Overture 11 to allow objections to SJC decisions at General Assembly. This is an attempt to turn back time. It is the Omega 13 device of the PCA.

Sort of. Not actually.

There are decisions that are controversial. There was one recently that burned up the internet. In general, there should be voice for the minority. But there are big differences when it comes to judicial cases.

Judicial cases are not about policy. They may involve the proper implementation of policy, but at the heart they are about guilt or innocence.

Judicial cases include a great deal of testimony beyond the summaries we would get in our GA handbooks. This is not Law & Order where we see just the highlights of a case. The vast majority of commissioners don’t have the knowledge of the case necessary to make a good decision.

This is why complaints and protests are limited to those who have the necessary information and standing. Testimony, not hearsay.

This overture wants to “better balance concerns regarding the liberty of conscience and the rights of private judgment with the practical wisdom of committing” these cases to the SJC.

I am not sure how the lack of complaint or protest strips anyone of their liberty of conscience or the right of private judgment. While you “abide” by the ruling, you likely aren’t affected by it. By that I mean that you are not forced to do something contrary to your conscience. That is the heart of the matter for me. God knows what you think about it and why. You still have your private judgment even if you can’t officially voice it beyond discussions and social media.

I have to accept that my private judgment may actually be wrong because I’m ill-informed, misinformed or perhaps am bowing to a special interest that I shouldn’t. Take the recent ruling. I know many who were upset with it. I don’t know how much they actually knew about the case. I know I know very little about the facts of the case. For me to comment wouldn’t be wise.

I think this overture does not accomplish its desired goal. It merely helps people feel better about things. It doesn’t actually do much. It seems to simply be a mind game. If you file a complaint against the SJC, there is no higher court that can disagree with them. Do you seriously think you can provide information that will change their mind?

Interests: the voice of the minority, the desire to rectify real or perceived wrongs, the need to make informed decisions lest we violate the 9th commandment

Cavman votes “No” despite understanding the frustration when cases aren’t resolved the way we think they should be.

Overture 12 to petition the government to end sex-change procedures for minors. I certainly hope we are all on the same page that the voluntary genital mutilation of minors is reprehensible and immoral. I do expect there will be disagreement on whether to petition the civil magistrate on this matter.

Sadly, there are some people in our country who deny these surgeries take place. They call this a conspiracy theory. They ignore the more than sufficient evidence that this takes place.

The justification for this overture covers plenty of ground. It looks at the Scriptural reality of sex/gender. It mentions the biological, scientific realities. It hits the fact that gender dysphoria occurs but it a bad reason to perform these irreversible surgeries. It touches on the unfathomable increases in dysphoria, particularly among girls, driven by the educational system’s corrupt values including critical theory as well as the media pushing this on impressionable minds. We rightly want to protect the parents’ right to raise their children instead of entering the Brave New World where it takes a government to raise a child. I agree that these procedures violate the Hippocratic Oath, just like abortion on demand does.

Aren’t the people pushing for these surgeries the same ones speaking out against male and female circumcision? It is hard to keep the cast of characters straight at times. It’s like reading a Russian novel where each character has multiple names and nicknames.

As a Church we don’t need to address everything in culture and society we find objectionable by a petition to the government. But, as they note from WCF 31.4, we can make “humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for the satisfaction of conscience”. We should speak prophetically, and not just from our pulpits in cases like this. I think this qualifies as an extraordinary case. Particularly when we consider the consequences to individuals, families and society.

Since we are to stand up for the most vulnerable among us, we should speak to this just as we should speak to abortion. We should be willing to pay the social cost for angering the mob. We should not put such a decision in the hands of children who lack the wisdom, objectivity and experience to make such a life-changing choice.

Overall, I like the actual petition. I wish it specified voluntary procedures. Intersex individuals may require surgeries to correct medical issues, not psychological ones. Perhaps Overtures can add it to read “renounce the sin of all voluntary medical and surgical sex change procedures in minors”.

The petition would be sent to key offices in the federal government by the Stated Clerk’s office, and presbyteries would send it to key offices in their state’s government.

Interests: concern for the health and safety of children, recognition of the consequences of these procedures, being salt and light in this corrupt and dark world.

Cavman votes “yes”.

Overture 13 seeks to allow all persons to testify in cases of process. We currently don’t permit those who “do not believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments”. The DASA recommended that we permit medical professionals and other qualified witnesses who don’t believe in God to testify, particularly in cases of abuse.

Yes, all are made in the image of God. Yes, there is common grace that should render them qualified to testify as witnesses. It notes that both the ARP and OPC already permit competent persons to testify. It is up to the court to “judge the relative weight and credibility of all evidence”.

But you have to pay attention to the proposed changes because first they give the existing words, then the 49th GA proposal and then the 50th GA proposal. [There is a typo on pp. 3 line 5. It should be 35-6, not 35-67.]

Interests: justice and fairness in cases of process by not eliminating otherwise qualified candidates vs limiting witnesses to those who are theists and believe in a future judgment

Cavman says “yes”.

Overture 14 is also about the use of professional counsel in cases of progress. You can see my thoughts in Part 1 on Overture 10. I will vote “yes” on the combined version unless something very odd happens.

Overture 15 seeks to prohibit women from teaching, exhorting others in worship. This overture was submitted to and rejected by Rio Grande Presbytery, so the session of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church submitted it to GA.

This is in response to some occasions when women have “exhorted or taught” in the public worship service.

Before I respond, in my former congregation we had a woman who led our woman’s study. At some point she read Susan Somner’s book Men and Women in the Church which I reviewed in 2005. Let’s just say it was not a positive review. She and her husband left our congregation for a nearby PC(USA) church (now ECO). At times, she has “taught” in the public worship service. She refused to use the pulpit lest people misunderstand. It seemed to me to be a distinction without substance. It seemed to skirt the rules, even though she didn’t actually have to. Yes, confusing.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a sermon by any other name is still a sermon and as authoritative. In the public worship service of the church. I want to make that qualification for reasons I will reveal soon.

I want to focus on the phrase “exposition and application of the Scriptures”. Women should not be doing that in congregational worship. This is the “authoritative teaching and ruling of the church for the building up of the whole body” as they quote from the Ad Interim Study Report.

Bryce Avenue wants to clarify how unordained men and women may serve in the worship service by saying what women can’t do. They propose this addition to BCO 53.

7. No woman shall preach, exhort, or teach at a public worship assembly, including assemblies or chapel services where men are present in any congregation, educational institution, or gathering overseen by the Church or one of its agencies.

This goes farther than I would want to go, or at least how I understand the overture. The key for me is “authoritative”. I don’t want to play a game of semantics. If you are expounding Scripture it doesn’t matter what you call it.

If a woman exhorts us by quoting a text during a time of testimony or missions minute, I’m not considering that authoritative. Disagreement with that exhortation is not a censurable offense. Neither, generally is Sunday School.

Their main criteria is the presence of men. Gatherings is vague. This would prohibit a woman speaker at a RUF conference. While it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to do anything, it would imply that Ligonier Ministries has been wrong to include speakers like Elisabeth Eliott and Joni Eareckson Tada. I don’t agree with that implication. They are not speaking with the authority of a church court in those contexts. It is not congregational worship overseen by the elders of the church.

Cavman says “no”.

Overture 16 returns to self-identification by church officers. This overture, in its justification, expresses concern that if the amendment to BCO 7 fails (it did) then some might think we are in favor of the ordination of (practicing?) homosexuals. I’m not sure this is warranted and I’m not worried about it. Whenever we do look at these things we are assumed to be homophobes. We can’t worry what lies people spread about us.

This is troubling for me though:

Whereas, 1 Cor. 6:9-11 not only forbids identification with many specific sins (including homosexuality) but it adds that whatever sinful inclinations one previously had before justification, now there have been sanctifying changes that establish one’s present identity in the Lord Jesus, by the Spirit of God;

This passage is not about “identification”. It is about people who practice these sins. Yes, to desire that which is does not conform to the law of God is sin. We practice church discipline for words and actions, not inclinations. We are to prohibit or remove office on the basis of words and actions. We are concerned, or I am, with practice. I think Paul has that in view since he uses two words to indite both the active and passive homosexual offender, not inclinations. This passage isn’t about temptations, but practice. If repentance they have been justified and washed, not perfected such that they don’t experience temptations arising from indwelling sin.

Here is what they propose (which does focus on self-identifying words):

BCO 7-4. Men who describe themselves by any biblical sin (such as listed in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, “Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers,nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”) are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America. Instead, they describe themselves by 1 Cor. 6:11, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”

This repeats the same problem as they others. “Describe themselves”is tricky. To whom? How often? Why? If the person actually sees themselves as a gay Christian that is different from speaking to homosexuals and saying “I’m gay” since they don’t use the terminology that we in the Church use.

Is this a persistent temptation that drives actions short of sin (inappropriate friendships) or transgressions (looking at porn)? They should not hold office. But the one with the maturity to put those temptations to death, and not follow them, is a different story.

I, like many on both sides of this issue, am weary of it. We can’t seem to find the right terminology. I’m not certain we need to. Scripture and the Standards tell us what is sinful. Those caught in sin should not be officers. Candidates are to be examined, including on Christian experience. They may have had patterns of sin before conversion which continued for a time but have been addressed in sanctification. For me the issue is whether they have they been addressed, and how the person views them. If they regularly speak of themselves according to their sexual, or other, temptations then they still need to grow. I can’t escape the feeling of shibboleths. We are focused on the “right words” rather than concepts (for instance, in ordination exams I’ve found that men from different seminaries can use slightly different terminology at times, especially the Gordon-Conwell guys).

Proceed to the next overture

Overture 17 addresses the same issue and chapter in the BCO. This was presented by the Meadowview Reformed Presbyterian Church session, but not approved by the Piedmont Triad Presbytery in a very close vote. I have no issue with the numerous “whereas” paragraphs. Their proposed addition to BCO 7 is:

7-4. Men who refer to a particular sin struggle as descriptive of their personhood, being, or identity are disqualified from holding office in the PCA.

This is more straightforward than its predecessor. It is succinct. It has that going for it.

