Tag Archives: Wisdom

Students, Don’t Waste Your Summer

Students, you know it’s the end of the spring semester when it’s 58 degrees and you’re studying outside in shorts and playing frisbee on gray blustery days. You’re sick of school, ready to go home, and more than ready for warm weather—it’s time for summer break!

But August will be here before you know it—you’ll be tan, have a few bucks in your pocket, and (gasp!) eager to move back to campus. Don’t wait until then to realize all the things you should have done to grow in Christ while home for the summer. Prepare now to spend these months away from tests and dining hall food enjoying rich and plentiful grace from God. Here are 10 ways to help you grow in your faith while on summer break.


1. Make a plan. The old saying really does hold true: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Just like you’ve spent time lining up work and planning out vacations and trips with friends, take some time to plan out your spiritual priorities for the summer. Schedule a time when you’ll be able to be consistent each day in reading the Word and prayer. Look for a daily devotional (my personal favorites here and here) and use it to guide the Scripture you read each day.

2. Rehearse your need for the gospel daily. As Tim Keller has said, “The gospel is not just the ABCs of Christianity, but the A to Z. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we all make progress in the kingdom.” We never move past our need for the simple, yet profound, truth of the gospel: Christ died and rose for our sins. Each morning when we wake up we’ll be tempted to think we failed God the day before, or need to live up to a standard today in order for him to accept and love us. Preaching the gospel to ourselves each day is rehearsing the truth that God accepts and loves us on the basis of what Christ has done for us, which we accept by faith.

3. Anticipate temptation. You’ll be stepping back into situations that likely remind you how much you’ve failed in the past. Know your temptations and seek accountability. Sin always wants to convince us that we are strong enough to resist it. Don’t call your old boyfriend just to hang out thinking it won’t end up where it always has in the past. Ask yourself, What will likely tempt me to have my attention and heart drawn away from Christ this summer? Think about why this particular sin is alluring and apply Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” Figure out what’s distracting you from following Christ and take intentional time to pursue Christ each day by fighting sin.

4. Recognize you need the church. Relationships between Christians are likened to a body to show us we need other believers in our lives (1 Cor. 12:12-26). A hand needs an arm. An ear needs an eye. Find a church that is preaching the Bible and plug in for the summer. It won’t look just like your campus ministry, but that’s actually a good thing. When you hang out with a guy who is 75 and has walked with Christ for double your lifespan, you are going to learn from him! Look for every opportunity to sit under teaching of God’s Word. If there are midweek services or men’s or women’s groups, fit them into your schedule.

5. Meet regularly with a brother or sister in Christ. Make a point of intentionally meeting with another believer for accountability and prayer. If you don’t know a lot of Christians in your hometown, talk with a fellow believer before you leave about some areas where you will face temptation and brainstorm some specific questions you can ask one another over the phone. Some examples: Are you making a priority out of spending unhurried time in God’s Word and prayer, or is it an afterthought in your daily life? How are you responding to your parent’s authority and instruction?

Part of fellowship is recognizing you have a responsibility to your brothers and sisters in Christ to help them grow, and they have a responsibility to you. God is calling us to be involved in each other’s lives, and one way we can do so is by picking up the Bible when you’re together or on the phone and reading verses that have been encouraging during the past week.

6. Look for ways to serve your family. Maybe you became a Christian at college this year. Or maybe you’ve rediscovered a love for Jesus that’s been dormant for far too many years. Take the opportunity to let the light of God’s grace shine in the way you treat your parents and siblings. Look for ways to serve when you’re home. “How can I help?” and “I’d be glad to” go a long way in demonstrating how much you desire to serve others and how God has been at work in your life. Look for opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations. You don’t know how much more time you’ll have living at home, so seek to make the most of the time now in both your attitude and also actions toward your family.

7. Turn off your phone. Really. Actually turn it off for an hour so you don’t check Facebook or Twitter for the 34th time today. Better yet, take these apps off your phone completely or at least make yourself sign in every time you want to look at your newsfeed. This will help keep you from turning to it out of boredom and release you to notice others.

8. Set a goal to read. Remember when you said a few weeks ago how you looked forward to not having required textbook reading so that you could pick up that book you actually wanted to read? Make a list of two or three books you think will be helpful and then set aside time to read them. Maybe start by picking out a biography, a work of fiction, and a classic book about how to follow Jesus more closely. If you haven’t read Knowing God by J. I. Packer or the Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul, start there.

9. Memorize a passage of Scripture. Pick a Psalm or another well-known passage like Romans 8 or Philippians 2. Whatever you choose, take a couple of minutes each day to review the verses you’ve learned. If you work a boring job (who doesn’t?), write out your verses on an index card and take it out of your pocket to ponder while you sit on the mower or babysit the kids down the street.

10. Seek to be as bold with the gospel as you have been at college. You’re going to be around friends you haven’t seen since high school, and it’s going to be obvious to them you’ve changed. Instead of mumbling some excuse about how you don’t feel like going out to party like you used to, tell them the real reason. Tell them about how your desires have changed and take the time to explain the plain but powerful truth of the gospel and how they can follow Jesus as well. Invite them to meet for coffee and read through the Gospel of Mark with you. By God’s grace he has put you in their lives, so point them to Jesus just as others have done for you.


The Subtle Danger of Mission Drift

“Without careful attention, faith-based organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission. It’s that simple. It will happen.”

So warn Peter Greer and Christ Horst in their new book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House). But why is “mission drift” so common among Christian ministries? How does it happen, and how can it be prevented? And by what metric do we determine whether an organization has remained resolutely—and likely counterculturally—”mission true”?

I corresponded with Greer and Horst, executive leaders of HOPE International, about sad stories, the role of $$$, InterVarsity’s trajectory, Albert Mohler’s leadership, and more.


