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Newsweek’s cover story, written by popular author Andrew Sullivan, encourages Americans to “forget the church” and just “follow Jesus.” According to Sullivan:

We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.

Sullivan sees the problem of a politicized faith, one that focuses relentlessly on gaining power, changing laws, and regulating the morality of others. He sees contemporary Christianity as a faith obsessed with getting doctrines about Jesus right to the exclusion of what He actually taught us to do and be. This leads him to ask some piercing questions:

What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?

From the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality to evangelical Christian support of torture, Sullivan makes his way through a long list of perceived threats to the centrality of Christ among believing people.

So what’s the solution? Sullivan points us toward Francis of Assisi and Thomas Jefferson. Francis – for the simplicity of his vision for following Jesus. Jefferson – for the way he stripped away all the miracles of incarnation and resurrection and got to the greatest miracle of all: Jesus’ message of love.

A Response

Where to start with an article like this?

On the one hand, Sullivan is absolutely right to point out the politicized nature of Christianity in the West. He has witnessed the counterfeit gospel of activism that gives us “culture warriors” from the Right and the world’s “errand runners” from the Left. He has seen what happens when churches unite around a cause rather than the cross, and the results are indeed repugnant. If we deny the shortcomings of the church or minimize the scandals, the abuse of power, or the existence of injustice behind our stained-glass windows, we are departing from the righteous vision of Jesus’ kingdom and joining the first-century Pharisees.

Likewise, we should admit that we have too often been known more for our denunciations of those outside our walls than for our passion to uproot our own self-righteous hypocrisy, something Jesus was always confronting in His day. Sullivan sees many of the problems within contemporary Christianity with a perception that should give us pause and bring us back to our knees.

Jesus without Jesus

Unfortunately, his solution is woefully inadequate. He wants to return to the simple message of Jesus as if that message can be divorced from the Man who delivered it. Despite his protests against a politicized faith, Sullivan is saying we should follow a Man whose primary message concerned a kingdom. You can’t get more political than that.

It’s interesting to see how those who advocate a return to the words of Christ often display a frightening ignorance of what Jesus actually said. The primary message of Jesus was not love – at least, not love in our sense of the world. The message of Jesus was Love with a capital “L” – meaning, His message was about Himself. It was about His kingdom, His identity as king, and the cross that became His throne.

So when Sullivan says that Jesus would have been “baffled” by current debates over homosexuality or abortion, I would counter that Jesus spoke to both of these issues and more, albeit indirectly:

  • The sexual ethic He put forth is so radical that even a lustful thought after another human being is considered sinful.
  • The picture of God’s intention of marriage – male and female from the dawn of creation – is reinforced so strongly that divorce ought to become unthinkable.
  • Abortion? How can we listen to Jesus talk about God’s care for a fallen sparrow or watch Him bless the little children and believe He would have nothing to say to those who would still the heartbeats of those who are “more precious” to the Father than the birds of the air?

What’s more, Sullivan’s assertion that we should return to what Jesus asked us to do and be (“rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was”) flies in the face of Jesus’ own words to His disciples. Jesus is the One who raises the eternal stakes of understanding His messianic identity. Over and over again in the Gospels, we see the disciples asking, “Who is this man?” The wind and seas obey. The dead are raised. The lame walk. The deaf speak. Jesus is acting and talking like He’s in control. He’s either crazy or He’s king of creation.

Sullivan wants to take Christ’s teaching without Christ Himself. His vision tries to deliver Christ’s message of love without the atoning cross that gives love its meaning. It wants Christ’s justice without the victorious resurrection that launches the new world God has promised , the new world that totally changes the landscape for how we view everything: ethics, morals, politics, art, law.

Jesus’ teachings are not just about embarking on a new journey, embracing a new way of life, or experiencing a new spirituality. They are about His ushering in a new world order – a kingdom that encompasses everything.

Snip away at the miracles, like Thomas Jefferson, and you may be left with only the red letters. But even those red letters testify to the world-changing news of the kingdom’s arrival. This isn’t a Jesus whose message you can understand apart from His cross and resurrection.

The answer to Andrew Sullivan is to point back to everything the Gospels tell us. Let’s not isolate the sayings of Jesus we like and fit Him into our vision for how the world should work. Instead, let’s fall at the feet of King Jesus, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to fit our lives into His vision, a vision of the world to come that has crashed into the world that is.


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69 thoughts on “Christianity in Crisis? A Response to Andrew Sullivan”

  1. Eric Holmer says:

    Can we assume the blond-haired/blue-eyed/hipster Jesus on the cover was satirical in nature?

    1. Chris Zmuda says:

      Oh, but the bloodless Christ – complete with a thornless crown! – fits the article so well.

  2. Daniel J. says:

    Great response and analysis. I know ill likely have to respond to this article on the job sooner than later.

    My issue is not with you but with the fact that yours is still an inhouse response.

    I love that Tim Keller has thrown his hat in the ring a bit on shows like “morning joe” etc, but I would love more of a push from the TGC guys to get more of a voice. I know MacArthur has had some air time over the years on CNN, but can we/should we push more of a national clarification of the Gospel.

    I don’t think its too far fetched to have guys, like the author of the Newsweek article, say, “Huh, that’s what the Gospel and Christianity are all about.”

  3. Ironically, for someone to suggest that you can follow Jesus while rejecting the church (especially if Paul is recognized as a true voice for Jesus’ message), they would have to view the NT from a hyper-political perspective.

