It’s a powerful thing when God’s people see their leaders growing—and it’s good for the church!
This is the dynamic behind Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 4:15: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”
At Camelback Bible Church, we are committed to leadership development as a church, and that includes our pastors and elders. Elders must meet the biblical qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 before they are appointed to that role, of course. But like all believers, we want our elders to continue to grow as they serve.
We devote our second elder meeting each month to our development. We developed a four-year curriculum to help our elders grow personally and as a leadership team. Our elder terms are four years in length so a man will go through the full sequence during his time on the board.
This requires discipline. We jealously guard these meetings! There is always church business we could do when we gather, and business would soon fill that entire meeting. Growth is one of those Quadrant 2 activities: important but not urgent. We say “No” to other good things so we can say “Yes” to growth. We see how important it is, so we make it a priority.
We focus on the following topics: Word ministry, personal spiritual life, systematic theology, and leadership.
Year One: Handling God’s Word
Elders must be able to teach (1 Tim 3:2). The purpose of this year is to sharpen our ability to rightly handle the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). We want to help our elders grow as men of the Word who know the Scriptures and can use it competently, not only to teach but also to make ministry decisions, evaluate doctrine, and lead the church.
We use the First Principles video series from the Charles Simeon Trust (CST) to work on Word ministry together. Each man prepares an expositional worksheet on an assigned text before we gather. After we watch the video, a couple guys present their worksheets and receive feedback from the group.
We are essentially replicating the content and format of a CST Preaching Workshop. Our pastors attend a CST workshop every year to sharpen their skills; this gives our elders the same opportunity for growth.
Year Two: Personal Spiritual Disciplines
This year focuses on the elder’s inner life as a follower of Christ. Elders need to be able to say with the Apostle Paul, "Follow me as I follow Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Modeling spiritual maturity is also a core component of an elder’s role. We also recognize the grave spiritual harm done to the church when leaders fall. We want to help our men stand strong.
There are a number of good resources for this. We have used Bob Thune’s Gospel Eldership and Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man.
Year Three: Systematic Theology
The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:16), and elders are tasked with guarding sound doctrine for God’s people. They must be able to teach the truth accurately, recognize heterodoxy, and think theologically about new questions that arise.
Phoenix Seminary is a great partner here. We asked Dr. Steve Duby to teach a 10-month overview of systematic theology for this third year of growth. The men had assigned reading for each session to prepare for Dr Duby’s teaching. And of course, we provided him with an honorarium.
Year Four: Leadership Development
This year focuses on growing as leaders. For the good of God’s people, we want our elders to grow consistently in our personal leadership ability, interpersonal skills, effectiveness as a team, etc. As Moses discovered in Exodus 18, leading God’s people requires planning, strategy, delegation, and sound administration—along with godliness.
We are currently in this fourth year of our curriculum and are working with a church leadership coaching organization, mostly via Zoom. They are leading us through process to sharpen and implement Camelback’s vision.
Growing together with my brother elders through this curriculum has been a great blessing to me as a pastor. Our friendships have gone deeper through these second meetings of the month. We have aligned our vision for ministry. We’ve sharpened each other in the Scriptures. And we’ve set a tone of continuing development as a team.
My prayer is that our people would continue to “see our progress.” It’s a powerful thing when God’s people see their leaders growing, and it’s good for the church.
Dr. Jim Johnston is the Senior Pastor of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, AZ. Dr. Johnston attended Wheaton College (1988) and went on to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for an M.Div. and eventually a Ph.D. in New Testament. His family spent a year at Tyndale House, Cambridge, where he worked on his dissertation. He has been a pastor for over 30 years.
He and his wife Lisa met when he was the Singles Pastor at College Church in Wheaton, IL and have been married since 1996. God has blessed them with four wonderful children: Claire, Julia, Sarah, and Andrew.
He loves hiking, reading, long road trips, and National Parks. But most of all, he loves the church.
Fingerprints of God: Lessons from the Book of Esther
Last year, I had the privilege of preaching through the book of Esther at Roosevelt Community Church. The sermon series was such a reminder of God’s sovereign hand at work behind the scenes and his providential care for his people living in exile. The tagline that we said repeatedly to sum up this great book was “God is active even when we don’t directly see it.” Our lead pastor, Vermon Pierre, was on sabbatical for a couple of months, so he allowed me to preach this narrative to our congregation. (So big shout out for churches that allow their pastor to take sabbaticals for rest, refreshment, and nourishment. Also, big shout out to pastors entrusting the pulpit to younger preachers to equip and edify the body of Christ.)
Through prayer and help from the Holy Spirit I mapped out the series in 11 sermons. I titled it “Tracing the Fingerprints of God,” because I was struck by the providential fingerprints of God throughout the book. I define a fingerprint of God as those things you fail to understand in the moment, but with hindsight, see clearly as God's working. For instance, Esther becoming Queen in Persia is a fingerprint of God.
Though it’s odd for a Jewish orphan woman to replace Queen Vashti (Es 2), it’s not till later in the book we see the full significance. This position allowed Esther to play a major role in saving the Jewish people from destruction. I’m sure she did not know what God was doing when allowing her to become Queen, but looking back, there is no mistaking why he sovereignly allowed this to happen, for the redemption of His people. What a great fingerprint!
Here are three things I learned from preaching through the book of Esther:
God is truly in control over everything
Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he pleases.” Yahweh is fully and truly in control from every aspect of life even the things we do not understand. In Esther, we see how he is sovereign over Esther becoming Queen (Es 2), Mordecai discovering the plot (Es 2:19–23), and Mordecai challenging Esther to go to the King (Es 4:14). God is even sovereign over King Ahasuerus’ insomnia (Es 6), which leads him to listen to the story of Mordecai foiling the plot of two eunuchs against the king. The king then wanted to honor Mordecai, which eventually leads to him replacing Haman as the second in command in the kingdom. God is in the details! All of these are fingerprints of God.
Systemic injustice has historic roots
In Esther 3, there is an intriguing story between Mordecai and Haman. Essentially, we see the reality of how systemic injustice occurs. It happens in three movements.
Systemic injustice occurs when there is a certain disdain for a group of people (Es 3:1–6). Haman hated Jewish people. His hatred was rooted in historical tension between the descendants of Agag and the descendants of Saul (Ex 17:14–16; 1 Sam 15:32–33). As an Agagite, Haman’s lineage was linked to Agag.
Systemic injustice occurs when a person (or people) abuses power and authority (Es 3:7–11). Haman was second in command in the kingdom. He has access to the King and advocated for a Jewish Holocaust way before Nazis in Germany. His prejudice towards Jews led to his abuse of power.
Systemic injustice occurs when laws harm a certain group of people tremendously (Es 3:12–15). After the king agrees to permit this future massacre, Haman put this into an edict—what we would refer to as an executive order. This threw the city into confusion.
Systemic injustice still occurs today, and we see the same steps for its inception and execution.
God cares and loves his people
In the book of Esther, we see that God cares for and loves people. He set a plan in motion to save his people from their enemies. Esther goes to the king to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people; she reveals Haman’s wicked plot, and he is thwarted. In chapter 8, God uses Esther as a representative to save the Jewish people through a new edict.
An intriguing question: could Esther be a type of Christ? Could she be foreshadowing the great salvation that we see in Christ Jesus? Throughout the Holy Scriptures, God uses all sorts of people for his ultimate glory, and these mini-narratives of salvation point to the greater deliverance at the cross. God cares and loves his people—so much so he gave his only begotten son (Jn 3:16).
