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Why I Am Not an Atheist
May 19, 2016

Today I embark on the first part of my promised series “Why I Am Not.” This series was provoked by the question of how I came by my religious beliefs. Why do I believe so strongly in the existence of a God instead of doubting or denying it? Why am I Protestant instead of Roman Catholic? I began to think about these questions and many more and, naturally, my thoughts worked themselves out in writing. Today I want to begin with the broadest question of all and tell why I am not an atheist. My goal is not first to persuade but simply to explain.

My beliefs about the existence and identity of God originated in my childhood. I was born to Christian parents and raised in a Christian home where I was taught the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Nothing is more foundational to Christianity than the existence of a God. As a child I memorized answer four of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which provides a stirring introduction to this God: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” There was never a time in my life when I did not acknowledge the existence of a God, and even a God much like this one. What was assumed in my childish heart and mind later took deeper root in my adult heart and mind.

There was never a time I denied the existence of God. Not only that, but there was never a time I even doubted it. Never once have I had disquieting thoughts while lying awake at night; never once have I had intellectual wrestlings with the idea that perhaps God does not exist. That’s not to say I have never interacted with atheists or encountered their claims. I have read the works of many of today’s most prominent atheists: Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. I’ve watched The God Who Wasn’t There. I know what these people say and why they say it. But not one of their claims has resonated with me. In fact, their claims have only served to deepen my faith. I’ve never doubted God’s existence any more than I’ve doubted my own. That’s simply the truth.

So why am I not atheist? I want to give two answers.

First, according to the Bible, I am not an atheist because God determined I would not be. See, it’s not that I have any spiritual, intellectual, or philosophical inclinations within me that nudge me toward God. Rather, I have all the makings of a very convinced atheist—an inclination away from authority and toward independence, a questioning mind, and a restless spirit. But God chose to reveal himself to me and to draw me to himself. In his own way and for his own purposes he revealed himself, his existence, his goodness, his power, and I responded with faith, with belief. Ultimately, then, I am not an atheist because God showed me himself.

That is the first answer and the second cannot be separated from it: I am not an atheist because of things I believe and decisions I have made. God works through, not apart from, human agency and ability. And in that way I am not an atheist on the basis of evidence I have observed and conclusions I have made.

I see evidence of God in existence. The fundamental question every human needs to answer is this: How is there something instead of nothing? We all need to grapple with the question of existence, with the reality that there is a world, that there is a universe, that there is something. Existence is impossible, or at least so very improbable, that every person must at least consider that perhaps existence owes to one who pre-exists it, one who transcends the trappings of space and time. Try as I might, I simply cannot account for existence in any other way than through the prior existence of a God.

I see evidence of God in design. I see evidence of God in existence, and further evidence in the orderliness of what exists. This universe follows laws and patterns, it behaves in consistent ways. I see no reason to allow or even imagine that something as orderly as this universe came to be without some kind of agency, without an orderly being extending his order into it. When I look at stars and creatures and chromosomes I can’t help but see the fingerprints of God. When I look at the sheer wonder of a blazing sun, of a flower in full bloom, of a human eye, I do not see chance or randomness but design, order, and purpose. Where there is art there is an artist, where there is something there is a someone, and where there is design there is a designer.

I see evidence of God in humanity. When I look at all that exists and all that reflects design, it is clear that one thing, one creature, stands above it all. Human beings transcend everything else in sheer wonder and ability. Only humans ask the great questions about meaning and purpose and what lies beyond. Only humans gasp in awe and wonder. Only humans long for transcendence and acknowledge a transcendent soul, a part of them that cannot be seen or touched or quantified but that is still so real. It seems clear to me that human beings were made to reflect someone or something else, to exist for a higher and bigger purpose. It seems clear to me that humans were made by and for God.

