Walk the Endless Shore of His Smile: Why God Delights to Love You

Rumor has it that when one aging pastor and renowned theologian was asked what was the highest theological peak he had reached in his years of study and preaching, he answered simply: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Initially, I smiled at the preacher’s cleverness. Later, however, I wondered over the preacher’s answer. Something about it stuck with me.

After a life of exploring mountain ranges men like me have never seen, savoring Christ in ways I have not, speaking of nuances in theology I do not yet understand — after all his decades of travel in the Christian life — this preacher imparted no higher souvenir than can be found on the lips of children. With all his twists and turns, ups and downs, peaks and valleys, he had not escaped the nursery of God’s gospel love. This love stood as crib walls for the childlike heart.

Would I have answered similarly?

God Delights in Me?

When we hear that God loves us, we can imagine strange things. We call it an ocean; we sing songs about it; but too often we float at its surface preferring the more practical, more current, more insightful. A world remains unexplored. But God desires to give full lyric to our nursery song. He says to his people through Isaiah,

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. . . . You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:3–5)

“To smile more before God, we must rediscover the weight of his smile, his unveiled happiness in his people.”

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God likes you. He delights in you. He smiles at you — and not because he sees someone smarter, taller, better looking, or holier standing just behind you. He looks each redeemed child in the eye and tells him of his love for him in his Son. This is who our God is towards us. Not because of our worth, but because of Christ’s.

Your inheritance in Christ shatters all of earth’s piggy banks: God’s smile. He delights to see you, he rejoices to have you, as every smiling groom at the end of the aisle foretells. The God who spoke the cosmos into existence sings over you:

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Have you been quieted by his love of late? Have you simply sat singing to yourself: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so? Have you submerged beneath the surface to discover the heart of God towards his bride? The pastor found God’s affection for him to be a bottomless sea to explore. His maturity did not graduate to other seas; it went scuba diving.

He Wants You Where He Is

Some of us think about God’s love in so many clichés and platitudes that we come to think of it as the kiddie pool of the Christian faith. It gives us no pause, therefore, to leave the lyric behind us to higher, weightier things. We forget to marvel as C.S. Lewis does in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

How different we would pray, how different we would evangelize, how different we would worship and explore his word, if we believed that the God whom we sought actually wanted us to draw near. If we worshiped the God of Scripture who summons us under his wings (Luke 13:34).

The pastor knew that our Father does not roll his eyes as he gives the kingdom to his children. Instead, he says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). From such a heart he anticipated the holy commendation at the end of his race: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23). If we too only realized that Jesus died to keep us from hell and from some remote corner of heaven — that he died to bring us to himself: “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

He wants us near because he delights in his people. Do we fellowship with this happy God, a God in whom enough joy cascades to submerge his people for an eternity?

A New Smile Every Morning

John Piper has given his life to proclaiming, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And how shall we be satisfied in him? Go deeper in his satisfaction of you in Christ. Stare, without excuse or extensive qualification, at how he desires us; how truly happy he is in his redeemed people. No one forced him to adopt us.

“How different we would pray, if we believed that the God whom we sought actually wanted us to draw near.”

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Perhaps many of us are not happier in our Christian lives because we assume God is as disappointed in us as we can tend to be in ourselves. Children cannot long delight in a father that stares indifferently at them — and we have not outgrown this. Children love to be delighted in. They love to cry, “Daddy, watch me!” and see his smile when they complete the somersault. Although we can still displease him with our sin, grieving the Spirit he placed within us, the Father’s smile replaces his displeasure as the sun replaces the moon each morning. His laughter, as with his mercy, is new every morning.

To smile more before God, we must rediscover the weight of his smile, his unveiled happiness in his people that bids us be as merry as we humanly can be — in him. In this is joy: not that we have delighted in God, but that he first chose to delight in us. We will never outlaugh our heavenly Father. His smile, his happiness, not ours, founds the universe. We who desire for God to get the glory due his name will learn to dwell on this regularly. When we do, perhaps a few more of us might near the end of the world’s road and say behind us with a smile, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

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Leader, Your Small Choices Have Big Effects

One of the most basic functions of leadership is the power of choice. Like pebbles tossed in a lake, leaders daily make choices that ripple in every direction. The choices leaders make, through action or inaction, will likely change more lives than they can possibly imagine.

Here are three important choices leaders face on a regular basis.

1. The Choice to Build Bridges

Barnabas’s choice to bring Saul to the fearful apostolic leadership team, skeptical of his conversion, may have been one of the most influential actions in all of church history (Acts 9). His choice to advocate for Saul, much like he would later advocate for John Mark, furthered the reach of the gospel and deepened Christian relationships.

Leaders have unique power to build bridges between believers. This side of glory there will always be a need for leaders to do the hard work of bringing fractured believers together. Stroll through the hallways of your church on a Sunday morning and you will rub shoulders with believers who are separated from other believers due to sin, disagreement, misunderstanding, or hurt.

Paul pleads with the Philippian church to help build a bridge between Euodia and Syntyche, “these women who have labored side by side with me in the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). Even godly servants will sometimes find their fellowship fractured. Being an agent of reconciliation is a messy task, but it provides a glorious opportunity to answer Christ’s prayer:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20–21)

The choice to seek unity—or not—reverberates with spiritual power. What choice will you make?

2. The Choice to Pursue Humility or Embrace Pride

Pride comes naturally. Seeking positions of influence and power is the natural desire of the sinful nature (Mark 10:35–45). Ride on the highway during heavy traffic and you’re reminded that the natural disposition of humanity is not to “count other as more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Humility is a choice. How much gospel ministry has been hindered because we choose to embrace pride rather than humility?

Jonathan Edwards wrote a powerful essay titled “Undetected Spiritual Pride: One Cause of Failure in Times of Great Revival.” The ease with which we slip into the pride he describes is frightening. Edwards cautions that “the spiritually proud person shows it in his finding fault with other saints. . . . The eminently humble Christian has so much to do at home and sees so much evil in his own that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts.” Church leaders need to regularly evaluate curriculum, popular preachers, candidates for leadership positions, marriages, and much more. It’s impossible to lead well without evaluating, but we must seek to humbly guard our hearts in the process, lest we fall into a fault-finding spirit.

Faithful shepherding requires confronting sin and having “hard conversations.” For some, however, this becomes a mask for a harsh spirit rooted in pride rather than humble love. Certain leaders seem to revel in bold, in-your-face confrontation, but Edwards cautions us that Christians who are but fellow worms ought to at least treat one another with as much humility and gentleness as Christ treats them.” The choice to seek humility reflects the glory of God in Christ. Which will you choose?

3. The Choice to Obey the Lord

The leader’s choice to obey Christ—or not—causes ripples in the lives of everyone around. Consider the life of Jonah. His choice to go to Tarshish rather than Nineveh prompted the Lord to send a great storm, which led the entire unbelieving crew to throw their goods overboard in fear for their lives. Jonah’s disobedience cost them their livelihood. Disobedience in the life of a leader always ripples beyond their personal life to their family, church, and community.

On the other hand, reflexive obedience to the call and command of God yields ripples of blessing in lives all around. Paul’s choice to follow God’s command to go to Macedonia rather than Asia was a vehicle to bring people from death to life (Acts 16:6–10). The apostle’s choice to obey God rather than the Jewish religious establishment laid a vision for allegiance to Christ above government that has inspired faithful Christians from Eric Liddell to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Acts 4:19–20). Obedience and disobedience are never simply personal matters; in the life of a leader they become actions which affect a community.

Leaders, your power to choose is one of the greatest gifts God has given you for his glory and the good of those you serve. Avoid the danger of making decisions rashly, bereft of prayer and counsel, without concern for the many who will be affected by your action or inaction. Guard against the tendency to settle into a hyper-Calvinism that erroneously places so much weight on God’s sovereignty that it undercuts your responsibility to properly shepherd the people God has set you over. Rather than allowing the weight of choice to crush you, let it move you to pray, seek wise counsel, and grow in your walk with Christ—that your choices may reflect his light and love to a world that needs it.

Every choice of a leader leaves a ripple. What choices will we make?

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Christians Care About All Suffering and Injustice

This message, which John Piper delivered after a concert in Edinburgh, is a fresh expression of an address he originally gave at the 2019 Bethlehem College & Seminary Commencement.