The book of Esther is amazing! It’s a great book for pastors to preach and teach through. There are so many different things that I’ve learned and I encourage pastors to prayerfully consider preaching through it. I’m confident their congregations will be encouraged by the heart of God. His name is not directly mentioned, but he is always active even when we don’t directly see it.
John Talley III serves as the Executive Pastor of Mission & Vision at Roosevelt Community Church in downtown Phoenix. He serves on the Executive Leadership Team of the Surge Network, a movement of local churches putting Jesus on display in Arizona. Also an adjunct professor at Arizona Christian University, he graduated from Grand Canyon University with a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and Phoenix Seminary with a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Biblical & Theological studies. He, his beautiful wife, Celeste, and their daughter reside in Phoenix, AZ.
The Golden Age of the Church
As Westerners in the year 2022, we perhaps live in a golden age of studying church history. It seems every few weeks one publisher or another releases a new translation, reprint, or edition of a classic work. It is hard to imagine a time in the past when Christians had more access to the godly, life-giving books from those that came before them. We should learn from them—those so astoundingly devoted to taking every thought captive to the Word of God. Yet, we have to think about church history biblically.
The History of the Church Is Invaluable
Understanding church history brings about many benefits, four of which I will note. Firstly, church history reminds us that Christ’s church has prevailed since His life, death, and resurrection; and she will prevail until His return (Matthew 16:18). Second, learning from church history is an immense source of wisdom, clarity, and encouragement. We can turn again to the great books that have shaped the course of the church for centuries. We can still find comfort for our souls in the gospel insights of writers who remain mostly unmatched. Third, understanding church history provides an incredible ballast against the waves of fads and fashions in the life of the church. Fourth, church history can inculcate humility in us.
The late David McCullough, one of the most influential historians of the past century, said in his book The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For: “We’ve got to teach history and nurture history and encourage history because it’s an antidote to the hubris of the present—the idea that everything we have and everything we do and everything we think is the ultimate, the best.” This applies to the studying of church history as well. Few questions today have not already been addressed in some way by the church over the last two millennia.
There have been periods throughout the history of the church that stand as faithful correctives to our own day. Consider the Puritans’ diligent, intentional, and patient focus on the ordinary means of grace in corporate worship. They focused on the Bible as the typical means by which God draws sinners to himself and conform us into the image of His Son. Contrast that with the revivalism reemerging in much of the church today. The Reformers themselves, to call the wayward church back to purity of doctrine and practice, looked at both the Bible and past theologians who faithfully taught the Bible.
Church history is truly an invaluable source of encouragement. In the writings of those who have long been in the grave, we can find pastoral mentors. How did John Calvin think through and address a pastoral issue? How did Herman Bavinck understand the role of the people of God in the political realm? We can find great motivation to remain faithful and trust in God’s promises by reading George Mueller’s autobiography. We can learn from the godly pattern of rejoicing in the tender-care of Christ through the Letters of Samuel Rutherford.
The History of the Church Is Imperfect
Nevertheless, in our right and godly quest to humbly understand and learn from church history, there is a simple pit-fall we must always avoid: We ought not think that there was some past "golden age of the church." The most Christ-like pastors, the most faithful evangelists, the purest churches—all these still bore the marks of indwelling sin. Godly pastors, even on their best days, are still imperfect shadows of the Great Shepherd to whom they point. The healthiest church is a faint glimmer of the purified Bride. It is imperative that we hold these truths together: the greatest figures and the most sanctified churches in history were flawed, and we can learn from them despite their insufficiencies and even their moral failings.
God’s Word itself recounts history in a way that reminds God’s people of past generations' faithlessness, to encourage faithfulness in the next generation. Moses, in Deuteronomy, reiterates the covenant and provides covenant motivations for ongoing faithfulness. He encouraged covenant faithfulness by reminding the Israelites of their forefathers’ faithlessness and failure (Deuteronomy 1:26–30). His pointing back to sinful distrust from the past stirred up greater present trust in God’s promise to give His people the land.
No, the golden age of the church is not behind us, nor do we live in it now. Jesus implied as much in Matthew 18:15–20, when He instituted the practice of church discipline (binding and loosing). Jesus himself assumed that the local church would include those whose lives at times denied their gospel confession. Additionally, reflect on how many letters in the New Testament were written to address theological and pastoral issues. The apostles themselves did not live in an idealized era of the church.
Pastor, if Jesus assumes an imperfect church and the apostle Paul ministered to churches who approved of a wicked sexual relationship (1 Cor. 5), seasons of frustration and hardship in your church should not surprise you.
Augustine grumbled about distracted or noisy audience members who interrupted his sermons. Luther wrote the Smaller Catechism because of “the deplorable, miserable condition” of Lutheran churches he had visited. Many of the Puritans bemoaned the occasional faithlessness and hard-heartedness of their people. Examples like these abound throughout church history, and they remind us that the church has never been perfect.
Don’t allow your heart to yearn for a fictionalized version of the church’s past. Instead, protect your expectations for what the church is and should be. You have been called to be a steward of your flock—not a flock in 1550s Geneva, 1600s Oxfordshire, or 1880s London.
Yes, learn from the past. Grow as a shepherd. Learn from the scores of faithful shepherds who watched over Christ’s church before you—those men who “held firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). And yet, remind yourself that perfection has never been the mark of a faithful pastor or a healthy church. Walking in repentance and faith, seeking to grow in greater godliness and joy in Christ, and making clear who Christ is by our words and deeds—this is what we are called to.
The Golden Age to Come
Take heart, though: the golden age of the church is coming soon. The Lord’s return will usher in an eternal age wherein, as the classic hymn “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” observes:
…congregations never break up and sabbaths have no end.
For now, our Sunday gatherings are messy. Our victories, flawed foretastes of eternal joy. Imperfect shepherds will someday give way to reality. Then, Christ’s church will be presented to Him perfect and blameless—no longer merely declared righteous, but made righteous to enjoy Him forevermore.
Forrest Strickland (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is an Adjunct Professor of Church History at Boyce College and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
Three Reasons We Should Sing Sound Theology
I still remember (with terror) the first time I led worship anywhere.
I was 19 and I had just moved across the country to do an internship at a church. We were headed to a nearby college campus to do a student’s meeting when suddenly the worship leader for the meeting said he couldn’t make it. I halfheartedly volunteered to lead worship since I played guitar and piano and played on my worship team back home. To my surprise someone handed me a guitar case and a stack of songs and chord charts. And before I knew it, I was in the backseat of the college pastor’s car trying to figure out what songs to put into my setlist.
I had played worship music for years. I knew chords and tabs. I understood the basics of how to arrange a band. But I realized then that I needed more than a series of chords and lyrics strung together.
Even at 19, I loved reading theology and studying my Bible. I was passionate to see people hold on to sound theology. But I realized, suddenly, that I hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to how singing and sound theology come together. How should the theology in my backpack affect the stack of songs on my desk? It’s a question that shapes us far more than we know.
Our Singing Reveals Our Theology
When I was growing up our church sang these lyrics: They rush on the city / They run on the wall / Great is the army that carries out his word.
As a kid I loved the song because I loved pretty much any song that talked about marching and armies. But years later I discovered that the Scriptural reference to those lyrics was Joel 2 which describes Judah being invaded. God’s people weren’t marching on walls to conquer, they were being conquered. Inadvertently our church had been singing about the destruction of Jerusalem with great joy.
