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Reading Christian Biographies

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Revised, April, 2004

A Selected Bibliography

The following books on church history and biographies of great Christians have been helpful to me. I have tried to list the individual biographies in rough chronological order under each section.

Reference Works:

  1. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity [Eerdmans], ed. by Tim Dowley. An excellent all-round reference work, with many short articles on key people and movements.
  2. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church [Zondervan], ed. by J. D. Douglas. Short biographical articles on thousands of people and movements in church history.
  3. Dictionary of Christianity in America [IVP], ed. by Daniel Reid, Robert Linder, Bruce Shelley, & Harry Stout. Short articles on key people and movements in American church history.
  4. Great Leaders of the Christian Church [Moody Press], ed. by John Woodbridge. Short biographies of the leaders of Christianity from Peter to Francis Schaeffer.

Church History:

  1. Christian History Magazine, published by Christianity Today. Each issues treats a different person or era in church history. Well done, informative, & readable.
  2. Christianity Through the Centuries [Zondervan], by Earle Cairns. Concise (500 pages) readable church history.
  3. Worldly Saints [Zondervan], by Leland Ryken. The Puritans as they really were. First rate! Don’t miss it!
  4. Light From Old Times [Evangelical Press], by J. C. Ryle. A history of some of the 17th century martyrs under Bloody Mary. It will impress you with their commitment to the gospel.
  5. Christian Leaders of the 18th Century [Banner of Truth], by J. C. Ryle. Brief biographies of George Whitefield, the Wesleys, and other lesser known but greatly used servants of God.
  6. By His Grace and For His Glory [Baker], by Thomas Nettles. A historical, theological, and practical study of the doctrines of grace in Baptist history. Shows how the early Baptists were solidly Calvinistic.
  7. Revival & Revivalism {Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Subtitled, “The Making & Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858.” I’ve read it twice. Gives much insight into the evangelical mess we’re in today and how it came about.
  8. Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Subtitled, “A Record of Crucial Change, 1950-2000.” He traces the theological compromise of men like Billy Graham in American evangelicalism.

Great Preachers & Christian Leaders:

  1. Walking With the Giants [Baker], by Warren Wiersbe. Outstanding! Numerous short biographies of great preachers you should know. Part 2 deals with “Classic books on the ministry.” Every pastor and church leader should read this and the next one.
  2. Listening to the Giants [Baker], by Warren Wiersbe. Similar to the book above, plus a sample sermon from each preacher. The chapter, “A Basic Library,” is worth the price of the book.
  3. The Company of the Preachers [Kregel], by David Larsen. A lengthy history of preaching, consisting of short biographies of preachers from the Old Testament to the modern era. Flawed by the author’s aversion to Reformed truth and at times sounding like a doctoral thesis, but a useful survey with many interesting details of some of the characters God has used to preach His Word.
  4. The Man Who Shook the World (new title, The Apostle), by John Pollock. A readable biography of Paul.
  5. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans], by F. F. Bruce. A more scholarly treatment of Paul.
  6. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Crossway Books], by John Piper. Subtitled “God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, & Calvin.” Excellent reading!
  7. The Life of William Farel [Bible Truth Publishers], by Frances Bevan. Farel was Calvin’s predecessor and mentor at Geneva, a bold preacher of the gospel.
  8. Here I Stand, a Life of Martin Luther [Abingdon Press], by Roland Bainton. Hard to follow the details at points, but a classic biography of the great reformer.
  9. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought [P & R Publishing], by Stephen Nichols. A recent, helpful introduction to Luther.
  10. Martin: God’s Court Jester [Fortress Press], by Eric Gritsch. Many interesting facts as he tells Luther’s story and theology.
  11. This Was John Calvin [Baker], by Thea Van Halsema. A basic introductory biography of the great reformer.
  12. John Calvin [Lion Publishing], by T. H. L. Parker. The best treatment of Calvin by a leading 20th century Calvin scholar. His Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press] is an excellent study of Calvin’s emphasis on the Word. Highly recommended!
  13. The Life of John Calvin [Evangelical Press], by Theodore Beza. Beza was Calvin’s successor at Geneva, so this is a firsthand look at Calvin.
  14. God’s Outlaw, William Tyndale [Evangelical Press], by Brian Edwards. The story of William Tyndale, who was persecuted for putting the Bible into English.
  15. The Life of John Knox [Free Presbyterian Publishers], by Thomas M’Crie. The life of the bold Scottish reformer.
  16. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (in volume 1 of The Works of John Bunyan) [Baker], by John Bunyan. The autobiography of the author of Pilgrim’s Progress.
  17. John Bunyan [Banner of Truth], by Frank Mott. A short biography.
  18. The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway], by John Piper. Subtitled, “The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Really good!
  19. Richard Baxter [Christian Focus], by Richard Baxter. Autobiography of the influential Puritan pastor.
  20. John Owen, Prince of the Puritans [Christian Focus], by Andrew Thompson. Biography of the most scholarly Puritan theologian.
  21. John Owen: The Man and His Thought [Evangelical Press/ P & R Publishing], by Sinclair Ferguson & others. Essays on various aspects of Owen’s life and theology.
  22. Out of the Depths [Moody Press], by John Newton. The fascinating autobiography of the slave trader turned pastor, author of the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
  23. The Roots of Endurance [Crossway], by John Piper. Subtitled, “Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce.” Really good!
  24. The Journal of John Wesley [Moody Press], ed. by Percy Parker. Wesley was an interesting bundle of contradictions. John Pollock also has a biography of Wesley that I’ve read, but it may be out of print.
  25. Wesley and Men Who Followed Him [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Murray is more lenient on Wesley than I would be. His life shows that God can use some imperfect vessels!
  26. George Whitefield [Crossway Books], by Arnold Dallimore (2 vol.). (A one-volume edition by Dallimore is published by Good News Publishing, although I haven’t read it.) Whitefield was a mighty Calvinistic evangelist, friend of the Wesleys and Edwards.
  27. George Whitefield [Lion Publishing], by John Pollock. Whitefield was an interesting man, zealous for souls, and greatly used by God.
  28. The Life and Times of Howell Harris [Need of the Times Publishers], by Edward Morgan. An 1852 biography of a remarkable Welsh revivalist preacher who lived 1714-1773. Harris knew Whitefield and the Wesleys.
  29. Howell Harris and the Dawn of Revival [Evangelical Press of Wales], by Richard Bennett. A detailed account, based on Harris’ diaries, of the first three years of his spiritual pilgrimage.
  30. Jonathan Edwards, a New Biography [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. An excellent treatment of the great revivalist preacher and theologian, called the greatest mind ever in America.
  31. Jonathan Edwards, a Guided Tour of his Life and Thought [P & R Publishing], by Stephen Nichols. A recent, helpful introduction to Edwards and his theology.
  32. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards [Audubon Press], by Elisabeth Dodds. Their story from his wife’s perspective. He was difficult because he was a genius, not because he was hard to get along with. They had a wonderful marriage. Recently back in print!
  33. Cotton Mather [Barnes & Noble], by Barrett Wendell. An American Colonial Puritan preacher. You will be amazed at his education and intellectual output.
  34. Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors [Banner of Truth], by A. A. Bonar. Nettleton was a Calvinistic evangelist, opposed to Finney, who saw upwards of 30,000 conversions under his preaching.
  35. Robert Murray McCheyne [Zondervan], by A. A. Bonar. Devotional Scottish preacher who died at 29, but has had lasting impact on many.
  36. C. H. Spurgeon [Moody Press], by Arnold Dallimore. The best shorter biography of this godly pulpit giant.
  37. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 2 vol. Long, but well worth reading. A remarkable man!
  38. Spurgeon, Heir of the Puritans [Eerdmans], by Ernest Bacon. Short, but good treatment.
  39. A Marvelous Ministry [Soli Deo Gloria], by Tim Curnow & others. Subtitled, “How the All-round Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon Speaks to us Today.” I learned several new and interesting facts.
  40. The Forgotten Spurgeon [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Deals with the three major controversies of Spurgeon’s life. Read after you’ve read Dallimore.
  41. Spurgeon & Hyper-Calvinism [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. How Spurgeon battled those who took Calvinism too far. In some of his views, I think that Spurgeon was inconsistent with all of Scripture.
  42. Spurgeon & Son [Kregel], by Craig Skinner. A biography of Spurgeon’s son, Thomas, a preacher who later succeeded his famous father at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
  43. A Passion for Souls: the Life of D. L. Moody [Moody Press], by Lyle Dorsett. The author (as well as Moody) is critical of the doctrines of grace, but it is still an interesting read on a man God used to reach thousands.
  44. Moody [Evangelical Press], by John Pollock. May be out of print (I saw 2 on I like Pollock as a biographer.
  45. John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop [Reiner Publications], by Peter Toon. Godly 19th century Anglican bishop, known for his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels and other devotional writings.
  46. George Muller of Bristol [Revell], by A. T. Pierson. Written in early 20th century, biography of the godly man of prayer who founded orphanages in England. This book changed my life when I first read it in 1970.
  47. George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw], by Roger Steer. Best recent biography of Muller. Great!
  48. George Muller Autobiography [Whitaker House]. Now back in print.
  49. Answers to Prayer [Moody Press], by George Muller. Excerpts from his diary, showing dramatic answers to prayer.
  50. A Man of the Word [Baker], by Jill Morgan. The life of her father, G. Campbell Morgan, well known preacher and author.
  51. Ordained of the Lord [Loizeaux Brothers], by E. Schuyler English. The life of H. A. Ironside, another great Bible expositor.
  52. J. Gresham Machen [Eerdmans], by Ned Stonehouse. Machen stood firm against liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. He founded Westminster Seminary when Princeton went liberal.
  53. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray (2 vol.). The first volume covers the first 40 years of the man who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century. Vol. 2 is 800 pages, but I was sad when it ended. You ought to know this great man of God!
  54. The Sacred Anointing [Crossway], by Tony Sargent. A good treatment of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching.
  55. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Family Portrait [Baker], by Christopher Catherwood (Lloyd-Jones’ grandson). A shorter treatment of his life if you don’t have the gumption to tackle the 2-volume work.
  56. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Chosen by God [Crossway], ed. by Christopher Catherwood. Essays on Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry by men such as J. I. Packer, Carl Henry, John Stott, and others that knew him.
  57. Daws [NavPress], by Betty Lee Skinner. The story of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators.
  58. That Man Barnhouse [Tyndale], by Margaret Barnhouse. The life of Donald Grey Barnhouse, an influential Presbyterian pastor, radio speaker, and author. He was quite a character!
  59. The Tapestry [Word], by Edith Schaeffer. The interesting life of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri in Switzerland. He was a Christian philosopher and writer. She wrote this before his death from cancer in 1984.
  60. The Letters of Francis Schaeffer [Crossway], ed. by Lane Dennis. Reading these letters gives you insight into the pastoral heart of this Christian thinker.
  61. What is a Family? [Revell], by Edith Schaeffer. Not strictly a biography, but she weaves their family into this helpful book on the Christian family. Read after you’ve read The Tapestry.
  62. A Severe Mercy [Harper & Row], by Sheldon Vanauken. Moving love story of a couple who met Christ through C. S. Lewis. You will need Kleenex nearby!
  63. Billy Graham [McGraw Hill], by John Pollock. This is a 1966 biography of Graham. A more recent one is now available. Graham is an influential and interesting man, who has done much good and some bad.
  64. J. I. Packer [Baker], by Alister McGrath. The life of the popular theologian, author of Knowing God.
  65. Joni [Zondervan], by Joni Eareckson Tada. A powerful story of God’s grace triumphing over tragedy.

