497 Years Ago Today: An Interview with Carl Trueman on Luther’s 95 Theses

Oct 31, 2014 | Justin Taylor

[Note: Today only (October 31, 2014), in honor of Reformation Day, WTS Books is offering Stephen Nichols’s book containing Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (with an introduction and explanatory notes) for free today with any purchase of any amount. No need to add it to your cart. They will simply include it with your shipment.]

On October 31, 1517—a Saturday—a 33-year-old former monk turned theology professor at the University of Wittenberg walked over to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion, making the first order of business the proposition that all of life should be marked by repentance. Little did he know that this call for an disputation on repentance would eventually change the course of history through a reformation of the church and the culture.

Below is an interview with Carl Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His forthcoming Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, February 2015)—with a foreword by renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb and an afterword by America’s most famous Lutheran historian Martin Marty—will be an indispensable resource on appropriating Luther for today (and will challenge the use that’s made of him by many of his gospel-loving fans).

The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.

The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.

A 1522 printed copy of Luther's 95 theses.

A 1522 printed copy of Luther’s 95 theses.

Had Luther ever done this before—nail a set of theses to the Wittenberg door? If so, did previous attempts have any impact?

I am not sure if he had ever nailed up theses before, but he had certainly proposed sets of such for academic debate, which was all he was really doing on October 31, 1517. In fact, in September of that same year, he had led a debate on scholastic theology where he said far more radical things than were in the Ninety-Five Theses. Ironically, this earlier debate, now often considered the first major public adumbration of his later theology, caused no real stir in the church at all.

The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors---made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form---were installed in 1858.

The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors—made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form—were installed in 1858.

What was the point of nailing something to the Wittenberg door? Was this a common practice?

It was simply a convenient public place to advertise a debate, and not an unusual or uncommon practice. In itself, it was no more radical than putting up an announcement on a public notice board.

What precisely is a “thesis” in this context?

A thesis is simply a statement being brought forward for debate.

Luther was bothered by the use of “indulgences.” What was that?

An indulgence was a piece of paper, a certificate, which guaranteed the purchaser (or the person for whom the indulgence was purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the financial transaction.

A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.

A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.

At this point did Luther have a problem with indulgences per se, or was he merely critiquing the abuse of indulgences?

This is actually quite a complicated question to answer.

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.

First, Luther was definitely critiquing what he believes to be an abuse of indulgences. For him, an indulgence could have a positive function; the problem with those being sold by Johann Tetzel in 1517 is that remission of sin’s penalty has been radically separated from the actual repentance and humility of the individual receiving the same.

Second, it would appear that the Church herself was not clear on where the boundaries were relative to indulgences, and so Luther’s protest actually provoked the Church into having to reflect upon her practices, to establish what was and was not legitimate practice.

Was Luther trying to start a major debate by nailing these to the door?

The matter was certainly one of pressing pastoral concern for him. Tetzel was not actually allowed to sell his indulgences in Electoral Saxony (the territory where Wittenberg was located) because Frederick the Wise, Luther’s later protector, had his own trade in relics. Many of his parishioners, however, were crossing over into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony, where Tetzel was plying his trade.

Luther had been concerned about the matter of indulgences for some time. Thus, earlier in 1517, he had preached on the matter and consulted others for their opinions on the issue. By October, he was forced by the pastoral situation to act.

Having said all that, Luther was certainly not intending to split the church at this point or precipitate the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy into conflict and crisis. He was simply trying to address a deep pastoral concern.

An engraving from 1520 by Luther's friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.

An engraving from 1520 by Luther’s friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.

Was Luther a “Protestant” at this point? Was he a “Lutheran”?

No, on both counts.

He himself tells us in 1545 that, in 1517, he was a committed Catholic who would have murdered—or at least been willing to see murder committed—in the name of the Pope. There is some typical Luther hyperbole there, but the theology of the Ninety-Five Theses is not particularly radical, and key Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by grace through faith alone, are not yet present. He was an angry Catholic, hoping that, when the Pope heard about Teztel, he would intervene to stop the abuse.

So how did that act of nailing these theses to the door ignite the Reformation?

On one level, I am inclined to say “Goodness only knows.” As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements. Nevertheless, it seems to have struck a popular chord, being rapidly translated into German and becoming a bestseller within weeks. The easy answer is, therefore, “By the providence of God”; but, as a historian, I always like to try to tie things down to some set of secondary or more material causes.

The time was right for some kind of protest: anticlericalism, economic strain on all classes of society, and a growing resentment of tax money flowing south to Italy all helped to create an environment in which various groups—peasants, knights, nobility, intellectuals—all saw in Luther’s protest something with which they could sympathize. Yet, even so, the revolutionary power of such a technical composition is, in retrospect, still quite surprising.

So what happened after he nailed the theses to the church door?

Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

As to what happened next, well, the debate (ironically) did not.  But the theses were translated into German and within weeks were circulating throughout Saxony. They became a popular rallying point of protest, despite the fact that most of the readers would not really have understood them.

Procedurally, Albrecht of Mainz, the bishop responsible for this specific indulgence sale, sent an official complaint to Rome but, in an era of slow communication, this took time to arrive.  This bought Luther precious months to continue to develop his theology.  The next big event is really the Heidelberg Disputation which took place at a regular chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order in April 1518.  It was there that Luther was really able to put his emerging theology on public display.

How important was the printing press in spreading Luther’s reforms?

A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.

A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.

The printing press is crucial. For the first time in history, news and ideas can be transmitted in a stable form across vast areas of land and throughout populations.

Of course, most people could not read. But Reformation pamphlets often had graphic (sometimes even pornographic) woodcuts which communicated even to the illiterate who were the good guys and who were the bad.  Thus, we have the possibility of mass movements and of the arrival of “popular opinion.”

Cheap print also fueled the rise of literacy, which was to be vital in the spread and establishment of Protestantism in the long term.

For those today who want to read the 95 Theses, what would you recommend?

The place to start is probably Stephen Nichols’s edition (with an introduction and notes).

Nevertheless, if you really want to understand Luther’s theology, and why it is important, you will need to look beyond the Ninety-Five Theses. Probably the best place to start would be Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church.

* * *

The following clip is from the movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes (2003):

And here is Dr. Trueman talking about his forthcoming book:

*The painting at the beginning of this post is by Greg Copeland (courtesty of Concordia Publishing House) and can be found in Paul Maier’s excellent book for older kids, Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World.

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Calvin on Why God Raised Up Luther to Reform the Church

Oct 30, 2014 | Justin Taylor

calvin-and-lutherTomorrow is Reformation Day.

Here is John Calvin, writing in 1543 (26 years after Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Door), explaining why the Reformation needed to happen:

At the time when divine truth lay buried under this vast and dense cloud of darkness;

when religion was sullied by so many impious superstitions;

when by horrid blasphemies the worship of God was corrupted, and his glory laid prostrate;

when by a multitude of perverse opinions, the benefit of redemption was frustrated, and men, intoxicated with a fatal confidence in works, sought salvation anywhere rather than in Christ;

when the administration of the sacraments was partly maimed and torn asunder, partly adulterated by the admixture of numerous fictions, and partly profaned by traffickings for gain;

when the government of the church had degenerated into mere confusion and devastation; when those who sat in the seat of pastors first did most vital injury to the church by the dissoluteness of their lives, and, secondly, exercised a cruel and most noxious tyranny over souls, by every kind of error, leading men like sheep to the slaughter;

then Luther arose, and after him others, who with united counsels sought out means and methods by which religion might be purged from all these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the church raised out of its calamitous into somewhat of a tolerable condition.

