Shepherding single Christians who desire marriage and battle discontentment is not always easy, but it is a privilege. And it is a stewardship entrusted to every pastor.
Here are nine things to teach and emphasize to discontented singles in your church.
1. Contentment is demanded of all Christians, not just single Christians.
It’s vital to remember, and to communicate, that single Christians aren’t some special class of humans who really need to work on contentment. We all do.
Discontentment, after all, isn’t a feature of single hearts; it’s a feature of human hearts. It’s “common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13), polluting every life stage since Adam and Eve weren’t content to trust the word of God over the whisper of the snake (Gen. 3:1–7).
If we’re honest, discontentment can feel rather small compared to other sins. But it’s not small. It’s serious, because it tells a lie about God: that he is insufficient to meet our needs.
Single or married, no one has to be taught discontentment. We all have PhDs in the subject already. Even the apostle’s discovery of the “secret of contentment” didn’t come naturally; he had to learn it (Phil. 4:11). He enrolled in the school of contentment, and so must we.
Cultivating contentment, then, is less like medicine and more like a healthy diet. It happens over the course of months and years, not hours and days.
So, tell single Christians in your church what you tell every Christian in your church: God’s ultimate aim is not to change your circumstances, though he might. It’s to change you.
2. Contentment doesn’t mean you can’t desire or pursue marriage.
I hope this goes without saying, but I’ll say it just in case: To the degree that “God is sovereign; be content” is code for “God is sovereign; stop desiring or pursuing marriage,” it is lousy advice.
The human heart is complex. It can both long for marriage and long for God’s will—even if that will doesn’t include marriage. Jesus himself experienced an unfulfilled longing while bowing to his Father’s plan (Matt. 26:39).
In fact, it’s a mark of spiritual maturity for a believer to bring their longing for marriage to heaven’s throne, pouring out their heart before the God who hears and cares. Resignation is a feature of Stoicism, not Christianity.
3. You are not a human-in-waiting.
Being single isn’t an obstacle to being fully human; it’s an expression of it. A woman’s life, for example, doesn’t “really” begin when she becomes a wife or a mom, but when she becomes a royal image-bearer of God.
Pastor, gently remind the discontented single person that their marital status is not their defining characteristic. Words like “single” and “married” are fine, but they make far better adjectives than nouns.
Many well-meaning people have a tendency, I think, to make singleness either everything or nothing. Someone who’s made it everything will always lead with some variation of “Are you seeing anyone?” Someone who’s made it nothing will prescribe contentment like medicine—the “God is sovereign; be content” misstep mentioned above. As pastors, we must affirm both the discontented single’s desire while at the same time not act like it’s the only thing going on in their life.
Of course, no observation bears greater significance than that history’s most complete person never had sex and never got married. If singleness is deficient, then so was Jesus Christ.
4. You can uniquely picture the gospel.
Along these lines, Scripture is clear that marriage is a gospel mirror, reflecting the union between Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:32).
But does this mean the single Christian fails to mirror the gospel? Not at all. Godly singleness reflects the church in this age as we wait, with expectant hope, for our Savior’s return. In fact, I think single people can enjoy a special kind of solidarity with Jesus that married people cannot. He is, after all, awaiting his wedding day (Rev. 19:6–10).
Sam Allberry puts it like this: “Both marriage and singleness point to the gospel. The former reflects its shape, the latter its sufficiency.” Pastor, help single Christians in your church to see how they can uniquely reflect the sufficiency of the gospel as they await the ultimate wedding.
Speaking of the chaste single woman, Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) went so far as to write:
When she gives herself willingly to [Christ] in love, she has no need to justify herself to the world or to Christians who plague her with questions and suggestions. In a way not open to the married woman her daily “living sacrifice” is a powerful and humble witness, radiating love. I believe she may enter into the “mystery” more deeply than the rest of us.
5. Your singleness is a gift and a calling.
We live in an erotic age in which human beings are routinely reduced to their sexuality. The insistence, then, that chastity is a gift to embrace and not a cross to bear is as countercultural as it is biblical.
Paul could not have been clearer that singleness is a good gift from God:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. . . . So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. (1 Cor. 7:7–8, 38; cf. Matt. 19:10–12)
Now, simply informing someone that singleness is a gift is not always helpful. There’s such a thing as an unwanted gift, after all. Labor to show them why the gift is beautiful in heaven’s sight. Help them see the possibilities that lie beneath the wrapping.
Singleness isn’t the kind of gift you unwrap and put on the mantle; it’s the kind you put to use. And the gift isn’t addressed to the single person only, but to their entire community. Everyone benefits from the life of an unmarried person who has embraced this calling—this deployment—from the King himself.
In his book When the Church Was a Family, Joseph Hellerman makes a striking observation:
Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 7 was not to ask how singleness fits into God’s kingdom plan. Paul was addressing the issue of how marriage fits into his kingdom plan. Single people are already with the program. They are “concerned about the things of the Lord” (v. 32). Married people are the ones who need help sorting out their priorities.
Single Christians aren’t in a holding pattern, awaiting their job responsibilities in God’s kingdom. Let’s not communicate otherwise in our churches.
6. It’s likely you’re strategically positioned for gospel good.
This one is tricky, since there’s a fine line between telling singles they’re likely able to extend themselves more freely for the gospel and implying they’re expected to. The former is encouraging; the latter is not. The former puts wind in the sails; the latter adds weight to the boat.
The world champions the single life because of all you can do for yourself. The Bible champions the single life because of all you can do for others. Where does the beauty of singleness shine brightest? Not in exotic trips or Netflix binges or waking up on Saturday at the crack of noon, though those things can be nice. Singleness shines brightest in the ability to serve, to rise to the occasion, to drop everything at a moment’s notice and—as one single friend was able to do—make travel and funeral arrangements for a family who’d suddenly lost their child.
So encourage singles in your church to embrace their relative freedom and flexibility as the strategic deployment it is. This doesn’t just have implications for their ministry (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:32–34), but for their friendships, too. As Allberry observes:
For those of us who remain single, we might not experience the unique depth of intimacy with one person that a married friend might, but we can enjoy a unique breadth of intimacy with a number of close friends that comes from having greater opportunity and capacity than married people typically have to invest in close friendships.
7. God is with and for you now.
One of the best ways you can love someone desiring marriage is to help them see that God is always sovereign and wise and good to his children—and he’s not about to stop with them. He knows what’s best for them (wise), he wants what’s best for them (good), and he will bring about what’s best for them (sovereign). Charles Spurgeon put it beautifully: “Remember this: Had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.”
This is not a flippant or flimsy platitude. It’s rock-solid truth on which the Christian stands.
It’s difficult to improve on Paige Brown’s words in her remarkable essay, “Singled Out for Good”:
Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.
8. You are part of the ultimate family already.
Late-modern Western culture conflates sex and intimacy, but Scripture does not. God’s people, gathered in kingdom outposts called local churches, are meant to be the most intimate communities on earth.
For a man or woman in Christ, nothing ultimate about them is single. They are a child in the Father’s house (1 Tim. 3:15), a member of the Son’s body (1 Cor. 12:12–27), a stone in the Spirit’s temple (Eph. 2:21–22).
And, unlike their marital status, these realities will endure forever.
In his book God, Marriage, and Family, Andreas Köstenberger makes the interesting observation that Scripture unfolds, if anything, in a pro-singleness direction:
- Singleness in creation: nonexistent
- Singleness in the Old Testament: uncommon and generally undesirable
- Singleness in the New Testament: advantageous for kingdom ministry
- Singleness in the final state: universal
To be sure, you’re called to lead your church in honoring marriage (Heb. 13:4). But take care not to do so at the expense of singleness—a stewardship entrusted to some of us now that will characterize all of us forever.
9. Jesus is enough. Really.
The local church is indispensable to the Christian life, and the ultimate reason is because of its all-sufficient cornerstone and head, Jesus Christ.
I once heard my friend Bethany Jenkins remark that if Jesus isn’t sufficient for her when she’s single, he won’t be sufficient for her when she’s married.
Don’t you love that?
Pastor, remind the singles in your church that they already have access to the deepest and most meaningful love relationship there is. Period. If they get married, that’s great, but it will only add a dollar of approval and love to the billion-dollar net worth they already possess.
Again, contentment in singleness doesn’t show up as a muted desire for marriage. The most beautiful thing, in fact, is when single Christians acknowledge their longing for a spouse—and yet testify to the sufficiency of Jesus in the midst of the struggle. The world has a category for a single who acts like marriage isn’t a big deal. But what it doesn’t have a category for—what the world can neither understand nor explain—is a single who longs for marriage while declaring, “His grace is sufficient for me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
As Allberry puts it, “The key to contentment as a single person isn’t being content in singleness; it’s being content in Christ, as a single person.”Shepherd Their Gaze
Far from being a second-class calling, godly singleness is a vital stewardship entrusted to many of our brothers and sisters—some for a season, others for life.
As you shepherd those longing for a spouse, don’t miss the opportunity to listen, to comfort, and to speak truth in love. And the best way you can love them is to direct their gaze not ultimately to their circumstances, but to the greatest single person who ever lived.
A growing number of young women—driven by feminist politics and the #MeToo movement—are being drawn to a new brand of witchcraft, according to a report by NBC News. Here are nine things you should know about Wicca and modern witchcraft.
1. Witchcraft refers to the worldview, religion, and practices associated with using rituals that are believed to harness and focus cosmic or psychic energies to bring about some desired change. Modern witchcraft is the largest and most common subset of neo-paganism, a diverse group of religious movements that claim to be derived from historical pagan religions.
2. Within the witchcraft revival movement, the largest subset is Wicca. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey estimated that in the United States there were about 600,000 neo-pagans, with about half identifying as Wiccan. Some estimates conclude that in 2017 there were more than 3 million practicing Wiccans.
3. In modern usage, the term “witch” is considered gender-neutral and can apply to either men or women. The term “warlock” is often considered a derogatory term as the original usage of the term meant “oath-breaker.” A group of witches who meet together regularly are known as a “coven.” Some witches believe a coven must have 13 or fewer members, though not less than three.
4. Wicca was created in the 1940s by Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964), a retired British civil servant an ordained minister in the Christian sect known as the Ancient British Church. Gardner is considered the “father of modern witchcraft,” though his neo-pagan beliefs had almost not connection to older forms of witchcraft. His brand of wiccanism (sometimes referred to as Gardnerian Wicca or Gardnerian witchcraft) was taken from more modern influences, such as Freemasonry, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Gardner referred to his belief-system as “witchcraft” and a “witch-cult,” and the term “Wicca” didn’t appear until 1962.
5. In the 1960s and 1970, Wicca spread from the U.K. to other English-speaking countries, became associated with the burgeoning feminist and environmental movements, and split into various “traditions.” From Gardnerian Wicca sprang such offshoots as Alexandrian Wicca, Algard Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Druidic Wicca, Seax-Wica, and Eclectic Wicca.
6. The U.S. government first officially recognized Wicca as a religion in 1985. In a court case involving a prisoner (Dettmer v. Landon), the federal government argued that the doctrine of the Church of Wicca was not a religion because it is a “conglomeration” of “various aspects of the occult, such as faith healing, self-hypnosis, tarot card reading, and spell casting, none of which would be considered religious practices standing alone.” The court noted that the government was essentially arguing “that because it finds witchcraft to be illogical and internally inconsistent, witchcraft cannot be a religion.” The appeals court ruled that, “the Church of Wicca occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions. Consequently, its doctrine must be considered a religion.”
7. A commonly shared core belief of Wicca (as well as other forms of modern witchcraft) is the acceptance and practice of magic. The Wiccan view is similar to that of Aleister Crowley, who defined magic as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” As Wesley Baines says, “Many believe magic to be simply another law of nature, albeit one that is poorly understood and written off as fakery. As such, magic is not supernatural, but just as natural as gravity and wind, and often involve a combination of invocations, movement, music, meditation, and tools.” And as one Wiccan site explains, “Magick [sic] is another word for transformation, creation, and manifestation. Wicca magick is a tool we use to act on the subtle—or energy, or quantum—level of reality. The quantum level is the causal realm. It is the subtle influences at the quantum level that decide which way reality will go.”
8. Aside from a belief in magic, there are few beliefs that all Wiccan traditions share. The belief most commonly associated with Wicca is a variation of the Wiccan Rede (“rede” is from the Middle English, meaning “advice” or “counsel”). Believed to have been formulated by the Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente in the early 1960s, the Wiccan Rede is stated as, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.” Variations on the rede include “That it harm none, do as thou wilt” and “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.”
9. In its older forms, Wicca holds a duotheistic belief system that includes a female Mother Goddess and a male Horned God. As Wicca has became more influenced by feminism, though, it has become more oriented toward goddess worship. As Jone Salomonsen concludes, “Witches perceive of themselves as having left the Father’s House (Jewish and Christian religion) and returned ‘home’ to the Self (Goddess religion) with a call to heal western women’s (and men’s) alienation from community and spirituality and to become benders of human and societal developments.” This flexibility in excluding/including deities has, as Michael F. Strmiska says, “allowed people with interest in different deities and religious traditions to customize Wicca to suit their specific interests, thus enhancing the religion’s appeal to a broad and growing membership.”
