The Gospel Coalition https://www.thegospelcoalition.org The Gospel Coalition Sun, 19 Nov 2023 23:31:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What Weak Moms Need Most https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/weak-moms-need/ Sun, 19 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=576693 Humility and grace will help moms flourish amid our weaknesses.]]> Motherhood is a gift. But it’s the most challenging, humbling, “put you flat on your face” kind of gift. As wonderful as it is, with each new season that throws me into uncharted waters, I come face to face with my limitations, weaknesses, and sinful nature.

What’s more, when I look around me, I see other moms making different choices and navigating different circumstances than I do. None of us has exactly the same answers for how to best feed, educate, and nurture our children. Watching other moms sometimes makes me question whether I’m doing things right.

The one thing I can say with confidence after 17 years of parenting is this: I am not enough.

Thankfully, I’ve learned to realize that God is.

More Grace

The apostle James tells us, “[God] gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).

Motherhood is a humbling business. But the soil of humility is where grace comes to full bloom. It’s not a grace that excuses our sin or shortcomings as moms but one that enables us to live in the freedom of God’s all-sufficient grace. By grace, we realize the Lord doesn’t expect perfection. He calls us to repentance and dependence as we lean into his strength and control instead of our own.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it’s far easier to preach this than to put it into practice.

The soil of humility is where grace comes to full bloom.

Whether we’re in the exhausting years of infancy, the physically demanding toddler and elementary years, or the mentally and emotionally taxing years of tweens, teens, and beyond, each season draws to the surface our inadequacies, weaknesses, sins, and limitations.

While we tend to assume we’re the only ones who can’t seem to get it all right, God makes it clear this isn’t what he expects of us. Instead, he calls us to humbly acknowledge our humanity and run to his plentiful grace as we navigate the ups and downs of motherhood.

But what does this grace practically look like?

While there are countless ways that God’s grace meets us in motherhood, here are a few that I believe all moms can relate to.

Grace in Strengths, Weaknesses, and Sin

Like our children, we’re uniquely wired. The strengths, weaknesses, and sinful tendencies we experienced before motherhood will find their way into our lives as moms.

One mom may be more structured, have a higher capacity than others, and thrive on order; another mom may be more bent toward creativity and flexibility, and more easily drained by the physical and emotional needs around her. One mom may find charts and schedules to be a helpful way to teach her children; another may use conversation and teachable moments as her children experience the world around them.

Some moms are strong and healthy; others navigate motherhood with weakened bodies or minds. Some moms had godly examples as they grew up; others have to work through past trauma or negative examples that were left for them.

All of us are battling sin. We’re in different places spiritually, striving to point our children to Jesus while we’re still in the process of sanctification.

The beauty of God’s grace is that he already knows our weaknesses, strengths, and battles with sin because he intimately knit us together and knows us better than we know ourselves (Ps. 139:13–16).

Instead of boasting of our strengths or beating ourselves up over our weaknesses, we can see them redeemed and used by God’s grace as we humbly submit them to Christ, acknowledging he alone is the giver of our strengths and he alone can be the strength in our weaknesses. Instead of being paralyzed by our sin, we have the gift of the gospel that allows us to seek not only the Lord’s forgiveness but the forgiveness of our children when we sin against them (1 John 1:9).

Grace in Our Parenting Styles

God’s Word gives many black-and-white instructions for parenting: We’re to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). We’re to teach our children the truth of the Word (Deut. 6:6–7). We’re to always strive to grow in Christlikeness as we point our children toward the same end (Col. 1:10).

But much of motherhood is lived in the gray: what kind of diapers we use, whether we breastfeed or bottle-feed, what type of schooling we choose, what activities we get involved in, how much screen time we give our children, the methods we use to teach the truth to our children, and so on. For every choice we make, we’ll see another mom making a different one. And unless it’s directly going against God’s commands, we have the freedom in Christ to make such choices.

Humility requires we acknowledge that much of motherhood is made up of personal convictions. It guards our hearts from pride over our way being best and from insecurity over getting it wrong if another mom chooses differently.

In the end, God’s grace in how we parent gives us the confidence to walk in the freedom of Christ and the humility to remain teachable as we continue to seek guidance and wisdom from the Lord and those around us.

Grace in Our Circumstances

Each one of us has been given unique circumstances to navigate as a mom. Some are navigating complex special needs or chronic illnesses that affect every part of motherhood. Some are living in difficult marriages; others present a united front with their spouse. Some are surrounded by a healthy community; others are in a season of loneliness. For all of us, our circumstances are like the shifting wind, constantly changing and influencing how motherhood may look in that season.

God’s grace in how we parent gives us the confidence to walk in the freedom of Christ.

During times when our son’s special needs were at their height, it affected what I could be involved in, how I could discipline, the energy I had for relationships, and the way family time in the Word could look. Some days I was 15 minutes late to church and braving the judgmental stares. Some days I had to cancel a playdate because of challenges with my child or a health flare. It was tempting to feel ashamed when I looked at everything I couldn’t manage—but God’s grace tells me he knows the specific challenges I’m facing, and humility means accepting my limitations.

As difficult as it may be to feel frustrated or ashamed about our circumstances and the limitations they bring, this is where we learn to throw ourselves on the grace of God. He doesn’t call us to live a perfect life as a mom but one of dependence on him.

Sister, may this truth strengthen and encourage your weary heart today. If motherhood is exposing your limitations, weaknesses, and sin, you’re right where you need to be to receive the grace and forgiveness Jesus has for you and your children. Being a mom isn’t about getting everything right or being everything our children need. It’s about leading ourselves and our kids to the only One who’s truly able to be and provide all we need.

For it’s in that place of humility and dependence that we’ll come to know the joy and freedom of being an imperfect mom who finds her confidence and strength in the all-sufficient grace of her perfect Father.

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One Thing My Parents Did Right: Ask for Forgiveness https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/parents-did-right-forgiveness/ Sun, 19 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=572150 My parents showed me the importance of apologies and verbal forgiveness by asking for my forgiveness when they wronged me.]]> Why is it so hard to ask for forgiveness? Even when we realize we’ve wronged another person, being the first to apologize is the last thing we want to do. The flare of anger, loathing, and hatred refuses to be silenced. We’d rather fixate on the sins of another, all the while repeating to ourselves, It’s not fair!

I’ve known this my whole life. Children don’t need to be taught entitlement; we’re all naturally quick to assert what belongs to us but slow to admit wrongdoing. Asking for forgiveness goes against our nature. As a child, I needed to be taught to apologize.

My parents often compelled my sister and me to apologize to each other after petty fights. I wasn’t always willing to say sorry, nor was my heart always ready to forgive. But throughout my childhood and into adolescence, my parents showed me the importance of apologies and verbal forgiveness not only by telling me to make amends but by asking for my forgiveness when they wronged me.

Recognize Sin

On one occasion, my mom reacted in anger to my sister and then apologized. My sister harbored no resentment. “It’s OK.” She was ready to move on, but my mom protested quickly, “It’s not OK.” At the time, I wondered why she had to make a big deal out of just two words. How else was my sister supposed to accept her apology?

Other times, after fights between my sister and me, my parents prompted us to apologize in specific terms. “Sorry,” I’d say, and they would cut in, “Sorry for what?” In those moments, as I fought the temptation to say something spiteful like “Sorry you feel hurt,” I wished my parents would leave it alone. Wasn’t it enough to just say sorry?

My parents weren’t enforcing a strict apology script. Rather, they sensed the tendency to hide behind imprecise, indefinite words to avoid the discomfort of confronting sin. Naming our sin feels humiliating. Yet the Bible never sweeps our sin under the rug, for all sin makes us deserving of death (Rom. 1:32). Even sins we consider commonplace―disobedience to parents (v. 30), complaining (Num. 11), impatience (21:4–6), anger (Matt. 5:21–26)―are heinous offenses against God. So-called minor sins are never minor in God’s eyes.

I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious. They apologized in specific terms: “I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you. It was wrong. I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry for being insensitive to you. I should have been gentler. Would you forgive me?” As my parents demonstrated confession without excuses or caveats, I learned that confronting sin in humble honesty is the first step toward reconciliation.

Reconcile Relationships

I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious.

A few years ago, my mom and I wept together. She’d said something insensitive to me about weight gain, not intending to hurt my feelings but with the result of magnifying one of my worst insecurities. I stormed off to my room in defensive anger, climbing into bed to face the wall and dry my tears. Angry and wounded, I stewed in self-pity and resentment, replaying her words, and when she came to my room to apologize, I refused to turn or respond. She left my room for a time and then returned once more.

This time, she not only apologized for what she said but also shared with me her own brokenness: she, too, had struggled with body image and the pressure to be thin; she, too, understood that the hurt I felt was deeper than a few careless words. She wept as she confessed to me the pain of her idolatry and her longing to be free. And she asked for my forgiveness.

My bitterness gave way. Her vulnerability made me turn around to face her, despite the shame I felt. As I nodded, indicating Yes, I forgive you, we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle. Our relationship was being redeemed and restored.

My mom didn’t have to share with me her vulnerabilities. She’d offered a perfectly adequate apology the first time. Yet she moved toward me with more than a desire to settle accounts or to do her part in making amends. She sought to reconcile our fractured relationship. She apologized and asked for my forgiveness not because she simply wanted absolution―a clean conscience―but because she wanted me.

Reflect the Gospel

In a similar way, the forgiveness we receive in Christ through his death is more than a legal pardon—it’s the beginning of reconciliation with God. Paul explains, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s forgiveness of our trespasses is a means to reconciliation―the restoration of a relationship. The shape of the gospel is relational.

As we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle, our relationship was being redeemed and restored.

As a child, I’d been taught I needed to apologize to resolve conflict. I carried this into my adolescence, knowing I was expected to at least say, “I’m sorry.” But when my heart didn’t align with my words―when visible tension and bitterness remained―my parents weren’t satisfied. Not because they’re legalistic sticklers for a kind of quasi penance but because they care about our relationship. They know true reconciliation only occurs when sin is recognized and forgiveness given.

In my relationship with my parents, I’ve felt most known and loved when I come to them in the wake of hurtful words or angry silence, confessing the guilt and destruction of my sin, asking, “Will you forgive me?” They always meet me with mercy, sometimes tearfully, sometimes with a long hug. In those moments, I know the gospel as Tim Keller puts it: “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope.”

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‘Fingernails’ and ‘Love at First Sight’: Hollywood’s Answers for Marriage Anxiety https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/fingernails-love-first-sight-marriage-anxiety/ Sat, 18 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=579963 Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.]]> Young adults in contemporary Western cultures are delaying marriage at record rates. The reasons are many, but one commonality I’ve observed is a paralyzing anxiety that makes dating (and especially marriage) a daunting rather than delightful prospect. Indeed, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents in a recent survey said they were stressed out about their love lives.

It’s the anxiety of a generation that’s grown up hearing the ominous (but inaccurate) statistic that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” It’s the compounding anxiety of the sexual revolution and resulting rampant sexual distortion and gender confusion. It’s the FOMO anxiety and commitment phobia of a digital world of infinite options, distractions, and comparisons. It’s the anxiety of wondering how you can ever know if you married the right person or if someone else out there is a better fit.

Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a “perfect match,” as validated by algorithms. Social media and online pornography wreak havoc on dating—creating unrealistic physical expectations and ever-present temptations that leave both men and women anxious about real-world physical intimacy and attraction.

Many in Gen Z (particularly men) respond to this relationship anxiety by opting out of dating. Others seek to minimize risk by (ill-advisedly) living together rather than tying the knot or by embracing new concepts of dating like the #situationship—a gray-area relationship that “solves some kind of need” for companionship but without commitment or any pressure for the relationship to be “going somewhere.”

Two recent films, Apple TV’s Fingernails and Netflix’s Love at First Sight, highlight our cultural anxiety around dating and marriage. These movies differ in tone, genre, and style, but both “romantic” explorations of modern love reveal how our post-Christian culture tries to resolve the tension between longing for committed love and anxiously fearing it.

‘Fingernails’: Can Science Give Couples Certainty?

Fingernails is part sci-fi thought experiment, part Charlie Kaufman–esque surrealist parody. The premise—that a new scientific test can definitively determine whether a couple is in love—is arguably more interesting than the narrative as a whole.

The film—directed by Christos Nikou—follows Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), a longtime dating couple who received a “100 percent positive” when they took the test (which requires the removal of a fingernail).

Couples who take the test know it’s risky. A negative result—which can be either 0 percent (neither partner is in love) or 50 percent (one partner is in love but the other isn’t)—almost inevitably leads to a breakup. On the other hand, a positive result can give couples more certainty their love is real and their relationship has a high probability of success.

Yet despite the test “validating” her and Ryan’s love, Anna feels unsure when she becomes attracted to another man, coworker Amir (Riz Ahmed).

Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a ‘perfect match,’ as validated by algorithms.

The film’s silly concept telegraphs a real cultural anxiety—a fatalistic, disempowered sense that relationships are unavoidably fragile and risky, prone to end in divorce half the time. Uncertainty about “true love” becomes debilitating. But what if objective assurance via a scientific test were possible? What if we could know whether we’d found our “soulmate”?

Throughout the film, advertisement posters tout the benefits of “the test”:

  • “Take the risk out of love.”
  • “Experts agree that getting your love validated leads to fewer divorces.”
  • “No more uncertainty. No more wondering. No more divorce. Take the test today.”

Early in the film, Anna and Ryan talk about Adam and Eve—history’s first couple, whose hunger for forbidden knowledge led to their downfall. It’s a fitting framing for the film because that’s what “the test” provides couples unwilling to live in doubt about their compatibility. And yet like Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3), Anna and Ryan end up suffering more as a result of their newfound knowledge.

In the end, Fingernails (rated R for language) concludes that being in love is necessarily unsafe and painful (the film’s last words are “This is going to hurt”). No scientific certificate of “love validation” can change the nature of our deceitful and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9) hearts. The bleak, slow-moving film offers no hope for resolving the relational anxiety that plagues contemporary couples, who are apparently hapless victims of their unpredictable passions.

Even if the film is right to challenge the notion that love can be assured by an empirical “test” (which isn’t far from what dating app algorithms and compatibility questionnaires already attempt), it’s wrong to suggest faithful, confident, committed love is impossible. You don’t “fall” into or out of faithful love; it’s built on each partner’s intentional, disciplined, “for better or worse” choice. It’s the stability of covenant rather than the fragility of compatibility.

‘Love at First Sight’: Can ‘Fate’ Give Couples Confidence?

Netflix’s sincere Love at First Sight differs from the cynical Fingernails. The feel-good rom-com shot to number one on Netflix when it debuted in September. It’s cheesy but far better acted and written than most in the “Hallmark formula” genre.

Directed by Vanessa Caswill, the breezy film follows two college students—Hadley (Haley Lu Richardson) and Oliver (Ben Hardy)—who fortuitously sit next to each other on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. Sparks fly and the story (based on a 2013 young adult novel) plays out as you’d expect (with a few twists that add welcome depth to otherwise thin characters).

If in Fingernails the answer to the anxiety of contemporary dating and marriage is a scientific “test” of compatibility, in Love at First Sight the answer is a belief in some providential force in the universe that weaves lives together in ways we could never script. An omniscient narrator (Jameela Jamil) begins the film by saying, “This isn’t a story about love. This is a story about fate.” This narrator shows up throughout the film embodied as different characters—a sort of guardian angel presence—who intervenes to nudge Hadley and Oliver toward each other at crucial points.

Why is Love at First Sight (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) such a hit? In part, it appeals because of its wish-fulfillment fantasy, in the way every corny rom-com does. But the heavy emphasis on fate or providence as an active force (literally, the third major character) makes the movie especially comforting in this moment of relational anxiety.

In a dating world where so many singles feel stuck, fearful, and unable to commit, it’s appealing to think a higher power is working behind the scenes to orchestrate your love story. Just as a positive test result offers relief for some couples’ anxiety in Fingernails, the uncanny string of coincidences in Love at First Sight helps give Hadley and Oliver—who have their own anxieties about love and marriage—reassurance their connection is “meant to be.”

In both these movies, the stressful pressure of total personal agency (“It’s all on me to find the right person and make it work”) is relieved by some external force that provides confidence and validation. Like popular matchmaking shows (e.g. Jewish Matchmaking and Indian Matchmaking), these films speak to a generation tortured by overthinking romance and longing for a simpler love.

What’s most refreshing about Love at First Sight is that the film’s third act challenges the victimhood narrative and starts to emphasize personal choice: taking tangible, risky steps in pursuit of one another. As much as fate is at work in the film, Oliver and Hadley must still choose each other.

That’s why, in the final moments of the film, Oliver does what the male protagonists traditionally do in these films: he takes initiative and pursues the girl. Audiences love this trope because it’s true to what love is: active pursuit of a beloved, not passive angst that love is outside one’s control. Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.

Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.

Love at First Sight recognizes this in the final narration, which describes how Oliver and Hadley go on to enjoy a happy, 58-year marriage and have a daughter. And “none of it would have been possible were it not for a missed flight, a broken seat belt, and a choice to love each other every day.” The film ends not with the traditional “The End” title card but instead with “The Beginning.” However this couple were brought together, the real work of their relationship is just beginning.

Biblical Hope for Relational Uncertainty

These movies are examples of how pop culture gives expression to contemporary longings and common questions among young adults today.

One survey found that among singles who desire marriage, the top two reasons they remain unmarried are “it’s hard to find the right person to marry” and “not ready for the commitment.” In our experiences discipling young dating couples, my wife and I can attest that these hang-ups are pervasive. Given that Gen Z young adults are often risk-averse and struggle with mental health, it’s unsurprising the high stakes of dating and marriage render them anxious.

So how should the church counsel this generation through their dating woes and marriage fears? A big part is casting a more positive, beautiful, Scripture-shaped vision of marriage—one that demystifies fairy tale misconceptions and defuses burdensome expectations (like the necessity of perfect compatibility and finding “the one”). When we counsel dating couples, we often return to Tim and Kathy Keller’s bountiful wisdom in The Meaning of Marriage—particularly their debunking of the myth of “soulmates” and their insistence on the sanctifying, selfless nature of marriage in contrast to the self-fulfillment shape it often takes.

Singles and dating couples should also be around healthy Christian marriages, which happens best in a local church. In an intergenerational church community, singles can witness Christian marriages that may hit road bumps from time to time, yet do not dissolve; couples who stay faithful and committed to one another even through difficult seasons of stress, hardship, or felt “incompatibility.” These examples demonstrate that love and marriage under Christ are less fragile than Hollywood might have us believe.

Movies like Fingernails and Love at First Sight might, by common grace, stumble upon transcendent truths about love and marriage (the latter film especially does). But they also often express and perpetuate the confusion of the age, leaving viewers lonelier and less hopeful about their romantic dreams. A church shaped by Scripture and the love of Christ, however—where biblical marriage is celebrated and even encouraged—can be a compass of clarity amid the confusion, a haven of hope amid the anxiety of our age.

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The Pietistic Influences on Tim Keller https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/pietistic-influences-tim-keller/ Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:34 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=580504 Michael Keller delves into how his father, Tim Keller, shaped his approach to presenting the gospel, drawing inspiration from Jonathan Edwards. ]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Michael Keller talks about the influence of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans on his father, Tim Keller, and he shares how these influences shaped the way Tim Keller presented the gospel—particularly in the context of New York City in the 1980s and beyond.

Michael Keller identifies two key piety-based innovations that Tim Keller drew from Jonathan Edwards:

1. Justification by faith alone: We’re accepted by God not because of our obedience but because of God’s grace. This was a response to the prevalent idea that being a Christian meant adhering to certain behaviors. Tim Keller’s famous phrase “You’re accepted, and then you obey” encapsulated this perspective.

2. The integration of intellectual understanding with experiential knowledge: Jonathan Edwards argued that simply knowing doctrinal truths intellectually isn’t enough—there has to be a heartfelt, experiential understanding. Tim Keller aimed to make the truth not just understandable but also experiential in his preaching, believing that if the truth about Jesus doesn’t deeply affect and change a person, he hasn’t truly understood it.

The gospel’s good news remains unchanged and doesn’t need reinvention. And yet it’s essential to present it in a way that resonates with the specific culture and audience. Throughout his pastoral ministry, Tim Keller did this gracefully.

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Darrell Bock on Israel’s Role in the Land Promise https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/israel-land-promise-bock/ Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=580281 Israel stands at the center of the world because of her Messiah.]]> Abstract: In this essay, Darrell Bock discusses the nuanced understanding of God’s land promise to Israel. He highlights that the New Testament doesn’t dismiss the promise to Israel but contextualizes it within a larger narrative of inclusion and reconciliation among nations. The promise is rooted in God’s commitment to Abraham and extends to encompass a broader divine blessing through Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham. Bock asserts that Israel’s physical presence in the land during the New Testament period doesn’t negate the promise’s ongoing relevance but emphasizes the lack of peace that was also part of the promise. Ultimately, the promise of land is seen, Bock argues, as part of God’s grand narrative of redemption. Israel’s role is central because of her Messiah, and God’s faithfulness to his promises is a testament to his character and plan for reconciliation that includes all nations.


Israel and the land is about a divine promise including a specific people. Simply put, God keeps his promises to those who receive them. It’s often claimed the New Testament moves the land promise from being about Israel as a people in the land to being about God’s people in the world. That’s an oversimplification. The question is whether that universal expansion neuters the specific promise made to Israel of a people in a land.

It’s sometimes said that the New Testament says nothing about the land promise. This ignores a first-century New Testament reality. Israel is in the land during this time, so there’s little need to remind the nation of a promise already in place. What Israel lacks is the promised, accompanying peace. Israel as a people among the nations “certainly would not have excluded the nation of Israel.” (As Craig Blaising and I note in Progressive Dispensationalism, the New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise. This isn’t about nationalism but about reconciliation and peace among nations.)

Promise

So how widespread and specific is this land promise? The promise is specific and grounded in God’s character. God tied the promise of a people and a land to commitments made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 (all citations NET). The land issue leads off this promise in verse 1. It says, “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your fathers’ household to the land I will show you.’” The people of Israel are going to exemplify divine blessing in verse 2, specifically, “Then I will make you into a great nation.” They function as a people in witness to God. That witness isn’t just present in the person of Messiah but is part of a program of reconciliation between peoples (Eph. 2–3).

The New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise.

This very Israel is distinguished from the nations within this promise in verse 3, as blessing to the world will come through them and the seed of Abraham. Genesis 12:7 speaks of this promise as being for Abraham’s descendants or seed: “To your descendants I will give this land.” In Genesis 13:15–16, the seed promise is repeated: “I will give all of this land you see to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth.” Now in the New Testament the seed is seen as Jesus the Christ (Gal. 3:16). He is the seed par excellence as the executor of this promise. But Israel as a people among the nations remains as beneficiaries of that promise when they believe. To include others or expand the promise to the world doesn’t remove the original promise or recipients. This is especially so as Romans 9–11 looks for a response of Israel as a people to Jesus as the Christ. They will be more than the current remnant of Paul’s time.

God repeats the land promise to the patriarchs regularly. It appears in reaffirmations to Abraham (Gen. 15:5–7, 18–21; 17:1–8), Isaac (26:2–5), and Jacob (28:3-4, 13–15). So the blessing as a people involves the inclusion of a land for a nation at peace. The book of Genesis ends with a promise about this land to Joseph (50:24). This is a repeated promise for a specific nation of people among the nations.

Genesis isn’t alone. The Lord says to Moses in Exodus 6:4, “I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they were living as resident foreigners”. Also in verse 8, “I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob—and I will give it to you [plural] as a possession. I am the LORD.” Land for this people is a consistent core to the promise. So is this possession temporary and conditional?

Is the Promise of Land Ultimately Conditional?

Deuteronomy 28–32 conditions their well-being and security in the land. That involves an elevation among the nations in blessing (Deut. 28:1, 8, 12). Disobedience will lead to defeat, fleeing, and other disasters (vv. 15–37). Fleeing the land and servitude to other nations is a part of this warning (vv. 48–49). But is it permanent, and does this change the land promise’s ultimate status?

The answer is in Deuteronomy 28–32. Deuteronomy 28:62 teaches judgment for disobedience is severe; verses 63–64 say this judgment includes scattering among the nations. Is that the last word? No. Deuteronomy 30 speaks of a reversal. There the Lord brings Israel back to the land and blessing (vv. 1–4). In verse 5, this blessing is greater than that received before by their ancestors. And in Deuteronomy 32, a Song of Moses commemorates this.

Joshua 21:43 says, “The Lord gave Israel all the land he had solemnly promised to their ancestors.” This wasn’t the final fulfillment of this promise, as that included the idea of peace in the land. So we move to displacement from the land with Assyria and Babylon, and we must ask again, Did this change the promise’s ultimate status?

Promise to Regather

Jeremiah 11:1–17 describes the nation under the effects of the Deuteronomic curse for disobedience. A contrast surfaces in Jeremiah 32–33. In chapter 32, the prophet buys a field at Anathoth, symbolizing that Israel will come back to the land. Jeremiah 32:22 notes the promise of the past, and then the Babylonians are said to have come in verses 23–24 because of disobedience. Verse 25 closes the summary, noting about Anathoth, “The city is sure to fall into the hands of the Babylonians. Yet, in spite of this, you, Sovereign LORD, have said to me ‘Buy that field with silver.’”

Jeremiah 32:26–44 summarizes what’s going on. Babylon comes because of disobedience, yet God says,

I will certainly regather my people from all the countries where I have exiled them in my anger, fury, and great wrath. I will bring them back to this place and allow them to live here in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (vv. 37–38)

Verses 40–41 are more emphatic: “I will make a lasting covenant [olam] with them that I will never stop doing good to them. . . . I will faithfully and wholeheartedly plant them firmly in the land.”

Amazingly, Jeremiah 31:31–34 just mentioned the new covenant for Israel and Judah. He seals that covenant with another affirmation in 31:37: “The LORD says, ‘I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured or the foundations of the earth below could all be explored,’ says the LORD.” And now in a bookend, Jeremiah 33:17 notes the people will never be without a descendant of David once the promise comes.

As sure and secure as the days and nights are, so secure are God’s promises to Israel about a king before the nations at large. God’s own Word and promise underlie this commitment. Ezekiel 20:40–41 is similar. Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of these commitments.

Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of the original commitments.

Two points remain. First, this is about Israel’s fate among the nations. The picture prevents a reading that simply absorbs Israel into the nations. Second, the original covenant promise to Abraham is the basis for the action. God keeps his Word.

Where the Promise Takes Us

The New Testament affirms this promise. Jesus and the apostles restate Israel’s role. I’ve treated this argument in detail in my chapter from The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish People in the Plan of God. That discussion adds another dimension to this question of the land. It’s the seed par excellence and those who followed him who share in this kind of hope that included Israel. Texts here include Matthew 19:28; Luke 13:34–35; 21:20–24; 22:30; Acts 1:6–7; 3:18–22; 26:7; and Romans 9–11.

The promise brings us to the land of God’s promise and presence. Unity and diversity, equality and yet distinction, a perpetual evidence of the reconciliation God brings to all and all nations through his work of new covenant in his Davidic heir in his kingdom. Israel stands at the center of the world because of her Messiah. And in it all, God has kept his Word to the patriarchs of Israel because God keeps his promises to those with whom he makes them as God works to a reconciliation that involves all the nations (Isa. 19:23–25).

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Gerald McDermott on Why the Land Promises Belong to Ethnic Israel https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/israel-land-promise-mcdermott/ Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=580292 There’s an abundance of biblical evidence for the land promise, the holiness of Jerusalem, and the theological significance of the land of Israel.]]> Abstract: In this essay, Gerald McDermott explores the notion of supersessionism in Christian theology, which suggests the promises made to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, including the land promise, have been superseded by the Christian church. He contends this view has dominated Christian interpretation since the fourth century, leading to the marginalization of the New Testament’s references to the land promise. McDermott posits evidence in the New Testament that contradicts supersessionism, and he argues that recognizing the ongoing significance of the land promise is vital for understanding God’s trustworthiness and the fulfillment of his promises.


Is the land promise to Abraham and his descendants also in the New Testament? Does it matter?

For most Christians and Jews since the fourth century, the answer has been no and no. No major interpreters found such a promise there, and it wouldn’t matter anyway. For what determined doctrine toward the people and land of Israel was tradition’s interpretation of biblical texts, not the texts themselves.

The tradition had developed a way of reading the New Testament text called “supersessionism,” the notion that in God’s plan, the Jewish people of Israel have been superseded by the new people (both Jew and Gentile) of the Christian church.

One implication of this theology relates to God’s promises about the land of Israel. The logic goes like this: Before the first century, God had established his kingdom on and through the land of Israel—that little strip on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean the size of New Jersey—but since the departure of Jesus from the top of the Mount of Olives, God’s attention had been diverted from that little land to the whole world. As Jesus said in one of his Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5).

Let me explain the logic of supersessionism vis-á-vis the land. According to Christian supersessionists, that is the majority of Christian interpreters since the fourth century, Jesus universalized the particular—transferring the promise of a land for the Jews in the Old Testament (the particular) to a promise of the whole world to his followers (the universal).

This logic made sense to me for several decades after I became a serious reader of the Greek New Testament in my 20s. New Testament Jesus scholars said the land promise is missing from this part of the Bible. Pauline scholars wrote that Paul abandoned Second Temple Judaism and recognized the land promise as obsolete now that Jesus had come to be Messiah for the whole world.

But one day, several decades ago, I realized a veil had been cast over my eyes, closing them to evidence of the land promise on the surface of the text of the New Testament, right in front of my eyes. How could I have been so blind?

Seeing the Land Promise

Back in college at the University of Chicago, I’d read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961), which showed that at the beginning of every scientific revolution (think of Galileo, Newton, Einstein) elite scientists already had evidence for the new theory. But they couldn’t see the evidence because the existing scientific paradigm had cast a veil over their eyes.

I realized this might have happened to biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. They weren’t able to see the land promise in the New Testament because they’d been trained not to see it.

For example, four times in the New Testament, Jerusalem is called the “holy city.” The Devil took Jesus to “the holy city” to tempt him to jump off the top of the temple (Matt. 4:5). After the death of Jesus, many bodies of the saints were raised and walked around “the holy city” and appeared to many (27:53). The Gentiles will trample “the holy city” for 42 months (Rev. 11:2), and God will bring down from heaven “the holy city Jerusalem” (21:10).

What’s more, three times the New Testament refers explicitly to the land promise. The author of Hebrews says God led Abraham to a place to receive as an inheritance and that Isaac and Jacob were “heirs with him of the same promise” (11:9). Before his martyrdom, Stephen said God promised to give Abraham this land “as a possession and to his offspring after him” (Acts 7:4–5). Paul told the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia that the God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and “after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (13:17–19).

One might ask why there are only these three explicit mentions of the land promise. Two answers are likely. First, the land promise was assumed because, for the New Testament authors, their Bible (the Tanakh) already repeated the land promise a thousand times (I’ve counted them and tabulated these references in The New Christian Zionism and Israel Matters). Second, the New Testament authors lived in the land. It was acknowledged as Judea—the land of the Jews—so there seemed no need to repeat or defend the promise.

Jesus and the Land Promise

Jesus referred to the future of the land of Israel many times. I’ll provide five instances. In Acts, the disciples asked the resurrected Messiah if he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). He didn’t dismiss this as a silly or unspiritual question (as scholars have often claimed) but said the Father has set times and seasons for that, and they weren’t to know them yet. Isaac Oliver, a Jewish New Testament scholar, argues in Luke’s Jewish Eschatology that Jesus had an earthly—if eschatological—kingdom in mind.

In Luke 13, Jesus said that one day the residents of Jerusalem will welcome him (v. 35), and in chapter 21 he prophesies Jerusalem will be trampled on by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are completed (v. 24).

The cessation of Gentiles trampling on Jerusalem means the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. This means Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem—in 1967, almost 2,000 years after Jews lost it in 63 BC to Pompey—could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.

Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.

This isn’t the same as saying the Jewish state is a direct fulfillment of prophecy. Or that the current Jewish state is beyond criticism. Or that this is the last Jewish state before the eschaton.

But it isn’t beyond imagining that on the basis of this remarkable prophecy by Jesus, we can say the rise of Jewish sovereignty over its capital after two millennia could be a “sign of the times,” the sort Jesus rebuked some Jewish leaders for not recognizing (Matt. 16:3).

Matthew has Jesus saying that in the paliggenesia, or renewal of all things, his apostles would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel, evoking not only the land of Israel but also the reconstitution of the 10 northern tribes (19:28).

As we’ve already seen, Jesus refers to the land in a verse that’s almost universally mistranslated. It should be “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land” (Matt. 5:5, author’s translation). More and more scholars are recognizing that Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11 word for word. Five times this psalm uses the phrase “inherit the land,” and each time the Hebrew word eretz refers unmistakably to the land of Israel, not the whole earth.

Jesus might have been referring to Isaiah’s prophecy that when the earth is renewed “all the Gentiles shall flow to the mountain of the house of the LORD . . . that he might teach [them] his ways” (Isa. 2:2–3).

Many object that John’s Gospel overrules these expectations of a future for the land because John’s Jesus says his body is the new temple, and true worship would no longer be restricted to Jerusalem but would be wherever there is “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 2:21; 4:21–24).

The New Testament scholar Richard Hays doesn’t think John is supersessionist on the land promise but that we should think of the Gospels as speaking on different levels. For, he points out, Mark’s Jesus declares of the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17), affirming Isaiah’s vision of an eschatologically restored Jerusalem and temple. In Matthew, Jesus surprises Christians (most have never seen this) by saying God still “dwells in” the temple of his day (23:21). So the New Testament’s composite picture of Jesus on the temple is that it’s both God’s house and also the symbol of Jesus’s body as God’s house. True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.

True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.

If Jesus clearly referred to the future of the land of Israel, so did Peter. In his second speech in Jerusalem, delivered after Jesus’s resurrection, Peter says there’s still to come a future apokatastasis, using the Greek word in the Septuagint for the return of Jews to the land from the four corners of the earth (Acts 3:21). So, for Peter, the return from exile in Babylon did not fulfill the Tanakh’s prophecies of return. Nor did Jesus’s resurrection. There was a future return to come. And we know this didn’t happen for another 1,800 years.

We’ve already seen from Acts that Paul made clear he held to the land promise. There’s further evidence in Romans. Paul says the “gifts . . . of God” are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). There’s little doubt that for Paul, the land was one of these gifts, for in the writings of prominent first-century Jews—Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian—the land was God’s principal gift to the Jewish people.

The early church saw it this way. According to Robert Wilken in The Land Called Holy, early Christians interpreted the angel’s promise to Mary that her baby would be given “the throne of his father David” and that he would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33) as indications of “the restoration and establishment of the kingdom in Jerusalem.”

The book of Revelation is replete with references to the future of the land of Israel. The two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8); the battle of Armageddon will take place in a valley in northern Israel (16:16); the gates of the New Jerusalem (which, notably, isn’t the New Rome or New Constantinople) are inscribed with “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12); the 144,000 with the names of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads stand on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (14:1); Gog and Magog will march over the “broad plain of the land” of Israel and surround the saints and “the beloved city” of Jerusalem before they’re consumed by heavenly fire (20:9). The renewed earth will be centered in Jerusalem (11:2; 21:10).

For the author of Revelation, then, the land of Israel was holy not simply because Israel and Jesus lived there but also because it would be the scene of crucial future events in the history of redemption.

In sum, there’s an abundance of evidence in the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation for (1) the land promise, (2) the holiness of Jerusalem, and (3) the theological significance of the land of Israel in the future and in the eschaton.

Why the Land Promises Matter

Does this matter? Yes, it does, for three reasons.

First, if the land promise was ended with the coming of Jesus, then God is not trustworthy. For he promised to Abraham and his seed that the land would be theirs for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8).

Second, if the land promise to Israel is broken, then so might be God’s promise to renew and restore the heavens and the earth. The land promise’s partial fulfillment—by bringing Jews from the four corners of the earth back to the land starting in the eighteenth century—is down payment on the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

Third, it is a deep theological reason why we should support Israel in this new war against the new Nazism. Jews have more title to the land than any other people. God called them to share the land in justice, and they have shown time and again that they are willing. Today 2 million Arabs are full citizens in Israel enjoying political freedoms and world-class education and health care—far more than Arabs enjoy anywhere else in the Arab world. Like Hitler’s Nazis, Hamas is conducting genocide, the attempted elimination of a whole people, the Jews. If we Christians thought it was right to destroy Nazism in Word War II, then we should support Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas, a new Nazism.

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G. K. Beale on the Expected Universalization of the Old Testament Land Promises https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/israel-land-promise-beale/ Fri, 17 Nov 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=580258 None of the references to the promise of Israel’s land in the Old Testament appears to be related to the promises of ethnic Israel’s return to the promised land on this present earth.]]> Abstract: In this essay, G. K. Beale explores the Old Testament land promises to Israel, examining the idea that the promises were intended to expand beyond the initial borders to encompass the whole earth. He discusses the evolution of the land promise from a specific location in Canaan to a worldwide scope, alluding to the eschatological expansion of Israel’s borders as part of God’s predestined plan. Beale argues that in this age the promises have begun to be fulfilled spiritually in Christ and will be consummated physically in the new creation, proposing a two-stage “installment fulfillment.” He concludes that contemporary events in Israel do not represent the fulfillment of these Old Testament promises, but rather that in Christ and through the church, the expansion of Eden will be realized universally.


The inception of a land promise begins in Genesis 1–2. I’ve argued in my book The Temple and the Church’s Mission that Eden was a garden sanctuary and Adam was its high priest. Temples in the ancient world had images of the god of the temple placed in them. Adam was that image, placed in the Eden temple. His task was to “fill the earth” with God’s glory as a divine image-bearer along with his progeny as image-bearers (this seems to be the implication of Gen. 1:26–28).

Thus, he was to expand the borders of Eden, the place of God’s presence. Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through his image-bearers.

Corporate Adam Expands the Place of God’s Presence

The commission to Adam and Eve to multiply their offspring and to rule, subdue, and “fill the earth” was passed on to Noah and then repeatedly to the patriarchs and Israel. Consequently, the mantle of Adam’s responsibility was placed on Abraham and his seed, Israel; they were considered to be a “corporate Adam.” The nation was designed to represent true humanity. Starting with the patriarchs, the commission was mixed with a promise that it would be fulfilled at some point in a “seed,” but Israel failed to carry out the commission. Thus, the promise was continually made that an eschatological time would come when this commission would be carried out in Israel.

Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth, and so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through the image-bearers.

That part of the commission to expand Eden to cover the whole earth also continued, but now Israel’s land became conceived of as Israel’s Eden (as it’s called at several points in the Old Testament: Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3). This description of Israel’s land being like Eden was enhanced by the repeated descriptions of the “land flowing with milk and honey” and luscious fruit (e.g., Num. 13:26–27; Deut. 1:25; Neh. 9:25).

The key to understanding why Israel was to expand the borders of its land to cover the earth rests in the fact that Israel was a corporate Adam, and just as he was to expand the borders of Eden, so Israel was to do the same. In particular, Eden wasn’t a mere piece of land but was the first tabernacle (the place of divine presence), which Adam was to expand.

Likewise, Israel’s land was to expand because at its center in Jerusalem was the temple, in which was the holy of holies, where God’s presence dwelled. I discussed in chapter 19 of my book A New Testament Biblical Theology that Israel’s temple symbolized the unseen and seen heavens (respectively the inner sanctuary and the holy place) and the earth (the courtyard).

The purpose of the symbolism was to point to the end time, when God’s special revelatory presence would break out of the holy of holies and fill the visible heavens and the earth. Accordingly, there are prophecies that describe how God’s presence will break out from the holy of holies, cover Jerusalem (Isa. 4:4–6; Jer. 3:16–17; Zech. 1:16–2:11), then expand to cover all of Israel’s land (Ezek. 37:25–28), and finally cover the entire earth (Isa. 54:2–3; Dan. 2:34–35, 44–45).

Strikingly, the passages from Jeremiah 3, Isaiah 54, and Daniel 2 make explicit allusions either back to the patriarchal promises or to Genesis 1:28 when discussing the expansion of the land. From the perspective of the Old Testament writers, it’s difficult to know whether this complete expansion was envisioned to occur through military means or through other, more peaceful ways (e.g., through the nations voluntarily bowing to Israel and its God).

We know, at least, that Israel was to expand its beginning possession of the promised land through military means (Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 12:29; 18:14). Yet other texts foresee a more peaceful means in the eschaton whereby the nations throughout the earth become subject to Israel (Amos 9:11–12; Isa. 2:3–4; 11:10–12), with the possible implication of Israel possessing their lands.

Prophecies of the Universal Expansion

This expansive temple-land theology underlies other prophecies of the universal expansion of Israel’s land. Although not discussing the temple, Isaiah prophesies about the final resurrection of the dead (Isa. 26:16–19) that will coincide with resurrected people inhabiting the new creation. He says, “You have increased the nation, O LORD, You have increased the nation, You are glorified; You have extended all the borders of the land.” Thus, the allusion to Genesis 1:28 (“increase and multiply” and “fill the earth”), as it has no doubt been refracted through the Abrahamic promises, leads to the expansion of Israel’s land.

Amazingly, this cosmic expansion is directly linked to Israel’s end-time resurrection, suggesting that the fulfillment of the Genesis 1:28 commission to expand occurs through the resurrection of people. This pattern of multiplying and filling the earth is the same one we’ve observed in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2, where the commands in Genesis 1:28 are to be concretely carried out by expanding the Eden sanctuary. We’ve observed this same Genesis 1–2 pattern in Israel’s promised expansion over the earth and the expansion of the Jerusalem temple.

The notion of Israel’s borders being expanded to cover the earth isn’t only implied in Isaiah 26:18–19 (“deliverance for the earth” [see especially the LXX] and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits”) but is explicitly stated in 27:2–6. In this passage, Israel is portrayed in the eschaton as a “vineyard of delight” (like the garden of Eden) that God will protect and with which he’ll be at “peace” (the participial form of the noun for “delight” [ḥemed] occurs in descriptions of Eden in Gen. 2:9; 3:6.). This vineyard will expand to cover the whole earth: “In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout; and they will fill the face of the earth with fruit” (Isa. 27:6). This echoes “be fruitful . . . and fill the earth” in Genesis 1:28.

Thus, the Abrahamic promises represent a major development from Genesis 1–2 in the anticipations for the expansion of Israel’s land. Since my conclusion concerning Genesis 1–2 is that the sacred land of Eden was to be enlarged to cover the entire creation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this theme developed in the promises to the patriarchs. This is exactly what we find.

Although the initial form of the Abrahamic promise relates only to Canaan, it’s placed in a global context: “All the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). The next restatement (13:14–17) still has the boundaries of Canaan in view, but there’s an addition: “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your seed can also be numbered” (13:16). This may be taken figuratively, so that the Israelite descendants will be numerous but still fit within the boundaries of the promised land. But because it’s eschatological in nature, it’s more likely that, while still figurative, it refers to a number of Israelites so large they couldn’t fit in the land.

Multiplying to Bless

The same idea is implied by Genesis 15:5 (“Count the stars, if you are able to count them. . . . So shall your seed be”) and 22:17–18 (“I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand, which is on the seashore”). Genesis 28:14 directly connects multiplication to blessings for the whole earth (“Your seed shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed”; almost identical is 26:3–4!)

If these Genesis texts refer to the patriarchs’ seed filling not only the boundaries of Israel but all the earth, then they suggest what has been explicitly stated in some of the above passages about Israel’s end-time universalistic expansion. This idea also fits with Genesis 1–2—expanding the sacred space of Eden until Adam and Eve’s progeny “fill the earth.”

Subsequent developments of these patriarchal promises in the Old Testament make more explicit the suggestive nature of the universalizing aspect of these promises. For example, Psalm 72:17 (“And let men bless themselves by him; let all nations call him blessed”) develops the promise of Genesis 22:18 (“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves”). This is significant because the one being blessed is the end-time Israelite king (the individualized seed of Abraham) who will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). This is an explicit widening of the original borders of the promised land, which had been set “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River [Euphrates]” (Ex. 23:31).

This is summarized in Genesis 15:18 as “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” The psalm begins with the “river” (apparently of Egypt) but substitutes “the ends of the earth” for the “river Euphrates.” Again, the patriarchal promise relating to Israel’s land is universalized by the psalm. Zechariah 9:10 quotes Psalm 72:8, developing the same idea about Israel’s eschatological king: “His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Psalm 2 is also similar to Psalm 72. God’s promise to the Messiah (2:2, 7) is to “give the nations as [his] inheritance and the ends of the earth as [his] possession” (v. 8). The wording of “give an inheritance” (nātan + naḥălâ) in Deuteronomy is a typical expression used in God’s promise of giving the land of Canaan to Israel (e.g., Deut. 4:21, 38; 12:9; 15:4; 19:10; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; 29:8).

Likewise, “possession” (ʾăḥuzzâ) refers to Israel inheriting the land of promise (Gen. 17:8; Num. 32:32; Deut. 32:49). Here in Psalm 2, God’s promise of the land of Canaan as a possession is extended to the “ends of the earth.” And as in Psalm 72, the promise is made to an individual end-time Israelite king under whose rule the original boundaries of the promised land will be widened to cover the whole earth.

Expanded to the Whole World

The New Testament understands the land promise as a promise that Israel’s land would be expanded to encompass the entire world. For example, Romans 4:13 says, “For the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law . . .” (so also Heb. 11:8–16; Matt. 5:5 in allusion to Ps. 37:11).

The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form when all believers inherit the earth, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth. The physical way these land promises have begun fulfillment is that Christ himself introduced the new creation by his physical resurrection. In this connection, the Abrahamic promises concerning the land are promises to his “seed,” referring ultimately to Christ (Gal. 3:16) and those in union with him (v. 29). This explanation is in line with Paul’s assertion that “as many as are the [Old Testament] promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).

The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth.

I’ve discussed many of these promises and found that even in their Old Testament context they included not only a physical dimension but also a spiritual one (e.g., reflecting the glory of God as image-bearers). These promises have begun spiritually and will be consummated physically in the final new creation. This two-stage fulfillment can be termed an “installment fulfillment.” Even the initial, spiritual stage is part of a literal fulfillment; the Old Testament promise always had a spiritual dimension in view.

Therefore, none of the references to the promise of Israel’s land in the Old Testament appears to be related to the promises of ethnic Israel’s return to the promised land on this present earth. What’s going on in Israel today is in God’s predestined plan, but it’s not any kind of fulfillment of his promises in the Old Testament. Whereas Adam and Israel (the corporate Adam) failed to expand Eden throughout the world, it is now in Christ, the Last Adam and true Israel, and the church, in union with the Last Adam and true Israel, that Eden will finally be expanded to the ends of the earth.

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Benefits and Hazards of Gen Z’s Emotionally Engaged Faith https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gen-z-emotionally-engaged/ Thu, 16 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574985 Gen Z’s fixation on mental health has its downsides. But it has also given Gen Z Christians a keen awareness of how their emotions relate to their faith.]]> I love to watch my friend Maria pray because her face is so expressive. Over the course of a single prayer meeting, her facial expressions move from impassive, to intense, to peaceful. As she praises God or cries out to him for help, her features reflect the state of her heart.

Since I’ve moved to college, the most present Christian mentors in my life have all been Gen Z Christians. These women—current seniors or recent grads—have taught me to pray longer and more fervently than ever but also how to bring everyday exhaustion, joy, discouragement, or celebration before the Lord.

My generation (Gen Z) loves to talk about mental health. We’re enthusiastic about “destigmatizing” mental health and “processing” emotions not just in a therapist’s office but publicly on social media. TikTokers share overly personal videos of themselves crying, with captions explaining how low they feel.

This culture of openly discussing mental health certainly has downsides, including a temptation to downplay the seriousness of sin by psychologizing it with therapeutic language, or denying our personal culpability by blaming past trauma.

But one upside is that Gen Z has a fluency in talking about emotions in ways previous generations did not. As a result, Gen Z Christians tend to possess a keen awareness of how their emotions relate to their faith and how to engage with God through these emotions.

Emotional Engagement with God

The Bible’s book of prayer blueprints, the Psalms, is full of emotional engagement with God. Asaph expresses confusion and loneliness to God: “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps. 74:1). David cries, “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart,” and exults, “I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” (38:8; 13:5). David asks God to change his emotions, writing, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (86:4).

In the New Testament, Paul commands Christians to give their fears to God: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God” (Phil. 4:5–6).

Like the psalmists, Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life. They’re hungry for a personal God who will take their anxieties and give them his joy.

Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life.

The Bible describes a God who wants to sanctify his people’s emotions. After instructing believers to make their requests known to God, Paul promises that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). This peace that God gives must be emotional at some level because Paul makes a point of saying it isn’t simply intellectual or logical—it surpasses understanding.

I’ve seen my family grow closer to God by bringing emotions into our faith life. Our church’s deep theology of weekly hymns and liturgy has blessed us immensely. However, my pastor recognizes that our worship can sometimes be stiff, and he encourages the congregation to kneel during confession and raise our hands in worship. In a sermon on Psalm 95:1–7, he explained how God connected our minds and bodies so our bodies can often instruct our emotions.

Going into her junior year of high school, my sister joined a youth group at a church in a different denomination. In addition to making close friends who love God, she became part of a congregation that always looks to meet God emotionally in worship and expresses that emotion through their bodies—clapping, dancing, and raising hands. In the two years since, I’ve seen her take ownership of her faith and seek intimacy with God, staying up late into the night to read her Bible and write prayers in her journal.

Emotional and theological aspects of faith shouldn’t be pitted against one another. God created us with hearts and heads, and I’m hopeful my generation will seek spiritual formation that engages both.

Healing Found Only in God

Another popular mental health buzzword for Gen Z is “self-care.” It’s the concept of refreshing your mental and emotional state by taking time to focus on yourself—by taking “mental health days” off, pursuing activities of “wellness,” spending time with friends, and journaling, among other activities. But the problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.

If our best answer in times of stress is to give ourselves permission to care for ourselves, this sets us up for disappointment. How can the self be the solution for mental struggles that originate within that same self? We need something outside ourselves to truly find healing.

The problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.

Gen Z Christians know the best self-care is to look outside of ourselves to God and refresh our souls with him. If our secular peers seek restoration by taking time to focus on themselves, Gen Z Christians seek rejuvenation by setting aside time to be with their heavenly Father. This practice comes directly from Jesus. Luke’s Gospel records six times that Jesus drew apart to be with his Father (Luke 2:46–49; 4:42; 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; 22:39–44). Many of my college friends intentionally set aside time each week not to work but to be refreshed in God through prayer, Bible reading, and eating with Christian friends.

Practicing self-care as Christians should also mean caring for others. Secular self-care proponents occasionally suggest volunteering, and numerous studies demonstrate the health benefits of regular volunteering. The world is picking up on something Christians know to be true: we’re made to serve others in humble imitation of our God (Matt. 23:11; Mark 10:45; Rom. 12:10; Gal. 5:13; Phil. 2:4). Jesus calls us to abide with him by serving our brothers and sisters (John 15:9–12). Spiritual rejuvenation from abiding in Christ goes hand in hand with obedient sacrificial love.

Gen Z, let’s be careful to not build our relationship with God solely on our emotions, especially when our emotions conflict with God’s revealed truth in Scripture. And let’s be sure we aren’t justifying selfishness or other sins in the name of self-care. We should be alert to the excesses and distortions of therapy-speak, especially if it becomes a more authoritative discourse in our lives than even Scripture. If we find that the words of a therapist loom larger in our lives than the Word of God, we know we’ve taken it too far.

But these excesses shouldn’t scare us away from the good ways fluency about emotions can enrich our faith. Let’s continue to bring God our emotions and seek refreshment from intimacy with him, casting all our anxieties on the One who cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).

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Reaching the Dechurched Is a Whole-Church Effort https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/great-dechurching/ Thu, 16 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=575402 Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches to reverse the phenomenon of dechurching.]]> Pastors are ghosted all the time. Some people leave and we know why. Others leave with no explanation. We hope they might return, even if they won’t return our calls. Or, at least, we hope they’ve landed in another faithful local church.

Unfortunately, the reality is that many of the regular attendees who no longer come to our churches have simply stopped going anywhere on Sundays.

In The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, Jim Davis and Michael Graham (with Ryan Burge) describe this phenomenon, which is being experienced throughout the North American church. The ominous title matches a distressing reality: people are leaving the church—many with no intention to return.

This book doesn’t merely cite data that validates an observable reality. It also provides survey results from the departing masses to discern why they’re leaving and what might bring them back again. The Great Dechurching combines a heart for the local church and a deep interest in understanding the culture with rigorous statistical analysis.

Honesty Matters

The Great Dechurching is painfully honest, a trait that’s hard to find in many corners of evangelicalism. We tend to gloss over negative trends or find excuses for them.

The authors—Davis (teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church and TGC Council member), Graham (program director for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics)—hold up the stark reality of those leaving the church for all to see. This is a different approach from a post-game press conference by a losing coach who attempts to spin the narrative of the team’s poor play.

The data suggests this dechurching is happening everywhere—not simply among one denomination or stratum of society. What might otherwise seem like mere anecdotes and assumptions become data through this book. This data, which is the result of a statistically rigorous survey, makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.

This data makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.

The book urges church leaders to lift their eyes and consider the opportunities such a cultural moment presents: “What looks like defeat to many could really be the beginning of something special.” However, something special will only happen if leaders “come to grips with some hard realities within the church” (120).

Herein lies a potential use for the book. Church leaders, elder teams, staff, deacons, and lay leaders can and should consider how their churches and communities are reflected in the stories and statistics found in The Great Dechurching.

Objective findings can create a context for honest dialogue about what’s happening and why—and perhaps some tentative conclusions about what to do now. Instead of lamenting the movement away from the church, those wanting to build a healthy future can apply biblically faithful, missiologically savvy practices that meet these trends head-on.

Relationships Matter

Perhaps the most important revelation of the book is the role relationships play, both in people leaving the church and in their likelihood of returning.

When asked their reasons for leaving church, the largest percentage noted this as the dominant motive: “My friends are not attending.” This social isolation is without question exacerbated by the multiyear disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors suggest many of the leavers are open to return if they were invited. They write, “Some people need a nudge, others need a dinner table, and others need years of patient and prayerful, consistent movement into their lives” (50).

Nudges from one person will often not be enough. To be convinced, some people may need to bounce off multiple Christians who encourage them to return to church. Reaching the dechurched will require a whole-church effort.

It’s unlikely that simply doing church better, inventing new programs or polishing old ones, or other top-down, event-driven plans are going to halt the dechurching pattern. Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.

Culture Matters

Perhaps the least surprising conclusion of the book is that many leavers cite the church’s engagement (or lack thereof) in major cultural issues as a leading cause. The church’s infatuation with political themes and partisanship is often a first domino in people’s departures. Or, just as likely, it is sometimes the leavers’ infatuation with politics that contributes to a feeling of alienation or antagonism.

The authors note, “Regardless of tradition, churches that espouse heavy, right-leaning politics will be difficult places for exvangelicals to feel at home” (74). The same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, because “there is no such thing as a Christianity with no political implications” and “the gospel comes with an ethic that will always overlap with our national political conversation” (167).

Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.

Churches and their pastors can’t merely stay out of politics. However, they must hone the skill of prioritizing the gospel center along with exhorting their congregations regarding the implications of these gospel truths, while avoiding undue partisanship.

This isn’t easy. Seasoned pastors may struggle with the rapidly changing cultural conversation. But younger pastors are at a disadvantage. Often they’ve not yet developed the discernment needed to lead multigenerational congregations made up of people with differing political presuppositions and experiences. The polarization of the prevailing culture combined with the gutting of the political center only increases the challenge for everyone.

Our Response Matters

For years, theologically conservative evangelicals have cited studies about declining attendance in mainline denominations. We’ve pointed at their faulty doctrine as a driving force in the decline. But now the decline is affecting us as well. We have to look for answers.

The value of The Great Dechurching is that it seeks to provide some of those answers, or at least raise the right questions. The data shows many of the leavers retain their orthodox doctrinal beliefs––our doctrine isn’t necessarily the biggest issue. The main problems are connections within local churches and spiritual formation. Though they could have been stronger, the book is salted with reminders that Christians are meant to be gathered together frequently. Davis and Graham note, “Being substantively plugged into a local church with committed relationships in a defined group of people is God’s plan for Christians to carry out the ‘one anothers’ and grow in Christlikeness. It helps us guard against arrogance, isolation, and flakiness” (179).

Despite its challenges, dechurching provides church leaders a unique opportunity to equip church members to make the most of their relationships so they forge robust connections with each other. We get to innovate ways to digitally disciple our churches in a world that inundates us with information. Thankfully, the church has the Holy Spirit to help with both these issues.

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Progress and Progressivism: How We Got from 1776 to Today https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/progress-progressivism/ Wed, 15 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=576195 Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener continue their discussion on how the year 1776 has shaped our world.]]> How did the founding of America contribute to the post-Christian world we live in today? Is there something inherently post-Christian baked into the pie from the founding of the nation?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener continue their discussion of how the year 1776 has shaped our world. They trace the story forward to today as they discuss slavery, human rights, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. They talk about the apparent inevitability of progress in the 19th century and how those hopes were dashed by two world wars.

Wilson and Scrivener consider how these huge cultural and societal changes interact with the gospel, and they conclude by discussing the extent to which Christianity cannot be forced into the neat political categories of right and left, liberal and conservative.

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What My Video Game Habit Revealed About My Heart https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/video-game-habit-heart/ Wed, 15 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=573823 Extended periods of gaming can make temptation more difficult to resist, quench the fruits of the Spirit, and deplete our affection for God and others.]]> If you did a time-tracking survey of the nearly 30 years of my life, you’d see three activities dominate—sleep, school, and video games.

From a young age, I loved video games. I loved losing myself in the stories, the challenges, and the worlds. I loved spending time with my friends while playing and, quite frankly, I loved that I was good at it. I loved the excitement of a new challenge, the focus of working on it, and the satisfaction of completion. All this was good.

