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

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4 Things Christians Must Reclaim

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 12:04am

“The sands aren’t running out on Christianity, but . . . there are four things that we must do. We must reclaim diversity. We must reclaim the university. We must reclaim morality. And we must reclaim sexuality. But we must do all these things with humility and not by watering the Scriptures down, but by lapping them up.” — Rebecca McLaughlin

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


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

Prayer Request: More Negative Prosperity-Gospel Stories

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 12:03am

Joyce Meyer, an influential charismatic author and speaker, recently admitted: “I was glad for what I learned about prosperity, but it got out of balance.” In a January 8 video posted on her Instagram account, Meyer, speaking before a large audience, stated:

I’m glad for what I learned about faith, but it got out of balance; and so every time somebody had a problem in their life was ‘cause they did not have enough faith. If you got sick, you didn’t have enough faith. If your child died, you didn’t have enough faith. Well, that’s not right. There’s nowhere in the Bible where we’re promised that we’ll never have any trouble. I don’t care how much faith you’ve got, you’re not gonna avoid ever having trouble in your life.

I’m confident that both Job and Jesus would wholeheartedly agree.

Meyer’s statement is a departure from one of the tenets of the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel emphasizes the avoidance of suffering or failure. These are not the marks of your best life now. If you suffer or fail in life, it’s because you haven’t exercised enough “faith”—a kind of spiritual energy or force that needs to be released.

In this warped view of faith, if you generate enough of it, then God will come through for you. If he doesn’t, then the problem is your lack of faith. In other words, faith is not a God-centered act of the will, stemming from God; rather, it’s a human-centered spiritual force, directed at God. This false view of faith turns God into a personal cosmic genie who exists to grant your wishes.

Faulty Faith  

As Meyer basically admits, this false view of faith is what she used to believe. For example, in her 2008 pamphlet Healing Scriptures, she wrote:

I have faith, for I am a believer. I believe I receive my healing, and my faith makes me whole. . . . The power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in me. My faith puts that power into active operation in my body. Disease has no choice. . . . If healing does not occur, the problem is a person’s lack of faith.

The underlying assumption here is that it’s always God’s will to heal someone; therefore, if they aren’t healed, the problem must reside within the person. Bill Johnson, senior pastor of the influential Bethel Church in Redding, California, believes it’s always God’s intention to heal. He wrote:

When [Jesus] bore stripes in his body he made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can’t decide not to buy something after you’ve already bought it. There are no deficiencies on his end—neither the covenant is deficient, nor his compassion or promises. All lack is on our end of the equation.

While Johnson doesn’t specify a lack of faith in either the ailing person or the “miracle healer,” his belief nonetheless places the burden on the person; the implication is that you’re doing something wrong because God won’t act. Is there something wrong with Johnson because he has had surgery and he wears glasses?

Step in the Right Direction?

Meyer’s admission—that a person’s lack of faith is not the reason they suffer or fail—is a positive development. But while she recognizes she got out of balance, and hopefully is moving toward a biblical theology of faith and suffering, people shouldn’t assume she’s completely divested herself of prosperity-gospel teachings.

In the same clip where she admits she was out of balance, she calls faith a force; and in another recent Instagram video, she exhorts the audience:

[I]f you have faith, then God can do amazing things in your life. But you gotta at least start with an attitude, “Something good is going to happen to me. Come on. Something good is going to happen to me.” And if you can’t do anything else, at least grab a hold of that—that something good is going to happen to you.

To be fair, she clarifies that something good will happen because God has a good plan for you, so you can trust in that truth. But what if God’s good plan for you includes hardship? Are her exhortations substantially different from another tenet of the prosperity gospel: Just think positive thoughts and tell yourself what future success you desire? Such “positive thinking” is pagan philosophy disguised as biblical truth.

Pray for More Light

May Joyce Meyer continue to find balance and keep seeking the truth in the Scriptures. Perhaps she will follow the example of Benny Hinn’s nephew, Costi Hinn, who has explicitly denounced the errors of the prosperity gospel.

May we hear more negative confessions about the prosperity gospel come forth from its leading teachers.

Truly converted in 2012, Costi Hinn left his uncle’s ministry, repented of his teaching, and tried to persuade family members of the truth. Now a pastor, Costi recently co-authored (with Anthony G. Wood) the book Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement, which exposes the teaching of prosperity-gospel teachers and movements such as Third Wave/New Apostolic Reformation.

We need to be praying for those who teach this false gospel. How then should we pray?

  • Pray that God will open the eyes of teachers caught up in the false teaching of the prosperity gospel. May they embrace God’s truth and repent.
  • Pray that the people entrapped in the false teachings would seek truth and be delivered.
  • Pray for those, like Costi Hinn, who are actively sharing the truth with those enamored with the prosperity gospel.

May we hear more negative confessions about the prosperity gospel come forth from its leading teachers.

What We’re Reading This Summer (2019)

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 12:02am

Summertime is around the corner, which for some of us means we’ll have extra time to read what we’d like or explore genres outside of our common literary diet.

I asked my editorial colleagues at The Gospel Coalition to share what they’ll be reading this summer. Maybe you’ll be provoked to add one or two to your own list. Then share with us: what are you reading?

Collin Hansen (Editorial Director)

Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World (IVP Books, 2019). I always learn when reading Jen, and this topic fascinates me. Orthodox theology requires that we live with paradox.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books, 2017). I’m reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder to my son, and I grew up near the Ingalls home in South Dakota. I’m already realizing how much Wilder shaped my moral and literary imagination as a child of the Great Plains.

Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Protestantism in England and America (Yale University Press, 2019). Who can resist that title? I’ve read a lot more from the Puritans than about the Puritans, so I’m looking forward to gaining context from this new history.

Megan Hill (Editor)

C. J. Sansom, The Shardlake Series (Macmillan/Mantle). My dad recently introduced me to this series of historical mystery novels. In addition to the usual palace intrigue and captivating detection (and, fair warning, some strong language), the books also sympathetically explore the spiritual lives of Protestants and the convictions that brought them into constant danger during the rein of Henry VIII. I read Lamentation (the sixth book in the series) a few months ago, and I’m debating between going on to book eight (Tombland, published last year) or going back to start the series at the beginning.

R. J. Palacio, Wonder (Knopf, 2012). My boys (age 10, 11, 12) have wanted to read this book for some time now. I haven’t read it myself—nor seen the 2017 movie—but I told them we would read it aloud this summer and discuss its themes of human nature, disability, and social interaction together.

Katie Butler, Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care (Crossway, 2019). I‘ve already read this helpful and sobering book about end-of-life care, but I recently asked my husband to read it so we can establish priorities for our own end of life—whenever Christ would call us home. Conversations about the value of life-supporting measures don’t seem obviously well-suited to picnics in the park or days at the beach, but the lazy days of summer may be our best opportunity to prepare for life’s approaching winter.

Betsy Childs Howard (Editor)

Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (Viking, 2019). During the Second World War, Virginia Hall was considered by the Gestapo to be “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” The debutante from Baltimore with a wooden leg she called Cuthbert never shied away from danger, but she did shun any recognition after the war. Instead she chose to keep a low profile so she could go on spying for the CIA for the next 16 years.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home (Sentinel, 2019). I’ve heard only good things about this epistolary memoir of growing up without a father.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Wordsworth Editions, 1998). I’m currently giving this classic a reread, this time aloud to my husband while he does the dishes after dinner. Nothing is better for a read-aloud than Jane Austen.

Melissa Kruger (Director of Women’s Content)

Eugenia Cheng, How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics (Basic Books, 2015). My fellow editors at TGC are some of my favorite sources for books ideas, and I’m thankful for Joe Carter’s recommendations of two books on my list. I’m already reading How to Bake Pi; it’s absolutely brilliant and combines my love of mathematics with my love of cooking. I’ve also picked up a copy of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I’m interested to learn more about the last emperor of China through this fictional account of one family’s life during his reign.

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019). McLaughlin holds a PhD in literature from Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. Many have recommended her book as an excellent resource for cultural engagement, so I’m researching it as a possibility for one of our upcoming mentoring groups.

Sarah Rose, D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II (Crown, 2019). Last fall, I was browsing books at my local library and picked up a copy of Code Name: Lise, the True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis. It introduced me to the work of female spies during the French resistance, many of whom courageously fought against the Nazis and endured excruciating suffering while imprisoned. When I saw this new book, I eagerly picked up a copy—I’m looking forward to learning more.

Brett McCracken (Senior Editor)

Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (Ignatius Press, 1990). I love Pieper’s classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and I believe the German Catholic philosopher has increasing relevance in our harried, desensitized digital age. With its title inspired by Augustine’s quip that “only he who loves can sing,” Only the Lover Sings promises to offer insightful reflections on the important connections between beauty, wisdom, and worship.

Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). As I do most summers, I plan to spend lots of time outside: hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, strolling the paths in our neighborhood. More than just a pleasant thing to do, I’m increasingly convinced that being out in God’s creation, unplugged and clear-headed, is an indispensable habit of cultivating wisdom in a digitally chaotic world.

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (Farrar, Straus, 1971). I always try to read a novel in the summer, and if I spent the next 10 summers working through the novels of only Wendell Berry and Walker Percy, I’d be happy. Percy’s Love in the Ruins has long been on my list, and its exploration of the spiritual malaise of modernity (like so many of Percy’s novels) feels as relevant now as it did a half century ago.

Ivan Mesa (Books Editor)

Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (Random House, 2001). I would’ve found Teddy Roosevelt insufferable in life—a type-A egotistical man, constantly on the move, and always seeking the spotlight. But despite or because of the flaws he had I’m still drawn to the man—for his boyish humor, his unbounded joy of life, his literary accomplishments, his awe of nature, his insatiable curiosity, his tender love for wife and children, his patriotic verve, and courage amid life’s trials. The first volume in this trilogy won the Pulitzer Prize, which isn’t surprising since it elegantly tells the story of Roosevelt’s meteoric rise from sickly boy to president of the United States—and all in the span of 40 years. The second volume, while less dramatic, follows Roosevelt through his two administrations as president.

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive (Tor, 2010). Sometimes I think the only fantasy novel Christians are willing to read is The Lord of the Rings. But some of the best written sagas, with careful character- and world-building, belongs to this overlooked genre that Tolkien popularized more than half a century ago. Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Sullivan, Jonathan Renshaw are excellent contemporary writers. A friend encouraged me to give this series a read, and I’m eager to dive in. (While I wouldn’t recommend Game of Thrones and enough literary friends have told me to not bother with the books the show is based on, I appreciated this reflection from Ross Douthat on the series. And that op-ed directed me to this wonderful read by Alan Jacobs on fantasy and the buffered self, engaging the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.)

