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Considering Depression


Pastors deal with depression on a regular basis. They have congregants who suffer from depression. They often have family members that suffer from depression. And pastors themselves can suffer from this malady. Depression is no respecter of persons.

Well known pastors and church leaders such as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon suffered from depression. In both cases, at least some of it was tied to tragic events during their ministry. In recent years there have been some high-profile pastors who committed suicide as a result of their battles with depression.

I’ve battled depression off and on for decades. It has never been debilitating but it sure affected my relationships and my ministry.

On vacation I decided to read Depression: A Stubborn Darkness by Edward Welch. The subtitle to the subtile is Light for the Path. (There is a new revised edition as you can tell by the picture.) In the book he wants to describe depression and point a way forward. He is successful in both endeavors. He covers his material in fairly short chapters (important if the reader is depressed). He helps you eat this elephant one bite at a time.

Depression is often misunderstood by those who don’t experience it. It is not simply feeling sad for a few days. It is prolonged, a stubborn darkness. I recently described it to someone as drowning emotionally, the loss of hope that today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. You feel like you are slowly sinking and there is no foothold to stop the slide. Depression robs a person of hope: not intellectually but existentially.

Introduction

The first 3 chapters focus on defining depression and expressing how it feels. Welch admits that there is often no one cause of depression. There are many potential causes, and in specific cases there are often more than one. That is part of why it is so difficult to deal with- there are multiple streams feeding the river you find yourself being swept away by. This means there isn’t any quick or easy fix. We can make significant choices, but there will be a significant amount of agnosticism on this side of the Jordan.

He provides how others have described depression. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul”. Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”. Spurgeon spoke of weeping for hours but not knowing for what he wept. Some have called the deeply depressed the “walking waking dead”. Others a “malignant sadness”. It is a pain that seems meaningless. When it sets in decisions become monumental. Simple tasks like brushing your teeth or showering require a herculean effort. That people who haven’t suffered in this way don’t “get it” and frequently think you are making it up, adds to the pain.

Some feel very little. There is a flat affect. Others can have a rather volatile affect shifting between sadness and anger/irritation. There is little to no joy. I found that I laugh much less. But others will think there is a “dark cloud” about you, and can’t understand why you can’t get rid of it. As if you could change the climate by wishful thinking!

There are differences in degree and types. Dysthymia is a long-term, minor depression that isn’t really diagnosed unless you’ve had it for 2 years. It is persistent but not debilitating. There are also major depressive episodes of varying duration. Depression can be situational or clinical.

Causes can be physical, but are often emotional (loss, unending discontent, guilt) or the haunting echos of trauma (abuse, violence). Experiencing depression does not mean one has “lost faith”. You can still believe the good news of Jesus Christ and experience depression. Trusting won’t necessarily take it all away.

Depression is Suffering

The first part of this book explores the subject of depression as suffering over the course of 7 chapters. In Scripture you won’t find the word “depression” but we see words like “downcast” and see experiences that sure look like depression (Elijah wanting to die after fleeing Jezebel’s threats, Saul’s response to David’s growing popularity, Jonah’s response to God relenting from judgment when Ninevah repents).

Depression can be linked to difficult circumstances that you can’t fix. Often it is connected to suffering from the sins of others (abuse, oppression and exploitation). Our bodies can be the cause as well. Adam’s sin means that our bodies groan and don’t work properly. Hormonal changes are behind post-partum depression. Thyroid problems can produce depression, as can unrelenting physical pain. We can also affirm supernatural causes as God can send messengers of Satan to humble us or test us (see Job and Paul’s thorn in the flesh of 2 Corinthians 12). Far too often the causes are mysterious to us. We are wandering in the darkness and fog. But all this is designed for us to fix our eyes on Christ who alone can rescue us body and soul.

This profound suffering brings up many questions about God, and us in relation to Him. His goodness is not always displayed how we expect, hope or demand it be displayed. His holiness and justice are forgotten due to the deceitfulness of sin. We can shift allegiances rather quickly and easily. Life is largely about seeking or avoiding God. Too often we are trying to hide in the bushes like Adam.

Welch reminds us that Jesus shared in our sufferings. He was ‘sorrowful unto death’ and experienced the pain of betrayal, misunderstanding, loss, injustice and the pangs of death following abuse, mockery, beatings and crucifixion. If the Master endured this, surely we His servants shall as well.

In this context Welch quotes the “Puritan” William Cowper who suffered from mental illness. Cowper seems to have been a bit late to be called a Puritan. He, like his friend John Newton, did not align himself with the Non-Conformists. But I’ll cut Welch some slack since the quote is great:

It is possible to be a child of God, without consciousness of the blessing, to have title to a crown, and yet feel to be immured in the depths of a dungeon.William Cowper

Depression, like sin, curves us inward. We become self-obsessed. We need to look out, particularly to God. This is one of the battles of depression: not getting lost in ourselves and our suffering but reaching out to Christ for help. The Psalms provide us with words to express all this, and to cry out to Him.

Part of our “self-obsession” is the self-criticism and condemnation. One senses that they have failed, are a failure, and this feeds the depression. People who are hard on themselves are prone to depression, and in depression people are hard on themselves.

Satan is all too willing to join in the pig pile. He will join the chorus of condemnation: sinner, loser, failure, pervert, coward… We need to see that depression involves us with spiritual warfare and fight rather than give up and give in. We have to recognize lies that we have embraced and reject them. It’s not “all our fault”. We are not simply “victims”.

This suffering has come that we might learn obedience as Jesus did. Newton paraphrased Romans 8:28 to indicate that all God gives us in needful and nothing withheld is needful. The suffering He has chosen for you is the best way for Him to make you like Jesus (8:29). It is necessary for your sanctification (and sometimes our conversion as well). He’s not wasting our lives with depression, but purifying our hearts through depression. Yeah, I sure feel blessed. But it is needful.

In depression we often experience spiritual amnesia. One way we battle it is to “force feed” ourselves the truth. Depression will make you passive. You will want the very things you need even less. You won’t want to read the Scriptures. You won’t want to make the effort to go to corporate worship. These are the things you need most to re-frame your life, to see the bigger picture and remember that your life is part of His Story.

One thing it will remind us of is our purpose as image bearers. He quotes from the Westminster Standards, but errs in noting they were commissioned by the King. Nope, Parliament called the Assembly during what we call the English Civil War which resulted in the execution of King Charles for treason. I nitpick. But we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, including now. So, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, let’s “fear God and keep His commandments” even while we struggle.

Welch also calls us to persevere. He echos Paul and James who remind us that perseverance produces character which produces maturity and hope. Hope and purpose feed our perseverance.

Listening to Depression

The second part of the book is comprised of 10 chapters. The first chapter focuses on Adam, others and Satan as possible reasons for our depression. He reduces depression to an event(s) and our beliefs and interpretation of the event(s). This is the basic time line. God provides the grace we need to investigate our lives and beliefs to better understand our depression.

It all begins with Adam whose sin brought the curse which brings physical problems, misery in work, and death. We are then under the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2) until rescued by Christ, but he still harasses Christians. We aren’t sure when he is involved. These are necessary but insufficient for depression. The events in our lives interact with our interpretive of belief system. He is not ruling out brain chemistry, but is ruling out brain chemistry as a singularly sufficient cause. Often it is our pride and idols that create the false interpretation that we deserve better than this, or that God can’t be trusted …. which lead us into depression.

He next shifts to culture and its effects on depression. Welch notes that those born after 1950 have an incidence rate higher than those born before 1910. There have been cultural changes galore. We have shaped culture and it shapes us in an interactive relationship. Culture is the lens through which we look at the world and ourselves. Culture includes the rituals and patterns of society, unspoken expectations, manners and how relationships are conducted.

The “world” is highly influential in culture. The fallen structures of society are unavoidable. It flows out of the corruption inherited by Adam that leads to sensuality, oppression and self-centeredness that mark every culture. Culture is not neutral.

One of the cultural changes has the rapid increases in decisions to be made. Fewer decisions are made for you by family or community as we shift toward increasingly radical individualism. We have to pick a career before you pick a college, pick a spouse, if you buy a new house there are a billion decisions about flooring, cabinets, paint etc. We are overwhelmed by choices.

I have a daughter who just turned 18. I basically had one thing to do when I turned 18: register for selective service. She feels overwhelmed at times because she needs to get a new license, register to vote, get a checking account and a number of things I didn’t worry about yet. New parents feel the burden to make decisions immediately they are convinced will make or break their kid’s future (the right pre-school, play groups etc.).

Individuality also means that relationships are expendable. If one doesn’t work for you, you just move on. Now, think of the flip side: you are expendable to others. Yeah, if that doesn’t move you toward depression I’m not sure what is wrong with you. It is a world without love but you are a person made in the image of the God who is love.

Our culture is focused on self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. It tells us we must be happy. We must also avoid boredom. All of this sets people up for depression because they aren’t happy, fulfilled and are over-indulged (we are a culture of overweight substance abusers seek to be happy but finding misery).

Welch then shifts us back to the heart or inner person which has been corrupted by Adam’s disobedience. It provides a significant portion of the interpretive lens. Its desires shape our quest for self-fulfillment and happiness. The heart includes our spiritual allegiences, desires, motives and imaginations, thoughts and feelings and actions.

The heart is unveiled in suffering of various kinds. Pressure reveals what is inside us. Under pressure our sinful hearts are revealed, and that can move us toward depression both in terms of the suffering, the sin it reveals and the sinful methods of coping with our suffering. That can lead to the further suffering of depression. Depression is often anger stuffed inside so one implodes. It can also be unresolved grief as we hide from loss. Some families, like mine, don’t know how to grieve.

Welch then moves into the way fear and anger contribute of depression. Depression creates fear as well. It can run wild in paranoia during a depression. Our hearts are idol factories and that means fear since our idols can’t be satisfied. He points us to the Good Shepherd who promises to be with us always to address our fears.

Our fears are often more obvious than our anger. Most people know when they are afraid. They aren’t aware when they are angry. Anger is about blocked desires and when people break our commandments. Our anger is usually about our kingdom, rather than God’s. There is a call to trust God and seek His kingdom rather than ours. Humility is important in dealing with our anger.

Connected to but not identical to our anger is “dashed hopes”. When our dreams don’t come true, depression can flood in. Hope is a dangerous thing because things don’t often turn out like we want them to. This is behind Red’s warning to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption. But without hope, we will die.

Hopelessness will kill. We need to engage our hearts with the promises of God. Those aren’t for the short-term, but the long-term. They can act like a life preserver, bringing us back to the surface when the waters seem overwhelming.

Depression will also tell you about failure and shame. Our failures and shame can drive it. Everyone fails. Everyone. But some begin to see themselves as failures, like Marty McFly’s dad. We begin to see our identity as “failure”. It is connected to a loss of hope because all you are going to be is a failure in business, love, finances etc. Similar is shame which is connected with your self-identity. Instead of “failure” shame cries out “dirty” or “broken to never be fixed”. It can be connected to the big sins we’ve committed or the big sins committed against us. Shame over sexual or physical abuse feeds many a depression.

We will also learn about guilt and legalism if we pay attention. We fail to keep the law and feel guilty. We fail to keep men’s traditions and experience false guilt. We move toward legalism to keep that pain away but we just keep breaking the rules. The cycle of guilt, trying harder and failure can drive depression. We need the hope of justification.

The last subject in this section is death. Depression dallies with death. Death offers to end the pain (lying about the possibility of eternal suffering). Too many have thought this an escape. I know too many for whom the darkness became too great and they took their own lives. They were like marathoners who were just “done” (to borrow a metaphor from a funeral sermon).

Most of us know taking our own lives is wrong. But we want to die anyway. It shifts to fantasies about being run over by a truck or killed by someone else. It is similar to the “rape fantasy” which isn’t about rape. It is about wanting a sexual experience you know is immoral but if you are forced to do it in your fantasy, you are off the moral hook (in your imagination). You get yourself off the moral hook but imagining that truck or train, the odd accident or someone else choosing to kill you. You feel the longing for death but fortunately lack the fortitude to kill yourself because you know it is wrong. But depression blinds us to our only hope in life and death, that we belong to Christ who died to bring us back to God.

Other Help and Advice

Welch begins with medical treatments. Just as we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, depression affects heart, mind and soul. And body. It affects all that we are. He reminds us that depression, and other forms of suffering, engage our hearts. While medicine can alleviate symptoms, it doesn’t change the heart. They may make us less miserable, but they won’t motivate us to engage God with what ails us. Keep in mind that there are other medical reasons for depression: hypo-thyroidism, vitamin D deficiency for example. You can test for these and treat them.

He confesses that we don’t really understand why the medicines work, and why they don’t. There is still much we don’t know about the body when it comes to depression. You may not want to jump to medication first in order to see if other treatments can work. You don’t want to wait until you are in a deep depression with suicidal thoughts.

There is a great little chapter for family and friends. They often don’t know how to help. The depressed person is often conflicted about receiving help. The negativity that accompanies depression can lead you to discard any advice. This will frustrate those in relationship with the depressed person. Those who are depressed need to resist the temptation to isolate, and bring themselves and their depression into relationships.

Relationships will be stretched. It can feel like talking to a brick wall. You may think that it just isn’t worth it anymore. Love includes being stretched however. You will be forced to face your own neediness as a result. As a friend, continue to speak truth to them to provide a gospel-centered hope that they lack. If the depressed person is a family member, help provide some structure. Welch reminds us that we can’t expect their progress to happen on our schedule (the same for sanctification by the way). But we do need to interrupt and correct their negative interpretations of life. Family and friends stick to it, and with them, when others move off into the distance.

He then lists a number of things that people found helped them. Some that he included were: talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself (Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommended this), care for another person in need or get a pet, forgive those who sinned against you, repent of a sense of entitlement driven by pride, take responsibility for yourself, dive into the Psalms, and more.

He also lists things people didn’t find helpful. Some of these were: looking only for the superficial sins instead of the deeper sins that drive them, not understanding their anger and repenting of unrighteous anger, lowering expectations, people giving advice without listening.

He then provides some specific strategies like continuing to meditate on a passage of Scripture, write out positive things about a friend and let them know, ponder the goodness of creation (I love to behold Arizona sunsets), watch out for grumbling and complaining, and ask what (if anything) you get out of being depressed (what’s the pay off?).

He then lays out some expectations. Depression will come and go in waves. If you have been depressed before pay attention to patterns for warning signs. You should expect to learn about God and yourself in the process.

Hope and Joy: Thinking God’s Thoughts

He talks about the difference between a comedy and a tragedy in literature: the ending. Instead of a tragedy, we need to see it as a comedy because when Jesus is in the picture everything ends well. Jesus gets the last laugh. It doesn’t remove the sorrow but helps put the sorrow in a larger context where we who have suffered with Him will share the inheritance with Him too. We need to see this as part of God’s Story.

“… modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” In post-modernity, there is neither universal story nor storyteller.” Welch quotes Jerry Walls, pp. 252

Humility is important with depression, just as it is with anger. We desperately need to grow in humility. God gives a promise to lift up those who humble themselves. It should be easy to humble yourself in the face of a depression you can’t shake off in a day or month. We need hope and hope comes from believing God’s promises. Hope comes from enduring suffering and growing in character. Hope is about setting our hearts on the world to come instead of this one. Suffering, like depression, weans us from this world. Hope, Welch reminds us, is a community project. We need to worship with others and hear the old, old Story.

Lack of hope reveals that we don’t really believe what God has said. Therefore, it is sin.” pp. 260

The joy of the Lord is our strength. Depression weans us from worldly joys and opens our hearts to eternal joy in the presence of the Lord. Depression can challenge us to be thankful, forcing us to find reasons for gratitude.

I’m sure that all seems like a lot. This was a challenging book at points. The challenge wasn’t in understanding what he said but applying it. It confronted my compromises with depression. This makes the book helpful for those who suffer and those who love people who suffer from depression. Some don’t understand depression and think people should be able to just shake it off. This will help them to understand something of the stubborn nature of this darkness. Welch provides some examples from his practice to help the reader. The strength is that it is not an either/or approach. While there are necessarily spiritual dimensions, he is not anti-medicine. He just thinks that medicine alone isn’t the answer. As my former professor used to say “meds help so you can do talk therapy” (I’m paraphrasing). They can help those who are deeply depressed to function and benefit from therapy. Those who are all about the medicine may be (wrongly) put off by his calls to engage God with your heart. The Christian life is about faith and repentance, depression is no different. Good biblical counseling can help us discover the patterns of our lives and depression so we can repent of sinful patterns, put on more godly ones and rediscover hope. Don’t let the darkness win.


Steve McQueen was one of the biggest stars of the 1960’s. He was known as the King of Cool, one of the early anti-heroes that paved the way for Clint Eastwood.

The height of his popularity was before I was born and into the first few years of my life. I enjoyed a number of his movies on TV, and a few on The Movie Channel when we finally got cable and Tom Horn and The Hunter were on often.

Last Christmas, my brother-in-law gave me Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon by Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill. This is the story of how Steve became a Christian in the days before he was diagnosed with cancer.

It is also the story of Laurie’s road trips in his Bullitt mustang to interview people who knew McQueen. In many ways this is the focus on the story: Laurie’s quest to get the bigger picture of his hero Steve McQueen.

Their lives were very similar. Both men came from broken homes and didn’t know their fathers. Their mothers were alcoholics and an endless stream of men entered their lives, causing varying amounts of damage. Both men ended up in a military academy of sorts in an attempt to save them from their rebellion. Laurie was much younger when he became a Christian. As an evangelist, he’d mentioned McQueen’s conversion and felt like he wanted to investigate this more deeply.

At times there was too much of Laurie’s story for my liking. I’m interested in Steve McQueen, not him. One other feature that I struggled with was the repeated phrase that he became a Christian “at the height of his popularity.” No, he didn’t. It was the late 70’s and he had been eclipsed by Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. This was okay with McQueen who took breaks in his career in the early 70’s and again in the late 70’s after re-emerging for the hit The Towering Inferno with contemporary Paul Newman who had a similar reputation and personae. His last major movies, the aforementioned Tom Horn and The Hunter were completed before his diagnosis and were not very popular. He still had the trappings of fame, so maybe we are interpreting this in different ways.

Yet, this is an interesting book. You will learn about McQueen’s life (perhaps I’ll pick up a biography). In many ways he reminds me of Ted Williams, another alpha male from a broken home who excelled in many areas, just not in relationships (both had multiple divorces). McQueen was not only a popular actor, but raced cars and motorcycles (winning races and considering a career change. Williams was not only the greatest hitter who every lived (in my opinion), but a world class fisherman and a good enough pilot to be John Glenn’s wing man in the Korean conflict. Near the end of his life McQueen got his pilot’s license. Both men sought to excel at all they did. But both were damaged relationally.

One of the things that Christians should appreciate and remember is that at least 3 other men had shared the gospel with McQueen earlier in his life. They included producer Russell Doughten, stuntman Stan Barrett and actor Mel Novak. The man who taught him to fly, Sammy Mason, was famous in his own right. He had a calm that Steve found attractive. While flying they would spend hours talking about the Lord. Steve would ask questions and Mason would answer them. Eventually Steve and his live-in girlfriend and future wife, Barbi, began to attend the church Mason did.

Too often we grow discouraged because we share the gospel and people don’t repent and believe. It can take a number of gospel exposures to bring about conversion. It takes time for these seeds to grow.

We also so that the gentle and quiet spirit of Sammy Mason would adorn the gospel and make it attractive. He was ready to share the reason for the hope he had (see 1 Peter 3). McQueen seemed like an unlikely convert. He had enjoyed all that fame had to offer (money, women) and yet, unknown to others, like Tom Brady he wondered “Is this all there is?”.

You don’t know whether or not you will lead someone to Christ, nor who is actually ready to hear the gospel. God will provide unexpected opportunities, and you may see unexpected “success” as well as disappointment.

This may be an easy reading book to give to fans of McQueen that need to know Jesus. There is enough gospel here to sow some seeds.


I finished my 2022 devotional on time. This is a minor accomplishment, I tell you.

The devotional for the year was Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment by Jame Montgomery Boice.

Before the year began I was thinking about re-reading a Jack Miller devotional, or perhaps the Paul Tripp one I’d read in 2021. But I did have this hanging around for a few years (given to me by a congregant) and noticed the phrase “spiritual refreshment”. Needing refreshment I chose this one.

James Montgomery Boice was an important figure in 20th century evangelicalism. He was pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 32 years. It was a Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod congregation that was part of the “join and receive” with the PCA in 1982. He was a key figure in the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology that eventually morphed into the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He and R.C. Sproul were good friends, and their families vacationed together at times.

Boice was known for expository preaching. People at Tenth Pres would mark time by the chapter of Romans he was in when they showed up. This devotional is comprised of selections taken from his expositional commentaries and some unpublished sermon manuscripts. It brings us through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation (in order). Each day refers to a particular text for you to read, a pertinent selection quoted from that passage and then the devotion of the day.

These are all taken from sermons of his. It doesn’t usually feel like you are missing the context (good editing). These were not written for the warm fuzzy. They are thoughtful, typically connect the text to the gospel. They cover a wide range of topics for that “whole counsel of God” feel. You also get a feel for the story line of the Bible. It is not academic or dry. Sin will be exposed. Jesus will be exalted. Godliness will be encouraged. Upon occasion I may not agree with the exegetical conclusions, but not often nor are those differences important. He was, and I am, a sinner and neither of our conclusions are impeccable.

This is a good, worthwhile devotional. It avoids many of the traps that devotionals can fall into at times. The focus is not too narrow, there is no eisegisis (reading into the text) or overly focused on application to the neglect of gospel instruction and/or understanding the text.

If you are considering a devotional this would be a wise choice. Boice is solid (aside from eschatology which isn’t a focus here) and you won’t get any wonky theology. You will be edified, and refreshed.


It is that time of year, again. I saw “best of” lists beginning to pop up in November.

My list, as usual, is about what I have read instead of what was released. As a result you will not only find new books but some not-so-recent and even downright old books on this list. I won’t be including the novels I read. No dystopian novels this year. The news has been hard enough to watch and read.

I didn’t read as much as I have in the past. Some of that has to do with my state of mind. Some of it has to do with the rhythms of life. You might find something to add to your queue.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm: Meditations on God and Trouble by Paul Tripp. This is a series of meditations (52 to be exact) on Psalm 27 which is a lament. It is set up for one per week if you so choose. You could spend that week focused on that portion of the text and the questions he provides.

This was a timely read for me. My soul has been troubled by others in recent years. It helps to put all this back into perspective. I don’t really connect with the poems that are spread out in the book. I much prefer the prose meditations. He does keep bringing you back to the gospel, which is the important thing.

Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God by Stephen Smallman. This is not a long book, but it is one that is focused on knowing God by meditating on a few texts. The main text is Exodus 32-34, when the LORD reveals himself to Moses on the mountain. The author follows some threads as well to provide you with 40 meditations on who God is. Most of these meditations are 2-3 pages, so longer than a typical devotional but not too long.

I read this during a time of frustration and burnout. It was a very helpful book in that difficult season. I needed to see God more clearly, and this volume aided me in thinking more clearly about God’s character.

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: the Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund. This was clearly a change of pace. It is also timely as the denomination I serve in struggles with some theological issues. Congregations will also struggle with different theological issues, and ours did. Not each doctrine carries the same import and weight, and shouldn’t be handled in the same way. Some require more time and energy. Being more serious, they may be the cause of breaking fellowship, excommunication etc.

We tend to focus on the less serious differences. We tend to get things reversed. His chapter on the Problem of Doctrinal Sectarianism is fantastic. Our unnecessary division harms the Body greatly. The same can be true when we don’t divide but permit serious error to continue unchecked. This book seeks to help us know when to take action, and when to be patient with different views.

We should be willing to fight and “die” over primary doctrines, the ones which are essential to Christianity. These issues should be clear, relevant and important. He makes some good distinctions in the course of the chapter (what must be expressed vs. what must not be denied; what is necessary at conversion vs. a mature faith; differences arising from good faith interpretations vs. interpretations that reject biblical authority). Disagreement can be cause for excommunication. He then shifts to the complexity of secondary doctrines which will divide denominations and congregations. People on both sides are still Christians, but the issue is important enough to the unity of the body that choices must be made. We may have fellowship with one another as fellow Christians but life in the same body begins to get complicated. He recognizes that this is the most difficult to sort out. The tertiary matters are not worth dividing over, and should not occupy too much of our time and energy.

Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane Ortlund is a book about sanctification. It is written with the same irenic or winsome spirit. There is a shorter version called How Does God Change Us? that is available for lay study. He includes our union with Christ, Jesus filling our empty hearts, the fundamental realities of justification lest we make a wreck of sanctification, honesty in our relationships with one another, the necessity of pain and struggle to grow, making use of the means of grace, and the work of the Spirit in sanctification.

Does he say all there is to be said? No. But he says plenty of necessary and good things to help us understand how God changes us. I found this a good and gentle book.

Rediscovering Church by Hansen and Leeman is a good book. As I mentioned in my review, I would recommend Devoted to God’s Church over this book. While there is some overlap, there is some material that differs in those books. Hansen and Leeman write from the perspective of congregationalism and credobaptism. This means that some of the topics or directions aren’t where I would go. But there is plenty here that is helpful regardless of one’s ecclesiology as we reset post-Covid.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. This was some sabbatical reading. It is at least the second time I’ve read this. It is great reading for those who are bruised reeds and smouldering wicks. He speaks much of the Messiah’s tenderness toward them. While it is primarily about being cared for by God, it has application in caring for others.

With Him: A Biblical Model of Discipleship for Men by Kenneth Smith is a short book about the most important aspect of discipleship which is overlooked. The disciples were with Jesus, and discipleship is intended to be very relational. We try to make it programmatic or focused on study materials. If discipleship is about more than gaining information but life transformation (including character building) then we must be with that person. We must invite people to be with and go with us as we go about life and ministry.

Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up Is the Way Down by Christopher Hutchinson. Books on this subject are not generally popular. Humility, in our day, is not seen as positive. We want to be affirmed, strong and capable. God, on the other hand, prizes humility. Hutchinson defines humility for us, discusses how it is found by faith, and how we enjoy hope when we embrace it. When we apply it, we grow in love. See what he did there? He connected humility with the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love. He connects humility and discipleship in the last chapter. There is no blueprint for discipleship, it is more like gardening than manufacturing. That is humbling in our age of programs. In growing in humility there will be different weeds to be pulled, nutrients applied etc.

The Mark of the Christian by Francis Shaffer is probably the most important book I read this year. I’d never read it but it popped up a number of times in conversations, books and lectures. It is not a long book (do you notice a theme here?). Don’t wait as long as I did to read this. It can help shift your perspective of what is important in the church: love and unity.