Other posts in this series:
Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
In my late teens and early 20s, I was an arrogant young punk. I thought I knew everything about the Christian faith and how ministry was supposed to work. I had ideas, dreams, and, of course, verses.
For several years, I bounced around between various churches and college ministries looking for something I didn’t know I was missing—until I found it: men excited about training younger men.
Over the past two decades of ministry, I’ve observed many young guys who remind me of my former self. They bounce from church to church, probably unsure of exactly what they’re looking for.
Here’s what I think helps to explain it: Bad leaders repel young leaders, good leaders raise up young leaders, and great leaders launch young leaders.Bad Leaders Repel
Young leaders usually think they’re looking for a place to lead. If they can just find that church or organization where they “fit,” then they’ll flourish. But what young leaders are really looking for—whether they know it or not—is a person who will help them learn how to lead.
Leadership in the church—and especially in the work of church planting—is not gleaned by osmosis. It won’t just ‘happen.’
Leadership in the church—and especially in the work of church planting—is not gleaned by osmosis. It won’t just “happen.” It takes older leaders intentionally pouring their lives into younger ones. Paul told Timothy to “teach others” what Paul had taught him (2 Tim. 2:2). To raise up young leaders, you don’t need a big leadership program; you need an intentional life.
When an older leader is insecure, he’s unlikely to keep alongside a younger leader who challenges his way of doing things. The older leader sees these challenges as an affront to his preferred methods and systems.
On the flip side, an older leader who doesn’t know how to lead will often abdicate to a younger leader too quickly, thus violating Paul’s warning to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22).
Both approaches will eventually cause the young leader to bail, get frustrated with ministry, or burn out.Good Leaders Raise Up
Good leaders recognize talent in younger people and are excited about the opportunity to train the next generation. They create or adopt plans and systems to mentor with the skills these young people need.
To raise up young leaders, you don’t need a big leadership program; you need an intentional life.
Unfortunately, things often stall here, since many older leaders fail to take the crucial next step that great leaders know they must take. It’s not enough to identify and train young leaders; older leaders must let them lead. This means giving them responsibility in specific areas.
Older leaders who only delegate responsibility on the basis of fully developed skill will never delegate responsibility. Leadership development means trusting younger leaders even though they won’t do it as well as you could (at least initially).Great Leaders Launch
After spending years mentoring and training me as a leader, the pastors at my church noticed I was bouncing off the glass ceiling of our organization. So they did something few older leaders are willing to do: they opened a skylight in the glass ceiling to launch me farther than they had gone.
Giving younger leaders opportunities to surpass you in ministry takes profound humility, wrought only by the Spirit of God.
From my experience with these godly men, here are a few ways you can launch young leaders:
- Give them a chance to lead (and not just when you are on vacation). If they are an up-and-coming preacher, give them a prime spot in the preaching rotation and sit in the front row, listening attentively and taking notes.
- Be their biggest public cheerleader. Encourage them in their strengths in front of those who are watching.
- Be their behind-the-scenes coach. Help them learn to face their weaknesses and apply the gospel to their own soul. This is crucial for anyone who desires to lead others.
- If they are a church planter, encourage them to take anyone they can convince to go with them. Give them permission—even encouragement—to poach your best people.
None of this is easy. It takes humble dependence on the Good Shepherd (John 10). But that’s the greatest leadership trait I’ve learned from the men who trained me. They were, and continue to be, the most humble servant leaders I’ve ever met. I know this because they are still on the pastoral team I now lead.
Giving younger leaders opportunities to surpass you in ministry takes profound humility, wrought only by the Spirit of God.
That was never the plan. In fact, they did all this work with the intention of launching me to plant a new church.
The biggest reason I stayed, instead of planting a church, is because we had a good team. Together, we hope to train hundreds of young men to plant churches all over the globe.
And now, I’m trusting God to eventually provide the leader who can take the church farther than I could ever dream. At that point, it’ll be my turn to fade quietly into the background.
- How Mark Dever Passes Out Authority (Jonathan Leeman)
America’s rural share of the population has dropped from 95 percent in 1810 to 55 percent in 1910 to 20 percent in 2010. And there’s no turnaround in sight. It’s a fact that makes tens of millions of rural Americans defensive about their place in our national life. They feel under threat, according to Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University and author of a new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. A native of Kansas, Wuthnow has interviewed hundreds of rural Americans and found deep concern “that their way of life is eroding, shifting imperceptibly under the feet, and being discredited and attacked from the outside.”
You can imagine that this feeling pervades many rural churches as well. To discuss the significance of Wuthnow’s findings for church leaders, I reached out to Stephen Witmer, pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts. Stephen earned a PhD from the University of Cambridge and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also helps lead Small Town Summits, which partners with The Gospel Coalition New England to serve rural churches and pastors.
Witmer is a native of rural Maine, and we’ve bonded over our mutual appreciation for the overlooked places and, not coincidentally, the writing of Wendell Berry. In this conversation we discuss the moral obligations of rural communities, media influences, church dynamics, and more.
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Going Small with a Big Gospel in New England (Stephen Witmer)
- Remember the Rural: Does Modern Church Planting Overemphasize the City? (Michael Kruger)
- Reviving the Dying Small-Town Church (Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra)
Judging by my Facebook Trending feed, most people aren’t that interested in sanctification. But if you’re a Christian, you have to be. And if you’re a pastor like I am, then doubly so. As pastors, our own sanctification would be enough to keep our hands full, not to mention keeping a close watch on ourselves and pommeling our bodies lest we be disqualified (1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Cor. 9:27). But then there’s also the sanctification of our flock, as we seek to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). The practical challenges are constant.
But beneath most of the practical challenges is the perennial doctrinal challenge of how to relate sanctification to justification. How do they differ? Are they both necessary? If so, is one more central to the gospel than the other? Is there a danger in emphasizing one over the other? How do we achieve a proper balance?
Given the constant challenges, we need all the help we can get. Perhaps this is why my reading list has been so full of books on the subject these past few years. Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in our Holiness. Bryan Chapell’s Unlimited Grace. Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God and The Whole Christ. Mark Jones’s Antinomianism. Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.
Now add to that list Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification, the third volume in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. I won’t be writing a review of Sanctification; a book of this caliber deserves a more astute reviewer, as I was definitely reading over my head much of the time. Still, after slogging through it twice, I’ve found my thinking sharpened on the relationship between sanctification and justification.
As far as I can tell he doesn’t say anything new (indeed, to adapt a line from C. S. Lewis, “It’s all in J. C. Ryle! All in Ryle! Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”). But Allen does say a lot of things well, things that contribute to the ongoing conversation.
So without claiming to reflect or agree with Allen in every detail, let me share two pastoral thoughts on sanctification and justification inspired by his book.1. Sanctification and the Gospel—Of Goals and Grounds
Which would you say is more important, justification or sanctification? Which is more central to the gospel? How you answer that question will affect both how you preach and how you evaluate others’ preaching.Are You a Jefferson or a Hamilton?
I once read that the political differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton stemmed from what each of them feared more: Jefferson feared tyranny while Hamilton feared disorder. I’ve observed something similar among pastors, even those who subscribe to the same confessions of faith. Some Jefferson-like pastors fear the tyranny of the law (legalism), while other Hamilton-like pastors fear the disorder of lawlessness (antinomianism). You can see where this is going. Those who see legalism as the greater danger tend to stress justification, while those more alert to antinomianism tend to stress sanctification.
As you’ll likely be able to divine, I’m more of a Hamilton.
Where we fall on this spectrum can also influence our exegesis of particular texts. I recently had a conversation with a Jefferson-type pastor about Matthew 5:20. I maintained that when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he’s referring to the practical, imparted righteousness of sanctification (i.e., what Hebrews 12:14 calls “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”). But my friend was uneasy about this—“How could any righteousness be required to enter the kingdom beyond the righteousness of Christ himself?”
Perhaps you sympathize with my pastor friend, perhaps not. But I’m sure you feel the tension. There is often a feeling among Jefferson-types that justification is more essential, and that as important as sanctification might be, it shouldn’t be our focus; just preach justification and sanctification will happen. Hamilton-types, meanwhile, think we need to talk more explicitly about the importance of sanctification.How to Relate Justification and Sanctification
So even if we agree that justification and sanctification are both necessary, we can still differ over which is more central. And here’s where I think Allen provides helpful vocabulary. He parses it this way: Justification is more foundational, but sanctification is more ultimate. Justification is the ground of the gospel, but sanctifying fellowship is the goal of the gospel (34, 157, 182–83).
Justification is more foundational, but sanctification is more ultimate. Justification is the ground of the gospel, but sanctifying fellowship is the goal of the gospel.
Therefore, asking which is more important misses the point. More important for what? Without justification, sanctification is fruitless, but without sanctification, justification is pointless.
On the one hand, justification through Christ’s imputed righteousness is indispensable—no one gets glorified without it (Rom. 8:29–30), because apart from Christ we’re children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Having sinned we fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23); having transgressed we lie under God’s curse (Gal. 3:10–11). As long as we remain in this condition, the distance between us and God is impassable, and even our best works are filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Justification is indispensable—and available.
But it’s not the end. Echoing Allen’s language, Richard Gaffin notes that in the ordo salutis (order of salvation) of Romans 8:29–30, sanctification (being “conformed to the image of his Son,” what Dane Ortlund describes as “inaugurated glorification”) is “strategically more ultimate” than justification—preceding it as the predestining goal and following it as the topmost stone (287). Or again, as Allen notes, the movement of Romans is from justification in chapters 1–5 to sanctification in chapters 6–8 (185–189). Having been justified, the “fruit [we] now get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22).
Let me borrow Allen’s own illustration from his previous book, Justification and the Gospel (30–31). Think of salvation as a house—a house with a banquet hall. The goal of the house is to serve as a place for God to feast with his people forever. So the house represents sanctifying fellowship. That’s the chief end. Yet no house can stand without a firm foundation, and justification is that foundation. Without it, the banquet would come to a “crashing halt.”
So which is more important, the foundation or the feast? You get the point.Promise of Transformation
Given its foundational nature, there’s a real sense in which we never “get beyond” justification. To tweak the analogy, justification isn’t simply the gate we pass through on the way to our sanctified destiny—it’s the very road we travel on, always there supporting us. Even in glory, when our journey is complete and we’ve prayed “Father, forgive me” for the final time, we’ll never outgrow our identity as those who have been forgiven through the blood of Christ, and we’ll join the angels in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 6:12). Those who reign in life will be those—and only those—who have first received the free gift of righteousness through the obedience of the one man Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17, 19).
Without justification, sanctification is fruitless, but without sanctification, justification is pointless.
At the same time, by narrowly emphasizing justification as though it alone were the gospel, we can obscure the fact that the goal of the gospel is transformation—the actual reshaping of our thoughts, loves, actions, habits, characters, and (eventually) our very bodies to be like Christ’s. If our gospel focuses on the forensic to the neglect of the transformative, then our gospel is too small and risks missing the point. But when we attend to the full breadth of the biblical gospel, we will “find a way to speak positively of virtue, morality, and human action as a part of the gospel promise and not merely a threat to or compromise of the gospel” (33).
To use Paul’s language, the goal of Christ’s death was “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people . . . who are zealous for good works” as we wait for his “glorious appearing” (Titus 2:13–14). Or to use Allen’s language:
Justification is not meant to be a final or ultimate blessing, but it is an entryway blessing that brings one into a journey that terminates in a still greater benefit: the transforming presence of the glorious God of the gospel. (183)
Both are essential. Each has its proper place in the gospel. Justification is the ground, sanctification is the goal. But beneath them is something more basic.2. Sanctification, Union with Christ, and the ‘Double Grace’
Giving sanctification such a vital place may seem hazardous if you’re used to thinking of the gospel in terms of justification only. And this is understandable. My Jeffersonian friend has a point—legalism is a live danger. So how do we give sanctification its proper place without confusing the gospel with moralism? How do we keep a proper focus?
Thankfully there is a ready biblical answer, and Allen points us to it. There is something (or rather someone) that lies beneath both justification and sanctification; something even more fundamental than either of them. Namely, Jesus Christ. His person. His work. Who he is. What he did. The gospel isn’t focused first and foremost on sanctification or justification—but on Christ himself. (That’s why a person can have fuzzy or even false ideas about justification but still be justified nonetheless—because we’re justified through faith in Christ, not through faith in justification.)
If our gospel focuses on the forensic to the neglect of the transformative, then our gospel is too small and risks missing the point.
The benefits of salvation are all found in Christ, and they become ours when we are in him. In Christ we have no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness (Eph. 1:7). In Christ we’re raised up to new life and seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). In Christ we’re sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, and union with him is “the matrix for all spiritual blessing” (150; 1 Cor. 1:30).Christ and the Double Grace
Allen stresses repeatedly that justification and sanctification are “discrete, yoked, logically ordered gifts in union with Christ” (184). And in this he trades heavily on John Calvin’s famous description of these gifts as the “double grace” (34–42, 171–83). Calvin explains:
By partaking of [Christ], we . . . receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (37)
Notice two things here: one about Christ and the Spirit, the other about Christ and sanctification.
