Bell Creek Community Church

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

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Why We Need a Children’s Book About Death

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:03am

“No one will ever read this book!” I said to my husband, Jonny. I had just finished reading a draft of his new kids’ book, The Moon Is Always Round. It centers on conversations he had with our 3-year-old son, Ben, after Ben’s baby sister, Leila, was stillborn at full-term in March 2016. Unsurprisingly, I’d cried through almost the whole book. So naturally I thought, What parent is going to read this to their children? What mom or dad is going to reach over to the bookshelf and think, “Ah yes, here’s the perfect bedtime story to send my child off to sleep”?

Four years ago, Jonny and I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book to our son, either. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen for its story to become a reality in Ben’s world. He had enjoyed a happy childhood; we never imagined he’d have to experience the horrors of death so early in his life, and so near. We never guessed that the first sibling he’d hold would be his lifeless little sister. We hoped Ben would enjoy a long, carefree childhood before this groaning world groaned so loudly he couldn’t ignore it. But instead, death came early—unexpected—and cruelly smashed our hope into pieces.

Giving Kids the Blessing of Mourning

While Death felt like a ruthless intruder, picking his victims at random, we were anchored by what the Word of God taught us to be true: God ordains whatever comes to pass (WCF 3.1). It was tempting to accuse God of cruelty—Satan certainly whispered this lie into our ears—but we knew God’s character couldn’t be redefined by our experience of tragic loss. As Charles Spurgeon wrote to his bereaved daughter and son-in-law, “Our Father is never mistaken or unkind.” Would Jonny and I wrestle with this tension alone, or would we invite our young son to wrestle with us?

The preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (7:2).

The living should take this to heart—which includes children, not just adults. Often, when we go to a house of mourning, we leave our children at the door. But if “a sad face is good for the heart” (7:3), then why are we withholding this good thing from them? We talk about shepherding our children’s hearts more than just correcting their behavior. But when it comes to sad things in life, we tend to wrap up their hearts in cotton wool and lock them away.

Sanctifying Gifts

In the providence of God, Ben has seen adults weep; he’s walked down a church aisle beside a tiny, white coffin; he’s sat through a funeral loud with lament; and he’s helped his dad plant grass seeds atop his sister’s grave. We never expected these experiences would become precious gifts from the Lord, but they have. In this darkness, God’s light has shone brighter than ever before for Ben. When we remember his sister Leila, we talk about the joys of heaven. When we feel Leila’s absence, we remind him this world is not our home. As we stand in a Cambridge graveyard, we tell him about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. In all of this, we have the privilege of teaching him God is always good, even in our darkest moments. Just like the moon is always round, even when we can’t see all of it.

God is always good, even in our darkest moments. Just like the moon is always round, even when you can’t see all of it.

A few months ago, we found out I was pregnant after some years of barrenness since Leila’s death. Yet we have learned not to be presumptuous. We’re all too aware of the fragility of new life. The other evening at family worship Ben prayed, “Dear God, we thank you for the baby in Mom’s tummy. We pray this baby wouldn’t die. In Jesus’s name, Amen.” Did he pray this prayer through tears and with deep anguish? No. He prayed quite matter-of-factly, actually, because he’s experienced firsthand the fleetingness of life and knows we can’t assume happily-ever-afters. He knows the reality of this broken world in ways many of his peers do not. And we see that as a sanctifying, precious gift from God. His sister’s body may lie in a grave, but his Father in heaven has not given him a stone (Matt. 7:9).

Learning to Trust

Which is why I’ve changed my mind about my husband’s book. Many parents will not want to read it to their children, but they ought to. Our children live in the same fallen world that we do. Sooner or later they will see suffering and death, and they will start to ask the question we’ve asked: If God is good, why did he allow this?

When that day comes, how will we answer our children? Will we leave them outside the house of mourning? Will we hide our sad faces from them? Perhaps instead, we could hold their hand and walk with them into that house of lament. Perhaps we could let them experience the darkness of suffering and death, and we could tell them it’s okay to feel sad.

And then we could tell them about Jesus, who went into an even deeper darkness on Good Friday, long, long ago. As he hung on the cross, there were no stars in the sky, not even a sliver of the moon to give him some light. And yet, in that darkness, he knew God was good. God is always good. Just like the moon is always round, even when we can’t see all of it.

5 Reasons I’m Staying in Youth Ministry

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:02am

I recently began serving as youth pastor at a new church, and I’m thrilled. I served my previous church for 14 years, during which I earned a DMin and wrote a book, so most assumed I’d eventually seek a senior pastor role.

God forced the next step sooner than I expected.

As I submitted resumes for various ministry positions, it rang clear that I couldn’t leave youth ministry. Not yet.

I searched my heart, and I decided to remain in youth ministry for five reasons.

1. Youth ministry is real ministry,

One of the easiest ways to offend a youth minister is to ask when he’s going to become a “real pastor.” Most of the time the question is meant as a compliment (“You’re so gifted; surely you’ll become a pastor?”). But youth ministry is pastoral ministry directed toward teens and their parents.

Youth pastors preach, pray, evangelize the lost, disciple new believers, and equip maturing believers for ministry. They recruit and develop teams of volunteer leaders, counsel students in crisis, make hospital visits, lead service projects and trips, and much more—all things that pastors do.

2. Because you can become a pastor doesn’t mean you should.

Youth ministry is excellent preparing ground for the pastorate, so we shouldn’t stigmatize those who serve for a short season before moving into a pastor’s role. Don’t we all want to serve under pastors who understand and appreciate student ministry? Many of those pastors are committed to the next generation. After all, many who transition would have remained in youth ministry if their salary would have allowed it.

But even if gifts emerge that are consistent with more highly respected pastoral roles, it doesn’t mean you should make that transition. If all seasoned youth ministers leave to pursue other endeavors, youth ministry will continue to be criticized for being immature.

I realized that for all my frustration about people asking when I’d become a “real pastor,” I began to wonder the same thing. I don’t know if I was asking it on my own, or if the question’s frequency planted it in my mind. But over time I realized I’d begun to view youth ministry as beneath me, as something I’d outgrown. Others who knew my heart, however, were able to help me discern that my passion in ministry remained fixed on reaching the next generation. It was time for a change, but not yet time to leave youth ministry.

3. Crisis brings clarity.

When my role at my former church dissolved, it forced a transition. While many expected that to be a move “up the ladder,” I found my love for youth ministry was stronger than even I’d realized before. That crisis moment revealed how deeply committed I feel to translating the gospel for the next generation—and I’m not sure that will ever go away. Honestly, I hope it doesn’t.

The apostle Peter insists that trials expose what we really believe, and they sanctify us (1 Pet. 1:6–7). I’m thankful God used that difficult season to further crystallize my calling.

4. No one’s a youth expert for long.

This is one of the truly unique traits of ministry to youth (and children): you have a completely new “congregation” every few years. Students graduate, youth culture changes—and if you don’t adapt, you’re sunk. A lively ministry can become stale and outdated within three years.

The core of our ministry remains biblical, but our students live in a rapidly changing world. Youth ministry presents ongoing opportunities to grow in contextualizing the gospel.

5. Students still need Jesus.

This, in the end, is my hill on which to die. On one hand, my life experience means I have more to offer students than ever before. On the other, the only thing of worth I have to offer to students is the gospel: God saves sinners through Jesus’s death and resurrection. This is the “one thing” that drove Paul, and it’s the greatest treasure we have to offer students (1 Cor. 2:2).

The overlap between those two things is this: I understand the gospel better than I did when I began in ministry. I’ve seen it transform lives. I have a better perspective on culture and the gospel “on-ramps” that direct conversations to the cross. I haven’t outgrown that truth; I’ve grown into it.

Hang in There

So here I am, still serving as a pastor to students, still banking on the power of the gospel to transform lives. Fellow youth workers, if you’re feeling pressure to climb the ministry ladder or simply give up, please reconsider. The Lord may be moving you into a new season of ministry, but maybe not.

No matter what, I pray you’ll remain steadfast in your calling to serve the next generation.

Wait! What (Not) to Ask When Hope Is Deferred

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:00am

I wish I were good at waiting. I’ve sure had lots of practice—15 years of infertility, six years of a chronic pain condition, five years in the adoption process. Yet even with all that experience, I still chafe at how slowly the Lord seems to act when I’m praying for a season to end. I’ve rarely viewed waiting as anything but a prison. For most of the years, I just wanted out.

We all grapple with unfulfilled desires. Marriage, children, financial stability, physical health—insert your deferred hope here. We long for broken things to be mended, empty things to be filled, tragic things to end. So when we plead with the Lord to change things, but we keep waking to unchanged circumstances, we want to know why. And if we could have a definitive timeframe for those changes—even better!

But the Bible doesn’t guarantee our deferred hopes will be met with our desired outcomes. Believe me, I’ve looked. I spent years combing God’s Word for a special word that would speak to my empty womb or my broken body. I’ve longed to know when my waiting will end, and I’ve wondered why God ordained this path for me. When and why are the questions we ask God the most, but as I worked through Scripture looking for the answers, I discovered I was asking the wrong questions.

‘Why?’ and ‘When?’ Won’t Satisfy

When we can’t change our circumstances, we’re quick to question why God has let this happen or why he won’t change it. Consider Job, who had no inkling of the conversation between God and Satan in Job 1–2. As we read the whole story, we can see purpose in Job’s suffering and understand that God was revealing and refining Job’s faith. But for Job, it seemed arbitrary.

He longed to know why God had permitted so much sorrow in his life, and he had to endure lecture after lecture from his friends. In the end, God answered Job’s why with a who—not with a reason, but with a person. Himself.

In the end, God answered Job’s why? with a who—not with a reason, but with a person. Himself.

