The kind of fundamentalist I want to be

the fundamentals

With the exception of a few “badge of honor” types, no one really likes to be called a fundamentalist these days. But that’s really just because we use it as the dirtiest Christian cuss-word we can think of—as a pejorative or conversation killer. There’s an image of the fundamentalist as a joyless, angry, fire-and-brimstone preaching, King James reading, hymns-only singing cranky pants who has his tie just a bit too tight on Sunday mornings.

And while there are some who probably fit the stereotype a bit too closely, we really only think this way because we’ve actually forgotten that being a fundamentalist is a good thing. We should absolutely be fundamentalists—at least about the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

So what are the fundamentals? What are the things that make Christians Christian?

There are a number of formulations, but I believe the best place to look is to two ancient creeds: the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creeds. These were two of the earliest formulations of Christian doctrine, and so they have much to say about any discussion of fundamentals of the faith.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the fundamentals this way:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Here we have a few basics: we have God himself, that is his nature (the Trinity) and his character—the maker of heaven and earth and the author of salvation. We have Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin, who was crucified and rose again, and now sits at the right hand of God, from which he will return to judge the living and the dead. We have the Church, both universal and local, and the future promise of the resurrection to new life in the new creation. In other words:

  1. God as Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  2. The virgin birth and divine nature
  3. The atoning death, resurrection, and eternal lordship of Jesus
  4. The centrality of the Church (as what we are saved into)
  5. Christ’s future judgment (resurrection of the living and the dead, heaven and hell)

In the Nicene Creed, we have something similar:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene Creed provides essentially the same formula, but makes explicit one element that is assumed in the Apostles’ Creed: the authority of the Scriptures. So from it we get:

  1. God’s nature and character
  2. Jesus’ virgin birth and divine nature
  3. The work of Christ (perfect life, atoning death, resurrection and eternal lordship)
  4. The Church
  5. Christ’s future judgment (resurrection of the living and the dead, heaven and hell)
  6. The authority of the Scriptures (for all of this was “according to the Scriptures”)

Later groups would again redefine these fundamentals, sometimes with as few as three points (as I offered in my book, Contend, which condenses a few of the essentials seen in the creeds together), or as many as 90, as in Torrey et. al’s The Fundamentals. But they all come back to what we see in the Creeds. And where we choose to narrow down, it tends to be in relation to Jesus specifically, such as highlighting the historical reality of his miracles, the miraculous nature of his birth and his bodily resurrection—all the stuff that tends to be heavily under fire in our day and in every era.

But fundamentally, everything comes back to these six points we get from these two ancient creeds.

And this is what we have to remember: without these key truths, there is no Christianity. 

We need the Trinity, as confusing as it can be. We need the true gospel message—including all the sticky bits that make us seem like weirdos (because, y’know, they’re weird). We need the Church, both the reality of the universal invisible body and the local communion of the saints. We need the promise of Christ’s future judgment and final victory over sin and death as it’s what gives us hope. And we absolutely need the Scriptures—in all their inspired, inerrant glory—because without them, we have no clue about any of this stuff at all!

These are the fundamentals of the faith. 

And if believing these things is what it means to be a fundamentalist, sign me up!

Don’t ask me to do you harm

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told, “You can believe whatever you want, as long as you keep it to yourself,” I’d be wealthier than a prosperity preacher after his royalty check arrives.

The notion that your beliefs should only affect you, but the rest of the world should remain unaffected is so common, and yet it’s completely illogical. It’s a contradiction, one where we see the values of one being or group infringe upon the other—all the while telling the group being infringed upon this is what we are not to do.

This is the line that is appearing in an ever increasing number of articles, particularly those dealing with the religious liberty implications of the recent ruling on same-sex marriage in America. Some bring it up as they dissect the words of the majority judiciaries, usually with some handwringing. Others affirm it openly in their commentary, often with arrogant presumption.

Yet, what I consistently fail to see is anyone—particularly from those affirming the statement—acknowledging that what they’re asking for is impossible. And not just for Christians who are commanded by God himself to share their beliefs openly and without apology.

No one can not share their beliefs. Why? Because out of the heart, the mouth speaks. What we care about, what matters most, what is at the root of our affections, is always going to come out in what we say and what we do. Even if we narrow the idea to imposing our beliefs upon another, we run into more or less the same problem. If one were to follow the logic to its conclusion, the result would be anarchy.

Consider parenting: my job as a dad is to do all I can to ensure my kids grow up to be responsible human beings, with a clear understanding of right and wrong, the ability to make decisions and solve problems, and who (Lord willing) worship Jesus as Lord and Savior. But my three year old boy doesn’t have a terribly well defined sense of right and wrong, and he’s very “in the moment”. So he’ll be playing and then decide it’s a great idea to smack one of his sisters. As a dad, my job is to impose my will in order to stop him from continuing in this pattern of behavior.

Am I wrong to do so? Most, I hope, would say no.

But what would happen if I were to say, “Sorry girls, I believe it’s wrong for the boy to smack you, but it’s really best that I keep it to myself”? Would that say that I care about my daughters?

This is the dilemma that Christians feel pretty dramatically, although to be honest, people from a number of different faith backgrounds feel it, too. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who show up at my door with their false gospel and deficient Jesuses. The Muslims who believe that all must submit to Allah. The Bahá’ís’ who believe that they will be the ones to bring about a perfect new world order1

And this is also what we’ve, quite honestly, been terrible at expressing in our concern over religious liberty issues. It’s not simply that American Christians want to see the First Amendment upheld and Canadian Christians want to see the first of our fundamental freedoms upheld simply for the sake of them being upheld. We want to see them upheld because we love the people around us. The consistent Christian recognizes that the logic of keeping our beliefs to ourselves is really a call to do those around us harm. For to know the truth of what awaits us all after death and to say nothing is to be a perpetrator of great evil. And that’s something we simply cannot do. So please don’t ask us to do you harm. Because we won’t do it.