One of my earliest memories is of explaining to an older kid (he was probably 6 or 7) that I didn’t read the conversations in Pokémon because I hadn’t yet learned to read. Over the next 15 or so years, I’d own nearly every major console and handheld between the Nintendo 64 and the Xbox 360, spending enormous amounts of time on each device.

I have no way to know for sure until I stand before God and give an account, but the amount of time I’ve spent gaming is probably more than 10,000 hours.

From preschool through high school, I never saw my gaming as a problem. School came easily enough that my grades were unaffected, and I was sociable enough to pass as someone who didn’t spend countless hours gaming alone. For me, gaming provided an easy way to escape from my fears, insecurities, and boredom while giving me a series of goals to focus my attention.

It wasn’t until college that I began noticing a connection between my gaming and my heart.

Enemy of My Soul

My roommate and I were invited to a Bible study with a couple of seniors, Justin and Alex, who had befriended us (and showed us what it truly meant to be good at Mario Kart). During one of those meetings, Justin observed that sinful actions and desires often have definable triggers in our hearts, and he encouraged us to trace our sinful actions to the point of conception and look for patterns in their occurrence.

As I took inventory of my own heart, I found that any period of extended gaming was accompanied by increased sin in my heart and life. When I played for a long time, temptation was more difficult to resist, the fruits of the Spirit were quenched while their sinful counterparts proliferated, and my affection for God and others felt almost nonexistent. I began to realize my love for gaming was an enemy of my soul.

I found that any period of extended gaming was accompanied by increased sin in my heart and life.

My realization did little to affect my behavior, apart from creating resentment in my heart. I still loved video games and wanted to continue enjoying them. I spent the next four years attempting to moderate my gaming, always arguing that video games were an amoral hobby I could still enjoy if I simply controlled my behavior.

This led to cycles of binging and quitting. I’d restrain myself for a week, but then my schedule would lighten or my self-control would weaken, and I’d binge—which could mean anything from 3 hours to 25 hours of gaming over a few days. Later, I’d resent myself. I even started deleting my game progress after binges to remind myself how meaningless my gaming efforts were. That would work pretty well for a specific game, but there’d always be another game to pull me back into the cycle.

My battle came to a head in 2017 after I graduated from college. I wanted to attend Southeastern Seminary in the fall of 2018, but I knew my gaming habits couldn’t continue if I wanted to love God with all my heart and pursue pastoral ministry. I also knew my time in college could have been far more fruitful if this habit never existed, and I regretted the hours spent on it.

After a final failure to control my gaming habits, I concluded that moderation was impossible for me because video games held too much of my heart. I reached out to a friend in frustration to ask if he wanted my Xbox. I didn’t even care to sell it. I wanted it gone and wasn’t sure if my will would last if a sale took too long.

Jesus says that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (Matt. 5:30). I felt that nothing less than this would work. I dropped the console off with my friend the next day and haven’t owned a console or a PC powerful enough for gaming since.

New Responsibilities

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing since then. In 2019, I almost caved and bought myself a new Xbox, but the Lord was gracious and gave my car a need for new tires instead. Mobile games have had some pull over me as well, but they don’t hold the same attraction as the high-quality games on major platforms. The Lord has blessed me with a wonderful wife, a beautiful daughter, and corresponding responsibilities that make sustained gaming impossible.

When I look back, the time I spent on video games is one of the greatest regrets of my life. While I had some great laughs and enjoyed every moment, for me, the cost was too high. I had every opportunity to learn incredible skills and build great relationships that could have given much glory to God then and now. Instead, I chose to spend my time in video games that accomplished little and served no one meaningfully. Gaming only fed my self-centered desire to be perpetually entertained and sapped me of motivation to invest in anything that mattered and required effort.

The time I spent on video games is one of the greatest regrets of my life. . . . [they] accomplished little and served no one meaningfully.

I suspect gaming is part of the reason I often struggled to form meaningful and lasting friendships in the past. I didn’t handle gaming like Justin and Alex, who were intentional about getting to know my roommate and me, inviting us to Bible studies and church, and sharing the gospel with suitemates after a few races.

Without the hard work of intentional connection, my ability to be a good friend atrophied. When it came to walking with others through pain, I knew absolutely nothing. When I finally encountered deep suffering in the context of close relationships as a young seminary student, I was either entirely useless or harmfully avoidant in responding to it. Thankfully, the Lord orchestrated those events to line up with my time in the required biblical counseling course, which equipped me with many of the relational basics needed to be a faithful friend.

The Lord has redeemed me in other ways. Before, whenever I was obsessing over a game in my heart, I was constantly irritated by any interruptions or other commitments that came up. Now, without video games constantly pulling at my heart and mind, I’m able to serve God and others with more patience and joy. I have time for more difficult but also more fulfilling and sanctifying hobbies, such as reading, spending time with my daughter, skimboarding, or finding a show my wife and I can bond over.

Dying to Idols

Because of my background and circumstances, quitting completely was the only answer. But that’s not true for everyone. Video games are a matter of practical wisdom, not explicit commands.

Parents, I encourage you to cultivate the right priorities in your children as you navigate video games. That may look like setting clear boundaries (and clear reasons for those boundaries). It could look like modeling how a love for God, neighbor, and gaming can coexist as you play games with them (making sure that God and neighbor are the higher priorities). You can also find articles, podcasts, and blogs with wisdom about navigating video games, whatever your life stage.

For anyone with a love of gaming similar to my own, I encourage you to simply press the delete button on your game or save file. Remove the temptation, and make it impossible to access without accountability. When our loves cause us to neglect what we should love, the wisdom God has given us is to deny ourselves (Luke 9:23–25). Putting something I loved too much in its proper place has been the most difficult kind of dying I’ve ever experienced. As my pastor said in a recent sermon, “Idols die hard.”

When our loves cause us to neglect what we should love, the wisdom God has given us is to deny ourselves.

In the end, the issue isn’t gaming or not gaming but the gamer’s heart. It’s not ultimately about modifying our behavior but about attending to our souls and guarding them from idols. I encourage you to heed the words of 1 John 5:21: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

To this day, I still love gaming, but I can’t regard it as a benign hobby. For me, gaming is a weight that entangles and must be laid aside (Heb. 12:1). It isn’t easy, but take it from me—it’s worth it.

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How New Atheism Collapsed and Gave Way to New Faith https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/new-atheism-collapsed/ Tue, 14 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=576395 Collin Hansen asks Justin Brierley about the ‘greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory.’]]> If you know Justin Brierley, it’s probably for the debates and interviews he hosted for many years with the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast. He interviewed some of the most outspoken atheist critics of Christianity and convened some of the most intense debates of recent memory.

During that time, however, Justin noticed a shift. The conversations changed in tone and substance—dramatically so. The bombast began to disappear. Secular guests opened to Christianity—at least its cultural and social value if not always its literal truth. They expressed concern over cancel culture and identity-based politics. Some of them made common cause with Christians. Some even became Christians.

He tells their stories in a new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again (Tyndale Elevate). Until April 2023, Justin was theology and apologetics editor for Premier Christian Radio and hosted the Ask N. T. Wright Anything podcast. He was editor of Premier Christianity magazine from 2014 to 2018.

You can tell from the title that The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God is an optimistic book. Justin writes, “New Atheism gave the Christian church a kick up the backside that it desperately needed. Arguably, the last two decades have seen the greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory as the church has risen to the challenge.” You know I love the sounds of that revival. You can see, then, why Justin says he thanks God for Richard Dawkins.

N. T. Wright wrote the foreword. He asks, “What if the Christian story is poised to come rushing back into public consciousness in our day? Could it once again nourish the hearts and minds of people who have been starved of meaning and purpose for so long?”

How amazing that would be! We discussed this hope, and more, on the latest episode of Gospelbound.

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The Religion That Reads (but Doesn’t Respect) the Bible https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/mormons-believe-bible/ Tue, 14 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=565545 Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction.]]> “That’s the thickest book I’ve ever seen!”

My friend and I were discussing differences between Christianity and Mormonism, he’d just pulled the Mormon “Quad” out of his locker, and I was amazed at its heft. Roughly two and a half inches thick, this collection of Mormon scriptures includes the KJV Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

As we continued our conversation, one thing was clear: the Bible may have been bound alongside the other Mormon scriptures, but it didn’t carry the same authority.

What Do Mormons Believe About the Bible?

Article 8 of the Mormon Articles of Faith reads, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

Mormonism doesn’t view the Bible and the Book of Mormon equally. The Bible’s status as God’s Word is relativized by the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly.” The Book of Mormon is the word of God; the Bible merely contains the Word of God among the bits that are correctly translated.

Mormonism doesn’t view the Bible and the Book of Mormon equally.

Of course, this raises a question: “What does ‘translated correctly’ mean?” Mormons, or Latter-day Saints (LDS), understand that clause in various ways, but regardless, it opens the door to doubting the truthfulness of the Bible.

In talking to Mormons, I’ve encountered several objections to the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Some Mormons understand all modern translations of the Bible to be corrupt. Since the translators belong to apostate churches condemned by Joseph Smith, the translations themselves are artifacts of those apostate churches.

Others suggest “translated correctly” refers to a corrupted transmission of the text of Scripture through history. With arguments that sound similar to Bart Ehrman’s critique of the text, many Mormons assume the Bible came into the 21st century the way a message gets distorted when a bunch of eighth graders play the telephone game. The original text of Scripture has simply been lost in the dust of history. As the LDS apostle Neal Maxwell suggested, “By faulty transmission, many ‘plain and precious things’ were ‘taken away’ or ‘kept back’ from reaching what later composed our precious Holy Bible.”

Maxwell is repeating what former LDS prophets and apostles all the way back to Joseph Smith have suggested. Smith himself advanced both criticisms (errors in translation and transmission): “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers; ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.”

The Bible and the Great Apostasy

It’s important to remember that in Mormon theology, errors in the Bible aren’t just products of random translation and transmission. The church—which apostatized immediately after the time of the apostles, according to Mormons—actively corrupted Scripture to suit its own teachings. Smith even enshrined this understanding into the Book of Mormon: in 1 Nephi 13, an angel warns Nephi of the church’s apostasy and the Bible’s corruption:

Thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious. . . . And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men. Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God. (1 Nephi 13:26–28)

For this reason, many Mormons assume Scripture is corrupted wherever it contradicts LDS teaching. The Bible, then, always functionally stands under the church’s teaching and the other LDS scriptures. Mormons embrace the Bible as God’s Word only when it can be reinterpreted to support their theological agenda.

Grass Withers and Flower Fades

Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction—correction only through the restoration of the true church by Joseph Smith.

Mormons may claim to revere the Bible, but it remains for them a corrupted book needing correction.

In response to Mormon skepticism, Christians interested in exploring the translation and transmission of the Bible can find ample scholarly and apologetic works to bolster their confidence in Scripture’s veracity and truthfulness.

But even more, we can trust Scripture’s testimony about itself. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have been breathed out by God himself (2 Tim. 3:16). And his Word isn’t discarded quite as easily as Joseph Smith suggested. God promised his Word will endure: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).

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Ministering in the Midst of Godlessness https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/ministering-midst-godlessness/ Mon, 13 Nov 2023 05:04:54 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=579890 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the challenges of serving in a godless world and emphasize the importance of relying on Jesus for hope. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the challenges of serving in a godless world and emphasize the importance of relying on Jesus and holding onto hope. They reflect on the difficulties faced in pastoral ministry and the prevalence of self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking in society.

As they warn against counterfeit Christianity and highlight the need for authenticity and true transformation, they discuss the dangers of allowing unconverted individuals into positions of influence within the church and emphasize the importance of integrity and discernment.

Ortlund and Allberry discuss the the vital role of pastors’ spouses and the significance of unity and support within the church community when it comes to enduring in ministry.


Recommended resource: Help! I’m Married to My Pasor by Jani Ortlund

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Which Jesus Do You See in Your Suffering? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/which-jesus-suffering/ Mon, 13 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568776 When Jesus says, ‘I am with you in your sin and suffering,’ what emotions stir inside you? Comfort? Fear? Hope? Shame? Apathy?]]> For sufferers, one of the most potentially hope-giving promises is Christ’s assurance, “I am with you” (Matt. 28:20). Yet our ability to draw strength and hope from this promise rests entirely on our view of Jesus. Who exactly is this Jesus who’s with us in our suffering?

We’ve all met people whose presence makes suffering worse. They spew negativity. They drip with judgmentalism. They seem more interested in fixing us than understanding us. They might even blatantly shame us. If these people promised, “I will be with you in your suffering,” we’d cringe and hope it wasn’t true. We’d rather suffer alone than with a disparaging presence.

Others are a balm in our struggles. They’re safe. They encourage us. They ask questions and listen well. They speak words of truth and life. We say of these people, “I don’t know how I could’ve made it through that without her.”

How do you view Jesus? When Jesus says, “I am with you in your suffering,” what emotions stir inside you? Comfort? Fear? Hope? Shame? Apathy? Consider three views of Jesus, and ask yourself which “Jesus” you relate to most.

View #1: Harsh Jesus

The apostle Paul observed that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Yet sometimes the Devil doesn’t need to disguise himself—we do it for him. We grab hold of Scripture’s description of Satan, dress him up as Jesus, and then look to him in our suffering. Unsurprisingly, Harsh Jesus only makes our grief and pain worse.

This Jesus looks at us with disdain in his eyes. He doesn’t need to say a single word—we can tell by his expression that he’s judging us. He condemns us. He heaps burdens on us. He says, “Quit crying. It’s your fault you’re suffering anyway. God is getting back at you for your sin.”

Harsh Jesus hisses accusations, and we accept them as the voice of God. He’s impatient and impossible to please. He offers no forgiveness. No encouragement. No mercy. No help. This “Jesus” makes suffering intolerable.

View #2: Neutralized Jesus

Unlike Harsh Jesus, Neutralized Jesus doesn’t make suffering worse—but he doesn’t make it better either. His presence is like a wallflower, always in the room but rarely noticeable. We could live with or without him. He’s neutral.

There are many ways we neutralize Jesus in our minds. Some believe Jesus is powerful but doubt his care (cf. Mark 4:38; Luke 10:40). Others believe Jesus cares but doubt his ability to help in their (seemingly) unique situations (cf. Matt. 8:26; 14:31; John 5:6–7). Still others believe Jesus is hamstrung by their sin, unable to move in their lives until they clean themselves up (cf. John 4:13–18).

“I am with you” means little to those living with a neutralized Jesus. They say, “It’s a nice gesture, but his presence doesn’t make a difference in my broken life.”

View #3: Biblical Jesus

For the promise of Christ’s presence to fortify us in our suffering, we must reject the harsh and neutralized misconceptions of Jesus and renew our minds with the Jesus revealed in Scripture.

According to God’s Word, Jesus isn’t only with us; he’s unremittingly for us (Ps. 56:9; Rom. 8:31). His presence is always a favorable, advocating, affectionate presence—yes, even after we sin (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 2:1). Dane Ortlund remarks, “He’s not only there; he is on our team. He is for us. . . . He is looking at us and saying, ‘I am rooting for you. I am in your corner. You [can] fall into my open, nail-scarred hands any time you want.’”

In our suffering—even that which we’ve brought on ourselves by our sin—the true Jesus remains on our side. He faithfully disciplines us (Rev. 3:19) and calls us to repent and follow him—yet he does so with unmatched tenderness. Ortlund again:

Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Jesus is not a pointed finger but open arms.

In the Fire of Affliction with Us

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego gives us a powerful picture of Christ’s compassion in our suffering. God famously saved these men from a blazing furnace after they refused to worship the king’s golden statue. But how God saved them is curious and often overlooked.

Before Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were delivered from the fire, a fourth man—whom Timothy Keller and others identify as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ—appeared “walking in the midst of the fire” with them (Dan. 3:25). How strange is this? Christ could’ve easily appeared next to the king—safely and comfortably removed from the fire—and called out, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, come out of the fire!” This would’ve showcased his power and authority. Instead, Christ joined his people, preferring to endure the fire with them before saving them.

And so Jesus does for us. Our Savior refuses to sit back and watch us suffer alone. Christ became man to identify, suffer, and walk with his people before saving us, forever binding himself to us intimately.

When Jesus says, “I am with you,” he says it as One who knows the pain of suffering. He understands our weaknesses, fears, and struggles. He has felt the heat of the fire himself. And those flames were hottest on the cross, where Jesus was scorched for us so we’d never have to walk through the fire of affliction alone.

When Jesus says, ‘I am with you,’ he says it as One who knows the pain of suffering.

One day, Jesus will return to extinguish the fire of affliction forever. Until that day, we must remember our Savior is unreservedly committed to us and he walks amid the fire with us, even now.

“When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Savior. . . . Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isa. 43:2–3, 5, CSB)

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Christ’s Victory over Social Media https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christs-victory-social-media/ Sun, 12 Nov 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=570139 What Satan intends for anxiety and depression, the Lord is using for good.]]> You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20, NIV)

I can only imagine the gold mine Satan must have thought he hit when social media was invented. What a boon to capture the unsuspecting hearts and minds of young people by stealing their most valuable possession—their attention.

Google Scholar reports 78,000 research articles have been posted about the relationship between social media and mental health. They show a strong correlation between social media and issues like eating disorders, anxiety, depression, lowered trust and family functioning, and deep psychological distress.

But the victory of the Lord is triumphant over social media and Gen Z.

TikTok Testimony

The first time I shared my testimony, my campus ministry leader said, “I love that we see God’s grace through TikTok.” I was shocked.

But it’s true that TikTok was a catalyst for my personal walk with Jesus. After watching several videos made by Christian peers, I was encouraged to read my Bible by myself for the first time. During quarantine in 2020, amid isolation brought on by my rampantly increasing screen time, the Lord called me out of disobedience.

What Satan meant to distract me and pull me away from the truth, God meant for good, that I would know the true gospel. An invitation from a stranger on the internet spurred me on to a deep relationship with Jesus (John 17:3).

Online Encouragement and Outreach

Though social media has become riddled with negativity and isolation, nearly all Gen Zers have an account—and more than half of us spend four or more hours a day there. This space, filled with believers and nonbelievers, provides a unique opportunity for young Christians to do ministry.

What Satan meant to distract me and pull me away from the truth, God meant for good, that I would know the true gospel.

Through social networking, I’ve seen believing peers do Bible-in-a-year challenges, join support groups, provide each other with resources, and pray for each other. Satan uses internet access to isolate us in an increasingly depressed society. But where Satan tries to confine us, the Spirit creates fellowship.

After all, Paul and the other apostles were no strangers to long-distance fellowship. Timothy, separated from Paul, likely felt increasingly discouraged, yet Paul reminds him of his fellow brothers in the faith fighting alongside him elsewhere (2 Tim. 4:9–18). Just as Timothy can be connected to believers he isn’t physically with, Gen Z can use social media to encourage one another to endure the race set before them (2 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1).

We can do more than that. To see the church in places where we don’t reside casts a vision for the power of the gospel worldwide. It allows believers who feel isolated to see a unified church propelled on mission for the sake of the gospel. For example, despite growing up in a believing household, I didn’t even know I was supposed to share the gospel until I heard another young believer say it on TikTok.

Christ’s Preeminence Online

In our digital age, young believers have a special ability—and a special responsibility—to contextualize the preeminence of Christ, “for by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:16).

That includes social media. “Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Social networking certainly has dominion, rule, and authority over our lives. For us to acknowledge Christ’s preeminence is to recognize even social media has a God-given purpose, for “in him all things hold together” (v. 17).

How crazy is it that God has a sovereign hand over your Instagram algorithm? Do you consider your favorite social media platform to be through him and for him? As believers, we know God can and will use social media in our lives to accomplish his purposes (Rom. 8:28).

But that raises a question: What’s our responsibility online?

Our Obligation Online

The Great Commission begins with “go,” so Gen Z mustn’t be content with stagnation. We must choose to be mission minded. We must view social media as a resource rather than a distraction.

We must view social media as a resource rather than a distraction.

The goal isn’t to surround ourselves with believers so we can hide from the outside world but rather to view a united church as an encouragement to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). Social media is equipping us to go into all the earth and spread the gospel to the whole creation right here and right now (Mark 16:15). Where Satan seeks to draw us away from God, God gives an opportunity to encourage, equip, redeem, and send out disciple makers for this generation.

It’s no mistake I was born in this generation (Ps. 139:13–16). It’s no mistake I first deeply embraced the gospel because of a peer on social media. Though I don’t remember the poster’s name or exactly what the video said, I do remember it was the first time I felt God calling out to me for something more.

It was the victory of the Lord to use something as ordinary as another teenager on the internet to do something extraordinary and call me according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28–29). For God has called a generation of laborers to a unique harvest, with a declaration of hope in a seemingly lost place (Matt. 9:37).

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What 3 Church Fathers Teach Us About Orphan Care https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-fathers-orphan-care/ Sun, 12 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=571261 As my family moves through the adoption process, we’ve drawn inspiration from countless stories of church fathers who cared for orphans.]]> My family is in the process of adopting two children from Africa. Navigating their adoption has deepened our perspective on the greater work of spiritual adoption we’ve received in Christ. We too were once orphans longing for rescue and refuge until we were brought into the family of God. Our adoption into God’s family, and the amazing grace and mercy we’ve received, then compels us to care for those who are vulnerable.

On this Orphan Care Sunday, the body of Christ gives special attention to how we can care for children we might call “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Though this designated day may be an initiative of the modern church, orphan care is not. Throughout church history, the body of Christ has been on the front lines of caring for the fatherless.

As my family moves through the adoption process, we’ve drawn inspiration from stories of church fathers who cared for orphans. Here are three examples of what we can learn from them as we embrace the biblical command to care for orphans.

George Whitefield: Orphan Care Meets Physical and Spiritual Needs

Throughout church history, the body of Christ has been on the front lines of caring for the fatherless.

George Whitefield, leader of the Great Awakening during the 1700s, is well known for his care for orphans. Burdened for these children, he opened an orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. He named it Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.” He felt it was essential to meet the physical needs of the children in the orphanage, but more than that, he believed their spiritual needs were of the utmost importance. Frequently caring for more than 100 children at a time, he worked to alleviate their physical suffering and made sure they heard the gospel.

Through adoption, we too seek to create “houses of mercy” as we welcome children into our homes and families and provide for their physical needs. It’s also Great Commission work, calling us to faithfully share and live out the gospel, asking the Lord to deliver these image-bearers from the domain of darkness and transfer them to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

George Müller: Orphan Care Steps into Suffering

Born in Germany in 1805, George Müller later moved to England to serve as a missionary. Moved by compassion for needy children he saw while walking the streets, Müller opened an orphanage to provide for these orphans. It housed more than 10,000 children over his lifetime. He even lived among them himself, ensuring they were taught the gospel and were loved and cared for. Müller went to be with the Lord at age 92. At his funeral, over a thousand children followed the casket to the cemetery to pay homage to their earthly father.

Müller looked at these children with love and was moved to act in mercy toward them. It can be easy to see “the least of these” and be burdened briefly but then move on with our comfortable lives. Instead, may we, like Müller, respond with care for the vulnerable and marginalized. Perhaps the sacrifice for some may mean welcoming a child into your family.

My prayer is that the Lord will raise up many families to enter into suffering and shepherd these children to the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the love and tenderness of an earthly mother and father, Lord willing, many children will also come to know their heavenly Father.

Charles Spurgeon: Orphan Care Is Needed in Your City

Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” was born in 1834. At one point, he traveled to Bristol, England, to visit George Müller and hear him preach. After Müller finished preaching, he asked Spurgeon to share a few words. Spurgeon was unable to because he’d “been crying all the while.” He said, “I never heard such a sermon in my life.”

Spurgeon returned to his church in London and preached the following week, challenging his people to care for orphans according to God’s command. Through members’ donations, the church responded by opening Stockwell Orphanage. The children at the orphanage loved Spurgeon. They were said to crowd around him when he would come to visit. On Sundays, the children attended his church and heard the faithful preaching of God’s Word.

Culture of Adoption

Spurgeon was spurred on to care for orphan children by Müller and in turn sparked a culture of adoption within his congregation. In today’s adoption world, we often hear the term “cluster adoptions.” This refers to a culture of adoptions within churches and communities as brothers and sisters encourage one another to open their hearts and homes to children. Not every Christian is called to adopt, but every Christian can participate in fostering a culture of adoption, be it through financial support, meeting practical needs during the adoption process, or praying faithfully alongside adopting families.

Not every Christian is called to adopt, but every Christian can participate in fostering a culture of adoption.

When we care for the plight of the orphan, we echo the heart of our heavenly Father in whom “the fatherless find compassion” (Hos. 14:3, NIV), and we stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us. We do well to follow in their footsteps and point young image-bearers to the hope found only in Jesus Christ. Through God’s grace and mercy, may many orphans find their true homes as sons and daughters of God.

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Welsh Christianity’s Surprising Rise and Decline https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/interview-history-welsh-christianity/ Sat, 11 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=572864 Never before has the whole story of Wales’s Christian past been told in one volume and in the English language.]]> In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones walked around 25 miles to purchase a Bible in her own language. The story of the Welsh weaver’s daughter and her journey to get a copy of God’s word in her own language encouraged the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which continues to translate and distribute Bibles around the world. Acts of faithfulness, however small, can set global movements in motion.

Christianity in Wales has had a big effect on church history, not merely through a long walk by a teenager hungry for Scripture. For the first time in English and in a single volume, A History of Christianity in Wales connects stories of Wales’s Christian past to present-day readers. This engaging book is not just for historians, but for anyone who wants to be encouraged by seeing how God has worked in and through the Welsh people.

I interviewed one of the authors about the book. David Ceri Jones, reader in early modern history at Aberystwyth University in Wales, highlighted some contours of Welsh Christianity.


Many American evangelical Christians are at least aware of the Welsh revival of the 18th century. But this book traces the whole history of Christianity in Wales. Why is looking at one nation’s Christian history important?

The distinctive story of the Welsh Christian past is little known beyond the borders of Wales, and sometimes even within contemporary Wales too. Many people would recognize Martyn Lloyd-Jones but might struggle to name another prominent Welsh Christian.

There are lots of reasons for this, perhaps the main one being that the history of Wales has often been overshadowed by the story of its larger neighbor––England. Wales is also a small country, jutting out into the Irish Sea, with a population of little more than 3 million people.

It’s one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for much of its history, most of its citizens have spoken a different language to the inhabitants of the rest of the British Isles.

The history of Christianity in Wales provides a case study that can help Christians understand the cultural currents that enabled the evangelization of much of the nation but later led to the drastic decline of gospel belief.

How are Welsh Christianity and the Welsh language related? How does that play out in the history of Wales and affect the way ministry occurs in the contemporary Welsh church?

For much of its history, the vast majority of Welsh people spoke Welsh and only Welsh.

When the first attempts to teach the Welsh to read took place in the 18th century, the “circulating schools” of Anglican clergyman Griffith Jones taught people to read in Welsh. This wasn’t primarily out of a love of the language but to allow Jones and other evangelical clergy to reach people more effectively with the gospel and give them the skills to read the Bible for themselves.

The linguistic makeup of Wales changed decisively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the growth of heavy industry—coal mining in particular—brought a large influx of non-Welsh speakers into the country. Some have argued the decline of the Welsh language went hand in hand with the decline of nonconformist religion in the 20th century. That may oversimplify the reasons for Christian decline, which were, of course, not peculiar to Wales.

Today, according to the latest census figures, a little less than 18 percent of Welsh people speak Welsh.

Wales is therefore a bilingual country, and gospel ministry often reflects that. In some parts of Wales, there are fairly recently established Welsh language evangelical churches, while in other parts of the country, evangelicals try to sensitively bring the gospel to speakers of both languages.

This can sometimes create tensions, and the linguistic divide can loom especially large and prove a hindrance to the expression of evangelical unity on a local level. Sadly, for the majority of Welsh evangelical Christians today, many of the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition are inaccessible as they’re written in Welsh.

The consequence is that a distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

What role did Welsh Christians play in bringing literacy to Wales? Why was that effort significant for the history of the country? How did Christian publishing contribute to the evangelization of the nation?

The pioneering schools of Griffith Jones, the vicar of Llanddowror in Carmarthenshire, made the Welsh one of the most literate peoples in the whole of Europe.

A distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

Between the 1730s and 1760s, almost 300,000 men, women, and children were taught to read—mainly in Welsh. And that in a population of not much more than 450,000 souls.

There was a direct link between this newly acquired literacy and receptiveness to the preaching of the Methodists Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in 1735 and afterward. One historian has written that it was really only at this point that the Protestant Reformation came of age in Wales. That might have been something of an overstatement, but there’s some truth to it.

The translation of the Bible into Welsh had taken place in 1588, and the Welsh had access to the Scriptures in their own tongue for almost two centuries by the time of the advent of Methodism. All the same, Protestantism hadn’t become a genuinely popular movement until the evangelical revivals brought preaching and songs to the broader culture. A close fusion occurred between popular evangelical faith and the use of the Welsh language to express the exhilaration of the experience of the new birth when the hymns of William Williams Pantycelyn were published.

Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without a revival reported in some corner of the country. These revivals produced a religious culture that was both learned and populist, and supported a high level of theological discourse through a diverse periodical press and the publication of works of sophisticated Reformed theological insight in the Welsh language. These revivals helped transform Wales into a nation of nonconformists.

Some sense of the richness of this tradition for those who don’t read Welsh may be gleaned from D. Densil Morgan’s two-volume history of Welsh theology, Theologia Cambrensis: Protestant Religion and Theology in Wales.

Who is Daniel Rowland, and why is he important in church history?

Daniel Rowland was one of the triumvirate of Methodist leaders who led the Welsh evangelical revivals of the 18th century. An Anglican clergyman, his ministry was concentrated in southwest Wales, especially his own parish of Llangeitho.

However, our knowledge of Rowland is sketchy at best. Eifion Evans’s biography is the best account of his life, but this has been largely pieced together from sources other than those left by Rowland himself. Beyond a handful of sermons, Rowland’s writings have all been lost.

Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without a revival reported in some corner of the country.

Our knowledge of him therefore comes mainly through the writings of his colleague in the revivals, Howell Harris. Harris penned thousands of letters and kept a highly detailed private diary—running to almost 250 volumes (all of which survive in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth).

Rowland’s reputation rests on his popularity as a preacher, and he frequently attracted congregations in the tens of thousands to Llangeitho, especially for open-air communion services. A fresh outbreak of revival in 1762, centered on Llangeitho and sparked by a new volume of hymns written by William Williams Pantycelyn, was the impetus for the substantial growth of Methodism. This also contributed to its eventual secession from the Church of England in 1811, albeit long after Rowland’s death.

But Rowland is only one name among many that feature in this history of Welsh Christianity, many of which deserve to be more widely known.

William Morgan, the Bible translator, did for the Welsh language what William Tyndale did for English. Harris, a layman, established hundreds of small cell groups all over south Wales that proved to be the bedrock of the Calvinistic Methodist denomination. Thomas Charles of Bala founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, while Lewis Edwards planted Welsh Calvinistic Methodism firmly within the soil of Reformed Presbyterianism, especially of the Scottish variety. All these figures and many more feature in this new account of Christianity in Wales.

What’s something you wish more Christians knew about Christianity in Wales?

Lloyd-Jones once claimed that 18th-century Welsh Calvinistic Methodism was first-century apostolic Christianity. Quite a claim!

If he was right, then the evangelical world has much to learn from the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition. It’s my hope that this volume will introduce evangelical readers to a Christian story hitherto only sketchily known. I hope it’ll whet the appetites of readers for further exploration of the people and events recorded in this whistle-stop tour of Wales and its Christian past.

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Why Do I Have to Keep Forgiving? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/keep-forgiving/ Sat, 11 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569500 Grudges are slow killers. Forgiveness involves trusting God that he’ll make all things right and salve our wounds.]]> Why do I have to keep forgiving him?

I’ve heard it many times as a pastor. It’s said with weariness and hurt, or bitterness and anger, or confusion and longing. It can mean at least four things.

  • “It hurts too much to keep forgiving him for repeated sins.”
  • “Can’t I just overlook her sin against me?”
  • “He hurt me so deeply that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.”
  • “Why am I still hurting over an offense when I said I forgave her?”

What does God’s Word have to say about each of these situations?

1. ‘It hurts too much to keep forgiving him for repeated sins.’

First, let’s be clear: forgiveness and reconciliation are different. You can’t have reconciliation without forgiveness. Reconciliation requires repentance, a changed pattern of living, and the rebuilding of trust in addition to forgiveness.

If reconciliation is like a bridge, forgiveness is like the footing of the structure on either side of the river. Forgiveness may be able to happen without repentance (Mark 11:25), but reconciliation cannot. The bridge of reconciliation is constructed by a changed pattern of living (from the wrongdoer) and the allowance for rebuilt trust (from the victim).

We can forgive without being reconciled—the footing can exist without the bridge. Just as the construction of the footing precedes the building of the bridge, forgiveness precedes reconciliation. Forgiveness is releasing the wrongdoer from what he owes you and opening the door for trust to be rebuilt. It always hurts; it always costs something dear. We must fully release to God the justice owed us. But forgiveness doesn’t mean instant reconciliation.

Forgiveness always hurts; it always costs something dear.

The wrongdoer being unwilling or unable to change can create deeper wounds. Such persistent wounds might mean reconciliation needs to be halted. Perhaps a protective boundary needs to be put in place or a tie needs to be cut. Be brave in seeking professional counsel. We may need to allow more time for the offender to prove trustworthy through a transparent and tangibly changed life. We also must acknowledge that forgiveness doesn’t eliminate the legitimacy—or in some cases, necessity—of pursuing legal justice against a perpetrator.

Nevertheless, forgiveness hurts. If your heart is overwhelmed, it may be because you’re trying to reconcile when God is first asking you to forgive.

2. ‘Can’t I just overlook her sin against me?’

Yes, you may certainly overlook an offense committed against you. The Bible says it’s our “glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). The one who “covers an offense seeks love” (17:9). Peter tells us that as hearts overflow with the love of Christ, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

We should be careful about our motives though. To truly overlook an offense, you must forgive the individual and not hold it against her or let it hinder the relationship. In addition, you must determine that overlooking the offense is in the offender’s best interest. We might be able to truly overlook the offense but still determine that loving confrontation is best for her. Beware of overlooking an offense because of fear rather than love.

3. ‘He hurt me so deeply that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.’

You’re entirely right; none of us deserves forgiveness. The world tries to navigate forgiveness by minimizing sin, but even the smallest sin is egregious if we view it as God does. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)—there’s no sin that doesn’t deserve eternal damnation. There’s no sin that doesn’t exile us from Eden.

The answer isn’t to deny, excuse, or minimize the sin committed against us. It’s to discover the deep well of God’s forgiveness for us. This is the whole point of Christ’s parable about the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35). An important detail is that the second servant owes the wicked servant no small amount. A hundred denarii is equivalent to four months’ wages for the common laborer—more than $10,000 today. Releasing someone from a $10,000 loan is a big deal. Jesus doesn’t diminish the harm done to us and the cost of forgiving that debt.

How, then, can we forgive? Only when we consider how much God has forgiven us. The king in the parable represents God, of course. Ten thousand talents (roughly $7 billion today) is impossible to repay. Even if you earned a six-figure salary, it would take you 1,000 lifetimes to pay it off. Jesus isn’t exaggerating for effect; the cost of our forgiveness is nothing less than the death of the holy, perfect, incarnate Son of God. Christ died for us that we might live with God—and this gift is free for us. As Paul concludes Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We don’t forgive because sins committed against us are manageable or diminished but because we’ve experienced the extravagant mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

4. ‘Why am I still hurting over an offense when I said I forgave her?’

We’re told to “forgive and forget.” Isn’t that what God does? No. While God has mercifully removed our transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), he doesn’t lose omniscience when it comes to our sin. He doesn’t forget our sin—he chooses not to remember. He treats us as though we haven’t sinned and are as righteous as Christ himself. The incarnate and ascended Son of God still bears the scars of the cross in heaven. They’re healed, yet they remain.

How, then, can we forgive? Only when we consider how much God has forgiven us.

Neither are we expected to forget sins committed against us. To make excuses or pretend as though the sin didn’t happen is folly. When serious sins are committed against us, we often don’t fully comprehend the depth of the harm. It’s not unusual to forgive someone only to later realize more forgiveness is required. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process.

If someone gossips about you, for example, you might initially realize your need to forgive her for misrepresenting you—only to later realize you need to forgive her a second time for the way it’s negatively affected others’ views of you. It’s normal to feel the sting of sin against you in a fresh way as each layer of consequence is revealed.

It might take years to heal from the trauma, and even when we’re healed, we may still (like Christ) bear the scars of others’ sins against us. Bearing scars doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t forgiven.

Difficult and Painful

It’s a difficult and painful question, but the Bible graciously answers it. To forgive is, ultimately, to release control of the offender into the hands of a just and merciful Judge for perfect vindication, and perhaps retribution (Gen. 18:25; Rom. 12:19–20). To forgive is to trust our Healer that he’ll make all things right and salve the wounds inflicted on us. But unforgiveness allows us to be hurt over and over again—once by the initial offense and constantly thereafter as we hold on to it.

It’s a good thing the One to whom we turn when struggling to forgive has already forgiven us and paid the cost to repair the ways we’ve wounded him. Thanks be to God for his inexhaustible forgiveness.

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Introduction to the Life and Work of Tim Keller at TGC Netherlands https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/life-work-tim-keller-tgc-netherlands/ Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=577144 At TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen discusses Tim Keller’s life and ministry, highlighting significant tenets of Keller’s faith journey.]]> In his message at TGC Netherlands 2023, Collin Hansen examines Tim Keller’s life and ministry through the concept of “rings on a tree,” revealing the different influences that shaped Keller as a believer and pastor.

Hansen describes how Keller held an inspiring commitment to lifelong learning and spiritual formation, even in the face of illness, and how Keller’s final years were marked by a focus on eternity as he searched for a deeper communion with God and prepared for his own death. A strong sense of community, diverse mentors, and a great love for the gospel all shaped the influential legacy of Tim Keller.

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After ‘Roe’: The Pro-Life Movement’s Next 50 Years https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/pro-life-next-50-years/ Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=580080 We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.]]> Tuesday night was another blow to the pro-life movement as Ohio voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the right to abortion into its constitution.

This was the seventh win out of seven such referenda, including in many conservative-leaning states. In Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to sign a 15-week limit on abortions, pro-life Republicans both failed to flip the Senate and also lost the House, largely on the strength of consistent pro-abortion messaging by Democrats. And in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron lost to incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, who attacked Cameron for his pro-life positions.

There’s no way to sugarcoat these results. It appears that a year after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life cause is still on the defensive. Arguably, we weren’t prepared to make the case for life as we were to make the case against Roe. In at least 14 states, abortion is completely outlawed. In two states, abortion is outlawed after six weeks, and in another two states, it’s outlawed when there’s a heartbeat. There’s a strong indication these laws have made a difference. One study shows that in the two months following the Dobbs decision, there were 5,000 fewer abortions, and in the states where abortion was outlawed, there was a 95 percent reduction.

This is encouraging, but the recent electoral losses show we have much more work to do. The half-century of work by pro-life activists that resulted in the Dobbs decisions must be met with an equal commitment to building a culture of life over the next 50 years. What might building a culture of life look like? Here are a few things for those who engage in the pro-life cause to consider going forward.

1.  We must reaffirm our commitment to the cause of unborn life.

Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of abortion, but we mustn’t waver. Too often we speak with a thousand caveats, or we’re hesitant to speak out for fear of being unpopular. It’s possible to be both civil and bold (1 Pet. 3:15–16). From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture tells us how God feels about image-bearers at the earliest stages of life. Unborn children are humans with full personhood (Ps. 139:13–14; Jer. 1:5). The pro-life issue is a justice issue. It’s the human-rights issue of our time. This is righteous work.

2. We must recognize the importance of persuasion.

It’s not enough to be right. We must also creatively persuade the public of the moral importance of protecting the unborn. Those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for a long time can’t assume the public understands the arguments against abortion. We can’t assume our neighbors see the humanity of the unborn and recognize the need for protections in law.

We must persuade not only our left-leaning neighbors but also our right-leaning ones. Many vote for pro-life candidates but also vote for pro-abortion legislation when it’s a single issue on the ballot. The referenda results appear to confirm the conclusions of the The Great Dechurching study, which found a large cohort of unchurched yet conservative voters. Some Republicans consider pro-life activists to be an electoral albatross and even blame our pro-life convictions for election losses.

Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of the issue of abortion, but we mustn’t waver.

Further, we can’t attach our righteous cause to people with unsavory character. This compromise both hurts the cause electorally and also harms our goal of awakening the American conscience. Instead, the pro-life movement must be proactive in recruiting and training good candidates who believe in the sanctity of human life and embody this ethic with their personal integrity and character.

Taking up the discipleship imperative, churches must intentionally and creatively teach about the sanctity of human life. We must ask, Have church members regularly heard the Bible’s teaching on the imago Dei, human dignity, and the value of the unborn child? Evangelical churchgoers shouldn’t be confused on this issue. They shouldn’t wonder what their pastors think. They shouldn’t be ill-equipped to engage this important issue of justice.

3. We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.

Abortion is a tragic symptom of the revolution that severed sexuality from the covenant of marriage and the beautiful fruit of family life. Our culture desperately needs the church to be a counterculture, an invitation into the flourishing way of life Jesus offers.

Shaping our country’s moral imagination will require us to resist atomization and expressive individualism and instead show our culture that pursuing these dangerous paths only produces loneliness and despair. It’ll mean celebrating the reality that God intends something more for our sexuality than our pleasure. It’ll mean helping fellow citizens embrace the truths that lifelong covenant marriage between men and women helps society flourish when children have both a father and mother in the home.

We should help Americans see that there is another human inside the womb, not merely a clump of cells, to awaken their consciences to see what they don’t want to see.

4. We must continue and extend our work with crisis pregnancies.

A woman who seeks an abortion often doesn’t arrive at this decision alone. She can be under pressure from a community that can’t envision her future as a mother but only sees her unborn child as an obstacle. If she finds a Christian community that values the life within her and sees value in her, and that offers to help, she’ll often choose to keep her baby and raise her child in that community.

This work also needs to be done with young biological fathers, many of whom have little or no connection with their own fathers. Abortion strips men of their responsibility and calls them away from true masculinity. These lost boys need men in their lives who can point them to the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. They need models who will encourage them to reject the passive abandonment of the First Adam and pursue instead the righteous and obedient manhood of the Second Adam.

5. We must take the long view when it comes to building a culture of life and enacting protections into law.

After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when the first few courageous souls began their work to undo that grievous decision, they saw ahead to what no one else in society could: Roe’s end. Few political observers predicted that 49 years later, the decision would come crashing down. It did because faithful leaders, often women, refused to go away. They refused to accept that unborn babies were destined to early graves. They refused to be intimidated by media opposition, cultural scorn, and a lack of resources. They refused to let the enormity of the injustice keep them from speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.

We need a similar vision for the next 50 years. We should envision a day when abortion will be not only illegal across the land but also undesirable. Taking the long view helps us make important, strategic advances. It reminds us that every justice movement is a movement of endurance. William Wilberforce devoted his entire life to ending the slave trade. Rosa Parks understood that the fight for civil rights would outlast her bus boycott. A culture of life will be no different. It will advance step by step, with incremental victories.

Pro-life advocates may be disappointed by recent election results, but we shouldn’t be dispirited. We should understand that while we make legal and moral arguments, ultimately the battle for life is a spiritual one. The taking of innocent life is the work of the Enemy, who the Bible says “has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14). But Christ has defeated this final foe (1 Cor. 15:54). We can fight the pro-life fight joyfully in the power of the Spirit, knowing one day the One who conquered death will return to make all things new.

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‘Journey to Bethlehem’ and Christmas Cringe https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/journey-bethlehem-christmas-cringe/ Fri, 10 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=577545 It’s the biblical nativity story in the style of ‘Glee’ and ‘High School Musical.’ What could go wrong?]]> Faith-based movies have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately—gaining ground not only in commercial viability but also in artistic credibility. To be sure, the bar has been low. Most of these movies are still not great; they’re just better than what we’ve come to expect.

Sadly, the faith-based genre’s latest holiday movie sets the genre back—considerably. Journey to Bethlehem might still find an audience, in part because of thin competition due to the ongoing actors’ strike. But even for audiences looking for feel-good family fare at the multiplex, Journey will likely be disappointing. And for critics like me who have long advocated for more faith-based entertainment that doesn’t leave audiences cringing, Journey isn’t just disappointing; it’s demoralizing.

‘High School Musical’ Meets the Manger

It’s easy to imagine the pitch meeting for Journey to Bethlehem (distributed by Sony’s Affirm Films):

Picture the nativity story done in the teen musical style of Glee or High School Musical. There’s romance, family tension, a flashy villain, supernatural angel visitations, comic relief (a sort of three-stooges rendering of the Magi), and spectacularly choreographed song and dance numbers! It’s a “Christmas musical adventure for the entire family.”

With the Christmas story already so tied in our cultural imagination to music and theatrical performance (concerts of carols, extravagantly produced church cantatas), the green-lighting of a fresh musical take on Jesus’s birth isn’t hard to understand.

Journey has other marketing distinctives going for it too. The film’s cast includes CCM stars in lead roles (rapper Lecrae plays the angel Gabriel, and For King & Country’s Joel Smallbone plays Antipater, Herod’s firstborn son). An Oscar nominee plays Herod (Antonio Banderas). The film is directed and cowritten by Adam Anders, a Grammy-nominated music producer who most famously worked as executive music producer for Glee. His cowriter is Peter Barsocchini, who wrote the scripts for the High School Musical movies.

The narrative and musical masterminds of High School Musical and Glee plus a few CCM big names plus the greatest source material of all time (the Bible). With a recipe like this, what could go wrong?

Jesus and Jazz Hands

Journey’s problem is the same one that plagues the over-the-top church Christmas pageants abounding in megachurches during December.

Often, the addition of dramatic green and red lighting, ornate choreography, theatrical maximalism, and Bob Fosse razzle-dazzle doesn’t enhance the marvelous mystery of Christ’s incarnation; it diminishes it. This well-intentioned outreach to invite people into the biblical story by means of showy entertainment often has the adverse effect of reducing an expansive, world-altering, mind-blowing, magnum mysterium to just another piece of amusing “content” to cozily consume (and perhaps vaguely be inspired by) during the holiday season, in between eggnog lattes and The Great British Baking Show.

A truly meaningful “journey” to Bethlehem would need to jarringly transport us out of the holiday hustle in all its loud consumerism and overscheduled reverie—taking us to a more contemplative place outside of time, far from the familiar, and above the plane of everyday clutter and kitsch.

Cinema has the power to do this, and faith-based filmmakers are right to pursue this transcendent potential. But Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.

Anachronisms and Muted Darkness

Aside from period costumes and sets, and vague audience awareness that the story unfolding on-screen is supposedly set 2,000 years ago, much in Journey reverberates with 21st-century Western values.

I doubt there were female soldiers in Herod’s royal palace guard, for example, but there are in this movie. Because representation matters! And I doubt Jewish girls in first-century Palestine said things like “Faith is believing what you know in your heart to be true,” but they say things like that in this movie. Because follow your heart!

Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.

In the same way that anachronistic pop music in Baz Luhrmann films (Elvis, Moulin Rouge) reflexively reinforces the movie’s artifice—essentially excusing the film (and the audience) from a commitment to historical verisimilitude—the anachronistic feel of Journey distances us from the real biblical events it ostensibly depicts.

From their first “meet-cute” scene in a street market to their requisite “falling in love” ballad (“Can We Make This Work”) to their together-into-the-sunset departure, Mary and Joseph (played by Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim) are essentially following a Hallmark holiday rom-com script. Their personal dreams and aspirations (Mary dreams of becoming a teacher, for example) are at odds with the realities pushing them together into a history-altering union they didn’t seek out. Still, they find love and embrace an unforeseen future together, in a sweet, crowd-pleasing way.

Speaking of crowd-pleasing, the movie omits a key part of the nativity story that’s decidedly not family friendly: Herod’s massacre of the innocents (Matt. 2:16–18). We do see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus take off in a wagon at the end, but they’re bathed in golden-hour light with smiles on their faces. We’re left with the catchy, pulsating lyrics of a feel-good finale song, “Brand New Life,” as the movie ends. It’s a far cry from the “refugee king” drama and “great mourning” that characterizes the account in Matthew’s Gospel (2:13–18).

Yes, the nativity story is hopeful, joyful, and uplifting. But it’s a hope and joy that lifts us up because the starting place is so bleak. The hope is more thrilling because the world is weary. The light illuminates so strikingly because it shines in the darkness (John 1:5).

Light Shining in Deep Darkness

The darkness is fairly muted in Journey to Bethlehem. The film is merry and bright from start to finish (even Herod’s villain power anthem, “Good to Be King,” is a fun, flamboyant romp), such that the arrival of Christ feels less like like a shocking intrusion of light into the terrible darkness and more like a dimmer switch turning up the brightness a bit in an already lit room.

Glittering Christmas spectacles like Journey remind me why one of my regular December disappointments is a church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service that happens with the house lights still on, only dimmed. The point of a candlelight moment is that the starting point is complete, frightening darkness, such that the lighting of the first candle—and then from there, every candle in the room—visually enacts the light overcoming the darkness. The potency of the imagery is lost when the starting point is an already lit room.

The same is true of Christian art—whether music, movies, novels, or visual works. If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.

If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.

The torrent of abundance is more glorious when we’ve felt the scourge of scarcity. If we’re trying to communicate the message of a vivid, jolting intrusion of a great light into the darkness (Isa. 9:2), it’s hard to do this in a medium where darkness is downplayed or contained within the safety of a Disney-style cartoonish villain.

Is the movie musical a genre like this? Not necessarily. There are plenty of examples that grapple honestly with real darkness and gritty human suffering, yet still entertain and inspire audiences to hope (e.g., Les Misérables). But it’s tricky to pull off, and a Christian artist adapting the Bible to the form of a theatrical movie musical should tread carefully.

Medium and Message

Beyond movies like Journey to Bethlehem, it’s always valuable for Christians to remember how vital medium is in the effective communication of a message. We see this in the various “messages” given to characters within Scripture’s nativity account. God’s message for Mary in Luke 1:26–38 would have landed differently had he chosen to communicate it through a human messenger rather than a supernatural angel messenger (Gabriel). The medium mattered.

Same with the shepherds in Luke 2:8–20. Had God simply sent another shepherd along with the message of “good news of great joy,” it might not have been taken seriously. The medium God chose—a fearsome angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host”—mattered. And of course, the incarnation itself proves the point. God didn’t take the form of a ghostly apparition or some sort of alien creature. He took the form of a human man—the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The medium mattered.

In the same way, let’s consider the medium as we go about ministry and Christian storytelling. Is a smartphone app an acceptable medium for a church service? Is Twitter a fruitful medium for theological discourse? Is a movie musical an effective genre for communicating biblical truth? While it might be a stretch to say the answer is a definitive no in each of these examples, it’s not a stretch to say we should at least be asking the questions.

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1776: The Year That Shaped the Post-Christian West https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/remaking-world/ Thu, 09 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=574054 Many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of seven trends that came of age in 1776.]]> Why are things the way they are?

The world often seems strange to us, and it isn’t always clear why. The most pressing questions are the most challenging, with many perspectives needed to help illuminate the bigger picture.

There are several key texts from recent decades that offer partial explanations for the strangeness of the world.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains how secularism became the intellectual “default factory setting” in Western culture. Tom Holland in Dominion describes how the West is animated by symbols, institutions, and ideas that reflect the pervasive influence of Christianity. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman narrates the development of expressive individualism and its effect on modern concepts of sexual identity.

Andrew Wilson’s book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West ties many of these existing threads together and moves the discussion forward.

Remaking the World is an origin story of our culture. It’s an intellectual history of the modern world wherein so many contemporary believers live and move and have our being.

You Say You Want a Revolution

In the English-speaking world, 1776 is best known for the start of the American Revolution, a topic Wilson discusses in his book at length. But the origins of the United States of America are only one part of a much larger story.

According to Wilson, “1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (7). He argues that various events, figures, and ideas that came of age in 1776 and the years that followed informed seven trends that now define the modern world.

Using the acronym WEIRDER, Wilson says our world is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. This concept is not entirely original to Wilson, who draws on first five letters of the acronym (WEIRD) from Joseph Henrich’s 2020 book, The WEIRDest People in the World.

Wilson, who is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London (read TGC’s profile), suggests many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends—including our commitment to liberal democracy, our appreciation for religious liberty, our individualist emphasis on morality, the expressive nature of so much of our art, and the content of our cultural tensions and debates over personal identity. The shadow of expressive individualism, coupled with greater accessibility to education and affluence, looms large.

How the West Became WEIRDER

Most of Remaking the World is dedicated to recounting the historical origins of the seven WEIRDER trends. Wilson’s metanarrative is persuasive and offers significant explanatory power in describing the world as we now know it. While his chapters don’t strictly follow the acronym, I’ll summarize their content along those lines.

Many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends.

Wilson argues the world became Western (W) because James Cook circumnavigated the globe, clarifying that there was a West (at least from the perspective of European cartographers). The values of Europe, which had traveled further and endured longer because of certain geographic advantages, increasingly shaped the values of the East and eventually the Global South.

We became more Educated (E) because of the rise of what’s often called the Enlightenment. While the name is somewhat misleading, in this period pioneering intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant and Edward Gibbon were transforming how many of us think. Gradually, the subversive ideas of the Paris salon or the London pub became the secular norms of the modern West, though the latter still echoes Christian assumptions more than is typically conceded.

Today, we’re Industrialized (I) because of inventions such as the steam engine, innovations such as factories, and economic priorities such as free markets. The pioneers of the Industrial Revolution could hardly have imagined the pace of innovation that characterizes our ongoing technological revolution.

This trend helped create the next one, as the world became Richer (R) due to what Wilson and others have called the Great Enrichment. Gross domestic product and personal wealth have accumulated at a far greater pace, and to a far greater degree, than in any previous period in history. Wilson attributes aspects of the Great Enrichment to the influence of Christianity while warning against how greed and other vices have fueled enrichment in the modern world.

The West is certainly more Democratic (D), in large part because of the American Revolution and similar movements it inspired in other nations. However, democracy has taken deepest root in nations whose soils remain nurtured by Christian assumptions, even if unacknowledged or commingled with Enlightenment ideas.

But one facet of many democracies, an emphasis on religious disestablishment, has contributed to the Ex-Christian (E) posture of the West. In the 1770s, the seeds of secularism were evident in the skepticism of many leading philosophers, including some American founding fathers, whose skepticism informed their advocacy for religious freedom. The seeds of post-Christian sexual ethics were also evident, epitomized by the depraved writings (and actions) of Marquis de Sade.

Art is both informed by culture and creates culture, and the Romantic (R) movement profoundly shaped the modern West. Wilson discusses several writers who were precursors of expressive individualism and in some cases devotees of the revolution in sexual morality.

Wilson’s narrative, though necessarily general, is nuanced. In every case, he demonstrates the dynamic interplay between Christian ideas and rival worldviews in shaping our current intellectual milieu. The upshot is that some of our assumptions are deeply Christian (even among many unbelievers), while others are sub-Christian or even anti-Christian (even among many believers). The West today isn’t so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

How Then Should We Live?

Wilson’s stated motivation in expounding the intellectual legacy of 1776 is “to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world” (12). To that end, he spends the final two chapters reflecting on how evangelicals navigated the mid to late 18th century and what that means for us today. His synthesis of intellectual history and pastoral sensibilities is both refreshing and commendable.

The West today is not so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

Remaking the World focuses on three themes: grace, freedom, and truth. Wilson recounts the flowering of evangelical hymnody in the era of John Newton, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley, with their emphasis on God’s free grace available to sinful humans. He discusses the campaign to abolish slavery in England and New England, which was led largely by evangelicals. And he discusses the apologetic for truth (including religious truth) undertaken by the little-known German evangelical philosopher Johann Georg Hamann during the height of the Enlightenment. These classical evangelical emphases are evergreen.

Today, we should remember that the same century that gave rise to our modern world also gave rise to the modern evangelical movement. The earliest generations of evangelicals flourished in the dawning days of the world in which contemporary evangelicals now live.

We can flourish similarly, though not by revising evangelicalism to jell with the assumptions of our culture. Rather, evangelicalism will thrive to the degree we offer a faithful, courageous, and winsome witness to evangelical truth in ways that connect contextually with those whose lives are shaped by the trends Wilson has so helpfully defined and described in Remaking the World.

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Don’t Overlook Commuter-Campus Ministry https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/overlook-commuter-campus-ministry/ Thu, 09 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=577112 Ministry on commuter campuses is different, difficult, and completely worth the effort.]]> I was blessed to spend 13 years working in college ministry, mostly at two large residential universities in Virginia.

Those were wonderfully sweet years of ministry for our family. We had the privilege of seeing students trust Christ, grow in their faith, become leaders, and be sent out to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives.

On several occasions, our team attempted to launch a ministry at other nearby schools, typically commuter colleges. Those efforts were generally met with frustration. When something did take off, it’d usually fizzle within a year or two. As I spoke with fellow college ministers, I realized this was a common experience. Commuter college ministry is hard.

Our family recently moved to a new city to plant a church. Although there are no residential colleges in our town, there are two large four-year commuter schools. We’ve had the opportunity to spend significant time working with students on both campuses. Here are a few reasons we’ve come to believe that ministering on commuter campuses is worth the effort—not only for campus workers but for pastors too.

Why Is It Challenging?

Why do commuter college students often seem more difficult to reach? I can think of at least three reasons.

1. They’re ‘nontraditional.’

“Traditional” college students are individuals who graduate from high school and immediately go off to college, where they spend four years before graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Students at commuter schools are more likely to be “nontraditional.” They may be older, working full-time, or taking classes part-time. They may have families or other responsibilities. Nontraditional students are less likely to have the flexibility to be involved in extracurricular activities like campus ministries. Weekly commitments and retreats are often a no-go.

Ministering to such students may require adjusting the expectations of involvement and success for your ministry.

2. They aren’t around at night.

Ministering to such students may require adjusting the expectations of involvement and success for your ministry.

