Results tagged “Suffering” from Reformation21 Blog

The Cost of Discipleship


How much are you willing to give to God? Your time? Your money? What about everything? This month, the Alliance is proud to feature The Cost of Discipleship by James Boice. We hope it will serve as a helpful reminder to those in Christ to live for Christ. Download your free copy today! 


We admire those who sacrifice time, wealth, comfort, and more in service to the Lord... but we are not always ready to follow their examples. Particularly for those living in prosperous cultures, the saying of Christ is disturbing: "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple."

James Boice reminds Christians that they are not their own, but are a part of Jesus' Church, having been purchased by His precious blood. This new life has radical implications; it means denying one's self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus. 

Pages: 44
Publication Date: Revised June 2019
Topic: Christian Living, Gospel, Suffering, 

Healing in Dayton


Just south of central Dayton, Ohio, in the heart of one of the city's historic districts, is a stretch of road familiar to all the locals: A two block section of Fifth Avenue that is home to an eclectic mix of high-end restaurants, bars, oddity shops, tattoo parlors, a Goodwill, and an adult video store. This odd collection is the result of an ongoing gentrification process; this historic strip has been taken over by younger adults, eager to consume the wares of microbreweries, espresso bars, and farm-to-table eateries. Yet traces of the old order remain. As a result, this road is neither rich nor poor, neither high-brow nor low-brow. It's simply a representation of everything the city has to offer, both good and bad.

The official name for this neighborhood is the Oregon District. My husband and I have enjoyed many pleasant evenings there at some of our favorite restaurants--Lily's Bistro, Roost, Salar, Thai 9--and then gone home before the street becomes overwhelmed with bar patrons in various stages of sobriety (or lack thereof). Most members of our generation have enjoyed what this street has to offer, and remarked at how fortunate we are to finally have some decent food in what is, for the most part, a relatively simple Midwestern town.

Then something happened that changed the nature of this place: In the early hours of the Lord's Day, a young man came to that stretch of Fifth Avenue clothed in body armor and bearing a weapon. He opened fire on his own sister and several others enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Within seconds, the historic road was running with the blood of fallen men and women. Many ran back into the buildings, trying desperately to escape a violent death. The gunman approached the door of one of the bars, likely intending to kill everyone inside, but he was shot dead by police officers...

Click here to read more.

Strength from Weakness


No words can express the sadness I have felt upon news of the failing health of David Powlison. Dr. Powlison has been one of the great gifts God has given to the church. His book Seeing Through New Eyes is one of the most formative biblical counseling books I have read. Dr. Powlison was invited to address the student body of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for their graduation on May 23, 2019. Unable to attend due to his illness, he sent along a speech which he had prepared to be read on his behalf. In it, he said,

"Romans 8:26 [speaks] about how the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness...that "weakness" is singular. It does not say "weaknesses" as if there were a finite list of sins A-B-C, and sufferings X-Y-Z in your life. "Weakness" singular is a comprehensive description of our human condition. We are perishable. We are mortal. We face a multitude of afflictions in our lives. And we are sinful, bent from the heart towards pride, self-righteousness, fear of man, and a multitude of desires and fears that beset us. The mercies of God meet us in this comprehensive condition of weakness...The right kind of strength comes from the right kind of weakness."

I encourage everyone to take the time to read this short message. We are all so very weak. We are all so very frail. We are all so very sinful. Yet, we have a God who loves to display His strength in our weakness. You can read the full message here (posted June 3, 2019). 

The Good, the Bad and the Providence of God


Johannes Maccovius, in his Theological Distinctions, treated the subject of the Divine providence toward the righteous and toward the wicked with the maxim, "In this life, what happens to good people is never bad and what happens to bad people is never good." He then appealed to the 14th Century theologian, Thomas Bradwardine--who, in his De Causa Dei Contra Pelagium, told the following story:

"Once upon a time, he says, there was a hermit who was thinking that the wicked received the good and the righteous received evil. Therefore, he began to doubt the existence of God and whether He, should He exist, was a righteous God, because human affairs continued to be in a completely perverse order. He gave up his solitary life and wandered through the world. While he was doing this, an angel in the shape of a man joined him in traveling through the country. Together they met somebody who received them politely and treated them very well. Rising at midnight, the angel took a golden cup from him and went away with the hermit. Next, they met and stayed with someone else who, equally polite, received and treated them. Rising at midnight together with the hermit, the angel went to the cradle and strangled the baby lying in it. For the third time they went and met somebody who was not willing to receive them in his house, but let them pass the night in the open air. Early in the morning, the angel knocked on the door and presented to the wicked man the golden cup which he had stolen from the good man, and said to him: I give you this cup for the kind hospitality with which you received us. Finally, they came to a man who treated them most kindly. When the angel was about to leave, he asked him to send his servant in order to show them the way to go. So it happened. When they reached a bridge over rapid waters the angel threw the servant into the river. 

The hermit, seeing all this and thinking about it, said: now I want to leave you, because you are a villainous man. But the angel said to him: wait a moment. I will tell you who I am and teach you that everything that has been done, has happened justly by virtue of God's order. He said: I am an angel of God and I am sent to teach you that many things that seem unjust to human kind, are very just and good.The first man we met and from whom I took away the golden cup profited from this, because, before possessing this cup, he feared God. But after having received the cup he was drunk every day. Thus God sent me in order to remove this incentive to drunkenness, so that this good man would no longer endanger his eternal salvation. To the other inhumane man to whom I gave the cup I was not good but I did much harm to him. For through this cup he was induced to the same fault committed before by the other man, i.e. drinking. Therefore, God decided to give him something else in this life, because after this life he will have nothing at all. Before he was blessed with offspring the man whose child I killed was generous to the poor. But after the child was born, he washed his hands off the poor. Therefore, by order of God, I killed his child, so that this man would no longer endanger his eternal salvation, but, in fact, would return to his previous generosity. Regarding the servant sent to us by the landlord in order to show us the way: that night he was about to murder the lord, the landlady and their children. But because God loved this family, He sent me to prevent this evil. Then the angel said: 'Off you go and stop judging divine providence in the wrong way, because you see bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people.'"1

1. Johannes Maccovius Scholastic Discourse: Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644) on Theological and Philosophical Distinctions and Rules (Apeldoorn: Instituut voor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009) pp. 173-175.

On the surface, Paul's observation in Philippians 1:14 that "most of the brothers" in Rome--where Paul was chained to a member of the imperial guard awaiting the outcome of his judicial appeal to the emperor Nero--had become "more confident in the Lord" and "more bold to speak the word without fear" by virtue of Paul's own "imprisonment" makes absolutely no sense. Paul's imprisonment and the uncertainty of his own fate should have made other Christians in Rome less, not more, bold. It should have cowed them into quiet submission into Rome's inchoate stance against that upstart religion Christianity. How did it produce the opposite result? How did Paul's suffering embolden other Christians?

The answer lies in Paul's attitude towards his unfortunate circumstances, an attitude that he reveals to his readers in considerable psychological detail in Philippians 1:19-26. Paul demonstrates not the fear, worry, and anger that one would expect from someone in his circumstances (i.e., a candidate for capital punishment). He demonstrates, rather, pure joy. He portrays himself as one in the ultimate win-win situation. Either outcome of his appeal to the emperor is, in his judgment, a victory. Either he will be released from prison, and so given further opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and serve the church, or he will be executed, and so step into the inheritance that belongs to him as a believer; namely, life forever in the presence of our triune God. Paul considers death the preferable option: "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Phil. 1:23). But living has its own reward; namely, the opportunity to convince more and more people to embrace the forgiveness of sins available to them on the basis of Christ's work and so claim a share in that eternal inheritance that Paul himself anticipates. In short, "to live is Christ, to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).

Paul's attitude towards impending death reflects the posture that C.S. Lewis hoped he might evidence if facing immediate death. Lewis was once asked by a reporter what his response would be if he were to look up in the sky and see a German bomb just about to land on his head. Lewis replied that he would stick his tongue out at the bomb and say, "Phooey! You're just a bomb. I'm an immortal soul." Lewis effectively pointed out, with this response, that Christians need not fear death -- indeed, that they might anticipate death -- because of the hope that belongs to them as believers. Paul, imprisoned in Rome and potentially facing capital punishment, exemplifies the very attitude towards death that Lewis hoped he might display if looking death in the eye. Paul is sticking his tongue out at death; looking death in the eye and grinning rather than flinching.

And that attitude towards death is the very thing that is emboldening other Christians. When Paul sticks his tongue out at death, "most of the brothers" suddenly realize that death isn't so big and bad after all. The worst (as it were) that death can actually do is usher them into the bliss of life forever with God. Suddenly Paul's Christian peers feel able to stick their own tongues out at death (or any other consequence that Rome might throw their way for their witness to Christ's person and work). Their fear evaporates and their own proclamation of the Gospel flourishes as a direct result of Paul's extended tongue. And this is cause, of course, for even greater joy for Paul: "Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice" (Phil. 1:18).

Paul's attitude towards death was a powerful form of proclamation. It was a sermon (of sorts). It's one thing to claim that Christians have a hope for something greater in the life to come, a hope that relativizes their investment in the things of this world. It's another thing to stand before death with your tongue sticking out, demonstrating to the world that you consider this life's pleasures paltry in comparison to those that await you on the other side of death's door.

By the end of Philippians chapter one, Paul is encouraging Christians in Philippi to stick their own tongues out at suffering, and reminding them that their own courage in the face of suffering is itself a form of Gospel proclamation. Christian in Philippi had "opponents" (vs. 28); they were not facing death, perhaps, for their faith in Christ (at least not yet), but they were facing lower grade forms of persecution (the loss of reputation, property, rights, etc.). Their own suffering was, Paul reminds them, part of God's plan for them; indeed, it was a gift from God to them, if rightly understood (Phil. 1:29). Their suffering was an opportunity for them to proclaim, like Paul in prison in Rome, that their hope was not in this life, but in the life to come. The testimony they were invited to give to their hope in the life to come would be, Paul observed, a word of condemnation to their opponents, a reminder of their opponents' lack of hope in anything more than this world has to offer. But, by the same token, it would be a word of encouragement to their Christian brother and sisters, and a word of witness to those in Philippi who were seeking something more solid, in terms of hope, than anything this world has to offer.

