Why Christians Don’t Go to Church (and Why They Must)

The Story: A new survey finds the reason people avoid going to church is more often for practical or personal reasons, rather than lack of belief.

The Background: A new Pew Research Center survey asked Americans why they do or do not regularly go to church, synagogue, mosque or another house of worship. The overwhelming reason why people attend such services is to feel closer to God. But their reasons for staying away are more complicated.

Less than one-third (28 percent) say they don’t go because they are unbelievers. Among self-identified Christians, the predominant reason that non-churchgoers offer for not attending worship services is that they practice their faith in other ways. Almost half of evangelicals in this category (46 percent) say this is a very important reason for not going to church more often. The next most common reason evangelicals give for not attending services is that they haven’t found a church or house of worship they like (33 percent).

One-in-five evangelicals says they dislike the sermons, and a little more than one-in-ten (11 percent) says they do not feel welcome at religious services. About one in four (26 percent) cites logistical reasons for not going to religious services, such as not having the time or being in poor health.

As Pew notes, more than half of those who do not attend church or another house of worship for reasons other than non-belief are women, and they tend to be older, less highly educated, and less Democratic compared with those who do not go because of a lack of faith. Meanwhile, those who refrain from attending religious services because they are non-believers are more highly educated and largely male, young, and Democratic.

What It Means: Ask most churchgoers why think people in their community don’t join them in the pews and they’re likely to say it’s because most people aren’t believers. Yet ask those same church attenders how many people in America claim to be Christian and they’ll probably give close to the correct answer (i.e., 75 percent).

Perhaps I’m misjudging their responses, but it’s what I would have answered. As a pastor in a young church plant I tend to think of the “unchurched” as non-believers rather than as merely non-attenders. Despite being hyper-aware of the problem of nominal Christianity in America, I rarely make the connection that my own neighbors are the problem.

And the reason for my cognitive dissonance is likely because I don’t want to call them out on it. I truly believe in the paradox of church attendance: While you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, if you never go to church you probably aren’t a Christian. But I have a hard time speaking that truth to my neighbor. I wish I had the courage to say, as Ricky Jones says,

I want you to understand that being a part of the universal church without submitting to a local church is not possible, biblical, or healthy.

First, it’s simply not possible. To imply you can be part of the greater community without first being part of the smaller is not logical. You cannot be part of Rotary International without also being part of a local chapter. You cannot be part of the universal human family without first being part of a small immediate family.

Second, it’s not biblical. Every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. The letters themselves are addressed to local churches. They teach us how to get along with other members, how to encourage the weak within the church, how to conduct ourselves at church, and what to do with unrepentant sinners in the church. They command us to submit to our elders, and encourage us to go to our elders to pray. All these things are impossible if you aren’t a member of a local church. (See 1 and 2 Corinthians, James, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter for references.)

Asking where the Bible commands you to be a church member is like asking where the USGA rulebook for golf insists you be a human. The whole book is addressed to the church.

This latest Pew survey is a reminder that if I love my neighbor—especially my nominal Christian neighbor—I will tell them, as my colleague Jeff Robinson says, that “when we say church membership/attendance is optional, we are also tacitly rejecting the very people Christ ‘bought with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28).” I need to find the courage to tell them that Christianity is not a choose-your-own path religion, and that the people we are to associate with have already been chosen for us.

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Why Does John Piper Journal?

Audio Transcript

John Piper is a prolific journal-er in private — and many of you know that already. But why does he do it? Today we find out, thanks to this question from a podcast listener. “Pastor John, hello, my name is Danny. As a 19-year-old, I’m interested in starting a journal to track the outworking of God’s providence in my life. I know you have journaled for a long time. When did you start? Why did you start? How much time do you spend journaling each day? And why do you continue to do it today (assuming you still do)?”

The God Behind the Journal

I do still journal, but it might not be what people think. Let me begin by saying that behind my practice of writing in my journal are some huge assumptions that I should probably make explicit.

“Journaling, for me, is part of a constant quest to see Christ and know Christ and enjoy Christ and be like Christ.”

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One is that the infinitely holy, wise, powerful, good, loving God exists. He created the world and everything in it, and he has absolute authority and rights over everything in the world, including me.

I am, by nature, selfish to the core and in rebellion against him. I am constantly prone in myself — my old self — to exalt myself above him and above others. God owes me nothing, but that I deserve his just anger.

Yet he sent his divine, eternal son, Jesus Christ, into the world to deliver me from the guilt and the power of this selfishness by dying in my place, bearing my guilt, providing my righteousness, rising again, and pouring out his Holy Spirit of repentance and faith on me.

I was brought out of darkness into light with a divine purpose over my life in order that I would prefer him over every earthly good, and be holy as he is holy, and shine in what I write and in what I think and in what I feel and in what I do. I am called to shine with the light of his glory in this world.

