I’ll never forget the agonized look on my mother-in-law’s face when we said goodbye. Her years and life experience told her what we didn’t yet know: Our move across the ocean would bring pain. Lots of it. We were heading overseas with her first newborn grandbaby, feeling like we were mere babies ourselves.
She knew there would be trials and hardships—and that we would endure them all 5,000 miles from home, family, and all things familiar. But we were propelled by optimism, God’s calling, and an eager willingness to preach Christ among the unreached. Thus began our journey as cross-cultural church planters, first in Asia, later in Europe.
On the eve of that grandbaby’s 16th birthday, I’m looking back and can testify to two seemingly opposing truths: They were our best years, and they were extremely hard.
The church—both those who go and those who send—must acknowledge the hardships that cross-cultural workers face.
I’ve written before about the joys of raising children as cross-cultural church planters. It’s true, if presented with a buffet of options for how to raise my kids again, I’d pick just that. In fact, I spend much of my days encouraging families to consider taking that plunge, and counseling and encouraging from afar those who already have. But the reality is, as numerous as the blessings are, so too are the causes for questioning and heartache.
The church—both those who go and those who send—must acknowledge the hardships that cross-cultural workers face. And we must stand ready to help those who go as they walk through various valleys.Difficulties for Families Serving Cross-Culturally
Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) sampling of some of the afflictions:
- Traversing two or more cultures can prevent children from having a strong sense of identity and belonging. Also, the endless goodbyes with other expat families or with locals when the church planting family relocates can lead to loneliness and unprocessed grief.
- Being immersed in a highly secular setting can have a greater influence on a child than their parents’ Christian influence. Kids might be exposed too early—and too often—to the realities of violence, poverty, sex trafficking, corruption, drugs and alcohol, and other dark, worldly trappings.
- Physical health may suffer, as access to good healthcare may be nonexistent or far away. Everything from a middle-of-the-night fever to scoliosis can morph into a major, life-altering crisis.
- Kids raised outside of their home countries don’t get to know their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or the neighborhoods their parents grew up in. They face significant gaps in knowing about their home culture’s norms (going “home” sure doesn’t feel like it) and everyone misses out on the support of extended family in the formative years.
- Education is a constant concern. Learning in two languages is tough, not to mention dealing with special needs, keeping up with home country requirements, and navigating classmates’ and teachers’ expectations in a foreign country.
- While everyone says, “Kids are so resilient,” the truth is they probably just don’t have the words to express the grief they feel in living through upheaval and uncertainty. Chances are their emotions are stuffed and saved for later. Many cross-cultural kids experience a season of processing trauma as young adults.
Parents who are cross-cultural church planters must regularly ask if their situation inflicts undue physical, spiritual, or emotional harm on their children. How much is too much? What’s simply part of the cost (Luke 14:28)? And how heavy must the burden be for a parent to determine that it’s time to return home?
Cross-cultural workers weigh the answers to these questions constantly—they wonder if God is calling them to persist in trusting him by staying, or trust in him by going. Simply put, there’s no easy way to measure the burdens and determine when the scale is tipped. Every family has a different capacity and calling. Every context has a different set of circumstances. Every local church, every church-planting team—and even every child—has a different threshold.
How in the world can cross-cultural church-planting parents know when it’s time to go (or stay)? How can we discern God’s calling on us as parents when our children face hard things overseas?
So how in the world can cross-cultural church-planting parents know when it’s time to go (or stay)? How can we discern God’s calling on us as parents when our children face hard things overseas? In short, we need wisdom from above. Thankfully, God promises to give us just that when we ask (James 1:5). And it comes primarily through his Word, his Spirit, and his people.Seek Wisdom
It’s a mystery—and certainly a unique process for everyone—but our heavenly Father communicates to us through the synthesis of his Word, his Spirit, and his people. These three means of grace complement one another and confirm God’s calling on our lives and his leadership in our decisions.
Though often weary and overburdened, church planters must stay nourished by the words breathed out by God—they are there so that we might not be lacking anything (2 Tim. 3:16). Answers and wisdom for specific families and children may be sought out in the pages of the Bible. The Word is alive and active and can help us discern our motives in going or staying (Heb. 4:12).
Answers will likely come as the Spirit moves in our own consciences. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be our helper, teacher, and peace giver (John 14:26, 27). The Holy Spirit will lead us as we lead our children.
And the message delivered through God’s Word and pressed upon us by God’s Spirit will be confirmed by God’s people. It’s imperative that we gather with our siblings in Christ so that we might be strengthened by accountability (Gal. 6:1–5) as we build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). Often other Christians can see things in us and our families that we cannot see in ourselves. Input from teammates, team leaders, and other Christians is invaluable for the family living and serving cross-culturally.All Things for Good
Cross-cultural church-planting parents can lean on wisdom received through these three supernatural resources as they discern God’s leading for their children. And we can lean confidently, knowing that God is sovereign. We need not be paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. We may boldly go—or stay—knowing that God is on his throne and he works all things (even perceived mistakes or misunderstandings) for our good (Rom. 8:28). God’s plans, even for church plants in unreached places—and for families serving therein—cannot be thwarted (Isa. 14:27).
The years of cross-cultural church planting can be grueling. But God promises to be our ever-present help in times of trouble.
Yes, the burdens of the family serving cross-culturally can be many. The pain that my mother-in-law expressed was ultimately realized ten years later when she languished and died from ALS. Due to immigration laws preventing our adopted daughter from entering the United States, we could only watch and weep from across the world. God’s Word, Spirit, and people upheld us in our grief.
As we’ve experienced ourselves and with so many others, in addition to the joy, the years of cross-cultural church planting can be grueling. But God promises to be our ever-present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1). The Lord will help you and me and every church planter in every nation, as we seek to serve him, grow his church, and minister to our children.
He is near. He is there in his Word, his Spirit, and his people. Church planter, pursue these three humble means of grace as if your life and the life of your children depend on it. Because they do.
When Christians think of the atonement, their attention is riveted on Jesus Christ, the crucified one. And rightly so. But as proper as this focus is, the Son wasn’t the only member of the Trinity engaged in that act of sacrifice for human sin.
Indeed, we may think of the Father’s action in the death of his Son. After all, Jesus’s haunting cry of dereliction from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:35, echoing Ps. 22:1). Then, with his last breath, Jesus called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). These gasping words of Jesus underscore the Father’s role in the atonement.
Less transparent is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is true in general, as theology is working to remedy the rather meager consideration it has often given to the Spirit and his work in creation, salvation, and consummation. Perhaps the work of the Holy Spirit that has been most neglected is his role in the atonement. And this brings us to our topic, with its twofold emphasis: (1) the role of the Holy Spirit (2) in penal substitutionary atonement.
Perhaps the work of the Holy Spirit that has been most neglected is his role in the atonement.
This second emphasis was chosen because of an increasing number of attacks by some on penal substitution (Green and Baker; Weaver; Boersma; Heim; Baker). Others maintain that penal substitution is at the heart of the idea of atonement (Packer, ch. 2). Before we get too far, however, a definition is in order.Defining Penal Substitutionary Atonement
Penal substitutionary atonement is an interpretation or model of what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished. As I’ve written elsewhere, its major tenets include:
- The atonement is grounded in the holiness of God who, being perfectly holy, hates and punishes sin.
- A penalty for sin must be paid.
- People cannot pay the penalty for their sins and live; rather, the penalty is death.
- Only God can pay the penalty for sin, but he must partake of human nature to pay for human beings.
- By his death, the God-man, Jesus Christ, atoned for human sin.
- The atonement had to be accomplished in this way (“penal substitution theory”).
Now, this definition rightly highlights the central role of the Son, but there’s much more to be said, because the Son never acts alone.Inseparable Operations and the Holy Trinity
Because God is triune, the work of the second person is never separated from the work of the first and third persons. This has traditionally been referred to as the doctrine of inseparable operations. It means that in every divine work, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit act indivisibly with one will and one power. For example, in the divine act of creation, God the Father spoke the world into existence through the Word (John 1:3)—the agency of God the Son—as God the Holy Spirit was hovering over the original chaos (Gen 1:2).
God the Holy Spirit was active from beginning to end in the divine work of atonement.
So also here, the three persons acted indivisibly in the divine work of atonement. Specifically, God the Father sent God the Son to become incarnate and to sacrifice himself in penal substitution for human sin (John 3:16–17; Gal. 4:4–5; 1 John. 4:10). God the Son willingly submitted to being sent by God his Father, becoming incarnate and obediently carrying out the Father’s will to complete a penal substitutionary atonement (John 4:34; 5:36).
What then of the Holy Spirit?The Spirit Was Active Every Step of the Way
God the Holy Spirit was active from beginning to end in the divine work of atonement.
First, in the incarnation, the Holy Spirit was the divine person who brought about the conception of the Son in the womb of the virgin Mary. As the angel explained to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Spirit’s productive role in this “new” creation is in some way parallel to his fructifying role in the “old,” original creation (Gen. 1:2). As then, so here the Spirit’s work is vital, since there could be no atonement without the incarnation (Heb. 2:9, 17).
Second, from conception through his entire earthly life, Jesus Christ was filled with the Holy Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34). That is, while being fully God in eternal relation with the Spirit, the incarnate Son was also extensively indwelt and expansively empowered by the Spirit. This Spirit-enriching presence meant that whenever the incarnate Son acted—obeying the Father who sent him, resisting temptations, communicating divine words, loving his disciples, proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick, exorcising demons, confronting religious leaders—he was anointed with the fullness of Spirit (e.g., Luke 4:18; Matt. 12:28; Acts 10:38).
Third, just as the Holy Spirit had indwelt Jesus during his entire life, so he did not abandon him at its anguished conclusion. Instead, the incarnate Son underwent his act of penal substitutionary atonement, upheld to the end by the Holy Spirit. The key text here is Hebrews 9:14. In a passage emphasizing the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, the author notes that Jesus “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.”
Again, the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s death highlights the Trinity’s inseparable operations. Who offered himself? God the Son. To whom did the Son offer himself? God the Father. And how did the Son offer himself to the Father? Through God the Holy Spirit. In other words, it was by means of the enabling presence of the Spirit that the dying Son “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2) and accomplished his penal substitutionary atonement.
Who offered himself? God the Son. To whom did the Son offer himself? God the Father. And how? Through God the Holy Spirit.
But fourth and finally, death didn’t have the last word. The crucifixion was followed by the resurrection (Acts 2:24), without which the atonement wouldn’t have been effective (1 Cor. 15:17)—and the Spirit played a vital role here as well. For example, Paul emphasizes that the Father’s initiatory work to raise the Son was carried out through the Holy Spirit: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
This enlivening work of the Spirit shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself affirmed, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). The mystery of godliness confesses that Jesus was “justified” or “vindicated by the Spirit,” a reference to the Son’s resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16). And Paul underscored that Christ “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). With his resurrection through the Spirit crowning his saving work, Christ is said to be raised for our justification (Rom 4:25).
Thus, from beginning to end and through every step of the way, the Holy Spirit was active in Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.
- “These Three Atone: Trinity and Atonement” by Fred Sanders
- “The Atonement and the Holy Spirit” by Christopher R. J. Holmes
- “Penal Substitution” by Stephen R. Holmes
All found in T & T Clark Companion to Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017).
God calls us to glorify him in all we do. Or perhaps to put it more precisely: One of the great ways God glorifies himself is by calling and enabling us, his people, to glorify him through our holy conduct.
Jonathan Edwards commented:
From time to time [in Scripture], embracing and practicing true religion, and repenting of sin, and turning to holiness, is expressed by glorifying God, as though that were the sum and end of the whole matter.
If Edwards is correct, it suggests that the Christian life at heart is one of glorifying God. And if this is the case, then the specific ways Scripture calls us to glorify God ought to provide important insight on the structure and priorities of that Christian life.
Let’s explore three ways—faith, worship, and humble service—by which Scripture calls us to glorify God.1. We Glorify God by Our Faith
Since our salvation in Christ comes by faith alone, and since faith is the root from which all of our good works flow, we would expect to find an indelible connection between faith and giving glory to God in all of our conduct.
Two texts, 2 Corinthians 1 and Romans 4, make this connection explicitly.
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul emphasizes that there is one message that he consistently proclaims. He doesn’t say both “yes” and no,” because Jesus Christ whom he proclaims is “not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but in him it has always been ‘yes.’ For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ.” He then explains: “And so through him the ‘amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:18–20).
What does Paul mean by this?
He uses some unusual language here that doesn’t appear elsewhere in his epistles, but the meaning is evident. God made many promises to his people, and Christ is their fulfillment—he is the great Yes to God’s promises of old. Paul’s preaching was always yes, because it always pointed to Christ. In this light, our “amen” can be nothing other than the act of faith.
Faith gives its assent and embraces God’s promises in Christ.
When we hear of God’s promises and of Christ their yes, the most basic and fundamental response we can offer is to say “amen”—so let it be. Faith gives its assent and embraces God’s promises in Christ. And how do we utter this amen? We utter it “to the glory of God.” We glorify God by faith in his promises.
The same theme is present in Romans 4. Several times in this great chapter about faith, Paul discusses Abraham. Early in the chapter he quotes Genesis 15:6, when in response to God’s promise that he’d have descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).
Toward the chapter’s end Paul returns to this incident and reflects on the fact that Abraham was almost 100 years old, and his wife, Sarah, was barren. Abraham had every earthly reason to think God’s promise outrageous, yet “without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead,” and “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God” (Rom 4:19–20). Instead, Paul explains, he “was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God” (Rom 4:20).
