In the movie Aladdin, the lead character serenades his love interest with now-classic words:
A whole new world / A new fantastic point of view / No one to tell us “No!” or where to go / Or say we’re only dreaming.
These lyrics could also describe our culture’s efforts to redefine gender. And these efforts definitely aren’t dreams: legislatures are already passing speech codes for personal pronoun use, making school dress codes gender-less, and adding multiple categories for gender on government documents. And if a Christian disagrees? The reaction is more than mere social pressure; at times, political violence has erupted as one group’s vision for humanity overrides others in the name of “rights.”
Sadly, many in the church are knowingly and unknowingly adopting this brave new worldview. They don’t recognize how they’re being manipulated to embrace new categories of humanity in the name of compassion. As scholar Peter Jones notes, “The pressure comes from two directions: from hardhearted ideologues determined to silence the Christian understanding of identity, and from kindhearted Christians fearful of placing demands on suffering people and making the gospel appear heartless.”
To confront this crisis, church leaders must pivot toward apologetics. By regularly contrasting pagan anthropologies with the biblical witness, we can show the shortcomings of the new prevailing worldview—and the soundness of Christian theology.Philosophical Categories
Reclaiming apologetic preaching and teaching around fundamental philosophical categories of personhood prepares Christians for a smart and effective witness concerning gender issues.
Key to the gender debate is what makes a person, and how one’s gender is integral (or not) to that personhood. Christian theology gives us what we need to navigate this evolving cultural frontier. The Old and New Testaments are the foundation on which much of the Western tradition bases its ideas of a person: divinely created, made in the divine image, marred by sin, redeemable by faith in the Lord Jesus, and charged to share his love in word and deed. This understanding of personhood in turn undergirds the West’s global gifts of human rights, democracy, private property, contractual arrangements, and free enterprise.
Without this framework, many values that our culture holds dear will collapse. If a person isn’t created in the divine image, by what authority do humans possess dignity that deserves respect? If gender is fluid, why aren’t other categories too? If humans aren’t redeemable, what’s the point of restorative justice? If there is no objective moral framework, why is it wrong for people to hoard material goods and power for themselves?Power of Story
Though debating gender issues requires engagement on the level of philosophical categories, it’s also helpful to tell stories. In particular, stories that go against the cultural grain can open eyes to see situations in a new light. Ministers therefore need an anthology of real-world examples that question our culture’s understanding of gender, biology, society, and personhood.
Here are three brief examples.
On gender: My college buddy’s daughter, Sara, told him three times as a child that she wanted to be a boy. She wanted the attention her brothers got and felt burdened by expectations as a young lady. Was she crying out to be male? Clearly not. Child psychologists tell us this is a natural part of childhood. Today Sara gladly embraces her femininity and calling as a woman of God. Gender is biological, and gender is social, and a strong social fabric helps lead children to the future God has in store for them. As we discern between gender dysphoria and common issues in child development, we may be helped by counseling and mental-health assistance with a biblical worldview.
On society: My friend Jan is biologically female in terms of physiology and chromosomes, but she embraces a butch queer identity while living a lesbian lifestyle. I watched Jan over the years shift from a tomboy, to a celibate woman with same-sex attraction pursuing Christian ordination, to her professed identity today in a denomination that accepts the pagan worldview. Are we willing to relativize everything we know about a person and create hundreds of identities and orientations for both gender and sexuality that are up for grabs? Does nature, let alone God, provide some degree of order and placement for the self?
On biology: Some young adults are reversing the decades of hormone treatments—and even genital reconstructive surgery—that their parents and medical professionals inflicted on them in their childhood. Some in the medical community are now calling such premature actions “child abuse.” I’m hesitant to let more children suffer until additional research into gender dysphoria can suggest alternative ways for helping people develop well.
Personal stories related to major philosophical categories are weighty, convincing, and helpful for today’s witness.Need for Courage
Finally, ministers need courage. It’s risky to counter fashionable narratives and agendas. Historical figures, the Word of God, and the witness of the early church, therefore, inspire us.
Had not Moses, Paul, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Sayers, or Martin Luther King, Jr. worked against prevailing tides, what sort of world would we inhabit? We often celebrate their accomplishments with little regard to their daily lives, their deep stress, and their moments of doubt, confusion, and frustration. But they overcame, and so can we.
We can find in encouragement in God’s Word and its message of courage. Hear Moses’s charge to Israel in the face of the Amorites:
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deut. 31:6)
Likewise, the boldness of the apostles in the chapters following Pentecost (Acts 2–5) should also steel us. For the same power and comfort of the Holy Spirit is available to us today.Our Challenge
Kevin DeYoung reminds us that the ongoing sexual revolution is one of the major challenges of our times:
Profoundly different versions of sexual morality cannot be wished away by civil discourse (though civility is good), nor washed away by theological compromise (that would be bad). “Because the problem of sex is inevitably tied to the problem of Christianity’s relation to the world, it is a tension that will surface during any great readjustment in the relationship between Christianity and the world” (160). In other words, the problem is not going away. Let’s hope the church’s winsome commitment to beauty and truth doesn’t either.
We of this generation are leading Christ’s church, square in the middle of a great readjustment. May we be courageous for the task.
Forget eternal life for a moment. Even with regard to mundane things, I consider myself blessed. I grew up with parents who didn’t divorce, with a dad who never lost his job, in a house from which we never moved. There was a sense of stability and place that I didn’t appreciate until I was grown.
I still live 25 minutes from my childhood home in rural middle Tennessee, where my parents continue to reside. I can walk into a gas station or a bank in my hometown and be almost certain of encountering people who know my name—or at least my father or grandfather’s name. I went through nine years at my local elementary school with a core of about 20 other kids, some of whom I also went to church with and played Little League baseball with.
Community life in small town 1980s Tennessee wasn’t perfect, but it was pleasant—at least in my privileged experience. But 25 years later it’s increasingly rare. It seems that no matter where you turn, you’re confronted with evidence that our society is unraveling. Simply scroll the comments section on YouTube or watch five minutes of cable news, and it’ll confirm any decline narrative imaginable.
But there’s no need to rely on anecdote. For a while now, a growing number of concerned political scientists and other thinkers have been documenting this breakdown of civil society and its resulting loneliness and social pathology: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy, to name a few.
Perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as they seem—at least worldwide (see Hans Rosling’s recent book, Factfulness, for a balancing perspective). But in contemporary America, at least, certain unpleasant trends are hard to deny: rates of suicide and opioid overdose are up, marriage and birth rates are down. Real wages have stagnated, and civil discourse has plummeted. On the religious front, the last few decades have seen a fall in church attendance, accompanied by the rise of the “nones.”
The pressing question for the churches of America is this: How can we faithfully navigate these troubled waters? Jake Meador addresses this question in his debut book, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World. Meador is the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online journal dedicated to Christian cultural commentary. He’s also the vice president of the Davenant Institute, an organization committed to the retrieval of Christian wisdom in early and forgotten Protestant literature. In short, don’t let the “first-time author” thing fool you—he’s well equipped to write a book like this one.
That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with all of his diagnoses or proposals—I certainly didn’t. But it does mean that he’s worth listening to.How We Lost Community—And How We Can Get It Back
In what I regard as the book’s single best chapter (ch. 2), Meador documents the increased loneliness and rootlessness that have resulted from the breakdown of the family and the loss of stable communities. Human beings simply aren’t designed to work this way.
As human creatures, we want to share our lives with other people. We want our lives to have witnesses. And witnessing another person’s life requires more than simply sending them short messages via an electronic device. It requires time. It requires physical presence. It requires affection. (37)
What has gone wrong? Meador’s basic argument is that for the last few centuries, we in the West have been believing the wrong story. It’s what he calls the “modernist story,” America’s “dominant narrative” (46). It’s a narrative of liberty, of the ongoing effort to liberate autonomous individuals from what are thought to be “unjust restraints on their freedom” (50). Unfortunately, the modernist story defines individual freedom in a way that ignores (or denies) our creaturely limits and communal nature, and by doing so “destroys the very things that make freedom possible” (63). And in Meador’s telling, the results have included everything from abortion on demand, transgenderism, and secularization, to climate change, income inequality, and boredom.
The most important political action Christians can engage in is simply practicing ordinary Christian piety.
If we’re to survive and thrive amid this unraveling, Christians must re-embrace an older and better story—a story of human beings created in God’s image to glorify God by loving both him and our neighbors. To be sure, there is great freedom in this story, but it’s a freedom within limits that recognizes the givenness of created things, including human nature, natural law, and our need for community.
Therefore, the most important political action Christians can engage in is simply practicing ordinary Christian piety—practicing the Sabbath, making ourselves at home in the world, and, as much as possible, giving ourselves to good work. (106; see 105–54)
Such a mundane program will remind many of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Despite the overlap, Meador’s book has a much more optimistic feel than Dreher’s. He never advocates political withdrawal, but instead political realignment, outlining a “Christian vision for political life” (160), including concepts like solidarity, sphere sovereignty, and subsidiarity (162–67).
He ends the book with a moving account of the eternal city where heaven and earth will be one, and true community will finally exist untainted in full communion with God. This is the end of the Christian story, and our ultimate hope in our search for the common good.Of Capitalism, Tradeoffs, and Nostalgia
In Search of the Common Good deserves a broad readership. If there’s a downside for Meador, it’s simply that he has set the bar so high with his first book that it’ll be hard to improve on.
But let me register some minor concerns on disputed questions. Almost all of my misgivings boil down to the fact that I have a higher opinion of capitalism than Meador does—or better said, I view it as the worst economic system available, except for all the other ones.
My early reading in economics has left me warmer toward capitalism than Meador is. Moreover, it has left me (perhaps permanently) suspicious of nostalgia—at least for any post-fall good old days. In this regard, Meador’s treatment of “good work” often seemed imbued with what Jay Richards calls the “nirvana myth”—the practice of comparing capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than to its live alternatives. My margins are littered with comments like “Compared to what?”
Meador recognizes that in a fallen world our work will be dogged by frustration (130–31). But he often tends to speak as though the fall (at least for work) didn’t occur until the Industrial Revolution. While occasionally recognizing the imperfections of premodern life (74–75, 90), the overall picture he paints seems idyllic compared to the bleak and alienated nature of modern labor. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize the tradeoffs involved—it’s just that he’s better at pointing out what has been lost (76) than expressing gratitude for what has been gained.
Unlike Meador, I identify with the pastor who told his parishioners, “Who you work for is more important than what you do” (150). No doubt this pastor, like Paul, would encourage low-skill, low-income workers to better their lot where they could (1 Cor. 7:21). But I suspect his main goal was to offer a Master to please rather than a machine to rage against. And lest I be accused of turning religion into an opiate for the downtrodden, let me add that I’m all for finding ways to help low-wage workers—indeed, I suspect that both Meador and I would appreciate some of the ideas of Oren Cass.
But even here, trade-offs must be recognized. Policies that might benefit America’s blue-collar workers (such as trade protections) might adversely affect the poor in the majority world (Christian economists have often argued that free international trade is good for the poor worldwide). I confess I don’t currently have the answer, and my journey away from libertarianism has included a willingness to view free trade along more prudential lines, as I suspect Meador would view it.
But though he focuses mainly on local solutions, it’s clear from his discussion of subsidiarity that he has a place for doing things together on a larger scale that can’t be done well on a small scale—which for him could potentially include a “single-payer health care system” (167). For Christians who say that such “big government” projects go beyond the purposes of government and impinge on property rights, Meador has already argued that “the Christian tradition has unanimously affirmed that property rights are always qualified by the claims of the needy upon them” (99). But eventually Christians are bound to ask whether the claims of the needy should end at the national border, and whether the claims of the majority-world poor should have any bearing our views of national policy, and if not, why not? This concern is commonly voiced by Christians disaffected with the Republican Party under President Trump.
I’m not suggesting a straight line between the Christian story and trade (or immigration) policy. Indeed I’m generally wary of “gospel-centered solutions” to complex public policy questions, as I usually suspect them of being attempts to baptize one’s own political positions. I’m simply saying that there’s more work to be done.
But that kind of intellectual work is painfully slow. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read Jake Meador’s new book.
Leaders know the leadership axiom “words create worlds”—the words we use in our ministries and organizations create the cultures we live and lead in. Sometimes inaccurate and hurtful phrases become so frequently used and so commonly expressed that they should be corrected.
“My truth” is one of those phrases that should be reconsidered. You’ve likely heard “That is my truth,” or “Know your truth.” We should stop saying that phrase. You may have to catch yourself, since it’s one of the phrases that has caught on, one of those phrases people use without even knowing why they’re doing so.
How dare I suggest that someone not speak “their truth”? But what if this is my truth? Shouldn’t I be able to speak my truth? See, your truth (and my truth) may not the be the truth—and that’s not just my truth but the truth.
Here are two reasons to remove the term “my truth” from your vocabulary.1. It’s illogical.
Leaders often insist on “one source of truth” when they analyze and evaluate data and metrics surrounding their work. There’s immense frustration when people show up to meetings with different data because they’re pulling reports from different sources or pulling from their own perceptions. Inevitably someone will say, “This is ridiculous. We need one source of truth.” No wise person in the meeting disagrees. No one suggests, “Let’s just all go back to our work and live our truth.” That would be insane, since one group would be responding to inaccuracies. No, people need to return to their work and their roles responding to the actual truth.
Just because I insist something is true for me doesn’t make it true.
Certainly, there are multiple views or interpretations of truth, but there is one truth. There are multiple ways to express the truth, but there is one truth. Declaring something as “my truth” gives the inaccurate and unhelpful perception that truth is changing, that truth is not a constant and inevitable reality we must reckon with. It does not help people—it hurts them, since it leaves them without anything consistent or trustworthy on which to stand.
Just because I insist something is true for me doesn’t make it true. Plenty of times I’ve believed something as true for me when in reality it was false. No matter how much I believed the tooth fairy was the one putting a few bucks under my pillow, “my truth” was not “the truth.”2. It’s unspiritual.