The same course we are still pursuing in the present day.

—John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.”

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Introducing “The Stories We Tell”

Oct 28, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The video above was made to introduce cosperMike Cosper’s new book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Crossway, 2014), in the Cultural Renewal series edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen,

Keller writes in the foreword, “Mike’s book will help readers learn to put the gospel on like a pair of glasses in order to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in our culture more clearly. This book will be especially helpful, I think, for Christians who preach, teach, and communicate the gospel. And, in the end, learning this discipline—of seeing God’s story in the stories we tell today—will be a way for us to deepen our own understanding of and joy in the gospel we believe.”

Here is what others are saying about the book:

“Mike helps us make sense of what is true and good in the stories our culture consumes, and he does it without leading us toward syncretism. With the amount of TV and movies our culture devours, this book is a must read.”
—Matt Chandler, Lead Pastor, The Village Church, Dallas, Texas; President, Acts 29 Church Planting Network

“Like Paul at the Areopagus, Mike Cosper walks through the cultural artifacts of our entertainment industry and effectively says, ‘I can tell by your sitcoms and dramas and even your romantic comedies that you are a storytelling people who long for more. Let me introduce you to the Storyteller you don’t even realize you long to know.’ The result is a book that will change how you watch TV and movies. But more importantly, this might change the conversations you have with your neighbors.”
—James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College; author, Imagining the Kingdom and How (Not) to Be Secular

“Cultural engagement is a delicate but necessary balance for all who claim Christ. Mike Cosper insightfully examines narratives in pop culture to reveal the larger story of God at work in the human heart. This book is a must read for pastors and all those who seek to engage the culture with the powerful story of the gospel.”
—Ed Stetzer, President, LifeWay Research; author, Subversive Kingdom

“Drawing upon a dazzling breadth of stories told through film, television, and literature, Mike Cosper examines—critically and charitably, wisely and generously—the culture-shaping power of stories and how all reflect in some way the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption. Skillfully and compellingly written, The Stories We Tell is essential reading for anyone consuming, engaging, or shaping the culture.”
—Karen Prior, author, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

“There is no one I would rather read on issues of popular culture than Mike Cosper. This book is not another ‘here’s how you find the gospel in Superman’ project. Cosper analyzes popular culture with depth and with wisdom, seeing both the common grace of conscience all around us and the depths of human sin. As Cosper interacts with popular culture, he models for us how to listen to the voices around us in order that we might engage them with the mission of Christ. This book is about more than the media he analyzes. It is also a training ground for how to pay attention to our neighbors.”
—Russell D. Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; author, Tempted and Tried

“The stories we tell rattle around in our minds, capture our imaginations, and give shape to our living as they echo the themes of God’s grand redemptive story—creation, fall, and redemption. These are not only the themes of film, literature, and television, but are also the inescapable passages of every person’s life. Cosper gives us new eyes to see and new ears to hear the stories we tell and in so doing invites us to celebrate our inclusion in the one story with a happy ending that actually never ever ends. I love this book and I think you will too.”
—Paul David Tripp, President, Paul Tripp Ministries; author, What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage

“Mike has showed us the way of participating in culture and discerning where God is in it. It is easy to simply reject cultural creations in the name of purity. Or to receive them uncritically. The Stories We Tell will inspire a new generation of missionaries who seek to live in the world but not of it.”
—Darrin Patrick, Lead Pastor, The Journey, St. Louis, Missouri; Vice President, Acts 29; Chaplain to the St. Louis Cardinals; author, The Dude’s Guide to Manhood

“Evangelicals are notorious for consuming mass quantities of pop culture behind closed doors and sanctimoniously railing against the culture in public. It’s time to stop the hypocrisy and get serious about thinking theologically about the TV shows and films that stir our imaginations. In The Stories We Tell, Mike Cosper plays the role of the Interpreter in The Pilgrim’s Progress by clarifying our favorite episodes and movies in light of both law and gospel, and urges us, ‘Stay until I have showed thee a little more!'”
—Gregory Alan Thornbury, President, The King’s College; author, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism

“Cosper presents a thoughtful, gospel-centered analysis of culture that will resonate with the current generation. Whether you love TV and movies or hate them, they are indeed the central sounds and images of our culture, and they call for discerning theological critique. And this book delivers. Mike Cosper tells us the story about the stories we tell, and does so wisely and well.”
—Grant Horner, Associate Professor of Renaissance and Reformation, The Master’s College; author, Meaning at the Movies

You can download an excerpt from the book here.

You can also read an interview with Cosper here.

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Free Livestream of the ERLC National Conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage”

Oct 27, 2014 | Justin Taylor

ERLCnatconferenceLOGOThe ERLC National Conference, starting today (Monday, October 27), will address “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” designed to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches.

They will address issues like:

  • How do we effectively minister to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender?
  • How has the divorce culture impacted marriage in our communities and our churches?
  • What does sexual faithfulness look like for a same-sex attracted Christian?
  • Why did God create marriage and why did he design it for the common good?
  • How should a pastor counsel a same-sex couple that wants to join his church?
  • How can churches minister to those who are single, dating, divorced or celibate?
  • How can Christians show the love of Christ to gay family members or neighbors?


The sessions will be livestreamed (free, but brief registration required) and liveblogged.

It begins today at 1:20 PM, Central Time.

The schedule of 20 talks and 5 panels—many of them relatively short in length—are listed below.


1:20-2:00 PM

Albert Mohler, “Aftermath: Ministering in a Post-Marriage Culture”

2:05-2:40 PM

Panel: Russell Moore, Albert Mohler, D. A. Horton, Robert Sloan (Phillip Bethancourt, moderator), “The State of Marriage in American Culture: Divorce, Cohabitation, Same-Sex Marriage, and Other Trends”

3:05-3:25 PM

Greg Smalley, “Building Healthy Marriages”

3:25-3:40 PM

Kristen Waggoner and Erik Stanley, “The Price of Citizenship: Can the State Compel the Church to Embrace Homosexual Relationships?”

3:55-4:10 PM

Glenn Stanton, “Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor”

4:15-5:00 PM

Panel: John Stonestreet, Trevin Wax, Lindsay Swartz, Eric Teetsel (Andrew Walker, moderator), “Millennials and Marriage: Evaluating the Young Generation’s Views on Sexuality and Marriage”

7:15-7:30 PM

Jennifer Marshall, “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century”

7:35-8:00 PM

Danny Akin, “God on Sex: The Creator’s Ideas about Love, Intimacy, and Marriage”

8:10-8:40 PM

Sherif Girgis, “Better Together: Marriage and the Common Good”

8:45-9:30 PM

Panel: Kevin Ezell, Dennis Rainey, Carmen Fowler Laberge, and Heath Lambert (Daniel Darling, moderator)


8:50-9:30 AM

Russell Moore and Rosaria Butterfield, “Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”

9:35-10:15 AM

Russell Moore, “Questions and Ethics Live”

10:40-10:55 AM

Christopher Yuan, “Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God”

11:00-11:15 AM

Jackie Hill-Perry, “How Does the Gospel Equip Christians Who Struggle with Same-Sex Attraction?”

