The Gift of God’s Son (Part Four of an Exploration of John 3:16)

Today we turn our attention to the gift that God gave. We saw in the previous post that God’s immeasurable love is such that he not only feels a great affection for the fallen world but that this feeling leads to concrete, sacrificial action: he gave us his Son!

Muslims consider it blasphemy to suggest that God has a son. Many Mormons happily affirm that Jesus is God’s son because they argue that God the Father, who has a literal, physical body, had sexual relations with Mary and she bore him a son, Jesus.

But the teaching of Scripture is that the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity is an eternal relation. The Father has always been the Father of the Son and the Son has always been the Son of the Father. There has never been a time when either was neither. These terms are employed to highlight the intimate relationship that exists between the first and second persons of the Godhead.

Let’s be careful we do not rush past the incredible reality that it was God’s “only Son” whom he gave for us. It was his unique, special, only Son; the Son who above all others was near and dear to his heart. This truth is the basis for what Paul would say in Romans 8:32 – “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

This may well be the most glorious assurance that God could ever give us. If he was happy and joyful in making for us the single greatest sacrifice that he could, how will he not then freely and just as happily make available every provision for our spiritual flourishing both now and in the age to come!

I can well imagine that God might be willing to sacrifice an angel. For God not to “spare” an angel makes sense. After all, there are probably millions of angels. What’s the loss of one from among so many? I can even envision God not sparing an archangel like Michael. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t love Michael. But his love for Michael pales infinitely in comparison with his love for his Son.

Or perhaps God might choose not to “spare” an angel like Gabriel. I can also see God sacrificing one of the four living creatures from the book of Revelation, or one of the seraphim or cherubim. But his own, precious, most highly beloved Son? How could God choose not to “spare” his own Son? But that is precisely what he did, so great is his immeasurable love for the world.

As the consummate expression of his love for this fallen, defiant world of sinners God did not spare his own Son; he made the greatest sacrifice imaginable. We see the magnitude of his love when we see the precious, priceless value of the gift he gave.

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9 Things You Should Know About the Communion Service on the Moon

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people in history to walk on the Moon. But it’s also the anniversary of the a lesser known event—the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the Moon.

Here’s are nine things you should know about the first communion service on the Moon.

1. In 1969, Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church, a congregation just outside of Houston, Texas. He told the lead pastor of his church, Dean Woodruff, that he had “been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing.”  “We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets,” Aldrin told Guideposts magazine in 1970. “One of the principal symbols,” Woodruff said, “is that God reveals himself in the common elements of everyday life.” Traditionally, these elements are bread and wine—common foods in Bible days and typical products of man’s labor.

2. Aldrin got the idea for the communion ceremony while at Cape Kennedy working with the “sophisticated tools of the space effort.” “It occurred to me that these tools were the typical elements of life today,” Aldrin said. “I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”

3. The communion bread was carried in a plastic packet, the way regular inflight food is wrapped. Because there was just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour, Aldrin wanted to pour the wine into a chalice from his church. Woodruff had presented him a silver cup that was small and light enough that it could be carried in the astronaut’s personal-preference kit.

4. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. But the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had recently sued NASA after Apollo 8 astronauts read the Book of Genesis during a broadcast made on Christmas Day 1968, when they became the first humans to orbit the moon. O’Hair’s case claiming that the astronauts had violated the constitutional separation between church and state was dismissed. Yet NASA was still wary of causing more controversy. Aldrin says his fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the Apollo 11 flight crew operations, told him to tone down his pre-communion message. “Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general,” Slayton advised.

5. After unpacking the elements from their flight packets and laying them on a small table in front of the abort guidance system computer, Aldrin radioed back to NASA with this message:

Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to invite each person listening, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.

6. Before taking communion, Aldrin read from John 15:5, which he had handwritten on a scrap of paper—”I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.”

7. After radioing in his message and reading the Scripture verse, Aldrin partook of the Supper. Fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong looked on quietly but did not participate. “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me,” Aldrin says. “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.  It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.” After taking the elements, Aldrin says he “sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the church everywhere.”

8. Every year, since the moon landing, the Webster Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas, commemorates Aldrin’s moon communion service.  “It’s kind of a tradition around here,” Gene Fisseler said in 1999. “It’s still church. It’s not about the moon. It’s not about the astronauts. It’s still about church. But we feel like it’s an important tradition here in this church.”

9. The communion ceremony was dramatized in an episode of From the Earth to the Moon, a 12-part HBO television miniseries from 1998. Buzz Aldrin was played by actor Bryan Cranston.

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The Rich Young Ruler (Part One)

Luke 18:18-30

A ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all these from my youth,” he said (18:18-21 CSB).

People tend to evaluate other people on the basis of worldly success: wealth, education, popularity, physical attractiveness, social standing, and likeability. The higher someone “scores” in these areas, the better person he or she must be! If we are honest, we will admit that we all do this to some degree. People judge by outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7 NLT). On one level we must do this, since only God can see the inner person of the heart. We humans have to gather the best information we can, weigh everything by the Scriptures, and then make a right judgment (cf. John 7:24). However, people seldom bring the Scriptures into this process and evaluate each other my worldly methods. And people assume that God does the same thing. He looks at what we do, and if “the good outweighs the bad”, then we suppose he accepts us. This is a root of people trusting in works to save or to do religious things “to get God to like me”.

In this event from the life of Jesus, we read of a rich, young leader approaching Jesus with an important question. It is a question that people who believe in God or some kind of god and who understand somewhat of humanity’s problems ask. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” God has placed a sense of eternity in human hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we see ruin and death around us, and we want to escape from it. We want eternal life—life that is really life without end and without suffering.

