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Why the World’s Longest Reformed Bible Study Started in Africa

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 12:00am

About six months ago, a pastor in Kenya told his congregation that they could be saved by good works.

In his pews were about 80 children from a nearby orphanage, ranging from second grade to high school.

“The kids came home visibly upset,” said David Pederson, who runs the Christian compound where the orphanage is housed, along with a Christian classical school and a teachers’ college, housing for missionaries, and a farm. “They were really distraught: ‘This isn’t what the Bible teaches. This isn’t right.’”

A Rafiki child studying the Bible / Courtesy of Rafiki

“They were debating and asking questions,” said David’s wife, Julie, who co-administrates the campus with him. “It was really good.” Within a week or two, most of them switched to other churches.

The children had just finished 30 weeks in a daily Bible study on the book of Romans, so they knew grace backward and forward. But the timing wasn’t just an unlucky coincidence for the pastor—these children are in the middle of a 535-week Bible study. That’s more than 10 years of memory verses and study questions.

“By the time they get to grade 12, they will have studied 90 percent of the Bible verse-by-verse,” David said.

The curriculum was written by Reformed theologians and is used—partially or completely—in orphanages, church schools, widows’ groups, and partner churches in Africa. Thousands of students, teachers, employees, church leaders, and church members have studied the Bible with it.

A Bible study this intense “doesn’t exist anywhere else—even in the United States,” David said.

Rosemary Jensen / Courtesy of Rafiki

Until now. This month, the Rafiki Bible Study for Groups is being released for use in America.

It’s like a homecoming, because the Bible study came from the United States, the brainchild of American missionary Rosemary Jensen.

“I’m a Bible person,” she told TGC. “I’ve loved the Word of God since I was a teenager.”

“If she were made a doctor of the church, I think she would merit the title Doctor Indomitabilis—such is her fierce determination to ‘observe all’ that Jesus has commanded, and to help, encourage, and—if need be—cajole others into making that possible for as many people as she can possibly reach with God’s Word,” Westminster Theological Seminary professor Sinclair Ferguson told TGC. “Now in her ‘golden years,’ Rosemary still makes you feel that her heart to press on to know and serve the Lord is bigger than her whole body!”

Jensen’s definitely in her golden years—this July, she’ll turn 90. But that’s not likely to slow her down. When she first dreamed up the Bible study project, she was a 75-year-old retiree.

Missions to Africa

Jensen grew up Reformed, in a Southern Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Florida. She came to faith in Christ when she was 16.

“I knew the only way you can know God is through the Bible, so I decided I was going to read one chapter every day,” she told TGC. “I got through Genesis okay and Exodus okay. By the time I got into Deuteronomy, I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

But she was determined, and for three and a half years, she read a chapter of her King James Version every day.

“You know what happens to you after three and a half years of doing something?” she said. “You develop a habit. I was in the habit of reading the Bible. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. And I will tell you for the rest of my life—I’m 89 now—I have read the Bible every day that I can remember.”

For the rest of my life—I’m 89 now—I have read the Bible every day that I can remember.

When she was 17, she heard a foreign missionary presentation at her church and fell hard for the idea. But back then, “women could only be missionary nurses or teachers,” so she went to college, majored in education, and began teaching school in Florida.

When she was 23, her sister told her the army was offering to train young women in occupational therapy. Jensen “liked arts and crafts” and her day job “was not very exciting,” so she joined the Army. While there she met an Army battalion and regimental surgeon just back from Korea.

Bob and Rosemary Jensen on their way to Korea with their daughter Annie in 1957 / Courtesy of Rafiki

“He was a major at that time, and he ordered me to marry him, so I said, ‘Yes, sir.’” She’s probably said that line a hundred times, but it still makes her laugh. (Bob Jensen passed away in 2014.)

They both wanted to go to the mission field—him back to Korea, her to Africa. “By the grace of God, we went to Africa,” she said, laughing again. “I just loved Africa.”

The Jensens took their 2-year-old daughter and worked in Tanzania from 1957 to 1966. Bob helped to start Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, a regional hospital that is still the largest in the area. Rosemary taught at an international school and gave birth to two more daughters in a local mud brick hospital. And they both watched 34 African countries declare independence from Western Europe.

Those new governments started off shaky, as politicians sorted out power and responsibilities. Everyone was looking for support, and with their hospital connections and American passports, the Jensens were good friends to have. The couple “recognized the importance of working with African government and church leaders,” said Karen Elliott, who leads the foundation the Jensens’ started. Over the years, they built friendships with leaders across the continent.

“The grace of God puts us in the place he wants us to be, because he knows what he wants us to do,” Jensen said. Years later, her work would benefit from those decades-long friendships.

Bible Study Fellowship

The Jensens came back from Africa in 1966, eventually settling in San Antonio where Bob was chief of medicine at San Antonio State Chest Hospital and Rosemary started a Bible study in her home. One of her attendees connected her with Bible Study Fellowship (BSF)—a structured, expository study of the Bible developed by missionary Audrey Wetherell Johnson in 1959.

Rosemary Jensen with BSF founder Audrey Wetherell Johnson / Courtesy of Rafiki

“I was intrigued by her,” said Jensen. It was hard not to be. Johnson was also a former missionary, having spent 17 years in China—including two and a half years in a Japanese internment camp during World War II and another 18 months under house arrest before deportation by the communists. “I was also intrigued by the whole study because it was in-depth, it was good, it was strong, and it was demanding of people to study.”

Within two years, Jensen was a BSF area adviser; within seven years, she was running the whole operation. She spent nearly 20 years as executive director; under her watch, around 200 BSF classes grew to more than 900.

“In the meantime, I got to know a lot of people,” Jensen said. She’s not kidding. She and Bob were part of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and two of the 334 signers of the Chicago Statement. As head of BSF, she was invited to join the council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which over the years included Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Michael Horton, Al Mohler, and R. C. Sproul.

“But I’m not a theologian,” she told Presbyterian pastor James Montgomery Boice, who asked her to join.

“No, you’re not,” she remembers him saying. “We’re writing about it, but Rosemary, you’re doing it.”

Doing Theology

“My goal was to put BSF classes in Africa, because I was involved in those countries,” Jensen said. She and Bob had lived on his income while saving hers, which enabled them able to start the Rafiki Foundation. (Rafiki means “friend” in Swahili.) They started with two missionary couples who worked at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center during the day and taught BSF classes at night.

For 15 years, Jensen grew both BSF and Rafiki. She sent more vocational missionaries, and they started more BSF studies—40 in Africa and more around the world.

When Jensen was 70, she retired from BSF so she could focus on Rafiki. (Jensen is “an entrepreneur extraordinaire,” former Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor David Wells said. “She’s always looking for the project that needs to be done. She could’ve been the president of a Fortune 500 company.”)

Rafiki school buildings in Ethiopia / Courtesy of Rafiki

As a retirement gift, BSF gave Jensen seed money for an orphanage in Uganda. Immediately, she started looking for land in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ghana.

Within five years, Rafiki had at least 50 acres in each of 10 countries. More than half was given by church officials, government leaders, or tribal chiefs. “That was a result of the Jensens living out their commitment to be a friend—rafiki—to Africans since the ’60s,” Elliott said.

Jensen “came to Uganda to inform me about her desire to start a Rafiki establishment, which gives hope and education to young people who are in difficult circumstances,” said Ugandan First Lady and minister of education Janet Museveni. “I welcomed her to Uganda. . . . We share our love for the Lord, and it keeps us united.”

Jensen has “always wanted to give Africa the best,” Elliott said. Instead of rows of mats on the floor in a single large building, Rafiki put orphans on beds in small cottages, with running water, electricity, and house “mamas.” When nearby government schools turned out to be overcrowded and poorly run, Jensen built her own schools, using classical curriculum. When quality teachers were in short supply, Jensen added teachers’ colleges to each campus.

“Africa always seems to get the leftovers,” Elliott said. “It’s great to be part of something where the buildings are beautiful, the landscaping matters, and the curriculum is high quality. It’s the things you’d do for your own children.”

Rafiki Village in Nigeria / Courtesy of Rafiki

But about five years in, Rafiki was feeling feel the loss of the BSF materials.

“I remember the conversation with the Rafiki board about what we could do to ensure our orphans and their ‘mamas’ would always have their minds in the Bible,” said Wells, who was then a board member. “Someone said, ‘Well, why don’t we do something like BSF has done?’”

At that time, BSF had a daily exegetical Bible study created for around 20 books of the Bible.

“Yes,” Jensen said immediately. “Except we’ll do the whole Bible.”

“Mercifully, I didn’t open my mouth,” Wells said. “But I was doing this mercenary calculation. I thought, ‘Okay, you’ve got 66 books of the Bible. How many hours will it take? How many kids do we have?’”

High-Quality Bible Study

It took more than 10 years.

Jensen used her connections to corral Reformed pastors and professors to write the studies—Bob Godfrey. Rick Phillips. Palmer Robertson. Dennis Johnson. Guy Waters. (She can be very persuasive. Her staff joke that “God is sovereign, and Rosemary has a plan for your life.”)

Then “she started sending lessons to me, saying, ‘Would you please vet these?’” Wells remembers. “I sort of informally became the editor of the whole thing.”

Wells and Jensen / Courtesy of Rafiki

He was a good choice. Wells grew up in Zimbabwe, and he and Jensen had the same vision: Since Africa does not have a plethora of Bible commentaries and resources, they’d have a little commentary on each book. It would be written for adults, then geared down for the children. The theology would be Reformed. And the context—the illustrations and examples and references—would be African.

“I edited every one carefully,” Wells said. Two years in, he retired from the seminary, but kept his office. He went back in every day, writing a book and editing the Rafiki Bible study.

“I couldn’t even guess how many hours it took,” he said. “We couldn’t accept some, and that’s why I ended up writing five of them. But we were determined to have a consistent Reformed vision and quality without overriding the personality of the writer or the book they were commenting on.”

The lesson on John 1:1–18 starts by listing the doctrinal focus, which includes the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Trinity, and Christ as God’s revealer. Then follows four or five pages of commentary, to be read on Days 1 and 2 along with the text.

“Because he is God, Jesus reveals God,” wrote Rick Phillips, who is also a TGC Council member. “Moreover, Jesus possesses the power of God’s grace actually to enable sinners to believe. This is why John says, ‘we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14), and ‘the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). Jesus not only provides us with information about God, but he grants grace, through faith, to know God and be saved.”

Children doing the Rafiki Bible Study / Courtesy of Rafiki

Days 3 through 7 list questions to consider, but they aren’t the painfully obvious Sunday school ones. An example: “Psalm 33:6 says, ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made.’ How did God’s Word create the heavens and the earth? When John describes Jesus as ‘the Word,’ what does this say about Jesus’s role in accomplishing God’s will? How did Jesus accomplish God’s will when he came to earth? Read Psalm 107:20. How does God’s Word not only bring creation but also salvation?”

The studies come in eight different versions—for Rafiki mamas, for national workers, and for multiple grade levels. (“What is the Trinity?” asks the 4th-to-6th-grade lesson. “What is the incarnation?”)

Each week includes a verse and a Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer to memorize. (This lesson’s catechism: “What is forbidden in the first commandment?”)

More than 10 years and thousands of pages later, Jensen had her Bible study.

“It’s quite an amazing thing,” Wells said.

Giving it Away

“We don’t sell our Bible study,” Jensen said. “I don’t believe in selling the Bible.”

She rolled it out in the 10 Rafiki schools, which educate about 800 orphans and another 1,300 kids from the surrounding communities. At the same time, Rafiki employees and teachers’ college students and widows’ groups started using it. Then Jensen called up those old friends and established partnerships with 23 African denominations—which run about 20,000 schools. In the next decade, Rafiki expects to see at least 1,000 church schools adopt both Christian classical curriculum and also the Rafiki Bible study.

Rafiki teachers in Uganda use the study in small groups / Courtesy of Rafiki

“Parents are bringing children to our schools and within a few months saying, ‘My child is a different child. What are you doing?’” Elliott said. “We’ve had young men and women who have maybe been churched but been taught a gospel of works or prosperity theology tell us, ‘Now I understand grace. I really do know the Lord now, and I’m secure in my salvation.’”

