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Joy in Christ Kept Him in China

Hudson Taylor (1832–1905)

Article by John Piper

“Depend upon it, God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 121). When Hudson Taylor wrote that sentence, he meant every kind of need that we have — money and health and faith and peace and strength. And that is my prayer for this article: that you will see and experience new possibilities for your life — more faith, more joy, more peace, more love, and all the money you need to do his will (which may be none).

And all of that is because of your union with Christ, as is put so well in one of Taylor’s favorite texts: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). And then, because of all that, I pray you will launch into some venture, some dream of ministry, beyond all your real or perceived inadequacies, for the glory of Christ.

Conversion and Call to China

Hudson Taylor was born May 21, 1832, at Barnsley, England, into a devout Methodist home. At the age of seventeen, he was dramatically converted through the prayers of his mother. Four years later, on September 19, 1853, Taylor sailed for China with the Chinese Evangelisation Society. He had no formal training in theology or missions. He landed in Shanghai five and a half months later.

He learned the language quickly and, in his first two years in China, engaged in ten extended evangelistic journeys to the interior. Then, on January 20, 1858, when he had been in China almost five years, Taylor married another missionary, Maria Dyer. They were married for twelve years. Before Maria died at age thirty-three, she had given birth to eight children. Three died at birth and two in childhood, and the ones who lived to adulthood all became missionaries with the mission their father founded, the China Inland Mission.

Decisive Moment

Five years later, after Taylor had begun his own mission agency — the China Inland Mission — and in the midst of prolonged frustration with his own temptations and failures in holiness, the epoch-making experience happened. Notice what he was experiencing leading up to the great change. He wrote to his mother,

[The need for your prayer] has never been greater than at present. Envied by some, despised by many, hated by others, often blamed for things I never heard of or had nothing to do with, an innovator on what have become established rules of missionary practice, an opponent of mighty systems of heathen error and superstition, working without precedent in many respects and with few experienced helpers, often sick in body as well as perplexed in mind and embarrassed by circumstances — had not the Lord been specially gracious to me, had not my mind been sustained by the conviction that the work is His and that He is with me . . . I must have fainted or broken down. But the battle is the Lord’s, and He will conquer. (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 140–41)

The stage was set for the crisis that happened on September 4, 1869, in Zhenjiang. What happened that day was not ephemeral. He looked back almost thirty years later, giving thanks for the abiding experience of it:

We shall never forget the blessing we received through the words, in John iv. 14, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him SHALL NEVER THIRST,” nearly thirty years ago. As we realized that Christ literally meant what He said — that “shall” meant shall, and “never” meant never, and “thirst” meant thirst — our heart overflowed with joy as we accepted the gift. Oh, the thirst with which we had sat down, but oh, the joy with which we sprang from our seat, praising the Lord that the thirsting days were all past, and past for ever! (Separation and Service, 46)

We should beware of being cynical here. Taylor was not naïve. He was speaking of a thirty-year-long experience in which he battled with some very low times. “The thirsting days were all past” does not mean he never had desires for Jesus again. We will turn to what it does mean shortly. But for now, we should simply be aware that, as his most thorough biographer wrote, his whole life “came to be revolutionized” by this experience (The Shaping of Modern China, Vol. 2, 109).

Kept by Union with Christ.

And just in time, too. The next year, 1870, was the most difficult of his life. His son Samuel died in January. Then in July, Maria gave birth to a son, Noel, who died two weeks later. And to crown Hudson’s sorrows, on July 23, Maria died of cholera. She was thirty-three years old, and left the thirty-eight-year-old Hudson with four living children.

It was as though God had given Taylor his extraordinary experience of the all-satisfying Christ not as a kind of icing on the cake of conversion, but rather as a way of surviving and thriving in the worst of sorrows, which came to him almost immediately.

A year later, Taylor sailed for England. While he was there, on November 28, 1871, he married the woman with whom he would spend nearly the rest of his life, Jennie Faulding. They were married for thirty-three years before she died in 1904, the year before he did.

In February 1905, Taylor sailed for China for the last time. After a tour of some of the mission stations, he died on June 3 at Changsha, Hunan, at the age of seventy-three. The year 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the mission that Taylor founded. In 1900, there were one hundred thousand Christians in China, and today there are probably around 150 million. This growth is God’s work: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Nevertheless, it is the fruit of faithful labor. And Taylor labored longer and harder than most. That labor was sustained by union with Christ. So we turn to look at what this union meant for Taylor.