So we read that this very rich man, someone who had it all from a human standpoint, decided to go to Jesus with this very important question. Surely Jesus would know. Isn’t he a good man? He was constantly helping people wherever he went. And think of the wisdom that he spoke with! No one else had ever spoken so wisely. Yes, he had to know how to gain eternal life. So let us follow this rich young man, a leader among his people, to Jesus and learn along with him.

First we see that Jesus challenged the young man’s understanding (18:19-21). Jesus did not give quick, shallow answers to crucial questions. This is especially hard for people in our culture who expect instant gratification to accept. Jesus invested time in leading people to an accurate understanding of God and the way to eternal life. Sound answers require comprehension of the issue, and this requires time.

Jesus challenged his understanding of who Jesus is (18:19). The rich man called Jesus “Good teacher”. What did he mean by that? Was he just politely flattering? Or had he come to know who Jesus is? Compare his approach with the woman at the well (John 4:10).

Christ did not just jump on a trivial statement. The rich ruler lived in a religious subculture influenced by the Scriptures that held that only God is good, and no one called any rabbi or teacher “good”. That was an honor reserved for God. So Jesus is saying: You have called me “good”. Are you just flattering? Or do you really understand that I am the Son of God and can therefore be called “good”, because only God is good.

But there is something else here. By reminding the rich ruler that only God is good, he prepared the young man to evaluate himself in the light of God’s holiness. God is holy and his law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12 NIV). Did he have an accurate understanding of the law covenant?

When someone claims to “be a good person” or to “keep the commandments” in a religious discussion, don’t be afraid to examine their understanding in a kind and wise way. Let us show discernment. A few religious sentiments and phrases do not mean that a person has a correct idea of God and the gospel.

Grace and peace, David

I Had Never Truly Rested in Christ’s Work

A person can grow up hearing the gospel a million times and yet never believe in it. They have ears and hear the truth and yet they do not truly hear the truth. This is the testimony of the son of a pastor (Michael Morrow) who was converted after his father died.

Listen to the funeral service of Michael Morrow.

Hear Michael Morrow’s sermons on SermonAudio.

I could start my story in several different places. I could start when I was 8 years old and thought I had become a Christian. I could start when I was in high school or college and had to continuously persuade myself that I was a Christian, but I think the best way to start my story is in a small hospital room in Lexington, Kentucky where we didn’t know if my dad was going to make it or not. Things didn’t look good. He had been sick so much prior to that moment. There were days where we thought that was the end. There were days that we thought he was going to be better and everything would be fine… until he finally passed away. When you stay for a long time in a hospital room and you’re not the one that’s sick, there’s a lot of waiting. There’s a lot of wondering what’s going to happen next. There’s a lot of conversation that happens between you and the people that are with you. One of the topics that came up when I was talking with my mom was about dad’s last sermon. At the time, we didn’t know it was going to be his last sermon, but mom talked about how powerful it was. And she actually even said it was one of the best sermons she’s ever heard. Dad had been sick a lot before that day and I think at the time, he was even having to sit when he was preaching. And he just didn’t have much strength left in him. But the way my mom put it, it was like… it was a miracle just how much power he had when he began to preach. In his voice you can hear strength. You can hear the passion flowing through him. And this was a man who was just weak from sickness and was hours I think from going to the hospital because he was so sick. Dad always uploaded his sermons onto Sermon Audio where people around the world could listen to his sermons and learn from them. And we learned that obviously the last sermon hadn’t been uploaded to Sermon Audio. I was going to do that. I was in the hospital room. I had an Internet connection and everything. I got the file for it. I listened to a couple of seconds of it and realized that the recording was off. There was some kind of setting on the recording that just made it sound kind of strange like there were no breaths in between. And so, I kind of got frustrated with it. Thought about uploading it, then decided no, I’m just going to save it and not worry about it. So, I just put it on my desktop somewhere and didn’t even think about it for several weeks after that. Something that will stick with me forever is seeing how my father handled himself in the hospital in the worst of times. My brother put it best when he was speaking at his funeral. I think he said that dad finished his race sprinting. And there’s no better way to describe that. I remember the nurses were putting in IV’s, central lines, things like that, and dad would barely wince. But one time, he looked up at one of the nurses who was trying to do a procedure that he couldn’t be asleep for, and he just looked at him and said, “You know, I was about your age when God saved me.” And he’s going through this painful, traumatic situation, and one person after another, after another, after another, he’s telling them how God saved him. I had seen my dad witness to people all the time, but not to this ferocity; not to this degree. He knew I needed to hear that too. And he was witnessing to me as much as he was witnessing to those people in the hospital. On April 29th, 2016, my dad passed away. Over the next few days just pounded with grief mixed with conviction, mixed with desperate feeling and need to be saved, a need for redemption, all mixed in together, I was in prayer more then than I think I ever had been previously. Just asking God to show me a way. Show me something. Show me how. I understood what it meant to be saved. I understood what it meant to be a Christian. I understood the “process,” if you will, but I didn’t understand how to get there. I didn’t understand what did it mean to truly have faith. Yeah, I believe in Jesus. I believe in all the things that He’s done. I get it. I don’t understand at what point do I have faith and I’m saved? At what point does that happen to me? When does that transformation happen? I have the belief, right? I’m saved. But I knew I wasn’t, so what was I missing? So what I prayed for, I prayed for an answer. I prayed: God, I need an answer. I need You to show me what am I missing? What am I not seeing that my father saw? That other people I know have seen? They believed. They have faith. They’re confident in their salvation. Where is my confidence? Where is my salvation? My father for his funeral wanted the Gospel to be preached. That’s what he had always said I think to my mom. My brother spoke. Michael Durham spoke. Rob Pelkey spoke. And then Paul Washer spoke. I kind of thought in my head, well, okay, there is this group of men who know God, who are about to preach. As the lineup went, it would be Paul Washer who would simply preach the Gospel to the crowd that was there for dad’s funeral. Many people have been saved under his teaching. This whole funeral – I need to listen up. I need to really pay attention because God, I’m asking You to show me how to have faith. If I don’t get it from this, then I’m not going to get it. The preachers spoke. They sat down, spoke, sat down. Spoke. We dismissed. And the Gospel was preached and it was preached well. What was said needed to be said, but I still didn’t get it. I still didn’t understand what I needed. For the next week, my wife and I stayed at my mom’s house. One afternoon, I was alone in my dad’s office. And I was just going through some of his stuff, some of his pictures from mission trips, his journals. Then I remembered I had the file of that sermon and I thought, well, you know, the recording was kind of messed up. I don’t know what setting it was on. I don’t know why it was messed up. But I never really did listen to the sermon. And mom said it was his greatest. It was his last one. I should just give it a listen and see if it’s worth putting up on Sermon Audio. So I played it. She was right. There were several things in the sermon that jumped out at me immediately. Things I had heard before, but never heard. I heard. My ears heard it, but I didn’t truly hear it until that moment. Michael Morrow: There’s a lot of people that believe Jesus was the Son of God. There are a lot of people who believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. There’s a lot of people who believe that Jesus came into the world to save sinners who have never personally trusted Him as their Savior. Jason: And then, the one thing he said that really just tipped me over the edge that was exactly what I needed to hear to finally realize what I needed for my salvation. Michael Morrow: There is a time when your heart quits trying to get to God and rests on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Jason: I had never rested. I had never just given myself to Him, never given my full trust. That’s what trust is. It’s resting in His finished work. And I prayed. I said, “Jesus, I rest in You. I rest in Your finished work in dying on the cross for my sins, in raising from the dead. I rest in that. You have given me life.” What’s crazy is I’ve heard this a million times. Dad has preached this a million times. I’ve heard people’s testimonies a million times that it’s not anything that I do. I know it’s not a prayer that I pray. I know that it’s not anything that I can do. That Christ does it for me. Resting is letting Christ take over, letting Him take control. Because if you’re trying to control it, you’re not resting. And that is the moment when my heart changed. I’m thankful that God used my dad to preach to me. Not only did he preach to me in the hospital room; not only did he preach to me throughout my whole life, but he preached to me in his final sermon maybe before he even knew I would ever hear it. And God used that to help open my eyes to what I needed. Michael Morrow: I’ll tell you what the blessing of God is: being in the will of God walking with Him, hearing His voice, staying in fellowship with Him, knowing His Word, loving Him, seeing miracles wrought because He’s doing it through your life and in your life for His own glory, where only He can get glory out of your life. That is the life of faith. And it might mean that you don’t have anything. Guys, this world is not what it’s about. This is not where your fulfillment is. Here we live by faith, not by sight. Then, we’ll see Him as He is and we’ll be like Him. And then it will be by sight.