George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 2019). Sometimes you read such an exquisitely written review that you’re willing to pick up the book no matter how uninteresting the book may seem. This happened recently to me when reading Walter Isaacson’s review of a new biography of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Jeff Robinson (Senior Editor)

Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, and Company, 1995). I’ll never forget the day the King of Rock n’ Roll died in 1977. It was a dark afternoon for all the citizens of north Georgia because we had lost Elvis—our Elvis. I wasn’t alive when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I can’t imagine the public reaction was any more despondent, at least where I grew up. I’m confident Guralnick, a top-shelf music historian, tells Elvis’s story with verve, exegeting its significance for race, class, fame, money, pop culture, and religion, particularly as these elements boiled together in the cauldron that was the 20th-century Deep South. Last Train is volume one of a two-part biography that covers Elvis from birth to 1958. While the weather is warm and the kids are out of school, I’m hoping to squeeze in volume 2, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, and Company, 2000), which tells the sad, sobering, and sorrowful climax of Elvis’s quintessentially American story.

Tyler Kepner, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (Doubleday, 2019). Anyone who knows baseball will tell you that good pitching will most always stifle good hitting. If Koufax could face Ruth, I’d take Koufax. After all, the game starts with the pitcher throwing his pitch—a blister-inducing fastball, a mind-bending curve, a fool-making changeup, a butterfly-aping knuckle ball. The pitcher is the dealer, and the batter is more or less at the mercy of the cards. Kepner introduces readers to the rich and colorful metanarrative of baseball history through the matrix of 10 pitches, drawing on insights from some of the liveliest arms in baseball history: Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Mariano Rivera, among myriad others. Early reviewers praise this book as a feast for those of us who love excellent writing about the summer game.

Albert N. Martin, Pastoral Theology: The Man of God, His Preaching and Teaching Labors (Trinity Pulpit Press, 2019). This book is volume two in a three-part work on the pastoral ministry by a man who has been at his craft for decades. Martin was among the founding pastors of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, New Jersey, where he labored for 46 years. Volume one, published last year, examined the pastor’s calling and spiritual life and includes a concise biography of Martin. I’d love to see more young Reformed pastors and future pastors engage these volumes and acquaint themselves with the earnest, faithful ministry of Albert Martin.

Matt Smethurst (Managing Editor)

Wright Thompson, The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business (Penguin, 2019). Summertime is great for sports reading, and Wright Thompson is one of my favorite sportswriters. His body of work includes the most-read articles in the history of ESPN. The Michael Jordan reflection I wrote a few years back was occasioned by one of Thompson’s essays.

Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War (Crown, 2018). I am a sucker for narrative-nonfiction pag-eturners, and this promises to fit the bill.

David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Crossway, 2017). I’ve heard so many people commend this book that I feel indirectly rebuked for having not read it. I plan to remedy that this summer. I imagine it will be a potent follow-up to Matt McCullough’s terrific book Remember Death.

Anna Smith (Assistant Editor)

Sarah Arthur, A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time (Zondervan, 2018). I loved the Wrinkle in Time books growing up, and I always enjoy author biographies, so I’m excited to read this spiritual biography of L’Engle.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Last spring I visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Justice and Peace in Montgomery, Alabama. I learned so much about America’s history of racial injustice. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and in this book he tells the story of how he founded EJI to serve people mistreated and abused by our justice system.

Susan Orlean, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, 2018). A friend recommended this history of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library. It also delves into the history of libraries in general. A book about books, what could be better?

Taylor Turkington (Director of Women’s Training Network)

Scott M. Gibson and Matthew D. Kim, editors, Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Baker Academic, 2018). I hope to dive into this compilation on preaching to help me better articulate how my hermeneutic is fleshed out in my exposition of a text. The names on the front cover make me confident it will be a good conversation. Bryan Chapell has greatly influenced my thoughts on exposition, and I’ve appreciated interacting with Scott Gibson and Abraham Kuruvilla’s perspectives.

Ajith Fernando, Discipling in a Multicultural World (Crossway, 2019). Biblical principles for discipleship are not biblical if they only fit in our Western context. We need a global perspective when we think about growth as disciples of Jesus Christ, and I’m looking forward to learning from Ajith and growing in my own teaching of discipleship.

Sam Allberry, 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway, 2019). I’m not single, but I recognize the myths about singleness surrounding me. Even some recent online flurries regarding the roles of women seemed to ignore the possibility of singleness. I want to learn from Sam in how we think about people, including those who are single.

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (Senior Writer)

Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (P&R Publishing, 2001). When our kids were toddlers, my husband and I read Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heartand it drastically changed the way we thought about and practiced discipline. Now the oldest of those kids is 13, and I’m eager to soak up Paul’s wisdom for this next stage.

David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (Simon & Schuster, 2019). McCullough is a master of telling history’s stories without making them boring. I’ve read almost all of his books, and I can’t wait to start this one.

Elliot Clark, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land  (The Gospel Coalition, 2019). This book outsold every other one at TGC’s April conference in Indianapolis, which is all I need to know to add it to my pile.

‘Saving Private Ryan,’ D-Day 75, and Liberation’s Cost

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 12:00am

On the occasion of next week’s D-Day 75—the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, via the beaches of Normandy—it’s appropriate to revisit Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film remains not only one of the definitive portrayals of D-Day on screen (along with The Longest Day and Band of Brothers), but among the best war films ever made. If you have not seen it on the big screen, don’t miss your chance this June 2 and 5, when Fathom Events will show the epic film in 600 theaters across the United States.

Significant in film history for the way it took battle scenes—particularly the D-Day beach landings—to new heights of immersive realism (think blood splatters on lenses and handheld cameras that feel as shell-shocked and jittery as any other soldier in combat), Ryan also tells a story that packs a theological punch.

Quite a View

Sometimes theological readings of popular culture are forced and overwrought. But when there are works that easily lend themselves to such readings, without it feeling like a stretch, it can be fruitful to engage them in this way. Saving Private Ryan is one such work.

The film’s big idea is the cost of liberation—the bloody, weighty, seemingly irrational cost. For nearly three hours the film hammers this point home to such a degree that audience members might wonder, as most of the film’s characters do, Is it worth it? Is the liberation of France worth the lives of tens of thousands of dead Allied soldiers? Is saving Private Ryan (Matt Damon) worth the deaths of the men tasked with finding him?

The terrible, blood-soaked cost of liberation is made clear in the film’s famous opening sequence—a relentless, 25-minute depiction of Allied soldiers landing in the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From the horror of anticipation (trembling hands, vomiting, men crossing themselves) to the hellish chaos on the beach (flamethrowers engulfing bodies, men picking up their own severed arms, a soldier with exposed entrails crying for his mother, medics working to dress wounds as blood sprays from arteries and bullets zing by), the D-Day sequence launches the film’s thesis with a bang that resonates theologically: Our liberation comes at a significant and violent cost. 

The D-Day sequence launches the film’s thesis with a bang that resonates theologically: Our liberation comes at a significant and violent cost. 

Near the end of the D-Day sequence, as the surviving soldiers gain some high ground and can breathe for a moment, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) says to Captain Miller (Tom Hanks): “That’s quite a view.” The camera zooms in on Miller’s eyes as he says, “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Then the score by John Williams swells and the camera takes in “the view” in question, panning along the beach in its apocalyptic aftermath: blood-red waves crashing against countless dead bodies and dead fish strewn all over the beach. It’s the sort of “view” that forces us to contemplate the beauty and reckon with the horror of hard-won freedom. It’s the sort of terrible glory Christians see, for example, when we look at the cross.

Irrational Mission

Central to the tension of Ryan is the asymmetry of the cost (many men dying) verses the mission (one man being saved). To many characters in the film, the former outweighs the latter.

Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a Psalm 144-quoting sniper, sees the mission to save Ryan as “a serious misallocation of valuable military resources,” arguing that his own sniper skills could be better used for taking out Hitler.

In a memorable scene that takes place—notably, inside a church—Captain Miller himself expresses doubts about the cost-benefit logic of the mission. “This Ryan better be worth it,” he says. “He’d better go home and cure some disease, or invent the longer-lasting light bulb or something.”

Throughout the film, the question of “worth” is central. Miller and the others ponder whether Ryan’s life will be as precious and valuable as the lives spent to purchase his freedom. But of course it won’t be. That’s how grace works. It’s offensively asymmetrical.

Miller and the others ponder whether Ryan’s life will be as precious and valuable as the lives spent to purchase his freedom. But of course it won’t be. That’s how grace works. It’s offensively asymmetrical.

And that’s a heavy burden for Ryan to bear, which Damon captures well when his character struggles to understand why he, of all people, is sought and rescued.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he says after hearing that two of Miller’s men already died trying to find him. “Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought as hard as me.”

He struggles to accept the illogical but amazing grace of being lost and then found in this way. Why him? What did he do to deserve it? The answer is nothing, but that’s a tough pill to swallow. Salvation can’t really be that free, can it?

The Burden of ‘Earn This’

As if the burden of Ryan’s undeserved rescue isn’t heavy enough on him already, Captain Miller’s dying words to him are a devastating call to worthiness: “Earn this. Earn it.”

Thank God those weren’t the dying words of Christ on the cross. Instead, Jesus offered words that (should) release us from any lingering sense that we must somehow contribute to our salvation: “It is finished.”

‘Earn this. Earn it.’ Thank God those weren’t the dying words of Christ on the cross. Instead, Christ offered words that (should) release us from any lingering sense that we need to contribute anything to our salvation: ‘It is finished.’

With “earn it” ringing in his ears for the rest of his life, Ryan must live a life worthy of his rescue. What a tragedy.

In the film’s final scene, elderly Ryan (Harrison Young) is standing in the American cemetery in Normandy, among somber rows of countless white crosses. With the blank backside of one of the crosses framing the shot, Ryan addresses the cross: “I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

Is he talking to God in those words? Or is he talking to Miller (whose grave it is revealed to be)? Perhaps both. Either way, it’s tragic. Indeed, Ryan turns to his wife in desperate need of justification: “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” She replies, “You are,” and the film ends with those sweet but unsatisfying words.

We are left, as Ryan doubtless is too, with the sinking suspicion that “good” can never be good enough for the sort of liberation we are given, in Christ.

Only Appropriate Words

Saving Private Ryan ends, as it opens, with a sepia-toned shot of a waving American flag. The bookends frame the film—and its questions of sacrifice and worthiness—in terms of national patriotism and sacrifice on “the altar of freedom,” to quote Lincoln’s Bixby Letter. The patriotism might leave audiences with a feel-good release, but for me it does little to resolve the film’s theological tensions. For as much as there is a “Mission: Accomplished!” resolution in the film’s titular objective, it’s unclear whether the saving of Private Ryan has actually occurred by film’s end, in the spiritual and most important sense.

Whereas he could have been broken at the foot of a literal cross (Miller’s grave), speechless but for the only two appropriate words (“thank you”), Ryan instead ends the film with these burdensome words: “Tell me I’m a good man.”

Oh that these are never my words when my conscience is pricked by the cost of my deliverance.

Why Middle Eastern Women Want to Learn to Teach the Bible

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 12:04am

Over the past four years of doing interviews for this podcast, I have often sat in the presence of greatness. But never have I felt that greatness more than I did recently, as I sat in a Dubai conference room with five women from Middle Eastern countries who’d traveled there to learn how to teach Scripture at a Simeon Trust Women’s Workshop. I was impressed with their command of English, their desire to grow their Bible-handing skills, their love for Christ and his people, and mostly with their joy and perseverance in giving out God’s Word in the countries and situations in which he’s placed them.