When God cuts into the conversation about whether Job’s suffering was deserved, he simply describes his mighty acts and unassailable sovereignty. Instead of knowing why he must wait, Job needed to grasp who God was. And remembering that his life was in the hands of his Creator sustained Job. After hearing God’s self-declaration, Job came to this conclusion: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2–3).

The Lord doesn’t fault Job for asking his questions (see Job 42:7), but in his answer to Job, he never explains “why.” The truth of God’s sovereign wisdom was the answer Job needed, and it was the answer that satisfied him even though he had no explanation for his losses. Job learned he could trust God with his life.

If we can’t know the why of our waiting, we often move to when. We long to know that our waiting has a guaranteed expiration date. We can endure, we believe, if we just know when it will end.

The short answer is that there is a guaranteed end to our waiting or suffering, but it’s not for us to know when that day will be (Rev. 7:15–17; Matt. 24:36). One day, God will right all wrongs, bringing complete healing and restoration to our bodies and relationships. But eternity can feel like such a long way away, when we’re waiting today for a spouse, a child, a diagnosis or treatment, or a way to pay our bills. Perseverance only seems doable if we know how long we’ll need to exercise it.

But even if we had a date on the calendar, we’d still find a way to worry about it or try to speed things along. Waiting like that doesn’t cultivate trust in the God who cares for us and has ordered our steps. If we hinge our trust in God to a certain, earthly timeline, we’re not really trusting him. We’re trusting in our schedule.

‘Who?’ Will Satisfy

After a decade of waiting, I finally quit asking when and why as I opened my Bible each day. I couldn’t bend the Scriptures to say something God hadn’t said, and I was weary of trying.

Instead, I began asking, “Who are you, God?” Over the next two years (while still waiting for my circumstances to change), I wrote down all the things I learned about God from Scripture each day. Stacks of spiral notebooks piled up, each page filled with notes about his character, kindness, love, mercy, grace. I’d known these facts in my head, but now I saw them revealed every day. In pain and grief—and in joy and laughter—I learned that he is holy, just, wise, sovereign, faithful, and present.

If we hinge our trust in God to a certain, earthly timeline, we’re not really trusting him. We’re trusting in our schedule.

Learning about God’s character taught me to trust him, to wait with peace because he has proven himself faithful time and again. He sent Jesus to meet my greatest need in paying for my sins at the cross. Such a gracious and kind God can be trusted with my waiting for other, lesser needs. As Paul encourages us: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).

As we wait with deferred hopes, may we find comfort in God’s unchanging character, knowing that our ultimate hope is anchored in him.


How We Accidentally Planted a Church

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 12:04am

We drove down a dusty dirt road, wondering when we’d reach our destination. We were told it was only three miles from the main highway, but the washed-out road and muddy terrain made it feel a lot longer.

My wife and I had arrived in Guatemala just a couple months prior, and we were both eager (read: nervous) to get to know the people of the village we were driving toward. God had compelled us to “rescue those being led away to death; [and to] hold back those staggering toward slaughter” (Prov. 24:11). Despite our nervous excitement, we were confident his grace would be sufficient.

Watch the story of rural church planting in Guatemala

Apart from preaching the gospel and trusting God to grant fruit, we had no plan. It quickly became evident that, although there was an evangelical church in the area, most people in the village didn’t understand the gospel. Roman Catholicism was the predominant religion saturating not only our small community, but also the majority of the country. Technically, almost 25 percent of Guatemalans are evangelical Christians, but many are legalistic or prosperity-driven. The need for healthy doctrine was, and still is, crucial.

Little did we know, we’d soon be starting a church in this rural village tucked away in the mountains.

Saved Sinners

Our brother and fellow gospel minister, Esau, played a crucial role alongside us in the village of Los Chilitos, where we started going frequently to befriend the locals. We went with a strong desire to preach the gospel. Over time, we made friends and gathered enough people to start a Bible study. This small group of villagers met in the home of a man named Cayetano, and—little by little—people started getting saved.

At first Cayetano himself was resistant to the gospel. He came from a strong Roman Catholic background, and was even somewhat hostile toward us. By God’s mysterious providence, however, he continued to allow us to use his house as a meeting space for our weekly Bible study. Knowing that even the hardest of hearts is no match for God’s sovereign grace, we prayed fervently for Cayetano and his family.

Then, after we’d been meeting in their home for months, Cayetano, his wife, and all five of their children were saved and baptized! Immediately, God began using this family in a tremendous way to reach their own community. Friends, family, and neighbors came to know the Lord through their testimony.

What my wife and I had longed for in coming to Guatemala was actually happening—people heading for eternal death were being rescued by the Lord of life.

The sight was stunning to behold. What my wife and I had longed for in coming to Guatemala was actually happening—people heading for eternal death were being rescued by the Lord of life. Not only was God at work in the village of Los Chilitos, but he was also changing my own heart.

Planted Church

My wife and I came to Guatemala with a desire to give everyone an opportunity to say “yes” to Christ. We quickly realized, however, that our Bible study was turning into much more. A treasured prayer I’ve prayed over the years has been, Lord, please show us where you are moving, and how we can be a part of it. I don’t know how you might use us, but we want to be faithful. Show us. Teach us. Lead us.

And thus began God’s work in my heart to step into a pastoral role. We outgrew the house we were meeting in, so we built a place of worship. Planting a church became the result of our efforts in Los Chilitos, despite the fact we didn’t come with that intent. Since all of this was so new to us, we partnered with Casa de Libertad, an Acts 29 church in Guatemala City. They’ve been instrumental in seeing our church planted.

Hopeful Future

Six years later, we still drive down that dusty dirt road to Los Chilitos almost daily. Our small Bible study has turned into a local church, with more than 50 people gathering for services each week. It truly is a testament to what God has done. In 2020, we are starting a church-residency program to train men from the community (including Cayetano) to become pastors. Our desire is to see a local indigenous pastor lead the church and to someday plant another church in a nearby village.

There are countless small, rural villages in Guatemala that need healthy churches.

If we believe Scripture is true and that the lost are heading for eternal darkness, then we must go and share the only means of escape found in Jesus Christ. There are countless small, rural villages in Guatemala that need healthy churches. We cling to the promise that Jesus will build his church (Matt. 16:18) and be worshiped in the forgotten, rural parts of Guatemala—and across the globe.

Preschool Theology, Bubble Machines, and Remembering What Matters

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 12:03am

I love that most people at church don’t know what my job is, but pretty much everyone at work knows I teach preschool Sunday school. Though I’ve been fortunate to teach the Bible to children, teens, and women, I’ve found the most theologically enriching ministry in a room of 3-year-olds.

Deep Preschool Theology

In my class I’ve answered questions about baptism, the creation of angels, and God’s motives for killing almost all the animals in the flood even though they hadn’t sinned. I’ve listened with amusement as every single class of children has absolutely no problem believing that their older siblings are sinners, but completely refuse to admit they sin. I was most stunned when a 4-year-old boy asked if Jesus made Adam and Eve (otherwise known as when a preschooler asked about the preincarnation of Christ).

My favorite class is the last one of the year. The kids get a bubble machine, and we get to hear them teach what they learned. Clamoring over one another to answer the questions, they explain creation, the fall, and its impact on our hearts and relationship with God. We go through the lives and lessons of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, each demonstrating something about God, something about us, and something about God’s promises for his people. And then they get to Jesus. They tell about his birth, death, and resurrection, how he is the only possible Redeemer and the One who defeated death.

They finish with the material they learned the preceding two weeks—the doctrine of the Trinity (although they don’t know the words “doctrine” or “Trinity”). I let them shout the responses because when you’re only a year from wearing pull-ups and can explain the Trinity, you get to use your outside voice. They make it clear to everyone in a 50-foot radius that there is “one God” who is “three persons,” who are “God the Father, God the Son—whose name is Jesus—and God the Holy Spirit.” They finish by declaring that God is “all these persons, all the time, all the way, but always just one God who always has been this same God and always will be this same God forever!”

Then come the bubbles.

Childlike Trust

Jesus was not lowering the soteriological bar when he made clear to his disciples that children may access him and asserted that a childlike response is the essence of saving faith (Matt. 18:3; Mark 10:14–15; Luke 18:17). Yes, kids have toy time and snack time and I’ve had my fair share of messes to clean and arguments to officiate, but mostly what we do is teach the Bible to people created in the image of God and for whom God cares a great deal. They just happen to be really young.

Now, unless I’m friends with their parents, the children forget who I am within two months of moving to the next class. This felt weird for years and made me concerned they must not remember what they’d been taught. But remember that little boy who asked me about the preincarnate existence of Christ? His name was Job Kemp, and he was one of the children who forgot about me. And then about a year and half later, I was hugging his parents at his memorial service. We all knew Job was with God because during his brief but fierce battle against cancer, he consistently articulated and demonstrated saving faith in a God he loved and trusted.

I don’t understand God’s plan for Job’s life. But I’ll never forget receiving a note from his mom that though he had forgotten me, he had never forgotten what he’d been taught.

Learning from Kids

Jesus made it clear that we should look as an example to a child who possesses saving faith. And Job Kemp is my example. Jesus said to come as a child does, and a child comes as Job Kemp did—understanding and trusting what was concrete, not being distracted by non-essentials, and following Jesus with joy.

I’ve learned much from godly, adult believers in my life, but I learned the most about following Jesus from a blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy who ate his snacks with his right hand while propping up his tired head with the other, who loved doing puzzles, and who always made it first to the Batman car at toy time. The same little boy endured suffering, lived for months knowing he would be leaving his family, and yet persevered in trusting in the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17).

Why Cultural Context Is Key

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 12:02am

How do you expect unbelieving friends, family, and neighbors to react to your faith? Many of the best evangelists expect to win them to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve found I often expect hostility. And that’s probably a product of growing up in a churchgoing but not evangelical home, and then attending college where my beliefs were clearly marginal. It comes more naturally for me, then, to live my faith as a countercultural act. Even so, I admire other Christians who more naturally advocate for our faith as a public good.

