Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Most Epic Bible Study of All Time

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 12:00am

It had been three days since Jesus was crucified and buried. Two former followers packed their bags and began the seven-mile trek to their hometown of Emmaus. There was no need to be in Jerusalem any longer. Jesus was dead—and his kingdom wasn’t coming. Shortly after they set out, an unfamiliar person joined them. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing” that it was the resurrected Jesus (Luke 24:16).

The disciples were baffled that this mysterious man hadn’t heard of all that had happened in Jerusalem. As readers, we’re baffled they can’t see whom they’re speaking with! In mercy, Jesus opened the Scriptures and began what must have been the most epic Bible study of all time, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

Let’s imagine what he may have said.

He may have begun with Genesis by showing himself as the second Adam who resisted temptation and obeyed God’s commands (Gen. 2–3; 1 Cor. 15:45–48). He is the promised seed of woman who crushed the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; 1 John 3:8) and the greater Ark in whom we hide by faith to escape the waters of judgment (Gen. 6–9; Col. 3:3; 1 Pet. 3:20–21). He could have shown how Abraham rejoiced by faith to see his day (John 8:56; Rom. 4), or how he is the promised lion of the tribe of Judah from whom the scepter shall never depart (Gen. 49:10; Rev. 5:5). Or maybe that he is the greater Joseph, beloved of the Father, betrayed by his brothers, exalted among the Gentiles, and the One who gives bread to a famished world.

Then in Exodus he could have shown that he is the greater Moses who leads his people to escape judgment by hiding under the blood of the Passover Lamb on their way to the Promised Land (Ex. 12; John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 3–4; 1 Pet. 1:19). Or how he is the true manna from heaven (John 6:31–35), and the water from the rock that will never leave them thirsty again (John 4:14; 1 Cor. 10:4).

Then he might have turned to Leviticus to show that he is the fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system (John 1:29; Heb. 4–10). He is the unblemished offering that was a pleasing aroma to the Father (1 Pet. 1:19; Heb. 9:14–27). He is the greater scapegoat on whom the sins of the nation were laid (Lev. 16; Heb. 9–10). He is the greater high priest who not only presented an offering but who offered himself for us (Heb. 7–8).

Then he may have taken them to Numbers where he could’ve shown that he was like the bronze snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness, who would bring healing from the serpent’s fatal bite if looked to in faith (Num. 21:4–9; John 3:14–15). Or that he is the star promised to arise from Jacob to crush the head of God’s enemies (Num. 24:17; Rev. 22:16).

Then he could have gone to Deuteronomy to show how he is the prophet like Moses of whom the Father says “this is my beloved Son . . . listen to him (Deut. 18:15–20; Matt. 18:5; Acts 3:23). Or how he is the true city of refuge to whom sinners flee in their guilt (Num. 35; Heb. 6:18).

Or how he is the greater Joshua who came to lead God’s people through the mighty Jordan into Canaan and receive their long-promised rest (Heb. 4:1–10).

In Judges, we see glimmers of him as the One whom God would raise up to deliver Israel from the oppression of their enemies and to rule over them in righteousness (Isa. 32:1; Luke 1:71).

Then in Ruth, we see how he is the greater kinsman-redeemer who took a Gentile bride to himself so she could share in the wealth of Israel (Matt. 1:5).

In 1 and 2 Samuel we find that Jesus is the greater David who was after the Father’s heart and who courageously slew the greater Goliath of Satan to deliver God’s people from the shame and slavery of their sin (Luke 1:32; John 6:38; 14:31).

Then he may have gone to Kings and Chronicles to show that he is the faithful King who never compromised God’s law, but boldly leads God’s people to honor and obey the Lord in all things (John 18:26–27; Rev. 19:16).

Then he may have spent time showing how he is the greater Ezra, who served as a priest and wept over Jerusalem because of her disobedience and rejection of God (Matt. 23:37; Heb. 5:7).

Or how he is like Nehemiah, who cleansed the temple of God and rebuilt the walls to protect the worship of God, all while refusing to retreat from the work he came to do (Neh. 6:2–3; Matt. 27:42).

He is the greater Esther, who courageously surrendered her life to save God’s people from the deceitful scheme of Satan, the greater Haman. He is also the greater Mordecai who was despised and headed for the gallows, yet was delivered and exalted to the throne, accomplishing salvation for the people of God.

Then he could have shown himself to be the greater Job who suffered, not because of his sin, but because of his righteousness. And though he was misunderstood, God raised him off the ash heap of shame to intercede for those who’d formerly opposed him (Job 42:1–17; Heb. 7:25).

He may have then given a tour of the Psalms, reminding them how in Psalm 2 he was spoken of as the begotten Son before whom all must bow (Phil. 2:4–11; Rev. 5:13–14), and how his resurrection was foreshadowed in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:24–28). Or maybe how Psalm 22 provides a prophetic picture of the innocent One whose hands and feet were pierced by evildoers (Luke 23:33; John 20:25), yet in Psalm 110 he is exalted at the right hand of Father to forever serve as Priest and King (Heb. 5:1–10:39). Or surely from Psalm 118 how he is the stone the builders rejected that would become the cornerstone on whom God would build his church (Matt. 21:42; 1 Pet. 2:4–7).

He could have kept going to Proverbs and shown himself to be the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–26), or to Ecclesiastes as the one who gives us abundant life instead of vanity (John 10:10), or to Song of Solomon as the greater bridegroom who showers his bride with steadfast love (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 21:2, 22:17).

Then he could have turned to the prophets and shown in Isaiah that Immanuel was born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23), was indwelt by the Spirit (Isa. 11:2–4; Matt. 3:16), was the anointed root of Jesse (Isa. 11:10; Rom. 15:8–13; Rev. 22:16), and healed the blind, deaf, and lame (Isa. 35:5–6; Matt. 11:2–5). He is the Prince of Peace who rules the everlasting kingdom of righteousness (Isa. 9:6–7; Rev. 11:15), and the Suffering Servant who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:3–9; Matt. 27:27–60; 1 Pet. 2:23).

In Jeremiah and Lamentations, he is the weeping prophet who entered into our sorrow and lamented over sins that exiled us from God, as a way to prove the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness (Jer. 13:17; Lam. 3:23; Luke 19:41).

In Ezekiel he is the true Shepherd-King who cares for and feeds the flock who had been neglected and afflicted by abusive shepherds (Ezek. 34:1–24; John 10:1–18).

In Daniel he is the stone who smashes the kingdoms of the world (Dan. 2:34–35; Matt. 21:44), the authoritative Son of Man who will judge all people according to what they’ve done (Dan. 9:7–14; Matt. 26:64), and the Anointed One who was cut off by his own people (Dan. 9:26; Mark 9:9–12).

In Hosea he is the faithful husband who was betrayed by an adulterous bride, yet still loved and pursued her to have her as his own (John 4:1–45; Rom. 9:25–26).

In Joel we see that the promised Day of the Lord’s judgment fell on Jesus on the cross, and that at his ascension he would send the promised Spirit to all who would repent (Joel 2:28–32; Luke 24:49; Acts 2:16–21).

He may have shown how he embodies the message of Amos as he came to rescue the poor and oppressed and bring the justice Israel’s leadership had neglected to render (Luke 4:16–20).

Or how he was foreshadowed in Obadiah as the One who would bring low God’s proud enemies and then lead God’s people up Mount Zion to inherit God’s eternal kingdom (Heb. 12:18–24).

In Jonah we see him as the faithful prophet who won’t run from unworthy sinners but instead was swallowed by the whale of God’s wrath until he came forth alive three days later to call people to repentance. And rather than pouting outside the city in rebellion, his blood was poured outside the city to redeem them (Matt. 12:41; Luke 19:10; Heb. 13:12).

In Micah he was the ruler promised to be born in Bethlehem (“house of bread”) and was himself the bread of life given from heaven to feed a famished world (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:1).

His work was foretold in Nahum as the One who took on himself the just judgment God’s enemies deserved in order to make them his friends (Rom. 5:8).

In Habakkuk he was the One whom the prophet pointed to when he said the righteous shall live by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38), and the One whom God used evil for good in a way so marvelous that no one would believe even if they were told (Hab. 1:5; Acts 13:41).

In Zephaniah he is the sovereign Lord who establishes the kingdom by taking the judgment the people deserve and restoring to them all that sin has stolen away (Acts 15:12–17; Heb. 12:13).

In Haggai he is alluded to when the prophet promised the glory of God would come to the temple. He is that glory who entered the temple as the greater Zerubbabel (Matt. 21:12–17).

In Zechariah he is the victorious King who comes humbly riding on a donkey. He is the mighty branch who would spread out its limbs and build the Lord’s temple. And he is the One they should look on and see that they had pierced, and it should lead them to mourn and grieve bitterly over him (Zech. 9:9, 11:12–13; Luke 19:35–37; Matt. 26:15).

And then he would have concluded in Malachi, showing that he is the faithful priest who stood up in Lord’s temple and rebuked the people for their lame and empty offerings—and then offered himself as the perfect sacrifice (Matt. 21:12–13; Heb. 9:14–27). His forerunner, John the Baptist, came in the promised spirit of Elijah to point Israel to Jesus as the Sun of Righteousness who rose with healing in his wings (Luke 1:17, 78; Matt. 11:14; John 1:4; 8:12; Rev. 22–24).

As Jesus walked with those disciples on the Emmaus road, he interpreted for them the golden thread of grace that holds every bit of the Old Testament together. He opened their eyes to see that every prophecy, picture, and promise of God finds its “yes” and “amen” in himself (2 Cor. 1:20).

Reading the Old Testament to find Jesus isn’t meant to be like playing “Where’s Waldo?”—looking behind every tree for a cross or every chair for a throne. We do, however, find both explicit teachings and also implicit themes that push us to know that something, or someone, greater must come to fulfill them. Jesus proved this true that day following his resurrection.

Let us be people who read the Old Testament with eyes opened, anticipating the Christ to whom its pages point.

If you’d like to learn more about how to read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ’s fulfillment I commend the following works:

The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Vaccines

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:04am
What just happened?

After an outbreak of measles cases originating in Orthodox Jewish communities, lawmakers in New York voted last Thursday to end religious exemptions for immunizations.

Calling it a public health emergency, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health,” Cuomo said in a statement, adding that the new law “will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

New York joins Arizona, California, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia in disallowing exemptions on religious grounds.

What are vaccines, vaccinations, and immunizations?

A vaccine is created from the same germs that cause disease, using extremely small amounts of weak or dead microbes such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins. A vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly as it would if you were exposed to the disease. After getting vaccinated, you develop immunity to that disease, without having to get the disease first.

Vaccination is the act of getting a vaccine, usually as a shot, while immunization is the process of becoming immune to (i.e., protected against) a disease.

What are the benefits of vaccinations?

Vaccines have proven to be one of humankind’s greatest inventions, and the single most powerful and effective way of reducing disease and improving global health.

