If anyone is interested, here is the Table of Contents of my forthcoming book, Rediscovering Humility:  Why the Way Up is Down (New Growth Press, due out June, 2018, Lord willing):  click here


Table of Contents


FOREWORD by David Wells





1) Whatever Happened to Humility?

2) Wide Is the Road: The Lure of False Humility

3) Return of the Jester: The Vision of Humility Back at the Table



4) Lest Anyone Boast: Humility and the Gospel

5) Hope for a Fool: Humility and Truth

6) Not unto Us: Discipleship as Humility



7) Bold Nobodies: Humility Regarding Self

8) Seeking the City to Come: Humility and Eschatology

9) Tales from the Lower Totem Pole: Humility toward Others



10) The Assembly of Egos: Humility in the Church

11) Like Men Sentenced to Death: Christian Leadership as Humility

12) The Assembly of Fools: Humility, Truth, and Unity

13) Turning Woes into Blessings: Humility and Church Image

14) Turning Factories into Gardens




APPENDIX: 100 Verses on Humility







CPC New Haven


When I enter a pulpit, I live. One of my best friends once told me early in my preaching that he wished I was more myself when I preached. That’s odd, I thought, I wished I was more myself when I wasn’t preaching.

I enter the pulpit and open the Bible. I look up and announce the text, and while I am still turning to it myself, I find a sip of water. I look up again, and then begin reading this Word from God. When it is finished, we pray. I pray. I tremble. I beg. I am thankful that I am but a courier, a messenger‑boy standing between parties, having little to do with the business being conveyed back and forth. I have run many miles to be here, and I stand weak and panting. Dear sirs, I have a message for you, if you please….

I enter the pulpit and open my soul. I enter the pulpit a compound of faith, caffeine, Tylenol and sin. I have not slept enough, nor prayed. I enter, filled with the Spirit. And so I begin, stumbling and pleading. This is urgent, so please, sirs, if you would come with me… we have many miles to go. And so the messenger‑boy becomes the leader, a guide to bring them to the place he has been told. Please hurry. It is urgent.

I am Aragorn, thin and swift, running across leagues of hilled meadows in pursuit of my prey held captured by our enemies. I am armored lightly so that I might run hour after hour, that I might have rest. I am a young man on vacation in the cool, summer air of New England. I run along Kettle Cove, my lungs full and my feet barely touching the ground as I sweep through the air a seagull. Nothing can stop me, nothing for the next half hour or so. I am a young officer running in loose formation mile after mile as the large Georgia sun begins to burn its way through the pine sculpted haze. All is strong and in order. Dead armadillos line the road.

I am winded, parched. I am Frodo, chubby, and weighed down by a burden unbearable, lost in a dark and alien land, surrounded by creatures who would wish to kill me if they only knew who I was. I am old and my back hurts. I stretch in the swimming pool, and an old man wading with yellow fillings smiles at me and says, “Hey ho! Something went crack!” I smile back, not happy. I run my twelfth mile in pack and boots, Georgia clay dust clinging around my lips and eyes. I blink through the sun and sweat. Is that the finish? My feet barely take me there. As some random General pins the medal on my chest, teetering in formation, my bladder finally releases and urine pours into my boots. I am decorated. I am a mess.

I am spent, parched. Words spill out that I had not planned, and those more eloquent than I think wise or right. I struggle and stumble along ‑‑ is it not plain for all to see? Then why do I not see? What is this blurring? Why do the words rise strongly into my throat, but only exit a whisper? I tear. I know that it is uncaused, unsought, a distraction. I know that it is as much exhaustion as conviction, as much chemicals as affection, but it is too late. I must finish, show them the place, collapse. Please, come, hurry. I am spent, alive. I preach. I live. I preach. ~ CAH, c. 1998

