On a Pastor’s Duty to Protect

This is a sermon manuscript of the second in a two-part series on the role of pastors in the church. The first part dealt with three duties of a pastor: to teach, model, and nurture. This second part deals with a fourth duty of a pastor, which is to protect the flock.

When my family moved to the town of Bow, we were delighted by the wildlife around us. We saw a porcupine in the driveway, baby racoons in a tree, and deer meandering through the woods. We even saw a big black bear lumbering in our backyard. But one animal that especially fascinated us was Mr. Fox—reddish-brown, gaunt, and noiseless, waving behind him an elegant bushy tail. We would crowd to the window if someone announced that they saw him.

A few weeks ago, however, our attitude on that fox changed completely, for just one reason: we decided to get egg-laying chickens to lay eggs. And to our surprise, they have become dear to us, almost like pets. That means that Mr. Fox is no longer an interesting feature of the Bow wildlife. Instead, he is a threat to what is valuable to us. Because predators exist, it’s not enough merely to nurture the things we value. We must also defend and protect them.

The same is principle applies to the duties of pastors. Not only must pastors teach, model, and nurture their church; they must also guard against certain people whom Scripture refers to as “savage wolves.” Of course, these people are called wolves, not because they have sharp teeth and an appetite for fresh meat, but because they teach twisted truths and have an appetite for followers. Another term for these wolves is false teachers.

Why is the issue of false teachers a concern for everyone? First, because doctrine shapes life. Some people tend to downplay the importance of doctrine. “Doctrine divides,” they say. “Let’s focus on what we can do together instead of the beliefs that separate us.” Some churches and groups even go so far as to say that they really don’t have a specific creed. Thankfully, that idea is holding less and less weight in a world in which we are seeing that creeds and doctrines really are a matter of life and death. In fact, the more we can be clear about them, the better. In our city, creeds are literally on a street level, in the form of yard signs and bumper stickers. For example, it matters deeply whether, on the one hand, you believe that God created all human beings in his own image and that they thus equally possess intrinsic dignity; or whether, on the other hand, you believe that certain races possess more worth than others. Everyone should be concerned about what kind of doctrine people are teaching.

Second, the issue of false teachers is a concern particularly to church-going people because false teachers come from churches. In our text, Paul said that people would come “from your own selves.” Keeping in mind that he was speaking to a group of pastors, we find this even more sobering.

Finally, this issue is of universal relevance because some motivation of false teachers are common to all. You might never be a cult leader, but you might have in yourself what motivates cult leaders—a craving for admirers and followers, a hunger for to get out of other people what can benefit only you. In thinking about this, I recalled that profound theological treatise, Madagascar I. In one scene, Alex the lion begins to realize that he is a meat-eating predator. He feels an appetite for the flesh of other animals. To his horror, his vision begins to change, and he sees his friend the zebra, not as his striped companion, but as a raw, juicy steak. In sum, then, we’re not dealing with something abstract, distant, and impersonal. We’re dealing with something concrete and contemporary, right within these walls, and even closer, within our own hearts.

Identifying False Teachers

From this passage, then, we will consider (1) how to identify false teachers and (2) how to defend against them.

Who False Teachers are Not

Untaught

First, let’s rule out what false teachers are not. A false teacher is not someone who is merely untaught. In the book of Acts, we read of a highly competent preacher named Apollos. Hailing from the intellectual center of the ancient world, Alexandria, this man had gained quite an audience. When two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, heard him preach, they realized that what he said was accurate but incomplete. He was “eloquent,” “competent in the Scriptures,” “had been instructed in the way of the Lord,” and was “fervent in spirit” (18:24-25). But he “knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). So they taught him, and he continued to be a powerful advocate of the gospel. They did not say, “There goes a false teacher. He’s not preaching the whole counsel of God! Let’s oppose him.” Instead, they engaged with him and found him to be an eager learner; thus both Apollos, his hearers, and the cause of Christ continued to advance.

Rivals

We should also bear in mind that a false teacher is not someone whom we consider to be a rival. Often, when leaders become obsessed about the size of their following, they began to feel jealous about the size of other leaders’ followings. Then a very devious tendency begins to arise, which is to cast shade on the person who seems to outshine them. They point out peripheral differences—perhaps in someone’s preaching style, choice of music, associations, or theological emphases—and turn these differences into reasons that leader is dangerous and should be avoided.

In contrast to this narrow-hearted competitiveness, the Bible presents examples of big-hearted generosity. In a letter to a group of Christians who were comparing him to Apollos and Peter, and dividing into factions over their favorite Christian celebrity, Paul wrote, “Who are we? We’re just servants through whom you believed” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Barnabas also is an amazing example of gospel-informed magnanimity. At one point, he and Paul got into such a big conflict that they had to split up and go their separate ways. Still, neither of them tried to detract from the other, although I could imagine how two preachers could have used such a conflict to invent a bigger issue than there really was. Paul could have said: “Watch out for that Barnabas guy. His message might sound good, but he was willing to compromise by taking along with him someone who had deserted us on our missionary journey.” And Barnabas could have said, “Paul is smart and motivated, sure; but he doesn’t give people second chances. He wouldn’t let John Mark join us on our next missionary journey. I don’t know what kind of followers he’ll have, but I worry—I just worry for them. Perhaps the most astonishing example of this big-heartedness comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Writing from prison, Paul referred to some people who were preaching “Christ from envy and rivalry . . . thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” “What do I think about this?” Paul asks rhetorically, then replies: “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18). There’s an incident recorded in the gospel of Mark that neatly summarizes this gospel-informed bigheartedness. John came to Jesus and told him: “We saw someone casting out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” In reply, Jesus said, “Don’t stop him, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40). We must be careful not to let a spirit of jealousy incline us to label other leaders as false teachers.

