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By John Wells

Recently I read all of Paul’s letters in one sitting. I highly recommend you do so at least once.

Surprisingly, it took me less than a minute.

The previous night I read about Jesus walking on water, how he stilled the storm with a single word. From these verses I gleaned that God can help me when I’m scared. And the night before I read about Daniel in the lion’s den and discovered God will protect me from every danger.

If you haven’t guessed, I was reading a children’s Bible. If you have young kids, you’re likely familiar with the take-home point found in many children’s Bibles and in much church curriculum—a simple story with a moral lesson.

G.I. Joe Values

In these settings children learn to be honest, to share, even to obey their parents. These are values we desire to see, right? Yet when we read one of these stories in a children’s Bible or when our kids come bounding out of Sunday school with their coloring page smattered with cotton balls and glitter-glue and a moral lesson, I sometimes cringe.

Why? Because I remember learning those same lessons growing up in a secular home. They were taught by those great heroes of the faith: He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Ninja Turtles. These were children’s stories designed to teach good behavior.

As an adult, I heard the gospel and found my morality damning (Rom. 2:12–15). As a parent, I realized I’d failed to teach my kids the incredible story of redemption by allowing secondary moral lessons to usurp the primary message of Scripture.

Essentially, I was teaching them there is little difference between the power of the gospel and the power of Grayskull. I needed to make changes. My children needed to learn to read and understand the Bible on its own terms.

4 Things to Avoid

Though cheap gospel substitutes take many forms, they often revolve around misinterpreting narratives in four ways:

1. Teaching narratives as moralistic fables.

Old and New Testament narratives are often taught as a spiritual version of Aesop’s Fables. For example, Jonah is treated as a story about how disobeying God will bring disaster. While that point is true, biblical narratives are not solely or even chiefly designed to convey a mere moral lesson.

2. Using excessive extrapolation and subtext.

Children are invited to read between the lines, assign feelings and motives to characters, and identify themselves as the hero of each story. They are asked questions like, “Why do you think the little boy wanted to share his fish and bread?” or “How do you think this act made Jesus feel?”

3. Implying prosperity theology.

Many times the lessons walk—and sometimes cross—a thin line into prosperity theology by promising that God will always protect their bodies, heal their sicknesses, and provide for their material needs. Such theology quickly breaks down with children facing abuse, family hardships, and serious illness. They may even wonder if they caused their own hardship or are somehow at fault.

4. Excluding epistolary, poetic, and prophetic genres.

If covered at all, these genres are often combined into a single story and taught as a narrative. So much rich theology is missed in favor of a moral lesson.

5 Things to Embrace

So what’s the alternative? As Christian parents we’re responsible for raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). It’s our responsibility to teach them how to study his Word. We want them to see the Bible not as a collection of moral fables, but as the epic story of redemption.

Here five brief tips for accomplishing that goal:  

1. Read and talk with your children about the Bible.

Deuteronomy 6:4–9 says to teach our children about the Lord in our homes, when we are traveling, when we lie down at night, and when we get up in the morning. Conversations about God and his Word should be a constant part of our daily interaction with our children.

2. Don’t rely on children’s Bibles alone.

Get your children in the Scriptures as much as possible. Even the best children’s Bibles are an inferior replacement for the real thing, so employ them only in a supplemental manner and choose only those that focus on the gospel. (Excellent options include The Big Picture Story BibleThe Jesus Storybook Bible, and The Biggest Story.)

3. Teach them to think through paragraphs in the Epistles.

Since each paragraph contains a complete thought, read one at a time and help your child think it through. Depending on his or her age, you may need to stop after each sentence to ask questions. Older children may be able to handle two or three paragraphs together. The goal is to learn to comprehend what a biblical author is communicating.

4. When reading narratives, read the whole story and then ask questions.

Ask questions about the characters, plot, and resolution of the story. Stick with the story’s details when questioning, and resist reading between the lines. Finally, ask “why” questions to help them see broader redemptive themes. Resist the urge to concentrate solely on the morality of the character’s actions.

5. Don’t assume you need all the answers.

Not knowing answers to all their questions can actually be constructive. Make it a fun learning opportunity to search together, modeling for them how to find an answer in the process.

They Are Worth It

We began this practice with our children, and even my 5-year-old can now follow along. The task is certainly more challenging than reading a page from your children’s Bible, but our kids are worth it.

May we take the time to invest in their grasp of Scripture and the good news it proclaims.

John Wells holds a Master of Divinity from Temple Baptist Seminary and has worked as a church planter, teaching pastor, and care director. John is married with two children. You can follow him on Twitter.

Posted in Spiritual Growth|

As the Protestant church celebrates the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, we can’t help but analyze the consequences of this historic act. Martin Luther had no way of knowing the ripple effect his act of defiance toward the Catholic Church would have—not only in the Christian world but also in broader western culture.

For better or worse, Luther set into motion a move of individualism that would grow to shape the nature of western Christian thought and worship. When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg, the western church (and consequently the worldwide church) would never be the same.

And it’s not just the church that has felt the impact of those hammer raps. One could easily argue that Luther’s act paved the way for successive revolutions large and small alike. Things from America’s break from the English monarchy to the church’s modern practice of reading Scripture outside the context of a faith community can potentially be traced back to Luther. In fact, a recent CNN article makes a case for ideas such as democracy and capitalism stemming from Luther’s boldness.

