How Does the Bible Address the Question of Why God Allows His People to Suffer?

Nov 06, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The Bible addresses the question of suffering, in one sense or another, in almost every book.

But two of the most interesting sources are the book of Ruth and the book of Job. With different characters and with different stories and in different styles—but with the same God—they demonstrate God’s power, presence, and purposes in the midst of perplexing pain.

I am a big fan of the Bible Project—which seeks to give compelling and concise overviews of books and themes of the Bible using animation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a project that is as interesting to young kids as it is to seminary students. I’ve collected all of their videos and put it in one post here. The two latest videos are on Ruth and Job, and you can watch them below.

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An Interview with Doug Sweeney on Jonathan Edwards the Exegete

Nov 05, 2015 | Justin Taylor

9780199793228_450It’s not every day that one finds a groundbreaking scholarly contribution that is also readable and enjoyable. But that’s the case with Douglas Sweeney’s long-awaited Edwards the Exegete Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Dr. Sweeney is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, Chair of the Department, and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published widely on Edwards, early modern Protestant thought, and the history of evangelicalism.

He kindly answered some questions about his work, the world and methods of Edwards, and his hopes for what it will do both for Edwards scholarship and for the church today.

An immediate impression upon opening your new book is the sheer number of endnotes it contains. I couldn’t resist doing a calculation: 40% of the 382 pages are devoted to your bibliographic notes. Obviously this represents an enormous investment of reading and reflecting and writing. How long have you been working on this project?

I’ve been working on this book for 12 years. To readers who don’t like footnotes, I offer encouragement to skip them! Serious readers with an interest in Edwards’s thought and/or the Bible can read the text of this book without reference to the notes. I’ve worked hard to craft clear, crisp, fun-to-read sentences. Some contain Scripture quotations (and thus are a little long). But any good reader should be able to make it through the book and understand its contents.

Having said this, I hasten to add that this particular book is also an effort to change the way in which scholars think of Edwards and his historical significance. It develops and defends a major argument about the importance of Scripture to Edwards. And it seeks to pioneer a new subfield in Edwards studies, providing students with the bibliography and historiographical pointers needed to follow me into the study of Edwards’s biblical exegesis (and the biblical interpretation of many of Edwards’s peers as well). Whereas many books today largely rehash material one can find elsewhere, this one is different. In this one, I needed to offer thorough documentation and engagement with other scholars in the footnotes.

It seems that almost anything that can be written about Edwards has already been written about at this point, after the explosion of dissertations and monographs over the past few decades. But why has something so central to Edwards—his bibliology and biblical interpretation—been conspicuously absent in scholarship?

There are several reasons for this.

First, Edwards never wrote a standard commentary on Scripture. Nor did he publish a major treatise on the meaning of revelation, or the nature of the Bible, or his method of exegesis. He spoke at great length about interpreting the Bible. He understood his work in largely exegetical terms. But not once did he use the English word “hermeneutics” (it wasn’t common in his world), let alone offer a comprehensive theory of the task. In order to write this book I have had to glean from myriad leaves of manuscript material—mainly unpublished sermons and a variety of notebooks—making sense of Edwards’s manner of interpreting the Bible more coherently than he had time to do for himself. To accomplish this goal without misconstruing Edwards has required a lot of work.

Second, and relatedly, most of Edwards’ exegetical manuscripts have lain in the archives, untranscribed and unpublished, since his death. Only recently have they become part of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.

Third, the renaissance of scholarship on Edwards in recent decades has been led by people working mainly in secular universities. Many of them have found Edwards fascinating. But in their day-to-day work, and especially in their effort to make Edwards more interesting to students in such settings, they have focused on Edwards’s ethical and philosophical works, works that trade more in what we call general revelation.

How would you describe the exegetical world in which Edwards was working?

It’s a lost world of preachers and their colleagues in the academy who worked in ancient history and philology. It also included a wide array of early modern theologians who engaged in detailed thinking about the Bible and its teachings. Edwards’s favorite exegetical conversation partners were commentators like Matthew Poole, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry, and John Owen; or ancient historians like Humphrey Prideaux, Samuel Shuckford, and Joseph Mede; or linguists like Johann Buxtorf, Erasmus Schmid, and the compilers of the early-modern polyglot Bibles (Benedictus Arias Montanus, most importantly); or theologians like Peter van Mastricht, Francis Turretin, and Johann Friedrich Stapfer.

It was also a world suffused with what historians now describe as an early-modern Protestant approach to the literal sense of Scripture. Whereas late-modern Protestants usually teach that the literal sense is found through careful study of the grammar of and history behind individual texts (asking how they would have been understood by those who first heard them), people in Edwards’s world more often taught that the literal sense is the one most plainly intended by the Spirit—and so their “literal” exegesis often included spiritual meanings that could only be defended by interpreting these texts with help from others parts of Scripture.

I want to ask you about Edwards’s actual methods of interpretation, but first I’d love to hear you talk about how Edwards viewed the Word itself. How important was the Bible in his theology and spirituality?

It was central to his life, pastoral ministry, and theology. It was the sun of his solar system—not the sole source of energy and light at his disposal but the one that helped him understand the rest in the right way. He devoted most of his waking life to thinking about the contents and teachings of the Bible. He was a minister of the Word, a fact that is all-too-easily lost on modern scholars.

Edwards held what will seem to even modern evangelicals an especially high view of the Bible’s inspiration and authority. He taught that God “indited” the Scriptures (i.e. proclaimed, pronounced, or composed them) through the Bible’s human authors and thus “dictated” to ministers the things they are to preach. He treated the prophets and apostles as the oracles of God. He taught that Scripture was “the Word of God,” “the epistle of Christ . . . to us,” an “emanation of [God’s] glory,” “a perfect rule” of faith and life, and a “guide to true happiness.”

Even though Edwards didn’t write a hermeneutics handbook, you argue that he primarily used four methods: (1) canonical exegesis, (2) Christological exegesis, (3) redemptive-historical exegesis, and (4) pedagogical exegesis. Could you explain what these are and how he used them in his quest to glorify God, understand divine revelation, and serve the church?

Sure, but, again, let me emphasize that Edwards did not write about this in a systematic way. This four-fold schema does not represent methods used intentionally by Edwards in an overall plan to interpret holy writ in a four-fold way. They simply organize and summarize the exegetical practices reflected in his writings.

Canonical exegesis (interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture in a pan-canonical way) showed him how the Bible cohered.

Christological exegesis (interpreting even the Old Testament in view of Jesus Christ and His work of redemption) showed him how it all centered on the love of God for the saints (the mystical bride of Christ).

Redemptive-historical exegesis provided a spiritual metanarrative that made sense of individual texts in light of the storyline that tied them all together.

Pedagogical exegesis gave him rules for faith and life, helping Christians play their parts in the story of redemption.

He thought that all four approaches should begin with a study of the text’s grammar and history (which he taught alongside them but did not often feature as an end in itself). He also thought they overlapped and even built upon each other to provide people of faith with a grand vision of God, His relation to the world, and the meaning of His Word. Taken together, these methods yielded a robust, thoroughgoing biblical theology that governed Edwards’ other, more occasional—and far more famous—publications.

For Edwards what was the role of tradition and theological system as he approached the text? Was he a “biblicist” in the sense we think of the term?

Edwards was a Calvinist who affirmed both the Westminster Standards and the Savoy Declaration. (The Savoy Declaration was the Congregationalist version of the Westminster Confession. Edwards was a Congregationalist pastor who waffled a bit on matters of church polity. He could have served well in a Presbyterian church, as he granted to a friend living in Scotland.) He interpreted the Bible with the help of these confessions. But he did not usually defend his exegesis by appealing to them, or even by appealing to other well-regarded doctors of the church. As he wrote in a private notebook, the Scriptures are sufficient to supply both our spiritual and exegetical needs. Careful students “have no need of joining unto them the writings of the fathers or church historians” to understand their meanings. “God would have our whole dependence be upon the Scriptures,” he wrote, “because the greater our dependence is on the Word of God, the more direct and immediate is our dependence on God himself.” So, yes, Edwards was a “biblicist.”

Most of us are tempted by “chronological snobbery,” assuming (as Packer once put it), that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.” In what ways can Edwards the exegete—operating in a very different world than our own but with the same God and the same revelation and the same human needs and ends—serve as a positive role model for contemporary interpretation of the Bible?

Too often today preachers feel the need to side with either the proponents of “grammatical-historical” exegesis or the prophets of the “theological interpretation of Scripture.” And in the evangelical movement, the tension this produces is exacerbated by the fact most “theological” interpreters are Catholic, or Anglican, or Lutheran–not often evangelical. Edwards provides a good model of evangelical exegesis that is both grammatical-historical and robustly theological. He worked three centuries ago and got a lot of things wrong. But he shows us that Protestants can combine (and, in the olden days, usually did combine) careful work with Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient history and skill in interpreting the Bible theologically (with careful application to our faith and practice today). I’d love to see us find contemporary ways to rehabilitate this both-and approach to the interpretation of Scripture. The spiritual health of God’s people depends upon it.

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My Foreword to the New Book, “The First Days of Jesus”

Nov 05, 2015 | Justin Taylor

9781433542787One New Testament scholar described the Gospel of Mark as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction.”[1] This is why Andreas Köstenberger and I coauthored The Final Days of Jesus: if you want to understand who Jesus is, you have to understand the most important week of his earthly ministry.[2] The Gospel writers, like Jesus himself, set their faces to Jerusalem and refused to look back (Luke 9:51, 53).

But Where Did It All Begin?