First, we normally associate sanctification with the Holy Spirit, and rightly so. But even here Calvin keeps the focus on Christ by referring to him as “Christ’s Spirit.” This not only echoes Paul’s language (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6), it also reflects the Bible’s emphasis on Christ as the giver of the Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 16:7; Acts 1:5; 2:33). This is why Robert Peterson can speak of “Christ’s Pentecost” as part of his work of redemption, right alongside “Christ’s Death” and “Christ’s Resurrection” (206–26).
Surely this emphasis should affect how we teach and preach sanctification. It should keep us from construing “the work of Christ” too narrowly, as though it ended with the ascension. Even in the arena of sanctification where the Spirit does his primary work, we should keep the focus on Christ. And if John 16:13–14 is any indication, I’m pretty sure the Spirit won’t mind.
Second, notice Calvin’s description of sanctification and Christ: “that [being] sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” At the risk of reading my own views onto Calvin, he seems to be saying that our cultivation of holiness flows not so much out of justification (the first grace) as out of Christ’s gift of the sanctifying Spirit (the second grace). (If I’m wrong about Calvin, then judge the following comments on their own merits.)
I don’t wish to split hairs. But I risk splitting this one because it plays into the ongoing conversation about what fuels sanctification and what motives we should appeal to as preachers. Is our sanctification fueled mainly by gratitude for justification, or are other motivations just as legitimate? Personally, I agree with Jason Hood that “union with Christ, resurrection power, the indwelling Spirit, new-creation status, and regeneration have more practical impact on sanctification than justification, forgiveness, and imputation.” Note that he places union with Christ first.
Or again, in early 2017 the Gospel Reformation Network made the following statement as part of their “Affirmations and Denials on the Gospel and Sanctification”:
We affirm that both justification and sanctification are distinct, necessary, inseparable, and simultaneous graces of union with Christ though faith.
We deny that sanctification flows directly from justification, or that the transformative elements of salvation are mere consequences of the forensic elements.
While I might tweak some of their language, I agree with their basic claim. The concern is this: If we view sanctification as flowing directly from justification (rather than from union with Christ by his Spirit), we will tend to view transformation as an automatic effect of justification (a “mere consequence”). This in turn will lead us to emphasize gratitude for justification as the primary (if not sole) driver of sanctification, to the exclusion of other biblical motivations, such as the desire to please God (Heb. 13:16), avoid chastisement (Ps. 119:67), or receive rewards (1 Tim. 6:18–19). Such a mistake will impoverish our preaching, constrict our counseling, and deprive our people and ourselves of the ammunition we need to fight sin.Making Christ the Center
I’m fairly certain that Allen would disagree with some of what I’ve just said, but I’m confident he would agree with this: We need to preach sanctification as part of the gospel promise, and the best way to do that is by making Christ our focus and attending to the full breadth of his work.
Making Christ the focus of the gospel, and union with Christ the heart of salvation, is ultimately what will guard us pastorally from both legalism and antinomianism. (Hamilton and Jefferson can be reconciled in Christ.) On the one hand, because it flows from Jesus Christ and follows justification, sanctification is never mere moral improvement or bootstrap-pulling. Flowing from Christ as it does, the imparted righteousness of sanctification gives us no more ground for boasting than the imputed righteousness of justification. For though they affect us in different ways, both ultimately come from Another (1 Cor. 1:30). So even if we can honestly boast that we’ve worked harder than others—the truly sanctified person will quickly add, “Yet it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10; 230).
And yet because of union with Christ, sanctification is also never optional, because the same Christ who forgives our sin also gives us his Holy Spirit. Justification and sanctification always go together because Jesus never gives one without the other. Christ—in other words, the whole Christ—is the unifying factor in both. He’s the only safeguard we have, and the only one we need.
The following 20 quotes caught my attention as I read Trevor Laurence’s helpful book, The Story of the Word: Meditations on the Narrative of Scripture (Wipf and Stock, 2017).
The only way back to the tree of life is to trust in the one who hung upon the tree of death. (11)
Anger isn’t opposed to love. It’s part of love. Anger is the loving response to anything that threatens what we cherish. . . . A God who doesn’t get angry is a God who doesn’t care about justice. A God who doesn’t get angry is a God who doesn’t love. (14)
In Genesis 15, God walks through the pieces to show that he would rather die than break his word. In Jesus Christ, God walks the lonely path to the cross where he will die in order to keep his word. (19)
Though God had every right to demand the life of a sinful human, God himself provided the sacrifice that he required. . . . All of us deserve to die for our sins, but God provides the lamb for the sacrifice—the lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Rather than having Abraham offer up his beloved son, God the Father will offer his beloved Son in glorious fulfillment of his covenant of grace. (23)
That’s the kind of king Jesus is—the kind of king who willingly walks into the wilderness to face down the Devil so that sinners like us can receive grace for all the ways that we’ve rebelled against God and chased after our temptations. (64)
We expect a king to approach in royal garb and power, but Jesus comes in humility. We expect a king to arrive mounted on a military horse and poised for war, but Jesus arrives on a donkey, a sign that he comes to bring peace. This King will receive in his body all the violence men can muster so that sinners can have peace with God. (82)
Sin isn’t always easily identifiable. A heart devoted to idolatry isn’t always observable from the outside. Judas managed to spend years on the inside of the community of disciples without raising a suspicion precisely because wickedness can so easily wear the mask of righteousness. Corruption can adopt the public persona of virtue. (86)
The way to God isn’t a what that you have to perform. It’s a who that you have to trust. (89)
Whatever we ask on the basis of Christ’s work, in line with Christ’s character, consistent with Christ’s promises, for the glory of Christ’s Father, Christ will certainly do for us. (89)
Obedience is love brought to completion and expressed in life. . . . Love divorced from obedience is love in name only. (90)
In an ironic twist, the same fear of man that has fueled the leaders’ hatred of Jesus has also prevented them from destroying him. The crowds have flocked to Jesus, and if the chief priests openly oppose him, they risk losing the favor of the people. And so the fear of man leaves them paralyzed. In order to look good, they must kill Jesus. In order to look good, they can’t kill Jesus—at least not yet. When Judas enters the picture, however, everything changes. Judas has access to Jesus and, for a small price, he can deliver him into their hands under the cover of night. Here is a horrific marriage of idols. If the religious leaders will feed Judas’ greed with silver, he will feed their fear of man by helping exterminate the one obstacle to their public praise. So together they plot to kill the Son of God. (96–97)
In [Gethsemane], both the disciples and Jesus demonstrate weakness—but completely different kinds of weakness. The disciples are weak because they think they’re strong when they’re not. Theirs is a foolish weakness that underestimates the power of temptation and the danger of sin. Jesus, on the other hand, is weak because he refuses to trust his own strength and instead submits to the Father’s will and depends upon the Spirit. This is a godly weakness that models the self-denying path of faith and obedience. Ironically, the disciples’ apparent strength is actually perilous weakness, but Jesus’s apparent weakness is in fact the truest kind of strength, because humble dependence will empower him to walk the road the Father has set before him. (102)
Power always gives us the impression that we can create the truth rather than submit to it. . . . Pilate’s lack of concern for the truth leads to a lack of concern for justice. . . . The road of idolatry is littered with the carcasses of innocent people who got in the way. (105, 106)
Our love affair with sin thrusts us into a living death that will eventually lead to eternal death. (139)
The true Son left his home with the Father and went to the cross so that we who had run from the Father could be welcomed as sons. (140)
Our whole way of thinking, living, and loving was shaped by the narratives and priorities of a world in hostility toward God. Now that we’re alive to God in Christ, his story has to permeate every part of who we are, reshaping our desires, our worldview, our moral compass, and our character. As God’s Word—centered on the person and work of Christ—re-narrates our lives, we grow in our ability not only to understand but also to delight in and obey God’s revealed will for his creation. (144)
If you believe that final justice is up to you to administer, you’ll either become an oppressor yourself, or you’ll give up on the possibility of justice altogether. But when you trust that God will ultimately take care of justice, you can seek to overcome evil with good in a way that stirs repentance in your enemies and commends the gospel to all through your honorable living. (145)
Belonging to the covenant people no longer requires entering into Israel, but entering into Jesus. (161)
Before God’s throne, the sea—the symbolic source of evil and chaos—is so still that it looks like a sea of glass. Though the Devil rages against God’s people, though evil wreaks havoc on the world, the point here is that, from God’s perspective, they’re completely under control. God’s gracious sovereignty extends even over sin, death, and Satan, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus he secured their ultimate defeat. We’re awaiting the day when Christ returns to do away with them entirely, but if we view history from the vantage point of God’s throne, we find that God’s kingship means that there’s nothing to fear. (172)
Just as God presented Eve to Adam in the first wedding ceremony, so now the Father walks the church down the aisle to Jesus her bridegroom in the marriage celebration to which every other marriage points. (180)
Jen Wilkin has learned God’s will for your life. And she’s ready to share it.
In her new book, In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character, she does just that. How can such a slim volume promise so much?
Wilkin—speaker, writer, Bible teacher, and regular TGC contributor—sets the terms herself. She gives us a new primary question to ask: Not “what should I do?” but “who should I be?”
Don’t be fooled by the first-person nature of the questions; this is a profoundly God-centered book. Wilkin’s essential commitment is that only God’s character can provide a sure foundation for a righteous life. Each of her 10 chapters is named for a different “communicable” attribute of God, and each begins by exploring how that attribute is displayed in him.
The word “communicable” makes most people think of a disease outbreak. If only God’s traits were that easily caught! Theologically, “communicable” refers to things about God that are also meant to be true about us. Unfortunately, due to our brokenness and sin, we rarely crave true goodness, honesty, or patience. We grasp instead at the traits God alone can possess, such as omnipotence. (Wilkin covers God’s “incommunicable” attributes in her previous book, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us; read 20 quotes and TGC’s review).Practical, Nuanced Guide
Though a focus on God’s attributes could easily lead to abstract theorizing, Wilkin never abandons firm ground. This, friends, is premium-cut lay theology. It refuses to skimp on biblical truth, while remaining fiercely practical at every turn. In His Image shines in its everyday applications, self-deprecating stories, and rich metaphors. It also wisely keeps to fighting weight, without excess textual fat.
This, friends, is premium-cut lay theology. And it remains fiercely practical at every turn.
The book’s practicality isn’t confined to the body of the text. Each chapter closes with verses for continued contemplation, personal application questions, and a paragraph prompting us to craft a prayerful response to God. The full offering will toss readers into the deep end of practical theology. But we needn’t do these exercises to benefit from the book. Wilkin knows us well. She has given us what we can handle, but also enticed us with more.
There are so many places where Wilkin shines. She pulls no punches in her chapter on honesty, declaring: “The problem with living my truth is that my truth is a lie” (128). By taking aim at a slogan that appeals to her audience intuitively, she demonstrates wise leadership. Additionally, her chapter on faithfulness is so full of theological meat and necessary application that you might be tempted to underline everything.
Wilkin’s ability to nuance complex theological ideas in plain language is everywhere. For example, when discussing grace she explains:
Initially, grace is unasked for and undesired . . . [but then] we grow to recognize it for what it is, and we even become increasingly bold to ask for it in greater measure. But the moment we begin to ask out of a sense of entitlement, we contaminate grace.
She captures a natural progression in a Christian’s understanding of this foundational doctrine, while also exposing how it can go sour. In Wilkin’s fresh exposition, well-worn truths no longer feel like tired tropes.Power for Change?
That doesn’t mean the book has no shortcomings. The chapters on goodness and wisdom are a little more sluggish than the others, while the chapter on love perhaps dwells overly much on the famous differences between the various Greek words translated “love,” differences that are probably not as meaningful as we evangelicals want them to be (cf. Sarah Coakley, The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, 13–15). The distinctions she makes between biblical and worldly love are valuable on their own and could be profitably made without appeals to the Greek.
Additionally, while Wilkin by no means ignores the Holy Spirit, certain directives would’ve been strengthened by explicitly pointing us to his power for change. For example, in her excellent discussion of the connection between impatience and anger, she advises us, in moments of frustration, to think about how God acts differently. Yet she does so without reference to relying on the Spirit’s work to make those thoughts fruitful through obedience. I for one know that I often need not only a different thought, but a different power to choose what I know is good.Real Gospel Living
These issues do not substantially affect the book’s excellence. As it ends, Wilkin sticks her landing. First, her conclusion focuses us on joy as the engine of sanctification. Second, she weaves truths from coin collecting with the story of Jesus being presented with a denarius in order to drive home the whole point of her book: that because we are made in God’s image, “God’s will for our lives is that we be restored to mint condition. God’s will for our lives is that we become living proof.”
