Margin notes: Psalm 13

Psalm 13:1–6 (ESV) — 1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

David certainly had his enemies. And so do we. But no enemy is greater, more ruthless, more subtle, dangerous and relentless than our own indwelling sin. And when we read the Psalms that treat of David’s enemies, it is good for us to think in terms of our great enemy of sin in drawing from those Psalms something of the instruction and comfort they are meant to give us.

In this short Psalm, there is an interesting pattern: Three “how long”‘s followed by three counterpoints.

1. How long? / But I have trusted. 2. How long? / My heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 3. How long? I will sing to the Lord for He has dealt bountifully.

This is the prayer of one who has made sin and iniquity his enemy – and is engaged in their overthrow. When the battle against indwelling sin rages high, it may seem as though God has forgotten us in our struggle. And it can seem as though His presence is hidden. It can seem like an eternity we’ve been battling and that our inward dialog is one of perpetual sorrow. And that the enemy has triumphed over us. 

Yet once again, the Psalmist (like we) pleads for God to consider his case. He pleads for light in the darkness and deliverance from what is too strong for him. And that light comes immediately the counterpoints to his laments.

How long? I don’t know. But this I will remember – I’ve trusted in YOUR steadfast love, not my own.

How long? I don’t know. But I will direct my heart to rejoice in your salvation by grace nevertheless.

How long? I don’t know. But I will sing to you Lord, for battle or no, set-backs or no, trials or no, in Jesus Christ you have dealt bountifully with me. Your grace is greater than my sin. Jesus’ blood is sufficient for all my guilt. And so I will worship you – no matter how long this battle lasts.

Father God – give me David’s heart.


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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.

Margin notes: Psalm 11

Psalm 11:1–7 (ESV) — 1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, 2 for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; 3 if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” 4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. 5 The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. 6 Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

Whether it is political discourse, the news media, advertising or some special interest group or fad, it seems as though today’s default means of motivating people is fear. Everything we eat or drink will kill us. Our medicines will make us ill. All businesses are out to destroy us. One political party wants to enslave us and the other wishes to manufacture crises to keep money and power. Nature is about to extinguish all life aliens are trying to invade and robots will soon take over the planet. And our only hope is in the voting booth, precious metals or Facebook posts. All unstable too.

But David has a word from the Lord for us.

Since God is my refuge – why (I ask myself) why do I counsel myself to run from trouble? Yes, the wicked are out there, doing their best to destroy in the dark. But my foundation, my refuge is in the Lord – and if I destroy THAT foundation, then what is a righteous person to do? Panic like everyone else? May it never be!

So what are we to do? Go back and reinspect our true foundation and surety in our God because of Christ Jesus. And what are those unshakeable foundation stones?

1. (4a) The Lord – the One who rules over all, rules in HOLINESS. Sin and injustice cannot prevail.

2. (4b) The Lord rules from Heaven. His reign is over all. He really does rule.

3. (4c) This holy, sovereign God – sees. He knows what is going on. He understands every detail.

4. (4c) His eyelids test the children of man – He examines each one with divine perception. No one escapes His observation and His observation is absolutely accurate.

5. (5) The righteous may indeed suffer testing. But the righteous He tests in love. The wicked and the ones who love violence – He is not acting on behalf of. He has a hatred of them.

6. (6) I can trust God to deal with them appropriately.

7. (7a) God is righteous Himself. He cannot act unrighteously because He IS righteous. It is His nature.

8. (7b) God loves righteous deeds. He will look favorably upon those who do things in accordance with His righteousness.

9. (7c) I WILL see Him. He will look upon me with love. That is my end. No matter what happens in the meantime. 

Take your refuge in the Lord beloved.


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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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The Book of Ruth – Part 1

As Al began to unfold for us some weeks back, Ruth is a wonderful and powerful account of the nature of “hesed” or kindness, blessedness and steadfast love. A love that obligates itself to its object in promises and acts of blessing and devotion.