Suffering gives us the same opportunity. Every form of suffering threatens something that we value in this life: income, reputation, relationships, health, even life itself. Every form of suffering equally gives us the chance to witness to the world that we value something much, much more than whatever we stand to lose in this world. Suffering gives us opportunity, in other words, to witness to the hope that belongs to us as Christians. And that witness is powerful, because suffering invariably elicits attention from everyone around us. Suffering is mesmerizing. We've all had the experience of seeing the blue and red flashing lights ahead of us on the highway while the traffic backs up. We've all silently cursed the drivers ahead of us for slowing to a near stop in order to goggle the carnage. We've all reached the front of the line of traffic and slowed down ourselves to take in as much of an eyeful as we possibly can. Why? Because pain and suffering elicits attention. When we suffer, people notice. We invariably have a pulpit. The question is, what will we proclaim from that pulpit? Will we despair, and so witness that our hope lies in this world, and that we cannot bear the pain of losing something in this world? Or will we joyfully stick our tongues out at suffering, and so witness to a hope -- a hope of life forever with God -- that no form of suffering can take from us; a hope, indeed, that even death can only deliver, not destroy.

All the Hell You Shall Ever Have


For the better part of my Christian life, I've had a visceral reaction--driven by internal disapproval--whenever I've heard someone describe the hardships he or she experienced in life in the following ways: "It was like hell on earth," or "I feel like I've been through hell." I am sure that part of this reaction is due, in large part, to the fact I was raised in a home in which the awful reality of eternal destruction was not joked about or diminished (as it ought not be!). Therefore, in my mind, to correlate the miseries of this life with eternal punishment always struck me as a trivializing of the worst kind. Then, I read the following in Thomas Brooks' The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod:

"Consider, that the trials and troubles, the calamities and miseries, the crosses and losses that you meet with in this world, are all the hell that you shall ever have: here you have your hell, hereafter you shall have your heaven; this is the worst of your condition, the best is to come. Lazarus had his hell first, his heaven last; but Dives (the rich man) had his heaven first, and his hell at last (Luke 16:19-31): you have all your pangs, and pains, and throes here that you shall ever have; your ease, and rest, and pleasure is to come: here you have all your bitter, your sweet is to come: here you have your sorrows, your joys are to come: here you have all your winter-nights, your summer-days are to come; here you have your passion-week, your ascension day is to come: here you have your evil things, your good things are to come: death will put a period to all your sins, and to all thy sufferings, and it will be an inlet to those joys, delights, and contents that shall never have an end; and therefore hold thy peace, and be silent before the Lord."1

There is a sense in which it is right and good for us to speak of the miseries of life as a "the only hell" a true Christian will ever have. Consider what the Westminster Shorter Catechism has to say about the miseries Adam brought into the world on account of his disobedience,

"Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? 

A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever."

On one hand, everything we experience in this life, short of hell, is a mercy from God. Since the ultimate misery that we all deserve is "the pains of hell forever," we must conclude that we are the just recipients of every misery we experience, short of hell, in this life. This is not to say that ever trial, pain, hardship or affliction that we experience in this life is due to some particular personal sin. The Scriptures are clear that personal suffering is not necessarily correlated to any personal sin (Job 1; John 9:1-4). Some of the misery that we experience in this life is due to our personal sin (2 Samuel 12:10, 14; Psalm 119:71; James 5:14). However, all of the misery that we experience in this life is due to Adam's sin. Adam brought all men into a state of sin and misery. All mankind receives, by imputation, the guilt and the corruption of Adam's sin, as well as the experience of misery in this fallen world. All of us deserve, by nature, death and judgment because of Adam's sin. The good news for believers is that what Jesus did, as the last Adam, alters even the impact of the misery of Adam's sin for the true believer. 

On the other hand, the Scriptures make clear that the Lord does not deal with believers "according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). The Psalmist could say this because he prospectively anticipated that the Christ would come and that the Lord would deal with Him according to our sins and punish Him for our iniquities (Isaiah 53). Jesus takes away all of the sin of His people. He clothes us with His righteousness. He breaks the power of sin in the believer's life. He raises us up to newness of life in Him (Rom. 6:1-14). He endures hell on the cross for His people so that we, who are united to Him by faith, have already "passed from death into life and shall not enter into judgment" (John 5:25). There is no hell for believers--no judgment awaiting us on account of our sins since they have been atoned for by the death of Jesus. God' wrath has been fully propitiated when it fell on the Son at Calvary. 

There is even a sense in which many of the sufferings of this life are suspended on account of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. The Psalmist declared, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me...Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:1, 3). This doesn't mean that Jesus purchased complete physical healing for all his people in this life on the cross. The Apostle Paul suffered from irremediable physical pain (Gal. 4:15). Paul then told Timothy drink a little wine for his infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23). What it does mean is that He often heals us of our diseases in this life and will most certainly heal us of all our diseases in the resurrection on the last day. 

All the miseries that believers are called by God to endure in this life are the only hell that they will ever endure because of the saving work of Jesus in his death and resurrection. This is one of the most comforting and soul strengthening thoughts upon which a believer may set his heart or mind in this life. The Lord may severely afflict, Satan may relentlessly attack, believers may  incessantly hurt, the world may violently persecute, but it will all ultimately come to an end when the believer dies or when Christ comes again in glory. Then there will only be peace, rest, consolation, ecstasy and wholeness forever in the presence of the Lamb who was slain for his suffering people. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever fiery trials you are called by God to endure in this life you can be assured that they are "all the hell you shall ever have."

3 Crosses of Discipleship


Recently, my pastor has started a Men's Bible Study series on discipleship by examining a classic passage for discipleship:

In Luke 9:22-24, Jesus said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things; He must be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life...If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it."

This is a familiar passage for most Christians and yet it always remains a challenging passage. In this passage, Jesus is not attempting to give his apostles a rose-colored view of the Christian life. Rather, He presents the conditions of discipleship plainly: self-denial and cross-bearing. The Christian life must conform to the example given by Christ Himself who willingly bore the cross. The meaning is quite clear - no one can be considered to be Christ's disciple unless he is truly an imitator of Him and is willing to pursue the same course. This self-denial implies that we should abdicate our natural inclinations, and as Calvin says "part with all the affections of the flesh, and thus give our consent to be reduced to nothing, provided that God lives and reigns with us." We are called to bear our cross, but this is not a cross that we lay upon ourselves. Our Father lays upon us the cross that is suitable to us and thus, the patience of the believer consists in bearing willingly the cross which has been laid on him.

I've thought about this basic exhortation of cross-bearing from our Lord a number of times and I think that Paul makes a complementary statement in Galatians 6:14,

"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

In this passage, Paul contrasts the sincerity of the false teachers/apostles to Himself. The false teachers in Galatia have denied the cross of Christ by demanding circumcision and their glory is the applause of men. In contrast, Paul's glory and triumph is in the cross of Christ. In this way, the call of self-denial is answered by boasting and glorying in Christ crucified. Paul boasts in what Christ's death has accomplished - namely peace with God, pardon for sins, imputed righteousness, eternal life, salvation, and eternal glory. Paul gloried in Christ as his wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

Paul continues to discuss the realities of the cross of Christ in two ways. First, Paul notes that in the cross of Jesus Christ, "the world has been crucified to me." Here, Paul states that in the cross of Christ, we die to this world. In other words, all that belongs to the old man has died in Christ. This matches Paul's statement in Philippians 3 in which "I count all things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ my Lord." Indeed, it's worth suffering the loss of all things in order that one may gain Christ. To say it more directly, to crucify the world is to treat the world with contempt and disdain. In glorying in the cross of Christ, Paul deliberately denied the riches, honors, pleasures, profits, and applause of this world. As John Gill notes, Paul's faith in the crucified Christ overcame the world so that "he looked upon it as the Israelites saw the Egyptians, dead on the sea shore". The world cannot captivate him nor overcome him because Paul has seen the world for what it truly is. Paul understood that the wisdom and glory of this present evil age are doomed to pass away (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).

Secondly, Paul notes that in the cross of Jesus Christ, "I have been crucified unto the world". Paul was a man who was despised by the world for the sake of a crucified Christ. The world had no affection for Paul, as Paul had none for the world. Paul was considered to be "scum of the earth and the refuse of the world" (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:13). Rather than glory, Paul received dishonor; rather than praise, Paul was slandered and was viewed as an imposter (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:4-10). Paul willingly renounced the praise of men and the glory of the world because the world was dead to him.

Paul's words and example in Galatians 6:14 are worth emulating because it provides instruction on how we should view the world. To deny oneself and to take up one's cross is a twofold death. On one hand, Christian discipleship is a call to renounce our affection for this present evil age. As the author of Hebrews states, we do not have a permanent city in the world, but we are looking for the city that is to come (cf. Hebrews 13:14). We know that this present evil age is under the sentence of the death and this judgment is becoming more and more obvious as time progresses. As Paul, a Christian disciple is one who has renounced the glory of this world for the surpassing riches of Christ.

On the other hand, Christian discipleship is a call to bear the disgrace that He bore. One of the basic temptations of Christians in our day is the desire for respectability, particularly among American evangelicals. There appears to be a deep desire for Christians to be thought of as cultured, compassionate, educated, well-spoken, and intelligent in the public square. In spite of this, we must always remember the words of our Lord: "The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (cf. John 15:20). If the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18), how much more is the cross-bearing life? No matter how refined our Christian message and witness is, we will always bear the disgrace that He bore (cf. Hebrews 13:13). A disciple of Christ does not run away from this disgrace; we are warned that if anyone is ashamed of Christ and His words, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of Him (cf. Luke 9:26). Rather, we, as disciples of Christ, go to Him "outside the camp" and we must willingly bear the mocking and ridicule that is associated with our confession.

We now live in a day where many essentially tenets of Christian doctrine and ethics are considered foolish at best and morally reprehensible at worst. In these days, it's important to return to the basics regarding the Christian life, which starts with discipleship. Let us live as disciple of Christ by believing what God says, by obeying what God commands, and by expecting what God promises. Let us deny ourselves, take up cross daily, and follow Him, for He promises that whoever will lose His life for His sake will save it.

Why Ask Why?


One of the most difficult things for a Christian worker to do is to wade into the midst of grief with a congregant. There we sit, feeling helpless and disarmed, watching the person across the table from us fall into pieces over their loss. When they gain the composure to speak, almost certainly they will ask:

"Why did God let this happen?"

