The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness

We often think of humility as a rather dreary virtue. We know we need it, but we don’t expect it to be much fun. Kind of like going to the dentist.

C.S. Lewis argued the opposite: “to even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.” Tim Keller preached something similar: “There’s nothing more relaxing than humility.” As he explained, pride grumbles at everything, but humility can joyfully receive life as a gift.

So perhaps we get it backwards: we think humility is an impossible burden, but in reality it is as light as a feather. It is pride that makes life gray and drab; humility brings out the color. Why do we get this wrong? I don’t know, but part of the answer might be we simply misunderstand what humility is. Here are two ways we do so, in particular.

1. Humility Isn’t Hiding

Humility is not hiding your talents and abilities. If you can paint like Van Gogh, humility does not require you to keep your work under a veil in the basement closet. If you can pitch a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, humility will not encourage you to sit on the bench and never tell the coach.

In The Screwtape Letters, one devil advises another,

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents — or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.

If Lewis is right, then denying your talents is not humble — if anything, it is the opposite, since you are still focused on yourself, biased for or against yourself as an exception to the rest of the human race. Humility means the death of this craving, self-referential framework. It means valuing your contribution to the world alongside every other good thing in the world.

“True humility always produces joy. If we lack joy, we know we’ve got a counterfeit.”

So, imagine you are part of a team of doctors working to cure a disease. You make a discovery that contributes approximately 25% toward finding the cure. Another doctor then makes a different discovery that contributes the remaining 75% toward finding the cure. Humility means you are pleased with your accomplishment, and able to speak freely about it, while simultaneously and effortlessly three times more pleased with your colleague’s effort.

To be such a person is not a burden, but a joy and freedom.

2. Humility Isn’t Self-Hatred

Humility is not self-hatred, self-neglect, or self-punishment. The Bible never says, “Hate yourself; instead love your neighbor.” It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Self-hatred is actually sinful, no less than hatred of others (just as suicide is a form of murder).

Musician Andrew Peterson has a song entitled “Be Kind to Yourself.” The notion of self-kindness can be misunderstood, to be sure. It must be distinguished from self-indulgence. But there is a way to take care of yourself, to genuinely have regard for yourself, that is healthy and makes you more useful to others. As I often say in counseling situations, true self-care is not selfish.

Many in our society struggle with a sense of shame, inferiority, and a lack of self-worth. We must sharply distinguish such feelings from the goal of humility. Whatever else humility will require of you, it will never rob you of your dignity as an image-bearer of God. Humble people do not regard their own existence as an evil. They do not regard themselves as corrupting everything they touch, or wasting the space in which they move. They can walk about freely in the world, with a bounce in their step.

Humility’s Acid Test

Okay, if that’s what humility isn’t, what is it? I love how Keller (following Lewis) speaks of humility as self-forgetfulness — it’s not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Both hiding your talents and hating yourself are forms of self-preoccupation, whereas humility leads us into freedom from thoughts of self altogether.

Lewis helps us once again,

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

“Pride grumbles at everything, but humility can joyfully receive life as a gift.”

Lewis’s word cheerful strikes me, as well as his emphasis on the enjoyment of life. This reminds me that joy is a good acid test of humility, and our entire spirituality. True humility always produces joy. If we lack joy, we know we’ve got a counterfeit. Something is misfiring.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that humility always will feeluplifting and comfortable. There will be arduous moments. But the net result will be, like exercise or a healthy diet, distinctly pleasant. So, we can think of humility like this: self-forgetfulness leading to joy.

Great Model of Humility

In the Christian gospel, we are given the ultimate picture of humility: Jesus, in his incarnation, and especially in his death and burial. “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). No one ever humbled himself more than Jesus. From heaven to crucifixion is the ultimate descent. Yet even for Jesus, humility was the pathway to joy (Hebrews 12:2) and glory (Philippians 2:9–11).

If we would like to grow in humility, the place to start is here, at the cross. Christ’s humiliation is the death of all ego and swagger. There is no room for pride before the crucified Savior. And his exaltation gives us a greater glory to live for than our own. Heaven is roaring with his praise, and one day every knee will bow before him — what a waste to spend our talents on any lesser cause!

So, humility is not hiding what you can do, or hating who you are. It’s the joy of thinking about yourself less, and about Jesus more.



Do you have revival amnesia?

Revival tourism is a thing. Scenes of revival receive a constant stream of visitors. People want to step into the pulpit in Sandfields, South Wales, where Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones exercised a powerful ministry that ushered in revival to that blighted working-class community. In Dundee, Scotland, the grave of Robert Murray M’Cheyne beside St. Peter’s Church has been a veritable pilgrimage destination for hundreds if not thousands of people over the years. There is an irony in that men who lived by the maxim that they would only give the glory to another bask in unwished-for, postmortem glory.

Revival is also an obsession with some. There are conferences and ministries dedicated to the celebration of past revivals. Now, it is a good thing to think of days of old. In an age of chronological snobbery, we need more reflection on past events rather than less. A walk to the Northampton, Mass., of Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s would take us to the rarefied atmosphere where God was at work in a powerful way. One account tells us that children and teenagers spoke about God to such an extent that “religious subjects almost wholly took up their conversation when they were together.” This is unbelievable from the perspective of an age where young and old are welded to cell phones and obsessed with social media in its various forms.

