By / Nov 1

“I don’t think the average Christian is nearly political enough.”

For Christians paying any attention to political developments in the United States, these words may seem ill-conceived at best, or just plain crazy. Just think, in 21st-century America, the term “evangelical” has been so co-opted by politics that it describes a demographic increasingly viewed as a voting bloc more than a religious community. We might better wonder if we’ve gotten too political. But for Patrick Schreiner, associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World, these words aren’t crazy at all, nor are they ill-conceived. They’re tethered to the main argument of his book, that “Christianity is political“—a reality, it seems, we’ve come to collectively overlook.

Rather than viewing Christianity and politics as two wholly different spheres that sour when mixed, Schreiner argues that “[Christianity] and politics are . . . completely and wholly overlapping.” And because they’re so intertwined, Christian discipleship would do well to “not separate what God has joined together,” so to speak (Matt. 19:6). But, lest we misunderstand Schreiner’s aim, Political Gospel “is not an argument for one party over another,” nor is it “a manual for policies,” nor even “an argument for a third way;” instead the book “offers a framework” that leaves readers “recognizing Christianity is quite political, but maybe not in the way [they] think.” 

Christianity is political

“It has become a truism,” Schreiner writes, “to state that Jesus didn’t come with a political message. As the common trope goes, though Israel expected a warrior-king to come riding on a white horse to overthrow Rome, he came with a spiritual message about their hearts. Jesus simply wants a relationship with you.” 

Have you ever heard someone make this statement? Have you ever made it yourself? 

“The problem is,” he continues, “this is a half-truth. Jesus made a political announcement. He declared himself to be King. We have one ruler to whom we are loyal . . . he is the King of kings.” With this, Schreiner drives the stake of his argument firmly into the ground—”Christianity is political.” In fact, he argues that “the whole biblical storyline,” and “all the vocabulary of salvation,” even, “can be put under the banner of politics.” He goes on: “The substance of Christian hope at its foundation is political. Thus, Jesus was not merely urging a revolution in personal values. He was not aloof to political concerns; it was the very purpose of his coming.”

Politics defined

Over the years, our working definition of politics has become skewed and is now assumed to mean something more akin to partisanship. And partisanship, “the wheeling and dealing along party lines” or the “endorsement of candidates by pastors” is not what Schreiner argues for. He’s also not advocating for “the merging of church and state.” Instead, he means “politics in terms of public life, the ordering of society, enacting justice, and the arranging of common goods.” And because “God is sovereign over the whole world,” not just “the inner reaches of the human heart,” the gospel has significant political implications. 

Politics in its proper place

But Schreiner is “not merely suggesting Christianity has political implications.” He argues that “Christianity is itself a politic. It is an all-encompassing vision of the world and human life…meant to be enacted in the church, showcased to our neighbors, and spread to the world.” If that’s the case, then Schreiner is right: Christians should indeed be more political. But to what degree, and in what way?

In Political Gospel, the charge is for readers to put politics in its proper place, which requires that we “recover the true political nature of our message” and reassert our allegiance to the “King of kings,” letting his vision of the world and its proper ordering shape our public and private lives. And while we are called to be more political not less, the model of Christian political engagement put forth by the New Testament, as Schreiner argues, is surprisingly paradoxical. 

The paradox

The way in which we understand Jesus’ message to be political and the way we apply and enact his message in our current political environment consists of a series of paradoxes, as it did for Jesus and the first-century church. We are to embody what Schreiner calls “the way of the kingdom” and “the way of the dove;” “the way of subversion” and “the way of submission;” “the way of the lion” and “the way of the lamb.” It is these tensions—these paradoxes—that are to mark our thinking and our ethic as “political disciples” of the King of kings.

Way of the kingdom, way of the dove

“When Jesus stepped onto the scene, his first words were fully political: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). Gospel. Kingdom. Believe. All of these are politically loaded terms.” With these words, Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was officially breaking into the Roman world of his day and, therefore, rivaling its political order. And he went further, calling people “to enter this new polis (city)” by transferring their allegiance, and enacting the kingdom’s dominance, for example, by disarming one of Rome’s “mascots” (the exorcism of legion, Mark 5:1–20). In his life, Jesus “proclaimed, presented, and performed a new public, social, and political reality”—he “was the bearer of a new political regime.” And he was crucified for it.