I wonder if you feel any tension between what’s happening in this room and the vision for reaching the hardest neighborhoods in Scotland that you heard about just before our intermission: the gritty, on-the-ground, in-your-face, tough, hard, real problems of the world, and a magnificent room and healthy bodies — people who seem to have it together, and songs lifted with delightful music. Do those worlds go together?

Worship War

Let me read you something from 2 Chronicles. A great army from the peoples of Moab, Ammon, and Mount Seir had come up against Jehoshaphat. What does Jehoshaphat do? How does he go to war? Here’s what he does:

And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. And when they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say,

“Give thanks to the Lord,
   for his steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20–21)

Now, get the picture. This is a vulnerable place to be for the choir. They went out before the army to say, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” They’re shouting this truth about God, singing this truth as a choir over Ammon, over the peoples of Mount Seir.

And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. (2 Chronicles 20:22)

There is a connection. The routing of the enemies of God and the singing of the people of God go together.

Strike with Song

I got a phone call one time from a bunch of college students, who, at ten o’clock at night, had a demon-possessed young woman trapped in a room. They wouldn’t let her out. They wanted me to come and deliver her. I had never done anything like that in my life. I called a friend who lived upstairs, and we went together. When we walked in there, she had a low voice, and she was growling and angry. They just said, “That’s not her.” She knocked the Bible out of my hand when I tried to read it.

“The routing of the enemies of God and the singing of the people of God go together.”

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After about two hours, we began to sing. We didn’t know what to do. I’d never done anything like this. We just began to sing. And then we just continued to sing and sing. She went absolutely crazy, flopped on the floor, screaming for Satan not to leave her. Eventually, she went unconscious, as far as we could tell.

She stayed that way for a few minutes, and woke up totally different — she looked totally different and sounded totally different. I handed her my Bible and had her read all of Romans 8. I’ve seen the power of song. I’ve seen it in my church, and I’ve seen it in the neighborhoods. I’ve seen it in families. For me, there is no big tension between 20schemes and singing magnificent, life-changing truth to God.

What Christians Care About

What I want to do for just a few minutes is try to give you a feel — at least, this is my take — on the kind of Christianity represented by Keith and Kristyn Getty and Mez McConnell and all the folks who work to plant churches in the schemes of Scotland. I have two sentences that I want to give you and unpack. These two sentences come close to getting at what 20schemes especially is trying to do. Here are the two sentences:

  1. Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
  2. Christians care about all injustice, especially injustice against God.

Let me unpack each of those sentences. If you’re an unbeliever here tonight, I hope that what you get from what I’m saying is a picture of what you’re confronted with, not any tradition you’ve seen, because the church has made many mistakes. I’m drawing these things out of the Bible as I’ve seen them worked out in real Christians’ lives. This is what you have to choose or not.

Suffering in the Present

Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.

Take the first half: Christians care about all suffering. That half of the sentence is designed to prick the conscience of Christians who are hesitant to mobilize themselves or others to care about all suffering like disease, malnutrition, disability, mental illness, injury, abuse, assault, loneliness, rejection, calamity.

This caring has to be restricted, they feel, because if we give ourselves to caring for all suffering, we will surely then diminish the real concern of the Christian life, which is caring about eternal suffering. I want to say no: No, it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to trade one off against the other. Jesus is our model here over and over again in the Gospels.

The Bible says that he had compassion; he cared. He had compassion on the crowds (Matthew 9:36); on the sick (Matthew 14:14); on the hungry (Matthew 15:32); on the blind (Matthew 20:34); on the leper (Mark 1:41); on the demon-possessed (Mark 9:22); on the bereaved (Luke 7:13).

When he told a parable to try to explain what “love your neighbor as yourself” means (Mark 12:31), he told about the Good Samaritan. He ended by saying he had compassion on the man on the side of the road (Luke 10:33). Embedded in “love your neighbor” is “care about the suffering of your neighbor.”

Suffering in Eternity

Here’s the second half of that sentence: Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Now, that half of the sentence is intended to call out the unbelief of professing Christians who don’t believe there is such a thing as eternal suffering. They’re too modern for that. “Hell doesn’t exist. It’s an old-fashioned concept that we should be done with. All this talk about eternal suffering is passé, and it’s not real.” I’m calling you out and saying that Christians don’t talk that way, because they believe Jesus.

“Embedded in ‘love your neighbor’ is ‘care about the suffering of your neighbor.’”

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Jesus said “Then he [the King] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ . . . And these [on his left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46).

The apostle Paul followed Jesus and said, “Those who do not know God and . . . do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9).

There’s an atheist entertainer in America named Penn Jillette. He’s part of the Penn & Teller magic duo. He said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them or to believe that everlasting punishment is coming on unbelievers and not warn them? How much do you have to hate somebody?”

I just read an article a few weeks ago about missionaries who had gone into the Amazon jungle to reach a totally unreached people group with the gospel. The article begins by extolling the good human effects of missionary labor like education, medicine, prosperity, and literacy. Yes, it’s remarkable how those things happened. Then, the article ended with a great emphasis on human flourishing, but with only one passing mention of Jesus in the middle of the article — no God, no wrath, no cross, no salvation, no forgiveness of sins, no faith, no hell, no heaven, no eternal joy in God — and it was held up as a model of Christian missions.

That’s unbelief. That’s what’s become of many Christians today. They’re out in the name of Jesus telling nobody about the fact that there is eternal suffering. They don’t believe the sentence that I’m commending to you. 20schemes does. Keith and Kristyn Getty do.

We care about all suffering — because Jesus did — especially eternal suffering.

Injustice Against Humanity

Christians care about all injustice, especially injustice against God.

This is very much alive for me in America right now. There’s so much fevered attention to injustices that exist. Here’s the first half of the sentence: Christians care about all injustice.

That is intended to prick the conscience of Christians, who, either because of self-indulgence or fear, have dulled the capacity of their hearts to care about the injustices of the world — all the ways that people treat people worse than they deserve. There are hundreds of different ways around the world that human beings have found to treat each other worse than they deserve.

The reason I say that it might come from self-indulgence is because, as I look at my church and evangelicalism in America, I don’t think most professing Christians hold back from advocacy of justice or indignation at injustice out of principled opposition. I think they hold back because of the moral stupor that comes over us when we are satiated with the comforts of the world. We’re just sitting at home comfortable. The thought of breaking out of it in order to engage and speak or act against some injustice is simply too intrusive in our lives.

The reason I say that indifference to injustice might come from fear is because I know so many who are so concerned about their label, a Christian label. That is, if they get engaged with this cause or that cause, if they just speak, if they tweet, if they blog, if they Instagram, if they do anything that would advocate something just, the label is compromised. “Oh, you’re one of those.” “No, I’m not one of those.” That’s a risk that many will not take. It just isn’t worth it.

Injustice Against God

Here’s the second half of the sentence: We care about all injustice, especially injustice against God. Now, this half of the sentence is intended to call out the practical unbelief of Christians for whom injustices against humans ignite more indignation, more passion in their hearts and in their mouths than the global tragedy of injustice against God — people who are fired up in the name of Jesus for injustices against people, but feel almost nothing and say almost nothing about injustice against God. They are anesthetized to it for one reason or another.

What is injustice? What in the world do you mean by injustice against God? What are you talking about? What is injustice? My definition of injustice is to treat people worse than they deserve. You can’t say it is to treat people different than they deserve because if you treat somebody better than they deserve, we don’t call it injustice. We call it grace. If you treat people worse than they deserve, you call it injustice.

“God is infinitely deserving of human worship and trust and obedience.”

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The more a person deserves and the less we render what they deserve, the greater the injustice. God alone deserves the highest honor, highest praise, highest love, highest fear, highest devotion, highest allegiance, highest admiration, highest obedience. God alone deserves the absolute maximum of all those things. Every single human being has fallen short of that (Romans 3:23). All of us have exchanged the glory of God for the glory of human beings, and thus insulted him as high as possible (Romans 1:23). There is great injustice against God being done all day, all over the world, until Jesus breaks in.

Every human is guilty of an injustice that is infinitely worse than all the injustices against man put together. If that sentence sounds like an overstatement to you, my suggestion is that your God is too small. Every human is guilty of an injustice, namely against God, that is infinitely worse than all the injustices against man put together.

