Category Archives: Bible and Theology


Where to Find Real Simplicity

It seems everyone is feeling fragmented these days. Has the human life ever been more perforated between disparate spheres: family and friends, virtual and physical, social media and social circles, urban diversity, suburban squalor, work and life and play?

At least in America, there’s always been an opposing tendency toward simplicity. The Puritans defined themselves around a simple life that culminated in simple worship on Sunday morning. We see it in Henry David Thoreau’s deliberate self-exile in the Connecticut woods, from which he returned with the famous proclamation to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” He was arguing that the good life is revealed in the alarmingly simple tasks needed in order for one to survive, and that such simplicity is better than the fragmented life complicated by the emerging technologies of the mid-19th century. (From our perspective in the 21st century, we say, you have no idea.)

Search for Simplicity 


The search for the simple life continues today, particularly in the educated class: simple clothing, minimalist design, local dining, and thinking about these things while thumbing through the latest edition of Real Simple magazine.

But the effect is limited. We set out to to eat, pray, love, but we often end up with binge, purge, regret.

All of this interest in simplicity is fine, and a lot of it is wise, but notice the logic. It’s working from the theory that if we can simplify things outside ourselves—our style of dress, the furniture in our houses, our travel, our food, our relationships, our children’s schedules—then we will find ourselves becoming simpler.

In short, this simplification is aimed at our circumstances, the world around us. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach. It can be gratifying, but the Bible talks about a quite different kind of simplification. The Scriptures call us to a simplicity that springs up within the heart of the one who loves the God who is one.

There’s nothing wrong with eating a diet of only raw food and wearing only underwear sewn from locally grown cotton. But the biblical notion of simple living doesn’t arise from the character of our lifestyle. Rather, it arises from the character of the God who gives us life.

The God Who Is One

In fact, this is the theology of Deuteronomy: the character of the God who loves us should and does make claims on who we are and what we love for ourselves.

There’s a section in Deuteronomy known as the “Shema” after its first word, which in Hebrew means “hear” or “obey.” And it’s been considered ever since to be the core, the beating heart, of the covenant under Moses:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5)

The Shema provides a simple summary of every claim the Lord makes on the life of his people. The claim is simple in many senses of that word. It’s marvelously simple, challengingly simple, terrifying and life-giving in its simplicity.

God’s character as one and whole and simple demands a response of undivided and simple love. Whether public or private, individual or corporate, spiritual or carnal, God’s people are to be simply and wholly in love with him.

Ever since the fall there’s been a general and constant slide toward the divided life. The most obvious image of humanity’s shattered simplicity is the scene of Adam and Eve, the images of God, hiding behind the hedge when their Lord calls them in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8-13). Fragmentation must be maintained by careful secrecy and deceit.

Simple Life, Simple Love

Moses is saying in Deuteronomy 6 that the Lord hasn’t abandoned his call for simple love but that, through a relationship called covenant, he seeks to restore and expand the relationship he always meant to have with his people. This relationship must happen on his terms, and it must reflect his character. Any other attempt at simplicity will fail.

The Lord’s identity and character require a response of wholehearted faith and simple love. The wholeness of the people’s love is the only appropriate response to the oneness of God’s character.

This is why the Shema cannot end with verse four but must continue to verse five. Knowing the truth about God is not the focus of this confession; the focus is on how to respond to that truth in kind. Mere recognition of the truth is not equal to faith. The apostle James quotes the Shema in order to make the same point: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19).

Faithfulness is not synonymous with theological familiarity. Faithfulness responds to the character of God by giving birth to a life of simple love and worship.

Nehemiah Helps Point the Way

Editors’ note: This excerpt comes from Rebuild: A Study in Nehemiaha new group study by Kathleen Nielson with D. A. Carson. Hear more from Carson and Nielson on Nehemiah when you attend The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando. 

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God’s covenant love to his people shows itself not just in their survival but also in his continuing provision of godly leaders who make clear the path of faith. No longer do these people have a king—although Zerubbabel as David’s descendant represents God’s sure promise of an eternal king in that line. There were post-exilic prophets sent by God: Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. There remained faithful priests, as in the case of Ezra, who “set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Ezra led his group back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.


And then there were leaders like Nehemiah, called to specific tasks. God provides in Nehemiah a wise leader, from whom we can learn much about effective, godly leadership. Nehemiah’s task is to bring God’s people together at this point in history to rebuild—the wall, yes, but most importantly the people. Nehemiah aims to bring this people together within the city of Jerusalem so that they can live according to God’s law—not just a compilation of rules but a system of worship that provides a means of coming as God’s people into God’s presence.

The Book of Nehemiah highlights God’s merciful provision of that means, through the temple with its priests and sacrifices. There is great joy as the people reassemble within Jerusalem’s walls, hear the Law, and reinstitute its prescribed worship. As they repent of their sin, and even as they fall into sin, we understand that we are reading about a God who in his unfailing love provides a way for his people to be forgiven. As we hear of sacrifices for sin offered by priests, we understand that this is the unfolding redemption story—one that culminates in Christ the Promised One who through his life and death and resurrection fulfilled the Law. These people were not able to fulfill it, nor are we; Jesus Christ was able.