Readers of all maturity levels will benefit from In His Image. Though Wilkin never quotes Matthew 6:33, the flow and argumentation naturally illustrate the beauty and logic of Jesus’s command there—a command that is also a promise. Wilkin’s question, “Who should I be?” is a helpful lens through which to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. She strives to reduce our anxiety about our futures by pointing us to what is good—what is right in front of us in God’s text. And she succeeds.
Writers of lay theology will also benefit—not from slavishly copying Wilkin’s style, but from taking note of how to make grand ideas go to work in everyday lives. In His Image could be excellently paired with Rosaria Butterfield’s new hospitality volume [review], providing a one-two punch of real gospel living. With such resources, let’s strive together to become persons and churches who reclaim God’s image in our midst.
The famous (or infamous, depending whom you ask) story of Noah and the flood fills Sunday school classes, kids’ books, and Christian art. The depictions are always the same—a bunch of cute zoo animals on a boat captained by a jolly old man, sun shining overhead, clouds puffier than cotton candy. If you had no backstory, you might think Noah loaded up some exotic animals to tour the Atlantic Ocean.
Others think the flood is an ancient recounting of an angry God who arbitrarily hates people. Non-Christians are especially susceptible to this idea, though many Christians also assume “the God of the Old Testament” is like a petulant child with a magnifying glass, scorching us like ants out of sheer maniacal pleasure.
Both postures are wrong.
Noah’s flood isn’t simply a Sunday school story about sunny skies and rainbows. Real people died; real sin was punished in a real flood. At the same time, Noah’s life isn’t just a grim story about fury and death. Even though God did execute judgment because people refused to forsake sin, he still showed grace to those who trusted him.
The problem, though, is that Noah’s ability to build an ark and survive the flood didn’t include any power to escape the corruption in his own heart. There needed to be another Noah story that didn’t end in sin or curses—one that would conclude with consistent obedience, salvation, and a guarantee that water judgment would never be needed again.
Jesus brings us this better story. Here are four ways he fulfills and retells Noah’s story.1. Jesus’s Return Reflects Noah’s Flood
Jesus preached to people who, for the most part, imitated the attitudes of Noah’s generation. Even more amazingly, Jesus predicted that the kind of crowd that rejected God in Noah’s day would also be around when he returns to establish his kingdom on earth. Therefore, the climate in which Noah lived would be replicated when Jesus returns in two ways.
First, people will ignore Jesus’s pleas for repentance, choosing instead the trivial pleasures of life. Such willful ignorance will not deter the worldwide judgment that will consume them.
Second, the rebellion of the unbelieving masses will incur the same result as in Noah’s day, except without any water. Instead of a flood washing away sinful humanity, Jesus will return with fire to remove his enemies, defeat the Devil, and allow his people to inherit a truly renewed creation.
When Jesus finally returns for good, there won’t be any sinful seeds ready to sprout up again.2. Jesus Brings Salvation like the Ark of Noah
Jesus also delivers us from judgment, just as the ark did for Noah. According to Peter, the flood is an ancient simulation of what happens in Christian baptism (1 Pet. 3:18–22). Originally, Noah and his family survived because of the ark’s protection. Now, believers are baptized in water in identification with Jesus, who was plunged into the earth and ultimately raised from the dead.
Just as Noah obeyed God by climbing onto a boat to save a few, Jesus obeyed his Father by climbing onto a cross to save many.
While a wooden ark delivered Noah from physical death, a wooden cross delivers us from spiritual death. Just as Noah obeyed God by climbing onto a boat to save a few, Jesus obeyed his Father by climbing onto a cross to save many.3. Jesus Succeeds Where Noah (and Adam) Failed
When the floodwaters receded, the world was like a new creation. Yet Noah still sinned after the boat hit land. Nevertheless, Noah was still linked to the promise the Lord had given to Adam—that the woman’s seed would eventually crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).
Jesus Christ became the man Adam chose not to be and the man Noah never could be. Adam was born without sin but chose to sin; Noah was born into sin and could never escape it.
But instead of temporarily obeying his Father only to succumb to failure, Jesus obeyed completely so he could be authorized to judge sin and crush Satan (Rev. 1:18).
Jesus’s new creation surpasses what Noah received after the flood, and even what Adam experienced before sin entered the world.4. Jesus Ensures the End of Judgment
As we’ve seen, the flood teaches several things. First, it’s a sober reminder that God judges rebels who don’t repent. Also, it’s a precursor to the final judgment facing all of humanity. Yet it’s laced with promises of grace, because the flood was part of a bigger story that includes promises of final restoration and salvation.
Creation won’t groan in chaos and be at odds with humanity. It will be restored, and a new Adam will lead a redeemed humanity to rule over it.
Even in washing most of humanity away, God proved faithful. He spared one family who would lead to the birth of the Savior. History was being pushed toward a better day—a day when the earth will be restored. Creation will no longer groan in chaos. It will be restored, and a new Adam will lead a redeemed humanity to rule over it.When Judgment Ceases
We all know floods aren’t pleasant. They destroy property. Worse, they take lives. They leave huge amounts of destruction in their wake. Floods remind us that nature is in disarray, and that things aren’t as they should be. Theologically, floods are illustrations of the conflict that still exists between God and man outside of Christ.
Nevertheless, we’re assured that when Christ returns, there will be no more sea, no more tears, no more heartbreak, and no more funerals. Creation will be renewed and those who took refuge in the ultimate ark—Jesus Christ—will embark into eternity with forgiveness, resurrection, and a new earth immune to God’s curse.
One day we won’t be like Noah, hoping to not stain the world with sin once again. Instead we’ll look to King Jesus, whose eternal reign will never be challenged, and who will conquer the chaos of sin once and for all.
Jon Fielder could’ve had a job anywhere.
He graduated summa cum laude from the prestigious Williams College, then with honors from the elite Baylor College of Medicine. He followed with a residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University, where he was named the top intern in his class.
Fielder would have been “at the top of his profession in the United States,” said Mark Gerson, his college roommate who was doing just that—co-founding a successful peer-to-peer business learning community of top professionals.
But instead of courting hospitals and universities for job offers, Fielder was booking a plane ticket to Kenya. After graduation, he’d land at a missions hospital that didn’t have enough staff or supplies or funding. He’d work 10- to 12-hour days, spend a year away from his fiancée, and be on call in the intensive care unit for two years in a row without a substantial break.Fielder checks on a patient in Malawi.
He’d work with a pharmacy that didn’t keep inventory and start an HIV program with staff who weren’t trained in HIV care. He’d do his continuing education not with conferences in Boston or New York, but with old school textbooks, and later with an internet connection and online journals. (“I once used an old textbook to mix peritoneal [abdominal] dialysis solutions for a patient whose kidneys had shut down as a complication from pregnancy,” he said. “She survived.”)
He’d face down the world’s biggest health crisis—HIV and AIDS—at its epicenter. And he’d work full-time in a hospital in Malawi while at the same time publishing more than a dozen articles and abstracts for medical journals, writing a textbook on how to deal with tuberculosis in HIV patients (the leading killer of most AIDS patients in Africa), and starting a foundation that would give away millions to other needy missions hospitals in Africa.
That foundation—the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF)—is perhaps the most surprising development of all. Because where is a missionary doctor, who has spent his entire career serving people who live in poverty, going to get millions of dollars to give away?
It isn’t that Fielder is a charismatic speaker or promoter, traveling around raising funds. (He’s more the type, when faced with recognition, to immediately suggest another doctor instead.)
But he does have that best friend from college—the devoutly Jewish Gerson.Best Friends
When Gerson met Fielder their freshman year at Williams, he realized right away that Fielder “was the most morally serious and intellectually rigorous person I knew.”
Outside of class, Fielder was reading Commentary magazine, The Public Interest policy journal, and The National Interest magazine. (They cover and discuss political, cultural, and foreign affairs.)
“What he was reading and how he was thinking was different than anyone else our age,” Gerson said. “He introduced me to the world of serious ideas.”
Gerson also graduated summa cum laude. The two stayed in touch while Gerson went to Yale Law School and Fielder went to Baylor College of Medicine, where he came to Christ (“the result of soul searching and God convicting me of my sin”). Immediately serious about his faith, Fielder took a year off from med school to work with Mother Teresa’s organization in Calcutta.
“I had always been in the academic achievement lane,” Fielder said. “I really felt God saying to me that I needed to do something different.”Fielder and Gerson in Kenya
He returned to finish medical school and do a residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins. He hadn’t left the achievement lane—he was chosen as the best intern in his class—but now his energy was aimed in a different direction.
“I spent the long hours of my internship surfing missionary websites, such as they were—they weren’t that advanced back then,” he said. “I was looking for a place to go when I finished my training.”
He found one. A few months after he finished at Johns Hopkins, Fielder proposed to his girlfriend and (the next day) moved to Kenya.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m a Christian, and I’m called to go serve the poor in Africa,’” Gerson remembers. “I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Gerson was also immediately on board—“his donations to support HIV-infected patients at the hospital started before I even arrived,” Fielder told their alma mater.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Fielder specialized in infectious diseases, and Africa was racked with one of the worst. AIDS deaths worldwide would peak in 2005 at about 2 million; nearly three-quarters of them were in sub-Saharan Africa.Pandemic
The first strains of HIV originated in Cameroon chimpanzees and made the leap over to humans in the 1920s. By the early 1960s, about 2,000 people were probably infected. By 1993, aided by the growth of the sex trade and public railways, the number had shot to 14 million; 9 million of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
By 2001, more than 20 million people south of the Sahara had AIDS.
Fortunately, by then pharmaceutical companies had invented antiretroviral drugs to manage the disease and prevent its spread. But only 8,000 sub-Saharan Africans had access to them.
In Kijabe, Kenya, a doctor named Nate Smith was working in a mission hospital with a population somewhere between 8 percent and 15 percent HIV-positive. Fielder wrote him a letter, asking, “Can I come out?”
Smith didn’t turn him down, but he also didn’t have a chance to train him. A week or so after Fielder arrived, Smith returned to the United States, leaving Fielder as the only hospital staff member who knew how to care for those with HIV.Kijabe Mission Hospital in Kenya (cross-shaped building)
The problem wasn’t knowing what to do (Fielder had trained for this) but accessing the right medicine. In 2000, the life-saving cocktail of antiretroviral drugs cost $10,000 per patient per year. In 2001, when generic companies began to offer them, the price dropped to $350. But that was still an impossible amount for a country where a third of the people survived on less than $1.25 a day.
So Fielder used Gerson’s donations to subsidize the cost of the drugs, asking patients to pay only what they could afford. He chipped away at the epidemic as best he could, planning to leave after two years.
But in 2004, just as Fielder’s two years were winding down, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds reached Kenya.
“We really believed God was calling us to stay longer, because our hospital didn’t have anyone else to lead the PEPFAR program,” Fielder said. “We saw an opportunity and responsibility to be part of the scale-up.”PEPFAR
During his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush asked Congress for “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts” to “turn the tide against AIDS.” Congress gave him a standing ovation, then gave him $15 billion for antiretroviral treatments in 15 countries, 13 of them sub-Saharan. (PEPFAR was then renewed and expanded; to date, the United States has spent more than $70 billion on it.)Mwiindi and Fielder
“Without PEPFAR most of [the HIV-infected patients] would have died,” said Jonathan Mwiindi, who came on as a pharmacist at Fielder’s hospital in 2003. “There is no way we could have gotten as many resources as it took to establish an HIV program, where the time spent in the hospital is small compared to the community identification, referral, and follow-up.”
It feels backwards, but it’s true. The millions of people dying from AIDS weren’t in a hurry to find a doctor.
“During the early days of PEPFAR, we were under pressure to find patients with HIV and get them treatment,” Fielder said. “You couldn’t just wait down at the hospital.”
Because to walk into a hospital and admit you have a virus that’s killing almost 7 percent of your country is not an easy thing to do. (Think of having to confess to being a zombie.) You’re risking social shame and isolation just for carrying the disease. And maybe you don’t even know medical help is possible.
Or—worst of all—maybe your pastor told you not to go.Prosperity Preachers
On a Sunday in March 2001, 161 HIV-infected people went to hear pastor John Nduati. He called them to the front of church, where they fell down “like a row of dominoes when the pastor proclaimed them healed,” The New York Times reported.
Nduati isn’t the only one offering spiritual healing. The African charismatic Redeemed Christian Church of God tells its 2 million members that HIV is a “demonic spirit” that can be cast out. A Nairobi pastor leads people through a public “healing” that includes burning their antiretroviral medications and paying the pastor a hefty fee. A Zimbabwean “prophet” promises to heal HIV through his satellite broadcasts. And in South Africa, a prosperity preacher claims to heal church members of HIV by spraying insecticide on them.Gerson and Fielder with patients whose HIV treatments were subsidized by Gerson and a few others before PEPFAR. Fielder says “they are all doing well.”
The effect can be devastating; not only does going off antiretrovirals mean patients aren’t managing the disease, but it also puts them at risk of developing a resistance to the drugs.
“We take it very seriously,” Fielder said. Prosperity gospel theology is “not a small challenge.”