Scales Fall

September 4, 1869, when he was thirty-seven years old, Taylor found a letter waiting for him at Zhenjiang from John McCarthy. God used the letter to revolutionize Taylor’s life. “When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from dear McCarthy was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed to me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

The prayer of Ephesians 1:18 was answered as never before: “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know . . .” Taylor said, “As I read, I saw it all! . . . I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He had said, ‘I will never leave thee.’”

I saw not only that Jesus will never leave me, but that I am a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. The vine is not the root merely, but all — root, stem, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit. And Jesus is not that alone — He is soil and sunshine, air and showers, and ten thousand times more than we have ever dreamed, wished for, or needed. Oh, the joy of seeing this truth! (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149–50)

Taylor experienced such a powerful revelation of the inexpressible reality of union with Christ, as an absolute and glorious fact of security and sweetness and power, that it carried in it its own effectiveness. “How to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

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Weeping at the Foot of the Cross

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On Good Friday, we celebrate the saddest day in history.

Blood streamed down his face. Massive thorns stuck to the head of their Maker. Groans of agony came from the mouth of him who spoke the world into being. The soldiers beat him. They flogged him. They tortured him.

As he inched through the streets of Jerusalem, his cross pressing into his lacerated back, many shuddered at him. The face of God, which Moses could not look at and live, could no longer even be recognized as human (Isaiah 52:14). Women hid their children from the bloody mass of flesh before them. Men taunted him. Soldiers clubbed him. Angels shrieked in horror.

Every prophecy about his suffering was being fulfilled. By judgment and oppression, he was taken away. His sheep scattered when their enemies struck him. One of his own sold him and betrayed him with a kiss. He found no rest as they beat him, spit on him, and mocked him through the night. In the morning, he gave his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who plucked his beard.

He stepped forward to Calvary as a lamb to the slaughter.

His Love Was Rated-R

I remember the first time I watched The Passion of the Christ fourteen years ago. The sight of Roman ninetails sinking their claws into his back seemed to pierce my soul with Mary’s (Luke 2:35). The blood. The screams. The anguish. I could never again thoughtlessly tell others that Christ died for them. The scene forbade cliché. It was grizzly, ghastly, gruesome — rated-R.

I rarely cry, but as I watched Jesus shed his blood all over the Roman courtyard, I could not help but weep. As they held the nails over his hands and feet — his mother watching him — every swing of the hammer pierced my heart. Only the heartless could watch unfeelingly. Has there ever been a more tragic scene?

I did not consider his wounds enough. I did not weep over his suffering as often as I felt I should have. But how does Jesus respond to me, and people like me, who take Good Friday to grieve over his unbearable sufferings? Two thousand years ago he said to those weeping for him that day, “Weep not for me; weep for yourselves.”

Silence on the Set

Of the many horrors of Calvary, one that was especially acute was the shame of it all (Hebrews 12:2). His was a public execution. The condemned usually were naked. To add to this, the prophecy reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads” (Psalm 22:7). It is one thing to suffer; another to do so before a whole nation as they ridicule you.

But mockery was not the only sound made on his behalf. A host of women trailed behind him, lamenting the expiring prophet. They followed Jesus’s drops of blood — as so many of us do today — with drops of tears.

But upon hearing their sobs, Jesus, battered and broken, turned his face towards them and spoke these gracious, yet shocking words: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28).

This part of the passion didn’t make the movie.

On that first Good Friday, Jesus turned to his loudest sympathizers — those who are not cursing him, mocking him, but wailing on his behalf — and silenced them. He commands their tears escort him no further. He opts to press into the night without their mourning.

Weep Not for Me

Jesus did not need their tears two millennia ago, and as unpopular as it may be, Jesus does not need our tears today. And this fact owes to us seeing his passion through the eyes of faith.

