By / Nov 2

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Religious freedom is among the most precious things in existence. At its core it is both a theological and political proposition. Theologically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that every person is accountable to God as an individual. No one has the right to decide who or how another person worships. Politically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that the state has no role in determining what a person holds as ultimate.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that there is only one true God and that he exists eternally as three persons. Moreover, I believe that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who came to earth to save sinners through his life, death, burial, and resurrection. But I also believe that saving faith must always be authentic; it cannot be compelled or coerced. As the Baptist minister Isaac Backus once quipped, “Christ will have no pressed soldiers in his army.”

But beyond the nature of saving faith, I also believe that the state is neither capable nor competent to command the religious beliefs and spiritual duties of its citizens. And because of these things, I stand in the long tradition of Christians who support and defend religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all people. 

But where does one begin in order to gain an understanding of religious freedom? In recent years many excellent volumes have been published covering various aspects of this important topic. A few worthy of mention include Free to Believe by Luke Goodrich, which covers contemporary debates about religious freedom in the United States, and First Freedom, a volume from a number of Baptist scholars dealing with the history, application, and current challenges to religious freedom. And of course to truly appreciate the value of religious freedom one would benefit from reading about religious persecution. For this you might consult Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Steven D. Smith’s recent work Pagans and Christians in the City.

Yet for a single volume exploring the roots and significance of religious freedom, few books hold more value than a recent work by Robert Louis Wilken titled Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom.

Tracing Christianity and religious freedom

Wilken’s book is helpful for a number of reasons, but one of them is perhaps less obvious than it should be. In his work, he labors to show that religious freedom is actually a Christian idea. Some may wonder why Christians, with our very specific beliefs about salvation, would support religious freedom? After all, Christians believe that heaven and hell hang in the balance based on an individual’s beliefs. Why then would Christians support a doctrine that would allow so many people to embrace false beliefs that Christians not only reject but understand to have the most dire of consequences?

Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

The answer, however, isn’t complicated. As Wilken notes at the book’s opening, Christians have always believed that saving faith must be genuine faith; it cannot be coerced. He quotes Tertullian of Carthage, the third-century theologian, on this theme: “It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.” Wilken explains that it is precisely because Christians believe salvation can only be accomplished through an individual’s earnest repentance of sin and faith in Jesus that they embrace and defend the idea of religious freedom. As he states, “religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force” (1).

Unfortunately, religious freedom later fell out of favor among Christians for several centuries. At its inception, the Christian movement was essentially a very small religious sect that many considered to be a temporary offshoot of Judaism. But as the movement spread and drastically increased in number during the several centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, Christians ultimately amassed a great deal of cultural and political power.

A good example can be found in Saint Augustine, the famed bishop of Hippo and author of Confessions and The City of God, who lived in the fourth century. During the Donatist controversy, Augustine insisted that the power of the state be wielded to suppress heretical views (notably, Augustine would ultimately intercede on behalf of the Donatists after witnessing their cruel treatment at the hands of the Romans). From the Gospel of Luke, Augustine offered a justification for “compelling” non or errant believers to embrace orthodox beliefs. And according to Wilken, some continued to appeal to Augustine’s justification of religious coercion as late as the 18th century (32).

This brings us to another reason Wilken’s book serves as such an excellent primer. As he tells the story of religious freedom, he demonstrates how this crucial doctrine was present from the earliest days of the Christian faith and how it was essentially lost for a time, but his focus throughout most of the book is upon how religious freedom was recovered as a central doctrine among believers. From the Protestant Reformation through the Enlightenment, Wilken narrates the rebirth of religious freedom among Christians in Western Europe.

Wilken’s treatment of Martin Luther and his contribution to the recovery of religious freedom is particularly excellent. As he articulates the story of Luther’s struggle against the corruption and excesses of the medieval Catholic Church, Wilken focuses on Luther’s appeal to conscience and sets his story alongside a faithful band of Fransciscan sisters who made a similar stand on behalf or their convictions. Wilken recounts the words of Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521,

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

On the subject, Wilken notes that for Luther and his belligerents, “Conscience was the voice of God, and freedom was found in obedience” (52). 

Similarly, Wilken’s chapter on English Separatists is worth the price of the entire book. He examines the work of the early Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys titled The Mystery of Iniquity. As a Baptist pastor in England during the 17th century, Helwys and his flock were under constant threat of persecution. And as Wilken points out in The Mystery of Iniquity, he defended rights of conscience for all people including Jews and Muslims and appealed to King James I for religious freedom for all of his subjects. Helwys believed that “as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held” (141).

