Is God Anti-Gay?

“Jesus is saying the same kind of thing to everyone. When we rightly understand what he teaches about sexual ethics and about marriage, it is deeply humbling for every one of us. It’s challenging for all of us because none of us naturally lines up with what Jesus teaches. His teaching on marriage and sex has been countercultural in every single culture in one way or another. This has never been easy.” — Sam Allberry

Date: March 16, 2018

Event: TGC Arizona Regional Conference

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Find more audio and video from TGC Arizona regional conferences on the conference media page.

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Christ Will Not Cast Out Any Who Come To Him

God the Father gave every single Christian to Jesus, and there’s absolutely nothing that will cause Christ to get rid of any of His people who the Father gave to Him.

John 6:37 – All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.


View full sermon, “Everyone and No One“.

‘Conviction’ Isn’t Enough to Plant a Church

John Stott famously said that the secret to effective preaching is not mastering certain techniques, but being mastered by certain convictions. The same is true for church planting.

And when it comes to planting a church, people commonly suggest various tricks and tips. But we need something more. We need theological foundations that will stand the test of time. Theological foundations drive us to church planting, and theological convictions will keep us faithful in church planting.

And yet, a person with conviction isn’t necessarily qualified for ministry. It’s also essential that others recognize one’s doctrine and life, and thus commend him for the task of church planting. Thus conviction and commendation must go together.

To help us think about these two things as they pertain to church planting, I’m excited to have Eric Mason with me on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.


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What Makes “Good Friday” Good?

If you plan on being in Oklahoma City on Friday, April 18, I want to invite you to join us for our traditional “Good Friday” service at 6:30 p.m. in our auditorium. I would also encourage you to invite friends and family members who may not know Jesus and his saving love. This will be a wonderful time for them to hear a short and pointed presentation of the gospel.

So, why do we speak of the Friday when Jesus was brutalized and crucified as good? It would almost seem as if there could hardly be a day that is worse! In one sense, you are correct. Jesus was unjustly tried, lied about, scourged, and sadistically crucified.

But in a far more ultimate sense this was immeasurably good. It was good for two reasons.

First, the crucifixion of Jesus, as horrible and unjust as it was, fulfilled God’s plan. Peter declared this in Acts 4:27-28 by reminding us that, in crucifying Jesus, “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” were doing “whatever your hand [God’s hand!] and your plan [God’s plan!] had predestined to take place.” This was no accident of history but the eternally predestined purpose of God.

The second reason that such a horrible incident can be regarded as “good” is because by means of this event, and only by this event, are we able to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God. Peter tells us that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Notice three things that make the gospel the very best news there is.

First, when Jesus suffered, he suffered for our “sins.” Christ died because of or for our “sins” in the capacity of one who took the penalty for them upon himself. It is only because Jesus has died for our sins that we don’t have to.

Second, when Jesus suffered for our sins he suffered only “once” and for all time. There is no need for him to suffer again or for another sacrifice to be made. His once-for-all time atonement was perfect and sufficient.

Third, when Jesus suffered for sins, it was as a righteous person dying in the place of unrighteous people like you and me. Although he suffered for sins, they were not his own! He is the only person who has lived and died who didn’t suffer for his own sins. The death of Jesus will mean nothing to you unless you affirm both halves of this statement. You must know that you are “unrighteous” and that he is “righteous.”

Fourth and finally, Jesus suffered for our sins to “bring us to God.” That is the greatest of the good news, that because Jesus died for us, we get God!

Come on Friday the 18th and celebrate with us this glorious good news of Good Friday!

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When Passivity Is Prideful

There’s a form of pride that can lurk in a pastor who seems humble. He may be the first to admit he’s wrong, the first to apologize for impatience, and the slowest to criticize others. He’s happy to give young, inexperienced men the opportunity to share in ministry responsibilities; he may even be open with his flock about his personal struggles with sin. He’s approachable. Every question is met with a listening ear and an admission of not knowing everything.

And yet, all of this can be present in a man who is actually proud—too proud to lead with conviction in ways that will make him less liked. It’s an attitude that communicates a lie: What matters most as a pastor is that you fulfill what others want you to be.

Though I’m not an elder, I already see this form of pride in myself. It’s not at all exclusive to those in leadership, and it’s a sin that is exceedingly deceitful.

Passive Pastor

Not all passive pastors are prideful. They may act from a genuine desire for congregational authority, or a well-founded fear of being authoritarian. Or maybe they’ve worked for so long that they’ve fallen into a worn-out indifference to the future of the congregation. But whether by pride or by negligence, God’s commands to elders can be glossed over in favor of the flock’s desires. Rather than shepherding the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), the elder begins to follow them helplessly into their favorite pastures. He’s teachable, but at the expense of being able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). Urging sound doctrine (1 Tim. 6:2) turns into suggesting good ideas. The overseer who should be keeping watch over the souls under his charge (Heb. 13:17) and the teaching that he gives them (1 Tim. 4:16) can become the puppet of those souls, teaching them only what they want to hear because he knows they want to hear it.

