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How and Why to Pray for T4G
April 12, 2016

Maybe we are growing too accustomed to these Reformed mega-conferences. If that’s the case, we should think back to the time—it was only a few years ago—when there appeared to be an inverse relationship between a conference’s attendance and its doctrinal soundness. For many years it was true that the conferences that held to Reformed theology were sparsely attended. But then something happened and today we can choose from any number of great conferences centered around proclaiming the deepest truth.

This week, more than 8,000 people will gather in Louisville, Kentucky, for the 2016 Together for the Gospel conference; thousands more will watch the livestream. Though all kinds of people attend, it is primarily an event by and for pastors and is meant to teach, challenge, and equip church leaders. I believe the Lord has used this event in remarkable ways since it began 10 years ago, and I think there is every reason he will do so again this year. To that end I want to encourage you—whether or not you are going and whether or not you know someone who is going—to pray that God would meet this group in powerful ways. Just think what God can do when 8,000 church leaders gather together to hear God speak through his Word!

So please pray, and perhaps pray in some of these ways:

For Speakers and Organizers

  • Pray that God would help the planners finish up last-minute preparations for the thousands who are arriving in Louisville.
  • Pray that God would give the pre-conference, side seminar, and plenary speakers wisdom and boldness as they proclaim their messages.
  • Pray that God would give the speakers the humility they need to direct all praise and glory to God.

For Attenders

  • Pray that God would encourage the hearts of those Christian leaders who feel particularly stuck in their sins or discouraged at their people that this would be a time of true refreshment.
  • Pray that God would use the 160,000 books that will be given away to give these leaders greater wisdom and understanding.
  • Pray that God would let the fellowship of these leaders be sweet, enlightening, and mutually beneficial as they encourage one another in the faith.
  • Pray that God would manifest his presence through the times of worship in song and prayer.
  • Pray that God would bring about his global kingdom purposes through this conference as people go to all the nations to proclaim the gospel.
  • Pray that God would let there be unity through diversity as people gather from across denominations and across the world.
  • Pray that God would allow new friendships to form at the event.
  • Pray that God would use the print, audio, and video resources that come out of this conference to accomplish all these purposes for those who are not able to come to the conference.
  • Pray that God would allow the thousands of men in attendance to leave a favorable impression of Christians on the city of Louisville as they interact with hotel managers, restaurant servers, airport personnel, and so on.
  • Pray that God would bless the people attending with safety. (The growing security concerns are reflected in the reality that to get into the event, people must pass through a metal detector—now a standard procedure when entering the KFC Yum! Center.)
  • Pray that God would bless the families the conference attendees have left behind.

Finally, I plan to be there and would love to meet you. It is always so encouraging and humbling to meet those who take time to read my blog and my books. If you see me, please do say hello. 

I Wish I Was Rich
April 11, 2016

Surely you’ve had the filthy-rich daydream before, right? Maybe you heard about the latest tech billionaire who turned a little app into gold by selling it to Facebook or Google. Or maybe you heard of lotteries with their prizes stretching into the hundreds of millions or the guy who made the little investment in just the right company at just the right time. You heard about it and thought, “I wish I was rich. I know what I’d do with that money.”

If you’ve had the daydream, you have undoubtedly considered what a generous Christian could do with hundreds of millions of dollars. Think of the ventures he could support, the churches he could build, the missionaries he could sponsor. Let your mind run free for a few minutes and you could draw up a plan to spend every dollar and cent for the good of the kingdom. And you would, right?

In all probability you will never be rich. You will never have hundreds of millions of dollars to allocate to one ministry or the other. You will never be the person divvying up your billions before you die. But you don’t need a million or a billion to know what you would do with extravagant wealth. You can simply look at your current patterns and project from there. If you aren’t being extravagantly generous with the bit you have now, what makes you think that having more would suddenly make all the difference? Generosity isn’t about how much you have, but what you do with the bit you do have. It isn’t about what you would do with more, but what you actually do with what you’ve got.

How are you using the wealth God has already given you? Are you attentive? Are you creative? Are you generous? Do you give enough that it makes a difference to you and your family (so you have less than you otherwise would) and to the lives or ministries of others (so they have more than they otherwise would)? If you aren’t being generous today with modest wealth there is no reason to think you would be generous tomorrow with abundant wealth.