I see evidence of God in the Bible. And then I see evidence of God in a book, in the Bible. I see it in its words, in its wisdom, in its form, in its coherence, in its frankness, in its truthfulness. I have read holy texts from other religions—the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Book of Mormon. They are so unsurprising, so unfulfilling, so very human. I have read the Holy Bible and found a book that is so unexpected, so deeply challenging, so entirely other. The Bible is so different from everything else, every other book, every form of human wisdom, that I have to conclude that it came from beyond humans. The Bible displays the mind and heart of God and in that way provides wisdom for this world from beyond this world.

I am not an atheist because I cannot be. Both the evidence and God himself have drawn me away from it. Both the evidence and God himself have led me to declare that God exists and that his Son, Jesus Christ, is the Savior of this world.

I hope you will join me next time as I discuss why I am not Roman Catholic.

Shame Fear Guilt
May 18, 2016

I’ve heard it said that there are three kinds of culture in the world, each defined by its predominant worldview. There are cultures of shame, cultures of fear, and cultures of guilt, and each of them has their own way of pressuring people to behave or to conform to society.

In a shame culture your standing before other people depends on your level of shame or honor. It’s like there is an imaginary scale that has shame on one side and honor on the other and the things you do, the things you say, and the ways you behave can tip the scale in one direction or the other. If you have been shamed, the way to recover your reputation is to do something that will restore your honor. A couple of years ago we saw an example of this in Ontario when a Muslim father took action to restore his honor. His daughters had been rebelling against him by drifting from Islam and embracing Western values. This shamed him in the eyes of his community and he responded by murdering all three of his girls in what is known as an honor killing. He deemed this act necessary to restore his honor. And, indeed, within his own community it did.

In a fear culture your standing depends on your level of fear or power. These cultures are usually tribal and animistic and they pressure you with the fear of consequences meted out by supernatural spirits. The way to overcome fear is to gain power—power over those spirits and, through them, power over other people. You can do this through curses, incantations, charms, or even sacrifices. Each of these is a means to draw power from those supernatural forces, those angry spirits, and in that way to gain power over people. Fear is what controls people and forces them to conform to the culture around them.

In a guilt culture your standing depends on your level of guilt or innocence. These cultures are obsessed with justice, with keeping people in-check with standards of right and wrong. So from their earliest days children are taught to follow the rules and are told they will be innocent if they obey those rules or guilty if they disobey them. Adults are kept in-check with endless lists of laws and, when offended, are quick to bring charges against other people in the hope that they will be found guilty. Every person experiences the desire to avoid guilt and protect innocence.

So we have shame cultures where a scale runs from shame to honor, we have fear cultures where a scale runs from fear to power, and guilt cultures where a scale runs from guilt to innocence. And, in fact, most cultures draw components from all three. One will be predominant but there will be elements of the others. You will probably recognize that here in the West we are predominantly a guilt culture with some elements of shame (think of social media shaming as a means to conformity) and fear (think of the surprising rise of karma and “paying it forward” as controlling forces). You will probably recognize as well that the way a culture acknowledges right or wrong standing before people is the way they will acknowledge right or wrong standing before God.

One fascinating thing to consider is that all three of these cultures are previewed in the Bible—at the very beginning of the Bible, even. The third chapter of Genesis tells how humanity ended up so full of sin and trouble. Here we read of the first human beings rebelling against God and we learn that there are consequences to their rebellion. No sooner do they sin than they experience shame, symbolized in the sudden knowledge that they are naked and their desire to cover themselves. They experience fear as they run and hide from God, desperate to escape his gaze. They experience guilt, knowing that they have gone from innocent to guilty in the eyes of God. In every case they were right—they had every reason to experience shame, fear, and guilt because they had behaved shamefully, they had offended a powerful being, and they had become objectively guilty of a divine law.

But just as the Bible describes how all three of these are consequences to human rebellion, it assures us that the gospel provides the perfect solution. The gospel addresses shame by telling how Christ was shamed on our behalf to restore our honor. The gospel addresses fear by telling how Christ has defeated every power and how he even gives his power to us. And the gospel addresses guilt by assuring us that Christ took our guilt upon himself so he could give us his innocence. The gospel removes shame, it removes fear, and it removes guilt, it restores honor, it restores power, it restores innocence. The gospel speaks to every person in every culture and addresses their every need.