If we met the apostle Peter, we’d all be surprised to see how much he, a fellow elder, was tempted with this very thing. Underneath his bold, quick-to-speak tendencies, he too loved the applause of fellow men. He loved endorsements as much as you and I do. If you doubt this, consider how he stood for truth in front of Pilate’s servant girl (Mark 15:66–72), or check out how his gospel-based, Gentile-affirming principles held up when Jews walked in the room (Gal. 2:11–14). And yet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, listen to how he exhorts his fellow elders:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)

Notice the main command: Shepherd the flock. That’s a word picture we can learn a lot from. When we think of sheep, we think of short-sightedness, rash decisions, and a lack of discernment. They’re prone to wander, skittish, and quick to run the wrong way when danger is near.

But shepherds don’t despise sheep for their vulnerability. They care for them proactively. They consider the dangers around, think through ways toward new pastures, help the weak, separate the bullies, care for the lambs, and look out for predators. They don’t fulfill their responsibility by being liked by the rams or playing their harps for the ewes or petting the lambs. Rather, they exercise oversight to help their sheep find nourishment, safety, and health. They know that if they return to the chief shepherd having lost some sheep, excuses like, “but they really liked that pasture next to the cliff!” will be self-condemning.

Not Just Any Oversight

Peter makes it clear that not just any kind of oversight will do. A pastor’s oversight must have the right attitude: willing, eager, exemplary. And this is where the analogy of a shepherd reaches its limit, because no sheep ever looked at its shepherd and thought, I want to follow his example. I think I’ll start looking out for danger, too. A sheep doesn’t do that, because their shepherd isn’t a sheep. But an elder is an example because though he’s entrusted with God-given authority, he knows that he’s no different from his flock. He knows himself to be a sinner in need of God’s mercy, in need of his flock’s help. So he exercises authority through sacrificial love.

Think about a choir conductor who stops the rehearsal to tell one singer that he’s out of tune. He need not have written the music; he must only know how to read the music to speak with confidence and clarity. Bach’s motet will be performed no better under a shy conductor who refuses to correct the bass than under a conductor who pontificates endlessly over why he could have written it better. But here’s the thing: Both conductors are misusing their authority. One’s too passive, while the other’s domineering. Either way, the result is the same: The whole group suffers.

Likewise, the elder who shies away from exercising oversight does the church a disservice just like the authoritarian elder who rules with an ungodly dominance. The authoritarian may do more initial and more obvious damage, but the puppet elder who’s silently ruled by the opinions of others may do more harm in the long run.

Crave Praise from Above  

In short, an elder’s authority must be carried out with both confidence and humility, as both an overseer and an example, recognizing both his God-given role and his deep need of God’s help.

And humanly speaking, that’s impossible, which is why a pastor must look to his chief shepherd as the head of the church. He must let the Lord’s grace fill his heart with awe, and surround himself with people who remind him of his need for grace. Everything he does to help others to be changed by the Word must come from a heart that’s being continually changed by that same Word.

But most of all, the passive pastor must realize the praise he longs for cannot come from men. It isn’t circumstantial, and it’s not based on the ever-changing opinions of others. Instead, the praise he longs for will be given by the Chief Shepherd on the final day. It’s certain, kept in heaven.

So pastor, live, teach, and lead as one who will one day be vindicated, judged, and rewarded by the slain and resurrected King of glory.

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J. I. Packer on 3 Reasons You Should Read Calvin’s Institutes

Not everyone finds reading John Calvin a spiritually profitable experience.

The great literary critic and professor Alan Jacobs recently wrote, after returning to Calvin’s Institutes:

I consistently find him to be dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, and prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness.

(Jacobs confesses that his unpleasant interactions with Calvinists over the years has probably influenced his reading.)

But not everyone agrees with Jacobs.

Karl Barth wrote to his friend Eduard Thurneysen in 1922:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.

What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream.

I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

Eugene Peterson, writing in Books & Culture and reflecting back to the early 1960s,

Although I had been a pastor for a couple of years, I had little interest in theology. It was worse than that. My experience of theology was contaminated by adolescent polemics and hairsplitting apologetics.

But after hearing a memorable lecture on Calvin, he went to the library to get the two-volume Institutes.

I read them through in a year, and when I finished I read them again.

I’ve been reading them ever since.

Tim Keller explained that he spent the year 2012 reading through the entire Institutes.

Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don’t agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ is almost misleading—it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers’ guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God’s love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart is changed.

J. I. Packer once articulated three reasons why he thinks modern readers should avail themselves of Calvin’s classic.

1. The Institutes may be easier to read than you think.

Packer writes:

The readability of the Institutio, considering its size, is remarkable.

C. S. Lewis opened his famous introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation by encouraging average readers to return to the originals, which are often easier to understand than their interpreters:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

2. The Institutes is one of the wonders of the world.

Packer:

Calvin’s Institutes (5th edition, 1559) is one of the wonders of the literary world—the world, that is, of writers and writing, of digesting and arranging heaps of diverse materials, of skillful proportioning and gripping presentation; the world . . . of the Idea, the Word, and the Power. . . .

The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world—the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart. . . .

Calvin’s Institutio is one of the wonders of the theological world, too—that is, the world of truth, faithfulness, and coherence in the mind regarding God; of combat, regrettable but inescapable, with intellectual insufficiency and error in believers and unbelievers alike; and of vision, valuation, and vindication of God as he presents himself through his Word to our fallen and disordered minds. . . .

3. The Institutes has relevance for your life and ministry.

It can be read as simply an exercise in historical theology, but it should also be read to further your understanding of God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s ways. Packer writes:

The 1559 Institutio is great theology, and it is uncanny how often, as we read and re-read it, we come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates. You never seem to get to the book’s bottom; it keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith.