11:20 AM-12:00 PM

Panel: Christopher Yuan, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Jackie Hill-Perry (Russell Moore, moderator), “Is It Okay to Be Gay? A Candid Conversation on Christians and Same-Sex Attraction”

2:30-3:15 PM

Denny Burk, “Is There Really a Slippery Slope? A Gospel-Centered Assessment of Gender Identity, Transgender, and Polygamy”

3:30-4:30 PM

Sam Allberry, “Is God Anti-Gay? Answering Tough Questions about Same-Sex Marriage”

6:50-7:30 PM

David Platt, “Marriage and Missions: How Singleness and Marriage Connect to the Great Commission”

7:35-7:45 PM

Lizette Beard, “Why I Love and Hate Being Single”

7:50-8:20 PM

Jim Daly, “Reconcilable Differences: Building Bridges with Those Who Disagree about Marriage”

8:45-9:25 PM

Russell Moore, “Slow-Motion Sexual Revolutionaries? Culture Wars, Christian Witness, and the Future of Marriage”



 8:45-9:05 AM

Dennis Rainey, “Growing Great Commission Marriages”

9:10-9:50 AM

Panel: Steven Smith, Jason Allen, Thomas White, Randy Stinson (Phillip Bethancourt, moderator), “Preparing Next Generation Leaders for a Post-Marriage Culture”

9:55-10:10 AM

Ryan Anderson, “Marriage in Crisis: The Conflict between Sexual Freedom and Religious Liberty”

10:15-10:55 AM

J.D. Greear, “Preaching Like Jesus to the LGBT Community and Its Supporters”

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A Biblical Theology of God’s Design for Man and Woman

Oct 24, 2014 | Justin Taylor

9781433536991Matt Smethurst interviews Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger about their new book, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway, 2014). This is one of the few books to approach the issue from the methodology and organization of biblical theology. Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview:

In what ways can evangelical Christians be in danger of confusing conservative cultural expectations with biblical complementarity?

Scripture doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how God’s design for man and woman is to be worked out, so a traditional division of labor (women in the kitchen, changing diapers; men at work letting women do all household chores) doesn’t square with the biblical design (we’ve discussed the inadequacy of labels here). It’s true that God’s design assigns primary spheres of activity, but Scripture calls the husband not only to provide for his wife materially but, more importantly, to love her sacrificially. There is flexibility within the basic framework, and each couple has unique circumstances in which to work out God’s design and plan for them personally, both leader and partner. The biblical pattern is loving, self-sacrificial complementarity where the couple partners in conscious pursuit of God’s mission. Marriage is part of God’s larger purpose of reuniting all of humanity under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Did working on this book together cause you to rethink any view you previously held?

A fresh and focused look at the overall teaching of Scripture on God’s design for man and woman has given us what we think is a more balanced paradigm for men and women. Succinctly put, the overarching model that many have implicitly understood in recent years has been male leadership and female submission. Though true in essence, we believe that this approach may unduly constrain the woman’s role and contribution in marriage and the church. We might rather categorize the biblical teaching in these terms: male leadership and female partnership. Holding these two patterns in tension without denying or diminishing either is vital. Many unfortunately deny male leadership, which is indisputably and pervasively taught in Scripture, while others—in practice if not in principle—diminish the real sense of male-female partnership in keeping with Scripture’s depiction of the woman as the man’s counterpart and as his fellow heir of God’s grace.

You can read the whole thing here.

Here are a few endorsements for the book:

“Models the best of Christian discernment about matters of gender, theology, justice, roles, and gifts. It is faithful in its representation both of God’s character and our own propensity to sin, pastoral in its application of faithful biblical hermeneutics, insightful in its explanation of original word usages and their application, concise in its framing of hot-button issues and the hermeneutical fallacies that often fuel them, and charitable in its handling of the motives of those who disagree.”
—Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured Professor of English at Syracuse University; author, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert; mother, pastor’s wife, and speaker
“The brilliant and respected Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger are wise experts, guiding us through the Bible for a substantive, gospel-rich, and pastorally applied theology of masculinity, femininity, and the goodness of our differences by God’s design.”
—Russell D. Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; author, Tempted and Tried
“Scriptural, thorough, scholarly, irenic, and practical, this vital resource will help any serious student of the Bible understand God’s good, wise, and wonderful design.”
—Mary A. Kassian, Professor of Women’s Studies, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild
“Moving beyond debates that discuss men’s and women’s roles in isolation from one another, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger take a biblical-theological approach that seeks to understand God’s design for men and women from the progressively unfolding narrative of Scripture. Responding to the profound influence of feminism, the authors call on men to exercise leadership in ways that exhibit genuine care and responsibility for those they are charged to nurture and protect.”
—Daniel I. Block, Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College
“Whenever we consider our God-given design, we must do so with humble hearts. What a gift to be able to appreciate how the triune, eternal God made us! This study on God’s design will be useful in every field of Christian work all over the world.”
—Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full
At the Crossway page you download some sample material and a study guide.


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70 Years Ago Today: The Conversion of J. I. Packer

Oct 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

On Sunday, October 22, 1944—seventy years ago today—it is doubtful that anyone noticed a soft-spoken, lanky, and decidedly bookish first-year university student leaving his dormitory room at Corpus Christi College and heading across Oxford for an evening Christian Union service at a local Anglican church.

18-year-old Jim Packer had arrived at Oxford University less than three weeks prior, a single suitcase in hand, traveling east by train from Gloucester using a free ticket available to family members of Great Western Railway employees.

He later described himself at this stage of life as ”immature,” “shy,” “introverted,” “awkward,” “intellectual,” and an “oddball.” He was an “outsider” who was “bad at relationships” and “emotionally locked up.” He was also a “churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents to, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration.”

Packer came from a lower middle-class background and a nominal Anglican family that went to St Catharine’s Church in Gloucester but never talked about the things of God or even prayed at meals. As a teenager Packer had read a couple of the new books coming out by C. S. Lewis (fellow and tutor in English literature at Oxford’s Magdalen College), including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and the three BBC talks turned pamphlets that would later become Mere Christianity (1942-44). During chess matches with a high school classmate—the son of a Unitarian minister—he had defended Christianity.

Packer thought of himself as a Christian. But the events of that evening would convince him otherwise.

On this cool autumn evening, he made his way west across Oxford, past Pembroke College, and into St Aldate’s Church, where the Christian Union occasionally held services. The lights in the building were dimmed so that the light emanating from the building would be no brighter than moonlight—a recent relaxation of England’s “blackout” regulations to avoid air-raid attacks in World War II.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 9.12.38 AM
He entered the doors of the church a dead man walking and was to leave later that night as a resurrected man, knowing himself to belong to Christ.

The following narrative is adapted from Leland Ryken’s forthcoming biography, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), which Mike Reeves calls “now the definitive, most up-to-date biography of J. I. Packer.”

A schoolboy friendship with Eric Taylor was an important part of Jim Packer’s final year at Crypt School in Gloucester, England. While Packer spent his third year in “sixth form,” Taylor made the transition to the University of Bristol. During his first year at Bristol, Taylor became a Christian. He wrote letters to Packer about his new-found faith. Packer did not fully understand the letters, especially the one that contained an exposition of the final verses of Romans 3 on justification by faith. Jim was puzzled by references to “saving faith.” During the following summer vacation of 1944, Taylor and Packer had a series of conversations about the Christian faith. The discussions left Packer feeling that something was lacking, but he was mystified as to what it was.

Eric Taylor did not bring Packer to faith, but he did the next-best thing by encouraging Jim to make contact with the Christian student group at Oxford called the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU, an Inter-Varsity organization).