It will be interesting to see what Overtures does with 16 and 17. This will be something of a meat grinder. I’ve laid out my general concerns. I lean toward approving 17 but suspect that this won’t be the final form.

Interests: officers being mature and godly men vs. being overly focused on what a man may say to an audience of non-Christians; we do want men to clearly articulate what they think and how they view themselves in committee and we want them to be able to make proper distinctions.

I won’t know until I see the final version but lean, as I said, toward approving O-17.

Overture 18 concerns biblical reconciliation and the rejection of critical theories and the social justice movement. It is presented by a number of sessions in Metro Atlanta but was rejected by the Presbytery. It seeks to apply the truth and recommendations of the report on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation presented at the 44th GA.

I agree that we should pursue reconciliation through the gospel as we seek to love our neighbors of all ethnic backgrounds. This overture quotes extensively from the report regarding a historical-redemptive view: creation, fall, redemption. Their concern is that “a secular ideology involving race and racism is being advocated in public schools and corporations and is becoming commonplace in many churches today”. Many of our members do encounter Critical Race Theory in school and the workplace. Yes, some of our elders advocate simply “spitting out the bones”. I’m not sure there is any meat there beyond the notion that sinful people create sinful structures (which we can find readily in Scripture). But those sinful people aren’t identified by skin color unless you want to have the same problem with a new victim. The goal is to be reconciliation, not exalting the victims over the oppressors in a form of identity politics. I share the concerns they list here.

This advocates a rejection of those worldly philosophies as disturbing the peace, purity, and unity of the church. Meanwhile it affirms and advocates a continuing commitment to “the gospel task of racial reconciliation and the furtherance of the gospel.” And I might add, reconciliation through the gospel. It is the blood of Christ alone that covers the sins of racism and oppression. It is the blood of Christ alone that enables people to forgive others of the wrongs done to them.

A friend pondered whether this should be a request for a study committee. I’d support that though I don’t think it necessary. That may have more weight, however, with those who still find a place for CT and its strands of thought in our Church.

Interests: racial reconciliation, biblical vs. social justice, rejection of lies pertaining to race, class, gender etc.

Cavman says “yes”.

Overture 19 pertains to questions of Presbytery Jurisdiction and Committee/Agency Employment. They would like to request an Administrative Committee to address the following questions:

  1. When a Permanent Committee or Agency of the PCA receives an allegation (such as an abuse allegation) against a Teaching Elder serving with or employed by a Permanent Committee or Agency, must it notify the TE’s Presbytery of the allegation?
  2. If a Presbytery receives notice from a Permanent Committee or an Agency that it has received an allegation against a Teaching Elder, is the Presbytery required to open a [BCO] 31-2 investigation?
  3. Is a Permanent Committee or Agency of the PCA, when it has received an allegation against a TE in its service or employ, permitted to conduct and conclude an investigation without informing the TE’s Presbytery?
  4. Is a Permanent Committee or Agency of the PCA permitted to terminate the service or employment of a TE without notifying the TE’s Presbytery of the reasons for termination?

I am not sure why we need a committee to take time and money. The answers seem obvious to me: yes, yes, no, yes.

Since these are TEs serving the denominational level they are under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery. In some senses their employment is separate. If an accusation is lodged that would trigger an investigation, the Presbytery should be notified and should act. They may join with the Committee/Agency to share information so all are on the same page. If the sin is serious enough to warrant termination of employment it should be a matter of censure (of some sort) by the Presbytery.

Not all grounds of termination are due to sin and needing censure. Termination of employment is not itself a reason to notify the Presbytery. It could be bad fit, some weakness regarding the skills necessary, layoffs etc. That is not a reason to inform the Presbytery.

Interests: qualifications for office, the need for church discipline, confidentiality regarding work situations apart from moral failure.

Cavman shakes his head. I’m guessing TVP is frustrated because they haven’t been notified of sins meriting censure in the past. This doesn’t seem like the best remedy. Can’t we just instruct the Committees and boards to do so?

Overture 20 requests a similar committee to research the use of electronic records for denominational purposes. It recognizes that we are in a digital age but some of our processes are not. Some things, like the Clerk of Session Handbook need to be updated to reflect this.

We should direct it to happen. This shouldn’t require an Administrative Committee. Hopefully this will be adjusted in overtures.

Interests: need for record keeping, need for keeping processes current, having our documents matching reality.

Since I am going this year, I need to start looking at the Overtures.

Overtures 1 and 4 on the restructuring of the Presbytery of Southwest FL to include Pasco County. I was licensed in that Presbytery to serve as pulpit supply. This makes sense for both pragmatic and church planting purposes.

Interests involved: church planting/church growth, geographic proximity

In honor of a local used car dealer, Cavman says “Yes”!

Overture 2 on joining the International Conference of Reformed Churches. Because we are planting churches in other nations, this looks to be a wise idea. We would join other NAPARC churches. Our membership dues are lower than those we used to pay for the NAE. I am not sure this is “required of us” as the citation from Luke 12:48 seems to indicate.

Interests: the connectivity of Christ’s church between like-minded denominations

I plan to vote ‘yes’ on this overture.

Overture 3 on limiting debate at General Assembly. We do need to allow the minority view to have voice. For me this is the key “whereas”: “Whereas floor debate frequently entails a recapitulation of arguments previously presented during extended debate, and …”. GA can be painful at times because of this repetition. If someone says what you want to say … why the need to say it, again? As well noted, it can be extended by majority vote. I used to be one of those frequent speakers. I’ve learned to hold my tongue more often. It isn’t about brevity alone. It is about wasting time due to the repetition.

Interests: effectiveness vs. efficiency, like baseball we can do this more efficiently time-wise; providing the minority position sufficient voice

Cavman says “Yes”!

Overture 5 on chaplains administering the sacraments. I agreed with the call to grant military chaplains the power of an evangelist, and to make sure they don’t have to renew it each year.

Where is loses me is restricting the sacraments when there is a PCA church “within a reasonable distance”. So, a church planter can provide sacraments even though there is a nearby PCA church but a chaplain shouldn’t?

“This change also clarifies that Chaplains are not to administer the sacraments when there are PCA churches within a reasonable distance, and the attendees are able to attend the local church.”

This seems to lord it over the conscience of a Christian where they should worship.

I contacted my brother-in-law who is a (non-PCA) chaplain for some perspective. In his opinion, it would seem to be a hindrance to ministry. He views military chaplaincy as a cross between campus ministry and church ministry. It is it’s own animal.

In my opinion, they should not be given the “powers of an evangelist” but be TEs serving out of bounds. They have to abide by the terms and conditions of the military which can be in conflict with our BCO but they are permitted to teach (so far) our faith & doctrine unhindered.

Interests: care for Christ’s church & its members in a way that is faithful to our BCO; chaplains needing to have the ability to fulfill their responsibilities to their vows, and the organization they serve- the military

Cavman says “Probably no”. I would like to hear from other chaplains to know how they view this.

Update: The chaplain and PRCCs were not consulted on this matter. Cavman says “no”

Overture 6 concerns background checks for all church officer candidates. Part of the rationale confuses me. They list the qualifications for office (good), then the “qualification of every believer is to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” to which I think, “Huh?” My mind initially goes to the doctrine of justification. Not a qualification of justification. In the fruit of the Spirit we see:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.Galatians 5 (ESV)

Far more overlap between that and what is mentioned on line 10. Officers are merely mature Christians who are gifted in particular areas for office. They also cite WLC 130 without specifying it regards the sins of superiors. Yes, the BCO states we are to carefully examine their character and Christian experience.

This overture wants to apply some of the recommendations of the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault report. It recommends background checks, social media checks and references used to “screen for abusive leadership.”

As a result they include language that mandates a background check with the results shared with the congregation or organization calling them, and the presbyteries involved.

I am not arguing against them but I am mentioning the limitations of background checks. They only catch people who’ve been caught. Additionally, do we have an issue with men that have arrest records slipping through? We also need to remember they are not perfect. We’ve seen that important information was not reported for some people who bought guns and killed people. I’ve also had speeding tickets on member’s background checks that were in error. We should use them, but we need to be careful to verify results and not make too much of a clear record. While DASA mentions reference checks, this overture does not. That can catch some people.

Are there churches/presbyteries that don’t actually do background checks?

Interests: Protecting the church from abusers & criminals

Cavman says “Yes” despite the limitations of the overture.

Overture 7 seeks to amend the Rules of Assembly to require sufficient information in a Committee or Board’s minutes to know they implemented instructions from the General Assembly or policies adopted by the committee or board. This is an attempt to ensure accountability.

Interest: seeing our Committees and Boards follow through on the instructions and policies iow accountability

Cavman says “Yes.”

Overtures 8 and 9 come from my Presbytery. I voted ‘yes’ so they can be addressed by the GA.

Overture 8 calls for non-disciplinary suspensions for those accused of abuse. I do take a minor issue with ‘believe victims”. I guess history should indicate (Duke lacrosse case, Bills punter Bill Arraiza, and Brian Banks who spent 5 years in prison before the accuser told the truth) that we believe them enough to look for evidence and then believe the evidence. We do need to follow up, investigate. They are alleged victims and alleged abusers.

This overture is not limited to sexual sins. It includes abuse of any kind (physical, emotional, spiritual) and financial misdeeds. A 2/3 vote of the court can suspend the officer without censure so the process can take place. This suspension would be with pay for a period of time no longer than that given for the investigation.

The overture reiterates that the accused is presumed innocent at this time. Objections by the accused and the response of the court are to be recorded.

Interests: The protection of the Church, and victims, from abusers vs. the rights of the accused who may be innocent. We have to balance them.

Cavman says “Yes”.

Overture 9 is another attempt to address the Human Sexuality report’s recommendations. It speaks of “the preservation of chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior” of officers and prospective officers. It seeks to maintain the biblical context of marriage.

7-4. Men who deviate–whether by declared conviction, self-description, lifestyle decisions, or overt practice–from God’s creational intention for human sexuality are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.

