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WARNING: Objects in Mirror Not so Dire as They Appear

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 12:02am

Books about global statistics and trends tend to moonlight as insomnia medication. However, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, written with the help of his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, is something of a page-turning thriller. How is that possible?

Such books also suffer an inevitable fate: In the blink of an eye, every chart and data set becomes obsolete, requiring endless new editions. Factfulness will prove useful a generation from now, even if it never produces a second edition. How is that possible?

The recently deceased Rosling, a Swedish global health expert and TED talk phenomenon, seemed an older male version of Pollyanna, a naïve optimist bursting with enthusiasm about his state-of-the-art “bubble charts” that show the world getting better on nearly every available metric. He was actually a determined realist who preferred the term “possibilist.” And with this posthumously published book, the “possibilist” achieved the seemingly impossible: a gripping and evergreen book about global statistics and trends.

Mind-Altering Facts—and Minds That Alter Facts

This he accomplishes by a stroke of genius: Instead of just a book about facts (there are metric tons of those, brilliantly delivered and derived almost entirely from official United Nations reports), he writes about the minds that interpret the facts. Namely, he identifies 10 fallacies of thought that conspire to blind us to reality. He calls them mental “instincts,” and he gives them helpful labels: “The Gap Instinct” (imagining yawning chasms between “us” and “them,” “here” and “over there”), “The Straight Line Instinct” (imagining that trends continue in straight lines), “The Blame Instinct” (always searching for a nefarious single cause), and on and on it goes. Factfulness is about mind-altering facts—many of its charts simply blow the mind, particularly pages 60–63—but it’s also about minds that alter facts.

Factfulness is about mind-altering facts—many of its charts simply blow the mind, but it’s also about minds that alter facts.

And because the book isn’t primarily about the data and the charts, but rather how data and charts illuminate perennial fallacies, Factfulness will retain all of its intellectual punch long after the actual charts are outdated. Bill Gates was hardly exaggerating when he blurbed: “One of the most important books I’ve ever read—an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.”


There are weaknesses. In a book devoted to whether things are good or bad, better or worse, Rosling makes no attempt to provide an actual moral standard by which we can judge what is “good” or “bad”; he simply assumes moral intuition on the part of readers. There is no ethical “underwriting” for his project. For the most part, this is understandable and unobjectionable—few people view poverty, disease, and infant mortality as good things.

But some topics aren’t so obvious. Is it a good thing that the birthrate has dramatically fallen throughout the developing world? It depends. On the one hand, it indicates lower infant mortality (impoverished people keep having children because they expect many of their children to die) and an increase in economic opportunities for women. Fewer children seems an ideal for Rosling (not that he is worried about “overpopulation”—you’ll have to read why), but he never grounds that ideal ethically, nor does he address the unavoidable tradeoff: widespread below-replacement-level birthrates forecast future economic decline.

The crisis someone is trying to sell you today most likely isn’t. Don’t click.

Related, in this regard, a short passage on abortion sticks out like a sore thumb:

Across the world today, women and girls are still being made the victims of religious condemnation of abortion. When abortion is made illegal it doesn’t stop abortions from happening, but it does make abortions more dangerous and increase the risk of women dying as a result. (218)

The 160 million females—specifically singled out for their femaleness—eradicated globally by abortion might have had something to say about who is victimizing whom. Rosling never explains why high abortion rates signify progress; he just assumes that autonomy equals “good.” Strikingly, this is one of the few places in the book where Rosling provides no accompanying data or charts. In 1974 Sweden outlawed almost all abortions after 22 weeks; has it seen a dramatic rise of women dying from dangerous illegal abortions? No. Thankfully, this kind of unsupported dogma is rare in the book.

Rosling’s enthusiasm for progress sometimes blinds him to the fact that occasionally societies regress right before our eyes. Religion is a complete afterthought for him, not relevant to anything he wishes to measure in a society. But it is a fact that 50 years ago women all across the Muslim world, from Cairo to Kabul, posed for photographs with visible faces, beautiful and smiling. The rise of radical, fundamentalist Islam has altered that picture in the extreme. You can ignore the role of religion in the “progress” of societies, but only by refusing to look at it. It’s polite and maybe particularly Swedish, but it’s not objective or honest.

Benefits and Lessons

The strengths of the book vastly outweigh the weaknesses. It’s mesmerizingly well-written, and for Christian believers it contains a few vital lessons. Too often Christians embrace a “sky is falling” cataclysmic view of world history (it’s never been worse!) that is every bit as wrong and extreme as that of the utopian progressive activist who seems to threaten them. Rosling provides an eye-opening corrective, factually and intellectually: The world is getting better, by far, but our minds won’t always allow us to see and acknowledge it.

Rosling skillfully articulates how all of the incentives (economic, status, and otherwise) in media culture and related institutions reward the proliferation of crises that distort understanding. At a time when we’re so emotionally vulnerable to clickbait, daily outrage, and a thousand other perhaps well-intended yet panic-inducing emotional manipulations, Rosling provides invaluable intellectual and factual tools to widen our perspective. The book is a veritable how-to manual to accompany the famous British World War II poster: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The crisis someone is trying to sell you today most likely isn’t. Don’t click.

Rosling’s book should be used as a resource for the cultivating gratitude. Gratitude should, in turn, make us into cheerful contributors of even more progress.

Consider this maxim, for example: Things can be bad and better at the same time. Yes, the snapshot view of a particular injustice or state of affairs can appear intolerable. But the better question is, “Compared to what?” If we back up the film and view the context before this particular frame—that is, if we look at the trend of said injustice or state of affairs, we will see something different. Yes, extreme poverty is intolerable. But did you know that it has nearly been eradicated globally in just the last few decades?

You can do your own thought experiment on any number of things. Race relations in America can be characterized as bad. But follow up on that thought: Compared to what? Compared to a Civil War that killed more than a half-million people and the dehumanizing segregation that followed, we have so much to be grateful for. Things can be bad and better at the same time. Rosling’s book should be used as a resource for the cultivating gratitude. Gratitude should, in turn, make us into cheerful contributors to even more progress.

Christians should be students of the Word, and also of the world. Rosling is measuring the progress of societies over time and that means he’s really measuring the movements of God’s providence. That is a great service, and it can keep us from being blown about by every wind of hysteria. I’d recommend this book to anyone and everyone, high-schoolers and retirees alike. We all need to be made aware of our blind spots and gain wider perspective.

The bonuses are that you won’t be able to put it down, and it will reward you when you read it again long after the charts need updating.

The Ancient New Alternative to the SAT and ACT

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 12:00am

Last month, 50 people were charged with scheming to get students into elite universities. While some of the charges involved falsifying student athletic abilities, most revolved around the standardized achievement tests nearly every college student takes: the ACT and SAT.

Some parents paid for false learning-disability diagnoses, which gained their children extra time to take the exams. Others paid “a really smart guy” to take the tests for their children or to doctor wrong answers. Still others provided copies of their child’s handwriting along with their bribe, so a proctor could write a better fake essay on the student’s behalf.

The admissions scandal—which snared celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman—was the largest ever prosecuted in the United States. And it raised a lot of questions about those tests.

“Is the College Cheating Scandal the ‘Final Straw’ for Standardized Tests?” The New York Times asked. The Washington Post wondered the same thing: “Is it finally time to get rid of the SAT and ACT college admissions tests?”

Jeremy Tate and Keith Nix at Veritas School in Richmond / Courtesy of CLT

Probably, says Jeremy Tate, co-creator of the four-year-old Classic Learning Test (CLT). But not because of the cheaters.

Tate has been working in the college admissions arena for years. He’s watched the test—and the public schools it was built for—move farther away from education’s historical aim of cultivating truth, goodness, and beauty.

When the SAT was revamped in 2016, Tate was frustrated enough to co-create a new test. The CLT pulls from authors like Augustine, John Calvin, G. K. Chesterton, and Flannery O’Connor, among dozens of other classic thinkers. (Though the test isn’t specifically Reformed, or even Christian, the author of the initial pilot test is Presbyterian.) It also asks students to solve math problems not by memorizing formulas but by applying logic—testing aptitude instead of accomplishment.

This spring, more than 10,000 students took the CLT. More than 150 colleges—mostly Christian liberal-arts colleges—are now accepting those results.

“It has the potential to be a real disruptor to the system,” said Keith Nix, who heads Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, and sits on the boards of CLT and the Association for Classical Christian Schools. That’s the same language philosopher Charles Taylor uses, and in some senses, the new test has the same aim.

Taylor says disruptions can jar our modern “buffered” selves—which have mentally closed the door against transcendence—into remembering spiritual reality. In the same way, the CLT pushes against enlightened humanism and puts the focus back on the transcendence of the human soul along with the capabilities of the human mind.

And that disruption, if it continues to grow, could affect the whole system.

Standardized Tests

In the 1800s, the passage of students from high school to college—generally something only wealthy white males were able to do—was a chaotic mess. Every high school had its own curricular standards for graduation, and every college had its own admissions examinations.

In an attempt to organize the system and to make college more accessible, 12 colleges banded together in 1900 to administer the first College Entrance Examination Board test. For the first 15 years, the test covered subjects such as Latin, Greek, French, history, and physics. Students were asked to translate passages of Cicero and to “describe a method of finding the specific gravity of a solid heavier than water; of a liquid.”

A few years later, a Harvard professor used an IQ test to help the military—which was looking for officer candidates—sort more than a million World War I recruits. Impressed, the College Board developed a version for high-school students. It became the first version of the SAT.

The exam was thought to be foolproof in a couple ways. First, since the reading sections in particular were regarded as “probably non-coachable,” it would be impossible to cheat. And second, since aptitude and ethnicity were thought to be linked, it would keep higher education off-limits to those who weren’t white.

Neither turned out to be true, but the test did begin to standardize admissions. For the next 60 years, the SAT grew in popularity, mainly due to lack of competition and skyrocketing demand. In the late-1800s, just 1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds attended college, rising to 15 percent after World War II, then to 35 percent in the 1960s. By 2016, nearly 70 percent of high-school graduates enrolled in college.

But they didn’t all take the same test. Over the years, the math section was taken out, tested separately, and put back in; analogies came and went; the antonym section was reduced and then changed to multiple choice. In 1959, the SAT’s monopoly was broken by the Academic College Testing (ACT), which judged mastery—or what a student had learned in high school—rather than aptitude.

Popular perception is that the ACT is easier; by 2012, more students were taking it than the SAT. Together, the tests have become an enormously lucrative industry. In 2017, the SAT’s Educational Service earned $1.4 billion and ACT Inc. brought in $353 million—not including the billions spent on outside test-prep services.

As the two fought for market share, they began looking more and more alike: The ACT added a reading section and optional essay like the SAT; the SAT dropped analogies and added charts and graphs, similar to the ACT.

And both keep adjusting in order to mirror the changing curriculum and standards of K-12 schools.

That’s exactly the problem, Tate says.

Common Core

Tate spent a couple of years teaching in New York City before he went to seminary. (He wound up taking classes at both Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and also Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington D.C.)

“Through RTS, I became enamored with the way education was called ‘formation’ for much of church history,” Tate said. “It had to do with cultivation, with shaping your heart and mind.”

Tate learned that modern educational theory was largely influenced by atheist and secular humanist John Dewey in the early 1900s. Dewey’s theory that education is fundamentally pragmatic—a way to prepare students for useful careers—changed the course of learning in America.

After graduation, Tate didn’t become a pastor. Instead, he began working with schools on SAT prep. So he was watching closely when, in 2015, College Board president David Coleman announced a major overhaul to the SAT.

Coleman was one of the main architects of Common Core, the state benchmarks for reading and math in grade school and high school. (Tate’s not a fan: “Common core is anti-fiction, anti-classic literature, anti-philosophy.”) Its emphasis on utilitarian skills shows up in the SAT’s “practical, more realistic” math scenarios and the trading of classical literature for passages in social studies and science. In one sample test, students read from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (written in 1911), Richard Florida’s “The Great Reset” about the economic recession (2010), Ed Yong’s “Turtles Use the Earth’s Magnetic Field as Global GPS” (2011), and a speech by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan on impeaching Richard Nixon (1974).

