Following God from a Distance

When I was young, I remember hearing a preacher ask the congregation, “Are you following closely to God?” He meant that we should all follow as closely as we can at all times. But Israel was given different instructions. Joshua 3:1-4 says,

Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from the Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over. So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp; and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way before.

God’s people were about to enter the Promised Land and begin their conquest. First, they had to conquer a natural enemy, the river Jordan. It was flood season, which heightened the already perilous difficulty of crossing a river on foot. That’s when God gives them the command (through the mouth of the leaders) that they follow the Ark of the Covenant but from a distance. The Ark was the moveable throne of God, the item, carried by the Levites (Yahweh’s footmen), that represented God to them. It bore the stone tables on which the Ten Commandments had been written, manna, and Aaron’s rod the budded. As long as Israel kept their eyes on the Ark and followed it, they would be safe. When you read on, you’ll see that the waters of the Jordan were stopped, and Israel again traveled through a body of water on dry ground to the other side. God fought this small, natural battle; they followed in faith.

The lesson seems obvious: follow God and He will take care of you. But let’s dig a bit deeper. When you go back to Joshua 1, you see Joshua, the new leader of God’s people, had to be reminded multiple times to be strong and courageous. You get the idea that he probably battled fear. Amid these calls to courage, God says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua not only needed courage; he needed supernatural wisdom and guidance. Where would he get it? From meditating on God’s word.

Meditation is a lost art for many of us. We think of Eastern meditation as something like Yoga without the painful stretching, where we’re told to empty our minds. But God commands Joshua to do no such thing. There is an object on which to meditate: the law. This is not only the individual laws themselves but the Torah, the books Moses recorded of Israel’s history from Adam to the cusp of the Promised Land. By immersing himself in God’s wisdom and obeying it in faith, he is promised a prosperous way and good success. What does this have to do with the Ark?

One of the items held in the Ark was God’s law. Israel following the Ark is a picture of our call to contemplate and obey God’s word. When we meditate on God’s law, purposing to do what it says, we are not just obeying the individual laws. As He did with Israel, when we meditate on and follow Him, God promises to make our path successful. Learning to follow Him becomes more than avoiding the landmines of sin; it turns into a joyful journey of faith. Israel’s prosperous journey included crossing a treacherous river, battling giants, and dealing with internal sin. Despite setbacks and hold-ups, in the end they were successful; they followed Yahweh and were able to accomplish what their fathers, even Moses himself, could not. 

Our call to follow Christ doesn’t always mean we see precisely what to do in every case. Sometimes the way gets thorny, the path leads through deep water. Obeying seems like something beyond our ability. Don’t get distracted by the afflictions, encumbered with the trials, or impatient by how long you’re having to wait. Like Israel, trust that God is going before you; meditate on His Word, and purpose to follow wherever His wisdom leads. Keep your eyes fastened on Him and follow. He will prepare your path.


Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing. 

The Dubious Diversity Rationale

It’s hard to date the beginning of the madness. Maybe you trace it to the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, the shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014, the creation of Black Lives Matters in 2013, or the 1990s when Kimberlé Crenshaw invented the theory of intersectionality, or Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” or Rudi Dutschke’s “long march through the institutions,” or Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto. Or maybe it began, as Whittaker Chambers suggested, back in the Garden of Eden when the Serpent said to Eve, “Ye shall be as God.”

Whenever it began, the Woke Revolution, i.e. Wokeism, has become for some evangelicals, the horizontal misty air that blinds their eyes and makes them unable to see that they are marching to the command of that mighty chief who imposed himself upon Eve at the Tree. In the late Spring of 2020, when mobs advanced along a horrid front of dreadful length in the guise of warriors—as John Milton once described Satan’s minions—Christian pastors offered a range of support in the name of “social justice.” Ever since it’s as if every nerve has been quickened. Some have doubled down on their support of the revolution. Some have recognized their mistake and are executing subtle rearguard action to walk things back. Still, for others, support for Wokeism never existed in the first place.

Since Trinity Reformed Church is firmly in the third category, and since we are now a couple of years removed from the Woke Revolution in evangelicalism, it’s time to refresh on why Christians should never have been duped.

Defining what is at the center of Wokeness is both simple and hard. It’s hard because of the abundance of new ideas attached to repurposed terminology—identity politics, social justice, equity, critical race theory, and more. It’s simple because all the new jargon, once stripped of the pretended nuance, amounts to the same thing, namely, the notion that those who’ve been treated badly in the past should get more while those who’ve benefited from past unfairness should get less. Peter Coclanis elaborates, “Politically motivated academics believe that racism and white supremacy constitute a central and uniquely egregious failing of the West. For activists in the U.S., transcending white supremacy means creating and implementing a robust reparations[1] program for African Americans.”[2]

Some Christians may be tempted to advocate for the polite tolerance of “justice.” But Christians must be immovably intolerant for the same reason we wouldn’t serve poison diluted with milk to our children. So deadly and toxic is the underlying thought, that Christians who have tasted the Bread and seen the Light ought to be too absorbed in faithful ministry to regard it. And when they are in the besieged hall and forced to weigh the scales, they ought to recoil. Christian confusion results from the false need to have a sense of proportion about devilish ideas.

Anthony Bradley is an example of a well-intentioned Christian who wishes to affirm the good and redeemable elements of Critical Race Theory. The Southern Baptist, Paul Morrison, is another example of someone who thinks Christians should apply to Critical Theory “the same framework with which we approach philosophy, logic, democracy, economics, or other non-revelatory secular tools.”[3] The problem with this notion is that philosophy is the study of wisdom, logic is the study of thinking, and economics is the study of the market. None of these things begin with an anti-Christian assumption. Critical Theory assumes false things in a way that philosophy and economics don’t. It assumes that whiteness is a sin,[4] privilege is unfair, the United States was founded on the desire to protect slavery,[5] and systemic racism is the normal state of affairs in the United States today.[6]

The architects of Wokeism could never advance directly in the teeth of a noble confessional Christianity. It began as an insidious debauching and drugging of the academic mind, an ideology of ingenious sophism,[7] which, when introduced into the church follows to the complete destruction of the gospel. The sophism calls for a “repressive tolerance”[8] disguised under a farcical pretense of “justice,” themselves to be the sole judge of its boundaries. This is an immediate problem for Christians. Whatever concerns a claim of justice should be confided to God alone. This is all there is—as far as Christians are concerned—of an original principle on the subject. Christians are bound by God’s defining.[9]

So, Critical Race Theory can never function as a mere secondary tool of analysis. It is not some little, trivial modification that unbinds the mystic cords of reality. It is not an incidental peccadillo that leaves the gospel or the church unaffected. It is like the Canada Thistle, that pest of the soil, which cannot be dug out by an army of men. The Woke Revolution doesn’t merely offer an analytical tool for cultural problems, it redefines reality in a way so as to perpetuate them. The nature of woke ideology is that it can’t be borrowed from bits and pieces. It is a totalizing explanation of reality that doesn’t have to be proven historically, philosophically, or theologically, because argument along these lines is proof of racism itself. Wokeness is that way of looking at life that makes grudge-holding look normal and forgiveness strange. The whole system envelops institutions and those who fill them, infusing the inner terrain with an impersonal and unchristian standpoint.