Commuter students, well, commute. When they’re done with class, they head home—and home is sometimes far away. I know students who commute an hour or more to get to campus. This means most students aren’t available during the traditional time to have college ministry activities—at night.

Ministering to them will require adjusting your daytime calendar and being flexible with your schedule.

3. They don’t stay for four years.

Often students at commuter colleges are hoping (or in the case of community colleges, required) to transfer to another school after a year or two to finish their degree. This means the window to work with them is much shorter than at a residential college. Most college ministry models are structured around a four-year program and don’t necessarily translate well when turnover is faster.

To minister to these students, you may have to throw out the playbook and get creative.

Why Are They Worth It?

Despite these challenges, the effort is worth it for several reasons.

1. They’re receptive.

Students at large residential colleges are inundated with opportunities to get involved. I’ve spent more hours than I could possibly count standing at info tables on traditional campuses trying to get students’ attention—only to have 95 percent of them walk by and never make eye contact. As frustrating as this is, it’s hard to blame them. If they stopped at every organization’s table they passed, they’d never get anything else done.

This isn’t the case on most commuter campuses. Even if the student-life website boasts “over 200 registered groups,” the reality on the ground is that students encounter few opportunities to get involved in meaningful ways.

I led a weekly Bible study with a campus ministry at one of our local commuter colleges. Before our first study, I took a few minutes to walk around the library and invite students to join. To my surprise, one of the young men I invited came over and sat with us. He came back nearly every week that semester. This wasn’t an isolated incident; students at these colleges are waiting for someone to invite them to be part of a community.

2. You can minister to the whole family.

My wife met a female student on campus last year and began to meet weekly with her to study one of the Gospels. Over the course of the year, this woman decided to follow Christ and got involved with our church plant. Before long, she brought both of her sisters and her mom to various church functions.

This whole-family ministry was alien to my experience working at a residential college, where students were often hours away from their families. But it’s right at home in the New Testament, where the gospel often reaches entire families at once.

3. Students stick around.

The saddest part of ministry at traditional colleges is saying goodbye to seniors every year. From our rural town in southwest Virginia, they’re always off to Richmond, DC, Charlotte, and innumerable other places.

Students at these colleges are waiting for someone to invite them to be part of a community.

In contrast, many students at commuter schools stick around in the city where they grew up. Even if they transfer to finish their degree, they often come back. This is where they plan to get a job, get married, and start a family. Not only are there fewer “goodbyes,” but you now have the opportunity to minister to them for the long haul through the joys and pains of these next seasons.

So campus workers, church planters, pastors, and missions-minded church members, don’t overlook commuter campuses in your city. There’s exciting work to be done.

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Love and Liberty: The Original Sexual Revolution https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/love-liberty-original-sexual-revolution/ Wed, 08 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=576191 Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener talk with historian Kyle Harper about the early Christian revolution in attitudes toward sex and sexuality.]]> Nearly a millennium before the swinging ’60s, a revolution in attitudes toward sex and sexuality transformed how we consider marriage, family, the sexes, equality, consent, and even concepts like free will and human dignity.

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Andrew Wilson and Glen Scrivener interview Kyle Harper, a University of Oklahoma historian of the classical and author of From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Harper unpacks that first revolution, how it shaped the traditional Western understanding of sex, and how it has been challenged and in some ways rejected in the past 60 years.

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Help and Hope When Church Leaders Fall https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/help-hope-leaders-fall/ Wed, 08 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569749 Even the strongest saints are wounded and vulnerable when those around them fall.]]> Our backyard forest is struggling to survive this year’s relentless Texas drought. Dead grass, withered leaves, and fallen branches litter the parched ground, and a massive hackberry tree fell this week. The familiar tree’s sudden death is sad, but most devastating is the damage left behind: saplings crushed, weaker trees bent in half with tips trapped under the trunk’s weight, and many mature trees suffering broken limbs, split trunks, and crushed crowns.

The damage done when Christian friends and leaders fall away from the faith is similarly devastating, leaving weaker brothers and sisters crushed, bent, or trapped under their weight. Let’s not forget even the strongest saints are vulnerable and wounded when those around them fall.

Psalm 12 is David’s lament over the deception, arrogance, and corruption prevailing among those once considered faithful and godly. John Calvin notes this lament isn’t about strangers but rather a “deluge of iniquity prevailing in the church of God.” When faith is proven insincere or friends and leaders publicly reject Christ, everyone grieves the “deluge of iniquity” (or, in David’s words, the flattering lips, double hearts, and exalted vileness). Psalm 12 offers strong encouragement, practical wisdom, and stern warnings for the faithful who are struggling to endure after intimate friends or trusted leaders fall.

Strong Encouragement in Persistent Grief

When someone close to us slowly disappears or suddenly falls, we’re not alone. Our churches, church histories, and Bibles are full of faithful saints with stories of enduring similar suffering. Though David’s circumstances in Psalm 12 of betrayal and distrust are unknown, we know his desperation is due to the flattering lips and double hearts of the “godly one [who] is gone” (v. 1).

A nation that rewards appearances of godliness and religious affiliation with possibilities of power, fame, and fortune will inevitably see false teachers and insincere religious leaders fall as those public opinions change. When a culture no longer regards Christianity as virtuous, people’s arrogant and deceitful hearts are revealed, even as some with sincere faith are tempted or led astray by the spirit of this age. Drift happens when godliness no longer promises gain. Then, like my hackberry, when friends and leaders fall, it causes damage to everyone around them.

Drift happens when godliness no longer promises gain.

It was reasonable for David to feel alone after those he trusted vanished or were caught lying. Pain and disorientation are expected after friends fall, especially in seasons of relentless heat and drought. Even when we feel alone, though, the strong encouragement of Psalm 12 is that we’re never alone. We have confidence in a God who promises never to leave or forsake.

This same God also gives us one another. The introduction of Psalm 12 acknowledges a choirmaster and choir proclaiming David’s laments alongside him. In verse 5, David prays for the poor and vulnerable suffering with him under the weight of fallen leaders. Then, in verse 7, the faithful remnant is acknowledged as David declares their sure defense: “[God] will guard us from this generation forever.”

Even though it’s reasonable to feel alone, Psalm 12 reminds and encourages us that we are never alone.

Practical Wisdom to Help Us Endure

The psalm ends with David’s swirling thoughts and emotions unresolved—like the external wickedness and conflicts around him. Nonetheless, he presses on in three practical ways.

1. Humbly and honestly cry and complain to God.

David admits vulnerability and loneliness, confusion and pain. He names overpowering emotions and puts words to swirling thoughts. When unsure what to do or whom to trust, start with a simple and humble cry to God. Honest cries and complaints to God are the opposite of flattering lips, boastful tongues, and the deceitful double-hearts of those who have fallen.

2. Acknowledge and seek truth, no matter how painful.

David acknowledges God’s delight in truth and declares the goodness of revealed truth—even if it causes suffering. He seeks truth by praying for deceit and corruption to end for the sake of the vulnerable, knowing it might cause additional pain. It’s good to seek truth in our land, in the hearts of our leaders, and in our own sinful hearts—even when its revelation is painful.

3. Sing the truth with (and to) one another.

David sang Psalm 12 alongside the Kushites while the weariness of the world threatened to crush him. Show up to church on Sunday and sing alongside others also fighting unseen battles. Sing when you can’t get out of bed on Monday morning, as you walk into another hostile boardroom, or in the carpool line while the weariness of the world threatens to crush you. Singing truth defends against prevailing pain and confusion while we wait on God to set all things right.

Warning in Our Vulnerability

As in David’s time, wickedness and vileness are exalted in ours. Truth is relative, flattery prevails, and godliness is leveraged for gain. Worldly knowledge and eloquent speech are valued over truth and love. Sermons are posted and measured by views and likes, tempting leaders to exult in flattery, success, performance, and empty praise. Everyone is vulnerable to the spirit of this age. If David and Calvin needed God to guard them against their generations, how much more, in this time of information deluge and instant gratification, are we utterly dependent on God to guard us?

Wickedness and vileness are exalted in our time. Truth is relative, flattery prevails, and godliness is leveraged for gain.

Fallen trees wound, and we’ll certainly feel hurt and vulnerable when those around us crash to the ground—or simply disappear. But though it’s good to realize the effect of fallen friends and leaders, we must also recognize our vulnerability and dependence on God alone even when we serve under or alongside the most faithful and godly.

Psalm 12 begins and ends with inner turmoil and external tension. There’s no resolution, just as there seems to be no end to Christian friends and leaders falling today. Charles Spurgeon captures the tension perfectly, declaring its sacred stanzas a “mingled melody of lowly mourning and lofty confidence.”

Let’s cry and complain to the Lord with bright sadness as we seek and sing merciful truth together. That’s how we’ll endure prolonged anguish caused by those who fall around us, even as we depend solely on God to hold us fast until the end.

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True Blessing Comes from Countercultural Living https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/true-blessing-countercultural-living/ Tue, 07 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=576393 We’ve tried just about everything else in our changing world. Maybe we should try doing what Jesus says.]]> “Jesus hears and cares about the things that make your heart heavy and your cheeks wet.”

That was perhaps the most moving line in Alistair Begg’s new book The Christian Manifesto: Jesus’ Life-Changing Words from the Sermon on the Plain (The Good Book Company, 2023).

It’s a challenging book. It’s a sensible book. It’s a book about how we approach the world, how we engage the culture in truth and love. Above all, it’s a biblical book all about Jesus.  

Core to Begg’s manifesto is a contrast between the teaching of Jesus and the way of the world. The Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke isn’t the kind of speech that gets you elected to public office today. Jesus didn’t flatter. And he didn’t compromise. His ways aren’t always our ways. Begg argues,

The biggest reason for the ineffectiveness of contemporary Christianity is a failure to take seriously the radical difference that Jesus calls for as we follow him as King. The 21st-century Western evangelical church has too often given in to the temptation to soft-pedal Jesus’ words—to find caveats and loopholes in what he says—in order to offer the world something that sounds more palatable and less demanding. We have spent decades congratulating ourselves for being able to go among our non-Christian friends and say, “You know what? We’re just the same as you.” And they’ve said, “You know what? I think you’re absolutely right!” 

So what’s the alternative? The kingdom of Jesus! Followers of Jesus don’t get happy and sad about the same things as the rest of the world. Christians pursue ambition in ways the world regards as weak. Sometimes Jesus’s commands won’t make sense to others. Sometimes they don’t even make sense to his followers. And yet we trust him and obey. We’ve tried just about everything else in our changing world. Maybe we should try doing what Jesus says. Here’s Begg again:

I’ll show you how to make an impact on the culture, says Jesus. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who ill-treat you. If we chose to live this out, it would cause a revolution in our culture. It would prompt a complete change in the tone that many of us adopt on social media. It would open doors of homes and make them places of welcome and restoration. It would cause bridges to be built across political divides that have caused disagreements (or worse) in the past, and it would transform relationships in the workplace into ones of collaboration and forgiveness rather than self-promotion and grudge-holding. In other words, if we chose to live this out, it would show what our Father is like: merciful. 

Alistair Begg is senior pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher at Truth for Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world. He joined me on Gospelbound to talk about Jesus, true gospel-centered living, and more.

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From Shadow to Substance: Aaronic Priesthood’s Transformation https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/levitical-priesthood-perpetual/ Tue, 07 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=575971 Exodus 40 is a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens.]]> Let’s say you’re reading through Exodus and you get to chapter 40, where the Levitical priesthood is being described. There you read that Aaron and his sons were to be a “perpetual priesthood throughout their generations” (Ex. 40:15). Wait, what? Perpetual? As in, never-ending—the opposite of temporary? If the Levitical priests are supposed to be perpetual, then how come we don’t have them in our churches?

This same question arises for other related issues. If the Levitical priesthood is perpetual, then one would think the tabernacle in which they worked would also be perpetual. Turns out it is:

  • The lighting of the golden lampstand in the tabernacle was to be a “statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel” (Ex. 27:21).
  • The Day of Atonement—the one day a year when the high priest went into the Most Holy Place to pour sacrificial blood on the mercy seat—was to be a “statute forever” (Lev. 16:34).
  • Long before that, God had told Abraham that the covenant of circumcision in his flesh was to be an “everlasting covenant” “throughout your generations” (cf. Gen. 17:11, 12).

Bible-believing Christians are perfectly comfortable living our lives and leading our churches with no Levitical priests, no golden lampstands, no Day of Atonement, and no circumcision. Why? Is it because we don’t take these passages seriously? Have we somehow embraced a “Greek” Christianity that’s shorn of its Jewish roots?

The answer is no. But the question is worth exploring because this is a test case for how to interpret the Bible. To be more precise, it’s a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens, allowing the New Testament to guide our interpretation of the Old Testament.

Later Revelation Interprets Earlier Revelation

Historically, many Christians have referred to Old Testament practices like circumcision and priestly rules as “ceremonial” or “positive laws” (as distinguished from moral laws) and have argued they’re no longer binding in the New Testament. Whether you like that terminology or not, it’s a good-faith attempt to listen to all of Scripture to understand why some laws were discontinued while others weren’t.

For example, the reason Christians don’t regard circumcision as a perpetually binding practice (despite Gen. 17:13) isn’t because of a natural aversion to being cut. Rather, it’s because of straightforward New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 7:18–19:

Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. (cf. Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Col. 3:11)

Paul takes something the Torah commanded on pain of death (Ex. 4:24–26) and basically says, “It doesn’t matter.” Unless you’re going to accuse Paul of being a false prophet who rejected the Old Testament, you have to wrestle with why he said this. What categories was he employing to arrive at such a jarring conclusion? At the very least, this should give you a starting point for why Christians don’t get their circumcision ethics straight out of Genesis 17.

This a case study in how to interpret the Bible with a redemptive-historical lens, allowing the New Testament to guide our interpretation of the Old.

This principle also explains why we can’t simply go straight to the “perpetual” texts cited above and conclude, “We’ve got to obey them literally, or else we’re refusing to believe the Bible.” Later revelation must be allowed to explain earlier revelation. You can’t interpret phrases like “perpetual priesthood” and “statute forever” apart from the New Testament. The New Testament gives us an inspired interpretation of how those Old Testament ceremonies were fulfilled.

Shadows Point to the Substance

But lest this sound arbitrary—as though we were simply comparing the dates and concluding that later must be better, let’s pay attention to how the apostles reached their conclusions. Their purpose was never to critique or dismiss Old Testament ceremonies in themselves but rather to show how they were intended to point to Christ all along.

In Colossians 2:17, for example, Paul uses the language of “shadow” and “substance” to describe the relationship between Old Testament ceremonies and Christ. A shadow is cast by a substance (e.g., a body). Questions of food and drink, festivals, new moons, Sabbaths—all these were shadows cast by the approaching Christ. But Christ is the substance, and when he arrives, we aren’t to allow others to pass judgment on us in such shadowy matters.

The writer of Hebrews uses this same language to describe the relationship between the Levitical priesthood with its tabernacle context and Christ the great high priest. These earthy priests, he says “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5). Moreover, Hebrews 9 is clear that these outward types were only meant to endure “until the time of reformation” (v. 10).

So regarding the Day of Atonement, Hebrews 9 teaches that Christ fulfilled it when he entered once for all into the true holy place in heaven (vv. 11–28). This means that when Leviticus 16 calls the Day of Atonement a “statute forever,” we have to include the fulfillment in that word “forever.” What the Day of Atonement was pointing to will endure forever. But that doesn’t mean the ceremony itself would endure forever.

Once More on the Levitical Priesthood

The book of Hebrews relates Christ to the Levitical priesthood in two different ways. It not only teaches that Christ fulfilled the Levitical priesthood when he went into the true holy place in heaven to offer himself but also teaches that Christ belongs to a better priesthood than that of Aaron. Once again, the order of events in redemptive history plays a key role here.

The writer points out that before the law was ever given, Moses spoke of another priest named Melchizedek (see Gen. 14:18). Then after the law was given, Psalm 110 tells us another priest was going to arise after the order of Melchizedek. So putting all those things together—Genesis 14, which was before the law, and Psalm 110, which came after the law, the author of Hebrews reasons like this:

If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Heb. 7:11–12)

For Psalm 110 to come true, the law would have to change. In other words, the Old Testament was already indicating Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t going to last forever in the literal sense. It was bound up with the old covenant—but when the new covenant came, the old covenant would vanish away, along with its priesthood (Heb. 8:13). It would then be superseded by a better priest—a priest who’d never have to be replaced because he’d live forever.

The Old Testament was already indicating Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t going to last forever in the literal sense.

In short, the writer of Hebrews isn’t saying, “Aaron’s priesthood wasn’t perpetual after all—Exodus 40 just got it wrong.” Nor is he saying, “You would never have gotten any this from the Old Testament, but since I’m an inspired apostle, I can fill in the gaps for you.” Instead, he’s saying, “This is already there in the Old Testament. You just need to know how to put the pieces together properly.”

So when we read about “perpetual priesthoods” and “forever statutes,” we mustn’t read these promises as though Exodus were all the Scripture we had. We must heed Paul’s counsel and “remember Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:8). The One in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20). The only son of Israel who is truly “a priest forever.”

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How a Gentle Spirit Silences Contention https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/gentle-spirit-silences-contention/ Mon, 06 Nov 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=577156 Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund discuss avoiding a quarrelsome spirit in Christian leadership and the need for kindness, patience, and gentleness. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund discuss 2 Timothy 2:14–26. They consider the importance of avoiding a quarrelsome spirit in Christian leadership and the need for kindness, patience, and gentleness in dealing with others. Their conversation highlights how the apostle Paul’s approach to correction is to first connect with others, not shame or reject them, and to do so in a way that makes it easy for them to repent and follow Jesus.


Recommended resource: Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp

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Our First Evangelistic Task: Make Christianity Comprehensible https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/make-christianity-comprehensible/ Mon, 06 Nov 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=576502 The beauty and goodness of the good news need to be made clear, in all its complexity and simplicity.]]> “For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life,” writes Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. This statement gets at the heart of the biggest challenge for the contemporary church.

To help our neighbors trust Jesus for their salvation, we must make the Christian gospel comprehensible.

Comprehensibility is not the same thing as making the gospel palatable or comfortable. Rather, the gospel needs to be imaginable for people who can no longer conceive of the true faith as a possible vision of reality in a secular age.

The beauty and goodness of the good news needs to be made clear, in all its complexity and simplicity. We must demonstrate a reality exists outside our minds and our experiences and that the gospel demands conformity to that external reality. This requires disrupting materialist conceptions of the Christian faith through contemplation of the gospel, teaching a robust biblical sexual ethic, and challenging the belief that we belong to ourselves.

Contemplate the Transcendent

Many of our neighbors will struggle to conceive of God as a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being who desires to know and love us as his children.

As modern people, we imagine ourselves to be “buffered,” in Taylor’s language. To be buffered means we feel we can dictate the terms by which we engage the world. This requires us to live in the immanent frame, which is to envision reality in primarily materialist terms. We’re cut off from the world beyond our own experience and interpretation.

Even for Christians, it’s difficult to imagine something like a rainbow as a sign from God. We experience it merely as a material phenomenon. Part of making the gospel comprehensible involves helping people see and experience the Christian faith as more than a lifestyle option, disrupting their conception of God by asserting his reality, identifying and challenging the immanent frame, and engaging in practices like the Lord’s Supper.

Breaking through our materialist assumptions is hard because we’ve all been sucked into the hum and buzz of a technological age, an age that demands more and more of our time and militates against contemplation and reflection. The gospel is cognitively taxing. It upsets our very understanding of ourselves.

The gospel is cognitively taxing. It upsets our very understanding of ourselves.

Breaking free from the immanent noise of technology to think deeply about the gospel requires contemplation. Ultimately, the results of any gospel presentation depend on the work of the Holy Spirit. But we must be aware that the material situation of our neighbors’ distraction actively works against the kind of thinking that allows awareness of our sin nature and our need for a redeemer.

Reaching our neighbors requires us to come up with practices that pull people away from the technology of distraction and invite them to contemplate the transcendent wonder of the gospel.

Get Sexual Ethics Right

Because we’re living through a second sexual revolution, we need to be able to communicate the beauty of a biblical sexual ethic. We must clear up confusion about what Christians believe in general (as a post-Christian culture grows), but especially in the areas of sexuality and gender.

We must be able to explain the essential relationship between marriage, our bodies, sex, and procreation. Marriage needs to be presented not merely as a license for sex or a legal bond but as a covenant grounded in the act of creation and a living metaphor for Christ’s love for his church.

Our bodies should be understood as belonging not to ourselves but to God and in some limited ways to our spouses and children. We must teach that the purpose of sex involves both the pleasure and intimacy of the couple and an openness to children. Although not all will be capable of having children, procreation should be seen as part of the nature of marriage itself. These ideas will be challenging to our secular neighbors—and to those in the church who’ve been taught that their bodies are their own and children are merely a lifestyle option.

The communication of this sexual ethic must take place off platforms that require sound bites. Social media isn’t conducive to discussions about our faith. Social media is especially hostile to explaining a robust biblical sexual ethic. Instead, the local church needs to be an example of the beauty of Christian sexual ethics. Moreover, Christian leaders need to offer lengthy and nuanced accounts of why the Bible’s sexual ethics is beautiful.

The world will grow weary of autonomy and sex positivity. The church has an opportunity to offer something true and freeing.

Remember We Are Not Our Own

To get at the root of these cultural obstacles, we need to holistically challenge the belief that we are our own and belong to ourselves.

The concept of self-ownership makes it hard for modern people to accept an external authority as a source of spiritual life. We can understand searching within for an authentic spirituality, but not outside ourselves. We imagine ourselves to be autonomous. And we’ve been taught this autonomy is our greatest liberty.

Whether it’s from the mouths of midcentury existentialists or advertisers or Instagram celebrities, we’re told we’re radically free to create our reality because we are our own. However, this ideology isn’t freeing. It’s a slow form of death, and the evidence is all around us.

Our neighbors (and many in the church) publicly rejoice in their radical autonomy. Meanwhile, they’re miserable, frail, insecure, and despairing. The French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg has persuasively argued in The Weariness of the Self that there’s a direct relationship between the modern conception of the self-created and self-sustaining person and modern expressions of depression and anxiety.

The burden of self-belonging overwhelms us. When our neighbors can see that autonomy isn’t life-giving but a form of imprisonment, the alternative—belonging to God—becomes more conceivable.

Resist Culture’s Pressures

It’s not that these three emphases define the core of the gospel or that they’re unique to Christianity. Rather, contemplating the transcendent, exhibiting biblical sexual ethics, and maintaining awareness of God’s ownership of our lives each reflects an effort to push back at three significant pressure points of our culture. None of them is the gospel, but each of them effectively displays the implications of the gospel in a way that’s distinct from the world around us.

Our neighbors (and many in the church) publicly rejoice in their radical autonomy. Meanwhile, they’re miserable.

While the church in the West faces unprecedented shifts, there are opportunities for us to offer a true counternarrative. That requires us to make Christianity comprehensible.

The gospel will always be offensive, but it hasn’t always been broadly incomprehensible as it is in a secular age. Our task is to probe and find points of tension where we can upset misconceptions, offer a beautiful alternative, challenge the prevailing social myths, and proclaim the good news.

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One Thing My Parents Did Right: A Home Grounded in Reality https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/parents-home-reality/ Sun, 05 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568594 Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.]]> My mom is the single greatest influence on my life, and the Lord used her in a vital way to bring me to a saving knowledge of Christ. She laid a framework that made the Christian worldview intelligible and, eventually, compelling to me. I’m certain my story is like countless others where God worked through the discipline and instruction of parents to reach their children.

But one thing makes my situation unique: my mom isn’t a Christian.

For most of my childhood, she’s been an atheist. During my growing up years, she talked about church as punishment. She’d even threaten to take me and my siblings to church when we were misbehaving. Yet in many ways, the manner in which Mom raised us betrayed dependence on a Christian outlook on reality.

We were brought up with an unshakable sense that we lived in a morally charged world—meaning was derived from the world around us, not something we imposed on the world. We heard we weren’t the only significant people but rather part of a larger network of people who are just as important as us. My mom knew the most loving way to raise us was to teach us we weren’t the center of the universe.

Home Didn’t Revolve Around Us Kids

This was perhaps most clearly evident in the decisions my mom made for me growing up. While she cared about what I wanted, she was most concerned with what was best for me. If the two were in conflict, no amount of protesting on my part would change her mind. Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.

We were brought up with an unshakable sense that we lived in a morally charged world.

I was taught to eat my vegetables, do my homework as soon as I got home from school, and get eight or nine hours of sleep each night. I might not have always appreciated the wisdom of these rules, but even as a kid, I understood at least theoretically that they existed for my good.

This was important in at least two ways.

First, it taught me there’s meaning and coherence to the world around me. I didn’t have the burden of painting meaning on the world’s empty canvas, but I did have the responsibility to live wisely (or at least follow my parents’ wisdom) in a world already colored with meaning.

Second, it taught me I didn’t know everything. There’s always some legitimate knowledge that’s foreign to me. And that reality cultivated a sense of humility—or at least caution—as I evaluated others’ ideas. Eventually, this conviction that I don’t know everything made me willing to consider the claims of Christianity, though they felt alien at the time.

Home Was Deeply Moral

My mom also insisted on a fundamentally Christian understanding of morality. When I was around 10 years old, I was a little philosopher piecing together life’s meaning in a world without God. I once confidently told my mom the purpose of life was to pursue happiness. I was sure that in a world devoid of any transcendent standards to which I might be held accountable, this was the only sensible answer to life’s meaning.

Our household didn’t revolve around my desires but around the fixed reality of the world I lived in.

But my mom quickly rebuked her little hedonist and told me life was about more than enjoying yourself. Life is about helping others and making the world a better place, and while happiness is a good thing, it can’t be the ultimate thing. Her words rang true though I couldn’t assemble a solid foundation on which to place these ideas.

I don’t know if my mom could’ve explained where her ideas about morality were founded either. Nevertheless, that conversation put the first cracks in my atheistic worldview. It tilled the soil where the seed of the gospel would eventually take root.

Home Prepared Me to Hear

Reinforced by my mom’s parenting, I came to understand reality in a way that was ultimately incompatible with my (and her) stated beliefs. As the cracks in the foundation of my atheism began to widen, I legitimately considered other perspectives that could better account for the world around me. Then, when I was 15, when God had made sufficient room in my mind for me to consider the gospel’s claims, he brought me to a church service where I heard this world’s true story.

The richness of the gospel gave me the resources to make sense of the world in an existentially satisfying way. The gospel message compelled me to explore the distinct picture of the world God paints in his Word, and eventually, Christ convinced me this picture was more true, compelling, and livable than any other.

As yet, my mom hasn’t followed me in becoming a Christian. (That fills me with both sorrow and hope.) But she’s the one who prepared much of the kindling in my life that God’s gospel later lit and fanned into flame. She’s the one who taught me to look at the world in such a way that it simply didn’t make sense without God.

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The Best Hymn Writer You’ve Never Heard Of https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/best-hymn-writer-never-heard/ Sun, 05 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=566016 Don’t neglect the ministry of Anne Steele. She can still speak to you today.]]> She’s been called the “poet of the Sanctuary,” and even “the all-time champion Baptist hymn-writer of either sex.” She penned hymns as a contemporary of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper. Here’s a sample:

Awake, awake, the sacred song,
To our incarnate Lord;
Let every heart and every tongue
Adore th’ eternal Word.

And she also proclaims God’s amazing grace:

Lord, we adore thy boundless grace,
The heights and depths unknown,
Of pardon, life, and joy, and peace,
In thy beloved Son.

Still not jogging your memory? You’re probably not alone. These are the lyrics of Anne Steele (1717–78).

If she was so popular in the 18th century, why do few know about her today? Maybe, at least in part, because she was a Particular (Reformed) Baptist and an unmarried female (not named Fanny Crosby), and she suffered from poor health her entire adult life.

Approaching the Great Physician

Writing amid debilitating physical symptoms and emotional pain, Anne Steele didn’t spend time in the limelight. Her stepmother’s journals and letters reveal that Steele’s childhood included high fevers and fits caused by malaria—which eventually led to a nervous disorder—as well as severe toothaches, stomachaches, and other bodily afflictions. And, like most in her day, she endured the loss of family and friends in her youth.

The death of young people particularly affected her spirit. She took her pen to the Lord in the hymn “The Great Physician”:

Ye mourning sinners, here disclose
Your deep complaints, your various woes;
Approach, ‘tis Jesus, he can heal
The pains which mourning sinners feel.
To eyes long clos’d in mental night,
Strangers to all the joys of light,
His word imparts a blissful ray,
Sweet morning of celestial day!

Steele knew spiritual pain and emotional darkness. A few stanzas later, she closed with a petition about physical infirmities, showing us how to pray for the sick to get well:

Dear Lord, we wait thy healing hand;
Diseases fly at thy command;
O let thy sovereign touch impart
Life, strength, and health to every heart!
Then shall the sick, the blind, the lame,
Adore their Great Physician’s name;
Then dying souls shall bless their God,
And spread the wondrous praise abroad.

Steele was remarkably attuned to her own sin, sin’s curse on creation, and the believer’s dependence on God. In another hymn, she lamented a young person’s death:

When blooming youth is snatched
By death’s resistless hand,
Our hearts the mournful tribute pay
Which pity must demand.

And she concluded,

Great God, thy sovereign grace impart,
With cleansing, healing power;
This only can prepare the heart
For death’s surprising hour.

Steele’s words express both the gravity of the circumstance and the hope of a believer facing tragedy. (Listen also to her beautiful hymn “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” put to music by Matthew Merker.)

Affection for the Savior

Steele remained unmarried for her 61 years of life—but not for lack of courters. For example, she declined a proposal from pastor and hymn writer Benjamin Beddome. Steele was happy with the freedom of the single life as she fixed her affections on her Lord. Consider the first and final verses of “Devoting the Heart to Jesus”:

Jesus, what shall I do to show
How much I love thy glorious name?
Let my whole heart with rapture glow
Thy boundless goodness to proclaim. . . .
O teach my heart, my life, my voice
To celebrate thy wondrous love!
Fulfill my hopes, complete my joys,
And bid me join the songs above.

Steele offers a model of honest vulnerability in meditation and prayer.

Awe at the Wonder of Salvation

Living in a family of timber merchants and bivocational pastors, Steele wrote many hymns for her father’s Particular Baptist congregation in Broughton, England. This means she was a Reformed (or Calvinistic) Baptist. Steele understood God’s holiness and mercy, our great sin and our even greater Savior, and the sovereignty of God coupled with our responsibility to respond to his grace.

The first and the final two stanzas of “The Saviour’s Invitation” illustrate her theology:

The Saviour calls; let every ear
Attend the heavenly sound;
Ye doubting souls dismiss your fear;
Hope smiles reviving round. . . .
Ye sinners, come, ‘tis mercy’s voice;
The gracious call obey;
Mercy invites to heavenly joys—
And can you yet delay? . . . 
Dear Saviour, draw reluctant hearts;
To thee let sinners fly,
And take the bliss thy love imparts,
And drink and never die.

I’ve spent more than five years studying Steele and her hymns. As my sister in the faith, she has reminded me of God’s holiness that makes me tremble—and God’s compassion that never fails. Because of her ministry, I’m slower to be spiritually flippant and quicker to run to Jesus for comfort. Steele has helped me keep this life’s suffering in perspective as I look forward to heaven’s joy. She has deepened my love for the beauty of words, emotions, and God’s creation.

Though now home with her Lord, the best hymn writer you’ve never heard of can still speak to you today—even as she has to me.

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Playlist: 100 Songs for New Christians https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/playlist-100-songs-new-christians/ Sat, 04 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=576579 The 100 songs on this playlist are designed to help new converts immerse themselves in beautiful Christian music that teaches theological truth.]]> Music shapes our hearts and minds. What we fill our ears with—for better or worse—forms who we are and what we love. This is one reason why music has loomed large in Christian worship and catechesis throughout church history. In church, we don’t only rehearse our confession by speaking creeds and hearing biblical truths preached; we sing these confessions and biblical truths. And as we sing, God’s truth roots down deeper in our souls.

As new converts navigate the jarring transition to living wholeheartedly for Christ and his kingdom, in a world where Christian values and theology are ever more alien, immersion in beautiful Christian music and worship is essential. This happens first and foremost in congregational worship settings, but it should also happen throughout the week in Christians’ homes as they dwell, in their cars as they commute, or in their headphones as they work.

In church we don’t only rehearse our confession by speaking creeds and hearing biblical truths preached; we sing these confessions and biblical truths. And as we sing, God’s truth roots down deeper in our souls.

Thanks to the accessibility of streaming music today, it’s easier than ever before to find theologically rich, high-quality Christian songs that can serve as a soundtrack for a new believer’s catechesis. But the voluminous options can be overwhelming. New adult believers unfamiliar with (or understandably skeptical of) Christian music might not know where to start.

That’s why I put together this playlist of 100 songs with a catechetical flair to them: songs that teach Christian truth and yet do it poetically, with excellence.

You can find the playlist now on Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music

While I designed the playlist with new believers in mind, it’s also a valuable curated collection for Christians at any stage. Including devotional prayers, classic and modern hymns, Scripture-based songs, and creedal anthems, these 100 songs—of various genres and from artists all over the world—are rich in nutrients for believers wherever they are on their journey of following Jesus.


Playlist Songs

Opening Prayers

  • “Come Thou Fount,” Kings Kaleidoscope
  • “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” Jadon Lavik
  • “Take My Life and Let It Be,” Paul Zach, Liz Vice
  • “All Shall Be Well,” John Van Deusen
  • “Morning Song (Give Me Jesus),” Antoine Bradford
  • “My All in Thee,” Young Oceans
  • “Thank You, Lord,” Jon Guerra

Creeds and Catechisms

  • “I Am Not My Own,” Skye Peterson, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “What Is My Hope,” Tenielle Neda
  • “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” Keith & Kristyn Getty, Matt Papa
  • “We Believe (Apostles’ Creed),” Stuart Townend
  • “Creed,” Candace Coker, Bellsburg Sessions
  • “Apostles Creed,” Liturgical Folk
  • “Apostles’ Creed,” Emu Music
  • “I Believe,” Phil Wickham
  • “This I Believe,” Shane & Shane

Five Solas

  • “The Five Solas,” Psallos
  • “Soli Deo Gloria,” Zambroa
  • “Grace Alone,” The Modern Post
  • “Faith Alone,” Willie Will, Anisa Stoot
  • “In Christ Alone,” Anchor Hymns, Sandra McCracken, Antoine Bradford
  • “Scripture Alone,” FLAME

Scripture Songs

  • “SHEMA (Deut. 6:4–7),” Will Carlisle
  • “Joshua 1:9,” Verses, Loud Harp
  • “Like a Tree (Psalm 1),” Caroline Cobb
  • “Psalm 16,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “The House of God, Forever,” Jon Foreman (Ps. 23)
  • “Dwell in Your House,” Colorvault, Young Oceans (Ps. 27)
  • “Psalm 43,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Be Still,” Loud Harp (Ps. 46:10)
  • “My Soul Finds Rest (Psalm 62),” Sandra McCracken
  • “No Place Better (Psalm 84),” Caroline Cobb
  • “Wisdom & Grace (Psalm 90),” Rain for Roots, Sandra McCracken, Sera Sage Oakes
  • “Psalm 100 (Make a Joyful Noise),” Brian Sauvé
  • “Psalm 116 (I Love You, Lord),” Mission House, Jess Ray, Taylor Leonhardt
  • “Psalm 121:7–8,” Verses, Rivers & Robots
  • “Psalm 150,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Proverbs 3:5–6,” John Van Deusen
  • “Proverbs 18:10,” Verses, Free as a Bird, Gretyl Baird
  • “Isaiah 11,” Rain for Roots
  • “Perfect Peace,” Tenielle Neda (Isa. 26:3; Phil. 4:6; Matt. 6:26–34; Rom. 12:12, etc.)
  • “Movement 3 (Isaiah 53:4–7),” The Corner Room
  • “Christ,” Poor Bishop Hooper (Matt. 1:1–17)
  • “The Beatitudes Song,” Brook Hills Worship (Matt. 5)
  • “Matthew 6,” Tekoa, Rory Mckenna, Mark Barlow
  • “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jon Guerra (Matt. 6:9–13)
  • “Find Rest (Matthew 11),” Caroline Cobb, Taylor Leonhardt
  • “John 3:16–17,” The Corner Room
  • “He Came to Die (Romans 3:21–31),” Psallos
  • “No Condemnation (Romans 8:1–4),” Immanuel Worship, Jessica Campbell Waterman
  • “Without Love,” Jonathan Ogden (1 Cor. 13)
  • “Galatians 2:20,” The Welcome Wagon
  • “Fullness of God,” JUDAH. (Eph. 3:18–21)
  • “Rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4–7),” Psallos
  • “Ex Paradiso (Hebrews 2:5–18),” Psallos
  • “Unto You (Heb. 12),” Zambroa
  • “James 1:2–5,” The Corner Room
  • “1 John 5:3–5,” The Corner Room
  • “Mercy Peace Love (Jude 2),” Psallos
  • “Is He Worthy? (Live),” Andrew Peterson, Keith & Kristyn Getty (Rev. 5)
  • “Revelation Song,” The Worship Initiative, Shane & Shane (Rev. 5:11–14; 7:9–12)
  • “Revelation 22:20–21,” The Corner Room

Hymns, Old and New

  • “How Great Thou Art,” Shane & Shane
  • “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” Sandra McCracken, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Providence
  • “It Was Finished upon That Cross,” CityAlight
  • “Grace Greater Than Our Sin,” Nathan Drake
  • “His Mercy Is More,” Shane & Shane
  • “Nothing but the Blood,” Shai Linne, Eric Mccallister
  • “Lead Me to the Cross,” sxxnt., Austin Sebak
  • “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “Before the Throne of God Above,” Sojourn
  • “Blessed Assurance,” Nathan Drake
  • “Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me,” CityAlight
  • “Hallelujah! What a Savior,” Ascend the Hill
  • “Power of the Cross,” Shane & Shane
  • “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” Wayfarer
  • “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” Matt Boswell, Shane & Shane, Keith & Kristyn Getty
  • “This Is My Father’s World,” Wilder Adkins
  • “My Worth Is Not in What I Own,” The Gray Havens
  • “Blest Are the Pure in Heart,” Josh Bales
  • “All I Have Is Christ,” Anchor Hymns, Paul Baloche, Leslie Jordan
  • “How Long (Love Constraining to Obedience),” Wayfarer
  • “God Is for Us,” CityAlight
  • “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Poor Bishop Hooper
  • “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord),” Matt Redman
  • “Holy, Holy, Holy,” John Tibbs
  • “King of Kings,” Brooke Ligertwood
  • “Solid Rock,” LOVKN
  • “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” Providence
  • “Amazing Grace,” Forrest Frank
  • “Be Thou My Vision,” Citizens

Closing Prayers

  • “First Love,” Young Oceans
  • “Tethered to the Cross,” Danny O’Callaghan
  • “Thank You Lord,” CalledOut Music
  • “Beautiful Eulogy,” Beautiful Eulogy
  • “Canticle,” TAYA, Jon Guerra
  • “Great Is Your Faithfulness,” Temitope
  • “May You Be Glorified!” John Van Deusen
  • “Doxology Outro,” Shai Linne, Brooks Ritter
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How to Feed Gen Z’s Hunger for Jesus https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gen-zs-hunger/ Sat, 04 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=575654 Gen Z is spiritually hungry. Here are five ministry practices that can help churches and college ministries reach America’s second-youngest generation.]]> God’s Spirit is moving in the hearts and minds of Gen Z. College ministries and churches across the country have seen the impossible become reality: weekly gatherings and small groups bursting at the seams. In less than a year, our college ministry’s weekly attendance doubled in size. It seems to us the Holy Spirit is priming young adults to be more spiritually hungry than previous generations.

Our awareness of these generational hungers led us to recalibrate how we evangelize and disciple Gen Z. While those efforts cannot entirely account for the spiritual renewal we’re seeing—that’s God’s work, after all—we want to suggest five ministry practices that can help churches and college ministries reach America’s second-youngest generation.

1. Preach repentance and forgiveness as a way of life.

Gen Z is hungry for transparency in a plastic, digitally perfected world. But honesty creates tremendous risk. What if I’m excluded? What if people don’t like me? What if I’m too much? The gospel creates an environment where honesty about our imperfection doesn’t exclude the possibility of acceptance. In fact, as Tim Keller wrote in The Meaning of Marriage, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

This is why our sermons emphasize repentance and forgiveness not as a one-time event but as a way of life. On the one hand, the lifelong call to repentance reminds Gen Z they aren’t perfect and they’ve been invited by God to honestly confess their sins in community. On the other hand, the promise of definitive forgiveness communicates that no sins exclude us from either divine or human communion.

Rather than skirting around difficult issues plaguing Gen Z like sex, sexuality, gender, and addiction—which can perpetuate cycles of hiddenness and shame—we must affirm the goodness of corporate confession and absolution as an ongoing part of lifelong sanctification. What John wrote must be felt in all our sermons: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

2. Emphasize belonging.

Gen Z—exhausted by the vacuousness and isolation of online individualism—is hungry to be part of something bigger. They long not merely for an individual sense of purpose but for a communal purpose rooted in a deep feeling of belonging.

Gen Z—exhausted by vacuousness and isolation of online individualism—is hungry to be a part of something bigger.

The problem for most churches isn’t that they offer too much belonging (e.g., inappropriately inviting non-Christians to be members, take the sacraments, or teach) but that they offer too little. Not infrequently, churches create barriers by requiring belief before belonging. Moreover, they create too few spaces for belonging to develop. This is why, at our church, we plan more socials than we care to count, and we host weekend relational intensives—retreats, trips—to help Gen Z students connect. It’s why we challenge leaders and members to meet new people and make sure they never sit alone.

For the last year, we’ve repeated “You belong here” more times than we can count. We say it in sermons. We emphasize it in small groups. We make signs and take them on campus. When students show up, we greet them with those words and remind them that their longing to join a cause and do good in the world can only be satisfied by the King of justice, goodness, truth, and beauty.

Most of the conversions we’ve seen came about not because people believed the gospel and then found their place in our community. The inverse is true: they belonged with us, saw how we lived, wanted the gospel to be true, and then found out it really is.

3. Practice extravagant hospitality in church and at home.

Talking about belonging isn’t enough. Churches must be over-the-top hospitable to Gen Z. For us, this means that from the first time a college student enters our doors to the day he or she moves away, we’re extravagantly and intentionally hospitable. We smile when we greet people. We learn their names. We immediately connect them with insiders. We follow up after they leave. We let them know we miss them if they haven’t shown up for a while. We train leaders to invite students into their homes for meals.

After spending over a year isolated during a global lockdown, Gen Z is hungry for the hospitality Jesus showed to sinners, disciples, and Pharisees alike. His ministry was a movable feast, breaking cultural norms—ask the woman who cleaned his feet with her tears—so he could communicate a deep truth through action: God wants you at his table too.

Churches need to encourage and empower older generations to own this mission. Gen Z doesn’t just want a free meal; they want mentoring relationships. Older saints must be challenged not to simply retire but to use their freed-up time to pass down the good deposit of the gospel to future generations. This can happen formally through mentoring programs or by encouraging older church members to lead small groups for young people. But it can also happen informally on Sunday morning, at coffee meetups, or through an invitation to lunch.

4. Embrace expressive, participatory worship.

We want to urge caution. There will be voices claiming a certain style of music, liturgy, or lighting is what Gen Z wants. The truth, of course, is that Gen Z is diverse. Some will be drawn to low churches and others to high churches. Some will scoff at haze and lights and some will seek it. Some will want traditional instruments and voices, while others desire booming guitars and drums. From what we’ve seen, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all Gen Z worship service.

But there’s one consistent theme we’ve seen across traditions: Gen Z doesn’t want to stand on the sidelines in worship. They want to learn the songs and sing them out. They want to use their bodies—whether that means raising hands or kneeling. They want to pray and meet God in their hearts and in the congregation. They want to express what they’ve learned to be true: Jesus is King. They want to be aware of the people around them. They aren’t singing alone to Jesus. They’re singing to their people, with their people.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all Gen Z worship service. But there’s one consistent theme we’ve seen across traditions: Gen Z wants to participate in worship.

Depending on your tradition, your worship service may seem passive to the average Gen Z attendee. Whether it’s “special music” that feels like a performance, stationary bodies, or timid singing—they all communicate to Gen Z that you may not really believe what you say you believe. So don’t think of your worship service as a product for passive consumption but as a corporate act of intergenerational involvement. Invite everyone in the space to give themselves to worship, and allow Gen Z’s zeal for the Lord to encourage the hearts of worshipers younger and older than themselves. The local church is at its best when older people and younger people encourage one another by their worship.

The good news is that this can be done in churches with rigid liturgies or looser liturgies, higher traditions or lower traditions, guitars or organs. But it will often mean challenging older congregants to stretch outside their comfort zone or at least not object to those who worship more expressively.

5. Revitalize the priesthood of all believers.

Gen Z is full of young people who want to build and lead. They’re attracted to influencers for good and bad reasons. At best, it’s not because they want fame—it’s because they want to influence their world. They want to do something that matters. And rather than being cynical about institutions or deconstructing them, Gen Z may be the generation that rebuilds them. They want to be engaged in the positive project of construction and renewal. They are hungry to be on mission.

This is why we’ve tried to resist the tendency to have paid staff doing all the ministry and making all the decisions. Instead, we invite Gen Z into the war room. We challenge them to lead their peers, and we seek their input on important decisions. As much as possible, we try to give them the keys to ministry and free them to drive the car.

Of course, this produces its fair share of accidents and problems, but if we truly believe what Peter wrote—we’re a kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6)—then it’s imperative to act on it.

Keep Jesus at the Center

None of the above points is a brand-new insight. Each is rooted in an ancient tradition of the church. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Gen Z lives in the radioactive fallout left behind by the Enlightenment. The blasted landscape tells a story: God is absent or aloof, and the self is the only tenable God-substitute. This environment is hostile to life, leaving everyone (but especially the young) hungry for spiritual vitality. The nuclear desert begs to become a garden once more.

Around them are the crumbling ruins of the church. They can see that great buildings, sweeping pastures, luxuriant trees, and lush farmland once stood here. So they feel the dissonance—Why am I eating spiritual junk food in a commodified digital dystopia when something better exists?

Hunger demands to be fed. It points to the undeniable fact that it can be fed. Gen Z senses, whether or not they can find the words to say it, that they were made to eat real food, to live in real community, to cultivate real beauty, to know the real Spirit, to glorify the real God, and to enjoy the real Savior forever.

So if everything above feels like a return to the old, deeper, truer ways, that’s because it is. It’s a return to Jesus at the center of life: Jesus as the One who hears confession and forgives; the One who rescues a people and unites them to himself; the One who deserves our exuberant worship and praise; the One who calls us to mission and empowers us with his grace.

The Spirit is moving. It’s our prayer that older generations will see it as their joyful calling to set aside their interests, preferences, wealth, and time to join that movement.

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Embracing God as Our Heavenly Father https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/embracing-god-heavenly-father/ Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:04:52 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=576680 Blair Linne teaches on the power of understanding God as our heavenly Father, particularly in the context of fatherlessness.]]> In her message at TGC’s 2022 Women’s Conference, Blair Linne teaches on the importance of understanding the role of God as our heavenly Father, especially in the context of healing from fatherlessness or difficult relationships with earthly fathers.

Linne highlights these key points:

1. Blessing of Adoption: God’s choice to adopt us isn’t based on our merit but on his grace and love. This adoption into the family of God allows us to have a rich relationship with God as our heavenly Father.

2. Role of Forgiveness: Forgiveness is essential, especially in dealing with strained relationships with earthly fathers. Linne encourages her audience to pray for their spiritually lost or emotionally broken parents, and to forgive with the understanding that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reestablishing unhealthy relationships.

3. Writing Your Story and Praying for Parents: Linne suggests the therapeutic exercise of writing your story, including any emotions and thoughts related to your earthly father. She recommends writing letters to your earthly father or to God and praying for your parents if they’re still alive.

4. Prioritizing Your Redeemed Family (the Church): Linne emphasizes the importance of prioritizing your church family, as they’re part of your redeemed family and are essential in the healing journey. She encourages seeking support and guidance within the church community.

Our relationship with God as our heavenly Father can heal and restore the wounds caused by the absence of or difficulties with earthly fathers. Knowing who we are in Christ and God’s adoption of us demonstrates his deep love and commitment.

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Editor’s Pick: Advent Devotionals for Your Family https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/advent-devotionals-family/ Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=574788 Want to focus on Jesus this Christmas? Set aside time for individual or family worship that’s structured around the traditional Advent calendar.]]> It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The overly cheerful music blasting over the store speakers won’t let us forget that, though all we came in for was a bar of soap.

Our schedules fill up with school concerts, church events, and parties at work. The press of decorating, cooking, finding the ugliest sweater, and looking for meaningful gifts gets to all of us—even those who most strongly dislike the commercialized rush of the Christmas season.

How do we keep our focus on the incarnation? How do we use this season to teach our children the truths of the faith amid a flood of commercialism? How do we resist the pressures of the season?

One way is to set aside time for individual or family worship that’s structured around the traditional Advent calendar. Here are several resources to help keep your focus on the Savior who came so long ago and has promised he’s coming again.

1. The Weary World Rejoices edited by Melissa Kruger (TGC)

Many churches and families use Advent wreaths to help prepare for celebrating the Lord’s birth at Christmas. The evergreen wreath symbolizes eternal life and includes four candles—typically three purple and one pink, with a white candle in the middle that symbolizes the purity of Christ.

The Gospel Coalition’s editorial team wrote 25 devotional readings using the Advent wreath to focus hearts and minds on Christ during the Christmas season. These reflections are brief but encouraging, suitable for a busy family or individual. They’re structured around traditional Advent themes—hope, peace, joy, love, and faith. Each reading will help in celebrating Christ’s first coming while longing for his second. (Read sample devotionals from Melissa Kruger, Brett McCracken, and others.)

2. Journey to Bethlehem: A Treasury of Classic Christmas Devotionals edited by Leland Ryken (Crossway)

What did Isaac Watts, John Donne, and Augustine of Hippo have to say about Christmas?

In Journey to Bethlehem, noted literary scholar Leland Ryken collects readings from classic Advent hymns, sermons, and poems. Each of the 30 readings is accompanied by an explanation from Ryken, a devotional summary, and a Scripture reading that illuminates the theme of the reading.

Each of the readings in this volume stands alone, as Ryken reminds readers in the introduction. So it doesn’t matter if you miss a day, use it intermittently in a group setting, or follow a regular daily plan in the home. The quality of the readings feeds the soul, connecting contemporary readers to earlier generations’ celebrations of Christ’s incarnation. This resource is best suited for individuals or for families with older children.

3. Wonders of His Love: Finding Jesus in Isaiah by Champ Thornton (New Growth Press)

Champ Thornton, author of The Radical Book for Kids, wrote an Advent devotional geared for families with lower elementary children. With four weeks of brief devotionals for five days a week and one specifically for Christmas Day, this is an ideal resource for families on the go.

The daily readings make connections between Isaiah’s predictions of the Messiah and the fulfillment of those promises found in the Gospels. Each week has an easy craft to create a paper ornament and several other simple activities like cookie baking, a ring toss, scavenger hunts, or suggested opportunities to serve others.

4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Jonathan Gibson (Crossway)

For those seeking to add a stronger liturgical focus to their Advent season, Jonathan Gibson’s book O Come, O Come Emmanuel offers a full-service resource. The book has 40 readings, scheduled to begin on November 28 and conclude on January 6, which is the date of Epiphany on the church calendar.

Each day has a meditation from a figure from church history, a call to worship, hymns, multiple Scripture readings and prayers, a creedal focus, and a catechism question. This resource is ideal for those who want to slow down and focus on spiritual formation during the Advent season. The plentiful elements could also be used selectively based on available time.

5. The Advent Jesse Tree by Dean Lambert Smith (Abingdon)

There are a number of useful books for incorporating the Jesse Tree into family devotions. The tradition stems from the messianic prediction in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The daily reading of a selected passage of Scripture along with the visual reminder of an ornament with a symbol on it move from creation to Christ. This tradition is a great way to rehearse the grand narrative of Scripture every year, especially for families with children.

Lambert’s book offers suggestions for how to create or find ornaments to represent each day of the Advent celebration. It also has illustrations that can be used by those who haven’t had time to make or buy their own ornaments. Each day includes a Scripture reading, suggested hymns, two versions of the daily devotional (one for adults and one for children), and a prayer. The Advent Jesse Tree is a trusted resource that can become a part of the Christmas season for generations.

Bonus Recommendation: The King of Christmas by Todd Hains and Natasha Kennedy (Lexham Press)

This isn’t a devotional book, but for families with young children, this picture book is bound to be a favorite for the Advent season. The colorful illustrations leap off the page. The simple text follows the wise men on their journey to find the King of Christmas. He’s not found in the sky, the water, the palace, the throne, or the market. Instead, the King of Christmas is found in the manger.

A connection to the usual Christmas story, with Jesus being found in an unlikely place, would have been enough for some. However, this book also reminds children that the same King of Christmas was once found on the cross. He can now be found in God’s Word and among God’s people. This brings home the message that the baby in the manger is the same as the man who left the tomb empty, connecting the incarnation to the atonement for the little ones among us.

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Christ’s Presence Guarantees Mission Success https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christs-presence-mission-success/ Fri, 03 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=572946 The promise of Christ’s presence in the Great Commission’s isn’t just his commitment to comfort, support, or even strengthen us. It’s his promise to be active within us, animating our witness.]]> As Jesus gave his disciples their final instructions for carrying out his mission on earth, he left them with this promise: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). But what does it mean that Christ is with us, and what does this promise mean for the success of the Great Commission?

When we think of Christ being with us, it’s easy to imagine his presence outside us. We might imagine him being with us like a loving family member who comes alongside and comforts us when we’re sad. Or we might think of him being with us like a supportive friend who encourages or strengthens us in our weakness. But Christ isn’t merely with us—he’s in us.

The promise of Christ’s presence with his disciples to the end of the age isn’t just his commitment to comfort, support, or even strengthen us. These words aren’t meant merely to motivate or inspire. Instead, they demonstrate that Christ is active within us, animating our witness. And this amazing promise guarantees that Christ’s mission will be accomplished in all the world.

Christ in Us

Deeper insight into the mystery of how Christ is with us requires the unfolding revelation of the New Testament. Before the disciples pursued their mission, Jesus commanded them to wait for the indwelling Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Spirit’s coming marked the beginning of a new age, but it also made the believer’s union with God’s Son a reality (Rom. 8:9–10). Jesus’s promise to be with his disciples was realized in a way no one could’ve imagined: Christ was with them and in them by his Spirit.

Thus, when Ananias lied to the apostle Peter, he was charged with lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Later, when Paul was persecuting believers, we’re told he was persecuting the Lord Jesus (9:4–5). This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever receives you receives me” (Matt. 10:40). It’s not just that believers represent Christ but that Christ is truly in us and we are in him (John 14:20). The Spirit-filled church is Christ’s body on earth.

When Christ lives in believers by the Spirit (Gal. 2:20), he doesn’t destroy their personhood (Col. 1:29). Rather, he transforms them by their union with him (2 Cor. 3:18). This reality establishes the primary identification for Christ’s disciples. By far, the most common moniker used by New Testament writers to refer to Christians is based on this union with Christ. We aren’t merely Christians, brothers, saints, or believers but those who are “in Christ.”

Fulfilling the Scriptures

When Jesus appeared to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, he gently rebuked them for their lack of attention to the Scriptures: “Everything written about me . . . must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). By summarizing all that was written, Jesus highlighted three pivotal events that were prophesied: the Messiah’s substitutionary death, his victorious and vindicating resurrection, and the global proclamation of repentance in his name for the forgiveness of sins.

We aren’t merely Christians, brothers, saints, or believers but those who are ‘in Christ.’

By that time, the first two had already been fulfilled. Jesus had marched to his destiny in Jerusalem with a driving fierceness (Mark 10:32). As he explained repeatedly, he’d come to fulfill the Scriptures (Matt. 5:17–18), including the fact that he must suffer (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25). More than a dozen times, events in Jesus’s life clearly fulfilled what was foretold. Our Lord pursued with somber focus the accomplishment of these first two events: his substitutionary sacrifice and victorious resurrection.

Now, only one remains. And we should expect he’ll persist with no less determination the accomplishment of the third event that was written: global gospel proclamation. According to the Great Commission, Jesus isn’t just along for the ride. He isn’t merely at our side, comforting us when we’re weak. No, Jesus is leading us and driving us from within. The Son of God is fulfilling this pivotal third leg of his mission by acting through the church.

We see this in Acts where Luke records the continuation of Christ’s activity (Acts 1:1). Paul teaches this truth in his speech to King Agrippa, explaining that “the Christ must suffer and . . . by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (26:23). Paul repeats the threefold mission of the Messiah, making it clear that Christ himself will accomplish it.

Proclaiming the Gospel

Christ’s union with believers by the Spirit has this driving purpose: the global proclamation of the gospel. Like all else foretold in the Scriptures, we can be confident of its fulfillment.

So what does it mean that Christ is with us to the end of the age? It means the accomplishment of global evangelism is as inevitable as the death and resurrection of our Lord. It will happen (Matt. 24:14). Yes, the nations will resist this; Jesus foretold it. Yet we’re more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Rom. 8:37). Jesus Christ is working in his people to accomplish the last leg of what was written.

Jesus isn’t just along for the ride. He isn’t merely at our side, comforting us when we’re weak. No, Jesus is leading us and driving us from within.

It means Christ’s presence with the church has a missions trajectory. He’s living in us and compelling us onward with all his characteristic commitment to fulfill the smallest stroke of the Scriptures. There are many important things Christians can do, but Christ emphasizes the mission of proclaiming his saving work to all nations. Missions is the alignment of our activity with Christ’s work in the world.

The Lord Jesus isn’t waiting on us to decide whether to be involved in his mission. Rather, by his Spirit, he’s animating us forward in a work of global proclamation that he’ll accomplish through us. Compelled by his love, we join the One who lives in us—that we might no longer live for ourselves but for his sake (2 Cor. 5:15).