A Small Book About Why We Hide by Edward Welch is a great little book on a difficult and uncomfortable subject. Like Adam, we like to hide in the bushes and behind fig leaves. It has 50 devotions of about 3-4 pages on the subjects of shame and fear, our insecurities and failures. The last section is about incorporating our story onto God’s Story. A better way might be seeing our story within God’s Story, but we need to work to understand that. By faith we understand that Jesus deals with our shame, fears, insecurities and self-loathing. Our story is not intended to be understood apart from the biblical drama that unfolds.

Considering the Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund Jr. Another book by an Ortlund. This time the father. He unpacks the gospel and its effect on the church and its culture. This is another short book, and an important book. It helped me to think through some church issues more clearly. It can help us to set better expectations for church life.

Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? by Tim Keller is an excellent book on the subject of forgiveness. He addresses why forgiveness is in increasingly short supply in our culture, responds to the criticisms of our culture, unpacks the biblical teaching on forgiveness and the more practical aspects of forgiveness. He challenges a number of misunderstandings and provides us with a path forward in our relationships broken by sin.

In the first half of the year I preached through Ecclesiastes. The commentary I found most helpful was Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters by Philip Ryken, which is part of the Preaching the Word series of commentaries. This series is built on homoletics. Sermons are adapted for the commentary. So far I have like the books in this series very much, and Ryken’s in particular (I also read the volume on Job). It is very readable, hits key exegetical points, isn’t overly burdened by original language study, has some good illustrations and helps you see gospel connections. You may want to use it in conjunction with a more technical commentary but this is warm, accessible and is directed toward application not just interpretation.

Considering Forgive


Our culture has a problem with forgiveness. It is becoming quite rare these days as we descend into cancel culture. There are also many misconceptions about forgiveness in the societal attack against forgiving others.

Tim Keller wades into the turbulent waters to help us think more clearly and biblically about forgiveness in Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?. Keller answers both questions well. Keller is true to his MO in how he approaches the subject. He does a fair amount of cultural analysis as well as bringing the Scriptures to bear on the subject. He speaks in a way that can connect to non-Christians as well as Christians.

The title is in the imperative, so to speak. The goal is not simply to explore the subject philosophically but to help us to forgive. This means that at times it will feel uncomfortable, touching on the sore places in your life, the broken relationships and communities that plague us all.

He begins with the conflict over forgiveness in the introduction: “No Future Without Forgiveness”. It begins with a quote from Bell Hooks, which seems to be a strange choice based on her most famous literary work which is about hating the white guy who “took her friend’s” seat on an flight. But I digress. He addresses many of the current concerns about forgiveness. Many think that forgiveness and justice are opposed to one another. He brings up a number of true stories that reveal our society’s struggle. Some, like Sabine Birdsong, think Christianity is the problem. Somehow it is twisted into being superior to others. This all sets the stage for Keller’s book.

A Story of Forgiveness

This chapter begins with a discussion between Will Munny and the Schofield kid in Unforgiven. The story he tells is an adaptation of the parable of the unforgiving servant. This brings him to Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times he had to forgive his brother who sins against him. Peter asks if seven times is enough. The Talmud limited forgiveness to three times (three strikes and you’re outta my life). We want to limit the forgiveness we dispense, if we dispense it at all. Jesus shocks Peter, and us, with saying there is no limit.

He goes back to Jesus’ parable and the great, unfathomable debt the servant owed the king. There is no way he could ever repay the debt. To discharge the debt, the king was going to sell his servant to recoup a few dollars. The servant begs forgiveness of the debt. The debt is released as the king absorbs the financial loss. “Forgiveness, then, is a form of voluntary suffering.”

This servant, filled with joy over being forgiven, leaves only to encounter someone who owes him a few bucks. When the other man can’t pay the debt off, the servant tosses him in prison. When the king hears, he calls the servant back into his presence and has him tossed into prison. At this point Jesus offers the stern warning lest we act like the unforgiving servant. We have been forgiven so great a debt by God we can’t withhold forgiveness of the small, chump-change debt our brother has incurred against us.

Forgiveness is difficult. It can be difficult to receive due to pride. It is difficult to extend due to wounded pride.

True forgiveness is honest about the damage done. It calls sin what God calls it. That debt is then cancelled. When we forgive, we identify with the other person as a fellow sinner. The aim of forgiveness is reconciliation. The debt is forgiven so you can be restored to relationship. Keller rejects a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness.

Keller introduces the vertical and horizontal dimensions of forgiveness. God offers forgiveness which is received when we repent and believe. On the horizontal level, we forgive internally so we can pursue reconciliation and justice (not vengeance) and offer that forgiveness to others who then own their sin.

Returning to the parable, Keller notes that the point of the parable is that the servant was unchanged by his experience of forgiveness. He remains the same entitled and covetous man who incurred the debt in the first place. Many who call themselves Christians are just like him: unchanged. They keep score and hold grudges. They forget the immense debt they have incurred against God.

God’s mercy must and will make us merciful- if it doesn’t, then we never understood or accepted God’s mercy in truth.” pp. 13

Jesus is not calling us to try harder. Jesus is calling us to be transformed by the immeasurable grace and mercy we have received. That grace comes because King Jesus became a servant and bears the penalty of our sin. He pays our debt.

The Fading of Forgiveness

Keller begins with a quote from the novel Where the Crawdads Sing: “Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness?”. Here he returns to the problem of forgiveness and one manifestation in the MeToo movement. Many blamed forgiveness for why these abusive men were never held accountable, some even calling forgiveness “an extension of patriarchy.” Keller notes that this conflict emerges because of the definitions and models of forgiveness common in our society. He lays out three current models and critiques them.

Some think of forgiveness as nonconditional. You are just supposed to forgive and move on. The other party is not held accountable, including in the case of abuse. This can often be framed as “forgive and forget”. Keller calls this a “cheap grace whereby the power differentials between abusers and the abused remain unchanged and no justice was pursued.”

The second model is transactional forgiveness. In this model, forgiveness is granted to those who earn it. If the person does enough good to balance the bad they committed, or have suffered sufficiently, then they can be forgiven. This is not really forgiveness because the debt is paid by the offender. This sounds much like the Cultural Revolution in China where the victim (or government official) decides when the person has groveled enough. I’ve heard this in terms of race, that blacks in America alone can decide when a white person has suffered and been humiliated enough to be forgiven and possibly called an ally.

The third model isn’t forgiveness either. It is refusing to forgive. Forgiveness is viewed as victimizing the victim again. There is a sliver of truth here. “Forgiveness- conceived as automatic, unconditional, and expected- has been a way for women and minorities to be controlled.” That is a misconception of forgiveness, a divergent definition of forgiveness.

Keller calls these cheap grace, little grace and no grace. All of these lack the vertical dimension of forgiveness. God is removed from the picture or just ignored. This where Keller begins to describe the shift in our culture from God-awareness to the therapeutic culture. He is basically summarizing Trueman’s book in about a page. He focuses on Freud who deconstructed cultural norms, blaming them for producing our anxiety, guilt and shame. The individual is to disentangle themselves (through therapy- a good example of which is Zachary Levi’s “conversion”) from tradition, duty and any obligation to community to express their own desires. In our individualistic society, forgiveness seems unnecessary since it is intended to maintain community. The church has become counter-cultural, not simply an alternate community but simply as an actual community.

Additionally, we see the influence of secularism which has re-created a shame and honor culture. We are taught to demand respect. We expect others to affirm our choices with regard to identity. We have inverted things. In previous shame and honor cultures, the honor was on the top of the ladder, and shame was to be low on the social scale. Now, those on top are viewed as shameful oppressors and those on the bottom the honorable victims. People look for ways to be victims (even changing gender?) and gain status in society. We aren’t preserving relationships through love and covering sins, but choosing to destroy community through a constant state of being aggrieved. We are descending into vindictiveness.

In summary, the new shame-and-honor culture either produces a heavily inquisitorial, merited-forgiveness approach or leads people to abandon forgiveness altogether.” pp. 33

We are moving toward a culture without forgiveness. We see the rise in violence, riots and grudges. On the small scale, a victim brings a gun to work or school to gain vengeance on his oppressors. On the larger scale, there is genocide after cycles of retaliation. We are silencing the calls of Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu to forgive. Each is a prominent member of an oppressed group. King warned us that when we forsake forgiveness we forsake love. We need to learn to forgive. We need to learn to love.

Here Keller brings us back to a community of forgiveness: the Amish in Nickel Mines who forgave the gunman who killed 5 of their children and injured 5 more. They belong to a community where community matters. They practice self-renunciation instead of personal entitlement and self-fulfillment. Their confession of faith rejects revenge and retaliation. Christians need to return to the example of Christ, the commands of Christ and the substitutionary penal satisfaction of Christ.

The History of Forgiveness

Keller shifts from the present to the past. Hannah Arendt points to Jesus who introduced forgiveness into the realm of human relationships. The ancient world did not view forgiveness as a virtue. They valued wisdom, justice, courage and self-control. In their dog-eat-dog world, there was no room for forgiveness and other perceived weaknesses. You needed to defend your honor.

In Greece, the word for pardon is not the release from a debt but to excuse the person. They made some allowances, pointing to extenuating circumstances (they had a bad day, they are hangry…). When you cannot defend your honor, you could look down on them until they and their actions become inconsequential to you. There was no equality of dignity. There was no religious reason to forgive other people.

Christianity changed the world in many ways. One was the introduction of forgiveness into personal relationships. For them slaves had dignity. God would balance scales, so we could be patient in unjust suffering. Missionaries served and forgave. Before the gospel came, Anglo-Saxon warriors would not steal because it would be beneath them and rob them of honor. You thought of yourself, not the little, old woman who needed that money to live on. Shame-and-honor cultures are self-regarding. Christianity regards the other person: love your neighbor as yourself. To the self-regarding Anglo-Saxons, forgiveness seemed dangerous. The reformation of the culture was incomplete, and unable to love their enemy they preached Crusades. Controversial German poet Heinrich Heine noted that Christianity softened but did not eliminate Germany’s love of war.

The Book of Forgiveness

Some claim that the Bible doesn’t stress forgiveness. They look for specific words and provide a revisionist vision. Keller notes that in Hebrew three root words express forgiveness. Kpr is about covering sin and is often found in the context of sacrificial blood. Slb points to pardoning another, to stop blaming them and is often connected to sacrifices as well. It points to atonement. Ns is to lift or bear away, the expiation of sin.

In the Pentateuch we see that sin results in alienation from God, one another and creation. But on the day they sinned they did not die. God displayed mercy. There was mercy for Cain, who killed his brother Abel. The mark kept others from killing him. Joseph’s brothers asked him to forgive them- to send away the sin so he no longer counted it against them. Old Testament worship is largely about forgiveness to restore the relationship with God.

The Psalms speak of the depths of our guilt and shame. They expose our universal need for forgiveness. We see the problem of forgiveness because sin creates a record to be held against us. We also see that God does forgive (Ps. 32; 130).

He then refers to the reality of forgiveness in the Prophets. Where the Pentateuch speaks of the covenant made and forgiveness provided. The wisdom literature of the covenant lived and forgiveness received. The historical books speak of the covenant broken and forgiveness rejected. The Prophets are a bit more complex with the consequences of breaking the covenant and the coming covenant renewal with reaffirmation of forgiveness. Keller puts this in a handy little chart WordPress won’t let me reproduce. There are covenant lawsuits with the coming exile in fulfillment of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy, and the promise of not only return to the land but to God and a new covenant.

In the New Testament we see the remission of sins mentioned 40 times. Forgiveness comes at a cost to someone. As we go through the NT we see Jesus is the One who paid that price. The basis is the cross.

The God of Love and Fury

On the cross we see both the love and fury of God revealed. We see His mercy and justice on display.

This is not a New Testament thing. We see the roots of it in Exodus, particularly in the Ten Commandments, and in God’s revelation of Himself to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 34. There is the tension: “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” He is both. The first to those who repent (by His grace), and the latter to the unrepentant. He is a God of love and a God of wrath. Often our problem with forgiveness is a problem in our understanding of God. Love and wrath are “meaningless apart from each other and indeed they establish each other.” Here is the doctrine of simplicity on display. He is both, fully. He is angry because what He loves is threatened. His wrath is an expression of His love.

“... if you believe only in a God of love, you will live like a spoiled child, but if you believe only in a God of wrath, you will live like an abused child.” pp. 75

The cross reveals that God is not disinterested and detached. He deeply loves His people. He pays our debt by surrendering His only Son, the Son He loves, to death in our place.

Too many want a God of love that has no wrath. Such a God can’t exist. Keller quickly exposes the vacuousness of moral relativism and the progressive god of only love.

Justice and Love, Honor and Abuse

Some think that forgiveness means that there is no justice. We conflat personal forgiveness with public justice as if to forgive means there can be no public penalty. Keller wades into this helpfully.

Ancient cultures were based on shame and honor, a hierarchy of honor and social status. They were not concerned with forgiveness but rather preserving honor. This meant getting some form of vengeance. If someone of higher status wronged you, there was often little to no recourse. Someone beneath you, however, could bear your wrath. In some cases, it might be honorable to make excuses for the other person’s wrong.

The Stoics counseled dismissiveness. They overcame bitterness by despising the other person. It was a way of detaching the heart.

The Scripture were unique in speaking of forgiveness in personal relationships. Keller brings us to Leviticus 19.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19

God forbids hating your brother, vengeance, and grudges. To hate is to think less of, to decrease their status in your heart. We are not to hang on to the hurt, or express our wrath. Rather, we are speak or reason frankly with them. We love and rebuke the person who wronged us. If we don’t, we share in his future sin.

Justice and love are combined in God, and so they must be in us. Grievous sin must be forgiven, but it should also be pointed out. To not forgive but seek justice alone is to risk going beyond justice to revenge. He quotes Nouwen about the struggle to forgive, “This lifelong struggle lies at the heart of the Christian life.

So while being deeply committed to justice, we do not go out into the word with a condescending attitude toward the unjust. We do not demonize or deal harshly or high-handedly with anyone created in God’s image. We pursue justice tirelessly yet with humility.” pp. 92

He applies this to the problem of abuse. He tells some of Rachael Denhollander’s story. To forgive and forget (to not also seek justice) is to allow an abuser to harm others. Too often the church wrongly counsels this. The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill exposed, among other things, this approach that was abusive in itself. Denhollander struggled with this teaching. She wanted to forgive, but not allow him to abuse other girls. She had to realize there were more answers in the faith than outside of it. She realized that from the perspective of many other religions, his good works would have made up for his abuse. Those good deeds didn’t stop her pain, or him from causing more pain. She needed something deeper and better.

The answers she needed were found in the doctrine of the substitutionary penal atonement. This doctrine, dismissed and derided by “progressive Christians” is where justice and mercy meet. Our need for justice is met by Christ on the cross. The cross reveals God’s love for His people, and His hatred of sin. We see that sin and evil are not trivial. Jesus comes and takes the punishment due our sin. Seeing our need, we are more likely to extend it to others.

She needed to forgive Dr. Nassar. She also needed to report him, to speak frankly to him, so he might feel the burden of his guilt and perhaps be brought to repentance in part by paying the penalty of his crime in prison.

Keller then brings us to the Passover where the lamb is slain in their place. Each home deserved a visit of the angel of death. The lamb was their substitute. This lamb pointed to the ultimate Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, Jesus. We are on an even playing field at the foot of the cross, and there is mercy and grace for all who repent and believe.

The Basics of Forgiveness

In the 7th chapter, Keller harmonizes two of Jesus’ commands regarding forgiveness. The first is Mark 11:25 which tells us to seek out those you hold something against us. We are commanded to forgive them in the strongest possible way. Jesus warns that to no forgive means we are not forgiven. It means that we don’t yet understand grace, but are like the unmerciful servant.

Similar to this is Luke 17:3-4 which tells us to forgive repeatedly. We have the dual responsibility to forgive and to confront (Lev. 19 & Gal. 6). This is when the sin is against you. He warns us against being more willing to confront than forgive. We should not be slow to forgive. We are to seek the restoration of relationships and community.

The “problem” is that the passage in Luke refers to repentance and the Mark passage doesn’t. Some think we should only forgive when they repent. We see examples of people forgiving without the repentance of the offender. What are to make of all this?

Keller addresses inward and outward forgiveness. In Mark we are not to avenge ourselves, but forgive. This is an inward forgiveness or what is also called attitudinal forgiveness. There is no reconciliation apart from inward forgiveness. Nor is there reconciliation without the repentance of the other party in cases of grievous sin. You then convey outward forgiveness. Outward forgiveness is part of the pursuit of justice. We speak the truth about their actions with love. He stresses that it is important to discern and apply the differences in ministry to others. We have control over whether we forgive, not don’t have control over whether they repent.

He also addresses two commands by Jesus to love our enemies. The righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees includes a love for your enemy. Jesus addresses an abuse of talionic justice. “An eye for an eye” refers to the limits upon judges in deciding cases. It was a law to end vendettas. It is not about private, personal action. I can’t knock out your tooth because you knocked out mine. But this was how the Pharisees seem to have applied it.

Jesus affirms the reality of evil and evil persons. He does not want us to retaliate, but to love evil people. We do this by going the extra mile (referring to being impressed by Roman soldiers), or by accepting the insult of being struck with the back of the hand. We resist the Evil One, and evil. But love the evil doer.

In Leviticus 19, the neighbor was considered your fellow Israelite. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answers the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The person in need is your neighbor, not just a fellow Israelite/Christian. We are to be compassionate to the “other”, not just those who love us.

Our Need for Forgiveness

He begins this chapter with a quote from one of Adele’s songs, “My Little Love”, written to her son after her divorce. “I’m so guilty. I’m so far gone and you’re the only one who can save me.” She is right about being guilty and far gone. She’s wrong about who can save her.

In the last few centuries we’ve seen Nietzsche, Freud and Marx seek to strip people of guilt and shame as social constructs that exist to keep them in line and or under the oppression of the powerful. Yet, secular people still feel guilty. They still need to remove their moral burden. Often this comes by becoming a marginalized person or a victim. This removes your responsibility without ever having to admit you are a sinner. You blame your problems on “The Man.”

Another thinker, Franz Kafka, foresaw this in his book The Trial. The main character, Josef K., is arrested, placed under house arrest, interrogated and endures numerous hearings. He never knows why. They never reveal the crime to him. He is executed. Like Josef K., so many feel guilty but never know why. Kafka seemed to understand that we can’t wish the guilt away, but didn’t get why we experience it.

Keller brings us back to Genesis 3. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve know there is something wrong. They are naked and vulnerable so they cover up. When God approaches they hide in the bushes. These leaves cannot protect us. We continue to feel like we don’t measure up, that we are dirty and unlovable.

Keller brings us to the story of Joseph to see forgiveness in action. First proud Joseph became humble and full of joy before meeting his treacherous brothers again. Like those brothers, we can doubt the love of our Brother. Horizontal forgiveness is rooted in vertical forgiveness. We struggle to forgive precisely because we want to be in the place of God, instead of recognizing that we, too, are in the seat of sinners.

Years ago a woman came to me seeking counsel after experiencing some relational problems during a project. She struggled because people had offended her. I encouraged her to remember that she too was a sinner in need of forgiveness so she could forgive them. Later she would say I “gave her nothing”. She wanted to remain in the position of judge.

Joseph is honest about his brothers’ evil intentions. He doesn’t pretend what they did wasn’t evil. We can’t just pretend the abuse or offense we have suffered isn’t evil. Don’t minimize it (or over-inflate it). We should lament and express our pain as well as speaking frankly with them with an eye toward reconciliation, not condemnation.

Joseph then repaid the evil they committed with good. In Romans 12, Paul advises the same, and quotes a Proverb to back up his point. When we do this, Keller says, we are treating people like God treated us. He not only pardoned us, but blessed us greatly in Christ.

We can do these things because of Christ, and Him crucified. He underwent judgment in our place. He also gives us the spiritual resources necessary to forgive and seek reconciliation.

Receiving God’s Forgiveness

If we are to forgive others, our own sin must be forgiven. Secularism, with its focus on autonomy, has nothing to offer those who feel unworthy and guilty. There is no one to forgive them. There is no objective standard to explain their sense of guilt.

Keller discusses true and false guilt. True guilt is the proper response to breaking God’s law. But men have added so many laws of their own to God’s law- what Jesus would call the traditions of men. False guilt is a response to human tradition. It is about failing to meet the expectations we or another person put upon us. We need to bring our true guilt to God.

He identifies three forms of counterfeit repentance: blame shifting, self-pity, and self-flagellation. In Genesis 3 Adam blamed “the woman you gave me” for his sin. Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her. No one was accepting responsibility for their actions. Self-pity is sorrow over consequences, not the sin itself. It can look like repentance, but it doesn’t change us. It is a form of self-centeredness. It is sin.

We can also beat ourselves up. We have a child who, when young, literally hit themselves in response to guilt. We had to repeatedly point them to Jesus who bore our guilt. As adults, we are often more subtle in our self-flagellation. It can be verbal, degrading yourself or depression. It is the attempt to self-atone and is a form of self-righteousness.

True repentance owns the sin. It confesses it for what it is. It also forsakes the sin. It should include a plan to do so. We are also to receive the mercy of God by faith. We are to go deeper in our understanding of God’s mercy and the doctrines around it (like the atonement, union with Christ, the judgment etc.).

Granting Our Forgiveness

He begins with a quote from Jane Eyre. After no reconciliation she questioned him. He noted that there was nothing to forgive. Jane would have preferred to have been knocked down. Why? This break in relationship was apparently over “nothing”. She was not forgiven. She felt inconsequential.

Keller brings us back to Luke 17. Jesus warns us of an unforgiving spirit. We often don’t know how angry we are at the other person. He advises that we assume we are more bitter than we realize.

Many moons ago CavWife was dumped by a boyfriend (his loss, my gain). One day her boss, caring for her, addressed her bitterness. “I’m not bitter.” Bitterness is like bad breathe or body odor. We are the last to know.

If we don’t address our wrath we’ll become restless spirits. We will be controlled by the past. We will become “someone who’s haunted.” He returns to internal forgiveness. We need to identify with the wrongdoer as a fellow sinner. They are still a brother or sister you are to love, and that includes forgiving them as you’ve been forgiven. We need to forsake our moral superiority. We than absorb the debt rather than make them pay. We don’t get even, and forsake the desire to get even. As time goes by, you will see new depths to how they hurt you and your need to keep forgiving them. Their debt is bigger than you realize (but not as big as your debt to God).

He then addresses some forms of counterfeit forgiveness: excusing, denying, holding a grudge while forsaking active revenge, suspending judgment until the next time you do it, abandoning justice so the person can continue to harm others, and granting immediate trust.

We are also to will their good. We are to pursue their good as much as we are able. The true enemy is the evil in them. Whether we seek vengeance or completely cut them off, it is all about us. Feelings follow actions in forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a warm fuzzy, but absorbing that debt and forsaking revenge. Don’t wait to feel it; grant it.

CavWife is much quicker to get the feeling than I am. I may forgive, but it takes time for my anger to dissipate. Don’t expect a quick hug from me.

In absorbing the debt, we leave it in the past as we relate to the person moving forward. We don’t bring it up again. While we may come to a greater understanding of the debt, we should not keep going to them with each new realization.

Forgiveness is a promise not to keep bringing the matter up to the person, to others, or even to ourselves.” pp. 174

Extending Forgiveness

When we forgive, the goal is reconciliation. Keller brings us Jesus’ statement on anger from Matthew 5:21-25. Our failure to love is connected to murder. As such, it is forbidden. This is the principle Keller wants us to keep in mind. Our anger is spiritually dangerous.

So when we get angry, we should ask: “What am I defending?”” pp. 185

Practically, he tells us to go to the person we’ve made angry. That’s hard. Who likes to talk to an angry person. We tend to procrastinate and avoid the issue. The problem between the two of you, in Matthew 18, is also a matter of the church. If affects the local body if conflict between fellow Christians is not reconciled. We are to go to reconcile, not condemn. Jesus does say to “point out their fault” which refers to a painful admonition. You may have to go more than once. You may need to bring others to hold both of you accountable. You want to persuade, not obliterate.

In Matthew 5 and 18, we see that we are to be the one to initiate the reconciliation. Don’t wait for the other person.

Keller then looks at Romans 12 to see how evil wins by distorting our relationships, our view of self and helps the offender in their self-justification. We also counsels how we can overcome evil with good by praying for them, forgiving them, not avoiding them (a form of retaliation), doing good to them, and being humble toward them.

Final Thoughts

This is a very thorough and convicting book. He is likely to hit some sore spots, but that is good. Don’t let that lead you to put the book down, but may it prompt repentance and a moving toward reconciliation.

While Keller is writing to Christians, he doesn’t limit his scope to the Church. He looks at the society in which we live. He is well-read on the subject(s) but doesn’t bog down. He provides quick summaries of the pertinent point. He echoes Carl Trueman on many points concerning the philosophical shifts.

Our society can influence us. We are discipled by the world more than we care admit. It is too easy to follow the flesh into seeking allies to further contention and dissension. It is too easy to follow the flesh in running away, avoiding that person or going on the warpath. God has something better for us, and Keller labors hard to proclaim this to us.

It is common for me to read that Keller is “progressive”, a “compromiser” and one who has lost the gospel. I don’t see that in his other books. I don’t see that here either. Progressives hate the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that Keller teaches and affirms repeatedly in this book. It is gospel drenched. It is not advocating a cheap grace that uses “forgiveness” to cover up issues instead of addressing them. He isn’t advocating justice apart from the gospel like a social justice warrior (another accusation I see online).

Forgive, in my opinion, exceeds another book on the subject I read not too long ago: Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns. They address different issues: Keller the Shame-Honor and Cancel cultures, Brauns the therapeutic model. Keller’s doesn’t share the weaknesses of Brauns’ book. There are topics one will address that the other won’t. If I had to give one away, it would be Forgive.

This book, while referencing some important thinkers and their works, is filled with Scripture. He doesn’t proof text to justify his points. He examines the texts in question. Scripture is his authority, or should I say the authority behind his views. This is what makes the book hard to hear at times since the Word of God is living and active, cutting us to the heart like a two-edged sword.

Considering You Can Change


Life change, the doctrine of sanctification, can be confusing at times. Life change is hard. We can often feel stuck, and it can seem (key word) hopeless. The last few years have been hard. I’ve been working to address some sin in my life. I’ve been in mental ruts that have been difficult to get out of.

You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions has been sitting in my book cart for a few years. That is where books in my reading queue are. When it was time for sabbatical, it seemed a good choice to take with me for personal growth.

While it took me months to work my way through it, it was a good choice. That length of time was not about the length of the book but the busyness of life. When I re-emerged from my sabbatical I wasn’t done and life grew very busy. But I finished. And then came the delay in blogging about it. (And people wonder why I haven’t finished my book)

Tim Chester’s book is short (about 180 pages and 10 chapters). That should not be seen as a disadvantage. It is succinct. True, he doesn’t say all he possibly could say, but he gets to the heart of the matter. He does cover some material that is often overlooked. There is no fluff in this book (I could learn from this). Chester drinks from the stream of John Owen and therefore Sinclair Ferguson, J.I. Packer and Jerry Bridges who were greatly influenced by Owen and John Flavel. He also read Berkower, and has been influenced by some of the CCEF books on this subject. Aside from Berkower, there is a strong Puritan (Reformed) emphasis in this book. This, in my opinion, is a great strength of this book. (I suppose some may say I live in a Puritan echo chamber, but I can think of far worse places to be.)