Weep not for me, he said. As if to say,

I am saving my people. I have prayed, tender souls, and know my Father’s will concerning this cup — shall I not drink it (John 18:11)? My hands willingly grasp this wood because my food is to do my Father’s will (John 4:32, 34). And his will is glorious: he sent me to serve and give my life as a ransom for my people. My body is broken, and my blood is spilled for you (Luke 22:19–20). Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Do not weep over the labor pains that give birth to your salvation and unshakable joy (John 16:20–22).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am not a helpless victim. I am a warrior-king with thousands of angels at my beck and call (Matthew 26:53). One word from me and this horror would end. One word from me and Rome would be destroyed. One word from me and all would be eternally condemned. But I was sent to save the world, not condemn it (John 3:17). Trust that no man — or army — can steal my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord, and I will take it up again (John 10:11–18).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am conquering. You see my heel being bruised and you mourn — but look through the eyes of faith and see the serpent’s skull trampled (Genesis 3:15). Although I walk as the Lamb, I conquer as the Lion — the predator, not the prey, will hang on the cross (Revelation 5:5–6). I am a King who shall rule the universe from a tree. And I shall make this cross my scepter. As they lift me up, I thrust my enemies under my feet as a footstool (Psalm 110:1). My triumphal entry is followed by a triumphal exit. Why should you weep over my hour of glorification (John 12:27–28)?

Weep not for me, as if to say,

Sunday is coming

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‘God Did the Work, Period’

My Tribute to Billy Graham (1918–2018)

Article by John Piper

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I recalled this morning (with more emotion than I expected) that one of the fears of my life as a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, was that Billy Graham would die. I know there was a good deal of immature failure in that fear to trust the God who is quite able to run the world without Billy Graham. But it does give you a glimpse of the role he played as a kind of sun holding the planets in place in the solar system of my religious world in the late 1950s.

Now I am 72 in Minneapolis (remember “Box 123”?!), not a teenager in South Carolina. And Billy died today at the age of 99. This morning I have been singing his songs (“Just as I Am” and “How Great Thou Art”). The flood of emotion they awaken, after a lifetime of profound associations, is a sweet sorrow. Thank you, Lord, that you answered my boyish prayers and preserved his life as long as you did. And not just his life, but his faith and his witness.

‘I Surrender All’

Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918, in North Carolina. In 1934, under the preaching of evangelist Mordecai Ham, Billy was converted to Christ. He attended Bob Jones University in Cleveland, Tennessee, for one year and spent three and a half years at Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. In March of 1938, he first sensed God’s calling to preach.

One night in March, 1938, Billy Graham returned from his walk and reached the 18th green immediately before the school’s front door. “The trees were loaded with Spanish moss, and in the moonlight it was like a fairyland.” He sat on the edge of the green, looking up at the moon and stars, aware of a warm breeze from the south. The tension snapped. “I remember getting on my knees and saying, ‘God, if you want me to preach, I will do it.’ Tears streamed down my cheeks as I made this great surrender to become an ambassador for Jesus Christ.” (John Pollock, Billy Graham, 17)

In the summer vacation of 1937, he had asked Emily Cavanaugh to marry him. In May of 1938, she said no.

Billy was ordained in 1939. The first time he gave his own “altar call” he was at a little church on the Gulf Coast, with 100 people present. Thirty-two young men and women came forward (Pollock, 22).

In the fall of 1940, he entered Wheaton College. He met Ruth Bell in the lobby of Williston Hall — the same dormitory where my wife Noël lived as we were dating at Wheaton.

Ruth told Billy that she was unsure after all. She feared that her desire to be his wife denied a clear missionary call, unless he were bound for Tibet. “He went and prayed about the mission field, and he just had no leading whatsoever. Finally he said, ‘Well, do you think God brought us together?’ — and I had to admit I felt God had.” Billy pointed out that the husband is head of the wife: “The Lord leads me and you follow.” Ruth agreed, in faith. (Pollock, 26)

They were married August 13, 1943.

His Crisis of Faith

In August, 1949, his faith in the Bible was put to the test. It came to a climax at a student conference in the San Bernardino mountains of California. Charles Templeton had asked questions about the Bible’s truthfulness that Billy could not answer.

Billy went out in the forest and wandered up the mountain, praying as he walked, “Lord, what shall I do? What shall be the direction of my life?”

He had reached what he believed to be a crisis.

He saw that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You must go beyond intellect. He thought of the faith used constantly in daily life: he did not know how a train or plane or car worked, but he rode them. . . . Was it only in things of the spirit that such faith was wrong?