However, there can be a problem with this mind-set. The contemporary evangelical is always on the lookout for the silver bullet, that one idea, program, or concept that will transform both the local and universal church. Revival is good, but an obsession with revival to the exclusion of the ordinary work of God is a sign of dysfunction. It breeds a type of believer who is permanently despondent because there is no midway point between spiritual deadness and revival.

The prevailing problem, I suggest, is not revival obsession; it is revival amnesia. Talk of the possibility of a new awakening is rare. But one suspects that the problem goes beyond a mere lack of memory to an absence of appetite.

Where is the evidence?

I think we can start with public prayer. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I find myself more and more in sanitized prayer meetings. They manifest all the passion and zeal of a weather forecaster on an off day. It has been a long time since I have experienced or witnessed tears for the state of the world and a desire to see the glory of God manifest in the culture. We are a long way from Isaiah’s cry: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when the fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence” (Isa. 64:1–2). When did we last see men and women in a Jacob-like, arm-to-arm struggle with the Most High, holding on to Him with the plea, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26)?

I wonder if we have confused cessationism with a practical Deism—He is there but He is silent. God is inert, at least in our hopes. God is still a God who works, and there is no greater work than the liberation of a soul from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ. The sweetest cry on earth and in heaven is that of a newborn soul uttering its first genuine praise to God. What the angels rejoice over in heaven seems to many of us an event that is so rare that we have forgotten its import.

It’s hard to get evidence for expectations. I write from a Scottish perspective, and I know that our readers are largely North American. The facts are that genuine, Spirit-wrought conversions are rare in our context. The relevance of this is that revival is simply the multiplication and increase of what ordinarily happens in the life of the local church. In revival, many people are converted. The First Great Awakening, in its very name, gives us a clue to the effects: this awakening was not minor in any way. In 1734, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “By December, the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ.” Over a six-month period, Edwards recorded three hundred conversions.

The ordinary means of grace are the bread and butter of daily discipleship lived in the world and empowered by the local congregation of saints.

Let’s be honest about our expectations. Forget about church growth being about getting better preaching, facilities, and programs to win the local sheep over to your pasture. Don’t get me wrong; there is a place for that, especially in an age of emaciated teaching and general disdain for sound doctrine. Yet the real challenge to even the most Reformed of us is to really believe that God is sovereign and that He can and will bring even the hardest rebel to obedience to Christ. Conversions are so rare that we are in danger of amnesia. In a context of spiritual poverty, perhaps we are content with too little. Crumbs satisfy because we believe a feast is no longer possible.

Revival amnesia is seen in one other area. We are so far removed in time and in experience from real revival that poor-quality reproductions seem to satisfy. Let’s not talk about the smoke machine–enhanced, trendy worship leader. As far as generating faux excitement through emotional manipulation, we let the dead bury their dead. In our circles, the problem is that we see the ordinary means of grace as, to be frank, having no extraordinary power. The ordinary means are the bread and butter of daily discipleship lived in the world and empowered by the local congregation of saints. If there has ever been a misnomer, it’s calling the means of grace “ordinary.” There is nothing ordinary about the Word of God being opened and released with the accompaniment of the Spirit’s power. Things happen when the Word is released: consciences are stirred, lives are changed, and the spiritually dead receive new life. The dungeon does indeed flood with glorious light. Think also of that moment when the Lord’s Supper is taken: in that solemn silence, the real presence is not in the bread; it fills the room. Remember also that moment when a covenant child is received into the visible church by baptism or the former pagan drug addict goes through the waters as an adult.

In revival, we witness enhanced solemnity. One of the features of a revival is that it spills over into the surrounding culture where there is a sense of the power of God. Contrast that with our hermetically sealed faux solemnity often manufactured through dress codes and social manipulation. In Wales, it was said that even the ponies used in the coal mining industry changed their demeanor after changes in their masters. After the revival in Nineveh, the cattle were clothed in sackcloth and ashes.

Should we desire revival? Of course! Our desire is to see the worship of Jesus spread across the whole world. Church life does not stop when the temperature is at normal operating levels. My plea is that we do not forget the possibility of the extraordinary in our satisfaction with the ordinary. Revival is not ours to give. I watched some YouTube videos recently by a fervent young preacher who called himself a “revivalist.” Frankly, the banality of his material made it difficult to listen to two minutes of his presentation. Your domestic cat is no lion; your purring ball of fluff is no Aslan. A loud voice and a few hundred views is hardly the valley of dry bones coming alive.

Although revival is a sovereign act of God that He gives or withholds according to His wise decision, it is ours to receive. Let’s get it back on our agendas. Talk about it. Read about it. Write about it. Preach about it. Pray for it. The church is no island. If it is asleep, then the world suffers. As Andrew Bonar said: “Revivals begin with God’s own people; the Holy Spirit touches their heart anew, and gives them new fervor and compassion, and zeal, new light and life, and when He has thus come to you, He next goes forth to the valley of dry bones. . . . Oh, what responsibility this lays on the Church of God! If you grieve Him away from yourselves, or hinder His visit, then the poor perishing world suffers sorely!”