Do you, I wonder, know what I am talking about? Dig into the Institutio, and you soon will.

For a couple of resources to get you started, you could pick up a copy of Calvin along with Anthony N. S. Lane’s guide to the Institutes. 

Or if you aren’t ready for that step yet, get a copy of an excerpt from book 3, packaged in a pocket-sized edition: A Little Book on the Christian Life.

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How Pastors Can Apply the Brown M&M Test

The Story: Half of Christian pastors feel occasionally or frequently limited in their ability to speak, given concerns they will offend people, according to survey conducted earlier this year. Here’s why addressing controversial issues can be an important way of uncovering disobedience to Christ.

The Background: As Christianity Today‘s Griffin Paul Jackson notes, many pastors say they are “subject to scrutiny from outside their congregations as well as within them.” “The stakes are high in the public square,” the researchers wrote. “The issues pastors feel most pressured to speak out on are the same ones they feel limited to speak on,” with LGBT issues and same-sex marriage at the top.

Almost half (44 percent) of Christian clergy say they feel limited in their ability to speak about homosexuality by people within their own churches. At the same time, more than a third (37 percent) say they feel pressured by their congregations to speak on the matter. Most pastors (64 percent) also worry more about how their own congregants will respond than they are about the outside world.

What It Means: You’ve probably heard the decades-old tale about how the rock band Van Halen included a provision in their backstage concert rider (i.e., an addendum to a contract that contains additional obligations) that stipulated that brown M&M’s were to be banished from the band’s dressing room.

For years I assumed this was another arbitrary and outlandish demand by spoiled rock stars. But the provision served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.

As Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography:

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . . ” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

Roth’s “Brown M&M Test” provided a simple but effective early warning system to warn the band of impending danger. Pastors can apply a similar test by preaching about controversial social issues, especially homosexuality, or by having a type of “brown M&M” clause within our church membership documents.

LGBT issues and same-sex marriage are not the most pressing issues in America, much less in our churches. But the pressure to uncritically accept homosexuality and the increased acceptance by Christians provides us with our own need for a Brown M&M Test. By speaking out about an issue Scripture has clearly addressed we can gain insight about our people from their reaction.

When we receive backlash for teaching what the Bible says about sexual ethics, it’s a clear indication that we should be looking for a broader failure of discipleship. The people in the pews who condone or endorse homosexuality and transgenderism are almost assured to have a lower view of Scripture, a reluctance to submit to biblical authorities, a degraded perspective on sexual ethics, and a general unwillingness to obey Christ in all areas of their life.

When using this test we should be aware that it is unidirectional. While embracing the LGBT agenda is a danger sign, the rejection of such homosexual issues is not in itself a sign of a healthy church. In some congregations it may also be necessary to use another issue, such as racial superiority, as the litmus test.

Overall, though, having such a test can be a useful and indirect method for exposing the true idols of the heart.

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Why Do People Reject Jesus Christ?

Jesus Christ was rejected by the Jews as their Messiah when He walked on this earth. But people are still rejecting Him today, and not only rejecting Him but rejecting Him for the very same reason the Jews rejected Him. Why would people reject Jesus Christ?

When Word Meets Spirit: Some Thoughts on Convergence

The conflict between the so-called Word and Spirit camps is not one supported by either God’s Word or the Holy Spirit. I’m shocked by how often Christians forget that it is the written Word of God that encourages us to pursue spiritual gifts and commands us never to forbid speaking in tongues, while it is the Spirit of God who is responsible, by inspiration, for every theological truth that the Bible affirms.

This division is not one that the Bible would ever endorse. It comes, instead, from the odd mixture of both fear and caricature. Those who live in the so-called Word camp have taken offense (sometimes for justifiable reasons) at the fanatical extremes of certain charismatics whose ministry style has become untethered from the biblical text. Some who live in the so-called Spirit camp have suffered greatly from the cynical and at times judgmental disdain of those who use the Bible as a weapon against anything with which they disagree.

The caricatures that each has of the other hasn’t helped. Those in the Word camp are convinced that charismatics prefer the present-tense voice of God to hearing what he has already said in Scripture. And charismatics accuse their cessationist friends of being overly cerebral and believing in a trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures.

But there are genuine signs throughout the professing Christian world of a glorious convergence between Word and Spirit. Of course, both sides would passionately insist that they have never contributed to the disturbing gap that we so often see in local churches. Word camp folk wholeheartedly affirm the person and power of the Spirit (although often with a skeptical eye on practices they consider extra-biblical or the exercise of tongues and prophecy). And Spirit camp people insist that they love the Word and are committed to obeying all that it says (notwithstanding the handful who tend to wander outside the boundaries of biblical truth to justify bizarre spiritual experiences).

The fact is that nowhere in the Bible are we told to be afraid of our affections or to consider the mind as our enemy. Nowhere are we warned about objective theological truth as if it might preclude a vibrant relationship of intimacy and joy with Jesus. The Spirit inspired the Word. The Word speaks frequently of the Spirit.

The conflict and convergence between the Word and Spirit movements can be best explained through a hypothetical story.

