Book Review:

The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here to Maturity, by Thomas E. Bergler

9 MARKS JOURNA; 09.16.2015

When my wife and I were growing up, our mainline congregations would periodically sponsor “Youth Sunday.” The Sunday morning service was turned over to the Youth Group, under the supervision of one of the ministers or interns of the church. The church’s young people chose the hymns, offered the prayers, read the readings, and even delivered the sermon that Sunday morning.

Thomas E. Bergler provocatively and persuasively argues that, for American Christianity at the dawn of the twenty-first century, every Sunday is Youth Sunday. That is to say, over the course of the twentieth century, the American church came to accommodate itself to the burgeoning youth culture that would come to shape and define the life of the country. Bergler refers to this phenomenon as “juvenilization,” that is, “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents became accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages” (Juvenilization, 4). More pointedly, juvenilization is a “Christianized version of adolescent narcissism” (From Here, 25).


What are some of the symptoms of juvenilization? Worship that is designed to entertain and that relegates the congregation to the role of spectator; songs on Sunday morning that resemble romantic love songs; suspicion of creeds and doctrine; crusading and idealistic social activism and political engagement; diminution of church office; and dedicated programs for the youth of the church (Juvenilization, 1-4). Young people, with their “‘passion’ and ‘authenticity,’” are the “gold standard of Christian spirituality” (2).


While juvenilization has brought certain benefits to the church, Bergler argues, its liabilities outweigh those benefits. Juvenilization has arrested the spiritual growth and maturity of even adult believers. It furthermore represents an unwholesome capitulation of the American church to the culture in which it finds itself.



In Juvenilization, Bergler offers a gripping historical account of how juvenilization transformed the church between 1930 and 1970. Church leaders in the 1930s and 1940s perceived a looming “crisis of civilization” confronting the Western church in the form of the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War (19). Increasingly, these leaders began to point to young people as the ones who would carry the church through this crisis. Youth for Christ was founded in 1945 in order to reach unchurched young people and to galvanize Christian youth in the tasks of evangelism and Christian living. Mainline Methodists and the Roman Catholic Church instituted, for the first time, youth programs (African American Christians, at least initially, resisted this trend). At the same time as the formation of these youth organizations and programs, “teenagers” were beginning to emerge as a powerful social, economic, and cultural force in American society.


Bergler traces the histories of these four bodies’ engagement of youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Mainline Methodists sought to fashion left-leaning political activists out of their youth, but failed. Many young people responded with indifference. Other youth were alienated by the church’s theological and liturgical innovations that were intended to retain them. Those who did take up the church’s call to progressive social action were actively encouraged to rebel against established authorities. In the 1960s, they would have little reason to remain in the church.


The Roman Catholic Church employed its youth activities to help form what has come to be known as the mid-century “Catholic Ghetto.” Roman Catholic youth were immersed in a regimen that combined catechical indoctrination and rigid moral oversight with youth rallies and sporting events. When the social and political upheavals of the 1960s arrived, the church discovered that its youth had been insufficiently prepared to weather those storms. Large numbers of Roman Catholic youth left the church.


In different ways, the African-American church and white evangelicals had better success in retaining the young people in their ranks. African-American churches at first resisted juvenilization. This resistance proved critical for the Civil Rights movement. Young African-American Civil Rights leaders demonstrated remarkable maturity both in their commitment to racial equality and in the manner in which they responded to white aggression (92, 93). As young men and women came to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, however, older African-Americans ceded leadership roles to them. By the end of the 1960s, a young civil rights leadership, alienated from Christianity and disillusioned by events of the decade, had left the church. In following decades, however, many African-Africans would return to the church, a church that for the most part did not bear the imprint of juvenilization.


White evangelicals benefited the most from juvenilization. Evangelical,parachurch leaders shed fundamentalist separatism in the 1950s and presented evangelicalism to young people as something enjoyable and capable of providing personal purpose and emotional fulfillment. This positive appropriation of “youth culture” would pave the way in the following decade for “the Jesus people movement, Christian rock music, and small groups” (175). The flourishing of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s was due, in no small measure, to evangelicalism’s “ability to foster and sustain religious commitment among the young” (175). In doing so, however, evangelicalism failed to engage critically the “cultural forms” of white middle-class youth (175). It also failed to yield a theologically and ecclesiastically robust Christianity.



Bergler concedes that juvenilization is here to stay in both the culture and the church. Even so, he pleads, Christians may and ought to take steps to counter its deleterious effects in the church. From Here to Maturity is Bergler’s attempt to help churches pursue spiritual maturity in the face of the headwinds of juvenilization.