Effects of the Protestant Reformation

While we have Luther to thank for key tenets of our faith like Sola Scriptura and justification by faith alone, I can’t help but think about what we left behind. In our haste to pull away from corruption and misguided theology, did we leave behind some good things? I’d like to propose a bit of a reformation of the Reformation (or rather, what has grown out of the Reformation). As we remember the incredible gift given to us by Luther, can we also consider the need to continue to reform as we prepare to be Jesus’s pure and spotless bride?

An Emphasis on Literalism over Symbolism

Before Luther, Scripture had not been translated into the common language yet. To an uneducated population—very few of which could even read their mother tongue—Latin was quite the stretch. Which is why educated priests were commissioned to teach people the Scripture. This is also why (to this day) when you go to a Catholic service, you will see the stations of the cross, meant to teach people about the story of Jesus and the incredible sacrifice he made for us. You may also see stained glass windows with depictions of stories in Scripture. You will also likely sing hymns that are oriented around Scriptural truths or stories from the Bible. These traditions are all rooted in the task of teaching illiterate people the principles of Scripture.

Then there is the ceremony of mass, which is highly symbolic in and of itself. As Father Augustine Tran explains on the Catholic Exchange, even the appearance of the altar is steeped in meaning:

We begin with the altar, which represents the body of Christ. The white cloth that covers the altar is Christ’s burial garment. When the priest kisses the altar, he is kissing Christ faithfully in contradiction to the kiss of Judas. The altar is a very strong symbol of the meal aspect of the Mass, because the Mass is a sacrificial meal as the Last Supper was. But the altar also looks like a tomb because it holds the relic of a saint. The ancient Christians celebrated Mass over the tombs of the Saints and martyrs to unite themselves with them, to ask for their intercessions, that they too would be just as faithful as the Saints and martyrs had been. That tradition continues today by putting small relics of Saints into our altars.

From the order of the service to the repeated rituals utilized, every service is designed to remind the participant of the sacrifice Jesus made for him or her. The atmosphere created in this kind of service is highly contemplative.

However, in the Protestant tradition, there is not as much emphasis on symbolism. Instead, the highlight of the Protestant service is the sermon, a literal experience of Scripture compared to a symbolic one that seems to envelop the whole service and allows for reflection. Intentional or not, a traditional Protestant service is concerned more with the cognitive and literal understanding of the gospel and Scripture.

Perhaps this more literal service was a byproduct of the fact that the Protestant tradition grew up with increasing access to personal copies of the Bible in the common language. Whereas the Catholic church did not develop with this luxury, the Protestant church did.

The Emphasis on the Individual Versus the Community

Another unintended consequence of the Reformation is the emphasis on the individual and what he or she decides to be true. Of course, we can appreciate Luther “going rogue” to address the abuses of the Catholic church and its leaders. His was essentially a one-man revolution against the establishment, and we can appreciate why he did it—especially after trying to articulate his concerns in a more collaborative way.

However, one has to wonder how we would be worshipping today had the Catholic church chosen to address Luther’s concerns. Within the context of community, the Reformation potentially could have produced a healthier, more unified church with the richness of symbolic tradition and empowerment by the Scripture and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

It could have been a beautiful mix of appropriate individualism to challenge preconceived notions—and thus discover deeper truth—and a community knitted together by good, symbolic tradition and healthy accountability.

One has to wonder if all our church splits and divisions can be linked back to a conviction we feel to leave if and when change isn’t happening the way we feel it should. But we must consider: Do we leave too soon?

There is also the temptation we constantly fight against to take Scripture out of its context and apply it as it wasn’t intended to be applied. Whereas a person from a Catholic tradition might be more inclined to bring questions about Scripture to a priest who has studied the context of the Scripture and theology, there is the prevalent belief among Protestants that one can understand the complexities of Scripture on one’s own. As Glenn Paauw and Paul Caminiti explain on the ChurchLeaders Podcast, the very structure of our modern print Bibles changes the way we understand Scripture. Indeed, even the practice of reading Scripture by one’s self, without the feedback of a group or community, can be problematic.

As we reflect on the inheritance we have, given by Luther, I hope we can use his example to inspire action. May we constantly ask ourselves: What needs reforming—both in my own life and in my faith tradition?

Posted in Christian History|

Article originally by Aubrey Coleman, The Gospel Coalition

Last summer at a book club I held in my home, women in my church from different stages of life met to read and discuss a Christian book together. This group typically stayed late to continue talking and asking questions. We rejoiced at the stories of God’s faithfulness in one another’s lives. We encouraged and spurred one another on through difficulties. We sought mutual counsel and wisdom and pointed each other to Scripture.

Moments like these remind me of the treasure trove found in discipling relationships. The Christian life comes with questions. Those questions change through different seasons of our lives, and we need help from those who have walked before us. God didn’t intend for us to walk alone.

Though most of us would acknowledge the importance of discipleship, we often struggle to find and pursue those relationships in our own lives. As we think about someone in our church who might help us walk faithfully, obediently, and humbly with God, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Who Is Faithful?

