Tag Archives: You Asked


You Asked: Does God Harden a Believer’s Heart?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

An anonymous commenter asked:

What does it mean that God hardens human hearts? And will he do that to a believer?

We posed the question to Tony Reinke, content strategist for DesiringGod.org in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


hard-heartThis is a serious and important two-part question, but it is really six questions in disguise. Though human speculation could not touch it with a javelin pole, God’s revelation helps to unfold the answer. None of us is made modest by tiptoeing past this question if the Bible offers us answers.

I’ll try to unfold the six questions and answer them briefly in this (woefully short) article.

1. What is a hard heart?

A hard heart is an obstinate and calloused heart that fails to respond to God or obey him. A hard heart is blind to the precious value of the gospel and refuses to embrace Christ (Rom. 11:8). Most precariously, a hard heart is synonymous with spiritual ignorance and alienation from God (Eph. 4:18).

2. But does God actively harden the hearts of sinners? And if so, why?

Without question, the answer is yes, he does. The Bible speaks of God’s active agency in hardening hearts with unmistakable bluntness.

Maybe the clearest example is Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. God hardened his heart in obstinacy on purpose. “Not once in Exodus 4-14 is the assertion of God’s hardening of Pharaoh grounded in any attitude or act of Pharaoh. Instead, again and again the reason given for the hardening is God’s purpose to demonstrate his power and magnify his name,” as Paul explains in Romans 9:17 (John Piper, The Justification of God, 174).

We find another example in John 12:36-43, showing Jesus unmistakably connecting unbelief in his day with the hardening of God. But before we go much further it’s vital to hear four key qualifications from D. A. Carson on this text:

If a superficial reading finds this harsh, manipulative, even robotic, four things must constantly be borne in mind:

(1) God’s sovereignty in these matters is never pitted against human responsibility;

(2) God’s judicial hardening is not presented as the capricious manipulation of an arbitrary potentate cursing morally neutral or even morally pure beings, but as a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen;

(3) God’s sovereignty in these matters can also be a cause for hope, for if he is not sovereign in these areas there is little point in petitioning him for help, while if he is sovereign the anguished pleas of the prophet (Is. 63:15-19)—and of believers throughout the history of the church—make sense;

(4) God’s sovereign hardening of the people in Isaiah’s day, his commissioning of Isaiah to apparently fruitless ministry, is a stage in God’s “strange work” (Is. 28:21-22) that brings God’s ultimate redemptive purposes to pass. [Carson, John, 448-9]

God has his ways and his prerogatives in divine hardening, and those prerogatives are just and right (Rom. 9:14-24).

At the same time, a hardened heart always reflects the willful, self-hardening, and rejection of God by the sinner (Rom. 1:26-28). Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15). God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 7:3) for God to display his wrath and power.

But this answer raises another question: is the hardening work of God now passed? Was it only a stage in redemptive history to bring out the cross and the ingathering of Gentiles? Or, to ask the question another way:

3. Does God harden Gentile hearts, and does he still harden hearts today?

Further evidence in the epistles leads me to answer yes and yes. We know God’s hardening will one day manifest in the Gentile world on earth at a future point leading up to the return of Christ (2 Thess. 2:1-12).

But even more tangibly, the hardening of God is made manifest in two ways: in the continued rejection of the Messiah by ethnic Israel (Rom. 9-11), and in the celebration of homosexual sin by Gentiles (Rom. 1:26-28). In both cases, broadly speaking, God’s hardening is made visible to modern eyes.

4. So whose hearts are hardened?

As the New Testament makes clear, the whole world is ultimately divided into two groups, the gospel-embracers and the gospel-rejecters, or more specifically, the elect and the non-elect. In the end, these categories divide the entire population. There are vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath (Rom. 2:5). There are “elect” and there are “the rest” (Rom. 11:7). God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills,” and those two categories cover all human beings. The hardened in this passage include a Gentile Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17-18).

Taking this point even further, based on the contrast in Romans 11:7, I believe we can say every one of the non-elect will experience God’s active hardening at some point, to be shut up in a condition that excludes one from salvation. God’s hardening is a feature of his activity with the “vessels of wrath.”