For more on the three kinds of culture, you may be interested in this brief article from Power to Change. Image credit: Shutterstock

Do Not Provoke Your Children
May 17, 2016

Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This single sentence combines the New Testament’s two most prominent passages on parenting and, as I said yesterday (see Fathers (and Mothers), Do Not Provoke Your Children!), offers a significant warning to parents: We can parent our children in such a way that we provoke them to anger and discouragement. There are times when we so provoke our children that anger is the fitting and inevitable response. Today I want to offer a few ways that we, as parents, may provoke our children to that kind of anger and discouragement.

Goodness instead of holiness. We may provoke our children to anger and discouragement when we teach them to be good instead of holy, when we care more for their good behavior than their holy hearts. We can too easily content ourselves with outwardly moral children instead of children who are inwardly holy. We can focus on bad behavior instead of the sinful heart that causes and enjoys that bad behavior. This will eventually provoke our children to anger and discouragement because they will see that we are calling them to a standard of behavior that is impossible, a standard they cannot reach until their hearts are first transformed. Not only that, but they will see the gap between what the Bible teaches and what we promote, and they will sink into angry despair. Parents, don’t content yourself with good kids but pray for holy kids, for children whose good behavior flows out of a transformed heart. Shepherd them with and to the gospel instead of badgering them with unfair and impossible demands.

Hypocrisy instead of authenticity. We can provoke our children to anger and discouragement when we live with hypocrisy instead of authenticity, when we hold ourselves to one standard but hold them to another one. When we allow this, our children will see that we have no firm standard and they will come to believe that the Christian faith only calls for change in the eyes of other people, not in the eyes of God. Yet God calls us to discipline and instruct our children by explanation and demonstration, by explaining with words and demonstrating with our lives. We need to live before our children in such a way that we can say not only “Do what I say” but “Do what I do.” We need to take our cues from the apostle Paul who could boldly tell others, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). (See The Humblest Words.)

Doubt instead of confidence. We can provoke our children when we live in great doubt instead of great confidence in God’s desire to save them. There are all sorts of good things we want for our children, but nothing more than their salvation. Parents can live with crippling fear that God will not save our children, and this fear has consequences: We can become heavy-handed, demanding our children turn to Christ, or we can become manipulative, constantly begging or pleading with them to make a profession. Our children may then grow angry and discouraged because they will see their parents professing faith in a God who is sovereign and good but then acting as if God is neither one. God’s instruction to parents is to discipline and instruct our children with confidence that God loves to save the lost and that he saves them through the appointed means—the gospel. (See 1 Timothy 2:4 and What Gives God Pleasure.) As we expose our children to the gospel through our discipline and instruction, we can expect that the gospel will do its work. We need to raise our children to hear the gospel proclaimed and to see it lived out. All the while we need to trust that God will work through his gospel.

Fear instead of boldness. We may provoke our children when we raise them in fear instead of boldness. It is wise parenting to protect our children by holding back evil influences until they have developed and matured. But it is unwise parenting to so shelter our children that they never see and experience sin and its ugly consequences. Many parents make decisions about relationships or church or education or family involvement based on fear. But fear-based parenting provokes children because we create a fictional world, a bubble that does not reflect reality. Not only that, but we hide from our children the experience of seeing sin and its consequences, the undeniable reality that sin promises joy and life but brings sadness and death. While we need to boldly raise our children to be in but not of the world, we cannot do this by sheltering them entirely from the world. We need to wisely protect our children, but without fearfully sheltering them.

Anger instead of patience. We may provoke our children to anger and lead to their discouragement if we raise them with anger instead of patience. So many can testify that their parents used anger or the threat of anger as a means of correction and punishment. Discipline was not delivered with calmness and self-control but with angry slaps or cutting words. And of course this leads to anger. A parent’s anger leads to their child’s anger. How couldn’t it? But in this case the parent’s anger is unjust while the child’s anger is just. God expects that we will discipline and instruct our children with patience and kindness. This involves modeling the very actions, attitudes, and words we want them to display.