God is infinitely deserving of human worship and trust and obedience — infinitely deserving. Therefore, treating God as unworthy of our total allegiance makes every person guilty of an infinite injustice against God. That’s the problem with the world. We owe a debt we could never afford. Do you know what that debt is? Blackballing God — an infinite injustice. You can’t even begin to come close to paying that debt. There’s only one way that debt could be handled. There’s only one way there could be hope for human beings who have so committed treason against God and injustice against God.

‘Justice Denied Him’

Here’s the irony. The injustice against God among us, among humans, came to a climax in the very moment when God himself, in mercy — not justice merely, but mercy — came into the world in his Son Jesus. He came after us — all these rebels, all these enemies, all this injustice being slung at him. He comes as a servant in the person of Jesus. He comes into the world to pay the debt so that he could be just in not holding us accountable for our injustice. That’s the meaning of the cross.

His Son bears the payment and the penalty, a just sentence so that all the injustice of all those who would believe on him would not be held against them. At the very moment when he came to do that, our injustice against God reached its climax.

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
   and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
   so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. (Acts 8:32–33)

“Because of Jesus, I care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”

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The miracle of the cross, the miracle of the death of Jesus, the miracle of the gospel, the miracle that can change hundreds of schemes, the miracle that fills songs, the miracle is that in the very moment when we withheld justice from the Son of God, justice was satisfied, so that those withholding justice could be justified.

This is glorious news. How could we not go anywhere, schemes or the richest part of town, with that news? As God, in the death of Christ, absorbed the penalty of the injustice we had committed, he purchased a people.

Come Home

I’m closing by inviting you into that people, because you come into that people by faith. He purchased a people. Anybody who would believe may be part of this purchased people. He purchases a people, and the mark of this people is that they prize — above all things — Christ crucified as the vindication of God’s justice in forgiving their injustice. That’s what they prize above everything.

I want that Jesus for me, because I know my attitude and my actions have been so offensive to the God who made me that there’s no hope for me unless that’s true. I praise that Christ.

And this purchased people also bear this mark: they speak and they believe two sentences. They now say, “Because of Jesus, I care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” And they say, “Because of Jesus, I care about all injustices, especially injustice against God.”

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Weekly Recap, August 24

Book Summary:

CHINA’S VISION OF VICTORY, by Jonathan D. T. Ward

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance By Benjamin Montoya   Editor’s Note Today we offer another “Bonus” Book Summary addressing matters of contemporary cultural concerns. We hope you enjoy.   About the Author Jonathan D. T. Ward…

HOW DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT USE THE OLD TESTAMENT?: A SURVEY OF THE MAJOR VIEWS, by Michael J. Vlach

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance By Benjamin Montoya   About the Author Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California.   Introduction How does the NT use the…

Book Review:

SEVEN LEADERS: PREACHERS AND PASTORS, by Iain H. Murray

A Book Review from Books At a Glance Anthony Chute   Seven Leaders is a compilation of biographical studies of preachers past and present with lessons to be learned from their respective ministries. Iain Murray aimed for young men called…

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Book Notice: SPURGEON ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE: ALIVE IN CHRIST, by Michael Reeves

Charles Spurgeon, widely hailed as the “Prince of Preachers,” is well known for his powerful preaching, gifted mind, and compelling personality. Over the course of nearly four decades at London’s famous New Park Street Chapel and Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon preached…

~ The Books At a Glance Team

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God Wants Your Weakness

I am not brave.

I recently heard someone differentiate between bravery and courage, saying that bravery is the ability to take on difficult situations without fear, while courage is taking on difficult situations even when you’re afraid. When I think of courage, I am reminded of Gideon.

I relate to Gideon; he lives life afraid. We find him “beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11). When the angel of the Lord comes to him, Gideon immediately expresses his doubts about God’s faithfulness to the Israelites (Judges 6:13). When Gideon realizes who is speaking to him, he insists that as the least member of his undistinguished clan (Judges 6:15), he can’t be given an assignment.

Gideon isn’t confident to do anything himself. He’s fine complaining about how bad things are, but when he is asked to do something to improve the situation, Gideon backs away. It’s easier to complain than to act.

When God makes it clear that he himself is calling Gideon, Gideon wants a sign — just to be sure (Judges 6:17). After he receives the sign, Gideon obeys God and cuts down the altar to Baal. But rather than doing it out openly by day, Gideon is afraid of the townspeople and even his family, so he destroys it by night (Judges 6:27). Later, when the irate townspeople come for him, Gideon lets his father defend him. Gideon was not brave.

God Knows We Are Dust

It’s easy to criticize Gideon for his doubts, but I’ve doubted as well. I have seen God work in my life, enabling me to do things that I would have thought impossible. But then I still doubt that I can do the next thing. I look at myself and my resources, and I feel inadequate all over again, convinced I can’t accomplish what’s before me. I know that for me, further physical weakness and loss are constants. When I consider the future, I often cry out, “Lord, I can’t do this. I’m not as strong as you think I am.”

“The Lord isn’t looking for your strength, or bravery, or natural gifts; he wants your reliance on him.”

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The Lord wants to save Israel by Gideon’s hand, but Gideon wants proof. Twice. He first wants the fleece to be wet on the dry ground, and then wants to see dry fleece on the wet ground, just to be extra sure. From our perspective, Gideon might seem overly skeptical. Why does he keep asking for proof? But then I think about all the times I keep asking for assurance from God. When I feel inadequate to face something, I ask for signs, encouragement from friends, verses that apply to my situation. God understands my frailty; he deals with my weaknesses just like he did Gideon’s — without scorn or chastisement. The Lord remembers that I am dust.

After giving Gideon all the signs he requested, God prepares him to lead the Israelites into battle against the Midianites. Twenty-two thousand people showed up for battle, which the Lord declared was too many (Judges 7:2–3). With that army, the Israelites could take credit for the victory themselves. The Lord tells Gideon to let the fearful warriors go home and choose for battle only those who lap the water instead of kneeling to drink, resulting in an army of just three hundred. The victory would not be credited to the strength of the Israelites; God’s power alone would deliver his people.

What God Sees in You

When Gideon is left with three hundred men, he’s scared. Though he doesn’t voice his fear, God knows his heart and reassures him by offering, “If you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp . . . and hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened” (Judges 7:10–11). One would think that if God unequivocally told you what to do, that you’d trust him without proof. But not Gideon. Of course he goes immediately to the camp and must hear for himself why victory is assured. Then finally Gideon believes and moves forward (Judges 7:15).

Throughout this encounter, Gideon doubts, is afraid, and feels inadequate and weak. He only acts when he has proof that he’ll succeed. He wants to trust God, but he keeps doubting himself. Yet, from the beginning, God sees him as a “mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12), which seems to contradict Gideon’s insecurities and doubts. God sees what we are in him, not in ourselves.

So, if you feel inadequate, weak, or afraid today, take heart. God chooses the foolish “to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Some of the greatest undertakings in the Bible were accomplished by weak people who felt they didn’t measure up to their calling.

‘Lord, Choose Someone Else’

Moses parted the Red Sea and delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian pursuers, but when God first called Moses, he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). This was immediately after God had assured Moses, “I will . . . teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:12). When God called the prophet Jeremiah, his first response was, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6).

“God sees what we are in him, not in ourselves.”

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Paul wanted God to remove this thorn in the flesh, but the Lord reminded him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then said, “Therefore 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).

All He Requires

Today, if the Lord is calling you to a task for which you feel inadequate, remember that the Lord isn’t looking for your strength, or bravery, or natural gifts; he wants your reliance on him. His power is made perfect in our weakness. We know that God saw Gideon as mighty. In the celebrated Hebrews “Hall of Faith,” we are reminded that Gideon conquered kingdoms and the Lord made him strong out of weakness (Hebrews 11:32–34).

We too will be made strong out of weakness when we put our trust in the Lord. As the hymn “Come Ye Sinners” beautifully reminds us, “All the fitness he requires is to feel your need of him.”

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Margin notes: David’s epitaph

Ps 30:1–3 (NET)  I will praise you, O Lord, for you lifted me up, and did not allow my enemies to gloat over me. 30:2 O Lord my God, I cried out to you and you healed me. 30:3 O Lord, you pulled me up from Sheol; you rescued me from among those descending into the grave.