Water is Sweeter




Gain draws nearer, step by step

I feel it in my bones

All things wear out, grow weak and thin

And yet

Water is sweeter

Not metaphorically, not some imagined fancy

But upon my tongue

Strangely sweet

As real as all the pain and sadness

Literal foretaste from the land beyond

This mortal mind slipping, slipping

And yet, water is sweeter

Sweeter upon my tongue






In Part I, we argued that when David flees to Philistia in I Samuel 27 and 29, he is not backsliding in faith, but rather doing what he can to serve God faithfully in difficult circumstances.  We argued this for five different reasons:

1) The literary structure of I Samuel 21-29 shows David growing in godliness, not backsliding, except his confessed sin in chapter 25.
2) Psalm 56, a Psalm of distress, may well have been written in this period.
3) The text nowhere describes David’s actions as sinful.
4) Practically, treachery to Israel would have undermined his ascension to the throne.
5) Most importantly, the results of David’s venture are positive, and thus reveal his true motives.

We turn now to the positive fruit that the text indicates results from this episode in David’s life.  And once again, we find five.

1) David ends Israel’s civil war.  We read in I Samuel 27:4 that Saul no longer pursued David.  Indeed, the last word Saul exchanges with David is when he gives him his blessing in 26:25, sincerely or not.  But it is David’s flight to Philistia that leads to peace in Israel.  As he could not in godliness either fight or kill Saul, David had no other option but to flee.  And that brings unity, of a sort, to God’s people.  In this, David reflects the mind of Christ, who prayed that His people may be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17:21).  A true King, such as David, always seeks the peace of God’s people, even at great personal sacrifice.  In this, David demonstrates the wisdom that is from above, reaping a harvest of righteousness and peace by his flight (James 3:13-18).

2) David repossesses part of the Promised Land without any bloodshed.  The narrator reveals this remarkable fact in I Samuel 27: 6: “So Achish gave (David) Ziklag that day; therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day.”  David wanted to live away from the Philistine regional capital of Gath in order to remain elusive, as we will see below.  But as a practical result, he ends up annexing part of Philistia back for Israel.  So the Kingdom of God (which at this era of redemptive history maintained actual borders) expands into Philistia, all without any blood being shed.  This is part of David’s deceptive strategy to do what he could to defeat the Philistines even though he had only six hundred men at his command.  It also is a foreshadow and type of Christ who now expands His Kingdom throughout the world through the ministry of the Church, all without bloodshed, a Kingdom of grace without earthly borders (cf., Matthew 28:18-20).

3) David continues to fight Israel’s Holy War as their King in exile.  In I Samuel 27:8ff, we read of David’s raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amelekites.  We do not know much about the first two groups, other than that the text tells us that they “were inhabitants of the land from ancient times.”  But we know that the Amelekites were to be the subjects of Israel’s holy war, and were to have been wiped out in the initial conquest.   This is not the place to go into the details and propriety of holy war in the Old Testament, but David appears to be engaging in a form of it.  He does indeed take plunder, which is forbidden in holy war, cf., Deuteronomy 20, but he appears to do so in order to trick Achish into thinking that David’s raids were actually against the people of Israel.

What then of David’s lying to Achish?  In my judgment, this is a lawful use of wartime deception, a way to remain within Philistia while yet carrying out his duties as Israel’s king.  There is no clear parallel today since the Church is never to use the sword, but a rough equivalent may be the propriety of a German Christian lying to local Nazi officials about Jews hidden in her basement.

The point is that David is continuing to act as Israel’s true king by defending them, even in exile.  Most kings who go into exile do so in great luxury, and only to protect their own hides.  Not so David.  David continues to risk his life by conducting a holy war against the original inhabitants of the Promised Land.  These are hardly the actions of a rebel or backslider, but of a man devoted to his God, in season and out of season.

4) David evangelizes the Philistines.  This may be one of the most unexpected results, and yet one clearly hinted at in the text.  In I Samuel 29:6, while defending David against the (probably accurate) fears of the other Philistine lords, Achish says to David: “As the LORD (Yahweh) lives, you have been upright, and your going out and your coming in with me in the army are pleasing in my sight.”  Commentators consider it significant that Achish the Philistine uses the covenantal name of God, though most think he retains his polytheism in doing so.  (He is after all, on his way to attack Israel.)  Nonetheless, David’s venture into Philistia made the name of God known in pagan lands.

