Modern secularist Oneism is a church without walls. Secularism may not have a formalized creed or confession, a ritualized liturgy, or religious ceremonies, but it has an undeniably religious flavor. It reduces everything to the material and clings to this metaphysical claim with religious devotion. We must reject the lie that secularism is neutral and that Christianity must prove itself in the eyes of a rationally detached and disinterested secular point of view. Christianity and all its contenders (all of which reduce to Oneism) must equally answer the “tough questions.”

Oneism and Twoism function in parallel ways, although in diametrically opposite directions. Both cling to claims about the nature of ultimate reality, the socially formative power of those claims, and the desire to see those claims adopted in the hearts of others. Despite their counterclaims, Oneists inconsistently believe in absolute truth—the “truth” that all is one! Highlighting this fact can help us to bridge gaps with those who are steeped in secularism and believe their outlook is utterly unlike that of biblical Christianity.

The Church of Oneism

Oneism rejects the biblical Creator/creature distinction and all its biblically-grounded implications. Biblical Twoism teaches that God is radically different from his creation, much as a painter is distinct from his painting. God designs finite creation to reflect the unity-in-plurality he himself enjoys in his Trinitarian being. Oneism rejects the lordship of God and therefore collapses those creational distinctions or counterfeits them in God-dishonoring and humanity-destroying ways. The unbelief of Oneism cannot escape our knowledge of God, so, as Paul so brilliant clarifies in Romans 1:18, we hold down the truth in unrighteousness. We exchange The Truth for The Lie.


The Oneist church without walls has its clerics, those with the cultural capital to define terms and set the agenda. They are the pundits, gurus, and figureheads of the movement. Newspaper editors, talk show hosts, politicians, and late-night comedians can all function in this role.  They establish the ever-moving target of Oneist “orthodoxy,” those affirmations which are approved and promoted as being on “the right side of history.”

Orthodoxy and Heresy

The Truth says that God is the creator of all things and rules the universe with wisdom, justice, and power. The Lie says that the meaning of creation lies within itself, and that apart from it there is no explanation or purpose. Though the Lie comes in a multitude of forms, it is always pro-autonomy (being a law unto oneself) and its single work is to oppose the ultimate lordship of one true and Living God. This “orthodoxy” rejects the notion that there is an order to reality that is not defined by humanity itself. This has produced great pastoral and theological challenges, such as transgenderism, and the emerging danger of transability (healthy, whole people who identify has physically impaired). The great creedal confession of our day is “You do you.”

Violating this mantra puts you outside of “orthodoxy” and on the path to “heresy.” The great truth of the Oneist church is that its notion of truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be violated, and reality must be redefined in light of such cosmic rebranding.  A few years ago world famous retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.” He doubled-down with, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”[1] Of course we must detest attacks and threats against homosexuals. Tutu is naturally empathetic, because his daughter is a homosexual.[2] However, Tutu defines an acceptable God as one that approves what the biblical God explicitly rejects (1 Cor. 6:9).

Oneism doesn’t hesitate to shame and publicly condemn as heretical those whose beliefs  oppose its claims. Last year, the mega-corporation Google fired software engineer James Damore for suggesting that “at least some of the male-female disparity in tech” had roots not simply in sex discrimination, but also in “biological differences.”[3] Dissent will not be tolerated. Threats to orthodoxy must be smoked out, made to look cruel and uncaring, and purged from society.

Church Discipline

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai denounced Damore’s remark, as out of bounds and disciplined his employee by “excommunicating” (firing) him from Google. As Pichai saw it, Damore crossed “the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”[4] The fired outcast writes, “For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of ‘Don’t be evil.’” Damore even uses religious language to capture his experience: “I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment.”[5] This kind of equality he refers to as the diversity creed, “that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and all people are inherently the same.” Difference is done away with. All is one.

Last year, the world famous atheist Richard Dawkins was disinvited to speak at an event hosted by Berkeley’s KPFA Radio. The action seems like the discipline of a wayward member of the flock. Dawkins’s disinvite was occasioned by previous statements made about Islam. According to its Twitter announcement, “KPFA exercises its free speech right not to participate with anyone who uses hateful language against a community already under attack.” Many believe the “hateful” language is Dawkins 2013 Twitter post, “Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today.” According to conservative columnist Rod Dreher, “Richard Dawkins Now a Heretic to Progressives.”[6] Why? Because he challenged the established orthodoxy of Oneism, which is, “Thou shalt not make moral judgments against any religious faith (other than historic Christianity)”.