Christians should care when people redefine reality. Untrue presuppositions are the essential features of the Woke Revolution, which is framed by a narrative of blame that declares white America guilty for the plight of blacks.[10] Gospel deception is the fiber of Wokeism because it entrenches a frantic internal experience of guilt beyond the reach of forgiveness. There is no way out for whites when it comes to race. For example, Derrick Bell says racism has permanence in the American system. But, blaming the abstract “system” with no hope of forgiveness is decidedly opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is now occurring in woke churches is a set of substitutes—resentment for mercy; animosity for love—that has a lethal effect on the gospel. In the good news of Christ, reconciliation happens through individual confession, repentance, and forgiveness. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) teaches that the gospel pattern of forgiveness should be carried out in our daily lives. The point of the parable is that if we claim to be forgiven by Jesus, yet still have an unforgiving spirit, then that proves that we have never tasted the forgiveness of Jesus in the first place. Reconciliation is impossible when repentant individuals are denied forgiveness and kept forever on the hamster wheel of guilt.

Embracing the Woke Revolution, in part or whole, sends the message that Christianity must be strained through the sieve of Ivy League ideology. So we must remember there is no badge of faithfulness or practical advantage for being on easy terms with the world’s foolishness. Rather than endorsing all the new ideas about justice, gender, and race, the church needs to heterodoxmatize—that is, have an opinion different from the one now held. When evangelicals simply acquiesce to the cultural fashion of the moment, it forgets that the church cannot move forward without an anchor fastened to Christ and the Spirit’s compass to navigate the latest idea.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] https://churchleaders.com/news/381330-dr-eric-mason-the-biblical-case-for-reparations.html

[2] https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/property-in-man/

[3] https://www.pastortheologians.com/articles/2021/10/06/potlucks-and-priesthoods?gclid=CjwKCAjw9LSSBhBsEiwAKtf0n5cJ1gvO_ly8ARwRvLp6-EB5-H5pdlYKXJW7vYzepd9syQ5srvCaihoCxhMQAvD_BwE

[4] For example, Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter describes whiteness as “a toggle between nothingness and awfulness.” The depravity of being white, so the theory goes, stems from chattel slavery that came from European colonialism.

[5] The 1619 Project was launched by the New York Times in August 2019. It claims that one primary reason the Americans decided to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776 was to protect the institution of slavery. Their argument points to the November 1775 proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, which proposed freedom to enslaved persons fleeing to the British army. They reference historian Jill Lepore who wrote, “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston, rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” What are we to say to this revisionist history? Mary Beth Norton’s book 1774: The Long Year of Revolution thoroughly refutes the argument. Her account of the long year 1774, from the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 to the outbreak of hostilities in April 1775, shows conclusively that the scales tipped in favor of independence before Dunmore’s proclamation.

The primary source evidence also undermines the claims of the 1619 project. A nation founded on slavery would never have allowed the Northwest Ordinance (1787), which forbid slavery. As Abraham Lincoln said, slavery is “hid away in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of the given time.” Slavery is permitted in “the narrowest limits of necessity” needed to achieve the union of states. In 1794 congress prohibited the out-going slave-trade. In 1798, they prohibited the bringing of slaves from Africa into the Mississippi Territory. In 1800 they prohibited American citizens from trading slaves between foreign countries. In 1803 they passed more laws restraining the internal slave trade. In 1808 they outlawed the slave trade. In 1820 they made the slave trade a capital crime. In other words, the unmistakable spirit of the founders was hostility to the very principle of slavery (Lincoln, “Speech on Kansas-Nebraska Act”).

[6] This argument (coming from Brittney Cooper and Michael Harriot) claims American culture, including American prosperity, rests upon the institution of slavery. The problem with this claim is apparent when you compare the United States to Brazil. Over ten times more African slaves were taken to (what we now call) Brazil. The slave trade lasted longer in Brazil than American and Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888. So, if prosperity is predicated on slavery, Brazil should be many times wealthier than the United States. https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/a-tale-of-two-propositions/

[7] See the book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody.

[8] The realigning of tolerance can be traced to Herbert Marcuse’s writings in the 1960s where he talks about repressive tolerance as intolerance and the suppression of dissenting opinions, especially Christianity. Marcuse distinguished between bad (or false) tolerance and “liberating tolerance.” The first is the sort of tolerance that undergirds free society. The second he defines as “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”

[9] See Douglas Wilson’s book, A Justice Primer for a biblical study of the principles of justice.

[10] For a critique of this notion see Thomas Sowell’s book, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality.

The Call to Persistence

Galatians 6:7-10, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Scripture is filled with living pictures, created by God and pointing to greater realities. One of these pictures is that of sowing and reaping. Sowing in ancient times was not like planting a garden today. We plant in rows, digging holes and covering them a bit at a time. The people in Jesus’ time would turn the ground over and scatter seed. This could look haphazard, but it was needed. As in Jesus’ parable of the Sower, only some seed would grow to fruition.

The apostle Paul uses sowing and reaping to give the church at Galatia hope in their work. The early portion of that particular letter is scathing in its rebuke of the legalistic teaching that abounded in the Galatian church at the time. But toward the end, he returns to a common exhortation found in many of his letters – the call to bless and do good to one another.

The idea of “doing good” is an offense to no one. It sounds nice, pleasant, like a shallow stream running softly over rocks. Yet Paul’s call to “do good” is not a humanitarian appeal to be nice to people. It’s Paul’s shorthand way of saying, “Pursue the things I’ve told you in this letter: put away self-righteousness, kill sinful desires, and sacrificially love one another.”

That brings us to this particular passage. You’ve probably heard the proverb, “You reap what you sow.” That’s an indirect quotation of Galatians 6:7. Yet we can’t neglect the first part of the verse, warning us that God is not mocked. Conservative Christians would all agree that those who live wickedly will suffer for their sins. Yet Paul’s exhortation in this book is against establishing your self-righteousness, creating man-made standards that we expect others to follow, and judging them when they don’t. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 7:1-2, where He warns that the standards we apply to others are the same standards by which we will be judged. The Galatian church’s greatest danger was not condoning debauched lifestyles. It was exchanging the gospel of Christ for a set of Old Covenant rules that could never make one righteous. To create our standards for righteousness is to mock God and His plan. When we sow seeds of flesh-pleasing self-righteousness, the harvest is hard hearts and bitter fruit. On the other hand, when we sow “to the Spirit,” that is, love God, kill sin, and love one another, the harvest is everlasting life.