Confronted by the persecution, force, and cruelty of this world, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562, pronounced Vayr-MEEL-yee) urged Christians to recognize two realities: their identity in Christ and the sure hope of one day seeing God face to face. This, he contends, is “man’s ultimate happiness,” the delight that surpasses all worldly pleasure—to be accepted by the eternal Father in Christ.

In his earliest surviving work, an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, Vermigli strikes this note, taking up the problem of ignorance among Christians concerning their salvation in Christ. The solution, he contends, is a diligent study of Scripture, applying its redemptive insight to a range of theological, moral, and political challenges. Herein lies Vermigli’s genius. As a biblical exegete and first-rate philosopher, he was able to connect divine truth to the most vexing questions of his day. And as a theologian, he offered this reflection with an abiding concern for the church’s calling in the world.

Some have noted how Vermigli’s life journey illustrates many highlights of the Protestant Reformation. Beginning with his strategic implementation of reform in the bosom of Roman Catholic Italy, he then fled north of the Alps to Zurich (the Reformed tradition’s birthplace) as a Protestant theologian in exile, collaborated with Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, went to Oxford during the reign of Edward VI to assist Thomas Cranmer in shaping the Church of England, went back to Strasbourg, and eventually to Zurich again to teach theology with Heinrich Bullinger for the remainder of his days.

These movements, it turns out, also portray the requisite qualities of a gospel minister—values as critical now as they were in the 16th century. Let’s briefly retrace Vermigli’s footsteps to observe some of these inspiring qualities.

Miracle of Italy

From childhood, Peter Martyr (as he became known) desired to teach God’s Word. At age 15 he entered the Augustinian order near his native Florence. After eight years of theological training, he underwent priestly ordination and received a doctorate in theology. Soon he was elected to the office of public preacher, an illustrious position in that day. As his name grew famous in the largest Italian cities, he eventually moved southward to lead the great San Pietro ad Aram in Naples. Here his life changed forever.

During Vermigli’s sojourn at San Pietro (1537–1540), according to his disciple and biographer Josiah Simler, “the greater light of God’s truth” began to shine on him. This truth, in Vermigli’s words, was that “Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by God totally restores what was lacking in this weak and mutilated righteousness of ours.” It was a gospel awakening that amounted to conversion, and it became his animating impulse: Christ has risen according to the Scriptures, a reality that reconciles us to God and dignifies life with eternal significance.

With this new gospel orientation, Vermigli moved north in May 1541 to become prior of the prestigious monastery of San Frediano in the Republic of Lucca. He initiated a series of educational and ecclesiastical reforms that have been likened to Calvin’s work in Geneva. But after a mere 15 months, Pope Paul III reversed these reforms by reinstituting the Roman Inquisition, a defining moment in which Vermigli renounced his vows and made the arduous decision to flee his homeland.

Martin Bucer arranged for Vermigli’s academic appointment to the College of Saint Thomas in Strasbourg. The Italian exile taught sacred letters from the Old Testament.

After five fruitful years there, Vermigli received an invitation from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1547 to fortify the newly independent Church of England with Reformed theology as Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford. According to S. L. Greenslade, “Peter Martyr was unquestionably the most learned” of the early holders of the Regius Chair position.

With the accession of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, Vermigli was forced to flee England. Returning to Strasbourg, he was immediately restored to his position at the Senior School. In addition to teaching and writing theological works, he gathered with other Marian exiles in his home to study and pray. This practice illustrates another theme in Vermigli’s life: warmhearted friendships and mentoring of younger Christians, an enduring and intimate bond to which his personal letters testify.

Vermigli died in Zurich on November 12, 1562, in the presence of his wife and friends. According to Simler, who was present along with Bullinger and a small group of others: “[Martyr] was silent in deep personal reflection; then he turned to us and stated with a rather clear voice that he acknowledged life and salvation in Christ alone, who had been given by the Father to the human race as its only Savior.” This catch phrase, “salvation in Christ alone,” is an apt summary of Vermigli’s legacy, a life that John Calvin called “the miracle of Italy.”

Take Up and Read

The life of Peter Martyr provides poignant lessons to inspire and instruct the contemporary church, some of which we’ve noted: the necessity of submitting oneself to the authority of Scripture, the providential care of God over his children, the animating power of gospel proclamation, the need for theological precision and thoroughness, and the importance of warmhearted friendship that edifies the church and equips young leaders.

Thankfully, Peter Martyr continues to provide these lessons. Since the early 1990s an international range of Vermigli scholars has been working to publish his sermons, commentaries, orations, letters, prayers, and theological treatises in The Peter Martyr Library, an extensive work of English translation. In 2017, this project was acquired by the Davenant Institute, which has already reprinted several of these texts in affordable paperbacks: The Oxford Treatise and Disputation on the Eucharist, The Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, Philosophical Works, and Predestination and Justification. Davenant recently partnered with Faithlife to offer digitized editions of these invaluable texts, and perhaps most excitingly, published the first installment of the first modern English translation of Vermigli’s magnum opus, his Common Places.