One of those students is Joy John, who grew up in the Rafiki village in Jos, Nigeria. She and her siblings were scattered among relatives before an aunt enrolled her.

“I have thought of how life would have gone with me if I had never been brought to Rafiki,” she told TGC. John is now 22 and studying accounting at Bingham University in Nigeria. “I would have never known God the way I do now. I would have been a regular Sunday churchgoer and never really know the essence of attending service. I thank God for the personal relationship Rafiki has helped me develop with Jesus.”

Still Going

“I remember when I first met Rosemary I was struck by her commitment to the Scriptures,” Cleveland-area pastor and TGC Council member Alistair Begg said. “Her enthusiasm for discovering what the passage means and then explaining why it matters was infectious—and that is presumably why so many caught the bug for sanctified biblical scholarship.”

She’s not done. Nearly 90 and in a senior living apartment, Jensen is still the active president of the Rafiki Foundation. Now that the Bible study is complete, she’s working on a new project—getting Bibles into the hands of African pastors, seminary students, teachers, and schoolchildren. In 2017 she started the Rosemary Jensen Bible Foundation; so far, she’s sent out more than 40,000 Bibles.

“Rosemary Jensen is one of the most driven people I know,” Westminster Seminary California professor Michael Horton said. “And in all of her leading roles as a humble servant, Scripture has been the common denominator. She knows it, reads it, cherishes it, follows it, and literally sends it all over the world and especially throughout Africa. The personal friend of presidents and first ladies all across the continent, she has exploited every relationship not for her own political ends but for one purpose—to teach and reach the nations with God’s Word.”

Jonathan Carswell on the Value of Christian Biography

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

Jonathan Carswell loves books. More than that, he loves putting solid Christian books in the hands of believers as well as those who haven’t yet come to faith. And his love for good books is infectious.

Most Bible teachers I know also love books. But sometimes we get so caught up in reading what we need to read to prepare that we neglect the genre Carswell thinks every Christian, and especially Bible teachers, needs to read: Christian biography. I asked Carswell—chief executive officer of 10ofThose—to pick his top five Christian biographies and share them with listeners of Help Me Teach the Bible. Since our conversation I read the one he said was his favorite page-turner, and it did not disappoint.

Books Mentioned in our Conversation:

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible. And checkout the new TGC online bookstore.

Pave the Way for the Next Pastor

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:03am

As a new believer, my wife and I joined an older, well-established church. It had been planted decades earlier by a man with a huge personality, a deep love for the Lord, and a ton of wisdom.

We were the youngest members in the church. We listened with interest to the older saints, who spoke fondly of the “old days” when the church was growing, and they were a community marked by bold faith. As the pastor aged and his capacity decreased, the church seemed to follow suit. Several years after our arrival, the lead pastor went to be with his Great Shepherd. Sadly, his death plunged the church into a lasting season of depression, division, and decline.

I fear many young church planters may be leading their churches in a similar direction. For all the good this brother-pastor did, he hadn’t prepared his church for the inevitable—the day when he would no longer be their pastor. And the effects on the church were painfully evident.

For all the good this brother-pastor did, he hadn’t prepared his church for the inevitable—the day when he would no longer be their pastor.

Church-planting pastors need to prepare for their eventual departure. They need to pave the way for the next pastor.

‘Better Is the End’

As I’ve moved into church planting myself, I’ve tried to take Solomon’s advice to heart: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccles. 7:8).

Solomon’s structure creates a poetic parallel in which he compares two leaders and the range of their vision. The leader whose focus is solely on the beginning stage of his church plant, according to Solomon, is proud in spirit.

As a church planter, I’m tempted to get defensive at this point. I’m wired to navigate chaos, solve problems, and see and take hold of opportunities. In order for a young church plant to survive, church planters have to be focused on and responsive to the challenges of the day, right? How is this a manifestation of pride?

I don’t think it has to be. But as Solomon makes clear, pride can be present if my vision is truncated by ego or fear. It could be:

  • Pride in my own ability—I’ve worked with superhuman strength to plant this church and no one helped me. Why should I have to help the next guy?
  • The pride of youth—I’m young, and, yeah, I know I won’t live forever, but there’s always time to take care of that stuff later.
  • The pride of recognition—I love the attention and sense of importance that comes from people depending on me, and I feel threatened by the idea of transferring some of that trust to someone else.

In each case, pride can blind. It can keep us from the vital task of preparing for the future.

A wise church planter will seek to create a gospel culture that doesn’t die with him.

Unlike the prideful, short-sighted leader, Solomon says the leader who focuses on the end result of his labor is patient (and better). The application is clear: A wise church planter will intentionally build a leadership culture in the church that can be handed off to a new generation of leaders.

A good pastor will pave the way for the next one by patiently fostering a culture centered on the gospel, which creates in us an impulse to honor and love others more than ourselves. A wise church planter will seek to create a gospel culture that doesn’t die with him. And in order to do this, we must be “patient in spirit.”

Intentional Preparation

But that’s often the rub, that word “patient.” We hate it. As church planters, we tend to live on the far right of the “Ready-Aim-Fire” scale, and people who sit on the far left slowly kill our souls, since they don’t do anything quickly.

How can we—driven, entrepreneurial, change-oriented people—lead in a way that’s “patient in spirit”? And how will this help prepare our churches for our eventual—inevitable—departure?

Here are three things we can do to prepare our churches for the future while still charging the hill, solving problems, and maximizing current opportunities.

1. Give Away Power

Pray for and seek to raise up faithful elders to serve alongside you. If you are suddenly hit by a bus (physically or metaphorically), these leaders will be responsible to steward the mission of the gospel and—when the time comes—help find a pastor to replace you.

If these leaders have been shaped to simply rubber-stamp your leadership, they will flounder when it comes time for them to lead through turbulent transitions.

If these leaders have been shaped to simply rubber-stamp your leadership, they will flounder when it comes time for them to lead through turbulent transitions. If you believe God has raised them up, then trust and empower them.

2. Spread Trust

Highlight other leaders. Empower others to preach. Share the spotlight and tell other people’s stories. Reject the alluring lie of the solo, superhero church planter. Make it a regular practice to transfer credit to others, celebrating their meaningful contributions.

Remind yourself, pastor, that you are most fundamentally a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12–31). This will both reinforce your true dignity—which is defined by your union with Christ—and also root you in true humility, for you are no more valuable than any other member.

3. Lead the Church in Mission

Church planting doesn’t end when a church becomes viable and self-sustaining. A healthy church will keep growing in grace. Let’s constantly remind ourselves—and our churches—that true generosity flows from God’s generosity to us (2 Cor. 9:6–15).

As leaders, then, we must see it as critical to the church’s health to empower new leaders, send out missionaries, plant new churches, and stay in the flow of generosity at the heart of grace. Embracing the generosity of grace will help the church center its culture on blessing others instead of mere comfort or personal preference. And this will help set the stage for a successful leadership transition.

The Way Up Is Down

Pride makes us delusional. It makes us near-sighted. It makes us forget our lives are like withering grass (Isa. 40:6–7).

Humility, on the other hand, gives us far-sighted wisdom. The humble pastor doesn’t only fixate on the challenges, opportunities, and glories of the immediate. Rather, his eyes are on the horizon, recognizing the need to prepare the flock for the man who will replace him.

This Is ‘Us’: Making Monsters of Each Other

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

We’ve all been living upside down. That’s the point Jesus drives home in his Sermon on the Mount. Our priorities are backward. Rather than reflecting the kingdom of God and its king, our lives and choices often reflect our utterly twisted and selfish hearts.

This is also a theme that runs through Jordan Peele’s sophomore film, Us.

As a horror film, Us contains many intense and disturbing scenes (rated R for violence and language). But the film’s most disturbing feature is its incisive social—and even theological—commentary that emerges as the plot progresses.

Blood on Our Hands

Us opens with a slow zoom on a TV playing a commercial for a 1986 charity event called “Hands Across America.” It features red silhouettes of identically drawn people, holding hands in apparent solidarity for the poor and marginalized. This real historic event becomes an interpretive key for the remainder of the film, which is ostensibly about a violent intrusion into one middle-class family’s vacation. (Spoilers follow!)

The film follows the Wilson family—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex)—as they ward off attacks from “the tethered” (or “shadow people”) who rise from below ground in hopes of untethering themselves from their more fortunate, above-ground doppelgängers.

In order for her and her family to survive, Adelaide must either kill or be killed, as her double (“Red”) seeks retribution for her less fortunate upbringing. The inevitable result is increasingly bloodstained hands, as the plot builds to a climax in an underground classroom with walls decorated by various red handprints. Notably, however, Adelaide spends roughly half the movie with her own hands tethered by handcuffs, perhaps a symbol of her bondage to selfishness in seeking only the welfare of herself and her family.

Own Worst Enemies

We are, more often than not, our own worst enemies. Peele himself has indicated that he wanted this film to explore the duality within and the “guilt and sins we bury deep within ourselves.” The horrors we hide and the sins we try to submerge, Peele’s film suggests, will catch up with us eventually. There will be a reckoning. This is illustrated both by Adelaide’s white shirt, which gradually accumulates red handprints left by her own and her victims’ blood, and also by the use of antagonists who are simply the “shadow selves” of the traditional good guys.

The film is asking: Are those we view as our enemies really any different from us?

After Adelaide literally chases Red down the rabbit hole, the final twist is revealed: Our seeming protagonist is actually an antagonist. She assumed the identity of Adelaide some 30 years earlier by dragging her below the surface, and taking her spot above. The lines separating good and evil are thus blurred beyond recognition.

The film is asking: Are those we view as our enemies really any different from us?

But that is precisely why Us packs a memorable punch. It accurately indicts us for our tendency to scorn the imago Dei when we cast our neighbors as below us, less worthy, less human. The film exposes our tendency to erase “them” and concern ourselves only with “us.” This sinful refusal to love our neighbor reveals our own inhumanity, not theirs. It’s the kingdom ethics of the Sermon on the Mount—flipped upside down.

Horror of a Zero-Sum World

At one point Red exclaims, “We are Americans!” Is Peele’s title Us a double entendre, hinting at the current climate of the United States?

As it so often is, the horror genre is here used to explore societal horrors. In Peele’s last horror film, Get Out (2017), the societal horror concerned America’s unresolved racial tensions. In the case of Us, it’s the horror of a society increasingly characterized by dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game where one can win only if others lose, where the oppressed and the oppressors are always reversing roles.

Playing off familiar “upstairs/downstairs” tropes of class division (e.g., Downton Abbey), the have-nots in Us (“the tethered”) rise from tunnels hidden underground, in search of a better future. But their hope hinges on casting down those who live above. The assumption is that the “below” and “above” people could never coexist peacefully; they can only trade places or kill each other.

The film exposes our tendency to erase ‘them’ and concern ourselves only with ‘us.’ This sinful refusal to love our neighbor reveals our inhumanity, not theirs.

The tethered lack cognitive speech and communicate through primal grunts and groans, underscoring the way they’re seen by the above-ground people (as subterranean and sub-human monsters akin to zombies). Red is the only exception; she can speak, albeit with a disturbingly coarse and raspy inflection, and she acts as the spokeswoman for the tethered. A distorted messiah figure, Red believes her vision for liberating her people came from God himself. Here we see a sort of anti-Christ who mimics the biblical savior while perverting his mission. Jeremiah 11:11 is the film’s divine imperative: “Therefore, thus says the LORD: Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.”

While Red believes her mission is to speak up for and lead her fellow “shadows” on a retributive mission, it is not grace or compassion they seek, but disaster for their unsuspecting doppelgängers above. In a twisted perversion of “Hands Across America”—which sought to spur compassion between the haves and have-nots—Red orchestrates a version of the human chain that’s forged in blood: The have-nots getting their revenge on the haves, at last.

Descent to Become One of Us

As she descends into the depths of a dark underworld to rescue her child, Adelaide provides a distorted picture of Jesus, who left paradise to reclaim a people for himself and call us out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9). But unlike fire-poker-brandishing, wrathfully defensive Adelaide, Jesus humbled himself and took on the likeness of the lowly and humble (Phil. 2:7-8) in order to save us. Instead of descending to earth to flaunt his superiority and take our lives in judgment, he willingly laid down his own life and then rose so that we might rise with him (Col. 1:8). If ever someone had the right to look down on others and see them as undeserving of dignity, God did. Yet instead of destroying or demeaning us, he dignified us. He took on our flesh and redeemed us.