Bergler first argues that Christians need an understanding of maturity that is “desirable,” “attainable,” and “visible” (From Here, 48, 49). Christian maturity requires “know[ing] basic truths of the gospel,” “discernment,” “connect[ion] to the body of Christ (the church),” a “life of love” and increasing Christ-likeness, particularly in growing conformity to Jesus’ death and resurrection (48, 49). Maturity encompasses not only the mind, but also the will and the feelings (54). It transpires in Christian community (55).

How is maturity to be pursued and attained? Bergler suggests that Christian leaders adopt Dallas Willard’s “VIM” model. Christian leaders should help believers embrace a “Vision” for maturity, help them cultivate the “Intentions” or motivations to implement that vision in their own lives, and identify the specific “Means” by which they can pursue and attain to maturity.


Bergler argues that youth ministry and ministry to “emerging adults” (people in their twenties or thirties who are in “limbo . . . being neither a teen nor a real adult,” 6, citing Christian Smith) has a constructive role to play in the pursuit of maturity. Citing the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, Bergler identifies “six faith-sustaining factors in the lives of teenagers that are especially likely to lead to stronger faith in emerging adulthood”: “high parental religious attendance and importance of faith;” “high teen importance of religious faith;” “teen has many personal religious experiences;” “teen has no doubts about religious beliefs;” “teen frequently prays and reads Scripture;” “teen has many adults in religious congregation to turn to for help and support” (92, 94). Bergler then identifies concrete steps that youth leaders should take to foster these factors in the lives of the young people whom they serve. Bergler concludes From Here to Maturity by sketching a four-step plan by which church leaders may help congregants pursue maturity, and to eliminate barriers to maturity in the life of the church (113).



Bergler’s chronicle of the juvenilization of the church is particularly instructive for leaders in the local church. He argues that “the story of juvenilization is a story not of a sinister plot or a noble crusade, but of unintended consequences and unquestioned assumptions” (Juvenilization, 5). Church leaders failed to subject cultural norms to biblical scrutiny. They also failed sufficiently to train younger generations in biblical teaching to withstand the tide of juvenilization that swept American society in the mid-twentieth century. The result was either the decimation of the ranks of some churches or the transformation of other churches according to the norms of adolescence. Bergler’s narrative underscores the importance of discernment and rigorous biblical training to the life and work of the church.


Bergler further notes that many of the features of the worship, ministry, and mission of the church are relatively recent arrivals in the church. He invites us to review even aspects of the church’s life that evangelicals take for granted, and to consider the degree to which they may be indebted to juvenilization. If the church is called to pursue Christian maturity, then Christian leaders especially have an obligation to address in biblical fashion any and all obstacles in the life and work of the church to that pursuit.



Bergler’s cure, set forth in From Here to Maturity, unfortunately does not rise to the level of his diagnostic analysis in The Juvernilization of American Christianity. He is certainly correct to press for Christian maturity as something that is desirable and attainable. He rightly understands that this pursuit must be conducted according to biblical norms and is not a solitary enterprise. He also provides valuable statistical data to help church leaders better understand the challenges and opportunities that lie before those who serve young people in the church.


And yet, certain planks of biblical maturity are either absent from or do not receive due emphasis in From Here to Maturity. Two in particular merit reflection. First, Bergler acknowledges that biblical truth is sine qua non of the pursuit of Christian maturity. At the same time, From Here to Maturity demonstrates little interest in specifying what precisely that biblical truth is. The “first step in helping people grow toward maturity” is “identify[ing] a core body of Christian teaching” (56). Bergler recognizes that “churches and theological traditions” differ on this matter and that “choices here will have significant impact on the spiritual formation of human hearts” (56). Unwilling to “sort out” or “arbitrate . . . these differences,” however, he urges “church leaders” to “identify the basic teachings of the faith as understood by their faith tradition and start teaching them” (56). Later, Bergler notes that when Christians “learn, love, and live theology” they become “more spiritually mature,” whether “the theology they learn comes from an Evangelical, Reformed, Lutheran, or Catholic theological tradition” (112).


But Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions have radically different understandings of both Christian doctrine and the Christian life. What is the rule of faith and practice? What role do the sacraments play in the beginning and progress of the Christian life? What is the relationship between justification and sanctification? May an ordinary believer obtain assurance of grace and salvation? What happens to the believer after he dies?


Even within Protestantism, there are important differences. Must I speak in tongues in order to experience the Christian life to its fullest? Is perfection possible in this life? Is it possible for a true Christian totally and finally to fall away from the state of grace?