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Homemaking Is for Singles Too https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/homemaking-singles-principles/ Thu, 02 Nov 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569488 I still hope to keep a house where I might nurture a family of my own. But I’ve learned that ‘making a home’ can happen across contexts and seasons.]]> The word “homemaking” once prompted visions of a house I’d inhabit with a hoped-for husband and children. I imagined joyfully making that home, reveling in its stability while I loved a godly man and we watched our children grow.

Instead, I’m now in my 30s, single, and living with three other single women in a rented house in Washington, DC—a city known for transience over permanence. I still desire the essence of those earlier dreams. I believe Scripture recognizes the unique role of a woman in keeping a home for her family (Prov. 31:10–31; Titus 2:4–5), and I earnestly hope to partake in that good work. Yet I’ve also learned that for the Christian, “making a home” can happen across contexts and seasons. Details vary, but several truths about homemaking remain constant.

Homemaking Points to a Better Home

One of the first things God did for the first man was settle him in a particular place—and it came with provision and responsibility. The garden overflowed with abundant food and beauty, yet Adam also needed to work and keep it (Gen. 2:8–9, 15–17).

Though their sin meant Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, God’s promises of redemption still included elements of home. From his covenant with Abraham for the promised land (Gen. 15:7, 17–21) to his command to Israel to seek the good of their captors’ city (Jer. 29:4–7), God has always cared about the places where his people live and work.

Then, astonishingly, God came and made his home among us (John 1:14). This was but a preview to his dwelling with us forever in a redeemed home and city that he even now prepares for us (John 14:2–3; Heb. 11:16; Rev. 21:3).

‘Making a home’ can happen across contexts and seasons.

The homes Christians occupy now foreshadow that eternal home, and we can make and steward them to point to our future hope. Whether it’s a dream house shared with a family or a temporary studio apartment, every dwelling can be a signpost of our truer home to come.

My current house, though not what I once envisioned for myself, overflows with tastes of coming glory, from my housemates’ joyful laughter to the comfort and safety the house provides. When our homes aren’t exactly what we expected or desired, we can still “dwell . . . and cultivate faithfulness” (Ps. 37:3, NASB), giving thanks for God’s good provision now even as we orient ourselves and others toward that coming, lasting city.

Homemaking Thinks of Others

Whatever your circumstances, you can make your home—house, apartment, condo, or otherwise—with a vision for sharing it. A spouse and children may not share your home, but someone ought to. The apostle Paul instructed believers to show hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9), and Scripture teems with examples of Christians eating together and opening their homes.

Are you making your home with this mindset of generosity? Have you considered that making your home comfortable and beautiful could be a means of loving those who come in?

How Christians prioritize this aspect of a home will vary, but it’s worth intentional thought. Edith Schaeffer wrote in The Hidden Art of Homemaking, “I am sure that there is no place in the world where your message would not be enhanced by your making the place (whether tiny or large, a hut or a palace) orderly, artistic and beautiful with some form of creativity, some form of ‘art.’”

Your home doesn’t need to be professionally decorated, but does it welcome people? How might decor and accents encourage conversations? Can people of varied ages and seasons relax there? My housemates and I love pictures and artwork that feature Scripture, literature, and beautiful scenery. We have a stack of children’s books we hope visiting families can enjoy. We try to use colors and candles that convey warmth and invitation.

In preparing our homes well for those who visit them, we can offer guests small foretastes of the place Jesus prepares for those who love him.

Homemaking Makes the Most of What It Has

Unlike many other homes in Washington, DC, our house has room for a long dining table. It also has ample backyard space, a true novelty here. My housemates and I have become the hosts who specialize in group dinners, bonfires, and open house gatherings because of how our space is uniquely equipped for them.

I know a house of single men who have fruitfully used their location across the street from our church by hosting a gathering every week after Wednesday Bible study. Students, visitors, and new members have commented on how those gatherings helped them meet Christians or grow friendships.

Consider what your house might be particularly suited for: Sunday lunches? Outdoor games? One-on-one conversations? Don’t be intimidated by what other people are doing and think you must copy them. Your home has gifts to offer too.

Don’t be intimidated by what other people are doing—your home has gifts to offer too.

One of my housemates loyally tends a small garden she put in our backyard. Her diligence over that little plot reminds me of faithful stewardship. We know we won’t live in this house long-term, but her work cultivates good fruit while we do.

I still hope to keep a house where I might nurture a family of my own. But I’ve also learned to cherish the sight of sunlight streaming through the windows of my rented house, of church youth group girls laughing on my hand-me-down couch, and of a housemate discussing Jesus with her non-Christian coworker. These, too, offer refreshment for me and others on the journey toward our eternal home.

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Why We Share the Good News https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/share-good-news/ Thu, 02 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=570025 When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.]]> We live in a bad-news world. Each morning, we wake up and see it in the headlines on our news apps. In the evening, we see bad news again on the local news. The daily reports are relentless and overwhelmingly negative; it feels like the ratio of bad news to good is 10 to 1.

Some people suggest the reason for this disparity is simply emphasis, but I think bad news has the upper hand. It always looms on life’s horizon. Every time something good happens, it’s followed by a “Yeah, that’s good, but . . .” That’s not pessimism. It’s the reality in a broken world.

As a result, we all need to hear more good news. And not just the temporary sort that makes us feel better for a fleeting moment. Whether believers or unbelievers, we all need a daily dose of good news that transcends all the bad and puts every bit of it in a hope-filled framework. We need a message that flips the script on our bad-news world.

That’s precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ does. His message is so good that no bad news can bring it down. Here are five reasons to share his good news today.

1. The gospel comforts troubled consciences.

Every person you see today has done something wrong. For some of them, their sin is so fresh in their minds that it feels like it’s following them around, haunting them. They’re consumed with remorse and can’t escape the memories. They have anxiety about what God is going to do to them for what they did.

People laden with guilt and shame need to know that Jesus forgives sinners. They need to know there’s more mercy in God for them than there is sin within them.

People laden with guilt and shame need to know that Jesus forgives sinners. They need to know there’s more mercy in God for them than there is sin within them.

With the troubled conscience, share 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That good news will be a mending influence for unsettled souls.

2. The gospel heals hearts harmed by sin.

All the people you see today have been wronged at some point in their lives. They’ve been hurt, perhaps deeply hurt, by other people’s actions or words.

People who have been harmed need to know Jesus is going to judge everyone for every sin. No one will get away with anything. And since Jesus was totally innocent yet punished for all our sin, those who have been hurt by others’ sins can entrust those hurts to his perfect, just, and merciful judgment. When they do so, they can experience release from the desire for vengeance and relief from the pain of bitterness. They can even receive strength to forgive as they have been forgiven through Christ’s work on the cross.

With the hurting, explain Peter’s succinct statement in 1 Peter 2:24: “By his wounds you have been healed.” That good news will be a balm for the wounds in their spirits.

3. The gospel ignites life change.

All the people you see today have felt wrong inside at one time or another. They’ve been dissatisfied with their own character or struggled to kick bad habits. Some have known the agonizing powerlessness of addiction. They’ve wanted to change something about themselves but have been unable to do so.

They need to know that Jesus has the power they need to become more like him. He gives believers the power to change through the Holy Spirit who dwells in them. We can speak these words from 2 Peter 1:3 to those who are struggling to change: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” That good news will motivate them to grow in Christian virtue.

4. The gospel helps people in our fallen world to have hope.

Everyone you see today struggles with what’s wrong with the world. Some may be fighting illness or watching loved ones succumb to disease. They may be experiencing conflicts that don’t feel like they’ll ever be resolved. Their bodies may be breaking down in some way, or their souls may be in turmoil. Tragedy may have struck people they know, or they may have recently stood over the graves of loved ones.

They need to know that God has promised to undo all the effects of original sin and to lead his people into a new heavens and new earth. Tell them about Jesus’s words in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” That good news will give them the strength they need to persevere through trials.

5. The gospel refreshes your soul as you share it alongside others.

It’s not only every person you see today that needs to hear the gospel. The person you looked at in the mirror this morning needs it too. While it’s good to preach the gospel to yourself, Paul’s words in Philemon 6 indicate the best strategy for encouraging your own heart is partnering together in gospel ministry with others: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”

When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.

When we work together to proclaim the good news to others, we’re richly reminded of all the good God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Jesus.

In this world, people face temptation and regret, pain and suffering, failure and disappointment, deterioration and death. The bad news is truly bad, but there’s a reason for encouragement in the face of it all.

His name is Jesus. He is the Lord. Jesus is putting the world right regarding sin. He’s the only One who saves sinners, and he does so by grace through faith. Jesus has overcome the world, and he’s leading his followers into a brand-new world. This message about Jesus is worth sharing every day.

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Pagans and Protestants: How the West Was Spun https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/pagans-protestants-west/ Wed, 01 Nov 2023 04:04:28 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=575754 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss how today’s slogans—Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, Kindness Is Everything—flow from a worldview thoroughly shaped by Christianity.]]> The Beatles might have claimed to be bigger than Jesus, but when they said “Love is all you need,” they were just riffing on Jesus’s words. In this episode, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss how today’s slogans—Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, Kindness Is Everything—flow from a worldview thoroughly shaped by Christianity.

They compare and contrast ancient, Christian, and secular virtues to explore the inherent inconsistencies of today’s culture, question how relativistic our society is, and describe how we’ve arrived at a new pharisaism where those who don’t get on board with the modern program are the new heretics of our secular age.

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Orthodoxy in Exile: Church as an Alternative Community https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/exile-alternative-community/ Wed, 01 Nov 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=572333 What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.]]> One day, as I was serving meals in my church for the unhoused community in East Hollywood, a man stopped me in the hallway and said, “Hey pastor, I just want you to know I’m only here to serve. I do not need the church.”

“OK,” I replied, planning to circle back later and explore his hesitation. I asked his name and we carried on serving. As I’ve reflected on that encounter, I’ve come to think it represents a broader trend in our city. People want community, and they long to make a practical difference in the city, but they despise the church. It’s not just indifference; it’s disdain.

How can the church thrive in a city that sees it as outdated, irrelevant, and morally offensive? It must be an alternative community that is different from the city but also seeks its good.

Different from the City

To faithfully represent Christ, the church must learn to stand out from its surrounding context. Unfortunately, consumerism and individualism have so infiltrated the American church that it often mirrors worldly values with a veneer of Christian spirituality. The worship service has become a social event. Pastors are entertainers and influencers. Discipleship is self-improvement. Church is merely another consumer good meant to round out my individual spirituality.

Over the last decade, the church has been exposed for this shallowness and hypocrisy, particularly in the areas of political idolatry, abuse of power, and celebrity culture. In our efforts to be all things to the unchurched, we’ve dechurched the church and lost our distinction from the wider society.

What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.

What can churches do to recover our witness? We must rediscover our identity as a distinct community set apart by God’s grace.

The mission of the church is not to draw a crowd, but to make disciples. We must combat the secular narratives of our day by telling a more compelling narrative, the story of God’s kingdom. We must teach sound doctrine so our congregations aren’t co-opted by secular ideologies. God’s people must embrace a distinctly Christian ethic that’s grounded in God’s Word. And we must demonstrate that conviction and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive. Lesslie Newbigin captured the need for the church as an alternative community when he said, “The chief contribution of the Church to the renewing of social order is to be itself a new social order.”

For the Good of the City

As an alternative community, the church isn’t called to be against the city but for its good. Unfortunately, many Christians have an adversarial mindset toward the city, which is why most non-Christians assume the church is against everything in the world.

This is particularly evident with the LGBT+ community, which often assumes Christians are unloving, narrow-minded, hypocrites. The church, therefore, must go out of its way to show God’s love to all people and defend the dignity all people. To do this in a way that honors God, we must understand (and teach) that one doesn’t have to affirm everything about people to love them. The church can uphold biblical truth about gender and sexuality and still love the people who disagree with us. We follow a Savior who embodies grace and truth.

Another way the church practically shows God’s love for the world is by ministering in both deed and word. Jesus was known for being “mighty in deed and word” (Luke 24:19), and his disciples should have a similar reputation. In an age when justice is a primary societal virtue, Christians can lead the way by being a people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8). And yet, the church should have a distinct approach to ethics while striving for the common good. We must be like the fourth-century African theologian Athanasius, who was against the world (i.e., its worldliness) because he was for the world (i.e., its creational good and God-given purpose).

Faithful in Exile

Our cultural moment has certainly proven challenging. Yet what’s happening in our world right now isn’t an obstacle but an opportunity for the church to rediscover its true identity as a people in exile who are called to witness to a better kingdom.

What’s happening in our world right now isn’t an obstacle but an opportunity for the church to rediscover its true identity as a people in exile who are called to witness to a better kingdom.

One beautiful example of how to be faithful in exile comes from a letter God sent to his people when they were in Babylon. Israel despised their captors, resisted settling in a new land, and longed to return to Jerusalem. Yet God sent a message to them, saying, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).

This is a vision of God’s people being a counterculture for the common good. They were called to be present but distinct. It’s a model for the church today in an exilic, post-Christian context. We’re called to be what James Davison Hunter calls a “faithful presence.” Or, as Miroslav Volf claims, “To live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so.”

In Los Angeles as It Is in Heaven

By God’s grace, I’m seeing this vision play out in our church in the heart of Los Angeles. It’s a broken and difficult city. Yet Jesus is transforming lives and building his church throughout L.A.

Our church summarizes our values with the phrase “orthodoxy in exile.” By “orthodoxy” we mean we’re unabashedly biblical, upholding the historic doctrines of Christianity and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus as the ultimate answer to sin and sorrow. Yet we’re called by God to love Los Angeles, a city where it’s not easy to follow Jesus and where it often feels like you’re living in exile. We believe God looks on our city with compassion. So, as we seek to flourish in Los Angeles, we seek the flourishing of Los Angeles.

Remember the guy who confronted me in the hallway? A few months later, as we were baptizing new believers at church, I looked over to see him standing in line. When I walked over, he apologized to me. He told me how God had changed his heart. Then we prayed together as brothers in Christ. As he came up out of the water, a demonstration of his new resurrection life in Christ, the shouts of praise from the congregation could be heard well outside the four walls of our church building in East Hollywood.

Jesus is building his church. It will look different from the world. But it’s exactly what the world needs.

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Andrew Wilson on How the Year 1776 Shaped the Post-Christian West https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/1776-post-christian-west/ Tue, 31 Oct 2023 04:04:17 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=576391 Andrew Wilson tells Collin Hansen that the West is full of Protestant pagans and that Christians are victims of their own success.]]> There’s one big idea at the heart of Andrew Wilson’s remarkable new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West (Crossway). He argues that more than any other year in the last millennium, 1776 made us who we are today in the West. 

I suppose many Americans are now thinking, Of course! The Declaration of Independence! Ron Swanson says history began on July 4, 1776. But wait, didn’t Andrew just say the post-Christian West? What does he mean? 

Andrew demonstrates a lot of courage writing about 1776 as the teaching pastor of King’s Church London. But a key point of his book is that the American Revolution was just one of many world-changing events and ideas crossing and recrossing the Atlantic in and around 1776. He argues the battles were less important than the words. Human rights; free trade; liberal democracy; religious pluralism; the preference for authenticity over authority, choice over duty, and self-expression over self-denial—Andrew traces it all back to 1776.

Ron Swanson might not be right that history began on July 4, 1776. But Andrew does argue that 1776 separates us from the past. He writes, “The vast majority of people in human history have not shared our views of work, family, government, religion, sex, identity, or morality, no matter how universal or self-evident we may think they are.”

In Andrew’s telling, the West is full of Protestant pagans, and Christians are victims of our own success. A fellow of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, Andrew joined me on Gospelbound to talk about his favorite stories and his fervent hopes. If you enjoy this episode, then you’ll love Andrew’s new podcast with Glen Scrivener called Post-Christianity?

You can watch Andrew’s keynote address at TGC23 on Exodus 32 or his microevent on 1776, and read a profile of him and his family from Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. Andrew also filmed a mini documentary, “The One Edit That Changed History.”

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Chalk on the Table: The Story Behind Our Different Views of Communion https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/story-views-communion/ Tue, 31 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=576627 Though Christians may not agree, our thoughtful conversations testify to the Supper’s importance for a Christian’s spiritual health.]]> Bruce Wayne became Batman after his parents’ tragic deaths. Peter Parker gained his “Spidey-sense” from a radioactive spider bite. All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations. One dramatic backstory is the tale of disagreement and division behind the major views of the Lord’s Table we find in Christian churches today.

In October 1529, a group of church leaders met for a colloquy—a great debate—about the Lord’s Supper. They gathered high above the winding Lahn River at the towering Marburg castle. This meeting wasn’t the reformers against Rome. No, the reformers were fighting among themselves. Who were the principals in this debate? What were the major views they discussed? What concerns influenced their arguments?

Transubstantiation

Inside the tall, stone castle, a wooden table sat in the center of a great hall. On one side stood the Lutherans: Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and their companions. On the other stood the reformers from Switzerland and southern Germany: Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Johann Oecolampadius, and others. Philip of Hesse (the nobleman who called the meeting), his secretary, and several local pastors stood at the room’s edges to watch.

All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations.

No one in the room wanted to follow the pope’s views on the Supper. The Catholic Church saw the Supper as a sacrifice that would cover the guilt of righteous people who confessed their sins to a priest. The pope and his followers taught that when a priest blesses the bread and wine, the elements’ substance (though not their look and taste) transforms, like magic, into Jesus’s body and blood. Then the priest reoffers Jesus’s body and blood to God as a good work. In this view (called transubstantiation), what takes away sin isn’t what Jesus did on the cross but the priest’s work in reoffering the sacrifice.

Because of this teaching, some medieval Catholics stood in line to adore the bread and wine before it was served. They thought a blessing would come just by looking at the elements. Others carried pieces of bread to their homes, hoping to plant it in their fields and gardens to receive the blessing of good crops, or to feed it to sick animals to help them get well. To keep from accidentally spilling the enchanted wine, some priests gave only the bread to church members and kept the cup for themselves.

Everyone at Marburg rejected Rome’s view of communion. But what teaching about the Supper should be adopted in its place?

Memorial

The nobleman’s secretary encouraged the theologians to get along. He urged them as they debated to “strive for the glory of God, the common Christian good, and brotherly unity.” He hoped that when the debate was finished, the theologians would sit at the prince’s table and take communion together. Luther wasn’t convinced the debate would end in agreement. He’d read Zwingli’s books. He knew what the Swiss churches taught about the Supper.

Zwingli did believe God’s Spirit was present when believers took communion, but in his view, the ordinance was little more than a way for believers to obey Jesus. Zwingli emphasized Christ’s command to take the Supper “in remembrance of [him]” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24–25). His teaching is called the memorial view.

The Swiss reformer vociferously argued that the bread and wine couldn’t transform into Jesus’s body. That would be impossible. When God the Son came to earth, he took on human flesh. But the incommunicable attributes of the Son’s divine nature (attributes like his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence) weren’t mixed or shared with his human nature. So, Zwingli reasoned, Christ’s human body can’t be in many locations at the same time when the churches meet to take communion.

Instead, Zwingli taught that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he thought of the bread and wine as symbols. Jesus meant, “This represents my body.” When a geography teacher stands in front of a map and says, “This is Switzerland,” she knows the image isn’t actually the country of Switzerland but only a picture. Zwingli taught that it’s similar with communion. Just like the map and the country aren’t the same, Jesus’s body and the bread aren’t the same.

Sacramental Union

Luther despised Zwingli’s view. He believed it gutted the power of God’s promise to forgive from the sacrament. Before the debate, he said, “I would rather drink pure blood with the pope than mere wine with Zwingli” (LW 37:317). So, as the colloquy began, Luther took a piece of chalk and drew a large circle on the castle table. Inside the circle, he scribbled Jesus’s words from the Gospels in Latin, Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body,” Matt. 26:26). Then, as if these words were the communion bread itself, Luther dramatically covered them with a linen cloth.

Luther didn’t think the bread and wine were magically transformed as the Roman Catholics did. (He wrote hoc est corpus, not hocus pocus.) But Luther did think Jesus meant the words “This is my body” literally.

Luther rejected Zwingli’s teaching that Jesus’s human body could only be in one spot, accusing Zwingli of ignoring biblical texts that describe Jesus’s resurrected body moving through walls and doors. “You seek to prove that a body cannot be in two places at the same time. I will not listen to proofs . . . based on arguments derived from geometry,” Luther said.

He was convinced Christ gives us his presence, even if—like comic-book science—it’s extradimensional. According to Luther’s view, God somehow gives sinners “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine.” This view is called sacramental union.

The two theologians argued back and forth for days. Finally, Zwingli cried out, “Show me a text that proves your view!” Lifting the linen cloth, Luther pointed to the words he’d written when the discussion began: This is my body. For Luther, those words were a line in the sand.

Spiritual Presence

At the end of the debate, Luther and Zwingli finally wept together and asked forgiveness for the harsh words they’d spoken. They even sat down to eat together at the prince’s table. But they didn’t take communion together. In their views of the Supper, Luther and Zwingli remained divided.

John Calvin wasn’t at the Marburg Colloquy, but his teacher and mentor, Martin Bucer, was there with Zwingli. When Calvin later published his view of the Supper in his Institutes, his familiarity with the Marburg debate was clear.

Calvin taught Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises.

Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ’s physical body and blood aren’t present in the Supper. He knew that to affirm this view would wrongly confuse Christ’s divine and human natures. But despite the hard edges of Luther’s personality (and his geographic distance), Calvin also followed many of the German reformer’s emphases. With Luther, Calvin affirmed the Supper is a covenant promise and that God’s Word and presence are encountered at the Table.

Calvin believed the Supper is a means of grace for the church. He taught that Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises: “For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him” (Institutes 4.17.10).

Let the Story Inform Your Convictions

Whatever Reformation position you adopt on the doctrine of the Supper, it’s good to learn from Calvin’s generous humility. Just as hearing backstories helps us better understand our favorite superheroes, learning the stories behind doctrines can help us grow in understanding too. They can help you better appreciate your own convictions, and to understand those of your Christian neighbors.

So, if you’re visiting a different church with a neighbor or family member, listen carefully to how they talk about communion. Differences over the Supper may seem archaic, or perhaps like splitting hairs. On any given Sunday, it’s unlikely most of the members of your church are consciously threading the needle between Luther and Calvin. But things that seem trifling to the world are immensely important to believers’ souls. By listening carefully, we learn to see others’ views fairly, respect their differing convictions, and even discern when not participating in the Supper is necessary to honor other believers’ consciences, or our own.

And next time your church celebrates the Supper, remember this backstory, and think about what the elements mean. This familiar ordinance has been deeply considered by Christians throughout the centuries. Though Christians may not agree, our thoughtful conversations testify to the Supper’s importance for a Christian’s spiritual health. Take the bread in your hand, and give thanks to Christ who gave his body for you and wants to minister to you as you eat and drink.

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Strengthened by the Grace of Jesus https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/strengthened-grace-jesus/ Mon, 30 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=576383 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry emphasize the strength that comes from the grace of Christ and the importance of passing on the gospel to the next generation.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry continue their study of 2 Timothy, emphasizing the strength that comes from the grace of Christ and the importance of passing on the gospel to the next generation.

They highlight the significance of remembering the risen Jesus, which enables pastors to face challenges in ministry with boldness and confidence.


Recommended resource: Confronting Jesus: 9 Encounters with the Hero of the Gospels by Rebecca McLaughlin

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Why You Should Join (or Start!) a TGC Regional Chapter https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/join-regional-chapter/ Mon, 30 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574400 As pastors, we lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.]]> When I moved to St. Louis eight years ago, I was looking for a ministry role. But I knew no one. I Googled “evangelical churches,” cold-called church offices, and sent my résumé to local pastors. During the three trying months that I waited for God to open a door, I met with nearly two dozen pastors from across the city. These pastors shared three things in common: they loved Christ and his church, they were burdened to reach our city with the gospel, and they didn’t know each other.

Once I was hired as an associate pastor, I quickly realized why. Church ministry is tough and time-consuming. I had two hundred congregants to get to know and shepherd. Between leading the youth group, children’s ministry, life groups, and worship team, how would I find time for relationships with fellow pastors?

Eventually, I realized you don’t find the time; you make it. A confluence of events—growing pains in my first year as a lead pastor, a feeling of isolation during the pandemic lockdowns, and the tragic death of a prominent local pastor—finally led me to take the initiative. I reached out to a local Council member of The Gospel Coalition, Dan Doriani, and soon TGC St. Louis was born.

So what is a TGC regional chapter? And why would you want to join or start one?

What Is a TGC Regional Chapter?

A TGC regional chapter is “a local group of pastors who gather regularly for prayer, fellowship, mutual encouragement, study, and mission,” says Bill Kynes, TGC’s director of regional chapters. It’s “a place for diverse yet gospel-centered pastors across ethnic, generational, and denominational lines to connect, find resources, and encourage one another.” There are currently 18 active regional chapters scattered across the continental United States, plus TGC Hawaii and two chapters in Canada.

I’ve co-led a chapter for a few years now, and it’s been an immense help to my ministry. Here are three simple reasons to join, or—if one doesn’t yet exist in your area—start a TGC regional chapter.

1. Amid ministry’s difficulties, you’ll find supportive friendships.

One pastor in our chapter is leading his church through an abuse scandal. One recently lost his wife to cancer. Still others juggle pastoral duties while they care for children with special needs, face conflict with elders, grapple with uncertainty over whether their churches will survive financially through the year’s end, or are so depressed they’re considering throwing in the towel.

The apostle Paul was no stranger to the hardships of ministry. At one point he confessed, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul’s solution for his sorrow was to remind himself of the gospel while soliciting the encouragement and prayers of colaborers: “Comfort those who are in any affliction . . . [and] help us by prayer” (vv. 4, 11). Even as an apostle, Paul desperately relied on others’ support.

Pastors need friends. And because of the particular challenges of our vocation, pastors need friends who are fellow pastors. Even those who lead large churches will benefit from friendships outside their church and staff, men in whom they can confide and seek wisdom. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” TGC regional chapters cultivate loving friendships where brother-pastors can encourage and sustain one another when ministry adversity inevitably comes.

2. Amid today’s divisions, you’ll find gospel-centered unity.

TGC regional chapters cultivate loving friendships where brother-pastors can encourage and sustain you when ministry adversity inevitably comes.

The church is still reeling from recent fractures in the wake of the pandemic, racial unrest, and political polarization. That’s to say nothing of how divided we were before 2020.

With the rapid secularization and dechurching of our post-Christian society, we must ask afresh, Is the gospel that unites us truly bigger than the issues that divide us? Is the common ground we share beneath Christ’s cross sturdy enough to withstand our differences of opinion on vaccines, critical race theory, and Trump—not to mention baptism, glossolalia, and the rapture?

Before he went to the cross, Jesus’s final prayer for his church was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). He stressed that the church’s unity is its witness to the unbelieving world. As pastors, we lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded (albeit not identically minded) brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.

TGC regional chapters provide a place where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free”—where our Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, EFCA, or nondenominational distinctives aren’t the main thing “for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We still have our ecclesial and theological distinctives, but we’re able to enjoy a good Reformed catholicity.

3. Amid ministry’s busyness, you’ll find restorative respite.

Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle to pastoral fellowship is busyness. But joining—and even leading—a regional chapter need not demand hours of your time each month. While some chapters host conferences or read through books together, the only expectation of regional chapters is the commitment to gather periodically for mutual support.

We lead our people toward unity by example when we gather with like-minded brothers for fellowship, prayer, and partnership in a common mission to our cities.

We recently made a shift with TGC St. Louis, focusing our efforts less on arranging speakers, fundraising for honorariums, or catering meals, and more on connecting as pastors. By simply gathering regularly, we’re cultivating patterns of stopping our busy ministry lives to listen to and pray for one another. We meet for lunch every other month to share personal and professional prayer requests and praises. We enjoy Psalm 133:1’s blessing together: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

Martin Luther famously quipped that he was too busy not to pray. I’ve learned the same is true of pastoral fellowship. I’m too busy not to make time regularly to be refreshed, sharpened, and encouraged by fellow shepherds.

Brother pastor, so are you.

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When the Occult Moves in Down the Street https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/occult-down-street/ Sun, 29 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=567594 The Bible offers guidelines for engaging with those in league with the Enemy—whether a neighbor or a business.]]> “You are never going to believe this,” my wife declared as she entered the house after chatting with our neighbor. “John is a satanist.”

John (not his real name) was a neighbor in our townhome community. Her revelation left me stammering. “Really? He flat-out told you that? Satan as in, like, the Devil?” I peppered her with questions.

Yes, yes, and yes—like the Devil, she told me. We were both stunned. We felt a strong call to love our neighbors and build relationships with them, but a relationship with an ally to our spiritual Enemy? That felt different.

The Bible minces no words about who the Enemy is, what he wants, and why we should never underestimate him (1 Pet. 5:8–9). When the law was given to God’s people, pagan and occult practices were all forbidden (Lev. 19:31). In the Gospels and Acts, we see the disciples offering swift discipline to those profiting off the occult (Acts 8; 13). Our Enemy is formidable.

We emailed the director of healing and prayer ministry at our church, who has a background in working with people engaged in the occult. Her recommendation was simple: pray for him and his family, be open to relationships, and be on guard.

That’s good, biblical advice if you live next to someone involved in openly pagan practices. But it’s also good counsel for those who work next to, or regularly pass by, businesses dedicated to the occult or other activities directly opposed to our faith. Since that’s a more likely scenario, let’s unpack her advice in that context.

Pray

Pray for them as often as you can (1 Thess. 5:17). Every time you check in or out of work and pass their store, pray for the folks coming in and out of the doors. Pray for those running the business, for their employees, and for the customers. All people are made in the image of God. They need God’s grace and salvation. They’re trying to make a living or provide for their needs in a way that seems best to them.

Paul’s passage about putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10–18) is instructive here, especially when prayer is coupled with a deep and abiding dependence on God’s strength—and not your own—to fight the battle. Pray for things only God can accomplish. Pray for their salvation, for them to see through the illusion of control and power that the Enemy has over them, for them to encounter the true power of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Pray for things only God can accomplish.

It helps to remember we were once all misguided in our beliefs. We may not have engaged in occult practices or operated a business that profits off the occult, but, like the Ephesians, we were all children of wrath at one point (Eph. 2:1–3). You and I needed (and still need) God’s forgiveness and grace. So do they.

Engage

We don’t see Jesus running away from or refusing to talk to those in the throes of demon possession. Instead, Jesus asks for names (Luke 8:30). He teaches the restored (v. 35). He gives back family relationships (9:42) and invites the formerly possessed into relationship with him (8:2).

This may sound counterintuitive, but as you pray for the people running or working at the business, ask the Lord for opportunities to engage. The body of Christ is fundamentally communal. The people who run that business need to meet Jesus, and they may meet him through you. I can almost guarantee that if you pray for opportunities to cross paths with and meet the people in that store, you’ll receive them. And remember: the battle belongs to the Lord, not to you.

A sensible precaution is to avoid patronizing the business or becoming overly fascinated with what they’re selling. As you engage with the folks next door, create a distinction between learning about the people (which may include why they started that business) and nurturing a curiosity about their products and services that may lead you into temptation.

Finally, be sensitive to when the Holy Spirit is leading you to engage and when to keep your distance. You’ll probably experience moments where the Spirit is saying, “Danger!” It’s wise to listen to how the Spirit is moving you in these moments, knowing that sometimes the appropriate response to the Enemy is a rebuke (Matt. 4:1–11).

Follow Where God Leads

The advice from my church director to pray, engage, and be cautious is wise whether you live near a satanist or work near an occult business, a Planned Parenthood, a casino, or any other business at odds with God’s plan for our thriving.

You don’t have to stand outside the business and decry the immorality and sin, because, Christ have mercy, we too are sinners. In humility, pray for them and be open to showing Christ’s love.

This is how we kept on with our neighbor John. We didn’t shy away from knowing him but shared chitchat with him and his kids. And we prayed relentlessly for the family. We don’t know if any of this changed his perspective, but maybe that wasn’t our part to play in his story. It might not be yours either. Pray and engage, and see where God leads.

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One Thing My Parents Did Right: Teaching in the Home https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/parents-right-teaching-home/ Sun, 29 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=570297 While homeschooling often gets a bad rap, I’m convinced my parents’ choice has made a drastic difference in my life.]]> The Lord used my parents to shape me in many ways—but one stands out. I look back and remember my brothers and I gathering around my mom on the couch as she read Little House on the Prairie to us. I remember counting plastic bears at the kitchen table when we were first learning to count. I remember analyzing historical and current events by opening God’s Word and having countless worldview discussions in our living room. I remember sharing laughter and making memories simply by being together.

One of the most influential things my parents did was homeschool me.

Value of Sacrifice

My mom was faced with a difficult decision when I was a toddler. Would she continue her education and go into her dream field of nursing, or would she stay home and homeschool me when I got older?

With much prayer and thought, my mom decided to set aside her career ambitions to pursue homeschooling. She now has a job that’s not widely recognized, has no salary, and is one of the most difficult jobs a person can have. But I’m incredibly thankful for the influence my mom’s sacrifice has had on my life.

Not only did my mom sacrifice her career, but as a family we learned to forgo various wishes so we could live on one paycheck. We didn’t go on many vacations growing up, we renovated several houses so we could have additional income, and my siblings and I learned to be content even when our friends were able to do more than we were.

My parents taught by example that we don’t need material possessions, a dream career, a vacation every year, or an abundance of spending money to lead a joyful life. My parents taught us that the Lord alone satisfies and that sacrificing to follow where he leads is always worth it.

My parents taught us that the Lord alone satisfies and that sacrificing to follow where he leads is always worth it.

Biblical Worldview

There were many times when I was working diligently on one of my school subjects when my mom stopped me. She had an article to read to us children or a current event to discuss. Being someone who loved to check off lists and get my work done so I could move on to playing, I intently watched the clock during these discussions, wondering when I’d be able to resume my work.

But I later came to realize these discussions were a fundamental part of my education. They taught me to compare everything to God’s Word and to see the world through the lens of Scripture. Because I was homeschooled, my mom was able to pour into me for many hours throughout the day, even as she taught me English, math, history, and science.

But teaching me a biblical worldview didn’t end during the school day. In many situations—during dinner discussions; while on a hike; or after watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a song—my parents were showing us that if we’re believers in Christ, the Bible must be our guide for all of life.

Growth in Relationship

Being homeschooled, I was around my parents and siblings constantly. Yes, we often got on each other’s nerves. But because we were together for the majority of each day, by God’s grace, we’ve become close as a family.

Since my dad has worked in ministry for years, homeschooling gave us the flexibility to minister alongside him. My parents taught us to work with one another, to value ministry, and to serve the Lord and others.

Now, as an adult, my siblings are my best friends. We’ve grown up doing practically everything together, especially since we were each other’s classmates up until we graduated from high school. Whether by completing our chores together, helping one another with homework, or playing pretend in the backyard, homeschooling allowed us to get to know one another on a deeper level.

My siblings are my best friends—homeschooling allowed us to get to know one another on a deeper level.

While homeschooling often gets a bad rap, I’m convinced my parents’ choice has made a drastic difference in my life. Through their example, I learned the value of sacrificing what I might think is good to follow the Lord’s leading to something better. As my parents turned my eyes to Scripture as the lens through which I view the world, I learned to rely on God’s Word as my guide. When I ministered alongside my family and lived life with them, I learned to serve God’s people and formed deep friendships along the way. I’m so grateful to God for my parents.

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Golden Rule for Your Email Inbox https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/golden-rule-email/ Sat, 28 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=564084 Email isn’t primarily a task to check off but an opportunity to love and serve others.]]> The average professional receives approximately 120 emails in her work inbox daily, on top of the emails in her personal inboxes and social media DMs. Interspersed among notes from colleagues and friends is a deluge of deals and newsletters asking us to read, buy, share, and be more.

This makes us feel anxious and has led to a host of advice columns on how to tame your inbox. But when optimization is one of society’s highest values, fear of the notification icon can tempt us to neglect the calling of the Golden Rule.

How can we love and serve our fellow emailers without spending too much time in our inboxes?

Inbox Zero?

Nearly two decades ago, productivity expert Merlin Mann popularized the inbox zero method of ruthlessly eliminating or delegating your inbox down to nothing. In recent years, counteractive approaches such as inbox infinity (letting your inbox grow without addressing or even reviewing the majority of your mail) encourage users to respond to the emails they happen to see and to burden others with following up on critical matters.

Today, dozens of AI email assistants promise to free us up for more important duties by responding on our behalf. Ellie will learn your writing style and craft replies in your voice. Missive can automatically inject whimsy into your emails using template prompts like “End email with a random philosophical quote.” However well intentioned and genuinely helpful these ideas are, each one leads us to obsess over productivity instead of presence.

Love Your Neighbor

Michael Sacasas, executive director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, captured the human frustration of receiving an autoresponse through sharing a universal experience: calling a credit card company’s customer service line. After running through multiple service departments and automated menus, Sacasas reached someone who genuinely explored the issue with him.

“Efficiency and speed and optimization and profitability . . . increasingly dictate how we act and interact in many if not most of the social spaces we inhabit,” he wrote. “It can be startling, if also invigorating and life-giving, to encounter someone who will break the script and deal with you as a person in [the] fullest sense—by taking the time to regard you with kindness and respect, by offering a simple gesture of help or courtesy born out of deliberate attentiveness, by conveying care through the words they speak to us and how they are delivered.”

While walking among us, Christ always met people in the fullest sense, even those asking inane or complex questions. Matthew 22:15–46 contains a series of bitter inquiries from the temple leaders that Jesus makes time and space to answer. Amid their questioning, he summarizes the first and second greatest commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (vv. 37–39)

What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus models one way in his posture toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather than dismissing their questions or giving trite responses, he loved these men by considering their unique status, intentions, and needs. He took the time to communicate clearly and patiently. He wanted them to understand his message.

I’m not saying your email to a colleague is as life-giving or critical as Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisees. But if we take care to see our emails less as tasks and more as interactions with real people, our written words can become a small conduit for the grace of Christ.

Instead of trying to reply in as few words as possible (or ignoring the message altogether), try writing a helpful and kind message. If you have a choice between a short response and a longer one that would serve or teach better, choose the more thorough explanation. When frustrated by someone’s phrasing, assume positive intent. Believe he’s doing his best as you craft your response.

The Golden Rule cannot be automated. Relationships cannot be optimized. AI cannot respond in love the way you can.

Steward Your Time

You might be wondering, Who has time for that? If we craft kind, thoughtful emails to everyone in our inbox, that would take hours.

Stewarding your inbox while honoring others requires the humility of knowing your unique temptations and limitations. To achieve a pace that allows you to engage more deeply than widely, consider implementing the following practices:

  • Lovingly let your friends and family know your current priorities and expectations for digital communication.
  • Unsubscribe from e-commerce emails and newsletters that distract you and entice you to overconsume.
  • Set up a system to ensure messages or tasks don’t slip past you, whether it’s reading through emails at the end of each day, using folders to remind yourself of tasks, or clearing your inbox at the end of each week.
  • Practice the final fruit of the Spirit: self-control. Break your email addiction by turning off notifications and closing your inbox. Set a reminder to check your email a few times a day rather than the average professional’s habit of 11 times an hour.
  • Consider whether a loving reply for this specific person would require more or fewer words.
  • When you don’t have the answer or the time to respond, connect senders to someone who can assist with their inquiry instead of ignoring them.

Using these ideas to redirect your energy toward caring for others will allow you to find a new purpose in a seemingly endless and isolated task.

As Christians, our goal for email shouldn’t look like everyone else’s. Instead of searching for ways to expand our own productivity at the expense of someone else’s, we should be looking to serve. Instead of wasting time with endless email checks or chaotic inboxes, we should create good boundaries that acknowledge our human limitations.

And instead of bemoaning or battling email, we should see it as it is—a communication gift that needs to be brought under the lordship of Christ.

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Herman Bavinck Teaches Us to Accept Science’s Limits https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/christianity-science-bavinck/ Sat, 28 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=570962 Modern science is deluded. It assumes too much. ]]> Science in the late-modern world faces an uncertain future. Despite a slight increase during the COVID pandemic, Americans’ confidence in scientists has fallen to prepandemic levels. Driving this, in part, is perhaps the way science and ideology are increasingly commingled.

Gender theory informs care for gender dysphoria, setting up the current debate on evidence-based treatment. Scientific journals have urged researchers and editors to consider the social justice implications of their work. Indeed, these are strange times when atheist Richard Dawkins sides with Christians on notions of what’s real and true.

Christianity and Science, written by Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck over a century ago, offers prescient wisdom. This volume has been made available in English for the first time through the cooperative work of three translators: N. Gray Sutanto is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary; James Eglinton is a Keller Center fellow and a senior lecturer in Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh; Cory Brock is a minister at St. Columba’s in Edinburgh.

Bavinck argues that modern science has never been neutral. In fact, the longer science proceeds under the false assumption of neutrality, the further it departs from serving both science and religious belief. The way forward, he argues, is to pay attention to the relationship between knowledge and faith.

Limitations of Science

We most often define science as the pursuit of empirical knowledge about the world. The same was true in Bavinck’s day.

We study things through our senses, confident we can arrive at truth by touching, measuring, or even thinking. There’s good reason for this. It’s hard to contest that the physical world around us is real and knowable. But Bavinck argues that on this very point, modern science is deluded. It assumes too much, and thus it cannot arrive at true knowledge of the world. Bavinck offers several reasons why science often oversteps its bounds. Identifying them can help us think better about science.

1. Science is concerned with more than just the senses.

According to Bavinck, science is the disciplined investigation to both know and understand what’s true and real. Because we encounter the world through our physical senses, science relies on the senses to examine the world. However, as the senses only provide information to our minds that we must then process and interpret, scientific knowledge involves more than just the senses.

Modern science is deluded. It assumes too much.

All perception involves thinking, so scientific knowledge is always arrived at by cognition. We come to understand what our senses provide us by integrating such perception into what we believe we already know. Therefore, our worldview assumptions about what is knowable (epistemology), what is real (metaphysics), and what is good (ethics) are always the foundation for scientific knowledge through the senses.

This is exactly where positivist science, which posits that scientific knowledge is always objective and that empirical reality is the only thing that can be known, begins to show its inadequacy.

2. Science can never justify itself.

If science is defined from the start as only knowledge that comes through empirical investigation, then science cannot be the source of its purpose and goal. Science can help you see that others study the world to understand it. But it cannot tell you why you ought to do likewise.

We assume that the world makes sense, that we should seek to understand it, and that doing so is good and useful. For Bavinck, each of these is essential to knowing, and they’re only ever problematic if we believe certain knowledge can only come through investigating the material world. But science can never set its own limits. It cannot determine what is and isn’t knowable.

3. Science is always ‘faith seeking understanding.’

Bavinck argues all science is ultimately “built on and must proceed from faith” (58). Contrary to modern thinking, this requires brave realism rather than naivete. “No science can be imagined,” says Bavinck, “without accepting beforehand, quietly and without criticism, the reliability of the senses, the objective existence of the world, the truth of the laws of thinking, and the logical, ideal content of perceptible phenomena” (131–32).

Bavinck encourages us to think Christianly about science because of Christianity’s conviction that the world is real and knowable since the Creator has revealed himself within it. Because of the objective, historical convergence of God and creation in the person and work of Christ, only a Christian worldview can bring unity to perception and knowledge, being and thinking, faith and science.

Accordingly, Bavinck concludes that while any science offers knowledge that particular things exist and how they relate to other things, only “Christian science is a science that investigates all things by the light of [God’s] revelation and, therefore, sees [things] as they truly are in their essence” (225).

Our Context Is Similar to Bavinck’s

Bavinck’s argument presents a hopeful message for our own day. He urges us to see science as organically reliant on faith to realize that the Christian faith in particular holds the key to rescuing science from ideology. Modern science hasn’t rid society of religiosity. Rather, our society increasingly approaches science cloaked in alternative spiritualities.

Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral and we should be honest about our presuppositions of what science is and what it’s for. On this, Bavinck says, “An era that manifests such signs is not unfavorable for the practice of science in a Christian spirit” (47).

Christians should continue to investigate the world rigorously and honestly, all the while drawing attention to the worldview commitments about truth and cognition that make science possible.

Christianity Is the Only Proper Science

To some, Bavinck’s claim that only Christian science is proper science may seem like any other ideology or fundamentalism. But within the framework he presents, it’s the only natural conclusion.

Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral.

It isn’t a claim that’s provable by empirical science. Bavinck rightly believes the most compelling evidence for the truth of a Christian worldview is that it’s an eminently livable worldview. Christianity alone offers the most intellectually and existentially compelling way to unite belief and reality, and by this to live consistently with our convictions.

Christianity and Science is a helpful introduction to Herman Bavinck’s other works on worldview and knowledge. In all three, and especially in this book, Bavinck charts a needed escape from modernity’s anemic understanding of science. He helps us think better about knowledge and belief—for the sake both of better science and of a more compelling public witness.

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Draw Wisdom and Strength from God’s Word https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/wisdom-strength-gods-word/ Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:04:01 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=576462 Bobby Scott teaches on the importance of staying grounded in the Word of God as it equips and empowers us for the work of God. ]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Bobby Scott teaches on 2 Timothy 3:10–17, emphasizing the importance of being a bearer of the gospel and living a life centered on the Word of God. He challenges believers to consider whether our actions and words reflect the beautiful message of grace found in the gospel of Jesus.

Scott focuses on how the Word leads to salvation and teaches that perseverance in the Word is crucial, especially in the face of fear and persecution. As we draw wisdom and strength from the Bible—God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness—we can keep ministering and stay grounded in the Word of God as it equips us for the work of God and empowers us to face spiritual battles in the world.

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Questions to Ask Your Bookworm Teenager https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/questions-bookworm-teenager/ Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=565480 Consider asking your teens these six questions about the volumes on their nightstands or in their backpacks.]]> “Reading Level: College.” I remember those words showing up on my testing results at a young age.

My penchant for all things literary came from my mother, who passed down a love of words and read to me likely from my time in the womb. I started devouring books on my own as soon as I learned to read, and fiction was my genre of choice, particularly fantasy or adventure stories.

Many kids grow up the same way. We come back from trips to the public library with heavy bags, eager to be transported into each story. The hobby often follows us into our teenage years, where the door opens to new selections.

The stories we read can be some of the most beneficial inputs in our lives. Humans learn through stories—absorbing facts, lessons, and values often more quickly than we would from a textbook. Fiction gives us the chance to explore new worlds and lives we’d otherwise never imagine. It’s a beautiful thing.

And yet it can also be dangerous. Stories influence our thinking, and teenagers are already especially susceptible to influence.

Evaluate Stories

It’s not realistic for parents to read everything their teens are reading, but when they’re conversing about these books, they can get a productive glimpse into the worlds their children are living in and discuss the values they’re picking up on.

Consider asking your teens these six questions about the volumes on their nightstands or in their backpacks.

1. What’s the book about?

As long as you aren’t catching your teen mid-page (which many readers would say is a massive faux pas), most bookworms are more than happy to ramble on about the plot of their current read.

By simply asking your teen what the book is about, you’ll get a handle on what he’s focusing on in the book, how he’s liking it, and, of course, what the content is. Understanding the plot of the book will give you an idea of the world he’s spending his hours submerged in.

2. What do the characters care about or want most?

Character motivations fuel fiction. The plot is pulled this way and that by the lead’s goals as he fights whatever obstacles he encounters to achieve what he wants. What a character desires will be foremost in the reader’s mind, and that teaches them something about humanity—whether we want it to or not.

As she reads, your teen may start caring about what the protagonist cares about. Is that justice or revenge? Is it identity? Finding out what the characters want can be key in understanding what your teen might start considering important.

3. What’s the romance like?

Our views of love can be molded by the media we consume. From Hollywood chick flicks to Pride and Prejudice, the world is filled with depictions of what humans think love is like. More often than not, it’s nothing like what the Bible tells us about love. Perhaps one of the greatest failings of literature lies here, and it’s important to discuss with your teen how the couple she’s so ardently rooting for is developing their relationship.

The expectations we have for romance will be shaped by what we’re reading, so discuss what’s accurate and what’s not. This question can quickly lead to a conversation about love from a godly perspective.

4. Did the characters do the right thing?

It’s not always completely black and white, but more often than not, characters are brought to a point where they need to make decisions about good and evil. From deciding how to bring justice against the villains to simply considering how they treat those around them, heroes are surrounded with choices. And those choices influence your teens. Everything we consume feeds our understanding of the world, including our understanding of morality.

Everything we consume feeds our understanding of the world, including our understanding of morality.

Being able to discuss moral decisions in fiction through a biblical lens helps parents and teens break down how we can glorify the Lord in difficult situations. While most teens will never have to confront the same choices as a hero in an adventure story, they’ll face hard decisions, and the kinds of stories they read about can influence their responses.

5. Why do you think the author wrote the book?

No author writes without a purpose in mind. All writing is persuasive, to some level, and our worldviews seep into our writing as easily as blood flows from a paper cut.

This question prompts your teen to think deeper about the adventure he’s experiencing and ask himself what the purpose of the tale is. What does the author intend for him to believe? What is the author asking him to take away from the story? If her purposes for writing are flawed, chances are her views on honor, love, justice, and the world will also be flawed. These kinds of authors may not be worth learning from.

6. Is this book worth reading?

After she’s evaluated these questions about the book, the teen can offer her opinion on whether she’ll finish it. Would she recommend it to someone else? Why or why not? Sometimes, a parent will realize he or she needs to step in. But this question gives your young bookworm the chance to come to the realization on her own and think more carefully about each book she decides to read in the future.

Stories are one of the ways humanity can most imitate our Creator, by creating worlds and stories we can enjoy and learn from. Encouraging our teens to read and enjoy books is a good thing, and I’m grateful my parents did that for me.

But, like nearly every part of life, the maze of modern literature isn’t one teens can navigate on their own. Striking up these conversations and diving deeper into the meanings of the stories we love is one way Christian parents can help their children approach one of God’s gifts biblically.

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Catholic, Not Roman: Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of Love for the Church https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/martin-luther-loved-church/ Fri, 27 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=576473 Luther only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.]]> Some picture Martin Luther as a raging protester, eager to charge the gates of Rome and bring down the church. That caricature is far from the truth.

Luther was no sectarian or schismatic. He wasn’t trying to start a new church, nor was he attempting to divide the church, let alone bring Rome crashing down.

His intent was to reform from within, convinced Rome had turned to more modern innovations that betrayed the rich heritage of the church catholic (universal). We see that intent when Luther said at the start of his Ninety-five Theses that he was presenting them for public discussion but out “of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” Luther’s theses exhibited zeal, even serious consternation, but behind his bold discontent was a deeper motive—love. Love for God and love for his church.

Indulgences—or to be more accurate, their abuse—galvanized Luther to write these Ninety-five Theses.

The writing and posting of theses was anything but novel. It wasn’t the first time Luther had written some up for debate. Nor was Luther alone in this practice.

Many of his medieval colleagues had done the same. It’s likely Luther was imitating the examples of many who came before him. That isn’t to downplay Luther’s irritation, but he only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.

Luther only intended to invite an academic dispute, not a revolt among the masses.

Luther sent the theses to the archbishop, Albert of Brandenburg, who presided over Johann Tetzel’s indulgence preaching. He also sent them to many of his friends. That move is revealing. Some wonder whether Luther’s ultimate aim all along wasn’t academic disputation but public, pastoral clarification on an issue as significant as salvation itself. His theses, with their pastoral angle, may indicate as much.

Repentance and the Penalty for Sin

Luther’s first thesis challenged Rome’s interpretation of Matthew 4:17. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Many assumed Jesus was commanding the sinner to “do penance” (the Latin is poenitentiam agite).

Luther was unwilling to read into Rome’s entire penance system, indulgences included, a simple command to turn from sin. He preferred the alternative translation, “repent.”

He wrote, “This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.” Rather, it means “solely inner repentance.” Perhaps speaking from experience, Luther warned against “repentance” without external fruit: “Such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward modifications of the flesh.”

When Luther addressed sin, he still assumed Rome’s distinction between the guilt of sin and the penalty of sin, believing the latter remains “until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” However, Luther discouraged appealing to the pope, as if the pope could somehow rid Christians of all the penalty of sin.

Furthermore, the sinner shouldn’t think he can find remission of his guilt if he isn’t truly repentant. Luther argued, “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.”

In 1517, Luther had yet to jettison Rome’s view of the priesthood. But he was irritated with priests, especially those who abused the concept of purgatory, noting, “Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.”

It used to be the case, said Luther, that “penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.” Not anymore. That worried Luther to no end; perhaps he talked to churchgoers who assumed that once they were absolved the penalties were nothing.

Purgatory and Indulgences

Luther was convinced purgatory was approached with all the wrong motives. The preachers of purgatory—like Tetzel—used fear rather than love to convey purgatory’s purpose. Luther wrote, “It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.”

He was persuaded that people everywhere were misinformed, even misled. When the pope granted a “plenary remission of all penalties,” he “[did] not actually mean ‘all penalties,’ but only those imposed by himself.”

Luther lamented, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.”

He claimed those purgatory preachers, like Tetzel, were proclaiming lies when they promised immediate release from purgatory at the purchase of an indulgence slip. He wrote, “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

As the money chest increased, “greed and avarice” increased all the more. Luther reminded Christians that if they couldn’t even be sure their own repentance was genuine, how then could they be certain the penalty for all their sins was remitted by indulgences?

Often fiery, it seems Luther might well have flipped the indulgence tables upside down himself: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”

Fiery Language, Pastoral Heart

Luther’s strong language—damnation!—conveyed his pastoral disgust. Sinners rushed to the indulgence tables under the impression that if they had enough money to purchase the slip, they’d escape purgatory, regardless of whether they were repentant.

Some said an indulgence could “absolve a man even if he had . . . violated the mother of God” herself.

“Madness!” Luther cried. “What a total abuse of the penance system, as if satisfaction for the temporal punishment for one’s sins was for sale irrespective of genuine confession, irrespective of what sins one had committed.”

Luther objected with such vehemence because he was convinced cheap grace was offered at the expense of the heart’s sanctification.

Then Luther put forward a thesis that must have infuriated preachers like Tetzel: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”

Preachers of “papal indulgences” who refused to exercise “caution” gave the laity the impression that other “good works of love” were less important. They were not, Luther replied. And like that, Luther undermined the entire system of indulgences, throwing into question the motivation of those selling them as well as their salvific value.

Catholic, Not Roman

Did Luther have an accurate understanding of the pope and his involvement in the indulgence affair?

Luther initially gave the pope the benefit of the doubt. He assumed the pope would put a stop to the selling and buying of indulgences if he only knew how they were abused. If “the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”

Little did Luther realize how wrong he was.

At this point in Luther’s journey, he didn’t reject the authority of the pope altogether but merely clarified papal authority, which he feared had been misappropriated by others. Luther brought down the pope’s authority to the level of the common bishop: “That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese or parish.”

In Luther’s mind, he was merely a medieval man trying to renew the church by retrieving its true heritage. In time, he came to see that in order to be truly catholic he could no longer be Roman.

Luther even raised questions about the keys: “The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.”

The Ninety-five Theses reveal Luther was still a novice in his quest for reform. Beliefs he later abandoned were still present.

Nevertheless, the heart of his concerns was present and proved explosive in the right hands. In his mind, however, he was merely a medieval man trying to renew the church by retrieving its true heritage. In time, he came to see that in order to be truly catholic he could no longer be Roman.

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Let’s Critically Examine Critical Theory https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/critical_dilemma/ Thu, 26 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=574905 Seek to understand and biblically evaluate critical theories instead of labeling them as either totally correct or wholly destructive.]]> Two basic problems arise in any conversation involving critical theory: (1) finding a consistent, fair representation from its advocates or critics and (2) sifting through the complex jargon to understand what the honest representation means so responsible critique can take place.

Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology––Implications for the Church and Society attempts to address both of these problems. Neil Shenvi earned a PhD in theoretical chemistry and has invested his recent years in the study of critical theory. Pat Sawyer is a lecturer in communication studies at UNC Greensboro and holds a PhD in education studies and cultural studies.

This is a long book, at nearly 500 pages. The heft is largely due to the complexity of the authors’ goals. Shenvi and Sawyer state a desire to explain “bad ideas [some Christians have] embraced” that “have been penetrating more and more deeply into our culture” (30).

They contend these ideas often lead to deconstruction, theological liberalism, and other unhealthy attitudes toward the faith. They “want to show Christians that the Bible offers better answers to questions about race, class, gender, sexuality, justice, oppression, and a host of other hot-button issues” (30).

Incandescent Arguments

Fights over critical theory often produce more heat than light.

Recent debates among evangelicals have made it clear to me that many of the most vocal critics have little or no understanding of CRT. Before you can honestly critique an idea, you have to understand it. The first half of Critical Dilemma takes up that task.

Before you can honestly critique an idea, you have to understand it.

In their efforts to adequately explain critical theory, Shenvi and Sawyer explore two specific types: CRT and queer theory. This section could have been a book in itself. The authors interact largely with primary sources and favorable secondary sources in their attempt to honestly represent academic theories often characterized by their proponents as being impossible to define.

I’m no expert in critical theory, in the sense that I don’t write academically on the subject. But I’ve read enough primary literature to have a fair grasp of critical theory and a better understanding of CRT, but little comprehension of queer theory.

Overall, Shenvi and Sawyer have captured the basic ideas of at least critical theory and CRT. Because of their success in the areas I know, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt regarding queer theory.

Some scholars will disagree with certain representations of those theories in this book. In part, that’s what academics do. Some of the disagreements will have more validity than others. These are complex ideas with substantial variations among adherents, so it’s unlikely any single presentation will satisfy everyone.

Responsible Critiques

The second half of the book is a critique of critical theories. It would have been possible to write a book that simply offers this critique. Others have done so. But this book is most valuable because the turn to evaluation comes after the careful work of understanding.

Critical Dilemma offers a nuanced approach to topics that often lead to bombastic claims from Christian supporters and detractors of critical theories. The authors have made it clear they’re ideological opponents of critical theories. Yet they offer a chapter on the truths to be found in such theories.