Likewise, Achish’s wording is striking when he describes David as “an angel of God” to him in verse 9.  Achish describes David as bringing him a message from God.  Whether successful or not, and notwithstanding the fact that Jew and Philistine were still primarily enemies, here we have a brief foreshadow of the gospel going to all nations.  After all, it is in the Old Testament in which we read that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Jonah was sent to Ninevah, Israel’s greatest enemy at that time.  Why shouldn’t David proclaim God’s mercy to the Philistines, even as he recognizes that he must in part deceive them as Israel’s earthly enemies?  It is a complicated situation to be sure, but Achish’s wording in I Samuel 29 is intriguing to say the least.  One result from David’s flight is that Yahweh’s name is proclaimed among the Gentiles.

5) David plans to wreak havoc in the Philistine rear as they march against Israel.  It seems clear that David intended to do just what the Philistine lords feared – to stab them in the back in the middle of battle against Israel.  Such feats are not unknown in history, such as what occurred at the Battle of Leipzig when many of Napoleon’s German allies changed sides in the middle of battle, joining the multi-national army arrayed against him.

There appear to be three main reasons to think this was David’s plan.  First, the Philistine lords clearly state that is what they believe will happen.  Second, the inconceivable idea that David would actually fight with the Philistines against Israel, whose king he is.  Third, David gives ambiguous and almost humorous answers to Achish concerning his plans.  In 28:2, David merely says to Achish, “You will see what your servant can do.”   In 29:8, David says, “May I not go fight against the enemies of my lord the king?,” without ever specifying exactly who his lord and king were.

For all these reasons, I am convinced that David intended to attempt the dangerous tactic of handing victory to Israel by turning against the Philistines in the middle of the battle, and then somehow from there escaping Saul’s clutch after victory was attained.  If that seems unlikely, keep in mind that David had been walking this kind of razor’s edge for years as Israel’s inaugurated but not yet consummated king. In any case, the text tells us that in God’s providence, David is spared such a dangerous tactic, because the Philistines refuse to bring him along.

And then we know the rest of the story.  It is this battle that brings about the end of Saul’s life and reign.  God’s time for Saul’s end and David’s ascension had finally come.  And so the lessons for us are indeed to trust God’s providential care in times of plenty and in times of want.  To serve Him in season and out of season.  To seek the peace of Jerusalem, God’s people.  And to do our small part to see God’s Kingdom spread to all peoples, even our enemies.   I find this to be a far more satisfying, encouraging and faithful reading of I Samuel 27 and 29 than the more common approach to this text.   David is an example of faith, and a type of Christ, our ultimate King in exile.

This article was first published on the Aquila Report and is based on a sermon I preached on June 21, 2015.



David’s escape to Philistia in I Samuel 27 & 29 is one of the more perplexing episodes in David’s life. We can certainly understand his desperation as Saul continues to pursue David despite his having spared Saul’s life twice. But surely, we think, David had no cause to flee to Philistia, or worse, to serve these sworn enemies of Israel, going so far as to line up in the Philistine order of battle on the way to attack Israel (I Samuel 28:1-2; 29:1-2).

Indeed, the majority report is that these sixteen months in Philistia mark a grave backsliding on the part of David, a low point in his walk of faith. The general idea is that David is a flawed hero, and the Bible honestly reports his failures as well as his triumphs.  This then is considered one of his great failures. The fact that the Bible honestly records the sins of its greatest heroes is certainly true. The question is whether the episode in I Samuel 27 and 29 constitutes one of these failures.  In the contemporary Reformed world at least, it appears to be beyond question.  Take, for example, this list of sermon titles on I Samuel 27 found on mongergism.org (some preached by heroes of mine):

If this majority report is correct, then the lessons for us are obvious: namely, don’t backslide. Trust God to protect you and do not resort to your own wisdom.  Don’t lie for selfish and fearful reasons. Well, obviously, these are all excellent admonitions.  The question is whether they can be found in this text.