Oneist Despotism and Twoist Tolerance

The Church of Oneism is totalitarian and tolerates no rivals. For this reason, Oneism sees the public affirmation of historic Christian sexual ethics as insufferable. Twoism heralds the goodness of sexual difference, complementarity, and gender. The Oneist sexual ethic is likewise a robust theological affirmation, one which states that reality is fundamentally about sameness and that difference must be stamped out or denied. Oneism implies, nay, proclaims, that the deepest unions are formed by doing away with distinctions and that all differences. Twoism offers unity and communion. Oneism offers homogeneity and uniformity.

This theological commitment to sameness-at-all-costs lies behind the great bait and switch of contemporary calls for “tolerance.” D. A. Carson, in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance, clearly examines the switch:

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “to tolerate”] as “1. to allow; permit; not interfere with. 2. to recognize and respect (others’ beliefs, practices, etc.) without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing. 3 . to put up with; to bear; as, he tolerates his brother-in-law. 4. in medicine, to have tolerance for (a specified drug, etc.).” Even the computer-based dictionary Encarta includes in its list “ACCEPT EXISTENCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS to recognize other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices without an attempt to suppress them.” So far so good: all these definitions are on the same page. When we turn to Encarta’s treatment of the corresponding noun “tolerance,” however, a subtle change appears: “1. ACCEPTANCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS the accepting of the differing views of other people, e.g., in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views.”[7]

But now, Carson observes, the word has changed meaning. It has shifted from “‘accepting the existence of different views’ to ‘acceptance of different views,’ from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people.”[8] Anyone who refuses to accept all views, no matter how contradictory they may be, is dismissed and ridiculed as “intolerant.” Oneism presents itself as the great way-paver for peace and tolerance, but its worldview cannot sustain it. Those who dissent are holding back social and spiritual evolution and must, therefore, be silenced. Oneism (consistently) must eliminate disagreement.  As G. K. Chesterton so brilliantly put it, “Exactly in proportion as you turn monotheism into monism you turn it into despotism.”[9]

The great irony is that the Twoism of Christianity, the very thing painted as a form of close-minded bigotry, affirms God-given distinctions without the impulse to silence non-Christian dissenters. God’s truth can stand attacks of dissenters. His people do not need to be insecure that objections will expose weaknesses in God’s wisdom. It is Oneism that has good reason to worry that exposure will unveil its weaknesses. So it seeks to “punish the wicked”[10] (those who will not walk lockstep with the agenda). Biblical Twoism provides a foundation for Ultimately grounded in the interpersonal love of the triune persons of the godhead, Twoism supports peaceful diversity. We love, pray for, extend compassion to, seek to persuade, and share the gospel with our non-Christian neighbors. We don’t bully, fire, or shun them.

Oneism presents us with a cosmology of ultimate Oneness. Those who will not get with the program are impeding the inevitable. Like the hive-minded Borg of Star Trek (Next Generation), resistance is futile and assimilation imperative. On the other hand, biblical Twoism affirms distinctions and difference.

Precisely because the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ values human image-bearers (not the flatness of “all is one”) it can do what the Church of Oneism cannot: genuinely tolerate difference and diversity. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18).

[1] See “Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God’,” found at

[2]  “Desmond Tutu’s daughter leaves clergy after marrying female partner,” found at

[3] James Damore, “Why I Was Fired by Google,” found at

[4] Mahita Gajanan, “Read Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s “Letter About the Controversial Anti-Diversity Memo,” found online at

[5] Damore, “Why I Was Fired by Google.” According to Damore, in his ten-page internal memo he likewise thought that “bias against women was a factor too.”

[6] See his short piece at

[7] D. A. Carson. The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 2-3. Emphasis in original.

[8] Carson. The Intolerance of Tolerance, 3.

[9] G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 373.




Five Common Idols We Fight

Augustine would have made a great mother. Though he was a man (and therefore disqualified), and though he lived more than fifteen centuries ago, he learned how to conquer the kinds of idols that still creep into motherhood today. His Confessions shows him to be a good counselor for restless and tempted moms.