Temporarily Mistaken

Finally, a false teacher is not someone who is mistaken or temporarily wandered off the path. This happened to Peter in an especially bad way. He stumbled into hypocrisy, and even brought others along with him. Paul had to confront him and give him a public rebuke. Still, Paul didn’t call Peter a false teacher. True, Peter would have been a false teacher if he had ignored Paul’s rebuke, and continued to persuade others toward this hypocrisy. But it was a temporary lapse; not a fixed direction.

Who False Teachers Are

This passage teaches us to identify false teachers by (1) where they come from, (2) what motivates them, and (3) what they say.

First, where do they come from? Paul tells the Ephesian pastors that some false teachers might come from the outside, but others would arise “from among your own selves” (20:30). He’s looking into the eyes of those who would, in a short amount of time, turn out to be false teachers. It’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t think you’re safe just because you’ve blocked off all the entrances. Because the enemy might be right among you.”

Second, what motivates them? What are they after? One motivation is suggested in verse 30: “To draw away the disciples after them.” But other motivations given throughout Scripture are worth mentioning as well. Besides a craving for influence and followers, we read of the appetite for wealth (2 Peter 2:3, “greed”) and sex (2 Peter 2:14), “entice by sensual passions of the flesh”). To put it bluntly, the motivations of wolves turn out to be one (or a combination) of the following: influence (more followers), money, sex. If we could put it into words, their driving impulse could be sloganized as: “It is more blessed to take than to give.”

Third, what do they say? Paul says that they “speak twisted things.” This indicates that the content of false teaching is not necessarily outright falsehood. Instead, it is truth bent just a bit. It’s straight enough to escape notice, but bent enough to throw everything off.

A question worth asking here is this: why can’t leaders draw disciples away after them without bending the truth? Why not just use the truth of the gospel to draw a crowd of followers who are willing to pledge their unquestioned loyalty, to open their wallets, or to give them the sex they demand? The reason is this: the good news about Jesus, when preached fully and accurately, attaches people’s ultimate loyalty, not to the preacher, but to Jesus alone. This is because the gospel is the good news that Jesus alone has the love and power to rescue people from their misery. On the other hand, when a person wants to bind people’s loyalty to himself, he must put a subtle twist on the truths of the gospel. For example, he might rightly point out the moral decline of the U.S., but then point to a political leader or system as the final solution (if not if so many words, at least functionally). He might obsess over what he perceives to be the doctrinal corruption of other churches. He might make people feel disloyal if they listen to someone else. You can see how subtle this is! To attract people, he must present something that they feel to be true because it speaks to a felt need and offers a plausible solution, and even uses terms they already associate with positive things—like “Jesus,” “heaven,” and “salvation.”  But to bind people to him, he must twist that truth. That is why, as Paul says, they speak “twisted things.” Twisted things can be truths in the wrong proportions, such as, in Paul’s day, an obsession with “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:4). Or they can be truths with the wrong conclusions, such as the teaching that God’s grace liberates us to a create our own moral values (Jude 4). Whatever the “twist” is, the effect is guaranteed not to produce genuine love, as Paul put it: “The aim of our charge,  is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

Defending Against False Teachers

The New Testament provides abundant instruction on how to deal with false teachers, but Paul’s emphasis here is on the need to “be alert.” It is striking that Paul follows up the exhortation to “be alert,” not with further descriptions of false teachers, but with a reminder of the message about God’s grace, Paul’s personal example, and a quotation from Jesus. What each of these have in common is the emphasis on giving. Paul was entrusting (giving up) the Ephesian pastors to God, as the only one who could protect them. Moreover, he was reminding them of the message about God’s grace—that is, the news that God it is God who gives salvation. Paul reminded them that he had worked hard in order to give, not take from them. And he concluded his speech with the quote from Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

What does this have to do with defending against these false teachers? It is this: the best way to defend against being led astray by false teachers is to make sure you are truly grasping and resting in the truth of the gospel, which teaches us that salvation comes from the God who gives himself to rescue us. In other words, if you are not letting your heart be continually shaped at the deepest level by the radical self-giving love of Jesus for you, you will be vulnerable to messages that offer other ways of finding meaning and validation. The only message that is able to strengthen you and guarantee your present and future security is the “word of his grace”—that is a continual heart-level reminder of the “Chief Shepherd” who gave himself for you.

Take Heed to the Flock

The following is the manuscript from a message on Acts 20:17-35 which I delivered on Sunday, June 5, 2022 as part of sermon series on the book of Acts. In light of (1) the crisis of pastoral credibility, (2) reports of churches’ and denominations horrific mishandling of and complicity in sexual abuse, and (3) the downsizing of ministerial training institutions, I’m especially burdened that pastors and churches alike are clear on what pastors are supposed to be doing, and what their character qualifications are to be. This passage (Acts 20:17-35) along with 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 provide unmistakably clear answers. I wonder what the contemporary scene would look like if these passages were faithfully heeded.

The Barna Research Group tells us that America’s pastors are facing a credibility crisis. From a 2020 survey of Christians and non-Christians, the researchers concluded that “overall, U.S. adults are unsure whether pastors in their local community can be trusted, are in touch with their community’s needs and are reliable sources of wisdom and leadership.”[1]

Even more seriously, a report was released in the past few weeks that revealed horrifying details about the largest Protestant denomination in the U. S. According to this report, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse—abuse committed by pastors in the denomination—were ignored and even covered up. Instead of protecting the flock, these pastors were preying on the most vulnerable in the flock.

These things weighed on my heart and mind as I prepared to preach on Acts chapter 20:17-35, a classic passage dealing with the topic of pastoring. It is brimming with personality and pathos, shimmering with love and affection, yet rooted in the soil of suffering and frailty. We can enter into this passage—like a garden at harvest time—and come out with a wagonload overflowing with goods. But in order to narrow our focus, we will put one question to this passage: What must pastors do?