Why is “mission drift” such a problem for well-intentioned Christian ministries and charitable trusts?

In a survey of hundreds of Christian leaders at the 2013 Q conference in Los Angeles, 95 percent said mission drift was a challenging issue to faith-based nonprofit organizations. The reality of mission drift isn’t a surprise, but it’s surprising that organizations aren’t more proactively safeguarding the center of their mission.

Through our research we confirmed that mission drift is a pressing challenge for every faith-based organization. The zeal and beliefs of the founders are insufficient safeguards. There is no immunity, no matter how concrete your mission statement is. Or how passionate your leaders are. Or how much you believe it could never happen to you.

Relatively minor decisions, when compounded by time, lead organizations to an entirely different purpose and identity.

Many today might be surprised to learn Pew Charitable Trusts started with evangelical intent. What happened?

Alongside his siblings, J. Howard Pew launched the Pew Charitable Trusts with the wealth generated from their family oil business (Sun Oil, known today as Sunoco). Pew held strong Christian convictions and had a vocal wariness about the secularization of many American institutions—like Princeton and Harvard. He was a good friend of Billy Graham, and together they launched several new evangelical institutions, including Christianity Today and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Today, more than 40 years after Pew’s death, the Pew Charitable Trusts funds many organizations Pew himself eschewed, including Planned Parenthood and several Ivy League schools. What happened? In short, Pew’s convictions and values were hijacked by the agenda and values of the current board and staff. Don’t get us wrong, they still fund many worthy causes. But they aren’t embodying the mission and values of Howard Pew. They say so themselves. When asked why the Pew Trusts no longer supports Gordon-Conwell, an organization Pew founded, current Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel simply replied: “[Howard] was a man of strong convictions, and his successors on our board are following in his tradition by having strong convictions.”

The substance of those convictions, however, is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has received such broad criticism. Convictions don’t exist in a vacuum—they have to be about something. It’s akin to assigning a diehard Yankees fan to lead a Red Sox fan club simply because he’s passionate about professional baseball.

How does money tend to factor into the mission drift equation?

Through hundreds of hours of interviews with Christian leaders of organizations of all varieties, donor influence was identified time and again as a leading cause of drift. With almost any donation there are “strings attached.” In some instances donors—often corporate donors or government funders—will place prohibitions about how overtly Christian an organization’s work can be. Historically this restriction was perhaps most evidenced in Andrew Carnegie’s university funding, which disallowed “sectarian institutions” from receiving funding. Many colleges—including Brown and Dartmouth—cut ties with their founding Christian denominations to be eligible to receive Carnegie’s millions.

We’ve experienced this challenge at HOPE International, where we work, and it’s a daily reality for nonprofit leaders. At some point organizations must decide if their mission is for sale. Is financial growth the most important indicator of success?

You claim that InterVarsity “carries the same DNA it had in the beginning,” yet many believe the ministry has drifted leftward theologically over the years. How do we determine whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission?

No organization is immune from mission drift. In the book we outline challenges within our own institution. In defense of InterVarsity, they’ve been expelled from a number of college campuses because of the depth of their Christian conviction. In response to the difficulties they’ve faced, president Alec Hill said in an interview: “There are a lot of universities trying to derecognize us, but we have a Lord we have to obey.”

When you return to InterVarsity’s founding in England in the 1870s, you’ll learn about a group of Cambridge students who started Bible studies and prayer meetings on their campus. These students received harsh criticism from university officials because of their evangelistic orientation. More than 130 years later, why does InterVarsity exist? “To establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord,” their purpose statement reads today. Just like at their founding, they’ve received tremendous opposition to their mission from many university officials. This track record doesn’t mean “mission true” organizations like InterVarsity won’t ever change. But a good way of determining whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission is by comparing the modern-day institution with the story of its founding.

You point to Albert Mohler at Southern Seminary as an example of the “challenges leaders are up against when they return their organizations to their founding identities.” What can other institutions learn from Mohler’s leadership in this regard?

What Mohler demonstrated most clearly was that the best time to make hard decisions is now. It’s easy to ignore drift or push divisive decisions to tomorrow. Mohler wasn’t interested in a 50-year turnaround plan, however. Recognizing the school fading away from its founding, he made the painful decisions necessary to reclaim the founding mission of the institution. It wasn’t without a lot of controversy, however. At his inaugural convocation address, students hung a crude dummy—an effigy—in a tree outside the chapel in protest of his leadership. Mission-true leaders hold the values and mission of their institutions above the pushback they’ll receive for doing so.

When do the moments of greatest temptation to drift typically arise?

We chose the word drift intentionally. It has the image of slowly, silently, and with little fanfare carrying you away to a new destination. It’s not dramatic, and yet anyone who’s spent time on a boat of any size knows it happens.

It’s clichéd, but the moments of greatest temptation occur when you least expect it. We’ve felt the tug of secularization most when we’ve been enjoying seasons of growth. It’s so easy for success to cloud drift. But it’s always there. As Christian leaders, we must daily commit ourselves to protecting and celebrating what matters most in the institutions God has entrusted to us.

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Carson Explains What Makes a Good Commentary


Some of you see that word and want to yawn. Others see it and want to cheer. You hope to collect lots of them, sets of them. There’s an Amazon Wish List to prove it. But commentaries aren’t meant to be collected. They’re meant to be consulted—week in and week out as you prepare to unlock the treasure chest of God’s Word to God’s people once again.

In honor of the recently released seventh edition of D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic), we asked The Gospel Coalition’s co-founder and president a few questions about commentaries—what makes a good one, what they can’t do, common pitfalls, how much time we should give them, and more.


What makes for a good commentary? How should an average pastor determine which commentaries to purchase?