Instead of destroying or demeaning us, God dignified us. He took on our flesh and redeemed us.

Sadly, we so often don’t follow God’s example of amazing grace. In our own lives and relationships with others, we’re often more likely to withhold grace than extend it. As fallen humans, we are experts at elevating ourselves at the exploitative expense of others. We naturally gravitate toward zero-sum, survival-of-the-fittest, kill-or-be-killed ways of living. But this is in stark contrast to the ethics of God’s kingdom, which calls us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), to love our enemies, and to pray for our persecutors (Matt. 5:44).

Among other things, Peele’s Us reminds us that the those who have received mercy and grace from God—which is all of us who believe—should not withhold mercy and grace from others. To do otherwise is horror indeed.

Timothy George and the Leadership That Lifts

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

When I phoned Timothy George in 2002, I had been cut off from my spiritual heritage. Theological liberalism had robbed me of the evangelical Methodism that so many of my ancestors enjoyed. I had to leave the church of my youth to find that evangelical experience and theology. I had my Bible, and I had my conversion. But I didn’t know where I belonged.

Timothy George helped me to find that family history as an evangelical. And he’s been doing the same for generations before and after me, first as a professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then for the last 30 years as dean of Beeson Divinity School. He retires as Beeson’s dean in May, though his teaching and writing will continue. Because he has yet more to teach us about what happened in church history in those years between Jesus and our grandmothers. And he has more to teach us about leadership that endures by faith.

Our character—and our grasp of grace—is revealed in how we treat people who can’t enhance our résumé, can’t do anything for us, and can’t make our lives easier.

Many first learned from George in his widely read Theology of the Reformers, published in 1988. I don’t know of any better introduction to what the major 16th-century reformers taught and believed. The fact that it was published by B&H for the Southern Baptist Convention is significant. Recovering the reformers’ theology prepared a generation for the SBC’s conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s and then inspired the growth of Reformed theology in the SBC during the 2000s and 2010s.

Man of Patience, Kindness, and Integrity

But I first knew George through his work as an executive editor of Christianity Today. He served many years in that position alongside Thomas Oden and J. I. Packer, two more role models for generations of evangelicals. That day in 2002 I needed help on an article I was writing about the differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. I had studied the movement Evangelicals and Catholics Together during an undergraduate course on American evangelicalism, and I sympathized with R. C. Sproul’s critiques. Though George and Sproul didn’t see eye to eye on this matter, I knew George would be a reliable source. More important for a fledgling journalist, he proved to be an available one.

Sometimes the simple things prove to be the most memorable. I called Beeson, and his assistant patched me right through to him. I don’t remember how long we talked; it seemed like at least half an hour, but given my ignorance of the subject matter, I don’t know how I could have asked that many informed questions. But I recall so clearly his patience with me and passion for the topic. He had nothing to gain by talking to me. Maybe only a dozen people would ever read this article I wrote for a campus Christian magazine. So far as he knew, we’d never speak again.

He never seemed busy, never rushed, never eager to shuffle me along so he could move on to more important conversations or writings or readings.

I’m sure I didn’t break any new ground in the article. But that initial contact changed the trajectory of my life. Over the years I would have many occasions to visit Beeson, located in Birmingham near where my wife grew up. Whenever we were in town at the same time, George welcomed me to lunch or to his office to talk. When I asked him about seminary, he put me in touch with John Woodbridge at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Like George, Woodbridge welcomed my visits with no agenda and stayed as long as I wanted to talk. Again, he had little to nothing to gain in the exchange. But he never seemed busy, never rushed, never eager to shuffle me along so he could move on to more important conversations or writings or readings. Together they connected me to Trinity International University president David Dockery, who demonstrates the same virtues of patience and kindness.

My favorite thing about Timothy George is a trait he shares with these friends. I know he doesn’t treat me in some special way. This is who he is, no matter who’s on the other end of the phone, and no matter who’s on the other side of the lunch table. He has traveled the world, written landmark books, taught the most influential evangelical leaders in the United States, and dined with the heads of the largest Christian communions. And he’s the same ambassador of Christ to all.

Future Evangelical Leadership

The occasion of George’s retirement as Beeson’s dean has made me reflect on evangelical leadership. In the last year, the top position has opened up at a staggering number of leading evangelical churches, schools, and other institutions: not only Beeson and Trinity where George and Dockery have served, but also Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, International Mission Board, SBC Executive Committee, Park Street Church, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church, Christianity Today International, Willow Creek Community Church, LifeWay Christian Resources, and many more. Several of these positions have recently been filled. Others remain open. All face unique and daunting challenges.

Leadership that lifts the least is leadership that lasts for generations.

I’m hopeful for the rising generation of leaders because God is faithful to his church. And I hope we learn the right lessons from the leaders before us who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Our character—and our grasp of grace—is revealed in how we treat people who can’t enhance our résumé, can’t do anything for us, and can’t make our lives easier. Even when facing our enemies, we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Leadership that lifts the least is leadership that lasts for generations.

How I’m Carrying the Legacy of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot

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

Many times during my adult years, I’ve been asked if I felt burdened by “having to be like” my mother. I’ve often said no, because for about 20 years, I wasn’t consciously thinking I had to be.

When I went to Wheaton College, I assumed I would be like my two amazing parents in zeal for God and study habits. I had a carefree, expectant attitude that “of course, I would be like them” because I wanted to be. I was naïve.

My Father’s Words to Live By

I hadn’t read the whole book The Journals of Jim Elliot until about six years ago. I had perused it, searching for the “good parts,” but I’d never  read it all the way through.

When I did, I came across four maxims, and it dawned on me that these were ideals that I could live by, with God’s help. Now that I’m no longer the youthful and carefree idealist I was when I entered Wheaton, I see much more clearly that serious prayer and meditation are keys to making these my own.

  1. “Answer to the rudder, or answer to the rocks.”
  2. “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” (This is the one most people quote, along with “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose”).
  3. “Determination, not desire, determines destiny.”
  4. “He who maketh Ease his god, Sufficiency his altar, Pleasure his priest, and Time his offering knows not what man is born for.”

This simple fourth sentence scrawled from my father’s pen convicted me. I felt that I’d often made ease my god. I’d quietly assumed that my own sufficiency could accomplish things, whenever I felt like it, by generally doing whatever pleased me.

I realized that my many “wants” over the years became “wishes,” but not actual accomplishments. I struggled for the first two years at Wheaton because I didn’t realize what self-discipline and diligence it would take to be as excellent a student as my parents were.

Mother’s Wise Instruction

My natural personality is spontaneous, fun-loving, and easily distracted; in fact, the Indians once called me “pilipinto,” which means butterfly. I remember my mother stressing to me that when I did my chores, I had to do them thoroughly. I couldn’t skip off to do something I’d rather do.

I also remember her telling me, when I thought I was really “dumb” in junior high, that I wasn’t dumb; I just wasn’t applying myself to my studies! She was teaching me, as a good mother should, that we live by principles, not by feelings.

Determination, as my father wrote, reminds me that I mustn’t be tempted to stray from the job at hand. I must go about the work God wants of me today, whether it’s writing or washing dishes.

Weight of Legacy

In 2015, after my mother died, when I began planning the memorial service at Wheaton College, I was overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility of the legacy, which I felt lay on my shoulders to carry to others. I knew that her brilliance, her writing ability, her clarity of thought, and her absolute determination to obey Christ above all other desires were gifts given to her that I didn’t have.

With tears, I said to my husband, “I can’t carry this; it’s too heavy!”

He had a wise answer: “It’s not yours to carry, Val. It is Christ’s. All you will be doing is pointing to him, showing others his love, and expressing your love for the same Lord she loved and obeyed.”

I was so relieved to hear that, because I knew God would be faithful to help me, just as he was faithful to her.

I remember well how often she quoted the verse from Isaiah 50:7, and how thankful I am that she truly lived it:

The LORD God will help me; therefore I have not been humiliated; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

Grateful for the Legacy

Instead of being intimidated by my parents’ remarkable legacies of faith and love, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for them.

What an example of godliness, life in the Spirit, and love by his grace did I experience in knowing my mother!

And having written Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, I now know my father better, too. His zest for life, good cheer, and unflagging zeal for God’s glory have all deeply affected me.

How thankful I am to have had this unique opportunity to learn more about them and their love for the Lord and each other.

The Strategic Friendship of Financial Supporters

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 12:02am

The first overseas missionary I remember meeting was a single woman who lived in Africa. She stayed in our home for a week and gave me a lovely necklace of polished gray seeds that came from her beloved Angola. In the evenings, she told stories that danced in my young imagination—images of African animals, villages, dusty hospitals, and exuberant worship services. She was the first of many missionaries who became our friends as my parents demonstrated the joy of giving generously, praying consistently, and joining the work of the gospel from afar.

So when I found myself raising support to work with Cru years later, the friendship of my own support team shouldn’t have been a great surprise. But I’ve marveled at it again and again.

The friendships that blossom between a career missionary and the radically generous supporters who hold up her arms is a remarkable thing. Not only do these friendships offer strength to missionaries in difficult valleys; they literally change the world.

It has been so since the beginning of the missionary movement.

Theophilus, a Most Excellent Friend

Consider: If it hadn’t been for Theophilus, our Bibles might not contain Luke or Acts.

We owe nearly a third of the New Testament to a friendship that spilled over from God to Theophilus (“friend of God”), from Theophilus to Luke, and finally on to us.

The friendships that blossom between a career missionary and the radically generous supporters who hold up her arms is a remarkable thing.

We don’t know much about the mystery man to whom both Luke and Acts are addressed. But some scholars speculate that Luke’s writing (and perhaps Paul’s missionary journeys) were financed by him. The Gospel of Luke may have been similar to a modern missionary prayer letter, reporting back “an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

Luke, as John Rinehart points out, peppered his accounts with unique stories about Jesus and money, from parables about lavish generosity to stories of women who funded Jesus’s traveling ministry. It’s as if the good doctor wanted to connect with his benefactor by showing how Theophilus’s own investment reaped eternal reward.

And just as Luke dedicated his work to the “most excellent Theophilus,” we missionaries and pastors all over the world owe a debt of gratitude to our most excellent friends, the supporters and teammates who are patrons of the gospel.

Sustaining Power of Friendship

Let’s face it: the privilege of raising support isn’t always regarded as a great prize. The seemingly endless calls, letters, appointments, and asks (“would you prayerfully consider supporting our ministry?”) are so scary to potential missionaries that many either give up before they begin or head off in search of a paid ministry position.

But the transition from an initially awkward support presentation to a robust, decades-long friendship is extraordinary. By the time most missionaries have assembled a sufficient team to get out onto the field, a high percentage of their partners are people who were recently strangers and are now friends.

Over the years, my husband and I have gone through deep valleys of discouragement and seasons of prolonged spiritual attack. All along the way, our supporters have offered countless words and deeds of kindness. As Proverbs 17:17 puts it, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”

This is the kind of love that allows me to call up a distant friend for prayer, only to burst into tears over the phone. My husband and I have been fed a thousand meals, invited to stay in a dozen homes. Three times our car died, and generous supporters replaced it. Once a whole group of supporters flew out to perform an Extreme Makeover on our home (before the TV show existed). We’ve had anonymous gifts arrive with exactly the needed amount of money at exactly the right moment, tangible evidence of the power of prayer.

Exodus 17 offers a great picture of the sustaining power of friendship when Moses sends Joshua to fight the Amalekites:

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. (Ex. 17:11–13).

A missionary’s endurance is an answer to the prayers of her friends.

A missionary’s endurance is an answer to the prayers of her friends.

And this friendship is a beautiful two-way street. Over the years, we’ve had the honor of praying for our supporters through bouts of cancer, the death of a spouse, career changes, and crises of faith. We were thrilled when one supporter’s unbelieving husband trusted in Christ, or when another sold his impressive house to go into full-time ministry himself. We have joined our supporters in their own evangelistic efforts and have had the pleasure of sharing bits of our story in their Bible studies and classes.

