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Jesus said it, but we have a hard time believing it. Even as Christians we have a hard time believing many things Jesus says.

18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. John 15 (CSB)

14 I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. John 17 (CSB)

Too often we are surprised when we draw the ire of the world. It is happening again with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The arguments given were constitutional, not religious but conservative Christians, who have protested, lobbied and voted for year, are seen as the culprit.

Vandalism in Winter Haven, FL

The world hates us when we do not bend to their will. The world hates us when we stand with God against foolish and deadly notions. The world hates us because they hate God whose Word we are standing on in opposition to worldly foolishness.

God is the One who opens the womb of particular people so they are pregnant. He gives this gift even when we misuse the gift of sex (which He also invented). From our perspective pregnancy may be planned or unplanned, intentional or accidental, desired or undesirable. But from His perspective He ordained that particular sperm and egg to connect and form a new person. He knits us together in the womb, even with the flaws needed that we would seek and know Him.

God is the One who gives eternal life too, and that life is found only in His Son Jesus. I didn’t come up with this. But Jesus did say “no one comes to the Father except thru Me” (John 14). It angers people who want their own religion with the rules they like. It angers people who are under the delusion they are “good enough” without Jesus.

God is the One who made man male and female. He created two genders, not 3 or 40. He also bestowed a gender on each person. As part of the general curse due to Adam’s sin, some are born intersex. It isn’t punishment for their particular sins, or those of their parents. It is that Adam’s sin affected us physically as well as spiritually. This should cause us to call out to be made whole and right, not matter what genetic issues we have. But to affirm God’s creation regarding gender draws the hatred of the world.

God is the One who made marriage a permanent one flesh union between a man and a woman. He instituted marriage to be a picture of the union between Christ and the Church. It provides help for each partner, pleasure in knowing one another in many ways, and the best way to raise children produced by that union (or adoption).

The world hates that we affirm God’s plan for marriage. They reject God’s purposes for marriage (now it is self-actualization and lasts only as long as both parties want it to last. It also rejects God’s instruction on who can be married.

God is the One who gave us the gift of sex as a bonding agent for that permanent, one flesh union. Biologically, chemicals are released that bond you to the other person. It’s brain chemistry, put there by God. But the world works against God’s desire by making sex only about pleasure. We bond and break that bond eventually becoming unable to bond as intended.

In so doing, God prohibits many sexual practices the world embraces in increasing measure that corrupt sex and its purposes in God’s economy.

The world is in rebellion against its Creator. It wants to throws off what it perceives as chains but which really are bonds of love to protect us from ourselves. His law is a reflection of His character, which we as people made in His image were intended to share. People unknowingly become enslaved to sin, and the faulty thinking needed to justify it.

It should come as no surprise when they hate all who stand with God, and against them. We aren’t saying we are perfect. We break God’s law too! But Christianity includes the call to humble oneself to be instructed by God regarding good and evil, instead of seeking to know it apart from God as Adam and Eve tried to do. Christianity includes self-denial as we learn to submit to God instead of ourselves and our desires.

The world doesn’t understand when we forsake greed, drunkenness, deceit and cheating. The world hates us when we don’t join them in promoting all manner of sexual sins, abortion to cover the mess apart from repentance, and its growing confusion over what a person is.

Don’t be surprised. Don’t be disheartened. Don’t be dissuaded.

Remember that ultimately it is God they hate. Ultimately it is God who stands in the way of their “self-actualization”. It is God they are mad at, but we are present. They strike at us to strike Him. It isn’t about us. They want to crucify Him again.

Here are some more unpopular words of Jesus that clarify what is going on:

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14 How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. Matthew 7 (CSB)

Be careful which road you take. Friendship with the world is hatred of God (1 John 2). This refers to worldly values, not having friends who don’t share your values. We can and should love people who aren’t Christians. We just don’t want to share in their sin. But they may not love us back. Live at peace with them, seek to overcome evil with good. But also recognize you still need to be transformed in the renewing of your minds so you aren’t squeezed into the pattern of the world (Rom. 12).

Fear not, as they hated Him so they will hate you. Don’t hate them back! To borrow a title from a book, love them into the Light!


I first read The Bruised Reed at the end of 2007. Cornerstone Community Church had closed and I was reeling. Like Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ I found it a good balm to my soul.

It is 2022, and after 5 years of difficult ministry I find myself on sabbatical and turning again to Richard Sibbes and The Bruised Reed. My previous review was very short. Uncharacteristically short. This is probably reflective of the condition of my soul at the time. The book itself is short (my edition is 128 pages), and the 16 chapters aren’t long as a result. This makes for more meditative reading.

The book is Sibbes’ reflection on Isaiah 42 and the beginning of the Servant Psalms. Jesus would apply this to Himself and His ministry in Matthew 12. While the sentences are longer than usual today, Sibbes is one of the easier Puritans to read.

“This is my servant; I strengthen him,
this is my chosen one; I delight in him.
I have put my Spirit on him;
he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or shout
or make his voice heard in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed,
and he will not put out a smoldering wick;
he will faithfully bring justice. Isaiah 42

The Reed and the Bruising

Sibbes begins with Christ’s calling to provide the proper context for this passage and his book. He develops this in Trinitarian fashion to help us see that in Christ God is for us though we may be struggling with sin, temptation or affliction. In Christ we have a Mediator who gently carries out His ministry to the elect leading to their conversion, and afterwards.

Yes, we are often bruised and smoldering leading up to our conversion. And we are often bruised reeds and smoldering wicks after our conversion as well. To be bruised is to be in some misery: sin, temptation or affliction. To be smoldering is to be overcome with fears and doubts.

Jesus does not abandon us to our misery or our fears & doubts. Jesus does not destroy us, but gently ministers to us to restore us and reinvigorate faith.

Ministry is not easy. While a real sinner who really sins, some of the accusations made against me amaze me. Ministry can be undermined in the eyes of others, and yourself. Betrayal, fear of betrayal, loss of joy and so much more, can be overwhelming.

This is not simply true for pastors. Everyone experiences betrayal of various kinds. We all struggle with temptations that keep returning. We can doubt God could love such wicked failures such as ourselves. The ministry of Jesus matters. We will all find ourselves as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He doesn’t break us. He doesn’t put us out. He came to heal and restore.

Bruising humbles us and exalts Christ. At first we can be focused on our pain and fear. But the ministry of the gospel turns our eyes back to Jesus. We see our weakness and folly, and His greatness and mercy. We learn, as Sibbes says, that we are not oaks but reeds: fragile and weak.

Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed

Part of Jesus’ ministry to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks is interceding for them as their Great High Priest. He is the Great Physician who works to heal us. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah does not use His strength against us, but for us.

Sibbes applies this, encouraging us to seek God’s mercy for He shows Himself merciful in Christ. While Christ may wound, it is as a surgeon to restore health rather than to destroy us. These bruises are signs of His love, not His hatred. He bruises that we may see our sin and turn to Him for relief.

Jesus is making war on our sin and hard-heartedness. We need to remember that He was bruised for our transgressions. He creates a holy despair in us that only He can remove in His gospel.

“Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in some thing or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep.”

The Smoking Flax

He sounds like Newton (whom he predates)in briefly discussing the several stages in Christian experience. Grace often has small beginnings and we should not despise those small beginnings. Sibbes returns to humility and humbling ourselves.

Grace is mingled with corruption in our lives. Our corruption is not removed at conversion, but at glorification. Until then, the Christian experiences both grace and corruption. At times we are focused on God’s grace in our lives, and at other times our corruption. When we focus on the later we experience those doubts and fears characteristic of smoking flax. We think we have no grace, and no part in Christ.

Christ Will Not Quench the Smoking Flax

Sibbes uses a number of biblical illustrations to remind us that corruption does not erase grace. Jesus supports and cares for the smoking flax, or smouldering wick. He bears with the many imperfections of His saints. This is good news for us.

Here Sibbes reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 5, the text I may one day use for a DMin dissertation on the heart of pastoral ministry.

14 And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 1 Thessalonians 5

The smouldering wick is discouraged and weak. Such a person does not need warning or rebuke (the word for admonishment is used). We must be careful to address people properly. Jesus does this, and all things, perfectly. He comforts and helps as needed. He doesn’t rebuke the smoking flax.

“Where Christ shows his gracious power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are. .. Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which of so little reckoning with God.”

Jesus is so not like us!

Jesus uses timely words to make us better.

The Spirit of Mercy Should Move Us

His mercy leads us to repentance, according to Paul (and the Westminster Confession of Faith). True faith apprehends God’s mercy toward us displayed in Christ’s cross. Mercy draws us near to God. Mercy humbles us further.

Sibbes warns against taking up Satan’s ministry against yourself (or others, I add). To not use timely, appropriate words is to accuse the brethren or yourself instead of comforting and encouraging. Perhaps it has happened to you, it has happened to me. You are honest with another about your fear & doubts, and instead of praying with and for you they begin to accuse and chide. You plunge deeper into darkness because they hide the mercy of God from you, expressing judgment and condemnation.

We can take up these accusations ourselves. We can join the accusing chorus. Been there, done that. These accusations are like thorns in your side, growing infected.

We need to recall, as Sibbes reminds us, that the Church is a hospital. While we may not all suffer the same symptoms, we all have a spiritual disease.

Marks of the Smoking Flax

“Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on bitter things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them.”

Sibbes answers this with talk of the double transfer. The law breaks bruised reeds and quenches smoking flax, but the gospel protects and nourishes them. Sibbes speaks of the Spirit’s secret operations that we don’t recognize in the present, but which sustain us.

Here he discusses how to distinguish the presence of the heavenly fire (grace) and the carnal man who is lost in their sins.

Help for the Weak

He begins with the temptations that hinder receiving comfort from Christ. One is lacking assurance, forgetting that even our best actions continue to smell of smoke. Weakness of body can lead us to forget God’s grace. In a paragraph similar to William Still, he speaks as well of Satan’s attacks with out of character, and grievous, temptations. And there are the persistent temptations that arise from our sinful corruption. He reminds us that we can only see these sinful desires because we are in the light (partakers of grace), but we often think it means we have no grace.

The carnal man is not troubled by his corruption. Those who have received grace are troubled. They are humbled. They are in the place of grace. God is not opposing them, as they fear (1 Peter 5:5).

Sibbes encourages us to continue with duty despite our weakness and fear. God is not expecting us to wait for the “perfect moment” or full strength. We are to obey when the opportunity arises, rather than let our weakness win the day.

“Let us not be cruel to ourselves when Christ is thus gracious.”

He explores this more fully in Duties and Discouragements. He provides gospel advice for overcoming discouragements.

“Suffering beings discouragements, because of our impatience. … But if God brings us into the trial he will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross.”

In this he does address the problem of our sin which can rob us of a sense of our justification. Not our justification, but the sense or feeling we are justified. We continue to struggle with sin, of this Sibbes is clear. Such struggle is discouraging, but it is not a sign of gracelessness! He perfects His power in these weaknesses. He covers over our infirmities and the sins that flow from them. These struggles drives us deeper into Christ when we grasp the gospel. Satan is the one who whispers that we should hide or run from Christ for they are signs He is angry with us.

Believe Christ, Not Satan

Here is the call to believe Christ as His speaks in the gospel. To receive comfort and help, listen to Christ and stop listening to the Accuser. He speaks here of what Ferguson calls a legal spirit, which views God as hard and immovable. He speaks here of what Ortlund speaks of in Gentle and Lowly.

Jesus may seem to be our enemy, but only that He might show us greater mercy. Sibbes points to Joseph pretending to be his brothers’ adversary, knowing that he is and will be gracious to them.

“Satan, as he slanders Christ to us, so he slanders us to ourselves.”

Run, therefore, to Christ. Stop your ears lest you hear the satanic call and crash upon the rocks of law and condemnation instead of resting in the meadows of mercy and streams of grace Jesus provides.

Quench Not the Spirit

Sibbes speaks of both the false despair, and false hope, of Christ’s mercy. False despair forgets Christ’s mercy despite faith in Christ. At times it can resist His mercy, thinking oneself unworthy of it (which is the point). False hope presumes on His mercy without actually having faith in Christ.

He encourages us to make use of the ordinary means of grace, and believe the message of grace. He advocates communion or fellowship with other Christians, prayer, the preaching of the Word, and exercising grace.

“Infirmities are a ground of humility, not a plea for negligence, nor an encouragement to presumption.”

Pride leads people to despise these means of grace as mean. They are the means by which Christ descends to meet us in mercy.

The final section of the book addresses Christ’s victory through establishing His judgment in the heart. Sibbes brings out the establishment of Christ’s judgment. He will ultimately prevail over our corruptions. It begins by the judgment of sin in our hearts. We recognize our sin as sinful, repent and seek redress in Christ alone. The Spirit fights with the contrary desires of the flesh. The Spirit changes our desires over time. He also grants us holy affections.

His government in us is gentle as He brings us into submission. It is the resistant rebels that He will crush with His iron scepter. He gives “us grace to fight, and to subdue in some measure our base affections.” Christ’s pardon leads us to obedience. We receive not only justification but also sanctification from Christ (Calvin’s double grace). He gives us love for Himself to motivate and guide us. We serve voluntarily (Ps. 110).

Jesus also gives us wisdom. He provides the heavenly light we need. He governs us by this wisdom in our hearts.

In Grace Shall Reign he addresses why the enemy so often seems victorious. We overcome by suffering, not by avoiding suffering. It is Christ, whose pattern we follow, who triumphed over sin through suffering. God works “by contraries”. We are foiled that we may later overcome. Our roots grow deeper when shaken by the wind. Our weakness is revealed and we look to Christ for help. Grace, he notes, conquers us so that we then conquer our corruption by grace. Sibbes repeatedly reminds us that this victory is not easy nor early. He returns to the means of grace to sustain us in the battle against sin and corruption. But Christ shall triumph, publicly.

“We are reeds shaken with every wind. We shake at the very noise and thought of poverty, disgrace or losses. We give in immediately. We have no power over our eyes, tongues, thoughts or affections, but let sin pass in and out.”

Christ triumphs by exposing our weakness, revealing our dependence and coming as our strong support. Our victory comes through conflict. We should expect opposition. The flesh opposes the work of the Spirit. Each move toward holiness is opposed. Our victory comes only in Christ.

Yes, this book can feel a bit repetitive but sermons are frequently repetitive. Scripture often repeats the most important things. Sibbes follows suit. Sibbes also keeps bringing us back to Christ. This is why the Doctor found it so helpful. This is why The Bruised Reed is a balm to the soul. If you are in misery and tossed by doubts and fears, I’d suggest this book. One of my friends who’s a counselor recommends it often. This is helpful for better understanding how to minister to people as well- applying Christ’s ministry to them.


Like many churches, we struggled as a church in having people return to corporate worship. We were not exclusively doing live stream for long. We continue to live stream. Many of our people were back soon after we resumed corporate worship after about 6 weeks. Some stayed away for over a year. Then in July/August 2021 we had a number of members come down with Covid and resumed live stream only for 3 weeks so we wouldn’t spread it in our worship service. As a result, some of those same families stayed away for longer than the 3 weeks.

Like many other churches, we took advantage of Crossway’s offer of free copies of Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential by Collin Hansen & Johnathan Leeman. This book was prompted by the above problem, but seeks to speak more generally about the essential place of the church in our lives, and the importance of corporate worship (but not just that).

“Even before the threat of deadly contagion, the church looked increasingly strange in an age when neighbors rarely gather for things like intimate discussion, quiet learning, and enthusiastic singing-“

One issue they bring up in the introduction is the impact of social media. They note that we seemed to like each other more before social media became fashionable. We learned others have very strong opinions we disagreed with, and that made being together more difficult. We have struggled to learn to overlook and forgive. Too many have put these views over the mutual commitment to Christ and left for congregations of like-minded people. The bond of peace is not preserved by the Spirit and humility but broken by division.

For these reasons and more this is a needed book. They do say some very good things as they work through why and how the Church is essential. I appreciate the desire to be brief. I am more likely, however, to recommend Devoted to God’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson.

What Is a Church?

Leeman begins the book with a chapter on the Church. He begins with some autobiography. As a young man he benefited at times from the local church, but it wasn’t essential to him. He found himself at Capital Baptist which seemed quite counter-cultural to him, particularly in the area around the nation’s capital which is captivated by politics.

“… your understanding of what the church is will shape your life and your living.”

He discusses that the church is a gospel community (formed by and testifying to the gospel). This is much needed for the unbelieving world. They need to see transformed communities, not simply individuals, since they see communities divided by non-essential doctrines, Covid responses and politics.

This gospel community is a manifestation of God’s kingdom. We are God’s temple.

Returning to some biographical data, you see the interesting nature of their polity. He notes that the congregation voted to receive him as a member. As a pastor, I find it difficult at times despite our small size, to really know people to determine the authenticity of their profession of faith. Our Session (elders) approve or deny membership, not the congregation. My point? They voted for a guy that only a few people knew with any depth. This is important because he notes that he “had one foot in and one foot out for the first year.” He was struggling with being an autonomous individual, but God continued to work in him. The congregation didn’t know this, but voted him in.

Who Can Belong to a Church?

Collin Hansen addresses the issue of who can be a member. He brings is family background into this as well. His family expected you to go, but not participate wholeheartedly. His answer to the question that entitles this chapter is one you would expect from a Baptist: baptized Christians. He notes the differences in meaning between himself and paedobaptists like myself. There really isn’t any discussion of the difference between the visible and invisible church that structures this conversation. He puts off more discussion of baptism until later.

This discussion of a “regenerate church” however neglects (I think) that distinction between the visible/invisible church. Regeneration is essential to be part of the invisible church. We cannot, unfortunately, accurately discern regeneration in others so the visible church is populated by both the regenerate and some unregenerate people. We do try to discern whether people are making a “valid” or sufficient profession of faith. In all of this I wonder how much New Covenant Theology is influencing him without him explicitly stating it. It is good to lay your presuppositions on the table.

Calling people to faith in Christ is important- it’s the essential message of the church. While stating there is no intrinsic value to attending church, one should wonder how they will believe (ordinarily) if they stop attending? Yes, they could recall a message heard before, or talk with a friend who clarifies the gospel. There does seem to be a slight discounting of the ordinary means of grace.

Thor and Loki Don’t Always Get Along

In addition to receiving a new father in adoption, he stresses that we receive new siblings. Loving them, coming from such different backgrounds, can be even more difficult than loving natural siblings. But the gospel is there to help us forgive and cherish one another.

Do We Really Need to Gather?

Leeman takes the next chapter on the necessity of corporate worship. He notes the groups of people are powerful. We see this in protests and political rallies. They are important for “what that group becomes by gathering.” He’s getting at the idea that worship is formative, and we need to be formed into the likeness of Christ. One of the Father’s main means for this is corporate worship.

The church, or assembly, is the gathered people of God. The church can’t be a church if it doesn’t gather. One of the problems of the Mosaic Covenant seems to be the people were only required to gather for the set festivals. Worship was centered in the tabernacle and then the temple. Worship has been “de-centralized” in the New Covenant. It is about Christ, not a unique place, so we are able to gather regularly to worship. Weekly worship is the pattern established for our well-being.

“The point is that attending church is what Christians do. It demonstrates that the Spirit of Christ is in us, and therefore we desire to be with Christ’s people.”

Here he gets into the hurdle of Covid-19. Love and sin are intensely relational. To not gather is to miss the point of love. It is hard to love another apart from gathering together. As he notes, Christianity is “more than just an information transfer.” It is the relational application of that information by faith.

The Enlightenment fostered individualism, and America has put this problem on steroids. We struggle to recognize the corporate nature of Christianity, in part because of the grammar of English. We fail to see that many of the times Paul uses “you” it is plural. We reduce Christianity to me and Jesus as a result. Our gatherings are meant to be a prelude to the heavenly and eternal gathering.

