Stretching from the time of Moses (Psalm 90) to the exile of Israel (Psalm 126 or 137), the Psalms as we know them—150 songs ordered in five books—took a long time to write. So, how do we read them in their historical context? What is their historical context? And how do we sing them today, knowing that at least some of them were first written and sung in Solomon’s temple (cp. 2 Chronicles 5:13 and Psalm 136)?
The answer, I believe, is to read them with multiple historical contexts in mind. This is not to change the author’s original intent, but to recognize that through the history of redemption (and the progress of revelation), the inspired Word of God, especially the Psalms, found multiple literary settings whereby God led his people with his Word.
Accordingly, we who come at the end of the line, or better, we on whom the end of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11), must learn how to read Israel’s songbook as part of the deposit of faith given to the church (see 2 Timothy 3:16–17). But how do we do that? My proposal is that we learn how to sing the Psalms in four keys, a practice outlined by Bruce Waltke and Franz Delitzsch.
First, Bruce Waltke, in his essay, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” (found in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, 3–18) observes four historical phases in the development of the Psalms. He writes,
The four distinct points in the progressive perception and revelation of the text occasioned by the enlarging of the canon are: (1) the meaning of the psalm to the original poet, (2) its meaning in the earlier collections of psalms associated with the First Temple, (3) its meaning in the final and complete Old Testament canon associated with the Second Temple, and  its meaning in the full canon of the Bible including the New Testament with its presentation of Jesus as the Christ. (9)
Interestingly, Waltke is not the first to think of the Psalms in this way. He cites from Franz Delitzsch classic commentary on the Psalms:
The expositor of the Psalms can place himself on the standpoint of the poet, or the standpoint of the Old Testament church, or the standpoint of the church of the present dispensation–a primary condition of exegetical progress is the keeping of these three standpoints distinct and, in accordance, therewith, the distinguishing between the two Testaments, and in general between different steps in the development of the revelation, and in the perception of the plan of redemption. (Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton, 64)
Indeed, whether from three “standpoints” or four “stages,” the New Testament believer must give attention to the way in which the Psalms have various historical contexts. Only then can we apply the Psalms to ourselves, avoiding both extra-textual allegory and Christ-less historicism.Singing the Psalms in four keys
Now, I can imagine that the prospect of reading the Psalms with four stages in view might seem a little daunting. So here is a memory device that might help.
Just as songs can be sung in different keys, I suggest you think of singing the Psalms in four keys. Indeed, in any given moment you may only read the Psalm in one key, but we must be aware of the others. Only when we pay attention to all four keys do we have the full understanding of the Psalms in their historical context. Here are the four keys.
- The key of D sets the individual Psalm in its original setting. ‘D’ stands for David or any of the other historical authors of the Psalms. Psalms which have historical superscripts help us immensely here. In some cases, we do not know the details of the historical setting. But we know from the other Psalms, that each Psalm originally possessed an historical setting where the Psalm originated.
- The key of E sets the individual Psalm in the context of the Psalter itself. ‘E’ stands for Exile, the place where the Psalter in its canonical form arose. Whereas the ‘D’ key focuses on the original historical setting, this key focuses on the literary setting. The whole Psalter was written to post-exilic Israel, so there is an historical setting. But this key helps us most carefully with the arrangement and messianic message of the Psalter.
- The key of C sets the individual Psalm in the context of the Bible as a whole. ‘C’ stands for Christ, the Messiah of whom the Psalter speaks. While many Psalms speak of David or his son Solomon, the ultimate aim is that of Christ. It is this reason why Acts 4:25, quoting Psalm 16, can say that David spoke of Christ (“For David says concerning him”). In the key of D, Psalm 16 may not have spoken of Christ, but very shortly, as David’s song was put in the key of E, it would soon be pointing forward to the messiah. Accordingly, when Jesus proved to be the Messiah, the messianic intentions of Psalm 16 are clear.
In this way, we do not read the Psalms cherry-picking messianic psalms. Rather, as Waltke rightly observes, “In all fairness, it seems as though the writers of the New Testament are not attempting to identify and limit the psalms that prefigure Christ but rather are assuming that the Psalter as a whole has Jesus Christ in view and that this should be the normative way of interpreting the psalms” (7). The whole of the Psalter is messianic and should be read accordingly.
- The key of F applies the Psalms to God’s people in union with Christ. ‘F’ stands for fellowship and represents the spiritual union we have with the Christ, of whom the Psalms are ultimately directed. Truly, we may often intuitively translate the Psalms into this key. It would be laborious to always work through each key to get here. Daily devotions may and should live in this key. Still, it is important to know how and why we can sing and pray the Psalms for ourselves. Likewise, in applying them to ourselves, we should not miss who the king is and who the worshipers are. Without attention to the previous keys, we may easily employ messianic psalms for our own kingdoms (see Pss 20–21). However, by increasing our awareness of keys D, E, and C, we should avoid praying, “My kingdom come.”