Each chapter ends with bullet point summaries for reflection, a few questions and a Change Project. He wants you to process and apply the information.In other words, he wants you to change. In my case, his desire was not accomplished but hopefully it will be more so in your case. That doesn’t mean I didn’t apply the truth here, just that I didn’t work through the projects.

What Would You Like to Change?

This is a good place to begin. Something brings a person to such a book. He wants to get that out in the open, so to speak. Too often we are focused, as he notes, on the less important changes. We want to be more successful in our careers, or feel more competent as a parent (insert laughter here). Chester wants us to know that God has bigger plans for you precisely because you are made in His image to be His representative here on earth. But we are a broken and distorted image: we fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) because we are sinners. Our lives speak lies about God.

Jesus, the Second Adam (or Adam the Second as Sinclair Ferguson so often puts it) is the Son of God and the perfect man. He is the exact representation or image of God. His life spoke no lies, but perfectly revealed the character of God. Jesus isn’t simply our Example, but our Savior and part of that saving work is to restore the image of God in us. While we want to fiddle about with a few things that make our life more difficult, Jesus wants to remake us so we stop speaking lies with our lives. He wants to change us from the inside out.

As part of this, Chester points us to 2 Corinthians 3. To reflect the glory of Christ we must first behold the glory of Christ. We can’t change apart from Christ. We can’t change apart from meditating on Christ in His presence. Perhaps this is why we are so slow to change: we spend so little time beholding Christ because there is so much for us to do, and so much to distract us. This is really about beholding Christ as He is presented to us in the gospel (to borrow a phrase from the Westminster Shorter Catechism on saving faith).

The message of this book is that change takes place in our lives as we turn to see the glory of God in Jesus. We “see” the glory of Christ as we “hear” the gospel.” pp. 19

This work begins in sanctification but is only concluded in glorification. We become as He is when we behold Him as He is either in heaven or at His return. God’s plan is not to simply rearrange the furniture of your life but to engage in a whole house remodel. He’s not simply changing the color of the walls and putting in a new sink, bu he’s going to remove the rot, fungus and termite damage and restore health and wholeness (loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength).

Why Would You Like to Change?

In the second chapter, Chester deals with the question of motivation. People can have wrong or mixed motives. Some people want to prove themselves to God. Self-righteousness runs deep in us. We want to make up for our sins. We may also want to prove God was right to save us (sounds crazy, right?) or earn it after the fact. We can try to prove ourselves to others. We may want to prove them wrong about us, or prove they can trust us after all. We can also try to prove ourselves to ourselves. We want to be a “former (fill in the blank)”.

Chester then moves us to the doctrine of justification. This guts our attempts to prove ourselves to anyone. Our attempts to look good are about our glory, not God’s. We can try to live the right way for the wrong reasons. God sees through that, and kills our pride through justification by faith alone. Many don’t grasp the right order of salvation, and try to put sanctification prior to justification. We are not justified by our sanctification. We are justified on the basis of Christ’s obedience. Justified, the Spirit sanctifies us or makes us more like Jesus.

God gives us a new identity to live out. We don’t earn it, it is graciously given to us. This new identity is to shape how we live in the present and future. Our new identity in Christ is that we’ve been adopted and are God’s children. The down payment of our inheritance as sons of God is the Spirit. He gives us the power to change. We are also the Bride of Christ- we are forever united to Him. As we see in Ezekiel 16, we were a bloody (unclean) mess, but God comes and makes a covenant with us, covers us, cleanses us and dresses us in beautiful clothes. We see something similar in Revelation. We are sinners whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. He adorns us. We see this in Ephesians 5 as well- as Christ gave Himself to redeem people who were dead in sins and trespasses. He cleansed us with the washing of the Word. These truths, these aspects of our new identity, are to control how we live more than our desire for sin and/or self-righteousness.

All too often we think of holiness as giving up the pleasures of sin for some worthy but drab life. But holiness means recognizing that the pleasures of sin are empty and temporary, while God is inviting us to magnificent, true, full, and rich pleasures that last forever.” pp. 35

How Are You Going to Change?

Not only can we try to change for the wrong reasons, we can try to change in the wrong way. We try to change ourselves with rules and regulations. We rely on disciplines and rituals. These are attempts to change from the outside in.

The law can’t change us. It provides a picture of what we should look like, but doesn’t provide the power for us to change. I’ve explained it before as the law being the tracks, but we need the power of the Spirit to move on those tracks. To rely on the law for sanctification is to return to the works of the law by which no man may be justified. As Paul warns in Galatians, we return to slavery.

Chester speaks more of legalism. Legalism focuses on externals, and makes holiness manageable. It seeks to make holiness something we can achieve. Pride drives us, and lies to us that we aren’t legalists.

While we have responsibility, transformation is God’s work. He sanctifies us. He cleanses us of our idolatry, He removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh and places His Spirit in us to cause us to walk according to His law (Ez. 36). Paul speaks of God working in us so we will and work according to His will (Phil. 2:12-13).

As His children, the Father disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness (Heb. 12). In this endeavor, He uses hardship to discipline us. Chester does warn us against considering it as punishment for specific sins. He is weaning us from the world, and our dependence on the things of this world. He grows our trust in Him.

The Son also sets us free. Chester points us to Romans 6:1-7. United to Christ, we died in His death. United to Christ, we were raised in His resurrection. He gives us the power of a new life in the Spirit. We are free from seeking justification through the works of the law.

The Spirit also works to set us free. The Spirit brings us new life so we can see Christ as delightful and trust Him and submit to Him. The Spirit leads us (and empowers us) to resist the works of the flesh and grow in the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit is about character, not just actions. It is about who we are inside.

So, we should recognize that our transformation is a Trinitarian work. All three persons of the Trinity participate in our liberation from sin.

Chester also brings regeneration into the mix. Regeneration is God’s work in us, but it bears fruit in our lives. Like an infant we grow, maturing. John Newton uses the illustration of maturing corn in his letters. In a class back in the early 1990’s Jerry Bridges was asked about Lordship Salvation. He noted that the important missing piece was regeneration. We can change because we’ve been born again and have a heart of flesh.

We are sanctified by faith in Christ’s work for us. In the Westminster Larger Catechism #75 we see that in sanctification the Spirit applies the death and resurrection to us in increasing measure so we die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness. He quotes Owen saying “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls.”

Here Chester goes into the differences between justification and sanctification which we see laid out in WLC #77. They are inseparable, coming in our union with Christ (Calvin calls this a double grace). I’ve laid it out the differences in this table.

JustificationSanctification
Imputation of the righteousness of ChristInfusion of grace and enabling its exercise
Sin is pardonedSin is subdued
Equally frees all believers in this lifeNot equal in this life, nor perfect in any of us
Never fall into condemnationGrows up to perfection (in glorification)

When Do You Struggle?

Chester now wants us to consider the question of when we struggle with our particular temptations. To understand the context helps us in the battle to mortify our sin. He reminds us that “we are messed-up people living in a messed-up world.” Because of this, “we’re allowed to struggle. It’s legitimate to feel pain, disappointment, and heartache.” Note that he is NOT saying it is legitimate to transgress God’s. But, due to the remnant of sin, we will struggle with temptations. We can also deal with the pain, disappointment and heartache resulting from our temptations and transgressions.

God knows that we suffer from the sins of others, as well as our own sin and its consequences. Being justified removes our condemnation, not our struggle. Sanctification, being imperfect in this life, means we will struggle. Jesus doesn’t forsake us in our struggle. He doesn’t stand off in either disinterest or disapproval in our struggle. He works by the Spirit to help us in our struggle.

God uses our struggles for good (Rom. 8:28-29), which is defined as being conformed to the likeness of the Son. He changes us through the struggle. One of my contentions is that our struggle with besetting sins is often God’s way to humble us. With pride being a root sin, we need to be humbled and He often allows us to struggle with persistent temptations and/or transgressions to humble us. We are often focused on the surface sin that we don’t address the root sin. For instance, in one of her books Rosaria Butterfield notes that her real problem wasn’t her lesbianism (she’s not denying its sinfulness) but her pride (I can’t find my copy of Secret Thoughts to find the citation). Her lesbianism was one of the manifestations of her pride, and until the pride was addressed she’d make little to no progress with the manifestations of it. But I digress.

Those struggles reveal our hearts. It is out of the heart, Jesus says, that all our sin flows. The heart is the source of our desires and thoughts, and therefore my behaviors. Our temptations and transgressions give us a glimpse of what lies hidden within. While there may be external temptations, they only hook us because of the sin in our hearts. It is easy for a man to objectify an attractive woman he sees because of the sin remaining in his heart. It is easy for a woman to fantasize about romance while reading or watching a movie because of the sin in her heart that makes an idol of romance or connection (similar to how men make an idol of sex).

[As an aside, he quotes from the New Living Translation on pp. 66 and says it paraphrases Proverbs 4:23. No, it is a translation unlike the Living Bible. It is a thought for thought translation rather than word for word, but still a translation. It returns to the original languages and seeks to accurately convey the meaning in understandable words and grammar. So, I found his statement misleading,]

Chester notes that our circumstances can trigger our hearts. We are squeezed and bad things come out. The circumstances don’t create the bad things, but give opportunity for us to see the evil already within us. Here he points us to James 1 and James 4 to understand the reality of our desires which give birth to sin. We can’t blame God for the sinful or inordinate desires we have. We’ve been given over to sinful corruption as a judicial act on Adam’s sin as our federal head. The evil desires (sin original) in our hearts produce sinful emotions, temptations and transgressions (all sin actual).

The battlefield is within, not without. It can’t be handled by laws like “don’t touch”, as Paul says in Colossians 2. It is only addressed by the work of Christ as Paul labors to tell the Colossians all through that letter. Sin is tied to unbelief. We believe lies from others and our corrupt desires (Eph. 4:22). The word for disobedience in Eph. 2:2 conveys a stubborn refusal to obey due to unbelief. We are to speak, and hear, the truth in love.

Sin happens when we believe lies about God instead of God’s word and when we worship idols instead of worshiping God.

What Truths Do You Need to Turn to?

Behind every sin is a lie. The root of all our behavior and emotions is the heart- what it trusts and what it treasures.

Paul is clear that the thinking of people outside of Christ is futile, and their understanding is darkened. We see this in Romans 1 and Ephesians 4. In regeneration we are given the mind of Christ, and our mind is being sanctified. But it is not fully sanctified. We still believe lies due to our fallen nature, the remaining corruption in us.

We need the truth to set us free, and to sanctify us (Jn. 17:17). Our minds need to be renewed (Rom. 12). This means we need to stop listening to the lie that we can’t change, and believe that we can even if that transformation won’t be complete. We need to reject the lie that we can change ourselves, and believe that the Spirit works to transform us through the truth, particularly the truth of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. We need to preach the truth, the gospel, to ourselves rather than listen to ourselves. We aren’t going deeper and deeper in self-analysis, but deeper and deeper in understanding gospel truth.

Some truths that Chester puts forth for us:

  1. God is great- so we don’t have to be in control.
  2. God is glorious- so we do not have to fear others.
  3. God is good- so we do not have to look elsewhere.
  4. God is gracious- so we do not have to prove ourselves.

We can also reject the lies of:

  1. Restless anger
  2. Joyless duty
  3. Anxious performance
  4. Proud comparisons

What Desires Do You Need to Turn From?

Peter tells us to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). He continues to say that we are to not be conformed to the passions or corrupt desires of our former life. One of those corrupt passions is idolatry. When we turn to idols we also turn from the living God (Jer. 2:13).

The flesh makes life about us instead of God: our comfort, our prosperity, our pleasure, our glory and our will. We enslave ourselves in the ultimate paradox.

Some desires are corrupt in and of themselves. Deviant sexual activity is corrupt in and of itself. These desires are never holy. They are never good or acceptable.

Other desires are corrupt because they are inordinate: we want a good thing more than we want God. We can want vindication, for instance, but when it becomes more important to us than God it becomes corrupt.

Turning from these desires is repentance. It begins in conversion and continues through the rest of our lives. We turn from our sin and to God because we apprehend the sinfulness of our sin and God’s mercy in Christ. Repentance is an essential part of life transformation.

There is also mortification, the putting to death of temptations before they become transgressions. It is saying ‘no’ by the grace of God. The earlier the better lest you fall in temptation as Owen discusses. It is to fall under the power of temptation, becoming obsessed by it and moving toward transgression. Kill it or it will kill you, to paraphrase John Owen.

Chester quotes from Ferguson to help us to understand it. “It is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence.” In my head I will say “no” to my prideful stirrings, and other temptations.

Corrupt desires feed corruption. They bear bad fruit. When we follow the lead of the Spirit we bear the fruit of the Spirit. Here Chester brings up establishing godly habits. This is something he’ll develop later.

Repentance requires faith. We must believe God’s evaluation of our actions, that they are sin. We must believe the truth of the gospel. We need to believe that “God is bigger and better than our sinful desires.”

What Stops You from Changing?

Chester identifies two basic reasons why we don’t change: self-love and love of sin. We are filled with pride, and prone to love the sin even if we don’t like the consequences of sin. The deceitfulness of sin has us focusing on its fleeting pleasure, not lasting punishment.

Pride leads us to believe that we deserve the pleasure sin provides. We need to repent of our pride and self-reliance. The road to holiness is paved in humility. Calvin ties this to self-denial.

We don’t change when we excuse our sin. We don’t change when we blame others for our sin. We don’t change when we blame our circumstances. Sin is our response to our circumstances, but not caused by it. We don’t change when we minimize our sin- thinking it is “not that bad.” This can also be tied to the quest for self-fulfillment, one of the lies of our culture which we can believe.

We don’t change when we hide our sin. We hide from one another. We don’t seek the help of others. We rely on ourselves. This can be a function of pride (not wanting to look like a real sinner). It can also be a function of shame (everyone will reject me because I’m so bad). Steve Brown used to tell us “demons die in the light” and sins grow in the dark.

What Strategies Will Reinforce Your Faith and Repentance?

Chester reminds us that simply knowing the truth doesn’t change us. We must act on the truth. We act with the gospel disciplines of faith and repentance. We have to remember that we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7-8). Our present is (at least in part) the fruit of past decisions.

We are to sow to the Spirit, not the flesh. A desire for holiness, for change, will mean that we follow the lead of the Spirit (Gal. 5) and bear great fruit.

Chester also lays out some other important strategies connected to this:

  1. Avoid whatever provokes sinful desires. We shouldn’t ponder how close we can get to the lion before we get mauled. Stay away from situations that provoke your sinful desires.
  2. Avoid whatever strengthens sinful desires. Don’t feed them, starve them! I used to get book catalogs. I buy too many books. I stopped getting catalogs. Sadly I get emails now, but you get the point. He notes that the lies of the world will reinforce and resonate with our sinful nature.
  3. Saying “No!” to sinful desires. He provides a series of examples of this. This is mortification. Say ‘no’ to the click bait. Avert your eyes from the attractive person, or if talking with them look them in the eye. Resist unnecessary trips to window shop if you are a compulsive shopper.

Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness.John Stott, quoted on pp. 138

Sowing to the Spirit means we say “Yes!” to the Spirit’s prompting to read the Word, pray, be generous, etc. This strengthens the movement toward virtue and godliness. Chester focuses on the means of grace, which feed our faith which then receives grace. These are the Bible, prayer, community, worship, service, suffering (not running from it, which isn’t the same as looking for it), and hope.

How Can We Support One Another in Changing?

This is one of the best chapters because it is on a subject that is often neglected. We are in what Chester calls “a community of change.” We were not meant to be alone in this. There are some who think they don’t need the church. There are others who don’t properly utilize the community. And, sadly, there are graceless communities that beat up people who are repentant.

In Ephesians 4 Paul uses the illustration of the Body. We are to grow up to match our head. Babies has disproportionately large heads. They grow into them. Christ is mature, and the rest of the body is intended to grow up into Him.

Sin is a community issue. If it keeps individuals from growing, it keeps that individual from helping the body grow. Too many people hide their sin but disengage from the body so it suffers too.

We all need one another. You need others to grow and change. Others need you to grow and change. We need both gospel doctrine and gospel culture! In keeping with Ephesians 4, we are to speak the truth (in love) to one another. This necessitates attending worship and participating in congregational life.

Love without truth is like doing heart surgery with a wet fish. But truth without love is like doing heart surgery with a hammer.” pp. 158

It is impossible to be a community of change if we aren’t a community of repentance. Because we are only superficially involved, we don’t know one another’s sins and don’t rebuke, encourage and help one another with those sins. We also have to be a community of grace so people can be honest, open and transparent about what is going on in their lives.

Are You Ready for a Lifetime of Daily Change?

In the final chapter Chester notes the reality that we are in for a lifetime of change, but that change only happens on the daily level. Our daily choices determine whether or not (or how) we change.

Without getting to philosophical, he enters the question of the will. He doesn’t get deep into divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility (Scripture upholds both with the doctrine of concurrence). Our wills have been freed by Jesus so we can now choose spiritual and eternal good. This is not a refutation of divine sovereignty, but a recognition of how regeneration changes us. We can still choose to do things that are spiritually harmful for us. That freedom is important. Free but certainly not perfected we will make good choices and bad choices. We choose according to our desires, and some of our desires are still messed up which is why we need to put off the old man.

Life change is a marathon, as he states. Precisely because we aren’t perfect, we will change and can change. There are many influences on our lives because they influence our thinking and therefore our choices (The will is the mind choosing- Jonathan Edwards). We listen to podcasts, blowhards in the break room, talk radio, friends, pastors (good and bad) and other media. People shape our thinking and therefore our choices. We are being discipled all day- by someone. (Conversely we can disciple others all day too.)

Change is a daily task over the course of a lifetime. Some decisions have bigger consequences, and we don’t always recognize the big decisions at the time. But just because I make the right choice today doesn’t mean I won’t be faced with the same choice tomorrow. Joseph, for instance, didn’t turn down Potiphar’s wife once. She was frequently trying to seduce him, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Today’s ‘no’ to pride, porn, revenge, covetousness etc. is just that: today’s. Tomorrow we will face many of the same choices. Mortification of sin is consistently saying ‘no’ over the long haul. It gets tougher tomorrow when I say “yes” today.

Change will not be easy. Sin is habit-forming- not just habits of behavior, but also habits of thinking. However, change is possible.” pp. 172

One of the “problems” is that growth often includes a growing awareness of our sin. We see it more clearly and more deeply. We are actually growing but paradoxically see more of it. This is the “problem” of holiness. The more godly you are, the less godly you will likely feel as you realize you are the chief of sinners.

He notes that it is very important to keep the “already” and “not yet” of change clear. We don’t want to be overly optimistic in the short run, nor despair in the long run. There are sins that have far less hold over me now. I experience periodic temptations and don’t succumb. While those temptations are far less frequent and not “overwhelming” they are still there. There has been progress in mortification, but they aren’t completely dead yet. I must remain vigilante lest I give them a foothold and feed them.

He summarizes the book in this way (pp. 173):

  1. Keep returning to the cross to see your sin canceled and to draw near to God in full assurance of welcome.
  2. Keep looking to God instead of to sin for satisfaction, focusing on the four liberating truths of God’s greatness, glory, goodness and grace.
  3. Cut off, throw off, put off, kill off everything that might strengthen or provoke sinful desires.
  4. Bring sin into the light through regular accountability to another Christian.

This is how we make progress. We also remember that because I am in Christ, though I remain a sinner, I’m also righteous in His eyes. The doctrine of justification is essential to the doctrine of sanctification. Apart from it, sanctification is a meritorious work on our part. Chester relates a less common Reformation slogan: semper peccator, semper iustus: “always a sinner, always justified”.

Sin never has the last word for the children of God. Grace always has the last word. If we confess our sins to God, he is faithful. He’ll keep his promise to forgive.” pp. 176

This little book is very helpful. It is a great example of practical theology. It is understandable and meaningful. The cookies are not out of reach. His chapters on what and why we want to change, the community of change, and the last on a lifetime of daily change are helpful contributions that you don’t find often enough in books on this subject.

This makes the book a great resource for one-on-one discipleship, a small group study or SS lesson. The level of personal interaction will determine how much is theoretical and how much is accountability. It is also accessible enough to give away. Let’s hope this one stays in print for the glory of God and edification of the church.


Are you puzzled by that title? I am. Or rather that this is really a question or controversy.

This question and the answers given seem to be cause for disruption in congregations and denominations. It is part of the larger question of “who may lead worship?”.

This is a bit of a vague term: lead. In the PCA, for instance, the Session (elders) oversee the worship. As pastor, I put together the liturgy and pick the Scripture readings. Our music director chooses the songs we sing (with my approval, particularly with new songs). I generally lead us through the liturgy, and introduce songs. The ruling elders read the Old and New Testament readings, while I read the sermon text. When I am gone, the elders generally lead much of the liturgy. Since I’ve come back from Sabbatical, the elder who reads the OT & NT readings will lead the liturgy as well. There is one who doesn’t, and when it is his turn, I lead the liturgy. This allows the congregation to hear different voices and tones in our worship. Our pastoral prayers are very different, and that is good. The congregation is spared our personal ruts. I am able to play some guitar when not leading the liturgy.

Do we have to do it this way or are lay people allowed to introduce songs, lead prayer and read Scripture (including the call to worship)?

There are 3 answers to this larger question, which then answer the question of who may read Scripture in worship.

  1. Ordained officers (usually understood as elders)
  2. Believing men
  3. Believers

In an online discussion of this question and why people who don’t answer 1. we told they should leave the PCA, I was offered the following article to justify the position: Who Is Permitted to Read the Word Publicly to the Congregation in the PCA?

I will summarize and evaluate the argument presented in this article. It is an article, so he may use “shorthand” at points, and I may miss something that makes perfect sense to him, and much of his audience. At least I hope this is the case because at points there seem to be large, and I think unwarranted, leaps.

The causes for such diverse practices and opinions are not difficult to understand. The indirect answer in WLC #156 (“all are not permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation”), and the non-binding, unclear statement of BCO 50-2 (“The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation…should be done by the minister or some other person”), have opened the door to wide divergences in the PCA.[2] It is a mistake, however, to act as though Larger Catechism #156 and BCO 50-2 are the only relevant sections for giving our congregations direction about who may read the Word publicly.

In terms of BCO 50-2, in a footnote he says the “other person” refers to visiting ministers or licentiates under care of presbytery. In his Commentary on the Book of Church Order, Morton Smith notes that 50-2 seems to conflict with 50-1 which says “the public reading of the Holy Scripture is performed by the minister as God’s servants” (Smith, pp. 407). So if we think only ministers are to read the Scriptures in public worship (this is in the Directory of Worship but this chapter is not binding), the footnote is consistent. However, the PCA is not bound by 50-1 or 2. It can provide guidance to us, but we need not follow that guidance.

Relating to WLC #156, I’ve understood this to mean unbelievers were not permitted. I did a bit of an adjustment to allow for different circumstances. According to Wikipedia, the literacy rate among English men was about 30% in the 17th century. The higher classes were largely fully literate, while the lower classes had a much lower literacy rate. Protestant, and particularly Reformed, clergy were among the most educated people in the congregation. You don’t want a poor reader stumbling up there. Today, more people are able to read. The author may be more in line with the thinking of the Divines than me, but I think their statement has to be taken in light of the historical context.

I’m admittedly interpreting this in a pragmatic sense, since they did not say “only the clergy”. Perhaps that would understood by the original audience. One could do that, but it seems too much like the Roman Church’s clergy/laity divide, and not much like the Reformational priesthood of all believers.

Reading as an Exercise of Authority?

Therefore, the author of the article wants us to believe “that the public reading of Scripture is an exercise of church authority.” The authority here is not the Scripture itself, alone. But, as we are about to see, it is seen as a ministerial act which necessarily should be done by an ordained elder.

He further clarifies:

Thankfully, the disagreement in the PCA about reading the Word publicly is not about whether women may exercise authority in the church (1 Tim. 2:12). Instead, the disagreement is about whether we should understand the reading of Scripture as an exercise of church authority. So, the Sessions who authorize women to read the Scriptures publicly may justify their actions by stating that simply to read the Bible publicly is not authoritative in the way that preaching is.

In the PCA we are not fighting about whether women should be elders (contrary to what some people seem to think). We are in agreement on this point. The question here is whether or not a lay person is exercising authority merely by reading the Scriptures in a worship service. Does the authority lie in them, or the Scriptures? Is a layperson usurping authority by reading the Scriptures picked by the pastor or other elder? Can they represent the Session? Can this be delegated to them within boundaries?

I ask these questions in this way because in our churches things are generally done “decently and in order”. I say “generally” because I have not been to every single PCA church. Perhaps there is some worship leader quoting from Scripture when introducing a song. But by and large, the Scripture chosen is by one of the pastors, not the person doing the reading. We don’t have random people standing up and reading random passages of Scripture.

To make his point, however, he brings us to the Preliminary Principles of the BCO of the PCA. Of this he says, “Preliminary Principle #7 is especially clarifying: “All church power…is only ministerial and declarative.” That is, within the church, there are only two lawful ways to exercise authority: (1) by ministering God’s word, or (2) by declaring God’s word.”

He argues that all reading of God’s word in worship is a declaration of God’s word and therefore an exercise of church power by the person reading it. All ministrations of God’s word are an exercise of church authority on the part of the person doing it. Therefore only ordained elders may read Scripture publicly.

First, note that he removed some words in that quote from PP #7. It reads this way:

All Church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.

Power can be exercised by the body in general (courts?) or by representation (officers). It is not reserved for only the officers of the church. Some exercises of power are reserved for elders (the keys of the church are given to the Apostles, and by extension the elders: they admit and remove members). The authority of the church is exercised in ministry and is declarative.

In his commentary on PP #3, Morton Smith clarifies in this way:

Observe here that all three duties of the officers in the Church are declarative in nature. That is, they are to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments in accord with the Word, and to exercise discipline in accord with the Word. This is consistent with the principle that the power of the Church is declarative and not legislative, ministerial and not magisterial.” (Smith, pp. 21)

The three duties of officers are laid out here: preaching, administering the sacraments and exercising discipline. To me, this indicates the three things only officers do. You will note that it is preaching, not merely reading the Word, that is in view here.

Declarative is contrasted with legislative. We do not make new laws, but declare God’s gospel and laws to the people. We don’t have authority to go beyond the Word to make new commands. Ministerial is contrasted with magisterial. Our authority is exercised in the Church, not in the society. We don’t discipline our neighbors, only church members. As we see in PP #8 discipline is moral or spiritual and is not enforced with the power of the sword (corporal punishment), or the purse (fines).

He makes similar statements in his commentary on PP #7.