Answers to these questions are determinative of the way in which one understands not only Christian maturity but also the Christian life itself. The creeds and confessions of the Reformation, and of the Reformed tradition in particular, were framed precisely in order to help Christians grasp with precision the Scripture’s teaching on these matters. To neglect or bypass these resources, and to express unwillingness to make biblical evaluation of different, even disparate, theological traditions does not bode well for the project of Christian maturity.


A second concern relates to the context within which Bergler understands Christian maturity to transpire. He laudably stresses that one may not pursue Christian growth in solitude. In developing his VIM model, Bergler commends an ongoing mentoring relationship between a more mature believer (“spiritual parents,” “spiritual mentors,” “spiritual friends,” 58) and a less mature believer (“spiritual child,” “mentee,” 58, 59). This relationship takes place within “the body of Christ (the church)” (49). Among the “spiritual disciplines” that Bergler commends are “Sabbath,” “worship,” and “Holy Communion” (62). Specifically, “prayer, learning God’s Word, Holy Communion, serving others, corporate worship, and possibly a few other practices should be part of every Christian’s life” (66-67).


Bergler, however, commends a host of other “spiritual disciplines”—well over sixty, in fact (62, 63). The means of grace and public worship, while on that list, are not prioritized relative to other practices that Bergler commends. As a result, the biblical importance of the means of grace is lost in a welter of activities, some of which will transpire within the church and others of which need not.

Furthermore, the place of church membership and church discipline is negligible within From Here to Maturity. Little mention, if any, is made of the vows that a believer must take in formally associating with the local church. Neither is there is discussion of what may or ought to happen should a church member persist in violation of those vows. What’s more, while “mentors” assume a prominent role in the pursuit of maturity, comparable stress is not placed on the role of ministers and other elders in the growth of the Christians under their spiritual charge.



The membership, offices, ordinances, and discipline of the church are not absent from From Here To Maturity. Neither, however, do they play a controlling role in Bergler’s conception of the pursuit of Christian maturity. These crucial facets of the New Testament writers’ conception of Christian growth and maturity are muted, if not absent.


In all, The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here To Maturity will richly repay every Christian leader who takes the time to read them. Bergler’s research helps the church understand and diagnose many of the weaknesses that plague the contemporary evangelical church. Bergler’s exit strategy from juvenilization contains much wisdom, even as its deficits underscore a standing vulnerability within evangelicalism: the lack of a robust, biblical ecclesiology, in which creeds, confession, church membership, office, ordinances, and discipline play a necessary and vital role in Christian maturity. If we are willing to use these rich resources at our disposal, then, by the grace of God, we will be able not only to decry juvenilization but also to strive for the maturity to which Christ calls us.



Recently, I bought a copy of John Stott’s brief and famous exposition of the Christian gospel, Basic Christianity, which I intended to give to a friend. The book was first published in 1958 and has sold several million copies. It is at once simple and refined, gentle and uncompromising, and many people in the Anglophone world can trace their conversions to reading Stott’s little masterpiece.If any ‘spiritual classics’ were published during the second half of the twentieth century, Basic Christianity is surely one.

The copy I bought is a fiftieth-anniversary reprint by Eerdmans and includes a new preface by Stott himself, who died in 2011. I read the preface mainly out of curiosity, not intending to read the book again, and this sentence caught my attention: ‘It was obviously necessary to update the language, not least by use of a modern translation of the Bible, and to respond to sensitivities relating to gender. We are grateful to Dr. David Stone for taking care of these sensitivities.’

The subject of gendered pronouns has of course become controversial in recent years. Although I myself take an old-school view on the question — ‘he’, ‘him’, and ‘his’ for general antecedents, though occasionally ‘his or her’ sounds appropriate to my ear — I was prepared to accept the need to alter Stott’s original text in order to avoid causing offense. The elderly Stott’s ‘not least’ sounded worrisome, but how bad could it be?

Then I read his original preface, the one from 1958, but which, in the new edition, begins this way:

‘Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.’ These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything that looks like an institution.

It had been many years since I had read Basic Christianity, but somehow that didn’t sound right. Are young people — or were they in the 1950s — really opposed to anything that ‘looks like an institution’? They didn’t seem opposed, for example, to universities back then. So I took down my old copy of the book, a 1971 reprint, also published by Eerdmans. In that version, the sentence reads: ‘They are opposed to anything which savors of institutionalism,’ Hold on. Opposing institutionalism is very different from opposing institutions. You might as well equate opposing nationalism with opposing nations. The editor hasn’t simply updated the text: he has changed its meaning. And changed it stupidly.

My curiosity aroused, I went through the new book and compared it, sentence by sentence, with the old one. The sheer amount of revision is startling. Two out of every three sentences, I estimate, involve some new wording.