Above all, Vermigli will be remembered for his passion to teach Scripture with the gospel at the forefront. Even the painting of Peter Martyr hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London testifies to this focus. In it, Martyr’s penetrating eyes look to the distance beyond the gilded frame as he points to the book in his hand: the Bible. If we were to place a statement on Vermigli’s lips, it would perhaps be his exhortation to youth: “Let us immerse ourselves constantly in the sacred Scriptures, let us work at reading them, and by the gift of Christ’s Spirit the things that are necessary for salvation will be for us clear, direct, and completely open.”

Some 500 years later, Peter Martyr’s ministry continues to speak, imparting illumination to those who follow the example of his ancient mentor, Augustine: “tolle lege, tolle lege” (“take up and read, take up and read”).


As persecution against Christians intensifies in Iran, the church is standing strong. In fact, it’s growing! In this Middle Eastern country where both conversion from Islam and sharing your faith are illegal, Muslims are rapidly coming to Christ—so rapidly that Iran’s government leaders are acknowledging the exponential growth of the church.

Addressing a gathering of Shia Muslim leaders, Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, openly admitted to summoning Christian converts for questioning, saying that mass conversions  “are happening right under our eyes.”

Alavi admitted his agency is collaborating with Muslim religious seminaries to combat the perceived threat of mass conversions to Christianity across the country.

In his speech, Alavi also admitted that “these converts are ordinary people, whose jobs are selling sandwiches or similar things.” According to Article 18’s Advocacy Director Mansour Borji, this admission represents a “huge shift” away from Iran’s usual rhetoric that converts are agents of the West who have undergone significant training to undermine national security.

“It is also interesting to see the intelligence minister admit to ‘whole families’ converting,” Borji said, noting that this is “an admission that such conversions are far from a rare event; rather they are happening en masse, and across the country.”

Witnesses to a move of God

Iran’s intelligence minister acknowledged that “whole families” are converting from Islam to Christianity.

Alavi’s recent observations (May 2019) echo those of church leaders in Iran—as well as other Iranian government officials.

Reportedly, Islamic clerics are expressing serious concern about many young people converting to Christianity. One Islamic seminary leaderAyatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, remarked that “accurate reports indicate the youth are becoming Christians in Qom and attending house churches.” The seventh-largest city in Iran, Qom is the country’s epicenter for Islamic studies.

And reports from our ministry partners inside the closed country reveal that God is working through the faithfulness of courageous believers to expand His Kingdom. Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims coming to Christ.

Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers). According to Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.

In 2016, the mission research organization Operation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world.

What’s driving the exponential growth?

Ministries and experts say the explosive growth of Christianity in Iran has been driven by the almost palpable spiritual hunger and disillusionment with the Islamic regime and the faithfulness of believers who risk it all to share their Good News in the face of inevitable persecution.

Violence in the name of Islam has caused widespread disillusionment with the regime and has led many Iranians to question their beliefs. Multiple reports indicate that even children of political and spiritual leaders are leaving Islam for Christianity.

Because Farsi-speaking services are not allowed, most converts gather in informal house-church meetings or receive information on Christianity via media, such as satellite TV and websites. The illegal house-church movement—including thousands of Christians—continues to grow in size and impact as God works through transformed lives.

Church leaders in Iran believe that millions can be added to the church in the next few years.

“If we remain faithful to our calling, our conviction is that it is possible to see the nation transformed within our lifetime,” one house church leader shared. “Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world.”

And like the church of Acts shows us, the persecution that believers suffered as a group of committed disciples—inspired and ignited by the Holy Spirit—became a catalyst for the multiplication of believers and churches. When persecution came, they didn’t scatter but remained in the city where it was most strategic and most dangerous. They were arrested, shamed and beaten for their message. Still, they stayed to lay the foundations for an earth-shaking movement.

So it is in Iran. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hardline Islamic regime, the next two decades ushered in a wave of persecution that continues today. All missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in the Persian or Farsi language were banned, and several pastors were killed. Many feared the small, fledgling Iranian church wouldn’t survive.  Instead, the church, fueled by the devotion and passion of disciples, has multiplied exponentially. Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East.

Intensifying persecution

Christian converts arrested in Bushehr (l-r): Sam Khosravi, 36, and his wife, Maryam Falahi, 35; Sam’s brother, Sasan, 35, and his wife Marjan Falahi, 33; Sam and Sasan’s mother, Khatoon Fatolahzadeh, 61, released the same day; Pooriya Peyma, 27, and his wife, Fatemeh Talebi, 27; and Habib Heydari, 38.

As the church in Iran multiplies, persecution follows suit. Over the last few months, Open Doors has learned about arrests of numerous Christians in Iran. The crackdown on house churches continues to intensify, as officials search for and arrest anyone involved in these typically tiny fellowships. Prison sentences of varying lengths are inevitable outcomes for anyone who defies Iran’s “no house church” law. Open Doors has reported numerous atrocities against Christians in Iranian prisons, infamous for their treatment of political prisoners.

In 2019, at least 37 Christians have been arrested: eight in Bushehr, nine in Rasht, 12 in Amol, two in Ahvaz, and one each in Hamedan, Shiraz and Isfahan.