Good all-round commentaries help readers think their way through the text—which requires adequate handling of words, sentences, flow of thought, genre, theological presuppositions, knowledge of historical setting, and, ideally, a commentary writer who is humble and of a contrite spirit and who trembles at God’s Word. But most commentaries do not do all these things (and other things—e.g., interaction with some other commentaries) equally well. That is one of the reasons one is usually wise to consult at least two or three commentaries with different emphases.

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Most commentaries (though there are some exceptions) are quite poor at integrating exegesis of the text at hand with whole-Bible biblical theology. This is a huge lacuna. If you run from exegesis directly to application, you will often get things wrong and tend to drift toward privatized applications. In other words, it is important to understand any part of God’s Word in terms of the book, corpus, and entire canon, to grasp how texts drive toward Jesus and the gospel, before too much application is attempted.

More broadly, most commentaries can’t do much toward faithful and telling application. Although the biblical text (explained by the commentary) ought to have a major say in shaping your sermon outline, few commentaries will help you at that point—and most of those that try to do so are not very good. Reading commentaries will not necessarily turn you into a good exegete: that requires more focused reading of the text itself.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the use of commentaries?

To name a few: (1) If you read the commentaries too soon in the process, instead of wrestling with the text itself, you will not become a skilled reader, and all your material will feel secondhand. (2) If you read the commentaries too late in the process, or, worse, not at all, you are failing to tap into generations of stimulating thought undertaken by Christians and others who have come before you, so you may overlook important things that you should not miss. (3) If you rely too heavily on commentaries at the expense of continuing reading in biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology, your sermons will tend to be reduced to running commentaries, instead of carrying the weight of the burden of a message from the text at hand. (4) Avoid using commentaries as a substitute for careful reading and importunate intercession. One of the things we need in our preaching is unction—and commentaries, in themselves, cannot provide that.

Generally speaking, how much of a preacher’s preparation time should be spent using commentaries?

In the early days of your ministry, not more than 60 to 70 percent; as you mature, not more than 50 percent. Any decently trained seminary graduate knows how to do reasonably responsible exegesis. The hardest part of sermon preparation is not exegesis and commentary study (assuming you had good training), but structure, writing, shaping, transitions, flow, vocabulary, introductions, and conclusions.

If a preacher only has time to consult, say, two commentaries per passage, what principles would you give to help guide his choice?

Consult different kinds of commentaries (e.g., at least one on the original text [if the preacher can read Greek and Hebrew], partly so that your tools will remain sharp. In all language work, use it or lose it.). Another commentary might be stronger in actual exposition. Ideally at least one of them will say important things about the genre and structure of thought in the biblical book being studied. Ideally one of them will reflect on the history of interpretation (e.g., what did the church fathers say? what did the Reformers say?); ideally one of them will be strong on words and syntax. Ideally at least one will have been written by someone who transparently hungers to be mastered by the Word of God. I should add that all commentaries are written from some vantage point or other, and it is important to learn what that vantage point is and make allowance for it. Suddenly, the limitation to two commentaries seems unreasonable!

What I Wish I’d Known: Reflections on Nearly 40 Years of Pastoral Ministry

What follows has been adapted from a brief talk I delivered to the Oklahoma chapter of The Gospel Coalition on October 2. Here are 10 things I wish I’d known when I first started out as a pastor.

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1. I wish I’d known that people who disagree with me on doctrines I hold dearly can often love God and pursue his glory with as much, and in some cases more, fervency than I do. The sort of intellectual pride that fuels such delusions can be devastating to ministry and will invariably undermine any efforts at broader Christian unity across denominational lines.

2. I wish I’d known about the inevitable frustration that comes when you put your trust in what you think are good reasons why people should remain loyal to your ministry and present in your church. I wish I’d been prepared for the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment that came when people in whom I’d personally invested so much love, time, and energy simply walked away, often with the most insubstantial and flimsiest of excuses.

3. I wish I’d known how deeply and incessantly many (most?) people suffer. Having been raised in a truly functional family in which everyone knew Christ and loved one another, I was largely oblivious to the pain endured by most people who’ve never known that blessing. For too many years I naively assumed that if I wasn’t hurting, neither were they. I wish I’d realized the pulpit isn’t a place to hide from the problems and pain of one’s congregation; it’s a place to address, commiserate with, and apply God’s Word to them.

4. I wish I’d known the life-changing truth of Zephaniah 3:17 long before Dennis Jernigan introduced me to it. I’m honored when people thank me for writing a particular book with comments such as “This was very helpful” or “You enabled me to see this truth in a new light,” or something similar. But of only one book, The Singing God, have people said, “This changed my life.” This isn’t some vain attempt to sell more books, but a reminder that most Christians (including pastors) are convinced God is either angry or disgusted with them, or both. I wish I’d known earlier how much he enjoys singing over them (and over me).

5. I wish I’d known how much people’s response to me would affect my wife. For many years I falsely assumed her skin was as thick as mine. Regardless of a woman’s personality, only rarely will she suffer less than him from criticism directed his way.

6. I wish I’d known how vital it is to understand yourself and to be both realistic and humble regarding what you find. Don’t be afraid to be an introvert or extrovert (or some mix of the two). Be willing to take steps to compensate for your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with people unlike you, who make up for your deficiencies and challenge you in healthy ways to be honest about what you can and cannot do.

7. I wish I’d known it’s possible to be a thoroughly biblical complementarian and to include women in virtually every area of ministry in the local church. In my early years in ministry, I was largely governed by the fear that to permit women into any form of ministry was to cross an imaginary biblical boundary—even though the Bible never imposes any such restriction on their involvement. I tended to make unwarranted applications by extrapolating from explicit principles something either absent or unneccesary. Aside from senior governmental authority in the local church (the role of elder) and the primary responsibility to expound and apply Scripture, is there anything the Bible clearly says is off-limits to females? Trust me, men, we need them far more than we know.