Aloofness instead of involvement. We may provoke our children when we raise them with aloofness instead of involvement. Too often we are involved in our kids’ lives only when there are problems. We have little real relationship with our children, but then come rushing in during times of danger, disobedience, or difficulty. The parents I most want to imitate are the ones who deliberately build friendships with their children, who have a vision of their grown children being their friends and Christian brothers or sisters, and who then work deliberately toward those goals. These parents give time and attention to their children while they are young, they raise them with kindness and discipline, and they do this by holding in mind the future relationship they long to have. Parents, we need to pursue and befriend our children. (See An Unexpected Blessing of Parenting.)

Pride instead of humility. We will undoubtedly provoke our children to anger and discouragement if we raise them in pride instead of humility. Every generation of Christians seems to have to rediscover the ugliness of pride and the beauty of humility. Every parent needs to discover it as well. Parental pride manifests itself in a hundred different ways, but perhaps never more clearly than in an unwillingness to seek our children’s forgiveness. Pride convinces us that apologizing to our children displays weakness, that it gives them power over us. Nothing could be further from the truth! Humility convinces us that apologizing to our children displays the greatest strength, that it models the very character of Christ. We will inevitably sin against our children so we need to humbly seek their forgiveness, trusting that while God opposes the proud he gives great grace to the humble (see James 4:6).

There are undoubtedly many more ways that we can sinfully, unjustly provoke our children. There are undoubtedly many more ways that we actually do. So we honor God and love our children by examining ourselves and our parenting to find our particular temptations. Where we find them we must confess and repent. And all the while we can have confidence that God chooses to display his strength through our weakness, his power through our inadequacy. 

Do Not Provoke Your Children
May 16, 2016

It’s a word, it’s an idea, that I have wanted to explore for some time. Within the New Testament there are two clear instructions to parents and this word features prominently in both of them. It is the word provoke. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” while Colossians 3:21 echoes “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Risking the wrath of expositors everywhere, I created a mash-up of the two that reads like this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I’d like to suggest a number of ways that we, as parents, may sinfully, unjustly provoke our children. But before we do that, let’s walk through these two passages together.

Fathers. The first word in both passages is Fathers. While it is fathers who are addressed here, most commentators acknowledge that it is fair to see these instructions as being written to both parents. Greek society was patriarchal so Paul addressed the mothers through the fathers. We are on good ground allowing the verse to speak equally to both parents.

Do not provoke … to anger. Both passages contain the same exhortation: Do not provoke, though Ephesians adds to anger. Provoke is the kind of word you might use when you kindle a fire into flame—you begin with something small and provoke it into a roaring fire. Or from another angle, it is the kind of word you might use when you are getting your children all excited, chasing them around and tickling them until you provoke them to being all wound up. Here, of course, Paul is using it in a negative sense of stirring, exasperating, or irritating them toward anger or bitterness. Parents must not provoke their children to anger.

I want to make an important application: Parents can cause their children to become angry and bitter. I’m sure you know this and I can assure you that they know this. But I think we can go even a step further to say there are times when our children are justified in their anger toward us. There are times when we so provoke our children, we so exasperate them, that anger is the fitting response. It may even be the right response if that anger is expressed in righteous ways. There may be times when your children’s anger toward you is more righteous than your actions or attitude toward them.

Next we read, lest they become discouraged. A discouraged child is one who has lost heart. He is so beaten down that he has lost hope, he has lost motivation, he doesn’t care anymore. One Bible translates it, “lest he get discouraged and quit trying.” The idea here is that you can so beat down your children that they stop trying to please you. Maybe your demands are arbitrary or unfair, maybe you never praise your children and take joy in them, maybe you live hypocritically before them with higher expectations for them than for yourself. Whatever the case, they eventually stop caring and stop trying. Douglas Moo says, “Paul does not want to see the children of Christian families disciplined to such an extent that they ‘lose heart’ and simply give up trying to please their parents.”

