Where Sex Trafficking Occurs in America

The Story: A recent report highlights the cities and states within the U.S. in which human trafficking is most reported.

The Background: Modern-day slavery, also referred to as “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking,” describes the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Trafficking in persons is estimated to be one of the top-grossing criminal industries in the world (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking), with traffickers profiting an estimated $32 billion every year.

Because the crime is kept out of sight no one knows for sure the extent of trafficking in America. But we can gain a better understanding of the crime by measuring the “signals”—phone calls, emails, and online tip reports—received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which maintains one of the most extensive data sets on the issue of human trafficking in the U.S. From 2007 to 2018, the Hotline received 195,215 signals representing 45,308 “cases” (i.e., distinct situations of trafficking).

The Geoffrey Nathan Law Offices recently analyzed the data from the Hotline to uncover where human trafficking reports are most prevalent.

Their report finds that on a per capita basis (cases per 100,000 people), Washington DC (6.1) and Nevada (5.6) have the most reports of human trafficking in the nation. In each of those states, trafficking reports are more than five times more likely than in states like Wisconsin (1.1) and Utah (1.1). Even larger states like California (1.9), Florida (1.7), and New York (1.1) had fewer reported cases than DC and Nevada.

The report also shows the total number of cases from 2007 to 2016 per capita among the 100 largest cities in America. The top five cities in America for human trafficking reports are Washington DC, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, and Las Vegas. Almost all of the top 25 cities for human trafficking prevalence are large metropolises, and many are major tourist destinations and/or have international airports. The exception is New York City, which has the twenty-second lowest rate of human trafficking in the country. Cities where human trafficking is less common tend to be smaller cities.

What It Means: Why is trafficking more prevalent in some cities and states than in others? A key factor appears to be prostitution. “Underlying much of the prostitution industry and illegal massage parlors is the horrible fact that many of the women supposedly working there are being held against their will,” according to the report.

“While some prostitutes may work entirely on their own accord, a very significant number of them are working against their will,” notes the report. “Even in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in certain parts of the state with a license, there are widespread reports of women working at brothels against their will or with falsified identification.”

Despite prostitution being frequently described as a “victim-less” crime, the connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well established.

Nearly half of all incidents investigated by U.S. law enforcement agencies between January 1, 2008, and June 30, 2010 (the last date for which data is available), involved allegations of adult prostitution (48 percent) while another forty percent involved prostitution of a child or child sexual exploitation.

As Donna M. Hughes has noted, “evidence seems to show that legalized sex industries actually result in increased trafficking to meet the demand for women to be used in the legal sex industries.” Melissa Farley adds that “wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases.”

Christians in America too often assume that trafficking is a problem that only occurs in foreign lands. While sex slavery is certainly more prevalent in other countries, we can’t overlook what is happening in our own cities and states. We can help these women and children, though, by knowing the signs to look for. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the indicators of human trafficking may include a person:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Shows signs of substance use or addiction
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where they are staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Appear to have lost sense of time
  • Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories

Each individual indicator should be taken in context and not be considered in isolation, notes the Hotline, nor should be taken as “proof” that human trafficking is occurring. But if you believe you may have information about a potential trafficking situation, you should contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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Loving Jesus in a Secular Age

“If you really do say truth is subjective, that you find truth inside, then you’ve got absolutely no ability to ground your calls to justice. You’ve got nothing to build on. . . . You’ve actually just destroyed your ability to talk about any moral obligation at all.” — Tim Keller

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

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


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

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Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor on TGC’s Women’s Training Network

Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor are excellent Bible teachers. They are also educated Bible teachers (Turkington earned an M.A. and a D.Min. from Western Seminary, and Doctor an M.Div. from Covenant Seminary.) And they are on a mission to train women around the country—in fact, around the world—to better interpret their Bibles. Through the Women’s Training Network, they want to teach women to handle the Bible, grasp the story of the Bible, and live and lead according to what’s taught in the Bible. At these two-day intensives, women get to choose a particular track that suits their interests and experience, choosing from workshops such as ministry practicals, unity and dignity, and Christlike leadership. I talked to Turkington and Doctor about how their love for Scripture and for teaching it developed in their own lives, and what their dreams are for the Women’s Training Network.

Watch this video about the Women’s Training Network and check out information on tracks, registration, dates, and cities. Registration is open now for workshops in Austin, Sacramento, and Philadelphia. For more information about the Biblical Theology Workshop for Women with Nancy Guthrie, go to nancyguthrie.com.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

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20 Quotes from Don Carson on Gospel Centrality

The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Don Carson’s new little book, Prophetic from the Center (10Publishing, 2019).

Perhaps more common yet is the tendency to assume the gospel, whatever that is, while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless. This overlooks the fact that our hearers inevitably are drawn toward that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher knows that. My students are unlikely to learn all that I teach them; they are most likely to learn that about which I am most excited. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery. (4–5)

It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center. (5)

When we insist that as a matter of first importance, the gospel is Christological, we are not thinking of Christ as a cipher, or simply as the God-man who comes along and helps us like a nice insurance agent: “Jesus is a nice God-man, he’s a very, very nice God-man, and when you break down, he comes along and fixes you.” The gospel is Christological in a more robust sense: Jesus is the promised Messiah who died and rose again. (12)

The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events; they are historical events with the deepest theological weight. (13)

From the beginning, sin is an offense against God. God himself pronounces the sentence of death (Gen. 2–3). This is scarcely surprising, since God is the source of all life, so if his image bearers spit in his face and insist on going their own way and becoming their own gods, they cut themselves off from their Maker, from the One who gives life. What is there, then, but death? (14)

In all our sinning, God is invariably the most offended party. That is why we must have his forgiveness, or we have nothing. (15–16)

The God the Bible portrays as resolved to intervene and save is also the God portrayed as full of wrath because of our sustained idolatry. As much as he intervenes to save us, he stands over against us as Judge, an offended Judge with fearsome jealousy. . . . How often when we preach the gospel are people terrified? (16, 18)

To be saved from our sins is to be saved not only from their chaining power but also from their consequences—and the consequences are profoundly bound up with God’s solemn sentence, with God’s holy wrath. Once you see this, you cannot fail to see that whatever else the cross achieves, it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing. (21)

Any approach, theological or evangelistic, that attempts to pit Jesus’s death and Jesus’s resurrection against each other, is not much more than silly. (24)

The Bible never asks us to believe what is not true. By the same token, one of the principal ways the Bible increases and strengthens faith is by articulating and defending the truth. (30)

We are not saved by theological ideas about Christ; we are saved by Christ himself. (31)

The new humanity in [Christ] draws in people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. The gospel . . . is not universal in the sense that it transforms and saves everyone without exception, for in reality, those whose existence is connected exclusively to the old Adam are not included. Yet this gospel is gloriously universal in its comprehensive sweep. There is not a trace of racism here. (34)

Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted. (41)

When the gospel truly does its work, “proud Christian” is an unthinkable oxymoron. (41)

Corinth speaks to the lust for endless innovation that casually cuts a swath away from the practices and beliefs of other churches, while quietly side-stepping the careful instruction of the apostle. . . . Always be suspicious of churches that proudly flaunt how different they are from what has gone before. (43)

The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the king. (45)

There is no place for triumphalism in the church of the blood-bought, in the church led by apostles who eat everyone’s dirt at the end of the procession. (49)

A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. (51)

The conventions and expectations of the world are pervasive and enslaving. The gospel must be worked out for these women, and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that it issues in liberation from the wretched chains of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape, apart from the powerful word of the cross. (53–54)

[Pondering how the gospel transforms various areas of life] must be done, not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, still less by endless focus on the periphery in a vain effort to sound prophetic, but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious gospel of our blessed Redeemer. (54)

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When #ChurchToo Hits Close to Home

You’d think the church would be the last place where abuse would be ignored, but, regrettably, that’s not the case, as the #ChurchToo movement has shown. Even knowing the statistics on abuse within churches, it’s a shock when you find out one of your own members or leaders has abused someone in your church family.

In this conversation, Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell talk about how to be prepared if someone comes to you with a revelation of abuse, and how to overcome the shock of the moment to readily offer comfort and protection. All three women agree that police should be notified of any accusation of sexual abuse. Rosaria Butterfield recounts a recent conversation in which a woman requested prayer for an ongoing abuse situation: “I said, ‘Well, let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.’”

Too often, the pain of abuse has been intensified when church members or leaders respond to abuse revelations inadequately. We can’t always prevent abuse from happening, but we can prepare ourselves to respond—to do the right thing right away—when we discover there have been wolves amid the flock.


Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

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Should Christians Try to Become Rich?

I have a friend who says they want to be wealthy in order to give more money away. Is the goal of wealth a danger or a snare? In our jobs, should we try to become rich?

As an economist and a board member for a struggling non-profit, I appreciate the tremendous good that money can do. Many ministries need lots more of it! So should Christians desire wealth in order to do good, in order to give money away? Or is it a snare?

A Christian’s ultimate desire is for God’s kingdom to come, however it comes. We desire for God to equip all people according to his purposes. If God makes us “hands or eyes” in the body, so be it. Paul tells us that mercy is a spiritual gift, but he doesn’t say, “Earnestly desire to have wealth in order to exercise mercy.” If Christians should desire wealth in order to do good, 1 Corinthians 12–14 would have been a good place for Paul to say so.

If you are talented and gifted for a lucrative job, desire to be faithful with the wealth you have. But know this—being good at earning money doesn’t necessarily make you good at giving it away. It takes tremendous effort to research where to donate substantial sums—the field of “effective altruism” exists precisely because philanthropy is hard to do.

Still, many of us desire to be the ones giving money away. This is a tremendous danger. Indeed, there are at least two theological reasons to doubt our own motivations when we desire wealth in order to do good.

Opportunity Cost

First, when Jesus met the rich young ruler, he did not say, “Follow me by giving your money away.” He said, “First give your money away, and then follow me.” His ensuing conversation with the disciples suggests this order is the rule, not the exception.

Because for almost all of us, earning money to give it away is not the best we have to offer others. Jesus equips us to serve in his kingdom by doing good directly through our work (not just indirectly through how we give) and directly through how we use our time (not just indirectly through how our time is remunerated).

Remember, there is always an opportunity cost. Choosing between two jobs—one that pays more than another—almost always involves trading off something good for the money. With rare exception, serving God by earning more means doing something rather than doing the other good things we could do by working another job with less time at work, less stress, more creativity, or more direct service to others.

The biblical and historical evidence is that God does not primarily—or even frequently—advance his kingdom through philanthropy. He has this strange way of choosing the poor and the foolish. He has this odd way of “wasting” jars of perfume on worship instead of feeding the poor. He has this unexpected way of ignoring the basic rules of economics and scarce resources and instead choosing to flip the world upside-down.

Your Heart’s Treasure

Second, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. The order matters. Unless we are vigilant in giving away our wealth before it accumulates, we will learn to accumulate, not to give. We might learn to love having wealth before we learn to love giving it away.

But when we do give our wealth away, our hearts will be with those to whom we’re giving. Our love will be re-ordered from desiring wealth in order to do good to desiring directly the good of those we’re financially supporting.

I know. I had one of those lucrative jobs. But a great mentor, Tom Sharp, discipled me well and showed me that being faithful with my money meant giving it away. My heart followed my treasure, and it didn’t take long for me to wonder if the best way to serve God was really by staying in a lucrative job I wasn’t suited for, even if I was donating my income. And because I followed Tom’s advice, I was better able to see the various ways God had equipped me to serve his kingdom.

Things would be different if our world weren’t dreadfully fallen. But money in our world is like Sauron’s ring in The Lord of the Rings. When offered it, Gandalf replied: “Do not tempt me! . . . The way of the ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it . . . the wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.”

Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit can wield power over our money. But until we are made perfect, any desire for wealth—even the desire to do good with it—might wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.

See previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

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The Fear of The Lord Part 2

Reid A Ferguson

Psalm 139; Deuteronomy 10:12–13; Proverbs 2:1–5

Last time we began to look at this topic of “The Fear of The Lord.” A phrase found all through the Scriptures and given significant emphasis in places like: ‌Deuteronomy 10:12–13

Deuteronomy 10:12–13 ESV / “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

At first blush, fearing God seems counterintuitive to loving Him and being loved by Him.

But as we began to see, there is no disparity between the reverential awe that is brought on by contemplating God in His greatness, attributes, nature and acts, and loving Him. In fact, the more we see Him as He really is, the more awed we are at Him AND, the more we come to love Him. Because what is revealed about Him makes Him the most lovable of all objects and beings in the universe.

But we cannot get to that place without looking beyond the glory of His immensity, genius and power in Creation – to the glory of His self-revelation in His Word, and His acts.

So you’ll recall that we are following this outline:

The Fear of the Lord:

1 – Why Should I Care?

2 – What it isn’t.

3 – What it is.

4 – How it is obtained.

5 – What are its benefits?

We dealt with #1, #2 & #3 last time, and suggesting a boiled down definition of “the fear of the Lord” to 2 words: Reverential Awe.

Then moving on to #4 we began to explore how a reverential awe is birthed in us when we rightly explore how it is obtained.

Gaining the Fear of The Lord

  1. Creation
  2. The Word
  3. His Acts

All 3 of which confront us with God’s nature such that a speechless, reverential awe is all we are left with. One which then ought to fill our hearts and minds so as to govern all of life.

And as I mentioned last time, Scripture informs us this fear of the Lord must be intentionally sought. It does not come automatically.