Proponents of critical theories are clearly not going to like the critiques offered within this book. But neither will those who support colorblindness find comfort in its pages. Though I’m not a proponent of critical theory, I fear that books critiquing it may be used as weapons against those attempting to address institutional racism. A careless reading of Critical Dilemma might lead some to such faulty conclusions, but a thorough engagement won’t.

One of the strengths of this volume is that it undermines perspectives from the right and the left that argue critical theories are either totally correct or wholly destructive. The book reflects my larger critique of critical theory, which is that it’s often effective at revealing problems in our society, but the solutions it offers have largely failed. This nuance is one of the best qualities of the book.

Potential Missteps

Despite its value, there are missteps in Shenvi and Sawyer’s critique.

For example, the authors criticize critical theory advocates for rejecting universal laws and hierarchy as hegemonic. Many critical theorists argue that “dominant social groups impose their values on society such that they are accepted as natural, normal, or even God-ordained” (92). From this standpoint, institutions like the nuclear family and natural law or religious arguments for public policy are deemed oppressive. Shenvi and Sawyer note that Scripture affirms both universal moral law and some forms of hierarchy. Thus, they argue that in some sense “the Bible itself functions as hegemonic discourse” (290). They’re right, but the primary concerns of the critical theorists are human laws, rather than supernatural. To some degree they are talking past the critical theorists.

The authors are also too quick to declare Martin Luther King Jr. a close ally to their cause related to the question of law and the universal moral law. They write, “King’s entire argument fundamentally contradicts CRT’s perspective” (327). King’s perspective contrasts with some aspects of CRT, especially because he recognizes law can be and often is based on a universal moral order. However, he was critical of some laws, recognizing that sometimes the law can be used by the majority to inflict pain on the minority. This perspective in some ways resonates with the original legal analysis of CRT. There is value in this discussion for Critical Dilemma, but it is an example of the authors painting with a bit too broad a brush.

Finally, I wasn’t convinced by their case in chapter 11 against a role for collective, ancestral guilt. This concept can be misused by activists, but too quickly dismissing the social relevance of historical racial injustice can create barriers to reconciliation. Shenvi and Sawyer are correct to note that moral guilt is resolved for each individual through Christ alone. However, in Scripture we see God’s judgment of all Israel for Achan’s sin (Josh. 7) and Daniel’s confession of the ancestral sin of his people (Dan. 9). A deeper conversation about collective guilt, especially in social terms, needs to take place to understand what role it may, or may not, play in race relations.

Worthy of Commendation

Even with these challenges, Critical Dilemma is a commendable book. It can give Christians a common footing to have a better dialogue on issues connected to critical theories.

Critical Dilemma offers a nuanced approach to topics that often lead to bombastic claims from Christian supporters and detractors of critical theories.

The book’s nuance encourages discussion. It allows us to learn about the different concerns people bring to these important issues. It helps us to engage in a careful understanding of opposing views that can help us to navigate some of our differences.

It’s not easy to take the complicated ideas within various critical theories and distill them for an educated but nonacademic audience. The authors largely accomplish that task, although some passages may be confusing to the layperson.

Their honest attempt and reasonable success in providing fair, accessible explanations of ambiguous academic theories make this a valuable volume—whether you support or oppose critical theories, whether you’re well read or not, and whether you have influence in the Christian community or you’re unknown. If you want to be part of the conversation within the church on critical theories, this is an important book.

I hope we build off this information to find solutions we can live with instead of the recriminations that so often characterize our discussions on issues of identity and oppression.

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What Do Israel’s Food Laws Have to Do with Our Holiness? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/israel-food-laws/ Thu, 26 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569517 The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy.]]> When we get to Leviticus in our Bible reading plans, how many of us read every word of chapter 11?

It’s not most people’s idea of engaging literature. The Lord provides a long list of which animals were ritually pure and which were ritually impure. The pure ones could be eaten; the impure ones couldn’t.

If we do make it through the list, one of the first questions we ask is “Why? What makes an animal pure or impure?” Interpreters have ventured various guesses.

Some say it was for health reasons: pure animals are good for our health, while impure ones aren’t. But if health is a concern, why get rid of these laws in the New Testament? (And please pass the calamari as you answer.) Others say it was for cultic reasons: impure animals were used in pagan worship or represented pagan gods. But this doesn’t work when it comes to bulls, which are pure even though they were commonly worshiped in the ancient world. (Golden calf, anyone?)

Despite our best guesses, we’re not told in the Bible why the animals are impure. Instead, Scripture focuses on the goals the Lord had in view with these laws.

Testimony of God’s Holiness

A diet marks a person in a certain way. In our day, those who don’t eat meat are identified as vegetarians (or vegans). In the Israelites’ day, those who kept the diet of Leviticus 11 were identified as the Lord’s followers. It marked them as his people.

But more than that, it marked them as the people of a certain kind of God. For those following a meat-free diet, avoiding meat is a priority. For those following a gluten-free diet, avoiding gluten is a priority. The Lord put the Israelites on an impurity-free diet. Why? He wanted his people to make avoiding impurity a priority.

The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy—the opposite of all that was impure. But these laws did more than testify about God’s holiness.

Reminder to Pursue Holiness

The nature of their diet testified that the Israelites followed a God who was holy—the opposite of all that was impure.

The Lord often gives his people physical signs to remind them of other obligations or promises. Circumcision of the flesh was to remind Israelites of the need for circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16). The Lord’s Supper reminds Christians of Jesus’s sacrificial death and their covenant obligations to him and to fellow members of his body (1 Cor. 11:23–34). Such physical signs are reminders of deeper realities.

Laws on ritual purity and impurity work in the same way: by commanding the Israelites to distinguish between purity and impurity at a ritual level, the Lord was reminding them to make such distinctions at a moral level. These laws were like spiritual strings around their fingers, reminding them at every meal, “If the Lord requires me to distinguish between purity and impurity ritually—seeking one and avoiding the other—how much more should I do so morally.”

I’ve seen this work out in practice. I once taught a semester-long seminary class on Leviticus. One of the assignments was to follow as many of the laws in Leviticus as possible for a week and to keep a journal of the experience.

The students shared understandable frustrations: several noted the prohibition against clothing of two different fabrics eliminated most of their wardrobes, and one student simply commented on day two, “I really miss bacon.”

By far, however, the most common observation went like this:

Every day, I made decisions about ritual purity and impurity. By midweek, I realized I was thinking about these things all day long and in every aspect of my life, and that’s when it hit me: God cares a lot about our purity and holiness, not just from a ritual perspective but also from a moral perspective. All day long and in every aspect of life, the Lord wants me to pursue purity in my heart, in my thoughts, in my actions. He wants me to reflect his holiness in all that I do. I have been treating holiness way too lightly! O Lord, help me to be holy!

What Happened to the Dietary Laws?

Originally, the laws on ritual purity and impurity were meant to set the Israelites apart as distinct so they might be a light to the nations. But by Jesus’s day, these laws had become a dividing wall that caused them to withdraw from the nations, which they viewed as unholy and unclean.

God cares a lot about our purity and holiness, not just from a ritual perspective but also from a moral perspective.

Even Peter didn’t at first think of the Gentiles as a people group with whom he could go and share the gospel, and it took a direct vision from the Lord to convince him otherwise (Acts 10). So it isn’t surprising that Jesus explicitly sets aside these food laws when he initiates the new covenant (Mark 7:19; Rom. 14:13–15).

But even in doing so, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what these laws pointed to: the need for deep, inner moral purity. In Mark 7:21–23, he says, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In saying this, Jesus calls us to give him our hearts so he can wash them clean, and then to reflect his holiness all day long and in every aspect of life—so the nations might know we follow a holy God.

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Contingencies and Convictions: The Kingdom Is Inevitable, ‘The West’ Is Not https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/kingdom-inevitable-west-not/ Wed, 25 Oct 2023 04:04:26 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=575749 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson explore the role of geography, technology, and coincidence in the spread of Christianity, which has fundamentally shaped our assumptions about the world.]]> How did Christianity come to shape Western culture? History is often told as the story of great men and events. But did Christianity come to shape Western culture simply as a “great idea” that carried the day?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson explore the role of geography, technology, and coincidence in the spread of Christianity, which has fundamentally shaped our assumptions about the world. Geography, geology, ecology, and economics aren’t the topics you’d usually consider in a Christian podcast, but Glen and Andrew observe how those factors—along with the fundamental goodness of the gospel—combine to create an environment in which the worldview of the West was formed.

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Why I Led Our Church into a Cultural Minefield https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/preach-cultural-minefield/ Wed, 25 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569507 Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.]]> When I introduced our church’s new preaching series last January, I asked our congregation to pray I’d still have a job at the end.

I was only half joking.

For the next two months, we focused on how the gospel gives us perspective for navigating some of our modern world’s most divisive and confusing issues. The ones that derail dinner conversations and clog social media feeds. The ones that stir doubts, fuel anger and suspicion, erode friendships, and generally test faith. In the series, we tackled cancel culture, politics, abortion, race, expressive individualism, homosexuality, and gender identity.

My prayer request wasn’t in vain. What happened as a result of the series was both surprising and encouraging.

Rather than encountering angry criticism or running afoul of tribal loyalties, I found the flock received these sermons with eagerness, gratitude, and even relief. They appreciated our church’s willingness to address controversial issues in a way that lowered the temperature and recalibrated us to the gospel. Several commented on how they were moved from fear and anxiety to peace and courage.

When we looked at how the gospel helps us to understand the abortion crisis in America, for example, the reaction wasn’t only a deeper resolve to protect the unborn and care for mothers. Some found the freedom to confess past abortions with confidence in Christ’s mercy.

The sermon series was risky, but Jesus moved in our church, and the congregation grew in clarity, confidence, and compassion. As difficult as it sounds to walk into a cultural minefield with the gospel, pastors should seriously consider preaching a series on tough cultural issues. Here’s why.

1. Everyone already talks about these issues.

As uncomfortable as it may feel to bring up divisive and controversial topics, the reality is that you’re not the one bringing them up.

Our news feeds and text threads are filled with endless dialogue about these subjects, and many of those threads are marked more by outrage than by insight. It’s wise and important for churches to weigh in as well—not as one more opinion in an overcrowded comment section but as witnesses to Christ and heralds of God’s Word.

We need to bring the good news of Christ to bear on each controversial matter. Otherwise, we’re leaving it to the loudest podcasters and pundits to disciple our flocks.

2. God’s people are looking for guidance.

The last thing I want is for the weekly headlines to dictate my preaching focus on Sundays. I’d much rather address issues as they arise naturally from each book of the Bible. But sometimes the cultural moment calls for more direct engagement, lest the sheep end up wandering the wilderness without a shepherd.

While there will always be some whose “itching ears” simply want you to confirm their views (2 Tim. 4:3), most are simply looking for help. With so many voices arguing confidently and obsessively, it can be difficult for many to know what to think. Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.

Your pulpit is a means of grace and an important tool the Lord has given you for pastoring your flock through dangerous terrain.

3. The gospel is sufficient even for controversial topics.

It can be overwhelming to think about tackling divisive and complex subjects head-on. I almost canceled the series several times before we launched. But our confidence as shepherds doesn’t come from our own expertise. It comes from the sufficiency of our chief Shepherd. Our confidence (and thus our counsel) isn’t based on our own wisdom but on the gospel.

As I ventured into each issue with our congregation, God’s Word not only pointed the way forward but also supplied the guardrails to keep us from veering off the road into either unfettered assimilation (where the church becomes indistinguishable from the world) or self-righteous condemnation (where we so distance ourselves from the world that we’re no longer acting as witnesses). Whatever the subject, the gospel frees us to simultaneously uphold the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace. It’s our hope, power, and guide for living out our faith in an ever-changing world.

Whatever the subject, the gospel frees us to simultaneously uphold the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace.

That doesn’t mean land mines will never go off. However courageous or compassionate you are in the pulpit, some may still take offense. But even then, God is giving you an opportunity to let the gospel do its refining work in both you and your hearers. Conflict is never exciting, but in the Lord, it’s never wasted (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7–18).

It’s impossible for pastors to be experts on every important subject. But take heart: you don’t have to be an expert, just a pastor. Through the truth and grace of the gospel, our Lord has given you and your flock the wisdom and perspective you need to navigate today’s cultural challenges without compromise.

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Jen Wilkin and J. T. English on Why We’re All Theologians https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/why-were-all-theologians/ Tue, 24 Oct 2023 04:04:31 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=575891 Jen Wilkin and J. T. English join Collin Hansen to discuss theological training in the church, men and women working together in ministry, and more.]]> Jen Wilkin and J. T. English have given you an invitation—they want you to know and love God well. Sounds good, right? It’s hard to imagine any of us turning down that offer.

There’s just one catch. You need to become a theologian.

Uh oh. 

But you can do it. You were built for it!

That’s their theme in a new book, You Are a Theologian (B&H). They’re bringing theology to the masses, something they’ve been doing together for many years. You know Jen Wilkin as a Bible teacher from Dallas and author of many books, including Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds. Like Jen, J. T. is a repeat Gospelbound guest. He’s a pastor in Colorado and author of Deep Discipleship: How the Local Church Can Make Whole Disciples.

This paragraph sums up their work in You Are a Theologian:

Theology is not done exclusively or even primarily in the classroom. It is done in everyday life, every minute of every day. We are doing theology when we preach, pray, and sing, but we are also doing theology when we go to work, when we take a vacation, as we care for an aging parent, as we fight sin, as we raise kids, as we mourn the loss of a loved one, as we spend our money, and as we grow old. You are a theologian, and you are always doing theology.

They deliver on the premise in this book that works well in Sunday schools, youth groups, college discipleship, leader training, and more. Jen and J. T. joined me on Gospelbound to talk about misunderstood doctrines, favorite doctrines, favorite theologians, theological training in the church, men and women working together in the church, and more.

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Pray the Lord’s Prayer for Missionaries https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lords-prayer-missionaries/ Tue, 24 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=567919 Pray for Christ’s missionaries according to Christ’s direction.]]> An email arrives from Russia. Missionaries there explain how the recent unrest causes further complications for their church planting efforts. Evangelical Christians are never completely at liberty in Russia, especially when political turmoil is added to an ongoing war. “Pray for us,” they write.

Another message comes from missionaries serving in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. For decades, they’ve lived among people captive to superstitious spirit-worship. Once again, the locals have shunned them for transgressing some unspoken taboo. “Pray for us,” they write.

A third email appears from a couple hoping to return to an unreached people group in Asia. The pandemic forced them to leave, and government regulations make it difficult to go back. But the husband has an upcoming job interview that would provide a visa. “Pray for us,” they write.

Pray for us. Pray for us. Pray for us.

How to Pray

In prayer—whether in private or with the people of God—it can be difficult to know how to bear the various burdens of our brothers and sisters laboring for the gospel in far-off places. We feel ourselves unable to pray as we ought. In this, we depend on the Spirit’s help.

But we also depend on the Lord’s direction. “Lord, teach us to pray,” Christ’s disciples once asked (Luke 11:1). And our Master graciously replied with words that guide his praying people in every age until his return.

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t simply a form of words to repeat in rote; rather, it has the greater purpose of leading Christians to the kind of petitions the Lord is delighted to answer. The Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully asks, “What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?” The answer is this: “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer, but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.”

6 Petitions

So what might the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer teach us about praying for missionaries? Let me give a few suggestions.

1. ‘Hallowed be thy name.’

The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us the aim of missions is that God’s name would be highly exalted among the nations. In Malachi 1:11, the Lord assures us this will take place: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.”

Our prayers should have this promise and God’s glory in view. We lament that so few people glorify the God who made them and we plead that the Lord would fulfill his promise to save many and make them his worshipers.

The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us the aim of missions is that God’s name would be highly exalted among the nations.

2. ‘Thy kingdom come.’

The work of missions involves kingdom conflict. Just as young men were sent to the frontlines in World War II for the greater Allied cause, so our missionaries are kingdom soldiers waging war on Satan’s realm (Eph. 2:2–3). As these missionaries translate Scripture, plant churches, and engage in gospel-centered mercy ministry, we pray fervently that those efforts will result in kingdom advance. Yet unlike other conflicts, we know the outcome is secure, so we can pray with confidence, hope, and expectation (Rev. 11:15).

3. ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The missionary’s great desire—to see more and more people brought into willing subjection to King Jesus—is the last thing sinners desire (Rom. 8:7). So how might people become responsive to their ministry? By God’s sovereign grace alone. We must plead that God would change people’s hearts so they’re willing to trust, love, and obey the Savior (Ps. 110:3).

4. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

Missionaries need housing, food, clothing, working cars, education for their children, and plane tickets back home. People are encouraged to give money for missions, and rightly so. But it isn’t ultimately God’s people who provide; rather, God does so through them (Phil. 4:19). Do you pray that the God who owns all things would provide for the daily needs of his kingdom laborers?

5. ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’

We ought to pray that missions would result in many people coming to know the forgiveness of their sins through Christ’s atoning blood and the freedom that comes through being justified by faith (Gal. 2:16). But it isn’t just people out there who need forgiveness. We also should pray that God would forgive our coldness of heart for the souls of others and our lackluster commitment to the glory of God and the Great Commission.

6. ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

Missionaries face a great adversary (Eph. 6:12). Satan tempts them in many ways: to wane in gospel zeal, to drift from biblical truth, to trust in the flesh, and to despair when God seems distant or they don’t see results. Through prayer, we come alongside our missionaries by asking God to enable them to stand in the hour of temptation and then be refreshed by the sweetness of Christ’s presence and grace (3:16).

Christ’s Direction

The next time you receive a missionary prayer letter in your inbox, or when you pray over a list of missionaries during your private devotions, or as you beseech God for the work of missions in your church prayer meeting, allow the Lord’s Prayer to give you focus. Pray for Christ’s missionaries according to Christ’s direction.

When you do, you can be sure that’s the kind of prayer our heavenly Father delights to answer. And you can be confident he has the power to bring it to pass. We don’t bring our requests to an impotent ruler but to the Great King who assures us of their ultimate success. For his is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.

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How to Live Unashamed of the Gospel https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/live-unashamed-gospel/ Mon, 23 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=575709 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of not being ashamed of the gospel and the need for sound doctrine in pastoral ministry.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry delve into 2 Timothy 1:8–18 and reflect on the recurring theme of shame in pastoral ministry, particularly the fear of being ashamed of the gospel.

They discuss the temptation to feel ashamed in the face of opposition and the importance of holding firm to their faith, emphasizing that the gospel brings comfort; hope; and true, abundant life.


Recommended resource: United to Christ, Walking in the Spirit: A Theology of Ephesians by Benjamin L. Merkle

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Common Fallacies in an Age of Outrage https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/fallacies-age-outrage/ Mon, 23 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=570126 It’s possible to be willfully gullible. In fact, it’s dangerously easy.]]> In an online world of rampant disinformation, partisan manipulation, and systemic distrust, it’s increasingly difficult—but necessary—for Christians to follow Scripture’s injunctions to discern what’s trustworthy: “do not be deceived” (1 Cor. 6:9), “keep alert” (Eph. 6:18), “try to discern” (Eph. 5:10), “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21), and “think” (2 Tim. 2:7).

What’s at stake?

First, the peace of the church. After four decades of pastoral ministry, I discovered that pandemics and presidential elections produce passionate opinions! Like many pastors, I received emails from church members with links to “well-researched” articles. I was encouraged to take greater or lesser stands on this or that. I was offered examples of high-profile pastors in other states who were courageous.

But these people I loved sent me articles that contradicted each other. It was logically impossible to agree with all of them. When I didn’t, some treasured friendships were strained. And many of us learned an important lesson: our unity largely depends on our ability to discern the truth.

The second thing at stake is our credibility. If we’re easily persuaded to believe falsehoods, why would unbelievers accept our claim that the gospel is true? Willful gullibility neglects our God-given responsibility to acquire the skills necessary to evaluate truth claims. This doesn’t mean we must be experts in every subject, but it does mean we practice strategic hesitation before accepting a claim as true and publicly endorsing it.

We don’t have to be experts in every subject, but we do have to practice strategic hesitation before accepting a claim as true and publicly endorsing it.

One critical skill for truth evaluation is biblical literacy. Along with our daily intake of news sources, we should be “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things” are so (Acts 17:11). Scripture doesn’t speak directly to every headline, but when a sitting president defends same-sex marriage by saying, “Marriage is a simple proposition. Who do you love?” scriptural competence guards us from deception.

In addition to developing biblical literacy, we can ask ourselves if we’re falling for fallacies. Here are seven that are common in our public discourse.

1. ‘Hasty Conclusion’ Fallacy

This is accepting a conclusion based on relevant but insufficient evidence. Years ago, a short in a wire caused my car horn to sound off at awkward moments. It almost got me in a couple of fights because drivers in front of me hastily concluded I was looking for one. In our “breaking news” culture, how many families, churches, and nations have been divided by an emotional rush to judgment?

James’s advice remains relevant: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Slow down, cool off, shut up, think it through. Otherwise, we’ll jump to inaccurate conclusions and make bad situations worse. Once we take a public stance, pride inclines us to double down, even as contrary facts begin to emerge.

Resist the hot take and reserve judgment until you know more.

2. ‘Argument by Repetition’ Fallacy

Believing a claim because it’s frequently and confidently repeated is to fall for the fallacy of argument by repetition. Research shows that the more we hear a lie, the more likely we are to believe it. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was frequently and confidently—and falsely—accused (Mark 14:55–59). So many believed these repeated lies that when “the chief priests accused him of many things” (15:3), no one defended him at his trial. But repeating a claim doesn’t make it true.

Adolf Hitler famously used this technique, repeating the charge of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Nazi propaganda amplified the lie, fueling antisemitism in German culture that led to the Holocaust. And lies repeated then feed deadly hatred today.

Think before receiving what’s repeated.

3. ‘Ad Hominem’ Fallacy

This fallacy occurs if a debater attacks the person rather than the argument. When Jesus bested his critics in debate, they called him a demon-possessed Samaritan (John 8:48). Insults are the last resort of a man who has no argument. Politicians skilled at name-calling effectively persuade gullible voters while escaping the hard work of debating an opponent’s positions. Believing that a pastor with a record of gospel faithfulness is a “woke Marxist” just because another pastor called him that is inexcusably naive.

Reputations are damaged and truth is eclipsed when believers fall for ad hominem arguments of the intellectually lazy.

Dismantle arguments, not people.

4. ‘Double Standard’ Fallacy

A double standard means applying a standard differently in some cases to gain an advantage. In leadership, character matters. Church leaders must be “above reproach” before they can be entrusted with authority (1 Tim. 3:2). If they betray that trust, they should be held accountable. No leader is owed special treatment because he’s wealthy, well connected, or well known. The church must “keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21).

No leader is owed special treatment because he’s wealthy, well connected, or well known.

Similarly, when Christians are persuaded to excuse the faults of their political champions while criticizing similar faults in their political opponents, the unbelieving world will perceive inconsistency and partiality as willful gullibility.

Apply the same standard equally to all.

5. ‘Suppressed Evidence’ Fallacy

This is concealing evidence unfavorable to your argument. In a justice system, two parties make their arguments before an impartial third party who attempts to discern the truth. As Solomon wrote, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). Give both sides a fair hearing.

In 1770, John Adams defended the British soldiers who fired on a crowd in the Boston Massacre. Knowing the jury would be biased against the defendants, who were accused of murder, Adams reminded them, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” After hearing all the facts from both sides, the jury found none of the despised soldiers guilty of murder.

Christians can suppress evidence by failing to take advantage of a free press. Market competition between news sources guaranteed free by the First Amendment is a check and balance, making more facts (and fact-checking) available to truth-lovers. By selecting only sources that present “friendly facts,” we tend to confirm our bias and deceive ourselves. Further, over 80 percent of Americans get their news from a digital device—news that’s being manipulated by algorithms that trap readers in information silos.

Read widely, not just deeply.

6. ‘Appeal to Celebrity’ Fallacy

Accepting a person’s claim because of his or her celebrity status, instead of the soundness of the argument, is known as an “appeal to celebrity” fallacy. Many media personalities possess uncommon rhetorical skills and are able to persuade an audience to accept opinion as settled fact. If called to account, the celebrity has a ready defense: “I am only joking!” (Prov. 26:18–19). In the name of entertaining comedy, satire, or commentary, he escapes accountability for his words.

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin created the pseudonym Richard Saunders, who predicted and published the death day of Titan Leeds, Franklin’s competitor. Leeds didn’t die as predicted, but Franklin-Saunders continued the hoax, sold lots of copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and increased his media market share. His false statements were excusable, he could argue, because the audience must have known he was joking. Mixing journalism and entertainment is a long-standing American tradition.

Mixing journalism and entertainment is a long-standing American tradition.

On the left, Rachel Maddow is a media celebrity with an engaging style that’s made her show a ratings success. When sued by another news organization for her on-air defamatory remarks, an appeals court dismissed the case, saying, “No reasonable viewer could conclude that Maddow implied an assertion of objective fact.”

On the right, Tucker Carlson was also sued for defamation. In court, his lawyers didn’t dispute the plaintiff’s claim that Carlson presented fiction as fact. Their defense was that Carlson’s audience should be aware that “he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal’ commentary.” The judge agreed and dismissed the case.

Both celebrities are perceived by their followers to be reliable news sources, though neither seems to adhere to journalistic ethics. Both courts assume Americans are responsible for acquiring the skills necessary to evaluate truth claims. Unfortunately, all the evidence many Americans need is that Maddow or Carlson said it.

See through the entertainment—entertain the evidence.

7. ‘Appeal to Motive’ Fallacy

This is when someone dismisses a proposition by questioning the proposer’s motives. Paul conceded that some preach with bad motives and others with good motives, but “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that [he rejoices]” (Phil. 1:18). It’s not that motives don’t matter. Those who preach the gospel for fame or fortune will give an account. The point is that motives don’t affect the argument. The gospel is true, no matter the preacher’s motives.

Malicious motives may drive a person to report real evidence. “Politically motivated” allegations must be supported by evidence, but if the evidence can be verified, the motives of the accuser remain irrelevant.

When Christians summarily dismiss allegations against their favorite preacher or politician because the charges are made by a disgruntled former employee, a jealous denominational rival, a desperate political enemy, or a despised media source, they’ve fallen for the “appeal to motive” fallacy.

Ignore the motive; investigate the message.

Reputation for Reasonableness

Only God knows the whole truth about every matter. More epistemic humility in our public assertions will serve us well, especially if even our fact-checking and critical thinking don’t lead us to the truth about the latest headline.

Paul instructed the Philippian believers to let their “reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5). Building a reputation of reasonableness makes us less gullible, and more persuasive, as we bear witness to the facts of the gospel.

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20 Quotes on Gospel Sanity in an Exhausting World https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/20-quotes-gospel-sanity/ Sun, 22 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574565 ‘Church should be the place we sprint to when things are at their worst, not the place we avoid until we’ve got our Instagram­-worthy Christianity back in place.’ And 19 other quotes from Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry’s brilliant new book.]]> Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry’s new book You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches (Crossway/TGC, 2023) insightfully explores how gospel doctrine should lead to gospel culture. Here are 20 quotes that struck me.


Church should be the place we sprint to when things are at their worst, not the place we avoid until we’ve got our Instagram­-worthy Christianity back in place. (2)

Justification by our own righteousness is not a Galatian prob­lem only, or a Catholic problem only; it is a human problem universally. It’s a Christian problem. . . . You and I are always, at best, an inch away from its dark powers. Indeed, it is possible to preach and defend the doctrine of justification by grace alone but out of motives of self-­justification. (6–7)

The church isn’t just meant to be a new community (there are plenty of those constantly springing up). It’s meant to be a new kind of community. (25)

The gospel, it turns out, is divine hospitality. . . . The finished work of Christ on the cross is not God’s way of saying to us, “You’re free to go now” but “You’re free to come now.” He’s not sending us off but inviting us in. (25)

Paul didn’t write, “Welcome one another as people at the fit­ness club down the road welcome each other.” We’re not meant to be conveying our welcome but Christ’s welcome. It is not about exchanging a cultural pleasantry but declaring a heavenly reality. We’re meant to be inviting brokenhearted sinners to collapse into the open arms of Jesus. (30)

The welcome on a Sunday morning is where we pastors de­construct the posing of non-gospel culture and reconstruct in its place the beauty of gospel culture. The opening moments of our services are when we can establish new gospel ground rules for why and how we gather as Christians. We’re not here to do God a favor, to give him some company for an hour or so, to make him feel better. We’re not here to pay a weekly religion tax so that he gets off our back for the next six days. We’re not here to get our respectability card stamped for another week. We’re here for just one reason: Christ has welcomed us. We need to wrap our brains around that good news. We need to hit refresh on that surprising reality every single Sunday. (31–32)

Nothing is more beautiful than a church walking together in the light. Have you ever seen a church with too much tenderness, humility, and willingness to own up? No! So why doesn’t every church embrace a culture of gospel honesty? (44)

Jesus did not come to tell us how wonderful we are. But he did come to tell us how beautiful God is. . . . The deepest reason for all our personal problems, and all the evils of history, is that we don’t know how beautiful God is. (47)

If your view of God is true to original, Jesus-­given Christianity, here’s one way you’ll know: not by taking a true­-false exam on paper but by noticing your relationships with other Christians. (49)

Gospel culture isn’t a glaze of superficial smiley niceness on the surface of deep and robust Christianity. No, gospel culture is itself deep and robust Christianity. Anything less is shallow, including theologi­cally serious but relationally oblivious Christianity. (49)

Why does John say [God is in the light]? He wants to emphasize that God isn’t hiding from us. He isn’t playing “Catch me if you can.” God stands right out in the obvious place of truth, honesty, and reality, right where we can find him and be helped by him. So, what on earth are we doing anywhere else? “Church” can be an ideal place to hide from God. But when a church turns toward gospel culture, it’s also the best place to find God. (51–52)

Pastors who have no one to whom they confess their sins are on their way to trouble. (57)

In today’s predatory world, people cut each other down to size every day. Some of us have never known anything else, even in our homes growing up. But how different is a healthy church! There we lift each other up, not with empty flattery but with real honor because real glory is beginning to appear. Let’s notice it! Let’s celebrate it! The eschaton is becoming visible right now in the saints around us. How could we keep quiet about that? (62)

Grace is not like a runway, the thing that launches us off. Grace is the plane itself. We get nowhere apart from God’s grace. If a believer isn’t turning from sin, he doesn’t need more tasering from the preacher; he needs more exposure to the grace of God. It’s grace that changes us. (86)

Preaching is a personal invitation. It’s not “Come and learn about Jesus.” It’s Jesus himself, through the preacher, saying, “Come to me.” (94)

Greatness is not to be measured by prowess but ser­vice. (98)

Inasmuch as we’re to put others “in their place,” it should be to put them above us, not beneath us. . . . Greatness, in Jesus’s eyes, is not measured by how many people are under us but by how many people we regard as being above us. (103, 106)

[Jesus] promised an abundance of family to those who bear the heaviest relational cost of following him. If we don’t attend to living as that family, we risk making Jesus look like a liar. The relational health of the local church is not incidental. It must not be an afterthought, because his reputation is on the line. (122–23)

What will most clearly show the presence of heaven on earth—that God is alive and well and right here—is our love for one another. Our shared love is not an afterthought, as though what really mattered were these other things and our love for one another was added as a bonus. No, the quality of our relational life in our churches is to be an apologetic for the world around us. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Jesus is giving the world permission to judge whether we are true Christian disciples on the basis of whether we love one another.” (124–25)

Jesus’s presence in our lives is the death of indifference, the death of aloofness—concealed under nice words and impressive deeds. His gospel brings us alive to a new reality. We’re bound together now. We’re family. Jesus gets us thinking, “You’re not just in my contacts, or on our church’s membership list, but in my very heart. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.” . . . It should be a relief to turn up each Sunday. (134)

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One Thing My Parents Did Right: Giving Gifts https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/parents-did-right-gifts/ Sun, 22 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568381 My parents’ unconditional gift giving helped me understand the grace of my heavenly Father.]]> I knew the American Girl doll sitting in the hotel bathroom was meant for me, yet I refused to acknowledge its presence. Only a few months had passed since I moved into this new family. Yes, my adoptive parents had proven to be kinder than any family I’d ever known, but how could I be sure they’d treat me differently than my previous parents had? Were they like other families who dangled the possibility of a gift just out of reach to induce good behavior? Would simple missteps result in the permanent removal of objects I came to cherish?

My 8-year-old dream of having this doll was sitting before me, but I couldn’t allow myself the pleasure of accepting such a gift. It would only lead to disappointment. Whatever standard I had to meet to earn this doll, I knew I could never achieve it. With one last glance, I walked away, refusing to accept what I knew had been a well-orchestrated surprise.

Over time, I came to accept my adoptive parents’ gifts with gratitude rather than fear. As I came to understand that their love—like their gifts—was unconditional, I learned to receive both gifts and discipline as evidence of God’s grace.

Receiving Grace

It became clear I didn’t receive gifts in my adoptive family by my attempts to be a good child; I received gifts simply by being their child. This approach to gift giving enabled me to understand God’s grace and the gifts he freely extends to his children.

As children of God, we can’t attain God’s gifts through our performance, because his gifts are motivated by grace that flows from his fatherly heart. As Paul explains, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).

I received gifts simply by being their child.

In the same way that my parents extend gifts to me out of love, our heavenly Father grants us blessings on the basis of our status as his children: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11). We receive these pleasant gifts with gratitude, knowing they’re an overflow of grace.

Receiving Discipline

But there are other gifts God gives that don’t seem pleasant in the moment. One of these is discipline.

My experience of discipline in previous families had been devoid of love, so I struggled to see discipline as anything positive. The excessive and intense use of corporal punishment was closer to abuse than to godly correction. It took years of healing, but eventually, the grace and intentionality in my adoptive parents’ discipline enabled me to see healthy discipline as a gift.

That’s what the author of Hebrews seems to have been getting at when he said,

We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:9–11)

Loving and grace-filled correction given by our earthly parents displays the grace and sovereignty of God’s discipline. The difficulties in our lives are acts of grace through which the Lord captures our attention and calls us back to himself. We can receive this gift of discipline with gratitude and endurance when we remember our Lord’s discipline is always motivated and granted with perfect grace.

Receiving the Gift

Assuming I’d merely overlooked the doll, my mother steered me back into the bathroom and turned me toward the doll as she braided my hair. I waited until she was finished and left the bathroom again, still refusing to acknowledge what I’d seen. Clearly perplexed, my parents asked me if I’d noticed anything. I shook my head. Finally, both of my parents led me into the bathroom one last time and placed the doll in my arms.

The grace and intentionality in my adoptive parents’ discipline enabled me to see healthy discipline as a gift.

The concern reflected in their expressions revealed the genuineness of the gift. It was clear this doll wasn’t given as an incentive for good behavior; it was given simply because my adoptive parents loved me as their own. I could only cry as I experienced the joy of receiving a gift—a real gift—for the first time.

Through my parents’ unconditional love, I developed the capacity to see their gifts were freely given for my good. More than creating a bond of trust between my parents and me, this new pattern of gift giving helped me understand the grace hidden within the varying gifts of my heavenly Father.

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Now Available: 50+ Hours of TGC23 Conference Sessions https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tgc23-conference-sessions/ Sat, 21 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=575695 We’re thrilled to announce the release of all audio and video sessions from TGC23, available for you to stream and share with others.]]> Last month, The Gospel Coalition hosted one of its largest national conferences, gathering thousands of attendees who came to Indianapolis from all 50 states and from 41 countries.

United around the theme Hope in the Wilderness, TGC23 attendees heard keynote messages from the Book of Exodus and enjoyed a variety of topical microevents sponsored by more than 20 partnering organizations. CityAlight, the worship ministry of St. Paul’s Castle Hill in Sydney, Australia, led singing throughout the conference.

Now, we’re excited to announce the release of all the audio and video sessions from TGC23, available for you to stream at your convenience and share with others. To access the eight keynote talks and more than 30 microevents, simply head to TGC.org/tgc23/on-demand/ and dive into the enriching content.

TGC23 Notes and Highlights

In addition to hours of solid teaching, stimulating panel discussions, and practical workshops, TGC23 was full of encouraging moments and takeaways.

New and Younger Faces in the Crowd

Many longtime TGC conference attendees remarked that TGC23 felt especially full of next-generation leaders. Indeed, more than half of the registrants were attending their first TGC conference, and 2,936 attendees were younger than 40.

One older attendee posted on social media, “I’m struck by the thousands of people here who weren’t even born when I was in seminary. I’m optimistic about the future.” At a time when the prevailing narrative suggests young people are disengaging from church and theologically conservative ministry, TGC23 showed otherwise.

Delighting in the Global Body of Christ

From Australia’s CityAlight to keynote speakers from the U.K., Kenya, and the Dominican Republic—not to mention attendees who traveled from dozens of different nations—the diverse beauty of the global gospel movement was on display. As one attendee observed,

Going to conferences like @TGC remind me how valuable it is to connect with friends in the global church! There were brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the US, Canada and world. It reminds us how big God is and how much hope there is for the church today!

Palpable Joy

Numerous attendees remarked after the conference that TGC23 was refreshing in how joyful it was. In a social media post, Trevin Wax said, “In reflecting with others on #TGC23 one thing keeps coming up: the palpable presence of joy in the place. I’ve been to every national conference since 2009. This one was happiest. Everywhere, everyone exuding joy.” Others concurred, noting how “God’s presence felt strangely visible.”

Launch of New Theological Resource Center

During the conference, TGC announced the launch of The Carson Center for Theological Renewal, including a new collection of free theological resources designed to equip the whole church—for anyone called to teach, and anyone who wants to study the Bible.

Outpouring of Generosity

Thanks to more than 1,000 donors who contributed to our TGC23 “Share Your Shelf” conference project, we met our $60,000 targets to translate TGC commentaries into Spanish and Arabic—for a total of more than $120,000 raised over the three days of the conference. These and other translation projects will be part of the ongoing work of The Carson Center to equip church leaders globally with biblically faithful resources to enrich their ministries.

Books and More Books

The vast conference bookstore buzzed day and night. Many returned home with suitcases full of deeply discounted books (more than 36,000 books were sold in the conference bookstore over three days). Social media was rife with posts about TGC23 book hauls—demonstrating the ongoing importance of books and reading in the gospel-centered renewal movement.

TGC Council Expands

While in Indianapolis for TGC23, the TGC Council convened for their annual private meeting, where they officially welcomed 10 new Council members, including J. D. Greear and the nine previously announced new members.

Join Us in 2024 and 2025

As you can see by watching the free sessions from TGC23, or by browsing our Facebook photo album, or by watching our recap video, TGC23 was a blast—a time of inspiring teaching, joyful worship, enriching training, and encouraging community.

If you missed the conference, be sure to join us at our upcoming events. Our next women’s conference is June 20 to 22, 2024.  Registration just opened. If you’re a woman thinking of attending, be sure to register for TGCW24 by December 2 to secure the lowest rate, and join us for Behold and Believe: Encountering Jesus as the Great I AM.

Be sure to also save the date for our 2025 conference, returning to springtime in Indianapolis, April 22 to 24, 2025. Theme and other details to be announced in 2024.

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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and Stewarding Hard Stories https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/killers-flower-moon-christian-movie-review/ Sat, 21 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574613 Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ reminds us of the importance of responsibly stewarding hard history and difficult truths, even if it’s uncomfortable.]]> As much as it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking by one of the greatest living directors, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is hard to watch. It’s hard because of the subject matter: a horrific true story of greed, racism, and the murder of dozens of members of the Native American Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma. But it’s also hard because of the runtime: a whopping 3 hours and 26 minutes.

The movie is excellent, but it would be odd to call it “entertaining.” That might be Scorsese’s point.

To turn a grievous true story like this into a breezy, easily digestible popcorn diversion isn’t quite right. Staring history’s ugly episodes in the face is inherently uncomfortable and demanding; it should make us restless in the way a long, slow-burn movie makes us restless. To turn sordid episodes of history into riveting, pulpy “true crime” entertainment is, for Scorsese, an endeavor about which he’s conflicted (see his last film, also 3.5 hours in length, The Irishman).

How does a storyteller like him balance the twin duties of captivating an audience with propulsive drama and truthfully telling a story that’s unavoidably arduous?

It’s an uncomfortable question, and Killers is an uncomfortable case study in the tension. As such, it feels odd that most viewers will watch the Apple TV+ film on their devices, over many sittings, at their comfortable leisure with frequent pauses for bathroom breaks and snacks. I watched it in a theater on a big screen, and I’m glad I did. This is a film to sit with uncomfortably, because the injustices it chronicles and the rarely heard voices it foregrounds deserve our undivided attention.

Oil-Rich Osage, Organized Crime, and Original Sin

Scorsese’s film is an adaptation of the best-selling nonfiction book by David Grann (The Lost City of Z), subtitled “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” While the book narrates the story as a police procedural and highlights the FBI’s crucial role in unraveling and prosecuting the crimes, the film opts to center on the perspective of the victims—most prominently a wealthy Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone, in a phenomenal breakout role).

Mollie’s sisters and mother are mysteriously killed, one by one, in an elaborate conspiracy to steal the family’s oil headright fortune. In contrast to the book, the FBI investigators led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons) don’t show up in the film until the third act.

Scorsese’s choice may be jarring for some fans of the book, but the effect is powerful. By centering the narrative on Mollie and her marriage to a white man, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who ultimately betrays her, the film underscores the egregiousness of the crime more than the intrigue of the FBI’s solving of the crime. The injustice is rendered in vivid, often grisly detail (the film is rated R for violence). But it makes the justice, once eventually served, all the more satisfying.

The film underscores the egregiousness of the crime more than the intrigue of the FBI’s solving of the crime.

This is Scorsese’s first foray into a Western twist on his trademark gangster genre, and its epic scale is something to behold. He renders a captivating, immersive world through working with some of the best cinematic artists in the business—Rodrigo Prieto (cinematography), Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese’s editor for five decades), and frequent Terrence Malick collaborators Jack Fisk (production design) and Jacqueline West (costume design).

Like the best period epics, Killers—shot in the actual Oklahoma locations in close partnership with Osage Nation leaders—transports us back in time to witness a world that might otherwise be lost to history. But as much as it’s a compelling time capsule of a specific episode of Oklahoma outlaws, oil-rich Osage, and organized crime, Killers ultimately shines most as a reflection on sin and the spiritual war between selfless love and self-serving greed, particularly as it plays out in the marriage of Mollie and Ernest.

To watch Killers is to observe the slow progression of what Mollie calls a “wasting illness” (in literal and metaphorical terms) that surrounds her family. It’s the creeping, insidious, nature of sin devastating a community in real time, like an invasive weed gradually suffocating the life out of a thriving garden. Over the course of the film, Mollie’s often-wordless countenance (subtly deployed by the talented Gladstone) shifts from joy and hope to ever-increasing despair and suspicion as she surveys all that’s been taken from her by people who claimed to love her—including by her own husband.

When Christians Ignore the Bible

DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career as Ernest Burkhart, a tortured man who seems to genuinely love Mollie and desire an honest future with her and their children. But he’s also deeply greedy (“I love money!” he readily admits) and easily swayed by bad influences—chiefly his corrupt uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), “King of the Osage Hills” and local ringleader of organized crime.

Hale asks Ernest at one point, “Do you believe in the Bible?” It’s tragically ironic. For all the church scenes, hymns on the soundtrack, and other Christian accoutrements that adorn the film, few characters in Killers seem to believe the Bible.

For all the church scenes, hymns on the soundtrack, and other Christian accoutrements that adorn the film, few characters in Killers seem to believe the Bible.

Ernest clearly doesn’t believe 1 Timothy 6:10 (“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils”), Hebrews 13:5 (“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have”), or Proverbs 15:27 (“Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household”). The company he keeps shows he doesn’t heed Proverbs 13:20 (“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm”) or 1 Corinthians 15:33 (“Bad company ruins good morals”).

The Bible’s condemnation of racism goes unheeded by most of the film’s white “Christian” characters, who routinely say and do things that dehumanize their Osage neighbors. From KKK members casually marching down main street in the town’s parade, to newsreel footage of the race massacre down the road in Tulsa, to various words and actions that deny the image-of-God-bearing dignity of Native Americans, Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the pervasiveness of racism at the time—even among churchgoing Christians.

Whether in their racism, greed, deception, or murder, neither Ernest nor Hale—both ostensibly Christians—behave as if the scriptural admonitions of their faith apply to them. Their lives are full of bad fruit (Luke 6:43–45) and much more characterized by the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19–21) than the fruits of the spirit (vv. 22–23).

Hale is all bad—as wicked a character as you’ll find in any movie this year. His hypocritical facade—grandfatherly mentor, beneficent advocate of the Osage people—masks his dark, murderous heart in a way that epitomizes the “whitewashed tombs” Jesus condemns (Matt. 23:27). But Ernest feels torn between his self-satiating flesh and his selfless love for Mollie.

The brilliance of DiCaprio’s performance is that at times you feel only scorn for Ernest as a rotten scoundrel, but at other times you see his conscience pricked in a Romans 7:15–20 sort of way. Especially in the final 30 minutes when it’s clear his deeds are being found out by the FBI, you root for him to turn from his sin, repent, confess, and ask for forgiveness.

When he reaches rock bottom in a searing, “hell of his own making” scene (with fire literally surrounding his house), we might expect Ernest to finally confess his sins and be purified “from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That most audience members will be hoping this for Ernest’s character is a testament to the power of DiCaprio’s deft performance and the theological ambitions of a thoughtful Catholic director like Scorsese.

For her part, Mollie is deeply grace-filled and exhibits a forbearing love toward Ernest that at times seems illogical, even as she gradually seems more aware of the sins he conceals. To watch Ernest struggle to confess all the truth to Mollie, contorting his face in reluctance to accept her forgiving grace, is a potent glimpse of what the gospel rejected looks like. It’s painful to watch but more painful to live—especially in eternity.

‘There Was No Mention of the Murders’

Spoilers ahead. The film ends with a brilliant, unexpected coda, set several years after the movie’s main action. It’s a scene of a true crime radio program recording that dramatizes the story in auditory form. We catch the end of the broadcast, as radio actors and sound-effects artists narrate the “what happened to” fates of the key players in the Osage Murders case.

The scene is brilliant narratively for how it informs the audience about where Hale, Ernest, and Mollie end up. But it’s also brilliant thematically, as a commentary on the importance of how stories get told in different forms, across generations. We’re watching a live radio program, filmed for a movie, adapted from a book, about a true story.

Most meta of all, Scorsese himself appears in a cameo, as a radio performer who reads the newspaper obituary printed after Mollie Burkhart’s 1937 death. After reading the obit, Scorsese’s character notes, as he looks soberly into the audience, that “There was no mention of the murders.”

It’s the last line of the film. It speaks to the ways we’re prone, in our fallenness, to whitewash history and edit out the uncomfortable episodes and the sins of our ancestors, even as (like Ernest and others in Killers) we’re prone to concealing rather than confessing our present sins. Our instinct to hide sin is as old as Eden.

Stewarding the Most Important Story

Scorsese is telling this story on screen because David Grann told it before him on the page, and before him still others—in novels and movies and radio plays. He’s just the latest communicator to seek to responsibly steward this hard history, making it known to new generations.

Sometimes artists and storytellers seek only self-preservation: preserving their profits and reputations by making only what will be widely liked and hugely profitable. But the best artists aren’t as interested in preserving the self as they are in preserving the truth—ensuring an accurate telling of the good, bad, and ugly in history so we can all learn and grow, even if uncomfortably.

The best artists aren’t as interested in preserving the self as they are in preserving the truth—ensuring an accurate telling of the good, bad, and ugly in history.

As Christians, we’re also stewards of a story—the most important story of all. We don’t only tell this story to expose the realities of sin or challenge people to grow. We tell it to point doomed people to their only hope for salvation: the cross of Jesus Christ.

Still, it’s a story some don’t want to hear. And we can be tempted to soften it or spruce it up to make it more palatable. As we preach the gospel and share the Christian story in today’s biblically ignorant world, are we telling the whole counsel of Scripture or avoiding the uncomfortable bits? Are we sanitizing what’s scandalous or oversimplifying what’s complex? Is the grace we proclaim cheap or costly? Is the faith we pitch merely a life-enhancement hack for consumption or an all-consuming call that demands much? Perhaps most importantly, are we living in accordance with the biblical truths we teach?

When future observers look back on our generation’s telling of the Christian story, may it never be said that “There was no mention of _____ [insert unpopular or difficult biblical teaching].” Let’s tell the whole truth, even if it means the audience dwindles. And let’s rejoice that the whole truth includes not only the guilt of our sins in the past but also the grace of Christ in the present and an unfailing hope for the future.

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Faithfully Discern Truth amid Godlessness https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/faithfully-discern-truth-godlessness/ Fri, 20 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=575897 Juan Sánchez teaches the importance of discerning false teachers and ungodly influences within the church.]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Juan Sánchez teaches the importance of discerning false teachers and ungodly influences within the church. He discusses the challenge of discerning between those who are open to repentance and those who are hard-hearted, unrepentant, and opposing the truth.

Sánchez encourages pastors to pursue righteousness and patience, cleansing themselves from dishonorable ways through faith in Christ rather than relying on personal efforts or good works.

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How to Engage Theology from the Majority World https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/theology-majority-world/ Fri, 20 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=571039 The rise of evangelical theologies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America is good news for the whole body of Christ.]]> For at least two decades, a standard narrative about worldwide Christianity has been affirmed: the church’s center of gravity has shifted southward and eastward as churches in the West contract and their counterparts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America expand.

Though this story is becoming old news, we’re still trying to figure out what it means—especially in the realm of evangelical theology and biblical studies. Today, most theological books and commentaries are written primarily by and for North American Christians, who represent a little more than 10 percent of the global Christian population. Much of this work is excellent and blesses the whole church.

Even so, evangelical writers from the Majority World—where evangelical Christianity was almost nonexistent only decades ago—are increasingly producing theological resources that offer original and important perspectives on Scripture, theology, and Christian living.

In the West, some Christians might wonder, Why does this matter? After all, theology is always local in the sense that we’re all tasked with living faithfully in our families, local churches, and communities. So while demographers and historians might have fascinating things to say about the global shift in the church’s composition, Christian leaders in Omaha (or Quito or Jos or Penang) must still primarily concern themselves with feeding and shepherding the flocks in front of them, not with the theology of far-flung Christian counterparts. Thus the “So what?” question is entirely natural.

Yet I’d suggest the rise of evangelical theologies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America is good news for the whole body of Christ. Here are three suggestions for how readers in the West could best respond.

1. Engage these works out of theological conviction rather than politeness or political correctness.

Don’t get me wrong. In our current climate, we need more, not less, civility and diplomacy. But fundamentally, our interest in the theological work emerging from distant parts of the church should be grounded in our belief that God has created a global body and welcomed each of us into a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

The rise of evangelical theologies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America is good news for the whole body of Christ.

We ought to engage such works because of our biblical convictions about diversity. The primary text dealing with cultural diversity in the Old Testament is the story of Babel in Genesis 11. There, linguistic diversity is a painful reality forced on humanity, resulting in splintering that eventually culminates in ethnic tension and even war.

But at Pentecost, Babel is reversed in a surprising way: linguistic and cultural diversity is not abolished but redeemed. Rather than being given a new, singular language, culture, or land, the church is tasked with a global mission (Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth) and empowered with an intentionally multicultural identity.

This identity has always presented challenges for the church. But Christians have good reason to do the hard work of honoring the diversity of our global family. To disconnect ourselves from them is to cut ourselves off from the rest of God’s household, the great multitude into which we’ve been called (Rev. 7:9). If the church is to grow “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), we need the whole body working together to grasp and proclaim the good news and its implications for the church today.

2. Don’t regard theological works as ‘cultural’ theologies relevant only for their contexts.

This temptation is understandable, as it’s driven in part by the way resources from Majority World leaders are presented and marketed to global readers.

For example, the Asia Bible Commentary series is so titled because the publisher wants readers to know it collects reflections on and applications of Old and New Testament texts from a distinctively Asian perspective. But the NIV Application Commentary—a series that targets North American readers and is equally focused on contextualized application of biblical texts—includes no such “cultural” label. This distinction unintentionally sends the message that North American theological books are standard issue, while African, Asian, and Latin American authors are merely writing niche products.

Aside from this challenge, evangelicals have often embraced a vision of theology as an essentially “acultural” enterprise. This approach comes from an honorable intention. We instinctively know that cultures can become idols, quietly distorting our interpretations of Scripture and replacing the voice of God with our own. But this problem can’t be fixed by running from culture or trying to eliminate it from our theology. Besides being futile, it’s not the divine design. God chooses to reveal himself in and through cultural realities, rather than finding a way around them.

Instead, we can learn our cultural blind spots by interacting with the whole body of Christ. The solution is more, not less, engagement with culture (our own as well as others’).

3. Read these works with an open mind and realistic expectations.

I hope more and more readers will start engaging the resources coming from the growing parts of the church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As Andrew Walls has highlighted, whenever the gospel crosses cultural boundaries, the church tends to learn new or forgotten aspects of the faith. So we should look at the remarkable expansion of the church in our present age with confidence and hope.

We should look at the remarkable expansion of the church in our present age with confidence and hope.

But we can also make the mistake of expecting too much from our interactions with the global church. First, we can demand too much of the authors we’re reading, expecting to find in them a revolutionary reframing of the faith. This is usually a recipe for disappointment. Even in the most productive eras of church history, theological renewal tends to be incremental rather than revolutionary, as we slowly grasp the gospel better.

Similarly, we can expect too much of ourselves, forgetting we’re finite creatures who can only engage well with a limited number of cultural contexts at one time. So rather than trying to be truly “global” in our theological reflection, we should aim to stretch ourselves beyond our cultural comfort zones while also being realistic about our limits.

When we take these steps, incremental as they may be, our horizons are broadened, our perspectives are refined, and our grasp of the gospel is deepened.

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‘All You Want to Do Is Worship’: A Student Reflects on 8 Months After Asbury https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/8-months-after-asbury/ Thu, 19 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=575069 How the Asbury Outpouring changed one college student’s life.]]> In the spring of 2023, J. T. Reeves was a senior at Wheaton College. He and his friends drove to Asbury University when they heard the reports of the spiritual awakening happening on that campus. Eight months later, TGC asked Reeves to reflect on the lasting effects of that experience in his life and the lives of his fellow students.


Since last year, I’ve often been asked how all this changed my life. But God is a frustratingly elusive subject to pin down with words. So I won’t describe the Outpouring here. I only want you to imagine it with me.

Secular Blitz

Imagine that, like me, you grew up in a hurricane blitz of secularism that systematically dismantled your belief in the unseen. Even if a miracle should happen, you’d probably be too sensible (or cynical) to believe it.

Before you hit puberty, rampant individualism forcefully placed you in a cage like a circus animal and handed you an iPhone so you could pretend you’re not lonely. You use the phone. And sometimes it works.

When it doesn’t, you grow anxious and put up more walls. So you’re never challenged—no, never invited—to attend to the depth of the Living God. The postmodern pressure of not pressuring keeps people from asking hard things.

The postmodern pressure of not pressuring keeps people from asking hard things.

Meanwhile, you’re living virtually. Entertainment is the unrivaled deity in your life. Algorithms of billion-dollar companies have monopolized your attention (your worship).

Sometimes you try to escape this vicious cycle, but with the speed of life, it’s like trying to land flat-footed after jumping out of a moving sports car.

Gen-Z Christian

“Christian” pretty much means not-any-of-those-things-above. And you know this, so you do your best, but honestly, none of “those things” sounds that terrible to you. They’re sort of inevitable.

Ultimately, it’s hard for you to imagine being a Christian.

That’s why you’ve been praying for God to let you know him better. Unexpectedly, you hear word of something gone viral—it’s a wild worship breakout at a college in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky.

At first, you tell yourself you absolutely cannot go, but then your friend says, “What do you actually have to do that’s important?” That kind of hurts. But you know he’s right, so half an hour later you’re packed into a Honda Civic, making the seven-hour trek to who-knows-what and staying at who-knows-where.

When you get there, it’s weird. You’re skeptical. Why is everyone saying “y’all”? This doesn’t feel as hype as those TikToks you saw.

But something makes you stay . . .

For a few, it takes hours; for many, days; for you, it’s weeks. Weeks of worship and prayer back at your own campus get you out of the haze you’ve been in for years. The face of Jesus Christ becomes a bit clearer, and you and your friends look at each other wondering why you hadn’t noticed his irresistible beauty until now.

Or maybe you did notice it; you just never acted like it.

Witnessing Glory

You haven’t believed in miracles, but several of your friends experienced stuff that has no medical explanation. Unfortunately, miracles from the omnipotent God seem terribly normal in the Scriptures. Now you have no excuse but to begin praying for impossible things (Mark 11:23).

All you want to do is worship. Individualism fades as you find you don’t have to pretend anymore—you’re not alone. Uncaged by your Friend’s love, you become vulnerable and confess things you never thought you could (James 5:16).

Soon, anxiety melts as you and your Friend’s friends challenge—no, invite—each other daily to attend to Jesus of Nazareth. Nightlong prayers (Luke 6:12), days of spontaneous worship (Ps. 27:4), and tears of intercession (Phil. 3:18) don’t seem foreign; they feel surprisingly natural.

Your appetite for everything “entertaining” is spoiled, and you walk into a study room to find a friend looking up at you guiltily. “This is terrible,” she says. “What?” you say. “I have so much to do—but I can’t stop reading my Bible!” And you laugh because you came in itching to finish reading Exodus 27–30.

Pause.

Since when did you want to read Exodus 27–30?

But the Lover of your soul has made himself known. He stepped into your warp-speed haze and took your hand. You’re mesmerized by his words. You knew he was better, but you never gave him the time or attention to experience that knowing.

Changed Imagination

I’ve spoken with a variety of students from a variety of campuses. Though our encounters with the Holy Spirit in the spring of 2023 were vastly different, most of us write the exact same summary.

You knew the Lover of your soul was better, but you never gave him the time or attention to experience that knowing.