Why Are Preaching and Teaching Central?

Some people wonder why the pastor gets to address them claiming to speak for God. The sermon should be driven by Scripture (understanding and applying it) so that we hear from God together. “We’re shaped together as a people there.” The Word is the basis and limit of a sermon. But it is the Word for the community, not simply for personal but corporate application.

We are to listen, examine, believe and apply what is true. Disciples of Christ, we also begin to teach or disciple others. We counsel, encourage and instruct in a more specific way, applying the general messages we’ve heard to more particular circumstances.

You can find excellent expositors online. But they won’t sit down over a meal or drink with you to talk it through. This is the value of the ordinary preacher in an ordinary church. He should be faithful. But he should also be available. Over time you are shaped by the people you listen to: so character, not simply skill, matters.

Is Joining Actually Necessary?

Leeman begins with the experience of needing to visit an embassy while traveling overseas because his passport expired. He didn’t become a citizen because he was there, but received access to his rights as a citizen there.

Church membership is about being recognized as a citizen of heaven and receiving the earthly benefits you are entitled to. You don’t have that when you don’t join a church. Or at least all of them. Churches don’t “make” you Christians, but are called to recognize you as Christians based on evidence of the Spirit’s work.

This brings him to the “keys of the church” and ordinances (what many of us call sacraments). Baptism is about entrance into the church (though we disagree on whether or not children should be baptized since disagree on the nature of the sign and seal), and the Table is about remaining in the church. It is an opportunity to reaffirm that we need Jesus and He owns us.

Membership is about our commitment to one another because of our commitment to Christ. One issue I had here was in the sentence “I’m asking them to take responsibility for my Christian walk.” Perhaps it is semantics, but I can say “share responsibility”. It isn’t the church’s fault that I go astray unless they neglect their responsibilities.

“Church membership offers the safety of the sheep pen, where Christ is shepherd.”

You can be saved apart from church membership. But it is important for growth and maturity. We need others, and they need us, to grow. So membership is more than a status. Like citizenship it comes with rights AND responsibilities. The first denomination I was in stressed the latter, while the current one stresses the former. Our consumer mindset focuses on rights not responsibilities. When those “needs” are not being met, people forsake their responsibilities and vows made. We need to keep both in view.

Is Church Discipline Really Loving?

What happens when we violate our vows? Churches are supposed to exercise discipline on members who refuse to repent of false doctrine or sinful living. It is an attempt to protect the glory of Christ by protecting the body from sin, and seeking to restore the sinner. The church, and its leaders, are to instruct and correct.

When we put someone out of communion, we are declaring that they are unrepentant and in danger of condemnation. That person is not “shunned”, but are free to attend worship but not free to take the Table. In extreme cases, like abuse, they may be prohibited from attending a particular church.

Where there is mercy and forgiveness people are encouraged to repent. Where there is a harsh, unbending culture, people usually hide their sin. People can quickly tell if their church is a safe place to struggle with sin or if they need to pretend.

While we do not judge the person (“they are going to hell”) we do judge actions as right or wrong, sinful or righteous. It is unloving to allow a person to go down the wrong road. Love warns of danger, and that is what discipline is intended to do. In the church, the mob doesn’t rule. The law of God reveals sin that needs to be confessed.

How Do I Love Members that Are Different?

This is one of the best and most important chapters of the book. Particularly in our day. The early church dealt with conflict between ethnic groups, social classes and genders, just like we do. As a new humanity made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nationality; of men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, young and old there are many differences in priorities, preferences, and personalities.

Part of the problem is that people like to be around people just like them: affinity groups. Like hangs with like. Some people try to build churches on this principle (homogeneous church plants). Churches that had diversity moving into 2016 have been torn by social factors as people seek others who see the world like they do. Collin Hansen reminds us that “we need to rediscover the church as the fellowship of differents.” Affinity isn’t the same as love. Love also embraces differences rather than clinging to similarities.

He looks at the diverse group of people Jesus gathered as the inner circle of disciples: fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot. There were probably some interesting debates around that table during dinner. Jesus also attracted a variety of “sinners”.

“These tax collectors and sinners would not have shared fellowship apart from Jesus. They did not have much in common, except the rejection of the Pharisees.”

In our culture we are often encouraged to celebrate diversity in a way that prioritizes “differences in ethnicity, nationality, gender, and, increasingly, sexual orientation.” Those who don’t quite fit the diversity or prioritize it are then excluded. In some cultures (or subcultures) they celebrate uniformity. You see this in nations with one political party, caste systems or a national religion that tolerates no rivals. In both cases, Hansen notes, community is built by exclusion. They tolerate only certain kinds of differences.

The Church is intended to be a wide variety of people united in Christ. He is the unifying factor: not race, class, gender, political views or sports allegiances. Jesus invites us into the discomfort of disagreement. The Church is meant to be filled with people who don’t normally associate together. This is one reason why the Church was seen as threatening to Rome. It subverted a culture founded on social power/class.

“Politics and pandemic have stressed many congregations past the breaking point. It might be easier to look for a church where everyone thinks, votes and sins the same way you do. It’s better for your spiritual growth, however, to hunker down in a fellowship of differents.

How Do We Love Outsiders?

Having discussed our need to love one another, Hansen shifts to the love of the outsider or non-Christian. He gets into how churches view their relationship to unbelievers. Some see corporate worship for evangelism. This did not originate with Bill Hybels. The Southern Baptist church seems to be the original seeker sensitive church. Sunday night was for discipleship, and when the Table is often celebrated. Some use a missional model where the church prepares people to reach out by meeting tangible needs. In many Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the focus is on healing, making life better. The last general category he lists is the church as a dispensary of grace. This could be in the Roman Catholic model of dispensing grace through sacraments. In Reformed circles it is dispensed by the gospel preached and believed.

He shifts to the Great Commission. I am NOT disagreeing with the Great Commission, but how he interprets the great commissions. The main verb in this sentence is to “make disciples” (we agree that we aren’t just making “believers”). The two participles explain what it looks like: baptizing them and teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded.

The reason the disciples baptized new believers is that they were new disciples. Baptism is the beginning of discipleship. He focuses on “new believers”, ignoring the missionary context of those baptisms in Acts.

We do agree that the task of the church is making disciples. We are to relate to them as people needing to be discipled in Christ instead of worldliness. We need to realize that the world is constantly discipling people. Leeman notes that “it takes twice the amount of time to make the same amount of progress in discipleship today as a decade ago.” This, despite the greater access to sermons, podcasts, blogs and books. We need more in-person discipleship.

Who Leads?

Leeman addresses church leadership in the next chapter. The last few years have eroded trust in leaders as many feel the weight of conflicting messages, false news, overreach and more. One thing he mentions to help rebuild trust is to be clear about the pastor’s job description. He focuses on the pastor’s role of building people up and equipping them to fulfill their job description. He puts it this way:

Elders’ job + members’ job = Jesus’s discipleship program

Equipping the people includes teaching and providing a godly example. One man can’t do all of this, and he points to the plurality of elders that is part of a healthy, biblical church. The non-vocational elders provide examples of faith in the workplace and retirement. They provide examples of mature men and the office is open to other men who mature.

When trustworthy men are chosen, the people still need to be willing to trust. The message of questioning or resisting is a big part of our society, and this ungodly attitude has infected the church. Trust is important for the well-being of a congregation, and the time apart due to Covid, and choices made in crises, have eroded trust. When a coach loses a locker room, it is pretty much over for him. Pastors and elders can work together to win the congregation back.

“Trust is the oil that allows the engine of Jesus’s discipleship program to operate. Without it, gears grind to a halt. … A church that cannot gather and that has low reserves of trust is like a car with an engine that is running low on oil.”

Leaders, good ones who follow Jesus’ plan, are calling people to grow and change. People shouldn’t look for a church that simply affirms them and their beliefs. In the midst of that, conflict is bound to happen. Leeman suggests that at times parting ways can be good, if people realize they may be part of the problem and the instruction of others may help them grow and reconcile. They don’t have to be under your leadership, but they should be under someone’s who they will listen to.

He then gets to the role of deacons. They aren’t comparable to the elders. Their role is different. It is important to care for the physical needs too. Lack of care there also leads to disunity, as the early church learned in Acts 6. Deacons provide an example of faithful service to God’s people.

Conclusion

They share two stories of real people. The first couple are former missionaries who are struggling in their marriage. No one at their big church knows. They are not connected. They think they are mature, but instead they are proud.

They may need to move closer to they can be involved: be known and know others.

Jazmine was sexually abused by a stepfather, and then in foster homes. Her marriage was difficult as she found it difficult to trust. She did seek help from her church. She grew and her marriage got better. She invested herself in her church, unlike the first couple.

We have to engage, not just expect.

They don’t encourage you to shop for a better church, but invest in the one you are in (unless it is abusive or heretical). The drift likely began before the pandemic or partisanship. It likely began as you withdrew. People are generally, due to the flesh, looking not for how they can serve but get their needs met. This means that “loyalty lasts only so long as the church continues to meet your needs.” Jesus talked about self-denial, not self-fulfillment. Self-denial, humility and considering the interests of others foster unity and growth. Just show up. Just get to know people and serve them (and allow them to serve you). Church will become more of what you need.

“You don’t get the church you want, but something better.”

As I noted early on, this is a good book. It says a number of good and important things. There are some theological presuppositions that should have been expressed. Those presuppositions may drive some of the disagreements (minor) I have with the book.

I hope it fulfills the goals of the authors. I hope that it motivates people to return to church, and invest in that church. It is good as far as it goes. I just wish it went further.


You saw the title of this post, and likely wondered, “what in the world is the Dorean Principle?”. I wondered what the principle was as well.

A clue comes in the subtitle to Conley Owens’ book: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity.

Owens is concerned about commercialization raises some valid questions and concerns. It just took me awhile as I read it to get a clearer picture of what those concerns were. Perhaps the Introduction threw me off.

“Christian book sales climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Parachurch ministries amass sizable revenues, with organizations like Cru surpassing $600 million. Seminaries collect tuition upwards of $60,000 for a standard degree, with loan payments leaving many pastors financially shackled for years. … Certainly, money fuels the work of ministry, and the worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim. 5:18), but at what point does the financial enterprise go to far?” (pp. 1)

There is some sense in which tossing Cru in there throws us off the scent of the real problem he’s raising. Most of what Cru does seems to follow the Dorean Principle. At least as I understand his explanation of the principle. I will get back to Cru later.

Cutting to the chase: I think he raises some valuable questions that need to be thought through but I’m not convinced by all of his arguments nor share all his conclusions. It is a book, and subject, worth wrestling with. There are some exegetical issues as well as concerns for application.

The Dorean Principle

The principle is basically the difference between reciprocity and co-labor. Reciprocity is defined as paying money to gain access to the gospel via preaching. Paul, for instance, refused to receive payment from the Corinthians while the “super-apostles” requested payment from them. Paul viewed them as “selling the gospel”.

Co-labor is when you receive money from Christians to make the gospel available to other people. It is not fee for services. It is funding the effort to reach other people.

“The apostle never receives money from those he is converting. However, as we have already noted, Paul willingly receives money from his churches when the context does not indicate that they intend to repay him for his ministry or for their conversion.” pp. 76

The Dorean Principle: In the context of gospel proclamation, accepting support as anything other than an act of colabor compromises the sincerity of ministry.” pp. 10

Exegetical Questions

Owens explores a number of passages in a number of chapters to make his point. These include a number of tensions he uncovers that continue to flesh out his principle (immediacy vs. indirection, difficulty vs. obligation, freedom vs. duty etc.). What was interesting to me was that he waited until page 104 to “define the gospel”.

At times I struggled with aspects of his exegetical foundation. For instance, Jesus’ instruction to the disciples He sent was prescriptive for them, but was it meant to be prescriptive for all to follow, and for every trip? Does it hold for those who are evangelizing, or those engaging in any type of gospel ministry?

I see this issue in a number of texts he used. They were in the context of missions and evangelism (this is the same issue with many NT accounts of baptism) but are extended beyond that context to fit all. Proper hermeneutical principles keep the context in mind so you don’t arrive at faulty conclusions and applications.

He spends time in Corinthians. Paul was planting a church in Corinth, and chose not to receive any money from them like many of the rhetorical teachers of his day. Yes, Paul did not want money to come between the Corinthians and the gospel. That is a good principle. It is a more defensible position than never receiving money from those you currently serve. Later he will discuss why pastors will be able to receive money from congregations but it seems like looking for loopholes to me. But I get ahead of myself.

If I buy a book by Sinclair Ferguson, it is a form of gospel ministry to me. But I am buying the book because I am already a Christian. I am not being kept from hearing the gospel for my conversion if I don’t have the money to buy it. As a Christian (and pastor) I may buy a copy and give it away to unbelieving friends. Money is not necessarily keeping them from hearing the gospel. I’m not convinced that Sinclair Ferguson is being insincere (a term he uses for the ministry of the super-apostles) in his ministry because his books are sold. I don’t view this a peddling the word of God. I see it as recognizing that he worked hard, and publishing the book costs money for all the people who worked on it as well as the materials involved. I think he’s worthy of his wages. I am free to buy or not buy the book.

In his chapter The Greed of Wolves Owens makes greed co-terminus with false teacher. I “wrongly” hold to the typical view which sees overlap between greed and false teachers as the Bible uses the term (pp. 64). Some false teachers, for instance, distort the gospel to present a different gospel because of the fear of man (see Galatians 1). It isn’t about money. The Pharisees were condemned not only for their greed, but also their false conception of grace (merited by works), exalting their tradition over God’s law and more. In one of the texts he uses they seek pride of place/position but that is glossed over.

Those who seek to get rich off the gospel (a right gospel but greedy heart) are to distinguished from those preach a false gospel “sincerely”, and those who preach a false gospel to get rich. I find more categories at work than Owens appears to since the human heart is deceptive and complex. This is an example, however, of the black and white, either/or, thinking in this book that ignores the reality of both/and and that people have mixed motives and fall prey to the deceitfulness of sin. For instance, “pragmatism” can sometimes be prudence rather than doing something just because it works.

Applying the Principle

What Owens is grappling with is the difficulty of living in a world not imagined by the human authors of the Bible and that the divine Author didn’t reveal to them. It makes application of a first century principle difficult at points. He tries to work through some of these issues, but I found his applications quite literal. He seems to stick to the letter of the principle rather than the spirit of the principle.

Church members, for instance, give to the church because they support its ministry. Part of that money may go to the pastor (and staff), but it is indirect, is not compulsory, and also supports those ministries from which the person gets no benefit. Designated giving to only ministries you directly benefit from would be reciprocity. In my opinion, designated giving should be reserved for mercy (we have a deacons’ fund) or projects. The pastor should not receive money directly from congregants each Sunday. They are giving to the church, not simply the pastor.

Churches should avoid fee for services when it comes to aspects of gospel ministry: funerals, baptisms, weddings etc. He approves honorariums since they are neither required nor set fees. Personally, I don’t talk about money for those ministry opportunities. I see them as gospel opportunities. I’m not doing them “for the money”.

As an example of selling the gospel, he mentions that Redeemer charges $1,600 for the entire archive of Tim Keller’s sermons. Since they are now digitized, I agree that this seems a bit much. Many of his sermons are offered freely, which he doesn’t mention. It would seem better to offer all of them freely since there really isn’t an expense to digitized copies, unlike the printed collections of sermons sold in Spurgeon’s days and that you can get today as well.

When I was converted there were cassette tapes (most churches had a tape ministry and asked for money to cover costs), and Ligonier (among others) used VHS. By the time I worked for Ligonier they were beginning to use CDs and DVDs as the tapes were phasing out. Now CDs and DVDs are phasing out for digital downloads. Ministry is slow to catch up with technology. And we are slower to ask the questions we need to ask. A ministry like Ligonier does need to pay the people who work there to plan conferences, publish Tabletalk, produce the radio show etc. In addition to fundraising (co-labor!) there is a cost for products. Again, I’m not convinced this is peddling the gospel.

Cru may have revenue of millions of dollars, but that is not from selling the gospel. That is primarily a result of campus workers and office workers raising support to do their gospel work. This is co-labor. They aren’t charging students money. When I was a student, I took part in a volleyball fundraiser to send students to conferences. More co-labor. I didn’t pay for the conference I attended.

Cru HQ

The sheer size of Cru and its administration creates that big number. A question he doesn’t ask but perhaps should is about the size of parachurch ministries that are not under any ecclesiastical authority. He does note a number of issues with parachurch ministries in the 12th chapter. They are outside of the regulation of the church, though they often have boards rather than elders. In this chapter he fails to distinguish the raising of funds for the poor in Jerusalem from ordinary giving (1 Cor. 16:1-2).

He brings up some churches that charge money to attend special services. Or receive services like counseling (I’m not sure I’d consider that peddling the gospel though not disconnected from the gospel). Self-publishing and digitized books can greatly reduce costs and make it easier to not charge people for copies. I, however, don’t like digitized book since I write in books. Not all royalties go to the author, however. I was looking at a commentary and all the royalties for the series go to the Langham Partnership established by John Stott.

Some congregations support “artists or scholars in residence” (for instance Gary Thomas, Matt Papa among others). They are supported, at least in part, by the congregation to enable them to produce books and music for the benefit of the church and Church.

Owens, on page 110, does acknowledge that some who adopt “compromised practices” are true teachers. He finds it unwise and unnecessary to boycott true teachers who have such compromised practices. He was unclear about whether or not he support circumventing paywall. He quotes Jesus in Mt. 17:25-27 regarding the temple tax as nuanced. “However, for the sake of peace, it is often best to bear such burdens” doesn’t seem like a clear call to avoid illicit (illegal) downloads.

He addresses the growth of crowdfunding. When there are perks at donation levels, Owens is uncomfortable with the move toward reciprocity. He also addresses seminaries and issues regarding copyrights.

There are some interesting ideas here. Richard Pratt, for instance, has long been critical of the common seminary model. Third Millennium raises support to fund education for people in other countries without access to seminaries.

What makes me uncomfortable, however, is over-analysis, or perhaps I should say straining after gnats. It is easy to become legalistic and Pharisaical in trying to avoid commercialism of the gospel. There can be a fine line between wisdom and being over-scrupulous. I’m not sure where that is and if Owens crossed it.

For example, they talk about conferences like the recent Together for the Gospel. Sub in Ligonier, Catalyst, Gospel Coalition or any number of them. Tickets, according to the Dorean Principle should reflect only expenses incurred to have the conference, not to cover fees for speakers (or honorariums). I’m not sure why this is a problem since it is an indirect payment, made to (presumably) sincere people and it is not mandatory since I don’t need to go to hear the gospel. It seems to be focused on practices instead of people (are they greedy and asking for too much compensation, are they teaching false doctrine- the questions that have to do with character and qualifications for office). Instead we are looking at business practices because, unfortunately, there are commercial realities in life under the sun.

The book has merit, but I don’t’t buy it hook, line and sinker. It is clear that the church needs to think more about the impact of money on ministry and ministry models. This is a first step. Hopefully it won’t be the last. I just don’t want us to spend so much time on this that we aren’t actually communicating the gospel.

BTW: Conley Owens sent me a free copy of the book for me to review. It is offered free for Kindle on Amazon and you can get a free pdf download on the website so he’s putting his convictions into practice.


The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes the work of the priest this way:

Question 25: How does Christ execute the office of a priest?
Answer: Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

In my Maundy Thursday Service, I preached from Romans 8 on Christ’s priestly sacrifice on the cross.