This is much broader than many of the previous attempts. Yes, people who declare convictions contrary to God’s intention (affirming same sex marriage, polyamory or calling non-sinful that which God declares sinful), self-description (expressive self), lifestyle decisions (like engaging in a “spiritual friendship” between two homosexuals) or overt practice. That last phrase may be open to interpretation. But as I consider “overt” it should not be an issue. It should rule out an known or stated practice. But what if that practice is simply to either not be married or to not have children? People may choose, like Paul, to remain single which is an overt practice. Or they may choose not to have children because of genetic issues in one or the other spouses’ family (not wanting to risk having a bipolar child for instance). There may be reasons to “deviate from God’s creational intention” that are not sinful, and aren’t taught as normative.

This overture is not intended to address prior convictions, self-descriptions, lifestyle decisions or overt practices that are sinful and were prior to conversion and/or due to Christian immaturity.

Overt: 1. done or shown openly; plainly or readily apparent, not secret or hidden:

Interests: to guard the purity of faith and practice of the church, particularly its officers; not creating additional chaos by poor working that obscures the intention for the future; freedom of conscience for non-sinful decisions made in light of God’s calling or providence

Cavman says “maybe”. Change my mind.

Overture 10 addresses the use of paid/professional counsel in discipline cases. They want to bring the Book of Discipline into clear agreement with previous advice of the Committee on Constitutional Business which rejects the use of professional counsel in a attorney/client relationship. Counsel for the accused may not be financially compensated. It recognizes that professional attorneys have serves pro bono. The overture sees this as an unfair advantage due to the experience and corporate resources that are available.

32-19.a. In cases before any church court, no professional representative (attorney admitted to the bar or employee of a law firm) shall be permitted to appear on behalf of any party, assist with oral or written arguments, or engage in communications regarding the case, when

i. the representative is functioning in an attorney/client relationship; or
ii. the representative is remunerated in any form, including, but not limited to, fees, billings, reimbursement, or other non-monetary compensation; or
iii. the representative is engaged as a “pro bono” case; or
iv. the representative is otherwise utilizing corporate resources.

This overture would also prohibit professionals to serve as assistants or as judge. They must be a member of the same congregation if before the Session, or particular Presbytery or GA. This seems clear and fair.

Interests: fair and just proceeding for discipline cases; finding the best possible representative for the accused w/in reason

Cavman says “yes”

I have found the “small book” series very helpful. These books are 50 meditations, 2-4 pages long, that have some questions in response.

The latest book in the series I read was Edward Welch’s A Small Book for the Anxious Heart: Meditations on Fear, Worry and Trust.

All of us struggle with anxiety to some degree. For some it is a mild annoyance (a pebble in your shoe). For others it is a hindrance (a sprained ankle). For others it is crippling (a broken leg or ruptured Achilles’ tendon).

Welch is encouraging trust while not pooh-poohing the reality of anxiety and fear.

We are subject to anxiety and fear because there are many things out of our control. Some of those things directly affect us. Others can affect us indirectly.

You can’t control what your spouse, child or friend will do. It will directly affect you at times. You will be late for an appointment. You may be out $500 due to their actions. Your relationship may dissolve as trust is destroyed.

You can’t control what a president decides to do. It doesn’t affect you directly. He’s not saying “I’m gonna get that Cavman!”. But policy indirectly affects you by paying higher prices. It may mean you feel less safe.

He leaves lots of room for God to speak in this book. Some meditations are focused on a particular Psalm. Even when He isn’t mentioned, God is always there in this small book.

In his introduction, Welch encourages us to go slow: perhaps taking time to talk through each day’s reading with someone. We want a quick answer, but there is no magic switch. It takes time to unpack our fear and anxiety. It takes time for the truth to settle our hearts.

Day 1 begins with a hopeful, gracious message. This is not that old Bob Newhart sketch where he just says “Stop it” (I once had a class in which one of the fathers of neuthetic counseling just kept telling someone to “repent”). God offers words of comfort, not confrontation. We aren’t being rebellious, we are afraid.

On day 2 he lays out some definitions. For Welch, fear “is loud and visceral” and is focused on a real (to us) threat. Anxiety is “less articulate” and pressing. It is less precise but there is some kind of threat in view even if we can’t quite put words to it. He brings us panic attacks in which physical symptoms take over: shortness of breath, increased heartbeat, chest pains. Yes, it feels a lot like a heart attack. Stress is focused on the circumstances of life. I know someone who moved 4 times in a year in a half. Whole houses, not small apartments. That is stress!

Our goal is to persist in listening to God’s words until we really hear them and they speak God’s comfort and healing to our souls.” pp. 11

On the one hand, anxiety provides the opportunity to hear God’s word and be transformed by it. On the other, it can leave us vulnerable. We can be unfruitful and our life gets smaller. He advises us to cry out to God.

Unlike some neuthetic counselors, Welch notes that your past matters. It can “shape your present worries.”

Worries can be born in the past, live in the future, and invade the present.” pp. 27

Worries provide an opportunity to deepen our trust in God. We learn how “solid” God is. He talks of Augustine’s view of God before and after his conversion. As we grow in our knowledge of God we grow in trust. We trust not in an imaginary god, the god of our own understanding, but Christ who was crucified, dead and buried but rose again.

Humility is a key aspect in waging war on our fears and anxieties. As we grow smaller and God grows bigger our we listen to Him. Humility recognizes we can’t control our lives, but He can.

Welch dives into the things we are anxious about as well. It all goes back to control, the people and circumstances we cannot control. We can not only cry out but also confess our sin to God. He brings us to Psalm 130 and we grow in fear: reverent love for God. He who has dealt with our guilt can deal with our fears as well.

The most important words He speaks to us is “I will be with you.” He cites the many times He says this to His people. The Lord is regathering our scattered attention.

Faith in Jesus will not replace your fears. Instead your faith will coexist with your fears and begin to quiet them. You will learn by faith, to see your life from Jesus’s perspective and to trust that he is your ever-present help in trouble.” pp. 64

Not only should we pray, but we should ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us. It is difficult to reveal your weakness, but as we grow in humility it gets easier.

What we may not notice is the effect of our bodies. Our stomachs churn. Our muscles tense. The soul senses a threat and the body engages. But, as he continues, our bodies lie. They don’t tell the whole story.

He tries to help us have reasonable expectations. The change we want is gradual. The measure of change is how much we turn to Jesus. Fears will still exist.

He discusses our fears in more detail: tomorrow, death, judgment, and hidden sins. We are never good enough. But Welch then moves on to hope. Then back to more of our fears: money, needs and wants, people, and failure.

God is the promise keeper. He draws us close as typified by the Tabernacle.

This small book hits a large number of topics and targets. It broadens our understanding of our fears and our God. This is a helpful book. There will be days when you are floored because it hits home. This is a good book to pick up and read because you will struggle with an anxious heart.

Considering Failure

During a pastoral transition years ago one of the “qualifications” often listed was “proven track record of success.” When you’ve just seen the congregation you pastored close, it is disheartening.

Many of us live with the fear of failure. We can also live with the stigma of failure. Who doesn’t want to succeed?

Failure is built into the fabric of the world.

Failure is built into the fabric of (future) success.

Failure is built into the fabric of humility.

The Fabric of the World

In Genesis 3 we see the curses upon Adam for listening to his wife instead of God: thorns and thistles. Oh, he’d eat but now by the sweat of his brow and not as much as you’d think based on his effort. This is a glimpse of failure.

Ecclesiastes also reminds us of futility, futility (another translation behind the word often translated “vanity”). We plan and God laughs. No one is exempt. Some just suffer this reality more than others. Life doesn’t work the way we want.

I was very excited about the future of our congregation. We’d undergone a very difficult period, and I thought all signs were pointing to new growth. Then Covid. Need I say more.

Paul speaks of this as well in Romans 8. This is a great chapter about the reality of our union with Christ and the work of the Spirit. No condemnation! Putting sin to death! Access to God in prayer! The Spirit of adoption and intercession! Being conformed into the likeness of Christ! Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!

Yet we groan because all of creation has been subjected to futility, to failure. We groan with the groaning creation. These all things God works for the good of being conformed to Christ is fundamentally things connected to failure and futility. It isn’t our successes that cause us to lose hope but our failures (and afflictions). Failure cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!

Failure is inescapable for human beings this side of the new creation.

The Fabric of (Future) Success

Success is built on learning from failure. This means you must fail, often repeatedly, before you succeed. True failure is refusing to learn from your failure. “Error repeaters” (a phrase used by dynasty-era Patriots) are people who don’t learn from failure and continue to make the same mistakes.

Failure is the product of many mistakes, as well as things beyond your control. You can do all the right things, but there are other factors in the equation: people, technology, the weather … You may try to control all those things, but you can’t. Even then you can learn from failure. You learn the type of person you can trust and the types you can’t trust (or manage).

A constant string of successes is a grave danger. … Failure can lead us to dependence and trust in our successful and competent God.Ed Welch

You don’t become successful in anything without failing frequently first.

The Fabric of Humility

We are not naturally humble. We all struggle with pride. Most children and teens reject help because “I can do this!”. Eventually they should learn they actually do need others to teach them math, science, how to fix something etc.

Here is a hot take: God is more concerned with your humility than your success. He’s more concerned with your humility than your apparent holiness (because pride will produce numerous sins that don’t seem as clear or serious as the “big sin” you are concerned about). You will fail because God is at work to make you humble. Three times the Scriptures say that “God opposes the proud” (Prov., James, and 1 Peter). He actively works against them, frustrates them and ordains their failure. The humble? He gives them grace. Humility is the place of grace.

Humility, the key in fighting unrighteous anger, the need for control, anxiety, discontentment and a host of other sins, is born from failure and weakness. In 2 Corinthians, as Ed Welch mentions, Paul keeps returning to how the false teachers disparaged him in the eyes of the Corinthians. This culminates in the “thorn in his flesh” in chapter 12. It was to keep Paul humble! He then boasted in his weakness that the power of God would be made complete in him.

One of the most important skills to learn in life if how to fail well. Those who learn it are humble.Ed Welch

These thoughts of failure do not arise from the ether. I am reading A Small Book for the Anxious Heart by Welch. And today’s meditation was on the fear of failure.

When we are confident in Christ and His gospel we can be free to fail. Failure is not the biggest thing in the world (I tell myself often because it seems so big). It is having a big Jesus that prepares you to move forward through failure.