When considering meeting up with someone, simply ask yourself, Is she faithful? Referencing Titus 2:1–7 is a great foundation for understanding what faithfulness looks like. Is she a member of my church? Does she serve faithfully in her season of life? Does she show up when she says she will? Does she encourage others? Does she love God’s Word?

Though most of us would acknowledge the importance of discipleship, we often struggle to find and pursue those relationships in our own lives.

You should be able to quickly identify faithful men and women in your church. If you’re having trouble discerning, ask your elders and pastors to recommend faithful saints you can reach out to.

Whom Do I Connect Easily With?

Among the many faithful, whom do you connect with? You may have a great connection with someone instantly. In some situations, you will naturally serve alongside other men and women who are already making a spiritual investment in you. Discipleship can certainly happen organically, but we can’t always expect it to happen that way. It may take more time and effort. It might even look a bit like taking someone on a date! Don’t be hesitant. Invite someone out to coffee and get to know her.

Were you encouraged by your conversation? Do you desire to learn from her? Is it easy to share your life with her? Is it easy to have spiritual conversations?

Just Ask

We may try to overcomplicate it, overthink it, or wait around to be sought out, but there’s no need to formulate a paragraph text or come up with an elaborate discipleship proposal. Just ask! If anyone comes to me discouraged about a lack of discipling relationships, I first ask: “Have you initiated with anyone?” More likely than not, when we reach out to others, they are encouraged by our pursuit. It is deeply rewarding and humbling to be asked to disciple someone.

Discipleship shouldn’t be an exclusive relationship among a few people but a normal pursuit among all members.

This doesn’t mean everyone will be able to say yes, but that is the beauty of pursuing more than one discipling relationship. Our dependency for accountability shouldn’t rest on one person, but many members. If you’re a member of a church, you have committed yourselves to build up one another in the faith. Therefore, discipleship shouldn’t be an exclusive relationship among a few people but a normal pursuit among all members of the church.

Right Expectations

Discipleship doesn’t always look the same. It may mean meeting weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or whenever both of your schedules allow. It may look like reading through a book of the Bible, doing a study together, reading a book together, praying together, or just meeting to share your life and encourage one another. Life-on-life discipleship is literally stepping into the life of another—the sweet parts, the hard parts, and everything in between.

Discipleship is a commitment to meet people where they are with gospel-saturated truth, grace, and friendship. It may look like sitting in a coffee shop, going for a walk, or joining them for dinner. But sometimes, “meeting them where they are” means squeezing it into life’s less peaceful moments. You may talk at a child’s soccer game, over the phone after you’ve had to cancel your time together, while carpooling, or as you’re doing a home-improvement project together.

We need realistic expectations in our discipleship relationships. The actual shape of the relationship doesn’t matter so much as a committed desire to encourage one another in the faith.

Discipleship Is A Joy And Privilege

The women who invested their time in my early years as a new believer helped me to mature in the faith and taught me to practice important spiritual disciplines. Their lives looked a lot like the older woman in the Titus 2 passage: reverent in behavior, not gossipers, not drinking excessively, teaching what is good, encouraging the young women to love their husbands and their children. Even today, I continue to seek out relationships with older women because I need their wisdom in my life.

I will never outgrow the need for discipleship, nor will I outgrow the command to disciple.

Additionally, I have found it to be a great and humbling gift to encourage and equip newer and younger believers in their faith. Discipling others demands I live as a Titus 2 woman. In doing so, I have been used by God to strengthen others in their faith, and I have been deeply encouraged and challenged in my own! I will never outgrow the need for discipleship, nor will I outgrow the command to disciple.

It’s both a privilege and a joy to know that God is making us like his Son. And it is his tender and loving gesture to give us help along the way.

We've all heard that the choice and purchase of a home is one of the most significant decisions a person will ever make. In this temporal world that may be true. However, choosing where you and your children will learn the things of God and serve the Lord Jesus Christ has eternal ramifications.

Is This Church Right for Me?

What are the biblical criteria you need to be aware of when considering a new church? Let's compare the search for a new church to that of a new home. When looking for a house, people typically ask, How much does it cost? Is it large enough to meet our family's needs? How well is it built? What kind of neighborhood is it in? Does it have a warm and homey atmosphere? Is it conducive to hospitality? Similarly, before choosing a church home you need to consider its foundation, structure, function, andenvironment.

Before we consider those important components, please realize that no church is going to be perfect. Some local churches may be in seemingly excellent condition, while others are obvious fixer-uppers! Many fall omewhere in between. You must seek God's will and be led by the Holy Spirit in selecting a church. Also you need to evaluate how you and your family can contribute to that ministry so it is not just another church, but truly a church home.

Investigating Its Foundation

Jesus said that the wise man builds his house upon rock and the foolish man builds his house upon sand (Matt. 7:24-27). When storms come, the stability of the foundation determines both the direction and durability of the structure. Whether you're searching for a home to live in or a church to worship in, its foundation is crucial.

There are four main components that make up the foundation of a strong local church:

A Proper View of Scripture. When investigating a potential church home, pay particular attention to how it views the Bible. Does it hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures? Does it believe the Bible is the only rule for faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:162 Pet. 1:20-21)?