All of that is a massive set of glorious realities that I bring to whether or not I journal, which means that my whole life is devoted to seeking out ways, with God’s guidance and his word, of pursuing this holiness. I am pursuing this likeness in Christ — this shining, this reflection — of what he is. I looking for ways of pursuing him, of seeing him and clarifying what he’s like and keeping him before me as my daily satisfaction and peace and confidence. I do all of that in order to be conformed increasingly to his character and his ways.

Commanded to Obey

Over my life, I see not only glorious promises and works of God, but commands:

  • God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4:7)

  • As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. (1 Peter 1:15)

  • Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

Journaling, for me, is part of a constant quest to see Christ and know Christ and enjoy Christ and be like Christ. I live to the glory of Christ.

Now, I would not have articulated my motives in journaling that way at every point in my life. That’s the way I think about it today. It’s interesting that Denny says he’s 19 years old. I think that I began journaling when I was 19 years old, as a sophomore at Wheaton College. I’ve been doing it on and off ever since.

Diary vs. Journal

There were seasons in the last 53 years of journaling when I felt a commitment to write something every day or every week. But by and large, I’ve never approached it that way.

“I can’t get clarity in my mind without writing.”

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I’m not keeping a diary. Let’s make that distinction clear. My journaling is what I would call an occasional thought notebook — not a diary. You wouldn’t find there an account of my daily activities. I may have done that once or twice in fifty years, but by and large I’m not doing what John Wesley did: “Of morning until night, here’s what happened.” I think I began because I needed to sort out my thoughts.

In other words, I found so much confusion and uncertainty in my mind about so many things that it was very hard to know what to think or feel or do. That’s a great impediment to obedience. It’s a great impediment to glorifying Christ.

If you’re constantly confused about the Bible and how to apply it, then it will impede growth. I needed clarity about Bible passages. I needed clarity about the will of God and the pros and cons of various paths for my life. I needed clarity about relationships — for example, what they should look like. These relationships were friends, in the early days, a girlfriend or not a girlfriend, and now wife and children and grandchildren. I needed clarity about social issues and ethical issues.

Tracks of Thought

I was discovering, at age 19, what today I know to be a fact: I cannot get clarity in my mind about biblical texts or the will of God or relationships or ethical or social issues without writing.

I read somewhere that Albert Einstein could hold an idea in his head for hours and days and weeks at a time and come at it from a dozen different angles, probing and pondering. He could then relate all these various perspectives to each other until he got clarity about some massive insight.

Well, I cannot do that in my head. I lose the train of thought as soon as the tracks slip into two thoughts. Let alone 22 or 42 thoughts.

Those tracks of thought must split because there are various routes of analysis and angles by which you have to ask lots and lots of questions about an issue, whatever the issue is. You have to come at from so many different ways.

I can’t hold all that in my head and figure out how those angles relate to each other and what the stages of the arguments are and what the implications of one insight have to do with another insight. How can anybody except Einstein hold all that in your head?

Be Organized

Now of course, you don’t have to do this kind of thing in a journal. You can just do it in random notes, sheets of paper, documents. It can be scattered all over your computer, all over your desk, in your drawers, in your files. But that probably isn’t helpful.

Scattered insights that you can never find again are not helpful, which brings me to another reason why it’s good to journal. You want to keep everything in some kind of place or sequence or use an index or system or something so that you can cross-reference and file things.

When you look at Jonathan Edward’s notebook, it’s amazing. He didn’t have any computer or anything, and he’d say, “See number 1,235.” We look for things over the years, so I’ve tried to keep a little index at the end of each of these journal volumes.

Be Honest

This has been very good for my humility and thankfulness.

Frankly, I don’t like the John Piper of my early journals. He seems to me to be immature, self-absorbed, excessively critical. If you’re honest, your journal really does bear witness to your sins, even when you are talking about someone else’s sins. Maybe especially when you’re talking about someone else’s sins, which is humiliating. It really is.

“I’m not keeping a diary. My journaling is what I would call an occasional thought notebook.”

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At certain points along the way, I knew where I was going. I knew this was going come back to bite me someday. I thought, “It’s just better to be real.” I mean, if Christianity and John Piper have any reality, there’s no point in trying to fake anything.

On the other hand, that very fact of humiliation causes me to be amazed at the mercy and the patience and the grace of God in Jesus Christ. God could have justifiably thrown me away at any time and my journals, my own journals, I think, would have been adequate evidence at the judgment day that he did me no wrong.

Sorting Through the Mess

Maybe I can make just a little clearer what I mean when I talk about sorting through relationships and ethical issues. This really does include my life. I’m not just talking in the abstract. I’m talking about my life, my family, my children, my wife, my workplace, my colleagues, my struggles in the ministry.

Over the years, there have always been crises in my life that have been very painful, as well as other experiences that have been exquisitely happy. I write about these. I try to sort through what’s wrong: Why is the marriage the way it is? Why are my kids the way they are? Why are things in Bethlehem the way they were? How are we doing at DG? Etc. — all kinds of issues that I’m facing. I needed to just sort it out.

