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The Means of Grace We Might Despise: Why We Practice Church Discipline 18.1.2022 04:00

The Means of Grace We Might Despise

Church life consists of corporate singing, prayers, the preaching of God’s word, discipleship, teaching in classes, fellowship in small groups, and an array of other practices. Each practice is formative, pressing us toward conformity to Christ’s likeness in our character. As we walk humbly in these means of God’s grace, we see Christ glorified as we increasingly are satisfied with him.

Yet an additional facet of church life that brings great glory to Christ, one that is admittedly not as easy to engage in, is the practice of church discipline. Consider what Scott Manetsch writes in Calvin’s Company of Pastors:

Calvin’s doctrine of right worship formed the gravitational center of his entire ecclesial vision. The liturgy of the church, the offices of the church, the discipline of the church, the preaching ministry of the church were all intended to bring praise and glory to Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. (31–32, emphasis added)

We easily see how the church’s worship and the preaching of the gospel can bring glory to Christ, but perhaps we struggle to see, with Calvin, how the church’s discipline does. For some of us, sadness is associated with such a practice, as we remember failed attempts to reach someone who was removed from church membership.

Church discipline can feel grievous and weighty. It is imperative, however, for the health (and joy) of the church, and for the glory of Christ, that we see church discipline as an avenue for showcasing his goodness and greatness.

Discipline and the Glory of Christ

For the sake of clarity, we will define church discipline as correction of persistently sinning church members — for the good of those caught in sin, the purity of the church, and the glory of God. As the third purpose here suggests, our commitment to church discipline requires a devotion to the glory of God in his church.

Those who give themselves to this severe mercy remember that the Bible is a story preeminently about one main character, the triune God, and one main plot, the display of his glory in creation and redemption among a people who will reflect that glory and dwell with him forever. Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, Jesus brings the divine attributes of God as Father, Son, and Spirit into the realm of humanity, manifesting the person and presence of God (Luke 9:32; John 1:14; 17:5; 1 Corinthians 2:8).

Jesus’s glory exceeds the angels (Hebrews 1:7–14; 2:7, 9), Moses (Hebrews 3:3), the rest Joshua gave (Hebrews 3:7–4:10), the Levitical priests (Hebrews 5:1–10), the old covenant (Hebrews 8:1–13), and the Old Testament sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:1–18). While being made for a little while lower than the angels, Jesus atoned for sin and through his work brings many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:7–10). In his person and work, Christ has assuaged the righteous wrath of the Father (John 3:36), such that God can justify the unrighteous who believe in Christ (Romans 3:21–26).

As such, the glory of Christ is preeminently displayed in creation and redemption, including “in the church” (Ephesians 3:21). While these reflections may feel far removed from pastoral labors within a local church context, such truths serve as the bedrock upon which we stand when the weightiness of the issues of church discipline come crashing down on us. The church exists for the glory of Christ, along with every part of church life — including church discipline.

So how, in particular, does church discipline glorify Christ?

Discipline Points to the Purity of Christ

Jesus Christ, the God-man, came to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Because of his work on our behalf, our status before God is righteous in Christ (justification), we are consecrated and called to growth in godliness (sanctification), and we will one day be fully purified (glorification). We await the day when we will see Christ and be like him, and until that day, he calls us to purify ourselves as he is pure (1 John 3:1–3).

As such, church discipline is a key means for the church’s growth in holiness, to be presented before him as a pure bride (Ephesians 5:25–27). We will not be perfect in this life, but as we continue to exhort one another day after day, so that we are not hardened by sin (Hebrews 3:12–13), we point each other and the world to the glorious purity of Christ.

This is especially true in the final step of discipline, known as excommunication. Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7) in order to create a repentant, pure people. Therefore, if such repentance and purity is not evident, we are to put that person out of church membership (1 Corinthians 5:13). The hope is repentance and restoration (1 Corinthians 5:5), but in the meantime, and even if restoration should not occur, excommunication demonstrates that the purity of Christ is real, and the purity of the bride, though imperfect, is still a humble, repentant, and genuine pursuit.

Discipline Points to the Beauty of the Groom

One key metaphor of the relationship between Christ and the church is that of marriage. God refers to Israel as his bride in the Old Testament, calling them away from spiritual idolatry, which he often depicted as adultery (see, for example, the book of Hosea). God desires a relationship between Christ and the church that points to the intimacy between believers and their Lord and Savior.