  4. I always find it interesting when people tell to follow Jesus when they seem to have no idea what He really said. It sometimes seems like the whole world is full of paux-Jesuses all competing to try to replace the real One.

  5. Great post, Trevin. Tom Wright’s new book (which the TGC reviewers didn’t like, but I’ve just reviewed very favourably for Christianity magazine in the UK), has an excellent section responding to views just like this. Worth a look if you haven’t already.

  6. Frank Turk says:

    When Andrew Sullivan can demonstrate he’s actually a Christian and not just a pundit with a sociological axe to grind, I’ll worry about responding to him.

    Because Sullivan can’t even define who Christ is and why we should listen to him — let alone follow his teachings — responding to his very weak and frankly-threadbare regurgitation of modern liberalism from the long-discredited pages of Newsweek (which has also pronounced traditional marriage dead) seems almost as easy as tearing down a straw man.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Frank. ;)

      Maybe you’re right… we should just ignore the world around us and the conversations these newsweeklies start among coworkers and family and friends…

      1. Frank Turk says:

        Look for a longer response tomorrow, Trevin. No offense to you, but you have missed the boat here by a long shot.

        1. Trevin Wax says:

          I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    2. Frank, if the only people reading Sullivan and this response were theologians, then you’d have a point. But there are enough Christians out there who might read Sullivan — who self-identifies as a Christian — and be swayed by what he has to say. Those Christians aren’t reading Schleiermacher or what comes out of UTS, but they are reading Newsweek — if only because the article makes the rounds in the office forward-fest. I’ve already seen it pop up on one friend’s status message with the innocuous commentary, ‘Brain food for the day’.

      For that reason, it is worthwhile to refute what Sullivan has to say and to point people back to what Scripture actually has to say about Jesus. And really, if pointing people back to Christ is one function, is that ever unjustified??

      1. Frank Turk says:

        Steve —

        I admire your optimism about what will convince people who might think that Sullivan’s article is a reasonable starting place for a discussion about Christ. I think those people are a much smaller group than you currently imagine.

    3. Scott says:

      When frank Turk stops being pompous and ego-driven, I’ll start taking him seriously….

      See how the game is played?

      1. Frank Turk says:

        Well, as long as you’re serious, yes. The difference between me and Sullivan is that I’m willing to admit those are my faults, and he counts his faults as credits — in fact, he thinks we should, too.

        1. Phil says:

          As a long time reader of Sullivan, I believe he’d be fairly quick to admit this his faults include being pompous and ego-driven. Or are you referring to his other “faults?”

          1. Frank Turk says:

            Which faults would those be?

          2. Phil says:

            Me? Oh, I was clearly referring to his obsession with Sarah Palin and the story of the birth of her son, Trig. I’m sure that’s what you were referring to, as well?

  7. Guy R Vestal says:

    The April 1st ETB SS lesson focused on Luke 6:41-42, maybe we need to actually start living these lessons, instead of just teaching them.

  8. John says:

    It’s much easier to be angry about others sins than my own. That seems to be where much of the church is parking. Honestly my heart loves to go there too. The culture warrior, mercy ministry, ‘big sins’ focus makes concern about humility and personal repentance from anger, impatience, fear, sloth – selfishness and pride in all it’s refined, insidiuous, hum-drum daily manifestations a thing of little of no concern.

    Sullivan mentions this, and altough it doesn’t add anything to his bigger point, he does have a helpful observation. Please pastors help us to be more concerned about applying God’s Word to our own lives than applying it to others. I should read the Puritans…

  9. Greg says:

    I’d disagree with your point about “lust”, if you write that to mean that a man desiring his own wife is sinful. Jesus was speaking in the context of adultery when he made that statement; in other words, his teaching was that it’s not just adultery when you do something about it–it’s adultery even when you “only” allow yourself to desire a different woman.

    Maybe that’s what you meant anyway, but it bothers me when Christian leaders are not precise enough on these points because it can lead to confusion and frustration in the lives of young married couples who hear these teachings and don’t know that sex in and of itself is not an awful, dirty, borderline-evil duty.

    Great, well-written article though, on all points. You can’t pick and choose what you want to believe about Jesus.

  10. Catherine says:

    What Andrew Sullivan meant to say was, “Forget Jesus, just be nice.”

    The gospel of niceness is pervasive in this land. I grew up in a church that preached niceness. They never really read the Bible either; just the parts that seemed nice. Imagine my shock when I read it for myself and discovered Jesus didn’t seem to be the nice guy I’d been told he was.

    But for many years I also bought the standard evangelical line that Jesus was a mushy emotional type who wanted nothing more than to have a personal relationship with me (the boyfriend I’d always dreamed of). I think we have just as much of a duty to reject this popular view of Jesus as well as the view Sullivan affirms. Thankful that this article does that as well: Jesus is our king, our judge, and – praise God – our Savior.

  11. Paolo Romano says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Trevin. I kind of agree with Sullivan that believers need to step down of our right to self position and embrace serving others with Christ’s love. I see too much arrogance and selfishness inside me and consumerism inside the church.

  12. Reading through the Gospel of Luke I am struck with the harshness with which Jesus speaks. He even says in Luke 11:23 and in Matthew 12:30 that if you are not with him, you are against him. So the line is clear, you follow Jesus or you are his enemy. Harsh words

  13. Dave says:

    I linked here from Sullivan’s blog when he quoted your response above. I enjoyed his article and your response. Both caused me to think. It can not be a bad thing that we Christians are struggling with the deeper meaning of our faith in a public way.