But something built into the human spirit wants to go back, to see how it all started. God himself, of course, begins the biblical storyline, “In the beginning” (Gen. 1:1). And the story of Jesus, as the preincarnate word, likewise starts, “In the beginning” (John 1:1).

Although we would never complain about how the Spirit of God chose to guide his inspired writers, we sometimes wish the narrative of Jesus’s first days would slow things down and add some more detail. Obviously we cannot add more chapters to the Bible. God has given us everything we need to worship him in a way that pleases and glorifies his great name and equips us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But we can slow down. And we can go deeper. This is where Köstenberger and Stewart, gifted biblical theologians and New Testament scholars, can help us.

Familiarity Breeds Laziness

People say that familiarity breeds contempt, but when it comes to Bible reading, I’ve found that familiarity is more likely to produce laziness. I tend to skim when I already know the story. How many times in my life have I read or heard preached the following familiar words?

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

We’ve heard it so many times that we assume we know what it all means.

But then we start to ask questions.

  • Who was Caesar Augustus?
  • When did he rule?
  • Over what exact area did he rule?
  • Why did he want all the world to be registered?
  • Who was Quirinius?
  • Is the Syria in this passage the same as the modern country of Syria?
  • Don’t some Bible scholars say that Luke’s history about the timing of the census is inaccurate here?
  • Why did Joseph have to go to Bethlehem instead of registering in Nazareth?
  • How big was Bethlehem?
  • Why did Mary need to go with him?
  • And why doesn’t it say she rode on a donkey—is that in another account, or is that just what we’ve seen on TV?
  • How exactly is betrothal different from engagement?
  • Where is the innkeeper? A
  • nd what kind of an “inn” was this—a cave, a room in a house, or an ancient hotel?

These are fourteen questions off the top of my head, and we’ve only covered seven verses. As we keep reading, the questions keep coming. Even though we’ve read or heard it dozens of times, it is humbling to recognize just how much we still don’t know.

The book you hold in your hands has no gimmicks or clever sales pitches. It won’t reveal a “gospel” you never knew. (If it did, you should throw it away [Gal. 1:8].) It doesn’t purport to finally disclose the secrets of Jesus’s childhood or what he did in Egypt. Instead, it takes us back to Scripture, the only infallible source of how God became man and dwelt among us.

I think you will find several benefits in reading The First Days of Jesus:

1. This book can help you slow down.

The biblical narrative contains details that you probably haven’t noticed before. These details reflect historical realities you probably didn’t know before. And these biblical and historical realities have implications for your life that you probably haven’t thought of before. Köstenberger and Stewart guard us from racing through familiar words and guide us in seeing what we have not yet fully seen.

2. This book can help you go deeper.

The incarnation—God become man—is a deep mystery. Pastor-theologian Sam Storms poetically captures some of the paradoxes at play:

The Word became flesh!
God became human!
the invisible became visible!
the untouchable became touchable!
eternal life experienced temporal death!
the transcendent one descended and drew near!
the unlimited became limited!
the infinite became finite!
the immutable became mutable!
the unbreakable became fragile!
spirit became matter!
eternity entered time!
the independent became dependent!
the almighty became weak!
the loved became the hated!
the exalted was humbled!
glory was subjected to shame!
fame turned into obscurity!
from inexpressible joy to tears of unimaginable grief!
from a throne to a cross!
from ruler to being ruled!
from power to weakness![3]

The wonder of the incarnation deserves a lifetime of thought, and this book is a faithful resource to prompt deeper reflection on the foundation of our salvation.

3. This book can help you make connections.

Even though the Bible devotes only four and a half chapters (out of 1,189) to Jesus’s first days, Köstenberger and Stewart show us that the incarnation is the hinge of redemptive history—with the Old Testament leading up to it and the rest of the New Testament flowing from it. Reading this book will help you see how the whole story line fits together.

C. S. Lewis once confessed that in his own reading, “devotional books” did not produce in his mind and heart the results they promised. He suspected he was not alone: “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.”[4] You may want to contextualize away the pipe depending on your own preferences and convictions, but I think the advice is sound, and I found this to be the case when reading The First Days of Jesus.

This is not the dry-as-dust formula of dumping data and dates onto the pages of a book. This is not a book of theology void of history or a volume of history minus theology. It is a work of confessional theology rooted in historical investigation and devoted to a careful reading of Scripture, all designed to help us worship our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope you find this book as meaningful and fruitful as I did.

Justin Taylor

Maundy Thursday, 2015

[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1892; repr., Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 80.

[2] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor with Alexander Stewart, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

[3] Sam Storms, “The Most Amazing Verse in the Bible,” February 20, 2010.

[4] C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 205.


“This latest work on the incarnation and nativity is an excellent example of serious scholarship served up in a most readable manner. No birth in history had such prophetic preparation, which is a powerful, central theme in these pages that celebrate the start of the greatest life ever lived. This is a welcome antidote to the cheap sensationalism in recent books on Jesus that try to demolish every reason for regarding Christmas as ‘the most wonderful time of the year.'”
Paul Maier, Professor of Ancient History, Western Michigan University; author, In the Fullness of Time

The First Days of Jesus is a revealing look at the earliest days of Jesus in Matthew, Luke, and John set against some of the skeptical takes on these passages. Add to this a taste of Jewish messianic expectation and you have a nice overview of the start of Jesus’s career and where it fits in God’s plan. Solid yet devotional, it is a great introduction to the first days of our Lord.”
Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, Howard G. Hendricks Center, and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

The First Days of Jesus combines Scripture passages, historical background, scholarly insight, and practical application to cast Christ’s incarnation in fresh light. Few tasks are more urgent than for today’s Christians worldwide to rediscover and deepen their connections with their origins. This book is a valuable resource for achieving that aim. Like the star of Bethlehem itself, this volume leads those who seek God to find him afresh in the events of Jesus’s historical appearance, the prophecies that preceded, the apostolic testimony that accompanied, and the social world that God split wide open when he sent his Son.”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Köstenberger and Stewart admirably unpack the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke along with that beautiful first movement of John’s Gospel against both the grand sweep of biblical history and the nitty-gritty details of first-century events and culture. The result may dismantle a few of your nativity-scene notions about the Christmas story even while building up your faith in and commitment to the Word become flesh.”
George H. Guthrie, Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible, Union University

“Köstenberger and Stewart provide for us a faithful and useful guide to the early days of Jesus. This book should serve well those desiring to learn about the early chapters in the Gospels and those who desire to preach and teach these narratives.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Written with exceptional clarity, The First Days of Jesus pays close attention to the key biblical texts on Christ’s nativity in an illuminating way. It deals briefly yet helpfully with critical scholarship and presents the events surrounding Jesus’s conception and birth in both a canonical and a chronological fashion. It addresses unashamedly the difficulties with these birth stories, tackling the problem of variant accounts, the use of sources, the nature of prophecy and typology, and much more. It challenges us readers to respond to the Word of God with the obedience of faith, like Mary did, and with praise, worship, and witness, as the shepherds did. I know of no other book that so masterfully weaves together these infancy narratives on so many fronts. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it!”
Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“There is more to Christmas than you may think. Cut through the layers of tradition and the fog of nostalgia, and discover the scandal of how it all started. The Bible has more to say about Jesus’s earliest days than you might expect, and this book is a reliable guide.The First Days of Jesus blends world-class scholarship with real-world concern for everyday Christians. Here attention to detail, in the text and in history, complements warm devotion and pastoral care.”
David Mathis, executive editor,; pastor, Cities Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota

“In this accessible and reliable guide to how the Gospels present the early years of Jesus ‎Christ’s life, Köstenberger and Stewart provide an exceptionally helpful study, informed by ‎the best of modern scholarship. Drawing on what we know of the historical context, they ‎expound with clarity both the meaning of the biblical text and its relevance for modern ‎readers. In doing so, they enable us to grasp afresh how a detailed appreciation of Jesus’s first ‎days contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of his whole life.‎”
T. Desmond Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Union Theological College, Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK

Introduction: Separating Fact from Fiction

Part 1: Virgin-Born Messiah

  1. The Long-Awaited Messiah: Son of Abraham, Son of David
  2. God with Us, Born of a Virgin
  3. Conflict between Two Kings and Two Kingdoms
  4. Exile, Holocaust, and Nazareth: Prophecies Fulfilled

Part 2: Light of the Nations

  1. Two Miraculous Conceptions
  2. God at Work Again at Last! Deliverance for Israel
  3. Israel’s Restoration
  4. The Humble King Is Laid in a Manger
  5. The First Witnesses: Shepherds
  6. Light of Revelation for the Gentiles: Further Witnesses

Part 3: Incarnate Word

  1. Preexistence: The Word Was God
  2. Witness: A Man Named John
  3. Incarnation: The Word Became Flesh
  4. Culmination: The Law, Grace, and Truth
  5. The King’s Rejection and Return

Appendix: Messiah Is Coming! Second Temple Jewish Messianic Expectations
Advent Reading Plan

Download an excerpt.

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The 5 Distinguishing Marks of Evangelicalism

Nov 04, 2015 | Justin Taylor


From Garth Rosell’s excellent insider-history on the rebirth of evangelicalism in mid-twentieth century America, entitled The Surprising Work of God:

At the center is the cross . . .

Around the cross, and flowing out from the historical teachings associated with it, are four additional convictions that more any others have characterized the evangelical movement throughout its history:

(1) a shared authority (the Bible);

(2) a shared experience (conversion);

(3) a shared mission (worldwide evangelization); and

(4) a shared vision (the spiritual renewal of church and society).

Taken together, these five distinguishing marks have provided the theological and practical glue that has held the constantly shifting coalition called evangelicalism together for nearly three centuries through many toils and snares and across many social, geographical, and political boundaries. . . .