Fielder and his staff closely monitor whether patients are coming in for refills. And he tells those infected, “God is working. He is healing you. These medicines came from somewhere, and not from the Devil.” He backs that up with James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.”
But the best answer to prosperity preachers has been gospel preachers.Gospel Preachers
Stumped, Fielder looked around at other treatment programs and a network of Compassion International-affiliated churches in the region who were reaching out to infected parents. How were they pulling in those with HIV and keeping them engaged? The answer: community outreach and pastor involvement.
The chair of Fielder’s hospital board happened to be the leader of the regional pastors’ network, so he invited 150 of them to a three-day training to learn about the basic biology of HIV, the medicine, and the importance of sticking to a treatment schedule.
“This training session was the most important initiative we ever undertook in the community,” Fielder said. “The pastors and churches responded wonderfully. Many referred patients, sent sick cases in their own cars, held support groups in their churches, and led prayer and Bible study in support groups.”
“We went from 60 to 200 patients in one month,” Mwiindi said.The first training of pastors on HIV care by Kijabe Mission Hospital.
Fielder didn’t stop there. He and his staff developed a curriculum for pastors on their role during the treatment process. In two years, the number of people on antiretroviral drugs at Kijabe Hospital jumped from 120 to 1,800. It has since climbed to about 5,500. (One pastor referred so many patients Fielder had to ask him to slow down because the hospital couldn’t keep up. “I’m not sure he ever listened!”)
“It opened the floodgates because people go to pastors for advice,” Mwiindi said. “Once they get involved and engaged, it worked out beautifully. But we also had a very competent team, which Jon trained very well.”
In fact, he trained them so well that the hospital started a hands-on program that now certifies three-quarters of HIV healthcare providers in Kenya. So far, the one-to-four week curriculum has educated more than 2,500 in HIV care. (In 2011, Fielder added classes in recognizing and treating HIV-related tuberculosis.)
But while Fielder was solving one problem, he was noticing another.Mission Hospital Neglect
“I spent a lot of time out in the community,” said Fielder, who traveled around Kenya helping other hospitals start HIV treatment programs. “I got to see a lot of different mission hospitals.”
He saw “the solid work people were doing, but also that a lot of the original missionaries had gone home, and people were trying to keep things together.”
They struggled to start treatment programs because they didn’t have clinics, or housing for staff, or space for labs, or trained personnel.
“I filed it away in the back of my mind—what can we do about these amazing places that should not be forgotten?” he said.
He kept thinking about it as he moved his family to Malawi to repeat the HIV education and training process at another mission hospital. And he thought about Gerson, who had been supplying “intellectual firepower and humbling generosity” this whole time.Chief of surgery and surgery residency director Russell White works with medical students at at Tenwek Mission Hospital in western Kenya.
“Very few of the other missionaries have a group of friends like I do to help out financially,” Gerson remembers him saying. “They’re all doing extraordinary work in service to the poor, and they can’t market themselves a lot, because if they take a break from the hospital, vast numbers of people will have no doctor. . . . Let’s start a foundation that will provide that [financial] support.”
Mission hospitals are a perfect fit for donors—they’re institutionally built to last, and a little additional funding goes a long way.
“When you survive 100 years through war and poverty and epidemics and missionaries going home, and you still have your doors open, you prove you’re sustainable,” Fielder said.
But you aren’t thriving. Without money to update facilities or purchase new equipment, the old facilities and equipment eventually wear out. Unable to raise prices (if you do that, “people get turned away”), doctors can’t offer more than basic services or train anyone to cover for them after they’re gone.
Gerson wasn’t hard to convince. In 2010, the two former college roommates set up the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF).African Mission Healthcare Foundation
About 11 percent of the world lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them face sanitation and nutrition deprivation, which makes them vulnerable—they carry 24 percent of the world’s disease burden (and 60 percent of the AIDS burden).
At the same time, the region has just 3 percent of the world’s health-care workers. Part of this is the lack of medical training (there were only 169 identified medical schools in 40 sub-Saharan countries in 2012) and part is brain drain—skilled and educated Africansphysicians often move to developed countries like the United States. The World Health Organization estimates Africa’s workforce deficit is 1.8 million health professionals.
People in sub-Saharan Africa carry 24 percent of the world’s disease burden (and 60 percent of the AIDS burden). Yet the region has just 3 percent of the world’s health-care workers.
Historically, much of sub-Saharan Africa’s medical care has been provided by missionaries and African Christians at church hospitals. Even now, 20 percent to 50 percent of health care is provided by faith-based medical centers. One Malawian official told Fielder that 70 percent of nurses in his country were trained by mission hospitals.
But as Christianity in Africa grows and indigenous leadership takes over, fewer Western missionaries are being sent. That change undermines mission hospitals in several ways.Medical missionary Jason Fader teaches students at his hospital in Burundi.
“A lot of these hospitals were built under the economic model that had free missionary labor in a lot of key positions for a long time,” Fielder said.
Many of those positions have since been transferred to Africans, but they don’t have outside financial support and need to be paid, he said. “Also, the African doctors don’t have connections to American or European churches. How do you replace medical equipment or find a way to send someone to medical school if you don’t have those connections?”
But that doesn’t happen in rural Africa. There, you go without. The shoestring budget you run on gets skinnier and skinnier. When equipment breaks, you can’t replace it. When staff leave, you have no one to take their place.
That’s the gap that AMHF is stepping into. Over the past five years, Fielder and Gerson and their team have distributed $18 million to provide medicine and supplies, train doctors and nurses, and build better facilities.Funding
Gerson and Fielder are both careful with money. Every AMHF expense is laid out publicly as it happens (earning it Guidestar’s highest seal of transparency). Since a donor covers operating expenses, 100 percent of every gift is spent on the field. Even the expected effect is carefully tracked—for example, the 20 nurses AMHF paid to train will see 1.6 million patients over their careers. The four surgeons will perform more than 40,000 surgeries.
Fielder is the boots-on-the-ground chief executive officer, and he’s serious about choosing longtime mission hospitals to partner with (they have worked with 38 in 16 countries). He spends about a third of his time traveling, often to check on their progress or assess their needs.Fielder and Gerson in Kenya
Gerson is the chairman, and serious about generosity. He spends a lot of time doing the networking and fundraising that AMHF doctors can’t. (So far, 3,100 people, churches, companies, and foundations have donated.) He’s only been to visit Fielder once in Africa, reluctant to spend money on a plane ticket that could be spent on medical care. And his checkbook is almost always open.
One example: the Gersons are partnering with the Christian Broadcasting Network to match $1 million in gifts to AMHF, turning it into a $2 million donation. And last year, Gerson and his wife created a $500,000 L’Chaim prize that picked up some media interest.
The first winner was Jason Fader, one of 13 surgeons in the country of Burundi, who is using the money to add beds to his hospital, create medical training, and improve care for leg fractures—crucial for a population that walks everywhere. This year cardiothoracic surgeon Russell White will use the money to train surgeons to repair heart valves that often scar from untreated strep throat.Active Love
Had Fielder stayed in the United States, he would likely have commanded a superior salary. He’d probably work in a top-notch facility with skilled colleagues and a wide range of treatment options for patients.
In rural African medicine, “the challenges are tremendous,” he said. “Discouragement stems from witnessing so much early suffering and death, especially as a result of potentially treatable diseases. ‘Why was this condition not diagnosed earlier?’ ‘Why did it take so long for the family to bring the patient to the hospital?’ Because they had no money, of course.”
He’s been in hospitals—particularly government facilities—with severely limited resources. “We go on rounds and say, ‘If we had antibiotics, we’d use them here’ or ‘If we had an X-ray machine, we could check for tuberculosis.’ It can be totally demoralizing.”
In spite of all that, Fielder’s “energy and discipline are incredible,” said Mwiindi, who is now the vice president for programs at AMHF. He has known Fielder for 15 years. “He doesn’t work because he has nothing else to do, but because he’s driven to. All he sees is he’s where God wants him to be and where he can have the most impact.”
“He’s the best person I know—a man of deep faith with complete determination to serve God by serving his children,” Gerson said. “He makes you realize how much one person properly oriented can accomplish.”
Fielder bases his work on Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’s story of sorting the sheep and the goats based on how they treated “the least of these my brothers” during life. When he gets discouraged, he holds onto a passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment—I predict this to you—you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you,” one character tells another.
Fielder is encouraged by the good work he sees.
“Church hospitals are truly owned by and embedded in local communities, are held accountable by their faith commitments and religious bodies, and have a higher purpose pointing to real hope and optimism—necessary characteristics for improving systems,” he said. “These institutions, like any human enterprise, are not perfect, but the mechanisms usually exist to correct error and improve, like in the church itself.”
The compassion and persistence of mission hospitals and doctors is “a powerful witness,” Fielder said. “Our partners contribute to the Great Commandment as well as to the Great Commission. Many minister in unreached areas or to unreached groups. The facilities nurture the Christian faith of their staff. And they show to all the love and compassion of Christ in a world too often devoid of simple mercy.”
Two years ago, my husband and I walked through the painful process of dissolving a church.
I remember the last service in vivid detail: where families were sitting for worship, what music was playing, and the demeanor of my husband, the lead pastor. He was sitting in the second row, shoulders slumped, head lowered, feeling the weight of the congregation’s unmet expectations. The church replant we had been a part of for five years was over.
Though we had striven to be faithful, a closed church was the result.God Gives Growth
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul stresses that growth is determined by God alone. The congregation was dividing over which leader must be better, in light of the success granted to each. So Paul wrote:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor. 3:5–7)
Paul encourages the congregation to recognize their unity. He and Apollos serve; God alone grows. How we steward our ministries—our obedience in carrying out all God has called us to—is what we’re accountable for. Not the results.
When God didn’t reward our faithfulness at the church like I thought he should, my anger and despondency revealed a skewed view of ministry success. My identity wasn’t in God’s love for me, but in what I could do for him. My flesh demanded growth that could be seen and measured by others.
In allowing failure, God reminded me he cares most about what he’s always cared most about: my heart.Fragrant Sacrifice
God cares about our growth in dependence on him, even when our ministry attempts fall flat. He desires for us to grow in Christlikeness. He delights in our day-to-day obedience that nobody sees, and he accepts our faithful labors as a fragrant sacrifice.
Because of Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice, we can know our acceptance with God never changes based on what we have to offer him. All our efforts without Christ’s covering are nothing but filthy rags anyway (Isa. 64:6). In ministry we plant and water, trusting God who determines the results. We know our crown isn’t in successes tangibly seen, but in how we finish the race marked out before us. So we limp through our failures, one step of obedience at a time.He Looks Within
Elisabeth Elliot once wrote, “Obedience is our responsibility. The result of our obedience is up to God.”
When the Lord in his goodness withholds fruit—even when we have been obedient in our service—we can know this is for his glory and our good. More than productivity, God cares about pruning, refining, and growing inner fruit that reflects his Son.
Our flesh and the eyes of men may delight in what others can see and measure in ministry, but God looks within. This is why our crown achievement, aim, and identity must be Jesus, not apparent success. Obedience and faithful stewardship is what God asks of us. The results are his.
There are many transcendent moments in The Rider, a modern-day cowboy drama set against the stormy plains and sweeping badlands of South Dakota.
Some of these moments are atmospheric—director Chloé Zhao capturing an iconic pose of a cowboy and his beloved horse at dusk, or a groups of friends around a campfire with a guitar out and a full moon above. Other times these moments are character-oriented—quiet yet profound interactions between friends, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons.
But the most transcendent moments in The Rider are, fittingly, those that show riding: cowboys on horseback galloping across the plains, basking in the warmth of the sun and the pleasure of the wind; rodeo stars acrobatically contorting to stay atop a bucking bronco; a horse trainer methodically taming a beast to the point that he can safely mount it.
These are powerful moments in part because they symbolize the beauty and dignity of human vocation. To tame a wild horse, to ride a bucking bronco, to saddle up and ride like the wind, feels right because it fits man’s creational mandate to bring order out of chaos. Every job—from cutting hair to stocking shelves to performing open heart surgery—is ultimately about this task.
The Rider is not only one of the best films of 2018, but it is one of the best films about vocation I’ve ever seen. In its own quiet, non-preachy way, it reminds us of the dignifying power of work and purpose in human existence, even as it ponders the meaning of life when these things are taken away.Blending Fiction and Documentary
Part of the appeal of The Rider is its authenticity. It’s a sort of neorealist portrait of Midwestern American life, starring non-actors playing versions of themselves. There is a long tradition of this sort of docu-fiction hybrid in cinema (classic examples include Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool), but the genre has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Films like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), and Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris (2018) all prominently cast non-actors, with plots partially based on their real lives.
The Rider focuses on a group of Lakota cowboys whom Zhao first met while making her previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Zhao was particularly struck by the story of Brady Jandreau, a 20-something rodeo cowboy and horse trainer who in 2016 was nearly killed in a rodeo accident that left him in a coma and with a metal plate in his head. Advised by doctors never to ride again, Jandreau struggled with purpose and identity following the accident. He is a rider. This is what he was born to do. But is he willing to risk his life to preserve his sense of calling?