For Palm Sunday we looked at Psalm 110, the great revelation of Jesus as David’s Lord and a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

The sermon begins around the 17 minute mark.

Thursday and Sunday we’ll look at the work of Jesus as priest in Romans 8:31-39.


Our March memorization “verse” is Colossians 3:12-13. I want to spend some time talking through it. Here it is:

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. ESV

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. CSB

I want us to think about the gospel logic (Sinclair Ferguson’s term) of this passage so that we’ll understand both the gospel doctrine found here, and the gospel culture it encourages if we live out the doctrine. As John Frame says, we don’t really understand a text until we apply it. This text has clear and vital application for every church, not just the one Paul wrote to.

Gospel logic is the pattern of gospel indicatives (facts) which produce gospel imperatives (commands). The former are the gospel doctrines and the latter gospel culture (Ray Ortlund Jr. uses these terms). We have to get the pattern correct or we lapse into legalism or liberalism. Facts and doctrine must precede commands and culture. If you stop at the doctrine you can become lax, antinomian. Faith is reduced to right thinking (orthodoxy). We can fall into the trap that discipleship is about information transfer.

That is necessary in discipleship, but insufficient. There must be a resulting right living (orthopraxy). If we try to live right without right doctrine, we fall into legalism (focused on personal morality) or liberalism (focused on being kind or just). The gospel of Christ’s message of salvation as our Prophet, His saving works as our Priest, and reign as our King is the foundation of Christian living.

Gospel Indicatives

The CSB indicates this with the “Therefore” at the beginning of verse 12. The ESV implies it, but begins with the gospel imperative. Either way you want to translate it, Paul’s mind is indicating that what he’s about to say is to be understood and applied on the basis of this great salvation from sin that he’s been writing about in chapters 1 and 2. Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (not simply tabernacle) has made atonement for us and our sin on the cross, triumphing over His enemies (and ours) and has given us His Spirit as part of His rule. He has freed us from human regulations, angelic mediators and ascesticism.

The explicit gospel indicative here is we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved”. You are a recipient of this salvation because God chose you. It may look and feel like you chose God, but behind that He first chose you like He first loved you. You are secure, you are holy or set apart on account of His choice of you.

The doctrine of election is humbling, but it is not meant to be cold and sterile. Love is at the root of it. We see this in Ephesians 1 as well. We were chosen in love, and we were chosen in Christ. Rightly understood, election flows from His inexplicable love for us despite our profound sinfulness, and involves Him placing us “in Christ”. He chooses to unite us to Christ so we receive the benefits of His death and resurrection, as well as His obedience in our place.

We received a gospel identity. A freely given identity based on Christ’s record and not our own. Our minds need to be renewed so that we see ourselves this way with increasing regularity. We are not to view ourselves as the old man in Adam, but as the new creation in Christ.

We are also to see our brothers and sisters in Christ that way too. We need to stop viewing one another according to the flesh, but according to our gospel identity. We are to see those annoying, off-putting, sinful and boring people at church as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” God has invested them, just as much as us, with this gospel identity. This gospel doctrine should produce a gospel culture where people are prized because of Jesus rather than kept at arm’s length because of themselves.

Gospel Imperatives

Now comes the commands, beginning with “put on”. In light of God’s grace they were to change their clothes (a common use for the verbs in this section). They were told to put off the way of life (sin) of the old man (Adam). But we are not to be naked or “innocent”. We are to put on the new life of Christ. We are, literally, putting on Christ (Rom. 13), clothing ourselves in Him. “(C)ompassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” are among the communicable attributes (character traits) of Jesus. This was who He was as a person. As we are renewed in His image, we increasingly share these character traits. We see our responsibility in the command to these on like we’d put on our pants, shirt, socks and shoes.

These are also among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5), so the Spirit is producing Christ in us. It is not all us. But when we keep in step (follow) with the Spirit we put off sin and become more like Christ. It isn’t about guidance in the various decisions of life but the mortification of sin and bringing to life (vivification) of godliness. Become personally what you have been declared to be positionally in Christ. Become who you are!

A gospel culture will be marked by these character traits. Our churches are meant to be full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience toward one another. This should be the standard operating procedure, the atmosphere in which we live and move as a community. This is what the gospel alone can produce, and its presence is meant to be essential to evangelism. Where they are lacking, so will conversions. When we are not much like Jesus we won’t attract people. Worldliness on our part repels people.

We are all to be growing in these things. None of us is perfect. There are issues of personality differences, personal and corporate sin, differences in preferences and more that make these necessary but also difficult. Living together can be hard.

Paul applies all this further: bearing with one another and if one has a grievance forgiving one another. Bearing with others faults and weaknesses, forgiving their sins. Gospel culture is one where we bear and forgive. We are not to be fault-finding, bitter and holding grudges until so-and-so gets their act together.

“How can I forgive them? Do you understand how they’ve hurt me?” Paul reminds us of God’s forgiveness of us in Christ. We have been profoundly forgiven in Christ, and in Christ we are to profoundly forgive. We do need to remember that the atonement for their sins against us in Christ’s atonement. They don’t need to make atonement- Christ already has!

Too often churches can be like my house, particularly the cats. The amount of hissing has increased dramatically. I’m not sure why, but they hiss at each other which communicates “don’t too close right now.” Congregations can send the same vibes, holding one another at arm’s length. The root is frustration with the weakness and sins of another. The surface sins would be avoidance, critical spirits, complaining, entitlement (I should get MY way and not consider your interests). These kill community. They are anti-gospel.

When the culture of a congregation falls into these sinful patterns members leave and visitors don’t come back. People hear the criticism, pride, condemnation and more in the comments before and after worship and in fellowship gatherings. They don’t want to hang out together because too many are nullifying the gospel by their actions and attitude. They hold to gospel doctrine, but aren’t practicing gospel culture.

We have to return to gospel doctrine to restore gospel culture. You are chosen by God, holy and dearly loved, therefore live in keeping with these God-given realities. Let your gentleness be evident to everyone, grow in humility, kindness and patience with one another. This will show itself in bearing with one another in an awareness of your weaknesses and foibles not just theirs, and forgiving one another in an awareness of God’s mercy in forgiving your sins. His grace is sufficient!


Theological and practical differences are an ever-present reality in this fallen world. It can be difficult, at times, to decide which battles to fight and which ones to extend charity toward those with whom we differ.

Gavin Ortlund develops this question in Finding the Right Hills to Die On. He builds on Al Mohler’s article on theological triage. He produces, in my mind, a helpful book that pastors and elders should consider. Many others should too because this is not simply an issue for church leaders, but often people break friendships and leave churches over differences that really shouldn’t matter.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but at lunch today with other pastors, one shared what happened when he left Independent Fundamentalist circles. People broke fellowship not because he denied the faith, but no longer accepted their doctrine of separation and cultural applications. For instance, one person is no longer his friend because his wife will sometimes wear pants. This was a man’s hill to die on.

The book begins with a forward by D.A. Carson who summarizes Ortlund’s approach. Ortlund advocates for four tiers of triage: doctrines essential to the gospel; doctrines urgent for the health and practice of the church which may divide denominations; doctrines important for one branch of theology that shouldn’t lead to separation; doctrines unimportant to gospel witness and collaboration. He notes that Paul designated some doctrines as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and allows for differences of opinion (Rom. 14:5). All Christians were to accept the first, and all were to forebear over differences in the latter.

In the introduction, Ortlund develops the idea of triage. It “is essentially a system of prioritization.” Doctors do use it all the time to determine which patients should be treated first. In terms of theology, not all hills are worth dying on. We often have an implicit system of triage, but Ortlund encourages us to make it explicit. In terms of quick examples he gives the trinity as a first rank doctrine, baptism is second rank, the millennium is third rank and the last includes the “adiaphora” or things indifferent, like musical style.

He wants us to pursue unity in Christ’s body. This process can help us know what “partnerships and alliances” are suitable among denominations and networks, or between churches and parachurch organizations. He wants us to consider the best attitudes and types of speech is more appropriate based on these differences. He wants us to consider what it looks like to handle these differences with integrity and transparency. These are the practical implications of doing theological triage.

The Danger of Doctrinal Sectarianism

I blogged on this chapter individually in light of some controversy in my denomination (PCA). It will not repeat what I have said aside from noting is that this view thinks most differences are worth division. All or most hills are worth dying on.

In a recent online discussion, someone mentioned that we have the Westminster Standards. While these are the doctrinal standards of our denomination (and many others) not all chapters are of equal weight. Disagreeing with the doctrine of the Trinity means you are likely not a Christian. Disagreeing with the doctrine of election means you should likely be in a different denomination. Disagreeing with the Standards on divorce shouldn’t affect membership, and the whether or not to sing contemporary songs is not something to break fellowship over. Songs that teach heresy? You address them.

The Danger of Doctrinal Minimalism

The opposite error is to fight over little or nothing. There is seemingly no hill worth dying on. He quotes Richard Baxter who notes that “many an error is taken up by going too far from other men’s faults.” In disputing with another, we tend to get more extreme in our positions. But liberals, and many younger generations tend not to want to fight. These are no longer the days when your view of baptism might get you killed (because it affected not only your ecclesiastical status, but your relationship to the State).

Minimalism tends to used only two categories: essential and non-essential. It refuses to acknowledge that non-essential doctrines can affect the peace of the church too. They can be significant even if they don’t warrant division. They are not part of the esse but the bene esse of the church (as Sproul would put it).

First he argues that even nonessential doctrines are significant since they are in Scripture. They have been revealed to us for a reason. They can impact the health of the church because they impact its practice. These doctrines are also important to understand church history. Christians have literally died for more than the essential doctrines, or those essential to salvation. These nonessential doctrines shape how we live the Christian life. For example, your view of sovereignty impacts your prayer life (as does your view of how the fall still affects you).

Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.J. Gresham Machen

Ortlund develops this further. Some doctrines provide pictures of the gospel. Others protect the gospel. One example he gives is one’s view of Scripture. A low view will produce weak Christians most of the time. Some pertain to the gospel particularly since no doctrine exists in isolation. They are all connected in the mind of God, and we should seek to understand those connections as best we can. Failing to see the connection between justification and sanctification led to easy believism, and then its opposite of Lordship salvation. There are times to fight! But we should fight in a godly fashion.

His Journey on Secondary and Tertiary Doctrines

Ortlund gets a little autobiographical in the next chapter since it has bearing on this whole discussion. He grew up (mostly) in conservative Presbyterian churches and attended Covenant Theological Seminary. While there he became convinced of credobaptism which meant he could no longer serve in the churches in which he had connections. However, he was an amillennial and this meant that many baptist churches would not want him to serve in their congregations. He also differed with some common practices of baptist churches regarding mode. Another issue that proved limiting for him was not being a 6-day, young earth creationist. He is an old earth creationist.

You can see that his views on these secondary and tertiary doctrine had consequences. They limited his opportunities.

I can identify. I grew up Catholic and was converted to Christ in college. I had no clue what church to join when I went home and ended up in a Conservative Baptist Association congregation which was a great fit for me. It was not legalistic (or any more so than other churches in New England at the time). I could still enjoy a beer and go to movies. It wasn’t overly traditional, and when I discovered Calvinism I was not kicked out. I found men who loved the Puritans like I did. Early on I was dispensational, but shortly before leaving had shifted to historical premillennialism.

I decided to got attend Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando due to Sproul. While there I shifted to an amillennial and partial preterist view of eschatology. I was now covenantal but still a credobaptist. I struggled to find a position in baptist churches, particularly SBC churches (I just never fit). Eventually the coin dropped and I “got” paedobaptism (Marcel’s book helped me more than it helped Ortlund, particularly the introduction which got me to think about epistemology). I joined the PCA and soon was in the ARP serving a small church in Florida. During a pastoral transition, I considered the E Free because they weren’t dogmatic on baptism, but that millennial issue remained even after they revised their doctrinal statement. What I believe affects where I can and cannot serve.

Why Primary Doctrines Are Worth Fighting For

These are the doctrines that determine whether or not you are a Christian. The others determine what kind of Christian you are. First tier doctrines are the boundary markers between Christianity and other religions or ideologies. Some concern the gospel directly (justification), others are needed to defend the gospel (inspiration of Scripture) or to proclaim the gospel (Great Commission).

He interacts with Erik Thoennes and Wayne Grudem to help evaluate which are primary doctrines. I’m not sure I’d depend on Grudem that much since he is a biblicist rather than a confessionalist, but I won’t excommunicate Ortlund for that. There are issues of clarity, relevance to God’s character, direct connection to the gospel, how frequently the doctrine is addressed in Scripture, its effect on other doctrines, how the church has thought of it over time, and current cultural pressure (Thoennes).

Grudem considers additional ideas like the effect on church life, precedent and methods used by advocates. He wants us to exclude issues like what our friends think, what it might cost us to change views, and other consequences.

Ortlund distinguishes between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied. We must also distinguish between what a Christian must believe at conversion and what they should believe as they mature. A new Christian will believe in Christ, but over time should be able to articulate the doctrine of justification. I think, with Packer and Spurgeon, that Calvinism is biblical religion. Many will deny them by ignorance or believing mischaracterizations without affecting their salvation. Those who understand and willfully reject them may be a very different category. The first are sheep, and the second could be wolves.

Ortlund digs into the virgin birth. We tend not to think of it too much these days, but during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy in the early 20th century is was controversial. Machen defended the doctrine at length. He argued that it was “essential to the church’s worship, witness, and vitality.” Without the virgin birth, Jesus is not a suitable Savior. It is a primary doctrine, though it need not be confessed at conversion, though it should not be denied.

Machen distinguished between differences of interpretation made in good faith and differences that arise from different understandings of biblical authority. This distinction is very important as we look at a number of issues. Some complementarians, for instance, fully affirm biblical authority and interpret 1 Timothy 3 as permitting women deacons. Egalitarians have a very different view of biblical authority and reject (in my opinion) clear biblical teaching on exclusively male elders.

Machen also used the virgin birth to help identify those who affirmed Christ’s deity and resurrection, but used different definitions of them from historic Christianity. This doctrine rules out a host of Christological heresies, and is a foundation for the incarnation and sinlessness of Christ which are essential to His office as Mediator between God and man.

Ortlund then turns to justification by faith alone. This is not a doctrine that was discovered by Luther. It was developed more fully during the Reformation, but did not originate there. He quotes John Owen here: “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.” He would distinguish those who do so from ignorance (often implicit faith in Roman Catholic dogma) from those who understand and reject it.

Justification is not the totality of the gospel, but it is a major component of the gospel. It is a doctrine Paul was willing to fight over, and he condemned those who rejected it. We see this clearly in Galatians. He notes that Oden provides ample evidence that the church has consistently affirmed salvation by grace through faith. The Church has historically upheld this.

There are hills worth dying on, figuratively and literally. He points us to Jude 3 and comments:

Celebrating the gospel should be a matter of eagerness; contending for it, a matter of necessity. Regrettably, for some Christians is is the reverse.

Bottom Line: if denying the doctrine destroys the foundation of Christianity, fight for it. Think of it like Jenga, will the tower fall if you remove it?

Navigating the Complexity of Secondary Doctrines

First tier doctrines require courage and conviction. Secondary doctrines require wisdom and balance. Such doctrines, as we’ve seen, are not essential to the gospel but are important enough to “justify divisions at the level of the denomination, church or ministry.” We are not excommunicating people, but being part of the same denomination or congregation becomes untenable. Still Christians, but not worshiping together.

These doctrines do affect our witness. They affect our understanding of the gospel. They affect how we go about ministry.

In this context he discusses baptism, spiritual gifts and women in ministry. Ortlund is not trying to resolve these questions but discuss about how they affect witness or ministry to such a degree that differences are big enough to divide over, while recognizing that the other is a Christian.

This chapter is the most difficult and complicated of the whole book.

There are doctrines on the border. People will put them on different sides of the line.

I think the eternal submission of the Son fits this category, but others will disagree with me. Some may put open theism here, but I lean toward putting it in the first tier.

Ortlund wants us to remember that we aren’t just dealing with doctrines but doctrinal attitudes as well. Denominations and congregations have theological cultures: “unspoken tendencies and unofficial policies.” Theological controversies often hit the unspoken. Additionally it is not just what we fight about but how we fight about it.

Baptism is a doctrine that has many aspects to it. He’s not addressing baptismal regeneration in this book (which would clearly be worth dividing over but I think affirmation of that doctrine puts one outside of Christianity).

During the Reformation, the rejection of infant baptism was viewed as so dangerous that Anabaptists we killed. Due to the overlap between church and state, it was considered treasonous, or at least unraveling the social fabric, to reject infant baptism. Ortlund asserts that more will killed for this reason than the Roman Empire killed in persecution.

If we both reject baptismal regeneration, and a state church, why would we divide over whether or not babies of believers should be baptized? The doctrine of proper subjects for baptism has a big effect on your ecclesiology (and vice versa). This doctrine also affects how we witness to the world through this public sign and seal. The question of subjects leads to the deeper issue of the definition of baptism itself. There is a deeper disagreement about the nature of the covenant of grace, whether the subjective or objective nature of the sign is primary and which is secondary and more.

Dual practice churches can introduce confusion among members as a result. They can also produce issues of conscience among ministers. They have to be willing to perform both- which creates issues (potentially)in hiring pastors.

While he puts the divide over subjects of baptism as a second tier doctrine, he reminds us to pursue discussions charitably and seeking to understand one another.

Many churches have been torn apart by disagreements about the spiritual gifts. Ortlund points out differences between hard and soft cessationists. Soft cessationists hold that they are not normative, but God can still use the revelatory gifts in extraordinary circumstances (like in regions where a person can’t find a Bible to read or a church to hear the Word preached). There are also differences among continuationists. Are they open to the gifts or do they require tongues as evidence of spirit baptism? Debates often assume the extremes on both sides.

A soft continuationist can join a soft cessationist church, typically, as long as he doesn’t practice the gifts publicly (including small groups). A hard continuationist would try to force his views on others and split a church. A hard cessationist church would always be suspicious of any continuationist and make them miserable and possibly subject to discipline. I’ve seen a cessationist presbytery exclude a soft continuationist from transfer. I agree with that in terms of a pastor. But I would not exclude a soft continuationist from membership. I would not have them teach on this subject, except to work with me to provide a different point of view in a class. Like many non-charismatics, I am concerned that the gifts seem to become central and abused when they are practiced (I have been in a Pentecostal church that spoke in tongues without interpretation, and attended a church in college that included “prophesies” at times).

The primary reason this debate can become a second-rank issue is that cessationism and continuationism are mutually exclusive with respect to a church service or Christian gathering.

Churches have to decide whether they will ordain women to ministry. Here we also see mutually exclusive positions even though there can be variances among complementarians. Soft complementarians, like me, are okay with women deacons (seeing the office as one of service under the authority of the Session), but some are more rigid about the roles of women in the world (like Piper’s blog post questioning women as police officers) which sounds more like patriarchy to me.

In our day, this discussion is further complicated by the cultural moment in which we debate gender identity. We have to be honest that some of what we think about gender roles is culturally bound, not biblically defined. This would indicate a need for deconstructing our views to keep what which is biblical and consider the rest preference on which we can disagree.

The answer to this question shapes how a church disciples couples preparing for marriage and who are married. To see this listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill to see how Driscoll’s views were communicated in a spiritually abusive way by going beyond scripture in his views of sex, whether women should work outside of the house and more. My disagreement isn’t over the headship of husbands and male eldership, but how he applies that to his congregation and the way he leaves no room for disagreement on those applications.

