Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Loving one another in the body of Christ has many benefits. Two that regularly come to mind are the glory it gives to God and the way it affects the church. However, one of the primary benefits of loving one another is what it declares before a watching world. One of our most potent instruments we have for effective evangelism is Christians loving each other well. I am “living” proof.
As a freshman college student and self-declared atheist, I attended a campus Christian fellowship to fulfill a promise to a Christian friend. I only had the intention to go once. It was merely duty and upholding my word, nothing more. I went begrudgingly, but I went. My life was never the same.
I walked into a room full of Christians and was struck by what I observed. Here was a diverse group. They were from every walk of life. I remember scanning the room and labeling people in my mind, “There is a jock, over there is a geek, and walking in the door is a boy scout.” But what struck me was that they were together. They weren’t just together in the same room, they were together in every sense of the word. They were actually talking with each other and genuinely seemed happy to be together. There didn’t seem to be division. Even in my atheist mind, I knew what I was seeing: they loved one another.
I had no categories for this, so I kept returning to find out why they had love like this for one another. Over the course of a few months I found the answer, or more accurately stated, the answer found me.
One of the best evangelism programs you can start at your church is to pursue loving one another well. At some point they will have to hear the gospel proclaimed from your lips or the pulpit, but that “strange love” will set the table before them. People will know that you are His disciples, because it is a shocking love. It has a gravitational attraction, because it is a love that is foreign to this world. A love that the inquirer, if seeking an answer, will find comes from heaven.
Even before the Grammy Awards showcased Macklemore singing “Same Love” and Queen Latifah presiding over a “same sex couple’s wedding” ceremony, I had most of this blog written as the topic has been on my mind for quite some time.
I am not a Kuyperian or a Neo-Kuyperian, but there are certain watershed cultural issues for every generation of Christians; issues in which they cannot be silent. For our generation, abortion and homosexuality are key watershed issues. They are watershed issues, because abortion snatches away life and homosexuality reaches out and grabs hold of death.
The average Evangelical Christian continues to believe we should speak out against the acceptance of abortion in our culture. And the pro-abortion forces have been losing ground over the past five years. No doubt, much of that is due to the church’s resolve to stand against this agenda. However, it seems to me that in the past few years, Evangelical Christians in the United States have increasingly and passively grown in their acceptance of homosexuality. This should concern all of us.
I understand the discouragement. Our culture has done a quick “about face” on this issue. It was just yesterday that the Ellen DeGeneres sitcom announced its main character was homosexual (1997) and a firestorm erupted. Now, it seems almost “normal” to have Queen Latifah presiding over a “wedding” ceremony of a homosexual couple. We cannot let it feel “normal.” Make no mistake, homosexuality may be the issue of the day. It brings secularism to the forefront like few other agendas and it undermines the foundation of family, church, and the Scriptures.
Therefore, it should concern us when Christians throw their hands up and declare with finality that the homosexuality debate in this country is over–the battle has been waged and lost. This agenda has fooled us into thinking it is here to stay and must be adopted and adapted to. It has bullied us into believing we cannot continue to speak out against the acceptance of practicing this sin in our culture. Too many denominations, Christian schools, churches, and individual Christians are raising the white flag. This is something we cannot and must not do.
Homosexuality is a matter of extreme importance to us. Make no mistake, this is a gospel issue. When our culture embraces something that sends people to hell (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:10) then it must matter to us. We cannot roll over and play dead. We cannot give up and just let the issue go. We are compelled to continue to engage our culture on this issue and challenge its wayward course. We are not doing this because we are feverish to return to the 1940′s or 1950′s or because we are a “backwards people.” Rather, we are a people looking forward to eternity and that is our motivation. Neither are we seeking to engage in this cultural battle because we are haters. We do so because we are lovers of men and God. We do not endeavor to be sticks in the mud, who refuse to change. We, of all people, know the value of change as we have been brought from death to life. However, we are only willing to change where we are freed by the Scriptures to do so. We are a people bound by the Word of God; our conscience is constrained by it, and from this position we cannot move.