Note: After writing this article, I noticed several friends sharing a terrific comic by Adam Ford, which expresses a similar sentiment, however those similarities are purely coincidental.

How helpful is the Christian confessional?

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He walked across the stage toward the microphone, the room was more crowded than he’d expected. All eyes were fixed on him. He smiled awkwardly and wondered, can I really do this? What will people think? Heart racing and palms sweating, he gathered up his courage and began to speak softly.

“Hi, um, I’m a, uh, a Christian,” he said, “and I have a… a confession to make.”

He cleared his throat, tugged at his collar and continued.

“I want to apologize for the Crusades. And I want to apologize for politics being confused with Christian faith. I apologize for hate crimes being perpetrated in the name of Christ and for slavery. I’m sorry for everything that we’ve ever done that has made life difficult for anyone. But I want you to know something… We’re really not all that bad. I hope you’ll forgive us.”

As he exited the stage, several people came up to him, most of them from his small group, and congratulated him on his effort.

“I don’t know if I would have had the courage to say that,” they told him. “That was so humble of you.”

The young man blushed and thanked them for their kind words.

“I just want to be real, y’know? Authenticity is important to me.”

* * * * *

You’ve probably seen, heard or read something similar to this before: the Christian confessional.

This idea was popularized by Donald Miller in his too-young-to-write-a-memoir memoir, Blue Like Jazz. Miller describes setting up a confession booth on a college campus where he and others would confess the sins of Christendom and ask for forgiveness. In the years since the book’s release, many others have gone and done likewise. These days it’s usually seen in the form of videos of random dudes confessing the institutional sins of Christendom on YouTube.

Now, I’m not against publicly confessing sin, obviously. I’m not even entirely against the idea of the Christian confessional under certain circumstances. But whenever I see it, it’s typically only used to say to our post-Christian culture, “See, we’re not so bad.” And I’ve got to be honest, I wonder if it’s actually beneficial? I mean, I know it’s typically done under the guise of being authentic, and I’m sure those doing it have the best of intentions, but is it really authentic to confess sins you have not committed to people who may not have been sinned against?

Now, certainly there are some (many, even) institutional sins we should ask forgiveness for broadly. For example:

  • We should ask forgiveness for our churches or denominations using the Bible to wrongly treat other people as less than human.
  • We should ask forgiveness for failing to remember that the “but you were washed” of the gospel applies as equally to the gossip and slanderer as it does to the homosexual man or woman.
  • We should ask forgiveness for giving cover to peddlers of God’s word who seek to fleece people instead of feeding God’s sheep.

But these things should always be done from a place of genuine heartfelt repentance. We ask forgiveness because we see genuinely believe they were wrong and we are striving to reconcile with those who have been injured by those actions and beliefs.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the Christian confessional is just another attempt to have the appearance of godliness without actually having to be godly. It’s like confessing generic issues in a small group—”Gosh, y’know, I’m just really wanting to follow God’s will for my life, but it’s a struggle. Pray for me, if you don’t mind.” Now, there are definitely times when you need to be a little more vague than even you might prefer—especially if you’re in a place where you’re not sure what’s actually wrong, but you’ve just got a sense that something’s off—but it’s easy to use this kind of thing to give you a pass from actually repenting of anything at all.

It’s like saying “mistakes were made,” or “I’m sorry you felt that way,” which is really just having the appearance of contrition without a contrite heart. And the thing that is so deadly is that most of us wouldn’t even be able to recognize that’s what’s going on. But that’s how pride deceives us, isn’t it?

In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus tells the following parable:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee thanks God for the righteousness that God has given him; that He has made him not like other men who are “extortioners, unjust, adulterers.” He even points directly to the tax collector and thanks God for not making him like him.

Think about that for a second. The Pharisee slams the tax collector—right to his face. All while he’s thanking God and declaring how he fasts and tithes faithfully. Imagine if the Pharisee, rather than saying, “Thank you that I’m not like this tax collector,” said, “God, thank you for not making me like the Crusaders, the slave traders, and the fundamentalists. I live in a monastic community and only buy products that reduce my carbon footprint.”

Imagine if the Christian confessional went a little more like this, “I want to apologize for every time I’ve put my own desires ahead of those of others. For using my words to cut people down instead of building them up. For using the Bible in a hamfisted manner instead of taking the time to explain what it says with patience. For constantly forgetting that grace is freely given to all who ask, and that I am in dire need of it. And I would ask anyone here who has been personally hurt or offended by me to come and speak with me, so I can ask your forgiveness directly for what I’ve done wrong.”

The Christian confessional has its place, just as asking forgiveness for institutional sins has its place. But what’s more authentic, and what’s more God-glorifying, is to put our own need for God’s mercy on display—and to rejoice in the knowledge that while we are great sinners, we have a great savior in Jesus Christ.


An earlier version of this post first appeared in 2010.

 

The limits of love

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One of the greatest lies we tell children is a nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating this to myself as a little boy, over and over again, with tears running down my face, as the terrible things other kids said about me kept repeating in my head. I was desperate for it to be true.

It never was.