Indeed, only as we read the Psalms in these four contexts can we rightly understand them.Learning to play the four keys
Again, we need not attend to every key in every sermon or prayer. But the reason why we can apply these temple songs of Israel to ourselves today is because of their progressive nature. What was written by David and Asaph and the sons of Korah was taken up and collected in the temple; then in time it was arranged as we have it in the Psalter. Finally, in the fullness of time, we see who the Psalms (especially Books 4 and 5) anticipated, and we can read the whole thing as anticipating Jesus Christ. Just read how Peter preached Psalm 16 in Acts 2 or the author of Hebrews quoted Psalms 2, 8, 45, 102, 104, and 110 in Hebrews 1–2.
In sum, we should read, sing, and pray the Psalms as our own (cf. Col 3:16), but only because of the way Christ brings them to us. Accordingly, as we interpret them, we should be aware of the way the Psalms spoke to him and about him. Only then, in union with him, can we make them our own—as sons and daughters grafted into the vine of Christ. To make this kind of personal application is in no way allegorical, it is Christian. It honors the history of the Psalms and the wisdom of God who inspired, preserved, focused (in Christ), and amplified their message.
Let us take up the Psalms then and behold the way in which Christ emerges from their lyrics. Let us give praise to God for the Psalms and praise him with the Psalms.
La Reforma y las Indulgencias, Pasadas y Actuales / The Reformation and Indulgences, Both Past and Present
En este año se celebra alrededor del mundo los 500 años del inicio de lo que se conoce como La Reforma protestante. El 31 de octubre de 1517 el monje agustino Martín Lutero clavó en la puerta de la Iglesia del Castillo en Wittenberg en Alemania 95 tesis en las que criticaba abiertamente las ventas de indulgencias de la iglesia católica romana. Lutero escogió ese día deliberadamente ya que era la víspera del Día de Todos los Santos y tanto la facultad de la universidad como muchos fieles asistían a la iglesia. Lutero inicialmente no tenía la intención de romper con la iglesia romana sino enfatizar la supremacía del evangelio de Cristo basada en su simplicidad y a la vez en su gran profundidad ...
This summer, as part of my participation in Talbot’s Kern Foundation reading group, I had the opportunity to travel to Grand Rapids and attend a 4-day think tank called Acton University. This was my first time participating in a think tank (unless you count my years watching MacGyver problem-solve for the Phoenix Foundation), and it was an experience! The annual event brings together around 1000 scholars, students, businesspeople, and leaders from over 75 countries and seeks to provide “an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge and integrate philosophy, theology, business, development – with sound, market based, economics” (http://university.acton.org/). The daily program consisted of several parallel presentations (in fact, Talbot’s own Dr. Scott Rae was a presenter), a fabulous dinner designed to foster new relationships and stimulate conversations, and it closed each night with a plenary talk ...
Recently I had the chance to partner with Awana to create a yearlong, systematic, top-quality apologetics curriculum for students. It is the product of my work with students for the past two decades. My friend Tim Fox (Orthodox Fox) at Free Thinking Ministries was kind enough to briefly interview me about the project. And he gave me permission to post the original interview here too. Enjoy!
Revivals are sometimes said to be a thing of the past, a holdover from an earlier era of the church that is no longer practical in our postmodern age. Well, the last time I checked, God is still in the business of converting souls, whether it be one at a time or through large-scale awakenings. If He desires, He can again bring about revival, one that outshines anything we have seen before. After all, He “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
There was a day in America when revivals were commonplace. From 1720 until 1860, a steady stream of revivals dotted the American landscape, a factor that led many pastors and theologians to reflect deeply on the nature of revival and publish works answering numerous questions associated with it:
- What is the nature of salvation?
- Is there a standard sequence one experiences in conversion?
- How are ministers to preach and counsel individuals seeking salvation?
These questions occupied dozens of publications in the period, and together they formed a coherent genre in American theological literature. I have examined these writings in my recent book Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017). Here are several fun facts about the history of revival theology in early America you may not be aware of:
1. Did you know that conversions generally were “longer” in the First Great Awakening than in the Second Great Awakening?
When people experienced conversion during the First Great Awakening (1740s), it was not uncommon for their experience to take days or weeks to be completed. This was because folks understood conversion to include a three-part process that included conviction of sin, conversion (repentance and faith), and consolation (assurance of salvation). Many believed they could only truly believe after they had identified the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, such as a love for Christ and a hearty desire to trust Him for salvation. Because it took time to identify these fruits, one’s conversion experience often took a long time.
By the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s), this situation had changed because revivalists came to associate salvation with an act of the will. After all, they reasoned, a person is converted when one has believed, trusted, or placed his faith in Christ—all acts of the will. This shift was the result of Methodist expansion, which popularized Arminianism, and New England Calvinism, which stressed the sinner’s natural ability to believe (i.e. sinners can believe if they so desire) in spite of his moral inability to do so (he will not trust Christ because an unbeliever does not want to). In short, this shift generally reduced the length of a convert’s conversion experiences.
