FROM Oct 17, 2018

There is a science in theology and in biblical studies that we call hermeneutics. It is the science of biblical interpretation. It teaches objective principles and rules that govern our treatment of the text, lest we turn the Bible into a piece of clay that we can shape and form for our own desires, as the Pharisees did. At the heart of the science of hermeneutics in Reformed theology is the regula fidei, or “the law of faith,” which says that no portion of Scripture must ever be set against another portion of Scripture. The first assumption here is that all of Scripture is the Word of God. The second assumption is that God does not speak with a forked tongue, that what He reveals in His Word is always consistent. It is sometimes said consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. If that adage is true, we have to say that the tiniest mind to be found is the mind of God. However, I believe consistency is the sign of clarity of truth, and God’s Word is consistent with itself.

For a glaring example of pitting one portion of Scripture against another, we need look no farther than Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. When Satan tried to seduce Jesus, he quoted Scripture to Him. He took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and dared Him to leap off, saying, “He shall give His angels charge over you,” a quotation from Psalm 91:11 (Matt. 4:6). He was saying to Jesus: “Throw Yourself down. Nothing bad will happen because God has promised that His angels will catch You.” But Jesus replied, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God’ ” (Matt. 4:7; Deut. 6:16). Jesus said: “Satan, you’re violating the rule of faith. You’re operating with a poor hermeneutic. You’re setting Scripture against Scripture. The Bible says I am not to tempt God. If I am to be obedient to that dictum, I cannot acquiesce to your suggestion.” He did not allow Satan to tempt Him to act on one verse of Scripture ripped from the context of the entire Word of God.

That is the kind of thing Jesus was dealing with in His dispute with the Pharisees and scribes. Their traditions were opening all kinds of loopholes to permit people to get out from under the clear teaching of the truth of God. For this reason, He said, they were “making the word of God of no effect through [their] tradition” (Mark 7:13).

The biggest theological controversy in church history was the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. On the surface, it seemed as if the whole controversy was about one doctrine—justification by faith alone, which is the gospel itself. When Martin Luther was brought into disputes with the princes of the church, they reminded him that his understanding of justification was not the traditional understanding, that the church long had explained justification in different categories. But Luther simply said: “Here is what the Bible says. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I must submit to Scripture, not to man-made traditions.” So, the secondary issue was the question of authority.

Where does ultimate authority lie? Is it in the Scriptures alone or is it in the Scriptures and tradition? If it is in both Scripture and tradition, tradition trumps everything by giving the binding interpretation of Scripture. So, for all practical purposes, there are not really two sources of authority, Scripture and tradition, but one, tradition, which becomes more important than the Word itself.

I do not understand how any sentient creature could read the New Testament teaching, particularly Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans about justification, and draw from it anything that resembles the Roman Catholic doctrine, which is based on tradition. But it is not only Roman Catholics who fall prey to this problem. We all do. We all tend to give our traditions more weight than Scripture. It is easy for us to look back and say, “Shame on the Pharisees,” “Shame on the rabbis,” or “Shame on the medieval theologians of Rome.” But we need to look no farther than our own hearts. The final arbiter of all theological and moral debates must be the Word of God.


This excerpt is adapted from the Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary on Mark by R.C. Sproul.



I am just back from Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is cowboy country. While there I had opportunity to talk to an old friend and pastor about the business of shepherding and loving God’s people. Wyoming is cowboy country. The cowboy is Wyoming’s “brand.” Even the verb to “to brand” is a cowboy verb. It is the act of heating up a piece of iron until it is red hot and then placing that hot iron on the hide of a calf. It is probably not as gruesome as it might sound but it does sting. Cattle are not only branded, they are controlled (not always successfully) with electric fences (containing a very mild charge, designed to encourage wandering cattle, when their noses touch it, to go in the other direction). Cattle are herded into pens, chutes, trailers, and finally taken to auction or to the slaughter house. Traditionally, a cowboy works around and amid his herd of cattle, on a horse. Today he might be riding a utility vehicle (e.g., a “Gator” or its like) but some cowboys still ride horses. At rodeos cowboys (and girls) learn, hone, and demonstrate the skills traditionally used by cowboys such as riding, roping, and racing. Cowboys must be good at their work. In the midst of a herd of cattle they need a sturdy and reliable horse to control the herd and to keep themselves safe. Calves grow up. A full-grown polled Hereford can weigh as much as 1800 pounds. That is 300 lbs more than the 1961 Volkswagen Beetle. Separating a steer from the herd, getting him into a pen, then into a chute, and thence into a trailer means working in close quarters with an animal that, when frightened, is prepared to crush and stomp the cowboy. I worked on my grandparent’s farm a bit and I can still hear the sound of the steer’s head hitting the fence boards of the chute just below my boots, as I scrambled to escape his charge.

Sheep are rather different. I have little personal experience with actual sheep (but 30 years experience with metaphorical sheep) but I see that, in some larger breeds, adult ewes might weigh as much as 250 lbs and adult rams over 300 lbs. There are other differences between sheep and cattle. I have seen children ride sheep at a rodeo but it would be a crime to put a full-grown man on even the sturdiest ram. They behave differently from cattle because they are different. Therefore they must be cared for appropriately.

It is significant that the Holy Spirit chose to use, in Scripture, the metaphors of shepherd and sheep to describe the church and pastoral ministry. The word pastor is simply the Latin word for shepherd. God’s people are often described as sheep and, of course, the sheep need a shepherd. In John 10:1–5 our Lord Jesus casts himself as the Shepherd of the sheep (ποιμήν ἐστιν τῶν προβάτων). Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In the benediction in Hebrews 13:20, the pastor writing to Jewish Christians blesses the “God of all peace, who raised from the dead, our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the Sheep…”.

In John 21:15 Jesus commanded Peter to “feed my lambs.” That is the work of a shepherd (not that cowboys do not feed cattle!). In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to shepherd the flock (ποιμνίῳ) over which the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” (ἐπισκόπους). In 1 Peter 2:25, Peter paraphrases Isaiah 53:6, “For you were continually straying like sheep,” and adds “but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Here Jesus is portrayed as our “Shepherd” (ποιμένα) is also the “Overseer” (ἐπίσκοπον).

The link between “overseer,” a flock, and shepherds is not accidental. Scripture links the pastoral function to the episcopal (overseeing) function. This has implications for the way we should think about the offices of pastor and episcopos. When we see episcopos (overseer) in Scripture we should not think first of all of a bishop and certainly not of a regional manager of the church—which is what bishops became in the late Patristic and early Medieval period—but we should think in the first instance of pastors, shepherds of God’s people. Certainly there is no warrant in Scripture for thinking that Christ instituted a monepiscopacy whereby authority flows from a central bishop to other offices. There is nothing in Scripture about a central episcopacy in Rome. There is nothing about such an office (i.e., the papacy) in the early 2nd century either.

