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The wisdom of God is often only fully seen in retrospect. When man’s wisdom has passed as a fad, the mountain of God’s truth remains. Whereas time exposes the world’s wisdom, it will only vindicate God’s — and anyone who faithfully declared it to the world.
If you want a good picture of what the church looks like before the world, think of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Put yourself as an observer in the governor’s headquarters that morning, witnessing the interaction between the two. Who appeared weak and who appeared strong? Who sounded foolish and who sounded sensible? Which one seemed to be pursuing the best outcome for all involved?
“Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33).
“My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
You have got to be kidding! Pilate rubbed his eyes in exasperation.
For Pontius Pilate, the man standing before him was a major inconvenience. The Roman governor’s agenda for the day hadn’t included trying some renegade rabbi in trouble with the Sanhedrin. And first thing in the morning! The council wanted him to pronounce this man guilty of capital treason. Today. Before the Passover. Pilate resented the pressure. His patience strained at the seams.
He’d heard of this controversial Jesus before, but hadn’t felt a need to bother with him. The intelligence he’d received profiled just another Jewish mystical teacher. Some claimed he had miracle powers. But there’d been no reports of Jesus denouncing the emperor or calling for revolt against Rome. Apparently, he had even inspired some Roman soldiers, but there were no accounts of disloyalty as a result.
It wasn’t that Pilate had qualms over dispatching a Jewish troublemaker when needed. But this situation gave him a bad feeling. Jerusalem was swelling with Passover celebrants — not a good time for a political “dispatch.” If Jesus himself hadn’t called for revolt, executing him just might. He was popular with the peasants, and the Jewish zealots would seize any opportune moment.
Yet Jesus wasn’t helping his own cause. Had he no political savvy at all? In asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate had essentially offered him a quick exit from execution. All Jesus needed to give were a couple quick, clear denials and he’d be off Rome’s excruciating hook. The Sanhedrin would have to solve their own problem, and the governor could get on with the day’s important work.
But Jesus’s reply — “My kingdom is not of this world” — just made the unnecessary situation worse. Come on, man. If you don’t want to die, don’t mention a kingdom — imaginary or not — to the Roman governor! Now Pilate was forced to probe further.
“So you are a king?” Pilate asked. Jesus answered him, “You [rightly] say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
Pilate couldn’t help a sardonic snort. Just what he thought: a Jewish mystic with his head in the clouds. Delusional? Clearly. But a real political threat to Rome or anyone else? Clearly not. Jesus was a King of Truth whose only subjects were those willing to listen to his voice. Pilate figured they would never amount to enough for a rebellion. Plus, Jesus’s servants didn’t want to fight worldly powers (John 18:36). This was religious madness, not treason. Jesus didn’t need to be killed.
Then Pilate had an idea. There was a way out of this mess, a way to release Jesus so Rome looked benevolent, the Sanhedrin saved face, and the Jewish masses would be placated: the Passover prisoner release! As he got up to pitch the idea to the Jews, he sarcastically remarked to the King of Truth, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
Sitting in his headquarters that morning, Pilate had the full authority of the Roman Empire behind him. Jesus appeared to have no one; he stood there “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3).
Pilate’s words must have sounded reasonable, given the apparent context. Jesus’s words must have sounded delusional and strange. Pilate seemed to be pursuing a politically pragmatic course that would stave off an unjust execution, frustrating but not alienating the Jewish council, and keeping the civil peace in Jerusalem. Jesus inexplicably seemed to do nothing to avoid crucifixion.
However, with the benefit of retrospect, we see that Jesus was strong and Pilate was weak: Pilate only wielded authority by God’s decree (John 19:11). We see that Jesus was wise and Pilate was foolish: the governor only found Jesus’s words unintelligible because he heard them as a “natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB). And we see that Jesus, not Pilate, knew what would make for the best outcome of all involved: Pilate had no idea of the peace Jesus was pursuing for billions as he sought merely to keep the peace of the city.
This is the position of the church in the world. Though God will station his people in places of governmental influence as “Josephs” and “Daniels” and “those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22), the church will not wield the power of the world. It will stand in the weak places, saying truths that sound delusional to worldly authorities, and pursuing aims that will be misunderstood and misinterpreted. But its position will, in reality, be strong, because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
As Jesus witnessed to his governing authorities, and as Paul witnessed to his (and was told, “Paul, you are out of your mind,” Acts 26:24), so Jesus tells us, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). For some of us, that will literally mean “stand[ing] before governors and kings for [his] sake” (Mark 13:9).
But whether we’re called to stand before government officials or coworkers or neighbors or family members, what we have to say often will, in the immediate context, sound strange. We will feel how foolish it sounds to them, and we will feel our apparently weak position.
That’s when we need to remember Jesus before Pilate. What matters is not how things appear and sound in the awkward or even deathly serious moment. What matters is being faithful to the truth — even if that audacious-sounding claim only elicits a sardonic snort. What is ultimately significant, what God is actually doing in and through that moment, is frequently only seen in retrospect.
Sermons are more than a transfer of facts and stories. They are a part of worship that God uses to work miracles in both the preacher and the people.
Christian Hedonism asserts that the most effective way to kill our own sin is by the power of a superior pleasure. No one sins out of duty. We sin because it is more pleasant or less painful than the way of righteousness. So bondage to sin is broken by a stronger attraction — a more compelling joy.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) wrote one of the most famous defenses of this truth. It was called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” We believe you would profit from knowing the man and this remarkable message.
Converted to Christ while already in the pastorate (1810) in Kilmany, Scotland, Chalmers eventually became professor of moral philosophy in the University of St. Andrews, and then professor of theology in the University of Edinburgh.
His influence in church and politics in Scotland was so extensive that according to geologist Hugh Miller, Chalmers “may be said to have created than to have belonged to an era.” And William Gladstone, Britain’s foremost political leader of the century, called him “a man greatly lifted out of the region of mere flesh and blood” (Mark Noll, “Thomas Chalmers in North America,” 763). On his death, one estimate was that half the population of Edinburgh attended his funeral (764).
During his professorship at St. Andrews, his passion for global missions was so inspiring that six of his best students dedicated themselves to missions, resulting in 141 years of combined missionary service (St. Andrews Seven).