5. So does God harden the heart of a believer?

Now we get to the main question, one where even Reformed theologians seem to disagree. Some say yes, God could harden the heart of the pre-converted elect in their sin but then reverse that hardening later in regeneration. The case of David is cited as an episode where a child of God may have experienced a circumstantial divine hardening (2 Sam. 24:1).

And this possibility raises questions about what ultimately happened to Pharaoh. Did he convert after the Exodus? Possibly, but this would seem to contradict Paul’s use of Pharaoh as an example in his discussion of election in Romans 9-11. It seems more likely that Paul uses Pharaoh as an example of a “vessel of wrath” who was never converted.

But I think the best answer to this question is no, because in the argument of Romans, God’s act of hardening is permanent. As one commentator puts it:

It is unlikely that the hardening to which Paul refers is reversible (Rom. 9:18, 21-23; 11:1-10). One is the object either of God’s mercy or of his hardening (9:18), and there is not the slightest hint in 9:21-23 that the vessels of wrath may become vessels of mercy. Instead, Paul argues that the vessels of mercy will appreciate God’s mercy when they see his just anger inflicted upon the vessels of wrath. (Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 618)

Based on Romans, it seems best to say God hardens only the vessels of wrath (non-elect), never the hearts of the vessels of mercy (elect), either before, or after, conversion. God’s hardening of a heart is a judicial act that is never overturned. Therefore I think it’s best to say, no, the true believer is never the object of God’s hardening.

6. But has my heart been hardened?

Often this question comes from Christians suffering spiritual numbness in their heart. They don’t feel joy in God like they want, or like they did before. Their Bible reading plan is less fruitful on a daily basis than they desire. But all believers feel and lament this sort of coldness in their hearts. All believers struggle with occasional callousness in their affections—but this feeling is not the same thing as a hard heart. A truly hard heart cannot feel or lament its own hardness, and there’s the key difference.

Hardness of heart leads the non-elect to feel increasing confident in their sin; hardness of heart in the redeemed makes us feel weak and needy.

So how do you know if God has hardened your heart? Well, have you hardened your heart to God (Heb. 3:7-19)? The beauty of God’s divine drama is that we don’t immediately know who is a vessel of mercy and who is a God-hardened vessel of wrath. The Jewish man who currently rejects Christ may eventually come to faith in Christ by an act of God’s sovereign grace overriding his self-hardened heart. And the practicing homosexual sinner may turn from her sins and live by an act of God’s sovereign grace overriding her self-hardened heart.

This is why gospel preaching is so amazing. We offer the gospel to all. We let the gospel-lion out of its cage to do its work in separating sheep from goats, vessels of mercy from vessels of wrath. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (non-elect), but to us who are being saved (elect) it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

In the end, each of us must answer one question above all regarding the condition of our heart: Do I embrace Jesus Christ as the greatest treasure in the universe?

You Asked: Should Women Be Military Chaplains?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Jon S. from St. Louis writes,

I have a female complementarian friend who believes that it is not biblical for women to be pastors, but is considering becoming a military chaplain. Why would or why wouldn’t it be biblical for a women to become a military chaplain? What are the differences or similarities to the pastoral office?

We asked Mark Coppenger to answer the question. Coppenger is a professor of Christian apologetics and vice president for extension education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A retired infantry officer, Coppenger is the son of a naval chaplain and son-in-law of an army chaplain.


To this question, my own Southern Baptist denomination says no, though, for a season, it took the other tack. The change came after the 2000 update of our doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, which now reads, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

army-chaplainSimilar circumstances and convictions led earlier to the formation of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose Danvers Statement declares, “In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”

The SBC’s sticking point was ordination to the gospel ministry, required by the military, but denied for women by the vast majority of SBC churches, who expressed their convictions on the subject as early as 1984. A resolution urged that churches not be swayed “by modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors,” and, encouraged, in light of biblical authority, “the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

Women in the Ranks

Be that as it may, don’t we need women chaplains to minister to the influx of women in the ranks? This might be more compelling if these women chaplains were assigned to women only—sister to sister. But that would be an unacceptable to the military and non-military politicians in charge. They insist that “a chaplain is a chaplain is a chaplain.”