What we sing reveals our theology. In that case it perhaps revealed that our church, born from the Jesus Movement in the early 80s, needed more solid Scriptural understanding. We needed a better Old Testament theology to help us understand how New Testament Christians relate to things like the invasion of Israel. We needed a better theology of the cross to help us see that Christians do indeed conquer, but they do so through the cross.
But lest we chuckle too loudly, let’s examine our own songs. What do they reveal about us? And I’m not thinking here of outright heresy (though that’s out there!), but something more subtle: What’s always emphasized? What’s never sung about? Sometimes we can be rigorous in our theological textbooks but lax in our worship playlists—which often reveals that we are, perhaps, not quite as rigorous as we think.
One of the most important tests is whether our worship songs are fundamentally pointed upward or inward. When I first began playing on our church worship team years ago, one of our worship leaders was a veteran of those early Jesus Movement days named Danny. Danny gave me a simple rule of thumb: these songs should not most fundamentally be about us, but about the Lord.
Psalm 115:1 sums this up well: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” The Psalms are full of David pouring out his heart and circumstances before the Lord, but on the most fundamental level, the Psalms are about God. They are not just about how wonderful it is that David is rescued, or that he will be vindicated before his enemies, or that his heart is happy. They are about the God who rescues (Ps 136), God who brings justice (Ps 35:27), and God who delights our hearts (Psalm 42:1). The emphasis makes all the difference.
Danny gave me a rule of thumb I still use: Do the lyrics contain more “I”s than “He”s? That is, Am I singing more about myself, my circumstances, and my feelings? Or am I singing more about the Lord and his character and actions? The better lyrics will point me to God’s character and actions as the basis of my hope and help and joy.
So, if you were to flip through your church’s songbook what theology would you find? If you opened your favorite worship playlist what theology would you hear? What do your songs say about your theology?
Our Singing Shapes Our Theology
But the reverse is also true: our theology is often formed and shaped by the songs we sing.
As I talk to Christians today and ask for their favorite worship music, they often describe music they love because of “the feels.” Some prefer soaring stadium rock, others a touch of gospel and soul, others an uplifting pop hook, still others the nostalgic sound of an old hymn they grew up singing. But too often, we fail to see that we can't separate “the feels” from the lyrics. Music moves us emotionally in a powerful and profound way. Why else would Saul have wanted David to play music to soothe his mind and heart (1 Sam 16:23)? The question though, is where the music is moving us.
Often, I remember worship song lyrics more easily than Scripture. This sometimes surprises me because I work at memorizing Scripture. I never try to memorize a worship song—I just find that suddenly it’s in my mind. I hum it as I make my coffee. So, when the songs we listen to carry solid theology, they are a beautiful gift to our souls. But when they carry unsound or even anemic theology, we’re fooling ourselves if we think they won’t pull our spiritual life in that direction.
Think of the way that the book of Psalms has functioned in the life of God’s people for centuries. Psalms would have been sung while walking to Jerusalem, in worship, in times of distress—and everything in between. Some Psalms remind the reader of God’s kingly rule and power (Ps 2). Other Psalms remind the reader of God’s character (Ps 23). Songs of ascent carry key truths about God and His people and the precious bond between them (Ps 122:9 for example).
Take Psalm 73 as an example. The Psalmist begins by acknowledging God’s goodness but moves quickly into confessing how he nearly slipped into unbelief. We walk with him as he struggles from seeing the wicked apparently prospering. But ultimately, he comes into God’s sanctuary (73:17) and gains new perspective. Then he rejoices in great joy:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever
(Ps 73:25–26, ESV).
Notice how this Psalm encourages God’s people: it encourages them with sound theology, with truth about God. The Psalmist doesn’t feel better because the music moved him emotionally—that fades quickly. He feels better because he apprehended who God is, and that changes everything about how he views his circumstances.
My friend Jon, our Deacon for Worship, has another rule of thumb: He wants our church to sing songs that we can sing around a hospital bed in 50 years. That’s shorthand for saying that the lyrics of our songs should carry theology that will still be true in 50 years—and that our theology should be sturdy enough to lean on even in times of great trouble.
Years after Danny helped me learn the basics of church singing, he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it for years, but in his 50s, we found ourselves at the hospital with him about to pass into glory. Jon sang worship songs around his bedside for hours with our worship team. As church members and his non-Christian coworkers came to say goodbye, they were overwhelmed by the songs. Without us even realizing it, the songs had given us the theology we most needed in that moment: that God was in control, that God was good, that eternity is a joy and not a terror for the Christian, that we can rejoice in the face of death because we follow a resurrected savior.
Are your songs sturdy enough to sing around a hospital bed in 50 years?
Our Singing Doxologizes Our Theology
Lastly, theology should be doxology. Theology should result in praise.
The first Systematic Theology textbook I ever read was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I loved its readability and clarity but kept finding something puzzling at the end of each chapter: a hymn. At first, I thought it was just one chapter only to discover that every single chapter had one. When I finally read the first chapter (I had somehow missed it before) I found this simple explanation:
The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately! We must love all that God is, all that he says and all that he does. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5). Our response to the study of the theology of Scripture should be that of the psalmist who said, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” (Ps. 139:17).
We might find ourselves fighting to tread water through the theological depths of Romans 9–11 and the mysteries of divine providence, but the theology there is not merely meant to be endured or survived. Instead, Paul emerges on the other side of the deep end of the theological pool singing aloud in praise.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36, ESV)
The theology of Romans 9–11 becomes doxologized: it gets turned into an outpouring of praise.
At our church, we sing a song of response after the preached Word. The response song often turns the truth of the text to praise. For example, when we preached on the judgment throne at the end of all things (Revelation 20), we asked the question, “Who can stand before this judgment?” We found the answer throughout Scripture, in Revelation 7:13, and in Romans 8:33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (ESV). Then immediately after that we sang this:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea
A great High Priest whose name is love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
This is theology doxologized: the truth of who God is and what Jesus has done for us moved us to worship, and the lyrics and music helped us express those feelings. And through helping us express how the theology moved us, in turn, the music began to shape what we thought and felt.
Good Theologians Sing
Much to the great relief of my congregation, I no longer lead times of singing at church.
But I still think it is vitally important to understand what we sing and why. What we sing reveals what we believe, and what we believe should inspire us to sing. And that makes all the difference for both the songs we sing at church, the songs I sing before bed with my kids, and the songs I sing on walks around my neighborhood.
So go sing, fellow theologians.
Ricky Alcantar serves as the lead pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso TX. Beyond his local context Ricky serves on the Sovereign Grace Churches Church Planting Group and has written for publications like Vox, Boundless, and the Rio Grande Review. He is also a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso and Sovereign Grace Pastors College and is pursuing further seminary work at Phoenix Seminary. He loves his wife Jenn, his three sons, his city, and thinking about writing instead of actually writing.
Pastoring in a Post-Roe World
On June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court—by overturning Roe v. Wade—righted a wrong that has had decades of tragic consequences, leading to the loss of millions of lives. Despite the temptation to ease up and take a victory lap, the fight to ensure unborn children have the right to live is, in many ways, still an uphill battle. The following is an interview about the cultural significance of this decision with Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. Andrew Walker hosted by Jason Dees during a recent virtual meeting with pastors from across the country. We hope this Q&A is helpful as you determine the best ways for your church to live missionally in this new chapter of the pro-life movement.
Jason Dees: I think the best question to start with is kind of a technical question: How did this happen? How did the Dobbs case overturn the decisions of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which had been on the books for many years?