8. I wish I’d known it was okay to talk about money. Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Just be sure you’re humble and biblical and don’t do it with a view to a salary increase for yourself (unless you genuinely and desperately need one). For far too many years I allowed my disdain for prosperity gospel advocates to silence my voice on the importance of financial stewardship in Christian growth and maturity. I didn’t formulate a strategy for calling people to lifelong financial generosity without sounding self-serving.

9. I wish I’d known about the delusion of so-called confidentiality. Pity the man who puts his confidence in confidentiality. You can and must control the information that comes to you, but you can never control the information that comes from you. Once information is out and in the hands of others, never assume it will remain there, notwithstanding their most vigorous promises of silence. Be cautious and discerning about to whom you promise confidentiality, under which conditions (it’s rarely if ever unconditional), and in regard to what issues and/or individuals. “Sam, you don’t appear to have much trust in human nature, do you?” It’s not that I don’t trust human nature. I’m actually quite terrified of it! What I trust is Scripture’s teaching about human nature.

10. I wish I’d known about the destructive effects of insecurity in a pastor. This is less because I’ve struggled with it and more due to its effect I’ve seen in others. Why is insecurity so damaging?

• Insecurity makes it difficult to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of others on staff (or in the congregation). In other words, the personally insecure pastor is often incapable of offering genuine encouragement to others. Their success becomes a threat to him, his authority, and his status in the eyes of the people. Thus if you’re insecure you likely won’t pray for others to flourish.

• Insecurity will lead a pastor to encourage and support and praise another pastor only insofar as the latter serves the former’s agenda and doesn’t detract from his image.

• An insecure pastor will likely resent the praise or affirmation other staff members receive from the people at large.

• For the insecure pastor, constructive criticism is not received well, but is perceived as a threat or outright rejection.

• Because the insecure pastor is incapable of acknowledging personal failure or lack of knowledge, he’s often unteachable. He will resist those who genuinely seek to help him or bring him information or insights he lacks. His spiritual growth is therefore stunted.

• The insecure pastor is typically heavy-handed in his dealings with others.

• The insecure pastor is often controlling and given to micromanagement.

• The insecure pastor rarely empowers or authorizes others to undertake tasks for which they’re especially qualified and gifted. He won’t release others but rather restrict them.

• The insecure pastor is often given to outbursts of anger.

• At its core, insecurity is the fruit of pride.

In summary, and at its core, insecurity results from not believing the gospel. The antidote to feelings of insecurity, then, is the rock-solid realization that one’s value and worth are in the hands of God, not others, and that our identity expresses who we are in Christ. Only as we deepen our grasp of his sacrificial love for us will we find the liberating confidence to affirm and support others without fearing their successes or threats.

How Much Theology Should Couples Agree on Before They Get Married?

I’ll admit, this isn’t a typical question most Christian singles, or even couples, are asking. Most are still stuck on, “Wait, I’m supposed to date Christians?” That said, once you’ve established the importance of marrying someone who will be your partner in the faith and has the mutual goal of encouraging you in your relationship with Christ, you may start to wonder, “Well, does it really matter what kind of Christian they are? How will our theology affect the way we point each other to Christ? I mean, does it affect things if I’m a Protestant and he’s a Catholic? Or what if we have different views on the end times? What about speaking in tongues? Can I date someone who ‘quenches the Spirit’ and thinks I worship with ‘strange fire’?”
As I’ve thought about the issue while talking with friends, considering my own marriage, and searching through the Scriptures, I’ve concluded there isn’t any quick, easy answer. Instead, I want to simply put forward three questions, and a couple of caveats, to help singles and couples
navigate the dating and marriage decision.
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Do You Agree on the Core?

This question can simply be another way of asking, “Is this person a Christian?” That said, you should definitely have some bottom-line requirements like, say, agreeing to the content of Apostle’s Creed, Nicaea, Chalcedon, and so forth. Of course, the person doesn’t have to be a theology expert such that he or she knows the names of these councils. But you should agree that God is triune and Christ is the God-man, that he lived, died, and rose again in history for the salvation of mankind. Also, you should make sure you both hold a fundamental commitment to the Scriptures as the final authority in these issues; that way, there’s common ground for discussion and dialogue on other issues.
Beyond that, I don’t think couples have to agree on every point of theology to have a solid marriage. A Calvinist and a Wesleyan (preferably of the Fred Sanders sort) could do well enough together, unless they’re both super crusty about things. People with conflicting eschatologies could probably love and care for each other without an unnatural amount of friction (that is, until one of you reads the paper and decides its time to go down to the bomb shelter).

Can You Go to Church Together?

A further question to ask after the core questions is, “Can we go to church together?” Note, I don’t simply mean, “Can you put up with his church?” or “Can you suck it up at hers and then podcast later?” There are going to be seasons where one of you likes your church more than the other, but the point is that worshiping and growing together in your marriage needs to happen in the church context. Going to different churches for a while during the dating process is fine, but eventually you’re going to need to knit your life together in the broader church community. If you’re theologically so far apart that one of you is thriving and the other is dying, that’s not going to make for a healthy spiritual life and will likely lead to strife in the marriage.

Can You Raise Children Together?

The third question is one my pastor asks of couples seeking premarital counseling. Practically speaking, theology is going to play a role in the way you parent and disciple your children. For instance, right off the bat, if one of you is a credobaptist and the other is a paedobaptist, that’s going to be a tough conversation when you have your first kid. My wife and I are going to have that conversation in time, because I’ve shifted in that area since we started dating and got married (moving from credo to paedo), but it’s important for this act to not be taken unilaterally.