Observers noted that the new SAT was “a lot more like the ACT,” aiming to test mastery over aptitude.

The idea is to “be more fair” by “rewarding students for what they learn in the classroom,” Tate said. “But which classroom? A Jewish classroom? A Montessori classroom? A classical Christian classroom? They’re talking about public schools. Everybody has to be assessed by public-school standards.”

That’s a problem, because “I was seeing consistent themes of always censoring any Christian or theistic authors,” he said. “In addition, they were censoring any ideas that would possibly be offensive to a student. So you end up with meaningless content—you end up with passages about penguins, because no one says, ‘I had a bad experience with a penguin that is going to trigger me.’”

He hated it. “I thought maybe I could offer test prep for a different test,” he said. “I started researching who was making a new test and found that nobody was doing it.”

He wondered if he could do it himself, and called up nearly a dozen college admissions counselors. They told him that they’d love a different test, but that making one would be nearly impossible. The creators of the SAT and ACT spend years—and millions—painstakingly testing each question that’s included.

Tate didn’t have millions, and he didn’t have years. But he did have an idea motivating enough to attract a “strong and enthusiastic” team.

Classic Learning Test

Tate asked his crew to write questions on the best passages of literature, philosophy, and religion. They added questions that would test mathematical reasoning—such as metaphors and logic puzzles—along with math skills and knowledge.

“On the CLT, the passages to be read came from great works of Western literature, as well as classic novels and essays,” wrote homeschooled senior Olivia Dennison, who took the test in 2017. “It was obvious . . . that the goal of the CLT was to cultivate truth, beauty, and goodness in a student. It was a fun test. It made me excited for the future of testing. The required passages were works that I had either read, or that I would read on my own time. Instead of the ACT passage I read where an author remembered how much fun he had on the beach as a child, the CLT included writings from Boethius and C. S. Lewis. I even answered questions about a scene from The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Dennison’s experience is what the test creators were going for—and, for the most part, are achieving. Ninety-three percent of Veritas students said it was a “more satisfying experience” than taking the SAT, Nix said.

The CLT is meant to be a throwback to the days of the Founding Fathers, when education “was aimed, most fundamentally, at making a person more fully human,” Tate wrote.

It’s also a step into the future, especially given the steady growth of the neo-classical education movement.

Classical Advantage

The CLT is not a perfect solution; for example, it doesn’t solve the racial inequality in education. And students of any race who have studied classically have an advantage.

That’s not new—classical students, on average, already do pretty well on the ACT and SAT. “Our little schools exceeded by 60 to 100 points the average of prep schools on the reasoning component of the SAT between 2000 and 2015,” said Association for Classical Christian Schools president David Goodwin.

But in order to keep doing well as the tests change, “we’d have to change our curriculum to Common Core, which we don’t want to do,” he said. That’s why the CLT has him “jumping up and down.”

“I want a test that can measure verbal and quantitative reasoning—that will be the test that will accurately reflect what we do,” he said.

Courtesy of CLT

The first CLT was administered in 2016, and the content wasn’t the only difference students noticed.

“When you take the SAT, you go to a testing location—usually an unfamiliar, factory-like school—and sign in as a number,” Nix said. “Then you go through three or four hours of testing that you’re told will determine where you’ll go to college, which will determine your whole life. You take it under a tremendous amount of pressure. And then you wait a month to see how you did.”

The CLT is administered on the students’ own campus and takes just two hours. The results are delivered the same day.

“It makes the experience smaller,” Nix said. “It puts things in perspective.”

Because the test is just one part of an imperfect admissions process—an overhyped part, some argue. In fact, a growing list of colleges—including University of Chicago and Wake Forest University—are going test-optional.

“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t want the CLT to exist, because I think that education is fundamentally a humane exercise, and the best way to assess anything is person to person,” Goodwin said. “I’d rather have the schools put forth their best graduates to the best colleges, who accept them on the word of the schools. That keeps education from being a grade.”

Nix is also skeptical of grades; his school just did away with them for elementary school.

But he acknowledges “if it’s a good standardized test, then it’s a helpful check-and-balance on the quality of what you’re doing. If we have a great books list, but the way we’re teaching it doesn’t help kids read classic texts and do some good thinking and demonstrate understanding, then we need to know that.”

Goodwin likes a Luke 6:40 model of education, where a teacher reproduces himself in his students. “I don’t think a test can measure that—not the CLT or the SAT. But the redemptive power of the CLT is it gives us headroom to do education well without being pulled into the vortex that is coming.”

It may do even more than that.

Teaching to the Test

It only took a year before large high schools like Veritas were administering the CLT. At the same time, Hillsdale College had completed a yearlong vetting process, and Wheaton statistics and psychology professor John Vessey “did most of the research on the psychometric properties of the CLT to establish that it was just as reliable and valid as the SAT or ACT to use in college admissions decisions.” (He told TGC, “I believe it to be an excellent alternative.”)

“When Hillsdale endorsed it as a superior test over the SAT and ACT, things were different from that moment on,” Tate said. By 2018, the number of high-school test takers had grown to 10,000. More than 150 colleges now accept the results, including Wheaton College, Baylor University Honors College, Biola University, and Cedarville University.

Tate at Liberty Common High School, a public charter school in Colorado / Courtesy of CLT

The test’s rising popularity could be a harbinger.

“Our goal long-term is to go mainstream,” Tate said. “If we can get to 60,000, then 80,000, then 100,000 students, it’s hard for anybody to stay on the sideline.”

If you’re looking to fill seats, as more colleges are, then accepting CLT test scores sounds like a good idea. Nearly a quarter—22 percent—of CLT test-takers don’t take any other standardized test.

“This is already happening,” Tate said. “We’ve gotten a handful of schools on board who aren’t missionally aligned.”

Tate loves that. Because he knows that teachers teach to the test. So it follows that making a good test—with questions about great texts, ethics, religion, and logical reasoning—will encourage teaching to those standards.

“The CLT has the potential to be a real disruptor,” Nix said.

Kimberly Thornbury, vice president for strategic planning at The King’s College in New York City, uses the same language. King’s was one of the first places to accept the CLT on applications.

“This seems like a strategic disruptor,” she said. “Taking CLT scores is a small way we can take leadership in changing curriculum or affirming a K-12 curriculum we think is going to help.”

Classical Renewal

“There’s a fun classical Christian education revival going on,” said Kirk Vander Leest, who sits on the board of both the CLT and also the Society for Classical Learning. (In April, he’ll join the CLT staff.) “CLT is a huge part of that.”

Courtesy of CLT

Like the original college entrance test, the CLT is organizing and setting the bar for schools, thought leaders, and curriculum providers. The 2018 CLT Summit “was the first time we could get much of the classical Christian leadership into the same room,” Nix said.

And “it does raise the standard on classical Christian schools that have big aims but might not be executing as well as brochure might advertise,” said Nix, who was nervous to get his school’s results. “I was like, ‘I think we’re doing a good job, but how will we do?’” (Veritas placed first in the nation in CLT scores this spring.)

“Tests are so important to how we think about what an education is for and how we assess it,” Classical Academic Press CEO Chris Perrin said. “So if the CLT could perform a similar role—be an important kind of culminating test but be aligned with the curriculum of the great books, great conversations, great ideas, mathematics—this would just help create a kind of energy, drive, and focus for the entire renewal. And indeed, it’s showing itself to be doing that right now.”

That’s exciting for parents, teachers, and administrators who see education as more than utilitarian.

“Our Lord can act—and does—in 10,000 different ways,” Vander Leest said. “We feel this is a movement of his kingdom and his people and for his church. That’s why we’re in this.”

Themelios 44.1

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:04am

The new April 2019 issue of Themelios has 210 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

  1. Brian J. Tabb | Editorial: Themelios Then and Now: The Journal’s Name, History, and Contribution. Tabb explains that Themelios does not prize theological abstraction but biblically faithful, rigorous scholarship that seeks to magnify Christ as the church’s one foundation and presses to ask for the church today, “So what?”
  2. Daniel Strange | Strange Times: Sad Solo. Strange reflects on the acclaimed film Free Solo and the deeper worldview questions it poses regarding human achievement, meaning, and relationship.
  3. Andrew Wilson | The Continuation of the Charismata. Wilson first defines the scope of the debate over whether or not Christians today should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. He then offers three key arguments for the charismatic position and concludes by raising and responding to the strongest argument for cessationism.
  4. Thomas R. Schreiner | A Response to Andrew WilsonSchreiner argues that all NT prophecy functioned as foundational and authoritative for the early church and contends that what continuationists today call prophecy should be identified as impressions instead.
  5. Thomas R. Schreiner | It All Depends Upon Prophecy: A Brief Case for Nuanced Cessationism. Schreiner defends a nuanced cessationist position on spiritual gifts, focusing particularly on the nature of prophecy. He reasons that NT prophecy is infallible and inerrant like OT prophecy and concludes that this sort of prophecy no longer exists today since the church’s doctrinal foundation has been laid once for all.
  6. Andrew Wilson | A Response to Tom Schreiner. While substantially agreeing with Schreiner’s exegesis, Wilson notes key disagreements regarding his characterization of NT prophecy and tongues and concludes, against Schreiner, that believers today should heed Paul’s call to earnestly desire to prophesy.
  7. Richard M. Blaylock | Towards a Definition of New Testament Prophecy. After surveying various scholarly positions and analyzing key biblical texts, Blaylock defines NT prophecy as a human act of intelligible communication that is rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and is empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that prophecy consists in human speech or writing that can be attributed to the members of the Godhead and that always carries complete divine authority.
  8. Vern S. Poythress | The Boundaries of the Gift of Tongues: With Implications for Cessationism and Continuationism. Poythress explains that speaking in tongues potentially includes three subcategories: (1) known language, (2) unknown language, and (3) language-like utterance. He reasons that each of these categories can occur in fallible or infallible form and concludes that it is possible to hold a cessationist view of inspiration (no more infallible utterances) and a continuationist view with respect to noninspired forms.
  9. Ben C. Dunson | Biblical Words and Theological Meanings: Sanctification as Consecration for Transformation. Dunson concludes that biblical terminology for sanctification, while indeed definitive in nature, is also integrally connected in the Bible with the process of spiritual transformation begun at conversion. He then reflects on how the doctrine of sanctification can and should hold together both definitive and progressive dimensions.
  10. Lydia McGrew | Finessing Independent Attestation: A Study in Interdisciplinary Biblical Criticism. McGrew analyzes claims by biblical scholars that an event or saying in the Gospels is independently attested and reasons that such appeals must be alleged and supported more carefully. Her study illustrates the need for cross-disciplinary interaction in biblical criticism.
  11. Michael Allen | Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses. Allen unpacks the anthropological and soteriology teaching of Martin Luther’s diatribe “against scholastic theology” in his 97 Theses of September 1517. He clarifies the precise nature the reformers’ objections to scholasticism and concludes by charting a set of four protocols for systematic or scholastic theology today, so as to reconfigure the intellectual practice as an exercise in intellectual asceticism or discipleship that is part of the broader process of the sanctification of human reason.

Book Reviews

How You Can Encourage Adoptive Parents

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:03am

Christians have always cared for orphans. Over the past couple decades, we’ve seen more evangelicals than ever before become excited about and involved with adoption and foster care. Yet along with the joy of welcoming a child into a new family, adoptive parents encounter hardships, both foreseen and also unforeseen.

Adoptive parents Tony Merida, Rosaria Butterfield, and Dennae Pierre sat down to talk about those hardships and how you can come alongside adoptive parents in your church family. When working through challenges that arise for children who have experienced trauma, some adoptive parents instinctually “hunker down” and try to make it through without the support of their church family. But Dennae Pierre insists the best advice she can give to adoptive parents is this: “Don’t do it by yourself.”