On July 1, in the southwestern city of Bushehr, eight Christian converts, mostly in their 30s, were arrested, including five members of one family. Seven are still in prison, most likely in solitary confinement. Their homes were raided and Bibles confiscated, as well as Christian literature, wooden crosses and pictures with Christian symbols. Authorities also took laptops, phones, identity cards and bank cards. The officers are reported to have treated the Christians harshly, even though small children were present during the arrests.

Also in Bushehr, in April, 16 other converts from Bushehr reportedly lost their appeals against prison sentences for “propaganda activities against the regime through the formation of house churches.”

Another five converts submitted themselves to the central detention center in Karaj in July 2019 to begin their jail sentences for “propaganda against the state.” Manoto News broadcast footage of the Christians, four of whom have young children, waving goodbye to their loved ones.

Amin Khaki, Milad Goodarzi, Yaghoob Nateghi, Shahebedin Shahi and Alireza Nourmohamadi were arrested during raids on their homes and workplaces in December 2017.

After their arrests, the five were released in early 2018 after each posted a bail of 30 million tomans(around $7,000).

In March 2019, Milad, Yaghoob, Shahebedin and Alireza were sentenced to four months in prison. Amin, who has already spent a year in prison for his religious activities, was given 14 months. Their appeals were rejected last month.

Pray with us by name for all of these believers, recognizing that they represent only a handful of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Iran who have been threatened, arrested or imprisoned for turning to Jesus and following Him.

Your part in this expanding story

Writing in a time of great persecution for Christ followers who had lost property, been thrown into prison, were ostracized from their Jewish community, etc., the author of Hebrews offers a clear call to prayer for those who are suffering for the gospel:

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3).

And in Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus is clear that when we enter into the suffering of others, we are answering His call:

“Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Jesus is strategically building His church and exhorts us to stand with and encourage our brothers and sisters as they live out the gospel.



Many of us were raised in an era when “it’s all in your head” meant that mental illnesses weren’t real at least not as real as a broken arm. This tendency reflects not only a lack of appreciation for the rapid growth in medical diagnosis and treatment of such disorders but a cluster of theological misunderstandings. So here are a few introductory theses to consider.

1. We are body-soul creatures.

Contemporary brain science has shown the remarkable extent to which our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions are connected to our bodies specifically, our brain and chemical interactions. “Mind over matter” betrays a pagan rather than biblical view of human beings. According to Scripture, reality is not divided between spirit/mind and matter, but between God and everything else. Angels and human souls are no more divine than antelopes or fingernails. We are not God and yet we are like God: created in his image that is, in true holiness and righteousness.

Because we are body-soul unities, physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that can’t be easily pulled apart. It is, therefore, a biblical view of the human person that cautions us against dismissing physical trauma as an illusion or spiritual and moral responsibility. The “real you” is not just your soul but you as a body-soul unity: distinction without separation. The biblical view of human beings as body-soul unities should already prepare us to accept that every spiritual problem has a physical component and vice versa.

2. Sin is a condition, not just actions.

According to a 2008 Baylor study, 36 percent of church attendees with mental illness said that they were told by their leaders that it was the result of sin; 34 percent said they were told it was a demon; 41 percent were told they didn’t have a mental illness; and 28 percent were even told to stop taking medication.[1] “Deliverance ministries” make a lot of this second point. Many believe that demons bring “generational curses,” passed down from generation to generation. There is simply no appreciation for the biblical gravity of the sinful condition in such a view.

In a biblical perspective, sin isn’t just something we do or don’t do. It arises out of a sinful condition. Just as the whole self is created in God’s image, the whole self is fallen. Consequently, we are sinners and sinned against, victimizers and victims. That is not to say that we are not personally responsible for our sin, but that the sinful condition is far greater in its extensiveness than that.

We can be like Job’s counselors, assuming that he had done something to deserve his calamities. If he would only ferret out the sin and come clean with it, then God would restore his fortunes. But neither Job nor his friends had access to the first chapter, where God permitted Satan to test Job so that something greater than physical health, wealth, and happiness would appear. Satan meant it for evil, but God intended it for good. Job’s suffering brought him to the confidence he expressed in chapter 19: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me!” (vv. 25-27).

Neither his friends nor a modern naturalism would be able to explain the ultimate purpose for Job’s suffering from the available data. And in our own suffering, we do not have access to “chapter 1” either. All we see are the natural causes and the divine revelation that God works all things together for our good, because he has already triumphed over sin and death in Jesus Christ.

3. Science is a gift of God when it recognizes its own limits.

We never tell people with cancer, “Just pray more and read your Bible more.” Ordinarily, God does not act immediately and directly, but indirectly through secondary causes. It’s interesting that in Genesis 1 and 2, we have not only the direct command, “Let there be…!” followed by the report, “And there was…,” but also the command, “Let the earth bring forth…!” with the report, “And the earth brought forth….” Even in this mighty act, God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo), and he worked through the physical elements and processes he himself had created to bring about their fruitfulness. Both are God’s acts.

My wife and I prayed for God to heal our triplets when they were born prematurely with various complications. We didn’t care whether it was a miracle or God’s providential work through excellent physicians and nurses. As it turned out, it was the latter. Either way, God answers prayer. Among the means through which God brings his plans to pass is prayer. And yet prayer isn’t magic. Just as Christ himself in Gethsemane did not “turn His eyes to the divine plan but rested His desire, that burned within Him, upon His Father’s knees,” we too “in pouring out prayers do not always rise to speculate upon the secret things of God.”[2] Instead of trying to decode God’s hidden purposes, our prayers should focus on the good he has published concerning us. We should be as bold in our prayers as the biblical examples repeatedly encourage.