Though he was influential in geology and astronomy, Christian apologetics, relief for the poor, economics, Calvinistic orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical leadership (helping create the Free Church of Scotland), nevertheless, it was the force of his words that gave effect to all of these engagements.
According to A.C. Cheyne, his oratorical power “bordered on wizardry” (Noll, 764). William Wilberforce wrote in his diary in 1817, “All the world [is] wild about Dr. Chalmers” (762). But why? Princeton’s James Alexander asked John Mason on his return from Scotland why Chalmers was so effective, and Mason replied, “It is his blood-earnestness” (Thoughts on Preaching).
If you ever read his most famous message, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” let that tone — blood-earnestness — shape the way you read. Don’t think he is trifling. He is very serious. Joyfully serious.
I recall once being asked a trick question: If you had access to all the latest machinery in a sophisticated science lab, what would be the most effective way to get all the air out of a glass beaker? One ponders the possible ways to suck the air out and create a vacuum. Eventually, the answer is given: fill it with water.
That is the point of Chalmers’s famous message. It is intended as an illumination of 1 John 2:15:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
Chalmers poses for himself the question: How shall the human heart be freed from its love for the world? (How shall the air of world-love be removed from the soul-beaker?) This “love” is not a duty one performs. It is a delight one prefers. It is an affection before it is a commitment.
He says there are two ways one might seek to remove this controlling affection from the heart. One is to show that the world is not worthy of our affection and will let us down in the end. (This argument corresponds to using a pump to suck the air out of the beaker.)
The other is to show that God is vastly more worthy of the heart’s attachment, thus awakening a new and stronger affection that displaces the former affection for the world. (This corresponds to pouring water into the beaker to displace the air.) Hence “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Chalmers himself states his purpose,
My purpose is to show that from the constitution of our nature, the former method is altogether incompetent and ineffectual and that the latter method will alone suffice for the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it.
Don’t miss the words “from the constitution of our nature.” He’s going to make his point by arguing “from the constitution of our nature,” not from an exposition of the biblical text. This is why I said above that this sermon (or was it a lecture? — we have lost the historical setting when it was delivered) is intended as an illumination (not an exposition) of 1 John 2:15.
Chalmers could do biblical exposition. But he was a scientist and a philosopher, as well as a preacher of biblical texts. His apologetical contribution, that made him so popular in his day, was to show that biblical morality was rooted not just in religious authority, but in the profound realities of the way things really are in the world.
This is what he means by saying, he is going to argue “from the constitution of our nature.” In other words, he will appeal to what ordinary unbelievers can actually see about the way their hearts work.
Without taking away the excitement of your own discovery of how Chalmers argues from the nature of our souls to the biblical reality of 1 John 2:15, I will give you one enticement for you to ponder as you read. One of his central insights about the “constitution” of our nature is that nature hates a vacuum. This is why we can’t create as good a vacuum in the beaker with a pump as we can by pouring water in. The empty beaker fights back. It hates being empty. It demands content.
So it is with the human heart, Chalmers argues:
Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of — and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system.
This is why Chalmers thinks it is futile to try to suck sinful pleasures out of the human heart with the pump of fear, if we do not put a better pleasure in their place. One might think that humans have the capacity to use willpower and resolve to stop loving the world, but according to Chalmers, “Even the strongest resolve is not enough to dislodge an affection by leaving a void.” That, he argues, is “the constitution of our nature.”
Chalmers stays true to his purpose. He makes his case from “the constitution of our nature.” If we look in the Scriptures for illustrations of Chalmers’s point, the first place I would go is to Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then from his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
This little parable assumes that until this man found the treasure of the kingdom he was enjoying “all that he has.” Then something happens. He discovers a reality that awakens a new affection. This new affection expels the old affections. His enjoyment of “all that he has” loses its dominion because of “the expulsive power of a new affection.”
“The expulsive power” is evident in the words “from his joy.” “From his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” The power at work to drive out the old affections (the love of the world) is a new power. This power is “from his joy.” The expulsive power is coming from somewhere. It is coming from a new “joy.” Joy is the new affection. And it is functioning in this parable exactly as Chalmers describes.
It should not surprise us that a true description of “the constitution of our nature” (Chalmers) and a true insight into Scripture (1 John 2:15; Matthew 13:44) reveal the same truth. We call it the sin-killing power of Christian Hedonism. The root power of sin is severed by the power of a superior pleasure. The bondage to sin is broken by a stronger attraction — a more compelling joy. Or, as Chalmers says, “The expulsive power of a new affection.”
Joy in Christ is not passive or timid. It severs, with holy aggression, all boasting and self-pity still within us.
If you are a Christian, you know what it feels like to live with a madman. “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). If we feel prone to doubt such a bleak judgment, one sin in particular should convince us that Solomon was right: pride.
We are, every one of us, creatures of the dust. Yet we somehow find a way, overtly or subtly, to strut through the streets of the earth as if our strength were not fragile, our knowledge not narrow, our lungs not rising only because God gives us breath. Madness is the right word.
To be sure, every Christian has received a new heart — clean and pure, rather than evil and insane (Ezekiel 36:25–27). But we are not yet through with the madman. Pride, though forgiven, defeated, and doomed, still follows at the elbow. We wake, work, talk, play, and sleep with madness in our flesh.
Lately, the apostle Paul has been helping me to argue with my pride. In 1 Corinthians 1–4, he reminds us again and again of the madness of pride and the happy sanity of humility.
We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:7–8)
Paul would have us remember, first, that the pride of man murdered God’s Son. The “rulers of this age” include not only Herod and Pilate, but also those Paul calls the “wise,” the “scribe,” and the “debater of this age” — in a word, the proud (1 Corinthians 1:20). When people like this meet a Savior like Jesus and a message like the gospel, they reach for wood and nails.
If we would see pride rightly, we need to remember the body count in its wake. Once fully grown, pride does not balk at murder — in the heart, if not with the hand (Matthew 5:21–22). Those who nurture and relish their own pride follow Cain into the field (Genesis 4:8); they ask Jezebel to advise them (1 Kings 21:5–14); they dine with Herod the Great (Mark 6:25–27).
The beginnings of pride look harmless enough — a posed shot on social media, a hidden hunger for approval, a contemptuous thought toward those whose opinions differ from our own. But here Paul shows us the beast all grown up, unable to recognize the Lord of glory though he stands before our face.