But, though “Jesus proclaimed the way of the kingdom he “enacted it as the way of the dove.” He was not “an anarchist, revolutionary, or social reformer.” And he didn’t bring the kingdom by way of “the sword.” Instead, the political ethics of Jesus were marked by persuasion, servanthood, mercy, peacemaking, meekness, love, and submission. They are what Schreiner calls “the ethics of the dove.”

Way of subversion, way of submission

In observing the life and ministry of Paul, we encounter the subversive nature of the gospel message—a message that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). As he traveled from city to city, Paul constantly had “political accusations” levied against him: he was accused of “subverting the Roman Empire,” “acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees,” and disturbing “the Pax Romana,” or peace of Rome. And why were these charges raised against him and his companions? Because Paul proclaimed the gospel of God’s in-breaking kingdom and established “political assemblies” (i.e., churches) all over the Roman Empire whose members pledged allegiance to a King not named Caesar. 

But like Jesus, “Paul proclaimed the way of subversion [yet] did so in the way of submission.” Paul is accused of being “an agitator, a plague, a leader of a rebellion, and someone who desecrated the temple,” but maintains that he is innocent of these charges. Rather than leading rebellions, Paul subverts the Roman Empire while submitting to it. 

Way of the lion, way of the lamb

In the book of Revelation, we read of Jesus as the King of kings, the one whose throne “stands above every earthly throne,” whose coming will mark the fall of every other empire. At his return, the “city of God” will finally supplant the “city of man” and “complete the redemption of the redeemed.” We will join him in the city whose “gates will never be shut” (Rev. 21:25). One day “The Lion will return and [conquer] all other kingdoms.” 

But what are we to do in the meantime? Should we try to hurry the kingdom by taking up the way of power? To conquer the city of man by legislating our King’s victory now? Schreiner says no, “We are called to conquer. But the way we conquer shocks us.” The way of the lion must be “embodied in the way of a slain lamb.” We are to conquer by being in Christ, by bearing witness to Christ, and by waiting on Christ faithfully. “In many ways, we are to continue in normal everyday Christian responsibilities looking forward to Christ’s return.”

Our public political witness

In Political Gospel, the charge is not for readers to make politics ultimate but to put politics in its proper place. Too often the church has chosen one of two ways—either partisanizing or privatizing our “politic”—that either overlook or refuse to see the political nature of our message, both of which reveal and result in “malformed political discipleship.” On the side of partisanism, our political discipleship “comes from talking heads on cable news” instead of from “reflections on the implications of our faith for public life.” Here, our partisan loyalties are prized over loyalty to Christ. On the other hand, we can also privatize our faith, refusing to see “how the gospel should shape our public habits [and] stances.” Here, we become “politically quietistic or innocuous,” with nothing to offer a society in dire need of our “political gospel.” Both approaches reveal a misplaced politic and a counterproductive or ineffective public witness.

But how we “behave” politically—how we “respond to the government,” how we interact on social media, how we speak of our elected officials, how we think—”is part of [our] witness.” And, currently, our public witness is floundering. The time is ripe for us to bring “our political lives in conformity with Christ.”

“The gospel is political, but it is political in a way no one expects.” And followers of the way are political, but should engage in politics in a way no one expects. But, like every generation, we face a political choice. “Will we follow the cross in our political engagement or our own ideas? Will we let fear drive our decisions, or trust God? Will we submit to his way, or carve out our own paths?” In Political Gospel, Patrick Schreiner helps readers answer these questions, offering a new paradigm from which to think. True to his aim, readers will leave convinced not only that “Christianity is quite political” but that Christians themselves are not “nearly political enough.”

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 / Oct 18

The theme of care for immigrants and sojourners is one of Scripture’s repeated commands for the people of God. From God’s reminder to the people of Israel to care for the sojourner for they were once sojourners in Egypt, to the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod in the gospels, the command ot care for those who are without a home is repeated and affirmed. For Christians in the West, immigration has sometimes been a topic which has evoked thoughts more along political lines than those of faith. That is why Joshua Sherif’s recent book, The Stranger at Our Shore: How Immigrants and Refugees Strengthen the Church (Moody, 2022), is such a helpful addition to the conversation of immigrants, refugees, and the call of Christians to care for them. An immigrant himself as a child, Sherif’s story and pastoral wisdom is a guide for Christians seeking to share the love of Christ with those coming to the shores of the United States and through the doors of our churches. He recently joined us to answer a few questions about his life story and book. 