An Emphasis on Bible Teaching and Preaching. Observe what kind of preaching is done. Is it primarily expository, topical, or evangelistic in nature? Is the main diet repetitive salvation messages each week, or are believers being fed from the Word (Acts 20:271 Tim. 4:13-162 Tim. 4:1-5)? There should be a strong commitment to high-quality Bible teaching.

Doctrinal Soundness. Just as you would inspect the soundness of a house's foundation, so you should investigate the doctrinal stance of the churches you visit. Where do they stand on such crucial issues of the Christian faith as the virgin birth and deity of Jesus Christ; the depravity of mankind; the work of Christ on the cross; His death, burial, and bodily resurrection; salvation by grace through faith alone; the second coming of Christ; and the ordinances of baptism and Communion?

Doctrinal Practice. Observe whether the church practices the doctrines it claims to believe and teach. As James said to the church at large, "Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James 1:22; cf. Luke 6:46John 13:17).

Examining Its Structure

Once you are satisfied with the foundational aspects of the church, you need to look at its structural components. Recently I walked through a new house under construction. I noticed posts that weren't plumb, seams that didn't meet properly, and beams that were crooked and uneven. Those were glaring structural defects in a home advertised as being built by "the last of the true craftsmen"!

The structural components of a local church provide not only its strength, but also dictate the character and direction of itsministry. Those components include:

Church Government. Find out if the church's leaders function according to New Testament principles (1 Tim. 3:1-135:17-20Titus 1:4-9Heb. 13:717). Do they understand the centrality of Christ as head of the church and His desire to rule His church through a plurality of godly men (Eph. 1:224:155:23Col.1:181 Cor. 11:3)?

Evidence of Order. The church's ministry, including its services, teaching, and administration, should have an obvious sense of order. Some church services exhibit as much lack of planning as do homes with poorly thought-out floor plans. Some churches handle the Lord's resources and work in such a haphazard way that they bring shame to the name of Christ. As Paul said in speaking of the church, "Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (1 Cor. 14:40).

Functional Goals and Objectives. As you investigate a new church, find out if the leadership has set any goals. Has the church planned for future progress and direction? Does it have in mind particular methods of reaching those goals? Like Paul, we as a church need "to run in such a way, as not without aim" (1 Cor. 9:26).

The Size. When purchasing a home, some people prefer the warmth and quaintness of a small home in a quiet rural setting. Others prefer living in a larger structure in an urban area. The same is true when considering the size of a church. Some Christians love being involved in a large urban ministry with hundreds or even thousands of people. Others feel lost in the vastness of such a ministry and fare much better in a smaller congregation. Again, finding your niche in the Body of Christ requires the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Seeing How It Functions

When satisfied that the foundation and structure are what they should be, the wise home buyer will then look at how functional the house is. Does it fulfill the purpose for which it was designed? Does it meet the needs of the family?

As you observe how a church functions, look for an emphasis on worshipping God. See if the leadership stresses the importance of honoring and glorifying God in all things (1 Cor. 10:31Col.3:17). Also observe the involvement of the individual members. Do they exercise their spiritual gifts among the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-8Eph. 4:11-131 Pet. 4:10-11), or do they seem to expect the pastor to do everything?

Does the church emphasize evangelism as one of its primary functions? Are home and foreign missions an important part of its ministry (Matt. 28:19-20Mark 16:15Acts 1:8)? What about discipleship? Do you see church members and leaders seeking to make disciples and reproduce themselves in the lives of others (2 Tim. 2:2Titus 2:3-7Matt. 28:19-20)?

A strong local church is marked by love. Do the members seem to genuinely care for one another? Do they minister to each other's needs? As you become acquainted with the church, do you sense that the members are loving one another as Christ commanded (John 13:34-35)? Notice if friendships form easily (cf. Heb. 10:24-25Phil. 2:1-4Eph. 4:1-3).

The leadership of the church you choose should be committed to teaching and supporting God's design for the family (Eph. 5:22--6:4Col. 3:18-21Titus 2:1-81 Pet. 3:1-7). Does the church schedule contribute to or take away from the strength of the family?

Checking Its Environment

If you have ever gone house hunting, you know what it's like to walk through and sense the atmosphere of the place. It can feel cold and gloomy or warm and inviting. It can have a homey feel or it can be impersonal--almost like a museum.

Doubtless you have had the same experience when attending various churches. Certain observable factors contribute to the overall atmosphere of a local church. Those environmental components are usually manifested in attitudes.

A High View of God. Proverbs 9:10 says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." It should be obvious that the people, from the leadership down, focus on the glory and majesty of God. Do they take God seriously and exalt Him in all they do? Their view of God will affect every aspect of their lives and ministry. Ask yourself if God is the focus of their worship or if they're preoccupied with each other or themselves.

The Presence of a Sincere Faith. Is it obvious to you that the church lives and operates by faith? Are the people willing to trust God (Heb. 11:16Eph. 3:202 Cor. 5:71 Thess. 5:24)?

Spirit of Sacrifice. Can you see that the church members are willing to sacrifice themselves and their possessions to advance God's kingdom (Rom. 12:12 Cor. 8:3Matt. 6:33)? Do you sense they would sacrifice themselves for one another (Phil. 2:3-4John 15:13Eph. 5:1-2)?