World-Changing Power

Many of the amazing moments in church history were made possible by generous friends behind the scenes. William Tyndale’s Bible translation, William Carey’s missionary journeys, George Müller’s orphanages, Brother Andrew’s Bible smuggling—all of them were brought about by concentrated friendship born of generosity and openhearted, openhanded faith.

Such is the God we serve that when he wants to build a temple, he doesn’t wave a wand but stirs the hearts of his children to generously, joyfully give. When he wants to reach a nation, he rarely sends a company of glorious angels. Instead he sends a team of fallible humans. And when he wants to use an individual, he rarely chooses the most gifted, but the most ordinary—propped up by the quiet prayers and tangible love of her friends.

Why Our Conception of God Is Coherent

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

Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, titled “A God Problem.” The subhead hints at what the perceived problem entails: “Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”

If you’re going to claim that people’s conception of God is not only wrong, but incoherent, and do so on the nation’s most prominent editorial pages you should probably have a strong, or at least compelling, argument. Atterton’s argument, as many people pointed out on social media, is the type that should earn a freshman a failing grade (or maybe a C if the teacher is generous).

While it’s tempting to ignore it altogether, there are solid reasons why it deserves a rebuttal. The fact that the argument is made by an expert (i.e., a professional philosopher) and published in America’s paper of record gives is an air of underserved credibility. This might lead some people to question whether our beliefs about God’s attributes really are incoherent. And while some people may intuitively understand that the article is flawed, they may not be able to explain the reasons to themselves or to others.

Ultimately, it deserves a response because, as C.S. Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” While an academic philosopher could provide a more thorough counterargument, I thought it might be useful to provide an explanation that would be comprehensible for lay people like me.

Are God’s Attributes Logical?

Atterton says, “As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?”

How should we answer this question? Are these attributes logical? What’s the standard to make such a determination?

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a reputable and peer-reviewed resource on philosophy, includes an entry on the “Logical Problem of Evil.” In that entry, James R. Beebe explains what is required to establish whether a claim is logically possible:

How would you go about finding a logically possible x? Philosophers claim that you only need to use your imagination. If you can conceive of a state of affairs without there being anything contradictory about what you’re imagining, then that state of affairs must be possible. In a word, conceivability is your guide to possibility.

We’ll play by the rules of the philosophers and use conceivability as our guide to possibility. To determine whether claims about God’s attributes hold together, all we need to do is show that they are conceivable and not obviously logically contradictory.

Can God be All-Powerful?

The claim that God is all-powerful refers to his omnipotence. It’s unclear if Atterton thinks this attribute is wholly logically impossible since he cite a convincing counter-response:

You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.

The way out of this dilemma is usually to argue, as Saint Thomas Aquinas did, that God cannot do self-contradictory things. Thus, God cannot lift what is by definition “unliftable,” just as He cannot “create a square circle” or get divorced (since He is not married). God can only do that which is logically possible.

Most Christians define omnipotence in a way that means God can only do that which is in keeping with his character and that he cannot do what goes against his character. In other words, God can only do that which is in keeping with his nature and cannot act in a way (i.e., by creating a stone he cannot lift) that negates his own omnipotence.

Can God Be Morally Perfect?

Perhaps Atterton is not merely skeptical about omnipotence in general but only in how it is specifically connected to God’s moral perfection, for he contends that the existence of a morally perfect being is incompatible with the existence of evil. He says, “[C]an God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.”

Atterton is correct in one sense: it does appear to be logically possible that God could have created a world in which evil does not exist. But his implication is that since that claim is true (or possibly true), it’s opposite much also be true, that is, that it is not logically possible for God to created a world in which evil exist.

But that is not a logical conclusion. In the entry on the “Logical Problem of Evil” that we just mentioned, Beebe notes,

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that [philosopher of religion Alvin] Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist.

To be logically possible for God and evil to co-exist we simply need to describe a situation in which it is possible for God and evil co-exist. Does a Christian have sufficient evidence to believe that evil exist? Yes, we unfortunately have an abundance of both external and internal evidence to validate that belief. Does a Christian have sufficient evidence to believe that God exist? Again, yes, we have an abundance of both external and internal evidence to validate that belief. Why then should we believe it is logically impossible for the two to co-exist when we have sufficient justification for both beliefs?

For our purposes here, we don’t need to develop an argument that is philosophically rigorous (though Plantinga and other Christians have done so). All that is required is to establish that God’s moral perfection is consistent with the existence of evil is postulate a single plausible reason. The reason many Christians would give is that God allows evil to exist—for now—because it maximizes his own glory. Whether you agree or not, that reason is sufficient to resolve the perceived logical contradiction.

Can God Be All-Knowing?

Omniscience is typically defined in terms of knowledge of all true propositions. It can be formulated as: God is omniscient if for every proposition X, if X is true then God knows X.

But instead of focusing on propositional knowledge, Atterton makes the peculiar claim that,

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

Atterton makes two errors that lead to his confusion. The first is he misunderstands the source of moral perfection. What we call the good are merely characteristics that describe God’s nature. God is not good because he possesses certain properties, such as justice, mercy, generosity, etc. Rather, we call these properties good because they are properties of God. God is the standard of moral perfection by which we know and judge imperfection and sin.

Second, Atterton redefines omniscience to include first-hand subjective knowledge of every possible experience. For example, he says that one “cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.” Does God have, or need, such knowledge to be all-knowing?

Jesus, who is both human and divine, certainly understood the subjective experience of temptation. During his earthly ministry he was tempted to sin in his human nature, but did not do so because he relied on the Holy Spirit. He could not be tempted in his divine nature, though, because God cannot be tempted to act in way that is contradictory to his own nature. While Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted, neither the Father nor the Son know what it is like from an internal subjective perspective to commit a sin, such as engaging in lust or envy.

But this has no bearing on omnipotence because God’s attribute of all-knowingness—his omniscience—is limited in the same way his all-powerfulness—his omnipotence—is limited. Just as God cannot act in a way that is contrary to his perfect moral nature, he cannot know in a way that is contrary to his character. Just as God cannot negate his omnipotence by creating a stone so heavy he can’t lift it, God cannot negate his omniscience by knowing what it’s like to have the internal subjective experience of sin. God would not be God if he knew what it was like to be Satan rebelling against God.

Atterton’s Errors

Throughout his op-ed Atterton commits two types of fallacies. The first is the fallacy of equivocation—using an ambiguous term in more than one sense that makes an argument misleading. Whether a claim is logically impossible depends on what the user means by the terms involved. For example, when the Christian claims that God is all-powerful and all-knowing we have specific meanings and definitions in mind. But Atterton applies different meanings—meanings that most Christians would reject—and then attempts to claim that based on his use of the terms the concepts are logically incoherent. If he truly wants to show our concepts are incoherent, he must use our actual conception rather than a strawman version.

The second error is that Atterton commits the fallacy of personal incredulity, a fallacy especially common among atheists. His argument can be summarized as, “Personally, I cannot imagine how these claims about God’s attributes could be logically possible; therefore the claim that that they are logically possible must be false” Just because Atterton does not find the claims about God’s attributes to be convincing, though, does not mean they aren’t true. The onus is on him to support his assertion that our beliefs about God’s attributes are actually incoherent.

As we’ve seen, though, by the standards used by professional philosophers it is rather easy to show that God’s attributes of moral perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience are logically possible. The reason most Westerners have accepted the idea that our concept God is coherent is because it is actually coherent. While it’s true that, as Pascal said, the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob is not necessarily the god of the philosophers and scholars, in this case there is not contradiction between, as Atterton claims, the “wisdom” in biblical revelation and the philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature.

Evangelism and Social Action Are Close Friends

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

Eighteen years ago when I first came to Japan as a missionary, I had to clarify my purpose. The Japanese unbelievers around me wondered aloud about the nature and intent of my work. A young Japanese Christian even told me, “We don’t need missionaries anymore.”

If my aim was conversions to Christ, it wasn’t a popular mission.

When we encounter skepticism about our evangelistic efforts, it can be tempting to answer, “Oh no, I don’t want to convert you. I want to serve you. I want to show you God’s love.”

But when we fall into this kind of mentality, we can lose sight of the gospel of grace. We can begin to think we need a larger gospel and a broader mission to better engage the culture. Of course, we do need to establish credibility and the right to speak. If Japanese people think I spend my days in their country just hanging out and going out to eat a lot, that doesn’t really inspire respect for my message. It looks like laziness to the Japanese, who themselves are often working long hours every day. Gaining respect from these hard-working skeptics was one reason I taught English in colleges for 10 years.

Since living out the gospel gives credence to our words, I also looked for ways to serve while bearing good witness for Christ. At that time, there were no homes for pregnant women in Japan, children were generally placed in orphanages rather than in adoptive families, and there was no such thing as post-abortion counseling. It seemed natural for me, as a follower of Christ, to get involved. This is how some Japanese Christians and I came to run a crisis pregnancy center, a home for pregnant women, and a post-abortion counseling ministry. We also run a neighborhood cafe that serves as a workplace for the pregnant women who live with me.

Over the years, I’ve practiced “Word ministry” and “mercy ministry” simultaneously. But I’ve also noticed that those of us who are deeply concerned about social activism can easily fall into self-righteousness. We aren’t like others who are just “trying to convert people.” We’re holistically engaging the world and making it a better place!

Since God does call some of us to be involved in social action, how are we to go about it without becoming just like the world we’re supposedly trying to change? We must never forget our first calling is to obey the Great Commission. We’re soldiers of the cross, not mere social activists who happen to be Christians.

Soldiers of the Cross

In our justice work, we can often gain acceptance from the world and better people’s lives. That is well and good. But if, in the end, they die without Christ, then—for them, at least—all is lost. As soldiers of the cross, we always hope that our actions will result in greater opportunities for people to hear, believe, and obey the gospel.

In 2011, a Japanese filmmaker featured our work supporting adoption in a documentary which identified me as a Christian missionary. This documentary was the first in a series that greatly influenced the image of adoption in Japan. Because of the documentary, and my own adoption of a boy with Down syndrome, I was asked, along with Japanese adoption advocates, to speak to members of the Japanese government in Tokyo as they considered new, restrictive adoption policies.

Eventually, the officials decided to continue to allow private adoption agencies such as the Christian one we use. Rather quickly, the government went from anti-adoption to decidedly pro-adoption. In fact, our local government often sends pregnant women to our ministry to live—even knowing the women will be required to have devotions with me every night and go to church.

In our work, we must remember that we can’t save people, but we can plant seeds. Shizuka (not her real name) was a determined, hard-working woman who decided to carry her child to term, partly because of a phone conversation we had early in her pregnancy. When she became homeless, she moved into our ministry for the last weeks of her pregnancy. Shizuka arrived angry and stayed angry until the day she left. She blamed me that she hadn’t gotten an abortion. During Bible study, she and her neighbor often scoffed. Shizuka didn’t like Christians.

After she left, she was able to get a job, and she gradually came to love her son. Over the years, I kept in touch and continued to pray. Slowly, Shizuka softened. She started attending a church nearby, where the pastor’s wife became a great help to her. Eventually, I received a photo of her baptism! A few days ago, she sent me a letter with photos of her and her son on a vacation. This tough skeptic has become a wonderful Christian mother.

When I am only in social activist mode, I tend to focus on what I am doing. Am I making a big enough difference? But when I remember I’m first a soldier of the cross, I focus more on what God is doing. That’s why, after asking for permission, I pray with post-abortion clients. Many times, the woman (or man) will break down during the prayer, and then ask to receive our gospel-centered counseling. God can do that; I can’t.

As soldiers of the cross, we do everything in the name of Jesus, with the hope of planting seeds that will blossom into the salvation of image-bearers who become disciples. We have an ultimately eternal perspective, both for ourselves and also for those we serve.

Ultimate Problem, Ultimate Solution

Jesus made it clear that saving one lost sheep is worth nearly everything. It moves angels to dance for joy. As Christians, we want to love our neighbors and bring practical blessing to as many as possible, but only the gospel of grace has the power to save. In the end, everyone’s biggest problem is their need for God’s forgiveness of their own sin (e.g., Matt. 9:1–8). Without this mindset, we are in danger of helping people down a broad path that leads to an improved life here, but destruction in the end.