2. Did you know Charles Finney believed that revival was impossible without the Holy Spirit?
Charles Finney, the influential revivalist of the 1820s and ‘30s, is often portrayed by his critics as a mechanizer of ministry who so over-emphasized the human side of revival that he effectively left the Holy Spirit out of the process. While there were definitely problems with his theology, this specific criticism is not one of them, for he repeatedly stressed the necessity of the Holy Spirit in conversion and revival.
The “truth by itself,” he noted, “will never produce the effect [of salvation], with the Spirit of God.” Elsewhere, he remarked that “unless God interpose the influence of his Spirit, not a man on earth will ever obey the commands of God.”
When Finney described the relationship between the various agents of salvation (God, the preacher, and the convert), he often employed an illustration. Imagine a man walking toward Niagara Falls deep in thought, oblivious to the danger in front of him. Just when he is about to take to final step over the edge, a bystander cries out, “Stop!” disturbing the man’s dreamy state, whereupon he turns aghast, stops walking, and is saved. When we ask, “Who saved this man’s life?” Finney said there are multiple answers: the bystander; the message itself (“Stop!”); the man who stopped walking; and God, who oversaw the process.
The parallels with revival are obvious, but Finney did note there is one big difference between this illustration and revival. In salvation, the Holy Spirit must do far more than merely ensure that the mind hears the message correctly. He must pour a torrent of motives into the soul in order to persuade sinners to turn from their sin: “because no human persuasion,” he preached, “… will cause him to turn; therefore the Spirit of God must interpose [His work] to shake [the sinner’s] preference, and turn him back from hell.”
3. Did you know that Calvinism and activism go together?
Calvinist critics often point out that Calvinism inherently undermines evangelistic activity: If God is infallibly going to save His elect, why try to add to His sovereign work? This reasoning may appear sound at first, until we actually look into history and find activistic language in the sermons of Calvinist evangelists.
Notice, for instance, the repeated language of “choosing” in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”:
Let what has been said be improved to induce you to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and choose him for your friend and portion…. Would you choose a friend that is a person of great dignity? … Christ is infinitely above you, and above all the princes of the earth … [yet he] offers himself to you, in the nearest and dearest friendship. Would you choose to have a friend not only great but good? In Christ, infinite greatness and infinite good meet together.
Jonathan Dickinson, a contemporary of Edwards, noted that though sinners cannot save themselves, there is something they can do in seeking salvation. “Labor after a lively impression of your incapacity to produce this grace in yourselves…. And labor to exercise faith in Christ. Though you cannot work this grace in yourselves; yet if ever you obtain it you yourselves must use and exercise it.” In short, activism, both on the part of the minister and the seeker, was inherent in the evangelistic methodology of Calvinist revivalists.
4. Did you know that early Restorationists (Churches of Christ) rejected emotional conversion experiences?
The frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening were known for their deeply emotional preaching and dramatic conversions, where persons experienced strange “charismatic” phenomena like falling over, the “jerks,” and barking. There was widespread criticism of these revivals. Alexander Campbell, an early leader of the Restoration movement, offered a theological response to them. Campbell argued that the Old Testament moral law no longer applies in this age of the Gospel and therefore preachers should not preach it to generate conviction as a path to conversion. It is not necessary, he wrote, for sinners to experience “some terrible process of terror and despair through which a person must pass, as through the pious Bunyan’s slough of Despond, before he can believe the gospel.” All that is required from the would-be convert is belief in Christ.
Campbell maintained that faith is similar to the process of learning. In both, we intellectually become aware of new ideas and, based upon certain criteria, affirm them to be true. Faith is merely the process of affirming the truthfulness of the apostles’ testimonies; there is no emotional component inherent in it. Thus, Campbell downplayed emotional conversion narratives and put forth what critics called a rationalistic view of faith and salvation.
American revivals are a fascinating topic to study. If we desire to see more of them, we might benefit by tapping into the wisdom of our evangelical forefathers in our efforts to construct a biblically mature revival theology.
Critics of the slogan “faith alone” often point out that Scripture only speaks once about whether we are justified by faith alone—and that text denies it: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, CSB).
What does James mean in saying we are justified by works?
I won’t defend the truth of justification by faith alone in detail, but it’s clearly taught, for example, in Romans 3:28: “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Or, as Paul teaches in Romans 4:5, “God justifies the ungodly.” Both Abraham and David were justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1–8; Gal. 3:6–9).
Salvation, as Paul elsewhere demonstrates, is “by grace” and “through faith” (Eph. 2:8–9). Works are excluded as the basis of salvation—otherwise people could boast about what they have done. Salvation by grace through faith highlights the amazing and comforting truth that salvation is the Lord’s work, not ours.
But does Paul contradict James?James and Works Righteousness
James 2:14–26 repeatedly argues that faith without works doesn’t save on the last day. Those who claim to have faith but lack good works aren’t saved by such a claiming faith (Jas. 2:14). James compares such faith to “words of love and comfort” given to someone who is cold and hungry. Such words are meaningless if not accompanied by actions to feed and clothe the person in need (2:15–16). So also, faith without works is “dead” and “useless” (2:17, 20, 26).