Rather, I argue for a minority report:  that David was doing what he could to serve God in desperate circumstances.  And in doing so, he continues to act as a type of Christ.  In this story then, David is the king in exile with nowhere to lay his head.  He is an alien king, a stranger to his own land – one already inaugurated as king, but whose kingship is not yet fully consummated.  In this, he models the ministry of Christ, who also lived among us as an alien and exile, rejected by His own, and received by Gentiles.

Of course, this is not to argue that David was sinless in these chapters.  But it does argue that we should read this text in a different way than as a warning against backsliding.  Instead, I believe that it serves more as a positive example for us of man exercising faith in desperate times, and a pointer to great David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I believe this minority reading of the text is correct for at least five reasons.  Perhaps no one of these reasons is sufficient of itself to overturn the majority report, but taken together, I think they make a strong case that David was faithfully serving God throughout his time in Philistia.  Here then are five reasons for this minority viewpoint:

1) The literary structure of I Samuel 21-29. There appears to be a clear structure to chapters 21-29 consisting of three literary triads, lining up approximately as follows:

21           David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
22           Saul sins by slaughtering the priests
23           David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul

24           David spares Saul’s life
25           Abigail spares David from sinning
26           David spares Saul’s life

27           David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
28           Saul sins by consulting a medium
29           David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul

At the very least, it is remarkable that David twice flees to the Philistines and tricks them both times.  This is followed by the Philistines attacking Saul, which in effect serves to rescue David from Saul both times.  Even more remarkable is how both of these episodes are interrupted by chapters 22 and 28, each describing Saul’s great sins and forfeiture of his kingly duty.  In this, it is important to note that chapter 28 is out of chronological order, which does not occur until the night before Saul’s death.  The author of I Samuel deliberately interrupts David’s story with this example of Saul’s faithlessness as king.

The purpose of this structure then appears obvious:  to provide a contrast between Saul, the faithless king, and David, Israel’s true king since I Samuel 16. This is reinforced by the middle segment, chapters 24-26. This section serves as the climax of this period in David’s life, his great training to be a king of mercy through the sparing of Saul’s life, not once, but twice.  But note that in between these two tests David passes so handily, he at first fails another similar test.  In chapter 25, David is offended by a man named Nabal, and responds by strapping on his sword with the intent of killing him and every man in his household.  David is becoming a tyrant like Saul, who just a few chapters earlier slaughtered the priests at Nob.

The difference is that God spoke to David through Abigail the Wise, and David listened to her in great humility and repentance.  And so in the end, David passes this test as well and thus becomes a king of mercy rather than of vengeance.  This is the great climax of David’s training as king in I Samuel.  It would seem strange then that the second trip to Philistia amounts to a backsliding of faith, given the parallel to the earlier account in chapters 21-23.  Is it spiritually possible?  Yes.  But I think the structure, along with the following arguments, suggests otherwise.  The author is contrasting David with Saul in chapters 27-29, not comparing them as equally backslidden.

2) Psalm 56 may have been written during this episode.  This is probably the weakest of the arguments, but still helps to set the tone of this period in David’s life.  The title to Psalm 56 reads in part: A Mikhtam of David when the Philistines seized him in Gath.  Now, this may well have occurred in David’s first venture in Philistia recorded in I Samuel 21.  He is not actually seized in either account, so the word here may mean he was there against his will, forced there by Saul’s relentless pursuit.  But if the argument about I Samuel’s structure above is correct, then both accounts serve as parallels with each other, describing David’s desperate plight.  And both Psalm 56 and Psalm 34 bear this out.  They are the poems of a man in distress, not a man cunning against his own people and surrendered to worldliness.

3) The text nowhere describes David’s actions as sinful.  This may be the most compelling argument.  It is true that narrative portions of Scripture do not always point out the obvious and that some sins speak for themselves.  But is that the case here?

