By / Oct 26

I’ve been following politics almost as long as I’ve known how to read. My family didn’t have a television, so we got three newspapers every day. I loved scampering down to the end of our driveway every day and bringing them back to the house where I’d read the news. I was one of those nerds who read Time and Newsweek and U.S News and World Report in middle and high school and who subscribed to The National Review with my own money. 

Most people (thankfully) don’t follow politics as closely as I do and most people don’t treat every election night like it’s the Super Bowl. But all of us have an interest in who shapes our communities and our country. And increasingly, in an age of social media and nonstop cable news, politics is all around us every day. 

In our particularly polarized age, election days are often moments of great euphoria or times of tremendous despair for many, depending on whether or not a particular candidate or party was victorious. I’ve seen (and sometimes experienced) these scenarios many times in my life. In light of the upcoming midterm elections on Nov. 8, which determines who controls the U.S. House and Senate, it’s important to remind ourselves how we should think about politics as believers and how we can help other people work through whatever they may be feeling as the results set in. 

First, regardless of who wins, we should thank God for the privilege of living in a country where we have some say in who holds power. Our system of government is far from perfect. We’ve not fully lived up to the ideals in our founding documents. And in shameful times of our history, the choice to vote has not been held by everyone. But today, while politics can be frustrating and annoying and play to our worst instincts, we have an opportunity to have some small part in choosing who makes leadership decisions. There are many people around the world who don’t enjoy such freedoms, who have zero control over who rules over them, and who have little input on the laws they are required to obey. So, gratitude should be our first instinct after an election. 

Second, we should recognize that while politics is important, parties ultimately rise and fall. Movements come and go. Coalitions form and are broken up. I’m old enough to remember several moments when it seemed Democrats would hold power indefinitely. And then two years later, Republicans swept into office. And I’m old enough to remember moments when it seemed Republicans were permanently ascendant, only to suffer huge defeats in the next election cycle. We shouldn’t rise too high or sink too low with a single election. History shows us that in our durable democracy, voting patterns shift, events happen, and things don’t stay the same. 

Third, while I believe engagement in politics is an important exercise of Christian stewardship in our representative republic, politics is not everything. For someone like me who enjoys keeping abreast of political trends, enjoys reading American history, and looks forward to election days, it is important for us to continually root our joy and hope not in the next vote, but in what we know never changes: the Kingdom of God. Too often, Christians are tempted to put all their faith in the temporal. But while politics can be a useful vehicle in bringing our faith to bear on our communities, it is just that, a vehicle. Politics can easily seduce the soul into being an all-consuming endeavor, with religious fervor. As Christians who believe that all governments on this earth, even governments we love, are temporal, we should hold our politics loosely. Who wins matters and has serious implications, but what matters most is not what is happening in Washington, D.C., but what is happening in our local churches every Sunday. 

That truth brings me to my final reflection for election season: Christ is Lord over all. Kingdoms rise and fall. Leaders come and go. Movements ebb and flow. But we belong to a King and a Kingdom without end (Heb. 12:28). So whether you are exulting in victory or are tempted to despair, remember that Christ reigns over all, and nothing happens that is outside of his purposes. 

By / Oct 20

Does God change? Is God the Son a created being? Is the Holy Spirit a force or a person? Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? These are some of the most important and fundamental questions in the Christian faith, questions that the church has answered definitively for most of its history. Increasingly, though, as the biennial “State of Theology” survey produced by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research shows, self-professed evangelicals find their answers to these questions at odds with historic Christian belief. 

As a way of discovering what “Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible,” these organizations have teamed up every two years, since 2014, to “take the theological temperature of the United States” with the survey and to develop an interactive report of their findings called “The State of Theology.” With each new iteration, the report has consistently shown a pattern of dwindling theological proficiency both among the general American population and the men and women in our pews. And the 2022 report is no different.

So, what did the most recent report reveal, and what are we to make of it?

Report takeaways

In her analysis of the report, Christianity Today writer Stefani McDade highlights what she calls the “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals,” resurrecting bygone terms like Arianism and Pelagianism to describe the theological slippage occurring within American evangelicalism. Commenting on the history of the “State of Theology” report, McDade says that “Overall, adults in the US are moving away from orthodox (i.e. historic) understandings of God and his Word year after year.” Here are three major takeaways from this year’s survey results.

  1. The Doctrine of God: In the survey, the overwhelming majority of evangelical respondents (96%) declared that they strongly agree with the following statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” And while this would seem to indicate that these evangelicals hold to an orthodox view of God, things grow murky as the survey digs deeper into the doctrine of God. For instance, 48% of evangelical respondents believe that God “learns and adapts” (i.e., that he changes); 73% believe that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” (an ancient heresy called Arianism); 43% stated that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God;” and 60% declare that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” Based on these numbers, McDade’s assertion that we “are moving away from orthodox understandings of God” appears exactly right.
  1. Inspiration of Scripture: Among evangelical respondents, 26% believe that “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.” And while the surveyors could have worded this statement more clearly, respondents who answered in the affirmative communicated a belief at odds with the church’s historic confession that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God. Commenting on our apparent waning belief in the inspiration of Scripture, McDade pointed out that “Researchers called the rejection of the divine authorship of the Bible the ‘clearest and most consistent trend’ over the eight years of [survey] data,” both in the evangelical church and generally across the U.S. population. 
  1. Human Nature: On the topic of human nature, based on survey results, another ancient heresy—Pelagianism—is proving to be resurgent, even within the church. As Dr. Gregg Allison defines it, Pelagianism proposes “a denial of original sin” because, in the view of Pelagius (a 4th-century theologian), there is no “relationship between Adam and his sin and the human race.” According to Pelagian thinking, “people have no tendency to sin and may live without sin.” So, we learn in the survey that, in Pelagius-like fashion, 57% of evangelical respondents believe that “most people are good by nature” and 65% affirm that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God,” two theological beliefs that the church has long denounced. 

Historic Christian belief

In analyzing a survey like this, we may be tempted to ridicule our fellow evangelicals and decry the collective lack of theological proficiency it reveals, or even to assume what my former pastor liked to call the role of “heresy hunter.” And while what we learn from the State of Theology survey should sober us, it should also compel us to define and teach what historic Christian belief actually is. If we want to “right the ship,” so to speak, and reverse the trend we’ve witnessed for at least a decade now, we’ll need to introduce evangelicalism once again to the church’s centuries-long confessions of the faith. And that’s what we’ll explore now. 

  1. Doctrine of God

Trinitarianism: Evangelical survey respondents confessed, nearly unanimously, their belief that God is Trinity. Yet, as we mentioned, when the survey dove deeper into some of Trinitarianism’s offshoots and implications, questions emerged regarding their “Trinitarian proficiency.” Even though Trinitarianism is a historically difficult doctrine to fully apprehend, there is no doctrine more central or more fundamental to Christian theology. Therefore, many of our errors downstream can be traced back to a faulty understanding of Trinitarianism, which is what we see in the State of Theology survey results. 