This question has immediate and urgent relevance, not only for pastors but also for the churches they lead. To begin with, it gives churches a visible standard by which to evaluate the character and tasks of their pastors. This is a matter of common sense. Any child who wants to ride a rollercoaster at the state fair must first be measured by a sign that says, “You must be this tall to go on this ride.” The reason for this public standard is the safety of the child. How much more important is it that there be a publicly-known standard for pastors—whose words and conduct so deeply affects the well-being of many besides themselves! The standards for pastors’ character and competencies are publicly available in Scripture so that anyone who cares to find out can tell whether that pastor is operating according to those standards and duties.

From this passage we discover three basic duties of every pastor. There may be a variety of ways of arranging these, just as you can choose different arrangements for a bouquet of flowers, but it is helpful to see them in the following sequence: pastors must (1) teach, (2) model, and (3) nurture.

1. Pastors must teach.

To start a fire, you need fuel. Granted, fuel is not the only thing you need. Oxygen and heat are necessary as well. But you won’t get anywhere unless you have fuel. So it is with teaching. It’s not the only thing a pastor does, but if a pastor is not teaching, he’s not pastoring.

The fact that pastors must teach is abundantly evident from this text. Notice the verbs Paul uses: “declaring,” “teaching,” and “testifying” (20:20-21). We can find evidence from other places in the New Testament. For example, in his first letter to his protégé Timothy, Paul lays down one of the essential skills required of a pastor: that he be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). And in his final charge to Timothy, Paul urges him to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them that God gave to the church “pastors and teachers.” The very metaphor of pastoring (Acts 20:28), which literally means “shepherding,” implies that pastors are to feed their people. What is the food? The food is God’s Word. And how does the pastor feed them God’s Word? By teaching them.

We should press in further by asking why pastors must teach. Isn’t it sufficient for a pastor to be present with his people or to organize community events? The reason pastors must teach is that at the heart of any real, lasting change in peoples’ lives is the Christian message, the gospel. This gospel is “God’s power for saving people” (Acts 1:16), and this is not something that can be merely absorbed through personal contact, or soaked up through one’s participation in religious events. Neither is it something that can be supernaturally transmitted by drinking wine and eating wafers. Rather, the gospel has real content that must be understood and believed. Lasting, root-deep life change takes place as the mind grasps it and the heart rests in it. This is why pastors must teach.

But this also tells us what pastors must teach, namely, the gospel. There are various expressions of this gospel content given throughout the passage. For example, Paul speaks of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (21), “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (24), “proclaiming the kingdom” (25), and “the whole counsel of God” (27). This does not mean that Paul had exegeted every passage of Scripture from Genesis to Malachi. Rather, in the time available to him, he had imparted to them, as completely as possible, an exposition of God’s plan to rescue human beings, and bring them into his kingdom. From this, we cannot fail to see that pastors must be occupied with telling people that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son who died to rescue people from their sin; that through his death and resurrection he defeated sin and death; that he is the King who deserves all our adoration and worship because he alone can rescue us from our greatest enemy; that, as the King, he will one day return to put everything right so we can live with him forever.

It is impossible for such a message to be reported off-handedly or impersonally. This, moreover, leads us to consider how pastors must teach. In our text we read that Paul not only imparted the facts of the gospel, but that he did so with the urgency and emotional energy that such good news evokes: “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (20:31). Pastors are not content merely to deliver information, but to urge upon people what they must do with that information.

When I was learning to drive, my instructor would not only tell me facts, but urge upon me the application of those facts. She was not content to say, “In America, we drive on the right side of the road. A double yellow line means drivers will be approaching quickly on the left.” She would say, “You’re in the wrong lane. Pull over!” In a similar way, pastoral teaching must turn into pastoral exhortation. Pastors must extol the goodness, truth, and beauty of Jesus Christ and urge people to trust and follow him. They must cause their people to feel, for example, the disconnect between their self-centered anger and Jesus’ loving; between their lust and the freedom Jesus offers. Pastors must warn their people of the danger of racial, national, and political idolatry. All this springs from the nature of the gospel, which is, at its heart, not merely facts, but a Person who the Lord of all. Thus, Paul writes in Colossians 1:27-28, “We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

2. Pastors must model what they teach.

But what if a pastor is saying all the right things, but contradicting it with his life? Unspeakable damage has been done—to churches and to the reputation of Jesus—by pastors who denied with their conduct what they professed was their creed.

The duty of pastors to model what they teach is arguably the most striking feature of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. He is eager to set himself forward as an example of pastoral integrity. His eagerness on this point, in fact, might initially make us feel a bit comfortable. Who would have the audacity to say to a group of people, as Paul did: “You know that during the three years I was with you, I have been humble and diligent. I’ve worked hard, and done right by you”?

Upon closer examination, we may discover that we are the proud ones, not Paul. His example, in fact, gives us an important insight into the nature of humility and the importance of role-modeling in an deeply unselfconscious way. I’ll put it this way: it takes humility to shut up about your own accomplishments and qualities. But it takes an even deeper humility to talk about your accomplishments and qualities without caring whether anyone thinks you’re being proud. Much of what poses as “humility” is a double self-consciousness in which we try to avoid giving the impression that we’re proud. This doesn’t enter Paul’s mind. He’s moved beyond all that. For him, all that matters is the well-being of the flock and the glory of God, so he is free to talk about his personal credentials without pride or embarrassment.

The amount of material here devoted to Paul’s personal example provides ample evidence for that fact that pastors must model what they teach. But we find this also in other places in the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, for example, when Paul lists the criteria for pastors (“overseers”), most of the criteria pertain to the pastor’s character. Later in that same letter, he tells Timothy to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). The Apostle Peter as well puts a premium on pastoral modeling, warning pastors not to domineer over those in their charge, but to lead by “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3; see also Titus 2:7).