The Old Testament closes with assemblies of worship led by priests in Jerusalem; the New Testament opens four centuries later with the coming of the one great High Priest, who shed his own blood as the final, perfect sacrifice for sin. No longer do we need priests and sacrifices and temple; Christ has once and for all accomplished the purification of God’s people toward which the sacrificial system pointed.

As we open Nehemiah, we can get ready to watch the God of history at work. We are reading the unfolding story of our redemption in Christ the Promised One who came, who died, who rose again, who ascended, who reigns, and who is coming again. In Christ the climax has come, but the story is not over. And we get to live in it, right now. Even in the midst of our struggles, we get to trust and obey the same faithful God and his same faithful Word. Nehemiah helps point the way.

Skip the Verse, Memorize the Book: Andrew Davis on Extended Bible Memorization

After the death of Moses, when Joshua is installed as leader of the Israelites, God commands him, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (Jos. 1:8).

Meditating on Scripture means to keep the mind fixed upon Scripture. But how can we keep our mind fixed on God’s Word today when we keep it trapped in our Bibles or on our smartphone apps?

memorization-davisAndrew Davis, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, wants to help encouraging Christians to meditate on Scripture by teaching how to memorize more of the Bible. In his new ebook, An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, Davis provides daily procedures for memorizing entire chapters and books of the Bible at one time. Davis, a Council member for The Gospel Coalition, has used these techniques to commit 35 books of the Bible to memory over the course of his ministry.

I recently corresponded with Davis about his book, his methods, and why Christians should memorize Scripture.

In an age when most Christians have access to a Bible all the time (e.g., through an app on their smartphones), why is extended memorization of Scripture still necessary?

The beauty of memorization comes in the deeper understanding that results from continual meditation (“day and night” as Psalm 1 puts it) on the Word of God, and from the purifying effects of having a mind that concentrates fully on the Word rather than on worldly things. Memorization is a great way to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:1), because it gives the Word much more concentrated access to your heart. It doesn’t rest lightly but hits you more fully with great impact.

Beyond this, having the Word of God flowing through your mind continually transforms the way you speak: “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12). It provides a ready answer to various life situations: temptation, prayer, witnessing, counseling, sermon preparation (for pastors like me), and so on. Having the Bible on an app is helpful, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. The Bible has transforming power only when it moves through our minds and rests with convicting power on our hearts.

What are some of the biggest benefits to memorizing entire chapters or books of the Bible?

The Word of God comes to us, for the most part, in paragraphs—developed trains of thought that tell a story (narrative, Gospels), unfold a law (Pentateuch), make a doctrinal argument (epistles), make a case against God’s people and their sins or reveal the future of God’s people (prophets), or describe in complex imagery an apocalyptic vision of the future (Revelation). Individual verses do not capture the train of thought and therefore are more likely to be taken out of context.

The fuller the section of Scripture we can memorize, the better. Also, Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Memorizing individual verses usually gravitates to the more “famous” verses and likely misses some precious truths hidden in less familiar verses. Memorizing whole books gives people a sense of the perfection of every word of God. It is a continual learning experience, a journey of discovery in which details come alive with incredible power. I am in awe of the majesty of every word of Scripture, and that has come in great part from 30 years of memorizing less famous verses and seeing the wisdom of God in every letter.

How did you develop this method of memorization?

Over the first few years of seeking to memorize whole books of the Bible, I learned immediately the essence of it: repetition over time. I then developed some simple techniques for repeating the new verses while holding onto old ones. The process that I have written down in the booklet An Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture was pretty much intact after about two years of working on it. Details like repeating the whole book for 100 days, and how to memorize larger portions of scripture, and the value of memorizing chapter and verse numbers developed in those first two years.

The last key insight I added was the humble recognition of a practical limit to how much a normal person (like me) can retain at any one time and the need to keep learning new books of the Bible. So I added the advice that after the 100 days, a memorizer should “kiss the book goodbye” in favor of learning a new portion of Scripture.

I do not assert that this is the only, or even the best, way to memorize Scripture, but it has been effective for me.

Which books of the Bible would you recommend a believer start with when memorizing Scripture?

I like to urge people to start with something relatively short that really grabs their heart’s affections. If they have no preference, I point them toward Ephesians, because it is manageable and so incredibly rich for such a short length. Other starting places are Philippians, 2 Peter, Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, Hebrews 11, and so on. But I personally like to finish a whole book, so that points toward the epistles.

In your book An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness you say there are two disciplines that a mature Christian will not let a day go by without accomplishing. What are those two activities, and how do they relate to extended memorization of Scripture?

In that book I say that Christians should not let a single day go by without Bible intake (reading or listening) and prayer. These are like two legs on which we walk to make progress in the journey of Christian growth in Christlikeness.

The Word is the food of our faith; without it our faith will shrivel up like a plant with no water. Prayer is essential because every blessing we need in life we should seek from the hand of God. Prayer is a constant expression of total dependence on God.

Scripture memorization helps both disciplines. I would not substitute memorization for other Bible intake. I think one should combine knowledge in breadth (by reading through the Bible in a year) with knowledge in depth (memorizing a book of the Bible) for an optimal diet of Bible intake.