Annual use of recommended vaccines for children has been estimated to avert up to 3 million deaths per year globally, with even greater numbers of prevented cases of illness and substantial disability. For children born in the United States in 2009, routine childhood immunization will prevent an estimated 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease. An additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided, though, if global vaccination coverage improves.

Are vaccinations required by law?

All states require children to be vaccinated against certain communicable diseases as a condition for school attendance. In most instances, state school vaccination laws apply to both public schools and private schools, as well as colleges and universities. All states also have vaccination requirements for children as a condition for child-care attendance. In about half of the states in the United States, homeschool students are not required to be vaccinated.

Many states also require healthcare workers to also be vaccinated against certain vaccine-preventable diseases.

Why are individual vaccinations a matter of public health or concern?

The purpose of vaccinations is not only to immunize an individual but also to provide immunization for an entire community.

When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease (typically between 85 percent and 95 percent), the remaining members are also protected because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines—such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals (for example, children with leukemia)—get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. This is known as “community immunity” or “herd immunity” and is the primary benefit of vaccines both to individuals and also to society.

What does it matter if individuals receive an exemption from vaccinations?

When parents refuse to vaccinate their children for philosophical reasons, they increase the risk of disease exposure for the entire community.

For each virus, statisticians are able to calculate the minimum percentage of community immunity necessary to achieve herd immunity and prevent an outbreak. Though we only need about 85 percent of the community to have immunity to rubella, smallpox, and diphtheria to prevent an outbreak, diseases such as whooping cough (pertussis) and measles require at least 94 percent immunity. This is why many public-health experts argue that exemptions to vaccinations should be limited to those who are unable to vaccinate because of health reasons.

Are vaccines safe?

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine—the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences and an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public—performed an analysis of more than 1,000 research articles on vaccines. The analysis by a committee of experts concluded that few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines.

Like any other medication, though, vaccines can cause side effects. The review of possible adverse effects of vaccines found convincing evidence of 14 health outcomes—including seizures, inflammation of the brain, and fainting—that can be caused by certain vaccines, although these outcomes occur rarely. The most common side effects are mild, such as redness and swelling where the shot was given.

Can’t vaccines cause autism?

In more than 30 years of research, there has been no causal connection established between vaccinations and autism. For example, a 2013 CDC study looked at the number of antigens (substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies) from vaccines during the first two years of life. The results showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and those who did not have the disorder.

Some people ignore the overwhelming evidence and still believe the connection exist because it was given credence in 1998 by the publication of a fraudulent research paper in the British medical journal The Lancet.

That paper was later retracted when it was discovered that the chief researcher, a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield, had manipulated the data and failed to disclose that he had been paid more than $600,000 by lawyers looking to win a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield also was found to have committed numerous breaches in medical ethics, including using some of the children named in the lawsuit in his study. In May 2010, British regulators revoked Wakefield’s license, finding him guilty of “serious professional misconduct.” They concluded that his work was “irresponsible and dishonest” and that he had shown a “callous disregard” for the children in his study.

Despite being discredited for fraud and unethical conduct, Wakefield is still considered the primary source and champion for those who erroneously believe in the connection between autism and vaccines.

What about vaccines made from aborted fetal tissue?

There are currently no vaccines created by using cells directly taken from the bodies of aborted fetuses. However, there are some vaccines created from cell lines (such as WI-38, MRC-5, HEK-293, PER C6, WI-26 VA4, and Walvax-2) that were derived from tissue taken from aborted fetuses from the 1960s. As the National Catholic Bioethics Center explains:

Any product grown in these or other cell lines derived from abortions, therefore, has a distant association with abortion. The cells in these lines have gone through multiple divisions before they are used in vaccine manufacture. After manufacture, the vaccines are removed from the cell lines and purified. One cannot accurately say that the vaccines contain any of the cells from the original abortion.

The key consideration in whether using currently available vaccines is licit or immoral is whether there is material cooperation with the evil act of abortion. If the abortion were conducted in order to harvest tissues that were to be used for the vaccine, then it would clearly be immoral. But in the case of the vaccines created from the cell lines listed above, the abortion was carried out for other reasons, and the tissue was acquired post-mortem for the purpose medical research.

To determine the morality of using the tissue, it is helpful to compare it to another situation: the use of organs from a person who has been murdered. If a doctor were to offer to transplant a kidney or heart from the murder victim into a Christian, we would likely not object. The primary concern would be whether the victim consented to organ donation prior to their death. But no one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder. Nor should we be overly concerned with the “slippery slope” of people being murdered in order to expand the number of organ donations. (If we saw evidence of that happening, however, we should change our objection.)

Should there be exemptions for vaccinations based on religious liberty or parental rights?

The question of whether exemptions for vaccinations should be allowed is complex. As theologian Al Mohler recently said,

I am very pro-vaccine. But I’m also pro-parental rights, and I want to be an ardent defender of religious liberty. In this kind of situation, it is so complicated that Christians of goodwill, and we need to note this, can come to different conclusions about vaccines, specific vaccines, and in specific cases even regarding specific children.

In thinking through the issue, there are four factors Christians should consider.

First, as elder and pediatric physician Scott James says, “as we who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) consider the questions surrounding vaccination, we should strive to honor him with how we use that mind.” As Christians, our position on vaccinations should be based on the best available empirical evidence and not on anti-science propaganda, anecdotes, celebrity non-endorsements, or unwarranted skepticism of government institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Second, we should strive to seek the common good (Jer. 29:7). The harm done to children from not getting vaccinated is exponentially greater than the harm—both physical and moral—of using the vaccines. Because of herd immunity, the choice to vaccinate our children protects those who cannot receive certain vaccinations due to allergies, ages, or a weakened immune system. We must always consider whether we are using our religious liberty or concern for parental rights as cover for a choice that may cause significant harm to the neighbors we are commanded to love (Matt. 22:36-40).

Third, we should remember that rather than using our liberty to avoid vaccinations, evangelicals have historically been at the forefront of promoting vaccinations. The American evangelical theologian Jonathan Edwards died in 1758 from complications that set in after the misadministration of the smallpox vaccination. Despite this setback, as Mohler notes, “Right after the death of Jonathan Edwards, evangelical Christians in the U.S. became some of the most ardent proponents of vaccines, understanding them as God’s gift through the rationality of modern medicine that reflected the orderly universe that God had given us and was a demonstration of common grace.”

Fourth, while we may have a right as parents or religious believers to forgo vaccinations, we also must accept the consequences of our actions. If we choose not to vaccinate our children then we must accept that there will be some public institutions in which they cannot participate. Also, a parent who refuses to have their child vaccinated is morally responsible for the outcome of that choice. If their child were to get sick and/or die because of the rejection of the vaccine or cause other children to become sick, they would be morally culpable.

A Game Plan for Discipling Men in the Church

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:03am

In the United States, more women than men go to church. The reasons are varied, of course, but churches need to think deeply and purposefully about how to raise up male leaders.

Jonathan Leeman asked two TGC Council members, John Onwuchekwa and Juan Sánchez, how their churches go about discipling and training men in the faith. They discussed the need to give certain men (besides the pastor) opportunities for teaching and leadership. Pastors must avoid the temptation to micromanage everything in the church—instead giving other men chances to lead things they initiate.

Onwuchekwa says, “Our church has been really impacted by Paul’s words to Titus: ‘Encourage the young men to be self-controlled’ (Titus 2:6). And as I grew up, lots of talks about manhood start with discouragement. And I’ve just found that you never discourage anybody to faithfulness. You can’t shame them into being self-controlled. And so it starts with us just trying to praise what we want to see more of in young men.”

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.


Get Out! Tim Keller on the Exodus Story

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:02am

If there is one Old Testament passage that the New Testament invites us to read in a Christ-centered way as a paradigm of Christ’s salvation, it’s the exodus.

I’ll never forget nearly 40 years ago sitting in R. C. Sproul’s living room in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania. Alec Motyer, a British Old Testament scholar I had never heard of, was visiting. I was on the floor with a bunch of other college and seminary students, and Sproul said to Motyer, “Tell us about the connection between the Old and New Testaments.” Motyer replied something like this:

Think about it. Think of what an Israelite would say on the way to Canaan after passing through the Red Sea. If you asked an Israelite, “Who are you?” he might reply, “I was in a foreign land under the sentence of death and in bondage, but I took shelter under the blood of the lamb. And our mediator led us out, and we crossed over. Now we’re on our way to the Promised Land, though we’re not there yet. But he has given us his law to make us a community, and he has given us a tabernacle because we must live by grace and forgiveness. And he is present in our midst, and he will stay with us until we arrive home.

Then Motyer added, “That’s exactly what a Christian says—almost word for word.” And my 23-year-old self thought, “Huh.”

What can we learn from the Red Sea crossing about Jesus and our salvation?

No Ordinary Religion

Christianity, which of course is the fulfillment of Judaism, is absolutely and utterly different from every other religion. I’ve been saying this for more than 30 years, and I regularly look at other religions to make sure that someone won’t pull a “preacher gotcha” on me: “What about this religion over here?” and I’d have to say, “I haven’t heard about that one. Let me read about it.” No, every other religion is like building a bridge. You build a bridge by putting pylons down, and then you build the bridge over the pylons. And if you run out of money, it’s the bridge to nowhere. There are a few like that. That is what every other religion is like. It’s a process in which you are trying to get over to the other side. You never feel like you have arrived, but you’re trying. In every other religion, people are trying to work their way across.

Not with Christianity. One minute you’re not regenerate and the next minute you are. One minute you’re not adopted and the next minute you are. Either you are regenerate and adopted, or you aren’t. There’s no process. Either you’re in the kingdom of darkness, or God has brought you into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col. 1:13). Think of all those statements and images that make Christianity unique: you either are a Christian or are not. “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

This idea of crossing over—going from death to life immediately—is something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to use as a little test or analogy. When he was talking to individuals and trying to get a sense of where they were spiritually, he would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” If they said, “Well, I’m trying” (and many people said this, especially British people, who want to be modest), then Lloyd-Jones would proceed to explain that their answer indicated that they had no idea what Christianity is about at all. Not in the slightest. What makes one a Christian is a change in status.

  1. You were in that kingdom, and now you’re in this kingdom.
  2. You were out of the family of God, and now you’re in the family of God.
  3. You were not born again, and now you are born again.
  4. You were under God’s wrath, and now you’re justified.

Bang! It happens like that. Do you know the power of this?