1. A lot of this book is about your personal testimony and life story. Can you just briefly share about your life and how it relates to this topic of immigration?

I am an immigrant from Egypt. I came as a boy with my Mother and sister. Together we walked through the hardships and joys of life in a new country. From legal issues to cultural issues we faced what many immigrants and refugees see every day as they build their new life in a new land.  

2. What are some of the challenges/opportunities that you see for the church regarding

immigration and refugees?

This issue is at our doorstep. In our global world, this topic is more relevant now than ever before. Church leaders don’t need a book that shames them, but rather equips, emboldens, and encourages them. The book tackles this topic in a sensitive but engaging way that helps individuals and churches to take practical next steps. The mix of compelling storytelling and empowering biblical teaching is set up for both individual reading and small group engagement, with reflection questions included at the end of each chapter. 

The church is already equipped in many ways—and my personal story is a testimony that the Church has done things well! What made the difference to me is that the church became a family to us and welcomed us into relationship with Christ—and I’m hoping to call people to that same biblical mandate and repeat the process. This is not an issue for the “experts,” theologians, missionaries, or the politicians to deal with—this is an issue for every single person in the church. If average Christian people can be equipped to reach out to immigrants and refugees, people groups who are so different from them, then who can’t they reach for Christ?

3. Through a classmate who is married to someone navigating the immigration system, I’ve gotten a picture into the challenges of what that looks like, from the paperwork and bureaucracy to even just the long time it can take, all of which I had no idea about. So, can you share some of those pieces that might not be front of mind.

Every sojourner’s story is unique, and their needs and challenges are different. However, we all face one system and a painstaking legal process in this country. One of the challenges that people don’t often think of is corruption even in our own system that takes advantage of the powerless. I remember our family saved $1,000 to pay a lawyer to sort paperwork for us. That lawyer ended up stealing our money and doing nothing. It left us feeling powerless, scared, and discouraged. This is just one example among many. Though the legal system is necessary for protection, immigrants and refugees deal with so many organizations and cold, bureaucratic processes—the church can be different by being a real family, a humanizing force in a very dehumanizing world.

4. For churches and individuals, what places in Scripture would you point us to for how to think about the topic of immigration and refugees? Are there ways that you see the theme of refugees and serving the vulnerable in the storyline of Scripture?

Scripture drives the theme home from the Old Testament to the New that we are a sojourning people. The people of God lived in temporary places, and God took them on a long journey home so that they would eventually know where their home is—only in God and with God.

David says in 1 Chronicles 29:15-16: “We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.”

The author of Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 11:13-16 in regards to the heroes of the faith: 

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

When we see ourselves as foreigners and strangers too on this Earth it becomes easier to have compassion on immigrants and refugees and come together to collectively long for the great City ahead of us and celebrate first and foremost our citizenship in heaven.

5. The book gives three obstacles that the church must overcome in order to be effective missionaries. What are those three, and why are they particularly important for addressing?

Inadequacy, ignorance, and indignation are the three obstacles of our own hearts that need to be addressed first. Fear is a major theme in the book and the primary thing we must discard/change in the Western church. A large part of the book deals with fear—not just fear of “the stranger” but our own feelings of inadequacy or ignorance when it comes to reaching out to anyone different from us. The book provides several practical pathways out of fear in order to help the church feel empowered to engage the immigrants, refugees, and other strangers in their communities.

6. What does it mean to serve refugees, and practically what could churches start to do that they may not be thinking about right now?

Every single day, by God’s miraculous rescue, people land on our shores hoping to build a life and a new family. The church in the West has a choice to embrace these brothers and sisters as our own, to ignore them, or worse. The theme of the table and family are key as we serve those God has brought to our shores. The table is a great equalizer, a common interest we have as all human beings to gather around food. We need a shift in understanding—we were all strangers and aliens and enemies of God—and yet, Jesus invited us all to the table. It becomes easier to bridge the gap when we see ourselves in the same story, in the same place. We are not wealthy people providing charity. We were welcomed into the family of God. Who are we to NOT welcome others into the family? When we move from charity to the greater vision of family, we see that in the end the church has just as much to receive as it does to give from our future family in Christ. 