Wayne Grudem: A lot of factors came into play. For starters, both Presidents Bush and more recently President Trump appointed justices who hold to a textualist view of the Constitution—the view that the Constitution means what a normal, ordinary reader would attribute to it at the time it was written. In the majority decision, Justice Alito went to great lengths explaining that the Roe and subsequent Casey decisions were wrong in trying to find a right to abortion in the Constitution. It's a major victory for the pro-life cause, but it's also, in a broader sense, very significant it has the potential to set a textualist tone for what will be acceptable in the legal world in the United States for decades to come.
Andrew Walker: Effectively what Dobbs did was to chip away at the central holdings of Roe and Casey. The Roe decision created this artificial construct in a “viability test,” suggesting that the state only has a compelling interest in protecting life once life is eligible to be living outside of the womb. Then in Casey, the plurality constructed an “undue burden” test. Justice Scalia, who Justice Alito cited, called that a standard-less standard. Who defines what undue burden means? That’s not for the court to decide. It ought to be defined by legislatures. Alito's opinion isn't actually all that shocking or original. It’s really more like an omnibus collection of pro-life arguments over the last five decades put together in one document. But while it’s not an original argument, it effectively dismantled the tests of Roe and Casey. The Supreme Court removed the subjective test of “viability,” and inserted a more objective standard: life itself as something within the legitimate purview of state interest and passing a rational basis review for a law to take effect. The Constitution now gives the presumption of protecting life at all stages, rather than carving it up with arbitrary divisions based on development. Now it will be shot back to the states, with that presumption underlying legislation on the right to protect life.
JD: That’s so helpful, thank you. So my next question is this: What will the continued efforts of pro-life organizations look like now that the laws they propose are not consistently undermined by Roe, and will any pro-life legislation passed under Roe be in peril now that the fight has been pushed back to the state level?
WG: One obvious result is that state level politics will become much more important. Not only in abortion legislation, but in other legislation. The 14th Amendment says, "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It doesn't say anything about abortion, but that’s where they found a right to abortion. Now, laws about abortion revert to the states, which means that Christians have a great opportunity to influence the laws in their state. Romans 13:4 says civil authority is God's servant for your good, and we should seek to have government fulfill that purpose—to do good for its people. As an example, the Center for Arizona Policy is an evangelical Christian group aimed at influencing the politics of the state. Other states have similar organizations, and I think it would be excellent if pastors sought out those pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-religious freedom organizations. Remember that when a state legislator receives a call from a pastor in his district, he's very likely to take it; he knows the pastor influences a lot of people, and that provides an opportunity for Christians to have influence for good in their individual states.
AW: Kentucky is a good example of how the state battle matters. In 2018, Kentucky passed a trigger ban that basically said after a situation where Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion is effectively outlawed immediately in Kentucky. The Attorney General basically certified that on June 24. Abortions are currently stopped right now in Kentucky. But that doesn't mean that the fight's over. Because we have activist organizations like Planned Parenthood filing suit against the trigger ban. Their argument is that even if the federal Constitution grants no right to abortion, Kentucky's constitution does grant it. And so in Kentucky, a pro-life organization has done the work to have an amendment ready for ratification in November. Kentuckians will vote to explicitly say whether or not they agree that the constitution ought not to codify a right to abortion. Now the obverse of that is a place like California, where there is a ballot initiative to effectively ratify a constitutional amendment to guarantee a right to abortion in their state. So let me just say this—the fight is not over at all. Now we’ll need to fight this at the state Supreme Court level. We have 50 Supreme Courts, so we’ll likely see a hodgepodge of rulings at the state level about abortion. For righteousness to see the light of day, it's going to require active attention on the part of our local churches. And so pastors will need to bring these types of issues to the attention of their congregants.
JD: My next question is about the psychological effect of the law. Things that are legal tend to be deemed as moral. Do you think that overturning Roe will help to slow down the sexual revolution? WIll this change the way we see human life and its value?
WG: I think we have to agree that laws have a teaching function. Many people reason that something like abortion is legal, therefore it must be morally permissible, as if society, through law, has made it morally permissible. But now with many states enacting restrictions on abortion, the general public—not everybody, but many people—will tend to think differently: it's illegal, therefore it's morally objectionable. So that’s positive. The degree to which it's positive and to what effect it's a positive consequence, we don't know. But there's some definite teaching function that laws have.
AW: I agree with Dr. Grudem. Law inevitably shapes belief, belief shapes behavior, behavior over time shapes custom. Which is why now, in the aftermath of this decision, those who disagree are responding as though they've had an aspect of their personhood taken from them. This ruling has demonstrated how deeply etched into the mindset of Americans expressive individualism really is. For many it seems unthinkable that there is moral significance to the use of one's body, or that public policy would dare to say that there are ways that you ought not to use your body, duties that stem from how you use your body, and consequences to how you use your body.
JD: Thank you for that. OK, let’s pivot back to the church’s response. How do we respond with compassion and humility when people accuse Christians of imposing our beliefs on the world, or creating situations where women will be unsafe or the poor will be oppressed?
WG: If someone says the pro-life movement is Christians trying to implement a religion or impose a theocracy, that's foolish. All laws are based on a moral conviction. For example most major religions teach that stealing is wrong. That doesn't mean if you have a law against stealing that you're imposing a religion on the nation. The same with laws against murder. Our desire to protect an unborn child doesn't mean that we're imposing a religious view on them.
And as to accusations of harming women or the poor, we have a great opportunity to give even more support to pro-life organizations—volunteer at pregnancy counseling centers, provide support for women who don't have the financial means to earn a living and care for a baby. Christians should be giving care and compassion to those who are pregnant and helping them in every way possible. Many organizations already do this, but more could be done. And it is a great time for pastors to commit to doing what they can to support these organizations.
AW: I also think we should dispute the assumption that the church hasn't already been doing this for five decades. If you go and look at the social science and polling data, it's church-attending Christians who are most likely to volunteer their time and give money and resources to these ends. I've heard some people use the phrase, "well, now the pro-life movement really begins." I understand the sentiment behind that, but that assumes that 50 years of scholarship, political organization, and pregnancy crisis center work has been playing second fiddle to post-Roe opportunities.
Now, as far as responding to the idea that we are implementing some type of theocracy, the simplest way to dispute that is to point out that abortion laws are homicide laws applied to unborn life. If we agree life is sacred outside the womb, then life is sacred inside the womb. This issue is not about implementing a theocracy, or about Christian domination in the culture, or white Christian nationalism. This is about justice and the common good. It's about restoring a more expansive understanding of human dignity. We don’t want to draw narrower distinctions and narrower scopes around who earns the concept of dignity and rights. To do so is really dangerous.
JD: So, that brings us to my next question. Some suggestions for public policy that could address the expected influx of children include things like publicly funded daycare or healthcare services. Are there any proposed solutions that you think Christians should be concerned about?
AW: I would say, first and foremost, we'll have to remember that Christians could have good faith disagreements on all of the entailments of how public policy would address these issues. There's always trade-offs from public policy. A program like universal daycare sounds nice, on the one hand. I understand it. It also encourages separating children from their parents, so that's the negative trade-off. We'll have to consider that. There are real, tangible ways that public policy could address this.