In his excellent book, Delighting in the Trinity, author Michael Reeves says, “because the Christian God is triune, the Trinity is the governing center of all Christian belief, the truth that shapes and beautifies all others. The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” But what does it mean that God is Trinity? How do we define “Trinitarianism”? In season nine of the Knowing Faith podcast, a season devoted to the hosts’ exploration of the doctrine of God, J.T. English offers the following definition: “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God, yet there is one God.” Author and professor Fred Sanders adds to the conversation, saying, “God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is essential because it introduces us to who God is. Herman Bavinck goes so far as to say, “the confession of the trinity is the sum of the Christian religion.” Thus, before we can understand more of what God is like with any real competence, we must begin with “the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” And it’s just this: God is Trinity.

Attributes of God: As mentioned, knowing what God is like and knowing his attributes flows from the confession that “God eternally exists as one essence in three distinct persons,” or that God is Trinity. Furthermore, Bavinck once again says, “It is in this holy trinity that each attribute of His Being comes into its own, so to speak, gets its fullest content, and takes on its profoundest meaning.” The doctrine of the Trinity, then, is not only a prerequisite for knowing God rightly, but it also enables us to see the beauty and glory of his attributes in full.

When we derive our knowledge of who God is and what he is like from the Bible, and with help from the creeds, councils, and confessions of church history, instead of the prevailing moods and whims of culture, for instance, we will find ourselves on firm theological footing. We will know, as the majority of evangelical respondents affirmed on the survey, that “God is perfect and cannot make a mistake.” But, contrary to 56% of survey respondents, we’ll also know that God does not “accept the worship of all religions;” and we’ll know that he does not “learn and adapt to different circumstances”—he is immutable (48% of evangelical respondents disagreed). It is these and all of God’s attributes that we can truly proclaim “only when we recognize and confess” that they belong to the one true God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Divine Inspiration

While every evangelical respondent affirmed that “The Bible is the highest authority for what [they] believe,” once again, when pressed further the survey identified several holes in evangelical bibliology. Despite confessing the Bible as their highest authority, responses were mixed on whether it “has the authority to tell us what to do,” whether it’s accurate in its teaching, and as we mentioned, whether it is “literally true.” These responses illuminate a defective view of Scripture.

“The absolute authority of the Bible,” Michael Svigel says, “is a doctrine that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (i.e., all Christians). But historic Christian belief in the absolute authority of the Bible lives or dies with the doctrine of divine inspiration—that Scripture has been “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And if Scripture has been inspired, or breathed out by God, then the Bible necessarily possesses specific characteristics. Namely, as it relates to the survey questions mentioned above, the Bible is authoritative (what the Bible says, God says) and inerrant (everything it affirms is true). Or, as Christopher Morgan puts it, “Scripture originates with God, who speaks forth his Word . . . Because this is so, Scripture is God’s Word, authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, clear, and beneficial.” To confess that the Bible is God’s inspired Word is a confession that, by definition, places us under its authority. And in that case, it has the power and the right to teach, reproof, correct, and train us in the ways of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

  1. Original Sin

As we’ve mentioned, research shows that evangelicals are steadily growing less doctrinally proficient year over year. But there may be no doctrine that has fallen more out of fashion in recent years than the doctrine of original sin. Pelagianism (see above), which is a denial of original sin, has become much more palatable.

The doctrine of original sin teaches that, at the fall of Adam and Eve, all of humanity rebelled against God with them, participating in what Barry Jones calls “the vandalism of shalom.” More than merely rupturing our relationship with God, which would have been bad enough, our participation in this “originating sin” has infected us in our very nature, rendering us totally depraved, or morally corrupt, and totally unable to reconcile ourselves to God. Reflecting on that “original sin,” Herman Bavinck writes that,

The first sin which man committed did not long stand alone. It was not the sort of action which, having done it, man could shake off or brush aside. After that sin, man could no longer go on as though nothing had happened. In the very moment in which man entertained sin in his thought and imagination, in his desire and will, at that moment a tremendous change took place in him.

That change, as John Calvin explained is the “hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul.” The doctrine of original sin, this historic confession of the Christian faith, uncomfortable as it may be, is the belief that “all people at birth” inherit a corrupt and depraved nature all the way down. 

Practical theology

Virtually all of our societal ills, both inside and outside the church, can be traced back to a break in our theology. Everyone is a theologian, after all, whether they’re an atheist, a Christian, or anything in between. And our theology—whether it’s good or bad—leads us to live in particular ways. In other words, our theology has practical implications. Indeed, as my former pastor once said, “theology is the most practical thing in the world.”

A.W. Tozer is famous for saying that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” There are many reasons why Tozer’s statement is true, not least of which is that what we think about God informs what we think of ourselves, how we view the world, and, practically, how we act in the world. So, what are the practical implications of evangelical theology as represented in the State of Theology report?

  • When our doctrine of God drifts away from orthodoxy, we drift away from the God of Scripture. In his place, we either substitute a god of our imagination or idolize some lesser thing and assign it ultimacy. Our allegiances become disordered and we give ourselves to the wrong things in the wrong ways, neglecting all the while to acknowledge the God who has made us and who has made himself known to us. 
  • When our doctrine of Scripture falls out of step with church history, our ethics follow suit. If we overlook that God has breathed out his Word we undermine its authority, question its necessity, and doubt its trustworthiness. When reverence for the Scriptures wanes, following its commands becomes optional at best, or dismissed altogether. And the Bible is foundational because, in the Bible, we learn who God is, what he has said, who we are, and what it means to bear his image. The people of God are a Word-formed people; when we neglect the Word we become a de-formed people.
  • When our doctrine of human nature and original sin is traded away for what’s culturally en vogue, we “exchange the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). We “call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20), preferring to minimize the use of biblical terms like “sin,” “iniquity,” and “transgression” and celebrate what the Bible prohibits. A denial of original sin is evidence of sin’s continued influence on us. 

The results of this year’s State of Theology survey revealed what’s been obvious for a long time now: our biblical literacy is weakening. Our Christian practice, or lack thereof, has long betrayed our waning theological proficiency. We see it in the way we behave online, in the way we have messianized various leaders, and in our lack of commitment to holiness. So, where do we go from here? In response to what we can rightly recognize as heresy, our instinct might be to furrow our collective brow and speak of church discipline and ex-communication. Instead, I’d argue that we should view our current theological crisis as an opportunity for discipleship.

Heresy as an opportunity for discipleship

American evangelicalism is in a theological crisis. We have lost our way, and “in order to find the way home,” Svigel says, “we must first admit we’re lost.” The State of Theology survey is our admission that we’re lost. But once we’ve confessed that we have lost our way we need a plan for returning to the “ancient paths, where the good way is” (Jer. 6:16). We must return to what J.T. English calls “deep discipleship.”

Deep discipleship is the remedy for heresy. It is about developing “the ability to connect all of reality to the Triune God,” and it is the vocation of every Christian. From the lips of Jesus, we have been called to “go and make disciples” and teach them to observe his commandments (Matt. 28:19-20). To put it provocatively, we have been called to continually teach that truth that transforms heretics into disciples of the Triune God who know him and his Word, who love him and his Word, and who follow him and his Word. While there is much to fret about from this year’s survey, the responsibility of the church remains clear: “go and make disciples.”