Before coming to faith in Christ, he was something of a playboy. He lived a wild youth, feasting on the idols of life: sex, alcohol, knowledge, laziness, and even thievery. But God rescued him, first through a conversation with the famous bishop Ambrose, and then more dramatically through the living and breathing word. Knowing the temptation of idolatry, having searched relentlessly, even recklessly, for life and pleasure, Augustine encourages mothers (and everyone else) in our battle against temptation:

What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate “the rash soul” (Isaiah 3:9) which nursed the hope that after it had departed from you, it would find something better! Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose. You are present, liberating us from miserable errors, and you put us on your way, bringing comfort and saying: “Run, I will carry you, and I will see you through to the end, and there I will carry you.” (Isaiah 46:4).

As Augustine says, God delivers us from ourselves — from our own miserable errors. Though our sin nature draws us to worship other things, God made a way to redeem our hearts back to him, our first love, through the death of his Son.

Five Common Idols

Motherhood brings unique temptations to idolatry — to put our hope and heart in someone or something other than God. Early in motherhood I often muttered, “If only my child would sleep at night, I’d be a better mom.” Eventually he did sleep through the night. Then my if only became, “If only I could get time to myself during the day, I’d be a happier mom.”

While we may not bow down to idols made of wood, stone, or metal, as many have, we bow in our own ways — to children, to success, to comfort, to control, to approval. To be honest, I’ve had many if only’s in my life as a mom — circumstances, dreams, and pleasures I thought would solve my problems and make life better. But if we put our hope in these longings, our if only’s can subtly become idolatry. The Lord declares,

“My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror. . . . My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:11–13 NIV)

Weary mom, where are you looking for water? Have you found the fountain, or are you desperately digging somewhere else?

1. Children

Children are a good gift from the Lord. But like all good gifts, we can turn children into idols that we worship.

We might look to having a child of our own as the thing that will make our life whole and complete. We may find our meaning and purpose in our mothering, so much so that, when our children leave the nest, we are left unanchored, without a purpose. We may even seek to live through our children, trying to make up for failings from our own childhood.

In all these ways and more, our very own children become idols we worship. In worshiping our children, we forget that our identity and purpose is found in who we are as image-bearers of God. He formed and made us for his name’s sake (Isaiah 43:7), and he calls us to do all that we do, down to the smallest, most mundane details of mothering, to glorify him (1 Corinthians 10:31).

2. Success

As moms, we often look to our success as a mother to give our lives meaning. We put our hope in how our children behave, how well they play or perform, what they achieve in school, or how they look. We seek to get parenting right and look to parenting methods to help us succeed. When we worship parenting success, our children become medals. We put them on display for all to see. Our children’s success in life points to our success as moms, and ultimately promises to give our life worth.

Scripture teaches us, however, that our worth is not found in what we do, but in who Christ is for us, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

3. Comfort

The stresses and challenges of motherhood often make us look for relief. We may look forward to our child’s nap time, or to their bedtime at the end of the day, where we can find time to ourselves. We may seek comfort in food, binge-watching our favorite drama, or scrolling through social media. We look to the comforts and pleasures of life as something we deserve after a long and crazy day of toddler tantrums, sibling squabbles, and cleaning up the constant mess.

Those comforts become things we need. They numb and distract us from the harsh realities of our days. They become our object of happiness. In pursuing the idol of comfort, we miss out on the sweetest comfort and relief, which is found in the Lord’s presence alone. “In your presence there is fullness of joy,” King David writes, “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

4. Control

Moms, as much as anyone, can cultivate an intense desire for things to go according to our will and plan, only to be plagued by the thousands of ways our plans fall apart. If we idolize control, we will do whatever it takes to manage and rule over our life. We dislike chaos and disorder. Not knowing what will happen next puts us on edge. When we worship the idol of control, we often find ourselves filled with worry. We lie awake at night trying to anticipate what will happen next and develop strategies for how to handle it. We live by our to-do lists, personal rules, routines, plans, and strategies.

In worshiping control, we seek our hope and security in controlling our life and the lives of our children. We forget that God rules and reigns over all things, including our schedules, lists, and plans: “The heart of [a mother] plans [her] way, but the Lord establishes [her] steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

5. Approval

The idol of approval involves a longing to be accepted by others. It comes from the belief that we must be loved or accepted in order for our life to matter. When people affirm us, we feel good. We feel right. We belong and are important. But when people do not show their approval, we are devastated. We feel empty and meaningless.