When Jenny first walked into Bridgeway Church, she was ecstatic with what she saw and heard. Having been raised for most of her Christian life in an independent charismatic church, she immediately connected with the atmosphere and energy of worship. Her heart leapt for joy when she saw several women dancing, as she herself loved to express her love for Jesus in more physically expressive ways. The shouts of gratitude and adoration, as well as a multitude of elevated hands, made her feel right at home. Jenny knew she had found the right spiritual family when the time of singing was briefly interrupted so that those who needed physical healing could receive prayer from others. And when a man and a woman came to the platform with words of knowledge, her eyes filled with tears of joy.

But it was something of a jolt to her heart when there followed a forty-five minute, verse-by-verse exposition of a passage from Colossians. Everyone around her opened their Bibles and listened attentively to a rigorously theological explanation and application of Paul’s letter.

“Does he do this every Sunday,” she asked the lady sitting next to her?

“Yes. Today is the 8th week in Colossians. I think he’ll eventually preach about 25 times from the book.”

Then the lady handed Jenny a single-spaced, six-page manuscript. “He gives us his notes every week. Here. This may help you follow along.”

Jenny suddenly became fearful. After the service, she spoke with the lady next to her: “Aren’t you afraid of quenching the Spirit. I’m concerned that placing so much emphasis on the Bible and its doctrines may turn you into a Pharisee. I’m not against truth, but I feel so much more comfortable when the Spirit’s power is the focus of what we do.”

Jerry’s reaction was similar to Jenny’s, but in the opposite direction. He had just moved to town and was looking for what he called a “Bible church” like the one he had attended for the past fifteen years. The sounds and sights of worship unnerved him. He’d never seen anyone waving a banner in a church service, and the exuberant shouts of joy and raised hands struck him as more like a Barnum & Bailey three-ring circus than a Sunday church service. Just as he was preparing to walk out, everyone sat down as the Word of God was opened, reverently read, carefully explained, and passionately applied.

“Huh,” he thought to himself, “this is weird. How can they do that?”

Both Jenny and Jerry loved Jesus. They loved the local church. But Bridgeway was something they had never seen or heard of before. That such an approach to Christianity could even exist was nothing short of a shock to the system.

Why this reaction on the part of two faithful, sincere believers in Jesus? How can two people who both love the Lord find themselves on seemingly opposite sides of a great spiritual chasm? And does it have to be this way? Is this sort of disagreement and discomfort unavoidable, or is there a solution that will make both Jenny and Jerry more comfortable with our approach to a Sunday gathering?

Let’s extend this illustration on the assumption that Jenny and Jerry are single and suddenly find themselves in something of a dating relationship. If marriage should follow, are they doomed to divorce? I could imagine one of their conversations going something like this:

Jerry: “I really enjoy your company Jenny, but you come across as a bit squishy when it comes to the Bible. You say you believe everything in it is true, but you seem to spend more time praying in tongues than listening to good teaching. When I attempted to get you to join with me in a home Bible study on Romans, you said your schedule was full. One night each week you participate in a ministry devoted to healing prayer, while yet another is given to discovery of one’s spiritual gifts.”

Jenny: “Yeah, I know. But everything you invite me to is so theologically heavy. The people in that Romans bible study are critical of anyone who disagrees with them. Their prayers are weak and low on faith and so peppered with, ‘If it be your will’ that I wonder if they really believe God will do anything of a miraculous nature when we ask him. The only time you talk about the Holy Spirit is when it pertains to sanctification. Aren’t you afraid of quenching his work?”

As Jerry and Jenny go deeper in their personal relationship, they discover that the chasm which separates them and their understanding of Christianity is far wider than they first imagined. Jenny is far more inclined to seek fellowship with believers who share her experience of the Spirit’s power while Jerry has a much more meticulous and rigorous litmus test that focuses almost entirely on doctrinal accuracy. Jenny loves contemporary worship and its emphasis on intimacy with God and the immediate experience of God’s presence. Jerry cringes when he hears the word “Bethel” and is enriched by the principles found in the lyrics of ancient hymns.

After leaving Bridgeway one Sunday, Jenny was trembling and tearful. “Did you feel God’s presence today? Was your heart warmed by the worship as mine was?”

“Well, not exactly,” Jerry replied. “God is omnipresent, so it really doesn’t matter what I ‘feel.’ It only matters that I know he’s everywhere. And the sermon is what really hit home. God’s written Word is where I connect. By the way,” Jerry continued, “my back was hurting so badly that I couldn’t stand long during the singing. I hope I didn’t embarrass you. I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”

“But why didn’t you go down front and let the prayer team intercede for you? They’ve seen tremendous success and I talked to a lady last week whose arthritic knee was completely healed.”

“Hmm. I’m open to being healed, if it is God’s will. But to be honest, I sort of think he’s trying to purify my heart by using my physical affliction. I’m learning to depend on him for everything these days. And I’m not even sure that he does that sort of thing anymore, at least not on a regular basis.”

“Yeah, but James says that we don’t have because we don’t ask (James 4:2). Why would you passively embrace suffering when he later tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16)?”

By this time Jerry and Jenny are beginning to think their relationship is doomed from the start. Jenny warns Jerry about the dangers of intellectualism, while Jerry speaks with equal concern about Jenny’s penchant for emotionalism.

Fortunately for Jenny and Jerry, a good friend boldly steps in to help close the gap that seems to divide them.