Maturing as a Christian involves desiring God’s truth, not designing our own.
The desire to cling to “my truth” is not new; it’s as old as Eden. Like Adam and Eve, we can insist it’s our right to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil—to decide what’s right and good and what’s not. And by doing so, we place ourselves in the audacious position of defining truth. But we’re not creators of truth, so we shouldn’t act (or speak) as if we are. As Christians we believe God is the true and faithful One. We should be consumed with him and his truth, not our own.
The Christian faith is liberating, since we don’t have to build our lives on ‘our truth.’
The Christian faith is liberating, since we don’t have to build our lives on “our truth.” Instead, we follow the One who called and proved himself “the truth” (John 14:6). If we know him and cling to his truth, we’re free (John 8:32). We’re free from the pressure of constructing our lives on fragility—our limited experience and limited understanding. We aren’t shackled to self; we’re freed to know Truth himself.‘My Gospel’?
Since I don’t want to be a member of the self-appointed word-police, I’ve tried to find something positive in the phrase. Where can an argument be made for it? In both Romans 2:16 and 2 Timothy 2:8, the apostle Paul calls the good news of Jesus “my gospel.” He was so personally affected by the gospel that he carried it deeply and clung to it tightly.
But unlike “my truth,” the phrase “my gospel” wasn’t about Paul’s ability or self-reliance. He wasn’t declaring a path for himself. He wasn’t differentiating himself from others, as if there were one gospel for him and another for someone else (see Gal. 1:6–9).
To the contrary, Paul viewed himself as a brittle clay jar housing the real treasure—the good news of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:7). Which is how we must view ourselves: fragile and dependent on the Lord of truth. The truth of Jesus is infinitely better and more liberating than the pressure to discover and declare our own.
Over the past several years, I’ve discovered that regularly reading through Proverbs is an immediately useful practice. For one thing, I am brought face-to-face with the sluggard. As I read and linger over passages that speak of the lazy man, my own heart is exposed, and I am convicted of my tendency toward idleness and sloth.
Go to the and, O sluggard;
Consider her ways, and be wise. (Prov. 6:6)
But the Spirit often uses these practical insights to exhort me to renew my commitment, by grace, to redeem the time for Christ’s sake. To help us recognize and repent of our own laziness, here are eight traits of the sluggard. (Warning: he’s probably worse than we think.)1. The Sluggard Will Not Start Things
The sluggard has a difficult time with initiative. He relies on others to tell him what to do (Prov. 6:9), and his verbal output outstrips his actual production (Prov. 14:23). He talks of great plans, but he just can’t seem to put them into action.
He may be distracted by pleasure and entertainment, or he may simply be unwilling to get dirty and work hard. Whatever the case, the sluggard is known for a lack of genuine accomplishment, since he can’t seem to even start things.2. The Sluggard Will Not Finish Things
Even if you have the wherewithal to start something, you may still be a sluggard. Another quality of the lazy man is that he can’t finish things (Prov. 12:27; 19:24; 26:15). Once he gets to work and bumps up against some difficulty or resistance, all motivation vanishes, and the sluggard retreats back into ease.
This is someone who has a growing stack of half-read books on his desk, a host of home projects still awaiting completion, multiple promises to friends and family left unfulfilled, a collection of almost-written articles in the queue, and a gym membership that hasn’t been used since January 2018.3. The Sluggard Will Not Face Hard Things
The sluggard will also refuse to face hard tasks. To mask his laziness, he will find refuge in cowardly excuses like, “There’s a lion outside, I shall be killed in the streets” (Prov. 22:13). Confronted with hard decisions and potentially hard conversations, the sluggard is thrown into indecision, wavering between multiple options, and will turn to entertainment to take his mind off the work before him. Netflix or Fortnite can be the opiate of the sluggard.4. The Sluggard Is Anxious and Restless
Because he is living contrary to the way he was made—to work and build and accomplish and create—the lazy man is constantly restless and full of anxiety. He may long for greater productivity and accomplishment, but because of his unwillingness to work, he will exist in a perpetual state of craving without fulfillment (Prov. 13:4). Eventually, these unfulfilled desires will wreak serious havoc on the sluggard’s life (Prov. 21:25–26).5. The Sluggard Has Constant Trouble
The sluggard’s life is beset by constant trouble (Prov. 15:19). Since he fails to complete his work in the allotted hours, he’s in a constant hurry to fulfill his responsibilities and often annoyed at those around him for taking up all his time.
The sluggard may have financial trouble (Prov. 12:11; 19:15; 20:4; 21:5; 24:33–34) or live in perpetual messiness at home. He may not be able to keep a job for any length of time because of his inability to discipline his time, shun distraction, and work hard. Simple responsibilities like paying bills and maintaining his vehicle will be neglected and cause unnecessary friction.
The sluggard may desire to grow spiritually, but the disciplines of regular Bible reading, prayer, theological and devotional study, church commitment, and consistent gospel relationships are just too much for him to bear.6. The Sluggard Is a Nuisance to Others
Because the lazy person is unwilling to work hard and develop his skills, he has little to offer others. He’s mostly a nuisance to those who might require his service. “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him” (Prov. 10:26).
Unproductive, unfocused, concerned about self more than others, the sluggard drives his employers nuts and won’t survive long in any environment that requires diligence and self-denial. Ultimately, the sluggard is in the same class as a thief and vandal (Prov. 18:9).7. The Sluggard Is Self-Deceived
A sluggard’s commitment to serve self and maintain an idle existence may be so strong that he will oppose any arguments from those who attempt to nudge him out of bed (or away from his computer or phone). The sluggard’s self-deception may manifest itself in grand business proposals that resist outside critique and have little basis in reality.
Slow, consistent accumulation of wealth through steady work habits is unattractive to the sluggard, so unrealistic dreams of quick money may dominate his mind (Prov. 21:5). It’s not uncommon for a sluggard to craft spiritual-sounding excuses for not working hard by appealing to biblical teaching on the necessity of rest, the fact that salvation is not by works, the need for a “balanced life,” the danger of acquiring wealth, and so on.
In every case, the sluggard will walk in and out of conversations with his counselors convinced he is smarter than them all: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly” (Prov. 26:16).8. The Sluggard Won’t Become a Leader
Sadly, because of his laziness, the sluggard will not wield much influence. He certainly won’t become a leader, for leadership requires diligence, sacrifice, long hours, pain, and perseverance.
The sluggard despises these qualities, so he will labor under the supervision of those who have devoted themselves to hard work: “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Prov. 12:24).Good News for Sinful Sluggards
Indulging laziness is contrary to our design as humans and contrary to our calling as Christians. But we can’t draw ourselves out of the morass of inaction by sheer determination. We need God’s grace and a glimpse of Christ revealed in the gospel.
The good news of salvation apart from works motivates us to labor diligently in this brief life on earth for the glory of God, the good of others, and our own benefit. And the energizing Spirit of Christ compels us to sharpen our God-given skills so we might be useful to our King and to our fellow man, to courageously face and complete difficult tasks, and to avoid the unnecessary trouble of laziness.
What just happened?
On Friday the U.S. Supreme Court announced that in its 2020 term it will issue a ruling in June Medical Services v. Gee, the first case involving abortion since the court gained a conservative majority.
What is the case about?
In 2014 Louisiana passed a law requiring doctors who perform abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Currently, there are four abortionists who work at the three abortion clinics in Louisiana. Because only one of the physicians has admitting privileges, the law would prohibit the other three from performing abortions unless they meet the requirement.
Opponents of the law claim it violates the precedent set in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that the states cannot put “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden on the right.” The court struck down a similar Texas law about admitting privileges in the 2016 case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, claiming the restriction provided no health benefits for women seeking abortions.
Why is this case different?
A trial judge initially struck down the Louisiana law, saying it was similar to the state law in Texas that was prohibited by the Whole Woman’s Health decision. But a federal appeals court overturned the ban, saying the Louisiana law had better proof it did not violate the “undue burden” standard. Challengers of the law appealed to the Supreme Court, allowing the case to be considered once again.
The main difference, though, has less to do with the details of the case than with the composition of the court. When Whole Woman’s Health was decided the Supreme Court consisted of five pro-abortion justices. But the retirement of Justice Kennedy and the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh provides a situation in which there may be a shift on the court for allowing more restrictions on abortion.
Can the court use this case to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Technically, five justices could decide to use the case to overturn Roe or related abortion precedents. In reality, there is almost no chance of this case being the one that overthrows the abortion regime established by the Roe case. The prime holdout is likely to be Chief Justice Roberts. Many legal experts think Roberts is likely to believe overturning Roe during an election year would harm the trust the American people have in the court.
Indeed, there is no assurance Roberts will vote to uphold the Louisiana restriction. The chief justice has shown an aversion to overturning precedents, including recent precedents established while he was on the court. This means that even though Roberts voted against the decision in Whole Woman’s Health, he might still decide to treat it as binding precedent. (Earlier this year Roberts joined the four liberal justices in issuing a temporary stay prohibiting the Louisiana law from immediately going into effect after the federal court ruling.)
What would be the best outcome pro-lifers can reasonably expect?
While this case is not likely to lead to the overturning of Roe, it could provide an opportunity to undermine the effect of the unjust precedent. If the court weakens or overturns the “undue burden” standard it could open the gates for states to impose additional restrictions on abortion.
Contrary to what many Americans believe, overturning Roe would not ban abortion. Instead, it would merely allow the individual states to decide what laws about abortion should be put in place within their jurisdiction. Eliminating the “undue burden” standard, however, would have much the same effect. While the states could not impose an outright ban on abortion, lawmakers could continue to add restrictions that would make abortion within their states even less common.
How should Christians think about this news?
Scripture warns us, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3). Yet for the past 46 years pro-life Christians in American have put their trust in the Supreme Court to resolve the injustice of abortion. And for the past 46 years we’ve been frustrated and disappointed when the men and women we’ve trusted have failed to implement full justice for the unborn.
Waiting on the Supreme Court is not enough. Banning abortion in the United States requires convincing our fellow citizens—including too many of our misguided fellow believers—that killing children in the womb is a grave evil.
There are some hopeful signs we are making progress. A recent Gallup poll asked American whether they consider themselves to be pro-choice or pro-life. While slightly more men considered themselves pro-choice rather than pro-life (48 to 46 percent), a majority of women say they are pro-life (51 to 43 percent). Older Americans are also more likely to be pro-life, composing the majority of the age groups in the ranges of 30 to 49 (51 percent), 50 to 64 (54 percent), and 65 and older (56 percent).
Unfortunately, younger Americans identify as pro-choice by a margin of almost two to one (62 percent to 33 percent). A majority of college graduates (57 percent), liberals (76 percent), Democrats (66 percent), those who seldom or never attend religious service (62 percent), as well as those living in the East (52 percent), Midwest (50 percent), and West (50 percent) or in households earning at least $100,000 a year also consider themselves to be pro-choice on abortion.
While we should continue to fight in the courts and legislatures to end the horrific practice of abortion, our most important battle remains getting our neighbors to see how the gospel should change our attitude toward God’s most vulnerable children.
The buzz leading up to the release of Joker has been as bipolar and chaotic as the iconic villain himself. Some critics have praised the Todd Phillips-directed Batman spinoff, which won the top prize and receive an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in August. Others detest the film, for various reasons: it “lionizes and glamorizes” the villain; it’s “an anthem for incels”; “a poisonous story for a fraught time.”
One can imagine the Joker cackling with glee at the chaos this rendering of his story has caused, provoking audiences from every direction. It’s exactly what he’d want. As we fight over Joker’s meaning and get triggered by it in a panoply of ways, the filmmakers are laughing all the way to the bank.
All movies are mirrors, even when we don’t like what we see in it, and even when the movie isn’t particularly thoughtful about how and what it reflects. Joker reflects us, and our cultural moment, in ways we’d do well to consider.Are You Not Entertained?
What does it say about us that a grim, disaster-in-the-making origin story about the world’s most famous comic-book villain will likely be one of the highest-grossing movies of the year? Why do we flock to see the making of a psychopath, with gleeful anticipation for the bloody spectacle we know will conclude the film (and which some people clapped for, quite disturbingly, in the theater where I saw it)?
It’s the same reason why we can’t look away from a fiery car wreck on the highway, or why we are often glued to the TV during the latest terrorist bombing, mass shooting, or natural disaster. It’s why the O. J. Simpson trial and Gulf War basically invented cable news. It’s why the slow devolution on Breaking Bad was utterly captivating to watch. It’s why horror is the most bankable Hollywood genre. Something in us is simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to the macabre, the grotesque, the horrifying.
The first words we hear in Joker are “the news never ends,” and throughout the film the press coverage of Gotham’s crime figures prominently. A shocking act of violence on live television catalyzes the film’s climax, bringing to mind recent films like Christine (2016) and Nightcrawler (2014), which have explored the intersection of media and violence (“if it bleeds, it leads”).
Why are we—dare I say it—entertained by watching destruction and calamity unfold? I include myself in these questions. Why did I find Health Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) both deeply unsettling and kind of cool? When he walks away from the exploding hospital wearing a nurse’s outfit, or wields a bazooka from a speeding semi, audiences delight in his glam-goth style and undeniable showmanship. Certainly there are moments in Joker where Joaquin Phoenix—albeit a more clumsy, nerdy, and less confident Joker—channels that same underworld swagger.
The Joker, like Satan himself, knows that humans are inherently perverse creatures, lured in by spectacle, addicted to novelty, prone to amusing ourselves to death. In this way Joker is the perfect bogeyman for our age, embodying the toxic, corrosive power of an entertainment-obsessed, hyper-mediated society of spectacle.
Joker is the perfect bogeyman for our age, embodying the toxic, corrosive power of an entertainment-obsessed, hyper-mediated society of spectacle.