From this evident connection we should also see that it is the fundamental duty of the shepherd oversee his flock so as to protect them. A good shepherd feeds, overlooks, and protects Christ’s flock in imitation of Christ, in obedience to Christ. Because the sheep cannot protect themselves from wolves (Acts 20:29). The pastor, according to Paul, is to regard the visible church, the Christ-confessing covenant community, as the flock for whom Christ shed his blood. He must understand that the flock depends upon the shepherd to do it. He does this by teaching. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul lists “shepherds and teachers” (ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους) two aspects of one gift that God has given to the church. They feed and protect Christ’s sheep by preaching and teaching.

The Apostle Peter addresses the shepherding function of elders (πρεσβυτέρους) at some length:

shepherd (ποιμάνατε) the flock (ποίμνιον) of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd (ἀρχιποίμενος) appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:2–4; NASB).

Our ascended Lord Jesus is the “Chief Pastor.” We who are privileged to serve as pastors and overseers of Christ’s flock serve under his watchful, gracious care. We do not serve under compulsion, i.e., unwillingly. One of the more unfortunate aspects of pastoral piety that developed in the Patristic period was the narrative of the “reluctant pastor” (e.g., Augustine). In order to demonstrate true piety the pastor had to protest that he was being dragged into office kicking and screaming. This seems at odds with Peter’s teaching.

Even more important, however, is Peter’s note that pastors do not “lord it over” the flock. Here he all but says, in effect, pastors are not cowboys. We are shepherds. However cowboys may work cattle (I am not impugning that noble vocation) shepherds care for their flock using different tools. The shepherd’s rod is not for striking sheep but for striking wolves. The flock must be guided gently and patiently and by example. The flock will follow a gentle and brave shepherd (see 1 Sam 17:34–36). We speak of “cattle drives” up long trails to market but sheep are led by faithful, self-sacrificing, gentle, overseeing shepherds.

Cowboying is exciting. Great stories are told about bold men (and women) who drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail and the Dodge City Trail to market. I do not recall such films about shepherds and sheep. They are different vocations. The skills and virtues needed for the one are not quite the same as the skills and virtues needed for the other. Both are valuable but it is essential to the well being of the sheep (and the shepherd) that we do not confuse the two.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido.


BANNER OF TRUTH ONLINE; October 17, 2018

Augustine, the son of a Roman official, was born at Tagaste in North Africa in A.D. 354. Endowed with brilliant talents, strongly motivated by vain glory and the desire of praise, he was by the age of nineteen studying and teaching rhetoric in the ancient city of Carthage. Here, with his mind bent on the pursuit of worldly wisdom, and his heart captivated by the pleasures of sin, Augustine remained consuming the prime of his life. ‘Woe, woe!’ he later wrote, ‘By what steps was I brought down to the depths; of Hell! Toiling and turmoiling through want of truth!’ The various philosophical systems of thought which in turn occupied his attention, only plunged him deeper into a maze of error. By the age of thirty-one, mental despair and heart misery led him to take up the doubts of the Academics, who believed that nothing was certain. ‘I was overcharged with most gnawing cares, lest I should die ere I found the truth.’ Now, in his downward path, consciousness of sin began to torment him. Lashed by fear and shame, made painfully aware that sin had diseased his mind and bound his will, he began to abhor himself.

Little did Augustine realize that a vessel of mercy was being formed, that a servant of Christ was being made, that he should be by grace, one of the mightiest champions of the truth that God has ever given to his Church. So it was, that in a garden in Milan in the year A.D. 386, a voice fell upon his ears as from heaven, commanding him to take up and read the Bible. ‘Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstedst my deafness.’ Opening a copy of God’s Word at Romans 13: 13-14, he said, ‘A light of serenity infused into my heart, and the gross darkness which had floated before my eyes dissolved in an instant. Thy powerful voice said, Let there be light and there was light.’ Henceforth Augustine, humbled in the dust, had only one consuming desire, to love and serve his Saviour. ‘I taste no other pleasure but that which results from speaking, hearing, writing, conferring and perpetually dwelling upon the meditation of Thee and Thy glory.’

It was the appointed time of God for the raising of this servant. The age was one full of cause for alarm and solemn fears. The Church of Christ was threatened with errors from within, while from without the fall of the Roman Empire was bringing confusion, invasions of barbarians, and centuries of disorder and darkness over Europe. In the years following his conversion we see Augustine being moulded into the instrument of God’s purpose. Day by day, year by year, he was solely engrossed in the Word of God: often he would be studying it till half way through the night, learning it upon his knees, unweariedly digesting its contents. Foundation truths were being laid deep in his soul, truths from the Word of God which were to shine like beacons for future ages of the Church.

In the spring of 392, the prayers of the aged Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, for another pastor for his flock were answered by the sending of Augustine to that place. There he was ordained a presbyter at the age of 39, and subsequently became the bishop. Unhappily for the Church, the apostolic equality of presbyters and bishops was disappearing. Although at Rome the office of bishop had already begun to be associated with lordly arrogance and priestly pretension, it was not so at Hippo in North Africa. Augustine as Bishop of Hippo held all things in common with fellow believers, he himself never being preferred. At his death he left no money, and in his life he not only parted with all his own means, but even melted down the silver vessels of the Church for the sake of the poor. From the pulpit he would plead with souls in a startling fashion. His one authority was the Word of God which he treated with the most profound reverence. ‘Wondrous depths of Thy Word!’ he exclaimed one day in preaching, ‘whose surface behold is before us little ones; yet are they a wondrous depth, O my God, a wondrous depth!’ Towards the end of his life this apostolic minister declared ‘that though he should with better capacity and greater diligence study all his lifetime, from the beginning of his childhood to decrepit age, nothing else but the Holy Scriptures; yet they are so compacted and thickly set with truths, that he might daily learn something which before he knew not.’ Augustine preached from his heart, and his deep love for souls made him long to preach big hearers into Christ. He had learned in his own daily life to gaze so intently on Christ, that in his preaching all other themes dwindled into nothing.

‘Oh unspeakable love,’ he would cry, ‘that God for man should die in the flesh; had not man been ransomed at so vast expense, he must have unavoidably suffered eternal damnation.’ He eschewed wisdom of words, and preached in a vehement, plain, downright manner, often reducing his hearers to tears.

What were the doctrines of this godly man? What errors did God raise him up to oppose? Let none say that the remoteness of Augustine’s times has caused his writings to outlive their usefulness. The world, as Augustine said, with its glory and grandeur will soon perish, but the truth of God abides, eternal and unchanging. Likewise, although error appears in countless differing forms, the foundation upon which error stands is one and the same in all ages. In fact, it is true to say that the doctrines which Augustine expounded from the Scriptures are of such momentous importance that to be ignorant of them renders one unable to judge the issues that are at stake to-day. The error which he opposed then is the error which is alive with devastating effects in the Church now.