That ‘hesed” shows itself in Ruth and in Boaz and in all points as a reminder of God’s own love for His Church.

That concept helps us understand the place of this little book in the larger canon of Scripture.

It has often been asked what role this book plays in regard to the Bible as a whole since it seems – as charming as it is – not to hold any major theological importance.

I would like to suggest to you yet another reason why this book earns its place in the canon: That is how it graphically demonstrates the doctrine we just had read for us in Ephesians chapter 2.

In Ephesians, Paul describes how it is that Gentile believers like the majority of us here today, can find inclusion in the household of faith which was promised only to the people of Israel as the offspring of Abraham.

As you well know, God had chosen the Jewish people alone from all the peoples on the earth to reveal Himself to, give His Word to, and bring the Messiah out of to earth.

When Paul is lamenting that so many of his fellow Jews do not believe in Jesus he says this about the Jewish nation in Romans 9:4-5

Romans 9:4–5 ESV

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

The negative then is also obvious: These things belong to THEM. So how then do you and I get to be a part of this?

Ruth shows us in this most sweet and charming way how this was always a part of God’s plan, and how by His grace it all comes about.

Ruth, this Moabitess, this Gentile woman to whom none of these promises belong – gets brought in, so as not just to be a partaker of God’s exclusive promises to Israel, but also to become the great-grandmother of King David himself, and part of the bloodline of Jesus the Messiah.


So it is with that backdrop in view, we can begin to mine out a host of truths, lessons and encouragements for the Church today.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

Verse 1 helps us locate the events of the book at a particular moment in Israel’s history. And not their finest moment by any means.

As the book of Judges just before Ruth closes, it does so on this note: Judges 21:25

Judges 21:25 ESV / In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

And if you are at all familiar with the book of Judges, you know it contains records of some of the darkest periods in all of Israel’s history.

It was a bizarre time. The wild wild west of Israel’s history. This idea that everyone just did what was right in their own eyes tells you how lawless and dangerous it was.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

So it is that during this time a famine came about in the region of Bethlehem where this family, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their 2 sons Mahlon and Chilion lived.

Travel not being what it is today and the topography of Judah being what it is, it was possible for somewhat regional famines to occur. Agriculture was very regionalized. The family’s move from Bethlehem to Moab was only about 50 miles. But as we well know in upstate NY, weather conditions from say Rochester to Buffalo can vary in the extreme. So here.

Moab, although technically a foreign nation, was still a cousin nation to Israel. They had a mingled history. And relations between them at this point – at least among the common folk as neighbors – were friendly. This move was really no great shakes to anyone.

And as the word “sojourn” in vs. 1 indicates this was to be a temporary arrangement, not permanent.

So far, so good – until: Ruth 1:3-5

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Elimelech dies – we don’t know how or what of. And the 2 sons decide to take Moabite wives.

Contrary to popular thought, it was not against God’s law for Jewish men to marry Moabite women. There was a prohibition against Jewish women marrying  Moabite – or any foreign men – because the family inheritance of land was passed down through the male bloodline.

The passage often cited in this regard is Deut 23:3

Deuteronomy 23:3 ESV / “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever,

The key to understanding this has to do with what it means that neither of these may “enter the assembly.” Jewish literature tells us that to “enter the assembly” meant to become part of the community leadership or have a voice in local politics.

All land owners had this privilege. But foreign men having no right to own land in Israel, they were not permitted to hold such a place in the local economy.

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

In any case, in time, Mahlon – whose name means weak or sickly – most likely named that because he had been a sickly child, and Chilion, whose name means failing or pining, both pass away as well.

Ruth 1:6–14 ESV / Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

At this point Naomi, having heard the famine back home was over, and having no husband or sons anymore decides to go home, accompanied by her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth.

But as they go, Naomi has second thoughts, and appeals to these 2 young women – apparently still of marriageable age – to go back to their people and find new husbands.