Front quad of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Front quad of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Christian student groups at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were highly active in the middle of the twentieth century. The Christian Union at Oxford followed a practice of arranging a social event in the respective colleges for new students at the beginning of each academic year. These were informational meetings designed to attract the participation of students in the meetings of the Christian Union of the university as a whole. Nearly everything at Oxford University is traditional, and the opening recruitment meeting of the term

Jim Packer (top center), with members of OICCU in Trinity Term 1948 at St Ebbe's Rectory. Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones (now Lady Catherwood) is sitting in front of Packer.

Jim Packer (top center), with members of OICCU in Trinity Term 1948 at St Ebbe’s Rectory. Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones (now Lady Catherwood) is sitting in front of Packer.

happened specifically on the Thursday evening before the start of the academic year.

Ralph Hulme, the Corpus Christi OICCU representative, initiated contact with Packer and invited him to the introductory Thursday meeting. Packer accepted the invitation, having already determined that he would attend. The first meeting was eminently forgettable, as evidenced by the fact that the only thing Packer remembers about the event was that it failed to spark his interest!

Despite the low wartime enrollments at the University, OICCU president David Mullins (a medical student) was determined to maintain the evangelistic staldatesthrust of the Christian Union. The weekly agenda was ambitious. On the University level, there was a Bible exposition every Saturday evening and an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening (known as “Sunday evening sermon”). Individual colleges then sponsored their own weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings. These options were presented to Packer at the informational meeting. The first week he decided to attend the Saturday evening Bible exposition but not the Sunday evening evangelistic service. He did, however, attend the evangelistic service the next Sunday, October 22, 1944.

The sanctuary of St Aldate's church in Oxford, c. 1940s.

The sanctuary of St Aldate’s church in Oxford, c. 1940s.

The service at which Packer was converted occurred at St. Aldate’s church, an Anglican church in the center of the city. It was one of the larger Oxford churches and was noted for its student ministry. We might note in passing that St. Aldate’s is a “stone’s throw” from Pembroke College, where fellow Crypt School alumnus George Whitefield (1714-70) attended college and was converted.

The service began at 8:15 PM. The preacher was an elderly Anglican parson named Rev. Earl Langston, from the resort town of Weymouth. The first half of the forty-minute sermon consisted of biblical exposition that left Packer bored. But the second half was a personal narrative of how Langston had been converted at a boys’ camp. The key component of that conversion had been a challenge posed to the youthful Langston by a camp leader as to whether or not he was a Christian. Langston had been jolted by this question to conclude that he was not actually saved. That, in turn, led to his coming to personal faith in Christ as Savior.

This autobiographical narrative was riveting to Packer, who had entered Oxford believing himself to be a Christian. Packer suddenly saw his own story in Langston’s narrative and realized that he was not a Christian. It was a traumatic realization. It was accompanied by an imagined picture that Alister McGrath reconstructs as follows:

He found a picture arising from within his mind. The picture was that of someone looking from outside through a window into a room where some people were having a party. Inside the room, people were enjoying themselves by playing games. The person outside could understand the games that they were playing. He knew the rules of the games. But he was outside; they were inside. He needed to come in.

Packer was particularly convicted by the latter awareness: “I need to come in.” So by the Spirit’s prompting he came in. The sermon ended as evangelistic services in the Oxford milieu (and more universally) did—with the preacher emphasizing the need to commit oneself to Christ and the singing of the hymn “Just As I Am.”

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Packer states simply, “I had given my life to Christ.” He also recounts, “When I went out of the church I knew I was a Christian.”

Packer went back to his room at Corpus Christi and wrote his parents to tell them what had happened.

More than half a century later, Packer could attest regarding his conversion that “I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.”

Thank God for his saving grace. Seventy years later, Packer continues to instruct the church on the beauty and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who saves us just as we are but begins to transform us into what we will someday be, all to the praise of the glory of his grace.

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What Did the Old Testament Writers Know about the Unfolding of the New Testament?

Oct 21, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Writing in 1936, J. Gresham Machen wrote:

The writers of the Bible did know what they were doing when they wrote. I do not believe that they always knew all that they were doing.

I believe that there are mysterious words of prophecy in the Prophets and the Psalms, for example, which had a far richer and more glorious fulfillment than the inspired writers knew when they wrote.

Yet even in the case of those mysterious words I do not think that the sacred writers were mere automata.

They did not know the full meaning of what they wrote, but they did know part of the meaning, and the full meaning was in no contradiction with the partial meaning but was its glorious unfolding. (Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World [reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947], 55)

Greg Beale, in a forthcoming article for the Westminster Theological Journal on “The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors”—adapted as an appendix in the new book co-authored with Ben Gladd, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery (IVP Academic, 2014)—agrees with Machen and offers an evocative metaphor to describe the relationship:

Machen is referring to meanings of Old Testament authors that lie at the “edges” of the widest part of their cognitive peripheral vision. There is a blurring at these edges, just as there is with the peripheral vision of our literal eyes. Because of this blurring, one can, therefore, say that these authors may not have been very aware at all of these meanings; but God, who inspired them, was explicitly aware, and when this meaning becomes explicit in the New Testament, the “blurred vision” becomes clear and it is truly something that is organically “unfolded” from the Old Testament author’s original meaning. (p. 364)

Here is Professor Beale delivering this lecture for his inauguration as the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (September 25, 2013):

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An Interview on Early Christian Martyr Stories

Oct 20, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the author of the new book, Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations
(Baker, 2014).

He recently answered some questions I had about his new book.

What kind of stories do you cover in this book and what is the time frame that is treated?

Well, the title says the book is made up of ‘stories’ but it’s really more than that. There are a variety of ancient church texts that speak about persecution, a number of different genres, not just the actual stories of martyrs themselves. But that’s the core of it: the martyrs before their accusers.

I begin with one like that, the account of the seven Maccabean brothers and the scribe Eleazar. They aren’t Christians, they’re Jews. But they’re dying for their faithfulness to the one true God in the BC period. This text was very influential on the early church, it shaped later narratives in a profound way.

Then we have the stories of several famous Christian martyrs. Peter and Paul are included here, and I like this a lot, I think it’s a great feature of this book. Usually the narrative of martyrdom in the ancient church doesn’t start with them, but it should, these texts are early second century in origin. I think Christians today want to know where the legends of the apostles came from, that Peter was crucified upside down, or that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Way, etc.

There’s probably a kernel of truth here, but these stories are legendary for the most part.

Next we come to more reliable texts, such as Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and the classic martyr stories of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, Perpetua and Felicity. These are the earliest and most reliable texts, at least many scholars still think they are, though that has been called into question by some. But I think they’re basically reliable historical documents.

And then I include some of the church’s theological reflection on martyrdom:

  • Why is it happening?
  • How should Christians respond?
  • What should be respected about martyrdom?
  • What’s the wrong way to do martyrdom?
  • Why is it so important to see the thing all the way to the end?

I include Tertullian and Origen reflecting deeply on the phenomenon of giving your life to maintain your confession of Christ.

I also thought it would be important to have some historical texts about the Great Persecution, kicked off by Diocletian in 303 AD. What happened and why? In this context, I translate the conversion story of Constantine, where he sees the cross in the sky and his army fights in the power of the cross. And after this is the so-called Edict of Milan, which is really a symbol of a tipping point that occurred in the fourth century.

Finally, I conclude with Augustine of Hippo preaching a sermon on Perpetua and Felicity, talking so fondly about these godly women who found the path to “eternal happiness.” He’s making a pun off of their names. He clearly cherishes these heroines, it’s neat to see.