You may have heard Tim Keller say, “We must be a counterculture for the common good.” That statement can be found in The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry in section three on contextualization, which asks, “How should we relate to the culture around us?” The counterculture for the common good brings together biblical expectations that we often pit against each other. We must stand apart from the world, for the sake of the world.

I love this line from our theological vision, which derives from 1 Peter 2:12. TGC affirms, “We are neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic about our cultural influence, for we know that, as we walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents, we will receive persecution even while having social impact.” In other words, some will hate us because of Jesus, even as we make a difference in this world for his sake.

To learn more about contextualization I’ve invited Darryl Williamson to join me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. He is the lead pastor of Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Florida, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast and check out other episodes in the series Why We Need Theological Vision.

Does James Really Contradict Paul?

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 12:00am

One of the best-known tensions in the Bible is the seeming contradiction between Paul and James.

  • Paul: We’re justified by faith, apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28).
  • James: A person is not justified by faith alone (James 2:24).

If you’ve been around the Bible, you’ve likely considered this problem. Christians throughout the centuries have puzzled over it, and we might even say the central controversy of the Protestant Reformation hinged, at least in part, on how to understand the difference between Paul and James.

So what ‘s going on here? If we’re committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, our default answer will be that these two apostles can’t contradict each other. But what are they really saying? If we’re intellectually honest, do we have to admit a contradiction?

What Kind of Faith?

If we read James 2:24 isolated from its context, we could have a real problem, because if James means the same thing that Paul means by “faith” in Romans 3:28 or Ephesians 2:8–9, then James would be flat-out contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone. One of the fundamental rules of biblical interpretation, however, is that every text must be interpreted in its context. To understand rightly what James means by “faith alone,” we must read it in its context.

The central controversy of the Protestant Reformation hinged, at least in part, on how to understand the difference between Paul and James.

In James 2:14, the apostle points to a faith that “does not have works.” He then asks, “Can that faith save him?” He further explains what he means by “that faith” in verse 19. It’s the kind of “faith” that the demons have. That is to say, it’s a mere intellectual assent. The demons believe that “God is one.” They believe the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is true. They know Israel’s God is the one true God and that he will judge the world. As a result of this, they tremble. Not only do they believe the truth, but they have a proper emotional response to the truth. But this is not justifying faith.

Abraham Example

James goes on to explain the kind of faith that justifies by pointing to the example of Abraham. And this example is perhaps where we can see most clearly both the different emphases of James and Paul and their fundamental agreement about the nature of justifying faith.

Both Paul and James quote the same verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). But it’s crucial to notice the time in Abraham’s life that each author is considering. In James 2, we’re standing in Genesis 22, when Abraham was preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord. Whatever squeamishness this story might produce in us, the sacrifice of Isaac is the fundamental act of obedience in Abraham’s life.

The sacrifice of Isaac is the fundamental act of obedience in Abraham’s life.

But Genesis 22 took place several decades after Genesis 15. Abraham was about 75 years old when God first called him (Gen. 12:4), and Genesis 15 was probably just a few years after Genesis 12. Isaac wasn’t born for decades—when Abraham was 100 years old (Gen. 21:4). And Isaac was probably close to his teenage years when Abraham brought him to the mountain to be sacrificed. In fact, one Jewish tradition says that Isaac was 37 years old in Genesis 22. At least we know Isaac had to be old enough to carry a bundle of wood for the sacrifice to the top of the mountain (Goodman, 130–31).

When we put all of this together, we see that Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22 took place after decades of believing and waiting on God’s promises. James is pointing to this obedience when he says that the Scripture was fulfilled (James 2:23). When faith is rightly understood, Abraham was justified by faith alone. Yet his justified status didn’t remain alone. I think that is the sense of James 2:21, so that the role of works in justification is different from that of faith. Abraham was justified—granted the status “righteous”—when he believed God’s covenant promises. Full stop. Yet that righteous status had to be fulfilled by his faithful works.

James insists that the kind of faith that truly justifies results in transformation. It’s a faith that moves beyond believing what is true and even having a fitting emotional reaction. It’s a faith that rests in God’s promises and acts on those promises. It’s a faith that is ultimately inseparable from good works.

Different Than Paul?

James argues that any so-called faith that doesn’t result in good works is no saving faith at all. Is this actually any different from what Paul says in places like Romans 3–4, Galatians 2–3, and Ephesians 2?

Unlike James, who was arguing against a wrong view of faith, Paul fought against a wrong view of works. Regardless of how one defines “works of the law,” it seems that some argued that certain works had to be done for God to declare someone righteous. Paul responded emphatically that justification is by faith alone apart from the works of the law. But this doesn’t mean that he ignored the necessity of faithful good works.

Consider what Paul says in Romans 4, where he also quotes Genesis 15:6. Unlike James, who looks from Genesis 22 back to Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15, Paul looks forward from Genesis 15 to the rest of Abraham’s life. And as he looks forward from that moment when Abraham was justified by authentic faith, what was the outcome?

When understood in their proper context, it’s clear James doesn’t contradict Paul; on the contrary, they complement each other quite well.

Later in the chapter, Paul writes that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21). His faith became stronger as his conviction in God’s trustworthiness to keep his promises increased. This certainly sounds like an increase in holiness and good works. And as the rest of Romans (not to mention Paul’s other letters) bears out, Christian obedience was certainly expected for those who are truly justified (see Rom. 6:1–14).

When James says we’re not justified by “faith alone,” he clearly doesn’t refer to the kind of justifying faith that Paul points us toward in Romans 3–4; when Paul says that we’re justified apart from the “works of the law,” he clearly doesn’t refer to the kind of faithful good works that James has in view.

When understood in their proper context, it’s clear that James doesn’t contradict Paul; on the contrary, they complement each other quite well.


When to Be Silent—and When to Speak Up—in the Workplace

Mon, 09/23/2019 - 12:04am

Scripture tells us to obey and submit to our “masters.” Assuming this applies to our bosses, does it mean I shouldn’t push back on bad ideas from management? Should I never “ask forgiveness rather than permission” on activities I suspect my boss will disagree with—if I suspect the outcome will be preferable to him or her? And along those same lines of knowing when to speak up and when to be quiet, where’s the line between water-cooler discussions that constructively critique company goals and activities, and harmful chatter Christians should avoid?

Every day in our workplaces we’re surrounded by dissonant conversations—from practical scheduling to salacious gossip, from helpful inquiries to overt subversion of authority by ambitious colleagues. As followers of Jesus, we’re probably familiar with biblical passages demanding respect for employers (“masters” in Eph. 6 and Col. 3), as well as warnings about gossip and unwholesome communication (Eph. 4).

Challenges arise when we’re faced with ethical dilemmas concerning our speech, particularly when it concerns our bosses and fellow employees. Leaving aside obvious insults and overt rebellion, and friendly joking and celebrations, how do we discern when to be silent and when to speak?

Here are seven insights that can help us wisely listen and speak in our places of work.

  1. Are we unreflectively reacting or wisely responding? When we restrain our tongues and pause to consider the situation, our words will be more carefully chosen (Prov. 10:10; James 3).
  2. Friendly banter must be distinguished from ungodly gossip. “What a colorful outfit!” must not give way to “What a peacock!” Motive, word selection, and tone all contribute to joy or sarcasm (Prov. 12:14).
  3. Critical thinking about issues is different than judgmentalism toward persons. For example, “I think there may be a better way to craft the budget” is quite distinct from “Accounting is full of visionless fools.” The former allows debate toward wisdom; the latter alienates departments and persons (Prov. 10:32).
  4. When differing with our bosses on matters of importance, the shared mission must be the focus of our critiques. Finding the common starting point moves the conversation away from opinions and toward solutions for the good of the organization.
  5. Ambition directed toward kingdom ends is healthy. Desiring promotion for fruitful work is not sinful. But political maneuvering at the expense of another’s character or reputation is a serious transgression. “I really want the director’s chair. I have some ideas that will move us forward, and I think I am ready.” This is acceptable confidence. “We all know he is only a candidate because his friend is the CEO. He is an empty suit.” Even if true, speaking such words poisons the community and cheapens godly aspirations (Prov. 11:3, 27).
  6. If we have been unfairly targeted by peers, subordinates, or authority figures, staying with the facts, using non-judgmental words, and documenting carefully will all help us fight for justice. When we defend ourselves well, we are also advocating for others who could be subject to the same unethical treatment (Dan. 1–6).
  7. Before saying anything critical about a fellow worker or a boss, have we spoken to them? Jesus’s admonitions in Matthew 5 and 18 help us here: we should make several attempts to convey concerns or divergent thinking privately before bringing our petition to higher authority. If it comes to that, good records of conversations will be essential if we must go over some heads (Prov. 12:22; 13:15).

As we navigate our workplaces, the Holy Spirit will help us pause and pray, reflect and respond, instead of reacting and regretting our words. We may not win every battle, but we can grow in holy love and inner peace.

Where the Gospel Meets Motherhood

Mon, 09/23/2019 - 12:03am

I longed for motherhood for many years before the Lord gave me children. While I waited, I imagined what life would be like. I pictured cheerful, obedient children gathered around my feet as I sailed through laundry, midnight feedings, and naptime routines with a smile on my face.

Years later, I find motherhood to be more exhausting and stretching than I could have imagined. My sin often bubbles to the surface. I’m irritated with the daily laundry mountain, angry with cranky kids, and gripped with fear when I don’t know the answer to my parenting questions. I was so sure I would be good at this, and I often lie awake at night wondering why I’m not. As a Christian, shouldn’t I handle the varied crises of motherhood differently than the culture does? What does Jesus have to do with sinks full of dishes, potty training, or temper tantrums?