Putting it all together, God exhorts parents in this way: Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged. On the heels of that exhortation he offers a solution: “But bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Do not beat down, but raise up. Do not provoke with impatience and injustice, but instead shepherd with nurture and tenderness, and do this through discipline and instruction.

These two words are key: discipline and instruction. Between them they offer words of training and correction, words of admonition and rebuke, words that express both the positive and the negative sides of leadership. You need to correct your children, sometimes with a look, sometimes with a word, sometimes with a timeout, and sometimes with a spank. That is the negative side of parenting. But positively, you also need to teach them, explaining to them what is right, demonstrating how they are to live. This little pair of words covers both the positive and the negative sides of learning and growing, helping our children go from folly to wisdom, from childishness to maturity, from self-centeredness to loving others, and, we trust, from sin to salvation.

Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. With all of this in place, we are prepared to look at how parents may sinfully, unjustly provoke their children to anger and discouragement. We will turn to that tomorrow. (See 7 Ways Parents Provoke Our Children)

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Joy of Discipline
May 13, 2016

We don’t accomplish much in life apart from self-discipline. Discipline plays an especially important role in life’s difficult or full-out unpleasant tasks, in those things we know we ought to do but struggle to accomplish. We discipline ourselves to get exercise and lose weight. We discipline ourselves to update the family budget on a regular basis. We discipline ourselves to read instead of watch television or to get up early instead of sleep in. In so many areas we rely on discipline to help us complete our most difficult or least favorite tasks.

In general, we discipline ourselves to avoid the negative consequences of a lack of discipline. We know that we will suffer if we don’t exercise, if we don’t manage our finances, if we never crawl out of bed. If these things were pleasant, they wouldn’t require so much effort, right? We don’t need discipline to eat chocolate but to not eat chocolate. Discipline is associated with self-denial and it is not surprising, then, that it tends to have negative connotations.

But sometimes it really just comes down to how we frame it, because discipline is equally important when it comes to life’s pleasant tasks. We don’t just need to discipline ourselves away from unpleasantness but toward joy. Discipline allows us to picture desirable outcomes, to form a plan to get there, to take the necessary steps, and to experience the joys we long for. Discipline is good because discipline delivers joy.

Each night before I go to sleep I make sure I kiss Aileen and pray with her. I didn’t always do these things, but over time developed them as disciplines. Why? Because I know each of them brings joy. It brings joy to be relationally connected with her and there is something about that little kiss that is a reminder of what we share together. It also forces us to let go of petty squabbles or at least to say, “Maybe we can’t fix this before we go to sleep tonight, but let’s at least remember that each of us is in this for the other and that we will work it out.” It brings joy for us to have a shared relationship with the Lord, and so together we commit our day and our night to him. We developed these disciplines for our joy. We saw a joyful outcome we wanted and developed the disciplines that would get us there and keep us there.

It’s not just in marriage. I have disciplined myself to open the Bible with my family each morning so we can experience joy together—the joy of hearing from God together as a family. I believe as well that it will be a key to the future joy of my children as they respond to God’s voice, God’s Word, in repentance and faith. I also discipline myself to have personal devotions because it too brings joy. I see the joyful outcome of a closer relationship with God and greater obedience to his Word and work backward to the means that will get me there—spending time hearing from him and speaking to him.

When we associate discipline only with avoidance of negative outcomes we rob ourselves of a means God uses to promote our joy and ultimately our joy in him. Where would God have you develop a discipline for your joy?

Image credit: Shutterstock

Why I Am Not
May 12, 2016

I am a person who has deep religious beliefs—beliefs that give shape to my convictions which in turn give shape to my life. My faith takes the place of utter centrality so that I am who I am and I live how I live because of it. You cannot understand me, I cannot understand myself, apart from my faith.

