- D.A. Carson
Wednesdays with James
Lesson Thirteen: The Two Ways — Time to Choose
We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12).
In chapter one, James defined true religion as “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent[ing] the world leaving its dirty smudge on you.” Last week’s passage made a distinction between “wisdom” that comes from below and that which comes from above.
Like other wisdom teachers — think “the righteous” vs. “the wicked” in Proverbs — James draws a sharp distinction between what it looks like to follow God and God’s ways on one hand and what engaging in selfish, sinful behavior looks like on the other hand. As he puts it: friendship with the world = enmity toward God.
This dualistic perspective all comes to a head in today’s text. Like a revival preacher setting out two clear choices and then calling his audience to a make a decision about which way they’re going to go, James brings his argument about God’s ways vs. the world’s ways to a climactic call to action in chapter 4 of his epistle.
Where do wars come from? Why do people among you fight? It all comes from within, doesn’t it— from your desires for pleasure which make war in your members. You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone. You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! And when you do ask, you don’t get it, because you ask wrongly, intending to spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers! Don’t you know that to be friends with the world means being enemies with God? So anyone who wants to be friends with the world is setting themselves up as God’s enemy. Or do you suppose that when the Bible says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us,” it doesn’t mean what it says?
But God gives more grace; so it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit to God, then; resist the devil and he will run away from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Make your hands clean, you sinners; and make your hearts pure, you double-minded lot. Make yourselves wretched; mourn and weep. Let your laughter turn to mourning, and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Do not speak evil against one another, my dear family. Anyone who speaks evil against another family member, or passes judgment against them, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge! There is one lawgiver, one judge who can rescue or destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
One of the earliest writings we have from Apostolic Fathers is an anonymous work called, The Didache. (Here’s a post on IM from a few years ago about it.) Like James, The Didache is filled with allusions and quotes from the Synoptic teachings of Jesus, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. And, in similar fashion, it sets forth two clear ways in which people may live.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you….
…And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.
Whereas The Didache may have used this technique of “two ways” for the instruction of new converts or baptismal candidates, James is writing to congregations of people who are in the midst of choosing between the two ways of life daily. At the time of James’s writing, in circumstances that we have described as stressful and divisive, many of them were apparently making bad choices. So he urges them — in no uncertain terms! — to get back on track with God, with themselves, with each other.
Now I will be the first to say that this style of black and white, darkness and light, righteous and wicked, heaven or hell teaching is not quite my cup of tea. I prefer the complementary biblical wisdom tradition that questions the black and white and is content to live in the gray.
Nevertheless, I understand that sometimes a pastor, a leader, a teacher, a parent, or someone else who is trying to help people in certain situations must lay it on the line, call those in his or her charge to account, and urge them to make good decisions, right decisions. And to do so with some sense of urgency.
This is not all there is to biblical religion, but it is an integral part of life for all of us.
“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” (Deut. 30:15, KJV)
What will we choose today?
• • •
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)
- Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary (2:14-26)
- Lesson Eleven: Stressed-out Speech Sinks Ships (3:1-12)
- Lesson Twelve: Wise Up!
The original Star-Spangled Banner, in the Smithsonian Institution
One would think that the availability of the internet would increase the general truthfulness of human discourse. When it’s so easy to check our facts, our facts ought to be more… factual.
The actual effect, as far as I can see, has been to simply facilitate the spread of misinformation. Which ought to prove the doctrine of Original Sin beyond all dispute, it seems to me.
The misinformation I have in mind today is the urban legend, popularized in the wake of the recent controversy over a football player (who shall remain nameless here, because he doesn’t need the publicity) who refused to stand for the national anthem. The urban legend says that all black people should refuse to stand for the song, because it was written by a slave owner for the purpose of glorifying slavery.
This is hogwash. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder, and a supporter of slavery, in common with most of his family and neighbors. But the song has nothing to do with that.
The offending lines, which are quoted as proof that the Star-Spangled Banner is a celebration of the institution of slavery are these:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
Now look at the context. Here’s Keys’ entire poem:
O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
When you look at the entire poem, it’s obvious that the words “hireling and slave” do not refer to black slaves, who are not mentioned at all in the poem. The hirelings and slaves here are the British armed forces, whose defeat at Fort McHenry Key is celebrating. Key is taunting them, speaking as a free citizen of a republic, for being unfree and slavish subjects of a tyrannous English monarch. The insult intentionally contrasts with the first line of the last stanza, where he writes, “O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.” His argument is that it’s inevitable that free men, voluntarily defending their homes, will always defeat the demoralized subjects of a king, who can only be made to fight through payments of money and threats.
That’s the truth of it. Not that telling the truth will matter to anybody.
The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”
The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.
I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.
Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.
I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?
The great Tom Wolfe takes on language, Darwin, and Noam Chomsky in his new book, The Kingdom of Speech. He says all of the theories on how language began are terrible, exposing a major weakness in the bowels of evolution.
In his article yesterday, Hillel Italie notes:
Speech is the book’s primary subject, but status has been the running theme of Wolfe’s work from the astronauts in “The Right Stuff” to campus life in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and it’s a subplot for “Kingdom of Speech.” He doesn’t only take on Chomsky, but portrays Darwin as a competitive, would-be aristocrat striving for “honor as a Gentleman and a scholar.”
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to any argument against evolution, but this particular argument also draws me in and recalls what I read about language origin in a course on the history of English. All of them are grasping at straws.
Charles Mann goes into detail on what Wolfe explores and explains:
When Darwin finally took on language in “The Descent of Man” (1871), the coffee got pretty weak. By that point, the argument that language evolved from animal sounds had already been made by well-known figures like Wallace, August Schleicher (the best-respected linguist of the day) and Edward B. Tylor (one of cultural anthropology’s founders). Darwin mainly reiterated their reasoning, which amounted to: Bird song and dog barks are actually pretty expressive, so I bet they could have extended somehow into human language. The term for this kind of thing in academia is “hand-waving.”
On August 15, 1977, a man named Jerry Ehman came across a radio signal from deep space that confounds scientists to this day. Ehman, a volunteer for SETI — an organization dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — was monitoring the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. Looking over the printouts of what that Big Ear had been hearing, Ehman could see all the typical background noise of outer space: the standard movements of satellites, the signals emanating from earth refracted off of space debris, and the like. But then something stood out. There was an anomaly. A big one.
6EQUJ5. That was the sequence on the printout indicating a strong, unique signal from outer space. It did not match the background noise. In fact, it looked much like you’d expect a radio signal from an intelligent source to look. It came from the region in the sky where the constellation Sagittarius is found, and its frequency appeared to match the “hydrogen line,” a promising trait for SETI researchers who figured intelligent beings might use the most common element in the universe to broadcast a signal.
Blown away by what he’d discovered, Ehman took a red pen and circled the 6EQUJ5 sequence on the printout, writing “Wow!” off to the side.
Scientists have never found the source of the Wow! signal. They have never heard it again, despite consistently listening in over the years to the same region of space with radio telescopes much more powerful than the Big Ear. They have so far heard nothing like it. And yet the Wow! signal continues to captivate, stirring curiosity and fueling hope that somewhere out there someone is listening to us, that someone is sending out a signal.
Why does the search for extraterrestrial life entertain us so much? Since the earliest days of UFO sightings and the burgeoning genre of science fiction in the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, what itch does yearning for outer space scratch?
One of my favorite movies is Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though overshadowed by Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterwork —- a little movie called E.T. the Extraterrestrial — Close Encounters follows similar themes but on a much larger scale. In E.T., Spielberg uses the science fiction conceit really to speak to the ideas of fatherlessness and family. In Close Encounters, he speaks to man’s universal search for meaning.
As the aliens get closer to revealing themselves to mankind’s official spokespeople in a stunning climatic scene at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, key characters inexplicably find themselves making replicas of the tower or seeing visions of it. Richard Dreyfuss starts with his mashed potatoes at dinner. Eventually he’s pulling up the landscaping to make a minitower in his living room. A little boy shares these compulsions. A scattered group is drawn together by their inner yearning for this extraterrestrial contact. It seems to speak to something missing in their lives, to promise an answer to everything that is unsettled in them.
When the aliens do finally arrive, for these aching souls it is like heaven has finally come to earth. Dreyfuss’s character goes with them in their spaceship to lands unknown.
Of course, for many, many people, interest in science fiction and little green men and rockets to the moon aren’t a reality at all. But I still think the inner human ache for the search for life in outer space is universal. We may seek to satisfy it in different ways, but we’re all really trying to solve two fundamental human problems: loneliness and insignificance.
Deep down, though many do not realize it or admit it, human beings carry a deep-seated need to know and to be known, a need to feel worthy, to be part of something bigger, as if all that is around us is more than it seems. This is a collectively human problem, not just an individual one. We feel lonely as a species, not just as people, otherwise the community offerings all around us would do the trick. And being in community with people is extremely helpful and necessary. But our hearts still yearn for more. This is why we find it so hard sometimes to live with each other.
Humanity also faces the problem of insignificance. Consider how each generation, at least in the United States, identifies so strongly with cultural milestones like WWII or Woodstock. It isn’t simply that we want to be thought great as individuals—though we do—but that we also want to be known as a great people. Tom Brokaw even wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. We identify strongly with our generations, our colleges, our states, and of course our nations. But these collective identities don’t ultimately satisfy either. So what is the last frontier for man to be seen as great, to feel a part of something grand, universal, and important—not just in the world but the universe? Well, outer space, of course.
Volunteers around the world today have set up their computers to take part in a vast SETI network, harnessing their collective strength to provide a great big listening grid aimed at the heavens. Every day these noble souls diligently scan computer screens and paper printouts looking for that next Wow! But what is it, really, that they are looking for?
I think we are all really looking for connection and significance, and we’re all looking for them in ways we can’t quite get a grasp on with the ordinary stuff of earth.
But the good news is that the answer really is out there.
God’s plan to bring lasting, satisfying connection and significance to mankind, to cure the angst for more that we all feel deep inside, to make us feel less like aliens and less like searching for them — is found in this thing the Bible calls grace. Grace is God’s modus operandi in the world. Not everybody gets all the grace God has to give, but everybody who wants it does, and everybody else gets some grace just for being a human creature trying to get by in the world. (Christian theologians call this “common grace.”)
Living our lives driven by appetites, seeking to gain as much pleasure or comfort or power as we can, does not solve the deep need for significance. It might medicate us against it for a while, but it just doesn’t last. Alternatively, living on the religious duty treadmill, trying to earn credit with God through personal righteousness, basically just trying to be “good people,” doesn’t solve our deep need for connection.
But the signal is coming from deep space. It transmits on lots of frequencies, some stronger than others. God is doing something with us. He is meaning something with creation. The message of grace — unmerited favor — hits the universal need with a specific message. And it bids us turn our gaze to the heavens to see God’s impressive strategy for the whole world.
The problem of loneliness and insignificance is actually a lack of glory. The glory of God solves those problems (and a million others besides). It actually cracks the code of human existence and the future of creation. See, God has not been silent. He has declared these realities. He actually tells us what he’s going to do with everything! Like a Wow! signal straight from heaven, Habakkuk 2:14 announces, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
This is God’s endgame for everything. Glory. He wants his glory to fill the earth, to drench it, really, making all the dry places alive again and all the dull places shine again.
This is the secret of the universe. The “thing” that makes sense of everything is the glory of God brought to bear by the grace of God. And God’s modus operandi, his plan to reveal this secret, is the proclamation of the message the Bible calls “the gospel,” the good news that the glorious God has sent the radiance of his glory to restore men who have sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). As Martin Luther says, “For what is the Gospel but a declaring of the glory of God and his works?”
The gospel is the Wow! signal from deep space that changes everything.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World)
I have reached another level in my carefully plotted strategy for world domination. I have agreed to teach three class periods in the seminary this fall. One hour on how to write research papers, and two on the historical background of the Free Lutheran conception of the pastoral ministry.
In what is tediously known as the Real World, of course, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t have faculty status. But I’ve always had great respect for academics (or I did until the field in general got turned into an exercise in political flacking). That’s probably one of the reasons I always resisted graduate study – until it became a necessity – I felt unworthy. Though I’ll admit it was mostly a matter of laziness, and finding school both boring and annoying.
It wasn’t a surprise. We’d discussed the idea before, and I’d done some preliminary preparation. But today it was confirmed, and the writing class is on the calendar.
For me, it’s kind of a big deal. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a teacher, but I do love lecturing. Pay attention to me!