Though foster care and adoption are hard, all three agree that children are worth the sacrifices. Of the tens of thousands of children in foster care in America, Butterfield says, “It’s an enormous crisis, and it’s an enormous opportunity for the church to show that the covenant is big and wide and capacious.”


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

Pastor, Don’t Miss Today by Focusing on Tomorrow

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:02am

Church planting is inherently future-oriented, and planning is commended in God’s Word (Prov. 21:5). A church planter who doesn’t prepare for the future is a contradiction in terms.

And yet we must guard against being dominated by what’s to come. An unhealthy focus on the future can cause us to miss the God-given opportunities of today.

An unhealthy focus on the future can cause us to miss the God-given opportunities of today.

I can struggle with this temptation, though, focusing on the future to the detriment of the present. And this has affected our church plant in (at least) a few negative ways.

Plant or Disciple?

In an effort to urgently plant churches, I’ve discovered how easy it is to pit church-planting against disciple-making.

Early in our church plant, I foolishly believed those who said, “Once the church is planted, your people will automatically begin sharing their faith, discipling one another, and engaging in mission.” I allowed that thinking to permeate our own plans, at least in part, because I was snowed under: working full-time, raising a family, and trying to plant a church. In retrospect, I wish I’d more diligently questioned such assumptions.

As church planters, we must guard against making the planting of a physical location more important than teaching and fostering a culture of discipleship in our churches. And of course, these two things need not be at odds.

Shepherd Your Spouse

My wife is my greatest advocate and friend. She’s been part of this with me from the beginning—we’ve pushed one another, cried together, and encouraged one another. On more occasions than I can count, she’s reminded me of the liberating truth that God loves me on the basis of the finished work of his Son, not on how much I achieve in ministry.

Such reminders were crucial early in our plant, when we were just figuring things out. My wife managed a plethora of responsibilities: from updating our website, to running the kids program, to trying to figure out how to track our early giving and managing our next-to-nothing church finances. She did all of this—and more—with gentleness and grace. And that’s not to mention the responsibility of mothering our kids and welcoming people into our home on a consistent basis.

And then our church began to grow. People were coming to faith and maturing in Christ. We were thrilled. But I failed to see how this change would affect my wife—as the church grew and leaders were raised up, she was inadvertently pushed to the side.

Don’t get me wrong: She was delighted to see people stepping into leadership, and she knew the importance of equipping people for ministry. But there was still a kind of grieving that she needed to go through as things changed.

So don’t underestimate the internal pain and loneliness your spouse may experience as she navigates new seasons of ministry. Being overly future-focused can cause you to miss your spouse’s present needs. Brother pastor, if you don’t care deeply for your wife in the midst of change, she may end up feeling isolated, unwanted, and used.

Grace for Today

The future orientation of church-planting can lead us to miss the moment—those times God is powerfully at work—because we’re always running swiftly to the “next thing.” Planting a church isn’t just about engaging people once you get your discipleship plan together or once you’ve reached a certain size. No matter what stage you’re at in planting, ask yourself: Who has God put in front of me now to love and serve?

At times I’ve viewed the people God has graciously allowed me to shepherd as either an obstacle to my plans or a vehicle to meet my church-planting goals. This is wrong, and I’ve had to repent of it.

A faithful shepherd is more concerned about the one needy sheep in his flock than the 99 tasks on his list.

But your sheep are not tasks to be managed; they are people to be shepherded and loved. You’ll always have a to-do list. It will often be full. But a faithful shepherd is more concerned about the one needy sheep in his flock than the 99 tasks on his list.

I’ve missed so many of those evidences of God’s grace today because I was so focused on tomorrow. I’ve discovered that much of my discouragement in church-planting has come because I’ve overlooked God’s small, but powerful, daily graces. In short, I’ve sacrificed the present for the future, leading to seasons of discontentment marked by gross ingratitude.

Power of the Present

Church planting is not all about the future. It’s also about today. Like the saying “hindsight is 20/20,” some things seem obvious to me now that weren’t so from the outset.

Yes, be future-oriented. It’s a good thing. But as you look to the future, don’t miss today. After all, God gives grace in daily measures. And we can entrust every tomorrow to him (Matt 6:25–34).

Does the Universe Require a Cause?

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:02am

Why is there something rather than nothing?

That little phrase, often used to poke fun at philosophical speculation, nevertheless points to a real puzzle. We all assume that particular things we encounter in the world—tables and trees, cats and kazoos—always have a cause. For every object that exists, we believe there’s something that accounts for its existence, some story that explains it.

But is there a story that explains not just the existence of those particular things, but of absolutely everything there is in the universe? Does the cosmos itself require a cause?

The history of claiming that the universe needs a cause is a long and honorable one, found in the ancient Greek philosophers and carried on through the Middle Ages to the present. The universe didn’t need to exist—there might’ve been nothing at all. The fact that there is something rather than nothing requires an explanation, and a causal one at that. Arguments that try to establish God as the best explanation for the existence of the universe are known as cosmological arguments.

Cosmological Arguments

Cosmological arguments have come primarily in two flavors. The first variety emphasizes the contingency and dependence of the universe. It didn’t cause itself to exist, which makes it dependent. Nor is it the kind of thing that absolutely had to exist: it exists, but it might not have, and that is what we mean by contingent. As a contingent and dependent thing, it requires a cause, and in order to explain all the contingent and dependent things, the cause needs to be a necessary and independent thing—just the way Christian theology describes God. One advantage of this argument is that it works whether the universe had a beginning in time or has always existed. The important thing is the contingency of the universe, not if or when it got started.

The second kind of argument focuses on the universe having a beginning, and the need for a cause whenever something begins to exist. The kalam cosmological argument is the most famous and currently popular example of this reasoning. Part of its contemporary success is the widespread agreement among cosmologists that the universe began a finite time ago, a view which replaced the eternal steady-state model prevalent until the early to mid-20th century. The “Big Bang” model, initially proposed by Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, seems to fit especially well with the creation account of Genesis, which Christians have traditionally understood as teaching that God spoke the world into being ex nihilo, or out of nothing.

Critiques of Cosmological Arguments

Not surprisingly, there have been criticisms of both kinds of arguments by skeptics.

Philosophers and scientists alike have questioned the inference that the universe requires a cause. Some of the objections are quite technical, but most of them have a few basic elements in common. The first is to question the claim that we know anything about what it would take to bring about a universe. For example, some people say that we have no relevant experience we can bring to bear on the question of universe origins. Since science proceeds on induction, building up probabilities based on repeated observations, it simply can’t address the question of what might give rise to a cosmos. We’ve never observed any universes beginning to exist, so we simply can’t say what (if anything) is required for a cause. The only beginnings we’re familiar with are for things within the universe—never of any universe as a whole. Or, along similar lines, some people argue that we have no experience with beginnings whatsoever; everything we see is simply a rearrangement of previously existing material, not a true beginning at all but a shuffling around of already existing protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Other skeptics might allow that the universe requires a cause, but argue that if it does, there is nothing that requires the cause to be personal or intelligent. The multiverse model, which says that there are untold legions of universes being spit out by an inflationary mechanism, would be an example of an impersonal cause. The cause of our universe could even be a previous state of an oscillating collection of matter, exploding and collapsing and exploding again from eternity past. That would be a cause, but the cause would in some way be embedded in the universe itself.

How Christians Should Argue

So what are we to conclude from all this? Does the universe require a cause? It may be too much to hope for a definitive answer. It’s hard to envision any conclusive scientific evidence or irrefutable philosophical argument one way or the other—the science will always fall short because the question involves things that are unobservable. Can we transcend the universe and look back on it from the outside?

As frustrating as it might be for apologetics, we might be better served by recognizing that reasonable objections to both positions will always be possible. Instead of endeavoring to prove to a skeptic that there must be a God because the universe requires a cause, a more promising tack may be to show that belief in a divine cause for the existence of the cosmos is reasonable given all that we know, and the objections against a creator are equally open to doubt.

As the apostle Paul says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14). As children of God illuminated by the Spirit of God we rightly see the handiwork of the Creator in all of reality, and our most promising approach may be to invite others to see things the same way—not to try to prove God’s existence beyond a reasonable doubt, but to present the enduring intellectual power and coherence of the Christian perspective and to pray for God to open their eyes to the reality of his glory.

A Debate Between Andrew Wilson and Tom Schreiner on Spiritual Gifts

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:00am

It is a huge privilege to open this discussion on spiritual gifts, with Tom Schreiner and other individuals from whom I have learned so much in so many areas. “The first to present his case seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17 ESV).

Because this exchange is based on two books, rather than one, and because Tom’s book and mine come to different conclusions on the continuation of the charismata, it would be easy for a discussion like this to become repetitive. To try and avoid that, in this article I plan to do three things. First, I will try to define the scope of the debate as simply as possible, so we don’t end up talking past each other. Second, I will lay out the charismatic case in a positive way, with what seem to me the three key arguments for it. Third, I will summarise the strongest argument for cessationism, and then challenge it, before concluding. I will leave a discussion of the other cessationist arguments until we engage with Tom’s book later on.

1. The Scope of the Debate

To crystallize the debate in one sentence, I suggest this: Are disciples today intended to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? I’m pretty sure that Tom Schreiner and Ligon Duncan would say no, and that Sam Storms and I would say yes. Prophecy, that is, is the most helpful focus for a concentrated discussion. We are not primarily debating the continuation of the ἀπόστολοι, since we would all agree that eyewitnesses of the resurrection have ceased (the sense of ἀπόστολος in Acts 1:21–26 and 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:1–9), and that itinerant missionaries or messengers have not (the sense of ἀπόστολος in 2 Cor. 8:23 and probably Rom. 16:7). It is also noteworthy that in those passages where Paul urges believers to pursue the gifts, he does not include apostleship as one of them. And although we may disagree about the continuation of the gifts of languages, interpretation, healings, miracles, and discerning spirits—although maybe not so much, as we will see!—I think we would all agree that the key question concerns the continuation of prophecy. Should disciples “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy”? Clarifying that might keep us from getting lost in the weeds.


Don’t Crash Your Ministry Trying to Fly Like an Ace

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:04am

A fascinating article recently showed that death rates among German fighter pilots in World War II were raised because of a highly competitive culture fueled by envy and jealousy.

Luftwaffe leader Herman Goering created this culture, publishing notable feats in a bulletin to inspire both troops and civilians. The research showed that after a pilot was mentioned in the bulletin, his peers’ kill rate rose from 0.8 to 1.2 aircraft shot down per month. But their death rate also increased, from 2.7 percent to 4 percent.

These higher death rates were found primarily among more mediocre pilots, who needlessly endangered themselves in hope of achieving similar glory. This competitive culture was typified during the Battle of Britain, when ace Werner Molders refused to return to Germany for a meeting unless his chief rival, Adolf Galland, was grounded while he was away.

The researchers’ conclusion: “High-powered incentives—in the form of public recognition—may backfire precisely because concerns about relative standing can induce too much risk-taking.”

No Kingdom Aces

The lessons from this research can be applied all too easily to the world of ministry. There is a tragically high fallout rate within pastoral ministry—whether from disillusionment, burnout, or moral failure. I suspect this isn’t helped by a competitive culture where the notable feats of the exceptionally gifted are (often exclusively) held forth as an example. Those highly successful in ministry can inadvertently have a detrimental impact on their peers.

We love to honor our perceived ministry “aces.”

We can easily boast of church size and church growth, books written or sold, churches planted, or social-media prowess. But the result of such adulation is that pastors of more modest ability can feel inadequate, push themselves too hard, or take unnecessary shortcuts to achieve a similar glory. Many pastors feel insecure about the fruitfulness of their gospel efforts compared to those in the limelight—even when they’re experiencing what is perfectly normal for most ministers in a comparable context.