This is a topic filled with unaddressed presuppositions, and competing understanding of Scripture. Some are seeking to faithfully understand and apply Scripture but disagree on how. Others marginalize scripture through “trajectory hermeneutics” (Rob Bell) or just exclude it based on “general revelation” or cultural norms. This disagreement typically breaks down along the conservative-progressive lines unlike baptism and spiritual gifts. However, as a “soft complementarian” who is seeking to understand and apply Scripture, I don’t see myself as a progressive, and neither would any egalitarian.

Ortlund brings up the Gospel Coalition. They include complementarianism in their doctrinal statement, but take no position on the subjects of baptism and spiritual gifts. They are criticized for allowing position pieces to help people make up their minds.

He mentions that in addition to complementarianism, their statement of faith includes other “disputed” doctrines like election, double imputation, penal substitutionary atonement that people like me fit into the basics of orthodoxy.

This dispute can “complicate or perhaps preclude partnership in ministry or in stronger forms of ecclesial alliance”. It affects the hiring of a pastor, the joining of a denomination etc.

Why We Should Not Divide Over Tertiary Doctrines

These would be the battles to avoid, calling us to patience and forbearance. Ortlund provides the examples of the millennium and the days of creation.

There are issues related to the doctrine of creation and eschatology that are worth fighting over. We should defend the creation, ex nihilo, of the universe by God. This is a first order doctrine. The physical, visible and future return of Jesus is also a first order doctrine. But a particular view of the days of creation and millennium are not of the same order of magnitude.

Fighting over tertiary issues is unhelpful. But fighting over tertiary issues while simultaneously neglecting primary issues is even worse. So here we will engage these two issues to illustrate where we can benefit from critical reflection on our doctrinal priorities.

Ortlund begins with the millennium and gives a very brief history of millennial views. During the modernist-fundamentalist debate one of the prime boundary markers was premillennialism (along with inerrancy and the virgin birth). Fuller Seminary’s faculty was divided over the timing of the rapture. They were premillennial but some were dispensational and some were historical premillennialists. Post- and amillennialists were not allowed.

The millennium is found in one passage of the most difficult book to interpret: Revelation. Disagreeing on this issue does not make on a heretic or a liberal. Many other passages in the Old Testament, and the Olivet Discourse, are interpreted in light of how one views Revelation 20 (rather than the other way around). That is a lot of weight to place on one passage. Additionally, it is unclear how this doctrine affects how we are supposed to live in the present. Does one live fundamentally differently based on their millennial view?

Ortlund mentions Walvoord’s critique of Warfield’s “spiritualization” of Revelation 20. Warfield was no liberal. He was a staunch defender and articulator of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Both men would agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God.

Historically, the American church’s view of dispensational premillennialism is an anomaly. While there was a minority that held to premillennialism, dispensationalism was not advocated by anyone until Darby and some Plymouth Brethren began to express it in the 19th century. To make this a litmus test for orthodoxy places most Christians outside of the bounds. This leads Ortlund to conclude that we can debate this issue from within the bounds of unity, maintaining fellowship despite our differences.

The issue of creation days is similar. Many orthodox teachers and theologians have held a variety of views on the days of creation (not its fact) over church history. The 6-day, young earth position has only recently become the norm in some circles. I hold to this position, though I haven’t always. I don’t demand others agree with me on this issue. Nor does my denomination.

Before Darwin published his work, Spurgeon argued that the world was many millions of years old before Adam was created (the unique creation of Adam and Eve should be a first tier doctrine). Warfield held to an old earth and universe. Thomas Chalmers advocated the “gap theory” and the “frame-work hypothesis” arose among the faculty of Westminster Seminary which had a high view of Scripture. Good and godly men have disagreed on this issue, and would have thought it weird to divide churches or denominations over it.

Often the very strength that would help you win a battle enables you to avoid the battle altogether. … So often, in life and in theology, it is the exact opposite- to avoid a fight takes a deeper and nobler strength than to engage in one. … We should eagerly pursue the kind of theological conviction and strength that is willing not only to fight for truth but also to avoid fighting in order to promote the gospel.

Strong theological convictions, in other words, help us to see what is worth fighting over and what isn’t. We recognize what doctrines are essential, and which ones are peripheral. They help us to see which impact the local community, and which really don’t. If every doctrine is worth fighting over, you are left in the minutest of fellowships, angry that no one agrees with you on every jot and tittle.

A Call to Theological Humility

“... if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, or behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand every good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.Augustine

I used to be a truth guy. And then I saw other truth guys and how abrasive and unloving they could be. I’m a truth and love guy thanks to the ministry of men like John Newton and Jack Miller. Truth does matter! But if I have not love…. the truth doesn’t matter. Humility and love are just as important as truth. How and when we engage in debate and dying on hills matter as much as the dying on the hill. Or more.

Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.

Humility helps us find the way to gospel unity. We remain committed together to tier one doctrines as Christians, may work together with those with whom we differ on tier two and enjoy full fellowship despite tier 3 differences. This forms a gospel culture. Dying on every hill offers no love and charity, the antithesis of a gospel culture.

Overall, Ortlund has given us a helpful and timely book as our culture and churches seem overly divisive and polarized. Theological triage offers us a way out of the ceaseless squabbling and division.

He doesn’t give us all the answers, but addresses matters of the heart that point us in the right direction to discover when to fight and when to bend. I commend this book to you.

Considering Deeper


How do you follow up a popular book that is being read by many churches?

That is an intimidating thing to think about. I imagine this book was already in the books, but Dane Ortlund followed Gentle and Lowly with Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners.

Orlund continues to write books for those Christians who struggle with sin. The first focused on Christ’s heart for them so their attitude toward Him will change. This focuses on how Christ changes us so we become more like Him. As such, these books should likely be read in series and proper order.

This book is part of the Union series put out by Crossway. It is the second volume after Michael Reeves’ Rejoice and Tremble on the fear of God. Each book has a highly edited version for lay people. Yes, they will find the bigger volumes understandable. But many are not readers and the shorter volumes What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? and How Does God Change Us? can be read quickly and easily.

The title of the shorter volume communicates the commitment to sanctification as a work of God. This doesn’t mean we are passive, but it is by grace not by “trying harder”. “Christian growth is bringing what you do and say and even feel into line with what, in fact, you already are.” Just as his previous book was for the discouraged and fearful, this is for the frustrated and exhausted.

The gentle and lowly Savior is patient with us and we need to have a similar patience with ourselves and one another. “We are complicated sinners. … We need time. Be patient with yourself. A sense of urgency, yes; but not a sense of hurry. … Slow change is still real change. And it’s the normal way God deals with us.”

I couldn’t say it better. This is particularly true with deep and profound sin. Some sin is more stubborn than others- life defining, altering and twisting. Change happens, but it is often quite slow. It is like climate change, not the weather.

In debates about the pace of sanctification for those with same sex attraction I do affirm change: real change. I don’t proclaim complete change until glorification. Yes, mortify the flesh. Yes, make use of the means of grace. Yes! The power of this sin will diminish. Yes! But it may never disappear completely in this life. And this is true of other life-dominating sins as well.

Patience is important (and Paul speaks of this in 1 Thessalonians 5 and 1 Timothy 1 among other places) because “one of the devil’s great victories is to flood our hearts with a sense of futility.” Demands for quicker change by friends and family (and pastors) can feed this sense of futility as well. Ortlund his writing as a pastor and not just a theologian. He wants sound theology, but is seeking to apply it to people: real people.

Ortlund is indebted to the giants who have gone before us. There is not much that is novel here. He provides numerous quotes from others. He breaks them down and “puts the cookies on the counter” so we can enjoy them. He also points us to many passages of Scripture. He would have a confessionalist, not a biblicist, approach as he weaves the Scripture with our heritage rather than one or the other. The heritage sheds light on the Scripture.

But the book.

Ortlund starts with Jesus precisely because we are saved by Christ to become like Christ. We grow in Christ (another chapter) not by our own effort. Jesus changes real sinners. These would be the people who realize they are profoundly sinful, not simply people who mess up once in a while. We must have an orthodox view of Christ, and not a domesticated view of Christ.

The purpose is not an exhaustive theology of Jesus. He does discuss that Jesus is unsearchable or incomprehensible, that Jesus rules as the highest authority in creation (and over it). He saves sinners and befriends them. He invites us into His confidence, particularly as the Spirit illuminates the Word for us. Jesus perseveres with vacillating human beings. We are the weak link in the relationship, but He is steadfast and isn’t looking for an out. Part of His steadfast nature is revealed in interceding for us. Jesus will also return to deliver His people and judge the rest.

“”Gently Jesus,” my elbow! The most striking thing about Our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness.” C.S. Lewis

Despair

Ortlund’s pastoral heart is most revealed in the second chapter. Most books on sanctification ignore the reality of despair. Despairing of change seems to be a very common experience for Christians. It is not only common, but necessary so we no longer rely upon ourselves but upon Christ alone.

We take steps forward, and steps back. God dwells with the lowly. Our joy in Christ comes as we despair of self and the world. It is the humble who are exalted. So part of God’s plan is to humble us by showing us how powerless and wicked we are.

So Ortlund addresses the sinfulness of sin. Sin has turned us into glorious ruins. “We construct our entire lives around the throne of Self. … Fallen humans are factories of filth.” God shows us the depth of our sin, often through our failure to resist temptation. One of the ways we mask our sinfulness is moralism. Moralism breeds independence rather than dependence on Christ. “You cannot feel the weight of your sinfulness strongly enough.”

Sounding much like Jack Miller he speaks of repentance as turning from Self to Christ. This is the main thing that separates true repentance from worldly sorrow. On the next page he quotes Miller at length. Despair drives us to seek Christ!

Union

There is no change (or salvation) without union with Christ. It is a vital union, not simply an intellectual construct. He is the life-giving Spirit, the fountain of life. He points us to Romans 6:1-5 to explain our union.

In this chapter he discusses 3 wrong ways to view our relationship with God, and the right way to view it (God in me). It is not God working then I work, or God working while I do nothing (passivity)or me adding to God’s work. Ortlund seeks to hold both human responsibility and divine sovereignty together in examining sanctification. This happens by virtue of our union with Christ.

We are secure in Christ. Our union is unchanging (our experience of communion is, but he doesn’t stress this). Our union is both federal and personal in the macro dimension. Like Adam, Jesus is a federal head. Unlike Adam, Jesus brings life instead of condemnation. He also discusses a micro dimension, the organic union in which He shares communicable attributes. He explains that union is an umbrella doctrine: other things are true because of the reality of union. Sanctification is an increasing experience of our union with Christ.

Embrace

I summarized this by Jesus fills our emptiness with Himself in our union. Jesus is the fullness of God. We are empty due to sin. Now united to Christ we are filled. The love of God is poured into our hearts and we begin to love God (embrace Him) in return. “We grow in Christ no further than we enjoy his embrace of us.” We grasp, in increasing measure, the measureless love of God for us.

“The love of Christ is his settled, unflappable heart of affection for sinners and sufferers- and only sinners and suffers.”

He affirms the reality of judgment elsewhere, so we shouldn’t think Ortlund is a universalist or that He loves all sinners in this way. His settled heart is intended to settle our unsettled hearts. We are often unsettled by guilt and shame. Like a good parent comforts an upset child, Jesus comforts us when we experience guilt and shame.

Ortlund discusses some blockages to knowing Christ’s love. One is to look at our lives instead of His life. We have to look at the right life. We often let our suffering to define us instead of His love defining us.

Acquittal

There is no sanctification without justification. There is no sanctification without growing in your understanding of justification. We don’t simply begin with justification, but continue in justification. We grow deeper in our experience of justification. Like Ryle, Orltund distinguishes justification and sanctification.

  1. Justification is outside-in, and we lose it if we make it inside-out.
  2. Sanctification is inside-out, and we lose it if we make it outside-in.
  3. And this inside-out sanctification is largely fed by daily appropriation of this outside-in justification.

He also warns of the danger of externalizing sanctification with rules. There is no power in rules. We are also in regularly in danger of judging our justification by our sanctification. This is the flesh’s approach to salvation. Our sanctification rests upon our justification.

At the end of the chapter he provides three portraits in Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Luther tried to scrub his conscience clean until he realized that justification was a gift received by faith. Christ frees us from our idols (including self-salvation). Luther found his experience of justification precarious, and thus the need to pound the gospel into our heads.

Lewis had been a Christian for years but had an eye-opening experience focused on the reality of forgiveness rather than the intellectual affirmation of forgiveness. In justification we experience forgiveness. Too many seem to hold to a theoretical forgiveness instead of enjoying the actual forgiveness of their sins.

Schaeffer had been in ministry for many years before coming to a similar conclusion. He re-thought his whole theology during his crisis of faith. This would be deconstruction in the positive sense: discovering what you really believe and should believe. This was the road to confirmation of his faith, not apostasy.

Honesty

Building on this, Ortlund brings us to 1 John 1 and the necessity for forgiveness to have fellowship with one another. We confess the reality of our sin to have fellowship with God and each other. “Walking in the light in this text is honesty with other Christians.” Putting on the mask of godliness impedes actual change. Honesty puts our image-management to death. The walls come down and we can enjoy intimacy with one another.

It is not this that cleanses, but the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sin. But we don’t enjoy that cleansing while we hide our sins for God and one another. Confessing our sin slays our pride. We need not hide any longer, keeping people at a distance. We also are less likely to hold other’s sins against them.

Pain

While we often think of pain as an obstacle to Christian growth, in God’s economy is it a means of growth. “The anguish, disappointments, and futility that afflict us are themselves vital building blocks to our growth.” This is an unpleasant reality. God prunes us, and weans us from the world. He establishes the conditions by which we go deeper in Christ.

Here he speaks of the pain of mortification and speaks of the difference between mortification and self-flagellation. Mortification is a response to Christ’s work, not a fulfilling or completion of it. We starve sin and temptation by looking to Christ rather than satisfying our desires.

Breathe

This is an odd title to the chapter on the means of grace. He explains it as inhaling (reading the Word) and exhaling (prayer). The means of grace are essential to knowing Christ, seeing our sin and God’s provision, and knowing who we are in Christ and what it means to bear His image. So many of us don’t grow because we either don’t read or don’t pray (or both).

He speaks briefly of how to read the Bible with Christ as the focus. You want to follow the Storyline that culminates in Christ. We “will go deeper with Christ no deeper than you go into Scripture.” Unfortunately he doesn’t really get into why we don’t read very much. Our intake of Scripture, sermons and books is frequently meager. We are being discipled in worldliness as a result.

In terms of prayer, he focuses on being children speaking to the Father who loves them so much He sent His Son to get them. He encourages the use of the use of the Psalms to learn how to pray.

Supernaturalized

This final chapter focuses on the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is supernatural due to the indwelling of the Spirit. It is not a self-improvement project. He dives into the already/not yet reality initiated by the coming of the Son and the sending the Spirit. We are in the new age, which overlaps with the end of the old age. Jesus continued His work through the Apostles by the Spirit. He continues the work of Christ, rather than replacing the work of Christ. His goal is to highlight Christ, not Himself, however. “The subjective work of the Spirit works in tandem with the objective work of Christ.”

Conclusion: What Now?

He briefly wraps all of this up:

“I have one thing to say. Look to Christ. You will grow in Christ as you direct your gaze to Christ. If you take your eyes off of Jesus Christ and direct your gaze to your own growth, you will prevent the very growth you desire.”

In this he quotes John Newton as well. Look to Christ. Pastors, point them to Christ.

Dane Ortlund has given us another excellent book. It is all there is to say about sanctification? No. But he speaks to the most important things. He wants a book that can be read, not one that is dreaded because it is so thick. He also keeps bringing us back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. There are no quick fixes, seven steps or other manageable means. He offers Christ, the One who changes us.

Considering Live Not By Lies


I’ve been reading those dystopian novels for a reason. I see a soft Brave New World kind of totalitarianism on the horizon. It may be closer than it appears.

In addition to not putting our trust in kings and princes (or presidents and governors), we should recognize that government, while ordained by God, is used by Satan as represented by the Beasts in Revelation. He exerts his earthly authority through government to persecute God’s people (see Revelation 12-14). This is exactly why we don’t look to human rules but to Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords.

As I think about various Covid protocols, I process it through this grid. The government wants to be god over us. You may think differently, but like rebellious man trying to take the place of God, governments are ruled by rebellious people who want to control others because they think they know better than you how you should live.

One of our church members gave me a copy of Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher. Dreher grew up Methodist, converted to Catholicism and is now Eastern Orthodox. He is writing from the point of view of his faith, and his political conservatism.

The book gets its title from Solzhenitsyn’s final message to the Russian people before his exile. Solzhenitsyn was telling people who lived under hard totalitarianism (armed revolution that then produces active persecution including prison camps and torture). Dreher sees soft totalitarianism drawing ever closer here in the west and wants to prepare God’s people to live as dissenters.

This book is filled with stories of dissidents from behind the Iron Curtain. These accounts make up the bulk of the book. The didactic portions are not large. Skimpy is more like it.

I am sympathetic to Dreher’s message. It was certainly interesting to hear many of these survivor stories. I’m not sure he was clear on how to apply this, though I’ll conclude with ways we are already prepared to form these communities.

Understanding Soft Totalitarianism

The first part of the book seeks to communicate what he means by soft totalitarianism. He begins with the story of Father Kolakovic who worked to prepare Slovak Catholics for Soviet persecution after World War II. He established “cells of faithful young Catholics who came together for prayer, study and fellowship.” He established the pattern for Christian dissent in Czechoslovakia for forty years. These dissidents organized the Candle Demonstration that began the Velvet Revolution which resulted in the end of communist rule. This is the general pattern Rohr follows.

The new totalitarianism, he argues, isn’t seeking armed revolution. The state will monopolize political control in the pursuit of a utopian vision. It sees itself as “helping and healing”, a therapeutic vision, but will still seek to end dissent. Truth becomes “whatever the rulers decide it is.” We’ve seen this in the Covid controversies (masks, vaccines, shut downs and more) where dissent was called misinformation even when provided by highly recognized scientists or investigative reporters who dived into the studies for data to back up their statements. What is lacking in the “official dogma” is actual data. There is just pontificating. And shaming or demonization of the dissenters.

The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.Rene Girard

Dreher sees the social justice movement as one of the movements that propels us toward this soft totalitarianism. It also takes advantage of the advanced surveillance technology we see in China and the UK. The government used these to protect the public health in the pandemic. We’ve become too accustomed to Big Data in our apps, credit cards, smart phones, speakers and TVs. We’ve invited Big Data and its data mining into our lives.

He also notes the decline of freedom from choosing virtue to freedom of choice (read expressive individualism). The mob will come against those who dissent, and many Christians are prepared to suffer. The idea of standing up for truth is foreign to much of Christianity in the West.

Dreher introduces ketman, the “Persian work for the practice of maintaining an outward appearance of Islamic orthodoxy while inwardly dissenting.” This sounds much like the “Insider Movement”. He calls it a form of mental self-defense. You are not an open dissenter, but more a secret one. He argues it is worse than hypocrisy since it “corrupts your character and ultimately everything in society.” You eventually become the person you portray before the all-seeing eye of Big Tech.

To live by lies is to accept the falsehoods and propaganda of the state (and Big Tech). You may not be able to overturn the lies, but you do refuse to live under their authority. One will confront the lies in these small cells through prayer, song and the study of Scripture. People will begin to “identify the challenge, discern together its meaning, then act on your conclusions.”

There is an element of subjectivity that is disconcerting. It is “our conclusions” after all. The pandemic has shown us that some people act on relatively small matters. Just as the government isn’t to be trusted, neither are we at times.

He does see us as living in a pre-totalitarian culture. He points to various survivors of totalitarianism who see many of the same patterns in our culture. Historically he notes how the famine of 1891 shook Russian and revealed the problems in the Tsarist system. In a similar way, Covid exposes the weaknesses in our government and economy. It was the children of the privileged class that lead the revolution, and we see something similar today as the “educated” lead the charge to end capitalism with its economic oppression, white people with racial oppression, diminish men due to gender oppression and the church due to sexual oppression.

Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.Benito Mussolini

Dreher notes that Hannah Arendt speaks of totalitarian movements as “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” They have led a marginalized existence. We see a growing isolation due to social media, Covid restrictions including working from home and virtual education. Civic trust, which holds society together, is eroded. People no longer trust the media, experts who have been “lying”and people become increasingly anxious and vulnerable to the claims of the totalitarian movement.

There was also an appetite for destruction. After World War I there was a focus on the will to power, and intellectuals turned from Darwin to the Marquis de Sade. To see change take place they were willing to destroy the world and culture that was. There was also a focus on social & sexual deviance and perversion. Propaganda became the norm.

Generations of college students have been soaking up post-modernism, affirming more and more sexual deviance and a willingness to riot when they perceive injustice. Or a campus speaker they don’t like.

Dreher does criticize Trump for being part of the problem for putting loyalty over expertise. While he’s conservative, he’s not an Ever-Trumper. We also seen the rise of the cancel culture. People must be disowned if they express an opinion that deviated from the political correct dogma.

He sees progressivism as a religion. They want to build a humanistic utopia. They got more than they bargained for. They didn’t anticipate the gulags, re-education camps and elimination of free speech and protest. The power-hungry used the intellectuals. The Myth of Progress turned out to be a lie, but the Myth persists and eats away at our society now.

Those who oppose the Myth (or aspects of the crises like the pandemic, climate change etc.) are canceled. The accusation doesn’t have to be true. “Homophobe!” “Racist!” CNN tried to discredit comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan with repeated claims he used horse dewormer rather than admit that Ivermectin is a drug with a long and illustrious history of helping human beings, and that it was prescribed by a doctor along with other medications. If you are part of the wrong group you are presumed guilty. I am reminded of Kafka’s existentialist novel The Trial. Guilt or innocence doesn’t actually matter. You won’t understand or be given an answer. You’ll just be crushed beneath the wheel of a crazed culture.

Social Justice and identity politics are also viewed as cults. Truth isn’t what matters, it is who speaks the words. Here he summarizes and critiques CRT.

The next chapter addresses how capitalism went woke. Government-run media controlled information in the Soviet bloc nations. Now it is Big Tech that takes the role of censor. Put interest in a product in an email or text and suddenly Facebook has an ad on your wall. People disclose all kinds of personal information (that often finds itself in passwords) on those fun little quizzes. We forfeit our privacy in a number of ways.

Big Business embraces social agendas of the left. All-star games are moved from a state over voting laws to a state with similar or more strict laws. Others are moved over bathroom laws. Experts in their fields are de-platformed because they offer dissenting opinions.

Recent events in Canada show us how easily a population can be misinformed about a protest. First the state-sponsored media told lies about why they were protesting, then how they were protesting (they were violent, white supremacists and insurrectionists). Then they froze bank accounts and sent in the police to arrest them. It can happen here!

How to Live in Truth

Dreher shifts to how we can resist and dissent. We are to value the truth, and tell the truth. He shares the story of a grocer who just wanted to be left alone and put the Communist slogan on a sign in his shop. If he ever steps out of his role he will lose everything. In some of the riots over police brutality, shop owners had BLM signs on the stores, but to no avail. It is demoralizing, and that is the point.

Dreher wants us to live apart from the crowd and reject doublespeak. We should be among those advocating for free speech. We aren’t to be foolish however. He wants people to use wisdom. People in communist countries quickly learned who they could and couldn’t trust with the truth. Sometimes silence is a form of resistance. In the face of lies, he thinks, they can telling the truth. I’m not as convinced.

He wants us to “cultivate cultural memory”. I’m surprised that people don’t seem to remember the past. Forgetting the gas lines of the 70’s they bought big gas guzzlers again. They forgot the media hype over the coming ice age, killer bees, the hole in the ozone, acid rain, any number of pandemics that fizzled and more. Of course, one can claim that the action solved the problem but it seems unlikely in light the circumstances. But it does foster the “we can fix it mentality.”

In reality we just create other problems. In the 1990’s we got rid of paper bags, which degrade, and used plastic bags, which don’t, because we were “cutting down too many trees.” Plastic requires petroleum and eventually the environmentalists switched their aim. Those bags are being phased out in CA, NY and NJ among other states. Back are the paper bags, for a fee.

Gas and coal are being replaced by solar panels and electric cars. The reality of mining for elements used in batteries and solar panels are ignored. The fact that we can’t recycle windmill blades is ignored. Ideology ignores practical realities. Cultural memories help us to answer the present ignorance.

These small groups Dreher advocates are the method for cultivating cultural memory, and objective truth. We pass these down to future generations. He see the family as a primary resistance cells. One aspect of this sounds Luddite-like. He wants us to disconnect from the internet, or at least the kids’. He’s not anti-culture, but advocates for the culture that affirms the reality of good and evil (like Tolkein).

He advocates for something close to Schaeffer’s co-belligerents. Religious anti-communists worked with secular anti-communists. He also encourages us to practice hospitality. He does view religion as foundational to resistance.

Christians today must dig deep into the Bible and church tradition and teach themselves how and why today’s post-Christian world, with its self-centeredness, its quest for happiness and rejection of sacred order and transcendent values, is a rival religion to authentic Christianity.

In communist countries it was not the large churches that survived. They were infiltrated by the secret police and snitches. It was in small communities of faith that people felt safe. In Czechoslovakia the Christians mingled with the secular liberals. Today, in America it seems many liberals think that the church deserves what it gets due to past oppression (a function of identity politics).

Suffering is a testimony to the truth. Our willingness to endure suffering for Christ eventually breaks the tyranny. The stories here are hard to read. But this is part of what separates the wheat from the chaff. Yet, he does advocate mercy to the broken for the pain will break even the most faithful. He does remind us that marginalization isn’t the same as prison and torture.

As I noted, there was a fair amount I agreed with. The stories of survivors are intriguing. I did want something more than small groups to teach and pray, be willing to suffer and seek solidarity with like-minded people. The constant refrain of “see, judge, act” seems simplistic to me.

For those who are curious and want to dig deeper, there is a study guide and a workbook available. They could be used to form small groups. Of course you may have to get them on data mining experts and de-platformers Amazon.

Churches should be developing small group ministries if they don’t have them already. Churches should be explicit about the need without fear mongering. We should do this even if the society doesn’t descend into the soft totalitarianism that it seems to be embracing. If it does happen, the faith will continue in these small, simple communities.

This is a book that will be welcomed by those who think we are moving in this direction. I’m not sure the skeptical will be convinced. It can feel like an echo chamber book. I think he’s right, overall, but maybe I’m just in an echo chamber. I hope I’m wrong.


Knowing the hills to die on is an important part of life. Whether you are a parent, a pastor, an employee or employer, husband or wife. We tend to die on the wrong hills, and when we do we create so much damage. If we don’t die on the hills that matter, we also do damage.

Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage (Gospel Coalition) - Ortlund, Gavin; Carson, D A (foreword by) - 9781433567421

Gavin Ortlund addresses this for the church in Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case of Theological Triage. I’m still reading the book but his chapter on The Problem of Doctrinal Sectarianism is highly important, and pertinent to much of what I see today. It painfully addresses situations in denominations and congregations.

What theological differences are worth leaving a local congregation?

What theological differences are worth leaving a denomination?

I’ve seen people leave churches over baptism. I’ve seen people leave churches and denominations over what they think might happen regarding a controversy. People can believe that nearly every theological disagreement is reason for disconnecting. This is an issue that interests me as my denomination experiences some disagreement and rumors fly fast and furious. I think we are more aligned than others let on. The issue is more how to apply that theology meaningfully. But I see many thinking it is time to leave. Or at least wondering if it is time.

“We must at times boldly contend and at other times gently probe.”

I see many online taking the result of overture votes as cause to “boldly contend” rather than “gently probe” the reasons for the vote. People are assumed to be “unfaithful” for not voting the “right” way.

Each of us will have a default. We serve God with our “courage” or our “gentleness”. We don’t recognize the need for courageous gentleness or gentle courage. We are to speak the truth in love, and lovingly recognize where we actually differ rather than assume we differ more significantly than we do.

Battle of Bunker Hill

Ortlund quotes Martin Luther that “Softness and hardness … are two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.” People prone to hardness are unable to “distinguish between different kinds of doctrines.” Not all doctrines bear the same weight. Ortlund argues that Paul recognizes this, particularly as he speak of things of “first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3. There are doctrines that are important to the health of the church, but not essential to the existence of the church.

Unnecessary Division Harms the Unity of the Church

Ortlund, writing about and within the Reformed tradition, points to how many prominent theologians have made this distinction. Francis Turretin writes of “fundamental articles” which are more important than other articles. They are “primary and immediate; such as the articles concerning the Trinity, Christ the Mediator, justification, etc.” Others, Turretin says are “secondary and mediate.” Doctrines serve various purposes. There is both milk and solid food (Heb. 5:12-14).

Turrentin believed that the Orthodox or Eastern Church was wrong on the issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit. They were not fatally or heretically wrong since they affirm the divinity of the Spirit. Yet this issue was key in the split between the Eastern and Western church. It was made messy by the changes made in the Western symbols apart from discussing them with the East. Offense over practical matters as well as the difference of opinion magnified that difference.

When we elevate true but secondary doctrines to the necessary doctrines we begin to foster unnecessary division. You cannot stay united long when every disagreement is “heretical”. Calvin spoke against “capricious separation”. True churches can disagree on the way a church practices the marks of Word and sacrament. Calvin also distinguished between primary and secondary doctrines.

For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one, Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith.Calvin, Institutes 4.1.12

Disputed doctrines should not be a source of division unless there is “unbridled contention and opinionated stubbornness.” In other words, the division is a product of the flesh, which works dissensions and factions (Gal. 5).

A difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise (way) be the basis of schism among Christians. … Either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without hard to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation.” Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.12

Our confessional standards recognize that the church will always be mixed or imperfect (WCF 25. 5). We necessarily need to live with imperfect churches and denominations since they are all imperfect and filled with sinners. Schism should only take place when the essential doctrines are compromised. Sadly this happens as denominations reject the authority of Scripture which then leads them to deny essential doctrines like the exclusivity of salvation in Christ.

The Unity of the Church Is Essential to the Mission of the Church

We are to contend for the faith of delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Schism is necessary at times. Both the refusal to contend and the propensity to split over secondary matters diminish our impact in the world. We need to prize the unity of the church AND the purity of the church. We find Jesus praying for the unity of the church (John 17). Paul speaks of the one body of Christ and maintaining the bond of peace through the Spirit (Eph. 4). In our creeds, essential doctrines (!), we find “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The communion of saints and unity of the church, despite differences of opinion, are essential to Christianity. Yet we so quickly sacrifice this essential doctrine over secondary or tertiary matters. Ortlund brings in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on Ephesians 4: “the unity of the Church is a manifestation of the perfection of the Godhead.” Unnecessary schism tells lies about God.

In addition of the Doctor, Ortlund spends time with Bavinck on this matter. He stressed differentiating fundamental and nonfundamental doctrines. He warned about the inability (unwillingness?) to recognize others outside your circle as Christians as dangerous to one’s own spiritual vitality. We see this danger in cults. I was briefly (and unknowingly) involved in a cult (the Boston Church of Christ) that refused to acknowledge that there were other Christians and Churches (discovering this I left). After a big scandal about 15 years ago they were open to the possibility of there being other Christians and churches, but hadn’t actually met any. This can also take the form of thinking one can’t be a true Christian if they are a member of a particular church or denomination. Spiritual elitism is a big problem among people who should know better (Calvinists).

Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine.” Bavinck, “Catholicity of Christianity and the Church”

It is easy for us to see the faults of other churches, and not those of our own. I see this in my own denomination. We are highly critical of other denominations, and other groups in our denomination, but can’t seem to acknowledge the sin in our own camp. We refuse to get the log out of our eyes and our vitriol increases while self-righteousness grows since we are like “them”. We refuse to acknowledge that we might have something to learn from other ecclesiastical bodies.

Ortlund reminds us he’s not being anti-theological. Rather “it does mean that our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements.”

He also cites Spurgeon and his disagreements over polity and worship with George Herbert. Spurgeon still recognized Herbert as a Christian and recognized the need to love him. We are not to pick and choose among his people. We may not worship with them (before heaven), but we must recognize them as Christians and love them. “If we love Jesus, we must love those who belong to him.”

Our unity can be expressed in a variety of ways. We can love others with different views in our own congregation. We can love others with different preferences or understanding of how to do ministry. We can be in different congregations and still treat each other as Christians, and co-operate with them on matters of mutual concern. Even within a denomination, you may not fit in every church but you work together and may worship together periodically. We can be in different denominations and still treat each other as Christians, and co-operate with them on matters of mutual concern. Differences should not completely separate us if we are united in Christ.

Quarreling about Unimportant Doctrines Harms the Godliness of the Church

The holiness of the church is at stake too. Needless controversy sucks the love out of the room. If love is the fulfillment of the law, to not love is to be ungodly and unholy. Ortlund lists a series of passages warning us about quarrels and their contribution to ungodliness.

Timothy was to silence those who loved to argue, or felt that every disagreement was worth arguing about.

We should steer clear of theological wrangling that is speculative (goes beyond Scripture), vain (more about being right than being helpful), endless (no real answer is possible or desired), and needless (mere semantics).Kevin DeYoung

Ortund then brings us to Richard Baxter and The Cure for Church Divisions. The basic premise is that Satan can use them for men’s damnation. Each of the ways of extinguishing love is a road to hell. He stirs us up to not contend for necessary things, or to contend for the wrong things and/or the wrong way. He rejoices in the overly gentle and the overly strict. He despises the truth spoken in love. Our anger with one another gives Satan a foothold or opportunity (Eph. 4:25).

Even when the error we oppose is a deadly heresy, our aim must be to heal, not to disgrace.

Finding Our Identity in the Gospel

John Newton warned us: “Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as works.” Ortlund also reminds us that Calvin warned that pride causes arguments, and therefore schism. This pride leads us to treat others with contempt. When we “turn against” someone we begin to look for faults in them. We don’t treat their statements with charity, but see them in the worst possible light.

My denomination has been through a time of conflict. It has polarized us. Our FB pages have been sources of heat but not much light. Our presbyteries and general assemblies have seen lots of heat and little light. In some cases, even our sessions have experienced deep conflict over these issues.

We easily lose sight of the 95% we have in common for the 5% of disagreement. This leads us to paint those who disagree with us in the worst possible light. We want to either remove them from our body or remove ourselves from the body. The temptation to schism arises.

We must mortify the flesh, putting to death the dissension, factions, enmity, strife, anger, divisions and rivalries which are just as serious as the sins we’ve been debating. The answer isn’t to remove ourselves (often in disgust) but to repent of how our sinful nature rises up to encourage us to disobey Christ, corrupt ourselves and damage the Church of Christ by disregarding our vows.

Let’s distinguish between the doctrine of the filial clause and the disagreement about how it was added. Their theology wasn’t very different, but offense was rooted in how the West unilaterally acted.

As the PCA thinks about “expressive individualism” and sinful identities, I think we are actually on the same page. At least most of us are. There are always outliers in both directions. Where we actually disagree is on the semantics of the overtures. As I listened to people I didn’t hear anyone say they wanted “Side B Christianity” in the PCA, that they wanted men who rejoiced in their sinful temptations as part of their identity. I heard men who didn’t like that many terms were vague and prone to various interpretations. I heard men who didn’t want to pass it and let the SJC figure out what it meant and how it should be applied. I heard men who didn’t want to pass it and then try to “fix it” with subsequent overtures. I heard men who didn’t want to settle, but wanted to get it right before we passed it.

I struggle with the way we operate, or rather how the Overtures Committee operates in our denomination. It should recommend, up or down. Period. Instead it seems to put them through a meat grinder so something else appears. In some cases that has been positive, but in many it has not. Sometimes these recommendations are unrecognizable.

We often lack patience in the process. We want things done right away, and our way. We are part of a microwave culture.

Think about the response to same sex marriage in the PCA. Many wanted a statement declaring it sinful. They wanted the world to clearly know what we think. Such statements usually don’t include the grace of God in Jesus Christ, but that’s another issue. It didn’t pass. And I didn’t vote for it. That doesn’t mean I support same sex marriage. I don’t. It meant that I thought our Standards were clear.

Later we chose to bring our Book of Church Order into explicit conformity to our Standards. I voted for this, and it overwhelmingly passed (I think there were 12 no votes, or about 99% approval). We clearly ruled out same sex marriage and polygamy. The method chosen was better than a statement. It was about our polity, not a statement. The changes were simple. It would have been profoundly wrong to think we previously disagreed on the validity of same sex marriage (though some did).

Let us not think what some thought after the overture for a statement on same-sex marriage failed. Let us not think that people support the notion of “gay Christians”. Following this line of erroneous thinking will lead many to leave without merit. The schism will be rooted in uncharitable assessments of others. It will be an unnecessary schism.

Let’s think that this was not the best way to implement what we affirmed in our Study Committee Report into our constitution. Let’s learn from the criticism and write a better amendment to the BCO. Let’s apply what is already there and address issues of character including but definitely not limited to same sex attraction. Let’s ask about the other sins that disqualify people from the kingdom. Maybe we should ask what hills a man will die on.


I’ve meant to do this monthly, but, alas, reality is the rock upon which so many dreams are crushed. We can lament the past, but here in the present let’s look at this month’s verse which is a great one upon which I’ve stood for many years. It is part of the text from my first Resurrection Day sermon.

25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7

“Consequently” connects this verse with what the author of Hebrews just said. This section of Hebrews defends the priesthood of Jesus in the line of Melchizedek. Jesus is a superior priest to the Aaronic priests. His sacrifice was once for fall time (this is the implication since it is contrasted with the repeated sacrifices of Aaronic priests.

One the basis of this greater priesthood and sacrifice Jesus is able to save people to the uttermost. Utterly and completely. We need know that no sin is capable of separating us from God if Jesus is our Great High Priest. Think of the worst you have done. The worst you’ve hurt someone. The worst you may have degraded yourself.

The work of this priest can and does save us from that horrible sin.

This promise and hope is held out for “those who draw near to God through him.” It is not an indiscriminate promise. One must come to God the Father through Jesus (John 14). This High Priest, who is the way, the truth and the life, is the only way to return to God. This Great High Priest is the only one who can save us.

The reason He can save us to the uttermost is that Jesus continues to live forever to intercede for us. The Aaronic priests all died. Their ministry was limited by death. Jesus’ death was not final. He has the power of unending life as the Resurrected Savior.

Raised to life again, Jesus who has made purification for our sins is now seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb. 1:1-4). It is from that seat that Jesus intercedes for us. This is how He saves us from to the uttermost. He pleads the value of His sacrifice. This shed blood is the basis for our salvation and preservation.

It is His work, not ours that matters. It isn’t about trying harder, promises to do better or beating yourself up. It is about Jesus. Draw near to the Father through Him to experience the fullness of salvation.


I’ve begun to read A Small Book About Why We Hide by Edward Welch. The subtitle indicates How Jesus Rescues Us from Insecurity, Regret, Failure, and Shame. Early on he quotes Paul McCartney, sorry, Sir McCartney. “Do you know anyone who doesn’t have insecurities?” This is a book for all of us since we all have insecurities, regrets, failures and shame. Even Tom Brady has lost Super Bowls.

The vast majority of us never sniff a Super Bowl.

This is not a review of the book. Day 4 struck me. Shook me. Helped me. The Lord wounds that He may heal.