If you catch a counselor in a more candid moment, we will admit that this is the kind of question we dread the most in the wake of a tragedy. It's not that the question lacks a straightforward Biblical answer (Cf. Rom. 8.28 or Gen. 50.20). Nor is it that we lack the courage to speak hard truths about God's sovereignty in a crisis. Rather, it is that the question "Why?" has a more nuanced Biblical pedigree than meets the eye, and answering without care to this can have devastating effects on the person sitting across from us.

To put it another way, there are more unhelpful answers to the "Why?" question than there are helpful ones. In fact, the question often presents a kind of Scylla and Charybdis to the Christian worker, with danger on either side. On one side, we might be tempted to think that our calling in the aftermath of heartbreak is to see it as an apologetic teaching moment. Proof texting, simplistic answers, recommending sermons or books, and waxing eloquent about the hidden counsels of God can be helpful but often run the risk of putting us in cahoots with Job's companions. On the other side, we can be shipwrecked by the much more dangerous temptation to actually answer the question. This kind of response can range from the sophomoric to the tragically comic. Either way, such a response exceeds human knowledge and numbers us among those who darken counsel without understanding.

Scripture guides our response to this question in a more Godward way. In fact, our Lord famously takes an interest in theodicy on the cross. Face to face with the judgment of God on the sin of the world, Jesus "cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27.46, ESV).

This of course is a quote from David in Psalm 22. Here we are offered a rare glimpse into the agony of Jesus, the cosmic weight of sin, the inter-Trinitarian dynamics of salvation, and the love of the Godhead. And if this weren't enough to captivate our minds for a millennia, we are also given insight into why we ask "Why?" in times of loss and how to biblically respond to this question. Let me suggest that these two passages teach us at least four things about why we ask "Why?"

First, and perhaps most simply, Jesus here validates this question for His people. By asking this question, He gives us permission to ask it. Perhaps it can be said that He models it for us, for if the Son of God can ask the Father why evil befalls Him, then so can we. And this reality is bolstered by other passages that reveal God's faithful servants doing just the same--consider David in Psalm 22, Jeremiah in Jer. 22, or Job in chapter 7. And while not all of these questions were uttered from a pure heart, they nonetheless suggest that God does hear them.

Second, Christ's cry from the cross teaches us that, ironically, knowing the actual reason why God allows something to occur is often not as satisfying as it seems. Aristotle famously spoke of four differing causes of events in the world--the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. It is often the case that we can piece together some explanation regarding the first three--i.e. a low pressure system caused the hurricane. But what usually dogs us are questions regarding the final cause (ultimate purpose) of a tragedy. And so often it is impossible to specifically know this in relation to a certain event, although we always generally know this in relation to God's providence.

Yet in this case, Christ actually knew the final cause of His death. Although in the emptying of Himself into His human nature he voluntarily gave up some kinds of knowledge (Mk 13.32), He at least knew why He had to die (Jn. 18.4). In fact, He had practically been preaching this truth ad nauseam to the disciples (Lk. 18.31-34), and so it is evident that Jesus already knew the answer to His question before He asked it! And this means that being able to propositionally explain why God does something, although helpful, does not always take away our pain and hurt. The question "Why?" therefore actually yearns toward something much deeper than a straightforward answer.

Third, given this, Jesus' cry transforms our understanding of the question in the first place. For if He is not looking for answers here, what is He doing? Calvin, as always, is instructive:

Though in the cry which Christ uttered a power more than human was manifested, yet it was unquestionably drawn from him by intensity of sorrow. And certainly this was his chief conflict, and harder than all the other tortures, that in his anguish he was so far from being soothed by the assistance or favor of his Father, that he felt himself to be in some measure estranged from him....Though the perception of the flesh would have led him to dread destruction, still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains. We have explained elsewhere how the Divine nature gave way to the weakness of the flesh, so far as was necessary for our salvation, that Christ might accomplish all that was required of the Redeemer.

Although Jesus is legitimately asking a real question of the Father, His cry also serves as a kind of guttural lament expressing the "intensity of sorrow" He faces. As such, it is perhaps the best human language can do in terms of naming horrors that the Lord faced, both physical and spiritual. Note too that Calvin highlights the strain that the cross brought upon Jesus' human nature. It is through the "perception of the flesh" and the in "weakness of the flesh" that Jesus feels the "dread" of death and therefore cries out to God. While there will be some aspects of Christ's death with which we cannot relate, we can relate to Him in his general physical and spiritual agony. Seen in this light, Christ's cry (and ours) is not just a question but a verbalized expression of the agony of suffering. It is truly a lament.

Fourth, Jesus' cry instructs our pastoral response to those who likewise ask the same question. It does so in two ways. First, if "Why?' isn't always a straightforward question, then it often does not require a straightforward answer. This is why attempts to answer such a question fall flat. When our child falls and scrapes her knee, we don't give her a lecture on physics but a kiss and a bandage. Similarly, what the faithful believer often needs from us in these moments is simply for their cry to be heard. And perhaps for us to cry with them.

Secondly, when the believer is ready--and the timing of this is crucial--we can help lead them through the logic of lament. The interesting thing about Psalm 22 is the inner struggle it reveals in the life of the believer. The first stanza (v. 1-2) comprises the cry of the believer. The second stanza (v. 3-5) marks a sudden shift to a remembrance of God's prior goodness. The third stanza (v. 6-8) sees a shift back to lament, while the fourth (v.9-11) revisits God's covenant faithfulness. The psalm continues on in this pattern for some time, and then something wonderful happens. After verse upon verse of wrestling with providence, the psalm snowballs into sustained doxology glorifying God's goodness (v. 19-31). Somewhere in the process of wrestling with the competing realities of evil and God's faithfulness, integration occurs. Through a combination of expressing and naming one's pain, crying out to God, and being gently reminded of God's covenant love, David is healed. We who are charged with the care of souls might do well to remember this pattern and all of its components--lament, prayer, and gentle instruction.

Psalm 22 can be read in three minutes; but, no one should expect that a believer will make it through the process modeled here in the same amount of time. Rather, these sorts of psalms are meant to be lived; and, it should not surprise us if our brothers or sisters take three years to get to verse 4 in real time. We must be patient when wading into suffering with others, as our God is patient with us.

Brian Mesimer lives in Columbia, SC, with his wife, where he works as a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP).


The Persecution Driven Life


John Hooper, the English Reformer and pastor, was burned at the stake for his unwavering stand upon the truth of Scripture. In 1555, just three weeks prior to his martyrdom, John Hooper gave the following charge in a letter: "You must now turn all your thoughts from the peril you see, and mark the happiness that follows the peril...Beware of beholding too much the happiness or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draws us from God."1

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul was deeply persuaded that conflict is inevitable between the righteousness lives of the saints and those living ungodly lives in the world. This is nothing less than a tension between light and darkness.

In the conclusion of his beatitude statements in Matthew 5, Jesus pronounces divine blessing upon those who suffer persecution because they exhibit the godly characteristics of the previous beatitudes. Jesus defines persecution as arising from two sources:

First, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "for righteousness" (Mt 5:10). The beatitude statements can be divided into two groups of four with each group ending with a reference to "righteousness." The first group concludes in verse 6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and the second group in verse 10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." The three beatitudes that lead to "hunger for righteousness" are descriptions of a type of holy emptiness--blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn over their needy condition, and blessed are those who are meek and give their cause over to God. These three descriptions of need are fulfilled in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The inevitable result is persecution for this very righteousness. In other words, the righteousness exhibiting itself in the life of the Christian through the characteristics of mercy, purity, and peacemaking provokes violence in those who do not know Christ. The ungodly observe the righteous lives of believers as a condemnation upon their own unrighteous behavior. In response, they lash out in ridicule and sometimes through severe forms of persecution.

Second, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "on my [Jesus] account," or "because of me [Jesus]" (Mt 5:11). Jesus forewarned his followers of the type of treatment they could expect, "You will be hated by everyone because of my name" (Mt 10:22). In verse 11, Jesus is highlighting a Christological title with which believers identify and are persecuted for. According to Luke 6:2, it is the title "Son of Man," that may have instigated the particular offense of unbelievers. This title identifies Jesus as a King of heavenly origin who will reign over a universal and eternal kingdom and who is worthy of worship by all peoples of the earth. This declaration was regarded as blasphemous and proved to be the key to the final condemnation and death of Christ on the cross. The world is okay when believers identify Jesus as a moral teacher or a great leader, but when a Christian attributes divine authority, kingship, and universal rule to Jesus they become outraged and angry. Jesus was saying, "If you identify with me, if you proclaim me as the Son of God, if you proclaim me to be the rightful king, you will relentlessly face opposition, anger, and persecution from those who disagree." Jesus is saying that identification with him at this vital juncture of confession of him to be the "Son of Man," us what gives the righteousness of the Christian its distinct character.

Jesus proceeds in Matthew 5:11 by offering three expressions of persecution that his disciples experience in this world. First, he says they will "revile you," which means that opponents of Christian righteousness and the gospel will mock and verbally shame you. Second, the word "persecute" in verse 11 means "to run after, pursue, or run out." The idea is that the disciples of Christ may be pursued from town to town with the evil intention of violently abusing them or turning them over to the authorities for prosecution. Third, verse 11 states they "will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely." This means that the persecutors of Jesus' followers will raise false allegations against them that have no basis but are in reality imagined lies.

A life devoted to righteousness and godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against, because your holy life is an indictment against their sinful one. The reason for persecution is holy, hot, blazing righteousness and a committed devoted relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus is blessing those who have identified with him and saying in response, "You are mine!"

Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer, said of Christians, "Though they be ever so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will never shield them from suffering. They must hand their harp on the willows and take up the cross. The way to heaven is by the way of thorns and blood. Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you will see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed."

Does this describe you? Are you ready to face opposition and persecution in order to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ in every way? For those who are free in Christ and joyful in persecution are indeed the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."

