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The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s

Sat, 10/12/2019 - 12:00am

What were the best Christian music albums released in the 2010s? I posed this question to several dozen Christian musicians, writers, critics, and music lovers a few months ago. I asked them to nominate albums they felt were both theologically and artistically rich; albums of any genre that were clearly, unapologetically Christian; albums that pushed Christian music forward in the last decade, redefining what it could be. From their nominations and my own, I compiled the list below.

Certainly there were many other great Christian albums released over the last 10 years, and many that contain rich theological themes but would not quite fit the “Christian album” label (e.g., Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book or Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell). Any list of 25 albums from the span of a decade necessarily only scratches the surface. This list is by no means exhaustive or definitive. It’s simply a grateful celebration of the beautiful artistry, diversity, and devotion on display in Christ-exalting music this last decade. 

This list is by no means exhaustive or definitive. It’s simply a grateful celebration of the beautiful artistry, diversity, and devotion on display in Christ-exalting music this last decade.

The list includes familiar and unfamiliar names, new artists this decade and veterans who keep churning out exceptional work. The descriptions below—contributed by 11 Christian music makers, critics, or appreciators—include selections of four standout tracks for each listed album. All the songs are compiled in a 100-song playlist on Spotify and Apple Music.

Enjoy the songs and praise God for the maturing creative excellence of contemporary Christian music over the last decade. May the 2020s bring an even greater array of new quality artists and masterful albums.

1. Josh Garrells, Love and War and the Sea In Between (2011)

Embracing the neo-folk movement of the early 2010s while injecting his songs with elaborately crafted soundscapes, hypnotic hip-hop beats, and deep theological truths, Josh Garrels took the Christian music scene by storm with his sixth record. An album made possible by early crowdsourcing, Garrels gave the entire work away for free on Noisetrade in 2013, with any “tips” going to World Relief. The exposure led to the documentary The Sea in Between and interviews with NPR and Huffington Post. Standout tracks: “Farther Along,” “Slip Away,” “The Resistance,” “Bread & Wine.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Chris Davidson

2. Sandra McCracken, Psalms (2015)

With her distinct folk voice, Sandra McCracken created an album of transparent songs in both sound and subject matter. The album invites us into a journey of lament, yearning, and praise. In this, McCracken is doing nothing new historically. Yet this album beautifully represents the full range of the human experience in a way only the Psalms can. Standout tracks: “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” “My Help, My God (Psalm 42),” “Sweet Comfort,” “Have Mercy.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Tim Briggs

3. Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars (2010)

Crisp, melodic sounds, combined with beautifully transparent and poetic lyricism, made Counting Stars a memorable and enduring album in the 2010s. Andrew Peterson weaves vulnerability, hope, vivid imagery, and evocative worship throughout the album’s songs, including the classic “Dancing in the Minefields,” a song about the hardships of marriage but also the beauty of God’s promises that meet us in the chaos, the storms, the minefields of life. Other standout tracks: “Many Roads,” “World Traveler,” and “Planting Trees.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Antoine Bradford

4. John Van Deusen, Every Power Wide Awake (2017)

At times comparable to a noisier Sufjan Stevens, John Van Deusen’s thoroughly original record is not your typical “worship” album. With songs that feel like psalms (“All Shall Be Well”), confessions (“Be Merciful to Me”), childlike praise (“No Limit to Your Love”), and a title track that packs an 11-minute emotional wallop, EPWA leaves the listener in utter awe before God. In the words of Van Deusen himself: “So, here is this album; full of songs: some loud, some quiet. Often hectic and immature; just like my prayers in the morning.” Standout tracks: “All Shall Be Well,” “None Other,” “Every Power Wide Awake,” “Be Merciful to Me.” (iTunes | Amazon

Tenielle Neda

5. Liz Vice, There’s a Light (2015)

Soul singer Liz Vice serves up some retro magic in this debut album, which is Gospel with a little bit of R&B and ’60s-style funk. All but two songs were written for her by her pastor, Josh White, who was inspired by her rich, super-passionate voice—one that has earned her comparison to Aretha Franklin. “All of these songs are prayers—every single one,” Vice said. Standout tracks: “There’s a Light,” “Abide,” “Empty Me Out,” “All Must Be Well.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Victoria Emily Jones

6. Rivers & Robots, All Things New (2014)

Rivers & Robots live out all that it means to be indie worshippers. As self-proclaimed “creative missionaries,” they hold fast to their core value of using 100 percent of their profits for missions work. This album captures their heart for exalting Christ in creative and expressive ways. It has an innocent charm to it, uniquely British in sound, yet the musical maturity of a band confident in pushing the expectations of corporate worship. Standout tracks: “We Have Overcome,” “Fall Down,” “Shepherd Of My Soul,” “Voice That Stills the Raging Seas.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Stephen Bradley 

7. Sho Baraka, The Narrative (2016)

The best albums reward repeated listens, constantly revealing new layers of meaning or beauty. Such is the case with Sho Baraka’s The Narrative. United by Sho’s natural gift of performance, the album spans various hip-hop styles, themes, and tones. Laid-back jazz, trap, and weary piano melodies play under Sho’s confessional rhymes, punch lines, and energetic choruses. Perhaps the most pleasing quality of The Narrative comes from Sho’s unapologetic iconoclasm. No matter the subject (faith, fathering, race, politics), Sho wittily challenges simplistic thinking. Standout tracks: “Here, 2016,” “Road to Humble, 1979,” “Words, 2006,” “Fathers, 2004.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Alan Noble

8. Kings Kaleidoscope, Becoming Who We Are (2014)

Most likely your favorite artists’ favorite artist, Kings Kaleidoscope offered a glimpse of their creative future on this eclectic, wild, “more is more” debut. Influenced by indie rock noises, hip-hop samples, orchestral compositions, and Disney-style musical wonder, frontman Chad Gardner crafts his songs with emotional vulnerability and the sort of artistic intricacy that takes the work of many trusted friends to pull together. The result is a worship album that plays like a victorious, kingdom-bringing anthem. Standout tracks:  “I Know,” “139,” “Fix My Eyes,” “Defender.” (iTunes | Amazon

Stephen Bradley 

9. The Porter’s Gate, Work Songs (2017)

The Porter’s Gate debut is a visionary endeavor, bringing together a variety of artists (Josh Garrels, Liz Vice, Audrey Assad, Aaron Keyes, Madison Cunningham, and many more) to build up the church for the six days of the week beyond Sunday. While Works Songs has a stripped-down feel (there are no drums), there’s an overwhelming sense of power evident as each track was recorded live in a single take. Standout tracks: “Little Things With Great Love,” “Wood and Nails,” “We Labor Unto Glory,” “Establish the Work of Our Hands.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Tyler Braun

10. Strahan, Posters (2012)

At times evoking Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, or Christian folk pioneers like Love Song, New Zealand’s Strahan Coleman strums his way to quiet transcendence in his exquisite 2012 debut album. The songs are often hushed and minimalist—creating a stripped-down ambience where the beauty of the lyrics and melodies, built on a Psalms-like spectrum of emotion, really shine. If David had a harmonica and a 12-string guitar, he might write songs like these. Standout tracks: “Deliverance,” “Vineyard,” “Hey New Wine!” “You’re the Dawn.” (iTunes | Amazon

— Brett McCracken

11. The Gray Havens, Ghost of a King (2016)

The Gray Havens are a narrative-pop-folk duo known for catchy melodies, insightful songwriting, and intricate instrumentation. Ghost of a King was a welcome addition to the Christian music sphere, adding a unique blend of depth, beauty, and excellence in both sound and writing. Their 2018 album She Waits offers more of the same. Standout tracks: “Ghost of a King,” “Band of Gold,” “Diamonds and Gold,” “This My Soul.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Tim Briggs

12. CityAlight, Yours Alone (2015)

Based at Sydney’s St. Paul’s Castle Hill, Australia’s CityAlight emerged in the 2010s as one of the decade’s most refreshing new worship bands. Combining theologically rich lyrics with uptempo, joy-filled, emotionally rousing music, CityAlight’s songs are beautiful and singable anthems readymade for congregational worship. In addition to this stellar debut album, don’t miss their 2016 album, Only a Holy God, and 2018 EP, Yet Not I. Standout tracks: “Jerusalem,” “Home,” “The Love of the Father,” “Yours Alone.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

13. Lecrae, Anomaly (2014)

Lecrae has long dominated the Christian hip-hop scene, and with Anomaly he also conquered the secular charts, becoming the first artist to debut atop both the Billboard 200 and Top Gospel Albums charts. His lyrical prowess is on full display on Anomaly, as he tackles the challenges any Christian—or any human—faces in everyday life. Through his intricate wordplay, he captures the feeling of being an outsider as a Christian in the music industry and the world. Standout tracks: “Welcome to America,” “Nuthin,” “All I Need is You,” “Good, Bad, Ugly.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Eugene Park

14. Psallos, Hebrews (2017)

This adaptation of Hebrews for folk rock band and chamber orchestra exhibits the incredible versatility of the composer, Cody Curtis, and the musicians, who move through the book’s various moods and themes in styles that range from bluegrass and Irish dance to hot jazz and slow hip-hop. Recurring musical motives and reprises form a connective tissue throughout. Psallos excels at creating artistically excellent music that illuminates the intricate beauty of Scripture. Standout tracks: “Ex Paradiso,” “The Old,” “The New,” “Two Mountains.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Victoria Emily Jones

15. Beautiful Eulogy, Worthy (2017)

Beautiful Eulogy’s third album feels like an artistic and spiritual maturation for a group whose style has been called “hip-hop worship.” As its name would suggest, Worthy basks in the glory of God in a heart-pumping, full-throttle way. Drawing from a diverse musical palate and an impressive array of guests (Citizens, King’s Kaleidoscope, Aaron Strumpel, and so on) the album channels a crazy amount of Godward energy into an experience Owen Strachan called “one of the most elegant, powerful, faith-building albums I’ve heard.” Standout tracks: “If,” “Sovereign,” “Messiah,” “Doxology.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

16. Trip Lee, The Good Life (2012)

One of the best Christian rappers of the 2010s, Trip Lee has released several excellent albums in the last decade. But with its precise lyrical theology, dialed-in production, impressive guestlist (Sho Baraka, Jimmy Needham, KB, Lecrae, Andy Mineo and more), and joyfully subversive themes, The Good Life stands out. The album represents a milestone in a decade when Christian hip hop continued to mature, becoming a go-to genre for exposing audiences to Scripture and doctrine. Standout tracks: “I’m Good,” “One Sixteen,” “Take Me There,” “For My Good.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

17. Greg LaFollette, Songs of Common Prayer (2018)

The Book of Common Prayer is a collection of prayers, orders, and readings that has served the church well for centuries. In this album, Greg LaFollette puts the BCP to song. The album contains historic words and practices and pairs them beautifully with fresh music and singable melodies. In this work, LaFollette has created an uncommon blending of the ancient and modern. Standout tracks: “Most Merciful God,” “Mystery of Faith,” “Hosanna in the Highest,” “We Cry Mercy.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Tim Briggs

18. Aaron Strumpel, Mighty Refuge (2018)

Aaron Strumpel has been a noteworthy, avant-garde, independent worship musician since the early 2000s, and I’m always intrigued by what he creates. True to form, his collection of updated hymns on Mighty Refuge is at times musically daring (even jarring), but at other times radically simple, foregrounding the familiar melodies and devotional tones of beloved hymns (from “Be Thou My Vision” to “Just as I Am”). Standout tracks: “My Hope Is Built (On You Alone),” “Spark My Heart,” “Just as I Am (You Can Have All of Me),” “How Great Thou Art (Fresh Cut Flowers).” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

19. Citizens, Citizens (2013)

Rooted in the theological richness of the hymns that inspired the band’s inception and the musical heritage of their hometown, Seattle, Citizens created this loud, joyful, and triumphant debut record. Six years on, it still feels fresh. It’s an album—filled with impassioned shouts of the gospel, heavy guitars, and playful riffs—that has you nudging the volume ever higher as you yell along from beginning to end. Standout tracks: “In Tenderness,” “Made Alive,” “I Am Living In A Land Of Death,” “Oh God.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Stephen Bradley

20. Caroline Cobb, A Home and a Hunger (2017)

One of the welcome trends of Christian music in the 2010s was a number of great artists writing songs that more or less pull directly from Scripture. Singer-songwriter Caroline Cobb’s A Home and a Hunger is a particularly lovely example. The album journeys from Genesis to Revelation and—like the Bible itself—alternates often between struggle and hope, restlessness and rest, hunger and home. Standout tracks: “Fullness of Joy (Psalm 16),” “Emmanuel (Every Promise Yes in Him),” “Only the Sick Need a Physician,” “There Is a Mountain.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

21. Poor Bishop Hooper, Foreign Made (2014)

Married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts are Poor Bishop Hooper, a two-piece indie-folk band based in Kansas City. Equal parts energetic and contemplative, the songs on their debut album are built around an acoustic guitar and upright bass, with many based on the lesser-sung parables from Matthew’s Gospel. Various voices—that of Jesus, the disciples, parable characters, Zebedee, a wounded saint—are deftly interwoven, creating a multifaceted picture of the Christian life. Standout tracks: “Treasure,” “Saints,” “Lamplight,” “Final Fire.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Victoria Emily Jones

22. Jess Ray, Sentimental Creatures (2015)

One of the best Christian singer-songwriters to emerge this decade was Jess Ray, and her 2015 debut “friendly folk” album is gorgeous in every way. The North Carolina artist writes songs that feel like quiet embers from a Smoky Mountain campfire, with lyrics that affirm God’s love and gospel truth. This is an album for rainy days, depleted souls, and runaways of every sort. Let it sing over you. Standout tracks: “Runaway,” “Too Good,” “In the Meantime,” “Headed for the Hills.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

23. Shai Linne, The Attributes of God (2011)

In the classic words of A. W. Tozer, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Eight years ago, hip-hop artist Shai Linne dropped an entire record devoted to helping us think higher thoughts about our most holy God. Shai may be the most talented Christian lyricist I’ve ever heard. For deep pedagogy and soaring doxology—a soundtrack for your theological journey—look no further than The Attributes of God. Each song celebrates a different aspect of our Lord’s multifaceted character. Standout tracks: “Our God Is in the Heavens,” “The Glory of God (Not to Us),” “Taste and See,” “Judge of All the Earth.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Matt Smethurst

24. John Mark McMillan, The Medicine (2010)

While many know of this album because of the song “How He Loves,” this debut release from John Mark McMillan represents a new standard for how an artist can write singable songs for the church while still embracing their unique artistry. Having released many other albums since, The Medicine stands out as establishing McMillan as an artist others look to as a voice of heartfelt honesty and worshipful reverence. Standout tracks: “Death In His Grave,” “Carbon Ribs,” “Skeleton Bones,” “Reckoning Day.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Tyler Braun

25. Young Oceans, I Must Find You (2014)

Brooklyn’s Young Oceans was one of the best things to happen to worship music in the 2010s. Minimalist, atmospheric, Brian Eno-esque in sound, the band (affiliated with New York’s Trinity Grace Church) creates stunning sacred music via layers of distortion and slow burn reverb epics. Somehow sounding both ancient and futuristic, their sophomore album pushed the genre forward significantly, showing that worship music can be simultaneously faithful and daring. Standout tracks: “Lead Me,” “Only You,” “Until These Tears Are Gone,” “Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens.” (iTunes | Amazon)

— Brett McCracken

Beto O’Rourke’s Plan to Destroy Churches

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 2:04pm

With seven words—“It is going to be an issue”—the U.S. government signaled to orthodox Christians that if they don’t drop their opposition to same-sex marriage, their religious institutions could lose their tax-exempt status—or worse.