Likewise, he features the voices of other English dissenters including John Murton and Roger Williams. Wilken highlights that it was Williams who first introduced the idea of a “wall” separating the spiritual and civil realm (147). 

Beyond these examples, there is much more to commend in Wilken’s work. His discussion of Calvin, Beza, and Zwingli, as well as his treatment of John Locke and John Owen, all offer substantial insight not merely into the role of each man in the story of religious freedom but of their broader contributions to Christian history. Liberty in the Things of God does more than trace the roots of religious freedom; it lays bare the vital importance of this most crucial doctrine and connects its history to the story of Christianity itself. As Wilken states in the epilogue,

“It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious beliefs must be kept separate” (187).

Religious freedom is a critical and thoroughly Christian doctrine. It is sacred and must always be protected. Wilken’s work provides an excellent reminder of these truths and offers a fantastic entry point for readers to learn about the long history of religious freedom.

By / Oct 31

Martin Luther never met Johann Sebastian Bach. The two Germans were born more than 200 years apart. But without Luther, there would be no Bach.

At 48 years old, when Bach received a copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible, he made extensive notes in its margins, allowing it to shape his theology of music. Near 1 Chronicles 25, a listing of David’s musicians, he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” By 2 Chronicles 5:11–14, which speaks of temple musicians worshiping God, he wrote, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Embodying a Lutheran theology of work, Bach viewed all of his music—whether sacred hymns or secular cantatas—as a calling from God. He believed his work had two purposes: “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than (1) the glorification of God and (2) the refreshment of the spirit.” Thus, he signed all of his church music and most of his secular music with the letters “S.D.G.”—Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone.

Without Luther, Bach wouldn’t have understood the dignity of all work—both sacred and secular—nor the idea of work as a means to love one’s neighbor.

But how did Luther come to understand these things?

Those with a ‘calling’

Luther was born into a church culture that celebrated religious work above all else. In the late middle ages, only priests and other church workers had “callings” and “vocations.” They were part of the “spiritual estate.” Everyone else—from farmers to lawyers to kings—had necessary but worldly occupations.

The rise of monastic spirituality, which called religious workers out of the everyday world and into the desert or the monastery, only reinforced this perspective. The laity was second-class. Life was divided into the “sacred” and the “secular.” And the priesthood of all believers was marginalized. This problem was not lost on Luther.

Love grows by works of love

Luther wanted to connect faith and everyday life. All of us, he reasoned, are priests—no matter how ordinary our lives:

It is pure [fiction] that the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9–10).

“Vocation,” then, included religious work as well as nonreligious—domestic duties, civic engagement, and ordinary employment. What made work “Christian” wasn’t the type of work being done but the faith of the one doing it. Luther writes in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but all works are measured before God by faith alone.

Such faith, he believed, was evidenced by our everyday work. “Love grows by works of love,” Luther posted to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg (Thesis 44). For him, work was one of the best ways to love one’s neighbor. As Tim Keller summarizes in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Word,

When we work, we are, as those in the Lutheran tradition often put it, the ‘fingers of God,’ the agents of his providential love for others. This understanding elevates the purpose of work from making a living to loving our neighbor.

Labor of various kinds

John Calvin and those in the Calvinist tradition, like Abraham Kuyper, further enriched our understanding of work. Not only is it as a means to love one’s neighbor, it’s also a means to love and glorify God. In light of the narrative arc of Scripture as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, every Christian has a calling to create and bring forth the wonders of the created order. Keller explains in Every Good Endeavor:

Yes, we must love our neighbor, but Christianity gives us very specific teachings about human nature and what makes human beings flourish. We must ensure that our work is done in line with these understandings. Faithful work, then, is to operate out of a Christian ‘worldview.’

In other words, our faith informs how we approach our work itself—not merely how we approach our neighbor. It is an arena in which we can love and glorify God himself, offering our work by faith to him (Col. 3:23). Practicing law, for example, isn’t merely a way to love one’s neighbor; it is also a way to advance biblical justice in our communities. Put another way, God doesn’t just care about lawyers; he also cares about the law (Prov. 8:15; 11:1).