4. Christ came to heal the sick, not those who are well (or who think they are).

Here’s the key point: Prayer and Bible reading aren’t therapies at all, much fewer replacements of medical prescriptions. Prayer is simply talking to God the Father, in the Son, by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Reading the Bible may be “therapeutic,” but only because we’re looking for something more: namely, the truth about God, ourselves, our world, our hopes and fears, and reconciliation with God in his Son.

When the focus is on Christ, who is proclaimed to us in the gospel, we can pray with honesty, casting ourselves on God’s mercy. We aren’t coming to a judge, or even to a therapist, but to our heavenly Father who has accepted us in his Son. We’re not rubbing a lamp and making a wish, but we are children crying out to the sovereign God who cares for us and answers our feeble, half-hearted, and even intemperate rants with love, wisdom, and compassion.

5. Christ saves the whole person, but sanctification is a process that is never finished in this life.

Just as the whole person is created in God’s image neither divine nor demonic, and wholly fallen in body and soul the whole person is justified and is being renewed daily in Christ’s image. This renewal at present is evident spiritually. While the body wastes away toward the grave, the “inner self” is being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16).

We would all like to reach a safe haven, a plateau of health, where we no longer struggle with sin or the physical and emotional pains of daily dying. But we don’t find this safe landing place in our experience either physically or spiritually. The only safe haven is Christ himself, who has objectively conquered sin and death, and who intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand until he raises us bodily for the everlasting Sabbath.

6. The theology of the cross and the resurrection give us faith, hope, and love.

We are baptized into Christ. What was the pattern of his life? Instead of taking the easy way out Satan’s offer of glory now he embraced the cross, not out of Stoic resolve, but out of “the joy set before him”: namely, our salvation (Phil. 2:5-8). By his suffering, the sting of death (the curse of the law) has been removed (1 Cor. 15:56-57). But we still follow him from death to victory, but that victory over the pain of sin and death does not lie on this side of glory (Rom. 8:18-25).

A robustly biblical theology of the cross and resurrection fixes our hope on Christ, who knows our suffering more than we do and who has overcome it objectively. We live in our Christian families and in our churches in that in-between time, awaiting the day when we share fully, in body and in soul, in Christ’s glory. Our churches have to be a place where we “wait for it with patience” together. In the process, we need better soul care that appreciates the extent to which physical and mental suffering can be relieved in the meantime. Christians should welcome these advances as signs of God’s orderly providence and compassionate care for his creatures. There will always be a central place for spiritual care especially the faithful ministry of preaching, teaching, sacraments, prayer, and discipline. But, like a kid with a broken leg, getting people to the emergency room may be the first order of business.

Adapted from Michael S. Horton,”Faith and Mental Illness” Modern Reformation, Jul/Aug 2014. Used by permission. 

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California.


Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7).

In his teaching on the Holy Spirit, Jesus began by telling them that judgment would begin within the church. Although the world will judge the church, Jesus said that the ruler of this world had already been judged. Satan may persecute us now on earth, but he can’t prosecute us in heaven! Whatever horrible suffering we might experience on earth does not compare, Paul says, to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). Because of the work of Christ—because he took his place at the right hand at the Father, because he took that throne, and because Satan has been cast out—all authority has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth.

In John 16:1–4, Jesus says, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” That is, your own parents, your own siblings, your own children will consider it an act of piety to turn you over to the police, so there’s going to be an apostasy within the church itself. That’s already what John the Baptist had proclaimed—a pruning, a period of division within Israel. The Holy Spirit will be the prophet of all prophets; the Holy Spirit will come with that word of prosecution to his people—the word that cuts, that divides. But the Spirit who convicts through the law will also convince sinners of the gospel. By faith the heavenly Paraclete, the heavenly attorney, will save his people.

Jesus says he will send another paraklētos. What a wonderful word that is. Unfortunately, “helper” is just about as lame as you can imagine for this description. Part of our demotion of the Holy Spirit is due to our translation of the Greek here. Jesus says, “I will send you allos paraklētos,” another paraclete. I think, however, that when we’re talking about Jesus as paraklētosas in 1 John 2:1—“We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”—we should think of Jesus, but when we think of the Holy Spirit as paraklētos, we should translate it as “comforter.” The ESV translates this word as “helper,” but that misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is not saying, “I’m sending someone of lesser importance.” Otherwise, why would he say, “It’s good that I go. But if I go, I will send you another paraclete”? That is, “He is equal to me but different from me. I didn’t hover over the waters in the beginning, impregnating them. I didn’t hover over the waters of the Red Sea, parting them so that my people could pass through. I didn’t hover over the waters of my mother in my own incarnation. But this paraklētos did, and he is the one who will unite you to me.”