Those words came in 2015, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. One exchange highlighted how the ruling could affect religious liberty. Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli how it would affect educational institutions that opposed same-sex marriage:

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I . . . I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I . . . I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is . . . it is going to be an issue.

In the 1983 case of Bob Jones University (Bob Jones University v. United States), the Supreme Court’s ruling was clear: the religious clauses of the First Amendment’s do not prohibit the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of a religious university whose practices contradict a compelling government public policy.

The policy at Bob Jones was indeed loathsome and contrary to Scripture, which the school later admitted when it apologized for its racist past. But opposition to same-sex marriage is not the same as racial animus. Yet the government, through its representative, signaled that Christian schools may soon be treated like racists and pariahs for refusing to give up the view of marriage shared by almost all people throughout history prior to the 1990s.

The government . . . signaled that Christian schools may soon be treated like racists and pariahs for refusing to give up the view of marriage shared by almost all people throughout history prior to the 1990s.

It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College or New Saint Andrews College and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious.

But what it being proposed is to revoke non-profit status not only of schools but also of churches, a move that would destroy many religious institutions. According to the IRS, if an organization’s tax-exempt status is revoked, it is no longer exempt from federal income tax and is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. As Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted in 2015, “The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission.”

Beto Follows Obergefell Logic

On Thursday, during a CNN town hall devoted to LGBTQ issues, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was asked, “Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”

“Yes,” O’Rourke said without hesitation, drawing applause from the Los Angeles audience.

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone—or any institution, any organization in America—that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” he added. “So as president we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing on the rights of our fellow Americans.”

Only four years after Obergefell, O’Rourke is showing Christians that the threat posed by legalized same-sex marriage is more real—and more radical—than they may have yet realized.

Why Churches Should Be Exempt

Churches in the United States received an official federal income tax exemption in 1894, and they have been unofficially tax-exempt since the country’s founding. All 50 states and the District of Columbia also exempt churches from paying property tax. Changing that status would have an immediate deleterious effect on churches and pastors, many of whom are already struggling financially.

A 2015 survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that almost one in five congregations (16 percent) suffer serious financial difficulty. Adding the burden of taxation would swiftly put them under. Additionally, revoking tax-exempt status would likely eliminate the “parsonage exemption” on ministers’ housing. This would cost American clergy members $2.3 billion over five years. And it would be damaging to pastors who make an average salary of $39,146 a year.

O’Rourke is showing Christians that the threat posed by legalized same-sex marriage is more real—and more radical—than they may have yet realized.

Yet while agreeing the policy would have a damaging effect, some Americans think the policy is reasonable. After all, isn’t giving tax-exempt status to churches an unfair advantage? There are two reasons it is not.

First, many people believe tax-exempt status is reserved only for churches and charities. In reality, the IRS exempts a broad array of organizations, including labor unions, trade associations, horticultural organizations, and social clubs. As Dimitri Cavalli has pointed out, other organizations that are tax-exempt include Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Secular Coalition for America Education Fund, Council for Secular Humanism, Catholics for Choice, Feminist Majority Foundation, Center for Reproductive Rights, Ayn Rand Institute, Southern Poverty Law Center, Clinton Global Initiative, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and PETA. Churches are not being given special treatment.

Churches are not being given special treatment.

Second, the typical justification for the tax exemption is that such institutions provide vital charitable benefits to society. While that is undoubtedly true, the benefits argument is not the strongest reason to support tax exemption. A better reason is that we need to maintain a distinction between the state and the church. As Richard W. Garnett—a law professor at the University of Notre Dame_explains, the separation of church and state is not a reason to invalidate or abandon these tax exemptions, but is instead a powerful justification for retaining them:

The point of church-state “separation” is not to create a religion-free public sphere. It is, instead, to safeguard the fundamental right to religious freedom by imposing limits on the regulatory—and, yes, the taxing—powers of governments. After all, as Daniel Webster famously argued in the Supreme Court (and the great Chief Justice John Marshall agreed), the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and so we have very good reasons for exercising that power with care—especially when it comes to religious institutions.

Should LGBT Issues Trump Religious Liberty?

Indeed, the power of destruction through taxation is the reason O’Rourke and others are threatening to revoke tax exemption. In 2005, Jonathan Turley, a law professor who supports LGBT rights, warned this would happen:

The debate over same-sex marriage represents a coalescing of rights of free exercise, free speech, and expressive association. With the exception of abortion, same-sex marriage is almost unique in blurring neat divisions between these rights. Many organizations attract members with their commitment to certain fundamental matters of faith or morals, including a rejection of same-sex marriage or homosexuality. It is rather artificial to tell such groups that they can condemn homosexuality as long as they are willing to hire homosexuals as a part of that mission. It is equally disingenuous to suggest that denial of such things as tax exemption does not constitute a content-based punishment for religious views. . . . The denial of tax-exempt status presents a particularly serious threat to these organizations and puts them at a comparative disadvantage to groups with contrary views.

When Turley made this claim 14 years ago, many assumed he was overstating the case. Surely, same-sex marriage would not require people and organizations to give up their deeply held religious beliefs. But now, as we’ve seen time and time again over the past few years, the threat to religious freedom is all too real. What is significant about O’Rourke statement is not the novelty of the idea, but that the Democratic Party no longer believes it will be punished for being open about how LGBT issues trump religious liberty.

What’s significant about O’Rourke statement is not the novelty of the idea, but that the Democratic Party no longer believes it will be punished for being open about how LGBT issues trump religious liberty.

Are supporters of same-sex marriage—including many misguided Christians—willing to let Christian high schools, colleges, seminaries, and churches be put out of business simply for holding a biblical view of marriage?

Sadly, I suspect they will follow what Rod Dreher calls the law of merited impossibility: “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

TGCW20 News: Hotels, Flight Discounts, and Inviting Friends

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 9:00am

To help in your preparation for The Gospel Coalition 2020 Women’s Conference, we wanted to give a few updates on hotels, flight discounts, and inviting your friends before the price increases. 

HOTELS The hotel blocks with discounted conference rates are now available for booking! We have partnered with Visit Indy and a number of hotels in the area to provide special conference pricing. Please click on the link below to see the room options, prices, distance, and amenities. Hotel rooms tend to fill quickly, so we encourage you to book your room soon. 

 

BOOK YOUR ROOM

 

FLIGHT DISCOUNTS We’ve obtained flight discounts from Delta and United Airlines (Southwest and American Airlines discounts forthcoming). Please see the Travel Section of the conference website for more information. 

 

FLIGHT DISCOUNT CODES

 

INVITING FRIENDS Invite a friend or family member to register by November 1 to secure the best price before registration rates increase! Also, everyone who registers by December 30 (with a U.S. mailing address) will receive a free copy of Steadfast: A Devotional Bible Study on the Book of James

 

REGISTER HERE

 

We look forward to seeing you next June in Indy! 

Help Your Unbelieving Friends Doubt Their Doubts

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 12:04am

“Christianity has amazing resources, doesn’t it? You know, we’ve got the most anxious generation in history graduating high school. And from this point, you know, Jesus is the safest person—and his people should be—the one who will not break a bruised reed. The resources of our faith give us unique opportunities to serve into this kind of generation. It’s not going to be easy because at some point they have to encounter a call to repentance. But hopefully, they’re doing that having discovered one who knows them better than they know themselves, and who still pursues them and wants them.” — Sam Allberry

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.

Related:

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

Where Did Gentleness Go as a Pastoral Virtue?

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 12:03am

I’ve long felt that in Reformed circles there is a great need for pastors and theologians to cultivate the virtue of gentleness.

I think we all know that gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23. It appears again in a similar list of Christian virtues in 1 Timothy 6:11, virtues specific to Christian leadership.

But gentleness is not usually one of the first qualities we look for in a pastor. In fact, I think gentleness is one of those Christian virtues that falls through the cracks when we’re evaluating ourselves and others.

Wimpy God, Tough God

Indeed, there has been among us, I think, some confusion about what to do with gentleness. Certainly the old liberal theologians distorted the concept when they used it, in effect, to eliminate the wrath and judgment of God from their preaching. God, they said, was so gentle, so kind, that he would never punish anyone for sinning against him. Thus they robbed God of his justice; indeed, they replaced the biblical God with a grandfatherly, lenient, indulgent god of their own imagination.

Together with this distortion of God was a distortion of Jesus. The liberal Jesus was a kindly soul who hugged babies and patted lambs on the head, but who had within him not a drop of righteous anger or jealousy or zeal for the truth. For the liberal, such a God and such a Christ surely wouldn’t approve of any stern measures to preserve the holiness of his church. In liberal churches, formal discipline for doctrinal matters—indeed, even for moral transgressions—became a thing of the past.

Evangelicals understandably reacted against that misunderstanding of divine gentleness. They heaped ridicule and scorn upon the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the liberal theologians and set forth Jesus as the risen and ascended Lord of heaven and earth, who would soon return in flaming fire to bring his terrible judgments on the earth. C. S. Lewis’s Aslan was, he reminded us, not a tame lion. And so, we have argued, there is a place for formal discipline in the church.

Sometimes pastors must be stern, strong, and jealous for the righteousness of God. Many Reformed teachers today, fortified by such teaching as Abraham Kuyper’s “life is religion,” Van Til’s apologetics of antithesis, Jay Adams’s nouthetic counseling, and the dominion theology of the Christian Reconstruction movement, especially emphasize that Christians are not to be wimps. We are not to meekly tolerate societal wickedness; we are to be a true Christian army, putting on the whole armor of God, casting down imaginations, taking every thought captive to Christ, conquering all human enterprises in the name of the King.

So swings the pendulum, from walk-all-over-me liberalism to dominion militancy. I don’t want to turn away from the militancy. I see a lot of value in Kuyper, in Van Til and Adams, indeed in the Christian Reconstruction movement as well. (I don’t see quite as much value in it as they do.)

But what’s happened to gentleness in all of this? Again, we know it’s part of the Christian life, and especially that it’s one of the qualifications of the Christian pastor. Yet it slips through the cracks. Ironically, the concept of gentleness seems itself to be very gentle. It doesn’t shout out at us; it almost seems to hide within those long lists of virtues.

Let’s look more closely where God defines himself to Moses:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6–7)

Yes, there is judgment there. Fearsome judgment. But there is also mercy, long-suffering, and compassion. As the New Testament says, God is love.

God Is Gentle

Sin deserves instant death, but God is so merciful and gentle with sinners. We learn how gentle when we read in the New Testament that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The Lord Jesus comes as God’s gentle shepherd of his people. Remember Isaiah 40:11? “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Yes, our Lord is gentle.

Jesus didn’t jump all over people who were guilty of sin. To the immoral woman of Samaria, he offered the living water of eternal life. He offered her a wonderful gift, before her sins even entered the conversation. Yes, he discussed her sins at a later point, but in a tender way. He healed people first, and then said, “Go and sin no more.”

And think of how often Paul emphasizes the importance of gentleness in the ministry:

We could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (1 Thess. 2:6–7)

I Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ . . . (2 Cor. 10:1)

Think of the little book of Philemon, where Paul asks his friend to treat well the former slave Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to Philemon. Onesimus is now a Christian brother. Paul says to Philemon that he could, as an apostle, command Philemon to do the right thing, but instead he humbly entreats on the basis of love: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (v. 8). Then he adds: “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will” (v. 14).

Paul had great authority as an apostle, but, as Jesus taught, Paul didn’t believe a leader should “lord it over” his flock, commanding them to do this and that, threatening them, coercing them, making life miserable for them. Rather, he sought to resolve problems in the gentlest way possible. Like a good parent, he didn’t want to provoke his children to wrath. Rather, he wanted to teach them, by word and example, how to love the ways of God from the heart. And loving God from the heart involves spontaneous obedience.

More Like a Shepherd

Certainly there’s no disparagement of justice, no compromise of the church’s holiness. Paul did advocate excommunication for those who couldn’t be reached any other way (1 Cor. 5), but he saw even excommunication as a means to restore and heal: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).

But Paul’s concept of the pastor is certainly a lot less like a king or general than like a shepherd or even a nursing mother.

Another way to put it, perhaps, is that Paul did not see himself as standing in an adversarial relationship with his people. He wasn’t their enemy, but their friend, their father, their nursing mother. I guess I’ve been rather saddened by some reports I’ve heard of elders who have taken an adversarial stance against their own sheep.