  14. Arthur Sido says:

    While Sullivan raises some valid points, points that are given only cursory attention at best, his solutions only make the problems worse and he is hardly someone that we should turn to as a prophetic voice. Unfortunately his bully pulpit makes his voice the one people hear and it makes it far to easy to discount the troubling trends in the church and the core problems that have existed for centuries.

  15. Alex Jordan says:

    People will try to reinvent Christ in their own image, but we do so to our own peril. He will not be reinvented and indeed cannot be, for He is from above and we are from below. To the extent that we don’t follow Jesus as He defines Himself, we are worshiping but a figment of our own imagination, an idol who in the end will not save us.

    The Christian Right has sometimes put too much emphasis on politicizing Christ, forgetting that He came to take over the heart, not government. And of course all Christians are guilty of not fully applying the teachings of Christ to their lives– this confirms that we are sinners who need God’s grace, not only for salvation, but for all of life. But the Right’s stand on topics like marriage and abortion are in line with Christ’s teaching, as this article defends. Christ is concerned with the purity of marriage as well as its definition– one man and one woman. He confirmed this when He answered a question about marriage by pointing to the union of Adam and Eve as the purpose and model for marriage, as invented by God. And while not addressing the issue of abortion directly (likely abortion was rare in His day), He is the One who came as the Light of men, as the Way and the Truth and the Life, as the One through whom all things were made. As the very Author of life, it is ludicrous to say He would not be concerned with abortion.

    Finally I agree that popular articles like this must be responded to– the true and real Christ must be pointed to and false Christs repudiated, because eternal issues are at stake. What people believe about Christ and what they do with that information is not an idle matter.

  16. G. Teegarden says:

    It is a fresh breath of air, to see someone not try to compete or defend Christ according to the world’s understanding.

    Thank you for speaking the truth in light of such darkness.

  17. Phil says:

    It is comments like those above, and Trevin Wax’s and Andrew Sullivan’s, that reinforce my conclusion that the Jesus found in the Gospels is a Rorschach test.

    Want the Mean Jesus (you are with him or you are an enemy)? Quote Luke 11:23 and Mathew 12:30? Or plenty of other versus.

    Want the Nice Jesus? Quote the Beatitudes. Or, again, plenty of other versus.

    Want the Conservative Jesus? You can find him in there.

    Want the Liberal Jesus? You can find him in there too.

    Want the King Jesus? You can find that.

    Want the Beggar Jesus? You can find that too.

    Etc. Etc. Etc.

    It is all there. Pick the one that speaks to you (or make it up. For example, the commentator above who knows Jesus’s thoughts/opinion on abortion.}

    One thing that I personally believe is clear from the Gospels–which no one ever seems to talk about–is that Jesus thought he was initiating a radically transformed world that would be entirely different very soon. See Mathew 10:23; Mark 9: 1. That is why it is hard to know Jesus’s thoughts on most social issues–he thought these things didn’t matter as everything would change. Clearly that did not happen, and Christians have been trying to live with the results ever since.

    1. Alex Jordan says:

      Yes, all interpret the Bible imperfectly, as fallen creatures. This by no means indicates all interpretations are equally valid. As I said, I don’t think we should re-fashion Jesus and His message into our preferred conception/agenda. Or, we do so to our own judgment. But Jesus expected those He taught to come to a correct conclusion about Him. At the heart of His message was His identity as Messiah, Lord and God. Else why would He say to some, for example, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins”(John 8:24 ESV). We’ll never find life in Jesus and follow in His way apart from accurately understanding who He is. But to know Him accurately we must come to Him humbly, finding Him in the pages of Scripture and seeing Him as presented there, not as we wish Him to be. I think Sullivan has some thoughtful observations about the state of Christianity in America. But again, the deeper, radical spiritual transformation he aspires to is connected to an understanding of the supernatural nature of Christianity, because we worship not merely a man who left us his example, but a Savior who rescued us from our sin and supernaturally gives us new life and power to live for Him.

      1. Phil says:

        I actually largely agree with you.

        That is, if you read all four gospels, and taken as a whole, you find that Jesus thought of himself (or at least the gospel writers thought of Jesus as) the Messiah, Lord, and God, who said things like “I told you that you would die for your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” But part of understanding “accurately” who he thought he was, and seeing him as how he is presented in the Bible, then you have to conclude that Jesus’s goal and mission was to announce to the Jews that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” and the Kingdom will be for the believers. His presence and ministry was the start of that great transformation, which was to culminate in eternal life in a transformed world for those who believe and follow his message.

        Most importantly, the Gospels and early christians clearly tell us that they thought the world would be radically changed very very soon. Within their lifetimes (italicized). That is the context for his whole ministry. But of couse that didn’t happen.
        (Which, for me, means the whole gig is up.)

        So we are then left re-interpreting Christ’s mission, the Gospels, the Bible, etc. That is, we are left trying to make sense of it for us.

        1. Alex Jordan says:

          I agree that the four gospels intended to convey that we should always be ready for Jesus to return at any time, and should live with a mindset and lifestyle oriented to the eternal kingdom Jesus will establish after His return, and not live for the passing things of this world. I would deny that the fact that Jesus did not come within the lifetimes of His first followers means that His mission for believers of subsequent generations is therefore radically altered. We are still to live with a readiness for Jesus to come at any time, a mindset on heavenly things and a desire for His soon return. The principles for godly living can be extrapolated from His teaching and applied to things we face today. And surely Jesus Himself is not caught by surprise about any of this; the timing of His return will be perfect.