“So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put the Bible on the stump, and I knelt down, and I said, ‘Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.’” (Pollock, 53)

That next month came the decisive turning point in Billy’s global evangelism, the Los Angeles Crusade. Overnight he became a nationally known figure. One year later, Newsweek called him “America’s greatest living evangelist” (May 1, 1950).

‘Sheer Sovereignty Chose Me’

He never lost the unshakable conviction that God had called him sovereignly to the work of evangelism and that he owed everything to God’s initiative.

“With all my heart as I look back on my life, [I believe] I was chosen to do this particular work [of evangelizing] as a man might have been chosen to go into East Harlem and work there, or to the slums of London like General Booth was. I believe that God in his sovereignty — I have no other answer for this — sheer sovereignty, chose me to do this work and prepared me in his own way.” (Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, 234)

For all the technology he employed, he relied profoundly on the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelism.

He told students in 1964 at Harvard Divinity School . . . “I used to think that in evangelism I had to do it all, but now I approach evangelism with a totally different attitude. I approach it with complete relaxation. First of all, I don’t believe that any man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has prepared his heart. Secondly, I don’t believe any man can come to Christ unless God drives him. My job is to proclaim the message. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work, period.” (Catherwood, 230)

When it was not yet the politically correct thing to do, he was an advocate for racial integration and respect.

In 1972, Graham accepted an invitation to speak in Durban and Johannesburg provided that the audiences were racially integrated. The South African government disliked this and only reluctantly agreed. . . . Howard Jones recalls [Martin Luther] King telling Graham, “Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.” (Catherwood, 209)

Two Roots of His Message

He is famous for saying that he preached too much and studied too little.

One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years, he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up. (Christianity Today, September 23, 1977)

This is especially ironic in view of Pollock’s 1966 description of Billy’s habits of study:

Beyond all else Billy Graham studies the Bible, the supreme authority for his belief and action. Every day he reads five Psalms, covering the psalter in a month, and one chapter of Proverbs, the book that “shows us how to relate our own lives to our fellow men.” He reads through a Gospel each week, using commentaries and modern translations, and constantly returns to the Acts of the Apostles. He annotates throughout the Bible. “Sometimes His word makes such an impact on me that I have to put the Bible down and walk around for a few moments to catch my breath.” (Pollock, 248)

All of this was saturated with prayer. “I have so many decisions to make each day, and so many problems, that I have to pray all the time” (Pollock, 248).

Surely John Pollock is right that “prayer and Bible reading, inextricably intertwined, are the tap roots of Billy Graham’s character and of his message” (248).

Into Everlasting Joy

There are different ways to measure the greatness of a man’s impact. One would be the institutions that were created in the wake of his influence. Another would be the shaping power of his ideas in the culture at large. Another would be the methodological and stylistic impact of his way of doing things on the religious life of America.

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At Home in Wakanda

Article by Greg Morse

We did not make it two steps into the movie theater’s front door before we were greeted, “What’s good, my brothas?” As he shouted to us over the masses in the ticket line, he crossed his arms, clenched his fists, and gave a slight bow — a Wakandan greeting.

“Ya’ll will understand after you watch it,” he said. And with that, he disappeared into the night, and we entered into Wakanda.

Overall, I was a fan of Marvel’s new blockbuster, Black Panther. It wasn’t “the best movie I have ever seen,” as one person told me repeatedly in the hallway, but it was one of the better Marvel films. The story picks up after the explosion in a previous Marvel movie where T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, dies in the bombing. T’Challa, his son, then returns to his homeland to assume the throne and take his rightful place as king of Wakanda and as the Black Panther. But opposition arises, leaving the fate of Wakanda — and the rest of the world — at stake.

Having watched a civil-rights documentary beforehand, I found the ideologies of the two main characters to be thought-provoking. And although Black Panther has good action scenes, strong characters, a decent narrative, and helpful questions about global responsibility, the enchantment of the movie for many blacks in the theater was not, in my estimation, about the hero per se, but about the society. I left wanting to be like the Black Panther. But I left wanting to be in Wakanda even more.

More Than a Movie

In the movie, Wakanda is a fictional African homeland hidden from the rest of the world. It is uncolonized, technologically advanced, brimming with black excellence and beauty, industrious, mountainous, breathtaking. But the utopia itself, not the black superhero, hit an ancient ache that four hundred years in America hasn’t come close to soothing. We rally around superheroes like the Black Panther because we hope that they can lead us to Wakanda.