He addresses the sentence “I am disappointed in you.” Some people prefer to use this than “I’m mad at you” or “angry with you.” They think it softens the blow, cuts less deeply.

Shopping In Paris – The Reluctant Parisian – Medium
Statue in Paris

They are wrong. “When we disappoint others, we feel so small. We would like to fade away.” We want to hide.

Hiding from anger is often a short-term scenario. Anger generally passes like a thunderstorm. Forgiveness addresses anger. We can also express our sorrow and regret for having done wrong. We can ask for forgiveness, and receive it.

But what is the solution for disappointment? We’ve let them down, not simply sinned against them.

Here’s the thing, sometimes our sin also lets them down. We are “forgiven” but the anger may linger, the distrust. There seems to be no way back into their good graces. Have you been there? If you are a pastor, I know you have. Expectations that can’t be met destroy relationships, whether one of you is a pastor or not.

That statement, “I am disappointed in you” is often like a depth charge in our soul. We move from an incident to a condition. “Am I a disappointment?”

Children aren’t the only ones that wrestle with that question. Kids do because they are learning so many things and learning involves failure. I try to reassure my kids that failure is the road to success, if they learn from failures. But adults are supposed to “know better”.

We all fail in many ways. We all fail to apply what we know in every situation. Theory evades us in reality. We disappoint people. Welch notes that we begin to feel less than them.

“My point is simply that the experience of being a disappointment to someone close to you is a tough one to shake off.”

As the pastor of a small church, you feel close to most people. You will disappoint them. You will struggle to shake it off. They begin to add up, and the weight grows. You begin to struggle with the idea that everything is your fault.

But it isn’t just about other people. “If you feel like a failure before other people, you feel like a failure before God.” His mercy removes our sin, but we can feel very much like disappointing children who should have figured this out by now. A reluctance to be in His presence can set in if you don’t feel His delight in you.

Welch reminds us that the people of Israel were very disappointing (we aren’t any different). They forgot the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. They grew weary of His faithful provision. They worshiped other gods in debauchery.

They should expect God to turn away. To frown. Shake He head in disappointment.

Back in the Garden, He covered Adam and Eve’s embarrassing (due to sin) nakedness. To Israel He had the priest bless the people:

24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Number 6

He smiled upon them, toward them. His grace also covers His disappointment with our failures. We can move toward Him. And we can move toward the others we disappoint. We can hear their concerns (though we may need to wait out the anger).

Christ removes our guilt. Jesus also never disappointed the Father. That perfect record is ours in Christ. We think of it in terms of justification: righteousness! It also matters in that Jesus has covered our disappointments and failures. The Father delights in us because He delights in Jesus and we are united to Christ the Delightful One. He doesn’t treat us as our sins and failures deserve. It takes years for this to sink in as deeply as disappointment from others. We won’t measure up, and don’t have to in order to enjoy the Father’s delight as He sings over His people.

17 The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3


Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God

I’ve noted that on my most recent vacation, my reading was for fun or spiritual growth. I have reviewed Tripp’s A Shelter in the Storm. I also read (or began to read) Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God by Stephen Smallman. This is a reference to the time Moses spent on the mountain culminating with the moment when God showed Moses some of His glory.

Smallman began these meditations on the character of God during a difficult time in his life. Perhaps it was similar to the difficult time in my life when I read his book. He was drawn to Exodus 32-34. In these meditations (2-3 pages each) he also brings us to the passages in Scripture that refer or allude to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses to further develop the ideas there. Smallman returned home from sabbatical refreshed and reinvigorated for ministry.

He lays out two assumptions that flow through the book. First, we can know God because God wants us to know Him. He has revealed Himself in Scripture! Second, the ultimate and greatest revelation of Himself came in Christ, the Word made flesh (John 1:1-14), the Son through whom He made all things and has spoken in these last days (Heb. 1:1-4).

In his introduction he also lays out three expectations for the reader. The first is to read the book with an open Bible, looking at the Bible references and their context. He also expects you to take time to think through what he wrote. They build upon one another, don’t rush to get the book done (which I why I’m finally done 2 months after starting it). He also wants you to find a place (not the cleft in the rock on the top of a mountain). I generally read in the Mission-style chair in the living room of the Farm while on vacation. When we got home I returned to my nook in the home school room in my comfy chair where I do my daily devotions. Don’t read in the middle of the fray.

“Growing up spiritually is a slow process, and I am thankful that I have been able to take a few more steps as a result of the work of preparing Forty Days. It is my prayer that your time with this little book and The Book will help you do the same.”

Phineas slaying Zimri

The context begins in the sin of the people while Moses is on the mountain to receive the law of God. He’s been gone too long (I usually return from summer vacations to similar problems apparently because I’m gone too long) and the people pressure Aaron to do something. We have at least a breaking of the 2nd commandment (an image of God) if not the 1st commandment (another god beside or before YHWH). Their worship of the golden calf descended into the debauchery that characterized pagan worship. Moses sent the Levites through the assembly to kill those participating in this revelry. Then the Lord visited their sin of the calf upon them through a plague.

While the Lord issues the command for them to prepare to enter the Promised Land, He says He will not go with them. Moses begins to intercede for the people wanting God to come with them. Here we have the famous request: “Please, show me your glory.”

The response comes in two engagements:

19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. Exodus 33

He is told to go up on the mountain where God’s glory will pass by him. He will only see God’s back for none but the Son can see the Father’s face and live. God will then reveal His goodness. His glory is His goodness!

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34

The stage is set for the 40 days to contemplate this self-revelation of God, particularly in light of our stiff-necked sinfulness. It will also trace the difference between Moses’ fading glory and the Son’s unending, transforming glory.

This is a book for those who want to know God. I’ve likened biblical meditation to a cow chewing on its cud. This book helps you chew that cud. Smallman brings us to 2 Corinthians, Colossians, Isaiah, Hebrews and more as he unfolds this revelation. In addition to the self-revelation of God, he addresses the typological function of Moses. Jesus intercedes for us with His blood and prayers.

Many portions of this book are similar to Gentle and Lowly (Forty Days was published in 2007). Ortlund’s purpose is different, and Smallman does spend time meditating on God’s goodness in His justice. Knowing God includes knowing He is just. This magnifies the glory of His grace. Our sinfulness magnifies our need for transformation. That transformation is not accomplished by “trying harder” but by gazing upon the glory of God in the face of Jesus through the gospel. We look deeper into Christ’s work for us and we are changed by our awe.

I found this to be an encouraging book that can be used to disciple people. Those people could be young Christians, or struggling ones. It is not academic. It is not overly wordy (so those who struggle to read shouldn’t be intimidated). It isn’t about the nuts and bolts of Christian living, it’s about who God is and this is the heart of Christianity upon which the nuts and bolts are placed.


It was a strange year. It will have some very different reads.

Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God is a warm systematic theology. His Reformed Dogmatics has been boiled down to the essentials. He represents the height of turn of the 20th century continental Reformed thought. This volume is a bit large, but not overly technical. It is an edifying read. I spent much of the year reading this, trying to invest 20-30 minutes each morning.

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart

Lutheran pastor Harold Senkbeil has done pastors a great service by writing The Care of Souls. It was very popular in 2019-20, just before the world “fell apart”. I think many of us were better prepared to care for others due to this book. I think it is a must read for pastors, and elders since they are shepherds rather than simply decision makers. He draws on his youth on the farm as well as his experiences in ministry. His views are rooted in theology, not simply pragmatism. He covers some important subject like guilt and shame as he reminds us ministry isn’t really about programs, but caring for people.

Devoted to God's Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship - Ferguson, Sinclair B - 9781848719767

Devoted to Christ’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson is yet another gem from one of my favorite pastor-theologians. It also seems to be a timely book as many Christians struggle with devotion to Christ’s church in the wake of Covid. I want to turn this into a SS class unless he gets around to doing a video series. He talks about conversion and profession of faith, the church as family, being a disciple, worship, sacraments and more. This is rich in theology but also practical in light of his years a pastor, not simply a professor. If you are wondering how and why to be devoted to Christ’s church, I recommend this book.

Rejoice and Tremble by Michael Reeves is one of the few books on the fear of God. While this was not his best book, he’s becoming one of my favorite authors. This is a very good book, but the bar was high from previous books. He takes the time to distinguish the wrong and right fear of God. Our fear is connected to God as both Creator and Redeemer. Only the redeemed enjoy the proper fear of God. In addition to Scripture, Reeves (as usual) pulls from the dead guys.

The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience - Ash, Christopher; Midgley, Steve - 9781433568480

Christopher Ash is another author I am developing a liking for. Two of his books show up here. The first is The Heart of Anger written with Steve Midgley who is a pastor and counselor. I’ve read a number of books on this subject, sadly, and this is one of the better ones. It strikes a great balance between the interpretation and application of Scripture, and stories. There are biblical portraits of anger, the reality of God’s anger and defusing our anger.

The other book is Trusting God in the Darkness, a short volume adapted from his lengthy (and excellent) commentary on Job. It isn’t just an edited version. It does capture the heart of the commentary, and Job, in a very accessible fashion. I would highly recommend this to help any wanting to understand this important book of Scripture.

Biographies & History

R. C. Sproul: A Life  - 9781433544774 Nichols, Stephen J

R.C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen Nichols is a very good biography of one of the bigger influences in my life. At times it seems like hagiography but R.C.’s life is fascinating, and his role in many pivotal events for the church in the 20th century undeniable. You get a bit of a glimpse into his friendship with James Boice, but other friendships aren’t really discussed. That is one weakness. He had friendships, and those can be a window into the soul of a man. But Vesta is a constant in R.C.’s life and this book. I think the only time they weren’t together was when he was at the country club “office” writing. You see that he also evangelized there, and his faith wasn’t an ivy tower faith.

Mission at Nuremburg by Tim Townsend focuses on Chaplain Gerecke and his role in the Nuremburg trials. Along the way there are a number of other biographical sketches, particularly of the Nazi prisoners on trial. This also gives us a fresh look at some of the lesser known atrocities committed by the Nazis. I was unaware of the extent of slavery they engaged in, for instance. This is a compelling story. The weak point would be the author’s understanding of doctrine, but that wasn’t why I read the book.

Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller by Michael Graham is an honest look at another great figure of the Reformed Church in America during the 20th century. Graham paints us the picture of a flawed man transformed by grace who learned from his mistakes. As he notes in the introduction, Miller is not one of the best known figures of his time, but was a profound influence on many you have heard of. This was a very encouraging read in a very discouraging time.

Politics and Social Issues

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life

I haven’t read many books on the theology of government. David Innes wrote a book for his class at King’s College that is a great introduction to this subject. It is called Christ and the Kingdoms of Men. He draws on Scripture, a variety of theologians, philosophers and statesmen. I’m turning this into a Sunday School class. He gets into the purposes of government, its limitations and the place for submission and resistance as citizens. He refers fairly often to Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty and the two kingdoms views of Augustine, Luther and Calvin. He says very little about R2K. He ends with a chapter on citizens and statesman. This is a good book to think through the subject.

There are a number of books critiquing critical theory these days. Thaddeus Williams does that and more in Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. He discusses the differences between biblical justice and “social justice” using 12 questions. The book begins with a great forward by John Perkins. Williams refers to numerous original sources. I gave this away to some of our graduates since I found this to be an important and interesting read. If you are going to read one book on the subject, this is the one I’d recommend.

No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism by C. Herbert Oliver is a “blast from the past.” It has been reprinted by P&R with the transcript of a lecture at Westminster Seminary as an appendix. Oliver was raised under the Jim Crow laws before heading north for an education that included Westminster Seminary. He was a Presbyterian pastor and civil rights activist. This focuses on Scripture, and the misinterpretations that furthered racism. He develops the unity of the human race, how Darwin sought to advance white supremacy and the problem of segregation. Sadly we see a push for a new kind of segregation by minority groups. This is a book Christians should read.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman sounds like a dystopian book. It has a striking resemblance to the society of A Brave New World. This is a very important book to understand how we’ve gotten to this very strange time in history. It is filled with philosophical developments adopted by politics. He covers its effects as well. This should be considered his magnum opus (not to be confused with the penguin). This tome will not be for everyone because it does take time, patience and a dictionary. It is well-worth the effort.

A Year of Dystopian Novels

Animal Farm

It is called a fairy tale but George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic. It’s been a few decades since I’ve read it. It was as good as I remembered it. I got a graphic novel version for #1 son, and he loved it. Orwell warns of the dangers of communism in a story based loosely on the Russian revolution.

Orwell didn’t only write Animal Farm, he wrote another classic in 1984. There is a more elaborate, political theory here behind this. Though a socialist himself, he feared totalitarianism. He introduces us to Winston and Julia who want to see an end to Big Brother but end up being trapped and tortured until we get to a chilling ending. Orwell likes those. Yes, it can be a bit of a slog when Orwell is explaining Ingsoc. He paints a vivid picture of a dingy society.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is another dystopian classic. It is a softer form of totalitarianism. You don’t have the dinginess of 1984 and round the clock surveillance. But you do have the restrictions on information, relational disconnection including marriage in name only, frequent abortions, snitching for the state and the TV “family”. Montag has a quest for knowledge, but doesn’t know why. As a fireman whose job it is to burn books, and the buildings they are found in, he begins to keep copies for himself. And so began his troubles.


On my last vacation I tried not to read any heavy theology, but rather read to fill my soul (so to speak). One of the two books I read was Paul Tripp’s A Shelter in the Time of Storm: meditations on God and Trouble. This book is a series of meditations on Psalm 27.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm: Meditations on God and Trouble Paul David Tripp cover image (1018202488879)

In his introduction Tripp expresses why he loves the Psalms. “They put difficulty and hope together in the tension of hardship and grace that is the life of everyone this side of eternity.” This Psalm is full hardship and grace. This is why I found this book as a balm for my soul. Life for the last few years has been full of hardship. I’ve experienced God’s grace but had grown weary in recent months. There have been lots of wounds to lick, so to speak.

Tripp also notes some emphases in this Psalm: shock value; regularity; focus on Christ; and call to patient hope. It is honest about how hard life can be generally and situationally, but also the goodness of God. The hardship in this Psalm is about the crowd, the mob, that encamps around him. He is assailed, devoured. But he finds refuge in God, anticipating deliverance.

Tripp does not work through the Psalm verse by verse. He begins with verse 11 which implores God to teach him God’s ways. This is intended to set the tone of humility as we approach the rest of the Psalm. There are 52 meditations (with a few questions for each). I generally read 1 a day but you could do one a week for a year to drill down deeper (re-read and meditate upon the verse and key thoughts in the meditation).

As Tripp does in other devotionals he includes some poetry. I used to write poetry to express what was in me, but have always struggled to read other people’s poetry (perhaps it was that high school report on Emily Dickinson). I don’t bother with those meditations. Possibly to my own detriment.

The majority of the meditations are prose, and for me they were quite helpful. Tripp talks quite a bit about false witnesses (vv. 12). Sadly, in this world people will not seek to understand you but attack you. Jesus is the place for us to hide: in His goodness and righteousness. He reminds us that we need to be honest about life, and aware of how profoundly broken and sinful this world and humanity are. We often struggle with spiritual blindness.

“It really does hurt when you are falsely accused. It is painful to think that someone is convinced that you did something that you didn’t do. It is frustrating to be accused of a wrong you had nothing to do with. It is maddening when you seem unable to do anything to explain or defend yourself.”

Tripp repeatedly brings us back to Christ in the process. His discussion of waiting on God is particularly helpful. He seems to work in cycles, circling back to subject like being a student, false witnesses, refuge, waiting and more. This is what meditation does. It isn’t linear but you circle back, see something that you didn’t notice before. You develop an earlier idea further.

This is book worth living with for awhile. Take time for your troubled heart to marinate in some gospel truths. You’ll be grateful

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet[b] I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
    be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
    Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
    O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
    O God of my salvation!
10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
    but the Lord will take me in.

11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
12 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

13 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!


The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution - Trueman, Carl R; Dreher, Rod (foreword by) - 9781433556333

I actually finished reading Carl Trueman’s important work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self before my vacation. I didn’t have time to review the final section before heading out of town. So here we are a month or so later. It isn’t as fresh in my mind, but here we go anyway.

The final section is entitled Triumphs of the Revolution. His focus is the effects of the revolution of the self on western culture, particularly the United States. It is less philosophical. In each chapter he focuses on one aspect and how the revolution progressed, often through court cases.

This is not as intellectually stimulating as earlier sections. It can be downright discouraging to see the advancement of sin and selfishness under the guise of freedom for the self. That’s not his goal, but it is a reality to grapple with, similar to needing to face life “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. You should tremble because of their effect on you, and lament the destruction of others.

The Triumph of the Erotic: Pornography

Sex pervades every corner of life. Just yesterday CNN was talking about school librarians pushing back against the grassroots move to get inappropriate books out of school libraries. They turn concerned parents into the enemy of freedom. This isn’t about the public library or local bookstore. It’s about what should be available to kids in school. Sexually explicit material is not educational. This is particularly true when the books include sexually explicit drawings like some of these books do.

Sex pervades the news. When I was a kids the ads for the Combat Zone establishments (strip clubs) were in the sports page of the Boston Globe. Now there are click bait and salacious stories on every news sight. Most ads on TV use sex to sell anything from drugs to toothpaste.

Trueman argues that this took place, not in academia, but through surrealism (art) and the increasing acceptance of pornography.

He begins with Oscar Wilde who fostered gay culture. Other authors that were considered legitmate (not dime store novels) focused on sex and dealt with censorship of their novels. He notes that Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce credits surrealism with the rise of eroticism. Artists like Salvadore Dali moved it from intellectualism to the common man. In surrealism, “the nature of the self and of identity was central.” It sought to give expression to the unconscious. The unconscious is the bedrock of our identity.

Here I was a bit lost or in disagreement. The idea is that in our dreams we can be who we want to be. I don’t think we choose our dreams. They do reflect our subconscious but that isn’t necessarily who I want to be. It seems an unchosen identity.

Either way, dreams fill surrealistic art that moved from the art gallery to popular culture in movies (like Spellbound). The subconscious is expressed to be our guide to truth. Thanks to Freud that subconscious is seen to be fixated on sex. Apparently he never got past adolescence.

Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism exalted the Marquis de Sade as a hero because his sexual behavior was “free from any control by reason, aesthetics, or morals.” Eroticism is the glorification of sex without regard to moral or aesthetic boundaries. If art (via Marx) is supposed to change the world, surrealism made it sexual. It wanted to overthrow Christianity and its limiting morality. The battle against Christianity was fought through the sexual revolution and art was a primary means.

PLAYBOY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1976 Jimmy Carter Patti McGuire Cinema Misty Rowe  - $17.50 | PicClick
The Jimmy Carter cover

Hugh Hefner brought pornography mainstream with Playboy. It’s soft-core pictures seem tame and almost artistic today in light of how far things have been taken. It isn’t just Pornhub, but the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones with sexually explicit scenes that break moral boundaries in addition to premarital sex and adultery.

Hefner did this by including having more than pictures of naked women. They interviewed people of consequence: politicians, celebrities, musicians, authors etc.). It helped your brand to be interviewed in Playboy. The objectification of women seemed secondary, minimal. It promoted a lifestyle of enlightened, thoughtful hedonism. Hefner himself became a cultural icon and eventually had a mainstream show about life with his girlfriends. Soon porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy were household names.

“Porn is now the norm.”

Christianity views pornography as inciting lust and furthering sexual violence against women. It distorts our expectations of sex and the human body. It is connected with human trafficking. Some “progressive Christians” like Nadia Bolz-Weber argue for “ethically sourced pornography” as though the sin is only in the trafficking.