It strikes me that in Jesus’ parable of the talents (see Matthew 25) the questions and expectations are the same for all three servants, whether they had been given five talents or two or one. The mark of faithful stewardship was proportional to what had been entrusted to them by their master. The one who had been given five returned ten, the one who had been given two returned four; there was no comparison or competition between them, for each had been equally faithful with their unequal endowment. In all likelihood, God will never call you to be that five-talent servant, the one who has been given the extravagant wealth. But whether he gives you two or one, the expectation is the same—that you will steward it with joy and generosity to carry out the work of God on earth.

You already have enough money—enough to do what God means for you to do, enough to prove your loyalty to him and your disloyalty to money. You already have enough to make a difference in lives and ministries. You already have enough to be as generous or as stingy as you would be with billions. Rather than spending your days dreaming about what you would do if you had more, spend your days working hard to make a living and then give with joyful generosity (see Ephesians 4:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:11). When the day comes that God requires an accounting for all he has entrusted to you, I suspect you will be content that God did not entrust you with even more. I suspect you will agree with his wisdom in giving you just two talents or one.

Image credit: Shutterstock

April 10, 2016

There were quite a number of letters to the editor this week, and they were mostly related to two articles. Once again, my gratitude goes to all those who took the time to write.

Comments on Did God Break the Law for Love?

To add to your excellent refutation of Furtick, whom I confess I had never heard of until I read your article, there’s a bit of apples-and-oranges confusion with his example of the parent breaking speed laws to rush a hurt child to the hospital. Speed laws are “malum prohibitum”, meaning an unlawful act only by virtue of statute. But he wants to use that to prove that God has broken law that is “malem in se”, that is, conduct that is evil in and of itself. “Malem prohibitum” and “malem in se” are two very very different things and only by conflating them does Furtick’s poor analogy work. A more consistent analogy would be to have the parent killing another person who is standing in the way of getting his child to the hospital, or maybe even stealing a car because the parent’s car broke down. I think these would be more honest elucidations of the complexities that can occur when one ethical value comes in contact with another.
—Kevin G, Eugene OR

Tim: Thank you for this clarification. I think a lot of people intuitively understood that the analogy failed, but not why it failed. This helps explain it.

***

I agreed with all you had to say. The thing I really liked was how you heard beneath what the other pastor said, and you encouraged and explained where he was coming from. So often I see remarks that would say how bad or stupid the other pastor was. Thank you for showing love.
—Peggy G, Bremen OH

Tim: I include this one primarily because of the ones that follow it, some of which say that I labelled Furtick a false teacher (something I did not do) and because they all ask if I approached him directly.

***

My son attended Elevation Church while in school near Charlotte and grew in his faith under the preaching of Steven Furtick. My husband and I attended once with my son and nothing we heard made us feel he is a false teacher. (Of course, it was only 1 sermon.) I do, however, agree that if this is indeed what he preached, he is wrong. I will try to find the entire sermon and listen as well. My question is… Have you contacted Steven Furtick to discuss this? I would be curious to know the outcome of that conversation.
—Marti S, Gordo AL

***

Thank you for this recent article. I truly love to listen to Steven Furtick speak. I believe he is passionate about the Lord and what he has done for us. I find at times he is a throw back to the days of great preachers that passionately share the Good News. That being said I do agree with your theological assessment of this statement. I am concerned that he spoke the way he did trying to make a point but instead did not think through the wording carefully. My question to you is did you contact him and ask him for a response? I ask because I often feel that dialogue is a more gracious response to just labeling someone as a false teacher. I respect you and your blog I have learn a great deal by reading it. I just thought I would ask.
—Rod K, Oak Ridge NJ

Tim: For a number of reasons I did not approach Furtick before sharing the article. In the first place, he released it to the public via social media, a medium that presupposes interaction. Second, I have no relationship with him or, as far as I know, anyone who knows him, so I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with him. Third, I don’t think it is necessary from a biblical standpoint since this is not an issue of interpersonal conflict but public statements. Furthermore, I did not charge him with being a heretic or false teacher, but simply interacted with one of his sermons.