By / Oct 19

Jesus rose again. The Christian faith depends upon this truth. If it were false, the gospel would not be worth sharing. Jesus would not be the door of salvation or the way to heaven (John  10:7-9, 14:3-6); as George Eldon Ladd well understood, “. . . if Jesus is not raised, redemptive history ends in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian grave.”1George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,  1975), 144.  The resurrection matters—supremely; it is the historical hinge of our heavenly hope and the reason that we have a message of life to share with a dying world. This message has a bearing on every aspect of our lives and is our only hope for lasting change at the heart level. 

Ultimately, Christians believe that Jesus lives because the Holy Spirit has borne witness in and regenerated our hearts (Titus 3:5). Still, in evangelism, Christians should gladly offer historical evidences for the faith. To do so is to follow the apostolic example—especially that of Paul (Acts 17:30-31, 26:19-29; 1 Cor 15:6). Furthermore, a historical emphasis upon Jesus’ death and resurrection highlights the uniqueness of the gospel. In a therapeutic age that emphasizes self-improvement methods such as positive thinking and “manifesting” desired life outcomes, the gospel offers profoundly more than an idea, a self-help strategy, a life philosophy, or a worldview; in the words of J. Gresham Machem, “Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an  event”—namely Jesus’ death and resurrection.2J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,  2009), 60, Logos Bible Software. 

This historical foundation gives the gospel a concreteness—a material reality—that holds forth, not merely a perspective or mindset for living, but the way of life eternal, opened through Christ’s saving work nearly 2,000 years ago. Similarly, the event-centeredness of Christianity sets it apart from other major world religions, which focus on ideas such as rules, rituals, and distinctive perspectives on life. In an age filled with empty pluralistic religious ideas, we behold the empty tomb, inviting others to “Come and see what the Lord has done” (Psa. 66:5). 

Five resurrection facts

To some, the resurrection carries the credibility of any story beginning with “once upon a  time”—wishful thinking for the simple-minded. This view is misguided because this central  claim of Christianity boasts great historical evidence. In a post-Christian age where unbelief reigns, here are five basic resurrection FACTS that can be used to encourage believers and engage skeptics: 

Foretold—Jesus foretold his resurrection. 
Appearances—Jesus appeared to many, transforming lives. 
Cost—The apostles shared a costly testimony. 
Time—The apostles shared a timely testimony. 
Setting—The apostles’ testimony spread in the immediate setting of Jesus’ death. 

1. Foretold: Jesus foretold his resurrection (Mark 8:27–33). 

Many critics assume that alleged miracles always have a natural cause, even if that cause is unknown. It is true, of course, that many strange, yet natural, occurrences have wrongly been followed by the excited proclamation, “It’s a miracle!” However, a foretold miracle claim sits in a different category; and Jesus actually foretold his victory over death. 

One such foretelling occurs in Mark 8:27–33; Jesus says that he is going to be rejected and killed, but that he would “after three days rise again.” Upon hearing this, Peter has the audacity to “rebuke him.” In response to Peter, the Lord offers a severe correction, “Get behind me, Satan!” These details help to discredit the assumption that this incident, which specifically emerged in response to Jesus’ foretelling, was imagined later by the church. After all, why would the early church fabricate a humiliating story for a leader as prominent as Peter? 

In their book, Reinventing Jesus, J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace assert, “It is hard to imagine the early church inventing embarrassments for themselves . . . .”3J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How  Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications,  2006), 46. The embarrassing character of this passage supports its authenticity, which includes the foretelling of the resurrection. Jesus’ rising was foretold as the foreordained plan and purpose of God; thus, it is not a random occurrence or natural anomaly that was later embraced by ill-informed conspiracists and gullible crowds. 

2. Appearances: Jesus appeared to many, transforming lives (1 Cor 15:1–8). 

What could transform James, the skeptical half-brother of Jesus, or Saul, the persecutor of the church, into followers of Jesus? Before the resurrection, James did not believe in his brother’s ministry (Mark 6:1–5; John 7:5). Yet, after Jesus appeared to him, he became a key leader in the early church (1 Cor 15:7). Similarly, while actively terrorizing Christians, Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus (Acts 9:3–8; 1 Cor 15:8) and became an apostle to proclaim “the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23). Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are correlated with radical transformations.  

Notably, these appearances were not individual hallucinations because they were experienced by multitudes—at one point even to 500 people at once (1 Cor. 15:6). Michael Licona observes that “Modern psychology . . . has not come close to confirming the possibility of collective hallucinations.”4Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove,  IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 509. Thus, such appearances provide strong evidence for the  resurrection. 

3. Cost—The apostles shared a costly testimony (1 Cor. 4:9–13). 

Having encountered the risen Lord, the apostles courageously shared their eyewitness  testimony—at great personal cost. Many early church leaders such as Paul, James, and Peter were martyred for the gospel. Remarkably, the apostles willingly embraced such risks (1 Cor. 4:9–13). By way of contrast, modern terrorists are sometimes willing to die for religious beliefs that they learned secondhand, but the apostles were willing to pay such a cost for their own eyewitness testimonies. The apostles were convinced that their testimony was true. They were not lying, for, as Licona succinctly puts it, “Liars make poor martyrs.”5Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 370. They courageously spread their resurrection testimony, whatever the cost

4. Time: The apostles shared a timely testimony (1 Cor. 15:1–8). 

Legends and myths develop over time. It is noteworthy that the news of Jesus’ resurrection was established early—within the lifetimes of multitudes of eyewitnesses. For example, this truth permeates 1 Corinthians 15:3–8. Jesus’ rising is explicitly stated in verse 4; his subsequent appearances are stated in verses 5–8. Around A.D. 55, merely 20–25 years after Jesus’s earthly ministry, Paul wrote this letter, confidently asserting that “most” of one group of “five hundred” resurrection eyewitnesses were “still alive” (1 Cor. 15:6)!6Verlyn Verbrugge, 1 Corinthians, in vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans– Galatians, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 248.   

Significantly, before 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was preserved in written form, this statement of faith was established as an oral formula, as evidenced by the phrase “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 5:3). In light of extrabiblical Hellenistic literature, Richard Bauckham observes that the words “delivered” and “received” are intentionally used together to emphasize the faithful transmission of the gospel story.7Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017), 264-65. In other words, a community containing numerous eyewitnesses guarded carefully this formal testimony of the resurrection such that it was well established in the early church—even before a single New Testament manuscript was written.  

So how early was this oral formula established? In 1 Corinthians, Paul is giving a reminder of what he had preached at the founding of the church at Corinth—around A.D. 51–52 (1 Cor. 15:1; see also Acts 18).8D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids,  Michigan: Zondervan, 2005) 447-48. Yet this formula originated earlier, for Paul says that he had previously “received” it from the other apostles, likely within a few years of his conversion. Consequently, the resurrection testimony was likely well established within such an official confession of faith within one decade after the crucifixion. Thus, the timely nature of the apostolic testimony indicates that the resurrection is not a legend, which characteristically requires more time to develop. 