Perhaps, then, we will not begrudge the bluntness of this Puritan prayer:
Destroy in me every lofty thought,
Break pride to pieces and scatter it
to the winds,
Annihilate each clinging shred of
self-righteousness. . . .
Open in me a fount of penitential tears,
Break me, then bind me up.
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:22–23)
Prideful men may have murdered Christ, but they accomplished only what God’s “hand and . . . plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). In God’s wise providence, pride crucified Christ — and the crucifixion of Christ destroys all pride.
Throughout 1 Corinthians 1–4, Paul takes us to the cross, bidding us to feel the splinters of the wood and the steel of the nails. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” he says (1 Corinthians 2:2). He knows that pride reigns only where the cross has been forgotten or distorted. Pride cannot breathe Golgotha’s air.
But how does the cross destroy pride? First, by reminding us that ours was the sin that nailed him to the tree. “Christ died for our sins” — our toxic mouths, our secret lusts, our strutting shoulders, our lofty eyes (1 Corinthians 15:3). John Stott writes, “Before we can see the cross as something done for us, we must see it as something done by us” (The Cross of Christ, 63).
Second, the cross destroys pride by putting a better boast in our mouths. Christ crucified does not remove our boasting, but rather redirects it from ourselves to him. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 1:31). Make your boast in sins forgiven, devils defeated, death undone, wrath removed, righteousness given, heaven opened. Breathe in the love of Jesus Christ, and breathe out the sanity of praise.
Christ was crucified for me; therefore, I cannot boast in myself. Christ was crucified for me; therefore, I have every reason to boast in him.
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)
Once, Jesus was just another name from history, the gospel just another memory from Sunday school, salvation just another religious idea. Until I became a Christian. Then, Jesus became the sweetest sound, the gospel the best news, salvation a gift better than all the world’s wealth. How did that happen?
We are in Christ Jesus, Paul reminds us, not ultimately because we were born into a believing family, nor because we were smart enough to discern Jesus’s true identity, nor even because we were self-aware enough to see our need for a Savior, but rather “because of him.” Behind any outward circumstance that led us to repentance and faith is the Father who called us, the Son who sought us, the Spirit who claimed us. Eventually, we must come back to saying, “I am a Christian because God made me one.”
And, as Paul goes on to say, the middle and the end of the Christian life follow the beginning. We plant and water in ministry, but “only God . . . gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). We labor for holiness, but every exertion comes from “the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). We believe because God gives us new birth; we mature because God grows us; we reach the end because he keeps us (1 Corinthians 1:7–9).
When pride deludes us into thinking we are the author of some gift or victory, one question can snap us back to reality: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). When we cannot take ultimate credit for anything, we can finally give thanks for everything. All of life becomes a gift of grace, a reason for praise.
All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
We find pride persuasive for a reason. For a moment at least, pride gives us what we’ve grasped for: the admiration of our peers, the eyes of passing admirers, the laughter of the crowd, the pleasure of being part of the in-group. But the purchase is costlier than it appears, for pride offers us something only in exchange for all things.
D.A. Carson explains the startling logic behind Paul’s simple statement “all things are yours”: “If we truly belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God, then we belong to God. . . . Everything belongs to our heavenly Father, and we are his children; so everything belongs to us” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 87).
When pride tells us that we are deprived of some good thing, Christians remember that our Father owns all things, and will so arrange our circumstances so that we can say with David, “I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). When Christians indulge their pride, we are like a prince who scrambles for a two-acre lot in his father’s kingdom, forgetting all that his father owns is already his.
Pride offers us something, but only for a moment. God offers to work all things now for our good and, in the end, to give us the whole earth (Matthew 5:5; Romans 8:16–17). For we belong to Christ. Christ, as the Son of the Father, belongs to God. And God owns the world. “Let the humble hear and be glad” (Psalm 34:2).
With all the demands on our time, how can young families pace themselves to run the marathon of life without burning out halfway through?
In the last two thousand years, God has filled the history of his church with stories — of persecution and endurance, of sorrow and hope, of failure and repentance. The history of the church has been dramatic and epic. Perhaps the most important story of all, however, is the one about joy and glory. This is the story that underpins and frames the others, because it is the story of the church finding her joy in the glory of God.
The story of the saints down through history is a story of joy lost and found, of glory smothered and shining. From the church fathers to the Reformation to our own century, we learn that true and deep joy grows dim whenever God’s glory is eclipsed. But when God’s glory shines, then the saints sing for joy.
In this article, we’re going to take the long film reel of the church’s history since the apostles and zoom in on four key scenes that illumine the whole film. We will look at the early church first, at the great Augustine second, at the Reformers third, and finally at two giants in modern theology.
Let’s start in the first centuries after the apostles, where perhaps the dominating issue was this question: Who exactly is Jesus? The orthodox church had to fight for the truth that Jesus is truly God — and that he truly became human. And that was a fight for the fact that we truly see the glory of God in the face of Christ — and that his birth is good news of great joy.
Consider, first, the fight to uphold Jesus’s true humanity. In the early days after the New Testament, there were some who just could not believe that God himself could have become truly human. So they dismissed the very possibility and said that Christ must only have seemed to be human (they were thus known as “docetists” from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem”). Christ, they argued, was a spirit. Therefore, he didn’t really eat, breathe, or die; he didn’t even really leave footprints, they said. Rather, he only pretended to eat in front of his shortsighted disciples; he pretended to walk, while all along floating through the world.
It was just what the apostle John repeatedly condemned. He writes, for example, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7 NIV). And why was it such a problem to deny Christ’s humanity? The fourth-century theologian Gregory Nazianzen summed up the church’s thinking when he answered, “Whatever [Christ] has not taken to himself he has not healed” (On God and Christ, “Epistle to Cledonius I”).
That is, Christ took our humanity in order to heal it of its sin: he would take it through death into a new life, and bring it back to God. But if Christ did not truly take our humanity, then humanity will not be healed by him. No good news of great joy without that. What Gregory had seen with limpid clarity was that Jesus’s humanity is essential for the salvation of our humanity. He simply could not be the head of a new humanity if he was not truly human. He could not be our kinsman-redeemer or the true Bridegroom of his people if we were not flesh of his flesh.