Theology Changes

The other thing you need to remember is that theology changes. You need to be ready. I just mentioned I’ve been shifting from credo- to paedobaptist over the past couple of years. That’s just one of the many changes my wife and I have been navigating. The person you’re dating now might have different beliefs by the time you get married. They could have shifts in theology after you’re married, too. So will you. And in a lot of cases, given you’re not an inspired apostle, that’s a good thing. Actually, I’m convinced one of the reasons God gives you your spouse is to sharpen you, challenge you, and correct your understanding of God in light of the Word. I know I’ve learned from my wife and she’s learned from me over the years as we’ve sought to submit to God’s Word together.

Word to Reformed Guys

On that note, I have a special word to Reformed menor rather, guys. A while back I wrote a joke blog on how to meet Reformed men. In the comments one fellow said he didn’t mind dating a non-Reformed girl since he’d take it as a point of pride to “conquer” her theologically. Let me just say this loud and clear: This is arrogant, foolish, and must not be your attitude. Your future bride is not a notch to add on your theological belt but your sister in Christ with a mind of her own, given by her heavenly Father to be used properly, just like yours. In fact, hers might be sharper than yours. You may be a Reformed complementarian, but the command in Ephesians 5:21 says to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, and that command isn’t revoked by the next few verses, however much you think they nuance it. Yes, you are called to “wash her with the word,” as Christ does the church, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean with a firehose of theological argument designed to cow her into mental acquiescence. Basically, treat her like a person.
If you keep these points in mind, prayerfully listen to input from trusted, believing brothers and sisters, and keep God as God in your heart (i.e., avoid the temptation to compromise because you’re desperate), you should be fine.

What Christians Should Know About Halloween

Halloween has become the second highest-grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. But this festive day also carries a lot of baggage. Scholars Ralph and Adelin Linton write:

Among all the festivals which we celebrate today, few have histories stranger than that of Halloween. It is the eve of All Hallows—or Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day—and as such it is one of the most solemn festivals of the church. At the same time, it commemorates beings and rites with which the church has always been at war. It is the night when ghosts walk and fairies and goblins are abroad. . . . We cannot understand this curious mixture unless we go back into history and unravel the threads from which the present holiday pattern has been woven.

The brief account seeks to vindicate Halloween from its “Satanic” and barbaric origins. While the dark side of Halloween may have been overemphasized, Christians must still acknowledge that the holiday originated (at least) in pagan and mythical practices. The extent to which such practices can be categories as “Satanic” is a debate of semantics. Is Roman mythology “Satanic”? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Regardless, the origin of Halloween is certainly in the realm of non-Christian spiritualism. As such, Christians should be careful in their approach to Halloween.

Halloween for Christians

Christians haven’t always been sure what to do with this holiday of apparently pagan origins. Is it unredeemable, such that any Christian participating in the holiday will necessarily compromise their faith? Is it something Christians can participate in as a cultural celebration with no religious ramifications? Or is there the opportunity for Christians to emphasize certain aspects of our own faith within the holiday?

1. Should Christians renounce Halloween as “the Devil’s day”?

One of the most famous recent examples of Christian interaction with Halloween comes from Pat Robertson, who called Halloween the “festival of the Devil.” As such, he claimed that participating in Halloween is wrong for Christians.

In renouncing this holiday outright, Robertson fails to ask the following question: To what extent does something’s evolution from pagan roots entail that its present practice is tainted? As Albert Mohler notes, there’s been a shift from pagan ritual to merely commercial fascination with the dark side. Robertson misses that for most people in America, Halloween is about candy. A quarter of all candy sold annually in the United States is for Halloween night! Granted, dressing up as witches and goblins can be a tricky issue, but to think that putting on a scary mask or makeup opens you up to the dark side is a bit naïve.

In addition, there are two built-in problems with a blanket-rejection position. First, those who insist on rejecting certain holidays aren’t being consistent. Should we reject other holidays because there’s a propensity toward excess? In other words, if people are inclined toward gluttony on Thanksgiving or Christmas, shouldn’t those holidays be renounced as well? After all, gluttony is a sin. Second, many times the reject position assumes the evil of the extrinsic world will taint the faith of a Christian. But Jesus says the exact opposite (Mark 7:21-23). The fruit of our lives (whether in holiness or sin) is always inextricably tied to the root of our hearts. If our hearts are prone toward sin in certain ways, we will find a way to sin. Sin indeed corrupts, but the sin is not so much “out there in the world” as is in the heart of every person. The reject position falsely assumes sin is mostly what we do rather than who we are.

2. Can Christians participate in Halloween wisely?

An informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to engage cultural practices (1 Cor. 10:23-33) leads to the conclusion that we can follow our conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.

Even so, how Christians ought to go about relating to or participating in Halloween is still a tricky subject. In order to navigate the waters successfully, one must always distinguish between the merely cultural aspects of Halloween and the religious aspects of the holiday. In the past the church has tried with varied results to subsume the religious aspects of Halloween by adding a church holiday. If we engage, care must be taken. There’s a big difference between kids dressing up in cute costumes for candy and Mardi Gras-like Halloween parties, offensive costumes, and uninhibited excess. It’s too simple, then, to make a blanket judgment to reject or accept Halloween as a whole. There certainly should be no pressure to participate.

For those still bothered by Halloween’s historical association with evil spirits, Martin Luther has some advice on how to respond to the Devil: “The best way to drive out the Devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Perhaps instead of fleeing the darkness in fear, we should view Halloween as an opportunity to mock the enemy whose power over us has been broken.

Editors’ note: For a more detailed retelling of Halloween’s history, see the longer version of this article that appeared on Justin Holcomb’s website.