So I get how so many Christians feel living in a thoroughly post- or anti-Christian culture, as many of us do in the West. Recent political decisions only officially made legal what was already approved culturally. Those who hold to the traditional or biblical definition marriage have long been called intolerant, bigots, homophobes, and numerous other pejoratives. One website ran an entire article that existed only to direct the F-word (and I don’t mean “fundamentalist”) at us, and particularly politicians and political figures who voiced concerns about or opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage.

The intolerance of tolerance is at work.

The hurtful words are terribly discouraging. No one wants to be called a bigot, or a hate monger—no one. And yet, this is what is happening and will continue to happen until the West falls or Jesus returns, because we have to understand that love has its limits. There are places that, because we love people, we cannot go and ideas we cannot embrace or endorse.

I was reminded of this again by Sam Storms in his devotional, To the One Who Conquers: 50 Daily Meditations on the Seven Letters of Revelation 2-3. In writing of Jesus’ commendation of the Ephesians, Storms describes them as a church that had “20/20 discernment.”

They hated evil—period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Whatever form evil took, whether ethical or theological, they stood resolute in their opposition. No compromise. No cutting of corners. Their love was revealed in their intolerance.… This was their most stellar achievement. No heretical concept could ever raise its ugly head in Ephesus without being decapitated by the swift stroke of biblical truth. (41)

The Ephesians understood that Christian charity could not give room to false teaching within the church. Whatever else was going on in the culture, whatever trials they would face, whatever persecution they would be forced to endure, they would; but they could not suffer the usurping or perversion of biblical truth. And, again, Jesus commended them for this. Why? Because, as Storms writes, Jesus hates moral and theological compromise.

Any appeal to grace to justify sin is repugnant to our Lord. Any attempt to rationalize immorality by citing the “liberty” we have in Christ is abhorrent to him and must be to us. True Christian love is never expressed by the tolerance of wickedness, whether it be a matter of what one believes or how one behaves. (43)

This is the position we find ourselves in today. The culture has spoken and, while we can (and I believe should) disagree with the outcome, we should at least acknowledge the reality. This means the hateful and hurtful words are going to keep coming, with a promise they’ll stop as soon as we are willing to stop believing what we believe. If we can just embrace same-sex marriage, and then polyamorous relationships, we can all get along. But is that the best way to demonstrate love to our unbelieving neighbors and our fellow believers?

No. Instead, we need to be willing to affirm that love has its limits. And just as the Ephesians were forced to in the face of the Nicolaitian heresy, we must ask what we must say no to for the sake of our devotion to Christ—and in order to demonstrate the love of Christ to all.

Choking ourselves to death

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During Jesus’ incarnation, the religious elite of His day, the scribes and Pharisees, would follow Him around and seek to trap Him, discredit Him and have Him arrested and killed.

The Pharisees honestly get a bad rap sometimes. During the 400 year silence prior to John the Baptist’s arrival on the scene, these men saw the godlessness of their countrymen and wanted to do something about it. They wanted Israel to live according to the Law. So the strove to obey the Law as closely as possible; to obey God as His people. But then they started adding laws to the Law in order to help them obey the Law. The spirit of the law became the letter of the law and man’s laws overtook God’s Law and then they were left with something opposed to the Law.

Although there were many, a common example is found in the Sabbath. God had commanded that on the seventh day, all his people should rest. No work was to be done, for just as God had rested from his work of creation on the seventh day, so too would his people from theirs. They had a lot of extra rules about what to do, where to go, what you could carry and even whether or not someone could be healed. So one day, Jesus was at Bethesda and saw a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (John 5:6-9)

Jesus performed an amazing miracle in the life of this man. An invalid for over 30 years, yet now he could walk. People should have been celebrating! Except, there was one small problem: “Now that day was the Sabbath” (v. 9b). The Sabbath—the same day on which the Pharisees had determined that people could not carry a mat because they considered that work.

So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:10-17)

The Pharisees sought to persecute Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16). They persecuted Jesus because he broke their rules. Rules they had equated with God’s. And they became so blind with pride that they could not see who Jesus was or what he was doing.

This is something we all need to be careful of. There’s a tendency among Christians to be afraid of grace—if we talk about it too much, or if we really believe in it, people might start thinking we don’t care about obedience, or we think you can live however you want because “once saved always saved.” Even when we don’t do this, we add rules about what to wear, what to drink, what to say, what to think, how to pray, how to sing, whether to put our hands up (and how high)…

We love our rules, don’t we?

And yet, they’re the very things that might be choking the life out of us. When we substitute human effort for genuine affection for God, terrible things follow. I can’t help but think of the seven churches of Revelation to whom Jesus sent warnings and encouragement. The Ephesians, for example, he commended for their uncompromising doctrine, and their unwillingness to bear with false teachers. Yet he warned that they had abandoned “the love [they] had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4).

Jesus warned these Christians that he would put an end to their church not because they were following false teachers, but because their hearts were far off from him. Their right concern over protecting their doctrine was choking the life out of them because they’d forgotten the spirit in which it was to be pursued. Right doctrine was to lead to greater delight and devotion, not to a cold, “dead” orthodoxy (which is completely unorthodox).

One of the things I always want to be careful of in my own life—and I’ll be honest, I chafe at it whenever certain things are imposed from the outside—is whether or not the rules and structures I’ve implemented in my own life and in my family are life-giving or if they are ultimately pushing me and others away from Jesus. If a “read the Bible in a year” plan is about little more than checking a box, it ought not be done. Bible reading should happen, but the form that takes needs to change. If prayer is rigidly structured and my words are rehearsed, there’s a problem. Prayer should still happen, but the form is (generally) open by necessity. If “worship” only happens when hands are raised higher and voices are louder, well… you get the idea right?