Missions Biographies/Histories:

  1. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], by Ruth Tucker. A history of missions, giving short biographies of many missionary heroes. This is a powerful, life-changing book. Read it!
  2. Guardians of the Great Commission [Zondervan], by Ruth Tucker. A biographical history of women in missions. It is similar to the above, except that the author is grinding an axe for feminism, which I strongly disagree with. But the stories are still inspiring and informative.
  3. A Heart for Mission: Five Pioneer Thinkers [Christian Focus], by Ron Davies. He covers the mission thinking of Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Richard Baxter, Jan Amos Comenius, & Count Zinzendorf.
  4. William Carey [Zondervan], by Mary Drewery. The “Father of Modern Missions.” Quite a story. His reluctant missionary wife went insane. He translated the Bible into over 35 languages!
  5. To the Golden Shore [Little, Brown], by Courtney Anderson. The moving story of Adoniram Judson, pioneer missionary to Burma, who endured incredible trials and setbacks. Read it!
  6. The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn [Banner of Truth], by John Sargent. Martyn went to Iran in the early 1800’s, and died of tuberculosis in his early 30’s.
  7. David Livingstone: the Truth Behind the Legend [Christian Focus], by Rob Mackenzie. Livingstone had amazing perseverance in spite of overwhelming difficulties.
  8. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters [Harper], by George Seaver. A thorough treatment, but the author is a theological liberal who did not understand the need for conversion.
  9. Hudson Taylor [OMF], by Roger Steer. The most recent and readable treatment of the great pioneer missionary to China. Read it and be changed!
  10. Hudson Taylor & Maria [Zondervan], by John Pollock. Honest treatment of Taylor’s life up to Maria’s death. Moving!
  11. J. Hudson Taylor: God’s Man in China [OMF], by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor. An out of print earlier version is in two volumes. This is a sympathetic “eulogy” type biography written by his son and daughter-in-law. Very challenging.
  12. John Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth]. An amazing story of commitment and courage. He left Scotland to go to the New Hebrides Islands, where cannibals had killed and eaten missionaries. There is also a recent biography on Paton by Jim Cromarty, but I haven’t read it yet.
  13. Anthony Norris Groves [??], by G. H. Lang. Out of print, hard to find. Groves was George Muller’s brother-in-law. He went overland to Baghdad in the 19th century.
  14. Borden of Yale [Moody Press], by Mrs. Howard Taylor. Borden gave up his fortune to go to Cairo, where he got sick and died at 25.
  15. A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael [Revell], by Elisabeth Elliot. A strong woman missionary and devotional writer who suffered greatly, but took in needy children and built a caring community in India.
  16. The Small Woman [Dutton], by Alan Burgess. The story of Gladys Aylward, featured in the film “Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” starring Ingrid Bergman. She went to China, lived by faith, and led a group of orphans on a long survival journey during the Japanese invasion. Quite a story!
  17. Fire on the Mountains [SIM], by R. J. Davis. Story of an amazing revival in Ethiopia during WWII.
  18. Against the Tide, the Story of Watchman Nee [Christian Literature Crusade], by Angus Kinnear. Nee was a powerful preacher and church planter, imprisoned by the Communists.
  19. Three of China’s Mighty Men [OMF], by Leslie Lyall. The story of David Yang, Watchman Nee, and Wang Ming-dao, three men of great faith in the face of persecution.
  20. Bakht Singh of India [International Students], by Daniel Smith. Hard to find, and my copy is missing! Story of a powerful evangelist and man of God. I heard him speak once at Biola.
  21. The Flying Scotsman [??], by Sally Magnuson. The story of Eric Liddell, of “Chariots of Fire” fame.
  22. A Boy’s War [??], by David Michaelson. Story of a missionary boy separated from his parents, interned in a Japanese POW camp in China, where Eric Liddell was also a prisoner.
  23. Gold Fears No Fire [OMF], by Ralph Toliver. Not strictly a biography, but a novel based on a composite of true stories in China. Shows what the saints there are going through. Gripping!
  24. Foreign Devil in China [WorldWide Publications], by John Pollock. The story of Dr. Nelson Bell, father-in-law of Billy Graham, missionary doctor to China.
  25. Mission to the Headhunters [Christian Focus], by Frank & Marie Drown. Missionaries to the tribes in Ecuador. (The parents of Ruth Mortenson from our church worked with them.)
  26. Through Gates of Splendor [Spire], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of the five missionaries to the Aucas who were martyred, including Jim Elliot, the author’s husband.
  27. Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of her husband Jim, martyred at 28. This story will challenge you spiritually.
  28. The Savage My Kinsman [Harper], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of how she and her young daughter lived among the tribe that murdered her husband.
  29. Uncle Cam [Wycliffe], by James & Marti Hefley. The story of Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators.
  30. Days of Glory, Seasons of Night [Zondervan], by Marilee Dunker. The story of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, told by his daughter. An agonizing story of a man who badly wounded his family, but accomplished much for the cause of missions.
  31. Bruchko [Creation House], by Bruce Olson. Story of a 19-year-old boy who went to South America and reached a murderous tribe. He is still living there, in his early 60’s now. Gripping!
  32. Peace Child [Revell], by Don Richardson. Story of how he and his young family reached a headhunting, cannibalistic tribe in Irian Jaya. (Also in video.) Amazing story!
  33. Lords of the Earth [Revell], by Don Richardson. Another amazing story of missionary courage in reaching a savage tribe in Irian Jaya. This should be a movie! The turn of events at the end is one of the most amazing stories in missions history!
  34. And the Word Came With Power [Multnomah], by Joanne Shetler with Patricia Purvis. How God used one woman to transform the Balangao people of the Philippines.
  35. Revolution in World Missions [gfa books], by K. P. Yohanan. The author’s testimony and appeal to support native missionaries in India.