          1. Phil says:

            Why do you believe this? I’ve pointed to at least two versus (Mathew 10:23 and Mark 9:1) that indicate the world would be radically transformed within a short time after the crucification.

            I think Jesus would be very much suprised that it still hasn’t happened. Almost 2000 years later.

            Moreover, I would argue that EXACTLY because he hasn’t come, his mission therefore is radically altered. We have to live in the world, here and now. Jesus was preaching (IMO), “forget the world, here and now, because it is all radically changing.”

            If it ain’t changing, how do we live? He provided surprising little guidance about this.

            (Here are just a few examples: Should I get married or should I remain single? Should I get divorced? Should I own slaves? Should I have kids? What should I do with my life? Should I abandon everything and follow Jesus? How should I earn a living? Should I even earn a living? Should I remain a part of my family? …. I would argue ALL of these questions (and countless more) are unanswered, in the Gospels, given the fact that Jesus was imminently returning.)

  18. Frank Turk says:

    I think it will be an interesting study of this post to see how many readers and commenters will say something to this effect:

    “I agree with Sullivan’s point, and I think it’s helpful, but …”

    When we have a tally, let’s ask ourselves three serious questions:

    1. What is Sullivan’s point, actually?

    2. Does his point actually correspond to facts, or to stereotypes?

    3. Should we agree with it?

    1. Arthur Sido says:


      1. Part of Sullivan’s point, as Trevin pointed out, is that the church is overly concerned with politics on the left and right.

      2. That is absolutely true.

      3. If it is true, then yes we should agree with it.

      Now none of that means that Sullivan’s solution is appropriate, because it is not, nor that Sullivan is a brother in Christ, which he most assuredly is not. It does indicate that maybe we can learn from unbelievers on occasion instead of just plugging our ears, closing our eyes and saying that ain’t nothing ailin’ the church that more preachin’ (at least more expository reformed preachin’) won’t fix.

  19. Jared Yates says:

    It’s absurd that someone writes an article and Newsweek makes it the cover story and we “Christians” rip it apart. The story should more accurately be titled, “Forget Christians, Follow Jesus” and Trevin’s article and many of these comments (mine included) makes Sullivan’s case in point. Sullivan tells the secular world to follow Jesus and his teachings and we say his case isn’t convincing enough. Really?!
    I don’t think people are going to start following Sullivan as he seeks to follow Jesus. But people might actually give Jesus more than a passing glance, thanks to Sullivan. And here we Christians, blast him bc he doesn’t get everything right (according to us). Well…Trevin doesn’t get everything right. Neither do I. Neither do you. But it is someone ironic and humorous that TGC has to issue a rebuttal to an article encouraging people to Follow Jesus and his teachings. The only comment from TGC or any Christian organization should be: “Check out Sullivan’s article…he makes some good points…read the Bible for more information.”

    1. Alex Jordan says:

      It’s not so simple. In his article, Sullivan is totally re-defining what he thinks it means to follow Jesus. So while it’s great that the article brings attention to Jesus and hopefully will get people turning to the gospel for more details, if they interpret what they read through Sullivan’s lens, they will be on the wrong course. There is such a thing as false teaching, false prophets, and false Christs. Jesus warned His followers to be on the lookout for these, so as to avoid them and not be deceived. There’s a big difference between perhaps being wrong on minor details of theology and following the Christ of one’s own imagination–who is no Christ at all.

      1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

        Quite Right, Alex.

  20. Guy R Vestal says:

    Would Jesus had advocated a boycott of Starbucks, or would He had simply stayed focused on spreading the Gospel to the sinners and publicans that His disciples nowadays are more busy chastising than loving?

  21. David says:

    Great response to this article. Read it the other day and didn’t recognize the Jesus Mr. Sullivan was talking about. I saw pieces of Him, but not the whole of Who He is.

  22. Monty Dicksion says:

    I just read the article and it upset me tremendously. I don’t know where Andrew Sullivan got his Bible training, but it wasn’t from somewhere reputable. He uses Thomas Jefferson as a spokesperson for Christianity, lauds historical revisionism and so much more. Is anyone going to tap him on the shoulder and try to talk to him about his article?

  23. Alex Jordan says:

    Phil, why do you suppose Jesus was surprised by things? Admittedly, He did not operate in His full omniscience when He became a man. But was He surprised by His arrest and crucifixion? He knew even the thoughts of men and what was in their hearts. Did He not know from the beginning who would believe in Him and who would not? He knew Judas would betray Him. He knew the colt would be waiting in the town for His disciples to use, and He knew so many other things.

    Is He surprised now, when His omniscience is no longer limited, and He sits at the right hand of God, exalted? Is His timing bad because He did not come back sooner? Of course not. He did not leave His followers as orphans, but gave them the promised Spirit to fill them and guide them into all truth. And we have the Word of God, which “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). If we flounder and don’t know where we’re going, is it His fault, because He has not returned, or is it because we don’t understand and obey His word?

    Jesus was not preaching “forget the world, here and now, because it is all radically changing.” He was saying, be light and salt in this world now; be His representatives in bringing the message of reconciliation; go and make disciples, as you live with eternity in view, always striving to be holy, because God is making His chosen ones into a holy people. This mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ is just as relevant today as it when He charged His people with it. And it is a faith that needs to be defended against the likes of liars like Andrew Sullivan.