It is not as though the author of I and II Samuel is hesitant to point out David’s sins.  In fact, David himself is not shy about confessing them!  Just read Psalm 32 or 51.  In I Samuel David has already admitted at least two great sins.  One instance is in chapter 25 as mentioned above, when he was too ready to use the sword.  The other is his failure to use the sword to protect the priests at Nob from Saul’s slaughter (I Samuel 22:22).  And of course, there is the great sin with Bathsheba of II Samuel 11-12. In all these cases, once confronted with his failure, David quickly repents and admits his sins.

But nowhere does David or the narrator indicate that what David did in Philistia was wrong.  And since he is arguably the ultimate type of Christ in the Old Testament, David should be given the benefit of the doubt as a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14), unless the text indicates otherwise.

4) It would undermine David’s quest to be recognized as king.  Practically, if David did indeed plan to betray Israel, it is hard to imagine how he ever would ascend to the throne in Jerusalem.  Imagine if Benedict Arnold returned from England to run against George Washington for president in 1792.  It is unthinkable. So then, how could David win Israel over if in fact he became known as a traitor? No, David’s actions show what his true motives were, as we will see below.

5) Most importantly, the results of David’s venture reveal his true motives.  Here we come to the heart of the argument.  If David was faithfully following the LORD as best he could in this period of his life, one would expect to see good fruit.  And that is exactly what the text goes out of its way to describe.  Thus, a natural reading of this text should tell us that these good results are most likely a confirmation of David’s essentially good motives in his flight to Philistia.  Of course, it is possible these good results come about despite David’s motives (cf., Romans 8:28) but in that case, one would expect the narrator to explain that clearly, as Joseph does in Genesis 50:20, for instance.

What are the results of David’s flight that appear to reveal his true motives?  At least five surface in the text.  We will take those up in Part II.

This article was first published on The Aquila Report and is based on a sermon I preached  on June 21, 2015.



This is a true story that happened to me in seminary.  Names have been changed.  I am Allan.  Ross has since gone on to be with his Lord. 


Allan, Abe and Ross sat around the kitchen table, drinking macro-biotic tea. Pots, pans and utensils hung from the ceiling and off every wall. The shelves were packed full of books, magazines, newspaper clippings from the past twenty years, and of course, games. Allan and Abe had their Bibles open, but Ross looked down at the table, his hand over his eyes. He wasn’t used to this — being confronted in his own home about the state of his faith. He mumbled something or other trying to express — no, trying to figure out — what he believed. Allan responded by reading something from his Bible, and then began to explain it. Suddenly, Ross looked up in anguish and shouted at Allan, “It’s all very good for you to have your nice, neat seminary answers, but they’re not doing me any good! Life’s not that simple! And another thing — Abe doesn’t know this — but you’re part of the reason I went into my depression! Remember? You took Greece without asking! And that set it all off!”

Allan had come to seminary at age 25 after spending three years in the Army. Immediately, he and his wife got involved in a local evangelical church made up primarily of lower-middle class, but well educated families. Allan remembered well the first time he met Ross. It was at the Saturday morning men’s prayer group, which met in the church kitchen. During the discussion, the issue of predestination vs. free will came up, and just when everybody had concluded that it was an inscrutable mystery (at least in the presence of so many donuts to be eaten), Allan announced in a mock-triumphant voice that he had the solution (which he in fact did). Never the coffer drinker, Ross looked up from his cup of macro-biotic tea, and spouted in reply, “So now what? We’re all supposed to bow down and worship you?”

Over the next couple of years, Allan got to know Ross better. Ross was a 62-year-old bundle of enigmas. Always struggling to make ends meet, he nevertheless had an extraordinarily sharp mind and a rich education, so that one could always expect Ross to quote Sartre or Ghandi or someone as he came or went from church activities. He had come to Christ through the ministry of the church ten years before Allan met him. Before that, he had led an adventurous life, starting Montessori schools in Afghanistan and Hong Kong, before returning to the states to run one out of his home. Ross was always aware of world events, and greatly burdened by the injustices and evils he saw in both American and other societies. Consequently, Ross served on the church missions committee, and threw himself into a number of other church activities as well. He was an unbridled optimist, and often came up with grand plans which never in the least materialized, both for himself and for the world. Ross also had diabetes, but was staunchly opposed to modern medicine, committing himself to a strictly macro-biotic diet in lieu of insulin.