Seeking to obey God in all of our lives is right of course. It is good and necessary and life-giving. However, we need to be careful of not adding rules that go beyond those found in Scripture lest we become proud, devoted and dead.


This post is based off a much earlier one from 2010.

 

 

The danger of being theoretical Christians

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Buzzwords make me want to die inside. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about in the business world or ministry world, they are just painful. I cringe every time I hear “strategy” or “strategic” (or worse, “strategic strategies”). I squirm when I hear the term “missional.”

It’s not that these words are bad. But what gets me is how easily they can be bent toward passivity or, worse, theoretical living. I know of lots of folks who talk about the importance of strategy all day long, but it doesn’t go beyond talking about why it matters. We believe it in theory, but actually building one and then following it, that’s something else. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about being missional or reaching the community around us, but it doesn’t really seem to go beyond the hypothetical. We believe in the idea in theory, but when it comes to actually doing something like getting to know our neighbors, oh my goodness.

Now, here’s the thing: For me, I don’t have an “everyone else should do better at this” attitude, because I’m just as bad as everyone else. I live in my head. It’s easy for me to live theoretically, but not move beyond theory. And this won’t do, because, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in Seeking the Face of God, “People are not interested in something theoretical.”

The thing that always convinces people is reality. If they see there is something about our lives, a certain quality, a certain calmness and equanimity, the ability to be more than conquerors in every kind of circumstance, if they see that when everything is against us, we still triumphantly prevail whereas they do not, they will become interested in what we have. They will want to know more about it. I am convinced, therefore, that the greatest need today is Christian people who know and manifest the fact that they know the living God, to whom His “loving-kindness is better than life.” In other words, nothing is more important than an assurance of salvation. (122)

This is what we’re to be about, isn’t it? We’re to be people whose knowledge and love for the Lord are clearly visible. Who recognize that salvation is truly of grace and live like it’s true. So what does that look like?

It means we quit running around as though we’ve got to do “enough” in order to earn God’s continued love. It means we speak up about our faith with confidence, at the right times and the right ways, not to beat people over the head with the gospel, but because we speak about what we care about. We don’t pretend we’ve got all the answers to every question, because we don’t. And we do our best to be honest about the fact that we’re totally going to blow it on nearly everything I’ve just said. And we can do that because we know that we are secure in the loving-kindness of our Savior.

That’s a little bit of what it looks like to live as something more than a theoretical Christian. And a theoretical Christian is exactly what we must not be. The world doesn’t have time for it, and neither do we.

The number one Christian conversation killer

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There are certain words that are conversation killers:

  • Hitler (doesn’t matter what you’re comparing, if you bring in Hitler, the conversation is over)
  • Nazi (whether grammar, brand, or any other modifier one may choose to use)
  • Homophobe (because, well you know…)
  • K (because it’s a letter, not a word)
  • YOLO (because it it makes you look like an idiot)

In Christian circles, we have our own conversation killers, in addition to the ones we’ve picked up from the surrounding culture. Most of these are buzzwords like “missional” and increasingly “gospel centered”—the terms and phrases we either overuse or just haven’t bothered to adequately define, thus rendering them meaningless. But there’s one word to rule them all—one forged in the fires of Mount Doom:

F-U-N-D-A-M-E-N-T-A-L-I-S-T

“Fundamentalist” is a big word, and not just because it has 14 letters. It’s one that some—usually those who prefer the term “progressive” to describe their doctrine and outlook—use with alarming frequency, arguably more than some folks use “heretic.” And for Christians, it really is the ultimate conversation killer. After all, no one wants to be called a fundamentalist—homophobe we can handle. Out of step, ditto. Being on the wrong side of history, no problem. But “fundamentalist”? No way—that’s like being the kid who had cooties on the playground during recess!

Okay, I kid a little. (Maybe. Probably not.)

But you often see the F-word used by the desperate, the folks who put something out there but what they’re saying doesn’t really have legs. Here are the two ways I typically see it play out:

1. To defend preference. There’s a great deal of freedom in the Christian faith, on this I hope we can all agree. And there are certain things we cannot reasonably be too hardline about. For example, if I were to say all alcohol consumption is sinful, I’d have a hard time squaring that with Scripture. Now, I don’t drink due to personal conviction, so for me it would be sinful unless I had a change of conviction (which I have not). That is perfectly within the bounds. However, if I were to say “and you drink can’t either—everyone,” I’d be on the wrong side of the Bible (Romans 14:1-12).

However, there are other things that aren’t really up for debate (even if we still debate them anyway). If we’re participating in occult practices or taking part in spiritual practices from other religions, we’re going to have a hard time squaring that with the Bible. We point to Paul’s words about eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, and say that idols aren’t living things, but ignore that later he warns us against participating in idolatry itself in 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. We talk about Paul’s freedom in eating meat sacrificed to idols—but we forget that he’s talking about meat purchased in the marketplace, not being part of the sacrifice itself.

In our day, it’s things like yoga, The Walking Dead, and 50 Shades of Creepy.These are the things where we disagree (rightly or wrongly). But if we’re going to disagree, let’s at least make sure that our views are based on something a little more substantial than “I like it,” “it feels good,” or “it works for me.” Actually have a good argument.