Of course, base chapels aren’t real churches with member rolls and discipline. As one chaplain put it, they serve more as missionaries than pastors, “performing or providing” religious counsel as needed to the various groups in their zone of ministry—more like drinking fountains to which thirsty personnel may come to drink at their leisure than parents who say, “Drink your milk.”

But I believe this description understates reality. According to Army Regulation 165-1 (Army Chaplain Corps Activities), chaplains’ job description includes the “conduct of worship,” performance of “rites, sacraments, and ordinances,” and the “conduct of marriages, burials, baptisms, confirmations, blessings, daily prayers, and other required religious ministrations.” And while they are often called upon to do more generic duty pertaining to troop and family welfare (e.g., next-of-kin notification; substance abuse counseling), they are unmistakably charged to act as de facto pastors for many of the faithful. And for this work, the Army insists on pastor-level ordination. This arrangement has been in place for 40 years, with the appearance of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist women chaplains, some rising to the rank of admiral and general.

Some Christian groups are more sanguine than others over endorsement. Army Chaplain Arlene Williams found her way from the Baptist fellowship of her youth to the Church of God, more open to women preachers. She had some early disappointments: “I would hear, I’ll send my females over to you, but they didn’t understand that I was there to provide guidance for males and females.” But things got better at a new post, where she was looking forward to her first preaching stint to the troops. She enthused, “We need more women chaplains. . . . Women are nurturers by nature, and we can nurture women and men in faith. I encourage all females who are interested in being a female chaplain to just do it. It’s a very fulfilling ministry.”

Band of Sisters

Yet nurturing doesn’t tell the whole story, as Chaplain Delana Small well knows. A graduate of Evangel College, she’s endorsed by the Assemblies of God. At present, she serves with an all-male battalion of the 101st in Afghanistan. She joins many other military women who have served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whose stories are told in Kirsten Holmstedt’s book Band of Sisters. She offers inspiring accounts of women in harm’s way, often at loss of limb and life. But the question lingers, “Why are they there in the first place?”

In some instances, their presence is arguably essential, as with nurses, who’ve served in the wartime tradition of Florence Nightingale, “The Lady with the Lamp” in the Crimean War. Even then, we need to recognize the cost. Navy Lieutenant Estrella Salinas left two children behind, “well aware she could be killed and her children could be left motherless.”

Whatever case one might make for the need for women nurses in war, there is no corresponding military case for women chaplains. There are plenty of evangelical male ministers to go around, and since “a chaplain is a chaplain is a chaplain,” the men are capable of pastoral care and leadership for both genders, just as they are in the churches. To the social engineers, it doesn’t matter. To Christian men and women, it certainly should.

You Asked: Why Is Faith Not a Work?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Edward B. from England asks,

Why is faith not a work? If we are obligated to have faith before righteousness can be credited to us (Romans 4), how is faith not a work? I recognize that Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that we are saved by faith not through works, but I don’t quite understand how to reconcile faith not being a work if we are required to have it in order to be saved.

We posed this question to Matthew Barrett, assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. His most recent book is Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (P&R, 2013). He is the author of several other forthcoming books, which you can read about at matthewmbarrett.com.


Let’s begin with an analogy. When you walk into a dark room, what comes first, the appearance of light or turning on the light switch? As we perceive things, they seem to happen simultaneously. However, does one cause and logically precede the other? Absolutely. We all know that turning on the light switch brings about brightness in the room, not vice versa. The same is true in initial salvation. In Scripture, faith does not cause or bring about the new birth, but God’s effectual call and the Spirit’s work of regeneration produces faith and repentance.

To begin, we must remember that the unbeliever is pervasively depraved and therefore totally passive. Paul’s description is sobering: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1). Therefore, spiritual resurrection is needed. We are like Lazarus, four days dead, lifeless, and rotting away in the tomb (John 11:17). Only the life-creating words of Christ can awaken our dead soul. Or to switch analogies, we need to be born again, or born from above, as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:3-8). Notice, birth is not a cooperative effort; the child is passive. He can take no credit in being born. Likewise, spiritual birth is completely and entirely the work of God.