    1. Phil says:

      Alex, I guess I am confused by your response, and the best I can do is restate what I said above.

      With regard to surprise: Jesus said repeatedly and explicitly that the world would be radically changed “soon” (my two specific examples were that he said it would change radically in his disciples’ lifetimes and before his disciples could visit all the towns in Israel). The world was not radically changed soon (again, in their lifetimes, or before his disciples could visit all the towns in Israel). Therefore, I believe Jesus would be surprised that this did not happen, given that he said it would happen.

      If I understand you correctly, you say that he could not be surprised because he was not surprised by other things. It doesn’t follow that just because he was not surprised about some things, he therefore could not be surprised about all things. Moreover, I have specific reasons to show exactly why he would be surprised.

      You seem to also be arguing that because he is sitting at “the right hand of God,” he cannot be surprised. That is an article of faith, and beyond argument. At any rate, it doesn’t really respond to my specific reasons above.

      Further, I believe the Spirit and the word of God are not sufficient to guide us and lead us to truth. I believe 2000 years of history has shown that, even among people of good faith and conviction, there can be wildly differing interpretations of both. History is full of examples (including, basically, every schism that has ever happened in the church). I am sure that you believe you’ve read the scriptures and have sufficient understanding of the faith that you can defend it “against the likes of liars like Andrew Sullivan,” but I see no reason to believe you, rather than him. Or to beleive this schism, rather than that schism. Or to think that you’ve gotten it right and so many other important thinkers in the history of christianity have gotten issues wrong. [See Edward T. Babinski’s March 19, 2012 blog post, listing things Christians have been against.]

      One more final note: I suppose you can believe that Jesus was saying “be light and salt in this world now; be his representatives….” because God is making His chosen ones into a holy people (one day). But I actually think that is a distortion. Again, I think he was preaching “be light and salt in the world now; be his representaives….” because God is making His chosen ones into a holy people, and that day is coming very soon when his holy people will inhabit a transformed world.”

      I actually think you have to distort the text to preach what you are preaching. I think the mission of spreading the gospel is not as relevant today, given that the transformation into “holy people” hasn’t happened for 2000 years, and thus calls into question whether it will ever happen.

      1. Alex Jordan says:


        Whether Jesus could have been surprised at all as He walked on Earth as a human being I’m not entirely sure. Certainly His omniscience it seems was limited in some ways, though it is very clear that He was still God. My main point is that Jesus, Son of God, was not just reacting to things but anticipated them because He knows the future. If therefore something He said appears, from our limited perspective, to be mistaken, it means we probably have misunderstood what He meant, not that He is taken by surprise or wrong. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, you know all things”. If indeed He knew all things while on Earth, how much more so He knows all things in heaven, where His omniscience is unhindered.

        The Word of God is sufficient, as it declares, but we don’t always allow it to be sufficient for us. This is the result of human sinfulness, rather than God not providing the necessary resources to guide His people. I don’t believe I am more able to understand Scripture than others. I do believe that we understand Scripture to the extent we are willing to come under its authority, and to the extent that the Spirit works in us to enable to understanding, as it is spiritual truth. Sullivan presumes to judge the Scriptures, deciding which parts are inspired and which parts are not. He seems to desire the comfort, direction and framework Christianity provides, without acknowledging that these gifts are given to those who believe what Jesus says and obey His Word, not to those who try to remake Him to suit their own agenda and discard the portions of Scripture they deem not right.

        The “Jeffersonian Jesus” Sullivan exalts, whose sayings are divorced from who He actually is as described in Scripture— the miracle working, Incarnate Son of God who died for sins and rose again, conquering sin and the grave– is a huge deception and an illusion.

        You write as if God is not in control of history and the future, as if Jesus was a mere man. The fact that Jesus has not returned yet must be for our sake, that the gospel message may be fully preached and those yet destined to believe saved. Those who have truly believed are already in the process of becoming a holy people, by virtue of the fact that God has supernaturally given them new hearts/life. This is radical transformation and it is underway.

        Regarding the verses you cite, there of course many interpretations provided, none of which require that Jesus was taken by surprise by events or somehow wrong. See below the explanations provided by the ESV study bible:

        Matt. 10:23 “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Several interpretations have been suggested: the coming of the Son of Man may refer to (1) Jesus’ resurrection, when he came back from the dead, (2) his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, (3) his coming in judgment on Jerusalem when it was destroyed in a.d. 70, or (4) the second coming of Christ at the end of the age. Option (4) helps make sense of the larger fact: that the mission to Israel must continue alongside the mission to the nations until Jesus returns. But interpretations (1) and (3) also have significant arguments to support them, and they give a more natural explanation for the need for haste in reaching “all the towns of Israel.” In the case of (4), v. 23 is understood in light of the preceding verses (vv. 16–22), as a reference to the widespread persecution that occurred prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple in a.d. 70. In this case, the judgment on Israel reflected in these events is pictured as a foreshadowing of the final judgment that will come upon all who reject Christ as their Savior, when Christ comes in power and great glory at the end of the age.