The dialog is very emotional and in the end, Orpah does return, but Ruth – as the text says: “clung to her.”

And here we encounter a powerfully poignant and important conversation: Ruth 1:15-18

Ruth 1:15–18 ESV / And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

Ruth simply will not be persuaded. She has seen something in Naomi and perhaps in her exposure to the whole family, which has captured her. And there has grown a love between them that Ruth finds it unbearable to let go of. She makes a most impassioned plea and a series of vows we’ll come back to in a minute. And at last, Naomi relents and off they go to Bethlehem.

Ruth 1:19–22 ESV / So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.

So it is they arrive back in Naomi’s hometown, to the welcome – and by the word “stirred” in vs. 19 – also to the sympathies of her neighbors for her losses.

Well then, what are we to glean out of this so far? Let me make just 6 observations.

Observation 1:  When providence allows great suffering, it is easy to imagine that God has something against us.

That He is persecuting us in some way.

Look at Naomi’s language so far:

13 – The hand of the Lord has gone out against me

20 – The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me

21 – The Lord has brought me back empty

21 – The Lord has testified against me

21 – The Almighty has brought calamity upon me

This is a brokenhearted woman. And by her own admission, bitter. What emerges in these statements is that she has – at least for the moment – lost any sense of the kindness of God in the depths of her sorrow.

So it is with you and I; when we lose our confidence in God’s great love for us in Christ – we can easily begin to imagine our trials are the fruit of God having actually turned against us.

Naomi is not a bad woman, she is a broken one. She is sad, grieving, discouraged, lonely, perhaps perplexed, and hurting.

And I am so grateful that the narrative doesn’t have anyone showing up and saying: “Don’t feel that way!”

This is a condition God well understands.

When Moses was sent back to Egypt to free God’s people from slavery, Exodus 6:9 records

Exodus 6:9 ESV / Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.

It is at times like these that the admonition of Jude 20-21 becomes critically important to the Believer.

Jude 20–21 ESV / But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Keep yourself in the love of God beloved. Don’t let go of it. Remind yourself of it. Sing the songs and hymns that reiterate it to your soul. Go back to meditate on the Cross and those great passages that tell you of the love of God over and over and over.

It is all too easy to lose the reality of God’s love for us in times or great trial and suffering. We can easily become Naomi ourselves.

Observation 2: – In times of deep sorrow, it is hard to see the blessing God has placed even in the closest proximity to us.

  1. Ruth. Naomi discounts how lovingly devoted Ruth is to her. Ruth’s devotion doesn’t seem to impact her. In fact, she seems to treat it more like an unwelcome complication. That will change.
  2. Reversal of the famine. She has gone home because the famine is ended. God is blessing, but she is blind to it even though she knows it.
  3. A welcoming community. vs. 19 says the whole town was stirred at seeing them return. The women especially seemed to rally to Naomi and took notice of the toll the years had taken on her.

There is sympathy and love and concern, but she can neither feel it, nor take comfort from it.

Don’t be surprised if at times your brother or sister in Christ is overwhelmed by grief and confusion at. It is natural. God isn’t hindered by that at all, but how we can be.

Observation 3: – We do not know the end of the story while still in the midst of it.

Times of great trial and stress are not times to draw great theological conclusions – especially about the future.

And when going through great suffering, especially prolonged suffering, we can easily conclude as I already mentioned, that God is somehow or for some reason out to get us – or that this is all there is. This is the only way I will ever feel. Nothing will ever change and this is just my permanent lot.

And while that may be true to certain extent in the short term, it is never the full story for those in Christ.

And it is why Scripture calls us to weigh our present sufferings against the eternal weight of glory that will yet be ours. Scripture never tells us to ignore our sorrows or pretend like they are not there nor as serious as they really are.

What it DOES do is ask us to “compare” them to what God has promised so that they do not overwhelm us.