If faith so shapes me that it works itself out in my every thought and every action, if it so shapes me that I cannot understand myself apart from it, I am responsible to carefully examine the nature of that faith. In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to serious scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why do I believe so strongly in the existence of a God instead of doubting or denying it? Why am I Protestant instead of Roman Catholic? I might even ask why I am Baptist instead of Presbyterian or why I believe the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased instead of continued.

This article serves as the introduction to a series through which I will examine a number of my beliefs—the beliefs that give shape to my life. I will do this by beginning with my most foundational and unshakeable beliefs and then progressing to those that, though still important, are less central. My goal is not so much to persuade you to believe what I believe but to remind myself of my beliefs and how I came to them.

Perhaps I can illustrate by having you picture a series of concentric circles. At the very center is a small circle that represents the most fundamental belief of all: Christianity in contrast to atheism. The next circle will be slightly wider and represent Protestantism in contrast to Roman Catholicism. Beyond that will be a circle that represents Reformed theology in contrast to Arminian theology. And it will go on like that until we reach categories where I have still had to make a decision even though the distinctions are far more nuanced and both are well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. If the first couple of options distinguish between accepting and denying the gospel of Jesus Christ, the other options simply distinguish between different ways of understanding the gospel and its implications.

The categories I use will reflect those times in my faith journey in which I have had to choose between two opposing options. I could not be a Christian atheist so had to choose to be a Christian or an atheist; I could not be a Protestant Catholic so, again, had to choose to be a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. Because the categories I use will reflect my own faith journey, I will not look at categories that never seriously confronted me, such as Christianity in contrast to Islam or Protestant Christianity in contrast to Mormonism. In each case I will frame my examination by telling why I am not this but that. And in each case I want to be honest, admitting where my beliefs are strongly shaped by evidence and contemplation and where they are shaped by inertia, assumption, or lethargy. 

Here is how I expect the series to shape up (though I may add or take away as it progresses):

  • Why I am not atheist
  • Why I am not Roman Catholic
  • Why I am not liberal
  • Why I am not Arminian
  • Why I am not Presbyterian
  • Why I am not dispensational
  • Why I am not egalitarian
  • Why I am not continuationist

I will kick things off next week by explaining why I am not atheist. I hope you’ll consider reading along and I hope you’ll find it profitable.

Image credit: Shutterstock

5 Questions To Ask of a Book
May 09, 2016

They are far and away the most common questions I receive (beyond, perhaps, how to pronounce my name—it rhymes with “valleys”): Can you tell me anything about this author? Have you heard of this book? Is it safe to read? Sometimes people ask to avoid wasting time or money on a book that would not be worth either one, and sometimes they ask to avoid the influence of false doctrine. Since I can’t answer all the questions, and since I can’t know all the books and authors, I’ll offer a few tips on sorting it all out and do so in the form of 5 questions you can ask of any book.

Who wrote you? Familiarize yourself with trustworthy authors. As a reader you should have your list of favorites, the short list of people you regard as especially influential and trustworthy. I believe there is a lot of value in tracking a few authors through the course of their career and reading—or at least considering—every one of their books. This is difficult with an R.C. Sproul since if you begin today you are 100 books behind, but much easier with younger authors who have a shorter list of works. Don’t know where to begin? Then ask a friend or pastor. Or ask me. I’d try people like H.B. Charles Jr., Kevin DeYoung, Gloria Furman, Russell Moore, Andy Naselli, Barnabas Piper, or Jen Wilkin—people like that. They have each written a few books but not so many that you’ll need to spend two years catching up, and they are all likely to write quite a few more. Find “your” authors and read what they write. But then also track who endorses their books, who speaks at conferences with them, and so on. Start to look for connections.