We must be bold and courageous in our day. Not rabble rousers, but valiant and resolute according to our convictions. Our starting place, should be to disapprove of homosexual practice, knowing that we do so in the context of our own sexual fallen state. We are not haughty. We are not decrying the sins of others and ignoring our own, but neither are we willing to sit silently when our culture calls that which is evil “good.”
Let us resolve, that as we continue to speak against homosexuality and its acceptance in our culture, we will do so winsomely and lovingly; yet, we are also committed to doing so clearly. In our pulpits, in our conversations around the water cooler, with our children, or in simple talks over the fence with our neighbors, we will be clear that homosexual practice is a sin. We will not attempt to separate love and truth. A careful guard against the subtle language of “gay” and “gay marriage” should be in place. Neither one of those terms should be used in our discourse about the homosexual lifestyle or homosexual union. There is nothing “gay” or God-honoring about the homosexual lifestyle, and it is not a God-ordained marriage when two homosexuals join together in a “state approved marriage,” even if it is a monogamous and committed relationship. We, as a people of the Word, know the importance of language and words, and it is crucial we give clear articulation of God’s purpose and plan for sex and marriage.
Even as we exercise our voice, we need a generation of Christians who are willing to do even more; willing to be courageous enough to minister with compassion and truth to the homosexual community. We need brothers and sisters in Christ, who know the depths of grace and are deliberate in ministering to others by that grace. We must raise an army of men and women, who are compelled, in all humility, to seek to understand the homosexual struggle and enter into relationships that will challenge, encourage, and hold friends and loved ones accountable. We need elders and pastors with a vision to establish churches where a person struggling with same-sex attraction or even homosexual practices are lovingly warned, discipled, and given care. We need to continue to declare that homosexuality is not the unforgivable sin, but that repentance is called for. We must be clear in our application of theology that identifying the sinful desire and abstaining from such practices does not negate personhood or necessitate the deprivation of joy.
Above all, we need to pray. We need to pray for those in our churches who struggle with same-sex attraction, for those who have given into this temptation and sin, and for the salvation of those who are trapped in a lifestyle that leads to death. We need to pray that our society would alter its present course on this issue and never look back.
It may be an uphill battle, but our God moves mountains. We serve a God who can change things in an instant. Does it seem impossible? Our God majors in the impossible. May it take a miracle? There is good news, we serve a God who performs miracles. We cannot roll over and play dead on this issue. It is too important. It is an issue with eternal implications for the souls of men and women. We believe in the power of the gospel, so let us believe it is good news even in the midst of this debate, and declare it without shrinking. May God turn the tide and do a mighty work of change in our generation, for His praise and His glory. He can do it. Never lose hope.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that lead and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27).
This is my favorite Lord’s Day in the entire Catechism. I absolutely love its poetic description of providence. ”Sovereignty” is the word we hear more often. That’s a good word too. But if people run out of the room crying whenever you talk to them about sovereignty, try using the word “providence.” For some people God’s sovereignty sounds like nothing but raw, capricious power: “God has absolute power over all things and you better get used to it.” That kind of thing. And that definition is true in a sense, but divine sovereignty, we must never forget, is sovereignty-for-us. As Eric Liddel’s dad remarked in Chariots of Fire, God may be a dictator, but “Aye, he is a benign, loving dictator.”
Coming to grips with God’s all-encompassing providence requires a massive shift in how we look at the world. It requires changing our vantage point—from seeing the cosmos as a place where man rules and God responds, to beholding a universe where God creates and constantly controls with sovereign love and providential power.
The definition of providence in the Catechism is stunning. All things, yes all things, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.” I will sometimes ask seminary students being examined for ordination, “How would the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Lord’s Day 10, help you minister to someone who lost a limb in Afghanistan or just lost a job or just lost a child.” I am usually disappointed to hear students who should be affirming the confessions of their denomination shy away from Heidelberg’s strong, biblical language about providence. Like most of us, the students are much more at ease using passive language about God’s permissive will or comfortable generalities about God being “in control” than they are about stating precisely and confidently to those in the midst of suffering “this has come from God’s fatherly hand.” And yet, that’s what the Catechism teaches.
And more importantly, so does the Bible.