“Hey, you two. How did either of you ever get the idea that you could play off Word and Spirit against each other? What made you think that God has given us a choice: either that you love the Word and hold the Spirit at arm’s length or that you embrace the Spirit and treat the Word with some measure of neglect? Don’t you remember what those two men on the Emmaus road said about Jesus, that he ‘was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people?’ (Luke 24:19). God has wedded his Word to the Spirit and no man should ever seek to put them asunder!”

The scenario that I’ve portrayed for you is not as uncommon as you might think. People who are oriented toward the Word of God often view those who emphasize the Spirit of God as being weak in the head, while the latter view the former as being hard of heart. Can Christians genuinely embrace both the functional authority of Scripture and the supernatural work of the Spirit by means of the many gifts he has bestowed? Is it possible for a person to affirm the sufficiency of the Bible while earnestly desiring spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1)? Must a person give up insisting on doctrinal precision in order to pray fervently and in faith for the sick to be healed? Must we rein in our affections in order to honor our minds?

Spiritual Convergence Insufficiency

There is a common vision disorder known as Convergence Insufficiency (CI) that illustrates the problem many have with Word and Spirit. People with CI have difficulty seeing things clearly that are near to them. One eye tends to drift outward when reading or doing close work, often leading to double vision. The problem can lead to headaches, eye strain, blurred vision, and difficulty concentrating.

“Spiritual Convergence Insufficiency” occurs when a Christian is unable to focus on both Word and Spirit. Their sight of one is blurred while all energy and emphasis are given to the other. But Scripture insists on the convergence of Word and Spirit in our lives. We need to “see” both clearly and to labor in God’s grace so that neither is neglected or allowed to trump the other. Spiritual comprehension and clear-sighted understanding of God’s will require that we embrace the functional authority of Scripture while earnestly desiring and pursuing all spiritual gifts. In the absence of either, our sight is distorted and our spiritual priorities are blurred.

There are countless texts in the NT that remind us of the inseparable unity between Word and Spirit. Galatians 3:1-5 comes immediately to mind. Paul asks the believers in Galatia this question: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” We who are charismatic in faith and practice love the first half of that verse. God generously supplies the Spirit to us and works miracles among us. His power is precious and his gifts are glorious.

But by what means or through what mechanism does this occur? It isn’t in response to our good deeds or works. It is only when we “hear” the truth of God’s Word and respond in “faith” to it. Without the Word of truth that we hear and believe, there is no supply of the Spirit, no miracles. And without the abundant gift of the Spirit in his various manifestations and ministries, we would never understand the Word or find the energy to obey its commands. To sever the two, to impose a divorce between them, is worse than dangerous; it is spiritually lethal.

Luke tells us that when Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel at Iconium, God “bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). The miracles of healing and deliverance authenticated the truth of the Word. The Word of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is here again tethered to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. And when Paul preached the absolute, transcendent, eternal word of truth in Corinth he did so “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). The gospel came to the Thessalonians “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).

I am increasingly encouraged as I see the emergence of convergence in our day. Those who have held firmly to the foundational integrity of God’s written Word are overcoming their fear of the Spirit and his miraculous gifts. And those who have passionately pursued spiritual gifts are determined to root their practice in the principles of holy Scripture.

The urgent need of the church in the twenty-first century is followers of Jesus who are committed to the centrality and functional authority of the Bible, on the one hand, and effective, Christ-exalting operation of all spiritual gifts on the other; people who are gospel-centered and intolerant of manipulative excess and self-serving fanaticism, on the one hand, and delight in speaking in tongues, praying for the sick, and prophesying to the edification, encouragement, and consolation of other believers, on the other.

I’m talking about Christians who are intellectually exhilarated by complex biblical truths yet unafraid to give public expression to deep emotional delight and heart-felt affection for Jesus; theologically sophisticated followers of Christ who are hungry for the revelatory gifts of the Spirit while always subject to the final authority of the written text of Scripture.

My prayer today is for men and women who are passionate to see God work in supernatural, life-changing ways in his people, who long to pray with success for the sick and see them healed, who are persuaded that the truth of God’s Word, through the power of God’s Spirit, is what saves and sanctifies (John 17:17), and who will, in love, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

I wish I could tell you that Jerry and Jenny got married, but it wasn’t to be. However, I’m happy to announce that the marriage of Word and Spirit is always God’s will for all God’s people, in every local church. May we all commit that we not put asunder what God has joined together!

[A somewhat shorter version of this article was first published in Charisma magazine, October 2018.]

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On My Shelf: Life and Books with Rebecca McLaughlin

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

I asked Rebecca McLaughlin—regular contributor for The Gospel Coalition and author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway/TGC)—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about apologetics, and more.


What books are on your nightstand?

I tend to read dead people. There are upsides to this! It weeds out the flimsy literature that won’t survive beyond its cultural moment, and it reveals what in the human condition is perennial. But for the last year, I’ve committed to giving authors with a pulse a chance.

Currently, my nightstand features Sam Allberry’s excellent new book, 7 Myths about Singleness, as well as Sight, a debut novel about birth, death, grief, and scientific discovery by British author Jesse Greengrass.

I’m also halfway through Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is highly traumatic. I’m having to read it in stages, with space in between to lament. But as a white person living in America, I must confront the horror of slavery at an emotional level, and Morrison’s extraordinary writing gives me access to that.

What are your favorite fiction books?