Not Saved By Your Faith’s Strength

Cate Blanchett acted in a 2002 movie called Heaven. It’s not a well-known movie, but Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses out there. It’s a movie about a normal woman who is upset about how a drug dealer is ruining the lives of children in a particular part of the city. The police won’t listen to her, so she decides to detonate a bomb in a drug dealer’s office and kill him. But a night watchman takes the bomb out, having discovered it in a waste basket, and puts it into an elevator where it explodes and kills four people, including children. When Blanchett’s character, a woman who loves children and is doing this for the sake of children, learns that she has killed children, she collapses. Because Blanchett is such a great actress, you can see her collapse physically and emotionally. She is a smoking wreck. In one sense she goes into a hell of guilt and shame, and she never gets out of it.

Paul sensed that same guilt and shame, and yet he wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). How could he say such a thing? Paul crossed over. He didn’t say, “Well, I’ve got a lot to atone for in my life.” That is the way the heart works for a person who is in bondage to the law. But Paul was unbelievably humble about who he was, and it wasn’t false modesty. Why? Because he crossed over. He knew where he stood. Of course, Paul had only begun to change on the inside, but he knew where he stood with God. It’s astonishing.

Somebody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re saved by grace apart from works and your moral effort. But you’ve got to believe, don’t you? And you’ve really got to believe with all your heart because salvation is by faith.” Don’t do that. Do you know what you’re doing? Even this text tells us something about that: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:21–22). The Israelites all crossed over, but that doesn’t mean that they all crossed over with the same disposition.

  • Some walked through marveling at the walls of water: “Wow! Look at that! God is on our side! Eat your heart out, Egyptians! The Lord is fighting for us.”
  • Others were probably walking through like this: “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die!

Yet they all crossed over. Individual Israelites had different qualities of faith, but they were all equally saved. They were equally delivered. Why? Because you are not saved because of the quality of your faith. You are saved because of the object of your faith: the Redeemer, the God who is fighting for you. Everything about this text says, “Grace, grace, grace, grace. Crossing over is by grace.”

Charles Spurgeon preached on Moses’s saying, “Stand firm . . . . be still” and let God fight for you (Ex. 14:13–14). When you try to add to God’s salvation, you subtract. If you try to merit God’s salvation, you haven’t believed in God at all; you are trusting yourself, even if you try to do only a little bit. At one point Spurgeon says:

I dare say you will think it a very easy thing to stand still, but it is one of the postures which a Christian soldier learns not without years of teaching. I find that marching and quick marching are much easier to God’s warriors than standing still. It is, perhaps, the first thing we learn in the drill of human armies, but it is one of the most difficult to learn under the Captain of our salvation. The apostle seems to hint at this difficulty when he says, “Stand fast, and having done all, still stand.” To stand at ease in the midst of tribulation, shows a veteran spirit, long experience, and much grace.

If you’re a Christian, you’ve already crossed over. God has dealt with sin and death, and all of your other problems are merely flea bites in comparison. That’s how you deal with your flea bites—by not looking at them as massive problems. Look at what God has already done for you.

Starting Churches in a ‘Follow Your Heart’ Age

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:00am

Not long ago, relativism defined the cultural conversation. Truth was “unknowable.” Perhaps it was somewhere “out there,” but anyone’s guess as to where was as good as the next.

This is no longer the case.

Today, we’re in a new cultural moment—one marked not by relativism, but by a new phenomenon known as expressive individualism. While relativism may label an assertion of external and objective truth as arrogant, expressive individualism calls it oppressive. The relativist asks, “Who’s to say what’s true?” The expressive individualist replies, “Me.”

Look across the landscape of cultural artifacts, and you’ll find the same motif time and again: Power and freedom are found in self-discovery. As Tim Keller notes, “The only heroic narrative we’ve got left in our culture is the individual looking inside, seeing who they want to be, and asserting that over and against everyone else in society.”

So we really have moved on from relativism: Truth is now not only knowable, it’s been found. All you have to do is look inside yourself.

Individualism and the Church

Many in the church can sniff out—even refute—relativism. We’ve been handed enough apologetic tools and basic reasoning skills to dismantle the notion that truth is subjective. Expressive individualism, however, is more insidious. It allows us to appear as if we’re worshiping God, when in reality we’re bowing to the god of self. It acknowledges the power of Jesus, but convinces us that he intends to use his power to further our own self-centered goals and aspirations. It agrees we can be certain about truth, but points to our own hearts as the source.

When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship.

It’s sobering to think about the church’s collusion with this framework. Rather than pushing back against individualism, congregations often subtly encourage it. When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship. If we’re not careful, we can betray the message that “Christ is king” with a method that says, “Actually, you are.”

Deny Yourself

Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than self and church. And it’s not as though we must wade through cloaked language to discover this antithesis. When Jesus calls us into his church, his charge is not that we discover but deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24–25). Further, when Jesus enumerates the things that spring from our hearts, truth doesn’t make the list. Only false testimony and evil thoughts do.

Or pull on any thread in Paul’s epistles, and you’ll find it connected to a call to pursue humble unity and consider others more significant than yourself. Simply put, a biblical understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to his church is incompatible with expressive individualism.

Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than ‘self’ and ‘church.’

Truth is neither relative nor self-generated; it is knowable. In fact, it’s touchable. Ultimate truth exists in the form of a man, the God-man—the one who died for our sinful hearts so that we could die to them.

The fruit-desiring, lie-believing, wilderness-wandering self is the very thing we bury as we are buried with Christ. His death for us becomes our death to self, and his new life becomes our new life—a life in which we deny ourselves instead of listening to ourselves, in which we take up our cross instead of taking up our dreams, and in which we follow him instead of following our hearts.

Church Planting’s Counter-Culture

Church planting has always been central to Jesus’s mission. But it’s particularly helpful and corrective in today’s cultural climate. As embodied creatures, we are formed by what we do. Our rhythms of life shape us from the outside in. What we do with our time, our hands, our lips, our money—all of it shapes our hearts. Just like the liturgy of a worship gathering, the method becomes part of the message. And both the method and also the message of church planting regularly remind us that we are not the point.

Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This  commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism, since it simply won’t allow us to place ourselves—our beliefs, our preferences, our desires—at the center of the church’s reason for existence.

Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism.

When we plant churches and press into the challenges, we invite our brothers and sisters into rhythms of life and ministry that will, slowly but surely, force the primacy of self to erode. And that will, time and again, yield the blessed—albeit painful—reminder that we are not, in fact, the arbiters of truth and goodness.

In a church plant, you have to strip away the superfluous for the sake of the essential. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with programs and production, the simplicity of a church plant offers a repeated invitation to forsake self-centeredness for self-denial.

Musical preferences begin to pale in comparison to the beautiful sound of a school cafeteria filling with gospel-proclaiming voices. Preaching “style” matters little when a living room is filled with those listening to their pastor faithfully mine the depths of God’s Word week in and week out. Life as a part of a church plant has a way of forcing us to not only keep the truth of the gospel central, but also primary. And it teaches us, in both message and method, that we must daily trust our faithful King rather than our fickle selves.

At a time when the church is, lamentably, one of the first places to capitulate to individualism, church planting gives Christ’s followers a chance to regularly exercise the much-needed practice of leading our hearts rather than following them. It takes whatever “truth” we think we’ve found within and subverts it with the pre-eminence of Christ and the truth of the gospel. And the more we keep that truth—the truth—at the forefront, the quicker the so-called truth we find “within” gets exposed for the counterfeit that it is.

Christians Need Gospel Audacity

Mon, 06/17/2019 - 12:04am

Years ago, I spent some time doing mission work in a Muslim country. There was an indigenous Christian who preached with passion at a church in the capital city. There was a sense of spiritual energy, and the church was growing rapidly. The week before Easter, some of the Christians were arrested for their faith. Many prayed for them.

The next Sunday, Easter Sunday, they were released. You can imagine the electric shock of thrill that vibrated through that church. But that wasn’t all. Having been arrested, thrown in jail, and persecuted for their faith, they had witnessed to the other prisoners. And they had brought some of the prisoners with them.

I’ll never forget the way that story was told or the looks on the faces of the people. Such is the way of the Lord. Just as in Paul’s day, a prison is no barrier to the gospel. And faithful Christians around the world are either at risk of prison or are preaching the gospel in one.

Methods of Evangelism

What about us in a Western civilization so influenced by certain truths of Christianity? We now often live in some understandable fear of what the culture will do if we stand up for—or speak too loudly about—Jesus Christ.

When I was in that country, I became fascinated by their evangelistic technique. I wondered whether there was something I could learn from how they were doing evangelism. The young pastor gave me something of a bemused look when I asked what his method was. “I’ll tell you our method,” he said. “We tell them they are sinners until they believe it. And then we tell them that Christ died for sinners.” Of course, I’d heard that method before. It’s called preaching repentance and faith in Christ. Not original. But powerful. And brave—in that context, how very brave. Even audacious.

That’s what I’m calling for here: Fire. Bravery. Audacity.

Evangelism in the Early Church

One of the best books on evangelism is Michael Green’s classic Evangelism in the Early Church. It’s an extraordinary read from a good scholar and gifted evangelist who is now in glory. At one point, he comments on an apocryphal story about the martyrdom of the apostle Peter:

Although this story is specifically concerned with martyrdom rather than evangelism, the two cannot be easily separated. Peter was tempted to save his life at the cost of disloyalty to his commission from Christ; and a vision from the Lord suffering crucifixion for him was the compelling factor which drove him back onto the path of complete and utter dedication, even to death itself. That reflection upon the cross as the supreme impulse to costly service for others in the name of the gospel was unquestionably the greatest single element in keeping the zeal of Christians at fever pitch. (237–38)

“The zeal of Christians at fever pitch.” Zeal. Fever pitch. It’s been a while since I’ve heard those kinds of words attributed to Christians in the West.

Evangelism in the West

I want at fever pitch the kind of audacity, boasting in weakness, and zeal that is biblical—not the showy, worldly counterfeit. This sort of boasting has a kind of rejoicing confidence to it. I can still see it, in my mind, on the faces of those Christians when they returned from jail and brought with them the prisoners with whom they’d been jailed.

So then the question seems to be: Can we have that kind of zeal—again—in America, Europe, the West? And if so, how? What is the right way for us to be boldly, even audaciously, evangelistic in our current cultural situation? How do we do it in a way that is missional and culturally engaged—and yet rigorously and unashamedly biblical, Christocentric, and oriented to the glory of God?

It happens as we follow what, according to Green, the early church did to promote evangelistic passion: Reflect on the cross. Let’s pray that God would give us zeal—even at fever pitch.

A Book That Witnessed to Nazi Germany (and Still Witnesses to Us)

Mon, 06/17/2019 - 12:03am

In summer 1935, planning and construction had begun in earnest for the 1936 Olympiad, to be held in Berlin. These games would later be called “Hitler’s Olympics,” and they were indeed a propaganda opportunity for the Nazi leader. Hitler’s associates viewed the games as a chance to prove the superiority of the regime, and along with it, the Aryan race.

The next year, the world would watch a sprinter named Louis Zamperini compete on the track (Zamperini would later become a war hero and have his story told in the bestseller Unbroken). More poignantly, an athlete named Jesse Owens—a black man from Cleveland, Ohio, grandson of a slave—would win four gold medals as Adolf Hitler and his white-supremacist allies looked on.