Also, it was belief in the true humanity of Christ that gave so much comfort and joy to the many martyrs of the early church. A good example is Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred about AD 110. Ignatius’s entire motivation in accepting martyrdom was based upon his belief in the real incarnation of Christ: Ignatius longed for martyrdom because then he would be copying Christ. But if Christ did not really suffer in his body, then Ignatius could not be copying him at all. “If that is the case, I die for no reason,” he wrote (Apostolic Fathers, Trallians 10.1). Instead, Ignatius wanted his life and death to proclaim:
There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Apostolic Fathers, Ephesians 7.2)
Belief in such a Christ gave him the boldness to write to the Christians in Rome, where he’d be thrown to the beasts:
I implore you: do not be unseasonably kind to me. Let me be food for the wild beasts. . . . Bear with me — I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ! (Apostolic Fathers, Romans 4.1, 5.3)
Christ’s true humanity meant joy set before the martyrs.
And glory? That was the other fight for the church: that Jesus is truly the all-glorious God. At the beginning of the fourth century, in Alexandria in the north of Egypt, a church elder named Arius began teaching that the Son of God was not eternal, not God himself; he was instead a created thing, made by God to go and fashion a universe. In other words, God is not truly and eternally a Father; he does not truly and eternally have a Son whom he loves in the Spirit.
What the orthodox Christians — and especially their champion, Athanasius — saw was that Arius was throwing away the very glory of God and the gospel of grace in exchange for a steely idol who lacked any real conception of kindness. For, according to Arius, God had created the Son simply to do the hard graft of dealing with the universe for him. And so, for Arius, it was not that the Father truly loved the Son (as you see again and again in Scripture); the Son was just his hired workman.
And if, for Arius, the Bible ever spoke of the Father’s pleasure in the Son, it can only have been because the Son had done a good job. That, presumably, is how to get in with the God who is simply The Employer. But that is no fatherly God of true grace.
For Arius, you do not truly see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. For Arius, you do not see a God who is glorious and gracious at all. Thus, the Christian church gathered together at the Council of Nicea in AD 325 and there agreed forever to confess that the Son is “of one being with the Father.” God the Father doesn’t use the Son as mere hired help, and the Son doesn’t use the Father to get heavenly glory. The Son has always been at the Father’s side. He is the eternally beloved, the one who shows that there is a most loving Father in heaven, the one who can share with us more than a business understanding with God: sonship!
This was the story of the early church: fighting and bleeding for truth that brought glory to God and joy to the saints.
No story of the church would be quite complete without a look at the mighty Augustine (AD 354–430). Augustine was born and spent most of his life in what today is Tunisia and Algeria. It was a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire, but Augustine would be perhaps the most influential Christian in the history of the church after the time of the apostles.
Here are the opening words of his most (deservedly) famous work, The Confessions — hear his heartbeat (translations from Augustine are my own):
Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is your power, and of your wisdom there is no end. . . . You arouse us to delight in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you. (1.1.1)
The Confessions (Augustine’s testimony) reveals that Augustine’s life was one long search for happiness, for satisfaction, for pleasure. That’s how it was for him; that’s how it is for all of us. It is a right search, but before Augustine came to Christ, he had spent all his life looking in all the wrong places for that satisfaction.
Here’s how he characterized his youth. He said to God, “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust” (1.13.21). Notice what he’s saying there: we become like what we love. Pursuing dirty things, he was becoming dirt.
One of his most powerful illustrations of looking in the wrong place comes in the story of his friend Alypius. Alypius hated the gladiatorial fights that were so popular then — and we should think of them as the ancient equivalent of pornography and love for extreme violence in films.
Alypius didn’t want to go to the gladiatorial combats. But, Augustine says,
Some of his friends used friendly violence to take him. . . . When they arrived and had found seats where they could, the entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty. He kept his eyes shut and forbade his mind to think about such fearful evils. Would that he had blocked his ears as well! A man fell in combat. A great roar from the entire crowd struck him with such a vehemence that he was overcome by curiosity. . . . He opened his eyes. The shouting entered by his ears and forced open his eyes. . . . As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in. . . . He took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return. (6.8.13)
What you look at will change you. It will mold you into its image.
As the Confessions moves on, it becomes more breathless — there’s a desperation in his search for joy. Recalling it, Augustine prayed,
I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight. With a groan I crashed into inferior things. This weight was my sexual habit. But with me there remained a memory of you. (7.17.23)
You see then that his story — which is our story — is a love story. It’s the story of a battle of desires, a story of love turning. And for him the climactic moment happened when, walking in a garden in Milan, Italy, he hears a voice saying, “Tolle! Lege!” (“Take! Read!”) — and whatever that was, he took it as a divine command to pick up the book of Romans, which he had with him. His eyes fell upon Romans 13:13–14: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
With that, he understood that in Christ was the satisfaction all his chasing had been after. “Suddenly,” he wrote, “it had become sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly [and sin]. What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. You turned them out and entered to take their place, pleasanter than any pleasure” (9.1.1). That discovery would then shape all his thinking as a Christian and as a theologian serving the church.
Perhaps Augustine’s greatest work as a theologian was done to counter the work of Pelagius. Against Pelagius, Augustine showed that Christians are meant to find joy in the all-glorious God.
Who was Pelagius? He was a British monk who taught that each person has the responsibility and the potential to be morally perfect. Such is God’s command, and God would not command the impossible, said Pelagius. No, he said, we can make ourselves perfect, for we are born innocent, in the same state as Adam before the fall. That being so, we all face a simple choice: either copy Adam (sin and so be damned) or copy Christ (live righteously and so be saved). That, he explained, is why God gave the law: so that through obeying it we can achieve the perfection God demands and bring back paradise on earth.
A self-help theology? No wonder it’s been popular ever since. But actually it made chilling claims. For Pelagius, God is not glorious in his graciousness. He is not gracious at all. Everything is down to us. Pelagius placed a crushing weight of responsibility on the individual: we each must ensure our own personal perfection if we would have life.
Augustine realized that, for all his Christian language, Pelagius had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of God and the gospel. Pelagius was teaching that we had done wrong things — that was the problem — but that if ever we are to enter heaven, we must start doing right things. It did not seem to have properly occurred to Pelagius that we were created to know and love God, and thus for him the aim of the Christian life was not to enjoy God but to use him as the one who sells us heaven for the price of being moral.