Jesus is the one with whom we need to be united, but the Holy Spirit is the only one who can unite us to him! There are certain things the Father does, certain things the Spirit does, and certain things the Son does. While they don’t do different works, they do different things in every work. The Father is the origin, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the perfecter. And that’s why these are the last days. The Spirit will be poured out in the last days, because the Holy Spirit is the perfecter; he’s the one who finishes the job. In other words, Jesus is saying—astounding as it is—“You don’t need me on earth right now.”

Like the disciples, we don’t understand what he’s talking about. How can we not need him on earth right now? Some think it would have been wonderful if Jesus could have stayed on earth after his resurrection. If he hadn’t ascended, then he would still be here today enjoying long, long life. You could even shake hands with him! But Jesus said, “It is good that I go.” Why? Why is it good that he left? Because if he didn’t, the Paraclete would not have come.

Here’s the thing: Jesus was an evangelist. If you look at the history of evangelism and missions and then look at Jesus, however, you may not think he was too spectacular in this area. But that wasn’t his primary mission. His primary mission was to be the gospel, not to be the missionary of the gospel. His primary mission was to be the Lamb of God that we proclaim. His primary mission was to proclaim good news to the poor—the day of liberation, through his death, burial, and resurrection, and through his ascension to the right hand of the Father. We need one attorney in heaven pleading our case before the Father, with Satan cast out of the courtroom. Jesus says that we need him in heaven; we need another attorney on earth who will actually lead the campaign! If you misunderstand the nature of the kingdom and what the conquest really is, then you won’t appreciate why we need the Holy Spirit on earth right now and not Jesus.

What we see at Pentecost proves exactly what Jesus is saying here. In Acts 2, we’re told that the people were “cut to the quick.” Hundreds, then thousands, and multiplied tens of thousands of people started believing because Jesus was indeed successful in his mission. He completed his mission to be the gospel, and now the Holy Spirit was being poured out to unite those dead in trespasses and sins to him. Now they would have ears to hear, eyes to see that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The distinction here is not between Jesus as advocate and the Spirit as comforter or helper, but between a heavenly attorney and an earthly attorney. We need Jesus to be our attorney in heaven, exercising his case before the Father for us, but we need the Holy Spirit as our attorney on earth, bringing us to conviction and faith in Jesus the Messiah so that we will be covered in his righteousness. That verdict of the future—“Justified!”—can be heard even in the present.

Adapted from Michael Horton “It Is to Your Advantage That I Go Away,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2019.


Recently, Thomas McCall published an article in Christianity Today entitled “Is the Wrath of God Really Satisfying?” As a Christian (and pastor and professor) who believes in penal substitutionary atonement —that Christ died in our place to assuage the wrath of God—I found McCall’s article helpful in places, but also confusing and misleading. After reading it several times, I’m still not sure if McCall is trying to undermine penal substitution, rescue it from abuse, or avoid it altogether.

At the very least, the article felt like a poke in the eye to the millions of Christians who believe that Good Friday is good precisely because Christ was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God for our sake.


The main burden of McCall’s piece is to show that some popular preaching on the cross is at odds with orthodox Trinitarian theology. According to McCall, “God against God” theories of the atonement imply (or explicitly teach) that God’s Trinitarian life was ruptured on Good Friday. And yet, McCall argues, God could not turn his face away from the Son, because the Father is one with the Son. “To say that the Trinity is broken—even ‘temporarily’—is to imply that God does not exist.”

While I’m not convinced that Christ bearing the wrath of God implies a Trinitarian fissure, McCall is right to warn against misreading the cry of dereliction in literalistic fashion, as if the first person of the Trinity was coming to blows with the second person of the Trinity. Whatever else it might mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does not mean that the eternal union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was interrupted. We should be careful not to speak of the Son suffering in complete absence from the Father, or speak as if the Father was disgusted with his Son on the cross.

As usual, Turretin explains the matter—in this case the “punishment of desertion” (Matt. 27:46)—with careful precision. The desertion on the cross was not “absolute, total, and eternal (such as is felt only by demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative.” Likewise, the desertion Christ experienced was not with respect to “the union of nature,” nor “the union of grace and holiness.” Neither was Christ deprived of the Father’s “communion and protection.” Instead, God suspended “for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness.” In other words, the Son’s “sense of the divine love” was “intercepted by the sense of divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him” ( Elenctic Theology 13.14.5). Whether McCall would approve of that last line or not, clearly Turretin meant to affirm Christ’s forsakenness in a way that avoids any notion of Trinitarian rupture.

McCall also dings R. C. Sproul for his explanation of Christ’s accursedness, but it seems to me Sproul was trying to make the same point as Turretin when Sproul observes, “On the cross, Jesus entered into the experience of forsakenness on our behalf. God turned his back on Jesus and cut him off from all blessing, from all keeping, from all grace, and from all peace.” This sounds more like withholding “the favorable presence of grace” than a Trinity-busting Father-Son brouhaha.


McCall is also concerned that some popular notions of the cross turn Christ into the damned of God. To be sure, we must be careful with our language. The Son of God experienced the horrors of damnation, but he was not himself damned. It would be better to say that Christ’s sufferings were hellish or that he bore the weight of eternal punishment than to say that Christ entered the place of the damned.