In the north, far away from the noise of the Olympics and the ideological battle being waged, a different war was being fought. Twenty-five young men lived in community from 1935 to 1937 on the shore of the Baltic Sea under their director and teacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer believed that the root of victory over the Nazi regime would be a spiritual one, so he fought on those front lines—equipping young men for ministry in an underground movement known as the Confessing Church (CC). Bonhoeffer’s seminary operated in safety from the Gestapo for two years until it was shut down in fall 1937.

During this time, the men studied the Word of God, the fundamentals of prayer, and the confessions. Living each day together, they had an opportunity to work out a theology of Christian community, something that Bonhoeffer captured in a short book titled Gemeinsames Leben. It would later be translated into English and published under the title Life Together.

Church Life Together, Today

Today’s church culture in America is fractured at best. We’re offered any number of TV and online options at churches around the world. These resources are helpful when we’re hindered from regular fellowship by sickness, family demands, or other occasional complications. But often they can become a crutch for forsaking regular face-to-face contact with our church family.

Life Together reminds us of the sweetness of face-to-face fellowship in the church.

In these days of thin community behind the screen of a computer or phone, Life Together reminds us of the sweetness of face-to-face fellowship in the church. People separated from an embodied fellowship of believers by sickness, geography, or even a harsh political regime don’t take the gift of real Christian community for granted.

What substitute is there for a clasped hand in greeting or an arm around the shoulder in prayer? We may speak God’s Word to one another in encouragement, in rebuke, or in instruction. Those who have this advantage—a nearby body of believers—ought to take advantage of it. As Bonhoeffer wrote:

So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world . . . . The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.

Life as an Individual and a Body

Bonhoeffer goes on to teach practical ways we can help the body of believers. This orientation toward the “institution” of the church can be foreign to today’s typical American Christian who has any number of church options, both in person and online, from which to choose. Christians often fall prey to a consumer mindset, shopping for the proper place to take up residence for a season. The word membership is alien to many; they’d rather remain in the category of “regular attender.” When things get uncomfortable, they can simply move on to the next option.

By contrast, Life Together teaches an understanding of the Christian’s role in their church as one of active participant—a committed member in the fullest sense. In day-to-day living, in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word to other members of the community, Christians live out what Christ intended for the church. As Paul teaches us, each church member has a part to play: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

In day-to-day living, in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word to other members of the community, Christians live out what Christ intended for the church.

Not only does Life Together encourage us to pursue active Christian fellowship, it also provides instruction for how to contribute to the health of the fellowship. Addressing subjects such as listening, forgiveness, meekness, helpfulness, and proclaiming the Word to one another, we’re encouraged to build one another up:

The weak must guard against pride, the strong against indifference. None must seek his own rights. If the strong person falls, the weak one must guard his heart against malicious joy at his downfall. If the weak one falls, the strong one must help him rise again in all kindness. The one needs as much patience as the other. (102)

As the Nazi regime spread across Europe and exposed the worst inclinations of humanity, Bonhoeffer sought to uphold a standard for living together in Christian community. These ideals indeed flew in the face of Nazism’s view of the world, but they have something to teach us as well. If we’re pursuing life together in the truest sense, we will inconvenience ourselves for the sake of other. We will listen well, and we will serve. And amid all of it, we will be exceedingly grateful for the gathered body we’ve been called to.

Contrasting Views of Evil: ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’

Mon, 06/17/2019 - 12:02am

The recently concluded HBO series Game of Thrones, during eight acclaimed seasons, captured the zeitgeist and enlarged the enduring popularity of epic fantasy.

Thrones often drew comparisons to the original classic of the genre, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Indeed, the books on which Thrones is based—George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—are appreciatively indebted to Tolkien.

Yet despite their similarity, Tolkien’s and Martin’s manner of storytelling differs, perhaps most notably in their portrayal of the manifestation of evil.

Evil in ‘Lord of the Rings’

Ross Douthat recently tweeted a brief but insightful comparison of the two fantasy stories that crystallized part of the Christian essence of LOTR—which Thrones de-emphasizes:

It’s true . . . that many of [author George R. R. Martin’s] villains are more interesting than Sauron. But Tolkien was very effective at dramatizing temptation and corruption among the well-meaning + the good. . . . [W]hat’s interesting isn’t the Big Bad himself, but the effect of evil on people trying to resist it.

Douthat hints at a larger point for which Tolkien has been criticized: an alleged oversimplification of evil. In LOTR, no ambiguity or drama exists in the determination of who is good and bad in Middle-earth; we never learn exactly why Sauron is evil, nor exactly what he did to earn the status of chief antagonist. The intrinsic nature of Sauron’s evil may even strike modern sensibilities as mildly unjust or at least arbitrary. Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock mused that as readers “we are not sure . . . if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told.” This is because, as another author, Fritz Leiber, put it, Tolkien “does not explore and even seems uninterested in exploring the mentality and consciousness and inner life of his chief villains.”

Bradley Birzer observes in his wonderful book, Sanctifying Myth, that Tolkien refrained from probing the depths of his evil characters by design—since the reality and, indeed, the banality of evil does not require elaborate fictionalization:

The monsters of fiction and nightmares are merely manifestations of the true, original evil—the perversion and mocking of God’s creation. In its essence, evil is and always will be merely derivative and perverse.

Rather than contriving Sauron’s particular evil actions, Tolkien portrays evil as a force, one that is “outright ominous, for it seems to be everywhere, pervading the entire landscape of Middle-earth, surrounding the Fellowship of the Ring on all sides.”

Tolkien’s view of evil as an ever-present force—represented by Sauron and by the tempting power of the Ring—both reflects the Christian view of the universality of sin and also reveals the struggle of resisting sin in a manner far closer to daily Christian experience. By the grace of God, most of us will never face an ambiguous decision of which side to join should a grand, life-threatening, political conflict arise. Nor do Christians sense the polarizing need to explain evil by examining and categorizing certain persons or groups as the oppressing villains; as Tolkien understood, evil arises merely because “creation was subjected to futility,” and the only final victory over evil we expect is a future one beyond the control of our human efforts (Rom. 8:20–21).

Nevertheless, we all battle evil daily by aiming to “walk by the Spirit” rather than “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). This, of course, is Frodo’s experience as he resists the temptation to trust the power of the Ring. One can even imagine Frodo, as he climbs the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, uttering words similar to Paul’s: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18–19).

Similar tensions confront other LOTR characters. Tolkien develops fleeting antagonists who depict the depth of human experience, including destructive concession to evil despite knowledge of good: Boromir, Saruman, Denethor, and Gollum, among others. Powerfully, these characters are uniformly objects not of hatred, but of pity for their surrender to the familiar burden of sin.

Criticism of Tolkien’s supposedly bland depictions of evil strikes me as reflecting our culture’s stunted view of evil, which isolates it as something existing only in certain persons or groups—and thus removable from our immediate world and communities. Whenever I pass a well-meaning sign that reads, “Hate is not welcome here,” I can imagine Sauron’s scorn at the notion that hate is something so discrete and excisable.

Tolkien’s depiction of evil characters may be sparing compared to the evils depicted by other authors, but his view of evil is large.

Criticism of Tolkien’s supposedly bland depictions of evil strikes me as reflecting our culture’s stunted view of evil, which isolates it as something existing only in certain persons or groups, and thus removable from our immediate world and communities. 

Evil in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

To be fair to Martin (whose books I read and enjoy while abstaining from the show), his world can hardly be accused of depicting a small view of the evil of the human heart. Martin blurs the lines of good and bad in order to show that evil can occur on any side of a human conflict.

Some of Martin’s characters, though, seem unnaturally dominated by a desire to do evil. In certain actions of Cersei Lannister or Melisandre, for example, one doesn’t get the sense of sin overcoming better natures, but of a distinct class of human—or, in Melisandre’s case, representative of a particular institution, religious fundamentalism—with a special appetite for hatred and perversity. Certainly, humans who struggle with especially perverse evils do exist in history, and thus are typical in fantasy. Most of us, however, will never be called on to triumph over an evil of that magnitude. Perhaps more importantly, most of us will never be tempted to engage in evil of that sort, and prudence should warn Christians against dwelling on especially disturbing evil in fiction. In the ordinary Christian life we are called to wage war against the more subtle, yet also more pervasive, operations of sin. On this subject, Tolkien has more to say: He finds evil nearer to us all without needing to look for it in exaggerated and perverse ways, while nonetheless captivating us with the triumph over a singularly great, yet deliberately amorphous, evil.

Even at their best, Martin’s characters seem to lack much sense of innate good. Rather than a world in which humans have the natural law “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15), Martin depicts an amoral world in which political strength is the primary good, and conflict derives from tension between political ends and family honor and survival. Martin’s most compelling protagonists, such as Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, overcome great evil and harsh circumstances, yet they do so mostly by relying on their own strength in service of temporal aims. Among stories about conquering evil, Tolkien’s remains unique in its depth of focus on sacrifice and self-denial in service of higher aims.

Of course, Martin is not a Christian, and he draws on elements of medieval history realistically. One of his stated goals is to illustrate the brutality of war, which his novels accomplish perhaps too well. Yet his books cannot help but romanticize this same brutality. Martin’s characters relish violence and courage, but without also sensing innate goodness—the referent that reveals evil to be evil—these characters lack an aspect of the full human experience. Christians, therefore, must be wary of seeing themselves in characters like this—who seek victory over the evil of their enemy while often remaining blind to the evil in themselves.

Christians must be wary of seeing themselves in characters like this—who seek victory over the evil of their enemy while often remaining blind to the evil in themselves.

Though there are similarities between LOTR and GOT in their depictions of evil, their differences are telling. GOT’s more detached view ironically sanitizes the seriousness of sin by presenting it in ways that seem both foreign to our experience and also without reference to inherent good. By contrast, LOTR positions evil as a struggle with temptation, implicating us all and forcing us all—perhaps uncomfortably—to reckon with the reality of sin.

Here’s hoping the popular interest in epic fantasy spawned by GOT will send a new generation of readers to Tolkien’s classic work, and his more Christian vision of good and evil.

4 Things Teens Need from Your Church

Mon, 06/17/2019 - 12:00am

We’ve heard the statistics, read the articles, even seen it in our own congregations.

Teens are evacuating. Statistics claim that 70 percent of teens will stop attending church after graduating from high school.

As a teenager who’s grown up in church, I’ve had a front-row seat to this mass exodus. I’m not an expert, researcher, or pastor, but I am in the teenage trenches. There are many reasons for teens to leave the church, from hypocrisy to legalism to peer pressure. Despite these external struggles, I know it doesn’t have to be this way.

Because I’m a teenager. And I’m still in the church.