Related Topics: Christian Education, Discipleship, Spiritual Life, Testimony & Biography

Why You Don’t Need More Self-Esteem

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WORLD, “Soul Food” column (7/12/97)

One of the most popular ideas to emerge in Christian circles in recent years is that we all need to build and maintain proper self-esteem. Dozens of best-selling Christian books are laced with this theme. It is frequently mentioned in sermons and on Christian radio shows. It is a fundamental assumption underlying most Christian counseling. For example, one well-known Christian treatment program, endorsed by top Christian leaders, states in a promotional brochure, “Part of [this program’s] success is found in the unique ability to target and resolve problems of low self-esteem. At the core of all emotional problems and addictive disorders is low self-worth. It is never the only problem; but it is so major an issue that, if not dealt with adequately, one is kept from experiencing lasting, positive results.”

An article by a Christian psychologist on the problem of pastors who commit adultery stated that one reason pastors fall into sexual sin is low self-esteem. If they would just love themselves properly, they wouldn’t have a need to find “love” from another woman. Another article asserts that low self-esteem is a major factor behind homosexual behavior. A popular Christian author even used the story of Lee Harvey Oswald to illustrate how low self-esteem led this man to shoot President Kennedy!

The question Christians need to ask is, does the Bible teach this? Does it teach that we need to build our self-esteem? Those who say yes usually support it with the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). They say that you must properly love yourself in order to love your neighbor. But that is not the meaning of the verse. It assumes that we all love ourselves just fine, thank you. If we would show the same regard for others that we do in fact show for ourselves, we would be loving them as God commands. Even those who go around dumping on themselves don’t need to focus on loving themselves. Their problem is precisely that they are too self-focused. They need to consider the needs of others ahead of themselves. The mark of biblical love is self-sacrifice, not self-esteem (see Eph. 5:25).

Even in the case of a suicidal person, the problem is not that he does not love himself. Rather, he loves himself more than he loves anyone else. He is not considering what his death will do to family or friends. He is only considering himself: he is in pain and he wants out of his pain.

Consider the adulterous pastor. He was esteeming himself above everyone else. He certainly was not esteeming God or he would not have dragged His name through the mud by committing adultery. Nor was he loving and esteeming his wife, his children, or the woman he defiled. He was esteeming his “needs” above all else.

The Bible teaches that love of self is at the root of all our sins. It warns that “in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self” (2 Tim. 3:1, 2). This is followed by a list of terrible sins. You can’t find a single command in the Bible that even hints that we need to esteem and love ourselves more than we do. To the contrary, Jesus explicitly said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). Many Bible verses tell us to humble ourselves and not to think too highly of ourselves (see James 4:6-10; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; Rom. 12:3), but none tell us to focus on how wonderful or worthy we are. In fact, God operates on the principle of grace, and grace is for the unworthy, not for the worthy.

In his devotional classic, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law writes of the “monstrous and shameful nature of sin” and then asks rhetorically, “Shall we presume to take delight in our worth, we who are not worthy so much as to ask pardon for our sins without the mediation and intercession of the Son of God?” (Westminster Press, pp. 106-107).

My analysis is that most American church-goers need to grow in a sense of their unworthiness, not their supposed worthiness. They need to see what the old Puritan writers called “the exceeding sinfulness of sin.” Then perhaps we would see how much we need the Savior. Being forgiven much, we would love much.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Temptation

Separation Versus Cooperation: Some Thoughts on the Limits of Cooperation with Other Christians & with the World

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May, 1987

One of the difficult issues for every Christian to work through theologically and implement practically is the degree of separation from professing Christians and from the world. All Bible-believing Christians would acknowledge that Christians are called to be in the world, but not of the world, even as our Lord was (John 17:14-17). He Himself had that perfect blend of grace and truth which enabled Him to be the friend of sinners without becoming stained by their sin. And He has called us to be like Him. We are to be known by our love for our fellow Christians (John 13:35); yet we are to come out and be separate from evil persons and activities, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We want to be known by what we witness for, not by what we witness against, and yet we must witness against certain things in order to witness for the Lord.

Historically, Christians have struggled to maintain this balance. Some, in their desire to reach out to the world, have become so much like the world that they have been swallowed up by it. Their accommodation has resulted in a diluted testimony and in great harm to themselves and to the church of Christ. Others, in their desire to maintain their holiness, have isolated themselves from the world. This often has resulted in a loss of witness to the world, misunderstanding among believers, and in spiritual pride among those who separate themselves from others.

Being sinful and fallible, we are always in danger of the peril of the pendulum. We need God’s balance and we need at all times to seek Him in His Word for guidance on these difficult matters. And we must be careful not to judge the motives of brothers who disagree with us on where to draw the line of separation, realizing that we all must answer to the Lord. We are all growing in our sensitivity to the Lord and in our understanding of these matters. We must grant our brothers the freedom to be where they are at in the growth process, while seeking to stimulate one another to further maturity. I discuss these matters in this spirit. This paper represents my thinking at this time, not necessarily where I will be in ten years. I offer the following points for consideration:

1. Accommodation is a greater danger than isolation.

Accommodation with the world is a very subtle danger which believers are warned about repeatedly in the Bible. (See, for example, Eph. 5:3-12; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 2 John 8-11; and many OT passages.)  On the other hand, I can think of only one (although there may be more) warning against being too isolated: 1 Cor. 5:9-13. Ironically, it is directed to the carnal Corinthians, who were anything but holy.