Again, Turretin is helpful:

As he is properly said to be damned who in hell endures the punishment due to his own sins, this term cannot be applied to Christ, who never suffered for his own but for our sins; nor did he suffer in hell, but on earth. Still there is no objection to saying that the Son of God was condemned for us by God, just as elsewhere he is said to have been made a curse and malediction for us. (Elenctic Theology, 13.16.10)

Does this mean Sproul was wrong to speak of “the scream of the damned”? Granted, the phrase is provocative and easily misunderstood. It’s not a phrase I would use, but we should remember—and here I’m using McCall’s own quotation—that Sproul said it was “as if a voice from heaven said, ‘Damn you, Jesus’” (emphasis mine). Sproul’s use of the phrase was homiletical/metaphorical more than technical/analytical, although I see McCall’s point (and Turretin’s).


The CT article makes clear what McCall does not believe about the cross:

There is no biblical evidence that the Father-Son communion was somehow ruptured on that day. Nowhere is it written that the Father was angry with the Son. Nowhere can we read that God “curses him to the pit of hell.” Nowhere it is written that Jesus absorbs the wrath of God by taking the exact punishment that we deserve. In no passage is there any indication that God’s wrath is “infinitely intense” as it is poured out on Jesus.

If this is what did not happen on the cross, then what did take place? McCall believes in sin and guilt. He also affirms the wrath of God, but how he thinks this wrath is turned away was unclear to me. He says, “The Son enters our brokenness and takes upon himself the ‘curse’ caused by humanity’s sin.” McCall acknowledges that the Old Testament bears witness to “both the wrath of God and the sacrifices offered for sin” and that the New Testament “draws these connections” and presents Jesus as our sacrifice and substitute. Elsewhere he says, “Christ came to get us out of hell” and that “Christ’s sacrificial work saves us from the wrath of God.”

So how does this happen if Jesus did not absorb the wrath of God? It’s good to point out the New Testament “connections” between wrath and sacrifice, but what specifically is the connection? How does Christ’s sacrificial work actually save us from the wrath of God?

Most evangelical Christians would affirm that “Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 37). As the curse for us (Gal. 3:13), Christ reconciled us to God, making a way for a just God to justify ungodly sinners (Rom. 3:21–26). Just like the bloody atonement of old, Christ’s death was a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God to atone for our sins (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; Eph. 5:2). In fact, the very notion of propitiation implies that God’s righteous anger had to be assuaged (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Christ did not feel forsaken by God for no reason. To be sure, the Trinity was not broken on Good Friday, but it was still “the will of the Lord to crush” the suffering servant (Isa. 53:10). If on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was not satisfied, how was it then appeased?


In support of his overall argument, McCall enlists two Reformed heavyweights. He quotes John Calvin to the effect that the Father could not be angry with his beloved Son, and then quotes Charles Hodge denying that Christ’s death was a quid pro quo arrangement where the Son suffered exactly what sinners deserved. Both quotations are accurate and important, but given their original context I wonder if they help McCall’s case or point us in a different direction.

Calvin’s statement is part of a larger discussion about the cry of dereliction in Matthew 27:46. Calvin rejects the ideas that Jesus was merely expressing the opinion of others or using Psalm 22 to give voice to Israel’s lament. No: “his words were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart.” Christ felt himself forsaken and estranged from God.

And then comes the line McCall quotes: “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, ‘in whom his heart reposed’?”

But notice Calvin’s next sentence: “How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” Clearly, Calvin does not see the idea of wrath-satisfaction as being at odds with unbroken Father-Son communion. “This is what we are saying,” Calvin continues, “he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God” (Inst. 2.16.11).

We should never say that on the cross, the Father hated the Son. And yet, we can say—and must say if we are to make sense of the cry of dereliction in Matthew 27 and the curse language of Galatians 3—that Christ, bearing the imputed sin and guilt of his people, bore the wrath of God in our place. As Calvin says later, “If the effect of his shedding blood is that our sins are not imputed to us, it follows that God’s judgment was satisfied by that price” (Inst. 2.17.4).

We see something similar when we examine Hodge’s larger argument. In discussing the atonement, Hodge highlights two kinds of satisfaction. The one is “pecuniary or commercial,” as when a debtor pays the demands of his creditor in full. This is the quid pro quo (this for that) arrangement Hodge rejects. Christ does not satisfy our debt in a commercial sense, because in a commercial transaction all that matters is that the debt is paid. It doesn’t matter who pays it or how it gets paid, so long as the debt is covered. The claim of the creditor is upon the debt, not upon the person.

The other kind of satisfaction, and the kind Hodge approves, is “penal or forensic,” wherein Christ makes satisfaction not for a generic debt but for the sinner himself. Christ’s “death satisfied divine justice” because it “was a real adequate compensation for the penalty remitted and the benefits conferred.” True, as McCall points out, Hodge maintains that Christ “did not suffer either in kind or degree what sinners would have suffered.” But this should not be construed as an argument against penal substitution. For in the next sentence Hodge affirms, “In value, his sufferings infinitely transcended theirs. . . . So the humiliation, sufferings, and death of the eternal Son of God immeasurably transcended in worth and power the penalty which a world of sinners would have endured” (Systematic Theology, 2:470-71).

Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).

Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement.

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Editor’s note: This article by Kevin DeYoung originally appeared on Kevin’s blog on The Gospel Coalition.