That sounds great, but as we all know, sowing in the Spirit is hard work. Sure it may be easy to do at first, but over time the work gets more difficult. If you’ve ever cultivated a garden, you know what this is like. You have enthusiasm at first, planting the seed and anticipating the luscious fruit and vegetables that will grow. Then the weeds come. One year there’s not enough rain; the next year there’s too much rain. After a while you’re tempted to give up; it’s a lot easier to buy fresh produce from the grocery store than grow it yourself. But you can’t buy the fruit of the Spirit at Walmart (it would be out of stock, anyway). You must plant, protect, water, fertilize…and wait.

Waiting is the hardest part. Sometimes we think we should be further along, things should be moving faster. “Haven’t I been at this for a while? Why is this not working as it should?” It gets tiring when you try to do what you’re supposed to, whether parenting a difficult child, dealing with a frustrating co-worker, or working hard on a project, only to see more problems crop up and no noticeable improvement. We feel like there’s no use in trying. Sometimes a lack of results is a clue that we should change something, like the gardener who discovers that he is overfertilizing his crops. The rest of the time, our job is to be patient.

Paul understood this, which is why he encourages the church to not give up on their work. “Let us not grow weary while doing good,” he says, “for in due season we shall reap if we don’t lose heart.” The church two-thousand years ago had the same trouble, the same temptation to give up in their good work, that we have. This is no empty pep-talk, like a football coach telling his team “We can still win,” despite being down 66-0 at halftime. Paul’s hope is grounded in the God who governs creation. The same God who causes plants to grow will reward our diligent work in His good time.

The key to reaping, according to the apostle, is persistence. Unlike some gardening, where we plant, weed, and mostly wait, the good work of the Christian life is continuous. We must give ourselves to it every day. The harvest will come, but it only comes with patience, which is nurtured by hope.

What how then, do we do to maintain our hope during our work? First, keep your eyes on the long-term goal. If you are a parent, don’t try to judge your child’s daily progress, which will frustrate you and your child. Don’t lash out at your boss because he won’t listen to your ideas. In time your ideas will be needed, or you may not even work there. Regardless, impatiently checking for fruit makes things worse. Second, talk to someone who will encourage you. We all know people who bless us. When you need it, make time to talk with that person who will listen and remind you of the good. Lastly, remember that God is doing things you can’t see. We don’t have the spiritual sight to see how He is working in us and through us. It can help to read the stories in Scripture where we see God working in and through people while they don’t know it (Joseph and Esther, for example). Trust that God is working.

Dear saint of God, you may think that no one sees what you are doing, or that it does not matter. I can assure you, your Heavenly Father sees and knows. Every work you do, every word you speak has eternal significance. Every day you are planting seed, not just for yourself, but for God’s kingdom. In time it will yield fruit, not just for you, but to the blessing and life of others. In God’s due season, you will reap if you don’t lose heart.


Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing. 

God and Self-realization

In the recent articles “God and Culture” and “God and Psychotherapy,” we have been introduced to several important and helpful observations about dangers of life in our psycho-sexual, techno-therapeutic world—namely, the temptation to reduce the Christian mission to banal platitudes without any practical benefits and the expectation to treat the whole of humanity, including ourselves, as primarily material beings with mere mental deficiencies. These are perhaps the most contentious issues of our day. Francis Schaffer’s pesky question quickly follows: how then shall we live? If we are to avoid the double-pronged pitfall of cultural disengagement and psychotherapeutic dissociation (and we must!), what is the biblical alternative?

Some Christians believe that the alternative is Christianized knock-off of the secular vision, a counterfeit of the counterfeit, if you can believe it. We are often told that our deepest need as Christians is to “find our identity in Christ.” Those Christians who bought into the cultural phantasm of a primarily psychological self, thus, began syncretizing Scripture and psychology in a historically unprecedented way. In fact, a quick search of the Google Book metrics will show you that the phrase “identity in Christ,” absent from Christian literature for almost two thousand years, is perhaps the most wide-spread exhortation in popular theology after 1970.[1] Though historical novelty ought to be enough to make us at least suspicious of such language, Scripture gives us all the more reason to reject identity-in-Christ language. Indeed, the Christian alternative to engaging with our overly psychologized culture on its own terms is to return to the Scriptures own definition of what it means to be human. Yet, as our Father is fond of doing, we are called away from this sort of language not simply for truth’s sake but also to move toward a greater, more joyfully satisfying alternative. The biblical alternative is this: in union with Christ, Christians are called to inhabit an office rather than an identity.

Of course, thinking about our lives in terms of an office is not very commonplace. The only office that we’re used to inhabiting is that dreaded and hideously florescent one that you’ll have to return to Monday morning—that is, if you’re vaccinated. However, the word office historically referred not to a cubicled building but rather our duty, function, or role in society that we are to exercise for the benefit of our neighbors.[2] We know this already without having to think very hard about it: some in our church serve in the office of elder or the office of deacon; some in our government hold “high office”; a policeman is an officer of the law; some unfortunate human beings function as officials at sporting events, regulating the rules of the game to the benefit of players and fans—usually of the other team. But here’s the point: each Christian is also given an office—the office of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

Since we have nothing that we did not receive from our Lord Jesus, just as his baptism was his coronation as Messiah-King (Ps. 2; John 1:29-34) and his investiture with the high priesthood of Melchizedek (Ps. 110; Heb. 7; Matt. 3), so too our baptism into Christ is a baptism into his dual office of priest and king. Christ did not die to merely take us to heaven. Then for what purpose, to what end, are we redeemed? Answer: “[Christ] loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us kings and priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 1:5-6). Much like our sexual orientations, our identities are not found by investigating our subjective feelings but rather they are fixed in objective realities. We are royal priests in Christ by the will of the Father and sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit as objectively attested to week-in and week-out in the broken bread and the poured-out wine.[3] The entire goal of the Christian life then is to both realize and actualize our office in Christ—not “find our identity.”[4] We must constantly remind ourselves of our God-given duties as royal priests and do them. As Paul would say, we must be becoming by sight what we already are by faith (Col. 3:1-4; Gal. 5:1, 25; Eph. 5:8; Rom. 6:2-12).[5]

But what are the advantages, the counter-cultural payoffs, the cash value of viewing ourselves as inhabiting offices rather than dwelling in an identity? I suggest that there are at least three.