Scripture memorization is a rich form of meditation that feeds the soul throughout the day with God’s nourishing Word. Memorization also deeply enriches our prayer lives by giving us biblical patterns of speech and promises and commands that we can hold back up to God in prayer. One Puritan pastor said that in prayer we should, “Show God his Script; God is tender of his word.” Memorization helps us pray more effectively.

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture is available as an ebook for just $0.99.

9 Things You Should Know About Prayer in the Bible

Do you know how many prayer are mentioned in the Bible (and how many were answered)? Here’s the answer to that question and other things you should know about the prayer in the Bible.

gethsemane_thumb1. There are 650 prayers listed in the Bible. (Here is the entire list and where they can be found.)

2. There are approximately 450 recorded answers to prayer in the Bible.

3. The first time prayer is mentioned in the Bible is Genesis 4:26 (earlier dialogues where initiated directly by God, e.g., Genesis 3:8-13, Genesis 4:9).

4. The Bible records Jesus praying 25 different times during his earthly ministry.

5. In the Bible, Paul mentions prayer (prayers, prayer reports, prayer requests, exhortations to pray), 41 times.

6. Although prayer can (and should) be done from any bodily position, the Bible lists five specific postures: Sitting (2 Sam 7:18), standing (Mark 11:25), kneeling (Chronicles 6:13; Daniel 6:10; Luke 22:41; Acts 7:60, 9:40, 20:36, 21:5; Ephesians 3:14), with one’s face to the ground (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:35), and with hands lifted up (1 Timothy 2:8).

7. In Jesus model for how his disciples should pray (Luke 11:1-4), he provides five areas of focus: That God’s name be honored – the focus on his everlasting glory (“Father, hallowed be your name”); that God’s kingdom come – the focus on his eternal will (“your kingdom come”); that God’s provision is given – the focus on our present (“Give us each day our daily bread.”); that God’s forgiveness is granted – the focus on our past (Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.); that God’s deliverance will be provided – the focus on our future.

8. The Bible lists at least nine main types of prayer: prayer of faith (James 5:15), prayer of agreement (also known as corporate prayer) (Acts 2:42), prayer of request (also known as petition or supplication) (Philippians 4:6), prayer of thanksgiving (Psalm 95:2-3), prayer of worship (Acts 13:2-3), prayer of consecration (also known as dedication) (Matthew 26:39), prayer of intercession (1 Timothy 2:1),  prayer of imprecation (Psalms 69), and praying in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:14-15).

9. The word “Amen” (which means “let it be, “so be it,” “verily,” “truly”) makes its first appearance in the Bible in Numbers 5:22. In that passage God commands it to be said by a person who is yielding to his examination.


Other posts in this series:

9 Things You Should Know About the National Day of Prayer

9 Things You Should Know About The Rwandan Genocide

9 Things You Should Know About The Chronicles of Narnia

9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah

9 Things You Should Know About Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church

9 Things You Should Know About Pimps and Sex Traffickers

9 Things You Should Know About Marriage in America

9 Things You Should Know About Black History Month

9 Things You Should Know About the Holocaust

9 (More) Things You Should Know About Roe v. Wade

9 Things You Should Know About Poverty in America

9 Things You Should Know About Christmas

9 Things You Should Know About The Hobbit

9 Things You Should Know About the Council of Trent

9 Things You Should Know About C.S. Lewis

9 Things You Should Know About Orphans

9 Things You Should Know about Halloween and Reformation Day

9 Things You Should Know About Down Syndrome

9 Things You Should Know About World Hunger

9 Things You Should Know about Casinos and Gambling

9 Things You Should Know About Prison Rape

9 Things You Should Know About the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

9 Things You Should Know About the 9/11 Attack Aftermath

9 Things You Should Know About Chemical Weapons

9 Things You Should Know About the March on Washington

9 (More) Things You Should Know About Duck Dynasty

9 Things You Should Know About Child Brides

9 Things You Should Know About Human Trafficking

9 Things You Should Know About the Scopes Monkey Trial

9 Things You Should Know About Social Media

9 Things You Should Know about John Calvin

9 Things You Should Know About Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence

9 Things You Should Know About the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases

9 Things You Should Know About the Bible

9 Things You Should Know About Human Cloning

9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain

9 Things You Should Know About Planned Parenthood

9 Things You Should Know About the Boston Marathon Bombing

9 Things You Should Know About Female Body Image Issues

Our Fearful Apologetic

“Andrew, I understand what you are trying to do. But you’ve gotta understand that it’s like a house of cards. One gust and the whole thing might come down.”

These words came in a moment of real vulnerability from a good friend. We were on a mission trip together and, the day before, we had been discussing a contentious point of theology. I thought that if I could just intellectually convince her of my side, all would be well. However, where I saw a chance for communication, my friend saw a missile.