In Romans 4, we see that Abraham gave glory to God precisely through the strong act of faith itself.
As John Murray comments on Romans 4:20:
“Giving glory to God” and “being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to perform” are coordinate and describe the exercises or states of mind which were involved in Abraham’s faith. To give glory to God is to reckon God to be what he is and to rely upon his power and faithfulness.2. We Glorify God by Our Worship
There is one activity that Scripture associates far more than any other with glorifying God, and that is worship. At its heart, worship ascribes all glory to God alone. We can glorify God in many ways, but Scripture indicates that nothing we do delights God more than calling on his name with sincere hearts and declaring that all glory belongs to him.
There is one activity that Scripture associates far more than any other with glorifying God.
Sometimes people speak of all of life as worship, such that going to work is worship, playing basketball is worship, or practicing the piano is worship. It is indeed proper to honor God in all of our endeavors (1 Cor. 10:31), but worship is a distinct activity in which we set aside other tasks and set our minds and hearts fully on the Lord, in order to receive his Word and to respond back to him with prayer and song—in private, in families, and especially in corporate worship.
In the many biblical texts about worship, the repeated exhortations to call on the Lord, sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, and other similar practices provide abundant evidence that God takes special delight in the distinct activity of worship.
When we declare God’s glory in worship, we have the privilege of echoing and joining the angelic song even now, anticipating the day when our co-worshipers will be visible to our eyes and together, in one great company, we will worship the Lamb who was slain.
And so we begin now, with imperfect hearts and faltering voices, to do what we will do forever: give glory to God in worship.3. We Glorify God in All We Do
The New Testament clearly exhorts us to glorify God in all of our conduct, especially that which builds up the church, the body of Christ.
The pattern seems to be this: As we believe in Christ to the glory of God and declare his glory in our worship, grateful obedience in all of life flows forth from us unto God’s glory, especially in works of service that bless Christ’s church.
Soli Deo gloria is about God and how he glorifies himself, but one magnificent way God glorifies himself is through glorifying us and enabling us to glorify him.
Perhaps the most sweeping biblical text encouraging us to glorify God in all things is 1 Peter 4:10–11:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, [he] should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, [he] should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised [literally, “glorified”] through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Peter encourages us to use whatever gift we have, with all the strength God gives, to serve others. While he surely did not mean to limit this service to fellow Christians, his focus is on service to our brothers and sisters in Christ, for in the previous verses he commands his readers to love “each other” and to be hospitable “to one another” (1 Pet. 4:8–9). God is glorified by our wholehearted service to others, and especially by our service to fellow believers.
Further, Peter envisions it as a service rendered through suffering, for he goes on immediately to encourage them in their “fiery ordeal” and in suffering insults for Christ’s sake (1 Pet. 4:12–16). Because the Spirit of glory rests upon us (1 Pet. 4:14), we may rejoice insofar as we participate in Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet. 4:13), and may glorify God that we bear the name “Christian” (1 Pet. 4:16).
In this context, Peter says that we should use all of our gifts for serving others, so that God is glorified in everything.Participating in Soli Deo Gloria
“All saints,” begins Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1, “that are united to Jesus Christ their head by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his . . . glory.”
In light of the Reformation theme of soli Deo gloria and the host of biblical texts that inspired it, the idea that mere creatures participate in this glory may initially strike us as contradictory, and perhaps blasphemous.
But Scripture does indeed say both that all glory belongs to God and that his people share in that glory.
Soli Deo gloria is about God and how he glorifies himself, but one magnificent way God glorifies himself is through glorifying us and enabling us to glorify him through faith, worship, and wholehearted service to him and our neighbors.
What a bounteous God we have who has authored this story of divine glory and invited us to be such a vital part of it—by faith alone, by grace alone, and by Christ alone.
Rod Dreher’s 2017 bestseller The Benedict Option captured a wide Christian readership for two main reasons. The first was its wake-up call to conservatives trying to hold the line against an avalanche of anti-Christian animus. “It’s too late,” Dreher announced. “There’s no going back to Judeo-Christian America.” And in our collective gut, we knew he was right. Ready or not, things were about to change.
But Dreher’s second point was equally important: The way forward is to go backward. Constructing a new Christian culture is going to require drawing on the resources of the past. Who could have guessed that Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk, would suddenly be our solution? Yet Dreher was right: The future is ancient. Christians have been here before, and we would do well to learn history’s lessons as we face a new Dark Age.
The subtitle of The Benedict Option promises “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” But is it just our nation that no longer exemplifies basic Christian principles? What if the evangelical church has become post-Christian, too? Perhaps 40 years of trying to “contextualize” the faith to fit the zeitgeist actually transformed, not the social and moral fabric of our society, but the church itself. We became more like them, while relatively few of them became one of us. And pastors haven’t been immune to the pull.
When a pastor looks outside long enough—even with the noble goal of contextualizing the faith to unbelievers—he inevitably starts to change. “You are what you love,” James K. A. Smith says. More specifically, you become what you look at. When society worships power, money, and sex, you can only gaze at those idols for so long without being drawn in. When pop culture elevates glitzy superstars or the guru du jour, you start to follow their strategies. When corporations go global and birth new movements, your inner entrepreneur takes over. Somewhere along the way, the pastor become a celebrity, a globetrotter, a CEO. The world “out there” seems to matter more than the sheep in your pen.
But things weren’t always this way. It’s time for the post-Christian church to return to its parochial roots. The bishops and presbyters of the ancient church aspired to nothing more than faithful ministry—possibly ending in martyrdom—in their assigned parish. The paroikia was their focus: a “sojourning community” in a particular time and place. The early Christians knew how to live small lives. Inward lives. Local lives. Humble lives. Yet not ineffective lives. Despite their deliberate self-diminishment, those first believers upended an empire. Could their wisdom, steadily applied over time, do so again?Augustine Project
Augustine exemplified the ancient pastoral vocation like no one else. Who was he, really? The narrative trajectory of Augustine’s Confessions has given many the impression he was nothing but a wild playboy who eventually found God in a Milanese garden. His conversion scene is indeed dramatic. Anguished and burdened by sins, Augustine quit resisting and bowed the knee to God. At last, his restless heart had found its true desire.
The early Christians knew how to live small lives. Inward lives. Local lives. Humble lives. Yet not ineffective lives.
But what happened next? The truth is, Augustine’s remaining life as a pastor was anything but restful. To learn of it, we look not to his Confessions, but to his sermons and writings, and especially the biography of him by his secretary Possidius. What can pastors glean from Augustine that could guide us today?
Here are three admonitions that emerge from his pastoral practice, offering a wise way forward in a new pagan age.1. Live Like a Monk
When Augustine was grabbed at church and pressed into pastoral service at the African city of Hippo, he was actually trying to recruit brothers for his remote monastery. Even after he accepted the unexpected pastoral call, he never forgot his monastic vocation.
Possidius describes how Augustine was sober in his use of food and clothing, seeking the balance between greedy indulgence and false humility. When luxuries or land were donated to the church, Augustine sold them and gave the proceeds to the poor. His diet was always moderate—enough to sustain him, yet not so much as to be gluttonous like the rich. The conversation at his table was intellectual and uplifting. A sign there read, “He who injures the name of an absent friend / May not as a guest at this table attend.”
Personal holiness was an important virtue for Augustine. Women weren’t allowed to live in his house, nor be alone with him or the brothers, lest temptation overcome them or scandalous gossip arise. Likewise, Augustine remained aloof from money. His financial records were kept by trustworthy clerks, over whom Augustine had only indirect control. At the end of the year, the accounts were shown to him for approval. Augustine drew a modest daily means from the church, and no more.2. Focus on Your Flock
Pastor Augustine shepherded his own congregation. This doesn’t mean he was unconcerned about the broader world; he often attended church councils in Africa’s capital city of Carthage. Yet his assigned flock in Hippo remained his primary concern.
One of Augustine’s most important duties was to serve as a judge (1 Cor. 6:1–8), a difficult and onerous task, yet one he took seriously. In this way he dispensed justice to the poor when the corrupt pagan courts were unlikely to do so without bribes. Augustine often advocated for his church members before the powerful city fathers with wisdom and tact. The church’s widows, orphans, and sick all received his tender pastoral touch.
Augustine had the wisdom to discern sound doctrine, the courage to defend it, and the pastoral love to demand it from his people.
Augustine also shepherded his flock doctrinally. He was a high-level thinker who could discern the times and see through the cultural fog of his day. When heresies such as Pelagianism or Donatism cropped up, Augustine was quick to protect his people from bad theology. He had the wisdom to discern sound doctrine, the courage to defend it, and the pastoral love to demand it from his people. The shepherd cared for both the minds and also the bodies of his sheep.3. Don’t Fear the Barbarians
In the last years of Augustine’s life, the Vandals began roving across North Africa. The marauders had crossed from Spain and were capturing Roman towns one by one. Their attacks were violent, accompanied by murder, rape, torture, arson, enslavement, and the pillaging of Christian churches. Back then, the word vandalism meant much more than graffiti! Many believers were asking Augustine if it was acceptable to flee such a dreadful foe.
His answer was wise and brave. Possidius preserved Augustine’s letter of reply. In it, he says everyday Christians are allowed to flee the barbarians. But the pastors must stay behind until no one is left in their flock. “The love of Christ,” Augustine writes, “[which] has bound us not to desert the churches which we ought to serve, should not be broken.” Terror of the barbarian horde must never overcome the pastor’s holy vocation.
Admittedly, Augustine was influenced here by his view that the sacraments must be offered by an ordained minister for salvation. Yet this consideration was part of a broader concern for pastoral care and evangelism. The shepherd of God’s flock holds an office “without which men could neither live a Christian life, nor become Christians.” When a pastor remains with his people in the face of persecution, he fulfills 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”Pastor to the End
In AD 430, the elderly Augustine lay on his sickbed, meditating on the penitential psalms while the Vandals clamored outside the city walls. His last 10 days were spent in constant, solitary prayer. “Up to the very moment of his last illness,” Possidius recalls, “he preached the Word of God in the church incessantly, vigorously, and powerfully, with a clear mind and sound judgment.”
Augustine died among his pastoral brethren and was honorably buried. He didn’t bother to make a will, for as a “poor man of God,” he had nothing substantial to bequeath. The only things Augustine left behind were faithful disciples and powerful words. May every pastor die so well: honored for his legacy, and confident that the next generation is ready continue the gospel task—even when the barbarians are at the gates.
The idea that America is a Christian nation is both true and false.
It’s true that the history of America has been shaped by many Christians. At the same time, there are numerous examples of Americans acting against Christian principles, even as they used the language of religion as justification—chief among them chattel slavery. The history of America is a complicated mixture of ideals, failure, and the tension between these extremes.
Wading into this complex history is Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion. In an effort to provide a critical historical narrative that foregrounds the theme of religion, he has completed a two-volume history of the United States of America. These texts are meant to be useful for both homeschool communities and religious colleges. Kidd explores everything from the religious rituals of Native American nations to the voting and religious actions of evangelicals in the 21st century.
I asked him about some of the major themes of his textbook.History is never just the retelling of facts, but the selection and interpretation of facts into a cohesive narrative. What is the narrative that emerged as you were writing this history?
American history textbooks are especially difficult to put into a coherent narrative, because literally anything that happened in the American past is “fair game.” Plus, there are events and figures that it would be quite peculiar to ignore, such as the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln, or the 9/11 attacks. Critics of history just see it as “one thing after another,” however, so I do try to draw out particular themes that help hold the story together.
One of those themes is religion. This focus emerges from my own scholarly interests and personal commitments as a Christian. But religion is also arguably the most vital subfield in the scholarship on American history over the past 30 years, so in focusing on religion I’m also working on a theme that has been of major interest to professional historians generally.
Religion is arguably the most vital subfield in the scholarship on American history over the past 30 years.
A second theme is ethnic and racial conflict. Again, this reflects the state of the field, but it also reflects the conspicuous sense of frustration in contemporary America that we can’t “get past” tensions and violence related to race. Christian communities have been on the front lines of grappling with (and often fighting about) race and ethnically related issues such as immigration, so Christians reading the volumes will have no difficulty seeing why the history of racial conflict matters.
A third theme is entertainment culture. This theme started to emerge as a major factor on the eve of the Civil War, and in the Gilded Age (late 19th to early 20th century) the business of entertainment became truly central to Americans’ lives. Entertainment was a product of entrepreneurial culture and disposable income, but it morphed into arguably the central preoccupation of American life. This development is troubling, and I suspect it will take decades for us to be able to grasp all the ways in which we are “amusing ourselves to death” in the smartphone age.You blend the stories of great figures from history with accounts of average people. What is the benefit of combining these two experiences for historical narrative?
History teachers will rightly expect some coverage of well-known figures, from George Washington to Barack Obama, but I wanted to give a lot of space to people whose life experiences seem more typical for the average American.
There’s an important civic function connected with knowing about the George Washingtons of the American past. You would be poorly prepared as an American citizen if you didn’t know some basic information about our first president! But since there is an inherent value and dignity to the life of the everyday American, I integrate the stories of people such as Luna Kellie, who moved to the Nebraska frontier as a 19-year-old in 1875, or Manuel Padilla, who worked in citrus orchards in the West in the 1940s but got deported to Mexico when he ran into trouble with his boss.Is religious liberty the only factor that accounts for the large number of denominations and sects that have flourished in American history? Did other factors spark religious innovation?
Religious liberty was certainly a major factor in America’s robust denominational environment. In particular, the “disestablishment” of the state churches (Church of England, and so on) meant that American religion became voluntary and competitive at an early date, and pastors and churches had to work hard at evangelism, recruitment, quality of services, and so forth. This entrepreneurial quality of American religion has also opened the door to heretical groups and dumbed-down theology, though Americans have also often gravitated toward congregations that ask for high levels of commitment.