Rosell goes on to enumerate some key movements that influenced American evangelicalism’s self understanding:

Although American Evangelicalism, as an identifiable historical movement, was born in the revivals of the Great Awakening, its core values were a legacy from many centuries of Christian history.

From Continental Pietism, the powerful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century renewal movement led by Philip Jacob Spener and August Francke, evangelicals drew

  • a passion for missionary outreach,
  • a new emphasis on holy living, and
  • an active concern for one’s neighbor.

From Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians they learned

  • the centrality of Christian community,
  • the importance of missions, and
  • a passion for Christian unity.

From Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingi, John Calvin, and Menno Simons, they inherited

  • a love for the Bible,
  • a renewed understanding of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith,
  • a new boldness in reforming the church and preaching the Word, and
  • a fresh understanding of God’s majesty and sovereign power.

From the great martyr tradition of the Christian church they drew

  • an understanding of the enormous cost of discipleship and
  • the confidence that, by God’s grace, it was possible to endure suffering.

From contemporaries in the British Isles such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Howel Harris, America’s eighteenth-century evangelicals drew

  • a passion for righteousness,
  • a love for social justice,
  • some practical principles for making disciples, and
  • a fervent yearning for for genuine spiritual awakening.

From America’s African American congregations—what has often been called “the invisible church”—they came to learn

  • a love for the Bible,
  • a new power in preaching,
  • a fresh spontaneity in worship,
  • a renewed concern for the practical needs of the community, and
  • a willingness to take a stand against injustice.

All of these movements—and others that may be listed as well—helped shape and deepen American evangelicalism’s self understanding. Among its many predecessors, however, none left a deeper impact than the heritage of the English and American Puritans.

—Garth M. Rosell, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic [a division of Baker Publishing Group], 2008), 26-27, 28 [my emphasis and formatting]. Used by permission.

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The Writings of C.S. Lewis Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before

Nov 04, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The internet is remarkable.

I recently came across a YouTube account I’d never heard of: C.S. Lewis Doodle. I don’t know who is behind it. But I simply cannot fathom the amount of time, creativity, and skill it takes to pull something like this off. It is a wonderful gift—and it’s free.

The Doodler (we’ll call him) essentially takes Lewis’s writings, adds audio, and then creates a sort of running visual commentary on them. Some people would dismiss such doodling (or even graphic novels) as too low of an art form, but to do something at this pace requires a very deep understanding of the subject matter.

And the research behind the doodling is significant. Note his comment on his doodles for The Abolition of Man:

In order to help you understand the meaning of the quotes, I have hunted down all of Lewis’ quotations and allusions including the notorious ‘Green Book’ itself. I have collated the original quotes, in their original context, and provided them as endnotes to a PDF document as a study aid.

Below are the introductory chapters to The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man and one of the BBC talks that became a part of Mere Christianity:



You can watch the rest of the videos here.

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Can You Summarize the Entire Storyline of the Bible in a Single Sentence?

Nov 04, 2015 | Justin Taylor

No problem, says G.K. Beale, the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary:

The OT storyline appears best to be summarized as:

the historical story of God

who progressively reestablishes his new creational kingdom

out of chaos

over a sinful people

by his word and Spirit


  • promise,
  • covenant, and
  • redemption,

resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to extend that new creation rule and

resulting in judgment for the unfaithful (defeat and exile),

all of which issues into his glory;

the NT storyline can be summarized as:

Jesus’ life of covenantal

  • obedience,
  • trials,
  • judgmental death for sinners, and
  • especially resurrection by the Spirit

has launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-and-not-yet promised new creation reign,

bestowed by grace through faith and

resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to extend this new creation rule and

resulting in judgment for the unfaithful,

unto God’s glory.

For other (shorter!) attempts, go here.

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“J. I. Packer in His Own Words”: A 20-Minute Documentary

Nov 03, 2015 | Justin Taylor


It has been an honor for Crossway to publish Leland Ryken’s new biography, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, and Sam Storms’s study, Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit

We have also had the opportunity to publish several of his most recent books, including:

Who is J. I. Packer?

He once described himself as “English by birth, Canadian by choice, Christian by conversion, and Calvinist by conviction, I speak as an evangelical who finds his home in the worldwide Anglican church family.”

Sam Storms describes Packer as a  Puritan, theological exegete, and latter-day catechist—based on the following self-designations from Packer:

I would ask you to think of me as a Puritan: by which I mean, think of me as one who, like those great seventeenth-century leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, seeks to combine in himself the roles of scholar, preacher, and pastor, and speaks to you out of that purpose.[1]

[My goal as a Christian theologian] is not adequately expressed by saying that I am to uphold an evangelical conservatism of generically Reformed or specifically Anglican or neo-Puritan or interdenominational pietist type, though I have been both applauded and booed on occasion for doing all these things, and I hope under God to continue to do them. But if I know myself I am first and foremost a theological exegete.[2]

[I am] a latter-day catechist—not, indeed, a children’s catechist (I am not good with children), but what may be called an adult or higher catechist, one who builds on what children are supposed to be taught in order to spell out at adult level the truths we must live by and how we are to live by them.[3]

My colleagues Jon Marshall and Josh Dennis have filmed a beautiful documentary of this gracious and Christocentric octogenarian, allowing a fascinating father in the faith to speak in his own words:

Note in particular Dr. Packer’s moving closing words, when asked how he would like to be remembered:

As I look back on the life that I have lived, I would like to be remembered as a voice, a voice that focused on

  • the authority of the Bible,
  • the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,
  • the wonder of his substitutionary sacrifice and atonement for our sins.

I would like to be remembered as a voice calling Christian people to holiness and challenging lapses in Christian moral standards.

I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise.

I ask you to thank God with me for the way that he has led me and I wish, hope, pray that you will enjoy the same clear leading from him and the same help in doing the tasks that he sets you that I have enjoyed.

And if your joy matches my joy as we continue in our Christian lives, well, you will be blessed indeed.

[1] J. I. Packer, “Inerrancy and the Divinity and Humanity of the Bible,” in Honouring the Written Word of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer, Volume 3, 162 (emphasis added).

[2] J. I. Packer, “In Quest of Canonical Interpretation,” in Honouring the Written Word of God, 223 (emphasis mine).

[3] J. I. Packer, “Reflection and Response,” in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future, 174 (emphasis mine).

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Gerald Bray’s “Augustine on the Christian Life”

Nov 02, 2015 | Justin Taylor

9781433544941Gerald Bray’s brilliant entry in the Theologians on the Christians Life series—Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God—is now available.

Bray writes in the introduction:

In this book, every effort is made to let Augustine speak for himself and to understand him on his own terms, however uncongenial they may seem to many people today. Sympathy for him grows out of understanding, and that understanding can only come with listening to his voice and putting ourselves, as much as we can, into his shoes.

The selections from his writings that have been quoted here have been freshly translated into contemporary (and as much as possible, colloquial) English, because Augustine himself used the spoken word to teach his congregation at Hippo and put effective communication with them ahead of any literary pretensions.

I hope that readers who are approaching him for the first time will be encouraged to go further and learn more about this fascinating man, while those who are already familiar with him may be challenged to see him in a new light.

Above all, I devoutly desire that all who come to Augustine may be led through him to a deeper understanding and closer relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, to whom he was drawn and in whose service he spent the greater part of his life. It is for that above all that we remember him today, and it is only in the light of Christ that his career and his writings can be understood as he meant them to be.

Here’s what others are saying about Bray’s work:

“Gerald Bray accomplishes an improbable task with this remarkable book on Augustine’s view of the Christian life. Bray surveys the voluminous and brilliant contributions from the bishop of Hippo and presents them in a readable and understandable manner. In doing so, he provides us with an edifying, informative, and helpful resource for students, historians, theologians, and church leaders alike. It is a joyful privilege to recommend this excellent addition to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series.”
—David S. Dockery, President, Trinity International University

“Gerald Bray gives us a richly informative and richly edifying introduction to Augustine and his teaching on the Christian life. It will enable those who have read very little of Augustine, as well as those much more familiar with him, to see Augustine as he would have wanted to be seen: a sinner saved by grace seeking to teach faithfully what he found in the Scriptures. Augustine’s specific devotional teaching is placed in the context of his mammoth contribution to Christian theology and Western civilization more generally. The accessibility of this introduction belies the depth of scholarship, which becomes evident in the footnotes and bibliography. Here is a sure-footed guide to the thinking of one of the greatest minds in the history of the Christian church.”
—Mark D. Thompson, Principal, Moore Theological College

“Augustine told us that only God can be enjoyed for his own sake; all others must be considered as they relate to God. How fitting that Gerald Bray leads us to consider Augustine not for his own sake, but as a gateway to a vision of the one true God and the life lived more deeply in his triune presence. With a teacher’s wisdom and a scholar’s facility with the primary texts, Bray helps guide readers more deeply into the Christian life through the great bishop’s interaction with a host of challenges—real, cruel threats to Christian faithfulness—ranging from the Manichaeans to the Donatists and the Pelagians. Take up and read, and let Bray take you to school.”
—Michael Allen, Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Table of Contents

  1. The Life and Times of Augustine
  2. Augustine the Believer
  3. Augustine the Teacher
  4. Augustine the Pastor
  5. Augustine Today

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Photo image credit: Tony Reinke

Here are the books published so far in Crossways’ Theologians on the Christian Life series:

And here are the forthcoming volumes:

  • Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life
  • Jason Meyer, Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life
  • Joe Rigney, C. S. Lewis on the Christian Life
  • Derek Thomas, Bunyan on the Christian Life
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498 Years Ago Today: An Interview with Carl Trueman on Luther and His 95 Theses

Oct 31, 2015 | Justin Taylor

On October 31, 1517—a Saturday—a 33-year-old former monk turned theology professor at the University of Wittenberg walked over to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion, making the first order of business the proposition that all of life should be marked by repentance. Little did he know that this call for an disputation on repentance would eventually change the course of history through a reformation of the church and the culture.