Of course, the general masculine pronouns are gone: ‘all other men’ becomes’everyone else’ and so on. This and other alterations are relatively innocuous — they do no violence to Stott’s meaning — but they lower the quality of the writing. One example among scores: Whereas in 1958 Stott had written, ‘In brief, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the other heavenly’, the 2008 version has it, ‘To put it in a nutshell, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, possessing dual nationality, the one earthly and the other heavenly.’ Are we to believe that ‘to put it in a nutshell’ improves on’In brief’? And that adding the term ‘dual nationality’ better conveys the idea to a modern audience?

A great many of the updates involve syntactical changes that, although stylistically harmless, alter the original’s meaning in odd and unhelpful ways. For instance, in 1958, Stott had written that sexual love is ‘a fulfillment of the divine purpose and of the human personality.’ The updated text refers to sexual love as ‘bringing God’s purpose to completion and fulfilling the human personality.’ The editor seems to have objected to the word ‘fulfillment’ and tried to replace it wit ‘bringing…to completion.’ But surely no literate person would be stumped by the word ‘fulfillment’, and in any case the word ‘completion’ introduces the idea of finality or termination that is nowhere in the idea of sexual love as a fulfillment of divine purpose.

Stott was fond of quoting lines from hymns and poems to convey his meaning. Those are gone from the 2008 text. Emphasizing the point that closeness to Christ often results in a heightened awareness of one’s own sin, he had quoted a line from Henry Twells’ ‘At Even, Ere the Sun was Set’: ‘And they who fain would serve thee best/ Are conscious most of wrong within.’ Deleted. Two verses from Harriet Auber’s Hymn ‘ Our Blest Redeemer, Ere He Breathed’, lines teaching that personal holiness is the work of the Spirit — ‘And every virtue we possess/ And every victory won,/ And every thought of holiness,/ Are his alone’ — have been dropped from the updated text. In a paragraph on the centrality of the cross in the Christian life, this sentence had to go: ‘What the Emperor Constantine is said to have seen in the sky, we can see ourselves in the pages of the Bible. In hoc signo vinces.‘ A quotation from a 1585 sermon by Richard Hooker didn’t make the cut either:

Let it be counted folly, or frenzy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that the man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.

In 1958 Stott added, ‘Every Christian can echo these words.’ Now, it seems, every Christian can’t.

Things get worse in the chapter in which Stott discusses Jesus’ claims about himself. In the earlier book, Stott had relayed observations about Jesus by four well-known figures (J. S. Mill, Carnegie Simpson, Alfred Tennyson, James Denny), each emphasizing the uniqueness of his claims. The 2008 text adds a fifth observation, this one by Napoleon. The French emperor, we’re led to believe, said this: ‘Alexander, Christ, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love.’

Well, okay. But unlike the other quotations, Napoleon’s has no citation. A trip to the library reveals that Napoleon’s supposed remarks were originally relayed by Char;es Tristan, Marquis de Montholon, the man scholars believe murdered Napoleon by poisoning him during his second exile. Furthermore, the quotation has popped up in defenses of Christianity since at least 1842. Versions of it are everywhere in the Internet. For my own part, I doubt Napoleon said any such thing.

Maybe the most egregious alteration involves the word ‘atonement’. In Basic Christianity of 1958, Stott had written:

But what does this ‘reconciliation’ mean? The same word is translated ‘atonement’ in Romans 5:11 (AV), and an ‘atonement’ denoted either an action by which two conflicting parts are made’at one’ or the state in which their oneness is enjoyed and expressed. This ‘atonement’, Paul says, we have ‘received’ through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have not ourselves achieved it by our own effort; we have received it from him as a gift. Sin causes an estrangement; the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, has accomplished an atonement. Sin bred enmity; the cross has brought peace.

The updated text reads as follows:

But what does this ‘reconciliation’ mean? The answer is that it indicates either an action by which two parties in conflict are brought together or the state in which their oneness is enjoyed and expressed. Paul says that this reconciliation is something that we have received through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have not achieved it by our own efforts; we have received it from him as a gift. Sin caused a separation between us and God; the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, has brought peace. Sin created a gulf between us and God; the cross has bridged it. Sin broke the relationship; the cross has restored it.

Ignore the numerous and needless small changes, if you can. In the original text, Stott connected the word ‘reconciliation’ to the word ‘atonement’ by reference to Paul’s use of it in his Letter to the Romans. That connection is enough to jar any modern reader, who likely thinks of ‘reconciliation’ as a general feel-good sort of bringing together and ‘atonement’ as some ancient rite involving blood and vestments. In the updated text, however, ‘atonement’ is gone altogether. The newer text leaves the reader free (or freer( to think of the reconciliation Christ has accomplished as the sort of therapeutic fence-mending urged on brawling high-schoolers by their guidance counselors.