Since our enemy, the devil, is very cunning and deceptive, we can assume that he will lead us into unholy alliances gradually and without our awareness of the danger whenever he can. He will get us to use ungodly means to accomplish godly ends. Saul spared the best of Amalek to sacrifice to the Lord--a noble end, but an ungodly means (1 Sam. 15:1-23). Jehoshaphat joined with godless Ahab to recapture Ramoth-Gilead (a noble end, since it was one of Israel’s cities of refuge) and almost got killed (2 Chron. 18, 19:1-4). Jehoshaphat was a godly man with a big heart who probably had right motives. Most likely he sincerely wanted to see the northern and southern kingdoms reunited. But his unholy alliance with Ahab resulted in the wicked Athaliah (Ahab’s daughter) seizing the throne and almost annihilating the Davidic line (the line of Christ) from Judah. Much of this happened after Jehoshaphat’s time, so he didn’t know the damage he caused.

But this underscores all the more the danger of wrong alliances with the world. We often don’t see the evil results in our lifetime, but there is great spiritual devastation in following generations. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in church history with regard to doctrinal compromise. For example, giving up inerrancy in the first generation leads to full-scale denial of the authority of the Bible in succeeding generations, as Harold Lindsell argued in The Battle for the Bible, and Francis Schaeffer in some of his writings.

Our Lord warned us, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Obviously, deception and subtlety are involved in the methods of such false prophets. Paul warned of “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Of course, the end times will be marked by widespread spiritual deception, in which even the elect are in danger of being fooled (Matt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-11).

For these reasons, I would rather err on the side of being too isolated from dubious alliances than on the side of being too friendly with the enemies of God. Of course I would rather not err at all. But what I am saying is, I favor a conservative approach when there is room for doubt.

2. Christians need walls of separation, both individually and as a church.

Walls keep out harmful intruders and allow those inside to go on with their work without fear. Yes, walls divide; but as long as we live in a fallen world under the dominion of the prince of darkness, we must erect walls. But where do we draw the line of separation?

Among professing believers, we must accept all whom Christ has accepted, both personally and as a church (for membership and/or fellowship). Life in Christ, not light in Christ, is the measure of acceptance. This is our broadest principle. If a person is truly saved by grace through faith (we determine this by verbal testimony coupled with works which demonstrate saving faith), then we must accept him as a brother, unless there is reason for church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Titus 3:10; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-10; Jude 22-23).

It is helpful to distinguish between those who are actively promoting error and those who are naively ignorant of sound teaching. The former must be confronted and perhaps separated from; the latter can be accepted and instructed. Teachability is the key here.

I would not be comfortable working with those who are actively promoting error, such as liberal pastors. I am not opposed to sitting down and discussing theology with them, if I sense an openness on their part. But I am strongly opposed to doing anything to connect our church publicly with any church which is weak or in error on major doctrines and practices of the faith. When Jehoshaphat joined with Ahab, he said, “I am as you are, and my people as your people, and we will be with you in battle” (2 Chron. 18:3). When a leader commits himself to another leader publicly, it necessarily commits his people. Undiscerning people under his leadership will assume that there is no difference between “us” and “them.”

For this reason, I cannot participate in the community ecumenical Easter service when it includes the Catholic Church and a liberal Presbyterian church. I am not “one” with them, even though the pastors of those congregations may be truly born again men. To join with them would be to use an evil means to reach a good goal (to win some to Christ). I do feel free to speak to any group which will listen to the gospel, as long as there are no other strings attached and it does not wrongly involve our church.

I can work cooperatively (joint evangelistic projects, community Easter services, etc.) with any who affirm the fundamentals of the faith, even if we do not agree on less important matters (baptism, prophecy, etc.). By the fundamentals of the faith I mean foundational Christian doctrines which every true believer who has been properly instructed would affirm. This would include the trinitarian nature of God; the person and work of Christ, including His deity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, ascension, and second coming; human depravity; salvation by grace through faith alone; the future judgment of all living and dead; and, the full inspiration and authority of the Bible.

A man may be truly saved and yet greatly deceived on some important (though not fundamental) doctrinal or practical issues which would hinder my working with him in cooperative ventures. I would be uncomfortable being identified publicly with the practices of the “health and wealth” fringe of the Pentecostal movement, for example. I would not want to work with someone who had no regard for biblical principles for carrying out the Lord’s work. For example, I would find it difficult to work closely with a “promoter” type who wanted to utilize worldly principles of marketing, but had no regard for the seeking the mind of the Lord. Under no circumstances would I cooperate in spiritual work with those who are not regenerate, no matter how much they propose to help (see Ezra 4:1-3).

On the matter of cooperation with other churches, I always want to ask, “Why do we want to work together?” Is it for community image? Is it for the greater good of both churches? Is it to pool resources for a project that would be too expensive or require too much manpower for either church to do individually? It often isn’t accomplishing our goals as a church to spread ourselves too thinly by a lot of joint church ventures. It is easy to lose our focus and be distracted from that to which God has called us. Nehemiah was wise in keeping his focus on building the wall and not being distracted into “ecumenical” meetings. He said, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (see Neh. 6:3).

3. Individual walls of separation may be different than the church wall.

As we grow in personal holiness and knowledge of God and His Word, our boundaries of separation will probably change. For someone from a “fighting fundy” background, the boundaries may widen. For most others, the boundaries will constrict as we grow in our understanding of the schemes of the devil and the offence of the cross. We must give one another the personal freedom to hold such matters of conscience at varying levels, allowing for differences without casting judgment on motives.

But the church must take a more conservative position than some individual members may take. For example, we must grant freedom to individual members to drink beer or wine in moderation, if they feel free before the Lord to do so and if they are sensitive to the weaker brother. But in my opinion, it would be wrong for the church to provide beer or wine at a social function. To do so would be to make an endorsement which would offend the conscience of some. The same would be true of other doubtful areas (dancing, movies, etc.). Thus I have no objection to members of our youth group going to a secular movie (or renting a home video) if they can do so in good conscience before the Lord. I am bothered by our church youth group doing so as a church-endorsed activity, because it imposes that activity on some who may not be comfortable participating.

I am not advocating legalistic adherence to lists of forbidden activities, nor am I promoting the rule of the most narrow-minded. I am saying that our clear goal must be holiness before God and we must not allow any doubtful activities to hinder that goal.


I am greatly concerned that the 20th century American church is in danger of blending in with the world, of being both in and of the world. We’re not in danger of erring on the side of holiness. We are in danger of compromising doctrinally and practically in this day of watered-down grace.

The fine distinction is often made that God hates sin but loves the sinner. And yet His Word says, “You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit” (Ps. 5:5-6; see also Ps. 11:5). Apparently, we also are to hate not only evil (Ps. 97:10), but some evil people, who are enemies of God (Ps. 15:4; 139:21-22). The greatest enemies of the gospel are not usually those who are immoral or godless, but rather those who are religious, but deny the necessity of the cross. The Lord’s prophet rebuked Jehoshaphat because he helped the wicked and loved those who hated the Lord (ie., Ahab, who had a form of religion [see 2 Chron. 18]). By doing this he brought the Lord’s wrath on himself, even though he was in other ways a godly man (2 Chron. 19:2-3).

In order not to fall into the same error, I believe I must separate myself from any who deny the centrality of the cross of Christ, “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). At the same time, with David I must be quick, after acknowledging my hatred of those who are God’s enemies, to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24). I must guard against any self-righteousness. I must love fervently all who love the Lord.  And I must preach Christ from a loving heart to those who are lost.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Boundaries, Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), False Teachers, Fellowship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

Sermon Preparation Process: Steven Cole

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Regarding sermon prep, I had Haddon Robinson at DTS, and his course is basically contained in his book, “Biblical Preaching.” I don’t follow his method to a “T,” but I do generally follow it, with many shortcuts that are necessary for ministry survival. I begin just with the old observation, interpretation, application process that we learned in Bible study methods. I try to jot down any issues that need to be resolved, to figure out why the Lord included this passage in this context, etc. I try to determine what the subject of the passage is, and what it is saying about the subject (Robinson explains this process). If I can, I take an initial stab at a main idea.