In the church, we remind one another of our identity as the bride who will one day be presented to Christ “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 19:6–10). That future vision calls us to continually repent, grow, and pursue obedience to God’s word, by God’s grace and Spirit.

Christ is the pure bridegroom, and discipline is a means of purifying the bride to one day be presented to him. Removal from the body of Christ may even be necessary, to serve as a means of pursuing this purity corporately, while hoping that the person under discipline will repent and join this pursuit of corporate purity. Christ is glorious in himself, and the radiant bride he will receive shows the beauty of that glory.

Discipline Points Us to Christ as Lion and Lamb

Finally, church discipline reminds us that Christ is glorified both in salvation and judgment. Our God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6–7). That passage goes on to say, however, that “he will by no means clear the guilty.” Discipline highlights both God’s righteous wrath toward sin and his mercy through Christ.

Jesus Christ is both Lion and Lamb (Revelation 5:5–6), which points again to the glorious nature of Christ in his work both to forgive sin and judge the world. Church discipline reminds us that salvation is for those who repent of sin and trust in Christ, whose entire life and demeanor returns to repentance and faith throughout their lives. And for those who refuse to repent, even when the entire church calls them to account, the act of excommunication is meant to jar them awake, to point out the potential lion-like judgment that awaits. Our glorious Lord is Lion and Lamb, and church discipline keeps that reality before our eyes.

Sorrow Meant to Lead to Satisfaction

We do not want to see worldly sorrow in our churches. Rather, we desire godly grief that produces repentance, which leads to salvation with no regrets (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Church discipline — when done biblically, and in reliance on God’s grace and conviction in the life of an unrepentant sinner — can bring about transformation. If local churches forsake such a biblical practice, the result will be a sullied view of Christ’s purity, a diminishment of the bridegroom’s work in the life of the bride, and a view of Jesus as Lamb, but not Lion. Discipline brings out a full view of Christ’s glory.

Discipline may be a sorrowful practice, both for the church and for the one under discipline. You may be reminded of painful moments you have endured in church life and asked if such a practice is really worthwhile. However, if this process is done correctly, the church grows in health and Christ is glorified. And if repentance takes place for the one under discipline, the result is a person turned away from sin toward satisfaction in Christ, and in that, Christ again is glorified.

Be Shrewd and Buy Up Time: Ephesians 5:15–21, Part 2 18.1.2022 04:00

Do you just let life happen to you, or do you pray, do you plan, do you act, do you consider how you spend your time?

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How the Lottery Preys on the Poor 17.1.2022 04:00

Pull-tabs and scratch games incentivize risky, destructive behaviors, especially among those who can least afford to play.

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The Other Side of the Race Debate: Four Ways to Disagree Christianly 17.1.2022 04:00

The Other Side of the Race Debate

Ten years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012, could you have predicted where we would be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022? Some surely foresaw a number of our present sorrows. But who could have foreseen Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Charlottesville, and Confederate-monument debates, and Trump, and national-anthem kneeling, and George Floyd, and the outrage of 2020 — to name just a few of many tragedies and controversies? And who could have imagined that the events of these ten years would so severely tear the fabric of our Reformed world?

Even by 2017, John Piper could mourn the “improbable constellation of [racial] sorrows” unknown in 2012. The last five years have only added to the improbable constellation, splintering a once-unified Reformed evangelicalism into groups that often struggle not only to partner with one another but even to understand each other.

And that struggle to even understand touches on one of the many dysfunctions beneath our divisions: in our thinking and talking about race in recent years, many of us have failed to engage the issues and one another Christianly. Many conversations, especially online, have savored less of Solomonic wisdom and more of political savvy (no matter how apolitical we may feel otherwise). Too easily, many of us have adopted and advocated for positions not because we have thought through them carefully, prayerfully, with open Bibles and in thoughtful dialogue with Christians who think differently, but simply because these positions are not what the other side holds (whoever the other side may be).

The dysfunction would be easier to brush aside if it characterized only the most extreme among us, the most militantly “woke” and most virulently “anti-woke.” But too often, such a dynamic has characterized my own thought and talk. Even those who generally strive for patience and fair-mindedness are falling into these ditches. With a topic as fraught as race in the American church, almost everyone has an “other side,” a group whose thoughts and sentiments feel not only troublesome but threatening — and therefore a group we struggle to hear, much less learn from.

Healing such dysfunctional engagement would not heal all our divisions, not by a long shot. But it may soften our various prejudices, nurture deeper understanding, and (on the micro scale if not the macro) lead us toward a less fragile unity. Or, if nothing else, we may simply become better at talking when the temperature rises over other tense issues.