Additionally, a solider of the cross will long for Christ’s return. Christ is the ultimate Warrior who will put all things right. In the meantime, we fulfill the Great Commission.

As we bear witness for him, God may call us to renew aspects of culture, to endure persecution, to feed his sheep, to serve faithfully in a humdrum life, or to be martyrs. This requires much wisdom for how we conduct ourselves during our brief time on earth. Regardless of our unique callings, however, Christians everywhere and at all times must be willing to “go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:13–14).

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Elliot Clark

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 12:03am

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Elliot Clark—author of Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Land (TGC), released at the 2019 TGC National Conference—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, books that have most influenced his thinking about evangelism and missions, and more.

What books are on your nightstand?

I’m not nearly the recreational reader that my wife and children are, so if you see stacks of books around the house, it’s not likely they belong to me. That said, I do have a few on the nightstand. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson boasts the longest bedside tenure. I’m slowly puttering through it. On top of it is Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame, which my wife and I are reading (separately) and discussing together. I’ve also begun Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Luther, Here I Stand. It’s replacing A Nation Forged by Crisis by Jay Sexton that I just returned to the library today.

Since I’ve been teaching and preaching from the Gospels recently, my desk at Training Leaders International is cluttered with relevant books, including:

What are your favorite fiction books?

When I have space to read outside of work and study, I’m most naturally drawn to historical non-fiction from an author like Erik Larson or to topics that interest me such as World War II or Central Asian culture. However, since I’m new to living in Minnesota, I’ve recently picked up a local fiction author, Leif Enger, and enjoyed the unpredictable prose of his newly released Virgil Wander, though I don’t think it can compare to his Peace Like a River.

What books have most influenced your thinking about evangelism and global missions?

On evangelism, three books stand out: Tell the Truth by Will Metzger, Marks of the Messenger by Mack Stiles, and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer (all published by IVP, I’m now noticing).

More broadly, I would say that I’ve been deeply affected by Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Its sheer number of dog-eared pages bears witness to the paradigm-shifting influence it had on me a dozen years ago. As a younger Christian, missionary biographies also inspired me, with Basil Miller’s concise Ann Judson: Heroine of Burma holding pride of place in my memory.

On the missionary task more generally, there are so many wonderful resources. But the biblical theology in Salvation to the Ends of the Earth by Kostenberger and O’Brien undoubtedly was most formative for my understanding of God’s purpose in the world. More recently, I’ve benefited much from Rosaria Butterfield’s writing, in particular: The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

What’s the last great book you read?

I’m not sure if this question is about the last book I thought was great, or the last book that I read that has, over time, been recognized as great literature. Either way, I would unquestionably list Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Her harrowing account of slave life in the antebellum South left me eviscerated. I also recently reread On the Incarnation by Athanasius on a plane ride to Romania; it was helpful preparation before teaching John’s Gospel.

Is there a page from a book that changed your life?

There probably isn’t one page that I could point to as having changed my life. Though, as soon as I write that, the thought comes that every page I’ve ever read (and understood) has changed my life somehow, however incrementally.

Without a doubt, though, I can point to a chapter that still rests heavy in my consciousness. My older brothers gave me a copy of Knowing God on my wedding day back in 2000. Reading that book on a starless night outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, I remember being struck by Packer’s beautiful chapter on the fatherhood of God. He opens it with these words: “What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father” (200).

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

I answer this without hesitation. In fact, I just recommended it to some pastors in Moldova last month: The Cross and Christian Ministry by Don Carson. Succinct. Straightforward. Biblical. Helpful.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I suppose I’m still trying to learn and relearn the lessons Carson lays out in that book, those sticky truths about the cross and costly discipleship that Bonhoeffer himself uncovered. The call to follow Christ is a call to die. And live. To follow in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant is to serve and suffer like him. But if we die with him, we will rise with him. If we suffer with him, we will reign with him.

If we call God our Father, who is himself the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we shouldn’t be surprised when he allows us, his children, to suffer like his Son. The servant is not greater than his Master.

You Are Not Enough for Your Kids

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 12:03am

Last year, a new book argued that moms should stay home for the first three years of their phildren’s lives. Because I stay home with two of my children (two others are in school), I find encouragement in studies that prove my time with them is serving a purpose. When research argues for my existence at home, I feel validated. It might be hard, but it’s necessary for my kids, right?

But then, one day, I couldn’t be at home anymore.

Before the birth of our fourth son, I spent a month in the hospital away from our older three children. For four weeks, I wasn’t their primary caregiver. In fact, I wasn’t their caregiver at all. I didn’t know what they ate, when they slept, or if they’d been bathed in the recent past.

I’m not going to pretend it was easy on them to be away from Mom, but they survived. And so did I.

Right Amount of Time

As they get older, and as I spend more time away from them because of school or my own work schedule, I continue to wrestle with the same issues I faced in the hospital: How much time with my kids is enough?

Scripture doesn’t specifically answer this question, but it’s clear on some things. Moses told the people of Israel to teach their children to love God with all that’s in them (Deut. 6:7; Prov. 22:6). Parents (and fathers, specifically) are commanded to train their children in the Lord and not provoke them to anger (Eph. 6:4). The Bible is even clear on what happens when you don’t teach your children the ways of the Lord. Judges, Ezra, and Nehemiah show the consequences of failing to pass on these truths to the next generation. So the takeaway here is evident—parents have a spiritual obligation to their children. But while God has tasked parents with the responsibility of raising their children to know him, like so much in Scripture, he doesn’t give us a step-by-step plan. He leaves a lot to wisdom, not prescription. We need to apply the truths of Scripture to our time and place.

Part of that application is acknowledging that stay-at-home mom culture today looks different from the reality experienced by women throughout the world and throughout history. With our relative wealth and surplus leisure time, modern Americans are able to worry about things many moms haven’t been able to. We leave our kids for a date or for a job or for an afternoon alone, and think: Are they okay? Are they getting enough time with me? We send them to school, and wonder: How will I know if they’re having trouble? Will they get enough Christian input throughout the day?

I still worry about these questions, but I learned something in the month-long separation from our children that encourage me as I process whether to entrust my children to others.

Consistent Community

Raising children isn’t meant to be an exclusively two-parent endeavor. It’s meant to be done in community. My forced separation taught me that I don’t have to be the center of my kids’ universe. During our time apart, I watched church family and blood family care for my kids with love. I saw that life went on even if I wasn’t there. I learned that my children will be well-adjusted, well-behaved, and loved even if I’m not the one doing most of the training all day every day.

Raising children isn’t meant to be an exclusively two-parent endeavor. It’s meant to be done in community.

And as our kids see that other people can meet their needs, they see the body of Christ in action. My kids love our church family who watched them round the clock while we were in the hospital. They learned that God’s people depend on each other, and even when their blood family isn’t there, God’s people can be. As Christian parents, we want our children to be fully functioning members of Christ’s body, and for that to happen they must experience serving and being served by the church.

This is especially evident in times of crisis, but our children need other people on a regular basis. My kids benefit greatly from their weekly babysitter, their teachers, their friends, and all the other people God has placed in our lives.

Still, our separation was difficult, and I worried about the effect on my kids. But I once heard Paul Tripp say that our parenting can’t be reduced to moments; rather, it’s a compilation of moments. This one month-long saga in our family is just that—one month. While the situation may affect my kids, it doesn’t have to define them forever. They’re shaped by the long game of parenting, not the short one, even if that short moment was hard on all of us. I love my children. Others love them. And even if at some point no one is there for them, I hope they will come to depend on the One we’re all pointing them toward—the God who doesn’t ever leave.

Christ’s Letters to the 7 Churches

Sun, 03/31/2019 - 12:04am

God speaks to his people throughout the Scriptures. But what does he say to actual local churches?

To that end, we set aside time to study Jesus’s words to his church from the Book of Revelation at Clarus ‘19 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Kevin DeYoung and H. B. Charles Jr. preached sermons from the sections of Scripture known as the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

Attended by 700 from across the region, Clarus is TGC’s Southwest Regional Conference hosted by Desert Springs Church in partnership with TGC Albuquerque.

Below, you’ll find videos from each of the talks, including links to audio and summaries. You can also see posts from this year’s conference that include photos, songs we sang, and session summaries.

Session 1—Kevin DeYoung

“The Vision of the Son of Man” (videoaudio | blog recap)

Session 2—H. B. Charles Jr.

“Ephesus” (video | audio | blog recap)

Session 3—Kevin DeYoung

“Smyrna” (video | audio | blog recap)

Session 4—H. B. Charles Jr.

“Pergamum” (video | audio | blog recap)

Session 5—Kevin DeYoung

“Thyatira” (video | audio | blog recap)

Session 6—H. B. Charles Jr.

“Sardis” (video | audio | blog recap)

Session 7—Panel Discussion with Kevin DeYoung

(video | audio)

Session 8—Kevin DeYoung

“Philadelphia” (video | audio)

Session 9—Kevin DeYoung

“Laodicea” (video | audio | blog recap)

Wrap-up posts from previous Clarus conferences:

9 Things You Should Know About Special Olympics

Sat, 03/30/2019 - 12:04am

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had recently proposed cutting the $17.6 million federal appropriation for Special Olympics. After the move received bipartisan criticism, President Trump said on Thursday he had “overridden my people” and that “the Special Olympics will be funded.”

Here are nine things you should know about the world’s largest sports organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities.

1. The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for the 200 million children and adults around the world with intellectual disabilities. (Athlete eligibility is based on a person’s primary disability. People with primary or exclusively physical disabilities are eligible for Paralympics.) The organization gives them “continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”

2. Special Olympics is for those who have an intellectual disability (ID), a term used when a person has certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social, and self-care skills. According to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, an individual has ID if he or she has an IQ less than 70-75, has significant limitations in two or more adaptive areas (skills that are needed to live, work, and play in the community, such as communication or self-care), and the condition manifests itself before the age of 18.

3. Special Olympics supports more than 5 million athletes, 1 million coaches and volunteers, and about 100,000 competitions each year. The program offers 32 Olympic-style individual and team sports in more than 170 countries. The list of sports and events includes alpine skiing, track and field, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, cricket, cross-country skiing, cycling, equestrian, figure skating, floorball, floor hockey, football (soccer), golf, gymnastics (artistic and rhythmic), handball, judo, kayaking, motor activity training program, netball, powerlifting, roller skating, sailing, short-track speed skating, snowboarding, snowshoe running, skiing: alpine and cross-country, softball, swimming (pool and open-water), table tennis, tennis, triathlon, and volleyball.

4. The idea for Special Olympics was conceived in the mid-1960s by Frank Hayden, who at the time was a researcher at the University of Western Ontario. To celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967, Hayden proposed a national Summer Games for children with intellectual disabilities. Although that event never happened, his idea caught the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy. (In June 1962, Shriver started a summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at her home in Maryland to explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities.) On July 20, 1968, the Kennedy foundation and the Chicago Park District hosted the first International Special Olympics Summer Games. Hayden served as the executive director and was one of the three co-incorporators of Special Olympics.

5. The 1st International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago. About 1,000 athletes with ID from 26 U.S. states and Canada competed. More than 200 events were offered, including broad jump, softball throw, 25-yard swim, 100-yard swim, high jump, 50-yard dash, and and water polo. Shriver pledged that more games would be held in 1970 and every two years thereafter in a “Biennial International Special Olympics.” In December 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave Special Olympics official approval as one of only two organizations authorized to use the name “Olympics” in the United States, and in 1988 the organization was officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

6. In 1997, Special Olympics Healthy Athletes began offering free health screenings and education to Special Olympics athletes. Since then, the program has delivered more than 2 million free health screenings and trained more than 260,000 health professionals and students to treat people with ID. The program also offers health screening in eight areas: Fit Feet (podiatry); FUNfitness (physical therapy); Health Promotion (better health and well-being); Healthy Hearing (audiology); MedFest (sports physical exam); Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes (vision); Special Smiles (dentistry); and Strong Minds (emotional well-being). Special Olympics is the largest healthcare provider for people with intellectual disabilities worldwide.