As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book. I’ve returned to it every few years since, waiting to forget enough to enjoy it afresh. Right now, I’m reading it to my 8-year-old daughter—much to our mutual delight! Tolkien’s grasp of joy and lament and the depth of non-erotic love have always appealed to me. The moment when Eowyn defeats the Witch King of Angmar, and the scene when Sam sings to his imprisoned master to let Frodo know he’s there, exemplify these themes. At a holistic level, the possibility of an even more magical world than Tolkien’s actually existing is one of the reasons I find Christianity so compelling. We who believe in the resurrection have that hope!

As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book.

Jane Austen’s last completed book, Persuasion, is my favorite novel. It is, at heart, a tender love story. But it is a hard-won love, increased by disappointment. Austen was a serious Christian, and the book starts with a brilliant depiction of idolatry as she describes the heroine’s father, Sir Walter Elliot. Like someone given to extreme piety, Sir Walter is a one-book man. But his book is not the Bible. It’s the Baronetage—the yearbook of the British aristocracy—which includes a page about him that he paws over repeatedly. Two of his daughters have imbibed his self-obsession. But his middle daughter, Anne, is self-forgetful. She is Austen’s heroine.

You studied poetry for many years. Are there particular poets you’d recommend?

Yes! Much as I love prose, I managed to navigate my way through three English literature degrees on an almost exclusive diet of poetry. Shakespeare was my focus. He is the English poet par excellence, and lines from his plays play around my mind on an almost daily basis. But two more recent poets I’d recommend are the 19th-century Anglo-Italian poet Christina Rossetti and the early 20th-century Anglo-American poet T. S. Elliot. Both were deeply shaped by faith. Rossetti is most known today for the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Her work treads the line between pain and ecstasy, and we meet Christ in that margin in her poems. If you want a taste of that, try “A Better Resurrection.” It begins, “I have no wit, no words, no tears; / My heart within me like a stone / Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears”—and brings us around to union with Christ.

T. S. Eliot’s poetry is also explicitly Christian at times. Like Rossettii’s, Eliot’s best-known Christian-focused poem is connected to Christmas: “Journey of the Magi.” But most of his poems function more like the Book of Ecclesiastes, exposing life’s futility and making us long for more. Eliot dismissed his most famous poem, “The Wasteland,” as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” and, despite years of analytical training, I would honestly have a hard time explaining to anyone who wasn’t gripped by it why it’s compelling. But the grip is there. Indeed, for all Eliot’s checkered history and mixed-up life, a friend of mine came to Christ while he was a student at Oxford simply from studying Eliot’s works.

Which childhood books stick with you most?

I can’t read Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant without crying. I’ve tried. Multiple times! It’s an intensely beautiful children’s story about a giant whose selfishness keeps the spring away from his castle, until he learns to love. At the end, we find he has met Christ. It moves me partly because of Wilde’s deeply conflicted relationship with Christianity.

This comes out in a brilliant scene in his most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After years of cruel debauchery, committed only to beauty and pleasure, Dorian’s decadent mentor, Lord Henry, poses this question: “By the way, Dorian . . . what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose—how does the quotation run?—his own soul?”

Though a far less sophisticated tale, The Selfish Giant weds beauty to redemptive love. Both stories start with sin and end with death, but only one protagonist finds redemption.

What books have most influenced your thinking about apologetics and Christianity’s claims?

We all suffer from confirmation bias, which makes us liable to accept weak arguments for our beliefs. To compensate for this, I try to major on books by non-Christians that engage apologetic questions from the other side—either with a perspective that is hostile to Christianity, or with a somewhat neutral lens, looking at potentially relevant data without a Christian rinse. This helps me figure out what is and isn’t defensible and where the pressure points are—both for Christianity and also for alternative belief systems. As someone who is trying to address non-Christians and equip believers, I don’t want to add my bias to that of another Christian author and produce something with two layers of Christian veneer that would need to be scraped off to get to the facts.

The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true.

That said, I’ve benefited greatly from books by Christian academics. Two recent reads that stand out for me are Peter Williams’s Can We Trust the Gospels? and Christian Smith’s Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver. Williams offers a timely and accessible briefing on the best arguments (old and new) for the authenticity of the Gospels. Smith evaluates whether prominent atheist intellectuals make a credible case that atheism supports their moral ideals. His conclusions are devastating. It’s a hard read if you’re not academically minded, but it’s worth the effort. The idea that our commitment to universal human rights and sacrificial care for the global poor are better grounded by atheism than Christianity gets ripped apart. But there is no bravado. Smith calmly dismantles the claim, from a purely academic point of view.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true. It’s not always a pleasant discovery! Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. God’s answer was no, no, no: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In the past few years, I’ve been learning again and again that God doesn’t need my strength, but graciously uses my weakness. This isn’t an excuse for us to wallow in sin or self-doubt. Quite the opposite. It means we can stop agonizing over whether we have what it takes (we don’t), or whether people will think well of us (they won’t), or why we don’t seem to be able to make it without help (we can’t)—and so give our weak selves to the work God has given to us.

God has knocked the stuffing out of me multiple times in the past few years, but that’s okay. I don’t need to be filled with stuffing to serve him; I need to be filled with his grace.

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How the Lord’s Supper Reminds Me of the Lord’s Grip

Some memories set like concrete in our minds.

Learning to ride a bike on a bike that has no brakes. Dabbing my fingers in red paint and chasing my sisters around while screaming “Bloody fingers! Bloody fingers!” Crawling under the choir loft to play war after Royal Ambassadors on Wednesday nights. Those events set up memories early in my life that I’ll never forget.