This same thinking is displayed on a grand scale with a couple of recent film releases, Noah and God’s Not Dead, albeit in different ways. God’s Not Dead is a successful film about an atheist professor’s confrontation with a Christian freshman. The trailer shows what we’ve come to expect from such stories: a secular authority attempts to force his class into blasphemy, and one student publicly confronts him with dramatic results. Running throughout is a crushing view of non­-Christians. “Everyone who’s a true believer is depicted as kind, even-tempered, and wise,” Claudia Puig writes at USA Today. ”Non­-Christians are portrayed as obnoxious, self­-centered, and even cruel.”


If our faith is driven by fear, we need a world like the one in God’s Not DeadAs a recent article by Alan Noble points out, we long to know that atheist professors are really dumb, and freshmen Christians can overcome them; that all Christians are righteous heroes, and all non­-Christians are self­-obsessed villains. I’m not saying that God’s Not Dead came from anywhere other than honest zeal. But we need to see how stories like these defend a crumbling foundation.

I have been in a real situation like the one in God’s Not Dead. A good friend and myself, when we were in college, attended a course wherein the professor tried to convince us that all major religious texts offer valid roads to God. We fought pretty hard to protect the exclusivity of Christianity. So, basically, it was just like the movie—except there was no dramatic music, no one got converted, the professor was smarter than us, we alienated much of the class, and we left confused as to whether or not we were faithful in our actions.

Noah and Fearful Faith

Even more public has been the warfare over Noah. We’ve accused it of environmentalism on the front end and Gnosticism on the back end. In one of those rare moments where the outside culture shows any interest in our story and our opinions, we have mostly responded with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Ken Ham, a recent participant in the creationism vs. evolution debate with Bill Nye, wrote a review of Noah on Many of you may appreciate Ham’s ministry through Answers in Genesis; certainly God has used him in meaningful ways. And yet, in this article written to a diverse and primarily non­-Christian audience, Ham’s tone is stark and punishing, describing Noah as “an unbiblical, pagan film from the start” and “an insult to the God of the Bible.” Given a chance to have a winsome conversation over an important story in our tradition, Ham chose to lower the hammer instead. Many (though not as many as I expected, thankfully) followed suit.

I couldn’t help but think that, after years of study and earnest engagement with the story of Noah, director Darren Aronofsky had shown up with a genuine attempt at communication only to have it torn up in his face.

Blessing to the Nations

It’s easy to get lost in our Christian subculture. With each new step away from the world and into this subculture we say, “Your stuff is not good enough; we leave you to your own devices.” Judging the world we echo God’s judgment in C. S. Lewis’s description of hell: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Here’s the problem: it’s not yet judgment day. And you and I aren’t the Judge. Following in the example of Christ, we’re supposed to offer an antidote to the world’s problems. It’s not easy. We may get fired from our work for holding upopular, biblical convictions. But we must resist the fear-based reaction of circling the wagons and firing away. We have a greater calling, one driven by the love and sacrifice of our Father in heaven: “Be a blessing to the nations”.

This was the charge originally given to Abraham in Genesis 12. According to Christopher Wright, this charge implies a “relational element of blessing . . . [that] reaches out to those around. Genesis has several instances of people being blessed through contact with those whom God has blessed.” If, when in contact with the world we are called to bless, we lash out in anger and judgment, we have to wonder if we have lost the plot.

I’m not asking Christians to give up our convictions. There is much to be admired about evangelicals’ pro­-life sacrifices and desire for doctrinal purity, for example. But if our convictions don’t lead us to faithfully love God and man, what do they accomplish? We may feel threatened by our neighbors, but the world will never overcome God and his gospel. We stand on a sure foundation of a true event: the inbreaking of God through the person of Jesus.

Are You a Heretic?

“To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” Cicero observed more than 2,000 years ago, “is to forever remain a child.” The Roman philosopher’s words are no less true today. If you’re a Christian, the history of the church is the history of your family. Studying it doesn’t have to be dull and boring. Properly done, it will instruct, exhilarate, give perspective, illuminate, inspire, humble, convict, and fire worship.

The first installments in Zondervan’s new KNOW series, Justin Holcomb’s Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics are accessible travel guides to the some of the significant events, doctrines, and heresies throughout Christian history. Each chapter covers a statement of faith (or heresy) and includes a glimpse of the historical context, an overview of key points, discussion questions, and suggested further reading.

In every generation, the Christian church must restate its bedrock beliefs, answering the challenges and concerns of the day. In these books Holcomb leads us through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions—as well as the errors that occasioned them—and reveals their profound relevance for today.

I spoke with Holcomb, Episcopal priest and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, about the need for creeds and confessions, today’s most “live” heresies, threats on the horizon, and more.


Are the creeds and confessions we already have sufficient, or do we need more?

I think we’re just fine with the creeds we currently have, but more confessions would be a good thing. I say this because of what creeds and confessions are, how they differ, and how they are used. While there are differences between creeds and confessions in how they’ve been used, a genuine distinction between creeds and confessions is artificial.


In contrast to creeds, which are basic statements of belief, confessions represent more detailed inquiry into the things of God. The creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways. Because creeds are bare-bones structures (the outlines of the sketch), it makes sense that the earliest statements of the church are creeds, while later statements of particular denominations are confessions. Creeds distinguish orthodoxy from heresy (or Christian faith from non-Christian faith). Confessions distinguish denominational distinctives (or one type of Christian faith from another type of Christian faith).