7. The organization also implements Special Olympics Unified Schools program, defined as pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools, college or universities that offer Unified Sports opportunities (i.e., bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates) to students all across the globe. Unified Schools programming is designed to facilitate Special Olympics Unified Sports, provide classroom and community experiences that reduce bullying and exclusion, promote healthy activities, combat stereotypes and negative attitudes, eliminate hurtful language in schools, and engage young people in activities that lead to improved behavior and school climate.

8. On October 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the “Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act.” The purpose of the law is to “provide assistance to Special Olympics to support expansion of Special Olympics and development of education programs and a Healthy Athletes Program . . .” The law authorizes the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of State to award grants to, or enter into contracts or cooperative agreements with, Special Olympics to promote the expansion of the games, and authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to do the same to promote the Healthy Athletes program.

9. In an article in the Journal of Disability and Religion, Nick J. Watson argues that Special Olympians can sometimes be a “prophetic sign” of God’s kingdom, showing us how weakness and humility can expose the idols in our age of modern sports:

Over the years, theologians have to varying degrees suggested that persons with disabilities, in particular ID, are a prophetic sign to the age of modernity and the present era that exalts self, celebrity, wealth, outward beauty, the intellect, success and the need to be perfect in all that we do. These cultural values reflect what we think about ourselves, who we are—our identity and self-worth—and thus how we think and act towards those who do not exhibit these qualities.

Watson says that sportspeople with ID and Special Olympics, are “arguably one prophetic sign, not a panacea, to the modern sporting institution that is an idol for many athletes, fans, and coaches.”

5 Reasons the Puritans Were So Joyful

Sat, 03/30/2019 - 12:02am

You’ve heard the caricatures. The Puritans are “haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” They are the “killjoys,” the joyless “frozen chosen.” That’s the modern view of the Puritans. The very words Puritan and puritanical are slung about as bits of verbal mud.

The word “Puritan” was coined in the 16th century as a term of abuse. For the average Englishman, there was the Roman Catholic “Papist” on one side, and the “Precisionist” or “Puritan” on the other. The term suggested a nit-picking, holier-than-thou party of men who considered themselves purer than the rest. It was certainly not a fair description: Those it was applied to strove to be pure, but never thought of themselves as pure, as their constant testimony to their own sinfulness and imperfection demonstrates.

Puritanism was a Bible-based movement. Doctrinally, it was a kind of vigorous, joyous Calvinism; experientially, it was warm and contagious and rejoiced in fellowship with God and with the saints; evangelistically, it was active and urgent, yet tender; ecclesiastically, it was centered on the triune God, his worship and service.

The Puritans, though serious and godly, were for the most part joyful—one of the most joyful groups of people, in fact, ever to grace the earth. Here are five kinds of joy that marked the Puritans.

1. Holy Joy: Happiness in the Fear of God

The theme of Psalm 128 is obvious since it is repeated twice: “Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways” (v. 1; cf. v. 4). The word blessed refers to a genuine, happy, internal joy that springs from the depth of the heart.

In addition to centering on God and on fearing him as the foundation of our joy, the joy of Psalm 128 centers on three creation ordinances: work, marriage, worship. Most joy in human life under God radiates from your daily work, your domestic situation, and your worship of God.

But what does it mean to fear God? The Puritans taught that the fear of God involves three essential ingredients: a correct conception of God’s character; a pervasive sense of God’s presence; and a constant awareness of our obligation to God. To fear God means the smiles and frowns of God are of greater value than the smiles and frowns of man. The Puritans stressed that the reverent fear of God is the key to faithfulness in any situation in life. Sin brings us unhappiness; it destroys joy from within. But godly fear shrinks from sin.

2. Vocational Joy: Happiness in Your Work

The God-fearer, Psalm 128 goes on to say, will find joy in his or her work as done unto the Lord: “For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee” (Ps. 128:2).

The Puritans believed that only the God-fearer:

  • Enjoys his work not just as a job that provides the necessities of life, but as a calling from God. Fearing God, he enjoys every aspect of his work and relishes every accomplishment as a token of God’s love and grace.
  • Works with a God-glorifying purpose in view. This basic integrity preserves him from much trouble; it enables him to transact all his business with scriptural integrity, diligence, and zeal. It helps him pursue his goals with zeal.
  • Trusts in God’s promise of provision. Like the widow of Zarephath, he trusts that God will provide even if his supplies dwindle.
  • Handles life’s disappointments with spiritual maturity, resting by faith in the sovereign purposes of God.
  • Knows that he will enjoy for eternity God’s gracious reward upon his good work and his good works.

Consequently, the Puritan view of secular work is theologically rich.

3. Domestic Joy: Happiness in Your Family

Psalm 128:3 proceeds to say that God’s normal way is to allow the God-fearer to reap genuine joy from his own family at home: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.”

Likewise, the Puritans believed that joyous blessings accrue to the God-fearing in family life: First, there is the joy of a fruitful, godly wife. Children are not the only fruit a God-fearing wife bears. A vine doesn’t only provide grapes. It also produces leaves, shade, beauty, and soil conservation. The fruitful wife manifests many Christ-centered graces in her life. The vine is a symbol of fruitfulness. The vine produces refreshment and gladness. A God-fearing wife offers wise counsel to her husband. His heart safely trusts in her. She provides companionship, intimacy, and unspeakable joy in all areas of life.

No doubt many Puritan marriages fell considerably short of the ideal. Yet the Puritans view of an ideal marriage and their diligence, in dependence on God, to work toward that ideal made the foundations of their homes solid. They believed God’s promise that the married man who fears God and walks in his ways will be blessed with a happy marriage (Ps. 128:3).

4. Worshipful Joy: Happiness through Preaching and the Sabbath

Psalm 128:4–5 says that those who fear the Lord shall be joyful on the Sabbath in worship:

Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD. The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.

The Puritans believed that, by God’s grace, most blessings in life ultimately come from Zion and Jerusalem. The Lord’s Day, which they called the market day of the soul, was at the heart of their joyous life. In God’s courts, they heard and experienced afresh from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day that their sins were washed away in the precious blood of Immanuel. This filled them with joy unspeakable—often tears of joy—and made them yearn to live wholly and solely for God’s glory.

In common with the Reformers, the Puritans believed in the centrality of the church. And they believed that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself.” Puritans embraced the regulative principle of worship, believing that nothing should be added to or subtracted from the Word except that which is displayed in New Testament worship.

Again and again we hear of Puritans happily traveling hours to hear a good sermon, and of how they thought that listening to sermons was far more fulfilling and joyous than an evening of worldly reveling. Sermons were usually an hour or longer. The Puritan Laurence Chaderton from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, once apologized to his congregation for preaching to them for two hours straight. Their response was to cry, “For God’s sake, sir, go on, go on!”

5. Future Joy: Happiness through God’s Covenantal Faithfulness

Psalm 128:6 declares that the happiness of the God-fearing shall extend far into the future: “Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.” The Puritans were joyous covenant theologians. They saw the covenant of grace as a great whole, beginning with the God of the covenant, its outworking in the life of the covenant community, and the work and witness of that community in the world around them.

The believer ought to be striving to rejoice in God’s covenant faithfulness all his days—yes, in God himself, for is it not, the Puritans said in their most famous collected statement ever written, that the very purpose of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”?

No Killjoys Here

The Puritans were far from killjoys. They knew joys their critics failed to fathom. For the Puritans, the foundational secret to all this joy—in God, in work, in the home, among the children, in public worship and on the Lord’s Day, and for the unknown future in the conversion of rising generations—is the serious, reverential fear of the Lord in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit.

It is a Trinitarian joy, in and through the one who said, “Your joy shall be full.” Outside of Christ, God can only be a consuming fire and an everlasting burning.

The Beautiful Opportunity of Urban Church Ministry

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 12:04am

“We come in with these ideas and expectations that we start imposing on communities. We think, I want it to look like this, right? And when we talk about ‘urban’ and ‘diversity,’ it’s so trendy right now. We’re bringing things to the conversation and essentially saying, ‘I want to impose what I think it should look like onto this community and judge everything by a standard not warranted in Scripture.'” — Kris Brosett

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.

Related:

Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.

It’s Time for a Holistic Apologetic

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 12:03am

Apologetics is the church’s longstanding attempt to provide an answer for the faith; however, as the questions posed by our Western culture rapidly change, so too must our approach. For instance, few contemporary objections to Christianity could rightly be categorized as purely rational. People no longer merely doubt the historical plausibility of Jesus’s resurrection; they can’t see why the resurrection should matter in the first place. And they certainly don’t see how such news might be good.

In response, a new crop of Christian apologists are seeking to equip the church within the discipline, providing an approach that extends beyond the issue of reasonableness. One of those voices is Paul Gould, teacher of philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has written a helpful resource titled Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World.

In this significant project Gould attempts to address diverse cultural questions with answers that are both deep and wide. In doing so, he draws on many voices from contemporary scholarship, including James K. A. Smith, Hans Boersma, and Peter Kreeft. But Gould’s presentation is also steeped in the ancient church, drawing from Augustine to Aquinas all the way up to the most influential thinker for Gould’s thesis, C. S. Lewis.

In fact, if there is a singular theme behind Gould’s approach in Cultural Apologetics, it would likely be Lewis’s reflections in “Talking about Bicycles.” There Lewis muses that the common human experience is one of Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and—ideally—Re-enchantment. Gould’s goal in writing his book is for believers (and subsequently unbelievers) to experience this re-enchantment as the key to effective cultural apologetics. For Gould, such enchantment—receiving the mundane as a glorious gift and responding in worship—can fuel and inform, in the vision of Lesslie Newbigin, a true “missionary encounter” within our disenchanted Western culture.

Expanding Categories

Gould’s endeavor could be called “holistic.” He seeks to re-establish the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination. He’s clearly concerned with how the world perceives our message, but he’s also concerned with how the world perceives us. This, then, sets the tone for his book. While the approach he envisions is one of graciously answering objections and presenting sound arguments, it’s also an embodied apologetic. In this way Gould expands our categories of apologetics beyond the propositional and incorporates the necessity of a lived-out and enculturated faith. We must herald and embody the gospel.

We must herald and embody the gospel.

Further, Gould’s method isn’t simply concerned with truth and evidence. He also addresses desirability. In other words, cultural apologetics as a system seeks to demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity in how the world is as well as how it ought to be. Our mission, as he understands it, is to present our faith as reasonable and desirable.

One of the recurring themes of Gould’s proposal is that such an apologetic strategy should focus on culture both upstream and downstream. Christians, he believes, are called to engage downstream, where culture is largely consumed and lived out, but also at the fountainhead of culture, in the centers of thinking and creativity. In other words, the church should encourage and support Christian investment in the academy, the arts, and politics. Gould designates this comprehensive approach as both global and local.

As mentioned, Gould’s work fits within a framework of a new Christian apologetic, a movement that some designate as more holistic (see Holly Ordway’s recent Apologetics and the Christian Imagination for another example). Proponents have spurned the purely rationalist approach that arose following the Enlightenment. They’re also not so concerned with classic distinctions (and debates) among apologetic methodologies—think evidentialists versus presuppositionalists. Gould, instead, asserts that his method is compatible with any number of systems—general enough to be incorporated within various approaches to epistemology. If anything, he sees cultural apologetics as being integrated and ancient.

Questionable Premises

While Gould’s take may not fit a “traditional” approach, this doesn’t mean he abandons argumentation. Quite the contrary. The bulk of the book makes an argument (for theism generally and trinitarian Christianity specifically) from desire, from reason, and from morality. Many of these are truly insightful, presented beautifully through stories of his experience and informed by a discussion with scholars of yesterday and today. I agreed with so much of what Gould had to say in those chapters that it’s difficult to challenge his argumentation. However, I do have a few lingering questions about some premises that shape the book.

First, there is a growing list of voices who are skeptical about whether the West really is that disenchanted. Certainly, there is validity in the observation that the secular West has been desensitized to the spiritual through rationalism and naturalism. Rampant materialism continues to rule. But evidence suggests a cultural resurgence of paganism—something I became personally aware of last year in my own Minneapolis neighborhood. This means that mere enchantment, as Gould himself acknowledges, isn’t enough. There can be false enchantments—and I suspect they’re already at work among us (in diverse cultural phenomena such as Lore or Thor).