Trueman then brings in the shifts in feminist thought. Old school feminists viewed it as part of the male domination of women. They opposed pornography. Some of the “newer” feminists like Camille Paglia are pro-pornography thinking this liberates women who participate or watch it. The question has become whether or not you like it, finding it helpful.

One of the big problems is that “pornography detaches sex from real bodily encounter” and relationship. John Mayer famously noted that pornography was easier than relationships: you don’t have to care about anyone else’s needs, wants, feeling and acceptance.

The future looks scary indeed as the pornography industry is always on the cutting edge of technology. Trueman refers to a report called Our Sexual Future with Robots. There is also the specter of virtual reality (I’d recommend the Black Mirror episode on this but it is explicit). Sex has indeed become cheap in our culture thanks to the “revolution”.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic

In his discussion of the triumph of the therapeutic, Trueman points to gay marriage. The road to cultural and moral acceptance focuses on the therapeutic. It culminates in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision but the cultural trajectory had been set in previous, unrelated cases. For instance we see this in the Planned Parenthood of Southern PA v. Casey case:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under the compulsion of the State.”

Former Gov. Cuomo celebrating a law expanding abortion

Apparently science, that great idol of progressives with regard to Covid, is irrelevant in the issue of abortion. Additionally, my thoughts on the matter have no sway over others. Each must decide them for themselves and are free to act on them as long as the baby is still in the womb (mostly in some states).

Lawrence v. Texas overthrew an earlier precedent that upheld sodomy laws. It legitimized homosexual sex in the process. In his dissent, Scalia noted that the Court could not be swayed by popular opinion but was to rule on law. The belief that some sexual behaviors were moral and some were not was a bedrock of jurisprudence. He would add a foreboding note: “This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite sex couples.”

The idea is that society needs legalized abortion to make women happy. The laws should not restrict immoral behavior but permit people to be happy. Therefore if homosexual behavior makes people happy it should be permitted. Soon the argument would be transferred to marriage.

United States v. Windsor (2013) concerned the Defense of Marriage Act signed by Bill Clinton. It was claimed that DOMA exempted same-sex marriages from the definition of marriage. Obama’s Department of Justice chose not to defend the government from the lawsuit, and the Court narrowly decided to overturn the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The majority then cast aspersion upon opponents of gay marriage by denying any rational basis to the view: it was all animus. Trueman notes that we have emotivism being used to disparage adherents of traditional views of marriage. These cases affirmed expressive individualism. This culminated in the Obergefell decision.

“A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy … the right to marriage is fundamental … A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education. … Fourth and finally, this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order.”

The Court destroyed the traditions and social order in the process. Expressive individualism and our need to affirm everyone else’s self expression won. Children stopped being protected by marriage laws with the advancement of No-Fault Divorce (one of Reagan’s greatest regrets).

Singer thinks he is no more valuable than this sheep. (credit: The New Yorker)

Trueman then spends time looking at Peter Singer’s ethics. He views the fetus as a human being, for instance, but not a person. His ethics are about personhood, a rather elusive idea. Before a baby is a person it may be killed by the parent’s choice. And after you stop being a person (by virtue of mental infirmity) you too could be killed. Personhood is tied to viability (ability to survive on your own)which includes rational choice or consciousness. Singer puts forth the theory of speciesism. His views on abortion are pragmatic and therapeutic.

Trueman then shifts to the attacks on the freedom of speech because some speech hinders expressive individualism. Emotivism is used to characterize such speech as driven by fear and hate instead of solid moral reasoning. Rather than affirm free speech to avoid totalitarianism, expressive individualism fosters totalitarianism to protect their “rights” at the expense of others.

As I wrote at the bottom of a page, “they want dignity as sinners, not as image bearers.” That is a huge difference.

The Triumph of the T

I’ve been listening to The Kinks for the last few days. Trueman begins this chapter with a quote from “Lola”, one of their most recognizable hits. Written in the 70’s, this and movies like Dog Day Afternoon and athletes like Rene Richards show that transgenderism isn’t new. But in recent years the numbers of people with gender disphoria and identifying as transgender has skyrocketed.

Trueman identifies the “odd nature of the LGBTQ+ coalition”. Gays and Lesbians, for instance, are radically different in terms of how they are experienced, and the social behavior of the groups. Later Rosaria Butterfield will note that “lesbians eschew penetration, gay men engage in reckless and dangerous penetration.” He notes that to be accepted in the workplace, a lesbian frequently has to act and dress like a heterosexual woman and be attractive to men. The homosexual male has no such need to be attractive to women. There is clearly a very different power dynamic at play.

The T and Q differ from the L and G in that the former deny a fixed nature of gender which is actually assumed by the latter. Feminists like J.K. Rowling want to defend the genuine feminine experience from men who want to become women. She has drawn ire from many but seems to have the cache to not be cancelled, completely.

Trueman focuses on two seminal events in the quest to legitimize homosexuality. The first is the Stonewall riots in 1969, and the other is the AIDS crisis. The first solidified political activism by homosexuals. The AIDS crisis helped people to see them as sympathetic victims with a little help from Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. With the focus on identity instead of behavior, they were dying for who they were, not risky behavior or coming into contact with the virus in other ways. I found it odd that the role of Dr. Fauci was not discussed in the AIDS crisis since that was when he first rose to prominence.

The big moment for the transgender movement is when Bruce Jenner declared to Diane Sawyer that he was now Caitlyn. Soon we got the bathroom policy debates and the vilification of North Carolina. For acceptance, the focus is necessarily one the psychological instead of the physical. “Biological and cultural amnesia must be the order of the day.” This psychological aspect is seen in Jenner’s statement:

“Bruce [was] always telling a lie. He’s lived a lie his whole life about who he is. And I can’t do that any longer. … For all intents and purposes, I am a woman. … And that very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. Cuz why? I don’t want to disappoint people.”

Jenner was still using masculine pronouns, oddly. But the focus is on “living a lie”, a lie he maintained for years because he didn’t want to disappoint people who viewed him as an Olympic and national hero. This is expressive individualism.

Trueman relies on correspondence with Rosaria Butterfield about the uneasy alliance. Before her conversion, Rosaria was a professor of queer theory and activist for queer causes. Transgenders were not accepted by queers until it was politically expedient. Additionally, “women who want to become transgender men usurp male privilege and turn their backs on women’s empowerment, men who want to become transgender women deny the male privilege that has been their invisible birth right and steal false identifications with victimhood.”

This is not theoretical for me. I have a relative who recently decided he now wants to be known as Amelia. I asked about sexual orientation since there has been a shift in gender. I wonder if this is an example of what I’m beginning call “woke guilt” (I don’t think anyone has used that, but I could be wrong). It is the need to avoid being associated with an oppressor group, so men can become women to join the victims instead of the evil oppressor.

These are unstable alliances. Biological women often feel robbed as transgender women take their places in politics, and beat them in sports competitions. The categories are increasingly unstable as well. Women as a category includes menstruating and non-menstruating (by biology, not time or providence) people. But now some men menstruate.

“If I am whatever I think I am and if my inward sense of psychological well-being is my only moral imperative, then the imposition of external, prior, or static categories is nothing other than an act of imperialism, an attempt to restrict my freedom or to make me inauthentic. … In this context, transgenderism is merely the latest iteration of self-creation that becomes necessary in the wake of decreation.”

The death-work in The Life of Brian has become an all too familiar reality.

The Yogyakarta Principles want to formally legalize these principles. Victimhood is the presenting reason for these legal standards that have a snowball’s chance in nations like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The first they psychologized sexual orientation to include any number of orientations based on your attractions at any given time. They separated gender from sex. Gender is assigned, rather than recognized, at birth since there is now no objective standard for gender. All of this results in arbitrary views that are granted objective status that must be enforced. Metaphysics is dead, and we have killed it.

“First, while few if any would disagree that all persons should be equal before the law, the close connection of personhood with self-determined sexual identity renders personhood so subjective and plastic that the results in terms of formulating and applying the law would seem vulnerable to precisely the same subjectivity and plasticity.”

Reflections on the Triumphs of the Revolution

“Life in the world of the expressive individual now involves the public performance of what were once considered the more shameful elements of private character.”

We haven’t felt the full effect of these changes, yet. Trueman states that “transgenderism is set to change everything, from notions of privacy to the very language that ordinary people use in their day-to-day lives. The revolution of the self is now the revelation of us all. The modern social imaginary ensures that.” This unstable metaphysics cannot endure long, and the cultures that buy into this will collapse.

Concluding Unscientific Prologue

Trueman offers some concluding thoughts. He offers this book as neither “a lament (n)or a polemic.” Each has its place. We need to remember, as a Church, that we are exiles (1 Peter and Hebrews 11-13). It will often feel like we don’t belong here, and this revolution drives that point home.

Trueman admits that the book is “a provisional, imperfect, and incomplete narrative.” He’s not sure how it will end. He knows the book isn’t exhaustive and free from flaws. He wants this to serve as a prologue to future discussions, not the final word.

The hard fact is that while we are uncomfortable with some aspects of the revolution, we are also part of the revolution. We can’t avoid it. We are like the frog in the kettle.

Trueman notes that our situation is very different from 1500 Europe. We choose to be Christians in a way they didn’t/couldn’t. To be born then and there was to be part of the Church of Rome. Soon you could choose to be Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist etc. but still Christian. We are expressive individuals, but recognize that some expressions are sinful and reject them. There are ways that expressive individualism affirm the inherent dignity of the individual that prior generations did not. This is a step forward. The problem is detaching this from any sacred order.

He notes that we are entering The Brave New World. The emotivism and deathworks make ethical and political discussions heated and dangerous. There is far too much heat and not enough light. The common ground from which one can make their case no longer seems to exist.

“Our social imaginaries as Christians are often too little different from that of the culture around us. We can easily slip into using categories that are actually misleading and that militate against clarity on key issues.”

The Church can’t treat people’s desires as imaginary. It must address them in a thorough manner, rather than a reductionistic one. We are to speak not simply of sin, but also sanctification and serving people with those struggles. These are the people who will end up finding the revolution unsatisfying and come to Christ with all the baggage the revolution produces.

Additionally, we will have to wade into the the #MeToo movement and be honest about sexual harassment and assault within our institutions. We’ve seen the beginning of this as the truth about men like Ravi Zacharias and Bill Hybels have come to light. We will live in a world with gay marriage for the foreseeable future. We should find a way to honor the commitments people outside the church make to one another, even as we maintain a subculture of biblical marriage. We will have to sort out what to do with same sex couples with kids who come to Christ.

All this should drive us to the Scriptures to better understand and apply them. It isn’t compassionate to deny biblical truth. We need to grapple with the reality of original sin and the implications of that corruption. We also need to have a high view of the body, not just the soul. As an increasingly margin religious group we exist in a pluralist society, just like the early church. Christianity is no longer assumed but a choice. That may cause us to draw the ire of the authorities. But that may also garner the attention of those looking for hope. We’ll see.

My Final Thoughts

Trueman has written an important and needed book. It isn’t for everyone. I found this to be not only an important read, but a fascinating one. This book still takes time, perseverance and effort which are in seemingly short supply in our day. It is well worth taking that time. I’m glad I did. I hope many more will, but I am a realist (I think) in recognizing that this is beyond many Christians. Hopefully it will trickle down through those who read it in blogs like this, sermons, personal conversations and more.


“Ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse you of competitiveness, comparing yourself to others, self-exalting bragging, and self-condemning whining, and you will discover gifts that you never dreamed you had.” Jack Miller

Many of us struggle with a spirit of competitiveness. This is not about competing in a sport or game. I am competitive in that sense. I play to win. My wife isn’t competitive at all. She feels no urge to win a board game, for instance.

Jack isn’t concerned about whether or not you want to win at a game of basketball. The spirit of competitiveness is when being competitive is a defining characteristic. This is what set Michael Jordan apart from others: he had to win at everything. He could never just enjoy a game of golf. He had to win, or, more importantly, better than you. The same was true for cards, ping pong, tiddlywinks etc. This is the danger Jack Miller is pointing out because it destroys community, friendships and as a function of pride opposes God (and is opposed by Him). This competitive ruins marriages, churches and workplaces. It is a corrosive power, like relational acid. Eventually you don’t want to be with that person since they suck all the joy out of life.

The same can be said about those who are always comparing themselves to others, bragging or whining. They are more familiar to us, but competitiveness as a fault isn’t. We recognize  that to compare yourself to others once in a awhile is not bad. You have to in some instances. To be proud of an accomplishment is not bad. To complain or put yourself down isn’t a big deal. Until that is what you do most of the time. It is the same with being competitive. It’s okay to want to win a game. It is not okay to have to be the best at everything. It’s not okay to always be bragging on yourself or your accomplishments. It’s not okay to be a whiner or full of self-condemnation. When the instance becomes the ordinary or normal status, you’ve got a problem.

Competitiveness can show up in needing to make more money than your peers. It isn’t about meeting your family’s need, it is about being better at selling, programing computers or whatever you do for money. It can show up in always trying to outdo another person. In the silly movie Deck the Halls, two neighbors compete to have the best Christmas displays in their neighborhood. The new neighbor, played by Danny DeVito, moves in on the long-time resident’s (played by Matthew Broderick) turf. He notes, “that’s MY thing” and he’s not giving it up no matter how ridiculous the competition gets. The men become enemies and the neighborhood is nearly destroyed. The comedy is based on an extreme example of an ordinary problem.

Such competitiveness refuses to recognize and appreciate the gifts and abilities of others. You feel the compulsive need to outdo the other as we see in the song Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better in the play Annie, Get Your Gun. Such competitiveness refuses to acknowledge the worth and value of others in your life. You can’t celebrate them but must crush them.


Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender Miller, C. John cover image

In 1972, Jack Miller’s daughter Barbara announced she was leaving the faith, and the church. She was weary of the strict moral code and wanted to do her own thing. When you are a pastor, this can be difficult to deal with. One of the things that Jack and Rose Marie did was form a prayer group when eventually became New Life Church. One of the things Jack did was study repentance which resulted in the book Repentance & 20th Century Man, published in 1975. It was revised in 1980, and my copy was copyrighted 1998. It has since been retitled simply Repentance.

While this book includes plenty of theology, it is meant to be a practical and heart-penetrating book. Jack is not simply aiming for the head but also the heart.

In his introductory note to the reader you can see the cross chart in written form. Christians can be taken up with evasion, pretense and the reliance on good works to address post-conversion sins. He admits that many Christians have not been instructed how to come to Christ to deal with their guilt and sin.

He points to conversations with his friend and Ugandan pastor Kefa Sempangi about a revival there in 1938. The people were openly confessing their sins. Jack longed to see repentance as a key factor in our churches, and for a revival as a result.

“Do not attempt to confess and forsake your old ways apart from the love of God manifested in a crucified Lord. Instead, look to the risen Savior who intercedes at the Father’s right hand for you.”

Repentance: The Foundation of Life

The unrepentant heart is to be fear. It is cold, hard and proud. God opposes, or fights against, the proud.

On the other hand, He loves the contrite of heart. He binds up the broken hearted. He is near to them and dwells to them. Here in the age of the Spirit, it is also the age of repentance. Repentance was frequently part of the message of the of the Apostolic church. Faith and repentance are linked together by Jesus and the Apostles. Satan seeks to separate them so we become separated (so to speak) from the Spirit. We become self-reliant and quench the Spirit rather than living Spirit-filled lives.

Like the Pharisees, we tend to delight in our knowledge and reputation more than in the Lord Himself. We become ignorant of the sins we commit. The fountain of life seems dried up. Repentance clears the channel so the water can flow so we live lives of gospel joy and obedience.

Repentance and Its Counterfeit

In this chapter Miller puts penance in his sights. It is a satanic counterfeit of repentance. It is not found only in Roman Catholicism but many a Protestant in name can rely on penance.

The first problem is that penance is about what we do. It is a function of our pride that thinks we can fix our sin problem. It seeks to merit grace. We find this theological formulation among the Pharisees, Roman Catholicism and the Latter Day Saints. It can be common among Protestants as well. It is rooted in a gross misunderstanding of grace.

As sinners, we still deal with indwelling sin. This means that all we do is tainted by sin. Indwelling sin can also blind us to our sin, and need for grace.

Penance also focuses on what we see and feel in ourselves. Its sorrow is a worldly sorrow focused on consequences instead of the sinfulness of our sin. He refers to Mark Twain (and will return to Twain’s autobiography), and the descent into self-pity. We try to rid ourselves of the self-pity without separating ourselves from the sin it produces.

Repentance leaves us powerless and under the power of sin. This is because the sinner trusts in himself. We see Peter wanting Jesus to depart from him because he was a sinner. Authentic disciples are bold and are enthusiastic for the things of God. And God!

We should not confuse conviction of sin with salvation. We should experience conviction of sin, but in salvation those experiencing it turn to Christ. Salvation is found in turning to Christ in true faith and repentance when the Spirit brings conviction of sin. This means that when we seek to restore a brother or sister, we point to Christ the Mediator and God’s promises of grace to the repentant.

Penance also looks for human priests rather than Christ our Great High Priest. It may not be an ordained priest, but someone who speaks works of absolution to us. This can be a pastor or elder, parent, spouse or trusted friend. It is usually someone we invest with spiritual power over us. Because they are not turning to Christ, they are still in their sin.

Repentance: What Is True Repentance?

We are not to defend ourselves, like Adam when he’s found hiding in the bushes. We are to fire our defense attorney to become beggars of grace from the hand of a merciful God. Sin doesn’t cease to be sin because it is committed by a Christian. We sin against a greater light and are held more accountable.

The Bible repeatedly calls us to repentance. We not to think of a weak Jesus begging us to turn around. He is the exalted Lord, though gentle and humble, that invites and commands us to repent. We see Miller develop his ideas of “Lordship evangelism” which should not be confused with Lordship salvation. It is similar to what we find in Calvin and Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Christ cannot be torn asunder. We can’t simply come to a Savior, we also find a Lord. This is implied in repentance.

Miller also develops the distinction between branch sins (those we see) and the root sins or idols of the heart. The branch sins get their power from the root sins. His example is laziness (branch) which is often a manifestation of our pride. We think we deserve rest and comfort. Others should work, it is beneath us. Christ saves us to the uttermost, not simply the branch sins.

One error common in our churches is people trusting in doctrine rather than Christ. We believe the doctrine of justification, but we must believe in Christ to be actually be justified. True repentance includes sorrow for sin but is actually turning to Christ in light of an apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ.

Repentance and the Spirit-filled Life

 It was during this time of Jack’s life that he was learning about life in the Spirit. Here he ties that life with repentance. This is not about emotional highs, but living in dependence upon the Living Lord. We can rest in previous emotional experiences and/or continually seek new emotional experiences.

The repentant person has looked at themselves honestly and confessed the pride and unbelief that remains. This enables them to see more clearly the pride and unbelief of others. The sign of the Spirit’s presence is love, not emotional highs.

Jack delves into John 14 and the connection between love, obedience and deeper fellowship. The Puritans distinguished between union (unchanging) and communion (dynamic). The Spirit produces love which expresses itself in obedience in which we experience greater communion: the presence of God. The Father delights to fellowship with His children, especially when they trust, rest and walk in His ways.

“The more that you know that you are stained to the bone with selfish impulses, the more that you see how you hold out against the will of the Lord, the more you go to Christ as a thirsty sinner who finds deeper cleansing, more life, and greater joy through the Spirit.”

Repentance and the Carnal Christian

Miller address the erroneous doctrine of the carnal Christian. He asserts that such a notion is based on a misunderstanding of Scripture, in particular 1 Corinthians 3. All Christians have received the Spirit. There is no “second blessing”. Paul wanted the Corinthians to live in light of that reality. They were living as if they were still carnal. They were backslidden, unrepentant. They were not a lower or different class of Christian. They needed to repent.