I’ve wrestled with the same issues many teens claim for walking away. But I’ve had a firm foundation to fall back on: solid teaching and biblical truths that have helped me deal with questions and doubts and grow stronger through the struggle.

Sadly, not every teen has had my experience.

Instead of undiluted biblical truths and concrete theology, many are fed a watered-down message. They’re entertained at youth group and isolated from older, wiser Christ-followers. They’re drawn in with pizza parties, games, and programs, but leave with the burning issues of their hearts still unanswered. The games and good times were never what kept me in church or helped me as I battled the tumultuous struggles of my teenage years. Instead, it was the gospel-drenched truth that kept me coming back.

As I look back on my own life and my interactions with other teens, I’ve discovered four core topics we need to hear that will help us stay strong in God and rooted in the church.

1. We Need to Hear the Bible

Teenagers need the Bible. It contains the answers to our deepest questions, the wisdom for our hardest struggles. Please don’t give us an abridged version. Challenge us to read it for ourselves and model a lifestyle centered on God’s Word. Create an atmosphere of reliance on Scripture that whets our appetite and makes us hungry for more.

2. We Need to Hear About Sin

The church needs to clearly tell teenagers about sin. Not in a bombastic way, but in a loving, firm, biblical manner. Our eyes need to be opened to the fact that sin isn’t a Christianese catch phrase; it’s a reality that shows up in our daily lives.

When we understand the severity of our sin, our desperate need of grace, and that Jesus is the only hope we have, our youth groups will experience a transformation. Only when we’re staring the depth of our sin in the face can the full power of forgiveness and grace be unleashed.

3. We Need to Hear Biblical Truth on Cultural Topics

Teens are saturated in a culture with unbiblical views on topics like abortion, same-sex attraction, pornography, premarital sex, gender identity, suicide, and others. But the church sometimes fails to confront these topics head-on.

Through my work as an editor on a blog for Christian teens, I’ve received numerous emails about topics such as lesbianism and depression. In each email, these teens share their confusion and struggles. Their feelings of shame and cries for help are palpable. I’ve also read article pitches explaining why masturbation, homosexuality, and rebellion are all okay, because God will forgive us anyway. Are these teens confused? Absolutely. Do they need to hear biblical truth? Desperately.

Homosexuality, abortion, and suicide aren’t just shadowy ideas for teens today. They’re personified and real. These issues might show up in their friend across the street, or the new girl at school, or the video they stumble upon on YouTube. Christian teens must have real, honest, and biblical answers for tough questions.

Help them understand what Christians believe and what Scripture says on these hot-button topics. They need to know what they believe and why, because the world will scramble to undermine those beliefs. So please don’t sidestep the truth. Teens are longing for real answers.

4. We Need to Hear about Radical Transformation—and Obedience

When Jesus spoke of salvation, he painted a radical picture. He spoke of being born again—a process so drastic and mind-blowing it changes one’s life (John 3:1–21). He spoke of repentance—turning away from one way of life to embrace an entirely different way (Matt. 5–7.) He spoke of bearing a cross and following Christ to the point of death—giving up everything for the privilege of knowing and loving him (Matt. 16:24–26).

This is the gospel teens need to hear. Teenagers need a gospel and a theology that will outlast shifting sands and temporal feelings. We need to build our house on the rock of Jesus Christ—or we’ll never survive the storms life throws at us (Matt. 7:24–27).

Following Jesus isn’t easy. As we learn what Scripture says about issues we daily face, we have to make hard choices. Will we be obedient, or will we compromise? Will we stand firm and risk our reputation and our friends, or will we slowly slide?

That’s why the church needs to strengthen and resource teenagers, challenging them to go to Scripture, equipping them for ministry, and teaching them solid theology. These are the things we need in order to light a churchwide, teenage revival of passion for Christ.

Please, hear the heart of a teen. Don’t be afraid to tackle the topics we need to hear, even if they’re hard and unpopular, even if they go against the culture, and even if it seems like we don’t want to listen.

When You Don’t Have a Good Dad on Father’s Day

Sun, 06/16/2019 - 12:00am

On Father’s Day, children of all ages hit the stores looking for cards that thank our dads for being loving and teaching us the important things in life. We look for ways to honor our dads. We express our affection and the debt we owe them.

But some of us struggle to know what we could thank our fathers for.

Some dads never made an appearance in our lives. Some are barely present physically, let alone emotionally. Others might be known for their destructive words and the bruises they leave behind. Maybe they love their beer more than their babies or make it hard for us to believe any man could be gentle and loving. They don’t just make us wonder if they love us; they make us wonder if anyone could love us.

We hate this day called Father’s Day, because it reminds us of the father we never had.

But on this day, we can still be encouraged. Though we may rightly lament the pain our earthly fathers caused (and seek help if we’re in an abusive situation), we can also find hope in our sonship before our heavenly Father. Though our earthly dads fathered us in sin, he fathers us in perfection and righteousness. We aren’t fatherless.

Here are six truths to remember about our flawless Father.

1. He Is Near When We’re Brokenhearted

Psalm 34:18 says, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Our dads may have made fun of our pain or ignored our cries. Perhaps they’ve continued to break our hearts over the course of years. But God is near to us when we’re crushed in spirit. He shows us compassion. When we don’t know how to pray, his Spirit helps us (Rom. 8:26–27). He doesn’t ridicule our pain but brings purpose to it (Rom. 8:28–30).

2. He Doesn’t Condemn Us

As believers we will never be condemned by God (Rom. 8:1). Our earthly fathers may have found every possible fault and mistake in us because we weren’t the perfect child they envisioned. But our heavenly Father placed all of our deserved punishment on Christ. We no longer have to walk in shame; our Father sees us justified because of the righteousness of Christ. Rather than wrath and condemnation, we experience God’s loving discipline that protects, grows, and sanctifies us (Heb. 12:4–11).

3. He Adopted Us

Some dads make it obvious they never wanted their children. We were a “mistake” and “unplanned,” and he would rather spend his life doing something other than caring for children. In contrast, our heavenly Father is not only involved; he’s adopted us as his own. Ephesians 1 tells us that God purposefully chose to adopt each of his children before the foundations of the world were laid, predestining them to be saved by Christ’s blood (Eph. 1:3–7). Though our self-sufficient God didn’t need us for anything, he gladly chose to set his love on us.

4. He Will Never Forsake Us

Earthly dads can abandon us. They can remove themselves from our lives or remain deliberately distant. But God promises that he will never forsake us. He remains faithful—even if we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He promises to see us to completion, raised in newness (Phil. 1:6). Though our dads may give up on us, God will faithfully sanctify us.

5. He Will Train Us in Righteousness

We may wish our dads had invested more time in teaching us how to love God, how to choose a good spouse, how to respect authority, or how to lead with kindness. Instead, they modeled the complete opposite. But our good and perfect Father has changed our hearts to love his law:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:26–27)

We’re unable to obey God in our own power, so he gave us both new hearts that desire to obey and his Spirit to enable us to love his law.

6. He Gave His Son for Us

Earthly dads can be selfish. They may do everything for their own good—even if it’s at our expense. But our heavenly Father gave his Son for us:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:4–6)

Rather than allowing us to continue our hell-bound course in sin, God crushed his Son on the cross. He poured out his wrath on the Son to bring us near and give us eternal life. By this sacrifice, our guilt is taken away, and we receive Christ’s righteousness if we trust him (Rom. 10:9–10).

The Father loves us more than even the best earthly dad could comprehend. He has showered us in grace. Because of this, we are freed from bitterness. We are freed from anger. We can find refuge and hope in knowing the greatest Father. This Father’s Day, when the memories of our earthly dads’ failures overwhelm us, we can turn our hearts to our heavenly Father, who loved us perfectly before we loved him.

A Simple (Catechism) Game For Little Kids

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 12:02am

When I was discussing who God is with my Muslim barber, I was helped by my 4-year-old piping up from the waiting area: “God is a loving union of three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

“All right,” the barber said with a shrug, “I’ll go with that then.”

Ruby, the evangelist.

It’s from my shorter Shorter Catechism, also known as “The Question-and-Answer Game.” She holds each of my fingers as I ask:

  1. Who is God? A loving union of three.
  2. Who are the three? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  3. Who is Jesus? The Son of God.
  4. Why was he born? To become our brother.
  5. What did he teach us? To love God and love others.
  6. Why did he go to the cross? To die our death.
  7. Why did he rise? To give us new life.
  8. Why did he go to heaven? To pray for us.
  9. Who did he give us? The Holy Spirit.
  10. What are we waiting for? Jesus to come back and make everything new.

Then you hold onto her fingers and switch roles. It’s a game, see? The Question-and-Answer Game.

When Grandma and Grandpa Don’t Love Jesus

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 12:00am

Why did preparing for my parents’ visits feel like I was preparing for battle? All these years later, I can still feel the tension that came over me before they arrived. Mom and Dad were winsome and lively. My husband and I admired their zest for life. We loved them and wanted our kids to love them, too. But Mom and Dad didn’t know Jesus. How could we protect our kids from their ungodly influence and at the same time honor our mother and father?

God fulfilled our desire for our kids to love their grandparents. But predictable questions followed every visit: “Why don’t Granddad and Grandmom like our church?” “Why does Grandmom use the Lord’s name like that?” “Why did they want to watch that bad movie?” “Does Granddad really not believe in God?”

We longed for our kids to have godly grandparents, but the Lord had other plans. Over time, we learned three important lessons.

1. God Designs Relationships for His Best Purposes

My parents’ role in our family’s life was not a mistake. A good God designed this relationship for our good and his glory.

And his good plan for families includes every generation. Wise parents place limits when a child’s safety is at stake. But God, not fear, must guide us. As Ron and I gave our fears over to God in prayer, problems with my parents became divine opportunities to teach our kids biblical truth with grace. My parents chose to believe that this world is all there is and to live apart from God. They had no category for sin, and therefore, no comfort in God’s grace for sinners.

In response, Ron and I learned to talk openly with our kids after our parents’ visits. We used these times not only to communicate biblical truth in light of their grandparents’ sins, but also to examine our own struggles with impatience, self-righteousness, and fear. Along with our kids, we learned that God doesn’t wait until we do right to pour out his grace on us.

Our hearts softened with compassion for my parents’ blindness and ignorance. Our relationship became an opportunity for spiritual growth. And, to our surprise, we loved my parents more, not less, after their visits.

2. In Christ, We Can Be Honest and Confident in Any Relationship

Over the years, as God increased our confidence in him, my parents’ towering presence in our lives no longer intimidated us. We learned to say, “Yes, Granddad says that. We love him, but his way of talking does not honor God.” Or, “Your grandparents don’t believe in Jesus. But we know that everything God tells us about Jesus is true.” Acknowledging the problem of unbelief helped our children learn to live wisely within their own family. Anything less is dishonest and unloving.