Romans 8:18 ESV / For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Observation 4: – Even at our worst, the glory of the Gospel can have an impact on others.

Isn’t God amazing? I am so grateful for this – that the power of salvation is in the Gospel and not in me.

Irrespective of Naomi’s bitterness and what some might consider a poor witness, something about her still attracts Ruth, and she will not abandon her only conduit to whatever that is.

This is how we witness the Spirit at work. At work in very brittle “jars of clay”. (2 Cor. 4:7)

Naomi was bitter, but she also wanted to go home. Back to God’s people and God’s place. There was something to her roots that Ruth was struck by even when her sister-in-law was not.

It reminds you of Job who had come to the place where he completely despaired of either relief or restoration during his lifetime – but who nonetheless could utter: Job 19:25-27

Job 19:25–27 ESV / For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

Sometimes, the hope of the resurrection is the only hope we have left. And that is an astounding testimony to those around us, though it may seem lame to us.

Observation 5: – 2 people can be exposed to the very same spiritual truths, go through the same experiences, and yet one continues on while the other does not.

As in Jesus’ parable of the soils, some manifest something of the impact of the truth on them, but eventually, they stop “going.”

So it is with Orpah and Ruth. Both married into the same family.

Both observed the same lifestyle and faith in that family.

One is intrigued by it, drawn to it and will not stop until she partakes of it.

The other seems to share the same mind – but at last returns to her home, her family, the familiar.

This is how it is with the Gospel. The very same Gospel which draws one, does not draw the other. The same sun which nourishes one plant, withers another. The same rain which drowns one, feeds another.

Only the work of the Spirit in the heart of one makes that one-in-the-same seed of Gospel sprout deep and lasting roots.

Observation: 6 – The nature of a true commitment to Christ.

Ruth 1:16–17 ESV / But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

There is something powerfully parallel to the nature of true conversion in Ruth’s declaration to Naomi. In fact, it is a model for what it means to be joined to Christ in a saving way. Let’s unpack these vows Ruth makes.

  1. Where you go I will go: One cannot help but recall Jesus’ call to His disciples: “Follow me.”

But it was not just for them – following Christ is the very essence, a foundation stone of true Christianity: John 10:27

John 10:27 ESV / My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

There is no better definition of a Christian than this – they follow Jesus Christ. 1 John 2:6

1 John 2:6 ESV / whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

Christians are those who follow Christ – who walk as He walked. A walk well detailed for us in Scripture and characterized by statements such as:

Eph. 5:2 – Walk in love

Eph. 5:8 – Walk as children of light

Eph. 5:15 – Walk, not as unwise, but as wise

Gal. 5:16 – Walk by The Spirit

2 Cor. 5:7 – Walk by faith, not by sight

Following Christ as He walked – always pleasing the Father.

Where you go, I will go.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

2 – Where you lodge, I will lodge: And where does Christ lodge? Where does He make His home? but in His Church.

No man can claim to follow Christ and to be with Him if they are not where He is most manifest – in The Church.

The Christian finds his or her home in the Church and is never quite at home apart from her. Those who separate themselves from the Body of Believers are those who want to own Christ – but not to lodge where He lodges. They find this house not to their liking. And like Orpah, they choose instead to live back where they used to live – with the familiar. But alas, not with Christ. They want Christ on their terms, not His.

Ephesians 2:22 ESV / In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

3 – Your people, shall be my people: When one is joined to Christ, we are necessarily joined to His people. We cannot have Him WITHOUT also embracing His people.

The true Christian owns the Body of Christ as his or her own – as broken, mixed up, messed up, and still sin-stained as we are.

Christ did not just die for individuals as individuals, but to make us His family. And we must receive all of His to BE His.

4 – Your God, shall be my God: For Ruth this meant a willingness to give up a certain measure of her culture, her background, and certainly part of her identity.