But such a place was make-believe. Or so I thought.

Even before I could watch the movie, I heard the trickle of Wakanda’s waterfall, felt the sunshine of her gladness, and witnessed her people dance to her music.

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Providence Is No Excuse

Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist

Article by Daniel Kleven

It is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly. –Robert Lewis Dabney

History teaches us that proper thought does not necessarily lead to proper action — even when those thoughts align with God’s. In numerous glaring instances, humans have been subjugated to brutal oppression by those who, by their own teachings and sermons, should have known better. Orthodoxy alone is not enough to ensure that we will live as God requires.

The history of racism in America is a clear example. Within some of our lifetimes, schools were segregated, African Americans denied full citizenship, and and many of those created in the image of God were repeatedly treated as less than human. In the midst of this moral failure, many Bible-believing Christian churches wanted nothing to do with their bleeding black brother lying on the other side of the road. Though we celebrate Dr. King’s work now, few orthodox Christian churches did then. In many cases, members of these Bible-believing churches were the first to scold his efforts.

Today we rightfully celebrate the social justice work of Dr. King; but for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls. Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.

A sobering reminder of this is a champion of Reformed theology who was a white supremacist and vehemently defended the cause of slavery — a man who can teach us that “good theology” and “sinful blind spots” cannot always be so easily disentangled.

Reformed White Supremacist

 In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect. Dabney was a thoroughly Reformed, five-point Calvinist who believed in the supremacy of God in all things. However, his view of God’s sovereignty, a true and beautiful doctrine, tragically became interwoven with his racism, as he consistently used the doctrine of “providence” to reinforce his white supremacy.

In his Systematic Theology (1879), Dabney includes the standard Reformed doctrines but also includes a lecture on “The Civil Magistrate” in which he considers in what sense “all men are by nature free and equal” (868). He asks, “Are all men naturally equal in strength, in virtue, in capacity, or in rights? The thought is preposterous.” Dabney believed that even “a general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition” (869). Then, lest he be misunderstood, he applies it specifically:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

Slavery as Providence?

In 1867, Dabney wrote a lengthy defense of slavery entitled A Defense of Virginia and the South. Here he directly applies his doctrine of providence to slavery: “for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

After the Civil War, in the midst of reconstruction, Dabney fought hard against the changes taking place in his beloved Southern society. Among the things he opposed was universal education in a series of articles called “The State Free School System.” For Dabney, “this theory of universal education in letters by the State involves the absurd and impossible idea of the Leveller, as though it were possible for all men to have equal destinies in human society.” On the contrary, he insisted,

The system supposes and fosters a universal discontent with the allotments of Providence and the inevitable gradations of rank, possessions and privilege. It is too obvious to need many words, that this temper is anti-Christian; the Bible, in its whole tone inculcates the opposite spirit of modest contentment with our sphere, and directs the honorable aspiration of the good man to the faithful performance of its duties, rather than to the ambitious purpose to get out of it and above it. (247)

For Dabney, to attempt to “level the playing field” and to give everyone an “even start” in the race of life is “wicked, mischievous, and futile” (248). God himself has structured society in this way — “the utopian cannot unmake it” (249). Those who would attempt to teach “the Negro” to read were guilty of resisting God.

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Article by David Mathis

Executive Editor, desiringGod.org

For years, our three stocking holders each brandished a letter: J O Y. It’s common Christmas decor. Joy in Christmas lights. Joy on banners. Joy in frames.

This year, as we unpacked our Christmas boxes, and did our annual purge, the JOY stocking holders wound up in the pile for the thrift store. The immediate cause was the advent of baby Mercy, born in April. Three letters are inadequate to hold four stockings. But perhaps we have a theological reason as well to let the JOY holders go.

Plain old joy undersells the glory of Christmas. Matthew and Luke accent different aspects of the birth story, but they sing this note in unison: Christ’s coming is not simply an occasion for joy, but great joy.

God’s World of Joys

In the beginning, the God of joy made a world of joys — a creation full of good, altogether “very good,” and primed to delight his creatures (Genesis 1:31; 2:9). As the work of his hands, we know joy. We have tasted his goodness in his world, even on this side of sin’s curse. We have experienced, however meagerly or infrequently, the blessed emotional surges of God-made delight — in a kind word, in a friend’s hug, in our team’s victory, in a cool breeze, in good food and drink. We know normal joy.