Below is an interview with Carl Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015)—with a foreword by renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb and an afterword by America’s most famous Lutheran historian Martin Marty—is an indispensable resource on appropriating Luther for today.

The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.

The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.

A 1522 printed copy of Luther's 95 theses.

A 1522 printed copy of Luther’s 95 theses.

Had Luther ever done this before—nail a set of theses to the Wittenberg door? If so, did previous attempts have any impact?

I am not sure if he had ever nailed up theses before, but he had certainly proposed sets of such for academic debate, which was all he was really doing on October 31, 1517. In fact, in September of that same year, he had led a debate on scholastic theology where he said far more radical things than were in the Ninety-Five Theses. Ironically, this earlier debate, now often considered the first major public adumbration of his later theology, caused no real stir in the church at all.

The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors---made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form---were installed in 1858.

The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors—made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form—were installed in 1858.

What was the point of nailing something to the Wittenberg door? Was this a common practice?

It was simply a convenient public place to advertise a debate, and not an unusual or uncommon practice. In itself, it was no more radical than putting up an announcement on a public notice board.

What precisely is a “thesis” in this context?

A thesis is simply a statement being brought forward for debate.

Luther was bothered by the use of “indulgences.” What was that?

An indulgence was a piece of paper, a certificate, which guaranteed the purchaser (or the person for whom the indulgence was purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the financial transaction.

A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.

A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.

At this point did Luther have a problem with indulgences per se, or was he merely critiquing the abuse of indulgences?

This is actually quite a complicated question to answer.

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.

First, Luther was definitely critiquing what he believes to be an abuse of indulgences. For him, an indulgence could have a positive function; the problem with those being sold by Johann Tetzel in 1517 is that remission of sin’s penalty has been radically separated from the actual repentance and humility of the individual receiving the same.

Second, it would appear that the Church herself was not clear on where the boundaries were relative to indulgences, and so Luther’s protest actually provoked the Church into having to reflect upon her practices, to establish what was and was not legitimate practice.

Was Luther trying to start a major debate by nailing these to the door?

The matter was certainly one of pressing pastoral concern for him. Tetzel was not actually allowed to sell his indulgences in Electoral Saxony (the territory where Wittenberg was located) because Frederick the Wise, Luther’s later protector, had his own trade in relics. Many of his parishioners, however, were crossing over into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony, where Tetzel was plying his trade.

Luther had been concerned about the matter of indulgences for some time. Thus, earlier in 1517, he had preached on the matter and consulted others for their opinions on the issue. By October, he was forced by the pastoral situation to act.

Having said all that, Luther was certainly not intending to split the church at this point or precipitate the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy into conflict and crisis. He was simply trying to address a deep pastoral concern.

An engraving from 1520 by Luther's friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.

An engraving from 1520 by Luther’s friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.

Was Luther a “Protestant” at this point? Was he a “Lutheran”?

No, on both counts.

He himself tells us in 1545 that, in 1517, he was a committed Catholic who would have murdered—or at least been willing to see murder committed—in the name of the Pope. There is some typical Luther hyperbole there, but the theology of the Ninety-Five Theses is not particularly radical, and key Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by grace through faith alone, are not yet present. He was an angry Catholic, hoping that, when the Pope heard about Teztel, he would intervene to stop the abuse.

So how did that act of nailing these theses to the door ignite the Reformation?

On one level, I am inclined to say “Goodness only knows.” As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements. Nevertheless, it seems to have struck a popular chord, being rapidly translated into German and becoming a bestseller within weeks. The easy answer is, therefore, “By the providence of God”; but, as a historian, I always like to try to tie things down to some set of secondary or more material causes.

The time was right for some kind of protest: anticlericalism, economic strain on all classes of society, and a growing resentment of tax money flowing south to Italy all helped to create an environment in which various groups—peasants, knights, nobility, intellectuals—all saw in Luther’s protest something with which they could sympathize. Yet, even so, the revolutionary power of such a technical composition is, in retrospect, still quite surprising.

So what happened after he nailed the theses to the church door?

Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

As to what happened next, well, the debate (ironically) did not.  But the theses were translated into German and within weeks were circulating throughout Saxony. They became a popular rallying point of protest, despite the fact that most of the readers would not really have understood them.

Procedurally, Albrecht of Mainz, the bishop responsible for this specific indulgence sale, sent an official complaint to Rome but, in an era of slow communication, this took time to arrive.  This bought Luther precious months to continue to develop his theology.  The next big event is really the Heidelberg Disputation which took place at a regular chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order in April 1518.  It was there that Luther was really able to put his emerging theology on public display.

How important was the printing press in spreading Luther’s reforms?

The printing press is crucial. For the first time in history, news and ideas can be transmitted in a stable form across vast areas of land and throughout populations.

A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.

A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.

Of course, most people could not read. But Reformation pamphlets often had graphic (sometimes even pornographic) woodcuts which communicated even to the illiterate who were the good guys and who were the bad.  Thus, we have the possibility of mass movements and of the arrival of “popular opinion.”

Cheap print also fueled the rise of literacy, which was to be vital in the spread and establishment of Protestantism in the long term.

For those today who want to read the 95 Theses, what would you recommend?

The place to start is probably Stephen Nichols’s edition (with an introduction and notes).

Nevertheless, if you really want to understand Luther’s theology, and why it is important, you will need to look beyond the Ninety-Five Theses. Probably the best place to start would be Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church.

* * *

The following clip is from the movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes (2003):

And here is Dr. Trueman talking about his book:

*The painting at the beginning of this post is by Greg Copeland (courtesty of Concordia Publishing House) and can be found in Paul Maier’s excellent book for older kids, Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World.

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An FAQ on Mysticism and the Christian Life

Oct 30, 2015 | Justin Taylor

"The Appearance of the Holy Spirit before Saint Teresa of Ávila," painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1614)

“The Appearance of the Holy Spirit before Saint Teresa of Ávila,” painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1614)


Why is mysticism so hard to define?

Mysticism is a notoriously vague and complex word. One can make it so specific so as to exclude those throughout history who would self-identify as mystics. On the other hand, one can define it so vaguely that virtually nothing is excluded. Scholars have long recognized the challenge of providing provide one umbrella explanation that sufficiently covers at least two millennia of practice. As Evan B. Howard notes, there is no one single definition that covers all of the sufficient and necessary conditions of mysticisms, and no terminological consensus exists among scholars. This does not mean, however, that nothing useful may be said.

Is there a good working definition?

Philosopher Winfried Corduan provides a very general definition that encompasses a wide variety of mystical understandings. Mysticism, he writes, seeks:

an immediate link with the Absolute.

Corduan notes that presupposed in such an understanding is that

  • such an Absolute exists,
  • the Absolute is distinct from the phenomenal word,
  • a connection with the Absolute is possible, and
  • the connection between the seeker and the Absolute can be direct and unmediated.

This definition would apply to Christian mystics as well as to Eastern religions (such as Hinduism) that have a strong mystical strain.

What is Christian mysticism?

D. D. Martin offers a good working definition of the key elements involved in such practice:

Christian mysticism seeks to describe an experienced, direct, nonabstract, unmediated, loving knowledge of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.

Each aspect of this definition is crucial, which can be shown by pointing out what Christian Mysticism is refuting or reacting against.

First, the encounter with the divine Absolute is experiential, not merely notional. The goal is participation with God, not merely acquiring additional knowledge about him.

Second, the encounter is direct, not indirect. The goal is not to merely to know more about God, but to know God himself.

Third, the knowledge sought is nonabstract: to learn or see something that is not vague or symbolic but something particular, concrete, and real.

Fourth, the encounter or knowledge is to be unmediated. Yes, Scripture and Christ may play a role, but the point is to be united to God himself with no intermediaries—no distance and no distractions.

Finally, the goal of all of this knowledge is love. When the Apostle Paul wrote about knowing fully, even as he has been fully known, it was in the context of the enduring eternality and priority of love (1 Cor 13:12).

What are some historical examples of Christian mysticism?

Because of the terminological vagueness associated with Christian Mysticism, a wide variety of historical precedents may be seen throughout church history.

Origen introduced the notion of “mystical interpretation” by seeking to uncover the hermeneutical principles of spiritual interpretation. Paul had written that “the mystery” (Gk. mysterion) was made known to him by “revelation,” and Origen wanted to recover these deeper or hidden meanings, which were distinct from the literal or plain meanings.

Maximus the Confessor later developed a “mystical theology,” with a stress upon the process whereby a Christian comes to participate or join in the fellowship of the life of the Triune God.

So depending upon how they define their terms, figures like Augustine and Aquinas, Wesley and Edwards, have all been categorized as holding to some form of mystical theology and practicing some form of mystical experience. But including these figures likely expands the term so far that very few would be excluded. On the best definitions of mysticism (see D. D. Martin above), key mystics—or advocates of mystical theology and experience—would include figures from the fourth to eighteenth centuries such as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, John Ruysboreck, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Francois de Sales, Madame Guyon, Francois Felenon, George Fox (founder of the Quakers, or Friends), John Woolman, and the Schwenkfelders (a radical Puritan sect founded in the 1730s).

Some key advocates in the twentieth century would include Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Richard Foster—the latter of which has done more than perhaps any other contemporary author to introduce and commend the attractiveness of mysticism to evangelicals. There are other examples, like A. W. Tozer, who practiced a form of Protestant mysticism, though in more restrained manner than his Catholic and Quaker counterparts.