Faith that is merely intellectual, or faith that claims to believe but is bereft of any action, is no better than “the faith” of demons. After all, they subscribe to the orthodox belief that “God is one,” and they “shudder” in terror (2:19). James highlights that Abraham was “justified by works” in offering up Isaac (2:21), and Rahab the prostitute was “justified by works” in receiving the spies and protecting them from danger (2:25).More than intellectual belief
At first glance, it might seem James rejects justification by faith alone, but first glances aren’t enough when reading the Scriptures. We are called to read deeply and canonically. James doesn’t deny that faith saves; he rejects the notion that a particular kind of faith saves—a faith that doesn’t produce works. In short, faith that is merely intellectual assent is not saving faith.
Again, demons professed that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24), but their belief in that truth didn’t save them. Even though they knew who Jesus was, they hated him. Saving faith, then, is the act of the entire person. It includes the will and the emotions, such that those who believe in Jesus give themselves to him.Faith alone justifies
Let’s think of it another way. Faith alone justifies, but only the kind of faith that inevitably produces good works. Now, such good works aren’t the basis of justification; indeed, they can’t be, for one sin makes you a lawbreaker (Jas. 2:10–11). Good works can’t function as the foundation of our justification because God demands perfection, and even after we are converted we continue to sin.
James, in fact, says this very thing in the next passage after discussing justification by works: “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). The word “stumble” means “sin,” as the parallel text in James 2:10 shows. Every one of us without exception—including James (“we all”)—continue to sin.
Is he saying we sin only occasionally? Absolutely not. He says we all sin “in many ways.” We don’t just sin in a few ways, but in many. Since sin continues to characterize the lives of believers in remarkable ways, and since God demands perfection, works that justify can’t form the basis of our justification.Fruit, not root
How should we understand the works James requires? Certainly good works are necessary, for without them we will not be justified, but we have seen that they aren’t the necessary basis or foundation.
The best solution is to say they are the result and fruit of faith. True faith expresses it in works. Paul actually says the same thing, teaching what ultimately matters is “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6, NIV).
The concept isn’t hard to understand. If I said the room you were in was about to blow up in one minute, and you believed me, desired to live, and were physically able to leave, you would hurry to exit. True faith would lead to works! Leaving the room would be the result of your faith. So it’s right to say, as the Reformers did, that we are justified by faith alone, but that true faith is never alone. I would suggest James is teaching this very idea.
It isn’t as if our works save or justify in the sense that they qualify us to enter God’s presence—as if our virtue wins us God’s favor on the last day. James teaches that there is an organic relationship between genuine faith and works. If we truly trust Christ, that trust shows up in how we live. Works evidence our faith.Twin biblical truths
Why do Paul and James sound so different? Why does it appear at first glance they contradict? We need to remember that letters were written to specific situations facing specific churches. Paul wrote to churches where people were tempted to trust in their works for salvation, while James wrote to those who were disposed to think intellectual assent could save them.
Paul counteracts legalism, while James corrects antinomianism.
Of course, Paul rejected antinomianism as well: “I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). He also believed good works were necessary for eternal life, but both Paul and James believed such works were the fruit of saving faith, not the root.
In the beauty and completeness of God’s Word, Paul and James teach complementary, not contradictory, truths.
For the past few months I have been reading every study I can find on Generation Z, (those born between 1995-2010). With the help of a graduate student who did some research for me, I found over 350 pages of research on Gen Z, which took me dozens of hours to carefully digest. But then last week I came across Meet Generation Z, by James Emery White. Had I found this book earlier, it would have saved me a ton of time! It is an easy-to-read, documented, and insightful look at how to understand and reach the newest generation of students ...
I have noticed something that troubles me while surveying common devotional books and guides that many Christians rely on in their daily lives. I have noticed that a common template for your average devotional tends to quote a Bible passage but then follows it with a well-meaning anecdote, or inspirational messages that are vaguely relevant to the quoted passage, or sometimes even trite aphorisms re-packaged with Christian overtones ...
What is your plan for communion with God during your vacation? Charles Spurgeon often visited the coast of France for rest and healing.
Go forth, beloved, and talk with Jesus on the beach, for He oft resorted to the sea-shore. Commune with Him amid the olive-groves so dear to Him in many a night of wrestling prayer. If ever there was a country in which men should see traces of Jesus, next to the Holy Land, this Riviera [Mentone] is the favoured spot. It is a land of vines, and figs, and olives, and palms; I have called it “Thy land, O Immanuel.” While in this Mentone, I often fancy that I am looking at the foot of the Mount of Olives, or peering into the mysterious gloom of the Garden of Gethsemane. The narrow streets of the old town are such as Jesus traversed, these villages are such as He inhabited. Have your hearts right with Him, and He will visit you often, until every day you shall walk with God, as Enoch did, and so turn week-days into Sabbaths, meals into sacraments, homes into temples, and earth into heaven. So be it with us! Amen.