If we feel gross being “entertained” watching the Joker’s dark descent (and in Joaquin Phoenix’s hands it truly is a captivating spectacle), it’s exactly the feeling Philipps wants to evoke. As we watch the grotesque and oft-repeated slow-mo sequences of this homicidal maniac dancing to Frank Sinatra, we should ask ourselves: Is this what entertains us today? Why?
For Christians especially, the questions seem urgent: Why are portrayals of evil and brokenness so compelling, even “cool”? Could this be one manifestation of our culture’s increased emphasis on the “badge of honor” value of brokenness, relatability, and #nofilter “authenticity”? It’s harder to identify with “good guys” these days, if we even trust that good guys exist. But the fragility and darkness of Arthur Fleck in Joker—now that we can relate to. If it’s even partially true that a transparently broken, “I’m a mess” villain like Fleck is more compelling and identifiable to audiences than a more stable, morally driven hero, then the Joker is truly on us.Why So Serious?
Perhaps the most iconic line from Ledger’s Dark Knight Joker, “Why so serious?” could be asked of Joker, a film that, unlike its comic-book kin, is not very fun at all. Indeed, the film’s bleak aesthetic—a seedy, early 1980s Gotham that invokes Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—fosters a tone of gloom that feels fitting for our cultural moment. But the “why so serious?” question could also be turned on us.
The seething anger and joyless nihilism at the heart of Joker is apt for our “American carnage” moment, is it not? If Joker makes a fetish out of rage and cynicism, it’s only because this is what our media environment does too. If Joker thinks it is more important than it is, “a project drowning in self-seriousness,” it’s only because this is our daily bread on social media: where everyone’s hot take seems (to them) very important, and where every new outrage is of utmost urgency.
Today’s world is constantly angry, everything is politicized, and anything remotely pleasurable is quickly suffocated under the weight of piled-on chastisement and woke deconstruction. Almost anything popular or pleasant will inevitably inspire waves of backlash, then backlashes to the backlash, and so forth. Takes upon takes upon takes. It’s exhausting.
To be sure, entertainment can be culturally astute and “relevant”; certainly there are crucial issues we need art, and criticism, to engage. But Christians especially should fight for the value of joy, pleasure, leisure, enjoyment, beauty—things that are valuable precisely because they’re often irrelevant. A world with no time or space for such things—where everything is a battle, subtext, and commentary—is a world where an abundant, grace-giving, Sabbath-creating God will feel increasingly distant and undesirable.Explaining Away Evil
Speaking of a distant God, this is another way Joker holds up a mirror to our cultural moment. It’s a movie that continues the trend of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films: superhero movies where the supernatural is conspicuously absent. It’s a world where good and evil as transcendent categories don’t exist and thus, as Alissa Wilkinson points out, “the terror of the Joker is curiously defanged.”
Indeed, even in Nolan’s otherwise soul-less Dark Knight universe, Ledger’s Joker is undeniably evil: disturbing because he doesn’t have a backstory; an unstoppable force with no apparent whence or wither, rhyme or reason. But in Joker, Philipps and Phoenix take great pains to explain Joker’s evil. Not to justify or defend it, to be sure, but to situate it within an immanent world where horrific behavior must be the effect of some natural cause.
It’s interesting that earlier this year Phoenix starred as Jesus in the awful Mary Magdalene, a film that grounded Jesus in a thoroughly immanent, disenchanted world, just as Joker grounds its devilish villain in a human and humble context. Playing both sides of the good-and-evil spectrum, Phoenix is certainly interesting to watch; his acting chops are formidable. But to over-nuance evil in Joker is foolish. I’m not even sure Phoenix or Phillips would use the word “sin” to describe what’s going on with Fleck. By giving such a logical, “here’s why he went bad” spin to Joker’s story, the film reflects a society that struggles to know what to do with evil.
As scary as it sometimes is, Joker made me think of the (far scarier) Las Vegas massacre in 2017. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, but the lone perpetrator had no apparent motive. In a secular age, we don’t know what to do with this. It doesn’t make sense. We’re desperate to find containable causes for evil behavior, because the alternative—that our fallen nature means any of us could become a villain too—is for some too unsettling.
There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing that what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.
“Of all the people on the planet, Christians know the arc of redemptive history. We know what’s going to happen at the end. We know of the One who makes all wrongs right. And so it just seems to me that, of all the people on the planet, Christians ought to be the ones who master the language for the in-between world, and that is the language of lament.” — Mark Vroegop
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Singing the Blues as Believers
- Joni Erickson Tada on Finding Jesus in Your Gethsemane
- A Missing Piece in American Worship
- Pastors Must Be Acquainted with Grief
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
If there is one thing that stands at the center of our current political chaos and drives the increasingly unpleasant social rhetoric, it’s surely identity politics. While it’s hard to define this term with precision, it can perhaps be best characterized as the politics that emerges when the traditional foundations of identity (nation, religion, economic class, and family) are either in a state of flux or rapid decline and have been supplanted by other categories (race and sexuality being the two most obvious and influential at this moment in time).
It’s this topic which Mary Eberstadt, senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., addresses in her latest book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Readers of her earlier work will be familiar both with her approach (she is convinced that sexual liberation, particularly as facilitated by the widespread availability of contraception, lies at the heart of modern ills) and also her style (she writes with clarity and without rancor). This book is thus vintage Eberstadt: clearly argued with conviction.
Her basic thesis is simple: The sexual revolution of the 1960s irreparably damaged the traditional family and left people adrift in terms of who they considered themselves to be, and that same sexual revolution then provided key categories by which new identities and new ways of belonging to something larger might be realized. One might recast her argument to say that the sexual revolution created a problem to which it then proposed itself as the solution.
In this sense the book is a response to Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla himself is one of three writers—along with Rod Dreher and Peter Thiel—who offers thoughtful reflections on Eberstadt’s argument at the end, and he concedes the point that his book had only dealt with the supply side of the problem (how the liberal vision had fractured and fragmented) and not with the demand side (why so many young people seem to crave the politics of identity).
Eberstadt’s work isn’t a collection of abstract reflections on the problems she addresses. Her arguments are carefully documented with empirical data and examples. She notes, among other things, the shifting attitude among feminists toward pornography, the ambiguities of the sexual revolution for women, the effect of androgyny, and the rise of public crudity, in each case attempting to trace the problem back to the collapse of the family.Sexual Revolution: Cause or Symptom?
In general, I’m in sympathy with her basic case, but two areas need to be addressed. The first is the fact that the sexual revolution is itself as much a symptom as it is a cause of the modern malaise. At various points in her argument, Eberstadt acknowledges the role of other broader factors that provide the context and much of the driving force behind the sexual revolution. Technology is of critical importance in numerous ways—for example, as Eberstadt notes, in making contraception easily available and also in revolutionizing the consumption and status of pornography.
I would add that it also makes androgyny more plausible—a point Marx and Engels made in the Communist Manifesto when they reflected on the effect of mechanization on industrial labor and which later feminists, notably Simone DeBeauvoir and Shulamith Firestone, both developed in their arguments for feminist liberation. One of the lacunae of Eberstadt’s book is that it doesn’t address the way our material condition shapes the cultural imagination and changes notions of what is plausible and desirable. That wouldn’t be so noticeable if so much weight wasn’t placed on the collapse of the family as the primary cause of identity politics. It’s more complicated than that, as Eberstadt acknowledges, but her acknowledgment seems more like an exercise in throat-clearing than a genuine qualification of the central thesis.
The sexual revolution is itself as much a symptom as it is a cause of the modern malaise.
A further problem that needs to be faced is that the things that conservatives approve in society are often related in complicated and inextricable ways to the things we abominate. The technology that brings cheap abortifacients also brings cheap medicines that heal; the internet that brings us pornography also brings things that most would regard as positives—from the ability to keep in touch with distant friends to the ability to obtain decent British tea in western Pennsylvania (surely a basic foundation of civilized society); and the feminism that brought us Judith Butler and transgenderism also made us aware of how women often have been treated as pieces of property.
Can we have the good without having the bad? Or, to be more nuanced, can we have the good without at least a significant risk of the bad? Eberstadt is careful to resist the narcissistic temptation to make the book a lament, but neither does she point the way forward. How can she when the problems she rightly recognizes and astutely analyzes are themselves not easily separable from other things that do much good?Wanted: Underlying Anthropology
That brings me to my second area of criticism: Eberstadt doesn’t articulate an underlying anthropology that explains the success of the sexual revolution in particular and identity politics in general. She does point to the need that people have to belong, but why is this done through the various idiomatic identities we now have—sex and race? Part of the answer to that is historical, and Eberstadt is good on that.
But another part is anthropological. Whether as an atheist one goes with Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud, or as a Christian with Paul and Augustine, the answer to the current identity chaos is surely that human beings have a deep, dark, and destructive side that takes pleasure in dominating others, however defined, through sexual excess or cultivating feelings of superiority. It’s not just a need to belong that drives us; it’s also the need to assert ourselves, to feel superior, to negate others. Sex and violence have always been the obvious ways to do that, and technology and 300 years of expressive individualism—and the collapse of old forms of identity in their wake—have opened the way for our darker instinct to find public expression and cultural sanction.
This, in turn, goes to the heart of what Nietzsche saw as ressentiment, and it helps to explain why, as the traditional foundations for identity fracture and break apart, these new identities are emerging in the aggressive and snarling manner we now see. Whether we look at sexual politics or racial politics, and however legitimate the original grievances they seek to address, one obvious aim is to invert the old hierarchies in the quest to make “us” feel superior to “them.” The idioms for doing such are historically conditioned; the basic ambition is a function of the human heart.
What we need isn’t simply a sociology of identity but an analysis of the deeper psychological and anthropological dimensions of the human condition. The world of strong nation states, religious observance, and stable families was no Nirvana, as history demonstrates only too well. They too had their therapeutic aspects. The answer isn’t a return to the old ways of doing things; that would simply be to exchange one set of problems for another; it’s to confront what the poet Yeats described as “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”Good and Helpful Book
The above comments should be read as supplemental questions, not as major criticisms of Eberstadt. This is a good and helpful book, and the responses of Dreher and company are thought-provoking and constructive. It’s a good example of intelligent discussion in a world too dominated by the banal self-promotion, casual nastiness, and cheap identity politics of Twitter. And Eberstadt’s choice of “primal scream” is certainly a useful analogy, because it captures the irrational nature and intensity of identity politics.
But it also captures something Eberstadt doesn’t emphasize, yet which is essential to the modern political project: the therapeutic quality of identity politics. Identity politics is therapeutic politics because it allows any self-identified group to blame others for its misfortunes, to see its own weaknesses as a sign of its inherent virtue, and to foster thereby a feeling of innate superiority.
And herein is the truly delightful aspect of Eberstadt’s book: by avoiding the Ciceronian cry of O tempora! O mores! she avoids the trap of making her own analysis a form of therapy for conservatives. Eberstadt’s greatest strength is her consistently calm and compassionate tone. As such, she offers us a model for how political discussion should be pursued in this angry, fractious political age.
A glaring fault line among evangelicals has opened up over whether Christians should support Donald Trump. This divide is raising larger questions: How should evangelicals relate to political power? How can they maintain a prophetic voice? When do they lose their holy distinction and become just another interest group?
On the cusp of another presidential cycle, it’s important for Christians to decide what kinds of power we should seek. To do that, we must explore the concept of power from a biblical worldview.Power Source
Americans traveling in Europe are warned, “Your hairdryer could explode!” The different voltages and outlets make adapters and converters necessary. If a hairdryer explodes, it’s not the foreign power sources’s fault; it’s the fault of the person plugging something into the power source that doesn’t belong.
God has never been in need of power. From the opening chapter of Genesis, he is revealed as self-sufficient and all-powerful. He speaks things into being without prior materials and is the source of life itself. His word upholds the universe. He always accomplishes his will.
Yet while God is all-powerful, those bearing his image struggle to obtain power in many ways. As Christians, we are summoned to serve God and love others, relying on the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish these ultimate aims (1 Cor. 4:20). But we also appropriately exercise power in earthly ways. In a democratic republic, citizens have power to vote for candidates, who are then given the power to govern. Christians can steward this power by wisely participating in voting and government service.
Trouble arises, though, when believers think the best way to meet their ultimate goals is through political power. They know God wants them to live righteous lives, and they want to live in a righteous society. What better way to accomplish this than with government power? But when Christians start relying solely on earthly power, they become willing to make moral compromises to maintain it. Otherwise how can they accomplish God’s will?
When Christians start relying solely on earthly power, they become willing to make moral compromises to maintain it.
But political power is not the power of the gospel. It’s not necessarily the power of God. God always accomplishes his will, and he doesn’t need Christians to morally compromise themselves to do so. Christians need to remember that they ultimately serve God and should avoid becoming too attached to earthly political power.
Nazi Germany is a classic example of the consequences of wedding the church too closely to political regimes. After losing in World War I, Christians in Germany were burdened and anxious due to various political, economic, and social changes. So the Nazi political party in the 1930s sought to soothe the Germans’ political angst. Many Christians were persuaded into linking arms with the power of the Nazis, especially given their claim to uphold “positive Christianity.” Tragically, time would soon expose this claim as counterfeit; it offered nothing to Christ and instead sacrificed millions of lives on the altar of Aryan supremacy.
These German Christians tried to bring about kingdom goals through earthly political power—and they wound up morally compromising in horrific ways.
When we try to plug the kingdom into an earthly political outlet, it doesn’t work. It might even explode.Influence vs. Witness: Choose Wisely
When we consider the pomp and influence of celebrities—especially political figures—Jesus’s sojourn on earth is strikingly ordinary. The God-man lived in obscurity with little influence or power for most of his life. But John 6 recounts Jesus feeding a great multitude, after which his reputation picks up momentum:
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:14–15)
The scene is set. Jesus can become a king, challenge the reigning political powers, and launch this crowd into political insurrection. And yet, he exits stage left.
Jesus withdraws because the people want him to topple the present political administration. But he knows he must first wash feet. Though thousands now rally behind him, Jesus knows many of these men and women will soon become the mob screaming, “Crucify him!” While the people want to make him the elite of society, Jesus stubbornly identifies with the poor and downtrodden.