Where is your sense of failure located? Your expectations? Your parents? Your employers? Your spouse? It is found in one or more of those places. I have my own oversized expectations (hello, pride), and don’t want to let my community down. These produce the fear of failure that keeps us up at night.

Failure can produce effective pastors (parents, spouses, athletes etc.). Failure is inevitable, and when you least want it to happen. It produces “success” as we are humbled by it, learn to trust God in it, and learn the lessons it has to teach us. Don’t waste your failure with unbelief.

Due to the resurrection, our congregation’s verse of the month is Colossians 3:1.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (CSB)

This passage continues Paul’s argument regarding our union with Christ. He echoes what we find in Romans 6. We have been crucified with Christ. We were buried with Christ. We have also been raised with Christ.

What happened to Christ for our salvation has also happened to us by virtue of that spiritual union. We have died the death due to sin that we deserved. We remained under the power of death while Christ was in the grace. And we were raised with Him.

If we think of what takes place in Colossians 2, we’ll see that our salvation is completely in Christ. It isn’t found in anything else: obedience to the law, special rituals and diets, asceticism or attaining secret knowledge including satisfying the elemental spirits.

Paul is shifting from gospel indicatives or facts to gospel imperatives, commands and implications. If you life is in Christ, then we should look to Christ. Christ is seated at the right hand of God, or the Majesty in heaven as we see repeatedly in Hebrews. Because He has provided purification as our High Priest, He now sits.

Not only have we been made alive in Christ by God’s abundant mercy, but we have been seated with Christ (Eph. 2). We reign with Jesus, even if we can’t perceive it. We are to believe what God declares in His Word.

This does not mean we ignore our earthly existence. It is not that we forsake our responsibilities as spouses, parents or employers/employees. It means we are looking to the reigning and ruling Christ as we encounter struggles in life.

Angry at injustice? Seek Christ who is enthroned above all the powers and authorities He created and has defeated.

Suffering physically? Seek Christ who is enthroned above apart from whose will you cannot suffer. He is the power of God who alone can strengthen you as you suffer.

Suffering guilt and shame? Seek Christ who obliterated the certificate of debt against us by nailing it to the cross. By His blood He redeemed us. We are forgiven and accepted.

Needing wisdom? Seek Christ who sits at the right hand, who is the wisdom of God. He can help you, and has sworn to.

Life is full of changes. Those changes are on the micro or personal level as well as the macro or national/international level. Above all those things is Christ at the right hand of the Father. You can rest easy knowing that He has this, and you don’t have to fix it.

Good Friday: Reconciled By His Blood

Resurrection Day: Raised with Christ

These are fearful times. We see political polarization heading to new heights (or is that depths?). Crime is increasing along with inflation. There are plenty of things to be concerned about politically, economically and even spiritually.

The solution to our fears? Hope. The source of hope? The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah!

That is the point of Tim Keller’s book Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. I tried to make sure I read this prior to Resurrection Day. I barely made it in time. This review is a different story.

This is an exceptional book. Keller does what Keller does best. He interacts with contemporary thinkers, provides answers from Scripture and applies the gospel to life. It won’t silence his critics, however. Social justice is mentioned, which is sure to draw the ire of many of those critics. But if you actually read what he says you will see that he’s not a SJW, but has a biblical concern for justice. Perhaps I ought to quote at length from a footnote on page 239:

“This chapter should not be used to infer that the job of the gathered church is mainly to do social activism and social services. Rather, the primary tasks of the church include worshipping, teaching the Word and administering baptism and the Lord’s (S)upper, and evangelizing and discipling. If the church wins people to faith and disciples them into the biblical belief in the new creation and resurrection, and into all the entailments of the gospel, it will produce a steady stream of believers who serve as ‘salt and light’ in the world (Matthew 5:13-19), doing justice and good works and loving their neighbors as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Experience shows that usually local church elders do not have the expertise to both govern a church and operate community development corporations, affordable housing corporations, drug rehab centers, schools, and so on. The institutional church’s first responsibility is to evangelize and disciple through the Word of God. But that discipling and training must motivate and equip Christians to do justice throughout their city and their world, or it is not true to the Word and the gospel.”

Seems pretty clear to me. The church does gospel work. Christians do gospel work and act justly personally and as part of parachurch ministries for particular concerns.What he is saying is in keeping with Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s old book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission. I wish this would put the accusations to rest, but I suspect it won’t.

Keller begins with describing the new age of anxiety that needs to hear the message of Christ’s resurrection. He pulls in any number of thinkers to discuss the loss of hope and meaning in our society. Two of those thinkers, Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari think that leaving institutional religion behind will help humanity make progress. Pandemics and government corruption, among other things, make the hope of progress a nightmare. Technology is limited, and put in the hands of people dominated by self-interest (aka sin). Our solutions often create new problems. Ask anyone in the SE USA about kudzu. It was introduced to the area to help deal with erosion, and took over often killing off the indigenous trees and plants.

Keller’s purpose is to restore biblical hope in teaching us about the resurrection and its implications for life. Often systematic theologies take the resurrection almost for granted. They may defend it but that is about it. He note that Charles Hodge invested 127 pages on understanding the atonement but 4(!) on the resurrection. While distinct they cannot be separated. Both are equally necessary for our salvation.

“This is the basic thesis of the book- that the resurrection, the Great Reversal, brings both the power and the pattern for living life now connected to God’s future new creation.” pp. xxiii

Certain Hope

In the first chapter Keller defends our belief in the resurrection of Christ. Christianity is an historical faith. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is pointless. There is no living Jesus to believe in.

Manuscript evidence indicates that the key texts of Scripture about the resurrection are within a few years or decades of the events they record. Again, 1 Corinthians 15, there were many witnesses still alive willing to testify. There is no basis to the resurrection being a myth that emerged generations later.

Keller summarizes the evidence provided by Paul for the resurrection. The tomb was empty and a large number of people in different circumstances saw the resurrected Christ. To deny the resurrection, you have to account for these facts, and that these ordinary men turned the world upside down.

Keller does refer often to N.T. Wright’s work on the resurrection. It is one of the best books on the resurrection. Yes, Wright is problematic on justification. That should not invalidate all his work.

It is not sufficient to intellectually believe that Jesus could or did rise from the dead. We are to trust that His resurrection does something for all who believe. We must trust that it is part of Christ’s work to save us from sin and death. It isn’t simply an historical data point, like the death of Julius Caesar, but that it has personal meaning and impact. It is relevant for how I live today: how I think about myself and the choices I make. Jesus challenged Paul both rationally and personally (you must believe in Me), and it does the same for us.

Future Hope

The second chapter is heavily dependent on Geerhardus Vos and Hermann Ridderbos. He uses redemptive-historical theology to show how the resurrection matters for our future, particularly after death. He brings in the already-not yet framework to understand there are things related to the resurrection that we already partake of, and those we do not yet enjoy and won’t until the return of Jesus. This focus is on the kingdom but it also impacts us personally.

Some branches of the church put too much in the already. They are overly optimistic about how much sanctification and healing take place in this life. Others put too much in the not yet, and are overly pessimistic about sanctification and healing in this life. How you think about this matters!

We have true knowledge of the truth, but not all the knowledge we want or will have when Jesus returns. We are new creations now, but not completely. Because we are not completely like Jesus yet, we must be patient with ourselves and others as we struggle with sin and temptation even while we also make real progress. Because we already have the Spirit we are empowered to proclaim the gospel and see church growth. But since sin has not yet been eliminated, it is not what we wish it was. Because of all three of these things there is social change like the end of slavery in Britain and America through the efforts of many Christians. But we haven’t eliminated slavery in our world, and won’t. The same is true for poverty and disease. We will lift many out of poverty and heal many diseases, but not all. People will repent of their racism, but there will still be racism in our world until Jesus returns. I may experience partial healing of my body, but none will experience full healing and deliverance from sin until the redemption of our bodies at the return of Christ.

He then delves into the freedoms of the kingdom such as freedom from the penalty of sin. But there are still idols in our world which often take the form of ideologies today. We also know the presence of the king, particularly in corporate worship.

Glorious Hope

Keller traces the history of God’s glory through Scripture. In Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed the unmediated presence of God. They had fellowship with Him. The Garden was a temple, and they were charged with expanding that temple to fill the earth with God’s image, subdue it and rule it. All this was forfeited by their sin.

The tabernacle and then the temple were places where God chose to dwell and meet with His people however imperfectly. God was behind the curtain, and only the High Priest could enter and that only once a year and only if he shed blood first to cover his sins and those of the people.

After the return from exile, which saw the destruction of the temple, they had hopes of a new temple. The rebuilt temple was not nearly as glorious as the first. The prophetic visions would be fulfilled not with stone and wood, but in a living temple with Jesus as the cornerstone. He meets with His people in the Church, but construction continues through evangelism. One of the great promises is that Jesus will share His glory with His people. We will once again have unmediated fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit in the new earth.

“Because of sin, the one thing that we most need- the presence and glory of God- becomes the one thing we most fear and avoid.” pp. 49

The church is also an alternative society that seeks to live by the priorities of the kingdom. It is a colony of the kingdom here on earth. He brings us to the work of Francis Schaeffer in post-Christian Europe as something that should inform our life in post-Christian America. They exhibited patience and compassion as they instructed people from the Scriptures. They revealed the truth in word and deed.

He returns to Geerhardus Vos for a vision of the renewal of society, however incomplete it will be. It is the work of Christians who are increasingly sanctified, not the “work” of the Church as we saw above. His work on social justice needs to be seen as impacted by Vos. Those who accuse Keller of being a social justice warrior need to reckon with the teaching of Vos, not just Kuyper, on this subject.

Subversive Hope

In this chapter, Keller addresses the subversiveness of the kingdom. Entering God’s kingdom is similar to entering a new earthly kingdom: you have a new set of allegiances, new loves, new values and a new law. This is a kingdom that subverts the values of the culture around it.

We find a kingdom where people are not valued for their power, possessions and lineage. As we see in 1 Corinthians 1, it is often (but not only) people on the margins who are valued. He notes there is a retributive reversal where sinful living ends up cursed not applauded. Virtue, self-denial and sacrifice for others is honored. There is also redemptive reversal as God chooses the weak instead of the powerful to save the world. Jesus saves us through weakness, and His church carries that salvation into the world in weakness as well. Even common graces like “beauty, power, comfort, success, recognition” become curses when not received as from the gracious hand of God. Apart from faith they become idols that consume us.