***

Thank you for the time and effort you put into your work. This is not the result of a strong feeling about something you wrote as much as a question about it. Do you think Steven Furtick and you have defined “The law of love” differently in your two expositions around the phrase? I appreciate that you did mention that Furtick’s sermon was “muddy,” however it seems that in this blog you have taken one of what you have admitted are many possible understandings, claimed it as “the” intended message, and then discounted it. It also seems to me that the muddy word in this whole conversation is “law,” or the phrase “law of love.” For instance, if you define the “law of love” as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” then your words are necessary and good. However, if you define “law of love” as “the feeling of care and responsibility of a parent toward a child that, in that parent’s mind, justifies breaking the laws of the road in order to get an injured child to care,” then perhaps the tone of the blog could/should have been different. The fact that neither of us can rightly claim to know that for sure (I agree it is muddy) suggests that perhaps the article would have better served the church if it were either a call for clarity, or an exposition of all possible interpretations of the mud, rather than an attack of another Christian leader. I am tempted to believe that your motive here was the notoriety you may claim from attacking a popular figure, however I will simply ask you if that was the case or not, and accept your answer without malice. How much better would your blog have been if you had simply written Furtick, okay his staff, an email and ask for clarification, regardless of the answer?
—Matt C, Raleigh NC

Tim: Certainly the issue of what Furtick means by “the law” is a little bit up in the air. That said, I think the context, and especially the Bible quote he uses at the end of that two-minute excerpt, show that he was talking about the law as God’s rule for humanity. It would be difficult to read “the law of love” into his sermon and have it make sense.

***

As I preached through the Sermon on the Mount during 2015, one thing that I tried to drill home with my congregation is something we often miss about the law. Namely, the law God has given isn’t a set of rules or guidelines. The law is the expressed design of creation by God, and it flows from the very nature of who God is. Meaning, the law as given to us doesn’t just tell us how to live, but it also describes and attests to the very nature of who God is. The example I used often was that we are commanded not to lie. We are given that command because lying is not only against the design of creation, but God himself cannot lie either (Num 23, Tit 1). For Furtick to suggest that God broke the law would be for God to violate his very nature, which is impossible if we believe in an immutable, eternal God. Saying God broke His own law is silliness on the level of saying that a blueberry made itself orange. God cannot break the law, because he IS the law and the law is Him. The law and the nature of God are inseparable. I don’t imagine you going back to share that in the article, but I thought it would be worth mentioning, in case there was any more talk of it.
—Jason Y, West Chicago, IL

Comments on Always Reforming: The Holy Challenge of Diversity

I wanted to say thank you for the articles that you posted. It has been encouraging to see a non-ethnic minority voicing the questions that it feels like we have been asking, in all honesty I have been growing increasingly frustrated, and even cynical with the Reformed community in regards to this issue, but your recent articles have been such an encouragement to me, so thank you.

I think a common objection to calls for diversity is that it distracts from the gospel, or that we are pursuing a worldly agenda instead of biblical ones. That our calls for diversity are not calls grounded in, and coming from our scriptural convictions, but instead there are real implications that we have somehow been “tainted” by the world in some sense. These comments and responses are frightening because it means those who respond in these ways do not see race as a biblical mandate, they do not see the issues of diversity as being a biblical, Christian thing, as something that God desires. Which I think flies in the face of Scripture, and even reformed tradition. I think of Calvin leading the incredibly diverse church of Geneva. He did not try to lead a french church, or a Swiss church, but he encouraged the diversity within the church of Geneva. I think of Kuyper who argues for the pluriformity of churches, arguing that it is a reflection of the glory of God’s diversity, that we see in creation. I think of Bavinck, who argues for the pluriformity of churches as being rooted and grounded in the Triune union of God himself.
—Hyung B, Queens NY

***

I found your article very interesting. Here in Brazil where my husband and I are missionaries we have also seen an incredible (re)surgence of the Reformed faith. However, the ethnic diversity doesn’t mean anything to us. It’s so diverse, especially because we are not so racially split. It’s much more of a resurgence among university grads and those who have t least finished some type of higher education and the middle class who are tired of shallow theology. The best Christian books we have here are pretty much all by Reformers. And the surgence (in our case) is quite large( where we do have conferences of more than 1000, even 2000). Of course half of he speakers are either American, Canadian or Brits.
—Aida H, Niterói, RJ

Chilis Guacamole John Piper
April 08, 2016

A few years ago I was at a conference to lead a breakout session and perhaps to do some writing about the event. There were a couple of keynote speakers there, John Piper among them, and they were carrying a much heavier load. If I remember correctly, the first day ended with an informal Q&A session held in the lobby rather than the main auditorium. Hundreds of us crowded into that lobby to eat dessert and to hear answers to interesting questions.