NPR started asking around about the popular television painter Bob Ross, whose show has been streaming on Netflix for a couple months now. They found Annette Kowalski, who discovered him in a sense and helped produce his style of teaching into a hit show. She says Bob was a tough, but wonderful, man.
“Do you really think this company would be as successful as it is, if he didn’t insist that everything be done a certain way?”
She says she was attracted to his gentle, comforting style immediately when she saw him in person.
“I was so mesmerized by Bob,” Kowalski tells NPR. “Somehow, he lifted me up out of that depression. I just think that Bob knew how to woo people. I said, ‘Let’s put it in a bottle and sell it.’ “
Now there are people who like it when bathing beauties kick the butts of beefy mobsters in TV shows and stuff, but that is just TV, and if you think that is real, you need to get out more, and get in more fights.
I read a lot of novels, as you’ve probably noticed. A few I don’t bother to finish. Some I like, but they leave no impression. Others I like a lot. A very few I admire exceedingly.
But it’s not often I find a book that’s just a whole lot of fun. John C. Wright’s Somewhither is just that. I’m not sure it’s a great work of art, but it could become a classic of the Wizard of Oz variety. Because the entertainment rewards are so great.
Here’s a book whose hero is a Neanderthal boy, in a bathrobe, with a samurai sword. The heroine is a mermaid named Penny Dreadful.
There’s a Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy vibe here, but underneath the many gags (sometimes too many, perhaps) there’s serious purpose and Christian edification.
Ilya Muromets does not know he’s not human. He’s a homeschooled teenage boy living in Oregon (though hardly ordinary. Aside from his size and strength, his father has drilled him heavily in martial arts). He works part-time as a janitor at a local museum, where he moons over Penny, the daughter of the scientist in charge.
Until one night a portal opens to another world, Penny is pulled inside, and Ilya jumps in after her, to save her.
He finds himself in a strange and sinister alternate universe, where the Tower of Babel never fell, and the whole world is enslaved by astrologers who foretell everyone’s actions. Ilya will learn mysteries of the cosmos, truths of ancient history, and surprising secrets of his own nature.
I’ve written before that high fantasy needs “bridge characters” – Everymen who make the lofty action and high adventure accessible to ordinary readers. Ilya, in spite of his special characteristics, is at heart just a 17-year-old boy, a movie and fantasy geek, trying to control his hormones through his Catholic faith. In the worst of circumstances, he still makes wisecracks. The wisecracks can get a little out of hand sometimes, but that’s true to life too.
So I got a huge kick out of Somewhither. It’s the first book in a series, which means there’s good stuff to come. That’s excellent. Not for young children, because the violence and cruelty can be a little intense. Also there’s a small amount of profanity, though it’s usually circumlocuted.
“Never read a book through merely because you have begun it.” ~John Witherspoon
Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.
Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.
After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.
Is this how a new generation is learning about the classics and other literature? Actor Greg Edwards delivers lol synopsis and commentary on Shakespeare and many other great books as well as a few not so great ones.
smh I can’t even (language warning, even with sound censoring)
I owe you an update. You know I’m done with my graduate work. That’s kind of an annoyance, in a way, because I’d gotten used to using school as an all-purpose excuse. “Gee, I’d like to help you move on Saturday, but golly, I’ve just got so much homework to do!”
Hard on the heels of that consummation, I was asked to do another edit on the Viking book I translated. I did that, and then when I had sent it in I re-considered and asked to have it back for one more pass. Because I like to do these things right. I have an idea that this translation will be a large part of the footprint I leave behind in this life.
Yesterday they sent me a draft cover for the book (to be called Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad). I’d share it with you, but I don’t have permission to. And it’ll probably change anyway. But I felt a quiet swelling of pride in my chest when I saw it. It’ll be good. Watch for it. This fall. Sometime.
Looks like I’ll be having some more translation work to do in the future too. I’m going to have to work out how to balance that with my novel writing.
I have been working on the next novel too, though. The problem is that this one’s a toughy. Of all the books in the Erling series, this will be the hardest to plot. It involves the lowest point in Erling’s life, and by extension in Father Ailill’s. I’ve got to figure out how to keep this one from combining the optimistic sparkle of Dostoevsky with the cheery fun of Game of Thrones.
Last night one of the characters did something I didn’t see coming. I’m still working out (while time is paused in his world) how Ailill will react.
So I shall not want for work to do.
Our blog doesn’t have a narrow topic list. We do want you to find our posts interesting, but I think Lars and I usually allow our own interests to guide the subjects of our posts and only occasionally rule something out as off-topic. This post is probably in off-topic territory. It may even be gossip, but I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 23, 2016
Several weeks ago, long-time Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against network chairman Roger Ailes, who has since resigned. She called him a serial harasser, claimed he said many outrageous things over the years, and hindered her career because she refused him.
Granted, I don’t know Carlson personally, but I have heard her many times on the radio, occasionally on TV, and have complete faith in her. She seems to be an intelligent person who does not toe a party line but perseveres in independent thinking. She never impressed me as someone trivial or petty. When I heard of her lawsuit, I believed it on its face, because she has credibility with me. Though I’ve seen some defense of Ailes and discrediting of Carlson by other Fox News hosts, several women have also told their stories to Carlson’s lawyer.
Now we learn Andrea Tantaros is also suing Fox News executives for condoning, if not contributing to, sexual harassment, and I believe her, not because of any suspicion I have of Ailes or the people she names, but because I trust her. She impresses me as a strong, intelligent, capable woman. In the suit, she describes at least some of the process she walked through to get grievances like this addressed within the system. Her accusations were dismissed, so as not to rock the boat.
Both of these women have convinced me they are truthful, rational people who don’t give into propaganda, which perhaps is all I’m trying to say. That’s the platform Fox News helped them build, which you could say is the same platform you find at other networks for other news anchors and commentators, but as Tantaros says in the quotation above, Fox is different. Though Fox News as a whole is not the conservative mouthpiece its detractors claim it is, many of its hosts are conservative or lean that way. They give our side of the political argument ample airtime.
Conservatism is the political ideology that argues for common dignity, recognizing that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We don’t use each other. We don’t encourage victimhood under the guise of empowerment. We argue for restraint at every level, which obviously includes moral restraint. Self-control is one aspect of the love that makes any society flourish.
Fox News has always had an uneasy relationship with the moral aspects of conservative ideology in that they have yet to cut their roots in tabloid journalism. Perhaps that’s just the way establishment Republicans roll, advocating conservative economics with one hand while supporting self-undermining morality with the other. It does them no favors, because their audience, I assume, does not put politics over truth on every issue. Maybe with some things we do; it’s a potential blind spot for everyone. But for the most part, we work to recognize the truth for what it is.
Tantaros and Carlson are truth-tellers in practice and by reputation. If they have exaggerated or lied in any of their claims, I hope the truth will out them, but until that time, my biases are with them.
“It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing that will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” ~C.S. Lewis
“Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. ” ~Tim Keller, The Reason for God.
[Western civilization] came into being through Christianity and without it has no significance or power to commend allegiance. ~Evelyn Waugh
“You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” ~Evelyn Waugh
“A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” ~G.C. Lichtenberg
Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.
Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.
After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.
I wasn’t surprised by the big reaction to my recent post “Top 10 Things I Wish Worship Leaders Would Stop Saying” because I know that the subject is a particular hot button for evangelicals. And while I think too often we inappropriately insulate our preferences/traditions from criticism, I am of course sensitive to the request for a more positive, proactive help. I’ve actually written quite a bit on worship, both online and in print—The Prodigal Church and my Gospel Coalition church resource Gospel Shaped Worship are the most notable examples—but new readers triggered by yesterday’s blog post are not likely to be familiar with that work. I was already planning on writing the list below but decided to hasten its appearing. Here’s to hoping this list reaches the same audience as the last.
I love it when worship leaders . . .
10. Lead more than perform.
I am grateful for talented vocalists and musicians serving as worship leaders, but I’m especially grateful when our leaders don’t treat their position as a showcase for their gifts but as an opportunity to shepherd the flock. I love it when worship leaders choose songs that lend themselves more to congregational singing than band performance and lead in such a way that it’s easier to follow along—appropriate keys and pacing, not over-improvising, following the printed or projected lyrics, and so on. And speaking of shepherding, I love it when you . . .
9. Approach the worship gathering with a pastoral sensibility.
The worship gathering shouldn’t be some bland, un-creative exercise in avoiding anything remotely artistic, but I’m grateful for worship leaders who think primarily about what the flock needs more than what the flock wants—because they are not always the same thing—and seeks to steward the music time and other worship order elements with Christ’s glory at heart and Christ’s church in mind. (And pastors, this is why often the most gifted singers/musicians in your church are not the best candidates for worship leaders.)
8. Let theology drive their decision making.
Too many worship services are driven by a consumeristic or pragmatic ethos. Too many worship leaders (and their pastors and creative teams) over-busy themselves asking, “What else can we do?” as if the worship gathering is a blank artistic slate for creative expression. But as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “You were so busy asking if you could do something, you never bothered to ask if you should.” This is why I’m grateful for worship leaders who know how to evaluate songs for theological soundness, biblical coherence, and doctrinal clarity. And I like it when this commitment to theology is reflected in a fearlessness about old songs and a discriminating taste about new songs. But I also love it when you . . .
7. Think about the service beyond the songs.
And I don’t mean simply videos or whatever. I am grateful for worship leaders who think about the worship order as a whole, who think about the story a worship order tells. Every church has a liturgy, even if they don’t like that word or they’ve never even heard of that word! Your worship elements and their order communicate something about God about his Word and about your church. I love it when it’s clear the worship team hasn’t just busied themselves picking good songs but has also thought about the progression of song content in relation to the different elements of the service (confession, prayers, communion, sermon, and so on) and how all the pieces together point to God in Christ as our hope.
6. Aren’t afraid of silence.
Not every space has to be thick with sound and visuals. I know silence between songs can sound like awkward transitions, but not every square inch of the worship service has to be “produced.” Is that fuzzy synthesizer ambiance in between songs and during prayers there to create a mood? Why? What for? I love it when worship leaders “embrace the real.” One thing my church’s worship leader does—after the sermon has been preached and before he leads us in the closing song—is give us a time to silently reflect on the message. It’s not a long time, but it’s long enough to start to feel awkward to those who are new to the practice. But there’s no ambient music. No vocal prayer. Just silence. You can hear those scattered coughs. Kids whispering. A Bible hitting the floor. The rustling of paper. But mostly just stillness and quiet. In our daily lives we are awash with noise. We are hurry-sick. Even when we’re alone, we’re taking in the “noise” of the internet or something else. I think it’s wonderful to take this into account in our worship services, not feel inclined to mirror the constant noise of the world, and give us some time to hush. It’s good for our souls.
5. Pray for real.
I love it when worship leaders are God-conscious and their prayers sound like they’re actually talking to their Father. Sometimes it is easy for worship leaders to lapse into “stage prayers,” where the prayer is simply filler, a way to introduce the next song, or full of verbal tics that don’t make it sound like the leader is well-versed in prayer outside the worship service (“FatherGod we just love you FatherGod and we just FatherGod just want to just…”). When you “pray naked,” even in your skinny jeans, I am inspired and encouraged to bring my true self before God. I am led to cry out to God myself when it sounds like my worship leader is crying out to God.
4. Prioritize the Word.
Feelings are great. It is unChristian to deny the importance of feelings. But it is unChristian to prioritize (idolize) our feelings. Our life is not to be dictated by our feelings—even spiritual feelings—but by the inspired, infallible Word of God. So I love it when worship leaders choose songs that reflect biblical truths, echo the full-hearted human experience of the Psalms and other biblical texts, and read or recite Scripture in their introductions and transitions. I love it when worship leaders being the gathering not with a rockin’ song to loosen (or wake) everybody up, but with a Scriptural call to worship. This is a reminder that our worship gathering is a response to God’s active work in the world and his specific summoning of us through the gospel of Christ. I also love it when worship leaders remind me that the worship time doesn’t end when the songs do, and that the preaching of the word is both the continuation of—and the apex of—the worship gathering.
3. Lead with serious joy.
I always feel like I’m on a cruise ship or at a cocktail lounge—not that I frequent either one of those places!—when the worship leader is up there constantly cracking jokes and treating his banter like practice for his improv class. You don’t need to treat the service like a funeral, of course, and about the only thing as annoying as a constantly silly worship leader is a constantly humorless one—but I love it when worship leaders capture both the gladness and the gravity of responding to the Lord’s call to worship. So instead of taking on the personas of gameshow host on one hand or “I’d rather be alone in my room with my principles” artiste on the other, I love it when you are both happy in and humbled by the holiness of God.