While taking the Lord’s Supper recently, I saw again how early spiritual patterns are often the ones that sustain us later in life.

A man named Roger captured my attention because he suffers from early onset dementia. Roger is a faithful husband, father, and grandfather, but he is now in a season where his loving wife picks him up from a residential care facility every Sunday and brings him to church. He provided well for his family over the years and saved enough money to make possible his care.

Roger’s capacity is limited, his memory short, his usefulness waning. Yet every Sunday he shows up to worship King Jesus with a smile on his face. Always in slacks, a dress shirt, and a perfectly tied necktie that lands just above his belt buckle, Roger stands with hands clasped in front, moving them up and down to the sound of the music as he sings every word of every song.

After attending the first service, Roger stands in the back of the sanctuary during the music of the second service. His participation is never distracting, but never passive. He may have forgotten some things, lost a few skills and a few steps, but he hasn’t forgotten how to worship his great God.

As he took the Lord’s Supper a few Sundays ago, he was again reminded, if even for a moment, that God loves him so much that he sent his only Son to bear Roger’s sin and give him new life. Roger can’t volunteer in the preschool ministry and probably won’t serve popcorn at this year’s fall festival. But every time he sits down to take the Supper with the rest of us, he clearly, boldly, and victoriously proclaims the Lord’s death.

The apostle Paul wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy: “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 1:13)

Memory Meal

When Jesus first shared the Supper with his disciples, he was giving them something firm to hold on to—like a beam set in concrete. Jesus would soon be betrayed and crucified in their place. He wanted them not only to remember the sacrifice, but also to grasp its significance. Jesus was leaving, and other people, priorities, and persecutions would soon threaten the devotion of their hearts. But the Lord’s Supper was a handle they could grasp through it all.

Doubts would come, but they would remember. Dangers would come, but they would remember. Dissenters would abandon them, but they would remember that indelible moment when Jesus broke the bread and served the cup. It was a simple act, a common meal, but it would soon become their sustaining grace.

Roger’s memory is fading, but he’s still able to return to the old ways that shaped his heart in better times. As I administered the Lord’s Supper that day, Roger taught me that learning to worship Jesus early in life allows the Spirit to wash over me, as predictably as the ocean tide washes against the shoreline, to slowly transform my heart and prepare me for harsher days.

Religious routines absent intimacy with God rot our souls, but the faithful practice of corporate worship fueled by God’s Spirit produces enduring joy. Even on the days we don’t feel like it, we show up for worship. Even when we’ve lost our song, we sing through the tears. Even when our kids would rather do something else, we lead the way back into the community of faith. Even when the Devil accuses us, we reject isolation and unite with other believers to declare with our voices what we doubt with our heart. Even when our minds wander, we open our Bible, listen to another sermon, and take note of God’s Word to us.

Beams in Concrete

These corporate disciplines of grace are beams set in concrete. Singing, praying, standing to read Scripture, observing the Lord’s Supper, listening to sermons, giving tithes and offerings, are all ordinary acts of worship. These acts, however, don’t just train our hearts to hold on when doubt, disease, and discouragement move in; they hold us when our grip begins to fail. These mundane patterns of worship that we practice when life is good, when we feel strong and full of vigor, actually shape our hearts to keep worshiping when we aren’t as strong as we thought, when we discover we’re at the end of our rope, when our potential gives way to reality, when our best days on earth make room for better days in heaven.

So as long as God allows me to shepherd the flock, I’ll keep inviting people to gather each Sunday to practice ordinary corporate disciplines. I’ll watch them with a thankful heart knowing this labor is not in vain. Then I’ll pray for them, knowing they will soon be asked to trust God in private like they worship him in public.

When Roger came forward to receive the bread and cup, not only did he picture the good news of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, but he reminded us all that God’s grace sustains us even when all we have is an old, familiar song to sing from the back of the room.

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20 Quotes on Identity from Jackie Hill Perry

The following quotes caught my attention as I read Jackie Hill Perry’s beautiful memoir, Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been (B&H, 2018).


[Eve] figured fruit and not faith, sin and not obedience, would give her the wisdom she needed to be more perfect than she already was. Interestingly enough, some of what she saw was true. The tree was indeed good for food and pleasant to the sight; God had made it that way (Gen. 2:9). The deception was in believing that the tree was more satisfying to the body and more pleasurable to the sight than God. (18)

Unbelief doesn’t see God as the ultimate good. So it can’t see sin as the ultimate evil. It instead sees sin as a good thing and thus God’s commands as a stumbling block to joy. In believing the Devil, I didn’t need a pentagram pendant to wear, neither did I need to memorize a hex or two. All I had to do was trust myself more than God’s Word. I had to believe that my thoughts, my affections, my rights, my wishes, were worthy of absolute obedience and that in laying prostrate before the flimsy throne I’d made for myself, that I’d be doing a good thing. (19)

Just as Eve let her body tell her what she should do with it, instead of God’s Word, which would’ve reminded her of what it was made for, I was inevitably prone to the same kind of unbelief. The one in which sin seemed better than submission. Or where women, who are beautifully and wonderfully made, just as the tree had been, would be more beautiful and more wonderful than I considered God to be. (21)

Apparently, this body was never mine to begin with—it was given to me from Somebody, for Somebody. (51)