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? 

By / Feb 18

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to protect children from the potentially harmful impacts of social media. The Kids Online Safety Act of 2022 includes five major elements:

  • Social media companies would be required to provide privacy options, the ability to disable addictive features and allow users to opt-out of recommendations like pages or other videos to “like.” It would also make the strongest privacy protections the default. 
  • The bill would give parents tools to track time spent in the app, limit purchases, and help to address addictive usage.
  • It would require social media companies to prevent and mitigate harm to minors, including self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors like alcohol.
  • Social media companies would be required to give kids’ data to academic and private researchers. The scientists would use that data to do more research on what harms children on social media and how to prevent that harm.
  • Social media companies would be required to use a third party to perform independent reviews to quantify the risk to minors, compliance with the law, and whether the company is “taking meaningful steps to prevent those harms.”

Whether the bill will be something Christians should support remains to be seen. But as Dr. Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, told ABC News, it’s an attempt to apply what social science research has taught us about the potential harms of social media. “I think politicians are taking what we know from the science and saying, ‘How do we build in these safeguards?’”, says Anderson.

Questions for evaluation 

While it’s important to build safeguards on social media for our children, every Christian adult should also consider what guardrails they are putting up for themselves. Listed below are 14 questions for self-reflection that we can ask ourselves about our social media engagement. 

1. The time use question: In 2020, the average adult spent three hours a day on social media. Do we spend more daily time on social media than we do on spiritual practices, such as prayer and Bible reading?

2. The best use question: Even if the time we spend on social media is not out of proportion to other activities, we should still consider how we want to spend our days. Is our social media usage an example of following the command in Ephesians 5:16 to make the “best use of the time”?

3. The bubble question: Social media allows us to choose who we interact with, allowing us the ability to create the online equivalent of gated communities. What types of interactions are you missing out on by engaging only within your social media bubble?

4. The corrupt company question: In light of question 3, what kind of bubble are you creating? Who are you surrounding yourself with online? Bad company — even disguised with Christian language — that will corrupt (1 Cor. 15:33)? Or good company that will build up? 

5. The looking with lust question: The predominance of personal photos on social media can allow us to get an intimate glimpse not only into people’s lives but often of people’s bodies. What precautions are we taking to prevent ourselves from looking with lust on the images we see in private (Matt. 5:28)?

6. The one another question: Throughout Scripture there are more than 50 “one another” commands that apply to our fellow believers (for example, the commands to “encourage one another and build up one another” in 1 Thessalonians 5:11). How are you using social media to fulfill those commands?

7. The probability of cancellation question: Cancel culture refers to the modern practice of withdrawing support for someone (i.e., “canceling them”) after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. What are the chances that you could be “canceled” for something you post on social media?

8. The loving your enemy question: Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43). Do we use our social media accounts to identify the “enemies” we need to pray for?

9. The foolish controversies question: In Titus 3:9, Paul tells us to avoid foolish controversies because they are unprofitable and useless. Does our social media usage increase the likelihood that we will engage in such foolish controversies?

10. The eulogy question: Imagine that if at your funeral someone who despises you was able to give a eulogy that consisted of them reading 10 items you posted on social media. Would you have any concerns or fear of embarrassment if that were to happen?

11. The anonymity question: Many people on social media (especially on platforms like Twitter) choose to remain anonymous. But Jesus says “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17). If you have an anonymous account, would you be ashamed if your identity was revealed? (Alternative question: Should we be engaging with those who choose to hide their identity while attacking those whose identities are known?) 

12. The unwholesome talk question: Paul commands us by saying, “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” (Eph. 4:29). Do we use social media to engage in unwholesome talk?

13. The true and noble question: Additionally, Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Does our social media usage help us to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy?

14. The glory of God question: Paul also says, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:13). Can we honestly say that all that we do on social media is glorifying God?

By / Feb 8

Social justice is a polarized topic in these divided times. The issues that are associated within this discussion are important and should be evaluated from a biblical perspective. Dr. Thaddeus Williams, an associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University, helps us do that in his recent book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Below, he answers questions about justice, identity politics, and the role of social media in our conversations.