Many of us may need to repent of jealousy and envy of others, and avoid comparing ourselves to them. Gospel ministry should be a collaborative—rather than a competitive—activity as we link arms to advance God’s kingdom. But we can all too easily grow envious of others’ greater gifting or easier ministry context. We can even succumb to a kind of historical envy, leading us to wish we’d labored in an earlier age of greater gospel progress. Or we can wrongly assume the results of the past would be replicated in the present if we just adopted their methodologies.

Danger for Type-A’s

Resisting a competitive urge can be especially difficult for men who enter gospel ministry after being highly successful in another field. They can carry an ingrained culture of success into their new calling, expecting to become an “ace” as they may have been in other aspects of life. The work of the kingdom is not accomplished by a few superstars, however, but by an army of ordinary pastors plugging away faithfully over the long haul.

They may seem mediocre and average by comparison, but they’re the workhorses that accomplish the goal.

The work of the kingdom is not accomplished by a few superstars, but by an army of ordinary pastors plugging away faithfully over the long haul.

The German fighter “aces” could bask in their individual glory for a short time, but the needless loss of so many “mediocre” pilots taking needless risks arguably contributed to Germany losing the war. We must not allow this to happen in ministry.

Most of Us: Average    

The vast majority of us can expect to be average, not aces. To be average or mediocre is not to be a failure; it’s to be normal. I remember the ridicule heaped on government-education goals a few years back that wanted all children to attain “above average” reading skills by the time they left school, which is of course impossible. It would be just as foolish to assume that most pastors will be above average, and it’s a sign of dangerous pride if we think this is what we all have to be.

Gospel ministry “aces” prone to competitiveness—or worse, quiet boasting—ought to reflect on the fact that “from those who have much, much is expected” (Luke 12:48). Jesus will demand more from the 10-talent guy than the one-talent guy. Comparative objective performance doesn’t tell you who has truly been a good and faithful servant of the master. The test is whether we have been faithful with what’s been entrusted to us.

Self-Denial ≠ Self-Destruction: When Do I Leave My Job?

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:03am

My work environment is difficult, defined by unhappy colleagues, poor management, and weak/mistrusted leadership. I enjoy some of the work I do, but I don’t feel it’s an opportunity unique to this place. My current job situation is draining me, emotionally and otherwise, but I know God doesn’t just call us to easy, happy-go-lucky things. I’m just having a hard time discerning whether God wants me to dig in here and pursue purpose in less-than-ideal circumstances, or if the challenges stacking up might be his way of revealing he has something else for me. How do I determine whether I should stay put or pursue something else?

Many times in our work journey, my wife and I have faced difficult environments and sought the Lord’s wisdom on whether to persevere or to find a better place for our gifts and skills. Years ago, a close friend and prayer partner remarked: “You cannot leave something just because it’s hard.”

How do we know when the current toxicity at work is a sign for fidelity under trial—or when it’s a providential indication to move on? Here’s an insight that has helped us make several transitions under trying circumstances: Biblical self-denial is not a call to personal self-destruction.

When our Lord Jesus Christ summons us to “leave all and follow” and “deny yourself and take up your cross,” it is an urgent summons for kingdom obedience—and no excuses will do in light of the Master’s call. No institutions, relationships, or internal fears should hinder our obedience to the gospel call (Luke 9:57–63).

But it’s important that we understand the boundaries and focus of this summons to suffering. Our leaving, self-denying, and refusing to excuse delays means relinquishing our sovereignty in favor of God’s, choosing his will over ours. Self-denial focuses on taking off the old nature, putting on the new nature empowered by the Spirit, and submitting to the ways and will of God (Eph. 4:22–24). As theologian Dale Moody once observed, “Human sovereignty leads to frustration. Divine sovereignty brings all responsive persons to fulfillment.”

Biblical self-denial, then, does not eradicate God’s callings and gifts, nor does it repudiate the good works preordained for the believer (Eph. 2:10). We are accountable to our heavenly Master for how we use all the resources he’s entrusted to us (Matt. 25). We are also accountable to keep all his commands; therefore, any call to cross-bearing will not violate other divine commands. For example, God may take your family through deep waters, but he will not call you to stop caring for your marriage and family in the interests of work.

Consider the distinctions between biblical self-denial and unbiblical self-destruction:

  • Self-denial calls us to unselfish service; self-destruction demands we cease being the person whom God designed.
  • Self-denial calls us to bless those around us and not resent others’ success; self-destruction happens when we’re subjected to unnecessary harm.
  • Self-denial commands us to seek the good of others; self-destruction occurs when we let fear displace faith and fail to step forward.
  • Self-denial helps us discipline our responses; self-destruction leads to toxic and unjust environments that harm others.
  • Self-denial cooperates with God in our battle against sin; self-destruction is when we try to be someone else.
  • Self-denial enables us to learn new skills and adjust to rapid change; self-destruction looms when we either refuse to change or presumptively assume roles we’re unqualified to fill.
  • Self-denial means we learn emotional intelligence; self-destruction comes when we’re constantly crushed in spirit.

In challenging work environments, we need the help of the Holy Spirit to apply the above insights. Prayer with trusted family, spiritual leaders, and peers will help us “understand the hour.”

In one difficult church we served, we persevered, helped shape a new staff, and prepared a fiscal pathway for flourishing. All of this was in the midst of unfair attacks and dysfunctional relationships among some leaders. We stayed the course and things improved. Then all the pathologies reappeared in a moment, and we realized we could no longer function as faithful stewards of God’s calling.

In another setting, we persevered through multiple transitions—including times of unfair accusation—and saw the community weather the storms and come out healthy. We left that church due to a new call, not a need for healing.

Biblical self-denial is not a call for personal self-destruction.

There is no formula for guidance in difficulty at work, but there are biblical promises of wisdom as we seek God with all our hearts and cry out for grace (Prov. 2; James 1:5). God delights in giving wisdom, and its fruits are peace and justice for ourselves and others. Before we leave a trying situation, have we done all we can to bring change that benefits the whole and not just our position?

Self-denial is not self-destruction. God allows tribulation so the character of Christ is formed in us (Rom. 5:1–11). Our personalities, natural and spiritual gifts, sense of purpose, and opportunities all exist for the glory of God and the good of others. Seeking happiness is not wrong, but we must remember that it derives from pleasing God and serving others.

Read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

The Secret to a Fruitful Christian Life

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:02am

Just as the engine must be cared for if a car is going to function well over the long haul, the heart must be cared for if we are going to flourish over the long haul. And just as the engine powers the vehicle, so the heart drives all that we do. The heart is the motivation headquarters, the central animating core of all our longings, fears, and actions.

Our fallen condition makes us perversely try to secure flourishing through the state of our circumstances rather than the state of our soul. But the wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.

To that end the Puritan John Flavel (1627–1691) wrote his famous little treatise, Keeping the Heart (original title: A Saint Indeed; or, The Great Work of a Christian in Keeping the Heart in the Several Conditions of Life). It’s available in various editions, of which perhaps the most beautiful is produced by Christian Heritage, with a short introduction by J. I. Packer.

The lodestar text launching the book is Proverbs 4:23:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Adversities of Life

How does one obey Proverbs 4:23?

Flavel’s answer has never been bested in psychological penetration and biblical profundity. Flavel understands how our fallen hearts work, and his book is like a wise father putting his arm around us and gently helping us toward spiritual sanity.

After pressing home the all-controlling importance of the heart in spiritual vitality, Flavel wades into the backbone of the book: pastoral reflection on 12 different seasons of life in which we particularly need to “keep our hearts.”

  1. Prosperity
  2. Adversity
  3. Persecution of the church
  4. Danger
  5. Circumstantial needs
  6. Duty
  7. Mistreatment from others
  8. Trials
  9. Temptation
  10. Doubting and spiritual darkness
  11. Suffering for religion
  12. Nearing death
How the Heart Overcomes Fear

As an example of Flavel’s pastoral sensitivity and wisdom, consider how he handles the fourth season: times of danger. He understands with great tenderness how easily fearful we are (one of his books was A Practical Treatise of Fear, Wherein the Various Kinds, Uses, Causes, Effects, and Remedies Thereof Are Distinctly Opened and Prescribed), so his medicine isn’t fiery exhortation, pep talk, or castigation. Rather, wedding logic with love, he calmly does surgery on our hearts by enumerating 14 reasons Christians have to be unafraid.

The wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.

He says, for example (in reason 2):

Remember that this God in whose hand are all creatures, is your Father, and is much more tender of you than you are, or can be, of yourself.

Reason 5 is arresting:

Consider solemnly, that though the things you fear should really happen, yet there is more evil in your own fear than in the things feared. . . . Fear is both a multiplying and a tormenting passion; it represents troubles as much greater than they are, and so tortures the soul much more than the suffering itself.

Reason 9 tunnels into our hearts with the care of a surgeon:

Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear. It is guilt upon the conscience that softens and makes cowards of our spirits. . . . A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers, than a pure conscience is by real ones.

And that’s just three reasons of 14, all 14 of which reside under one of his 12 points! Flavel leaves us with no room to be in heart-haste (cf. Isa. 28:16).

Key to Books with Lasting Spiritual Significance

Digested slowly, with a posture of sincere openness to God, this book nurtures us back into communion with him more richly and joyously than just about anything being written today.

It can easily feel at first glance that a 400-year-old book will only marginally map on to my own 21st-century life. But there’s a reason we’re still reading Flavel four centuries later. The vital animating center of human personhood—the heart—hasn’t changed. Sure, some of the occasions for fear have changed. They feared shipwreck and the plague; we fear plane crashes and cancer. But the heart’s proclivity to drift quietly from settled trust in God and his goodness has not.

When God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen.

And when God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen. Flavel immersed himself in the Bible, shepherded his people through thick and thin, and spent a lifetime going ever deeper in communion with God.

In this little book he distills the secret of how he did this without growing cynical or torpedoing his life through disastrous sin.

Help for Our Hardest Task

Flavel opens the book this way:

The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God.

John Flavel coaches us in that greatest of difficulties as few others have across the centuries of church history.

Why I Changed My Mind About Fundraising for Our Church Plant

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:00am

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were in the thick of fundraising for our church plant. We were a few months away from launching, and it seemed we spent all our time writing letters and thank-you notes, and organizing gatherings where we’d invite people to invest in our church.

Our situation going into fundraising was not ideal, in that we were in a bit of a time crunch. Our New York apartment was too small for a house-church meeting, so we needed to rent meeting space right from the beginning. We didn’t want to delay our launch, because we feared we’d lose the people who’d already indicated interest in our church, most of whom were recent arrivals to Manhattan.

Since there’s a finite number of hours in a week (168 to be precise), the time we spent on fundraising was time we couldn’t spend on the other aspects of church planting. Building donor relationships takes time away from investing in relationships with unbelievers or potential church members. I remember saying to God, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient if a wealthy Christian gave us the money we needed in a lump sum? We want to concentrate on ministry, but raising money is swallowing all our time!”

Two years later, we still spend significant time on fundraising. Our church likely won’t be self-sustaining for a while, so we stay in regular contact with the many faithful Christians around the world who provide the funds that allow us to pay the bills. We write monthly prayer emails, send out an end-of-year fundraising letter, and do our part to keep the post office in business through mailing thank-you notes. But I no longer view this part of ministry as a distraction from the real work. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate that all the time we’ve spent fundraising has built a network of deeply committed prayer warriors for our fledgling church.

Your Heart Follows Your Treasure

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers that instead of making earthly investments, they should store up treasure in heaven. He offered two reasons: (1) No earthly treasure is safe, and (2) “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Making heavenly investments helps us set our hearts on the life to come. But that’s not all that Jesus means. When you make a sacrificial financial gift to a work of God on earth, you care about what happens to that work. You want to see it flourish and multiply. And so you pray for it.