Tools in a toolkit

Although some pit Luther and Calvin against each other in their views on faith and work, the two reformers are closer than we might imagine. Both championed the dignity of all work and denied distinctions between the “sacred” and the “secular.” They both clung to the priesthood of all believers, celebrating the ordinary work done by all people. Where Luther focused on work as a means of neighbor love, though, Calvin focused on work as a means of loving and glorifying God. As Greg Forster helpfully explained to me:

Luther strongly resisted any direct connection between our work and God, fearing that would be works righteousness. God put a calling on our works, Luther reasoned, because he wants us to serve our neighbors, not because he wants us to serve him. As Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” And he meant it. But Calvin insisted our daily work must love and serve and glorify God himself, directly, in addition to loving our neighbors.

Although this is a sharp point of contrast between the two, the ideas aren’t opposed to one another. We might think of them as tools in a toolkit—useful in different contexts.

In places where work is more static—where people stay in their jobs for many years or do the same activity day after day (often so-called “blue collar” work)—the Lutheran idea of work as a means of neighbor love can be life-sustaining. Indeed, it encourages all of us to be faithful in our everyday jobs—even when we can’t see everything God is accomplishing through our labor.

People in different vocational seasons, too, may find endurance in Luther’s idea of work as neighbor love. For example, when I was turning 40 and asking existential questions about whether my work mattered, Luther’s theology sustained me. Even on the days I felt most disconnected from any larger effect of my work, I knew I was loving my neighbors—my readers, my students, my colleagues—through my everyday work.

But in places where work is more dynamic—where people change jobs and pursue various expressions of calling (often so-called “white collar” work)—Calvin’s emphasis on work as a means of loving and glorifying God is life-giving. It can help those who wonder how their faith affects their work in, say, acting or advertising. Calling Christians in such workplaces to search the Scriptures for applicable principles is a necessary part of discipleship and sanctification.

Offered by faith

Of course, Luther, Calvin and the other reformers touched on many other aspects of faith and work, which we continue to discuss and debate today. Yet the life and work of Bach can teach us what the Reformation so beautifully captured—that our jobs can both love neighbor and glorify God. Through them we can embody the great commandments (Matt. 22:36–40). May we, therefore, offer our work to God by faith.  

By / Oct 31

It's an oft-repeated question: Is the Reformation still necessary? During this commemoration of Luther’s protest, it’s proper to consider how the Reformation impulse of yesteryear applies to our present moment in history.

Central to the Reformation was the fact that God places us before his unbroken gaze. We who were once separated from Christ—strangers to the covenant or promise and without hope in the world—have been drawn into the loving embrace of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This happens, says the Apostle Paul, “by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). But how exactly it happens is a key tenet of the Reformation.

The fundamental difference

A basic distinction between Catholics and Protestants has concerned this question of how God embraces sinners. Divine acceptance, according to the Roman Church, is internally “infused” through her sacraments, a process that consists in moral virtues and good works as the necessary condition for humanity’s final absolution. The Protestant reformers, on the other hand, located the basis of one’s acceptance in the finished work of Christ upon the cross, a forgiveness that was attributed or imputed to sinners as a gift.

It’s at this point that the phrase “faith alone” (sola fide) is so important to the Protestant tradition. From the earliest days of the 16th century, sola fide was a slogan to describe how sinners receive the gift of acceptance. On the basis of Scripture, reformers recognized that God justifies men and women apart from meritorious works. In the words of Paul, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

All of this is pretty straightforward: We are accepted because of Christ, and not on account of our achievements. And yet, foundational as this doctrine may be, those of us with a modicum of self-awareness recognize our tendency toward self-justification. We succeed, we accomplish, we perceive ourselves to be significant, and this, we think, hastens our acceptance. It’s the normal pattern of life in the world. But such self-reliance is incompatible with life in Christ.

The reformers recognized in their historical moment this same challenge we see in our own: God embraces sinners, and we recoil from his presence. God establishes, feeds and fulfills his promises, and we regularly mistrust his motives. God pledges his love by providing his Spirit as an enduring bond, and we doubt his commitment. So long as this is the case, reformation will continue to be necessary.

Where ethics come into play

So what about moral virtues and good works? What role do they play in the Christian life? Some suggest that since divine acceptance is devoid of meritorious works, ethics should be of secondary concern. After all, isn’t salvation by faith alone apart from works? Unfortunately, this denigration of ethics is the other side of the horse from which we sometimes fall when considering our Reformation heritage.

Central to the Reformation was the fact that God places us before his unbroken gaze.