Toughness and Tenderness

The church is not an academic debating society, not a place where one seeks by whatever means to prove himself right and to prove the other guy wrong. It is, above all, a place where we care for one another as nursing mothers care for their babies. And if that atmosphere of caring, protecting, nurturing, and loving is ever replaced by an adversarial climate, the very life of the church is in danger.

If we preach the toughness of God without passionately seeking to maintain his gentleness, we commit an error opposite to that of modernism and one just as bad. Speaking the truth in love—that’s the balance God calls us to maintain.

Let your gentleness be evident to all [why gentleness, rather than something else?]. The Lord is near. (Phil. 4:5)

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)

Restore, reprove, rebuke; but don’t let the gentleness of Jesus ever be lost.

What about you? Are you able to nurture others in this way? Maybe you love people, but you don’t know how to correct them in a truly gentle way, without harshness, without hurting. If so, find someone who can serve as a model and teacher for you in this area; it is tremendously important. And, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the love of his sheep, stay out of the pastorate until you have learned.

Will Gen Z Hold On to the Faith?

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 12:02am

Stacia Datskovska wants to leave her church. The 15-year-old from Northern Virginia finds it cold, alienating, and­­­­—worst of all—too traditional. She has ideas for reform, summarized in the title of her recent USA Today opinion piece: “Churches could win back teens like me if they were more welcoming and less judgmental.”

Her story isn’t an anomaly; it’s the norm. ­­­­­­According to a study from LifeWay Research, 66 percent of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

These statistics are staggering and heartbreaking. In their wake, churches are asking, “What did we do wrong?” There is wisdom and humility in asking this question, and I’m thankful we do. But what about what went right? What about the other 33 percent, the teens who stay? What if we examined their lives and asked, “What did work?” Perhaps then parents and pastors could lead with less fear and more faith, optimism, and hope.

That’s why it’s a joy to commend David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s new book, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. These authors (experienced researchers and concerned parents themselves) studied more than 1,000 young adults who remained in their faith throughout high school and beyond. They found these “resilient disciples” all shared a few significant traits. This book unpacks those traits, five practical strategies for modern discipleship to provide parents, pastors, and youth workers with an optimistic yet realistic look at the resilient disciples of my generation—and how we can make more of them.

Living in Digital Babylon

The bottom line is that teens today must be discipled differently than they’ve been in the past. We live in a post-Christian, digital age and, as Kinnaman and Matlock point out: “We are the first generation of humans who cannot rely on the earned wisdom of previous generations to help us live with these rapid technological changes” (25). And so the people at Barna “have adopted a phrase to describe our accelerated, complex culture that is marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority: digital Babylon” (19).

Discipling teens means understanding the culture we inhabit and training them to handle its particular challenges and crises. Here are Kinnaman and Matlock’s five ways for a new generation to follow Jesus:

1. ‘To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.’

Generation Z is going through an identity crisis, and we’re looking for answers. Culture tells us to look within, to find hope in expressive individualism. What we need instead is Jesus—but not the Jesus “brand experience” so many churches offer today. My generation needs “a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus” (50).

2. ‘In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.’

We live in the age of information, where many teens are discipled by the internet. It’s of utmost importance that we get Generation Z involved in “a robust learning community under the authority of the Bible in order to wisely navigate an accelerated, complex culture” (69).

3. ‘When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.’

Amid church scandals and an increasingly individualized culture, many teens view the church with skepticism. This is a critical time for churches to build relationships with my generation, to be vulnerable, to pay attention to emotions, to help young people identify faith champions, and to realize the crucial role of mentors.

As Kinnaman and Matlock explain, “Disparate life experiences lead generations to dismiss and devalue another. But the church must be the place we give no quarter to that destructive thinking. We need one another to get on with our mission” (184).

4. ‘To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.’

Teaching our kids theology is important. But so is teaching them how that theology works out in their lives and futures. As Generation Z enters the workforce, Kinnaman and Matolock believe churches have a key responsibility in providing vocational discipleship, which they define as “knowing and living God’s calling, especially in the arena of work, and right-sizing our ambitions to God’s purposes” (143).

5. ‘Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.’

From toddler to teen, the world preaches self-worship to our kids—not that their naturally sinful hearts need much encouragement. But we need to encourage our kids to pursue selflessness instead, as they rebel against society’s norms and find joy in Jesus’s mission, which is exactly what the resilient disciples of Generation Z are doing.

Hope for the World

In an age when many parents are fretting and fearful about what not to do, this book is a welcome resource that gives parents optimism and inspiration. In the course of writing this book, both Kinnaman and Matlock dropped off their oldest daughters at college, walking away with all the fears, insecurities, and worries of a parent. This only makes their research and words more personal and compelling.

I’d gladly recommend this book to parents. Be prepared to be challenged by the reality that discipleship is hard work. It’ll take time to communicate the gospel to your kids, engage their difficult questions, wrestle with their doubts, listen to their fears, and labor to understand their world.

As we all know, there is much cause for fear among my generation. But as Kinnaman and Matlock remind us, there is also much cause for hope. Even in a post-Christian world, there are resilient disciples. Jesus will hold these disciples in my generation fast, and we’ll follow wherever he leads. We’ll serve and love and lead his church. We’ll pass on our faith to the next generation.

As we rightly grieve peers who abandon the faith, may we not forget to rejoice in our faith, just as the apostle Paul did (2 Tim. 1:5–7; Col. 2:5).

Does Every Christian Have a Guardian Angel?

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 12:00am

One of the fascinating things about studying angelology is the stories people tell about angelic encounters.

A few years ago, I received a call from a man claiming Michael the Archangel visited him at home. The man had been plagued with demonic attacks, which subsided to some extent after his encounter with Michael. He even claimed to have video evidence of the angel. Another woman told me she encountered an angel in a shop window of a downtown department store. He didn’t say anything, she said, but the visit reminded her that God loved her.

The Christian shelves of major bookstores abound with similar tales—there’s even a series of Christian-living books about angels that have appeared in the form of dogs! Some Christian writers attempt to make spiritual powers and territorial spirits the major theme of the whole Bible. Somehow it makes the whole enterprise seem more vivid, cinematic, and exciting.

People take deep comfort from the idea that angels guard their steps and protect them from harm, or that their angel wards off the advances of the Devil. But is it wise to put our hope in such protection? And does each of us have a guardian angel?

Even raising that question runs the risk of revealing oneself as a kind of killjoy. Views on angels and demons are so frequently informed by cultural artifacts, works of fiction, and personal stories. But is there any solid biblical evidence for personal angelic protectors?

Not a New Question

This question has been asked for a long time in Christian history. The idea that each believer has an angel to guard them, and a demon to tempt them, arose in early extrabiblical writings. For example, the Shepherd of Hermas teaches that each person has two angels, one good and one evil, and gives instruction on how to tell the difference. The Epistle to Barnabas describes God’s angels as protectors of the way of light, and Satan’s angels as guardians of the way of darkness. Probably the most historically significant early writer on this issue, Origen, writes in his First Principles that “every human soul is put in subjection to some angel.”

Similar views were espoused by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory the Great and the medieval theologians and the reformers (though less so). One explanation for the pervasive belief in guardian angels is that many thoughtful Christians have espoused such a belief for a long time.

These claims in early Christian writings aren’t usually based on exegesis. The most developed versions of angelic reflections come from an attempt to account for the whole of reality in Neoplatonic terms. This influence is often overlooked, but can be seen in more well-known writers like Jerome and Augustine. 

Daniel and Matthew

The exegetical argument for guardian angels boils down ultimately to a single verse:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 18:10)

Because “little ones” refers to believers, as opposed to children, some take this verse to indicate that each believer has an angel in heaven assigned to them. Even if that interpretation is correct, though, the text tells us nothing about what these angels do. It certainly doesn’t confirm the speculation that they follow us around to protect us. Besides, how can they be by our side if they are viewing God’s face in heaven? (Luther says it’s because they have long arms.)

Usually, it’s taken as obvious that these angels must function similarly to angels mentioned in other passages. Daniel is a favorite for such source work. For an example, an angel protects him in the lions’ den (Dan. 6:22); another protects Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:28).

Most notable about these protections, however, is that they are uncommon.

Matthew 18 doesn’t provide any textual link to these other passages. The reason these connections are taken as obvious has nothing to do with the texts; it has to do with how familiar people are with hearing the doctrine of guardian angels. Yet we cannot allow familiarity to override care in our interpretation and doctrine. Certainly, we shouldn’t lay so much hope on an unlikely interpretation of a single verse.

We shouldn’t lay so much hope on an unlikely interpretation of a single verse.

If they aren’t guardian angels, then who are “their angels”? We aren’t given much detail. Many commentaries note Jewish belief in the notion of guardian angels, but these ideas are relatively late (later than the writing of Matthew, in most cases). Even in these supposedly related texts,  though, there is no clear doctrine about the activity of these angels.

As readers, we ought to think carefully about what is clear rather than running to speculation. In that light, it seems better to understand the reference Jesus makes in terms of the overall purpose of his teaching: that disciples matter greatly to the Father. The angelic reference is meant to accomplish this rhetorical purpose.

What About Hebrews?

Another important text to keep in mind is Hebrews 1:14, which notes that angels are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” Later speculations about how angels operate, and how they guard believers, find no basis in this verse. God’s care for his children is manifest in that the angels rejoice in salvation (Luke 15:10), carry the faithful departed to heaven (Luke 16:22), and desire to watch the gospel unfold (1 Pet. 1:12). Yet we cannot infer from these events that all believers have an angel nearby to guard them, or that each has their own personal angel.

Some Christians have taken great comfort in the idea that an angel is close by to guide or protect. The Bible doesn’t encourage us to look for such things, to seek out angels, or to attempt to commune with them. The idea that we may entertain them “unaware” (Heb. 13:2) militates against the showy, fantastic anecdotes we often hear in non-biblical accounts.

What’s the Harm?

Still, we might think, such stories bring comfort and excitement. Even if some of the people telling the stories are mistaken, what’s the harm?

The harm comes from at least two sources.

First, the doctrine provides a poor strategy for Bible reading. It takes minor characters from the biblical storyline (angels) and makes them a central focus. That approach distorts authorial intent. For example, Jesus’s almost incidental comment in Matthew 18:10 is not the point of his teaching. To build a doctrine from it is to pull the text out of proportion and occlude the point of Matthew 18 as a whole—which is about how believers ought to treat one another.

Second, it makes angels a source of comfort and solace. One feels special that an angel has been assigned to them. One feels important and significant and, what’s more, safe and protected. But it is bad doctrine that makes creatures secure by creatures. We should not look to angels to preserve us, but to God. Anything less is superstitious at best and blasphemous at worst.

For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? . . . To which of the angels did God every say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? (Heb. 1:5, 13).

It is bad doctrine that makes creatures secure by creatures.

Christ breaks the “power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Christ is the whole armor of God against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). In him we are secure from powers and angels and rulers (Rom. 8:38–39).

Over and over again, Scripture promises the very presence of God by the Spirit through faith. We ought to take comfort in the eternal God and his everlasting arms (Deut. 33:27), not the arms of angels.

Aaron Messner on Teaching Ezra

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 12:04am

In this conversation on the book of Ezra, Aaron Messner—senior pastor of Westmister Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia—helps teachers understand the unique time and place of the events described in this book. The action takes place near the end of Israel’s Old Testament history and features unique characters—Cyrus, king of Persia; Zerubbabel from the kingly line of David; Jeshua, a Levite; and Ezra, a direct descendant of Aaron the high priest. Messner also gives teachers tools for dealing with challenges in the book, including two chapters of lengthy genealogies and an account of repentance that results in Israelite men separating from their foreign wives.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

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Pastor, You Can’t Be All Things to All People

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 12:03am

Picture this scene. At a church leaders’ meeting, a member of your board listens carefully to everything that’s kept you busy putting out fires during the preceding month (many of which were created by the board itself!). Then with genuine concern he says, “You need to delegate more, or you’re going to run yourself ragged trying to do everything.”

While you’re still processing this exhortation, you get a phone call on Monday morning after a church-wide workday on Saturday. The head of the grounds committee complains that you didn’t show up to help mow and cut back the weeds around the parking lot. “Pastor, when you pass off work to others, frankly, some of us are beginning to wonder if maybe you think you’re too good to do any of the dirty work around here. You seem to expect the rest of us to be servants. Are you sure you haven’t lost your spirit of servanthood?”

How do you handle the delicate balance between wise delegation and sensitive servanthood? Several factors complicate the situation. Not only are we forced to struggle with our own understanding of what’s appropriate and right before the Lord, but we also have to deal with other issues—such as personal guilt, expectations of fellow leaders, perceptions of the members, availability of volunteers to whom work can be delegated, competing events on our calendars, and a host of other variables we may not be able to control.

Assess Your Heart

To gain any equilibrium in our thinking and action, the starting point has to be an honest assessment of our own hearts. Leaders in the body of Christ are first and foremost called to be servant leaders. Those who haven’t learned to be servants can expect only limited effectiveness in providing spiritual leadership to any group of believers.

Those who haven’t learned to be servants can expect only limited effectiveness in providing spiritual leadership to any group of believers.

Our attitudes about ministry tasks are shaped by our understanding of the role of a servant. The prevailing attitude of servant-minded leaders should reflect a willingness to do any task, to perform any function, and to engage in any duty with a cooperative and humble spirit. No job should fall beneath the dignity of those who see themselves as true servants. Status and personal dignity should have nothing to do with our willingness to perform any task, no matter how lowly and routine or how exalted and special. As servants, leaders must have willing hearts.

Steward Your Gifts

With that said, you might think that delegation has been effectively ruled out as a legitimate option. Not so! Just because we’re willing to do anything doesn’t mean that we should do everything. Balancing our role as a servant and our responsibility to be a good steward of our ministry gifts requires a clear grasp of our priorities and a profound sense of what is important in moving toward accomplishing the purposes of our ministry.