2. Don’t try to out-preach the preacher.
Okay, this is just a minor point, but I’ve heard this additional critique from enough folks in response to the previous post to know that it’s not just my own “pet peeve.” I love it when worship leaders shepherd the congregation well by introducing songs by giving theological context, praying in transitions, reciting Scripture, and of course using non-singing time for equipping the congregation. But sometimes you guys just talk too much! This is especially notable after a sermon, when a worship leader will sometimes try to re-preach a particular point. The subtext sometimes appears to be “Let me take a crack at this, because the preacher whiffed it.” Worship leader, I love it when you leave the sermon to the preacher (and when the preacher leaves to the songs to you).
1. Point me to the gospel.
This is why I’m there, whether I remember it or not. This is what I need. I need the announcement of the historical work of Christ on the cross and out of the tomb more than I need oxygen! So I’m very, very grateful when your song choice, banter, worship order, and everything else makes it clear that the grace of God given to sinners through Jesus is your reason for being. I love it when you take care not to distract from the gospel, whether by content or creativity. I love it when you take care that your artistic efforts adorn the gospel and don’t obscure it. And I love it when you rehearse the gospel with us. It is the greatest gift you have, and it’s the greatest gift you can share.
For all those who labor faithfully in these things—including many, many friends of mine who serve their churches so well this way, some perhaps in the face of weekly criticism and complaints—I am eternally thankful for you. I love you.
10. Are we ready to have fun this morning?
The answer is, “Probably not.” The truth is, when this is your welcome at the start of the music time, it tells me where your head’s at. Nobody goes to church to have a bad time, of course, and I’m sure plenty of people go to “have fun,” but is this the point of worship? Is “having fun” where you want hearts directed as you lead people to exalt God? No, it’s where you want hearts directed when you’re just trying to “crush your set” or “rock it out for Jesus” [see #5]. “Are we ready to have fun?” is just slightly worse than this next common opener:
9. How’s everybody feeling?
If I wanted to stretch to justify this statement, I could say that what you’re asking the congregation to do is self-reflect on their spiritual condition and present their real, whole selves honestly and submissively to the glory of Christ as you lead them in adoration of him. But my guess is that 9.9 times out of 10 what you’re really trying to do is get people to say, “Woooooooo!”
8. You can do better than that!
Or some other form of nagging about how we’re not singing or participating to your liking. It’s never really on my mind at a church service to think of ways to impress the worship leader. Similarly shaming is:
7. I can’t hear you!
Well, maybe turn the volume down. We can’t hear us either.
6. [Introducing a hymn] Here’s an oldie we dusted off.
Please don’t apologize for leading us in the rare song that is theologically rich and doctrinally solid. Apologize for not leading us in them more often!
5. “Rockin’ worship.”
Please stop. I know you’ve got a good drummer and amps that go to 11, but referring to church music as “rockin'”—or using the phrase “rockin’ it out”—is somewhere in the category of fanny packs and duck-face selfies.
4. Lord, we invite you to be here.
This is the worship leader’s equivalent of “asking Jesus into your heart.” I think I know what the phrase means, but it reveals something about our thinking related to worship. For instance, is it true that God is summoned by our worship? Or is it actually the other way around? He calls us—we then respond in worship. God isn’t a genie and worship isn’t like rubbing a golden lamp. Nor is he a cosmic butler to be summoned. Don’t invite the Lord into a space like he doesn’t already own it and isn’t already there.
3. God showed up.
Again, I think I know what is meant by this phrase. It can be a way of saying “we felt emotionally touched during the music time,” which can be an okay thing—it would be weird for Christians to never feel engaged emotionally in worshiping God—but it can also be a way of equating emotional reactions with God’s presence in an unhelpful way, in a way that inadvertently communicates to people that when they don’t feel good, God must be absent.
2. Let’s give God a hand.
Translation: I would like to hear some applause.
1. Turn to your neighbor and _____________.
There’s really nothing wrong with this approach, but as a socially awkward introvert, this kind of instruction is a huge heaping bowl of panic attack soup.
Related: Top 10 Things I Love That Worship Leaders Do
Such a lovely volume of poems by one of my favorite poets! George Herbert lived and wrote in the early seventeenth century, and he is “widely regarded as the greatest devotional poet in the English language.” In fact, for modern Christian readers, reading a poem a day from this book of one hundred of Herbert’s best and most famous poems would be a significant and useful devotional practice. And for non-religious poets and poetry fans, the study of of Herbert’s poetry is well worth the time and effort. Helen Wilcox, the university professor who wrote the introduction to this collection says, “Reading and re-reading Herbert’s poems is a process of self-discovery.”
This selection of Herbert’s poetry, published by Cambridge University Press, includes many of my favorites, such as:
Love Bade Me Welcome
Others of the 100 poems were new to me. I particularly liked Herbert’s version of the 23rd psalm which begins, “The God of love my shepherd is/And he that doth me feed:/While he is mine and I am his,/What can I want or need?”
Herbert is one of the so-called “metaphysical poets”, along with John Donne and Henry Vaughan. I find all three of these Christian metaphysical poets both bracing and comforting. C.S. Lewis named the poetry of George Herbert as one of the ten works that most influenced his philosophy of life. Richard Baxter, the famous Puritan thinker, said, “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.” If you’re ready for some heart-work and/or heaven-work, I recommend the poetry of George Herbert. Prescription for a weary soul: Read aloud one poem each morning and meditate on it. Repeat each evening before bed.
Today at Midwestern Seminary we are hosting our new student orientation. After the typical lull of summer, it’s great to see the campus bustling again with students new and returning. For those starting college or seminary education, I know it can sometimes be intimidating or overwhelming. And for those who don’t feel a little intimidated or overwhelmed, you may need to prepare yourselves, lest you get caught off-guard by the challenges of your studies and the seminary culture. Maybe the following few words can serve in this regard. Respectfully submitted:
1. Attend and serve in a local church.
Seminary is not a sabbatical from discipleship. If you’re attending school away from home, the temptation can be great to go on ecclesiological autopilot, and the sad fact is that many Bible college students and seminarians do. So while they spend most of their days for two to four years thinking about theology, worship, discipleship, and church ministry, they do so totally disconnected from the only God-designed context for these things. Don’t let your studies be purely theoretical. Biblical studies are bogus without the spiritual formation they are meant to foment.
Join a church and get involved. Serve in the kids or youth ministry or on the tech team or as an usher or greeter or parking lot attendant. Get your armpits sweaty with regular ol’ church work. It’s good for your heart and can help you stay grounded as your studies alone might keep you wrapped up in your own thoughts. Being involved in church community also helps you learn to love people, which, oddly enough, some seminarians need help with. Remember, the Lord has not called us to build empires, plant cool organizations, or strategize missionally apart from a faithful love and care for the sheep. The church is people, not a Big Idea. If feeding sheep is not your primary motivation, your seminary education will be worthless.
2. Spend 10x as much time listening as speaking.
You’re learning a lot. You’ve got a lot of ideas and strategies. Your theology is getting deeper and stronger. And of course you know exactly how to fix the church’s problems. The only problem is you really have no idea what you’re talking about. There will be plenty of time later to fix everybody. Right now, while you’re young and inexperienced, it’s not time to hand out pastoral advice, write gigantic thinkpieces on The State of the American Church, or argue with every Tom, Dick, and Harry about every strand of theological minutiae you can think of. Just sit there, and open your ears. Don’t stop talking. But don’t talk more than you listen. You don’t have all the answers. You aren’t here to “fix” your church, your pastor, your professors, or anybody or anything else.
3. Chase the right things.
Holy ambition is a good thing. It is sometimes great for young Christians to have “stars in their eyes” as it pertains to following Jesus on mission. But too many young seminarians are thinking more about platforms, fame, notoriety, followers, book deals, speaking gigs, and so on than they ought to. Chances are, you shouldn’t be thinking about these things at all, except to help steer clear of idolatry. “How can seminary help me advance my career?” is not the first question you should be asking. Instead, ask “How can seminary help me be a faithful citizen of God’s kingdom?” How can your studies help you embody John 3:30? How can this special time in your life help you lean into the Lord and pursue personal holiness? Keep your eyes on the right prize. If you will be faithful in little, the Lord may then trust you with much. On that note:
4. Do not despise the day of small things.
The spirit of Zechariah 4:10 will haunt you day by day. Seminary will get old. You will just want to move on, already. You want that ministry position. You want to be selected for that group or team. You are ready to get beyond reading the books you reckon beneath yourself or behind your advanced learning. You want to bite off more than you can chew. One thing you will learn when you serve in a ministry role over time is that a lot of the things you do are things you have to do but don’t want to do. Ministry is unfortunately often driven by the tyranny of the urgent. There are emails to answer, voicemails to return, forms to complete, calendars to organize. In my last pastorate, I had ten books published and a speaking engagement every month, and I still had to photocopy my own handouts, set up tables for deacons’ meetings, and pick up stray bulletins in the sanctuary after services. How does this translate to your seminarian life? How about making sure you turn assignments in on time, keep your room or apartment clean, show up to your appointments, let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no,” and not think yourself as generally above the routine tasks and duties of ordinary life?
The strong seminarian is the one who acknowledges his weakness. If you try to do theological education in your own strength, you fail, no matter how good your grades are. It is more likely, however, that this experience will expose your weaknesses, reveal your idols, exacerbate your insecurities, test your patience, challenge your intellectual and emotional capabilities, and push you way beyond your comfort zone. What a wonderful opportunity, then, to take every little thing to the Lord in prayer! What a great opportunity to embrace the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, upon whom you are always relying anyway. Don’t shrink back from the challenge of your studies or the difficulty of distance from home and family. Press in with the Lord’s help by praying without ceasing.
Whether I like to admit it or not, awards and public acclaim do influence my interest and enjoyment of a book. I read and wrote about Mr. Alexander’s first book, The Crossover in 2015, before it won the 2015 Newbery Award (and many other awards). My review, as anyone can see, was lukewarm: “if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel.”
Fast forward to 2016 and Kwame Alexander and verse novels are all the rage. Booked, his second verse novel for middle graders/young adults, at least has a title I can get behind, and I’m inclined to give it a fair shake partly because of all the acclaim for The Crossover. Booked is about books and words and family brokenness and well, soccer. I must confess that the soccer stuff I skimmed, hard to do in a novel written in tightly woven poetry, but easy for me because the few soccer-centric poems interspersed throughout the novel did not give me a picture in my mind. Because I’m soccer ignorant.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Booked. The drama in Nick Hall the protagonist’s family, Mac the rapping librarian, Nick’s dad and his book full of words, Nick’s crush on April, Nick’s mom and her easy way of relating to her teenage son—all of these aspects of the book were fun and good to read about in creative, poetic forms and types. The parts I didn’t like were the tired, old excuses and platitudes about divorce, the disrespect Nick showed for his parents, especially his dad, and the unresolved ending, which you will have to read for yourself.
I did like wading through the poems this time to capture the plot and the images and the feelings of being Nick Hall, a thirteen year old with a lot of hard stuff going on in his life. It was sort of like a game—find the plot thread. I’ve seen verse novels capture the interest of a reluctant reader in my own family this year, and I’m more sold on the genre than I was before. And I must admit that Mr. Alexander has a way with words, and poetry.
So, boys and soccer fans and just plain old readers should give it a try. Or try one of the other, mostly verse, novels that Alexander not-so-subtly recommends by way of his character Nick in this book:
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Peace Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit.
By the way, Nick is emphatically NOT a reader as the book begins, but by the end of the story he’s looking for his next read. Librarians and teachers and parents might want to read this one just to watch the transformation, which is realistic, fits and starts, with the added attractions of a persistent librarian, a pretty girl, and some parental discipline.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
— Luke 17:20-21
In Jesus’ day, the Jewish world was fractured into factions, each of which sought to usher in or live out the kingdom of God in its own way. The promised land was owned and ruled by Rome, and everybody had a take on how God might overthrow the oppressive occupation and establish the kingdom of heaven.