5. Setting: The apostles’ testimony spread in the immediate setting of Jesus’ death (Acts 2).  

When you think of the idea of “setting,” think location, location, location. Where did the message of the resurrection first take root? In Jerusalem, the immediate setting where Jesus was crucified. News of his execution spread quickly; at that time, anyone who seemed unaware of it could be asked, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened . . .?” (Luke 24:18). Since Roman crucifixion was a public spectacle resulting in certain death, there is not a more unlikely setting for the resurrection message to take hold—unless, of course, it actually happened. Indeed, the tomb was empty, many saw the risen Lord, and thousands more believed on that first day of the apostles’ preaching. In Jerusalem, the church exploded in growth, confident in the One “whom God raised up, loosing the pangs of death” (Acts 2:24).  

As you engage with unbelievers, use these FACTS to remember some basic historical  evidences for the resurrection. Indeed, Jesus rose again, and the gospel is worth sharing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use these facts to awaken hearts to the truth of who Jesus is. And as you have conversations, do not forget that grace is the real reason why the gospel message bears such beautiful historical uniqueness. While none of humanity’s ideas—no philosophies, rules, or rituals—could merit salvation, Jesus entered human history to save sinners. As we defend the historical truth of Christianity in an age of relativism, let us not neglect to highlight the grace of God in Christ Jesus, who is “alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:18) and is still transforming lives.

  • 1
    George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,  1975), 144. 
  • 2
    J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,  2009), 60, Logos Bible Software.
  • 3
    J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How  Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications,  2006), 46.
  • 4
    Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove,  IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 509.
  • 5
    Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 370.
  • 6
    Verlyn Verbrugge, 1 Corinthians, in vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans– Galatians, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 248.  
  • 7
    Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017), 264-65.
  • 8
    D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids,  Michigan: Zondervan, 2005) 447-48.
By / Sep 5

The closest I can come to giving how-to advice about relating faith to patriotism is this: keep wrestling with the questions

Questions like these: What does it mean to “love” our nation? If, as the Bible says, “the powers that be” are “ordained by God,” does that mean we should not criticize them? What about expressions of patriotism in our church worship? And what about using religious language at events celebrating national holidays? Is “civil religion” a bad thing? What does all of this mean in times like ours, when we are experiencing deep polarizations?  

My own understanding of how to be patriotic as a Christian is a work in progress. I keep wrestling with the questions, and I hope I can offer guidance to others about how to persevere in the wrestling. I know that there are people in present-day American society who see no need to do the wrestling. They can be found on both ends of the spectrum of views about patriotism. On the one end are the people who simply equate “God and country,” insisting that the true destiny of the United States is to live up to our calling as “a Christian nation.” On the other end are the folks who see all expression of patriotism as bad, with special disdain when love of country is connected to religious faith. 

I don’t know how to get the folks on those opposite ends of that spectrum to listen to each other. But I take comfort in the fact that they do represent extreme ends of a spectrum and that there is considerable room between the extremes. I find it helpful to explore the spaces between the extremes, in the confidence that the Christian message gives us resources for that kind of exploring. 

The problem these days, of course, is that the public debates about patriotism are often dominated by the extremes. This has been especially true in recent years when polarization seems to have become the rule of the day. The result is that many folks—especially many of the thoughtful Christians that I know—avoid talking about these things. When I have told people that I was writing about patriotism, I have often been urged to “be careful.” They worry that just by raising questions and exploring the middle spaces I will lose readers who want me to lean one way or another on the political spectrum. 

I understand those concerns, but I am going to make the effort anyway. My hope is that I can create a safe place for focusing on basic Christian thoughts—drawing on biblical teachings—about what it means to be citizens in the nation where the Lord has placed us. 

My use of the image of wrestling to describe what I hope we can do together here may seem a bit too combative for this kind of discussion. But given the kind of angry combat going on in these partisan days, wrestling is actually fairly tame. As a sport—and I am not thinking here about the WWE variety!—people wrestle together to test their own strength and agility. 

Animosity and the desire to wound the other wrestler are out of place. What I have in mind here is some spiritual and theological wrestling: testing the strength and productivity of our understandings of the obligations of citizenship. We can even set the goal that Jacob had in mind when he wrestled with the angel in Genesis 32. He engaged in the match in order to be blessed. 

The highest throne 

The Bible itself tells us to avoid the extremes. And this gives us space to find ways to love our country while also engaging in some inevitable lovers’ quarrels about our disagreements. It will not surprise me, though, if some readers disagree with me when I get into more detail regarding how I think we should go about loving our country. That is fine. 

The key is to wrestle together with important questions, even if we come up with different answers. What is for me nonnegotiable, though, is that we Christians must be clear that our primary allegiance, beyond what we owe the nation where we dwell as citizens, is to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the Bible tells us that when we come to witness the fullness of that kingdom in the heavenly regions, we will be joining our American voices with a much larger choir: 

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10) 

This is a wonderful vision of a time when we will all celebrate the fact that Jesus’ throne has always been the highest seat of authority in the universe. And we will all have memories of what it was like to serve his eternal kingdom in the context of specific nations. For me, those will be American memories. So, recognizing that, I will tell some personal stories in [my book].

Paying attention to individual stories is especially important right now, given the contemporary mood in our culture, with the Christian community itself divided on these matters. While I have my own perspective on these issues, I have urged my fellow Christians to set aside the stereotypes and caricatures of those with whom we disagree and to work at genuinely listening to our individual testimonies about what we see as happening in our world. For Christians it is important to find ways of listening more carefully to each other in our faith journeys. I love the line from the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” about “the hopes and fears of all the years” being fulfilled in the coming of the Savior. Our attitude toward our country is very much a matter of hopes and fears, and I am convinced that exploring those hopes and fears in the light of biblical teaching can be a way of listening to each other more effectively. 

Adapted from How to Be a Patriotic Christian by Richard J. Mouw. Copyright (c) 2022 by Richard J. Mouw. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

By / Jun 21

The word calling in contemporary evangelical culture often implies something “spiritual.” The Lord calls some to ministry in the church. But we must not let the fact that God calls some to serve the church as their full-time job eclipse the vocational calling the majority of church members receive. God calls Christians to other work, too. Evangelical culture often  underemphasizes the importance of our work outside the church, leading Christians to undervalue their own contributions to the kingdom through their vocation. 

But God does not see work this way. Though providing for ourselves and our families is important, work is not merely a means to a payday. Beyond provision, we extol the work of pastors and missionaries for the kingdom. Likewise, we should not assume the work of teachers, fast food employees, lawyers, janitors, and entrepreneurs is any less important and essential to the kingdom. God calls every Christian in their totality of being. He is Lord over all, including our thoughts, worship, and work. God cares about his people’s work and how that work will further his kingdom.

Considering Christ’s authority over our work, we must dissolve the paradigm that Christians can participate in genuinely secular work. If a Christian can describe his work as secular, not religious in any specific sense, he has a wrong understanding of God’s intention for our work. God commands us to serve him with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deut 6:5). This comprehensive devotion to the Lord must include working with the zeal we have for serving him. 