Why must pastors model what they teach? First, personal integrity makes one’s message credible. Aristotle identified three essential components of persuasion: logos (what you say), pathos (how you say it), and ethos (who you are, your character). Of these three, he said, ethos is by far the most determinative in whether people will be convinced by what you say. The power of personal example is a leader’s most potent weapon, for good or for evil. Charles Spurgeon tells of a pastor who, when he preached, people wished he would never leave the pulpit; but when he was out of the pulpit, they wished he would never enter it.

But there is a deeper reason pastors must model what they teach, and it is this: what they teach is not mere information to be learned, but a person to be followed. “We preach,” Paul writes, but what does he preach? A philosophy? A five-step process of recovery? No, at the very heart of the gospel is a person: Jesus the Messiah. “We preach Christ” (Colossians 1:28). And Christ cannot be preached rightly unless the preacher is following him. The good news cannot be embraced with the mind alone but with the entire person—mind, will, and emotions.

When I was in college I worked in an assisted living facility for elderly people. There was a man there who would come to his wife’s room and walk with her down the hallway to the room with the big TV so that they could watch an old movie together. He would give her a kiss, and hold her hand like they were on their first date, and off they would go shuffling down the hall together. And sometimes she would ask, “Who are you?” As I thought recently about that example of faithful love, I thought, “It’s one thing to read in the Bible, ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ But it’s quite another thing to see that command lived out in flesh and bones.” So it is with other aspects of Christian living. We need to see the word of God in flesh and bones, living and breathing. The 19th-century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote to a fellow pastor: “Remember you are God’s sword—his instrument,—I trust a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity . . . of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

There are many soul-searching applications of this truth for pastors, but this also has relevance for churches as well: churches must hold a high bar for pastoral character. A man’s magnetic personality, dazzling gifts of communication, or administrative genius can easily awe people, but distract them from defects in his character. Churches must insist that their pastors be men of humility, integrity, and godliness. Ask your pastor about his prayer life, his family life, or his time in the Word; if he is a man of integrity, he will welcome the question. If he is struggling in that area, it will be a wake-up call for him to improve. If he is unworthy, he will resent you or fear you and make you feel wrong for asking. But there is a reason that pastoral qualifications are available for everyone to read. Too many churches have been harmed by tolerating poor character in their pastors. Anger, bullying, quarrelsomeness, laziness, lust, stubbornness, dishonesty—none of these may go unchecked or unconfronted in the people who shepherd’s God’s flock.

3. Pastors must nurture people in what they teach.

To nurture is to provide what is necessary for someone’s growth and development, and this is the sense of Paul’s words, “to care for the church of God” (20:28). It’s easy to think that the product of a pastor’s labor is to be measured in a building program or an outreach initiative. These things may be part of a pastor’s work, but the real work is not the shape of a building, but the shape of people’s lives. The question a pastor must constantly ask himself (and others) is this: “Are the people I am responsible to care for becoming more and more like Jesus?”

When the apostle Paul was pressured to produce a “reference letter” to authenticate his calling as an apostle, instead he offered the changed lives of those whom he had pastored: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation. . . . You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3). He was saying, in effect: “God’s Spirit is etching into your hearts proof that you have God’s life within you—and that is the goal of our ministry.” When looking for a pastor, you may ask for sermons preached, for a list of academic degrees, for programs engineered and executed. But do not fail to ask about the people whose lives have become more like Jesus through that pastor’s nurturing influence.

Some people love to be matchmakers. They like to identify a single person in search of their soulmate, look for that perfect match, and put the two together. They may talk with the person and say, “You know what? I know the perfect match for you.”

As a pastor, Paul viewed himself as a matchmaker: “I betrothed you to one husband, Jesus Christ,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2. He had sparked a romance between Jesus and the Corinthians, and led them to the marriage altar. That’s what every pastor should be trying to do with his people—to woo them, not to himself, but to Jesus. He sees their shame, despair, frustration, and emptiness, and says, “You know what? I know the perfect match for you!” This is the true aim of pastoral ministry, and the true aim of life: to find in Jesus our perfect satisfaction.

If understood correctly, the requirements and duties of pastoral ministry in particular and Christian leadership in general will make us feel overwhelmed and insufficient. It is important to point out that the three terms for a pastor—elder, shepherd, and overseer—are applied to Jesus as well.

Jesus is not only an elder: he is the Elder, the one who existed from eternity past (John 1:1; Revelation 1:12-18). He is not only an overseer: he is the Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). And he is not only a shepherd: he is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us (John 10:11). By ourselves, we are insufficient. Only as we continually find in Christ our greatest good and treasure will we have the ability to faithfully teach, model, and nurture God’s flock, until “the Chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4).


[1] “Pastors’ Credibility Is in Question—Even Among Pastors,” Barna Group, accessed June 3, 2022, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-trustworthy-reliable/.

Bavinck’s Christian Worldview

It wasn’t until I started reading Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God (I already owned his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics but had only dabbled in it) that I decided I wanted to read everything that Bavinck had written.

That decision prompted me, in 2020, to purchase his recently-translated (2019) Christian Worldview which I wish I deeply regret not having access to before I completed my PhD in Apologetics and Worldview. I regret it because this little book answered some puzzles yet unsolved after those four years of intense reading and writing.

I read Christian Worldview in 2020, and now I’m re-reading it because, even though it’s short it’s highly concentrated. Reading it without plenty of time to absorb the thoughts bears some similarities to eating eating frozen orange juice concentrate instead of drinking it diluted it in water. If you’ve never had that culinary adventure, you’ll just have to take my word for it: Christian Worldview is deep and dense.

