our offerings, not by our deeds, not even by our laughter in its face, but by the One who suffered its sting in our place (1 Cor. 15:55–57).Serious Theology Behind the Laughs
Interestingly, the Mexican government has encouraged celebrating the Day of the Dead over Halloween, since Halloween is considered an Anglo-Saxon celebration. In many parts of Mexico, especially in cities, the Day of the Dead is rapidly becoming secularized. Yet in much of rural Mexico—which represents the majority of the country—it is still a vital celebration based on deep religious beliefs.
Those beliefs, of course, have serious theological problems. In the Old Testament, invoking the dead was a pagan practice abominable to God:
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. (Deut. 18:10–12)
You might think most of those who practice this holiday don’t believe, in reality, that their ancestors’ spirits will return to the altar to take a bite out of the offering. But you would be surprised. Many Mexicans believe that something happens on this day, that some kind of communication with the dead does takes place.
In some parts of the world, the Day of the Dead may seem like a harmless holiday—a chance to buy colorful decorations, to eat Mexican food, or to join neighbors in their family traditions. But Christians should be aware that behind the masks and the laughs lay serious spiritual problems.Should Christians Participate?
Mexico is a deeply religious, superstitious, and animistic country. (Interestingly, in China—another country that practices ancestor veneration—Coco was incredibly popular, even more than in the States.) This is why the vast majority of the Mexican evangelicals I know do not participate in the holiday or will refrain from some of the more traditional practices, such as making an altar or bringing food to the graves.
The vast majority of the Mexican evangelicals I know do not participate in the holiday, or will refrain from some of the more traditional practices.
No doubt, this celebration is changing quickly, and it will probably in time lose its occultist connotations. Nevertheless, this Mexican tradition still makes a spiritual claim: we ought to celebrate death, and we can communicate with the dead.
When I was young, my family was the only evangelical family in the neighborhood. We were the only ones who didn’t celebrate Mass, who didn’t worship the saints, who didn’t believe that making a pilgrimage on our knees would purge us of sin, and who didn’t celebrate the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic countries, being an evangelical was to be truly Protestant: to protest certain practices we believed had no biblical basis.
Given the holiday’s false spiritual claims, all the evangelicals I know in rural areas of Mexico—where this celebration is taken most seriously—strongly oppose participation. Some refuse to participate even under tremendous social pressure, since not celebrating the town festivals can mean social ostracism. In certain cases, those Christians may even be expelled from the pueblo (town).
Now, for Christians outside of Mexico, participating in the Day of the Dead may seem like a choice with few obvious consequences. A single night of costumes and feasting—or not. But we should remember that, for our brothers and sisters in rural Mexican communities, the choice to abstain from this celebration is a matter of conscience with serious implications. We should not thoughtlessly adopt a pagan practice that costs them so much.True Hope for Life
The more secular the Day of the Dead becomes, the more its spiritual focus will change. Perhaps some aspects can even be redeemed.
But the hope of the deceased Christian is not being welcomed again to the kingdom of the living. Our hope is living forever in the kingdom of the Living One: safe in him who is alive forevermore, and who alone holds the keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18; 22:5).
Church-planting pastors who minister in some of the world’s hardest places will encounter many painful issues—whether it be addiction, violence, homelessness, broken families, poverty, racism, or a number of other things.
One especially painful aspect of ministry in such communities concerns the reality of abuse. Far too many children experience the horror of being abused by people they should be able to trust. Abuse of any kind is a grievous sin that must be repented of and dealt with by the proper authorities.
As churches are planted in places where abuse is prevalent, pastors need to know how to apply the gospel to people who have suffered from it. But how can we do that? Many of us may feel like we don’t even know where to begin.
To help us think about this, it’s a privilege to have Mez McConnell with me on the podcast.
There’s a recent trend in American Christianity to speak of spiritual life as messy.
We’re sinful, broken people, this view argues, and even in our redeemed and reconciled condition we make mistakes that affect our and others’ lives. The messiness is pervasive, constant, and unrelenting. There’s no hope for the eradication of sin this side of Christ’s return, so the best we can do is embrace the mess and encourage one another to keep wading through the mire. The Christian life is a series of messes with a few mountaintops in between.
No doubt, this description is often used with honorable motives. We want to express humility and provide solidarity and support for our struggling brothers and sisters or new Christians—as we should. But there’s something about describing the process of sanctification only as “messy” that seems a little off. It’s certainly true that believers struggle with sin, pain, failure, and turmoil. I continue to wrestle with those things and more, so there’s a sense in which sanctification is messy. I definitely feel that myself.