Just because we’re willing to do anything doesn’t mean that we should do everything.

Although we must be willing to fold the bulletins on Thursday, for the nurture of the sheep we’re responsible for feeding on Sunday, would it not be better to have unfolded bulletins than an unprepared sermon? Even though we must be willing to change diapers in the nursery on a Sunday, your presence in the pulpit may be the best use of your ministry gifts at that time. Granted, we can mow the church lawn with the best of them, but if someone else could do that, should we not invest time in doing what that person may not be called or qualified to do?

Focus on Attitude

At the heart of the matter of servant-minded ministry and delegated ministry is our attitude. When we face challenges from those who question our choices, rather than argue the point, perhaps a gentle answer would accomplish more than a lecture on godly priorities:

You know, you may be right. Maybe I should have been there on Saturday, but I struggle with what is best sometimes. Perhaps you could pray for me and the elders as we try to figure out how I can make good choices and wise decisions on things like that. By the way, you guys did a fantastic job.

Who knows? Maybe all he needs is to know that you think what he’s doing matters, and you can affirm him in other ways besides showing up.

There will always be detractors and critical people ready to second-guess every choice we make. We will never be able to settle the issue of what others think. We can’t make them embrace our priorities. What, then, is the primary concern in keeping balance in this area? Attitude.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5–7)

With a conscious effort to monitor the attitude of our hearts, we can move toward a proper balance between servant-mindedness and wise delegation. The greater our sphere of influence in ministry and the weightier our responsibilities for ministry oversight, the more difficult the task of maintaining our balance as a servant leader. Don’t listen to those who would sway your thinking into biblical imbalance; train your ear to hear the voice of the Spirit. If you’re following Christ, both in the direction you choose and in the attitude you demonstrate, you will keep in step with the Spirit and keep your life and ministry in balance.

Boys Will Be Boaz

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 12:02am

A couple years ago, my social-media feed became awash in wave after wave of stories of women suffering heinous sexual exploitation.

African refugee women were fleeing their country to break free of sexual violence in their own homes, only to be raped by immigration workers or sold into slavery.

Two major news outlets reported from my own city of Silicon Valley that numerous women in the high-tech industry are being sexually harassed and propositioned by colleagues.

And in private, friends shared horrifying stories of young children committing sexual abuse against one another after being exposed to pornography.

Sadly, we could point to just as many examples today.

As a mother, the battle to keep fears for my daughters subsumed under trust in God’s sovereignty rages on, with no sign of waning. Moms without a foundation of faith have an even harder time knowing how to best guide their children toward adulthood amid such a sexually dysfunctional culture.

Culture: Both Villain and Savior?

A single mom named Jody Allard, herself a survivor of sexual assault, wrote an article lamenting her inability to persuade her teenage sons of the realities of sexual violence and their responsibility to work against it. She pronounced their resistance to her arguments as evidence that patriarchal culture had seeped into them, despite her efforts to keep it at bay.

Allard believes her sons’ thinking is externally driven by culture, with the solution also externally imposed through education. She’s disheartened that her efforts are failing, and she’s resigning herself to the fallout. Consequently, even her own sons, while loved, feel fundamentally unsafe to her.

The reactions to Allard’s piece were familiar, predictable even. She drew swift censure, particularly from conservative circles. But I understood her angst. I’ve walked with many women through the aftermath of sexual assault and abuse. I’m a Silicon Valley veteran with my own collection of sexual harassment stories. It’s hard to shake memories like the ones held by Allard, myself, and other women. When the penalty for the sins against us remains unpaid and justice has not been served, the drive to protect others from either perpetrating or suffering the same kind of harm is overwhelming.

But while Allard and I have similar experiences, we diagnose their root causes differently, with different prognoses for the future.

Allard sees humanity—especially humanity influenced by patriarchal culture—as “unsafe.” But the Christian worldview disagrees. The problem with Allard’s diagnosis is not that it’s too dark, but that it’s not dark enough. We are, all of us, far worse than merely “unsafe.” We’re capable of sheer evil. But just as Christians believe the problem is far greater, we believe just as strongly that there is an answer—one with power to not just make us safe, but to make us truly good.

Century-Spanning Problem

Few characters in the Old Testament exemplify this hope better than Boaz. He grew up in a culture that makes the darkness of our time seem light.

Judges 19 captures the totality of this spiritual darkness in Boaz’s hometown. A Levite and his Bethlehemite concubine are traveling and decide to rest for the night. They sit in the main square, hoping to be offered a place to stay, but no offer comes. At last a man stops, and he offers him a place for the night, with an ominous warning about not staying in the open square. We soon learn why.

In a plot twist worthy of the infamous fantasy drama on HBO, a lust-fueled mob surrounds the house, demanding the Levite be delivered over so they can sexually violate him. When the mob refuses to disperse, the Levite throws his concubine outside. They raped her and abused her all night until morning. At daybreak they let her go (Judg. 19:25).

As the sun rises, she collapses at the front door. Her husband cuts her dead body into pieces and sends them throughout the entire country of Israel, one piece to each tribe to confront them with their depravity.

Countercultural Man

Given the poisonous atmosphere in which Boaz was raised, we’d expect him to grow into a culture-mimicking man. But when we’re introduced to him, we meet someone altogether different.

Boaz is a wealthy landowner. When Ruth arrives, they’re in the process of harvesting—and fields of tall, uncut wheat are the perfect environment for women to be assaulted unobserved by male harvesters. Women with husbands or fathers to watch over them are guaranteed some measure of protection; widowed or foreign women are not.

When Boaz learns a woman who’s both a widow and also a foreigner has found her way into his fields, he provides for her physical needs in both word and deed. He offers her water and invites her to eat with him and his servants. Boaz goes above and beyond God’s laws that permit the poor to glean from his fields; he ensures Ruth will bring home grain to feed her and Naomi for weeks, not just days.

It’s not hard to imagine the scene as Ruth collapses at Boaz’s feet in gratitude and wonder at his kindness. And his answer moves me to tears each time I read it:

May the LORD bless you, my daughter. You have shown more kindness now than before because you have not pursued younger men, whether rich or poor. Now don’t be afraid, my daughter. I will do for you whatever you say, since all the people in my town know that you are a woman of noble character. (Ruth 3:10–11, CSB)

Boaz’s blessing over Ruth for her sacrifice and faith is profound. From his words, it’s obvious he remembers God’s laws to protect sojourners, a desire notably countercultural on its merits. But there’s likely a specific reason Ruth’s story moves him so deeply.

Ruth isn’t the first woman Boaz has known who has left her native land to seek refuge in Israel’s God and in Israel’s people.

Legacy of Protection and Faith

Several decades before Boaz and Ruth meet, Joshua sent two Israelite spies across the border of Canaan, to get a lay of the land as they prepared to invade it. The spies find lodging with a Canaanite woman named Rahab, who sold herself as a prostitute to support her family but who’s come to faith in the God of Israel.

She appeals to them, in the name of the Lord, to save her family. The men vow that if she protects them, they will rescue her and her family. When the time comes, the two spies make good on their vow. After that day, Rahab remains in the land of Israel, eventually marrying a nobleman and giving birth to a son.

That son is Boaz.

It’s possible, maybe even likely, that Rahab tells him about the concubine’s horrific death and dismemberment (Judg. 19:30). If so, surely she tells her son the story in the context of her own—what it felt like to be a woman so mistreated by men, how she came to faith in the true God of Israel, and how God’s people became a refuge, then a family—the family into which he’d been born.

Boaz’s words to Ruth show that he remembers his mother’s story. But his education doesn’t finally determine his actions. Boaz also trusts and follows Rahab’s God—the One is was her refuge, and the One who calls his people to emulate him.

In asking God to reward Ruth, Boaz embodies the reward God had given his own mother—one that wouldn’t terminate with him, nor with Ruth, but would continue through both of them to their grandson David and their greatest descendant, Jesus.

Replicating Boaz

God’s purposes for his people weren’t thwarted by the culture in which Boaz lived. The opposite was true—God’s purposes for Boaz and his descendants were accomplished in the middle of that culture, through people who stood against the culture by standing on the solid rock of the law and Word of God.

This is faithfulness we’re right to expect from God today. And integral to that plan are men who know God as a God of protection and refuge, and who give themselves to being a refuge and protector of women.

Ultimately, such men model Jesus, who gave himself up bodily to the point of death, to establish a kingdom and offer eternal life. Such men model our Savior, instead of our culture.

In that article, Allard lamented there aren’t men safe enough for her sons to emulate or for her to trust. I pray someone introduces her to the story of Boaz, and most of all to the story of his descendant Jesus—the man who isn’t just safe, but who is the ultimate embodiment of refuge and salvation.

The Search Bar as Spiritual Battleground

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 12:00am

In today’s world there is more information than ever before. The numbers are mind-boggling. By 2020, there will be 40 times more bytes of data on the internet than there are stars in the observable universe. Some estimates suggest that by 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be created each day online. What’s an exabyte? Well, consider this: five exabytes is equivalent to all words ever spoken by humans since the dawn of time. In 2025, that amount of data will be created every 15 minutes. 

We have all of this at our fingertips: entire encyclopedias, libraries, and universes of information on the phones in our pockets. But this surplus of knowledge and easy access to information is not making us wiser. If anything, it’s making us more uncertain, anxious, overwhelmed. Depression and loneliness are on the rise across the world. Our mental and spiritual health suffers in this age of information gluttony; there is simply too much. Too many voices shouting at us. We don’t know what, if anything, to trust.

Google and other search engines give quick answers to any question, but the problem is they also turn up too many answers; answers that are confusing to sift through; answers that contradict one another. Just try searching for something like “should I vaccinate my baby?” or even something simple like “best restaurant in Los Angeles.” You’ll get an abundance of opinions but little in the way of clarity or consensus. Whose take is the best? Whose opinion is most valid? Which source is the most reliable? Do we really trust Google’s ranking algorithms (e.g., the search results that show up near the top) to answer those questions? If not, how do we find truth in this world of information excess? 

Our mental and spiritual health suffers in this age of information gluttony; there is simply too much. Too many voices shouting at us. We don’t know what, if anything, to trust.

Searching Important Questions

The problem of information gluttony is one thing when it comes to searches for “best restaurants” and celebrity gossip. It’s a more serious problem when it comes to spiritual questions of infinite consequence. Because what people find when they search theological questions is, sadly, often not theologically sound.

According to 2019 Google data, “What is the Bible?” is googled more than 1.8 million times per month, “Who is Jesus” is googled 1.5 million times per month, while questions like “What is the gospel?” and “What is salvation?” and “What is sin?” all receive more than 300,000 search queries a month.

It’s great that people are searching for these things. But what they click on after Google delivers results can mean the difference between spiritual enlightenment and deception, sending a searcher on a path toward heresy or life-changing gospel truth.

That’s what hangs in the balance on the internet today. That’s why Google is the greatest spiritual battleground of our time. The voices that rise to the top on Google, who occupy the coveted spots near the top of search results to questions like “Who is Jesus?” and “What is salvation?” are in positions of incredible influence over the souls of the searching.

Those who occupy the coveted spots near the top of search results to questions like ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What is salvation?’ are in positions of incredible influence over the souls of the searching.

Need for Theologically Sound Search Results

At The Gospel Coalition, we have been adamant from the beginning that no theological website or app can or should replace the local church. Still, we recognize that—whether we like it or not—21st-century people are being spiritually shaped by what they find online. It’s not a stretch to say that many hearts and minds are being shaped less by what they encounter for an hour on Sunday than by the podcasts, videos, articles, and books they discover online 24/7. This is why it’s so vital that organizations produce and curate biblically robust, theologically sound content online.

In an insightful recent article on how technology is changing the religious landscape, Skye Jethani points out that “most Christians aren’t getting their Bible teaching primarily through Sunday sermons anymore.” Rather, they are going online. “Anyone with a smartphone may access thousands of sermons from anywhere, anytime. The problem is no longer access to Bible teaching, it’s curating and navigating the right Bible teaching.”

Jethani argues that Christian leaders should allocate more time and energy to curating “the best online biblical resources and content” rather than putting all their eggs in the Sunday-morning sermon basket. “Hearing a doctrinally sound sermon twice per month,” after all, “is no match for marinating in heresy for hours every day,” Jethani argues. 

Certainly what happens on Sunday morning is still of chief importance and will never become obsolete. There are some things the local church offers that the internet should and could never replicate. But even as we promote the essential ministry of the local church, TGC is also committed to producing gospel-centered content online: content that comes from a trustworthy source, rises to the top in the all-important search rankings, and floods the internet with gospel truth.

Even as we promote the essential ministry of the local church, TGC is also committed to producing gospel-centered content online.

Hope for the Searching

Every day, across the world, thousands of people type important spiritual questions into search bars. They are looking for answers. Hope. Truth they can trust. 

What they are finding is not always helpful.

As one of the top 20 Christian websites in the world (according to Alexa rankings), TGC.org is well-positioned to become one of the most trusted voices for spiritual questions online. But currently sites like JW.org (Jehovah’s Witnesses), LDS.org (Mormons), CBN.com (Pat Robertson), and Catholic.net rank above TGC in the “Christian” category. This means people searching for information on Jesus and the gospel might find these errant sources before they would find TGC or another theologically sound website. 

We want this to change. Because the truth matters. Clarity on the gospel of God, and how it touches all areas of life, is of utmost importance. 

Would you consider making a gift to help TGC refine and expand our efforts to produce high-quality, cutting-edge, accessible media that will rank highly on Google search results? People are searching for resources on important spiritual questions, and we want to make sure they find biblical answers. Through what we provide for free online, we want to offer hope for the searching. But we need your help. 

Help us gain ground for the true gospel in the contested battleground of online answers—for God’s glory and the souls of all who search.

Few American Teens Share the Gospel. Here’s How to Help Them.

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 12:04am

Most American teens say they rarely or never discuss religion with their friends, according to a new survey by Pew Research. More than six in 10 (64 percent) say they rarely or never have such conversations, while only one in 20 teens (5 percent) say they often engage in such discussions.