Christian confessions often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as infant baptism, the end times, predestination, the Lord’s Supper, and the order of salvation. While the creeds aimed to preserve “the faith delivered for all time,” confessions tried to apply the faith to the here and now.

Did the early church accept the councils as authoritative like we do? If not, how should that affect the way we view the creeds?

There are seven ecumenical councils that every branch of the church recognizes today, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

The first recorded instance of a church council is found in the New Testament. The Jerusalem Council is the name given to the meeting of church leaders of Antioch (with Paul and Barnabas) and of Jerusalem in which the large growth of Gentile converts in the early church was discussed (Acts 15:2-29).

Like the Jerusalem Council, church councils were called to address not only disagreement over a theological issue but also the practical ramifications of that issue. For instance, in the Council of Nicaea the question being asked was, “How can we worship one God (the Father) and also worship Jesus Christ?” Though this was a practical question about worship, it couldn’t be disconnected from the more abstract theological issue of how Jesus Christ is related to his Father. The council affirmed that both Jesus and the Father are members of a single being, God.

So are the councils’ decisions authoritative? It’s instructive to notice that when Paul is asked whether Christians should eat food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-13), he appeals not to the decision of the Jerusalem Council but instead to the revelation he’d received from Jesus Christ. This shows that Paul saw the Jerusalem Council as authoritative in some sense but not ultimately so. His appeal was to God’s revelation as the arbiter of truth, not to a human decision at a council.

I believe that the creeds produced by the ecumenical councils are authoritative, but just not the final or only authority.

Is the “Great Tradition,” as the collection of early creeds are often called, sufficient for Christian unity?

It is necessary but not sufficient. My understanding of “Christian unity” includes doctrine but also other things that bind us together, such as practice, prayer, and love. Basically, I don’t think it’s enough to define “Christian unity” as saying the Nicene Creed without crossing your fingers.

A unity held together only by orthodoxy (right doctrine) is weak and dangerous. Without orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathos (right affection), orthodoxy encourages Christians to view faith as a head-trip.

A unity with multiple dimensions is seen in passages like John 13:35, Romans 10:3, Proverbs 19:2, and Ephesians 4:1-6.

Which heresy is most “live” today, even if in slightly repackaged form? How about one on the horizon?

Repackaged teachings from Pelagius and Socinus are the most “live” today. My summary of Pelagius’s heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. My summary of Socinus’s heresy is “the Trinity is irrelevant, and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. But he ignores humanity’s fall (original sin), causing his theology to fall into error. First, Pelagius argued there’s no such thing as original sin. In no way were we implicated in Adam’s first sin. His sin doesn’t make us guilty or corrupt. Instead, as Pelagius claims, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” Humans by nature have a clean slate—a state of neutrality—according to Pelagius, and it’s only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that we are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there’s nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider us to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office that deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and didn’t extend to his person, which Socinus argued wasn’t divine. Socinus contended that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity couldn’t be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. He argued that since Jesus wasn’t divine, his death couldn’t have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

Was the Ascension Bad Evangelism Strategy?

Let’s be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird. It’s the story of a man taken up into the clouds. I remember reading the story with a friend who is not a Christian, and she looked at me with pity as if to say, “You don’t really believe this wacky stuff, do you?” I was about to object to her unspoken accusation when I thought, Yes, actually, this is pretty weird.


The two men at the ascension scene, probably angels, don’t seem to help matters. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” they ask. Surely the answer is obvious. The apostles have just seen a man taken up into the clouds, so I’d probably be looking up to see what happens next, too. The point these men are making, of course, is that what happens next—what their attention should be focused on—will take place on earth because Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to empower his people to become his witnesses.

So, again, the ascension is weird. But it can also feel a bit disappointing. For example, you may have had conversations that went something like this:

“If God exists, then why doesn’t he make himself known? Why doesn’t he write a message in the sky? Surely he could if he were God.”

“But he has made himself known,” we say. “He sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus is God among us. He made God known.”

“So you say, but how can I know that? Jesus died a long time ago.”

Or, something like this:

“How can you be so confident there’s life after death?”

“Because someone came back from the dead,” we respond. “The resurrection of Jesus is key to the claims of the Christian gospel. Our faith stands or falls on this historical event.”

“But how do you know that wasn’t just a made-up story?”

“Because the tomb was empty and eyewitnesses saw Jesus alive. And those eyewitnesses weren’t gullible people, desperate to believe. Thomas in particular, one of the Twelve, doubted the news until he saw and heard and touched Jesus for himself. His life was changed, just as meeting the risen Jesus changed the lives of countless other witnesses. Many went from hiding in fear to boldly proclaiming the story of Jesus even when faced with persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom.”

“Yeah, but coming back from the dead? There’s no scientific proof for anything like that.”

These conversations meander around a similar refrain: wouldn’t evangelism be a whole lot easier if Jesus were still on earth? Imagine he was still living somewhere in Palestine so that people could go to see him. Imagine scientists had studied him over the years and could verify that he was more than 2,000 years old. Or imagine Jesus himself was on tour, performing miracles and preaching the gospel.