1. John Hopper, "A Letter Which Master Hooper Did Write to Certain of His Friends," The Church of England Magazine (London: James Burns, 1836) p. 382 


Truth in Minor Keys


At the risk of being labeled a musical snob, I venture a comment or two on one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year--Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975). He is to music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet literature. Finding early success with an internationally received symphony (No. 1) at 19, his career fell foul of accepted standards ten years later when Pravda severely criticized his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Thereby began twenty years of artistry aimed ostensibly at pacifying the communist regime and Stalin in particular, but now understood as filled with subtlety and irony. The War Symphonies"--Symphonies Four through Nine (he wrote fifteen in all) delve into the harrowing subject of Stalin's bloody purge on Russia and Shostakovich's musical counterattack. The fourth had to wait twenty-five years for it to be played fearing that its form would bring further criticism.

These symphonies, written between 1936 and 1945, are the composer's weapons against Stalin's rampant bloodletting. Shostakovich called them, his "tombstones." Of these six symphonies, the Fifth is the best known and the most easily accessible. I heard a live performance of it when I was a teenager. My physics teacher, who introduced me to the twentieth century music of Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich, gave me tickets to hear the Halle orchestra play in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth, Wales. The breathtaking ending of the symphony, a sustained pulsing energy rising to a climactic finish is guaranteed to excite even the near-comatose!

The Year 1905

The seventh is epic in proportion describing the siege of Leningrad. It is the eighth that is the most harrowing--the most graphic musical depiction of war that I know. Nothing can be compared to the metallic sound Shostakovich creates. My favorite Shostakovich symphony is the eleventh, describing another memorable year in Soviet history, "The Year 1905." It begins quietly and hauntingly mesmeric and ends in a blaze of mechanical intensity. In between come some of the most vividly brutal passages of music I know, music that evokes the horrors of war and death, of political regimes that bully artists into an arbitrary mold.

What makes great art is difficult to define at the best of times.

We might be forgiven after a quick reading of the New Testament to conclude that Paul was culturally grey! Paul's concern for unity and equality in Christ--the Galatians 3:28 point-of-view of there being neither Jew nor Greek...for we are all one in Christ--seems to be a cultural bulldozer, leveling all considerations of ethnic, civilizing distinctiveness so beloved by novelists, the BBC and cultural aficionados.

Paul and culture

One might think Paul was as content to eat porridge as haut cuisine. The gospel is the great leveler. It shows no interest at all in whether I'm "Essex man" or a son of Glyndwr, of whether I studied at a comprehensive in Lampeter or Eton college, or if I have an identifiable accent that is redolent of sophistication or conjures up thoughts of plebeian roots. But, as these exchanges show all too clearly, being a Christian does not erase all identity markers (English, Welsh, Laplander) any more that Paul's insistence that there is "neither male nor female" reduce us all to androgynous beings (despite a clearly discernible trend to do just that in our modern world). Vive la difference.

Paul can, however, discern what is true and honorable and lovely and excellent (Phil. 4:8) which makes one think that it is right to speak of arts and fine arts. We recognize them instinctively and put greater value (lasting value) on the poetry of Dante, Donne, Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot, and the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, or the writings of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Defoe, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But what we have done is singled out artists with Christian leanings one way or another and there's nothing (or so it seems to me) that suggests that good art only comes from the minds and emotions of Christians.

On the contrary Christians are capable of appallingly bad judgments and poorly expressed artistic productions. Deliver us from the tyranny that suggests "Christian" art is good, "Non-Christian" art is bad. Who knows what we mean when we apply such labels. For good or ill (and it is often more ill than good), the doctrine of common grace frees us into perceiving "the good" (the noble, the enduring) in Mozart or Debussy, John Lennon, or Eric Clapton. It always catches me off-guard when I read Kuyper's tirade against the music of Claude Debussy (in the "Lectures on Calvinism"), as though impressionism were redolent of all that is wrong with the modern world! It is easy so why someone might make that case (the lack of clarity suggesting moral uncertainty, or something of the kind). But it is breathtakingly naïve. I remember listening to a lecture/sermon once given by a renowned twentieth century preacher (now deceased) in which he argued that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was "Christian" on the basis that it contained no discord. The idea of harmony suggested gospel creation as it should be, as God intended, and elements of discord suggested sin. The nonsense of such an analysis need not detain us now, but something of the same finds its way into many a Christian discussion where arbitrary factors suggest more or less Christian ideas.

Sarcasm and grotesquery

Listening to Shostakovich's symphonies is not easy to do, wrapped as his music is in emotional baggage that can quite literally drain the life away. As one reviewer said following a series of concerts given recently in commemoration of Shostakovich's centenary in which all his symphonies were played: "he wrote works in which sarcasm and grotesquery are hard to separate from nobility and pathos, base materials difficult to tell from the sublime; and the more keenly he felt political pressure -- Stalin's dirty thumb -- the more assiduously he doubled his meanings, put in jokes and let irony engulf all. His harmonies can be absurdly pert, his rhythms merely capricious and his melodies are more like deceptive simulacrums of a tune than the thing itself. One can feel it is only the architectonic aspect of composing that for him is not debased" (Paul Driver, "Maddened in Manchester" The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006).

Not all of Shostakovich's music is good. It can occasionally sound quite banal. Nor should we think of him as a hero of the dissident movement against socialist realism. He was a loyal patriot and Presidium member during the Brezhnev era. His struggles are just as much with himself as with Stalin's oppressive regime. He writes a mea culpato Stalin in the Tenth Symphony. And he dies wearing all his State medals. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to create one of his most important works - Symphony No. 13, Babi-Yar, for bass, bass chorus and orchestra. Written in 1962, this devastating critique of the Soviet system is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was the Khrushchev era and many had envisioned a different era had arrived rather than the Cold War which ensued.

Felix culpa!

Something essentially biblical and puritan emerges in Shostakovich: a sense of the brutality of this world. There is nothing saccharin about Shostakovich. Socialist realism was not an issue to trifle with. Life is hard and unrelentingly hostile to those whose point of view differs from the establishment. Like the puritans whose conscience forbade them the luxury of conformity, Shostakovich (while seeming to comply) wrote in irony much the same way as one imagines John did in writing the Apocalypse.

Out of the most brutal circumstance extraordinary good can emerge. Great literature, great art, great music! And therein lies a great lesson that the Bible reinforces again and again. That spiritual growth and vitality--the best things we ever do and say, emerge from the crucible of suffering and trial. The puritans knew this lesson well and often preached and wrote about it. Wrote John Geree, a seventeenth century English puritan, in his tract "The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)": "His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur[he who suffers conquers]."

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice" C. S. Lewis wrote, and Christians of the past were not afraid to be reminded of it so long as it drew to live out-and-out for God as a consequence. I've no idea where Shostakovich stood spiritually, but his music reminds me of the frailty of this life and the need to live for Christ in a brutal, fallen world.

North American Christianity anesthetizes itself with promises of ease and comfort for the faithful. Too much Christianity is concerned with personal pleasure where soothing syrup from preachers mollycoddles over-indulged Christians to expect the wrong things. Instead of preparing them for battle against the world, the flesh and evil, they are hoodwinked into the belief that pain and deprivation are the greatest obstacles to Christian vitality and growth. Nothing could be further from the truth: God tries us "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).

James MacMillan, one of today's leading Scottish composers, said back in the year 2000 (at a twenty-fifth commemoration of Shostakovich's death) referred to Shostakovich as "the public atheist who provides us with a scorching vision of the human soul." Pointing to the composer's "extraordinary double vision," MacMillan outlined a music that simultaneously embraces "the lyric and the grotesque, joy and irony, hope and despair; a music which holds a mirror up to the human condition" (See, Michael Tumelty, "At last, the score is settled" in Glasgow Herald October 30, 2000). Like the music of Shostakovich, some truths can only be heard in minor keys.

*This post was originally published at Ref21 in September of 2005.

Our prayers today are with the family of R.C. Sproul, who has been called home to glory. Read his eulogy below, written by Rick Phillips...

We grieve today at the news of R. C. Sproul's departure from this life, while so blessed at the knowledge that he basks in the glory of the Savior he served and loved.  

In mourning our loss of this great preacher and church leader, my mind searches back to the early 1990's, when what is now called the Reformed Resurgence was only an envisioned hope.  I was converted to faith in Christ in 1990 under the preaching of R.C.'s close friend, James Montgomery Boice.  This meant that I soon was exposed to the live phenomenon of R. C. Sproul in the pulpit in the prime of his vigor.  I had never and never will see again such a combination of passion, intellect, and theological courage.  Those of us who were swept up into the Reformed faith during those years were blessed with a band of true pulpit heroes: Boice, Eric Alexander, J. I. Packer, John Gerstner, and others.  But even in that band of astounding men of vision and gospel power, R. C. Sproul stood out.  He was a lion in our midst, and when he roared we lifted up our hearts to God in faith.  For so many of us in the generation that followed these prophets, experiencing R. C. first hand at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and then the Ligonier Conference, inserting the much-anticipated tape-of-the-month cassette into our car stereos, and hearing the life-changing audio recording of R.C.'s The Holiness of God impacted us so deeply that we raced forward to lay our own swords at the feet of Christ.  God dramatically changed our lives through the voice of R. C. Sproul and we have loved him for it.

I have been one of many who are privileged to have known R. C. personally, though I would not claim to be an intimate.  A few remembrances might illuminate the personal charm that accompanied the pulpit brilliance.  In late 1997, council members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathered at a hotel in Orlando to draft a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (ECT II).  I was present as aide-de-camp to Dr. Boice, being still in seminary and new to the organization.  Our first night, Boice thought it appropriate to introduce me and so he started in on a lengthy bio of Rick Phillips.  About 10 seconds into it, R. C. interrupted and said, "Jim, is this your guy?"  Boice testily replied, "If you don't mind, R. C., I'd like to continue."  Twenty seconds later, R. C. interjected, "Jim, we don't really care about any of this.  Is Rick your guy?"  Boice again brushed aside R. C.'s interruption and continued.  Finally, R. C. exclaimed, "Jim, we really don't want to listen to this.  All we want to know is if this is your guy."  Boice replied, "Yes, R. C., he is my guy."  At this, R. C. gave me that impish grin of his and said, "Hi, Ricky.  If you're Jim Boice's guy then we're pals!"  And so we were, much to my blessing.