Spurgeon argues for spiritual (but real) visitations from Jesus to his people. Such visits are “something more than for us to have the assurance of our salvation.” They are more than simply knowing that “Jesus loves me” or contemplating Christ. Spurgeon said, “It is the actual, though spiritual coming of Christ which we so much desire.”
He further stated, “By spiritual we do not mean unreal; in fact, the spiritual takes the lead in real-ness to spiritual men. I believe in the true and real presence of Jesus with His people: such presence has been real to my spirit.”
He also wrote, “As surely as the Lord Jesus came really as to his flesh to Bethlehem and Calvary, so surely does He come really by His Spirit to His people in the hours of their communion with Him. We are as conscious of that presence as of our own existence.”
What are the results of such spiritual visitations? Spurgeon asserted that such visitations with Jesus “bring first peace, then rest, and then joy of soul.”
When we travel to the beach or mountains or elsewhere seeking rest, but also with an eye towards meeting with Jesus, we might discover “a divine serenity and security” that truly restores. During those times, Spurgeon declared, “Jesus fills the horizon of our being.” Seek Jesus. Call on him. Ask him to visit you as you meditate on the Scripture. Spurgeon’s words are beautiful: “If you long for Him, He much more longs for you.”
The best kind of vacation involves a restorative encounter with Jesus. So when you go on vacation this summer, be sure to follow Spurgeon’s advice and take time to refresh your relationship with Christ.
(Note: Quotations are from C. H. Spurgeon, Till He Come: Communion Meditations and Addresses (London: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 11-20.)
I saw something amazing this June. Something rare. Something inspiring. It happened behind-the-scenes at Hume Lake Christian Camps and I simply had to move it from backstage and into to the spotlight. Before I showcase this beautiful sight, let me provide a couple paragraphs of context: As part of Talbot’s Kern Reading group this year, I’ve had the joy of reading (and re-reading) several thought-provoking texts on work, leadership, economics, poverty relief, and the relationship of theology and the church to such matters. On this journey, I happily re-read a chapter from one of my favorite books on organizational leadership, Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges’, Lead Like Jesus: Lessons for Everyone from the Greatest Leadership Role Model of All Time (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005) ...
I don’t think that there’s a one size fits all age of when a person can come to faith in Christ. I think with different testimonies, you have different people talking about when they became a believer. I know there are some people who confessed that they believed they were a believer at the ages of seven or eight.
What the person would need to be able to do is to be able to conceptually process the Gospel, to be able to understand at the age in which that child is what sin is, understanding that that child is a sinner, understanding that Jesus died on the cross for sins and God raised him from the dead so that sinners can be saved. And I think whenever a person is able to process that in a way that allows that child to turn away from his or her own sin and recognizing he or her as a sinner, he or she as a sinner, then that child can be saved.
It’s not always easy to discern whether a child has been converted because what I’m learning as a parent is that sometimes the child wants to read the Bible, wants to pray because the child knows that makes mommy and daddy happy and then there are other occasions where the child wants to read and wants to pray and wants to obey Jesus because there is something happening in the heart.
And so then practically, what about those of us who have young children who think they are believers? Are they believers because they prayed for Jesus to come into their hearts? Is that what we look for? Or is it a pattern of lifestyle that we’re trying to help shepherd them in to discern whether there’s been a genuine conversion experience? As a parent of a child, of an eight-year-old, one of the things that I try to do to discern whether or not there’s been a genuine conversion is to constantly emphasize to him the Gospel, to have conversations with him about the Gospel.
You learn a lot about what your child thinks about God by asking him questions about God or questions about Jesus or questions about sin. Making those kinds of questions part of the shepherding and discerning process can help create the kind of certainty or assurance that we want as parents as to whether there’s been a genuine conversion experience. But then also helping him to understand that if he has committed his life to Jesus and believes by faith that those things are true, then a Christian also obeys Jesus’ teaching and so I think with children especially it’s important to make sure we don’t become content with believing that there’s a genuine conversion experience just because the child’s prayed a prayer. As we know, Jesus says, “Follow me.” He doesn’t say, “Ask Him to come into your heart.” He says follow Him and so one of the things I try to emphasize with my child is the importance of giving his entire self to Jesus.
That means my son has a responsibility then to show his faith in an eight-year-old way that he follows Jesus by doing basic things like obeying his parents, loving his neighbors, loving his friends.
For a child who has expressed faith in Jesus and who follows Jesus and loves Jesus, that love will be an eight-year-old love or a seven-year-old love or a 10-year-old love and the point is not does my child’s faith or another person’s child’s faith resemble a mature 25 or 39 or 50-year-old faith, but is there a genuine desire for Jesus and to follow Him and is that being worked out in that child’s life? And as parents, I think we need to rest in looking at the child’s life holistically and not get fixated on our child asking Jesus into their hearts.