As the evening was coasting toward its conclusion, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Would you like to get some guacamole with John Piper after we’re done here?” Now, if there is any rule governing this Reformed resurgence, it’s that when John Piper asks you out for guacamole, you cannot refuse. Sure enough, a few minutes later I found myself at a nearby Chili’s with Piper and a plate of guac.

I was happy to oblige, of course, but naturally, found myself wondering why I was there. The explanation was not long in coming: Piper had recently encountered Twitter and had seen some promise in it. He was convinced that it could be an important medium for ministry. He had even begun a secret account and had been using it anonymously, teaching himself how to make the most of the 140-character word limit. He had a number of questions for me, all of them related to the strengths and the weaknesses of what at that time was a new medium. I do not remember all that we discussed, but I do remember coming away impressed with his desire to weigh the risks against the benefits and to ensure he would avoid the one while enjoying the other. He meant to make Twitter a first foray into the world of social media with the hope that it would become an important extension of his ministry.

Sure enough, he soon opened a public account and tweeted his first tweet just about 7 years ago. Today nearly 850,000 people follow him. He largely shares Scripture, sometimes with a miniature reflection attached, but also includes a few quotes and links to helpful resources. By my assessment he does Twitter well. He does it as a form of ministry.

I hadn’t thought about this incident in many years, but it came to mind on Sunday. I was at a nearby church teaching an adult Sunday school class about life in a digital world and was asked a question like this: “You’ve told us that any new technology brings with it both opportunities and risks. How can we make sure that we are properly assessing a new technology so we can avoid the risks?” And it was right then that I thought of Chili’s, guacamole, and . He understood that there would be ways to use this new technology well and ways to use it poorly. His concern was to use it well, knowing that using it poorly could have a detrimental impact on his ministry and, even worse, on the gospel. In order to use it well he first tried it privately and then consulted others about it (I was not the only one he spoke to). He moved slowly and deliberately and, in that way, serves as a good model.

Do you want to use new technologies well? Then move slowly enough to first understand them, try them in small ways before committing to them in big and public ways, and ask others to share their experiences. In these ways you are making the effort to understand both the obvious benefits and the far more subtle risks.

(An amusing little event happened the same week. I was in a room by myself, putting the finishing touches on that breakout session. Suddenly the door blew open and Alistair Begg burst through it. He pointed at me and shouted, “I will…not…tweet. Ever!” Then he walked back out. I have not spoken to him before or since. But you can now follow him at .)

Begg Twitter

Did God Break the Law for Love
April 07, 2016

It happened again. A popular preacher said something in a sermon, it made its way to social media, and lots of people got upset. This happens quite often, doesn’t it? I rarely pay attention to these things and comment on them infrequently. However, I am making an exception for the latest one because I suspect quite a few people who saw it on their Facebook timeline are saying, “Hang on! What’s so wrong with what he said?” It’s one of those things that is just close enough to the truth to be confusing. So let’s turn it into an opportunity and consider how and why what he said is problematic.

Let me give some context: Last summer Steven Furtick preached a sermon at Elevation Church that was based on 1 John 4:7-12 and titled “It Works Both Ways.” Though the sermon was 40 minutes long and preached all the way back in July, he recently shared a 2-minute excerpt on Facebook. It is that excerpt that has been passed around and widely discussed. In it he makes this claim: “God broke the law for love.” God gave us a law, then, as a great display of his love, broke that law.