For that meeting, Boice and Sproul each brought proposed replies to ECT II and all we did was put them together into a unified document ("An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals").  Then we held a conference call with the evangelical leaders who had participated in and were promoting the joint accord with Rome.  To describe this conversation as alarming and distressing is an understatement, and we went to bed dejected that evangelical scholars could, in our view, so terribly compromise the gospel.  The next morning we slumped together in the hotel breakfast area.  But R. C. perked up and said, "Boys, we have found a hill to die on!  We sing Luther's hymn, 'let goods and kindred go,' and now's the time to do it!"  For a young minister in training, it was an electrifying experience.  R. C.'s stalwart leadership in defense of justification through faith alone was one of his great accomplishments, and his clarity of insight and courage of spirit were essential in rallying the gospel cause.  Only a few short years after that experience, I had the task of giving R. C. daily reports on the rapid decline of Jim Boice's health, and we wept together on the phone after I had told him of his best friend's passage into glory.

These experiences come to mind as I thank the Lord for the life and witness of R. C. Sproul.  I might add numerous personal acts of kindness that he and Vesta performed for my wife and me, together with his warmth of heart and humor that made his great ministry so wonderfully human.  Because he took hard stands for gospel truth, there have been those who disliked R. C., just as Spurgeon had enemies and critics.  But he was a lion in our midst and the call of his voice will resound in our hearts until we are rejoined to this captain and leader in the glories about which we have so joyfully sung here below.  

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Allelujah!  Allelujah!

-- Richard Phillips.

Sharing in Christ's Suffering


No one wants to suffer. When suffering comes to us for following Christ, we are surprised, even shocked and dismayed, especially when our lives have been comfortable. How could our communities or families consider us in the wrong? Why would they mistreat us? Why was it that those who love evil, and hate God, could harm us and our loved ones?

In 1 Peter 4:12 and following, the apostle Peter brings the Word of Christ with great tenderness to us: 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you' (4:12). The tone is loving, gentle, and firm at the same time. Persecution, for some including literal fiery trial--Nero was emperor--was coming upon the church. But the fiery trial itself is not the problem Peter addresses. The problem he points out is a response of startled astonishment and fear (cf. 3:14). As a new wave of persecution was about to break on the churches of Asia Minor, the Lord steadies his church using Peter, who had himself both struggled (Luke 22) and triumphed (Acts 5:29) under the pressures of persecution. He reminds us that we should expect persecution in this present world.

Rather than being surprised by persecution and thinking it strange, the church is 'to rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed' (4:13). Peter is well aware of Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake... Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12). Through Peter, our Lord reminds us that where we share in his humiliation, we can expect to share in his exaltation.1 The day of his return will be a day of exuberant joy for his people.

Peter encourages us further: 'if you are insulted for Christ's name, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you' (4:14). What the world hates is the sight of Christ in us: "because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you... if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:19-20). Where the church or an individual believer suffers for the cause of Christ, it is clear evidence of their union with him. Suffering mistreatment because of Christian faithfulness confirms a great reality: "the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (4:14). Peter draws on the language of Isaiah 11:2, with its prophecy of Spirit of the Lord resting upon the coming Savior. It also echoes Jesus' promise to his disciples of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them (cf. Matthew 10:20; Luke 12:12; John 15:16-17). The comfort is profound: the Triune God is for and with his suffering children (Romans 8:31).

Suffering for Christ, not because of sin (4:15-16)

The rich comfort of this passage of God's Word brings with it caution and a call to self-examination. Peter has already reminded the church that they can rejoice in suffering, "insofar as you share Christ's sufferings" (4:13) and "if you are insulted for the name of Christ" (4:14). There are sufferings that, though Christians bear them patiently, are not the result of praiseworthy causes. Peter exhorts 'but let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler' (4:15). Suffering for Christ's sake must not be confused with suffering as a consequence of our own sin, as becomes evident in the subsequent sentence.2 'Yet if anyone does suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name' (4:16). There is a close parallel to these verses in the previous chapter: "For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God" (3:20-21). Here, though, there is further instruction for the persecuted. While the world seeks to shame the Christian for their non-conformity to its pursuits, we are not to be ashamed of Christ, nor of faithfulness to him--even where we suffer for it. To be ashamed is to shrink back from giving God the glory due him.


Entrusting ourselves to God (4:17-19)

Suffering of any kind, and perhaps especially the suffering of persecution raises the question, why? Calvin states that if a comparison is made it may seem that God allows the reprobate to have a fairly easy life, while being severe towards his children.3 This troubles us, but the Word provides a humbling and good answer, placing suffering for Christ in the context of God's judgement: 'For it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And "If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"' (4:17-18).

God is perfectly holy, just, wise, and good. Whatever suffering we experience in this life, even the "injustice" of persecution, is far less than what we deserve as sinners. Yet, for those in Christ, his judging of his people "the household of God" (4:17) is not condemning, "but the purging, chastening and purifying of the church by the loving hand of God."4 It is for our sanctification, our present and eternal good. The contrast set before us in the text is that if God is so serious about our holiness that he allows hardships, even fiery trials of persecution, then what will happen to those who remain in sinful rebellion against him until they die? Spurgeon states, "if God puts even the gold into the fire, what is to become of the dross?"5 A comfortable life in sin is not better than a life of suffering for Christ: the former ends in judgement to never-ending suffering, the latter concludes in eternal joy, blessedness and peace.

This stark contrast brings us to Peter's conclusion: 'Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good' (4:19). Our lives, including our sufferings are in the Father's hands. The Son, as the captain of our salvation, has also suffered, for us (Hebrews 2:9-18). He has led the way, steadily doing good, through suffering, to glory, "entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (2:23). The faithfulness of God, the Creator of the heavens and earth, is sealed in Christ's suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. He is ever faithful, "for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). We have every reason for confidence in him as we follow in his steps.


You and the Word

Have you ever suffered as a consequence of faithfulness to Christ? If you never suffer for Christ, why not? Is it because of complacency or compromise? Is it because you love yourself more than you love God, and as a result there is little or nothing of Christ's character in you? When we suffer it is good for us to reflect on the extent to which our sufferings are because of faithfully following Jesus. When we do suffer for his sake, we have every reason to be profoundly thankful, rejoicing now and being glad when his glory is revealed.

The Head that once was crowned with thorns 
Is crowned with glory now; 
A royal diadem adorns 
The mighty Victor's brow. 

The Joy of all who dwell above, 
The Joy of all below 
To whom he manifests his love, 
And grants his Name to know. 

To them the cross, with all its shame, 
With all its grace, is giv'n; 
Their name an everlasting name, 
Their joy the joy of heav'n. 

 They suffer with their Lord below, 
They reign with him above; 
Their profit and their joy to know 
The myst'ry of his love.6


1. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.

2. Dwight F. Zeller, 1 Peter: An exegetical procedure which explores the Epistle of 1 Peter (Westcliffe, Colorado: Sangre de Cristo Seminary, 2009), 211.

3. Calvin, 139.

4. John MacArthur, 1 & 2 Peter: Courage in Times of Trouble (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 47.

5. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.

6. Thomas Kelly, "The Head that once was crowned with thorns" in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 298.

William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church who serves as Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article is an excerpt from his recently published "Feed My Sheep" A Commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. Welwyn Series Commentary (Evangelical Press, 2017).

Conflict, Comfort and the Cross


Last week, a gunman entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 people, wounding 20 others. The massacre was brutal and left what will surely be scars on all of those who survived, many of whom were young children. Usually there is some sort of grieving period that decorum allows in the aftermath of such events, but as civilization abandons any pretense at care or compassion that grieving period is quickly disappearing.

One of the nastiest things about the internet is that it allows angry and grieving people to abstract the people they are writing about from reality. People are able to speak freely even when they know what they have to say is cruel or even evil. It should be no secret in the Christian community that the world thinks that we're foolish. We acknowledge it, but sometimes we see it in ugly ways.

Perhaps the most despicable reactions came from Actor Michael McKean, who mocked the dead on Twitter and attacked those who encouraged prayer for the people in the church: "They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else." Wil Wheaton attacked one politician who expressed sympathy and prayers for those who had lost so much: "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive."

I do not wish to judge these men as human beings. I don't know them in their everyday lives. I don't know what they've been through or what they've seen, but someone who understands the cross would never say these sorts of things. These are the responses of people who do not understand the cross.

The mockery of the unbelieving world assumes a few significant things. It assumes that God would never permit his people to die. It assumes that suffering isn't part of God's plan. It assumes that if prayer "worked" then God's people would just keep on living. And most fundamentally it assumes that God builds his church on power and strength. There's an entire worldview of assumptions that have to be true if their mockery could have any basis, but of course all of these assumptions miss the cross.

The cross was the ultimate and willing display of weakness. When many think of the cross they think, perhaps of an identifying marker, a beautiful piece of jewelry, or some elaborate symbol. But the cross was horrible, ugly, and nonsensical. It was a weapon of death, akin to the rack or the guillotine. At the core of the Christian religion is the conviction that death is the road to life and weakness is the road to strength. That's totally upside down from the rest of the world.

Paul says that "the world did not know God through wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21). What he means is that if you were trying to dream up a way to rescue people from hell, the conclusion that reason would take you to is a show of power, a demonstration of strength. This is why the religious leaders mocked Jesus as he died: "Let him come down from the cross, and [then] we will believe in him." And in a sense that mockery is echoed in the sentiments of men like Wheaton and McKean. The cross is foolish to these men (1 Cor. 1:18-25). What else would we expect?

You see, the mockers also don't understand that Christians are called by Christ himself to carry the cross, too. If McKean, Wheaton, and their tribe don't understand the cross, then they certainly won't get what Christians are called to carry. What the saints at First Baptist Church were called to carry last week. Jesus spent a huge quantity of his earthly ministry preparing his disciples to suffer and carry the cross.

I do fear, however, that as Christians, we also forget these truths. How often do we prize earthly power, success, cultural authority, and the respect of those outside of the church? Prizing these things is a sign that we've learned to think like the world, too.

Sometimes I fear that as Christians we are far too easily embarrassed by the opinions of the watching world. The base ideas about Christ that the world works with assume the narrative of power and strength. The truth we need to remember is quite the opposite.

The truth that suffering and loss is intrinsic to the Christian religion and to our own lives as believers means that church shootings, religious persecution, and difficulty shouldn't be the exception for Christians. We should understand comfort and ease to be the real exceptions.