When I say that my journal is a thought notebook for trying to get clarity about texts and the will of God and relationships and social and ethical issues, I don’t mean that to sound theoretical or abstract. Think very concrete, very personal, and often very painful.

Counselor’s Office

It might put a whole different slant on the term occasional thought notebook or on journaling if I told you and Danny that journaling, for me, is often like going to see a personal counselor. I tell him all my problems, and seek his wisdom. The journal is the counselor’s office.

He lets me pour out my confusion, my feelings, and ideas about my problems. He listens very patiently. He’s totally silent. He waits for me, in silence, to pray. Then he leads me by the Spirit to passages of Scripture where I see Jesus more clearly and find hope and guidance.

So here is a word to Danny. Danny, we’re all so different. There’s no biblical requirement that anybody keep a journal, let alone any particular kind. There is a biblical requirement that all of us pursue a clear, transforming knowledge of Jesus, and that we walk in holiness. If journaling helps you get that clarity, and walk that walk, do it.


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God Is Better than an Umbrella

Nineteenth-century British judge Charles Bowen proved that he was as dire a poet as he was great a jurist. But his ditty has profound theological implications still, perhaps even as his case law becomes history:

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella;

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

Bad poetry, yes, but lots of good theology there. Think of recent floods and hurricanes: were Christians any better protected than non-Christians? Did the waves hit only homes owned by bad people? No. Homes were hit, regardless of the spiritual status of the owner.

Christians often suffer worse precisely because of their faith, especially if they live in countries where Christians are persecuted. Being a believer in many parts of the world today can cost you your job, your liberty, and quite possibly even your life—though, as the apostle Peter reminds us, persecution should be for our faith, not for being obnoxious (1 Pet. 2:19–20).

Thankfully most of us in the West don’t not face a tap on the door from the local police, although if Britain is any measure, the future status of practicing Christians is no longer something we can take for granted. Still, there are theological issues that Bowen’s ditty encapsulates.

Our secular world puts in in terms of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But in Don Carson’s essential work How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, it’s clear such phrasing is theologically illegitimate. Spiritually we are all sinners, which is why we need salvation in the first place. We are not good. We are fallen, every one of us.

And we live in a fallen world.

It’s a world in which it rains as much on God’s people—the just, or as we would prefer to put it, the justified—as on everyone else. If we live in a flood plain (as is the case with large swathes of rural England), we will get flooded if it rains too much, whether we’re Christians or not. If we live in areas of the United States prone to being hit by hurricanes, the same applies.

On the micro level of individual lives, it’s no different. There’s sickness and death, and sometimes they seems inexplicable to us. But these things too are consequences of the fall. As with Job, who didn’t know why he was suffering, much seems inexplicable to us.

Our Constant Help

While pondering some of these things, my Bible reading happened to be Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From where does my help come?

My help comes from the LORD,

who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, he who keeps Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;

the LORD is your shade on your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

The LORD will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time forth and forevermore.

This is who God is. This is our final destiny. We are never alone. We are ultimately kept from all evil, and we have eternal life. God is personal, and he is the Lord who made heaven and earth. The God who created the universe neither slumbers nor sleeps, and he is my keeper. Eternity really is forevermore.

Angry at God?

The default human reaction can be anger—we think we make ourselves feel better by kicking the poor cat. But does our anger at God actually change our circumstances? One could argue it makes things worse, as we have anger added to our pain or sorrow, and anger at our only hope. Without God we are truly sunk.

My wife wanted to see the centenary of her father’s birth in August 2018. She died in June. In one sense she missed it, and of course I had to celebrate without her. But her father was also a Christian, and a friend cheered me by saying, “Well, that means they were able to commemorate it together.” And that’s true. Nothing brings my wife back. But one day she and I will be reunited, her suffering and my sorrow eternally over. That is not feeling, but fact.

Let’s by all means get angry against sin—the ultimate cause of floods, hurricanes, and death. But let’s praise the God of our salvation, without whom everything would be truly hopeless. We suffer here on earth, but we’re never alone. We don’t need an umbrella.

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Practicing the Principles of Scripture in the Home

“We don’t come to this session with any sense that we’ve got it all figured or out or, certainly, that we have the perfect marriage. . . . We do think that God has a lot of wisdom in his Word, and we have seen that wisdom played out in our marriage and in our family.” — Michael Kruger

Date: June 15, 2018

Event: The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.

Related:

Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

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Book Notice: LITERATURE, by Louis Markos

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance

Enjoying poetry and novels can seem irrelevant and out of touch in a world of texting, tweeting, and blogging. But even in this technological age literature matters.

Seasoned professor Louis Markos invites us into the great literary conversation that has been taking place throughout the ages and illuminates the wisdom to be found therein. He offers both a guide to studying and understanding literature, especially poetry, and an inspiring look at what it means to think like poets and view the world through literary eyes. This book holds out a truth for all: that the understanding and appreciation of literature draws us closer to God, his Word, and his work in the world.