So really, this book spans the whole spectrum of the ancient church’s experience of martyrdom. It covers different genres and narratives. It’s designed to give the whole picture of what was really happening. Everybody knows that “the Romans threw the Christians to the lions”—but what’s the real story here? What happened and why? Now you can read it for yourself firsthand.

Why do we need a book like this? Aren’t all of these stories already readily accessible?

Very good question. I asked myself that question before I started writing this book. All of these texts already exist in English translation somewhere. But the key word is “somewhere.” Does the average Christian know where to find them? Probably not. They’re not all under one cover like they are here, gathered into one place to tell a consistent story from beginning to end. And when you do find them, they often have old fashioned translations, or they have Greek and Latin on the page, which is intimidating. Those kinds of books are expensive. Well this one isn’t. It’s a good way to own a book that gives the whole martyrdom story in one inexpensive volume. That’s what I was going for.

These translations are brand new, and as I worked through each one, I asked myself, “How would this writer express this thought if he or she were writing today?” I think of these martyr stories as being somewhat like the ESV Bible, which is a great balance between actually translating the text but doing it in a smooth and modern-sounding English style. I tried to find that happy medium. I truly believe there is a need for a volume on martyrdom that puts the best texts under one cover, in an accessible way, and with helpful notes and an introduction to explain what’s going on. I definitely hope to serve the church with a book like this.

A leading scholar of early Christianity, Candida Moss, recently wrote a book on The Myth of Persecution, arguing that a number of these early martyr stories were exaggerated, invented, or forged. Is there any truth to her argument?

The funny thing about that book is, much of the stuff she says is nothing new at all. So not only is there much truth to it (as you said), it’s actually a truth that scholars have known for a long time. She is rebutting a Sunday school picture of martyrdom that all historians know is false, and then it’s like a big revelation has been made. I’m talking about the idea that there was an age of constant persecution, that the Christians were in danger at every turn, relentlessly being pursued by Roman soldiers day and night. We know that isn’t correct. No one in academia thinks that, but Professor Moss still rebuts it. So I guess that’s helpful for what it is.

Candida Moss is an impressive scholar with a real mastery of these texts. I don’t question her erudition, I respect it a lot, and I’ve learned from it. What I take issue with is her method of radical skepticism. Usually with history, there is a kind of bell curve of probability, and when enough facts are brought in, you find the middle of the curve is the right place to be. But Moss interprets everything with such a skeptical eye that she skews everything toward the later end of the timeline. Over and over, she puts the facts out there and then interprets them with the most extreme position that it’s forgery, forgery, forgery. So she pushes all the texts like Polycarp or Lyons and Vienne toward a much later time. But it’s not probable that the extreme interpretation is the right one again and again, for every martyrdom text, like there was a colossal conspiracy to make up stories all across the Empire. Classical historians don’t handle texts like this, the way some early Christian scholars do, with this skeptical agenda of turning everything into later forgeries instead of what they claim to be.

And there’s lots of counter-evidence that Moss doesn’t include. Like, “The Christians want to collect Polycarp’s remains. Look! That’s third century relic veneration! This text must be from that later time period!” Wait a minute, why does it have to be third century? It doesn’t. Christians and Jews always wanted to bury their people in every century. We see it right at the beginning with the effort to bury the body of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb. Actually, honorable burial was a big deal to everybody in Roman times. There is first century legislation that says you should give a condemned criminal’s body to his relatives after he’s been killed in the coliseum. This was the normal practice, the Romans made laws about it. What the Martyrdom of Polycarp says about collecting the martyr’s body is perfectly consistent with the date that the text claims to be written, in the mid-second century. In fact, there’s definitive archaeological proof that Peter had a monument over his presumed grave at that exact time. So it’s no big deal if Polycarp would have a respectable tomb as well. That isn’t proof of later burial practices, it’s par for the course in the second century. Moss should put that evidence out there too. But that’s what I’m pointing out here, the way she spins the evidence to the extreme and doesn’t acknowledge and rebut counter-evidence. It’s not neutral history. There’s a political agenda in that book she wants to advance. I’m not making that up, she’s pretty clear about it, and that’s why the book takes the positions it does.

How do you envision the church today—which is witnessing continued persecution of its brothers and sisters around the world—using a book like what you have written?

Well this is where my book is not a completely neutral book of history either. I too have an agenda that I want to advance. I want to encourage the body of Christ with these stories.

What I was trying to write here was basically a textbook that could be used in Christian colleges and seminaries and online courses all over the English speaking world. I want everything in it to be true and unbiased. I want to do good history. I want to take a respectable scholarly look at a historical phenomenon, Christian martyrdom, which is a type of “noble death” in the ancient world. This is something that should be studied in academia.

But I don’t want this book to be just that, just a dry and dusty textbook from the days of yore. I want it to be spiritually encouraging, to give insight from the past, to provide wisdom from the ancients. This is the same thing I tried to do in my earlier book Getting to Know the Church Fathers, and I have had many people tell me they appreciated it. So I praise the Lord that it could be used that way, and I hope Early Christian Martyr Stories can do the same thing. There is a spiritually uplifting aspect to this book that isn’t always found in textbooks. That is why I think everyday Christian readers will enjoy this book as well, not just students in a course.

I definitely want to be very careful about drawing exact comparisons to persecution today, especially in America. This is one place where I think Moss has a good reminder for us. Let’s not develop a martyr complex when our Christian school group is denied access to a classroom, for example. By all means, fight for your rights. Freedom of religion is vital to this country. The mayor should not be able to censor your sermons. Censorship is the first step in oppression. But persecution is a spectrum. I think the ancient church is much more parallel to the ISIS situation, where you have one powerful religious group killing and torturing and shedding blood and stealing properties from a weaker religious minority. Those things happened to the ancient Christians too. It was a clash of two religions, just like what is happening today in many Islamic areas.

Just to be clear, my book isn’t a handbook on how to endure persecution, how to be a martyr. It certainly doesn’t presume to give advice to the persecuted church today. What it is, at its heart, is a book about being committed – I mean totally, completely sold out – to Jesus Christ. That is how we are like the martyrs: when we press on for Christ no matter the cost. Maybe bloodshed isn’t going to be demanded of us, but we can still have that 100% commitment to the Risen Lord. We can be inspired by the martyrs of the ancient church just as we can by the witness of faithful Christians in Iran or Syria or Nigeria or North Korea. Martyrs die for Jesus, meaning they physically die. If they can do that, often under terrible tortures, then maybe we can die to this world and all its attractions. It’s like Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If we start thinking like that, we’ve taken the first step down the martyr’s path.

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C. S. Lewis on Why You Should Read Fiction: Get In and Get Out

Oct 15, 2014 | Justin Taylor

CSL reading in chairC. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961):

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.

We want to be more than ourselves.

Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—­would be lunacy. . . .

[W]e want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . .  We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in'; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three.

In love we escape from our self into one other.

In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity.

In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are.

The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself.

The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.

In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’. (pp. 137-38)

Lewis goes on:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. . . .

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . .

[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (140-41)

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The Passover Song

Oct 14, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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A Historian’s New Interpretive Study of Billy Graham and American Culture

Oct 10, 2014 | Justin Taylor

BGI just received my copy of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap/Harvard, 2014) by Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School.

The gold standard of Graham biographies has been William Martin’s Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (W. Morrow, 1991). Wacker refers to this as “magisterial” and “by far the finest and most comprehensive biography” of Graham, and notes that its revision is scheduled for imminent release from Zondervan.

Professor Wacker explains that his book is “an interpretation rather than a strictly chronological account of the evangelists’s life.