How differently Augustine saw things! He held that we were not created simply to live under God’s moral code. We were made to find our rest and satisfaction in his all-satisfying fellowship. Augustine defined true love as “the enjoyment of God for his own sake.” God, he held, is an “insatiable satisfaction,” “sweeter than all pleasure,” and thus we love him, desiring to be rewarded with him.
Moreover, our problem is not so much that we have behaved wrongly, but that we have been drawn to love wrongly. Made in the image of the God of love, Augustine argued that we are always motivated by love — and that is why Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They sinned because they loved something else more than him. That also means that merely altering our behavior, as Pelagius suggested, will do no good. Something much more profound is needed: our hearts must be turned back.
More than anything, Augustine saw, we need to see the glory of God, to sense how delightful God is. For he has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in him.
At the end of the period we call the Reformation — in the middle of the seventeenth century — some hundred and twenty scholars assembled in Westminster, England, and put together the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The catechism’s famous first question and answer gets to the core of what the Reformation was about:
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
The glory of God and enjoyment of him: these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and joy.
There was an implicit criticism in this first question and answer of the pre-Reformation theology that went all the way back to our old friend Augustine. Because, for all the great good he’d done, Augustine had got justification quite wrong. As he saw it, Romans 5:5 gave the cleanest explanation of justification. There, the apostle Paul writes that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” So, for Augustine, God pours his love into our hearts through the Spirit, and that love slowly transforms us. With that love infused into us, we become more and more just. We act more and more justly. We become “just-ified.”
The question, of course, that people were forced then to ask was, “Have I been transformed to be just enough for heaven?” And the answer could only ever be, “I don’t know. Almost certainly not.” If I can enter heaven only because I have become myself intrinsically righteous, I can have only as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness. In fact, to be confident of heaven must be a great sin of presumption. And it was precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,
This woman sins when she says she is certain of being received into Paradise . . . seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment. (The Age of Reform, 30–31)
It was a theology that bred fear, not joy. The need to have personal merit before God left people terrified at the prospect of judgment. You can still feel it when you see a medieval fresco of the last judgment; you can hear it in the words of the Dies Irae that would be chanted in every Catholic Mass for the Dead:
Day of wrath, day that will dissolve the world into burning coals. . . . What am I the wretch then to say? what patron I to beseech? when scarcely the just be secure. King of tremendous Majesty . . . do not lose me on that day. . . . My prayers are not worthy, but do Thou, Good (God), deal kindly lest I burn in perennial fire.
It was exactly why the young Martin Luther shook with fear at the thought of death, and why he said he hated God (instead of enjoying him). Young Luther could not rejoice.
But with his discovery five hundred years ago that justification in fact means that sinners are freely declared righteous in Christ, that all changed. No longer was his confidence for that day placed in himself: it all rested on Christ and his sufficient righteousness. And so, the horrifying doomsday became for Luther what he would call “the most happy Last Day,” the day of Jesus, his friend. The consolation that brought to all who held to Reformation theology was captured perfectly in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer:
Question: What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?
Answer: In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me.
Comfort in Christ for the struggling believer: that was the effect of the theology of the Reformation.
Or listen to the vim with which another early Reformer, William Tyndale, put it: “Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy” (Works of William Tyndale, 1:8). That he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by God and clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself gave Tyndale a dazzling happiness.
And that was the effect of Reformation theology: through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate — and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could know a firm standing before God, gleefully addressing him as their “Abba,” confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost. Without a priestly hierarchy detached from the world, believers could all call each other “brother” and “sister,” living every part of life for the kind Father they had been brought to enjoy. And through these truths, lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory.
The Reformation started in October 1517 with a skirmish concerning the idea of purgatory. Purgatory was the Roman Catholic solution to the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was said to be the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them — to have that process of becoming just or righteous completed.
But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolize all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin wrote,
Purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead [themselves]? . . . But if it is perfectly clear . . . that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ? (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.5.6)
His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully sufficient Savior; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy for us, no glory for Christ: it went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.
What the Reformers saw, especially through the message of justification by faith alone, was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness. Not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious. (That is why dependent faith glorifies him, according to Romans 4:20.) To steal from his glory by claiming any credit for ourselves would only steal our own joy in so marvelous a God.
The glory of God and the resulting joy of the saints was the concern of the Reformers. It got so into Protestant blood that the Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach, when satisfied with his compositions, would write on them “S.D.G.” for Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both God and people. The glory of God, Bach believed, gratuitously rings out throughout creation, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And that is worth living for and promoting.
In fact, wrote Calvin, that is the secret of happiness and the secret of life. “It is necessary,” he said, “for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.” Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God. All of which is really just another way of saying
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
After the Reformation, there was a new divide in Christianity: a divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics. But another divide was coming hot on its heels — the divide between so-called “conservatives” and “liberals.” These would soon be two opposite trajectories, and the essence of each was embodied in two near-contemporaries: Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Schleiermacher is almost certainly less familiar to you as a name, but he was enormously influential and is often given the title “The Father of Modern (or Liberal) Theology.” Schleiermacher was a German — a Prussian, in fact — born in 1768, ten years after Jonathan Edwards died in Princeton. There are some fascinating similarities between Edwards and Schleiermacher — and vital differences.
Most importantly, Edwards and Schleiermacher both argued that the Christian life is about more than simply agreeing to a list of doctrines. Both were agreed: true believers have an experience of God involving their affections. So both taught the importance of the heart, with its loves and desires. But there was a critical difference! Let’s look at them in turn.
First, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards argued that having a sense of the sweetness of God is what really marks out the converted. He compares two men: one who merely understands the fact that honey is sweet, the other who “loves honey and is greatly delighted in it because he knows the sweet taste of it” (Religious Affections, 209). As Edwards sees it, believers are those who enjoy the beauty of God — they have tasted of his glory and so they adore him.
Here’s how that works. In 2 Corinthians 4:6, the apostle Paul writes that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” So what moves believers is not something within themselves — that is essential to see here. Believers are not driven by a sense of their own faithfulness or goodness. God reveals himself in Christ, the Spirit opens our eyes, and it is that sight of the glory of God in the face of Christ that wins our hearts.
Here’s how Edwards put it:
Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. (Religious Affections, 266)
For Edwards it is the light of God’s glory that causes the heat of our desire for him.