Heresy never appears as heresy. In Augustine’s day it arose from a man named Pelagius, apparently a blameless, mortified, modest monk, who zealously exhorted others to follow the example of Christ. The teaching of this man was so subtle and ambiguous that it passed undetected before a counsel of 14 bishops in Palestine. It was left to Augustine to expose the foundations of Pelagianism. Through many years of trial and humbling God had prepared his servant for this task. The root of Pelagian teaching lay in its view of human nature. Man, Pelagius said, was not in a condition of original sin, but possessed free-will as Adam did before the Fall. Sin was inherited by example rather than by nature. Therefore, in salvation, the grace of God was not an inward power renewing the ruined nature and restoring the fallen will of man to its freedom, but rather grace was something external, which the will may grasp if it so chooses. Pelagius asserted that the grace of God was extended equally to all, and therefore it was the choice of man that determined whether grace was received or not. In Short, Pelagianism is the belief that salvation is the result of the co-operation of God and the sinner.

What led Augustine to contend so strongly against such statements as these? He was not the man to engage in controversy for the sake of nonessentials, a controversial spirit was quite foreign to his tender love towards all men. His only concern on earth was the glory of God through his Church, but because he knew that the safety of the Church lay in the preservation of the truth, he was ready to denounce Pelagianism as a pernicious error. ‘The great sin of Pelagianism,’ he declared, ‘is that it makes a man forget why he is a Christian.’ Upholding the Scriptures, he asserted that the conversion of the sinner proceeds solely from the free election of God, and that the reason why he calls some and leaves others reprobate, lies solely in his own unsearchable will. In his work, Concerning the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine writes as follows: ‘Lest anyone should say, My faith or my righteousness distinguishes me from others, the great teacher of the Gentiles asks ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received?’ Faith, therefore, from its beginning to its perfection, is the gift of God. But why faith is not given to all, ought not to concern the believer, who knows-that all men by the sin of one, came into the most just condemnation. Why God delivers one from this condemnation and not another, belongs to his inscrutable judgments. And if it be investigated how it is that the receiver of faith is deemed worthy of God to receive such a gift, there are not wanting those who will say, It is by their human will. But we say that it is by grace; or Divine Predestination.’ Following the Bible, he shows election to be the first great cause of all, and demonstrates the absurdity of making the foreseeing of faith by God the cause of election. ‘Paul does not declare that the children of God were chosen, because he fore-knew they would believe, but in order that they might believe. God did not choose us because we believed, but so that we might believe; lest we should appear to have first chosen him. Paul loudly declares that our very beginning to he holy is the fruit of election. They act most preposterously, therefore, who put election after faith. When Paul lays down, as the cause of election, that good pleasure of God which he had in himself, he excludes all other causes whatsoever.’

It was claimed by Augustine’s adversaries that the authority of the Church was against his doctrines, whereupon he replied that before the heresy of Pelagius the fathers of the primitive church did not deliver their opinions deeply upon predestination, which reply was the truth. And he adds, ‘What need is there for us to search the works of those writers, who, before the heresy of Pelagius arose, found no necessity of devoting themselves to this question. Had such necessity arisen, and had they been compelled to reply to the enemies of predestination, they would doubtless have done so. What was it that compelled me to defend those passages of Scripture in which predestination is set before us? What, but the starting up of the Pelagians who say that the grace of God is given to us according as we render ourselves worthy of it!’

How the Pelagian controversy was fought out, how the Council of Ephesus condemned the positions of Pelagius in A.D. 431, how the godly bishop of Hippo, filled with love for Christ, laboured till his dying breath, how he died three months before the Roman garrison at Hippo was overwhelmed by the barbarian invasion; these are things we cannot speak of now. Nor is there space to draw out the lessons from this man’s life, except to mention one. The life of Augustine disproves once and for all the objection that faith in God’s Eternal Predestination is inconsistent with earnest preaching and evangelism. ‘They say,’ writes Augustine, ‘that the doctrine of predestination is enemy unto preaching, that it should do no good. As though it had been an enemy unto the Apostle’s preaching. Hath not that excellent teacher of the Gentiles so oftentimes commanded predestination, and yet ceased not to preach the Word of God?. . . For as godliness is to be preached, that God may be truly worshipped, so also is predestination: that he which hath ears to hear, may glory of the grace of God, in God, not in himself.’

The old world of Augustine’s day has passed away, but the errors he fought have not. They revived powerfully in Arminianism in the seventeenth century, and to-day these same errors — this great sin as Augustine called it — have overspread the visible Church. God has pronounced a solemn curse on those who seek to undo his work by building up what he has cast down (Joshua 6:26). Let us then weigh well in closing the following words of Richard Sibbes, once a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge:–

The heresy of Pelagius was damned to Hell by the ancient Councils. The African Councils, divers of them, divers synods, wherein Augustine himself was a party, they condemned Pelagius’s heresy. Are there not men now abroad who will revive these heresies? We can expect nothing but a curse to prevail when men go about reviving heresies that God has condemned. They are opinions cursed by the church of God, that have been led by the Spirit heretofore; such opinions, I mean, as speak meanly of the grace of God, and advance the strength of free-will, and make an idol of that; and so, under the commendation, and setting up of nature, are the enemies of grace.

This article was first published in the third edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine, October 1956.


Whatever else you know about the Bible, I’m sure you know this: It lays out a sexual ethic that displays God’s intent in creating sexuality and that challenges humanity to live in ways consistent with it. Yet today we are experiencing a sexual revolution that has seen society deliberately throwing off the Christian sexual ethic. Things that were once forbidden are now celebrated. Things that were once considered unthinkable are now deemed natural and good. Christians are increasingly seen as backward, living out an ancient, repressive, irrelevant morality.

But this is hardly the first time Christians have lived out a sexual ethic that clashed with the world around them. In fact, the church was birthed and the New Testament delivered into a world utterly opposed to Christian morality. Almost all of the New Testament texts dealing with sexuality were written to Christians living in predominantly Roman cities. This Christian ethic did not come to a society that needed only a slight realignment or a society eager to hear its message. No, the Christian ethic clashed harshly with Roman sexual morality. Matthew Rueger writes about this in his fascinating work Sexual Morality in a Christless World and, based on his work, I want to point out 3 ugly features of Roman sexuality, how the Bible addressed them, and how this challenges us today.

Roman Sexuality Was About Dominance

Romans did not think in terms of sexual orientation. Rather, sexuality was tied to ideas of masculinity, male domination, and the adoption of the Greek pursuit of beauty. “In the Roman mind, the strong took what they wanted to take. It was socially acceptable for a strong Roman male to have intercourse with men or women alike, provided he was the aggressor. It was looked down upon to play the female ‘receptive’ role in homosexual liaisons.”