Senator Romney proposed a new tax system that's intentionally designed to give preference to the family, including monthly subsidies for children in the house. It may not cover every cost of raising a child, but it is a symbolic way to communicate that policy does care about the wellbeing of children. And a Christian could disagree with that proposal. I would caution against the idea that a pro-life response requires full scale adoption of socialism. I think the free market does have a role to play. Public policy has a role to play as well. We would be mistaken to think that policy has no role to play in protecting and furthering a culture of life.
In all these situations you have to determine your political priorities. I call myself a family-first social conservative. For me, protecting the family is my number one priority. Limited government is number two. And then probably fiscal issues are number three. And I still consider myself a fiscal conservative. But I'm willing to allow my views on economics to yield and bend to my prioritization of the family. We need to be clear about the principles guiding our thinking so we can have these discussions What we should focus on is a right motive and a right conclusion: to love our neighbor and see our neighbor protected in law. There are just going to be some determinations and differences on how to do that.
JD: So, what advice would you give to business leaders as they navigate these waters?
WG: Well, I'm not sure I know all the answers to this. I'm sure I don't know all the answers, Jason. But I think the Christian business owner probably should not give moral approval to something that the Bible doesn't approve of. I imagine Christian business owners face that challenge regularly, with Pride Month, and now they surely will with abortion.
AW: I think we want to establish some baseline principles. I think Christian business owners need to be attentive in not participating in any direct or indirect cooperation with their employees obtaining abortions. Pastors will be on the front line of this, counseling business leaders in your church that we shouldn't be facilitating access to abortion. That's just a basic moral principle. So, for example, there’s some debate about whether or not you would discipline someone in your church who is running a payday loan company, because that preys on the poor. We need to determine if we are business leaders first or a Christians first. Which speaks to the issue of the difficulties Christians will face in corporate life. As local churches, we’ll need to think through ideas like benevolence funds for Christians in corporate workspaces that can't persist in their jobs. What are you going to do when a member of your church loses their job over a cultural issue that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, go along with? We're going to have to prepare for more burden sharing. We've got to be thinking forward about that.
JD: Well, and that certainly wouldn’t be the first time the church has faced situations like that. Let’s end with your succinct responses to two common slogans you’ll likely hear. First is “my body, my choice.” What’s the Christian response to that?
WG: What about the body of the child within you? Do you have the right to take the life of another?
JD: That’s pretty succinct! You both already touched on this one to some extent, but the next one is “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have an abortion.” Which sort of implies the imposition of your beliefs on someone else. Your response?
AW: I would simply say that a pro-life law is no more of an imposition on anyone than a homicide law
JD: Well, thank you both for your time. It's been such a helpful conversation. I just really want to thank both of you—and not just for this conversation, but for your larger body of work.
Dr. Wayne Grudem serves as distinguished professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of over 20 books, including Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Crossway, 2018), and he served as the general editor for the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Grudem is a graduate of Harvard University (BA) and Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv), and he received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge.
Dr. Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an Associate Dean in the School of Theology and the Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at Southern Seminary. He is a Fellow in the Evangelical in Civics Life Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and serves as the Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions.
Why Your Student Ministry Needs Theology Proper and Church History
If you take a look around most student ministry series, conferences, and curriculum you’ll see one word that consistently pops off the page—“apologetics.” The teen years are full of questions, debates, and crises of faith. So naturally the defense of the faith is a common subject.
Apologetics are good and important; this is not meant to denigrate the field. But I think we’ve gotten the cart before the horse in student ministry. In our desire to answer every niche question we are missing opportunities to teach the big truths of our faith with clarity, which would filter down into the apologetic assurance we were seeking to begin with.
In the age of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and relentless public assault against the Christian worldview, students can easily become overwhelmed with a litany of questions about creation, the Old Testament law, gender, specific texts, moral failings of Christian leaders, and much more. We could conceivably spend every discipleship meeting and student gathering just addressing these questions. While this could be helpful to a point, we would really just be giving students a quick fix to problems that require much deeper thought. In student ministry, we must resist the temptation to defend the Christian faith with 1-minute soundbites. I think most student ministries would do better to focus on theology proper and church history, which would in turn produce students who know the faith they seek to defend.
The Importance of Theology Proper
In my experience, GenZ has a harder time with the morality of God than determining whether or not there is one. How do we reach the student whose burning question is not “does God exist?” but rather “is God good?” The answer is through theology proper. Theology proper is just the study of who God is. When we spend more time teaching about the Trinity, God’s attributes, and His work in the world, students naturally develop the instincts needed to handle other apologetic questions.
But teaching students theology proper is difficult. Topics like the Trinity, aseity, and transcendence cannot be adequately covered in a couple of lessons. To understand such deep and complex topics usually requires exposure over the course of months and years. As students begin to understand these topics, they provide categories that actually aid apologetic efforts by grounding answers in God’s nature, instead of treating each question as a horizontal talking point. I’ve never seen a student caught up in the beauty of the Godhead suddenly abandon their faith over a niche intellectual argument.
Now, many of my more apologetically minded youth workers may say this strategy is not a step away from apologetics, it’s a step from pop-apologetics to real, good apologetics. They may be right. Even so, I’d wager everyone could do with more meditation on God’s nature and work–while some could do with a bit less opportunity for conflict. Theology proper offers a win-win.
The Importance of Church History
Much like theology proper, church history may not seem like the most invigorating topic for student ministry. After all, debating the age of the earth or talking through the newest celebrity deconstruction story might make for much easier marketing to get students in the room (and that does matter). But church history is one of the few tools that forces our students to look beyond their cultural moment and see the bigger picture of what God has done and will do through His people.
Church history teaches students that the controversies today do not represent existential threats to the faith. The church has weathered wars, theological debates, cultural upheavals, complete reformations, and consistent persecutions without collapsing or ceasing to exist. Knowing these stories helps students take what seem like world-changing conflicts and put them in proper perspective. The biggest issues facing the Church often change, shift, or even vanish. Knowing this helps students doubt their doubts and take more seriously their faith that has lasted throughout the ages.
Teaching church history also allows us to be honest with students about the past. GenZ is keenly aware of the sins of past generations; They notice every time Christians sweep our own dirty past under the rug out of ignorance or fear. Being open about our failures and flaws yet still telling God’s story will tear down apologetic barriers and situate them in God’s big story.
Theology proper and church history aren’t easy to teach—and they certainly aren’t quick or flashy—but they are worth it. As it turns out, if you’re a youth worker and you’re tackling theology and church history well—you’ll actually be doing great apologetics.
If you don’t feel equipped yourself in these areas, then invest in good books like Church History in Plain Languageor The Story of Christianity. Consider also systematic theologies like Wayne Grudem’s, John Frame’s, or Millard Erickson’s.More than just reading, invest in solid seminary training. In fact, Phoenix Seminary has made all their Church History 1 and Old Testament 2 course lectures available free of charge.
Our students will face doubts and concerns regarding their faith. If we want them to defend the faith instead of walking away from it, we should ensure they really know what they’re trying to defend. Are you providing the easiest answers, or the right ones?
Will Standridge serves as the preteen and student pastor at Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He received his B.A. from Boyce College and M.Div. from SBTS. Will blogs frequently about student ministry philosophy. He is married to his high-school sweetheart, Kendyl.
What Do Mormons Really Believe?
The term Mormonism denotes a religious group currently headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, who call themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But since the foundation of Mormonism, there have been at least 400 splinter groups of the LDS church that began with the founder, Joseph Smith. Mormons believe that God, through Joseph Smith, restored the teachings of the church after hundreds of years of apostasy.