About the Author

Louis Markos (PhD, University of Michigan) is professor of English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of twelve books and has published over 120 book chapters, essays, and reviews in various magazines and journals. He lives in Houston with his wife, Donna, and their two children.

Endorsements

Joseph Pearce, Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Literature, Ave Maria University; author, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes and Literary Converts:

Louis Markos not only possesses the wisdom of C. S. Lewis but also Lewis’s uncanny ability to put complex ideas into a succinct and simple language that is accessible to everyone. Such a gift is invaluable to the writing of a student’s guide to literature. Markos takes his readers through the principles and ages of literature on a tour of discovery that is also a tour de force. The wise and prudent student will read it avidly and then keep it near at hand as a constant companion and guide―a literary friend upon whom the student can always rely.

Louise Cowan, Professor of Literature, University of Dallas; author, The Epic Cosmos:

Louis Markos has produced an insightful digest of the most crucially important issues confronting the serious student of literature. All the tools for study are here, as well as an analytic account of literary commentary from Plato on up to the present day. Written from a frankly Christian point of view, the study reveals how essentially religious―until fairly recently―the Western literary tradition has been. Not only students will benefit from this learned and perceptive overview, but mature scholars of the discipline will also find The Student’s Guide a helpful and clarifying aid.

Buy the books

Literature

Crossway, 2012 | 144 pages

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Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God

Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God

Our friends over at Reformation Heritage Books are preparing to release a new documentary on the Puritans! They are currently taking preorders, and those who preorder get exclusive access to a closed Facebook group with the directors and producers where can ask your questions and see behind the scenes video and pictures from production. You’ll also have Q&A from special guests, including Dr. Joel Beeke.

In addition to the documentary, Reformation Heritage has put together a full package, including:

DISC 1: Feature length documentary. Runtime: 100 minutes.
DISC 2 and 3: 15 teaching sessions on different Puritans and 15 teaching sessions on different Puritan themes.
WORKBOOK: Built around the teaching sessions for Disc 2 and 3.
INTRODUCTION TO THE PURITANS BOOK: A special, decorative, exclusive hardback book by Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Michael Reeves.

What’s more, the documentary includes appearances by:

Albert Mohler Joel Beeke Mark Dever
Conrad Mbewe John MacArthur Michael Reeves
Geoff Thomas John Piper Rosaria Butterfield
Gloria Furman John Snyder Sinclair Ferguson
Ian Hamilton Kevin DeYoung Stephen Nichols
Jeremy Walker Leland Ryken Steven Lawson
J.I. Packer Ligon Duncan

We think you’ll love this documentary, and all that comes with it. Pre-order quickly!

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Weekly Recap, Oct. 12

Book Summary:

GOD’S MEDIATORS: A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF PRIESTHOOD, by Andrew S. Malone

A Brief Book Summary from Books at a Glance By Mark Baker   About the Author Andrew S. Malone is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is author of Knowing Jesus in the Old Testament? and…

Author Interview:

Interview with Ray Rhodes Jr., author of SUSIE: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF SUSANNAH SPURGEON

An Author Interview from Books At a Glance   You’ve heard of her husband, and you may even have heard her husband’s sermons disguised as someone else’s. But what do you know about her? Charles Spurgeon’s beloved wife Susannah, that…

Book Review:

JAMES: A COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK TEXT, by William Varner

A Book Review from Books At a Glance By Robbie Booth   William Varner is a professor of Bible exposition and Greek exegesis at The Master’s University located in Santa Clarita, California. He has pastored the Sojourners fellowship in Grace…

Our Blog:

Book Notice: The Whole Counsel of God, by Richard C. Gamble

A Brief Book Notice from Books At a Glance By Fred Zaspel   The work that has gone into these two (of a projected three) volumes is just staggering, and there has scarcely been another work like it. Gamble’s approximately…

Book Notice: PRAYER: HOW PRAYING TOGETHER SHAPES THE CHURCH, by John Onwuchekwa

A Brief Book Notice from Books At a Glance By Fred Zaspel   This is one of the very best books on prayer I have ever read. What a treat. It is not one of those books on prayer designed…

Book Notice: LITERATURE, by Louis Markos

A Brief Book Notice from Books at a Glance   Enjoying poetry and novels can seem irrelevant and out of touch in a world of texting, tweeting, and blogging. But even in this technological age literature matters. Seasoned professor Louis…

Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God

Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God   Our friends over at Reformation Heritage Books are preparing to release a new documentary on the Puritans! They are currently taking preorders, and those who preorder get exclusive access to a…

~ The Books At a Glance Team

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The Home of Everything We’ve Always Longed For

An outpost of heaven on earth. That’s what Eden was when “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east” (Genesis 2:8). But God had big plans for this little outpost.

God formed the first man, Adam, and “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Adam was to be the gardener in the garden. But he was also to be the guardian of the garden, the ruler over the garden. It was a big task. He needed a helper.

So God created the woman, Eve. They were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Clearly an expansion project was in the works. It was God’s intention that the garden would spread so that the whole earth would become a home, one he would share with his image-bearers.