A couple of years ago, I stumbled on a podcast that sought to connect the truth of the gospel with motherhood. The opening words both stung and comforted: “Motherhood is hard. One second, we think we’re doing a good-enough job; the next, we feel like the worst mom on the planet. Which is why we need the refreshing truth of the gospel to be repeated over and over again, giving us hope in the everyday moments.”

Does the gospel really reach into the mundane moments of motherhood?

Gospel and Motherhood

In their new book, Risen Motherhood: Gospel Hope for Everyday Moments, the hosts of the Risen Motherhood Podcast not only affirm that the gospel applies to our everyday-mom lives, they also show us how it does. Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler are sisters-in-law with eight children between them. They write and podcast from the trenches, offering gospel hope to moms in every age and stage of parenting.

What does the gospel have to do with birth plans, food choices, bad attitudes, education choices, self-care, health challenges, and body image? The authors assert that the story of Scripture has everything to do with the way we think through all of our parenting challenges, big and small.

Scripture has everything to do with the way we think through all of our parenting challenges, big and small.

We often look to the culture around us—parenting books, online mom groups, and search engines—for the answers to our parenting questions. But when it comes to the heart issues of both our children and ourselves, the world’s responses don’t offer real hope or change. As Jensen and Wifler looked to God’s Word, though, they realized his gospel offers help and transformation like nothing else. “The gospel proved more hopeful than any online article,” they write, “more helpful than any book we could buy, and more sustaining than any quick fix we shared with one another. It was a relief to find that it really is true—the gospel changes everything” (14).

Motherhood Is a Classroom

The authors give a thorough explanation of the gospel, demonstrating how the story arc of Scripture helps us assess our circumstances, confess our sins, look to the work of Christ at the cross, and find comfort in the promise of his return when everything will be made new.

In each chapter, the authors tackle a common parenting struggle by presenting the problem, dismantling the cultural response, and then walking through creation, fall, redemption, and consummation before offering some practical steps of response. Turning the reader to Scripture again and again, the chapters are rich with biblical wisdom. But the real gift of this book is the practice of gospel-centered thinking.

In the classroom of motherhood, we can grow in our understanding of the gospel and the practice of demonstrating it to our children.

As I worked through each chapter, I began to rehearse the gospel in my head. When confronting my preschooler’s disobedience or my angry response, I counseled myself with what Scripture teaches about the deceitfulness of sin, the transforming work of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the hope that one day we’ll be done with sin altogether. I discovered that I could offer grace more quickly in a parenting crisis when I remembered the grace already given to me in Christ. The repetition of this practice has given me hope for growth in godliness, rather than hope in changed circumstances.

In the classroom of motherhood, we can grow in our understanding of the gospel and the practice of demonstrating it to our children. Every day, every hour—sometimes every minute!—we have new opportunities to parent through the lens of God’s big redemption story. We don’t have to be angry, insecure, fearful, or impatient when our ideals of motherhood come crashing down, since “our trust isn’t in a preferred method—it’s in Jesus” (113).

Motherhood is hard, but God has given us these years to hold tightly to the good news of an always-sufficient Christ and his never-failing Word. We can live out the gospel whether we’re tackling that laundry mountain, chauffeuring our kids around town, wiping bottoms and noses, or counseling a temperamental toddler. The gospel gives us hope for every moment of motherhood.

5 Books You Should Read on Christianity and Politics

Mon, 09/23/2019 - 12:02am

In every era and cultural context, Christians have wrestled with how best to represent Christ in the realm of politics and public life. Our own 21st-century American moment is no exception. As the social and cultural “ground” has shifted beneath us, our interface with politics and public life has become especially challenging.

In our own attempt to carve out a path of faithful witness in this American moment, here are five books I think can be especially helpful. I’ll describe each book and then rank its level of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult. (You could give a Level 1 book to any friend or family member. A Level 5 might be required in a PhD seminar.)

1. Augustine, City of God

This is one of the greatest Christian texts ever written. Written in the context not only of the collapsing Roman empire but also the Pelagian controversy, Augustine provides a captivating strategy for being witnesses in the midst of a declining pagan empire. The African theologian argues that our political witness is one of the greatest public goods we could offer, even in a culture of anti-Christian skepticism. Warning: Because of its size and formidable prose, I recommend that you not read it in bed, lest you doze off mid-sentence and be crushed to death. (Level 4)

This book can be paired with Robert Dodaro’s Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Level 5), a significant treatment of Augustine’s political theology; Gerard O’Daly’s Augustine’s City of God (Level 3.5), a reader’s guide; and Curtis Chang’s Engaging Unbelief (Level 3), a slim volume exploring how Augustine draws on the Bible’s overarching narrative to great effect.

2. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism

This little book punches above its weight. Kuyper provides an in-depth perspective on his philosophy of society, “sphere sovereignty.” This book is the English translation of the Stone Foundation Lectures delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. B. B. Warfield oversaw the translation project, going so far as to reject the first (flawed) translation and commission a new cadre of translators. (Level 3.5)

This book can be paired with Peter Heslam’s Creating a Christian Worldview; Abraham Kuyper’s Collected Works in Public Theology (Level 3.5), a beautiful hardback collection of Kuyper’s writings; and Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper (Level 2), a short and personal introduction to Kuyper’s life and thought.

3. Richard John Neuhaus, American Babylon

Neuhaus employs his sharp mind and golden pen to show that the relativism of American universities has radically reshaped society and culture for the worse. (Level 3)

This book can be paired with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Level 5), a penetrating philosophical analysis of Western secularity, and Philip Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks (Level 5), a profound social and cultural analysis of Western secularity. Rieff divides world history into three eras and argues that only in the third era do the West’s cultural elite try to rip the sacred “rug” out from beneath social order. In so doing, our elite culture-makers are producing “deathworks”—cultural products and institutions that poison our society rather than revitalize it.

4. David Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions, 2nd ed.

This is the updated edition of Koyzis’s award-winning survey and critique of contemporary political ideologies. An excellent study in applying a Christian worldview to the regnant political options of our day. (Level 3.5)

This book can be paired with Richard Mouw and Sanders Griffioen’s Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay in Christian Public Philosophy (Level 4). In this fine little book, a public theologian and a social philosopher employ a Kuyperian framework of thought to address the problem of Christian faithfulness in a pluralistic society. Another good companion is Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church (Level 4). Leeman rejects modernity’s separation of religion and politics into discrete realms, arguing that the local church is a profoundly political assembly, an embassy of Christ the King. He explores the nature of Christ’s rule and the manner of its expression in our era between Christ’s two comings. Warning: if you think that the story of the world finds its destiny in the rise of democratic modernism, you will hate Leeman’s book. But, on the other hand, if you think it finds its destiny in the resurrection . . .

5. Francis Beckwith, Defending Life

Human dignity is perhaps the most significant political issue in the world generally and in the United States specifically, and the fate of unborn human beings is the most grave violation of human dignity. Since Roe v. Wade (1973), more than 60 million unborn human beings have been killed in the womb—a number greater than all American casualties in 20th-century wars. Beckwith’s book is one of the best philosophical and legal arguments for the pro-life position. (Level 4).

This book can be paired with John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (Level 3), a classic statement of the West’s envelopment in a “culture of death”; Richard John Neuhaus’s “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest” (Level 2), my favorite essay/speech ever given on the pro-life cause; Daniel Darling’s Dignity Revolution (Level 1) is a substantive but accessible treatment of Christian teaching about human dignity, relating this doctrine to a variety of social and political debates; and John Perkins’s One Blood (Level 1), a salient collection of reflections by a Christian civil-rights leader.

Of course, I wouldn’t be offended if you read my recent essay, “The Single Greatest Cause of Our Time: Building a Whole-Life, Pro-Life Ethic” (Level 2.5), or my recent book, Letters to an American Christian (Level 2.5), a series of 27 brief letters to a hypothetical college student who has just become a Christian and wants to represent Christ well in politics and public life.

Faithful Witness

As we attempt to carve out a path of faithful witness, books like these are insufficient. We need something—Somebody—much stronger. Therefore, we must not only read but pray.

We must pray that God, by his Spirit, will strengthen us for the days ahead when we’ll experience enormous pressure to compromise the truths of historical and biblical Christianity. And we know that he will hear our prayers. For he is with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Beware of Taking Your Sorrows to Alcohol Before God

Mon, 09/23/2019 - 12:00am

It wasn’t until I spent a week in the mental hospital that I heard the message loud and clear: “Stay away from alcohol.”

As I sat in the doctor’s office, preparing to re-enter the world with my new bipolar disorder II diagnosis, I finally conceded that even the slightest drop of liquor would act like fuel on a smoking flax. Intoxicating my sorrows was all harm and no good.

Some of us who battle depression know what it’s like to turn to alcohol—or any substance—for relief. We’re tempted to grasp at anything within reach to numb the pain, to quiet the voices, to tame the grief.

What starts as periodic self-medication can quickly morph into a reflexive habit. Whenever I felt undesirable feelings of sadness, I turned to liquor to manage the pain. But the bottom of the glass never marked the end of my troubles. The drink that promised much became a bitter salve, a Christ-less crutch that could offer no life, no remedy, and no rescue from the pit of despair.

Truth about Depression, Suicide, and Alcohol

Using alcohol intoxication as a coping mechanism for melancholia can quickly become a matter of life and death. It acts as a depressant, fooling our brains into thinking we feel “great” while simultaneously pressing us deeper into despondency. Since our bodies build up a tolerance to alcohol over time, we eventually require a steadily increasing supply to achieve the desired effect.

And the more we consume, the more we exacerbate the symptoms of many mental-health conditions such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and depression, all of which can contribute to suicide.

While it may not be the alcohol that pulls the trigger or tightens the noose, its presence in our system strips our desire to honor God with our choices and quenches the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 5:18). Drinking to drown our sorrows, contrary to the chart-topping songs, is a dangerous—potentially deadly—way to respond to seasons of excessive sadness.