A real man dominated in the bedroom as he did on the battlefield. He would have sex with his slaves whether they were male or female; he would visit prostitutes; he would have homosexual encounters even while married; he would engage in pederasty (see below); even rape was generally acceptable as long as he only raped people of a lower status. “He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.” So Romans did not think of people as being oriented toward homosexuality or heterosexuality. Rather, they understood that a respectable man would express his dominance by having sex—consensual or forced—with men, women, and even children.

Roman Sexuality Accepted Pedophilia

The pursuit of beauty and the obsession with the masculine ideal led to the widespread practice of pederasty—a sexual relationship between an adult man and an adolescent boy. This had been a common feature of the Greek world and was adapted by the Romans who saw it as a natural expression of male privilege and domination. A Roman man would direct his sexual attention toward a slave boy or, at times, even a freeborn child, and would continue to do so until the boy reached puberty. These relationships were seen as an acceptable and even idealized form of love, the kind of love that expressed itself in poem, story, and song.

In the Roman world “a man’s wife was often seen as beneath him and less than him, but a sexual relationship with another male, boy or man, represented a higher form of intellectual love and engagement. It was a man joining with that which was his equal and who could therefore share experiences and ideas with him in a way he could not with a woman.” Pederasty—pedophilia—was understood to be good and acceptable.

Roman Sexuality Had a Low View of Womanhood

Women were not generally held in high regard in Roman culture. “Women were often seen as weak physically and mentally. They were inferior to men and existed to serve the men as little more than slaves at times.” A woman’s value was largely in her ability to bear children and if she could not do so, she was quickly cast off. Because lifespans were short and infant mortality high, women were often married off in their young teens to maximize the number of children they could bear.

When it came to sexual mores, women were held to a very different standard than men. Where men were free to carry on homosexual affairs and to commit adultery with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines, a woman caught in adultery could be charged with a crime. “The legal penalty for adultery allowed the husband to rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” Under Augustus it even became illegal for a man to forgive his wife—he was forced to divorce her. “It is not enough to suggest that women were under-appreciated in Roman culture. There are many instances where they were treated as second-class human beings, slightly more honored than slaves.”

Sexual Promiscuity and Societal Stability

It becomes clear that Rome was a culture of extreme promiscuity and inequality. Those who had power—male citizens—were able to express their sexuality by taking who and what they wanted. Their culture’s brand of sexual morality was exemplified in the Caesars who, one after the other, “were living icons of immorality and cruelty,” using sex as a means of domination and self-gratification.

Yet this system, evil as it looks to our eyes, was accepted and even celebrated by Rome. It was foundational to Roman culture. To be a good Roman citizen a man needed to participate in it, or at least not protest against it. To be loyal to Rome, one had to be loyal to the morality of Rome. To the Romans, the biblical view “would have been seen as disruptive to the social fabric and demeaning of the Roman ideal of masculinity.” What we consider odious and exploitive, they considered necessary and good.

Christianity’s Condemnation

Christianity condemned the Roman system in its every part. According to the Roman ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in battlefield and bedroom dominance. In the Christian ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in chastity, in self-sacrifice, in deference to others, in joyfully refraining from all sexual activity except with his wife. The Roman understanding of virtue and love depended upon pederasty—the systematic rape of young boys. But the Christian sexual ethic limited intercourse to a married man and his wife. It protected children and gave them dignity. A Roman woman was accustomed to being treated as second-class human being but “in Christendom, a woman found a culture of genuine love that saw her as equally important as any man in the eyes of God. She was sexually equal with the man in the marriage union and had equal recourse under the law of God to demand marital fidelity.”

Do you see it? Christianity did not simply represent an alternate system of morality but one that condemned the existing system—the system that was foundational to Roman identity and stability. Christians were outsiders. Christians were traitors. Christians were dangerous. Their brand of morality threatened to destabilize all of society. No wonder, then, that they were scorned and even persecuted.

The Road From Rome

We can’t help but see connections between first century Rome and our twenty-first century world. “Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them. The sexual morality they taught and practiced stood out as unnatural to the Roman world… Christian sexual ethics that limited intercourse to the marriage of a man and a woman were not merely different from Roman ethics; they were utterly against Roman ideals of virtue and love.” This is exactly why Christians faced so much hostility. Their morality threatened society’s stability by loving and protecting the marginalized and disenfranchised while condemning (or even converting) those who took advantage of them.

Isn’t this the very thing happening again today? Our society is throwing off the last vestiges of the Christian sexual ethic and as it does so, we are once again outsiders and traitors who threaten to destabilize the whole system. As we insist that sex is to be limited to the marriage of one man to one woman we threaten the stability of a society hell-bent on permitting and celebrating nearly everything except sex within marriage. As we insist that people flourish only within God-given sexual boundaries, we threaten the ideals of virtue and love that demand no greater commitment than consent. As we live our moral lives according to a higher ethic, we silently condemn those who reject the whisper within.

Rueger says, “The first Christians were men and women of great courage. Confessing Christian morality always requires that spirit of bravery.” Indeed, confessing and practicing Christian morality today requires bravery, the willingness to obey God rather than men, even in the face of persecution. May God continue to instill that spirit within us.



There is a lot to like about the story of John Newton. And Simonetta Carr and Amal tell and illustrate it beautifully (Reformation Heritage Books, 2018). Newton first told the story himself in an 18th century best-seller. A young man with a dead mother and hard-to-please father pursues riches and adventure at sea. After several brushes with death Newton–who married the love of his life–left the sea to pursue poetry and preaching. Along the way he adopted needy relatives, and hosted struggling writers; he even befriended a few domesticated hares. Just months before his death he received news that warmed his soul: the British slave trade, against which he had fought for decades, had been abolished.

But another fact about Newton nearly ruins the story. He himself had been a slave trader. As both captain of a slave ship and later as an investor in the same, Newton profited from the sale of human beings. He willingly participated in the inexcusable degradation of precious lives of people created in the image of God. He is responsible for the misery and death of unknown scores of beautiful people.

Newton, the slave-trader who died as a well-respected minister in the Church of England, is the perfect picture of the kind of person we naturally hate.

The obvious questions flood our minds. How could such a vile person regain the dignity he lost in a dirty trade with the devil? Is it possible that the God who grieved over the death of Newton’s victims could ever smile upon that lost, blind, guilty wretch? Could anyone like Newton be spared the eternal consequence of damnation for his sins? How could such a man get a second chance at life? And why should any of us care about his sin-ravaged story?

John Newton had racked up more moral debt than he could ever repay. His only hope was for God’s Son to own Newton’s sins and give him a righteousness that satisfied divine justice. Newton heard this message of hope in the gospel, the Bible’s plainest theme. And by a heaven-sent faith he believed it and received new life in God.

Newton summarized his paradoxical life in his famous hymn. “Amazing grace!–how sweet the sound–that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

Newton’s story is a beautiful scandal. Like Paul, he increasingly woke to the nightmare of his sin personified by the beautiful black faces of his victims. But God’s grace had introduced a new reality: undeserved pardon. The man who should have died a thousand deaths for his sin died at peace in the hope of new life because of the single death of the Savior Jesus.