The Rider is essentially a slightly fictionalized retelling of Brady’s story, starring Brady Jandreau himself (renamed “Brady Blackburn” in the film), along with his real-life father, sister, and rodeo friends, all who play versions of themselves in sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised scenes.Christian Artists, Take Note
Because the film hews closely to the real events of its characters lives, the “non-actor” dynamic is more compelling than distracting. Zhao wisely turns the camera on these people in their element, letting them “act” simply by living as they would live. Their real homes, real workplaces, real local haunts are used as sets. During the production, Brady spent the mornings training horses (his day job)—which became fodder for some of the film’s must spellbinding scenes.
Zhao knows that some of life’s most beautiful moments are unplanned. She wisely approaches filmmaking with a loose grip, an openness to redirection and serendipity that stems from an artistic humility, knowing that the world’s natural drama is usually more dramatic than our various manipulations of it. In this way she mirrors the aesthetic of film director Terrence Malick, who similarly prioritizes capturing serendipitous and “unnecessary” beauty (an afternoon thunderstorm, a swarm of birds, a funny moment between siblings) even when it serves no utilitarian plot purpose.
This is a style I wish more Christian artists would adopt. We of all people should recognize the inherent beauty and truth of the world—God created it, after all—and trust that simply turning the camera on this world, lovingly and attentively, can move audiences to transcendent places more readily than the most loquacious, didactic apologetics speech.
Christians of all people should recognize that simply turning the camera on this world, lovingly and attentively, can move audiences to transcendent places more readily than the most loquacious, didactic apologetics speech.
Zhao also has a tenderness to her gaze that sadly few Christian filmmakers seem to possess. It’s clear she actually cares about Brady and the film’s other subjects. They are subjects not in utilitarian service to Zhao’s plot or agenda. Her camera never exploits their pain, but it does linger in it empathetically, capturing the joy and sorrow of these lives with a rare, dignifying patience and presence. And yet Zhao’s gaze is also hopeful. She dignifies weakness without fetishizing it, celebrating the precious and meaningful nature of life even when it feels most hopeless.Dignity in Weakness
There is a moment in The Rider when Brady describes a key difference between horses and humans. If a horse is injured in the way Brady was in his rodeo accident, it would be put down. But for humans, we must live on. Even when injury or illness takes us out of commission or renders us “useless,” we aren’t just shot as a horse would be (and is in the film). Why? Because as image-bearers of God, we possess a fundamental dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, strength, or beauty.
This is a truism about humanity that informs current debates about the sanctity of life (see the recent Alfie Evans controversy). It’s a truism that leads us to recognize the dignity and fight for the survival of the unborn child, the terminally ill, the disabled (as seen recently in the beautiful documentary Summer in the Forest), and others whose “viability” as humans (whatever that means) is called into question.
As image-bearers of God, we possess a fundamental dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, strength, or beauty.
Yet for Brady, it’s a truism that is personal. He’s a young man with strength and dreams and pride. His identity, his sense of masculinity, his ties to the cowboy life—all of this is threatened by his injury. Like so many other young men in America who struggle to find work for various reasons, Brady feels lost and dejected.
“I believe God gives each of us a purpose,” Brady says at one point late in the film, capturing its central theme. “For a horse it’s to run across the prairie. For a cowboy it’s to ride.”
Brady’s journey in the film is to discover new ways to live out this “ride” purpose, new pathways to channel this calling. He may never return to the rodeo ring himself, but maybe he can train the next generation of rodeo stars. Or train horses. Or stock shelves in a grocery story. Or simply be a good friend. Maybe the glory of “riding” is actually just a posture of embracing the journey of everyday life.Vocation of Friendship
Some of the most powerful scenes in the film depict Brady visiting his real-life best friend Lane Scott, a former rodeo star who is now paralyzed, without the ability to walk or speak. Brady appears happiest when he is with Lane, joking and reminiscing and dreaming of riding again. Both men are broken—Lane more seriously than Brady—and both know their rodeo days are done. They share this bond, but not in a place of despondence and self pity. They connect in a deeper place, a place of hope that is almost eschatological.
Indeed, their embrace near the end of the film is arresting in its power and longing. It’s an embrace that says, “We will ride again, brother. This is not the end.”
For all its iconic imagery and frontier aesthetic, The Rider complicates the popular image of the Western hero. As stirring and freeing as it is to ride solo in life—to be a lone cowboy who conquers the wilds of unbroken horses and punishing prairies—this is not where we flourish most in life. We are most human in relationship with others. We are most alive not when our bodies are strongest but when our souls are most porous, loving others and letting ourselves be loved.
We are most alive not when our bodies are strongest but when our souls are most porous, loving others and letting ourselves be loved.
Though there is vitality and goodness when we pick up a hammer or put on a saddle—bringing order out of whatever corner of chaos we find ourselves in—ultimately our dignity is a gift we receive more than a status we earn. And when we receive this gift, we are freed from the burden of self-justifying purpose. Whether we find ourselves in a wheelchair, on horseback, in a cockpit, or in front of a computer screen, we can embrace the challenges in front of us with joy.
The Story: A new survey finds America’s religious makeup has shifted dramatically in the past 15 years, with a sharp drop in the number of Americans who say they’re members of a Protestant denomination.
The Background: Fifteen years ago, half of all Americans identified as Protestant. But a new survey by ABC News/Washington Post polls finds that number has decreased to the point where just over one-in-three claim to be a Protestant Christian.
Among all Protestants, a little more than half (56 percent) currently say they’re “evangelical or born-again.” While that has remained steady since 2003, the declines in the number who say they’re either evangelical or non-evangelical Protestants are roughly equal, down seven and six points, respectively.
The decline has occurred disproportionately among whites, notes ABC News. Thirty-nine percent of whites now identify themselves as members of a Protestant denomination, down 13 points since 2003. That compares with an eight-point decline among Hispanics (from 22 to 14 percent) and just three points among blacks (from 64 to 61 percent). (An additional factor is the shrinking white non-Hispanic population, from 69 percent of all Americans in 2000 to an estimated 61 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
The number of Catholics, “other Christians,” and “other religions” has remained the same or changed by less than three percent. The majority of the decline comes from the number of Protestants who now express no religious affiliation. The religiously unaffiliated— sometimes referred to as “Nones”—have risen from 12 percent of all American adults in 2003 to 21 percent in 2017.
The largest shifts, according to the survey, are a 16-point increase among young adults (age 18 to 29) and political liberals. The smallest changes have occurred among Republicans, conservatives, and blacks (+4 points in each group) as well as older Americans (+5 points).
Having no religious affiliation is most prevalent among the young. In the range of 18- to 29-year-olds, 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated compared to 13 percent among those age 50 and older. The percentage of Nones is also higher among men than women (25 vs. 17 percent), among college graduates vs. those without a degree (25 vs. 20 percent), and among whites and Hispanics than among blacks (22 and 20 percent vs. 15 percent).
Thirty-five percent of liberals report no religious affiliation, compared with 21 percent of moderates and 12 percent of conservatives. About one-in-four Democrats (23 percent) and independents (25 percent) don’t report a religion, compared to just one-in-ten (10 percent) for Republicans.
What It Means: In 1971, only five percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. In fact, until 1993 the Nones never comprised more than eight percent of the population. But something has changed to cause a rapid increase in the abandonment of religion.
“The growing ranks of religiously unaffiliated Americans have been fed by striking simultaneous losses among white Christian groups,” says Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO and author of The End of White Christian America. “The religiously unaffiliated now outnumber Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and white evangelical Protestants, and their growth has been a key factor in the transformation of the country over the last decade from a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation.”
What are we to make of this decline? Perhaps we should rejoice.
“The big trends are clear,” said Ed Stetzer in 2015, “the nominals are becoming the nones, yet the convictional are remaining committed.”
“In other words, Americans whose Christianity was nominal—in name only—are casting aside the name,” added Stetzer. “They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along. The percentage of convictional Christians remains rather steady, but because the nominal Christians now are unaffiliated the overall percentage of self-identified Christians is decline. This overall decline is what [a Pew research survey] shows—and I expect it to accelerate.”
Stetzer was right—the decline in nominal Christians has indeed accelerated over the past three years.
What this means is not that America has become “post-Christian” but rather that society is now, as Russell Moore said, in a “post-pretend-Christian” state.
“If we take the opportunity to be the church, we may find that America is not ‘post-Christian,’ but is instead maybe ‘pre-Christian’,” says Moore. “It may be that this land is filled with people who, though often Christ-haunted, have never known the power of the gospel, yet.”
This decline of nominal Protestantism may be good news if we see it as an opportunity to share the Good News with those who didn’t realize what they abandoned.
“We have made safety, comfort, and convenience into criteria we use to evaluate whether we will do what God has asked us. He is drawing Muslims to himself, but he’s doing it through the persistent witness of those willing to say the gospel is worth more than their lives, and to take it to them.” — Zane Pratt
Date: April 4, 2017
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2017 National Conference
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Answering Jihad (Collin Hansen and Nabeel Qureshi)
- Does Islam Inevitably Lead to Violence (Caleb Greggson)
- Does Islam Need a Luther? (Suzanne See)
Find more audio and video from the 2017 National Conference on the conference media page.
Imagine a conversation in which a well-meaning skeptic tries to deconvert you from Christianity by debunking the prosperity gospel. They marshal their evidence, tell some stories that horrify you as much as them, quote the most egregious theological howlers you’ve ever heard, and then conclude that the message of Jesus can’t possibly be true. If you’ve ever had such an experience—and pastors of charismatic churches, like me, do occasionally—you’ll know how frustrating it is. Everything in you wants to reply: I don’t hold to that type of Christianity either. I probably disagree with it more than you do.
Now imagine a second scenario. You’re an atheist, and you have the same problem. A well-meaning Christian tries to convert you to Christianity by debunking the “new atheism.” They go into great detail about how Richard Dawkins is historically ignorant, Sam Harris morally incontinent, and Christopher Hitchens logically incoherent—and then conclude that atheism can’t be true. And you’re sitting there thinking, I don’t hold to that type of atheism either. I probably disagree with it more than you do.
John Gray—the veteran British philosopher, intellectual historian, and book reviewer—has no intention of converting anybody. But his Seven Types of Atheism is a searching and helpful taxonomy of unbelief ancient and modern, and it has the potential to make the second of these two scenarios disappear altogether. By carefully disentangling the different ways atheism works, and the different reasons why people find it compelling, he has done a great service not just for atheists who want to be understood but also for Christians who want to understand.Varieties of Atheism
The seven types of atheism, for Gray, are as follows.1. ‘New Atheism’
A 19th-century orthodoxy—think Henri de Saint-Simon, August Comte, J. G. Frazer, and so on—the new atheism lives on in the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and company, although it contains “little that is novel or interesting.”
In a manner reminiscent of Christianity’s most ebullient defenders, Gray waves away this recent movement as a “discredited theory,” and concludes that “the organized atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.” Given that this is the variety of atheism that gets the most apologetic attention, this is worth noting.2. Secular Humanism
Following Nietzsche, Gray argues that modern progressivism is a “sacred relic” of Christianity, as people continue to believe in progress and development in history but change the source of this progress from God to humanity. In doing so, however, they saw off the branch they’re sitting on, as can be seen in the works of Marx, Mill, Sidgwick, Russell, Ayn Rand (a surprising inclusion in the book), and in some ways Nietzsche himself. “The belief that humans are gradually improving is the central article of faith of modern humanism,” Gray writes. “When wrenched from monotheistic religion, however, it is not so much false as meaningless.”3. Scientism
This chapter makes uncomfortable reading, because it pulls together a variety of atheist expressions—scientific racism, mesmerism, communism, and transhumanism—which their proponents would claim to be quite different, but which share the same underlying commitment to human advancement through increased scientific knowledge. “Modern racism emerged from the work of Enlightenment philosophes,” including giants like Voltaire, Hume, and Kant (some of the quotations here are appalling); it was integral to the Enlightenment project that some parts of humanity were, and could be, more advanced than others. This continued into the 20th century, albeit in a different form: “Social evolution is an exceptionally bad idea. But bad ideas rarely evolve into better ones. Instead they mutate, and reproduce themselves into new guises.”4. Political Religion
“Partisans of revolution, reform and counterrevolution think they have left religion behind when all they have done is renew it in shapes they fail to recognise.” This, for Gray, results from a fusion of Gnosticism and Christianity; humans can be delivered from the darkness through knowledge (Gnosis), but this can happen within this world, through a collective, terrestrial, imminent, and total renewal (Christianity).
As such, there is a surprisingly clear line from John of Leyden and the Kingdom of Munster (1534–5), via the French and Russian Revolutions, to Nazi Germany and even (in perhaps the book’s most audacious move) modern liberalism, which attempts to remake the world in its own image, certain that “only ignorance prevents their gospel from being accepted by all of humankind.”