Yet I also realize that Jesus didn’t die so we could live a merely messy Christian life. His desire isn’t for us to simply hop from crisis to crisis, doomed to failure, discouragement, and depression this side of glory. The gospel is more about joyful transformation than messy complacency.
If we’re not careful, a merely messy Christianity fails to do justice to a biblical view of the Christian life in at least three ways.1. It Risks Normalizing Sin
One of the biggest dangers with “messy theology” is that it can create a sense of permissiveness among the people of Christ. If my sinful mistakes are just the natural outworking of my messy life, they can be shrugged off as normal, even unavoidable. The phrase “life is messy” can, if we’re not careful, sound like “I sin, you sin, we all sin.”
True enough, but should we settle for sin?
We mustn’t be indifferent toward sin. It’s not to be normalized or brushed off. We should never grow comfortable with indwelling sin. It must be attacked and destroyed. In Matthew 5:27–30, Jesus said sin is so serious we must be willing to rip out our eyes or cut off our limbs to eradicate it.
The apostle Paul didn’t write about coming to terms with sin or seeking a healthy balance between sinning and winning. He consistently spoke of overcoming sin through the Spirit’s power: “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
Life according to the flesh necessitates death. Life in the Spirit means killing sin. In the classic words of the Puritan John Owen, be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.2. It Risks Minimizing Struggle
Unintentionally normalizing sin through a mindset of messiness minimizes the Christian’s daily struggle. This mentality seems too quick to settle for failure instead of striving—by God’s grace—toward victory. The Western church is already characterized by complacency in Christian living. We don’t need additional permission to become lazy in our spiritual struggle.
Paul spoke of discipleship as both a struggle and also a war. We are to put on the armor of God, a spiritual uniform of Christlike attributes to don in the battle against “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). At the end of his life, Paul encouraged Timothy to continue his spiritual struggle: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Christians mustn’t settle for spiritual stagnation, but should pursue grace daily to move along a trajectory toward holiness. We are fundamentally saints; our sinfulness and brokenness no longer define us or have the final say.3. It Risks Diluting the Cross
Perhaps the most dangerous message of messy Christianity relates to the sufficiency of the cross. Jesus paid for every sin a believer would ever commit—past, present, and future. The purpose of his sacrifice was to free us from sin so we can serve him. Paul said as much in Romans 6:22: “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”
But if a messy theology subtly permits a complacent mentality toward sin and a defeatist attitude toward struggle, then the cross has not, in its practical outworking, truly freed us. We’re still enslaved to sin—perhaps not in position, but in practice. This messy lifestyle robs Jesus’s sacrificial death of its power to enable believers to daily resist the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jesus didn’t trade his life on the cross for ours so we could live a mediocre, halfhearted life. He vanquished sin and death, and our lives should testify to that victory as he progressively transforms us into his own image. He bore the penalty of sin for us and broke the power of sin in us (Rom. 6:12–14). We aren’t home, but we are on our way.Mud Pies in a Slum
A merely messy Christianity normalizes sin, minimizes struggle, and dilutes the transformative power of the cross. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, famously wrote:
We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Embracing a messy Christianity philosophically falls short of God’s desire for the Christian life. Yes, we are messy, broken people who inhabit a broken-down world. But we’re not called to celebrate brokenness in community by overemphasizing our spiritual failures. We’re called to courageously combat sin and evil, in the context of a covenant community, through the supernatural power of the risen Christ.
Let’s not settle for mud pies when God has given us a holiday at the sea.
In the Middle Ages, for nearly half a century, the church was split into two or three groups that excommunicated one another, so that every Roman Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another. No one could say with certainty which contender was right. The church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form—the true church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution.
Along with this uncertainty, the rapacious, obscene, and acquisitive worldliness of the clergy—exemplified by successive popes who can be called Christian only with some sarcasm—had fostered cynicism. Sermons and pamphlets spread, excoriating the clergy and the hierarchy, including the pope. The preacher Michel Menot lamented, “Never could less devotion be found in the Church.” Pope Pius II wrote, “Christianity has no head whom all wish to obey. Neither the pope nor the emperor is rendered his due. There is no reverence, no obedience.” The masses regard “the pope and emperor as if they bore false titles and were mere painted objects.”
These comments were made more than 60 years before Martin Luther’s famous protest. By the turn of the 16th century, Erasmus could write, “The corruption of the Church, the degeneracy of the Holy See, are universally admitted. Reform has been loudly asked for, and I doubt whether in the whole history of Christianity the heads of the Church have been so grossly worldly as at the present moment.”More Questions About Salvation
The legitimacy of the church was being called into question at the same time as its method for forgiving sins became more convoluted. As I explain at some length, the system of penance—that is, making satisfaction for sins—began merely in connection with church discipline. There was no single rule or calculus, but bishops sought to recall straying sheep by warnings and, in extreme cases, excommunication. Penance was reserved for such special cases, and it was basically a public repentance before the whole church.