Drinking to drown our sorrows, contrary to the chart-topping songs, is a dangerous—potentially deadly—way to respond to seasons of excessive sadness.

Though I wouldn’t have diagnosed myself with an alcohol addiction, even moderate consumption during a season of depression can be enough to spark significant physiological and spiritual effects. Only by God’s grace did I not become one of the 29 percent of suicide victims in America found with alcohol in their system.

Alcohol won’t lay its life down for us, but it can demand we lay down our life for it.

Alcohol’s False Narrative of Hope

For Christians who struggle with depression, hope can feel hard to come by. We may know in our heads that we have hope in Christ, but the experience of that hope may periodically elude us. This crippling sense of hopelessness can tempt us to find other, more immediate ways to ease the pain.

I was helped in my early days of sobriety by meditating on Elijah’s words to the prophets of Baal:

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

Elijah’s question pressed at the heart of idol worship, yet the prophets remained silent. Their stubborn reticence demonstrated allegiance to a false god. As they begged Baal to show himself by bringing a roaring fire to their altar, they realized their prayers were in vain. Their false god remained mute.

Alcohol offers an equally false narrative of hope to the depressed. We hope it will lighten our load, but it’s powerless to remove burdens. It can’t simplify our problems; on the contrary, it complicates our sorrows physically, spiritually, and relationally.

The drink has no voice to soothe us—for numb isn’t the same as healed. Wine offers no rescue—for disorientation isn’t the same as freedom. We seek in the glass what only the God of all comforts can supply: the all-satisfying love of our living hope, Jesus Christ.

Depression Is Hard. God Is Good.

Depression hurts, and while the desire to escape from its pain is understandable, crying out to Christ is the distinctly Christian response. Strong drink tries to muzzle our sorrow, but God in his kindness gives us instead the language of biblical lament. He invites us to speak honestly to him, to unburden our woes and complaints, to give utterance to the heartache within. As Mark Vroegop’s helpful book puts it, “Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promises of God’s goodness.”

Biblical lament allows us to acknowledge that depression can be hard and God can be good—both at the same time. This is why Vroegop also describes lament as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” God’s sovereignty and our pain is a real-life tension; therefore we must desperately trust in his goodness, even when living feels anything but good.

Alcohol won’t lay its life down for us, but it can demand we lay down our life for it.

Christians don’t lament to a manmade bottle of alcohol—but to the very God Almighty, who hears our cries and counts our tears (Ps. 56:8). The bottle or glass has no life-giving answers for the despondent soul. It lures us away from the light, settling our spirits into the confines of wretched darkness. But to choose to surrender a sadness to Christ is to believe—despite the depression—that he is walking us through and out of the miry bog, turning the darkness before us into paths of light (Isa. 42:16).

Why I Downplay Homeschooling When I Talk with People

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 12:02am

Each fall, I see the yellow school buses navigating side streets. I see clusters of parents walking their children to the neighborhood elementary school. I “like” pictures of friends’ children posing for the first day of school. Then I turn around and see four of my children huddled around the kitchen table completing math problems as my toddler places colorful ABC magnets on the refrigerator.

I’m deeply grateful that my mom chose to educate my four siblings and me at home during our formative years, and it’s my privilege and joy to instruct my kids at home also.

But I try not to talk about it much.

For parents, choices about our children’s education can be some of the biggest decisions we make. Homeschooling in particular can be a controversial and countercultural choice that parents often feel strongly about. As a result, it can be tempting for homeschoolers to spend a lot of time defending and explaining their choice.

I’m aware of this tendency, so unless I’m talking to fellow homeschoolers, I rarely mention our choice to homeschool.

Right Choice for Us

It’s not that I regret homeschooling. Homeschooling affords many wonderful opportunities. As an educational choice, it meets the needs of our family in a unique way. The freedom to choose this option for our children is something my husband and I value and never want to take for granted.

I don’t want our educational choice to climb onto the altar of first importance.

Not only does homeschooling create a unique context for spending time with and discipling my children, but it also happens to be an excellent option given that three of our children share a serious genetic condition. When one child is sick, though all are at risk of catching it, some are more vulnerable to complications.

Teaching my children at home limits exposure to viruses and eliminates the potential challenge of struggling to keep up with classes due to numerous sick days. When illness does strike, we simply modify the workload and adjust the schedule as needed. We often do lessons in the car and while sitting in the waiting room at specialist appointments.

Despite these advantages, however, when I talk and write about parenting, I downplay homeschooling. Why? I don’t want our educational choice to climb onto the altar of first importance.

Altar of First Importance

As moms, it’s easy to put many things on the altar of first importance. It often starts with what we feed our babies—breast or bottle? Organic or non-organic? Sugar or no sugar? Meat or vegetarian?

We rightly navigate our children through many of their early decisions, including what they eat, wear, read, watch, and listen to. Once they reach school age, we decide whether they’ll go to public or private school—or, as Americans, we may choose to homeschool them. What we decide depends on a variety of factors, and not everyone starts with the same options.

Though all Christian parents have a biblical responsibility to train our children, how this plays out differs greatly from one family to another. And, in all areas of life, we need to be on guard against elevating something we personally value to first importance.

We ought to regularly evaluate to whom we give allegiance and where we find our primary identity—and this applies to how we educate our kids. In Christ, am I primarily a home educator? Is my friend primarily a PTA member? Of course not.

Where Unity Lives

Equally significant, I downplay our decision to homeschool because it’s not the gospel. Not only do I want to keep our educational choice from becoming the focus of our attention, I want to form relationships focused on the gospel. The good news—that Jesus offers forgiveness and hope for those who trust him—is available to all parents, not just a target group who choose to educate their children a particular way.

Over the summer, some Chinese friends hosted our family for a delicious dinner. The following night, a Haitian family welcomed us. And a single, working mom trusted me to watch her son three or four days a week. All three families are part of our church small group. We feel privileged to enjoy fellowship and friendship with them. We learn from them how they pray, love Jesus, and faithfully apply the gospel to daily life. None of these families homeschools their children.

Our fellowship and friendship in the gospel—expressed in our shared church life—unites our hearts. By God’s grace, our educational choices don’t create tension. Actually, our families look different in many ways—ethnicity, number of kids, season of life, socioeconomic status, and more. Our common faith brings us together.

What Matters Most

For all people, the most important thing in life is knowing God through his Son. This means that our Christian identity is primary, and ought to dictate our priorities. Our unbelieving neighbors know that our family homeschools, but they also see us drive to church each Sunday, regularly host our small group, and do a number of other countercultural activities.

As they witness our lives, I want my neighbors’ interest to be stirred, not about our educational choices, but about the One who motivates everything we do. If I’m going to explain a lifestyle choice to my next-door neighbor, I want to talk about Jesus and the gospel. If talking about homeschooling is a means to that end, I’m happy to talk about homeschooling.

But homeschooling is only one aspect of our lives. Christ is our life.

That’s why I often downplay homeschooling. As grateful as I am for the privilege to make this educational choice and for the custom way it fits my family, I never want to elevate it—or any other decision—to the place reserved for Jesus. He alone is worthy of worship, and he is the One I want to proclaim.

Theology Is Difficult, But Worth the Effort

Sat, 09/21/2019 - 12:02am

A few years ago, I was having dinner with a family from church. Knowing my penchant for theological inquiry, the matriarch of the family decided to ask a genuine theological question: “David, I know Jesus is God, and I know the Father is God. When Jesus was on the cross,  though, why does he pray to himself, saying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

I proceeded to explain that while we are monotheists (i.e., believing in one God), our God exists forever in three persons who are the same in essence, co-equal in power, glory, and authority. From there I explained the difference between persons and natures and how, on the cross, Jesus, the eternal person of the Son made incarnate, prays to the person of the Father—though Jesus is, in his essence, the very same God. At which point her son, a seasoned pastor himself, chuckled and said, “You have more to say about that than the Bible does.”

That bothered me. Instead of joining the chorus or rejoicing in theological instruction, he threw up his intellectual white flag and encouraged everyone else to do likewise. Rather than doing the hard work of grasping the whole of Scripture to understand the part, he seemed to suggest theologians complicate things beyond the basics of the gospel.

Maybe you feel similarly. If that’s you, let me first say you’re not wrong. Theologians are the first to affirm the perspicuity of Scripture, a doctrine that says when it comes to matters of faith and salvation, the Bible’s meaning is evident.

The gospel is indeed simple: God created the world, we sinned, Jesus saves, and we need to trust and follow him. Some matters, though, like the writings of Paul, are challenging to grasp, as even Peter conceded (2 Pet. 3:16). The gospel is simple, but theology often isn’t.

Difficult Theology

Doctrine is the foundational building block for all we say and believe. Faith without a bedrock of orthodox belief is akin to building your house on shifting sand. And yet the undertaking of learning theology can be onerous.

If you want to eat meat, you have to learn to chew.

Theology introduces a host of new terms and concepts (sanctification, penal substitution, verbal plenary inspiration, and so on). Delving into the deep things of God can be mind-bending. It forces you to wrestle with ostensible contradictions (cf. Deut. 28:63 and Ezek. 18:32). Studying to show yourself approved is time-consuming and can even be grief-producing (Eccles. 1:18; 12:2). Doctrine cannot be watered down or simplified. If you want to eat meat, you have to learn to chew.

Theology Is Worth It

With all these occupational hazards, I understand the rationale to retreat and “leave it to the professionals.” Before you run for the hills, though, let me point out something a wise man told me when I had similar impulses. In every other area of our lives, when we believe something has real import, we rise to the challenge.

Think about it. When something affects our money, we rise to the challenge. Even if you don’t know the difference between a monkey wrench and a rolling pin, you would never pay the mechanic $1,000 to change your oil. You’d watch videos, ask questions, borrow tools, call a friend for help, or learn to do it yourself.