What is the mystical way?

This was developed by the most radical of the Mystics: the sixteenth-century writers Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle) and St. John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul).

A lot of times you’ll read that their “mystical way” is a three-fold path to uniting with the divine:

  • awakening,
  • purgation, and
  • illumination.

But this is incomplete. That’s only the first part of the mystical way—the path that many achieve, but which is ultimately insufficient if one is seeking true union with God. To arrive at this rarefied destination, one must go through the further state of the dark night of the soul.

What are all the various stages or states the mystic can go through?

First, the mystic experiences an awakening. Psychologically, this is akin to a conversion. He or she comes alive, sensing and seeing (as if for the first time) the attractiveness and reality of Divine Reality. This is not an action per se but an increased awareness, which often arrives suddenly with overwhelming joy and anticipation.

Second, the mystic is met with the contradiction in his life between this awakened or heightened spiritual consciousness combined with his own attachment to material things (earthly things, the things that are below; cf. Col. 3:2b) and his own desires that work against the desires for Divine Reality. These elements of attachment must be purged through self-discipline and mortification (the misdeeds of the flesh must be put to death; cf. Rom. 8:13b).

Third, this leads to the transcendent state of joy whereby the mystic’s soul is illuminated. He or she has been awakened and their sinful desires have been purged, so now they are able to see divine reality in a new light. This is the step of the mystical ladder most often associated with visions, reports of ecstasy, and ineffable delight. But this is where most mystics stop.

Fourth, those who have mastered the previous steps come to realize that even the joys of illumination are bound up with self, and a further purging or emptying must take place. Whereas many popular-level interpreters associate the dark night of the soul with a period of seeming absence from God or a struggle with spiritual depression, in reality John was identifying here a deep and dark experience where even the joy of being in the presence of God must be mortified and purged as being bound up the ego. In his conception, the person must die not only to the sinful self (step 2), but also to self altogether.

Then, and only then, fifth, will the mystic experience a true and indescribable transformative encounter and participation with the absolute, as the self is absorbed into the Divine through the final process of union where the two become one.

The five steps of this ascent of the soul could be schematized as follows, where the awakening is a perquisite for the purgation and illumination, and where the dark night of the soul and the union are further corresponding elements of removal and renunciation followed by the ineffable presence of God:

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Biblical spirituality can be defined as the grace-motivated, fruit-bearing pursuit of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in accordance with his own self-revelation. Eternal life is life with this God, and this life only comes through the mediatorial work of the incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning Son, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Likewise, his “Helper,” the “Spirit of truth,” bears witness to the Christ (John 15:26) and teaches and reminds us all that the Son taught on earth (John 14:26)How would you define the biblical vision of spirituality?

What are the goals of biblical spirituality?

The goal of biblical spirituality is the goal of the Christian life: to glorify this triune God by enjoying fellowship with and knowledge of God through godly conformity to his image and character. Each aspect of this goal is elucidated for us in God’s Word. We are to do everything—even the routine and mundane things like eating and drinking—“for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We do this because there is “surpassing worth” in knowing our Lord and our Savior (Phil. 3:8, 10). The whole point of Christ’s work on the cross was so that “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). God’s will for us is our “sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3), and that means that we must “train [ourselves] for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). As we do, we are working in according with God’s predestined plan that we will ultimately be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).

What are the means of biblical spirituality?

Toward this end, we are to engage in spiritual practices, means of grace, which are divine gifts that we are to be actively engaged in as we pursue fellowship with God for the glory of God in conformity with the image and character of God. These means are both personal (like prayer in our prayer closets) and corporate (like prayer in our congregations), and involve activities that are done only once (like baptism), that are done regularly (like the Lord’s Supper), and that are to be in some ways practiced continually (like prayerful meditation; cf. 1 Thess. 5:17; Josh. 1:8).

How do we know if a spirituality is truly “biblical”?

Essential to the practice of biblical spirituality is that the practices and theology behind them must be genuinely biblical. This observation creates an immediate conundrum, however, for all theologies and practices that claim the name of Christ also claim the mantel of biblical sanction. But there is a difference between practices that arise from the very text of Scripture and those that are not ostensibly permitted by it. The Apostle Paul commands us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), and the ultimate test is the clear, authoritative, sufficiency, and necessary word of God. Jesus prayed to his Father that we might be sanctified in the truth, adding in his prayer to the Father that “your word is truth” (John 17:7). Jesus indicated the indispensability of the Word when he quoted Deuteronomy to the effect that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The author of the book of Hebrews highlights the active essential role of Scripture in forming our spiritual lives and combating sin: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged word, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:13).

What is required of a person to practice biblical spirituality?

What I’ve said so far could leave a false impression if the practice of spiritual disciplines and the training for godliness are divorced from the very shape or structure of the Christian life, for according to the Bible, the very act of “spiritual” activity can only be done by those who have the Spirit. In the New Covenant there is a profound demarcation between those who have been “born again” and those who have not (cf. John 3:3ff). “The natural person,” according to Paul, does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” whereas the “spiritual person” has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16). But in the New Covenant, all begin in the same position, having fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), such that there is not even one that is righteous (Rom. 3:10ff). Because of the sin and death that came through the one man Adam (Rom. 5:12ff), we are all in need of divine grace, and all in need of the covenant righteousness achieved by a new and perfect high priest and covenant representative. In the great exchange Christ takes upon himself our unrighteousness and graciously gives to us his own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). We receive this note by works or physical inheritance or national identity but by grace through faith (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8-9). Then, having been fully accepted and adopted as God’s own and filled with his presence, we are to walk in the works he has eternally ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). In union with the crucified and risen Christ, we become what we are, being actually transformed into the legal reality we have as justified saints (Rom. 6:1-11), such that sin becomes an unthinkable and contradictory reality in our lives (Rom. 6:12-23). This sanctifying work continues and culminates in our glorification, such that when he appears on that final day, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

What are some similarities between Christian mysticism and biblical spirituality?

For those who find Christian Mysticism deficient, it would be tempting to identify only the ways in which it falls short. But we must reckon with the fact that very few distortions of truth are complete distortions. If they were, no genuine Christian would find attractive elements to them. There are several positive elements of overlap between Christian Mysticism and the biblical witness.

First, Christian Mystics are committed theologically to Trinitarianism. In an age where Christian sects (such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses) seek to revive forms of Arianism and polytheism, it is important for us to recognize the salutary commitment of those in the Catholic, Quaker, and Orthodox traditions who maintain a belief in the Triune God, with a ruling and sending Father, a redemption-accomplishing Son, and a redemption-applying Spirit.

Second, Christian Mystics understand that God is both transcendent and immanent. Though we may critique the balance in their theology, they believe that God has authority over all things as the transcendent Lord and that he is covenantally present with his people. Both poles of the divine life must be present in their theology for the presupposition to make sense that they can seek an intimate encounter with and union with a loving and ineffable God.

Third, the Christian Mystic recognizes that seeing God is the summa bonum, the highest good. All of us long for the day when we shall see God as he is (1 John 3:2), when we shall see him face to face rather than in a mirror dimly, to know him fully rather to partly, to know him even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). The Christian Mystic is not content to wait for this in the future but commendably desires to experience the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19) and the eternal depth and duration joy of his presence now (Ps. 16:11). The Christian Mystic rightly desires to experience union with God and to become a “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). No one can fault him for relentlessly pursuing the great good in all the earth.

Fourth, the Christian Mystic understands the necessity of personal and private encounters with God as an essential aspect of the Christian life. Even though their understanding and practice of this is subject to criticism (see below) we can charitably recognize that they take Jesus’s command seriously to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” and they believe the resulting promise: “your Father who is in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6).

Fifth, the Christian Mystic understands the great emphasis upon the heart. It is possible for us to have notitia (knowledge) and assensus (assent) without fiducia (trust). We may have great thoughts of God and believe great things about him, but if we still we be spiritually deficient unless and until we move toward him in whole-souled trust—seeking to love him with every aspect of our being, with all of our mind, soul, strength, and heart.

Sixth, related to the above, the Christian Mystic understands that an encounter with God has mysterious elements to it that defy rational analysis or categorization. He delights in that which cannot be fully comprehended, marveling at God’s “unsearchable riches” (Eph. 3:8) and God’s love that “surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19) and God’s ways that are “inscrutable” (Rom. 11:33). The Christian Mystic rejoices that no one can fully know the mind of the Lord (Rom. 11:34).

Finally, the Christian Mystic understands that an encounter with God cannot be self-generated. There is nothing automatic about a link, union, or participation with God. There is effort and labor involved. The Christian Mystic, even if he or she is deficient in his application, rightly sees that they must first be awakened to divine reality. They see that they must put to death or mortify all that is contrary to God and his will. They seek the joy of illumination, all for the end that they might know and be with God—even at great sacrifice to their own time, talent, and treasure.

Considered in this light, there are many commendable aspects of Christian Mysticism, especially at the aspirational level. Unfortunately, there are also serious deficiencies in practice and theology that mean Christian Mystics fall short of the biblical picture of spirituality.

What are some differences between Christian mysticism and biblical spirituality?

First, Christian Mystics tend to have an optimistic understanding of human nature. As noted above, they do not believe that mystical experiences can be self-generated, and hence it would be incorrect to label them Pelagian. But it would not be inappropriate to suggest that many of them were semi-Pelagian, or at least practiced spirituality in such a way that would lead one to this conclusion. For some, this is more explicit than for others (note George Fox’s notion that all of us are born with a divine “spark”). If all of us have a principle of grace or a ray of divine light residing within us, no matter our eternal spiritual condition, it follows that the ultimate difference between those who progress toward illumination and on to union are those with whom the human will has made a self-determination. The biblical view, to the contrary, is that all of us were “dead in the trespasses and sin in which you once walked . . . we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and of the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul proceeds immediately to reveal the difference between those who remain in this state and those who change: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:1-7).