First, it fixes our attention outward. Identity-based language is not only unbiblical but also plainly unpractical. When what you are most deeply concerned with is your personal status or your supposed lack of conformity or (worse yet) your perfect conformity to a certain ideal, this can lead to unhelpful navel-gazing, endless hunting for the idols of the heart, and morbid introspection. While each of those things are not inherently sinful, a fixation on identity can lead us to be overly skeptical of ourselves, lacking confidence in the blood-bought promises of Scripture, or overly full of ourselves, lacking humility for the blood-drenched penalty of our sinfulness. However, taking note of our office as a royal priesthood inherently externalizes our vision. No one is a priest without a people; no one is a king without a kingdom.

Second, it forces us to action. What does an identity, even a well-founded identity, do for the world? Arguably, it is only a means of self-satisfaction. As Caleb Morell notes, the dreaded irony is that those who often employ identity language in order to describe their idol-hunting are often themselves guilty of making identity their idol![6] It seems to be merely a selfish endeavor. Yet, taking ahold of your royal-priestly office is inherently a call to action. After all, what is a sitting priest but an assault on the very office? See the story of Eli in 1 Samuel 1-4, where Eli the Priest is rebuked by God for his laziness, which ultimately culminates in the death of his sons and capture of the Ark of the Covenant. What is a warless king except an opportunity for sin and scandal? Compare the story of David out in the field, crushing the heads of serpent-like giants in 1 Samuel 17 with the story of David inside the palace, seducing innocent women with serpent-like deception in 2 Samuel 11-12. Though one may fail at the task assigned to them in office of priest-king, there is at least a clear assignment that one can repent and return to (Ps. 51), unlike identity foraging.

Third, it focuses our mission. Identityhunting has no objective, no end. It is an endless ocean. “The heart is a labyrinth,” says Robert Altar’s translation of Jeremiah 17:9. It is a maze, a puzzle. To pretend that we understand our motivations and actions and heart-attitudes in the first place is a joke. Dostoyevsky: “man is mystery to himself.”[7] Indeed!—there is no end to identity searching because there can be no beginning. On the other hand, to be a royal priest lays out a clear path: Draw near to God. Strengthen the weak. Crush the dragon. Love your family. Offer the sacrifice of praise. Take dominion. Make war on sin. Mature in wisdom.

Realization of our office in Christ is a much stronger and more biblical antidote to chaos than resorting to fighting our battles with the world with the weapons of the world—namely, those psychologically charged ways of speaking about our Christian lives. To inhabit our God-given role as the royal priesthood is commanded of us, but it is a commandment with promise. When we live as we are called, God blesses and strengthens our endeavors by the Spirit’s presence (Gal. 5:16); and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), freedom to live as coheirs in the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:12-17) and freedom from the self-centered piety of psychologizing our souls.


[1]Caleb Morell, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ,” American Reformer (February 9, 2022), https://americanreformer.org/stop-finding-your-identity-in-christ/. Morell’s article is helpful and extremely informative, but I still think that it misses the point ultimately, as it will be shown below.

[2]This definition is compiled from the various iterations of “office” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford, ENG: Clarendon Press), X.729-734.

[3]As Jim Jordan notes, bread and wine are themselves the biblical symbols of participation in the priesthood and kingdom respectively. See James B. Jordan, From Bread to Wine: Creation, Worship, and Christian Maturity (West Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2019), 23ff.  

[4]This language of self-realization is taken from Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til. For more, see Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of Biblical Christianity, vol. 3, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), esp. 44-46.   

[5]Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 67-89. 

[6]Morell, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ.”

[7]Personal correspondence to his brother (1839), as quoted in Konstantin Mochulski, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971), 17.


Gage Crowder teaches literature and Bible at Providence Classical School. In addition to his studies at Birmingham Theological Seminary, he is a contributing member of the Huntsville Literary Association and the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. His poetry and prose can be found in the The LegendPoem Magazine, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Panoply and elsewhere.

Why Confess Sin Every Sunday?

In a recent article we explained the what and why behind the exhortation during the worship service. The exhortation precedes the confession of sin. The confession is in response to the exhortation. The congregation kneels during confession. After the minister leads the congregation in corporate prayer, there is a time for private confession, after which we rise to hear the good news of the gospel. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we announce our common faith in the words of one of the ecumenical creeds.

During Covenant Renewal Worship, we corporately and individually confess our sins to the Lord. Praise to the Lord and the confession of sin are not separate activities. They belong together. Isaiah praises the Lord (Is. 6:3) and then confesses his sin (Is. 6:5). Augustine called on “those who govern the Church” to “have rightly appointed times of penitence.” During the Medieval Church, the Roman Mass began with The Confiteor, a general confession of sin. The Reformers rehabilitated the practice of confessing sin. The sixteenth-century Church at Strasbourg liturgy included a prayer of confession and supplication. It was a plain confession of sin, influenced by Psalm 25 and 26, and supplication for God’s mercy.

Why is it important to weekly confess sin during the Sunday service? When a person is baptized, they are inaugurated into the Christian life. Not only is their baptism a covenant sign that their sins are washed away, but it is also a call to walk in the newness of life. Walking in the “new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6) means living in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3f). This is when the Spirit empowers his people to put to death the deeds of the flesh and bring to life the deeds of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-24). Christians, therefore, are called to a life of repentance and professing the Christian faith. This is not a one-time act, but a lifelong habit. When Christians confess their sin in prayers and profess their faith in the words of the ecumenical creeds, they are living out the prophetic sign of baptism.

There is a subjective and objective element to confessing sin. The subjective part relates to the fact that each subject must turn inward and tell the truth about themselves and their sin. The Christian life is a Spirit-empowered fight to overcome personal sins. It should cause great concern when the church is regularly overcome by sins rather than overcoming them. Part of the reason Christians struggle to overcome indwelling sin is that they haven’t been taught the habits of confession and repentance during the Lord’s Day service. All sin is against God (Ps. 51:4). We must be willing to tell God we are sorry for our sin. But this is hard for modern man, who has been taught that he is not morally responsible for his actions. The world trains him to blame biochemical, relational, or environmental factors for their behavior. Repentance from blame-shifted behavior is meaningless hypocrisy. This is why so many Christians are mastered by sin. A person cannot dodge moral responsibility and expect God to forgive them of sins. To go to God and say “I am sorry” is true communication with God on a personal level. As Calvin emphasized, true prayer proceeds first from a sense of need.