        Matt. 16:28 (a cross-reference to Mark 9:1) Some of the Twelve who were standing there with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi would live to see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. This predicted event has been variously interpreted as referring to: (1) Jesus’ transfiguration (17:1–8); (2) his resurrection; (3) the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost; (4) the spread of the kingdom through the preaching of the early church; (5) the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in a.d. 70; or (6) the second coming and final establishment of the kingdom. The immediate context seems to indicate the first view, the transfiguration, which immediately follows (see also Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36). There, “some” of Jesus’ disciples “saw” what Jesus will be like when he comes in the power of his kingdom. This interpretation is also supported by 2 Pet. 1:16–18, where Peter equates Jesus’ “glory” with his transfiguration, of which Peter was an eyewitness. At the same time, interpretations (2), (3), and (4) are also quite possible, for they are all instances where Jesus “came” in the powerful advance of his kingdom, which was partially but not yet fully realized. Some interpreters think that Jesus is more generally speaking of many or all of the events in views (2) through (4). View (5) is less persuasive because the judgment on Jerusalem does not reflect the positive growth of the kingdom. View (6) is unacceptable, for it would imply that Jesus was mistaken about the timing of his return.

        1. Phil says:

          Thanks for your (lengthy) reply; I found it to be interesting reading.

          Some quick thoughts:

          I’ve realized we are very far apart on a variety of things. Probably most importantly, our views on the importance and relevance of scripture. In this regard, I see nothing wrong with Sullivan’s approach, especially insofar as how it causes us to live our lives. If you believe there might be some long term negative effects of his approach (such as not joining in God’s Kingdom one day), I think that is a result I can live with. Indeed, I feel confidant that it is result all of humanity can live with–as we have been living with it for the last 2000 years.

          I didn’t find any of the explanaitons of the texts in the ESV study Bible convincing. Especially since they say that Jesus meant something other than what he said. I see no reason to believe that he meant other than what he said.

          In any event, you are clearly well into “interpretation” of the text territority. Only further reinforcing my belief (above) that you can get the text (or Jesus) to say most anything you want. As you yourself point out, there are (at least) 4 interpretations of Matt: 12:23 and 6 interpretations of Matt16:28 above. Which is right? Doesn’t it seem to matter?

          1. Alex Jordan says:

            So any interpretation will do, because everyone has differing interpretations and no one may claim to have understood something in Scripture correctly? That is not only an absurd position, but one that is impossible to live by.

            Besides, it is clear that Jesus expected that Scripture be understood correctly and He even rebuked those who did not get it right. Why did He rebuke them? Because their misinterpretation was NOT based upon the Bible being so difficult to understand, but on the blindness caused by their own sinful hearts. For example, “Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living”(Matthew 22:29-32 ESV).

            The various ESV interpretations of the verses you cited give perfectly reasonable, plausible explanations that fit what Jesus said. For example, “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”– Jesus comes again, when He is resurrected from the dead. How is this explanation saying something other than what Jesus meant? And yet in your interpretation you would claim that the Savior messed up in His prediction, and left the pitiful church to scramble about all these years because He got it wrong. This goes against everything the Bible claims about Jesus Christ and is an insult to Him. So I repeat His words, to you, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

          2. Phil says:

            Thanks for your comment.

            Again, I put forward that the Jesus found in the gospels is a Rorschach test. You emphasize those versus that speak to you, and explain away those versus that don’t.

            With regard to scripture, it was never clear to me why people cite Jesus’s words on scripture for how the New Testament should be read/interpreted. Obviously, Jesus wasn’t talking about the New Testament when he said those words. Now I suppose you may believe that (somehow) Jesus knew what the New Testament would be, and thus his words apply prospectively, but that is a matter of faith, beyond any sort of rational discourse.

            [As an aside, the Catholics and Protestants don’t even agree on what books belong in the scriptures (and even Martin Luther rejected certain parts of scripture as lacking authority). How can we then view scripture “correctly?”]

            On a final note, saying that the last part of Mathew 10:23 is explained by Jesus’s resurrection does not make sense with regard to the first half of the verse. Jesus is clearly telling his disciples “When the people fail to accept you in one town, go to the next, BECAUSE you won’t have enough time to get to all of the towns before….” He is clearly saying that there are more towns then they have time for, before this big event happens. The context is clearly that they will not have time to go back to those towns, after the big event. If Jesus was just talking about his resurrection, how does this passage make sense? Why does it matter whether they go to the towns before or after he is resurrected? There is no need for such urgency if he is merely talking about the resurrection.

            This verse only makes sense if they are not going to have time to go back to those towns–indeed, they will never get the chance because the world will be radically transformed, and the true believers will be saved, before they had time to go back. [This understanding also makes sense with the verse immediately preceding, which states “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”–again there is nothing about resurrection, instead it is about being “saved” at the end.]

  24. David Zook says:

    Several observations:

    1) Sullivan is reacting to the politicization of Christianity and the power that comes with it. Fair critique. What this tells us that Christians are just as likely to be influenced by individualism, consumerism, and nationalism (power comes through economics, politics, and a strong national defense)as the rest of the world. He is essentially saying that the Bible has not transformed enough Christians lives in a counter-cultural, radical way as prescribed by Jesus.

    2) Sullivan is also reacting to the lack of holiness and the pursuit of it as found with the priest scandals and televangelists. Fair critique.

    3) His solution is rooted in three streams of Christianity while ignoring the other three:
    a) Contemplative stream as witnessed by Assasi: Reflective and monastic in nature to help us draw us closer to God. God is private, not public.
    b) Social Justice stream: Rather than exerting power (political, economic, military, or literary (a bunch of guys determining the content of the Bible which was Jefferson’s argument to create his own), give it away and give a voice to the marginalized and let Jesus be Jesus.
    c) The holiness stream: flee sin, resist temptation, and reject disbelief and turn to his (modified) Word to shape our lives. The trouble with this one is his definition of the Word. Seems like he wants us to follow part, but not all of it as determined by the letters in red. By narrowing it to Jesus words because they haven’t be soiled by transcription errors by fallible humans, he creates a new ethic. But what puzzles me is that the same people who wrote down the red letters also wrote the black ones. If there are errors in the black letters, it would stand to reason that there would be errors in the red ones too.