Talking in the Boxing Ring

In many ways, the deck of the last decade was stacked against Christian habits of thought and talk. Even as we faced the constellation of sorrows, information overload accelerated, social media colonized public discourse, and our society’s typical partisanship seemed to swallow steroids. Often, the context of our conversations has felt less like a living room and more like a boxing ring. And it’s hard to engage as Christians when the rules of the game are punch or be punched.

Many of us have learned to think and talk on the surface of things. Once, a phrase like systemic racism offered an invitation to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and then consider whether the description fits biblical and experiential reality. But our communicative climate rarely encourages such engagement. Now, systemic racism has become a badge for a particular team — one that, depending on your side, either cannot be questioned or cannot be considered. The phrase (and more like it) no longer spurs thought, but replaces thought. Meanwhile, we fall deeper into our own silos, less able to hear truths that might counterbalance our perspectives. We learn to parrot whatever voices are loudest or most immediately persuasive, and parroting, by nature, inevitably leads to partisanship and polarization.

The danger for many Christians is not that we will disown manifest biblical concerns, but that we will so underemphasize some biblical concerns (that is, the other side’s) that they become functionally denied in our theology and practice. Where we now stand, some of us don’t want to talk anymore about God’s care for the oppressed (Exodus 22:21–24; Psalm 103:6); others no longer want to discuss the necessity of due process (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16). Some are nervous about acknowledging the prejudice that power can bring (Deuteronomy 16:18–20); others are wary of admitting the fallibility of wounded feelings (Proverbs 18:17). Some are slower to condemn American slavery and Jim Crow (1 Timothy 1:10; James 2:1–7); others are slower to denounce the unjustly disproportionate black-abortion rate (Psalm 139:13–16).

In each case, however, the balance and emphasis of Scripture is no longer setting our theological and ethical agenda. The other side is.

Four Postures for Christian Conversation

On one level, we cannot help but think and talk from our subjective perspectives. But by God’s grace, we can avoid thinking and talking more like political people than Christian people. We can unlearn the reflexes and rhetoric of the city of man. And to that end, we can pursue four Christian postures for thinking and talking about race (or any contentious subject), adapted from the framework creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

Embodied

To be human is to be wonderfully and inescapably embodied, a creature among creatures in God’s physical world. Most of our communication technologies, however, treat us as an avatar among avatars in man’s ethereal world. And much of the time, an avatar thinks and talks differently from a creature.

Martin Luther King, looking upon Southern segregation, once observed, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (Free at Last?, 68).

Today, of course, we actually can communicate in real time while separated. But to King, our technological talk would hardly look like the kind of communication he had in mind — the kind that erases ignorance, eases fears, and melts hatred. To him, our social media platforms may seem more like anti-communication technologies.

When we take our complex racial conversations onto social media, we take them into an environment that forces three-dimensional topics into a two-dimensional mold, that rewards slander and belligerence, and that (contrary to James’s counsel) teaches us to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger (James 1:19). Image-bearers become little more than “mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate,” as Alan Jacobs puts it (How to Think, 98). And eradicate we try.

I know proximity is a buzzword in some circles. Even still, nothing has mitigated my own tendency toward unthinking aversion of “the other side” more than looking some of the other side in the face. Something changes when your ideological opponents are no longer two-dimensional representatives of a barbarous idea, but instead living, feeling, speaking beings — and perhaps even friends.

Fallen

The doctrine of the fall has not experienced the same neglect that the doctrine of creation has in recent years. Few doctrines have been so universally emphasized, even among non-Christians, than the fall of humanity. But too often, the emphasis has landed on the fall of other humans, of those humans over there.

Ironically, a pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse. Few instincts are less Christian and more devilish than turning the blade of God’s word against everyone’s sins but our own (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10). The doctrine of the fall, rightly grasped, does not put a spotlight in our hand so we can expose the sins of others; it reveals the spotlight in God’s hand, exposing us all (Hebrews 4:13).

Of course, to say “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) is not to say all have sinned in the same way or to the same degree. And so, in conversations about race, we need not assume the same kind or same level of guilt on all sides. Some of us have more reason than others to suspect ourselves.

But all of us have some reason to suspect ourselves. Given all that God has said about sin, it would be astonishing indeed if anyone in these conversations had nothing to learn and, from time to time, no fault to confess. God’s regenerating work does not make fallen people flawless people. Therefore, we exercise not false humility but biblical realism when we enter most conversations assuming we don’t see everything clearly and that this other human, ideological opponent or not, has some truth to shine on us.