That story isn’t just good news for Newton. It is the only relief for the rest of us whose sins are not as unlike Newton’s as we would have others believe.

Read Simonetta Carr’s John Newton. Weep over his sins and yours. And with Newton sing with the hope that God’s word secures:

And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.


William Boekestein Pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. His latest book is A Colorful Past: A Coloring Book of Church History.

1929 or 2018 ? (The Good Fight of Faith) by J. Gresham Machen

The Good Fight of Faith
A Sermon Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary,
on Sunday morning, March 10, 1929.
By Rev. Professor J. Gresham Machen, D.D., Litt.D.

Phil. 4: 7: “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,
shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
I Tim. 6: 12 (part): “Fight the good fight of faith.”

jgm_1929 The Apostle Paul was a great fighter. His fighting was partly against external enemies—against hardships of all kinds. Five times he was scourged by the Jews, three times by the Romans; he suffered shipwreck four times;and was in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by his own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren. And finally he came to the logical end of such a life, by the headsman’s axe. It was hardly a peaceful life, but was rather a life of wild adventure. Lindbergh, I suppose, got a thrill when he hopped off to Paris, and people are in search of thrills today; but if you wanted a really unbroken succession of thrills, I think you could hardly do better than try knocking around the Roman Empire of the first century with the Apostle Paul, engaged in the unpopular business of turning the world upside down.

But these physical hardships were not the chief battle in which Paul was engaged. Far more trying was the battle that he fought against the enemies in his own camp. Everywhere his rear was threatened by an all-engulfing paganism or by a perverted Judaism that has missed the real purpose of the Old Testament law. Read the Epistles with care, and you see Paul always in conflict. At one time he fights paganism in life, the notion that all kinds of conduct are lawful to the Christian man, a philosophy that makes Christian liberty a mere aid to pagan license. At another time, he fights paganism in thought, the sublimation of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body into the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul. At still another time, he fights the effort of human pride to substitute man’s merit as the means of salvation for divine grace; he fights the subtle propaganda of the Judaizers with its misleading appeal to the Word of God. Everywhere we see the great apostle in conflict for the preservation of the church. It is as though a mighty flood were seeking to engulf the church’s life; dam the break at one point in the levee, and another break appears somewhere else. Everywhere paganism was seeping through; not for one moment did Paul have peace; always he was called upon to fight.

Fortunately, he was a true fighter; and by God’s grace he not only fought, but he won. At first sight indeed he might have seemed to have lost. The lofty doctrine of divine grace, the center and core of the gospel that Paul preached, did not always dominate the mind and heart of the subsequent church. The Christianity of the Apostolic Fathers, of the Apologists, of Irenæus, is very different from the Christianity of Paul. The church meant to be faithful to the apostle; but the pure doctrine of the Cross runs counter to the natural man, and not always, even in the church, was it fully understood. Read the Epistle to the Romans first, and then read Irenæus, and you are conscious of a mighty decline. No longer does the gospel stand out sharp and clear; there is a large admixture of human error; and it might seem as though Christian freedom, after all, were to be entangled in the meshes of a new law.

But even Irenæus is very different from the Judaizers; something had been gained even in his day : and God had greater things than Irenæus in store for the church. The Epistles which Paul struck forth in conflict with the opponents in his own day remained in the New Testament as a personal source of life for the people of God. Augustine on the basis of the Epistles, set forth the Pauline doctrine of sin and grace; and then, after centuries of compromise with the natural man, the Reformation rediscovered the great liberating Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. So it has always been with Paul. Just when he seems to be defeated, his greatest triumphs, by God’s grace, are in store.

The human instruments, however, which God uses in great triumphs of faith are no pacifists, but great fighters like Paul himself. Little affinity for the great apostle has the whole tribe of considerers of consequences, the whole tribe of the compromisers ancient and modern. The real companions of Paul are the great heroes of the faith. But who are those heroes? Are they not true fighters, one and all? Tertullian fought a mighty battle against Marcion; Athanasius fought against the Arians; Augustine fought against Pelagius; and as for Luther, he fought a brave battle against kings and princes and popes for the liberty of the people of God. Luther was a great fighter; and we love him for it. So was Calvin; so were John Knox and all the rest. It is impossible to be a true soldier of Jesus Christ and not fight.

God grant that you—students in the seminary—may be fighters, too! Probably you have your battles even now; you have to contend against sins gross or sins refined; you have to contend against the sin of slothfulness and inertia; you have, many of you, I know very well, a mighty battle on your hands against doubt and despair. Do not think it strange if you fall thus into divers temptations. The Christian life is a warfare after all. John Bunyan rightly set it forth under the allegory of a Holy War; and when he set it forth, in his greater book, under the figure of a pilgrimage, the pilgrimage, too, was full of battles. There are, indeed, places of refreshment on the Christian way; the House Beautiful was provided by the King at the top of the Hill Difficulty, for the entertainment of pilgrims, and from the Delectable Mountains could sometimes be discerned the shining towers of the City of God. But just after the descent from the House Beautiful, there was the battle with Apollyon and the Valley of Humiliation, and later came the Valley of the Shadow of Death. No, the Christian faces a mighty conflict in this world. Pray God that in that conflict you may be true men; good soldiers of Jesus Christ, not willing to compromise with your great enemy, not easily cast down, and seeking ever the renewing of your strength in the Word and sacraments and prayer!

You will have a battle, too, when you go forth as ministers into the church. The church is now in a period of deadly conflict. The redemptive religion known as Christianity is contending, in our own Presbyterian Church and in all the larger churches in the world, against a totally alien type of religion. As always, the enemy conceals his most dangerous assaults under pious phrases and half truths. The shibboleths of the adversary have sometimes a very deceptive sound. “Let us propagate Christianity,” the adversary says, “but let us not always be engaged in arguing in defense of it; let us make our preaching positive, and not negative; let us avoid controversy; let us hold to a Person and not to dogma; let us sink small doctrinal differences and seek the unity of the church of Christ; let us drop doctrinal accretions and interpret Christ for ourselves; let us look for our knowledge of Christ in our hearts; let us not impose Western creeds on the Eastern mind; let us be tolerant of opposing views.” Such are some of the shibboleths of that agnostic Modernism which is the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion to-day. They deceive some of God’s people some of the time; they are heard sometimes from the lips of good Christian people, who have not the slightest inkling of what they mean. But their true meaning, to thinking men, is becoming increasingly clear. Increasingly it is becoming necessary for a man to decide whether he is going to stand or not to stand for the Lord Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the Word of God.