Proper Attitudes Toward the Pastor and Other Leaders. As you talk with the people, be sensitive to how they regard their leaders. Do they appreciate and esteem the pastor and other leaders "very highly in love because of their work" (1 Thess. 5:13)? Are they fully behind them, giving their spiritual, emotional, and material support (1 Tim. 5:17-18Heb. 13:717)?

Spirit of Unity. This is often the most obvious attitude radiating from a local congregation. An outsider is usually able to sense very quickly whether a church is unified in its ministry. That has a great effect on its testimony to the community and reflects on the name of our Lord (John 13:34-351 Cor. 1:10-173:1-9Eph. 4:1-6Phil. 2:1-54:1-5).

Am I Right For This Church?

We have looked at the foundational, structural, functional, and environmental components of a vital, healthy local church. Now look at yourself and ask, Are there opportunities here for me to serve and exercise my spiritual gifts? Does this local body have a need that by God's enabling I can meet? Am I willing to get what the church can do for me, but also what I can do for the Lord as I serve Him in this church? Am I willing to give of my time, money, energy, and prayers to contribute to the success of this church (Mark 12:30Rom. 12:1)?

A house is not a home until all the members of a family contribute to its success. The same is true of a church home. Only when each member in the family of God exercises his or her God-given gifts will God's children feel at home in His church.

The decision you make about what church to attend will greatly affect your spiritual life and the lives of your children. In fact, the decisions you make now will affect your descendants and the generations to come. That's a sobering reality.

Remember that no church will ever perfectly fulfill all these criteria. There is no perfect church. Also, remember that every church is going to have its own special blend of the characteristics we have examined. The key is to find a church that has them in proper balance, not overemphasizing some or de-emphasizing others. A balanced ministry is a Spirit-controlled ministry. If you find a church that possesses most but not all of the characteristics we've mentioned, don't immediately disregard it. Consider whether God wants to use you to help improve that local body as you exercise your own particular spiritual gifts.

Choosing a church home is one of the most significant decisions you will ever make--one that reaches into eternity. May each of us spend at least as much time and effort making that decision as we do deciding on our earthly dwelling.

Taken from the July/August 1990 issue of Masterpiece Magazine.

Posted in Spiritual Growth|

We need to make some important distinctions about the biblical meaning of “fearing” God. These distinctions can be helpful, but they can also be a little dangerous. When Luther struggled with that, he made this distinction, which has since become somewhat famous: He distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear.

The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It’s that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it’s the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.

Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.

I think this distinction is helpful because the basic meaning of fearing the Lord that we read about in Deuteronomy is also in the Wisdom Literature, where we’re told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The focus here is on a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. That’s often lacking in contemporary evangelical Christianity. We get very flippant and cavalier with God, as if we had a casual relationship with the Father. We are invited to call Him Abba, Father, and to have the personal intimacy promised to us, but still we’re not to be flippant with God. We’re always to maintain a healthy respect and adoration for Him.

One last point: If we really have a healthy adoration for God, we still should have an element of the knowledge that God can be frightening. “It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As sinful people, we have every reason to fear God’s judgment; it is part of our motivation to be reconciled with God.

By Ligonier Ministries

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 is likely the Bible’s most well-known verse. Most Sunday school children can quote it verbatim before they learn to read or write. It shows up on t-shirts, hats, and other gear like a sports logo or political slogan. Even staunch anti-church members of the secular public can communicate the gist of this familiar verse.

Sadly, while most people have heard John 3:16, they don’t know John 3. The verse itself may have permeated the culture, but it has been stripped of its vital context.

The third chapter of John’s gospel records the clandestine conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee. Jesus told him that he could never see the kingdom of God unless he was born again (John 3:3), that there was nothing he could do to make that happen (John 3:5), and that he needed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5) if he was to ever inherit eternal life.

Nicodemus’s response was utter astonishment: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). It was not that he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. It seems he got the message plainly enough. But it overthrew his deepest convictions and left him virtually speechless. That question is the last thing we hear from Nicodemus in the narrative of John 3. He had nothing further to say.

The focus of the chapter then turns exclusively to Jesus, who delivers one of His most important discourses ever—an extended lesson on gospel truth. As Nicodemus listened in total silence, Jesus proceeded to draw a clear contrast between believers and unbelievers, the humble and the hypocrites, the truly reborn and the merely religious. And it was all too clear in His judgment that the Pharisees—Nicodemus included—were on the wrong side of that divide.

John 3:11–21 is rich enough that we could devote weeks to unpacking it—and that still wouldn’t begin to plumb its depths. But for the sake of this study we’ll just consider some obvious ways that Jesus’ words upend the hopes of those expecting their piety and works to merit salvation.

Self-Deceived Shepherds

First, notice that Jesus directly implicated Nicodemus as an unbeliever: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:11–12, emphasis added).

To postmodern ears, that sounds extraordinarily harsh. Contemporary evangelicals typically bristle at the thought of challenging anyone’s profession of faith. For some, the thought of being perceived as harsh or negative is more odious than actually being undiscerning. That’s why the church is overrun with shallow celebrities and false teachers whose doctrine and lifestyle show no real fruit of salvation. People like that have flourished and even begun to dominate the non-Christian public’s perception of what Christianity is, mainly because more sound and solid evangelical leaders are reluctant to plainly denounce them as charlatans.