As moms, we seek approval from our children in their gratitude and affection. We also seek approval from others — in their compliments of our parenting or in their admiration of our children. Because our meaning and worth is wrapped up in what others think, it’s a wild roller-coaster of identity. Our value as a person rises and plummets based on the thoughts of others. The Bible calls this the fear of man and warns, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25).

In Christ Alone

Moms, those things you turn to for life and hope will only provide you temporary satisfaction. They cannot fill you. They cannot complete you. They cannot give you the meaning, purpose, and significance you seek. You’ll only find it in Christ.

We don’t have to worship false gods and created things. We have been set free from slavery to sin and are now free to worship our Creator. Through Christ, we are enabled more and more to love and treasure him above all things — to mother in his strength, and by his grace, and for his glory. We will spend eternity enjoying him for who he is and what he has done, including what he has done in and through us as moms.



FROM Dec 12, 2018

Along with the great theologian and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury we ask the question, Cur deus homo? Why the God-man? When we look at the biblical answer to that question, we see that the purpose behind the incarnation of Christ is to fulfill His work as God’s appointed Mediator. It is said in 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself ….” Now, the Bible speaks of many mediators with a small or lower case “m.” A mediator is an agent who stands between two parties who are estranged and in need of reconciliation. But when Paul writes to Timothy of a solitary Mediator, a single Mediator, with a capital “M,” he’s referring to that Mediator who is the supreme Intercessor between God and fallen humanity. This Mediator, Jesus Christ, is indeed the God-man.

In the early centuries of the church, with the office of mediator and the ministry of reconciliation in view, the church had to deal with heretical movements that would disturb the balance of this mediating character of Christ. Our one Mediator, who stands as an agent to reconcile God and man, is the One who participates both in deity and in humanity. In the gospel of John, we read that it was the eternal Logos, the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. It was the second person of the Trinity who took upon Himself a human nature to work out our redemption. In the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the church had to fight against a sinister teaching called the Monophysite heresy. The term monophysite is derived from the prefix mono, which means “one,” and from the root phusis, which means “nature” or “essence.” The heretic Eutyches taught that Christ, in the incarnation, had a single nature, which he called a “theanthropic nature.” This theanthropic nature (which combines the word theos, meaning “God,” and anthropos, meaning “man”) gives us a Savior who is a hybrid, but under close scrutiny would be seen to be one who was neither God nor man. The Monophysite heresy obscured the distinction between God and man, giving us either a deified human or a humanized deity. It was against the backdrop of this heresy that the Chalcedonian Creed insisted Christ possesses two distinct natures, divine and human. He is vere homo (truly human) and vere Deus (truly divine, or truly God). These two natures are united in the mystery of the incarnation, but it is important according to Christian orthodoxy that we understand the divine nature of Christ is fully God and the human nature is fully human. So this one person who had two natures, divine and human, was perfectly suited to be our Mediator between God and men. An earlier church council, the Council of Nicea in 325, had declared that Christ came “for us men, and for our salvation.” That is, His mission was to reconcile the estrangement that existed between God and humanity.

It is important to note that for Christ to be our perfect Mediator, the incarnation was not a union between God and an angel, or between God and a brutish creature such as an elephant or a chimpanzee. The reconciliation that was needed was between God and human beings. In His role as Mediator and the God-man, Jesus assumed the office of the second Adam, or what the Bible calls the last Adam. He entered into a corporate solidarity with our humanity, being a representative like unto Adam in his representation. Paul, for example, in his letter to the Romans gives the contrast between the original Adam and Jesus as the second Adam. In Romans 5, verse 15, he says, “For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.” Here we observe the contrast between the calamity that came upon the human race because of the disobedience of the original Adam and the glory that comes to believers because of Christ’s obedience. Paul goes on to say in verse 19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Adam functioned in the role of a mediator, and he failed miserably in his task. That failure was rectified by the perfect success of Christ, the God-man. We read later in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians these words: “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:45).

We see then the purpose of the first advent of Christ. The Logos took upon Himself a human nature, the Word became flesh to effect our redemption by fulfilling the role of the perfect Mediator between God and man. The new Adam is our champion, our representative, who satisfies the demands of God’s law for us and wins for us the blessing that God promised to His creatures if we would obey His law. Like Adam, we failed to obey the Law, but the new Adam, our Mediator, has fulfilled the Law perfectly for us and won for us the crown of redemption. That is the foundation for the joy of Christmas.