The Asbury Outpouring was unique. It wasn’t about mass conversion, mass repentance, or mass missions. It seemed more like a soft and sweet song to the seekers of God—an invitation for us to radically retrain our attention, our worship, on the One who is worthy of us.

Above the current of our screaming algorithms, the Jealous God was whispering, I will ask more of you than you ever dreamed of giving, and only then will I give you more than you ever dreamed of asking for.

If you want to know what really changed in us, the answer is simple:

God changed our whole imagination.

And we live believing he’ll do it again.

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‘Weird’ and ‘Weirder’: Why the West Is So Different https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/weird-weirder-why-west-different/ Wed, 18 Oct 2023 22:17:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=575717 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss the making of the Western mind and how we became WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) as they trace the history of the West up to 1776.]]> “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence. But is it really self-evident? What is the basis of equality? How have we come to think the way we do about the world?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss the making of the Western mind and how we became WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) as they trace the history of the West up to 1776.

They make the case that far from being neutral or self-evident, the values many hold dear in the West today can be traced back through figures like Luther, Augustine, and Paul, and ultimately to Jesus. They show that in spite of its secular pretensions, the West remains a place thoroughly shaped and marked by a Christian worldview.

So are we really post-Christian? Or is Christianity the only framework that can really make sense of the things we value most?

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Introducing the ‘Post-Christianity?’ Podcast https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/post-christianity/introducing-post-christianity-podcast/ Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=post-christianity&p=575084 In this new podcast, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss what evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in the supposedly post-Christian world. ]]> The West is increasingly described as “post-Christian.” But is that label accurate? Are contemporary people leaving Christianity behind completely? Or are they adopting some of its values while rejecting others? What’s the origin story for the “post-Christianity” we’re seeing in 21st-century Western culture? How does this story help us understand the rapid cultural changes we’ve seen in recent years? And what do evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in a post-Christian world?

Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson have both written books about this topic recently (The Air We Breathe and Remaking the World), and they both serve churches in southern England. In this eight-episode podcast from The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, they consider how we got here, what it means, and how to respond. Their discussion topics range from sexuality, psychology, and economics to identity, theology, hospitality, and art. Also featuring special guests Kyle Harper, Carl Trueman, and Rebecca McLaughlin, Post-Christianity? is a thought-provoking and hopeful take on contemporary culture.

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Art Proves We’re More than Dust in the Wind https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/abundantly_more/ Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=570935 The arts serve as a reminder that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.]]> Years ago, the progressive rock group Kansas had a huge hit with an unlikely song, a spare and beautiful ballad that suggested “all we are is dust in the wind.” This little hymn of hopelessness reflects the way many of our contemporaries see themselves. It leads us to ask, Who are we and what kind of world do we live in? Is there any meaning to our existence?

Many profess a philosophy of “nothing but.” Humans are nothing but the evolutionary product of molecules in motion. Love is nothing but the romanticized response to the reactions of bodily chemistry and the need to propagate the species. Religious convictions are nothing but empty fantasies and wishes in search of fulfillment. As a result, meaning simply doesn’t exist, except as we create it for ourselves. We’re simply dust in the wind.

“Nothing but” philosophy is known as naturalistic reductionism, and it has become pervasive in our culture. It rests on the belief that only science can tell us the truth about ourselves and our world, and that when it comes down to it, the story it offers is a small and meager tale.

The Christian, of course, holds a different set of convictions about reality. We have an alternative story to tell—a hope based on the meaning invested in us by our Creator. But those who don’t share our presuppositions about reality are often disinterested in what we have to say. Our spiritual narrative feels out of step with the world, a voice crying in the wilderness.

Jeremy Begbie is research professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. His book Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionistic World finds an unexpected ally in the arts for those who want to counter the prevailing reductionism of our time.

Counternarrative to Reductionism

In Abundantly More, Begbie pushes readers to move beyond seeing the arts as merely entertainment or distraction or tools for propaganda. He suggests a fresh and largely neglected value of the arts. They offer a counternarrative to the naturalistic reductionism that permeates disciplines like science, philosophy, and psychology.

The arts point us toward the complexity of reality—its subtlety, its spiritual foundations, and its multivalent meanings. The arts have the “capacity to draw upon and generate multiple and potentially inexhaustible levels of meaning, and in this way to offer a resistance movement of sorts . . . to the dominant drives of modernity’s reductive imagination” (xiv–xv). They have much to reveal to us about the complexities of who we are and our place in the universe.

The arts point us toward the complexity of reality—its subtlety, its spiritual foundations, and its multivalent meanings.

Of course, artists probably don’t need to have this explained to them. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this is what art has always been about. This is a book for others to gain an appreciation of the value of art.

Unexpected Value of the Arts

The arts help us to stop and pay attention to things we might otherwise ignore. They help us reflect on the meanings inherent in a moment, holding it before us for inspection and contemplation so we might glimpse its depths.

Great artists pull back the curtain to reveal there’s more in a moment than what we initially see and hear. For example, Rembrandt and van Gogh encourage us to take a second look so our vision can be expanded. Bach and Górecki ask us to listen and let the music speak to us in our deepest places. Hopkins and Wordsworth speak to us of a world that’s “charged with the grandeur of God,” as did the psalmist of old.

The power of poetic expression to carry a multitude of layers of meaning is perhaps the reason so much of the Bible employs this form, from the Psalms to the parables to apocalyptic prophecy. Poetic language “opens up” in such a way that it creates a deeper subjective receptivity to God’s revelation.

‘Muchness’ and Abundance

The arts open up reality for an inspection which reveals there’s more going on than what can be discerned under a microscope or through a telescope. Through the arts, the partially hidden “muchness” of our world and our experience come more clearly into view.

When we read a novel or poem, listen to a symphony or popular song, or view a painting or piece of architecture, we’re confronted with what Begbie refers to as “abundance.” The arts remind us that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.

Perhaps one of the failures of modernity is the lack of imagination. The arts remind us the apparent complexity of existence isn’t simply apparent. It is, indeed, the nature of the way things are. Life is full of complexity, nuance, subtlety, and a multivalence of meanings.

Things aren’t less but more than they appear to be at first blush. The universe isn’t simply a machine but something more like a complicated and glorious poem.

More than Dust in the Wind

As Begbie says, the arts can set us free of the deadening effects of reductionism. They open us to new experiences, new emotions, and new perceptions about reality—all of which point toward a creation that’s far more abundant in meaning than the reductionist would allow

The arts serve as a reminder that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.

They ask us to contemplate something beyond mere existence—something larger and more beautiful and more complex. They remind us we’re more than “dust in the wind.”

Begbie is cautious about treating naturalistic reductionism in a simplistic or caricatured manner. He strives for philosophical precision in his prose. Therefore, the nonacademic reader may have to put in more effort than he or she would prefer. But those who are willing to read carefully will be rewarded with a more expansive understanding of how the arts can help us see beyond the limitations of reductionist philosophies.

This book is the work of a seasoned theologian who has thought much about what the arts can reveal to us about our world and ourselves. Abundantly More shows evidence of wide reading and careful analysis as he posits the question of how our engagement with the arts might help us respond to a reductionist view of our existence.

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What Acts 26 Taught Me About Evangelism https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/acts-26-evangelism/ Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=567283 Following Paul’s example, I’ve found sharing my story is a nonthreatening way to tell unbelieving friends about Jesus.]]> I love watching God transform lives. I’m awestruck as I remember the life changes of friends God called into his kingdom. And sometimes God used me in that process.

Unfortunately, many people miss out on the blessing of evangelism. Perhaps it seems too scary. Or maybe they’re not sure how to have an evangelistic conversation. Evangelism can be intimidating for many reasons—but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve found great help by considering how the apostle Paul shared the gospel in Acts 26. His example provides an effective paradigm for us to follow.

Paul Told His Story

Paul was called before King Agrippa and Queen Bernice to defend himself against several charges. He started his defense by telling his story, and he told it in a way that allowed him to share the gospel. Paul began with a brief account of his life before encountering Jesus (vv. 4–5, 9–11) and then shared about his conversion (vv. 12–18). He concluded with how God changed his life (vv. 19–23)—the persecutor became the preacher.

Some people share long and lurid accounts of their pre-Christian life, but Paul focused more on his conversion, how God changed him, and, of course, the gospel. He wanted God—not his sin—to receive the glory.

Notice how Paul’s story includes the key gospel message: “The Christ must suffer and . . . rise from the dead” (v. 23). Paul also shared the benefits of belief, that we “receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (v. 18). He then explained that the proper gospel response is to “repent and turn to God” (v. 20). Following Paul’s example, I’ve found that sharing my story—including how I heard the gospel—is a nonthreatening way to tell my unbelieving friends about Jesus. My story is his story, after all.

Paul Knew His Audience

It’s important to note not only what Paul shared but how he shared it. Paul spoke with an awareness of his specific audience. He said he stood “testifying both to small and great” (v. 22). That comment recalls 1 Corinthians 9:22, where Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

I’ve found that sharing my story is a nonthreatening way to tell my unbelieving friends about Jesus.

Paul understood he needed to know his hearers and speak with their backgrounds in mind. He knew that King Agrippa was “familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews” (Acts 26:3). Therefore, Paul mentioned the “promise by God to our fathers [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]” (v. 6). And Paul asked, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (v. 8), perhaps reminding Agrippa of the resurrection controversy between Sadducees and Pharisees.

In Acts 17, Paul spent some time observing the Athenians’ pagan culture (v. 23), and he tuned his message to that audience. His Areopagus address begins with complimenting the Gentiles’ religious search and ends with the resurrection, causing quite a stir and keeping his audience engaged (vv. 16–31).

We can follow Paul’s example by getting to know our unbelieving friends better and speaking a language they understand. For example, when sharing with unchurched friends, I’ve learned not to use “Christianese” in my story, such as “lost” and “reconciled.” Instead, I substitute phrases like “far from God” and “having a relationship with God.”

Paul Led with Humility

Paul didn’t approach Agrippa with pride, as one who made the right faith choice. Rather, Paul complimented Agrippa, just as he complimented the Athenians. He humbly told Agrippa he considered himself “fortunate” (Acts 26:2) to speak with a man familiar with the Jewish faith, and one who knew much about Paul and Jesus (v. 26). Paul knew he was no better than Agrippa or any person with whom he shared the gospel. He took the humble attitude of one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

Paul also demonstrated humility to Governor Festus. When Paul mentioned Jesus’s resurrection, Festus mocked him: “Paul, you are out of your mind” (v. 24). But Paul didn’t get defensive. He didn’t start an argument. He didn’t try to prove Festus wrong. In fact, he addressed Festus as “most excellent” (v. 25). Paul’s humility allowed the discussion to return to what matters—the gospel.

Paul didn’t get defensive. He didn’t start an argument. His humility allowed the discussion to return to what matters—the gospel.

There are many ways we too can approach evangelism with humility. One practical way is to lead with a question rather than asserting all the answers.

Philip demonstrated this with the Ethiopian eunuch, approaching him by asking, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30) Similarly, I’ve found it helpful to begin evangelistic conversations by asking questions like “Would you like to hear what the Bible says about Jesus?”

Paul led with humility because he understood who holds the power in evangelism. He didn’t pridefully think, It’s up to me to convince Agrippa to become a Christian. Instead, he confessed, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God” (26:22). Agrippa’s response was in God’s hands, so Paul could relax. The same is true for us.

Paul Loved His Hearers

Agrippa and Bernice—and all those listening in—weren’t just a conversion headcount to Paul. He cared about them and wanted to see them come to salvation, even if it took time. When King Agrippa asked, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (v. 28), Paul responded, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (v. 29). Paul longed to see sinners transformed by the gospel, so he took whatever opportunity he had—even his own trial—to share the good news.

Do you desire to participate as God changes a friend’s life? Learn from Paul’s example. Share your story. Know your audience. Go in humbly. And love your hearer right into Jesus’s arms.

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Seeing the Genius of Jesus in the Parable of Two Sons https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/genius-jesus-parable/ Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:04:49 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=574840 Collin Hansen and Peter Williams discuss the emotional and intellectual intelligence displayed by Jesus in his parable of the two sons. ]]> Jesus was—and is—a genius. Have you ever thought of him that way? We know him as a friend, Lord, healer, and teacher, Son of God, true God from true God. But genius? Einstein was a genius. Hawking was a genius. Men of science. Men of modernity. Men who created our world.

Jesus? He’s a religious figure. And we don’t associate religion with genius, even when we confess with Hebrews 1:3 that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

Peter Williams, however, wants you to consider The Surprising Genius of Jesus (Crossway, 2023). He shows readers what the Gospels reveal about the greatest teacher, and he wants you to see the cleverness and wisdom of Jesus.

Williams is the principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and chair of the International Greek New Testament Project. He’s also the author of an excellent little book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, which is similar to The Surprising Genius of Jesus.

I read Peter’s latest just before my family embarked on a month-long stay at Tyndale House last summer. The library was helpful but the community was truly special. So for this episode of Gospelbound, I talked with Peter about The Surprising Genius of Jesus as well as the mission of Tyndale House.

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The Christian’s Inner Power https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christians-inner-power/ Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568066 Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.]]> Talk of “inner power” sounds a bit New Agey. Google the term (or don’t, rather) and you’ll find tips on harnessing a hidden force that dwells in the recesses of your soul. Though co-opted by a humanistic religion, “inner power” is actually a biblical concept, though in the Scriptures it goes by the more vanilla name “self-control.” The word translated as self-control is egkrateia, from en for “inner” and kratos for “power” (we hear kratos in our English word democratic, which means power of the people).

This inner power is something we’re called to manifest in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). What is it, exactly? Self-control is the power to manage our wants and desires. The self-controlled individual isn’t a glutton but can keep his appetite in check. The self-controlled individual doesn’t fly off the handle in a furious rage every time something doesn’t go her way—she has mastery over her emotions.

Sometimes the things we must curb or control aren’t bad; it’s just there are better things in store if we wait. Is it wrong to check a text message on your phone? No. But self-control will tell you it’s better to do it when you’re not driving. Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.

Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.

Sin’s Control

Why is self-control a distinctly Christian virtue? Why are Christians called to display this inner power? Why not just listen to every voice in our heads, bow to every impulse, and satisfy every want? Because ever since the fall, our hearts are wicked and the impulses we feel will send us to hell if pursued. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew what they were supposed to do, but they were driven instead by what they wanted to do. We’ve been doing the same ever since.

The post-fall condition of humanity is such that lust now rules the heart, overpowering the ability to be spiritually disciplined. If we no longer have that inner power, what are we? Nothing other than slaves to our lusts and sinful desires (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 6:16–23). Paul says the natural man is one who lives “in the passion of [his] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3). Humanity apart from God is obsessed with the world, which John describes as being filled with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life,” and those who are enslaved by those desires are “passing away” (1 John 2:16, 17).

Christ’s Control

In Luke 22, a scene with remarkable parallels to Eden in Genesis 3, Jesus meets with God in a garden. He knows what he’s supposed to do, but there’s something he wants to do instead. His human desire is, understandably, to shrink away from the thought of death, especially a death as grueling as crucifixion. But he knows this is why he came. So he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

This is the prayer of self-control. Jesus recognizes something that would be an immediate good: not having to endure the cross. But he can say, “Your will be done, Father,” because in God’s will he knows there’s something much better guaranteed than relief from pain. There’s redemption and glorification.

What would’ve happened if Jesus had no self-control? What if he’d said, “Father, let this cup pass from me. And if not, then I’m going to run”? There would have been no cross. With no cross, no death. With no death, no grave. With no grave, no resurrection. And with no resurrection, no hope. It’s in no way an exaggeration to say we’re saved because of Jesus’s self-control. We’re saved by the One who came in our place and did what we never could: he said no to sin and to self.

A Christian’s Control

Christians aren’t only saved from a lack of self-control; we’re sanctified to show self-control (Rom. 6:17). When we have Jesus, we can start living the way we were meant to live. The power we forfeited in Eden is restored to us: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11–12 NIV).

The true believer, endeavoring to live a life marked by faith, repentance, and the mortification of sin knows how wonderful this word from Paul is. We can now say no to sin.

But this only comes by faith in Jesus Christ. We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself (John 15:5). We need Christ’s life, and we must respond to him in faith. When we do, we’ll be fueled by the Vine and begin to respond as he did: not by conceding but by conquering. Self-control, therefore, isn’t only something Christians must do; in Christ, it’s something only Christians can do.

Control for You

Where is self-control most tested for you? Is it in the privacy of your room while on your computer, or around the buffet at a party? Perhaps it’s your propensity to waste an entire Saturday bingeing Netflix. Maybe it’s on the treadmill, pushing yourself beyond your limits. Maybe it’s in the obsessive minutes you spend in front of the mirror. Do you find it excruciatingly difficult to curb these habits and trust God? Know this: “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).

We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself.

Be encouraged, dear believer. Self-control is a wonderful gift God gives us by his Spirit: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). In Galatians 5:16, Paul declares, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When you feel sin’s powerful pull, remember you have a greater power.

Our lapses into sin are instances where we neglect the Spirit of power within our hearts. So repent of these instances and renew your desire to be strong in the Lord’s strength. The best use of your power is yielding it to Jesus. In submitting to him, you’ll find your greatest power (Phil. 2:13).

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‘The Mission’ Documentary Revisits the John Allen Chau Controversy https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/mission-john-allen-chau/ Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574607 ‘The Mission’—a new National Geographic documentary about the life and death of missionary John Allen Chau—challenges audiences to consider not just what they think of the controversial Chau but what they believe about the mission that motivated him. ]]> One of the truest lines spoken in The Mission comes from author and historian Adam Goodheart: “I think every person who has been drawn to this story, whether a missionary, anthropologist, historian, author, filmmaker, is coming in with their own narrative arc that they want to see and experience and depict.”

Viewers of The Mission—a new National Geographic documentary about the 2018 death of 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau—are likely to see in it what they want to see. Sympathetic Christians might see Chau’s story as an inspiring tale of martyrdom. Secular skeptics will likely find more fodder for their perceptions of evangelical stupidity.

Part of why The Mission can be so variously interpreted is that filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State), to their credit, attempt to tell the story in a balanced way, interviewing a broad spectrum of friends, family members, pastors, missionaries, and academics. Each person interviewed has a different take on the wisdom and worthiness of Chau’s ill-fated effort to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of North Sentinel Island—one of the last remaining “untouched” tribes on the planet.

Viewers of The Mission are likely to see in it what they want to see.

The film is well made and compelling, especially in its use of animation and voiceover actors who bring Chau’s own words (from his diary and notebooks) to life. For Christian audiences inclined to share Chau’s passion for overseas missions and fulfilling the Great Commission, The Mission might be frustrating to watch at times. But it can spur helpful discussions for Christian churches, students, and missionaries alike.

Much Has Changed Since 1956

John Allen Chau—like so many other American evangelicals—was deeply inspired by the witness of Jim Elliot and the other Ecuador martyrs in 1956. The film notes how Chau rewatched End of the Spear several times. This famous tale of risky outreach to unreached people (the Huaorani) fanned the flames in Chau’s heart to reach the unreached Sentinelese.

With Chau’s mission ending in his death (likely by spearing, just like the Ecuador martyrs), the comparisons between the 1956 story and Chau’s martyrdom are inevitable. But much has changed over the last seven decades. Contrast The Mission, which is highly conflicted about Chau, with the “enormously sympathetic” treatment of the Ecuador martyrs by Life magazine (among other news outlets) in 1956. Historian Thomas Kidd observed this in 2018, following Chau’s death:

A national magazine such as Life in 1956 would at least resonate with the attempt to bring Western civilization to people they called “Stone Age savages.” But Life also faithfully represented Elliot’s evangelical agenda, as he explained that he and his colleagues were under divine commission to preach the gospel to all nations. Six decades later, we live in a world where academic and media elites are allergic to the notion that one culture is superior to another. Many evangelicals—especially missionaries—would applaud this move away from a sense of Western cultural superiority, too. But the evangelical conviction about the transcendent truth of the gospel for all people endures.

The mixed response to the Chau story shows how the narrative around foreign missions has shifted and is increasingly associated with a variety of toxic “isms” (colonialism, imperialism, patriarchalism, parochialism, pragmatism, and so on). The changing perception (particularly in the post-Christian West) is that whatever good might come with the Christianizing of a pagan culture is largely outweighed by the bad.

In a secular age, when the transcendent and eternal have drifted out of center view, immanent things like human cultures take on central, hallowed significance. Preserving the tangible customs and traditions of indigenous cultures in this life therefore becomes a far greater good than evangelizing indigenous people to preserve their souls for an intangible afterlife. Indeed, the latter is seen as a threat to the former.

For skeptics prone to seeing Christian mission in a “more harm than good” way, The Mission will likely confirm this bias.

Missional Passion Needs Guardrails of Wisdom

But even for those sympathetic to Christian missions, Chau’s story isn’t necessarily one to herald as the best example to emulate.

Much about Chau is admirable and inspiring. It’s hard to watch the film and disagree with the assessment of a close friend of Chau’s that “the conclusion of John’s life is that he lived it for Jesus.”

Here was a sincere young evangelical who followed a familiar path from suburban comfort to being “radicalized” for missions. While a student at a Christian high school, he goes on a missions trip to Mexico and comes back inflamed for the Great Commission. He attends a Christian university (Oral Roberts) and further develops his passion for missions, takes part in several other overseas missions trips, and ultimately joins a missions organization (All Nations) where he trains to bring the gospel to the famously isolated and mysterious Sentinelese people.

Contrary to some claims, Chau didn’t go entirely rogue in his mission to North Sentinel Island, and he wasn’t blind to the dangers of colonialism (“The team will not bring any colonizing mentalities into this mission,” he specifically wrote in his roadmap for the mission). On the tribute page for Chau on the All Nations website, international executive leader Mary Ho (who is briefly featured in the film), calls Chau “one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen”:

He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways.

And yet questions remain about the wisdom of his mission. Why did he go alone? Should he have trained longer before attempting contact? What made him think that he, a 26-year-old unseasoned American missionary with no ability to speak the Sentinelese language, would be the first person in history to peacefully reach and evangelize this group? Did Chau’s youthful zeal and passionate urgency lead him to go faster than wisdom would advise?

And perhaps most of all: Was God really telling Chau to go, now, in this way? Or was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe? In the film, a pastor at Van City Church, where Chau apparently attended for a season, wonders whether it was actually God calling John or “idealism masquerading as God’s calling.”

Was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe?

The uncertainty that inherently surrounds our individual understanding of “God’s call” is one of many reasons why passionate missionary zeal must be subject to the accountability of a broader community of Christian wisdom—ideally both a local church and also a network of experienced missionaries. It’s a good impulse to want to go and make disciples of all nations. We should take the Great Commission seriously. But the when and how details matter, too, and they’re best worked out with patience and prudence, in the context of community.

Chris McCandless of Christian Missions?

As I watched The Mission, it struck me that Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of the book Into the Wild. Like Chau, McCandless was a twentysomething who desired a more radical life than the empty comforts of suburban affluence. Like Chau, he loved the outdoors and had a penchant for risky adventure, ultimately striking out on his own into a dangerous survival situation in an “untouched” place (the Alaskan wilderness) that, in the end, would claim his life.

When you read Into the Wild (or watch the film), your response to McCandless’s death likely tilts toward either “what a foolish waste” or “how beautiful and inspiring.” Your response depends on your view of McCandless’s “mission.” If you see value in his mission—to shun consumerism and live off the land, in Thoreau-esque communion with the simple beauty of nature—then you might view his death as a fitting martyrdom for a worthy ideal, even if you wished he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

If you don’t find value in McCandless’s mission, however, you likely see his Alaskan death as a sad, empty, predictable end to an ill-begotten fantasy.

The same is true for responses to Chau’s death. It depends on your view of the mission that drove his actions. Do you believe God is real, eternity in heaven and hell is real, and a resurrected Jesus really did say the words recorded in Matthew 28:16–20? If so, Chau’s death in pursuit of reaching an unreached people group makes sense, even if you wish he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

But if, on the other hand, you don’t believe there’s a “there” there, as linguistics professor and former-missionary-turned-atheist Dan Everett says in The Mission, then you view Chau’s mission as reckless madness and a sad waste of a life.

John Allen Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild.

Everett is one of the more prominent experts featured in the film, and his story is sad. After serving 30 years as a Christian missionary to the Pirahã people in Brazil, Everett became disillusioned by the lack of results and the general disinterest in the gospel among the Pirahã. He eventually lost his faith and now actively opposes all Christian mission work. “I believe it’s unfortunate that we still have people in the 21st century believing first-century myths enough to die for them,” Everett says.

Earlier in the film, Everett gets emotional as he recites Jim Elliot’s famous quote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He’s likely emotional because he remembers believing in those words, which inspired him to sacrifice much in his own life to bring the gospel to a remote tribe. But now he believes Elliot—and all missionaries—are fools for believing in something eternal that cannot be lost.

Madness of Missionaries

The Mission is an apt title for this documentary. Ultimately it challenges audiences to consider what they believe about the mission more than what they think of the missionary John Chau.

The tagline on the film’s poster is pithy: “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.” Exactly where viewers place the “line” will have a lot to do with the degree to which they believe or disbelieve in orthodox faith, which will always look like madness and folly to a perishing world (1 Cor. 1:18).

Do you believe in a “there” there, which makes Chau’s seemingly radical decisions make sense? Are eternal life and eternal suffering real? Is Jesus Christ who he says he is in John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”)? If not, then the John Chaus and Jim Elliots of this world are dangerous extremists and delusional fools.

But if the answer is yes, then Christian evangelism and discipleship, both at home and to the ends of the earth, are utterly necessary and urgent, worthy of all scorn and sacrifice—even the ultimate sacrifice.

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The Mission Field We Don’t Think About https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/mission-field-dont-think-about/ Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=561263 Thousands are living out their final years in isolating, impoverished, and even dangerous environments. Christians cannot stand for this.]]> “The doctors told me I got the cancer,” Margaret whispered in her thick, rural Pennsylvanian accent during prayer time. She was a longtime attendee of the nursing-home church service I helped lead; I’d had the privilege of walking alongside her these past few years. I prayed with her weekly while proclaiming God’s Word to the 25 residents. Even as her weight dropped and her mobility deteriorated, Margaret’s steely-eyed attentiveness to my preaching remained unwavering.

A few weeks ago, as I unpacked my guitar and unfurled the bulletins for the service, a resident entered the room and casually informed me Margaret had died. Over the several years I’d known Margaret, I’d never seen anyone visit her. It’s likely her death will remain largely unnoticed, without a funeral or obituary. There’s also a good chance no one besides me prayed with her, placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, or preached to her the hope of Christ as her earthly life slowly waned.

What I provided Margaret was little more than a few brief prayers and a simple sermon each week. She deserved much more. But at least she could gather weekly with other Christians in worship, if only for an hour or two. The tragedy is many nursing home residents in America have far fewer opportunities in their waning years to pray with other believers and hear the Word of God.

Dying Alone

It’s been 23 years since sociologist Robert Putnam chronicled America’s declining relational networks in his book Bowling Alone. As the first “bowling alone” generation now enters nursing homes and assisted-care facilities, they do so with fewer loved ones to support them and fewer churches to close the gap. They’re dying alone, and few Christians are doing anything about it.

When I discuss the need for Christians to minister in care facilities, most people are unaware of how bad the situation is. Many picture large facilities with clean, private rooms and resident chaplains paid to provide pastoral care. Such facilities are outliers. Average nursing homes have 109 beds and suffer periodic staffing shortages. They have no chaplains or pastoral staff. Many facilities I’ve ministered in look more like prisons than homes, with the stench of urine permeating every floor. They rely exclusively on volunteers, with overworked nurses required to find and coordinate them. Many facilities have no Christian activities unless churches visit.

A recent report from the National Imperative to Improve Nursing Home Quality chronicles the dire conditions. There are “huge gaps in the quality of care.” The list of ailments seems ripped from the pages of an Upton Sinclair novel. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—responsible for sanctioning and monitoring nursing homes—reported a staggering range of deficiencies: 45 percent of homes were deficient in infection control, 42 percent in food sanitation, 34 percent in quality of care, and 20 percent in treating residents with dignity. Such conditions contribute to increased rates of poor health outcomes, such as loneliness and suicide.

In America, 21 percent of all deaths occur in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Thousands each year are consigned to live out their last years in isolating, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous environments. One would think such data would spark a litany of newspaper exposés and Senate hearings. But despite the issues being well documented for decades, little has changed. They remain largely invisible to the public—just as Margaret’s death remains largely invisible outside the walls of her facility.

Thousands each year are consigned to live out their last years in isolating, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous living environments.

How did we reach this point? How did we as a society grow numb to the millions of Americans we place in cramped, hospital-like “homes” to end their days with no assurance they’ll receive any care beyond essential medical services? How have churches accepted that millions of Americans—including many brothers and sisters in Christ—spend their dying days far from their churches and with few opportunities to pray and hear Scripture preached?

Acute Problems

The history of the modern nursing home and related facilities is complex; their existence stems from a legion of philosophical, social, economic, and political factors. Two are particularly important for Christians, for they’re issues the church too often reflects rather than combats.

1. Problem of Value

Our society tends to equate productivity with worth. According to theologian Thomas Reynolds, our culture defines personhood according to “the ability to produce and purchase.” Conversely, those who can’t make money have little worth. Such persons are, at best, sidelined from society—and at worst, dispensed of entirely. This is clear in how our society treats the unborn, those with Down syndrome, and the infirm elderly.

Our society tends to equate productivity with worth.

While consistent in opposing abortion and assisted suicide, many American Christians still fall into the trap of equating productivity with worth. In my experience in church planting, I’ve seen a fixation on reaching “the next generation” of leaders and culture shapers. New church plants often target young professionals migrating to large cities, which isn’t wrong—but energy isn’t expended to reach those on the margins.

2. Problem of Relationships

Americans have fewer friendships than in decades past. Putnam’s Bowling Alone cites loss of membership in a variety of organizations, from fraternal clubs to bowling leagues. Declining family bonds have continued to multiply relational woes. Fewer Americans are getting married or having kids. This relational decline has been so coupled with drastic increases in loneliness and depression that the surgeon general recently declared a “loneliness epidemic.”

The steep rise of adults without children is particularly alarming since, for a large portion of those in physical and mental decline, their children often become their primary caretakers. They help aging parents navigate complex systems of care facilities and the chaos of Medicare and medications. Without children or strong community relationships, most nursing home residents will spend the last years of their lives with no visitors.

Journalist Paula Span recently wrote about the increase in “kinless” seniors (those over 55 with no living spouse or children). There are close to a million kinless Americans, a number bound to rise with the decline in marriage and birth rates. One senior adult told Span, “My social life consists of doctors and store clerks—that’s a joke, but it’s pretty much true.” In my experience, a large portion of residents have similar, if not even smaller, social networks.

Without children or strong community relationships, most nursing-home residents will spend the last years of their life with no visitors.

Sadly, Christians tend to mirror these trends rather than combat them. At a recent pastors’ gathering, a friend admitted his church revised their definition of a “committed” member to one who attends Sunday worship every six weeks. Other pastors described their inability to offer midweek Bible studies and Christian education courses due to lack of interest. Without frequent opportunities to connect, the church is no longer where Christians establish the kind of meaningful relationships lasting through old age.

In the care facility where I minister, Henry is one of the few residents who doesn’t struggle with isolation. He has a number of daughters in town, and members of his church regularly visit. Each Sunday he’s surrounded by a convoy of grandchildren, pets, pastors, and choir members. But Henry is an extreme outlier. The less Christians invest deeply in church relationships, and the fewer familial ties they cultivate, the fewer people will be with them at the end of their lives.

More and more Americans, Christian and lost alike, are dying alone. They’re expending their final breaths in small, crowded buildings tended by overworked and underpaid nurses. Deprived of care and companionship from loved ones, they lack the presence of someone offering regular assurance of eternity in Jesus. Without significant changes, this will be our fate as well.

Immense Opportunity

But what an opportunity churches have to bridge this care gap. God demands that we honor aging parents and care for orphans and widows require drawing near to nursing homes and assisted-care facilities.

The less Christians invest deeply in church relationships, and the fewer familial ties they cultivate, the fewer people will be with them at the end of their lives.

We must admit, though, that we can’t fix the care epidemic overnight. There’s no magic bullet. Some political policies could help in the short term, such as incentivizing home health care and providing financial assistance to family members who care for aging parents at home. But no political or economic policy will change our culture’s privileging of power and ability as predicates for worth.

Even if quick-fix solutions are beyond our grasp, there are simple ways we can reach out to nursing home residents while proclaiming the resurrected Christ and demonstrating his love. Here are three.

1. Pray

Most Christians I encounter are unaware of the care facilities nearby; fewer still know the depths of isolation experienced by residents. Hearts of mercy are forged by the Holy Spirit in prayer. Concerned Christians should pray for this heart and mercifully discern which facilities near them are in the most need.

2. Engage

Many nursing homes and assisted-care facilities are severely understaffed; they could use volunteers of any sort to help care for residents. In a home near me, volunteers help serve meals and water. There are numerous opportunities. Simply go and engage with residents, talk to them, and bring the aroma of Christ.

3. Proclaim

Start a regular Bible study or church service for residents. Again, most facilities don’t have enough activities for residents, so such programs would likely be received warmly. Just start simply—and discern whether to add more activities from there.

In my community, laypeople, many of them students, run morning prayer services in local nursing homes. These include a handful of hymns, Scripture passages, and a five-minute sermon. It requires comparatively few hours compared to most other church projects, yet the effects cannot be overstated. We’ve seen miraculous healings, spontaneous outpourings of worship, and unexpected conversions to Christ among individuals who were months away from death.

I’ve recently started a new initiative, Heritage Mission, that offers free training, coaching and resources for those interested in starting worship services in care facilities.

If a worship service seems too complicated, I’d encourage Christians to do something, however simple, to proclaim Jesus. Care facilities are places where the harvest is plenty but the harvesters are few.

Care facilities are places where the harvest is plenty, but the harvesters are few.

I recently informed residents I’d be moving to Northern Virginia. It was a hard visit. Barbara, one of my usuals, had died from kidney failure. Sharp and wisecracking, she brought a lot of personality to our services. Barbara had a painful past—she often hinted at addictions and family instability. But she always sprang to life whenever we sang hymns, her raspy voice belting “It is well with my soul” louder than anyone else. I pray that it is well with Barbara’s soul now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of her final months.

I’m not sure what will happen to our weekly service. I wish there was a legion of volunteers queued up to take over. I wish a small percentage of the outrage that our society expends on the latest social media controversy or celebrity fiasco could be redirected to the tangible injustices down the street. But, more than that, I wish more people saw the God-given beauty of these residents and could experience a tenth of the joy I’ve had in preaching the gospel to them, praying with them, and weeping alongside them.

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Drawing Encouragement from the Faith of the Saints https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/drawing-encouragement-saints/ Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:04:20 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=573502 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry reflect on the importance of honoring those who have come before us in the faith, and how this strengthens our own faith.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry reflect on the importance of pastors honoring those who have come before them in the faith, and how it strengthens their own faith and encourages them to pour out their lives for the next generation.

Though pastors may feel isolated in their studies and in their ministries, they have the communion of saints—including Paul and their own spiritual ancestors—cheering them on. 


Recommended resource: Knowing God by J. I. Packer

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In Our Pockets, Out of Control https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/meganets/ Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=570949 The imminent threat of many internet technologies is that they’re fundamentally uncontrollable.]]> As I was driving across town to have lunch with a friend, I saw an SUV with a bumper sticker that said, “Make Orwell fiction again.” In the spirit of Neil Postman, I thought, Friend, we ought to be more concerned about our Huxleyan present than a potentially Orwellian one.

We fear a world in which we’re oppressed through our relationship with technology and media. We dislike being forced to use devices that surveille us to engage in commerce. We bristle at being forced to consume content, like ads, whose primary purpose is indoctrination. We fear bad actors using the internet technology and social media with which we’re so desperately infatuated to oppress us.

All of these concerns are merited, to be sure. Bad actors and manipulative parties of all kinds find myriad creative ways to use technology to oppress others every day. Yet some continue to hold tightly to the idea that technological innovation is generally good and that novel internet technologies and features should be sort of “assumed innocent until proven guilty” when it comes to matters of privacy and other concerns. If we’ve learned anything from recent developments in the world of the internet, we should know that this sort of techno-Utopian perspective is at best unwise and at worst outright foolish. Meganets helps to explain why.

David Auerbach is a former Microsoft and Google engineer whose writing has significantly influenced the ongoing conversations on technology in general and on artificial intelligence in particular.

In Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, Auerbach makes the case that our internet technologies are beyond the creators’ ability to control them. Therefore, we should be less concerned about how these technologies may be used to merely influence us and more concerned about how these runaway technologies can directly harm us.

According to Auerbach, the imminent threat of many internet technologies is that they’re fundamentally uncontrollable.

What Is a ‘Meganet’ Anyway?

The internet is simply a network of computers around the world that connect with one another and share data. We don’t tend to think of the internet in such technical terms—rather, we think of the websites we use on a regular basis.

A meganet is something more complex. According to Auerbach, “A meganet is a persistent, evolving, and opaque data network that controls how we see the world” (45). A meganet depends on the existence of the internet but goes beyond it.

Like a fish explaining water, precisely defining a meganet is a challenge. They are ubiquitous and closely woven through the fabric of society. The online revolution has pushed aspects of nearly everything online and reduced much of our lives to data that feeds algorithms, which in turn feed us a stream of suggestions that influence our choices. Meganets are what receive, digest, and transform that data to silently shape the digital world we experience.

Meganets explain why a stranger’s mention of a new shampoo brand in your presence results in a series of ads for that brand on websites you visit. There was no direct human influence that specifically targeted you with those ads. You got ads for that new product because of a complex string of algorithms coupled with an ad purchase by an unknowing marketing assistant.

The whole ad cycle began with someone’s casual reference in the presence of your smartphone microphone and (often unchangeable) privacy settings that allow apps to listen in. Your response to the ad (or lack of one) provides data  used to create further ads, determine their placement, and target you more effectively for other products. Meganets are inescapable.

The persistence of meganets “comes from [their] never being offline and never being reset” (45). Meganets evolve “because thousands if not millions of entities, whether users or programmers or AIs, are constantly modifying [them].” And meganets are opaque because “it is difficult and frequently impossible to gauge why [a] meganet behaved in a particular way.”

Auerbach lists the following essential elements of a meganet:

1. A tightly integrated set of servers and clients running software-based algorithms

2. Programmers and organizations who create and administer the software and servers

3. Participants who use and more importantly operate on that network, making changes to it, and who are in turn operated on by that network in a feedback loop (46)

Auerbach concludes, “Meganets are neither wholly machine nor wholly human but the result of the combination of both on an unprecedentedly large scale” (178).

Frightening Complexity

Some examples of meganets you may encounter or hear about in everyday life include Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, and cryptocurrency. These are all things that started out simply, that many of us use every day, but have become so tangled and transient that it’s hard to explain exactly how they operate. It’s almost impossible to understand how they influence our lives in subtle, seemingly irresistible ways.

Here’s the process that meganets are going through as they continuously evolve:

1. The meganets’ systems are getting increasingly complex.

2. Defects in those systems are increasing in number.

3. Our ability to anticipate and address these defects is decreasing.

4. Our ability to mitigate the consequences of these defects may be worsening.

As we continue to engage these technologies and the content hosted on them, we contribute to a metaphorical flywheel of data storage and dissemination. A flywheel is used to store mechanical energy to keep something spinning smoothly. As the speed of the flywheel increases, the energy stored in it increases exponentially.

The volume of data is so large that these meganets have begun to spin out of control. According to Auerbach, the problem is so severe that, often, their creators and administrators no longer know how to best control them.

Even without the existence of a malicious actor intentionally controlling our lives, we may be under the influence of meganets. Once we depend on a service like Amazon or Facebook, the algorithm is going to significantly influence what products we buy and what events we’re aware of.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

It isn’t clear that the people who created these systems know how to regain control, apart from simply turning the power off. But we don’t want to turn many of these systems off because they’re now interwoven into the daily aspects of our lives—from checking the weather to shopping for hygiene products.

Disentangling from Meganets

We can’t escape meganets without completely disconnecting. But there’s hope. The goal is to stop feeding the machine as much information and to create turbulence so the algorithm has to keep adjusting. Auerbach offers other large-scale suggestions for how to push back against meganets’ influence in our lives. I doubt some of those are possible. But we can implement some of his ideas to improve our digital lives.

He argues we should inject some chaos into our internet experiences by following people on social media who think differently than us, especially around cultural or political issues. This confuses the algorithm and helps us avoid an ideological bubble.

Additionally, Auerbach suggests a system for having internet users “take turns” at sharing content—a user would not be able to post again until enough others had done so. This could make us use the platforms more thoughtfully. It also reduces the information available to meganets, which shrinks their influence.

Auerbach proposes a top-down solution to regulate people’s posting, which is unlikely to be acceptable to many users. However, we could implement this sort of rule for ourselves. For example, it’s easy for me to rattle off 10 tweets in a day if I don’t pay attention. Therefore, I’ve set up personal limits to keep me from tweeting more than a handful of times in a given week. It’s good to share less than we do. Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Auerbach’s work in Meganets is heavy. Some of his explanations are so detailed that even tech-savvy readers may have trouble following. This would be a hard place to enter the conversation.

However, the book offers an important window into the challenges that humanity faces in dealing with technology that seems to be getting out of hand. It’s important to wrestle with the ethical implications of these technologies before things get too far out of control.

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How Psalm 1 Helped Me Embrace Limits https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/psalm-1-embrace-limits/ Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568171 We’re called to bear fruit, yes. But not all of it, all the time.]]> I’ve never liked limits. As a child, I remember playing with my toy kitchen when one of my parents came to tell me it was time for a nap. I would beg to stay up. Couldn’t they see I was in the middle of making food for my pretend family? Who has time for a nap? In this economy? No way. The children must be fed.

As the years have ticked by, I still try to resist limitations. To prove to God and myself that I can do enough, contribute enough, and be enough. If I refuse naps and work hard, surely I can bear sufficient fruit to grasp the security and approval my uncertain heart craves.

In a do-all, be-all world, maybe you struggle with this too. Even those of us who trust in the finished work of Christ tend to depend on our works to give us value before others and confidence before the Father. We so often look at our own fruit production to measure our worth rather than staring at the Son and what his merit alone provides.

But there’s a tension here. After all, it’s right to desire a fruitful Christian life. So how can we think wisely about our limits and our productivity?

Designed with Limits

We so often look at our own fruit production to measure our worth rather than staring at the Son and what his merit alone provides.

Consider the blessed man described in Psalm 1. He’s certainly productive—“in all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3). Interestingly though, his life is fueled not by striving against limitations but by delighting in the law of the Lord and living within good boundaries. He’s compared to a tree, and notice what the psalmist says about the tree’s fruit:

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (v. 3, emphasis added)

The blessed man is like a tree that yields its fruit in its season. His isn’t some hybrid apple-orange-mango-avocado-fig-cherry tree that produces every kind of fruit. Nor is it a tree that produces fruit all the time. This tree bears the fruit it was designed for in the season it was designed for.

Fruit in Season

In our modern Western world, where we have access to almost every kind of produce all year round, it’s easy to forget that fruits and vegetables are designed to be planted and harvested in certain seasons. All the seasons are necessary to bear fruit in season—the affliction of winter to eliminate many damaging insects and pathogens, the tilling and rain in the spring to cultivate new life, the heat of summer to grow and fertilize, and the harvest of fall to bring in the crops and celebrate.

And farmers are busy working in every season. Even when the crops are latent, farmers are working the land, preparing for planting, weeding, or preparing for harvest. So too God is tending to the soil of our hearts in every season, even when we may not see the visible fruit.

One of the most freeing moments of my life came when my pastor told me, “You don’t have to have the key to every door. You don’t have to have the answer to every question.” Maybe you need to hear that too. Like the man in Psalm 1, our fruit production is limited. He bears fruit in season as he’s nourished by the water of life that flows directly from God’s Word. He’s firmly rooted as he chooses to take counsel from its pages rather than from the voices of the world.

Orchard of Blessing

We’re called to bear fruit, yes. But not all of it, all the time. The beauty of the church is that no single member of the body of Christ is responsible for generating the whole harvest. Instead, myriad different fruit trees with roots dug deep into the good soil and living water of Christ create an orchard of blessings for the world, showcasing the glory of the Vine and the Vinedresser.

The beauty of the church is that no single member of the body of Christ is responsible for generating the whole harvest.

Bearing fruit isn’t a burden for branches abiding in the Vine. They’re simply doing what the life of the vine is producing in them. As we abide in Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit we will bear his fruit. We’ll be fruitful by delighting not in our accomplishments but in the law of the Lord. We’ll prosper not by burning the candle at both ends but by meditating on God’s Word day and night.

Denying our limits isn’t the way to a full harvest. Christ Jesus died to give us not rest from our limitations but rest within our limitations. Not rest once we bear a certain amount of fruit—rest to produce fruit through us. May he receive the glory due his name for whatever fruit he’s working in and out of us in this season.

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The Bible Commentary We Didn’t Know We Were Missing https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-commentary-missing/ Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574593 Find out why The Gospel Coalition launched a multiyear initiative with The Carson Center to provide a free commentary on the whole Bible.]]> If you preach or teach frequently, you know the value of a good commentary. You may even have a handful within arm’s reach at any given time. Whether you use them in the early phases of preparation to find expository insights or later to check your work, these resources are immensely helpful for interpreting Scripture within the community of the saints, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.

But as we reach for these books on our shelves, have we ever paused to question what started this process of adding comments on the text of Scripture or why, after 2,000 years, Christians are still writing commentaries?

What’s the History of Commentaries?

Commentaries on Scripture have their roots deep in our history. In one sense, the fifth book of the Pentateuch—the book of Deuteronomy—is itself an inspired commentary on God’s Torah. Fast forward to the days of Jesus, and the first Jewish Targums begin to appear in writing. These paraphrastic explanations of the Scripture text began to show unity and diversity of interpretation within the Jewish community, guiding readers on how to understand (and even read) God’s Word.

In the following century, Christian leaders began producing commentaries and circulating homilies to provide help in the interpretation of Scripture. Some of the first commentaries on the New Testament—though sadly no longer extant—came from the catechetical school of Alexandria in Egypt and the pen of Pantaenus, a man who apparently went on to spread the gospel to India. The Antiochene school of interpretation—the church that formed the headwaters of Paul’s missionary journeys—also produced voluminous commentaries, often in the form of homilies. These commentaries sprung from writers and preachers such as (the theologically questionable) Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the great Chrysostom, to name just a few.

Down through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, commentaries on the Bible remained an ever-growing stream of output from the church and benefit to the saints. The most notable remains Calvin’s, which has enduring value for expositors and students of the Bible today.

The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word, so long as interpreters have refused to make commentaries a shallow substitute for personal engagement with the text of Scripture.

Why So Many Commentaries?

When I was working on my dissertation on Colossians 1:24, multiple visitors to my home saw the stacks upon stacks of commentaries and other resources spread out on my dining room table and asked, “All this for one verse?” The answer is complicated.

The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word.

More commentaries help because each author brings his or her personal perspective to bear on the text. The more commentaries you have, the better you’re able to sort out what’s normative and what’s an aberration.

More commentaries also help because each author approaches the text with his or her own purpose. Some commentaries are intended to make sense of the Hebrew or Greek text first and foremost. Others aim to present the broader theological aims of the book. Still others focus on exegesis of the text, bringing out the meaning of the passage at hand. Academic commentaries can tend toward critical matters, discussing issues of authorship, source, and form. Devotional commentaries tend toward practical matters, discussing issues of significance in the life of the believer. Each commentary is valuable based on its function.

Hole in Your Bookshelf

Back in 2018, when Don Carson proposed the idea of a new commentary series managed by The Gospel Coalition, it was natural to wonder, “With so many commentaries, why produce one more?”

As we evaluated this question, we came to the conclusion that yet another resource needed to be produced to do more than provide fodder to keep the lights on at a publishing house. Something new was needed because the current stream of commentaries has a gaping hole. We asked ourselves four questions about the commentaries currently on offer for the church:

  • Is It Modern? Modern commentaries address a significant array of new questions facing pastors and teachers since Matthew Henry completed his commentaries on the Bible in 1710. Many modern commentaries exist to fit this need. But . . .
  • Is It Understandable? Whole swaths of modern commentaries are written for academics, those with formal theological training and facility with the original languages. Helpful commentaries for lay leaders, rising elders, and the majority of global pastors who lack facility with Hebrew and Greek are sparse. But . . .
  • Is It Trustworthy? Where you find modern and understandable commentaries, you’re likely to encounter a mixed bag of trustworthy and untrustworthy volumes. Some are self-published. Others are churned out by cults. Immense trust springs from resources with publicly stated theological presuppositions, a rule of faith that garners confidence from others who walk within the same long-standing tradition. With those few modern, understandable, and trustworthy commentaries, we ask . . .
  • Is It Accessible? Can it be translated or retranslated without onerous rights and permissions? Can pastors-in-training receive digital or printed copies without violation of the law? Is it easily available online in a mobile-friendly, paywall-free environment?

When we asked these four questions, we found a gaping hole on our shelf. Thus started the six-year project that resulted in The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary. With the final additions published online over the past weeks, the possibility of broader availability of quality commentaries for every Christian is now within sight.

Filling the Gap

Two weeks ago, TGC unveiled The Carson Center for Theological Renewal as an entity charged with the production, management, and stewardship of resources such as this new commentary series. Many other modern, understandable, trustworthy, and accessible resources need to be added to the shelf of every Christian.

In addition to The Carson Center, the attendees at TGC23 were invited to participate in a conference fundraiser to support the translation and localization of these commentaries into Spanish and Arabic. Over the course of the week, attendees participated in TGC’s largest conference fundraiser of all time—and we’ve been hosting conferences since 2007. Over $120,000 was raised to support the production of commentaries in these two languages.

Mina Yousef, TGC’s Arabic editorial coordinator, wrote to me when we first started discussing the project, “Available commentaries in the Arabic-speaking world are either liberal, Orthodox, or Catholic, and nothing is available online for free.”

For the Spanish commentaries, in conjunction with our team at Coalición por el Evangelio, we’re going one step further. We’re identifying a slate of Spanish-speaking theologians who can write new content for the Spanish edition, replacing rather than translating the English commentaries in areas of specialty. This approach will broaden the array of voices and provide a space for new Spanish-speaking authors to be heard in commentary form in their heart language.

How You Can Help

Given the importance of commentaries, the hole in the shelf, and the function of this commentary project at TGC to fill the gap, there are several key ways you can get involved and maximize the benefit of this project.

1. Use the commentaries. The more time you spend on the commentaries as you research and prepare to preach or teach or lead a discussion, the more value search engines attribute to these resources. Be blessed by these free resources and, in so doing, you’ll help others be blessed by them.

2. Share the commentaries. If you know a friend, pastor, or Sunday school teacher who’s teaching on a particular book, share a link with them. We recognize that TGC has a vast array of content, and it’s easy to miss the resources you may need the most.

3. Fund the vision. Would you consider how God might be leading you to link arms with The Carson Center as we begin to fill the gaps for the global church? Your giving will help us facilitate even more translation and localization projects and yet more critical resources such as a Bible dictionary, church history guide, and hermeneutics guide.

Next time you reach for a commentary on your shelf, remember you stand in a long line of Christians who’ve done the same. And many more Christians need the same opportunity to enter the tradition that has brought immense benefit to us.

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It Matters for Kids That Jesus Was a Child Too https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/kids-jesus-child/ Sun, 15 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=575190 Jesus came as an infant not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.]]> If you asked a child to draw a picture of Jesus, you’d likely end up with one of two options: a baby in a manger or a man on a cross. It would probably depend on what time of year it was. We talk a lot about “baby Jesus” at Christmas, and we talk a lot about a Jesus in his early 30s who died on a cross around Easter.

But lately, I’ve been talking with my kids about the life of Christ—specifically mentioning he was a child.

No Excuse for Excuses

Early childhood seems to be filled with dos and don’ts—from safety guidelines to potty training to instructions about how to treat others. This is necessary. One of the greatest responsibilities we have, in addition to cultivating wisdom, is to teach our children right from wrong—but parenting them to perfection is impossible.

They’ll feel their frailty as they fail to uphold the rules set out for them. They’ll hit their brothers, they’ll snatch toys, they’ll say hurtful words. And, as they discover they can’t keep the rules perfectly, they’ll grapple with shame.

My children have responded to their failures in the same two ways I commonly do: blame and shame. One of my elementary-aged sons tends to blame his youth or his bodily needs for his wrongdoing. “I’m too hungry to be nice!” I feel you, buddy. “It’s OK. I’m just little and I’m still learning.” While this is certainly true, it’s not a license to sin against his brothers.

More than an Example

If sin isn’t sin, then the gospel isn’t good news. And so, even as we offer compassion to our children by considering their physical and developmental limitations, we mustn’t negate their need for a Savior. This is why Jesus came as an infant, after all. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.

This is why Jesus came as an infant. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.

In those moments when our children cry out in frustration, “I can’t be perfect! I always blow it!” we have the opportunity to tell our kids the good news of the gospel, “Want to hear the most amazing news? Someone was perfect for you. Jesus was a child, just like you, and in every place you fail to keep the rules, he succeeded.” And then we can tell them, “When you put your faith in him, instead of punishing you for the wrong things you do, God gives you his perfect score.”

More than a Free Pass

“Someone did it for you!” is a life-altering reality—not because it gives us permission to stop trying but because it motivates and fuels us to keep going. Since the grace that saves us is the grace that empowers and changes us, our children must hear “Jesus was perfect for you” before we can show them how to obey in a way that honors God: by grace, through faith.

It might be tempting to point to the child Christ the way we might point to a well-behaved classmate, saying, “Little Johnny would never have done this.” But the primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves: his Father. Jesus gave us a standard to live up to, but he also came to fulfill the standard for us, giving us a new identity to live out of.

The good news of the gospel isn’t that you’re free to do whatever you want but that you’re not on your own as you seek to do what God wants, which will become what you want more and more as you live as a Christian.

Not Unable to Sympathize

This is fantastic news for our kids as they try to become more like Jesus. We can remind them that God wants to make them more like Jesus: “Since Jesus was a child just like you, he knows what it’s like to be a kid. He was tempted in every way you are (Heb. 4:15) and he’s filled with compassion for you.” We can encourage them: “He made it so that God could always, always forgive you no matter what, but he also left a Helper so you wouldn’t be on your own (John 15:26–27). The Holy Spirit is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and he lives in those who trust Jesus to help them remember the truth and live it out (Rom. 8:10–11).”

We should encourage our kids to look to Jesus when they fail, but we must also train them to look to his Spirit for help to obey. If anything apart from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23), then the only way to equip our kids to live righteous lives is by encouraging them to live dependent ones (John 15:5).

Let the Little Children Come

One could argue that kids are in the best possible position to learn to live the Christian life well. They ask for help all day long. They know what it is to be weak and needy and dependent.

The primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves.

Jesus said anyone who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven must become like a child (Mark 10:13–16; Matt. 18:2–5). And he became one to show us, and our children, how to live completely dependent on the Father.

Because Jesus was a child, our kids have an example of what righteous living looks like, they can be free of the guilt and shame of unrighteous living, and they can have hope and help to live more righteous lives.

Thanks be to Christ, who became a child that we, and our kids, might become children of God.

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4 Ways to Help a Depressed Mom https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/help-depressed-mom/ Sat, 14 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=568887 Many of us aren’t professional people-helpers. How can laypeople help with such a multifaceted problem? ]]> You know her. She’s a friend or coworker. She goes to your church. Maybe she’s in your small group or serves as a ministry leader. Perhaps she’s your pastor’s wife—maybe she’s your daughter. But surely somewhere in your close proximity, there’s a mother suffering from depression. As she attempts to beat back the darkness, you wonder how you can care for her.

Many of us aren’t professional people-helpers. We’re not doctors, licensed therapists, social workers, or experienced counselors. We may not feel equipped to walk alongside mothers who feel trapped by despondency. It can be intimidating to enter into someone’s experience of affliction, especially when we struggle to understand it. How can laypeople begin to help with such a multifaceted problem?

Depressed Moms Need Discipleship

With an estimated 800,000 mothers in the U.S. diagnosed with a maternal mental health disorder each year—and with a large majority of them unable to get professional help—the body of Christ cannot stand idly by. Even as a layperson, you can offer a depressed mother necessary, irreplaceable care in Christ.

No, you can’t be a depressed mom’s deliverer. But by God’s grace, you can be her discipler. While depression care sometimes requires more than Christian discipleship, it never requires less. That’s because depressed moms are embodied souls—both spiritual and physical beings (Gen. 2:7). They may need professional help from doctors and counselors, but they also need what laypeople in Christ’s church can provide. No one can bear the darkness of depression alone, which is why God calls us to come close and bear each other up (Prov. 18:14; Eccl. 4:12; Gal. 6:2).

Practical Ways to Help

While depression care sometimes requires more than Christian discipleship, it never requires less.

Imitating Christ’s care for the downcast means drawing near to them with our presence (Ps. 34:18; 2 Cor. 7:6). It means patiently encouraging the fainthearted and helping them in practical ways (1 Thess. 5:14). As you seek to disciple a mother through depression, here are four practical ways to help her.

1. Support her through service.

To disciple a despondent mother is to hold a candle in her darkness. And an important component of Christian discipleship is serving one another in love (Gal. 5:13). Though it may not feel like you’re doing much to address her depression, the ministry of good deeds is a tangible manifestation of Christ’s light in her life (Matt. 5:16). Show you care by carving out time to support her through regular acts of practical service. This can look like helping around the house, bringing her a meal, or volunteering to watch her kids so she can take a break.

2. Lament with her.

When a depressed mother gives voice to her pain and confusion, it’s unwise to respond by singing songs of cheerful optimism (Prov. 25:20). As Zack Eswine has written, hope in this dark season will seem unrealistic to her if it fails to “match the depths of the wound and the misery of [her] pain.” This is where biblical lament becomes a gift of God’s grace and mercy—a means of engaging distressing thoughts and emotions as she waits on God to work according to his word (Ps. 119:25). As her discipler, you can help her to learn and speak the language of lament. Work through a resource together such as the Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Devotional Journal. Go at a pace she’s comfortable with, even if progress seems slow.