Ethnicity and immigration have also played a major role in sustaining the vitality of American religion. New immigrants have commonly identified with a certain religious group (German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, and more) and have often been more devout in America than they were back home. This has continued to be the case in contemporary America, where Catholics, Protestants, and adherents of other religions routinely find that one of their main areas of growth is among recent immigrants. Many Christian denominations today—especially Catholics and Pentecostals—would be much weaker demographically if it weren’t for Hispanic immigrants, for example.As you look at the history of religion in America, particularly Christianity, why do you think it’s so often understood as an oppressive force (as with slavery) when there’s ample evidence that it’s also been a source of comfort, freedom, and justice to marginalized groups (as with the civil-rights movement)? How are we to explain the tension between these two readings of faith?
Some scholars have a conscious or unconscious animosity toward people of faith, and therefore they tend to draw out the most negative examples of faith’s role in American history in order to demonstrate the validity of their animosity. But Christians shouldn’t go to the other extreme by painting an uncomplicated picture of the positive role of faith in America. As a matter of candor and self-policing, we should admit that certain Americans have done terrible things while citing Scripture to justify their deeds.
Christians shouldn’t go to the other extreme by painting an uncomplicated picture of the positive role of faith in America.
Even some of the heroes of evangelical faith, such as George Whitefield, were also deeply formed by the assumptions and biases of their time. This accounts for Whitefield’s slave-owning and pro-slavery advocacy, even as he was leading the most transformative revivals of the 18th century. But there are just as many historical heroes (I think of figures such as the antislavery pastor Lemuel Haynes, or the civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer) whose faith helped them to speak out prophetically against the injustices of their time. Part of the solution here is that we need a longer list of historical heroes.What’s the relationship of church growth and strength to theological positions? Is it historically true that Christianity has decreased because it has refused to adapt theologically? Or does something else account for the decline of churches?
Most denominations in America grew, or at least didn’t shrink, through the 1950s, so the story of religious decline is largely a story of the past half-century. The most famous story of that decline is in the mainline denominations. Their decline seems indisputably connected to the liberal theology of their senior leadership, who were out of touch with people in the pews. A religion that is well synchronized with the ethos of dominant elite culture doesn’t seem able to retain adherents in modern America. The norms of mainline religion have had an outsized effect on large grant-awarding foundations, academia, elite businesses, and non-governmental organizations, however, so it may be that mainliners have lost the battle for numbers, but have won the culture war.
A number of Protestant denominations, most obviously Pentecostals and certain conservative groups such as the Presbyterian Church in America, have grown substantially over the past half-century. Recent signs of decline in the Southern Baptist Convention, however, dispel any easy connection between theological conservatism and denominational growth.
My husband and I both work full-time, and we have two children in preschool. My job is creative and demanding; some would say I’m at the top of my field. On paper, this looks wonderful. In real life, it can be both messy and exhausting. Some nights, after the kids are in bed and my choices are laundry or working on my website, I’m too wiped out to do anything but go to bed.
I’m wondering all the time if I should stay the course, if I should change jobs (I’m topped out where I am), if I should switch to part-time so I can homeschool (I’d love to do this but not sure we can afford it). I wonder what I’m even aiming for. As a mom, what does a well-balanced, healthy, God-honoring life even look like?
Nearly 30 years ago, Mark Dever wrote a now-famous letter to a Massachusetts congregation that was asking much the same question, but about their church. In their search for a new pastor, they asked, what qualities should they be looking for?
I don’t think this advice will follow quite the same pattern. (For one thing, I could only come up with six.) But I do think we can define some qualities that make up “a well-balanced, healthy, God-honoring life.”1. It prioritizes seeking God.
God made us. He saved us. In his sovereignty, he placed us into this point in history, in this geographic area, with these relationships. He gave us any talent, education, or opportunities we have. And he didn’t do any of that randomly or accidentally—he has a purpose for us (Col. 1:16; Ecc. 3:1; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 2:10).
Knowing this, our first priority should be to seek him daily in purposeful Bible reading (Josh. 1:8) and prayer (Eph. 6:18). Additionally, consider choosing times—in the car, waiting in a carpool line, before meals—where you can practice offering a short prayer or going over a memory verse. (It helps me to think of “stapling my day to God” with these little moments.) Without his work in our heart, without his renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), we are chasing the wind (Ecc. 1:14).2. It serves your family and close friends well.
In his goodness, God has given you a husband and children (Ps. 127:3–5). In his goodness, he has placed others in different family circumstances. But all of us are called to love sacrificially, the way he loves us.
That means we spend time praying with and for our loved ones (Eph. 3:14–19). We bear their burdens (Gal. 6:2), which could be as mundane as strapping on a clean diaper, going over spelling words, or picking up dry cleaning. We teach our children the Word of God (Deut. 11:19), which might look like writing out Bible verses to have in the car, downloading the New City Catechism songs to play during breakfast, or reading a chapter of the Jesus Storybook Bible before bed. We work at home (Titus 2:4–5), which can look like cleaning the bathroom, making a meal, or paying the electric bill. And we practice confessing sin to each other and forgiving each other (James 5:16; Eph. 4:32).
All those things take time, but they don’t usually get a spot on the calendar. As a result, I’ve found that my family often feels the pinch when I overschedule. It’s worth taking occasional stock of your days to ensure you’re giving enough of your energy and attention to the people God’s given to you.3. It engages in daily toil that serves God and neighbor.
Daily work is a gift from God, given before the fall to Adam (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:19) and in keeping with God’s own working nature (Gen. 1). From designing a website to washing dishes to answering the phone, our work “further develops, maintains, or repairs the fabric of the world,” as Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf put it in Every Good Endeavor.
This is most satisfying to us when we know we’re doing it—when we can see how our work glorifies God by adding beauty or restoring order or loving other humans. For many of us, that’s less a matter of finding a different occupation and more a matter of seeing opportunities for service in our current work. Consider thinking that through: Who has God given you to serve? How can you do that more effectively?4. It includes actively serving in a local church body.
Hebrews tells us not to neglect “meeting together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25). Committing to a local body of Christians is not only a commandment of Scripture (Heb. 13:17), but also good for our souls as we gain instruction, sanctification, accountability, and fellowship (Titus 2; 1 Tim. 4:16; Matt. 18:15–18).
We know the more effort we put into something, the more we’ll get out of it. The more notes we take on a book, the more we’ll remember it. The more questions we ask in class, the more we’ll understand and appreciate the instruction. The more time we spend with a friend, the closer our relationship.
The same is true for church. The more time and energy we spend stewarding our gifts to serve God’s people—by bringing a meal, stopping by for a visit, offering a ride, sending a card, writing a check—the more we’ll be invested in the bride he loves (1 Pet. 4:10–11; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 5:25–27). Certainly, the amount we can do depends on our seasons and circumstances. But it’s worth asking, What does my church need? What can I give?5. It includes caring for your own health.
Our physical bodies belong to God twice over—given at birth and redeemed at the cross (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Caring for ourselves, then, is an act of worship and of submission—in it, we acknowledge that we aren’t the boss of ourselves. As hard as we push, we just don’t operate as well when we aren’t getting enough healthy food, regular exercise, or seven-to-nine hours of sleep a night. Thanks to God for both his special revelation (Ex. 34:21) and his general revelation that tell us this truth.
The challenge, of course, is that we’re busy doing good things: serving God and neighbor, helping in our church, and working hard at our job. This can make going to the gym or preparing a meal more nutritious than Fruit Loops seem like a waste of time, or worse, selfish. But that logic is twisted. Our family and friends and neighbors need us to be healthy and energetic and well-rested. Running ourselves down in the cause of serving others undercuts our ability to serve well.
The more we submit ourselves to God in this, the more we’ll see the gift he’s giving us in a well-rested mind or strong legs or a cheerful spirit.6. It engages your mind and imagination regularly.
One way we reflect God’s image is in the things we create. It could be a banner for a birthday party, an organizational system for a closet, or a morning routine that works well. It could be knitting or gardening or cooking. It could be a class or conference that grows your professional skills, a book that lets you drop into another world, or a deep conversation with a friend.
In busy seasons, these are the things we tend to drop first—and that’s not wrong. But if we’re never stretching our brains to find or bring order and beauty to the world around us, we’re missing part of the joy of being ourselves.Only God Finishes His To-Do List
The marks of a well-balanced, healthy, God-honoring life—like the marks of a healthy church—are a guide. These aren’t six boxes to check, but six questions to ask. Not only are we limited by human frailty and sin, but also by the way God designed us and the circumstances he’s appointed. For you, serving others and engaging your imagination probably come easily. In a different season, you’ll likely have more time for uninterrupted Bible study and caring for your health.
God knows our limits; he gave them to us on purpose. One of his clearest directives is to practice a sabbath (Ex. 20:9–11), a weekly, intentional pausing in our work—leaving some undone—to remind us that we aren’t able to do it all.
And to remind us, over and over again, to worship the One who can.
You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.
Would you accept more hostility toward the gospel if it meant more openness to the gospel?
A friend in Scotland recently told me that the hostility his very secular country is exhibiting toward Christianity is being countered by a flood of genuine interest in the gospel. “It’s never been so hostile here,” he said. “But never more open either.”
So there’s the question. Would you trade some comfort for some conversation? Would you swap some ease for more evangelism?Future Is Speaking
Scotland is about 10 years ahead of places such as Australia and the United States in terms of secularism, so in a sense that’s the future speaking to us today. The hostility is coming; we’ve seen that already. A few are experiencing it even now.
There’s a positive glee among some, especially political elites—a sense of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another’s misfortune)—when Christianity takes a battering. There’s a feeling that we’ve had things our way for too long, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.
And have you seen the anti-Christian vitriol on social media? I have plenty of believing friends who are laying low, hoping for a time when the hostility settles down and an openness to the gospel returns.
Yet here’s the thing: Openness has returned, and it might be because of the hostility, not in spite of it.
Evangelists, churches, and student groups on campuses are reporting an upsurge in gospel interest from people searching for something, anything, that might provide a sense of purpose in a world. And there’s something exciting about that. And something we should have picked up on earlier—if we’d had our theological antennae up, and if we’d stopped being so busy trying to make ourselves comfortable.Which Would You Pick?
The right to choose just about anything has never been so readily available, and yet it’s not working for many people. They’re pulling the levers, pushing the buttons, and coming up with record levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.
The reason seems clear. The goal or telos of choice in the West has been reduced to the right to choose. Period. And choice as a goal cannot bear any existential weight. What to choose, now that you have unfettered choice, seems almost beyond people. Meaning and purpose are largely absent, and choice-as-the-end-game collapses the weight of reality.
Work is a keen example. Millennials are struggling to find meaning in their work, at least enough meaning to sustain them throughout life. In fact, Australian author Simon Kuestenmacher attributes much of the blame to the decline of religion: “We must stop our obsession with happiness and satisfaction in the here and now,” he writes.
Yet if the here and now is all we’ve got when we suck religion and the transcendent out of the equation, what’s next? The here and now was supposed to provide a strong enough platform to build meaning and purpose. But it’s not. Our Christian faith tells us we shouldn’t be surprised.
This brings me back to the original observation by my Scottish friend: Never more hostile, but never more open.
Would you be willing to put up with a bit more pushback if it meant more gospel fruit?
Would you be willing to put up with a bit more pushback if it meant more gospel fruit? We complain about how little gospel fruit we see, yet tend to balk when we hear a solution like that. If the heat gets turned up a bit, and we see an increase in the number of people willing to give us a hearing, would we be willing to pay that cost? After all, it’s a mere trifle compared to the hostility our brothers and sisters are experiencing around the world.
I’ve met several non-Christians who are baffled by how “chill” and settled the Christians they meet actually are, in contrast to their expectations. And that’s not just older believers; it’s also young arts students, who seem the least likely cohort. These unbelievers find this humility attractive.
So which would you pick? Less hostility but less openness, or more hostility and more openness? Of course, no hostility and total openness would be fantastic. But you don’t find that anywhere in the Bible or in ministry—not if you’re being faithful. So the question remains: Are you willing to suffer for more gospel opportunities?
Unlike Abraham, my first glimpse of the Promised Land was from 10,000 feet as I sat alert in my airplane window seat. In 11 hours, I had crossed an ocean and a continent, dwarfing Abraham’s journey from Ur to the same destination 4,000 years before.
Also unlike Abraham, God hadn’t told me to go. I hadn’t had any visions, heard any audible voices, or even been compelled by any sacred writ. Nevertheless, as I sat gazing down through the thin clouds, I couldn’t help but think of that ancient patriarch. “So, this is the land that God promised him,” I prayerfully whispered.
Traveling to Israel ought to be a spiritual pilgrimage. Although we aren’t required by biblical command to visit the sites or general regions where God accomplished so much on our behalf, to do so is a rich and ever-flowing blessing.
Here are four spiritual lessons that I learned by going to the land of Israel.1. Location Doesn’t Matter, Except It Does
If I’m God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:17), and if I can worship him from anywhere (John 4:21–24), why would I need to go to the Holy Land? Should we even call it the “Holy Land” anymore?
The Bible is clear that God created the whole world and is the supreme King over every nation on earth. Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross secured the salvation of people from every tribe and language and people and nation so that, through him, we can worship God from anywhere at anytime in spirit and in truth. In some ways, therefore, Israel is just one of many nations under God’s sovereign rule and is, in that sense, no different than any other.