This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.


My doctor told me that he isn’t satisfied with containing the cancer in my body he wants to eradicate it. When he said that I realized that we should have the same attitude with our sin, we shouldn’t contain it we should kill it!

Those were the words of Ed, a man in my church who has stage four cancer raging through his body.

I really appreciated his perspective. Despite the fact that he hates the fact that he has cancer, he hates something else even more–sin.

I’ve been thinking about what Ed said ever since. I recently had the opportunity to preach on Romans 7, and I’ve been struck with the similarities between what Ed said and what Paul is saying in this passage.

The issue I’ve been considering, though, is the seeming dichotomy we face as believers. We are to kill sin in our lives, but no matter what we do, sin will always be present until our very last breath.

Romans 7 is one of the most controversial passages in Scripture as far as debates are concerned. The big question people ask is, is Paul referring to a believer as he talks through Romans 7:14-25? Even among those who agree that he is speaking about a believer, there is much debate as to whether the person described is a mature or an immature Christian.

I take the view that this is describing the type of Christian we should all strive to be. This, in other words, is the most mature of believers, and I have four reasons why.

Paul Hates His Sin

Paul is very clear that he doesn’t want to sin. He hates it. That is in direct opposition to how he describes non-Christians just four chapters earlier. In Romans 3:10-23, he describes unbelievers as not being able to do good. As being swift to shed blood. As people who do not seek after God. In Romans 1, he lists an incredible list of sins, and then declares that unbelievers practice those things and give approval of those who do them! Paul does not seem to believe that unbelievers have the capacity to hate their sin. In fact, I would go as far as to say that unbelievers are blinded as to the extent of their sin.

In Philippians 3, Paul, on the other hand, describing himself before Christ, though he had kept the law perfectly. He says that he was blameless as far as the law is concerned. He didn’t hate his sin before Christian, he was completely blinded to it. In Romans 7, it’s a different story. He says in verse 15, “I do the very things I hate.” In verse 19, “the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  In verse 21 he says, when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” These are the words of someone who hates sin and wants to please God.

One of the ways you can know that you are a Christian is if you hate your sin. Of course, everyone hates the consequences of sin, but believers–those who have received a new heart–hate the fact that their sin displeases their Savior.

Paul is Humble

True humility is an impossible trait for an unbeliever to possess because true humility only comes when you believe in the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible demands that you believe three things about yourself. That you are a sinner (Rom. 3:23), that you deserve hell for eternity for your sin (Rom. 6:23), and that you believe that you can’t contribute one iota to your salvation (Eph. 2:8-9).

Paul is marked by humility throughout Romans 7. He calls his actions evil in Romans 7:19, 21. He says that, “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18). He calls himself a “wretched man” in Romans 7:24. This is a humble man who realizes that without the Lord’s help he can’t be saved nor can he be sanctified.

Another way that you can know that you are a Christian is through your humility. You needed to be supernaturally humble to be saved in the first place, but humility continues and marks your life once you receive a new heart.

Paul is Happiest When Holy

One of the things that struck me about studying Romans 7 is that Paul is happiest when he is holy. This man is despairing in his present state.

In verse 22, Paul shouts a truth that is only true for born-again believers. He says, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” Like the man in Psalm 1, His delight is in the law of the Lord. He understands that true joy is only found in those who listen to God’s Word.

Psalm 32 is a great example of this. David experienced turmoil because he was a child of God. When he kept silent about his sin, his body wasted away. But when he confessed his sin, it produced gladness and much joy (Psalm 32:11).

One of the ways that you can knowyou are a Christian is if your love for Jesus causes you to desire holiness above all else. Obeying God’s Word is the desire of your heart.

Paul is Hoping in Heaven

Because Paul’s greatest goal in life is holiness, his greatest desire is Heaven. After walking through the despair of the Christian life, the knowledge of the fact that he will never be fully successful in his quest to put to death the deeds of the flesh, his only solution for it all is to rejoice in the deliverance found in Jesus Christ. (Rom. 7:25)

The Christian’s greatest desire on earth is to be with his Savior in Heaven. Our Savior will wipe away our tears, remove all pain, and will do away with the consequences of sin in our lives. Sin is the root of all problems that we face in this life, and a true Christian can’t wait to be with Christ in perfect holiness.