Now let’s compare Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher also believed that true religion is about a living experience of the divine. Here’s his description of the essence of piety: it is, he said, “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent” (The Christian Faith, 12). Now, you may think, that doesn’t sound specifically Christian. The essence of piety is “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent”? No mention of God or Christ.
But that’s just his point: everyone feels dependent at some point (and so do dogs!). For Schleiermacher, then, there is no sharp distinction between true worship and idolatry. For him, everyone is pious in a sense — everyone feels dependent — and Christianity is simply the best form of piety (for reasons that aren’t very clearly argued). As he saw it, Christianity is really the highest stage of religious evolution so far.
Now, you may wonder how a man claiming to be a Christian could say all this. And here’s the key: Schleiermacher wrote that “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections” (The Christian Faith, 76). Let’s unpack that. Schleiermacher is saying that when Christians talk about any doctrine — something about the gospel, some biblical truth — what’s really going on is that we are trying to put our own feelings into words.
So for him, doctrine is not truth about (or from) God. Doctrine is really just our attempt to communicate and share our own private religious experience. In other words, Schleiermacher had just turned Edwards’s ideas upside down. For Edwards, it is the light of God’s glory that causes the heat of our desire for him. For Schleiermacher, it is the heat of our feelings that causes us to talk about things like God’s glory.
For Edwards, it all starts with the glory of God. For Schleiermacher, it all starts with my feelings. For Schleiermacher, our feelings are the source of our theology. Not the glory of God in the face of Christ. Not Scripture. Our feelings are the control, the guide as we think about God. You can surely see how influential that idea has been ever since. Schleiermacher conquered the West.
The story the modern West likes to tell about itself in the last two centuries is one of liberation: we have been set free from the old chains of doctrine. But Schleiermacher had actually thrown out the glory of God, and thus thrown out all possibility of true, deep joy.
For Schleiermacher, there could be no such thing as a free salvation. Jesus Christ, for him, was just the first Christian. Not God become man but man become godly. Edwards could contemplate the glory of God, his beauty, his graciousness, his sovereign and fatherly care of his children — and that filled Edwards with joy and comfort. But where could Schleiermacher go for comfort and joy? He could only look inside himself and hope the good feelings would come.
That’s what we’ve seen throughout this snapshot history of the church: When mankind is glorified and put central, the root of true satisfaction and joy is torn up. When God is glorified and shown for who he really is, then the saints are filled with joy. Then Ignatius finds comfort in the face of martyrdom. Then Augustine finds freedom from his sin. Then Luther finds liberation from his despair. Then Edwards finds happiness.
For, as Augustine wrote, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in him.
On April 9, 1942, the United States surrendered Bataan to the Imperial Army of Japan in the very heart of the six bloody years of World War II. It was the largest surrender in American history — 75,000 troops — since the surrender that ended the Civil War eighty years earlier in 1865.
On December 7, 1941, just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had turned their fury on the American forces in the Philippines, a pivotal and vulnerable air and naval crossroads. Because the Americans, paralyzed by the surprise attack on Hawaii, failed to respond more quickly, Japanese Zero fighters raided two major airfields nine hours later, wiping out half of the air force in a matter of 45 minutes. Almost every available plane was destroyed within a couple of days, crippling General Douglas MacArthur’s ability to defend the Philippines.
The war for Bataan, a key province on the Philippine island of Luzon, began one month later, on January 7, 1942. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they had cut off the naval support the Philippine Army desperately needed, meaning tens of thousands of troops were left fighting for their lives, and with no help in sight. Trying desperately to hold the strategic port of Manila Bay, but without any reinforcements or provisions, General MacArthur consolidated his American and Filipino forces into the Bataan peninsula for one last, ill-fated stand.
On March 11, 1942, a month before Bataan fell, President Franklin Roosevelt, knowing the American troops would soon be forced to succumb, ordered MacArthur to leave the last stronghold at the island of Corregidor. The order surely fell on the proud and loyal MacArthur all the more heavily because he knew he hadn’t acted quickly enough in the wake of Pearl Harbor, leading to devastating losses that had crippled their defenses. What might have been if he had reacted quicker? How many of his men’s lives might have been spared?
MacArthur and his family rode by boat to an airstrip 560 treacherous miles away, barely surviving the rough seas and Japanese gunfire. As the general sailed away from what may have been the greatest loss in American history, knowing what the brave men he left behind would now suffer, he resolved, “I shall return” — a promise he would repeat over and over again. When his plane touched down in Melbourne, Australia, he gave a now-famous speech, declaring,
When I landed on your soil, I said to the people of Philippines whence I came, “I shall return.” Tonight, I repeat those words: I shall return. Nothing is more certain than the ultimate reconquest and liberation from the enemy of those and adjacent lands.
MacArthur did return, two and a half years later, on October 20, 1944. Today marks 75 years since the day he landed on the shore of Leyte, with 280,000 soldiers under his command, to recapture and finally liberate the Philippines, a story that reverberates with an even deeper and more epic victory.
To feel the weight of MacArthur’s surrender, and the significance of his return, we have to face the cruel brutality of the Japanese army. Not all were savage, some were even kind, but the stories will make anyone nauseous — atrocities almost too awful to repeat. When MacArthur was ordered to leave behind his horribly wounded, diseased, and malnourished men, he surrendered them into some of the worst hands imaginable.
After the surrender of April 9, 1942, the Japanese immediately forced the tens of thousands of nearly dead men to march 66 miles north over the next several days, now called the Bataan Death March. If soldiers faltered at all, and many did, they were often beaten, bayoneted, or even beheaded. Sometimes the Japanese struck and killed without warning or cause, reveling in their prisoners’ agony. Historians estimate that 3,000 died during the march, meaning a corpse roughly every 100 feet.
When survivors arrived at Camp O’Donnell, a prisoners of war camp, they met even worse conditions, a horror that seemed barely possible. The Japanese deplored the concept of surrender, avoiding it at all costs and despising anyone who surrendered to them. They also were grossly unprepared to provide the food or medical care many gravely needed. Crammed into horrible, disgusting quarters, disease spread like wildfire — malaria, dysentery, beriberi, and more. The brutality persisted and intensified, especially as Japan began to lose ground in the war. It’s estimated that nearly half the Filipino and American prisoners who made it to the camp never left.