Keller develops this by looking at how God frequently worked through the lesser sons- Abel, Moses, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob and others. He also looks at the ‘women nobody wanted’. God worked through the elderly and barren Sarah, Leah instead of her more beautiful and treasured sister Rachel, Hannah and other barren women. Then there are the Gentile and often scandalous women that find their way in Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

He notes that there are rich and powerful men that God used: Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea. While wealthy, they often found themselves outside the spheres of earthly power. Abraham was a sojourner, Job became despised by his friends after catastrophe, Joseph standing against the majority of the Sanhedrin. Yet we see that Israel was often rejected by the surrounding nations, and the nations they spent in exile: Egypt and Babylon. In Roman culture Jews were ostracized, and Christians would be too.

We all want to be part of the “in” crowd. We want to be successful. But God often brings us to places of weakness like Naaman the leper, lowly David before Goliath, and Paul experiencing the “thorn in his side”.

The world finds the gospel offensive. It isn’t about reward. The gospel reveals our sin and weakness, and offers us a Savior not simply a helper. We can’t control God like we want to. He won’t serve our interests but calls us to leave all to serve His.

“And the more powerful, well-off, and pulled together you are, the more offensive and unthinkable such a faith message is.” pp. 70

The Great Reversal

Both the Old and New Testaments testify to the great reversal. God saves people through their failures, helplessness and suffering. He glorifies Himself in rescuing those who can’t rescue themselves.

The gospel redefines power and prestige. It is not about how many serve you, but how you serve others. Jesus used His power to serve others instead of demanding to be serve as the Messiah He was. We discover the power of loving others. In the Gospel of Luke we see a concern for the poor, helpless and women (2nd class citizens). He also cares for children as people with value, not simply commodities.

In Paul’s gospel preaching, Keller notes three themes identified by Gathercole: the good news of who Jesus is, the good news of what Jesus has done and the good news of what He brings. Jesus left His glory in heaven to come to earth in order to bring us to heaven and God’s presence. He presents sinners as holy and blameless because they are clothed in Christ and His righteousness.

Here He unpacks Christ’s substitutionary work for us. He took our place after obeying the Law on our behalf. He didn’t suffer for His sins, but our sins. He died as the penalty for our sins, not His. By this He reconciles us to Himself, the Father and the Spirit.

We are to walk in Jesus’ steps after Him. Not in dying for sinners, but in taking up our cross, giving up glory, and denying ourselves. Calvin sees self-denial as a key mark of the Christian life. It is a response to the gospel, not an attempt to merit salvation. Knowing Christ and His greatness enables us to give up control of our lives to Him, and rely on His power to help us.

Personal Hope: 1

Keller returns to how the gospel and the resurrection as part of it as challenging us personally. He notes that Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon can’t and doesn’t change my life. Believing Christ has been raised does!

He works through the accounts of those who encountered the resurrected Christ and how it changed them. He begins with Mary who didn’t immediately recognize Him until He called her by name. She embraced Him with all she was. She couldn’t cling to Him. He still had to ascend but would come to her by the Spirit and have a more profound intimacy than she could enjoy with Jesus thus far.

John pieced it all together before Peter did. The grave clothes were not torn to pieces or in an unraveled heap. They were folded up. Jesus’ body was not stolen. It was not a hoax perpetrated by a prankster. His friends would not have taken them off and carried Him out naked. John was willing to base his life on the fact that Jesus had been raised.

Thomas was a hold out. He wanted to see the wounds, explore them. He doubted the word of his friends. Until he saw Jesus face to face. Like many others he had a worldview that couldn’t accept resurrection. But he fell before Jesus crying out, “My Lord and my God!”

Scripture records their responses to prompt a response by us. We are to find intimacy, purpose and a God worth worshiping who loves us so profoundly. We come to see that God doesn’t sit waiting for you to figure life out. Jesus came to see and save you. Jesus sends the Spirit to change your heart so you will believe, worship and follow Him.

Personal Hope: 2

This chapter begins with Peter’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. This is different from an earlier encounter by the Sea after a fruitless night of fishing. Then Peter was overwhelmed by his sin. This time he races to Jesus and they have a personal conversation after Peter’s triple denial at His sham trial. Jesus is calling Peter to complete allegiance to Him. There is no lukewarm response to Jesus.

“He (Peter) was not basing his identity on Jesus’ great love for him but on his great love for Jesus.” pp. 100

This gets personal. Once again Keller hits us in sore spots. Peter had earlier seen Jesus as his rabbi, not his Savior. That changes. Our identity is to be shaped by the unmerited love of Christ for us. Another danger is setting our identity in how we are different (and better!) than another group.

It then shifts to Paul who met the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul had his preconceived notions about God that led him to reject Jesus earlier in life. These views were based on the Scriptures. Well, part of them. He did not yet fully understand all the meaning of the Old Testament. On that road Paul met the God he couldn’t make up.

The God of the Bible is not one that makes us comfortable. He is not the God we want in all ways. God and His law will confront all people and cultures in some way.

The undeniably resurrected Christ now became the lens through which Paul looked at Scripture, and wrote his letters. God defines Christianity. We don’t, and err when we try.

Keller shifts to the relationship between law and love. He speaks here of our union with Christ. We are united to Christ legally, vitally and spiritually. He points us to marriage with is both a legal and love relationship. Legal acceptance frees us to love the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Hope for You

Dead in sins and trespasses sounds pretty hopeless. But God, because He is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. (Eph. 2) We have grounds for hope. The resurrection enable us to overcome “the fear that we will not be sufficient to face all the” (other fears we experience). He drops some solid Reformed Theology here. Except…

Dead, we’ve been made alive. But then he writes “We were dead to God, but now the Spirit makes us able to hear the truth about God.” This statement is ambiguous to me. Both a Calvinist and an Arminian could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this. It depends how you parse it theologically. This needed to be reworked and clarified.

He brings in Archibald Alexander to discuss the objectivities and the subjectivities of our conversion and Christian experience. We need to have both objective and subjective knowledge of Christ. The former produces the latter. The latter confirms the former to our hearts. He advocates meditating on what the Scriptures say about Jesus. We are not to rely on our imagination, but Scripture. Meditation helps the objective truth to make that subjective impact.

In terms of sanctification he illustrates mortification and vivification with the upward and downward strokes of an engine. The fuel is the love of Christ through meditation.

In his section on resurrection and practice he mentions the 1988 presidential election. Two pastors ran: Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. They were from different parties. Often members of both parties will support their policies with biblical warrant. “Each part was working for some things that were supported by the Bible’s ethical teaching, but each party was also ignoring important elements of the Bible.” Yes, this is true. But this is not the whole truth. One of the differences is running on government policies that actually are the responsibility of the church. Justice is the role of the government. Mercy is the province of the church. I wish he would have said this.

More positively he speaks of moral guidance in the form of both rules and principles. Rules are pretty clear: don’t commit adultery! Principles require wisdom and reasoning to apply. There can be honest and principled disagreement on how to apply a particular principle.

“Secular conservatism fights for the liberation of the individual from state power while progressivism fights for the liberation of oppressed groups through state power.” pp. 132

We need to balance the cross and the resurrection in our theology and practice. If we speak only of the cross, we can lapse into defeatism, pessimism. If we speak only of the resurrection, we can lapse into triumphalism. Paul, who wanted to know only Christ and him crucified in 1 Corinthians 2, also preached the resurrection. The Great Reversal keeps us from falling into either side of the ditch.

Hope for Relationships

We live in a time when people can’t seem to manage relationships. Polarization, violence and alienation grows. Keller applies the resurrection to issues of race, class, broken relationships, and sexual relationships.

The resurrection strips us of being overly concerned about grace. Our racial and national identities are not erased but are less important than our union to Christ. (Clean up on paragraph 3 on pp. 139 with “that that”.) Keller admits this is a sanctification issue. Sadly some make this a justification issue. While a Christian shouldn’t be a racist, some are. This sin doesn’t undo justification while some claim a Christian can’t (not shouldn’t) be a racist. He notes that studies indicate that people, even in very multi-ethnic areas gather in homogeneous groups. Not every church can/must be multi-ethnic. They should not be homogeneous by conviction (kinism is a sin). Heaven will be multi-ethnic.

In terms of class, Keller addresses the role of hospitality in ancient society to further one’s cultural cache. It is like going to church (or changing churches) to expand your business. Jesus is breaking free from those “transactional” relationships and befriend people you may help but can’t advantage you (another typo on pp. 143 in the extended quote: “distance” should be “distant”). Jesus wants us to use our riches to enrich others, following His example. We can do this because our greatest treasure is Jesus. The gospel kills our greed and gives life to generosity.

We often deal with broken relationships. We think we can accurately judge who is right and wrong, and what should happen to each. When He was wrongly judged, Jesus relied on the Father and continued to do good. We can break the cycle of retribution or ghosting.

Christianity’s sexual ethic is conservative, and often judged oppressive by today’s “if it feels good, do it” ethos. In Paul’s discussion of sexual sin (and other sins like greed) in 1 Cor. 6, he talks about the resurrection. The resurrection shows that our body matters, being redeemed by Jesus just as much as our soul. We are to honor God with our bodies. We are to give, not take, in our sexual relationships which are properly only in the context of marriage. In marriage we give up our independence and serve on another. It is this dying to self that opens up greater freedom and love in marriage. Jesus delivers us from a consumeristic view of sex.

Hope for Justice

The resurrection was the vindication of Jesus after His unjust execution. After the future resurrection, Christians will serve with renewed bodies in a renewed world. The Great Reversal includes the punishment of the wicked. Justice will be served.

God also changes us through sanctification to become just in our relationships with others. The church should be an alternative society, but it should shine before the world. Sadly, the church (or rather portions of it) haven’t been just. Some supported chattel slavery and segregation. Some have covered over sexual abuse and harassment in systemic fashion. In seeking to “protect” the church’s reputation, that have blasphemed Christ in the eyes of the world (see Rom. 2:17-24).