3. Connect her suffering to Christ’s miseries.

In your ongoing ministry, remember that, as Charles Spurgeon explained, the “sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice.” By connecting your friend’s misery to that of her Lord, he appears less like a merciless deity and more like the faithful Good Shepherd he is (Isa. 53; John 10:14–15).

Reflect regularly together on the fact that her suffering Savior sympathizes with her (Heb. 4:15), that songs of lament once poured out from his heavy heart (Matt. 27:46; Heb. 5:7–8), and that the Author of life knows what it’s like to be “‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’” (Matt. 26:38, NIV). Comfort her with the truth that Jesus experientially knows the depths of her misery—and that she’ll never be made to know the depths of his (Isa. 53:10–11).

4. Help her rehearse realistic hope.

Maybe the mom you’re caring for feels like she’ll be forever stuck in the dark. But while it’s true that midnight is here, it’s equally true that morning must come. No children of the light will be lost to darkness (John 6:39; Eph. 5:8). As her discipler, this is a realistic, hope-based encouragement to rehearse. Just as Christ’s is a death-before-resurrection story, hers is a suffering-before-glory story, a hurt-before-healing story, a darkness-before-light story. And the One who faithfully went through tribulation before her will remain faithful to go through it with her (Isa. 42:16).

Even as a layperson, you can offer a depressed mother necessary, irreplaceable care in Christ.

Discipling a depressed mom is a good work God will enable you—by his Spirit and Word—to walk in. With his help, you can become a conduit of sustaining grace, strengthening presence, and steadfast love. As you take care to step into a mom’s darkened world, God will give you the unquenchable light of Jesus Christ to carry (John 1:5). Your care and support may not take away her sorrowful burden, but by God’s grace, it can halve the heavy load.

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Start Giving Before You Inherit https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/start-giving-before-inherit/ Sat, 14 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=562700 Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity, inheriting wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.]]> Millennials may inherit over $68 trillion from previous generations by 2030. According to Newsweek, some experts believe this “could be the largest transfer of wealth in the history of humankind.”

What will younger generations do with that wealth?

Studies show the younger someone is, the less he or she tends to give financially. Not just less in amount, but less in proportion. According to Barna Group, “Only 13 percent of Millennials and even fewer Gen Z (6 percent) give money on a frequent basis.” In “The Generosity Gap,” Barna reported that 7 percent of those who are 70 or older give 10 percent or more of their income to their churches, but only 1 percent of millennials claimed they do so. Only 21 percent of all believers give 10 percent or more of their income to their local churches, while 25 percent give nothing.

Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity—and a sense that God’s purpose for prospering us is so we can help the church, aid the poor, and reach the lost—inheriting such wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.

Dangerous Inheritance

Scripture says that “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Prov. 13:22). In Old Testament times, passing on ownership of the land to the next generation was vital. Many people lived at a subsistence level, too poor to buy land. With no inheritance, they would likely end up enslaved or unable to care for their children, parents, or grandparents.

In the West today, however, things are different. There are exceptions, but inheritances are usually financial windfalls coming to people who live separately from their parents, have their own careers, and are financially independent, They have dependable sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing. In many cases, they have a higher net worth than their parents.

In a society with such affluence and opportunity, I’ve long advocated that, in most cases, Christian parents should seriously consider leaving the bulk of their estate to churches, parachurch ministries, missions, and other kingdom purposes, leaving only a relatively small portion to their children.

If your parents are among those who’ve decided to give away most of their wealth rather than pass it on to you and your siblings, I encourage you to rejoice. Honor their choice and support them in it. Having grown up in an unbelieving family, I would’ve loved for my parents to have had such a kingdom vision.

Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity, inheriting such wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.

If your parents do leave you with the majority of their wealth, ask God what he wants you to do with it. Understand it doesn’t truly belong to you and that many lives and marriages have been ruined by an infusion of unearned wealth. Yes, an inheritance can be a blessing. But that’s not all God tells us. He also says, “An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end” (Prov. 20:21). Jesus knew our tendency to live in denial about the dangers of money love, so he sounded this alarm: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV).

When I was a missions pastor, I worked with a couple who finished their missionary training and were soon headed to the field. Unexpectedly, the wife inherited significant wealth. The couple was excited, thinking they could now become self-supported missionaries. When they asked my advice, I encouraged them that they needed the accountability and prayer support of having financial partners. We talked about how they could give away the majority of the inheritance, thanking God for the opportunity to invest in eternity. This would allow them to trust God to provide, as missionaries normally do, and move forward undistracted.

In the end, they kept most of the money. What happened next broke my wife’s and my hearts. Over the next few years, their marriage, family, and ministry plans fell apart. Sadly, they never recovered. Obviously, the money wasn’t the only problem, but it certainly had a significant negative effect. What seemed like a blessing—what we believe could have been a blessing if they’d given most of it away—proved to be a curse.

Give Today

When it comes to money and possessions, we tend to compare upward, not downward. But even if we’re lower-middle class in America, the truth is we’re in the upper 98th percentile of the world’s wealthy. Whether we’re set to receive an inheritance or not, most of us are already rich by global standards. So instead of starting to make purchases based on money you think you’ll inherit, start giving now as good stewards of what God supplies.

The key to such giving—and to avoiding greed, pride, and possessiveness—is recognizing God’s ownership of everything: “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). If our possessions and money ultimately belong to us, no one has the right to tell us what to do with them. Until we truly grasp that God is the owner and we’re merely stewards of his assets, we won’t be generous givers. But once we embrace God’s ownership of everything, it’s a small step to ask him what he wants us to do with his money and possessions.

When God prospers us, it’s not merely to give us new toys and more beautiful homes but to allow us to give still more: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way” (2 Cor. 9:11). God’s extra provision isn’t usually intended to raise our standard of living but to raise our standard of giving.

God’s extra provision isn’t usually intended to raise our standard of living but to raise our standard of giving.

It’s human nature to imagine that spending on ourselves will make us happiest. But Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In that verse, the Greek word makarios (translated “blessed”) really means “happy” or “happy-making.” If giving wasn’t an act of love, if it didn’t help others, and even if God didn’t tell us to do it, it’d still be in our best interests. Because generosity leads to joy.

Jesus told his disciples that when they gave money away, their hearts would follow the treasures they were storing in heaven (Matt. 6:19–21). He said God would reward them for helping the needy (Luke 14:14). We’re forever connected to what we give and the people we give it to. As Martin Luther said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

Greater Reward

Our role in Christ’s kingdom isn’t only as a son or daughter of the King but also as an investor, an asset manager, and an eternal beneficiary. The command to store up treasures in heaven proves giving isn’t simply parting with wealth—it’s transferring wealth to another location where it can never be lost. Giving to God’s kingdom is the most dependable and profitable investment ever. When you give, don’t think of it as divesting but investing.

Peter speaks of an inheritance God has awaiting us after death that includes both our salvation and the eternal treasures we store up through generous giving: “He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away” (1 Pet. 1:4, GNT). God promises our wise stewardship and generous giving will pay off, with joy now and rewards in the future.

May we always remember that God—not real estate or wealth—is our true inheritance. May we live and give accordingly so that what we inherit doesn’t become for us a curse but a true blessing from God’s hand.

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‘The Creator’ Reflects Nagging Spiritual Questions of a Secular Age https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/creator-christian-movie-review/ Fri, 13 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574600 ‘The Creator’ reflects the dilemma of modern man, who views himself as little more than a machine yet still desires to know his Maker.]]> Walt Disney unveiled his first audio-animatronic robot at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The robot was a life-size, lifelike depiction of Abraham Lincoln that stood from its chair and delivered a five-minute speech. When attendees saw the robot, many refused to believe it wasn’t a human and threw coins at it to try to make it jump.

More than half a century later, we still struggle to comprehend technology that looks like us, sounds like us, and supposedly thinks like us. The recent emergence of generative AI like ChatGPT has given the conversation more urgency. What ultimately distinguishes humanity from robots? The question has been explored countless times in popular culture, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. to, most recently, The Creator, written and directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (Rogue One).

Like many other sci-fi films, The Creator asks provocative questions about humanity and existence, even as it struggles to offer answers. Ultimately, Edwards’s film provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.

New Spin on Man vs. Machine Saga

The Creator opens with a vintage newsreel-style introduction that sets the context for a war between the Western world and all forms of advanced AI. The robots, which range from Roomba-like androids to human-like “simulants,” coexist with humans in a Far Eastern continent called “New Asia.”

Set in the 2060s, the story follows Joshua (John David Washington), a U.S. special forces operator in New Asia who’s part of military efforts to discover advanced AI’s creator—“Nirmata”—and find an AI superweapon that has the potential to exterminate mankind. The superweapon turns out to be a simulant child nicknamed Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), whom Joshua captures and forms a bond with as they’re pursued by both AI robots and the American military.

The Creator provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.

Though the humans vs. robots movie narrative has been told many times, The Creator adds some unique twists to the genre, especially in its depiction of a lovable 6-year-old girl as an AI superweapon. Voyles’s performance as Alphie is superb—one of the best I’ve seen from a child actor. The way she captures the heart of Joshua—who becomes something of a father and protector of her as the film progresses—is a proxy for how she makes the audience feel.

Edwards clearly wants to confront the audience with a sympathetic, human-like AI character who leads the audience to contemplate, What does it mean that the hero I’m most rooting for in this film isn’t human?

‘How Were You Made?’

As humans, do we have ethical responsibilities toward nonhuman AI? That’s the kind of question The Creator poses. At multiple points in the movie when a simulant is destroyed or a robot begs for mercy, a human says, “They’re not real . . . it’s just programming.” But Joshua (and the viewer) is led to question this logic.

It may technically be “just programming,” but what happens when the robots look, talk, think, and act just like us? What happens when they start asking the same existential questions as humans? The Creator raises these questions, which cannot be answered by a worldview that excludes God—the Creator—as the source and standard of final reality.

Edwards seems to recognize this, as much of the film revolves around Joshua and Alphie’s joint quest to find Nirmata (which is the Hindi word for “creator”). In one scene, Alphie asks Joshua, “If you’re not a robot, how were you made?” All Joshua can muster in response is that his parents made him. Neither Joshua nor Alphie knows their true maker, and they bond over this loss.

Bonding over Shared Questions

The gradually stronger bond between Joshua and Alphie blurs the line between human and robot. Joshua has advanced prosthetics for one arm and one leg. He later learns Alphie was designed using a human embryo, so she can grow and mature—despite being a robot. Joshua is part machine, and she is part human. Both of them experience longings for Nirmata, as well as an instinctual desire for “heaven”—which they talk about a few times in the film.

Perhaps as a subversion of the standard narrative that pits humans against AI, Edwards wants us to see Joshua and Alphie in the same existential category. They both feel “programmed”—made for some purpose, with some logic in mind—yet the identity of the programmer and the details of the programming purpose are frustratingly elusive.

By the end of the film, Edwards doesn’t want the viewer to evaluate the story from the perspective of Joshua but of Alphie—the lost child. She’s a being with the power to do both great good and terrible harm in the world, yet without moral guidance on how to use that power and why. Further, she was programmed with a desire to know her creator and be united in a “heaven” she cannot reach.

Modern Man Is the Lost Child

The Creator reflects the dilemma of modern man, who views himself as little more than a machine (albeit made of flesh, not filaments) yet still desires the satisfaction of knowing his Maker. The film captures the malaise of secular people pulled between the competing forces of a materialistic culture and their hearts’ “programming” for a heaven and a transcendent purpose they’re unable to find. Modern man, without a final authority in God, experiences anxiety in the awareness of his great potential, yet he lacks guidance on how to use it and why it matters.

Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker. Christians have the opportunity to speak into this culture with the better story of the gospel. Our life isn’t a quest of searching for a hidden, elusive Creator; instead, our Creator initiated the quest to reach us. He made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, set aside his great power to atone for our sin on the cross, thereby bridging the great gulf between us and our Maker.

Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker.

Gareth Edwards’s The Creator is a compelling example of our culture’s nagging hunger for God—even as we’ve officially “moved beyond” religion and replaced God with science and technological progress. No matter how awe-inspiring our technologies get, the fundamental questions that haunt The Creator will still haunt humans in our world: What are we created for? Who did the creating, and why do I long to know him? Why do we self-consciously reflect on these questions if we’re merely wires, silicon chips, and meat?

Perhaps Augustine was onto something when he wrote, in Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Christians can courageously engage these questions, pointing people to a better story than secularism can muster.

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Hamas Is Borrowing Tactics from the Amalekites https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/hamas-tactics-amalekites/ Fri, 13 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574966 Yahweh doesn’t hate just Amalekites but all men of bloodshed and violence.]]> Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel was like something from the dark ages of antiquity. Marauders invaded Israel not to claim territory or even treasure but to slaughter innocents and take hostages. They killed young women, snatched elderly people from the streets, murdered and burned families with their children.

Hamas’s tactics resemble nothing so much as those of the biblical Amalekites.

Yahweh’s Curse

Coming up from Egypt, Israel gets its first taste of war in a battle with the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8–16). While Moses sits on the hill with hands held up by Aaron and Hur, Joshua defeats the enemy in the valley below. When it’s all over, Yahweh takes an oath: “Yahweh has sworn; Yahweh will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” (v. 16). He vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven (v. 14).

Yahweh vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven.

Yahweh makes good on his promise. He commands King Saul to carry out the ban of utter destruction against Amalek (1 Sam. 15:1–3). Saul wins the battle but spares the Amalekite king Agag and much of the plunder. Samuel hews Agag to pieces at Gilgal, but the Amalekites survive. Near the end of David’s exile in Philistia, Amalekites attack his camp at Ziklag and carry off women, children, and plunder. David’s last act before being anointed king of Judah is to chase down Amalekite raiders and recover his wives, children, and goods (30:1–20).

Four hundred escape from David (30:17), so Amalek survives to fight another day. But Yahweh hasn’t forgotten his oath. The villain of the book of Esther is Haman the “Agagite” (Est. 3:1; 8:3), a descendant of the king who’d fought King Saul. Esther cleverly traps Haman, and the Lord (though unnamed) orchestrates events so Haman ends up impaled on the gallows he made for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. It’s the last reference to Amalek in the Old Testament. Yahweh has made good on his threat. Amalek is remembered only because of the Bible, where they’re the forgotten people.

There were a lot of vicious peoples in the ancient world. Assyrians were notoriously cruel, and the Canaanites deserved to come under Yahweh’s ban. Why did he single out Amalek for special hostility?

Amalekites at War

Amalekites specialize in attacking the weak. Moses reminds Israel that Amalek “attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary” (Deut. 25:18, NASB). Amalekite raiders attacked Ziklag when David and his mighty men were marching with the Philistines to fight Saul, when only women and children were present (1 Sam. 30:2–3). Haman conspires to enlist the power of Ahasuerus’s empire to exterminate the exiled Jews.

Amalekites aren’t just cruel. Amalek is the inverse—the photonegative—of Israel. Again and again, Yahweh instructs Israel to care for orphans, widows, strangers, and other vulnerable people (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; 14:29; 24:19–21; 26:12–13). At Mounts Ebal and Gerazim, Israel pronounces a curse against anyone who “perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 27:19). Prophet after prophet rails against Israel and her leaders for abusing the weak (Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; Zech. 7:10).

Amalekites don’t just happen to harm women and children as “collateral damage.” Amalekites don’t carry out the ban, as Israel did, destroying men, women, children, and animals in select Canaanite cities, on Yahweh’s orders. Israel didn’t attack Jericho, Ai, or Hormah when all the men were gone. They attacked fortified and guarded cities, conquered them, and offered them in smoke and fire to Yahweh. Amalekites specifically target women and children and the weak. Amalek is the anti-Israel, a people whose way of life, values, and military tactics are set in direct opposition to Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

Echoes of Amalek

Hamas isn’t Amalek. Hamas isn’t literally under Yahweh’s ban and curse. And Hamas certainly isn’t the same as the Palestinian people. Thousands of Palestinians are Christians, and many Muslim Palestinians oppose Hamas and its violence. To compare Hamas to Amalek isn’t to justify or even suggest genocide.

Amalek is the anti-Israel, a people whose way of life, values, and military tactics are set in direct opposition to Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

Still, the tactics Hamas used on October 7 were Amalekite tactics. Hamas isn’t the only terrorist group to fight like Amalekites. For decades, terror groups have used women and children as shields. Indonesian Islamists deploy women as suicide bombers, Boko Haram uses children as “human bombs,” and terrorists in Afghanistan have killed pregnant women and babies in maternity wards. In their response to Hamas, even Israel risks becoming a mimetic mirror of their enemies.

The God who purged Amalek from under heaven is still the Lord of the universe. He’s still determined to destroy the violent, especially those who prey on the helpless. He doesn’t hate just Amalekites but all men of bloodshed and violence. He “tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:5). Among the six things Yahweh hates are “hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, [and] feet that make haste to run to evil” (Prov. 6:17–18).

Prayers for Justice

Jesus reigns with a rod of iron and smashes nations like pottery (Rev. 2:27). He will bring all his enemies under his feet, not just the Amalekites of Hamas but all who love violence and hate mercy. Sometimes Jesus defeats the violent by converting them, sometimes by destroying them. Either way, we should be asking him to do it.

Thankfully, we have a prayer and hymn book, the Psalter, full of prayers for justice and judgment on the vicious. It’s a good time to dust off those imprecatory psalms and ask Jesus to pursue justice until every Amalekite, of whatever nationality, is purged from under heaven.

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Don’t Ignore the Countdown to Damnation https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/countdown-damnation/ Thu, 12 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=word-of-the-week&p=568173 The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite.]]> “Thirty-one seconds before death.”

This is author Brandon Sanderson’s way of ominously foreshadowing the inevitable, of giving insight into the thoughts and feelings of his characters before their demise. You’d think this too morbid for readers seeking the immortal appeal of a fantasy novel. But millions of fans of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series would disagree. Keeping the end in sight speaks profoundly to their human souls.

I suppose similar pre-death statements could be written about any of us. Imagine if each time you met someone new, a cold narrator whispered the person’s remaining lifespan. It would be a strange and terrible knowledge. Yet it would also change the way you relate to that person. The sober reality would make for deep urgency. Time is short. This moment matters.

But this is more than fantasy. We’re all aware death is inevitable. For those who hold to the historic Christian faith, we recognize that apart from God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, hell—a real place of eternal conscious torment for the wicked—follows ruthlessly on death’s heels. Time is more than short. It’s precious. What a weighty burden of knowledge to bear.

Missionary’s Burden

Perhaps no one bears that weight more than missionaries. These are men and women who go out “for the sake of the name” (3 John 1:7), the only name “under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Their aim is to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23). Many missionaries would quickly acknowledge that a central motive behind their calling is to ensure lost people might not go to hell without a chance first to hear the gospel. A missionary’s life, profession, and burden is to keep the reality of hell in view, to hear the cold narrator’s voice.

A missionary’s life, profession, and burden is to keep the reality of hell in view.

I know because I’ve done it. As missionaries in East Africa, we’d often drive long distances, praying over towns and villages along the way. No matter how many places we stopped, or how many people trusted in Christ, there were hundreds of places and thousands of people who we passed by. Yes, I’d rejoice over the new believers, but never without the biting awareness of those not visited.

Back at my home where I rested from my work in the evening, I’d often hear wailing break out in the neighborhood. This meant someone had just passed away. Was it someone who had never heard of Christ? Did I talk with him recently in the market? Had I taken the opportunity to share the gospel with her? These are the self-condemning questions that come as a young man is serenaded by screams. But they represent the vigilant awareness that eternity is waiting just beyond the veil.

Missionary’s Temptation

With this burden comes a temptation: Why not set the doctrine of hell aside? There are certainly convenient ways to do so.

One might take the universalist route, believing God’s salvation will ultimately extend to all people. Eternal damnation is rendered unnecessary and no more than a metaphor in Scripture. Another may prefer annihilationism, the conviction that whether by death or temporary punishment in the afterlife, God will ultimately destroy the unsaved altogether. Because unbelievers will cease to exist in this view, hell as a place of eternal judgment also ceases to exist.

Yet perhaps the easiest way to set hell aside is simply not to think about it much. The belief remains but not the burden. Urgency for souls diminishes. Jesus’s words about hell that once stirred the missionary are now met with apathy. Call it compassion fatigue or culture shock from too many wails in the night, too many funeral pyres, too many neighbors who are 31 seconds away from death, but over time, hell becomes less and less of a worry.

This surrender is what some call “love wins.” As Millard Erickson observes, “The doctrine of everlasting punishment appears to some to be outmoded or sub-Christian [and] is often one of the first topics of Christian belief to be demythologized.” Why then should the missionary hold to it and its unceasing anguish? Because, as Erickson continues, “However we regard the doctrine . . . it is clearly taught in Scripture.”

The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite—a more confined faith and narrowed ministry.

Missionary’s Certainty

The Bible’s clearest words about hell come directly from Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus is amid a long discourse on the end of the age. Much of his teaching has alluded to the salvation of the righteous and the condemnation of the wicked. But in this chapter, he gets specific.

After repeating the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:51; 25:30), he describes the final judgment where such torment takes place. The righteous “sheep” will be welcomed into the kingdom God prepared for them, and the cursed “goats” will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:33, 41). Iterating the scope of this judgment, Jesus concludes, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46).

The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite.

The case for hell from Matthew 25 is clear, but a trustworthy doctrine isn’t built on a single chapter of Scripture. We also see hell described in Mark’s Gospel as “the unquenchable fire” (9:43) and as a place “where their worm does not die” (v. 48). Luke contributes Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Jesus states that upon the rich man’s death, he was “in torment” and cried out, “I am in anguish in this flame” (16:23–24). Revelation also gives repeated reference to a smoking, sulfurous, bottomless pit of endless torment (9:1–2, 11; 14:9–11; 19:3; 21:8).

Of this we can be certain: when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible mercifully pulls no punches.

Comfort for the Countdown

Since the Scriptures are so clear, the missionary can have certainty not simply of the truth of this doctrine but of its goodness. What could be good about the doctrine of eternal conscious torment? Does it provide edification for the soul? What fruitfulness does it induce in the ministry?

The next time you hear wails in the night or that whispered narrator’s voice, remember the following beautiful benefits of this doctrine.

30 seconds . . . Hell shows us God’s Word is trustworthy.

No doubt Paul had hell in mind when he wrote of his lost kinsmen among the Jewish people, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2). But if hell is true and God’s Word is trustworthy when it speaks about eternal judgment, it’s also trustworthy when it tells us of his compassion.

What could be more beneficial to the ministry of a missionary than assurance in the Bible’s trustworthiness? “​​What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5)—the living Word by way of his written word. When the burden of hell assails, the missionary can rest in God’s Word both that hell is real and that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

25 seconds . . . Hell declares God’s glory.

One of the strongest arguments against the doctrine of hell is that it detracts from God’s love. How could a loving God wield eternal judgment against what was only temporal evil?

The missionary must remember, as Wayne Grudem writes, “Evil that remains unpunished [detracts] from God’s glory.” In other words, “When God punishes evil and triumphs over it, the glory of his justice, righteousness, and power to triumph over all opposition will be seen.”

When the missionary presents the gospel and humbly includes warnings of hell, she’s declaring that God is gloriously just and all-powerful. Anything less than displaying God’s supreme glory does no service to the lost hearer. It shows no pity for the one in danger of hell’s fire.

20 seconds . . . Hell cultivates trust in God’s sovereignty.

My conviction about the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty was birthed on the mission field. One day, my team leader took me to a panoramic view atop a mountain. Thousands of tin roofs sparkled across miles of inaccessible villages. Later that night, I almost bought a plane ticket home. If the task of reaching such remote people depended entirely on me, I’d quit in despair.

If God’s Word is trustworthy when it speaks about eternal judgment, it’s also trustworthy when it tells us of his compassion.

Thankfully, I was reading through Romans at the time, and I came across Paul’s declaration that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18). God’s sovereign choice of souls was the comfort that allowed me to stay. I was participating in his work, not the other way around. That freedom gives me rest to this day.

15 seconds . . . Hell motivates evangelism.

When I write of rest, I mean rest for my soul, not rest from evangelistic work. The rest God’s sovereignty imparts enables us to strive all the more (Heb. 4:11). This may be the most obvious benefit of the doctrine of hell. If hell is real, and every person you meet is a set number of seconds away from death, then the missionary must go out with the gospel. Hear Paul’s sense of urgency:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14–15)

What motivation!

10 seconds . . . Hell leads us to gasp at God’s holiness.

As a pastor, I’ve never encouraged someone to meditate on the doctrine of hell. But I have urged reflection on the doctrine of God’s holiness, which clearly coincides with hell’s importance. When both the Old and New Testaments pull back the curtain on heaven, we see creatures crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD” (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). This means God is completely set apart from all evil. He’s right to seek his own honor and oppose any dishonor.

When a missionary allows his mind to linger on hell as eternal conscious torment, it’s naturally a dreadful thought. Is it really necessary for a soul to eternally grieve the absence of God’s grace (2 Thess. 1:9) and the presence of his wrath (Rev. 14:10)? Before God’s holiness, yes. Hell may be the most effective measure by which we can understand the heights of God’s holiness. With the psalmist, the missionary may gasp, “Our God is holy!” (Ps. 99:9).

5 seconds . . . Hell is a monument to God’s grace.

Serving as a missionary can be a grueling vocation. Living as one of few Christians among millions of the unsaved is a privilege, but it’s also a recipe for spiritual warfare. What missionaries need most for endurance is to be bathed in God’s grace. If hell reveals to us the heights of God’s holiness, then it also provides a monument to the depths of his mercy.

Gratitude is a balm in hard times. And Jesus aims for us to possess fullness of joy (John 15:11). What gratitude and joy God supplies when we remember we’ve been lovingly chosen to escape hell (mercy) and inherit eternal life (grace).

After all, the missionary himself is only a set number of seconds away from death. Let the cold narrator speak his piece. But by God’s grace, hell isn’t the missionary’s future. Only heaven, and then a new creation. This is the way of the King. Thanks be to God.

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Prophetic from the Center: Don Carson’s Vision for The Gospel Coalition https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/prophetic-center-carson-vision/ Thu, 12 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574120 TGC started with a meeting of 40 North American pastors in 2005. Here’s why it grew to have worldwide influence.]]> The North American church leaders who would become the Council of The Gospel Coalition first met on the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) from May 17 to 19, 2005. Along with his friend Tim Keller, Don Carson issued 40 invitations. All 40 showed up.

Carson and Keller settled on this plan about 10 days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They were meeting in New York City to discuss Worship by the Book, edited by Carson with Keller as a contributor. They’d spoken together in the U.K. for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, organized by the Proclamation Trust, but they didn’t know any similar gathering of North American pastors.

What could result from church leaders in the broadly Reformed tradition as they met every year to talk, pray, and learn together? The invitation noted, “It is difficult to think of a regular national gathering or conference or publication or institution that is driven by a rich heritage of biblical theology combined with pastoral commitment to seriously and creatively address the present generation.”

At the time, Carson was better known than Keller, who hadn’t yet published widely. However, Carson explained that Keller, a New York church planter, had demonstrated a helpful knack for explaining sin in postmodern contexts. Three years later, Keller released his first two best-selling books, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.

Fracturing

The question before this group convened in suburban Chicago was whether they could or even should rally around a new organization. Was someone already fulfilling this purpose? How much theology did they need to hold in common? What would their meetings accomplish? How could they encourage evangelicals still battling liberal theology in mainline denominations? How could they connect evangelicals laboring faithfully in their smaller conservative denominations?

In an exposition of Luke 5:12–13, Keller began the discussion by explaining how Reformed leadership fractured in the aftermath of Jonathan Edwards’s death in 1758. As the greatest American theologian to date, Edwards held together theological orthodoxy, experiential revivalism, and cultural apologetics. He critiqued Enlightenment philosophers while writing and preaching in ways that communicated the gospel in an emerging transatlantic culture.

After Edwards died, however, his followers splintered into three different groups, Keller explained. The Princeton theologians were strong on confessional theology but not on cultural apologetics. Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New England theologians advanced cultural apologetics with more vigor than confessional Calvinism. Charles Finney and like-minded revivalists of the Second Great Awakening claimed Edwards as their inspiration but dismissed his cultural apologetics and confessional theology.

Keller saw the same fracturing in 2005 among American evangelicals. Some, especially the Reformed leaders gathered at TEDS, marched under the banner of confessional theology. Other evangelicals eagerly sought to change the perception of Christians through savvy cultural engagement and social justice initiatives. A third group promoted big events filled with evangelistic fervor using the latest technological methods.

But who would bring together the best of these three groups? Who would inherit the full mantle of Edwards in the 21st century?

Reasons for Hope

In his address, Carson offered a potted history of Western Christianity from the end of the Second World War to the turn of the century. He observed that between 1880 and 1930, evangelicals lost their hold on nearly every seminary. Yet by the 21st century, half of all master of divinity students were evangelical. Carson attributed that change, largely concentrated since 1960, to parachurch ministries that reached evangelicals in mainline denominations.

Leaders in the room represented the fruit of those neoevangelical efforts, including Kenneth Kantzer’s work to make TEDS a leading global seminary. Keller had attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, led by Harold John Ockenga. Many of these leaders read and had written for Christianity Today magazine, founded by Billy Graham and initially edited by Carl F. H. Henry. Christianity Today under Henry had incorporated the wide breadth of evangelicals but still spoke with a “prophetic voice from the center,” Carson said.

Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of “evangelicalism,” Carson found reasons for hope as he surveyed the scene. Compared to 50 years ago, biblical commentaries abounded, especially those written by evangelicals committed to confessional theology. A diverse evangelicalism cried out for biblical and historical definition, rooted in the gospel and in the Reformation tradition. When evangelicals attend church and read their Bibles, Carson said, they stand out from the world as moral exemplars.

Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of ‘evangelicalism,’ Carson found reasons for hope.

The ongoing shift toward cultural relativism in North America would reveal itself as morally bankrupt through intolerance. The decline of denominations opened opportunities for new associations as Christians no longer looked for their traditional church when they moved. The rise of peripheral voices such as the emerging church would stir hope in the gospel itself.

Carson cited theonomy as a trend within the Reformed community that called for renewed attention to core theological confessions. Population decline in Europe suggested to Carson that the future of the church would be urban and multiethnic.

Back in North America, many suggested in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s reelection victory in 2004 that cultural polarization had never been worse. But Carson recalled the Vietnam War and saw an opportunity for the church to speak truth without succumbing to political captivity on either side.

While organized religion was in decline, most Americans still claimed to be spiritual. This meant that even though they understood personal freedom in self-help terms, perhaps they could be guided by Christian formation toward more noble purposes.

As Carson delivered his talk, the most controversial public matter of personal freedom concerned homosexuality. President Bush’s reelection had been fueled by so-called values voters. Not for another seven years would same-sex marriage win a popular election. Even California voted down same-sex marriage three years later in 2008 as President Barack Obama replaced Bush. Yet Carson foresaw that homosexuality could become in the 21st century what indulgences had been in the 16th-century Reformation. Homosexuality could be the “trigger issue” that led to deeper division over biblical authority and ultimately a split across the entire Western church.

Carson turned out to be more prescient than anyone in the room could have imagined at the time. Denominations have indeed split in ways not seen since the American Civil War and even the Reformation.

Considering this threat, how could these pastors organize a prophetic movement calling churches back to the center of the gospel? Would they need a confessional statement? A theological vision for ministry? A new publication along the lines of Christianity Today that explored contemporary theology and ministry trends and shared creative, hopeful, doctrinally rooted proposals? Regional networks that collaborated on church planting and campus ministry and discipleship resources? A national conference for church leaders that modeled expositional preaching but also shared practical tips on such concerns as cross-cultural ministry? Could they wield emerging technology through the internet for greater global influence?

Less than five years later, they had already answered every question with “Yes!”

Never Assume

As Carson crafted his initial invite list, he sought pastors who shared a commitment to preaching expository sermons, teaching the whole counsel of God, and rooting their churches in theological and historical traditions while maintaining a contemporary feel. Though he knew many of them, they didn’t yet know each other. And they didn’t have a means of sharing what they learned with the broader church.

In 2007, many of the same pastors from the 2005 meeting reconvened as TGC to finalize their foundation documents and host their first public conference. Carson’s inaugural address as president, titled “Prophetic from the Center,” exposited the gospel of Jesus Christ from 1 Corinthians 15:1–19.

Carson examined several reasons why churches lose focus on the gospel. Perhaps his most memorable warning came as he explained “the tendency to assume the gospel . . . while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless.”

But as every teacher knows, students don’t remember everything. They remember what their teacher loves most. “If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery,” Carson said. “It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center.”

It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter, Carson explained. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel. Same-sex marriage, then, deserves the church’s attention. But churches should prioritize the gospel so they can develop proper perspective on same-sex marriage.

It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel.

And if they’re focusing on the gospel, that means they’re devoted to a “nexus of [theological] themes—God, sin, wrath, death, and judgment”—found in 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Whatever else the cross achieves,” Carson said, “it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing.” Indeed, these doctrines show us we’re not saved by our thoughts about God. We’re saved by Christ himself. That’s good news for sinners.

In this vision for TGC, Carson underscored the transformation this good news brings about for individual Christians and their churches. “Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted, the matrix out of which Christians experience joy and love,” Carson said. “When the gospel truly does its work, ‘proud Christian’ is an unthinkable oxymoron.”

TGC, Carson explained, wouldn’t tout itself as different from everything that had come before. The leaders of TGC would celebrate the inevitable victory of Jesus the King by boldly advancing his gospel under the contested reign of this fallen world. They would trust the gospel to shape the church into a foretaste of heaven in diverse ways. Carson said,

A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. What does this say, in concrete terms, about the communion of saints, the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural? What will this say about inter-generational relationships? About race? About how we treat one another in the local church? About how we think of brothers and sisters in highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?

This work would be left for churches affiliated with TGC to figure out in future years. They would be guided by TGC’s foundation documents, with Carson as the initial drafter of the confessional statement.

Reforming to Conform

TGC’s theological vision for ministry never claimed to speak for all Christians in all places at all times. It’s contextual by definition, occupying the middle space between unchanging doctrine and temporal practice.

In the preamble from 2007, the founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism. They lamented how power and affluence had replaced celebration of union with Christ. And they didn’t find a viable alternative in monastic retreats into ritual, liturgy, and sacrament.

Rather, TGC leaders committed to reforming their ministry practices to conform fully to Scripture. They returned to their Reformation roots, saying, “We have committed ourselves to invigorating churches with new hope and compelling joy based on the promises received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Since 2007, TGC’s confessional statement has been adopted by thousands of individual churches, by regional networks across North America, and by international coalitions in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North and South America.

Unlike many other confessions, TGC’s began with the doctrine of God before moving to revelation. As Carson and Keller later explained, they wanted to avoid a foundationalist approach to knowledge that owed more to the Enlightenment than to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin. Even so, TGC would be distinguished by love and fidelity to God’s Word: “The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”

The founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism.

Anyone who heard Carson’s inaugural address would recognize the confession’s description of the gospel as personal, apostolic, historical, theological, salvific, biblical, and Christological: “The gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is: ‘Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised’).”

Though Carson worked most of his career as a professor for a parachurch ministry, TGC’s confession centered the church in God’s plan of redemption. It affirmed,

The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. . . . The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.

Through the church, the world catches a glimpse of their true and coming King: “The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom.”

Carson pushed back against kingdom-oriented narrative theology that undervalues the atoning and justifying work of Christ. But he also criticized systematic theology that fails to trace biblical themes through God’s unfolding plan of redemption.

Through TGC, Carson pointed Christians toward the “big story of Scripture” so they could see “the God who is there.” In his booklet titled Gospel-Centered Ministry, written with Keller, Carson explained that biblical theology flows toward Jesus and his gospel, while Christian life and thought flow from Jesus and his gospel.

Along with the other Council members of TGC, Carson and Keller wanted to encourage Bible reading and preaching that traces the trajectories of Scripture to reveal patterns and promises that take us to Jesus and his gospel. Then, from the gospel, we can align our situation with God’s solution. “In short, gospel-centered ministry is biblically mandated,” they wrote, “It is the only kind of ministry that simultaneously addresses human need as God sees it, reaches out in unbroken lines to gospel-ministry in other centuries and other cultures, and makes central what Jesus himself establishes as central.”

Through TGC, the term “gospel-centered” has become a fixture of the evangelical lexicon. “We wanted to build a community of churches and pastors in which the gospel was the central thing, the exciting thing, what we got out of bed for in the morning,” Carson told me.

This community, in Carson’s vision, would never assume the gospel or drift toward a minimal understanding that overlooks other entailed doctrines. TGC would speak to the broader church but from the Reformed heritage. In keeping with Reformed theology, this gospel would speak to all of life, but in such a way that tied the cross and resurrection to contemporary challenges such as social justice.

The relationship between the organization called TGC and the gospel itself has sometimes confused observers. Carson has explained that TGC never sought to be a boundary-bounded set, meaning a group fixed on who’s inside and outside. Instead, he cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center. Thus, anyone could read the website or attend the annual conference if he or she found something useful. But for TGC’s institutional leaders, he expected robust allegiance to the gospel core.

I’ll never forget when he hired me in the summer of 2010. He was clear that if I ever transgressed the foundation documents, I’d lose my job as editorial director. But beyond that core, I was free to feature differences and even debate. And that’s how he led as the president. Even when he asked me to publish one particularly controversial article, he never thought it was the only or final word on the subject. He expected peripheral matters would be treated as peripheral, even as we sought to work out the implications of the gospel for each new day’s challenges.

Something Constructive

Carson has often observed that TGC grew more quickly than he anticipated. But more than 15 years later, TGC looks much like he envisioned: an international network developed largely along the lines of Carson’s decades of travel, with several friends initiating national TGC organizations in their home countries.

His prodigious teaching and publishing built trust among pastors who joined councils in Canada, Australia, Italy, French-speaking Europe, and many other regions he visited as TGC’s president. Carson’s focus on the gospel core allowed international coalitions to develop with close doctrinal affinity to each other and also independence to address the most pressing needs of their contexts.

The website played a supporting role in Carson’s early hopes for TGC. But he took early steps to leverage the unique reach of the internet to promote gospel-centered ministry for the next generation. Themelios, a journal for students of theology and religion in Great Britain, ceased publication just as Carson was bringing TGC online. Published by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) in Great Britain, Themelios couldn’t justify the costs of printing and distributing as they mostly reached pastors instead of their core audience of students. Four groups bid to take over the brand of Themelios, which is Greek for “foundation” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 3:11).

Carson cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center.

In the end, UCCF chose TGC, which has published Themelios ever since as a free online journal for pastors as well as theological students. Every issue features columns, articles, and dozens of book reviews overseen by an international team of editors who ascribe to TGC’s foundation documents.

Carson anticipated readership would multiply by a factor of 10 once the journal moved online under TGC. His goals were too modest. In 2022, Themelios attracted more than 1.9 million page views from readers in 235 countries.

Carson envisioned TGC’s website as a simple way for friends in ministry to stay connected between conferences. None of us could have foreseen 15 years ago the pandemic shutdown of March 2020, but as churches closed, in perhaps the greatest disruption to the Western church since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, pastors looked online for help.

In those bleak first two months, the TGC website served more than 11.2 million unique users with nearly 25 million page views, including an invitation to fast and pray for God’s help. TGC now publishes one of the largest Christian websites in the world.

When Carson and Keller met to conceive what would become TGC, they wanted to help younger church leaders struggling to adjust to the rapidly changing world of the internet age. Just a generation ago, despite the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, even nominal Christians and unbelievers shared many moral assumptions with evangelicals. But that world has largely disappeared. Parents can hardly understand the world their children hold in their hands via smartphones. Secularism has become more unabashedly anti-Christian. Disagreement and indifference to evangelical beliefs have been replaced by anger and incredulity.

In 2011, Carson and Keller wrote,

The American evangelical world has been breaking apart with wildly different responses to this new cultural situation. To oversimplify, some have simply built the fortress walls higher, merely continuing to do what they have always done, only more defiantly than before. Others have called for a complete doctrinal reengineering of evangelicalism. We think both of these approaches are wrong-headed and, worse, damaging to the cause of the gospel.

Together, Carson and Keller set out to do something constructive. They called for the church to be prophetic from the center. They convened pastors who get out of bed each morning excited about the gospel. They envisioned the gospel spreading to all the world and applying to all of life. Their hopes became TGC, under Don Carson as the founding president.

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Trevin Wax on Reconstructing Faith https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/as-in-heaven/trevin-wax-reconstructing-faith/ Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:04:54 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=as-in-heaven&p=574352 Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Trevin Wax discuss how to help individuals reconstruct their faith and how evangelicals can rebuild their witness.]]> In this final episode of As in Heaven’s third season, hosts Jim Davis and Michael Graham are joined by Trevin Wax to discuss what it looks like to help individuals reconstruct their faith and for evangelicals—as a movement—to rebuild their witness.

Episode time stamps:

  • Episode and guest introduction (0:00)
  • Podcasting, leadership, and the future of the church (6:50)
  • The importance of church history and global perspectives in the modern Christian movement (12:34)
  • Navigating church crises with a global perspective (17:48)
  • Church rebuilding, cultural challenges, and living in exile (21:19)
  • The future of the American church and its relationship with the world (25:34)
  • End credits and future seasons (43:11)

Recommended resource: Reconstructing Faith with Trevin Wax (podcast)

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Broken Families and Racism Leave Us Longing for Home https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/how_far_promised_land/ Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:03:23 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=572166 It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.]]> Following his father’s untimely death, Esau McCaulley knew that however uncomfortable it might be, he was the right person to deliver the eulogy at the funeral. To what biblical text do you turn when talking about a man who walked out on your mother and siblings, didn’t keep the promises he made to you, stole your money and surrendered to addiction?

McCaulley, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and New York Times columnist, opened to Luke 18 and told the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and of the tax collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The grace and humility of that sinner’s prayer permeate the personal memoir How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South. With beautiful prose, McCaulley tells the story of growing up black in Alabama, navigating the challenges of poverty, and loving a family that experienced both triumph and tragedy.

‘They’ Are Complicated

Sitting in a seminar with public school teachers and administrators at my church, I heard a wise high school principal casually remark, “Every behavior makes sense in its context.”

Her point was that it’s easy to direct your anger—or worse, condescension—toward a problematic student until you know his or her family, economic, and relational context. Then you’re reminded that people are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

People are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

The book opens with McCaulley on a panel alongside Lecrae at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Awkwardly, he declines to answer a question posed by the event’s host because “the most racist things you have experienced” can’t be shared without context (xvi). The rest of the book provides the context necessary to share how his life was shaped by both race and his complicated family.

But McCaulley isn’t offering cheap grace that conceals family history. His is the grace that confronts reality and tells the truth without reducing anyone to her worst mistake. He’s learned from the Bible that dividing the world into good and bad people is the work of the self-righteous.

He graciously puts his dad’s sins in the context of him growing up in a family afflicted with addiction. Personal tragedy transformed his paternal grandfather, Bud, from a respected deacon to an alcoholic and womanizer. But as a wise theologian, McCaulley knows life circumstances never excuse sin: “Evil cannot be wholly explained by the brokenness of the world. Sometimes we participate in the breaking” (89).

I’m drawn to the Pharisee’s prayer thanking God I’m not like my father, because I’d never abandon my wife and children. My own father left me and my mom before I was old enough to remember him, but not before he tried to kidnap me. Only an alert and savvy preschool teacher kept him from punishing my mom by separating the two of us. It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

‘They’ Cause Pain

In a chapter called “Running from the South,” McCaulley finally answers the question posed by his host at UNC. He details six examples of his experience with racism.

The stories won’t surprise those who’ve been listening to our black brothers and sisters: “The Talk,” being followed in stores, overly aggressive and suspicious policing, driving through the night to avoid stopping in an unfriendly town. But ironically, the most traumatic experience of racism appears in a later chapter.

While attending the University of the South, Esau met his future wife at the Baptist Student Union. A product of a Christian home and a military family that had moved across the world, Mandy was committed to serving as a pediatrician in sub-Saharan Africa. When the time came for them to meet each other’s families, the McCaulleys quickly accepted her.

But Mandy’s family didn’t have the same response to McCaulley. Unlike some of the other examples of racism, this time no interpretation was necessary, for her father left no doubt about his motivation: “You seem like a nice young man, but I don’t believe you are right for our daughter. We don’t think society is ready for interracial relationships. We want to spare you all pain” (162).

Unfortunately, instead of sparing pain, they compounded it. The couple continued to date but without her parents’ blessing. Eventually, they married without their presence.

Bitterness and retaliation are natural responses to the wounds caused by racism. McCaulley offers a better option under the influence of the narrative of Scripture.

Jesus Loves ‘Them’

McCaulley embodies a grace that refuses to place others—even our those who have deeply hurt him—outside of God’s love. If grace is for me, then it must also be for thee. Anything less isn’t grace.

When James and John were eager to call down fire on the Samaritans, they expressed a base human emotion to exact vengeance on our enemies (Luke 9:54). While it seems weird to ask the Prince of Peace for permission to napalm an entire village, it made sense to them. Believing Jesus was going to Rome to defeat the Romans, they reasoned that they might as well start destroying their enemies on the way.

It’s easy to call for God’s judgment against people you don’t know. How many Samaritans did James and John know? It’s safe to say not many. Maybe none. Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, who were half-Jew and half-Gentile. The Samaritans lived in their own villages and worshiped in their own temple. The brothers had heard about the Samaritans, but they didn’t know them.

It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

For Jews, Samaritans were the worst kind of “them” because, unlike the pagan Gentiles who were ignorant of Jewish laws, Samaritans should have known better. Jews believed that Samaritans had corrupted what was true and good about Judaism.

That explains why the disciples were appalled when they found Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:27). What was he doing? Doesn’t he know that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9)? It also explains why the Jewish people were so offended by Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Samaritans came to faith in him and found their way into churches alongside Jewish believers. This required both groups to practice grace, to forgive, and to understand the context of each other’s lives.

James and John were wrong about Jesus’s goal. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to defeat his enemies but to die for them. They were also wrong about what it means to be his disciple. We don’t call down judgment on “them” but extend grace to “them.”

How Far to the Promised Land snuck up on me, graciously rebuked me, and nudged me off my judgment seat. Sinners in need of mercy are in no position to demand justice against others. If I want my children to see me as more than my sins, to put my life in context, to recognize I’m more complicated than a caricature, then I must offer the same grace to my father.

Esau McCaulley has given us a powerful personal story that demonstrates how God’s grace triumphs over tragedy.

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The Last Thing Sufferers Need to Hear https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/last-thing-sufferers/ Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=567785 Truths about God’s sovereignty, when prematurely applied, can bypass the grieving process that must happen to reckon with and heal from loss.]]> “If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to punch them in the face!”

I almost choked on the cookie this elderly sister had brought to Bible study. These were strong words from such a sweet lady. She was recounting the gutting experience of losing her son in his 30s many years earlier. Well-wishers assured her God is in control and her son’s death was part of his plan.

It wasn’t what she needed to hear.

The conversation came up because my wife and I had just returned from sitting with dear college friends who, after multiple miscarriages, had a son who lived for only 23 minutes. We were in their kitchen when the mail came bearing cards with verses affirming God’s sovereignty over all things.

It wasn’t what they needed to hear.

In those dark depths, they only had the stomach for Psalm 44 and Psalm 88—songs of lament that don’t end happily but with crying out to God, “Why are you doing this?” and “Are you asleep?”

On Good Friday this year, my phone cascaded with messages: our drummer, who played at our Maundy Thursday service the night before, had died early that morning from an undiagnosed heart disease. He was 40; his death was an utter shock. He and I had been meeting every other Saturday in view of him stepping into roles of greater spiritual leadership in our church. He was eager, servant-hearted, teachable, and entrepreneurial—the kind of member every pastor dreams of working with. And suddenly he was gone.

When someone told me, “This was God’s plan for him; he’s with God where he’s supposed to be,” it wasn’t what I needed to hear. Indeed, in my disoriented distress, it felt like the last thing I needed to hear.

Untimely Truth

Those statements are gloriously true, of course. He is in a better place. She isn’t suffering anymore. God is working all things for the good of those who love him, “for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God is sovereign over all things. I’ve sat with many families for whom these truths are a salve in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death.

But for others, these truths—prematurely applied—can bypass the grieving process that needs to happen to fully reckon with and heal from a loss. Our brains often work in binaries, assuming that if God is in control, we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. Good theology can be used to heal the wound lightly, pronouncing “Peace, peace” when, in the raw heart of the bereaved, there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).

This is why the psalms of lament are so instructive. They create space within the covenant between God and his people to ask the hard questions. Unlike Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness, lament doesn’t question whether God is able to provide water in the desert or defeat the giants in the land. Rather, lament cries to God in agony, wondering why the Almighty isn’t doing mighty deeds when he could. Unlike Adam and Eve biting the fruit, lament doesn’t question God’s goodness or believe the lie that he’s holding out on us. Rather, lament wails, asking our good God why he isn’t doing the good we crave.

God inspired and included these songs in his people’s hymnal for a reason. He’d rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top. The tentpole command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) allows the hard questions to echo deep into our motives and longings and the narratives we believe.

God would rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top.

These questions move not only deep downward but also far backward, where wounds remain from previous seasons when we staunched the pain rather than giving it full voice. Unlike tree rings that merely bear testimony to fires endured, these scars continue to shape our assumptions and reactions in ways we may not understand. Asking Godward questions of “Why?” “Where were you?” and “Will you do good?”—not only of the current loss but of previous losses still tender to the touch—can unleash a torrent of emotion and often requires the help of trusted counselors and friends. But the healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Lest we forget in our culture of automated efficiency, God is patient while we process. “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14).

When we give our wounds time and attention to heal, we find Scripture’s teaching about God’s sovereignty is indeed the last thing we need to hear. It’s the final word, the fundamental affirmation we must ultimately settle into.

Patience in the Dark

For me, this came through weeks of meditating on Psalm 23. The sudden loss of a rising young church leader—especially during a precarious rebuilding season—felt like the “darkest valley” of which the psalmist sings. I had to name my fear of the unknown, relinquish my perceived control, and share my feelings and longings with counselors and friends.

The healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Somewhere amid this prolonged lament, I came to rest in the realization that “even when I walk through the darkest valley,” the good Shepherd “guides me along right paths” (Ps. 23:3–4, NLT). The hard paths are also the right paths. I may never understand them, but as I walk them, “I will not be afraid, for [he is] close beside me” (v. 4).

Let’s walk patiently with our brothers and sisters through seasons of lament, giving space for questions and the silence that comes before answers. Let’s remain attuned to their visceral responses to our affirmations of biblical truth. Let’s show love by calming our own anxious need for resolution, allowing the bereaved to walk at their own pace. May our presence and words point to the truth: “God is here, with you, even in these depths.”

After they’ve exhausted their questions and exposed their hearts, let’s settle together into this last thing we need to hear: God is absolutely sovereign and always good.

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3 Eras Shape Modern Missions https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/eras-modern-missions/ Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=569993 We can benefit best from missions history when we don’t focus exclusively on any one era and its emphases.]]> Reading contemporary missions literature, one encounters a diversity of approaches and philosophies to cross-cultural ministry. Such diversity didn’t arise in a vacuum. These are developments that emerged from various emphases we can trace from the previous 200 years of Western missions engagement.

In this article, I’ll sketch an overview of modern missions history by highlighting three distinct eras. They’ve produced different emphases or trajectories that continue today in Western missiology. A biblically robust and church-centered missiology gleans from all three eras while avoiding the distortion produced by giving disproportionate attention to any one of them.

Era 1: The ‘Great Century’

Most textbooks on Protestant missions written from a Western perspective will highlight the landmark figure of William Carey. Hailed as the father of modern missions at the end of the 18th century, Carey along with his compatriots blazed the trail for engaging the heathen with the gospel of Jesus. They prayerfully labored to see conversion, discipled new believers, and established churches in otherwise unevangelized contexts.

Readers familiar with 19th-century missions efforts will also recognize names such as David Livingstone, Lottie Moon, John G. Paton, and Samuel Zwemer as men and women who poured themselves out to reach places and people that had never heard the gospel. They sought to obey the command to make disciples of all nations given in Matthew 28:18–20.

During this time, many people were mobilized to missions through the inspirational examples of such men and women. However, some brought with them ideas of Christian faith and practice that resulted in discipling people to be more culturally Western than was necessary for biblical faithfulness. For example, 19th-century English missionaries in India have been criticized for making their South Asian converts keep English traditions as signs of true conversion. Such traditionalism blurred the lines between English culture and biblical necessity.

During what we now refer to as the “Great Century” of modern missions, some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church. However, contrary to modern critics, this wasn’t universally true.

Some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church.

Missionaries such as Hudson Taylor and John Nevius are well known for their desire to demonstrate that the gospel wasn’t a Western cultural idea but one that could be faithfully expressed in a variety of customs of dress, language, and convention. Taylor was among the first to advocate for adopting the local attire of his Chinese audience, and Nevius wrote a book in which he fought the prevailing trends by urging missionaries to equip local pastors to be self-supporting and to develop self-governing and self-propagating national churches.

Missions in the 19th century thus presented a variety of developing approaches built on different understandings of culture and the necessary trappings of discipleship and church. The close of the 19th century gave way to a second era of modern missions, propelled by emerging technologies and optimism.

Era 2: World Evangelization

The Great Century of Western missions raised awareness, excitement, and commitment to the global cause of Christ. Fueled by this increased interest in missions, a gathering of missions-minded Christians convened in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to strategize about world evangelization.

Advancements in technology and transportation, matched with enthusiasm for missions, made for an environment charged with optimism. Many believed it was possible to leverage contemporary resources in such a way as to complete the evangelization of the world in their generation. This focus on evangelism also mitigated the cultural imposition some feared would occur if extended periods of foreign oversight occurred among emerging communities of national believers.

Despite two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust, similar gatherings of global-minded Christians convened throughout the 20th century. In the middle of the century, one contingent—which came to be known as the World Council of Churches—strayed from the theological convictions of Edinburgh and opened the door to inclusivism and universalism.

In response to this theological drift, a group emerged of more theologically conservative participants committed to recapturing the original vision of Edinburgh. They gathered separately in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. This group became known as the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization.

Meanwhile, the Lausanne Congress exposed two additional strands of missiological thinking that had developed since 1910. These two approaches found advocates in the two architects of the gathering: Billy Graham and John Stott. Graham argued that evangelism—verbally proclaiming the exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ—is the most important priority in missions. In contrast, Stott contended that the church must take up a grander vision of its task to be fully biblical.

Where Graham linked the missionary task to Matthew 24:14 and the preaching of the gospel to all nations prior to the end of the age, Stott linked the missionary task to John 20:21, where Jesus sends his disciples as the Father has sent him. As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a holistic approach to their labors. While proclaiming the gospel is vital, it shouldn’t be so elevated as to diminish other biblical injunctions to encourage engaging society, seeking justice, and embodying the gospel in every sphere of life. Stott’s legacy of promoting holism remains with us today through some of the successors of the Lausanne project.

Yet as well known as Graham’s and Stott’s names are in evangelicalism, theirs weren’t the most influential voices at the conference. Harnessing Edinburgh’s original impulse to finish the task of missions, Ralph Winter gave an address that left an indelible mark on global missions. That address provides a marker for the beginning of a third era of missions.

Era 3: Unreached People Groups

At Lausanne, Winter redrew the map for missionary strategy by arguing that the biblical phrase “of all nations” (panta ta ethne) had been misunderstood. Rather than reading ethne as a reference to contemporary nation-states, Winter argued that a better understanding would be “people groups.” Such groups shouldn’t be defined by the visible geopolitical borders drawn on a map but by the less visible sociolinguistic boundaries that serve to distinguish and divide one subculture from another.

As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a more holistic approach to their labors.

In his writing on these ideas, Winter leaned on Matthew 24:14 to connect the evangelization of the world’s people groups with the missionary task. He reasoned that biblical faithfulness requires intentional targeting of unreached and unengaged people groups.

Following Winter’s lead, many contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology, we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups. The task of missions is to locate unreached and unengaged people groups, then to target them with the gospel. Once those groups are on a path toward discipleship, missionaries continue to pursue the horizons of lostness by engaging the next layer of the unreached.

This development led to a number of missiological shifts. First, many agencies redirected their resources and attention from fields in which there was an existing national church to fields identified as unreached. Second, a variety of approaches were developed for identifying distinct people groups and considering whether or not they’re reached. Third, the idea has been reinvigorated of working toward bringing closure to this age by ensuring every distinct people group has a witness among them.

Wanting to see this task accomplished with due urgency, many modern missiologists argue for strategies that aim to produce rapid, exponential movements of people to Christ. Such methodologies rightly seek to multiply and mobilize disciple makers, and they want to ensure every believer takes on the disposition of obedience to Scripture. Movementism has been critiqued, however, for the way its focus on rapidity can place new believers in positions of leadership over other new believers while still unprepared or immature in their own faith.

Church-Centered Missiology

Today, much of Western missiology is characterized by three of the missiological trajectories emerging from these three eras: traditionalism, movementism, and holism. None of these emphases is necessarily wrong or unbiblical. But each exhibits shortcomings when given undue prominence. I believe a corrective to each potential danger is found in centering our missiology on a robustly biblical understanding of the church.

Contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups.

The traditionalism that characterized some of the missiology in the first era rightly recognizes the importance of faithful transmission of Christian teaching. The Bible tasks the church and its leaders with guarding doctrine (2 Tim. 1:13–14), serving as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and contending for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). What this means for church-centered missions efforts is that the disciple-making processes employed in church planting need to be substantial enough to equip the saints with the tools of biblical exegesis and with a historical understanding of the essentials of our faith.

While there’s a biblical-theological core to Christian doctrine, the church and its faith exhibit the ability to be expressed faithfully through a variety of languages (Acts 2:1–13), forms of gathering 2:42–47), and cultural trappings (15:6–21). The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression. Thus, to be faithful in a new context, the church-centered missionary task must equip new believers in new churches to faithfully exhibit and explain doctrine in ways that may look different from how the missionary’s traditions have framed them.