Then I start reading commentaries. I start with the more technical ones first, trying to figure out interpretive issues, textual problems, history and background, grammatical matters, etc. After reading a half dozen or so, I generally know what the various problems are and what the major views are. I save the more devotional writers for last (Morgan, Spurgeon, Maclaren, Boice, etc.). With them, I’m looking to see how they applied this text to their congregations. All through this process, I’m throwing thoughts onto the computer screen in pretty much random order.

Eventually, I try to nail down the main idea in succinct form. For example, I just finished this Sunday’s sermon on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-11), and I’m taking it in the direction of when unity is wrong. My main idea (I’m going here from memory) is something like, Unity is wrong when it compromises the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Then my major points develop that theme. So I come up with an outline. Then I go back and move all of my notes around to fit under each point or subpoint. Some of my observations are interesting, but don’t fit, so I leave them out unless I determine that they really need to be said. Once I get my outline with my observations arranged, I print out those notes (usually one to two pages). I use these printed notes to work out my manuscript.

I type the whole thing out, as you know from looking at our web page. I find the discipline of manuscripting it forces me to be concise and precise. I usually have far more than I have time for, so I go back and chop out stuff that may be interesting, but isn’t crucial to the point. I’m always aiming at application–how should this affect people’s lives? I usually try to come up with an introduction that grabs attention, creates a need so that people want to listen, and introduces the body of the sermon. I also have an extensive illustration file (3×5 cards, a la Robinson). I began it long before computer days, so it’s all on cards, not on a computer data base. If I were starting now, I might figure out a way to scan them onto a computer. I’m always reading looking for illustrations and quotes (Reader’s Digest, books I read, etc.). I cross reference them, too, so that I can track them down.

Anyway, once I’ve typed out the manuscript and edited it to the right length (3500 words for a 35-40 minute sermon), I take the printed copy (face up, half sheet size, so I don’t have to be flipping pages in the pulpit), highlight and underline key words and quotes, and go over it several times, especially Saturday night, so that I know it well enough not to be tied to my notes. I do take the manuscript into the pulpit, but I never read it, unless it’s to give a quote verbatim. I glance at it and see the highlighted words and remember where I wanted to go, but I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation as I speak. I haven’t mentioned it either, but the whole process is shot through with prayer, both in preparation and prayer for delivery and the results.

I don’t feel very gifted at the process, like Spurgeon was. He was incredible! I have to work hard at it and it usually doesn’t flow easily. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord.

Related Topics: Administrative and Organization, Bible Study Methods, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Pastors, Speaking, Teaching the Bible

The Best Show In Town?

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(Published in Pastoral Renewal, December, 1985)

Say, Mary, how about if we go over to First Church this Sunday morning? I see in the paper that they’re having that famous Christian speak.”

“Well, honey, I don’t know. I noticed that Second Church is having that recently converted rock star, and I think the kids would enjoy that. And we can catch the sacred concert and prophecy film over at Third Church in the evening.”

Let’s face it: we live in a spectator society. From football to the movie theater to the ubiquitous American altar known as television, we are programmed to sit passively while the performer croons, “Let me entertain you.”

Quite often the church unwittingly caters to this mentality. We assume that we are called to compete for spectators. So we attempt to put on a better show. We advertise in the papers, we put our current attraction on our marquees, and pray for a packed house.

After all, if our goal is to cram as many people into the building as possible, then we had better have the most entertaining show in town. (God help us on Super Bowl Sunday!) The church with the most people wins.

To plan, staff, and implement such successful programs requires a team of ingenious leaders. We rack our brains and comb through ministry magazines to garner the latest ideas. If we want to succeed (which, being translated, means have a large audience) we know we’ve got to keep those hits a comin’! The bottom line is growth. The staff had better perform. Annual reports are just around the corner!

I’d like to suggest a radical alternative to the approach which views the church as an entertaining program: The church is the household of God (1 Tim 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17). We are God’s family.

Everybody knows that. But I’ve been to enough churches and talked to enough of my pastor colleagues to know that very few churches operate primarily on that premise. But make no mistake about it: the two approaches have very different implications for church leaders.

Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do. Families don’t come together primarily to be entertained. They enjoy sharing life in an atmosphere where every person—young or old, successful or not-so-successful—belongs by virtue of birth or adoption or marriage into the family.

Family leaders don’t feel pressured by family members to come up with creative programs for every gathering. The members don’t threaten to join another family if the entertainment doesn’t meet their expectations. Indeed, the only expectation for families is to be together, to share life openly, and to love and be loved.

To be sure, family gatherings require some organization and leadership. Someone has to plan the menu, buy the food, prepare it, and clean up after the meal. But that is a far cry from producing a program. If all the members do their part, the planning and work can serve to deepen relationships in the context of life.

The Main Attraction

As the family of God, the church should gather primarily unto a Person, not a program. Christ is our main attraction. He has promised us his presence as we gather in his name. And we gather with persons, the other members of the family, to enjoy and edify one another.

Many Christians today assume that by attending the program at a local church they have fulfilled the command not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). But in the context, that command entails stimulating one another to love and good deeds and encouraging one another. An audience doesn’t have much chance of obeying that command; a family does.

So how, as pastoral leaders, do we turn the corner? First, the change must start with the leadership. If we encourage the entertainment approach to ministry, our people will fall in step. It’s the cultural mentality. So we must teach people that the church is primarily family, not attendance at a program. Since we’re talking about swimming against the cultural stream, it will be a constant struggle to re-educate.

As pastoral leaders we must provide structures where family-type gatherings of God’s people can occur. If our only official church gatherings consist of auditoriums filled with passive spectators watching the performers on stage, our talk about the church as family will fall on deaf ears. We need gatherings small enough for people to act like family. We need meetings structured for every-member-ministry and open sharing (as in 1 Cor. 14:26). How else can we stimulate and encourage one another?

Could we have lost something the early church enjoyed by our insistence that if we don’t gather at the church building, it isn’t officially “church”? The early church saw itself as God’s family, and they met primarily in homes. Most families do.

Gathering in homes isn’t binding on us today. But if the church is primarily family, not program, then it may be of more than antiquarian interest that the early church did gather in homes. In our church we provide such an opportunity on Sunday evenings. We have divided up the congregation into somewhat geographic groupings. We gather in homes to meet with the Lord and one another. There is freedom for singing, encouragement or exhortation from the scriptures, the sharing of personal experiences and concerns, and prayer. We climax the time around the Lord’s Table, followed by light refreshments.

Of course, not everyone will like meeting in homes. Many enjoy the comfortable anonymity and escape from responsibility afforded by attending the program in the auditorium. It can be threatening to open your life to other believers. It demands a lot of commitment to take the priesthood of believers seriously and make a personal contribution to a meeting. It’s much more fun to be entertained.

But we’ve never been commanded to put on the best show in town. We’re called “shepherds,” not “program directors.” We’ve never been told by God that success is a full auditorium.

Our task is to shepherd God’s flock, giving oversight to his household, the church. We must lead God’s people to experience the church primarily as family, gathered unto the living Christ. So what’s playing at your church this week?

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

Spending The Days Of Your Life

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Arizona Daily Sun, January 1, 1999

What if Uncle Sam issued a sum of money to each citizen at birth? You would know the average national allotment, but not how much you had been given. It could be average, above average, or below average. You don’t know. But what you’re issued is all you get. You can’t earn any more. When you run out, you’re out! And you don’t know when your allotment runs out until that moment! I’ll bet you would spend your money carefully!

But instead of dollars, think of days. If you live to be 70, you get about 25,550 (depending on leap years). You may get a few more, but you may get considerably less. You don’t know when your allotment will run out. But once you spend one, it’s gone and subtracted from your total. It can’t be retrieved. Viewing time like that makes each day a precious gift that needs to be spent wisely. You never know how many more you will be given.