Because the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, and the only law book in Zion, the power of the Church is limited to being only ministerial and declarative. It is not magisterial or legislative. Thus, “no church judiciary may make laws to bind the conscience.” It is acknowledged that church courts may err, and yet it is affirmed that it is the duty of fallible men in the Church to uphold the laws of Scripture.” (Smith, pp. 23)

We are to limit our laws to the commands of Scripture. We don’t make or enforce new commands of our own design. It would be necessary, therefore for one to show that Scripture commands that only (key word) elders may read the Word publicly. Reading the Word is not one of the three duties exclusive of officers outlined by Morton Smith in commenting on the Preliminary Principles.

The author agrees that we are not to legislate any new laws in the Church. However, he argues that any time we read God’s Word it is authoritative (because it is God’s Word, not ours).

Any time someone reads the Word of God publicly, that person is declaring, “Thus saith the Lord.” Indeed, we should notice the often overlooked (and, to my knowledge, uncontroversial) explanation of the nature of the public reading of Scripture in BCO 50-1: “Through [the public reading of the Holy Scriptures] God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon.” To read the Scriptures is to stand as God’s authoritative herald, declaring the word of God—even more directly than during the sermon.

God’s Word does have authority. But I would disagree with his logic that one must therefore be an officer of the Church to read it publicly. Notice he says “Any time” which may move this beyond just the worship service. To apply his principle to Church life, the Scriptures may only be read by an elder in SS, a community group or Bible study or any ministry of the Church.

So, Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself to exhortation and teaching, and also “to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Then, Paul explains that these things (including the public reading of Scripture) were entrusted to him as a gift at his ordination, “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim. 4:14). Ordination is therefore a conferring of authority for a man to read the Scriptures publicly, among his other duties.

Remember when I said there must be a command that indicates only officers can read it publicly. He finds a command for Timothy to read them publicly. This command does not, however, limit the reading to Timothy. Paul wants Timothy to exercise his gifts and calling. He was timid and young. It would appear from other things Paul writes to him, particularly in chapter 4, that others were looking down on him, discouraging him and perhaps even hindering him. Timothy, as an elder, needed to exert his proper authority. Being literate, he was one of the few people capable of reading the Scripture publicly. Paul here does not limit such reading to Timothy, however. His commitment to doing so does not prohibit others from also doing so. I’m not trying to resort to sophistry, but trying to rightly divide the Word: affirming what it says, but not making it say more than it does.

The author cites BCO 8-5 to limit the public reading to elders. This is not simply in the context of worship.

We also see this point constitutionally upheld in BCO 8-5, when the BCO singles out “reading…the Word of God” as a particular function of the teaching elder, right alongside preaching and administering the Sacraments.

So, why didn’t he lead with this if it belongs to the particular function of teaching elders alone? These functions are “in addition to those functions he shares with all other elders“. “In addition to” indicates to me that only teaching elders “feed the flock by reading, expounding and preaching the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments.” Here it would appear that only TEs can do these 4 things. Morton Smith appears to affirm this interpretation (pp. 69) in terms of “additional duties that a teaching elder assumes, when he is ordained to his office.” It seems odd to me that public reading of the Scriptures would be the exclusive purview of the TE.

So, if he stopped writing here, the conclusion of his argument would be ONLY TEs may read the Scriptures publicly. But he does continue.

Can Teaching Elders Read the Scripture?

On the other hand, our BCO affirms that “ruling elders possess the same authority…as teaching elders,” and it encourages ruling elders to “cultivate their own aptness to teach the Bible and [to] improve every opportunity of doing so” (BCO 8-9). Ruling elders, then, have been entrusted the authority necessary to read the Word publicly to the congregation.

This is one of the issues that frustrate me about our BCO, apparent contradictions. 8-5 can be understood as granting TE additional responsibilities which includes reading the Scripture (the author argues by good and necessary consequence). REs possess the same authority, but that isn’t the same at the identical duties or functions. For instance, unless there is a TE present there is no administration of the sacraments (much to the consternation of many remote churches without a pastor), and REs are to exhort rather than preach (though I am not sure of the distinction).

However, is this what the BCO means? Again to Morton Smith’s commentary.

All elders, whether teaching or ruling are equal in the courts of the Church. We call this the parity of the elders. Both the teaching and the ruling elders are members of the courts because they are elders. They are both equally eligible to serve in the courts as rulers.” (Smith, pp. 72)

Morton makes no mention of the additional tasks of reading, preaching and administering the sacraments. He speaks of their place in church courts. Of course, Assistant Pastors are not on the Session (one of the courts) despite being elders (another of these constitutional conflicts). Yet, the author indicates that REs can read the Scriptures publicly because they are entrusted with teaching the Bible. To teach one must be free to read the Scriptures.

This gets to my actual point. If you are able to publicly teach in the Church you are able to read the Scriptures publicly. If you can read them in SS or a Bible Study, then you should be able to read them in worship. It is not more or less authoritative based on when you read it publicly (we agree on this, but not on how to apply it).

He appears to take the BCO to a place it doesn’t intend to go. In fact, it would be contrary to Scripture to follow his position.

For instance:

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, … Ephesians 4 (ESV)

The officers equip the saints for the work of ministry. That ministry should include reading the Scriptures and teaching one another.

I say this because of passages like this:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3 (ESV)

How many people have to be present for this “one another” ministry to become “public”? To sing the Psalms is to sing the Word, which should have the same authority as reading the Word. To teach should include reading the Scriptures (or quoting from memory).

If we want to talk about worship, then we should look here:

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14 (ESV)

Each person is meant to contribute to public worship, not just read words written by others. The Corinthian Christians were to contribute lessons or interpretations of tongues. “Brothers” could include women in terms of range of meaning. And it could mean women contextually as well if we consider 1 Corinthians 11 to affirm women speaking in terms of praying and prophesying (obviously not simply preaching). Some argue Paul is being ironic. I don’t see evidence for irony in this passage. When women are to be silent it could best be understood as when others weigh the prophecies given. The elders should weigh them since this would be exerting authority in the church by determining what is from God. Such a view would harmonize 1 Cor. 11 with 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Cor. 14:34 which is immediately after the instructions of prophecies and weighing them.

I am not arguing for the continuation of tongues and prophecy. I am arguing for the participation of lay people in the worship service. They contribute rather than only saying what they are told to say.

Contrary to the fears of the author, this does not mean that people should think they don’t need to obey God’s Word because it wasn’t read by an elder. It retains its authority because it is God’s Word. We should tremble at His Word no matter who reads it.

His cause is noble. He, in my opinion goes beyond Scripture and unnecessarily binds the consciences of God’s people. He is legislating, and to read the BCO in this way would mean it is legislating. In my opinion this is not a proper exercise of ecclesiastical authority.

Christopher Hutchinson has also written a paper, and summary, on this issue that covers other issues than I do. I recommend it. He covers some different territory than I do and I view it as complementary to what I’ve said.

Views on the BCO

I have found there are two ways of looking at the BCO; two assumptions that determine how we interpret the BCO. The author and I have different assumptions.

The first is like the RPW: you can only do what the BCO says. The BCO says the TE reads the Scripture (though the author adds REs as well). There is no freedom to do that which is not forbidden by the BCO.

The second is like the Lutheran principle of worship: unless God prohibits it, you can do it. While God enjoins the pastor to read the Scriptures publicly there is no prohibition on others. The pastor should regularly read the Scriptures (I read the sermon text every week). But he isn’t the only one permitted to read them.

Let’s give another example. In the ARP Form of Government (before the revision after I left) it noted that Sessions could choose to have terms of office for elders and deacons. You could serve more than one term, but needed to take at least a year off. But Sessions could also choose not to do that but keep men on the Session indefinitely. This was helpful for smaller churches.

When I entered the PCA, the BCO has no such provision. You are an elder for life (unless you are a TE). You only cease to be an RE by death, retirement or resignation of office. Imagine my surprise when some presbyters encouraged another congregation to have a rotating session. That isn’t in there! But neither was it prohibited.

The author is taking a view like the RPW allowing for “good and necessary consequence.” I am taking a view like the Lutheran principle. It lays out what must happen, but not only you might be able to do. It isn’t exhaustive, nor is it meant to be understood as exhaustive. There is a place for the “light of wisdom”.

Those with a strict view of the BCO are often total subscriptionists. They are consistent in their approach. Those with a less strict view of the BCO are system subscriptionists. They are consistent in allowing freedom on what they deem non-essentials or things not addressed in the BCO. The reading of Scripture is essential as an element of worship. It is good, but not necessary, for the pastor to do it.

Can we live together in one denomination, or should those with the less strict view leave? Can we live together in one congregation, or should one group leave?

I would argue for the mark of love, the bearing with one another over these kinds of differences. There is no denomination formed over this question. To force people to leave and enter denominations that actually are more progressive seems a bit much to me. To disagree on who can read the Scriptures publicly should not mean I should join an egalitarian denomination with whom I do not agree on a much more serious matter (women elders).

In our “grass roots” denomination, the Session should have the authority to determine who reads Scripture publicly, just as like they determine who may teach publicly. It is the responsibility of those who hear to recognize it as God’s Word, rather than focus on who is reading it.

Unfortunately we are spending time on this. It is difficult to not think we are straining at gnats here. We should not divide over this issue, but permit each congregation to determine who will read the Scriptures in worship. They should do it well, in the fear of the Lord.


A friend had some questions about the subject of the newness of the New Covenant. He is struggling with the issue of baptism in light of this. So, I put this together. It isn’t meant to be exhaustive.

A Miniscule History

The issue of the newness of the New Covenant is one that has divided Christians for thousands of years. It became more of an issue after the Reformation as churches split and denominations were formed over this issue. It “began” over the issue of baptism as Lutheran and Reformed continued to practice infant baptism (for different reasons) while seeing more continuity between the application of the sign and seal of righteousness by faith in the Old and New. The Reformed began to articulate Covenant Theology. Anabaptists and then Baptists (they are not the same) stressed the discontinuity of Old and New not only in the sign but to whom the sign may be given. The Particular or Calvinistic Baptists put forth a form of Covenant Theology expressed in The London Baptist Confession that stress the discontinuity more than The Westminster Confession of Faith did.

Dispensationalism upped the ante in the 19th century as the Old Covenant pertained to Israel and the New to the Church. They viewed them as creating two peoples of God with two different futures, and in some sense two different ways of salvation.

Beginning in the 1980’s we saw Progressive Dispensationalism emerge as some began to see that there might be something to that continuity thing. They were looking for a “third way” instead of maintaining all the differences that divided Dispensationalism from Covenant Theology.

New Covenant Theology is the new kid on the block. It views Scripture through the lens of covenants instead of dispensations, but draws sharp discontinuity with regards to the sacraments, and therefore ecclesiology. It stresses a “regenerate church” over the Reformed distinctions between the visible and invisible church.

Administrations of the One Covenant

Covenants, not dispensations, structure our relationship with God. While there is some debate about the covenant of works (I uphold this because we all fell in Adam our covenant or federal head, and are only saved in Christ as our covenant or federal head, see Romans 5:12-21), it is clear that God made the covenant of preservation with Noah (Gen. 9), a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17), one with Israel through Moses (Ex. 20), one with David regarding the Davidic king (2 Sam. 7) and promised a new covenant which all agree is fulfilled in Christ even if they reject either Covenant Theology or New Covenant Theology.

What our dispensationalist brothers gloss over is that in Jeremiah 31:31 it is said to be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” reuniting the northern and southern kingdoms. In Ezekiel 36:22-32, what is understood to be the New Covenant is spoken to “the house of Israel”. In Ezekiel 37:15-28) we see similar promises to unite the two kingdoms under the one Davidic king and the familiar covenant promise stretching back to Abraham “I will be their God and they will be my people” and that “My dwelling place shall be with them” (vs. 26 as part of this everlasting covenant.

The New Covenant is made with Israel as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. Jesus’ blood is the blood of the New Covenant that he “cuts” in His substitutionary death. But we also see in the Old Covenant that Gentiles are saved when they join the covenant community. There is also the promise of salvation to Gentiles. In the Abrahamic promise the Seed would be a blessing to the nations. In Galatians 3 Paul tells Gentile believers who are not circumcised (not made “Jews”) that they are sons of Abraham. He connects our salvation with the Abrahamic covenant and promises.

We also should note that the Abrahamic Covenant was with “you and your offspring”. God deals with multiple generations. In the Mosaic Covenant, particularly the Ten Commandments we see that God promises to “show steadfast love to thousands” of generations (contrasted with visiting iniquity upon the third and fourth generations) (Ex. 20:5-6). The New Covenant, or Covenant of Peace (Is.54:10) is also that “all your children will be taught by the Lord” (Is. 54:13) and for “their children and their children’s children” (Ez. 37:25). In Acts 2, Peter speaking to the house of Israel says “For this promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off” (vs. 39). The covenant is “expanded” to include the Gentiles. People are saved only in and through Christ. But the covenant promises of forgiveness of sin and the Holy Spirit are for us and our children whether we are Jewish or Gentile believers God has called to Himself.

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17

The words used in both the Hebrew and the Greek can mean “new”, but they can also mean “renewed”. Israel broke it, and God was going to renew it with some alterations.

Areas of Continuity in the New or Renewed Covenant

  • Same promise: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Jer. 31:33; Ez. 36:28; 37:23, 27)
  • Same people: you and your seed/children
  • Same instrument: righteousness is by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3-5)
  • Same meaning of the covenant sign: sign and seal that salvation is by faith and regeneration (Rom. 4:11-12; Col. 2:9-12)

The Newness of the New or Renewed Covenant

  • A new promise: the Holy Spirit to indwell (Ez. 36:27; Acts 2:38)
  • New gifts of the Spirit: before it was for prophets, priests and kings. Now all God’s people have them. (Eph. 4)
  • New Priesthood: no longer the Aaronic priesthood, now Jesus is our Great High Priest forever (Heb. 14-8:13 which quotes from Jeremiah 31)
  • New Sacrifice: no longer bulls and other animals but the death of Christ, once for all time (Heb. 9-10)
  • New Humanity: Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ by faith (Eph. 2)
  • New Promised Land: Canaan  the (new or renewed) earth (Mt. 5; Rev. 21-22)
  • New Sign: the bloody sign of circumcision  the unbloody sign of baptism which is connected to circumcision of the heart in Col. 2:9-12.

So, we should not see the signs of covenant membership as completely new, as though the covenant were completely new. They sign and seal the same things (though obviously we have more revelation regarding Christ and the salvation He won). They point to the circumcision of the heart (Dt. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Col. 2:10) which is regeneration or the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5). The difference reflects the finished work of Christ, not a different covenant. Since the promises of the covenant are the same, and the sign means the same thing, I believe that we should apply the sign as Abraham did (Gen. 17; Rom. 4:9-12). Abraham believed and was circumcised. He then circumcised his children with the sign of the promise so they would believe and be saved. A new convert believes and is baptized, and then their children are baptized with the sign of promise so they may believe and be saved. The calls to baptism we see in the New Testament were to new converts like Abraham.

A Regenerate Church?

New Covenant Theology stress that if you are in the covenant you are regenerate. There is a rejection of the idea that the covenant community on earth is comprised by regenerate and unregenerate people.

One of my friends points to Romans 11.

11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! … 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root[c] of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.

There is one vine (Jn. 15) which is Jesus. Here Paul uses an olive tree. Christ is the tree from which all the branches are fed and grow. The “natural” branches were broken off due to unbelief. These represent unbelieving Jews. If they believe they can easily be grafted in.

Believing Gentiles are the wild branches that have been grafted in. Paul warns them to not be arrogant because if they don’t believe they too can be removed.

If the olive tree is a picture of the covenant community, we see that there are members of the visible church who are not saved due to their unbelief and apostasy. If this is a picture of the regenerate, we see that the regenerate can become unregenerate and lose their salvation. This metaphor only works with the Covenant Theology understanding of the visible church or covenant community. It doesn’t work if to be grafted in is to be in the New Covenant and therefore regenerate. One cannot say that only the regenerate are in the visible church, or that only the regenerate can be baptized. We don’t know who is truly regenerate. Just as there are apostates who were baptized as infants, there are apostates who were baptized on the basis of faith.

Considering The Gospel


Back in March, I attended a seminar by Ray Ortlund on Gospel-Culture in churches. I left feeling like I wanted it to be longer. As a result of his recommendation, I read The Mark of the Christian. As a result of the seminar, I read The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ. Like the seminar, it left me wanting more in the sense of “that was great” not the sense that I was unsatisfied.

This book is part of the 9Marks series on Building Healthy Churches. This book focuses on the centrality of the gospel and the culture that necessarily flows from the gospel. When a church has a gospel culture it portrays the beauty of Christ. In his foreward to the book, J.I. Packer notes that we don’t think very often about the culture of our congregations. He defines culture as the “public lifestyle that expresses a shared mindset and convictions held in common. A church’s culture should be orthopraxy expressing orthodoxy.” Our right doctrine should produce right living with one another.

Introduction

Ortlund begins by reminding us that each generation has to discover the gospel for itself. We don’t re-invent the gospel but we must personally believe it, and then communicate it in words suitable for our generation and its needs. Again, it isn’t changing the gospel but stressing the aspects of the gospel pertinent to our society.

“God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever- all to the praise of the glory of his grace.”

Referring to a quote by Tyndale, he laments that we don’t see “singing, dancing and leaping for joy in our churches.” Okay, in Reformed churches anyway. The gospel doesn’t seem to be setting the tone as our hearts don’t seem to be set free like David’s. Too often our churches inflict pain rather than set people free. Outsiders hear anguished cries when we preach but don’t live in light of the gospel. He quotes Isaiah 5:7 in this regard. God looked for justice in His vineyard but saw bloodshed instead. God is blasphemed among the nations because of us at times.

Ortlund has been shaped by the writing of Francis Schaeffer. Here he references “How Heresy Should be Met” which was written after his crisis of faith. Schaeffer wrote that the goal is to win men with deviant theology back to Christ, not merely prove them wrong. We must clearly articulate what is wrong with their doctrine AND “a clear, intellectual return to the proper scriptural emphasis.” Based on that I’m guessing that Schaeffer is thinking of such heresies that emphasize one teaching of Scripture over and against others. For instance focusing on the humanity of Christ and neglecting the divinity of Christ. Focusing on justification and ignoring sanctification to produce antinomianism.

The need of our times is nothing less than the re-Christianization of our churches, according to the gospel alone, in both doctrine and culture, but Christ himself.

We need to believe the gospel in such a way that we act like we do. Our churches will become beautiful, grace-filled (not perfect) churches. The purpose of the book is to show how Christ beautifies the church.

The Gospel for You

He begins with “Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.” Such doctrine is necessary but insufficient to produce such a culture. As we see in Hebrews 3-4, they received the good news, but since it was not united to faith they didn’t enter into God’s rest, nor the Promised Land.

He gets back to the dilemma again: “Without the doctrine, the culture will be weak. Without the culture, the doctrine will seem pointless.” Schaeffer, whom he quotes again, sees the power of the early church in practicing both at the same time: “orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see.” If we can hold to both gospel doctrine and culture, we should see people coming into our congregations.

Because we get things partly right, we frequently don’t see that we have it partly wrong.

Gospel doctrine – gospel culture= hypocrisy

Gospel culture – gospel doctrine= fragility

Gospel doctrine + gospel culture= power

The gospel must do its work within each of us. We need to be renewed in the gospel. This sounds much like Richard Lovelace. In this context, Ortlund spends some time in John 3. This begins with the God who loved by sending His Son (a big theme in John’s gospel). Many of our churches don’t explore the nature and character of God. We need to be more clear in our doctrine about God in a way that warms the heart. The almighty and thrice holy God loves the world! We need to believe this or we will never come in repentance.

We also need to admit that we loved the darkness, and can still hide in the darkness. We wear masks instead of bringing our weaknesses and proclivities into relationship with God and one another (James 5:16). God’s holiness exposes our sinfulness like it did Isaiah’s (Is. 6, similar to Moses’ declarations of “uncircumcised lips” in Exodus 6). We need to end the dishonesty toward God and one another. Wrongs ignored kill relationships.

Into this mess, God sent His Son. The Father surrendered His beloved Son, His greatest treasure, to bring us back to Himself. The Son willingly left the Father’s glory to take on and suffer in flesh. There is no other suitable Savior.

The only alternatives are perishing and eternal life. Eternal life only comes to those who receive the Son. It is not simple agreement, but a love returned. Jesus becomes the center of our lives. We also stop hiding and resisting. Jesus is a real Savior for real sinners who commit real sins!

Such a love, according to Paul, Peter and John, means that we not only love God but love one another earnestly. The Greek word there has the sense of being stretched out. Loving earnestly stretches you, often to the breaking point. That’s a large part of gospel culture: earnest love.

The Gospel for the Church

When good things happen to bad people you have a gospel culture. While the gospel changes each of us, it also changes our community. If we are all drawing our life from Him together in an organized, practical fashion our growth is accelerated. The unity of the Church should be our experience in the unity of a church. Together we flourish, and suffer.

In earnest love “we lose some of our space, time, and freedom to do as we please.” Perhaps that is why such love is so rare. He also brings in the issue of submission. A gospel culture is one where people sacrifice for others and submit to one another, particularly the leaders.

Ortlund meditates on Ephesians 5 here beginning with Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church. God’s eternal plan was to love the unlovely and undeserving. He displays His mercy for the angels to behold and wonder. We receive that mercy that we may proclaim His excellencies (1 Peter 2) as a living temple, holy nation and royal priesthood.

Jesus also sanctifies and cleanses us with His Word. He is at work to make us holy. Grace doesn’t leave us as we are, but makes us like He is. That involves community since God is Triune. Each Sunday (and in Bible Studies), Jesus washes us with His Word preached and read. He makes us fit for Himself.

He will present the Church in splendor at the end of time. And revel over her! He makes the Church beautiful! While this beauty is imperfect at this time, it should be there. That beauty will attract people.

We’re not married to a dead and helpless Jesus but to a living and powerful Jesus.

The Gospel for Everything

The gospel isn’t just about people, but also about place. Adam’s sin brought the curse to creation. God subjected creation to futility and decay (Rom. 8:19-23). God will renew creation and lift the curse in Christ. The gospel culture is a “prophetic sign that points beyond itself” to the new earth.

We all get weighed down by the realities of a fallen world. We groan with creation, as a part of creation. We forget that we live now because of God’s mercy. Jesus not only upholds the Church in the everlasting arms, but all of creation (Heb. 1:3).

We have hope in the midst of our suffering and grief. We can look past the present and see a glimpse of the future in Revelation 21-22. Despair “denies gospel doctrine and destroys gospel culture.” There will be real people in the real creation serving the real God freed from all evil (both natural and moral).

While we are to be zealous for good works (Titus 2), and therefore do good, we must recognize that we can’t build heaven on earth. The utopian dream is just that, a fantasy.

I joke that utopia is a short road to hell. Across the street from my subdivision there is a short road, Utopia, entering a subdivision filled with no parking zones, driveways too short for most vehicles, and lots of speed bumps so it takes longer to get out of there after you can’t find a place to park your car.

We can feed a hungry person, but we won’t end hunger. We can heal a sick person, but we won’t end disease. We can help a person get a steady job and get out of poverty, but we won’t end poverty.

In a gospel community, our love should be practical in feeding and clothing our brothers and sisters in need, caring for widows and orphans. It becomes ordained by these good works that testify to the gospel of grace’s power to transform greedy people into generous people.

The unity of a congregation points to the unity of all God’s people in the glorious New Jerusalem forever. We will be with Him forever. “There will be no slums, no garbage, no graffiti, no smog, no dirt and grime, no sin.” God will not disappoint us.

Gospel culture creates churches with rugged hope. Such churches will be honest about how life is now. But they are looking for the city to come. They are not defeated, but continuing to press on. We can become “cheerfully defiant toward every disappointment”.

Something New

Ortlund then looks at what the gospel produces in this present, evil age. It isn’t simply that the gospel creates a new community, but a new kind of community. The restored humanity of Christ becomes visible. Jew and Gentile are joined into one new man (Eph. 2), and people of every tribe, nation, tongue and language join together to worship Jesus (Rev. 4-5).

Not only should we provide sound doctrine, but also “honest answer to honest questions, true spirituality, and the beauty of human relationships.” The first thing people notice will be the last he mentioned. People want to be in churches where they are noticed, accepted, loved. Cold, distant churches don’t generally grow. This warmth for people who can be so different in personality, politics, hobbies, humor … can only come from the gospel.

Paul called the church the “household of God” and told Timothy how people are intended to behave in that household. When the household is managed well, people want to be there. When it isn’t, people will flee.

The church is to be a counter-culture. It isn’t simply the opposite of the culture around it. There are aspects it will accept and affirm, as well as those it rejects. There will be aspects church culture will transform as well.

Worldly culture is a corruption of gospel culture. It is built on the idols and false gospels of the surrounding culture. Gospel culture is built on the true gospel in all its fullness (not simply a truncated gospel of justification). Here he gets into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Such a culture has a vague God who wants us to be kind but doesn’t care about holiness. There is no repentance and offers false hopes. It has no power of changed lives like gospel culture.

“God graciously wants to satisfy the questions of our minds. So let’s all improve at explaining the reasonableness of the gospel to our doubting friends. But the beauty of human relationships in the church is itself an argument for the gospel.”

Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, should be viewed as a description of a gospel culture: meek, poor in spirit, merciful, peace-makers. It is the opposite of worldly culture’s entitlement, self-righteous, vengeful, greedy and pushy. Churches are intended to be alternatives to the madness of the world.

gospel + safety + time

The gospel creates a safe place to struggle with sin and time to repent and mortify that sin. We should be a safe place for people to confess sins, a place to let down the masks. We are to be patient with people (1 Thes. 5) because God has been patient with us (1 Tim. 1). We are in constant need of forgiveness. Here he quotes Calvin at length. Here is part:

So, carrying, as we do, the traces of sin around with us throughout life, unless we are sustained by the Lord’s constant grace in forgiving our sins, we shall scarcely abide one moment in the church. … sins have been and are daily pardoned to us who have been received and engrafted into the body of the church.John Calvin

There are “deal-breaker” sins which must be disciplined. He quotes a fellow pastor, “When a sinner is repentant, the elders should protect that sinner from the church. When a sinner is defiant, the elders should protect the church from that sinner.”

In this way the church reveals both the mercy and severity of God. While a merciful community we are a holy community that deals with unrepentant sinners appropriately through discipline.

It Isn’t Easy, But It Is Possible

The gospel is “a continual surprise” as we struggle with pride regarding our goodness or our wickedness. Luther spoke of having to pound it into our heads because we are so forgetful (commentary on Galatians).

Our unbelief, Ortlund says, hinders the work of the gospel in our churches. The flesh opposes the work of the gospel and refuses to believe God’s great and precious promises. We are so prone to put our hope in our efforts. This makes cultivating a gospel culture a challenge. It requires relational wisdom and finesse, not just doctrinal articulation.