Anointed with Oil: Evangelicals and the Petroleum Industry

In this post I am interviewing Darren Dochuk, author of the new book Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic Books, 2019). Dochuk is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and a longtime friend of mine dating back to our PhD program at Notre Dame.

[TK] You describe Anointed with Oil as a “religious biography of a natural resource.” What gave you the idea to examine the connections between Christianity and the oil business in America?

[DD] This was part professional and part personal. While writing my first book—From Bible Belt to Sunbelt—I kept coming across influential oil executives who supported the religious and political institutions I was examining. Whether it concerned California governor Ronald Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet” of advisers, or Christian colleges such as Pepperdine and Biola, oilmen seemed almost omnipresent in the rise of California’s (and the Sunbelt’s) conservative movement. So I thought I might “follow the money” further and see how petroleum powerbrokers shaped the course of American religion and politics.

My roots in the Alberta oil patch factored in, too. I grew up there during a tough down cycle in oil (the 1980s), and I remember the perennial anxieties this caused in local politics (and in my church). Those memories became more pronounced as I researched the book. In a way, they also encouraged me to look past a follow-the-money narrative to other dimensions of faith and oil’s reciprocity. I started focusing more on the distinctiveness of oil-patch religious life itself and pondering how the disruptive economic cycles and dangers of the business helped shape belief in the pulpits and pews of these regions (be it Oklahoma and Texas or Alberta, the “Texas” of Canada). I also started wrestling more with oil’s outsized importance to the United States and its post-Civil War economic expansion on a global scale, and how the nation came to see its control of oil in sanctified terms—as a sign of the nation’s exceptionalism.

You note that there were sharply divergent religious attitudes in the oil industry, especially the clash between the “civil religion of crude” and “wildcat Christianity.” What divided those camps?

My use of the categories “wildcat Christianity” and “civil religion of crude” point to a central tension: the generations-long competition between two different sectors of U.S. petroleum and, correspondingly, of U.S. Protestantism. This clash reflected two dueling “spirits of capitalism.”

I identify the civil religion of crude with the major (fully integrated, multinational) oil companies of the east—Standard Oil and its offshoots—and with their controlling clan, the Rockefellers. Illustrative of Max Weber’s vision of a Protestant bureaucratic outlook, the Rockefellers sought to impose order on their chaotic corporate realm (and early oil was chaotic) and to reform society and transform the globe with a postmillennialist, ecumenical, social gospel—a gospel that saw oil money as a means to uplift humanity and essentially baptize people in their liberal, internationalist worldview.