Gradually, the questions that came up after my parents’ visits no longer threw us. We stopped changing the subject. Each visit became an opportunity to apply a biblical framework to various issues. Our confidence grew as God’s Word and his Spirit guided us into all truth.

We learned to avoid sinful criticism, but to still talk honestly with our children. Our rule became: Let the grandparents be who they are, and let our children know them this way.

Would life have been easier had my parents recognized Ron’s and my responsibility to lead our children? Of course. In a perfect world, it would’ve been great to receive my parents’ advice only when I asked them. Even so, Christian parents need not fear. God has entrusted to us the greatest influence over our children. He will help us seize teachable moments to instruct with honesty and confidence. Ask him!

3. Living by Faith Honors Our Parents

To honor is to assign importance. Ron and I honored my parents when we prayed earnestly both for them and for our attitude toward them. We asked God to help us speak respectfully but firmly about how we intended to parent.

We learned to deny ourselves the luxury of demanding our rights. When a biblical imperative wasn’t at stake, we set aside our preferences.

We couldn’t agree with my parents about many things, but we could honor them even as we disagreed. I could tell my mom, “I don’t think it’s fair for the kids to hear this,” or, “Watching that movie in front of the kids could confuse them about right and wrong.” As much as possible, we privately asked my parents to do things our way.

Living by faith meant that Ron and I couldn’t push my parents aside simply because they didn’t believe what we did. God graciously taught us how to let go of the small stuff. We learned to deny ourselves the luxury of demanding our rights. When a biblical imperative wasn’t at stake, we set aside our preferences.

Fear of my parents’ influence almost kept us from entering fully into God’s purposes for our family. Sadly, my parents left this earth without our assurance of their salvation. Their choice grieves us. Yet how thankful we are that God replaced our fear with faith in his plan.

Now, as grandparents ourselves, God has given us a new role in our children and grandchildren’s lives. Do we still have struggles? Sure! But we also trust that God is accomplishing his good purposes in the next generation, just as he did in our own.

Mika Edmondson on Conversing across the Divide

Fri, 06/14/2019 - 12:04am

“James 3:17 says, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle’—listen to this—’open to reason, full of mercy.’ Think about the national discourse around hot topics. Does it sound peaceable, gentle? Are people open to reason when they talk about these things? Do they ever say, ‘Well, you know, that was a good point you just made?'” — Mika Edmondson

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

How to Know if You’re Saving Life or Prolonging Death

Fri, 06/14/2019 - 12:03am

Twenty-five years ago, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won a National Book Award. It’s remarkable that a nonfiction book about disease and death, written by a surgeon and med school professor, would enjoy this sort of commercial success. In another way it makes perfect sense. Nuland recognized that a huge population was dying from the same handful of causes and in remarkably similar ways, but with little knowledge of what to expect or how to prepare.

Reading Kathryn Butler’s Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care, I often thought of Nuland’s How We Die. This is high praise, and well-deserved.

Like Nuland, Butler is a well-trained and practiced physician writing with expert knowledge and rich experience. Like Nuland, Butler has a remarkable ability to describe modern medicine in plain language. And like Nuland, Butler is tapping into a world of experience most of us will encounter and few of us feel prepared to deal with.

But there are also crucial differences between these books, differences that take us to the heart of what Butler is doing and why. Nuland focuses on the most common causes of death; Butler focuses on the most common treatments used to hold off death. Where Nuland has chapters on heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, Butler has chapters on mechanical ventilation, dialysis, and the ICU.

The reason for this focus is clear and compelling. She writes not just to teach us what to expect, but to help us make wise decisions in some of the worst moments we’ll ever face.

Saving Life or Prolonging Death?

The technologies available in a modern ICU have tremendous power to preserve life. They can buy precious time for doctors to figure out what’s going on and work to resolve the problem. But these technologies also have the power to blur the line between life and death:

From the doorway of a hospital room, a patient who will recover may appear identical to one fighting for his life. In both scenarios, we may require a mechanical ventilator to breathe, and sedating medications may plunge us into unconsciousness. An array of poles with intravenous (IV) bags and pumps will surround us. Wires from monitors may coil from our chest and scalp. For the aggrieved spouse at the bedside, such foreign trappings render looming death indistinguishable from steady recovery. (27)

To the untrained eye, clouded by fear and grief, it can be nearly impossible to tell whether these aggressive interventions are saving life or prolonging death. Everything about the setting is disorienting. And so patients and their families are forced into agonizing choices that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.

Should we try resuscitation again? Do we intubate? If we turn off life support, are we killing our loved one? And if it’s right to withdraw support in some cases, how do we know when it’s time?

To face questions like this we need wisdom. And this brings me to the primary difference between Butler’s book and a book like Nuland’s. Butler knows that wisdom begins with fear of the Lord. That’s why she leads with a chapter on four biblical principles that should affect our end-of-life decision making.

Four Biblical Principles

First, the sanctity of life. Because every human life is made by God in his image, every life is precious and worth saving. If an intervention buys time for a cure, we ought to intervene.

But, on its own, commitment to the sanctity of life can do more harm than good. Butler cites research showing that patients with high “religious coping” are more likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life care at any cost (34). Perhaps that comes from a belief that faithfulness requires doing everything we can. Perhaps it’s about buying time for God to work a miracle. But the Bible gives us a second principle, beside the sanctity of life—only God has authority over life, and in our fallen world every life ends in death. It’s no failure of faith to acknowledge that no medical intervention can give our bodies eternal life. And though God can work any miracle, “he does not need our help, nor does he call us to pursue futile interventions to give him time” (37).

This balance sets up a third principle. If preserving life is good, but ultimately impossible, how do we decide what interventions are worth pursuing? Mercy and compassion. We should avoid measures that increase suffering where there’s little hope for a cure.

Finally, the freedom we need to act out of mercy rather than life-at-all-costs desperation comes from hope in Christ, Butler’s fourth principle. We don’t have to throw everything we have against an unbeatable enemy because Christ has thrown himself at our enemy, and conquered. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14).

Useful Gift

These principles frame up the central work of Between Life and Death, which shines most in its chapters on specific life-sustaining interventions commonly used in the ICU. Butler’s descriptions are consistently clear and concrete. There are stories that make the descriptions more relatable. There’s a glossary of common medical terms for easy reference.

And throughout these chapters, among the greatest strengths of the book, there is humility. As I’ve said, Butler writes to orient our thinking about a foreign world, and to give us tools to work through crucial questions. But she knows better than to answer those questions for us. Every situation is unique. That means we need good doctors to explain what’s going on with our bodies. We need family and friends paying close attention. We need faithful pastors to help us apply the wisdom of the Word. This book is meant to feed into all of these conversations, not to settle them.

Whatever your position in what you’re facing—patient, friend, or pastor—Butler has given you a wonderfully useful gift.

In Defense of Pro-Life Incrementalism

Fri, 06/14/2019 - 12:03am

Last month Alabama passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation. Most legal experts believe the law will be struck down by the federal courts and that the Supreme Court will simply ignore it. But while it won’t be effective in ending abortions, the law has been successful in re-launching the decades old debate between two groups of pro-lifers: incrementalists and immediatist.

Pro-life incrementalism means supporting legislative actions that affirmatively protect the unborn and women, reduce abortion, and have the potential to pass current constitutional scrutiny. The alternative for pro-lifers is immediatism, the idea that incrementalism should be rejected and that the most, or only, moral position is the immediate and total abolition of abortion. The extreme form of this position claims that, “allowing abortion in some cases along the way to its total abolition is neither strategically sound nor consistently Christian.”

Almost all principled pro-lifers are in some sense immediatist, since our ultimate goal is the immediate end of the practice of abortion. Where the difference lies is in the question of what we should do now since we do not have the power to immediately end abortion. The incrementalist position is that we should work to save what children we can through taking actionable steps to put limits and restrictions on abortion. The immediatist position is that we should reject incrementalist legislation and work only for the immediate abolition of human abortion through constant efforts of moral persuasion

The Failure of Immediatism

The extreme immediatists believe that incrementalism is sinful. The more moderate immediatists simply believe incrementalism is defeatist. In an article for First Things, “Against Pro-life Incrementalism,” Philip Jeffery says,

Those arguing for incrementalism are right to point out that we don’t live in an ideal world and must make pragmatic calculations about how to move the pro-life cause forward. But we must escape the defeatist mentality that animates incrementalism. We are not going to make progress if we do not take bold steps forward.

Jeffery has it exactly backwards. Since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 the immediatists have made absolutely no progress, while the incrementalists have helped to save the lives of thousands of children. Over the past forty-five years, incrementalists have helped to pass hundreds of laws restricting abortion, including 45 in 2018.

The extreme immediatists would say that “number of lives saved” is not the metric by which the issue should be judged. As one immediatist group says, “This fight is not an issue of what seems practical, achievable, or reasonable. It is an issue of obedience to God. We must make no compromise with Sin or the means of fighting Sin.”

I can appreciate their appeal to purism, for Christians have too often adopted an ends-justifies-the-means approach to political action. Far too many Christians use opposition to abortion to justify supporting any incompetent, corrupt, and immoral politicians simply because they may have some indirect means of affecting the abortion debate (such as appointing judges). But the immediatists are wrong, as I’ll explain below, in claiming using legislative means to protect the unborn is in itself a “compromise with Sin.”

To their credit, though, the extreme variation is at least consistent; the more moderate immediatists are less so. The moderates claim to appreciate the fruits of incrementalism (i.e., babies not killed) while thinking the approach should have never been tried. They argue that we are wasting time and resources on passing laws when we should be changing the culture. For example, in an article titled “Why Pro-life Incrementalism Is Dead,” Ryan Everson says,

Pro-life critics of the Alabama law make a mistake common among conservatives of all kinds: They confuse political strategy with cultural strategy. Even while assuming a sharp boundary between the political fight against abortion and the cultural one, they propose an incrementalist strategy in the law as the way to victory in both battles.

Once again, though, the immediatists have nothing to show for their efforts. They’ve had four decades to “change culture” and yet polls show almost no change in the percentage of Americans who support abortion. The incrementalists have managed to spare the lives of thousands of children despite not convincing the broader culture.

The Case for Incrementalism

The case for immediatism is weak. But what is the case for incrementalism?

Almost a decade ago, Justin Taylor interviewed Clarke Forsythe, a pro-life lawyer who currently serves as the senior counsel for Americans United for Life. Forsythe says that the key political virtue for citizens in a democratic republic is prudence, which is “practical wisdom” or “right reason about what is to be done.” As an intellectual virtue, says Forsythe, political prudence challenges political leaders and voters with four questions:

Are they pursuing good goals?

Do they exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible?

Do they successfully connect means to ends?

Do they preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved?