Redeemed

If the fall means we should expect to find our ignorance and sin exposed in conversations about race, redemption means we can. Those who wear the robe of righteousness can bear to see the stains beneath (Isaiah 61:10). Those who hear God’s pardoning voice can handle his reproofs (Hebrews 12:5–6). Those forgiven of much can go ahead and weep their repentance in public (Luke 7:36–50). If the fall compels us to suspect ourselves, redemption frees us to reveal ourselves: we are unafraid to be seen as the sinners we are.

We can easily feel like conversations about race happen beside the cliff edge of condemnation, with an admission of fault casting us over. But no: every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13–16). And all our guilt casts us onto him who preached peace to Jew and Gentile, privileged and oppressed, and whose gospel speaks a stronger word than all our racial sins (Ephesians 2:17–18).

Many of us would do well to briefly pause during tense interactions and remind ourselves of Psalm 130:4: “With you there is forgiveness.” With God there is forgiveness, even when there is none with man. A new humility may come from embracing such a promise. And humility has a way of opening doors for understanding that self-righteousness never can.

United

Through redemption, Jesus has united us — to himself, first and foremost, but also to all others in him, no matter how differently they understand race in America. And so, whatever team or tribe we affiliate with for practical purposes, let it never be forgotten that our true team and tribe reaches far as redemption is found.

What might happen if we began to identify more deeply with the whole church of Jesus Christ than with our particular pew? We might renounce the old Corinthian folly of finishing the sentence “I follow . . .” with any name other than Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:4). We might recover the true sense of the word prophetic and gain courage to reprove our own friends. We might find new freedom in pursuit of truth, knowing that a genuine win for “the other side” is a win for us all. We might live up to our identity as sons of a peacemaking Father (Matthew 5:9).

Joining the Needlessly Divided

The road of racial harmony still stretches far ahead of us — in our friendships and churches, in our denominations and broader networks. And if the last ten years have taught us anything, they have taught us that no one can really know where we’ll be a decade from now. But oh that John Wesley’s praise for John Newton might rest upon many in that day:

You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.

Such healers of breaches will not arise from the knee-jerk opposition that has become so common. They will carry the hope that “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) forms a stronger tie than the unity of political party, cultural similarity, or any ideological kinship. They will arise from the ground of Christian thought and Christian talk — embodied, fallen, redeemed, united.

Parable of an Unhealthy Soul: Why ‘Faith’ Dies Without Action 16.1.2022 04:00

Parable of an Unhealthy Soul

How do works of obedience relate to the free, unmerited gift of God’s grace in the life of a Christian? This has been a recurring controversial and confusing issue since the earliest days of the church.

If we are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s sufficient substitutionary work alone, and not by any work of ours (Romans 3:8), then why are we warned and instructed to “strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)? If our works don’t save us, then how can our not working (like not striving for holiness) prevent us from being saved?

Before we turn to the apostle Peter for help, hear a parable of an unhealthy soul.

Diligence Reveals Real Faith

There was a man who was forty pounds overweight. Despite knowing it was dangerous to his health, for years he had indulged in too much of the wrong kinds of foods and neglected the right kinds of exercise.

One day, his doctor told him he was in the early stages of developing type-2 diabetes. Not only that, but his vital signs also pointed to high risks of heart attack, stroke, and various cancers. If he didn’t make specific changes, his doctor warned, the man would surely die prematurely.

So, the man heeded his doctor’s warnings. He made every effort to put new systems into place that encouraged healthy habits of eating and activity and discouraged his harmful old habits, preferences, and cravings. After twelve months, the man’s health was beginning to be transformed. He had lost most of his excess weight, felt better, had more energy, and no longer lived under the chronic, depressing cloud of knowing he was living in harmful self-indulgence. When his doctor next saw him, he was very pleased and said to the man, “Well done! You are no longer at heightened risk of premature death.” The man continued in his new ways and lived well into old age.

Question: Was the man’s health restored through his faith in the gracious knowledge provided to him pertaining to life and healthiness, or was it restored through his diligent efforts to put this knowledge into practice?