Cruciform Suffering


The fact that the incarnate Son of God "learned obedience" (Heb. 5:8) is an essential aspect of Jesus' human nature and so is indispensable to sound Christology and soteriology. Apart from the cross itself, the clearest example we have of this "learning" is probably found in the Synoptic accounts of our Lord's prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). While Jesus' obedience is of unparalleled import for our justification, his example of submitting to his Father's will and so learning obedience through suffering is also a unique model for our sanctification, the goal of which is nothing less than Christ-conformity.

The Gospel accounts of this prayer show Jesus' desire to avoid the cup of the Father's wrath against sin, but only if that can be done in accord with his Father's will. While this raises some interesting theological questions, the Synoptics give more attention to the subjective or experiential facet of Jesus' prayer. Similarly, our personal appropriation of the text merits serious reflection, not least because submitting one's will to God's when that means accepting suffering involves nothing less than putting to death the remnants of the old man (Mark 8:34-35).

Although Jesus is the supreme example of learning obedience through suffering, the Gospel accounts do not provide a detailed analysis of how this learning took place. For that reason, and because the Old Testament figure of Job exhibits both similarities and differences with respect to Jesus' example, we turn first to the Book of Job before returning to the Gospels (and to the gospel) in order to reflect on how we might imitate Christ in the way that he learned obedience.

Job is clearly a dynamic character in the book that bears his name. At the beginning and end of his suffering, Job accepted the mysterious providence of his trial, trusting firmly in God's wisdom and justice. The narrator affirms twice that at the outset of his trials Job's responses to his suffering were without sin (1:21; 2:10), and at the end of the book Job not only repents of his flawed interpretation of his suffering (and of God), but even intercedes on behalf of his friends. In doing so he demonstrates restored and even strengthened confidence in God's justice, mercy, and goodness.

But what of the bulk of the book of Job, sandwiched between the opening and closing narratives? After an unspecified period of suffering in which he did not draw into question God's goodness and justice and on the contrary affirmed them, Job eventually changes and utters a lengthy curse in chapter three. Who can doubt that over time Job's suffering, compounded by the fear that God had become his enemy (3:23), tore relentlessly at his faith? Eventually his faith wavered, and the curse-lament of Job 3 demonstrates profound differences when compared to Job's beliefs and attitudes in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Job feels that it would have been better for him not to have existed, and he draws into question God's wisdom and goodness as well as the usefulness of such immense suffering in his life. Job expresses these sentiments at several later points in the book prior to God's theophanic arrival (16:7-14; 23:1-7; 30:20-23), and his discourse culminates in a bold challenge for God to answer his accusations (31:35-37).

The differences between Job's lament (which the book does not condone) and those we find in the psalms (e.g., Pss 10; 22) are significant. Hartley notes that Job voices no affirmation of trust nor any vow to praise God after his deliverance, and omits any review of God's faithful character and past intervention on his behalf ("From Lament to Oath," 89-91). As of chapter 31 Job "is not there yet," and God's two speeches in chapters 38-42 are necessary to convey the knowledge Job needs to understand and even profit from his extreme suffering. God's words to Job affirm divine justice over against Job's accusations and highlight Job's incomplete understanding of creation and providence. God draws Job's attention to the "counsel" that Job's words have darkened in 38:2 (referring to God's governance of the world), the tension between Job's desire to affirm his righteousness over against God's in 40:8, and the reality that divine justice (at least sometimes) is brought about gradually (38:12-15). In response to this wisdom instruction, Job "repents," which in this context means that he recognizes his epistemological limitations, rejects his earlier view of God's culpable involvement in his suffering, and accepts God's self-description as good, just, and beyond his comprehension. Amazingly, this takes place before his suffering has ended.

Let's come back now to the double significance of Jesus' obedient suffering, especially as seen through the lens of his prayer in Gethsemane. On the one hand, because of our Lord's perfect obedience, obeying to the point of death on a cross, our sins are atoned for and his perfect righteousness is ours. On the other, he calls us to suffer with him and to follow Him while bearing our cross. One could almost say that these two poles constitute Christianity's unique approach to suffering (which we can define as physical, emotional, and/or spiritual pain that is not demonstrably sent as discipline for our sin). Living on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, especially when seen against the immediate backdrop of Gethsemane, our understanding of why God sends suffering into the lives of His children is significantly greater than what Job enjoyed. We see the cross followed by the resurrection as the grounds of our justification, we have received the Holy Spirit who testifies to the certainty of our eschatological adoption (Rom 8:15-17), and we await with impatience the new heavens and the new earth, "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet 3:13). These redemptive-historical advances demonstrate God's righteousness and grace, and address with brilliant clarity the questions that plagued Job: Where is God's justice? How can the just suffer? Why must the just suffer? Yet the difficulty of Christian suffering remains. Although the goal is nothing less than Christ-conformity, this conformity is inherently cruciformity.

As we know from experience, doubts about God's goodness or the strong conviction that another set of circumstances would better promote our Christ-conformity (or both!) are only too quick to arise in our hearts when we are faced with suffering. Before the final stage of his suffering, Jesus sinlessly petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him if it were possible, always adding that the Father's will was, in the end, also his. Thus even before the response to his prayer was clear, Jesus was ready to accept the cup from his Father's hand. His obedience was neither a perfunctory acquiescence nor something born of compulsion, but rather a sincere (if trembling) embracing of the Father's will.

Depending on our state of heart and mind, the fact that God's fatherly providence is not arbitrary can be either a source of temptation to doubt his goodness (God forbid!) or the soil in which patience, humility, and even joyful optimism can grow. Not only is conformity to Christ's death inseparable from conformity to His resurrection (what Calvin called our "true destiny," on Matt. 2:23, CDCL 45), but offering ourselves to God entails "a real gladness which arises from the love we have for Him to whom our self-offering is made" (Calvin, on Deut 7:7-10, CDCL 34). A positive response to suffering requires that we understand that since God's power and wisdom are both perfect and without limit, our current circumstances are the best way for God to develop our conformity to the image of His Son. We must remind ourselves that of all possible paths, at this moment this trial is what our heavenly Father wills for us. Even in the most extreme suffering, victory in and over suffering is guaranteed by (and cannot be separated from the experience of) the love of Him who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom 8:39). Suffering believers can therefore know, with utmost certainty, that their heavenly Father is using their present, very unpleasant circumstances to conform them to the image of his Son and to teach them the profound power and glory of his love.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says; "learn obedience as I learned it." Why not another way, any other way? Scripture's answer is that only such a trial, one that cannot be understood here and now, creates a situation in which we can submit our wisdom and our will to God's ("if it be possible . . . yet not my will. . . "). In so doing we will learn that God can be trusted, loved, and honored through a trial which may never be understood this side of glory. Though God's ways are often beyond our understanding, in our suffering we can be certain that though this trial our heavenly Father is lovingly, justly, and wisely conforming us to the death and the resurrection of His Son. "Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).

Daniel Timmer is the Professor of Old Testament at the Faculté de théologie évangélique (Acadia) in Montreal.

These Present Sufferings


As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish - anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines--one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims' families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God's words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about 'our present sufferings' and declares they 'are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its 'present' state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation 'groaning' (8.22), and how 'we ourselves [Christians]...groan inwardly' (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers 'with groans that words cannot express' (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The 'present' in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as 'this present evil age' (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam's fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of 'creation' itself 'groaning as in the pains of childbirth' in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting 'in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed' (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and 'the restoration of all things' associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of 'groaning' (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God's word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those 'who have the firstfruits of the Spirit' - believers (8.23) - things are different. We too still groan - indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom - but in a way that is tempered by 'hope' (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul's last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God's children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us 'with groans that words cannot express' (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves 'every mouth silenced' before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to 'groan' on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just 'weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn' - but do so as those 'who share in the sufferings of Christ.'


Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let's Study JohnLet's Study Colossians and Philemon and Let's Study 2 Peter and Jude.  You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.

Affliction Evangelism


"This light momentary affliction," Paul writes, "is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul's use of the singular noun "affliction" in 2 Cor. 4:7 is intriguing. Paul doesn't say afflictions (plural), which would suggest periodic suffering in the life of the Christian. Nor, to all appearances, is he referring to some specific episode of suffering in his own life and ministry, though Paul's life and ministry certainly contained episodes of more concentrated difficulty. He seems, rather, to be making a point generic to all Christians (hence the "for us"). "This light momentary affliction," then, seems to be a reference to the entirety of the Christian's life on this side of eternity. The Christian's life in toto can be characterized as one singular "affliction." The whole thing is hard. The hardship of the Christian life doesn't preclude joy. Nor does it preclude any number of concrete pleasures in this life (family, friendships, craft beer, pillow fights, etc.). But the life of the faithful Christian will, as a whole, be difficult.

That's a hard pill for us as Americans to swallow. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us not just to be happy -- to pursue happiness in the here and now at any cost -- but also to look happy. Hence selfies. Selfies exist, I'm convinced, not to preserve or trigger their subjects' memories of places visited, things seen, and experiences experienced, but to be posted to some form of social media in order to project a certain image of their subjects; namely, the image of fun, adventurous, and (above all) happy people. Paul's designation of life as an "affliction" invites us to abandon the very pretense our culture bids us maintain. Acknowledging life as difficult is both scary, because it pushes against the grain of cultural expectations, and liberating, because it invites us to stop pretending that everything's peachy all the time.

But why must life be so hard for Christians? Difficulty in life is typically attended by confusion on the part of those undergoing it. The question "why?" seems to follow inevitably in the train of suffering. There seems to be a logic to Paul's sequence: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Cor. 4:8). There is, of course, the obvious response that life is hard for Christians because it's hard for everyone in consequence of the Fall. But Paul, in 2 Cor. 4:7-12, outlines a particular logic for the suffering that Christians' encounter, a logic that, if grasped, might help Christians endure in the midst of difficulty. The suffering Paul seems especially to have in mind in these verses is persecution as a result of efforts to share the Gospel. But the logic for suffering he outlines, I think, has applicability to other forms of hardship.

Christians suffer, first of all, because God delights to triumph in weakness. "We have this treasure in jars of clay," Paul writes, "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." The treasure that Christians' possess and seek to share with the world is the Gospel and its fruits. But their efforts to share that treasure with the world generally reap trouble. Life as a clay jar ain't pretty (see 2 Cor. 4:8-9). It's not surprising, of course, that efforts to share the Gospel with others result in unpleasantness. The Gospel is an affront to those who would deny any absolute moral standard because they wish to live their lives without accountability or consequence. It's even more of an affront to those who would acknowledge an absolute moral standard, but insist upon their own ability to meet that standard. The Gospel, in other words, is offensive.