Second, there is another deficient element to the Christian Mystic’s anthropology: he does not fully recognize the healthy and holistic way in which God has created us. The Christian mystic tends to rend asunder what God has joined: doctrine and devotion, head and heart. Because the mystical experience is not open to falsification, external examination, or even rational analysis, the role of the “heart” must be elevated above the “mind.” In fact, part of the purgation process is to rid oneself of one’s thoughts that could supplying distracting data that would prevent a divine encounter. Whereas the biblical model is to fill our hearts and mind with the great and precious promises of God (2 Pet. 1:4)—meditating on his Word day and night (Josh. 1:8), such that it is compared to our daily, sustaining bread (Matt. 4:4)—the Christian Mystic seeks to not only purge himself of all that is sinful and encumbering (stage 2) but ultimately wants to purge himself of even his delights in the character and presence of God (stage 4). This is deeply and manifestly unbiblical.

Third, despite what they might profess, the Christian Mystic’s actions tend to undermine the necessity of grace. Biblically, there is grace to forgive and there is grace to empower. We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8-9), and yet Paul also regularly imparts a benediction of “grace and peace” to his readers. Paul is livid with the false teaching in Galatia that suggests that we start with grace and then move on to works as the means of spiritual sustenance, incredulously asking, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). The Christian Mystic often gives the impression that God might begin the process but it is up to us to find the right formula or set of rules to experience a deep and mystical encounter with him. Whereas the Christian Mystic is content to speak about the ascent and descent of the human soul in its question for a divine encounter, God tells us in his word that we are not to say in our hearts, “‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). Rather, it says: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:6-10).

Fourth, the previous point flow is bound up with  the Christian Mystics’ downplaying of the legal and forensic aspects of divine salvation. The work of Christ on the cross not only wipes our slates clean, but it also provides us with full, legal righteousness in the sight of God. We are not merely put back into the pre-probationary garden, where Adam was sinless but with the potential to fall; rather, we are united to Christ and adopted as his young brothers and as sons of the Most High. Everything he has, we have. Our salvation is secure not because of our works but because of his work. The Christian Mystic seems to view Christ mainly as our example, with the danger of Christ as our savior at times downplayed—and usually with Christ as substitute almost completely obscured. Only in so far as we realize that we are possessed by Christ and fully accepted by our Father can we be freed to walk with him in love, without servile fear. In so doing, our relationship to God is more like living with a loving Father whom we aim to please than it is like working for a boss whom it is difficult to visit with and where one’s job is always on the line.

Fifth, the Christian Mystic confuses the biblical order of union with Christ and communion with God. All who are spiritual—that is, all who are born again and made alive with God—are united with him. There are not some Christians who are united and some who are not. It is part of a package deal. With the legal and relational reality of union with Christ, we have communion—fellowship, participation—with the triune God. Whereas our union with Christ is immovable and secure, our communion with God can have ups and downs. There can be moments of greater and lesser closeness and relationship as we repent and return to the Lord again and again. The Christian Mystic conflates these two aspects of the divine-human relationship because he has such a small category for the forensic reality, and thus he is—in a sense—seeking that which he could already obtain from a childlike trust in his substitute and savior, and runs the serious risk of perpetuating self-righteousness in seeking to work for that which could be his as a gift. Another way of describing this is that the Christian Mystic has an under-realized soteriology.

Sixth, combined with the Christian Mystic’s under-realized soteriology, there is an over-realized eschatology. As mentioned above, we are united to Christ and seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:7). Those in Christ have already died and our life is “hidden with Christ in God.” What the Christian Mystic seems to fail to recognize is that when Christ returns, the—and only then—will we “appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). The Christian Mystic is seeking for something good—to be in the full and final presence of God without sin or stain and to be ultimately absorbed into the life of the Trinity—but he is seeking it at the wrong time. Our focus should be on communing with God through the means of grace, through individual discipline and corporate worship, seeking to know him more and more as we love God with all that we are and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Seventh, the Christian Mystic makes a fundamental misstep in seeking to have a direct and immediate experience of God that is unmediated. At first glance, this desire can be seen as commendable. Should we not want to experience the presence of the Lord apart from any barriers or intermediaries or encumbrances? The biblical answer is that we should want to experience God in the way that he has ordained. First, we return once again to the issue of the work of Christ, who was sent by the Father to have a mediatorial role. He did not come as only a teacher or as a great example, but as our substitute savior, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The only way to the Father is through him (John 14:6), and the Spirit and the Son combine to intercede for us before the Father and interpret our inarticulate prayers (cf. Rom. 8:27). Secondly, returning to the idea of an over-realized eschatology, we must recognized that on this side of the new heavens and the new earth, God “has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2), and we have access to his Son through his written Word. So the Word of God must be an irreducibly central role in both our communication to, and our communication from, the living God. To seek to separate God from his word, and Christ from his work, are unthinkable unrealities. And to bypass both of these mediatorial aspects of divine communication is a grave mistake that opens the door to that which contradicts the word of God.

Eighth, though not all Christian Mystics have the exact same presuppositions regarding the corporate nature of fellowship, there is a troubling tendency in the tradition to practice spiritual isolationism. We noted earlier in this essay that the Christian Mystic rightly obeys Jesus’s command that there are times when we must get alone in our prayer closets to pray in secret to our Father who is in secret. But the Christian Mystic sees the height of spiritual achievement as involved the mystical process of purging all distractions and individually seeking a communion with God. Even many Mystics who have sought to live in community have done so in a way that is isolated from society at large. What seems to be a noble quest for God, involving a renunciation of earthly pleasures (from marital love to clothing that does not scratch) is not held forth in the Bible as the ideal of godliness. We are to be eager to gather with the saints in order to stir one another up to love and good works, to encourage and meet with one another instead of neglecting each other. The idea of full-time Christians withdrawing from society and banding together may seem more spiritual, but it is not biblical. Spiritual growth takes place not only in the prayer closet, but in corporate worship as the people of God gather together to hear the Word of God read, and the Word of God proclaimed, and the Word of God sung.

Ninth, the Christian Mystic may be critiqued for having an incipient Gnosticism in his theology and practice. While biblical spirituality would certainly encourage every professing believer to purge himself of sinful thoughts and behavior, the Christian Mystic tends to go beyond this. The body, and the things of this world, are frequently regarded as competitors with God rather than gifts from God to be utilized and enjoyed. When Paul tells us to “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), he does not have in mind a fundamental spiritual-material duality. This is seen by his explanation of those earthly things we must shun just a few verses later: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . .anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (vv. 5, 8). These are contrasted with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12). The Christian Mystic must seriously reckon with Paul’s association of deceitful spirits and demonic teaching with the forbidding of things like marriage and foods under the guise of godliness (1 Tim. 4:1). Instead, Paul says, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). If the Christian Mystic insists that some of God’s created goods must be purged, and that even his enjoyment of God’s very presence must be put away in the dark night of the soul in order to achieve union with God, then he is walking in contradiction to the very way and will of God.

Finally, although this has been touched on before in various ways, we may note again the crucial place that Scripture should play in our understanding of and practice of biblical spirituality. A bedrock principle of spirituality that is biblical is that Scripture itself plays an essential, norming role. God has spoken, and he is not silent (to use Francis Schaeffer’s memorable terminology). His word is clear, not obscure. His word is authoritative, not just advisory. His word is necessary, not optional. And his word is sufficient, not just helpful. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). At the end of the day, this is one of the clearest contrasts between Christian Mysticism and biblical spirituality. In the former, spiritual quests are made that are not informed and constrained by God’s self-revelation in holy Scripture. If we want our spirituality to be biblical, Scripture must be our norming norm.

For some further definitions of and interactions with Christian Mysticism that have informed my perspective, see:

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19 Turning Points in the History of Philosophy and Theology

Oct 29, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The following is adapted from John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P&R, 2015).

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Jesus is crucified and resurrected. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ establishes the truth of the Christian worldview and fulfills the history in which redemption from sin and death forms the core of the Christian gospel.


Justin, of the first generation of Christian philosophers and apologists, dies as a martyr to his faith.


Roman Emperor Constantine issues the Edict of Milan, which ends empire-wide persecution of Christianity. In 325 he convened the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea, which affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ.


Augustine’s writings culminate the theological and philosophical achievement of the patristic era and mark the beginning of the medieval, in which the church takes over from the Roman Empire the dominant role in philosophy and the preservation of ancient thought.


Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae combines Platonic, Aristotelian, and biblical elements to form the classical medieval synthesis of faith and reason. Aquinas relegates the Greek form-matter scheme to the realm of natural knowledge, and then adds a higher level in which faith and revelation supplement reason.


Martin Luther attaches Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Philosophically, the Reformation renounces the autonomy of reason (including Aquinas’s “natural reason”) and seeks to govern its thought by God’s written Word


Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury enumerates fine points of natural religion in De Veritate, which marks the beginning of English deism and the liberal tradition in theology. The liberal tradition renounces biblical authority and seeks knowledge in ways that follow the autonomous pretensions of secular thought.


René Descartes’ Discourse on Method introduces a radically secular turn in philosophy, similar to the beginning of the discipline in 600 BC. As Thales set aside all tradition and religion to think by reason alone, so Descartes sets aside everything he considers doubtful, including Scripture and Christian tradition.


Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason creates a “Copernican revolution” in epistemology, in which the forms of experience are imposed on the world, not by God, but by the human mind. Thus Kant establishes human autonomy far more firmly as the fundamental authority for philosophy and theology. In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant draws out the theological implications of this change, transforming the Christian gospel into an autonomous ethic. In Kant, the human mind essentially replaces God.


Georg W. F. Hegel publishes his Phenomenology of the Spirit, which renews the rationalist tradition after Kant’s critique, but continues Kant’s program of identifying God with the human mind.


Karl Marx publishes his Communist Manifesto, which converts Hegel’s neo-rationalism into a political ideology. Marx calls the proletarian working class to unite in a revolution to overthrow the capitalist bourgeoisie in order to establish a classless society.

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Abraham Kuyper, in his inaugural address as a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, announces that there is not one square inch of territory over which Jesus Christ does not say, “Mine!” Kuyper’s work begins a new era, in which Christians no longer seek to validate their work by secular models, but rather to assert forcefully the distinctive worldview of the biblical revelation.


Albrecht Ritschl publishes The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, developing Kant’s moralism into a theological movement with great influence in the churches.


Karl Barth publishes The Epistle to the Romans, which fell “like a bombshell in the playground of the theologians” and proved the end of Ritschlianism. But in many ways, Barth’s work was another synthesis with secular thought.


Ludwig Wittgenstein publishes his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, launching the method of solving all philosophical disputes by examination of language. But at the end of the book, he recognizes that his project is self-refuting.


Martin Heidegger publishes Being and Time, which (with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and others) seeks to reconstitute philosophy on a consistently atheistic basis.


cornelius-van-til-e1327351072989Cornelius Van Til publishes The Defense of the Faith, which seeks to establish philosophy and Christian apologetics on a distinctively biblical epistemology.

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Alvin Plantinga publishes God and Other Minds, beginning a new era of professional acceptance for Christian philosophers.

The Last Judgment

Jesus Christ returns on the clouds with power and glory to judge the living and the dead, to vindicate his disciples, and to turn over his kingdom to his Father in the Holy Spirit. His appearance settles all arguments as to the truth of divine revelation and begins a new era of faithful human philosophic exploration.

Taken from The History of Western Philosophy and Theology by John M Frame (ISBN 978-1-62995-084-6), appendix pages 871-875, used with permission of P&R Publishing Co.  P O Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865

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3 Reasons Those Who Are Unbiblically Remarried After a Divorce Should Not Leave Their New Spouse

Oct 28, 2015 | Justin Taylor


The official catechism for the Roman Catholic Church forbids that Eucharistic communion be given to those who have divorced and remarried and are living in this second marriage as man and wife:

In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.

Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons:

They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.

The Catholic Synod of Bishops recently debated this issue, with liberal bishops arguing that exceptions to this rule should be made on a pastoral, case-by-case basis. The synod functions not as a decision-making body within the Church but rather provides the Pope with reflections and counsel through their deliberations and final report. While Pope Francis seems to be with the liberal bishops on this, it’s unclear to me (as an outside Protestant observer) that there will be any change to the Church’s doctrine or practice.

Evangelicals are divided on the question of what exceptions, if any, allow for divorce and then for remarriage. They tend to be united, however, against the Catholic view that a sinful remarriage should also be broken.

In his book This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 170-71, John Piper offers three reasons for this view. I’ve reprinted the relevant section below.


I do not think that a person who remarries against God’s will, and thus commits adultery in this way [Luke 16:18], should later break the second marriage. The marriage should not have been done, but now that it is done, it should not be undone by man. It is a real marriage. Real covenant vows have been made. And that real covenant of marriage may be purified by the blood of Jesus and set apart for God. In other words, I don’t think that a couple who repents and seeks God’s forgiveness and receives his cleansing should think of their lives as ongoing adultery, even though, in the eyes of Jesus, that’s how the relationship started. There are several reasons why I believe this.

1. Deuteronomy 24:4 speaks against going back to a first husband after marrying a second.

First, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the permission for divorce was given in the law of Moses, it speaks of the divorced woman being “defiled” in the second marriage so that it would be an abomination for her to return to her first husband, even if her second husband died. This language of defilement is similar to Jesus’ language of adultery. And yet the second marriage stood. It was defiling in some sense, yet it was valid.

2. Jesus seemed to regard multiple marriages as wrong but real.

Another reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that when Jesus met the woman of Samaria, he said to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). When Jesus says, “The one you have now is not your husband,” he seems to imply that the other five were. Not that it’s right to divorce and marry five times. But the way Jesus speaks of it sounds as though he saw them as real marriages. Illicit. Adulterous to enter into, but real. Valid.

3. Even vows that should not be made should generally be kept.

The third reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that even vows that should not be made, once they are made, should generally be kept. I don’t want to make that absolute for every conceivable situation, but there are passages in the Bible that speak of vows being made that should not have been made, but they were right to keep (like Joshua’s vow to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9). God puts a very high value on keeping our word, even when it gets us in trouble (“[The godly man] swears to his own hurt and does not change,” Ps. 15:4). In other words, it would have been more in keeping with God’s revealed will not to remarry, but adding the sin of another covenant-breaking does not please God more.

There are marriages in the church I serve that are second marriages for one or both partners, which, in my view, should not have happened, but are today godly marriages—marriages that are clean and holy, and in which forgiven, justified husbands and wives please God by the way they relate to each other. As forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-led followers of Jesus, they are not committing adultery in their marriages. These marriages began as they should not have but have become holy.

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Two Concerns with Thomas Merton’s Vision of the Christian Life

Oct 27, 2015 | Justin Taylor


Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an author, poet, activist, and Trappist monk. His spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountainnamed after the mount of purgatory in Dante’s The Divine Comedy (cf. 242)—was completed in 1946 at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. After being edited and redacted by his superiors, it was published in 1948 when Merton was 33 years old, quickly becoming the bestselling non-fiction book of the year and a spiritual classic.

This long and well-written memoir defies easy summation. The narrative is split almost exactly in the middle, narrating his journey prior to embracing Catholicism and after it.

The_Seven_Storey_Mountain,_by_Thomas_Merton,_book_coverI want to look briefly at two key points of this second half of the book regarding Merton’s vision of living the Christian life.

First, there is a strange quality—at least to these evangelical ears—to Merton’s conversion account. To be sure, it is clear that Merton is coming to the end of himself, tired of seeking satisfaction in the ways of the world. And it is clear that he has converted to Catholicism. What is less clear is whether he understands the objective work accomplished by Christ on his behalf. His overarching perspective—especially in conjunction with his sacramental understanding of Communion and baptism—is centered on incorporation and participation in the life of God, and recapitulation of the death and suffering of Christ, such that the forensic foundation of the work of Christ is so eclipsed as to be virtually invisible. Without this anchor, it is difficult to ground the Christian story in something more substantial and stable than mere “spirituality.” It cannot be entirely surprising, therefore, to learn that in the years following the publication of his memoir Merton grew increasingly attracted to Zen Buddhism as his monastic resentment grew.

Second, I believe that Merton had a defective understanding of God’s creational gifts and a misunderstanding of the call to bear our cross daily for Christ. He suggests that for a man to enter a religious Order and to serve in his vocation fruitfully, “it must cost him something, and must be a real sacrifice. It must be a cross, a true renunciation of natural goods, even of the highest natural goods” (319). It is true that Christ teaches self-denial and cross-bearing (Luke 9:23), but this is something required of all believers, not just a special few called to a set-apart life. It is not self-denial according to communal rules, but denial of worldly pleasures. It is not the rejection of natural goods, but the embracing of the Giver and all the good that he gives in Christ. The monastic version of the contemplative life embraced and advocated by Merton is difficult to square with Paul’s strong argument against asceticism in 1 Timothy 4:1-5. He speaks of the demonic deceit and conscience-seared insincerity of those

who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

At one point Merton says that he desires solitude, “to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowledge of them, for they remind me of my distance from You” (461). But the perspective of C. S. Lewis is much more biblically faithful:

Creation seems to be delegation through and through. [God] will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures. I suppose this is because He is a giver. And He has nothing to give but Himself. And to give Himself is to do His deeds—in a sense, and on varying levels to be Himself—through the things He has made. (my emphasis)

By failing to ground his understanding of the gospel in the forensic work of Christ on our behalf, and by downplaying the gifts of the Giver as a means of communing with him, Merton provides an unstable framework for living the Christian life as it is set forth in the Bible. There may be valuable things to glean from Merton’s story and prescriptions, but much of it is surely cautionary and should be read discerningly.

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What Is the Relationship between Christianity and Words?

Oct 27, 2015 | Justin Taylor

542826322_1f40d2a03d_zWe think, hear, speak, sing, write, and read words all day, every day. Our lives are loaded with words.

So what do words have to do with Christianity?

Almost everything.

At every stage in redemptive history—from the time before time, to God’s creation, to man’s fall, to Christ’s redemption, and to the coming consummation—“God is there and he is not silent” [Francis Schaeffer].

God’s words decisively create, confront, convict, correct, and comfort. By his words he both interprets and instructs.

If you wanted to construct a biblical theology of words, you could get pretty far in just the first few pages of your Bible.

God’s Original Words

The early chapters of Genesis are replete with God using words to create and order, name and interpret, bless and curse, instruct and warn.

God commands (“And God said, ‘Let there be . . . ‘”), and reality results (“and there was. . . .” “And it was so”).

God names (“God called . . . “), and things are publicly identified.

We learn later that it is “by the word of his power” that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, continually sustains and “upholds the universe” (Heb. 1:3).

Before God creates man, he first uses words to announce his intention (“Let us make . . . “). And once Adam and Eve are created, their first experience with God involves words, as he gives them the cultural mandate (Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion), explains their freedom (“You may . . . “), and warns them against disobeying his command (“You shall not . . . “).