A few years ago I received an email from a former student (now a young pastor) asking some questions about speaking in tongues during corporate worship. Let me excerpt his e-mail and then include my reply (with his permission):
Dr. Berding, I am emailing you because I have a question about ‘service of worship’ for the church. Recently I have taken upon myself to work out some position papers on where I stand on a few ecclesiology topics. I have spent time reading from Horton, Grudem, Bloesch, and some of Clowney's works on ecclesiology. However, recently at our corporate worship one of the elders prayed in tongues and this was followed by what appeared to be an interpretation. As I have been reading through these books and wrestling with scripture, I have come to wonder if tongues plays a role in corporate worship or not ...
I’ve been asked this question many times not just through my Practical Shepherding website, but even more recently in my own church by visitors. It is a common scenario. You move to a new area. You get find your new residence and job. You get the kids enrolled in school. Where you settle in a local church often becomes a longer, more drawn-out task.
After checking out all the churches you desire to visit, here are four questions to ask yourself as you narrow the search to make a decision.
- Is this a church where my family will be regularly fed by God’s Word?
This is the first question that needs to be asked. Not just are they faithful to the Word of God, but will this church preach and teach in such a way that my soul and the souls of my family will be nourished? In other words, are they preaching expositionally through books of the Bible as the regular, steady diet of the congregation? This approach does not automatically answer this question, but it is a great place to start and evaluate.
- Is this a church where I am convinced the care of my soul will be a priority?
Does this church have real pastors/elders who see their primary task to be the spiritual care and oversight of the souls of the members? In other words, just because they have powerful, biblical preaching does not mean your individual soul will be tended to on a regular basis. Ask the pastors. Ask other church members. It will not take much investigation on whether this work is a priority of the leadership of the church.
- Is this a church where my family will experience meaningful Christian fellowship and accountability?
To know this, it will require a bit of a commitment to one church for a time to build relationships, attend some church fellowship events, and get to know some of the pastors and leadership. Yet you must have a realistic expectation as you are not yet a member, so do not expect to be treated as one.
- Is this a church where I can serve God’s people and use my gifts for its benefit?
It will help to know where you are gifted and what some of the needs of the church are. Some needs can be filled by your simple presence and commitment. Also, do not assume you know what those areas of need are by your limited observations.
You should be able to know the answers to these questions within a few months of attending one church if you give yourself to the process. If you can answer in the affirmative to all four of these questions, it is a good possibility you have found your next church. At that point I would encourage you not to delay but to pursue membership.Important note
One final element is the key to persevering with the zeal required in this search. You and your family should feel a sense of persistent unease knowing that you are not in covenant fellowship with a local church and are not under the authority of undershepherds caring for your souls. The freedom and absence of accountability many experience in the search for a new church can cause a sinful complacency.
In other words, you do not ever want to become comfortable being one of God’s sheep who has wandered away from the fellowship of the flock and the accountability of shepherds to care for you, even if that journey at the time feels fun and exciting.
This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
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Let us consider for a moment how popular it has become to promote a positive self-image, to affirm personal identity in self, and to uplift confidence in one’s own ability. Better yet, let us consider how popular this has become specifically among believers. Whether a mother uplifting her daughter’s self-image or a speaker striving to proclaim a message that makes people “feel better” about themselves, is it biblical to promote high self-esteem for those in the body of Christ?
This is a question I have wrestled with quite often in my early years of the faith. Why? Because uplifting and encouraging others in self has always seemed to be such a noble task that should be championed by the church. In fact, why would anyone get upset at people promoting high self-esteem among other Christians? What’s wrong with wanting to make people feel good? If someone is lowly, shouldn’t we as the church attempt to uplift him in his abilities?
These are all great questions. However, this is not a matter of what sounds best. Rather, we must consider whether promoting high self-esteem lines up with Scripture. As believers living in an utterly depraved world, we will face a lifetime battle in answering life’s toughest questions by choosing one of the following:
- I will do this because it’s biblical.
- I will do this because “I’ve seen it work.”
As believers, we have the blessed assurance of knowing our faith is firmly grounded in the absolute truths of Scripture (Psalm 1:1-3). In the Word, we find life (Proverbs 4:4), hope (Titus 2:13), and ultimate fulfillment (Psalm 3:2-6) because we find Jesus saturated on each page. Therefore, before we consider truth claims or practices based on results, we must run them through a filter and see whether they are truly biblical. Thus, if we are striving to be biblical, let us hold the phrase “high self-esteem” up to a biblical filter and answer an important question: Is self-esteem a biblical concept?
Self-esteem can be defined as the subjective self-measure of an individual’s worth and value. According to psychology, when every humanistic need is met, mankind can reach their ultimate fulfillment. This fulfillment is called “self-actualization.” Therefore, a self-actualized individual is one who has fulfilled all humanistic needs—one of those being high self-esteem—in order to reach a point of self-fulfillment. Psychology teaches that promoting high self-esteem equates to showing people that ultimate satisfaction can be attained through self. At its very core, this is not a biblical concept, but a psychological construct.
Why does this concept pose a problem for believers?
If God’s Word is superior to all things for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), then does Scripture advocate psychology’s theory of promoting “high self-esteem” to reach “self-fulfillment”? Let me use a personal example that may relate to many of you reading this article.