This becomes very clear in Proverbs 2:1-5

Proverbs 2:1–5 ESV / My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

So here is where see how God’s Word is that 2nd means of encountering and fostering the fear of the Lord.

Note this text: Receiving God’s Word, storing up His commands, being attentive to His wisdom, turning our hearts to understanding, calling out (i.e.  -praying for discernment and understanding), seeking it like precious metal and hidden treasure. THEN – you will understand how to fear the Lord. You will gain knowledge of Him that brings the soul into reverential awe.

It is clear then that we need more revelation than Creation can give us.

As Paul tells us, a certain amount can be known about God in Creation: Romans 1:19-20, says we can grasp something of His genius, rationality, power and transcendence in how Creation manifests immensity, timelessness, symmetry and order and its design to bless and sustain human life.

But what we cannot know from creation is our relationship to Him, the nature of sin and redemption and His plan of salvation. For these we need some special revelation – a revelation which we receive above all in His Word.

His Word explains Creation and the God behind it. And so some Biblical passages especially lend themselves to fostering this reverential awe in unique ways.

One thinks of Daniel 4 for instance and the testimony of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar after his recovery from the madness God visited with to humble him: Daniel 4:34-35

Daniel 4:34–35 ESV / At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

This is a profound revelation of God’s sovereign rule over mankind and the affairs of mankind. Not so as to obliterate human responsibility, but so as to demonstrate how God still works and rules within this sphere to bring about His sovereign plan even while man acts out of his own fallen will.

In fact, an prominent feature of New Testament preaching from the Day of Pentecost on was to point to God’s active rule over human affairs, even as humanity acts according to its will, and the Enemy of our souls does as well: But God rules over all.

Or think of Isa. 40 or Acts 17 where we not only read of God creating all things but of his active role in the affairs of men.

But there is one passage which in appealing to 3 attributes of God stands out as a particularly useful means of creating the right and reverential awe of God – and it is the 139th Psalm.

It is laid out in this wonderful pattern:

  1. vss. 1-6 / God’s Omniscience.
  2. vss. 7-12 / God’s Omnipresence.
  3. vss. 13-16 / God’s Omnipotence.
  4. vss. 17-24 / 3 Applications.
  1. vss. 1-6 / God’s Omniscience.

If you are not familiar with it, OMNISCIENCE is just a fancy word for saying God knows EVERYTHING.

And the text bears out the nature of this “everything” by bringing it down to a very personal level.

And we need to grasp the contrast here: The God who we looked at last time, who spoke this vast universe into existence in all of its unfathomable immensity, complexity and wonder – and who continues to operate and sustain it all – is the same God who knows us individually on an unimaginably intimate and minute scale.

Something God Himself testifies to regarding EVERY single creature in Job 38-41.

So what does David, a single man say about how God “knows” him?

  1. Ps. 139:1

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

Listen to this. David testifies that this God of creation doesn’t just know OF David – but KNOWS David – and has even “searched” him. Scrutinized him. Examined him. And just how extensively will be brought out as we go.

  1. Ps. 139:2a

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

One would think such a massive God would have no time or inclination to note such things but here is the testimony. He knows every time I sit down and every time I get up. The most mundane, repetitive and ordinary of things. Nothing, nothing – escapes His all-seeing eye and notice.

  1. Ps. 139:2b

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / you discern my thoughts from afar.

Imagine this! How he drills down even deeper. Now some interpret this phrase to mean that God, being far off in Heaven, still detects even our thoughts.

But I tend to consider this as Spurgeon did when he wrote: “Before it is my own it is foreknown and comprehended by thee. Though as yet I be not myself cognizant of the shape my thought is assuming, yet thou perceivest its nature, its source, its drift, its result.”

God knows our every thought even before it is fully formed in our own minds. And He is aware of us all on this level – everyone of us, all at once.

  1. Psalm 139:3a

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / 3 You search out my path and my lying down,

You search out where in life I am going, and even where and how I take my rest.

  1. Psalm 139:3b

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / and are acquainted with all my ways.

He knows every foible, every quirk, every tendency and reasoning, feeling, action and reaction. ALL our ways.

  1. Psalm 139:4

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You know everything I say. More! Everything I WILL say even before I say it.

  1. Psalm 139:5

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

And every step I take is guided by your providence, in all my progress, all my digressions, all my future and all my past. You have your hand on me personally.

And when David considers all of this he can only gasp out: Psalm 139:6

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

To even imagine this level of God’s personal knowledge of just me as one lone human being is so overwhelming, I can’t really grasp it. It is too far above my capacity to really take in sufficiently. It is way over my head.

And beloved- this is God’s knowledge of you too! And it ought to fill us with just as much awe and wonder.

Nothing is hidden from His gaze. As Hebrews 4:13 reminds us –

Hebrews 4:13 ESV / And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

And so will anyone dare to imagine they can approach this God with clean hands? Without His intimate knowledge of every foul thought, every empty and filthy imagination, every doubt, bad attitude and preoccupation with the worthless things of this world? Every inward inclination toward abuse, anger, greed, prejudice, selfishness, impurity, pride, faithlessness, jealousy and autonomy from His Lordship – He knows them all in their most wretched depths.

And yet in Christ He accepts us and loves us and receives us as His own.

And not at arm’s length, but as the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 – falling on our necks, weeping over us and preparing a glad feast in our honor when we return to Him in repentance and seeking forgiveness.

What a glorious God!

And how I wish we had time this morning to unpack the other 2 portions here in the same detail. But let me just skim them quickly so we do not lose them altogether.

  1. vss. 7-12 / God’s Omnipresence.

Yes, our God is Omniscient, but He is also Omnipresent – always with us in every place we go.

Ps. 139:7-12

Psalm 139:7–12 ESV / Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

Now we are struck with a conundrum aren’t we? I don’t know about you but when I stop to consider such a God as this, I want to hide my face from Him. Like Adam and Eve in their sin, I don’t want to be found out in my guilt and sinfulness. I want to seek some way of covering myself from that all penetrating gaze: But it can’t be done.

Once again, as Spurgeon notes: When David asks: “where shall I go from your Spirit?”

“No answer comes. From the sight of God he cannot be hidden, but that is not all—from the immediate, actual, constant presence of God he cannot be withdrawn. This makes it dreadful to sin, for we commit treason at the very foot of his throne. His mind is in our mind, himself within ourselves. His Spirit is over our spirit; our presence is ever in his presence.”

And isn’t this both, glorious and disturbing. Disturbing in that we cannot hide anything of our weakness, failings and sins from Him – but glorious in that nothing can ever befall His own that He is not right here with us. In every sorrow, grief, struggle and fear, we have a God who is never far off, never distant, but with us every step of the way. The very thing Jesus needed to remind His disciples of when He was preparing to leave them physically: Matthew 28:18-20

Matthew 28:18–20 ESV / And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Our Omnisicent – all-seeing, all-knowing God, our every present God, who is also Omnipotent – our all-powerful God.