Jason Thacker: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What got you interested in a lot of these topics, and why did you end up writing this book?

Thaddeus Williams: I teach systematic theology at Biola University, and I’ve always considered myself sort of a generalist fixated on how the lordship of Jesus applies to every square inch of life. So from where I’m coming from, there’s really nothing out of bounds or any territory of reality that Jesus doesn’t declare “mine.” I’ve been interested in literature and art, and with most of my books, I sort of want readers to be confused and ask, “What am I reading? Is this apologetics? Is this systematic theology? Is this church history? Is this literature? Is this poetry?” And the answer is yes, it’s all those things. Because again, if Jesus is Lord over every square inch, then we should reflect that as best we can. 

So when it comes specifically to questions of social justice — which is my latest book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth — I noticed in all the speaking and traveling, I do, some version of the problem of evil [would come up], with the top question being “How can a good God exist when the universe is so messed up?” But in the last four to five years, that’s shifted pretty dramatically. Some version of “How do Christians think biblically about social justice?” has now taken first place. So the first motive behind the book is realizing there are a lot of Christians out there seeking biblical clarity on these questions.

And I’d say a second big reason was seeing a lot of friends and students of mine getting swept up into certain social justice ideologies, and they just slowly became unrecognizable to me. The fruit of the Spirit — love and joy and peace and patience — slowly got replaced with bitterness, rage, resentment, assuming the worst of other people’s motives, and self-righteousness. I was scratching my head and trying to get to the bottom of it. I realized, at the root, there are a lot of very trendy ideas about social justice that are on the rise these days. And I’m convinced a lot of these ideas are a direct assault on a Christian worldview and directly undermine Christian character.

And one of the final reasons is a lot of the stuff I was reading out there was super polarized. For example, if you think racism exists, then [some think] obviously you’re a far-left, snowflake, social justice warrior Marxist. Or, you might think something isn’t as racist as it’s cracked up to be, so you’re [labeled as] an alt-right, fascist, neo-Nazi or something. And I’m only slightly embellishing there. These days, that tends to be the way these conversations go. So, I hoped to put out a resource that could actually draw Christians together to think it through biblically and as charitably as possible.

JT: In the book, you lay out a biblical vision for social justice, and you make the case that social justice isn’t optional for the Christian. Can you help us understand a little bit of a biblical understanding of social justice and the role of the imago Dei?

TW: Just think of how many passages where God doesn’t suggest, but rather commands justice. “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3). And most of us are familiar with Micah 6:8. It’s not, “What does the Lord suggest of you?” It’s, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is a running theme from the Old to the New Testament — to do justice. 

So I argue that there’s no such thing as a private injustice or even a private sin that won’t, in some way, affect others. Because both sin, by its very nature, and injustice, by its very nature, are corrosive. They send out a destructive ripple effect on the people around us. So, in a way, all injustice is social injustice in the sense that it affects people around me. And the flip side of that coin is also true. If I’m doing real justice, it’s going to bless the people around me. 

JT: Can we use the term social justice, especially since the term has been co-opted by ideologues? 

TW: The term was invented by a Christian thinker a little over 200 years ago. And if it’s being used and abused today, well, let’s reclaim it and inject those letters with biblical content. Throughout my book, I draw a very basic distinction that runs throughout. On the one hand, social justice, simply defined as the kind of justice that’s compatible with the biblical worldview. But on the other hand, a lot of what’s on the rise these days is what I call “social justice b,” which is deeply incompatible with the biblical worldview. 

So, what are some of the marks of biblical justice? Think of that famous wedding passage where Paul’s describing love (1 Corinthians 13). Paul says that real love is not easily offended. I would say, for example, that’s one mark of biblical justice; it’s marked by a slowness to take offense. This social justice movement that we’re seeing on the rise today is the exact opposite. It actually encourages and inspires people to take offense. By [it’s adherents’] standards, the more offended you are, the more virtuous you are. 