From Garden to Temple

As Adam and Eve worked and kept the garden, Eden would grow beyond its current boundaries, and the glory of their royal rule would increase. As Adam and Eve were fruitful and multiplied, more offspring in the image of God would come to glorify God by enjoying him forever. As Adam and Eve, who were made in the image of God, obeyed God, they would bear his likeness in an even more glorious way.

“One day, the nagging sense of discontent inherent to life in the wilderness of this world will be gone for good.”

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But evil slithered into the garden in the form of a serpent, and Adam failed to subdue it. Instead, Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and transferred their loyalty to him and away from the God who made them. Having become unholy people, they could no longer live in this outpost of heaven in the presence of a holy God, so they were sent out into the surrounding wilderness.

Later, God created another outpost of heaven. It was the Most Holy Place in the temple, where he came down to dwell among his people. But only one person, the high priest of Israel, could enter this outpost of heaven, and only once a year. And eventually this holy habitation was also sullied by human sin.

From Temple to Son

So, God sent his Son. When Jesus began his ministry he announced, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Heaven invaded earth in the person of Jesus, the second Adam. He came to take the sin of an unholy people upon himself and to give to them his own perfect holiness. Why? So that God’s intention for the whole earth to be a home he will share with his image-bearers will become a reality that his people will enjoy forever.

Jesus, the King of heaven, is going to come again to this earth. And when he does, this earth will become heaven. It will not merely be a little outpost of heaven surrounded by wilderness like Eden was. It will be far more expansive. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Imagine it this way — everywhere you look, all you will be able to see will be the goodness and glory of God.

What Will Heaven Be Like?

When heaven comes to earth, it will be filled with people who bear the glorious image of God. Everyone you meet will be completely joyful, fearlessly authentic, and perfectly loving. And there will be so many interesting people to get to know — a “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). What a joy it will be to be surrounded by brothers and sisters from every age who will all have stories to tell about how the Father chose them, and the Son rescued them, and the Spirit changed and sustained them.

“The new creation will be everything we have always longed for. It’s going to be even better than Eden.”

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Eden was sullied when Satan invaded the outpost of heaven in the form of a serpent, bringing his lies and rebellion, destruction, and death along with him. But when heaven comes to earth, “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Revelation 21:27). There will be nothing to fear, no temptation to overcome, no cause for shame. No more pain. No more death. Perfect and unending security.

The marriage woes of Eden will be overcome.

We will be “as a bride adorned for her husband,” and will forever be joined to our faithful Bridegroom (Revelation 21:2). Into eternity, as the bride of Christ, we will be fully loved by our holy husband. This, the best of all marriages, will never end.

The nakedness of Eden will be covered.

God will clothe us in white linen that has been washed by the blood of the Lamb. We’ll be dressed in royal robes of righteousness fit for reigning with Christ. The shadow of Sabbath rest, one day in seven, will give way to the substance of an eternal day of enjoyment of all that God has made, all that God has done, and all that God is.

The barrier to the tree of life in Eden will be removed.

The tree of life that was in the midst of the garden of Eden will be there, but it will have expanded to every side of the river. Instead of producing one kind of fruit, it will produce twelve kinds of fruit. And instead of one crop of fruit a year, it will produce a new crop of fruit every month.

The abundance and satisfaction of the new heaven and new earth will far exceed what Adam and Eve experienced in Eden. The nagging sense of discontent inherent to life in the wilderness of this world will be gone for good as the fruit of this tree will satisfy us fully and forever.

The Home of Everything We’ve Ever Longed For

“Christ came to open the way into a new and better paradise of Eden.”

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And it’s not just that the fruit of this tree will feed us. The leaves of this tree will heal us. In fact, the leaves of this tree will heal everything. All the scars left by sin will be healed. All the wounds inflicted by harsh words, the infection of cynical attitudes, the disfigurement of racism — it will all be healed. All the emotional scars left by abuse, the relational tearing apart caused by divorce, the societal discord caused by pride, the governmental corruption caused by greed — it will all be healed.

Many people speak of what God is preparing for his people as a restoration of Eden. But, my friends, it’s far better than that. The home God intends to share with his people for all eternity will be far more secure, far more satisfying, far more glorious than the original Eden. One day his kingdom will come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s going to be everything we have always longed for. It’s going to be even better than Eden.

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Is Church Planting a ‘Young Man’s Game’?

Is church planting a “young man’s game”? We often hear that it is. Some might think, I’m too old to plant a church.

Perhaps this suggests that younger leaders have more energy to start something new, or that they connect better to unchurched people. Both might be true. 

But young leaders make a lot of mistakes. They can lack perspective. They can be motivated by the wrong things, like setting out to prove something or to be known and praised.

In addition to the pressure of ministry, young leaders may also be newly married or have young children, and this season of life will make planting even more challenging in most cases. Moreover, some young planters haven’t yet experienced much suffering in life. Older pastors are usually better at sympathizing with wounded people, and providing skillful and gracious pastoral care for them.