The ascension seems like bad evangelism strategy. It removes the key piece of evidence that substantiates the claims of Christianity. It’s like our best player got subbed out as the game was just beginning.

Startlingly Good News

But in Scripture and for the Christian, the ascension is startlingly good news. In fact, there could be no salvation or mission without the ascension. The great Puritan theologian John Owen affirmed the same when he said:

This assumption of our Lord Jesus Christ into glory, or his glorious reception in heaven, with his state and condition therein, is a principal article of the faith of the church—the great foundation of its hope and consolation in this world. . . . The darkness of our faith herein is the cause of all our disconsolations, and most of our weaknesses in obedience.

That said, what was the immediate effect of the ascension on the first disciples?

“Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:52-53).

Their response was worship, joy, and praise. Their Lord and friend had been taken from them, but they understood enough of what had happened for the ascension to produce in them worship, joy, and praise.

Why? They believed Jesus when told them: “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). This exhortation remains true for us as well; Jesus’ physical absence is better for us than his continued physical presence.

As we think about the ascension, we must rediscover the great comfort it brings. Diplomats and reporters often talk about “their man in Washington” or “their man in Tokyo.” For Christians, Jesus is “our man in heaven.” He is there for us, on our behalf. He’s our representative, securing our salvation by his very presence in heaven.

But we must also discover the ascension as a great challenge. Jesus receives all authority and sends us out to declare that authority to the world. The ascension, then, is the beginning of mission.

This article has been adapted from Tim Chester and Jonathan Woodrow’s new book The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God (Christian Focus, 2013).


I Love My Black Letter Bible

With the way some Christians talk, you might be forgiven for wondering why the canon includes more than four books. Sure, the Old Testament is useful in tracing the development of human reflection on the divine, and the New Testament in conveying the thoughts of some of Jesus’ earliest followers. But if you really want to know what God thinks about something, you hear today, you’ll need consult the recorded thoughts of Jesus. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to stick to the “red letters.” In other words, flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (or that less traversed terrain, Revelation 2-3) and stay put.

To be sure, I understand the impulse. It makes some sense in light of the differences between the sinless Son of God (on display in the Gospels) and the bona fide sinners who penned most of the rest of New Testament (unbelieving James and Jude, denying Peter, blaspheming Paul, and so on). Dubious résumés, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Christians have always recognized the God-breathed character of their words. The miracle of inspiration means the whole Bible is the voice of God. While central and foundational, the fourfold Gospel witness is no more true or reliable or relevant or binding than the black letters that precede and follow. Indeed, when we treat the red letters more seriously than the black ones, we muzzle the Son who speaks in all of them.

The Pages in Black Fulfill the Promise in Red

It’s foolish to downplay the Bible’s black-lettered pages if for no other reason than they’re fulfilling a red-lettered promise. Consider Jesus’ words to his apostles:


I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, emphasis added)

Now ponder the words of Paul:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12, emphasis added)

Did you catch the parallel? Christ’s promise finds fulfillment in Paul’s teaching. The ministry of the Savior marches on in the ministry of the apostle. Jesus said that he had more to say. He promised further revelation of truth to his apostles through his Spirit. Paul is just Exhibit A.

As John Murray put it:

Prior to his ascension, Christ’s teaching was directly by word of mouth. But afterward he taught by a different mode . . . by the ministry of appointed witnesses and inspired writers. The New Testament, all of which was written after Jesus’ ascension, is not one whit less the teaching of our Lord than that delivered verbally during the days of his flesh. How utterly false it is to set up a contrast between the authority of Jesus’ spoken words and the authority of the New Testament as Scripture. The latter is the teaching of Christ given in his own appointed way after his ascension. . . . The guiding of the Holy Spirit into all truth does not suspend Jesus’ own speaking. (Collected Writings, Vol. 1, 40)

The apostle Peter goes so far as to say the prophetic word of Scripture is a revelation “more sure” than even Christ himself in transfigured glory (2 Pet. 1:19). That’s a stunning claim! He then exhorts us to recall the ”commandment of our Lord and Savior through [the] apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2; cf. Acts 2:42). No wonder Paul enjoins his protégé to heed the ”sound words you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13) with no less urgency than the ”sound words of our Lord Jesus” (1 Tim. 6:3). Or elsewhere claim his instructions are “the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:15) imbued with heaven’s authority (2 Thess. 3:14).

When I write, the result is a tweet or a blog post. When Paul wrote, the result was holy Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).

Is the church’s authorized foundation, then, Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11) or the Bible (Eph. 2:20)? Yes.

The Word of God: Jesus or Scripture?

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2; Heb. 1:1-2; Rev. 19:13) and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12; 13:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

Jesus Blinders

I recently heard a remark that only in Jesus do we see God “as he is.” While this statement may sound profound and even have a ring of truth—Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3) and the point of the biblical story (Luke 24:27, 44)—it is finally misleading since it does not reveal the whole picture. The Lord’s self-disclosure was not exhausted by the Son’s earthly life. Jesus’ appearing neither nullified the revelation that came before (Matt. 5:17-18) nor rendered redundant the revelation that followed after (John 16:12-15).