How Faith Works

Do you see the problem with the question? It poses a false dichotomy. The man’s faith and his works were organically inseparable. If he didn’t have faith in what the doctor told him, he wouldn’t have heeded the doctor’s warning — there would have been no health-restoring works. If he didn’t obey the doctor’s instructions, whatever “faith” he may have claimed to have in his doctor would have been “dead faith” (James 2:26) — that faith would not have saved him from his health-destroying ways.

This parable, imperfect as it is, is a picture of the biblical teaching on sanctification. In a nutshell, the New Testament teaches that the faith that justifies us is the same faith that sanctifies us. This faith is “the gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8–9). It’s just that this saving faith, by its nature, perseveres, and works to make us holy.

We passively receive this gift of faith freely given to us by God. But faith, once received, does not leave a soul passive. It becomes the driving force behind our actions, the way we live. By its nature, faith believes the “precious and very great promises” of God (2 Peter 1:4), and the evidence that real faith is present in us manifests, over time, through the ways we act on those promises. The New Testament calls these actions “works of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) or the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). True works of faith don’t “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21); they are evidence that we have truly received the grace of God, and are themselves further expressions of grace.

Now, let me show you one place where Scripture clearly teaches this. And as I do, imagine yourself as the unhealthy soul in my parable sitting in your doctor’s office — and your doctor is the apostle Peter. Dr. Peter has just examined your spiritual health and has some serious concerns. So, as a good physician, he gives you a firm exhortation.

Escaping Through Promises

[God’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)

Dr. Peter begins by telling you that God has granted to you all things. He agrees with his colleague, Dr. Paul, that God has granted you life, breath, and everything, including the day you were born, the places you’ll live, and how long (Acts 17:25–26). God has granted you regeneration (Ephesians 2:4–5), the measure of your faith (Romans 12:3), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7–11), and capacity to work hard (1 Corinthians 15:10). And God has given you his “precious and very great promises so that through them” you may escape the power of sin and be transformed into his nature.

Everything, from beginning to end, is God’s grace, since “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).

Make Every Effort

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5–7)

Notice Dr. Peter’s words: For this reason (because God has granted you everything), make every effort (act with faith in all God has promised you).

In other words, prove the reality of your profession of faith, by doing whatever it takes to actively cultivate habits of grace, that nurture the character qualities necessary to live out the “obedience of faith” through doing tangible acts of good to bless others.

What Negligence Reveals

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:8–9)

Dr. Peter’s prescription is clear and simple: if you cultivate these holy qualities, they will foster spiritual health and fruitfulness; if you don’t, you will experience spiritual decline and demise. Diligence will reveal genuine faith because that is how faith works: it leads to action. Negligence will reveal your lack of faith because “dead faith” doesn’t work.

Now, this is a warning, not a condemnation. Peter knows well that all disciples have seasons of setbacks and failure. But he also knows, with Paul, that some disciples “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16) — their profession of faith is not supported by the “obedience of faith.” Peter doesn’t want you to be one of those statistics, so he ends his firm exhortation to you on a hopeful note.

Pursue Diligence by Faith

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10–11)

Just so you’re clear, Dr. Peter emphasizes the organic, inseparable relationship between God’s grace and your “works of faith.” He says, “Be diligent to confirm your calling and election.”

You don’t call yourself to Christ; Christ calls you by his grace (John 15:16). You don’t elect yourself to salvation; God elects you by his grace (Ephesians 1:4–6). But you do have an essential contribution to make to your eternal spiritual health. You confirm the reality of God’s saving grace in your life through diligently obeying by faith all that Jesus commands you (Matthew 28:20) — or not.

This is Dr. Peter’s prescription for your assurance of salvation: your diligent obedience through faith, your making every effort to pursue holiness, is evidence that your faith is real and that the Holy Spirit is at work in you to make you a partaker in the divine nature.

This is why Scripture commands us, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). It’s not that our striving, our “making every effort” to obey God, somehow merits us salvation. Rather, our striving is God’s gracious, ordained means — fed by his promises and supplied by his Spirit — to make us holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16) and to provide us “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

God’s grace is no less gracious because he chooses to grant it not only apart from our works (in justification) but also through our diligent “works of faith” (in sanctification) — especially since these works are evidence that our faith is real.

How Does Gratitude Serve the Will of God? Ephesians 5:15–21, Part 1 15.1.2022 04:00

Are you a thankful person? When we are truly filled by the Spirit, we increasingly give thanks for everything.

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Suffering Under an All-Powerful Love 15.1.2022 04:00

Suffering Under an All-Powerful Love

As I sat atop my lofted dorm-room bed and turned the page from Romans 8 to Romans 9 in my small, tattered Bible, I went from a chapter familiar enough to be easily skimmed to a chapter that I had no recollection of ever reading before.