I identify the ethic of wildcat Christianity with the independent oilmen who on account of the Rockefellers’ monopoly in Pennsylvania were forced to relocate west. Enraged by the Rockefellers’ control of their industry and that family’s liberal Protestantism, the wildcatters determined to protect their individual rights to drill exploratory wells (a process called “wildcatting”) and enjoy oil’s profits on their own terms. They shored up their core principles, which were intensely evangelical: They defended the autonomy of believers and the church, as well as orthodox theological convictions espoused in the 1915 publication The Fundamentals (a project independent oilman Lyman Stewart funded to offset Rockefeller-sponsored liberalism). They emphasized the primacy of soul-winning evangelism over social restructuring, in anticipation of Christ’s impending return. Because of the surprising shift of oil production to California and Texas at the turn of the 20th century, these independents—many of whom, like Stewart, were extremely devout—were able to build their own empires, and fight the Rockefellers for control of their industry, and ultimately of the American church.

Many of the leading figures in your book were evangelical Christians. To what extent has there been a special affinity for the oil business among evangelicals?

Evangelicals certainly operate at the heart of my story. Many oil executives were outspoken evangelicals who saw their business and service to the church as one vocation. Meanwhile, countless geologists, drillers, and roughnecks worked the oil fields with strong adherence to the Bible and a conviction that Christian principles informed their labors. So yes, I’d claim that there has always been a special affinity for the oil business among evangelicals.

There are additional factors to consider, however. One of them is coincidence. Be it western Pennsylvania or eastern Texas, Alberta, or Oklahoma: historically oil has been found in regions with extant affinities for evangelical Protestantism. Oil’s arrival intensified and reshaped preexisting evangelical sensibilities in these places. Typically among the first on the scene of a new oil discovery were locals who connected (theologically, institutionally) the petroleum business to their religious prerogatives.

Theological emphases have also tied evangelicalism to oil. My book shows how oil exploration elicited a highly emotive and spiritual response. The science of petroleum geology took time to develop; as late as the 1930s, oil hunters often relied on their senses and prayer to locate their treasure. Lyman Stewart hunted oil with his nose. Unlike the pursuit of other minerals, oil nurtured a wonderment with the world that tapped into evangelical sensibilities. Moreover, while oil’s location was mysterious, its arrival was spectacular, and a trigger for religious euphoria (including gratitude to God). And oil’s dark side—frequent fires and death, accompanying immorality—was equally potent in stirring up campaigns for revival and reform. So was oil’s impending depletion. Oilfields’ production capacities are fleeting, and oil-patch residents always knew that the end of their prosperous era would come—suddenly and decisively.

So in oil country, certain varieties of evangelicalism—from gospels of health and wealth to notions of the end times—have found fertile soil.

You show that oilmen made a huge institutional imprint on the Christian landscape (mainline, evangelical, and Catholic) through financial support for organizations such as the National Council of Churches, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Billy Graham crusades, and for schools such as Biola, Baylor, and Notre Dame. To what extent do you think that faith also shaped the practices, or the malpractices, of the industry itself?

Faith shaped the practices and in certain situations malpractices of the industry in a number of ways. Oil historians may be surprised to hear it, but in some instances oil’s corporate structures evolved directly out of the theological commitments of its leaders. Consider two examples.

The first is Aramco, the Saudi entity that is now the most profitable corporation in the world. Through its first decades of development under the management of Standard California (Chevron), Aramco constructed an apparatus of religious oversight and exchange. Due to the sensitivities of doing work in a Muslim country, Aramco established an entire department charged with educating workers in Islam, promoting ecumenical encounter on drill sites and faith-based notions of international brotherhood in the boardroom, and overseeing an unofficial, underground network of Protestant and Catholic “moral groups” (home churches). Faith, in this context, had a direct bearing on the organizational structure of the oil company.

Then there’s the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS), a corporation started in the 1950s to extract and process the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta. Alberta’s premier, Ernest Manning, was a devout Christian who in addition to running the province preached on radio and in pulpits around the continent. Wanting to develop the oil sands, he looked for investors and found one in J. Howard Pew, head of Sun Oil Company. Because of their shared evangelical commitments, the two formed a partnership that by the 1960s resulted in the opening of the first GCOS plant. Here too faith led to concrete corporate outcomes.

Faith led to some instances of malpractice as well. Speculative impatience plagued the business, and some of this affected the church. In Lyman Stewart’s day, there was no shortage of oil companies that counted on investment from church folks. Stewart built his company with funds from those with whom he worshiped. Stewart made good on his promises, but countless other speculators and startup companies failed, leaving entire congregations broke. And throughout oil’s history there’s been a get-rich-quick tendency, as well as a concern only for short-term economic gain, not long-term human, communal, and environmental consequences. On occasion those tendencies have stemmed from the urgencies of Christian oilmen, churches, and church folk to obtain black gold quickly in order to fund ministries and missionaries, and to spread the gospel.

Christians have played a major role in other American industries, maybe most obviously the retail sector (Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, Walmart). Have Christians played an unusually prominent role in the oil industry, or is yours a replicable history because devout Christians are present in a lot of top businesses?