As I demonstrate in Salvation by Grace, when God calls his elect, he does so effectually (e.g., John 6:37, 44, 65; Rom. 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Eph. 4:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). And when the Spirit awakens new life in the spiritually dead sinner, he does so unfailingly and irresistibly, apart from the sinner’s cooperation (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; 32:39-40; Ezek. 11:19-21; 36:26-37; John 3:3-8; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Eph. 2:1-7; Col. 2:11-14; Titus 3:3-7; 2 Cor. 4:3-6; 1 John 5:1). In short, God’s sovereign work of effectual calling and regeneration bring about the sinner’s trust in Christ, not vice versa. What does this mean for our faith? Its inception does not originate within us.

Faith Is a Sovereign Gift from God

At this point, it might be tempting to think that effectual calling and regeneration are God’s work, while faith is our work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faith itself is a sovereign gift from God, and not merely one that he offers to us, hoping we will accept, but something he actually works within us. To quote my favorite Puritan divine, John Owen, “The Scripture says not that God gives us ability or power to believe only—namely, such a power as we may make use of if we will, or do otherwise; but faith, repentance, and conversion themselves are said to be the work and effect of God.” In other words, God produces not only the will to believe, but the act of believing itself. 

For example, in Acts 13 Paul preaches the gospel in Antioch. However, many Jews, filled with jealousy, revile Paul. In response Paul makes an astonishing proclamation: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (13:46). Suddenly, the Gentiles break out in rejoicing and gladness: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48). Notice, the text does not say “as many as believed were appointed to eternal life.” Rather, Luke explains that God’s election or appointment determined who would and would not believe. God, not man, determines who will and will not believe in Christ, and until God regenerates the sinful heart of man, he will not respond in faith and repentance (cf. Acts 2:37; 16:14; 18:10). Yes, we repent and believe, but we do so only because God has previously appointed us to eternal life and has, at the appointed time, caused us to repent and trust in his Son (cf. John 8:47; 10:26).

And consider Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Or as the NASB translates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” As many have observed, “this” and “it” in the Greek do not refer specifically to faith as the gift Paul has in mind, for “faith” is feminine while “that” is a neuter pronoun. If Paul meant to say faith is a gift he would have placed the pronoun in the feminine. Likewise, the same principle applies with the word “grace,” which is also feminine in gender.

Nevertheless, we still must ask ourselves, what in Ephesians 2:8 is the antecedent of “that” (“this” in the ESV)? Paul is referring to the gift of salvation in its totality. Therefore, every aspect of salvation is by grace alone. What then should we make of “faith”? Sam Storms answers, “That faith by which we come into experiential possession of what God in grace has provided is as much a gift as any and every other aspect of salvation. One can no more deny that faith is wrapped up in God’s gift to us than he can deny it of God’s grace.”

Likewise, consider Philippians 1:29-30: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” According to Paul, God, in his sovereignty, bestows suffering. But not only is suffering a gift, Paul also says belief (faith) in Christ is a gift as well. The wording is essential, for Paul specifically says “it [belief] has been granted.” “Granted” (echaristhē) means to give freely and graciously. As Thomas Schreiner observes, it is the same word from which grace is derived. It does not mean, as our English language assumes so often, reluctance or mere permission on God’s part. Rather, God grants belief or faith in Christ to those whom he has chosen.

Last, we cannot forget 2 Peter 1:1: Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Is it by man’s will that faith is obtained? At first glance, that might appear to be the case. But in reality, Peter assumes just the opposite. When Peter refers to obtaining faith he is speaking of a gift that we receive from God and by God’s choice. “What is of paramount importance here,” Sam Storms says, “is the word translated ‘have obtained’ or ‘have received.’ It is related to a verb that means ‘to obtain by lot’ (see Luke 1:9; John 19:24; Acts 1:17). Thus, faith is removed from the realm of human free will and placed in its proper perspective as having originated in the sovereign and altogether gracious will of God.”

Divine Work

We do not want to deny that faith is an act of believing on the sinner’s part. However, faith is ultimately a divine work, not a human work. As John Calvin states in his Institutes, “Faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack” (3.13.5). Herman Bavinck is just as insightful: “He indeed grants us the capacity to believe and the power of faith but also the will to believe and faith itself, not mechanically or magically, but inwardly, spiritually, organically, in connection with the word that he brings to people in various ways.”