We’re dealing here with millenarian movements, even if they mostly take place without reference to God.5. Misotheism
Every generation has its God haters, but the modern age has seen more than most. In his longest chapter, Gray explores the misotheism of the Marquis de Sade, several of Dostoevsky’s characters, and William Empson (whose Seven Types of Ambiguity stands behind Gray’s choice of title). In each case, he concludes, this kind of atheism isn’t so much rejection of God’s existence, but a vehement hatred of him that could only exist (at least in this form) as a response to Christianity.
As Gray explains, “Sade was mistaken when he imagined he had left monotheism behind. Instead he changed one unforgivable deity for another.” Empson, likewise, “failed to recognize how much he was himself a neo-Christian.” This sort of rejection, in which the person dislikes God rather than disbelieves in him, is most famously encapsulated in the words of Ivan Karamazov: “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha. I just most respectfully return him his ticket.”6. Atheism without Progress
This is the least cohesive of the seven “types,” at least to me, and (as the chapter title suggests) it’s more defined by what it’s not—breezy, neo-Christian, world-making, progressive liberalism—than by what it is.
The case studies of George Santayana and Joseph Conrad comprise the entire chapter, and the best summary is found in this comment on Santayana: “Disillusion proved liberating, since it allowed a view of the world from a perspective that did not expect salvation in history.”
This, from what I have read of Gray elsewhere, is the type of atheism he most sympathizes with—which may also explain the more anecdotal, reflective, and slightly nebulous flavor of the chapter.7. Godless Mysticism
It doesn’t seem like Arthur Schopenhauer, Benedict Spinoza, and Lev Shestov have much in common, but for Gray, they share what he calls “the atheism of silence.” Mysticism is a provocative word for this, but then “a clear line between atheism and negative theology is not easily drawn,” and there is more overlap than would first appear between heretical Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), who prayed to God to rid him of the idea of God, and atheist mystics like Schopenhauer (who found the transcendent in music) and Spinoza (who found it in nature). Or so Gray argues.Controversial and Compelling
These seven types aren’t uncontroversial. Gray is personally drawn to a combination of types 6 and 7, freely admits to finding the “new atheism” vacuous and uninteresting, and is “repelled” by the others, so there is plenty here for his fellow atheists to disagree with (not least his colleagues at the New Statesman, a British magazine which is a near-perfect instantiation of type 2). His sixth category is vague and could potentially have been clarified through an exploration of its connections (if there are any) to ancient philosophies like Epicureanism and Stoicism.
There are also problems with Gray’s portrayal of early Christian history, including a variety of errors in translation (the word eschaton means “end,” not “day of the Lord”), theology (“in the religion of Jesus, pretty much all of Christian belief is absent”[!]), and history (where he seems to have swallowed Catherine Nixey’s wild, Gibbonesque polemic in The Darkening Age, despite its numerous distortions). So there is plenty here to annoy Christians as well.
At the same time, his nuance and philosophical analysis are bracing and illuminating, and presented in lucid and occasionally fiery prose. By making distinctions many atheists don’t, let alone many Christians, Gray has done us all a service, and all the more so because the more common a variety of atheism is in the contemporary world, the less intellectually satisfying he seems to find it. (This has been borne out in my experience, too; the most intelligent atheists I know are the ones who have the least time for the paperback polemics that came out after 9/11.) The book’s most compelling contribution, though—and it’s a theme that recurs frequently in Gray’s work—is its skewering of the historically naïve and groundlessly confident progressivism that defines much modern godlessness. As he concludes:
Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism. But there is no need for panic or despair. Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality. A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.
With foes like this, who needs friends?
There was a time when a fellow pastor might ask me, “So what are you preaching through these days?” The key word was through. The assumption was that I was preaching through a whole book of the Bible.
Nowadays, I’m usually asked, “So what are you preaching these days?” Through has been dropped. The assumption that exposition and lectio continua—the commitment to preach serially through whole books of the Bible—go hand in hand is not always commonplace, even among theologically robust pastors.Particularly Effective Method
I don’t think exposition demands lectio continua. It’s quite valid to argue that one can preach a topical series and yet do exposition on individual passages that support it. But, I’d argue that lectio continua is a particularly effective means of preaching not only to spiritually mature Christians, but also to people ensconced in our modern world.
I’m concerned that many pastors are retreating from this method, not because of lack of commitment to exposition, but because they’re concerned lectio continua can’t bear the weight of modern ministry needs. Many of my fellow pastors are firmly committed to exposition as a matter of treating individual passages, yet they may not feel lectio continua, as a default method, is sustainable or even wise for our day.
Here are some questions and arguments I often hear against preaching through whole books of the Bible:
- Lectio continua is not an ideal preaching method to hit all the important topics. My average congregant is only in my area for a few years. How can I faithfully catechize them in all the Christian faith?
- We no longer run adult Sunday school classes, so the sermon is where my people get most of their instruction. Therefore, shouldn’t I use the sermon to teach systematic theology, worldview, and the storyline of Scripture?
- I can’t find a clear biblical command that requires lectio continua. Most preaching in the Bible seems akin to a topical approach.
- I’d love to geek out on lectio continua, but the average person today wouldn’t benefit as much from that as from a topical series.
These objections are reasonable and must be taken seriously. But I think the assets of lectio continua are far greater than its possible liabilities, for five reasons.1. The Holy Spirit inspired the structure of both single passages and entire books.
This affirmation is vital, since knowing structure is an important part of arriving at the meaning of a text. While one-off expositions can unpack close context, whole-book preaching forces the preacher to consistently point to the macro-structure or melodic line of a book. But when expositions aren’t set within the overall context and structure of a book, it’s easy to miss that macro-structure—and also (therefore) the emphasis and meaning of individual texts.2. It teaches people to read, study, and teach Scripture in a way non-sequential preaching doesn’t.
I like cooking shows. I also like to eat. But the act of eating is deepened when I understand the process by which my meal came about. Topical preaching, even when done expositionally, can undermine one of the most important parts of good preaching: training people to be students of the Word.
Topical preaching, even when done expositionally, can undermine one of the most important parts of good preaching: training people to be students of the Word.
By shaping a thematic series according to logical and practical categories, often based on theological training and a good eye for cultural needs, a pastor can inadvertently teach people that he’s the only resource for insightful and rich teaching. Lectio continua shows that God’s Word is packed with relevant themes and doctrines that naturally arise as the book unfolds.3. It allows you to leave the teeth and the tension in individual passages.
When using a text to support a doctrine or theme, it’s tempting to bring in systematics or your pet framework to provide the balance in each sermon. Whether the tension is law and gospel, hierarchy and equality, justice and mercy, or truth and compassion, lectio continua frees the preacher to let the emphasis of the text stand, knowing the tension will be balanced or resolved as the book unfolds.4. It’s a practical means of catechizing and teaching thematically.
Preaching through books of the Bible offers myriad opportunities to do biblical theology, touch on doctrine, reflect on church history, teach a worldview, and apply ethical matters. The added benefit is you’re able to explore a theme or doctrine as originally expressed within the inspired emphasis and structure of the book.5. Should we rest the weight of all our catechesis on the pulpit?
Is this the role of the pulpit? I realize many churches choose not to have adult learning classes outside the worship service due to various constraints (e.g., facility limitations, cultural factors, etc.). But there are other venues in which to teach on topics and themes. Midweek seminars and studies are a viable option, even for busy urban settings. Small groups, which many churches now emphasize, are a fruitful context for studying truths arranged thematically.
The pulpit is most liberated to be all that God intended when the gospel is proclaimed within its biblical context.
I would encourage pastors not to put the full weight of the church’s teaching ministry on the pulpit. The pulpit is most liberated to be all that God intended when the gospel is proclaimed within its biblical context.Staple in the Diet
I don’t think all pulpit ministry needs to be lectio continua. My church takes seasons to preach thematically. Advent is always a thematic study. In the summer we often choose a topic or hit the highlights of a Bible book, rather than doing a comprehensive serial study. We break from our series during missions emphasis week.
If you now preach thematically 75 percent of the year and do lectio continua the remainder, here’s my suggestion: perhaps you could switch to 50–50 next year, then to 25–75 percent the following year?
I’m not condemning topical sermons as theologically soft or antithetical to exposition. But I would argue that lectio continua is a both/and approach. It’s both rooted in the text and a fruitful way of speaking to the hearts and minds of late-modern people—given how the Spirit of God has inspired Scripture, not just that he has inspired it.
Previously in this series:
- How Do I Prepare My Heart to Preach? (Kent Hughes)
- What Should I Preach Next? (Julius Kim)
- How Do I Handle an Unbeliever’s Funeral? (Phil Newton)
- How Do I Preach Expository Sermons from Proverbs? (Dan Doriani)
- Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough? (Kevin McFadden)
- How Long Should My Sermons Be? (Hershael York)
- What Do I Say at a Funeral for a Person I Didn’t Know? (Phil Newton)
- How Long Should It Take Me to Prepare a Sermon? (Dave Harvey)
- 8 Lessons Calvin Teaches Us About Preaching (Ray Van Neste)
- How Can Expository Sermons Avoid Being Wooden and Uncreative? (Colin Smith)
- How Should I Respond When I Deliver a Dud? (Hershael York)
- What Role Does the Spirit Play in My Preaching? (Dave Harvey)
- Should I Preach the Longer Ending of Mark? (Danny Akin)
- Should I Pause an Expository Series for Palm Sunday and Easter? (Phil Newton)
- Should I Always Call for Repentance and Faith? (Steven J. Lawson)
- How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes? (Zack Eswine)
- How Can I Help My Congregation Listen to Sermons in a Culture of Distraction (Sebastian Kim)
- How Do I Preach Difficult Doctrines without Splitting the Church? (Hershael York)
- How Not to Preach an Easter Sermon (Steve Tillis)
There are many, many books of the Bible I’d like to discuss with Iain Duguid, professor of Old Testament and dean of online learning at Westminster Theological Seminary. So choosing from among the books of the Bible I hadn’t yet done a podcast episode on was hard for me. But not for him. “I’m always happy to talk about Ezekiel,” he wrote, “since the answer to every question in the Bible is found there.” Now that’s interesting.
Before working through our conversation on Ezekiel, he told me about the new online degree program being launched this fall at Westminster—an MA in Christian Studies—aimed at lay people who want to learn more about Scripture. Then he provided insight into the person of Ezekiel, the visions of Ezekiel, the organization of Ezekiel, and, most profoundly, the hope found in Ezekiel that we must present when teaching this unique book.
Recommended resources on Ezekiel:
- Ezekiel (NIV Application Commentary) by Iain M. Duguid
- Ezekiel: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Michael Lawrence
- The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) by Daniel I. Block
- The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) by Daniel I. Block
You can listen to the episode here.
Ten days removed from Christ’s ascension, all the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. Without warning, something like a gusting wind rushes through the house. “Divided tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) appear and rest on each of them.
Pentecost. God’s Spirit had arrived in his fullness.
Wind and fire. Cloud and flame. The glory presence that went before and behind in the exodus, that rested over the tabernacle (Num. 9:18), that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11), now rests over and fills up God’s new dwelling—his people, sin-stained though they are.
The storm of God’s presence rushes but doesn’t destroy. The fire of God’s presence descends but doesn’t consume. How can this be? Jesus was destroyed and consumed by God’s holy presence at the cross so that God could be present with—take up residence in—his temple people in grace.
In this mysterious moment, the Holy Spirit fills the disciples and miraculously enables them to speak in other languages. Jesus had promised to send the Spirit to empower his church’s witness in the world (Acts 1:8), and on the day of Pentecost, the ascended Lord keeps his word.
Where does this strange moment fit within the story of redemption? How does it tie the old and new testaments together? How should we understand it? We must begin with the audience in attendance on that day.Babel Undone
Pious Jews from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) are in Jerusalem, and they gather around to see the commotion. To their astonishment, these foreigners hear the disciples preaching about God’s mighty works in Jesus in their native tongues.
At Babel, God judged and restrained rebellion by confusing languages and dividing the people (Gen. 11:1–9).
At Pentecost, God forgives rebellion, using various world languages to bring people together in Jesus. The effects of sin are being undone as the Spirit goes forth with the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
Pentecost is a reversal of Babel.
But this is more than the reversal of Babel. It’s the restoration of the kingdom. When the Old Testament envisioned the renewal of God’s kingdom, it anticipated the day when God would heal the divided people of Israel and unify his kingdom under the Messiah King from David’s line (Ezek. 37:15–28). The fulfillment of Israel’s wildest hopes is beginning in an unexpected way as scattered Jews from around the world are united by faith under Christ’s kingship. Soon, this restoration will extend to Gentiles as well.First of Last Days
This multinational collection, perplexed by these strange events, asks precisely the right question: What does this mean? Scoffers suggest the disciples may have broken into the wine cellar a bit early, but Peter—recently too afraid to even acknowledge Christ—lifts his voice to answer.
Peter takes the Scriptures his hearers already believe and shows how they point to Jesus as the “yes” to all God’s promises. In the process, he gives us a marvelous glimpse into how the apostles—recipients of a post-resurrection lesson in biblical interpretation from Jesus himself (Luke 24:44; Acts 1:3)—understood the Old Testament as finding its ultimate meaning in Christ.