The Sadducees sold out theologically and collaborated with the pagan rulers for political and financial benefit. The Pharisees sought to live peaceably within the cities, in Rome but not of Rome as it were, obeying the laws of the land but seeking as diligently and rigorously as possible to apply the Mosaic law to every minute detail of life in the hopes their works might merit them deliverance. The Essenes hightailed it out to the wilderness, became hermits, embraced gnosticism, withdrew and battened down the hatches. The Zealots kept taking up arms, wanting to usher in the kingdom of God through the power of the sword.
When Jesus’ cousin grew up into this tumultuous landscape and answered YHWH’s call upon his life, he went out to the Jordan River, the historic borderline of deliverance for Israel, the line Joshua had led them across from desert wandering into the Promised Land. And when he got to the Jordan, John didn’t begin conspiring. He didn’t amass arms, begin a grassroots political campaign, urge rigorous law-keeping, or preach any of the other myriad ways his countrymen were seeking to establish the kingdom. He simply said the kingdom was at hand and if anybody wanted in he would be more than happy to dunk them in the river.
“Repent!” he called. And “Repent!” his cousin, our Lord Jesus, called after taking the reigns of John’s burgeoning kingdom community.
The way into the kingdom life is the same way out of worldly life—death. As baptism illustrates, the way into the kingdom is the way of death, burial, and resurrection.
Go to a new place, this action commands us. Leave the old one. Abandon it and its ways, its self-idolatry in the guise of spirituality.
Today’s Essenes are the gnosis-exalting hip churches and the law-exalting fundy churches, each preaching legalism of a different sort and rendering different sorts of people untouchable. They advocate withdrawal from either “church people” or “the world,” as if true kingdom enlightenment exists in an ecclesiological utopia hermetically sealed off and protected by either their cultural savvy or their cultural avoidance.
Today’s Pharisees are people like me, desperately trying to please God through our stuff, our merit, our actions, sincerely wanting to apply God’s Word to our life but always slipping down the slope of applying our life to God’s work. We trust our behavior, our church programs, our well-turned phrases. Today’s Pharisees are the promoters of the entertainment-driven, self-help preaching, program-trusting whitewashed tombs we arrogantly call churches.
Today’s Sadducees are the politicians who use churches, Christians, and the language of Scripture to achieve power. And they are the ones who help them, believing if the right man were in the right role, God would “heal our land.” They believe the kingdom of God can be spread through politics, networking, the right policies, the right strategies, the right legislation. They are the churches who sell out to celebrities and powerful personalities.
Today’s Zealots are anybody and everybody who thinks the kingdom comes with signs to be observed: elections, placards, T-shirts, debates, attendance, programs. Or worse: bombings, shootings.
All of it, idolatry. All of us, idolaters.
And Jesus says to us every day, all day, as he said all day every day then, “Repent!”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
— Matthew 16:24
Below are a couple of clips from some recent messages. The first is from a sermon on Psalm 42 I preached at Church at The Cross in Grapevine, Texas titled “Despair and The Gospel.”
The following clip is from a message titled “The Fear-Driven Life” (Genesis 12:10-20) and was preached at Redeemer Church in Tomball, Texas.
Go here to watch.
Faith, hope, and love are said to abide (or, per the NIV, to “remain”) because they sustain the Christian through all manner of sorrows and suffering, through the temptations of success and the torments of despair. Faith, hope, and love remain throughout, and they will escort us through the gates of glory when our time is up. Whether our body or time itself has given out, faith and hope and love will be as young and new as ever.
Well, what is faith? Faith is the conviction of things not seen; it is not contingent on what is around us but what is above us, inside of us, and before us. Faith is the assurance of what we hope for.
And what is hope? Hope doesn’t put us to shame, because our hope is not the same as “hoping something happens.” Our hope is sure. Our hope is guaranteed; it is not the vain hope of earthly gods, but the blessed hope of steadfast love.
What kind of love is this? Godly love is patient and kind. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Steadfast love never fails. Love never stops. Love is always advocating, always mediating, always sustaining. God is love.
Yes, God is love. This is why the greatest of the three is love. And it is why faith and hope in the God of love remain, why they endure forever, why they will trail us into heaven like the glorious train of our wedding garment, the beautiful train of Christ’s Bride. With beaming gladness we will march into glory, our faith finally seeing face to face, our hope—at last!—met with the promised splendor, our Love before us forever, illuminating the new world with the greatest of what abides eternal.
Our frail earthly faith and our tender heavenly hope will meet their match in the Love that strengthens them, and we will enjoy this Love forever.
“There the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love.”
— Jonathan Edwards, Heaven, A World of Love
From my vantage point in the evangelical landscape, I am incredibly optimistic about the future of the church. I know we have lots of cause for concern about “the culture,” and I know the church tasked with proclaiming the kingdom in it seems pretty shaky right now. But I when I take a sober look at the young Christians (the millennials!) training for gospel ministry and thinking hard about mission, I like where their head’s at. The rest of us, on the other hand . . .
I find it incredibly interesting, sort of amusing, and more than a bit sad that the attractional church—what we used to call the “seeker church”—hasn’t seemed to grow up at all. Yes, it’s grown big. But growing big and growing up aren’t the same thing. I was thinking about this recently after a few people posted a video of one of the landmark attractional churches featuring a ’90s boy band throwback segment in their worship service. I’m sure it was a lot of fun. I’m also sure it was especially fun for those whose heyday was the ’90s. It’s the same fun that was had by the worship team in my ’90s attractional youth group who were constantly reworking rock hits from the ’70s to make them more Jesusy (“Peaceful, Easy Feelin,” anybody? How about a little “Talkin’ about my Jesus—he’s some kind of wonderful”?).
And it occurs to me that, exceptions being granted, the attractional church is specifically designed for what was said to “work” 20 years ago. What used to be cutting edge, relevant, and innovative is now standard fare. I mean, how many years can you keep recycling the At The Movies summer series and still call yourselves “innovative”? Or Winning at Work? Or Dare to Be a Daniel? How many pop song parodies can you generate and still call yourselves relevant? The truth is, the attractional church is perfectly contextualized . . . for the ’90s. With its Top 40 covers, Branson-quality “praise teams,” silly videos, and youth-groupy vibe, it’s now officially retro-relevant.
When you step into one of these places after years away detoxing, it’s like stepping into a time warp. The sensation is similar to when in the ’80s and ’90s we’d go back home to grandma’s church, which seemed frozen in the ’60s or ’70s. The attractional church is the happy-fun place where the post-Christian era never dawned.
Meanwhile, the young adult dropout rate is still somewhere near 70 percent. This hasn’t changed.
Meanwhile, no matter how much the decision scoreboard tallies each week, the attractional church is still mostly just shuffling around bored and de-churched suburbanites.
The Uncle Rico set loves the attractional church. I remember when our attractional churches would advertise with the slogan “Not your grandfather’s church.” Or “Church but different.” Well, now the attractional church is our grandfather’s church. Now it’s church replicated, McChurch franchised. And while the younger generation is looking for meat, the religious resource center down on the corner is still serving rounds of Zima. And it may not be shrinking any time soon, because there’s few things Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers love more than nostalgia.
There’s something serious to be considered here. I’m not just trying to make fun. Time and relevance have passed the dominant attractional paradigm by. The sheer mega-ness of these religious big box stores is misleading. Because the research is showing they aren’t making disciples. And as the spread of secularization increases in America, the irrelevance of the “relevant church” will only increase, as well. These days you can get fluff anywhere. You can get entertainment anywhere. You can get inspirational pick-me-ups anywhere.
The attractional church is still answering questions most 21st-century lost folks aren’t even asking. The attractional church is still assuming lost people have some working knowledge of the Bible and its stories. The attractional church still thinks lost people are impressed that a group of Christians will sing a Taylor Swift song at church. The attractional church thinks their decades-old bait is still good for the switch. The attractional church still thinks it’s cool, mainly because it’s full of aging Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers who know it’s cooler than the traditional church they left decades ago.
Meanwhile, it’s the traditionalist churches that are attracting young people. (Man, youth is wasted on the young, right?) It’s the young church-planting movements that are baptizing previously unchurched people and replicating themselves and making kingdom inroads in the culture. It’s the Bible-fixated churches sending people into the furthest reaches of the earth.
I hope my generation and my father’s generation will allow themselves to be led. Our time is, thankfully, passing away. These crazy evangelical kids who love Jesus, love his gospel and center on it stubbornly, love his sufficient Word and preach it faithfully, love the lost and go seek them rather than expecting them to come seek us—they’re our strategic hope. Maybe it’s time to take the self-diminishing risks necessary to question your system, your strategy, your models and listen to the wisdom of your kids. As even one of your own prophets has said:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
This testimony is true.
I’d cue up Whitney Houston’s lines about the children being our future, but that would just date me and contravene my whole point. Instead, let me simply reiterate that the growing gospel-centrality of the evangelical millennials is the best “model” for the church in the 21st century, mainly because it prioritizes the timeless gospel and makes contextualization obey it, rather than, as is the attractional church’s tendency, making the gospel obey the contextualization. I look around at all these seminary students I have the great privilege of serving, and as I travel around and meet young Christians all over the country, I am incredibly encouraged. In terms of theology, ecclesiology, and missiology, they are light-years ahead of where my generation was at their age.
So it’s time to grow up and pass the baton. Size and the whiff of success are no justification for missional irrelevance.
Or, we can do what we’ve always done, I guess, which is just turn the music up to drown out the reality.
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.
— Ecclesiastes 4:13
*dusts off the blog*
United by Trillia Newbell and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Two books on race, from very different perspectives–Mr. Coates writes for the Atlantic and is an atheist; Mrs. Newbell works for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Both are brief, very important reads for anyone who is working through the tangles of race and culture in America.
Pass the Mic and Code Switch
Like the above books, but podcasts instead. Pass the Mic’s run by the Reformed African American Network, Code Switch is produced by NPR.
Onward by Russell Moore
Important for the American church as we’re losing political capitol, which Dr. Moore and I both argue is not really a bad thing.
Christ and Pop Culture
I will hammer on about this website until the day I die or it dies. Home to some of the best writing on faith and culture on the Internet.
Quick to Listen and The Calling
Two podcasts produced by Christianity Today. Quick to Listen is about hot topics in the news; The Calling is interviews with people who lead in the Church and sometimes their church.
A podcast recommended to me by my friend Chris which takes seemingly boring topics and shows you how interesting and mind-blowing they are. The episode that hooked me is about the Chumbawumba song “Tubthumping.”
Not having “It’s Quiet Uptown” stuck in your head
I’ve had this song stuck in my head all week and I’ve been low-key sad as a result.
You Are What You Love
James K.A. Smith wrote these two really excellent books called Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom that are about how we’re formed by our habits and practices, and what Christian educators and churches can do to counteract the ways the world tries to shape us. The only thing is, those books are super-dense and pretty academic (he makes a lot of references to Kant and Wittgenstein, for example), so he wrote a more accessible, more application-heavy version called You Are What You Love and it’s so, so good.
Fear and trembling. Paul uses this phrase a couple of other times (2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6:5), apparently with the connotation of submissive humility and receptive meekness. It is an affections-full being put into one’s place, I think. A disposition appropriate to the circumstances. The command in Psalm 2:11 is “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling,” showing us that fear is not without activity and trembling is not without joy.
Here I remember Emma Thompson’s beautiful portrayal of Elinor Dashwood at the end of the film Sense and Sensiblity when Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars reveals it was his brother who got married, and not himself. Thompson’s Elinor is an expert at keeping her emotions bottled up—until this moment where we see “fear and trembling” brilliantly and movingly in display. It chokes me up every time.
Pent-up hopes and dormant affections brought near the super-electric current of a fearsome reality. The hair on our arms stands up, gooseflesh springing, a sense of fresh air and being winded at the same time. Overwhelmed. That’s fear and trembling.
As it pertains to having the living God draw near to us, fear and trembling assume it is truly God and the glorious Christ we have encountered and not some pitiful caricature. The god of the prosperity gospelists is a pathetic doormat, a genie. The god of the cutesy coffee mugs and Joel Osteen tweets is a milquetoast doofus like the guys in the Jane Austen novels you hope the girls don’t end up with, holding their hats limply in hand and minding their manners to follow your lead like a butler or the doormat he stands on. The god of the American Dream is Santa Claus. The god of the open theists is not sovereignly omniscient, declaring the end from the beginning, but just a really good guesser playing the odds. The god of our therapeutic culture is ourselves, we the “forgivers” of ourselves, navel-haloed morons with “baggage” but not sin. None of these pathetic gods could provoke fear and trembling.