Clearly the editor wanted to introduce a new generation to Stott’s beautiful book; his intentions were noble. But the project was a mistake. Te Basic Christianity people are buying and reading today is a bad imitation of the original. The editor and publisher had no right to transform Stott’s book as they did, whether or not the author granted his permission. Good books are precious things that belong as much to their readers as they do to their publishers and even their authors. That is doubly so in the case of Basic Christianity, a work that has engaged its readers at the most intimate levels.

One discerns, too, a basic failure to understand the nature of a book. Except in bizarre circumstances, no book on any subject can come close to its original popularity a half century after it was published. Meddling with its text in an effort to make it popular again — dumbing its language down, making its pronouns gender-neutral — can only rob the book of what power it might still have. Anyone who picks up Basic Christianity today will do so because he wants something altogether different from the products available in his own age. He wants something from the past. What he gets instead sounds almost as if it were composed yesterday: chatty, choppy, bereft of much difficulty, with an improbable hint of political correctness.

In a sense, then, the updated book is a metaphor for the modernizing urge so typical of contemporary religiosity. Nothing achieves irrelevance quite so consistently as the feverish attempt to stay relevant.

Barton Swain is the author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. This article appeared on the BANNER OF TRUTH website.


What Does it Mean to Fear God?

Luther distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear.

I think this distinction is helpful because the basic meaning of fearing the Lord that we read about in Deuteronomy is also in the Wisdom Literature, where we’re told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The focus here is on a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. 


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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Ligonier Ministries


Coming to Christ is the ultimate reality check, as it makes us face the fact that our sin is our biggest problem. Every day, a believer must face the reality that original sin distorts us, actual sin distracts us, and indwelling sin manipulates us. This distortion, distraction, and manipulation create a wedge between us and our God. We are in a war, and the sooner we realize it, the better.

Sexual brokenness comes with boatloads of shame, as sexual sin is itself predatory: it hounds us, traps us, and seduces us to do its bidding. Sexual sin won’t rest until it has captured its object. When our conscience condemns us, we sometimes try to fight. But when shame compels isolation, we hide from the very people and resources that we need. We whiteknuckle it until Satan deceptively promises that sweet relief will come only from embracing that lustful glance, clicking that Internet link, or turning off the lights to our bedrooms and hearts and embracing the fellow divine image-bearer that God forbids us to embrace.

We sexually broken sheep will sacrifice faithful marriages, precious children, fruitful ministries, productive labor, and unsullied reputations for immediate, illicit sexual pleasure.

We may pray sincerely for deliverance from a particular sexual sin, only to be duped when its counterfeit seduces us. When we pray for deliverance from sin by the atoning blood of Christ, this means that I know the true nature of sin, not that I no longer feel its draw. If you want to be strong in your own terms, God will not answer you. God wants you to be strong in the risen Christ.

People who are sexually broken—you and I—need to know in a deep way the following scriptural realities if we are to find freedom in Christ and minister to other sexually broken people:


God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Christ’s death is personal. It is “for us.” If you are in Christ, His atoning love comes with the power to save you from your sin and from your guilt. Sexual sin produces three things that push God’s love away. First, its practice over time sears the conscience, making us numb and dumb to the beauty of holiness. Second, because sexual sin flourishes in secret, it isolates us from the family of God. Third, sexual sin usually involves another person, and therefore it draws someone else into sin, thus increasing sin’s expanse and harm. If you suffer under the weight of sexual sin, come to Jesus, because His yoke is rooted in God’s love. God is love and He is for you. He is advocating for you. He wants you to know His love.


For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgression to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (Ps. 32:3–5). We live in a world that increasingly teaches the idea that self-forgiveness resolves shame. The idea of self-forgiveness comes from a false and bereft anthropology of personhood. We did not make ourselves, and we therefore cannot forgive ourselves. Because God is for you, He wants to forgive you and restore you. He loves a broken and contrite heart.


He sent out His Word and healed them and delivered them from their destruction (Ps. 107:20). He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3). Through His blood, Christ satisfied God’s justice. In this supreme act of love is the solution to the nagging guilt of sexual sin. By His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:3).


Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3–4). Sexual sin has consequences that we cannot control and don’t even see until the Holy Spirit un-scales our eyes. Sexual sin is a ruthless taskmaster. Abortion requires the death of an unborn child. Homosexuality requires the condemnation of God’s creation ordinance. Adultery requires the betrayal of vows before God and the destruction of “one flesh.” Pornography requires sex slaves and casts women and children in the sex trafficking industry. When believers commit sexual sin, we spit in the face of God. When believers repent and forsake sexual sin, we are restored.