To be sure, God’s providence is not an excuse to act foolishly or sinfully. Herod and Pontius Pilate, though they did what God had planned beforehand, were still wicked conspirators (Acts 4:25-28). The Bible affirms human responsibility.
But the Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things. The nations are under God’s control (Psalm 2:1-4; 33:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41; Psalm 135:7; 147:18; 148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25; Dan. 6:22;Matt. 10:29). God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:7-8; Mark 1:27). God uses wicked people for his plans—not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way, but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16; John 19:11; Gen. 45:8; Luke 22:22; Acts 4:27-28). God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17;Josh. 11:20; Rom. 9:18). God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 45:6-7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14). God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6, 25; 2 Sam 12:15; 2 Chr. 10:4, 14; Deut. 32:39). God does what he pleases and his purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9-10; Dan. 4:34-35). In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of his will (Prov. 16:33; 20:24; 21:2; Jer. 10:23; Psalm 139:16; Rom. 8:21; Eph. 1:11).
It’s worth noting that Lord’s Day 10 is explaining what the Apostles’ Creed means when it says, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” If God is the creator of all things and truly almighty, then he must continue to be almighty over all that he has created. And if God is a Father, then surely he exercises his authority over his creation and creatures for the good of his beloved children. Providence is nothing more than a belief in “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” brought to bear on our present blessings and troubles and buoying our hope into the future.
You can look at providence through the lens of human autonomy and our idolatrous notions of freedom and see a mean God moving tsunamis and kings like chess pieces in some kind of perverse divine play-time. Or you can look at providence through the lens of Scripture and see a loving God counting the hairs on our heads and directing the sparrows in the sky so that we might live life unafraid. “What else can we wish for ourselves,” Calvin wrote, “if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will?” There are no accidents in your life. Nothing has been left to chance. Every economic downturn, every phone call in the middle of the night, every oncology report has been sent to us from the God who sees all things, plans all things, and loves us more than we know.
As children of our Heavenly Father, divine providence is always for us and never against us. Joseph’s imprisonment seemed pointless, but it makes sense now. Slavery in Egypt makes sense now. Killing the Messiah makes sense now. Whatever difficulty or unknown you may be facing today, it will make sense someday–if not in this life, then certainly in the next.
We all have moments where we fear what the future may hold. But such fears are misplaced if we know the one who holds the future. The fact of the matter is all my worries may come true, but God will never be untrue to me. He will always lead me, always listen to me, and always love me in Christ. God moves in mysterious ways; we may not always understand why life is what it is. But we can face the future unafraid because we know that nothing moves, however mysterious, except by the hand of that great Unmoved Mover who moves all and is moved by none, and that this Mover is not an impersonal force but the God who is my Father in heaven.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the Christian life and sanctification. Much of this discussion has included differing views on good works and the relation of the Christian and the Holy Spirit to these good works. Here are a few questions and answers to help in this discussion.
What are good works?
Why do good works? Because good works done in obedience to God’s commandments
Who brings forth our good works?
How good are these good works?
Then how are our good works acceptable to God?
**If you liked the above answers, there is good reason. You are resonating with Reformed Biblical thought through the centuries. And that isn’t because you agree with me. These aren’t my ruminations. The answers to these questions are the thoughts articulated in Westminster Confession of Faith chapter sixteen: Of Good Works. There is much biblical wisdom in our confessions. There is a reason they have stood the test of time.
As they mature and leave the home
Provide them adequate finances, but not riches
spouses who will love them, but not worship them
Give them sorrows, but not too deep
struggles, but not too great
Make them seasoned, but not hopeless
comfortable in their own skin, but not vain
zealous, but equally wise
knowledgeable, but filled with humility
content, but continually striving
Allow them to be confident, but not cocky
humble, but not sheepish
gracious, but not fearful
Mature their body in strength
their emotions with sophistication
and their imaginations with grounding
Fill their lungs with deep laughter
and their souls with joy
But even as I pray these things,
there is one prayer that soars above the rest
Bestow upon them your grace
Lavish them with your mercy
Drench them with your love
Give them the gift of faith
Satiate all their appetites with you
Fill them with your Holy Spirit
Set them apart for your holy service
Bring them into union with Christ
Let their hearts know a peace that surpasses understanding
Grant that my children would be Your children
That would make this child exceedingly thankful
Hear my prayer, O Father of mercy and grace
I’m leaving today for two weeks in England. Yes, I know we just had a baby. What can I say? The trip has been on the books for two years, my wife is amazing, my mother-in-law is here, and don’t try this at home.