On the surface, “Jesus shows us what God is really like” language appears pious and even Jesus-exalting. In reality, it betrays a tragically truncated view of the Jesus of the Bible. We see God “as he is” by gazing with the eyes of faith on the pages of his Word—all of them.

One day, our faith will vanish into sight, and we will at last behold the king in his beauty. Until then, however, we live and move and have our being in the age of the ear. “For now,” Augustine taught 1,500 years ago, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”

If you love Jesus, you’ll love his voice wherever it appears—even in the black letters.

Holding Fast to Truth in a Doubting Age

Assaults on truth are nothing new. In the dock before Pilate, Jesus said he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth.” To which Pilate mocked: “What is truth?”

The irony is thick in John 18:38. The Roman prefect missed the truth, even as Truth incarnate stood before him. Then again, Pilate may not have missed anything. He may have known too well what Jesus offered him and, unwilling to follow the king of the Jews, hastily dismissed him from his presence.

Not much has fundamentally changed since that fateful day. The question of truth continues to color theological, ethical, and political debates—and to plague human hearts. Christians need to have a good answer to Pilate’s question.

Inspired Truth

In contrast to the spirit of the age, truth isn’t a feeling experienced but a fact decreed in eternity, demonstrated in history, and progressively revealed and recorded in Scripture. Put simply, truth is what God says it is.

According to Isaiah 65:16, God is the “God of truth.” All history proves this reality. What Yahweh promised, he fulfilled; what he foretold, he accomplished. His actions validated his words, and his words perfectly revealed his holiness, goodness, trustworthiness, and truth.

Moreover, when God revealed himself, he inspired a true book. Letting Scripture speak for itself (something theologians call “self-attestation”), Psalm 119 says God’s law and commandments are true (vv. 142, 151). And again: “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endure forever” (v. 160). The truth of God’s Word is evidenced in its moral character and enduring nature. That which is false corrodes and fails, but God’s Word is both pure (Ps. 12:6) and eternal (Ps. 119:89): “Every word of God proves true.”

Therefore, on the basis of God’s character, his faithfulness in history, and Scripture’s own testimony, we have confidence that true truth exists and has been given to us by the God of truth.

Incarnate Truth

God’s written Word isn’t the only source of truth; it’s also manifested in a person. John opens his gospel this way: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). These verses speak of the incarnation and how the Son of God who spoke the world into existence took on human form to embody grace and truth.

On earth Jesus called himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As he ministered, people marveled at his power, wisdom, and authority. Yet he wasn’t simply a man speaking about the truth; he was and is the truth of which all Scripture speaks (John 5:39).

In his life Jesus manifested truth and by his death saved sinners enslaved to deception. Even to Pilate he proclaimed a way of truth that would have given the Roman ruler life. Amazingly, by the predestined plan of God (Acts 4:27-28), Pilate’s rejection of truth advanced the cause of truth—for through dying and rising Christ received the right to send the Spirit of truth to his sheep. 

Eschatological Truth

Finally, truth isn’t restricted to the events of history; it’s also an eschatological reality God is bringing into the present. Even as the Devil continues deceiving the world, Jesus sends his Spirit to lead his people into the truth.

By regenerating the ones purchased on Calvary, transferring them into his kingdom, and illuminating their minds to grasp God’s truth, the Spirit causes believers to walk in the truth. In a world of death and deceit, God unites his sheep to their Shepherd by means of his Spirit and his Word. The Spirit empowers believers to proclaim the gospel such that the “word of truth” (Eph. 1:13) both liberates (John 8:32) and sanctifies (John 17:17).

Like in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit now hovers over the murky waters of this world. Christ’s future kingdom is growing in our present age. The first place we look for truth, then, isn’t the heady halls of academia or the power structures of Washington, D.C. We find truth in the urban mission, the rural church, and the college Bible study outlawed for its biblical views on sex. In these places forgotten by the world and deemed “false” by questioners of truth, God’s truth advances. Where his Spirit and Word are at work, there his truth is found.

Hold Fast to the Truth

Without coincidence, true truth is triune truth: it’s decreed by God (the Father), personified in God (the Son), and effected by God (the Spirit). Contrary to popular belief, truth isn’t based on personal feeling, self-understanding, or a contemporary situation. It’s based on God’s revelation, centered in the gospel, and revealed by the transforming work of the Spirit.

Unlike the mood of our age, truth isn’t something we can create, discover, or deny. Like the innocent man Pilate sentenced to death, truth has a way of coming back to life.

May we, like Jesus, make the good confession and hold fast to the truth.

When Jesus Said Farewell

We Christians sometimes buy into a lie. We assume that if we’re not like those hateful, judgmental people who call themselves Christians, then the world will see that we’re actually pretty reasonable folks and want to follow Jesus. We believe that if Christians just cleaned up our act, then Jesus could finally captivate the hearts and minds of our neighbors.