Believers do indeed need to be re-enchanted and culturally re-engaged: not a church retreating, but a church gathered and sent in pursuit of missionary encounters.

Second, and perhaps more significantly for me, I’d question if there is biblical warrant for the pursuit of a top-down cultural influence for the church. While I wouldn’t necessarily espouse Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option of comprehensive cultural withdrawal, I don’t think the only remaining alternative is the one proposed here. Most concerning to me is Gould’s repeated emphasis that the church must engage and transform upstream culture in order to render the gospel more believable and desirable. I don’t find that argument convincing, nor do I find it in the apostolic witness. Instead, I think the New Testament emphasizes that we’re called to proclaim and embody the gospel with the expectation that our social experience will typically be that of exiles. While we should always seek to adorn the gospel with our lives, the Bible nonetheless maintains that the word of the cross will be foolish—not desirable—to those who are perishing (Titus 2:10; 1 Cor. 1:18).

Those concerns aside, I do believe Gould’s book has much potential to positively shape the way we provide answers for our faith as we’re faithfully present in every sphere of life. Like many other methods of apologetics, I found his arguments to be as needful and beneficial for believers as for unbelievers. Plausibility and desirability begin with the local church. Believers do indeed need to be re-enchanted and culturally re-engaged: not a church retreating, but a church gathered and sent in pursuit of missionary encounters.

A Rare Jewel in a Restless World

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 12:02am

The stone had been formed in the depths of the earth centuries before it was found, transformed from worthless carbon by unimaginable temperatures and pressures. It had been driven to the surface of the earth by tectonic forces and had made its way down various tributary streams until it came to rest at the edge of the Abaetezinho River in Brazil. No one could know how long it was there, unrecognizable, covered with mud and sand. It looked like any ordinary stone, but it was precious beyond words.

In 1990, a Brazilian farmer needed some water for his fields and stooped down to get it. The stone somehow caught his eye, and he scooped it up, dripping and dirty. There’s no way the farmer could’ve known that he had just discovered the largest red diamond in history—13.9 carats in its rough form. All diamonds are rare, but red diamonds are the rarest of them all. That red diamond would eventually be cut into a triangular shape weighing 5.11 carats. It is now known as the Moussaieff Red Diamond, after the collector who purchased it in 2001. Its sale price was undisclosed, but estimates put its value as high as $8 million.

This amazing red diamond is exceedingly precious. An immeasurably more precious jewel to the Christian is contentment.

Priceless Contentment

In 1642, the Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs preached a series of sermons on Christian contentment that were gathered and published in 1648, two years after his death. The title the editors chose was The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It carries the reader through a powerful unfolding of this vital topic, beginning with the apostle Paul’s assertion in Philippians 4:12, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content” (CSB).

Unfortunately, many Christians in the 21st century have never delved into the topic of contentment. Like the muddy rock scooped up from the bank of a Brazilian river, its true worth has been hidden from many eyes for centuries. I desire that more and more Christians would experience the kind of Christian contentment Paul discovered and Burroughs so skillfully described. Its worth in eternity will prove far greater than that of the Red Diamond.

Why do I say that?

Two Offers

Consider this hypothetical scenario: Imagine you just won the most extraordinary sweepstakes prize ever, but it came through supernatural means. Let’s call it the “Faustian Travel Agency,” owned and operated by a Mr. Mephistopheles. The prize is a two-week all-expense-paid trip anywhere in the world. You’ll stay at the most expensive five-star hotels, eat the highest-quality food, cooked by the best chefs in the world. You’ll see the most spectacular scenery, drive the most expensive cars, and wear a whole new wardrobe specifically tailored for you. The trip will have the best of everything and will cater to your every whim.

But here’s the catch: You would have to agree to be continually discontent at every moment of the trip. Would you do it? Two weeks of constant discontentment in the most luxurious setting possible? For many people, I think the answer might be pretty clear: “No way! Why would I want to be miserable for two straight weeks?”

Actually, we see many of the world’s most elite people essentially living out this kind of tragedy in real life—famous athletes and movie stars, living in spectacular mansions on private estates on rocky coastlines, with architectural plans that maximize the view of the sunrise or sunset over the ocean, yet tragically discontent, going from divorce to divorce, addicted to drugs, bored, even suicidal.

Conversely, suppose a different offer were made to you, this one by your heavenly Father. He is offering a painful trial of suffering. You’ll be publicly beaten, imprisoned in a gloomy dungeon with your feet in stocks. You’ll be deprived of food, water, medical care, and even light. Surrounding you will be other suffering prisoners, the stench of human bodily fluids, and the kind of despair that comes when the end of your agony isn’t in sight. But you’ll also be filled with such a supernatural contentment through God’s presence that you’ll later remember it as one of the sweetest times of your life. And you’ll have the privilege of leading a whole family to Christ (see Acts 16:16–34)!

Rarest Jewel

Which offer would you take?

If you’re a Christian, it’s possible you would choose the second experience, despite its high cost. And if so, you probably already agree that contentment is the greatest state of inner well-being one could ever have in this world. The value of contentment is vastly greater than any that the Red Diamond could bring.

Yet despite the value of this rich, full, continual contentment—and despite the fact that it’s possible for every Christian in the world to experience—this exquisite jewel is rare in our lives. And how desperately the unsaved world needs Christians to discover it.

Calvin’s Failed Missionaries Were Just the First Wave in Brazil

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 12:00am

When Vinicius Pimentel was 12 years old, his parents got divorced, and he started going to church by himself in Americana, São Paulo.

He didn’t go to the Nazarene church he grew up in, but to a neo-Pentecostal church. At first, there “was not a lot of good theology but not a lot of bad theology—just love for Jesus and evangelism and, of course, the gifts of the Spirit.”

But over the 12 years he spent there, the teaching moved steadily into “more health-and-wealth theology and coaching to be the best version of yourself,” Pimentel said. As a leader, he worked hard to attract more people to the faith, even planning a disco party at the church.

“We tried to attract people with any possible strategy, to convince them to be converted,” he said.

Pimentel speaking at a Reformed conference last year / Courtesy of Fiel

And then he broke his leg. He calls it his “God wrestling with Jacob” moment.

“I had more time to be at home on the internet,” he said. While browsing a Christian YouTube channel, he clicked one that was at the top because it was trending in the United States—evangelist Paul Washer’s “shocking message.”

“It was a shock for me,” Pimentel said. “I remember crying that whole night, and a big hunger started in my heart. I wanted to know more about the Word.”

He clicked on more videos, watching dozens of John Piper videos that Desiring God released for free. “I didn’t know the distinctives of Reformed theology, but I knew I wanted more of the gospel I was hearing.”

In Brazil, Pimentel’s story is typical—he hears other people telling their version of it “a lot.” Because he isn’t the only one. More than 2.5 million have watched the version of Washer’s “shocking message” with Pimentel’s added Portuguese subtitles. Another million have seen it dubbed over in Portuguese.

Some dig in farther. Reformed pastor Renato Vargens’s blog has received more than 21 million pageviews since he started in 2010. Pimentel started a website called Voltemos Ao Evangelho (Let’s Get Back to the Gospel) where he’s posted thousands of Reformed sermons—in Portuguese or with subtitles—since 2008. More than 750,000 follow the blog, while 133,000 subscribe to the YouTube channel.

Piper at TGC’s conference in February / Courtesy of Coalizão pelo Evangelho

Last year, TGC launched a Brazilian Council and website. This February, when TGC held its first conferences, about 4,000 came to hear Piper speak in São Paulo. The next week, he spoke to another 12,000 at a Reformed-leaning conference in Campina Grande.

“Ten years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever see [this enthusiasm for the gospel],” said Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) missionary W. Mark Johnson, who serves as theological educational strategist for the International Mission Board in Brazil. “It’s the best moment I’ve seen in my 26 years here.”

“I’m not just hopeful for a revival,” said Yago Martins, who found his way from prosperity gospel to Reformed theology through Piper videos. Today his YouTube channel on Reformed theology has almost 400,000 followers. “It’s already happened. It’s growing in an unstoppable and inescapable way.”

For John Calvin, it would be further evidence of God’s sovereignty. Because when he sent the first Calvinist missionaries to Brazil in 1556, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Calvin’s Only Missionaries

More than 460 years ago, a band of several dozen Calvinists—including two pastors—left Geneva to join a struggling French colony in Brazil. They were the first foreign missionaries dispatched by the new Protestant church, and their job, in part, was to “indoctrinate the savage and bring them to the knowledge of their salvation.”

But when the leader of their colony converted back to Roman Catholicism, he “strangled three Calvinists and threw them into the sea,” religious freedom expert Thomas Schirrmacher wrote. By 1560, all had fled—most back to Europe—or were killed.

The mission was “not a grand and glorious success,” Johnson said. (Schirrmacher calls it a “tragic failure.”) But it was the first wave on the beach. Four of the lay members wrote the country’s first Reformed confession 12 hours before they were hanged.

The second wave came in the 1600s, when the Dutch invaded northern Brazil and brought Reformed pastors with them. Within 25 years, the Dutch were ousted by the Portuguese, but they left their mark—the former Dutch city of Recife is now “a conservative Reformed stronghold,” Johnson said.

The third wave landed in the 1860s, led by a Presbyterian missionary couple who both died within eight years—she in childbirth, he of yellow fever. But in that time, Ashbel Green Simonton organized a church and printed a monthly publication articulating an alternative to Catholicism. By 2011, Simonton’s Presbyterian Church of Brazil denomination had more than a million members.

The Baptists arrived in 1881, and within 60 years, had more than 68,000 Brazilian members in almost 780 Southern Baptist churches. But none of them was explicitly Reformed in its theological convictions.

“Those spiritual forefathers are what you’d call generically evangelical. Positively, they chose for their first Baptist Confession in Brazil the New Hampshire Confession, which is ‘Reformedish,’ but not strongly Reformed,” Johnson said. “Baptists grew based on revivalism. They were strong on evangelism and church planting, but their theology, although it was generally conservative, was not detailed and robust. They didn’t get deep into the theological weeds.”

In the 1960s, both the Presbyterian and Baptist efforts in Brazil were dwarfed by the Pentecostalism that roared across Latin America. By 2014, eight in 10 Brazilian Protestants were Pentecostal. Most had witnessed an exorcism (56 percent), seen a divine healing (72 percent) or witnessed speaking in tongues and prophesying at church (91 percent).

“When I got to Brazil [in 1993], I thought the future was Pentecostalism, which was increasingly moving in the direction of prosperity theology,” Johnson said. By 2014, 56 percent of Protestants and 52 percent of Catholics said that “God will grant wealth and good health to believers who have enough faith.”

“It’s embarrassing to say I was faithless—I was hopeless,” Johnson said. “But that’s what it looked like 20 years ago.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Missionary

Rick Denham is a third-generation Baptist missionary. His father’s parents worked in China, sailing up and down the major rivers delivering the gospel to hard-to-access areas. After being kicked out by Communists, they headed to another large river that could take them to hard-to-reach people groups. Rick’s father joined them on the Amazon in 1952 with his new wife, who sold her grand piano to pay for a boat.

There, Denham’s father met a missionary sent from a British church pastored by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Barkley in Brazil / Courtesy of Rick Denham

Bill Barkley “brought the Banner of Truth magazines and introduced them to my dad,” Denham said. “He introduced him to Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon and Calvin. My dad caught on fire for that theology.”

Barkley and Denham both moved to São Paulo and started publishing Christian literature. Between the two of them, they translated and published sermons and written works by the Reformers and the Puritans, by Calvin and Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. Eventually, they’d publish translations of Piper, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur.

At first, it was slow going. Barkley’s Selected Evangelical Publications and Denham’s Fiel—or “faithful”—Publishing could only release a book or two a year. But after a while, those added up. The men would load up books on a bus and drive around, selling them at reduced prices.

“Hundreds of people came for very good literature,” said popular Brazilian pastor and speaker Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, who first learned of the doctrines of grace from a book by Charles Spurgeon. Lopes, who spoke at the 2015 TGC national conference, leads the oversight committee for the 10 Presbyterian seminaries in Brazil.