If you speak with a Mormon about their religion, it is very likely they will try to focus on the similarities between their theology and our own. They will say things like “Jesus died on the cross for our sins,” and may even say “we are saved by grace.” They have an entire vocabulary that sounds nearly identical to our own.
It isn’t until you dig a bit deeper into how they define their terms that the dissimilarities become more apparent. They call their deity God, but he's as different from the one true God of Christianity as your mother is from my own, despite the fact we may each call ours Mom.
So that brings us to the ultimate question, what are these “restored” truths that make the Mormon church distinct from—and thus ultimately not just a subsection of—orthodox Christian teaching?
Polytheism vs. Trinitarianism
When we consider the Mormon view of God and the traditional Christian view of God, Mormonism seems a bit more like Hinduism, or maybe even Greco-Roman paganism. They have more gods than we would even count in Hinduism, with an infinite array of gods going back eternally and, presumably, forward eternally as well. Additionally, their understanding of these gods is not unlike the anthropomorphic deities—with hands and fingernails and toes and eyeballs—of the Romans and the Greeks. Both these ideas are incompatible with the God of the Bible.
Although a full unpacking of the doctrine of the trinity is beyond the scope of this post, it is enough to say that the traditional Christian view of God excludes the possibility of any other gods. That we worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should not be seen as polytheism because we know that the three persons of God exist eternally, equally, as one God. In Mormonism, not only are Father, Son, and Spirit not a single being, they aren’t really equal beings, either.
As it turns out, the Mormon concept of God is essentially an exalted and perfected version of a human. They believe that God began as a man and, like all gods had done before him, became a god. Even before he was man, he was a preexistent spirit in some preexistent world, the offspring of an older god and his celestial wives. Mormon doctrine holds that, after he became a god, he and a heavenly mother had spirit children that include you, me, Jesus, and even Lucifer. God, according to Mormons, wasn’t always God; his deity was the result of living an exceptionally holy life.
And this brings us to the next doctrinal issue that separates Mormonism from orthodox Christian teaching.
Eternal Progression vs Creator/Creation Distinction
In the Mormon church, there was an apostle named Lorenzo Snow. He was a contemporary of Joseph Smith and became Mormon in 1836, six years after the publishing of the Book of Mormon. Lorenzo Snow coined a phrase: “As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be.” This is what Mormons call the law of eternal progression.
This doctrine teaches that humans have a destiny to follow in the same footsteps as God, and as God did for his god, and his grandfather god, and great-grandfather god, and so forth. However, there is a bit of a rift in the Mormon church over the question of how this progression can be rectified with the idea of God’s power. Does God continually progress forever, gaining bits and pieces of knowledge along the way in a never-ending existence that puts him closer and closer to omniscience? Or did God somehow, at the exact moment he became a god, gain the full knowledge of all things? The Mormon prophets have actually castigated one another, each calling the opposite view dangerous and false. In this respect, Christians agree with both sides, because either way, this doctrine is dangerous and false!
The Mormon church will pull out Bible verses, especially 2 Peter 1:3-4 to support this idea, claiming that even the Bible teaches that humans can become gods. But that verse, when taken in context and in light of the entire narrative of Scripture, is talking about how we participate together in our relationshipwith God. It’s called divinization or theosis, and it’s not the same as the Mormon teaching that we become gods, real divine beings.
For Mormons, the range from humans to angels to God is a matter of degree, with each falling at a different stage of glory along the same spectrum of existence. Mormons would assert that humans, angels, and gods are all the same beings, but with different degrees of glory. No monotheistic religions—not Islam, not Judaism, and certainly not Christianity—have ever taught this. Christian doctrine teaches that God is God, and He created angels, humans, and everything else.
Thus, for Mormons, the entire distinction between who is Creator and who are creatures is erased. According to Mormon theology, each of us, prior to earthly conception, existed as a spirit child and literal sibling of Jesus. This teaching denies that Jesus is the creator that John 1:3 declares Him to be. So even though a Mormon might speak about God being eternal, their view of him is no more eternal than their view of you or me.
As you can imagine, this idea has serious implications on the doctrine of salvation, which is another significant deviation to be aware of.
Salvation by Works vs Salvation by Grace Through Faith
Growing up in the Mormon faith, I believed a little saying: “Try, try your best, and God will make up the rest.” There was no urgency; God sent a Savior, and you would be just fine as long as you were a relatively good person. But at the same time, the book of Mormon seemed to teach mission impossible; you’ve got to reach perfection in this lifetime, or else. So I struggled as a young boy.
I was taught that baptism in the Mormon church creates a blank slate. I asked, “Well, what if I sin after this?” The understanding was that I’d get marks on my slate again. That worried me greatly! I knew that no unclean thing could enter celestial glory with Heavenly Father, so I figured I would beat the system by waiting until I was 88 years old, rather than 8—the traditional age—to get baptized.
But then I lived in fear for the next year, haunted by thoughts like what if I got hit by a semi-truck having failed to do what I knew I should have done? So I capitulated and got baptized. All that to say, Mormonism teaches a works-based salvation—grace plus works. I was never told just how many works.
In fact, it reminds me a little of Catholicism right before the Reformation. Martin Luther would go to his confessor, von Staupitz, at all hours of the night with his sin. He did so reasoning that to get to heaven, I need to repent and confess, but to repent and confess, I need to remember my sin—if I wait, I might forget. This burden continued until he came to the realization that Scripture taught differently: “the righteous shall live by faith.”
In Mormonism, it’s similar. Part of what’s required for salvation is faith, but part is also repentance. And once you get into understanding what repentance means to them—going to the point of no return without having the thought, urge, or desire to sin again, according to one of their prophets—you realize that you have to repent all the time!
However, just like in other discrepancies, a well-studied Mormon will try to assert that their view isn’t really any different. They will look to Wesleyans or Methodists—those who take an Arminian perspective and may believe that you can lose your salvation—to say that their view does align with orthodoxy, but it really doesn’t. Scripture makes it clear in Ephesians 2:8-10 that we are saved so that we can do good, not saved by the amount of good we do. Grace isn’t a safety net in case you fall short, it’s the solution to the fact that we all do.
If we consider just these essentials of our faith regarding who God is, who man is, and how man is saved, all of which find their answer in the person and work of Christ, we do well. And the only conclusion we can draw is that Mormonism isn’t a denomination of Christianity, but a complete diversion from Christianity.
Every few years, my wife and I go on a diet. Neither of us particularly enjoys dieting, but we do it for our health and because the discipline required for a diet usually bleeds over into other areas of our lives. The most frustrating part of a diet is not necessarily what you eat while you’re on the diet, but what you can’t eat. We develop incredibly intense cravings for all of the unhealthy foods we love to eat but no longer can. Sometimes you don’t realize how good certain foods taste until you can’t have them anymore. There’s nothing quite like a diet to make you long for what you don’t have.
Sitting or Stalking?
Longing. Craving. Hungering. These words should describe our desire for God. The Psalms express this sense of longing well:
“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2)
“God, you are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you; my body faints for you in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.” (Psalm 63:1)
How would you describe your walk with God? I’m not talking about your encounters with the things of God in your professional capacity as a pastor. I’m talking about your personal relationship with the Lord. Would you describe it as dry, desolate, and without water? Or would you describe it as hungering and thirsting after God? Do you long for the Lord? Do you crave God’s manifest presence in your life?
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that comes from God could simply be described, in the words of A. W. Tozer, as “following hard after God.” It is longing for God himself. It’s a desire to see God fill your life with what you don’t have without his presence. It’s a craving for the kind of life only God can produce in you. God will bless the hungry pastor.