Prudence judges in any particular circumstance whether an incremental strategy is the right one, says Forsythe:

When it is not possible to completely prohibit a social evil, it is both moral and effective to limit it as much as possible. When the ideal is beyond our power, it is moral and effective to seek the greatest good possible. Prudence instructs us that an “all-or-something” approach is better than an “all-or-nothing” approach in politics. One of the reasons is that progress is almost always a result of momentum, and momentum—in the face of countervailing obstacles—is often produced by small victories.


An all-or-nothing approach, by contrast, is rarely prudent (I can’t think of an example) and rarely produces change, and when nothing is the result, it doesn’t create the needed momentum to produce change. This reality is reflected in the simple truth that it’s always good (a good goal) to limit an evil.

Most Christians are not incrementalists because we against immediatism. We simply reject immediatism because it is currently imprudent. The reality is that we don’t have the political power to save all the babies. But we can save some.

If we want to pursue the good, exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible, successfully connect means to ends, and preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved, we should continue to support pro-life incrementalism.

Help! My Teen Doesn’t Want to Attend Church

Fri, 06/14/2019 - 12:00am

It’s Sunday morning and the buzzing alarm signals the beginning of an all-too-familiar battle: Your teenager has let you know in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t want to go to church. Tossing back the covers, you mentally prepare to cajole, bargain, and plead her begrudgingly from bed to car, for what will likely be a very unpleasant ride to Sunday worship.

Happy Lord’s Day.

Hebrews 10:24–25 contains the scriptural imperative that battle-weary parents are striving to uphold: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another . . . ” Christians gather together as the church to encourage one another in holiness and to proclaim and remember the powerful gospel of Christ. Saved or unsaved, your teen needs your church’s witness.

Saved or unsaved, your teen needs your church’s witness.

Parenting is packed with opportunities to persuade your child to do what’s best even when she’d rather not. As an infant, you convinced her to sleep through the night instead of partying away the night in her crib. Instead of a diet consisting exclusively of pizza, you provide healthy alternatives. And every day you drop her off at school, whether or not she’s feeling it. Parents help their children discern the good portion. If your resolve needs a little refreshing, try employing the three E’s.


Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Instead of shutting your teen down, investigate. Why doesn’t your teenager want to go to church? Ask her. Set aside a time to listen to her concerns. When she shares, empathize and help her process her feelings or find workable solutions.

Whether saved or unsaved, your teen needs the church’s witness.

Even if you love your church, there are likely plenty of Sundays you wake up and aren’t in the mood to go. Maybe you’re overly tired and would rather sleep in. Perhaps someone hurt your feelings and you’d rather avoid them. Or maybe you need a day to catch up on chores.

Instead of shaming your teen for her normal temptation, help her understand what to do with it. Teach her to recognize temptation and then deny it in favor of faithful commitment to the body of Christ.


Not all conflict ends with empathy. Maybe your teen is still a hard “no” when Sunday rolls around. She may live under the impression that church is only valuable when it’s enjoyable or entertaining. When she doesn’t click with the youth group or finds your church personally unappealing, she may conclude it’s unnecessary. Just as you taught her to eat her veggies and get an education, teach her basic ecclesiology. Why is her participation in the church body good and necessary?

Christ’s followers are members of his body (1 Cor. 12:27). Each Christian is one brick in God’s spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5), built together (Eph. 2:22) on the foundation of his Son (1 Cor. 3:11). When believers devote themselves to biblical teaching, the fellowship of the believers, the breaking of bread, and the prayers of fellow saints (Acts 2:42), God increases their joy and adds new believers to the family. The church is strengthened. Because Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her” (Eph. 5:25–26), your teen needs more than attendance. She needs love for the church body.

Mothers and fathers, it may be a laborious toil to take your teenager to church. But it’s a worthy investment. Empathize, explain, exhort.

As the parent, training begins with you (Prov. 22:6). Teach your teenager God’s commands that she might fear him and keep his statutes all her days (Deut. 6:1–3), bring her up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord while not provoking her to anger (Eph. 6:4), and extend the rod and reproof that offers wisdom (Prov. 29:15), all while showing her compassion (Ps. 103:13). This training happens all week long, before church begins.

As long as your teenager lives under your roof and depends on your funds, she’s your child. Exodus 20:12 calls her to “honor [her] father and mother, that it may go well with [her] and that [she] may live long in the land.” She is to obey her parents in the Lord, for this is right (Eph. 6:1). While she may not like your methods, God’s commands are for her good. The wisdom of Proverbs 23:22, “Listen to your father who gave you life,” isn’t cumbersome, but a blessing. Your gentle insistence on church attendance demonstrates your love (Prov. 13:24).


If your teen is still averse to attending church, try exhortation. The apostle Paul describes his ministry to the Thessalonians as labor and toil, night and day. But he persists in proclaiming the gospel “like a father with his children,” exhorting and encouraging each one, charging them to walk “in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:9–12). Labor to exhort and encourage.

The church is God’s good provision for your teen. Teach her this truth. Inside the church she will find pastors who joyfully watch over her soul (Heb. 13:17), teachers who keep her from swerving from the faith (1 Tim. 6:21), and faithful witnesses who commend her to run the race of faith (Heb. 11:2). She will learn of God’s love for his people, his willingness to provide, and his covenant-keeping nature. She’ll observe persecution and affliction among God’s people and learn to navigate suffering alongside Christ. The church is the Father’s generous provision to his children.

Mothers and fathers, it may be a laborious toil to take your teenager to church. But it’s a worthy investment. Empathize, explain, exhort. Don’t withhold the discipline of church attendance from your teen; if you make him go to church, he will not die (Prov. 23:13).

How to Teach the ‘I Am’ Statements in John

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 12:04am

I have found Andrew Sach, a pastor of Grace Church Greenwich, to be one of those teachers who repeatedly demonstrates that passages we may have heard taught the same way many times, may not actually be about what we think they’re about. And how does he go about gaining this kind of insight? His repeated admonition is to “go bigger, go older” when studying any passage in the Bible.

By going bigger, he means that we need to consider the larger chunk of Scripture in which the passage we’re teaching is found. And by going older, he encourages Bible handlers to look carefully for allusions to the Old Testament that will provide insight into the passage. These are exactly the tools Sach brought to the “I Am” statements in John in our discussion, helping us as teachers to go deeper into what Jesus was communicating about himself through vivid images such as bread, light, shepherd, door, and vine.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

Books by Andrew Sach

Other resources:

How Can I Get My Child to Engage in Schoolwork?

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 12:03am

Got any tips on how to help a high-school student engage in schoolwork? My son puts forth the least amount of effort necessary to get the grades we expect from him. He loves Jesus, but doesn’t always see how reading things like Bartleby, the Scrivener is relevant outside the classroom. He’s in a Christian school, and I know his teachers are making those connections for him, but that’s not always enough motivation for him to dig in. How can we help him strive for godly excellence while at the same time giving him space to be a kid?

High schoolers are not so different from adults. We both want to make sense of what we do every day. At school and at work, we both engage in laborious and lackluster work. At the same time, we want it to count.

No matter your age, the temptation will always be—in the words of Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger—to either idolize your work or be idle in your work. Both temptations are, at root, a distrust of God. We believe either that we need our work for the sake of our identity, or that we don’t need to perform well because work doesn’t matter. The apostle Paul addresses this dichotomy by exhorting us to work as if we’re working for the Lord himself, not for men, because this is what it means to be an adopted child of God (Col. 3:23–24).

We work for Jesus Christ because he is the ultimate Worker. He has worked the world into existence (John 1:1–3). He works even now as your Savior (2 Pet. 3:9), intercessor (Heb. 7:25), and sustainer (Col. 1:17). And one day, he will work all of creation into full and final redemption, world—holy and holistic work included—without end (Rev. 21:1–5). Jesus overcame the temptation to idolize or to be idle in his work so that we would be able to do the same (Heb. 4:14–16).

Not all work is immediately rewarding, and it’s a misstep to categorize such work as irrelevant.

Regarding the issue at hand, let’s start by saying your son is not alone in lamenting his pilgrimage through Bartleby, the Scrivener. However, the twofold error in his approach is this: Not all work is immediately rewarding, and it’s a misstep to categorize such work as irrelevant. Because of the fall, some work is going to feel futile or monotonous or painful. But because our reward for our work is not bound in the temporary, we are able to struggle and suffer with joy (Rom. 5:23–25; James 1:2–4).

I too am a product of a Christian high-school education. I remember the “Christ connections” with Nathaniel Hawthorne in English class and the apologetics appendices to our biology lessons. Hear me say that any educational system that seeks to show how Christ is both creative and preeminent throughout the academic disciplines is worthy of commendation. But this will not always take a student from apathetic to ablaze in his studies. He needs to understand not just how Christ is present in what he is studying, but that Christ is present in his labor of learning.

He needs to understand not just how Christ is present in what he’s studying, but that Christ is present in his labor of learning.

Here are four questions to consider in the quest to impart a spirit of godly excellence to your child:

  1. Is establishing a GPA standard as the primary metric for your children’s success setting them up for a bare-minimum endeavor? Godly excellence is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, but you don’t get there by striving for a manmade measuring stick. It is the fruit of abiding in vocation, the work God is doing in the world through you. Take care to select how you train your child to set goals and standards, and ensure that they are both ambitious and attainable.
  2. Are you willing to let your teenager go against the grain of society if the Lord calls him to? Your child may not love the idea of a traditional post-college career. Only 6 percent of American high-school students receive vocational job exposure in high school, while that number in Europe is often close to 50 percent. If the lack of love for learning at school continues, high-skilled labor training may be something to explore.
  3. Are you as a parent modeling godly excellence in your own approach to work? I too often witness parents imploring their children to “work as unto the Lord” while they themselves are ruled by the prospect of a promotion. Just as you cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13), you cannot serve both worldly success and also your child’s sanctification. Work hard and work well, but do not set an example of idolatry or idleness that your child will later need to overcome.
  4. Do you prioritize your child’s involvement and investment in your local church? It is not good for us to dwell, or to work, alone (Gen. 2:18). By taking your child to church, you affirm that his work cannot adequately bear the weight his soul. A day of true rest, recreation, and reflection in the context of a covenant community is a powerful antidote to both sloth and also workaholism. Lord willing, he will gradually begin to see Jesus as beautiful and gracious—worth serving in every aspect of life.

Your teenager’s struggle with work is not going away anytime soon, and neither is yours. Lean into the struggle and learn alongside him. The pressures of the world will only increase as your child ages and advances in a career. Train him up now in the way he should view his work, and pray that he will cling to the finished work of Christ all the while.

You can read other questions and answers in the Thorns & Thistles series.

Is Our Visual Age Making You Blind?

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 12:02am


That’s how many seconds per day the average American spends consuming media. That’s 11 hours every day looking at smartphones, tablets, televisions, and laptops.

The World Health Organization recently stated that children younger than 2 should not have any sedentary screen time, while children between 2 and 5 should be limited to just one hour per day. Curiously, it appears grown-ups are the ones with the real screen-time problem. A recent report found that adults check their smartphone, on average, 150 times per day. Companies have even created smartphone apps for tracking screen time in an attempt to help people reign it in.