So, are younger guys better suited for the hard grind of church planting? To help us consider this issue, we’ve invited an old man on the podcast. Today, I’m privileged to welcome my brother, friend, and mentor, the gray fox himself, Steve Timmis.

Steve is the CEO of Acts 29, and has been involved in church planting for a long time. He’s an elder at The Crowded House Church in Sheffield, where we recorded this podcast.

You can listen to this podcast episode here.

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300th BLOG POST! Love: a simple command, not an easy one

I have been blogging on this site since 2010 and just realized that this is my 300th post (on my other site, http://razondelaesperanza.com, I’m up to 212). So in order to celebrate with a really important theme, here are some thoughts from my Romans commentary. Enjoy! And sign up to be notified when new articles come out. Gary

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:8-10

For those Christians who can relax only when they have lists of rules to follow, the simple command to Love one another seems vague, subjective, even perilous. They feel more in sync with those who believed that a walk of 2000 steps (1 kilometer) did not transgress God’s law, but taking one step more was a sin (see Acts 1:12); or that one is obliged to forgive seven times, but not eight.

On the one hand, the law of love is liberating. At the same time an exacting master.

Why? Because it obligates us to seek the Spirit’s guidance and power, rather than check off holiness boxes or to consult huge 3-ring binders which purport to give God’s answer to every question. We pray, not to get God to help us keep our own rules, but to ask him to remake our minds. We are forced to use those minds – and we are gifted with a transformed way of thinking! (Rom 12:2) – about what is loving behavior. We are pressed to behave in ways that are new and strange to our old selves. We are led to do more than seems reasonable; to be cheerful and generous when others think we are being taken advantage of. We find that love means in this moment to speak courageously and in another moment to close our mouths.

We find this all over the New Testament. The Lord Jesus shows that love might mean washing someone’s feet – and you wouldn’t have found that in the Torah. James shows how the rule of love makes in impact on how we seat people in our meetings (James 2:1-4). Paul insists that if people were really loving, they would think through what to eat for supper (1 Cor 8:13). And all three seem to leave the question hanging: Were you acting in love, you would have known what to do in these situations!

Love – Christ is our teacher

The definition of a loving Christian is not one those happy souls who go around with smiles and hugs for everyone; not the one who does nice things for their friends. Rather, they are the ones who cross boundaries, make costly choices, and take daring action in the name of Christ.

“Love: a simple command, not an easy one,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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Does Depression Disqualify a Pastor?

Audio Transcript

Does depression disqualify a pastor? Man, that’s a serious and heavy question, and it comes to us from a podcast listener named Kyle. “Hello, Pastor John. At what point, if any, does depression and/or joylessness disqualify an elder? Or when might there be a reason for an elder to step down out of a desire to most wisely serve his congregation?”

Four Causes for Concern

Let me begin by affirming that Kyle is right to suggest that there is a point at which joylessness does disqualify an elder. A lot of people don’t think of that. So he’s right to point this out. But we have to be so careful here, because joy is subjective — it’s a subjective reality.

It’s no less real and no less important because it’s subjective. But it manifests itself in various ways. It manifests itself in degrees of presence, and so putting our finger on it is not easy. So I think we should be slow and careful before we declare anybody unqualified for their ministry because of it.

Let me just point to four things that Kyle and the rest of us should take into consideration as we ponder this.

1. Chronic Sadness

Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy” — so let your leaders, your pastor and elders, lead with joy — “and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

“A chronically joyless pastor is of no advantage to his people.”

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In other words, a chronically joyless pastor is of no advantage, no benefit, to his people, which means there comes a point when, for the sake of the people, he should step down or step back.

This is just to say, Kyle, thank you for taking this seriously. Hebrews 13:17 says so.

2. For Their Joy

There are two places where Paul says that his whole ministry is devoted to the joy of his people.

  1. 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.”
  2. Philippians 1:25: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”

That was Paul’s apostolic mission — to seek the joy of other people. I think it’s the calling on every pastor and every elder to work for the joy of their people. If their own inability to rejoice in the Lord hinders that, there may come a time when they are not able to fulfill that calling.

3. Setting an Example

The pastor and elder who aims to help his people obey the Lord will need to help them rejoice in tribulation. That’s what it says in Romans 5:3–5:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

So, elders are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). If we can’t rejoice in our own sufferings, like Romans 5:3 says, how are we going to help our people obey the Scriptures? That is, how are we going to fulfill our calling to set an example for them and help them?

4. Love’s Overflow

Here is one last illustration of how this works:

“It’s the calling on every pastor and every elder to work for the joy of their people.”

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We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–2)

Now, what that text says is that love — love that is overflowing in a wealth of generosity to those in need around us — is the overflow of abundance of joy in God. It is not joy in overcoming poverty, and not joy in escaping affliction, because both of those are mentioned right there alongside joy.