2. To defend syncretism. This is the second time the f-word is typically dropped—on the clear black and white issues like the supremacy of Christ, the authority of the Bible, who goes to heaven and hell, sexual morality… Big stuff. Fun fact: I once read a blog where the writer called Scripture’s command that a man spiritually lead and provide for the needs of his family (cf. 1 Tim 5:8; Eph 5:22-33) a misogynistic, patriarchal attitude and anyone who says different is, well, you know…

On big issues—the things where the Bible doesn’t give any wiggle room whatsoever—it’s not being fundamentalist to say “Nope, Christians can’t affirm XYZ”. It’s not unloving or unkind. It’s just being honest. And when we resort to name-calling and conversation killers rather than engaging people honestly, it just says we’re desperate, proud and kind of lazy. It might be easier to demonize those we disagree with—regardless of our position on the theological spectrum—but it’s not worth it. And I don’t think any of us want that.


An earlier version of this post was written in 2010.

How do we keep these things from happening?

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This weekend, the news broke that Tullian Tchividjian resigned as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, after admitting to an extramarital affair in a statement provided to the Washington Post.

There’s so much that could be said about this issue, and no doubt, much of it will be in the days (or hours) to come. Some of us will make the mistake of reading most of it (not that all the commentary will be bad, but because most of it won’t be necessary). So, naturally, I’m writing something related to it that I hope you’ll actually read and find helpful.

Although I’ve met Tullian, shared emails periodically and had a couple of Skype calls (for an interview a couple of years back), what I know of him mostly comes from his books and preaching. I’ve never attended his church, so I don’t know what the culture is like there in terms of the whole creepy pastor-celebrity worship thing that sometimes happens in churches with pastors who have a large platform. I don’t know what his accountability structure was like at his church, but I do know from what we see in the Post article that there was some form of authority playing an active role in his life, one looking out for his good—and not merely his platform.

So please don’t read this as someone trying to do armchair detective work and pinpoint “the real problem”. I don’t want this to be assumed to be a rant that comes across like the self-righteous boasting of the Pharisee who prayed, “Thank God I am not like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And likewise I don’t want to offer the despicable “nobody’s perfect/we all make mistakes” sentiments you often see when a high profile Christian is found to be engaged in disqualifying sin.

So why I am I writing this then?

Honestly, I think I mostly want to address one question: How do we help ensure these sorts of things don’t keep happening? This sort of sin is heartbreaking on every level: It’s awful for the people involved. It’s devastating to a local church. It hurts so many people on so many levels, both inside and outside the church. And we need to treat it as such. And one of the best ways to do that is to figure out how we protect our pastors, our fellow church members, our friends, our family, and ourselves from crossing that line we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from.

Now, here’s the first thing we need to remember: Sin isn’t a problem for “celebrity” Christians alone. Sin is no respecter of a person’s anonymity or notoriety. So we can’t say point a finger and say, well, of course XYZ happened—look at the size of his or her church, platform or whatever. Nor do we point fingers at theology in general. While sometimes the sins we see committed (or we commit) are the outworking of a deficient theology, the problem can’t be neatly pegged on a theological system. After all, as we’ve seen, it’s possible to learn directly from Jesus and still fall prey to the fear of man and be guilty of hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14). So while it’s tempting to say that sin is the result of being too light on law or too free with grace or something like that, we need to look at a different area of our lives. The problem we face is certainly a theological one, and there’s no one answer to the problem, but I wonder if it’s helpful to consider our view of the place of the church in accountability?

More pointedly, how do we answer these two questions:

Who really knows us? If you’re in a North American evangelical church with a congregation larger than 200, there’s a good chance that you can easily hide if you so choose. You could come every single week, sit in the same seat, and leave again without ever being noticed. It’s possible to do this (in fact, I know of one church in my city that’s known for being the church you go to if you want to hide, which I’m sure is not the leadership’s intention whatsoever). And if you’re a pastor, it’s possible to set up your entire life in such a way that you never, ever have to deal with the people who are (allegedly) being shepherded by you. While it might be convenient, perhaps even appealing, there’s a pretty significant problem with this set-up: if no one knows us, there’s no one to protect us from ourselves.

Now, make no mistake: letting people know you is risky. It means you actually have to let them know you. They must know things about you, and not just what you’re looking at on the Internet. After all, we have CSIS and the NSA for that (hi, guys). We need to have people who can ask us about just about anything in our lives—and expect a real answer. If you don’t have someone who’s willing to call you out when you’re full of crap, you might have a problem. Speaking of which…

How highly do we esteem ourselves? How we see ourselves is just as important as anything else. If we act as though we are somehow above certain sins, we’re almost certainly going to fall to those very things. Bloggers know where I’m coming from on this: If someone doesn’t read my blog today, am I going to lose my mind and check my stats incessantly? How do I react when others experience greater success than me? How do I react when people leave my church and go to the one down the road? Do I actually believe that if Jesus is to increase, I must decrease—or do I just affirm it with my lips all the while thinking I’m a pretty big deal? All of this, though, is just an expression of autonomy—which is really just a polite way of saying “I worship myself.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from being in a similar situation as any number of Christian leaders who’ve committed adultery, become domineering or otherwise abused their authority. I don’t wonder, “How could this have happened?” when I learn about adultery among pastors or any of the other sins we see being committed. I grieve over them because I know exactly how they happen. It just takes one decision. It happens in an instant, and happens in the heart long before it happens in the body. That’s one of the things I love about people who know themselves well: they’re not naïve enough to assume they couldn’t do something similar, and so are intentional about being faithful, God-honoring men and women (in every sense).