The main issue is our default pattern of self-exaltation. We make things about ourselves instead of Jesus. Our repentance should include “unselfing” or saying ‘no’ to the demands of self.

Another issue is that we often don’t notice our church culture. We are so used to it that we can’t recognize its impact on us.

Every church can have more of his power by pressing the gospel more fully into its culture. It’s no disaster for a church to suddenly find itself having to depend radically on Jesus. Dependence on him is a sign of health.

He speaks the painful truth that there will be times when it feels like the church is falling apart. We are broken so we stop relying on ourselves and begin to rely on Christ (again). We need to “place our endless need before his endless supply.”

Just as we politically choose freedom over safety (freedom involves risk and danger) we can do this in church life as well. Ortlund brings us to Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians. Peter didn’t change his theology, but the fear of the Judaizers led to a change in practice that led others, even Barnabas, astray. They acted contrary to the gospel! Fear destroys honesty and joy. A culture of self-protection stifles the gospel. It says that the gospel isn’t enough. He refused to accept others on the basis of Christ but only on the basis of circumcision.

Church culture must be gracious and merciful as well as pursuing godliness. We must accept one another because of Christ, not performance or giftedness. When we focus on performance we begin to hide from one another, displaying a false or legalistic righteousness. A gospel culture keeps pointing us to Jesus so we trust Him, love Him and honor Him.

What Can We Expect

He doesn’t advocate a plan, strategy or system. How the gospel impacts churches will be different. In Acts we see that it does result in people coming to faith, caring for one another, prayer and joy in Christ. It also results in trouble.

The gospel is a double-edge sword. It will bring some to their knees in repentance, and it will harden the hearts of others. The same sun melts wax and hardens clay. People will either spiral up by faith or down into deeper sin by unbelief.

In His earthly ministry, Jesus triggered strong responses. Some loved Him and others wanted to kill Him. He still produces these strong responses. The aroma of Christ is like cilantro: you either love it or hate it.

Churches passionate about the gospel give off an aroma. It is noticeable to visitors. It will attract some and run others off. God is still at working bringing about judgment and salvation.

It is difficult to be mistreated and misunderstood. We can be discouraged. We can be mistreated because we actually mess up. We can also be mistreated because others try to justify themselves. They can blame others for their problems. As a result of mistreatment, we can give way to self-doubt and stifle the gospel ourselves.

I’m trying not to live in the past, but I think God also wants us to learn lessons from the past. One of the things I’ve been sorting out is reputation. Under attack, I’ve been too concerned with my reputation. That stifles the work of the gospel. I’ve learned to beware of the person who thinks ours is the perfect church. You are put on a pedestal only to be knocked painfully back to earth.

Ortlund addresses emotional blackmail in which one’s pain means another person has failed to love them. This feeling condemns the other. Emotions matter more than truth. Church leaders are easy targets. Such people follow the lie Adam spread: it is someone else’s fault that I’m in this mess I made.

Our Path Forward

He ponders what it will take the the gospel to renew our churches. He reminds us that we are a few minutes away from moral and ministry disaster. There are too many stories of pastors and leaders who lost it all for a few moments of pleasure.

Our churches need the power of God, courage and the love of God to move forward. God’s power is not added to our strength but made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12). We need to reject other sources of strength. We need to forsake cleverness.

Prayer is the essence of the work to which God calls us. We frequently speak about praying for the work, but essentially it is prayer which is the real work.Eric Alexander

Courage is needed because someone will always pay the price for the advance of the gospel. You can’t take land in war without losses. People need to be brave enough to move forward anyway. To gain something good, you need to let go of something of lesser value. That hurts. It’s scary.

Churches hinder the gospel. It may be not wanting people who actually struggle. It may be not accepting people who are different. It may be a focus on man-made rules. Mostly it is the refusal to change, to continually reform as we understand God’s Word more clearly and the mission more fully grasps our hearts. Leaders have to stick to their guns and not compromise.

When he speaks of love, Ortlund is highly dependent upon Francis Schaeffer and The Mark of the Christian in particular. He also tosses in some John Flavel as well.

Our love is intended to show the world we are Christ’s disciples. When we fail to love one another, the world is justified to think we aren’t Christians. As John said, we can’t really love God if we refuse to love one another. Our unity is proof that Jesus came from the Father and rose from the dead.

Such a church will pursue reconciliation. Each will face their failures honestly, without blaming others. He shares a story by Bishop Festo Kivengere who was on a preaching tour with William Nagenda. He grew envious of William’s success. He grew distant and critical of Nagenda. Eventually he saw what he had done and was doing. He confessed his envy, coldness and critical spirit. Nagenda hugged him and they had a good cry (for joy). Too often we just plain refuse to say “I was wrong”. The spirit of the Fonz dwells too deep due to pride.

The danger is that when are distant from God we grow distant from others. The problem is deeper than our relationship with that person. “It engages in merciless comparisons and endless faultfinding.” You may think it isn’t personal, but it is. Ultimately it is because you aren’t right in your vertical relationship.

Summary

As I noted, this book seemed too short. I wanted more. While Ortlund didn’t say all that could be said, what he did say was important and helpful. There is much here that we need to hear. Our lack of power is connected to our unbelief. Our churches allow themselves to drift, not only from gospel doctrine but also gospel culture. We need both to powerfully declare the greatness of Jesus Christ. Ortlund gets to the point and stays on point here. Pastors and elders should read this and seek to build a gospel culture in their churches.


I haven’t weighed in on the issues regarding ESS (the eternal submission of the Son, sometimes Eternal Subordination of the Son) or EFS (eternal functional submission). For some reason I was pondering this the other day so I thought I would share my thoughts.

The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has used ESS/EFS to support complementarianism. Aimee Byrd did a good job of pointing this out, and eventually this became a controversy. While it has mostly died down, it pops up periodically through statements by proponents of ESS. Sadly, she didn’t seem content to point out this problem but has slowly rejected complementarianism in practice if not in doctrine.

What does this have to do with complementarianism? One of the criticisms of complementarianism is that one person submits to her equal. Both husband and wife are equally made in God’s image and have equal dignity bestowed upon them by God.

In ESS we have an attempt to say that God the Father and God the Son are equal, but that the trait of Sonship means that the Son submits to the Father. This submission is part of what distinguishes the Father and the Son.

Such a statement is not consistent with the Reformed Confessions. For instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. WCF, 2 Of God and the Holy Trinity

We see that all three persons of the Trinity are of one substance, power, and eternity. From the Westminster Shorter Catechism, reflecting Nicea, we see in answer 4 they are “of the same substance and equal in power and glory.”

None of the great confessions of the Church speaks of the submission or subordination (to be under the authority of another) of the Son as part of His nature. We see that what distinguishes the Father is that He “is of none, neither begotten, not proceeding” while the “Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” In terms of the Confession, and classical theism, this is what distinguishes them, not authority. The Son is not a child. As God the Son is perfect, exhibiting no change in His being. He doesn’t gain wisdom, knowledge or maturity. The Son is the same now as He has always been and always will be.

Subordination has to do with being under the authority of another. To say that the ontological relationship between the persons of the Trinity is identical to our relationships is to deny the fundamental differences between God and man, the Creator-creature distinction.

Historically, the submission of the Son has been in His role as Mediator or Messiah. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11, “the head of Christ (Messiah) is God”. This points to His office of Messiah, not His nature as God the Son. He has taken this role willingly for the salvation of sinners.

We can say that the Father sent the Son, and the Son agreed to take on a human nature and serve as Mediator. As the Messiah, He only spoke and did as the Father told Him. We see this as prominent in John’s gospel.

The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. WCF, 8, Of Christ the Mediator

A key component of submission is disagreement. When two people agree, there is no submission. Neither is submitting their will to the will of the other. There can be no submission between the members of the Godhead because they don’t, indeed can’t disagree.

Why do I say that? They are all perfect, all knowing and all wise. They have the same information and their perfect wisdom means that they will arrive at the same conclusion. Their will is united, identical.

One heresy regarding the Incarnation is monothelitism- the idea that Jesus had one will. With two united but unmixed natures in one Person, Jesus had a divine will and a human will. A will would be one of the essential properties of divinity and humanity. We see this in the Garden of Gethsemene. He wanted this cup to pass from Him. Yet, He submitted: “Not as I will, but as You will”.

In complementarianism we have two equals in a husband and a wife. They are both finite. As finite beings they do not have all the information, and they may have different information. Even in the Garden of Eden, they could disagree as a result. When there is disagreement, someone needs to submit. After the fall you add selfishness, darkened understanding and futile thinking into the mix. There will be even more disagreement between spouses. At times a husband may realize that his wife is right and change his mind. Or he may think that his choice is the better one. In accordance with Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 she should submit. Wives, in creation and redemption, have been placed subordinate to their husbands. Patriarchy, on the other hand, believes women are subordinate to men. This would, in my opinion, move beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. The wife submits to her own husband, not men generally. This is reflective of the covenant relationship between the two.

God will hold the husband accountable for those decisions and his motives (in addition to selfishness there could be the fear of his wife). God will hold the wife accountable for whether or not she submits. When he advocates the commission of sin, she can and should refuse to submit. If she follows him into lawbreaking, she is also culpable. She can’t say “I did what I was told”.

Briefly:

In the Trinity we see 3 equals who are all in agreement, all the time. There are not conflicts because all of them are perfect, infinite in knowledge and wisdom as well as goodness. They necessarily agree. This is the ontological Trinity.

In the Son’s office as Mediator he is the God-man, fully God and fully man. As Mediator, or Messiah, the Son submits to the Father for our salvation. This is the economic Trinity which is tied to the work of salvation carried out by the Son as Messiah.

In marriage we see two finite and sinful people who often disagree. God places the role of covenant head to the husband. In was this way in creation, and continues after the fall into sin (Gen. 3) and in redemption while on earth (Eph. 5). When there are disagreements, the husband plots the course to the best of his ability. As long as he’s not choosing sin, she submits and helps.

Seen this way, ESS should not be used to justify complementarianism. ESS should be rejected for the damage it does to the Trinity. We can, and should, affirm complementarianism without affirming ESS/EFS.


The last part of Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger is Transformation: Everybody Will Be Changed (Especially the Leader). This is not the same as the Borg, where all will be assimilated.

This is probably the scary part of church transformation: we must change too! Often we think everyone else should change. We tend to minimize our flaws and love for the status quo. This is the section most leaders don’t want to be true, or part of the process of leading people into the unknown.

Bolsinger brings us to Sacagawea. She became part of the expedition when Lewis and Clark hired his husband, a Canadian trapper as a guide. She was Shoshone but was kidnapped by the Hidatsa as a tween. He doesn’t note how she became his wife a few years later. Was she sold to him?

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Soon Lewis and Clark realized she was the person they needed, and he was not very much help. During the expedition, she was caring for her baby son. Her ability as a translator we incredibly helpful. At one point she discovered she was talking to her own long-lost brother. She survived a fever. She was quick thinking. Her presence help re-assure other native Americans that they were not a war party since no one brings a nursing woman and child into battle.

He goes into this lengthy story to discuss the unexpected leader in uncharted territory. In the transformation unexpected people will rise to the occasion.

One aspect of the changing world is crossing cultural differences. Along for the ride are our biases which cause conflict. Christian leaders are called into a caldron of the cultures of generations, gender, class, education, politics and more. This means there are more voices involved in our conversation. It can lead to uncomfortable situations. There will be more opinions, very different opinions.

Listening becomes increasingly important, and we are often slow to listen (hence James’ admonition). Listening can provide more wisdom as we make decisions. At a key moment of the expedition, for instance, Lewis and Clark allowed Sacagawea and Clark’s slave York vote on what the group should do.

Our past experience is not irrelevant, but it is incomplete. It does challenge the homogeneous principle that used to be at work in many churches, and echoes of is still exist. The church is not simply an affinity group, but encompasses people who are not like you. And that is great.

Uncharted leadership survives and thrives by listening to the ignored voice (Sacagawea), by expanding the table of participation beyond what is imaginable (Sacagawea’s and York’s votes), and by discovering new worlds and seeing what will come (Colter’s exploration of Yellowstone), but mostly, the challenges of uncharted leadership challenge us to keep exploring and become someone completely different from when the journey began.

The End of Our Exploring

The journey can be very discouraging at points. The second winter was discouraging as the diet of elk meat, without seasoning, wore on the men. The joy of discovering the ocean just 6 weeks earlier was gone.

They discovered that North America was much larger than they could have imagined. You would imagine they would want to head home by the shortest possible route, or at least one they knew. Instead they chose to split up for a time to investigate more territory. Lewis went north and Clark south. The goal to was meet up where the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers meet. Off the map, they began to write the maps.

Leadership is risky. It is often lonely. Leaders can’t be ruled by their emotions and need to step out before everyone else. All your questions may not be answered. Trying the untried will raise more questions to be considered.

He speaks here about reframing the questions. We begin to see options where before we used to see dead ends. I’m in one of those spots now. Reframing, according to Bolsinger, is more about emotional capacity than intelligence. Fortunately, a sabbatical increased my emotional capacity which had been close to zero in the previous 6-8 months. I was running on empty.

He provides some examples including:

  • Is the church in decline or is the western, Christendom version of church life on decline?
  • Does declining attendance mean people aren’t interested in God or that people are no longer giving preference to Christian and its traditions?
  • Is the lack of cultural affirmation of Christians at threat to our witness or an opportunity to work together in ways we didn’t need to before?

He shifts to how Christian leaders often confuse their self and their role. I think of Top Gun: Maverick. He didn’t just fly jet fighters, he was a fighter pilot. We can begin to think that way and trap ourselves. To be a healthy functioning, rather than idolatrous, leader we need to keep them separate. When I go home, I am myself. I husband my wife and parent my kids. I don’t pastor or counselor them. My father-in-law used to take the long way home to give himself more time to disconnect from work so he could be a husband and father.

Differentiation is the ability to have a sense of self that is distinct from one’s role, one’s relationships and the family or organizational system we are part of without having to disconnect relationally.

This, Bolsigner argues, is key for personal and spiritual maturity. We get stunted when we can’t differentiate. We can stay with a group during difficult times, even when they blame us for the trouble. You can’t take anything personally. Tom Brady points to the Four Agreements for his success, or at least part of it. The criticism may hurt, but you can’t take them personally. Failure weighs heavily on most leaders (except the narcissists), particularly pastors. The demand of mission and change puts internal and psychological stress on leaders.

Bolsinger tells of how Lewis struggled with depression during the expedition. He would drink too often at times. There were long lapses in his journal. After returning to normal life the darkness of depression became too heavy a burden. He would take his own life. He tells how Clark became more dedicated to building better relationships with the indigenous people, there was a portion of a letter when he spoke of beating York who became too arrogant after the expedition. He struggled to return to “civilization” and the same role. Clark struggled to accept the changes in York that were helpful on the expedition.

Communities are transformed by the transformation of people who then transform their spheres of influence. Transformational leadership is the overlap of adaptive capacity, technical competence and relational congruence.

Focus on how you need to grow in technical competence, relational congruence and adaptive capacity, and especially focus on what you need to leave behind, let go and even let die so your church can become more and more effective at fulfilling its part in God’s mission.

We often have to let go of what we once were, admit what we currently are and pursue what we should be.

This was a very helpful book for me to read at this point in time. It is where I find myself. There are lessons for me to apply, and communicate to our other leaders. It helped me to better understand the lay of the land, the challenges for me and our organization. It would be a helpful read to understand how to engage the challenges presented by our changing/changed culture. The hard reality is not just that how you do things must change, but each of us must change.

The organization that has inherently valuable relationships also has an instrumentally critical purpose. And holding that tension, leading a Christian organization that is faithful to both mission and family, is indeed a challenge for most of us.”

The weakness of the book, as I noted in the first part of this, is the lack of Scripture. Bolsinger focuses on lessons from the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and various teachers on leadership and systems. There is lots of general revelation here. Far more than special revelation. He doesn’t need to toss out the general revelation, but he should probably include more special revelation.


Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger is about leading organizations, particularly churches through uncharted territory. With the lack of a map, leadership takes on a very different approach.

In the first review, I covered the first 2 parts of the book. Here I intend to cover the 3rd and 4th parts of the book. Part 3 is Leading off the Map, and part 4 is Relationships and Resistance.

Navigating the “Geography of Reality”

Bolsinger brings us again to the experiences of Lewis and Clark in exploring the Louisiana Purchase and looking for a northwest passage. His dream of an easy water route across the continent was shattered by the sight of the Rocky Mountains. The “geography of hope” was obliterated by the “geography of reality”. Our dreams die a thousand deaths on the rocks of reality.

Adaptive leadership lets go of our hopes (and the status quo), learning along the way and pressing on. “It’s about loss, learning and gaps”. Adaptive leadership addresses the “conflicts in the values people hole, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.”

It is often competing values that cause a group to get stuck. The leader has to help people see that the values are in conflict and stopping forward progress. Some of the examples he provides is pay raises vs. adding staff, ministering to the “old-timers” vs. reaching out to the unchurched, control & unity vs. collaboration & innovation. This doesn’t mean that neither is valuable, but they can be at loggerheads organizationally. You have to recognize what to lose to let go of one or the others. You want to clarify the decision.

A number of years ago we came to the conclusion that our building was a limiting factor for us. We could expand it. That would require taking on some debt. The congregation had been debt free for a number of years and enjoyed the flexibility it provided. If we didn’t do the project we’ve remain debt free, but our growth would be hindered and even halted. If we took on debt, we lost some financial flexibility and freedom. You couldn’t have both (unless you had a multi-millionaire funding the project, which we certainly did not). We did the expansion. It has not yet worked out the way we wanted, but it didn’t take us long to pay off the debt.

Bolsinger addresses the adaptive capacity, or “the resilience of people and the capacity of systems to engage in problem-defining and problem-solving work in the midst of adaptive pressures and the resulting disequilibrium.” That is a bit of a mouthful. During the time of disequilibrium (expanding the building) we had a decreased capacity to define an solve new problems that emerged. And emerge they did. We had to put in a new sewer line. We discovered that we needed to install a new fire hydrant. These added expenses, and we tried to keep the loan total low. But there was only so much money we could ask people to donate at that time. Capacity was lower.

To do so, there is yet another set of skills to be developed:

  • face the unknown calmly
  • reject the quick fix
  • recruit others in the learning/transformation process to take on the challenge
  • seek new perspectives
  • ask questions to reveal competing values and gaps between values and actions
  • expose deeper issues in a community
  • identify and address resistance and sabotage
  • adapt without sacrificing your integrity as a person and organization
  • help them to make difficult decisions to fulfill their mission in the changing context.

Part of this process is helping the people to see “who we are” or the core ideology. I see this as the DNA of an organization. These are the things we cannot change and continue to exist. This is separate from the things we are able to let go so the mission can continue. You will have to reframe your strategy to continue with your mission. When the culture around you changes, the strategy to reach that culture will have to change too. You don’t change your theology, but you do change how to apply it at times. Your old successful methods of evangelism may not work. You need new methods. Waiting for people to come to you is changing and you have to find ways to go to them.

This requires learning new things. If you don’t you will default to the old methods, again.

When a leader and a people together resist the anxiety that would lead to throwing in the towel or relying on the quick fix, but instead look more deeply- recommitting to core values, reframing strategy and relying on learning- this enables them to gain the just-in-time experience necessary to keep the expedition going.”

My Italian Grandfather Was Killing Me

Italians are known for heart disease. As I looked at the genealogical records of my father’s side of the family (largely Italian) most of them died of heart disease. Bolsinger found the same thing. Processed meats.

Just as your body will flourish when you cooperate with God’s design and wisdom, human organizations will only thrive when they do the same. If have a diet heavy on processed meats doesn’t help you thrive, you need to decrease the processed meats. You may need to up the exercise too.

We need to lead the learning so we lose the bad habits and learn new good ones that will help the organization flourish.

His view of vision is better than most I have heard (or perhaps assumed). Visionary leaders are usually seen as those who see what will be. When we think of vision we think of men like Steve Jobs. Bolsinger focuses on seeing what is clearly, and being able to discern the helpful from unhelpful.

Understanding a congregation is like understanding family dynamics. People have particular relationships with one another that can help or hinder growth in the congregation. You have to see what is hindering the system. You then energize the people toward transformation of the dynamics to accomplish the shared mission even and particularly as the world around changes.

In the second Jumanji movie, each character in the video game had a list of strengths and weaknesses. The leadership needs to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of individual and the congregational dynamic.

Here he talks at length about organizational DNA. These are the essential elements of a congregation and how it interacts with the world around it. It can include the theology of a congregation/denomination (in our case the Westminster Confession of Faith) and posture toward the world (fortress church “defending the truth” or winsomely inviting people to investigate the truth). The key elements, interconnection and purpose of the congregation are aligned the congregation is healthy, but if they aren’t it becomes dysfunctional. For instance, practices that are contrary to the gospel (like ignoring conflict or refusing to resolve it) produce dysfunction that prevents a congregation from fulfilling its mission of reconciliation.

The DNA can function as a magnet which attracts particular people and repels others. Churches formed by schism tend to attract schismatic people. Fortress churches will attract people who are looking for refuge from the world. People wanting to engage the world will soon realize they aren’t wanted, and are often called liberals.

Just as people generally seek self-preservation, so do systems of people. People will resist any change that they see as striking at the DNA.

He talks about non-essential DNA that can be discarded. That doesn’t seem to be DNA. I call these more like habits. People may think they are essential, but they are not. Or perhaps we need to think of them as the wisdom teeth or appendix. They are there, but unnecessary and can be removed when they become problematic. There will be practices and ideas that seem to be part of the identity that must be discarded when they become problematic.

He also talks about creating DNA through experimentation. Sounds like gene-splicing. They may be things to add to a church’s DNA. I would frame this more as new habits to put on.

But churches need to identify what cannot be changed, what ought to be put off and what ought to be put on. He notes that this can provide sufficient conflict to make any leader want to avoid the conversation.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There … Then Do Something

Anxiety-producing problems like declining attendance and/or giving often lead us to look for the quick fix. He encourages us to adapt to fulfill a missional purpose rather than simply plug the leak. Here is differentiates between directional leadership and adaptive leadership. Directional leadership is based on past experiences (a proven track record of success!) and offers advice and direction based on the leaders’ expertise. Adaptive leadership doesn’t have the experience because it is uncharted territory. Before acting there is a time to learn.

In particular he speaks about a cycle of making observations, interpretations of said observation and appropriate interventions. Interpretations should take congregational dynamics into account. Cause and effect are not always closely related in time. There can be a gap between the cause and the effect. A drop in attendance may not be related to the worship service or style of music. Bolsinger learned that his congregation was not good at helping people remain connected during life transitions. As kids age their needs change and the church may not offer what parents think they need. A different staff member may now be in charge. Over time, particular families feel disconnected and leave looking for greener pastures. They may not even be able to express why they feel disconnected.

In this he advocates for protecting minority voices. He relates a story about bombers in WW II. They studied bombers that survived to see how to help more survive. They advocating putting more metal on the areas they took hits. The minority voice pointed out they had survived. They need to know where the planes that didn’t make it back took damage and reinforce those areas. Too often, we listen to the survivors in a church instead of the ones who left, so we have an unbalanced view. The survivors will tell you what you are doing right. The ones who left what you are, in their opinion, doing wrong. Exit interviews can be quite helpful.

This is when you can discuss competing values and the stuckness or tension they create. We’ve had, like many other churches, competing values regarding the music in our worship services. Some wanted us to be more traditional.

Interventions are experimental. Some will fail. Others succeed. Don’t put all your resources in one. Begin modestly, he says. And playfully, which I take to mean not so seriously. It is temporary at first. It may not last. That is okay. But be clear that change will be coming. It will be resisted!

The Mission Trumps!

Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.Heifetz and Linsky

When change happens people will be disappointed. They will experience loss. When experiments fail other people will be disappointed. They were vested in it, or too many experiments have failed. They are experiencing loss and perhaps too much in too short a time span.

Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going.

Here he sounds a bit like Rick Warren’s purpose-driven church. “The focused, shared, missional purpose of the church or organization will trump every other competing value.” He wants us to evaluate whether or not a program or idea helps fulfill the purpose or is contrary to or indifferent to that purpose. It can sound ruthless, and people may be disappointed. But the goal is the God-given mission of the church, not the preferences or special interests of particular persons.

Institutions like families and churches can accumulate any number of traditions that get in the way of mission (marriage is given in the context of the creation mandate btw). They seek and remain in homeostasis. Change is disruptive and resisted. Ask your spouse to change a routine in the family and see what happens.

Begin with conviction. Conflict will raise the question: what are we here for? Are we committed to the mission? Decisions must be based on the convictions we have. You have to be clear about your convictions. The people have to share the conviction! If they don’t buy in, they will bail or fight to the finish depending on their personality.

A good mission statement will focus conversations that build adaptive functioning. “How does this help us….? What can we do that will help us to ….?” Leaders act on their convictions, and invite others to follow them.

Take a Good Look into the Coffin

People today isolate themselves from death. It seems remote until it hits home. Pastors are trained to help people deal with death. We help the dying and the grieving. We can bring that to dying congregations too. We need to help people let go and grieve.

Acting with conviction, stay calm. The real challenge of leadership is emotional. We can be anxious because failure means big changes for us and our families. The uncertainty of uncharted territory can make us reactive and anxiety-ridden.

Transformational leadership can’t settle for the win-win scenario. It recognizes that change brings us to forced choices. There isn’t as much money, what gets cut? There is only so much time, how does this staff member spend it? We only have so much space, who gets to use it and when? This is where convictions come into play. And this is where the leader needs to be the calmest person in the room.

The leader must learn to continue the process of change while also caring for people’s disappointment. As the leader attends to the system, he can know when to turn down the heat and when to turn it up. What can they tolerate?

One type of heat is urgency. It is the sense that you must act now. False urgency focuses on issues that are not contributing to the mission and transformation. Too often the urgent pushes out the important. We have to put out fires rather than address the real issues and move things forward. We begin to run on the treadmill and grow exhausted.

In two different congregations I have tried to be proactive. And when I have, we got lost in reacting to a number of “urgent” crises. We continually got distracted. And I got exhausted. I need to do a better job of identifying the important and ignoring the urgent. But you have to identify it as something distracting you from mission. The person who leaves in a snit is a big distraction much of the time. The issue isn’t personal, but someone can treat it as personal or get personal to justify their actions. The problem isn’t we disagree on the mix of music, but rather the pastor is trying to ruin the church.

We should neither shield people from reality or fail to call them to share the mission in a way that they are personally responsible, not simply organizational responsible (meaning the leaders do it all).

Anxiety is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It can let us know that there is danger on the horizon. But anxious systems are a bad things. We can be chronically anxious. This often happens when the “threats of the past continue to hold power even though the system is no longer in danger.” This is when we have to stay calm. Our response should be about the issue, not the anxiety of the other people in the room.