Girls are more likely than boys to talk to their friends about religion (41 percent vs. 31 percent), and evangelicals are much more likely than mainline Protestant or Catholic teens to engage in this type of religious behavior. Yet even for evangelical teens, discussions of religion—much less directly sharing the gospel—is exceedingly rare.

Like adult believers, many teenage Christians don’t share the gospel because they don’t know what it is. Since knowing this good news is foundational to salvation it’s somewhat surprising how many Christians cannot clearly explain the basics of the gospel. As Don Whitney says, “Despite the fact that by their own admission [Christians] have read or heard countless presentations of the gospel and claim to have experienced new life in Christ through its power, they are unable to convey even the ABCs of the message of salvation.”

Showing a teen how simple it is to share the gospel can help them overcome hesitancy. Here are five steps they should know.

Step #1: Know the Gospel

So what exactly is the gospel? Simon Gathercole identifies three aspects of the gospel found in the New Testament.

1. Who Jesus is, especially his identity as royal Messiah and Son of God.

2. Jesus’s work of atonement and justification accomplished in the cross and resurrection.

3. Jesus’s work of new creation and of rescue from the power of sin.

According to the apostle Paul, the gospel is an affirmation of who Jesus is (Rom. 1:3-4) and of what he has done (1 Cor. 15). A Christian teen should be able to articulate the gospel in a way that includes all three of these elements. Here’s an example: “At its briefest, the gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ: that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died in order to restore us to our relationship with God, and that he was raised from the dead and established as Lord over all things.”

Step #2: Start a Conversation

Many Christians never share the gospel because they think they don’t know the proper methods and techniques of evangelism. They assume they need to have memorized a five-point method or be able to draw illustrations on a napkin to explain the concepts. But all you really need is the ability to carry on a conversation.

For many people, starting a conversation about the gospel is also the most difficult step. A simple method of starting such conversations is to express interests in a person’s opinions and then ask them a question. For example, you could start by saying, “I’ve been intending to ask you . . .” and then follow with a religious-based inquiry such as “Do you think much about spiritual matters?” “Do you consider yourself religious?” “What do you think about God?” and so on.

Show them you are interested in their views and demonstrate that you’re not merely waiting to explain to them what you believe.

Step #3: Share the Gospel

At some point in the conversation the teen will need to transition to explaining the gospel. One way to do that is to simply say,

As you know, I’m a Christian. My own faith is based on the belief that God loved the world so much that, as the Bible says, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. I believe that all humans have failed to perfectly obey God—what we call sin—and that God sent his son Jesus, who became man, died in order to restore us to our relationship with God, and then was raised from the dead. Now, because of my faith in Jesus I will live with him forever in the new creation.

Step #4: Respond to Their Response

After sharing the gospel, the teen is likely to be met by three types of response.

The first reaction is rejection or complete disinterest—the person doesn’t want to accept Jesus or continue talking to you about the gospel. Teach teens not to be discouraged, for they have done their duty. “We don’t fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted,” Mark Dever says, “we fail only if we don’t faithfully tell the gospel at all.”

The second reaction is continued interest. The person may not be ready to respond to this good news, but they are willing to keep talking about it. Teach teens to ask the hearer if they’d be willing to talk about the topic in the future and if they can answer any questions their friend might have about Jesus. Then they should do the preparation necessary to prepare for the next encounter.

The third reaction is that after hearing the gospel the hearer may ask the most important question in the world: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). The reason we proclaim the gospel is to lead an unbeliever to ask that very question, so we should be prepared with a simple answer: “Repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). That is the heart of what the sinner needs to know to be saved. Shane Raynor recommends keeping the message to the essentials:

Repent, believe, confess. Keep it simple. There’s no need to get bogged down in atonement theory or in trying to explain in detail how everything works. Stick with the basics. The deep theological discussions can come later.

Repent of your sins, and believe and confess that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:10). That response will change a life.

Step #5: Trust God to Do the Rest

Most importantly, we should remind teens that the power is in the gospel, not in our presentation. We should ensure that we are getting the gospel right—we don’t want to mangle the good news—but the power to save comes from the Holy Spirit, not from our efforts at evangelism. That can help take the pressure off.

Our job is to proclaim the good news. God will take care of the rest.

Why (More Than Ever Before) You Need to Read Deeply

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 12:03am

If you had surveyed the technological world of 1994—a time of chirping pagers, beeping fax machines, and “Be kind, please rewind” that videotape from Blockbuster—would you have perceived an imminent threat to the practice of reading and the very concept of culture?

Sven Birkerts did.

That year Birkerts wrote, “Chip and screen have at one and the same time inundated us with information . . . and modified our habits. They have put single-track concentration, the discipline of reading, under great pressure. . . . Who has the time or will to read books the way people used to?”

That dire assessment appeared in Birkerts’s passionate and prescient book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. His was a lonely voice at the time, but 25 years later, the book’s message seems remarkably in step with that of contemporary scholars looking at the effects of digital communications on reading habits.

That prescience is a tribute to Birkerts’s understanding of and love for reading, and makes Elegies well worth pondering even now.

Birkerts—an essayist, critic, editor, writing instructor, and author of numerous books—pursues two ends in The Gutenberg Elegies: to warn that Western culture’s willing adoption of electronic media poses a massive threat to “deep reading” and its positive effects, and to celebrate the priceless worth of such reading. Notwithstanding the book’s ominous subtitle, the warning mostly comes after the celebration. Still, respecting the book’s prophetic reputation, let’s first consider the negative.

Fate of Reading

Birkerts is not about condemning new technologies simply for their novelty. In fact, in an afterword to the 2006 edition, he admits with regard to email, “Here I am, more than a decade later, chagrined but also, yes, moderately immersed. I have acclimated to a degree, and there are even aspects of the whole process I enjoy.” His concern, rather, stems from his perception of a trend holding dire portents for reading itself—and therefore for culture. “I believe that . . . the societal shift from print-based to electronic communications is as consequential for culture as was the shift instigated by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type,” he writes.

What can feel like ‘staying on top of things’ is really nothing but distraction from the best of things.

What is the gist of this epochal shift? In short, Birkerts warns (as have others) that the sheer deluge of our electronic communication is sweeping us away from focus and reflection toward skimming and summarizing—from depth to breadth—as we strive in vain to keep up with the flow of information. “I see a deep transformation in the nature of reading, a shift from focused, sequential, text-centered engagement to . . . the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling.”

This shift, in turn, is robbing us of “a sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things.” And that sense of connectedness, Birkerts argues persuasively, is the source of wisdom, which he defines as “a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and patterns.” He writes:

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information.

Birkerts puts his point succinctly near the end of the book: “My core fear is that we are, as a culture, as a species . . . giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”

As a people who have been specially charged to “Get wisdom; get insight” (Prov. 4:5), Christians should hear this warning with deep concern. We need to consider that our finite minds may be fundamentally incapable of managing myriad “bits,” and that our time might be better spent seeking the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)—the very source of the “connectedness of things.”

Historical Perspective

The stakes, then, are astronomically high. But how can we judge whether this would-be prophet speaks truth or vain babblings? Should we listen or laugh? Can we trust the seer’s eye? In The Gutenberg Elegies, I found two reasons to give credence to Birkerts’s perspective.

First, Birkerts bases his predictions about the effects of electronic media on trends that gathered momentum long before the first digital communications. In other words, he sees the advent of electronic media on a continuum.

Birkerts cites “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” a 1986 essay in which Robert Darnton argues that prior to 1750, people read intensively, returning again and again to the few texts they could lay their hands on. But as printed materials proliferated, particularly newspapers and periodicals, people began to read more extensively, that is, more broadly. This “centrifugal tendency,” Birkerts notes, “has escalated right into our present,” driven partly by the growth of higher education but also by “the astronomical increase in the quantity of available print.”

Translating Darnton’s intensive and extensive into his own terms, Birkerts argues that the “trajectory” of reading has witnessed the “gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal—the sacrifice of depth to lateral range.” The cause is no mystery: “In our culture, access is not a problem, but proliferation is.”

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

If nothing else, we have to acknowledge that Birkerts perceived that electronic media would bring hyperproliferation. No longer would a newspaper reader be limited to his local paper and a few others at the newsstand—thousands would become accessible. No longer would a fiction reader have to choose her next read from the extensive but finite collections at her local library or neighborhood bookstore—nearly any title would be easy to order, in print or electronic form.

Seeing these shifts as through a glass darkly, Birkerts can perhaps be forgiven for resorting to something akin to apocalyptic language, describing the advent of electronic media as “a paradigm shift, a plummet down the rabbit hole” and an “epoch-making transition.” Still, I find his perspective persuasive since it’s informed by historical reflection.

Likewise, a bit of Christian historical perspective can be helpful at this point. It’s convicting to consider the depth of the wisdom of our ancestors in the faith despite the lack of breadth in their libraries. To cite just two examples, John Calvin’s collection “has been estimated at 300 to 350 volumes,” according to church historian Scott Manestch. And Jonathan Edwards, who lived and ministered about two centuries after Calvin, reportedly had somewhere around 800 books. Of course, both men likely borrowed many other volumes from various sources, but it’s hard not to conclude that they made better use of their small libraries than we do with our nearly unlimited access to information.

Access, then, may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

Why Reading Matters

I agree with Birkerts for a second, perhaps more powerful reason. This reason brings us back to his celebration of reading, which fills roughly the first half of The Gutenberg Elegies.

Birkerts rattles off a laundry list of the traditional benefits of reading—“[It] broadens, quickens verbal skills, fosters attentiveness and imagination, and develops the sense of contextual relativism that makes us more empathetic, more inquisitive beings”—then just as quickly asserts that reading matters for even deeper reasons. Here his language takes a mystical turn:

There is a metaphysics of reading that has to do with a good deal more than any simple broadening of the mind. Rather, it involves a change of state and inner orientation, and if we contemplate the reading process in this light we can hardly get away from introducing the word soul (or something very like it) into the conversation.

Birkerts later confesses that his use of the word soul is “secular.” He explains, “I mean it to stand for inwardness, for that awareness we carry of ourselves as mysterious creatures at large in the universe. The soul is that part of us that smelts meaning and tries to derive a sense of purpose from experience.”

It never ceases to fascinate and delight me that God gave us his thoughts in a book, a medium that requires us to read.

Reading, then, has a unique power to shape us, especially our perspective on the world: “When we read we not only transplant ourselves to the place of the text, but we modify our natural angle of regard upon all things; we reposition the self in order to see differently.” This happens because reading connects us to others on a deeply personal level:

We might reach a more inclusive understanding of reading (and writing) if we think in terms of a continuum. At one end, the writer—the flesh-and-blood individual; at the other, the flesh-and-blood reader. In the center, the words, the turning pages, the decoding intelligence. Writing is the monumentally complex operation whereby experience, insight, and imagination are distilled into language; reading is the equally complex operation that disperses these distilled elements into another person’s life. The act only begins with the active deciphering of the symbols.

So the connection provided by reading is, in Birkerts’s conception, a way to unlock who we are and are becoming: “I read books to read myself. . . . With each book completed I feel that I have augmented myself, gained in some understanding or wisdom, however slight. . . . The writers we read furnish us with expectations—they teach us how we like to see and feel and hear and think about things.” Thus, reading offers “a chance to subject the anarchic subjectivity to another’s disciplined imagination, a chance to be taken in unsuspected directions under the guidance of some singular sensibility.”

In these meditations, Birkerts seems to be tracking with C. S. Lewis, who wrote in the epilogue of his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism, “Literature . . . admits us to experiences other than our own. . . . Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.”

Surely Birkerts’s point is most apt for Christians. If his conception of reading as a connection to the minds of others by which we learn and grow is true (and it certainly seems obvious), what treasures await us as we read the book penned by the Author himself? If we stand to benefit and improve as human beings by reading the thoughts of other people, how much greater must be the good that can come to us as we read the thoughts of God? How helpful to be subjected to his “disciplined imagination,” to receive the guidance of his “singular sensibility”?

Value for Believers

I appreciated Birkerts’s book both for his motivation in writing it and also for the relevance of his central point to the Christian life.

First, Birkerts writes because he loves reading. Clearly, he treasures good books and the experience of absorbing them. Observing his passion as he reflects on how reading affects him is a joy in itself. But more than that, it’s instructive to note how his passion stands behind his protectiveness. It’s precisely because he loves reading so much that he writes so fiercely about the threat he perceives from electronic communication. Thus, Elegies reminds me to find and defend the things that matter most, a good lesson for me as a follower of Christ and recipient of the pearl of great price, which I too often take for granted.

Secondarily, however, Birkerts exposes the subtle dangers of information proliferation, helping me see that what can feel like “staying on top of things” is really nothing but distraction from the best of things. Thus, he challenges me to focus on what is most good, true, and beautiful—to spend my limited reading time on, first, the Word of God; and second, time-tested books that help me understand the Word and its Author. John Wesley’s passionate prayer “Let me be a man of one book” resonates more deeply with me after reading Birkerts.

It never ceases to fascinate and delight me that God gave us his thoughts in a book, a medium that requires us to read. Of course, it’s not an easy book, one that readily translates into snippets and “bits”; rather, it asks and rewards deep reading. To put it in Birkert’s terms, it demands that we strive after a “centripetal tendency”—choosing depth over breadth, intensive reading rather than extensive reading—that we might be wise rather than merely informed.

Pastor’s Wife, Prepare for Seasons of Discouragement

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 12:02am

During my husband’s second year of pastoral ministry I had serious doubts about making it as a pastor’s wife. After an unrelenting season of trial, I was broken, bruised, and bloodied by church hurts, ministry-staff conflict, my own sinful responses, and fallout we couldn’t seem to redeem. No one had prepared me to face such an intense season of ministry discouragement, and it nearly did me in.

In the midst of my discouragement, while attending a national conference for pastors’ wives, I bumped into a woman I recognized in the hotel elevator. Her seasoned husband pastored a respected, larger church, so I assumed she’d have wisdom to offer me in my trial. Desperately, and probably awkwardly, I reached out to her for a word of comfort or camaraderie:

“Is being a pastor’s wife always so hard?”