Studies show that the average American spends over 11 percent of his time watching television! In 70 years, that’s almost eight years spent sitting in front of the tube! Even if you select only the best programs, I can’t imagine anyone at age 70 looking back on your life and saying fondly, “I’ve seen some great programs in those eight years! What precious memories!” Come on!

It was a New Year’s Day many years ago that made me swear off the tube. I got up and watched the Rose Parade, followed by the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. By the time I went to bed, I had probably spent 12 hours in front of the tube! I felt sated, as if I had eaten junk food all day (maybe I did that, too!). I realized that I had completely wasted the first day of that new year. I can’t remember who played in any of those bowl games, let alone who won. I can’t recall a single exciting play. All I know is that I wasted a day of my life. But, maybe it wasn’t wasted, since it made me quit watching TV!

Over the years, I’ve never seen a single episode of Dallas (who cares who killed J. R.?), Cheers, Seinfeld, or NYPD Blue. Amazingly, I don’t even feel deprived! My kids grew up basically TV free. We do own a set—we just rarely watch it. But as the kids were growing up, we read out loud through most of the Bible. We read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Heidi, and many other wonderful stories. My kids don’t feel like something vital was missing from their childhood because they missed the inane sitcoms.

The apostle Paul challenges us, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16-16). The Bible also affirms, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). None of us knows exactly when we will check out, but we can know for sure that we will stand before God and have to give an account of how we spent our lives. That’s why Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

I once read a fascinating account of a man who went into the Alaskan wilderness to photograph the beauty of the tundra. He made elaborate preparations. He had plenty of photo equipment, film, food, and emergency supplies. But he forgot one critical item: He didn’t make any arrangements for the bush pilot to come back and fly him out! He waited, but no one came to his rescue. In November, 1981, he died about 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks. He had made elaborate plans for his stay, but none for his departure. Pretty dumb, huh?

But, how about you? If your allotment of days runs out this year, are you prepared to meet the holy God? If not, I recommend that you shut off the tube and read the Bible. It tells you how to live in a manner pleasing to God. In the light of eternity, you really won’t care who won the Fiesta Bowl!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Spiritual Life, Wisdom

The Amazing Iron Bedstead Discovery: A Tale About Evolution

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The other day my wife and I hiked up to Fremont Saddle, where we came across an old rusty iron bedstead. I said, “Isn’t that amazing? How many million years do you suppose it took for that iron to be worn down by the weather and glaciers until it looked like a bed?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Someone used to have a cabin up here.”

“How do you know that?” I asked. “You weren’t here to verify it. I think that it was formed by natural forces over millions of years.”

Just then I swatted a gnat on my arm. “Did you see what you just killed?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I swatted a gnat. What’s the big deal?”

“That tiny thing has a brain smaller than a computer chip, and yet it can fly, hunt for food, and reproduce. You surely don’t believe that such a complex little creature, far more sophisticated than any scientist could create, happened by sheer chance do you? Doesn’t the amazing design of a gnat, let alone all of creation with its intricate balance, argue for a designer?”

“Come on,” I protested. “Any scientist will tell you that gnats evolved by adapting from some lower species without any help from God. The idea of God isn’t scientific.”

“Really?” she countered. “I don’t see any reason that, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen. 1:1) isn’t scientific.”

I rolled my eyes. “Everyone knows that science involves observing what is, and you can’t observe God,” I confidently replied.

“So how did that gnat develop the ability to fly?” she retorted.

“It’s called natural selection and the survival of the fittest,” I explained. “Somehow during the millions of years in the past the genes mutated to develop wings and it was advantageous to the species for its survival, so the new adaptation prevailed.”

“Did someone observe this?” my wife asked with a touch of sarcasm. “Besides, it would seem that the ability to fly didn’t help that gnat to survive!” she jibed.

“No, of course no one observed it. It happened millions of years before humans evolved. But, the ability to fly is clearly a survival technique.”

“So why haven’t people evolved wings? Wouldn’t it help our survival to be able to fly?” she challenged.

I took up the offense: “I read an article about another insect, the periodical cicada, that only hatches every 17 years. A biologist at the University of Chicago believes that these bugs have developed a sophisticated strategy for survival. He says that 17 years is an unusual life span. If a predator had a life cycle of six years, it would not encounter the cicadas more than once in a century. Wouldn’t you have to admit that it’s amazing how species evolve such sophisticated strategies?”

“Wait a minute,” she countered. “Are you telling me that these bugs had a meeting where they sat around discussing what the best plan for survival was? One suggested two years, but another said, ‘No, that’s too common. Let’s go with some odd number like 17.’ So they voted on it and it passed. Even if they did figure it out, tell me, how would they go about implementing it?”

“Obviously it didn’t happen that way,” I said. “But animals just have a built-in survival mechanism and the ability to adapt for survival and the improvement of the species.”

“Now that’s a faith statement,” she charged. “Nobody has ever observed a species developing such ‘sophisticated’ strategies. No one can explain how a species could come up with such even if its survival depended on it. But so-called scientists claim that that’s what happened and we’re just supposed to swallow it. That takes far more faith than believing that something with such complex design comes from an omniscient Creator. In fact, evolutionists are just basing their whole system on circular reasoning.”

“How so?”

“They assume that science excludes a God who actually created the universe. Then they conclude, ‘Therefore, everything happened by random chance plus time, with no outside influence from a supreme being.’ They’re just concluding what they assumed in the first place. To be blunt,” she continued, “the only people who can believe in the fantastic idea of evolution are those who a priori reject the overwhelming evidence that this planet and all that is on it has incredible design behind it, implying an incredibly intelligent Designer.”

As we left that old piece of iron that looked like a bedstead, I just shook my head in disbelief. My poor wife just doesn’t understand science!

Related Topics: Apologetics, Cultural Issues, Evolution, Faith, Worldview

Tolerance: The Chief American Virtue

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Arizona Daily Sun, June 5, 1998

I once served on a jury for a drunk driving case in California. The defendant, a woman in her early twenties, was driving with a blood alcohol level measuring .20. At that time, the law stated that .10 and over was too drunk to drive. The judge gave us explicit instructions. We were to set aside our personal opinions about drinking. We were not to base our decision on whether we liked the young woman or not. We were to decide, “Did this woman violate the state law that prohibits driving when your blood alcohol level is .10 or higher?” Duh! It seemed like a cut and dry case. The woman was twice the legal limit!

I was shocked when we got in the jury room. One guy piped up, “I can drink that much and drive safely. I think she’s innocent.” Others nodded understandingly. As the discussion proceeded, I was horrified that no one was going by the standard of the law. Everyone was deciding what was right based on how they felt about drinking and about the young woman (most felt sorry for her). It took another juror and me almost three hours to convince everyone of what was obvious, that this woman was guilty of violating the law.

But even then we had one holdout. She said that she could never vote “guilty” because she believed in the principle, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Her maxim, “Judge not” (wrongly taken out of context from Matthew 7:1), is the current prevailing moral mood in our culture. Morality has become a matter of personal preference, much like your favorite flavor of ice cream. You may like strawberry, I prefer chocolate chip, but neither is right or wrong. It’s just our different preferences. You may like having promiscuous sex, I prefer monogamy, but, hey, to each his own! But for me to say that your sexual behavior is wrong—goodness, that’s being judgmental—Gasp! Our chief American virtue now is tolerance, defined as never passing moral judgment on anyone’s behavior.

This non-judgmentalism has gone to ridiculous extremes. A college philosophy professor recently said that ten to twenty percent of his students are reluctant to make moral judgments, even to say that the Holocaust was wrong! One student told him, “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?” (reported in Reader’s Digest, February, 1998, p. 75). If this kind of thinking continues, we won’t be able to convict mass murderers who were videotaped killing their victims, let alone drunk drivers!