Around the table were also my fellow workshop leaders Keri Folmar and Carrie Sandom. It was pure joy to hear these women tell how they were drawn to Christ, what their lives are like, and what their dreams are for being used by God as they give out his Word in their countries and contexts.

Listen to our conversation on this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.


John Stott’s Simple Secret for Spiritual Productivity

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 12:03am

At age 29, John Stott was overwhelmed with his ministry responsibilities as rector of All Souls Church. How would he manage all the administrative tasks? How would he spiritually nourish himself enough to feed those he served?

Young Stott didn’t know what to do—until he attended a pastor’s conference and heard this counsel from a wiser, older pastor:

Take a quiet day once a month. Go away into the country, if you can, where you can be sure of being undisturbed. Stand back, look ahead, and consider where you are going. Allow yourself to be drawn up into the mind and perspective of God. Try to see things as he sees them. Relax!

Stott took this advice to heart:

I went home, and immediately marked one day a month in my diary with the letter “Q” for Quiet. And as I began to enjoy these days, the intolerable burden lifted and has never returned. In fact, so valuable did these days prove that for many years I have tried to manage one a week. I use them for those items which need unhurried and uninterrupted time—long-term planning, problems I must think and pray over, difficult letters, preparation, reading, and writing. These quiet days have brought immense blessing to my life and ministry.

Following the preacher’s practical suggestion gave Stott the spiritual and mental quiet he needed for ministry, and it can help you as well.

One Way to Apply It

While this seems like a wonderful idea, many of us don’t have the ability to take one extra day off per month, let alone per week! We probably won’t keep the same schedule as Stott, but we can seek to regularly incorporate rest, prayer, planning, special projects, and study in other ways.

For me this means that every month or so, I take an hour or two out of my workday to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and hope to accomplish. I draw near to God in prayer, not always out of urgent necessity, but with a desire to abide in him.

I also keep a OneNote file that serves as a work journal; it contains my successes, dreams for the future, frustrations, and struggles. I use the time to take a long-term view of my life and to ponder my wildest dreams for kingdom impact. I jot down ideas of how I might, by God’s grace, take steps toward those dreams.

When I pray, I ask God to guide me, bless the work of my hands, clarify my thinking by showing me truth and error, and use my efforts for his glory and the building of his church. I often speed-walk during these times, since I find it easier to meditate on deep things and maintain a sharp focus while away from my desk.

I’ve experienced many benefits from this practice: I depend on God in prayer for ministry fruit; God often brings clarity to complex situations; I often have fresh ideas; and at the end I’m refreshed to sit down at my desk with new vigor.

Be Creative

Since taking a weekly quiet day like Stott may be impossible for you as it is for most others, you may need creativity to experience the refreshment and rest you desire.

Here are a few ideas, some small, some large:

  • Find a few hours to unplug from your normal routine. Turn off all technology, pray, and think through your life. Consider how Christ has grace to meet your every need.
  • Fast from all social media and use time you’d normally spend online to pray, think, memorize Scripture, or read. If your phone is still a temptation, remove tempting apps.
  • Fast from food or another area of life to more deeply focus on God.
  • If you commute, have regular quiet commutes of praise, prayer, thanksgiving, and communion with God.
  • Consider taking time off from work/ministry for a spiritual retreat. Use your vacation days, drop the kids off at grandma’s or with some friends, and make your time all about pursuing Jesus. Some free or discounted spiritual retreat centers exist: Ask around or consider Ed Stetzer’s list for pastors.
  • If you’re a pastor or in ministry full-time, prayerfully consider taking a sabbatical to recharge.

Sometimes the best way to move forward in life is to hit the pause button and try to see life as God does. That simple perspective will help us find rest for our souls and experience a sweet foretaste of heavenly rest in the presence of Christ.

Why Big Tech Struggles with Ethics

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 12:02am

In April, Google made news yet again with the controversy surrounding the formation of an ethics board focused on artificial intelligence (AI). The board, tasked with the “responsible development of AI,” was to have eight members and meet four times over the course of 2019 to evaluate the ethical implications of AI development and to make recommendations to executives.

But a week after the board was formed, it was officially cancelled. The Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), as it was called, ran into considerable controversy over the inclusion of Kay Cole James, the African American female president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, as well as the inclusion of drone company CEO Dyan Gibbens. The inclusion of James was protested by employees because of her views on sexuality and climate change. The inclusion of Gibbens brought up an older controversy Google faced: the outcry from its employees last year over an AI contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. Project Maven was designed to strength drone targeting systems by identifying objects in video data, but thousands of Google employees protested the company’s involvement, saying: “Google should not be in the business of war.”

The race to develop ethical AI is in vogue, with companies like Google and German-based SAP—as well as government organizations like the European Union—drafting forms of ethical guidelines for AI. These ethical statements are often developed in response to the growing concern among ordinary people about the way AI is reshaping society—from how we deal with bias in AI to the future of work in an AI-driven economy. The giants of Silicon Valley are sensitive to growing criticism.

These corporate and government principles can ring hollow, however, since they’re often based on the prevailing moral preferences of the day, which shift depending on what tribe or interest is at the table. Google points out that AI development should be socially beneficial and not cause harm, but rules out any military applications that might actually save lives through more precise weapon targeting. Often these statements are based more on popular opinion and what may increase profits than on any transcendent principles of justice and human dignity. Absent a shared moral consensus, it will be hard for tech companies and civic authorities to create principles that are universally embraced.

Need for Christian Wisdom

This is why Christians should do the hard work of thinking well about new technologies like AI. We must not look to corporations or governments to do the hard-but-crucial work of ethics and morality. Our source of truth comes from a power who is wiser than we, or any interest group, could ever hope to be. That’s why our presence in the field of AI—as developers, coders, business leaders, and end users—is vital.

We must not look to corporations or governments to do the hard-but-crucial work of ethics and morality.

One foundational moral concept that Christians should bring to the AI conversation is the notion of universal human dignity. We believe all humans are created in God’s image and by nature have innate dignity and worth. In fact, each human is so valuable that God himself became one in order to save us.

As opposed to some popular views of the nature of humanity, we are not machines, nor are we simply the products of evolution over time. Regardless of what technologists like Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk may believe, humans are created uniquely by a loving God who desires us to be redeemed and restored. Every human being, regardless of perceived worth, is knit together by their Maker in their mother’s womb. We were intentionally formed, even before we took our first breath.

Without the foundational moral truth of the imago Dei, humans will naturally treat other humans in ways that reduce their value to either their utility or to their economic contribution. But a Christian witness insists that all human life is valuable and must be treated with respect and dignity—regardless of perceived value, economic utility, or political worth. The Christian witness reminds us that no matter how advanced artificial intelligence might become, it will never replace humanity as the crown jewel of creation.

No matter how advanced artificial intelligence might become, it will never replace humanity as the crown jewel of creation.

There is already AI that can outperform humans in narrow tasks such as games, data analysis, and decision making. But AI will never replace human beings in terms of ultimate worth. Why? Because even the most advanced AI is not a living being. It is a created tool given to us by a loving God, to honor him and to uphold the dignity of our neighbors.

Statement of Principles

Because of the need for Christian principles to be applied to discussions surrounding AI, evangelical Christians from across denominations and vocations have drafted and signed a new document called “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” in hopes of grounding our understanding of this radical, life-altering technology in the Christian gospel. We hope this document transcends society’s shifting morality and offers more durable foundations for discourse about the ethical implications of AI—including the implications of AI on the nature of work, privacy, and even medicine.

Christians must not sit on the sidelines and let corporations or governments tell us what is ethical. We must proactively engage these pressing issues with biblical wisdom and moral insight, rather than responding to them reactively after their impact is widely made. This new statement is hopefully a first step in that direction.

4 Reasons the Ascension Matters

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 12:00am

It may be the most important doctrine you never think about.

It’s in the Bible. It’s in the Apostles’ Creed. And it’s something the church commemorates today, May 30. I’m talking about the ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:50–51; Acts 1:9–11).

I’m not sure why we neglect the ascension. Perhaps it gets overshadowed by the cross and resurrection. Maybe we’re slightly embarrassed by a story that sounds like Superman flying off into space. Regardless, I fear we don’t fully appreciate what the ascension does—both in salvation history and also in our Christian experience.

Here are four reasons the ascension matters.

1. The Ascension Explains Jesus’s Absence

If Jesus were dead, his absence would require no explanation. (After all, none of us wonders why we’ve never seen Peter or Paul or Julius Caesar.) But he’s not—so it does.

We worship and love a man we’ve never seen. And it’s not just us 21st-century Christians. It was true of many first-century Christians as well. As Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Pet. 1:8).

This bittersweet reality is so obvious that we take it for granted. And yet without the ascension, it wouldn’t be obvious at all. Jesus is more alive today than when he raised Lazarus 2,000 years ago. And yet Christianity has never included pilgrimages to meet Jesus in person or international tours by Jesus to visit his church. There’s only one reason why not: Because 40 days after he rose again, he ascended into heaven.

The ascension created the bittersweet tension that Christians on earth have experienced for almost two millennia: that of being present in the body and absent from the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–9). Of course, there is a vital sense in which Jesus is always with us (Matt. 18:20; 28:20), but not in the full and final sense. Just as the angels could point to the empty tomb and say, “He is not here; he has risen” (Matt. 28:6), they could now point to the entire world and say, “He is not here; he has ascended.”

2. The Ascension Enthrones Jesus at the Father’s Right Hand

The ascension isn’t mainly about what Jesus was leaving, but where he was going and why. I’ve referred to it as “bittersweet,” and focused on the bitter part. But the ascension should also be sweet to everyone who loves Jesus. The ascension was Jesus returning home. Back to his Father. Back where he had dwelt in glorious love from all eternity (John 1:1, 18; 13:1; 17:5, 11, 13, 23)—only this time with the keys of Death in his nail-scarred hand (Rev. 1:18). Just imagine the welcoming party.

But the ascension wasn’t simply Jesus going home; it was Jesus being enthroned. Scripture repeatedly speaks of the ascension ending with Jesus “being seated at the right hand of the Father” (Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:33–34; Eph. 1:20; 1 Pet. 3:22). And this is no ordinary seat. As Jesus told the church in Laodicea, “I . . . conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).

The ascension wasn’t simply Jesus going home, it was Jesus being enthroned.

How did he conquer? By dying and rising. We see this in Revelation 5:5–6, where the Lion who has conquered is seen as a lamb who has been slain but is now standing. This description of the Lamb standing isn’t meant to conflict with the numerous references to Jesus being seated; rather, it’s meant to show that Jesus is alive, since slain lambs aren’t usually standing. But it’s the ascension that placed Jesus where John saw him standing—in the heavenly throne room surrounded by a host of elders, living creatures, and saints, all worshiping him and his Father (Rev. 5:6–14).

This is the message of the most often-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament, Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The ascension is how he got there (Acts 2:33–34). It’s what enthroned him as king, “ruling in the midst of his enemies” (Ps. 110:1).