Unsympathetically, she responded, “I love being a pastor’s wife. I’ve never really found it to be that difficult.” Shocked and embarrassed, I nodded silently. Okay, then. I guess it’s just me.

But over the years I’ve realized it’s not just me. In fact, I sometimes think she might be the exception. Most ministry wives experience plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. If you’ve been in the role of pastor’s wife for a month, a year, 10 years, or 50, it’s likely that at one point or another you will face discouragement. When you do, will you be prepared?

Whether you’ve been wounded, sinned against, or beat up by the broken world, there are no quick fixes for discouragement. Healing takes time. You need the Lord’s help to navigate the personal nature of your discouragement and the best course forward. As a weary pastor’s wife, you need more than a stiff upper lip or dismissive words to recover. You need truth, grace, and salve for your wounds.

You’re Not Imagining It

Start by acknowledging your challenging reality. At some point in your pastor-husband’s ministry tenure, you will almost certainly feel the ache of uncharitable assumptions, harsh judgment, or lack of compassion. You may receive wounding words or apathetic actions. Your husband’s ministry dreams may crumble, his character may be jabbed and poked at, or his methods may be called into question. In the process of attempting to minister faithfully, friends might forsake or abandon you.

These hard circumstances will affect you, your husband, and even your children. Ministry life holds the potential to be unbelievably painful and discouraging in ways your congregation has never considered.

Even if God has placed you inside a wonderful church you love, being a pastor’s wife is hard. Trust that the God of peace will use your experiences to sanctify you completely (1 Thess. 5:23) and strengthen you according to the gospel (Rom. 16:25) for future seasons of ministry.

Ask for Help

If you’re reading this article, you’re either discouraged now, or you’re wisely preparing for the future. When you wonder if God hears your prayers, how long it will be before he answers, or if he cares about your cries for help, recognize these symptoms as discouragement.

Pay attention to the warnings, and don’t dismiss your personal indicators. Confess your burdens and cast them on God, who cares for you. Humbly admit your need for help. Look to God as your first source of provision. Talk to trusted friends, family members, or a biblical counselor about your weariness.

Timothy reminds believers in 2 Timothy 2:12, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Invite your husband and people who love you into your discouragement for the sake of your endurance. God will use the encouragement of his Word and his Spirit, administered through his people, to help you learn to stand again.

You’re Not Alone

You’re not as isolated in your discouragement as you might believe. Christ is with you, and he sympathizes with you in your weakness. God your Father faithfully hears and answers your cries and is a very present help in times of trouble. He is your mighty counselor and the best listener you’ll find. God ministers encouragement to you, by his Spirit, in ways more helpful than you know. As you share in the fellowship of suffering with Christ, God will uphold you with his right hand and comfort you with immeasurable compassion.

And you won’t suffer forever. Throughout Scripture, God’s people call out to him for rescue, and he answers. They cry; he saves. They plead for help; he delivers. While discouragement may last for the night, God hears and will answer your prayers for relief. In his time, joy will come with the morning. Whether here on earth or when united with him in glory, find comfort in the knowledge that your suffering will not last.

Find One Another

Pastors’ wives need encouragement. Fifteen years into serving as a pastor’s wife, I realize the importance of friendship with other ministry wives. Spending time with pastors’ wives who can relate to and bear one another’s ministerial burdens can be an extraordinary gift. Pray for God to provide and help you identify Jesus-loving, theologically like-minded, seasoned ministry wives with whom you can intentionally develop lasting relationships.

For the sake of your ongoing perseverance in the faith and in your ministry life, commit to gather regularly with these friendly faces who will relate to your sorrows, nod their heads in understanding, furrow their eyebrows in sympathy, and chuckle along in knowing recognition, during both encouraging and discouraging seasons of ministry life. You won’t regret it.

If you’re a pastor’s wife, expect to face seasons of discouragement by preparing strategies and means of encouragement beforehand. If you’re already being pounded by a season of discouragement, it’s not too late to find encouragement today. Look to God for comfort, and you’ll find his help and support in surprising places. Being a pastor’s wife is a difficult job, but with encouragement God will grant you endurance, renew your joy, and grow you in Christlikeness throughout your calling.

And if you need a hug, meet me by the elevator.

4 Practical Tips for Faithful Workplace Witness

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 12:00am

The workplace can be an overwhelming experience for the Christian. We want to do our jobs well, but we also want to attend to the personal and spiritual needs of our peers. We want to respect the work we’re doing, but not allow it to become an idol. How exactly do we embody a Christian life in the workplace, demonstrating God’s love for our neighbors—or, in this case, our coworkers—and at the same time respecting the work he’s called us to do?

While not exhaustive, here are four practical steps that can help.

1. Arrive on time, but be willing to leave early.

Growing up, many of us are taught that punctuality is an important part of being a mature adult. And that’s not wrong. As a Christian in the workplace, showing up for work on time demonstrates you respect your position and the time your employer is paying you to be there.

In some cases, you might be the only person who shows up on time. It will be noticed (and perhaps sometimes even lovingly mocked). But in the end, you’re establishing yourself as someone who views work as something to be respected and honored (Col. 3:23–24).

Showing up for work on time demonstrates you respect your position and the time your employer is paying you to be there.

On the flip side, employees in today’s workplace are often burdened by workaholism—lived out in the employee who aims to be the last one to turn off the lights, well past closing time. Don’t be that person.

Always be willing to leave on time, or early when appropriate. This demonstrates you are making the best use of your time in the office—not wasting it watching YouTube videos or chatting up your neighbors.

Your willingness to quit working at an appropriate time also demonstrates that work is not your master, that your priorities are not to climb the professional ladder at any cost, and that the relationships you’re building in your personal life matter.

2. Feast with those who feast.

Life can be filled with many pains and sorrows. But it is also filled with joyful celebrationsbirthdays, anniversaries, promotions, and engagements. Just like with friends from home or church, celebrating with friends at work should become one of your priorities (Rom. 12:15).

Usually there is one person in the office who organizes personal or professional office celebrations for employees. Aim to be that person—or joyfully assist them.

Usually there is one person in the office who organizes personal or professional office celebrations for employees. Aim to be that person.

Why? In any workplace, there are employees who feel out of place or simply aren’t well-liked among their peers. A recognition of a celebratory event in their lives is one of the easiest ways to let them know they’re important.

Christians should also consider organizing unofficial social events with coworkers. No matter what your life circumstances may be, there are employees who would welcome the chance to have a casual social gathering outside the stresses of the office or their home lives.

Whether or not they show up, people will take heart that you thought of them. They were included and haven’t been forgotten.

3. Pray for your peers.

Throughout God’s Word, we’re called to pray for others (Matt. 5:43–45). But how many of us actually take note of our coworkers’ problems and pray for them? When someone tells you about a challenge, it’s easy to sympathize, but also easy to forget about it as the day goes on.

In this case, some practical steps can help. When someone tells you about their struggles, quietly (or openly, depending on your relationship) pray for them right then. If you’re not in place to do that, put a reminder on a sticky note (or on your phone with an alarm reminder) with the date and person’s name so you can go back and pray for them later.

When someone tells you about their struggles, quietly pray for them right then.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the 2012 election cycle was about then-candidates Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. During a televised debate, both candidates were seated at a table, going back and forth with others about policies they would support as president. During debates, candidates will make handwritten notes of points they want to come back to later.

Santorum turned the discussion to health care, telling about the health challenges his daughter Bella faced. At the end of the debate, the candidates shook hands and parted. But as Santorum walked past Perry’s spot at the table, he looked down and noticed Perry had written down “pray for Bella.”

Prayer is not only effective at changing the lives of others, but it also draws you closer to your peers and even your enemies. It’s difficult to despise people you spend time praying for daily or weekly. The more you pray for them, the better you’re able to truly care for them.

4. Don’t leave before you leave.

The phrase “don’t leave before you leave” was used by Sheryl Sandberg in her popular 2013 book, Lean In, in which she encouraged women to fully invest in their current workplace no matter their future goals.

This same principle can be applied to Christian men and women at work. When an employee is on the way out, he or she may start falling behind on productivity, expecting others to pick up the slack. If you’re a Christian engaging in this behavior, it indicates to your coworkers and bosses that you were only there for what the workplace was offering you, rather than what you were contributing to it.

This is counter to the sacrificial way God’s Word instructs us to live (Phil. 2:3–4). Even after a decision has been made to leave a workplace, the Christian worker should continue to give 100 percent until the last day on the job, to help transition new staff, and/or to leave behind clear transition documents for those who might arrive after you’re gone. The way you leave a workplace is almost as critical as the way you’ve conducted yourself while working there.

By staying fully invested until the last day, you can demonstrate the kind of servant’s heart that is uniquely Christian.

Give the Bible Functional Authority in Your Church

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:04am

For Dummies books have become a phenomenal success.

Taking the complexities of anything from computer programming to French wine, and simplifying them for the everyman, sales have exploded. The reason for this success is doubtless because they tap into our desire to be given a simple way to master something that, otherwise, might take a long time. They offer a shortcut to success.

It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to church planting, there are plenty of “For Dummies” guides available. Christian publishers have missed the boat if they don’t have their version of “Five Easy Steps to Successful Church Planting,” complete with a foreword by their planter of choice.

Any church we want to see planted, if it is to be what God has designed it to be, must be established according to Scripture.

On the whole, this is a good thing. We need all the help we can get. But the danger with many such resources is the underlying pragmatism and personal testimony that tend to win out over biblical teaching. Any church we want to see planted, if it is to be what God has designed it to be, must be established according to Scripture.

So, while there are many things that you may do as you plant a church, here’s one thing you must do: give the Bible functional authority in every aspect of your ministry.

Word-Centered Ministry

A simple glance at Paul’s ministry reveals that proclaiming God’s Word was given the utmost primacy. A brief overview of 1 Thessalonians 2 shows us this:

  • “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God.” (2:2)
  • “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (2:4)
  • “We proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (2:9)
  • “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (2:13)

Paul’s ministry was—first and foremost—a ministry of God’s Word. The reason for this is simple: God’s presence and work in the world is mediated to us by his words. Throughout the Bible, from start to finish, his words create, sustain, give life, and sanctify.

This is why, when Paul passed the ministry baton to Timothy, he urged him to prioritize proclamation:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim. 4:1–2)

And this is where we must start as we plant churches today.

Now, I realize this statement is not a great revelation to evangelicals. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. We must remind ourselves of the priority of the Word in order that our practice on the ground reflects this reality. Without God’s Word—regardless of what you’re doing—your new church has nothing distinctive to offer your community. It offers nothing that any other organization could not provide to some degree. Indeed, without God’s Word, you will not actually have a church.

Without God’s Word—regardless of what you’re doing—your new church has nothing distinctive to your community.

Therefore, we must never assume the centrality of God’s Word. If we do, we will end up functionally prioritizing other things. These may be good and important things, but we err significantly if we allow anything to depose the Word of God from its central place.

So, to keep the Bible central in the churches we plant, we must cultivate discipline, humility, and faith.

1. Discipline

When you start—particularly if you’re planting a church from scratch—if something is going to get done, chances are you’ll have to do it. And there are hundreds of things you could do—fundraising, meeting people, developing a website, updating social media, formulating a Sunday-school curriculum, providing coffee and tea after the service, organizing your signage, advertising your presence, and so on.

These are all important. But on your priority list, they need to find their place underneath your careful study and preaching of the Scriptures. To prioritize God’s Word like this—which involves saying “no” to good things—takes discipline.

2. Humility

When planting a church, many actions will get you a pat on the back, will make you look good. But few people will praise you for teaching the Bible week after week, for spending adequate time in the study. Building the church on God’s Word is not glamorous, and it takes attention away from us. That is a good thing, but it does take humility.

3. Faith

The Lord Jesus Christ has promised that he will build his church, and we must receive that promise by faith. This is particularly the case in regions like Europe today, where the life-giving and sanctifying work of the Word is painstakingly slow. So, to keep God’s Word at the heart of your ministry requires you to trust him.

Do you believe that the one thing your neighborhood and people need is the Word of God? It’s really that straightforward. As Mike McKinley has put it:

Teach God’s Word. Evangelize using God’s Word. Disciple people using God’s Word. And then, when you launch a public service, preach God’s Word.

Keep Preaching

Finally, I want to urge you not to lose your nerve on the sermon. In a right desire to recover the importance of Word ministry in other contexts in church life, I think in recent times there has been a shift away from authoritative preaching. This is a mistake.

Paul instructed Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), and it’s been the practice of the church down the ages. God’s design is that his people gather to humbly listen to a man who stands in his place, to deliver his message—and through that event his Spirit works in power to bring his chosen purposes to pass.

May it be so in all our churches.

Related:

The Prequel to Your Faith: God’s Electing Love

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:03am

Prequels can cause problems. Whether we’re talking about The Lord of the Rings films and the later-released prequel, The Hobbit (and yes, I know they were books way before they were films), or the prequels in the Star Wars saga featuring the most unloveable character in movie history (Jar Jar Binks), tempers flare and eye-rolling begins. Some people care way too much about the place of prequels, and others don’t care at all.

But I love a good prequel. Who doesn’t love the “aha!” moments they provide? Background information found in prequels heightens and deepens the stories we know and love. Character arcs, plot development, insights, and connected dots provided by prequels make the stories we enjoy even sweeter.

And there is one prequel every Christian can enjoy. Predestination. That’s the prequel to your faith in Christ.

You’re on the Roster

This truth naturally follows total depravity. Why in the world does anyone get saved if we’re so warped in our nature and will, unable to turn to God? Election is the explanation.

If you believe in Christ, it’s because God decided to save you long before you saw you needed to be saved. Before you were born, God already loved you. When your heart first swelled with joy over the forgiveness you found in the crucified and risen Christ, you didn’t sway God to let you into his kingdom—your name was already on the roster.