God’s providence has a place for your pain. Because you see what others blinded by sin cannot see (yet), you are a signpost to God Himself. You see the blood on your hands, you feel the lifting of its penalty and guilt, and you work as God’s ambassador.


No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13). We in the church are each other’s way of escape. God has already prepared a way of escape, through His Word and His Spirit, and also through the body of Christ and the simple practice of hospitality. The open door to your house and your heart is some brother or sister’s way of escape.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold, now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30)

Jesus speaks here of the family of God whose love and presence and kind company are what the Lord uses to return “a hundredfold” whatever you had to leave to come to Christ. The gospel is costly. And it is worth it.

But these scriptural principles are not cue cards. You cannot minister to the sexually broken until you have imbibed God’s Word, drinking long and hard from its deep wells. Our sexually broken neighbors do not primarily need to be tutored in the Christian worldview; they need to be brought to the foot of the cross. Before we can do this, we ourselves must “profit from the Word” (to borrow the title of A.W. Pink’s book). We must know for ourselves that repentance is the threshold to God.



My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by men who died long ago, but whose ministries live on through their books. As a theologian, I have read a lot of books about the teachings of the Bible, but none affect me more than the writings of the Puritans (and its parallel movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch Further Reformation).

As a young man, I found myself nourished by the writings of Thomas Goodwin, whose books about Christ the Mediator and Christ’s compassionate heart in heaven deeply moved me with faith and love for Christ. In my adult years, some of my favorite books have been Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a combination of Reformed theology and ethics written in a warmly experiential tone; Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, a classic on recognizing God’s saving work in our lives; and The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, letters full of meditations on the beauty of Christ by a man who suffered much for Him.

While there are many ways that the Bible-saturated books of the Puritans have influenced me, I would like to highlight three special lessons I have learned from them about experiential, practical Christian living.

1. The Priority of Love

The Puritans not only commended love, but called Christians to excel in love with godly zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.[1] Such zeal is not proud and harsh, as religious zeal can sometimes be, but a sweet and gentle energy to do good. Jonathan Edwards wrote,

As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.[2]

William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.”[3] When we speak of being on fire for God, the Puritans remind us that it must be a fire of love. And they realized that no one but God can kindle and fan this fire. John Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray . . . . we are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself . . . so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.”[4] This leads me to my next point.

2. The Power of Prayer

When it came to ministry, the Puritans were definitely activists, putting in long hours of arduous labor to spread the kingdom. However, they also understood on a practical level that all kingdom work is God’s work. Neither evangelism nor edification can succeed without the Spirit of God. Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”[5] John Owen said, “The Lord Christ . . . sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”[6]

Therefore, our ministry must be done on our knees. Richard Baxter said, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we are unlikely to prevail with them to believe and repent.”[7] And Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner [lesser] gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”[8]

3. The Pursuit of Holiness

In the worldliness of our fallen nature, our hearts pursue earthly happiness. When sorrow, disappointment, and frustration inevitably come, we grumble and dishonor God. Thomas Manton said, “Murmuring is an anti-providence, a renouncing of God’s sovereignty.”[9] Watson wrote, “Our murmuring is the devil’s music.”[10]  However, the Puritans recognized that in Christ, our hearts have a new fundamental direction, one that cherishes God’s kingdom and righteousness above all earthly treasures.

Holiness begins and flourishes with faith in Christ. John Flavel wrote, “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of faith.”[11] Isaac Ambrose said that we must fix our eyes upon Christ, not with a bare, intellectual knowledge but an inward and experiential “looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life . . . . knowing, considering, desiring, hoping, believing, loving, joying, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus.”[12]

Holiness must be real in our private lives and families, or it is nothing but a hypocritical show. John Trapp wrote, “Follow hypocrites home to their houses, and there you shall see what they are.”[13] Matthew Henry said, “It is not enough to put on our religion when we go abroad and appear before men; but we must govern ourselves by it in our families.”[14] Real holiness is a reflection of Christ having been brought into the heart and the home.

Love, prayer, and holiness—these are the ABCs of a biblical life. They are the very outworking and activity of a living faith in Christ. That’s a large reason why I am so indebted to the Puritans: they keep driving me back to the basics of walking with God through Christ.


[1] Oliver Bowles, Zeal for God’s House Quickened (London: Richard Bishop for Samuel Gellibrand, 1643), 5.

[2] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:352.

[3] William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (1639; facsimile repr., Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1975), 5.7.4 [Rr recto]

[4] John Preston, The Breastplate of Faith and Love, 2 vols. in one (1634; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 2:50.

[5] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 221.

[6] John Owen, Communion with God, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965–1968), 2:199.