Faithful Christian labor advances God’s kingdom

Our temptation may be to think the kingdom utility of vocation is restricted to evangelism. What this sentiment has in fervor, it lacks in understanding. Evangelism is a crucial responsibility of every Christian. But Christ uses more than our witness in the workplace—he also uses the work itself. Think of the work of the men who rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls after Cyrus released them from captivity. Nehemiah recorded, in detail, the men of Israel repairing the gate’s bolts and bars and repairing portions of the wall that were in ruins. While this work may seem mundane or even secular to our modern ears, rebuilding the city wall was a holy task (Neh 3). These builders were gifted with skill and were the means God used to renew what already belonged to him. 

God’s plan for Israel’s revival after her captivity in Babylon was to ordain the preaching of the Word and the labors of the men who rebuilt the wall. In our secularizing culture, it is easy to minimize the impact of our work and forget that it is ordained by God. In a fallen world, work can be tedious, corrupt, or unfulfilling, but when we, as Christians, work under the lordship of Christ, he uses our work as a means to bless the nations. 

Faithful Christian labor glorifies God

When we discuss Christian service, it typically relates to the ministry of the church, but God tells all of us to “work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). The work God bestowed upon Adam was to cultivate and protect the Garden. Would many in the church today recognize a gardener or a security guard as one with a holy calling who glorified God? Remember also the Roman centurion who petitioned Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus never called this soldier to leave his post and take up the specific ministry of the Word. 

The young teenager in his first job as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool may think he is simply trading time for money, but this perspective is impoverished. The transformed Christian should work differently than the non-believer. His job is to glorify God in whatever he does. Genuine Christians should recognize the kingdom impact of their vocation and reject the error that work is only temporal. We must work in the light of eternity. Busing tables at a restaurant may not appear particularly religious, but God cares how the Christian employee does his job. Bus tables to the glory of God.

The challenge and responsibility each of us must reckon with is trusting that God will use the results of our labor to advance his will. For example, who may God be redeeming by preserving life through the careful work of a bus driver or the food produced by a farmer? My particular vocation does not appear outwardly religious, but God calls me to serve in my job as if I were serving Christ. As a leader, I know my actions affect the men I serve. I still wonder how God will use my efforts for his kingdom. But this I know, he cares how I conduct myself, and success is more than a paycheck that provides money for my family and church. Though I do not know to what extent God will use my efforts, God-honoring results are my objective.

Although your job may appear secular, a Christian’s efforts are never merely temporal. Christ has dominion over your whole life—including your vocation. Even if it is difficult to see, Christ uses your work as an instrument to advance his kingdom by making him known and preparing the world, one step at a time, for the day when all things will be made new. Let us labor with anticipation and in faith that the Christ-empowered work of our hands is reaping eternal benefits.

By / May 10

As the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated trappings fade from view for many Americans, we are looking for a “new normal.” This is not merely a concern for business and government facilities, but for families as well. In October 2021, Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, Jason Carroll, and Lyman Stone released The Divided State of Our Unions: Family Formation in a (Post) COVID-19 America. Their research reveals a gap between religious and secular Americans concerning how marriage is viewed and whether its desirable. 

Much could, and should, be said concerning what the author’s data portends. However, in my reading, the study reminded me of an important, though much neglected book (likely due to its release date) from University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Regnerus is one of America’s leading researchers on marriage, sex, and religion, and his The Future of Christian Marriage makes an important contribution to our understanding of the culture of Christian marriage and dovetails well with the findings of The Divided State of Our Unions. 

A unique factor of Regnerus’ work lies in the global perspective it captures. Collecting survey data and interviews from participants in seven different countries (The United States, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, and Nigeria) allows Regnerus to consider international trends in Christian marriage, not just an American context. This perspective produces the conclusion that “Christians around the world are increasingly accommodating . . . wider shifts in marriage trends. But there is also resistance . . . rooted in vibrant, productive religious groups” (3). It should not be surprising that the Christian faith and Christian marriage are tied together in a symbiotic relationship. But this positive correlation does signal a need for Christians, and especially the formative institutions of the Christian faith, to shore up both our understanding of discipleship to Christ and what precisely God means to do in the institution of marriage.

Marriage as a foundation or capstone?

On the latter, consider the broader trends Regnerus is concerned about. The most prominent is the shift from a foundation view of marriage to a capstone view. In the foundation view, marriage is an institution on which someone can construct a life of deep meaning and satisfaction. As such, those with a foundation view tend to marry earlier and do so with a premium on marriage’s practical importance and the complementary strengths of each spouse. By contrast, the capstone view understands marriage as something to build toward and a symbol of successful life development. As such, fewer people end up getting married; those who do tend to marry later, and with a greater emphasis on “psychological satisfaction.” Regnerus writes, “I cannot over emphasize how monumental, consequential, and subtle this shift is . . . . The capstone vision has unwittingly turned marriage into an unaffordable luxury good” (39-40). 

With Regnerus, I am concerned about the effects of this view within our churches. In my role as a pastor, I have been working with a young couple on their pre-marital counseling. They are among the first of their friends to get engaged, and they do so emerging into the post-COVID world. At the end of one discussion, I asked, “Do you have any questions?” which received the response, “Do you think culture, even within the church, does young people a disservice in encouraging us to wait until we are older and more settled to marry?” 

My initial response was to point out the pros and cons of both a late marriage and an early marriage. However, it struck me mid-sentence that I was essentially saying “foundational marriage or capstone marriage, there are strengths and weaknesses to both.” While this is certainly true in a limited way, it is also true that a capstone view has a host of unintended consequences when adopted on a societal scale and that a foundational view of marriage seems to have more correspondence with the biblical representation of marriage. Regnerus’ work in The Future of Christian Marriage reveals that these two models should not be primarily understood in light of the tradeoffs associated but assessed in terms of what they offer us and how they conform to the purpose of marriage as an institution.

In an age characterized by deconstruction, the capstone view exhibits remarkable vulnerability. It seems sensible, for example, to suggest an unsatisfying life will result in a deconstruction from the top down, thus beginning with the capstone. As such, a capstone marriage necessarily entails a “voluntary, consumption-oriented, and oft-temporary arrangement” (39). Moreover, increasing concerns about the decline of the middle class should provoke unease regarding this view. If there is either a reshuffling of the current middle class or a dissolution of it all together, then marriage will be perceived as out of reach for an increasing percentage of the populace. The ramifications of this echo throughout the book and one must imagine are only intensified as the world looks increasingly uncertain and unstable. 

However, the primary issue of the capstone view, according to Regnerus, is that it challenges the nature of marriage as tied to four primary expectations — totality (marriage as a comprehensive, whole life institution), children, permanence, and sexual fidelity. These four expectations are anticipated by nearly all marriages, yet they are incompatible and unrealistic on the capstone view. Here, Regnerus presents another critical insight, marriage is a ridged institution. That is, marriage generally rejects attempts to change or adapt its basic purpose or structure. He writes, 

“Marriage either works on its own terms, or it recedes. Alternate versions of marriage may be buttressed for a time—decades even—but the energy and resources it takes to prop up public opinion will wane eventually. Insofar as Christians’ understanding of marriage drifts away from the model [comprised of totality, fidelity, permanence, and children], their interest in marrying diminishes” (83). 