If that excites you (or even if it doesn’t), you might be helped by a diagram Bavinck’s main ideas. His central thesis is that some of philosophy’s knottiest problems only get knottier when philosophy alone tries to yank out the knots. Or, to change the analogy somewhat, “autonomous thinking” (i.e., thinking disconnected from Christian Scriptures) always tumbles into self-defeating ditches. Christianity, on the other hand, reconciles these problems. It fits the world like key-and-lock. It provides the best explanation for what exists.

So what problems is he talking about? Three in particular:

  • The epistemological problem of how we know we can know anything
  • The metaphysical problem of what reality really is
  • The ethical problem of how people should behave

I put these issues into a table which, for me at least, clarifies what Bavinck is doing:

In the area of…we see a tension between…which, without the Christian worldview veers into the self-defeating extremes of…
EpistemologyThinking and BeingSkepticism or Dogmatism
Materialism or Spiritualism
MetaphysicsBeing and BecomingAtomism or Dynamism
EthicsBecoming and ActingNomism or Antinomism

In a later post I hope to condense how Bavinck shows that the Christian faith reconciles these problems. For now, it is fascinating to observe that, writing in the early 20th century, many of Bavinck’s words now seem prophetic. Between us and Bavinck, we have seen two world wars, the collapse of socialism, sexual revolutions, and the rise of radicalism. Bavinck insisted that as long as societies disconnect themselves from God, the true, good, and beautiful, they will attach to something else—be it their own race, nation, or self.

The Magic of Writing

In the month of November, my wife and I decided that we would spent thirty minutes writing every weekday evening of the month. We didn’t quite reach that goal, but we wrote a lot more than we would have if we had made no goal at all. Because I spend a lot of my workday writing anyway (crafting emails, preparing sermons), I decided I would write about things I would not normally write about. So, on one of our first evenings of writing, on a whim I decided to write on a topic that popped into my mind, “The Magic of Writing.”

Here’s what came to my mind.

There is really no such thing as a magician—if by a magician we mean someone who can really appear or disappear, or really read another’s mind. The man we call a magician—who conjures a pigeon from his hat, makes a coin disappear and then reappear behind your ear, and seems to know, without looking, which card you chose—is simply a person who has practiced over and over again to make the difficult appear easy. The genius of the magician comes in concealing the effort. No one enjoys watching a magic show in which the magician fumbles and sweats—unless, of course, the fumbling and sweating themselves are part of the magician’s design to amuse his audience.

The same could be said of writing. To read with ease and pleasure is to view a magic show in which the effort has been cleverly concealed. The reader is delighted only because the writer has done his or her best to come across fresh and relaxed.

But the difference is that while there is really no such thing as a magician—there is such a thing as a writer, and—ironically—there is more “magic” in the writer than in the magician. The magician, on the one hand, only appears to make the coin appear in your ear. But the writer does better. He really does make something appear, not in your ear, but in your mind. She tells a story, crafts an argument, presents a metaphor and conjures it in your consciousness so powerfully that you can’t unthink it. That, in fact, is the magic of writing—the concealed effort of producing a real effect across time and space.

But how does the writer do it? A magician, when asked that question, will feign seriousness and ask in a sober tone, “Can you keep a secret?” Then with an annoying glee he whispers, “So can I,” to the disappointed inquirer.

But can the writer do much better? Maybe it depends on the inquirer. If the inquirer is hoping for a quick way to impress people, with cheap props, smoke, and mirrors, no doubt he will be as disappointed as the person asking the magician to reveal his secrets.

But if he is unafraid of long hours of unnoticed labor, reams of manuscripts never read, the arduous task of punching and prepunching a sentence until it yields precisely the shape he intends—and is willing to conceal that labor for the benefit and delight of his readers—then maybe he will go to his task of writing determined and hopeful, and learn the magic of writing.

Jonathan Edwards’ Method of Study

When someone impresses us with his or her depth of thought and literary output, we naturally want to know their “secret.” It’s not necessary to argue that Jonathan Edwards was a formidable intellect. Did he have a particular method that allowed him to think through a topic with such rigor and clarity?

Yes, he did, and I recently came across his explanation of it in a rather obscure place: a footnote in Charles Bridges’ classic The Christian Ministry. In this passage, Edwards explains his “method of study.”

My method of study from my first beginning the work of the Ministry, has been very much by writing; applying myself in this way to improve every important hint; pursuing the clue to the utmost, when anything in reading, meditation, or conversation has been suggested to my mind, that seemed to promise light in any weighty point; thus penning what appeared to me my best thoughts on innumerable subjects, for my own benefit. The longer I prosecuted my studies in this method, the more habitual it became, and the more pleasant and profitable I found it. The further I travelled in this way, the wider the field opened; which has occasioned my laying out many things in my mind to do in this manner, (if God should spare my life) which my heart hath been much set upon.”

This explanation immediately made sense to me, since I have found in my experience that the very act of writing serves, at the very least, to reveal to me what is unclear in my own mind. The mind may be home to disconnected subjects and predicates, but the pen demands that these subjects and predicates be joined in a way that is logical and orderly. I lay it down as a rule: writing well and thinking well go hand in hand.

Two Resources for Preaching

When it comes to preaching—and, for that matter, many areas in life—my motto is always learning. Once you stop learning, you not only stagnate: you revert. Still, it is helpful to have a tried-and-true method for accomplishing a task, especially when you are called to accomplish that task, again and again—with excellence.

Over the course of several years, and heavily influenced by classic texts on the topic, I’ve developed two resources which I use nearly every time I prepare to preach. The first is an overview of the entire task of preaching. I use it to make sure I have the essential components in place. The second takes a deeper dive and guides me along the preparation process.

I offer these resources here for anyone who might find them helpful as a resource—or even as a launchpad for a discussion into the nature of Christian preaching and how we can do it better.