I’d suggest that Christians have played an unusually prominent role in the oil industry. Certainly it is fair to see my book as one chapter in a larger story of how faithful Christians have profoundly shaped American industries across the board. Yet I think the oil industry has been particularly receptive to Christians and Christian values. Oil has always been seen as a business in which the combination of entrepreneurialism and certainty of belief can produce quick and spectacular outcomes. My book charts this dynamic across generations, and the efforts of evangelical entrepreneurs—including evangelists such as Charles Fuller—to form oil companies in order to garner funds rapidly for service to the church. Put another way, unlike other economic sectors where a good degree of overhead and patience are required, petroleum has always nurtured and celebrated the myth that with a little luck and a lot of prayer, anyone can make it big. On more than one occasion that has proved to be true, lending it legitimacy.

The sheer scale of the petroleum industry has helped generate special interest among Christians as well, particularly when we look to the world stage. Beginning in the 19th century, the oil industry was always a global venture, with American geologists and oilmen taking the lead in exploration and production abroad. Countless numbers of them seamlessly linked their faith and professional labor; to open new territories up to oil was, in their minds, a step toward the spiritual uplift of humanity. Be it in the Middle East or South America, missionaries always played key roles in this process (as guides and liaisons, for instance), further embedding Christians at the heart of the oil business. Finally, there is a prophetic element involved. For many evangelical oilmen, the work they conducted (and are continuing to conduct) in the Middle East—Israel in particular—has been an outgrowth of their end-times beliefs and commitment to the Holy Land. As far as I can tell, no other corporate sector generates that form or intensity of Christian conviction.

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Don’t Reduce Your Sheep to Their Usefulness

Church plants have needs. Lots of needs. It’s tempting, then, for planters to size up those who come through the door for their potential to meet those needs.

Families are meant to meet each others needs, and service in the body of Christ brings blessings. But pastors need to guard against the temptation to evaluate their members according to worldly standards of usefulness. People can sense when they are being valued more for their gifts than their souls.

Church planters John Onwuchekwa, Joe Rigney, and Kempton Turner sat down to talk about how they fight against the temptation to see people according to their usefulness. Onwuchekwa constantly reminds himself that he is a shepherd first, and seeks to communicate that to his church members by doing things like asking them how he can pray for them. Rigney points out that we need to take 1 Corinthians 12 to heart, recognizing that we should not privilege some parts of the body that seem more essential to us. And Turner recommends building a relationship before asking someone to serve.

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


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God Gave (Part Three of an Exploration of John 3:16)

When we declare our love for someone, we often have in mind at best a stirring of our hearts, an internal affection that rarely is expressed in any concrete action on our part. That sort of love is hardly worth having. God’s immeasurable love for us, on the other hand, is a giving love, a sacrificial love. As John declares in John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Let this truth sink deeply into your soul: God loved this world by giving to it the last thing it could ever deserve! “For God so loved the world that he GAVE his only Son.” It’s as if God the Father said to God the Son: “There is something I want you to do. This world of humanity will be populated by people who hate me. They will rebel against me. Every single one of them. They will deserve nothing from me but eternal damnation. They will deserve to perish. But I want you to go and become one of them and live the life they should have lived but didn’t, and to die in their place the death they should have died so that I may give eternal life to as many as will accept my offer.”

The death of God the Son, Jesus Christ, is the expression of the Father’s love for those who hate him. Many have greatly distorted the cross of Christ by thinking of it as the means by which the love of God is won. They envision Jesus crying out from the cross: “Oh, Father, in dying for these people I have now made them loveable.” No!

Love is not something wrung from the heart of a reluctant and disinclined God by the sufferings of his Son. Jesus doesn’t plead from the cross, “Oh, Father, please love them now that I have died for them.” No! The cross is not the attempt by Jesus to persuade or entice the Father to love us. The cross is the express manifestation of a love that the Father already had for this lost and dying world.

But don’t think for a moment that it was only the love of the Father that led to the cross of Christ. Some today have reacted wrongly to the doctrine of penal substitution by portraying it as the Father coercing or compelling his innocent Son to suffer for the guilty. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus himself declared:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

His point is that it was his own love and affection for the sheep that moved him to lay down his life. It was not taken from him. His life, given up on the cross, was his to give. Again, Jesus makes it clear:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

The apostle Paul likewise declared that “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself or me” (Gal. 2:20). The Father sent his Son who joyfully embraced the task because he loved those for whom he would die.

Our great Triune God is a giving God, a God who initiates at great sacrifice to himself the deepest and most profound expression of love that is possible: the giving of his Son. And the Son joyfully and freely embraces the will of his Father in yielding up his life for a world of lost, hell-deserving sinners.

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How Do I Discern if My Ambition Is Godly?

How do I discern when my ambition is godly? Is godly ambition only related to missions work? And does having concrete goals of “success” mean I’m not trusting God’s unseen hand?

“She’s ambitious,” my friend told me, describing someone we both knew. He didn’t mean it in a good way. I knew what he was seeing in her—a kind of grasping self-promotion that prioritized her own advancement.

On its face, ambition means we’re working hard to achieve something. As long as that desire and determination is wrapped up in God’s glory and not our own, it’s a good impulse. But in all of us, the lines can blur and cause a sort of whiplash. One day we work joyfully unto the Lord, and the next be dominated by the idol of self-made success.

Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

Godly Ambition Hustles

God has made us to use our hands, our minds, and our time to love others through our labor. He’s blessed us with business savvy, or mathematical acuity, or teaching ability, or the patience to read through tax documents, or the organizational gifting to run an office. When driven by God-centered ambition, we will produce our best work.

We should work hard and take the classes, read the books, listen to the podcasts, seek the mentors, or whatever else seems helpful to accomplish our ambitions. We should grit our teeth and try and try again, instead of sitting around and waiting for God to “open a door.” Whatever our craft, success doesn’t just happen—laboring unto the Lord requires hustle.