Keller speaks of justice as equal treatment for all, radical generosity, advocacy for those without power, both corporate and individual responsibility. He addresses practical justice. The gospel and the future resurrection show that God hasn’t given up on humanity.

Hope in the Face of Suffering

He begins this chapter by talking about how “Christians are an alternative city in every city.” Our values are “upside down” and shine Christ’s light to the people around us. The kingdom of God administers and arranges this new society.

When it comes to suffering, we neither seek it nor see it as a curse. All received without Christ becomes a curse by hardening our hearts. All received by faith, despite being difficult, are worked for our good by God. Difficulty drives us to rely on Christ more fully. He brings us to the stories of Joseph, Jacob’s blessing on Joseph’s sons. God is not bound by cultural convention and our expectations. God works behind the scenes for our God, even if we, like Naomi, can’t see it.

His strength is made perfect in our weakness, as Paul declares. The resurrection changes our grief because our grief will not endure. He will fill us with gladness for eternity.

Hope for the Future

Covid was made more dangerous by globalization and technology. It spread more quickly. There would be a drop in productivity by our response exaggerated that creating supply chain issues and inflation. You can’t shut down the world for months at a time.

Historically, history has been viewed as cyclical, not linear. Christianity is not about endless cycles (though there are patterns) but is moving toward the resurrection and the renewed earth. We have hope.

Most modern philosophies are doctrines of despair. We are from nowhere, going nowhere and life is uncertain in the meantime. We have lost cultural hope. The dreams of Marx and Darwin were shattered by two world wars, genocides and epidemics.

The state has replaced God, but lacks the power, wisdom and love God has. They sell hope but produce cause for despair with ideologies that reject common sense. Making gods of the environment, economic systems and critical theories, they reap a whirlwind of destruction. Politicians promise the progress of history extended forward, and claim to be on the ‘right side of history’. Tech companies claim progress will prevail even as it is hijacked by sin and misery.

The first flaw is an erroneous view of human nature as basically good. Why are things so messed up, repeatedly, if we’re basically good? How can government be good if we are not? The second flaw he identifies is the secular idea of progress. There is no goal but there is progress. How can you know what progress is if you have not goal or standard?

Christianity is reasonable. It is honest about human nature, but also about God’s great work to bring humanity to His goals for it. Secularism fails to provide “a historically plausible alternative explanation for the incredible transformation of the disciples and then the Roman empire.

This is an excellent book on the resurrection. There are too few books on the resurrection, particularly those who deal with the implications and cultural objections to the resurrection.

This new book by Beale hits what I’ve decided to preach on from Colossians. Too bad I couldn’t read Union with the Resurrected Christ before my sermon series. Eventually!

When I heard about Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World that Says You Shouldn’t by Stephen McAlpine I was excited. The title catches how I feel in this cultural moment.

Sometimes reality is not as good as what you anticipate. That isn’t to say this is a bad book. It is a good book that I hoped would be great.

It feels like a cross between The Triumph of the Modern Self and Live Not By Lies. I say this because it covers the same ground in those books though the philosophy Trueman covers exhaustively is presented in a Cliff Notes version accessible to more people (like Trueman and Keller he refers to Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff often). In terms of Live Not By Lies, instead of relying on the testimony of those who survived the Soviet oppression, he looks to the Scripture more often than not.

The author Stephen McAlpine lives in Australia. He used to be a journalist and is now a pastor. He includes more contemporary stories than Dreher. It is also written with a more pastoral bent than academic bent. He is not writing an Australia-centric book, but one that addresses Christians in western cultures.

What precisely is he writing about? He’s writing the cultural shifts that have taken place in the last few decades so that we have gone from relative “good guys” to being cultural bad guys. He’s writing about how to live faithfully in this circumstance. The former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, John Anderson, notes: “At last, a neat and accessible explanation of what is happening in our culture.”

The book has three parts: How Did We Get to Be the Bad Guys?; What Being the Bad Guys Looks Like; and Being the Best Bad Guy You Can Be.

How Did We Get to Be the Bad Guys?

He has two chapters cover about 35 pages to explain this. See what I mean about Cliff Notes.

For many in western cultures now, Christianity is the bad guy. Most societal ills have arisen from our doctrine and oppressive morality. We have shifted to a post-Christian (and post-truth) society driven by the expressive self and critical theories.

We do have a spotty record. The Church and Christians have done many great things. They’ve also done some awful things. But in the binary ideology of critical theories you are either victim or oppressor. Christians are decidedly the oppressors of the sexually immoral and sexual minorities. We have and continue to stand in the way of the pursuit of the authentic, expressive self.

As we continue to affirm what the world, not just the church, has believed for thousands of years, we are cast as oppressors, bigots and on the wrong side of history (which hasn’t been written yet by the way).

McAlpine doesn’t just parrot others. He does provide some good insights. He also provides different insights than Trueman. From Mark Sayers he describes the progressives as seeking the “kingdom without the King.” (pp. 19) As others have noted, they borrow so many concepts from us but rip out the foundation from them so they become unstable houses of cards.

Post-modernism has not brought us to a pre-Christian world (though the sexual ethics are very similar) but a post-Christian world with no transcendence, objectivity and horizontal identity. We have gone from a Story with an Author (1st culture world) to a Story without an Author (2nd culture world- modernism) to neither a story or an author (3rd culture world) or what I call a Make Your Own Adventure kind of world. When I used to work in a bookstore in the 1980’s, we sold teen books where they made choices at key points which brought the story in one of 3 possible directions. You chose rather than an author choosing for you.

As individuals we are all autonomous and everyone must celebrate our autonomous choices (unless, it seems, they are traditional). If you choose to follow Christ you’re choice will not be celebrated unless it is the kind of following that ignores most of what Jesus taught and the Bible says.

Sadly, as he explores in the second chapter, most of us are surprised by this. This means we have actually ignored some important passages in Scripture. Jesus, Paul, James and Peter all warned us just as explorer Ernest Shackleton warned potential members of his expedition.

Instead of surprised, we should be joyful. He notes that our joy is future-focused. The circumstances we experience are not the source of our joy. Christ and our hope are.

Anger or outrage are sure signs that the future joy guaranteed to us has fallen off our radars as we are insulted or sidelined or scorned. Reacting with joy is a better reflection of reality.” pp. 40

He reminds us from Scripture that we should suffer for faithfulness to Christ, not as criminals (1 Peter 4). We also shouldn’t suffer for how we treat others. We are to be seasoned with grace, not anger and insults.

What Being the Bad Guys Looks Like

McAlpine addresses this in three chapters. He begins with holding to a biblical truth of two genders instead of an evolving number and name of genders. Holding to the traditional (and scientific) views are called oppressive and suffocating to the expressive self.

The public square is not neutral but biased and biased against what Christians have historically believed. The public square is also inconsistent. One the one hand you can be born gay, but be born the wrong biological gender. It is all shifting sand.

There can be a high price to pay for speaking truth in a culture with its own truth that always changes. You can be cancelled, fired, ruined financially and more.

In the face of these lies, we need to continue living by truth in the Church. The stability of our communities will attract many who find themselves ruined by the prevailing spirit of the age. We show the wisdom of God’s way over and against the folly of the world.

Secondly he gets into identity politics (what I’ve called critical theories) which is binary. Gender isn’t but identity is. Oh, there are plenty of identities but they boil down to victim and oppressor depending on the kind of critical theory (race, gender, class…).

Some argue that Christianity is not persecuted in the west. They define persecution quite narrowly as hard persecution, meaning at the hands of the state. Even that is narrowly defined to mean prison and torture. The government and other citizens can sue you into ruin but that isn’t considered persecution. Soft persecution is that not being done by the government but it can sure feel hard when you are the one losing a career, being assaulted or killed, threatened or insulted.

The Church should admit when we’ve done wrong. We should not call God a liar but confess our failings to groups and individuals. We haven’t handled sexual abuse well. We haven’t stood against racism as consistently as we should have.

We should prepare to live on the margins of society. Our denominational college is preparing for when student loans involving the government would force them to hire people living immoral lives. We aren’t focused on winning a culture war but living faithfully according to God’s will. We focus on the consummation of the kingdom.

The next chapter focuses on Jesus’ call to self-denial in contrast to our culture’s call to self-actualization. It begins with the story of Phillip Scholfield, a British TV personality. He decided to share his truth that he was actually a homosexual. The problem was that he did this publicly, to the horror of his wife and kids. He was praised by many for coming out, but he dropped a bomb on his family. There was plenty of collateral damage among those who loved him.

For someone in his shoes to remain faithful to his commitments is viewed to day as not being authentic or true to himself. The problem is that the time for being true to himself was before he married and had children. I know too many people who have come out after years of marriage, often with children. They devastate people they made promises to.

Christianity isn’t about self-expression but self-denial. We believe we find our authentic self in Christ, and won’t be all we were meant to be until glorified. Jesus calls this the path of life, but our culture sees this as the path to death. There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). Self-denial trusts God that His way is best and leads to life. Self-denial would put a person’s spouse and kids before themselves.

Being the Best Bad Guy You Can Be

McAlpine then shifts to a strategy for the church. Instead of looking Communist nations like Dreher does, he looks to Israel in Babylon and the return to exile. Living surrounded by enemies tempted them to lead a quiet life focused on self-preservation and de-emphasizing living for the glory of God. They rebuilt their homes instead of God’s temple and the city.

We need to forsake our culture’s individualism and think more consistently in terms of the community of faith and how our lives affect the rest of the church. What may be good for us (our career) may be bad for the local church. Self-denial will provide time and energy to serve Christ’s interests. As we build deep relationships beyond our social and racial boundaries, we provide a glimpse of God’s kingdom. We can be the community they long for, displaying the truth of the gospel.

This community of faith is a worshiping community as well. We declare His praises. This points us to rich theology in song and sermon. We disciple people to pray, confess sin and faith, and how to listen to Him.

In our anxious culture, our focus on God’s promises as a part of our worship should promote trust and peace of mind. We can be a healthy, community living for something bigger than ourselves and seeking reconciliation among lonely, alienated people marked increasingly by broken relationships and acts of violence.

We can serve the world though it often scorns us. We send people into the world to love our neighbors and meet their needs as displays of love to open doors for the message of the gospel.