An elder who wants his people to love other people — that is, to overflow in joy for them in the midst of affliction, in the midst of poverty — has to be able to set the example for that himself.

When to Step Back

So, here are a few concluding observations that might help Kyle and others find some guidance of when to step down or when to step back.

1. Dullness or Bitterness?

Be sure to distinguish between a temporary dullness of spirit and a growing bitterness of spirit. Both dullness and bitterness can rob us of joy, but there is a world of difference between the two.

Dullness may mean we’re wrestling with nature, something in our bodies or in our circumstances. Bitterness means that we’re giving into sin. The people know the difference. They’ll taste the difference.

The brokenhearted pastor who is in a season of dullness will cry out to God affectionately for his mercy. Many of his people will deeply appreciate his cry. They’ll resonate with it. They’ll be thankful for an honest, heartfelt cry from their pastor’s soul to God.

But the pastor who is giving into joylessness out of anger and bitterness, that pastor does nobody any good.

2. Ask for Help

Seek to discern the roots of the loss of joy. If there is hidden sin, for example, it will definitely rob a pastor of his spiritual delights in God.

No pastor should tolerate that in his own soul. He should make war on his sin, and if he can’t get the victory, then he needs to draw his elders into it with him and confess his need for help. But there may be other hard things besides sin that his elders see, and they’re going to cut him a lot of slack here while they help him get through this season.

3. Tone of the Text

The key question is whether you can still preach the tone of the text in your loss of joy, or if your own emotional state is such that it controls all of your demeanor. Here’s what I mean.

“Are you able still to feel sweet affection for your people? Do they sense that?”

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I found over the decades of preaching that even though my private life at times was filled with sorrow, real heartache, and I had to preach the next Sunday, I found that the text really did, in that moment, create its own emotions in me that were real and authentic.

Can you still do that? Can that happen for you?

This is not hypocrisy. This is not “fake it until you make it.” This is a real supernatural experience of emotion by the Holy Spirit wrought by that text in the hour of preaching.

4. Loving the Church

Two more suggestions. Another key question is, Are you able still to feel sweet affection for your people? Do they sense that?

If so, your season of darkness may be a balm to them because they will know that your affection is rooted in your confidence in the gospel.

5. Rest or Resign?

The last thing I would say is, How long has the struggle of seeming darkness — or dullness, or heaviness, or joylessness — gone on? That matters.

Out of all those five suggestions and out of all those questions, the answer might be that you would ask for a sabbatical. Or it might be that you seek help in some other way.

It might be that a resignation from the eldership would be a last resort. I think it should be a last resort, especially for the vocational elder whose resignation would be a huge upheaval for the people.

So, share your struggle with a trusted friend, and see whether what I’ve said here, or other things they might point out, gives you wisdom for this season.


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Genuine Revival, Spiritual Affections, and Bodily Manifestations

The division among Christian folk during the revival we know as the First Great Awakening (1734-35; 1740-42) often was due to their different understandings of the nature and significance of physical or bodily manifestations.

Many of the so-called Old Lights in Jonathan Edwards’s day insisted on the spurious nature of the so-called “revival” by pointing to the physical and emotional phenomena that were occurring. These manifestations, so they insisted, are proof that the Spirit is not in the “revival”. The Spirit does not operate in such ways and thus these phenomena demonstrate that the religious excitement is merely a work of the flesh or of disturbed souls or, worse still, the Devil.

The ironic thing is that today there are many who insist on precisely the opposite conclusion. They regard such physical and emotional manifestations to be almost certain proof that the Spirit is present and at work. In the absence of such phenomena they would likely conclude that the Spirit was also absent. Thus whatever means or instruments or methods or moods that might elicit these manifestations are deemed fitting and acceptable.

Edwards would disagree strongly with both of these opinions. True religion is not primarily a matter of the body or of physical manifestations. True religion is primary a matter of the heart, of holy affections. Of course, such affections often times will have an impact on the body. But not always. Furthermore, the body can be influenced and manifestations awakened and sustained by causes other than affections.

Edwards was quick to point out, therefore, that bodily and emotional manifestations, whether crying, shaking, shouting aloud, falling down, or entering into a trance, prove nothing at all. Might they be the result of some work of the Holy Spirit in the heart? Yes. Might they be the result of some work of the flesh? Yes. Do they prove anything regarding the presence or absence of the Spirit? No. Ought such manifestations to be encouraged and stimulated? No. Ought such manifestations to be permitted? Yes.

Is it possible to experience some tangible, sensible bodily effect and there be no spiritual affection present? Yes. Is it possible to experience genuine spiritual affection and there be no tangible, sensible bodily effect? Yes, but only rarely. Such is the close connection that God has forged between the material and immaterial dimensions of our being that some alteration in the latter “almost always” results in some agitation in the former.

So, what, then are the unmistakable signs of the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit? How might we know that what we are witnessing is a genuine move of God in heaven-sent revival?