If this Psalm is as its title purports – then it is David speaking from the grave. He penned it before Solomon built the Temple. And now it is being used at the dedication of the Temple. He prepared it ahead of time that it might be used on that occasion. We might well read it as David’s dying testimony.

In 1-3 he recalls God’s great goodness and deliverance in times of need. And hasn’t He delivered me and you from the sins which raged so fiercely against us? Indeed they still rage – but He is faithful, and the blood of the cross of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

In 4-5 David calls other Believers to give thanks to God for His faithful love. Even when He is angry with us, His good favor always restores us. He never abandons us.

Vss. 6-10 find David recalling how he foolishly trusted in his own strength, in his own faith at times, and then realizing security rests only in his God. How God withdraws at times to remind us it is so, but always hears us when we cry out because of it.

And 11-12 speak of how God in His mercy, grace and faithfulness ultimately turns our darkest hours into dancing, and our grief into joy. And so David wants his final testimony to be thanks to the Lord. For when all is seen in the light of His glory – this is the wondrous end of the saint in the hands of his or her faithful God.

I wonder what I will leave behind to give praise to Christ when I am gone from this life? Maybe it too will be a Psalm of praise and adoration and a testimony to God’s glorious faithfulness to such a wicked sinner as I am. For surely it is true.

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Al Mohler on Why It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian

“When Christian parents say to me, ‘I don’t know how in the world we’re supposed to raise children in a time like this,’ I say, ‘Well, how about when you had to take them into Canaan?’ As you see the experience of Israel taking its children into Canaan, they were taking them into a land marked by child sacrifice and a land in which the idolatry was so blatantly sexualized that it would make Hollywood—if this is imaginable—look tame by comparison. Or imagine saying that to Christians in first-century Rome, or in the several centuries that followed. What would it be like to have to send your 15-year-old into a city where he’d have to pass cult prostitutes and other things just on the way?” — Al Mohler

Date: March 31, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Pre-Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video.

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Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

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Who First Showed Steven Chin the Beauty of Jesus?

Soon I will be retiring from my position as senior pastor of the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church. I have served in this church for 42 years, the last 19 as its senior pastor. I have seen the Lord bless the church mightily over the years. It was about 150 people in one bilingual service when I started in 1977 as the youth director. Today the church has more than 1,100 adults in seven congregations using three languages.

Pastoring this church has had its challenges. As is the case in many ethnic churches in America, the first-generation immigrants use their mother tongue, while the second generation is much more fluent in English. I am a second-generation immigrant who isn’t fluent in Chinese, and such ministers don’t usually last long in churches with a large first-generation immigrant population. The language, culture, and generational differences make it difficult for young ministers who don’t understand the Chinese language and culture to survive, much less thrive. In fact, after I “survived” for only two years in the church, I was asked to write an article for a national publication for Chinese churches to share my secrets for lasting so long.

Model of Christ

As I reflect on how the Lord brought me through this incredible journey, I thank him for giving me a model of Christ before I entered ministry. Humanly speaking, I wouldn’t be a pastor, much less have served in the same church for all these years, without his influence. Let me share with you about him and how he affected my life.

When I went to college at New York University, I eventually found my way to Chinese Evangel Mission (CEM). It was a small storefront church in Chinatown. But it had an English-speaking congregation composed of 30 to 40 second-generation young people like me.

This small English congregation was led by Lee. Though he has a Chinese-sounding name, Lee was German. (His full name is Alfred Lee Hearn.) From rural eastern Pennsylvania, Lee came to the church through an internship with Nyack Missionary College and served at CEM for more than 38 years. Though he was faithful to the Word of God, Lee wouldn’t be considered an eloquent preacher. He didn’t have advanced theological degrees. He certainly wasn’t the pastor of a large, famous church. Lee was an ordinary person whom God used to profoundly affect me and many others. He showed me the beauty of Christ in three ways.

1. Servant Leadership

Lee showed me what it meant to be a servant leader. I’d grown up thinking that a leader, even a Christian leader, had to be bossy to get things done. To me, ideal leaders were like the heroes I idolized in movies, such as John Wayne.

But Lee was a humble man. He didn’t draw attention to himself; rather, he downplayed his importance. We called him “Lee” because that’s what he preferred—not “Reverend” or “Pastor,” just “Lee.” Lee thought of himself like John the Baptist who, speaking of Jesus said: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It wasn’t about Lee. It was about Jesus.

As a servant leader, Lee served the church in whatever capacity was required. CEM’s storefront church building was old. The boiler frequently broke down. I have seen Lee covered in soot from working on the boiler in the dark, dingy basement, trying to save the building a big repair bill.

Lee was single. He never married or had children. But he used his singleness to spend more time serving others. He lived on the fifth floor of the storefront church building and, rather than guarding his privacy, he allowed the teen boys to hang out at his apartment. Many of the boys had fathers who spent little time with them, since they had to work long hours in restaurants. Lee became like a father to many of them, listening to their problems and giving wise counsel even late into the night.

2. Endurance

Lee also showed me the beauty of Christ through his endurance. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus endured the shame and hostility of the cross. He is our ultimate model for running life’s race with endurance. But Lee reflected the endurance and patience of Christ in a way I could personally observe.

The other half of CEM was Chinese-speaking and Chinese-thinking. They were also older, so many held positions of leadership in the church. Acts 6 tells of conflict that came from different language groups even in the first-century church. Yet Lee was able to navigate the minefield of potential conflicts and misunderstanding for 38 years. It takes extraordinary patience to be a peacemaker.

3. Incarnational Ministry

Finally, Lee showed me the beauty of Christ through his incarnational ministry. Jesus, though he was God, became a human being. He suffered the limitations and pain of having a physical body and living in our world. Lee came from a rural, white environment and chose to live in New York’s Chinatown. His parents weren’t former missionaries in China. Lee had to adapt his whole life for the people God called him to serve. Though he learned to like Chinese food, he never was able to learn to use chopsticks.

Obscure Hero

After retirement, Lee left New York City and returned to the rural life of eastern Pennsylvania. He bought a small farm, where he continues to live in relative obscurity. He is now 87 with great memories of a fruitful life.

In the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14), Jesus warned people not to clamor for seats of honor at a wedding. Rather, let the host invite you to sit in the place of honor. I think Jesus will invite Lee to move up closer.


You can read previous installments in this series.

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Book Sale at WTS Books: ESV EXPOSITORY COMMENTARY SERIES

Designed to strengthen the global church with a widely accessible, theologically sound, and pastorally wise resource for understanding and applying the overarching storyline of the Bible, this commentary series features the full text of the ESV Bible passage by passage, with crisp and theologically rich exposition and application. Editors Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton, and Jay A. Sklar have gathered a team of experienced pastor-theologians to provide a new generation of pastors and other teachers of the Bible around the world with a globally minded commentary series rich in biblical theology and broadly Reformed doctrine, making the message of redemption found in all of Scripture clear and available to all.

  • Exegetically Sound: Self-consciously submissive to the flow of thought and lines of reasoning in the biblical text
  • Robustly Biblical-Theological: Reading the Bible as diverse yet bearing an overarching unity, narrating a single storyline of redemption culminating in Christ
  • Globally Aware: Aimed as much as possible at a global audience, with the goal of providing a biblical and theologically responsible resource for Bible students around the world
  • Broadly Reformed: Standing in the historical stream of the Reformation, affirming that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, taught in Scripture alone, for God’s glory alone
  • Doctrinally Conversant: Fluent in theological discourse; drawing appropriate brief connections to matters of historical or current theological importance
  • Pastorally Useful: Transparently and reverently “sitting under the text”; avoiding lengthy grammatical/syntactical discussions
  • Application Minded: Building brief but consistent bridges into contemporary living in both Western and non-Western contexts
  • Efficient in Expression: Economical in its use of words; not a word-by-word analysis but a crisply moving exposition

Buy the books

ESV EXPOSITORY COMMENTARY SERIES

Crossway, 2018 | 1000 pages

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The Insanity of Trusting Yourself

Why does God have such a beef with human wisdom? Listen to this:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart. (1 Corinthians 1:19)

Those are fighting words. And through the apostle Paul, he goes even further:

Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21)

Not only will God not be known to any of us through mere human wisdom, but to know him requires us to believe something that our mere human wisdom considers foolish. Why is God at war with human wisdom? Paul’s answer: “So that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29).