Who published you? You should familiarize yourself with Christian publishers and learn which of them are especially trustworthy. There are quite a lot of excellent publishers whose books may vary by quality and secondary theological issues but which will never fall outside the conservative Evangelical stream. Learn to trust these ones. Among them are Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, Crossway, Evangelical Press, Matthias Media, P&R, Reformation Heritage, Reformation Trust, The Good Book Company, (and, I hope, Cruciform Press since I was involved in founding it). If they publish it, you can be quite confident in it. Other publishers publish a much wider range of titles and, depending on the company, the imprint, or the department, their titles may range from very good to quite concerning or from very good to outright heretical. For these you will need to exercise a bit more caution. Here I refer to IVP, Eerdmans, Multnomah, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, as well as the faith or Christian imprints of large mainstream publishers (Harper Collins, Penguin, and so on).

Who endorsed you? If you don’t know the author or publisher, or you are still looking for more information, check the endorsements or, more properly, the endorsers. Look there for trusted or at least familiar names. The value of endorsements is not so much in what the endorser says but in the fact that the endorser is willing to put his or her name to the other person’s work. Your favorite and most trusted authors can also become your most trusted endorsers. Not only that, but their friends can become your friends. I have learned that there are some authors who are very slow to put their name to a book so have an extra measure of trust for them. Names that mean a lot to me include: Randy Alcorn, Thabiti Anyabwile, Nancy Leigh Demoss, Mark Dever, Gloria Furman, Mary Kassian, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Andy Naselli, Burk Parsons, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul. There are others who endorse so many books across such a wide spectrum that I no longer put much stock in their endorsements, but it would be inappropriate for me to say who they are.

Who reviewed you? Avid readers read more than books—they also read reviews of books. Reviews are helpful in giving an in-depth overview of a book or providing some in-depth engagement with it. They also serve to keep you updated on books you have not read. As you commit to reading more and more, begin to find reviewers you can trust. When I haven’t read a book, I find myself looking to see if it has been reviewed by Aaron Armstrong, Books at a Glance, David Steele, The Gospel Coalition, Themelios, or any of my favorite bloggers. For children’s books I look to Redeemed Reader. WORLD magazine is also a useful source if you have a subscription. For general market books I am an avid reader of the book sections of New York Times and Macleans.

Who will I find in your endnotes? If all else fails, look at the book’s sources. Few books stand on their own and most authors rely on work that has already been written. You can learn a lot by flipping to the endnotes to see who the author is quoting and interacting with. Look especially for your favorite authors and publishers. If it is a book on the spiritual disciplines and contains hundreds of quotes from Richard Foster it will be a very different kind of book than if it contains plenty of quotes from, say, Donald Whitney. A book on preaching that draws from Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John MacArthur will be very different from one that draws from Joel Osteen and Rob Bell. The more you familiarize yourself with Christian books, the more information you will be able to glean this way.

All of this is designed to help you filter the few books you will read from the thousands you could read. Not only that, but it is designed to help you get a sense of what a book is all about before you begin to read it. When you are quite new to Christian books, there is value in choosing your books carefully to avoid bad influences. As you familiarize yourself with doctrine and as you better ground yourself in truth, you will become better equipped to exercise discernment when reading and to read “bad” books without fear of being unduly influenced by unworthy books.

What Should We Do with Books by Fallen Leaders
May 06, 2016

Today’s article was sparked by a question from a long-time reader of the site. “With the sad removal from ministry of yet another prominent pastor, I’ve been wondering how we are to view their ministry retrospectively. What do we do with their books? With their sermons? With their tweets and blog posts?” He told of a Christian bookseller who has been left with entire boxes of titles by an author who was removed from ministry. Would it be wrong to try to sell them? Would it be right for him to take the loss and to throw them away? The questions remind me of a gloomy photo snapped outside what was formerly Mars Hill Ballard’s building, a photo of a dumpster filled to overflowing with rain-drenched copies of Mark Driscoll’s A Call to Resurgence.

What do we do with material associated with a leader who has since justly been removed from his position after committing some act or pattern of disqualifying immorality? What should we do? I am not convinced there are crystal-clear and perfectly objective standards here, but let me tell you how I think it through, especially as it pertains to purchasing, reading, reviewing, or recommending books.