And this is one of the things that terrify me about the advice I see offered in leadership circles. It’s the whole, “Nobody gets your struggles/leadership is lonely/you’re a snowflake” thing. Which, incidentally, is the same kind of stuff someone trying to tempt you into sin will say to you (as many a woman or man knows). The problem, of course, is it’s complete bunk. It not only sets up the pastor as being somehow in a different class than other believers, but it leaves him without the protection that comes from being a part of the body.

Which brings me back to something sorely lacking within evangelical churches today: accountability. Is this the only issue? Nope. Like I said, when it comes to sin in general, and sin such as adultery in particular, it’s a lot more complicated than just accountability. Nevertheless, it is an issue. The gospel doesn’t just save us from sin, but saves us into community. And among the many ways community helps us is to protect us as people know us. To continually call us all to live in light of what Jesus has done and continues to do in our lives. Is accountability a perfect failsafe? Nope. But you and I need it nonetheless—desperately. Likewise, we need to carefully consider how we would answer these two questions: Who really knows us, and how highly do we think of ourselves? The answers to those may make a world of difference for ourselves, our churches and the world around us.

Honoring our imperfect fathers and imitating our perfect Father

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I don’t remember wanting to be like my dad growing up. That sounds insulting, but it’s not meant to be. Not really.

See, my parents split up when I was a kid, so beyond our scheduled visits, I really wasn’t around him all that much. I didn’t really know him all that well so I couldn’t know whether or not I wanted to be like him. And what I did know was filtered through my particular biases and bitterness. It hasn’t been until I became an adult—and more specifically, after I became a Christian—that I got to see my dad for who he is and learn more about what he’s really like.

He’s not a perfect man, by any means. Nor would he claim otherwise. He’s committed many sins, and made many mistakes. And yet, what’s been helpful to me has been seeing how he lives in light of them. Here’s what I mean:

When he’s wronged someone, he apologizes. And although he knows he can’t undo the hurts or damage of certain decisions, he does his best to make amends. But he also knows he can’t make someone forgive him. He is not responsible if someone cannot find it in themselves to forgive him—regardless of the amount of effort he could put in, he can’t make it happen.

What’s all the more amazing about this is my dad is not a Christian. At least, not yet (but I hope he will be, someday). Yet, he still models an aspect of repentance that I want to do likewise. There’s no way for me to make someone forgive me. There’s nothing I can do to remove bitterness from someone’s heart. I can make restitution, to the degree to which I am able, but I can’t guarantee that my actions will result in reconciliation. This is a good thing to learn, and to see modelled, and to follow suit in. But I also don’t want to stop there, any more than I want my own son to stop at wanting to be like me.

Whether our fathers are believers or not, whether they’re good men or not, they’re at best a blurry image of the one whom we are called to imitate. And as Thomas Watson reminded us long ago,1 the one we are to imitate is God, our Father in heaven.

“The child not only bears his father’s image, but imitates him in his speech, gesture and behavior,” Watson wrote. “If God be our Father, let us imitate him” (cf. Ephesians 5: 1). So we imitate God in forgiving others, in pardoning offences and sins committed against us. We imitate him in his works of mercy, being rich in good works; being “merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

“He who has God for his Father, will have him for his pattern,” Watson wrote. So we honor our imperfect fathers and we imitate the good we see in them. But we also honor them by not settling for imitating them, but by only being satisfied in imitating our perfect Father in heaven.

Christianity is costly (if you’re doing it right)

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One of the things that’s most interesting in all the doom and gloom reporting around denominational decline, the rise of the nones and the seeming collapse of Christianity in America is the fact that, as some commentators have said previously, what we’re really seeing is the rise of honesty among Americans.

It is no longer socially advantageous to be considered a Christian, at least not in any meaningful sense. So people who considered themselves Christians (even if in name only) are no longer identifying themselves as such. This is a very good thing for us overall, because it means, as Tim Keller once said, the mushy middle is falling out of evangelicalism, and what we’ll be left with is a stronger visible church as a result. A church that knows that, as J.C. Ryle once said, “it does cost something to be a real Christian, according to the standards of the Bible.” He continues:

There are enemies to be overcome, battles to be fought, sacrifices to be made, an Egypt to be forsaken, a wilderness to be passed through, a cross to be carried, a race to be run. Conversion is not putting a man in an arm-chair and taking him easily to heaven. It is the beginning of a mighty conflict, in which it costs much to win the victory. Hence arises the unspeakable importance of “counting the cost.” (as published in J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, p. 174)

Jesus told the crowds, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” He warned them against making a hasty decision to follow him. He wanted people to know that being a Christian would not bring about a life of ease and comfort. And this is what we need to remind ourselves of today, even as we continue to go forward in our mission to make disciples of all nations.

We need to be uncompromisingly honest on this point: Christianity is costly.

At least, if we’re doing it right.

That doesn’t mean we “sell” people a life of doom and gloom, though. Our song probably shouldn’t be a dirge or a fashionably sad pop song from the early 90s.1 But it does mean we embrace the reality of Christianity not being easy. It costs much to win the victory—and we should never be afraid to say so.

God’s plans are good (even when we don’t like them)

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There’s a verse that’s in every Christian household or office space (and not just because it’s in our Bibles). Maybe it’s on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Perhaps a poster or a greeting card. Or perhaps it’s featured on a decorative throw or a tattoo. It’s the life verse of virtually every women’s ministry leader and children’s ministry director.

Of course, you know I’m referring to Jeremiah 29:11, and it’s assurance that God knows the plans he has for us, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

It’s a wonderful encouragement, isn’t it? We look at it and say, “Wow—God has a plan for me!” That plan, of course, is one we assume to be free from any sort of difficultly, strife or conflict. But to paraphrase the oft-quoted line—this verse you keep using; I do not think it means what you think it means.