3. The Ascension Allows Him to Continue His Priestly Work for Us

But as Psalm 110 makes clear, the ascension is also about Jesus’s priesthood (v. 4). When we think of Jesus’s priesthood, we naturally think of him offering himself up on the cross. And rightly so. The cross is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–4). It was there that Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

But we mustn’t take “It is finished” to mean that nothing else needed to happen in order for us to be saved. For example, if Christ hadn’t risen, the only thing “finished” would’ve been us (1 Cor. 15:14–19). No. Though the full penalty for our sins was paid at the cross, Christ’s priestly work didn’t end there.

It continues to this day in heaven, where Christ “appears in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). And his entrance there has everything to do with his sacrifice. “He entered once for all into the holy places . . . by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Note this: Our eternal redemption was secured—not simply by Jesus dying on the cross—but through Jesus entering heaven by means of his own blood. In short: no ascension, no salvation.

This is why Robert Peterson refers to the ascension as “the great linchpin of Christ’s saving work”—because it forms the transition from Jesus’s earthly ministry to his heavenly ministry. Without this linchpin, the wheels would come off our salvation.

The fact that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sat down is seen as proof that his cross-work was successful.

The ascension doesn’t diminish the cross and resurrection in the accomplishment of our redemption. Rather, it’s a necessary extension of them for the application of our redemption. The reason Christ can “save [us] to the uttermost” is not only because he died on earth, but because “he always lives to make intercession for us” in heaven (Heb. 7:23–24). Indeed, the fact that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sat down is seen as proof that his cross-work was successful.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10:11–14; cf. 1:4)

This is why we can “hold fast our confession”—because we don’t just have a high king who has died on the cross, but also “a high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14).

4. The Ascension Serves as the Launching Pad for His Conquest and Return

Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven for nothing. He may have been seated, but he hasn’t been idle. On the contrary—after crushing the head of Satan’s resistance at the D-Day of Calvary, it was from heaven’s throne that Jesus launched his last-days offensive.

It began at Pentecost, when he poured out the Holy Spirit and began liberating the nations. According to Jesus, this was one of the main objectives for the ascension: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). People from every nation have been purchased; they now have to be gathered—and we can’t do it alone. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Until he was given, the Great Commission could not advance, but until Jesus ascended, he could not be given (Luke 24:49; John 7:39). It was only then, “being exalted at the right hand of God,” that Jesus could pour out the Spirit (Acts 2:33).

This age won’t last forever, and the mission won’t be completed with Jesus sitting down. One day he’s going to get up, and when he does, the whole world will know it.

As a person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit mediates the power and presence of both Father and Son, such that in a real sense Jesus is with us even now (Rom. 8:9–10; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 4:6). This is how, despite being in heaven, Jesus can promise to be with us till the end of the age—until the harvest is gathered and the mission is accomplished (Matt. 28:20).

But this age won’t last forever, and the mission won’t be completed with Jesus sitting down. One day he’s going to get up, and when he does, the whole world will know it. His enemies will be made his footstool, his friends will be made his vice-regents, and his creation will be made a Paradise (Ps. 110:1, 5–6; Rev. 3:21; Rom. 8:21).

The ascension isn’t a stopping place; it’s a launching pad. “From heaven we await a Savior, who will transform our lowly body” and “restore all things” (Phil. 3:20; Acts 3:21). Someday he’s going to descend again (1 Thess. 4:16). And when that day comes, we will no longer have to choose between being present in our body and absent from our Lord.

Until then, we wait.

Don’t Waste the Ascension

But let’s not sit down just yet, because our work isn’t finished. Instead of “wasting” the ascension, let’s allow it do its perfect work.

Jesus is absent—so let us cultivate a desire to “depart and be with Christ” which is “far better,” even as we seek to be faithful here on earth (Phil. 1:21–26). Jesus is king—so let us worship and bow down and recognize that the universe isn’t a democracy. Jesus is high priest—so let us come boldly before the throne of grace, knowing that we have an Advocate there who has walked our road and felt our pain (Heb. 4:14–16; 1 John 2:1). And Jesus is returning—so let us join in the Spirit’s mission to make Jesus’s name known among every tribe and nation.

And if all this seems a little too heavenly minded, that’s okay. That’s what the ascension does (Col. 3:1–4).

20 Quotes on the Hardest Questions Christians Face

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:04am

The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Rebecca McLaughlin’s outstanding new book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway, 2019) [TGC review | interview].

My secular friends are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians as I am to raise children who become nonreligious. And the kind of religious beliefs people hold today are not the kind that fit comfortably into the “Coexist” bumper sticker. In North America, partly thanks to immigrant believers, full-blooded Christianity is outcompeting theologically liberal faith. . . . The question for the next generation is not How soon will religion die out? but Christianity or Islam? (13, 14)

We need only open a newspaper to see that religious beliefs can cause harm. But to say that religion is bad for you is like saying, “Drugs are bad for you,” without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication. In general, religious participation appears to be good for your health and happiness. Turn this data on its head and the trend toward secularization in America is a public-health crisis. (21)

While Christianity held a monopoly on Western culture, Western culture never held a monopoly on Christianity. Indeed, calling Christianity “Western” is like calling literacy “Western.” . . . The idea that Christianity is a diversity-resistant, white Western religion of privilege is utterly irreconcilable with the New Testament. (34, 36)

Read the New Testament, and you will find that trying to marry biblical Christianity to white-centric nationalism is like trying to marry a cat to a mouse: one is designed to hunt the other, not mate with it. (44)

If you care about diversity, don’t dismiss Christianity: it is the most diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural movement in all of history. (45)

Disagreement is not evidence of disrespect. Indeed, I debate hardest with the people I respect the most, because I take their ideas seriously. But our society seems to be losing the art of debate within friendships, and we instead surround ourselves with people who think like us. . . . If our commitment to diversity is more than skin deep, we must cultivate deep friendships with smart people with whom we fundamentally disagree. (50)

While it might be possible to square some religions with each other, particularly those with multiple gods, Christianity is like a puzzle piece drawn from the wrong set: however hard we try to bend the edges, it won’t fit. (57)

At the cross, the most powerful man who ever lived submitted to the most brutal death ever died, to save the powerless. Christianity does not glorify violence. It humiliates it. (93)

Does religion cause violence? It certainly can. But millions of people are driven by their faith to love and serve others. And Christianity, in particular, has served as a fertilizer for democracy, a motivation for justice, and a mandate for healing. If we think the world would be less violent without it, we may need to check our facts. (94)

Belief in a rational Creator God provides the first and best foundation for the scientific enterprise. . . . Just as atheism cannot ground our ethical beliefs, so it cannot justify our science. (110, 112)

Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology. . . . No one who uses the Bible’s teaching on marriage to justify chauvinism, abuse, or denigration of women has looked at Jesus. (141, 143)

I observed [while reading Acts] that, while the first Christians faced every kind of suffering, even being stoned to death, there was one struggle they did not face: loneliness. If we reduce Christian community to sexual relationships and the nuclear family, we are utterly failing to deliver on biblical ethics. (160)

We cannot read the Bible and not be offended—condemned even—unless we come as broken sinners. If we come like that, we are tenderly embraced. Indeed, while Jesus’s condemnation of sexual sin is terrifying, his consistent welcome of repentant sexual sinners is equally shocking. (166)

Modern Western society teaches me to prioritize discovering my authentic self, peeling back the onion layers of my identity and living out of what I find there at all costs. But from a Christian perspective, who I am in relation to God is my authentic self. I find myself not in the depths of my psychology but in the depths of his heart. And when he calls you or me “child,” “beloved,” “friend,” that’s who we are, and any other identity—male, female, father, mother, child, friend—flows out of that. (173)

At the resurrection, no one who has chosen Jesus over sexual fulfillment will have missed out. Compared with that relationship, human marriage will seem like a toy car next to a Tesla, or a kiss on an envelope versus a lover’s embrace. (174)

The New Testament argues against slavery the way Portia argues against Antonio’s death: by cutting the legs out from under it. Jesus inhabited the slave role. Paul calls himself a slave of Christ, loves a runaway slave as his very heart, and insists that slave and free are equal in Christ. With no room for superiority, exploitation, or coercion, but rather brotherhood and shared identity, the New Testament created a tectonic tension that would ultimately erupt in the abolition of slavery. (183)

How many generations of faithful black believers do there need to be in America before we stop associating Christianity with white slave-owners and start listening to the voices of black believers that echo down to us through the blood-stained centuries? (192)

The question we must always ask of suffering is this: What could possibly be worth it? Jesus’s flabbergasting claim is that he is. (200)

Suffering is not an embarrassment to the Christian faith. It is the thread with which Christ’s name is stitched into our lives. (205)

If Jesus is the Bread of Life, loss of Jesus means starving. If Jesus is the Light of the World, loss of Jesus means darkness. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, loss of Jesus means wandering alone and lost. If Jesus is the resurrection and the life, loss of Jesus is eternal death. And if Jesus is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, loss of Jesus means paying that price for ourselves. (218–19)

In Jesus’s world, we find connective tissue between the truths of science and morality. We find a basis for saying that all human beings are created equal, and a deep call to love across diversity. We find a name for evil, and a means of forgiveness. We find a vision of love that is so much deeper than our current hearts can hold, and a true intimacy better than our weak bodies could ever experience. We find a diagnosis of human nature as shot through with sin and yet redeemable by grace. We find a call to care for the poor, oppressed, and lonely, a call springing from the heart of God himself and grounded in the hope that one day every tear will be wiped away, every stomach will be filled, and every outcast will be embraced. But we do not find glib answers or an easy road. Instead, we find a call to come and die. (222)

How Can You Tell if a Church Is Gospel-Centered? Start with the Pulpit.

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:03am

The tagline “gospel-centered” has become commonplace in the church-planting world. In many ways, this is a good thing.

But we do well to ask: What exactly does the phrase mean? Does the planter have to be committed to mention Jesus in every sermon? Must there be a mandatory invitation to salvation in each service?

One of the best ways to “test” gospel-centrality in the life of a church plant is to look at the pulpit. A church may have “gospel-centered” peppered throughout their statement of beliefs and on their website, but one of clearest places to see whether gospel-centrality is a real value—or simply a buzzword—is when the pastor preaches God’s Word on Sunday.

The King Has Won

Before looking at the specifics of gospel-centered preaching, consider the following illustration.

Imagine a king departing his castle to battle an invading army. If the king loses, he sends his military advisers back to the castle with the bad news. They also inform the citizens of new strategies and techniques: “The enemy is approaching. We suggest you put marksmen here, chariots there, and so on.” All of this is done in an attempt to equip the people to defeat the enemy themselves. They feel incredible pressure, knowing that victory (or defeat) rests on their shoulders.

But if the king defeats the enemy, he sends his messengers back with the good news. They return to the castle square shouting: “The king has defeated the enemy! Enjoy the peace and blessings of the victory our lord has achieved for you!” With this joyous declaration, the people would not only experience freedom in their daily lives, but their love and gratitude would also be directed toward their king.

So what is a gospel-centered church? In a manner of speaking, a gospel-centered church labors to stress—in her messages, ministries, and mission—that, in Christ’s finished work on the cross, God has achieved victory. The King has truly won.