Listening to our Anabaptist Brethren

Those of us who identify with the gospel-centered or New Calvinist movement rejoice over the recovery of a Christ-centered reading of Scripture, the rediscovery of deep and sound doctrine, and the heart-focused transformation often lacking in the broader evangelical movement. As this movement has spread and gained influence, however, we’ve begun to see our share of criticism. Not everyone is happy about this theology and practice that has gained ground in evangelicalism. Of course, we should expect this pushback and to some degree set our faces forward to live by our convictions. But we would do well to remember the truly Reformed aren’t just reformed but always reforming. Finding a theological home is important, but we need to be a movement that listens to other Christians who may see things about us we’re not seeing, things that need to be altered or even confessed. During seminary and since, I’ve interacted with blogs and books that have a theological home in the (also growing) neo-Anabaptist movement. At one point, many of these writers were part of the “Emergent Church” movement, though I don’t know if that label means much anymore. But over the years, I’ve tried to listen humbly to what these brothers are seeing in me and in the New Calvinist movement as a whole.

While I don’t accept the totality of their charges and concerns, I’ve benefited from three broad critiques that I think we’d do well as a movement to consider. I cannot possibly outline every objection they’ve raised, nor will I be able to fairly and perfectly articulate their concerns. But I do hope that by raising some of their concerns I can make an observation that accounts for them and thus opens opportunity for us to pursue together.

1. Our Definition of the Gospel Is Not Wrong, Just Incomplete

Many in the Anabaptist movement have argued that the gospel we preach is too narrow, overly focused on individual forgiveness, and framed by a systematic doctrinal logic. Behind this critique is a concern that modernity—with its turn toward the individual, obsession with control, and trappings with power—has unduly influenced the church’s theology and practice. Rather than understanding Jesus and his kingdom on his own terms, we’ve skewed Jesus and his message to justify the kingdoms of this world and ease our guilty consciences. If you haven’t listened to the panel discussion between Tim Keller, Don Carson, John Piper, and Kevin DeYoung from The Gospel Coalition’s 2013 National Conference, I encourage you to do so since that conversation in many ways responds to this criticism. Additionally, Carson’s editorial in the latest issue of Themelios addresses this critique as well. I agree with the arguments made defending our movement in these two outlets. But I also think we ought to consider why these concerns keep being raised. I wonder if we need a greater emphasis on the reconciliation of the cross. We are forgiven and reconciled to God as individuals—and brought into a community to be reconciled to one another. This recognition necessarily provides a broader, more robust gospel context.

2. Our Movement Promotes Domineering and Dangerous Leaders

The critiques I’ve read and listened to aren’t just theological but practical as well. The egalitarian/complementarian debate has raged for some time, but with the rise of the New Calvinist movement the debate has shifted to focus on the public leaders in our movement and on the church culture that has developed. We’ve been charged with promoting male leaders who are domineering, prone to abusing power, and susceptible to scandalous and public moral failure. The theological argument I’ve heard has challenged the very character or even type of leadership we envision. Many suggest we’ve failed to see the implications of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death in service of the church by submitting himself to worldly powers. While I agree with the theological and exegetical arguments in favor of complementarianism, I agree in substantial ways with the red flags being raised about our culture of leadership. While we talk about leaders needing to serve sacrificially out of love, it’s easy for us to blindly justify power plays and a desire to control with claims that we’re, well, serving people out of love. The celebrity culture of our movement, denied by some and acknowledged-though-downplayed by most, differs little from the broader evangelical culture.

3. Our Understanding of What It Means to Be ‘Reformed’ Is Too Narrow

This last critique tends to come from those in academic circles who criticize pastors for using the “Reformed” label without a well-informed understanding of theological movements and church history. In particular, I often hear the criticism that TULIP has never been the central theology of the Reformed heritage and that many of our leaders (like Piper and Keller) are more representative of the Puritan branch of the Reformed tradition than of Calvin himself. The charge is usually demonstrated by the fact that there are Baptists among us or that many in our movement are surprised to hear Karl Barth described as a Reformed theologian. This critique seems less important to me than the first two in terms of its gravity. It’s largely a concern about labels, though it clearly intends to challenge the general historical ignorance of our movement (a critique leveled against evangelicals for a long time). But it’s also a critique I largely embrace. We do need to have a better understanding of where we fall within the history of Christianity, and we do need to gain a broader appreciation for the Reformed tradition than just TULIP. Having said that, I don’t think we’re wrong to embrace the label and to locate the doctrines of grace as part of the central concerns of the early Reformers.

Underlying Issue?

I hope this brief outline will encourage us to listen and to think about where we need to continue to reform. For now, though, here’s what I think our Anabaptist friends may be seeing that we should consider: in our recovery of the gospel of grace, we’ve failed to kill the latent triumphalism and Constantinianism of evangelicalism, especially in our ecclesiology. In other words, many of us are still operating with the background framework of Christendom. We’re comfortable in our cultural context and feel at home. Our churches expect the support of the culture and operate on the assumption that as leaders we can organize and control our church life so as to achieve the results we desire. We condemn the prosperity gospel yet expect church to feel like a place of success and victory. While these concerns may seem out of left field, I wonder if they’re much closer to home than we’ve been willing to admit.

Don’t Pack Too Much in Your Sermons

Recently my family of eight packed into our mini-van for an early spring vacation. When I say “packed in” you may be thinking in terms of seats. I mean we were packed in. The trunk was filled to the top; the floor had shoes, books, bags, and blankets. The front seat was full of distractions for the little kids as well as entertainment for the adults and big kids. But when we got closer to our destination (10 hours away), we went to Costco to buy food for the week. In this we were now officially, completely packed in. Kids balanced cartons of eggs, coffee, vegetables, and milk while we finished our course.