If we hadn’t needed to raise money, we still would’ve attempted to raise prayer support. We would’ve asked people to commit to pray for us, and quite a few would’ve checked that box. But would they have prayed with equal commitment if they hadn’t also put their money where their prayers were? In many cases, I suspect they wouldn’t. You don’t have to give financially to take an interest in someone’s ministry, but if you back them with your money, your heart is more likely to be with them in their work.

When More Pray, More Praise

When more people give to your ministry, leading more people to pray for it, then more people will give God glory when he answers prayer. The apostle Paul motivated the church at Corinth to give to other churches. How? By telling them of the thanksgiving to come:

You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. (1 Cor. 9:11–12)

Each time God works through our church and provides for us, a host of people get to celebrate. The supporters who have followed our ongoing needs and desires recognize the answers to their prayers. And thanksgiving overflows.

We’re Not the Only Sacrificers

When God called us into church planting, we had to entrust our financial future to him. Most church plants don’t have the means to provide things like health insurance and retirement benefits for their pastors. But we weren’t the only ones who made financial sacrifices.

At the start of fundraising, if you’d asked me where the majority of our funds would come from, I would’ve rattled off a few names of people who had the means to give large gifts. I would’ve been wrong. Some of those people did give generously to our church, but several of our largest gifts have from people who are not financially well-off. Each time we receive donations from people I know will feel the pinch of their generosity, I am filled with joy to know that someone else considers this work worth sacrificing for.

If one wealthy donor had written us a huge check a couple of years ago, we would’ve had more time for ministry. But we would’ve missed out on the blessing of knowing that we are not alone in church planting. A band of intercessors has poured their treasure into our little church, and they hold it in their hearts.

The Surprising Purpose in Christ’s Resurrection

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 12:02am

Why did God raise Jesus from the dead? On face value, it seems like a basic question with an obvious answer. We might even brush it off as the simple stuff of a children’s quiz on Easter Sunday. We also might be tempted to think of the resurrection only in terms of its future significance. But when we read 1 Peter, we find an unexpected purpose in Jesus’s resurrection, one that’s meant to help us in the here and now of our suffering and shame.

Peter’s first epistle opens with a recognition of this present suffering. His readers were battered by various trials (1 Pet. 1:6). They were shamed for their faith and maligned for their morals (1 Pet. 4:4). They experienced regular rejection and social exclusion. What they did in purity and goodness their opponents labeled as evil. They suffered unjustly, enduring endless sorrows. They were insulted for the name of Christ. They were outcasts. Rather than minimize these difficulties, brushing them off as temporary or trivial, Peter recognizes their fiery trials as an exile.

In response to this suffering—a kind of “soft” persecution that increasingly mirrors our experience in North America—Peter injects a word of hope. But perhaps it’s not the kind of hope we were looking for. Peter suggests that suffering through fiery trials isn’t a stray shower on the radar screen of our lives. It shouldn’t take us by surprise (1 Pet. 4:12). Instead, shame and social exclusion are the extended forecast for the follower of Christ. Yet there is hope, because we know the story of our Savior.

Flipped Script

Jesus, as Peter reminds us, was himself an elect exile. He was God’s chosen cornerstone, but he was rejected by men (1 Pet. 2:4–5). He was the precious and foreknown Son of the Father, but his common experience was disgrace and ostracism. He was on the outside among religious conservatives, powerful politicians, and even his own family. In his life, he was dishonored and didn’t have a place to lay his head. At his death, he was beaten, spat upon, slandered, and reviled. He was shamefully crucified. To any witness watching it all unfold, he wasn’t merely rejected by his peers and the powerful. He appeared to be forsaken by God.

Suffering isn’t a stray shower on the radar screen of our lives. . . . Instead, shame and social exclusion are the extended forecast for the follower of Christ.

However, three days later the script flipped. God vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead. And through his resurrection God intends to give us—you and me—a living hope, a hope for today as we sometimes face our own troubled and forsaken narrative (1 Pet. 1:3).

Through Jesus, Peter says, we come to believe in God. We may not often think of Christian faith in this way. We talk primarily in terms of having faith in Jesus, which is, of course, appropriate and biblical. But in 1 Peter 1:21, Peter wants to emphasize how we come to believe in God through Jesus. How does that work? If we keep reading, we see that God raised Jesus and gave him glory in order that our faith and hope would be in God. This is surely an unexpected purpose in Jesus’s resurrection: Jesus was raised so that we would trust and hope in God, our heavenly Father.

Here’s how I understand that working in the logic of Peter’s letter. When I see my life mirroring Jesus’s, when I see how my suffering intersects with his, when I realize that he endured suffering by entrusting himself to our faithful Father, when I recognize that the chosen and precious Son was rejected by others, I’m not so surprised when I could experience the same.

And when I watch Jesus, my King, crowned with thorns and exiled on a cross, and when my own life feels like walking through the valley of death’s shadow in the presence of many enemies, I can still have hope. I can have confidence in our Father, because I know what he did for Jesus.

God raised him from the dead and restored him to unsurpassed honor. He did this so that even when my own story takes a dark turn, when I face rejection, ridicule, and even physical suffering, I know it’s not the end.

Because I know how God treats his servants. I know how the Father treats his Son.

All the Way to Glory

This is an unexpected answer to our question. But this one “why” of God’s raising Jesus is how we can have confidence in him today, during our own affliction. When we follow the footsteps of Jesus into suffering, we know we’ll also follow him all the way to glory. The world’s ridicule and shame will not have the last word, but we’ll be exalted and given honor—and that from God himself!

When my own story takes a dark turn, I know it’s not the end. Because I know how God treats his servants. I know how the Father treats his Son.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Jesus is the firstfruits of those who sleep. His resurrection and reception of glory is only the beginning of a worldwide harvest. He’s the prototype, the forerunner of many others who would follow him in faith, who will traverse that same path of suffering and subsequent glory. Peter, as an eyewitness to Jesus’s horrific death and his matchless glory, knew that such hope in future praise and honor at Christ’s return enables us today to endure seemingly endless rejection. He knew the antidote to shame and exclusion is God giving us honor and a home.

This Peter, who had crumbled under the weight of shame and deny his Lord, learned how the hope of glory could transform our lives and embolden our witness. This hope empowers us to purify ourselves in personal holiness, to live with honorable conduct during our exile. This assurance in God—that he will exalt us with Christ and grace us with his honor—enables us to honor others, even those who oppose us.

Such future hope also opens our mouths to boldly declare the gospel now, overcoming social embarrassment and our desire to be approved and affirmed. And, as Peter explains, this confidence can even open others to the gospel, as they see in us a contagious and lively hope that makes them curious for an answer.

How the Old Testament Prepares Us for the Third Day

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 12:00am

When I was a church teen in the 1990s, one of hottest new Christian bands was Third Day. The name seemed like a riff on the mainstream band Third Eye Blind, but we all know where it really came from. According to Paul’s gospel, Christ was “raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3–5).

We all know that Christ rose on the third day. But we probably aren’t as familiar with the latter half of Paul’s statement, namely, that Christ was “raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). This wasn’t just something that happened in history; it was also prophesied in the Old Testament. Jesus himself says the same thing in Luke 24:46: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”

Which raises the question, where? Where is it written that Christ would rise on the third day? To find the answer, we must remember that the Old Testament has more than one way of pointing to Christ. We often think first of explicit predictions (e.g., Mic. 5:2). But we come up dry in our search for “Messiah raised on the third day” predictions. Because as far as I know, there are none.

The Old Testament has more than one way of pointing to Christ.

But the Old Testament also points to Christ through typological patterns, such as the slaying of the Passover lamb and the building of the tabernacle (1 Cor. 5:7; John 1:14). These are also things that Jesus fulfills. And I believe the “third day” Scriptures that Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 15:4 fall into this category.

In the Old Testament we find a pattern of God doing big things on the third day. Redemptive things. Revelatory things. And yes, resurrection things. Here are four examples.

1. Sparing Isaac

We’re probably all familiar with the story of Abraham offering up Isaac (Genesis 22). It was an excruciating test of Abraham’s faith, as God commanded him to do the unthinkable, only to provide a substitute at the last minute.

This event is a picture of God offering up Jesus on Good Friday. Isaac is described as Abraham’s “only son, whom he loved” (Gen. 22:4; John 3:16). He’s seen carrying the wood on which he would be slain (Gen. 22:6; John 19:17). And when he asks his father, “Here is the wood but where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:7–8). He would indeed. Whereas God spared Abraham’s son, he didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all (Rom. 8:32).

But there’s more. The story is also a picture of Jesus’s resurrection. Abraham tells his servant that both he and Isaac will return (Gen. 22:5). The writer of Hebrews seems to infer from this that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19).

Figuratively speaking, Isaac was offered up. And figuratively speaking, he was raised from the dead.

Genesis 22 describes the time frame for Isaac’s figurative death and resurrection:

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he . . . went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. (Gen. 22:3–4)

This is when it went down. The typology isn’t precise, of course. For Isaac, this all happened on the same day (not on a Friday and a Sunday). Still, what happened to Jesus literally happened to Isaac figuratively: His father received him back from the dead. And according to Genesis 22:4, it happened on the third day.

2. Descending on Sinai

One of the greatest manifestations of God’s presence in the entire Old Testament was when God descended on Mount Sinai. This was a pivotal event, as God delivered his Law to those whom he had redeemed. It was something those who witnessed it would never forget.

In the Old Testament we find a pattern of God doing big things on the third day. Redemptive things. Revelatory things. And yes, resurrection things.

God announces the event’s time frame in Exodus 19. When the people have finally arrived at Mount Sinai, he tells Moses:

Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. (Ex. 19:10–11)

And that’s exactly what happened.

This was the greatest of all divine manifestations so far—a day never to be forgotten. And it happened “on the third day.”

3. Raising Israel

The regathering of God’s people from the Babylonian exile is sometimes described as a resurrection (Ezek. 37:11–14). Hosea 6:2 describes the time frame of this resurrection:

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. (Hos. 6:1–2)

After they had borne God’s wrath, being cut down and killed in the exile (Isa. 6:11–13; 40:1–2), God promises to raise them up on the third day.

Of course, the reference here is to Israel being raised, not to the Messiah. But Jesus is the true Israel, the ultimate offspring of Abraham. And like Israel, God raised him up on the third day (for a close parallel, see Matt. 2:15’s use of Hos. 11:1).

4. Saving Jonah

The story of Jonah is well known—at least parts of it. We all know he got swallowed by a big fish, and we all know he eventually came out alive and became an instrument of Nineveh’s salvation.

The author gives us the time frame for how long Jonah was in the fish’s belly: “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jon. 1:17). The mention of this time frame is a strong hint that after three days Jonah will rise from what he himself refers to as “the belly of Sheol” (Jon. 2:2), the Hebrew word for the place of the dead (“Hades” in Greek).

It should strengthen our faith when we consider that God designed all of history with Jesus at the center, with every third day deliverance pointing directly to him.

You may question my previous examples. But in this case, Jesus connects the typological dots for us, drawing the parallel between Jonah’s deliverance from Sheol and his:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:39–40)

Don’t get hung up on the fact that there weren’t literally three nights between Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Jews counted days inclusively—the fact that Jesus was dead during parts of three separate days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) was enough in their minds to justify the language of “three days and three nights.”

The point is that just as Jonah got spat out of Hades on the third day, so did Jesus (Jonah 2:2; Acts 2:27). And just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so Jesus became a sign to his generation (Luke 11:30).

In Accordance with the Scriptures

When Paul says that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, I believe he had passages like these in mind—and there are more besides (2 Kings 20:5; Est. 5:1). Admittedly, only the Jonah passage is explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. But rather than limiting us in drawing connections from the Old Testament, Jesus’s use of Jonah 1:17 should teach us how to interpret similar passages that aren’t explicitly mentioned.