The first thing that must be said is that immorality does not negate truth, even truth that is in the books of leaders who have fallen. What was true when the pastor had a good reputation is true when he has a poor reputation. This means that a book does not suddenly transform from orthodox to heretical on the basis of the author’s immorality. What was true before is true now, what was brilliant before is brilliant now, what was mediocre or muddled before remains mediocre or muddled now. The leader’s actions have no effect on the objective truth or error of his material.

But then we must also say this: Immorality negates the qualifications of the author. When it comes to Christian leaders, our concern must be for character far more than ability or any other quality. I recently dedicated an entire series of articles to Christian character, explaining that while Christian character is meant to be displayed by all Christians it must be exemplified by church leaders. In almost every case, the leaders who fall are local church pastors or elders and called to exemplify such character. A Christian leader needs to acknowledge that his qualifications are inextricably bound up in his character. If it is proven that he lacks godly character, his local church is right to exercise God’s authority by removing him from positions of influence. It stands to reason that the rest of us, those of us who are beyond that local church, do well to follow the lead of its elders.

Also, not all disqualifiers are the same. Some disqualifiers are rightly seen as permanently ending a leader’s ministry and this is especially the case when the leader is unrepentant or when he flees from the authority of his church or denomination. But there are other disqualifiers that can be addressed over a period of time under the care and authority of a local church in such a way that the leader can return to positions of influence.

Then I think of another factor: A book is closely associated with its author. Recommending a book is usually tacitly recommending the book’s author. After all, to learn from a book is to learn from its author. To commend a book is in some way to commend its author. In the case of a man who has fallen, others have been caught up in his fall and often damaged by his actions. Recommending a book by an abusive pastor may be unkind to those he has abused and may subtly cast doubt on the judgment of his local church. It may be that the way to love others, and especially those hurt by the fallen leader, is to keep a distance from his material.

On a similar note, a book reflects its author. A marriage book written by an adulterer probably reflects his lack of self-control, a leadership book written by an abuser probably reflects his domineering, a doctrine book written by an apostate probably contains the seeds of his apostasy. Choose very carefully who influences you.

And here is another factor: A book is a means to pay an author. To purchase a book is to give money to its author. Though authors usually make only a small portion of a book’s purchase price, the fact remains that there is a financial transaction between the author and reader. In this way, purchasing a book by a fallen pastor is a means of offering him monetary support.

Let’s add this: Without immoral men we would have to gut the Bible. Think about a Bible that excised every word spoken or written by an adulterer. We would have to remove every word spoken by Abraham and Jacob, just to start. Then we’d have to get rid of most of the Psalms and Proverbs and, of course, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes would have to go as well. If we expanded from adultery to other serious sins, we’d have to remove Isaac because of his repeated deceptions, Peter because of his denial of Jesus, Jonah because of his disobedience to God’s revealed will, and Samuel because of his protection of his wayward sons. Soon we’d have almost no Bible left. I will grant that these men were speaking and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, not the ultimate authors of their words, but the fact remains that God has often chosen to use fallen and immoral men. I don’t really know how this one factors in, but felt it was right to mention it, even if only to show the complexity of what might seem like a straightforward question.

In the end, exercise wisdom, heed conscience, and take cues from the local church. Consider all of these factors, trust that God delights to give you wisdom, carefully heed conscience when it calls or accuses, and be willing to follow the cues of the author’s church or denominational authorities.

As for me, I find it difficult to read books by authors who have disgraced and disqualified themselves. Depending on the kind of immorality he displayed, I may even get rid of his books. We of all generations are so blessed by good books that I see little reason to even consider ones written by leaders who have made a trainwreck of their ministries. I can’t think of a single category of book that needs the work of a fallen author. There are other great books on leadership, other ones on marriage, on prayer and suffering and Christian living. I do not need to rely on the books of those who have justly been removed from ministry. Neither do I need to read or recommend them.

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