He refers to the book Thriving Through Ministry Conflict for the distinction between “blue zone” and “red zone” decisions. Blue zone decisions are focused on effectiveness and rooted in your values. Red zone decisions are highly emotional and reactive. They are focused on “survival, acceptance, competence and control.”

In the past we have made decisions to not hurt the feelings of a member (not the same as principled compromise). I’ve seen others threaten or challenge people. People lose their cool, and serve their idols in the heat of the moment. Strive to be the one who continues to see clearly, or pause until you can. Your calm can be as contagious as their anxiety.

Bolsinger advises pastors to pay attention to the purple, meaning the issues that trigger you so you can’t make good decisions. The conflict begins to be about you, not the mission. Good decisions are about the mission.

Part Four, Relationships and Resistance is not very long but it is very important. Leadership is largely about relationships. Change inevitably involves resistance.

Gus and Hal Go to Church

Bolsinger tells about Gus, who is an amputee and his friend Hal, who is blind. Together they are able to get to church. Gus tells Hall where to go. They work together.

Churches are organic relational systems. It is a system that exists for mission, but can settle for existing for itself. Systems seek homeostasis. When change begins, there will be resistance in order to return to homeostasis. Sometimes, he notes, the people who applaud the vision resist its implementation.

If … leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world, then leadership is always relational.

We are in relationship with people we need to disappoint. We want to be their hero, but at times we will need to disappoint them. When they push back, we are tempted to bail on the transformation. He identifies 6 relationships.

Allies are inside the system and take part in the change process. They have something at stake in the system and the process. He warns us that we can’t assume that your friends will be allies. Sadly, I’ve experienced that. It does create “confusion and hurt feelings”, deeply hurt feelings. Confidants care more about you than the mission. The best ones are outside the system. They provide healthy feedback on you as a leader in the system. They have no investment in the outcome. Their investment is in you.

There will be opponents. These are stakeholders in the organization who risk losing more than they want to if you succeed. They are against the change. It isn’t personal, but it sure looks like it at times. They can try to make it personal with how they attack.

Senior authorities are those in authority over you as you seek to fulfill the mission and make the changes necessary. He advises staying connected to them. This lessens the possibility of sabotage. But you can’t push them to make a stand. You can pass the anxiety and obstacles to them.

Casualties experience “the change most personally and dramatically.” They might lose a place of service (or even a job), responsibility or comfort. They may need to learn new skills to survive and thrive. You need to engage them on this. Don’t pretend they don’t matter.

Dissenters are very important. These are fellow decision makers that disagree with the change. He likens the early dissenters to canaries in the coal mine. In them you’ll see the arguments of others. They will ask the tough questions you need to answer. They aren’t enemies, but they seek problems. Engage them, talk it through. This helps the system to be transparent.

Transformation requires risk-taking born of urgency, leadership, a holding environment that will create enough stability and support in an organizational system to experiment with a big idea...”

While the leader, and others, are trying to lead transformation, others will need to keep doing the necessary work not connected to transformation. He also identified a group that maintains mission. They commit to providing “safety, time, space, protection and resources to the project.” They aren’t necessarily doing the work, but providing those directly engaging in transformation time and space to do that voodoo they must do. The transformation team is the group responsible to carrying out the process. They listen, learn, conduct the experiments and deal with the reality of failure and hope of success. It will be comprised with people with authority and informal influence. They have to buy in and be willing to invest relational capital.

Most pastors have not been trained in organizational relationship skills. We’ve been trained in relating to persons. Leading change isn’t about helping a person change, but a system.

As a transformational leader, you aren’t supposed to do all the work. Give it away to people who desire its success the most. It can be those who complained in the first place. Transfer their energy from complaint to innovation. “You’re right, there is no youth ministry. Want to start one, because we really could use one?” We are also to engage those who are motivated to tackle the challenge.

Stay connected to those who are resisting change to keep influencing the system toward health and life. This is counterintuitive and, yes, dangerous.

Et Tu, Church?

The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership- part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brough about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.Edwin Friedman

You can’t change an organization without attempted sabotage. It may come from those closest to you. It may come from those who must benefit from change, but it will come.

Sabotage may come for peace-mongers who can’t endure the anxiety necessary for change. They prefer harmony over health. They want to quiet the complainers rather the hold them accountable. It can often be friendly fire which is exceptionally destablizing. It gets back to having to disappoint your own people. Disappointed, they will turn on you.

Sabotage is the attempt to knock you off course. It is an attempt to derail the mission. We need to respond rather than react to them. We can’t take it personally nor make it personal. They are supporting the status quo, often unconsciously. They are the peace-mongers and risk-avoiders. Unfortunately many of us pastors are just that due to job security. As Richard Pratt used to tell us “2-car garage”. We can lose our faith to keep our jobs. To keep our faith we risk losing our jobs. Most people side with security.

The art of leadership is helping the system override the instinct to self-preservation and replace it with a new organizational instinct to be curious about and open to the terrifying discomfort of asking, Could God be up to something here?

Depersonalize the attack. They are really attacking the change. You will be more likely to stay calm and relationally connected.

He quotes Bob Johansen in calling leaders “tinkerers”. I can identity. I am constantly tinkering. I am habitually discontent. I want things to be better. This really bothers some people because they like the status quo. Change makes them anxious.

Sabotage, he says, tests our resolve and the resilience of the system. Stay calm and on course. Stay in that blue zone. Continue to choose principle over your personal need. This calm courage can be contagious, and he relates a scene from Casablanca. Encourage those who are losing heart. Keep moving forward, but don’t get ahead of your people.

Eons ago we went to Disney for my wife’s birthday. That year you went free on your birthday. Someone at church got me and the kids in for free, with a free stroller (which really came in handy). There was one moment by the concessions when we tried to get through a crowd. I blazed that trail. But I was too far ahead, and the trail would close behind me. She and the kids couldn’t keep up. I had to slow down even though I irrationally wanted them to speed up. They couldn’t.

I’m finding so much here, that I can’t keep up and process it all. I’m having to hang on to a few things at a time as I seek to lead us through change.


In the last few years there have been some titles of Christian book that have been controversial, like The Prodigal God. Here is another entry in the controversial title sweepstakes: The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken (a pen name for reasons that will become apparent later),

The subtitle is A True Story of Faith Resurrected. He is a man who did NGO missions work in Africa and returned hopeless after the debacle that was Somalia and the death of a son. Most of the books is about how God restored his faith.

My wife had heard about this book from an OPC pastor’s wife. She shared it with a few other people, and encouraged me to read it. It finally hit the top of my queue and I began to read it earlier this year. I read it when I could which means it took me over 6 months to read it. Some of my brevity is explained by this fact as the book was not fresh in my mind.

The Book

The book begins with his background story: his youth, conversion, early life as a Christian in college, his marriage. He and his wife ended up in Africa as missionaries in Malawi until he got malaria and had to move to South Africa. He speaks of the racism and hostility that ate at the soul of South Africa. He would often be pulled over for “driving while white.” After 6 years of ministry there, they moved to Kenya to work with Somalian refugees.

In 1992 he visited Somalia, which was ravaged by a civil war. There were no Christians, no Christian witness, no food, no jobs …. practically nothing but guns, bullets, fear and hate. The infrastructure had been abandoned, blow up or wasn’t there in the first place.

From the refugee camps, he began to build a mercy ministry in Mogadishu. Any faith-based organization there was assumed to be Christian, and its workers Christians. The Muslim population was suspicious at the least and at times willing to kill people associated with them. He tells some horrible stories of the things he saw and experienced while in Mogadishu.

I and Somalia against the world; I and my clan against Somalia; I and my family against my clan; I and my brother against my family; and I against my brother.Somali saying

It wasn’t just that Somalia essentially lacked a government, but the West and the UN didn’t seem to have organizational resources to deliver aid. It would be taken by the warlords. Ripken quickly learned to travel with food, water and white linen so he could give the dead a proper Islamic burial. He began to wonder how God could allow such suffering and pain. He saw the human greed, corruption and sin but wondered how it could get so out of control. The evil he witnessed was profound, and it ate at him.

His office in Mogadishu was about a mile from the battle portrayed in Black Hawk Down in which 18 U.S. soldiers and over 700 Somalis lost their lives. He could hear the battle raging for 17 hours.

4 believers who worked in the office had been ambushed and killed. The office received death threats and was told to leave immediately. Even their Muslim security was in danger at points. There was a hit list that was made public by a terrorist group. They feared that killing Westerners would bring foreign armies, but killing the traitorous Somalis who converted or were suspected of converting would put fear in the hearts of the people.

Meanwhile in Nairobi, his 16 year-old son suffered an asthma attack and died in 1996. They returned home mourning his death, feeling like failures having been broken by Somalia.

In the months after returning home they decided to find others whose faith had survived similar experiences. They began with a trip to Russia and former Soviet bloc nations to interview Christians who had survived Communist rule. Many of these people had never told their stories to anyone. He discovered that sometimes stories connected. He heard of amazing things God did: providing for families of the imprisoned, judgment on persecutors and more. But he also learned how many survived prison and torture. God gave them songs, what he calls heart songs. Their faith was sustained and spread by singing these songs of faith.

In home churches, people were recreating the Scriptures through memorization. They also memorized hundreds of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. These memorized passages and songs sustained the house churches, hidden from the government for decades. He also discovered a hope in the resurrection that enabled many of them to face the prospect of death at the hands of the government with joy.

He also visited a Soviet bloc nation that had little persecution of the church. What he found there was disheartening. The church focused on Romans 13, submitting to the government. The government did not perceive them as a threat as a result. The church shrank under the weight of its compromise.

Another nation began the same way: submission and compromise. Eventually they realized they needed to be free to follow Christ. They realized that state’s authority was limited by God’s authority, and they began to live as if they were free. One of the older men he talked to also spoke of similar heart songs. After his release from prison, the churches began to sing them.

He returned home to process what he learned from these interviews, share them with his community of faith and wondered, “what next?”. They developed what they thought were better questions and began to plan trips to closed countries, some communist and some Islamic.

In China, imprisoned pastors teach and encourage one another. It is viewed as going off to seminary. Despite the persecution they face, the house churches continue to grow. He heard stories of healings and other miracles. They didn’t seek persecution, but didn’t live in fear of it either.

You can only grow in persecution what you go into persecution with.

This statement from a persecuted Christian is similar to what Rod Dreher learned interviewing those who survived Soviet persecution. We need to know the Scriptures (and believe them) before persecution comes.

In Muslim countries he heard, as we often do now, of people being led by dreams to places where they can find someone to share the gospel with them. With no ordinary means available to them (there was no church they could visit), God used extraordinary means to get them to the ordinary means.

He shares the story of Pramana. Ripken has no idea how this man found out about him or where he would even be.

It turns out that Pramana traveled twenty-nine hours to find me. He had lived his entire life in a remote, tropical, and rural region of his third-world country. He had never before been on a bus. He had not even traveled on a pave highway. Yet, somehow, he found me in one of his country’s major cities.”

Then he learned that Pramna lived in a people group with no church and 3 Christians. He was a devout Muslim whose marriage was falling apart. His imam apparently also blended in some spiritualism and told him to sacrifice a chicken. On the third day he would get his answer from God. On the third day he heard a voice say “Find Jesus, find the gospel.” He was at a loss. The voice told him to go over the mountain to a particular city, and follow two men that he would see at daybreak. He was to ask them where a particular street was, and then knock on a particular home and ask about Jesus. He did and was dragged into the home and given the gospel by one of those Christians who then gave him the gospel and discipled him for two weeks.

He refers to Ananias going to restore Paul’s sight. But says he was there to instruct Paul. I’m not sure where he got that. This is one of the confusing things Ripken writes. But these are places where people know nothing of Jesus.

When evangelism is illegal, you don’t know if you can trust anyone you may share the gospel with. He notes that we have to do what we’ve been trained to do and leave whether they are converted up to God, and whether you get arrest up to God. But obey God, not men. We are to live by faith, not fear. These people had good reason to fear men (and the government), but they feared God more (like the Egyptian midwives). This mixture of awe and faith that draws us to God instead of running from Him is what leads us to learn the Scriptures and sing songs of faith.

Processing the Book

The book does not always follow chronological order. In the earlier chapters he bounces around some. At times he goes back to earlier events. At times this is clear and others confusing.

His own theological convictions are not expressed or articulated. There is no theological framework. He does speak of providence, but is this in an Arminian sense (general) or Calvinistic (meticulous, including salvation)? There are some head scratchers like the statement about Paul and Ananias. He’s also concerned at times about people being persecuted because of him, as though the real issue wasn’t Jesus. He seems a little fuzzy at times. This is a book, not a stream of consciousness conversation or podcast discussion. Some that that could have been clarified.

This book is an account. He does not try to provide theological analysis of the accounts he will hear from others. He looks for patterns, but is not attempting to discern the truthfulness of any accounts given by others. He assumes the truthfulness of the accounts given in interviews (there is no reason to think they are lying). He’s not debating cessationism and continuationalism. He’s not trying to verify any of these accounts with physical evidence.

Keep in mind, however, the people he interviews in this book are not televangelists seeking to bilk you out of your money with tales of miracles. The people interviewed are people who were or still are in countries where Christians were persecuted. Their circumstances were more like the apostolic times than life here in America. Bibles are not readily available, there is not a basic biblical literacy to draw on, churches (if there are any) are underground and unknown to unbelievers. In contexts without the Scriptures, God may attest to the truthfulness of the message through miracles. This does not mean that people have the gift of healing, as claimed by “signs and wonders” ministries in the West.

This means their experiences or testimony may not fit your theological grid. But neither are they the people you may meet or see on TV with similar sounding claims. They live in what could be characterized as “extraordinary circumstances” by the Westminster Divines since they grew up and lived in a nation with a state church and Christian heritage. These people live(d) in nations dominated by communism or Islam, meaning that any Christian heritage and church has been stamped out, erased and crushed underfoot.

While I rejoice with Ripken about the resurrection of his faith through his excursions and interviews, I still wasn’t sure what the point of the book was. There were a few things that helped people survive, and even thrive, in persecution. But, like any American, I expected a list or something. The summary wasn’t very helpful.

He nearly got to the point in talking with some Chinese Christians. Our prosperity has made us weak. While they consider us blessed because we are free to worship and evangelize, and we have multiple copies of the Bible within reach and they have to tear out pages of the Bible a number of pastors share, they have been blessed with a deeper, more vibrant faith. While he doesn’t say it explicitly (or I missed it) the “insanity” of God is that we grow best under pressure. While we may not face persecution, we can grow in the midst of affliction. While we want the easy road, we see throughout Scripture and history that the church grows best in hardship which includes persecution. It seems crazy to us, but it is true.

The blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the church.Turtullian and a host of others after him

If your faith is as dead as his was, this is a book worth reading to discover that God is alive and well, and working in ways you can’t understand. He does things in closed countries that He doesn’t do in situations like ours with churches in abundance. It challenges our faith but we see the “lengths” God goes to make the amazing length He went to to redeem us, the sin-bearing death of His Son. In a sense this is similar to Paul’s discussion of “filling up what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col. 1). Jesus’ suffering (and obedience) was sufficient to save us. Paul suffered to bring that gospel message to people. These testifying miracles of healing and dreams are about bringing that gospel message to people who have no knowledge of Jesus in a society that prohibits belief in Jesus.

It is an encouraging book. It is an interesting read. I assume the truthfulness of these stories. If they aren’t true (if he was like Mike Warnke), it doesn’t affect my life but he will be held accountable for his deceit and for making money off of it. Even so, there are too many stories of God doing similar things in those parts of the world for me to dismiss them. I can leave my cynical and jaded heart at the door because God is growing these hidden churches in ways we can’t figure out. It isn’t a plan for ministry. But it does testify to God’s ability to bring people to faith, and preserve them in the faith, in the most difficult of circumstances. Our God is an awesome God.


Recently this book was mentioned in other books I was reading, and mentioned by Ray Ortlund, Jr. at a seminar I attended. I figured I probably ought to read it.

That book is The Mark of the Christian by Francis Schaeffer. James Sire has two forwards in the edition I purchased for under $6. It is part of the IVP Classics series. It is a mere 59 pages long and can be read in a few hours, or more slowly. I read it in chunks over the course of 3 or 4 days. It is not hard to understand, though at times you may not want to hear what he’s saying.

It made for some good sabbatical reading, however it is a book that bears reading by anyone serious about following Jesus. The mark Schaeffer has in mind is love, not doctrinal precision, activism, how we dress, or anything else. Love.

In that forward, Sire notes that love for those who didn’t yet believe and those struggling with doubts is something the Schaeffer excelled in.

33 Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so now I tell you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13 (CSB)

This little book is an exhortation of this passage from John 13. Jesus gives the disciples (and us) a command. He’s given us plenty of commands. What is different about this command is that if we obey it, people will realize we are His disciples. Therefore is serves as an identifying mark.

Schaeffer makes it clear that real Christians can disobey this command. There are times when we don’t look like Christians in the eyes of the watching world. What is supposed to stand out to them, however, is that we love one another. We are to do this, as Jesus has loved us.

He begins with the image of God. People have value and dignity as image bearers. Sadly, we live in a time that devalues human beings through abortion, speciesism, moral relativism and evolutionary theories.

Additionally, all people fit in the category of neighbors who we are to love as we love ourselves. We are to love all people as ourselves, and all Christians as Christ has loved us. It is not one or the other, but both. The particular mark is that we love other disciples in this sacrificial way. Schaeffer brings us to passages like 1 Thessalonians 3:12 which also reveal and preserve this balance in our lives. This love is not something that comes easily or automatically.

This Christ-like love is to be shown to all who stands in the historical-biblical faith, including those who are not in our own branch of the Church. History has too many examples of Christian groups hating and sometimes killing one another.

He then gets into the quality of that love, as I’ve mentioned above. We can’t love one another infinitely, but we can lay down our lives (and our agendas) for our friends. Jesus has just washed the feet of the disciples. If we are to love one another we are going to get our hands wet (or dirty) serving them according to their need as opposed to our preferences.

The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.”

We do live in a fallen world, and remain sinners. We will not always love one another. Our personal prejudices can get in the way. Our limitations get in the way. We will not love perfectly, completely and in every moment. People may accuse us of being unloving. They might be right (at that moment) or they might be wrong.

There was once a woman who had romantic interest in me. I did not return that interest. She then sent an email to my Presbytery and denominational offices about how I was not a loving person as a result. She defined love as returning her romantic interest. I tried to love her by limiting our contact, but that was “unloving”.

The dying culture around us often argues on the basis of love to justify its sin. It calls us unloving for not approving of their sin. These are false accusations in many cases (some Christians may hate them and not just their sin). But love is supposed to be, as Schaeffer says, the “litmus test” for the world.

Here Jesus is talking about our responsibility as individuals and as groups to so love all other true Christians that the world will have no valid reason for saying that we are not Christians.

He then brings us to John 17 as Jesus prays for the unity of the Church, a oneness that reflects the oneness of the Trinity. This oneness is a manifestation of love. In John 17 Jesus says that by this the world will know that the Father sent the Son. Our unity reveals not simply that we are Christians but that Christ is really God the Son come to save sinners. This is because unity doesn’t exist in this sin-filled world that is subjected to corruption and in bondage to decay apart from the amazing grace of God.

He does note that the Church discerns whether or not we are Christians on the basis of doctrine, what we believe, and a credible profession of faith in that doctrine. The doesn’t evaluate us that way, but by love and its expression in unity.

As an apologist and evangelist, he recognizes that unless we love one another they will not listen to us. Yes, we must give proper answers. Proper answers and love are not opposed to one another. Love must be there for people to listen to our proper answers (this predates Haidts discussion of building better discussions over differences, love opens ears).

That love for one another should cut across all of the boundaries that the world uses to separate people: race, class, gender, cultural practices, regions and more. We love, not because we are the same, but that we have the same love for Christ who came to save sinners like us.

Schaeffer then addresses false forms of unity: organizational, doctrinal/confessional, the mystical unity (a reality, but not what Jesus is talking about since it is not observable). True oneness is something practicable. He mentions the hard task of practicing both his holiness and his love. Purity and love, not one or the other. Neither harshness nor laxness.

This love and holiness is made visible in how we conduct ourselves in community. He focuses on confessing sin against one another, and the forgiveness that should accompany it. We are to be repentant and forgiving people. This renews our fellowship. This pardon is one way we love one another like Jesus has loved us. We show each other mercy and grace instead of being filled with bitterness and holding on to grudges.

To often in our differences, we have been harsh in our words and unforgiving toward them. Many churches have scars from splits. Many denominations are the result of bitter disagreements. To borrow from Ken Sande they may need to “get the log out” and “go and be reconciled” if they want to “glorify God”. Too often we live contra-gospel lives in conflict. Our anger grows, we condemn others and ignore our sinful contributions to the mess. We are not realizing that love covers over a multitude of sins. Where there is no love, there will be no humility and forgiveness.

We call sin “sin”. This is part of the call to holiness. But the gospel moves further than this to include love and forgiveness: restoration and reconciliation. He addresses 1 Corinthians 6 and the willingness to suffer loss instead of going to the court of law with a fellow Christian.

He also addresses the problem of pride in these situations. We want to be right. We want to win the conflict. This sets up the protracted conflict or disagreement.

But we should understand that what we are working for in the midst of our difference is a solution– a solution that will give God the glory that will be true to the Bible, but will exhibit the love of God simultaneously with his holiness.

In a church world filled with conflict and differences, we seemingly have not big conferences on this. Churches in trouble may. But we don’t seem to do proactive work. We don’t really talk about this in seminary.

The world won’t understand our doctrinal differences, or our methodological differences. What they will understand is whether nor not we love each other by how we handle them. That will be visible to the world and should show that that we are His disciples and that the Father has sent the Son to save sinners, of whom we are the worst.

Yes, very short. But Schaeffer says many things that we need to hear and put into practice. Perhaps this bears reading on a regular basis, particularly before important meetings discussing differences. Perhaps we need to regularly pray, “help us to love each other.”


It has been quite some time since I’ve done a movie review, but I have too much time on my hands these days.

I took 3 of the kids to see Thor: Love and Thunder last weekend. I hadn’t gone to the movies on a Friday night in forever. I usually go on off times so it isn’t busy. It was pretty busy but we got our snacks in time to see the trailers.

I wasn’t really impressed by the trailers. There was nothing that said “You’ve gotta see this!”

Love and Sex

That is about how I felt about this movie. Only the youngest really liked it. As you see ratings on web sites, they are not very good. I am not alone

I loved Ragnorak. It was funny, told an interesting story and had an incredible soundtrack. While this had the same director, there was something off about its overall feel or vibe. The jokes didn’t seem nearly as good as most of them fell flat. The shrieking goats was a nice touch. The music was okay, but The Immigrant Song just plain couldn’t be beat.

I was quite uncomfortable at the palace of the gods as Zeus (played by a rotund Russell Crowe) kept mentioning the orgy. This is the same scene where we saw Thor’s naked butt (or a stunt butt), thankfully after he got back into shape. There seemed to be much more discussion, jokes and allusions to sex and sexuality in this movie. I don’t know why. It is a superhero movie. It should not be a propaganda piece. But as you see Thor’s butt, Zeus and his entourage (and some of the other gods) seem to be admiring what you cannot see. Apparently I will need to discuss penis size with my kids, another of those conversations parents love to have with their kids.

As the movie begins you just have to wonder about Thor and how he looks at Star Lord at times. In my mind I wonder, “Are they going to make him bisexual like Loki?” It is uncomfortable at times. But so was his total self-absorption after he recovered from “fat Thor”.

We got more of the backstory for Valkyrie. Now knowing that her lover died in the battle, her reaction when the blonde is killed in the flashback makes sense. She has lost her “true love” and settles for short romances with other women.

And then there is the story of Korg and his two dads. At the end, he finds another male of his species to make a baby.

That was all disappointing but it seems to be the norm for the MCU these days. It prompted a short discussion in the car on the way home reminding one of my kids that we are still to love those with whom we disagree about these things.

Thunder

Thor with Stormbreaker

One of the odd parts of the movie was Thor’s “relationship” with his hammers. His original hammer, Mjölnir, reforms to be used by Jane after calling to her. His new hammer, Stormbreaker, is jealous. Thor is double-minded wanting to possess both for himself but trying to appease his new hammer.

If only they called the new hammer Stormbringer, they could use another great song by another British band. Yes, Deep Purple’s Stormbringer. Am I the only one who thinks of these things?

In the course of the movie there are some plot leaps. Thor suddenly discovers powers he didn’t know he had that enable him to magically prevail.

The movie seemed only to be there to set up the next adventure and resolve Thor’s romance with Jane. He (like Valkyrie) had closed off his heart and needed to open it again.

Deconstruction

Christian Bale as Gorr

The plot line in terms of conflict revolves around Gorr, played by Christian Bale. We find him and his daughter in a Sahara-like desert on the brink of death. He calls on his god but his daughter still dies. Gorr then finds an oasis where the god is enjoying himself after dispatching a would-be assassin. The god displays no care and love for the people who worship him, including Gorr and his daughter. Gorr picks up the dead person’s sword, named “God Slayer” and slays the god. Empowered by the sword, he begins to hunt down the gods to kill them.

This is deconstruction. He feels his god failed him. In his disappointment and anger, he rejects his faith rather than wondering if god actually made particular promises to break. This is a common theme in deconstruction, at least as I understand it. It begins with disappointment because God doesn’t do what we want Him to do.

When Thor encounters the Greek gods and other gods in their secret hangout, we see none of them is worth worshiping (well, I already knew that). They are like us: self-absorbed, obsessed with sex and food.

Reconstruction

In a podcast dealing with Mars Hill it was noted that when most people deconstruct what they are left with provides no opportunity to reconstruct faith since they generally dismiss the Bible.

Gorr’s interactions with Thor shift. While Thor wants to stop Gorr, he also begins to have some pity on Gorr and tries to help him. Gorr’s faith in the gods isn’t restored, but he now has a “faith” in Thor. He entrusts what is most valuable to him into Thor’s hands.

I’m pretty sure this was not written as a tale of deconstruction and reconstruction. It is there, but not intentionally. That is an assumption of mine. Perhaps they did mean to communicate this. Yet, there it is.

As people made in God’s image, truth or at least true ideas leak in unexpectedly.

The gods of the nations are a lie and they are so much like us. But there is one who is different: YHWH who sent His Son to live and die for us. He’s fully human like us, but altogether righteous unlike us. He loves us despite our sin, and rescues us.

Thor really isn’t a Christ-figure, but this puffed up god gets better (Jesus is perfect and always has been). While he doesn’t sacrifice his life, he is willing to sacrifice his future with Jane. He also takes on responsibility for another person. He’s a very flawed Christ-figure but there is a hint of redemption in this movie.

But in the course of the movie Thor is also “redeemed” from his own narcissism. He really isn’t a god that can save, only help. He’s a god who needs help too. He’s not deserving of our faith, unless we need a powerful entity beat up.

So far the next generation of MCU is not very compelling aside from the new Dr. Strange movie which also includes the now obligatory LGBT+ character(s). I don’t know why they are compelled to confuse kids.