The rise, singularity, and longevity of the career of a lanky farm kid from North Carolina help us understand how Americans constructed and experienced leadership.

More important, Graham’s story sheds light on the formation of a moral vocabulary that expressed the grievances and aspirations of millions of people. Graham’s voice helped guide that process.

And most important, his story reveals the influences of religion, especially evangelical religion, on larger trends in the culture. After all, Graham intersected with many of the most compelling public events of the era, including the growth of a celebrity ethos, the geographical expansion of Southern habits, the galvanization of the evangelical movement, the normalization of religious cooperation, the awareness of military threats, and the quest for global justice. His tenure also coincided with the public discussion of many of the most compelling private events of the era—aging, loneliness, broken marriages, wayward children, and, of course, the ever-present fear of death. Though private experiences of this sort had marked American life from the beginning, people described them in the vocabulary of the time.

This book provides a tool for making sense of the complexities of American culture in the six decades following World War II.

Here are some early commendations for Wacker’s work:

“A striking and authoritative account of one of the most influential Americans of recent times. Wacker writes gracefully and offers a fund of astute insights. By exploring Graham’s background, his character, his beliefs, and his work, he reveals how Graham could move so comfortably among the powerful and at the same time always be able to speak effectively to so many ordinary people. Both Graham’s admirers and his critics will come away from America’s Pastor with a fresh appreciation of the man and his world.”
—George M. Marsden

“Grant Wacker has given us a superb—and richly detailed—portrait of Billy Graham, presented in the context of a solid cultural and historical analysis of the era in which Graham served as the kind of religious leader we are not likely to see again. And all of this from a marvelous storyteller. Wacker’s deeply moving epilogue can stand alone as a model of inspiring prose!”
—Richard J. Mouw

America’s Pastor is a masterful study of the life and influence of Billy Graham. With power and grace, Grant Wacker explains who Graham was, how his message and organization developed, and why he came to exercise such extraordinary influence in America. It is the most incisive—and accessible—study of Billy Graham that has been written.”
—Nathan O. Hatch

“Billy Graham has finally gotten the book he deserves. Written by one of the finest American religious historians of our time, this book is as captivating as Graham himself: eloquent, incisive, witty, and empathetic. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Catherine A. Brekus

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An Interview on “Fallen: A Theology of Sin”

Oct 09, 2014 | Justin Taylor

fallenThe Theology in Community series , edited by Christopher Morgan (California Baptist University) and Robert Peterson (Covenant Theological Seminary) is published by Crossway. The fifth volume of six (thus far) is entitled Fallen: A Theology of Sin.

Jason Meyer of Bethlehem Baptist Church calls this book “the most far-reaching, well-rounded modern treatment of sin that I have ever read,” and Fred Sanders of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute says it “may be the most complete resource on the doctrine of sin in this generation and will certainly serve well as a comprehensive introduction to this neglected topic.”

Below is some interaction with some of the contributors and the editors:

  • Don Carson
  • Paul House
  • Bob Yarbrough
  • Gerald Bray
  • John Mahony
  • Sydney Page
  • David Calhoun
  • Bryan Chapell
  • Chris Morgan and Robert Peterson

Peterson-ColorChris Morgan and Robert Peterson 

1. This is the fifth volume in the Theology in Community series. What are some of the other books in the series?

The first four volumes in the Theology in Community series are Suffering and the Goodness of God, The Glory of God, The Deity of Christ, and The Kingdom of God. The sixth volume, Heaven, is fresh out, published only days ago.

2. What are the goals of the series? Why is it important? How is it distinct?

We named the series as we did for two reasons.

First, Theology in Community means we want to promote clear biblical thinking and godly responses to theological issues, both historic and contemporary. As we examine issues central to the Christian faith, we strive not only to follow a sound theological method but also to display it. Chapters addressing the Old and New Testaments on the book’s subject form the heart of each volume. Subsequent chapters synthesize the biblical teaching and link it to historical, philosophical, systematic, and pastoral concerns. Far from being mere collections of essays, the volumes are carefully crafted so that the voices of the various experts combine to proclaim a unified message.

Second, Theology in Community seeks to do theology in teams. The teachings of the Bible were forged in real-life situations by leaders in God’s covenant communities. Theology was formulated by the church for the church. This series seeks to recapture that biblical reality. Scholars from many backgrounds, disciplines, and experiences with academic credentials work together. They have a high view of Scripture, robust evangelical convictions, and love grace. They are personally involved in ministry, serving as teachers, pastors, and missionaries. They stand in continuity with the historic church, care about the global church, share life together with others in local churches, and aim to write for the good of the church.

DACDon Carson

1. In your chapter “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” you develop a section “Sin Is Deeply Tied to Passages that Disclose Important Things about God” (pages 24-26). What passages stood out to you, and how did they shape your thinking?

What I was trying to say is that sin and God do not occupy individual silos in biblical theology. They are intertwined. Some of the most probing biblical texts on sin simultaneously disclose utterly wonderful things about God, and many of the glories of God in the Bible expose the appalling awfulness of sin. For example, the God who is slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin,” yet he “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:6-7)—a tension not resolved until the cross. David’s profound confession of sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah focuses on his recognition that he has sinned against God (Ps. 51:4). And what shall we make of Isa. 53:4-5, 10, of Hosea 13:4 and 1 Cor. 15:55, and countless other passages?

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Sin is painfully complex; it is twisted, wretched, often deceitful, sometimes violent. Like the grave, it always yearns for more. If we take what the Bible says seriously, sin should never surprise us, but it should constantly horrify us. The more clearly we see sin’s horror, the more we shall treasure the cross.

house_paulPaul House

1. In your two chapters on sin in the Old Testament, you utilize Exodus 34:1-7 as a key aspect of your methodology. Why?

Exodus 34:1-7 is one of the Old Testament’s most-quoted passages, so it is clearly a core passage in Old Testament Theology. Its statement about God’s character includes his forgiving nature, which includes specific names for the behavior he forgives: transgression, iniquity, and sin. Later passages like Joel 2:12-17, Jonah 3:10-4:2, and Nehemiah 9:1-38 quote Exodus 34:1-7 as reasons enough to believe God will forgive in those settings.

2. What material from the prophets does the contemporary church need to hear afresh related to the corporate aspect of sin?

The prophets stress that judicial injustice, mistreatment of the widow, orphan, and immigrant, and physical and economic enslavement have both individual and systemic elements. Passages like Amos 1:3-2:7 indicate that whole societies are held responsible for sins they commit together. I think today the prophets would likely denounce, for instance, China’s forced relocation of 250 million rural people in the name of economic reform and the United States’ unseemly debates over and treatment of political refugees at our border crossings. Might not the prophets claim God will bless those who show mercy, particularly to the helpless?

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

I continue to wrestle with the nature of sin. Sin is so persistent, at least in my life. It is like a genetic disorder that keeps causing illness. I am slowly becoming more and more grateful for Christ’s atonement and more in awe of God’s daily grace through the Holy Spirit.

Yarbrough-ColorBob Yarbrough

1. In your chapter on sin in the New Testament, you note the invitation to repentance and conversion as “indirect evidence of sin.” How is this important, and why did you begin with that?

We’ve all heard the expression, “there’s more caught than taught.” We learn not just from what a teacher says but from that teacher’s underlying assumptions and attitudes. Well, when it comes to sin, figures like John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostles are our teachers. Yes, they explicitly identify and condemn sin. But they do more: they assume their whole nation (Galilee, Judea, by extension the whole Roman world) is guilty of it. Even at Athens, Paul told hearers that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Biblical figures and writers call every single person, no exceptions, to turn from their crooked ways. And, just as important, each must turn to the true and living God who is present in Jesus and his teaching.