It’s pretty obvious: Our screen time is excessive, technology is addictive, and we should probably stop spending half our day staring at glowing rectangles.

Less obvious, however, is this: What should we look at instead? If we look at our smartphones and televisions way too much, what are we not looking at enough?

The average American spends 11 hours a day looking at screens.

Learning to See Again

Some answers to these questions might come from a philosopher who never owned an iPhone.

Josef Pieper, a 20th-century German Catholic philosopher, thought a lot about seeing. According to Pieper, the visual noise in our world makes it hard for us to see. Ironically, the visual glut of the digital age—70-inch television screens, Instagram photos, and endless megapixels—is blinding us. In Only the Lover Sings, Pieper writes, “We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.”

We see more than we have ever before. And yet our capacity to see what is real, true, and beautiful is occluded like never before.

We see more than we have ever before. And yet our capacity to see what is real, true, and beautiful is occluded like never before.

The well-known invisible gorilla experiment can help explain Pieper’s argument. Participants are asked to watch a video of six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts—passing around basketballs. The test subjects are supposed to count the number of passes made by the people in the white shirts. Halfway through the video, a gorilla walks into the middle of the frame, thumps its chest, and then saunters away. Half of the people in the experiment missed the gorilla. Focused on the task at hand—counting the number of passes—these people miss something as obvious as a gorilla in the room.  

The visual noise of the digital age can cause us to miss the wonder and beauty of God’s creation. Checking our phone for the 151st time, we will surely overlook the patient hopefulness of leaflets sprouting from trees. The siren song of screens directs our eyes away from the simple beauty of sunshine, shadows, and soil. Facebook’s constant pull obscures our ability to see the faces of neighbors right in front of us.  

There are dire consequences to this blindness. As Pieper writes, “Going below a certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom line.”

Indeed, the visual noise all around us can blind us from seeing what is eternally meaningful: “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37).

Difficult, Yet Not Impossible

Learning to see again in a digital world is not easy, nor is it impossible.

Though he lived before screens and smartphones, Pieper’s advice for learning how to see remains helpful. He proposes two actions we can take in order to better see in a visually noisy age.

First, visual fasting can help us learn how to see again. According to Pieper, it is helpful to develop a “regimen of fasting and abstinence, by which we would try to keep the visual noise of daily inanities at a distance.” This is, in modern terms, digital fasting. Choosing a period of the day or week to be screen-free allows us to limit the meaningless visual noise in our lives. Similarly, turning your smartphone to grayscale is a form of visual fasting that may decrease your phone usage.

Second, art may also help our digitally impaired vision. Pieper thought creating and viewing works of art developed “a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked.” The artist must linger over tiny qualities of a face or cityscape. Likewise, viewing art invites a slow gaze and leisurely reflection. Patiently pondering a work of art is the opposite of swiping a finger for more color, images, and dopamine.  

Patiently pondering a work of art is the opposite of swiping a finger for more color, images, and dopamine.

The Treachery of Images, by the surrealist painter René Magritte, illustrates how a work of art can help us learn to see again. Magritte’s painting shows an image of a pipe along with French text, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”). Indeed, the painting is not a pipe; it’s an image of one. Looking at it makes us aware that we are not looking at a pipe, just a representation. Magritte opens our eyes, albeit in a small way, and helps us learn to see again. By ironically calling attention to its not-a-pipe nature, the painting helps viewers consider the reality of a pipe in way they might not otherwise see. This work of art helps us see both pipes and paintings in a new way.

The psalmist also speaks of a healthy and attentive mode of seeing:

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4).

Gazing upon the beauty of God’s creation requires eyes that can see. The digital age is making it harder—yet not impossible—to do this. For Christians, it’s a worthy challenge to take up. We of all people have reason to clear away the visual noise and open our occluded eyes. God’s glory is waiting to be seen.

Who Wrote Moses’s Obituary in Deuteronomy 34?

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 12:00am

What do these books have in common? The sixth volume of Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, and Charles Krauthammer’s The Point of It All. The author of each died before completing his work. In each instance—and there are many more—another author edited and completed the work.

The Bible is no different.

The Scriptures are clear that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (Deut. 4:14; 5:1–2; 1 Kings. 2:3; 8:9; 2 Kings. 14:6 Ezra 7:6; Neh. 1:7; 8:1; Ps. 103:7; Dan. 9:13; 2 Chron. 23:18; 25:4; Mal. 4:4; Matt. 19:7–8; 22:24; Acts 3:22; 7:37–38; Rom. 10:19; 1 Cor. 9:9; Heb. 9:19; Rev. 15:3). Holding to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, however, poses an interesting question: Who wrote about Moses’s death and burial in Deuteronomy 34?

Over the centuries, biblical scholars and commentators have differed over who wrote Deuteronomy 34. For example, Jewish tradition cites Joshua. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, John Calvin acknowledges the “probable conjecture of the ancients” that Joshua wrote Deuteronomy 34, but admits Eleazar the priest is a likely candidate too. John Gill says Joshua could be the author, and yet admits that Eleazer, Samuel, and Ezra are also possible.

More recent commentators—such as Eugene Merrill, Edward J. Woods, and Dan Block—simply leave the author unnamed.

Maybe Moses?  

It’s not far-fetched to think Moses wrote the account of his own death and burial, particularly since God revealed his word and works to Moses (Ps. 103:7). There are other examples in Scripture that lend some credibility to the idea that Moses saw his coming death and wrote about the circumstances.

That would be consistent with God’s revelation of future events in other places. God previewed his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham (Gen. 18:17–33). God revealed to Ezekiel in real time that Nebuchadnezzar was standing at a crossroads, divining which way to proceed (Ezek. 21:18–23). In Ezekiel 8, God revealed to Ezekiel—while in exile near the Euphrates River—what was going on in the temple in Jerusalem. Matthew 16:21 indicates that Jesus knew what lay before him—suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection—in Jerusalem. Therefore, God could have revealed to Moses what would come in his last days. After all, God revealed to him what happened before his birth (Gen. 1:1–Exod. 1:22).

However, it’s more likely that another hand penned Deuteronomy 34, and there are indications in Scripture and in Jewish tradition as to the  author’s likely identity.


The son of Aaron and his successor as high priest, Eleazar is often named as a possible author of Deuteronomy 34. Eleazar played an important role in Israel’s life during the ministries of Moses and Joshua. He was named the chief of the tribe of Levi (Num. 3:32) and was charged with overseeing the duties of the sanctuary (Num. 4:16). In the wilderness, Eleazar was charged to inventory the spoils of war after Israel fought Midian (Num. 31). He also assisted Moses and Joshua in distributing the land to the tribes of Israel (Num. 34:17; Josh. 14:1).

Further, Eleazar was a Levite. The Levites were charged with the care of the law (Deut. 31:9, 26) and charged to teach the law (Num. 31:21; Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 17:9; 35:3). Eleazar’s position as high priest, and his service alongside Moses and Joshua, may have given him the qualifications to update Deuteronomy after Moses’s death.


Ezra is described as a worthy scribe who was “skilled in the law of Moses” and who had “set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it” (Ezra 7:6, 10). Ezra was responsible for restoring faithful worship among the remnant that returned from exile.

As part of his restorative work, Jewish tradition attributes two actions that bear on our topic. First, he’s responsible for updating the script of the Hebrew Bible. Second, in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis indicate that Ezra completed updating, collecting, and arranging the books of the Old Testament. Additionally, 2 Maccabees 2:13 suggests that Ezra had a large library at his disposal to perform his work on the Old Testament canon. Given Ezra’s literary activity and the resources available to him, he could’ve been responsible for closing out the Pentateuch with Moses’s death and burial.


Samuel is a prime candidate for the authorship of Deuteronomy 34 given both his standing before the Lord (1 Sam. 2:21; 3:19) and also his role as a prophet. The Old Testament prophets were divinely inspired (1 Pet. 1:10–12; 2 Pet. 1:20–21), and many committed their prophecies to writing (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah, and so on).

According to the division of the Hebrew Bible, however, there are more prophetic books. What we consider the historical books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) are considered prophetic as well. This means the historical books are not merely a historical record of Israel; they are a “sacred history” written by a prophet to record God’s acts among his covenant people (1 Chron. 29:29). The prophet Samuel, then, wrote the sacred histories of Judges and the books of Samuel up to his death. Some would add the book of Joshua to the list of books Samuel authored. Scripture also gives evidence of Samuel’s literary activity in 1 Samuel 10:25 and 1 Chronicles 29:29. Samuel, then, as a prophet, would have divine authority to complete Deuteronomy. And this would account for the statement found in Deuteronomy 34:10: “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.”

Evidence Points to Joshua

But Joshua seems to be the most likely candidate for authorship of Deuteronomy 34. Most commentators and Jewish tradition agree. John Peter Lange points out that it is clear from Joshua’s command in Joshua 1:8 (compare with Deut. 4:2; 13:1) that he meditated on and practiced God’s Word.

Joshua served as Moses’s attendant since his youth, and likely grew to love God’s Word while serving Moses (Num. 11:28; see also Ex. 33:11). Scripture also gives evidence of Joshua’s literary activity in Deuteronomy 31:19 and Joshua 24:26.

Although God could have communicated the account of Moses’s death and burial to any of the men listed above, a simple reading of Deuteronomy 34 seems to point Joshua as the most likely author.

Does It Matter?

While a compelling case can be made for the author of Deuteronomy 34, ultimately we aren’t certain who wrote it. Many follow Calvin’s wise advice and leave “the matter of no very great importance undecided.” In preaching Deuteronomy 34, then, the pastor may offer his opinion about the author, since a few fit the bill. Yet the pastor should simply suggest his opinion.

When instructing a congregation on the inspiration of Scripture and on the authors of the Bible’s 66 books, the pastor may offer this note: To suggest that an author other than Moses wrote Deuteronomy 34 by no means undermines Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch or the inspiration of Scripture. Again, Scripture includes indications of divinely authorized additions and updating. For example, Proverbs 25:1 tells of the men of King Hezekiah adding saying of Solomon to Proverbs.

While David is the author of many psalms, it’s clear that another person put the book into the form we have it today; for example, the Psalter is divided into five books, many of which contain psalms from other authors. Exodus 13:17 mentions the “way of the land of the Philistines,” an update of an older place name since the Philistines weren’t in the picture at the time of the exodus.

And Samuel could not have written 2 Samuel, since he had already died; it’s likely that Nathan or Gad finished his work (1 Chron. 29:29).

The 16 ministers who completed Henry’s magisterial commentary, Christopher Tolkien, and Daniel Krauthammer ensured that they honored their predecessors in finishing their works. And when it comes to the Scriptures, we can trust God oversaw and inspired even those who made the updates and additions (2 Tim. 3:16).