The objective part of confession relates to the fact that we turn our confessed sins outward to the completed work of Christ on the cross. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us, “The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Mercy is grounded in the fact that Christ died on a tree and was resurrected out of the grave. Because Christ did that, all those who believe are washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). Our sins have earned an eternal curse (Rom. 6:23). Christ endured the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Through faith, God declares his people forgiven and righteous (Rom. 4:1-8). Confession reawakens Christ’s forgiving power. Each time we confess our sins to God, we do so based on Christ’s redemptive work. Confession is when the Holy Spirit restores the soul to sanity by flattening the exaggerated desires of sin before the glory of forgiving grace.

Secular society doesn’t suppress religious impulses. It redirects them from the sanctuary to social media, which has made society an unrelenting echo chamber of confession. Deeds both large and small are confessed. The smallest details of life are disclosed, as are all the ways the confessor has been wronged by others. One’s “followers” hear daily confession like a priest, learning the confessor’s desires, opinions, illnesses, grievances, outrages, achievements, and victim stories. Instead of confessing real sin, penitents confess society’s trendy ones, as C.S. Lewis, said, “Men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin must appear almost desirable.” The comments and “likes” confirm and absolve, providing affirmation of the confessor’s view of themselves. But when it comes to confessing one’s actual sins, it resembles the mafia’s omerta, a strict code of silence.

Christian confession, in contrast, is agreeing with God about sin. He who ignores his own sin feeds his vision of himself. During confession, Christians are telling God that they see their sin the way God sees it. By confessing, they are bringing their sin to light for the purpose of forgiveness and renunciation. To confess is to announce remorse and the desire to repent. In this way, confession normalizes desires and behaviors. It assumes certain things are right and wrong. The wrong ones are confessed, first for forgiveness, and second for future sanctifying effect.

There are several dangers of corporate confession of sin that must be guarded against. For one, we must be careful that we sincerely confess to God rather than put on a performance before men. Confession is not a show. Another danger is that we must be careful to remember the act of confession doesn’t save us. God does. The point of confession is to put our sin under the justifying blood of Christ (Rom. 4:25). It is the cross, not confession, that is the cause of cleansing. Another danger is if confession becomes an empty ritual of routine. If we regularly acknowledge the same sins without putting up a fight against them, the consequence is to think lightly of sin. Finally, it is a mistake to think that every sin requires a new sacrifice. Sincere Christians feel guilty for their sin and desire to make it right. They may even feel like they are supposed to pay something for a new redemption. But that’s not the point of confession. Christ’s sacrifice canceled the record of debts (Col. 2:14). The price for sin was paid in full (1 Cor. 6:19f) and never needs repeating (Heb. 7:27). Everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43). 

Despite these dangers, it is more dangerous to shun the weekly liturgical confession of sin. Liturgical confession must be done weekly because sinners are not as accountable as they think they are, and they are not as innocent as they say they are. Americans are fanatically fond of prospering, yet exhibit a mysterious dislike of the things that cause it. Refusing to confess sin to God is refusing to prosper (Prov. 28:13). To not prosper is to fall into calamity, be a fugitive until death, receive no help, fall suddenly (Prov. 28: 14, 16ff), and waste away (Ps. 32:3). Why do those who conceal sin not prosper? Because each person has a duty to be honest with God, to know themselves and who God is, to acknowledge their own faults in light of God’s holiness. In other words, confession reproduces reality—who I am and who God is. It implies that the great truth of God’s world is that he is the Good Shepherded who takes his people on the pilgrimage from sin to salvation. 

Bibliography

Augustine, On Faith, Hope, and Love: The Enchiridion (Translated by Professor J.F. Shaw), 111.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 189.

Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 20, 35, 46, 100.

Francis Shaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale House, 1971), 159-160.

Christopher Watkin, Michel Foucault in the Great Thinkers Series (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2018), 56-58

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Covenant Renewal Worship: The Exhortation

Introduction

One of the features of Covenant Renewal Worship at TRC is the exhortation. This is typically a five-minute homily encouraging the church to remain faithful in a sinful world. Our weekly exhortations cover a range of issues, including, keeping your kids from worldliness, living in steadfastness, how sentimentalism can suck the joy out of Christmas, the sin of grumbling, how gratitude is good improv, wisdom in the use of sarcasm, and even an exhortation to exhort.

The exhortation is neither a replacement nor a warm-up for the sermon. It’s a surgical admonition about the sins that tempt God’s people. More simply, the exhortation is when we talk about sin out loud while assembled. It’s easy for Christians to talk about sinfulness in the abstract while avoiding talking about particular personal sins. It’s the phenomenon of opposing sin in theory but not in practice. The exhortation ensures that Christians properly gauge the depth and breadth of their sin in light of the sanctifying power of the gospel.

What does the New Testament say about exhortations?

The Greek word for “exhortation” is parakaleō. It has a range of meanings, including to encourage (Eph. 6:22), to comfort (Heb. 6:18, 12:5), to call for (Acts 28:20), and to summon (Acts 28:14). If you set the distinctive nuances aside, these meanings all exist under the common meaning of “to address.” So an exhortation is an address spoken in the name and power of God (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1; 1 Thess. 4:1).

Exhortations accompany the preaching of the word (Luke 3:18), the “public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13), and bearing witness of the truth (Acts 2:40). Sometimes exhortations say the words “save yourself from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). Sometimes they encourage God’s people “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23). Sometimes they take the form of rebuke (Titus 2:15). In the New Testament, the church is exhorted to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), to live in a way that pleases the Lord (Eph. 4:1, 1 Thess. 4:1), to pursue unity (Phil. 4:2) and to pray (1 Tim. 2:1). The church needs regular (Heb. 3:13) exhortations to “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:12) and to “not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5).

Exhorting is a spiritual gift (Rom. 12:8). It’s part of the pastoral responsibilities of the elders. The design is to establish God’s people in the faith (1 Thess. 3:2). It must be performed “with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2) and the church is to “bear with” the exhortations of the elders (Heb. 13:22). More broadly, mutual exhortations between church members are a regular part of a healthy Christian community (Heb. 3:13). Sometimes, even, elders are to exhort one another (1 Pet. 5:1).

The exhortation is not a mere moral appeal. It’s not self-help or self-righteousness. When exhortations are given to the church, they refer back to God’s work of salvation. Since God’s sovereign grace is the presupposition and basis of the exhortation, it is a ministry of the church in service to the cross of Christ. Encouragement to faithfulness is affected by the Spirit in coordination with the saving work of Jesus Christ.[1]

Why do Christians need the weekly exhortation?

The world makes sin look normal and obedience bizarre. Prosperity, comfort, and technology conceal the sins in our life. This is the deceit of sin, that it lives and moves in our heart without our knowing it. The result is that grace becomes cheap, divine judgment cartoonish, and the gospel an agent for mere cosmic alterations.