The vacation ended, and my normal responsibilities at the church resumed. I prepared a sermon and then delivered it on Sunday. After reflecting upon it and critiquing various elements of it, I was drawn back to our road-trip. We preachers tend to stuff our sermons so full of content that it can make for a rough trip. Consider the parallel. Early in the week I prepare an outline and structure (packing list). Soon I’m writing and building on the homiletical bones (initial packing). Through my zeal and love for the content the paper usually fills up pretty fast. The car is nearly packed. However, as I stew over the passage and think about illustrations and implications, I always add more. A paragraph here, an illustration there, and before you know it—the sermon’s van is fully packed.

But this is not all. In the moment, fully engaged with delivering the sermon, I am firing fresh arrows out of my preaching quiver. This is like a stop at the outlet mall or gift shop. Of course we can fit in some new running shoes for dad, new jeans for mom, or sleds for the kids. The car and the sermon are packed.

As preachers or Bible study leaders, this is good and important reminder: We can’t pack everything into every message. Let me give you a few reasons why and then how we can pack it more effectively.

Why You Can’t Pack Everything

It’s impossible. Just like you can’t bring your entire house with you on vacation you cannot download your Logos library to your congregation every week.

It’s counterproductive. The preacher will undermine his sermon if he is going on and on about every single textual and theological dispute filling his favorite commentaries. It’s still important, but it is not necessary to bring everything to the pulpit. After a while your sermon shocks will go out.

It sets an unrealistic picture. Elders are supposed to be an example to their flock (1 Pet. 5.1-3). Can you imagine the perception of the young Christian listening to seminary-level lectures every week? It’s good for the pastor to read and enjoy these things, but the poor guy in the front row who’s struggling with reading his Bible is not going to be encouraged. He is going to feel hopelessly lost.

How to Pack More Efficiently

Remember it is one sermon. As pastors we have the privilege of preaching on a regular basis. We have the advantage of time. This long view liberates us from feeling that we have to cover everything about everything in one sermon.

Establish a clear, succinct main point. If we have established and expounded the central point and main idea of the passage week after week, then we will be shaping the church from the Bible. If we do this over an extended period of time then our hearers will learn theology, hermeneutics, and discernment. Faithful, clear, biblical exposition in the power of the Holy Spirit over a period of time will grow mature Christians.

Know your congregation. Jesus reminds us that he knows his sheep (Jn. 10.14-15). Likewise as pastors who lead, feed, and guard the flock, we must know the sheep. Whom are you preaching to? What are their heart idols? What is the maturity level? I remember hearing D. A. Carson talk about how he does not put all the cookies on bottom shelf when preaching. Carson quickly added, “But I don’t put them all on the top either.” Instead, Carson advocated for challenging the most mature and the least mature hearer in his congregation every week. The only way to do this, he added, is through a robust but accessible gospel-centered, theological exposition. The preacher must take complex and even infinite concepts and make them understandable. You have to know your Bible and your people in order to do this effectively.

Plan. When I was trying to jam in the extra pair of boots and one more grocery bag into my van I rebuked myself for my lack of planning. The preacher can help himself and his church by simply taking some time to prayerfully plan out where he is going to lead the church from the pulpit. Things may come up that take precedent and alter the plan, but at the core, the preacher knows where he is leading the sheep. This front-end work liberates the pastor from overstuffing his sermons. He has thoughtfully and prayerfully planned the preaching menu.

If necessary, do a “walk-thru.” If you have a central point and a plan it can be helpful to walk through the outline or manuscript to see what you can cut. Does that illustration add or subtract value? The quote by Keller is great, but is it necessary? Do you have any unbalanced portions of the outline? Can you make some things more clear so as to not overwhelm new Christians in your congregation?

Prayerful, thoughtful, and careful planning make for good sermons as well as good road trips. This is just another way the pastor can lovingly serve the sheep God has called him to lead.

If King Solomon Gave a Commencement Address

The most famous commencement address was never delivered at a graduation. In June 1997 Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, published what seemed like a perennial cliché—the commencement address she would have given if asked—centered around one critical piece of advice: wear sunscreen.

Two years later, Australian film director Baz Luhrmann set Schmich’s column to music, hired voice actor Lee Perry to record it, and released a music single, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” that went on to top the music charts around the world. (If you listen to popular radio, you’re likely to hear the song again sometime during this graduation season.)

Wear Sunscreen

Comprising a series of pithy and humorous admonitions to young people, the song begins:

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’97:

Wear sunscreen . . .

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, oh nevermind, you will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded.

But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now, how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked; you are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing everyday that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Schmich’s column contains the usual commencement clichés (don’t worry about the future), obvious good advice (respect your elders), and useful banalities (floss). But it also includes advice that could be a license for immorality (enjoy your body; use it every way you can).

Biblical Alternative

The most popular commencement address never given falls short of the biblical ideal at several points. But what would a biblical commencement address sound like? And who would be the best person to deliver such a speech?

Several candidates from the New Testament may seem to be obvious choices (the apostles Peter or Paul), though wouldn’t they be more likely to deliver a sermon than a graduation address? Similarly, the Old Testament offers a range of excellent speakers—namely all the prophets. But if you were waiting to get your diploma and head off to the post-graduation party, wouldn’t you be disheartened to see Isaiah take the stage? When you consider all the options there is only one clear favorite, a man who would have been the best commencement speaker in history: King Solomon.

Solomon had all the attributes we look for in a commencement speaker. He was fabulously wealthy, accomplished (his biography as well as three of his written works are included in the best-selling book of all time), worldly-wise (“I have seen everything that is done under the sun. . .”), and able to provide suitably aphoristic advice for young people (he even wrote a wildly popular advice book).

Had Solomon given a commencement address similar to Schmich’s, I suspect it would have sounded something like this . . .