If you decide to stand for Christ, you will not have an easy life in the ministry. Of course, you may try to evade the conflict. All men will speak well of you if, after preaching no matter how unpopular a Gospel on Sunday, you will only vote against that Gospel in the councils of the church the next day; you will graciously be permitted to believe in supernatural Christianity all you please if you will only act as though you did not believe in it, if you will only make common cause with its opponents. Such is the program that will win the favor of the church. A man may believe what he pleases, provided he does not believe anything strongly enough to risk his life on it and fight for it. “Tolerance” is the great word. Men even ask for tolerance when they look to God in prayer. But how can any Christian possibly pray such a prayer as that? What a terrible prayer it is, how full of disloyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ! There is a sense, of course, in which tolerance is a virtue. If by it you mean tolerance on the part of the state, the forbearance of majorities toward minorities, the resolute rejection of any measures of physical compulsion in propagating either what is true or what is false, then of course, the Christian ought to favor tolerance with all his might and main, and ought to lament the widespread growth of intolerance in America today. Or if you mean by tolerance forbearance toward personal attacks upon yourself, or courtesy and patience and fairness in dealing with all errors of whatever kind, then again tolerance is a virtue. But to pray for tolerance apart from such qualifications, in particular to pray for tolerance without careful definition of that of which you are to be tolerant, is just to pray for the breakdown of the Christian religion; for the Christian religion is intolerant to the core. There lies the whole offense of the Cross—and also the whole power of it. Always the Gospel would have been received with favor by the world IF it had been presented merely as one way of salvation; the offense came because it was presented as the only way, and because it made relentless war upon all other ways. God save us, then, from this “tolerance” of which we hear so much : God deliver us from the sin of making common cause with those who deny or ignore the blessed Gospel of Jesus Christ! God save us from the deadly guilt of consenting to the presence as our representatives in the church of those who lead Christ’s little ones astray; God make us, whatever else we are, just faithful messengers, who present, without fear or favor, not our word, but the Word of God.

But if you are such messengers, you will have the opposition, not only of the world, but increasingly, I fear, of the Church. I cannot tell you that your sacrifice will be light. No doubt it would be noble to care nothing whatever about the judgment of our fellowmen. But to such nobility I confess that I for my part have not quite attained, and I cannot expect you to have attained to it. I confess that academic preferments, easy access to great libraries, the society of cultured people, and in general the thousand advantages that come from being regarded as respectable people in a respectable world—I confess that these things seem to me to be in themselves good and desirable things. Yet the servant of Jesus Christ, to an increasing extent, is being obliged to give them up. Certainly, in making that sacrifice we do not complain; for we have something with which all that we have lost is not worthy to be compared. Still, it can hardly be said that any unworthy motives of self-interest can lead us to adopt a course which brings us nothing but reproach. Where, then, shall we find a sufficient motive for such a course as that; where shall we find courage to stand against the whole current of the age; where shall we find courage for this fight of faith?

I do not think that we shall obtain courage by any mere lust of conflict. In some battles that means may perhaps suffice. Soldiers in bayonet practice were sometimes, and for all I know still are, taught to give a shout when they thrust their bayonets at imaginary enemies; I heard them doing it even long after the armistice in France. That serves, I suppose, to overcome the natural inhibition of civilized man against sticking a knife into human bodies. It is thought to develop the proper spirit of conflict. Perhaps it may be necessary in some kinds of war. But it will hardly serve in this Christian conflict. In this conflict I do not think we can be good fighters simply by being resolved to fight. For this battle is a battle of love; and nothing ruins a man’s service in it so much as a spirit of hate.

No, if we want to learn the secret of this warfare, we shall have to look deeper; and we can hardly do better than turn again to that great fighter, the Apostle Paul. What was the secret of his power in the mighty conflict; how did he learn to fight?

The answer is paradoxical; but it is very simple. Paul was a great fighter because he was at peace. He who said, “Fight the good fight of faith,” spoke also of “the peace of God which passeth all understanding”; and in that peace the sinews of his war were found. He fought against the enemies that were without because he was at peace within; there was an inner sanctuary in his life that no enemy could disturb. There, my friends, is the great central truth. You cannot fight successfully with beasts, as Paul did at Ephesus; you cannot fight successfully against evil men, or against the devil and his spiritual powers of wickedness in high places, unless when you fight against those enemies there is One with whom you are at peace.

But if you are at peace with that One, then you can care little what men may do. You can say with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men”; you can say with Luther, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen”; you can say with Elisha, “They that be with us are more than they that be with them”; you can say with Paul, “It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?” Without that peace of God in your hearts, you will strike little terror into the enemies of the Gospel of Christ. You may amass mighty resources for the conflict; you may be great masters of ecclesiastical strategy; you may be very clever, and very zealous too; but I fear that it will be of little avail. There may be a tremendous din; but when the din is over, the Lord’s enemies will be in possession of the field. No, there is no other way to be a really good fighter. You cannot fight God’s battle against God’s enemies unless you are at peace with him.

But how shall you be at peace with him? Many ways have been tried. How pathetic is the age-long effort of sinful man to become right with God; sacrifice, lacerations, almsgiving, morality, penance, confession! But alas, it is all of no avail. Still there is that same awful gulf. It may be temporarily concealed; spiritual exercises may conceal it for a time; penance or the confession of sin unto men may give a temporary and apparent relief. But the real trouble remains; the burden is still on the back; Mount Sinai is still ready to shoot forth flames; the soul is still not at peace with God. How then shall peace be obtained?

My friends, it cannot be attained by anything in us. Oh, that that truth could be written in the hearts of every one of you! If it could be written in the hearts of every one of you, the main purpose of this seminary would be attained. Oh, that it could be written in letters of flame for all the world to read! Peace with God cannot be attained by any act or any mere experience of man; it cannot be attained by good works, neither can it be attained by confession of sin, neither can it be attained by any psychological results of an act of faith. We can never be at peace with God unless God first be at peace with us. But how can God be at peace with us? Can he be at peace with us by ignoring the guilt of sin? by descending from his throne? by throwing the universe into chaos? by making wrong to be the same as right? by making a dead letter of his holy law? “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” by treating his eternal laws as though they were the changeable laws of man? Oh, what an abyss were the universe if that were done, what a mad anarchy, what a wild demon-riot! Where could there be peace if God were thus at war with himself; where could there be a foundation if God’s laws were not sure? Oh, no, my friends, peace cannot be attained for man by the great modern method of dragging God down to man’s level;peace cannot be attained by denying that right is right and wrong is wrong; peace can nowhere be attained if the awful justice of God stand not forever sure.