He then addresses when the world comes to us in the workplace. I’d think we’d be going to the world, but let’s roll with it anyway. Many Christians are facing increased pressure to affirm and promote the LGBTQ+ community and values. Companies (and the government) end up rewarding people based on their demographics or identity, not on competence, skill and playing well with others. Many pastors don’t understand that pressure, or even think about it.

by Peter Paul Rubens

Daniel had to live with the repeated calls to conform to Babylonian and then Persian culture as a student and then a highly ranked official. He was able to strike a compromise with the man in charge of his instruction. But there was no such opportunity when other officials sought to trap him. Daniel was faithful to God through it all, even though it may have cost him his life in the lion’s den.

Pastors need to prepare people to live in Babylon, in an environment hostile to their faith. Church need to provide groups in which people are encouraged in this struggle. We should be open to hearing of their struggles in the workplace. They may need to come to terms with the fact that they may reach a ceiling in their careers not on the basis of their ability but based on their faith.

We want to be sure that when we suffer, it is not because we are doing anything wrong but seeking to be obedient to God. Be sure that you accurately understand God’s commands. Sometimes we struggle to understand how to obey God and be gracious to others in a pluralist society. We should not be aggressors. Don’t fight the culture war in the workplace- it will get you nowhere and won’t really change anything. Be kind and holy so no accusations will stick. People will see you interact with those with whom you disagree in an honorable fashion. We are to adorn the gospel with a quiet and gentle spirit.

Obedience is complex. What do we stand firm on? Where should we flex? … Should we expect the world to hold to a standard that is not recognized outside the gospel community? Scripture tells us not to engage with any “brother or sister” who is sexually immoral or greedy but applies no ban to those of that description in the world.” pp. 119

We are not to live in fear of people. We are not to despise them either. This only happens when we fear God (trembling in joy before His awesome reality). This only happens as we remember those people are also made in the image of God.This is why McAlpine says the church you belong to matters. You need to hear about a Big, holy, merciful God.

Fringe: The Day We Died

McAlpine then shifts of the city in the city. He illustrates this with The City & the City by China Mieville. In that story there are twin cities: one grimy and one glorious. It is a murder mystery in which the detective has to travel between the cities frequently. The cities occupy the same space. (Perhaps the season of Fringe with the alternative universe would be clearer here)

The City of God and the City of Man are not in different geographic locations but intertwined with one another. We move between them each and every day. As Phil Keaggy sang, we walk in two worlds. Citizens of the City of God we spend much of our time in the City of Man. It is much easier to adapt to the City of Man than the City of God. While in the City of Man we are continue to live by the values of the city of God. Too often people privatize their faith and live in a way that is appropriate to the City they are presently in.

Here McAlpine speaks of the already/not yet and two Corinths. The cross and resurrection mean that the converted enter the new Corinth (new age) but are still surrounded by the old and fading Corinth. When Christ returns, the old passes away completely. The new has already come, though not completely. The old has not yet passed away.

While they live among people embracing the old Corinth, they were to live like the new Corinth. They were to excommunicate those who persist in living according to the old Corinth’s values. There is joy in living in the new Corinth or City of God. It is good. It is sturdy.

At times we can smuggle in practices and assumptions of the City of Men around us and think it is part of the City of God. Identifying those practices and forsaking them is a good view of “deconstructing”. Sadly, for most that means not separating true Christianity from cultural add-ons, but destroying faith and letting doubts prevail. Too many flush the faith in that worldly version. Christianity can withstand examination. The new culture, which cannibalizes Christianity is not on firm footing because there are no basis for many convictions (like justice) without God behind, beneath and above them.

The key is this: are we proclaiming the gospel message, and practicing the gospel ethic it demands, among ourselves first? Now is the time to get our own city in order.” pp. 137

Bottom Line

In many ways this book using lots of shorthand. He condenses arguments so this is not a tome. In a sense, you wonder if he’s trying to do too much. On the other hand, you don’t want to complain about what is without providing a way forward. Trueman’s book, for instance, has relatively little in the latter area compared to the size of the book. But I was looking for analysis in his book. In McAlpine’s his goal and my expectations were different.

He is writing for the layperson, not the academic or professional. It is not overwhelming in philosophy. He has a different audience than Trueman. He meets his audience. He articulates his points well. Rather than being overwhelmed, at times I was underwhelmed. But many other may not have been thinking about this, and working through 1 Peter like I have been. They may not be underwhelmed but rather than confirming the road I’ve been on places them on a new road.

Called to live within these cultural shifts, it is wise to think about how. McAlpine helps us to do just that.

One of the books I began during my sabbatical is Perils of Leadership by Kenneth Prior. Though this is not a very big book, it took longer to read than expected. However, I have finally finished it.

Prior served as a canon in the Church of England when this book was published in 1990. His ecclesiology only affects a few places. The focus, as seen in the subtitle, is on our personal battles. His method through the book is to focus on a person in the Bible that illustrates not only the personal battle in view but also how God was at work in their sanctification in this area. As a result, this book is very focused on the Scriptures. It is the primary source though he refers to other authors and preachers, as well as some references to psychological issues.

Here are the issues he addresses and the person(s) in the Bible that he uses to illustrate it:

Immaturity thru the life of Joseph

Inadequacy thru the life of Moses

Sexual Temptation thru the lives of Samson, David and Solomon

Depression thru the experience of Elijah

Living in the Shadow of a Mentor thru the life of Elisha

Marital Stress in the life of Hosea

Impulsiveness in the life of Peter

The Love of Power and Prestige with James and John

Oversensitivity in the life of Timothy

Criticsim in the experience of Paul

There is something for everyone. As the blurb on the back says, leaders are people too. We struggle too. This is one of the great things about the Bible is that God is the hero, not anyone else. The Bible does not hide the flaws of God’s people and its leaders. This is really good news for us.

Prior’s tone is not to be critical of people but to lay out how each of these played out in someone’s life and how the gospel can change us.

It is possible to be highly gifted, as Joseph undoubtedly was, but lacking in graces. These gifts can even be described as “spiritual” yet the possessor can be very deficient in humility, wisdom and understanding.” pp. 14

In my own life, I am an avid reader and quickly accumulated lots of knowledge. A Cru leader thought I was mature. No, just well-read. It takes time to grow up in Christ. God wants us to be mature, not simply gifted. Daniel endured great hardship to gain the maturity necessary to lead the efforts in Egypt to prepare for the famine. I also had to endure various hardships to become mature. I am not alone, as many have gone through this process.

I could also identify Moses’ struggle with inadequacy. When I received my first call I was providentially reading Exodus and could clearly identify with Moses’ excuses before God. Moses was following his emotions, not the command of God. We have similar temptations and weakness.

When, in the face of the promises of God and the great truths he has revealed of himself, we persist in advancing our insufficiency as an excuse for avoiding our responsibilities, it is a mark not of humility but of unbelief.” pp. 33

Pastors and elders are human beings and subject to sexual temptations. Prior piles on by looking at the lives of three men this time. Sexual sin proved destructive in all of their lives. Oddly, this was one of the shortest chapters in the book. I am weary of reading about high profile pastors guilty of adultery and sexual harassment.

Many leaders struggle with depression. For some like Luther and Spurgeon there may be a tragic event that triggered it. For most of us, it is the circumstances that result in us feeling useless, like failures and frustrated. Success is not simply a result of our gifts and abilities, but one’s circumstances play a large role too. I hate to say it as a Patriots’ fan, but Dan Marino was a great quarterback who never won a Superbowl because of factors besides his talent and decisions. You can only play with the guys, and under the coaches, the team signs.

Prior reminds us that God did not forsake Elijah. He is not condemned. God knows we are dust (he quotes Ps. 103:13-14 which I will providentially cite in my sermon Sunday regarding Exodus 13). God does challenge his false perceptions. He didn’t give up on Elijah but gave him the mission of anointing the next kings of Samaria and Syria (!) and his own successor (who actually anointed those men king).

Hosea married Gomer because God told him to. His marriage was intended to reveal the realities of God’s relationship with adulterous Israel. He had special revelation in this matter. Many of us can choose to marry a woman who drains us, destroys us or distracts us. Dr. Nicole told us that a good wife will double your ministry and a not-so-good wife will half it. There are times when it is not an issue of the will- unexpected health issues can arise. That is also difficult to address in the course of ministry.

When we suffer from unfaithfulness in another, may it help us to understand how God feels about our unfaithfulness. When we experience the hurt of children going against us and doing wrong, may it give us some idea of how God feels when we go against him.” pp. 104

Peter was a natural leader- people followed him. But Peter was impulsive, and some times lead people in bad directions. Responsible leaders recognize their impulsiveness and seek to make wise, not simply speedy decisions. The wheels of presbyterianism grind slowly for good reason. Prior speaks about learning lessons in submission and humility which are our least favorite parts of the curriculum. We want to embrace love but soon find that love stretches us farther than we want to be stretched.

Before the death of Jesus, John and James are pictures of men who sought power and prestige. They wanted to sit as His left and right hand when He came into power. They were not the last to seek power. Jesus reminded them that greatness in the kingdom is connected to service. Prominence often has a price, particularly in times of persecution.

The overly sensitive person is basically insecure. They suspect they are inadequate. Their inner anxieties drive them to seek affirmation.

Indwelling sin can exploit all our fleshly weakness, and sensitive persons are especially at risk here. Their sensitivity can render them likely to lose their temper, or experience jealousy and resentment.” pp. 144

Insecurity is like fear (and impulsiveness and …). You may experience it but don’t need to give in to it. The Spirit helps form self-control and a sober mind. You have to keep returning to the gospel to find security before and from God.

Paul dealt with all manner of criticism. Prior calls this one of the greatest trials experienced in full-time ministry. There will be criticism. Few are those who can let it roll off their back. In an episcopal form of government, Prior was secure in position despite criticism. But in other forms of government, pastors are far more vulnerable. He notes that some face the annual vote of confidence. Like other public figures we can be victims of “innuendos, exaggerations, speculations” and ruined reputations for being merely human.