  1. vss. 13-16 / God’s Omnipotence

Once again time will not allow a full treatment here but look
again at how the Holy Spirit through David puts the spotlight on this attribute of God by focusing it on the personal.

Oh how it ought to fill each one of us with awe to know that we have been personally crafted by the hand of this God to be who we are.

Psalm 139:13-16

Psalm 139:13–16 ESV / For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

What a wonder – what a miracle, what a display of infinite wisdom and power is the creation of the human being in body, soul and spirit.

18th century theologian Andrew Fuller noted in this passage: “The human frame is so admirably constructed, so delicately combined, and so much in danger of being dissolved by innumerable causes, that the more we think of it, the more we tremble, and wonder at our own continued existence.”

How then does David apply this tour of God’s omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence to his own life?

3 ways.

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.

  1. vss. 17-18 Application 1. I can trust you with my weakness. Sleep. We are never more vulnerable and helpless than when asleep. Utterly defenseless. But because God thinks on us immeasurably – because we are the object of His deep scrutiny and consideration – we need fear nothing else.

Psalm 139:19-22

Psalm 139:19–22 ESV / Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

  1. vss. 19-22 Application 2. BUT! I can trust you with my trials. Your enemies become my enemies. Be they human opposition, sin, or adverse Circumstances. I can call on the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present one to stand up in my defense.

Psalm 139:23-24

Psalm 139:23–24 ESV / Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

  1. vss. 23-24 Application 3. I can trust you with my sanctification.

Since you know me, since you rule over me, since you are near me so as to know my most inner being: Work in me to make me like Jesus. I can trust you not just to detect, but todetect and deal with all my sin. Lead me after yourself.

David’s direction to us? Such considerations produce humility,  and the desire to follow after our great and wonderful God.

And are the considerations of God’s awesome nature in His all-knowing, everywhere-and always present and all-powerful glory not fitting considerations as we come to the table this morning?

Think about this as you come today – if you are His:

1 – He knows our sin. All of it. The full extent of it beyond anything we are aware of. And still He loves us in His limitless grace.

2 – He has the power to deal with our sin in its totality. As to its guilt and defilement in the Cross, its remaining power by His indwelling Spirit, and its very presence in the resurrection.

3 – He is present with us. In the person of His Spirit. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Philippians 2:13

Philippians 2:13 ESV / for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

He knows our sin better than we.

But His power is such that all sin is met in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ – so that the worst of all sinners may be fully cleansed, forgiven and justified before Him.

And He so joins Himself to us as to always be with us, at all times, in all things. Never forsaking the trophies of His grace.


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My Annual Mother’s Day Poem

Mother’s Day – 2019

With Apologies to Edgar Allen Poe and his Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, Mother dear, both weak and weary

Paced while waiting on the hospital floor

When pains of childbirth finally caught her, she brought forth her first born daughter

And smiling at this face she now adored

In maternity’s love fueled haze thought to herself

I think we’ll have one more.

Thus in an August later, after, a son was born with love and laughter

Now the tribe once three had become four

And how she loved their family unit, the perfect four, none could impugn it

And yet a longing nagged her at her core

The joyous haze once more descended induced again the thought:

I think we’ll have one more.

Tis here the story, true but crazy, takes its twist, still true – if hazy

Adding to the tribe with just one more

Another son! I came so speedy, so what my eyes were small and beady?

Wouldn’t I be welcomed at the door?

It took no time to set a tone eliciting the plaintiff cry to come:

So quoth my mother dearest: “never more!”

My goodness Ray, what have we done? In birthing this, this – other son?

All knew that she was rattled to the core

An obstreperous, weird little creep, their sole relief – when I would sleep

She sought the face of God and did implore

Forgive my past ill-thought conception and the haste-filled prayers –

I never should have thought it: Just one more

As time would pass, tho nearly feral, and courting daily new-found peril

Straining all her patience, and then more

She weathered each new strange condition, embarrassing and odd position

Yes, still my mother loved this one she bore

But inside her sainted heart she muttered in the deeps of dark

I swear, I swear, I swear it: Never more

A decade plus was then well spent, in pondering how to repent

Enduring spawn that rattled Hades’ door

Two normal kids, and then there’s me, ‘tis truly all a mystery

What sins could she be suff’ring all this for?

Tis then she hatched the plan to try and set it all to rights

And shocking all with news: Ah, just one more

And so in time, there came another, tho I swear from another mother

Like Seth to stand in place of Abel’s store

A tweaky, twerpy little child, but with a countenance so mild

Can anything be more a total bore?

My fiendish labor’s work undoing, with nauseating, cutesy cooing

I rue the day my Mother said: One more.

But such is grace, and a mother’s love, it MUST come down from God above

To guide and pray and nurture our small four

And never, ever losing hope, though number three was a colossal dope

She sought the Lord through many trials sore

And finishing her duty in the last of us to come could cry –

Oh thank you! I promise! And you can quote me: Never more!


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The One Thing I Tell Moms of Wayward Children

My church inbox is normally nothing more than threads I’ve been copied on, an email asking our church’s position on an issue, and the weekly update message I keep meaning to unsubscribe from. About a year ago, though, I noticed an email from a concerned dad about his wandering young adult.

His son had moved from somewhere in Canada to Pittsburgh, and he was living with his girlfriend in an apartment near the church I pastor. He wanted nothing to do with the Christianity his parents had spent nearly two decades instilling in him. Uncertain of what to do, his father found my email and threw a Hail Mary. He asked if I would give his son a call and try to meet with him.

All this reminded me of Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). I was reading Augustine’s Confessions at the time of this email, trying to make sense of the young adults in my church. At one point, Monica reached out to a priest about her wandering son. She was worried about him, and she didn’t know what else to do. He had left his childhood religion, “swooped recklessly into love” (3.1), and begun exploring a cult called Manicheanism. Near the end of Book 3 of his Confessions, describing the conversation between his mom and the priest, Augustine wrote, “This woman asked him to be so good as to speak with me and refute any mistaken notions, to teach the bad things out of me and the good things into me” (3.21).

If Monica had lived in the 21st century, it would’ve been an email.

Worried Parents Should Pray

It’s a common story. As a young-adults pastor, I’ve had many conversations with parents of wandering children—with dads like the one who emailed me a few months ago and moms like Monica who contacted the priest 1,600 years ago. And, admittedly, it’s hard to know exactly what to tell them. Try too hard and you’ll probably push your kids farther away. Do nothing and it feels like you’re abandoning them.

Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

Monica, for her part, often leaned closer to the “trying too hard” end of the spectrum. Imagine a mom who would move into the dorm at her son’s college. That’s Monica. She followed Augustine as he moved around the Roman Empire, and sure enough, Augustine was often looking for ways to run away from her. Yet even as she nearly became the patron saint of helicopter parents, she did something I wish every parent of young adults would do.

She prayed for him.

Augustine spent his 20s messing around with a cult and chasing sexual experiences, but Monica spent the duration of that decade on her knees in prayer. He reflected to God:

Around eight years followed during which I rolled around in the mud of that deep pit and in the darkness of that lie, often trying to rise out of it but always taking a more forceful plunge back in. She, meanwhile a chaste, pious, and sober widow, such as you love, was already more lighthearted with hope, but she didn’t slack in weeping and groaning; she didn’t cease in all the hours of her prayers, to beat her breast before you, and her pleas were granted an audience with you; and yet you left me to wallow and be swallowed in that darkness. (3.20)

At another point, Augustine described his mother’s prayers as “rivers she addressed to you daily for my sake, irrigating the ground under her face” (5.15). She believed that God would eventually turn Augustine to himself, even as she felt he was walking farther away.

When Monica reached out to the priest, he told her to keep praying. He was unwilling to meet with Augustine because, as Augustine writes, “I was still unteachable, as I was full of hot air due to the heresy’s exciting novelty.” When Monica persisted, sending request after request begging him to have a conversation with her son, he became “sick of it, and rather annoyed” and told her, “Get out of here. . . . Just go on living this way. It’s impossible that the son of these tears of yours will perish” (3.21). If any one historical figure illustrated the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), it was Monica.

Wandering Young Adults Need Prayers

I told the dad who emailed me something similar. I told him it was unlikely his son would have any interest in a conversation with me, especially after finding out his dad had already told me everything about his life. I told him that for many young adults, there’s a period of wandering, as they’re searching for what they believe, when they won’t listen to anyone’s advice—no matter how insistently or eloquently it is given. And I told him that the best thing he can for his son is pray for him and be there for him when he runs out of options. He never replied to my email.

Wandering young adults, more than anything else, need moms like Monica, who will drench the ground with tears on their behalf. They need moms who will let them wander, believing—as Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited—that God has already caught them with an “unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let them wander to the end of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” I believe that behind many of the lives I’ve seen transformed in my years of young-adult ministry are moms who refused to quit praying even when it felt hopeless, pleading with the same kind of adrenaline-filled intensity of moms who have been to known to lift cars to save their kids.

Don’t Stop Praying

In his early 30s, when Augustine finally does convert to Christianity, the first person he told was his mother. He prayed, “She was thrilled and exultant and blessed you, who in your power do more than we ask or understand. She saw that you had granted her so much more, in me, than she had been used to asking for in her wretched, tearful groaning. You had turned me to you” (8.30). She died at 55, shortly after his baptism. Augustine spendt a large portion of Book 9 of his Confessions eulogizing her and praying for her, “so that all of them who read my account remember at your altar your servant Monica” (9.37). Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

I can’t promise that your young adult will convert to Christianity and write enough theological pages to fill three shelves of a seminary library if you just pray hard enough. What I can promise is that God is watching over your young adults, listening to your prayers, and working behind the scenes in ways you can’t see. Irrigate the ground with your tears. Often, it’s the prayers of moms like Monica that will open up the hearts of their young adults to hear the preaching of pastors like me.

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How to Work With People Who Are Smarter Than You

The disciples of Jesus appear to have been persistently afflicted with status anxiety. In three of the Gospels (Matt. 18:1, Mark 9:33-34, Luke 9:46) they are caught arguing about who was the greatest among them. Even at the Last Supper, on the night before Jesus was crucified, they were still squabbling over who was the top dog of their pack (Luke 22:24).

Of the twelve, four seem to stand out as contenders for the role of most valued apostle. Peter, James, and John were present at all of the major recorded happenings during Jesus’s ministry. And Peter, John, James, and Andrew are each grouped together at the top of the listing of disciples (Matt. 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13). Out of this group, though, Peter seems to have the most obvious claim to the title.

But then came Paul.

Peter likely viewed himself as the smartest of the original bunch. He could consider himself the intellectual equal of John, James, and Andrew who were all, like him, former fisherman. But Paul was different. The tentmaker was highly educated, proficient in Koine Greek, and had studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel (a Pharisee whom Peter and the other apostles faced in the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:17-39]). Paul was arguably the smartest of the apostles.

Of course, Peter was smart too, and he became more than competent as a theologian. Yet he appears to have also had the intellectual humility to recognize Paul’s superior intellect. Peter even admits that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), an admission of intellectual inferiority that was likely difficult to make.

Surrounded by Pauls

Many of us face a similar situation as Peter. We work for bosses or alongside peers who are “smarter” than us—that is, who have an innate intellectual ability or level of vocational knowledge that exceeds our own. We may even be above average in intellect compared to the human population, and yet find ourselves surrounded by smarter people. We’re hemmed in on all sides by Pauls. That has certainly been my experience over the past three decades.

When I was in the Marines I worked in a field (avionics) that included some of the brightest and most competent men and women in the military. Compared to them, my abilities were below average in almost every way. After leaving the service I then worked in a series of jobs at think-tanks, policy organizations, magazines, and ministries in which I was almost always the least educated and least brainy person in the group.

You might be in the same situation. You might be a new graduate entering a challenging vocation or a seasoned worker trying to overcome imposter syndrome (i.e., persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”). If so, you might be surprised to find there are benefits and advantages from never being the smartest person in the room. Here are some of the lessons I learned that might be helpful for you.

Five Lessons for Working with Smart(er) People

Take advantage of your freedom — There’s a lot of pressure being the smartest person in a group—and a genuine freedom from never having that problem. If you have a reputation for being the brightest intellect at work, you are constantly at risk of losing that status by exposing that you don’t know something everyone else knows. But if you don’t have such status to lose, you have the freedom to ask “dumb” questions that increase your knowledge and understanding.

Don’t apologize or feel inferior . . . — While there is nothing wrong with recognizing that those around you have more intellectual gifting, don’t downplay your own intellect. More often than not you’ll come across as being self-pitying or disingenuous, as if you’re humble-bragging or fishing for a compliment. Rather than bringing attention to what you might lack, learn the “secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12, NIV). You may not be smart enough to do anything, but you’re likely smart enough to be used for God’s purposes.

. . . But work hard to improve your abilities — We tend to equate “smart” with having a high IQ and assume it’s an innate and unchangeable characteristic. But the type of “smart” that leads to general flourishing can be increased though effort. Seven years ago the renowned educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. pointed out that the “correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.” As Hirsch adds,

Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter.

Hirsch goes on to explain why a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds” and occurs through a method called “content-based instruction.” Reading broadly and often is an ideal way to become smarter (at least that’s been my experience). Another is to take advantage of the brains around you. Ask questions of your peers and tap into the knowledge they possess for your own edification. Peter might have not always understood Paul’s letters, but he likely used the relationship he had with his fellow apostle to increase his own understanding.