While this may be true, there is, nevertheless, something that makes Israel stand out as historically unique from every other nation under heaven. Israel is the grand theater of God’s redemptive play.
Israel is the grand theater of God’s redemptive play.
It was in Israel that I knelt in the shadow of the hill where the men of Jabesh-Gilead retrieved King Saul’s slain body (1 Sam. 11:1–11; 31:8–13). I touched Jeroboam’s apostasy with my own two hands and quivered at the thought of it (1 Kings 12:25–33). I gazed over the Jezreel valley atop the mountain where Elijah summoned fire from heaven to defeat the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). I tasted the saltwater where Jonah fled from God (Jonah 1:1–3). I sailed on the waters that Jesus Christ tread by foot, and on which Peter stepped out in faith (Matt. 14:22–33). I stood on the exact spot where Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:1–12). I smelled the plains of Armageddon and envisioned God’s kingdom come (Rev. 16).
I walked in the footsteps of Christ on that glorious awe-full night, from Upper Room to Gethsemane to Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha.
There is so much more I saw and did, smelled and tasted, touched and heard. Although not every site is absolutely certain, a good many are. The Sea of Galilee is the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is Capernaum. The Temple Mount is the Temple Mount. And I was there. I’ve been to the places where God achieved the salvation of the world. I worshiped him there in a way that I had never worshiped him before.
Location doesn’t matter, except that it does. Like a time-tested hymn, this tiny country compels worship, drawing praise from the hearts of saints. Israel will always be the Holy Land because it will always be the stage, set apart from all other places, where God rescued a ruined world. We ought not theologize this place away.2. Israel Isn’t Narnia
I know the Bible is real and Narnia isn’t. I know this. And yet, until I was there, both Israel and Narnia existed in the same part of my brain, recreated in my mind’s eye through the printed word on the page.
Something literally and spiritually snapped inside of me on day four. I’d already experienced some inspiring moments. I’d publicly read Luke 4:16–30 in a Nazarene synagogue, likely less than half a mile from where Jesus spoke the same words. I’d sat under the preaching of Matthew 5:1–16 on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I’d stood in front of the “gates of hell” in Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Jesus was the Christ (Matt.16:13–20). Yet it was on the afternoon of day four that it happened.
I was in Capernaum. We’d just spent considerable time in a late-third-century synagogue built atop the first-century synagogue where Jesus regularly preached. A four-minute walk took us to an insulae (extended family home) two ancient blocks away. Built on top of this house was a fifth-century octagonal church and, in the middle of the bullseye of this church, was a rectangular room that had been used as a domus ecclesia (home church) since the first half of the first-century. In this room, pottery shards of the Lord’s Prayer and ancient graffiti inscribing the words Jesus, Lord, and Messiah were found. We were told that this was―most likely―Peter’s house, and that this room, venerated since the first half of the first-century, may well have been the room where Jesus lived and slept for much of the three years of his Galilean ministry (Matt. 4:13).
Israel will always be the Holy Land because it will always be the stage, set apart from all other places, where God saved the world.
Was it or wasn’t it? We’ll never know for sure. Either way, I was in Capernaum. Jesus walked these streets (Matt. 13:54), preached in this synagogue (Mark 1:21–22; 3:1–5), taught beside that shore (Mark 2:13). This might have been his house, where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:29–31), forgave the paralytic’s sins (Mark 2:1–12), and gathered to himself the lame, sick, and demon-possessed (Mark 1:32–34).
Standing there, the Bible shuffled inside me from one locale to another. It moved from imagination to experience and from figment to memory. Israel and Narnia were forever ripped apart, never again to cohabit the same recesses of my mind.3. God’s Kingdom Truly Is a Mustard Seed
Israel is small. The region of Galilee is even smaller. The northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus focused his ministry and which is less than eight miles across, can be traversed by foot in less than half a day. If I were God and become a man to reveal myself to the world, I don’t think I would’ve chosen Nazareth as the place I’d grow up. Nor would I center my ministry in Capernaum, spending most of my time in towns and villages like Magdala, Chorazin, and Bethsaida.
For the average North American, the smallness of the stage God set for the gospel drama can’t be adequately captured by maps and comparisons.
Add to the smallness of the world he inhabited the fact that Jesus never wrote a book, never commanded a flesh-and-blood army, never held court over a citizenry, and never―in his adult life―traveled outside the borders of present-day Israel, a country no bigger than New Jersey. Yet within a generation, his influence was competing with Caesar and his name was known as far as Spain. This seemingly insignificant life of less than 40 years, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, proved to be the most significant life ever lived. This is, in itself, a profound wonder.
For the average North American, the smallness of the stage God set for the gospel drama can’t be adequately captured by maps and comparisons. You have to put your boots on the ground, look across the tiny lake we call the “Sea” of Galilee, and make your own personal pilgrimage from Capernaum to Jerusalem. Then, once in Jerusalem, the smallness of the stage may continue to ricochet across your soul. All of the events from Gethsemane to Golgotha occurred in a space smaller than Disneyland. The world changed on the head of a needle, in the planting of a seed, in the smallest of gardens.4. There May Be Two Testaments, but There’s Only One Redemptive Story
Stories―histories―have settings. A shared setting necessarily unifies the story. You can’t have two wholly unconnected histories in the same setting. When traveling through Israel, you can’t help but be struck by all that happened there. Most importantly, in any given day, the Christian pilgrim will visit both Old and New Testament sites, many of which are one and the same.
We can worship God from anywhere, but you will never worship him in the same way after going to the Land of Promise.
For example, Joshua crossed the Jordan where Jesus was baptized. Jonah set sail from the port city where Peter received his vision to kill and eat, before embarking on his first Gentile mission up the coast to Caesarea with Cornelius. King David was born where Jesus was later born, and he established his capital where Jesus was later crucified. Hezekiah built a water system in Isaiah’s day to the pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man. Judas passed through the valley of Jehoshaphat, where Joel foretold of judgment, to kiss Jesus in Gethsemane.
The artificial divide between Old and New Testaments, that stands so tall in the minds of many Bible readers, comes tumbling down like the walls of Jericho when you visit the actual places. Old and New Testament events are jumbled together, stacked one on top of another, in a small corner of the world, with no discernible geographical distinction between what happened before Christ and what happened after. Indeed, the geography of the Land brings a natural unity to the Bible that no book of biblical theology ever could.Life-Changing Experience
We don’t need to go to Israel to live full and satisfied Christian lives. There are no extra credits in heaven for those who make it there. Nevertheless, I urge you to make it a life goal to put your own two feet on the Land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It will forever change you and your walk with God.
We can worship God from anywhere, but you will never worship him the same way after going to the Land of Promise.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday in American Legion v. American Humanist Association—also known as the Bladensburg Cross case. The Court ruled that the 40-foot-tall stone and concrete “Peace Cross” memorial displayed on government-owned property in Bladensburg, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., does not violate the Establishment Clause.What was the case about?
Residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, erected the large cross in 1925 as a memorial for the soldiers in the area who were killed in World War I. The cross was built by the American Legion but is owned and maintained the State of Maryland. In 2012 some local residents filed a lawsuit seeking to have the cross removed, claiming that it violated the clause in the U.S. Constitution barring government from establishing an official religion and favoring one religion over another.What was the lower court ruling?
A federal district court ruled that the cross did not violate the Constitution because the state was using it to honor veterans rather than promote religion. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed that decision based on the presumption that the average citizen would assume the cross represented Christianity.What did the Supreme Court rule?
The Supreme Court reversed the 4th Circuit decision and delivered the opinion that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause.
The Court said there are at least four considerations that show that retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones:
(1) Such cases often concern monuments, symbols, or practices that were first established long ago, and thus, identifying their original purpose or purposes may be especially difficult.
(2) As time goes by, the purposes associated with an established monument, symbol, or practice often multiply, as in the Ten Commandments monuments. Even if the monument’s original purpose was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment, and the monument may be retained for the sake of its historical significance or its place in a common cultural heritage.
(3) The message of a monument, symbol, or practice may evolve. Familiarity itself can become a reason for preservation.
(4) When time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument, symbol, or practice with this kind of familiarity and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral, especially to the local community. The passage of time thus gives rise to a presumption of constitutionality.
The Court determined that by applying these principles the Bladensburg Cross did not violate the Establishment Clause.
“The image of the simple wooden cross that originally marked the graves of American soldiers killed in World War I became a symbol of their sacrifice, and the design of the Bladensburg Cross must be understood in light of that background,” the Court said. “That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.”How did the justices vote in this case?
The decision was 7-2, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.What was the reason for the dissent?
In their dissent Ginsburg and Sotomayor note that the Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, and cite a brief stating that the cross in embodying the “central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” They add,
Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized. Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation. Soldiers of all faiths “are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.” (Brief for Amicus Jewish War Veterans)
By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion. Memorializing the service of American soldiers is an “admirable and unquestionably secular” objective. But the Commission does not serve that objective by displaying a symbol that bears “a starkly sectarian message.”What are the implications for religious liberty?
This ruling is a victory for religious liberty—though the faith that won is a denuded civil religion.
The Court’s decision affirmed that a religious symbol could be allowed on government property if passage of time had made the religious intent unknown or the religious sentiment obscured or the religious symbolism dulled by familiarity. While not directly saying that such symbols had to be secular, the consensus view that was able to attract a majority of the justices was that the cross had to lose its association with Jesus to pass Constitutional muster.
While the majority came to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, the minority of Ginsburg and Sotomayor were wrong in their dissent but recognized the reality that “using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol.”
While we can applaud the outcome we should recognize that it’s not a victory to have the cross stripped of its connection to Jesus. As historian Thomas Kidd says, “I agree with today’s Bladensburg cross case ruling, because it is correct legally. But let’s not kid ourselves (especially Baptists!): a big cross on public land is doing nothing to advance the work of the church or the kingdom of God.”
“Christ’s work, his gospel, is unstoppable. And I wish that somehow I could get this message across to the ayatollahs and the supreme leaders and the dictators that are trying to crush Christianity. You take Chairman Xi right now in China, trying to crush the church, arresting pastors and Christians, trying to impose changes on the Bible so that it will become more in keeping with Chinese communist principles. It’s just like, you are wasting your time. This is the definition of epic fail. You cannot stop Christ from building his church.” — Tim Keesee
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- The Legacy of the Lamb in Bahrain
- The Story of Iran’s Church in Two Sentences
- Help Me Teach the Bible Live with David Platt: Teaching That Ignites a Passion for the World
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
“Whoever has ears let him hear,” Jesus says. But what if God is speaking a language that’s imperceptible to us, and what if we have made ourselves deaf to his voice?
It’s frightening to imagine that we’d be unable to understand God speaking to us. Yet Jesus warns his disciples that unless they can interpret parables—unless they can interpret figurative speech—they will not hear the revelation of God. In his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination, David Lyle Jeffrey—distinguished professor of literature and the humanities at Baylor University—offers a key to understanding God’s words. Jeffrey argues, “Jesus implies that his purpose in using fictive, figural, and enigmatic discourse is to conceal as well as reveal, so that only one who truly seeks his meaning will find it.” To hear God speak, we must attune our ears to poetry.
“God is a poet,” Jeffrey reminds us. “How he speaks, not just what he says, becomes an important measure of who he is.” The content of the message may be lost if a listener doesn’t attend to the form. In the case of God’s Word, Jeffrey explains, “Very often . . . [God] speaks like a poet.” Because of the primacy of poetry in Scripture, knowledge of God partially rests on our ability to read and understand poetry.High and Holy
Jeffrey recognizes that the majority of his readers don’t spend much time listening to or enjoying poetry. More than 30 years ago, the renowned poet Dana Gioia asked, “Can Poetry Matter?” noting that Americans tend to assume poetry’s irrelevance. “Even if poetry continues to be written,” Gioia writes, “it has retreated from the center of literary life.” Reading poetry seems like a distant and elite pastime, one observed by New Yorkers in berets or hipsters in East Austin. Jeffrey acknowledges the temptation to regard poetry as inaccessible to the masses.
Poetry reinvests us in the significance of and reverence due to words, especially the Word.
However, the highness of poetry should be one of the reasons we commit to reading it. From Jeffrey’s vantage point, the elevated style of poetry reinforces the holiness of its content. In this way, poetry may be set apart from daily speech; it may grapple with mystery, and the listener may grasp the weightiness of its substance. “In the kingdom of God and for the sake above all of our worship of God,” Jeffrey advises, “we need poetic art: art allows us a special access to the holy; it is a handmaiden to faith.” Like Sunday set apart from the rest of the week as a holy time that reminds observers of their eternal nature, so poetry reinvests us in the significance of and reverence due to words, especially the Word.
Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination charts a course through the history of English poetry, reacquainting readers with poets from Caedmon to Anthony Hecht who have been influenced by Scripture and who wrote in response to God’s poetry. It shows us many past goods and beauties that shouldn’t be lost. In this way, Jeffrey’s book acts as a piece of translation, passing on cultural memory, showing us where, in our tradition, we’ve stepped off the path—and thus, how to return to ourselves. Jeffrey claims:
If we are to enable a future for imaginative life after our collective addiction to the internet has exhausted its power to anesthetize, we will need somehow to remember “what things were like before“—before poetry withered under the pressure of so many cheap substitutes for its rich nourishment of heart and mind.Poetry after the Reformation
Jeffrey spends the second half of the book discussing “After Reformation” and the trends among Reformation humanists to uplift the “self as authority and arbiter of moral obligation.” These, of course, were “unintended consequences” of the Reformation, yet they profoundly affect the output from Romantic and Enlightenment writers up until modernity. If we read John Donne and George Herbert in early Reformation England, we will experience faithful Christian writing, but the poetry has turned toward the personal. Donne writes poetry of confession, penitence, and desire for salvation, whereas Herbert writes prayers and reads these poems to congregants in his home as a method of pastoral care. The poetic epics of Dante or Chaucer, which grapple with theology, politics, and church as institution, have been gradually replaced with the more introspective uses of poetry.