Marriage, as a ridged institution, is something one must enter to be formed as a person rather than to reformulate marriage around the desires and goals of the bride and groom. From a culture war position, we might take solace in knowing “Public relations campaigns can win ballot initiatives, but they cannot overhaul marriage,” but from a pastoral perspective we need to be concerned that “Marriage rates are shrinking, then, because of increasing disinterest in what marriage actually is” (84-85).

There is a part of me that wants to advocate, at this point, for a moratorium on Christian weddings involving the writing of unique vows or customization of much of the wedding ceremony. Regnerus’ work reminds us of the importance of tying younger Christians, especially as they begin to form their lives and families, to the ancient pathways and traditions of Christian formation — to advocate for seeing oneself as entering something not of one’s own making nor of one’s own purposes. We might do well then to consider what the contemporary resurgent interest in “liturgies” would tell us about preparing, officiating, and pastoring our young adults in marriage.

Correcting the capstone error

Regnerus offers a different avenue to firm up the future of Christian marriage: do away with cheap sex. In relationship to sex, Regnerus returns to the familiar ground of his previous book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). The basic tenant of that work was that sex was becoming increasingly accessible and thus “cheap” for men. He writes, “Sex is cheap if women expect little from men in return for sex, and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience sex . . . . The ‘cost’ of sex can be measured by the speed at which a new sexual partner can be found, or in the frequency with which one has sex” (91). 

While primarily being a criticism directed toward the broader culture, Regnerus expresses concern that the Christians do not see sex as being any more “expensive” or holding any more of an elevated view than the broader populace. This “cheap” sex disincentivized marriage and monogamy leading to women often needing to make painful tradeoffs to participate in the dating market. This cheap sex is a pre-requisite for the rise of the capstone view of marriage. Without accessible sex, men must mature and be willing to marry to have sex. If a culture can do away with cheap sex, it can return to a foundation view of marriage. 

There is a sense in which many pastors and Christian leaders are probably happy with a capstone view of marriage if it does not detract from a biblical sexual ethic. However, Regnerus’ data does not inspire confidence that young Christians are pursuing chastity. While we might wonder, at least for Americans, if this is a part of the backlash to the excesses of purity culture, the fact remains that sex — whether real or virtual — is readily available, and many young adults lack the theological equipment to understand why something so glamorized in both the church, and culture more broadly, should be off-limits for, say, an engaged couple planning their wedding.

As a pastor, I find that Regnerus’ concerns run on a parallel track to mine. I want to see the church be a haven against the pressures of cheap sex and expensive matrimony. Unfortunately, it seems that the ability to mobilize Christian institutions like denominations, parachurches, and Christian universities is fraught with the baggage of deconstructing the purity movement and the weakness of those institutions in our anti-institutional age.

If sex is cheap, chastity and matrimony are expensive, which leads to the finding that uncertainty plagues marriage. “Uncertainty and its siblings—ambiguity, individualism, and materialism—characterize the marriage market today, giving birth to the sense that our most significant relationships may be more disposable than we thought” (160). This is the result of several features of the modern world, including economic changes, parental divorce, social media, and online dating. Such features are also connected to the rise of generalized anxiety among young adults. 

It is helpful to remember and reflect that The Future of Christian Marriage was released early in 2020, thus prior to COVID-19 and its associated disruptions, as well as the new global uncertainty surrounding the Russian war on Ukraine. It is not yet clear whether such major events will be the cause of an increasing feeling of uncertainty or if they will reveal the surprising strength of the martial union and encourage a movement back to a foundational view with the church. In terms of COVID-19, Wilcox and Co.’s data was encouraging on this account.

The transition from a foundational view to capstone view happened much earlier among non-Christians. However, that move has not been accompanied by the projected benefits which were presumed to come from delays in marriage. Instead of resisting the cultural impulse, the church, according to Regnerus, appears to be following suit. In light of this, Regnerus closes his book with eight suggestions to “revitalize Christian Marriage” (161). The list reveals the importance of parents, the home, and the local church. In this way, it acts as a good reminder of the importance of subsidiarity and the small platoons of life. Like so many projects that lie ahead, the church will need the faithful presence and thoughtful resistance which accompanies confidence that we follow the risen Lord.

By / Mar 28

My first memory of world events was the Challenger explosion. I was in 3rd grade, and it was weeks after my 8th birthday. What was supposed to be a happy triumph became its opposite. The weird mix of shock, embarrassment, and guilt at watching people die on live TV embedded in my memory so deeply that, 34 years later, I felt apprehensive echoes waiting to see if Space X would become the first private company to launch humans into space. 

My next memory of world events was happier: the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then a parade of horribles: the Gulf War, the Balkan Wars, the Rwandan genocide and — looming as a turning point around which all else was “before” or “after” — the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 

The hits kept coming: war in Afghanistan, the Beltway Sniper (2002), war in Iraq, the financial meltdown of 2008, the rise of ISIS, the volatility of our national government over the last several years, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns, and mass unemployment, and now war in Ukraine and the specter of nuclear escalation around the corner. Also, two hurricanes, an earthquake, and a record-setting blizzard that hit my home all within three years of each other.

I’m tired of living through interesting times. We bear witness to ceaseless pain, suffering, and death, and for the most part we are utterly powerless to do anything about it — except, perhaps, help clean up afterward.

Remember truth, and finding comfort

In the face of such tumult, what would Jesus do? I’m pretty sure he would say, “I told you so.” Because he did: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:6-8).

This is, oddly, comforting. As often as we hear that we live in unprecedented times, our times are, sadly, quite precedented. The technology changes, as does the speed with which we can become aware of tragedy happening on the other side of the world, but otherwise war, privation, pestilence, and death are so common as to be timeless symbols of human affliction, immortalized as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Ezekiel and Revelation. There is nothing new under the sun. 

I need to remember these truths. In the spring of 2020, a couple months into the pandemic, I had something close to a panic attack. Watching the economic collapse and social disruption, I feared what kind of social and political fallout we’d be enduring for years to come.

A few months later, we had the largest civil unrest in 50 years with the protests after George Floyd’s murder. Six months after that, we had the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now, a year later, we have a major war in Europe. 

The pandemic didn’t cause these things. But, as many others observed, the pandemic was an accelerant and a pressure cooker. The pandemic amplified a lot of what was already there. In some cases, it was maybe the thing that tipped the scales and made bad things more likely. I feel certain we are not done yet. Wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation. 

God does not call on us to respond to all this with Buddhist detachment. The pain and suffering in the world is real, and it is bad, and we should eagerly hope and pray for it to end. Nor should we Bible-slap one another with a cavalier James 1 reminder to rejoice in trials of all kinds. That is wise counsel to help us prepare for suffering ahead of time, but often not the most helpful message to give in the moment of suffering. 

How should we respond? 

I suggest several responses to the misery we witness.

First, lament for the world. Many Christians have forgotten the spiritual discipline of lament. But the Bible gives us plenty of examples in the Psalms, in Lamentations, and elsewhere of crying out to the Lord, wailing before him, putting words to our grief and pain, asking boldly for God’s deliverance and mercy, and expressing our hopeful trust in him.