Joni Eareckson Tada, who has constantly battled pain throughout her life, said it best when she said,

“Don’t be thinking that for me in Heaven, the big deal after I get to see Jesus is to get my new body, no, no, no I want a glorified heart! I want a glorified heart that no longer twists the truth, resists God, looks for an escape, gets defeated by pain, becomes anxious or worrisome, manipulates my husband with precisely timed phrases…”

Joni vocalizes our greatest sentiment as believers. That to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Non-believers cannot comprehend this fact. Paul, according to Romans 7, must be a Christian because he hates sin, he is humble, he’s happiest when holy, and he reminds us that his greatest hope is in Heaven where Jesus is, sin is eradicated and holiness is the way of life.

True believers long for Heaven for many different reasons, but the greatest of which is that they will be with Jesus and worship Him without any sin holding us back.

Do you long for Heaven?


I keep coming across a “sticky” misconception that God (specifically, Jesus) changed the name of an important figure we now typically refer to as “Saint Paul.”

In a recent sermon, I heard: “Just like Saul the persecutor can become Paul the apostle, God is gracious to us.” On an exam, one of my brightest students wrote: “It is Saul, who is re-named as Paul, who is the primary messenger of the gospel.” A church member asked me, “Wait, you mean Jesus didn’t change Saul’s name to Paul on the Damascus Road?”

The problem is that such a view, however common, isn’t accurate. I hate to ruin the fun.

Popular But Unbiblical

I’m unclear on the origins of this idea—though some industrious person has no doubt studied it—but it seems this Saul-renamed-Paul notion is a clever re-reading of an Old Testament storyline onto that of the great apostle.

As is well known, God prominently changed the names of two Old Testament patriarchs: Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28). The idea seems to be that something similar happened to Paul when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9).

There is no scriptural evidence, however, to support a name change for Saul/Paul. Here are six lines of biblical evidence that prove the popular notion wrong:

1. Jesus addresses him as “Saul, Saul” during the christophany (Acts 9:4).

Nothing in the narrative suggests Jesus subsequently changed Saul’s name. In Galatians 1:15–17, Paul speaks of being set apart before birth to preach to the Gentiles, but there is no mention of any name change.

2. Ananias addresses him as “Saul” after his conversion (Acts 9:17).

There is no mention of a name change, and he is still calling him “Saul” after the christophany.

3. The Holy Spirit calls him “Saul” before his first missionary trip.

Acts 13:2 says, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” It would be odd for the third person of the Trinity to keep calling this man by his “persecutor” name if the second person of the Trinity had changed it to his “apostle” name four chapters earlier.

4. After the conversion experience, he is called “Saul” 11 more times.

Again, this would be odd if Jesus had changed his name to Paul.

5. The decisive shift from “Saul” to “Paul” in Acts happens only once Paul sets off on his missionary journeys away from Jerusalem.

This subtle shift occurs in Acts 13:13: “Now Paul and his companions set sail.” The person who “changes” his name is not Jesus, but Luke.

6. Saul and Paul were two names for the same person all along.

Acts 13:9 is the clincher: “But Saul, who was also called Paul, [was] filled with the Holy Spirit.” Here the converted person is being called both Saul and Paul—not “Saul the tyrant who was renamed Paul the Christian.” Saul and Paul are dual names of one man, both before and after his conversion.Lightstock

Paul Is Saul

As it turns out, “Saul”—derived from the famous first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, to which Saul/Paul himself belonged (Phil. 3:5)—is simply the Hebrew name for this person.  “Paul”—a normal koine name—is his Greek name, derived from the Latin surname Paulus.

For someone born in Tarsus (Acts 21:39) but educated under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) in a strict form of Pharisaism (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5–6), this is not unusual. Much as many immigrants to English-speaking worlds take an Anglicized name on top of their ethnic name, many Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day would have a Jewish/Hebrew name and a Hellenistic/Greek name.

Here’s the smoking gun: When Paul recalls his conversion, he specifically notes that Jesus was “saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 26:14). Paul draws attention to how Jesus addressed him in his Hebrew name, and makes no mention that it is now abandoned.