Rather than spend any time on the heresies of Romantic poetry (my sentiment, not necessarily his), Jeffrey jumps from the 17th century to the moderns who inherit the false vision of self-referential poetry. He quotes John MacMurray’s caution from his 1953–1954 Gifford Lectures:
Firstly modern philosophy takes the Self as its starting point . . . and that secondly the Self is an individual in isolation. . . . The Self so premised is a thinker in search of knowledge, namely instrumental useful information.
With such assumptions about the Self, why would anyone read poetry? Worse yet, those who produce poetry with these presuppositions about the isolated nature of the individual will inevitably write obscure, expressive nonsense. Jeffrey simplifies the modern motto: “The meaning for you—is up to you.”
Perhaps this explains why poetry has fallen so out of fashion. As Jeffrey notes, “A modern poet feels necessarily outside any viable public vision.” If we’re alienated makers of meaning, we have no responsibility to our reader, no passion for anything above or outside our frame of reference, no authority governing our moral judgments. Jeffrey laments, “One of the few dilemmas for modern poets is that their audience knows fewer and fewer words. It has, moreover, cut itself off from conversations with the past.” Yet, there is hope, even among the modern poets, and now in contemporary English poetry. Those poems that seek to express “a form for the personal as relationship” and that provoke “not merely private experience but also shared memory” will thus give us back “some portion of common vision. Such poetry becomes a road home.”Urgency of Poetry
In a piece in Image: Journal of Religion and the Arts, Katherine Willis Pershey argues that “in this world of war crimes and car commercials, poems quietly but firmly insist on drawing our attention to matters of ordinary beauty and ultimate importance.”
Poetry gives name to ineffable mysteries. When the ordinary word feels like the dull hum of an overheated monitor, poetry breaks through, like divine intervention, so that we can hear again who God is and who we are. Without poetry, we may be fated to talk like computers in code, like advertisers in meaningless slogans, or like animals in barks and growls. Poetry elevates us to our place as creative creatures in a created order. If, as Jeffrey reminds us, God is the “originary Poet—the One who writes the world,” then we must learn to hear poetry. Else we risk being those who, Jesus warned, will have eyes but see not and have ears but hear not.
Let’s admit it: it’s trendy to knock the prosperity gospel. Over the years it’s practically become a sport to make fun of outlandish preachers who drive Bentleys and raise 65 million dollars for “much needed” private airliners. On one hand, it’s a kind of comic relief as we try to refrain from explosive anger over those who exploit and abuse others. On the other, we can succumb to a “us” vs. “them” mentality, dehumanizing such preachers as little more than demonic monsters and firing at will.
Liberty from the bondage of false teaching isn’t a license to kill; it’s an opportunity to be light. How easy it is to digitally machine-gun our target in the name of Christ without ever stopping to pray, and to lose sight of the reason for calling out false teaching: the Great Commission.
Are there times we must stand firm for the gospel? Absolutely. Should we ever compromise truth to reach people? No. But we must resist the urge to swing to the extremes of constant attack or total apathy, becoming little more than Facebook finger-pointers and armchair tweeters. We must remember the “why” behind refuting errors and witnessing for truth. Souls are at stake. Time is short.
Liberty from the bondage of false teaching isn’t a license to kill; it’s an opportunity to be light.
If you catch yourself inching toward either extreme, keep three imperative truths at close range. (I came up with these by recounting the times I failed miserably when God saved me out of the prosperity gospel.)1. A Prosperity Preacher Is a Lost Soul. So Pray.
We have good motives for wanting to fight prosperity teaching. Who doesn’t want to take down the bad guys? The problem comes when hardened layers begin to build in our heart and we become no better than the evil we’re trying to eradicate. There is a heartbeat under all the heresy, and God desires prayer for all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:1–4).
The chasm between us and prosperity charlatans isn’t so wide. They’re souls are in need of salvation. We too were once hopelessly lost, but Christ set us free. We too can be seduced by greed, but grace prevailed.
Pray for them. Someone once did for you.2. A Prosperity Preacher’s Deceived Followers Need Truth. So Proclaim.
Those who subscribe to the poisonous doctrines of prosperity theology are both villains and victims. Villains because they raise up these teachers for themselves (2 Tim. 4:3); victims because many are desperate and genuinely looking for answers, albeit in the wrong places.
Spiritual children bicker and banter on the playground. Spiritual adults stay busy at work.
So often people who have the truth look at the deceived with disdain. You’re so blind. I’m done with you. But we ought to use our relational equity with those being deceived to proclaim the truth every chance we get. Yes, this may mean we’re not invited back to social events, family gatherings, or even conferences with other preachers. But our commission from Christ to be witnesses to the whole earth means that often we’re seed-planting more than we’re harvesting.
Instead of writing people off or assuming they’re hopeless, go on a rescue mission like Jude 22–23 calls for.3. Satan Wants You Distracted from the Mission. So Persevere.
Our enemy loves when we take detours from running the race for souls in favor of vain wrangling. First, there are those who sit on a holy hill, essentially thinking: God, thank you that I am not like “those guys.” Thank you that my Calvinism has preserved my elect soul and that my humble words are full of Scripture-saturated wisdom.
Second, there are those of us who spend too much time in the trenches of gossip, bantering over things that matter little but distract much. Such detours enable us to gossip about the mission field more than reach it. Thankfully, if we respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit with humility, he grows us into persevering believers. So we must turn to him to make us mature vessels, useful for the glory of Christ and the spread of his gospel. Spiritual children bicker and banter on the playground. Spiritual adults stay busy at work.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard work to maintain balance in these areas. It’s tempting to ignore maddening prosperity preachers altogether—and to spend too much time hammering them. Somewhere in the middle, though, is the grace to resist dwelling on the endless stream of blasphemy—and having the guts to call it out when the opportunity arises. In a forthcoming book I’ve put my best effort into not simply talking about the problems, but providing biblical solutions.
The world needs our witness. Let’s avoid apathy, guard against mere gossip, and stay on mission.
Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
What, then, of classical music in particular? Strictly speaking, “classical music” is the music of a fairly brief era (roughly, the second half of the 18th century), but the term is commonly used to refer to the whole stream of music associated with European concert and operatic culture, emerging around 1600. Sometimes called “art music,” it’s generally regarded as there to be listened to, not just heard. This doesn’t make it superior or more valuable than other music, just different. It asks for your concentrated attention over time, a willingness to stay with it in the belief that it will deliver more with each listening. It means suspending the question, “Do I like it?” and asking instead, “What’s going on here?”
And the Christian can ask a further question: “What might I learn theologically from what’s going on here?”
If you are new to this genre, here are six pieces of music that might provide a good “way in.1. J. S. Bach (1685–1750), St. Matthew Passion
This is arguably the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era. Vivid, compelling, and emotionally direct, it takes you inside the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a way that perhaps has never been equalled. Bach, a committed Lutheran, was steeped in Scripture, and understood its nuances, subtleties, and ramifications better than most other musicians of his time. You are made to feel responsible for what happened on Good Friday, and made to rethink your entire relation to the One who was crucified. Bear in mind that it lasts almost three hours. It’s best not to listen to it in one sitting, especially if you are new to Bach. Digest it in sections. And it’s wise to use a guide. Try Calvin Stapert’s book My Only Comfort, the best introduction to Bach’s theological world. (See also Bethany Jenkins’s article “Without Luther, There Would Be No Bach.”)2. G. F. Handel (1685–1759), Messiah
Pity the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to include Messiah at Christmastime, when album sales and downloads of the oratorio escalate. Written at breathtaking speed (in less than a month), it has understandably become a classic. Handel sets to music nothing but biblical texts (the majority are from the Old Testament) in order to show the coherence of Scripture’s story, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ. The result is a drama in three parts, roughly corresponding to Christ’s incarnation, redemptive work, and eternal reign. Again, Calvin Stapert provides the best guide (Handel’s Messiah). The best recording, in my view, is that by Stephen Layton with Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia. Stunningly dramatic.3. W. A. Mozart (1756–1791), Piano Concerto, No. 21 in C major, K.467, last movement
In his later years, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth used to listen to Mozart’s music every day as a kind of spiritual practice. In it he said he heard the physical world being enabled, by Mozart, to praise God. In other words, Mozart doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t struggle to “say” something, or express his inner self. He simply lets himself become the vehicle of a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah. Listen to the bubbling, joyful abundance of this piece’s third movement for piano and orchestra, and you may end up thinking Barth had a point.4. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), fourth and fifth movements
Standing at the turn from the “classical” to the “Romantic” era, Beethoven unleashed forms of human expression that permanently changed the course of music history. His massive output mesmerized the 19th-century composers who were unlucky enough to come immediately after him.
Beethoven become well known for his “heroic” style—aspiring, thrusting, and often highly aggressive. This “Pastoral” symphony shows a different side to him—less assertive, far more settled, gracious, and thankful. For him, this work was meant to turn into sound the feelings evoked by the countryside surrounding Vienna, the fields and lanes where he often wandered. The fourth and fifth movements lead you from a fierce storm into “Shepherd’s song: cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” It is one of the great transitions of Western music: The sense of almost childlike gratitude is likely to melt even the hardest of hearts. (Simon Rattle’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is exceptional.)5. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943), Piano Concerto No. 2, Adagio sostenuto
Never has the longing of the human heart for a distant Home been more eloquently evoked than in the music of Rachmaninov, a composer forced to spend much of his life away from his beloved Russia. Composed as he emerged from severe depression, the second piano concerto is perhaps the best-known piece of classical music ever written, and it deserves its popularity. N. T. Wright has said our world is marked by an “aching beauty”—its splendor is glorious, but it is marred and awaiting fulfillment. Listen to the second movement with that in mind. (Among the plethora of recordings, try Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)6. James MacMillan (1959–), Seven Last Words from the Cross
I began with the cross, and now return to it. Sir James MacMillan may be the most theologically profound Christian composer alive. He manages to give voice to a vibrant hope, but never descends into sentimentality, never allows us to forget that God heals the world by descending into its darkest depths. In seven short movements, the last words of Christ are set to music in a way that is both profoundly true to the Gospels, and disturbingly fresh. Among other things, we are reminded how silence can become the very substance of music. In the last piece, we hear an evocation of Jesus actually dying, taking his last breaths. If you ever need to be convinced of the theological power of music, you could hardly do better than begin here.
Healthy relationships are vital to healthy ministry. Church-planting pastors who don’t cultivate healthy relationships won’t build healthy churches.
As Paul wrote to churches in the New Testament, he constantly emphasized how the gospel ought to shape the relationships among God’s people.
- In Ephesians 4, he instructs people to be humble, gentle, and bear with one another in love.
- In Colossians 3, he exhorts believers to forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven us.
- In Romans 13, we’re told to love one another with brotherly affection, and to outdo one another in showing honor.
- In Philippians 2, we’re told to count others more significant than ourselves as we follow Jesus together.
So Paul is clear: The church is to be marked by healthy relationships. If this is what the New Testament calls churches to, then pastors need to be exemplary in this area. And that’s why we believe church planters need to be men who cultivate healthy relationships.
But what does this actually look like? To help us think about healthy relationships in church planting, I’m excited to have my friend Lucas Parks with me today.
After I first mentioned in public that I take antidepressant medication, a church member and friend stunned me: “If someone had told me that a member of our church ministry team was battling poor mental health, I’d never have guessed it was you!”
I had always assumed my issues were fairly obvious. But then I would. I was the one who spent my days (not to mention long nights) on the shadow side of the ministry mask. It simply hadn’t occurred to me how effective my mask was. Nor had it occurred to me that pastors being open about mental-health struggles could have a positive effect.Pastors Get Depressed, Too
It seems like ministers shouldn’t get depressed, doesn’t it? Jesus is sufficient!
He is indeed. But none of that prevents illness of the mind. If it did, we’d have to call into question the spiritual state of King David and other psalmists, of Elijah and Jeremiah, perhaps even of Paul. It would likewise cast shadows over the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin, C. H. Spurgeon and C. S. Lewis. Because, quite frankly, many ministers do get depressed. The evidence is clear and the testimonies cascade.
Church ministry, for all its rewards and joys, is often lonely, stressful, and caged by unreal expectations. Pastoral work is never done; it’s relentless.
Pastors live in the same world as those we serve. A large percentage of people will have to deal with depression or an equivalent during their lives (25 percent is often touted, though who can really know?). Why should be you and I be any different?
In fact, we might expect the proportion of pastors to be higher than the general population. Church ministry, for all its rewards and joys, is often lonely, stressful, and caged by unreal expectations. Pastoral work is never done; it’s relentless. We engage with people in times of crisis. We aren’t perfect, nor omnicompetent, nor endowed with limitless stamina. So, naturally, we struggle. But because of a prevailing stigma, perhaps particularly in the church, we don’t want people to know what we’re dealing with.The Sharing Dilemma
When it comes to any sensitive personal issue, everyone in public ministry must find their own threshold between oversharing about weaknesses and the mask of saintly perfection. At the poles of this sharing spectrum are obvious errors and dangers.