“The scandal is that they have become a contradiction in terms: they are spiritual men who are living as though they are not possessed of the Spirit.”

He returns to a definition of repentance as “man’s coming undone in respect to all human righteousness, followed by his going outside himself in faith to Christ alone for salvation.” Christ rules, and our disobedience to His rule necessitates the cross.

One problem that is common is that people insist that rebellious friends and relatives are Christians. They may call them carnal, but Christians. They don’t need a pep talk, but to hear the gospel and its call to repent. He returns to his understanding of Galatians: the Spirit produces faith and godly character, the unbelief produces self-effort and the works of the flesh. We must recognize the difference between the old man and new man in Christ, and preach the gospel for either justification or sanctification in light of that.

Repentance – God’s Mercy

Repentance is grounded in God’s mercy. God stirs us to repentance by His kindness. Sin, Miller offers, despises God and His glory. It also blinds us to His mercy. Repentance turns from our pride and unbelief. Repentance overthrows our idols.

Repentance and Counseling

Your repentance is necessary to being an effective counselor. Effective counselors will call people to repentance (but not just that).

“The impulsive, undisciplined person feels guilty because the disordered character of his life has destroyed the basis for self-respect.”

People often move through the external world to avoid dealing with their inner world. Like Adam people try to hide, deny and blame-shift. Sinful people suspect that God is out to ruin their fun, rather than protect them.

Jack often pointed people to Isaiah 53, Galatians, and/or John’s Gospel. He wants them to see Jesus as the One who gives life, and sin as that which steals life. Their problem is not simply a particular sin, but unbelief. Repentance is turning away from that unbelief and turning to Christ to receive life from Him.

He returns to the sins of the Christian. Repentance, and the blood of the Christ, is the only solution. Too many try to punish themselves as though they were responsible to save themselves. Miller keeps stressing that true repentance is a turning to Christ.

Keep in mind that he wrote this after Barbara turned away from Christ and her family. This began a long conflict. Jack began to realize that the difference between mouth righteousness and heart righteousness was often at play. Children grow weary of the words that don’t match the heart. Marriages are also ruined through a lack of repentance from either domineering or capitulating men, or wives who must get their own way. When parents don’t know how to deal with their sin, they can’t help their kids deal with theirs.

“For the gospel enables the new man to face his own sins squarely, confess them, and forsake them.”

Repentance and Sharing Christ

Lastly, Miller focuses on the connection between repentance and evangelism.

People who haven’t turned from their pride in repentance either don’t evangelize, period, or push it off on the professionals. Many put it off until they “know more”, as though the gospel was Ph.D. level. They are too strong in themselves to witness. Strong in themselves they often don’t want to get involved with sinners. They seek to protect themselves rather than rescue others.

Repentance ends in joy in the Spirit. It results in power through the Spirit. It frees you to pray, to express your weakness and be honest with your sin so that evangelism takes place. Such a person is not angered by sinners, but recognizes his own sin such that he points them to Jesus for salvation.

Jesus came to save sinners; to see and save the lost. He sends us to continue that work. We’ve been granted a ministry of reconciliation. We have not received a ministry of condemnation. But if we are not repentant people, we will focus on building walls and pointing out sins rather than pointing to Christ.

Summing Up:

This short book covers a number of topics but keeps returning to repentance as a turning from sin and to Christ. Miller keeps bringing us to Jesus and the cross. He presses in, and we can learn from this. We can also ask if we are repenting or expressing worldly sorrow? This book makes a good give away volume.


Here is the second part of my interactive review of Michael Graham’s “critical biography” of C. John (Jack) Miller, one of the key figures of the 20th century as a pastor, evangelist, professor, missionary and author. I hope you take the time to read Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller.

Cheer Up! God’s Spirit Works In Your Weakness

Cheer Up!: The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller - Graham, Michael A - 9781629957210

Jack learned that weakness was a good thing, and his pride and self-reliance were not. This awareness of his weakness set the stage for a time of fruitful, pioneering ministry for Jack. But the changes in his approach to ministry still needed to be applied to family life to a greater degree.

During a summer vacation in Europe, they spent time at L’Abri and were struck by how much prayer took place there. He realized that pride kept him from prayer. He realized that pride keeps people and congregations from prayer. He connected that to the collapse of his ministry & joy in Christ. Jack saw that weakness was not to be feared but was the occasion for prayer which God used as a means for fruitful ministry. As he studied by the Mediterranean he saw the important place of God’s promises to our prayer. He also saw the ministry of the Spirit strengthening the weak who lay hold of those promises. Here exactly is where many churches fail. I am convinced this is why the first church I pastored closed: I couldn’t get people to pray corporately. This was connected to a lack of personal witnessing.

““When I pray and do evangelism, I have laid hold of God’s own … method [of salvation],” Jack wrote. Therefore, he concluded elsewhere, “we must get down to knee-work””

When Jack returned home he continued his study of prayer, promises and the out-pouring of the Spirit. He became a functional Trinitarian rather than neglecting the Spirit. Edmund Clowney helped him see these connections more clearly. Like Paul he wanted to boast in his weakness instead of fleeing weakness. American Christians seem to fear weakness, and expressing their very real weakness. Our denomination struggles with pride: we value success, not struggle. We hide our weaknesses. This can be seen in comments about not needing to learn from other denominations. We think we have it all together.

Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender Miller, C. John cover image

In evangelism, he realized he invited people to the Lord Jesus Christ. Evangelism is relational, and he began to add “Lordship evangelism” to the mix. We can see this in his book Repentance (formerly Repentance & the 20th Century Man). We cannot tear Christ asunder. He was influenced in this view by a paragraph in Bavinck which unmasks false religions as sin and calls people to a knowledge of the true God. Jack sought to approach people as a fellow sinner rather than an angry Christian. We should be humble as forgiven people. We speak as repentant people, not those who have arrived (the last chapter of Repentance is all about this).

Jack experienced a new freedom in evangelism, and ministry. He was free to confess his sins, leading people as the repenter-in-chief. The danger can be that others are content to let you confess your sin as though they don’t also need to do this. As pastor, I can often feel that I’m the only one who seems to own their sin in conflict.

In 1972 Rose Marie experienced a series of health problems. He knew that he should leave either the Chapel or WTS to have more time to care for her. Shaeffer advised him to remain at WTS in order to influence a generation of pastors. He resigned from Mechanicsville Chapel. A few months later his daughter Barbara announced she was leaving the faith. This resulted in an expanded paper on repentance which would become Repentance & the 20th Century Man. It also resulted in a prayer group meeting in his home in Jenkintown.

Those prayer meetings began considering a church where the unconverted could hear about Jesus and be called to faith. By February 1973, 48 people met in the Miller home for the first meeting of what would become New Life Church. They met at 4:30 in the afternoon. Soon they met in the local library. Despite expanding to two services, they needed a larger facility. They moved to the YMCA in 1974 and would be there until 1981.

One main emphasis for New Life was prayer, and prayer meetings could last 3 or 4 hours. People were encouraged to invite non-Christians. John Julien, son of the OPC elder who provided airfare, lived with the Millers during this time frame. As a WTS student, he noted it was essentially a never-ending prayer meeting at the house.

Jack began to speak of “preaching the gospel to yourself.” This practice was not original to him though the language seems to be. Martyn Lloyd-Jones encouraged people to talk to themselves instead of listening to themselves. The Puritans talked of claiming the promises.

Jack’s theology of evangelism which included relationships, Lordship and weakness now incorporated hospitality. This did not mean it could only take place in the home, but that home was a good place to further friendship and express love. This didn’t mean easy. It was often messy. Dealing with sin and misunderstandings in light of the gospel is one way to make the gospel visible and relevant. There was also an assault on a host. Graham includes a shocking example of this with Gwen. After spending time living with the Millers she began to plan their murder. Before carrying out a plan she confessed this to them and experienced the reality of forgiveness. She saw her sinfulness in wanting to kill the only people who’d given her consistent love.

Despite the numerous and often dramatic conversions, Jack learned all was not well at home. So good at listening to others, Rose Marie declared that Jack didn’t listen to her. Jack began to develop his listening skills with her. When he asked again, she had the same answer. He realized his sin problem was deeper than he thought. But so was hers. She looked to him as something of a savior. Her struggle deepened. In 1975 he was granted a sabbatical to caravan in Ireland and Europe. Rose Marie began to learn what Jack had learned earlier about regular repentance and reliant prayer.

Back at New Life Jack had help from Ron Lutz, a WTS intern who became an associate pastor, and Dick Kaufmann. These men complemented one another, and Jack, to form a great team.

Cheer Up! Justification Is By Faith Alone, Even in the Twentieth Century

The growth of New Life Church contributed to a theological controversy that occupied Jack, WTS and the OPC for seven years (1976-1983). This chapter is one of the best resources to understand the controversy. The Trinity Foundation material was not helpful to me. Graham reflects Jack’s concerns, but doesn’t vilify Shepherd. Neither did Jack. Graham also notes that at points, Jack agreed with Norman Shepherd.

Shepherd taught systematic theology at Westminster. He was concerned about “easy believism” in general and what he perceived was happening at New Life. His concerns were similar to later concerns about Sonship (which I find generally unfounded) that the emphasis is so much on justification that sanctification is neglected.

As is common, to address one extreme Shepherd went to a different or opposite extreme rather than re-establishing the gospel. Shepherd began to stress the necessity of works for salvation. How you express that matters. Confessionally, they are necessary evidence of justification but never the basis for justification. It is common to speak of having been saved (justification), being saved (sanctification) and will be saved (glorification). Shepherd expressed the ideas of having been justified, being justified and will be justified. His views seem to lay the foundation for Piper’s “final justification” which includes works, and the Federal Vision (as much as I can understand the FV).

Shepherd believed Jack expressed a Lutheran law-gospel distinction (the WCF expresses such a distinction), while Jack believed that Shepherd overly stressed the continuity of the covenant such that he lost sight of the newness of the covenant under Christ, particularly the outpouring of the Spirit. It was a controversy that tore at the fabric of Westminster’s faculty and board, and then the OPC. This controversy is one reason the PCA turned down the OPC’s inquiry into uniting along with the RPCES. The PCA and RPCES would unite in 1982.

It did result in Shepherd being removed from the faculty after years of debate. It did drive Jack deeper into the Scriptures, Confessions and theologians like Calvin, Vos and more. Sadly his unpublished paper “Justification by Faith in the 20th Century” remains unpublished and isn’t an appendix to this book. Similar to the Marrow Controversy, we should learn that “easy believism” and various forms of “Lordship salvation” are twin sins whose answer is always the gospel rather than pushing the opposite error.

Jack lamented the damage to God’s glory and faculty relationships. In a letter to Gaffin he wrote “I’m left totally downcast at our inability to work through these matters in a gospel manner.” I find his comments in a letter to Norman Shepherd pertinent to the PCA’s current struggles.

“On some points I am closer to you than brothers like Arthur [Kuschke] and Palmer [Robertson]. On the basic issue I think I am further away from you than they … The conflict simply cannot go on in this form simply because it undermines the clarity of the gospel and confuses the faith of us all. … My purpose is only that you might understand that your style at times was not one of reconciliation and mutual love. … It must be greatly offensive to the Lord to see us defending the gospel in a manner that puts us at a distance from one another… The whole matter makes me sick at heart. I see little honor for Christ in what has happened, and no victors, only mutual shamefacedness.”

Theological precision is important, but love is more important. We aren’t discussing vastly different theological systems, but are down in the finest of points. These are not departures from the gospel, but seem to be about how best to minister to others in a culture more like Corinth than the one we grew up in many decades ago.

Cheer Up! God’s Kingdom Is More Wonderful Than You Ever Imagined

A friendship with an African pastor opened the door to ministry in Africa and the formation of World Harvest Mission (now named Serge). WHM would spread to Ireland, Spain and other nations.

That pastor was Kefa Sempangi, who initially met Edmund Clowney at the home of Hans Rookmaaker in 1973. He led a Pentecostal church in Uganda and wanted more trained pastors in his home country. Shortly after Idi Amin took control, Sempangi and his family fled for their lives and he ended up at Westminster. Attending New Life, he became a friend Jack’s who introduced him to Reformed Theology.

New Life began sending some missionaries to refugee camps in Kenya. New Life was a pioneer of short-terms missions as they sent teams to Africa and Ireland. When they were able to go back into Uganda it was still scary. Any sermon could be your last in light of all the armed and angry people. The level of poverty they experienced was also shocking. Rose Marie, in particular, struggled with this. Jack expressed that she was living like an orphan, as if an all-powerful and good God wasn’t her Father. Jack’s weakness and cultural sensitivity opened many doors and hearts. Numerous churches were planted, and people converted.

During this period, Barbara divorced her husband. Their conflict with her “beat the stuffing” out of them. Jack slowly began to apply what he’d learned with others to this relationship: repenting of his failures as a father. He expressed his love for her, which angered her but eventually broke her. She and her new husband Angelo would convert to Christianity in 1980.

In 1982, mission creep led to frustrations between the PCU and NLC. This led to the formation of World Harvest Mission with a clearer vision and mission. In 1983, Rose Marie confronted Jack about his two mistresses: the PCU and NLC. She expressed the need for him to cherish and nurture her (Eph. 5) like he did them. Growth in one area does not guarantee growth in all. We can also fall into the same traps a few times. Jack’s pioneering spirit expressed its downside in his marriage. Living on the cutting end of life is not good for your marriage. At the same time a financial misunderstanding led to a break between the PCU and WHM. The day before leaving Uganda after contentious meetings, Jack suffered a major heart attack. His weakness would deepen. The conflict would be put on hold.

Outgrowing the Ingrown Church

In light of this, John Julien was tabbed to plant a New Life church in Philadelphia (he would serve until he retired in 2020). Other changes at New Life became necessary. In the midst of this the AIDS crisis emerged in the States. Jack had seen AIDS in Africa and was far more compassionate than most evangelical leaders. During his recuperation he wrote Outgrowing the In-grown Church.

“We must become the community of the forgiven and forgiving, not the community of the frightened.”

Training manuals for New Life and World Harvest continued to be updated. Paul Miller developed the course to cover prayer, evangelism and discipleship. It had four modules, as Paul describes them “In Sonship you learn about God’s love for you. In Discipleship you learn to communicate that with another Christian. In Evangelism you learn to communicate the gospel with non-Christians, and in Teams you do that with a group of Christians.” So, you have the foundation of Sonship.

Jack taught a Sonship course in St. Louis in 1986. President Kooistra of Covenant Theological Seminary invited him to speak on campus. Kooistra wanted to establish a theology and practice of grace, concerned about a form of Reformed fundamentalism that used theological strictness to continually whittle the church down (and denomination). He saw this as a response to liberalism (here we see the opposite reaction being another departure from the gospel, again). Jack kept pointing him to the gospel of grace as the answer and hope for the denomination.

Learning this I can see why some so despise Covenant Theological Seminary. They want CTS to be theologically strict. This is all part of the Subscriptionist debate in the PCA. This on-going tension seems to be playing a part in the recent controversies.  Theological agreement in the minutest point take precedence over our calling to “seek and save the lost” and partake in the ministry of reconciliation rather than one of condemnation. In Repentance, Jack speaks of loving the Confession more than the Christ of whom the Confession speaks. Some prize theology more than Christ and His church and end up damaging the church through a lack of love.

Cheer Up! Come On, Let’s Die Together! It’s a Great Way To Come To Life

Graham looks at the last few years of Jack’s life as he continued to struggle with health issues. This also saw the growth of the Sonship movement along with criticism from unlikely sources.

I’m not sure the doctrine of justification was neglected in the PCA, but certainly the doctrine of adoption was. You could say justification is neglected as a present reality. Sonship was intended to not simply be theoretical, but designed to help people live out biblical theology, as well as communicate it. It focused on a life of repentance.

Jack perceived resistance in the OPC. In his opinion, too many pastors focused on the sins and failings of others and not their own, nor the denominations. They were in-grown. He began to think that NLC and WHM were a better fit for the PCA than the OPC.

For instance, after his first pastorate in Hopewell Tim Keller worshiped at NLC for 5 years while teaching at WTS. He’d been asked to find a good candidate to plant a church in Manhattan, NY and ended up going himself. He would bring what he learned at NLC to this PCA church plant.

Additionally, the PCA’s Mission to the World used Sonship to train its missionaries. The failed union between the PCA and OPC weighed on Jack as well. The PCU asked Jack how the denominations could work together in Uganda but not in America. After the Shepherd Controversy ended, the PCA extended another offer to the OPC in 1984. This time the OPC, in a 1986 GA vote, rejected the union.

Many thought the denominations nearly identical. There is more to it than theology (as the tensions in the PCA today reveal). There are also considerations of culture and methodology (applied theology). In these regards the OPC is very different from the PCA (and the ARP, RPCNA etc.). In these terms, NLC and WHM fit much better in the PCA.

What happened is odd in that NLC would move into the PCA in 1990. It took so long as the leaders were aware that their departure, as the largest congregation, could have huge ramifications. WHM would remain distinct, and eventually old friend Paul Kooistra would end the use of Sonship for training. The issue seemed to be more about some of the disciplers/trainers than the program. Our Pharisaical hearts can even be legalistic about grace, and some MTW missionaries expressed this concern.

With Jack’s declining health, he followed the advice of many to resign from NLC and work only with WHM in late 1990. There was a financial issue to address. He had to adjust to the additional oversight provided by a board, particularly as a man who had a pioneer spirit. As he health continued to decline due to a series of mini-strokes he focused more on prayer. He wrote A Faith Worth Sharing in 1996.

“It is hard to see it as a perfect plan if you don’t know how much God loves you, because hard things happen to all of us.”

A Faith Worth Sharing: A Lifetime of Conversations About Christ

He continued to travel to speak in the U.S. and Europe. On the day before a scheduled trip home from Spain in April of 1996 he experienced more angina. When they performed surgery on him they discovered that the damage to his heart from the earlier heart attack and his chemotherapy had damaged too much of his heart. It was only a matter of time, and family members rushed to Spain to say their good-byes. Jack was only 67 when he died.

After his death, criticism of Sonship came from some unexpected sources. One was Jay Adams, who had served with Jack for years on the practical theology faculty of WTS. They had been friends which made the personal tone Adams used particularly painful for the Miller family. The word used as Graham discusses this is “psychological”. Perhaps the old word used by the Puritans would be more appropriate: experiential. Sonship pushed you to experience or appropriate grace, not discuss it in the abstract (like a good Presbyterian). Much of the criticism seems focused here. When one uses shorthand too much it can become too much like magic. Kooistra spoke of grace becoming a power word (like gospel-centered would be later), as though simply talking about grace was the answer instead of seeking grace in Jesus Christ by faith.

Graham speaks to the legacy of Jack Miller, which really can’t be well accounted in this life. In terms of institutions you do see his fingerprints on WTS as well as Covenant Theological Seminary (via Kooistra) and Reformed Theological Seminary (as many WTS grads taught there). His impact on pastors, missionaries  and lay people can’t be added up. We will ultimately only be able to behold the fruit in heaven.

Graham did call this a critical biography. He shows us Jack’s development (which includes struggles and sin) as a person, pastor and professor. He shows us Jack’s failings as a father and husband. But those failings were not the end of the story. Graham shows his repentance and gradual transformation. While Jack was worse than he knew, Jesus was greater than Jack could ever imagine. Jack’s pride, self-reliance and insecurity would not get the final word. And neither will yours. This biography offers hope to the struggling pastor, father, husband, elder, missionary, lay person because it shows us that Jesus uses flawed people who embrace their flaws and trust in Christ.