The only problem with this view is that it has no basis in the example or teaching of Jesus. Nice Christians don’t always finish first. Even though Jesus loved perfectly to the end, his closest friends and disciples abandoned him when the political and religious authorities pinned him to the cross. Peter rebounded from his shameful denial of Jesus and vowed to love Jesus by loving his people. His reward? Jesus told him to expect that he, too, would stretch out his hands in unwanted death that would nevertheless glorify God (John 21:15-19).

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_ApostlesThe apostle John did not endure such a gruesome demise. But he heard and recorded Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which the Son of God told the disciples that the world would hate them just as they hated Jesus and his heavenly Father for convicting them of their sin (John 15:24).

“If you were of the world,” Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:19-20).

We should not be surprised that Christians today so easily forget or overlook these bracing words from Jesus. Just days after Jesus said farewell, while they hid behind locked doors in the aftermath of the crucifixion, the disciples obviously missed the significance of their Savior’s teaching: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). They had expected triumphant, bloody insurrection, and instead he gave them a cold, empty tomb. Only in the aftermath of the resurrection, when they saw and heard and touched Jesus in the flesh, did they finally begin to understand that the way of glory passes through Golgotha.

Acting Like Jesus

When we assume the world will love us if we start acting like Jesus, then we’re not actually acting like Jesus. We love to cite Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as evidence of the kind of humble compassion we should emulate. Indeed, it is. But eleven pairs of these feet washed by Jesus scattered away in fear, and one infamous pair scampered to find the chief priests and officers to arrest Jesus as he prayed.

Love for the world motivated by anything other than love for Jesus inevitably fails to offer the kind of love the world needs. Don’t think that Jesus would be any more popular in our day than he was in his own hometown, even his own family. Jesus was known to speak with uncommon authority because he told the truth about bankrupt religious practice. He would do the same among us, calling out the religious and non-religious for idols we have harbored.

When our love is motivated more by approval of the world than faithfulness to Jesus, then we turn against other Christians we believe hinder our goals. Have you noticed this trend? Consider someone who fears that Jesus’ teaching against greed (Matt. 6:19-21) hinders churches from reaching upwardly mobile young professionals. His enemy becomes those Christians who teach “poverty theology” and reject the goodness of creation and the necessity of amassing resources in order to advance the kingdom of God. Notice: rarely do you hear anyone openly say we should disobey Jesus’ teaching. After all, Jesus told his disciples that if they would abide in his love, then they must keep his commandments (John 15:10). Rather, the person asking you to disobey Jesus instead seeks to convince you that the church won’t grow and the world won’t follow Jesus unless you love the world enough to rethink your biblical interpretation. Should you plug your ears to this siren song, you will be accused of being part of the reason why the world has rejected Jesus.

But as we’ve already seen from the example of Jesus, we could change the content or confuse the clarity of his teaching, but the condition of our hearts would still prevent us from following him. Not until Jesus breathed his Spirit on the disciples (John 20:22) so they could recall what he taught them earlier about the coming persecution (John 16:2) did they finally find the strength to obey and proclaim the good news. Apart from the Spirit it’s impossible for us to resist the world as necessary. The world tempts and confuses Christians. Even the enemies who try to kill us think they offer service to God (John 16:2). The apostle Paul regarded himself zealous in his love of God until Jesus blinded him with forgiveness for his sins and grace to walk in true righteousness. When Jesus reveals himself he gives believers eyes to see our sin as futile and his teaching as good and perfect.

Love One Another

Along with sending his Spirit, Jesus gave us a key test of discipleship before he said farewell. “A new commandment I give to you: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

We can see the problem when other Christians lose Jesus by lacking love and prayerful concern for their enemies (Matt. 5:44). But how many of us have likewise forgotten Jesus because in our pursuit of the world we have not loved fellow disciples? We’re so eager to win the world’s approval that we violate the most basic commandments and dare to invoke Jesus’ name in our defense. Don’t trust anyone who attempts to justify his anger at other Christians. And don’t think you can win the world by disobeying any of Jesus’ commands. Jesus’ life, death, and teaching offer our only sure basis for unity among the body of Christ and effective mission in the world.

“Unity should never be attained at the cost of truth,” Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor write in their new book, The Final Days of Jesus, “yet unity is essential among God’s people, particularly in regard to a shared mind and purpose and mutual love in the work of fulfilling Christ’s mission to the world.”

In keeping with Passover custom, Jesus and his disciples would have likely sung Psalms 113-118 together before he said farewell. As Jesus prepared to drink the cup given by his Father (John 19:11) and ascend the cross, the words of Psalm 118 in particular must have offered great comfort and courage in his unique mission. We know he had cited Psalm 118:22-23 in debate with Jewish religious leaders: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23).

We must also consider the repeated refrain that begins and ends this beloved psalm: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1, 29). His covenant love endures even the worst cruelty the world can conceive. It endures the betrayal of close friends. It endures age after age, from Jesus until now and forevermore.

We, too, need these comforting, sobering words today. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Psalm 119:8-9). We must neither seek nor expect the world’s approval. And we must claim the promise of God’s Word that we can find refuge in Jesus. As he empowers us to obey his commandments and love his disciples, we testify to a watching world that Jesus has come from the Father (John 17: 23) offering eternal life to all who repent and believe (John 17:3).