Okay, that’s understandable: human boasting is offensive to God, and he wishes to humble it. But what’s the connection between human pride (boasting) and human reasoning (wisdom)? Why does God put them in the same category?

To see this connection, we must go back — way back — and look at what made the gospel necessary in the first place. There we begin to understand why God has engineered our redemption, and much of our sanctification, the way he has. He’s requiring each of us, in our own unique ways, to hand him back the fruit.

What Is God’s ‘No’ Hiding?

Most of us are familiar with “the original sin.” The first man and woman ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — the only tree in the paradisal garden from which God had expressly forbidden them to eat. This was, in fact, the only prohibition we are told they were given. In the beginning, they knew God as a Father of joyful permission, who overwhelmingly said yes to them.

So why did they eat the one forbidden thing? Because, in part, the serpent told them that the God who said yes so much was misleading them about his one no.

Never mind that God, not the serpent, had created the whole glorious world they inhabited by his powerful word. Never mind that God, not the serpent, had provided to them personally life, breath, and everything. Never mind that, up to that point, God, not the serpent, had been a reliable and wonderful guide, and trusting him had resulted in their experience of profound happiness. Never mind that, in even placing the forbidden tree’s fruit within their reach, God, not the serpent, had conferred upon them the profound dignity of moral agency, granting them the choice to trust him or not, to accept his authority or not, to love him supremely or not.

The serpent was there to help them choose the or not. God was hiding something from them, it said — something that would ennoble them to near divine status. Something that would free them from perpetual intellectual dependency on God and empower them to think on their own. Something that would “not surely” kill them, but make them really live. And God had hidden that something in the tree’s fruit: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

Dark Enlightenment

So they chose not to trust, not to obey, not to supremely love the supreme God. They decided to lean on their own understanding and pursue the hidden treasure of forbidden knowledge by eating the fruit, since it “was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

God was true to his word: the fruit did indeed yield knowledge as “the eyes of both were opened” (Genesis 3:7). But the serpent wasn’t true to his word: the knowledge did not make them God-like; it only made them miserable. They experienced a dark enlightenment that immediately produced shame.

Very quickly they discovered a tragic truth about leaning on their own understanding: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). The knowledge they thought they wanted was far beyond what they were designed to bear. And all of us have been laboring under the crushing weight of this burdensome knowledge ever since.

Knowledge Too Heavy

In order to handle such knowledge, one must be omniscient — possess the capacity to comprehend all possible options and contingencies. And one must be omni-judicial — possess the comprehensive capacity and resolve to choose the right course of action based on omniscience combined with perfect righteousness and wisdom. And one must be omnipotent — possess the comprehensive power to make reality conform to the right course of action determined by an omni-judicial omniscience.

But human beings possess no omni-capacities, a fact to which all of human history bears witness. Individually, our capacities are miniscule. Collectively, we’re discovering that our combined capacities are still barely scratching the surface of reality. Which explains why, when it comes to our psychological and social and geopolitical well-being, mere human wisdom leads us toward one dead end after another, one cataclysm after another, off one social experimental cliff after another.

Every merely human utopic pursuit turns dystopic. Every merely human philosophy leads to the despair of futility. Every merely human effort to define morality and ethics leads eventually to some cruel tyranny.

This is because we were not designed to be “like God” in defining what is good and evil. We were designed “to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). And since we have no good apart from God (Psalm 16:2), the beginning of being wise in good and innocent in evil is trusting and obeying him (Psalm 111:10).

God did design us to think for ourselves. That’s one reason the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was present in the garden. God simply did not design us to think by ourselves. It is not irrational for very limited, contingent creatures to depend on the guidance of an omniscient, self-existing Creator to know how to live. It is eminently reasonable for us to trust in him with all our heart. That’s wisdom; that’s sanity. What’s irrational is for us to lean on our own understanding. That’s foolishness; that’s madness.

And that was the cataclysm of Eden: humans traded the wise sanity of thinking for themselves in the safe context of “entrust[ing] their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19) for the foolish madness of thinking by themselves in the perilous context of unhinging their reason from their faithful Creator, which resulted in their doing great evil. Wishing to be wise on their own, they became fools and grew increasingly futile in their thinking, and out of the darkness of their hearts emerged all manner of previously unimaginable depravity (Romans 1:21–22).

Hand Back the Fruit

This is why God is at war with mere human wisdom — our rebellious leaning on our own understanding. This is why God, in his wisdom, does not permit us to know him through rebellious human wisdom. He requires us to come to him on his terms, not ours. He requires us to hand him back the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that we might once again have access to the tree of life.

And this is why the gospel “is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Mere human wisdom is greatly offended that God judges its desire to independently understand and define good and evil as foolish pride requiring humbling. It is greatly offended that God refuses to answer for the evil that ravages this planet — evil that exceeds our comprehension. And it looks at the foolish spectacle of Jesus on the cross, and an empty tomb, and the promise of eternal life, and marvels at the idiotic credulity of some to believe these strange things could ever address the most important issues facing the human race.

But to us who are being saved, who look at the cross of Jesus, and an empty tomb, and the promise of eternal life, and see the way and the truth (John 14:6), the gospel is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 24). We do not claim to have all our perplexing and agonizing questions answered. But we have come to see that “with God are wisdom and might . . . counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13); that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, [but] fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7); that “whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (Proverbs 28:26); that only “in [God’s] light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9).

And the light we have seen is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” which God “has shone in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 4:6). So for us, Jesus has become “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

We groan with creation in ten thousand ways in this age of futility (Romans 8:20). But we find peace that surpasses our limited understanding (Philippians 4:7) by not leaning on our own understanding but trusting in the Lord with all our heart (Proverbs 3:5). We have found that God grants joyful freedom to those willing to hand back the fruit.

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The Christian’s Boldness and Confidence

Jesus Christ is the Christian’s foundation for having bold access to God. It is not our performance that allows us to come boldly before God, but the merits of Christ. Christians do not need to be full of fear and anxiety to come to God. Because of Christ, God welcomes them to come, even on their worst day.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Costi Hinn

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Costi Hinn—a pastor at Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona, and the author of God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, books that have most influenced his thinking about ministry, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now?

What are your favorite fiction books?

I haven’t read fiction in years but really need to mix it up. One that sticks out, of course, is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I love missionary biographies but don’t want to write too much here, so I will pick one. Adoniram Judson’s sacrifice as a missionary to the Burmese affected my life and our home deeply. It sparked numerous conversations and triggered my heart to pray something I had never prayed before: that if it be the Lord’s will, my children would be called to the mission field for the glory of God. As painful and sacrificial as the life of a missionary may be, the eternal effect is far beyond anything this world can offer.

To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson is a powerful biography of Judson’s life, along with his three wives, Ann, Sarah, and Emily. Ann died, then he married Sarah who also died, before he married Emily just a short time before his own death. Each of his wives played an integral role in furthering the mission of God to the Burmese and beyond. His life was one of immense sacrifice, but the Judsons are the reason the Burmese people were reached with the gospel and provided with biblical texts in their own language. Judson’s biography is also available on Amazon Prime Video. I highly recommend it.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp is a parenting lifeline for us. With three young children, it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and start to go through the motions as a parent. Tripp’s book is a splash of cold water to the face when I need it most. The book highlights the importance of heart transformation through the gospel, not merely behavior modification by getting kids to follow the rules. Tripp’s book is a sobering reminder of how tempting it is to simply “hang fruit on trees,” so to speak, with our kids and manufacture their obedience. But are their hearts being won to Christ and do they know why we live the way we do? Parenting never takes a day off.

Pastoral Ministry by John MacArthur serves as a constant “heart check” for me when it comes to pastoral ministry. Again, it’s easy (and human nature) to go through the motions and lose perspective on what it means to be a pastor. This book covers numerous areas that exhort and encourage pastors in their ministry role. I’ll dig into various chapters or sections from time to time and it feels like getting a good pep talk from a coach, then being told, “Now get out there and give it all you got!”

Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones brings me back to the foundational elements of preaching time and time again. Lloyd-Jones is from another era and will come across as narrow-minded to many in our world today, but I strongly believe we need to wrestle with his dogmatic views on preaching and let them blow the fluff off some of our methods. Of course, much of what is in this book is biblical and essential.