Furtick illustrates by using the example of a child who has suffered a terrible injury after falling from the monkey bars. As a parent, you scoop up your child, run to the car, and race for the hospital. All the way to the hospital you pass by signs declaring a speed limit, but out of love and concern for your child you ignore them, breaking the law for the sake of love. The implication is that you are justly breaking the law for the sake of love. Furtick then turns the illustration from an earthly parent to a heavenly Father:

What will really turn your heart to God is not when you hear his laws—which were given for our good, by the way, but they were powerless because there wasn’t enough leverage in our actions to keep the law. So what God did when he sent his Son—and this is why we get excited in church, and this is why tears fill our eyes when we think about Jesus, and this is why the gospel is still good news in the world today—cause God broke the law for love. I said to every sinner, God broke the law for love. I mean that he scooped you up in his arms, I mean that he’s carrying you in his grace, I mean that what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature God did by sending his Son in the likeness of a sinful man.

Did God break the law for love? It might seem like he did or like he had to. After all, he has made sinners right before a holy God. Ah yes, but not by breaking the law. The mystery of the cross is how God could satisfy the demands of the law while offering mercy to those condemned by that very law. The miracle of the cross is that God actually does this—he justifies sinners while keeping every demand of the law.

When Furtick says that God breaks the law, he seems to indicate that the way God releases people from the law’s demands is by breaking it and he uses the parent-child illustration to prove this. But while the illustration is effective on an emotional level, on a scriptural level it muddies rather than clarifies. Where the child has had an innocent accident, we have willfully committed cosmic treason against our divine king; where the child is physically injured, we are spiritually dead. Of even greater importance, God’s law is not a speed limit, a list of rules drawn up to govern human behavior. Rather, the law is God’s revelation or manifestation of his own character. For God to break the law he would have to act opposite not only to a rule but to his own character. He would have to insist that he is one way but that he acts in another way. God cannot break the law without entering into an impossible and absurd self-contradiction. The illustration actually contradicts the truth.

There is another problem here. Furtick means to show that God demonstrates the magnitude of his love by his willingness to break his own good law, as if God says “I love you so much that I will break my own law to save you.” But God can and does give a much greater demonstration of his love—he keeps the law! At the cross God demonstrates his love to us “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God displays the magnitude of his love not by breaking the law but by satisfying the law. He satisfies it in the most painful way possible, by loading upon his very own Son the complete weight of our sin and then pouring out his wrath on him. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This is what he does for our sake. Why? Because this is what his law demands. His law, his righteous and holy character, demands that justice be satisfied. “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3–4). The greatest possible expression of God’s love is not breaking the law but keeping it. The cross is definitive proof that God is not a law-breaker but a law-keeper.

Here is one final problem: If God breaks the law, the law is still in effect because there has been no justice, and that is the worst possible news. If the law is still in effect, I am condemned by it and God is downright evil for promising a false hope. If I have committed murder and a judge tells me I can go free anyway, I remain guilty. His decision to break or circumvent the law has no bearing on my guilt or innocence. The same must be true of God. In Romans 3:30–31 Paul explains that God does not break the law (even for love) and does so with the language of “uphold” and “overthrow:” God “will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” So, when God justifies the wicked, he does not overthrow the law or find a way around it. To the contrary, through the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Christ, God upholds the law. Every sin is paid. Justice is served. The law is upheld. The Judge is satisfied. Those who were guilty are rightly, truly, fairly, eternally declared innocent when they put their faith in Christ.

Could God break the law? No, he could not and would not contradict himself. Does God need to break the law in order to save us? No, thank God, he does not need to show mercy only at the expense of justice. Does God break the law? No, he does something far, far better. He upholds it while Christ fulfills it. In all of earth and heaven there is no greater demonstration of love than God keeping his law.

I am considering this article complete, but am adding a short appendix to it.

The Whole Christ

Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ is relevant and helpful to these matters of love, law, and gospel. He makes the important point that antinomianism (opposing and rejecting God’s law as Furtick does here) is—oddly, paradoxically, yet truly—an expression of legalism (earning your righteousness through God’s law apart from Christ). He says they are “nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.” He explains that “Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both.” Furtick wants to show that love or gospel is much greater than law, but he goes wrong when he pits them against one another.

What’s wrong with these approaches of legalism and antinomianism? They both “[separate] the law of God from the person of God.” Each is “a distorted view of God as the giver of his law.” “Love is what law commands, and the commands are what love fulfills. … Love requires direction and principles of operation. Love is motivation, but it is not self-interpreting direction.” We need to be careful that we never put God’s love in opposition to God’s law. The law is “holy and righteous and good” and “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). Sin is the problem (Romans 7:13), not the law. Perhaps you can consider this another good reason to add The Whole Christ to your reading list.