Nicodemus’s ignorance about his need for regeneration was proof of his unbelief. He had studied the Old Testament in an academic way, and from the standpoint of his fellow Pharisees, he was one of the top experts on the subject. But he had never bothered to apply its teaching to his own heart, and therefore Jesus was perfectly blunt with him: “You do not believe.”

No Spiritual Privileges

Second, don’t miss the point of the Old Testament allusion Jesus makes in verses 14–15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” The reference is to an incident that occurred during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus. Numbers 21 records that the people grew discouraged; they began to despise the manna God provided daily for their sustenance, and in frustration they rebelled against both God and Moses. “The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food’” (Numbers 21:5).

God unleashed a plague of poisonous snakes into the camp, “and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). In response, the people repented and begged Moses to intercede with the Lord on their behalf. The Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole in the midst of the camp, and tell the people “that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live” (Numbers 21:8). The whole story was an illustration of justification by faith, and that was the point Jesus was making here.

But consider the difficulty of that analogy from Nicodemus’s perspective. As a ruler of Israel, he had always thought of himself as in the role of Moses. Jesus Himself said, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (Matthew 23:2). But the analogy suggested that Nicodemus needed to see himself in the place of the sinning Israelites. Even the Old Testament imagery Jesus used was a contradiction of the Pharisees’ spiritual self-image. To a casual observer—especially to anyone trained in the rules of postmodern discourse and the canons of political correctness—it might seem as if Jesus was deliberately trying to provoke Nicodemus, smacking him hard again and again, demeaning his pharisaical pride in every conceivable way. In reality, Jesus was not being mean-spirited, but precisely the opposite. Nicodemus needed to recognize his spiritual poverty and see his need for a Savior. And Jesus cared more for the truth than about how Nicodemus felt about it.

Before Nicodemus could receive any help from Jesus, he needed to see how desperate his situation was. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). And when a patient has a life-threatening illness that urgently needs treatment, the physician needs to give him the bad news candidly. That was the case with Nicodemus.

Compassionate Confrontation

So notice, third, the way Jesus ended His discourse on the gospel by bringing the emphasis right back to the problem of human depravity and God’s condemnation of unbelievers:

He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:18–21)

This, too, is contrary to most contemporary ideas about how to do personal evangelism. Today’s evangelicals generally think if we offend someone by pressing the claims of the gospel too firmly or too plainly, we’ve done something terribly wrong. The reality is quite the opposite: if you think the gospel can be proclaimed in a way that is always appealing and never upsetting to unbelievers, you have the wrong idea about what the gospel message says.

That is why Jesus left the issue with Nicodemus on a note of condemnation. John 3:16, of course, is famous for its stress on the love of God and the giving of Christ so that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s the central truth of the gospel message and the promise that makes it good news. But it is not good news for those who remain in unbelief. Therefore Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ended on a harsh and sobering note about the severe condemnation that rests on all unbelievers and hypocrites. Since Jesus had already implicated Nicodemus in verse 12 with the words “you do not believe,” this was a very direct and personal challenge aimed squarely at him and the pharisaical belief system he represented.

An Encouraging Epilogue

As a matter of fact, Jesus’ discourse on the gospel in John 3 ends on such a negative note that if this were the only place we encounter Nicodemus in all of Scripture, we might conclude that he left without saying any more and remained in unbelief all his life.

However, there is every reason to conclude that Nicodemus, who originally came to Jesus under cover of darkness, was eventually drawn to the true Light and became a genuine believer. The last time we meet Nicodemus in Scripture is in John 19:39, where he and Joseph of Arimathea hastily prepared the Savior’s body for burial. It was an act that could well have cost him everything, at the very moment when the rest of the Sanhedrin had whipped public fury against Jesus into a murderous rage. He clearly had become a different man than he was when he first approached Jesus as an unbelieving, inquiring Pharisee.

Nicodemus reminds us that evangelistic encounters should never be evaluated by how the conversation ends. If we are biblically faithful in sowing the gospel, we can confidently leave the not-yet-converted sinner in the sovereign hands of God. Only He can regenerate them, and we know that nothing can stop Him from gathering His sheep into His fold (John 10:27–30).

Christmas invariably presents us with inquirers like Nicodemus. The normal hostility of unbelief often gives way to open curiosity as we gather around the scene of Christ’s birth. May we follow Christ’s example and firmly, yet graciously, call unbelieving family and friends to repentance and saving faith in Him.

Copyright 2007, Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission

Many people in our culture, both within and without the church, have trouble with the idea of an angry God. Many secular people look at Bible passages where God gets angry and judges people and think, That’s precisely why religion is so primitive and dangerous. And many Christians seem to want to tone down, or even excise completely from our creed, the doctrine of divine wrath. It is seen as an embarrassment—something to be ameliorated, qualified, explained, reconfigured.

Many, for example, feel more comfortable with the view C. H. Dodd popularized in the early 20th century, that God’s wrath refers not to God’s attitude toward persons, but to the inevitable cause-and-effect process of a moral universe. Similarly, others point to passages like Romans 1:18–32 to argue that God’s wrath is simply a passive response of letting sin reap its consequences.