The passive person who shuns personal effort because they “trust God” might sound spiritual, but the sentiment is an excuse for laziness and lack of responsibility. Trusting God for a harvest is worthless if you’re unwilling to plant and water seeds.

Like most other new writers, I wish I could “trust God” to hand me success on a silver platter and have a publisher come knocking at my door. I don’t want to worry about things like marketing and platform and book proposals—I just want to write! But it doesn’t work that way. Nobody pursues unknown writers with a book deal. If I expect an easy road, it shows I feel entitled to success, and entitlement is rooted in pride.

Trusting God doesn’t mean folding our hands, it means using the hands he’s given us to hustle.

Godly Ambition Is Humble

That said, countless people hustle for the wrong reasons. They build altars of wealth, fame, and admiration, and seek their worth in accomplishments. Such self-aggrandizement has no place in the kingdom of God.

We’ve each been given gifts to steward for the glory of God, the growth of the church, and the good of our neighbors. This isn’t just about formal ministry. A CEO, a chef, a stay-at-home mom, a writer, a teacher, a doctor, a waitress, a photographer, and a farmer can all incorporate these ambitions into their work.

The only way we can fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with his.

When we’re humbly ambitious, we’ll be far more concerned with how our work reflects on God than how it reflects on us. We’ll be far more driven to develop our skills for the sake of our neighbors rather than ourselves. We’ll cultivate creatively because we love to imitate the Creator of all good things. We’ll strive to increase our profits with godly integrity and manage them as godly stewards. We’ll go for the promotion, because we want to better serve our families and employers. Our hustle won’t be for the honor of our name, but for the honor of God’s.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with my ambition to write and sell lots of books. I love writing, believe God has called me to it, and want my labor to be fruitful. Besides, books can’t yield fruit unless people actually read them! But I know that my ambition is tainted—I do crave affirmation from others besides God—and that’s what must be crucified.

We don’t crucify pride by stifling ambition, but by refining it. And the only way to fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with his. Nothing keeps us humble like drawing near to the Holy One. The more we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the more our work will be worship unto him.

You can read other installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

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The Best Kind of Preaching

Jonathan Edwards believed the preacher is charged with a sacred duty: to communicate the awe of the Word. When the Word is so preached, listeners often “tremble at God’s word” (Isa. 66:2)—they find it “piercing, awful, and tremendous,” Edwards noted, and their hearts melt before it. “The Word in its powerful efficacy”—in mortifying sin and converting people to Christ—“does . . . cut the soul asunder.” As he wrote in the “Blank Bible”:

Lightning and thunder is a very lively image of the word of God. . . . ‘Tis exceeding quick, and exceeding piercing, and powerful to break in pieces, and scorch, and dissolve, and is full of majesty.

For Edwards, the effects of the Word can be felt by anyone whenever the Word is opened—which has significant ramifications for preachers and for preaching. Let’s consider Edwards’s counsel for preachers and its ongoing implications today.

To Spark Godly Tremors 

To some, the Word brings joy and fulfillment since it speaks the truths of salvation. To others, it terrifies since it lays bare their sin and the coming reality of God’s judgment. Trembling at the Word, then, could stem from either fear or sweet delight in the things of God.

To tremble at the Word isn’t to exhibit simple fanaticism or emotionalism. To help students identify God’s work amid the fervor of revival and distinguish it from Satan’s counterfeits, Edwards encouraged listeners to ground spiritual passion in biblical truth: “That spirit that operates in such a manner, as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God.” Understanding the text is essential. Yet even in studying Scripture and preparing sermons, the preacher should be confronted by its beauty.

The best preaching is a public demonstration that the preacher himself has been enthralled by the Word. This kind of preaching fulfills that sacred duty to communicate what is divine about the Word.

And so preachers should do all they can, in Edwards’s estimation, to arouse godly tremors in the saints. To be sure, “impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men” is one of the main reasons God ordained the preaching of the Word. Giving Christians good commentaries or theological works is not enough. While these may provide “a good doctrinal or speculative understanding” of the Bible, yet they “have not an equal tendency to impress [it] on men’s hearts and affections.”

To Thrill the Saints

While Edwards believed the Word’s power can penetrate all its hearers, he also believed the Christian is especially affected by it. Revelation “is a sweet sort of knowledge” to the believer:

He loves to view and behold the things of . . . God; they are to him the most pleasing and beautiful objects in the world. He can never satisfy his eyes with looking on them, because he beholds them as certain truths and as things of all the most excellent.

When Edwards’s congregation experienced revival in 1735, one consequence was that they grew to love God’s Word even more. Edwards wrote:

Their esteem of the holy Scriptures is exceedingly increased. . . . There have been some instances of persons that by only an accidental sight of the Bible, have been as much moved . . . as a lover by the sight of his sweetheart.

Scripture is sublime to the Christian; he can’t get his fill. The written Word, whether read or heard, is a unique source whereby the beauty of salvation through Jesus Christ continually appears. Edwards testified frequently that Word and Spirit do in fact enthrall the twice-born.

“Persons after their conversion often speak of things of religion as seeming new to them,” he noted. “It seems to them they never heard preaching before; that the Bible is a new book: they find there new chapters, new psalms, new histories, because they see them in a new light.”

Still True Today 

The preaching of the Word should cut through human hearts and make them tremble, Edwards thought. For believers in Jesus, the Word thrills them as they’re awakened to its life-giving glory.

In a time and situation far removed from his, these truths still stand. Scripture still remains divine. It still cuts the soul asunder. It still keeps “impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men.”