It’s hard for people to recognize the sin in their own life. This is especially pronounced in the modern world where moral categories are displaced by self-improvement. Life becomes a series of techniques for boosting one’s personal image in imitation of what culture admires. When the church combines the latest trends with superficial theology, cultural norms become the fixed standard of conformity. This explains how the church has lost its moral vision.

God’s people need regular reminders about the moral facts of God’s universe. We must be reminded that the sinful nature of the human heart lusts after things fleshly and ungodly. Sin puts us at enmity against God and all that is holy. The exhortation is preparation for the confession of sin. If the exhortation beseeches the congregation to live righteously, then confession is the act of betraying the sinful nature in order to be true to the power of the gospel. Confessing sin is a key step in taking our thoughts captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). It’s only those who are spiritually sorry for their sin who are driven to turn from it. Insordescent is a word the Roman Catholic Church uses to describe someone who is growing in filthiness. This is what happens when we don’t regularly confess our sins and receive the washing of the Holy Spirit (Ez. 36:25; 1 Jn. 1:7; 1 Jn. 5:7-8).  

During Covenant Renewal Worship, the exhortation precedes the confession of sin. The confession is in response to the exhortation. The congregation kneels during confession. After the minister leads the congregation in corporate confession, there is a time for private confession. After we confess, we rise to hear the good news of the gospel. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we announce our common faith in the words of one of the ecumenical creeds.

Conclusion

Even though God is the one against whom sin is committed (Ps. 51:4), he gives the solution. In and of ourselves, we are powerless to turn impurity to purity or ugliness to beauty. In our strength sin is illutible (Philippians 3:9). In God’s strength, sin is propitiated (1 Jn. 2:2). When sin does its worst, God does his best. In the words of John Owen, “Grace contains a two-fold mystery: We are not only to walk with God but to go to God.”[2]

Here are some of our other articles about Corporate Worship

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] Schmitz, O. (1964–). παρακαλέω, παράκλησις. In G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 5, p. 794-799). Eerdmans.

[2] John Owen, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge to Personal Godliness (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1983), 67.

God and Psychotherapy

We recently wrote an article entitled “God and Culture” where we argued there is a certain folly and falsity to think one can live in a place without being shaped by it. One of the ways the church is unwittingly influenced by secular culture is through the psychotherapeutic revolution. The triumph of the therapeutic shifted the understanding of what’s wrong with humanity from something moral to something that has happened to us. In 1945 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Of course, there are bad boys … But what has made them so?” She answered that bad boys are caused by the lack of “proper food,” susceptibility to “physical and mental trouble, particularly where medical care is also not available.” So, the problem with the world isn’t defined by a moral category, but by nutritional deficiencies that handicap education. The New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael (1919 – 2001), spoke similarly when she wrote that it was self-evident that “crime is caused by deprivation, misery, psychopathology, and social injustice.”

The psychotherapeutic revolution redefined moral issues as mental health, psychology, psychiatry, and/or psychoanalysis. For example, Sigmund Freud said that most sexual issues are rooted in therapeutic questions, not moral ones. It’s the belief that something has happened to us. It could be biochemical, relational, or environmental. Moral issues are redefined as health. What the Bible describes as sin the therapist describes as sick. The assumption is that material factors compel certain behaviors, thus people are not responsible for their behavior. The problem with this is that when Adam and Eve first sinned, they lived in Paradise—a sinless environment.

While Christians believe that one’s environment helps form one’s character (Gal. 1:14), we don’t think that material categories erase moral ones. There is such a thing as nature and nurture. There are environmental factors that are part of everyone’s story. But there are also duties and obligations, wrong appetites and right ones, and sinful acts done by sinful people.[1]   

What happens to God in the psychotherapeutic world? The God of the Bible is uninteresting because he is outside and distinct from the self. More interesting is a God accessible through intuition. Personal wounds are the interpretive lens for God, who is on a one-year “prove it” contract. If God can resolve the trauma without me admitting moral fault and turning from sin, then he gets another one-year contract. It’s theology with set boundaries: The self is at the center and God is at the periphery, permitted to stay there as long as he makes me feel good.

What happens when Christian faith has a psychotherapeutic disposition? The turn to the therapeutic means that right and wrong is based on emotional hurt and psychological healing, love is based on listening and acceptance, and holiness is based on uninviting rules that miss the spirit of enjoyable life. In other words, a therapeutic vision of personhood replaces the moral vision. If there is no moral existence, then there is no evil, only inward aches calling out for a technique to heal the pain. If there is no evil, then there is no sin, only preoccupation with the self. If there is no sin, then there is no redemption, only coping therapies that simultaneously overcome and reinforce the misery of narcissism.

What happens to the gospel in the psychotherapeutic world? Salvation implies saved from and saved to. A psychotherapeutic gospel saves people from failure before man, from not measuring up to the more talented person, from feeling sorry for self, from the need for future obedience, and from the personal slight of the guy one cubicle over. It saves people to the freedom to feel no failure before man, freedom to feel like “you being you” is enough, and freedom to boost self-esteem.

What happens to the Christian life in the psychotherapeutic world? Since the goal is to feel good rather than be good, there can be no holy God, there can be no moral accounting, and there can be no divine summons. Since a loving God wouldn’t go around delivering commandments, there can be no burden to listen to his commandments. When faith takes a turn for the therapeutic, the emphasis is not on faith in the God of Scripture but psychological survival. In other words, religious faith becomes useful to the degree it assists with the personal pains of the modern world.

In the psychotherapeutic world, personal grievances are collected into group histories that are greased to make orthodoxy look slippery. Lived experience is the authoritative framework for interpreting the self and the Bible. What’s the solution for Christians who are nurtured in a psychotherapeutic culture? Christians must make a concerted effort to recenter themselves in the truth of God’s Word. When they do, they’ll remember that their relationship with God is not based on their psychology, but their sin, what God has done about it in Christ, and if they believe what God has done.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


Bibliography

David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients our World (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2014), 102, 110, 126.


[1] Nothing in this essay is intended to discourage Christian from seeking biblical counseling if necessary.

Enlarge Your Soul

Introduction

Some faithful Christians refuse to read fiction. The reason cited is the same: If there is time to read, they’d rather read something true. Better to plow up a real field than a pretend one. Such prejudice against fiction isn’t new. General Robert E. Lee forbade his son Rob from reading novels because they would discourage industriousness and cause him to desire unreal things.[1] Similarly, many faithful Christians look upon fiction reading as a diversion, nothing more than a trifling digression, like when their grandmother passed the golden years reading tawdry romance novels. To them, fiction is just stories, usually bad stories, that have the redeeming qualities of a Spanish soap opera. In contrast, non-fiction is viewed as the clean and complete road to truth that doesn’t tempt the dangers of imagination.