When we read this verse, we typically do so through the lens of the western desire for prosperity, safety and security. That God’s plan obviously includes a full bank account, a big house and kids who remember to wash their hands after using the toilet. But as much fun as those things might be—especially the last one for the germaphobes out there—this isn’t really what’s promised by God to the Israelites. And make no mistake: this verse offers a promise to them, first and foremost.

Although we all (should) know this, we can’t forget that Jeremiah 29:11 comes as part of a larger conversation between God and the newly exiled Jewish people. After years of rejecting God, of consistently rebelling against him and his commands, Jerusalem and the nation of Judah was finally overtaken by  Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was there to witness the whole thing. As they sat in Babylon, many so-called prophets came to them with messages promising a swift return to Jerusalem and a restoration of their fortunes.

Surely, God wouldn’t leave the people in exile, away from the promised land, for more than a few months. Maybe a couple of years, tops. But any longer than that, come on…

And yet, of these prophets God said, “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord” (8-9). They were liars, deceivers who preyed on the people’s hopes and dreams. But their promises and prophecies were empty babbling. They were fanciful ideas from their own minds, and nothing more.

Instead of a swift return, God had something else in mind for his wayward people:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)

So, rather than telling them not to unpack their belongings, God says get comfortable: Settle in Babylon. Get jobs. Get married. Have children. Be a blessing to this city, because you’re going to be here for a while. For the rest of your lives, in fact.

And it’s in this context that God says to his people, “For I know the plans I have for you.”

Despite this being primarily a promise to the Israelites, there is a principle that is true for us as well. Though, to be honest, I doubt us Christians feel anymore joyful about it than the Israelites of the day. Sometimes we’re in communities and context where we’d rather not be. It’s difficult to imagine trying to be a faithful Christian in an incredibly harsh context—one where you can be killed simply for your beliefs. And yet, for many, that’s the reality they live with. But God is still good, isn’t he?

Even here in North America, there are certainly times when we might prefer to hunker in the bunker or move somewhere far away from all the people who need Jesus because they really don’t like this Jesus we represent. And yet, it’s to them God has sent us. And he has a plan for us here: it is to serve those in need. To proclaim truth of the gospel. To do all we can to encourage all around us to thrive, and to be “a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom. 2:19b). To seek the wellbeing and welfare of our communities because those who are perishing need to see that Christians really do care for them.

In other words, God’s plan for us right now is to be his ambassadors in a foreign land. And God’s plans are always good (even when we don’t like them). We aren’t to sit on our duffs and just wait until Jesus returns. We are to go about the work he has commanded us. Because that is the plan he has for us—and it is the best future any of us could hope for.


Adapted from an earlier post written in October 2009.

Four reasons Christians talk so much about sexual ethics

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You’re probably sick to death of this topic. I kind of am, too. Fear not: I’m not writing yet another post on sexual ethics. There are lots of those out there. Some of them are even really great. But many of us feel like we need to remind ourselves, as JD Greear did with SBC pastors at the 2015 convention, that “sexual ethics are not the center of Christianity. The Cross and Christ are.”

This is a given, or it should be one. And yet, if you look at what so many are writing about, you’d think sex was the central issue. Why do we do this? Why is it we tend to focus so much on sexual ethics, seemingly at the expense of Christ and the cross, the center of our faith?

There are undoubtedly more reasons than these, but I have four suggestions I’d like to put forward:

1. It’s easier. Negatively, it’s easier to point to symptoms of a problem than to the bring the real issue to light. The issue with western sexual ethics is not simply that people are behaving in ways contrary to their nature: the true issue is that human beings have rebelled against their Creator and chosen to worship created things—including themselves—rather than the One who made them. Unpacking the latter takes a lot of work and a great deal of patience. It’s much easier to follow that great theologian Bob Newhart and say, “Stop it!”

2. It’s a Freudian slip. While this has been used as a weapon to wrongly dismiss and defame some proponents of traditional sexual ethics, there is, occasionally, some truth to it. Though I suspect they are relatively few, there some who are passionately vocal about issues like adultery or pornography or homosexuality who all the while are are committing adultery, have a computer filled with pornography of the vilest sort, or are secretly engaged in homosexual behavior. If the Ted Haggard scandal of the mid-2000s has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes when people protest a great deal, it may be their way of revealing their own issues.

3. It is compassionate. Positively, some speak about sexual ethics not because they hate people who identify as LGBT, engage in polyamory, or any other activity, but because they have a great deal of compassion. They see people who are lost and confused desperately searching for something to make them feel whole and happy and satisfied, but are always coming up short. Few wake up next to a stranger they met at the club thinking, “Yep, I feel confident that was the right decision,” even when they go and do it again the next week or the next night. And this motivates people to speak—they see people hurting themselves while desperately trying to make themselves happy, and seemingly not recognizing that it’s not working. So even though there are some voices out there who are callous and cruel in clubbing people with their dissenting voice,1 there are others who are compassionately voicing their concern as dying people pleading with dying people.

4. It is a gospel issue. Finally, and again positively, many Christians are speaking about sexual ethics a great deal because it legitimately is a gospel issue, which means it is necessary. The gospel has implications on all of life, from our finances to our sexuality. There is not a square inch of human existence over which Christ does not cry, “Mine,” as Abraham Kuyper once said. Thus, if the Lord Jesus is truly Lord of all, that necessarily includes what we do in our bedrooms, our phones and our computers.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the near-constant talk of sexual ethics, gender identity and all this kind of stuff. But don’t let the noise turn you away from the really good reasons to speak up. There are people who need to hear the truth, and we owe it to them to do so in as compassionate and Christ-honoring a fashion as possible.