The Commencement Address King Solomon (Probably) Would Have Given

People often ask, “What’s the key to success?” My father—who was quite a success himself—gave me some sound advice on the subject: “Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses.”

One of the most important things I know is this: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

I knew a kid once who was poor but wise. He went from being in prison to become a king. Led a great number of people. But now no one remembers him—at least not fondly. He was better off being poor. What happened to him? Well, after he got in power he no longer knew how to take advice. The lesson: Listen to advice and accept instruction, so that you may gain wisdom in the future.

Young men, admire the beauty of your wife; young women, admire the beauty of your husband. (I recommend comparing a woman’s hair to a flock of goats and a man’s hair to a raven.)

Don’t love sleep.

I had a dream once that God would give me whatever I asked. If you ever have a similar dream, here’s what I recommend: Don’t ask God to give you wealth or a long life. Ask for an understanding mind and the ability to discern good from evil.

Keep your tongue and you’ll keep out of trouble.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. Sure, you may have iPhones and Starbucks now. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing really all that new.

Buy truth, and do not sell it. Buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding too.

Aim to get rich slowly. Wealth gained hastily will dwindle; wealth gained little by little increases.

Go out into the grass and find some ants. Watch what they do. Notice how even this insect works hard preparing for the future? You should do the same.

Don’t ever say, “Why were the former days better than these?” Wise people never ask that question.

Even fools who keep their mouths shut seem wise. So if you want people to think you’re intelligent, close your lips.

Don’t marry someone who doesn’t share your faith. Trust me, it only leads to heartache and pain.

Remember when you were a kid and your dog died? That’s going to happen to you too. Did your dog go to heaven? I don’t know.

Don’t take everything people say to heart. You know that many times you yourself have cursed others.

When you vow a vow to God, pay it as soon as you can. God takes no pleasure in fools, so pay what you vow.

Don’t spend too much time drinking alcohol. It may go down smooth, but in the end, it’ll bite you like a snake.

Wine is a mocker, liquor a brawler.

The more you know, the more the world breaks your heart.

Never trust a woman who would accept half a baby.

Wear sunscreen.

Parents, Do You Think Before You Post?

My entire childhood is documented in the space of three photo albums. Two photos stand out in my memory: one, infant-me having my diaper changed from a rather compromising camera angle; the other, 2-year-old me seated triumphantly on a potty chair. I remember them because my parents teased that they would show them to any prospective suitors. Even though I knew they were joking, the possibility that those pictures would ever be viewed outside our family horrified me as an adolescent. The written record of my childhood is fairly small, too—a baby book with notes about my weight gain and first words, a collection of birthday cards and letters from family. How different this is from the record many parents are making of their children’s early years now.

The internet and social media open up new possibilities for us to record and share the lives of our families on a much broader scale than ever before. Because of this, parents of young children must think of themselves differently than in the past. Photos like the ones my parents lightheartedly joked about revealing are now revealed routinely to our virtual communities. The off-the-cuff comment my mother may have made to her neighbor about my 2-year-old sassiness is now made by parents to hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of virtual relationships. How many parents realize that they are the custodians of their children’s virtual identity until they are old enough to manage it on their own?

Thinking Ahead

Most discussions of children and online protocol center on privacy settings and password safety for school-age children, but my concern starts earlier. Are we parents protecting and preserving the future privacy wishes and best interests of our small children in our own online posting choices?

Every day parents use social media and the blogosphere to offer up photos and posts chronicling all manner of child misbehavior, parental frustrations, and mishaps involving bodily fluids. I think these posts are made by well-meaning parents, unaware that they are creating an online identity for their children. But with every post, we construct a digital history of our child’s life—a virtual scrapbook for public viewing—and we might want to think harder about the trail we are leaving behind. Do our comments and photos preserve our child’s dignity or gratify our own adult sense of comedy? Do we post our thoughts to satisfy a need to vent? Do we miss the truth that our families need our discretion far more than our blog followers need our authenticity?

There is a reason we don’t vent about or post potentially embarrassing pictures of our spouse or our mother-in-law: the real possibility that they will see what we have posted. No such danger exists with a young child . . . or does it? Cyberspace feels fleeting and forgiving, but it is neither. Consider that your toddlers will likely one day see the online identity you have created for them. And so may their middle school peers, their prom date, their college admissions board, and their future employers. But far more important than what the outside world will think of this digital trail is what your child will think of it.

Imagine Them Older

Parents, before you post about your small children, imagine a 13-year-old version of them reading over your shoulder. Your child bears the image of God just as you do. Does what you communicate honor them as equal image-bearers? Does it provide short-term gratification for you or honor long-term relationship with them? Does it potentially expose them to ridicule or label them? Does it record a negative sentiment that an adult would recognize as fleeting but an adolescent might not?

I am sure my mother had days when she wanted to give toddler-me to gypsies, but no permanent record of these moments existed for adolescent-me to find. A few of those stories do survive in oral form, but they are retold with laughter, face-to-face, where tone and facial expression give them context. If my mother vented to my dad that I was sneaky or sassy, I never saw or heard those labels. And that’s a good thing, because parents may experience moments (or seasons) of deep frustration toward our children, but we would never want them to think that our love for them was ever in question.

In school my children were taught a memory tool to help them make wise choices when speaking, writing, or posting:  

T-H-I-N-K: Is what I have to say True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind?

As stewards of their stories, we parents need that memory tool as well. Maintaining trust in the parent-child relationship should outweigh any other motive for posting. Think before you post. By all means, have a safe and appropriate place to vent and “be real” about parenting—just recognize that place is probably not the internet. Let everything you share with those outside your home strengthen the bond of trust you have within it. Tell your story without compromising theirs. Execute well the custodial duty of managing your child’s online identity until its precious owner is ready to assume the job.

” . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Philippians 4:8