The empty tomb shouldn’t have been a surprise, especially coming when it did. It’s not as though the Israelites hadn’t been prepared. Not only had Jesus repeatedly told them (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), but God also had been working wonders on the third day for millennia. And it wasn’t by accident. On the contrary, it should strengthen our faith when we consider that God designed all of history with Jesus at the center, with every third-day deliverance pointing directly to him.

Risen and reigning, Jesus is supreme. But he will not be alone; he is only the firstfruits. And someday, “figuratively speaking,” the third day is coming for us all. Remember that this Easter.

From OT Baptisms to the Cross: Behold Your Escalating Bible

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:00am

Jesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of timeto unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, the apostle has the same view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” Hebrews 1:1 also highlights the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.

Example of Baptism

Consequently, it’s not surprising to find that the “typological structures” of the Old Testament escalate until they find fulfillment in Jesus. In other words, the Scriptures begin with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually add contour and color to the portrait of the coming Messiah. Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types—that is, forward-looking persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament—repeat and escalate.

One prominent event repeated in the Old Testament is “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism “corresponds” (in terms of fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving—make that humanity-saving—ark (1 Pet. 3:20).

In this article I want to show that Old Testament “types” don’t just prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but also grow in intensity and efficacy as the incarnation nears.

We’ll take baptism as a case study.


According to 1 Peter, baptism begins not at the waters of Aenon (John 3:23), but in Scripture’s opening chapters. In Genesis 6, God tells Noah that humanity’s sin has reached a critical mass (v. 5) and that he plans to destroy the world with water. In that trial by water, God promises to save Noah and his family.

This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, it may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest. Granted, the waters engulfed the whole earth, but when we consider Noah’s ark only saved seven people besides himself, we see just how weak this “baptism” was. It set in motion the pattern of salvation through judgment, but it did little to effect salvation.

This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, [Noah’s] may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest.

In a purely physical sense, it spared the human race, but it had little spiritual effect. Noah functioned as a priest who mediated—and in a sense, still mediates—a non-salvific covenant for all people. As Genesis 9 shows, however, Noah’s covenant mediation was weak. Like Adam, he too fell naked due to the fruit of the vine. His sons inherit a mixed blessing—Shem is blessed, Ham is cursed, and Japheth stands somewhere in between.

Noah’s trial by water gets baptism started, but it’s the weakest link in the typological chain.


Next, the people of Israel are baptized into the salvation mediated by Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses himself undergoes a baptism of sorts when he’s thrown into the Nile (a place of death) and rescued miraculously through Pharaoh’s own daughter (Ex. 2). Harkening back to Noah’s baptism, the basket Moses is placed in is actually an “ark” of refuge (a deliberate linguistic connection between the two stories).

Eight decades later, when Yahweh saves the nation, he does so both by substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel (an escalation of the substitution sacrifice found in Genesis 22) and also by parting the Red Sea. Paul later calls this event Moses’s “baptism” (1 Cor. 10:2), and, like Noah’s ark, it corresponds to the salvation ultimately found in Christ.

In redemptive history, Moses’s baptism is greater than Noah’s, for it saves more than a few family members. Moses’s baptism saves the whole nation of Israel. Even the event’s intensity is unmatched by the first flood. Whereas Noah boarded the ark before the waters came (Gen. 7), Moses’s waters stood ready to swallow Israel as Pharaoh’s armies chased them. With Israel fearing for its life, God commands Moses to raise his staff, that he might part the waters and provide salvation (Ex. 14:10–16). After their safe passage, Moses pulls back his hand as the waters cover the Egyptians’ heads (v. 26). In this dramatic narrative, it’s plain to see how the efficacy and intensity of baptism have escalated.


A generation later, Joshua takes Moses’s place. While he doesn’t measure up to Moses’s status as a prophet (see Ex. 34:10–12), he too is called “the servant of the LORD” (Ex. 24:29)—an appellation often used of Moses (Deut. 34:5; Josh. 1:1–2, 7, 13, and so on). In Joshua’s quest to lead Israel into the Promised Land, they’re again blocked by raging waters in flood stage (Josh. 3:15). Like Moses, Joshua receives his instruction: “Command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’” (v. 8). Joshua obeys. The priests enter the flood waters; the waters stand up in a heap (v. 13); and Israel is able to enter the land.

As at the Red Sea, Israel’s leader guides God’s people through dangerous waters at God’s command. But notice the escalation. Instead of raising a staff, God asks the priests to stand in the water. The risk is greater, but so is the payoff. Instead of delivering Israel from Egypt, Joshua brings the children of God into the very land God had promised. Moses successfully brought Israel out of bondage, but he failed to bring the nation to dwell with God. A new Moses, however, completes the task. And so Israel, through Joshua, is once again saved by baptism.


Fast forward nearly a millennium to Mediterranean shores. God’s prophet Jonah is tasked to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to God’s enemies (Jonah 1:2). Imagine traveling to Mecca in 2015 to preach repentance to leaders of ISIS. Such was Jonah’s charge.

Reluctant to obey, Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish (1:3). While he’s asleep on the boat, God hurls a storm and threatens to destroy the whole vessel (1:4). In the midst of the divine fury, Jonah confesses his sin and begs the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12, 15). They oblige, and immediately the storm abates (1:15). The men are saved and give homage to Yahweh (1:16), but Jonah’s death is certain—to those on the boat at least.

Jonah 2 continues the story from the belly of the fish. In that casket with gills,  Jonah recounts how the waters engulfed him, and he cries out to God. God saves Jonah, who does not deserve deliverance. What normally meant the end of life (death by aquatic consumption) serves as the means of his rescue. Three days later (1:17), life returns as the fish spit him out on dry ground (2:10).

Amid the drama, another picture of baptism emerges. Like Moses and Joshua—the representative leaders of Israel—Jonah too occupies an office among God’s covenant people. As a prophet, his life does more than bring God’s words to the nation. He embodies the nation. And his rebellion displays Israel’s attitude in the days leading up to exile.

Still, Jonah’s life, “death,” and “resurrection” do more than speak to ancient Israel. They depict the kind of baptism Jesus will undergo (Matt. 12:40). Following the trajectory of previous baptisms, Jonah’s baptism is both similar and also different. It too displays the fury of God’s wrath, and the means of salvation is a type of baptism—Jonah’s substitutionary “death” spared the Gentile sailors and his preaching brought a whole city to repentance (Jonah 3).

Without getting into the details of his repentance, it’s noteworthy that Jonah’s baptism was both more costly and also more powerful than any previous one. With Noah, Moses, and Joshua, no one died. The people of Israel and the priests in the Jordan may have thought they were going to die, but they didn’t. In Jonah’s case, he did die—or at least he appeared to die to his fellow sailors.

We who know the whole story can view his three-day fish ride as an act that looked like death. And his baptism caused a wave of repentance far larger than anything Israel had ever seen. The Israelites delivered from Egypt by Moses’s baptism died in the wilderness (Ps. 95), and the generation that took the land enjoyed the blessings therein, but nothing is said of a spirit of repentance. By escalation, the miracle in Nineveh was far larger in scope than any other baptism to date.

Still, it was only a shadow of the real thing.


Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms. At the onset of his ministry—“to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15)—Jesus first underwent the baptism of John (Matt. 3). This identified him with the people of Israel, whom he was about to lead on a new exodus (Luke 9:31). Like Joshua entering the Promised Land, Jesus (as a new Joshua) was baptized by John, who was baptizing outside the land on the other side of the Jordan (John 1:28). And like Moses’s first baptism, Jesus’s wasn’t for the salvation of his people; it was an identity-marker of his ministry.

Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms.

Jesus’s second baptism is the one to which all the previous shadows point. In Mark 10:39, while discussing who’s the greatest with his disciples, Jesus says to James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” His language implies the baptism of his death (cf. Rom. 6:4–6) and the suffering he comes to earth to embrace. He tells his followers they too will suffer with him and for him, but not before he first goes to the cross. According to Jesus, baptism is an ordeal whereby he willingly puts himself under the floodwaters of God’s wrath.

  • Like Noah’s ark, Jesus’s cross will become a refuge for all who seek rest in him.
  • Like Moses’s staff, Jesus will be lifted up, so as to deliver his people from impending death.
  • Like the priests in the Jordan, Jesus will insert himself into the stream of God’s wrath.
  • Like Jonah, Jesus will volunteer himself to be swallowed in the earth, so that he might rise to save the nations.

In these ways and more, Jesus both fulfills and also eclipses Scripture’s previous “installments” in the pattern of baptism.

Putting It All Together

With the full light of revelation, we can see how each of these biblical baptisms foreshadows with increasing intensity and efficacy the cross of Jesus Christ. In each case, the magnitude of the suffering does relate (in some unspecified way) to the magnitude of God’s mercy. As redemptive history progresses, the various types increase in passion (suffering) but also in the measure of their salvation—from Noah’s family, to the nation of Israel (Moses and Joshua), to the nations of the world (Jonah). In each case, the baptism is physical, not spiritual, since none can accomplish what Christ alone can.

In Jesus’s case, since his sacrifice is offered with his own blood, his death has the power not only to procure forgiveness for all his people, but also to ensure that his message will reach his elect in every corner of the earth. He will save the whole family of faith from the floodwaters of God’s wrath.

To this day, the power of Christ’s bloody baptism is displayed as the cross reconciles all things (Col. 1:20). So when we read the Old Testament, may we observe the intricate details through which God paves the way for his Son. And may we marvel at his wisdom and power to save sinful believers through Christ’s superlative baptism.

Christopher Ash on Teaching Ruth

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:04am

In his book Teaching Ruth and Esther, Christopher Ash—writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England—writes about the book of Ruth:

The is more to this story than meets the eye. As a diamond gathers and concentrates light from all directions into an intense and radiant beauty, so Ruth displays the wonder of Christ and shines with his beauty. . . . Here the good news of Jesus will be told in terms of emptiness and fullness, famine and plenty, sadness and joy, death and life, bitterness and hope.

In our conversation, Ash helps Bible teachers see the kindness at the center of the book of Ruth. He warns us against imposing things onto the story not emphasized by the author, and he demonstrates how best to present the fullness and kindness of Christ through this little book.

Recommended Audio Resources

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Listen to to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Artificial Intelligence

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:03am
What just happened?

Last week more than 60 evangelical leaders released a statement addressing artificial intelligence. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) spent nine months working on “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” a document designed to equip the church with an ethical framework for thinking about this emergent technology.

“There are many heated debates in Washington, many of them important,” said ERLC president and TGC Council member Russell Moore. “But no issues keep me awake at night like those surrounding technology and artificial intelligence. The implications artificial intelligence will have for our future are vast.”

Moore added, “It is critical that the church be proactive in understanding AI. It’s also critical that the church insist AI be used it ways consistent with the truth that all people possess dignity and worth, created as they are in the image of God.”

What is artificial intelligence?

The term artificial intelligence (AI) was coined in 1956 by the American computer scientist John McCarthy, who defines it as “getting a computer to do things which, when done by people, are said to involve intelligence.” There is no standard definition of what constitutes AI, though, because there is a lack of agreement on what constitutes intelligence and how it relates to machines.

According to McCarthy, “Intelligence is the computational part of the ability to achieve goals in the world. Varying kinds and degrees of intelligence occur in people, many animals and some machines.” Human intelligence includes such capabilities as logic, reasoning, conceptualization, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity, abstract thinking, and problem solving. A machine is generally considered to use AI if it is able to perform in a way that matches these abilities.

What are the types of AI?

The two general categories of AI are general and narrow. General AI (or “strong AI”) is the capability of a machine to perform many or all of the intellectual tasks a human can do, including the ability to understand context and make judgments based on it. This type of AI currently does not exist outside the realm of science fiction, though it is the ultimate goal of many AI researchers. Whether it is even possible to achieve general AI is currently unknown. But even if achieved it is possible, such machines would likely not possesses sentience (i.e., the ability to perceive one’s environment, and experience sensations such as pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort).