Believing while waiting

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Just believe in God and your sins will fade away. Doesn’t that make it sound easy? Sure it takes work. Sure it will be a challenge. But over time things will steadily improve. If only.

Christians live in a gap. We give our lives to Christ, and we step into it. On the other side of the gap is glory. “Glory” may sound old-fashioned, like something a TV preacher shouted about or old hymns were sung about. I can still hear my grandfather, a travelling evangelist of the revival and crusade era, saying “glory” with that inimitable southern preacher emphasis—Glaw-ray! But think of glory like you would a stunning sun set, a litter of puppies, the vastness of the Milky Way, the detail on a Monet painting, July fourth fireworks, crashing surf, a crescendoing symphony, or the beauty of fresh fallen snow. Each is glorious in its own way and lifts our minds and fills our hearts with … something. That something is the yearning for the perfection to come. We are not there yet. But one day Christ will bring it with Him. Revelation 21 says:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Belief does not mean sin will go away. As long as the gap exists we cannot have that. What we can have is trajectory. True belief is that which perpetually, magnetically pulls us toward the “not yet” of Revelation 21. It finds hope when things are hard by knowing there is greater happiness, perfect happiness to come. The suffering of right now hurts, without question. Looking to the future does not deny that or shy away from it. It simply offers a way through.

When we sin it is forward-looking belief that leads to repentance because we know that leaving what is wrong and pursuing what is right will bring us closer to real peace and joy. We hear the call of Jesus’ voice and we go toward it, the very nature of repentance. And it is repentance that keeps our trajectory on course, constantly nudging us back on course when we wander and yanking us back on course when we flee.

We will struggle. We will do things we know are wrong. We will battle persistent sins. But it is belief that makes us battle instead of just giving up. That porn addiction is not greater than what is to come; it may feel like it right now, but belief lifts your eyes to “making everything new”. The not yet is a reason to fight your apathy and laziness at work. Your work may seem pointless, but it was given to you by the one who will bring in a new creation. Doesn’t He want you to be part of working in His image and toward that end? You find yourself fighting anger or bitterness? Grace has been poured out on you and one day justice will come, so you can be filled up with grace and look forward to wrongs being righted. And as long as we are fighting, refusing to surrender our lives to sin, we are moving toward the “not yet” and even exemplifying it to the world around us.

Some folks do right things without belief. Some folks claim to believe without doing right. From the outside it can be very hard to tell who believes what. In fact, it can be very hard to tell from the inside too. I spent a long time assuming I “believed” rightly, not fully realizing that my belief was hollow, missing vitality and life. I think many people who grow up Christian are the same way. They can say all the right things, answer all the questions, and do enough good to feel comfortable in their belief. But do they really believe? Did I? Yes and no. I was in the gap. I believed in Christ, but had not believed to the point of giving Him everything in my life.

That is the process toward the not yet. That is the evidence of belief. Are we giving ourselves to Christ in new ways? Are we trusting parts of our life to him we had not previously? A Relationship, a bank account, a secret sin, a secret shame, a secret pride—are we believing his goodness and authority in such a way that we offer them up?


Barnabas Piper blogs at The Blazing Center, is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith, and co-hosts The Happy Rant podcast. Piper writes for WorldMag.com, contributes to numerous other websites, and speaks frequently at churches and conferences. Barnabas serves as the Brand Manager for the Leadership Development team at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville where he lives with his wife and two daughters.


Photo credit: Alpages via photopin (license)

God doesn’t need an invitation

 

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There’s a peculiar thing I’ve noticed in some of the songs in popular Christian praise and/or worship music—typically the ones you hear at the beginning of the “set”1 intended to warm everybody up and get everyone excited. It’s this idea that we are somehow summoning God into our presence. Songs about inviting him into our midst, calling him down, telling him to show up in power, and show us his glory, and all this kind of stuff…

Now, depending your congregation’s proclivities, you’re probably going to sing a song like this today. And I’ve gotta say, to me at least, it’s really weird. It’s not that I’m against being aware of God’s presence, nor am I against praying—or singing for that matter—for true, Spirit-wrought revival. But I’m not sure this is what these songs are talking about. Instead, they seem to be putting us in the drivers’ seat, making us the ones in control during the our time of corporate worship.

In a chapter of The Prodigal Church at least 75 percent of worship leaders will skip, Jared Wilson calls our attention to the heart of this peculiar problem:

The danger we face when we worship is coming into the experience assuming we are summoning God. Assuming worship is our initiative. Assuming we are somehow the ones in control, that we are bringing the best of ourselves and our holy desire to worship. But the reality is, worship does not begin with the worshipper. It begins with God. It is a response to God’s calling upon us. (97)

This is the danger of experientialism. It moves us by inches away from the center, from the reality of who God is, of what the purpose of worship is—of who the object of worship is. And if we’re not careful, and the slide continues, our worship songs may wind up more closely resembling the frantic cries of the Baal-worshippers on the mountain than those of Christ’s disciples.

You’re not calling God down this morning. He doesn’t need an invitation. But I have some better news for you: He is already here. The Holy Spirit dwells within all of his people, every moment of every day. He is the one who empowers our worship, who gives us the desire to sing God’s praises. His power has already shown up—and it resides in us. Should we not rejoice and be glad of this?