One caveat: if you ask me a few months from now for a copy of these resources, I can almost guarantee that, though the essentials will be the same, a few things will be tweaked here and there. After all, I’m always learning, and right now I’m reading Chris Anderson’s TED Talks which I’m sure will give me some insights into how to be a better communicator.

After all, the Word of God deserves to be delivered in the clearest, most compelling way possible.

Sermon Preparation Overview – Includes a readiness checklist, the purpose of every sermon, the essential steps in preparation, and a basic template for a common sermon.

Sermon Worksheet – Walks you through the essential building blocks of the sermon in two stages: (1) the exegetical stage and (2) the sermon stage. In the exegetical stage, you must discover the structure and meaning of the passage, its redemptive aim, and key themes. In the sermon stage, you must shape these discoveries into a format that may be delivered verbally to a particular audience within a set amount of time. The sermon stage requires that you identify the (1) kernel of the sermon (or “throughline,” thank you Chris!), (2) tensions, (3) residual impact, (4) rhetorical structure, (5) emotional journey, (6) illustrations, (7) introduction and conclusion.

The Preaching of 18th-Century Revivalists in England

Eighteen years ago, my parents gave me a book by J. C. Ryle which I have picked up again: Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. It contains brief biographical sketches of men who “shook England from one end to another”—men such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Grimshaw, and Daniel Rowlands.

Reading sections of this book again nearly two decades later, now as a preacher and pastor, I find myself drawn to and stirred by J. C. Ryle’s description of these leaders’ preaching:

“They wisely went back to first principles,” Ryle writes, “and took up apostolic plans. They held, with St. Paul, that a minister’s first work is to ‘to preach the gospel.'”

What characterized this apostolic, nation-shaking preaching? Ryle tells us:

  1. They preached everywhere.
  2. They preached simply.
  3. They preached fervently and directly.

Ryle also tells us the substance of their preaching:

  1. The sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture
  2. The total corruption of human nature
  3. That Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sin
  4. Justification by faith
  5. The universal necessity of heart conversion and new creation by the Holy Spirit
  6. The inseparable connection between true faith and personal holiness
  7. God’s eternal hatred against sin, and God’s love towards sinners

Be Careful What You Call Christian Persecution

In the final beatitude on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his followers to expect persecution. “Blessed are you,” he declares, “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:13).

But we must carefully consider what we call persecution. Certainly, persecution involves being mistreated, but for what reason? on whose account? We commit a logical fallacy when we reason: “Persecution involves mistreating Christians. I am a Christian who is being mistreated. Therefore I am suffering Christian persecution.”

Unfortunately, many Christians hastily take the bucket marked “persecution”—and put into it all kinds of things that don’t belong there. Yes, persecution means suffering and mistreatment. But Jesus is not talking about just any kind of suffering and mistreatment. Neither is he talking about just any kind of persecution. There is religious persecution, but there is also racial persecution. There is persecution based on genetics or military or police service.

Jesus qualifies Christian persecution in three phrases:

  • “For righteousness’ sake” – 5:10
  • “On my account” – 5:11
  • “For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” – 5:12

Each phrase illuminates the other two, suggesting the following general definition of Christian persecution: it is the mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ. A person’s loyalty to Christ entails, of course, living and speaking righteously, which is why Jesus’ says that it is “for righteousness’ sake” and that it bears some resemblance to the mistreatment experienced by the Old Testament prophets.

The righteousness in view here is not self-righteousness, but rather the deeds of joyful, Spirit-energized obedience lived out by God’s people (see Matthew 5:16). It is, to put it simply, living a Christlike life. And that allegiance, that kind of living, will put a person on a collision course with others and their values. This is why Jesus puts his persecuted hearers in line with the prophets of the Old Testament—prophets like Noah, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. They spoke as courageous ambassadors of God’s righteousness. Moreover, because of their allegiance to God, they disturbed the consciences of those around them. That is why we must say that the persecution Jesus is talking about is persecution of a very specific kind. It is mistreatment that arises specifically because of one’s allegiance to Christ.

There are many reasons a person may want to mistreat you, but unless it has this specifically as its cause: “for righteousness’ sake,” and on account of Christ, it is not Christian persecution, and it does not have the promise of blessing nor the command of joy attached to it. If we fail to see this distinction, we will end up calling persecution what is not persecution.

I was helped by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ study on this passage (see “The Christian and Persecution” in Studies on the Sermon on the Mount), and borrow heavily from him in noting carefully what Jesus did not say.

1. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for self-righteousness’ sake.”

You will arouse people’s consciences enough by simply doing the right thing not matter what and doing it with a humble spirit. To parade your good deeds with a high head and a haughty spirit is to invite needless suffering, and that suffering cannot be properly called Christian persecution.

2. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for being difficult.”

We too easily bring trouble upon ourselves by being objectionable, harsh, and rude. It is not a sign of godly zeal to be obnoxious, deliberately hateful.

Someone might object, “Well, the gospel is offensive, isn’t it?” Yes, but the gospel has its own kind of offense. It deeply offends one’s pride, bringing a person to despair of his or her own righteousness. But let us, insofar as possible, not give people a reason to confuse the holy offense of the gospel with the unholy offense of our reckless, insensitive comments or tactless, insulting approaches. If someone will be offended, let it be only because they are hearing the news about a God who is holy enough to punish sin, loving enough to send his Son to die, authoritative enough to call people to repentance, and powerful enough to bring the dead to life.

3. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for an obscure theological conviction.

Jesus did not promise the blessedness of suffering for a curiously narrow doctrinal view, or for something that may be of immense importance personally but which is not really central to Scripture, the gospel, the character of God, or holy living.

Here is a great danger. It is not wrong to suffer for your conscience and theological convictions. You may choose to die on the hill of trichotomy or dichotomy, of infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, of dispensationalism or covenant theology. People may argue with you. They may snub you. Many will simply not understand you. You may feel hurt and call it what you will, but do not call it Christian persecution.

4. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for a particular cause.”

Here is where we need much discernment. There are many good causes for which we might suffer. There are many good causes that might even be intertwined with Christian values. And we might choose to suffer mistreatment, ridicule, or loss for these causes, but such mistreatment must be carefully distinguished from persecution on Christ’s account, for righteousness’ sake.

Here Martyn-Lloyd Jones is on point, and reading him is especially valuable because he was preaching not as an American and not in the 21st century, but as an Englishman in the mid-20th century, nearly 70 years ago. He writes:

This is a little subtle and we must be careful. I say that there is a difference between being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and being persecuted for a cause. I know that the two things often become one, and many of the great martyrs and confessors were at one and the same time suffering for righteousness’ sake and for a cause. But it does not follow by any means that the two are always identical. . . . We have to be careful about that very distinction. There is always this danger of our developing the martyr spirit. . . . We must also realize that it does not mean suffering persecution for religio-political reasons. . . .I am not saying that a man should not stand for his political principles; I am simply reminding you that the promise attached to this Beatitude does not apply to that. If you choose to suffer politically, go on and do so. But do not have a grudge against God if you find that this Beatitude, this promise, is not verified in your life. The Beatitude and the promise refer specifically to suffering for righteousness’ sake. May God give us grace and wisdom and understanding to discriminate between our political prejudices and our spiritual principles. . . . Another great danger in these days is that this pure Christian faith should be thought of by those who are outside in terms of certain political and social views.”[1]

Jesus did say this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And what is the sake of righteousness? It is the one’s living for Christ, with all that entails.


[1]Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 131–32.

What Is Preaching?

What is preaching?

Every pastor should be able to answer that question. Unfortunately, we often lose sight of the answer. With the pressing burdens of church administration, the bewildering variety of high-profile preachers, and countless resources available to him, a pastor may find himself asking, “Now what was I trying to do?” only after he has delivered his sermon.

Such a failure to understand his task is a tragedy for both preacher and hearers.

To stave off such a tragedy, I keep this simple definition before me as I prepare to preach:

To preach is to unfold the meaning of a Scriptural text or theme to people so that they experience God’s voice calling them to respond in faith and repentance.

The benefit of keeping such a definition before me made me interested in going back to some of my favorite authors on preaching to see how they defined it. Here are seven.

  1. J. I. Packer, “Why Preach” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art

Packer defines preaching as “verbal communication of which the following things are true”:

1. Its content is God’s message to man, presented as such. 2. Its purpose is to inform, persuade, and call forth an appropriate response to the God whose message and instruction are being delivered. 3. Its perspective is always applicatory. 4. It is authoritative. 5. It mediates God’s presence and power.

Packer then gives this summary: “Preaching is an activity for which, and in which, the awareness of God’s powerful presence must be sought, and with which neither speaker nor hearers may allow themselves to be content with this awareness is lacking.”

2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today

Stott provides several biblical metaphors: town crier or herald (1 Corinthians 1:23), sower (Matthew 13:3), ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), steward (1 Corinthians 4:1), shepherd (Acts 20:28), and workman (2 Timothy 2:15). He then suggests a further metaphor—that of bridge-building: “It is because preaching is not exposition only but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it, that I am going to develop a different metaphor to illustrate the essential nature of preaching. . . . The metaphor is that of bridge-building.”

A more succinct statement is found in “A Definition of Biblical Preaching” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching by Robinson and Larson. “To preach,” Stott writes, “is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.”

3. Jason Meyer, Preaching: A Biblical Theology.

“My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.

4. Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I couldn’t find a concise definition of preaching in this excellent book, but Keller does provide a fine description of the task of preaching: “It is ‘proclaim[ing] . . . the testimony of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:1)—preaching biblically, engaging with the authoritative text. This means preaching the Word and not your opinion. When we preach the Scriptures we are speaking ‘the very words of God (1 Peter 4:11). You need to make clear the meaning of the text in its context—both in its historical time and within the whole of Scripture. This task of serving the Word is exposition. . . .

It is also proclaiming to ‘both Jews and Greeks’ (1 Corinthians 1:24)—preaching compellingly, engaging the culture, and touching hearts. This means not merely informing the mind but also capturing the hearer’s interest and imagination and persuading her toward repentance and action. . . . [A good sermon] must build on Bible  exposition, for people have not understood a text unless they see how it bears on their lives.”

5. John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship

Piper offers a definition of preaching in response to a question about corporate worship: “If it is beautifully fitting that Christians gather regularly for corporate worship, what is it about preaching that makes it so important for that gathering? My answer is that preaching itself is worship and is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship. It does this by heralding the reality communicated through the words of Scripture, which was written to create and sustain worship. To say it another way, the preacher simultaneously explains the meaning of Scripture and exults over the God-glorifying reality in it. Exultation without explanation is not preaching. Explanation without exultation is not preaching. Therefore, preaching—expository exultation—is peculiarly suited for Christian corporate worship, for worship means knowing, treasuring, and showing the supreme worth and beauty of God. Preaching helps people do this by doing it. Preaching shows God’s supreme worth by making the meaning of Scripture known and by simultaneously treasuring and expressing the glories of God revealed in that biblical meaning.”

6. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages

“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”

7. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.

This is not exactly a definition either. It is more like exclamations about preaching that gets to the heart of what it is. Regardless, it has deservedly become a classic statement on the subject:

“What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! . . . Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. . . . What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and his presence. . . . I can forgive a preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he give me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is very inadequate in himself, he is handling something which is very great and glorious, if he give me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Savior, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him. Preaching is the most amazing, and the most thrilling activity that one can ever be engaged in, because of all that it holds out for all of us in the present, and because of the glorious endless possibilities in an eternal future.”