Yes, over and against advocates of Catholic renewal, such as Desiderius Erasmus, Protestant reformers refused to see Jesus as an ethical paradigm for Christianity. They insisted, first and foremost, upon spiritual union with the crucified and risen Christ as the priority and guiding impulse of faith. “Did we in our own strength confide,” wrote Luther, “our striving would be losing.” Thus, the “theologian of the cross” lives by this conviction, and it animates the cruciform shape of his or her life. In short, we come to the Savior full of weakness and find his grace to be sufficient.

But how do we find God’s empowering grace to be sufficient? This question leads us into ethics. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not by relegating the Christian life to forgiveness—a merely judicial or forensic faith. In Oswald Bayer’s words, “The new human is no grotesque caricature who spends his life in a darkened room, reciting with closed eyes, ‘I am justified by faith alone, I am justified by faith alone.’”[1] While Reformation Protestants assert that we are justified by faith alone, this faith does not remain alone: “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them,” said the Genevan reformer, John Calvin.

Such virtue is not extra credit for religious overachievers; it’s the natural unfolding of our life and calling as children of God. We may not agree with our Catholic friends in recognizing divine acceptance as a sacramental process that consists in moral virtues and good works, but we nevertheless insist that authentic faith issues forth in good works. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” said Paul, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Salvation may not be achieved by works, but it is certainly comprised of works.

Our Reformation calling today

Living in the unbroken gaze of God’s love, our calling is to distinguish faith and works without separating them. It’s easy to reach toward one of these extremes, but our calling is to uphold both. In biblical terms, it’s the need for Luke 18:9-14 and 14:25-33. In the first case, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector teaches us that it’s not the one who boasts about his works who is justified, but the one who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” At the same time, we must include the uncompromising reality that “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In Martin Luther’s words:

God will not judge by your name, whether you are called a Christian or have been baptized. But He will tell you: If you are a Christian, tell Me where the fruits are by which you can prove your faith.[2]

As gospel-centered Christians, our Reformation calling is to proclaim the gift of divine acceptance by faith alone and to embody the moral transformation that such a gift produces.


  1. ^ Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27.
  2. ^ Martin Luther. What Luther Says, An Anthology, vol. 3, ed. Ewald M. Plass. St. Louis: (Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1510.
By / Jul 4

2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk with a carpenter’s mallet nailed 95 theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg to call for a public debate over the sale of indulgences. This monk, whom we know as Martin Luther, dared to assume that the doctrines and practices of the medieval church were not above biblical scrutiny. Luther’s conscience, as he would later declare, was held captive to the Word of God, not the institutions and traditions of men. Luther’s conviction regarding the primacy of Scripture led him to recognize two different realms (or kingdoms) of authority. There was the kingdom of Christ, which was a spiritual realm, and there was the kingdom of world, which was a natural realm. Luther believed that Christians lived in both realms and had to learn to navigate life in both without conflating the two realms. Luther, however, was not the only reformer who recognized and affirmed distinct realms of authority. John Calvin, a second-generation French reformer, carried the torch that Luther’s lit, arguing not only for two kingdoms of authority but also for the freedom of the believer’s conscience to willingly embrace the commands of the Lord in joyous obedience without compulsion by the law. When Luther’s understanding of two overlapping, yet distinct realms of authority was combined with Calvin’s understanding of the freedom of conscience by later generations of Christians, the foundational principles of religious liberty emerged.

During their lifetimes, however, neither Luther nor Calvin can be considered consistent champions of religious liberty. While both developed theologies of the two-kingdoms and argued for certain principles of freedom, they, like all people, were prone to inconsistency and were men of their era. Neither men could be considered children of the Enlightenment, whose emphasis on individual rights helped pave the way for modern paradigms of religious liberty. For example, on one hand, Luther can be found arguing for the separation of the church from the empire, while on the other, he can be found attempting to use officials in the government to further aspects of his reformation. Such was true of Calvin as well, even though he ministered during a different generation of the Reformation.

Luther and Calvin’s views of the relationship of the government to the church seemed to develop over time. As the reformers transitioned from being a persecuted minority to a popular majority in their regions, their views on the distinctions between church and state began to blur. Luther did not want the empire, who was inextricably tied to the Roman Catholic Church at the time, to have any influence in the life of the Lutheran churches. He also seemed, however, to have no real opposition to the persecution and execution of the Anabaptists, who were simply attempting to follow Zwingli’s reforms to their logical conclusion. Calvin was also complicit in blurring the lines of church and state. This was especially evident in his later writings. In Calvin’s final edition of the Institutes, the divine appointment of the state’s role in the life of the church is clear. Heresy and blasphemy were not simply destructive to the life of the church; they were also a threat to the stability of the state. Hence, when the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus stood trial in Geneva, in spite of his personal pleading for him to repent of his heresy, Calvin still endorsed his execution.