Serve the smart — If you’re surrounded by people who are smarter than you, it’s likely because God has put you there to serve them. Many knowledge-based occupations tend to attract a narrow range of personality types. You might have gifts, such as empathy, that are often not manifest in your particular field. Use those abilities to build up those around you.

You can also use your humility to show others how to use their intellectual gifts. As Grant Macaskill observes, knowledge and understanding are often treated as commodities, functioning within an economy of achievement and honor. They become things we acquire and then trade upon, when they should be received with gratitude and shared as gifts. “Rather than fullness of knowledge serving to maintain strata, between the wise and the foolish—the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—fullness becomes a source or wellspring that transmits its content to others in order to communicate blessing,” Macaskill says. We can serve smart people by helping them share their gifts of knowledge with us and with others.

We can also help to show them that, as John Piper says, that if knowing is not serving others it’s not true knowing. As Piper adds, “If you have knowledge that is making you proud, rather than loving, you don’t really know anything.”

Remember: Intellect ain’t everything In every culture and economy throughout history, some physical traits or abilities became more valued than others. For hunter-gather tribes it was dexterity and visual acuity. For agricultural societies it was stamina and perseverance. And in the age of the “knowledge worker” it’s the facility to process and manipulate information.

Having a minimum level of proficiency in working with data and information is often necessary to get a job. But to keep a job usually requires other characteristics, such as integrity, reliability, and being even-tempered. If you can’t be the smartest person in the office, strive to stand out in other ways. Be the one with the most grit, what the Bible refers to as “steadfastness” and “endurance.” Be the one that has the ability to apply wisdom. Be what your team needs by bringing a different ability than mere intellect. And most importantly, be what God intends you to be by using the brains he’s given you to bless others.

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A Model for Missions in a Brave New World

“There are some downsides to globalization. How do we prepare? What do we do for these things? I have a method. I have a solution for a globalized world. It’s called the healthy church. Biblical, healthy church is the means of God to advance his glory among the nations. Jesus thought it up. . . . The church is God’s method for evangelism, discipleship, and missions. We do not need the latest fad. We do not need the latest missiology thinking. What we desperately need on the field is missionaries who know and trust biblical principles for planting biblical churches. The church is God’s proven instrument of missions. ” — Mack Stiles

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


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

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‘Tolkien’ and the Dying Art of Fellowship

When I first heard about a new film about J. R. R. Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult (X-Men, Mad Max: Fury Road) as Tolkien, I immediately checked IMDB to see if the film’s cast included any actors portraying other Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and so forth. As an undergraduate at Wheaton College I worked at the Wade Center, a research library focusing on several of the Oxford Inklings. After college I worked for the C. S. Lewis Foundation and spent time in Oxford, frequenting The Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings met regularly to discuss each other’s writing. I have long dreamed about a film about the Inklings.

Alas, Tolkien is not that film. Directed by Finland’s Dome Karukoski and written by Irish playwright David Gleeson, the film is set in Tolkien’s boyhood and young adulthood—years before he met Lewis, befriended him, and proved pivotal in his conversion to Christianity. But even if the Inklings are absent in Tolkien, their spirit is there.

Even if the Inklings are absent in Tolkien, their spirit is there.

Though oddly not endorsed by the Tolkien family, Tolkien is a beautiful, refreshing ode to the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors. The film keenly observes the specific circumstantial alchemy that gave rise to the languages, landscapes, and longings of Middle Earth. But it also observes the general human need for kindred spirits, comrades-in-arms, cohorts to spur passion and purpose, friends to live and love and die alongside.

In short: It’s a film about fellowship.

The Fellowship Before ‘The Fellowship’

Artistic genius doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. Behind every great creation is a web of relationships that helped form the person who formed the masterpiece. For J. R. R. Tolkien, that web included his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), who died when he was only 12. Mabel homeschooled young J. R. R. and his brother, reading him stories like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book, provoking his young mind to begin cultivating imaginary worlds. Also prominent in Tolkien’s formational web is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the muse he first met at 16 but, because of various obstacles, couldn’t marry for another eight years.

Tolkien renders Ronald and Edith’s romance beautifully, often in ways that foreshadow Tolkien’s future literary legacy (a key scene finds Tolkien taking Edith on a date to see the Birmingham Symphony perform Wagner’s Ring cycle, one of Edith’s favorites). It’s lovely to watch the pair  develop chemistry while talking about untranslatable German words (Drachenfutter!) and phonaesthetics, namely the unparalleled beauty of the word “cellar door.”

But as much as these women proved crucial influences on the man who gave the world The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien focuses mostly on the formative influences of male fellowship; namely, a group of mates he met in adolescence who formed a proto-Inklings literary society: The T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). This group consisted of four friends who attended Birmingham’s King Edward’s School together: Tolkien/“Tollers” (aspiring philologist), Robert Gilson (aspiring painter and son of the school’s strict headmaster), Christopher Wiseman (aspiring classical composer), and Geoffrey Smith (aspiring poet who was perhaps Tolkien’s dearest and most loyal friend—the “Samwise” to his Frodo).

This fellowship of four comrades (doubtless an inspiration for the “fellowship” of Rings) played rugby together and talked about Norse mythology while drinking tea. They encouraged and pushed each other in their creative pursuits—painting, music, literature, poetry—as well as their relational and romantic struggles. For young Ronald—having grown up fatherless (Arthur Tolkien died when J. R. R. was only 3) and orphaned by age 12—such a brotherhood was a godsend.

Meeting in the schools’ library and Birmingham’s Barrows Stores (hence the “Barrovian Society” name), the boys found solidarity in their shared desire to “change the world through the power of art.” Their concept of masculinity saw no paradox in getting muddy on the rugby field together one day and talking about Chaucer and Beowulf over tea the next. Theirs was a gentlemanly fellowship rooted in virtue and classics and poetic gallantry. It’s a refreshing vision for young men today, whose presentist world—defined by the ephemera of Snapchat and the cheap pleasures of pornography—does more to dull their senses and coddle them than awaken them to beauty and prepare them for bravery.

Not so for the T.C.B.S. Their group mantra was “Helheimr!”—a Norse word that came to be a “seize the moment, do hard things” call to arms for them. Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men. They went to Oxford together and then to battle together, fighting in the trenches of the Great War. All four fought. Only two (Tolkien and Wiseman) returned. Gilson and Smith died in the bloody Battle of the Somme.

Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men.