How to Shipwreck Your Theology

A Mother’s Rebuke

A few years ago, English-speaking fans of Karl Barth were rattled by an essay which shed new light on the personal life of the 20th-century giant of theology. Many had already known about Barth’s love for a woman who was not his wife, but few had read his private letters, which painted a clearer and more disturbing picture. The basic facts of the situation are uncomfortable, to say the least. While unhappily married to Nelly, Barth invited another woman he loved, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, to share a home with him and his wife—an arrangement that lasted for almost 35 years. Even those who try to see Barth in the most charitable light admit that “Barth’s love for both Nelly and Charlotte . . . caused duress to all of them,” and that it was Nelly, Barth’s wife, who “experienced the most pain and endured the most trauma.”

In light of Barth’s behavior—which conflicted with his own theology of marriage—a question from his mother wields more punch than hundreds of pages of his own theological treatises: “What is the most brilliant theology good for,” she asked, “if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” Besides delivering a scathing rebuke, Mrs. Barth’s question points to something essential about how we must approach theology: we grasp it not only with our minds but also with our hearts and actions. In other words, right knowledge about God should produce right actions for God. If we refuse to align our behavior with our theological beliefs, those beliefs can become worse than useless for us. Beliefs and behavior must be held together.

Theology: More Than Intellectual

Of course, this is far from saying that we should care little about studying theology if only we live good lives. To the contrary, we are called to exert mental energy as one of the many ways we fulfill the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your . . . mind” (Matthew 22:37). After all, the Christian faith is based on God’s written revelation, requiring at the very least the mental effort of reading to comprehend it. The psalmist reminds us of the intellectual challenge of understanding God when he cries, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17). It is good and necessary for us to submit to the rigors of studying Scripture—to comprehend its historical context, apply sound hermeneutics, draw theological conclusions, and make practical applications.

Further, it is good for us to study the contributions of theologians throughout the centuries who—as God’s gifts to the church—have clarified and expounded the meaning of Scripture. Indeed, every Christian must exercise his or her best mental energy to know God—that is, to understand theology.

But theology is more than an intellectual exercise, for our mind, will, and emotions are deeply connected. We assimilate truth, not only with our minds, but also with our affections and, yes, even our actions. Wouldn’t you sense that something is skewed in a person who listens to, for example, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” without feeling at least a twinge of sentiment? Or who reads about the Jewish holocaust without feeling enraged toward the Nazis? Is there anything less disturbing about a theologian who affirms that God sustains his every heartbeat, but feels little sense of duty toward him? or a Christian who sings about “the old rugged cross,” but does not feel compelled on the deepest level of being to love and live for the Jesus who died there?

Voices from the Past

In his treatise On the Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards makes this point abundantly clear: “Nothing is more manifest in fact,” he insists, “than that the things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them.” In other words, you will know what you believe by what moves your affections. And you will know what moves your affections only by what moves you to action. There is no truer test of what you believe than observing how you behave.

This symbiosis between belief and behavior shines clearly in Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (interestingly, the book that nudged John Bunyan toward his conversion). Bayly begins this book with a summary of Christian doctrine. But on the heels of heavy theological discussion, he exhorts his readers to align their behavior with these truths (I’ve updated his language a bit):

If you believe that God is almighty, why do you fear devils and enemies, and not confidently trust in God? If you believe that God is infinite, how dare you provoke him to anger? If you believe that God is the sovereign good, why is not your heart more settled upon him than on all worldly goods? If you believe that God is a righteous judge, how dare you live so securely in sin without repentance?

This link between belief and behavior is also aptly expressed by William Perkins’ definition of theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” Sadly, this practical, hortatory tone is missing in many modern books on theology. Is it because their authors are afraid that readers will snub them as preachy or unintellectual? On the contrary, I think it is odd not to turn to exhortation, adoration, or exultation when confronted with truth about God.

The Danger We Face

But is there really a danger here? What do we risk losing when we separate belief from behavior? We easily think of many things: personal integrity, strength of character, our testimony. But there is one danger we tend to overlook: when we separate belief from behavior, we risk abandoning the beliefs themselves.

Here’s how it happens: when our behavior conflicts with our beliefs, the clash creates such cognitive dissonance that instead of living with the cacophony, we tend to abandon either the beliefs or the behavior. For example, a pastor will find it psychologically and spiritually agonizing to condemn the sin of adultery while he engages in illicit sexual liaisons. Tortured by such cognitive dissonance, he faces two options: either abandon his behavior (adultery), or revise his belief (that adultery is wrong, or that it is wrong in his particular case). Of course, he can try to live with the dissonance, but few can bear that strain for very long. It is often said that as beliefs go, so goes behavior. But it is true the other way around as well.

As behavior goes, so goes belief. We tend to justify our behavior by our beliefs. And when we continually embrace behavior that conflicts with what we believe, it is likely that we will adjust our beliefs to accommodate our behavior.

Thus, it is possible to abandon beliefs, not just by falling prey to intellectual snares and doctrinal aberrations, but by living in contradiction to our beliefs. This is what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 1:19, when he reports that Hymenaeus and Alexander “made shipwreck of their faith,” by rejecting a “good conscience.” Note the order: rejecting their conscience (right behavior) led to the shipwreck of their faith (right beliefs). This danger hounds us with every sermon we hear, with every Bible verse we read, and with every decision we make. Any of us could be a Hymenaeus or Alexander.

Hold Faith and a Good Conscience

With the stakes so high, with this peril lurking at every corner, our duty is urgent yet simple: Hold “faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19). In one hand, tightly grip your faith; in the other, grip the behavior that this faith requires. Don’t let go of either. “Keep a close watch on yourself [your behavior] and on the teaching [your beliefs]. Persist in this” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Every time we sit down to read our Bibles, every time we get interested in an online theological debate, we would be wise to remember the words of Karl Barth’s mother: “What is the most brilliant theology good for if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”