When it affects our loved ones, we rise to the challenge. Even if you failed high-school biology, when a loved one gets sick and it seems the doctor is speaking miles over your head, you write things down, ask for definitions, research treatment options, and calculate possible side effects.

In every other sphere of life that we believe has real effect, we rise to the challenge. Why, then, do we so easily throw in the towel when it comes to matters of God, faith, and doctrine?

In every other area of our lives, when we believe something has real import, we rise to the challenge.

Maybe the issue isn’t whether learning theology is too difficult. Perhaps the real question is whether or not we actually believe theology will have any real effect on our lives. Friend, it will. Deep and vibrant theology will comfort you when tragedy strikes, anchor you when the waves of doubt swell, add meaning to the mundane, give substance for your work and purpose to your rest, and put before you the hope of God’s kingdom toward which to walk.

When many disciples walked away due to the difficulty of his teaching, Jesus asked the twelve if they wanted to go as well. Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Peter understood that while theology is difficult, it is always worth it. May we as well.


The Best New Worship Songs of the 2010s

Sat, 09/21/2019 - 12:00am

At a time when common hymnals and worship songbooks are ever less common, and many contemporary worship songs come and go as quickly as any other ephemeral cultural thing, it might seem foolish or idealistic to consider which new songs (if any) will become standards. But as the decade winds to a close, we can at least celebrate some of the excellent new worship songs that have blessed the church in the 2010s, even if we can’t predict which of them will still be sung in the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond.

The following 35 songs are my picks for the best new worship songs written and released between 2010 and 2020. In compiling this list I focused on songs that are both theologically sound and musically beautiful; as well as songs that are easy to sing and, in most cases, already widely sung in congregations around the world. Some have been certifiable “hits” on the praise charts. Others are lesser known. All are songs I hope the church keeps singing, and keeps remembering, for years to come. 

If you aren’t familiar with some of these excellent songs, you can listen to them on this TGC Spotify playlist or Apple Music playlist. Pastors and worship leaders: consider adding some of these into your congregational-worship rotation. May these songs—combined with treasured classics from centuries past, and yet-to-be-written songs to come—keep leading God’s people to declare his praises, tuning our hearts to sing his grace.

  1. “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery,” Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, Michael Bleecker (2013)
  2. “Is He Worthy?” Andrew Peterson (2018)
  3. “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” Sandra McCracken (2015)
  4. “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” Matt Redman (2011)
  5. “O Praise The Name (Anastasis),” Hillsong Worship (2015)
  6. “Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me,” CityAlight (2018)
  7. “His Mercy Is More,” Matt Boswell and Matt Papa (2016)
  8. “He Will Hold Me Fast,” Matt Merker (2012)
  9. “Great Are You Lord,” All Sons and Daughters (2012)
  10. “God Is for Us,” CityAlight (2018)
  11. “This I Believe (The Creed),” Hillsong Worship (2014)
  12. “O God of Our Salvation,” Matt Boswell, Michael Bleecker (2010)
  13. “Living Hope,” Phil Wickham (2018)
  14. “What a Beautiful Name,” Hillsong Worship (2016)
  15. “Father, Let Your Kingdom Come,” Porter’s Gate feat. Urban Doxology (2017) 
  16. “My Worth Is Not in What I Own (At the Cross),” Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, Graham Kendrick (2014)
  17. “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” Matt Boswell and Matt Papa (2014)
  18. “Man of Sorrows,” Hillsong Worship (2013)
  19. “Build My Life,” Pat Barrett (2016)
  20. “Lord, I Need You,” Matt Maher, Christy Nockels, Jesse Reeves, Kristian Stanfill, Daniel Carson (2011)
  21. “Great Is Our God,” Young Oceans (2012)
  22. “Cornerstone,” Hillsong Worship (2011)
  23. “The Lion and the Lamb,” Brenton Brown (2015)
  24. “O Come to the Altar,” Chris Brown (2015)
  25. “Forever,” Kari Jobe (2013)
  26. “Christ Is Mine Forevermore,” CityAlight (2016)
  27. “Promises,” Antoine Bradford (2019)
  28. “Behold Our God,” Sovereign Grace Music (2011)
  29. “All Glory Be to Christ,” Kings Kaleidoscope (2012)
  30. “Ancient of Days,” CityAlight (2018)
  31. “The Lord Is My Salvation,” Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, Nathan Nockels, Jonas Myrin (2016)
  32. “No Limit to Your Love,” John Van Deusen (2018)
  33. “814,” Isla Vista Worship (2019)
  34. “Who You Say I Am,” Hillsong Worship (2018)
  35. “Come to the Feast,” Sandra McCracken, Jeff Lawson (2013)

Small Town, Big God

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:04am

“Over the last year, I’ve told parents that their kids aren’t coming home; kids that their parents aren’t coming home; and spouses that their spouses aren’t coming home. You’re more likely to die of an opiate overdose than a car accident now. There’s a lot of hard—stuff, racism, suicide, domestic violence, depression—a whole lot of problems that only Jesus can heal. And that’s why I’m really just grown in this conviction that small towns deserve to be taken seriously. What we can’t afford is to perpetuate what can happen sometimes, when small-town ministry gets treated like a stepping stone on someone’s journey to becoming a famous pastor. That grieves me almost more than anything else.” — Donnie Griggs

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.


How to Pursue Wealth as a Gift

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:03am

Why do I feel so guilty all the time?

I mentor young Christian professionals who struggle with this question around money and spending. They worship a God who calls them to care for the world and to enjoy it as a gift. But while both of these desires—for social action and for the enjoyment of God’s world—are on target theologically, they can cause some tension.

On one hand, we live in a culture chock-full of human innovation and creativity that we can celebrate as reflections of our creating God. But on the other, we’re rightly concerned about the poor and the oppressed. So with every Starbucks coffee, Chick-fil-A sandwich, Avengers movie ticket, and iPhone upgrade, we know we could instead be giving our money to help alleviate poverty or send a mission team to unreached peoples. Even if we’re philanthropic and generous with our time and money, we could always cut back and give more.

The result, for many, is a lingering and “strange persistence of guilt.” This guilt is especially acute for Christians, who can hear Jesus’s words echoing—“You cannot serve both God and money”—behind every vacation plan and visit to Amazon. Yet we live in a world where at least attempting to save for your child’s education or owning a car or having cooling in our homes or grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend are viewed as common sense. We might admit that compared to most of the world these are luxuries, but we can’t imagine not working toward the financial freedom to enjoy such things.

This raises a question: how are we to think about “wealth” surrounded by the luxuries of a modern world?

Defining Terms

It’s important to be on the same page when using words like “wealth” or “wealthy.” For many, “wealthy” means the other person has more—maybe much more—money than they do. Most of us judge our economic standing by the people in our own orbits. When someone in a small rural town describes someone as “wealthy,” they likely have a different standard of living in mind than a hedge-fund manager in New York. And yet most people living in the Western world recognize that, historically and internationally due in large part to modern capitalism, they are “wealthy.”

Instead of thinking comparatively, however, if we define wealth as having an abundance of material possessions and poverty as not having basic material possessions, we’re better able to trace these concepts within the biblical storyline. Obtaining wealth, according to this approach, means having more than we need for mere survival, and escaping poverty means having our basic needs met.

Wealth in Creation and New Creation

Before sin invaded the world, poverty didn’t exist and humans enjoyed wealth. In Genesis 1–2 we see God’s lavish grace toward his image-bearers in creation. Consider Genesis 1:29–30: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’” God gave Adam and Eve an abundance of material things to enjoy, more than what was needed for mere survival.

If we fail to appreciate the good of wealth, we deny the structural good inherent in creation. In our context today, having a college fund for our children or going on a family vacation or having a car are all aspects of wealth. They aren’t necessary, and we don’t deserve them, but they are good gifts from God that should cause us to worship the Giver more deeply.

If we fail to appreciate the good of wealth, we deny the structural good inherent in creation.

Moreover, poverty won’t exist in the new creation. However one interprets the specifics of Revelation 21–22, it seems clear there is some kind of physical reality to the new heavens and new earth. John alludes to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the “wealth of the nations” as he describes the coming New Jerusalem.

Wealth is a good that normally should be pursued as a penultimate aim. We want individuals and communities to flourish holistically, which means we should seek spiritual, physical, and economic health. The problem occurs when wealth is made into a god—when we make this good, penultimate pursuit of wealth into an ultimate aim. Then wealth will destroy us.

After the Fall

“Is it more holy or biblically preferential to be rich or poor?” you may ask. We might compare this to another question: is it preferable to be physically sick or in outstanding health? Keep in mind that poverty, like sickness, is a result of the fall. And wealth, like health, is not.

Imagine a friend trying to convince you that since God sometimes uses sickness to grow believers spiritually, you should seek out a disease. “Don’t worry about washing your hands this flu season or visiting the doctor. We should seek out disease, with the lucky ones getting something really bad, so that the Lord will bless us spiritually by causing us to trust in him, refrain from idolizing our bodies, and put our hope in the resurrection.” You’d be a fool to follow this person’s advice! In a similar vein, you should generally seek wealth over poverty for yourself and others as a penultimate concern. Hence the practical wisdom concerning money in Proverbs assumes that while wealth is a creational good that provides an incentive to work, it also relativizes the importance of wealth.

We can’t love both God and wealth as ultimate, but we should enjoy his good gifts and pursue them in the right order and according to his calling.

Failing to obtain wealth will at times result from rejecting mammon as a god. Following God, for example, by moving to a majority-world context as a missionary could make you vulnerable to both economic challenges and also, returning to our analogy of physical sickness, health risks. Choosing a vocation as a calling from God, rather than based on earning potential or physical ease, could affect your wealth or health—just ask a police officer or a fireman. At times loving God and following Christ’s call—pursuing true shalom (rather than a false consumeristic, secularized version)—can make you more vulnerable to the disorders of a fallen creation.