I love to hunt, but not all hunting is created equal. Deer hunting in Texas, for instance, is about as boring an activity as you can ever experience. You sit in a deer stand and quietly wait for an unsuspecting deer to wander close enough for you to take a shot. Growing up in Texas, this was the only kind of hunting I knew. When our family moved to New Mexico a number of years ago, my eyes were opened to a new world of hunting.
One of my favorite hunts now is an elk hunt. There’s no waiting around, no boredom, no passivity. When you hunt elk, you hunt elk. You hike for miles, using an elk call to try to identify the location of a herd of elk, and then the fun begins. In an elk hunt, you don’t sit; you stalk. You track the elk until you get that moment of ecstasy when an elk appears in your crosshairs and you consummate the hunt.
I cannot think of a more apropos description of a spiritual pursuit of God. You can either sit or stalk in your relationship with God. You can be passive or active. You can be self-satisfied with what you already have or hungry for what you don’t yet have but desperately need. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness only God can give is actually the hinge point of the Beatitudes and of the entire Sermon on the Mount itself.
One of the most startling verses in the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 5:20. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then begins to define exactly what it means to have surpassing righteousness.
Six times in the subsequent verses, Jesus says something along the lines of “you have heard . . . but I tell you.” He addresses the issues of anger, adultery, promise keeping, truth telling, and the treatment of an enemy (Matt. 5:21–48). In each case, the righteousness of the kingdom is greater than that of the Pharisees.
Not only that, but Jesus also explains the manner in which the righteousness of the kingdom is to be expressed. In Matthew 6, Jesus condemns righteous acts that are done for show, and in Matthew 7, Jesus condemns self-righteousness. Both describe what true righteousness is and how it is expressed. Jesus elevates the expectations for his followers above and beyond the norm and practice of the Pharisees.
The question every one of us should be asking when we read Matthew 5:20 is: How do I get the true righteousness of the kingdom? But then again, we already know the answer. The first beatitude reminds us that we are spiritually bankrupt.
Here’s the kingdom conundrum: to enter the kingdom you must have a true righteousness that surpasses that of the religious Pharisees, but it’s a righteousness you don’t possess and cannot possess on your own.
This is why Matthew 5:6 is so important. Jesus says we must hunger and thirst after the righteousness that we don’t have (v. 3) but desperately need (v. 20). At this point, the purpose of hungering spiritually for a righteousness we cannot produce on our own but without which we won’t enter the kingdom, the second half of this beatitude becomes critical. It’s a promise. Jesus says, “If you’re hungry for it, you will be filled with it.” You will be filled. This is a promise. Jesus promises to give us what we need, if we simply long for it.
This is a passive promise. The righteousness we need is not something with which we can fill ourselves. It’s something the God of righteousness himself will do for us. A hunger for righteousness is not the same as trying to earn or achieve righteousness. The Reformers understood this truth well: the righteousness that comes by faith is a passive righteousness, a righteousness received not earned.
Righteousness is achieved for us, not by us. Theologians call this the doctrine of imputation. This is what Paul means when he says, “Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness” (Rom. 4:9).
Even though this righteousness must be passively received, it must also be actively pursued. It cannot be earned, but it must be sought. It cannot be achieved by you, but it must be received by you.
Matthew 5:6 is the essence of the gospel: you need righteousness you don’t have, but if you want it, you can have it if you will find it in Jesus. He will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. He will provide you with what you can never have on your own. In short: Jesus will satisfy the deepest longings of your heart.
Does Every Christian Persevere in the Marathon of Faith?
If you’ve been paying attention to Christian celebrity culture in the last five years or so, you can probably think of an example of a deconstruction or deconversion story—the story of a person who although they once professed to trust Jesus for salvation, and perhaps even seemed to be bearing some fruit, now claims they no longer believe the Bible, follow Jesus, or wish to be associated with him. This has many believers asking: Can a believer lose their salvation?
Can true believers lose salvation?
The short answer is absolutely not. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” That’s a promise. Or think of Jesus’s words in John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” And Paul’s words again in Romans 8:37–39—“nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The list of relevant Scriptures goes on: Ephesians 1:11–14 teaches that the Holy Spirit seals believers, guaranteeing their inheritance to come. Scripture is very clear. All those whom God has chosen, who have believed in Jesus, who have truly trusted in him, not one of them will be lost (cf John 6:37–40). That’s a great comfort to us! As the hymn “Come, Thou Fount” suggests, we are prone to wander away from the God we love, but he’ll keep us. It’s not because we’re so strong or noble. It’s not because we have enough willpower. It’s because of God’s great grace that he’s promised to keep us.
But what about places in the New Testament that have conditional language, like Colossians 1:21–23? This text says that you’re only reconciled if you persevere to the end. We ought to take this condition seriously, but I think it is a mistake to conclude that since there is a condition, then it is uncertain whether we’ll meet the condition. Yes, we must persevere to the end to be saved. That is a condition. But because of God’s grace in our lives, we will meet that condition.
People wonder how we should interpret Hebrews 6:4–8 or Hebrews 10:26–31? I take the person in Hebrews 6 to be a Christian—a true believer. He’s been enlightened. He’s tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the coming age. And yet, God warns this believer against falling away—that is, committing apostasy. Apostasy is turning your back on Jesus and refusing to follow him anymore. And Hebrews 10:26 teaches that if you sin deliberately, there’s no longer any forgiveness for sins. (Now that really can terrify people. I think a lot of Christians read Hebrews 10 to mean, “if I sin at all then I am damned.” But of course we all sin every day—there may even be dramatic ups and downs in our lives. Peter even denied Christ at one point, and yet he wasn’t condemned eternally.
The warnings in Hebrews teach us that we won’t be forgiven if we reject Jesus. Jesus sums up this truth up in his own words in Matthew 10:33 when he says, “If you deny me, I’ll deny you.” If you finally and fully deny Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and don’t place your faith in him, he’ll deny you on the final day.
But I’d also say this—and this is the good news—no true believer ever denies or rejects Jesus as the Son of God. In truth, God has given us these difficult warning passages to help us persevere in the long race of faith. God uses these warnings against apostasy to keep believers in the faith. The warnings are a means of perseverance.
What is perseverance?
Perseverance to the end is not perfection. It’s perseverance by faith. We do not persevere by sheer effort and through our works. All the works flow from resting in Christ, trusting in God, and depending on the Spirit. This call to perseverance can really be misunderstood. We must look to God in Christ to sustain us. And I would argue that all true believers do that.
We even see hints of this doctrine of perseverance in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:31–40 and Ezekiel 36:24–27, the New Covenant is described. These passages tell us that God’s laws will be written on hearts and the Spirit will live in God’s people, giving them new hearts. We learn here that those who belong to God are transformed. God’s people keep his law. And that promise of the Spirit is also seen in Joel 2:28–32, Isaiah 32:15, and Isaiah 44:3. Obedience is a marker of those who have the Spirit, not a requirement to receive the spirit.
Who will persevere?
When we then consider those who have “deconstructed” their faith and walked away from Jesus, we must keep in mind passages like the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. There are people who appear to have new life. They look like they belong to God. But when they fall away, it proves they were without roots, planted in rocky ground. This is supported by 1 John 2:19. John explains that those who leave the faith prove the reality that their faith was never real, or they would have persevered. “They went out from us because they were not of us.” As John says, if they were truly of us, they would have persevered.