‘Good Advice’ Preaching

How does this approach affect preaching? Painting broadly, the typical contemporary church often markets the preaching as “relevant” and “practical.” Many will have something like the following on their websites: “Come see how what we say will meet your everyday needs with biblical principles that show God’s Word is true.” Further, many church planters are told (by church-growth “experts”) that this is the best way to gather a crowd large enough to gain sufficient momentum to get their fledging plants off the ground.

Consequently, congregants can be given an imbalanced rotation of topical sermons on money, family, marriage, and the like. Often the primary aim of such messages isn’t so much to exalt Christ and his cross work as it is to focus on practical applications. In short, what people can get is not the gospel, but a bunch of “good” advice.

In essence, much of the application sounds barely different from what you’d find in the latest self-help books or talk-show experts. The hope is that hearers leave with sermon notes packed with practical “to-dos” to employ at home, work, school, and in other spheres of life. This doesn’t mean these kinds of sermons never use the Bible or even talk about Jesus. On the contrary, it’s not uncommon to see “good advice” preachers insert Jesus at the conclusion of their sermons. They may even emphasize the fact that Christ wants to save people, and that they can receive salvation by saying a prayer, coming down an aisle, filling out a card, and so on.

Again, this kind of preaching strategy may seem effective for a young church plant. Attenders will likely compliment pastors on how insightful and practical they are. After all, sermon content has been focused squarely in their worlds of concern. They want “success” in life, and any tips to achieve that success are welcome.

Good-advice preaching makes the Bible about us instead of God. And that is precisely what makes it so grievous.

The potential problems with such preaching are numerous. But at its core, good-advice preaching makes the Bible about us instead of God. Jesus is relegated to being part of Scripture’s story, instead of the sum and substance of it all.

Consequently, this kind of preaching leads listeners to think that while salvation is about Jesus, the rest of their spiritual growth is, for all practical purposes, up to them. Therefore good-advice preaching, no matter how well-meaning, is actually untethered from the gospel because it grounds people in law, not grace.

This is problematic, for the true gospel insists that Jesus’s person and work not only enables my growth, but also empowers and sustains it. The gospel is not just a doorway we walk through into the Christian life, but the very room we live in. This ought to be the refrain of gospel-centered sermons: that Christian growth rests upon—and is enabled by—Christ’s finished work and the Spirit’s faithful power.

Paul’s Preaching

What might Paul say about “good advice” preaching? “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul frames his ministry—including his preaching—as being centered on Jesus. And not just any perspective on Jesus—he homes in on his work on the cross.

In other words, Paul preached on various “real-life” topics, but he did so in such a way that Jesus wasn’t seen as just another (albeit better) life coach, self-help expert, Mr. Fix It, or success guru. In Paul’s preaching, Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. There is no other option, because there is no other Jesus.

In Paul’s preaching, Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. There is no other option, because there is no other Jesus.

Similarly, it’s not that gospel-centered churches don’t talk about what followers of Jesus should do in the various circles of daily life. It’s just that they intentionally tie the doing to the being. That is, all our doing in the Christian life flows from the definitive “done” that was Christ’s work on the cross (John 19:30).

Thus, gospel-centered church plants have preaching in which the good news of the gospel not only shapes the sermon’s conclusion, but its body as well. We are, after all, more proclaimers than advisers.

The world doesn’t need more people who (merely) give good advice. The world needs churches fluent in the gospel, characterized by preaching that centers on Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is preaching where the congregants’ “dos” rest upon Christ’s “done.”

What Makes a Good Pastor?

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:02am

In a day when self-promotion is pursued as a virtue, pastoral competence is measured largely in terms of speaking talent, and more and more well-known gospel ministers are succumbing to sexual immorality, greed, and pride, Paul’s simple qualifications for pastors are nothing less than refreshing. “The life of the minister,” Albert Martin reminds us, “is the life of his ministry” (436). Maintain a pure and simple devotion to Christ and his Word, and you’ve already secured your perseverance in the faith and a fruitful ministry (1 Tim. 4:16).

In his first installment on pastoral theology, The Man of God: His Calling and Godly Life, Albert Martin—former founding pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, New Jersey—focuses on the character of the pastor. While discussing the necessity of ministerial giftedness—a man must be outfitted by God with specific abilities to feed, lead, and protect the flock—Martin frames his entire conversation around a consideration of the pastor’s godliness.

Determining a Ministry Call

A man’s call to the ministry, therefore, is never to be weighed solely on the basis of pulpit competency; serious consideration of a man’s moral and spiritual qualifications must always be included. Teaching ability is a must, of course, but woe to the church that lays hands on a man merely because he can preach.

Nor should a man consider himself called to the ministry unless is able to detect—along with the confirmation of older, wiser pastors and saints—that Christ has qualified him for pastoral work. “Before any man can be given to the church as a gift of the ascended Christ,” Martin comments, “that same Christ must furnish the man with at least a discernible measure of the very graces and gifts which he himself has specified in his Word” (44).

Teaching ability is a must, of course, but woe to the church that lays hands on a man merely because he can preach.

The means of discerning if a man is called by God to pastoral ministry aren’t mystical experiences, apparent providential affirmations (education, opportunities), the encouragement of family members, or even the personal conviction of one’s own fitness for the ministry. Rather, in seeking to determine his call, a man should, with the help of other pastors and trusted counselors, consider whether he possesses “an enlightened and sanctified desire for the pastoral office” (56). His desire will consist of right motivation—the glory of God and the spiritual benefit of Christ’s church—and a “growing sense” of pastoral work as a “God-given stewardship” (61).

A call to pastoral ministry will also manifest itself in a man’s growth in personal holiness. “God requires, of all who aspire to the pastoral office, the manifested graces indicative of a genuine, matured, balanced, and proven Christian character” (73). A man’s faith in Christ must first be real. That is, he must have “clear indications of an enlarged, balanced, and tested Christian experience” (91). A man qualified for ministry will have a growing sense of the dynamics of sin, grace, the wiles of his own heart, and the power of God’s Word. He will love Christ and possess a steadfast faith in Scripture’s unseen realities.

But the man’s faith must also have some depth and longevity, hence Paul’s statement that an elder can’t be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6). Along with sincerity, depth, and longevity, a man called to the ministry will have a character that’s growing in symmetry. He may be courageous, but he’s also making strides in kindness. He may be sensitive to others’ needs, but he’s also able to admonish the unruly.

Patterns of Growing Faithfulness

A man considering his call to the ministry must be able to see long-term patterns of growing faithfulness in the realm of sexual purity, domestic competence, self-control, gentleness, money-management, leadership, and engagement with unbelievers. The man in question, along with those who are evaluating the authenticity of his call, must be able to say he’s “above reproach” in each of these areas.

While “above reproach” doesn’t denote sinless perfection, it does mean no legitimate accusation can be brought against the man in any of these categories. While this may seem too lofty a standard, Martin is careful to note that Paul allows no exceptions or compromises on this point. “It is not only good that he possesses these gifts and graces, or simply desirable that he possess them, but essential, a non-negotiable requirement of the office-bearer” (78).

A man called to the ministry will also be spiritually gifted to fulfill his pastoral tasks. Christ will equip him to lead and teach his flock with wisdom, discernment, and courage. If a man is deficient and making little progress in sound judgment, or if he’s beset by cowardice and unable to confront sin, or if he’s unable to edify the church with a public teaching ministry, he shouldn’t have any assurance Christ has called him to the ministry. As the saying goes, Christ equips those he calls. Conversely: If you haven’t been equipped, then you haven’t been called.

Godly Life of the Pastor

In the second half of the book, Martin moves to discuss the life of the pastor. Having assumed that the call of the man under consideration has been confirmed according to biblical standards, he reflects on the pastor’s relationship to God, his people, himself, and his domestic responsibilities. Grounded in biblical principles suffused with the wisdom of past pastor-theologians, these sections are as convicting as they are practical.

Martin speaks to issues of personal devotion, prayer, confession of sin, and the mandate for pastors to keep a good conscience (227–82). He offers wisdom on establishing a reading plan with the aim of developing a sound theological mind (283–301). He rebukes pastors for their lack of self-control and spends several pages speaking to our eating, exercise, and sleep habits (303–32). Pastors should be growing in their love for their sheep (333–46), freedom from the fear of man (347–63), and the qualities that will inspire the confidence and respect of his people: diligence, humility, generosity, and domestic competence (365–83).

Twitter followers, speaking engagements, book deals, large-scale growth, and international influence aren’t the primary pursuit of Christ’s under-shepherds.

The man of God will also have a healthy grasp of his identity in Christ and the range and depth of his spiritual gifts. He shouldn’t strive to be like other men in the pulpit; he is to serve according to the grace God has given him (385–97). Finally, recognizing the nature of his stewardship, he must pursue continual growth in the areas of time-management and self-discipline, while taking into account the needs of his wife and children so that he is able to maintain diligence in his pastoral labors and happiness in his home (399–436).

Martin’s Man of God is a reliable guide to help men determine their call to the ministry. Read carefully by those preparing for and presently in the ministry, this book will highlight with blazing clarity what matters most in pastoral work.

Twitter followers, speaking engagements, book deals, large-scale growth, and international influence aren’t the primary pursuit of Christ’s under-shepherds. Personal holiness, love for God, a good conscience, a spiritually happy home, and faithfulness to Scripture are the things on which men of God should rivet their attention.

For the sake of your soul and the sake of your people, let Martin help you refocus on your calling and godly life.

Want an Extraordinary Marriage? Be an Ordinary Christian

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 12:00am

Christians seeking ways to strengthen and improve their marriages aren’t suffering a shortage of advice. Much of it is good, even excellent. But how often are married believers told that the foundation of every successful marriage is an ordinary Christian life—perhaps not ordinary in terms of how many professing Christians practice such a life, but certainly ordinary as Scripture describes and God requires?

Yet social science makes it abundantly clear that when married people embrace basic, plain, elementary biblical practices, this behavior powerfully and positively affects their marriages. Allow me to illustrate this by highlighting a handful of the most important aspects of the ordinary Christian life that affect marriage.

Church Attendance

Ordinary Christians are committed members of a local church they attend regularly, encouraging and being encouraged by fellow believers. Yet the General Social Survey (GSS) for 2008 through 2018 shows that less than half of self-identified evangelicals say they attend church about weekly or more. Even that dismal statistic is a high estimate given that many survey respondents overstate their church attendance.

By skipping church, people are missing out on something that can make their marriages better and stronger. This set of GSS surveys show that first marriages among evangelicals who attend church only several times a year or less are about 20 percent more likely to end in divorce or legal separation than for those who attend church about weekly or more. These surveys also show that married evangelicals who attend church weekly are about 9 percent more likely (than those who attend several times a year or less) to call their marriages “very happy” (66 percent versus 57 percent).

Lukewarm Christianity is a disaster for family life.

Interestingly, in that survey for 2008 through 2018, first marriages among evangelicals who only attended religious services several times a year or less were about 14 percent more likely to have ended in divorce or legal separation than those among religious “liberals” or “moderates” who rarely sat in the pews. These statistics echo Jesus’s famous indictment of the Laodicean church for being “neither cold nor hot” (Rev. 3:15–16). In a 2014 interview with Christianity Today, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox remarked directly on this text, noting the poor marriage stats for professing believers inconsistent in their church commitments: “Lukewarm Christianity is a disaster for family life. . . . Nominal conservative Protestants and evangelicals do worse in their marriages than other Americans.”