When Saul/Paul launches his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily Greek-speakers (beginning with Acts 13:9), it’s natural for Luke, the author of Acts, to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. Nor is it surprising that he’s later referred to as “Paul” in Jerusalem, since there were Greek speakers there too. Indeed, Luke could be making a thematic point by shifting from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8). After all, the church’s nucleus is shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered “ends of the earth,” such as Rome.

The apostle’s two names is not unique. Several other figures in the New Testament have two given names: Joseph, later called Barnabas (Acts 4:36); Simeon, also called Niger (Acts 13:1); and Thomas, also called Didymus (John 21:2); among others.

Why It Matters

So why does clarity on this issue matter? Why would I rain on the parade of someone for whom a divine name change from Saul (bad guy) to Paul (good guy) is a cherished illustration of God’s grace?

Theological ideas not rooted in God’s Word—even if attractive and useful—are ultimately unwarranted. I can imagine how easy it is to draw powerful applications from the notion that Saul the persecutor met the risen Jesus and was so transformed that Jesus gave him a new name. That will preach, especially given how closely connected naming and identity are in Scripture. Nevertheless, without biblical evidence for such an idea, we should not use it. Even if it spoils the fun.

This principle applies well beyond this situation, of course. Another common error is the conflation of the magi with the shepherds at the manger. The magi were not there at the same time; they found Jesus months later. We can derive the right doctrine from the wrong text, and we can derive the wrong doctrine from the right text.

As God’s people we should endeavor to read God’s Word closely and be as faithful to it as possible, in every area. Application that appears to draw on Scripture but isn’t actually scriptural—even if it’s “useful” or “cool”—can easily undermine someone’s faith once they realize they’ve been misled all along.


The Preacher and Teacher: The First John

            Reading through Sinclair Ferguson’s book Some Pastors and Teachers feels akin, or so I imagine, to sitting down with the author and getting to hear first hand what it was that sharpened and formed him into the pastor, preacher, and theologian he is today. Each chapter excels at informing the reader what it sets out to explore, but it’s hearing the way Dr. Ferguson has been influenced in or impacted by any given thought that makes the book so special.

Indeed, what immediately struck me about his book was the way in which he elucidates the major themes, theological and practical, of his own theological heroes. John Calvin in particular took on a new freshness for me as I listened in to the impact the Reformer had on Dr. Ferguson. It seems strange to write about a writer who’s commentating on a writer, but the strangeness quickly evaporates once the reader engages Ferguson’s book. It’s a lens through which the weighty and important truths from Calvin, Owen, and Murray – the three John’s – are identified, distilled, and delivered in both a clear and concise manner.

Consider, for example, chapter six, “John Calvin: Commentator for Preachers”.  Here we’re invited, as it were, into Sinclair Ferguson’s study to see how he prepares to preach and he opens up for us one of John Calvin’s commentaries. You, being perhaps a brand new pastor, might wonder what value there is reading such a work, maybe tempted to believe that the scholarship of the 1500’s is surely outdated. You’d be mistaken.

“Calvin’s great burden as an interpreter of Scripture is always to seek out the scopus of the text, [thus] his work is invaluable in helping us get to the point (still a sine qua non of good preaching!)… But, for most preachers, what gives real value to a commentary is a sometimes less easily defined quality; its ability to stimulate, to prime the pump for our own work on a passage, sometimes giving us a jump start when the batteries have begun to run low. Calvin does exactly this, occasionally in surprising ways.”[1]

Taking this insight to heart, I have since made sure I now “check in with Calvin” before stepping into the pulpit on any given Lord’s Day and this practice has become indispensable. Indeed, for Dr. Ferguson reading Calvin is no “quick fix, but he is an invaluable companion in the lifelong adventure of preaching the word!”[2]

Turning from Calvin’s commentaries to commenting on Calvin’s preaching, Sinclair Ferguson again shows us his admiration for the Reformer. “What was particularly impressive about Calvin’s preaching is that it was Calvin’s own… He was an extraordinarily shrewd observer with his own imaginative powers. And these he used constantly to draw his hearers into the fact that this ancient text from God impacted day-to-day life in sixteenth-century Geneva.”[3]

But what impact does Calvin’s preaching have on 21st century Westerners? Ferguson believes the truths he preached are still relevant and needed. “Patient reading of his sermons, especially out loud, will quickly confirm that point… The fact that so many young people were prepared to become martyrs for Christ after sitting under his ministry speaks volumes for its power and effect.”[4]

What preacher does not want that for his own congregation? What preacher does not yearn for the power and effect of godly preaching. But what Sinclair Ferguson so rightly points out is that for Calvin, “since the Spirit is the author of the word, he is consistent with himself when he speaks through the word.”[5] And it was because of this that Calvin was preeminently given over to preaching only what the Word said. No more, no less. This is why Calvin is so helpful for us today – he sticks to and is ruled over by the words of Scripture. The Bible alone regulates Calvin’s preaching.