But Christmas is not normal joy. Christmas, the Gospels say, is great joy. Christmas is not natural joy, but supernatural. God set Christmas apart. He himself has come down in the person of his Son. The Word has become flesh. The long-awaited Savior is born. When the angel heralds his arrival, he says, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). And when pagan astrologers traverse far and find him, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

God gave us a world of joys to get us ready for this moment when announcing “joy” no longer would be enough. God gave us joy for Christmas joy to surpass it.

God’s Words of Joy

But not only did God fill his world with joy, but also his word. The Bible is replete with “joy” — more than two hundred times in an English translation — but “great joy” appears in single digits. “Great joy” is rare and climactic. At the anointing of David’s own son as his successor, at the height of Israel’s kingdom — “great joy” (1 Kings 1:40). At the restoration of the Passover after generations of neglect — “great joy” (2 Chronicles 30:26). At the dedication of Nehemiah’s rebuilt walls after the return from exile — “great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43). Joy is the stuff of every day; “great joy” is kept for the highest of moments.

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Unashamed Allegiance

Article by John Piper

The impact of R.C. Sproul on my life and ministry is owing to an incomparable combination of his unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty and centrality of God, his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Christian Scriptures, his serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture in shaping his views, and his jolting formulations of biblical truth in relation to contemporary reality.

Let me illustrate. I can remember the very room in which I was standing when this incomparable combination landed on me for the first time. It was a back room of our house, listening to a cassette tape on a Walkman, while doing some chores. The text that R.C. was preaching on was Luke 13:1–5.

I had chosen to listen to it because I was struck by the title of the message printed on the cassette: “The Misplaced Locus of Amazement” (re-preached in recent years as “The Locus of Astonishment”). I had no idea what he meant. Even when I thought about the content of Luke 13:1–5, I didn’t have the wisdom to discern what he would be getting at. Then I began to listen. And as so often happens in listening to his expository messages, I was riveted.

Our Misplaced Amazement

Some people had come to Jesus and confronted him with the horror that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and mingled their blood with their own sacrifices. Interestingly, those who came to Jesus didn’t ask any questions. They simply expressed amazement. But inside their amazement was a question: What horrible sin had these Galileans committed that brought down such a judgment?

“This was R.C.’s goal: a heart stunned and humbled by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.”

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3). And to make sure they knew he saw such horrors in the world, he added this: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).

Then R.C. made a devastating — jolting — observation. He said that these crowds, who were so amazed that some people had been judged for their sin, had put their amazement entirely in the wrong place — “a misplaced locus of amazement.” They were amazed that something horrible had happened to a few Galileans. What they should have been amazed at was that something equally horrible hasn’t happened to everybody in Jerusalem — indeed, R.C. added, everybody in the world.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2–3)

The meaning of these calamities that happened to others is that I should repent. The amazing thing is that I am not now, at this moment, in hell for my sin. Jolting.

Incomparable Combination

As time went by, I came to realize that the impact of such preaching was owing to R.C.’s incomparable combination of allegiances.

First, he had a serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture. He was not making his points in general, as his sermon floated in a fog above the text. He was reading the text. He was pushing my nose into the clauses. He was showing me what is really there. The shocking realities were real because they were really in the text.

Second, over time, when you heard R.C. do this kind of thing repeatedly, you realized such serious and rigorous attention to the text was owing to his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Scriptures. He didn’t believe that the message of biblical texts was innocuous and unexciting, and therefore in need of artificial verbal boosters to make the thunder crack. Oh no. If you take the text seriously, and you realize this is the very word of God, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.

Third, therefore, the jolting formulations of biblical truth that were sprinkled so liberally through R.C.’s preaching and writing were not artificially concocted to add effect, but strategically chosen to express reality. And he would say that the jolting expressions, if anything, fall short of, rather than exaggerate, the reality of the text.

Fourth, emerging from the exegesis, and rising in my heart, was an unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty of God to show mercy or to judge according to his infinite wisdom. This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.

Holy God, Humble Man

Consider one other illustration of this kind of jolting exposition. King David decided to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim to the city of David. But contrary to the law of God, it was carried on an ox-drawn cart, not on poles by the priests (Numbers 4:15). The oxen stumbled, the ark tipped, Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and God struck him dead (1 Chronicles 13:10).