If we sacrifice witness for influence, we may get an earthly king, but we will lose the Savior. Yet if we sacrifice influence to maintain our witness, our witness becomes all the stronger, for it can only be explained by the power of God in our lives.
For contemporary Christians, following Jesus’s example doesn’t mean pulling away from political engagement, nor forfeiting opportunities to promote truth and justice. Following him does, however, mean submitting our desire for political power to the Christian mandate to bear witness to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36).
If we sacrifice witness for influence, we may get an earthly king, but we will lose the Savior. Yet if we sacrifice influence to maintain our witness, our witness becomes all the stronger, for it can only be explained by the power of God in our lives.Oval Office Isn’t the Throne
If evangelicalism in America wants to maintain its witness to the kingdom of a crucified Messiah, then the power of the gospel—not clamoring after power in the White House—must define its future. This gospel power both testifies to Jesus’s promise that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matt. 20:16) and also validates Paul’s claim that God makes Christians strong in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9–11). Evangelical power is impotent if it fails to draw from the deep well of Holy Spirit strength that has sustained the church global for 2,000 years. The power of the Spirit often has subverted existing empires, all while energizing God’s people to seek the common good (Jer. 29:7).
No matter who wins next year, American Christians will experience various emotions after the 2020 election: disappointment, shock, and celebration, for starters. It’s likely many will proffer the cliché “God still sits on the throne” in the aftermath. Although true, considering the past three years and the current political climate, it might be more appropriate for Christians to tell each other in 2020 that God will never sit in the Oval Office, though he will judge whomever is there.
“I’m sorry,” I remember my dad saying. “I’m sorry, and I love you.”
He didn’t say what he was sorry for. He didn’t mention the hand-shaped bruises aching up and down my small 11-year-old body. He didn’t seem to understand how afraid and devastated I’d been. But that was the first time I’d ever heard my dad say sorry, and the relief it brought felt like rain after a drought.
In the back of my mind, a little voice said, Don’t trust this. He’s only apologizing because Mom threatened to tell Pastor Jim if he didn’t. I shoved that voice down. I smothered my doubts. I had prayed for so long that Dad would change. I had tried to be a good daughter who reminded him of Jesus.
His apology, however vague, was hope and a sign that God was working. Or was it?Cruelty of False Repentance
Around a decade would pass before I’d hear my dad apologize again. Initially, I didn’t assume sincerity. By that time, I’d already blown the whistle. I’d told our pastor everything. Dad was under church discipline. His marriage was imploding. He had nothing to gain by lying, did he?
And then something strange happened. As I began sharing my story with pastors, family, and friends, my dad would admit and apologize for things he’d done, but then weeks or even days later, claim he didn’t remember any of it. He’d say he didn’t recall beating me, throwing me down on the stairs, or even his recent apologies for those events. He didn’t remember his sexual comments, throwing a knife at me, or threatening to shoot me. He’d apologize, then retract. Remember, then claim to forget. Back and forth this went for maybe a year, until I felt like I was losing my mind.
“I don’t know what to think,” I told him over the phone one day. Huddled on the kitchen floor, I spoke between sobs. “I can believe either you’re crazy and didn’t know what you were doing, or you’re evil and you understood completely.”
“I’m not crazy,” he replied calmly. “You’re just going to have to accept that I’m evil.”Analyzing Repentance
I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with unrepentant people: multiple abusers spanning two decades of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. All of this was reinforced and compounded by psychological abuse, which continued well into my 30s. Because of my background, I’ve accrued some practical wisdom. Because of my faith, I’ve turned to the Bible for guidance when distinguishing real from fake repentance.
There are stubborn sinners who refuse to apologize, liars who claim to be sorry when they’re not, and hypocrites who may truly believe they’re sorry yet lack sympathy or understanding of biblical repentance. So what are the attributes of genuine repentance? Here are eight signs I’ve gleaned, from life and from God’s Word.1. A Repentant Person Is Appalled by Sin
Horrified by what they’ve done, they’ll humble themselves, grieve the pain they’ve caused, and be cut to the heart in their conviction. As the prophet mourned in Isaiah 6:5, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”2. They Make Amends
In Luke 19:1–10, we read the story of Zacchaeus and the generosity he demonstrated as part of his repentance. A tax collector, thief, and oppressor of God’s people, Zacchaeus made amends: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (v. 8). And Jesus confirmed the authenticity of Zacchaeus’s repentance: “Today salvation has come to this house” (v. 9).3. They Accept Consequences
A genuinely repentant person will accept consequences. These may include losing the trust of others, relinquishing a position of authority, or submitting to worldly authorities such as law enforcement. When the thief on the cross repented, he said to his companion, “Do you not fear God? . . . We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:40–41). And Jesus commended his repentance by assuring him of his salvation: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).4. They Don’t Expect or Demand Forgiveness
Often I’ve been told by my abuser, “If you don’t forgive me, God won’t forgive you.” But this threatening posture indicates insincere repentance. It’s unloving, manipulative, and implies the offender doesn’t accept or comprehend the gravity of what they’ve done. When Jacob approached Esau and repented, he didn’t expect mercy, let alone compassion. In Genesis 32, we read he felt “great fear” and “distress” (v. 7). He anticipated an attack (v. 11) and considered himself unworthy of kindness (v. 10). In fact, so certain was Jacob of retribution that he separated his wives, children, and servants from him, lest Esau’s anger fall on them too.5. They Feel the Depth of the Pain They’ve Caused
A repentant person won’t try to minimize, downplay, or excuse what they’ve done. They won’t point to all their good works as if those actions somehow outweigh or cancel out the bad. They’ll view even their “righteous acts” as “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). They won’t shame the offended party for being hurt or angry. They won’t blame their victims or other people for making them sin. Rather, they’ll take responsibility, acknowledge the damage they’ve done, and express remorse.6. They Change Their Behavior
A truly repentant person will realize they need God to sanctify their heart. They’ll proactively work to change their behavior and take steps to avoid sin and temptation. That may mean seeing a counselor, going to rehab, or asking friends, pastors, or law enforcement to give them oversight and hold them accountable. Consider the stark contrast between the church persecutor Saul before salvation and after. Acts 9 tells us that even though some Christians were understandably hesitant to trust him, his character had already altered dramatically.7. They Grant Space to Heal
The fruit of the Spirit includes patience, kindness, grace, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). A truly repentant person will demonstrate these consistently. They won’t feel entitled to trust or acceptance; rather, they’ll be humble, unassuming, and willing to sacrifice their own wants and needs for the benefit of the injured party. They won’t pressure us to hurry up and “get over it” or “move on.” Rather, they’ll understand our distrust, acknowledge our grief, and honor the boundaries we’ve requested.
As an abuser, they loved their sin more than they loved you. As a repentant sinner, they should love you more than their sin and pride.
As an abuser, they loved their sin more than they loved you. As a repentant sinner, they should love you more than their sin and pride.8. They’re Awestruck by Forgiveness
If a person feels entitled to forgiveness, they don’t value forgiveness. When Jacob received Esau’s forgiveness, he was so astounded he wept: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God, for you have received me favorably” (Gen. 30:10). Jacob realized that forgiveness is divine miracle, a picture of the Messiah, and a sign of the Lord’s mercy. Though Jacob and Esau hadn’t spoken for 40 years, Jacob knew God had enabled Esau, by grace, to forgive him.Repentance and Forgiveness Are from God
When these eight signs of repentance are authentically present, we are blessed. Our offender has forsaken evil, and the God of peace is glorified. But what do we do when these signs are not present? What do we do when someone lies about being sorry to avoid consequences, or uses our goodwill as an opportunity to hurt us again?
For more than three decades, I begged God to call my abusive dad to repentance. Instead, like Pharaoh, his heart only hardened. His pretenses at change turned out to be a strategy he used to enable his wickedness. My own love and trust were weaponized to betray me.
Eventually, I had to accept that my dad didn’t want to get better. And no matter how much I loved him and wanted him to repent, change, be a good dad, love me, and love Jesus, salvation is God’s work, and I couldn’t fix my dad. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for a person is to not let them hurt us any longer.
We are excited to partner with The Good Book Company in sending* a free copy of a new book to the next 250 people who register for The Gospel Coalition 2020 Women’s Conference!
His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God, invites women to delight in the richness of God’s Word. Sharing from personal experiences and unpacking the depths of Psalm 119, this devotional by faithful women from various ethnic backgrounds reminds us that while no one human voice is the same—God’s transformative power reaches and meets people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Edited by Kristie Anyabwile and including contributions from other TGCW20 conference speakers, Jackie Hill Perry, Quina Aragon, Trillia Newbell, K.A. Ellis, Jasmine Holmes, Jeany Jun, Kori Porter, Dennae Pierre, and Shar Walker, we hope this book will encourage you in the Word of God.
Read what others have said about His Testimonies, My Heritage:
“Reading this psalm through the eyes of these sisters is a beautiful thing and will help you see things in the holy word that you likely will never have seen before. His Testimonies, My Heritage is like no other devotional on the Psalms!” (J.D. Greear, President, The Southern Baptist Convention)
“If your soul is weary and your heart in need of refreshment, take a drink from the wisdom found in His Testimonies My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God. These women write with insight, beauty, and a deep love of the Word of God. Each devotional will help you mine the riches of Psalm 119 as you remember and reflect upon the beauty of God’s Word.” (Melissa Kruger, Director of Women’s Content, The Gospel Coalition)
“This is a celebration of the good news of the gospel and the word of God that reveals it to us. Each beautiful devotional reading is written by a sister of color who gives a unique voice to the story that God has written in and through her for the building up of the church. I’m grateful for this special and timely collection.” (Ruth Chou Simons, Founder, GraceLaced.com)
Register now for TGCW20, and receive a free copy of this book!
You can also purchase a copy of this new book at the TGC bookstore.
*Free book is only available to be shipped to US mailing addresses.
As church planters, we should make it our prayer to be able to say with Paul, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself. If only, I may finish my course in the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
We’ve all received this ministry from the Lord Jesus: to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. And sometimes testifying to God’s great gospel means leaving the church we planted, led, and poured ourselves into. Naturally, this can be painful, but it’s worth it for the sake of God’s glory among the lost. Seeing new churches established, and seeing existing churches revitalized, is a beautiful thing.
But how do we actually do this? And how do we know if it’s indeed right to leave one church in order to either plant another or lead an existing one? Today, I’m excited to have Harvey Turner with me on the podcast. Harvey has recently done this himself. He left the church he planted and led for about 20 years in order to lead Redeemer Burbank, and he did this in his 40s.
Suppose a judge threatens to suspend the license of a driver with numerous offenses. The driver is then pulled over again, so his license is suspended. It would be foolish to think the judge gave the warning simply to lure the driver into committing another infraction. The suspension is the result of repeated offenses.
So it is with God.
God judges sin in this life for the purpose of repentance (Ezek. 18:23–32; Heb. 12:10). This judgment is not vindictive—he doesn’t do it to entice us to sin more. He does it because he loves us.
Pondering God as Judge is helpful for comprehending the story of Saul and the evil spirit in 1 Samuel 16–19. An immediate question arises after reading it: Did God send an evil spirit to lure Saul into attempting to murder David (1 Sam. 18:10–11; 19:9–10)? Did a vindictive God tempt Saul to sin, or did Israel’s first king choose to attempt murder?
At first glance, it may appear that God set up Saul for failure by sending the evil spirit. When this passage is read in light of James 1:13, however, it is clear that God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin.
So how can 1 Samuel 16–19 be reconciled with James 1:13? Two main points emerge from the story of Saul and the evil spirit.1. God Sent an Evil Spirit on Saul
The beginning of Saul’s reign gives the impression he was the right choice as king. He showed great promise. He led the military in several key victories (1 Sam. 11; 13:1–4; 14:16–23) and exercised wisdom and mercy (1 Sam. 11:12–13).
Yet two events during his reign show that all was not well.
First, Saul took it upon himself to offer a burnt offering while he and the army waited on Samuel (1 Sam. 13:5–14). The prophet rebuked Saul’s failure to obey God, and insisted the Lord already had chosen another king after his own heart.
And then, two chapters later, Saul failed to obey God’s command to fully wipe out the Amalekites. Again, Samuel rebuked him for misunderstanding God’s requirement, for being rebellious and insubordinate, for rejecting God’s Word. Sure enough, the Lord revoked the kingdom from Saul (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:23), removed his Spirit from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14), and sent an evil spirit upon him (1 Sam. 16:14). God wasn’t tempting Saul with the evil spirit; he sent it as an act of judgment in response to Saul’s stubborn rebellion.
Scripture plainly teaches that God uses the entire spiritual world for his purposes (Judg. 9:23; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1; Luke 22:31). We can confidently say, then, that God sent the evil spirit to judge Saul’s persistent disobedience.
But Saul found grace and mercy from God’s wrath through David’s music (1 Sam. 16:23). God’s kindness to Saul was designed to lead him to repentance (Rom. 2:4), but that raises another question: If God sent the evil spirit, how is Saul responsible for trying to kill David? After all, no one can resist God.2. Saul Is Responsible for His Choices
Saul was not like a rudderless ship being tossed about by the whims of the sea; he was an active player in the events of his life. He made two key decisions in 1 Samuel 16–19 that show he was responsible for trying to kill David.
Saul chose to keep David around the palace to play the harp. Any time the evil spirit terrorized Saul, David played his harp and refreshed Saul (1 Sam. 16:23). By summoning David to play music, Saul accepted David’s ministry. What’s more, Saul, the rejected king, accepted the grace and mercy God provided through his chosen servant, David.
But Saul chose to be jealous of David’s success and to be suspicious of his intentions (1 Sam. 18:8–9). Because God was with David, he succeeded under Saul: He became the king’s armor bearer (1 Sam. 16:21), he killed Goliath (1 Sam. 17), and he rose to the rank of platoon leader over the men of war (1 Sam. 18:5).