April 05, 2016

Yesterday I began to share some thoughts on diversity and uniformity within this Reformed resurgence. I concluded by asking why there appears to be such a distance between our desire for diversity and the reality as we observe it at our big conferences. There are many possibilities that would be worth exploring, but today I want to follow just one of them, and I choose this one because it has been playing out in both my mind and my experience. Here it is: I believe we fail to appreciate and pursue the sheer goodness of diversity—goodness that extends to us, to them, and to our shared display of the gospel.

From a comfortable and established majority position, we are prone to look at other groups and think, “They need Reformed theology.” That may be true. We believe that Reformed theology accurately captures the scope of what God tells us in his Word, that it calls us to think the highest thoughts of God, and that it motivates the greatest mission. We would love for them, whoever they are, to experience the joy that comes when we see God elevated and magnified. But I think it is the complementary part of the equation that we neglect: Reformed theology needs them. We need them, not in complete conformity but in diversity.

Some recent comments from Marcos Ortega express this well. (Marcos blogs with several others at Reformed Margins. Consider the implications of the blog’s name, that as they speak to and about the Reformed faith as minorities, they are speaking from the margins.) After telling of his indebtedness to the white Christian leaders who led him into the Reformed tradition, he goes on to say this:

Now we [minorities] are in the tradition. And there are things in the tradition that have been neglected because of the relatively monolithic worldview that the Reformed tradition long held. This is not the fault of our white brothers and sisters. They cannot be expected to have worldviews like our black and Latino and Asian brothers and sisters. We cannot expect to hold worldviews that are naturally foreign to us because of ethnicity, background, etc. But we can listen to those other worldviews and together deepen our understanding of one another in the love of Christ.

He continues by saying, “When minorities began to embrace the Reformed tradition, we brought something in with us. And it is a valuable thing. And it will require all of us to learn from one another.” Ortega puts into words what I have been trying to express for a while now. This diversity is valuable and is something we ought to deliberately pursue. If we are complacent with the uniformity of the Reformed movement, we are impoverishing ourselves and others. We are denying to all of us the ability to grow deeper into the doctrine we so love. There must be whole dimensions of it we have missed or misunderstood or misapplied because of our relatively monolithic worldview. That problem can be addressed only through diversity, from listening more than speaking, having as much desire to be changed as to change others. Reformed theology even offers the language to support this, having long claimed to be semper reformanda, willing to be constantly challenged and changed when convinced and convicted by the Word of God.

Listen to him again as he talks about the cost and the benefit:

Sometimes, it will mean being told that you were wrong. I know acknowledging your mistakes or your blind spots is a difficult and painful thing. I understand because I have had to do so many times. But if we are to grow as a tradition, if we are to sharpen one another and build one another up in the faith, then we must begin acknowledging our faults. We must allow others to point out our blind spots. And we cannot respond with vitriol whenever our weaknesses are pointed out.

The Reformed tradition is not the same as it was. Praise God! It can’t be. It can’t be because it is too good, too sweet. It has captivated all kinds of people. It has drawn all kinds of people—black and white, Australian and Asian, urban rich and rural poor—who are passionate about those essential doctrinal truths. As they come to Reformed convictions, they necessarily bring their own background with all of its strengths and weaknesses, all its insights and blind spots. This is so good! This is so necessary. It proves how much we need one another. Let me turn one more time to Ortega:

[W]e love the tradition as much as our white brothers and sisters. We do not claim to be Reformed because we are trying to take territory away from anyone.

I want to pause right here. Until recently I would have considered this an unnecessary statement. Who would consider Reformed theology territory that needs to be defended? But then it happened. A group of people attending a conference made it clear to a minority there that he was on their turf, that he was welcome to attend and participate, but that he did so as an outsider looking in. His pain haunts me. He saw the ugly juxtaposition between the soaring beauty of the truth proclaimed from the front of the room and the sinking horror of the error spoken by those sitting beside him. He wept. They did not. This really happened.

Back to Ortega:

We claim the name Reformed because this is where our convictions lie. Now that we have brought new backgrounds and new presuppositions into the room, the Reformed tradition will begin to change. I believe it’s a healthy change in a fuller, more robust direction. So let’s work together through these growing pains and build one another up in peace and love as Christ so desires.