With the good folks at St. Helen’s as my host, I’ll be speaking at a number of gospel partnerships throughout the country. After preaching several times over the course of 10 days, I’ll finish up with 4 days in Leicester to meet my PhD supervisor. I’m excited that our associate pastor, Ben Falconer, can join me for the first half of the trip.
While I’m gone the blog cupboard may be a little bare. Thankfully, Jason Helopoulos will keep things stocked with some good eats. I will jot down some thought as I’m able. Cheers!
There are a lot of things that can and should be said on this the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I thought the best thing for this blog might be to let someone else say something.
Andi was one of my wife’s friends at Gordon College. Since graduating over a decade ago, they’ve kept up here and there like most people do–by Facebook. last November we saw Andi post her story about how she had an abortion while in college, and how she later received God’s grace for this sin. She gave me permission to re-post her story on my blog. It is honest, moving, heartbreaking, full of the gospel and full of hope.
Thirteen years ago, I had an abortion and I was completely alone. When I saw that pregnancy test, I was scared to death. I was 20. I was attending a Christian college. It was not ok that I was pregnant. But at the same time, the thought of that baby already growing inside me brought me unbelievable joy. I remember actually forcing myself to stop smiling before I went in to tell my boyfriend the news. When I walked in, he was sitting there with the phone book open to Planned Parenthood.
“You can’t have this baby,” he said. “It will ruin my future,” he said.
Those words have haunted me for years. They are disgusting and unbelievable. But at the same time, today they are almost laughable. Why would I allow someone to say that to me? Why would I hear these words coming from this immature boys’ mouth, and think, “Man, I don’t wanna lose this guy, so I better do what he says?” Since that time I have thought of countless, usually inappropriate, responses to his words. I have pictured myself throwing something in his face, stomping out of his apartment, and taking the train home, to carry and raise that baby by myself. I have replayed over and over again in my head how things could have gone so differently that day. How I could have stood up for myself and done what was right. How I could have told someone- just one person about my pregnancy and I probably would have made a different choice.
I am overwhelmed with how immature and stupid I was. How blind I was. I was convinced I had no choice. I couldn’t tell anyone. I was ashamed I was pregnant. I was ashamed I had been sleeping with my boyfriend. I was ashamed I was considering abortion. My life was filled with shame.
There seemed to be no escape. And this boy acted like this was the easiest, simplest and most obvious choice on the planet. He even called Planned Parenthood for me as I sat there sobbing on the bed. He would have made the appointment for me too, but the lady on the phone said I had to do it. So there I sat, sobbing into the phone. And she let me make the appointment. She didn’t ask if this was what I really wanted. She didn’t suggest I call back after I calmed down. Nope. I was sobbing so uncontrollably that I could barely speak, but she scheduled an appointment. And I went. It seems so obvious now. Just don’t go. But in that moment. I was 20, I was “in love,” I was scared, I was alone.
People often wonder, “How can someone be so hateful and heartless to make a decision to kill your own baby?” I don’t tell this story so people will feel bad for me. I tell it so people might be able to see why someone would make this decision. No one should. But it’s easy for me to understand how a young, lonely, desperate, and scared girl can make that decision. Someone makes that decision when there is no hope. I would go back and do it differently if I could. But it’s done. And when it was done, a piece of me died. I have been missing a piece of me since that day.
My boyfriend didn’t want to talk about it. He told me to move on. I held it in. I told no one. I immediately became depressed, filled with suicidal thoughts, and eventually had a severe panic attack. But still I kept silent. I became a very good actress. I could fake a smile like nobody’s business. I had been living with my roommate, Gwyn, for the previous two years. I told her everything. But I couldn’t tell her this. I was so afraid people would judge me and hate me for what I did. I hated me for what I did. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to ever be forgiven. I killed my baby. I didn’t deserve to live. So I went on pretending. Going through the motions and crying myself to sleep every night. My life went on like this for another 2 or 3 years until finally, one night I revealed it to Gwyn, who obviously didn’t judge me or hate me, but supported me and loved me.