Likewise, holism rightly perceives that the gospel affects every area of our lives. When we’re saved by the faithful provision of God in Christ, we’re transformed and our citizenship is transferred to a whole new way of being human. Whatever we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

However, in the church, the gospel as the message of what God has done for us in Christ is a message of first importance (15:1–6), and that gospel should be distinguished from what it accomplishes. Too often, what the gospel is can be conflated with what it does—and it loses its distinctiveness. Church-centered missions, then, will keep gospel proclamation central while encouraging a healthy deacon ministry and active church members who scatter into every realm of life with the gospel on their lips and its effects displayed in their lives.

The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression.

Finally, movementism rightly contends that all disciples are to be disciple makers. The church is given leaders to equip the saints to be engaged in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). But the church is also a body in which each part contributes to the functioning of the whole (1 Cor. 12). While all are to be engaged in obedience to make disciples, not all will be church planters, teachers, or evangelists.

Church-centered missions will ensure the church is more than an evangelism training center. It’s the environment with a vision for disciple making that’s thick enough to ensure those who receive attention aren’t merely those who exhibit aptitude in evangelism or church planting.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that Jesus promised the gates of hell will not withstand his church. Our hope for kingdom advance isn’t in a particular tradition, holistic society transformation, or a Jesus movement. As such, it’s right and proper for our missiology to center on the church that Scripture defines. This will mean we draw from the biblical injunctions present in each of the three emphases while not overemphasizing them at the expense of the biblical church.

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‘No’ to Trans, ‘Yes’ to Gay Marriage: Will This Be the New Normal? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/no-trans-yes-gay-marriage/ Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574626 If trends in the U.K. are suggestive, arguing for traditional marriage might, with some people, become easier, not harder.]]> “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t; a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”

U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak made these comments Wednesday at his party’s annual conference in Manchester, England. It drew one of the loudest cheers of his hour-long speech (as well as predictable denunciations—and praises—in the press and on social media). These words were clearly intended to be a vote-winner. Sunak’s odds of winning the next election are somewhere between infinitesimal and microscopic, but he’s trying. And so he claims “a man is a man” and expects it to be popular. This view is sometimes called “gender critical,” since it prizes biological sex over gender identity. But Sunak doesn’t call it that; he just calls it “common sense.”

Of course, such sense hasn’t been all that common in recent years. So we might wonder, Is this a sign of something shifting in the public discourse around sex, sexuality, and gender issues? Could British trends be replicated in the U.S.? And how might Christians respond?

Turning Tide in Britain

J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing in December 2019 when she made public her views that “sex is real”:

Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?
#IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

With the hashtag #ThisIsNotADrill, Rowling signaled her awareness that this was a pivotal moment. She knew it would trigger klaxons everywhere, and it did. But what about that other hashtag? Who’s Maya?

Maya Forstater was a think-tank researcher whose gender-critical views sparked controversy. In 2018, she was asked on Twitter, “Are you saying that trans women are not women?” She replied,

Yes I think that male people are not women. I dont think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology. People of either sex should not be constrained (or discriminated against) if they dont conform to traditional gender expectations.

Her contract wasn’t renewed. But she appealed in 2019, claiming this contravened the Equality Act. Nevertheless, the employment tribunal denied her appeal and deemed her views “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” Hence Rowling’s #IStandWithMaya.

Things have shifted, though. Maya appealed the original decision and won—and earlier this year was awarded a £100,000 payout for discrimination. She’s gone on to found the charity Sex Matters and to appoint Helen Joyce as director of advocacy. Joyce is a senior journalist with the Economist and author of the international bestseller Trans, praised by the New York Times as an “intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.”

In other developments since 2019, the LGB Alliance has split from Stonewall—Europe’s largest LGBT-rights charity—over the trans issue. In response, trans-affirming youth charity Mermaids objected to the LGB Alliance and became the first-ever charity to lobby the U.K. government to remove the charitable status of another charity. (It not only lost the appeal but remains under several clouds of its own.)

Moreover, the National Health Service (NHS) has ordered its only “gender identity clinic” for children, the Tavistock Clinic, to shut down after 18 years of complaints and “thousands of damaged children.” And when Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, campaigned vociferously to get a Gender Recognition Act through the Scottish parliament, Rowling opposed it. It was roundly voted down by Westminster (the U.K. parliament). In the ideological clashes stirred by the debate, Scotland went from the least “trans-skeptical” part of the U.K. to the most.

Rowling herself has had something of a rehabilitation in the eyes of the wider public. Having been denounced for transphobia, many are now publicly reassessing the “witch trials” she’s been put through (as in a fascinating podcast from The Free Press). Journalists too are recognizing they spread a false narrative about her.

New Normal?

It genuinely seems a tide has turned, such that the U.K. prime minister can state not only that “men are men and women are women” but that there’s been “bullying” around the issue and we all need to return to “common sense.” More and more, public aspects of British society are expressing a skeptical no to key aspects of the trans movement.

And yet, however much people might feel it to be a return to “common sense,” this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Not yet.

However much people might feel it to be a return to ‘common sense,’ this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Certainly not yet.

The trans-skeptical movement in the U.K. is largely secular, led by gender-critical feminists and gay-rights activists for whom the sex binary is critical. And because it’s a largely secular movement, it’s had a good measure of success in changing popular opinion. When hearing trans-skeptical views, the average Brit doesn’t suspect a Christian agenda lurking beneath the surface. They don’t suspect Christians to be lurking anywhere (when asked if they know a Christian, half the population says no). It’s more difficult to dismiss the trans-skeptical movement as a Handmaid’s Tale dystopia when its outspoken proponents are lesbians like Julie Bindel or Kathleen Stock.

Yet those secular gains in popular appeal are offset by losses. There’s a fundamental instability to the “new normal.” It was captured perfectly by Rishi Sunak’s speech.

‘No to Trans, Yes to Gay Marriage’

Within four sentences of his “common sense” line, Sunak reminded the conference that “this Conservative Party [is] the party that legislated for same-sex marriage.” In 2013, half of Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage, but the legislation was indeed proposed and passed under a Conservative government. And in 2023, Sunak presents this as a Conservative accomplishment. Whatever else we make of that, it summarizes where the new normal might be settling in Britain. We may well be heading toward a skeptical no on trans, all the while maintaining a proud yes to gay marriage.

Twelve years earlier at the same conference, then prime minister David Cameron announced his support of gay marriage: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” Cameron’s reasoning was presented as a small-c conservative argument: “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.”

If marriage is good, more marriage is better. That was the argument and it has carried the day. Cameron had been emboldened by Douglas Murray’s influential article in the Spectator. A week before Cameron’s speech, Murray wrote that conservative-minded Brits should “welcome gay acceptance into the marital fold.” Widening the marital circle to include gay couples represents “not the making gay of marriage but the making conservative of gays.”

That was 2011. In the intervening years, Murray has gone on a journey. In 2019, he wrote The Madness of Crowds, charting some of the ways our society has taken a virtue like equality and (to use the book’s overarching analogy) “gone off the rails.” Just when the equality train “appeared to be reaching its desired destination, it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance.”

From Murray’s telling, one gets the idea that he considers the crash to have happened relatively recently. Before advances like “gay marriage” came along, we were headed toward an equality equilibrium; but since then—perhaps in the last decade or so—we’ve smashed through the barriers with gay activism, pro-LGBT+ education, and much more. The rest of the book surveys what Murray considers to be the wreckage in chapters titled “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans.”

The analogy is both memorable and self-refuting. No crash-scene investigator would witness the carnage of a train platform—twisted metal and wreckage all around—and conclude the problem must’ve occurred at the end of its journey. Who would imagine that the train had slowed to a peaceful halt and then picked up momentum? That’s not how trains work. It’s not how history works either. Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making. If we wish to diagnose a “madness” to modern society, we should probably look to deeper, older causes.

Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making.

But modern trans-skeptics typically take the Douglas Murray view of history. We were heading in roughly the right direction—until an unpredictable bout of “madness” broke out in the 2010s. Murray ends his book with the trans movement, considering it the most obvious instance of the “madness” he speaks of. He expresses profound skepticism toward the idea that manhood and womanhood are merely a matter of “software” and not also of “hardware.” According to Murray, we should think again if we imagine that persons are gender-neutral. But here’s the irony: Murray has advocated strongly to make marriage gender-neutral.

And that’s the fundamental instability of the new normal. It’s a problem and also an opportunity.

If People Aren’t Gender-Neutral, Why Is Marriage?

In New York City earlier this year, I was crammed into a basement with 150 others for the launch of Mary Harrington’s new book Feminism Against Progress. As a British author, she fits the profile of so many at the forefront of the gender-critical movement: she spent a long time on the political left and in same-sex relationships. (Though she’s shifted significantly in recent years. She’s now a mother, happily married to a man, a self-proclaimed antiprogressive, and the writer of plenty of Christian-adjacent as well as Christian-affirming works.)

Among many other issues, the book takes aim at the trans movement as the most obvious example of what she calls “Meat Lego Gnosticism.” It’s an enjoyable and enlightening read. Harrison uses words like “smelling salts” and her analysis benefits from covering a much longer historical sweep than The Madness of Crowds.

The book launch organizers had to scramble to relocate after the original venue canceled under pressure from protestors. This is one more sign that, at the moment, the U.K. and U.S. are in different places culturally. Harrington’s U.K. launch suffered no such dramas. But this gathered crowd on the Lower East Side was in awe as she spoke truths far more accepted on her side of the Atlantic.

At the end, I began a conversation with my neighbor—a Wall Street banker and lapsed Catholic. He seemed representative of many I met that night. Five years ago, he had been yes and yes to gay marriage and trans. Now he was yes and no, and he predicted (as did I) that yes and no will become far more accepted in the States in the future, with “the Brits leading the way.”

But I wanted him to consider whether the consistent position was no and no. So I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think I’ll convince you in this conversation, but I’ll leave you with a thought: if people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.” He gave every impression of receiving that thought as both new and worthy of serious consideration. We got onto talking about more important things, Jesus mainly. But if I were to tease out what I meant by my gender-neutral line, here’s how I’d do it. I’d try to find common ground on these seven admissions.

Can We Agree That . . .

1. Sexual activity is significant.

If people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.

We know it’s significant because we’re rightly protective of female spaces. It’s not that trans people are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual crimes; it’s simply that we want to exercise an abundance of caution about anyone’s access to changing rooms, rape crisis centers, female prisons, and so on. Why? Because the potential for anyone to perpetrate violations of a sexual nature is significant.

We recognize sex is in a different category, that it’s not a leisure activity. When leisure activities go wrong, we give one-star reviews. When sex goes wrong, we call the police. If you force a game of tennis on me, you’re simply weird. If you force sex on me, you’re a rapist. The exceptional evil of rape tells us there’s an exceptional sanctity to sex.

This means modern assumptions about “hookup culture” are nonsense. Sexual activity is significant. It’s a union of persons, not just a union of bodies. It’s profoundly meaningful and not casual or disposable.

2. Sexual self-expression isn’t a right.

I don’t have a right to unleash my sexual desires; I have a responsibility to tame them. And the taming of sexuality—especially male sexuality—is vital for the blessing and protection of others, especially women and children. This has been at the heart of the Christian sexual revolution that has built our modern sensibilities about consent and much more.

3. There are two sexes and they aren’t interchangeable.

All of us struggle in various ways with what it means to be a member of our sex. Culturally speaking, gender expression can indeed be fluid. But people aren’t gender-neutral or gender-interchangeable. Perhaps our neighbors and coworkers may balk at this. But many in the U.K. are returning to this “common sense” position, and I foresee many in the U.S. doing the same.

4. There are sex-defined spaces.

We’ve already mentioned some sex-defined spaces: changing rooms, male and female sports, prisons, rape crisis centers, and so on. You cannot claim a right to enter such spaces simply because you choose to. If I enter a female-only space, I haven’t wonderfully expanded that space to include different ways of being female. I have violated that space.

If I insist my human rights include the right to enter that space, then I, a man, have redefined “female” and essentially destroyed that space. And that isn’t right.

5. In this area, behaviors are more important than desires.

To forbid a biological male from entering a female-only space isn’t to deny his strong sense of being female. Nor does it erase his identity. Instead, in these circumstances, it’s to prioritize the external over the internal and the physical over the mental.

6. There are ways of caring for people who struggle without reordering society around them.

Sometimes inclusion rightly involves society-wide transformations (e.g., racial integration or disability access). But sometimes this isn’t possible or desirable. Our hearts genuinely go out to those who experience great discomfort with their bodies generally and their sex specifically. We want to do all we can to alleviate that discomfort—but we also must uphold the previous five admissions. Sometimes this will mean maintaining certain institutions and structures, and that doesn’t equal bigotry.

7. People have been called ‘bigots’ in this debate who really aren’t.

Passions run hot in the culture wars, and even hotter when it comes to matters of sex and identity. But at times, people have been unfairly called “bigoted” when in fact they’re prizing the well-being of a different overlooked group—such as the interests of women or children.

Marriage Is a Sex-Defined Space

These seven admissions can be agreed on by those who’ve become even a little trans-skeptical. They’re also foundational to the Christian sex ethic. The addition a Christian makes is to say that marriage is also a sex-defined space. It’s the ultimate sex-defined space. And again, if people aren’t gender-neutral, then we can ask our secular friends to consider whether marriage also isn’t gender-neutral. If that’s granted, then everything else in the Christian sexual ethic follows.

We say that sex is significant (1) and therefore sexual self-expression should be trained and restrained (2). We believe that sex (male or female) is integral to sex (the act) and that, because the sexes aren’t interchangeable (3), a male-male relationship is very different from a male-female relationship, which is very different from a female-female relationship. These are simply not the same things. So David Cameron is wrong: adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines “female.”)

Adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines ‘female.’)

I don’t have the right to enter into a sex-defined space simply because I want to (4). If I don’t fit that sex-defined space but insist they include me, I’m insisting they redefine their sex-defined space. But there are some things I don’t have a right to enter or redefine—and marriage is one of them.

This isn’t to erase the existence of those who are same-sex attracted. It’s just to say that, in this area, behaviors are more important than desires (5). We should care greatly for the minority of people who are exclusively same-sex attracted—just as we care greatly for the minority of people who experience gender dysphoria—but that doesn’t have to mean reordering our institutions or sexual ethic (6). Finally, we should admit some have been called bigots who, in fact, have been prizing institutions and often-overlooked groups (such as children) in their adherence to the Christian sexual ethic (7).

I’m not saying any of this will convince our secular friends—not in a single conversation, that’s for sure. But the journey we’ve been on in the U.K. is suggestive of what might happen with the trans conversation in the States and further afield. In the near future, making the case against gender-neutral marriage might, with some people, become easier, not harder.

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What Does God Intend for My Body? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/our-bodies/ Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=567131 I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.]]> Pity the human body. Alternately coddled or ignored down through the centuries, the body has survived millennia of abuse and misuse, adulation and degradation. But only barely.

People have expended millions of dollars and gallons of sweat in obsessive pursuit of the body beautiful. Guys and gals sign on for months of exhausting regimens to sculpt their skin, muscles, and sinews into a close approximation of the classic ideal of the perfect Adonis or Venus.

Sadly, however, people don’t seem to know what to make of their flesh. Recently, the body has become an impediment—a useful tool to project one’s ego, perhaps, but fundamentally not much more than an avatar of a virtual self that somehow seems more real than the flesh and bone you’re born with. Or shall I say, “born into”?

That’s the latest insult suffered by the body. Transgender ideologies have kids and parents scratching their heads over whether they may have accidentally been saddled with the wrong one. So-called experts have convinced those who feel more like a boy than a girl, or vice versa, that the sexed body is an obstacle to true freedom. Puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and extensive surgical procedures will fix that, they hold. So healthy human organs are surgically amputated, and artificial approximations of alternate genitals are constructed to enable youths and adults to ensure their preferred pronouns and bodies match—or nearly so.

So what should we make of the body?

A Body at Which Angels Wonder

Francis of Assisi, more earthy and direct than most of us, affectionately called his body “brother ass,” likening it to that humble beast of burden that cheerfully plods along, bearing its load without complaint. He saw the lowly mortal body as a mere container for the immortal soul.

People have expended millions of dollars and gallons of sweat in obsessive pursuit of the body beautiful.

The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body/soul continuum as one cohesive unit, the result of God’s creation of our first parents from the dust of the earth plus his life-giving Spirit. Though these sexed bodies of ours do eventually wear out and die, they’ll one day be restored and resurrected into never-ending life.

The Devil and his minions have no comprehension of what it’s like to exist in three dimensions in this material universe. Angels are pure spirits, so they “long to look” into the astonishing wonder at the center of salvation (1 Pet. 1:12). They long to see how at one point in human history, God the Son—the eternal Word of the Father—left his throne in glory and descended to become a zygote within the uterus of a lowly virgin in Nazareth. They strain to see how he was born in helpless infant flesh and suckled at his mother’s breast like all other babies do.

Our hope in time and in eternity is rooted in this human flesh of Jesus, who is simultaneously God and man. The mind-blowing truth is that in him, the whole fullness of the godhead dwells bodily (Col. 2:9).

Bodies, Precious and Precarious

Tragically, many in our time treat the body as an expendable nuisance. Convinced they’re trapped in their bodies, they want out.

I get their frustration. I’m in my 78th year of life, and I’ve always been happy with my male body and all its unique features. Riffing on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s celebration of female sensuality in Flower Drum Song, I rather enjoy being a boy. Jane and I had the pleasure (let the reader understand) of bringing three wonderful human beings into the world and through them now four grandchildren, with the prospect of other generations yet to make an appearance in an unknown future.

But lately, my body has been playing tricks on me. The sexual reciprocity my late wife and I enjoyed has long receded into the rearview mirror. Though there are seven people who can trace their origins to our union, youthful vigor is now a fond memory.

I’ve discovered that embodied life is precious and precarious. In 2021, after 14 months of home hospice care and three days of precipitous decline, Jane died in my arms. Three years ago, I came within half an hour of death myself, gasping for breath after blood clots suddenly took up residence in my lungs. Reality therapy, that was. I’m getting used to the fact that there will come a time when this body of mine will return to the dust of the earth and my spirit will return to God who gave it.

Bodies Who Long for Resurrection

Solomon puts the whole matter in perspective: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Eccl. 12:1).

I was in print not long ago bragging about wanting to be a spry old man. But then I suffered a retracted torn ligament; now I’m hobbling around with a cane and looking at foot fusion surgery and a three-month recovery window. It’ll leave me with a greatly diminished gait. No matter. By the grace of God, I am who I am. I serve my Lord Christ in the diminished body I still have and with all the energy he supplies. No, I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.

I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.

On that day when Christ returns and raises all the dead, he will give to me and all believers eternal life in both body and soul. On that day, we’ll hear Jesus exclaim, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). Then, even this old “brother ass” that has carried me so faithfully all these years will be remade in glory to be like his own risen body. Thanks be to God!

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Ben Watson on the Sanctity of Life and True Justice https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/ben-watson-sanctity-life-true-justice/ Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=573825 ‘Roe v. Wade’ has been overturned, but this former football star says the fight for life has only reached halftime.]]> He calls abortion the “spiritual battle of our lives.” And he firmly believes abortion will end when men make it so. Roe v. Wade has been overturned, but this former football star says the fight for life has only reached halftime.

He is Benjamin Watson, author of The New Fight for Life: Roe, Race, and a Pro-Life Commitment to Justice (Tyndale Momentum). You may already know quite a bit about abortion. But you may have never seen the subject explored from this angle. 

Watson argues, “Ignorance of or disregard for racial justice—especially by some white pro-life evangelicals—has been a hurdle to unifying and expanding the movement.” He’s not content to pass legal restrictions or even ban abortion. He describes a “higher, more complete calling” to “address the factors that drive abortion decisions.”

And he comes prepared with an array of statistics that may surprise you.

  • Surveys show that 76 percent of abortive mothers would prefer to parent the child under different circumstances.
  • Forty percent of the women who abort their children attend church regularly.
  • Watson describes a “crucible of susceptibility” that helps explain why 40 percent of women seeking abortion are black.
  • Compared to white women, black women in the United States are four times more likely to have an abortion. 
  • Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. Watson explains that black women have been warned that if abortion is restricted or banned, more of them will die in childbirth.

Watson isn’t afraid to step on toes or tell Christians they need to step up in the fight for life. He sees hope in the gospel and in the church. He writes, “As a church, we need to become a safe haven, a refuge, a place where the most vulnerable can turn—not just for spiritual help, but for emotional, material, and financial support too.”

Watson joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the role of men in the pro-life cause, the relationship between history and agency, and the responsibility of parents to talk to their kids about sex, among other subjects. 

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Jesus Drew Circles and Lines: A Response to Andy Stanley https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/response-andy-stanley/ Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:02:32 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574549 I learned from Andy Stanley how to reach people with the Bible. But his position on LGBT+ reveals he may be more reductionistic than missional. ]]> “You should come and learn from us!”

That assertion jumped out to me from Andy Stanley’s October 1 sermon, explaining to his Atlanta-area churches why he was under fire for hosting the “Unconditional Conference” for parents of children who come out as LGBT+. “You,” in his reckoning, are other evangelical churches and pastors. “Us” is North Point, Stanley’s flagship church with a host of satellites.

The line is a golden thread that runs through not only his sermon that day but also the history of North Point. It’s the philosophy that led to Stanley’s vast influence and to the place he was in that Sunday, sitting on a stool and talking nervously about sexuality.

I’m one of the “you” who have learned some things from Andy Stanley. I want to help you understand the appeal and pitfalls of his philosophy of ministry.

Common Burden

Stanley and I share a common burden to help people who are thinking about leaving Christianity retain their faith. Although I grew up in the South, I didn’t belong to evangelicalism but was safely ensconced in a liberal form of Protestantism. But at an evangelical high school, the freshness of what I called “the original Jesus” broke in through simple teachings of New Testament texts.

Yet I didn’t just discover the original Jesus—I also discovered a thick religious-political-social culture. It didn’t bother me at the time, because I was grateful for everything I was learning about the Christian faith. For many of my classmates, though, who had grown up inside this subculture, it was the matrix they wanted to escape.

Years later as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I threw myself into studying missiology and historical theology. In missiology, we learned about “disenculturation,” where missionaries differentiate essential Christianity from its host culture so it’s free to enter another culture. In church history, we learned that errors often creep into the church when someone attempts to lop off something that’s essential to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This often happens in the name of “reaching people.”

A good missionary disenculturates but doesn’t reduce the essential faith. In his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace shows how this can even lead to spiritual renewal, making space for the gospel to be heard afresh.

This is what I wanted to do as I set out in 2006 to plant a church in urban Denver. Many of my new congregants described leaving a conservative Bible Belt city and moving to Colorado. They felt hemmed in by their native culture, similar to one I encountered at my evangelical high school, and were grateful to have some distance from it. In the process, they were renegotiating their relationship with Christianity. I needed conversation partners who knew how to disenculturate the faith so the Scriptures could be heard again. This is how I discovered Andy Stanley.

Studying Andy Stanley’s Missiology

Though I’ve never heard him use the term “disenculturation,” Stanley’s life work has been clearing away clutter to help people encounter Jesus afresh. I started studying his ministry because he was a missionary to disenchanted former evangelicals.

The son of a famous Southern Baptist preacher, Stanley’s journey is many others’ writ large. He worked as the youth pastor at his father’s Atlanta First Baptist Church but felt stifled by its culture. He wanted to leave the church but didn’t want to leave ministry, so he started a new kind of church. Doing so resulted in a painful falling out with his dad—and it resulted in a multiplying megachurch.

By the time I tuned in to Stanley in 2006, North Point was three campuses of thousands (today it has eight locations). It was a purposeful teaching church, positioning itself as an advance scout for evangelicalism, going where most churches hadn’t gone to solve problems they hadn’t solved. North Point concepts were distributed to other churches and church leaders through a resource ministry and annual “Drive” conferences. “You should come and learn from us” isn’t a new line. It’s been part of North Point’s ethos from the outset.

The other part of its ethos is to “create churches that unchurched people love to attend.” A keystone passage for Stanley is the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, especially James’s words in verse 19: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (NIV). At North Point, “not mak[ing] it difficult” means removing obstacles that prevent people from coming to church, coming back to church, and joining a small group. The priority is on establishing and maintaining relationships, with the hope that people will move closer to God.

This is perhaps easiest to see in Stanley’s preaching method. In his book Deep and Wide, he explains, “My goal on the weekend is to present the Scriptures in a way that is so helpful and compelling that everybody in the audience is glad to have attended and drives away with every intention to return the following weekend. . . . I want them to walk away intrigued by the fact that they heard someone teach from the Bible and it was . . . helpful.”

Draw them into a relationship. Show that the Bible is helpful. That’s Stanley’s preaching in a nutshell. It differs from other seeker-sensitive methods in one significant way: Stanley’s approach is expository. Although he doesn’t preach book-long series, most of his sermons are expositions of a specific text, introduced with an insightful hook. “My approach is to entice the audience to follow me into one passage of Scripture with the promise that the text is either going to answer a question they’ve been asking, solve a mystery they’ve been puzzled over, or resolve a tension they’ve been carrying. Once we’re in the text, I do my best to let it speak for itself.”

I learned a lot from this approach about how to connect with people. It’s no accident that Stanley’s listeners are drawn in and feel understood. His approach engages listeners who would struggle to connect their experiences with a traditional expository sermon.

Concerns About Reductionism

But after listening to several years of North Point sermons, I noticed a curious pattern: the subject matter was much narrower than the breadth of New Testament teaching. In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original “we should not make it difficult” idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed. How could I account for this discrepancy?

As Stanley presciently reminds us, “The approach a communicator chooses trumps his or her purpose every time.” His approach is to select individual texts that make it through the filter of “helpful” as an unchurched person would define it. This approach precludes preaching longer sections or entire books of the Bible. But in that approach, much depth needed to sustain Christian faith also gets filtered out.

I decided I needed a different purpose. Paul, the original missionary pastor, had a dual purpose—to not make it difficult for Gentiles to turn to God and to teach them the whole counsel of God so their faith could mature and endure. I adopted Paul’s purpose while incorporating some of Stanley’s communication insights. This leads me to preach longer sections of the biblical text.

To be fair to Stanley, not everything the church teaches necessarily comes from the pulpit. “Circles are better than rows” is another famous Andyism. This phrase reminds North Pointers that life change happens in small groups, so I can assume some subjects get covered in groups and other ministry environments. But the pulpit sets the tone for a church—especially a large church with a magnetic communicator. If key New Testament teachings don’t make it into the pulpit, would the church begin to have a reductionist form of Christianity?

In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original ‘we should not make it difficult’ idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed.

My hunch only grew stronger after Stanley’s 2018 sermon “Not Difficult.” He was back on familiar ground in Acts 15. But this time, the obstacle he was aiming to remove was the Old Testament. On one hand, he seemed to be trying to make a true and simple point: Christians are under the new covenant, not the old covenant. But then “old covenant” got conflated with “Old Testament” and he was arguing for unhitching our faith from the Old Testament Scriptures.

I was confused, but I could see the logic at work: Stanley wanted to make it possible for those who objected to the Old Testament to have faith anyway. A problem with this approach is that New Testament ethics are often grounded in creation order (this is directly applicable to its teaching on sexuality). Jesus taught his disciples a hermeneutic where the kingdom of God restores creation to its original purpose. The Old Testament law—though not a binding covenant for Christians—is still an expression of that creation order, so there’s congruence between New Testament ethics and Old Testament law.

Wouldn’t teaching this be the answer to someone struggling with the Old Testament? Rather than getting rid of the Old Testament, shouldn’t a pastor show how to read it in a new covenant way?

Crossing the Rubicon?

The “unhitch” controversy left me wondering, Is Stanley crossing the Rubicon from mission to reduction?

That was the question running through my mind when I sat down to watch his October 1 sermon. The crux of my concern was this: The Unconditional Conference purported to equip Christian parents, presumably within a Christian framework. At the same time, it featured two men in same-sex marriages and an academic who argues against the historic Christian teaching on same-sex relationships. How could it help Christian parents while featuring speakers with un-Christian views and practices? Or does he not believe those views and practices are integral to original Christianity?

Stanley began by framing his message as a response to Albert Mohler’s September 18 World column, “The Train Is Leaving the Station,” critiquing the conference. Stanley said,

The author is actually accusing me of departing from his version of biblical Christianity. So I want to go on record and say: I have never subscribed to his version of biblical Christianity to begin with. So I’m not leaving anything. . . . In my opinion, his version of biblical Christianity is the problem. . . . His version of biblical Christianity is why people are leaving Christianity unnecessarily. It’s the version that causes people to resist the Christian faith because they can’t find Jesus in the midst of all the other stuff and all the other theology and all the other complexity that gets globbed on to the message. Bottom line: that version of Christianity draws lines. And Jesus drew circles. He drew circles so large and included so many people in his circle that it consistently made religious leaders nervous. And his circle was big enough to include sinners like me.

Much has been made of Stanley’s “circles and lines” analogy, but few have traced his rationale. It’s been his longtime concern to remove obstacles and declutter the message. To use missionary-speak, he thinks Mohler is teaching an enculturated form of Christianity (“his version of biblical Christianity”) that creates obstacles to people discovering Jesus. He wants to draw people into relationship (“circles”) who might not otherwise darken the door of an evangelical church.

But woven into this concern are several confusions. Mohler uses the term “biblical Christianity” to describe what he sees as essential things in Scripture, not cultural stuff “globbed on.” Mohler would surely recognize the validity of different cultural forms, ministry models, and even theological traditions. He’s not accusing Stanley of departing his preferred system. He’s concerned with something more essential. Thus, the Mohler-Stanley debate (and disparate use of terms) frames up the issue at hand: Is Stanley practicing a missional form of original Christianity? Or is he reducing the faith?

Affirmations and Denials

After sparring with Mohler and giving background on the Unconditional Conference, Stanley addressed sexuality itself. He affirmed that North Point teaches “a New Testament sexual ethic,” adding, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, here’s what it looks like sexually to follow Jesus.” He summarized it in three points: (1) honor God with your body; (2) don’t be mastered by anything—porn, sexual addiction, another person, lust; and (3) don’t sexualize a relationship outside of marriage. He continued, “We affirm all three of the apostle Paul’s statements on the topic of same-sex sex: Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1. . . . What the apostle Paul called sin was sin then, and it’s sin now.” Finally, he concluded biblical marriage is between a man and a woman.

I was grateful for these clear affirmations. Yet other statements pulled in a different direction. After outlining the New Testament sexual ethic, Stanley explained that some people choose same-sex marriage because they find chastity “not sustainable.” “It’s their decision,” he said. “Our decision is to decide how we respond to their decision . . . and we decided 28 years ago: we draw circles; we don’t draw lines.” In other words, this isn’t a decision the church would challenge.

Earlier in the sermon, he explained why two married gay men spoke at Unconditional: “Their stories and their journeys of growing up in church and maintaining their faith in Christ and their commitment to follow Christ all through their high school, and college and singles and all up to the time they were married—their story is so powerful for parents of gay kids, that it’s the story parents with gay kids need to hear.”

However, if how Stanley described a New Testament sex ethic is true, then these men have now decided not to follow Christ. They have sexualized a relationship outside of biblical marriage, have been mastered by their same-sex attraction, and aren’t honoring God with their bodies. If that had been made clear for the parents at Unconditional, would it still be a powerful story?

The New Testament doesn’t just outline a sexual ethic. It brings all the graces of the gospel to bear on the process of sanctification. And it lays out the implications of following or not following it. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 has been carelessly called a “clobber passage.” But it’s actually both a comfort and a warning. Paul names those who practice sexual immorality and homosexuality among those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This is a clear and loving warning. But it’s evident Paul has taught this church how the riches of Christ’s grace sustain a life of obedience—we’re washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning. Calling chastity “not sustainable” for a person who has received the gifts Paul mentions downplays the riches of Christ’s sacrifice and the work of the Holy Spirit. How does justification matter when you fall short? How does the indwelling Spirit give hope for endurance? How does our finished washing in baptism bring out our true self in Christ?

And what about the warning? If a church doesn’t teach all this, then sexuality is reduced to a secondary disagreement, not a matter of necessary and possible sanctification.

Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning.

We must seriously weigh some questions: Is the biblical sex ethic a boundary marker for the faith once and for all delivered to us? Can someone reject it and still inherit the kingdom of God? If she says she’s following Jesus but doesn’t follow this sexual ethic, how should we respond to her decision? Should we teach and counsel repentance? Warn about the eternal consequences of unrepentance? Are the manifold graces of God sufficient to sustain a life of obedience? The New Testament answers these questions with piercing clarity.

I suspect that if Stanley were to work out the answers to these questions and teach them, he might feel like he was drawing lines. But he’d also draw a circle in which the grace of God can abound more fully.

Unfortunately, he’s stuck between his ministry philosophy, which calls for less, and the Scriptures, which call for more. Something has to give. I’m praying it’s the ministry philosophy. I’m praying he becomes a student again and learns from some “you’s” who are doing the hard work of both welcoming sinners and teaching the whole counsel of God.

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Israel’s 9/11: The Need for Moral Clarity https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/israel-hamas-moral-clarity/ Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:00:30 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=574641 This is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.]]> On Saturday, Hamas—an Islamist terrorist group based in the Gaza Strip and funded by Iran—launched a large-scale attack on southern Israel by sea, land, and air. As of this writing, over 900 Israelis have died, 2,400 are wounded, and hundreds more have been taken hostage.

The images and videos emerging on social media are horrifying: unsuspecting partygoers slaughtered at a music festival; a father helping his children escape through a roof only to be murdered himself; terrorists parading a naked woman on the back of a pickup truck; an elderly Holocaust survivor forced to hold a gun and pose with a Hamas soldier; a young woman with two daughters, ages 5 and 3, taken as hostages. Some have likened the psychological toll on Israel to 9/11’s on America. It’s the most deadly mass killing of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, and it’s bound to transform Israeli society in profound ways.

Irrespective of Christians’ differing views on the place of the modern nation of Israel in God’s redemptive plan, we believe this is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.

Possibility of Moral Clarity

In a sinful world, it’s never hard to find unjustifiable acts on both sides of a conflict. Anyone who condemns one side will quickly be greeted with whataboutism on social media: “What about this, that, or the other atrocity committed by the other side?”

We accept that the state of Israel hasn’t always acted blamelessly in its conduct toward the Palestinian people. To be pro-Israel in this situation, as we the authors are, isn’t to whitewash every action Israel’s government or military have taken, from its founding to today. We see the frustration, pain, and grief experienced by Palestinians, and we want to take seriously the Bible’s command to “weep with those who weep”—which includes Palestinians mourning their dead, both past and present.

This is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.

But the inevitable existence of wrongdoing on both sides doesn’t always produce a moral fog. Sometimes the fog lifts. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, can be condemned by Christians without hesitation. Hamas’s attack on Israel is a similarly clear example of wrongdoing that can be firmly condemned without equivocation.

Christian discernment looks at both the nature of an action and its aims. If Hamas had simply taken civilian hostages, the act itself would have been evil (the Bible forbids kidnapping), but the aim might arguably have had some military justification—hostages have been exchanged in the past for Palestinian prisoners. But Hamas hasn’t simply taken hostages. It deliberately designed military operations with the aim of murdering civilians. Those civilian victims weren’t the collateral damage of attacks on military targets; the civilians themselves were the targets. There is no biblical justification for this butchery.

Benefits of Moral Clarity

Anyone who has pastored a politically divided church will know how important it is to maintain balance when speaking about political matters. We can get so used to presenting both sides of an issue that the idea of coming down on one side seems like an obvious pastoral mistake. But when moral clarity is justified, it brings great benefits.

1. General Benefits of Moral Clarity

As Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed,

If we could not distinguish between an accidental death resulting from a car accident and an intentional murder, our criminal justice system would fall apart. And if we cannot distinguish the killing of combatants from the intended targeting of peaceable civilians, we live in a world of moral nihilism. In such a world, everything reduces to the same shade of gray and we cannot make distinctions that help us take our political and moral bearings.

Getting our bearings in this way gives us a better sense of who and what to trust. Some foreign governments, such as the Qatar Foreign Ministry, have issued statements holding Israel “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.” Other governments, including some Arab governments, have chosen not to blame Israel. This kind of unmasking is useful for Christians involved in foreign policy or working in the Middle East.

Moral clarity on the current conflict also helps us prepare for as-yet-unknown events that may be closer to home. By exercising our discernment muscles, we become better equipped to think rightly in the future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moral perceptiveness led him to see the horror of Nazism at a time when many other Christians found the evidence ambiguous. His strong moral vision brought glory to God, and we follow in his footsteps when we’re clear about events we ought to be clear about.

2. Specific Benefits of Moral Clarity

Moral clarity produces imperatives: “musts” and “must nots.” To use a nonpolitical example, Paul demanded the church in Corinth “expel the wicked person from among [them]” (1 Cor. 5:13, NIV). The man in question was doing what Christians must not do (v. 1), and that led to the must of excommunicating him from the local church.

Clarity regarding Hamas’s attacks on Israel allows for imperatives to guide God’s people. On Sunday, marchers in a pro-Palestinian rally in New York City chanted, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.” Christians must not participate in rallies of that kind (or their social media equivalent), which make defenses for the indefensible, intentional slaughter of civilians. Defending the indefensible (characterizing murder, rape, and kidnapping as “resistance”) isn’t how we weep with those who weep.

Moral clarity also allows for suitably one-sided prayer. It’s right to pray for the swift defeat of Hamas. The murderous operations room of Hamas will never provide good leadership for the Palestinians living in Gaza. We should by all means pray for both-sided things too: the salvation of people on both sides; the protection, healing, and comfort of people on both sides; and the growth of the church that lives inside the borders of both nations. Even as we pray for these both-sided things, let us boldly call on our God to thwart, frustrate, and defeat the one side that is hell-bent on terrorism.

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Essential Elements of Pastoral Ministry https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/youre-not-crazy/essential-elements-pastoral-ministry/ Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:04:11 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=youre-not-crazy&p=572710 In this inaugural episode of season 3 of ‘You’re Not Crazy,’ Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of pastoral ministry being characterized by grace, mercy, and peace. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry delve into the first few verses of 2 Timothy, highlighting what Paul says are the most essential elements for ministry.

They discuss the importance of pastoral ministry being characterized by grace, mercy, and peace, and how these qualities should be evident in the way pastors love and serve their congregations. They emphasize the need for pastors to be vulnerable and genuine in their relationships with their flocks, and they introduce their unofficial third “cohost,” John Stott, whose commentary on 2 Timothy is referenced throughout season 3.


Recommended resource: The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way by Francis Schaeffer

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Should Christians Travel with a Colleague of the Opposite Gender? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/travel-colleague-opposite-gender/ Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=544198 While some interactions can put us on a path toward sin, others can put us on a path toward sharing the gospel. ]]> My work requires me to travel regularly, sometimes with colleagues. Occasionally, I’m assigned to a trip with someone of the opposite gender. As a Christian, I’m not sure how to handle that. I’m not afraid of having an affair, but I don’t want to give even the impression of impropriety. What should I do?


If you polled a room of well-meaning Christians, you’d get various responses to this question. The question of travel is one of many we face regarding boundaries with the opposite sex.

Should I have a closed-door, one-on-one meeting with someone of the opposite sex?

Should I meet off-site for lunch or coffee with someone of the opposite sex? 

Should I text a coworker of the opposite sex?

Should I hug a coworker of the opposite sex who has returned from bereavement leave?

It’s easy to fall into extremes here, especially in our overly sexualized culture. On one end, we can avoid even the most innocent of interactions, seeing every person of the opposite sex as a likely stumbling block. On the other, we can act as if gender doesn’t matter and shouldn’t influence our interactions at all.

Both approaches miss the mark. We should build sensible and wholesome relationships that allow us to thrive at work and, most importantly, in our Christian walk (1 Thess. 5:11).

Honor God and Avoid Sin

Your question is one I’ve thought about a lot. I’m a married woman who commonly meets with both male and female clients in one-on-one settings. Sometimes it’s over Zoom and sometimes it’s over coffee or in an office. We may discuss the difficult feedback he received on a 360-degree review. We may work through her uncertainties as a leader. We may plan for how he can best navigate a heated conflict brewing within his team. It’s a privilege to come alongside these clients in their challenges, and I recognize these aren’t conversations people want to have amid the hustle and bustle of a busy lobby or another public space.

In addition to my current work with clients, I’ve traveled with male colleagues in the past. We’ve shared client notes, flights, Ubers, and sometimes a table at the airport food court.

How can we pursue godliness in our interaction with the opposite sex? We need to examine the specific details, contexts, and relationships at play. The Bible doesn’t tell us to avoid sharing a taxi or a table or an office with a person of the opposite sex. It also doesn’t tell us to never be alone with a person of the opposite sex.

Even so, the Bible is far from silent on how we should conduct ourselves. As Christians, our aim should be twofold. First, we should behave in ways that honor God and his design for our relationships. Second, we should avoid sinning (1 Cor. 6:18) or putting others in situations that might cause them to stumble (Luke 17:1).

When you apply these standards to travel decisions or meeting locations, it’s helpful to consider a few guiding questions.

Is It Public?

It’s often in private that boundaries are crossed. Keep interactions as public as possible. Don’t meet at the dining table in his hotel suite to go over notes before the client meeting. Meet in the lobby of the hotel, a conference room with windows, or at the coffee shop down the street. Leave no room for secrets, or even the speculation of secrets.

Keep all details of your trip “public” to others, such as your spouse, other colleagues, or a mature Christian friend. If that person is uncomfortable with anything you have planned, put more boundaries in place.

Is It Professional?

Some professions require meeting with people in private settings. Consider a medical doctor, a therapist, an executive coach, or a human resources manager. For each, professional ethical codes should guide appropriate interactions.

Consider the body language, tone, and content of your interactions. If a relationship seems even somewhat unprofessional, look for ways to create more distance. For example, don’t spend every minute of a business trip together. You might sit in a different row on the flight. You might check out a different restaurant for dinner or invite clients to join you in a group setting. Such boundaries aren’t only professional but also wise.

Is It a Doorway to Sin?

Many years ago, I served alongside a young couple at the church I attended at the time. While the husband was never unfaithful to his wife, he felt himself becoming too close to a woman he worked with. The job required them to spend a lot of time together, traveling from site to site. They formed a friendship. He began to feel an attraction. He knew it was unwise to continue in a situation that might put him on a path toward sin. He was transparent with his wife and, in what remains one of the wisest decisions I’ve seen, he changed jobs.

If you’re married, your level of intimacy with your spouse should be greater than with any other person (Gen. 2:24). If you’re single, remember your married colleagues need to be closer to their spouses than to you. If you and your colleague are both single, remember God’s good design to keep sex inside of marriage.

Physical intimacy isn’t the only challenge. So is emotional intimacy. Was it wrong for this man to ride in a car with a female coworker? Not in and of itself. Could it have led to sin down the road? He knew it could have.

If you feel any attraction toward a coworker, or if you suspect your coworker is attracted to you, it’s important to set tighter boundaries. You’ll often see the red flags. Ask the Spirit to guide you in making wise decisions (Gal. 5:16).

Is It a Doorway to Sharing Jesus?

While some interactions can put us on a path toward sin, others can put us on a path toward sharing the gospel.

Many people come to Jesus because someone of the opposite sex was open to discussing his or her faith. Sometimes that person is a coworker, and it’s fair to say some of those conversations have happened during flights or while sharing a ride to the conference center. Don’t miss those opportunities to share Jesus with both brothers and sisters.

I hope these questions support you in prayerful consideration. Even if things seem perfectly acceptable on all fronts, follow the Spirit if you feel led to create additional boundaries. Walk in step with his leading.

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Doubting Christians Are Jumping Out Attic Windows. They Don’t Have To. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/surprised-by-doubt/ Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=570941 While our doubts might have pushed us out of the place we thought we’d live in forever, we discovered a house more beautiful and sturdy than we could have imagined]]> In many 1990s evangelical youth groups, Audio Adrenaline’s song “Big House” was a fun way to break the ice for middle and high schoolers. We were looking forward to “a big, big house, with lots of rooms.”

But many of us didn’t feel like God’s house was all that big. Instead of having enough space to play football, some people felt they were stuck in a stuffy attic with low ceilings and only one small window to let in light. It felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.

The image of the attic is the central metaphor that runs through Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into A Deeper Faith by Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson. Chatraw is the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement at Beeson Divinity School and a Keller Center fellow. Carson is the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University. Both authors have worked with students who are seeking solid answers to hard questions about Christianity.

This is a book that faces doubts honestly, recognizing how harrowing they can feel. The authors write, “If you grew up in the attic of the Christian faith, questioning the walls of your room can feel like questioning the entire house” (10). To some, the attic feels like the whole Christian experience because it’s all they have ever known.

This book offers a way out of the attic that doesn’t result in abandoning the faith. Though the “attic demands a loyalty that makes the slightest deviation feel like heresy” (10), Surprised by Doubt provides a helpful way of asking honest questions.

Bad Pressure Makes for Bad Posture

We’re currently experiencing the largest religious shift in American history. Previously, the shift had been toward Christianity; this time, it’s away from the church.

Chatraw and Carson argue that “the pressures of the attic” are among the contributing factors in this mass dechurching because they’re deforming the way attic dwellers see the world. Just as attics often have low ceilings that require stooping, the attic of Christianity requires mental attitudes that lead to bad epistemological posture. For long-term attic dwellers, it becomes difficult to know how to pursue truth.

To some, God’s house felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.

Many Christians who have grown up in the church experienced this pressure from a young age—this individualistic need for certainty on everything while remaining perfectly morally upright. This teaches young believers they must make up their own minds in the right way on every question, while remaining pure from the world.

How is this a realistic expectation for a young Christian when saints have wrestled with the mysteries of God for millennia? Is it any wonder that faith begins to feel like a tight space one might like to escape from?

Though there’s a stairwell leading out of the attic into the rest of the house, many doubters escape the pressure of the attic by jumping out the window. They just hope they land somewhere safe.

Landing Spots of Attic Jumpers

Chatraw and Carson explore four potential landing spots: New Atheism, optimistic skepticism, mythic truth, and open spirituality.

Ironically, New Atheism can result in the same prideful certainty and antagonism toward other views that attic jumpers were attempting to escape from.

The optimistic skeptic is jaded by the glib certainty of attic Christianity about challenges like the problem of evil. They’re skeptical of the answers given but optimistic they’re able to see errors more clearly than everyone else.

Other attic jumpers become content with mythic truth, which affirms there are types and archetypes in the world that point to transcendent reality. This view places Christianity as one of many religions that get some things right.

Perhaps the most popular landing spot for attic jumpers is open spirituality. Far from atheists, these folks believe there’s probably something out there that’s beyond us but don’t believe it can be defined, much less known. Certainty, not God, is the villain.

Open spirituality recognizes there must be something to account for our morality and the goodness and beauty we experience in the world. But the spiritual individuals become judge and jury over what they perceive is true.

As Chatraw and Carson write, “Each person is Caesar in the coliseum of their own faith, and only when the evaluation produces a thumbs-up will a belief survive” (67). Open spirituality lets people believe they’re critically evaluating each belief for its merit. Instead, they’re blind to the fact that they can’t evaluate anything without a bias.

Going down the Stairs

Jumping out the window is a quick way to escape from the attic of Christianity; however, it leaves real Christianity unexplored. Chatraw and Carson argue, “To discover if the Christian house is sturdy, we need to walk downstairs” (88–89).

They offer three perspectives through which to explore Christianity and test its claims: looking at Christianity, looking through Christianity, and stepping into Christianity.

Looking at Christianity involves examining the foundations of the faith. This requires asking bedrock questions about the incarnation and the resurrection. It means examining the “load-bearing walls” of Christianity: the tenets all Christians have always believed that are summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Rather than getting distracted by more fringe issues, looking at Christianity requires us to focus on its foundation.

Looking through Christianity asks whether the faith has explanatory power for the world. Does it give us meaning and purpose? Does it provide a foundation for values like justice, dignity, and beauty? If it does, throwing Christianity out might unintentionally undermine some of the things attic jumpers care most about.

Stepping into Christianity is the ultimate test. Christianity isn’t a purely intellectual philosophy of life, and people aren’t mere cognition machines. Going to church, praying, meditating on Scripture, taking walks in God’s creation—these are practices the saints have always done to encounter God and be transformed by him. Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.

God’s Big, Big House

Surprised by Doubt takes deconstruction seriously. But it does so by inviting readers into a more complete understanding of Christianity. This is a book that should be widely read by parents, pastors, and people who work with youth. It would also be a valuable resource to put in the hands of students and young adults in the church who are seeking honest answers to honest questions.

The song “Big House” was on to something. After all, Jesus said to his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2). It’s sad knowing so many people have abandoned Christianity, thinking the attic was the whole house.

Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.

There is, in fact, a big table with lots of food. A feast is being prepared for the day when all God’s children will eat together, sitting next to surprising people who were in rooms whose doors we only passed by (Rev. 19:9).

If only we’d walk down the stairs, we might smell the food from the kitchen and be reminded of the hope we have for that day. While our doubts might have pushed us out of the place we thought we’d live in forever—the only option we thought we had—we discovered a house more beautiful and sturdy than we could have imagined, surrounded by the saints through the ages (Heb. 12:1), full of treasures new and old (Matt. 13:52).

This house, we find, is built on a rock. And when the waves come crashing into it, we will not be shaken (Matt. 7:25; Ps. 62:1–2).

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5 Reasons Gen Z Is Primed for Spiritual Renewal https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gen-z-primed-spiritual-renewal/ Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=571005 Gen Z is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.]]> “God brought me back to him when I was hopeless.”

“God helped me set aside drugs, alcohol and porn.”

“God took the anger out of me.”

“I found joy again.”

After I (Kyle) had spent 16 years pastoring a college ministry in my local church, these handwritten stories of personal conversion and radical life change from Gen Z students brought tears to my eyes. They wrote them at the end of the 2023 school year as a testimony of what God did that year.

Hundreds of longer stories filled the board. But that wasn’t the only small miracle. Our last meeting of the year was bigger than the first. We started with 300 students and ended with 400. That never happens. Then in the fall of this year, it happened again: 500 students attended our first meeting; 600 showed up the next week. This doesn’t happen.

But it did. And it’s not unique to us.

As we talk to campus ministers and pastors from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Billings to Atlanta, DC to Dallas, we know we aren’t alone. Some will urge caution before drawing conclusions. Isn’t this the era of dechurching, deconstruction, and rising “nones”? But data lags behind reality and we don’t want the church to miss what may be happening.

In the wake of the Asbury revival last spring, it looks as though the Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal—the very generation that has been repeatedly touted as the least religious ever.

This may sound impossible, but Jesus got it right: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Dry bones are rattling to life. The question is whether we’ll be attuned to the Spirit’s work and join him.

Why Is Gen Z Primed for Spiritual Renewal?

Gen Z is spiritually starved. The disorienting circumstances of the last three years—a global pandemic, countless mass shootings, the woke wars, a contested election, rapid inflation, and widespread abuse scandals—created a famine of identity, purpose, and belonging.

The Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal.

Gen Z is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.

1. Isolation during the pandemic created a hunger for belonging.

Before the pandemic, 45 percent of Gen Z reported severe loneliness—making it the loneliest generation in American history. After the pandemic? A year isolated from friends and school dramatically intensified the trend. A Harvard study found that 61 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported “miserable degrees of loneliness.” The national average was 36 percent.

We hear it firsthand on campus every week: Gen Z is desperately alone. Students anxiously desire to be known. They don’t just want friends. They don’t simply want to belong somewhere. They’re absolutely starved for belonging and friendship.

2. Disillusionment with ineffective, abusive, hypocritical leaders is creating a hunger for sincere, humble, transparent leadership.

Gen Z Americans dislike Donald Trump as much as millennials do. They also dislike Joe Biden more than any other generation. They agree the government and most national leaders are failing. Over the last five years, they’ve seen presidents, athletes, celebrities, church leaders, journalists, and educators unmasked as bullies, phonies, liars, and abusers. They’re tired of it.

So perhaps it’s no surprise Gen Z responds not to my most eloquent sermons but to those in which I’m most transparent about my own life and shortcomings. They’re starved for leaders who care more about transparency than their image and who exude sincere humility rather than hollow impressiveness.

3. Pervasive anxiety is creating a hunger for deep peace.

Before the pandemic, Gen Z was already the most anxious generation in American history. Six years ago, Jean M. Twenge wrote that Gen Z “is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.” During the pandemic, Twenge’s predictions became a reality. While world rates for depression and anxiety grew by 25 percent during this period, Gen Z experienced a 33 percent increase. Now only 45 percent of Gen Z describe themselves as mentally healthy.

The students we spend time with want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and that can still the waters of chronic anxiety.

4. Digital self-projection and self-perfection are creating a longing for real-life, nonjudgmental sincerity.

Gen Z spent years of their lives projecting curated, filtered versions of themselves to the watching world. They learned to commodify their identities into bespoke digital brands, whose valuation accumulated in the intangible currency of likes and shares. They bore the weight of a digital deity: We must form and create ourselves online. Students tell me this self-projection and self-perfection are exhausting. They’re deeply hungry for friendships where it’s OK not to look perfect, sound perfect, and be perfect.

5. The loss of places of belonging is creating a hunger for healthy institutions where Gen Z can find mentors.

Gen Z wants to be mentored, but they don’t know how to meet older people. Only a minority actually have mentors. Normally, this kind of intergenerational connection takes place inside institutions, but Gen Z was largely raised outside institutions. Their parents (Gen X) were cynical about institutions. Their generational predecessors, the millennials, deconstructed them. But, according to Springtide director Joshua Packard, Gen Z is largely uninterested in institutions.

At first glance, this hardly seems like good news. But lack of interest is preferable over outright cynicism. Springtide’s research suggests that if churches are intentional about fostering intergenerational mentoring and relationships, Gen Z won’t have any anti-institutional hurdles to jump over. Put differently, Gen Z will try on church if older church members do what Jesus calls them to do—make disciples. 

The students want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and can still the waters of chronic anxiety.

Gen Z is hungry for the very things Jesus provides through his presence and people: belonging, humble leadership, peace, transparent friendship, and intergenerational mentoring.

As we reflect on this, we keep returning to the image of God’s Spirit that Jesus offers to a confused old man: the movement of the Spirit is like a wind blowing (John 3:8). Of course, this is wordplay—“spirit” and “wind” are homonyms in both Greek and Hebrew—but it’s more than that. Just like you can’t see the wind, you can’t see the Spirit. But you can see what the wind moves: dust, leaves, and waves. And so it is with God’s Spirit. You see him by what he moves.

We see the dust spinning, the leaves cartwheeling, and waves whitecapping in Gen Z. They’re hungry. We must seek to join our heads, hearts, and hands together for the sake of God’s generational cause.

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One Thing My Parents Did Right: Family Devotions https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/parents-right-family-devotions/ Sun, 08 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=559507 On a trip home from college, I started to see how influential family devotions were in my life.]]> When I returned home from college last semester, one of the first things I did with my family was “Bible time.”

That’s what we call our family devotional time, which includes reading the Bible, praying, and singing a song together. Usually we do it in the evening, and it has come to signal a time to slow down and find relief together from the day’s business and activities. While the length of each day’s Bible time varies and our consistency has fluctuated, this hasn’t reduced its importance in my life.

I didn’t realize this until I was separated from Bible time. On a trip home from college, after not being part of family devotions for a while, I was able to see many of the lessons my parents were teaching me through them.

Lesson #1: The Bible Is Valuable

My parents’ commitment to frequently spending time in Scripture instilled in me the value of the Bible. There were many times it would’ve been easier for my parents to forgo Bible time—after rough days, on late nights, during a busy season—but my parents’ choice to still have family devotions showed me the importance of making time to spend in the Bible.

Because my parents made the Bible a central aspect of our lives, I could see it was more than just a good book. Their example has constantly encouraged me to implement regular Bible study in my life.

Lesson #2: How to Structure Devotions

Because my parents made the Bible a central aspect of our lives, I could see it was more than just a good book.

How my parents structured Bible time has influenced how I structure my own devotions. The pattern of reading God’s Word, bringing requests before God, and praising God was critical to teaching me how to grow in my relationship with Christ.

While these three things are necessary for a healthy Christian walk, I tended to separate them from each other. But my parents used Bible time to show us that all three exist together. Their quiet example of including prayer and praise in the study of the Bible has shaped my own practices.

Lesson #3: Why We Study Corporately

My parents both studied the Bible independently and encouraged us to study the Bible for ourselves. While they stressed the importance of personal devotions, they also taught us to value studying the Bible with others. Reading it out loud, discussing it together, and then coming together in prayer and praise is an important part of the Christian walk.

Lesson #4: Persistence and Peace

There were times when family devotions seemed an annoyance and days I’d have chosen to skip them. But my parents’ insistence on having Bible time gradually transformed it from something to be dreaded to something I looked forward to. They taught me that peace can be found in the Bible and helped me to persevere in finding it there. Bible time became a refuge from the struggles of each day.

Our record wasn’t perfect. There were stretches when we’d miss family devotions for days or even weeks. But that was when my parents set one of their most important examples for me. Rather than give up, they picked it up repeatedly. Each time they started again, the periods of consistent Bible time grew longer, and the periods without Bible time decreased.

This has become more important to me as I’ve become semi-independent and seen the many ways I fall short in my Christian walk. My parents also fall short, but, rather than “throwing in the towel,” they persevere in growing closer to God and defeating the sin in their lives.

Bible time became a refuge from the struggles of each day.

Even though my parents didn’t get everything right, they did give me consistent, structured exposure to the Bible. Their commitment to having family Bible time helped shape my view of Scripture and even how I handle failing at reading it. They not only told me but showed me what the Bible is worth and how to study it. Through Bible time I learned the value of persevering, both in seeking God and in putting sin to death.

Because of my parents’ influence, I value the Bible, and because of their teaching, I continue to seek after God—even when it’s inconvenient or difficult.

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