Discipling by Mark Dever is a short and easy read that, if put into practice, will affect anyone’s discipleship efforts. It’s loaded with application and covers the vital theological foundation of why we make disciples. I have more tabs and markings in this little book than most others on my shelf.

If God Is Good by Randy Alcorn was a gift from my friend and first pastor, Anthony Wood. He gave it to us after our son Timothy was diagnosed with cancer at 3 months old. For obvious reasons, this book has become a “life textbook” for us in the school of suffering and trial. Many others have it far tougher than we do, but we’re thankful for this book being a constant resource of wisdom on tough days.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

Obviously, the Bible. But aside from that, in today’s world we could all benefit from Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

Three lessons come to mind.

First, I’m constantly learning and re-learning about just how incapable I am of doing anything without Christ. Like a loving Father, God is so patient with me when I try to accomplish things by relying on my own strength, then he graciously allows me to realize that I can’t carry the weight on my own. I don’t ever want to stop learning this lesson.

A second lesson is a constant mantra in the Hinn home that goes like this: “There is no ‘there’ there.” This plays off the idea of “arrival.” In other words, there are things in life and ministry that are always tempting us to feel like we’ve arrived, as if there was some special thing awaiting us if we just do “this” or get “there.” The only “there” that matters is eternity with Christ and him being pleased with our motives and efforts for his glory, not our own. It doesn’t matter how many books you write, how many people hear you preach, or how many good things you do. There is no “there” there.

A third lesson is that so much rises and falls within the church because of leadership. It’s really important to be a healthy and humble leader—which is really hard without relying on Christ. Christ entrusts his bride to leaders who must serve as stewards. I’m often convicted regarding how important it is to be a humble servant to the people of God. It’s not our agenda we move people on to; it’s God’s agenda. My church is mine in the sense that I’m part of it, but it’s not mine in the sense that it belongs to me. Jesus is the head of the church. I answer to him, and must point his people to him in every way, shape, and form possible. The minute we treat the church like a baby that is ours to never let go of, we begin to act like the controlling parent who needs to lighten their grip. Worse still, when we treat the church like a corporate business and ourselves as the CEO, we’re on a dangerous path toward autocratic rule.

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Prozac and the Promises of God: The Christian Use of Psychoactive Medication

ABSTRACT: Suffering touches both our bodies and our souls, and so too should our solutions to suffering. Many Christians rightly have approached psychoactive medications with caution, worried that such prescriptions might smother deeper spiritual issues. But helpers committed to a holistic, God-centered approach to treatment can learn to see medications as a gift from God and as one potential source of help as they ask, “What seems wisest for this particular person with these particular struggles at this particular time?”

Basic familiarity with psychoactive medications is increasingly valuable for pastors, counselors, and other helpers in the church. We live in a time when more and more problems in living are attributed to brain-based dysfunction. Medication is touted as an important (if not the most important) aspect of treatment within the psychiatric community. In popular street-level understanding, it is often the treatment of choice.

Christians remain divided on this issue. Some would say that medication is often appropriate, viewing it as a God-given tool to relieve mental suffering. Others are more cautious, recommending medication only in more severe situations. Still others regard the use of psychoactive medication as a “cop-out,” arguing that a basic posture of gospel-centered obedience is all that is really necessary. Who is right? How should we think about this important issue?

Certainly, it is important to speak with our health-care providers about the biomedical aspects of these medications, including the research-based evidence for their effectiveness (or not), side effects, and available alternative treatments. We should be well-informed medically. But as Christians, we also need a biblically based philosophy to guide the use or nonuse of psychoactive medications.

Foundation: Body-and-Soul Anthropology

How should we assess the use of psychoactive medications from an explicitly biblical perspective? After all, you won’t find “Prozac, Uses Of” in your Bible’s concordance! The best starting point is to remember that God created us as body-spirit creatures (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28). We are physically embodied, spiritual beings created by God to honor and worship him. We are simultaneously body and soul. There’s never a time we are not spiritually engaged. And there’s never a time we are not bodily engaged. This means that attention to both physical and spiritual aspects of our personhood is mandatory in the care of others. It is profoundly dehumanizing to ignore the “heart” — our moral-spiritual disposition (Proverbs 4:23; 27:19) and the responsibilities that go with it. And it is profoundly dehumanizing to ignore the body and the strengths and weaknesses that go with it.

With this foundation informing what follows, I will discuss four biblical perspectives that should shape our approach to psychoactive medications. You will notice that each biblical perspective is balanced. This reflects the nuances of God dealing with us as body-spirit image-bearers and the varied ministry priorities that are simultaneously in play as we engage in one-another ministry.

Relieving and Redeeming Suffering

Biblical perspective #1: Relief of suffering and growth in Christian character in the midst of suffering are both important.

When the kingdom comes in Jesus Christ, you see God’s heart with regard to suffering in two ways. First, it is God’s design to relieve the suffering that arose as a result of the fall. Consider how Mark 1 describes the activities of Jesus’s ministry: teaching, exorcisms, healing those with various diseases, prayer, and cleansing a leper. Peter put it this way to Cornelius:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

Clearly, a mark of the inbreaking kingdom is the relief of suffering. As the Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” reminds us, Jesus “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.” Relief of suffering is good and necessary. This is in fact where history is going; in the new heaven and earth there will be no crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). So, when we seek to bring relief from suffering now, we are keeping in step with God’s plan of redemption. As the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs said, contentment is “not opposed to all lawful seeking for help in different circumstances, nor endeavoring simply to be delivered out of present afflictions by the use of lawful means.”1 I believe medications can certainly be one of those lawful means. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking relief from present suffering.

“There’s never a time we are not spiritually engaged. And there’s never a time we are not bodily engaged.”

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Still, you see a second strand of teaching in the New Testament: God’s design to redeem the experience of suffering for believers because of their union with Jesus, the Suffering Servant. Paul calls this participation in Jesus’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10 NIV). By virtue of our being in Christ, God is at work in the midst of our suffering, conforming us to the image of Christ. This is the very gateway to experiencing his resurrection power and glory. Many New Testament passages showcase this central teaching, including Romans 8:16–25, 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, 2 Corinthians 4, 2 Corinthians 12:9–10, Philippians 3:10–11, Colossians 1:24, James 1:2–5, and 1 Peter 4:12–13.

Former seminary professor Richard B. Gaffin Jr. sums up these passages this way:

It is so natural for us to associate suffering only with the delay of Christ’s second coming and to view suffering only in the light of what we do not yet have in Christ; but when this happens, we have lost sight of the critical fact that in the New Testament, Christian suffering is always seen within the context of the coming of the kingdom of God in power and as a manifestation of the resurrection life of Jesus.2

In other words, God is at work redemptively in the midst of our sufferings by virtue of our being united with the One whose suffering ultimately led to resurrection and glory.

So, while relieving suffering is a kingdom priority, seeking mere relief without a vision for God’s transforming agenda in the midst of suffering falls short of God’s design for flourishing human life. Another way of saying this is that we should be glad for symptom relief but simultaneously look for the variegated fruit of the Spirit: perseverance in the midst of suffering, deeper trust in the Father’s love, more settled hope, love for fellow strugglers, gratitude, and more.

What does this mean with regard to the use or nonuse of medications? Don’t be too quick to cast off suffering as though immediate relief from trials is the only good God is up to. And don’t think it’s more “spiritual” to refrain from taking medications, as though character refinement through suffering is the only good God is up to. He is interested in both relief of suffering and refinement of character. We don’t choose our suffering in some masochistic way. Yet we are called to a life of walking in the footsteps of our suffering Savior. Christ teaches us a cross-centered and dependent lifestyle in all situations (Luke 9:23).

Gifts or Gods?

Biblical perspective #2: Medications are gifts of God’s grace and medications (like any gift of God) can be used idolatrously.

I believe it is right to view the development of psychoactive medications as a good gift from God, an extension of the ruling and stewarding function he gave to humanity at creation (Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 10:31). At its best, scientific discovery explores God’s world in all its astounding complexity and seeks to alleviate some of the misery we experience as fallen creatures in a fallen world. As such, we should receive medications gratefully and humbly, but not forgetting the One who has given the necessary gifting and wisdom to scientists and physicians to discover such remedies. Ultimately, he alone upholds all things with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).