David’s success and the love the people had for him—including how the women sang his praises—didn’t sit well with Saul (1 Sam. 18:7–8). He eyed David with suspicion from that day on. Saul chose to harbor jealousy and suspicion, and this led him to plot to murder David.
Saul threw a spear at David twice, both during times when the evil spirit was upon him (1 Sam. 18:10; 19:9). David’s music—God’s gracious gift—no longer refreshed him; he simply gave himself over to his own evil desires. The words of James 3:16 were true of Saul: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”How Should We Preach It?
Though the fruit of Saul’s life indicates that he was not a believer, his life offers application for both believers and also unbelievers.
In preaching Saul and the evil spirit, pastors should remind people that God is not vindictive. He does not tempt people to sin. James says we are tempted when we are enticed by our own evil desires (James 1:14). God judges everyone according to his or her actions—not arbitrarily, but for the purpose of repentance (Ezek. 18:23, 32; Rom. 2:5–11; Heb. 12:10). He does this because he loves us.
In this fallen world, a judge may issue a ruling too swiftly or harshly, but Judge of heaven is enormously patient. Saul was judged only after he’d demonstrated that his heart was unbendingly disobedient. Yes, God’s patience can expire (Ps. 103:9; 2 Pet. 3:8–10), but even in judgment he extends mercy to believers and unbelievers so they will repent (Rom. 2:4). Sadly, though, Saul persisted in unrepentant unbelief and rebellion until death (1 Sam. 31).
Although the believer’s salvation is secure, we aren’t immune from temptation, nor from the consequences of sin (1 Cor. 3:3; James 4:1). Just as Saul had recourse against the evil spirit through the anointed David, the believer has recourse against indwelling sin through God’s Word and prayer. For the unbeliever, God’s wrath against unbelief and rebellion (Rom. 1:24; 2:8) is satisfied through repentant trust in God’s Anointed, Jesus Christ.
Our God is not a vindictive judge who tempts and destroys those who disobey him. He is just and merciful, desiring that all should repent and live (1 Tim. 2:4).
For many years I wondered why Paul called preaching “foolishness” in 1 Corinthians 1:21. Preaching is the glorious means by which the Spirit saves and sanctifies sinners, the method by which the Lord builds his church. So how could he refer to it as folly?
After preaching for a couple of decades now, I’ve come to understand Paul’s paradoxical descriptor a bit better. I think he refers to the “foolishness of preaching” because the world sees it precisely that way. No surprise there.
Here’s what is surprising: Christians have sometimes viewed preaching the same way—as foolishness that should be abolished. The reformers fought to recover preaching as the central act of Christian worship after centuries of sacerdotalism in the Roman Church. In more recent years, other sermon substitutes have been suggested in Lord’s Day worship: drama, storytelling, music, interviews, art, videos and other new technology, the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper (again), and more.
I think C. S. Lewis lands close to the answer in The Screwtape Letters when Uncle Screwtape gives the young tempter, Wormwood, an ingenious strategy for distracting believers: Use their penchant for boredom against them.
Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. . . . Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.
Christians are easily bored. We tend to lose confidence quickly in methods that don’t produce quick, measurable results. Thus church history is, in part, a narrative of orthodoxy contending with theological and methodological novelty for first place in believing hearts. And often, the devilish activity focuses on messing with the preached Word.
Surely a man standing before a gathered group, preaching the Bible for 30 minutes to an hour each week, cannot accomplish much, we’re told. But therein lies the foolishness: a steady diet of Christ-centered, Scripture-saturated expositional preaching is exactly what sinners need to become more and more like Jesus. It may not look like much, but it’s everything.
And it should remain the centerpiece of corporate worship for at least three reasons.1. The Bible bristles with preaching and preachers.
Preaching is the overwhelming witness of Scripture as the means of communicating the words of God. If Scripture is the church’s regulating principle—and most Christians throughout the history of the church have believed it is—then this is really the only reason we need for keeping Sunday mornings sermon-centric.
Moses preached God’s Word to God’s people, giving two lengthy expositions/exhortations in Deuteronomy on Israel’s covenant obligations. Ezra, in Nehemiah 8, took up the Torah and led Israel in “reading from the Law of God clearly, and gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). He read and taught the Word before the assembled people, who “answered ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:6). God’s Word drove worship.
Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all in Matthew 5–7. Peter and Paul thundered forth with some of the most powerful sermons in history as recorded in Acts. The church was birthed in Acts 2 through gospel proclamation. And then there’s Paul’s charge to Timothy, a timeless admonition for all preachers: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones summarized the point well: “The primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God.” Scripture makes this view plain. So the real question the church must answer here is, “Has God really said?”2. The preached Word is God’s ordained agent of transformation.
God has ordained the preached Word, working in unison with the Holy Spirit, as the method by which he turns mortal enemies into adopted sons. In Romans 10, Paul asks, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” He answers: “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (v. 17). How then is the Word of Christ to be proclaimed? By the foolishness of preaching on the lips of weak clay pots known as preachers. Yes, we are weak, but he is strong, and God’s work done God’s way brings him glory: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
One of the most powerful illustrations of the creating power of God’s Word is located in Ezekiel 37, where God tells the prophet to speak to the dry bones so they will live: “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (Ezek. 37:4). Immediately the bones come together. God breathes into the formerly dead, and “they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” His proclaimed Word brings life—saving and sanctifying life—where formerly there was only death.
Yes, we’ve become a visual culture, but Christianity is a verbal faith. Don’t let the visual eat up the verbal.
The preached Word has always been God’s agent of awakening. The Reformation recovered the centrality of preaching in worship; it didn’t invent it. The early church featured powerful preaching through men like Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and Athanasius. And later, preaching spawned the First and Second Great Awakenings through Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, along with scores of lesser-known men.
As technology has improved, the call for alternatives to preaching has seemingly grown louder. But technology has always served gospel proclamation; it hasn’t replaced it. Would anyone argue that Gutenberg’s printing press was anything less than a massive revival for the preached Word? Radio took the sound of preaching to the masses. Television brought it into our living rooms. There are a wealth of sermons and edifying resources available on the internet, and I’m grateful for the way God’s used them to stir up a love for sound doctrine in so many. Nevertheless, preaching remains the central act of Christian worship.
Technology will change again and again. If we replace preaching to “keep up with the times,” then our worship will, by necessity, always be changing. But Scripture never permits us to make that change.3. The otherworldly nature of the church is seen clearly in preaching.
God calls his church to be unlike the world. The world should never be able to explain the church. We gather on Sundays from every conceivable socioeconomic background, race, region, country—black, white, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, tall, short, athletic, non-athletic, rural, urban, suburban. And we gather to hear a book proclaimed that was written thousands of years ago. All of God’s “ordinary” means of grace are countercultural, and preaching is no exception. He designed it this way so he alone would get the praise.
To say we should dump preaching in favor or drama, video, discussion, music, or anything else is to misunderstand the nature of the church and her work. In bringing us into his church, God calls us out of ourselves. Statistics show that the average American adult spends 10 hours a day connected to media; are churches wise to accommodate that trend? Wouldn’t it be better to call us away from our smartphones and tablets for two hours each week (out of 168) to hear a word from the Lord?
Genuine Christian worship is not an experience that can be simulated (or replaced) by any manmade thing, no matter how ingenious. Yes, we’ve become a visual culture, but Christianity is a verbal faith, so we must not let the visual eat up the verbal.Preach the Word
I trust that those calling for the abolition of preaching mean well, but to say preaching needs replacing strikes me as more audience-driven than Word-driven. To say preaching is outmoded seems to deny the deepest need of the human heart—rescue from sin and self—and to affirm the primacy of felt needs and preferences. To argue that mediocre preachers should be replaced by slicker, savvier communicators, or something better and perhaps stronger, is to forget that God’s strength flows through the unlikely conduit of human weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).
As Screwtape told his nephew, we are easily horrified by the Same Old Thing—unless that thing centers on us. The Jews of Paul’s day demanded signs and the Greeks clamored for wisdom, but Paul gave them what they really needed:
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:23–25)
Sinners have always needed transformation through God’s Word faithfully proclaimed. That hasn’t changed. And Scripture itself makes this priority number-one for the gathered church. Why would we dare give God’s people anything else?
These days, Playboy is playing defense.
NPR recently interviewed Shane Michael Singh, the magazine’s executive editor, about why Playboy’s blatant objectification of women is justifiable in the #MeToo era. Singh outlined Playboy’s latest strategies for improving its image: hire women photographers instead of men, interview social pioneers of LGBTQ rights instead of flashy A-list celebrities, put “intimacy coaches” at photoshoots to make models more comfortable, increase male nudity to level the playing field, and the list went on.
Predictably, there was no mention of the destructive nature of pornography itself. Or the fact that, regardless of how well models are treated on set, their naked images are then peddled for profit.
As believers in Jesus, how should we respond? Our reflexes to cultural conversations like this reveal what we really believe about God, his posture toward sinners, and his mandate for the church. Too often we’re quick to rant—Bible verses and all—but slow to pray. In light of Playboy’s rebrand, and things like it facing us daily, here are five things to pray for that will help to align our responses to the gospel.1. Lord, save us from ourselves.
Playboy’s rebrand reminds us that humans rarely diagnose the real source of our problems correctly. Our solutions are as fractured as we are.
For example, when asked how Playboy justifies degrading women, Singh points to the production process and branding as the problem, not the pornographic product and the market hunger for it.
The faultiness of Playboy’s solutions are also seen in their appeal to the #MeToo movement. The positives of this movement are evident—exposing sexual abuse, pursuing justice, empowering victims to break their silence. Yet, like all human movements, #MeToo is a dull blade, powerless to cut to the core of our culture’s sickness. What the movement gains by defending women, it demeans by celebrating sexual autonomy.
Human-made reform is always polluted. Our best efforts at justice and truth are marred by the fall. As Cornelius Plantinga observes, “Evil contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it.” Only the regenerating power of the Spirit produces lasting change in us or through us. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is our only hope for subverting the hollow philosophies and deceptions of our time.2. How long, O Lord?
Playboy’s latest PR gymnastics naturally produce in us anger and lament.
It’s right to be angry. Pawning off people’s bodies for money, under the guise of art and social justice, is wrong. It’s also right to lament. Playboy is promising sexual freedom but delivering sexual slavery. We weep for those wasting away as they chase pornography’s false promises. We cry out for those working in the industry, especially those mistreated and robbed of their dignity as God’s image-bearers.
With the Old Testament prophet (Hab. 1:2) and psalmist (Ps. 35:17), we pray, How long, O Lord? Sometimes the world is so dark, our exhausted souls can do nothing but utter these words. We long for the reckoning, when perfect justice reigns and the fullness of the kingdom invades every last crevice on earth.3. Lord, have mercy.
Praying for Playboy might sound like an oxymoron. But should it? Perhaps we’ve become numb to Jesus’s command in the Sermon on the Mount, to pray for our enemies. In the same passage Jesus also says to love them—maybe because we often end up loving those we pray for (Matt. 5:43–44).
Jesus also says: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy (Matt. 5:7). Which do we desire more for our enemies: mercy or judgment? When we adopt anger and indignation as our primary response, compassion for the lost is choked out. If Jesus can both critique and love, so must we.
While it may be helpful to call someone out on Twitter using your thumbs, it’s probably far more helpful to cry out to God for them on your knees. It’s easy to signal you’re on the right team, but it takes humility to pray for the other team.
While it may be helpful to call someone out on Twitter using your thumbs, it’s probably far more helpful to cry out to God for them on your knees.
It’s not easy to juggle anger, lament, and compassion, but it’s a skill the gospel demands. The same Paul who called the Galatians fools, and told the Judaizers to emasculate themselves (Gal. 3:1; 5:12), couldn’t talk about the lost without tears (Phil. 3:18–19).
It’s inappropriate that the church, comprising undeserving recipients of extravagant grace, would hoard compassion from those perishing. In The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer writes about our posture toward the lost:
Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously . . . these men are dying while they live; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
Rather than flippancy toward the lost, let’s be defined by compassionate intercession on their behalf.4. Lord, where is my sin hiding in this mess?
In our polarized culture, it’s instinctive for Christians to want to defend themselves. There’s certainly a time to speak against the false narratives surrounding us (see below). But our quest to defend truth can quickly become petty and self-righteous.
David Brooks calls this the “siege mentality.” He thoughtfully observes:
It gives its proponents a straightforward way to interpret the world—the noble us versus the powerful them. . . . Most of all, it gives people a narrative to express their own superiority: we may be losing, but at least we are the holy remnant. We have the innocence of victimhood. We are martyrs in a spiteful world.
This sort of superiority is unfitting for the church, because the more we embrace Christ, the more we realize our ongoing need for grace, forgiveness, and reform. If we take this seriously, every morbid headline is a reminder, not only of the world’s waywardness, but our own. Were it not for God’s intervention, we’d still be children of wrath (Eph 2:1–3).
Resurrected hearts beat with thankfulness, not superiority. Our past doesn’t define us—it perpetually humbles us. As we critique Playboy, then, let’s ask God to show us how we perpetrate the same sins we oppose. Let’s pray for the humility to repent of our share in the mess.
Let’s ask God to show us how we perpetrate the same sins we oppose. Let’s pray for the humility to repent of our share in the mess.5. Lord, give me the right words.
Words demand the sort of intentionality that 280 characters rarely provide. Given that the tongue is powerful (James 3:3–5), potentially destructive (James 3:5–12), and has a lasting effect on nonbelievers (Col. 4:5–6), here are a few ways we can ask God to help form our speech:
Direct words: At times God prompts us to make direct, unapologetic statements critiquing our culture. Pray for wisdom and accountability when crafting such remarks.
Winsome words: Since the Bible calls us to be ready to explain the hope we have in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15), let’s pray for winsomeness in cultural conversations. As a good chef focuses not just on ingredients but also on presentation, let’s present the gospel’s sweetness thoughtfully, not clumsily.