Over those years of secrecy, and in the few years following, when I started opening up to a few people, I began learning about grace. Growing up in the church, I thought I knew what grace was, but I had no idea. I didn’t want God to forgive me for what I had done. I never wanted to stop torturing myself with thoughts of what happened. But a wise woman said to me that if I don’t accept God’s forgiveness and grace, that’s like saying Jesus dying on the cross wasn’t enough. Is that what I was saying? God’s sacrifice on the cross, his grace and mercy being poured out for this broken, sinful world, wasn’t enough to take away MY sin? It took years to sink in, but now I know that when Jesus hung there on that cross, with the sins of the world bearing down on his perfect soul, he saw me. He saw my face. He saw me lying in that abortion clinic. 2000 years ago He knew what I was going to do. And He gave His life for me anyway. He took the punishment for my sin. THAT particular sin, as well as all the others. When He died, and when my heart broke because of my own sin, I was forgiven. I was set free. That is exactly why Jesus died on the cross, because we were all going to do things that are completely unforgivable.
We are all guilty. But God doesn’t want me to live a life filled with guilt. He wants me to live a life filled with joy. And now, when I think about my baby, my heart misses her and my arms long for her, but I know I am forgiven. I can live my life. I can forgive myself. I have forgiven myself. And I have accepted God’s forgiveness. And I have peace and hope, knowing, in the next life, when I get to my real home, I will see her again.
I praise God for women like Andi who share their stories of guilt, grace, and gratitude (you read the whole thing here). I praise God for good friends like Gwyn. I praise God for every politician working to make abortion less available and less frequent. I praise God for every crisis pregnancy center and women’s shelter. I praise God for loving churches. I praise God for adoption agencies and adoptive parents. I praise God for every mom who chooses life. And I praise God that there is grace in Christ for the women–and the complicit men–who didn’t.
You won’t find a more intelligent and comprehensive book on early American theology than E. Brooks Holifield’s magisterial work Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. Holifield’s main theme is “that a majority of theologians in early America shared a preoccupation with the reasonableness of Christianity” (4). Surrounding this main thesis are five other themes which “amplify and qualify” it. The second of these themes is the importance of Calvinism.
Holifield, a highly respected historian and professor at Candler School of Theology (Emory University), argues that to a large degree theology in America “was an extended debate, stretching over more than two centuries, about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism” (10). From the age of the Puritans to the Civil War–and one could argue for the next 150 years as well–American theologians made their appeals for a true Calvinism, a modified Calvinism, or a clean break from Calvininsm. Some new theologies emerged from within the Reformed tradition, while “a host of other traditions attained greater self-definition by positioning themselves against the Calvinists” (12). But Calvinism (or Reformed theology to be more precise) was the tradition that shaped the terms and substance of the debate (11).
Clearly, there is an historical explanation for this phenomenon. Although Catholics and Anglicans had already arrived in the New World in the early 17th century, “it was the coming of the English Calvinists to New England that produced the first substantial corpus of theological writings” and set the agenda for a theological debate that would endure for the centuries to follow (25). America’s default theological setting is Reformed.
Besides this critical historical explanation, I can think of other reasons why American theology almost always snaps back to an extended debate about Reformed theology.
1. It is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.
2. It is a scandalous theology, utterly at odds with later American ideas of egalitarianism and self-determination.
3. It is so absolutely other-worldly–either in glory or in shame, depending on your perspective–that it begs for a response. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent to Calvinism.
4. When pastors, theologians, churches, denominations, and movements are gripped by the vision of Reformed theology, they tend to be dogged in their persistence to perpetuate it, defend it, and celebrate it.
Although Calvinism is certainly not the dominant theological tradition like it was in the early days of this country, it continues to be a potent strain of religious devotion. Read through the most popular blogs and you’ll see the debate has not died down. When it comes to assessing Geneva, one person’s city on a hill is another person’s pit of hell.
American theology is still an extended debate about the meaning and truth of Calvinism.