I began with that because that’s the truth that the NT starts with: John the Baptist, and Jesus in his wake, came preaching repentance and the dire need to enter God’s kingdom. That is at least as instructive regarding humankind’s “fallen” condition as all the NT’s various words and statements about “sin” proper.

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

I used to be amazed how people can do the kinds of things we read about or see in the news—beheadings, abductions, maimings, desertions, thefts, deceptions, deprivations, cruelties, other criminal or immoral acts. My amazement was a sort of question: Whoa! How can this be?

The older I get, the more I see how I could be or almost have been guilty of these kinds of things myself. Part of it is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount insight that to entertain an immoral act (murder, adultery) brings the same divine displeasure as committing it. Part of it is admitting how close I have been, over my 60+ years, to grave wrongdoing. God has mercifully prevented many a lethal misstep.

Why? How? For what purpose? Questions like that were my main personal takeaways from my study of sin. Why does God forgive, and in particular forgive my sins? And then by extension, the sins of small groups and families and churches and nations? One of the most-repeated confessions about God in the OT is: slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Why?

I am still trying to get to the bottom of two things: 1) roots and symptoms of my own corruption; 2) divine resources for redeeming what is fallen and recreating it for holy deployment. I expect to be wrestling with questions in these domains as long as I have breath—always making progress, but conscious that just as God’s goodness is unfathomable, so are the machinations of human darkness in which I am sadly implicated.

chris-morganChris Morgan

1. Why did you focus on the biblical story in your theology of sin?

For four reasons.

First, I do not recall seeing sin treated in this way. Second, I was surprised at how most of the key issues concerning sin emerge in the broad storyline. Third, I think the storyline itself and the major events (Creation, Fall, Redemption, New creation) shed much light on the doctrine of sin. Fourth, the storyline helps us see sin in proportion, not as the key theme but as a backdrop and context of God’s grace.

2. What do you mean by the “domain of sin and death” (page 149-150)?

Romans 5:12-21 joins Adam’s sin, humans constituted as sinners, universal guilt, universal death, and the domain of death. The domain of sin and death is the macro-environmental condition in which life occurs; the particular human corruption is a part of the personal and individual aspects of the domain of sin and death. Herman Ridderbos captured the idea:

So sin has entered in, here represented as a personified power (cf., e.g., v. 21); through and with sin death has come in as the inseparable follower and companion of sin…. [T]hat the share of all men in the sin of Adam is indicated, however, and as its consequence they have been brought under the dominion and power of sin and death. The presupposition of the whole chain of reasoning lies in the inclusion in the supraindividual situation of sin and death represented by Adam. Here again the basic structures of Pauline theology are not individualizing, but redemptive-historical and corporate. It is a matter of two different modes of existence, that of the old and that of the new man, which are determined by two different aeons, and concerning which an all-embracing decision has been made in Adam and Christ…. Death is thereby not only a punishment that puts an end to life, but a condition in which the destiny of life outside of Christ is turned into its opposite…. In addition to the future, however, sin brings forth death already in this life. . . . Thus death works itself out in the sinful life of man. (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 96, 99, 112-13)

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Why would I have a tendency to measure myself or others by achievements when all I contributed to salvation was my sin? What do I have that I have not received? I need not only to believe in the fact of God’s super-abounding grace, but also accept that it is my primary identity via the saving work of Christ.

gerald_bray_0Gerald Bray

1. In “Sin in Historical Theology,” you cover a vast terrain. In your estimation, which theologians most ably captured the heart of sin and why? Who missed it and why?

To my mind there is no doubt that those who most ably captured the heart of sin were the greatest theologians of the Western tradition-Augustine, Anselm, Luther and Calvin. The basic reason for this is surely that they saw beyond the surface. Most people think of sin in terms of actions that we commit, which makes it impossible for them to think of a newborn child as a sinner, for example. But the great theologians I have mentioned understood that sinfulness is a state of separation from God. The actions that a person does merely reflect that more fundamental alienation. Even if they are good in themselves, they cannot bring us closer to God because our relationship with him has been broken by something that goes deeper than that.

Unfortunately, there have been many people who have not grasped this fundamental point. Pelagius, whom Augustine opposed, would be an obvious one, but there have been many others, and it is probably true to say that most people today would fall into this category. To them, sin is a moral failing which they try to put right by changing their attitudes and behavior. It is well meant, of course, and that is the problem. They trust in their own righteousness, as the New Testament puts it, to save them, and not in that of Christ. The fact that it is often assumed rather than articulated makes it more widespread—and more dangerous.

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

For me, the hardest thing about sin is dealing with the fundamental fact that it is a spiritual separation from God. I struggle with this in my own life because I am always trying to set goals for myself, as if righteousness were some kind of fitness training program. The problem is that there is nothing wrong about leading a morally upright life. Indeed, we are meant to do that as far as we can. The apostle Paul has told us that it is absurd to go around sinning just in order to see God’s forgiving grace at work in our lives, and I have to remember that. But at the same time, I also have to bear in mind that however hard I try, my success or failure in this does not determine my standing before God. He loves me in my sinfulness, and Christ has united me to himself in order to give me his righteousness, which I cannot acquire on my own. It sounds fine in theory, of course, but putting it into practice on a daily basis, especially when I am tempted to think that I have achieved something that God will be proud of, is the hardest thing to deal with. How can God love me when I have done nothing to deserve that? This is the deepest mystery of our faith, and the thing that I struggle with most of all.

John Mahony

1. In “A Theology of Sin for Today,” why did you begin with the “post-fall reality” of sin?

The “post-fall reality” is the present state of existence of all humankind. The fall of Adam is the fall of the entire human race. The Bible records that tragedy for us as well as an account of its devastating results. It occurred to me that the “post-fall reality” is also the post-fall perspective for all of us, even the biblical authors. So the question this raises is: do we as fallen beings have a true sense of the awful nature of sin as we read the account in Scripture?

2. What do you mean by the “pre-fall paradigm” and how does covenant play into it?

The “pre-fall paradigm” refers to the two covenant heads, Adam and Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). “In Adam” the human race fell; “in Christ” believers participate in a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Again, for me, the issue is the nature of sin. The only two humans who experienced “sin-free” existence are the two covenant heads. Thus, how desperately bad is sin if righteous humans can be tempted by it?

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Many questions about sin remain. First, is sin a privation/absence only or does it actually come into existence with each thought or action that doesn’t conform to the moral will of God? Also, is the perpetuation of wickedness in society (prejudice, greed, injustice) sin as well? Is culture a projection of the sin of its people or is culture morally neutral? What is the relationship between human sin and an individual’s mental states? How does this influence counseling?

Sydney Page

1. Your chapter “Satan, Sin, and Evil” fills an important gap in books on sin. What myths about Satan do contemporary evangelicals need challenged?

Evangelicals tend to fall into one of two errors when thinking about Satan. Their devil can be too big or too small. On one hand, they can get caught up in a speculative interest in him and so exaggerate his role that they compromise either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility. On the other hand, they can ignore or downplay the biblical teaching about Satan, with the result that they fail to do justice to the cosmic conflict between good and evil and what Christ accomplished through his victory on the cross.

2. How does Satan relate to sin?

Satan’s fall into sin antedates the fall of humankind, and as a fallen being, he seeks to lead others down the path he has chosen. He does not have the power to compel others to sin, but he can and does entice them to do so. The battle with sin is ongoing, and complete freedom from it will be achieved only when the devil receives his final punishment.