I was about 6 months into my current pastorate when the mid-term elections hit. I had previously provided “voter guides” which sees how candidates measure up to the “Christian position”. Years earlier I’d wondered how you could have a Christian position on nuclear weapons. But I thought it would help people know where candidates stood on issues.

It didn’t take long for the email. My first negative email at the church. This person didn’t appreciate the material, and thought it unduly influenced people to vote a particular way. I could see their point and pulled them from the lobby.

This was the first indication that politics were going to be a problem, or a pastoral minefield, for years to come.

The congregation has come younger adults. I was surprised by some of their views, and some have since changed views. While some of the differences may have been about maturity and life experience, the main issue I realized was the differences in the role of government. Despite these differences, people co-existed well. There didn’t seem to be undue tension or conflict.

Until 2016. We’ve had people leave because we are “too conservative” politically. Others because I wasn’t verbal enough about politics. There were Facebook spats and residual discomfort. It has been a long 6 years. Perhaps I’m trying to keep to many people with divergent views happy but I’m tired of this.

I picked up How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? by Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli. It is part of the 9Marks series of booklets in the Church Questions series. I was looking for a good booklet to hand out to people. I read it in less than an hour so they get to the point. There are some personal stories in it. It is helpful though it never mentions that we might have different views due to different theologies of government.

Think of the iceberg principle. There is far more ice under the water than above. You can’t focus on the little bit above the water because the big problem is under water. In terms of politics, we see the differences in candidates or positions chosen. Underneath all that is what you think government is responsible for, the relationship between state and church and who does what.

Leeman and Naselli don’t try to address that. It is a booklet, after all. I’m hoping to handle that in a Sunday School class.

This is more of the quicker fix to calm things down but not resolve the differences. It is about living together in harmony though you disagree.

Why We Feel Skeptical or Angry Toward Fellow Members amid Political Differences

This is where they begin. These differences can hinder fellowship. When we are unable to tolerate those with different opinions, we often go looking for a church more politically (not theologically) aligned. We tend to treat church like a PAC, not a church where we express our love and devotion to Jesus Christ.

One reason they provide is a good one: since we are justified we should care about justice. I guess I’d swap out “regenerated” for justified, but you get the point. Because God is just and we are being remade in His image we should be concerned about justice (Micah 6:8). We differ on what we think is just, and that is pretty serious if we believe the other person is pursuing unjust policies or acting unjustly. Anger is an appropriate response to injustice.

Secondly, we believe our views are right and theirs are wrong. We tend to be self-justifying. None of us sets out to be wrong. We don’t argue for positions we know are wrong. But that doesn’t mean we are actually right.

Due to sin, we struggle with self-righteousness, self-justification and pride. We are finite and can’t fully comprehend any position (we can have true knowledge and understanding but not complete knowledge and understanding). But we argue like we do. As we argue our arguments tend to become more entrenched and more extreme. Not a good combination. It is easy to see why fellowship suffers.

Third, they state that political judgments require wisdom. Usually there is no “thus sayeth the Lord” but we are dealing with how to apply a law or principle. We can assume that differences in that application mean differences in understanding Scripture. Wisdom tries to take consequences into account. Wisdom recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all. We won’t all make the same calculations, in part because we place higher value on different aspects than they do.

Wisdom grows, and you can get more information. One illustration they use is living in Germany in the 1920’s. You couldn’t see what the National Socialist German Workers Party would end up. You might have misgivings, but the evil wasn’t clear until later. It would become clear, and in 1934 the Barmen Declaration by the Confessing Church denounced Nazism.

The point is, life and politics are not static, and with every passing day we need a fresh dose of wisdom because the political landscape keeps changing.

How Can We Love Church Members with Different Politics?

They shift from the “why?” to the “what now?”. They begin with adjusting expectations. Church is an affinity group. It is centered on Jesus, and He calls people from every conceivable background and throws them in a room together to learn about love. That’s the point: learning to love people who aren’t like you, including politically. Bailing robs yourself of the opportunity to love. The gospel takes diversity and creates unity, not uniformity.

What unites them is Jesus, not partisan politics.

We need to recognize what a church is, which means also recognizing what it isn’t. It is not a political party, or arm of one. It is God’s people from every nation tribe, tongue and language. The ethnic, cultural, class, gender and educational differences are not what matters. It is our union with Christ, and therefore one another.

The local church is where enemy tribes start beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Moving further, we are to emphasize what unites us and remember what belongs to Christian freedom. They call the former “whole church issues”, the things we should agree upon to be a church. The are areas of disagreement that fall within the realm of “Christian-freedom issues.” Unless someone is voting for the Nazis in 1934 or later, or an anti-Christian party, there is no cause for church discipline. To vote for a candidate or party is not to approve of all they say, do, or believe.

People can discuss disagreements, but you want to make sure there is light, and not just heat. If you don’t want to discuss them, you should be free to do that. Grant others the same freedoms you want them to give you.

They also want us to recognize the differences between “straight line judgments” and “jagged line judgments”. The first is a straight line between the command of God and the policy. Since we should not steal, I think it is clear that the government should prosecute those who do steal. What is less clear is immigration policy. Yes, we should treat the sojourner fairly and love the alien among us. What some don’t realize is that those categories were a legal status. Not all immigrants would be considered sojourners from a biblical perspective. One can be pro-immigration and still want a legal process that is enforced (btw: we really need to reform ours). You can’t just go from the command to open borders.

Where it is a straight line we can hold our view more firmly. Where there isn’t we should be more cautious and allow others greater freedom to disagree. Sadly, we usually invert these. Where is there a jagged line judgment in view, remember they may have a differently calibrated conscience. You may want to be sure your conscience is properly calibrated by the Word instead of assuming theirs is not. They paraphrase a common sentiment from earlier generations, “Be strict with yourself and generous with them.”

They remind us that the letters of the Apostles, following the lead of Jesus, are not about social commentary and attacks on the government. They aren’t about life in the Empire but the Kingdom of God represented by the Church. We are not to focus on the kingdoms of men.

We do live in them, and should apply our faith to how we participate in cultural activities. We are to be just and advocate for those with less power than us. We just don’t condemn people who focus on other issues.

We are to love those loved by God. I am also reading Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian. We are to be known as His disciples by our love for one another. Politics is one area where we struggle with loving others. This command of Jesus should drive how we talk about politics and political differences. Where we fail there should be repentance. And we will fail. But we should strive nonetheless.

The goal of this booklet is not to resolve political differences but to help us love one another. As such, I find this to be another tool in my tool box in addressing the strife caused by political differences. You can never have enough. It cost me $2.50 so it makes an easy handout. I’ve also done a seminar for our people about Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I’ll be teaching on a theology of government from Innes’ book, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men.

It is also a booklet I hope to re-read periodically to remind myself of these things as I deal with my own heart. I have found myself having to consciously refuse to post on current events or comment on other people’s take. This is hard for me. The “justice” vibe runs strong, and I want to speak about what I think are injustices but others think of as justice. We disagree. I am not trying to turtle, but to preserve relationships. Time has shown that my comment(s) won’t change people’s minds. There are many pre-suppositions that can’t be unearthed in that kind of forum.

Read this booklet, not to rebuke others so much as yourself.


We live in a ruined world.

As Christians we also experience the ruin sin produces in our lives, families and churches. That can result from bad choices, the bad or sinful choices of others, natural evil and circumstances beyond our control. The ruins can affect us emotionally and spiritually. When I lived in a dumpy apartment, I noticed how discouraged I was. Are we just to settle for living in the ruins?

OT scholar Iain Duguid has written a new bible study in the Gospel-Centered Life in the Bible series by New Growth Press. It is Ezra and Nehemiah: Rebuilding What Is Ruined. (WTS Bookstore)

These books of the Bible take place after the return from the Babylonian exile following the Cyrus Edict. Duguid provides a short, helpful timeline for the decline and restoration of Judah at the beginning of this study.

I have appreciated the commentaries and the Gospel in the Old Testament volumes that Duguid has written in the past. I find them to be informative, accessible and to have plenty of appropriate application. I expected something similar with this study of these two books.

I was interested in this study based on the content as well as my experience with Dr. Duguid’s previous volumes. I am looking for a good study for a congregation that is struggling with life in the ruins.

In his Introduction he briefly outlines the struggles of the people of Israel. They needed to be restored to God, not just the land. They needed to be restored to God, not simply rebuild the ruined walls and temple. They needed to learn of God’s steadfast love, and Duguid reminds us that we need to see He steadfast love in light of the cross of Christ. They will be restored to God not by rebuilding the ruins, but by His grace. Then they will rebuild the ruins.

We don’t do this alone. The nation needed to pull together to help one another repent and rebuild. We also need one another. He encourages us to create an environment in which people in the group can openly share sin and struggles: their ruins. The studies are designed to provide opportunities for people to share the ruins of their lives. Some will do this more quickly than others. In other words, be patient with one another (including those who overshare).

In his introductory comments we see hints of the interpretive method he will follow. It isn’t always explicit but he seeks to help us understand the original meaning, how it connects to the gospel and applies it to our similar needs. He also connects the passages to parallel texts and explanatory texts. He’s keeping them in their biblical context. There is no eisegesis here.

Each of the 10 lessons includes the Big Idea summary of the passage, questions for Bible conversation, an article by Iain Duguid, more discussion based on the article, an exercise to be completed during the meeting, wrap up and prayer. They say it will take about an hour. They haven’t met my community group. This format follows some of their topical study guides I have used in our Men’s ministry. We rarely get through a lesson a week. Or 2 sometimes.

I usually walk through the content in my reviews of books. Since this is a study guide I will be focused more on the method here. I want you to do the study for yourself.

The book maintains a gospel-centered approach through the studies. It is about what God does, and what faith in this gracious God produces in us. He provides biblical background as needed. He doesn’t leave you in the dark and prone to go off in unhelpful directions or follow your own inclinations and prejudices.

For instance, Duguid challenges how we view the OT in his first article. It is not about great men, but our Great God. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah bought the people home. They were not there for the first stage of the rebuild either. God works through a variety of people. We have Ezra a scribe and Nehemiah a man in the administration of the king. Each phase of the rebuilding process encounters opposition. This requires us to depend on God and work together with the recognition that we don’t get it perfectly right. It isn’t a call to be a great leader, but to depend on our great God.

Other articles engage us on worship, persecution, the law of God, leading people in lament over sin, God’s purpose for marriage, why Nehemiah’s request was so dangerous, responding to opposition, the importance of joy, repentance and how fickle we can be. Here he’s getting at the heart of our lives and their mess.

There is much here that should give us hope and encouragement in our circumstances. Our goals aren’t often met. We work hard but achieve far less than we intend. We are in the middle of the story filled with conflict, not the end. God has much He intends to do before that time.

He wants us to see HOW God works in these two books. This prepares us as we seek God to work in our lives.

There are not too many questions. He stays focused and gets us to think of what it would be like to be in their shoes. The discussion of the text has 3. The article produces 2 questions that seek to get at the heart to reveal your need for the gospel.

The exercises help us to think through application of material in the articles in light of our own ruins and joys. They are designed to help you examine the ruined places of your life where the gospel is needed. For instance, the one on worship works through the elements of worship asking you to see where you appreciate what is happening, where you would like to be more aware, and what makes you want to engage in that element of worship. Exercise 7 on Remember the Lord is challenging as it examines different kinds of opposition and our personal weakness and vulnerability.

The guide allots 20 minutes for the exercises. This allows time to be thoughtful about your answers. Some of the exercises have you look at other passages of Scripture. The hope is that you will begin to share those answers with the rest of the group as the lessons go on. There are 2 questions to help guide the sharing of the result of the exercises.

The copy I received includes the Leader’s Notes. He is not trying to provide “the answer” in them. He offers some thoughts and additional background to these books. The notes are not long, they aren’t mini-commentaries. They are helpful, providing good insight. There is also helpful advice for leading at points. For instance, in Lesson 5, he encourages the leaders to not let the discussion devolve into a debate on divorce and remarriage. He does provide some background into the many issues with those marriages. Some of the notes address the exercise or discussion sections.

The study guide is well-thought out. It doesn’t get too lost or distracted in the details. That actually is a weakness of some other study guides we have used. One series we used had passages that were way too large. These lessons strike a good balance. They bring us back to our need for Christ. I look forward to leading a group of people through this study.

(I received a free E-book copy for the purposes of review)


Sometimes you read a book and wish you had read it years ago. You wonder what life or ministry would have been like if you had read it earlier. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger is one of those books. But you also have to trust the providence of God and perhaps you weren’t ready to read that book.

The uncharted territory in the subtitle is post-Christian America. In “Christendom” you could be an attractional church. People would look for churches and if you had good preaching, good programs and cared for people you could grow.

Christendom is done, meaning we no longer have a cultural “monopoly” or majority when it comes to faith. Part of this means that the culture war is basically over. Most of society has forsaken the Judeo-Christian worldview and the morality that comes with it. It is awash in expressive individualism and self-actualization, being “true to yourself”. It’s about autonomy.

The mission of the church must necessarily switch to that more like the ancient church. It is often called “missional”, a term he uses frequently in this book. Many conservatives associate this with progressive Christianity though I can’t understand why. Missional isn’t actually a new word, but one which hadn’t been used in a long time.

It refers to the church regaining its sense to mission to go to the nations instead of expecting the nations to come to them.

Here is the rub, as Bosinger indicates, most seminaries in America train pastors as if we still lived in something akin to Christendom. That is beginning to change. For instance, our denominational seminary, Covenant, change the name of the Theology Department to Missional Theology. Some assumed this meant they were not teaching systematic theology anymore. No, they still had required classes in systematics. This was viewed as part of Covenant going progressive instead of seeking to prepare its students for ministry in the world that is, rather than then world that was.

Back to the actual book, which doesn’t address the PCA directly. Tod Bolsinger was a PC(USA) pastor and now is vice president of Fuller Seminary. Yes, not the most conservative institutions. He is what many of us in the PCA would call progressive, at least to some degree. This is not a theology book, so there is no way of knowing how far down that road he is aside from egalitarianism. So let’s weigh the book by what he says, not what we think he believes (because we may be very wrong).

Bolsinger uses the experiences of Lewis and Clark throughout the book. They were looking for the Northwest passage. As he recounts the story, they found the origin of the Missouri River and thought they just had to climb the hill to see the Pacific. Instead they “discovered” the Rocky Mountains. Instead of canoeing, with some occasional portaging, they would have to climb mountains unlike any they had seen east of the Mississippi. They had to lead their team into uncharted territory, they had to adapt.

This is how Bolsinger sees church leadership. We need to adapt as we move into this uncharted territory. He is clear that this doesn’t mean adapting our theology (this should make those of us who are conservatives comfortable). It is about adapting how we lead and fulfill the mission Christ has given the Church to make disciples.

He does focus on the mission of Lewis and Clark and books on leadership and systems. He mentions Scripture at points, but they don’t form the primary source of authority I’d like or hope. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t say true things or helpful things. It is more focused on general revelation than special revelation.

Seminary Didn’t Prepare Me for This

Here he BRIEFLY explains the shift from Christendom in the west and its tolls on pastors. He mentions three friends who “finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges.” These three friends all resigned on the same day.

I suspect that many pastors have felt this way. He notes that all three churches blamed the pastor, who was trying to bring changes, for how stuck they felt. Sound familiar?

Pastors, he argues, need a new set of tools which he will lay out in the course of the book. He also lays out his three purposes for the book.

  1. “To reframe this moment … as an opportunity put before us by God for adventure, hope and discovery….
  2. “To recover the calling for the church to be a truly missional movement….
  3. “To discover… the capacity for leadership within us.”

He structures the book around five vital lessons we need to learn to lead in this uncharted territory for the west.

  1. “Understanding uncharted territory. The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you. …
  2. “… No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. … Without demonstrating technical competence on the map, a leader will never be given the chance to lead a true expedition off the map. … Only when a leader is deeply trusted can he or she take people further than they imagined on the mission of God.
  3. “… In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything. … adaptive challenges require learning, facing loss and negotiating the gaps of our values and actions. …
  4. “… You can’t do it alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage. …
  5. “… Everybody will be changed (especially the leader). … we who have been trained in a Christendom context will never thrive as leaders as long as the majority-world voices around us are silenced.” This means we should learn from those at home in this world.

In his own experience he found himself, or the congregation actually, as a victim of its own success. They had grown greatly in the previous decade and were beginning to reach out more tangibly when the energy left the congregation. A great malaise set in. Their unified vision led to an overly centralized organization. What ends up happening is people begin to think it is their job to support the ministry you undertake. Church life begins to revolve around you. They want to make you look good. They want you to thrive.

The problem is that everything is upside down (but not necessarily on purpose). You are there to make their ministry thrive. You are all there to glorify Christ (which he doesn’t seem to mention much). We have a tendency to build our churches on our pastors. It happens subtly. Sometimes the choices we can make as pastors foster this through unintended consequences.

True leadership learns to adapt to the present realities. This is not easy. I’ve been trying to communicate the reality of the new world we live in. It is a hard sell. People rightly recognize the “wrongness” of society’s direction but wrongly think we can elect our way into a godly, or at least comfortable to us, culture. We seem unwilling to change how we do ministry in light of these changes. That’s because change is hard.

The new Stated Clerk of the PCA addressed this as part of a lesson for the stated clerks of our churches. The generations approach things differently because they grew up in different worlds and therefore see aspects of the world differently, and different solutions to the issues before us. (Sorry for the less-than-stellar quality, it is Covid-quality)

This means that pastors and elders, in particular, need to learn all over again. We need to recognize that we don’t understand the world around us. This is not to say you can’t understand or will never understand, but that you need to learn instead of thinking you are an expert.

Leadership isn’t about authority. It isn’t about management. Leadership, as he will develop later, is about creating culture. Managing stewards culture or what is. Leadership focuses on what can or must be. Both are expressed in actions, relationships and taking responsibility. He too briefly addresses how anxious organizations can process information and fruitfully change. Leaders must have emotional maturity so they don’t take on the anxiety or take resistance personally.

The last few years the resistance has seemed quite personal. As the “change leader” you have a target on your back. Your culture change is the one they are sabotaging. I’ve been stretched, challenged to grow, and wondered if we would ever turn the corner. But enough about me.

Adventure or Die

After the story of realizing the Rockies lay before the Pacific, the author addresses that slow, incremental change has been replaced by a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. He introduces the story of Lesslie Newbigin who returned from the mission field to realize his home had become one while he was gone. He’s also highly dependent on Christopher Wright and Alan Hirsch in thinking about mission.

The missional mindshift, he has discovered, doesn’t actually bring the needed change. You have to realize you need to adapt. He illustrates this from the story of Moneyball. We can’t keep doing the same things. Well, we must still do the essential things: preach the Word, administer the sacraments and exercise discipline. We also need to adapt by going to them instead of expecting them to come to us. We need to do pre-evangelism since most people don’t have elementary understanding of Christianity. We need to see new possibilities.

We don’t adapt our theology but our methodology. We don’t change what we believe, but how we seek to do ministry both outside and inside our four walls. Progressivism changes our theology. Just like there is a right and wrong way to contextualize, there is a right and wrong way to be missional. We should bring our confessional tried and true theology to the changing world in ways appropriate to those changes.

A Leadership Model for Uncharted Territory

He, through Alan Hirsch, brings us back to the early church to discover that leadership model. He contends that local churches are to be extending themselves into the world (from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth). We are a witnessing (and necessarily worshiping) community (see 1 Peter 2). To change the church we must change how we function as leaders.

He argues there needs to be “communal transformation for mission”. We gather and form a people to participate in Christ’s mission. He goes a bit too far by saying “to establish the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”” Christ has established His kingdom. Perhaps this is semantics, but we extend the kingdom He established. He also misapplies that phrase from the Lord’s Prayer. It applies to God’s will being done on earth- obedience among God’s people.

There is another odd statement in the next paragraph. “In Romans 8:29 we read how even the doctrine of election is not focused on our salvation but transformation.” Salvation includes transformation. The doctrine of election is about forming a people He will transform. Again, perhaps it is semantics.

One aspect of “missional” that does trouble me, as expressed here, is the reduction of mission to evangelism. I could be misunderstanding him, but that would because he hasn’t clearly stated it. Our mission, from Mt. 28, is to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. We do this as we are going (missional) but we are making disciples, not simply converts.

He does turn to the Abrahamic promise in Genesis 12 to show that we are to be a blessing to the nations (through the ultimate fulfillment of that promise, Jesus) because we are children of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3, though he doesn’t make this connection). Leaders, therefore, are to transform congregations so they can fulfill this mission corporately. How he briefly expresses this is consistent with The Vine Project.

He distinguishes between technical problems and adaptive challenges. “Technical problems are those where the solutions are available to and “within the repertoire” of the community.” It is not trivial, as he says later, but that the solution is at hand within what you already know and do.

“Adaptive challenges, by contrast, are those that “cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes or habits of behavior.”” They are systemic issues. It is shifting from canoeing rivers to scaling snowy-topped mountains.

Here is one of the places where he holds the line. We are to adapt “without losing our core identity”. You don’t change who you are but how you go about fulfilling your mission. How you function as a leadership team and congregation changes. It is about new behaviors: people need to begin acting differently because they are in a new culture or society. You can’t move to a new country or cross country without adapting to the new set of circumstances, practices, expectations and customs.

They need more than teaching and preaching from their leaders. They need new behaviors.

I’ve been trying to build a “culture of reconciliation”. Sinners don’t do conflict well. Self included. Conflict is necessary to learn how to reconcile properly. I’ve stated repeatedly that it often goes wrong with the first 2 “g’s”: glorify God and get the log out of your eye. I have to practice that, and have been. Unfortunately your inner law firm seems to think that “go on the attack” is one of the “g’s” of reconciliation. The way of self-denial and cross-bearing in following Jesus is to forsake going on the attack.

So ends part 1 of his book, but not this review. He shifts to the skill set for leading on the map. If you can’t lead there, they won’t trust you when you go into uncharted territory.

Competence and Credibility

President Jefferson chose Lewis to lead the expedition because he trusted him. Lewis had displayed competence and credibility to Jefferson over years of working together.

Pastors must have a technical competence. You have to be able to do the basics of ministry: preaching sermons that are thoughtful and thought-provoking as you rightly divide the Word, provide comfort to the sorrowing, counseling to the confused, run the ship administratively. You need to be a good steward, “faithfully protecting and preserving what is most important” and “faithfully discharging the duties and carrying out the responsibilities that we have been authorized to do.”

Imagine if Lewis and Clark had proven to be inept while canoeing the Missouri. Would those men follow them into the mountains? No way. But they were competent and the men followed them (and a certain indigenous woman lest we forget her).

They had threshold competence (what we usually look for in examining men for ordination). We should also have it. He explicitly includes stewarding the Scriptures and tradition. You have to be clear on what will not change. There also need to be stewardship or competence of “teams and tasks”.

One of the hardest tasks of leadership is identifying new leaders. The choices you make for church officers can make or break you. It is easier said than done. I’ve shifted to a year-long process (after someone has been in the congregation for a year, minimum). You still don’t know them well enough. You can’t anticipate future influences on them that will lead them in different directions. When those things happen how you manage it is what matters. You can’t stop someone from going off the rails, but how you respond personally and publicly matters. Do you try to calm organizational anxiety or ramp it up? Do you go on the attack or seek to help people understand the context (as much as you can without betraying confidences)?

Bolsinger reminds us that we learn by failing. It is a necessary part of learning. Leaders will fail! What do they do when they fail? Do they seek to learn and grow or do they avoid responsibility and blame?

Competence gives us the credibility needed to learn from our mistakes.

Preparing for the Unknown

This chapter is really about building trust.

When I was newly married and we were faced with a decision and we disagreed, I’d say “Don’t you trust me?”. What a moron I was. Of course not! She only knew me for a few years. I need to build her trust in me by my actions, by consistency.

The congregation, and other leaders, need to trust you if you are going to lead them into uncharted territory. You will be asking them to do very hard things, to take big risks. They need to have a high level of confidence in you (and the other elders). They have to “get” why this is happening. They often don’t grasp the “existential crisis” because they still think they live in the country they grew up in.

We have the technology to fix the heart, but not to change it.” Ronald Heifetz

It is trusting relationships that are necessary to sooth the anxious, fearful church. When an elder left like the Baltimore Colts, we had the leadership team gather before the church. We wanted to convey that while that guy didn’t like where he thought we were going, the rest of us were on the same page and working together. We gathered the team to lead them into this unanticipated territory.

Trust is built when you do what you say, when you consistently express your stated values by your actions. Without this trust, the organization falls apart whether it is the leadership team or the congregation. That elder left it was because he lost confidence in me as a leader.

I’m not sure what destroyed that trust, but while it takes time to build it it only takes a moment to destroy it. We don’t always realize when we destroy it, until it is too late. I don’t know what I did to hurt this man, but there was something. When trust is lost, everything is jaded, seen as suspect.

Trust is also built with “meaningful work together”. It is in working together that you move beyond your personal concerns and learn new things. It also tends to develop the kinds of relationships that can endure uncharted territory. As I have learned, this is not a guarantee. Never underestimate the power and pervasiveness of sin (something missing in this book so far). These working friendships and unified fronts help calm anxious organizations.

When a pastor is new to a congregation and developing their trust in him, he has to rest in the trust they have in the rest of the leadership. If they don’t trust the rest of the leadership, he’s in trouble.

For the pastor a missional congregation must first be a trusting and caring congregation, a congregation where there is a healthy culture that creates the context for a congregation to become not only a corps, but also a Corps of Discovery.

And it is to culture that he now turns.

Eating Strategy for Breakfast

There is a statement he attributes to Peter Drucker that I have heard a few times in our presbytery: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Some people substitute vision or mission for strategy, but the point is that culture will prevail.

“The most critical attribute a congregation must have to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture.”

That culture is the often unexpressed dynamics of a group. It is the values, traditions and expectations that are assumed and taken for granted in a congregation. It is how you are expected to behave, it is “the way we do things around here.”

That culture is the DNA of the church (or denomination), which is often set in its birth or shortly thereafter. It tends to reproduce itself in the people, and attracts others with similar cultural value.

For instance, when a church is formed by people leaving a denomination that has gone liberal, they tend to become very defensive. Some of us presbyterians call this the “Reformed fortress”. There is the continual fear that the denomination or congregation will go liberal. There is a suspicion of new methods or terminology (like missional and contextualization).

The problem is that culture is not the same as the aspirations of the group. Culture is what you actually do, how you actually live. It will sabotage the aspirations of culture change. Culture will dominate in times of stress and change.

That culture creation work rests on identifying the gaps between aspired values and actual behavior, and then working with the leaders to bring every aspect of the organization into alignment with the core ideology (core values, mission, primary strategy).