How then can we sinners stand before that throne? How can there be peace for us in the presence of the justice of God? How can he be just and yet justify the ungodly? There is one answer to these questions. It is not our answer. Our wisdom could never have discovered it. It is God’s answer. It is found in the story of the Cross. We deserved eternal death because of sin; the eternal Son of God, because he loved us, and because he was sent by the Father who loved us too, died in our stead, for our sins, upon the cross. That message is despised to-day; upon it the visible church as well as the world pours out the vials of its scorn, or else does it even less honor by paying it lip-service and then passing it by. Men dismiss it as a “theory of the atonement,” and fall back upon the customary commonplaces about a principle of self-sacrifice, or the culmination of a universal law, or a revelation of the love of God, or the hallowing of suffering, or the similarity between Christ’s death and the death of soldiers who perished in the great war. In the presence of such blindness, our words often seem vain. We may tell men something of what we think about the Cross of Christ, but it is harder to tell them what we feel. We pour forth our tears of gratitude and love; we open to the multitude the depths of our souls; we celebrate a mystery so tender, so holy, that we might think it would soften even a heart of stone. But all to no purpose. The Cross remains foolishness to the world, men turn coldly away, and our preaching seems but vain. And then comes the wonder of wonders! The hour comes for some poor soul, even through the simplest and poorest preaching; the message is honored, not the messenger; there comes a flash of light into the soul, and all is as clear as day. “He loved me and gave Himself for me,” says the sinner at last, as he contemplates the Saviour upon the Cross. The burden of sin falls from the back, and a soul enters into the peace of God.

Have you yourselves that peace, my friends? If you have, you will not be deceived by the propaganda of any disloyal church. If you have the peace of God in your hearts, you will never shrink from controversy; you will never be afraid to contend earnestly for the Faith. Talk of peace in the present deadly peril of the Church, and you show, unless you be strangely ignorant of the conditions that exist, that you have little inkling of the true peace of God. Those who have been at the foot of the Cross will not be afraid to go forth under the banner of the Cross to a holy war of love.

I know that it is hard to live on the heights of Christian experience. We have had flashes of the true meaning of the Cross of Christ; but then come long, dull days. What shall we do in those dull times? Shall we cease to witness for Christ; shall we make common cause, in those dull days, with those who would destroy the corporate witness of the church? Perhaps we may be tempted to do so. When there are such enemies in our own souls, we may be tempted to say, what time have we for the opponents without? Such reasoning is plausible. But all the same it is false. We are not saved by keeping ourselves constantly in the proper frame of mind, but we were saved by Christ once for all when we were born again by God’s Spirit and were enabled by him to put our trust in the Saviour. And the gospel message does not cease to be true because we for the moment have lost sight of the full glory of it. Sad will it be for those to whom we minister if we let our changing moods be determinative of the message that at any moment we proclaim, or if we let our changing moods determine the question whether we shall or shall not stand against the rampant forces of unbelief in the church. We ought to look, not within, but without, for the content of our witness-bearing; not to our changing feelings and experiences, but to the Bible as the Word of God. Then, and then only, shall we preach, not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord.

Where are you going to stand in the great battle which now rages in the church? Are you going to curry favor with the world by standing aloof; are you going to be “conservative liberals” or “liberal conservatives” or “Christians who do not believe in controversy,” or anything else so self-contradictory and absurd? Are you going to be Christians, but not Christians overmuch? Are you going to stand coldly aloof when God’s people fight against ecclesiastical tyranny at home and abroad? Are you going to excuse yourselves by pointing out personal defects in those who contend for the faith today? Are you going to be disloyal to Christ in external testimony until you can make all well within your own soul? Be assured, you will never accomplish your purpose if you adopt such a program as that. Witness bravely to the truth that you already understand, and more will be given you; but make common cause with those who deny or ignore the gospel of Christ, and the enemy will forever run riot in your life.

There are many hopes that I cherish for you men, with whom I am united by such ties of affection. I hope that you may be gifted preachers; I hope that you may have happy lives; I hope that you may have adequate support for yourselves and for your families; I hope that you may have good churches. But I hope something for you far more than all that. I hope above all that, wherever you are and however your preaching may be received, you may be true witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ; I hope that there may never be any doubt where you stand, but that always you may stand squarely for Jesus Christ, as he is offered to us, not in the experiences of men, but in the blessed written Word of God.

I do not mean that the great issue of the day must be polemically presented in every sermon that you preach. No doubt that would be exceedingly unwise. You should always endeavor to build the people up by simple and positive instruction in the Word. But never will such simple and positive instruction in the Word have the full blessing of God, if, when the occasion does arise to take a stand, you shrink back. God hardly honors the ministry of those who in the hour of decision are ashamed of the gospel of Christ.

But we are persuaded better things of you, my brethren. You have, indeed, your struggles here in the seminary : faith contents against doubt and doubt contends against faith for the possession of your souls. Many of you are called upon to pass through deep waters and to face fiery trials. Never is it an easy process to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the fire-tested convictions of full-grown men. But may God bring you through! May God bring you out from the mists of doubt and hesitation into the clear shining of the light of faith. You may not indeed at once attain full clearness; gloomy doubts may arise like angels of Satan to buffet you. But God grant that you may have sufficient clearness to stand at least for Jesus Christ. It will not be easy. Many have been swept from their moorings by the current of the age; a church grown worldly often tyrannizes over those who look for guidance to God’s Word alone. But this is not the first discouraging time in the history of the church; other times were just as dark, and yet always God has watched over His people, and the darkest hour has sometimes preceded the dawn. So even now God has not left Himself without a witness. In many lands there are those who have faced the great issue of the day and have decided it aright, who have preserved true independence of mind in the presence of the world; in many lands there are groups of Christian people who in the face of ecclesiastical tyranny have not been afraid to stand for Jesus Christ. God grant that you may give comfort to them as you go forth from this seminary; God grant that you may rejoice their hearts by giving them your hand and your voice. To do so you will need courage. Far easier is it to curry favor with the world by abusing those whom the world abuses, by speaking against controversy, by taking a balcony view of the struggle in which God’s servants are engaged. But God save you from such a neutrality as that! It has a certain worldly appearance of urbanity and charity. But how cruel it is to burdened souls; how heartless it is to those little ones who are looking to the Church for some clear message from God! God save you from being so heartless and so unloving and so cold! God grant, instead, that in all humility but also in all boldness, in reliance upon God, you may fight the good fight of faith. Peace is indeed yours, the peace of God which passeth all understanding. But that peace is given you, not that you may be onlookers or neutrals in love’s battle, but that you may be good soldiers of Jesus Christ.

[The above sermon was first published in The Presbyterian, volume 99, number 13 (28 March 1929): 6-10. The text provided above is unedited from that original printing. Please note that an edited version of this sermon was published in David Otis Fuller’s work, Valiant for Truth: A Treasury of Evangelical Writings (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1961), but version lacks approximately 20 percent of the content as originally delivered by Dr. Machen.]

©PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


This blog first appeared on THE HEIDELBLOG;; October 16, 2018.


On social media, why does John Piper mostly avoid talking about politics and breaking news and hot trends? It’s a great question today from an alert podcast listener named Blake. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the podcast and for all the many answers you have provided over the years. As I look back through all those episodes, they seem to be primarily life application and theology and clarity on Bible passages. For the most part you seem to avoid addressing current events and political hot-button issues here on the podcast, and I think this is true of most of your ministry in general. Just curious — why not? Why do you avoid saying much about current events and politics?”