And it has not ceased to enthrall the twice-born.

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How to Teach Your Kids to Study the Bible

While Christians say the Bible is God’s Word, few of us—even regular churchgoers—spend time reading it every day. That’s the finding of the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from LifeWay Research. A third of Americans who attend a Protestant church regularly (32 percent) say they read the Bible personally every day, while a quarter (27 percent) say they read it a few times a week.

While there is no command in Scripture to read the Bible every day, there is much to gain from regular Bible intake. A previous study of churchgoing Protestant parents by LifeWay Research found regular Bible reading as a child was the biggest factor in predicting the spiritual health of young adults.

But while encouraging our children to read the Bible and teaching them how to do it well are necessary tasks, they are not sufficient for spiritual development. We also need to teach them how to study Scripture so that they “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

Bible Reading Is Not Bible Study

Bible study is not the same thing as Bible reading,” David Mathis says. “If Bible reading is like raking for leaves, Bible study is like digging for diamonds. The Christian life calls for both.” (See also: How to Prepare a Child to Read the Bible.)

Two key difference between reading and study are pacing and focus. When we read the Bible, we generally do so at the quickest pace our comprehension will allow. We may consume large chunks at one time, such as reading an entire book. We also look for the broad outlines of the text to know what it’s about or to determine how it fits into the larger scope of God’s Word. Bible reading precedes Bible study because it provides the broad perspective we need before we narrow in on specific passages.

When we study the Bible, though, we slow down to focus on the meaning of the text. We read and reread shorter units of text and spend more time focusing on specific words, clauses, verses, and paragraphs. We also ask questions of the text: What does this word mean? Why did the author use this unique phrase? How does this apply to my own life?

The essence of Bible study is asking questions of the text to discover the meaning God intended. Of the many profitable ways to study the Bible, one that everyone from preteens to Old Testament scholars has found to be particularly helpful is the inductive Bible study method. The inductive study method is an investigative approach to the Bible using three basic components:

Observation: What does the text say?

Interpretation: What does the text mean?

Application: How does the meaning of the text apply to life?

In future articles we’ll drill down into interpretation and application of Scripture. But for now let’s focus on the observation component.

How to Observe a Text

Ask Basic Questions — Begin by showing them how to ask the basic questions that orient them to the text they are studying. For example, teach them to ask, Who wrote it? What is the genre (letter, narrative, history . . . )? When was it written? Where was the author when it was written? Why did the author write this letter? Study Bibles are helpful tools in answering these types of questions.

Words, Phrases, and Relationships Between Propositions — Show them how to ask about what the author meant by using specific words and phrases. Don’t assume the dictionary definition or our common understanding of terms is the same as the author’s. Have them look for words that are repeated or given special emphasis, and to pay special attention to connecting words (“but,” “if,” “and,” “therefore,” “in order that,” “because”). “Sometimes the major differences between whole theologies hang on these connections,” John Piper says.

Make Lists — In 2 Peter 1:5-9, we find a list of virtues we should combine:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

When we read this passage, we can easily jumble the virtues together. To keep them straight so your child can reflect on them more carefully, have them put the terms in a list:

• Faith • Goodness • Knowledge • Self-control • Perseverance • Godliness • Mutual affection • Love

Using such lists in our note-taking can help us track keywords, phrases, and concepts.

Contrasts and Comparisons — Contrasts and comparisons are used throughout the Bible to focus our attention. Consider in the passage cited above how Peter compares people who possess those virtues (they are effective and productive) with those who don’t (they are nearsighted and blind).

Metaphors — When we come across metaphors in our study, we should stop and use our imagination to think through the meaning. For instance, how would lacking perseverance be similar to being nearsighted?

Expressions of Time and Terms of Conclusion  — Have them be on the lookout for words that mark expression of time, such as “before,” “after,” “during,” “since,” “for,” “already,” and so on. These terms can help you see the sequence or timing of events and lead to a more accurate interpretation of Scripture. Similarly, terms of conclusion, such as “therefore,” “thus,” and “for this reason,” point to an ending or a summary.

Connections to Other Parts of the Bible — Show them how to search for connections to other parts of Scripture. For example, where can the virtues on Peter’s list be found in other passages? What do other biblical authors say about the importance of those virtues?

Teach Them to Improve Their Observation Skills — These are just a few of the ways you can teach you child to engage the text during the observation phase of study. Look for other ways by carefully considering the questions that arise during study. When they identify a broader category, have them give it a name they will remember and use in the future. For example, when asking, “What emotional response is the author expecting to evoke?” you could use that to consider other questions about affections and emotions. Give it a label like “Emotion-provoking Questions” and add it in their Bible study tool kit.

Additional Tips for Training Children

Incorporate Prayer — Bible study is about looking for God’s meaning in his Word, so we need to constantly be talking to him, asking him to reveal his meaning to us. Next to the Bible itself, prayer is our most important tool for Bible study. Build a strong foundation in your child by encouraging them to be praying before, during, and after their study efforts.

A Special Bible for Studying — Teach your child that to show reverence to God’s Word often entails messing up the pages. We need to scribble notes, underline passages, and mark key words and phrases. Give them their own Bible they can mark up. Wide-margin and journaling Bibles are ideal, though just about any Bible you have around will serve the purpose.

Life of Study

If this sounds complex and time-consuming, it is. Studying the Bible is difficult work that requires focus and attention—two traits children often lack. Be patient with them and don’t expect too much over a brief time. If you pile on too much work for each study session, the child will get the impression that Bible study is drudgery.