But the God of the Scriptures is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). He stirs up the oceans with the tip of his finger, and they sizzle rolling clouds of steam into the sky. He shoots lightning from his fists. This is the God who leads his children by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. This is the God who makes war and sends plagues and sits enthroned in majesty and glory in his heavens, doing what he pleases. This is the God who incarnate in the flesh turned tables over in the temple like he owned the place. This Lord God Jesus Christ was pushed to the edge of the cliff and declared, “This is not happening today,” and walked right back through the crowd like a boss. This Lord says “Nobody takes my life; I give it willingly,” as if to say, “You couldn’t kill me unless I let you.” This Lord calms the storms, casts out demons, binds and looses and has the authority to grant us the same. The Devil is this God’s lapdog.
And it is this God who has summoned us, apprehended us, saved us. It is this God who has come humbly, meek, lowly, pouring out his blood in infinite conquest to set the captives free, cancel the record of debt against us, conquer sin and Satan, and swallow up death forever.
Let us, then, advance the gospel of the kingdom out into the perimeter of our hearts and lives with affectionate meekness and humble submission. Let us repent of our nonchalance.
Last weekend I had the privilege of meeting a young man who told me he was converted during a men’s conference I preached a couple of years ago. As encouraging as that was to hear, the news was made sweeter when he told me the very first Christian book he read was Gospel Wakefulness. Two years later, he is growing by leaps and bounds in the faith and is prayerfully exploring God’s call to the mission field.
When we preach these sermons and write these books and articles and blog posts, we grow accustomed to hope-filled trusting that the Lord is using the material somehow, very often in ways we will never know about this side of glory. So I don’t know why I’m always surprised to learn how instrumental some meager literary offering has been in the life of some precious child of God. But this book Gospel Wakefulness, released in 2011, is probably the one I hear most about. I still receive messages regularly from folks who have found in the book some measure of hope or joy, some deeper level in their affections for Christ. (To be more specific, the chapter on depression is the section I hear about most.)
I’m really happy about this, and I’m sure it will sound prideful to some, but while I don’t think Gospel Wakefulness is my best work, it is still the book that best captures what motivates all my writing. It essentially represents the “vision statement” for my writing, my ministry, and my life. Readers who’ve followed me for some time will likely know that the concept of “gospel wakefulness” — which certainly is not original to me — was not born out of some theological speculation or desire to insert another “gospel as adjective” entry into the ever-growing resources of the young, restless, and Reformed (or whatever we’re calling it these days), but rather out of the dark well of my own life. Gospel wakefulness is something that happened to me. (I’ve shared this testimony in numerous places, publicly and in print, but it is probably most extensively retold in the last chapter of The Prodigal Church.)
Indeed, when I was originally trying to tease out what gospel wakefulness means — the shortest way to put it is “revival on the personal scale” — I had no clue there was a “gospel movement.” I was actually smack-dab in the attractional church I was trained for ministry in and trying to feel my way out. That gospel wakefulness eventually became a book was the result of numerous years of trying to wrap my mind and heart around the way that God’s grace saved my life.
I know 5 years is not a big milestone, especially not in “book years,” and especially not in a world where a new gospel book seems to drop every week (sometimes written by me!). But it’s a meaningful milestone to me and, I am learning, to others as well. I have to thank people like my long-time brother Bill Roberts (an original Thinkling!) for being the first guy to ask me to teach on the subject — which basically prompted me to learn how to articulate it. And also men like Ray Ortlund, as well as Justin Taylor and my friends at Crossway, who took the risk of publishing the eventual book.
About twelve years after God reached down into that little guest bedroom and woke me up and rescued me from despair, and five years after the book released, gospel wakefulness is still my life’s theme and mission. And if you’ve read it, I have to thank you too. I hope it has blessed you in some way and helped you enjoy the glory of Christ more than anything else.
The gospel is an old hymn. The gospel is sheet music printed in antiquarian typeface on a yellowed page in a dusty book. It’s the “old, old story” and the “old rugged cross.” It is four verses—and please don’t skip the third verse to expedite the invitation! The gospel is an invitation to a bygone time that feels new again, even in our age of ever-dawning progress and modernity. The gospel gets “dug up” and “trotted out” and sung ironically and apologized for by leaders too clever for their own good. But then it lands in the ears of those led as sweetly familiar, warms their souls like celestial comfort food, and it always gets sung louder than those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend ditties.
At first glance, the gospel of the kingdom is not much to look at. Too many evangelicals tend to take it for granted. It sits in the splintery pew rack of our imagination like some hallowed curiosity. And, when bored with the latest distractions, we happen to take it up again and turn to our favorite number, it’s like coming face to face with an old friend. It’s like we never neglected it. We pick up right where we left off.
I notice this phenomenon every time I hear audiences sing actual hymns during congregational worship time. It’s even noticeable at student ministry events, although you wouldn’t expect it to be so. It is young people, we assume, who find the old hymns most musty. “They only want the new stuff,” the common wisdom says. But I’ve spoken at more than a few student ministry events, and while most Christian teenagers seem engaged enough during worship music of all kinds, I hear the difference when some leader, immersed in the fog and lasers of newness, “dusts off” an oldie. The kids sing.
I notice this in plenty of other venues as well—at church services, men’s retreats, and Bible conferences. Why?
I don’t think it’s just because hymns are familiar. These audiences know the new stuff too. In fact, the new stuff dominates the worship scene for a reason. I think the persistent resonance of hymns does have something to do with the fact that hymns—for church folks, anyway—are historically familiar. These old songs take us back to simpler, more formative times in our life of discipleship, and few things beat nostalgia for warming the heart. But I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia that makes the hymns so affectionately singable.
I think many of the old hymns, the ones that have endured—and plenty of the newer hymns too, actually—tap into a deeper reality than a lot of the more explicitly emotive stuff. In a strange way, the old gospel hymns affect us more emotionally by not dealing primarily with how we feel. There are plenty of emotional exclamations in the old hymns, of course—“How marvelous, how wonderful!,” “Then sings my soul, how great Thou art,” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” etc.—but these songs don’t make the emotional the primary point. They make the emotional the response to something much sturdier—namely, the gospel.
Most of these old hymns follow the gospel storyline. The first verse usually presents the problem of sin in some way. The second and third verses typically introduce Christ and his cross, the work of the Spirit, or some other proclamation of redemptive narrative of the gospel. And the last verse typically puts the Christian in heaven, focusing on the blessed hope of Christ’s return and our glorification.
The classic hymns, like the gospel they help us exult in, are much bigger than they appear.
This is why I say my gospel is like the old hymns: I very often treat the gospel like something I’ve moved on from, but every time I bring it back to mind, every time I put my stupid little eyes on its familiar truths, it transports me to a more beautiful, more powerful, more helpful place than any of these newfangled messages I flirt with every day ever could.
A lot of the new songs—not all of them, of course, but a lot of them—head straight to how I feel about Jesus but never take me into the depths of why I ought to feel that way. We’re summoning the wind, calling down the fire, pleading for rainfall. (I begin to wonder if I’m worshiping God or reciting some kind of medieval weather report.) I’m telling God what I want, what I need (what I loooong for, ooooohh).
But what I really need is to rehearse what he’s already done for me, what he’s already done in Christ that has satisfied my desires, met my needs, and answered my longings. In the rush to emotional outburst, I miss affectionate remembering.
Here, I’ll tell you what it’s like: The difference between a lot of modern, emotional worship songs and the classic, gospel-rich hymns is the difference between the romantic ruminations scrawled in a pre-teen girl’s diary and the decades-long marriage etched upon the hearts of a tired-but-God-dependent man and wife. We take our old marriages for granted too; they become too familiar to us, old hat. It is hard to muster up the romance of the newlywed days, well nigh impossible to dig up the gosh-darn “twitterpation” of wet-eyed, dimple-cheeked courtship. In a hard-earned marriage between two survivors of the early mutual surprise that they married a more sinny sinner than they anticipated runs something deeper than mere feelings and stronger than flimsy romantic greeting card proverbs. In long marriages between two Jesus-followers we find a bedrock of true affection.
It’s not for nothing that God categorizes the relationship between his son and Christians as one between a groom and his bride. And just as in worship music and marriage, keeping the relationship fresh means frequently revisiting some old, familiar truths.
— this is an edited version of an excerpt from my forthcoming discipleship book (2017, Baker)
Recently, the subject of church discipline has hit the radar in many circles due to some high-profile controversies and scandals. The way some churches appear to poorly exercise church discipline is as distressing as the way many Christians reacted to the concept. There has been a collective incredulity about church discipline as some kind of “strange fire” in the evangelical world.
I can’t help but think that this aversion is partly because, as God has built his church, his church leaders have not always kept up with what makes a church a church. So even to mention the idea of a church disciplining its members strikes tenderhearted and undereducated Christians as weird, mean, and legalistic. How do we work at keeping church discipline from seeming weird? Here are five ways:
1. Make disciples.
Many local churches have simply becoming keepers of a fish tank. A surface level of fellowship is often in place, but the central mission of the church—to make disciples—has been neglected. Instead, churches are structured around providing religious goods and services, offering education or even entertainment options for their congregational consumers. People aren’t being trained in the context of ongoing disciple relationships. But this is largely what “church discipline” is—training.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” — Matthew 18:15
In discipling relationships, we are always disciplining one another, not chiefly or only in the fight against sin but largely in our encouragement of each other, edifying one another, teaching one another, and sharing one another’s burdens. In short, disciples know each other. And so Matthew 18:15 might be happening all the time, perhaps weekly within loving relationships where there is no imminent danger of somebody being kicked out of the church but rather a constant iron sharpening of iron.
In churches with healthy discipleship cultures, church discipline is going on all the time in helpful, informal, everyday ways. When the more formal processes of church discipline become necessary, they are much less likely to be carried out too harshly or received strangely. The church will already have a positive training context for knowing that discipleship requires obedience, correction, perseverance, and mutual submission.
2. Create clarity about church membership.
In many churches, there is no church membership structure at all. But even in churches that maintain formal church membership, the expectations and processes are unclear. Prospective church members need to provide more info than merely their profession of faith, previous church membership, and the area of service they are interested in. They need to know what the body is promising to them and what they are promising the body. If church membership is a Christ-centered covenant relationship—and it is—their needs to be a clear, mutual promise between all invested parties that their yes will be yes and their no will be no, so that there can be no surprise when someone’s yes to sin is received with a no from the church.
3. Teach the process.
I remember a church meeting once upon a time where elders were sharing the grounds for dismissal of the lead pastor. The evidence was extensive and serious, and there was plenty of testimony about the elders having sought for years the pastor’s repentance and his getting counseling to no avail. One woman, visibly upset, shouted, “Where is the grace?!” The whole idea seemed weird and unchristian to her. She did not have the biblical framework to know that the last several years’ of pleading for the pastor’s repentance was a tremendous act of grace, and that indeed, even his dismissal was a severe mercy, a last and regrettable resort in seeking to startle him into godly sorrow over his sin. But churches aren’t accustomed to thinking of discipline that way; they think of grace as “tolerance” and “niceness.” This is because we don’t teach them well. Consequently, grace becomes cheap.
For some, church discipline will always be objectionable because it seems outdated and unnecessary. But for many, their objection is a reflection of simply not knowing what the Bible teaches on the matter. If a church never broaches the subject until a church’s response to someone’s unrepentant sin must be made public, church discipline will always seem alien. “What are you doing bringing all this law into a place that should be filled with grace?” And the like. So we have to preach the relevant texts.
One word of caution, however: Some churches love teaching the process of church discipline out of all proportion; they love it too much. In some church environments, church discipline is mainly equated with the nuclear option of excommunication and the leadership of the church is not known for its patience but for its itchy trigger finger. Teaching the process of church discipline is not about filling the church with a sense of dread and covering the floor with eggshells. It’s about providing enough visibility about the guardrails and expectations that people can actually breathe more freely, not less. Church discipline—rightly exercised—is motivated by real, sorrowful love and concern.
4. Follow the process.
Once again, we fail our congregations when we don’t begin church discipline until we feel pressed to remove someone from membership and refuse them the Lord’s Supper. It’s as if there aren’t previous, patient, hopeful steps in Matthew 18. Even the context of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 5:13 appears to demonstrate excommunication is the final straw, not the only one. If we will follow the biblical process of church discipline, beginning with confidential and humble rebuke of a brother’s or sister’s sin, if unrepentance persists and the circle of visibility widens, expulsion will be seen as a regrettable and sorrowful necessity, and as something intended for a person’s repentance and restoration, not for their punishment.