[7] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 14:125.

[8] Robert Traill, “By What Means may Ministers Best Win Souls?” in The Works of Robert Traill (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 1:246.

[9] Thomas Manton, A Treatise of Self-Denial, in The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet, 1873), 15:249.

[10] Thomas Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 65.

[11] John Flavel, The Method of Grace, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 2:104.

[12] Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 28.

[13] John Trapp, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1868), 2:624.

[14] Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 3:503 [Ps. 101].



he sexual revolution has a well-known masculine bias. Though feminists have won real battles, the outcome of the war has never been in doubt. Unmooring sexuality from the home, from marriage, and from religion has benefitted nobody more than lecherous, grasping men.

The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.

Likewise, pornography has been pitched as empowerment, the public affirmation of woman as a self-sufficient sexual being. If this is so, why are the kings of the mammoth porn industry so male? Why is Hugh Hefner lionized and eulogized as a social revolutionary, while the women in his sweatshops toil away, often at the cost of great social shaming and self-loathing? We haven’t even mentioned the porn industry’s influence on mainstream entertainment, expressed violently in the testimonies of women like Salma Hayek, coerced by Harvey Weinstein into filming a sexually explicit scene. And we could spend much time contemplating porn’s influence on the modern, Tinderized dating scene. Does the age of swipe-right sound like an egalitarian age to you? Or does it sound like a horny frat boy’s dreamland, a sex factory designed by a grown-up, amorous Augustus Gloop?

At the heart of the #MeToo moment in American culture is the dawning awareness of just how unfair revolutionary sex can be. This isn’t only about raising awareness of violent acts of rape or assault, though it certainly is about that. The architects of #MeToo see the movement as a referendum on something much bigger. This is why, for example, Aziz Ansari has been publicly humiliated amidst allegations that read a lot like sour grapes. Whether the young woman’s encounter with Ansari was consensual feels almost beside the point (though it shouldn’t be). The point, as Uber-feminist Jessica Valenti wrote, is that “what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us [women], and oftentimes harmful.” Harmful as in rape? Not necessarily. Harmful as in assault? Well, not quite. How then? Harmful as in unfair. Ansari is a wealthy, famous, powerful man. His partner was none of those things. The economics of their sex—before, during, and after—skewed in his direction. Of course they did. They were always going to, no matter what.

Valenti’s statement that what are considered “normal sexual encounters” are failing women is a revealing one. Valenti is not the voice of backwoods country girls, being married off at seventeen in lieu of college and career. The “us” in her sentence refers to women like her: modern, progressive, educated, socially aware, and at least modestly affluent. These are the women that every sociological study tells us wield intellectual and social power. While men drop out of school and into the Xbox, these women are ascending. Yet, the sexual experiences of these advantaged females do not seem (or do not feel) progressive enough. After all the gender politicking, the boys still seem to hold the strings.

If nothing else, the failure of contemporary sexual politics to deliver a better experience for women should make us reconsider our assumptions about progress. Why have decades of porn and pills failed to snuff out male privilege? It could be because our gatekeepers were wrong about what a more feminine society looks like. David Sandifer, in a fascinating essay for Touchstone, reconstructs the moral world of Victorian England and concludes that its “prudery” tended to serve the ladies more than the men:

[O]ne of the most fruitful ways of framing the changing norms of public morality in nineteenth-century Britain is as a kind of feminization of society: the standards that had earlier been applied most forcefully to women came increasingly to be directed toward men as well. … Revealingly, this was precisely the way that the rise of a purified tone was viewed by its detractors: William Thackeray lamented the fact that even satire had become “gentle and harmless, smitten into shame by the pure presence of our women and the sweet confiding smiles of our children,” and Algernon Swinburne pined for a poetry that would not be “fit for the sole diet of girls.”

The point is not that British prudery represents an antidote to gender inequities. Modesty and propriety are not enough to make a magnanimous society, as contemporary Islamic republics demonstrate. But the relationship between a grounded, transcendentally moral sexual ethic and the protection of women from exploitation and abuse may not be the inverse relationship our twentieth-century sages believed it to be.

Just a year ago, protesting simulated sexuality in films and television was thought to be nothing more than anti-female fundamentalism. In the past year, however, Hollywood has yielded some of its non-secrets, and we know that the entertainment industry is littered with voyeuristic men in charge of screenplays and production companies. All that skin and coarse talk that befuddled audiences with its excessiveness now becomes explicable, and the explanation does not flatter those who cheered the naked bodies as victories over repression.