Both chapters emphasized the sovereignty of God — his sovereign love and his sovereign power. At 19 years old, I had not thought much about God’s sovereignty. I believed what I’d been taught as a child — that God was in control, that he knew every hair on my head, that he had the whole world in his hands. But I also believed that salvation was a choice I had made — that God chose me because he knew I’d someday choose him.

When I entered college, however, the issue became inescapable. My college campus swirled with discussions about whether God elected people to salvation and whether he could know the future at all. Even my theology class was getting ready to host a debate between an Open Theist (someone who believes God doesn’t fully know the future until it happens) and a Calvinist (someone who believes God knows and ordains the future, including who will believe and be saved).

It was only by chance that I had been reading Romans 8–9 the night before this debate. Or was it?

God in Control

That night, my beliefs began to change. I read of God’s relationship with his chosen people:

Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)

Could it possibly be true that this foreknowing, predestining God didn’t know the future? It could not.

Or was it conceivable that the God who said, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” was merely looking ahead in the future to see who would and wouldn’t choose him (Romans 9:16)? It was not. And furthermore, God declared that he was working all things together for the good of those he’d called (Romans 8:28). Could God work all things together for good if all things were not genuinely under his control?

My 19-year-old heart began to swell with joy and relief. This God was not back on his heels, trying to figure out what to do, nor was he waiting for me to figure him out. He was bringing his good plans to pass. He called me, he saved me, and he would keep me in every circumstance.

Does God’s Goodness Miscarry?

My understanding of God’s sovereign grace grew as my knowledge of God’s word grew. And I loved his sovereignty — in theory at least. I loved that my God was so powerful and big and in charge. When I saw others go through difficult circumstances, I sympathized with them, but I also had a settled sense that God had a plan born from his love. It wasn’t until I was up against my own difficult circumstance that the thought flashed in my mind: perhaps God was working something not good in my life.

As a young wife and mom, I never considered the possibility of miscarrying. So when it happened, I was shocked that my own womb could become a place of death. All I knew of God flooded my mind, almost as a reproach.

As I faced the loss of our little one, I wasn’t tempted to doubt his power but his love. I knew he could have kept our baby alive, so why didn’t he? Yet Romans 8 was there to keep me grounded, reminding me that not even death could separate us from his love. Paul’s words were an anchor:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

As the years rolled on, God’s sovereignty over all things was the buoy that kept me afloat in every season. I was learning to trust God’s love as he carried us through job loss, babies received and one lost, moves, and new ministry. Yet it was the birth of our youngest son that brought the deepest challenge to my trust in God’s power and plans.

With our son’s arrival, we faced uncertainty regarding his future, a future that, in the best case, would involve disability and health difficulties. During the chronic trials that ensued, including our son’s sleep disorder, seizures, and eating difficulties that involved years of almost daily vomit, a different sort of temptation occasionally crept in — the thought that God might love us, but he maybe couldn’t help us. Night after night after night, year after year after year, we would pray for relief. But relief didn’t come.

Different Sort of Power

I was looking for God’s power to come in the form of physical relief from our trials. I was tired and worn. I wanted to be free of the difficulties of nighttime G-tube feedings and regular vomit clean-up. If God answered those prayers, I reasoned, that would be a sign of his power. Yet which is more difficult: to change someone’s circumstances from hard to easy, or to change the person in the circumstances from floundering to flourishing despite it all?

Would God have shown more of his sovereign power if he had put down all his enemies once and for all, preventing the cross and the resurrection? Or is God’s power more greatly displayed through his planning from before time to crush his Son, defeat sin, and then raise his Son from the dead, so that he could make his enemies his friends? Any tyrant with a large army can squelch his enemies, but only our gracious and powerful God turns enemies into sons through the folly of the cross and the empty tomb.

As Paul testifies, God often manifests his power through our weaknesses. It was Paul’s thorn in the flesh that occasioned God’s sovereign power resting upon him:

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

In a world where almost everyone seems obsessed with power — whether they have it, how they can get it — God’s word shows us the deeper power: the power of his Spirit.

God’s power is ours when we entrust ourselves to him amid weakness. We need not demand power from the world. We need not seek position or platform. The sovereign power of God rests on his people, not to remove their thorns, but to teach them of a stronger power — the power of God that contents us with trials, so long as we have Christ’s Spirit.