This finding shouldn’t surprise us. Churches—especially those that are biblically sound—provide valuable social support, moral instruction, and accountability. Church attendance is consistently associated with lower levels of a range of sexual behaviors that undermine marriage, such as viewing pornography, promiscuous premarital sex, and cohabitation, as well as reducing substance abuse. And regular church attendance is a mark of basic Christian faithfulness (Heb. 10:24–25).

Forgiveness, Kindness, and Compassion

The ordinary Christian life is also marked by kindness, compassion, and generosity, including regularly practicing forgiveness (Prov. 11:24–25; Mat. 18:21–22; Mark 11:25; Col. 3:13). These are integrally related, but they’re often hard to practice in the grind of daily living. Like all  other aspects of the Christian life, we grow in them by grace. Yet forgiveness, kindness, and compassion ought to characterize relationships between believers, especially those joined by the covenant of marriage. They flourish in the lives of those who comprehend the depth of their sin and the mercy they receive from Christ and need regularly from others as well. Every married person must apply Ephesians 4:32 in their marriage: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

The National Marriage Project bundled survey items that measured these things, under the label “marital generosity.” They found that married couples whose relationships are more strongly characterized by practically caring for and forgiving each other have higher levels of marital satisfaction and stability, less conflict, and even more sexual fulfillment.

Who knew that everyday rituals like warming up your spouse’s coffee or car, listening to them describe their day, washing the dishes or folding the laundry without being asked, paying little sincere compliments, and so on could have such a powerful effect on one’s marriage?


Finally, ordinary Christians take the promises and pledges they make to God and others seriously (Num. 30:2; Prov. 12:22). They understand that abandoning or neglecting those to whom they’re bound by marriage or other close familial ties is especially abhorrent (Mal. 2:14–15; Mark 7:10–13; 1 Tim. 5:8). This means holding a strong core belief that, during the hard times, they will work hard to improve and maintain covenant bonds, not withdraw from or forsake them. This fits into what marriage scholars often simply call “marital commitment.”

In The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher highlight the positive effect this  commitment has on marriage, including greater levels of sexual satisfaction. The GSS asked respondents in 2002 and 2012 to indicate if they agreed that “divorce is usually the best solution to marital problems.” This is a rough measurement of how much they believe that they should seriously consider divorce if their marriage runs into difficulties—how “thinkable” divorce is. Those who agreed with this statement were 8 percent less likely to call their marriage “very happy” than those who disagreed with it (60 percent versus 68 percent). This supports the idea that higher levels of commitment to marriage are associated with a greater likelihood of being happy in it.

Without commitment, couples won’t make it through the hard times and do everything they can, in the Lord, to make their marriage the best it can be. It is the platform of marital happiness.

Committed couples count on and support one another. They’re willing to make sacrifices for their partners and will seek to protect their marriage from anything or anyone that would destroy it. They regard their spouse as more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3) and remember that the welfare of their partner is their highest priority. In The Meaning of Marriage Tim and Kathy Keller note, “Marriage won’t work unless you put your marriage and your spouse first, and you don’t turn good things, like parents, children, career, and hobbies, into pseudo-spouses.”

Marital commitment places marriage on a firmer foundation than do pursuing positive feelings or self-fulfillment. Yet ironically, this dedication leads to greater marital joy and satisfaction in the long run. Any worthwhile endeavor requires sacrifice and dedication. Why would we expect marriage to be any different?

Without commitment, couples won’t make it through the hard times and do everything they can, in the Lord, to make their marriage the best it can be. Commitment is the platform of marital happiness.

Marriages Built on Paradox

Every extraordinary Christian marriage is built on the everyday actions and attitudes that ought to characterize the life of every believer, even though we’re imperfect sinners making gradual progress in holiness. Great marriages belong to married believers leading lives marked by humility as they rely on and remain committed to their spouses, children, and fellow believers. These are husbands and wives who have gratefully received God’s grace and therefore seek to live it out in their lives together.

Their marriages reflect the great mystery of the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:31–32), but there is nothing mysterious about what makes their lives together so exceptional. It’s all right there in Bible paradox. Wealth flows from generosity, exaltation from humility, liberation from service, exaltation from humility, fruitful lives from dying to self.

FactChecker: Could U.S. Churches Solve the Orphan Crisis?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 12:04am

Over the past few decades Christians in America have become increasingly vocal in promoting adoption and orphan care. One particular claim that is commonly cited is that, “If every church in the U.S. adopted one child, we would solve the world’s orphan crisis.

For some churches this claim is heartening, for it appears to offer a realistic solution to a global problem. For other churches, especially small congregations, this can be a challenging statement. But whether we consider it promising or formidable, we should first ask, “Is it true?”

To test the accuracy of the proposition we first need to know two key factors in the equation: the number of orphans and the number of churches in America.

Calculating the Number of Churches

We live in an age where it seems everything can be counted. We can know, for example, that in the U.S. there are 2,618 accredited four-year colleges and universities, 247,191 fast food restaurants, and 281.3 million registered automobiles. Yet when in comes to the number of church congregations, the best we can do is make an educated guess.

In a 2017 paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Simon Brauer analyzed the existing data to conclude that in 2012 there were an estimated 384,000 congregations. This number also includes other religions, such as Islam and Judaism, so the number is not solely based on Christian churches. It’s also unclear whether the number has increased or declined over the past few years.

For our purposes, we’ll assume the number of Christian congregations in the U.S. is approximately 380,000.

Calculating the Number of Orphans

Although we have difficulty counting them, we know what we mean by congregations. For the other part of the equation, though, the problem is reversed: how many orphans there are depends on what we mean by “orphan.”

A common assumption is the belief or definition that an orphan is a child who both two deceased parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF’s “single orphan,” which is a child with only one parent that has died, or “double orphan,” which is a child who has two parents that are deceased.

Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child’s basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world’s orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.

For our purposes we’ll narrow the term to refer to a double orphan who has no other family to take care of them. According to UNICEF estimates, there were nearly 140 million orphans globally in 2015, with 17.9 million orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development.

We oftentimes face similar confusion when talking about orphans in the U.S. Many people assume that most, if not all, children in the foster care system are awaiting adoption. But the reality is that less than 20 percent of the children who are served by the foster care system in any given year are waiting to be adopted.

For example, in the latest fiscal year for which statistics are available (2017), 690,548 children were served by the foster care system. During that year 269,690 entered the system while 247,631 exited the system, leaving a total of 442,995 at the end of the fiscal year.

The goal for the majority of children in the foster care system (59 percent) is for them to be reunited with a parent, primary caretaker, or relative. The goal for just over one in four children (27 percent) is adoption into a permanent home.

In 2017, out of the 123,437 children waiting to be adopted 59,430 were adopted with the involvement of a public child welfare agency. This left approximately 64,000 children eligible and waiting for adoption.

The Calculations

Could churches in the U.S. adopt all orphans around the globe? Not really. Currently, there are legal barriers in many foreign countries that are intended to protect children but reduce the rates of international adoption. For instance, Americans were only able in 2018 to adopt 4,058 children from other countries—a total of 0.02 percent of the number of double orphans across the globe.

Even if we removed such barriers, though, the task would remain unfeasible. To give every child around the world a home would require every congregation in the U.S. to adopt 47 children. Since the median church in the U.S. has only 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings this would require almost every churchgoing family to adopt one child.

What if we only consider the eligible orphans in America? Many families in our churches are already adopting children, of course, so we are not starting from zero. But for every eligible child in the foster care system to find a home would require 17 percent of all Christian congregations—about 64,000 churches—to adopt one additional child.

If we divided all congregations into six groups, each group of churches would need to adopt one additional child every five years to ensure most all children always had a home. This is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Accurate But Misleading?

From a mathematical perspective, it appears the general claim is unlikely if we look at global orphans but becomes more plausible if we limit the scope to eligible orphans in the U.S. Yet as some adoption advocates point out, looking at the issue purely form a numerical perspective can be misleading. As Jason Johnson of the Christian Alliance for Orphans explains,

The math says, “There’s x number of kids needing homes and there’s x number of churches in our country. We can wipe out the crisis immediately.” This logic, however, is flawed. While we may meet the need today an entirely new roster of kids would come into care tonight and need homes tomorrow. It’s the equivalent to scooping water out of a canoe with a teaspoon while the gaping hole in the bottom of the boat continues to let rushing tides rush in.

When it comes to adequately and effectively addressing the national and global orphan care crisis our efforts must be two-fold. One, to close the back door on kids growing up into adulthood without families. The Church, more than any other institution in the world is uniquely equipped with the Gospel of redemption and the diversity of the Body to ensure no child is ever left familyless. It’s on us. Two, we must close the front door on new kids ever finding themselves in the position of needing a family. Preventative, alternative forms of restorative care for families is essential to ensure they stay in tact so kids can thrive safely and securely in their own homes. While I certainly celebrate and advocate for the notion that every church can and should adopt and foster at least one, the extent of the work that’s necessary to honestly eradicate the orphan care crisis would remain undone.

Perhaps a more helpful claim would be that every congregation is responsible for orphan care (James 1:27) and that for some families in our churches this will mean a call to adopt. While adoption is one aspect of orphan care, it is not the sole way the church provides support for those without parents.

“Orphan care equals a vast buffet of opportunities to care for marginalized, abused, neglected and orphaned children and their families,” says Johnson. “Not everyone is called to do the same thing, but certainly if you are someone who claims to have been adopted by God, you are no doubt called to do something. This is a realistic expectation for us all, and a biblical one.”

Does God Prefer Us to Be Rich or Poor?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 12:03am

The Bible has several warnings against the love of money and the snare of wealth (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:10), but in Proverbs 30:8–9 Agur asks that he would have neither poverty nor wealth. Is it more holy, or at least biblically preferred, to be rich or poor?   

Agur is certainly on to something here, especially given that his motivation is to honor the Lord. He prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov. 30:8-9).

Paul, writing to the Philippians, echoes this balance, giving God the credit for sustaining him through both poverty and riches: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).

These passages share in common the application of spiritual wisdom, but your question seems to be getting at something deeper. Is one of these extremes—wealth or poverty—more blessed? Are some people “closer to God” by virtue of their economic status?

Of course, both the materially poor and the rich are equally in need of a Savior—and Jesus is deeply concerned that both hear and respond to the good news of his kingdom. By his grace, men and women with great wealth can love God and demonstrate his faithfulness through generosity, and brothers and sisters living in poverty can praise the One who provides for and protects them.

Perhaps, though, the poor have a leg up in understanding the simple power of the gospel message. In experiencing material poverty, the effects of sin and brokenness in the world—and the need for the restoration of all things—is apparent. For the gospel to be truly good news to the rich, who enjoy many comforts in this present life, it must first be “bad” news: Wealth is no indicator of spiritual status, and Jesus’s call to take up a cross requires greater sacrifice from those who benefit from the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus himself raises these questions, especially in Luke’s Gospel. He begins his ministry in a synagogue reading Isaiah 61 and boldly declaring its fulfillment: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

Are some people ‘closer to God’ by virtue of their economic status?