Paul writes an extended praise of God’s grace in Ephesians 1, and here we find an exposition of God’s sovereign grace for sinners.

For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One. (Eph. 1:4–6)

Election means that before the events of Genesis 1:1 unfolded in space and time, the triune God chose which depraved sinners would receive his mercy in Jesus Christ. God chose who would be saved.

Predestination is the prequel to your faith in Christ.

In his God-given glimpse of heavenly reality, the apostle John saw the Lamb’s book of life—written before earth’s crust was established. This book contains the names of everyone who will be redeemed by Christ’s blood (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). In heaven, right now, there is a page in the Lamb’s book of life with Jeffrey Alan Medders on it. For a moment, think about your name, and about that book. If you are in Christ, your name is there too. And your name is written in ink older than the dirt in Jerusalem.

Christian, arrangements were made for you long before you took your first breath, committed your first sin, or sang your first hymn. God knew you would come to faith. God set your destination long before you could crawl. He predestined you to be adopted into his family by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. He wasn’t surprised when faith flamed in your heart. He knew the day was coming. He planned it.

And God’s plan to save particular sinners for eternity was, and is, unconditional. No human factors were considered in God’s election. No conditions outside of God played a role in his choosing. Election was all, as Paul says, “according to the good pleasure of his will.” Charles Spurgeon hit the high note on this:

I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love.

God didn’t look at the schoolyard of humanity and pick out the best, brightest, and most talented he could find to play on his team. There were no best. We were all dull and dark in our hearts. “No other cause,” John Calvin says, “makes us God’s children but only his choice of us in himself.” God made his choice according to his mysterious, merciful will, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Corridor of Time, Crystal Ball, or Choice?

In an effort to unravel this mystery of mercy, folks will explain predestination and God’s foreknowledge as God choosing those he knew would choose him. Did God look down the corridors of time and base his election on who would respond to the gospel? That’s not the testimony of the Scriptures. God consulting with the future sounds like God polished off a crystal ball to see if he could learn something he didn’t already know. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, show me who will respond to the gospel call. Didn’t happen. Paul clarifies the domino effect of sovereign grace:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28–30)

God’s foreknowing in predestination was a foreknowing of those people. Paul isn’t telling us about the things God knew in advance, but rather the things he planned irrevocably in advance. He’s telling us about the biography of believers, the thosethose who love God, those who are called because of God’s purpose, those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. As John Piper says, “Faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith.”

Do we choose God, or does God choose us? Yes.

So, do we choose God, or does God choose us? Yes. Our choosing of Christ and God’s choosing of us aren’t running in different directions. Spurgeon was asked to reconcile these two truths as they’re expressed by Jesus in the Gospel of John: “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Here we see the Father giving people to his Son, and people coming to his Son—God’s choice, and human choice, in one sentence. How, Spurgeon was asked, do you reconcile these two truths? His answer? “I never reconcile friends.” Election doesn’t erase our choosing of Christ. You really did choose him. Election shows the chronology of choice. God chose you before you chose him. You freely chose to put your faith in God because God had freely chose to bring you to faith. We chose second because God chose first.

Yes, election is a mystery we can’t fully get our heads around from our time-limited, creaturely perspective—but ultimately there’s no reconciliation needed. And when we see what fruit grows in the soil of this gracious doctrine, we get less consumed with arguing over it because we’re too busy enjoying it. Let’s be too happy in his sovereignty and too busy rejoicing to get mad about it.

Stabilized in Sovereign Love

Imagine if God’s choosing to save me was conditional. I’d become a seriously unstable person. Doubt and fear would live in my mind. How can I be sure that I checked the right boxes? What if he decides to release me because I’m not meeting his conditions? And on the other side of the road, if God did choose me because of me, I’d be so full of myself that elevators wouldn’t be able support the weight of my pride. If something we did got us in with God, then we aren’t freely loved by God—we earned his love by wisely putting our faith in him, or by diligently doing good works for him, and we may somehow lose his love again. Conditional love makes us anxious, defensive, self-justifying. That’s no way to live, not only because it’s miserable, but because it’s not true.

God doesn’t love us because we chose him. He chose us because he loves us. As J. B. Phillips translates Ephesians 1, “He planned, in his purpose of love, that we should be adopted as his own children through Jesus Christ—that we might learn to praise that glorious generosity of his which has made us welcome in the everlasting love he bears towards the Son” (Eph. 1:4–5). Love was his purpose. He chose because he loves with an everlasting love, and he elected to bring us into his eternal love. We’re stabilized in his love.

Knowing unconditional election doesn’t puff up our chests—it takes the breath out of them. “In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). When you realize the mega-magnitude of this truth, you’re left in awe of sovereign grace.

No one has ever loved you like God does.

Election means God loved you before anyone else did. Way before. The almighty God is the first person to ever love you. God made plans to take care of you, eternally, when you didn’t ask him to. God decided to give you an inheritance with the Son without getting second opinions or calling your references.

Why did God show you this mercy? Because he wanted to. “For he tells Moses, ‘I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (Rom. 9:15). God’s mercy comes with a hue of mystery. Why me? Why you? Why anyone? Because God, of his own free will, displayed his mercy, compassion, grace, and love. So now I’m neither puffed up by success or crushed by failure. I’m loved, regardless. Stability and humility is found in God’s sovereign grace.

Humbled to Love One Another

Unconditional election shows us the way we’re to love one another. We’re to love unconditionally. “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10–11). Here’s John’s logic. Love is God loving us. Love is God loving us without us doing anything to deserve it. Now, if you know God loved you like that, you go love others the same. The way of God’s love is the way we love others. It’s unconditional. It’s about us choosing to love, regardless of what comes back.

I’ve yet to find a command in the New Testament that says, “Love one another, as long the person is love-able, deserves it, and agrees with you.” It doesn’t exist. Grace rebuilds what it means to love. Heart-Calvinism teaches us love one another without condition.

Election isn’t confined to pages in our Bibles and books. It’s 3D. It hugs you and shakes your hand on Sundays. Maybe it helps you move from your third-floor apartment. You see election while sitting in a small group filled with varying ages, races, and backgrounds. It’s easy to learn about a doctrine in a book, but you live and love among sovereign grace. Every Christian you see, you’re seeing election.

At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells the church in Rome, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord” (Rom. 16:13). Paul takes an action of God from eternity-past and paints it on top of the way Rufus should be viewed in the present. He’s a ripened fruit of sovereign grace. He’s a chosen one. Paul wants them to look at Rufus and think, My elect brother. Rufus is a grand recipient of supernatural grace—and so is every Christian you meet.

Don’t think here of the brothers and sisters in Christ you naturally “click” with—the ones with whom it takes almost no effort to get along, to love, and to experience real Christian community. Think of the brothers or sisters you struggle to be around. You know God loves them, but you’d honestly rather get a cavity filled—without novocaine—than fill your calendar with them. Your heart sinks when you’re drawn into conversation with them, or when they move into your small group.

Every Christian you see, you’re seeing election.

Now, instead of seeing them as someone who doesn’t quite meet your conditions of acceptance, see them as chosen in the Lord. That brother who can’t help but have an awkward conversation—you’re talking to one loved from eternity by the Ancient of Days. He matters to God. He should matter to you. That sister in Christ who is always trying to wiggle her way into a conversation she’s not a part of, texts too much, and doesn’t know boundaries—don’t define her as a nuisance. She is a royal heir of the kingdom, chosen in the Lord. God loves her. How can you not? Every Christian you meet is a manifestation of predestination, of God’s unconditional decision to love those who don’t deserve it. “If God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.”

When we’ve been humbled by the sovereign love of God, we grow in humility toward one another. We Calvinists are passionate about Romans 9:16: “So then, it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.” And we should be just as passionate about Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”

The exhortation to live in harmony is here because there’s an ever-present temptation for discord. While differences among Christians are unavoidable, division can be avoided. Personality differences, personal preferences and opinions, political and theological differences, and cultural and ethnic diversity are all opportunities for the unconditional grace of God to harmonize the people of God. We don’t lose our differences, we just refuse to make others lose out to them. We sing the same song in different harmonies: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). The Lamb unites us in his holy glory.

At our church, our elders are unashamed about the doctrines of grace. It’s in our doctrinal statement and distinctives. I teach our view of election in the membership class, but we don’t make someone’s membership contingent on their view of election. We have Arminian-leaning members. We have Calvinist-leaning members—and we have confused or unsure members too. But I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a debate or fight over election. You know why? Because Jesus is first. He unites us together. We show grace to one another and love one another the way Christ has loved us. We commit to not being divisive, argumentative, and arrogant about our doctrine. Everyone is treated with dignity. Every believer you meet is a part of the royal, royally chosen, family.

Destination Holiness

The doctrine of election wants to take us somewhere more important than a Bible boxing ring. Calvin reminds us, “But ye must always bear in mind that God’s electing of us was in order to call us to holiness of life.” Holiness is the destination of predestination. “For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4). Holiness is where we’re headed. We were predestined to be molded into the image, character, and way of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Far from leading us toward arrogance, election humbles toward holiness, and God’s sovereign love is the locomotive power to get us there.

Far from leading us toward arrogance, election humbles toward holiness, and God’s sovereign love is the locomotive power to get us there.

When news of God’s sovereign love first landed on my ears, an earthquake hit my heart. Predestination rattled me, in a good way. As a sophomore in high school, a speck among 800 other sophomores, I was as uncool as sociologically possible. I never went to a dance or on a date, I was too short to make it on the basketball team, and my skin and hairstyle refused to cooperate with my plans to not be lame. All I had going for me was a starting spot in the puppet ministry at my church. Puppets, y’all. High school was rough.

My lack of coolness isn’t what made these years even more crushing. My hidden sin and hypocrisy did. I led Bible studies, played my acoustic guitar in the youth band, all while I was enslaved to pornography. I didn’t know what to do, whom to talk to, or how to stop. The shame shackled me. I knew my parents would flip. My Christian friends and I didn’t talk about the matters of the heart and soul—we debated theology and played video games instead. All of this added up to a profound amount of insecurity. Loser, hypocrite, disgusting.

But one Sunday, as the preacher walked us through Ephesians 1:3–14, I perked up. I was tracking with the passage—verse by verse, word by word. An internal dialogue began in that pink-cushioned church pew, and it lasted for days.

“God predestined me to be saved? Me?”

“Yes.”

“So, the one who spoke nebula galaxies in to existence and is robed in unapproachable light—he chose me?”

“That’s what Paul said.”

“Okay. Hold on. The only true God, the one with angels swirling and singing, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’—he loved me before he gave earth its shape?”

“You are reading it right.”

“Loser-me? Hypocrite-me? Porn-addicted-me? The Almighty not only wanted to save this mess but found joy in me? Why? Why would God care about me? I’m nothing, nobody”—and then the earthquake.

God’s love shook the lukewarmness out of my heart. Sovereign love set me upright. Insecurities and sophomoric ways were pushed out by the expulsive power of this new affection: God. God is love. As the old song goes, “Love lifted me!”, and it lifted me toward holiness.

The precious truth of election is a serrated point on the double-edged sword of the Spirit. It tells us of God’s love for his children, a love we did not earn and cannot lose. It slays dragons. It soothes saints. It makes principalities and powers flee. It cuts temptation down to size. It detaches idols. It changes us.

Predestination conquered my craving for pornography. Instead of cycling through images in my mind when trying to fall asleep, I was thinking about election and God’s love. I saw my sin and the great love of God, and my sin became bitter next to the deep richness of sovereign grace.

The doctrine of election is often found at the heart of heated debates. But it was designed to be found in the heat of battle. The precious truth of election is a serrated point on the double-edged sword of the Spirit. It tells us of God’s love for his children, a love we did not earn and cannot lose. It slays dragons. It soothes saints. It makes principalities and powers flee. It cuts temptation down to size. It detaches idols. It changes us.

When the love of God gripped my heart, my heart let go of the clods of mud I thought were so precious. I could hear a holiday at the beach being offered to me. My love for God grew, weakening my love for this sin, as I saw his love for me, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

It wasn’t predestination that severed my craving for digitized hook-ups—it was the love of Jesus displayed in predestination. Even more, it was (and is) Jesus himself. Jesus is the expulsive power in our affections. Jesus is more exciting, invigorating, and satisfying than anything that moth, rust, or high-speed internet could destroy.

God’s love is leading us into the likeness of the Son. What are the sins you’re struggling to stay away from? What are the cravings of your flesh? What is luring you from the path of faithfulness with your risen Lord? Look it full in the face and tell it, “I’m not chosen for you. You don’t love me. You’re not there for me, unconditionally. I belong to Christ. I’m being made like Christ.” Turn. Walk in God’s love. You were elected for this transformation.

Predestination and the Pride Problem

A head-only grip on unconditional election makes pride and predestination into frenemies. We know pride is a sinister enemy to Christians, but when it comes to disagreements over the doctrines of grace, somehow we welcome pride in as our friend and ally. We need to end our friendship with pride. Frenemies no more.

I’ll never forget what a 50-something-year-old mom asked me while riding in the busted up church van for a youth trip: “What should we think about people who refuse to believe in election?” As a 20-year-old, I was puzzled. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I mean,” she paused and leaned in, “Are they even saved?” My response? “Well, have you always understood election the way you do now?” She furrowed her brow, “Well, no, I guess not.” “Well, were you a believer before you believed this way?” Brow un-furrowed. A series of nods commenced. “I see what you are saying, but . . . ”

I could’ve felt proud as we spoke—I believed in election like her, and I wasn’t being judgmental like her. And I would have felt that way, if the Spirit hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder: Hey, you realize you’ve often been on the other side of this conversation? The judgmental one? Many times before, I had thought the same things, Are they even saved?—those people who say they trust Christ but don’t agree with election? And I know brothers and sisters who, even as they’ve grappled with the doctrine of unconditional election, have been told, If you think about this, and then reject it, then you are rejecting the authority of the Scriptures, and so you are rejecting Christ. This is something we Calvinists must continually be cautious of—because we’re adding to what it means to be saved by Jesus, and that’s as un-Calvinistic and, more importantly, un-Christian as it gets. When you question the salvation of an Arminian, because they aren’t a Calvinist, you’re adding to faith alone in Christ alone. It’s a denial of the Reformation’s battle cry, “Christ alone!”