Author Hampton Sides tells the gut-wrenching and heroic story of the battle for the Philippines, walking painfully close to the diseased and tortured troops along the Death March in 1942, and then following 121 remarkable rangers who, in 1945, slipped behind enemy lines while MacArthur recaptured Manila, risking their lives to rescue 513 of the prisoners of war before they would have been systematically slaughtered. The story is riveting, devastating, and unforgettable.
October 20, 1944, marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese brutality. The American troops had stormed Normandy several months earlier. Saipan, a critical Japanese base, had fallen on July 10, leaving the stubborn Imperial Army reeling. Then, the Allies broke through the German lines on July 27, reaching German soil on September 11. Normandy had fallen. Then, Paris. The war would not end for ten more grueling months, but as MacArthur and his men returned to the Philippines, their ruthlessly stubborn enemy was on the ropes.
The Japanese sent every available soldier, plane, and ship to defend the Philippines, deciding this was the decisive battle. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of the war, and the bloodiest campaign of the war for the Pacific. The Imperial Army in Manila did not fall for several more murderous months, but it did finally fall in March, spelling the end for the Japanese, who eventually surrendered on September 2, 1945, ending World War II.
In the end, the sorrow of surrendering the Philippines in 1942 gave way, for Douglas MacArthur, to the joy of being the instrument of their liberation in 1945. He felt the victory in an especially personal way, and on many levels. When he was a teenager in 1898, his father, General Arthur MacArthur, had fought and won the Spanish-American War, liberating the Philippines from more than 300 years of Spanish rule. Douglas himself served twice in the Philippines for 14 years between 1922–1942. His only child, Arthur MacArther IV, had been born in Manila. His heart and life had been intertwined with the Filipino people all his adult life, and now he had led an army who had not only ended the horrors of the Japanese occupation, but who had ultimately secured their freedom as a nation.
“I shall return.” The words have taken on greater meaning for me personally since I married into a Filipino family, who, like many Filipino families, remembers General MacArthur fondly. My in-laws were born in the Philippines a little more than a decade after he had fought admirably to secure their independence. MacArthur’s words, however, echo something far deeper and more meaningful still, because they echo an even deeper, more intimate reality. Jesus, in the very hottest moments of the war of God against sin, says to his disciples, “I will come again” (John 14:3).
To feel the weight of his surrender on the cross or the significance of his promise, we have to face the awful tyranny of sin in the world — and in us. As cruel as the Japanese bayonets were, they could not reach where sin pierces; they could not maim like our own wickedness could (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:9–20). Sin, a far worse enemy, caused mankind to pierce “themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). The death march, as gruesome and inhumane as it was, could only hint at the wide gate that leads to destruction and the millions marching over its cliff (Matthew 7:13). Camp O’Donnell in all its terror will look like sanctuary next to the righteous wrath awaiting those who refuse to be forgiven. As fearsome as the Japanese were, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Sin reigned in our bodies, while the whole world laid in the hands of evil (Romans 6:12; 1 John 5:19). Into this mayhem, God landed in a manger, taking on a body that could and would be killed.
Unlike MacArthur, Jesus never fled. He buried himself in the furnace of conflict, absorbing the nuclear storm we deserved in obedience to the Father (Philippians 2:8). No portrait of the cross could ever communicate the extent and intensity of its warfare. Unlike MacArthur, he was not forced to surrender, but laid down his arms of his own accord (John 10:17–18). Unlike MacArthur, he was not motivated by selfish gain or vainglory, but by the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Unlike MacArthur, the moment which seemed to be his greatest defeat was, in fact, his greatest victory.
But like MacArthur, before Jesus mounted the cross, plunging himself into enemy lines, he promised he would return. “I will come again” (John 14:3). On this side of the cross, and empty tomb, we know that our Commander and King “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). And when he returns, the sin remaining in us will be forced to surrender once for all, because “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Jesus did not gloss over the suffering we would face between now and then: “In the world you will have tribulation” — you will suffer opposition, persecution, the awful futility of creation, and even physical death. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He also did not leave us to fend for ourselves on the battlefield, but came to live in us and with us by his Spirit, saying, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We have far more than a promise of his return. We have him — until he comes again to end all our warring.
One of the thousands of brave men at MacArthur’s side when he walked ashore on October 20, 1944, was Wallace B. Fogarty (1910–2000), my great-grandfather. Less than a year after he landed in the Philippines, he was deployed to Hiroshima after the bomb, witnessing the unprecedented devastation firsthand. Like many men and women of his generation, he saw and suffered hostility utterly foreign to the vast majority of Americans today.
Our family visited him and my great-grandmother, Shirley, often when I was a child. I remember sitting on the couch in their living room. I remember Grandpa Wallace rocking quietly on our screened-in porch. He was friendly and kind, and didn’t say much. I was 14 when he passed away.
I wish I could ask him what it was like to run ashore at Leyte — to fight a war the Allies had already begun to win — to help recapture a whole nation enslaved and oppressed by evil. I imagine what he might say would shed another striking ray of light on the combat of combats, the first, longest, and fiercest global war: the war of God to seize his children and secure his glory.
In history, God tells his stories, the exhilarating and the devastating, to draw us further into the fight. Many of them, like this one, are hard to stomach, but none of them is outside of his sovereign sway — and all of them are working for his glory and our greater joy in him. And now, as we endure the trials before us and battle the spiritual forces of evil in our paths, we keep our King’s promise close to our hearts: “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). We wait along the shore of eternity, staring intently over the wide and raging seas before us, praying with expectation and urgency, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
If our faith in Jesus does not involve an enjoying of Jesus, it is not saving faith.
When the eleven disciples saw Jesus after his resurrection, at the moment of receiving the Great Commission, in fact, Matthew tells us “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Do you find it remarkable that some disciples doubted this extraordinary phenomenon? I find it both remarkable and eminently reasonable. And comforting, because we find ourselves in good company when we and our brothers and sisters also struggle with doubts.
The Greek word translated “doubt” here (distazō) often refers to a wavering, hesitant uncertainty — a general lack of confidence. What made some of the disciples waver on that Galilean mountain? Matthew doesn’t tell us, which is the Lord’s mercy, I think. I imagine each doubter’s doubt varied to some degree, depending on his experience and temperament. Suffice it to say, strange encounters with the resurrected Son of God and the scope of the mission he was giving them, colliding with all their prior conceptions and contrasting with their experience of normal life, would have been a surreal experience for any normal person. It would be strange if some didn’t doubt.