Passing the blunt between us, I shook my head. . . . “Is God trying to get my attention by making my life harder or something?” I said. Blowing out smoke between questions, said out loud but mainly meant for God to hear and relent. “I mean, does God want me that much?” As grace would have it, He did. (64–65)

I know now what I didn’t know then. God was not calling me to be straight; he was calling me to himself. The choice to lay aside sin and take hold of holiness was not synonymous with heterosexuality. . . . In my becoming holy as he is, I would not be miraculously made into a woman that didn’t like women; I’d be made into a woman that loved God more than anything. (69)

Who gave mercy my address? Or told it how to get to my room? Didn’t it know a sinner lived in it? On the way down the hall, shouldn’t the smell of idols kept its feet from moving any closer. Then I remembered the one verse of the Bible that I knew by heart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (75)

Is this what it feels like to be a Christian? I thought to myself. Is it to have a quiet war inside of yourself at all times? (83)

I was able to want God because the Holy Spirit was after my affections just as much as he was after my obedience. (84)

The body doesn’t have to have the final say in our lives. (89)

Standing in the backroom at work, I said to God in my mind, where no one but him could hear me speak, “God, I am really struggling. I wanna go back so bad. Lord, help me.” I stood there straightened up by a familiar interruption. Quieted and listening, my mind held in it this sentence: “Jackie, you have to believe my Word is true, even if it contradicts how you feel.” (89)

What other story was as good as that, and as relevant for us, than the news that Jesus laid down his life for a bride that didn’t want him in her own? Preston didn’t love me because he was a hopeless romantic. Our situation according to a worldly standard was hopeless. But he had another reference point to draw strength from: the gospel. He loved me because he loved God more. (132)

I don’t believe it is wise or truthful to the power of the gospel to identify oneself by the sins of one’s past or the temptations of one’s present but rather to only be defined by the Christ who’s overcome both for those he calls his own. All men and women, including myself, that are well acquainted with sexual temptation are ultimately not what our temptation says of us. We are what Christ had done for us; therefore, our ultimate identity is very simple: We are Christians. (148)

Unbelief will always contrast sin with God. Making it and not him glorious. Making it and not him worth living for. Making it and not him worth dying for. (152)

Just because we are tempted does not mean that we are our temptations. (155)

It is the identity that we ascribe to God out of doubt or faith in his Scriptures that will determine the identity we will give ourselves and ultimately the life that we inevitably live. If he is the Creator, then we are created. If he is Master, then we are servants. If he is love, then we are loved. If he is omnipotent, then we are not as powerful as we think. If he is omniscient, then there is nowhere to hide. If he cannot lie, then his promises are all true. It is faith in the truths of God’s character that has the power to completely revolutionize how our lives are lived out. (160)

Following Jesus [means] not only eternal life but also a crucified one. (168)

Being strengthened to endure and being given the power to obey doesn’t make obedience easy, but it does make it possible. (173)

The SSA Christian that is called to marriage is no more of an apologetic for the power of God than the SSA Christian that is called to singleness. In both, God is glorified. (183)

Our sexuality is not our soul, marriage is not heaven, and singleness is not hell. (190)

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The Global Face of Christianity is Shifting

In a recent blog article at the Gospel Coalition website, Justin Taylor drew attention to some shocking statistics cited by Mark Noll in his book, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP Academic, 2009). I thought you would find this fascinating, as I do. Here is what Justin wrote.

It is as if the globe had been turned upside down and sideways.

A few short decades ago, Christian believers were concentrated in the global north and west, but now a rapidly swelling majority lives in the global south and east.

As [a Christian] Rip Van Winkle wiped a half-century of sleep from his eyes [after awaking this past week] and tried to locate his fellow Christian believers, he would find them in surprising places, expressing their faith in surprising ways, under surprising conditions, with surprising relationships to culture and politics, and raising surprising theological questions that would not have seemed possible when he fell asleep.

Noll observes:

The Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history. . . .

More than half of all Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last one hundred years.

Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.

Noll gives us a snapshot of this past Sunday around the globe to put flesh and blood on these generalizations.

• This past Sunday it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” Yet in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches in all of China; only in 1971 did the communist regime allow for one Protestant and one Roman Catholic Church to hold public worship services, and this was mostly a concession to visiting Europeans and African students from Tanzania and Zambia.

• This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined—and the number of Anglicans in church in Nigeria was several times the number in those other African countries.

• This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.

• This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly black congregations. About half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean. Today, the largest Christian congregation in Europe is in Kiev, and it is pastored by a Nigerian of Pentecostal background.

• This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia.

The simple fact is that we in the west no longer live in the center of Christian community. The world is changing, and it is essential that we adjust our understanding and our missional agendas appropriately.

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Gloria Furman on Eternal Outlook for Everyday Life

“I don’t know what fleeting circumstance is making you struggle with an eternal perspective. It might be your role as a wife or a mom, your income, your back pain, your cancer, your social media, your car, your town, whatever temporary earthly circumstance it is. Whatever you feel defines you, look at this in light of what you read in Colossians—that this life is not all there is. You know that. We all know that. God has put eternity in man’s heart. But we have to do the hard work of remembering that our life is hidden with Christ in God.” — Gloria Furman

Date: June 15, 2018

Event: The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference

Mentioned in this podcast: A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent

Listen to this episode  of The Gospel Coalition podcast here. Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

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