Old Light in the World

The Great War marked the end of the T.C.B.S. brotherhood, even as it ignited Tolkien’s imagination and catalyzed him to carry on the fellowship’s mission to “change the world through the power of art.” As it does in Lord of the Rings, the pastoral joy of fellowship is broken by the destruction of war. But the mission continues. The memory and longing for healing, for everything sad to come untrue, for a reunion of the fellowship somewhere, someday, motivates Tolkien in his art-making. As it did for so many (Lewis included), Tolkien channeled his post-war pain in his literary creations—inventing other languages, other worlds, other endings to help process his own.

Though the T.C.B.S. was, in the end, a short-lived fellowship, its mission motivated Tolkien for the rest of his life. After receiving news of the death of Rob Gilson, Tolkien wrote a 1916 letter to Smith (who himself would soon fall on the battlefield). In the letter, Tolkien described the T.C.B.S. as something destined to “rekindle an old light in the world . . . to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.”

For Tolkien, a soldier’s sacrifice is noble, but the greater war—the one he and his comrades waged over tea at Barrows—was the fight to preserve the good, the forgotten ways, the “old light in the world.” Tolkien’s enduring contribution is precisely this wisdom—that in a world obsessed with the new, the industrial, and the pragmatic, preservation of the ancient ways, and the beauty that seems superfluous, takes on a radical importance. We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human. As Tolkien wrote in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

This is why, after the death of his dear friend Geoffrey Smith, Tolkien worked to get Smith’s poems published. A scene in Tolkien shows him meeting with his late friend’s mother, who thinks it a silly and useless thing to publish her dead son’s poems. “What good can poetry do in times like these?” she ponders. Tolkien responds: “I cannot think of anything more necessary, especially at a time like this.”

We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human.

Bearing Witness to a Creator

As much as Tolkien gets right about the vitality of friendship and fellowship for creativity and general human flourishing, the film largely neglects the spiritual fellowship Tolkien had with God, through Christ. Apart from the presence of a priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who serves as the legal guardian to the orphaned Tolkien brothers, and a brief scene of the boys singing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” at school, Christianity is absent in the film. Following the troubling trend of recent films, like Disney’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which erased any shred of Christian influence, Tolkien presents a story of enchantment devoid of the ultimate source of enchantment: God.

The film’s closest brush with faith comes in a scene where Father Francis describes his response to families grieving loved ones lost in WWI: “Words are useless; modern words anyway. I speak the liturgy. There’s a comfort, I think, in distance.” But even here, the “liturgy” is valued mostly for its enduring linguistic stability; not necessarily for the transcendent realities and spiritual truths it describes.

And yet even as the filmmakers noticeably omit God from Tolkien’s story, what remains—the existential necessity of fellowship, the power of art to both preserve the “old light” and pine for the perfect Light—bears witness to spiritual truth, even if accidentally. By showing the beauty Tolkien made out of brokenness—his lost West Midlands childhood becoming the eschatological Shire, the horrors of the Somme becoming the vanquished wastelands of Mordor, a lost quartet of schoolboys becoming a fellowship of hobbits—the film bears witness to the Creator God and the resurrected Christ, whose words reverberate in the hearts of every orphan, every widow, every shell-shocked-veteran-turned-fantasy-writer: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

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TGC Welcomes 6 New Council Members

The Gospel Coalition is excited to welcome six newly elected members to our Council: Steve DeWitt, Irwyn Ince, Garrett Kell, Tony Merida, Bob Thune, and Jeremy Treat.

Each of these men represents the kind of work TGC passionately supports: robustly biblical, theologically driven, gospel-centered ministry in the Reformed tradition for God’s glory and his people’s good.

The Gospel Coalition Council is a collection of pastors and other qualified elders who provide direction and leadership to TGC. They meet annually for fellowship, discussion, planning, accountability, and prayer around the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Aiming to bring biblical conviction and pastoral sensitivity to bear on a range of pressing contemporary issues, the Council is committed to shepherding the next generation of church leaders in line with TGC’s foundation documents.

At TGC’s April 2019 Council meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, the following six men were presented to the Council, and subsequently elected to join the Council.

Steve DeWittSteve DeWitt is senior pastor of Bethel Church in Northwest Indiana. He is a graduate of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and host of the media/radio ministry The Journey. He is the author of Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. Steve and his wife, Jennifer, have two girls and live in Crown Point, Indiana.

Irwyn InceIrwyn Ince serves as a pastor at Grace DC Presbyterian Church and director of the newly formed Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. Ince is a graduate of City College of NY (BEEE, 1995), Reformed Theological Seminary (MAR, 2006), and Covenant Theological Seminary (DMin, 2016). He and his wife, Kim, have been married 27 years and have four children (Jelani, Nabil, Zakiya, and Jeremiah). He has contributed to the books Heal Us Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church and All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church.

Garrett KellGarrett Kell did his undergrad at Virginia Tech, where he came to know the Lord through the witness of a friend. Garrett served as the evangelism pastor at Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, while earning his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. He then served as a pastor of Graham Bible Church in Graham, Texas, for seven years. He later spent time on staff with Capitol Hill Baptist Church, who helped place him with Del Ray Baptist Church, where he has served as a pastor since 2012. Garrett is married to Carrie, and together they have five children.

Tony MeridaTony Merida is pastor for preaching and vision of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s also the content director for Acts 29, producing blogs, podcasts, and other resources on church planting at TGC. Tony has written several books, including The Christ-Centered Expositor and eight volumes in the Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series. He is happily married to Kimberly, and they have five children.

Bob Thune (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) founded Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2005, and has served as its lead pastor ever since. He is the author of Gospel Eldership and the co-author (with Will Walker) of the bestselling small-group studies The Gospel-Centered Life and The Gospel-Centered Community. Bob and his wife, Leigh, have been married since 1997 and have four children. Bob also serves on the board of a classical Christian school, speaks and teaches broadly, and helps to coach and train church planters for the Acts 29 Network.

Jeremy TreatJeremy Treat (PhD, Wheaton College) is pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA in Los Angeles, California, and adjunct professor of theology at Biola University. He is the author of Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything and The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology. He and his wife, Tiffany, have four daughters and live in Los Angeles.

View the full list of TGC Council members.

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When Christians Should Fight About Words

Ten years ago a Stanford neuroscientist claimed that the languages we speak shape the way we think. Lera Boroditsky said that the consensus in the field of neuroscience is that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.” At the time this was a new and empirical twist on an old and controversial idea.

In the late 1920 the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which popularized the idea that language is used not only to express our thoughts but help to shape them too. In linguistics, this explanation for the way that language relates to thought is known as a mould theory, since it “represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast.”

Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, provides a striking example of this effect in his book Toward a More Natural Science:

Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as “begetting” or “siring.” The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning “to come into being.” . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term “pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, “re-production.”

The language of the factory is as incompatible with human dignity as is the interchangeability of machine and life. Yet our acceptance of such language as “reproductive technology” paved the way for our acceptance, for better or worse, of the process the language represents.