In sum, Luther and Calvin’s understanding of religious liberty tended to vacillate depending on their situations. Their example is an important reminder to those of us who admire their contribution to theology and modern society. While there is much to be thankful for in their lives and ministries, especially as it relates to the principles of religious liberty, Luther and Calvin were both flawed and inconsistent men.

As modern observers of the Reformation—and even more so, as Reformation Christians in the Baptist tradition—we must be mindful of the inherent dangers of wedding the church to the government or a political power. Government has the responsibility to reward workers of righteousness and deter workers of unrighteousness. However, when Paul spoke in Romans 13 regarding righteousness and justice, he was not thinking that Rome was to apply the Mosaic law to its citizens. Those laws were for a specific people during a specific time of redemptive history for a specific purpose. Instead, Paul had in mind a more natural understanding of good and evil as understood by all post Flood societies and preserved in the Noahic covenant. A government that rewards good and punishes evil in its natural realm of authority is a good government that should be obeyed by God’s people (1 Pet. 2:14).  On the other hand, the church operates in a spiritual realm with the delegated authority of the risen Christ himself. To be sure, these realms of authority will overlap and interact with one another. One cannot affirm the sovereign lordship of Christ, whose lordship shapes consciences, and that lordship not impact people’s relationship to the state as citizens. The gospel is fundamentally a public truth with real implications for our relationship to the natural or political order. Even still, the lines of delineation between the two kingdoms must not be blurred. To be a citizen of the United States is not the same as being a citizen of the Kingdom of Christ. The latter is fundamentally more important than the former.

As Luther and Calvin demonstrated, no degree of theological precision or biblical conservatism is immune to the temptation afforded by political power.

Luther and Calvin’s greatest contributions to religious liberty were in principle, not practice. For while both extolled the sovereignty of God, the ultimate accountability of man to the Scriptures alone, and the freedom of man’s conscience, they also used the government to further aspects of their reformation and condoned the executions of those “guilty” of heresy and blasphemy. Using the power of the state to uphold distinctly ecclesial concerns is not a Reformation practice that contemporary Christians should mimic. As demonstrated by their early lives and writings, it is often those of the persecuted minority who make the greatest ideological contribution to religious liberty. Sadly, as the persecuted minority gained more political influence, they had an awful tendency to become the persecuting majority. For Luther and Calvin, the sobering irony of their journey is that, in a very real sense, at least politically, they became what they protested. Their movement of protest, which sought independence from Rome’s control over earthly empires, became a movement all too willing to use the coercive power of the state.

In the end, the lesson for present-day readers is that we need to think deeply about how the principle of religious liberty should shape and inform our practice of religious liberty advocacy. As Luther and Calvin demonstrated, no degree of theological precision or biblical conservatism is immune to the temptation afforded by political power. Even when one claims that “Scripture alone” is their final authority, it is still easy to forget what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). Failure to think clearly and consistently in this regard will compromise one’s principled stance on religious liberty. We do not advocate for religious liberty so that we can become the dominant religious influence in a culture or advance our religious ideals alone. We advocate for religious liberty because the conscience of humanity belongs to God, not the government.

This article is from the latest edition of Light Magazine. You can check it out here.

By / Jun 28

JT: How were the arts viewed during the Reformation? And how can certain biblical truths that flow out of the Reformation (i.e. the solas) influence an artist’s work?

MC: The best word to describe the relationship between the arts and the Reformation is tension. On the one hand, there’s was a reactionary spirit (and not an entirely unjustified one) that wanted to reject Roman Catholic sacramentalizing of the arts, particularly as it relates to icons and the veneration of the saints. At the same time, there were voices like Rookmaaker, Schaeffer and contemporaries like Calvin Seerveld and Dan Siedell who speak from a reformed perspective and advocate strongly for the role of the arts and the imagination in the formation of the church.

The Reformation’s core ideas—salvation by faith alone through grace alone—allow an artist a radical freedom. The work doesn’t define us; the gospel liberates us and gives us a beautiful identity, a wholeness that we can’t find any other way. An artist who knows this may not, in fact, become a better artist, but will certainly become a more healthy and whole individual.