In Luke’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, he records Jesus’s blessings on the poor and woes on the rich in rapid succession:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:20–22, 24–25)

This is such a consistent theme of Jesus’s ministry that it sends away sad a rich young man seeking salvation on his own terms. Truly, Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). “Then who can be saved?” the disciples ask (Luke 18:26). Full of grace and truth, Jesus replies: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Indeed, in the next chapter, a rich man (and a cheat) is brought into the kingdom as Zacchaeus repents and believes.

Ultimately, Jesus’s special concern for the poor shows their role in the bigger story God is telling.

Ultimately, Jesus’s special concern for the poor shows their role in the bigger story God is telling. Back in Isaiah 61, we see he’s in the business of turning the world’s categories on their heads. To his believing people who are poor and oppressed, he promises:

to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Isa. 61:3–4)

Those on the bottom of the present system are precisely the ones God will use to rebuild what humanity’s sin has ruined. The glories of his upside-down kingdom demonstrate his sovereignty over all.

And “the year of the LORD’s favor” that Jesus references? It’s the year of jubilee, when the inequities between his rich and poor people are leveled, and every believer is given a fresh start so that those who have become poor “can continue to live with you” (Lev. 25:35, 36).

The God who has always made it his purpose to dwell among his people, and who is coming again to make all things new (Rev. 21:5), desires that both rich and poor dwell together now as a symbol of this promise. In a church that seeks to live this promise out, Agur’s prayer is answered, and Paul’s contentment is fulfilled.

You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

Approach Your Bible Desperately

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 12:02am

My first college roommate, let’s call him Michael, was a stranger when we met on move-in day. So I breathed a sigh of relief as we quickly hit it off. Ah, sweet relational bliss. Future groomsman material?

It lasted 48 hours.

Michael wasn’t my biggest fan. Okay, that’s an understatement. Michael hated me. What he loved was dispatching naughty words to remind me of that fact.

The cruelty began the moment I left to attend my first campus ministry meeting. Michael made it clear he had no patience for Christians like me. The more involved in campus fellowship I became, the more he seemed to resent me.

Though I can now look back on this situation and smile, at the time it was the hardest thing I’d ever faced. To this day I’m not sure I have ever tried to love someone with more intentionality than I tried to love Michael that first semester. But the harder I tried, the worse it became.

I wasn’t just perplexed; I was devastated. Here I was in college, trying to live for God, and I wasn’t even welcome in my own room.

Survival Food

In order to survive the situation with Michael, I started reading my Bible. Devouring it, really. Perhaps the language of survival sounds a bit dramatic to you, but that’s what it felt like to my 18-year-old self. I realized I couldn’t survive a single day with Michael if I didn’t begin the day with God. I wasn’t approaching my Bible out of duty. I wasn’t even approaching it out of delight. I was approaching it out of desperation.

If you read the Bible, you’ll never get the impression that it’s meant to be a mere hobby in your life. It’s meant to be your food.

The Lord changed my life that year. He used a painful relationship to drive me to his Word, and I fell in love with him through its pages.

Not an Accessory

In Jeremiah 15:16, the prophet addresses God with startling language: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty.”

If you read the Bible, you’ll never get the impression that it’s meant to be a mere hobby in your life. It’s meant to be your food.

Perhaps you’re familiar with Jesus’s famous words when being tempted by Satan in the wilderness: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3).

Stop Eating Cheese Puffs

Have you ever ruined your appetite for an epic dinner by snacking all day? You wish you could work up an appetite, but it’s too late. The steak is on the table, and you’re not hungry.

This is how we often treat God’s Word. Is it any wonder that nibbling long enough from the table of the world would leave us with little appetite left for God?1 If we’re snacking on cheese puffs, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t have room for steak.

Is it any wonder that nibbling long enough from the table of the world would leave us with little appetite left for God?

Consider three diagnostic questions, worth asking yourself on a regular basis:

  1. Do I approach the Bible more like it’s a snack or like it’s a feast?
  2. Is it more accurate to say I’m willing to hear from God or that I’m desperate to hear from him?
  3. Am I merely interested in the Scriptures, or am I also internalizing them?

There are so many days I don’t feel desperate to hear God’s voice. I tell myself the Bible’s a feast, but it sure feels like finger food. I know I should have an appetite, but I don’t. I like cheese puffs.

Perhaps you can relate. If you struggle to approach God’s Word desperately, I have a challenge for you. Find a Christian friend and slowly work through Psalm 119 together. It may take a few meetings—the psalm is longer than 26 books of the Bible! But it’s like smelling salts for the soul. Here’s a whiff:

My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. . . . I hold fast to your statutes. . . . I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (Ps. 119:20, 31, 131)

Don’t you want to feel like that? Don’t you want to ache for the words of life? Don’t you want to get rid of the snack bags on the floor of your car and walk into the restaurant for a four-course dinner? God himself is the chef and the host, and there’s a seat with your name on it. Come in.

God himself is the chef and the host, and there’s a seat with your name on it. Come in.

Shortly before his death, after rehearsing God’s law one final time, Moses looks at the people of Israel and says, “These are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut. 32:47). The stakes could not be higher.

Your soul will wither and die without your Bible. Approach it desperately.

1 Losing one’s appetite after “nibbling [from] the table of the world” is a word picture drawn from John Piper’s The Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer (Crossway, 2013), 18, 26.

How Is Brokenness Different from Sin?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 12:00am

In some Christian contexts, it’s acceptable, even expected, to talk a lot about brokenness. But in some of those same spaces you might rarely hear the word “sin.” Are the two concepts interchangeable?

In this conversation, Jeremy Treat and Eric Thoennes discuss the relationship between brokenness and sin. We need to talk about both, they say, but we must define our terms. Thoennes explains that sin is an offense against a holy God, whereas brokenness is “a category that we use to describe the effects of sin.”

Treat considers “brokenness” to be a helpful category “not when it replaces talking about sin, but when it helps us understand more broadly the holistic effects of sin.”

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


Dad Secret: What if I Enjoy Work More Than My Family?

Mon, 05/27/2019 - 12:03am

I recently had a young man reach out to me with an honest question. These words might sound alarming coming from a dad, but at their core is a secret struggle some men really battle.

Is it okay if I find more enjoyment and satisfaction in my job than with my family?

I discovered that he was a software engineer who works out of his home. He has two little ones and is in the early stages of parenting. I could relate. As a former software engineer and bivocational pastor, there were many Mondays I was happy to get back to work. Ministry to unpredictable and mysterious people on Sunday was so difficult when compared to dealing with bits and bytes. If there was a software problem, you could just fix it. With people . . . not so much.

As we unpacked his comment a little, here were some things I said to him.

1. Praise God you enjoy your work that much.

You’re blessed to live in a country and culture where you could choose a job and career that matches your gifts and talents. Your task-oriented job fits you well.

2. The strength of your job is also a weakness.

Though you love people through your work on computers, there is still more personal interaction in which all of us must grow. Jesus teaches us the greatest commandments are to love God and to love others. As we personally love others, we are changed. And part of your growth as a Christian is to lead your family well (1 Tim. 3:4–5). God is developing your character as you lead this little community.

3. Leading a family is a high and holy privilege.

As a father, you have the joy of shaping eternal souls. Your interaction with your wife displays Christ to the world. To quote C. S. Lewis:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.

And to apply this to parenting: It’s immortals we’re privileged to create, feed, influence, and disciple. Your children will live forever. Your computer work won’t.

4. Work is work and family is work.

I noticed in our conversation that you used the word enjoyment a lot. But work is also work. It’s infected by thorns. I’m glad you don’t experience many of those thorns in your job. But family is also work. Building others up into a godly family requires effort. A lot of it is enjoyable. Some of it is drudgery. So much of faithful family life is, in Eugene Peterson’s famous words, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

5. You don’t have to fulfill every emotional need of your wife and kids.

This new generation often equates love with meeting every need. But a man isn’t the Savior of his wife. He cannot and should not meet her every need. She needs other friends and ministries in the church. The same is true with our children. Love is multifaceted. It includes emotional connection, but it also means raising them to be independent.

6. Love is emotionally connected and affectionate.

Having given you freedom not to meet every need, I need to state the balancing truth with equal force: Love is affectionate and emotionally connected. Twenty years from now, your oldest will be 23 and describing her father to others.

Twenty years from now, your oldest will be 23 and describing her father to others.

Will she say, “He wasn’t perfect, but he loved me and really cared for me”? Or will she say, as one young woman recently said to me about her dad, “He was around, but he never really connected with me”?

7. Love is self-controlled.

Sophisticated love manages multiple priorities. As one who loves your work, it may mean setting boundaries when you push away from the computer. Create time slots when you really focus on your kids. I remember counseling one man years ago who was working too much. I finally realized it was just an issue of self-control. He loved his work like a glutton loves food, or an alcoholic loves alcohol. We can sin by doing too much of a good thing. What boundaries will you set in place to love your family?

Loving those closest to you will be difficult. As one CEO told me, “It’s easier to lead my $25 million company than raise four girls.” But it’s God’s calling on your life and is ultimately worth every minute.

Be faithful in the drudgery and little things. God didn’t just give you two children to influence, but eternal souls to cultivate. And your daughters have only one dad.

His Bride Is Still Beautiful

Sun, 05/26/2019 - 12:00am

We live in an age of constant bad news. Mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes, social and political division, distrust in the highest levels of government—everywhere you look it seems the world is holding on by a thread.

Turning your gaze to the church doesn’t seem to make things better. You see stories of pastors falling into sin and disqualifying themselves from ministry. There are heaps of abuse allegations. More churches than ever focus on felt needs rather than gospel truth.

But what if the church isn’t as bad as we assume? When we dig deeper, we see that social media thrive on bad news and drama while shoving good news off to the side. Perhaps the problem isn’t the church so much as the platform where we get our news.

Healthy Churches Aren’t Newsworthy

Having spent the last year on the road as a speaker and evangelist, I have seen all sorts of churches from the East Coast to the West Coast. I’ve been in churches of 30 people and churches of 5,000. Traditional worship, contemporary worship, and everything in between. All sorts of backgrounds and demographics. Different places, different churches who worship the same God and share the same gospel.

These churches are witnessing lives pass from darkness to light. They’re meeting physical needs in their community. They’re raising a voice of change for people who don’t have the strength to muster a voice of their own.

Everywhere you look, the church is thriving. So why don’t you hear about it? It’s not sexy. No one will tweet about a church hosting an after-school program for at-risk elementary kids. Nobody wants to do a news story on the five people you baptized last week. Yet as Twitter is silent, heaven rejoices.

As Twitter is silent, heaven rejoices.

We don’t have to fall for the cultural narrative that the church is a lost cause. She certainly has her issues, and there is much work to be done, but the bride of Christ is still beautiful. She is clothed in splendor and is washed in the water of God’s Word. No matter where we worship, there are plenty of things we can thank God for.