Granted, it is crucial to acknowledge there are many bad novels. It is also crucial to acknowledge that many bad novels are manifestly bad. They waste your time and soul just as much as the latest Netflix series. There is a need to separate the wheat and the chaff. For every Wendell Berry masterpiece, there is a twistical E.L. James washout. But it is also manifestly not the case that fiction is false while non-fiction is true. And the probity of this assertion stands tall even before we account for the disaster that is Howard Zinn, whose revisionist history is passed around by college students who think they are getting the “real history” of the United States.

Fiction is often more real than fact. The reason is given by Barney, a student in Nora Baines’s history class in Nat Hentoff’s novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, “Fiction is sometimes more real than fact. I mean, it can tell you more than facts. It can tell you more about what ordinary people were like in certain times and places than laws and battles and things like that . . . Fiction is imagination. The novelist can suppose, and so he can get inside people’s heads.” Michel Foucault, the historian of ideas, responded to the charge that his fiction wasn’t history by saying, “It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth.”[2]

Books exist because people with ideas wish to explain them. Some explain using didactic prose. Others do so in a provocative narrative containing thick layers of meaning. But the test that separates good from evil and beauty from ugliness is not whether or not the book is fiction or non. If one provides mental clarity of righteousness and the other mental confusion, then there exists a valid test separating truth from falsehood, a test that spans far beyond whether the book is non-fiction.

There is an unbroken thread that connects fiction with non-fiction. Each contributes something. The best non-fiction books plunge the reader deep into the mystery of the subject. The best fiction books get the reader out of the deep. If there is a curious and fantastic truth in the non-fiction book, it is concretely embodied in the imagination of a story. If the goal of virtue is incarnation, then illustrations aren’t optional extras. It is the business of fiction to disclose the carefully argued points of non-fiction. To the degree that fiction provides a sense of truth, it retains powerful intellectual and spiritual relevance to the church.

The best of fiction takes place at the point where several branches intersect, including theology, spirituality, philosophy, and phenomenology. The nature of life tells us that stories are not indulgent accessories.

Three reasons Christians should not snub quality fiction

First, reading fiction demystifies the human condition

What does life consist of? Temptation. Depression. Pretension. Self-love. Forgiveness. Lust. Laughter. Fake laughter. Hope. Duty. Delight. The best novels advise on the most complex subjects of life—the beliefs that lodge in the heart.

Consider, for example, how Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila provides insights into the mentality of people who grow up as orphans in a traumatized childhood. The main character, Lila, walks through life under a cloud of shame that continually rains reminders that she is not good enough. Her every move makes her more ashamed of herself, even when the deed is innocent. She assumes everyone looks at her as a fool. She talks roughly to people “so that she could say when it ended she always knew it would.” She dreams of dignity but then resists kindness. It’s the long agony of self-sabotage. When she enters into a respectable life, she wonders, “What happens when somebody isn’t herself anymore?”[3]

There is nothing on earth more terrific than the labyrinth that is the interior of the soul. There is hatred hidden in the darkest corner; vanity veiled in the unplumbed undercroft. Yet modern man balters through life addicted to hedonic emptiness that wrecks the marrow of the human ego. Novels expound on the mysterious content of human existence, taking readers beyond the primitive stage of reflection. It not only provides the sobering effect of understanding others’ experiences but it enlightens the darkness of bitterness, cowardliness, and sorcery to make the intractable man covet conversion.    

Second, reading fiction inspires obedience

Marilynne Robinson says that fiction “exercises the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”[4] How does this happen? Maryanne Wolf cites research showing that when a reader develops a fondness for a fictional character and that character starts running, the reader’s motor cortex activates as if he is running. Such a stimulated imagination creates real effects, as King David learned.

Nathan was God’s spokesman (2 Sam. 7:2) during the time of David. It was his job to confront David about his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba. Before making the direct accusation (2 Sam. 12:9), the prophet tells David a story about two men; one rich and the other poor. The rich man has many flocks (2 Sam. 12:2). The poor man has one little lamb (2 Sam. 12:3). A traveler arrives at the rich man’s house. Rather than slaughter one of his own sheep, the rich host takes the poor man’s little lamb to feed the guest (2 Sam. 12:4). David’s anger is kindled and he unwittingly condemns himself by pronouncing a death sentence on the rich man (2 Sam. 12:5). Then Nathan says, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). David, in return, makes a full confession (2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51).

The power of Nathan’s story animated David’s repentance. It was only when the reality of the situation was vividly portrayed via fable that David’s hard heart softened. Nathan could have handed David an ethics textbook. But that wouldn’t have described David’s moral situation with the richness and complexity that reached David’s heart.

Another example of inspired obedience comes from Willa Catha’s book, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Bishop Jean Marie Latour is appointed to establish the new diocese of New Mexico. Latour carries out a selfless program of ministry by traveling widely throughout the territory ministering to the poorest of the poor and the rich alike. In old age, the bishop catches a cold. His young assistant, Bernard, tries to comfort him with the words, “One does not die of a cold.” The old bishop smiles and says, “I shall not die of a cold, my son, I shall die of having lived.”[5] This is the distinctly Christian way of living and dying. As Jesus said, it’s the only way to receive life, “for whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life more my sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25).

It is true we can learn about what this means from a brilliant non-fiction book, like’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, where he says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But in the life of Bishop Latour, we see it in action.

While it’s important to grasp Christian concepts, it’s imperative that they grasp us. Stories confront the sort of disengaged reason that knows God from afar as if he is a matter to be studied without personal involvement.

Third, reading fiction divulges the world

If reading a book is a conversation, then the more genres you read the more assorted conversations you have. In literature, the reader experiences what he sees. That experience contributes greatly to his comprehension of the world. The mistake of rationalism is to confine comprehension to the mind. This ignores the inklings of the soul, the suggestions of holy transcendence that people feel but can’t prove. The sense that there is something more needs to be drawn out. Non-fiction is rarely up to the task, not like poetry and fiction.

Typical unbelief in the twenty-first century is not intellectual—it’s not for lack of evidence. Rather unbelief is visceral. Peter Kreeft says, “The root of most atheism is not argument but attitude, not intellection but feeling, not the love of truth but the fear of truth.”[6] People love themselves and don’t wish to bend the knee to another. People feel the irresistible pull of two-second worldly pleasures and don’t wish to repent. They want to do what they want to do. They want to determine truth. They want to determine meaning. They want to determine worth. They want to define the world. Rejection of God is sin-soaked emotion, not ivory tower reflection. It is a toddler tantrum trying to conquer the parents’ will.