God’s commands reveal whether we are truly his. For example, are we keeping God’s commandments? 1 John 2:3 teaches that those who have come to know Jesus obey his commandments. John’s not talking about perfection; he is talking about a direction in our lives. So if a person hasn’t changed at all—has no love for Jesus, no inclination to keep his commandments and so forth—John is saying, “well, then, you don’t really know him.”
Another example is, do we love one another? 1 John 2:10 teaches that those who are walking with Jesus will love one another. True believers will be marked by real and radical love. Do we care for one another? Do we pour ourselves out for others? Or are we just living by ourselves? A person who lives selfishly for himself, without compassion for others is likely not saved.
Be aware though, an anxious person can overemphasize these tests, worrying about their eternal soul. On the other side of the coin, a person may take the idea of “once saved, always saved” as permission to continue living licentiously.
Take comfort, and know it’s not up to us.
But this is key: We are not called to anticipate who might fall into which category. We don’t need to anxiously fret about ourselves or others, wondering who will persevere.
In Galatians 3:3 Paul asks rhetorically if believers begin by the spirit but are perfected by the flesh. And through the rest of the letter, Paul uses phrases like “walk in the Spirit,” “be led by the Spirit,” “produce the fruit of the Spirit,” “march in step with the Spirit,” and “sow to the Spirit.” Our faith is animated by the Holy Spirit, not self-effort. And should we face anxiety, whether our own or that of a brother or sister in Christ, we respond, saying, “Look to Jesus; don’t look to yourself. Don’t worry about whether you can do it; you can’t. But Jesus did. Call on him for help. He’s faithful.”
Thomas R. Schreiner serves as the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has served since 1997. Before he joined the Southern faculty, he taught at Bethel Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of many books and articles including, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.
What Is Death?
Do you remember how you learned the Alphabet? A, B, C, D… and so on, right? At some point, you probably had a nice picture book to help you out: “A” is for apple you dutifully learned. “B” is for ball. “C” is for cat.
The acrostic wasn’t always so cute. In seventeenth-century New England, A was not for apple. No, you’d learn “A” is for Adam along with the couplet, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Yes, “C” is for Cat, but the poem went, “The cat doth play, and after slay.” It’s darker, isn’t it?
By the time you get to “G,” you’re learning that “As runs the [hour] glass, man’s life doth pass.” “T” is not for toy or tricycle but for “Time,” which “cuts down all, both great and small.” By the time you get to X the point has been made: “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”
These dour little couplets are from the New England Primer, one of the most famous books printed in the American colonies—a book used to teach countless children to read.
Can you imagine if an elementary school tried to use these today? Parents would revolt and say these are too morose and morbid for children. But I wonder if they weren’t onto something back then when they began teaching children about the reality of death early on.
Today, we don’t much like to talk about death. We prefer to avoid, ignore, and deny it. But we can’t. In a three-part series of blog posts for Shepherds and Scholars, I want to look squarely at death and answer three key questions from Genesis 5: (1) What is it? (2) What causes it? and (3) What, if anything, can be done about it?
Let’s begin with the nature of death. Is death great and terrible, or is it simply part of life? It is perhaps even a positive good as it’s portrayed in TheLion King’s opening song, the “Circle of Life.” Are we all just “on the endless round,” “the path unwinding”? Is death simply part of the inevitability of it all?
First, death is universal.
The first thing to say about death is really the most obvious: it’s universal. Frankly, I don’t think you need the Bible to tell you this. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe it. There is the old joke that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Recently I came across a riff on this: Death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn’t repeat itself.
Behind those jokes lies a serious point. Death is universal and inevitable. All of us will experience it at some point—no exceptions.
The Bible makes this clear. In Genesis 5, there’s quite a lot of death. In fact, the most notable phrase in the whole chapter is the one that gets repeated eight times: “and then he died.” As the New England Primer said, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” No exceptions.
This is one thing that makes our society’s deafening silence about death so astonishing. Think about how much energy and effort we put into thinking about other things that are far less certain. We expend enormous energy planning and thinking about our careers, our marriages, our children, our retirement, and our savings. And yet none of these have outcomes half as certain as death. Your marriage is not as certain as death. Nor is your job. Your children’s success or failure isn’t as certain. Death is. Death will come. And when it does, it outweighs every other circumstance of your life. Nothing will change your life as much as death and yet nothing is as certain as your death.
Second, death is personal.
Death isn’t only a universal experience. It is also inescapably personal. And this separates it from most other experiences in life. Unlike cheering for your favorite sports team, watching the election results, or getting a promotion, our death is something we must experience for ourselves—and all by ourselves.
No one makes this point better than the film-maker Woody Allen who once quipped, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Once again, the joke gets at something very serious, doesn’t it? Of course, Allen will have to be there for his own death. I can’t die for you, and you can’t die for me. You must die your own death; I must die mine.
Again, we see this in Genesis 5. Though God had promised death to Adam for eating the fruit (Gen. 2:17), death was not limited to him. Adam dies, yes. But then Seth dies. And he dies his death. Enosh dies. And he dies his death. Kenan dies and he dies his death. And on and on. When Enoch escapes death, he is the exception that proves the rule.
Finally, death is bad.
Death is both universal and personal. And since it’s universal, it’s tempting to think that it’s also normal, not a bug so much as a feature of this software we call life. Many people—not just The Lion King—have taken this view through the ages.
Some think that death is merely non-existence. You did not exist before you were born, they say, and you will simply return to non-existence when you die. From this, they conclude that death isn’t really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, no one dreads their non-existence before birth, so we need not dread our non-existence after life either.
The fatal flaw, if you’ll pardon the pun, is, of course, that all-important part in the middle: life. Experiencing life changes everything about death. After all, it’s one thing to say that non-existence doesn’t matter when you’ve never experienced life; it’s quite another to experience life and then have it taken away. Unless you think that life itself is bad, you must conclude that death is bad, since life and death are opposites. Anything else is literally suicidal logic.
We see this, too, in Genesis 5. A genealogy might seem like skim-worthy material made to skip by as fast as you can. But don’t. The genealogy found in this chapter is unique. What’s unique is the constant refrain that marks each person in the list: “When so-and-so had lived so many years, he fathered such-and-such. He lived after that so many years and had other sons and daughters. Thus, all the days of so-and-so were so many years, and he died.” Over and over, a man lived for so long and he died. And his son died. And his son also died. Moses wants us to feel the weight and finality of it. We’re supposed to affirm the wrongness of death.
I think most of us, if we let ourselves really think about it, know this truth. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “No life that breathes with human breath, has truly ever long’d for death.” I think he’s right. If we know the goodness of life, we must affirm that death is bad.
Someone more recent who makes the same point is Peter Thiel. He is a billionaire who made his money investing in tech companies. Thiel founded PayPal and then sold it for a large sum. He was also one of the first to invest in Facebook. He’s considered something of a guru for spotting promising young tech companies.
“I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death,” [said Thiel.] The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”
I think Thiel is right. Death is universal, personal, and bad. When it comes to death, we have three options: you either accept it, deny it, or fight it. Modern Western society works hard to deny it. Others try to accept it as somehow natural to life. But we know deep down that neither option works. The only option, then, is to fight it like Thiel. The question is how we do that. To understand that, we must first understand where death came from in the first place—something Genesis has a lot to say about.
Look for parts two and three of this series on “Death’s Refrain” at the Shepherds and Scholars blog in the coming weeks.
Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children, two cats, and a tortoise. They are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He has been known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.