It’s a mistake, I believe, for social conservatives to sort themselves into the “not all men” tribes in the wake of movements like #MeToo. Going to bat for Aziz Ansari and criticizing affirmative consent might feel like the properly conservative instinct in a “pink police state,” but it’s not ambitious enough. If we are worried about the increasing litigiousness and public shaming in the gender wars, we should stand athwart history, pressing for a holistic sexual ethic. We should listen carefully to Wendell Berry, who warned that the disintegration of the moral, familial, and communal bonds of sex would lead to erotic hostility rather than freedom. “According to its claims,” Berry wrote, “sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of ‘naturalness,’ ease, and candor between men and women.”

It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty, and fear. Women, though they may dress as if the sexual millennium had arrived, hurry along our city streets and public corridors with their eyes averted, like hunted animals. “Eye contact,” once the very signature of our humanity, has become a danger. The meeting ground between men and women, which ought to be safeguarded by trust, has become a place of suspicion, competition, and violence. One no longer goes there asking how instinct may be ramified in affection and loyalty; now one asks how instinct may be indulged with the least risk to personal safety.

The task of repairing a broken sexual culture will be a long-term project, but it can begin with repenting of our prejudice against purity. For all our evangelical regret over the excesses of “purity culture,” we need to consider whether a more protective, more equitable place for the sexes will be one that errs on the side of prudence rather than revolution. We are hearing from a generation that they want sex that doesn’t break, abuse, or humiliate them. To which every Christian should say, “Me too.”

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.


Last weekend I had the pleasure of lecturing at the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism Faculty Retreat on the challenges facing Christians in higher education. One point I made concerned the need for Christian institutions to wean themselves off of government money as soon as possible. Given the financial significance that the federal student loan system has for most colleges, this process will be painful and difficult for many, where it is possible at all. Yet it is vital. The complexity that federal loans bring to the relationship between private institutions and the government is such that the whole notion of a public accommodation is now potentially far more extensive than could have been imagined a generation or two ago. And that means that the First Amendment, far from being a friend of Christian colleges and confessional seminaries, might prove to be the very opposite. If you take government money, what right do you have to restrict speech on your campus in accordance with your own religious convictions?

The specific point of conflict is likely to be (once again) Title IX legislation that prohibits sexual discrimination at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding. The law does allow an exemption for religious organizations such as colleges and seminaries, an exemption to which I shall return. What is worrying is the increasing elasticity of the legislation, which was extended under President Obama to include transgenderism. That “Dear Colleague” letter has since been rescinded, but the underlying cultural commitments that made Title IX expansions plausible remain in place.

Some colleges—for instance, Hillsdale and Grove City—stand apart from federal funding. Such places thus seem relatively safe. But are they? There is another point of vulnerability: the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States. This ruling denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because of policies regarding interracial dating that were judged contrary to a compelling government policy. The text of the decision can be found here, but the key passage reads as follows:

The Government’s fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs. Petitioners’ asserted interests cannot be accommodated with that compelling governmental interest, and no less restrictive means are available to achieve the governmental interest.

However we may cheer the particular result of the Bob Jones case, the implications unfolding in today’s climate are concerning. Replace “racial” with “sexual” in the paragraph above, and the point is clear. In an era where a close analogy is assumed between civil rights regarding race and civil rights regarding sexual identity, the Bob Jones precedent could easily lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status for schools committed to traditional views of marriage and sexual morality.

The usefulness of Title IX and Bob Jones for the sexual-identity revolution lies precisely in the fact that most Christians see them as sound in what they were originally meant to accomplish, even as some might cavil at their heavy-handed application in after years. In a world where the law increasingly seems to exist not to protect minority opinion but to impose the sexual or identitarian taste du jour, the uses of these laws are increasingly sinister. Yet their origins make them hard to oppose with any cultural plausibility. For this reason, the religious exemption in Title IX will, I suspect, either fall or become so attenuated as to be in practice meaningless.

Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.

The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts—certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment. That aesthetic point is what Christians need to address. And that brings us to the need for cultivating good taste, sentiments, and aesthetics.

The response of Christian higher education to the coming winter must therefore be twofold: financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked; and careful reflection on how the curriculum can cultivate accurate and wholesome aesthetic judgment. And, given the very brief time colleges have to shape young people’s minds, they need to see their task as adjunct to the greater task of family and, above all, church—the vessels that carry us from the cradle to the grave.

Neither law courts nor the Constitution will save us as long as we live in a celebrity-addled society that seems to think the vacuous postmodern piety of an Oprah makes her a credible presidential candidate. The roots of our problem run deep. Indeed, so deep that they touch the profoundest places of the human soul. It is the heart that must change if arguments are to carry any weight. And only things that go that deep will avail us at this time.


Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University. This appeared in FIRST THINGS; January 15, 2018