No Trite Slogan

All those years ago as a college sophomore, Romans 8 and 9 showed me the sovereign love and sovereign power of God.

In Romans 9, I met a God to whom back talk was not permitted:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:19–20)

In Romans 8, that same fearfully powerful God was also utterly committed to my good in all things, so much so, that his Spirit intercedes for me as he works on my behalf (Romans 8:26–28).

Some believe that Romans 8:28 is a trite way to comfort the afflicted — that it shuts up the grief of the hurting, as though telling a suffering saint that God is working their hardship for good makes a mockery of the pain. As we are imperfect people, we should consider that possibility. But for me, no truth is as precious.

Knowing that God is working all things for my good has been the dearest and deepest comfort, even, and especially, in the darkest of seasons. God is working all things for my good when our son is in the hospital (again), or when my husband is dealing with chronic pain (still), or when betrayal and slander touch my life or the lives of those I love. It’s a reality that keeps my heart whole even as it’s breaking, and my mind clear even in the fog of confusion.

He is good. He is strong. Not one thing happens to us apart from his perfect plan. God’s sovereign love and power mean that we can trust him — now and forever.

Why I Read Aloud to My Children 14.1.2022 04:00

Why I Read Aloud to My Children

Recently, I completed a long journey with my twin 11-year-old boys. The trek took us months, yet required no planes, trains, or automobiles. In fact, we never left the house for this particular voyage, though we did venture outside once to sit by an autumn fire.

This was a journey of over one million words — 1,084,170 to be exact. And it was a trek on which we traveled every mile, every chapter, and every word together.

Over the course of about 18 months, beginning when COVID “lockdown” descended in the spring of 2020, and ending in September 2021, I read aloud to my sons the seven books of the Harry Potter series. We invested two or three bedtimes each week to it, pausing for a few weeks between books. But we kept plodding forward a chapter (or two) at a time.

My best estimate is that it took us, in all, about one hundred hours.

Read-Aloud Revival

As a new dad, reading aloud more than a million words, for one hundred hours, would have seemed not only daunting but impossible. Perhaps you feel the same way right now. I get it; I’ve been there. But please don’t give up yet. Reading aloud, especially to our children, is a skill worth developing — one that is honed not just over weeks and months, but over years.

My dear wife, with input from friends and a podcast called Read-Aloud Revival, first bent my ear to consider what an opportunity and joy it could be to read aloud as a habit to our children — not begrudgingly, but eagerly. We decided early on as parents that we would spare expenses in other areas to be able to invest well in good children’s books. And that we would do our best to limit and say no to other activities — especially ones involving screens! — to put life on pause, sit down, slow down, and enjoy reading aloud to our children.

Ten years ago, with no read-aloud experience, I felt almost winded to read a longish children’s book to our toddlers after a tiring day of work. I had not yet developed any read-aloud stamina. I hadn’t done any significant, regular reading aloud in my life. But most critically, I had not yet discovered the joy it can be to be present, and engaged, and contagiously happy with your children in these moments gathered around an open book.

There and Back Again

One on-ramp for some dads is that we love to do voices. This brought me particular pleasure once the boys were old enough (I think it was age 5) to read them The Hobbit, using my amateur British accent for Bilbo, gruff voices for the dwarves, and (of course) my best impressions of Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis for Gandalf and Gollum. Now, this was no board book — it took weeks, and patience. At times, the boys were bored (Tolkien doesn’t do candy), but we pressed through. There were life lessons in that for all of us. And in the end, we felt like we had accomplished something significant together. We read a big book together — and my concerns that Gollum might be too scary, and show up in nightmares, were addressed by my being there with them, reading to them, and talking to them about their fears. I was there to mediate the scariest moments, like riddles in the dark.

So too, my uncertainty about whether the boys, at age 10, were ready to handle the whole Harry Potter series was a good reason to make the trek with them. Being unsure, I had two lazy options in front of me. I could have shelved my concerns and just turned them loose to read for themselves or listen to the audiobooks. Or I could have erred on the side of caution and kept telling them, “Not yet, not yet.” Instead, I decided to make the trek with them. What they were ready for, we enjoyed together. What they weren’t, I was there to mediate, ready to pause and give context, ready to stop and explain, ready to answer questions, and ready to ask how their minds and hearts were receiving it. Most of all, being there, I was ready to process out loud how I myself was receiving the story with Christian eyes, ready to highlight not only pointers to the gospel (and there are many, especially in the final book!), but also important life lessons (there’s no lack of those either, particularly in Dumbledore’s monologues).