But God grows his kingdom through the means of Christian witness, however much attended by animosity from the world. There is, in fact, a correspondence between the manner in which God accomplishes salvation through the person and work of His Son and the manner in which he advances his kingdom through the application of Christ's work to elect sinners. God triumphed over sin, death, and hell through apparent weakness -- an apparently deluded man hanging on a cross, Rome's most despicable instrument of capital punishment. God brings sinners through faith into a share in Christ's kingdom through equally apparent weakness -- persecuted, perplexed, and suffering Christians, feebly testifying to the treasure that they possess and trying to share it with others. Jars of clay. Significantly for our theme, the weakness of the means (i.e., us) that God has chosen to advance his kingdom ensures that all glory and praise for the same will be returned to him in the final analysis. The "surpassing power" that brings fruition to the efforts of silly people proclaiming a silly message clearly "belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

But there is a further logic to suffering outlined in these verses, which is this: Suffering turns our lives into sermons. Suffering may or may not show us what we're made of (as the saying goes), but it will definitely show us and others where our hope, where our identity, and where our confidence lay. The suffering Christian, in other words, becomes a form of Gospel proclamation to the world. Feed a Christian to the lions, or give a Christian some incurable disease, and what do you discover? Someone who ultimately has more invested in the life to come than this present life. Someone who can face pain and even death with ultimate hope rather than despair. Strip a Christian of his job and livelihood and what do you discover? Someone whose identity is rooted less in a profession or job title than it is in the reality of God's love and Christ's work for him. Someone whose confidence rests in God's sovereign provision more than it does in a bank account. Soak the Christian in trouble and then wring that Christian out, and what will pour from that Christian is the Gospel in visible, lived, concrete form. What will pour from that Christian, in other words, is confidence that nothing this world throws at him/her can jeopardize his/her treasure, namely, the Gospel and all that it comprises, which is chiefly the prospect of eternity in God's presence (2 Cor. 4:17).

Paul makes it clear in the opening chapters of 2 Cor. 4 that one aspect of our calling as witnesses to Christ is to make "open statement of the truth" (i.e., open our mouths, and actually articulate the gospel to others.) In 2 Cor. 4:8-12 he makes it equally clear that "open statement of the truth" can be made with our lives in addition to our lips. "We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." Translation: We who are heirs of eternal life with God ("we who live") will regularly get the snot kicked out of us in life ("are always being given over to death"). But suffering has a purpose ("for Jesus' sake"). It puts our hope in Christ on full display to others. It turns our lives per se into a form of witness ("so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh").

Suffering is no fun, no matter how we gloss it. But seeing the opportunity that suffering affords to proclaim the Gospel with our lives may go some way towards helping us to "count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds" (James 1:2).


Shusaku's Silence

Some readers may be curious about the forthcoming Martin Scorsese film, Silence. The story follows two Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who leave Portugal in order to discover the fate of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary to Japan whom rumor has it had abandoned the faith. Although I have not seen the movie, I have read the book that the movie is based on. I have some spoilery reflections on the book, but since I haven't seen the movie I'm not necessarily prepared to comment on it or recommend it.

My suspicion is that the majority of Christians in the west, much like myself, have never heard about the earliest Catholic missions to Japan in the 17th Century. The Jesuits came to Japan in 1549, and while I should not (and cannot) here give a history of Christianity in Japan, it is worth admitting that the 1630s and 40s were a time of unbearable persecution. The tortures exacted on the Christians of Japan during this time are horrifying to consider.

Shusaku Endo's book Silence, a fictionalized account of these true events, was written in the 1960s by a Roman Catholic.  I speak of this book as neither a Roman Catholic, nor as someone with any special or unique knowledge of the history of Christianity in Japan. One of Endo's enduring themes is the incompatibility of Christianity (or any other religion) with the Japanese culture. One of Endo's repeating themes in this book is that Japan is a "swamp" which takes, changes, and transforms ideologies until they no longer resemble their former selves. From reading the translator's preface, one can see that there are autobiographical aspects to this argument. Endo sees a struggle within his own heart away from his Catholicism, and in one interview said that in spite of his own religious upbringing, "there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the 'mud swamp' Japanese in me." So for Endo, Christianity can never really take root in Japan unless it changes, transforms, or adapts. Of course, this is a popular modern theme, this idea that Christianity will wither and die if it does not change with the times. It seems harder to believe here in the West where most people still preserve some nominally religious veneer. It's a bit more persuasive when one considers that less than 1% of people in Japan are Christian. I do not agree with Endo that Christianity must change in order to be received, but there is a tension here in the book. On the one hand Endo seems to think that Christianity needs to change. On the other hand, he seems to fault the corruption of Christianity in Japan with the Jesuit willingness to adapt.

Father Ferreira in the book does give a speech where he points out that the type of Christianity that has taken root in Japan is nothing resembling what they knew back in Portugal. Accommodations have been made for ancestral reverence, and the gods they worshipped haven't gone away - they've simply taken a back seat to Christ in the minds of the new Japanese converts. Ferreira faults the Jesuit tendency to adapt to local superstitions and customs rather than replacing them, implementing them into their version of Christian theology, thus transforming it into something entirely different. And so there is an interesting tension in the book. Was the accommodation of the Jesuits right or wrong in Endo's mind? If it was right, then why does Ferreira find fault with it? If it was wrong, then Endo seems to think Christianity wouldn't have even taken hold in the slightest.

I found myself utterly captivated by Silence. Reading this book was a remarkable experience for me. I will try to make the case here that Christians need to be made more aware of this book. It belongs on our bookshelves next to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and the writings of Flannery O'Connor in the sense that it asks the hard questions, pushes the reader in painful ways, and doesn't offer preachy or simple answers.

[I warn that from here on out my review contains spoilers. If you want to read the book, I recommend that you get it and read it right away, but do stop reading this review!] The novel takes place in the 1630s after a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira is reported to have apostatized from the faith. Finding this impossible to believe, the Priests Rodrigues and Garpe make the dangerous journey from Portugal to Japan in order to live as missionaries among the Japanese and also to find out what the truth is of Ferreira's fate. Half of the book is the written journal of Rodrigues, while the other half of the book is either written in a third person format, or contains the letters of others associated with the narrative. Rodriguez and Garpe are eventually captured by the authorities and witness horrific circumstances as they watch the Japanese Christians laying down their lives for the faith. There is no glory in these martyrdoms, as Rodriguez had always imagined. Rather, there is a brutality and cruelty which he had never imagined. Prior to the arrival of Rodriguez, the Japanese forced the priests to renounce the faith and tortured them until they did so, with none of them recanting. However, we soon discover that the Japanese chose a different method altogether, beginning with Ferreira. They use this same technique to great effect on Rodriguez, as well. Rather than torturing the priests, they torture the Christians, telling Rodriguez that all he must do is renounce the faith in order to end their sufferings.

Some of the greatest struggle in the book takes place as Rodriguez recounts his own psychological agony. There are hard questions. It is one thing to suffer for your own faith - to endure pain and suffering for the sake of one's love for Christ. But is it self-centered to refuse to recant in order to end another's suffering? "The price for your glory is their suffering," says Inoue.

At one climactic moment in the book, Rodriguez can hear the moaning of the Christians as they hang in the pit, their cries going up and reaching his ears. These Christians have all recanted, but they will not be released until Rodriguez tramples the image of Christ himself. Suddenly, the image of Christ speaks: "Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross." Rodriguez obeys, and the Christians are released.

The title of the book, Silence refers to Rodriguez' constant lament that God is silent as his people suffer. "Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?" At one point Rodriguez is praying and he says, "'Lord, I resented your silence." He receives a reply: "I was not silent. I suffered beside you." The book is Job-like in its unwillingness to offer straight answers.

As the reader you can't help but wonder if what Rodriguez did is right or wrong. The book implies that he never really gives up believing, but that he spends the remainder of his days as a secret Christian of sorts, outwardly obeying the magistrate. As long as the priests stay away and Rodriguez continues as he is, the authorities promise to leave the Christians alone.

Later in the book, Inoue speaks to Rodriguez and he says, "I've told you. This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots were not defeated by me...You were defeated by this swamp of Japan."

Another character in the novel who matters a great deal is the weakling Kichijiro, who is a pathetic figure, folding under persecution every time, terrified of the authorities, turning in Father Rodriguez at one point, but always returning, always repenting. At one point Rodriguez is thinking of Kichijiro and he wonders to himself: "How many of our Christians, if only they had been born in another age from this persecution would never have been confronted with the problem of apostasy or martyrdom but would have lived blessed lives of faith until the very hour of death." What stinging words! To Christians who live in the West, free of persecution, free of tortures and pain it is so easy for us to judge one such as Kichijiro, and yet constantly throughout the novel we are confronted repeatedly by his tragic and pathetic figure. I think that we as readers would be wise to see ourselves in Kichijiro.

Part of the reason why this book became so controversial in Japan upon its release was that people read the book as theology and not as literature. Endo has complained about this, because he insists his purpose was not to offer up a story for theological dissection. Though I can't resist the urge completely, as you can see, I will do my best not to follow Endo's critics into the murky theological waters that this book seems to invite. Endo's novel is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Christians need to meditate upon the nature of suffering, the pains of martyrdom, and the difficult questions that confront us in this novel. I have lamented before that Protestant writers seem to be incapable of facing painful and hard existential questions like those in this book without resorting to preachy narrative devices. Silence is the exemplification of how to do a novel tackling the subject of faith and suffering head-on while avoiding the dreadfully tacky literary pitfalls we so often see all around us.

Martin Scorsese's adaptation of this film has been recently completed and it is expected that it will begin showing in theaters in time for awards season. I really hope that Scorsese is able to faithfully translate this book into film. I have my doubts, but I do suspect that if the trailer is any indication the film may hold very close to the novel.