By the Middle Ages, especially through Peter Lombard’s Sentences, penance took on a life of its own. Now every believer had to confess to a priest, with a specific calculus for what actions the offender had to perform to satisfy for each sin. Out of the practice of penance an elaborate system of works-righteousness evolved, with distinctions between mortal and venial sins, concupiscence and actual sin, and so forth.
Imagine a simple believer or even a pious priest who encounters the complex labyrinth of scholastic distinctions regarding merit, penance, and justification that we have touched on only briefly. Add to this the subtle debates over the meaning of these terms and their efficacy. It all seems like a complicated game and not even the referees can agree on the rules. Yet these are matters that touch on one’s personal salvation.Luther Answers with Justification
Who are the true Christians, and what is the true church?
Luther sought to answer these questions. Counter-Reformation polemicists characterized Luther as a profligate monk seeking a cover for his license. However, Luther’s initial protest (reflected in the Ninety-five Theses) targeted the lack of seriousness with which the church was treating God’s majesty and holiness. It’s not that the doctors, priests, and monks took sin too seriously, but not seriously enough. One could buy an indulgence or say a few “Hail, Mary’s,” return to the brothel, and then do it all over again. “Just do what you can and God will take notice”—that was what Luther had been taught.
But he took God’s holiness and his own sinfulness seriously. He was the most scrupulous monk, scraping his conscience and wearing out confessors. Eventually, he broke down. He came to see God only as a terrifying figure. Even Christ was merely his hangman, tormenting him with the prospect of the last judgment when his works would be weighed.
At its core, the Reformation was a sharp turn from the sinner to the Savior.
The problem, Luther later said, was that he’d only heard about the righteousness God is—which condemns—not about the righteousness God gives as a free gift:
For they reduced sin as well as righteousness to some very minute motion of the soul. . . . And this tiny motion toward God (of which man is naturally capable) they imagine to be an act of loving God above everything else. . . . This is also the reason why there is, in the church today, such frequent relapse after confessions. The people do not know that they must still be justified, but they are confident that they are already justified; thus they come to ruin by their own sense of security, and the Devil does not need to raise a finger. This certainly is nothing else than to establish righteousness by means of works.
At its core, the Reformation was a sharp turn from the sinner to the Savior, from a lax penance (“Do what you can and God will do the rest”) to casting oneself entirely on Christ and his merits.Modern Challenges to Justification
In our day, this mid-course correction has been challenged on myriad fronts—within Protestantism. Some say the doctrine of justification is irrelevant, or at least secondary to whatever cause we want to recruit Jesus for at the moment. Others are convinced the reformers simply misunderstood Paul. Yet the main question—How can sinners be reconciled to a holy God?—isn’t being given a clear answer. Many Protestants—even evangelicals for whom “penance” is alien—nevertheless relate to God in much the same way as a medieval person did. Understanding the doctrine of justification is as important as ever before.
My first volume of Justification traces the history that led to the Reformation doctrine, reaching back to the Scriptures and the best insights of the ancient church as well as medieval teachers. Without trying to make patristic sources say more than they do, I show that central elements of the evangelical doctrine were taught more clearly and consistently than we’re sometimes led to believe. At the same time, I explore how Augustine planted both wheat and weeds in the medieval garden, which Aquinas harvested.
Turning back toward ourselves and away from Christ is the perennial temptation of our sinful condition, even as Christians.
I tell the story of how subsequent theologians like Scotus and Ockham introduced a “Pelagianizing” drift that Luther knew well from his teachers, captured by the slogan, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.” We also meet the Benedictine abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who was so influential for Luther and Calvin. The rest of volume 1 explains the reformers’ arguments in the context of their controversies with the papal church, and it highlights the Reformation’s deeply pastoral intention in teaching the doctrine.
Volume 2 focuses entirely on the biblical-theological and exegetical arguments, engaging contemporary challenges from biblical scholars, and concluding with an exploration of justification’s practical implications for Christian living and the church’s witness in the world. Beginning with a wide-angle lens, I propose a biblical-theological interpretation of God’s redemptive purposes in view of distinct covenants. From there, the focus moves closer, in concentric circles, toward the specific exegetical challenges being raised today against the Reformation doctrine of justification.