Narrow AI (or “weak AI) is the capability of a machine to perform a more limited number and range of intellectual tasks a human can do. Narrow AI can be programmed to “learn” in a limited sense but lacks the ability to understand context. While different form of AI functions can be strung together to perform a range of varied and complex tasks, such machines remain in the category of narrow AI.

How do computers “learn”?

To be considered AI, a machine needs the ability to “learn.” One of the most common types of AI involves “machine learning,” the science of getting computers to learn and act like humans do, and improve their learning over time in autonomous fashion, by feeding them data and information in the form of observations and real-world interactions. (While all machine learning is AI, not all AI involves machine learning.)

Machine learning usually involves the processes of training and inference. In the training phase, machines are first fed data and information in the form of observations and real-world interactions. The machine looks at the data and makes generalizations from the examples provided. The machine then uses algorithms, that is, a set of guidelines that tell a computer how to perform a task, to make inferences (i.e., conclusions reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning).

A prime example of machine learning is teaching computers to learn how to identify images, such as recognizing human faces. During the training phase, programmers have the computer process a large dataset using thousands or millions of images of human faces. The machines are then taught to expect certain properties of faces, such as the average distance been nose and eyes or between ears. The computer may then break the images down into small sections and look for patterns based on color, shading, and so on. Through this process of training and inference an AI program can become better at learning what attributes are most relevant to recognizing faces.

What are positive examples of the use of AI?

Many current uses of AI appear to be rather mundane, such as when you ask iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa to tell you the latest sports score. These machines use voice recognition AI to translate your spoken words into searchable format. For most people this will be nothing more than a time-saving novelty. But for those with disabilities, such AI enhanced features could provide them a greater degree of independence and autonomy.

In the near future AI may also transform such fields as health care. For instance, AI may soon allow for MRI scanning that is considerably faster and yet still provides an image with the required accuracy. As Rob Verger of Popular Science notes, patients would spend less time in machines and imaging centers, and hospitals could do more tests per day. By driving down the time and cost of MRIs, doctors could order one of those scans instead of a traditional X-ray or CT exam—and save the patient from further exposure to radiation.

What are negative examples of the use of AI?

As with every other technology, AI can be used in ways that are harmful or lead to unintended consequences.

In China, the government is using AI based tools to increase the power of the authoritarian state. “With millions of cameras and billions of lines of code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future,” writes Paul Mozur in The New York Times. “Beijing is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to identify and track 1.4 billion people. It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry.”

In the United States, Facebook was recently sued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for using an AI enhanced system to allow advertisers to restrict who is able to see ads on the platform based on characteristics like race, religion, and national origin.

What are the moral concerns about AI?

When machines begin mimicking human intelligence they can potentially be engaging in moral behavior, making them artificial moral agents (AMAs). As philosopher James Moore explains, from a machine ethics perspective, you can look at machines as being:

• Ethical-impact agents — machine systems that have an ethical impact, whether intended or not, on humans, animals, or the environment.

• Implicit ethical agents — machines constrained to avoid unethical outcomes.

• Explicit ethical agents — machines that have algorithms to act ethically.

• Full ethical agents — machines that are ethical in the same way humans are (i.e. have free will, consciousness, and intentionality)

Since they are likely to have an influence that is not ethically neutral, most AI machines will be some type of ethical-impact agent. Few machines, however, will ever reach the level—if it’s even possible—of full ethical agent.

The area of concern is in whether they are implicit or explicit AMAs. Often it can be difficult to draw sharp lines of distinction. Consider, for instance, self-driving cars—a type of AMA—which need to be programmed for how they should respond to scenarios where collisions are highly likely or unavoidable. Should self-driving vehicles be programmed to always minimize the number of deaths? Should they be programmed to prioritize the lives of their passengers?

AI can also affect the moral behavior of humans. An example is how AI technology could be used in sex dolls or sex robots. Although sex dolls have been available in the United States since at least the late 1960s, advances in technology have led to the creation of sex robots that can move, express emotions, and even carry on simple conversations. The result is that such AI enhanced sex dolls could reduce male empathy by teaching men to treat women (and sometimes children) as objects and blank canvases on which to enact their sexual fantasies. (See also: The FAQS: Christians and the Moral Threat of Sex Robots.)

How should Christians approach and think about AI?

Because AI will affect so many areas of life, Christians need to be prepared to maximize the benefits of such technology, take the lead on the question of machine morality, and help to limit and eliminate the possible dangers.

“As Christians, we need to be prepared with a framework to navigate the difficult ethical and moral issues surrounding AI use and development,” says Jason Thacker, who headed the AI Statement of Principles project for ERLC. “This framework doesn’t come from corporations or government, because they are not the ultimate authority on dignity issues, and the church doesn’t take its cues from culture. God has spoken to us in his Word, and as his followers, we are to seek to love him and our neighbors above all things (Matt. 22:37-39).”

Self-Loathing Almost Ruined My Easter—and I’m Glad It Did

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:02am

Many times, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the gap between my beliefs and my behavior.

The week before one particular Easter, I did something that caused me to deeply dislike myself. On a dinner date with my wife, Patti, I expressed my frustration with a certain individual, and then started tearing the person apart with gossip. After I finished assassinating the person’s character with my words, Patti looked at me and gently responded, “Scott, you know that you shouldn’t have said any of that.”

This faithful, corrective word from my wife sent me into a personal crisis. Anyone who listens to my preaching knows that I abhor gossip. I often equate gossip to pornography of the mouth because it seeks the same thing that a lustful fantasy seeks: a cheap thrill at another person’s expense, while making zero effort to honestly connect with or commit to that person, in effect turning them into a thing to be used—for the sake of a self-serving emotional rush.

Patti’s gentle rebuke took me to a sobering place. How can I presume to be a minister of the gospel and a communicator of God’s truth? Having so easily cursed a fellow human being who bears the image of God, dare I use the same mouth to proclaim the blessings of God week after week? “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . . . These things ought not be so” (James 3:9–10).

My Darkness, His Grace

This incident jarred and alarmed me, and sent me into self-loathing. It got so dark that I pulled Patti aside and asked her if she thought I was a fraud. Did she think it would be best if I just quit the ministry altogether? She was the one person in the world with a direct, daily glimpse into the darkness I was feeling.

The person who knows me best didn’t hesitate to agree that my heart is dark. But then, she also affirmed my calling to pastoral ministry and of the privilege God has given me—the same privilege he gave to the adulterous David, the murderous Paul, and the abrasive Peter—to serve as a spokesman for the pure and perfect One who is full of grace and truth and whose name is Holy. Patti proceeded to affirm that I do a good, consistent job of preaching both sides of the gospel to others—that (1) we are all busted-up sinners who have no hope apart from the mercies of God, and that (2) God has met that need richly through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We are at the same time desperately in ruins and graciously redeemed.

When we preachers limp into and out of our pulpits, God tends to do a lot of terrific things in the lives of our communities.

“Scott,” she said, “now is the time for you to preach the second part of the gospel to yourself in the same way you preach it to the rest of us week after week. Yes, you are a mess. But the darkness in you can never outrun or outcompete the grace of God.”

So, that Easter Sunday, I told our church and a whole lot of guests that I have a theory about why my week had been as dark as it was. I think it’s because God wanted to be sure that people who entered our sanctuary on Easter encountered a pastor with a limp. When we preachers limp into and out of our pulpits, God tends to do a lot of terrific things in the lives of our communities. But when we hop up there with a swag—when we turn the pulpit into a pedestal or a stage instead of an altar—it’s only a matter of time before our communities are weakened.

Every Hour We Need Him

Anne Lamott once said in an interview that everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. That’s just a wonderful way of saying that God’s grace flows downhill to the low places, not uphill to the pompous and put-together places. As the hymn goes, all the fitness Jesus requires is that we feel our need of him. Or as Tim Keller has said often, all we need is nothing; all we need is need. That Easter, these words became a fresh and sorely needed lifeline for me. When you feel like the most messed-up person in the room, and you’re the one holding the microphone, that’s a time when you need some serious reminding—both from Scripture and also from the voices of family and friends—of how the grace and mercy of God hovers over you and within you.

Like Peter, we’re all duplicitous, sinful wrecks. We zealously confess him as “Lord,” promising to never betray him, and yet within a few short hours we deny him like a traitor (Matt. 26:30–35, 69–75). But then, he comes to us just as he did to Peter, reaffirming his love and also his intent to include us in his plan to renew the world and to shepherd and feed his sheep (John 21:15–19).

Walk with a limp, not a strut. Because when you do, God might just shake the earth through you.

After the week I’d felt like throwing in the towel and my Easter Sunday confession, a member of our church added to Patti’s encouragement the following affirmation, in the form of a letter from a father to his self-doubting, struggling son:

Dear Son,

I continue to pray for you in the struggles you face. I’ve been so helped as I’ve thought about some of the following things. I don’t want you to ever forget that Moses stuttered and David’s armor didn’t fit and John Mark was rejected by Paul and Hosea’s wife was a prostitute and Amos’s only training for being a prophet was as a fig-tree pruner. Jeremiah struggled with depression and Gideon and Thomas doubted and Jonah ran from God. Abraham failed miserably in lying and so did his child and his grandchild. These are real people who had real failures and real struggles and real inadequacies and real inabilities, and God shook the earth with them. It is not so much from our strength that he draws, but from his invincible might. I am praying that he will give you courage in this quality of his.

I love you, Dad.

Whatever your story, and whatever your regrets, I hope that you too can be strengthened by these realities. Because Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, your worst failures and regrets don’t get to define you, and they don’t have to disqualify you, either. In fact, being brought low to a place of contrition and repentance by your own pornography of the mouth—or by some other moral failure—might be the actual beginning of a fruit-bearing ministry for you.

Walk with a limp, not a strut. Because when you do, God might just shake the earth through you.

3 Reasons I Changed My Mind About Penal Substitution

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:00am

I was raised in the kind of evangelical church that drummed into us as children that Jesus died to save us from our sins. The cross of Jesus was the center of the message at summer camps, holiday Bible clubs, and youth group talks. Jesus had died in my place, bearing my sin and its punishment for me, so I could know God and live with him forever.

When I began reading theological books and exploring the faith for myself, I grew suspicious of the beliefs I’d been raised with. I read some thoughtful authors who raised serious questions about the way I’d always understood the cross and salvation. I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. I read Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s now-famous line in The Lost Message of Jesus:

The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. . . . If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies. . . the idea that God was an angry deity, requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.

I read critiques of Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, which revealed how influential it had been, yet how it was bound to its medieval, Western, forensic categories. More than that, the idea that God is an angry deity—requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath—was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.

If anything, early church writers apparently steered away from these pagan motifs and spoke about the cross in ways that didn’t focus on God’s wrath, sin’s penalty, and substitution. Such a picture seemed to emerge only as “a courtroom drama of Calvin’s imagination,” as Bradley Jersak put it. It made God out to be angry, his Son a victim, and me a grateful but (slightly shaken) beneficiary of the crucifixion’s violent horrors.

The vision of the atonement I’d grown up with seemed horribly distorted, simplistic, and not historically supported. It was time to move on.

There and Back Again

As I kept reading over the years, however, I sensed my theological revolution had been hasty. Was my childhood understanding of the cross simplistic and naïve? Sure—I was a child, after all. So it was easy to read adult-level critiques of Sunday school illustrations and scoff. It was easy to deconstruct my “youth group” faith and proudly ditch it for the enlightenment of my new favorite authors.

Was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with?

But was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with? I hadn’t read much Calvin, Irenaeus, Anselm, or Athanasius. I hadn’t spent much time digging into Scripture either—which should’ve been a warning to me. Doing theology this way has a funny way of exposing us. I began to realize that the vengeful, pagan, loveless god I’d supposedly believed in bore no relation to the real God I had come to trust as a little boy. Just how reliable had my new guides been?