Understanding election in the exact way we Calvinists do isn’t what makes or breaks someone’s Christianity. Faith in the crucified and risen Jesus for their sins is it. No asterisks. No I-see-what-you-are-saying-buts. If we add any of our precious views—even the doctrines of grace—we end up betraying grace.

Don’t think you’d never do such a thing. It can happen to the maturest of believers. We know that because it happened to an apostle. In Galatians 2, we hear about Peter walking away from a table of Gentiles. Peter used to eat with them, fellowshipping and enjoying their company. But when a certain group of legalistic Jews came to town, Peter moved the goalposts and his dinner plate. He added conditions to his love and fellowship. He decided he shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, have meaningful fellowship with uncircumcised Christians. Peter believed that kosher-keeping Sabbatarians were now the line of acceptable fellowship for him. You can hear Peter say, “I can only fellowship with like-minded believers.”

Paul saw this and decided he must give Peter a piece of his mind—or rather, give him the gospel. He confronted Peter in front of everyone because, “I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Peter, and those he influenced, detoured from radical grace into legalism. He didn’t deny the cross and resurrection of Jesus—but he added to it, so he diluted it. Peter’s actions preached a gospel-denying hypocrisy that Jesus is enough to save us, but he’s not enough to unify us. Christ alone saves, but we need more conditions if we’re going to have fellowship. Peter didn’t walk in love. He actually walked away—literally and theologically.

How many times have we done this? Have we ever made Calvinism, instead of Christ, the comfortable terms of Christian love and fellowship? Whether we do it explicitly or implicitly, breaking fellowship, or never giving fellowship a chance, because of the way someone views election is to love with conditions—and that is a betrayal of unconditional election.

In Christ, to Christ, for Christ

How do we get the doctrine of election in our hearts? Well, when we think about the doctrine of election we typically think of the what, when, why, how—and we forget to glory in the supreme who. Christ. Election isn’t a bland, aimless, or monotone theological category. It’s the glory of Christ dazzling in high-definition with a symphony of savory joys. Predestination works because of the work of Christ—his death for our sins and his supernatural resurrection from the dead. We’re chosen in and to the Chosen One. We were predestined to be united to the Son of God forever. Election is about us saints, but not chiefly. Election is supremely about Christ, the one who has first place in everything (Col. 1:18).

Election isn’t a bland, aimless, or monotone theological category. It’s the glory of Christ dazzling in high-definition with a symphony of savory joys.

God’s sovereign grace is lavished on us in the Beloved One (Eph. 1:6). Every blessing we enjoy is because of Christ—his accomplishments and him being the risen Son of God. The new in-Christ-ness we have is what defines us. Every fruit we bear, every sin repented of, and every comfort felt, it’s all because of the Messiah. Paul tells us that “every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). The promises of God, whether in the Old or New Testament, are answered, fulfilled, and kept because of Jesus. He’s the Chosen One, through whom God gathers his chosen ones. And because of God’s mercy, we reap a harvest of blessings in our election for connection to the Beloved Son. We are:

  • Crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20)
  • Buried with Christ (Col. 2:12)
  • Raised with Christ in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5)
  • Seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6)
  • Forgiven in Christ (Eph. 4:32)
  • Justified, declared righteous in Christ (Rom. 8:1)
  • Made new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)
  • Sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2)
  • Joined to the church in Christ (Gal. 3:28)
  • Called coheirs of the kingdom in Christ (Eph. 3:6)

It’s all because of Christ. We were chosen to belong to Jesus. We are elected to exalt the risen King.

Predestination is the backstory of your faith in Christ. Ephesians 1 reminds us of God’s end goal of election: the praise of his grace. As far as I can tell, God didn’t elect us to go punch holes in the theology of our brothers and sisters. The truth of election is meant to move you to praise the One who loved you before the foundation of the world, and will love you 10 billion years (and counting) from now.

Let this grace cause you to worship him with more than just your mind. Engage your heart. A sign of heart-Calvinism is that we don’t get our jollies from arguing about election, and feel like we have to question the salvation of those who don’t hold to our view. Rather, grace in the heart means we become more humble, and more holy, and more loving.

Unconditionally.

5 Signs You’re an At-Risk Pastor

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:02am

In the early 2000s, Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) experienced an inordinate number of morally failing campus ministers. Men and women in various ministries and varied contexts—who’d seemingly followed the Lord faithfully for decades—embezzled money, harbored addictions, and cheated on their spouses.

Under the leadership of Marc Rutter, and with the help of Henry Cloud, Cru examined these moral failings, seeking to identify common patterns of behavior in hopes of preventing them in the future. The patterns were clear and the profile of an “at-risk leader” emerged.

Sadly, these patterns are just as present and identifiable in today’s church-planting movement—and have contributed to recent public falls.

Four Basic Profiles

Here are four categories identified by Marc Rutter and company.

1. The narcissistic star who rises quickly.

These pastors are extremely successful at their craft. People are drawn to them and sometimes idealize and idolize them. Their success can either blind people to their faults or prevent people from feeling they still need to grow. For this pastor, success is the chief friend, irrelevance the chief foe. He tends to think he’s right on almost every subject, and anyone who pushes back is an enemy. This pastor will create an organization where he’s a king surrounded by “yes men.” His fall usually makes the news.

2. The narcissistic star who doesn’t rise.

Imagine the same person, but without the gifts or opportunity to rise. Or imagine a fallen star striving to do whatever he can to be seen again, but without success. This pastor will feel victimized, blaming everyone around him for his lack of success. He usually won’t examine his own heart. The core problem with both narcissistic personalities is that they crave the externals and neglect their inner life. Their personal hell is drowning in an ocean of irrelevance.

3. The no-boundaries leader.

These are pastors don’t like to hear no, and they don’t like to tell others no. They lack the ability to create the necessary boundaries for people to focus and thrive. This pastor isn’t as much of a threat as the first two, but can get an organization into real trouble through lack of focus, lack of personal development, and high-risk ventures.

4. The floater.

This pastor has no accountability. In fact, he actively avoids accountability by making lateral moves to remain in a feedback-free environment. He won’t be as harsh as the narcissists, but he’s just as at-risk because he naïvely thinks his ministry will flourish if people just leave him be.

‘How Did I Miss the Signs?’  

One refrain is common in the aftermath of almost every pastoral fall: How did I miss the signs? People who attended the church or worked there struggled to put their finger on it, but something felt off.

Some, though, were able to anticipate these falls long before they happened, since they had categories to understand and identify—either from training or intuition—the type of leader most likely to disqualify himself. The dots may have included lying, cheating, and stealing, but they did eventually connect.

So, what are the dots? Here are five questions that should raise the red flag on an at-risk pastor.

1. Do they resist authority?

The easiest way to resist authority is to not have any. When possible, this pastor will create a polity where he is functionally at the top. While he might have elders or a board of some sort, they are rubber stampers, not robust voices.

The easiest way to resist authority is to not have any.

2. Do they resist critique?

Attempts to critique the pastor in areas of practice and heart will be brushed off or rebuked. The more skilled the pastor, the more subtle and manipulative his dodging tactics. He may even make you feel guilty for engaging him, which is one way he ducks criticism. Critique is a reality of living in a fallen world. We all need it.

The at-risk pastor, though, will respond to critique with denial, anger, blame-shifting, or manipulation—anything but humility.

3. Are they isolated?

It’s possible to be surrounded by people, but remain alone. A healthy person opens his heart to others—not to everyone (that would be a different kind of unhealthy), but to at least a few trusted friends. Matt Chandler once said that if someone approached him saying they know a secret about him, his response would be, “You don’t know anything that these five men don’t also know.” That should be the goal of every healthy pastor.

An isolated pastor, meanwhile, doesn’t look to connect with other people; he looks past them.

4. Do they see it as their church?

There was one tragic fall of a pastor several years ago, and afterward his staff was asked what contributed to his fall. The response was telling: “He functioned as if it were his church, not God’s church.” In other words, he seemed to work out of a deep sense that the church’s success depended on him. He’d try to keep people from seeing his flaws (which further isolated him), and he couldn’t relinquish the pulpit in seasons when he or his family needed rest, since it was all on his shoulders.

No pastor is going to say the church is his, but his actions can scream it.

5. Are they a young pastor leading a large church?

Increasingly, counselors and pastors agree that, as a general rule, young pastors who lead large churches are often unhealthy. There’s something about the at-risk pastor—due to wrong ambition, craving for approval, lack of patience, or a need to prove something—that makes him more likely to lead a large church before he has the age, training, and experience to handle it.

There will be exceptions, and not all young pastors in large churches will fail, but the risk is higher.

Twin Magnets

The core issue can be boiled down to this: the pulpit and pride seem to be twin magnets that attract narcissists. For the at-risk pastor, ministry exists to serve him, not the other way around. And the common organizational denominator fueling the rise and fall of an at-risk pastor is lack of accountability.

The pulpit and pride seem to be twin magnets that attract narcissists.

There are two components of good accountability: relationship and authority. In a perfect world, you’d have both within your elder board, but that’s not always the case. Still, a healthy pastor has—or labors toward having—elders with authority to critique. A healthy pastor also has friends, often outside his church, with whom he has deep relationships. Those friends know each area of his life. He can tell them everything, including actions that could be disqualifying.

Are You At-Risk?

If you’re an at-risk pastor, you’re likely thinking about other pastors who fit these categories, not yourself. You’ve failed the first test. We’re all at-risk in some way or another.

A healthy, humble pastor will reflect first on ways he can grow and protect his sheep. May we all ponder the words of Paul: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

Where the Gospel Meets Pornography

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 12:00am

Anna was just 9 when she first saw porn. She walked into a room where a family member was watching it on TV. This same person would sexually abuse Anna throughout her childhood. As Anna grew up and tried to make sense of the abuse, she turned to porn looking for answers. It quickly became her go-to way of dealing with stress or pain.

Nate was a seminary student when he started viewing hardcore porn. He went on to become a pastor, and yet his porn addiction drove him into riskier and riskier sexual behavior. He learned to “disassociate” his sexual life from the rest of his life. Suddenly, things came to a head.

Garrett was pastoring a small-town church. He felt isolated and discontent, and regularly turned to porn for affirmation. He hated living as a hypocrite. Before he knew it, the whole town had found out.

Anna, Nate, and Garrett were Christians, but they were enslaved to porn. In today’s podcast, a special collaboration with Love Thy Neighborhood, we hear how the gospel freed them from their addictions and helped them grasp why they sought comfort in porn in the first place.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

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Help! I Resent My Husband’s Long Work Hours

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 12:04am

My husband works long hours and travels a lot. I want to cheerfully support the work God has called him to, but I’m growing resentful. How can I think about this in a better way?

Oh, sister, I see you. For a brief season of my life, my husband had a job that, while satisfying, required long work hours and lots of travel. I too battled resentment. It crept into my heart like weeds in a garden and threatened to choke my spirit.

Work is ordained by God (Gen. 1:28), but it is also stained by the fall. We see this when a job forces a man to spend long days or many nights away from the people who need him the most—his family members. Whether your husband is a musician, minister, manager, or military officer, nights apart can be part of the job.

Your desire to cheerfully support your husband is good and can be a blessing to him and your family. The strain of an oft-absent husband can be used by the Lord to refine your character, show you your sin, and bring you into deeper dependence on God and his people.

1. Be honest with yourself.

Do you know why it feels hard to support your husband’s demanding work schedule? Because it is hard. There’s no getting around it being a challenge, an inconvenience, and a sacrifice to have your husband gone so much.

It’s also lonely. A friend with an often-gone husband recently said to me, “I can schedule activities all day long, and it won’t make it any easier, because he is what I need.” Allowing yourself to admit these difficulties will help you think more clearly about how to deal with them.

Then you can begin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to sift through your emotions and longings to determine their root causes. Does your resentment stem from unmet expectations about how your family life would look? Do you begrudge the way your husband’s schedule inconveniences you? Are you frustrated that your husband gets to see new places and meet new people while you feel trapped at home? Are you anxious about whether he’s being faithful to you? Is anger simmering because you feel taken for granted?

You can’t deal with emotions you won’t acknowledge. Simply berating yourself for not being more supportive won’t work. Ask the Lord to show you the root of your resentment. And bring it to him in prayer. Ask for forgiveness and the strength to walk in repentance and grace.

2. Be honest with your husband.

As you sift through your feelings, you will find some longings and disappointments that are not sinful. Lovingly share with your husband which specific aspects of his job are most challenging for you. Do you miss him joining the family for dinner? Do you long for him to see the kids play soccer? Do you feel as though his work has too much control over your family life? Do you feel unappreciated and disrespected as you hold down the fort?

Sharing your feelings with your husband can open up conversations that might help both of you understand how to better cope with your situation. As you submit to him and he loves you (Eph. 5:22–33), maybe you can serve each other with better solutions.

It also helps to remember why your husband is traveling. (Hint: probably not because he likes being away from you.) He’s using the gifts God has given him in the place where God has positioned him to serve Christ’s kingdom. As his wife and necessary ally, you get to support him in this role. He cannot succeed without your help.

Ask your husband what you can do to help him feel supported in his work. Pray that you can approach the work situation as a team.

3. Ask for help.

If you have children at home, asking for help is crucial. Your resources are limited, but God has already provided what you need.

Let the body of Christ help you in tangible ways. Ask a retired teacher to come over and help your children with homework. Hire a teenager to babysit once a week. Arrange regular playdates so that you can grocery-shop without your posse in tow. Ask extended family members to help with transporting kids to activities. If your husband must travel over the weekend, ask a single person in your church to sit with your family and help corral kids.

Make no mistake—the road the Lord has called you to walk is a hard one, but you don’t have to walk it alone. And the experience, while difficult, can be a mighty means to strengthen your faith.

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