5. Practice gospel-centeredness.
God will get the glory and our churches will give him glory when church discipline is practiced in the context of a grace-driven culture. You can expect church discipline to seem unnecessary and legalistic in churches where the gospel has not had any noticeable effect on the spirit of the people. But in churches where God’s free grace in Christ is regularly preached and believed, church leaders will be regularly setting aside their egos and narcissistic needs and the laity will be bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, and believing all things (1 Cor. 13:7), including that while no discipline feels pleasant at the time, in the end it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:11).
1. I’ve heard it attributed to Tim Keller that you have to preach at least 200 sermons to get good. (Or something like that.) I think this is generally true. For those gifted to preach, it does take a long time to hit your stride and become reliably good, and even then, you keep growing and refining. For those who aren’t gifted to preach, I think even reaching the 200 mark shows no discernable growth. Someone is ungifted to preach when they’ve been at it a long time and show no real development. Sermon 201 is probably not noticeably improved from sermon 1.
2. I personally favor the use of manuscripts, but I understand they’re not for everyone. If you can’t preach from a manuscript without sounding like you are reading a manuscript, it’s probably not for you.
3. When I started preaching, I used outlines (2-3 pages). I expected that as I got more experienced and confident in the pulpit, I would be taking less material. The opposite has proved true. The longer I go, the less I trust myself to speak without the train-track of my manuscript (usually 10-12 pages).
4. I don’t think short messages are usually very good, but there’s nothing worse than a sermon that is too long. Don’t try to say everything. Do the text justice, proclaim the gospel, and don’t feel the need to turn your weekly sermon into a conference talk. For most preachers, I suspect 30-40 minutes is probably the best range, but, again, a bad sermon can’t be too short.
5. I believe that your devotional prep should take longer than your exegetical prep. Don’t overcook your sermon, but don’t pressure-cook your communion with God.
6. Thinking missionally, I think there is some truth to the admonition to “preach to who you want.” But it’s not for no reason Peter says to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Preaching to the congregation of your vision is often a great way to lose the congregation God in his wisdom has given you.
7. Work with the text on your own first, consult commentaries last. Always better to borrow than to steal.
8. I think topical sermons are fine so long as they’re preached expositionally.
9. If Christ is as glorious as he says he is, making him the point of the sermon—no matter the text—makes the most sense.
10. Preach a biblical text. The only reason not to is if you think your ideas are better than God’s.
11. A steady diet of “how-to” sermons doesn’t make Christianity more accessible or relevant to people; it actually, over time, burdens them and makes them feel constantly on spiritual probation.
12. It takes some people all the faith they’ve got that week to get through the church doors on Sunday morning. Why would we want to offer them anything but good news and the comfort of Christ?
13. If the Bible is right when it says the gospel is the power of salvation—and it is—and if the Bible is right when it says it’s only by beholding Christ’s glory in the gospel that people can be transformed—and it is—it doesn’t make sense to marginalize the gospel or save it for special occasions.
14. Preaching expositionally with the unity of the whole Bible in mind is a great way to make sure you’re emphasizing both law and gospel according to their biblical proportions.
15. Obviously, if you’re faithfully preaching God’s Word, it doesn’t really matter if you’re preaching from a music stand, lectern, high-top table, or with no stand at all, but I personally do like a good old-fashioned wooden pulpit, because I like the way it reinforces the idea that God’s word is solid, firm, “big,” an anchor in the stormy seas of life. A good solid pulpit conveys aesthetically the authority and the firmness of God’s Word. Again, no reason to be dogmatic about something so preferential, but maybe consider what your preaching environment communicates?
16. The sermon can serve as a biblical course of correction to pervasive disobedience in the church and a spur to repentance, but please don’t use your sermon to passive-aggressively address problems (or problem people) in your congregation. No subtweet sermons.
17. I learned early on that homiletical rants directed at certain subgroups—young men, for instance, who need to grow up or whatever—tended to be ignored by those who most need to hear them and instead hurt the hearts of sensitive souls who don’t necessarily need them. When I would yell Driscoll-like at young men especially, I learned that those in my crosshairs didn’t think what I was preaching applied to them and that I was stepping all over men who were already working hard. This is immature preaching. There are better ways.
18. You can’t make everybody happy. That’s not the point of preaching, anyway. Don’t preach as an employee of the church. Preach as a servant of God, accountable first and foremost to him.
19. Personal illustrations should mainly serve in the area of confession or self-deprecation. Always holding up yourself as a good example is a fantastic way to preach yourself instead of Christ crucified.
20. A simply good preacher who can look in the eyes of the flock beats a really great preacher on a video screen any day.
21. Passion, brother, passion. Give us your theology, yes. Don’t short-shrift us on the text. Don’t confuse yelling for preaching. That’s not what I’m saying. Give us your rhetoric and your logic sure, but give it to us affectionately. “Preaching,” as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “is theology coming through a man who is on fire.” (See also #5 above.)
For those who care about such things, I thought I’d share some of my upcoming speaking dates for the rest of the year. If you’re in any of these areas and able to attend, would be great to meet you.
August 25-27, 2016 – ERLC National Conference. Nashville, Tennessee. Looking forward to joining a panel on cultural engagement with Daniel Patterson, Matt Anderson, Trevin Wax, Jackie Hill Perry, and D.A. Horton.
September 11-14, 2016 – Ocean City Bible Conference. Ocean City, NJ. I’ll be speaking three times at this conference on the attributes of God and the glory of Christ.
September 26-27, 2016 – For The Church Conference. Kansas City, MO. At the third annual FTC conference — themed Portraits of a Pastor — I am tasked with presenting on “The Pastor as Shepherd.”
October 3-5, 2016 – Spurgeon Fellowship. Western Seminary, Portland, OR. I will be speaking 4 times at this event on the topic of pastoral ministry and the gospel.
November 3-5, 2016 – Doxology & Theology Conference. Louisville, KY. Hosted at Southern Seminary. This year’s D&T Conference is held in honor of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I will be preaching a plenary session on “Faith Alone” and leading a breakout on gospel-centered worship.
November 14-15, 2016 – Acts29 Europe Pastors Conference. Belfast, Ireland. Details still TBA.
Pastoral ministry is not the most lucrative of occupations, except when it is. On average, pastors are not paid enough. But very few of us have any grounds for complaint. In general, if it’s riches you’re after, ministry is likely not your first choice, unless you’re gunning for a time slot on TBN.
But there are times when we are not exercising our pastoral duties for any reason other than to pay our bills; this is pastoring for shameful gain, no matter the dollar amount.
Shameful gain doesn’t have to be about money, though. There are lots of things we can be shameful in our hopes to gain. It could be attendance numbers, pledge cards, altar call respondents, prestige, power, book sales, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, pats on the back . . . The list is endless.
Almost ten years ago some friends and I planted a church in Nashville, Tennessee. God did not give us tremendous numerical growth. We were faithful to his calling, best as we understood it, but his plan was not for our increase. As the pastor of this church, I often took this very personally. I come from the land of the Bible Belt, where megachurches are flowing with soy lattes and money. There is a Six Flags Over Jesus on nearly every corner, and here we were, a little missional church plant, commemorating many Sunday services with more people in our band than in the pews.
It was a struggle on a soul level for me each week as our music would begin. I would make my way out to the foyer to pray. I would beg God to send just two more people, just one more, before I had to get up to preach. It wasn’t the Bible Belt or megachurchianity that made me seek my validation in attendance; it was my own flesh. And there was the whisper of the devil, tickling my ear with his forked tongue, accusing me of my worthlessness, which only made me seek my worth in wisps and fog all the more.
Then I moved to a different place and pastored a different church. Ironically enough, though I left a town of nearly 1.6 million for a town of less than 1,000, my church was about eleven times the size of my previous church. In six years we about quadrupled in size. We kept growing the entire duration of my time there, and Lord willing, they will continue to grow. By the most common of church measurement standards, things are good. But the struggle never left.
The dirty little secret underneath the desire for shameful gain is this: there’s never enough.
One of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard on these matters comes from a pastor named Justin Anderson who realized the dream. “I’ve seen the “promised land,” he said, “and it’s just ok.”
Refreshing is what that word is. Anderson elaborated:
For the last couple years, I have been living the dream. Our church has seen explosive growth, people be saved, baptized, and join groups all the time. We have four campuses, thousands of people, and a great staff. Finally, all the toil of church planting has paid off and the prospect of megachurch stardom was a reality.
Most of us want some version of this in ministry. I finally reached the promised land, and I can report that it’s just OK. Don’t get me wrong: there were parts that I loved, but at the end of the day there is always more to do, always another idea, hill to climb or battle to fight—it never ends.
There is much wisdom here for all of us, big church or little church, succeeding or struggling. There is wisdom here for pastor and laity alike.
Too often we envision “successful ministry”—this vision may look different from person to person, church to church—and pour our energies and affections into seeing that vision become a reality, assuming that once we finally “arrive,” things will be better, easier, finally and ultimately fulfilling. This is, functionally, idolatry. It is a creation of a false heaven, not simply false in its falling short of the real Paradise but false in its inclusion of talent, acquired skills, and grit to reach.
Don’t settle for the false heaven of a “successful ministry.” Because real success is faithfulness. Big church or small church, growing church or declining church, well-known church or obscure church—all churches are epic successes full of the eternal, invincible quality of the kingdom of God when they treasure Jesus’ gospel and follow him. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom with the ability to bind and loose on both sides of the veil only to those who’d reached a certain attendance benchmark. So do well, pursue excellence, and stay faithful. God will give you what you ought to have according to his wisdom and riches.
The reality is, as Anderson is able to reveal from that fabled other side, there is no promised land until the promised land of the real heaven. We always think things will finally be . . . well, final when we get “there,” wherever “there” is for us. But there is no there. There’s only here. Because once you get there, there becomes here, and there’s a new there. On and on it will go until our discontentment with ourselves is shaped by the contentment found in Christ and our yearning for thisworldly “theres” is conquered by the vision of the everlasting “there.”
A vision of the everlasting riches of Christ is the antidote for pastoring for shameful gain.
I got this email this morning and I'm about ready to boycott Penzey's. - update: I sent an email letting them know that as soon as they stop shoving their politics down my throat, I'll start shopping with them again.
It reads like this
In our celebration of the one-year anniversary of Marriage Equality we've arrived at Garlic/Yellow and Parsley/Green recipes. If you missed our previous Cayenne/Red and Now Curry/Orange recipes click here:Guacamole, Butter Chicken and Cumin Rice with Saffron or Curried Potato Salad with Craisins. As part of our celebration, now through June 27th with any $5 purchase you can get a free half-cup jar of your choice of any of our featured Rainbow Spices (up to a $6.95 value).
And yes, Marriage Equality is totally about cooking. What separates humans from everything else that came before us here on earth is our million-year symbiotic relationship with cooking. Once we were animals. We could see the benefit in looking out for ourselves, and looking out for the herd, but that was about it. Through tens of thousands of generations of mealtimes spent together around the fire, we became something more. Those trillions of meals created a much larger circle around the fire, and in that process so much more was set in motion.
Without cooking, we would never have come to understand how much we all benefit when we take care of everyone, even those we do not even know. The gift of cooking is the gift of our humanity. Without cooking, there would be no religions teaching us that how we treat others is every bit as important as how we treat ourselves. Without cooking there would be no governments ensuring that even the least privileged among us also have a pathway to success.
Cooking is the best thing ever. And now, through cooking, we've arrived at this day where everyone has the right to be married, where everyone has the right to be a family!
Well, there you have it. Every time you cook, keep in mind that you made gay mirage possible! Through evolution.
Our church worship gatherings ought to be welcoming and comprehensible to unbelievers who are present, but many churches actually structure the entire worship service around them. There is no real biblical precedent for this, and furthermore, it’s not the most effective way for your church to reach lost people, anyway. If your church orients its weekend gathering around “reaching seekers,” it’s quite possible it has adopted some of the working assumptions outlined below, programmatic arrangements that I want to argue actually turn the biblical shape of evangelism and mission upside down.
How might your worship service be upside down?
1. Emphasizing feelings before and over doctrine.
I know, I know. Many of us come from hard church backgrounds where doctrine was all that mattered and people were cold or harsh or uncaring about their neighbors. That’s another way to be upside down. But in many evangelical communities today we see a downplaying of theology and doctrinal truth to make way for personal feelings and relational connecting. The problems with this approach are numerous, but the two main problems I’d cite are these:
– Feelings about God detached from knowledge of God tend to reveal more that we are worshipers of feelings, of ourselves.