Peter starts with Joel 2:28–32, where the prophet looked forward to the last days when God would grant new-covenant blessings and pour out his Spirit on all his people. No longer will the Spirit only dwell on special, anointed leaders. He’ll be with and within young and old, men and women, slave and free—every covenant community member.
The last days Joel anticipated have arrived, and the Spirit the prophet longed for has been given. The God who dwelt among in Eden, in the temple, and in Christ will now dwell within by his Spirit. The “wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below” (Acts 2:19, citing Joel 2:30) signal the arrival of the day of the Lord, God’s intervention in history for judgment and salvation.
Intriguingly, these wonders and signs match many of the descriptions surrounding Jesus’s death and resurrection (Matt. 27:45–54; 28:2). Why? Because the day of the Lord broke into history at the cross when God judged sin and worked salvation for his people. And now in these last days, every person who calls on Christ’s name in faith will be blessed with the Spirit and reconciled to God.David’s Prayer, David’s Heir
Peter continues with a clear announcement of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and killed by men according to the sovereign plan of God, and he was raised from the dead because death couldn’t hold him. Death—part of God’s curse on sin—can only stake a legitimate claim on sinners. But God loosed the chains of death around his Son because Jesus was perfectly holy and spotlessly righteous.
Quoting Psalm 16:8–11, Peter makes the staggering claim that David himself, Israel’s premier king, anticipated Christ’s resurrection. In the psalm, David expressed his hope that God wouldn’t abandon him to death, but Peter suggests that this hope is realized only in Jesus. David’s words pointed past himself to the eternal son God promised would inherit his throne forever.
Though King David died, King Jesus—the true Holy One—overcame the corruption of death in the fullest sense imaginable. David’s prayer—“you will not abandon my soul”—is answered in David’s heir, the Christ, who was not abandoned in the grave and in whom David and all who believe God’s promises are granted the blessing of indestructible life.What Did Pentecost Mean?
This Jesus, Peter testifies, was exalted in his ascension to the right hand of God the Father—the symbolic place of absolute power and authority—and he sent the promised Holy Spirit, whose work the Jewish audience has now seen and heard with their own eyes and ears.
So what do the events of Pentecost mean?
Peter used the Scriptures they’ve believed to interpret the phenomena they’ve seen. Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and has poured out his Spirit to fill God’s new-covenant people, according to the Scriptures:
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)
Pentecost is a redemptive-historical confirmation that Christ is risen and reigning.
Through Peter’s preaching, the Holy Spirit performs his life-giving work and cuts people to the heart. If what Peter declares is truly true, what must they do? They must repent—agreeing with God about the sinfulness of their sin and looking in faith to Jesus—and enter the church through the covenant sign and seal of baptism. As rebels repent and are baptized in faith, they are marked as citizens of God’s new-covenant community and receive all the blessings God promised, including forgiveness and the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
Peter’s assurance that this gospel promise is “for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” reverberates with echoes of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1–3; 17:1–8) because God’s blessing for families and nations is found in Abraham’s greater son.
In one day, the church grew from 120 to 3,000. And while the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is a unique event, the same Spirit who fell at Jerusalem still resides within all God’s people, and the same promises Peter announced are still the securing, comforting, and empowering hope of every sinner the Spirit has brought to faith in Christ.
In the Old Testament, the feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s faithfulness in giving the harvest. And the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost means the harvest of disciples is only beginning.
What does it mean for us? It means God’s Spirit poured out at Pentecost will take our proclamation of God’s Word and use it to build the church—just as Jesus promised.
Las Vegas. The (in)famous Strip is lined with large casinos, bright lights, tourism, and the adult entertainment industry. Small wonder it has earned the title Sin City.
Most people who have never been to Vegas assume I live in a tent on the front lawn of the MGM Grand Casino. (I don’t.)
To be sure, Vegas is a place of reckless abandon. But while the city is unique in many ways, its roots are similar to those of your own city. You may not have casinos and tourism, but you do inhabit a “sin city.”
For example, there are almost as many strip clubs in Louisville as there are in Las Vegas (despite the fact Louisville has almost 1 million fewer people). So long as sinners inhabit cities, they will be places of sin.
We plant churches because we long to see dead hearts spring to life. As a pastor, I’ve helped replant a church, and we are now in the process of planting a new church from the established church.
But planting a church in Vegas requires learning. Turns out there’s more to this city than big casinos and flashing lights. So we’ve had to do away with some common misconceptions in order to effectively bring the gospel to bear.What Happens in Vegas (Doesn’t) Stay in Vegas
The slogan “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is only partially true. Vegas is a transient city—not a place people tend to settle. Many view it with what I call a “layover mentality.” You know how this works. You’re on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, but you’ve got a brief layover in Chicago. Chicago doesn’t have great significance to you on this trip; you might recharge your phone, get a snack, get some work done, download that next podcast, and move on.
Why? It’s not your final destination. People often treat Vegas like a layover. They become like locusts ravaging the land of its resources. They’re looking to glean meaning, pleasure, or escape from their past. The city becomes a means to people’s self-centered ends.
Once they’ve consumed everything in their path—having found only instant gratification if not deep emptiness—they move on. Vegas just so happens to be an opportune pit stop.
I’ve seen so many come to Sin City in pursuit of vain pleasures—only to meet Jesus, stay put, and reorient their lives to see others come to know him, too.
But this is fertile soil for the gospel. I’ve seen so many come to Sin City in pursuit of vain pleasures—only to meet Jesus, stay put, and reorient their lives to see others come to know him, too.Changed Lives
There’s an Air Force base on the outskirts of Vegas. Most Airmen (and their families) are here for an assignment lasting only a couple years. They’re not here to stay, and Jesus is certainly not on their radar.
But by God’s grace, we’ve seen dozens of Airmen come to know Christ in the last few years. We haven’t done anything extraordinary; we’ve simply been prayerful and intentional about getting in their path. We’ve sought to learn their needs, know their struggles, and understand where they hang their hope.
Do you know the average stay of people who move to your community? If not, I’d encourage you to find out. Then find ways to be intentional about getting the gospel to them before it’s too late.Viva Las Vegas?
Another popular slogan, “Viva Las Vegas,” no one here actually says. But it’s a good marketing tool. It means “long live Las Vegas,” and it conveys a sense of community pride.
But community doesn’t really exist here. Most who live in Vegas do not love the place or the people. They’ll say it to you. They want out, and fast.
But in our church, the gospel is changing how our members view the city. And we plant churches because we want to ground ourselves in a local place among local people.
No matter our context, we mustn’t underestimate the value of being present. Hospitality, for example, is vital. Why? Because Jesus didn’t show up virtually, and he wasn’t just passing through. He came to save sinners, and he did so in human flesh.
Another powerful apologetic in a place like Vegas is love within the local church. As the people of God love one another, we show the world something profound (John 13:35). Not flimsy, shallow love, but steady, others-centered love grounded in Christ’s love for us.Grace Out-Abounds Sin
I’m reminded of my friend Stan. He moved from Michigan to Las Vegas over 40 years ago. The move proved disastrous for him; it was a time filled with drugs, drunkenness, and excessive gambling. Stan was also a “smut-peddler” (his words) for the porn industry, and he eventually spent time in prison.
But then Stan met Jesus. He stumbled upon our church family, and everything changed. He was amazed at God’s pursuit of him even when he wanted nothing to do with God. Now he’s part of our family, where he’s affectionately known as “Stan the Man.”
As the people of God love one another, we show the world something profound.
When it comes to gospel ministry, I hope what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. God has positioned this city to be a church-planting hub in the American West, even around the world. As the apostle Paul once wrote, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
May the grace of God abound not only in Vegas, but in sin cities across the world. Viva the kingdom of Christ.
The typical faith-and-work talk runs like this:
God made you with a wonderful job to do that brings meaning and purpose into your ordinary life. Every day, we have the incredible opportunity to bring the holy love of God into the life of the world around us by the way we do our daily work. We are carrying out the calling to take good care of God’s world, and to shape ourselves in ever greater Christlikeness.
And many people roll their eyes and say, “Sounds like a nice theory. You should try doing my job.”
I definitely understand why the conversation goes the way it does. We want to start with something encouraging and uplifting, not with doom and gloom. And we want to keep God, not Satan, at the center—it’s important to remember who’s really in control.
At the same time, we need to connect with people’s daily experience, talk to them about the world they actually recognize around them, and acknowledge their suffering and need.
When I speak at faith-and-work conferences, I frequently host workshops with titles like “When Work Stinks.” And you know what? I have never had an empty room.Toil and Frustration
How does work stink? In oh so many ways, but let’s start at the beginning. Genesis 3:17–19 puts the emphasis on two primary ways the fall affects our daily work: toil and frustration.
Toil doesn’t mean exertion. Physical work that required effort was there before the fall. Genesis 2:15 says the very reason God put Adam in the garden in the first place was to work it and keep it, to cultivate it and protect it.
No, toil means pain and strain—physical suffering and fatigue. Adam’s brow will now sweat as he works, God said (Gen. 3:18), and we experience the same. As we exert ourselves in our work, we feel the fall in our very bodies. We see the physical toll in the aching muscles of field laborers or construction workers, in the weary feet of factory workers, and in the extra weight or carpal tunnel of those who sit still and type in offices.
As toil is to the body, frustration is to the soul. After the fall, the garden produced not only crops and flowers, but thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:19). We experience this frustration in two ways. In the short term, any task we put our hands to may fall apart and fail—even if we do everything right! And in the long term, even if our work is successful, it lacks ultimate meaning if we are cut off from God. The same Solomon who commends hard work so highly in Proverbs also testifies in Ecclesiastes that without God, all our striving is vanity—everything we build will vanish in the space of a breath.
This is why one of the most important Christian virtues is perseverance. It is stressed again and again in the New Testament—stay strong, run the race, don’t be surprised at fiery trials, rejoice even in times of suffering. By persevering through pain and adversity, we develop the strong character God intends us to have. And we know that, even when our efforts fail, our faithful striving manifests the holy love of God to a watching world.Disrupted Relationships
The fall brings toil and frustration into our daily work because it disrupts our relationships. Everything is supposed to be connected to everything else in the right way and, above all, connected to its Creator in the right way.
When the fall disrupted our relationship with God, it disrupted all our other relationships as well, including with the physical creation. We were made to rule the earth under God, but now the earth is cursed (Gen. 3:17). This is what first gave rise to toil and frustration.
As toil is to the body, frustration is to the soul.
Our relationships with one another are also disrupted, resulting in mistreatment and injustice in our daily work. Just as Adam and Eve felt shame and covered themselves, because they knew they no longer had unfiltered and selfless intimacy, so we are alienated from each other. We work in a world of distrust and fear.
Even our relationship with ourselves—our sense of identity and motivation—is disrupted. For some this means workaholism, making an idol out of daily work and investing ultimate purpose in it. For others it means sloth, turning away from the calling to exert ourselves and take good care of God’s world—whether that means not working at all or zoning out because we regard our tasks as menial and beneath us.Contentment and Hope
The gospel of Christ, crucified and resurrected, puts our work right because it puts us back in right relationship with our Creator. We still experience the disruption of our world because of the fall, of course. And we still struggle against the power of sin that clings to our own flesh.
But we work now with contentment and courage. We can rest on what God has done, is doing, and will do. We know that God is with us in our work. We know he is taking care of us, providing for our daily needs. And we know that he is working all things together for our good—even in the midst of suffering (Rom. 8:28).
And as contentment strengthens us for daily work, hope transforms the way we work. Sometimes people reduce hope to intellectual beliefs about the future, such as affirming the factual accuracy of biblical prophecy. But hope is a practical virtue, and has something to do with the present as well as the future.
Hope means aligning not just our beliefs, but also our behavior, with the expectation that God can and will fulfill all his promises.
Hope means aligning not just our beliefs, but also our behavior, with the expectation that God can and will fulfill all his promises. It means we act as if God really is stronger than Satan—that God is God, and Satan is not. Hope looks forward to the consummation of all things, because that promise of final victory is the ultimate basis of our expectation that God is in charge and is going to have his way. But hope also means we know that God is stronger than Satan now, and that he is keeping his promises now.
God is accomplishing his purposes today, cleansing and strengthening us as his people, and pointing us toward that perfect future. As C. S. Lewis said, the more Christians look forward to the future world, the more effective workers they become in the present world as agents of God’s love and holiness.
We walk—we work—by faith, not by sight. We trust that God is at work in our work, even if we don’t necessarily see or understand what he’s doing. We trust that God is at work in the world around us, even in the midst of darkness and evil. The triumph of God’s holy love is our hope; it is our hope for eternity, and our hope for today.
Which book does Darryl Williamson—lead pastor of Living Faith Bible Fellowship and TGC Council member—wish every Christian should read?
He answers in this new video:
Leonard Ravenhill’s Why Revival Tarries
- Albert Mohler’s One Book Recommendation
- Jen Wilkin’s One Book Recommendation
- Russell Moore’s One Book Recommendation