JT: How does your faith inform and shape how you contribute to the arts?

MC: The arts, broadly, are simply another form of work, and they function much like any other kind of work. Like engineering, teaching and medicine, they exist to help sustain a flourishing human society. They stimulate, enrage, inspire and mystify us in order to evoke our deepest thoughts and feelings. In short, they keep vital and healthy one aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God: a flourishing and human imagination.

LP: Sometimes I feel like people talk about art and faith as if they are separate things. For me, it would be like asking how does your left hand feel about your right hand? They are both my hands. I use them together to accomplish the same goals. That’s how I feel about my faith and creativity. Being a fulltime artist, my faith impacts everything I do. I can’t separate them, even if I try. Art making is part of how I understand who God is, appreciate God as a creator and relate to him.

JT: What’s unique about being an artist and a Christian? What drives you as an artist to pursue excellence?

MC: Christians are liberated from their art. In almost any type of vocation, there’s a temptation to blur the lines between self-identity and the quality of our work. This can turn us into workaholics and can lead to a tremendous amount of anxiety about our work. If it isn’t good enough, then we aren’t good enough. As a Christian, I’m freed from that burden; my self-worth is found by being made in God’s image. So a Christian artist is free to try and fail, to receive scathing reviews and high praise, and to let it all wash off our backs, free instead to simply enjoy the work and learn from artistic success and failure.

LP: I don’t think of myself as separate from my other artist friends that don’t ascribe to the Christian faith. I think we’re all trying to make powerful art that impacts culture and society. I think pursuing excellence is our best tool in getting the most genuine response to what we’re trying to accomplish with our art. And I think it’s imperative that we do the best we can because God created all things with excellence including mankind, animals and plants. That compels me to not be lazy when I create, which can be hard because creating is life-giving and exhausting at the same time.

JW: It’s not uncommon in design to spend late nights researching, sketching and working on a project and realize that you’ve [just] worked a bunch of bad ideas out of your system. There are also some projects where the perfect idea comes to you as the client is walking you through the creative brief. Working in a profession that regularly requires these moments of inspiration makes it clear that I’m in no way in control and that every new idea serves as a reminder of God’s providence. The belief that all inspiration comes from God and the fact that he’s chosen me as the steward of this idea is a pretty convincing motivator for me to pursue excellence. I do so with the belief that I’ll be equipped and that excellence in my craft will create opportunities to point people to Christ.

JT: There seems to be a resurgence of the arts in evangelicalism in recent years. How has it impacted the ways you create, and where do you see evangelicals headed in the upcoming years?

JW: I couldn’t be happier to see things trending in this direction. In recent years, I’ve taken on projects with my church as an opportunity to push myself creatively and take risks in a way that I wasn’t able to five years ago. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen what a design-centered approach can do to set companies like Apple apart in the business world. I think similarly positive results can apply to evangelicals once we’ve found the right ways to harness that power.

MC: I’m not sure how new the resurgence of the arts is in evangelicalism. You can trace threads of interest in the arts throughout the post-Reformation years, though it’s focus has shifted. At times, it’s in literature and poetry, at other times, music, and still others, in the visual arts. I think the “battles” about the arts will continue—some thinking of them as dangerous, others thinking about them as essential, and everything else in between.

Artists themselves will likely remain somewhat marginal, I fear. This is for three reasons. First, this is the normal space artists seek in society. They tend to want to stand a bit outside of the norm so they can speak prophetically to it. Second, the church’s confusion as to the value of the arts makes artists ambivalent about how much they participate in the life of the church. Third, the Christian subculture is rife with problems that make artistic practice difficult. It creates the impression that every piece of art must share the gospel, must not offend, and must make reference to some other artifact in culture. There’s a cheap commercialism that drives all of this, and so long as Christians are willing to settle for art that confirms their biases and doesn’t offend, it will continue, and many of the best Christian artists will find acceptance of their work apart from their Christian community.

LP: I think there are a few things that contribute to that [resurgence], like the internet and affordable studio tools. You don’t have to be famous and have label support to make a professional sounding album. We have more access to what’s being created in smaller subsets of the world. We’ve also seen people interested in the ancient church, language, traditions and liturgy. There seems to be a rise of people discussing deep ideas in art in regards to [their] faith. So is it a resurgence, or is it that we just have better exposure to better art? It could be both. And in the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of great art being made around the topics of oppression, freedom, standing up for and loving our neighbors.