Three significant things have shaped my thinking about the death of Christ, and I’m now much closer to where I started than I imagined I might be.

1. Actually Reading the Bible

Anyone can point to the “clobber” verses that present Jesus as a substitute for sin’s penalty, such as Isaiah 53:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Plenty of people find ways around these to read the cross another way—and with proof texts, that’s always possible. Yet as I began to read Scripture more deeply, I came to see these texts in the light of Scripture’s great themes and typologies. I could see no other way to interpret them—the animal skins in Genesis 3, the ram in Genesis 22, the Passover lamb and the firstborn sons, the darkness of judgment the night of the exodus from Egypt and the darkness that fell as Jesus died, all the undeniable language of propitiation and the blood on the mercy seat, and so much more.

Actually reading the Scriptures in their cohesive entirety, and seeing the Old Testament repeatedly preview the gospel, showed me that Jesus bearing our sin and its penalty is central—not peripheral, and not artificially imposed—to the story’s vast sweep.

2. The Trinity

It’s fair to say that some explanations of the cross I heard as a child weren’t Trinitarian. “God” was angry at sin but wanted to find a way to save us, and “Jesus” was a third party who stepped in to make it work. It’s partially true, it’s simplistic, and it can lead to a distortion of the gospel and the Trinity. Yet, none of my Sunday school teachers was theologically trained, and I was 10. A little grace and patience can perhaps be afforded to us all.

It’s no use pitting ‘vindictive God’ against ‘innocent Jesus,’ for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God.

According to Scripture, all three persons of the Godhead are offended by sin. All three persons are committed to destroying sin and to liberating humanity and the world from the curse. Jesus is the eternal Son, and when he died on the cross, he was there because he’d chosen to lay down his life, a plan devised in eternity. Philippians 2:6–8 clearly shows the pre-incarnate Son of God deciding to take on flesh, become a servant, and go to his death for sinners. His prayer in Gethsemane, contemplating the cup of wrath, is that the Father’s will would be accomplished through his death (Matt. 26:42).

It’s no use pitting “vindictive God” against “innocent Jesus,” for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God. The Son’s complicity in his own condemnation as our substitute is one of the gospel’s most glorious truths. Being clear about this truth doesn’t just safeguard our faithfulness; it displays Christ’s beauty and love.

3. The Witness of the Historic Church

For all the bluster that penal substitution is a late arrival to the party of atonement theory, I was surprised to read ancient writers offering plain expositions of it. And there were none of the distortions and childish lisping I’d been told to expect from exponents of this theology.

For example, here is one of the earliest Christian apologetic texts we have, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, dated sometime in the second century:

O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

In his exposition of Psalm 51, Augustine (AD 354–430) wrote,

For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of sin: He took upon him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt. . . . Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin . . . there was need for a mediator, that is for a reconciler, who by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. . . . Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call his just displeasure against sin by the name “anger,” a word transferred by analogy from human emotions.

Even ancient songs celebrated the wrath-bearing sacrifice of Christ. Written 1,500 years ago, Venantius Fortunatus’s (AD 530–607) beautiful hymn, “See the Destined Day Arise,” begins:

See the destined day arise! See a willing sacrifice! Jesus, to redeem our loss, hangs upon the shameful cross; Jesus, who but you could bear wrath so great and justice fair? Every pang and bitter throe, finishing your life of woe?

I also read contemporary evangelical classics, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and J. I. Packer’s What Did the Cross Achieve? and discovered them to be entirely consonant with my primary-source historical reading.

Hallelujah, What a Savior!

Perhaps my childhood understanding had been thin. No great surprise there. But in Scripture, in theology, and in church history, I kept staring at the death of Jesus, in my place, for my sin.

Sure, illustrations need to be tweaked, care must be taken with language, and there are vital concepts to be taken into account such as representation, headship and union, the overthrow of evil powers, the cosmic victory of the cross, and so on. Yet these considerations have only strengthened and enriched the “good deposit” given to me as a child.

The Kind of Forest the World Needs

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:04am

There has never been a generation of Christ followers more materially blessed than we are. We are wealthier, healthier, better resourced, and better connected than any other Christian community in the history of the world.

Such benefits come with great responsibility, however. Scripture teaches that to whom much is given, much is required.

You may know exactly what your calling is, where you are headed next, what you want to do in the next 10 years. Or you may be trying to figure out where God would have you serve. I was in the latter category as I headed off to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, and I wasn’t sure what my vocational path would be. But that’s okay, and I’m living proof that you can change your major four times in college and still turn out fine.

What’s important to remember is that wherever God calls you, you have a responsibility as a Christ follower to take on the attitude of a servant, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to comfort those who mourn. Just like your Savior (Isa. 61:1–3; Luke 4:17–21). You are blessed to be a blessing to others.

Oaks of Righteousness

I love the metaphor for God’s servants in Isaiah 61. We’re called to display God’s splendor, to become oaks of righteousness (v. 3).

Righteousness isn’t a word we hear often these days. Our culture is uncomfortable with calls for holy living. And yet that is the countercultural entailment of gospel grace. So how are each of us doing in this call to righteousness? I imagine each of us fall woefully short in this calling. I certainly do. But that doesn’t mean we stop pursuing it.

The Bible suggests we are to be oaks of righteousness, mighty examples of God’s splendor, with roots that run deep and trees that grow tall and branches that give support for those who need a place to rest.

The interesting thing about giant oak trees is that they each begin as tiny acorns. In many ways, we, too, are like those trees. We each began as a tiny acorn. And by God’s grace, we grow into the man or woman God would have us to be.

I grew up in Mississippi, a land full of water oaks and live oaks. Did you know that there are approximately 600 existing species of oaks in the world today? Ninety of them can be found here in the United States.

Acorns take six to 18 months to mature, depending on the species. The full maturation of oaks, in general, takes a long time. This is because oaks are hardwoods that tend to grow slowly. And they can last for a long time. The oldest oak tree in the United States is estimated to be 2,000 years old.

But their slow-growing nature creates dense wood that is hearty and can be used for many different purposes. And so it is with us. We each have different callings, different spheres of service. Part of your task in the years ahead is to figure out what God is calling you toward.

Joy of Faithfulness

The threefold progression in Isaiah 61—you’re blessed to be a blessing; be an oak of righteousness; in return, everlasting joy will be yours—doesn’t mean the path will always be easy or that your investments will always double. These promises come to us in the new covenant age, after all, through union with the One who fulfilled them all. No, this is about taking the long view, about pursuing what Eugene Peterson famously called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Christian faithfulness grows from a tiny acorn into a giant oak of righteousness—not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus has done and is doing in each of us. As God’s trees, we’re not responsible for the soil we’re born into, nor can we control how many sunny or rainy days fall within our lives. Those are important things to remember. But we are responsible for the direction of our trajectory, and Isaiah admonishes us to be people who display God’s splendor no matter our circumstances.

Like oaks, we are to have a multiplicative effect on our world for good. So my word of encouragement, as you contemplate your calling in this next chapter of your life, is to actively seek ways to showcase the splendor of your gracious God.

What Luther Would Say to Silicon Valley

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:03am

Yesterday, NBC News reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg bargained with user data, extending access to favored companies and limiting his competitors, even as he was professing to value user privacy. (Facebook said the documents were “selectively leaked” and told “only one side of the story.”)

This conflict isn’t the only thing disappointing Facebook users. A few years ago, researchers texted 82 Facebook users five times a day, asking how much they were using the site and how they were feeling.

“The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them,” researchers wrote. “The more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.”

Spending time on Facebook may trigger feelings of envy, which leads to self-promotional behaviors, another study found. Even getting “likes” and “hahas” doesn’t improve well-being. Indeed, a recent longitudinal study concluded that the only way to resolve the negative effects of social media is to stop using it.

But is that it? Is #DeleteFacebook the only way forward? Must we resign ourselves to a life without social networking, cat memes, baby pictures, and GIFs? Who will showcase our dinners and duckfaces if Facebook is gone?

Perhaps there is a way that social media can be improved, rather than imploded. Burning it down and walking away from a smoldering heap of binary is not the only answer.

Vocation, Power, and Duty

Although the closest things Martin Luther had to Facebook and Twitter were illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, his writings on vocation can help improve the world of social media.

“Luther emphasized how vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace,” Gene Veith Jr. and I wrote in Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Post-Modern World. “In vocation, God providentially works through human beings to care for his creation and distribute his gifts.”

Vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace.

Contrary to previous thought that claimed only religious work is a divine calling, Luther contended that all legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.

Over the next 500 years, Luther’s theology of vocation influenced generations of Protestant and non-Protestant theologians. But recently, vocation has come under some scrutiny. Miroslav Volf, in his book Work in the Spirit, argues that Luther’s doctrine of vocation has serious limitations, such as offering little assistance for improving dehumanizing work. Instead, vocation supposedly encourages workers to remain where they are, endure the hardships of their callings, and be obedient as powerful overlords exploit their underlings.

All legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.

While these critiques are worth considering, they overlook how the doctrine of vocation speaks to those in power. Luther addressed not only servants, peasants, and milk maidens, but also princes and lords, business owners and powerbrokers, kings and cardinals. Vocation, according to Luther, permeates every strata of society—religious and secular, powerful and powerless, top and bottom, ruler and ruled.

In Luther’s mind, power and duty go together. Vocations with privilege are also vocations with responsibility. And the power and duty that accompany certain vocations can be nearly unbearable:

Before one has scaled the height, everybody wants to sit on top. But once a person is there, holds the office, and should do what is right, he finds what it really means to hold office and to sit on top. . . . Sitting on top is no fun and recreation; it entails so much labor and displeasure that he who is sensible will make no great attempt to attain the position. (Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 1533)

That duty is especially weighty for Christians:

A ruler should say to himself, “Christ served me and saw everything through to completion, so that I should also want to serve my neighbor, to protect him and take him by the hand. That is why God gave me this office, so that I may serve my neighbor.” This is an example of a good ruler and his good kingdom. If a ruler sees his neighbor being oppressed, he should think, “That is my responsibility. I have to guard and protect my neighbor.” . . . This applies in the same way to the shoemaker, tailor, scholar, or teacher.” (Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar, 1522)

And Luther didn’t limit his doctrine of vocation only to humans. He also extended it to technology:

Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen . . . “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” (The Sermon on the Mount, 1538)

Our use of technology, according to Luther, should be directed toward our neighbor’s well-being. Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are “crying out” to be used in loving service to others. Not only that, but powerful people wielding powerful technology have a special duty to protect and serve their neighbors.

Silicon Valley and Vocation

The rulers of social media have various monikers—chief executive officer, chief technology officer, director of product design. They’re deciding what user data should be collected and sold. They’re designing the user interface and determining the algorithms for what appears on newsfeeds. They’re the arbiters of real and fake news, acceptable and unacceptable content, reasonable opinion and hate speech.

Of course, Silicon Valley’s executives and engineers aren’t identical to the monarchs Luther addressed. But they do establish and maintain borders through their technology in ways similar to princes and rulers in the time of Luther. They draw boundaries of digital rights and privileges as they fight for or against their users.

Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are ‘crying out’ to be used in loving service to others.

What Luther told the lords and rulers of his day, then, can be translated to the lords and rulers of ours. His doctrine of vocation is an injunction to the modern tech industry to wield its power in humble service to others.

There is nothing wrong with making money—even large amounts—as a result of one’s work. However, when acquiring wealth becomes more important than serving others, it becomes a misuse of one’s office and vocation. The tech industry must prioritize people over profits in order to rightly exercise its power.

Silicon Valley is a hub for new tools and technology that could be revolutionized by a sense of vocation. Imagine if the goal of tech executives was treating users “just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.”

Social media would be greatly improved if product designers, data engineers, and user-experience architects created technologies with love of neighbor in mind. Vocation can help the tech industry see their work as not just maximizing user experience, but also user well-being.

#DeleteFacebook is not the only way forward. Vocation has the power to #ImproveFacebook.