    The three that he forgets, thus rubbing many of us the wrong way:

    a) The evangelical stream: Jesus came to announce the kingdom of God and to proclaim the good news. He told us to make disciples and proclaim his word. We are to get to know Jesus and share him with others. Our faith is both private and public.

    b) The charismatic stream: listening to the Spirit that dwells in our hearts who guides us, illuminates our hearts, directs our steps, motivates us to act, and enables us to receive his word. This seems like a huge blind spot in his solution. Who gives us the power and desire to become more holy and give up power? It is the Spirit that convicts using the Father’s infallible word and the Son’s works. Not some social commentator.

    c) the incarnation stream: living out our faith and removing the barriers that keeps God on the outside of our lives. Here is another glaring hole in his solution. He doesn’t seem to offer a path to merge the sacred with secular. In fact, he seems to reinforce the divide by offering up examples and solutions that wall off our faith from the other areas of life.

  25. Trey says:

    “Unfortunately, his solution is woefully inadequate. … Despite his protests against a politicized faith, Sullivan is saying we should follow a Man whose primary message concerned a kingdom. You can’t get more political than that”. Apparently, some of the multitudes are still trying to force Jesus to be king. I feel that anyone who in anyway positively links the kingdom (that Jesus was referring to) to politics is entirely missing the point.

    1. Amen. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Nore is there any evidence of early Christians campaigning to change laws, governments, or candidates. Law, in general, was not the way they were out to change the world. E.g. don’t worry about abortion laws; worry about making people who don’t want to get abortions. “The Law is powerless to oppose the flesh [sarx].”

  26. Ryan says:

    A very good response to an article that misses the point. Thank you so much for this response. I don’t feel anger towards Andrew Sullivan, just sorrow because if he believes anything he wrote, he doesn’t get it. Happy Easter!

  27. Jacob Scott says:

    Although i admit you have some points, i give more currency to sullivan’s criticism than your apologeia. the church has become the antithesis of christ. its power structures have become ridiculous and absurd. private universities handing out formally accredited degrees in biblical studies and church administration to young men who go out into the christian “market” to establish their own careers in church. church looks more like entrepreneurial businesses with logos, marketing, advertising, you tube, twitter…etc… pushing content to increase their profile…. a million dollars in assets is a small church these days and with the modern celebrity pastors presiding over churches which look alot more like a western corporation than anything near anything you would think of after reading the gospel of john.

    you cant dismiss criticism like this and essentially reassert that we must stay the course. abortion as an issue is horrible… but when you personally know someone who has had one, it is telling if your overly espoused views keep them from seeking counsel, friendship and support in the arms of those ho SHOULD be the most powerful agents of love on earth…. you should at a human level wrap your arms around a hea rtbroken friend and let them know you love them…. sadly the church does not preach this or give off this impression…. if you are gay you go nowhere near christians despite christ himself subjecting himself to scathing criticism for consolling sexual outcasts.

    no sullivan may not have the complete answer but he hit the frickin nail on the head with the problem….and one thing is for sure..PAUSE will not do anything…. more CHURCH is not the answer…. more organized religion is not he answer… more high profile national best selling christian authors is NOT the answer…. more megachurches, more doctrinal debate, more focus on robust oryhodoxy, more social relevance is not the answer.

    churches are hijacking faith these days. churches are dictating MISSION and honestly are stunting the radical expression and reflection of God in people by making ready made missional communities of believers to live out their existence in service to CHURCH. where they can live comfortably within its confines without being put out.

    JESUS is the answer… but we seem to have lost him in the four walls of the church….AS IS EVIDENT BY THE CHURCH’S FRUIT.

    IF The Church’s knee jerk response is to fire off a retort to Sullivan while giving PAUSE aka lipservice to his insight, rather than just closing our mouth and opening our ears and really thinking about what he said….. and if the comment section amounts to a bunch of lay experts pontificating about doctrinal positions or concepts that undercut or weaken his arguement or just more endless flapping of the jaws having a “robust discourse” about this impotent fact that he didnt consider or this clever angle that he didnt think of…… we are a bigger bunch of hypocrites than even sullivan knows.

    God Help Us!

    1. Alex Jordan says:

      The article acknowledged that Sullivan’s critique of the state of Christianity/Church gets some things right. Yet Sullivan is really in no position to criticize. If you don’t believe Jesus is really the Son of God but only that people made this up after the fact, then you don’t get the essentially supernatural message/meaning of Christianity. The reason Jesus has power to change lives is because He is God and no mere man. His wisdom is not a bunch of teachings to follow according to our own interpretation, but divine revelation to be rightly understood and obeyed, validated by the fact that He did what He said He would do– laid down His life and raised it up again. No man in the history of the world has done the same.

      Yes, the church has plenty to work on and should take critique seriously– even when it comes from people who themselves are hypocritical. Sullivan seems to want Jesus, only not the supernatural Jesus who insists on right doctrine– that is, right understanding of who He is.

  28. Guy R Vestal says:

    Amen Jacob! If you only knew how long I have been preaching for the current incarnation of the New Testament Church to renounce “god Money”, and return to the Church in Acts!