JT: In what ways can the church help support the growth and cultivation of the arts in our communities?

MC: Love your artists. Attend their shows and gallery openings. Support them by buying their art and music. Ask questions when you don‘t understand, and hold artists to the same standard you’d hold an engineer or a teacher. One doesn’t expect an ichthus worked into the design of every Christian engineer, nor do they expect the gospel worked into a lecture on Euclidian Geometry. Likewise, the Christian artist is called to do excellent work that inspires and provokes. Their work may not be explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. The church’s role isn’t to critique this work, but to call the Christian to do their work Christianly: with character, excellence and humility. Lastly, don’t expect artists to contribute their work for free to your congregation. Respect what they do like you’d respect a roofer or a plumber, and when you want work commissioned, pay them a fair price.

JW: My former church had an abandoned building on their block that was going unused, so members helped divide it up into studio spaces for local artists to work out of and host art shows. While I realize that few churches have spare buildings lying around, the way they took action sent a loud message to the local art community— they made it clear that artists were wanted members of the community.

LP: Support and space. Tell artists that we support them and want to be here to have conversations as they’re working out ideas in their art. Allow them to have the space they need to create. Send them notes. Let them know you’re praying for them. Send them a meal. Creating something is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of energy and time.

JT: What advice would you give younger believers who aspire to the arts as a vocation?

JW: What makes artists special is that they see the world through a different lens than most. At times it can feel like you don’t “fit the mold” or that you’re not as valuable as those with more common, functional roles within the church. Your gift is a blessing, and you’ve been given those abilities to compliment those around you and bring glory to God.

MC: Seek to learn from the very best. Work your way up through the channels that have been established in the art world—small film festivals, local art galleries and music venues, small literary journals, etc. Do the work on a small scale, and never stop learning. Beware the instant-gratification and feedback you might get from the Christian subculture. Seek instead to make your way, slowly and steadily, in the world of the arts that you respect the most.

LP: Don’t be afraid of working hard. Really devote yourself to your craft. It takes time. There’s a degree of raw talent that needs to be there initially to make you feel like you have the ability to pursue art, but all of the great artists I’ve met and known are devoted. There’s a reality of time and energy spent on practice that’s inescapable. And be don’t be afraid to really fail. I have records I’m embarrassed exist, but I learned a lot from those records, and I’m still making music.

This article is from the latest edition of Light Magazine. You can check it out here. 

By / Jun 1

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation comes at an important time for the church. It reminds us that we stand for something. Our own denominational history, as illuminated well in this issue by essays from Nathan Finn and Jason Duesing, reminds us why we are Baptist. Andrew Walker and Casey Hough remind us that, when it comes to religious liberty, the work of the reformers was largely unfinished and relied on the theology and heroism of our Baptist forefathers.

Russell Moore, offers an important piece on what it means to believe in “Scripture alone.” Steven Smith’s helps us understand how to preach in light of the Reformation. Andrew Walker’s interview with Dr. Robert George sheds light on the contributions evangelical Protestants bring to our co-belligerence on moral and ethical activism. And Chris Castaldo, a former Catholic, helps us think through what it means to be conventionally Protestant and yet work with Catholics for the common good.

By / Aug 20

In May 1532, soon after resigning as Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More wrote his epitaph. Reflecting on what he presumably thought lay before him, More wrote of having obtained “the thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired, the he might have some years of his life free, in which he little and little withdrawing himself from the business of this life, might continually remember the immortality of the life to come.” For students of history, of course, More’s wishful thinking was not to be. Not even one year later, More was arrested by King Henry VIII for treason and executed in 1535 for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, denouncing papal authority and proclaiming the English crown head of the Church in England. While on the scaffold, he famously proclaimed that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Despite his connection to the Reformation, St. Thomas More has been widely honored as a role model by both Catholics and Protestants in recent years, with St. John Paul II declaring him the patron of statesmen in 2000 after requests by leaders from multiple religious backgrounds. Indeed, with the progressive movement’s wielding of state power and popular culture to punish Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims for defending marriage, sexual ethics, and the right to life, More remains not just a man for all seasons but the role model for our time. Yet, how do we reconcile his martyrdom for Christ in 1535 with the epitaph he wrote for himself just a few years earlier? By 1532, Henry VIII had already purged most of More’s supporters from the clergy and courts, and More was shrewd enough to see the writing on the walls. Within his epitaph, therefore, we see less of a wish and more of a plea. A public plea—carved in stone, no less—indicating his willingness to exit public life and pleading with the king to let him be. Henry, however, demanded acceptance—not just silence—from More, which More as a Catholic could not provide. More did not choose conflict, but he refused to avoid it if it also meant avoiding his call to be a witness to Christ.