– Just as serious, perhaps, is the problem of expecting lost people to sing songs about their feelings about a God they don’t believe in. Too many of our Sunday morning worship sets get the cart of affections before the horse of belief.
This is all besides the persistent problem of singing theologically shallow or doctrinally vacant songs to begin with. But just in terms of missional or evangelistic strategy, helping folks sing about how the God they don’t (yet) believe in makes them feel is wrongheaded. It’s upside down.
2. Giving lost people religious homework.
The dominant style of preaching in the so-called “attractional” or “seeker-targeted” worship service is of the “practical application” variety. In these sermons, teachers attempt to make the Bible more relevant (as if it’s somehow irrelevant without our help) but offering a weekly set of steps or tips to make Christianity more applicable to daily life. You will freqeuently see individual sermons or whole sermon series devoted to “Making Life Work” or “Succeeding at Home” or “Becoming a Better Whatever.”
This is not to say, of course, that the Bible is impractical or that there aren’t lots of things to do in the Bible. The Bible has lots of commands! It is imminently practical and applicable to daily life. The problem we face, however, is that the practicality of Christianity is aimed solely at, you know, Christians. What I mean is, the expectation of obeying and pleasing God is placed on those who have both a heart changed to desire obedience and the Spiritual power to carry it out.
In the seeker-oriented teaching, however, we direct a steady diet of how-to at people who have yet to receive a heart of want-to. Unbelievers should hear the commands and applications of God’s designs, sure. But the primary thrust this application of the law has on unbelievers is one of conviction, not empowerment. In fact, the commands of the Bible—whether they are of the “don’t commit adultery” variety or the “love your neighbor” variety—have no power in themselves to help us. They can only tell us what to do (or not to do); they can’t help us do them.
The only thing the Bible calls power (to save us, to transform us, to motivate us) is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it’s a little strange to make sure the dominant thing lost people hear in our church service is a list of things to do rather than the thing that’s done!
If your weekend teaching is heavy on how-to’s for the lost, you’re giving religious homework to a bunch of spiritual corpses. You might even be increasing the sin in your church with such a practice. Regardless, it is philosophically and theologically upside down.
3. Offering a gospel invitation after a legal message.
This is probably one of the primary ways the attractional church goes about the weekend preaching upside down. The pastor has spent 30 to 45 minutes encouraging a lost person to do a bunch of things that please God, and then afterward adds on an invitation to receive Jesus.
This kind of heavy law/added gospel message creates a kind of spiritual whiplash, as a teacher now invites someone to believe something the teacher has not spent much time communicating and in fact has spent most of his time operating as if it’s unnecessary. As I said above, the Bible assumes the kind of obedience to God that pleases God comes after our heart has been changed by grace. Simple religious behavior modification doesn’t glorify God; it glorifies self. If we preach a sermon on behavior modification and then try to invite people to receive grace, it seems disjointed, strange. It’s like you’ve suddenly changed the subject.
I remember hearing a well-known attractional pastor preach a sermon directed at women in which he said over and over again that God finds them captivating. (The tone of the message sounded like God worships women.) Then at the end, in his invitation to receive Jesus, he said God would cover their ugliness and shame. It was a strange message tacked-on to a sermon in which he belabored how much God found women beautiful and captivating only to now learn he thinks they’re ugly and need him.
This is an extreme example, but I think it is a fitting one, given how much evangelical preaching these days treats hearers like they are “good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people like them,” like they’re beautiful unique snowflakes with endless potential, and then wants to somehow segue into the utter emptiness and need we have apart from God. Wait a minute, we think, You just went on and on about how awesome I am. Now you say I’m not? It’s upside down.
This kind of sermon arrangement is also out of proportion to biblical teaching. In Paul’s letters, for instance, he always begins with some kind of gospel proclamation. In length, it is scaled to the proportion of the letter itself. So, for instance, in Romans, the gospel story takes more chapters than it does in Colossians or Philippians. Then, he moves on to the practical matters, because the practical matters flow from the grounding of our justification. Doing flows from being. But in so much attractional teaching, the tacked-on invitation seems to make being an afterthought to doing.
It’s upside down.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” — Matthew 10:34-36
A curious thing happens when a church and its shepherds are committed to this radical notion of gospel-centrality. If we will focus on the biblical Jesus, we will tend to be motivated to reach and primed to attract the same kind of people the biblical Jesus did. And while most church folks like the ideas of mission and church growth, when the rubber meets the road in your proclamational engagement, you will find quite a few of those same agreeable souls eager to pump the brakes.
Why does this happen?
Well, the same gospel that by its nature unifies also tends to divide. We don’t usually expect this kind of division in a local church —we are typically otherwise fearful about conflict arising from music styles, programming choices, and personality types—but the gospel can divide a church just as easily as it might a family. But actually there’s nothing more prone to stirring up mess than the grace of God that has arrived to create order.
Whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, people get poked in the idols. And people don’t like that.
How does this happen?
Here are three common ways the gospel might cause division:
1. The gospel critiques the self-righteous.
The very news of the good news is that we are saved not by our works but by Christ’s work. Our righteousness merits us nothing. In fact, our righteousness can often “get in the way” of our believing in and enjoying the finished work of Christ. People who are preoccupied with their own performance, how they come across religiously, or their position in the church as based on their gifts, intellect, tenure, or social standing often find the regular and copious teaching of grace discombobulating.
I once followed up with a long-time church lady on a sustained absence from worship, and was surprised to hear her say she had stopped coming because we had a certain man serving as a Sunday morning greeter. I asked her if he had hurt her in some way or if she knew of some ongoing sin in his life we ought to know. She couldn’t really speak to either of those concerns but instead said many people in our small town remembered what he was like (before his salvation), so it was not good for our image to have him be the first face somebody saw.
Before he came to Christ, he was sort of an “angry cuss” and given to drunkenness too. He was, by God’s grace, not like that any more—in fact, many of us who only knew him post-conversion only knew how incredibly friendly and joyful and generous and helpful and eager-to-serve this guy was. But she could not forget his past. He was not the “right sort.”
She said to me, “I just like things black and white. This is too much gray.”
Really, it was the opposite. The gospel had washed him white as snow, but in her mind the “math” of the gospel didn’t add up. It messed with her sense of propriety and religious decency. She was suffering from what Dane Ortlund calls the “moral vertigo” of the gospel.
You will see this response happen quite often among the self-righteous and the religiously proud, and in fact, if you preach grace hard enough, you will begin to expose over time self-righteousness and religious pride in people (maybe even yourself) where you didn’t even know it existed.
2. The gospel frustrates the hobby horse riders.
It’s not just those who love the Law too much who get aggravated by gospel-centrality, it’s also those who love anything else too much! Pastor long enough and you will meet a variety of interesting and relationally taxing hobby horse riders. A brief survey of the kinds of people you will meet in your church neighborhood:
The culture warrior who’s frustrated you’re not patriotic or political enough.
The end-times junkie who’s frustrated you’re not eschatological enough.
The self-styled academic who’s frustrated you don’t really “dig into the meat” of the Greek participles or whatever.
The activist who’s frustrated you don’t give people enough social justice for homework.
That is a small sampling. Really, there can be as many frustrated people as there are hobby horses, but those are some of the more common ones. I’ve been hounded by theology nerds, accused by culture warriors, and worn out by the activists. You cannot expect the preaching of grace to always be met with grace in return. You should in fact expect that being single-minded about the gospel to frustrate those whose minds are set on something else.
3. The gospel irritates those who don’t want to change.
The gospel announces that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but this faith, as the Reformers say, isn’t alone. Sanctified works flow from the sanctified heart. The gospel actually changes us. The Holy Spirit actually changes the hearts of sinners who now want to please God and grow in the likeness of Christ. That’s just one way change is effected by the gospel of Jesus.
But a church that embraces the gospel as its one thing begins to change too. Its preaching and teaching changes, and thus its discipleship and its counseling. Its interests change, its emphases change, its reason for being changes. And it will grow—if not numerically, at least Spiritually.
It has become a ministry truism—because it’s true—that church folks want to change until they actually do. And every church says it wants to grow. But actually growing will show whether that’s true or not. Most people don’t like change. People who are not set on the gospel especially don’t like change. So when the gospel begins to change a church, and as the gospel grows a church, it cannot help but change—you can’t grow and not change!—this really freaks people out.
I asked for a meeting once with a couple whose complaints and criticism (against me and against the ministry in general) were beginning to concern me. Most of these complaints were carried out behind my back and only later revealed by third parties or heard through the grapevine. So I began by asking if I had offended them in some way or hurt them, if maybe their complaint was driven by something I had done that I didn’t know. They could not put their finger on anything specific I had done to deserve their complaints. Instead, the husband offered this: “The church has changed. It’s not the same as it used to be.”
He only elaborated briefly, but apparently the church had grown enough numerically that it didn’t feel the same as it did “in the good old days.” He didn’t know everybody like he used to. This obviously made him uncomfortable. It made him uncomfortable enough to seek to subvert the ministry and the growth of the church.
These are not uncommon divisions. And they can prove subtly problematic and increasingly toxic in a church, especially when people disturbed by the gospel begin to gather likeminded grumblers and gossipers. It doesn’t take a majority of people to split a church, in fact. It only takes a determined minority working against an unguarded, unprepared leadership. If you are committed to gospel-centrality, in fact, don’t ever assume this couldn’t happen to you. In fact, you should prepare for the powerful gospel to do its glorious sorting of belief from unbelief.
And you should use these challenges to further encourage your resolute centrality on the gospel! Another concerned church member who once hijacked a church meeting with some out-of-the-blue concerns that were new to me said to me when I followed up with her privately: “Jared, we know your thing is the gospel. And you do that really well. But sometimes we just need to hear other things.”
Whenever your church, your fellow leaders, or you yourself get tired of the gospel’s meddlin’, that’s when you know to bring a double dose.
“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” — Galatians 4:16
I haven't known what to pray for many years. I sit near my bed each night and stare at a wall. I conjure up a couple of words that I don't usually mean. But, today, I start to understand what they mean by the groaning of the Holy Spirit. My prayers are without many words. Just an aching of the heart. A leaning in toward God. Whispering the names of those I love. Begging for relief. Because, I need prayer more than ever right now. I need to believe that God is real. That He is here. And that He is working. That's what prayer is. It's a desperation for God. An acknowledgement of some sort of faith. I have no idea what you're doing, God. But if I don't trust you are doing something all I have is despair. And so I pray. Because I have not much left.
I discovered last week by clicking on Marvin Olasky’s Twitter link to the 2016 Books of the Year Award announcements from World Magazine that one of my own titles had made their grade. Thanks very much to the team at World for selecting my book The Prodigal Church as their Book of the Year in the category of “Accessible Theology.” As Jason Allen, the president of the seminary where I’m employed, quipped, “Infinitely better than winning the Inaccessible Theology Award!”
Here’s an excerpt from Olasky and Sophia Lee’s breakdown:
Jared C. Wilson’s The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Crossway) articulately points out problems in many “seeker” or “attractional” churches that emphasize self-improvement or life-enhancement rather than God-enhancement: “If the purpose of worship is to feel good, we stop worshiping God.” He’s concerned when a church seems more like a concert and when Bible study leaders ask not, “What does this text mean?” but, “What does this text mean to you?” He notes, “Preaching even a ‘positive’ practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. … Don’t treat the Bible as an instruction manual. Treat it as a life preserver.”
When Wilson scrutinizes worship, he asks, “Does this element exalt God or man?” He notes that “both irreligion and religion are fundamentally self-salvation projects. They are equally self-righteous, even though the former is predicated on being automatically righteous and the latter aims to earn righteousness.” Here’s his summary of Christian exceptionalism: “Grace is what makes Christianity unique among all world religions and philosophies. … None of us would have come up with the concept of divine unmerited favor. None of us would have invented the notion that we cannot be good enough or smart enough, that we could not somehow become gods ourselves.”
The Prodigal Church is our “accessible theology” book of the year because every church, no matter the denomination, struggles in our age of entertainment with how to attract people to church without distracting them from the gospel. An important understanding for both youth ministries and adult evangelism is: “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Instead of adding on programs, churches should win attenders to an understanding of the gospel’s astounding message: The work is already done.