For starters, there’s oversharing. We’re hardly meant, as ambassadors of Christ, to talk about ourselves all the time. Also, not everyone in the church needs to know about everything you struggle with. It’s good for ministers and their families to have privacy. Also, it can be a risk to open up at all. I recently heard of elders assuring a pastor and his wife of their commitment to them, such that they could share their real heart-pain. So they did. Two weeks later, they were fired.
Pastors who work through, not despite, brokenness have far greater traction today than the slick schtick of TV presenters.
At the other extreme, a minister can be so buttoned down that few, if any, get anywhere close to him. Perhaps he can hide his depression and other struggles. This leads to two problems. First, congregants might assume their pastor floats higher than mortals. They might be impressed for a while, but when their own troubles come, discouragement and even despair inevitably follow. The pastor clearly can’t relate to these troubles, so the people stop listening. Second, people presume concealment. The pastor can’t be that good, surely? A presumption of hypocrisy, if not outright guilt, is now the norm. The result? The people stop listening.Pastor Opens Up
It’s good when pastors wisely open up. But opening up about mental health? It’s one thing to talk openly about spiritual battles and temptations (though not in too much detail, except to a few close friends); it’s another matter entirely to admit to depression. Right?
But when circumstances and personal confidence allow, it can be of great benefit to a congregation when a pastor is open about this issue—for several reasons.
First, openness serves the health of the fellowship. When I first preached about depression at All Souls, the response was largely positive. A few found it difficult to cope with a minister having his own problems—they needed him to deal with theirs! But that was only a handful. Most significant for me was the number who felt they could now admit their own challenges for the first time. It gave them permission: “Well if he can say it publicly, perhaps I can too.” The fellowship of the church ought to be the place of safety par excellence for those who know they are weak, fallible, and broken.
Second, openness is crucial for witnessing to a cynical world. This obviously requires elaboration, but many today are exasperated by spin and bravado, which they can sniff a mile off. Prevailing suspicions about religious institutions will only be confirmed by leaders who appear to live in denial of their humanness and brokenness. This isn’t simply the pursuit of that political holy grail, “authenticity.” It’s a matter of realism about life’s complexities and questions. Pastors who work through, not despite, brokenness have far greater traction today than the slick schtick of TV presenters.
There is no one right answer, but I would encourage pastors with depression to consider sharing their struggles with their congregations. Your honesty could bear beautiful fruit.
“What is First Maccabees?”
This question—posed to me by a second-year theology graduate student—reminded me of a gap in knowledge often found among Protestants about the so-called Apocrypha.
Though the original King James Version included the Apocrypha in a separate section, essentially all Protestant Bibles after the late-1600s have excluded these books. We now face a strange situation: The Bibles of almost 60 percent of global Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) include these writings as “Deuterocanon,” while many Protestants either don’t know they exist—or view them with suspicion.
But should this be the case?The “Apocrypha” are a collection of Greek writings (though some may have had Hebrew sources) that emerged from 300 BC to AD 100 , including the following (brackets indicate debated status):
Additions to Esther
Wisdom of Solomon Sirach
Epistle of Jeremiah
Additions to Daniel (Susanna, Bel, and so on) [Two books of Esdras]
[Prayer of Manasseh]
[Psalms of Solomon]
If we look to our Protestant past, we find a different posture toward the Apocrypha. Article 6 of the Belgic Confession states, “The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books.” The sixth Article of Religion of the Book of Common Prayer reads, “The other books . . . the church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners.” And though the Westminster Confession (1.3) takes a negative stance, it still permits their use analogous to “other human writings.” Many Reformers and Puritans were well-versed in them.
What would it look like for Protestants to rediscover a proper use of the Apocrypha?Doctrinal Authority or Personal Edification?
Answering this question requires entering into a longstanding debate over two issues: Which writings are the authority on doctrine, and which are useful only for personal edification?
We see glimmers of this differentiation as early as 4 Ezra 14.44–48, but the issue comes to the forefront with Origen, Augustine, and Jerome. Origen and Augustine suggest that the Apocrypha should be received as authoritative because the church largely uses them that way, given they were often circulating with the Greek translations of the Scriptural books. But Jerome goes a different direction. In his Prologue to Wisdom and Sirach, he argues:
As the church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of the Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures, so let it also read these two volumes for the edification of the people, not to give authority to doctrines of the church.
Jerome reiterates this distinction between edification and authority in his Vulgate preface.
The early Reformers, from Karlstadt and Luther onward, adopt Jerome’s distinction. The Book of Common Prayer explicitly cites Jerome to this effect, as does Calvin. Perhaps surprisingly, many medieval Roman Catholic theologians did the same (for example, Nicholas of Lyra, Cardinal Cajetan, Cardinal Ximenes). Only at the Council of Trent did the Apocrypha become fully authoritative as a “second canon” within Roman Catholicism.
Only at the Council of Trent did the Apocrypha become fully authoritative as a ‘second canon’ within Roman Catholicism.
What, then, are we to make of this tug-of-war between authority and edification?Authority and the Messiness of History
To handle the Apocrypha wisely, Protestants need a coherent stance on whether its books possess divine authority or not.
History on this front is somewhat messy. On the one hand, early Jews and Christians clearly used the Apocrypha. Books like Tobit and Sirach were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus employs 1 Maccabees and 1 Esdras as historical sources. Moreover, several Apocrypha are quoted by early Christian writers (for example, Polycarp quotes Tobit, and 1 Clement quotes Judith). This continues into the Reformation; for example, in Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:20, he quotes Baruch 4:7 as a “prophet.”
On the other hand, scattered citations of these books do not automatically confer authority. Among early Jews, Josephus excludes the Apocrypha from his canon list, and Philo paid them little attention. The early Old Testament translators Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion ignored them. Jewish rejection of the Apocrypha was solidified in the second century AD.
Scattered citations do not automatically confer authority.
Among Christians, things are a bit murkier. Some early canon lists (for example, Origen, Melito, Mommsen, Hilary, Athanasius, Council of Laodicea) included various Apocryphal books. Additions to Esther and Daniel were sometimes considered part of their respective canonical writings. And most Greek Old Testament codices included various combinations of Apocryphal books.
With such complex historical data, are there stable grounds for Protestants rejecting the authority of the Apocrypha? Yes.Three-Pronged Case Against Apocryphal Authority
Three cumulative considerations might be offered.1. Scripture is covenant documentation.
There is a subtly important phrase in 2 Corinthians 3:14: “when they read the old covenant.” God’s covenant is something to be read. This taps into a deep vein of biblical theology whereby God’s covenant takes permanent form in scriptural writings (e.g., Ex. 31:18; Ps. 50:16; and so on).
This covenantal understanding of Scripture continues in the early Jewish-Christian period. Sirach and 1 Maccabees describe the Old Testament as a “book of the covenant” (Sir. 24:23; 1 Macc. 1:56–67), as do many church fathers (Melito, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem).
Writings given by God as covenant documentation are inherently authoritative by virtue of the Covenant-Maker. They aren’t awaiting future debates about authority. They simply are.
How does this illumine the Apocrypha question? The undisputed Old Testament writings (Genesis–Malachi) were given by God as his covenant purposes for Israel were being worked out. The Old Testament ends, however, in the state of open-ended covenant curse, with a post-exilic restoration that fell short. Malachi anticipates a future day when God would finally return to his temple (Mal. 3:1–4; 4:1–5). Even the Apocryphal writings—especially Baruch—attest to a sense of ongoing exile among the Jewish diaspora. In such a period of covenant curse, there would be no reason to receive miscellaneous new writings—particularly those composed (or translated) in Greek under the Greco-Roman empire—as covenant Scriptures in the same sense as the Hebrew writings of ancient Israel.2. The threefold canon emerges early.
There are early signs that the authoritative covenant documents were received as a threefold Hebrew collection: Law, Prophets, and Writings.
We see this first in the Old Testament itself. Earlier Old Testament writings are regularly cited by later ones, indicating a growing recognition of authority. A vague sense of threefoldness is evoked even within the Old Testament (see Zech. 7:12; Jer. 18:18; Ezek. 7:26).
When we assemble the evidence, the authority question is ultimately settled in the direction of the Jewish canon endorsed by Jesus, Jerome, pre-Trent Catholicism, and the Reformers.
The threefold shape of the canon is well-attested in early Jewish works like the Prologue to Sirach; 2 Macc. 2:13–14; 4Q397; Philo (Cont. 25); and Josephus (Apion 1.8). Most importantly, Jesus affirms the threefold authoritative “Scriptures” in Luke 24:44–45.
In short, early Jews and Christians ascribe authority only to the Law, Prophets, and Writings. There is no evidence that any Apocryphal books were received into this collection.3. Apocryphal writings do not attest their own authority.
Finally, the Apocrypha generally put themselves in a different category from the authoritative Scriptures. As mentioned above, the Prologue to Sirach acknowledges the “law and the prophets and the others that followed them,” but then speaks of the work of Ben Sira himself as merely “something” written for instruction—not an addition to the canonical collection. Psalm 151’s introduction states that it is “outside the number.” And the recurring refrain of the Hebrew Scriptures—“Thus says the LORD”—is essentially absent from the Apocrypha.
When we assemble the evidence, the authority question is ultimately settled in the direction of the Jewish canon endorsed by Jesus, Jerome, pre-Trent Catholicism, and the Reformers.Can the Apocrypha Be Used for Edification?
In light of this, what might it look like to approach the Apocrypha for edification without ascribing them authority? A few suggestions come to mind.
First, the Apocrypha provide invaluable insight into first-century Jewish soteriology. Often the Talmud’s 613 mitzvot (commandments) will be mentioned in the pulpit as a lens on Judaism in the New Testament, but this is anachronistic, given they were not codified as such until the third century AD or later. The Apocrypha are more historically relevant; much is gained, for example, by contrasting Abraham’s imputation in 1 Maccabees 2:52 with Romans 4.
Second, the Apocrypha provide historical coloring for the Gospels. Many details in the Gospels—the Zealots, the centrality of the temple, Jewish festivals, and more—can be more fully grasped by looking at the Apocrypha. First Maccabees, for example, is an invaluable historical source covering the events in Judea during the intertestamental period.
Third, the Apocrypha are an important source for studying the words and phrases of the New Testament. Because they reflect the same linguistic environment as the New Testament, these Greek writings are a helpful repository for studying New Testament words such as righteousness and covenant.
Fourth, at many points the Apocryphal writings are commenting on the Old Testament, thus providing a window on how early Jews interpreted canonical writings. We needn’t ascribe authority to their interpretations, but we can learn something by comparing them to the New Testament.
Fifth, the Apocrypha can be beneficial in their own right. Like C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien, the Apocrypha can be edifying without being authoritative. They are a kind of early Jewish “fan fiction” that builds on the authoritative Scriptures. Read Susanna as a B-side on Daniel’s ingenuity. Read Judith as a suspenseful novella about a Jewish princess who chops off an evil ruler’s head. Read Tobit as an adventure story involving a quest to heal bird-poop-induced blindness with the help of the angel Raphael.
The Apocrypha can be edifying without being authoritative. They are a kind of early Jewish ‘fan fiction’ that builds on the authoritative Scriptures.
Finally, we can read the Apocrypha as charitable members of the global church. Much is gained by understanding these writings’ content, early church reception, and influence on doctrinal debates during the Reformation—but you have to know what 1 Maccabees is before you can begin. Though Protestants strongly disagree with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy on the authority of these writings, it can still be useful to know something about them—rather than nothing at all.
A strong work ethic has always been my calling card. During college and my early career, I packed my schedule from the wee hours of the morning until my head hit the pillow late at night. Though my responsibilities have shifted since then, I still take on too many to-dos, then feel stressed when I struggle to cross them off. In these moments, I hear echoes of my mom’s warning back in my college days: “Honey, don’t burn the candle at both ends.”
Many adults with driven personalities feel compelled to work nonstop. Whether we work at the office or at home, we resist clocking out from tasks or allocating time for breaks. Email inboxes demand our constant attention; school and sports activities consume our weekly schedules. This compulsion even extends to ministry. We realize the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few, so we say yes to commitment after commitment without considering if we can do the work well on top of our current obligations. Wanting to glorify God in all we do leads us to strain our arms with impossibly heavy burdens.
Like the apostle Paul—who suffered fatigue, hunger, and pain as he poured out his life to advance God’s kingdom—we can expect to grow weary at times in our vocations and ministry work. But routinely overextending ourselves carries greater risk than merely making us tired. It can jeopardize our health and ability to serve, hinder others from stepping into roles where they can use their gifts, and captivate our hearts with working for Christ rather than with Christ himself.
This temptation to overwork stems from wrong assumptions about who we are and what God is calling us to do. Identifying three myths we believe about work—and reasserting the truth that should guide our actions—can help us avoid burnout as we labor to shine the light of the gospel.Burnout Myth #1: We Have to Do It All
Why do we assume we should juggle so many tasks? A viral BuzzFeed article suggests it’s because we were raised to believe we have to work all the time. Reporter Anne Helen Petersen asserts that trends in the economy, technology, parenting styles, and social media conditioned us to become “lean, mean production machines” who push ourselves to exhaustion yet still feel the urge to press on.
Often, though, the root of our work compulsion is sin. We want to be like God—limitless, all-powerful masters of our domains. Just as those who built the Tower of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves by the work of their hands, we take on every available task and fill all open time slots, stacking bricks for our own little kingdoms.
Instead of striving for control of our lives and circumstances, we need to acknowledge and trust in God’s sovereignty. Our Father in heaven is always working for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the fields (Matt. 5:26–29). He never sleeps (Ps. 121:4) and holds all things together in and through his Son (Col. 1:17).