Moabites were known for their devotion to Chemosh “the destroyer.” But Ruth repudiates her old god. She rejects her idol. She does not intend to go with Naomi and bring her old life and old devotion with her – no, she is going to do exactly what Paul says the Thessalonians did and why he had such faith in their conversion: “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 1 Th 1:9–10.

Christians give up their former gods, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus.

5 – Where you die, I will die: This is no temporary change – this is a commitment to make her new home – her permanent home.

Ruth makes no plans to return once Naomi passes. She is determined to live and die in this new place as her very own. And for her it is a point of no return.

The true Christian is one who has said: There is no going back. I’ve committed to a course, to follow Jesus, to dwell where He dwells, to make His people my people, to serve His Father as my Father and to die where He does as well: To die to sin and self at the Cross in and with Him.

6 – May God curse me if I mean any less than this: Lastly, she binds herself to a solemn oath that all this is to be the case.

Many of the ancient Rabbis consider Ruth’s words here her formal act of becoming a proselyte – a full convert to Judaism and a part of the Jewish people.

It is what the Believer does today when we enter into the waters of Baptism. We take on the fullness of this same commitment.

And it follows Jesus’ own admonition to those who said they wanted to claim to be His in His day:

Luke 14:25–28 ESV / Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous little book “The Cost of Discipleship” had nothing on Ruth’s declaration here.

And here it is before us for our consideration today.

If you are not a Christian here today, I want you to know that this is what is being asked of you should you respond to the Gospel and to trust in Christ for your salvation.

He demands no less of you than what you read here in Ruth’s vows. Less than this is not Christianity – like Orpah’s genuine but temporary allegiance that does not prove to be saving in the end.

We do not want you to come to Christ under false pretenses. This is not some mere decision like choosing one item among many off of the religion menu. It is an all or nothing proposition.

And Believer, perhaps you’ve lost sight of these things and need to reconfirm them this morning. Maybe you’ve found yourself traveling back toward Moab from time to time. Thinking you can be His all by yourself, without the need for the Church or fellowship with His people.

Perhaps some other god of self, the culture, ease, pleasure, family, work, accomplishment or some other false idol has caught your eye once more.

I pray you will seek His face today and reaffirm your relationship in the fullness of what it really means.


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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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Margin notes: What’s in a word?

Acts 14:21–23 (ESV) — 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This text is a snippet from the ministry of Barnabas and Paul. And you will notice in vs. 22 how in returning to cities where they had preached Christ previously, they strengthened “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them.” That word “encouraging” appears more in the book of Acts than it does in any other NT book. It is central to missionary endeavors of the early Chuch. But more, it indicates a perpetual and crying need within the Church – encouragement. A topic that is going to appear in nearly every NT letter.

Now in our text, this encouragement took on a very decided focus: Persevering in the faith in the face of tribulations which are certain to occur in the lives of Believers.

The truth is, we all face a host of tribulations of different species. Sickness and disease. Broken marriages and families. Battles with sin. Misunderstanding by those both in and outside the body of Christ. An anti-Christ culture. Personal failings. Economic uncertainty. War. Civil unrest. Personal spiritual apathy. Strained relationships. Loneliness. Feelings of inadequacy. Loss of meaning. Political turmoil. On and on. All which can contribute to distraction, discouragement, division, depression and despondency. And all of which point to why as Believers, we too need to be committed to the ministry of encouragement.

May I encourage you today to say a word to some brother or sister in the Lord to keep in the battle, to keep seeking the face of God, to remain steadfast in prayer, to get back into the Word, to offer up thanksgiving for blessings and to remind ourselves of the goodness of God’s grace in bringing into the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the promise of His return and the glory of the resurrection? Oh how we need one another to “lift up the drooping hands and strengthen the weak knees” (Heb. 12:12) of our brothers and sisters.

It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God. But His Word is true, His promises certain, His indwelling Spirit available to rely upon and His people around us.

1 Thessalonians 4:18 (ESV) — 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.


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