    I have been really frustrated as of late with our ministry since I have returned to communicating with the SBC, and even contemplated giving up and bending knee to the old Je$u$ ¢hri$t I left behind, to return to Father, Son, & Holy Ghost.

    My denomination has gotten even worse then a decade ago. More corporate employees, more business like staffers, a multimillion dollar empire, who’s middle and upper class employees tweet about their well off families, vacations and world travel, while its member churches struggle to stay afloat, yet still send in their Lottie Moon & Annie Armstrong “dues” to an IMB & NAMB that haven’t been able to keep themselves out of trouble since the debacle over the BF&M 2000

    Seeing you write this today has renewed my Faith that God (Jehovah/Yahweh) is still interested in just a plain old Father/Child relationship, sans the Mammon.

    I thank God for sending you here to speak on this, praise God for hearing my cries…

    1. Jacob Scott says:

      Thank you Guy for your kind words. I am glad to have been heard by someone. It is sad that Sullivan’s article was met with rebuttals instead of reflection.

      Pharisees are a stiff necked lot.

  29. Greg says:

    For the record, I’m not at all a fan of commercialism and consumerism within the church–I see it as yet another symptom of its problems. However, that hasn’t been my experience with churches I’ve gone too, so I’m less riled about it, you could say. I’ve had more experience with churches that throw doctrine out the window. Though, it could be argued that many times it’s churches like the super-profitable megachurches that tend to throw doctrine out the window. In that sense, I think we’d agree on things, even though our perspectives are a bit different.

  30. Alex Jordan says:


    Jesus simply says that while they are in the midst of the task of preaching the gospel to these towns, the Son of Man will come, which could certainly refer to His coming at the resurrection—or, it could refer to when He comes in judgment to Jerusalem in AD 70. There seems to be a certain urgency to His instructions, but I don’t see it clearly stated in the text that when the Son of Man comes they will no longer have opportunity to finish their task. It just says “they will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”.

    It’s good that you want to make sense of the verse in context. So in the larger context of the New Testament, we know Christ is presented as no mere man. If He speaks as God in the flesh, can His prophetic statements be wrong? If not God, we have reason to think that this prediction (and others) could be wrong and that Jesus was surprised when it was not fulfilled. But the NT does not present Jesus as simply a man like us who could be wrong. Rather it presents Christ as boldly, confidently and correctly predicting His own death and resurrection, in fulfillment of a plan long ago determined by God. I haven’t personally done an exhaustive study of these passages you cited. Yet any interpretation that takes into account the authority of the Son of God as the Great Prophet through whom God is speaking in these last days (Hebrews 1:2-4), builds on a superior foundation than what you are building on. Your interpretation diminishes Christ because it does not take into account the full NT revelation of who He is.

    1. Phil says:

      I see no point in continuing to argue about this text. Your positions are that “Jesus cannot be wrong, because he is Jesus [i.e. God]” and, “The Scriptures cannot be wrong, because they are the scriptures [i.e. inspired by God].” There is no real way to respond to this.

      [Hmmm, I guess I could point out that the following statements are equally true. “Mohammad cannot be wrong, becuase he is Mohammad [i.e. God’s Messenger]” and “The Koran cannot be wrong, because it is the Koran [i.e. God’s Word].”

      I do not believe you are open to the plain, straightforward meaning of the versus above. Indeed, you have explicitly said you are not–because that meaning is unacceptable. Given that, I think it is time to let it go.

      1. Alex Jordan says:

        As you noted before, we are quite far apart. I fear for your soul because you seem to deny even the basics of the faith– that Jesus is God and that the Bible is divine revelation, which He endorsed. If this is true (and this is exactly what Christians for hundreds of years have believed), then competing, contradicting truth claims that (like Mohammad’s) cannot also be true. If you don’t believe Jesus is who He said He is, will your sins be paid for by Him? That’s an infinitely more serious issue than this discussion.

        Your argument is inconsistent. You said before that numerous differing interpretations of Christianity over the years show people can’t know which interpretation is correct, yet at the same time, you claim this particular verse has a “plain, straightforward meaning” (i.e., everyone should get it)! You can’t have it both ways. Either no one can interpret anything and get it right, or, some interpretations are right and some are wrong (which I hold). But correct interpretations must be proven by argument. I presented what I think is a valid interpretation of the cited verse based on the larger context of the NT teaching that establishes the divinity of Jesus, which is certainly relevant to the discussion. You didn’t counter this argument but simply assert that you are right and that I am purposely not seeing the supposedly “plain” meaning. In any case I agree it is pointless to argue about this small matter when you may be in danger of your soul. You said, “not joining in God’s Kingdom one day is … a result I can live with.” Can you?

        Of course to be a Christian and be saved by God doesn’t require we get every interpretation right, but it does require a faith that sees Jesus for who He is. We can’t have the benefits of Jesus without knowing Him as He reveals Himself. That’s why I have felt it worthwhile to post comments here — because I think Sullivan gets Jesus wrong and that’s a serious thing. Thanks for the discussion.

  31. Christendom is in crisis, it is obvious from the confusion and disaccord among the various Christian branches. There is an urgent need for a review of all Christian scriptures and teachings as there are obvious serious problems in the Christian religion regardless of which branch one belongs to. Christianity while successful in instilling moral values into its members has failed to deliver the promised salvation and divine kingdom, prophetic times have been completed and there is no second coming of Jesus, Christendom is in a crisis that must be admitted and solutions sought.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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