When Lopes was in seminary, “I read Calvin in Spanish because it was not translated into Portuguese yet,” he said. “We didn’t have the Institutes in Portuguese. I studied Louis Berkhof’s systematic theology in Spanish. Today you can find anything in Portuguese. This work of the publishing houses is fundamental to what is happening here in Brazil.”

This work of the publishing houses is fundamental to what is happening here in Brazil.

Some Western Reformed personalities fit better with the culture. “The reason Martyn Lloyd-Jones was so attractive, especially to Pentecostals, is that he believed you do have an experience with the Holy Spirit after conversion,” Lopes said. “He’s not a charismatic at all, but he follows a more of a Puritan tradition, which is more wired to experiential religion. . . . That’s a powerful combination for the church in Brazil.”

Later, Piper and Washer would explode in popularity. Both combine biblical expository preaching with strong emotions and near-constant hand movement. “Their kind of preaching is like our kind of preaching,” Martins said.

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, Fiel was adding a conference—just a “mom and pop” event, Johnson remembers. It drew somewhere between 70 and 80 pastors.

But as more books were published, more people grew familiar with Reformed names. When Fiel brought in high-profile authors—Piper, MacArthur, Michael Horton, Joel Beeke—in the mid-1990s, attendance jumped to around 600 or 700.

Still, in a country of around 160 million, the numbers weren’t huge.

Reformation Via Social Media

Rafael Bello grew up in a morally liberal Baptist church—his mother and grandmother were converted through missionaries sent from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back in 1910.

While Bello was in college, he was “working in a small church library, cataloging stuff,” he said. “And I just started reading some of it—books by R. C. Sproul or DVDs of John Piper.” (The titles were from Fiel Publishing.)

Bello / Courtesy of Rafael Bello

“I started getting more involved with that deeper theology,” Bello said. “And I knew English. . . . I talked to my friends—‘What if we did a really cool website where we posted translated articles and videos?’”

They started with Portuguese subtitles on YouTube videos.

At first, “it took a long time to translate a one-hour sermon,” he said. “I got really proficient at it. I was doing five-minute videos—you know, those short Desiring God videos—once a week or so. A lot of people liked it.”

Bello and his friends started translating “a bunch of TGC articles” and content from “Russell Moore’s website.”

“People started to follow us,” Bello said. Thousands of people.

One of them was Martins, who then started his own Reformed YouTube channel. To him, the gospel on YouTube seems like “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7).

It also seems like history repeating.

“A little while before Martin Luther started the Reformation, the printing press was invented by [Johannes] Gutenberg,” Lopes said. “If there had not been a printing press, the Reformation would not have come out of the doors of Wittenberg. . . . Social media is doing something similar today.”

From Catholic to Pentecostal to Reformed

“Pentecostals have done a good job of preaching [about salvation],” Lopes said. Thousands of people are “getting converted, and then they go to an Assemblies of God Church.”

Lopes has more than 263,000 followers on Facebook.

But once there, “some of them hunger for the Word of God,” he said. “They want more biblical teaching, and they don’t always hear it from their pastors. So they go to YouTube and watch John Piper and Paul Washer.”

Hooked by the expository preaching, they keep watching and listening to the thousands of translated and original videos and articles on Reformed theology.

“The next step is they become Reformed,” Lopes said. “This is happening everywhere.”

For example, this month he preached in a small church near his town. In the crowd—which began to gather an hour and a half before his talk was scheduled—sat a Pentecostal preacher and his entire congregation.

“I have seen this so many times—people coming from the Pentecostal church,” Lopes said.

It’s a twist no one saw coming: The growth of the charismatic movement in Brazil has become a pathway for thousands to find Reformed theology.

Reformacostals

“I like to preach to them,” Lopes said of Pentecostals. “They applaud, they shout ‘hallelujah,’ they raise their hands. It’s encouraging.”

It’s also out of place in most orderly Reformed congregations.

“People who have been in this church forever see it as ‘our church,’” he said. “’Who are these new people with tattoos and piercings and dyed hair? They’re noisy and they shout hallelujah and clap. Who are these people?’”

So far, the reception has been good, he said. But “this is going to require a change in the way people who have been here see the church.”

Lopes speaking at a TGC event in February / Courtesy of Coalizão pelo Evangelho

It can be awkward and uncomfortable on both sides.

“Suppose the Pentecostal preacher and his congregation who came to my preaching decide they can’t stay in the Assemblies of God,” Lopes said. “So they come to my Presbyterian church, where they’re going to find it weird. We don’t shout or raise our hands. Our service is a little bit formal. They won’t feel at home.”

A congregation or a pastor or an individual in this situation can’t go forward and can’t go back, he said. “The people who are half-Pentecostal and half-Reformed are a little bit homeless at the moment.”

Some start new churches. Others stay in their charismatic denomination but go to Presbyterian churches and conferences as often as they can to fill up on biblical preaching.

“For a lot of them this is an existential crisis—they don’t know what to do,” Lopes said.

Another problem is the training. “There are a lot of [Pentecostal] pastors who never went to formal training,” Lopes said. “So if they become Presbyterian, they have to go to a Presbyterian seminary and fall under all their requirements. It could take six to seven years.”

It’s not a problem that can be ignored. Lopes’s Presbyterian church has started to regularly fill up with new church attendees. The leaders are starting to think about adding a third service. The Monday night Bible study he thought would attract 150 people has been drawing more than 500 a week.

“Everywhere I go, pastors tell me they’ve been receiving members from Pentecostal churches,” he said. “A lot of them tell me that. Everywhere in Brazil.”

Bright Future

Reformed theology came into Brazil “just like the tide coming in—wave after wave,” Johnson said. “What looked like failure was not—it was just another wave coming in. God in his mercy was bringing in waves, and now you’ve got people reading [Dutch Reformed theologian Herman] Ridderbos. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Even the surge of prosperity theology wasn’t a failure, given what followed in its wake.

“Who is leading the young, restless, and Reformed today?” Johnson said. “It’s a steady stream of Pentecostals.”

Who is leading the young, restless, and Reformed today?” Johnson said. “It’s a steady stream of Pentecostals.

Lopes is encouraged by the next generation, though “some discover Reformed faith and want to save the world,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes they lack a bit of wisdom. . . . When a young Reformed pastor is invited to a non-Reformed church, they want to make the church Reformed in just one day.”

But overall, “the leaders of the Reformed movement in Brazil that I have met are large-hearted lovers of the gospel of Jesus who are not focused on being different, but focused on being faithful to the whole counsel of God,” Piper told TGC.

“There are unhealthy movements that grow out of a need to show that others are mistaken, and there are healthy movements that grown out of a joyful discovery that powerful and precious realities about God and his ways have been obscured, and need to be recovered for the full fruitfulness and joy of God’s people. It seems to me that the Reformed awakening in Brazil is the latter kind of movement.”

Over three trips to Brazil—in 1995, 2011, and 2019—Piper was able to “see the steadfastness of some of the key leaders over a quarter-century in the Reformed awakening. They do not crave instant success, but focus on being faithful for the long haul to the truth of the message. . . . God has raised up leaders who know how to use social media and the internet to spread and deepen the Reformed movement.”

“There is an unprecedented revival in interest for Reformed faith in Brazil,” Lopes said. And “if we believe Reformed doctrines of grace are biblical Christianity, we could say that the Holy Spirit is really working in the lives and hearts of the masses in Brazil. He’s bringing them to know more about the grace of God, the love of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority of Scripture—they’re looking for that.”

Why now? Johnson knows what Calvin would say. “God willed it.”

The Danger of Spiritually Unhealthy Pastors

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 12:04am

Spiritual vitality is an essential part of being a church planter. Good pastors minister best out of spiritual health, not primarily gifting or effort. And a spiritually unhealthy planter is a disaster waiting to happen.

So how do we cultivate a life of spiritual vitality?

I’m excited to have Brian Lowe with me on the podcast today to discuss spiritually healthy church planters.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.

Related:

When Packing for TGC19, Leave Room for Discounted Books

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 12:03am

Book lovers who attend 2019’s The Gospel Coalition National Conference next week will be treated to steep sales on more than 2,500 different books and resources from more than 20 different publishers. There will be featured areas for TGC speakers’ books, bestselling Bibles, Spanish titles, and gospel-centered resources for children and parents.

Before you hit the road or board a flight, we want to make you aware of several of these book deals so that you can leave room in your suitcases. If you prefer to have books shipped back home, you can have them packed and mailed directly from LifeWay’s TGC19 bookstore.

Elliot Clark, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land (TGC, 2019)

$5 (60 percent off)

The days of cultural Christianity are fading. It’s time to rethink normal.

Suffering and exclusion are normal in a believer’s life. At least they should be. This was certainly Jesus’s experience. And it’s the experience of countless Christians around the world today.

No matter your social location or set of experiences, the biblical letter of 1 Peter wants to redefine your expectations and reinvigorate your hope.

Drawing on years of ministry in a Muslim-majority nation, Elliot Clark guides us through Peter’s letter with striking insights for today. Whether we’re in positions of power or weakness, influence or marginalization, all of us are called to live and witness as exiles in a world that’s not our home. This is our job description. This is our mission. This is our opportunity.

A church in exile doesn’t have to be a church in retreat.

Collin Hansen (ed.), Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves (TGC, 2019)

$5 (60 percent off)

There are many paths to lose your way. And only one path to find it. So said Jesus of Nazareth, the most compelling and controversial teacher of all time. This book aims to make sense of his counterintuitive claim: Unless we lose our lives for his sake, we will never discover our true selves. Writers from around the world tell their stories of healing and hope amid many hardships.

Joni Eareckson Tada, Sam Allberry, Christopher Yuan, Aixa de López, and many other contributors share how God found them amid many dangers, toils, and snares.

 

 

 

Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson Sr. (eds.), Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime (Crossway, 2019)

$8 (50 percent off)

This book offers pastors examples of long-term faithfulness in ministry and practical wisdom from veteran pastors for real-life issues.

  • Attending to your personal spiritual life (Tim Keller)
  • Leaving a church (D. A. Carson)
  • Crafting sermons week after week (Bryan Chapell)
  • Facing criticism (Dan Doriani)
  • Pastoring a church you wouldn’t attend (Tom Ascol)
  • Caring for your wife in the midst of criticism (Juan R. Sanchez with Jeanine D. Sanchez)
  • Feeling deserted by members leaving (Dave Harvey)
  • Pastoring a small church that seems insignificant (Mark McCullough)
  • Experiencing burnout (John Starke)
  • Shepherding a church that has outgrown your gifts (Scott Patty)
  • Handling financial burdens (Brandon Shields)
  • Doubting your calling (Jeff Robinson Sr.)

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019)

$12.50 (50 percent off)

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not declining in the modern world. It has long been the world’s most popular belief system, and looks set to remain so. Rather than dismissing Christianity, therefore, we must wrestle with its claims.

This book explores 12 hard questions that seem to undermine the Christian faith: the existence of suffering, the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality, the reality of judgment, the authority of Scripture, the success of science, and more. Drawing on state-of-the-art academic research, personal stories, and deep scriptural excavation, this book argues that―when looked at more closely―what first seemed like roadblocks to faith actually become signposts.

Mike Cosper, Imago Dei: God’s Image. God’s People. God’s Mission. (LifeWay, 2019)

People are naturally compelled to ask questions of identity: Who am I? What am I worth? Why am I here? The answers culture offers only lead to more questions. To properly answer all these questions, we need to look all the way back to the beginning—to our creation—and see that all people are made in the image of God.

Having a well-rounded view of the imago Dei will help us better understand ourselves, God, and the restoring work of salvation that comes to us through Jesus Christ. We can understand what God intended the imago Dei to be, how sin corrupted it, and how Jesus restores it through the power of the cross and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Published by The Gospel Coalition in partnership with LifeWay, Imago Dei is a new group study by Mike Cosper that examines the image of God biblically within the grand narrative of Scripture, relationally as it applies to ourselves and others, and missionally in our service to others and in our obedience to the Great Commission. The accompanying video includes commentary from Jackie Hill Perry, Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, Nancy Guthrie, and many more.

Other deals worth noting: 

Pass through the LifeWay bookstore during the conference to see many more deals.

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