Also, congrats to the other finalists in this category, including a fellow Baker Books author, Caleb Kaltenbach.
You can find a loving conception of monotheism in both Judaism and Islam, but only in Christianity does this love manifest itself in a one-way work of salvation of sinners apart from religious effort. For this reason, C.S. Lewis has famously said of Christian faith, “We trust not because ‘a God’ exists, but because this God exists.”
There are of course many Jews, Muslims, and Christians who believe all three faiths worship the same God, but through different expressions. We see this view suggested even in the Muslim’s Koran:
Do not dispute other than in a good way with the people of Scripture, except for those of them who do evil; and say: “We have faith in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God are One, and to Him we submit [ourselves].” (Surah 29:46)
Jews and Christians, also, have so much good theology in common. It has become common among people in both faiths to refer to “Judeo-Christian values.” This is a real thing, and in many cases, a completely legitimate expression. In a 2007 interview, then-President George W. Bush said this: “I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That’s what I believe.”
This belief is practically mainstream within all three of those faith traditions. But I think we come at this answer too easily, too thoughtlessly, simply assuming that because these three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are all monotheistic and share some historical heritage, they must worship the same God. Because lots of people worshiping one God does not mean they are worshiping the same God.
Do Jews and Christians worship the same God?
This is a very complex question, actually, but the short answer is: no.
You may of course flinch at such an assertion. It is not a necessarily popular belief, even within evangelical Christianity, where many simply believe Jews worship what they know of God. It is said that they worship the one true God, but simply have an incomplete vision of him. But couldn’t this be said of any religious faith whose object of worship bears striking similarities with the God that Christians worship?
Complicating the question are the various threads within both Judaism and Christianity. One Jewish scholar has said, “The fact is that there is no single Jewish understanding of God.” This makes it difficult to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, if only because we aren’t dealing with Judaism so much as Judaisms. On the other hand, Christianity has remained almost entirely unified for two thousand years on the central matters of its theological claims. But one stark contrast between the Christian view of God and the Jewish view is on this thing called grace.
Now, drawing the line at the concept of grace may seem too narrow a division. The God revealed in the Jewish Tahakh displays abundant grace constantly. Christians would affirm that. But we also believe that we must believe about God what God has revealed about himself, and in fact that to disbelieve what God has revealed about himself and to worship some version of God we prefer is in fact to worship an idol. In the historic account of the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, in fact, we see that Aaron and the Israelites attributed their worship of this false god to God (Exodus 32:5).
When Christians talk about grace, however, the thing that makes Christianity utterly unique among all faiths, we aren’t simply referring to a disposition of God or a personality trait. We are referring to those things too, of course, but more specifically, we are referring to the way God has expressed his grace, namely through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
It is at Jesus, in fact, that Judaism and Christianity part theological ways.
This is not simply a matter of opinion. It is a matter of diametrically opposed truth claims. And we see this opposition recurring over and over again throughout the teaching ministry of Jesus depicted in the Gospels of the New Testament.
In John chapter 8, the orthodox Jewish leaders are once again spying on Jesus, trying to trip him up, expose him, defame him, and shame him. You have to understand that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not fringe characters in the Jewish religion. They were the religious elite, of course, but theologically speaking, the represented mainstream, “contemporary” Judaism. They shared much of the same theology as Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees represented the faithful reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. They believed in the covenantal history, in a future resurrection, and in applying the revelation of God to everyday life. They would be the equivalent, probably, of the fundamentalist strain of Christianity today—culturally zealous and a little rough around the edges, but on all the majors, pretty much theologically correct.
So it is no little thing that Jesus and the Pharisees butt heads here in John 8. This is not simply a clash between nice Jesus and mean leaders. It is much more than that. It is a fundamental disagreement on the very identity of God.
Jesus is doing what Jesus always does: making everything about himself. In this instance, he claims to be the Judge, the Light of the World, the way to freedom from sin, and a few other equally provocative things. This is not the kind of thing a normal religious leader says. We don’t tend to take seriously religious leaders who make such claims about themselves.
Jesus then says something even stranger:
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58)
What does he mean?
Jesus is saying two incredible things here. First, he claims to be in existence before Abraham. This is an overt claim to preexistence, in fact to eternality and omnipresence. And by saying “I am”—asserting that thousands of years ago, not only was he, but he currently is—he is applying the sacred name of Yahweh (“I AM”) to himself. This may sound subtle, but it’s not subtle at all. Jesus is in fact claiming to be God. We know the orthodox Jews understood him to be making this claim, because the very next thing they do (John 8:59) is pick up stones to kill him, which is exactly what a good Jew would feel inclined to do when confronted with such blatant blasphemy.
Again, this is not merely a matter of opinion. This is not simply a case of the Jewish theologians worshiping the same God in a different way. If Jesus is in fact God, and you try to kill him, how could we say in any legitimate way that you worship and believe in God?
Jesus makes this very point, actually, in the same chapter.
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:39-47)
To summarize, Jesus is saying that if somebody worshiped the true God, they would worship him, because he is of the same nature of the true God. And he is saying that if anyone rejects him, they reject the one true God. And further, he is saying, that if anyone—including these orthodox Jews—do not believe in him, they are more aligned with the enemy of God, Satan himself.
I share that lengthy passage above so you will see that I am not making this up. Jesus said it. And you are welcome to disagree, and you are welcome to be offended. But you should plainly see that Jesus is himself saying that to reject him is to reject God, deny the truth, and reveal oneself as being “not of God.”
In John chapter 10, verse 30, Jesus doubles down on these claims, and says, “I and the Father are one.” Once again, the Jewish theologians take up stones to murder him, which they would not have done if all he meant was that he and God were “on the same team.” John 10:33 makes their motive explicit:
The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
I believe it is very important that we understand this important contrast if we want to understand both orthodox Christianity and the orthodox Judaism that develops from the time of Christ onward. The conflict between Jesus and the unbelieving Jews of his day did not rise or fall on how nice Jesus was compared to how mean the Pharisees were. That’s a very superficial reading of Jesus’ relationship with the religious leaders, which is probably why it’s the most common understanding in the secular world of why Jesus was killed.
But while Jesus was a faithful and religious Jew, his beef with the Pharisees and scribes was not simply some intramural personality clash. It was a fundamental clash of worldviews. Namely, Jesus was orienting the world around himself, putting himself in the center of everything. He was in fact claiming to be God. And if he was right—as I believe he was—then to disagree with him was to disagree with God. To deny him was to deny God. To reject him was to reject God. And to worship someone at the exclusion of Jesus, is to worship another god.
Christians believe that God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin named Mary and grew and developed into mature, real, tangible manhood.
So, do Jews worship the same God as Christians? The Christian faith has its roots in the Jewish culture and religion, and the two faith traditions share a common sacred history, but as it really counts—meaning, as it really applies to a relationship with the supreme deity who actually exists—the answer is no. Because if God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, if indeed Jesus Christ is God, if indeed God is a Trinity, then to reject these truths about his very nature—which is not the same as being mistaken about certain attributes of God or not understanding certain aspects of his personality—means rejecting God himself.
Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling
 C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays (San Diego: Harcourt, 1988), 25.
 Mona Moussly, “Bush denies he is an ‘enemy of Islam’,” Al Arabiya News (October 5, 2007)
 Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “God Between Christians and Jews—Is it the Same God?” (pdf) Paper presented at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture
The number of days
in between these brutal frays
grow too few
we can't get some relief
it threatens our belief
that hope is here
that God is real
that love can heal
I am crippled by my sadness
I am paralyzed by the madness
I've forgotten the face of gladness
It eats at me
like a disease
my eyes glued to a screen
is darkness our new reality?
I can't get some relief
my joy stolen by a thief
What a mystery
Surely not just my history?
Can it be my present and future
can it close these wounds as a suture
I should number my days
but I am numb in my ways
I should stand and fight
but that demands some might
I am so fragile
with shaken faith for quite awhile
All I can do is keep breathing
Lacking in motivation
to do anything of meaning
Sleeping through the light
Blinded by the night
I hate this state that I relate to
sedated by my own fears
I admit I'm hiding, I'm not
crying for change
or justice for the slain
but I can't take the berating
and hating and fighting
Sad for the lives I never knew
that left this earth too soon
Sad for the meaningless arguments
That lead us not a step toward agreements
but push us farther into isolation
so much for a united nation
Sad for my personal enemies
Oh me of selfish tendencies
the demons that are stored inside
that I keep alive
because it's easier than to try
No easy way out
But surely there is something
we can do about
these evil acts
lay off the facts
the statistics, the data
look in the faces
they are not nameless
and weep, that's a
brother, a mother, a friend
ask for this to end
And Lord, help my unbelief
You are my only relief
All along the watchtowers of the walls around
The city of man, the jokers and thieves shout
The songs of their sacred temples
And we all muse that there must be some way out of here
And the Dancer still dances His threefold dance
While we are only specks in the eye of the universe
That He forms into one new Man and fills with His breath
Paradox, mystery, unexplainable ineffable light
One and one and one make one
While the rebels shatter and scatter like Babel
If I still have any readers after not posting for almost six months, I’m going to try something and write a poem every Sunday from now until the Sunday before Advent, the space the church calls ordinary time. Let’s see how this goes.
“Take a deep breath,” he said,
“and think the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’
while you do it.
“Inhale on ‘Jesus,’
pause on ‘is,’ and breathe out ‘Lord.’
And repeat that for five minutes,
every day, when you wake up
and before you go to sleep.”
This, offered as, if not a cure,
Then at least a brief reprieve from
The fear that took over my body–
And I breathe in Jesus
And I breathe out his kingdom
And in between I pause in the present tenseness
And somewhere in the breathing
The cry turns to song
Even if sometimes it’s still lament
I went to India in 2012. While there, I was invited into the home of a family that I, and the people I was traveling with, had met. The second time we were invited and came over, the father of the family said he had a message from God for each of us.
I don't remember what he said about the others. But I remember what he said to me. And I have thought about it thousands of times since.
He told me that many people would move faster than me. That I would see others zoom through life in front of me. And my pace would be slower. But, that I would have the faith to see me through. I would make it to the end.
I didn't know what to do with this message at first. It wasn't what I wanted to hear honestly. But, even though I try hard to not let these words inform the world around me, I can't help but see truth in this message.
I have always felt a little behind. A little slow. I've felt like the world was slipping out of my fingers. I'm a late bloomer. It takes people a little more time to get to know me. I don't impress people the first time I meet them. I'm terrible in auditions and interviews. I don't make friends very easily. When I feel low, I might equate these facts to being less than. Then I remember what he said. And hope springs.
So, I give it time. I keep going. I give myself grace to go at my own pace. I carry the hope of finishing. I keep showing up. I move forward one step at a time. I tell myself that it will be okay. I will make it to the end. I will get to the finish line. I will see things through. I will find what I've been looking for. What I've wanted. I will find life. I will find hope and grace and love. People will see. I will see.
I may be a slower pace but I am not less than.
I've always been really bad at body awareness exercises, which usually surprises me because I consider myself a spiritual person. Or maybe that is my downfall. I felt awkward and didn't know what I was doing most of the time, but I set aside 20 minutes and told my body it could do whatever it wanted. Then I was supposed to try to be aware of what my body was telling me.
I had to be in my room because my roommates were home and the only place I have to sit is on my bed. I wasn't sure which position I should take so I moved around a couple times. I tried to stay "open" but I found myself pulling my knees to my chest. I guess that's what my body wanted to do. I wasn't sure what my body was saying to me (or if it was talking at all). I could hear my roommate talking on the phone. But I leaned in and focused.
My neck hurt. But it's been in pain since November. Maybe I should go to a doctor. Maybe that is the message my body is sending. But, I've known about that pain. I've just been ignoring it. Forgetting for days that it's there until it decides to remind me again.
I found my mind wandering. To my life in Michigan, my dreams of what my life could turn out to be, my loneliness, my fear -- you know, the usual.
Other than that, I didn't really "feel" much or gain much insight.
I wanted to try to connect the dots and come up with something deep and meaningful from those 20 minutes but everything just feels silly. There was nothing deep that happened. It was frivolous and awkward. And I think that is the point. I've been trying to conjure up some answers or explanations and I fumble around with words -- because I have to. People are calling on me to make my answer.
But, maybe it really is that simple. Maybe I'm just trying to find a comfortable position, trying to stay open but sometimes needing to be closed off. And there's a pain in my neck that I've been ignoring. And maybe I should get some help. Maybe I should do something about it.