Look back on your life and recall the day our Lord saved you from your sins. I may not remember the specific date the Lord saved me, but I will never forget what happened that day. I was laying prostrate on my bedroom floor, mourning the sinful life I was choosing to live. Granted, at the time, I was only 8, but the impact of God’s Word resonated so deep that it pierced my stone-cold heart. God’s Word showed me that I was a foul sinner (Romans 3:23), completely helpless in my current state (Romans 5:6), fought to see the destruction of God’s Kingdom (Galatians 5:17), and even enjoyed dwelling in darkness. The Word of God went on to teach me of my brokenness, and that without a miraculous change (2 Corinthians 5:17) from God’s own choosing (John 6:44), my life was destined for death and destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
Further, the Word of God clearly depicted me as an individual always in this state of dependence, fragility and brokenness.
One thing is certain: once I understood this, I did not feel very good about myself and what I accomplished in life. In fact, none of the people I know who fully grasp their depravity and wretchedness regard these truths as a boost to their self-esteem. That is because our confidence, hope and fulfillment are not found in what I can discover deep within myself. Even if there were a way to bring the deepest depths of my heart to light, I would only be deceived by the wickedness that comes from within (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, that which I choose to esteem should not be myself; rather, I should exalt the God who is able to save!
The promotion of the self-esteem concept was originally designed to fit into the paradigm created by psychologists in their finite understanding of man’s true needs separate from Scripture. How do I know this was separate from Scripture? Because everything psychology suggests for man’s ultimate need is completely contrary to God’s Word. Choosing to esteem self is the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches regarding the believer’s trajectory.
In Romans 3:10-18, the apostle Paul presents a compelling image of the depravity of mankind. In these verses, we see the downward trajectory of mankind as sin takes us further from God toward an empty, bottomless nothing, only to be reversed by the actions of God, who, by His grace, sent His Son as a propitiation for all mankind (verses 21-26). God is further glorified when man takes on a posture of decreasing self (John 3:30).
The ultimate goal of seeking to promote high self-esteem is to teach man to depend on man, whereas the ultimate goal of Christianity is to show man that, apart from God, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Therefore, let the churches always posture our hearts toward Christ, in whom we find our only hope and ultimate fulfillment.
But what a minute…
Does this mean it’s unbiblical to promote confidence within our children, friends, family, etc.? How is it unbiblical to uplift their spirits by encouraging them?
To properly answer these questions, we must be on the same page when it comes to defining the word “confidence.” According to Scripture, we are to “put no confidence in the flesh,” but only “glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3). It is true that we, as believers, are called to pursue mutual uplifting (Romans 14:19), encouraging one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and stirring our brothers and sisters toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). However, in these biblical actions, notice the direction in which we are ultimately pointing people.
In each instance mentioned above, we are pursuing these godly acts in order to point believers back toward the greatest fulfillment, which can only be found in Christ. It is not unbiblical to uplift, encourage and instill confidence within a fellow believer that will stir his affections toward Christ. It is contrary to Scripture when we turn those affections to our own abilities. Confidence and encouragement should always be found through the weakness of self, which points us to our hope of being eternally satisfied in Jesus Christ alone.
 This is defined as pragmatism.
 For further reading on this topic, visit: http://www.simplypsychology.org/self-concept.html
I first heard of David Marshall when I encountered his book responding to the claims of the New Atheists (which is excellent, by the way). Then I heard him do an excellent job defending the existence of Jesus in a radio debate with Richard Carrier on "Unbelievable." After that, I thought, “I really need to meet this guy. He’s sharp and making some unique arguments!”
We touched base shortly after that and he agreed to answer a few of my questions about his work on the historical Jesus. His book is easy to read, and yet it is packed with some fresh insights. Enjoy the interview and think about getting a copy of his outstanding book: Jesus is no Myth ...
Very rarely do I engage in online conversations with someone, but when a Facebook follower named Bob voiced an objection to the kalām cosmological argument (KCA), my curiosity was piqued by his cryptic remark. So I asked him to explain himself, and thus began a dialogue on the merits of his objection. I sincerely wanted to help Bob see his missteps and state his objection more carefully. To no avail, it seems! I think Bob’s objection is a mare’s nest of confusions; he thinks I need some lessons in logic! With his permission, I’m posting our dialogue so that you can decide for yourselves ...
Dear new elder,
I am encouraged by the work God is doing in you and through you in calling you to serve as an elder. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Anyone who aspires to the office of elder desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).
Noble indeed, but also dangerous.
I use those phrases “in you” and “through you” intentionally, for when God raises up a man for pastoral ministry, he never leaves him in the condition he found him. He cannot. God must mold you into the right instrument to wield for building his body. God has called you, and I am certain he is fitting you for the task.
I cannot improve on Paul’s words to a young elder named Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6–16. Based on these paragraphs and various other writings of his, I offer five lines of encouragement for you.
- Don’t be daunted by youth and inexperience.