Localized words: At a time when communication is increasingly impersonal and less face-to-face, a recovery of incarnational conversation is desperately needed. Our job isn’t just to text or tweet; it’s to show up in person. It takes courage; pray God will grant it to you.
In our responses to Playboy’s latest strategies, let’s refuse to be pigeonholed into anger without compassion, critique without repentance, or bluntness without winsomeness. Let’s run after Jesus, who opposed the wicked work of his enemies, yet prayed for them while suffocating on the cross.
This week China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. “There is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation,” said China President Xi Jinping, as he stood at the gate of Tiananmen Square. “No force will be able to stop the steady march forward of the Chinese people and Chinese nation.”
Here are nine things you should know about the communist state and its historic opposition and suppression of the Christian faith:
1. After achieving victory in the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China as a Communist state and officially declared the country to be atheist. In 1958, Mao launched an economic and social campaign called the Great Leap Forward, which was intended to rapidly transform the agrarian country from into an industrialized socialist nation. The attempts to collectivize farming led to food shortages and the largest famine in history. During the three-year period of 1959 and 1961, between 15 million and 45 million Chinese died. Because of this policy failure, Mao’s influence in the Communist Party began to wane. He launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, in part to reassert his power and prestige within the party and the country.
2. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution is traced to May 16, 1966, when Mao issued a document that included “indictments” against his political foes. In what has become known as the “May 16 notification,” Mao claimed, “Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists.” Later that year the Communist Party issued the “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which outlined the chairman’s goals of eliminating education and religion, the main threats to Mao Zedong Thought. During the Cultural Revolution, notes Eleanor Albert of the Council of Foreign Relations, “places of worship were demolished, closed, or reappropriated and religious practices were banned.”
3. After Mao died in 1976 his successor, Deng Xiaoping, instituted reforms and reopened the country to outside influences. By 1980, the total number of Christians had risen to 4 million, and began to grow rapidly, due largely to rural “house churches.” Since then the estimated number of Christians in the country has grown at a rate of 10 percent per year. “In the post-Mao era, there has indeed been an explosive growth in Christianity, particularly in Protestants,” said Xi Lian, professor of Christianity at Duke University. “Its belief system has been able to compete favorably with Communist ideology.”
4. The communist government claims to guarantee freedom of religion. As the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China of 1982 states:
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
Yet as Cathy Sun writes in Harvard Political Review, “The term ‘normal,’ however, is ambiguous and leaves room for broad interpretation. In practice, the CCP has exploited this leeway to implement extreme measures of control and attack religious communities threatening its power.” Sun adds, “At its core, China’s rigid political system can only derive legitimacy from continuously relying on instruments of repression, which is why it fundamentally opposes religious freedom.”
5. By law the Communist state requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is a state-sanctioned Protestant body for the organization of all Protestant churches in China. The organization was created in 1951 to promote a strategy of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation,” to remove foreign influences from Chinese churches, and to profess the member church’s loyalty to the Communist government. For churches registered with TSPM, the government pays for many of their buildings and funds the education of its pastors. Because of its alignment with the Communist Party and its promotion of liberal theology, many congregations in China refuse to join the TPSM. Those that refuse to join are often referred to as underground or house churches.
6. In 1971 the Communist government implemented a one-child policy in the country. In 2013—two years before officially ending the policy, the Chinese Health Ministry reported that over the four decades 336 million abortions were performed—the largest single slaughter of human beings in the history of the world. To put that number in perspective, the 336 million deaths in China were more than all the people killed in the 10 ten deadliest wars in human history. [Based on highest estimates (in millions): World War II (72), World War I (65), Mongol Conquest (60), An Lushan Rebellion (36), Taiping Rebellion (30), Qing Dynasty conquest of the Ming Dynasty (25), Conquests of Timur (20), Dungan Revolt (12), Russian Civil War (9), Second Congo War (5.4)].
7. In 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that as a Christian in China, your Bible may have been rewritten by the Chinese government, your church shuttered or demolished, and your pastor imprisoned. In an ongoing effort to “sinicize” religious belief (i.e., make religious belief Chinese in character), the communist Chinese government arrested more than 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders. The government also continued its persecution by closing down or demolishing thousands of churches.
8. The number of Protestant Christians in China has grown from 1 million in 1949, the year the Communist Party came to power, to more than 49 million in 2010. Experts believe that number could more than triple over the next generation, and by 2030 the People’s Republic of China, which still remains officially atheist, could have more churchgoers than America does.
9. While the Communist Party attempts to suppress the Word of God, the country has also become the world’s biggest publisher and exporter of Scripture. China’s only legal printer of Bibles, Amity Printing Company, published its first Bible in cooperation with the United Bible Societies (UBS) in 1987. As of 2018, 80 million copies of the Bible have been printed for the church in China, while 100 million copies have been printed for overseas churches. Currently, China is producing 20 million copies a year—an average of one copy of the Bible every second.
“Pastor, I don’t care what that book says, that’s not how we do things here!”
I’ll never forget these words directed at the Bible in my hand. Five years later, I can still recall nearly every detail of that ill-fated business meeting.
In the year leading up to that night, I was encouraged by many to stay the course, but now there was no consensus on what to do. The following Sunday—rightly or wrongly—I resigned. In an instant I was no longer a pastor. In some ways the move brought relief, but I was also overwhelmed with grief.
Immediately my thoughts turned to what to do next. I considered starting a new church with several faithful families. When that door closed I began to submit my résumé to other churches. It didn’t take long to get some initial interviews, but they only revealed I was in no place mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to return to pastoral ministry immediately.
What was an unemployed pastor to do to earn a living? Apparently, not much. No one was interested, except for a local car dealership. After a brief interview I was hired. This former pastor was now a car salesman. And the Lord used the next year and half there to teach me to be a better pastor.
Here are four lessons I learned about pastoral ministry along the way.1. We Can’t Faithfully Preach to People We Fear
As pastors we’re inclined to fear what people think of us, how they’ll respond to what we preach, and if what we say or do will cost us our job. A pastor must have thick skin and an unwavering commitment to God’s Word. I soon learned these qualities were required on the car lot, too. Temptations to compromise abound, and they’re only enhanced by fear. It could be the fear of customer rejection or not meeting a sales quota at month’s end. Though anxiety is ever-present, a Christian must have a fear greater than self-preservation.
We care deeply about what ‘that book’ says, because it’s all we have to say.
The same is true in the church. In that ill-fated business meeting, I was tempted to compromise and melt. But who would I fear more, God or man? Pastors are constantly called to compromise, perpetually tempted to fear man over God, to tailor our messages to tickle ears, but we have no such luxury. We preach Christ crucified. We declare the whole counsel of God. We care deeply about what “that book” says, because it’s all we have to say.2. We Can’t Faithfully Preach to People We Don’t Love
When I arrived on the car lot, I knew nothing about either cars or sales. I had to study the technology, test-drive vehicles, and ask lots of questions. Soon I began to sell cars and went from being the naïve new guy to an obstacle standing in the way of the other sales consultants achieving their goals. Sadly, I eventually viewed them that same way.
Likewise, I saw “opponents” in the church as a project to be fixed or an obstacle standing in the way of my church-health goals. But people aren’t projects to be fixed; they are image-bearers to be loved. Church health is important, but not at the cost of loving the church. If Christ had treated us this way, we’d be without hope, for we were God’s enemies when Christ, by his death, reconciled us to him (Rom. 5:10).
People aren’t projects to be fixed; they are image-bearers to be loved.
Pastors will face unjust criticism, and some of those closest to us will betray us. But how is this any different from the way Christ himself was treated? He didn’t dismiss his opposition; rather, love compelled him to the cross. May the same love compel us to love those whom he has called us to lead.3. We Can’t Love People We’re Not Committed To
Commitment isn’t the norm in the car industry. Sales consultants often have one foot out the door, eyes always scanning for greener pastures. And yet the salespeople who took years to build a healthy client base always had a steady stream of new and returning clients.
Pastoral ministry is no different. Times get tough and tempt us to look for greener pastures. We move on and start over in a new church or ministry, only to encounter many of the same challenges we thought we left behind. Why? Because people are people and ministry is hard. At the same time, the church we left starts over as well. Everything we worked so hard to accomplish is quickly undone. A new pastor arrives, and the congregation soon wonders how long he’ll stay. Why? Because they’ve never experienced the love of a pastor committed for better or for worse.4. We Can’t Stay Committed to Them If We’re Not Committed to Him
On the car lot I wondered if I’d ever return to pastoral ministry. As days turned into months, I wrestled with the growing possibility that pastoral ministry might not be the Lord’s answer to my prayers. It was a devastating possibility, since my only desire was to pastor.
But that was the problem.
My identity was found in my pastor title, not in my loved-by-Christ status. Through the sanctifying lessons of car sales, Christ convicted me of my sin. I couldn’t faithfully follow him—much less lead others—if the identity of being a pastor hindered my ability to trust him as my only hope in life and death. Over time and through many tears, he brought me to the point where I could honestly say if I never pastored another church or preached another sermon, Christ was enough.Wilderness Journey
I stepped into car sales out of necessity, to put food on the table. Little did I know God would use this wilderness journey to teach me how to pastor.
Nearly two years later the Lord graciously allowed me to return to pastoral ministry, where I’ve tried to apply these lessons. It’s been a joyous and difficult readjustment. I can testify that the grass isn’t greener, but I deeply love the people, I’m committed for the long haul, and Christ is enough.
Everyone knows suffering is part of life, but no one warns you that sometimes it comes in spades. When we’re still reeling from the effects of the first blow, we can’t see the next one clearly, and that compounds things. Two months after my husband and I moved to Colorado, I came home from work bearing sad news: the church where I was on staff was about to go through a reckoning process.
Nate also had some news. He sat across from me, in the farmhouse his paycheck paid for, and said, “They’re doing cutbacks and, because I’m remote, I’m the first to go.”
Two days later, I began to bleed, profusely and painfully. There was a strange optimism in me, though. I was 34, this was my first pregnancy, and we were stressed, so the risks were higher. These were the things I told myself, adding each of them together until they equaled miscarriage. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. I knew the statistics, and I was just one of them. A fluke. I didn’t weep at all. I felt beaten, but also resilient. Things were going to be okay.Walking Tomb
The thing about God’s goodness—the thing we’ve spent our whole marriage learning—is that it doesn’t cease even when, all around us, goodness feels lost. God’s goodness isn’t a gift he doles out. His goodness is his character. It’s who he is. And because it’s who he is, it’s all he does. Everything he does is good because he is good.
Fast forward. We were expecting a baby again, and beginning to dream of names and baby toes and fingers. I spent the week with the rest of our church staff in critical meetings with leaders, members, deacons, and more. The last day of the week, the whole membership gathered in the sanctuary to hear where the chaos of the last few months had led. I was exhausted. We all were. It seemed as though we’d been in nonstop meetings for weeks. As I stood at the back of the sanctuary, listening as painful news was delivered to the congregation, I felt a sharp and shooting pain nearly buckling my knees. Another rush of blood.
God’s goodness isn’t a gift he doles out. His goodness is his character. It’s who he is. And because it’s who he is, it’s all he does.
Only this one was faster, furious, and painful. I leaned against the wall of the bathroom stall downstairs, telling myself to relax, breathe, just breathe. When I could stand again, I left.
I sobbed for hours in Nate’s arms at home.
I felt like a walking tomb, my only purpose to house death. My body felt like a betrayal of everything I felt sure of. I saw a doctor, and she ran some blood tests and said the miscarriages were probably due to stress, and I should get counseling. But I felt swallowed in grief. I sleepwalked through the year in many ways, bearing the miscarriages as they came again and again, unsure of how to de-stress myself enough to the point where my body could carry a baby to term, or even past the first month. I ached with the brokenness we were experiencing in a world—in a body—not yet whole. I cried with Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).Gift in the Lack
It’s an unpopular sentiment, even in the church. We rightly call children blessings because God calls them blessings, but could the absence of them also perhaps be a blessing? Could God still be good and do good by withholding one blessing (children) and in its place giving another one, stranger and unsought (childlessness)?
Could God be enough for me, for us, for our marriage, for our home, for my body, if we never saw what was never promised to us in his Word?
This subtle shift in my soul began to change everything. The nearness of children was not my good. The nearness of God was my only good, and however his nearness came—in silence, in greatness, in provision, in lack, in fullness, or in meagerness—it would be enough.
So we settled into a life of childlessness. We moved cross-country again, back to Texas, where we’d first met in the church foyer at The Village Church.Out of Place
One mid-June morning I was leaning over our vegetable garden, pulling small weeds. It was our first vegetable garden in Texas, and it needed a kind of tender, loving care that—being from the Northeast originally, where you can throw seeds on a pile of dirt and they’ll grow—I was unaccustomed to. As I leaned over, I felt a twinge in my abdomen unlike any I’d felt before. I didn’t think I was pregnant, but I began spotting and thought, Here we go again.
One evening, two weeks later, as we got ready for bed, I doubled over in pain. It was so intense that I couldn’t breathe. I’m not given to histrionics or exaggeration. I will do anything to avoid going to the doctor or hospital, and my pain tolerance is high. But after a few minutes of me protesting that I was fine, Nate told me we were leaving for the ER. We had no way of knowing it would be almost a week before I could come home.
They put me in a bed, ran an IV, put me on morphine, and drew blood. Somewhere in the fog of it all, the doctor came in and asked if I’d ever miscarried or had pregnancy complications. “Yes,” we said. “Plenty of them.”
“Did you know you are pregnant right now?” he asked.
I’d suspected that, I told him—I’d been spotting for two weeks and thought it might be implantation bleeding.
“It’s worse,” he said. “We can’t be sure until we run more tests, but I suspect your pregnancy is—”
“Ectopic?” I interrupted him.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes flickering down.
An ectopic pregnancy means, literally, an out-of-place pregnancy. For us, the baby appeared to be inside one of my fallopian tubes. It was unviable, and if left alone, the doctor said, my fallopian tube would rupture, and I would almost certainly die.