Knowing the Lord reigns on his eternal throne, we can say no to tasks we can’t realistically complete. We can ask the supervisor to let us finish the project on Monday rather than over the weekend, or politely decline opportunities to volunteer on a more frequent basis. Accepting God’s sovereignty frees us from grasping for control and hustling till we drop.Burnout Myth #2: God Needs Us
Many of us who grew up in the church are well familiar with the calling to be approved and unashamed workers (2 Tim. 2:15). But even when laboring to bring God glory, we can fall into sin by acting as though God needs us to accomplish his will. If we stop, how else will his kingdom advance?
This pseudo-stewardship mindset requires a spiritual reboot. While we’re commanded to work heartily unto the Lord and take care of creation, we must remember we’re part of creation. God grants us many wonderful skills and abilities, but he doesn’t imbue us with his omnipotence or self-sufficiency. He always accomplishes what he wills without any assistance from his weak and wayward children.
Moreover, God crafted us as his workmanship to walk in the good works he prepared (Eph. 2:10). And his command for us to rest demonstrates how our good works depend ultimately on him. Trust in his supremacy frees us to step away from our jobs for a time, allowing us to slow down and remember our utter dependence on him. Regular intervals of rest affirm our trust that God’s Word will go forth by his power—not ours.Burnout Myth #3: We Have to Do It Alone
Pausing to rest honors the Lord and helps us recharge. But achieving perfect work–life balance is a pipe dream. Bosses and babies don’t always respect our need for downtime. People who work high-demand occupations, single moms or dads, and full-time caregivers rarely catch a break from their taxing responsibilities.
When heavy workloads threaten to overwhelm us, we can remember God didn’t create us to operate alone. He provided Adam a helper: Eve. He sent his Spirit as a comforter and guide. He formed the body of Christ to serve his people and the world. His Word exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
If we start feeling stretched too thin, we must crush our pride and ask for help. Because God designed us to live in community, we need to team up as gospel co-laborers and lean on one another for reinforcement. We can delegate tasks to coworkers so we can focus on a separate project, or text a friend to help watch the kids if we need to run to an appointment. Many hands make the load lighter than trying to carry it on our own.
For ultimate relief from burnout, we can only turn to our Savior. He took on the weakness of humanity, dripping blood, sweat, and tears through work as a carpenter and ultimately death on a cross. As undeserved beneficiaries of Christ’s finished labor, we get to radiate the glory of his everlasting light.
Puritan theologian William Ames (1576–1633) offered my favorite definition of theology: the art of living well. Robust theology ought to lead to robust living. Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker) [read TGC’s review] characterizes this truth well.
Barrett had an awakening in the years before he became a scholar to the God of the Bible and now he’s seeking to make his character and attributes clear and accessible to laypeople so that learning the attributes of God transforms people’s lives.
I interviewed Barrett—associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—about his new book and theology for laypeople in general. We discussed his desire to write theology for the local church, justification by faith, whether it’s possible to talk Christian living without talking theology, and more.In the introduction to None Greater, you recount an experience prior to entering ministry that opened your eyes to the greatness of God. Talk a bit about that.
As a young Christian attending evangelical churches, I noticed there was a main objective whenever Christians talked about God: He must be relatable and relational, intimate and immanent. That often meant you determined who God is by looking to your human experience. So, if we experience love, God just has more love. If we have knowledge, God just has more knowledge. This also worked in the other direction: If we grieve or suffer, God grieves or suffers too. What kind of God does this leave us with? A God who is just a bigger, better version of ourselves.
But then I (accidentally!) read Augustine’s Confessions. I had read my Bible for years, but Augustine opened my eyes afresh to the God of Scripture. Augustine taught me that God is not just our ideal version of ourselves; he is an altogether different kind of being. He is not the finite creature but the infinite Creator. He is not merely greater in size but in essence; in fact, his essence is immeasurable and unbounded, incapable of being limited by human experience.
God is not just our ideal version of ourselves.
Then I stumbled across Anselm, who said God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived; he is the perfect, infinite being. Anything that would limit God cannot not be true of God. That means certain perfect-making attributes must follow, attributes that shield God from limitations like change, emotional fluctuation, divisible parts, dependence on the creature, lack of knowledge, a succession of moments, and so on.
This turned my world upside down. I thought I knew God, but I was surprised by God. This left me frustrated—how could I be in church for so long and have read my Bible so many years and never heard of attributes like immutability, impassibility, simplicity, aseity, and timeless eternity? But this discovery also left me thrilled—this God is far greater than I ever imagined and must be worthy of worship. After this discovery, my Bible became a strange new world.One of the best features of your book is the target audience: it’s a volume on the attributes of God that is impeccably researched but written for laypeople. How important is it for academic theologians to serve the church in this way?
So important. I often hear scholars lament how shallow church is these days and how little theology churchgoers (or even pastors) know. Yet they do nothing about it. That must change, but it won’t unless scholars who spend their lives studying Scripture and theology start lisping to novice students, pastors, and churchgoers. When we look back at the greatest revivals of theology in church history, they occurred in part because scholars communicated truth to those in pews and then mounted pulpits. The church fathers who wrote the Nicene Creed, for example, understood the survival of the church itself was at stake. Reformers like Martin Luther may have started off writing theses for academic debate, but they quickly realized the Reformation would only take root if its ideas (and its Bible) were put in the vernacular. I could go on. Point is, scholarship divorced from the church is a bad hangover from the Enlightenment. In most of history, scholarship was for the church.We don’t often talk in church about things like the aseity or the simplicity of God. How have you sought to make those things accessible to lay Christians?
There is a popular caricature that says the doctrine of God is some abstract theory that has nothing to do with the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mentioned how I providentially read Augustine, but keep in mind that his Confessions are biography in the form of prayers. That’s right, prayers! As he prays, he puts his theology on full display. Apparently, the greatest minds of the church thought who God is has everything to do with the Christian life.
We see this with God’s attributes. Ask yourself, what are the consequences of rejecting attributes like aseity, simplicity, immutability, or impassibility? The consequences are devastating. If God is not life in and of himself, self-sufficient, and self-existent—but a God who depends on us finite creatures—then he is a God who needs saving just as much as we do. If God is not simple—but instead is composed or compounded by parts—then he is divisible. Frankly, this is a God who will fall apart on us, for he is destructible. If God is not immutable—but changes—then how do we know whether we can trust him? Will he come through on his saving promises? If God is not impassible—but suffers alongside us—how can we have any assurance that he can or will overcome the suffering we experience in this world? Is he not just as much a victim as we are, and should we not feel pity for him rather than pray to him?
In short, everything from Christian assurance to the gospel itself hinges on who God is eternally. To undercut these attributes is to rob the believer of gospel promises that not only give him confidence in the moment, but hope for the future. Why in the world would we not cherish such attributes in church and proclaim them from the pulpit?Do you think the way we often talk in church about God is faulty? We often hear him spoken of as “the man upstairs” or something similar. I heard a woman many years ago who encouraged a Sunday school class to call God “buddy.” How can we help people in our churches think (and talk) more reverently about God?
Our God talk betrays us. This is a God made in the image of our culture, but it’s not the God of the Bible. This type of God is more like the pagan deities of the nations around Israel, gods these nations created and could control or manipulate. But when we open the Scriptures, we see a different picture of God. He is the God of Moses: no one can see his glory and live. He is the God of Isaiah: high and lifted up. He is the God of Jeremiah: there is no one like him.
Only when we stand in utter awe of his transcendence—saying, with Isaiah, “Woe is me!”—will we be baffled by his gracious immanence. Only when we grasp that he is the infinite Lord will we be amazed that he would stoop so low as to speak to and save sinners.
The God talk we’ve imbibed from the culture is ironic. In our desperation to make God immanent, we’ve lost immanence altogether. We’ve domesticated him, making him safe and tame. Why are we surprised that we have little desire to worship this God, let alone fear him?I heard a statement from a person defending a wildly popular book written by a Christian giving advice on everyday living. It went something like this: “This book is not about theology, so it shouldn’t be critiqued as a work of theology.” Is it possible to write about everyday living as a Christian while remaining atheological?
Don’t take the bait! Any book that claims to talk about God, his people, or the Christian life is a book that cannot escape things theological. It’s main purpose may not be to expound theology itself, but to pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is (that is what theology is, after all) is to write like an atheist.
To pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is is to write like an atheist.
It’s also dangerous. It gives people the impression that the books that really matter are those you see in the “spiritual life” or “Christian living” section of bookstores. Meanwhile, books on “theology” are reserved for those who sign up for cemetery—I mean seminary. Again, don’t take the bait. One of the wisest things C. S. Lewis ever said (you can read it in his preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation) had to do with his discovery of old books of theology. He was far more likely to hit his knees in prayer when he had a pencil in hand with a tough bit of theology than he ever did with the latest, hippest book on spirituality.
Theology exists because worship does not. Theology should always lead to doxology. If not, then you are either not studying the God you think you are studying, or you are trying to study God without knowing God. Both are tragic in God’s eyes.
One last thing: If spending your time learning about the very character of God is not relevant to what it means to be a Christian, then honestly, I don’t know what it means to be a Christian anymore, nor am I sure I want to be one.You have another book that recently released on Justification by Faith. Talk about that one a bit. Why is it so important that we assert and reassert that critical doctrine every few years?
That’s right! If you enjoyed None Greater, then consider working through The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls (Crossway, 2019). I’ve asked some of the best minds in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology to come together and write a positive presentation of the doctrine of justification.
Protestants since the Reformation have rightly believed that the church stands or falls on this doctrine. If we get justification wrong, it’s just a matter of time before we misunderstand the gospel and its power to make us right with God. Few doctrines have come under such severe attack today as our doctrine of justification. I fear that the Reformational view of justification—which I believe is the biblical view—is so muddied by competing interpretations that not only the churchgoer and pastor but the student and scholar are left in ambiguity, not sure what to believe anymore. So, it seemed wise to gather a team that could clear away the fog and give a positive case for justification—one that returns to Scripture afresh and does so with theological rigor.
Prayer is an old-fashioned Christian virtue that we retain today because we know we should. “I’ll be praying for you,” we tell our friends who are facing trouble. Yet how much effort do we later expend? Even worse is the expression, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to you”—an offering so bland that even unbelievers can use the verbiage when tragedy strikes. Modern prayer has become mere well-wishing.
Of course, there are certainly some legitimate prayer warriors in our midst. The church always has its Daniels. Yet most of us wish we were better at praying. It’s not that we don’t do it; we just don’t do it with the power and energy that such a central aspect of the Christian life deserves.
Our problem isn’t new. Previous generations faced it as well. We know this because D. L. Moody (1837–1899) wrote a book about it: Prevailing Prayer: What Hinders It? His searching question—what makes our prayers triumph instead of fail?—is one we still ask today. And Moody provided answers just as relevant now as when he penned them back in 1884. His wisdom from those bygone days of top hats and muttonchops still applies in our age of hipster beards and skinny jeans. Prayer is a constant struggle in the Christian life.Prayer as Warfare
The term prevailing was a Gilded Age way of speaking about victory in combat. Google’s analytics of English word usage show a steady decline in the use of prevail from 1800 to today. Yet the meaning is clear enough. It means winning or triumphing, especially in a warfare situation. Prayer was envisioned as a kind of battle, an endeavor in which we could win or lose. For Moody’s original hearers, the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so it made sense to think about life in martial terms.
But the image of prayer as combat is familiar to us, too, even if we don’t always speak that way. Why? Because it’s biblical. In the Old Testament, prayerfulness was intimately connected to Israel’s triumph over enemies. When God’s stubborn people finally reached the limits of their oppression by foreign powers or warlike neighbors, they turned to the LORD in prayer. Only then did he raise up a deliverer or give victory in battle. Prayer was the mechanism by which Israel “prevailed.”
And combat imagery wasn’t limited to Old Testament battles of thundering chariots and armor-clad soldiers. The spiritual warfare of New Testament believers also relied on prayer. Such language is common today. Referring to gospel evangelization, John Piper can speak about “Winning Battles through Prayer.” Or again, he can reflect on “Prayer and the Victory of God.” This isn’t just a quirk of evangelical parlance. Catholics use the concept, too: “The Battle of Prayer” is a major part of the modern catechism. It’s a universal Christian theme, because it is found in the Bible.‘What Hinders It?’
One of the questions asked in the Catholic catechism is, “Why do we complain of not being heard?” Moody was asking the same question back in the Victorian era. His brother-in-law, Fleming H. Revell, had established a publishing house in 1870. One of his first bestselling authors was the famous Chicago evangelist who had married his sister. To answer the eternal question of what hinders victorious prayer, Revell published Moody’s book in 1884. Today, an updated edition is available from another ministry birthed in the age of Moody and Revell: Moody Publishers (my current place of employment).
The thing you notice immediately when you pick up this forgotten classic is that Moody had no doubts about prayer’s efficacy. He cites with approval the 19th-century aphorism, widely quoted as early as 1836, that “prayer moves the arm that moves the world.” When earnest prayers go up to God, divine answers roll down like rainfall. The reason Christians do not prevail in prayer, Moody believed, is simply that they don’t do it. And he’s right. Isn’t this precisely what Scripture teaches? The apostle James reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2)
Yet even when we do bother to ask things of God, we sometimes find he doesn’t answer. James goes on to tell us why our prayers are hindered: We ask wrongly, to spend our gain on selfish passions (4:3). Moody would’ve agreed. Prayers that get answered by God have a certain disposition, without which they will not prevail. Ultimately, this disposition is the simple belief that prayer actually works (James 5:13–18). “[T]hrough all the Scriptures,” Moody declares, “you will find that when believing prayer went up to God, the answer came down.”Nine Requirements for Victorious Praying
For Moody, the prayer warrior’s simple confidence is structured around nine different attitudes—and actions—that must be present for the prayer to be efficacious. He details each in turn. Some will be known to modern readers through the popular acronym ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), which is widely used today but actually goes back to publications from Moody’s era. To these four, he adds a few others. His expanded list is:
- Adoration: “Let us, as Christians, when we draw near to God in prayer, give him his right place.”