I began many hundreds of words ago by shining a spotlight on conferences, but I need to turn on a second spotlight and shine it on our churches. This Reformed resurgence is not first a movement of conferences but a movement of local churches. The lack of diversity at our big conferences simply reflects a lack of diversity in our little churches. If there is to be diversity in Reformed conferences, there must also be diversity in Reformed congregations. Diversity needs to grow from our churches to our conferences and from our conferences to our churches. A heavy train puts an engine on the front and on the back, one to push and one to pull. Just think of all the strength we can bring if we pull with our churches and push with our conferences.

I don’t mean to implicate others and absolve myself. I have the joy of serving and worshipping at a very diverse church, but have to admit that this is more a happy byproduct of living in the world’s most diverse city than of deliberately valuing and pursuing diversity. But even then I can attest that I have learned so much from serving and observing the growing Ghanian community that now comprises a significant percentage of our church. (And, to keep things above-board, I’ll also give a shout-out to the Nigerians!) I have happily benefited from worshipping and fellowshipping alongside East Asians, French Canadians, Romanians, and Sri Lankans. They have been a blessing to me not only because of what is the same between us, but because of what is different. There is such joy to be found right there in the beautiful space between the similarities and the differences.

Reformed theology continues to grow and spread. Why wouldn’t it? How couldn’t it? It is beautiful and deep and challenging and true. As you go almost anywhere in this world you will find Christian brothers and sisters learning, teaching, and delighting in the same time-tested truths. But if you go to our churches and our conferences, you are likely to see more uniformity than diversity. This acknowledgement gives us and this movement the opportunity, the privilege, and the responsibility to seek out, to honor, and to learn from people who represent and display every bit of the glorious diversity our God saw fit to create. It is time we rise to that holy challenge.

April 04, 2016

Whatever else is true about this modern-day Reformed resurgence, this much is indisputable: We love our conferences. We love the experience of gathering together and hearing from our favorite authors, pastors, and theologians as they lead us to God through his Word. Many of us can attest to the innumerable blessings we have received by participating in such events.

I recently found myself asking this: When we go to conferences, who is it that we want to hear from? I decided to do a little bit of informal research by collecting some information about this year’s major events—those that have at least 1,000 attendees—and ones that are comprised primarily of keynote addresses or sermons. This allowed me to focus on a number of them, some targeted at pastors, some at women, and some at a general audience. Between them, those major Reformed conferences have 63 keynote speakers who will speak to perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 attendees and then to many more through streaming and recordings. (Note: if 1 person is speaking at 2 of these events he is counted twice.) There are many observations I made, but today I am going to highlight just 2:

  • Nationality. Of the 63 speakers, 57 live in America and the remaining 6 live in either Canada or the United Kingdom.
  • Race. Of the 63 speakers, 61 are white and 2 are African-American; no other races are represented.

Race & Nationality

Each of these conferences takes place in America. It should be no great surprise, then, that the great majority of the speakers live in the United States (even if they are not all American-born). Yet it is worth noting that the few international speakers are no further removed geographically or culturally than the U.K. and Canada and that together they represent only 2 of the world’s 6 continents and only 3 of the world’s 196 countries.

And then we come to race. Of the 63 keynote slots across the conferences I polled, 61 are filled by whites and 2 are filled by non-whites—in this case, both African-Americans. There is greater racial representation in breakout sessions and in conferences that follow alternative formats, but when it comes to keynote addresses, we see little racial diversity. We see no one of Asian descent, no one of Latin American descent, no one from recent African descent, and so on. To put it bluntly, the great majority of the speakers at this year’s Reformed conferences are white Americans and, in most cases, white American men.

The Opportunity Before Us

There are many ways we could interpret this data and, of course, many more observations we could draw from this brief survey. As I try to put it all together in my mind, I keep thinking of this word: Opportunity. This information gives us the opportunity to consider some facts about ourselves, determine what they might mean, and then to decide if and how we will respond to them.