A second point of distinction of biblical justice is going to start with the pride-leveling reality from Paul’s argument in Romans 3 when he says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A biblical approach to justice isn’t going to play these kinds of inner-tribal identity group games of saying, “Well, I’m in the good group. We’ve been oppressed. You’re in the bad group, and you’re the oppressors.” Rather, it’s sort of like a wrecking ball that smashes far-left and far-right versions of identity politics where my economic status, skin tone, or my XX or XY chromosomes will determine the worth and value of what I have to say. A biblical view knows we’re tragically united in Adam. But then there’s this new identity in Christ that draws people together from every tongue, tribe, and nation. So a biblical approach to justice is going to give us a foundation for real, meaningful unity that you just won’t find in the “social justice B” alternative. 

How does the image of God fit into all that? If I’m starting from a biblical perspective, then even the people I most passionately disagree with are not enemies on the battlefront of a culture war. Instead, I need to see them at a deeper level. I need to see them theologically and through biblical lenses where this person is an image-bearer of God. And when that clicks, it’s really hard to keep playing the name-calling game, the mudslinging, the assuming the worst about everybody who disagrees with me. If you look at the “social justice B” alternative, there just isn’t a category for the imago Dei. It lends itself more readily to being able to use some pretty dehumanizing language to describe people who don’t agree.

JT: Let’s dig a little bit into some of the issues surrounding identity politics and the elevation of group identity over and against biblical categories of being in Adam or in Christ. One of the criticisms that a lot of Christians have of the social justice movement broadly is the elevation of this group identity. Help us to think through some of the valid elements of understanding group dynamics in the ways that certain groups have been disenfranchised over time, and at the same time realizing that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. How do we navigate some of the tensions between those worldviews?

TW: I’m going to resort to my mentor, my friend, the living legend of the Civil Rights Movement, John Perkins, who, as you mentioned, was kind enough to to write the foreword to my book. And he shares four basic points. Number one, we’ve got to start with God. If you don’t start there, then these tribal identities are going to lead to tribal warfare. If we don’t start with God, then we’re not starting with the image of God as the premise of how we engage somebody. 

His second bit of insight is to be one in Christ. Basically, he says, regardless of the melanin levels in your skin cells, recognize that you have been adopted by the same Father into the family of God. You have been redeemed by the same Son, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and you’re inhabited by the same Holy Spirit. Whatever cultural differences, melanin level difference, XX or XY chromosome differences, or whatever other kind of cultural category we could sort people into, a running thread through New Testament theology is that we are family. And if we aren’t reminding ourselves of that often, then we’re going to fall into these, polarized political traps and start excommunicating each other left and right. 

His third bit of advice is to keep the gospel first — the historic gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says this is of first importance. He cites this ancient — and some scholars think it’s actually the earliest — creed we have on record from the first century church: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared. If we get so swept [up] in social justice that the best news in the universe, the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, becomes an afterthought, then Perkins says we aren’t doing justice and forth. 

And finally, he says, just teach the truth. He clarifies and says don’t go with what’s politically in vogue or what’s trendy right now. Don’t go with what politicians and presidents say. Don’t side with the Twitter mob. When we start with God’s Word, it’s going to take us back again and again to the fact that we all need community in Christ. We join an every-tongue-tribe-and-nation kind of community that gives us a foundation for being a true family. Whereas the further and further we drift from the text, the more we get swept up into the political moment, which is all about us-versus-them tribalism. 

JT: Throughout your reading and research, what role [did you discover that] technology, specifically social media, plays in some of these identities and tribalism and polarization? How do you counsel Christians to use these technologies more wisely?

TW: That is a profound and pressing question. The advent of the trifecta of the internet, social media platforms, and smartphones is extremely new in the history of the human race. And that means that I now have at my fingertips instant access to everything horrible happening on planet Earth, with a few swipes. I can quickly be pulled down a rabbit hole of depressing headline after depressing headline. I think a lot of the fallout of the social media and smartphone revolution is that we just don’t know how to cope with scrolling through a news feed and seeing everything horrible thrown into our field of consciousness on a daily basis. That’s part of the problem. 