And again, what’s really neat to see in Some Pastors And Teachers is the way these truths play upon Sinclair Ferguson’s heart. Turning his eyes from Calvin to our own day, he writes that “our generation of preachers needs most of all the conviction which the Reformed fathers shared: we have something not only worth saying, but a message which must by all means be heard… Now is not the hour for the church to lose its grip on the instrument by which God’s forgiveness in Christ has been declared to millions throughout the world. The Reformed church has always been driven at this point by the apostolic conviction: How can they hear [that there is forgiveness with God] without a preacher (Rom. 10:14)? May it continue to be so driven!”[6]

Indeed, and may Some Pastors And Teachers be a means of grace by which many more preachers today are reacquainted with that ancient conviction.


Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



While in Cambridge on a trip to visit churches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island this past weekend, my host, Tom Fisher, took me on a walking tour of Harvard. Tom is a walking encyclopedia himself, and I immensely enjoyed hearing the history of the people, buildings, and sites on this sunny but brisk New England day. When he took me to look at the great nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home, we thought we would only be able to look on from the outside as indoor tours seasonally halt in October.

Yet surprisingly, a friendly park ranger named Garrett told us the home was open for tours that day. Turns out an open house had been held the night before for special dignitaries, having been decorated for Christmas, and the staff had decided to give some tours to the public on Saturday. With an opportunity to both see inside this well preserved home and escape the cold for a bit, we eagerly accepted his invitation for a tour.

Incredibly, the home is like a small museum, as it is filled with all the period furnishings, paintings, and other possessions of the Longfellow’s. At times you do feel as you have stepped back in time as you walk through the rooms. With the emphasis on Christmas, the staff had brought out other items telling the story of this family. They had a Great Republic wooden sled displayed that Henry had given to his son Charley in 1854, with excerpts from his diary describing the fun the children had in the snow. A doll set of clothes from France the girls had received were set out on a table. Letters the kids had written to Santa were shown, one with the boys requesting soldier equipment. A reply was posted next to it, clearly written by guiding parents, telling them they could have toy soldiers but Santa did not want them pretending to be soldiers themselves.

As we paused in Longfellow’s book-lined study, Garrett told us the story behind one of his poems. In 1863, Longfellow was at a low point. His beloved wife Fanny, mother of their six children, had tragically perished two years earlier when the dress she was wearing caught on fire in the next room from his study. His attempts to put it out came too late, as she died of severe burns the next day. He himself lived with facial scars from this incident the rest of his life (which he covered with his familiar bushy beard). The Civil War was then in its bitter throes, casting a pall over the land. Indeed, Longfellow’s son Charley, the recipient of that sled, joined the Union Army without his father’ blessing and had recently suffered a serious injury. When Longfellow learned of his son’s misfortune, he traveled to Virginia to bring him back home to convalesce. As Christmas approached that year, Longfellow felt little desire to celebrate as in happier times.

However, as he often did, Longfellow turned to poetry to not only express himself but to find solace. That year he wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”. In it you can hear Longfellow’s pain and desire for restoration.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

This poem is the basis for the familiar Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. References to the Civil War were removed, making it more generic in many ways. Now for the lesson I heard.

Standing in Longfellow’s study hearing this story and listening to Garrett read this poem, you could identify with him as you imagined him sitting at his desk struggling through those dark times. And though Longfellow appears to have been more of a poet intrigued by Christian themes than a Christian poet, the call and direction of the poem is a solid one. For when the thundering sounds of this sin-cursed earth are heard around us, be they in the form of the darkness of war, personal tragedy, or other suffering, we should ring the gospel bell all the louder in our own hearts and the ears of those around us. The believer should proclaim to himself and to all who will listen of God’s presence and ultimate victory on this earth, first announced by angels at Christ’s birth and brought to fruition through his death and resurrection.