It’s better to be ill and poor with God than to be rich and healthy as a spiritual corpse. But in these cases, love for God is the aim; neither poverty nor physical ailments is the goal. If you’re driven by a hatred of wealth itself or aim at poverty as an inherent good, you’ll become self-righteous and despise those who have more wealth than you do. In this case money, ironically, still enslaves you. And in the end, you’ll be both spiritually and economically poor.

Human sickness and poverty result from the fall. Similar to how we see modern medicine and doctors as a gift from God, we should seek out—as individuals and as communities—biblical financial principles, habits, and specialists to help us push back against poverty and toward economic health.

We can’t love both God and wealth as ultimate, but we should enjoy his good gifts and pursue them in the right order and according to his calling. And because we’re called to love our neighbors, we should be committed to sacrificially helping others be economically healthy—something we’ll be unable to do if wealth is chased as a god rather than as a gift.

A Book About Dignity for Everyone Has a Lot to Teach the Church

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:02am

It’s no secret that an increasingly large portion of wealth in the United States belongs to a small number of people. Lest we simply write that off as “part of the deal” with capitalism and a global economy, economists and sociologists express great concern that pathways to economic mobility seem to be narrowing. Americans’ chances for financial stability depend more and more on being born and raised in a certain set of circumstances.

It’s becoming clear that the divides in our economic life also cut across our community life and relationships, even in the church. Christians in America often fear splitting into camps over political or moral issues. But are we in danger of sorting along economic lines—into one church for the wealthy and upwardly mobile, and another church for everyone else? One recent book sheds light on these divides and offers a subtle but striking corrective to our churches as well.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America hits nerves across the political and cultural spectrum with troubling observations. Here, through stories of people from various ethnicities and regions, we’re confronted with the fact that our systems haven’t resulted in “the American dream” for far too many. Historian Thomas Kidd called the book “the most sympathetic treatment of poor, broken Americans that I can recall ever reading.” Though coming from a professed non-believer and a mainstream publishing house, Dignity raises vital questions about how churches are failing to address the key concerns of many Americans—both in how we proclaim the gospel message and, more critically, in how our lives reflect what we profess to believe.

Haunting Picture

Much of Dignity‘s power flows from the book’s format—it’s not an academic work but a travelogue, weaving itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the United States It’s also a coffee-table book of sorts. Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout, giving the words flesh and feeling. The pictures-and-interviews motif invites comparisons to the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but Arnade’s artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have.

Dignity is also somewhat of a memoir, with Arnade taking part in the story he presents. His perspective as an “insider”—a former Wall Street banker who has achieved the “American dream”—sets the stage for his journey into a different side of American life. But his voice isn’t what you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America—and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

Along the way, Arnade makes observations about globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy, and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of the people he meets, but he shies away from prescriptive action steps. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it’s a posture critical to his observations being taken seriously.

Competing Value Systems

Throughout Dignity, Arnade presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, global citizens, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (un- or under-employed, struggling, powerless, bound to place, loyal). Neither term is intended derisively—front-row and back-row America both have values and vices, even as their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but each can invite despair and breed toxicity toward the other.

Arnade makes his most helpful contributions in the question of values. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. You’re welcomed into that community based on your gifts and abilities, your degrees, your accomplishments, and your contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure—you can earn your way in, but you can also fall out.

In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth come from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

Arnade doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but his book implicitly calls us to recover the imago Dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are truly open only to the front row. The non-credentialed bona fides of the back row are less likely than ever before to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. Arnade’s forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, California; Johnson City, Tennessee; Selma, Alabama; Portsmouth, Ohio; or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” and so on) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group feels to another like a command to turn your back on everything you’ve ever known.

Arnade’s persistently tells readers in the front row that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much more closed system than they’d like to believe. He’s not pushing readers to advocate for better governmental or nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation, per se, but to learn to see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters.

Where Is the Church?

Arnade doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but his book implicitly calls us to recover the imago Dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value. This lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the earnest belief and real value of congregational life in the churches of the “back row” that much more remarkable. Arnade writes:

My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be. . . . The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. (118–19)

The churches Arnade visited don’t always check all the boxes front-row Christians look for—well-articulated theology, expected behaviors, traditional political positions. But they reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. The rebuke of favoritism in James 2 hits close to home. A certain way of doing church, we can get our minds around; Jesus, the wandering rabbi and friend of sinners, gives us heartburn.

But our doctrine must be embodied in our practice. Paul—Hebrew of Hebrews, Pharisee, Roman citizen—had as firm a seat in the front row of the first-century world as anyone else. His ticket was punched for success. Yet his encounter with the risen Lord sent him to the back row, where the gospel of Jesus found strong support among slaves, women, minority groups, and others for whom it was unalloyed good news. Perhaps this is why his letters to young churches in wealthy front-row cities—like Rome, Thessalonica, and Corinth—take special concern to challenge Christians to keep a cross-shaped perspective on the social realities of the family of God.

Paul gives instructions to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need,” and to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). He admonishes believers to “not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position” (Rom. 12:16) and to “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14). He is quick to remind believers that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). These characteristics should apply to the church as a whole, not simply guidelines for ministry outside the church for those who feel specially called to that.

Flipping the Script

“Associating with people of low position” in our culture is increasingly hard for people in the front row to do. This is something we should be particularly aware of in the broader Reformed tradition that places a huge emphasis on theology, study, and expositional preaching. The increasing educational and economic segregation of American life is mirrored in the church, and some unsettling observations emerge when this trend interacts with the increasing professionalization of pastoral work. The theological language used in wealthier and more educated congregations (technical terms, church history, Greek or Hebrew being used and translated, and so on—good things in themselves) isn’t as comprehensible as we’d like to think to many Americans who call themselves Christians. The expected level of education for pastors in most evangelical denominations leads those with seminary degrees (and the debt burdens that can come with them) to seek ministry roles in wealthier areas.

This selection accelerates the divide, depriving trained pastors of the opportunity for long-term learning from Christians outside their social bubble and depriving lower-income churches the chance to benefit from the good work of seminaries. The result is accidental elitism within the body of Christ, where childlike faith isn’t quite enough to burnish our identity in Christ, and where we start believing that “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” means having a graduate-level understanding of Scripture and theology. None of us planned for this to happen, but we’ve wound up here in part by not considering the larger cultural issues at work—precisely the things Arnade’s book beautifully exposes.

Doing Mercy with Justice

A Christian approach to bridging the divide between front and back row must wrestle with several layers of brokenness. For many Christians in front-row culture, their only interactions with those from back-row culture are in the context of mercy ministry. But mercy that only looks at material differences can do more to widen this rift than to bridge it. Poverty in the back row often has a strong material dimension (lack of wealth, housing, education, or access to social capital, employment healthcare, and so on), but people in the front row can be poor in other ways (lack of humility, meaningful relationships, generosity, and so on). Separating “the poor” from the mainstream in our thoughts and actions strips them of their dignity as divine image-bearers. If our mercy ministry isn’t married to faithful, incarnational presence, people become projects—and, given the divergent sets of values mentioned above, not very successful projects at that.

The gospel of Christ speaks of a relentlessly physical reality—an incarnate Savior who bled, died, and rose just as surely as he preached, healed, and forgave. A Christianity that asks only spiritual actions of us and promises only spiritual blessings to us might sound all right in a place where all our other needs are met, but it doesn’t always resonate the same way in a broken and hurting community. Jesus and the apostles (who were themselves largely from the cultural back row—Galileans, laborers, Roman sympathizers, political extremists) were consistently among and with the poor and broken, modeling for us a whole-body, whole-life discipleship that shakes our sense of personal worth and dislodges our stubborn pursuit of self and comfort.

Mercy ministry can’t be reduced to a set of best practices. It requires a revolution in thinking that starts to see God’s image reflected in back-row values as much as front-row ones.

Mercy ministry can’t be reduced to a set of best practices. It requires a revolution in thinking that starts to see God’s image reflected in back-row values as much as front-row ones. The stories that fill me with hope for the church all center on repenting of mutual brokenness and entering into place and presence with a wholehearted embrace of human dignity. For every church content to serve the spiritual needs of people in the front row, for whom daily life seems to work well, there is a courageous church plant in a crumbling neighborhood, relentless in relationship while applying the gospel to painful earthly realities. For every church that wants to “fix” the poor, there is a church that wants to embrace them and walk with them through their struggles. For every church that doesn’t want to “get political,” there is a congregation willing to enter into another’s suffering, acknowledging faulty social systems that have conspired to break and shame their neighbors.

But these are deliberate choices. Who is going to pay their pastor to sit at McDonald’s all day (as Arnade did) making conversation with addicts bumming WiFi and the homeless seeking warmth? Which churches will have their deacons do house calls at the extended-stay motels or tent cities under the interstate? Where are the denominations spending mission dollars to plant churches in post-industrial small towns? Who will sit in the “back row” for the sake of the gospel?

Building a Different Future

Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions—and that may be enough for starters. Christians (especially deacons and others engaged in mercy ministry) could do worse than to pick up a copy and let it open their heart to those they may otherwise be tempted to forget. I found it to be an effective “audit” of my own loves, forcing me to reckon with ways I often handicap my reading of Scripture to conform to my own sinful patterns and cultural preferences.

And lest we lose heart, there are plenty of Christians digesting the realities Arnade points out and tying these threads together in ways that can repair the breach. This is exactly what we are about at the Chalmers Center, and many, many churches and other ministries share these goals. There are wonderful ongoing conversations for transforming churches and nonprofits in ways that resist continued separation of the front row from the back.