About 5 years ago I knew we needed to change some things, to change our culture. First, we thought and acted like a small church but we wanted to be bigger. We lived on the cheap, and waited until a deacon could get around to fixing something instead of calling a repairman. We loved each other and didn’t expect excellence because we didn’t want to hurt feelings. Second, we had lots of conflict and needed to change how we handled conflict so it was more godly. Third, I identified that we lacked new people joining us so we needed to become more outreach oriented. Fourth, we were struggling to find new leaders and needed to do a better job of discipleship.

Sounds like we didn’t do anything right. We did. I addressed these issues and plans to address them. We’ve been trying to implement them. But teaching people they need to be outward focused doesn’t change the fact they aren’t. They will act the same way until they are convinced that is the way to live.

In other words, I feel like I’ve been fighting the culture of our congregation for years. Man, am I tired. I was called by a search committee that wanted many of these changes. But not everyone shared that opinion. Even those who shared the aspiration often had difficulty changing behaviors.

This is actually pretty common.

The process of change is in being clear and over-communicating it. Someone complained that we’d been talking about reconciliation for 2 years. Yes, because we are trying to create a new culture and that takes time and communication. If we’d arrived, I’d stop talking about it. We were not yet of the same mind, as indicated by our behavior in the face of disagreement.

You also need to embody that change- personally implement it. In the Vine Project you are asked to personally change before you make recommendations about a culture of discipleship (another change we have been trying to make). They have resources for culture change on their website.

Also vital is love. They must know you love them. Just as marital love joyfully produces new life that has some combination of the DNA of the parents, you change the DNA through love. Love precedes the change you want to see.

We only love God because He first loved us. Loving God we want to please God and keep His commandments (in other words, change!). This brings us back to the gospel, though Bolsinger doesn’t explicitly go there.

Despite his reliance on general revelation over special revelation, I found much here that was helpful. Perhaps it was confirming what I’ve been doing. I’m open to that. I agree with his purpose, and think this is where many of us are whether we want to admit it or not. Many fight this process, because they don’t want to change to fulfill the mission Jesus has given us. As a result, some people will not appreciate this book. They want to preserve the status quo. But the world has changed. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun. However, in the west we are declining to a world more like the one the Apostles and early church encountered. They grew up in that world, we didn’t. Many of us don’t understand that world and don’t want to. That means, in part, that we don’t want to reach it. Understanding isn’t the same as affirming or accepting it. Bolsinger is pushing us to adapt to these societal changes.

We’ll see where he goes with all this in the days to come.

Considering Why We Hide


A small book deserves a small review. It shouldn’t be a measure of the value of the book. I just don’t want to replicate the book. And I read most of this before my sabbatical.

The small book in question is A Small Book About Why We Hide by Edward Welch. Yes, it is part of the Small Book series of which I’ve reviewed a few already. I really like this series. I really liked this book.

This book, following the format of the others, has 50 days of “devotionals” which are generally about 3-4 pages and conclude with some questions in Response.

The purpose of this book is found in the subtitle: How Jesus Rescues Us from Insecurity, Regret, Failure and Shame.

We all have voices that tell us we are never enough.”

All of us struggle with these things. Maybe you don’t struggle with insecurity but the others may apply. Because we are sinners who are still made in the image of God, our sins and failures fill us with regret, shame and disappointment. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to hide from God and one another. We wear masks, pretend, and make-believe.

That means people don’t know who we really are- or all of who we are. There are parts we cover up because of our shame. They are like our “unpresentable” parts. We keep them private, sometimes even from our most intimate relationships.

They increase our sense of alienation and isolation. “What if people knew?”

We can’t fix the past. We can’t fix ourselves. The focus is really on how Jesus rescues us through the gospel. It is about how Christ died to bring us back to God. The doctrine of justification, rooted in God’s mercy, enables us to own our sin, bad choices, regrets and more.

This book is largely a pressing of the gospel into the dark corners of our lives. This is why it is good to have short meditations. It can be difficult to think about your insecurities, regrets, failures and shame.

Marie was disappointed

The first part of the book covers Insecurities, the Fear of People, Regrets and Failure. In the course of this he speaks about God’s delight in us, the differences between feelings and faith (speaking truth to our feelings), that we need to love God more than people, and that we need to love people more than we need them.

He addresses the erosive power of disappointment. Anger fades, but disappointment often doesn’t. Welch notes that it is tough to shrug off because forgiveness doesn’t really address the sting. It is easy to transfer that sense of failure from the person in front of you to God.

The good news for us all is that God loves us more than we love Him. He addresses our sonship and our slave mentality. Our weaknesses are exposed, and God still loves us. He doesn’t want us to hide behind masks to guard our idols. He wants us to face them, offer them to Him, and worship Him as the One who rescues us.

Fear and anxiety express our frailty more than our sin.

He also addresses the problem of perfectionism in this context. It often feeds our fear and sense of failure. When we don’t measure up to our standards, we feel like we just plain don’t measure up. We need to see that Jesus alone is perfect, and that He perfectly fulfilled our responsibilities before God.

In bearing the curse for us, Jesus also suffered the rejection of others. Rejected by men, Jesus provides acceptance before God. God also uses our failures to instruct us in a way that success doesn’t allow.

The second part of the books is Shame, Worthlessness and Self-Loathing. It is more about who we view ourselves instead of what we have done. Our failures and sins leave us filled with shame, feeling worthless and often hating ourselves. This is, as he says, something dark. He spends plenty of time talking about Jesus as our High Priest who sacrifices Himself for us and continues to intercede for us.

Shame is the sense that you are the problem, that you are flawed, faulty and filthy. It is not being guilty. It isn’t doing something wrong but being something wrong. It arise from either sinning big or being sinned against. Especially when experiencing sexual trauma, we tend to think we are the problem, that we are worthless and disgusting. Treated like trash, we begin to feel like trash and think we are trash. Jesus alone can remove that feeling of shame that plagues so many of us. He needs to cleanse us and purify us. And He alone can.

Shame separates us from others, especially God’s community. Jesus comes to bring us back to God and God’s community. He lifts our shame by bearing it.

The book ends with Grafting Your Story into God’s Story. It is about seeing yourself as part of or within God’s story. Welch’s goal is essentially to be able to tell your story, identifying themes of fear, failure, shame or self-loathing and how Jesus has rescued you so you can live in a new identity as chosen and dearly loved. It is a form of testimony. We need to see that God’s Story is meant to inform and transform our story.

Welch provides another helpful book. It is bite-sized help. The answers aren’t easy or simplistic. There needs to be a frequent return to the balm of the gospel when these issues arise in our hearts. It would make a good gift to anyone you know who struggles with these issues, which is just about everyone.


We all seem to get blindsided at times. Life can run over us like a Mack truck without warning.

Carey Nieuwhof was coming off a career highlight when burnout devastated him for months. He never saw it coming.

This is what prompted Nieuwhof to write Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.

Who is Nieuwhof? At the time this was published, he was pastor of a large church near Toronto, Canada. It started as 3 really small and struggling churches. I’ve never heard of the church, Connexus, but that doesn’t surprise me. He notes that it is the largest church in his denomination but I can’t find the denominational info on their website. The statement of faith is very short. Interestingly, the only theologian I recall him mentioning is John Calvin. You wouldn’t guess that by a quick look at their beliefs.

This is to say I know nothing about him. The book is like his church, trying to be accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike. Faith is mentioned in the book. He is writing from an overtly Christian perspective. Yet not so much a focus that non-Christians are put off. This is a blessing and a curse. Your non-Christian friends will not be put off if you give them a copy. There is something akin to an altar call at the end, and some of this solutions refer to God. But the solutions, or paths to overcoming, are not really gospel-centered or oriented. He gets the diagnosis fairly accurate, but doesn’t always provide real medicine. It felt more like band-aids at points. He focuses on what I can do rather than what God has done, and is doing.

I’ve tried to strike a tone in this book that works for those who are skeptical of Christianity and for those who passionately follow Jesus. As a result, this book may end up not feeling Christian enough for those who are Christians and too Christian for those who aren’t. If that’s the case, I may have hit the mark.”

Why was I reading this book on sabbatical? First, I am on sabbatical and I’m in my 50’s. I’ve been struggling with a few of these challenges for the last 5-6 years. One of my wife’s friends mentioned the book to her, so she gave it to me as a Father’s Day gift.

The book has two chapters for each of the 7 challenges. The first speaks about the danger of the challenge and the second provides how to overcome the challenge.

The 7 challenges are: cynicism, compromise, disconnection, irrelevance, pride, burnout and emptiness.

(Image from the NY Times)

His introduction is called Surprise. None of us sets out to experience these challenges but they find us all the same, and in the unlikeliest of moments. He thinks there are warning signs to help us recognize they are on the way. In the first chapter of each section he will try to identify some warning signs. In this, the book is helpful.

Cynicism

Cynicism is the loss of hope. Most of us didn’t start out this way, or want to end up this way. But there we are- thinking the worst will always happen.

I was raised in New England in the 70’s and 80’s. I was raised on disappointment. The Celtics weren’t really big, though dominant, until the 80’s (or so I’m told). Boston was a baseball town, and the Red Sox always found a way to blow it. Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner. Ted Williams hurt in an exhibition game before the World Series. The list goes on. At this point the Patriots were a series of disappointments. The one time they made it to the Superbowl it was against the team I picked to win it all in preseason, da Bears! Same thing the next time, I knew before the season that the Packers would finally prevail.

Heart-break and disappointment take their toll. It isn’t just about sports but romance, lost jobs, friends who turn on you (or try to take your girl). Recessions. Energy crises. The inability of government to learn from the past.

Cynicism is an echo of Ecclesiastes: meaningless, meaningless everything is meaningless. Or futile, without effect. No matter what I do, nothing is going to change in ___________________. It could be work, parenting, or your marriage but cynicism is the loss of hope that God will work for good in your life.

He notes that you begin to project the past onto the future. “She rejected me” becomes women will reject me. You generalize and stop trusting, hoping and believing.

Early in my ministry in Tucson I returned from a few vacations to find new faces, particularly when we needed some new faces. Then began a string of vacations when I’d return to fewer faces. I began to dread vacations thinking that more people would look for a new church while I was away. You can imagine how I’m handling a sabbatical.

He then moves into practical ways to combat cynicism. He does point to the gospel (focusing on the resurrection here) to melt our cynicism.

Our hope isn’t based on an emotion or feeling. It lives in a person who beat death itself and who loves us deeply enough to literally go through hell to rescue us. So what were you discouraged about again? Because hope is anchored in resurrection, it is resilient.”

This is not intended to be an unqualified hope. It is only for those who believe Christ was raised from the dead, and for their salvation. While this is real cure I need to hear, he moves on to speak about curiosity. I guess he forgot that curiosity killed the cat. More seriously, it is a blessing and a curse. It really isn’t a cure unless it is accompanied by faith in the gospel of Jesus which is the real cure.

Compromise

He begins this chapter with talking about some experiences with guidance that he saw as part of his immaturity as a Christian. God gave clear, specific direction. He doesn’t see this as ordinary or to be expected. It doesn’t mean he is special (like Driscoll implied).

Compromise is a disconnect between who you are and who you know you should be. This means compromise is acting beneath yourself- in terms of who God calls us to be. It happens subtly most of the time. These tiny compromises that result in the ones that end marriages and careers.

In this he discusses the tension between competency and character. To do well you need both. All the character in the world won’t make you a good engineer, salesman, pastor, meteorologist or athlete. There needs to be competency. It is the lack of character that torpedoes your competency.

Some of the signs include a growing gap between the public and private life (are you two different people? hidden and secret sins?). You will begin to hide things, cover up. You won’t follow thru on commitments. You will begin to find ways to justify your bad actions and decisions instead of taking responsibility for them. All of this culminates in just about everything being about you.

Let’s be honest: character development is far more painful than skill development. Working on your character forces you to go into the crags and crevices of your heart. It encourages you to look at your past to forge a better future. It makes you look in the mirror.

He then shifts to deepening or developing your character. He rightfully notes that it happens in the midst of ordinary life, the choices we make each day.

He does offer a very basic gospel message and then brings us to the Sermon on the Mount. He then begins to address the process of sanctification. In many ways it is not a very “theological” approach. He begins with “take responsibility” which is a non-religious way of saying “repent” or “confess”. The next is easier said than done, as Paul addresses in Romans 7, “make your talk match your walk.” He talks about the problem of deceit here, because we are a society steeped in deceit. He notes a study indicating 60% of people like 2-3 times in a 10 minute discussion. He encourages you to “put yourself first when it comes to personal growth”. He briefly addresses the means of grace, personal devotions, where we can see who God is, and who He calls us to be and the grace He provides for us to get there. It isn’t about how much you know (though you need to know truth) but maturity is about love which we see clearly as the fruit of the Spirit.

Competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room.

Disconnection

People feel very alone. One day you wake up and realize that you feel really alone. Your best friends are scattered around the country and we are alone.

We are connected via social media, but struggle to spend time with people in person. We text, but struggle to talk to the person across the table from us. Just yesterday I watched two people at a table in a restaurant, each looking at their phones instead of talking to one another.

Solitude is a gift from God. Isolation is not- it’s a tool of the Enemy.

It is easy to blame technology, like social media. He notes that technology didn’t create this problem though it does amplify it. It is a problem of the heart with roots in Adam’s sin. Sin and shame cause us to put on fig leaves to cover up. We hide. Few people know the real us and we rightfully feel lonely.

Nieuwhof invites us to watch Little House on the Prairie. We’ll see that life was slower. No cars, or planes. No TVs or phones. No internet. There was more space for relationships as you worked together. And more space to get away from people (watch Jeremiah Johnson).

He notes two main symptoms or losses: the loss of conversation and confession. People struggle to carry conversations. People struggle to admit they were wrong. We are very much like the Fonz in this respect. We are disconnected from God (read Genesis 3) and one another (see Genesis 3 again).

He doesn’t settle for “ditch the phone”. He wants us to address the human problem, not simply the technological one. He discusses the reasons for actions versus explanations of action. The first is often a way to avoid responsibility. The second open us up to the possibility of transformation because we begin to understand ourselves and our motivations. He connects this back to curiosity. We can also begin to confess instead of making excuses.

I struggle to provide affirmation. Thankfully I married a woman who doesn’t require much affirmation. I didn’t receive affirmation as a child. I am still uncomfortable with receiving it, and are still learning to offer it. This is not an excuse, but a reality. It is a reality that doesn’t have to define my future. I have kids. They need affirmation. I’m learning to give it.

He invites us to take an interest in others. We value them and ask about them instead of just talking at them. We converse with them. But curiosity leads us to ask questions of them. While he doesn’t bring this up, valuing others and considering their interests reflects Paul’s instruction at the beginning of Philippians 2.

He does invite us to turn off the technology at times- like dinner time. He also invites us to slow down.

We recently drove across the country. We saw it from the car window. We were in a hurry to get where we wanted to be. We had 4 cats in our cars which is not conducive to stopping somewhere for a few hours to explore. While in my wife’s car there was lots of singing, in mine there were ear buds and video games as we shared space but not life. They failed to appreciate my play lists. All they got was a passing glance of the St. Louis Arch, which is disappointing.

A friend has a pontoon boat. He and two of his kids are taking it from West Virginia all the way to the Mississippi River and the gulf. It is not a speed boat (though he races cars). This is an adventure reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite the loud engine, they are on an adventure, not simply a trip, together.

Irrelevance

Most of us feel irrelevant, replaceable. We think we don’t matter. We are obscure and barely make a ripple in the pond.

We had a retired elder who used to ask me if I was getting any calls. He wondered if other churches had heard about me and were reaching out to offer me a better position. I reminded him, regularly, that I was pastor of a small church in the desert. The world doesn’t know I exist, or care that I do. No one was going to pick up the phone to pursue me. No one has.

Irrelevant people eventually lose the ability to communicate meaningfully with the people they care about and to contribute to causes they’re passionate about.

But he’s not talking about our place in the world. Our world changes so fast these days. You can’t keep up with technology. You can’t keep up with pop culture and the news. You slowly slide into irrelevance, losing influence among people.

He invites us into change: regular and radical change. I’m not sure this is the answer, or the best answer.

As a child I was getting a ride home from a basketball game with the parent of a teammate. He asked if I like BTO (Bachmann Turner Overdrive for those not in the know). I felt like an idiot because I didn’t know what he was talking about. I made a vow, so to speak, to be in the know. It’s tough being a know it all- you have to keep up. I eventually gave up. Seminary did me it. It was similar to being in a monastery in that I didn’t have cable, the internet was just for the occasional email and for extended periods of time I didn’t have a radio in my car. So much happened that I was unaware of. It was okay. I survived.

We do need to change. We need to adapt to changes around us. He tells the sad story of Kodak who invented digital photography but soon fell into irrelevance because they were married to developing photos instead of adapting to a society that shares photos digitally.

As a pastor, I need to know what is going on. In particular the questions, longings and commitments of the present, not the past. I have to understand in order to speak to our culture.

He addresses why we don’t change and then what change looks like. There is some discussion between the difference between mission and method. We are supposed to be married to the mission, not the method. The method is a way to fulfill the mission. We change methods to fulfill the mission as our world changes.

Instead of railing against the way things are, they leverage the past and present to make the future better.

Pride

“Pride is the mother of all sins.” The Devil’s Advocate quoting lots of theologians

Pride is like bad breath. It is easier to notice in others than yourself. Few of us realize how proud we are. It is why we are so obsessed with ourselves. When we don’t address our pride, it will destroy the relationships we value. It will drive division, greed, jealousy and strife. It will stifle kindness, compassion, patience and other virtues.

He posits pride in insecurity. Not buying it. It is about self-exaltation. It was one of the motives for Adam and Eve’s sin. Pride is the mother of many sins. It is an inflated sense of self and our importance, not a deflated sense. Here, I think he takes us in the wrong direction. We can have both pockets of insecurity and pockets of pride. I know I am insecure about some things, but prideful (at times) about others. I don’t agree that insecurity is the source of pride.

I began listening to one of his podcasts the other day and he made a comment about no books in the last 30 years on a subject that made me say, “Really? I can think of three books on that topic off the top of my head.” Another pastor commented to me that he has some “huh?” moments in most podcasts. There are some here, and this is one of them.

Yes, we compare ourselves to others but usually to people and in areas where we come out better. We can’t celebrate the successes of others because we think we would have done better. Insecure people push out other gifts people because they hate feeling like they don’t measure up. Pride doesn’t give them the opportunity as we cling to it all ourselves. Pride does make us controlling.

As he describes pride, he’s more on point. We do think we are better than others in some ways. We talk down to them and/or think little of them because of this. We are also judgmental, exerting moral superiority or a critical spirit. Pride leads us to be unaccountable to others. “Why should I be subject to THEM?” This will inevitably isolate us.

He then shifts to the habits of the humble. I’m not sure humility kills pride. Humility is the virtue opposite of the the vice called pride. He, in my opinion, misses the gospel opportunity. We can humble ourselves or be humbled by God. We usually don’t do the first until we’ve begun to experience the latter. Humiliation is out of our hands but in the providence of God is due to our circumstances, or at the hands of another. Humiliation is an act or process, not a state of mind. It is what happens to you, but it may not actually result in humility (thinking less of yourself and yourself less).

The gospel miss is that he ends this with being honest with God. This is the starting place! Recognizing He is the Creator and we the finite creature is the beginning of humility. Recognizing He is the Perfect God who saves flawed sinners like us is the beginning of humility. These are the grounds of humility. You can make yourself or save yourself. You can’t change yourself. Humble yourself and receive grace. What he describes as steps to humility are actually the fruits of humility.

As we see this, we begin to see the need for the gratitude Nieuwhof mentions. Gratitude is impossible with pride because I deserve these things I have. Humility sees that I don’t deserve them but have received them (He gives us the ability to work and earn, Dt. 8). When we are humble we will learn from others. Arrogant people refuse to learn, ask questions or ask for help because they think they know more or better than others.

We do need to honestly confess our pride to God. The Spirit teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness, like pride. So when the prideful thoughts emerge in my mind I think, “No!”. I refuse to entertain those vain thoughts, and confess them as my prideful heart speaking. It’s amazing how often we need to say “No!” to ourselves, which is humbling.

Burn Out

He describes burn out like falling off a cliff. You seem fine and then you are in free fall. It is complicated as the result of accumulated fatigue. No one thing does us in, and no one thing can be fixed. A river has many tributaries that feed it, and blocking one doesn’t stop the river from flowing.

The last 5 or so years have been very hard. Conflict, lack of growth despite hard work, family trials including the death of my mother after a long illness, my dog died, the reality of Covid shutdowns, anxiety and nonsensical mandates, decision fatigue, uncertainty, crazy election cycles, supply shortages, inflation …. Fatigue has accumulated for me, and just about everyone. There are no reserves left. People are burned out, traumatized and in free fall.

Burn out is more than fatigue. Work can tire you out but you are restored by a good night’s sleep. Burn out is more. It is joined by depression which lies to us about both the present and the future. Depressions lies can be deadly, and Nieuwhof admits hearing those lies. During Covid an number of pastors committed suicide. They listened to the dark lies of depression.

He doesn’t quite give the DSM definition of depression but hits the key observable issues: lack of passion/interest, diminished responses, relationships are draining, cynicism, dissatisfaction, lack of concentration. He misses being irritable. But we begin to self-medicate to take the pain away (that can take a variety of forms: alcohol, TV, video games, porn, food…). Ordinary sleep and rest don’t seem to recharge the battery (because you are over-drained).

He’s honest about his burnout in all of this, and speaks about how he addressed it. He needed the help of his wife, friends, fellow church leaders and more. Once again God is option 2, not 1. Perhaps I am nit picking, but He’s the only One who isn’t burned out these days. God should be our first refuge, but not our only one. Yes, we need to tell someone (especially if we are suicidal). It’s hard to tell people you are on empty because you generally can’t get off the treadmill anyway, just like George Jetson. This is hard for men because we are responsible for everyone else. I should have taken my sabbatical 7 years ago. While I’m thankful for the time I have, it isn’t nearly enough because I am that drained. Thankfully churches are beginning to stress the need for sabbaticals and put them into the official terms of a call to pastors and staff.

You do need a circle of people as well. I’m thankful for the groups I’m in as I seek better self-care. I’m developing more relationships with peers who get the realities of our vocation. I have breakfast each month with other pastors in my denomination. I’d been seeing a counselor. I’ve been sharing some of this with our elders.

My sabbatical was mostly about rest, not study. My reading was focused on feeding my soul. Or just plain fun. No deep theology. No leadership stuff until the 3rd month. I took hikes. Watched movies and series with the kids. Took daily walks with my wife. I told the elders not to tell me about stuff unless someone died or the building burned down.

He advises not making big decisions, like a job change, unless you are getting counsel from others aware of your situation. Take time to grieve, which is likely the hardest part for men. I can’t seem to cry when I should. It comes out when I shouldn’t and I have to press it down. Grieve the people who have died, moved or left in an angry huff. Grieve not only what you lost but what the church lost (in my context) and the family.

When we do take care of ourselves, our pace will be slower. We will stop expecting too much from ourselves. Hopefully people will “get it” and not expect you to continue doing 100-yard dashes. They may extend you the mercy they extend themselves. Or maybe they aren’t extending themselves any mercy.

Emptiness

After winning, I think, his third Superbowl Tom Brady wondered aloud “Is there all there is?”. Sadly, he decided it pretty much is and remains driven to win well into his 40’s and will 7 rings despite having a super-model wife and kids.

Most of us get there. We work hard and the trappings of our success, however small they may be, don’t satisfy. That’s because we weren’t made for them.

It isn’t just about money and luxuries. Nieuwhof talks about gaining power, knowledge and pleasure. They leave us empty as well. You might feel stuffed after an incredible meal, but give it a few hours and you will want more food. You may collect stamps, cars or music, but you will always want more shortly after your latest addition.

Food is the drug of choice for many Christians.

Idols demand from us but they cannot satisfy. They demand work and sacrifice. But the pay off, if there is one at all, is fleeting. Like addicts we begin the cycle yet again.

He points us to the Kingdom of God to supplant the kingdom of me. He doesn’t mention Thomas Chalmers but he is trying to offer the purifying power of a new affection to people.

Selfishness breaks up marriages, destroys relationships between parents and children, ruins friendships, and in the workplace makes you a leader no one wants to follow.

My niece worked at a Ben & Jerry’s this summer. I hadn’t had any of their ice cream in many years. On the wall were their mission statements. I’d think their mission statements were to make affordable and delicious ice cream I can afford. I am a fool. Their mission statements (yes, plural) are about human rights, economic justice and environmentalism (yet they still use milk which comes from cows which are the primary source of methane in the atmosphere). I’m just in there to buy ice cream on a hot day. My niece is there to get money for school, not “change the world.” It’s ice cream for the love of Pete!

But we do need to live for something more. They have given themselves to humanism and environmentalism as causes. They can’t satisfy for we can’t stamp out racism, classism, oppression etc. We can’t fix the environment. Going green has its own ways of devastating the environment, and it is really expensive.

The kingdom of God is the only cause that can satisfy. In the present God enables me to treat people with love and respect regardless of race, age, class or gender, to help those less fortunate than me, and to be wiser regarding stewardship of this world and its resources. But in the “not yet” of the kingdom, there will be sin no more. We will no longer pollute. There will be no decay and destruction. God will satisfy us with Himself.

Calvin Meets Hobbes

In his conclusion he turns to John Calvin, interestingly. He quotes from the Institutes: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” It took him a few pages to continue the quote to include that “without the knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”, but he got there. These bodies of knowledge are intertwined. The non-Christian will struggle to understand themselves unless they know God. The Christian will struggle to know God if they don’t know themselves, since we are made in God’s image.

Nieuwhof goes there to briefly discuss self-awareness as part of emotional intelligence. We impact others, and should be aware of that, and how we impact others. We should know our weaknesses and strengths. If we are self-aware, these challenges shouldn’t hit us out of the blue. We will recognize their approach and begin to address them.

My Conclusion

This is a very readable, approachable book. Since his audience isn’t necessarily religious or Christian, there is not too much. There is little to no religious jargon. He succeeds in his goal that is quoted above.

There is some Bible, but not much. This is mostly a general revelation book. I was surprised he mentioned Calvin because he really hadn’t mentioned any Christian leaders of the past. His mention of Andy Stanley scored no points in my book (gifted communicator who undermines people’s faith with some of his theological errors, in my opinion).

There is some gospel, but it doesn’t seem to be at the heart of the book though it is the ultimate answer for most of these challenges. As a result, I was a little frustrated just like he apparently wanted me. But I’m not sure why he didn’t want to consistently offer the best medicine for what ails people.

It was helpful. There are good things here. But I thought too much of the advice was disconnected from faith- and I guess I just see things differently than Carey in that regard.

I’m reminded of a review I wrote for the Newsboys’ Love, Liberty, Disco album for Christian Bookseller. The music was infectious as always. It sang of God’s love in a very generic way. Scripture consistently points us to the cross. There was little, to no, cross in that album and I said that. I’m not sure if they read the review, but there was more in the next album.

I guess that’s how I think about this book. I like it, but…