Turning back toward ourselves and away from Christ is the perennial temptation of our sinful condition, even as Christians. At a time when teenagers (I have four of them) are drawn to define their identity by superficial condemnations and justifications from Snapchat and Instagram, the precious truth of justification from God is as relevant as ever. Turning us outside of ourselves, looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, this central gospel truth remains our only hope of salvation and the engine of joyful gratitude in the world.
Five hundred and two years ago—on October 31, 1517—Martin Luther publicly posted his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, and the Protestant Reformation began.
No doubt you’ve heard this fact before—it’s the stuff of ninth-grade history class and the answer to the $200 Jeopardy! question, right up there with “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Despite its widespread acceptance, however, this may not be the best place to start the Reformation story. Yes, Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five Theses ignited spiritual flames that permanently altered the landscape of human history. Yet there is more to the Reformation story than just that one moment. There are many vital threads and theologians that came before this bombastic German monk. Were it not for these prior influences, there would have been no Reformation in 16th-century Europe.
Before Luther in Wittenberg, there was Augustine in Algeria. Before Calvin in Geneva, there was Cyril in Egypt. Before Zwingli in Zürich, there was Tertullian in Tunisia. These African theologians had a profound influence on Reformation theologians. Indeed, many of the influential texts of the 16th century—including The Book of Concord and Calvin’s Institutes—are loaded with references to African theologians.
The Reformation in Europe has roots in earlier theologians in Africa.Where to Begin?
I recently taught about the Reformation at a Congolese pastors’ summit. This group of roughly 30 pastors had been displaced from the Congo and came to North America as refugees. Many had spent time in refugee camps in Tanzania before making the journey to the United States. They had gathered together in Lansing, Michigan, from all around the country: Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Kansas City, Des Moines, and elsewhere.
My task was to give an hour-long presentation on the origins and influences of the Reformation. As I sat down to prepare my presentation, I had to determine when, historically, to begin the conversation. My first thought was to begin in Germany in the 16th century. This, after all, is where many teachers began teaching me the story of the Reformation.
Still, it felt rather obtuse for me to begin the lesson in Western Europe. Tertullian once asked the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Here I was asking a similar one: “What has Wittenberg to do with the Congo?”
This question led me to consider the aim of the Reformation as a whole. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers sought to clear obstructions from biblical authority and gospel grace. They worked to eliminate misguided beliefs and practices. The five solas of the Reformation were razors for removing unorthodox teachings that had entered the Christian faith. The Reformation was largely about keeping the church out of heresy.
A similar thing had happened in Africa more than a thousand years earlier.
Africa—especially from the first through the third century—was a powerful force for keeping the church out of heresy. Tertullian (AD 155–240) fought in Carthage to keep the church from adopting misguided gnostic teachings. Athanasius (AD 269–373) labored in Alexandria to keep the church from accepting a false understanding of Christ’s divinity. Augustine (AD 354–430) worked in Hippo to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity as a hedge against falsehood. Many African theologians were, and remain, a bulwark against heresy.
Like these African theologians, Luther and Calvin sought to right theological wrongs. In fact, Luther’s writings reveal that he was strongly influenced by several African theologians, including Augustine, Cyril, and Tertullian. Calvin relied heavily on Augustine and Cyprian (both from Algeria) in his Institutes. And it’s stunning how well-represented Africa is in many Reformation confessional texts. For example, The Book of Concord includes numerous references to African theologians in its catalogue of testimonies. It’s myopic to think of the Reformation apart from the influence of African theologians.
It’s stunning how well-represented Africa is in many Reformation confessional texts. It’s myopic, then, to think of the Reformation apart from the influence of African theologians.
“What’s past is prologue,” we hear in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s true: looking to the past can help us look to the future. And recognizing the Reformation’s African roots has practical implications for the church today.1. Global Reformation
Realizing that the roots of the Reformation extend into places like Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt changes the scope of the Reformation. It was a global movement that drew upon the influences of several different continents. This history makes it easier for us to put the insights of the Reformation into conversation with our modern globalized society.2. Deep Indebtedness
Christianity, both past and present, benefits from the theological contributions of this continent. One way we can express our gratitude for the contributions of Africa is by spending time reading theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian.3. Present Partners
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with many pastors and laypeople from Africa. An influential personal mentor of mine, pastor Zerit Yohannes, is from Eritrea. Their theological fortitude in the face of persecution and heresy has been both convicting and inspiring. It’s important for us to not only honor Africa’s past influences, but also recognize their present contributions. If the past really is prologue, then this continent will continue to be a bulwark for Christianity.Gratitude for Africa
This Reformation Day, as you consider the momentous events of the Reformation, don’t just think about Wittenberg or Geneva. For the Reformation’s roots stretch to places like Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.
What has Wittenberg to do with the Congo? Plenty.