- Confession: “[Y]ou will find that the men who lived nearest to God, and had the most power with him, were those who confessed their sins and failures.”
- Restitution: “It may be that there is something in our lives that needs straightening out; something that happened perhaps 20 years ago, and that has been forgotten till the Spirit of God brought it to our remembrance. If we are not willing to make restitution, we cannot expect God to give us great blessing. Perhaps that is the reason so many of our prayers are not answered.”
- Thanksgiving: “Here we are, getting blessings from God day after day; yet how little praise and thanksgiving there is in the church of God!”
- Forgiveness: “I believe this is keeping more people from having power with God than any other thing—they are not willing to cultivate the spirit of forgiveness.”
- Unity: “Where there is union I do not believe any power, earthly or infernal, can stand before the work. When the church, the pulpit, and the pew get united, and God’s people are all of one mind, Christianity is like a red-hot ball rolling over the earth, and all the hosts of death and hell cannot stand before it.”
- Faith: “Unbelief sees something in God’s hand, and says, ‘I cannot get it.’ Faith sees it, and says, ‘I will have it.’”
- Petition: “Some people think that God does not like to be troubled with our constant coming and asking. The only way to trouble God is not to come at all. He encourages us to come to him repeatedly, and press our claims.”
- Submission: “All true prayer must be offered in full submission to God. After we have made our requests known to him, our language should be, ‘Thy will be done.’ I would a thousand times rather that God’s will should be done than my own. I cannot see into the future as God can; therefore, it is a good deal better to let him choose for me than to choose for myself.”
A final chapter on “answered prayer” highlights Moody’s timeless reminder that the struggle to wait for God’s blessing is difficult—though never futile. “If our prayers are not answered,” Moody writes, “it may be that we have prayed without the right motive; or that we have not prayed according to the Scriptures. So let us not be discouraged, or give up praying, although our prayers are not answered in the way we want them.” God’s timing is always his own—and always best.
Throughout its pages, Prevailing Prayer overflows with explanations of the Good Book that Moody, the uneducated shoe-salesman-turned-international-preacher, knew so well. He also supplies the reader with many homely tales and illuminating episodes from his long and amazing ministry. Quotations abound from the pantheon of Protestant saints, reflecting Moody’s deep-seated ecumenism. He cites Anglican prelate Jeremy Taylor; Puritan theologian Richard Baxter; Presbyterian biblical commentator Matthew Henry; and Plymouth Brethren evangelist and orphan-care advocate George Müller, just to name a few.
Although published 135 years ago, Prevailing Prayer is still relevant today. Perhaps an exhortation from Moody’s opening chapter is the right way to sum up the book: “As we go to the throne of grace, let us remember that GOD ANSWERS PRAYER.”
All we have to do is get on our knees and start expecting big things.
My journal entries and emails to close friends in my first six months as a pastor included a fair amount of anguish as I wrestled with challenges I’d previously only prepared for intellectually. Still, I’m extremely grateful I’d been instructed about many of the challenges I would face as a new pastor.
I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I hadn’t at least engaged in that intellectual preparation.
I’m too new at this to propose “the seven most important dynamics a new pastor should prepare for,” but here are seven things I experienced acutely in my first six months in pastoral ministry.1. I Was Surprised by Loneliness
Know where you’re going to turn when you’re struggling.
When you repeatedly get your wires crossed with a fellow staff member, and you can’t figure out why you keep offending them, you’ll want to talk to somebody. But at church, where everyone knows them, you’ll be hesitant to share anything that might paint them in a negative light.
Consequently, you’ll turn to people outside the church—your friends from seminary or from years gone by. It will feel good to get your struggles off your chest. However, because your friends have never met your fellow staff member, you’ll find their ability is limited to offer helpful analysis about a relational dynamic they haven’t witnessed firsthand.
If you have a spouse, she’ll naturally be your most trusted confidant. Even so, there are several reasons you’ll want to be wise about how extensively you share your relational conflicts with her. If she isn’t party to the reconciliation process when the conflict ends, will she be able to let it be over? And is it fair to ask her to carry all your burdens in addition to her own? It can be exhausting to be married to a minister who comes home and vomits frustrations evening after evening.
What’s more, you won’t experience loneliness only amid conflict. Someone will question a decision you’ve made, and your impulse will be to so thoroughly explain your decision-making process that the doubter’s jaw will drop in amazement at the brilliance of your intellect. But when you realize this impulse is rooted in a desire for self-glory, you’ll keep secret the behind-closed-doors conversations that factored into your decision-making. As much as this may hurt, it’s wise: You can’t take back what you’ve overshared with someone who will subsequently mishandle your words.
Loneliness in ministry is unavoidable. Let it drive you to prayer, where you’ll be forced to rely more than ever on Christ’s supernatural comfort.2. I Must Learn to Prioritize
Build preaching-and-teaching skills that will sustain you through years of ministry.
Unless you have a very narrow, specialized role, you’ll likely be swimming in more responsibilities than you can fit into a week. Learn what to prioritize. After your walk with the Lord, make preaching and teaching the “first big rock” you put in your jar.
I was extremely blessed that my senior pastor encouraged me to do just that. Consequently, I’ve established a rhythm of thoroughly working through passage after passage. I’m keeping my ability to work with the languages. I’m making notes in Amos that will keep me from error when I preach Acts. I’m getting untied from my manuscript. And I’m making myself useful to the body by becoming a preacher who can open the Bible and lead listeners to say, “I shoul’ve seen that! I can’t wait to read my Bible this week.”
But the first six months of sermons are not the time to swing for the fences. Knowing I might make that error, a friend wisely encouraged me to write my first sermons looking for “base hits.” In the words of Tim Keller, this is the quest for good preaching (not necessarily great preaching).
So how does a new pastor prioritize his development toward good—that is, faithful—preaching and teaching? I benefited from two critical homiletical exhortations.
First, solicit brutally honest feedback. Before I preached my first sermon, I recruited a seven-person feedback team. These seven varied in age, gender, theological acuity, and ideological persuasion. For the first six months, I sent them each sermon draft two weeks in advance and asked for their comments. This team has kept me from creating a great deal of confusion, not a few ghastly errors, and plenty of unnecessary offense.
Second, learn the congregation. Get in their homes. Schedule meetings over breakfast, lunch, and coffee. You’re likely to find the people who are actually sitting in the pews are different people than you thought. You’ll cultivate a tender affection that will help you preach to them instead of preaching at them.3. Weekly Rhythms Are Important
Don’t try to schedule every week from scratch.
In most cases, your first ministry position is going to involve more meetings and administrative duties than you imagined possible. That work will swallow up every day of your week if you don’t intentionally reserve time away from it. To do this, reserve the same blocks of time on the same days each week if possible.
Your supervisor(s) will need to be on board with your plan; talk it through with them and draft a weekly schedule that’s agreeable to everyone. Realistically, the weekly rhythm you establish early won’t prove optimal in the long run. Still, there’s value in establishing (imperfect) weekly rhythms from the outset. Even if you find your time isn’t being optimized, at least the tyranny of the urgent won’t completely swallow it up.
Talk to other pastors. When do they take their rest days? How do they carve out time to study?4. The Role of a Number Two Involves Glad Submission
Don’t give your supervisor unnecessary reasons to be frustrated with you.
In your first pastoral position, you’re likely to be working under someone older than you. This means there may be some generational suspicion to overcome; we millennial pastors aren’t always known for our hard work, timeliness, appropriate dress, or honoring of authority figures.
We might be tempted to discuss some of these differences this way: “We want a healthier ‘work–life balance’ than another generation of pastors had.” Or, “We want to connect with ordinary people in a way another generation of pastors didn’t.” There are at least two pitfalls in framing generational differences this way. First, we may be guilty of viewing our cultural conventions as morally right, when some may be neutral. Second, we may not be treating our most important work relationships with the priority they deserve.
I don’t want my supervisor to be frustrated with me. But at some point, I know he will be. When that day comes, I want him to be upset with me because I’m suggesting a God-honoring change that makes him temporarily uncomfortable, not because I’m lazy or habitually late, or because I embarrass him with my casualness, or because I don’t show him proper respect in front of people. If I have a choice to remove all those possible barriers from our relationship, why wouldn’t I? What does it really cost me to tuck in my shirt and communicate with him using his preferred methods?
Setting aside our preferences is a matter of basic neighbor love and honoring authority figures. We should need no more reason than that to lay down our “right” to wear jeans or to handle important business over text messages. And there’s an added benefit to such deference: You’ll likely increase your supervisor’s receptiveness to what you’re wanting to change in the future.
There is a limit here. If you’re working for a supervisor who writes you emails seven days a week and expects a prompt response all seven days because he doesn’t personally observe a Sabbath rest, then for the sake of your soul and for the glory of God, you’re going to need to have a hard conversation with him. But in many situations involving generational differences between a supervisor and supervisee, I think we number-twos would do well to get off our high horses and do what’s expected in our church cultures.5. I Must Take the Posture of a Learner
Study the church’s culture before you start blowing things up.
In past endeavors, I’ve always blown things up and asked questions later. I’ve embraced the approach: “If it’s not broken, let’s break it so we can fix it.” However, when I went to seminary, I heard more than a few professors suggest, “Don’t propose any major changes for six months to a year in your first pastoral position. Just learn the culture.” I took this as the Enemy’s attempt to temper my “prophetic edge.”
I went back and read some emails I had written to my pastors years earlier, at the height of my reforming zeal. Much to my dismay, I saw much that looked like self-righteousness and little that looked like Christlikeness. That was the tipping point: I needed to humble myself and learn for a season at my new church before proposing extensive changes.
You’ll be grateful if you learn this lesson before your first pastoral position. Sure, it may pain you to see so much paper wasted every meeting. But do you want to immediately spend your relational capital pushing the church to learn how to use Google docs? Sure, you may think the paint color in the conference room is appalling. Who cares? Did you know the senior pastor’s wife selected it because it’s her favorite color?
In most situations, it’s wise to try what the church has already been doing for at least a year before proposing changes. After you participate in a full annual cycle in the church, you may have a different order of priorities in the changes you want to make.
That said, there’s a limit to going slow. After a year and a half of patient and deliberate diplomacy, I received anger at some tame, measured things I said from the pulpit. That made me wonder: Have I been too slow to rock the boat on things that really matter? We don’t love our people well when we withhold the hard words they most need.6. I Must Not Fear People
Fight for self-forgetfulness.
It’s worth reading Tim Keller’s short work The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness the week before starting a new job. Any decent seminary teaches that the temptation to find your identity in what others think about you is one of the great hazards of ministry. Indeed, Satan will work you over in that area as long as you are in ministry. In the first six months, however, he has a distinct advantage, since you don’t know the people in your congregation.
There will be a group of people who love you and think you’re the greatest thing that ever happened to the church. They are going to gush about you to an inappropriate degree, despite your redirecting their praise toward God and giving credit to those around you.
I thought I was prepared for that challenge. I was trying to take my thoughts captive: “I see this as the trap that it is. I’m not going to read my own press.” But deep down, when a few of these folks praised my preaching, I’d think, Here’s somebody who really gets it. Here’s somebody with a discerning ear for preaching, somebody who really loves the Word.
Then I went and visited an elderly woman who admired my preaching as she was recovering from surgery. She was eager to tell me how distraught she’d been to miss church the weekend after her surgery because I was preaching. (God bless her and her love for the Word, I thought.) As it turns out, she was equally eager to tell me she’d made up for her absence by watching sermons from her favorite TV preacher: Joel Osteen.
In his grace, God will sometimes seize your heart when you’ve been blind to your love for people’s praise—and thinking you’re winning the battle. If you’re going to be self-forgetful, you have to fight for it. It won’t come naturally.7. Ministry Involves Sleepless Nights
This job isn’t like any other you’ve had.
I’ve always been someone who could fall asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. But in my first weeks as a pastor, I spent hours lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling.
A struggling couple came to me today in a last-ditch effort to speak into their relationship. Their marriage hangs in the balance. Did I ask the right questions? Did I say what they needed to hear?
Someone clearly dissatisfied with the direction of the church inappropriately confided in me today, thinking I was going to side with them. This kind of conversation could easily split a church! Did I handle it with enough firmness, truth, and love?
In situation after situation, the enemy is everywhere and the stakes are high.
Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task is an indication that you’re in the right line of work.
Of course, a healthy pastor doesn’t get consumed by it all, doesn’t take it all on his shoulders, doesn’t let it crush or overwhelm him. But if you get through your first six months without experiencing those things Paul talks about—the sleepless nights, the daily pressure of concern for those under your care—without ever crying out to God in desperation on behalf of your people, it may be wise to ask, Why am I doing this? Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task is an indication that you’re in the right line of work.Don’t Forget God
For most of us, our first six months in ministry will be some of the least effective, least fruitful months of our ministry lives. Our skills are underdeveloped, our relationships untested, our theology half-baked. As such, how foolish would it be for a new minister to neglect his personal relationship with God for the sake of stretching his work hours to generate some paltry amount of additional ministry success?
Above all, at the outset of your new role as an undershepherd of God’s people, prioritize building lasting habits of intimacy with God.