“If you take the Bible seriously, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.”

R.C. suggested that the issue here was deeper than a failure to follow Mosaic stipulations. It was a failure to see the depth of human defilement. Why, he asked, should Uzzah presume that his hands were cleaner than the soil on which the ark was about to fall? Soil is only ceremonially unclean. The hands of sinful men are morally and spiritually unclean — a vastly more serious uncleanness.

To the objection that this seems harsh, R.C. answered that there are, according to Jewish tradition, 23 breaches of the law that receive capital punishment in the Mosaic law. This is an absolutely astonishing and merciful limitation on God’s part since, at the beginning of human history, allsins were punishable by death!

Again and again, I heard him draw out such jolting observations from Scripture — all of it in the service of magnifying the holiness of God, and the humility of man. I marveled. The effect was to make me want to handle the Bible with blood-earnestness, to submit to it absolutely, to preach it faithfully, and to unashamedly herald the greatness of God’s sovereign grace.

For me, it was this faithfulness to biblical texts, and this high view of God’s sovereignty and holiness, that made R.C.’s fight for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness so credible and compelling. The bigger and more central and more sovereign and more holy God is in our eyes, the more clearly we see our desperate need for justification by faith alone.

Someday, when the official biography is written, and the best studies of his life and ministry are done, there will, I believe, emerge a remarkably coherent body of truth and devotion. He never allowed himself to go down marginally important rabbit trails (excluding aberrations like a devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers!). He stayed close to the great doctrines of Scripture and their profound impact on life and ministry and church and missions. These have been the girders from which he has built a coherent, God-centered worldview.

“I Love the Chair”

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 November 25, 2017

Article by Mary A. Kassian

The dark glasses didn’t fully conceal her puffy black eye.

Four of us surrounded our friend, Sandra, when she came to church that morning. One woman gently embraced her, whispering truth in her ear. I knelt at her feet with a box of Kleenex, supplying her with fresh, dry tissues as she knurled the tear-drenched ones into balls. Two other friends flanked her like sentinels standing guard. The abuse was getting worse.

More than once, the police had been called. Church elders had promised Sandra money for lawyers, protection orders, accommodations, and anything else she might need. We had formulated a plan: Who to contact. Code words. Where we’d take her. What to do with the kids. We begged her not to go back that day. We could help her leave.

But Sandra refused. She insisted she wasn’t ready. Dismayed, I silently prayed that the next call would summon us to her aid, and not her funeral.

A few weeks later, the call came.

In a fit of uncontrolled rage, her husband had pulled the china cabinet over, sending glass exploding across the room. To further assuage his anger, he smashed a chair into splinters, and then, uttering expletives and threats, had stormed out the door. Sandra figured she had about two hours before he came back from the bar to resume his drunken tirade.

The police were on their way. Her second call was to her church contact, who dispatched several couples to her aid. As Sandra gave her statement to police, we cleared a path through the treacherous gleaming shards. The wives packed up clothes and toys. The husbands moved boxes and other belongings into waiting vehicles.

In just over 90 minutes, our friend was on her way to the shelter. This time, she left for good.

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Article by

If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

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One Man’s Dream Destroyed Millions

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Enterprises and its chief ideological incarnation, died on Thursday at age 91 at the Playboy Mansion, immersed in the fantasy he created. He will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, Playboy’s inaugural centerfold.

In 1953, Hefner pulled pornography out of the seedy back cultural alleys, dressed it up in sophisticated costume and speech, gave it a stylish, debonair set, made it look liberating and libertine, and pushed it into the mainstream as Playboy Magazine. He was not so much a revolutionary as a man who understood his times. He knew the “right side of history” when he saw it. He saw the weakness in the flank, struck shrewdly (and lewdly), and won the cultural battle: the old sexual mores have been decisively thrown down and pornography is pervasive. But at what cost?

Seeing People as Roles, Not Souls

Playboy (and the flood of increasingly explicit material that has followed it through the break it made in the cultural dam) is not an enterprise that exists to celebrate the beauty of the human body or the wonder of human sexuality. It is an enterprise aimed at financially capitalizing on the fallen human bent toward objectifying others for our own selfish ends. It encourages both men and women in codependent ways to view embodied souls as embodied roles in the private virtual reality show we call fantasy.