Second, love your neighbor. And by “neighbor” I mean “every human you meet.” Life is too short to spend it being a jerk. Everyone you meet has something they have suffered from or are suffering from right now. So, go easy on them. Love them with a kind word, or a smile, or a compliment, including your Uber driver, the lady behind the counter at the DMV, the guy who cut you off in traffic, and the annoying co-worker with bad social manners. Doing so helps share their burdens, and may help ease your own. 

Third, cultivate your garden. This is how Voltaire puts it in the immortal final line of his novel Candide. In other words, take responsibility for whatever small patch of creation is within your care. Nobody reading this can stop the war in Ukraine (unless Vladimir Putin is reading this, in which case: repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand). But we can do a hundred small acts to steward our homes, love our families, and serve in our workplaces. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,” and “be joyful,” and “take pleasure in all [your] toil,” (Eccl. 9:10, 3:12-13). Or as Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (Col. 3:23). 

I know it can sound trite, but “aspire to live a quiet life” is sometimes the best advice (1Tim. 2:2). It’s good for your mental health and, in aggregate, is also one of the best solutions to some of the world’s big problems too. And remember that the suffering we endure today is a bond of solidarity we share with generations past and future. In the new creation, those of us in Christ will meet our ancestors and our progeny and swap war stories about what we witnessed and suffered, and we will recognize that suffering well and cultivating our garden amidst the turmoil of our times is what gave us ballast, depth, and solidity — as well as compassion, empathy, love, and an opportunity to glorify God.

By / Mar 2

Any discussion on the church would be severely lacking without a close look at the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Without him, the church would never have been founded. Godly leaders would never have been called, believers added, gifts distributed, service rendered, or growth realized. 

The Holy Spirit is mentioned some fifty-six times in the book of Acts as filling, helping, guiding, calling, aiding, growing, sanctifying, maturing, organizing, assisting, regenerating, teaching, testifying to, interceding for, reminding, grieving over, and loving believers, who make up the church. Without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, there is no church. But with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the church shines forth beautifully as he makes her his glorious dwelling. 

Our Helper 

To comfort the hearts of his despondent disciples, who have just learned that Jesus will soon be leaving them, he promises them a “Helper” (John 14:16). Jesus unveils the identity and ministry of this divine Helper in subsequent verses: 

The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26) 

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26) 

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7) 

The Greek word used here in reference to the Holy Spirit is paraklētos, which means “one called to another’s side, specifically to help and aid.” It can also denote an intercessor, an assistant, or someone who pleads another’s cause before a judge. The word itself reveals the all-encompassing role of the Spirit within the body of Christ. He is our Helper, Intercessor, Assistant, Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, and Sustainer. 

What love Jesus has for the church! He doesn’t leave her to fend for herself with her own devices, inventions, creativity, or wit. Surprisingly, he says, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). If we listen closely, we can almost hear the disciples bemoan Jesus’s words. “What could possibly be good about you leaving us, Jesus?” Peter is so steadfast in his resolve that Jesus will not be leaving that he takes Jesus aside from the others and rebukes him (Matt. 16:21–23). 

Yes, the disciples have a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task of walking in Jesus’s footsteps and continuing his ministry on earth. The proclamation of the gospel to the nations, the organization of the church, discipling believers, caring for orphans and widows, and all the rest — “You can’t leave us, Jesus! How are we to accomplish all of this?” In his love and comforting care of his disciples, he essentially says, “My Father will give you a Helper.” 

The Holy Spirit is sufficiently enough to equip and empower you to discharge every aspect of the turning-the-world-upside-down ministry to which Jesus has called his church. 

The exaltation of Christ to the right hand of the Father at his ascending enthronement and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit can clearly be seen as advantageous after a quick survey of a few of the numerous ministries he performs within the church: 

  • He counsels (Isa. 11:2).
  • He imparts wisdom (Isa. 11:2).
  • He adopts (Rom. 8:15).
  • He calls to ministry (Acts 13:2–4). 
  • He empowers (Acts 1:8).
  • He illuminates (1 Cor. 2:10–13).
  • He produces fruit (Gal. 5:22–23).
  • He seals (2 Cor. 1:22).
  • He strengthens (John 14:26).
  • He helps (John 14:16)
  • He intercedes (Rom. 8:26).
  • He provides truth (John 14:17, 26). 
  • He teaches (Luke 12:12).
  • He testifies (John 15:26).
  • He guides (Acts 16:16–17).
  • He grieves (Eph. 4:30). 
  • He convicts (2 Thess. 2:6–7). 
  • He loves (Rom. 5:5; 15:30). 

Our Beautifier 

One characteristic we don’t often consider, and perhaps have never considered, as a ministry of the Holy Spirit is that of a beautifier. Each of the above ministries is for the purpose of beautifying the church in order to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Like a bride waking up on her wedding day and spending hours perfecting her beauty, every aspect of the Spirit’s ministry to, in, and through the church is to make her holier and consequently more beautiful. 

Here we benefit again from the wisdom and insight of Jonathan Edwards, who believed sanctification — the inward transformation of our affections to make us more like Jesus — is beautification. That is, being made holy is being made beautiful. In his sermon “God’s Excellencies,” Edwards preached: 

Holiness is the very beauty and loveliness of Jehovah himself. ’Tis the excellency of his excellencies, the beauty of his beauties, the perfection of his infinite perfections, and the glory of his attributes. What an honor, then, must it be to a creature who is infinitely below God, and less than he, to be beautified and adorned with this beauty, with that beauty which is the highest beauty of God himself, even holiness. 

This is the incomparable work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and hearts of every redeemed believer, to make us beautiful by making us like Christ. Edwards says we should be amazed that God would make any of his creatures holy, even the unfallen angels, but how much more glorious is it for God to “sanctify sinners—loathsome and abominable creatures—and make them like to himself.” 

This beautification process begins as we are brought into an intimate relationship with the one who is supremely beautiful and lovely. In John 16:14, Jesus emphasizes that the ministry of the Spirit is not to draw attention to himself but to glorify Christ, “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” In all his conforming and transforming work in the life of individual believers and the life of the church, the Holy Spirit perpetually points to Jesus. 

Glancing at Jesus doesn’t make sinners beautiful. Being a mere spectator of a local church doesn’t make sinners beautiful. Living on the edge of gospel-centered ministry doesn’t make sinners beautiful. The beauty for which we are saved is accomplished only through an intense, heartfelt stare at Jesus. We all know what it’s like to receive a glaring stare from a parent when we’ve disobeyed. Words aren’t necessary for a reprimand; the stare alone communicates the required level of conformity. Edwards says we need such a sight of the divine beauty of Christ that our hearts and wills bow before his loveliness. Naturally, as long as our redeemed souls are encased in sinful flesh, we oppose the Spirit’s work of beautifying holiness. But “one glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God, and supreme amiableness of Jesus Christ, shining into the heart, overcomes and abolishes this opposition, and inclines the soul to Christ.” When the Spirit causes the beauty of Christ to dawn in our hearts, all opposition to holiness flees, our eyes firmly rivet to his flawless loveliness, and we are made beautiful. 