3. What aspect of the biblical teaching about sin and Satan did you find most surprising?

I was struck by the subtlety with which Satan operates. For instance, where we might be inclined to detect the activity of the devil behind licentious living, Paul refers to how Satan might take advantage of people who embrace an ascetic lifestyle in 1 Corinthians 7:5. Similarly, a passion for the purity of the church is admirable, but it can degenerate into an unwillingness to forgive, which according to 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Satan can exploit.

Calhoun-David-2002-e1336682520484David Calhoun

1. What are common misconceptions related to temptation?

Since the matter of temptation is constantly facing us, we are “tempted” to think that it is not something that we can do anything about. We just carry on and hope for the best. But the Bible says a lot about temptation, and it behooves us to listen carefully.

2. As you wrote this chapter, what stood out as helpful to your own walk?

I cannot avoid temptation, but I can be prepared for it. I can study the wiles of the devil (Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is a good primer). At the same time I must not so focus on temptation and the devil that I forget my main resource—Christ who dwells within and enables me to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. 3. What questions about sin and temptation arose for you or still linger for you? It is difficult to determine the exact line between temptation and sin. Luther makes the line quite clear, but Calvin brings the two much closer together. We should constantly pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” throughout the experiences of our daily life.

620x400_Bryan-ChappellBryan Chapell

1. How did you come up with the title “Repentance That Sings”?

So often repentance is presented as entailing an attitude of grief. It is certainly that, but not completely that. There is no repentance where there is no grief for sin, but when repentance is complete, the heart is unburdened, released and made joyful. Repentance certainly involved conviction of sin, but repentance is not complete until there is convincing of grace. If repentance is only a matter of feeling bad for a sufficient amount of time, then we are depending on our feelings rather than on the atoning work of Christ. If holiness is only defined by somber acknowledgement of our lowliness and filth, then we actually deny the efficacy of the blood of Christ.

2. As you wrote this chapter, what stood out as helpful to your own walk?

I often hear “true” repentance described as “turning from sin.” But, if this is the definition of repentance, then it is essentially a work of human effort and merit—we stop being bad and start being good to get God’s grace. The Reformers were more careful in their definition, indicating that repentance is “turning from sin unto God.” This means that repentance is not dependence on our goodness, but a forsaking of all that is in us and a total reliance upon God’s grace. The fruit of repentance is new obedience, but the cause of forgiveness is not our better performance, but God’s unconditional mercy. Repentance is not so much a “doing” as a “depending”; not so much a “reform of behavior” as a “reliance upon mercy.” Repentance defined only by a corrected behavior is actually a fresh descent into pride; repentance defined by total dependence upon God’s grace results in humility and hearts yearning to please him.

3. What questions about sin and grace arose for you or still linger for you?

Since “God’s kindness is meant to lead you repentance” (Rom. 2:4), I am always wondering how to keep that kindness so present and powerful in my own heart (and preaching) that sin loses its allure—and consequently its power—without creating sinful presumption upon the grace of God.

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Praise: Inner Health Made Audible

Oct 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor

C S LewisC. S. Lewis:

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least.

The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.

The healthy and unaffected man, even if luxuriously brought up and widely experienced in good cookery, could praise a very modest meal: the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all. E

xcept where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.

Nor does it cease to be so when, through lack of skill, the forms of its expression are very uncouth or even ridiculous. Heaven knows, many poems of praise addressed to an earthly beloved are as bad as our bad hymns, and an anthology of love poems for public and perpetual use would probably be as sore a trial to literary taste as Hymns Ancient and Modern.

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (orig., 1958; 1986), 94-95.

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7 Responses to the Strategy of Church Silence during Ethical Confusion

Oct 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Andrew Wilson:

I’ve heard rumours of a silent trend beginning to take hold in some city churches in the UK and the US. I don’t just mean a trend that takes hold silently; presumably most trends do that. I mean a trend towards silence: a decision not to speak out on issues that are considered too sticky, controversial, divisive, culturally loaded, entangled, ethically complex, personally upsetting, emotive, likely to be reported on by the Guardian or the New York Times, uncharted, inflammatory, difficult, or containing traces of gluten. Since I do not attend a city church, but am a proud member of the backward bungalow bumpkin brigade, this is coming to me second hand, and it may turn out to be a storm in the proverbial teacup, or even (for all I know) entirely fictional. But let’s imagine that there were such things as well-written booklets which had been discontinued simply because they were about sexuality, and leaders who were avoiding making any public comments at all on controversial ethical issues, or churches whose lectionaries or sermon serieses were systematically avoiding passages which addressed pressing contemporary questions, presumably in the name of being winsome or wise or likeable or culturally sensitive, because of the number of Influencers and Powerful People in the area. Without knowing any of the behind-the-scenes discussions that had taken place – all well-intentioned, I’m sure—what would I say then?

Wilson outlines his response in seven steps:

  1. Winsomeness is a good servant and a terrible master.
  2. Likeability stops at the water’s edge.
  3. Pastors are to proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the parts that won’t cause any fluttering in the Fleet Street dovecotes.
  4. Ducking difficult ethical questions leaves churches in confusion when they most need clarity.
  5. Ethical confusion makes church discipline much, much harder.
  6. Silence unwittingly reinforces the dominant cultural narrative.
  7. Those of us who instinctively cheer when we read the previous six points are probably in the greatest need of hearing what the advocates of silence have to say.

You can read his explanation of each point here.

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I Wish I Had Held Her Hand More

Oct 07, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Old-hands-holding (1)

R. C. Sproul Jr., reflecting on his deepest regret: that he did not hold his wife’s hand more when she was alive:

It’s not, of course, that I never held her hand. It is likely, however, that I didn’t as often as she would have liked.

Holding her hand communicates to her in a simple yet profound way that we are connected.

Taking her hand tells her, “I am grateful that we are one flesh.”

Taking her hand tells me, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

It is a liturgy, an ordinary habit of remembrance to see more clearly the extraordinary reality of two being made one.

It would have, even in the midst of a disagreement, or moments of struggle, communicated, “We’re going to go through this together. I will not let go.”

It would have also reminded us both of that secret but happy truth we kept from each other, that hidden reality that is equal parts embarrassment and giddy joy: that we’re just kids. Bearing children, feeding mortgages, facing adult sized hardships never really changes what we are inside. Holding her hand was like skipping through the park. Holding her hand was winking at her, as if to say, “I know you’re just a kid too. Let’s be friends.”

On the other hand, holding her hand more would have communicated to us both my own calling to lead her, and our home.

Hand holding is a way to say both, “You are safe with me” and “Follow me into the adventure.”

It would have reminded me that there is no abdicating, no shirking, no flinching in the face of responsibility. And as I lead it would be a constant anchor, a reminder that I lead not for my sake, but for hers.

Holding her hand more also would have spoken with clarity to the watching world. It would have said, “There’s a man who loves his wife.” It saddens me that so many only learn this after their wife is gone.

Perhaps most of all, however, I wish I had held her hand more so that I could still feel it more clearly.

I wish it had been such a constant habit that even now my hand would form into a hand holding shape each time I get in the car.

I wish I could fall asleep feeling her hand in mine.

I know all this, happily, because I did hold her hand. I received all the blessings I describe above. I just wish I had received them more. It cost nothing, and bears dividends even to this day. If, for you, it’s not too late, make the investment. Hold her hand, every chance you get. You won’t regret it.

You can read the whole thing here.

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