Those who reduce morality to a matter of personal preference have not done away with moral absolutes. They have simply replaced the moral absolutes in the Bible (which used to govern our American moral and judicial systems) with their own. They have a hodgepodge of quirky moral standards that they use to judge those who do not conform. For them, judgmentalism is always a sin, tolerance always a virtue. It’s okay to kill unwanted babies or terminally ill patients, but it’s wrong to kill animals, even for food. It’s okay to have any form of sex you want with as many partners as you want, even if it promotes the spread of deadly disease, but it’s wrong to encourage school children toward abstinence until they commit to a monogamous marriage. The bottom line is, their politically correct views are absolutely right, but anyone who dares challenge those views as being wrong is intolerant and therefore absolutely wrong.

If morality is not a matter of personal preference, how then do we establish what is right and wrong? Let me leave you with one profound statement from the Bible that you must not shrug off: “[God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). If you can prove that Jesus is not risen from the dead, then you’re free to cast off His moral standards. But if He is risen, then He will someday judge you by His righteous standards if you do not turn from your sin and trust in Him. (See the Sermon on the Mount for an example of His righteous standards.) It behooves you to figure out before that day which it will be!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Ethics, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Worldview

Why Are We So Unhappy When We Have So Much?

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(November 26, 1993, Arizona Daily Sun)

Almost weekly I deal with unhappy people. Some are unhappy in their marriages--their mates are “not fulfilling their needs.” Others are upset with their children, their parents, or their bosses. Many are unhappy with themselves because of failure or problems they can’t seem to overcome.

Why are we Americans so unhappy when we have so much? I don’t mean to belittle the difficult and genuine problems people face. Anyone involved in helping people knows that there are some real horror stories out there.

But as a nation, we enjoy more of the factors that ought to go toward making life happy than any other nation in history: longer average lifespans, good medical care, plenty of food, extra clothing, nice homes, cars, and all the gadgets of American life. So why so many unhappy people?

Jesus gave us a radical answer when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will find it” (Luke 9:23, 24). Jesus is saying that the one who seeks self-fulfillment will come up empty, but the one who practices self-denial for Jesus’ sake will find true happiness as a by-product.

This flies in the face of the modern “co-dependent, you-are-a-victim” approach that has flooded our society and, sadly, our churches. At the heart of this “self-help” movement is the theory that if you want to find happiness you’ll have to stop catering to the needs of others and start looking out for yourself and your rights. Judging from the volume of book sales, millions are buying into this dead-end pursuit for happiness.

So, how would a person follow Jesus’ radical prescription? At the heart of His words is an unpopular concept: Death to self! In Jesus’ day, taking up one’s cross didn’t mean enduring a little irritation. The man who took up his cross was about to be killed!

The first way we have to die to self is to come to the cross of Jesus Christ as the only way we can be reconciled to God. Our proud human nature likes to think that we can earn heaven by our own good deeds. But the Bible is clear that we must turn from our proud efforts to save ourselves and accept the fact that Christ died for sinners, not for good people. I must die to self by admitting my sin to God and trusting in the solution He provided, the death of His Son Jesus. When I abandon trust in my own goodness and cry out, “God, be merciful to me the sinner,” I am made right with God (see Luke 18:9-14).

Second, we need to understand that the Christian life not only begins with death to self, it continues the same way. Following Jesus means daily repudiating a self-centered life as we seek to love God and others (the two greatest commandments). I can’t help but think that we Americans would be much more happy if we stopped seeking self-fulfillment and started following Jesus’ radical prescription.

Someone once asked the famous psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, his advice for a person suffering from depression. Instead of saying, “Consult a psychiatrist,” he surprised his audience by answering, “Lock up your house, go across the railway tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.” That’s the wisest advice I’ve ever heard a psychiatrist give!

This Thanksgiving, first die to self by humbly, thankfully receiving the forgiveness and eternal life God offers you through the cross of Jesus. Then, begin to follow Jesus in a life of self-denying service for others. As you do this, you’ll delightfully find as a by-product the happiness you formerly sought through self-fulfillment.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Discipline, Spiritual Life

Winning The War Against Lust

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I want to answer a very practical question for Christians living in this sex‑saturated society: How can we win the war against lust and the overt sexual sin which results from lust? We’re bombarded daily with sensuality. You can’t watch TV, read a news magazine or drive past billboards without being confronted with blatantly sexual pictures and messages. We all know that as Christians, we are to avoid sexual immorality. The tough question is, How? Being a man, I’m writing as a man to men, although what I say has much application to women as well.

For years I fought a losing battle against lust. It wouldn’t be profitable for me to go into detail describing my defeats. But so that you know that I’ve been there, I will say that ever since my early teens, I have been a connoisseur of fine women. Long before the movie, “10,” came out, I had a habit of automatically checking out a woman’s anatomy and scoring her various features. For a number of years, there were very few “Playmates of the Month” whom I had not scrutinized. I was a Christian, even a “committed” Christian and seminary student during some of that time, involved in serving the Lord. But I was defeated by lust.

I still lose an occasional skirmish. But by God’s grace, for many years now, I’ve been winning the war. I want to tell you how. Several things have helped me move from defeat to consistent victory.

Scared into holiness

I got scared straight. I knew I should be holy. Years ago I yielded my life to the Lord in accordance with Romans 12:1‑2. But that didn’t make much difference in my battle against lust. Finally I came to a point where the Lord backed me into the corner and asked pointedly, “Do you want to be a man of God or do you want to keep messing around with this sin?” Gulp! I had to make a choice to be holy.

Theoretically, that decision is easy. But in reality, it’s a fierce struggle, because, frankly, I enjoy looking at sexy women. Hormones start pumping when I feast my eyes on one of those gorgeous creatures. Besides, it’s a pastime I can indulge in secretly. It’s all in my head.

God used two things to show me where unchecked lust can lead, which scared me into dealing with my lust habit.

First, I was scared by the devastation wreaked in the life of a friend who was ruined by sexual sin. When I graduated from seminary, I checked out several ministry situations. One opportunity involved working as an associate with a man I’ll call Bob who is about eight years older than I. He had founded a thriving church in Southern California and needed help with the growing demands. I was attracted to working with him because he seemed to be a deeply spiritual man. He would often get away by himself for times of meditation and prayer. His family life seemed solid. He had been married for almost twenty years and had four children, the oldest in his teens. I thought I could learn a lot about ministry working with him.

I finally decided to accept another pastorate which allowed me to preach regularly. About a year later, I had not heard from Bob, in spite of a letter or two on my part. When I mentioned it to a mutual friend, he said, “Haven’t you heard? Bob left his wife and family and moved in with a woman from his church.” I was dumbfounded!

A few months later I was at a Francis Schaeffer conference. I rounded a corner in that crowd of over 2,000 and came face to face with Bob. His countenance reflected his agony. We went out for coffee and he recounted the whole mess to me. It had started when he and his wife went too far as teenagers. She got pregnant and they married under pressure. He had always harbored doubts in his mind as to whether she was God’s best for him. Satan used those thoughts as the crack to drive in his wedge—another woman who was “more attractive.”

About three years later I saw Bob at another conference in another part of the state. He was there to counsel with one of the speakers, a well‑known pastor. I’ll never forget the continuing look of devastation on his face. He looked haggard and much older. I hung the memory of his face in the gallery of my mind. I stop and gaze at it whenever I’m tempted to pursue the sin of lust.

A second thing the Lord used to scare me into getting serious about holiness was my responsibility as a father and pastor. Bill Gothard has a helpful diagram showing the “umbrella of protection” which God puts over people through proper channels of authority. He explains that if a father has “holes in his umbrella,” due to sin which hasn’t been dealt with, Satan can get through to those under the father’s charge.