Scholars debate whether or not members of the eleven doubted or whether the doubters were those among the broader group of disciples who may have accompanied the eleven to Galilee. The text seems to point to the eleven, but it doesn’t really matter. Doubt was present among the eleven and the broader group on and after Easter Sunday.
We know Thomas refused to believe Jesus’s resurrection till he saw Jesus with his own eyes (John 20:25–29). We know members of the eleven struggled to believe even what their own eyes saw when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them (Luke 24:36–43). And we know that members of the broader group of disciples doubted the initial resurrection reports they heard (Luke 24:13–34).
The remarkable and comforting fact is that some of Jesus’s first disciples, who personally saw and heard so many amazing things, doubted. Is it any surprise that some of us also experience a wavering, hesitant uncertainty — doubt — that what we have seen, heard, and experienced is all real?
This is why I’m so thankful that Jesus’s brother, Jude, wrote, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).
The brief book of Jude is mostly a sober warning against false teachers. Like John’s epistles, Peter’s second epistle, and Hebrews, Jude wants us to feel the seriousness of their perversion of and departure from the gospel so that we will persevere in faithfulness.
But in his closing remarks, he says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” Jude uses the Greek word (diakrinō) that also means a wavering uncertainty, and as one dictionary puts it, “being at odds with oneself.” In other words, be merciful to those who are struggling over the competing truth claims. Don’t crush them or condemn them; help them.
I can’t help but think that Jude recalled how Jesus once showed mercy to him. Because there was a time when he doubted his divine brother’s claims, and Jesus at some point helped him (John 7:5). And there are numerous other examples of Jesus’s mercy to doubters.
The New Testament uses a number of different Greek words for doubt, because not all doubt is the same and not all doubters are the same. Therefore, mercy toward doubters doesn’t always look the same. Some cases call for patient, compassionate understanding and encouragement. Some cases call for an exhortation or even a rebuke. That’s why we see a range of responses from Jesus toward those who doubted.
In Matthew 11:2–6, we see a touching example of Jesus’s kindness to a surprising doubter: John the Baptist. God had revealed Jesus’s identity to John in utero (Luke 1:41) and by special revelation (John 1:29–34). But confined in Herod’s prison, likely knowing he wasn’t getting out alive, and likely experiencing significant spiritual oppression, John was second-guessing whether he had been right about his calling as forerunner. So, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
Jesus’s response was merciful kindness, intended to fortify John’s faith in his last, brutal days. Jesus does not break a bruised reed (Matthew 12:20). He knows when to deal gently with the doubts that assault us in the darkness of suffering and isolation.
In Matthew 14:28–33, Jesus addresses a different kind of doubt with a different kind of mercy. Peter had just exercised significant faith in Jesus, getting out of the boat to walk on top of the stormy sea. But when he was partway to Jesus, Peter realized just how incredible this whole experience was — people don’t walk on water!
As he lost faith in Jesus’s power, Jesus let him sink. This prompted Peter to scream, “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30). Which Jesus did, along with giving this rebuke: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Jesus’s response was merciful disappointment, intended to imprint upon Peter (and the other disciples) the danger of transferring his trust (manifested in his fear) from the power of the Word to the power of the world. He knows when to deal firmly with the doubts that assault us in the storms of life that demand focused, persevering faith.
John 20:24–29, of course, is the most famous instance of Jesus dealing with a disciple’s doubt. When Thomas heard that the other ten disciples had seen the risen Jesus, while he hadn’t, he declared, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). We can only speculate what was going on inside of Thomas, but this is a different kind of doubt than either John the Baptist’s or Peter’s. This is skeptical doubt about the central claims of Christianity. It’s doubt in Jesus’s own predictions and in the eyewitness accounts of people Thomas knew.
Jesus’s response was merciful delay — he let Thomas sit in his unbelief for eight miserable, lonely, probably scary days. And then, when the time was right, Jesus appeared to him, saying, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). He knows when to deal silently, and for how long, with doubts that assault us when, for whatever reason, we elevate our wisdom above God’s (1 Corinthians 1:25).
I’m not addressing the issue of doubt as a dispassionate observer, but as one who is well-acquainted with doubt in its wide spectrum, including the kinds illustrated in the three examples above. And I believe I’ve received Jesus’s merciful encouragement, his merciful rebuke, and his merciful silence in response to my various doubts.
To some extent, I’m wired to doubt. This is partly because, like you, I’m a human being possessing a reasonable, yet fallible, capacity for rational, logical analysis, living in a world full of competing truth claims, uncertainty, error, and deception, and therefore nearly constantly needing to discern what’s true and what’s not. This is not easy.
But it’s also partly because I have by constitution — and, I’m sure, conditioning — a kind of sensitive conscience that is fairly easily given to uncertainty that my perspective is accurate and that I’m doing the right thing. I’ve been this way as long as I remember. So, I’m familiar with riding waves that are “driven and tossed by the wind,” which James warns us about (James 1:6). His warning, like those of other apostles, is well-placed, and I’m grateful for its gravity.
But I am also grateful that James’s brother Jude included his kind, pastoral word to doubters and those who pastor them: “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). And I’m grateful for the varied forms of mercy Jesus showed to doubters.
The fight of faith is hard. Doubt, in whatever form, is part of the hard fight. Doubt is dangerous to faith and, to some degree, a necessary experience of believers in an age where “the faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints” is under constant assault (Jude 3), where well-aimed “flaming darts” are frequently being shot at them (Ephesians 6:16), and where believers on their best days see only “in a mirror dimly,” and know only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). On their worst days, this mirror can seem very dim indeed.
So, let us be merciful on those who doubt. Let us not crush them or condemn them. Let us learn from Jesus that this mercy takes different forms for different doubts — none of which is crushing or condemning. And let us tread carefully here, “praying in the Holy Spirit” that we may “keep [ourselves and others] in the love of God” (Jude 20–21).
Saturday 4:00 pm
Sunday: 7:45 am & 9:30 am
Nursery service is available at the 9:30 service.
Sunday School 10:20 am