Paul understood that he was Christ’s servant. He stood or fell before Christ, not mere men. It can be difficult to grasp that when people can fire you, or abandon you. But that is the place we need to be. God’s assessment of our ministry will be more fair than that of others or even ourselves. He recognizes the full context of our ministry: the weaknesses we have, the ways the sins of others have damaged us, the circumstances around us etc.

I’ve been spending lots of time (too much some would say) thinking about why things are they way they are. The last few years have been very difficult for a variety of reasons. The other day I realized that in the last 6-7 years there have been at least 3 new splants near us that have all the bells and whistles, I mean programs, we don’t have. They have been growing but we have not been able to “compete”. That is not about me, my gifts or leadership style. It just is.

I found this to be an helpful book. I’m still battling with some of these perils. We won’t arrive in this life, but we should make progress. This book can be a goad to move us farther down the line.

I am currently reading 1 Thessalonians in my personal devotions. Today’s reading had application to me as a person and a pastor. It has application for you and your church (particularly since it was written to the church).

Paul had warned them while planting the church about the reality of affliction (3:4) so they would be prepared. Paul had told them about how he had suffered in Philippi (Acts 16,; Phil. 2:2), being jailed after freeing the slave girl from the demon. He probably told them how that opened doors for the gospel as well.

Paul knows that the Thessalonian Christians are currently suffering affliction at the hands of their neighbors. It began while he was there with a riot led by angry Jews (Acts 17:5-9). He reminds them that this is similar to what happened to Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Judea (2:14-16).

Our Three Enemies

In the case of persecution, the affliction the Thessalonians experienced was from the world. The world, as a fallen system in rebellion against God, is one of our enemies. It wants to squeeze us into its mold (Rom. 12:2) and when it can’t it brings pressure to bear to achieve its goal.

Hearing of their suffering, Paul was greatly concerned. He wanted to travel to Thessalonica again but was repeatedly hindered by Satan (2:18). We’ll get to him again in a few moments.

Paul was concerned that they would be moved by their suffering. He was concerned they, as a church, would be shaken and filled with fear. There was a possibility of them moving off their mark, retreating or running from the fight altogether. What we see here is the work of the flesh, another of our enemies, in response to the pressure from the world. The flesh wants to flee and seek comfort. The flesh is like a terror cell in your heart. It opposes the lead of the Spirit in movements toward holiness. It encourages flight rather than fight in the face of persecution.

But there are three enemies of the Christian. Paul was also concerned that the Tempter would tempt them (3:5) to run away and forsake their post. He was concerned that they would be tempted to question God’s goodness (a strategy that has worked since the Garden). He tempts us to abandon our living hope for present safety.

The Tempter is also the Accuser. In suffering he will accuse God of wronging us. He will also bring up our sins as reasons for this suffering. He seeks to dishearten as well as tempt. He hates you because he hates our Triune God.

Paul implicitly reveals the role of the world, the flesh and the devil in affliction, particularly persecution. We need to be aware of all three but we tend to fixate on one. We are to engage in repentance and spiritual warfare, not one or the other. We are to mortify our flesh and put on the armor of the Lord (5:8).


How did Paul respond to his great concern and Satan’s hindrance? He and Silas sent Timothy to establish and exhort them in their faith (3:2). Timothy was to bring them the word of the gospel to fix them in place so they don’t move back. Timothy was also to plead and implore them, strengthening them so they stand firm.

We need the ministry of others when we suffer. We need others to speak God’s Word to us, to remind us of the living hope we have. We need them to exhort or encourage us.

Let me rephrase that. I need the ministry of others when I suffer. I need people who speak God’s Word to me. I need to be reminded of our hope. When I am fainthearted, I need to be encouraged (5:14). I need others to help keep me in the fight. I am thankful for my wife who does this. I am thankful for co-laborers who do this as well. But, sadly, not many realize I need encouragement too.

I also need to mortify my flesh. I need to read the Word and replace the lies of the world, the flesh and devil with the truth of God. There must be personal responsibility and action. I need to speak back to the Accuser that Christ’s blood and resurrection have removed my guilt and shame.

But when we are fainthearted or weak, we need the ministry of others. That is humbling. Especially if you are the pastor.

As a Pastor

As pastors we need to establish and exhort others when they suffer. We also need to establish and exhort the church when it suffers. There is both the personal and public ministry.

Our church has been struggling. We are suffering. I likely made a bad choice of when to preach on Ecclesiastes last spring. I don’t know. We were struggling with how life didn’t make sense and Ecclesiastes did that. But I likely need to provide more hope to counteract the pull of the flesh and the Tempter.

Wait, is that the Accuser trying to discourage me about Ecclesiastes? I don’t know. But I brought us to Exodus this fall to reveal the God who shows up and delivers His people. The God who hears the cries and moans of His people, and keeps His covenant promises to them.

In those sermons I spoke of Egypt and the world that seeks to crush God’s people, the seed of the Serpent at work in it all, and their own sinful responses to adversity. The world, the flesh and the devil.

Now we shift to the wilderness and learning to trust God. I am seeking to encourage and exhort so they stand firm. Timid Timothy’s can be God’s man at the right time.

The title intrigued me, and addresses some issues I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. I wasn’t sure if Michael Emlet had written the book I’m hoping to write.

He didn’t. But Saint, Sufferers & Saints: Loving Others as God Loves Us is a good book. It is succinct. He could have developed some of these themes more fully. What he does say is very helpful though.

Michael Emlet was a medical doctor who ended up making a career change. He went to Westminster Seminary and joined the staff of CCEF. At times his own experiences with a wife who suffers health issues and parenting kids who sin as one who sins. This is not just a counseling book though. He wants this to impact our daily life whether we are counselors or not.

He breaks the book up into 5 sections. The first lays out the “why” and “how” of the book. Here he makes clear that people don’t fit into only one of the three categories. All Christians are saints, and at times they suffer and at other times they struggle with sin. At times they can sin because they suffer or suffer when they sin. Got that?

In the first section he has a chapter on Jesus as the ultimate Saint, Suffering and “Sinner”. Don’t get worked up about the last one. He speaks of the imputation of our sin to Jesus as the Savior of Sinners. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, He who was without sin became sin so we might become the righteousness of God.

Each of the thee main section includes chapters on how Scripture speaks to the group in focus, how God loves them, the priorities for ministry to them, examples of how to love them in everyday life and then in counseling. He also addresses barriers to living them.

The last section is about remaining balanced in our ministry.

We can become one-trick ponies in ministry. If you have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a hammer. Emlet’s point. In as much as they are a saint, sufferer and sinner we address them as such. Saints are addressed differently than sufferers and both are addressed differently than sinners. You don’t love well, aren’t a good friend, are a lousy pastor or counselor if you don’t address them appropriately.

Scripture gives us a kind of trellis- a basic structure- on which love can flower in person-specific ways.” pp. 4

This book seeks to bring Scripture to bear on these issues, and not just on the chapters on what God says to that group. He gives lots of references to passages, and quotes quite a few passages as well.

Many of us struggle with questions of identity. It is important to remind Christians they are saints. Scripture is written to God’s people and primarily about God’s people. In Christ, we are saints: people set apart for God and His service. He spends time addressing the letters to the Corinthians. While Paul addresses plenty of sin and suffering, he addresses them as saints. They did not cease to be saints because they sinned. He speaks of our need to encourage and be encouraged. He does address “when not to start with the good” in ministry to saints. When patterns of sin or suffering are deep and present a danger to self or others you must act quickly and not wait to address the danger. That is not the moment to think the best of them and think of something positive to say.

We all suffer. We aren’t always suffering, but we all suffer at different times and in different ways. We want to listen to understand how they are suffering. We have many examples of lament to learn how to bring our suffering to God. He speaks of the importance of patience in caring for sufferers. Like battleships, they won’t turn on a dime. They can’t. Suffering isn’t a problem to be solved. It is an opportunity to trust. We want to help them entrust themselves and their problems into the hands of God.

We ant to avoid a “fix it” mentality, but we also want to avoid a detached “deal with it” mentality.” pp. 92

Too often we focus more on the sin than the suffering so we confront when we should comfort.

Our renewed obedience begins with our identity as saints. Our identity is on of the gospel indicatives that gives birth to gospel imperatives. Emlet notes that God moves toward His people but against their sin. This sets the pattern for us. We move toward people but do not embrace their sin, we confront it. Sometimes we have to help them see the suffering and/or idols behind or underneath the sin. He notes that sanctification includes both the putting off of sin and putting on of Christ and virtue.

I read this in about 2-3 days as I prepared for 2 sermons on loving one another. It is not a difficult book to read. It is not an overwhelming read. The chapters are very short and you don’t get bogged down. This is a helpful addition to pastoral practice, one another ministry and counseling ministry.

Considering Depression

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Depression is Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Help and Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope and Joy: Thinking God’s Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considering Forgive

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

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

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

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

A Story of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fading of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Forgiveness

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

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

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

The Book of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

The God of Love and Fury

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

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

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

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

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

Justice and Love, Honor and Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basics of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Need for Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receiving God’s Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

Granting Our Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extending Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considering You Can Change

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

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

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

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

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

What Would You Like to Change?

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

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

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

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

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

Why Would You Like to Change?

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

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

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

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

How Are You Going to Change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Do You Struggle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Truths Do You Need to Turn to?

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

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

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

Some truths that Chester puts forth for us:

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

We can also reject the lies of:

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

What Desires Do You Need to Turn From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Stops You from Changing?

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

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

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

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

What Strategies Will Reinforce Your Faith and Repentance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can We Support One Another in Changing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Ready for a Lifetime of Daily Change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading as an Exercise of Authority?

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

He further clarifies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Teaching Elders Read the Scripture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance:

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

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

I say this because of passages like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views on the BCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Miniscule History

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

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

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

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

Administrations of the One Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Areas of Continuity in the New or Renewed Covenant

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

The Newness of the New or Renewed Covenant

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

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

A Regenerate Church?

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

One of my friends points to Romans 11.

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

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

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

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

Considering The Gospel

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel for You

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

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

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

Gospel doctrine – gospel culture= hypocrisy

Gospel culture – gospel doctrine= fragility

Gospel doctrine + gospel culture= power

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel for the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel for Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gospel + safety + time

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

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

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

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

It Isn’t Easy, But It Is Possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can We Expect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Path Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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