One hot summer day years ago I was pushing our first daughter in her stroller at the shopping mall while my wife was in one of the stores. The women in the mall were dressed (or rather, un-dressed) in native Southern California summer attire. One particularly delectable number walked by, and I found my eyes, true to habit, checking her out. Then I glanced down at our sweet daughter, so innocent in her first year of life. As her father, I would defend her from any foe, human or animal. The Lord stabbed my heart with the thought, “Why are you allowing the worst foe, Satan, access to your daughter through this hole in your umbrella of protection?”

As I reflected on that incident, I broke out in a cold sweat as I realized that not only my family, but the people I pastored would be vulnerable to the enemy if I didn’t clean up my act. You may not be a pastor, but if you’re a Christian, both believers and those outside the faith would be damaged if you fell into sexual sin. The gospel of Christ would be slandered. Realizing how my toleration of lust opened myself and others to spiritual harm scared me. I had to stop messing around with lust!

Admit my sin and weakness

The next part of the battle strategy was to call my sin what it is: Sin! It’s not just a “problem.” It is disobedience to God. I had to put away all of the rationalizations which I had been using to excuse it: “I’m just a normal, red‑blooded American man. My thought‑life isn’t any worse than any other man’s. It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, I’m faithful to my wife.” No, I’m in disobedience to God when I entertain lustful thoughts.

Another rationalization I often used was to think that if I fed my lust a little bit, it would satisfy my appetite so that I wouldn’t need more. But that was like pouring gasoline on a fire. A little bit of lust for me is like one drink for an alcoholic. It just makes me crave more. I had to make a commitment to be a teetotaler.

I’ve had to learn that I never will become invulnerable against lust. I’ve discovered that when I indulge in a particular sin, it makes me more vulnerable to temptation in that sin for the rest of my life. For example, I’ve never taken drugs. You could set a grocery bag of cocaine on my desk, and I wouldn’t have any problem throwing it away. But I know some Christians for whom that would be an incredibly strong temptation, because they have yielded to that sin. Having yielded repeatedly to the sin of lust, I have to recognize that I will never become so strong that lust will just glance off me. Whenever I get to thinking that I’ve finally conquered lust once and for all, I’m in trouble. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

But being vulnerable to lust and yielding to it are not synonymous. I’ll never be free from the temptation, but I can be free from the sin. By constantly recognizing my weakness, I am driven to trust in the Lord, who is my strength. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Deal with my thought life

One of the convenient things about the sin of lust is that if you’re careful, nobody else knows that you do it. Just make sure you steal your wrongful glances when no one else is watching. Don’t look at the magazine rack in a store where people you know might happen by. With those precautions, you can enjoy your sin and nobody else suspects it.

But that’s like tolerating cracks in a dam. It’s all beneath the surface, where nobody sees it. But sooner or later, the dam will burst and cause a lot of damage. Whenever a man falls into immorality, you can know for sure that he has been tolerating the cracks of mental lust for some time before.

Someone has rightly said, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Lust must be conquered at the thought level.

In the context of talking about mental lust, our Lord said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29). Origen took this literally and castrated himself. That takes care of the sex drive, all right! But I’m not persuaded that that’s what Jesus meant! What He meant is, we need to get radical in dealing with sin! I’ve had to get radical by ruthlessly denying myself the luxury of lustful thoughts.

This means forsaking and confessing any lustful thoughts the moment they occur. Memorizing Scripture, such as 2 Corinthians 10:3‑5, which talks about “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,” has helped. That way I can direct my thoughts from the lust to the Lord. I’ve had to guard what I look at in magazines, even weekly news magazines. I try to avoid reading detailed accounts of sexual scandals—even Christian sexual scandals! It’s amazing how I can remember sensual pictures or stories years later, but I have trouble remembering a verse I memorized last week.

I sometimes tear pages out of Newsweek and throw them in the trash, because I can’t read the rest of the magazine without repeatedly looking at the lustful picture. I rarely watch TV or go to movies. I had to throw out a marriage manual because I couldn’t handle the explicit pictures. A few years ago when my office was at home, our teenaged neighbor girls, who were amply endowed by their Creator, were outside my study window in their bikinis washing their car. Between gazes out the window, I was struggling to put together a sermon. I finally got up and pulled the drapes, confessed my sin to the Lord, and was able to finish my sermon.

You may think that pulling drapes, tearing pages out of magazines, throwing away books, and avoiding TV and movies is a bit extreme. So is gouging out your eye. I have to deal radically with my thought life to win the war against lust.

Don’t just pray--obey!

Several years ago I heard about a pastor who had a terrible struggle against lust. He actually rewarded himself for finishing his sermon by going to a porno shop! Concerning his battle against lust, he made the statement, “I cannot tell you why a prayer that has been prayed for ten years is answered on the 1,000th request when God has met the first 999 with silence.”

Now wait a minute! If you think about it, this man is blaming God for his own sin: “I prayed for deliverance, but God didn’t answer. It’s His fault!” That offers no hope to the man struggling with lust: “Keep praying, friend. If you’re lucky, God will catch you before you go over the falls. But maybe not.” Some help that is!

But the Bible never says that the way to deal with lust is to pray about it. It commands me to flee (1 Cor. 6:18). It says that I should cleanse myself from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). It commands me to walk in the Spirit so that I won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). Pray, yes! But don’t just pray: Obey!

God puts the active responsibility for obedience in sexual purity on me. Somehow we’ve gotten the mixed‑up idea that actively to deny lust in obedience to the Lord involves the flesh. So we pray for deliverance and go on disobeying as if we can’t help it until that magic moment happens. But Paul never says, “Let go and let God give you victory over lust.” He says, “Run!” He says that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (Titus 2:11‑12). I need to do it and can do it! Otherwise, God wouldn’t command me to do it.

Part of fleeing is guarding myself in advance. I used to play games with this. I would go into a store to look at the news magazines (so I told myself). After a few minutes of doing that, I would find myself thumbing through Playboy or Penthouse, which were always conveniently nearby. (“How could I help it, Lord?”) But now I avoid stores where I could be tempted to browse through sexually explicit magazines. The man in Proverbs 7 wouldn’t have wound up in bed with the loose woman if he hadn’t first gone near the corner where she lived (see Prov. 7:8).

Satisfy my wife

I’ve heard Christian speakers say that one way to guard against sexual sin is to be satisfied with your wife. It’s true that being sexually satisfied with her helps me not to be lured by lust for others. But I’m uncomfortable with the approach which puts the focus on my needs rather than on my responsibility.

My responsibility as a Christian husband is not to satisfy myself, but to satisfy my wife. I’ve found that my sexual satisfaction is the result of seeking to meet her needs on every level—spiritual, emotional, and physical. When I focus on that, she responds and my sexual needs are met.

A lot of men are sexually frustrated in their marriages because they approach sex to meet their own needs. Jesus’ words about seeking your life and losing it and losing your life to find it (Mark 8:35) apply to sex in marriage. If I approach my wife to satisfy my needs, neither of us feels fulfilled. But if I work at pleasing her, then I’m deeply satisfied. The best sexual times for me are when my wife is pleased.

I’ve had to tear down my sexual expectations which were built from Hollywood and Playboy and rebuild them from Scripture. The world promotes my needs above all else. It knows nothing of the self‑sacrifice which our Lord taught. Many Christians have unwittingly bought into this philosophy: “If my wife can’t meet my sexual needs, then I’ll have to meet them some other way. But my needs must be met.” But the Lord’s way is that I am to love my wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church. The blessed irony is that when I work at that, my needs are abundantly met. I can honestly say with gusto, “They have been!”

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” That’s true in the war against lust. You won’t win by being halfway into it. But if you’ll get into the battle all the way—God’s way, using His strategy—you can win!

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Hamartiology (Sin), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Marriage, Men's Articles, Sanctification, Sexual Purity, Sexuality, Spiritual Life