This whole development is not a theological sidebar, irrelevant to church life and worship. The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

Vital to the Gospel

For example, I believe the driving impetus behind most revisionist atonement theologies is discomfort with the traditional doctrine of divine wrath. George Smeaton claimed all the way back in 1870, “The question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement.” I think his comment remains apt in today’s atonement discussions. As goes our view of divine wrath, so generally goes our view of the atonement.

The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and  therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

I think movements away from the doctrine of hell are also often connected to discomfort with divine wrath. For example, I remember Rob Bell’s question in the promotional video for Love Wins: “What kind of God would need to save us from himself? And how could that possibly be good news?” The root issue for Bell was not just hell per se, but the more general notion of divine wrath and judgment.

My heart goes out to those who might struggle with this doctrine, especially those who struggle because they’ve seen it caricatured or associate it with their experience of sinful human anger. As an effort to help, here are four problems with downplaying divine wrath (or denying its active, personal dimensions).

1. The Bible

If we want to move away from the notion of an angry God while retaining an authoritative Bible, we have some pretty heavy revisionist lifting to do. I would say the effort is roughly comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to scissor-cut the supernatural out of the Bible. Just type in “Lord wrath” or “God angry” to a Bible Gateway search. There are more than 600 references to divine wrath in Scripture.

In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ ‘How long, O Lord?’

What strikes me most, however, is not how frequently God’s Word speaks of God’s wrath, but the absence of the embarrassment or hesitation or shuffling of the feet so often present in contemporary attitudes toward this doctrine. In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ “How long, O Lord?” Hence God’s wrath is expressed in the strongest metaphors, and with the firmest language. Note, for example, the metaphor of fire (implicit in the words “burning” and “kindled”) employed by the narrator of 2 Kings 23:26 after recording Manasseh’s sin:

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.

Or consider the opening verse of Nahum (1:2):

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;

the LORD is avenging and wrathful;

the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries

and keeps wrath for his enemies.

Some think the Old Testament emphasizes God’s wrath, while the New Testament emphasizes God’s love. It’s more accurate to say both God’s love and God’s wrath are present strongly in the Old Testament, and both are ratcheted up even more intensely in the New. Revelation, for instance, envisions the kings of the earth calling for the mountains to fall on them because they cannot stand the wrath of the Lamb (6:15–17). Later, it champions a warrior Christ with a sword and an army coming to judge the nations and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15). This doesn’t sound like an impersonal, passive process of simply letting evil reap its own consequences.

J. I. Packer devoted a chapter of his classic Knowing God to the wrath of God, and in it he asked a worthy question:

Clearly, the theme of God’s wrath is one about which the biblical writers feel no inhibitions whatever. Why, then, should we? Why, when the Bible is vocal about it, should we feel obliged to be silent?

2. Church History

Discomfort with the doctrine of God’s wrath appears to be primarily a recent, Western development. By and large, pre-modern Christians didn’t have a problem with the notion of an angry God. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find any major theologian before 1750 who would regard current objections to divine wrath as anything other than strange, alarming, and highly eccentric.

The doctrine of divine judgment, a sister teaching to divine wrath, even achieved creedal status. The earliest and most ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene) both affirmed that Christ “shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” and the Athanasian Creed (also ecumenical) ratcheted up divine judgment to include a sentencing to “everlasting fire.”

A God who judges evil was an assumed norm of orthodox, creedal Christianity for centuries. Nor did this point really distinguish Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. Maimonides, Muhammad, and Martin Luther were all agreed on this point.

3. Cultural Considerations

Why did the idea of God’s wrath (like God’s judgment) not even require a defense to most Christians throughout church history? Why does it tend to flourish, instead, in the most affluent and comfortable societies? Perhaps because it’s hard to appreciate the righteousness and appropriateness and even desirableness of God’s wrath when we have fairly cushy lives. When we come face to face with brutal evil—when we sit with a rape victim or walk the halls of Auschwitz—the idea of an angry God rarely strikes us as offensive. Instead, we see why the biblical writers viewed God’s wrath as a good thing—a righteous and fitting part of the world’s governance. Miroslav Volf makes this point with devastating force:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

4. The Psychology of Anger

Apart from any theological or even religious considerations, the idea that love and wrath are at odds is hard to square with basic human psychology. We all know good, loving people who get angry precisely because they are good and loving. What good parent is not angry, for example, at the mistreatment of his children? Do any of us not feel anger when we see real evil in the world—runaway greed, for instance, or blatant hypocrisy? Does this anger reveal lack of charity in us? No, just the opposite: we feel anger at injustice and wrong because we care about people. Anger is how goodness responds to evil, just as squinting is how eyes respond to bright lights or recoiling is how hands respond to hot surfaces.

Anger is how goodness responds to evil.

I would go so far as to say a God who never gets angry—a God who leaves the cry of the victim and the downtrodden echoing without answer for eternity—such a God would not be good, and therefore would not be God. Its difficult to worship, or believe in, or even imagine, such a God. As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God:

The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it. . . . The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

Offensive Gospel  

We might intuitively assume that an impersonal, “evil is its own punishment” process is a more moderate and humane way to achieve justice in this world. But an impersonal process cannot forgive us, whereas a God who has anger can. In whatever places we might be tempted to deny the notion of divine anger, we’ll find more freedom and comfort in acknowledging it, and seeing its solution at Calvary.