In his magnificent volume, The Religious Affections, Edwards first identifies those phenomena or experiences that prove nothing with regard to the presence or absence of genuine affections. There are twelve of them. The page numbers are those from the Yale edition of Edwards’s treatise.

1. “’Tis no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high” (127).

2. “’Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (131).

3. “’Tis no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them, to be fluent, fervent and abundant, in talking of the things of religion” (135).

4. “’Tis no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not make ‘em themselves, or excite ‘em of their own contrivance, and by their own strength” (138).

5. “’Tis no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come with texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to the mind” (142).

6. “’Tis no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them” (146).

7. “Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no” (147).

8. “Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections by this, that comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order” (151).

9. “’Tis no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship” (163).

10. “Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God” (165).

11. “’Tis no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them, exceeding confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate” (167).

12. “Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections, that any are the subjects of, from this, that the outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give of them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity, and win their hearts” (181).

The main section of Religious Affections is devoted to an explanation of those twelve signs that assuredly indicate a genuine work of the Holy Spirit in revival and in the hearts of men and women.

1. “Affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural, and divine” (197).

2. “The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest” (240).

3. “Those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections” (253-54).

4. “Gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge” (266).

5. “Truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things” (291).

6. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” (311).

7. “Another thing, wherein gracious affections are distinguished from others, is, that they are attended with a change of nature” (340).

8. “Truly gracious affections differ from those affections that are false and delusive, in that they tend to, and are attended with the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ” (344-45).

9. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit” (357).

10. “Another thing wherein those affections that are truly gracious and holy, differ from those that are false, is beautiful symmetry and proportion” (365).

11. “Another great and very distinguishing difference between gracious affections and others is, that gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments, increased. On the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves” (376).

12. “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. I mean, they have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of ’em, that they cause that a practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules, should be the practice and business of his life” (383).

If you read these and are hungry for a more detailed explanation of what Edwards meant, I recommend you actually read Religious Affections. Short of that, read my book, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” (Crossway, 2007).

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Jumping Down the Rabbit Hole of a Dinesh D’Souza Footnote

Yesterday I posted on what happened when Sam Wineburg decided to investigate a dubious footnote in Howard Zinn’s bestselling American history textbook, only to discover that it was a bad game of broken telephone, as one secondary source relied upon another secondary source that relied upon another secondary source.

Right-wing writers, of course, do this kind of thing, too.

The amazing Andrew Ferguson, an essayist at The Weekly Standard who is on my short list of “Read Everything He Writes,” recently offered an omnibus takedown of a half-dozen Trump-era bestselling books, among them a book by Dinesh D’Souza, who has perfected the art of being a right-wing troll.

Ferguson relays a footnote he decided to investigate:

If you’re crazy enough to jump down the rabbit hole of his footnotes, you’ll see that D’Souza’s apparently fastidious method covers a lot of hedging, speculation, and misinterpretation.

To take one small example: Lyndon Johnson is a pivotal figure in D’Souza’s tale. Johnson, he writes, “is a man who, according to a memo filed by FBI agent William Branigan, seems to have been in the Ku Klux Klan.” He was? “This memo was only revealed in recent months, with the release of the JFK Files. Progressive media . . . have largely ignored it, trying to pretend it does not exist. Branigan cites a source with direct knowledge.” D’Souza then treats LBJ’s Klan membership as settled fact and a building block in his case against the Democrats.

I’ve got to side with the progressive media on this one. The FBI memo that D’Souza is using to misinform his readers was written in early 1964. It was released last year in the (presumably) final dump of government documents about the Kennedy assassination. It is a piece of raw intelligence, unverified, repeated with no assessment of its credibility. Branigan, the FBI agent, writes that a “confidential informant” told him that the editor of a magazine published by the Citizens’ Council of Louisiana, himself a Klan member, had told the informant that he, the editor, had seen documented proof that Johnson was a member in the 1930s.

No proof was provided. Even the website D’Souza cites as his source for this damning nugget, thehayride.com, says the claim of Johnson’s Klan membership amounts to nothing more than a rumor.

D’Souza’s embrace of rumors is selective. Another FBI memo in the same document dump, for example, reported that the KGB thought Johnson had plotted to kill Kennedy. By D’Souza’s standard of historical evidence, this memo should be enough to write, “Lyndon Johnson seems to have plotted to kill his predecessor.” Wisely he keeps this bombshell from his readers.

Again, the lesson is if a claim seems too good—or too outlandish—to be true, check the source. And learn to trust authors who use and cite sources properly and carefully.

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The Danger of ‘Hallowed Be My Name’

“Who is sitting on the throne of your heart? If you’re still sitting there, he’s not hallowed. He’s not holy. He’s not set apart. If the approval of others is sitting on the throne of your heart—if it’s pride, if it’s lust, if there’s anything else sitting on the throne of your heart—he’s not hallowed in it.” — Tyler St. Clair

Text: Matthew 6:9

Preached: January 21, 2018

Location: Cornerstone Church, Detroit, Michigan

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

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