In summary, while many other texts could be explored, these passages demonstrate that saving faith is sovereignly granted to the sinner and effectually applied within him. Therefore, we dare not call this initial faith in conversion a “work,” lest we attribute to ourselves what should truly be credited to God. As we reflect on our conversion to Christ, we do not boast in ourselves, but give God, and him alone, all of the glory, praise, and honor.

You Asked: Does the Bible Separate Salvation from Baptism?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Jon A. from North Carolina asks:

Mark 16:16 teaches that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” In Acts 8 the eunuch had no “crowd” for whom to make a demonstration; after hearing the gospel, he commanded the chariot to stop so he could be baptized. Where does the Bible ever separate salvation from baptism? And where do we find that baptism is simply an “ordinance” or symbolization, when verses like Acts 2:38, Galatians 3:27, John 1:11-12, and 1 Peter 3:21 seem to say otherwise?

We posed the question to Josh Stahley, a church planter commissioned by The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He serves at All Souls Church in New York City.


This is an important question that needs a clear answer. There are two primary errors that we can fall into when it comes to our view of baptism. The first is to treat baptism as if it saves ex opere operato, as if something in the water or the ritual itself confers regenerating grace to the recipient.

The second, and more common error in evangelical circles, is to treat baptism as an optional add-on to the Christian life. This error usually arises from right motives: we want to keep the gospel free from any intrusion of works-righteousness, and baptism might seem like a work. However, this view misunderstands the biblical connection between baptism and saving faith.

While the Bible never separates baptism from saving faith, it does distinguish baptism from saving faith. This tension we must hold if we are to faithfully “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Faith and Repentance

We see the connection between baptism and saving faith all throughout the New Testament. Although more evidence could be adduced, in the interest of time, we will look at just two examples that demonstrate this connection.

First, when we read the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts, we notice that baptism is closely linked to faith and repentance. The apostle Peter’s “gospel invitation” on the day of Pentecost was, “Repent and be baptized. . . . So those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:38, 41). This is the normal pattern that recurs time and time again throughout the Book of Acts: repentance and faith immediately lead to baptism (see also Acts 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5). Commenting on Acts 2:37-38, F. F. Bruce rightly states, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in NT.”

Second, because baptism commonly followed so closely on the heels of repentance and faith, the New Testament simply assumes that all believers have been baptized (Gal. 3:27). Tom Schreiner points out the remarkable lack of discussion on the topic in the epistles: “It is striking that there is no sustained discussion of baptism in any of the epistles, presumably because the NT authors were writing to those who were already believers and to whom the significance of baptism had been explained upon conversion.”

This only makes sense if the earliest disciples were obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Baptism and Saving Faith

The flip side of this discussion is that the Bible distinguishes between baptism and saving faith. While the reception of the apostolic word and baptism go together, the text does differentiate between them (Acts 2:41). When Cornelius and those in his house heard and believed, they immediately received the Holy Spirit, which in turn provided evidence that they ought to be baptized (Acts 10:44-47).

Throughout his epistles, Paul stresses that it is faith in Christ that saves. Paul doesn’t denigrate baptism. Rather, baptism is a sign that points to the power of the gospel (Rom. 6:3ff.). Baptism is meant to function as a visible sign, not only to the person being baptized, but to the entire Christian community who witness the initiation, that Christ has conquered sin and death, and that we conquer in him.

That’s also the point of Peter’s reference to baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Genesis 6, and then says that God has brought us through the waters, just as he brought Noah and his family through the waters. The waters Peter refers to here are the waters of judgment. As Christians, we have come through the waters of God’s judgment because Jesus first went through the waters of judgment for us (Mk. 10:38). Our baptism points to his baptism on Golgotha. Christian baptism is the New Testament’s way of identifying with that judgment and Jesus’ victory over it. In baptism, we are reminded of God’s pledge to bring us through the waters of judgment and raise us up with Christ.

The saving element is not the waters themselves (the removal of dirt from the body), but an appeal to God for a good conscience (confession, repentance, and faith). So baptism functions as a sign pointing to the objective work of Christ and to its subjective effects in the believer. Some prefer to call this an ordinance, because it was “ordained” by our Lord. Others prefer to call it a “sacrament,” because baptism is a means of grace by which Christ displays the gospel to us. While neither term comes from the Bible, both concepts are biblical. Baptism is a visible representation of the gospel and its effects in the life of God’s people.