It might sound harsh to modern sensibilities to look at the bloodied body of Jesus on the cross and say, “I helped put him there; that is how God feels about my sin.” To say this is to humble yourself under the offense of the gospel; it is the last surrender, the death of the ego, the eye of the needle through which the camel of human pride must shrink and squeeze. But it is also freedom, because the person who can say, “Jesus faced the wrath I deserved” can also say, “I now have the love and favor Jesus deserved.” Only the person who submits the offense of the gospel can be lifted up to fully see its glory.

The idea that God does what He wants, and that what He does is true and right because He does it, is foundational to the understanding of everything in Scripture, including the doctrine of election.  

In the broad sense, election refers to the fact that God chooses (or elects) to do everything that He does in whatever way He best sees fit. When He acts, He does so only because He willfully and independently chooses to act. According to His own nature, predetermined plan, and good pleasure, He decides to do whatever He desires, without pressure or constraint from any outside influence.

The Bible makes this point repeatedly. In the very act of creation, God created precisely what He wanted to create in the way He wanted to create it (cf. Genesis 1:31). And ever since the creation, He has sovereignly prescribed or permitted everything in human history, in order that He might accomplish the redemptive plan which He had previously designed (cf. Isaiah 25:1; 46:10; 55:11; Romans 9:17; Ephesians 3:8–11).

In the Old Testament, He chose a nation for Himself. Out of all the nations in the world, He selected Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; Psalm 105:43; 135:4). He chose them, not because they were better or more desirable than any other people, but simply because He decided to choose them. In the words of Richard Wolf, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” It may not have rhymed as well, but the same would have been true of any other people God might have selected. God chooses whomever He chooses, for reasons that are wholly His.

The nation of Israel was not the only recipient in Scripture of God’s electing choice. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is called Christ, “My Chosen One” (Luke 9:35). The holy angels also are “chosen angels” (1 Timothy 5:21). And New Testament believers are those who were “chosen of God” (Colossians 3:12; cf. 1 Cor. 1:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9; 5:13; Revelation 17:14), meaning that the church is a community of those who were chosen, or “elect” (Ephesians 1:4).

When Jesus told His disciples, “You did not choose Me but I chose you” (John 15:16), He was underscoring this very truth. And the New Testament reiterates it in passage after passage. Acts 13:48 describes salvation in these words, “As many as have been appointed to eternal life believed.” Ephesians 1:4–6 notes that, God “chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds his readers that he knew God’s choice of them (1 Thessalonians 1:4), and that he was thankful for them “because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). The Word of God is clear: believers are those whom God chose for salvation from before the beginning.

Even the foreknowledge to which Peter refers should not be confused with simple foresight as some would teach—contending that God, in eternity past, looked down the halls of history to see who would respond to His call and then elected the redeemed on the basis of their response. Such an explanation makes God’s decision subject to man’s decision, and gives man a level of sovereignty that belongs only to God. It makes God the One who is passively chosen, rather than the One who actively chooses. And it also misunderstands the way in which Peter uses the term “foreknowledge.” In 1 Peter 1:20 the apostle uses the verb form of that very word, prognosis in the Greek, to refer to Christ. In that case, the concept of “foreknowledge” certainly includes the idea of a deliberate choice. It is reasonable, then, to conclude that the same is true when Peter applies prognosis to believers in other places (cf. 1 Peter 1:2).

The ninth chapter of Romans also reiterates the elective purposes of God. There, in reference to His saving love for Jacob (and Jacob’s descendants) as opposed to Esau (and Esau’s lineage), God’s electing prerogative is clearly displayed. God chose Jacob over Esau, not on the basis of anything Jacob or Esau had done, but according to His own free and uninfluenced sovereign purpose. To those who might protest, “That is unfair!” Paul simply responds by asking, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (v. 20).

Many more Scriptures could be added to this survey. Yet as straightforward as the Word of God is, people continually have difficulty accepting the doctrine of election. The reason, again, is that they allow their preconceived notions of how God should act (based on a human definition of fairness) to override the truth of His sovereignty as laid out in the Scriptures.

Frankly, the only reason to believe in election is because it is found explicitly in God’s Word. No man and no committee of men originated this doctrine. It is like the doctrine of eternal punishment, in that it conflicts with the dictates of the carnal mind. It is repugnant to the sentiments of the unregenerate heart. And like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the miraculous birth of our Savior, the truth of election, because it has been revealed by God, must be embraced with simple and unquestioning faith. If you have a Bible and you believe it, you have no other option but to accept what it teaches.

The Word of God presents God as the controller and disposer of all creatures (Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 45:7; Lamentations 3:38), the Most High (Psalm 47:2; 83:18), the ruler of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19; Isaiah 37:16), the One against whom none can stand (2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 41:10; Isaiah 43:13). He is the Almighty who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11; cf. Isaiah 14:27; Revelation 19:6), and the heavenly Potter who shapes men according to His own good pleasure (Romans 9:18–22). In short, He is the decider and determiner of every man’s destiny, and the controller of every detail in each individual’s life (Proverbs 16:9; 19:21; 21:1; cf. Exodus 3:21–22; 14:8; Ezra 1:1; Daniel 1:9; James 4:15)—which is really just another way of saying, “He is God.”