Perhaps it’s because we intuitively understand the way language shapes our culture that we fight so much over language. Another example from the realm of human dignity is how for decades both sides of the abortion debate have attempted to ensure that their preferred terms—pro-life, abortion rights, and so on—seep into the media’s vernacular. While the persuasive effect of such terms may be overstated, these words retain their political usefulness as the struggle over their usages attest.

Language in Conflict

When we enter in the public square, Christians are supposed to think and act in a manner that distinguishes us from the world. Yet too often when we engage in arguments about terminology we do so on the same grounds as unbelievers. How should we fight about language as Christians? And more specifically, if we are trying to recast the way the world thinks (or at least not be shaped by the world’s misguided thinking) how do we determine when we should keep certain words and when should we abandon them?

Unfortunately, there is no just war theory of language we can apply to the war over words. I don’t have a solution or a list of rules by which we can draw terminological boundaries. What I want to offer instead is a way of thinking about how we can approach the process by making distinctions between various categories. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with my approach or with the examples I give, I hope it can be a useful starting point for a long overdue discussion about how we should fight about words.

Biblical Terms

As Scripture itself attests, God’s Word can be “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8). The apostle Peter says people stumble because they disobey the message. But in every age there are Christians who claim we stumble because the words God uses in his Word are themselves rocks of offense. Such people recommend we discard such terms as predestination, hell, or sin so that we don’t cause unnecessary offense.

Despite their best efforts to get us to lose those words, few Christians are foolish enough to agree to abandon biblical language. We trust God knows what he’s doing in choosing terms. We also have repeatedly seen how those who abandon the full range of God’s terms almost always end up abandoning the full range of his truth. Of all the categories we could make, these are the words most worth fighting for.

Theological Neologisms

A theological neologism is the coining or use of new word to describe biblical concepts. Perhaps the most important example is the term “Trinity” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tertullian was the first theologian to use the word trinitas, a compound formed from the Latin words for “three” and “one.” Since then the term has gained near-universal usage within the church.

Neologisms created by theologians aren’t as sacrosanct as terms found in the Bible. They are similar to biblical terms, though, in that their usage is rarely challenged. And for good reason: The widespread acceptance of such words throughout church history should caution us against abandoning them unless we’re sure they can be replaced by more helpful terms.

Religious Labels

Eight years ago a task force of the Southern Baptist Convention was appointed to study a possible name change. After considering 535 possible names, the committee recommend the convention keep its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: Great Commission Baptists.

As Jimmy Draper, chairman of the task force, explained, the name change is an “issue that just won’t die.” The first attempt to change the name was in 1903; since then, it has been presented to the convention in one form or another 13 times. When the convention was formed in 1845, the Baptist founders intended for the name to identify with the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War. “This signifies that the name has not only been a source of difficulty for church planters serving in areas outside the American South but also that the name has been a source of some difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity with the Confederacy,” says Ken Fentress, senior pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland.

For the largest Protestant denomination in America to consider abandoning its name shows how religious labels can get weighted down with negative connotations (i.e., an idea or feeling that a word invokes). Over the past hundred years there has been a shift to adopting religious labels that are broadly generic and have fewer clear connotations. A prime example is how many churches identify as non-denominational (which some people consider a mere synonym for independent Baptist) or add “Bible” to their church name in place of a denominational affiliation (e.g., Hometown Bible Church).

Whether we should abandon or even avoid such terms is complicated by our affection for the labels. For example, I love the word “evangelical” and won’t give it up without a fight. I will continue to do what I can to wrestle it away from those who, out of ignorance or animus, attempt to transform it into a political label. But I also recognize that’s a fight I may lose. A hundred years ago I would have called myself a “fundamentalist” since I adhere to the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. The original meaning of that word, though, has been lost and is beyond recovery. Calling myself a “fundamentalist” now would lead to nothing but confusion.

We should be hesitant to give up cherished religious labels too easily. Yet if our goal is to communicate clearly, we can’t ignore a label’s acquired connotations.

Cultural and Political Terms

The most contentious fights in American Christianity today are over cultural terms, whether old (social justice, racism) or relatively new (cultural Marxism, woke). In the other categories I’ve mentioned, the disagreements tend to be about the word’s connotation; for cultural and political terms the denotation (i.e., the literal or primary meaning of a word) is frequently also in dispute.

Take, for example, the term “white supremacy.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” This is how most people understand the term, and it is often associated with explicit racism and white people who believe in racial separatism. But as Wikipedia points out, “In academic usage, particularly in usage which draws on critical race theory or intersectionality, the term ‘white supremacy’ can also refer to a political or socioeconomic system, in which white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level.”

Whichever meaning we intend, when we use a term like white supremacy while speaking to a general audience we immediately confuse a large portion of our hearers. And if we immediately explain our preferred meaning we are likely to be accused of using the word “in the wrong way,” that is, in a way that the hearer does not understand or agree with.

Unfortunately, provoking division is too often the intention for using those terms in the first place. While they can and have been used with a neutral and non-divisive intention, that type of usage is becoming increasingly rare. More often such coded language is used in a way similar to how the Hebrews used the term “shibboleth” (Jud. 12:5-6)—as a signal to our particular associational groups (e.g., political, ethnic, cultural) that we are in allegiance with them (or that they should be allied with us) in a way that sets up a part from the outgroup.

Getting Christians to set aside such weaponized language is almost as difficult as getting nations to give up nuclear weapons. We fear that unilateral disarmament will give our enemies in the culture and political wars a rhetorical advantage. We also worry that if we were to replace such words the new terms would soon become just as tainted.

This is no doubt true. And there may be times when giving up a particular term would simply make it more difficult to communicate clearly. We are not morally obligated to give up every tainted term, and there are times when we should drive terms out of the public square. But we should be hesitant to assume our intentions are noble. We should constantly search our hearts to uncover our true motives about how we are using language.

For instance, are we using a word because it succinctly explains a complex idea, or are we using it as a boo-word? Are we trying to change how others think using rhetorical and moral suasion, or are we trying to make concepts off-limits by restricting the use of certain words? Do we have an appropriate concern about using terms that have been adopted by extremists and radicals?

If we are to effectively love our neighbors we need to be more loving in the way we communicate.

Language After Pentecost

The whole world once had “one language and a common speech,” as Genesis tells us, but then God confused the language of mankind to prevent us from fulfilling our self-serving desires. On the Day of Pentecost, though, the world encountered an initial reversal of Babel.

“Instead of language being a barrier to man’s mission of self-glorification,” Trevin Wax says, “languages are now redeemed in order for the Triune God’s mission of glorifying himself to move forward!”

As Christians, we can continue the work begun at Pentecost by using language in a way that helps unite us. We should also—since we are going to be molded by words—ensure we are first shaped by the Word. And if we’re going to fight about terms, let’s ensure they are words that help us bring the most glory to God.

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