Where Is Piper?

Yeah, I’ve given a lot of thought to that. Not just when I heard this question — other people have made that observation. I make that observation and wonder why as well. Why am I the way I am?

“The spiritual condition of a person’s soul is infinitely more important than any political transaction on the face of the earth.”

It is a generalization — let’s be clear. It’s a generalization because I wrote a whole book on racism, and it has political ramifications everywhere. I have lots of sermons and articles on abortion, marriage, homosexuality. I’ve looked Obama right in the face and spoken stuff on YouTube.

But Blake is right. In general, that is the impression you would get of my life’s work — my sermons and messages and articles and APJs and Look at the Book episodes. Piper doesn’t come at current events very often.

In other words, when Twitter is ablaze with some new controversy, where is Piper? Where is Piper? “He’s over there quoting Bible verses, like he doesn’t even know what’s going on. Don’t you know we’re about to lose the Supreme Court nominee? Come on! Do something.”

Okay. Here are my six observations about why this is the case.

Politics and the Soul

I was raised in an atmosphere where the spiritual condition of a person’s soul is infinitely — get this — infinitely more important than any political transaction on the face of the earth — like C.S. Lewis saying, “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world” (Christian Reflections, 10).

That is an amazing and true sentence. It’s not clear what the implications of it are for people who make their lives writing and studying the masterpieces — like Lewis himself. But it’s true. I still live in that atmosphere. That’s who I am. I believe that is the atmosphere of the New Testament.

I feel today that most of the macro and international, political, economic issues are too complicated for me to figure out. Therefore, I don’t have anything authoritative to say from the Bible about particular strategies for how to solve various political or economic issues.

I just can’t get to the level of expertise that makes me feel warranted to get up and say, “Listen to me, folks.” I feel that way about the Bible. I want people to listen to me. I want them to hear my perspective on the Bible. But seldom do I come to the point where I feel like, with some complex issue out there, I’ve risen to the level of knowledge that would warrant my voice to be authoritative.

Besides that, I have a deep skepticism in our day about whether we can know the facts of most situations well enough to make pronouncements about them, especially from a distance.

Silence on Socialism

Here’s an immediate example of the kind of thing I feel. The night before last, I watched an interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district. She is to the left of Bernie Sanders on socialism. She’s a democratic socialist — explicitly so.

“My main calling is not to help America be anything, but to help the church be the church.”

You might say that this is a kind of test case of the sort of thing should I write an article about, preach about, or answer on an Ask Pastor John episode: “What about the rising tide of socialism in America?”

But will I write and speak about this? Probably not, though I will be very, very glad that some do, and I’ll probably read some of what they say. But here are the reasons.

1. A Different Life

First, the time and focus it would take for me to do the research would take me into a wholly different life than the one I am presently called to live.

It would take a ton of time learning about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders, and the socialistic experiment in Venezuela or Sweden, and the historical examples of its failures or successes, and the reasons the minimum-wage law works or doesn’t work, or the pros and cons of rent control and whether they work or don’t work to accomplish anything good long term for the poor, or the probabilities of corruption in a socialist government versus a capitalist government, etc.

It would lead me into a wholly different life than the one I am presently called to. I am called to the enormous task of understanding the Scriptures, and preaching what they mean in their original context, and then, so far as I’m able, to apply them to people’s real lives. In other words, I deal with the Bible pretty far upstream from the flow down into the nitty-gritties of political realization.

2. A Certain Kind of Christian

Second, I probably will not make myself a teacher about socialism or capitalism because I am one hundred times — that’s a generalization; it might be two hundred or one hundred ninety — more passionate about creating the kind of Christians and the kind of churches that stand with unshaken, faithful, biblical, countercultural spiritual-mindedness in a socialist America than I am in preventing a socialist America.

I’m one hundred times more passionate about creating Christians and churches that will be faithful, biblical, countercultural, and spiritually minded in a socialist America, in a Muslim America, in a communist America, than I am in preventing a Muslim America or a communist America. That puts me in a very different ballpark than many public voices.

My main calling is not to help America be anything, but to help the church be the church. I want to help the church be the radical outpost of the kingdom of Christ, no matter what kind of America it happens to be in or any other people group or country in the world.

I will say again that I am glad — glad, glad, glad — that there are Christians who are politically more active than I am in trying to shape laws that are just and wise.

Limitations and Wiring

Here’s a third observation for why I am oriented this way. I’ve already hinted at it: simple limitations. Not just that many issues are too complicated for me to be a teacher about them, but that my capacities for doing the necessary investigation and reflection are limited by how slowly I read and what my emotional and relational bandwidth is given the other commitments in my life.

“The greatest issues are not temporal, but eternal. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

I operate with very significant limitations. Anybody who knows me knows what they are, and I have to steward that little strength inside these massive limitations so as to be as useful as I can be.

We’re all wired differently by God, and that includes the kind of things we’re naturally inclined to think about and find interesting and provocative. My own bent is not towards social, cultural, political macro issues. My bent, for whatever reason — this is just a personal bent — is toward the way the individual soul works in relation to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, holiness, and human relationships.

Why do individual people love or not? Why are they afraid or have confidence? Why are they lazy or active? Why are they foolish? Why are they craving security or making sacrifices and taking risks? Why do they have joy? Why do some people have joy in pain and others get angry at God?

These are the kinds of questions that stir my emotional engagement way more than whether rent controls are effective or not in helping people.

Keep Your Heart

I do feel that the greater, long-term impact for the glory of Christ and for the good of the nations and for the purity and strengthening of the church will come not through the politicizing of my voice, but through a more penetrating personal, eternal focus on the human soul and how it can be most effectively conformed to Christ.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Everything flows downstream from this spring. My bent is to focus there, on the spring, up in the mountain. I focus on the heart and then trust God that there will be this ongoing, widening, spreading, leveling effect for good in churches and families and cities.

The stream that flows from the spring — a biblical faith — will inevitably touch all the issues of life, including social and political issues. The people that live close to those issues — social and political realities — and who are Christian, should speak and act in relation to those issues in ways that are distinctly Christian.

But what those Christians, those public and more engaged Christians than I am, need from their pastors, week in and week out, is probably not that those pastors become experts on every issue that faces the local, state, and national legislature, but rather that these public Christians be fed steadily on a stream of exposition of what biblical texts actually mean with whatever measure of application the pastors can bring.

Greatest Issues

If a pastor is faithful to do consistent, rich, careful, unflinching expositions of the whole counsel of God in Scripture, his messages will certainly touch on the ethical dimensions of social and political realities, of the world where people live. He will see where a biblical, moral issue in Scripture has a clear and unavoidable connection to a current issue or promise seen in the culture, and he’ll draw that out and call for courage and righteousness and holiness in his people.

But — last comment — he will never lose sight that the greatest issues are not temporal, but eternal. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (see Luke 9:25)?


John Piper is Pastor Emeritus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.