In this small space, I can’t begin to say everything necessary. For further study, I would recommend checking out Thabiti Anyabwile and Ligon Duncan’s booklet on baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the sermons on baptism here on The Gospel Coalition site.

You Asked: How Does a Bible Student Escape Spiritual Apathy?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Faith P. from Atlanta, Georgia, asks,

I’m a junior at a Bible college. These past semesters I’ve had a very difficult time enjoying church. I’m just wondering if this is normal of pastors, seminary students, and theology professors. And also how does one escape spiritual apathy to enjoy the worship and teaching of church services?

We posed this question to Ray Van Neste, associate professor of biblical studies and director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University.


Yours is a good question. Yes, it is common for students to deal with some sort of lethargy, so be encouraged that you are not alone. However, it is not good, so be challenged to move forward.

The causes of this spiritual apathy can be many. For students, moving away from the church community you have known and encountering academic study of the Scriptures for the first time can be a really difficult combination. Academic study can seem to take the “heart” away from your own reading of the Bible just as you lose much of your support structure. Then as we learn some theology, pride can seep in, and we can look down on sermons and lessons from people who don’t seem as informed as we are now sure that we are. Also, as in any other stage in life, if we become comfortable with our own sin (perhaps now made easier by isolation), excusing rather than combating it, our desire for the things of God will wane.

Various other causes could be mentioned, but your question centered on solutions! Here are a few thoughts.

1. Know that you are not alone. This is a common struggle (1 Cor 10:13).

2. Since it is common, there are fellow strugglers with whom you can talk. Your pastors and professors have no doubt walked through this as well. Talk to them.

3. Don’t succumb to overwhelming guilt causing you to pull away from the Lord. Our hope, even when we offend him, is always Christ. Look to him. Don’t run from him. Take your cold heart to him. Because of his cross and resurrection, forgiveness is sure for all who are in him. “For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:9).

4. Keep the gospel before you. You aren’t saved by the level of your zeal. Regularly being reminded of your sin and then being reminded of your forgiveness in Christ and his steadfast love for his own will help fight off apathy.

5. Again since this is common, Christians have reflected on this in the past, and you can read what they have said. I have my students read several pieces on this theme that have been a great benefit to me along the way:

  • B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students. You can find this in a published booklet or online. It is a brilliant sermon from a hundred years ago that deals with this topic and other challenges of the academic setting. We need to hear Warfield’s challenge: “God forgive you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God!”
  • Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. This is a brief book that addresses several challenges for those beginning a study of theology. His discussion of the subtle, unintentional shift from addressing God in second person to referring to him in third person was a great benefit to me in college. Kelly Kapic has written a “new” Thielicke titled A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology. I have not yet been able to read it, but based on his previous work, I think this would be a great help as well.
  • Carl Trueman, “On the Importance of Being Earnest.” This is a great article that nails this topic and provides key advice. Trueman (like Warfield and Thielicke) stresses the value of being rooted in a congregation. My advice comes largely from my engagement with these writings.

6. Invest yourself in a local church where you can hear the word preached, serve, and be in community with other non-student believers. If you try to study theology apart from the church you are doomed for trouble. Interacting with believers from various walks of life and age groups will help to keep you balanced. Being responsible to care for them and for them to care for you will keep you living out your faith rather than slipping away into a laboratory imitation of the faith designed only for analysis and speculation. As Warfield said, “the regular public worship of the church, for all its local imperfections and dullness, is a divine provision for sustaining the individual soul.”

7. Continue to read your Bible and pray. Some people, meaning well, say there is no point in reading the Bible or praying when your heart isn’t in it. This is dead wrong. We can’t give up just because we are dull. We must continue to meet with God, knowing that any relationship is built by consistency over time, not just by occasional fireworks.

8. Engage spiritually in your theological assignments. Don’t think of them as merely academic and don’t allow a division in your mind between spiritual and academic work. All biblical study or theology, properly done, should lead to a deeper love for people and for God resulting in deeds. All theology should be doxology.

9. The two great commandments apply to academic study as well as to the rest of life. We are to love God and love our neighbor. All study should lead us in this direction, and then this love should lead us to action and involvement with others.

I hope these points are helpful to you and that you have a community there to walk along with you.