And all the while, with kids aged 3 to 6 to 11, Dad’s stamina for reading aloud was increasing. And as my read-aloud stamina and experience have increased, so has my joy.

God’s Word, Read Aloud

As my wife so helpfully prodded me to read aloud to our children, I would encourage other Christian moms and dads to do the same — to discover for yourself what an opportunity and joy reading aloud to your children can be. Reading aloud is, after all, a remarkably Christian pastime.

For twenty centuries, reading aloud has been critical for how the people of Christ have heard his voice. The printing press has been around for only a quarter of church history, and only recently have our shelves at home been filled with multiple Bibles. Christ has spoken to his people across history through the reading aloud of Scripture, at the heart of the gathered assembly of the church. As the apostle Paul directs his protégé and delegate in Ephesus, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). Without personal copies of the Bible at home, and on smartphones, how else would the people of Christ hear his word in the words of the apostles? The pastors had to read it aloud.

So Paul wrote his letters to be carried to the churches and read aloud (Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). So too, the apostle John wrote down his apocalyptic vision, anticipating its reading aloud (Revelation 1:3). And this, of course, happened in a first-century Jewish context, in which the people of God had long been people of a Book, and at the center of the life of the synagogue was the reading aloud of the Scriptures (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21, 31; 2 Corinthians 3:14–15), as Jesus himself did on that memorable occasion in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16).

Joys of Analog Life

As parents who cherish these quickly passing years with our children, we love how reading aloud together builds our kids’ vocabulary, teaches them about the world and the experiences of others, and develops bonds and relationship with us. And of course, time spent reading aloud to our kids is time not on screens — which can be good for both them and us.

And for dads in particular, Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, now in its eighth edition, notes “the important role of fathers in developing boys as readers.” Trelease says when he wrote the first edition in 1982, “I thought we had a bit of a male reading problem. Not anymore. Now it’s a huge problem.” His first edition had a few pages for dads. His latest edition has a whole chapter called “The Importance of Dads.”

Not Too Late

For moms and dads who are not currently reading aloud with regularity to your kids, I’d encourage you to try it, and stick with it for the long haul, despite the initial friction. Once or twice, or a few weeks, won’t be long enough for you to really see the effects, develop your stamina, and learn how to enjoy what a real habit can produce.

Perhaps my main piece of counsel would be to read with energy. When Dad and Mom put more into it, the whole family gets more out of it. Even after a long day, it’s worth pushing yourself to not just go through the motions and read monotone. Put energy into it. Pour in more enthusiasm than you first think is needed. Read with color and warmth. Do voices, if you’re that type. Pursue contagious joy, not infectious boredom. You are the teacher, not the book. The book is your prop, your medium, your context for relationship with your children, and your opportunity to invest in them, their maturity, and their personality.

Crowning Jewel

For parents like me, who want to make the most of reading aloud not just to entertain our kids but to disciple them, one caution might be not to preach or moralize too often — and on the other hand, not to miss the important teachable moments altogether. I try to be sensitive to my children’s hearts, alertness, and levels of interest. When they’re bored or grumpy or the tank is low, I lean on the book, and read for shorter spans. When they’re enraptured in the story, I consider it a better time to pause and impart key principles or life lessons, and read for longer.

Similarly, I’d encourage both funny books, where you laugh together (like Silly Tilly, or Caps for Sale) and serious books. Kids are ready for different stories at different ages. Because of my special love for Middle-earth, our first big, serious book was The Hobbit. Then we started Narnia, and then went on to another series. When COVID came, time finally seemed right for Potter. Now, with that journey behind us, we’ve started Lord of the Rings for our 11-year-olds, and The Hobbit with our 7-year-old daughter.

But the crowning jewel of reading aloud is not Tolkien, Lewis, or Rowling. It’s God. All along, from board books to storybook Bibles, to reading the Real Thing, we are training our children to hear the very words of God himself in Scripture, and receive them with joy.

The greatest read-aloud privilege of all is reading aloud the Bible.

I Have Multiple Disabilities — How Do I Not Waste My Life? 14.1.2022 04:00

What might it look like for a Christian with significant disabilities to live a productive, spiritually fruitful, God-glorifying life?

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How to Speak to the Spiritually Dead: Ephesians 5:8–14, Part 8 13.1.2022 04:00

God uses our voice to do the impossible. He sends us to open the eyes of the spiritually dead through our words.

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