“How a person responds when the medication works — or doesn’t work — reveals her basic posture before God.”

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Sadly, however, I have met people who are better evangelists for Prozac than they are for the living God. Rather than viewing medication as simply one component of a full-orbed, God-centered body-soul treatment approach, they view it almost as if it were their salvation. By definition, this is idolatry: attributing ultimate power and help to something other than our triune God (Jeremiah 2:11–13). If a person believes that what ultimately matters is fine-tuning the dose of his Paxil, and finds discussion of spiritual things superfluous or irrelevant, that’s a problem. Gifts are not meant to become gods.

How a person responds when the medication works — or doesn’t work — reveals her basic posture before God, her place of ultimate hope. Thanksgiving and a more fervent seeking after God in the wake of medication success say one thing; a lack of gratitude and a comfort-driven forgetfulness of God say another. A commitment to trust God’s faithfulness and goodness in the wake of medication failure says one thing; a bitter, complaining distrust of his ways says another.

So, we should receive the gift but look principally to the Giver. Whether a medication works or not, God is always working on behalf of his people.

Motives Good and Bad

Biblical perspective #3: A person can have wrong motives for wanting to take medication and a person can have wrong motives for not wanting to take medication.

Often, the most important issue in the use of medications is the attitude of the person to whom you are ministering. It’s not that psychoactive medications in themselves are either “good” or “bad.” Rather, how a person views and handles this potential treatment makes the difference. Motives matter. I’ve talked with people who want a referral for medication immediately without really wanting to examine their desires, fears, thoughts, choices, and lifestyle. And I’ve talked with people who resist the recommendation to consider the use of medications for self-oriented reasons. Let me elaborate on these two scenarios.

What are problematic reasons for wanting to take medication? One reason is a demand for immediate relief coupled with doubt about the benefits of looking at potential underlying issues. I remember meeting once with a young man with a recent history of anxiety associated with public speaking. Some of the things he said pointed to underlying tendencies toward people-pleasing and a fear of failure — much to work with from a gospel perspective! But he was not interested in biblical counsel. He was not interested in a gospel perspective on his struggle. Rather, he had made an appointment for the sole purpose of obtaining my recommendation for a provider who could prescribe an antianxiety medication.

A second questionable motive for wanting to take medication involves caving in to the pressures of others. Family and friends may push for medications due to their own discomfort in seeing the suffering of their loved one. Sometimes the pressure reflects a selfish desire to have their loved one back to normal so that life would be easier for them.

“What seems wisest for this particular person with these particular struggles at this particular time?”

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But there also exist problematic reasons for not wanting to take medication. Resistance to medication can be an issue of pride and self-sufficiency: “I should be strong enough without medication.” Or the more spiritualized version: “I should be able, by trusting God more, to do this without medication.” Another reason could be fear of disapproval and judgment by others: “What would people think?” Yet another concern is shame: “There’s something seriously wrong with me if I have to take this medication.”

Despite some who struggle with these aberrant motives, many people sincerely want to grow in Christ in the midst of their mental suffering and simply wonder about the pros and cons of medication. Many rightfully wonder about the potential side effects of using medication. These thoughtful persons remain open to starting — or not starting — medication, which is a wise posture before the Lord.

One final note: Unless you have a license to prescribe medications, you will not be recommending per se that someone take (or not take) medications. The decision to start a medication should be made in consultation with a trusted physician. It is appropriate for a pastor or counselor to suggest such a consultation or assessment, although many people have already seen their physician by the time they discuss matters with their pastor.

Interdependence of Body and Soul

Biblical perspective #4: Christians pay attention to the complex and mysterious interface of body and soul, particularly the influence of our bodily constitution on our spiritual life.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, Scripture treats us as unified beings, having both spiritual and somatic aspects.3 Given that we are fully integrated, body-and-spirit (heart) creatures, it is not surprising that bodily strength or weakness affects us spiritually and vice versa. I’ll focus on the influence of our somatic condition on our spiritual lives.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say that for various reasons outside your control you have had poor sleep for the last week. You’re exhausted. You find it difficult to concentrate. You also find that you are more prone to grumbling and impatience. You see life through a grey lens. And then you get two great nights of sleep in a row. Suddenly, your world is sunnier. You have a new vitality, both physically and spiritually. Patience and kindness require far less effort. What just happened? A physical “treatment” — sleep! — influenced your spiritual life. The heart issues of grumbling and irritation have become less prominent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; we are called to be wise stewards of our bodies. Getting a good night’s sleep is important. But in a time of “plenty” (sleep-wise), we shouldn’t forget our sinful tendencies toward anger and complaining that were revealed in our weakness. Being tired does not give us license to treat others poorly. At the same time, we ought not invite greater bodily stress so as to provoke and test our own hearts, as if we are responsible to arrange the conditions for optimal spiritual growth. This is our Father’s business, “mingling toil with peace and rest.”4 We don’t choose suffering as if pain in and of itself is noble.

How does this relate to the use of psychotropic medications? Improving someone’s symptoms (of anxiety, for example) doesn’t necessarily address underlying fears and desires that may be present. Might one feel better? Yes. Again, this may not be a bad thing in itself — remember Jeremiah Burroughs’s earlier comment about seeking relief. But does the person retain the zeal to address the spiritual struggles underlying the anxiety now that those tendencies are less visible in day-to-day life? If perfectionism, a quest for material success, and a dread of failure underlie your anxiety in a new job, are you willing to tackle those bent desires first and foremost? And is there a commitment to address the situational factors that contribute to the experience of anxiety? For example, if your anxiety is associated with unrealistic demands at work, are you willing to address this situation with your boss? In my experience, mature believers do indeed remember what they saw in the mirror and continue to take their soul to task in thought, word, and deed (James 1:23–25) even if they do use medication. They do recognize the importance of assessing and changing situational stressors, on or off medication. But I have also known people who, after improvement in their symptoms with medication use, assume that no further work is required.

“Whether on medications or off, the goal is always to help a person grow in love for God and for neighbor.”

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Conversely, there are situations, albeit more extreme, when not using medication may make it more difficult to address a person’s spiritual life. I counseled a young woman in a demanding graduate program who presented with insomnia, depression, and severe anxiety. She could affirm intellectually the promises of God, but it was like her soul was coated in Teflon; the truths of Scripture seemed to slide right off. While this disconnect is true for all of us to some degree, it seemed particularly prominent for her.

After several meetings, I saw how much her ongoing exhaustion from the insomnia was part of a vicious cycle. On the one hand, you could say that her insomnia, which was anxiety-driven, was a fruit of her fear and unbelief; as such, it should be the primary target of ministry. On the other hand, you could say that her bodily exhaustion was making it much more difficult for her to respond in a faith-filled way. Both are appropriate avenues for ministry. In the end, I thought that seeing a physician for a short-term course of sleeping medication might be beneficial to break the negative cycle she was in. In fact, that was the case. As she slept better, it wasn’t as if her problems magically melted away. She still struggled with anxiety. But she was able to internalize spiritual realities and truly begin to engage with God, addressing issues of perfectionism, legalism, and fear of man, which were root causes of her anxiety and despair.

Think of it this way: Using medication in select situations may be analogous to calming the surface waters to allow for deep-sea exploration. You can’t have a diving expedition if there is a gale on the surface of the water. Situations in which such calming might be helpful include (but are not necessarily limited to) the hallucinations and delusions of psychosis (whether associated with schizophrenia or mania) and severe or unremitting anxiety or depression, particularly if associated with suicidal thoughts and plans. These extreme cases are more clear-cut in their need for additional wise medical input. But we live in a culture that doesn’t tolerate any hint of rough seas but yearns for the comfort of glassy calm waters. (I know that’s my temptation!) This contributes to the overuse of psychoactive medication in some who want only a quick fix; they don’t really want to taste the fruit that comes from persevering through choppy waters.

Can taking a medication actually assist in sanctification? Yes, in the same way that adequate sleep can assist in sanctification! It’s not that you can buy holiness in a pill, but using medication in certain situations may impact the body positively, allowing for a greater spiritual flourishing.