God has called you. He will equip you and lead you. Just as a soldier learns the best strategies of warfare on the battlefield, so your seasoning will come in the trenches of ministry. Before long—through study, experiential application, meditation, prayer, failures, sufferings, and hard-won victories—you will grow into your vocation as a vessel fitted for the Master’s use.
You will learn to be a shepherd by tending sheep. And no matter how many years God gives you in ministry, you will ever be enrolled as a student in his ministerial academy.
- Immerse yourself in the things of God, especially the Bible.
This may sound trite, even condescendingly obvious, but you will be tempted to plunge yourself into other things. But you are a minister of the gospel, and as such, you must know the good news and every truth related to it—much as one working at the federal mint masters the attributes of currency.
To paraphrase John Piper, “When Twitter is gone and Facebook is forgotten, you will have your Bible. Master it.” God’s Word must be the cornerstone for your ministry, for it will form the substance of all you preach and teach. The Puritan Richard Baxter famously exhorted young pastors to “preach as if never to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.” You are a dying man, called to proclaim the Word of life to dying men.
Nothing will change hearts and renew minds like the Bible. Read it. Memorize it. Pray it. Preach it. Cherish it. God’s Word is also the coal that fuels the engine of your own transformation. So hide it in your own heart, asking God to empower you to submit to its glorious demands.
- Keep a close watch on your life and doctrine.
Again, Paul’s words elsewhere are applicable here and, if you ponder their implications, they will sober you: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Read God’s Word again and again. Memorize it. Pray for illumination. Read all 66 books each year if possible. Nevertheless, don’t mistake theological knowledge for ministerial competence.
Set a guard on the walls of your thought life, too. Proverbs 23:7 reminds us, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Learn sound doctrine. Teach sound doctrine. Live sound doctrine. How important is this? Heaven and hell hang in the balance: “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). A strategic battle for you in this ongoing inward war is your own preaching. Preach your sermons to yourself before you enter the pulpit and preach them to others. Be careful not to traffic in unlived truth.
A key theater in this battleground will be your home. You must pursue reformation in your own family before you do so in God’s. What you do with your little flock at home has potential to either enlarge or undermine your influence among the larger flock (1 Tim. 3:4–5), and it provides a vital training ground for your service in the church. Your wife and children constitute the first congregation for which you must give account to God.
- Set an example of godliness for other believers.
Local church ministry puts you under a microscope. This is to your benefit. As Paul instructed Timothy, “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). This is simply another way of saying you’re a man in the middle of his sanctification, so pursue it with gritty determination. In this way, you will serve as an example to those under your ministry. Pursuing holiness will ensure that you become a man of prayer, for only through the watering of God’s grace will sweet fruit germinate.
Moreover, pride will be your most resilient enemy. Humility is essential for a Christian, yet in ministry you will find it the most elusive virtue. You must pursue it above all else, for it is the tributary from which all other graces—love, joy, peace, patience—flow. A strong aid in the pursuit of humility is unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). In prayer we admit our weakness and our constant need of grace. God must act on our behalf if anything good is to happen. Your need is constant, hence the admonition to pray constantly. This will help keep you in your place, and God in his.
- Prepare for the Calvary Road of suffering.
In a thousand different respects, ministry is a death sentence. This too is a good thing—your old man must die if you are to be effective in Christ’s cause. He died and so will you. If you are to be raised to walk in newness of life, you must first die.
When Paul speaks of training for godliness, he compares ministry to preparing for rigorous athletic exertion. You will suffer much to get in shape for a marathon. You will run along a winding, obstacle-strewn course if you hope to reach the finish line. So it is in ministry. Scripture’s verdict thunders forth with the clarity of ice-cold water: There is no crown without a cross. Suffering for the pastor is normal. Sometimes he suffers at the hands of his own people, sometimes at the hands of a fallen world. Either way, God will use it to conform you to the image of his Son. As John Bunyan put it, “The Christian is to be like a great bell—the harder you strike him, the more clearly he rings.”
Paul suffered. Jesus suffered. Calvin and Luther suffered. Edwards suffered. Spurgeon suffered. You will suffer. How? I don’t know; as an old divine said, God does not break every man’s heart alike.
So immerse yourself, body and soul, in the things of God. Realize you cannot grow the church—that’s God’s business, which he’s promised to do (Matt. 16:18). Rest in this and strive for holiness and faithfulness, and God will sharpen you into an instrument deployed for his kingdom and glory.
This is adapted from an article that originally appeared at TGC.
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Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer are two of my colleagues at Biola University. Dr. Muehlhoff teaches Communications and Dr. Langer teaches Biblical Studies and Theology. They recently partnered up to tackle a vital issue for today—how do Christians communicate with winsome persuasion in a culture that seems to be increasingly at odds with Christian beliefs?
I had the chance to endorse their book Winsome Persuasion and highly recommend it for both its content and style. In particular, Dr. Muehlhoff has really challenged me to personally consider how to speak truth today with both kindness and graciousness. I love his last book I Beg to Differ, and even used it in a small group with high school students. If you want to be an effective communicator today, check out this brief interview, and then think about getting their excellent new book ...