But before we go any further, I want to consider the possibility that while this survey does display a real trend, 2016 may make that trend abnormally stark. We ought to acknowledge grace where grace is evident and if we look we will see it. Consider, for example, last year’s bi-annual Gospel Coalition National Conference which had two minorities among its eight speakers. It also featured a special event titled “Seeking Justice and Mercy From Ferguson to New York,” and a Spanish-language pre-conference. A brief search turned up other events that featured greater diversity in previous years than in 2016. Some leaders have long made it a point to ensure minority representation at their events. As far back as 2002, for example, John Piper designed an entire pastors’ conference on the theme of God-centered theology and the black experience in America. Then there is the fact that while breakout sessions and discussion panels may not carry the weight of keynote addresses, they do often feature greater diversity and often attempt to deliberately serve diverse demographics. Also, breakouts offer a smaller platform but are often used as a proving or testing ground for the bigger platform so that some of this year’s breakout speakers may be next year’s keynotes. We also need to acknowledge that Reformed theology is relatively new to many international and minority communities, whereas it has much deeper roots among those from European backgrounds. For that reason it may not be realistic to expect absolute parity in representation.

Still, even with all of that being true, we really do need to ask: Where is the diversity? Where is the diversity in this, a year where issues of race and diversity are on all of our minds? Based on the evidence before us, we have to conclude that there is not a whole lot of it.

Yet speaking personally, I find myself increasingly eager to hear from people who are unlike me in every way except in our shared faith and our shared convictions. I want to hear how God has worked in and through all kinds of people. I want to be taught, led, encouraged, and influenced by them. I want to learn from them how to better understand, interpret, love, honor, and teach God’s Word. I want to be shaped by people who are as different from me as two human beings can be, yet bound together by a common Savior. I want this. Truly, I long for this. It’s not that I want the current voices silenced; I simply want new voices added to them—voices that will represent the growing scope and depth of this Reformed resurgence. I have spoken to enough of you to know that I am not alone in this.

So why this distance between desire and reality? And if the gospel is truly a gospel that draws together all possible kinds and categories of people, why do we see more uniformity than diversity? I plan to turn to this subject tomorrow in the second and final part of this article. But by way of preview, I intend to take the spotlight off conferences and to turn it on us. After all, conferences don’t exist in a void. Conferences don’t create speakers or preachers but simply identify the ones who are already there. If that is the case, we need to look beyond conferences and begin to look to local churches—to you and to me. I want to offer a few thoughts on the sheer goodness, the sheer beauty, of diversity, I want to draw our attention to that creed of semper reformanda, and I want to suggest what the two might have to do with one another. But more on that tomorrow.

Learning for Forever
April 01, 2016

God has seen fit to bring significant diversity to Grace Fellowship Church. Every Sunday we worship as a community of Christians that spans the world, its continents, and its cultures. Yet for all this diversity, we remain a young church that has consistently had trouble drawing and keeping older believers. While we do have some seniors, we definitely have too few—too few for our liking, at least, and too few for a church of several hundred people.

I recently spent a little bit of time with an older believer and was struck again by some of what we lose in a younger church. I was touched by the most mundane observation: She was reading her Bible. She was reading her Bible so she could better know and serve her God. This simple act touched and challenged me.

See, I often read my Bible as a means to an end. I want to live a better life, I want to live a life that is pleasing to God, and I read the Bible to teach and equip myself to do this. This is a very good reason to read the Bible. But it made me think: As I get toward the end of life, will I still want to read it? When I have little life left to live, will I still have reason to take up and read my Bible? If the purpose in reading is to live better, what will I do after I’ve already lived most of my life?

As I sat with this woman, I realized that she was reading her Bible for a different reason—she was reading her Bible to better get to know the God she would soon meet face-to-face. She was reading the same book but for a different purpose. She knows she will be seeing him soon, and she wants to be prepared. The nearer she is to God, the greater her longing to know him, to know him as he is. She is not passively waiting to see him face-to-face but meeting him now in the pages of his living and active Word. She believes that what she knows of God on this side of the grave will not end at the grave. While she may have little life left to live and little time remaining to improve her life, she has the rest of eternity to grow in her understanding and knowledge of God. She has the rest of eternity to grow in her relationship with God. So why not make a significant beginning now?

So yes, I need to read God’s Word to live a life that is pleasing to God. But I also need to read God’s Word to know the God I will enjoy for eternity. What I learn about God is not just for this life. What I know of God is not only for now. It is for forever.

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