Fiction appeals to the visceral aspects of human existence—desires, hopes, longings, ideals, imagination, and fears. It allows the disruptive voice of Christianity[7] to offer an alternative human existence, one where human satisfaction doesn’t come merely from earth-fed sources.

For example, consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist in the novel, The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby desires Daisy Buchannan as his personalized ideal of meaning. She is the splintered light of hope that breaks through the imminent frame of Gatsby’s flattened world. His pursuit of Daisy represents the haunting experience of transcendence for those who live their life exclusively below the sun. Reading the novel helps the reader feel that the locus of meaning is found only in that which is beyond mere physical grasping.

Conclusion

Christians read because they are people of the book. Peter Leithart explains, “We read because in reading we encounter the God who is Word. Christians extend this argument easily to ‘edifying’ reading.’”[8] Every human life is a reflection of the influences, documents, and stories that are deposited in the soul. What one reads (or doesn’t read) drives what they believe, what they do, and how they make decisions about the future.

Read to enlarge your being, as C.S. Lewis said. Talk about the books you are reading and ask others what they are reading. Read theology and history. And also read fiction. Read Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot and John Buchan. Read George MacDonald and P.G. Wodehouse. Why? Because it’s good for your soul.


[1] Allen Guelzo, Robert E. Lee: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2021), 147.

[2] Christopher Watkin, Michel Foucault (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2018), xxiii.

[3] Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Picador, 2014), 172f, 185.

[4] Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books (New York: Picador, 2013), 21.

[5] Willa Catha, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 [orig. 1927]), 267.

[6] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), 28.

[7] Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018).

[8] https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/09/why-should-christians-read-fiction-and-poetry


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Preparing for the World to Come

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”

Philippians 3:20-21

The last several months have seen a unique uptick in the number of people I know who have either died or were diagnosed with terminal illness. It’s bound to happen if you live long enough, but it’s still striking. When you’re a child, you go to funerals, but usually not many. As you get older, the number increases.

It’s not just people but the places I remember that have changed significantly. Once quiet fields of cotton, wooded creeks, and small shops are now subdivisions, businesses, and parking lots. All these changes remind me that an older world is passing away.

It’s easy to lament changes, as the poet R.S. Thomas did in poem “Ninetieth Birthday.” He ends it this way:

And there at the top that old woman,

Born almost a century back

In that stone farm, awaits your coming;

Waits for the news of the lost village

She thinks she knows, a place that exists

In her memory only.

You bring her greeting

And praise for having lasted so long

With time’s knife shaving the bone.

Yet no bridge joins her own

World with yours, all you can do

Is lean kindly across the abyss

To hear words that were once wise.

The passing of time will not relent. It continues daily, as God intended it. The looming specter of death grows with every passing year. We can easily ignore it when we’re young, but as we get older and more friends and family die, that ignorance is harder to maintain. With every death we join a little more with the groaning of creation, looking for the day of final deliverance.

I used to hope that deliverance would come through the rapture, when Jesus would come, rescue us from suffering, and take charge of everything. Over the years, I’ve come to see that Jesus is in charge of everything, and that being God’s child doesn’t mean escaping suffering but learning to face it with strength and joy. 

In forty years on this earth, I’ve formed attachments. I’ve come to love many people and places. For all of this I am grateful, which is why I’m sad when He takes them away. I want to hold on to what I know, to what I’m comfortable with, and especially to the people I love. Because I know more loss will come, the temptation is to try to shield myself, to resign myself to losing things. But no internal fortress can protect us from loss.

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi about dealing with loss. For him, it was the loss of his previous life. If anyone had a good thing going, it was Paul. He calls himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” or we would say, “who’s who.” He had everything a first-century Jew could want, and he gave it up to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah of God’s people. All his attachments, his friends, his life was overturned. He gave up the equivalence of a being a wealthy, tenured seminary professor to be a wandering missionary who suffered for Christ. Yet in the midst of this he maintained hope. That hope was tied to the resurrection, the new world that was breaking in.

After speaking of what he gave up, Paul talks about that new world in Philippians 3:20-21. He reminds them that their “citizenship is in heaven.” This is not some “pie in the sky when we die” encouragement, a call to pretend like nothing on earth matters because one day we will go to heaven. Paul’s hope is in the coming resurrection. It’s not just that we will one day have new bodies, as wonderful as that is. The final resurrection will be complete when Jesus will “subdue all things unto Himself.” Paul could face the loss of his old world because he was prepared for the world that was coming.

What then, can we learn about preparing for the coming world?

First of all, the world as it is will not remain. Death brought evil into the world and it has been running down ever since. We will all age, earthly beauty fades, and we can only slow the process. It was for love that God didn’t allow Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of life after they sinned, for that would have locked them in this world as sinful creatures forever. Corrosion is a product of the fall, and to be sad when we see it is to acknowledge what is right. But decay is not the end and we should never mourn without hope.

Second, remember our heavenly citizenship. When you entered into God’s family, you left the old world behind. Being citizens of heaven means we yield ourselves and our attachments to our Maker, the one who providentially cares for us, who gives and takes away. Suffering is when God allows us to face evil, either through loss, decay, or sin. Suffering is a reminder that the old world is not yet restored, and through suffering God graciously reminds us that we are citizens of the new world, the one just breaking in. We don’t like it because it hurts; we feel the pain deeply. But this is a part of our preparation.

Recently, a friend was talking about how we prepare to reign with Christ.[1] He said that God prepares us through suffering. It’s not the triumphant display of going from victory to victory. It’s facing trials and rejoicing in them. It’s enjoying God’s blessings, thanking Him for them, and continuing to thank Him when they’re gone. This is the lesson from the lives of Job, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul. Every time we face it, He is preparing us for the world to come. While we don’t see it, we are being filled with the weight of glory.

This doesn’t mean we merely wait for the coming world. The language of Peter, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers is that the new world is already breaking in. Every time we worship God, when we put sin to death, love our neighbor, and sacrifice our desires for the good of someone else, God is using us to bring a little bit of the new world into this one. We aren’t just waiting for it; we’re participating in it.

Though we may not die for our faith as Paul did, we will suffer. It may look like death wins in the end, for as we age, we will face this enemy more and more until the time we confront it directly. But that’s not the end. One day the evil of the world, even death itself, will be destroyed. The resurrected saints will see and enjoy the world promised from the beginning. All that is good, true, and lovely will be restored to glory and we will see how all our suffering was actually preparation for the world to come.


Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing. 


[1] I’m thankful to Gage Crowder for this insight.