Is God sufficient in these moments? I felt the enemy laughing at me. Who’s your “only good” now?
“We have to terminate, or you could die,” the doctor said.That Too Was for My Good
Although other women might legitimately make a different choice, in consultation with my doctor, Nate and I decided not to terminate. I said no to the termination, at least until they were sure the baby was dead or I was actually dying. Currently I was just in severe pain, and I knew the pain itself wouldn’t kill me. I knew they would monitor me, and I knew our community and church would pray for me and this child. We settled into the hospital to wait for my body to miscarry naturally or for the baby to miraculously move.
Infertility—or, in our case, being fertile but unable to carry—doesn’t mean God is withholding his blessing.
We spent the week praying, weeping, believing, and in doubt. Our church family surrounded us with prayer and presence, our elders texted and called us, and our home group cared for all our needs.
A week later, my already-naturally-low blood pressure was dropping, the pain wasn’t abating, and the risk was too high. They surgically removed my ruptured fallopian tube and the dead baby.Good and Enough
The grief was profound. I mourned hard and long, months longer than for any of our miscarriages. But somewhere in there, like a seed thrown on a pile of dirt, there was a goodness, and a trust in God, and—from our perspective—a willingness to put our desires to rest.
Infertility—or, in our case, being fertile but unable to carry—doesn’t mean God is withholding his blessing. We’re trusting that our inability to have children is his blessing—and therefore, all he does within this space is also his blessing. It’s not emptiness to him. It’s not wasted space or out of place or not enough. He’s working and weaving and speaking his blessing to us amid all the spaces where we feel void.
Sometimes God says to a man and a woman, This is sufficient. The two of you together, because I am near you and Christ has come, is enough. Not second-best, not runner-up, not settled-for, not “We’ll take what we can get.” This is sufficient because God is in it, and he is near, and every promise in his Son is Yes and Amen, good and enough. Good enough.
For those not already acquainted with him, David Bentley Hart of the University of Notre Dame is widely regarded as one of the two most influential academic theologians in the English-speaking world today (along with John Milbank of Nottingham University). Hart’s output is prodigious, and his range of intellectual interests—in the literature of various languages—is staggering. His published PhD dissertation, The Beauty of the Infinite (2004), caused reviewers to regard him, young as he was, as a leading Christian theologian.
Though Hart no longer has possession of his personal library of some 20,000 volumes, he seems to have read most of it and not to have forgotten much. Had he been born earlier, he’s the sort of scholar who might have sat beside C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and not only have grasped their exchanges on English literature, Western history, world mythology, and Christian theology, but also have taught them a thing or two. Those who think this must be hyperbole should examine the essays contained in three recent collections: A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays (2016), The Hidden and the Manifest (2017), and The Dream-Child’s Progress (2017). These and other volumes by Hart I gladly commend.
Yet Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, on my view, doesn’t merit the same commendation, and lacks the argumentative acuity and literary beauty of the earlier works. Film buffs might call it the “Godfather III” of Hart’s oeuvre—not quite up to snuff. Even the master sometimes misses. Adding to the disappointment for me, and I’m sure for many other readers, is that Hart is no longer countering unbelief—as in Atheist Delusions (2010)—but is now in all-out war with fellow Christians believers who hold to traditional views on heaven and hell.
The title states the thesis: all creatures who have sinned against God will finally be saved. And Hart maintains his thesis not as a possible or probable claim, but as indubitably certain. He has no patience for “hopeful universalism”—a view often attributed to Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that remains open to salvation for all but asserts that the matter can’t be definitely affirmed or known in advance. Hart’s book might be a signal that universalist tentativeness is now out, while assertiveness is in.
My own debate with Hart on the question of universal salvation stretches back to fall 2014, when Hart joined the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University, where I teach, and where Hart spent a year as a visiting professor. Our early exchanges foreshadowed the later arguments in his new book, and of my own work of last year, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018). I should forewarn readers that his book and mine are wholly different. His work is a personal statement of 214 pages, without footnotes or source citations, and with minimal reference to the complex historical debates over universalism. My work runs to 1,325 pages, cites more than 3,000 sources, and contains some 3,500 footnotes. Douglas Farrow of McGill University suggests that those interested in universalism should read both books. I hope so.
Though Hart often wields the whip of intellectual controversy, I received no tongue-lashing during my time with him, but I was present when he took a younger Thomist philosopher at our university to the woodshed. I then became aware that notions of divine sovereignty—Thomistic or Calvinistic—are anathema to Hart. He sparred in a local pub with one of my own PhD advisees regarding the biblical command for the destruction of the Canaanites. My student interpreted these passages as referring to historical events, while Hart clearly did not; he understood the texts symbolically.
In spring 2015 I went off to teach at Birmingham University in England, while David remained in St. Louis, and he and I debated universalism with heightened fervor by email exchange. At that time I remarked to Hart, as an Orthodox theologian, that the overwhelming majority (perhaps 10-to-1) of the early Christian authors—Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic—were not universalists. In an email response, David wrote that he was more concerned with truth itself than with precedent or authority—though he believed that at least some authorities supported his views. He added that if an eternal hell were a necessary part of Christian teaching, then for him this would mean that Christianity itself would be self-evidently false. What was to become one of the central arguments in That All Shall Be Saved became evident to me then. Biblical exegesis is of course a pivotal aspect of the universalist debate, and Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation (2017) is an integral part of his argument for universalism, as he indicates in the new book (3).
In what follows, I will examine Hart’s rhetoric or style of reasoning, his arguments or substance of reasoning, and his exegesis or biblical foundation for reasoning. At the end I will consider the question of practicing or living out one’s eschatology.Hart’s Rhetoric
One cannot consider Hart’s arguments for Christian universalism apart from the ethos and pathos of his prose. Willis Jenkins speaks of Hart’s “adjectival petulance,” while Douglas Farrow calls him “an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” For better and for worse, Hart’s verbal pyrotechnics are as obvious as a bomb blast in a reading room. In That All Shall Be Saved, he claims that his intellectual opponents and their views are “viciously vindictive” (11), “exquisitely malicious” (11), “specious reasoning” (12), “inherently incredible” (12), “morally obtuse” (12), “ostentatiously absurd” (18), “extravagant absurdities” (18–19), and reflective of “[an] intoxicating atmosphere of corroborating nonsense” (19). This list is by no means complete. These are merely the first few insults; in total the book contains no less than 118 derogatory denotations of his opponents, their theological views, their God, and their understanding of hell.
Farrow calls Hart’s language the sort of “copious trash talk normally reserved for pre-fight hype,” that “all but exhausts the world’s stock of insults.” One strains to think of another theological work of the past or present that so concentrates its venom. The golden frog of the Colombian rainforest measures little more than a centimeter, but contains enough poison to kill 10 people. Hart’s volume too is dainty yet deadly. Was that Hart’s purpose in writing—not to disprove his adversaries, but to dispose of them?
The extraordinary profusion of put-downs in That All Shall Be Saved is not without significance. Yet the significance is not, I think, what Hart’s fans and followers might think it is. It’s not an indication that victory is at hand for the universalist cause. Hart’s vituperative verbiage deflects readers’ attention away from his line of logic and toward the colorful epithets themselves—and so fails to advance Hart’s own position. The hyperbolic language is a sign of weakness, not strength. This book feels desperate. In these pages Hart seems to be a cornered man—a literary fellow and word-weaver who lashes out in the only way he knows. Someone secure in his intellectual position and confident in his argument doesn’t need to interject a hundred or more insulting phrases into his writing. People do that when they sense they’re just about to lose their case, and Hart admits as much in the introduction: “I know that I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything,” though “I intend to play it to the end” (4).
This book feels desperate. In these pages Hart seems to be a cornered man—a literary fellow and word-weaver who lashes out in the only way he knows.
These pages breathe an atmosphere of weary resignation. Hart depicts himself as a lonely battler for the truth of universalism—which hardly seems to be the case, given that many academic theologians today share his views. Here’s another oddity: the total absence of joy in this book. Someone who is genuinely convinced that everyone is finally saved (including the misguided Calvinists!) should show happiness and peace at the prospect of heaven for all. If Hart’s argument is truly correct, then he should be gladly anticipating his final vindication—before God and before all humanity. But this book exudes bitterness and rancor, so much so that one wonders whether the author is convinced by his own arguments.
A clue to the deeper significance of Hart’s book lies in the stark alternatives he sets up in his conclusion: either universalism or unbelief. In the final paragraph he writes:
I have been asked more than once in the last few years whether, if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently morally obtuse and logically incoherent faith. And, as it happens, it would. (208)
In its unbounded rage against historic Christian teaching, Hart’s book reads mostly like a “new atheist” book by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. As for the atheist authors, so too for Hart, the “God” preached and taught by the church through the centuries is “inventively sadistic” (23), “theatrically grotesque” (23), a “heartlessly capricious gamester” (45–46), and so a “monstrous deity” (167).
That All Shall Be Saved could thus be read as a “new atheist” argument—but with a universalist happy ending tacked on at the end of the cosmic narrative to escape the otherwise-compelling conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. The universalist eschaton is Hart’s deus ex machina—in a literal sense—inasmuch as the world as Hart sees it today doesn’t show much evidence that there is any loving God who cares for us. Hart’s back is to the wall and he battles fiercely, because he’s fighting for a kind of theological Alamo—a last stand, as he conceives it, for Christian theism, or at least for a faith that makes sense to him.Hart’s Arguments
Once the verbal clouds and smoke of battle have scattered, what arguments for universalism remain visible in Hart’s book?
That All Shall Be Saved offers three major lines of argument for universalism. I will refer to these as the “responsible Creator argument” (that divine creation itself implies universal salvation), the “choosing good argument” (that the creaturely will can never fully or finally reject the goodness that God is), and the “human solidarity argument” (that all human beings are united and so must all be saved or else not saved at all).1. Responsible Creator Argument
Hart first publicly presented his first argument in 2015, in a lecture at Notre Dame on “God, Creation, and Evil.” Essentially he argues that God, in creating the world, from that moment onward became fully responsible for any and all evil in the cosmos if it were to remain as a final outcome. “The salvation of all,” Hart writes, is “a claim that follows more or less ineluctably from any truly coherent contemplation of what it means to see God as the free creator of all things ex nihilo” (66–67).
Although there are “innumerable forms of ‘secondary causality,’” Hart insists that “none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things (69). For “as God’s act of creation is free . . . all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision” (69–70). Hart adds that “all causes are logically reducible to their first cause. This is no more than a logical truism” (70). These claims are eyebrow-raising, and several decisive objections spring to mind. Lest there be any doubt regarding Hart’s position, consider this statement: “Insofar as we are able freely to will anything at all, therefore, it is precisely because he [i.e., God] is making us to do so” (183; italics in the original).
That All Shall Be Saved could be read as a ‘new atheist’ argument—but with a universalist happy ending tacked on at the end of the cosmic narrative to escape the otherwise compelling conclusion that the Christian God does not exist.
If creaturely action is always “enfolded within his [God’s] decision,” and God is “making us to do” as we do, then we might legitimately ask: Why does evil exist at all? In seeking to explain how evil is finally overcome, Hart generates a new and perhaps insuperable problem regarding the origination of evil. Or is Hart’s God evil as well as good—sometimes intending and accomplishing good, and sometimes intending and accomplishing evil? That may not be the conclusion Hart wishes, but it’s a possible implication of his reasoning. Hart’s “responsible Creator argument” proves too much, for if God is morally responsible for eschatological outcomes, then why is God not also responsible for historical evils? And if creaturely choices are all dissolved into divine decisions, then God becomes the doer of every evil deed (for there is no other doer), and a universalist happy ending would not then absolve God of all the evil that had occurred along the Yellow Brick Road to the eschaton.
Hart’s argument reminds me a shocking passage where Martin Luther wrote that God gives strength to the hand of the murderer as he plunges in the murderous knife. Hart’s affirmation of overriding divine agency is ironic, since it now aligns him with the strictest of Thomists and the fiercest of Calvinists. Hart is of Augustine’s party, yet knew it not. (Perhaps apologies are now in order?) Moreover, That All Shall Be Saved contradicts Hart’s earlier work The Doors of the Sea, which divided divine from creaturely causality, depicted the cosmos as seething with destructive powers, and doubted if present experience shows evidence of a loving God. There Hart rejected the idea “that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working through all things,” and instead posited “other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies” (Doors, 30; cf. 89–91).
Hart has swung from a God-who-does-little (i.e., between creation and eschaton) to a God-who-does-everything, and so one wonders if the author has arrived at a settled view.2. Choosing Good Argument
The second major argument in Hart’s That All Shall be Saved—which I call the “choosing good argument”—is the flip side of the “responsible Creator argument.”
Because the human will is “enfolded within his [i.e., God’s] decision” (70), it also follows that “evil . . . can never form the original or ultimate purpose of the will” (175), and “no rational will could ever be fixed forever in the embrace of evil” (165). Consequently, “not only is an eternal free rejection of God unlikely; it is a logically vacuous idea” (178). Hart’s reasoning appears to be an attempt to win the argument over universalism by prescriptive definition, that is, by defining the terms of the debate in such a way that his own preferred conclusion follows necessarily.