Any theological system worth its salt affirms that faith is a gift from God rather than the exercise of some innate power of the human soul. But that affirmation can be misleading, particularly so if one's notion of "gift" is determined by the culture of gift-giving and gift-receiving we currently inhabit. In our day, we tend to think of gifts as something we may or may not want, and may or may not actually keep. The assumption that gifts can be refused is so engrained in our modern way of life that we include "gift receipts" with gifts given in order, rather bizarrely, to facilitate their rejection on the part of those to whom we give them. The danger, then, is that in speaking of faith as a divine gift, we think of it as something analogous to those argyle socks that Aunt Gertrude sends us every Christmas. Argyle socks may be appeal to some (personally I'm a fan), but many are likely to return the socks in favor of a DVD or some fancy accessory for their smart phones.

Faith isn't that kind of a gift. Faith is the kind of gift that transforms its recipient into one who deeply values it (because he supremely values its object) and henceforth longs for more of it. Genuine, saving faith is not given or received with a "gift receipt." There are absolutely no returns on the faith that God gifts to those upon whom he has set his saving affection before the foundation of the world. Faith, in other words, is entirely unique in the genus of gifts. If anyone else has discovered another gift that by its very nature renders its recipient desirous of it, please, please, let me know -- I'd like to order whatever it is for my wife well in advance of Christmas. Because faith is unique compared to presents we might give or receive, we must define our terms very carefully when speaking of it as "gift." Fortunately, our Christian tradition is rather rich in resources for doing just that.

Three individuals/resources stand out to me for how they properly clarify faith's character as gift: Augustine, the Canons of Dort, and Francis.

Augustine on Faith as Gift

The late fourth/early fifth century Church Father Augustine unambiguously names faith as a divine gift in his work On the Predestination of the Saints: "Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God's gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given." Augustine describes the transformative nature of this gift in numerous writings. So for instance he notes in The Gift of Perseverance that "[God] himself ... gives to ... unbelievers the gift of faith, and makes willing men out of those that were unwilling." And again in On the Predestination of the Saints he writes concerning faith: "This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no hard heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart."

The Canons of Dort on Faith as Gift

The Canons of Dort similarly identify faith as a divine and transformative gift: "Faith in Jesus Christ ... and salvation through him is a free gift of God. [...] The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree. [...] In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen." The transformative nature of God's gift-giving to his people is re-emphasized further on in the Canons: "When God ... works true conversion [in his elect], God not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds."

Francis on Faith as Gift

With all due deference to Augustine and Dort, no individual has influenced or informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift more than Francis. Not Francis of Assissi. Not Rome's current pope. Mike Francis, senior pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA) in DeLand, Florida. Mike has influenced and informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift less by his teaching (though also certainly by that) than by the events of his own life.

My wife and I moved from Scotland to Central Florida in the summer of 2013. We began attending Immanuel Presbyterian Church the week we arrived, and were blessed to sit under Mike Francis's teaching for nearly two years. Mike is hands down the best preacher I've ever heard. He's also the most faithful shepherd of a congregation's souls that I've ever met. Until the day I die, Mike will stand out in my mind as the model of what a Christian pastor should be.

In May of 2015 Mike suffered a heart attack while cycling several miles from his house in Deland. His heart stopped beating. He was subsequently revived. Fourteen minutes elapsed between the point at which he climbed or fell off his bicycle at the side of the road and the point at which the paramedics revived him. Mike suffered an anoxic brain injury as a result of his heart attack. When he awoke from a coma and eventually spoke in the weeks after his injury, it became evident that Mike had lost much of his short-term and long-term memory. Close friends and members of his congregation -- individuals Mike had prayed for, preached to, wept and rejoiced with -- were strangers to him. When Mike first returned to the corporate worship of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, he would approach individuals after the service and introduce himself with these words: "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?" Ten seconds after the conclusion of such a conversation, Mike would have no memory of it. There was every possibility he would return to you in minutes, saying "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?"

It's a terrible thing to witness an individual's loss of memory. One realizes in such situations just how substantially memory is constitutive of friendships and identity. In a very real sense, Mike was stripped of both by his accident. He was surrounded by persons who loved (and still love) him, but the fundamental bond of human friendship -- shared (and remembered) experiences -- was broken. He knew his name, but the narrative that was his life -- the narrative that defined him to himself and others -- was lost to him.

But Mike retained one thing fully intact despite the loss of so much that defined him: his faith that Jesus Christ has lived and died for him, and so secured his inheritance of eternal life with God and with God's people. Several weeks after his accident, Mike awoke from his coma a confused man but a strong believer in Jesus Christ. I visited Mike in the hospital when he was in a semi-comatose state, and I wondered whether Mike would ever fully awake. I visited Mike in the hospital after he awoke, and I wondered if he would ever speak. Six months after his accident Mike stood up at a congregational gathering of our church and admitted to his congregation that his entire life had changed as a result of his accident. He then added, with more than a spark of the enthusiasm and passion that characterized his preaching for so many years, that one thing had not changed: His relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a relationship founded on the saving work of God the Son incarnate for him.

Faith is a gift, and truly "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11.29). That reality became increasingly clear to me as I witnessed Mike's life and conversation following his accident. Stripped of nearly everything that defined him, Mike still had faith. Mike still had faith because his faith was never a product of his own intellect or volition. It was God's gift to him. The reality that faith is God's gift became, in fact, one of the most powerful lessons Mike ever taught his congregation. He taught that lesson unwittingly, and with a childlike simplicity and beauty that words cannot obtain. Indeed, he's still teaching that lesson to the members of Immanuel Presbyterian Church. And I suspect that God has many more lessons yet to teach his people in Deland and beyond through Mike Francis.

Please beseech God for further healing and peace for Rev. Mike Francis, comfort and endurance for Mike's immediate family members, and wisdom for the session of Immanuel Presbyterian Church as they chart a forward course for Mike and the congregation.

Jesus, the True and Greater Gardener - from Nick Batzig

The Scriptures tell us that the Son of God began His sufferings in a Garden and brought them to a close in a Garden. That is an absolutely amazing display of God's wisdom. After all, Jesus is the second Adam undoing what Adam did and dong what Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:47-49). He is the Heavenly Bridegroom, entering into His sufferings in a Garden for the redemption of His bride, the Church (. He is the Heavenly Gardener, giving Himself to the cultivation of the souls of His people through His atoning sacrifice and continual intercession. When He hung on the cross, He spoke of Glory under the name of "Paradise"--an evident allusion to the paradise in which our first parents dwelt and the paradise from which they fell. He is the second Adam who, by the shedding of His blood, secured the New Creation. As we consider the double entendres of the fourth Gospel, we come to those specifically concerning the biblical theology of the second Adam in the Garden. Consider the theological significance of the following two Garden settings in which Christ carried out the work of redemption:

Continue on Christward Collective.

Text link -

God, Politics, and Evil

Strange things happen in the days leading up to a national election. This morning's case was courtesy of the center article at which reads "When 'God's Will,' Rape and Pregnancy Collide" (Caution: the article contains explicit details). Whatever political hiccup has given rise to this media maelstrom, the article undoubtedly brings up a profound theological and, even more immediately, deeply personal question: Does God will unspeakable evil to occur?

Any biblical answer to this question must take into account the full scope of God's self-revelation in Scripture, bow before his transcendent wisdom, coordinate our ethical discourse to His character, confess our human finitude, acknowledge the futility of unbelief, speak of His redeeming work in history, survey His unwavering promises, hope in His final judgment, and always look to the ruling Lamb who was slain by lawless men "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23) to the praise of His glory.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to explore these Christian imperatives nor to evaluate the article's featured comments by Rabbi Harold Kushner (which are disturbing for their sentimentality) or Father Tom Reese (whose comments pose a false disjunction between biology and sovereignty). The intent here is to respond to what may be the gut-level reaction of too many who first hear of God's will and the world's wickedness in the same sentence. The article quotes Paul Root Wolpe, the director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University, as saying that the idea of God's willing (presumably, in any sense) evil is akin to asserting that "you shouldn't pull people out of the rubble because God intended the earthquake to happen or we shouldn't try to cure disease because it's God who gave us the disease."

Of course, we who hear such statements should respond with patience and charity. But we must also remember that the Bible understands such deterministic notions (and the passivity they entail) to be wholly antithetical to its own teaching concerning the will of God and human action, including the proper response of Christians to divinely ordained evil. For starters, David's violation of Bathsheba was evil because it was first an assault on God (Ps 51:4). Assyria received her punishment because of the God who controls nations as a man would wield a club (Is 10:15-16). Similarly, Christian service has value because of the Lord who consecrates it (Col 3:23-24). Though we cannot comprehend it, these examples alone teach that human action, whether for evil or in compassion, is intelligible only because of the God whose personal presence and sovereign will makes it so, and none of that entails the sort of God-endorsement of evil or Christians' toleration of it as the media seem to be suggesting.

So friends, in the face of evil, let's be biblical. Let's be Calvinists. But, as I've heard it said, let's be Calvinists "who sweat." Even better, let's teach and model the fact that it is precisely Calvinists who sweat, and sweat the most, because of the overruling providential activity of the God who calls us to action. Whether we pull people from rubble, labor to cure disease, grieve over horrific sexual sin, weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15), or hand over some water to a little one (Matt 10:42), our work will register in heaven and on earth according to the will of the God who bled.

Princeton This Weekend

No, not for college football! Rather, the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology is taking place - with Drs. Ligon Duncan and D.A. Carson. The topic? Suffering, Scripture, and the grace of God. In other words, an event you don't want to miss if you're in the area!

Fearless Leader

Ligon Duncan has published a book called Fear Not, the compilation of several address he gave recently on the topic of death and dying at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson.

Sharing Christ's Sufferings


The newest volume in Crossway's Preaching the Word commentary series is David Helm's 1 & 2 Peter and Jude.  I expect most preachers will know this series of expositional commentaries, which is edited by Kent Hughes.  David Helm is one of the founding pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago -- a church-planting church plant near the University of Chicago.  David also has a central role in the Charles Simeon Trust, which promotes expository preaching nationwide.

Here is what I wrote to help promote the book:

"David Helm exercises a vibrant preaching ministry in the city of Chicago. This book of Bible expositions displays his strengths as a preacher and serves as a model for other Bible teachers. It is vigorous in its defense of spiritual truth, clear in its explanation of biblical words and their contextual meaning, vivid in its use of language and illustrations, well-structured in its exposition of particular Bible passages, and fresh in its practical application of Biblical truth to daily Christian life. It is the kind of commentary, in other words, on which preachers quickly learn to rely."