As we discard the clickbait caricatures, may we thank God for three beautiful things we can see in his church today.

1. God’s Family

Through the work of the cross, God has adopted us as sons and daughters. He has given us relationships that are unbreakable and deep. We’re not bound by preference or personality; we’re brought together by grace and maintained in love.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)

Our relationship to the church is built and maintained by love: love of God and love of others. This global body is held together by God’s steady hand, that he may be glorified and his church may be edified.

2. God’s Mission

A God-centered church is a God-sent church. John 20:21 reminds us that just as the Father sent Jesus to the world, so he sends us. Every day and every relationship offers us the opportunity to share his gospel.

And just as God said, the gospel is spreading. Young and old. Rich and poor. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in places where you’d least expect it. He is calling dead men to life, and he’s using the church to do it. He’s using your church to do it. God has sovereignly placed your church so that it may be a light on a hill for all your town to see.

3. God’s Glory

Even as all of creation sings of God’s amazing attributes, his church doesn’t fail to tell of his works. Everywhere the body of Christ goes, it carries the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus can be clearly seen in his church.

God has given us a hope that doesn’t fade and a call that never grows old. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28). We received what we could never earn, which is why we sing of a hope that will never fail.

We received what we could never earn, which is why we sing of a hope that will never fail.

Though our local church may have issues, God still sees his bride. And so should we. May we give thanks for what the cross has won us: an unfailing hope and an unchanging purpose to see Jesus magnified in all the world.

New Survey Gauges Churchgoers’ Perceptions of Sexual Misconduct

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 12:03am

The Story: A new survey explores the perceptions and experiences of sexual misconduct among Protestant churchgoers.

The Background: Lifeway Research recently released the results of a national survey of Protestants on their perception of sexual misconduct. Respondents were screened to include only adults whose religious preference is Protestant and who attend services once a month or more. The survey asked a variety of questions to gauge what sort of experience those who attend Protestant churches have with sexual abuse, harassment, safety, and accountability within their local churches.

Experience of abuse and harassment

The general report from churchgoers is that sexual harassment and abuse is not something that the majority has experienced—and fewer than one-in-five know of someone in their churches who has experienced sexual assault or rape.

Almost one in three (28 percent) said that as a child or teen they received compliments that implied the adult viewed them sexually or were subjected as adults to unwanted joking remarks of a sexual nature (33 percent). Even fewer (19 percent) say they have received unwanted sexual comments/pictures/sexual advances texted or direct messaged to them. About a third (34 percent) said someone had made unwanted compliments that implied the person speaking viewed them sexually.

Between 7 percent and 17 percent say that any of those behaviors was from someone they knew from church. When it comes to sexually inappropriate comments only 2 percent say church is a worse environment while two-thirds (75 percent) say church is better. A mere 4 percent say they have stopped attending or attended less frequently because of sexual advances from other attendees, while 5 percent say they have stopped attending a church because sexual misconduct was not taken seriously.

Similarly, relatively few say they know someone at their church who has experienced sexual assault (14 percent) or experienced rape/attempted rape as an adult (12 percent).

This report might also account for why the topic of sexual violence is not mentioned more often from the pulpit. About 80 percent of churchgoers say they have not heard a sermon in the last year addressing sexual assault or sexual violence.

Openness toward the abused

The perception of churchgoers is that churches are open to hearing from and helping those who have been abused.

More than two-thirds (80 percent) agree that someone attending their church can share that they have experienced sexual assault and be believed (only 6 percent disagree). Most also think someone sharing that they had experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault would be treated by their church with respect (73 percent), sympathy (70 percent), privacy (63 percent), and protection (60 percent.) Only 2 percent think such a person would be ignored, considered partly to blame, or viewed as an attention seeker.

A vast majority agree that someone who experienced abuse as a child/teen (90 percent) or as an adult (89 percent) would find healing at their church, while fewer than 5 percent disagree.

Accountability within the church

If allegations of abuse are presented, the vast majority of churchgoers say their church will treat them seriously. If a pastor at their church was accused of sexual misconduct two-thirds (75 percent) would want a careful investigation, while fewer than one-in-six (15 percent) say they would want it dealt with quietly. Nearly all (87 percent) say their church is likely—68 percent say very likely—to report suspicions of abuse/neglect to the appropriate authorities.

Churchgoers are split on whether many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children. About a third (33 percent) agree there are many more abusers, close to half (41 percent) disagree, and about one-third (31 percent) say they don’t know. A similar split is found on the question of whether many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused adults: 29 percent agree, 41 percent disagree, and 30 percent don’t know.

A total of 4 percent say they know of someone attending their church who has sexually assaulted an adult or abused a child but it has not come to light.

Safety and affirmation within the church

Almost all churchgoers consider their church to be a safe space for everyone. Only 3 percent do not think their church is a safe place where children, teens, and adults are protected from sexual abuse.

Similarly, the vast majority (83 percent) disagree that church leaders would try to cover it up if sexually inappropriate things happen at their church, and they agree their church is willing to correctly address sexual misconduct that may occur in church even if it is costly (82 percent).

Most consider their church to be either somewhat or very prepared to help someone who has experienced sexual assault (72 percent) or to protect children from sexual abuse in ministry programs (81 percent). A clear majority also believe their church is more prepared to protect children from sexual abuse than they were 10 years ago (69 percent).

Almost all (94 percent) agree that the leaders at their church communicate that women are valued, with more than two-thirds expressing strong agreement with that claim. A solid majority (67 percent) says their church teaches about sexuality by regularly affirming the value of every woman and man.

Lifeway Research also issued a second report that specifically highlights the results of Southern Baptists (SBC).

Why It Matters: Because this is quantitative research of subjective experiences, when reading these results we should keep in mind that they are dealing with perceptions of individual churchgoers. The experience of individuals varies not only between local churches but also within our own congregations. While such surveys cannot give us a complete overview of the problem of sexual misconduct, they may still be useful for gaining a better understanding of how the problem is perceived within our churches.

While the results of this survey are generally positive, some of the results are still concerning.

“Those in the pews are noticing progress in the prevention efforts at their own church,” said Scott McConnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research. “Additional steps need to be taken and clearly communicated, however, so that more can say their congregation is very prepared to protect those who attend from sexual assault and child sexual abuse.”

Commenting on the SBC report, Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, notes that more needs to be done to change perceptions that churches will take appropriate action on sexual misconduct.

“Healthy churches should be trained and equipped to receive the stories of survivors in our midst,” Bethancourt says. “And churches need to examine the culture that causes a sizable minority of churchgoers who fear that a survivor’s testimony would not be met with respect, sympathy, and protection.”

3 Comforts When You’re Reduced to Wordless Prayer

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 12:02am

I was looking for an open checkout lane in Home Depot, wrestling a cart with one arm and holding my 18-month-old daughter in the other. She’d been sick with a fever all day, so I’d been carrying her through the store. Suddenly, she jerked upright and started shaking. Her mouth opened and closed as if she couldn’t breathe; she gagged, arched back, flattened against me. Her lips crunched into a tight O and went blue around the edges. For ten minutes, she was totally vacant and unresponsive.

I had the presence of mind to make sure she wasn’t choking and to ask a worker to call 9-1-1. Mercifully, as soon as the paramedics arrived, they assured me it wasn’t too serious: a febrile seizure, caused by her temperature spiking. Within 15 minutes, my daughter just wanted to drink some water and go to sleep. The episode ended with relief, and a bit of an emotional hangover the next day.

But in that waiting period, when my daughter’s convulsions had given way to terrifying blankness, I was reduced to the prayer equivalent of wordless gasping. The only actual word that came to mind was Please, Please. The rest was barely directed, visceral emotion.

My experience was short, but I know people who’ve endured much longer periods of pain or grief so intense they rendered the person wordless. I also know both children and adults with special needs whose caregivers teach them of God’s love, not knowing how much they might ever understand or be able to “converse” with God verbally. But extraordinarily, Christianity reveals a God whose understanding of his creatures extends even to wordless prayers.

The key passage that points to these truths is in Romans 8:

We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. . . . Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:23, 26–27)

Paul describes not a thought-out, verbal prayer, but a visceral groaning—and yet this prayer is heard and even matched by the Holy Spirit. Thinking about the glories of this passage, we see three comforts for when we’re reduced to wordless prayer.

1. He Hears Wordless Prayer

The simple fact that God hears wordless prayers—all wordless prayers, from all people—is wondrous in itself. Consider the closest abilities we have:

  • If we’re in a crowded or cacophonous space, we can generally distinguish someone’s voice, but only if they call our name or flag our attention.
  • We can generally “read” others’ nonverbal cues and guess if they’re feeling happy or sad, interested or bored.

By contrast, God “hears” every wordless prayer, every thought and yearning, from every person as they happen. Every inward movement of our soul is perceived by him, even ones we haven’t mapped with language or directed to him.

‘He who searches hearts’ can’t fail but to hear us when we’re too overwhelmed for language.

Even when we’re in too much pain or anguish to speak words, let alone call God’s name or prepare a statement for him, he hears our wordless prayers. “He who searches hearts” can’t fail but to hear us when we’re too overwhelmed for language.

2. He Understands Wordless Prayer

God can comprehend our nonverbal prayers. As David prays, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Ps. 139:4). He knows it altogether: total knowledge of prayers not yet spoken.

The truth is deeper still. In another psalm, a grinding lament, David acknowledges that “all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (38:9). He knows “the tumult of [his] heart” (38:8) is as legible to God as the words David pens to reference it. If God can read the declarations of the heavens and the “speech” of the day and night (Ps. 19:1–3), he can easily interpret the feelings of the soul.

In Romans 8, we “groan inwardly” in sad harmony with the creation, carrying pain so deep that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” But even then, the Holy Spirit himself “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”! He meets us in the maelstrom of our own hearts, and God groans to God in the non-language of our pain.

This itself is better news even than David had in his pre-Pentecost life. If he trusted that God could read the movements of his heart, now we have God within our innermost souls, guaranteeing our being heard and known. When I was panicking with my unresponsive daughter in my arms, God himself was bringing those prayers to God.

3. He Honors Wordless Prayer

Language is a gift that separates humans from animals and adults from children—the ability to illumine the world and express our thoughts and wishes with words. Indeed, we Protestants place a special emphasis on the power of words in the most crucial spiritual realities. Protestantism was founded on, among other things, the need for hearing and understanding the key truths of the faith, which means giving more honor to what is expressed in language than what is not.

The truth that God honors wordless prayer doesn’t diminish the glory of the understood word, but expands it: God’s understanding and grace are such that he gives honor even to prayers not expressed in words. In Romans 8, the Father receives the groanings of the Holy Spirit as prayer. How comforting that even our groans aren’t lost to God, in the same way David knows that God remembers “my tossings . . . [and] my tears” (Ps. 56:8).

My prayers in the moment with my daughter, such as they were, weren’t in vain. Nor are the groans of people in too much anguish to think clearly, those too burdened by sorrow to put sentences together, or the yearnings of children or adults with mental disabilities. All of us are heard and understood by God; in Christ, by the groanings of the Holy Spirit, all our prayers are honored. Even the ones we don’t understand ourselves.