The whole Christian story, in fact, is headed for a great reversal of just this sort:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:3–5)

All things are being made new precisely because the Son of God was willing to leave the “front row” of glory to walk among the “back row” of a fallen and fractured world: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

The deep brokenness Arnade invites us to see becomes an opportunity for Christlikeness. The divergent problems afflicting the front and back rows is a renewed call to, in the words of poet W. H. Auden, “Love your crooked neighbor / with your crooked heart.”

10 Traits of a Humble Leader

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:00am

Recent stories of celebrity pastors and worship leaders apostatizing has me thinking about the idea of Christian leadership. Whether leaders reluctantly fall from grace due to moral failure or publicly renounce their faith on Instagram to be more “authentic,” one thing is clear: humility is not a contributing factor.

Even though I don’t consider myself a humble leader—I can be brash and bigheaded (both literally and figuratively)—by God’s grace, I’ve been blessed to serve under many humble leaders. I’ve watched many more from a distance. 

Based on my observations, I’ve noticed 10 common traits of leaders who demonstrate humility, in contrast to those who demonstrate pride. As we all guard our hearts against the pervasive allures of pride and, for leaders especially, the toxic temptations of power, it’s good to reflect on which of these traits mark our own lives.

Humble Leaders vs. Arrogant Leaders
  1. Humble leaders tend to share their resources, whether in want or in plenty. Arrogant leaders tend to hoard their resources, unwilling to share unless they get something in return.
  2. Humble leaders tend to be bridge-builders, refusing to demonize or neglect the “other.” Arrogant leaders tend to work alone, refusing to partner with others—especially those who hold differing views.
  3. Humble leaders tend to ignore gossip, being wise enough to know there’s always another side to the story. Arrogant leaders tend to spread and entertain gossip, always wanting to hear the worst of others to make themselves feel better.
  4. Humble leaders tend to be king-makers, without clamoring to be kings themselves. Arrogant leaders tend to be attention-seekers, preferring to burn bridges or arrive with guns blazing if they don’t get their way.
  5. Humble leaders tend to celebrate others’ accomplishments and not their own. Arrogant leaders tend to disregard other people’s accomplishments if it doesn’t serve their agenda.
  6. Humble leaders tend to give the benefit of the doubt, knowing that nobody is always at their best. Arrogant leaders tend to assume the worst, unable to see the logs in their own eyes.
  7. Humble leaders tend to appreciate nuance, since they know they’ve been wrong many times before. Arrogant leaders tend to be exceedingly black and white, unwilling to consider contrary views.
  8. Humble leaders tend to be empathetic, often prioritizing people over ideas. Arrogant leaders tend to be rigid, unable to receive constructive criticism.
  9. Humble leaders tend to welcome accountability, for they know how much they need it. Arrogant leaders tend to reject accountability, finding it a nuisance or waste of time.
  10. Humble leaders tend to own up to their mistakes, since they know they’re far from perfect. Arrogant leaders tend to blame others for their shortcomings or failures, unwilling to acknowledge their own sinful tendencies.
Christ the Perfect Leader

Perhaps this list overwhelms you. How will I ever become a humble leader? you wonder. But the beauty of the gospel is that, in Jesus, we already have the perfect model of humble leadership. And he’s not just a role model to look up to; he’s the image we’re being conformed to, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Jesus is not just a role model to look up to; he’s the image we’re being conformed to.

Jesus shows that humble leadership starts at the cross: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26–28). The servant leader who stooped to wash faithless feet (John 13:1–17) flips the world’s idea of leadership on its head. He shows us the way up is down (Luke 22:26) and the last will be first (Matt. 20:16). In his kingdom, selfish ambition leads to death, while serving others to the point of death leads to life (Phil. 2:2–9).

It’s a testimony to pride’s relentless pull in our hearts that, even for Christians who have the ultimate model of humility in Jesus, such leadership is still a struggle. Of course, the world of social-media posturing, platform-building, and celebrity obsession doesn’t help. But few things confuse the world, hardening hearts further to the gospel, more than followers of Jesus who hijack his name to promote themselves. Why would we, who bear the name of history’s humblest man, be so pompous? It’s confusing and sad.

The need for humble leadership—Christians who actually look like Christ in how they live and lead—is urgent. May we check ourselves with sobriety and recommit to his cause in humility, for our witness and his glory.

Want to Combat the Prosperity Gospel? Support Church Planting.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 12:04am

There is only one true gospel—and it’s not the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. In fact, the so-called prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. Jesus did not come to make us rich, healthy, and comfortable; he came for us in our rebellion, in our hatred of God, and he died for us. As Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

We must never settle for anything less than this one true gospel. Paul warned the Galatians, “If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Paul took seriously the preaching of the true gospel, and as church-planting pastors, we must do the same.

In various parts of the world today, church planters will encounter the so-called prosperity gospel. So how can pastors penetrate these dark places that are deceived by false light?

To help us think about these things and more, I’m excited to have Robert Manda with me on the podcast.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.

‘She Has a Spirit of ______.’ But Are Such Phrases Biblical?

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 12:03am

“She has a Jezebel spirit!”

I was confused, as I neither knew who Jezebel was, nor how her spirit had invaded this young woman. Yet the man speaking seemed passionate. Apparently, a young woman in his church was being a problem—gossiping or some such matter. Of course, I was a new Christian at the time, visiting the local Pentecostal church to see what it was like. Turns out in this instance, it wasn’t so great.

As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time in Pentecostal/charismatic circles, and I’ve heard similar language. “Let’s ask God for a spirit of peace” or “I sense a spirit of fear,” for example. My point here isn’t to adjudicate the truth of these claims, but to assess the usefulness of this language. What are we talking about when we talk about the “spirit of” this or that?

Or, put in charismatic parlance, there’s a spirit of confusion afoot here. Let’s see if we can cast it out.

Biblical Language

The Bible doesn’t shy away from talking about spirits—and not just the third person of the Godhead, though he’s certainly paramount. Yet there are other uses of “spirit” language that may surprise us Reformed types. Here’s a few:

  • A spirit of skill: “You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill” (Exod. 28:3).
  • A spirit of jealousy: “. . . and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife” (Num. 5:14).
  • A spirit of wisdom: “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom” (Deut. 34:9)
  • A spirit of another person: “Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’” (2 Kings 2:15)
  • A spirit of confusion: “The LORD has mingled within her a spirit of confusion” (Isa. 19:14).
  • A spirit of slavery: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Rom. 8:15).
  • A spirit of love and gentleness: “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).
  • A spirit of antichrist: “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).

Since the Scriptures don’t avoid “spirit of” language, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss those who do. We may be dismissing wisdom.

Hard to Define

All this forces the question: what does the Bible mean when it speaks this way? The answer is complicated. Sometimes, “spirit of” language seems to describe a demonic being or Satan himself. Other times, it seems to describe an especially significant dose of one of God’s communicable attributes (for example, “a spirit of love” or “the spirit of wisdom”). Still other times, it describes an emotional state connected with spiritual activity (e.g., “a spirit of jealousy” or “a spirit of confusion”). All other usages describe the spirit of a person.

We must remind ourselves, first, of the biblical words for our English word spirit. The root words (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) all point to ideas like breath, wind, or force. The uniting idea behind them all is the concept of energy. It turns out the Bible’s spirit language is as difficult to grab as the windy energy to which it points. And yet, when we feel it or see it move things, we all know what we’re talking about.

Second, we must resist the urge to make Scripture speak univocally about a thing when it simply doesn’t. As noted above, “spirit of” language is varied in at least four ways (and that’s just a brief survey). Those of us who love tidy theological language balk at what feels like messy verbiage. If we’re not careful, though, we may be balking at the Bible.

Is the “spirit of confusion” a supernatural agent or a mental state of affairs? Hard to say, given the Bible’s use of the words. This is really where the rubber meets the road, however. Because we feel like it must be one or the other.

Unbiblical Binaries

I get it. When we hear a Christian describe someone’s bad attitude as “a spirit of rebellion,” we may be inclined to correct them. It’s not a spirit, you think, it’s a bad attitude. But why are we so quick draw a line between what’s spiritual and what’s natural when the Spirit’s book does not?

To the Hebrew mind, the whole world is God’s. There was no sharp line marking off the natural world from the spiritual or supernatural. That’s our recent, Enlightenment revival of ancient Epicureanism. When we blindly collude with Epicureanism, we’re not helping our mission to make Jesus known to the world. We’re playing the game by the wrong rules. God doesn’t like unbiblical boxes and, it appears, neither does his Word.

Should We Cast It Out?

Given what we’ve discovered, how then do we live? For some of you reading this article, you’ve never considered anything to be a spirit of anything else. Others of you are more inclined to overspiritualize everything, finding a crouching demon behind every bad-behavior bush.

Briefly, here are four practical steps to navigate the spirit-saturated world we inhabit:

1. Listen lovingly. Remember, “Love believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). That is, the heart posture of one Christian to another—yes, even Christians with whom you disagree on a number of issues—should be loving trust, believing what they say as best you can.

2. Ask what they mean. Nothing clarifies like a well-placed question. If someone says something you don’t understand, don’t assume you do understand by not asking.

3. Ask God. According to the New Testament, discernment is a spiritual gift. We should ask the Lord if the thing we’re seeing is an emotional state or a demon. One needs casting out; the other may need counseling.

4. Respond appropriately. If someone has a spirit of skill, celebrate and praise God. And by all means let them create. If someone has a spirit of antichrist, pray and prepare to cast it into the abyss. We won’t know what we’re dealing with, however, if we assume unbiblical categories.

I’m still not sure if that woman had a Jezebel spirit. Or, more accurately, I’m not sure what was meant by that comment. But I trust the future will provide us with opportunities to hear such language biblically, lovingly, discerningly, and responsively. If we do, I’m sure our problem with the spirit of confusion will clear up, and we’ll hear each other once more.