A chief work of the Spirit is to bring beauty out of chaos. In creation, the Spirit brought harmony out of formlessness and void (Gen. 1:2). In redemption, the Spirit brings life out of death and sin (John 3:5–6, 8). In sanctification, the Spirit brings beauty out of fallen flesh and wayward hearts (Rom. 8:9–11). The church becomes an instrument of Christ’s beaming radiance in the world through the individual expressions of the work of grace by the Spirit in the lives of believers. 

Content taken from The Loveliest Place by Dustin Benge, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

By / Feb 22

In a moment of politicization and tribalism, conversations are always difficult. There are any number of topics today that cause controversy: who to vote (or not) for in the next election, responding to COVID restrictions, and how to think about protests both domestically and abroad. But there are few conversations that are as difficult to have as discussions of race. While Christians should be able to have these conversations because of our shared identity in Christ, we too are prone to avoiding the topic because it can be hard, difficult, and awkward. Isaac Adams wrote his new book, Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations, to counter that problem. Adams offers hope for how to have these conversations and some guidance on where to begin. 

Alex Ward: You originally set out to write a book about what to do, and instead ended up writing about how to talk about the issue of racism. Why was it essential to make that shift, and why do we need to start there?

Isaac Adams: Often when I teach on race and racism, the question I know I’ll be asked is, “What can I do?” And in so many ways this is a great question. While we Christians aren’t saved by good works, we are saved for good works (Rom. 7:4; Titus 2:14). Yet, as a pastor, I often find people wanted to go and do big things as regards racial justice — they wanted to march down the street; they wanted to maintain unity in their church — yet these same people couldn’t even have a constructive conversation with the person they dreaded seeing at Thanksgiving, much less on Sunday morning. It seemed to me, then, that before we could talk about action, we’d do well to figure out why we couldn’t talk at all. Figuring that out would have us be that much better equipped for the good and right active pursuit of racial justice. 

AW: In the book, you use these fictional characters to unpack some of the common responses to the topic and provide an entry point. Why start with a story? Why not just begin with application and teachings?

IA: There’s something in people that loves a story. We see Jesus use them so often — the parables. Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12, when confronting David uses what? A story! David is sucked into it before he realizes that he is the bad guy. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, though massive, reads beautifully because it’s told primarily through the lens of story. And so, I landed on a story because a fictional account would help me grasp the complexity that people are. Writing straightforward, didactic stuff, while I do that, doesn’t allow for painting the complexity that you and I so often live in. A person is more than their political opinions, their racial perspective, their racial sins. A story helped me to paint that complex picture more clearly. 

AW: When reading the chapter about the two sisters, Anna Beth and Samantha Lee, I was struck how often I have seen their argument play out, whether in real life or social media. One is more concerned with structural issues and doesn’t think her church and peers care enough about racism. The other thinks an overemphasis on race is part of the problem causing the divisions and anger. So as you look at the state of the discourse among white evangelicals today with one another, what counsel would you offer? 

IA: I try to offer a lot of different counsel in the book, as there are so many things to address. One piece of counsel I would give is to listen to the perspective of non-white evangelicals, and I praise God for many of my white brothers and sisters who do that. That said, often, the things that determine “the race conversation” are the anxieties and burdens of white evangelicals. But it’s important to realize that all people in the kingdom of God have anxieties and burdens that need to be addressed.

AW: One of the main reasons, you write, that we should engage in cross-race conversations about this topic is because “love compels” us. What do you mean by that? And if so, why are we so hard-pressed to have these conversations?

IA: I meant that love ought to be the main motivator behind our conversations. Without this, we could have all racial knowledge in the world and still be a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13). To love God and love neighbor are the two greatest commandments, and so it’s love for God’s glory, love for our Christian witness, love for our hurting neighbors that ought to motivate us — not revenge or power. 

In terms of being hard-pressed, I think it’s easy for many American Christians to have a biblical gospel in name but a prosperity gospel in function — a gospel that says life should always be easy. But, of course, we know that Scripture says quite the opposite. In the world we will have trouble (John 16:33). I say this because I think it’s easy to assume that love should be pain free. But the cross shows us that love can be painful, difficult, messy. And so much of what’s going on in our conversations about race is painful, difficult, messy. So while love is our motivator, it actually presses us further into hard things rather than further from them. Still, those hard things, I’d say, are good and worthwhile things to wrestle with.

AW: The recent COVID lockdowns and the protests for racial justice of the last few years have highlighted the exit of many African Americans from predominantly white congregations. Your book thinks through that process and doesn’t condemn Christians who make a decision to stay or leave. How would you encourage Christians to wrestle with that choice? Are there clear reasons why someone should choose to leave or stay?

IA: I appreciate this question! In the book, I tried to tackle questions like these head on. My main encouragement for Christians wrestling with this choice would be to fear the Lord most in the decision. It’s easy to fear what people will say about you, whether they call you an Uncle Tom for staying or a theological liberal for leaving. It turns out, though, that these aren’t the only two options. What’s more, someone’s opinion of you pales in importance compared to the Lord’s opinion about you. That said, the decision to leave or stay can be so difficult, so painful. As an African American who often navigates white spaces, I felt I had to address The Black Exodus from predominantly white churches. 

Regarding the clear reasons to stay or leave, yes — there are some reasons that are clear, and some that aren’t so clear. I lay that out on pages 32-36 in my book. 

AW: A helpful part of the book is the reminder that conversations about race are not just about the white-black binary, even if it appears to be the most pressing and visible. As you wrote about Jane (Eun-ji) and Luis, what were you hoping Christians would understand about this conversation?

IA: The black-white conversation is obviously an important one, and it’s a historically unique one. However, the kingdom of God is wonderfully colorful; it’s not just black and white. And I wanted to convey that in the book because if we’re going to faithfully follow Jesus amidst race relations, we’re going to have to remember that he bled and died for all tribes, not just ours. 

AW: Throughout the book, I was constantly thinking about the way that tone was essential to the conversations, particularly one of humility and lament as well as a refusal to impute motives to others or respond with sarcasm and condescension. How can Christians go about cultivating that in their own lives and conversations? The lives of their families? Their churches? 

IA: Start with prayer. Ask the Lord to reveal to you your hidden faults (Psa. 19:12). Then, go to a brother or sister from the “other side” and admit to them some things they’re right about. Then pray some more. Apologize for some of the ways you have not conducted yourself helpfully in these conversations. Then pray some more. Then, tell that person some things you are afraid about regarding this conversation. Then pray some more. Confession, humility, vulnerability, prayer — this is how we lower defenses rather than make other people defensive. 

AW: For a topic that is so polarizing, what encouragement would you offer for how to get the conversation started? And what should be our goal in that conversation? 

IA: There’s no better goal than Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The goal, then, is to benefit others. In terms of getting started, you would be shocked at how much talking to God (praying) before talking to that person can help you. After prayer, you might just print out this interview, ask the person to read it, and ask two questions: 1) What did you think of this? 2) Can I please share what I thought, and some of my hopes and fears in this conversation?