Prepare them for the challenges of concerted study, but don’t expect them to suddenly become Bible scholars. Keep your expectations realistic and modest, and keep the long-term goal in focus—training your child to be a lifelong student of the Bible.

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Bragging or Praying? (Part Three)

Luke 18:9-14

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (18:13-14 CSB).

Since we cannot save or help save ourselves in any way, how can we be saved? How can we be rescued from the righteous consequences of our sin, of our rebellion against God and his word, of our refusal to love God with all our being, and our rejection of God as our God? I use this longer description of sin, because we all lack a proper understanding of sin. We use the word ‘sin’ but don’t comprehend what God is communicating. He speaks of an offense against him of large proportions. The tax collector realized his guilt before God.

The only hope for sinners is found in the free grace of God (18:13-14). Jesus asserts two important truths of salvation. Let us first think of two general remarks about them. Both are spoken of in the passive voice. God does something for us, and not we for God. Both of these are teachings of Christ, and not latter “fabrications” of Paul.

Christ taught the doctrine of propitiation; that is, God’s justice has to be satisfied before God can show mercy toward a sinner. The tax collector understood his problem, and he calls himself “the sinner”. He acknowledged that he deserved wrath. He knew that God had to solve the problem. He was in way over his head and only God could get him out!

Christ taught the doctrine of justification. Justification talks about our legal standing before God. The greatest need is to be right with God, or his justice will fall on you! People are justified freely (Romans 3:24): without any cause in their hearts, attitudes, decisions or actions.

Here are a couple lessons from the whole section (18:9-14). First, God knows exactly who and what we are. Hypocrisy is a position impossible to hold before God. Yet, here is comfort for a true believer. Listen to the words of John Newton:

True, I’ve been a foolish creature,
And have sinned against his grace;
But forgiveness is his nature,
Though he justly hides his face:
Ere he called me, well he knew
What a heart like mine would do.

Second, Jesus speaks very directly to people. He does not beat around the bush and or apologize. God deals clearly and openly with us. The Lord wants you to be right with him, but that righteousness only comes through faith in him and his saving work.

Third, we must have the proper attitude in prayer. God will not hear you on account of who you think you are or because of your self-righteousness. However, God does hear sinners who confess their need of him.  Which of these men are you most like? If you say, the Pharisee, then you need to get right with God. Do you focus on God when you pray, or are your prayers a litany of self-praise in which you tell God how much he owes you? If you pray like the Pharisee, you need to change immediately and instead pray like the tax collector.

Grace and peace, David

The Wickedness of the World (Part Two of an Exploration of John 3:16)

Today we turn our attention to the object of God’s immeasurable love: the world. John uses one word: “world” (kosmos). Many try to magnify God’s love by pointing out how many people have lived in this world. “Just think,” they say, “of the multitudes of men and women who have swarmed across the face of the earth. Oh, how great the love of God must be that it could encompass such a countless multitude.”

I’m not so sure that is what John is saying here. I don’t think we learn anything about God’s love by counting heads. God’s love is not magnified when we ask, “How many?” Rather, it is magnified when we ask, “What kind?” In other words, the issue isn’t quantity but quality. The nature of the people whom God loves is crucial, not their number.

What makes John 3:16 and the love of God so marvelous is that he loved, of all things, “the world”! The contrast here is moral, not mathematical. The difference between God and the world isn’t that God is one and the world is many. The difference, the contrast, is that God is holy and the world isn’t! That’s what makes his love so astounding.

The lover is righteous and the loved are not. God loved the moral antithesis of himself! Light loved darkness. Holiness loved wickedness. The immeasurably pure loved the indescribably defiled. Thus the “world” here is not to be thought of in terms of its size but in terms of its sinfulness. The point is not that the world is so big that it takes a great quantity of love to love it all. The point is that the world is so bad that takes an amazing kind of love to love it at all.

When I first met my wife, Ann, to whom I’ve been married for over 47 years, I had several things in mind about the kind of woman I was looking for. I’m sure she had an image in mind of the sort of man she wanted to marry.

Among the many things that each of us highly valued would probably have included physical health, intellectual abilities, personality traits such as kindness and humility, as well as those things that make compatibility possible. Spiritual commitment would also have ranked extremely high in both our assessments of the other.

But I can assure you that neither of us said anything along the lines of the following:

“Of all the many traits and features of the person I hope to marry, what I’m really looking for is a person who utterly despises me. I want a man/woman who is worse than indifferent towards me. I’m hoping for someone who hates me, treats me with contempt and disdain, and who wants nothing whatsoever to do with me.”

But God did! When the Father sought a bride for his Son, he set his affection and love on a people who were his enemies. He loved a world that hated him. His heart was moved toward those who felt bitter enmity for him and refused to honor him as the most honorable Being in the universe. God chose to love his enemies. “For God so loved” this fallen, corrupt, wicked world. Such was the nature of the immeasurable love with which he loved us.

And how did he demonstrate this love? That will bring us to the third great truth in this passage.

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Jen Wilkin on Training a Child in the Way He Should Speak

“Perhaps the most powerful evangelistic phrase you can teach a child is this: ‘Do you want to come over to my house?’ Invitations to join the family of God often begin with invitations to join your family at the dinner table. Hospitality is so rare these days. If we raise hospitable children by modeling hospitality in our own home, then we develop a culture of invitation among our family.” — Jen Wilkin

Date: March 31, 2019

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

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


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

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How Important is Having a Testimony of Salvation?

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When talking with other Christians, a common question that we may ask is what is someone’s testimony. How much weight should we give to someone’s testimony? What if someone doesn’t even have a testimony of how and when the Lord has saved them?