Against God’s Words

When Satan slithers onto the scene as a crafty serpent, his first action is to speak, and his wicked words are designed to call into question the very words of God. The first step is to sow the seed of doubt (“Did God actually say . . . ?”). And the second step is the explicit accusation that the Creator was really a liar (“You will not surely die”).

When Adam and Eve rebel against the only restriction they were given, they express for the first time words that are so common for us today: fear (“I was afraid”), shame (“I hid myself”), and blame (that woman—whom you gave to be with me!).

God then interprets their new fallen world for them—and also gives the first words of the gospel, foretelling the time when he will send his Son to save his people and crush the head of his enemy. God uses words to tell of the coming Word made flesh (John 1).

The Words of the Word

When God’s Son eventually enters into human history as the God-man, he lives by God’s Word (Matt. 4:4), keeps God’s Word (John 8:55), and preaches God’s Word (Mark 2:2).

The Father gave Jesus words, Jesus gave them to his followers, and his followers received them (John 17:8).

Jesus’ words are inseparable from his person and thus can be identified as having divine attributes. [Jesus frequently refers to who he is and what he says as a package deal: “me and my words,” e.g., Mark 8:38; Luke 6:47; John 12:48; 14:24.] To be ashamed of Christ’s words is on the same level as being ashamed of Christ himself (Luke 9:26).

His words are eternal: unlike heaven and earth, Christ’s words will remain forever (Matt. 24:35).

They have power: Jesus could cast out spirits with “a word” (Matt. 8:16); he merely had to “say the word” and someone could be healed (Matt. 8:8).

Jesus’ words are “spirit and life,” “the words of eternal life” (John 6:63, 68).

Jesus’ words dwell or abide in those who are united to Christ and abiding in him (John 8:31; John 15:7;Col. 3:16).

Only those who hear and keep Jesus’ word receive blessing and eternal life (Luke 11:28; John 5:24; 8:47,52).

Those who heard him were “amazed at his words” (Mark 10:24), hanging on every word and marveling at his gracious speech (Luke 19:48; 4:22).

They recognized that his words possessed a unique authority (Luke 4:32).

Worldly Words

But Jesus critiqued those who used the words of their prayers to conceal the hypocrisy of their hearts, heaping up “empty phrases” and wanting to be “heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7).

He accused them of using their traditions to make “void the word of God” (Matt. 15:6).

His own words found no place in their hearts—some couldn’t bear to hear his words, and some heard his words but refused to keep them (John 8:37, 43; 14:24). In response, Jesus’ enemies “plotted how to entangle him in his talk” (Matt. 22:15).

Jesus warned that how one hears and responds to Jesus’ words reveals the ultimate dividing line within salvation history: on the day of judgment we will each give an account “for every careless word,” being either justified or condemned by our words (Matt. 12:36-37), for “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:18).

If you hear and practice Christ’s words, you are like a wise man building a house on a rock-solid foundation that can remain standing even during a torrential storm. But hearing Christ’s words and failing to do them is like building a house on sand, which will crumble to the ground in the midst of the storm (Matt. 7:24-26).

The Word of the Gospel

In the book of Acts and in the Epistles, the gospel message—

the good and glorious news that

“another true and obedient human being has come on our behalf,

that he has lived for us the kind of life we should live but can’t,

that he has paid fully the penalty we deserve for the life we do live but shouldn’t” [Graeme Goldsworthy],

with all of the personal and kingdom implications that that entails

—is referred to as “the Word.”

As you read God’s Word and consider the deep implications of the gospel for your life, you’ll begin to discern a pattern [with thanks to Tim Keller for this way of framing the issue]:

  1. God has holy standards for how we are to speak words and listen to words.
  2. This side of heaven we will never fully measure up to God’s holy standard regarding the use of our tongue.
  3. Jesus fulfilled what we (along with Adam, Israel, and every prophet, priest, and king) failed to do: his words were perfect words, without sin. By his punishment-bearing, substitutionary death, his words can become our words.
  4. Our day-by-day failure to use our tongue as we ought—for God’s glory and for the good of his people—comes from a functional rejection of Christ the Word.
  5. It is only as we look to Jesus, rejoicing in him and in his atoning provision, that we are freed to walk—and talk—in his way.

How Then Should We Speak?

If God is a God of words, and if Jesus and his gospel are inseparable, then how should we—those who seek to follow him—use our words?

The book of Proverbs is an excellent place to start, giving pithy statements about what godly and ungodly speech looks like. For a sampling, consider these contrasts [with thanks to Vern Poythress for the original chart]:

Proverb Godly Words Ungodly Words
10:32 The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable. The mouth of the wicked [knows] what is perverse.
12:18 The tongue of the wise brings healing. Rash words are like sword thrusts.
13:1 A wise son hears his father’s instruction. A scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
13:3 Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life. He who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.
13:10 With those who take advice is wisdom. By insolence comes nothing but strife.
13:18 Whoever heeds reproof is honored. Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction.
14:3 The lips of the wise will preserve them. By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back.
14:25 A truthful witness saves lives. One who breathes out lies is deceitful.
15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath. A harsh word stirs up anger.


Some Pauline Questions to Ask

Here are some Pauline questions we can ask ourselves about the words we are using:

  • Are these words gracious? (Col. 4:6)
  • Are these words seasoned with salt? (Col. 4:6)
  • Are these words corrupting? (Eph. 4:29)
  • Are thee words building up the church for good? (Eph. 4:29)
  • Are these words giving grace to those who hear them? (Eph. 4:29)
  • Are these words fitting and appropriate? (Eph. 4:29)
  • Are these words true? Are they spoken in love? (Eph. 4:15, 25)

May the Lord help us use our words in accord with the Word of God as we seek to walk with the Word made flesh.

[Adapted from Justin Taylor, “Introduction,” The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 15-18. Used with permission.]

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What Does Grace Have to Do with Nature? (Or What Is the Relationship between Christ and Culture, or the Bible and Higher Education?)

Oct 26, 2015 | Justin Taylor

This lecture from Bruce Ashford, provost, dean of faculty, and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—delivered in September 2015 at the school—is well worth your time:

Ashford surveys five competing visions of the relationships between “grace” (God’s saving works and word) and “nature” (not only the created order but also the cultural order). Ashford identifies the following relationships with application toward education:

  1. Grace above nature (“bottom-floor education”). Often associated with manualist Thomists. God’s gracious salvation is something that adds to, and fulfills, the natural realm.
  2. Grace against nature (“a plague on the educational house”). Often associated with certain Anabaptists and Pietists. The Fall corrupted the natural world ontologically in such a manner that God’s salvation causes Christians to withdraw from the world and live a Christian life separate from it.
  3. Grace in tension with nature (“pastors and educators as dual ministers of God”). Associated with Luther and some Reformed evangelicals. The natural realm and the realm of grace each have their own integrity, existing alongside of one another.
  4. Nature without grace (“a naked public quad”). Atheistic view.
  5. Grace renews or restores nature (“an educational preview of a coming kingdom”). Associated with Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and the best way to describe the views of Irenaeus and Augustine. Sin does not have the power to corrupt the natural realm structurally. Instead, it corrupts the natural realm directionally. God’s still-good-structurally creation is misdirected toward false gods and idols. When Christians receive God’s grace in salvation, they are liberated from their idolatry, liberated to shape their cultural activities toward Christ rather than toward false gods and idols. Their cultural activity is redirective.

The good folks at SEBTS came up with a graphic to illustrate the options:

Graphic_Nature & Grace

Ashford explains that all of the options—sans number four (nature without grace)—are advocated by various Christian traditions.

He goes on to argues for the fifth view (grace renews nature).

Joseph Sunde provides some notes from Ashford’s argument:

When God created the world, he created it good. He spoke his word, and his word called forth something from nothing, and then it ordered that world. It gave it a certain ordering, and that could be viewed as God’s thesis for the world. This is the way the world ought to be.

But Satan . . . called that into question. He spoke a word against God’s word, and that . . . antithesis remains today operative everywhere, and operative in every human heart, even Christians. . . .

After the fall, the world remains structurally good but directionally bad. . . . The world the way it is ordered remains good. The fact that we have sun and moon and stars and dry land and water and human beings and animals— that’s good. And the fact that we have a certain cultural order is also good. Things like the arts and the sciences and politics and economics. . . . All of these sorts of things we do in this realm remain good in their what-ness. The fact that they exist is good.

These creational and cultural things are not corrupted ontologically; we don’t have to separate from them. But they are bad directionally. Because sin is essentially a redirecting of the heart away from God . . . and because it is religiously rooted and located in the heart, it radiates outward into everything we do. And so we continue to be cultural beings and social beings, but all of our social and cultural doings are corrupted by sin and idolatry. . . .

Grace and nature belong together . . . Christ Jesus’ redemption should transform us in the entirety of our being, and as it redirects our heart from idols toward the one, true living God, it should then change the way we operate in culture. . . . His lordship is as wide creation, and therefore it is as wide as our cultural eyes. . . . Our mission, therefore, the Christian mission is as wide as the entirety of our cultural and social lives, involving both our words and our deeds and our teaching and learning.

Ashford goes on to suggest three questions that should be asked (and answered) when we find ourselves in any sphere of culture:

  1. What is God’s creational design for this realm of culture?
  2. How has it been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry?
  3. In what ways can I help bring redirection to this realm by shaping my activities in light of Christ’s Lordship rather than in submission to idols?

Again, it’s worth watching and listening to the whole thing. For more, see Ashford’s book, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham Press, 2015), and my interview about it here.

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