Hefner and many others have become very rich by objectifying women and turning them into virtual prostitutes — mere bodily images to be used by millions of men who care nothing about them, who ravage them in their imaginations for selfish pleasure and then toss them in the trash. Hefner gave these women the fun name of “playmates,” a wicked mockery of both a person and play, adding a terrible insult to horrible injury.

We call this wicked, for it is. But in calling it wicked, we must confront our own wicked proneness to objectify others and resolve all the more to war against it. We humans have a horrible, sinful tendency to view others as roles — too often expendable “extras” — in the epic moving picture of our story, not souls in the real epic of God’s story.

The fallen human nature, unhinged from God’s reality, seeks to construct its own preferred reality. And it uses other people to do it. Let me use as an example what at first might appear as a harmless, fun song, but is anything but harmless.

The Fantasy Girl from Ipanem

In the mid-60s, as Playboy was building steam on its way to becoming a media powerhouse, the Brazilian jazz/bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” was building steam as an international hit, on its way to being the second-most recorded pop song in history.

The song is about a man who daily watches a beautiful girl walk by him on the way to Ipanema Beach in south Rio de Janeiro. She is “tall and tan and young and lovely” and “swings so cool and sways so gently,” passing by like a song on legs. He is intoxicated with her and “would give his heart gladly” to her, but “she doesn’t see” him.

The song is light and breezy and almost sounds innocent. But it’s not. The song is actually a man’s fantasy. The girl he thinks he loves, he knows nothing about. If she turns out to have a lower IQ than he imagines or a serious medical condition, would he still love her? If she heads to the beach daily to escape the sexual molestation of a relative, or suffers from a subtle mental illness, would he still give his heart gladly to her? This girl is not a soul to him; she is a symbol of something he desires and he projects on her a role in a fantasy of his own creation.

This is precisely what we humans are so prone to do: to view others, and the world, as a projection of our own fantasies. Even we Christians can lose sight of the world as a battlefield of horrific cosmic warfare, with people caught in its crossfire needing to be rescued, and see it as the place where we want our dreams — self-centered, self-serving, self-exalting, self-indulgent dreams — to come true. The more we indulge such fantasies, the more inoculated and numb we become to reality and the less urgent we feel about the real needs of other real souls.

The Real Girl from Ipanema

The girl from Ipanema has a Hugh Hefner connection, for she was a real girl. The song’s (married) composers used to sit in a café near the beach, watch her walk by, and talk about the desires she inspired. She was a 17-year-old school girl, sometimes wearing her school uniform and sometimes wearing her bikini.

After the song exploded in popularity, the composers informed her that she was “the girl.” She became a minor Brazilian celebrity, a national symbol of sexual appeal. Eventually she became a Brazilian Playboy Playmate, posing for the magazine as a younger woman and later posing again with her adult daughter — two generations caught and exploited by Hefner’s fantasy. Now she’s 72, trying hard to stay looking as young and lovely as possible, for she is, after all, the girl from Ipanema.

And she’s an example that objectification of other people is not harmless. Her identity has been forged by two men’s lust for her adolescent body. The indulgence and propagation and proliferation of fantasies are not harmless. Real lives get caught in the gears; real souls are shaped and hardened and become resistant to what’s really real, to what’s really true. And they can be destroyed.

People Are Souls, Not Roles

It is tragically appropriate that Hugh Hefner will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was not merely the inaugural centerfold of Playboy Magazine; she became and remains the poster girl of 20th century American sexual objectification. Nearly sixty years after her suicidal death, she remains a sexual icon in most people’s minds, not a broken soul who knew the despairing loneliness of being a sensual image desired by millions, yet a person truly loved by very few. Hefner encouraged millions and millions of men and women to view people in the very way that destroyed Marilyn Monroe.

That’s why, men (and of course not just men), on the occasion of Hugh Hefner’s death, let us resolve all the more to abstain from fantasy passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls — and not just ours but others’ souls as well (1 Peter 2:11). When we look at a woman, whether she’s Marilyn Monroe, the girl from Ipanema, a co-worker, classmate, fellow church member, another man’s wife, or our own wife, let us say to ourselves and, when needed, each other: “she is not your playmate!”

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