The second part of it is we need to contextualize the rise of social media. Particularly in American history, we were coming out of the 90s. The internet came to be when I would argue relativism was at its peak in America. Really, the only thing considered sinful in the mainstream 90s was calling anything sinful. Part of the problem is that anything-goes style relativism just doesn’t fit our design. God designed us, according to Scripture, to be part of an epic drama of good versus evil, to fight the principalities and the powers and take every thought captive into obedience to Christ. We’re designed to be part of that grand moral melodrama. And relativism just took that from people, because relativism can’t give you anything bigger than your own personal tastes and preferences. Nobody’s going to die for their favorite flavor of ice cream, right? We don’t die for preferences. So on the heels of that, I would argue that relativism has a shelf life.

As social media has become basically a fixture of life in the 21st century, you have a lot of people who were bored morally through the 90s. Now, all of a sudden, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. So now people think: “I need to to be a warrior, I need to to signal my virtue to the masses, and I need to be able to to hashtag my solidarity or my outrage at every new headline, because that’s a lot more exciting.” In the broader cultural context, part of what we’re seeing is the convergence of a new technology that enables people to voice moral outrage unlike any platform humanity has ever seen, and this is coming on the heels of a stage of extreme moral malaise and boredom. Put those two things together, and you have a recipe for everybody being outraged all the time — at others who either don’t have enough outrage or the wrong kind of outrage. 

So what can Christians do in a moment like that? We don’t want to just write off social media. One of the things the Church has been great at through history is whenever there is a new innovation, new ground is pioneered in communication technology. As soon as the Gutenberg press came out in the late 15th century, Christians were right there at the forefront to say, “Let’s get the Bible out there in a way that it’s no longer under lock and chain in a Roman Catholic cathedral. Let’s get it in the hands of the masses.” During any one of these decisive technological leaps forward, the Church has adapted and often been at the forefront. 

So, as Christians, we don’t want to have [the attitude that] social media is bad. I know people who heard the gospel for the first time through social media. My dad has this mission field in cyberspace where he’s reaching out to Baha’is and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. He’s been able to have meaningful points of contact and share the gospel. So I would say it’s not something to be afraid of, as much as something to capitalize on for the sake of the gospel.

And let me add a few bits of advice on navigating a technology that can be ambivalent and can pull us in really good or bad directions. Two things immediately come to mind. We need to recognize something that I describe in my book as the Newman effect. I’m borrowing here from a 2018 viral interview between Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and news host Cathy Newman. Any time Peterson makes a point, the response was “so you’re saying,” followed by an inflammatory interpretation of what Peterson was saying. I argue in the book that social media has sort of made Cathy Newman’s out of all of us. So, as we engage this very new technology, [we should] not play by those rules. [Unfortunately], that’s how most conversations that I’ve seen on important questions tend to go as we buy into the Newman effect and automatically assume the worst of other people’s motives. 

Secondly, think of the rise of Millennial and Gen Z folks who don’t identify as religious. There is a clear uptick over the course of the last 10 years. Researchers trying to get to the bottom of it found the number one answer was some version of, “I saw this really hilarious two-minute YouTube video of this guy just ripping Christianity.” People were now settling ultimate questions, eternally-weighty questions based on some two-minute sound bite they saw or some 60-second clip. So, that’s something we want to be very careful of, especially as we deal with complex questions like race, economics, sexism, abortion, or fill in the blank. As Christians, we just can’t settle for soundbites, which means we need to deliberately resist the algorithms that will only send us the kind of stuff we’re already buying into. We need to be very intentional about breaking out of our echo chambers. For Christians committed to truth in the age of social media, we need to be as intentional as possible about getting at the whole truth.

JT: What are some books that you would recommend for folks? Maybe one or two works that help us understand some of these issues, whether from a more historical perspective or more of a practical outworking on some of these?

TW: The one I’ve been going through again recently, that seems like it was written for these crazy times we’re in, was written a couple of hundred years ago. It’s William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s rightly considered a classic. And what he does there is he’s able to give just rock solid theology. Wilberforce has a clear grasp on the historic gospel of the Christian faith and the implications of that gospel for society, particularly when it comes to questions of justice and social justice.

A lot of social justice causes revolve around questions of gender, gender identity, and sexuality. Religious freedom gets wrapped up in there, too. So, another resource is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Truman. He does a really helpful job of kind of walking through the history of some of the ideas that used to be in the ivory towers of academia, but have now gone mainstream. If you want to be discerning in this cultural moment and see a lot of the trendy ideology for what it is, I would put his book pretty close to the top of the list.

This article originally appeared here.