In effect Hart asserts that “sinful” choices can never be “free” choices. Since “free yet sinful choices” don’t exist, the sinful choices that human beings make are all unfree, and therefore human beings aren’t responsible for them. From Hart’s definitions of terms, one might deny that human beings are ever guilty of anything. It’s not surprising, therefore, that everyone is finally saved, since there are no “sinners” in the specific sense of “people freely and hence culpably choosing evil.” Because there are no “sinners,” there is nothing for anyone to be saved from. But how is this consistent with human moral agency and responsibility? Farrow observes that Hart’s “man is not so much man as God-writ-small.” Farrow contrasts his own view with Hart’s: “Man is a creature made to love God freely. He is not just another way of God’s loving himself.”3. Human Solidarity Argument
Hart’s third attempt at proving universal salvation—the “human solidarity argument”—fares no better. This argument is based on a non-literal account of God’s creation of humanity in the writings of the early church author Gregory of Nyssa. Hart writes:
From eternity, says Gregory, God has conceived of humanity under the form of an ideal “Human Being” . . . a creature shaped entirely after the divine likeness, neither male nor female, possessed of divine virtues: purity, love, impassibility, happiness, wisdom, freedom, and immorality. (139)
Moreover, “this primordial ‘ideal’ Human Being comprises—indeed, is identical with—the entire pleroma [i.e., fullness] of all human beings in every age, from first to last” (139). Because every human being who will every live is part of this “‘ideal’ Human Being,” this means that “either all persons must be saved, or none can be” (155).
Readers may be scratching their heads. Just who or what is this capital-H, capital-B “Human Being” that is “neither male nor female”? The only human beings one finds in Genesis (or elsewhere in the Bible) are individual men and women, and not a composite, all-inclusive, mega-hominid that blends male and female identities (such as one finds in Plato’s myth of the androgyne). With due respect to Gregory—a key architect of trinitarian doctrine—his account of creation launches into a speculative ozone-layer defined by Greek philosophy and not by the biblical text. For Gregory, the biblical “Adam” was not an individual human but a corporate Humanness (which Jewish Kabbalah later called Adam Kadmon, a mystical “tree of souls” from which individuals break off like twigs). God created Humanity, and Humanity must be rescued. Universal salvation is built into Gregory’s account of creation.
Think of it like this: When your loaf of bread gets moldy, you can cut off the bad part and save some of it; yet if your milk sours, you must discard it all. For Hart, humanity is not like the moldy bread that might be saved in part, but like the milk that is either wholly unspoiled or spoiled. Yet note how this teaching differs from the biblical thought-world, wherein individual human beings encounter God and make individual decisions to believe or to disbelieve, to rebel or to obey.
Another disturbing feature of Hart’s argument is his attribution of a quasi-divine “impassibility” to “Human Being,” which makes it sound as though he embraces an esoteric idea of humanity, that we might parodically summarize thus: “In the beginning was Humanity, and Humanity was with God, and Humanity was (almost) God.” Such speculative teaching is far from the simplicity of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:3), and we might recall Farrow’s comment that Hart’s “man is not so much man as God-writ-small.” The “human solidarity” argument proves only this—that if one starts with a non-biblical account of beginnings (i.e., primal Humanity), then one will conclude with a non-biblical account of endings (i.e., universal salvation).
When weighed in the balance, Hart’s three major arguments show the weakness of his case for universalism. (For a cultural rather than theological critique of universalism, see my forthcoming First Things essay, “A Kinder God and a Gentler Apocalypse,” to appear later in 2019.)Hart’s Exegesis
As noted already, Hart’s New Testament translation is part of his universalist project. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills judged that Hart “labors to oust hell from the text of the Bible,” and identified evidence to support this conclusion. Instead of referring to hell’s fire as “eternal,” he translates aiōnios as “of the Age” (aiōn) (Matt. 18:8; 25:41). Among scholars, there is a general consensus that aiōnios occasionally means “age-long,” but Hart’s translation is woodenly and foolishly rigid on this point. As a result, the translation of aiōnios in non-hell contexts often proves puzzling.
Here is a familiar verse in Hart’s unfamiliar translation: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have life of the Age” (John. 3:16; emph. mine). What? Consider too Hart’s retranslation of the promise to Jesus Christ that “you are a priest forever” (Heb. 5:6; 7:17), as “you are a priest unto the Age.” What could this mean? That Christ’s priestly service has a term limit? When Jesus separates the damned from the saved (Matt. 25:46), he says that “these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.” Hart’s interpretation of aiōnios thus carries a hidden price tag: not only the threats of punishment, but the promises of blessedness, might have an expiration date attached. They are both “of that Age.” At least Hart is consistent: heaven could be just as temporary as hell is.
To uphold universal salvation, Hart is ready to call into question not only the endless duration of heaven, but also the authority of Scripture and the cognitive content of divine revelation.
In Hart’s translation, Gehenna is no longer “hell,” but “Hinnom’s Vale of fire” (Matt. 5:22). In his words of warning about Gehenna, Jesus was thus curiously fixated on a certain garbage dump outside Jerusalem. A non-earthly or transcendent place of punishment seems to be ruled out by the translator’s word choices. Proorizein, ordinarily “to predestine,” Hart translates as “to mark out in advance” (Eph. 1:5, 11), perhaps to avoid the connotations of the usual English translation. Hart renders diabolos not as “the Devil” but as “the Slanderer,” which circumscribes Satan’s role more narrowly than the New Testament does. Jude 6 employs an unambiguous word for unending punishment (aidios), but Hart—in a rare passage where he addresses the issue of the fallen angels—notes that this text applies to demons and not to humans. So we ask: Are the fallen angels punished forever? And, if so, what becomes of Hart’s argument that not even one creature could possibly be punished forever? In an online response, Hart says he rejects Wills’s suggestion that there is “some pattern in these [translational] choices.” Yet Hart is not the first author who fails to notice something in his texts that his readers can readily see.
In That All Shall Be Saved, Hart evades the force of biblical passages that undercut his universalism by arguing that none of “the New Testament’s eschatological language . . . should be received as anything other than an intentionally heterogenous phantasmagory, meant as much to disorient as to instruct.” He adds that “the more closely one looks at the wild mélange of images . . . the more the picture dissolves into evocation, atmosphere, and poetry” (119). Here Hart’s reasoning is self-negating, for if the biblical authors offer nothing but evocative phraseology and symbolism, then neither the universalist nor the particularist can assert anything definite about life beyond death on the basis of Scripture. To uphold universal salvation, Hart is ready to call into question not only the endless duration of heaven (see above), but also the authority of Scripture and the cognitive content of divine revelation.
Like other universalist exegetes, Hart’s biblical outlook includes blind spots. Like other Origenists, he holds to a persuasive rather than coercive model for God’s overcoming of evil. Yet Exodus and Revelation show that evil does not always yield to gentle suasion, but sometimes must be defeated by superior power. Pharaoh is not finally persuaded but crushed by Yahweh’s might. So, too, the Beast, the Devil, and the False Prophet are not dissuaded from evil but are seized and cast into the lake of fire. In all such cases, the exertion of God’s power to defeat evil is a good and not an evil thing. The heavenly saints cry “Alleluia!” when the monstrous wickedness of Babylon is finally and fully brought to an end (Rev. 19:1–5).On Living Out One’s Eschatology
Hart rarely shows a pastoral touch in his writing. His account of universal salvation is speculative, abstract, detached—the kind of book that a religious intellectual writes without bothering about its effect on lay Christians or on everyday life. In marked contrast, biblical teachings on eschatology blend future expectation with missional urgency, spiritual exhortation, and calls for self-denying discipline.
When Jesus spoke on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the end times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’s return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) stresses the need to be prepared for Jesus’s return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present-day mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).
Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It tells us that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). First John connects eschatological hope with spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).
It’s exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology.
These passages suggest the need and appropriateness of evaluating eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it’s exceedingly hard to see how the biblical call to self-denial, godly living, and toilsome evangelism can flourish on the basis of a universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if final salvation for all were already known in advance? Earlier Christian universalists—including Origen himself—acknowledged the problem and suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a few mature believers. Hart doesn’t seem to admit there is any problem.
So even if universalism were biblically supported (as it is not), and even if sound theological or philosophical arguments made it believable (as they do not), then universalism could still not become the official, public teaching of the Christian church without undermining the church’s own moral, spiritual, and missional foundation. The one clear-cut historical case we have of a large-scale embrace of this doctrine—the Universalist Church, that was once the sixth-largest denomination in the United States—illustrates the point. This denomination declined in size and theologically devolved into a unitarian denial of Jesus’s divinity, and then merged with another declining religious body to become the UU—the Unitarian-Universalist Association, which eventually removed the word “God” from its doctrinal basis, so as not to offend the sincere agnostics who might want to belong. Those proposing universalist doctrine for the church today should be forewarned by this history. Imagine a farmer who seeks to rid his field of pests, and so sprays a chemical—reputedly a powerful and effective pesticide. Within weeks, the crops themselves are shriveling up. That’s universalism: in the name of updating and improving the church’s teaching, it kills the church itself along with its teaching.
Universalism in the future, as in the past, will show itself as the self-negating, faith-undermining, church-neutering doctrine that it is. This theological species is heading toward extinction.
Belief in universal salvation will, in all likelihood, remain in the future, as in the past, a private conviction nurtured among a deracinated intellectual elite, situated more on the fringes than in the center of the church’s life. The faithful en masse will not embrace this teaching. Jesus’s sheep know his voice, and a stranger’s voice they will not follow (John 10:5, 27). Universalism in the future, as in the past, will show itself as the self-negating, faith-undermining, church-neutering doctrine that it is. This theological species is heading toward extinction.
A 19th-century black spiritual compared Christian salvation to riding a train:
The gospel train is coming;
I hear it just at hand.
I hear the car wheels moving,
And rumbling thro’ the land.
Get on board, children,
For there’s room for many a more.
A 20th-century adaptation extended the train analogy:
When you get down to the station,
And the train’s about to leave,
You be sure to have a ticket,
If you really do believe.
So pass me the guitar, and you all grab the banjo, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, jug, fiddle, harmonica, and kazoo, and we’ll start the hootenanny. But it’s not Hart’s glory train that will be carrying the faithful to the pearly gates. Instead it’s the train that requires a “ticket,” with passengers who “really do believe.”
If you’re a pastor, I don’t have to tell you that ministry is demanding. There’s sermon prep, counseling, managing staff, elders’ meetings, overseeing the budget, visiting the sick, and more. It can feel overwhelming. And the pressure is only intensified in church planting.
But an essential component to all healthy pastoral ministry is the simple—yet weighty—charge Paul gives to the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
How can church planters heed Paul’s words, especially when there’s so much else to do?Blood-Bought
First, we’d do well to notice how the church is described in Acts 20:28: “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The church itself is a beautiful portrait that manifests the gospel. We’re hopeless on our own, but God intervened. Christ’s blood purchased a people, rescuing them from slavery to sin and uniting them together as a family.
The church is a beautiful portrait that manifests the gospel.
One important implication, therefore, is that we pastors care for God’s church. It belongs to him, not us. He obtained it, and thus he ensures its ultimate good. The Holy Spirit does appoint overseers to shepherd God’s flock, but we would do well to embrace our role as those under the authority of the Chief Shepherd.Shepherd’s Seasons
As we labor to care for the sheep, there’s much we can learn from actual shepherding work as a model for pastoral ministry. I’ve learned a lot from James Rebanks’s book, The Shepherd’s Life. Ministry seasons can mirror seasons of the year, not necessarily in the actual calendar, but in the overall rhythms of a church’s life.
For example, springtime is when “lambing” occurs, with lots of new life and heavy demands. It’s when shepherds work hard to ensure the lambs get off to a good start. Similarly, the early days of planting a church can be as exhilarating as they are hectic and tiring. But it’s only a season. If we perpetually live and work in ministry at the pace of the early days of planting, we will wear out the flock and destroy ourselves.
For shepherds, summer is a season of rest and preparation, in which hay is made for the coming year. In the same way, it’s important to cultivate seasons of intentional rest for churches, purposefully slowing things down. We’ve adopted a rhythm we call “Family Sundays”—we give our ministry teams a break, all children join us throughout the service, and we have a shorter sermon from one of the elders. Not only does it help our church to rest, but it’s also countercultural in the constant hustle of our city.
Autumn is when shepherds bring their sheep to competitions and auctions, and what they’ve worked hard for shows its value. I’m not suggesting there’s an exact parallel to ministry here, but there are seasons in a church’s life when long-planned strategies and hopes come to fruition. Celebration is an important discipline in caring well for the flock. The church-planting pastor should shepherd the church to give thanks to God, the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
Pastors have a responsibility to care for the flock, especially when it’s costly.
Winter is a brutal time of suffering and hardship for shepherds. They suffer alongside the sheep, at times wondering whether they’ll make it through. Pastors have a responsibility to care for the flock, especially when it’s costly. This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn in planting a church. Most of the stories we hear are more triumphalist, which seem to leave little room for thinking about real suffering. The dark winter nights, whether in the church or in my own soul, are often the most difficult times to keep shepherding. But nothing builds greater trust in a church than a well-navigated “winter” as shepherds care for the sheep, enduring suffering with them while pointing to Jesus.Respond to Needs
As the old saying goes, if your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Often, the zeal of church planters doesn’t reflect a full pastoral toolkit for meeting the needs of God’s people. At times, especially early on, the weighty responsibility to care for people can lead to “hovering over” them, trying to micromanage their holiness and pursuit of Christ.
But we must remember that it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to change hearts, convict people of sin, and breathe life into weary souls. There will be times when a pastor’s care for people calls for confrontation of sin in order to protect the unity and purity of the flock, and when wolves need to be fought off. Those fights are always costly.
There are also times when an angry sheep has an unseen wound that must be treated and cared for—when lethargy isn’t laziness but an indicator of a deeper melancholy that needs an encouraging word to lift a downcast spirit. Pastors should also remember that not all opposition is personal; some is rooted in fears that can be addressed and cared for with a gentle word to take courage. As a shepherd has to know his sheep, so a pastor needs to know his people.
The admonition to ‘pay careful attention to all the flock’ is the essence of pastoral ministry, and therefore church planting.
Paul’s call to the Thessalonians is helpful here: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
Church-planting pastors must always remember that they are undershepherds of the Lord Jesus Christ. The admonition to “pay careful attention to all the flock” is the essence of pastoral ministry, and therefore church planting. It’s not an extraneous demand on top of the already full to-do list.
Even in the pressure-packed work of planting a church, remain focused on this high calling. Humbly press on and the Chief Shepherd himself will carry you through to an unfading reward.