Regardless of which side of the Reformation you find yourself standing upon, the parallels between More’s dilemma and our own as Christians in the 21st century are unmistakable. As Hollywood has increasingly produced and promoted films hostile to Christian values, we have turned to our own Christian studios and directors. As our universities have become liberal institutions while maintaining a façade of academic freedom, we have sent our children to Christian universities like Hillsdale, Biola, and Ave Maria. Like More, in response to hostility, we seek to be left alone, but how do we justify this with our Christian calling to be witnesses to Christ?

Fortunately, More’s epitaph was ironically not his last word on the subject. In The Sadness of Christ, his final work written while imprisoned in the Tower of London, More points out the contrast between the energy of Judas with the sleep of the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. He writes, “Does not this contrast between the traitors and the Apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image . . . a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times to our own?” In response to the Tudor threat, he—facing death—urged the bishops of England, “Do not be afraid.”

If then we seek to stand for Christ in our time as St. Thomas More stood for Christ in his own, we must learn his courage—the courage to remain awake and be a witness for Christ, which invariably requires suffering. Yet as More’s own struggle shows, even for those firm in their religious convictions, the temptation to choose sleep over sacrifice is strong. We read the stories of courageous religious figures like More, Bonhoeffer, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, yet it’s hard to apply their leadership to a world so different from what they face. Yes, individuals like former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in New Mexico have paid prices in their careers for defending marriage, but we live still in a society of religious intolerance that has not (yet) reached the level of religious persecution.

For the average Christian in America today, we still get up each morning, go to work or school, and proceed through life’s activities in ways remarkably similar to non-Christians with some religious activities after work and on the weekends replacing yoga and book club. For the majority of us, life has not yet forced us into the binary choice between Christ and the world, and our religious upbringing reflects this profound reality. Growing up, I participated in numerous youth activities including praise and worship, community service programs, regular Church attendance, and Christian Awakening Retreats. The activities emphasized the importance of Christian community and our reliance on God, two lessons that are important. As I entered adult life, however, I was prepared by my upbringing to be a witness to Christ but not to actively place myself in positions that needed a witness to Christ. I could loudly proclaim that I was pro-life at the March for Life, but in the working world, my faith life was death by a thousand paper cuts. I didn’t want to alienate potential new friends or isolate myself from co-workers by discussing controversial topics where it wasn’t appropriate, but in the end excuses like these eventually isolated my faith life from my working life. Was the only way to truly live a religious life and hold a career to work for an organization that aligned with my views?

The lesson of St. Thomas More says that the answer to this question is a definite no. Many are called by God to the religious life, but the Church is in and of this world as it prepares us for the next, and for that it needs laymen, like More, to be servants of God and also dedicated workers for our businesses, schools, law firms, and city halls. To advance a truly pluralistic society, we have to be witnesses of Christ daily, not to lecture about Christianity (lectures have their own time and place) but to be present as Christians. In every action and interaction, our neighbors, friends, and citizens need to know that we are God’s servants through our dedicated work and charity. As St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” When opponents of those who defend marriage declare us hostes humani generis—enemies of the human race—they need to be reminded that we are their co-workers, roommates, neighbors, family members, and friends. We must not be sleeping; we must be present in the world to remind the world of the beauty of our faith and the legitimacy of our arguments.

Will our witnesses to Christ leave us vulnerable to suffering? Of course it will. As long as humans remain imperfect, any interaction with the world will leave us open to suffering. If we wait until just the right moment to be witnesses to Christ—whether it be after we graduate college, or just until we can get our foot into the door with that first job or big promotion—we will always have an excuse not to be witnesses to Christ. As More wrote in Utopia, “do the best you can to make the present production a success—don’t spoil the entire play just because you happen to think of another one that you’d enjoy rather more . . . for things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect.”

In the end, despite More’s example, only one bishop in England refused to submit to Henry VIII’s demands, More’s friend and fellow martyr St. John Fisher. May we not be caught sleeping when we are called to be witnesses to Christ and His teachings in our own time.