Putting It All Together

Given these biblical perspectives, what should our attitude be toward the use of psychoactive medications? I hope you have seen that there is not a clear-cut, right-or-wrong answer. There is no universal rule that we can apply to all people at all times. There is no simple algorithm. Rather, the use of these medications is a wisdom issue, to be addressed individually with those to whom we minister. There will always be a mix of pros and cons, costs and benefits to carefully consider related to the body-soul image-bearer seeking our input. We must ask, “What seems wisest for this particular person with these particular struggles at this particular time?”

Often, addressing the person’s suffering takes place without the use of medication. Yet, in some cases, after asking that question, we will recommend an evaluation by a physician to consider the use of medications as part of the holistic approach to the struggle. Such an evaluation might also uncover primary medical problems masquerading as psychological disorders. For example, in someone with new-onset severe anxiety, especially if not clearly tied to situational factors, a physician would likely check thyroid levels since an overactive thyroid gland can be associated with physiological symptoms consistent with anxiety. In that case, primary and specific treatment for the thyroid condition is warranted, not an anti-anxiety medication.

I’m most likely to recommend a medical evaluation when any of the following occur: (1) symptoms are severe and unremitting, (2) symptoms are not abating despite the person’s responsiveness to pastoral counsel, or (3) there is a high risk of suicide.5

“Sinners will always need mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Sufferers will always need comfort, hope, and the will to persevere.”

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I encourage you to develop a relationship with a trusted and wise psychiatrist who shares your strong biblical convictions and can provide consultation for these kinds of decisions. Such a person may or may not exist in your locale. Well-trained, clinically savvy psychiatrists whose practice is governed by a robust biblical worldview are indeed few and far between! A family physician or internist with extensive experience in the use of psychoactive medications may be another option. The point is that pastors and other wise helpers don’t make these decisions on their own; close communication with medical providers is essential.

Often enough, people come to me already on medications; the choice to start or not start them is a nonissue. This is generally because their primary care physician has prescribed such a medication, but they may have already seen a psychiatrist as well. But usually, even on medication, struggling people have realized that psychotropic drugs do not solve all their problems. They still need help to reconcile conflict, or to walk in faith not fear, or to address any of the multitudes of other problems that bring people to counseling. There’s plenty to discuss apart from talking about the utility or nonutility of their medication. Whether on medications or off, the goal is always to help a person grow in love for God and for neighbor.

Let me illustrate with an orthopedic analogy. I liken the use of medications to the use of crutches, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. A person can experience many different injuries to the legs that don’t require a set of crutches. He may have visible pain. He may have a limp initially, but the problem is self-limited with forms of treatment other than the support of crutches. Here I might think of milder experiences of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, where medication (like the crutches) might not be needed.

Others require crutches to assist them after experiencing a more significant injury or surgery. They use them for a season while their bodies recover. Here I might envision a fairly severe postpartum depression or severe panic attacks treated by a briefer course of medication. Still others have a more significant disability and may need to use crutches for an extended time or perhaps for life, if the disability is permanent. Here I think of problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, where the disordered brain is having a stronger influence on the expression of mental health than other contributing factors, and therefore long-term use of medication seems warranted.

Then, there are times when someone may be relying too much on his crutches and it actually impedes progress. I experienced this as a teenager when I broke my ankle. After the cast was removed I was told to bear weight “as tolerated.” But I didn’t tolerate it very well! I continued to use my crutches for an extended time because putting weight on my ankle caused pain. At my follow-up visit, my orthopedist told me to throw away the crutches and learn to bear weight, despite the pain. It was hard work, but I learned again to walk without the aid of crutches. The bottom line is that all musculoskeletal problems are different, and it takes wisdom to know when the additional support of crutches is necessary and, if so, for how long. The same is true of psychoactive medication.

The analogy is imperfect, of course. It’s easier to determine if someone can walk unaided or not. It’s far more challenging to assess what a person can or can’t do in the midst of emotional suffering. We will always struggle to find a wise balance between attention to the spiritual and physical aspects of our personhood. Sometimes in retrospect we’ll conclude that we should have recommended the possibility of medications earlier. Other times we will decide that medication wasn’t the wisest choice after all. But we can be sure that whether medication is part of the total ministry approach or not, God sovereignly acts, and “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). He will accomplish the redemption that he has begun in us.

Walking in Wisdom

God provides an abundance of counsel in his word to develop a godly perspective on psychoactive medications. Recognizing that we are body-spirit creatures, Scripture wisely balances various aspects of personal ministry, giving attention to both somatic and spiritual factors in the care of those God has called us to shepherd. This means that we neither exalt nor disregard the role of psychoactive medications. Medication can be an appropriate and even necessary part of someone’s care, depending on the specific nature of a person’s struggle.

Even if we do view psychoactive medication as a potential piece in a comprehensive ministry approach, we always seek to bring the riches of Christ’s redemption to bear upon people’s lives. Sinners will always need mercy, grace, forgiveness, and supernatural power to love God and neighbor. Sufferers will always need comfort, hope, and the will to persevere. Ultimately, these blessings are found not in a pill bottle, but in the person of Jesus Christ.6

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Does ‘Abba’ mean ‘Daddy’?

In short, no, the evidence suggests that in the first century AD and beyond, it just meant “father”.

Here are the three uses of the term in the New Testament:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15

And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:6

[At Gethsemane, Jesus said], “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Linguistic Background: In the New Testament, it is represented by the transliterated as αββα/abba, that is, Greek letters that represent Aramaic sounds. Abba (אַבָּא) is a variation of Ab (אַב), “padre”. Abba is not a Hebrew word, but an Aramaic one, the language of gentiles and Jews in the western Mediterranean, and also of the rabbis through many centuries. It started out as a diminutive form of Ab and originalmente meant “papa”; nevertheless, by the process of evolution that all words undergo, it came to be the form that both children and adults used to address their fathers. Part of that process was that, the Jews began to use Abba as a title for outstanding rabbis, for example, Abba Saul in the second century AD. Those rabbis were “fathers”, not “papas”! And for that reason Jesus taught: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Matthew 23:8-9). Matthew uses the Greek term, but Jesus must have been referring to their usage of Abba. There is, by the way, not a single reference to non-Christian Jews using Abba in prayer.

Use by Jesus: All the evidence indicates that Jesus always taught in Aramaic, a Semitic dialect that is a cousin to Hebrew and the forerunner of the 2nd century AD Syriac dialect of the Peshitta. Some examples where the evangelists quote him directly speaking in Aramaic: Talitha cumi (Mark 5:41); [1] Ephphatha (Mark 7:34). He also used Aramaic as his language for prayer, as shown by his calling the Father Abba (Mark 14:36). This was the language of many early Christians, and some words passed directly to Greek: besides Abba, there is Marana tha (“Our Lord, come!”, 1 Cor 16:22). On the other hand, after the New Testament the term Abba is not found in the church fathers, except in quotes of the New Testament references. [2] In Romans and Galatians, Pablo goes ahead and translates Abba from the Aramaic to Greek, and he uses the normal word for father, patēr/πατήρ. That is, he translated it “father”, not “daddy” or “papa”. Hence in Rom 8:15, αββα ὁ πατήρ. The Lord’s Prayer also uses patēr, Father.

Current Usage: It has become the custom in English, but also very popularly in Latin America, and I have found references in French and German, to translate Abba as Papa.

The best evidence says that Abba simply means “Father”. But the gospel tells us that that is more than enough truth that “we are bold to say, Our Father”.

* This information is taken from my Romans commentary in the Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo.

Comentario Biblico.jpg

NOTES:

[1] Talitha too is a diminutive form which Mark translates as “little girl”. It was probably means to be affectionate, since a 12-year-old was not considered “little”.

[2] Here is a rich reference from Irenaeus, Against heresies 5.8.1 [ANF 1:553] – “For those to whom he was writing were not without flesh, but they were those who had received the Spirit of God, ‘by which we cry, Abba, Father.’ If therefore, at the present time, having the earnest, we do cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ what shall it be when, on rising again, we behold Him face to face; when all the members shall burst out into a continuous hymn of triumph, glorifying Him who raised them from the dead, and gave the gift of eternal life? For if the earnest, gathering man into itself, does even now cause him to cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ what shall the complete grace of the Spirit effect, which shall be given to men by God? It will render us like unto Him, and accomplish the will of the Father; for it shall make man after the image and likeness of God.”

“Does ‘Abba’ mean ‘Daddy’?” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Profesor of Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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