Over time, Allan and Ross developed an unexpected friendship. Ross had served in Korea and also had a son in the Army, so they held this in common. Allan also enjoyed listening to Ross’s stories and views on things around the world. They were both avid BBC listeners. Allan was also impressed with the excellent job Ross seemed to do in home schooling his 13-year-old daughter, Ria, whom Allan knew from Junior High Sunday School, which he co-taught with his wife. Ria was the only junior higher Allan had ever known to use the phrase per se on a regular basis, and besides that, was a remarkably sweet girl. Ross’ wife, Greta, however, was not particularly sweet nor particularly a believer, and this was a constant source of pain for Ross, which he frequently brought up for prayer at the Saturday men’s group. One Saturday, Ross needed a ride home, so Allan volunteered. That was when he got the tour.

Ross’s home served in many ways as a metaphor for his life. Set back from the road, it was situated upon a slight, rocky hill surrounded by woods. A rusty yellow sign in the driveway warned “Slow! Children,” a left-over Allan supposed from the Montessori days. In the wooden three-car garage lay several shells of old car bodies, all half worked-on, half dilapidated. Two big, shabby dogs of some breed or more charged in welcome, their barks and tongues dangling in the wind. Ross pointed to a wooden structure attached to one end of the house that looked like a washed out bridge. It was once the walkway, he said, by which the school children would get from their classroom to the playground, now little more than a mass of mud. Ross and his wife, Greta, had turned the classroom into an apartment, but since no one was presently occupying it, Ross was able to show Allan around. Allan could see the gleams of pride in Ross’ eyes as he began to explain how they used to run the school, and their theories of integrated, holistic education. Rows of dusty trophies lined one hallway in silent homage to days gone by.

Ross brought Allan into another room, this one dominated by a huge pool table right in the middle. Boxes of board games filled the shelves, as well as the entire pool table. On one wall hung a lopsided “Go with Perot!” sign. Underneath it stood a table bearing a TRS-80 computer, which looked to be still in use. Ross began to tell Allan how this room was once used for the church youth group, but for some reason they decided to stop meeting at his house. Ross hoped instead to organize a young mothers group from church who would come and meet in his home. Allan looked around and nodded. Other rooms followed. Each had their own histories, their own artifacts, and more likely than not, their own roof leaks. Half the floor of one bedroom was a literal rock protruding above whatever was acting as the foundation.

The tour was concluded with an outdoor spiral-staircase climb to the second floor, a one-room “Spiritual Command Center,” which Ross had built with a bank loan that was supposed to go to fixing the roof. Allan supposed that Ross figured that another roof to leak through would at least slow the water down. The Spiritual Command Center was Ross’s place to get away, to organize his life and his dreams. It was equipped with several brimming map cabinets, scores of magazine stacks, and two fully functional eight-track tape players.

As the months wore on, Allan became more aware of a need in Ross’ family. Ross’ eldest son, Chad, was 27 years old and still living at home without a job. Chad had joined the Army, but unlike his younger brother, had not done well, and was in fact drummed out for laziness. Although, like his father, Chad had an exceptional mind, he had an extremely poor self-image and no ambition to seek a calling. At the same time, Chad professed a strong Christian faith and always made it to worship on Sunday. However, the young adult group at the church had disbanded, and Chad had no one in his life to challenge or disciple him. The only thing Chad had a mind for was board games, the complex political and military kind. Since Allan also enjoyed these, and had not been able to play them since high school, he thought it might be a good idea to use that as a link to begin discipling Chad. That autumn, Allan suggested that they set up some kind of “game night” on which they could both get together to first study the Bible some, and then play a board game or two. Chad was very enthusiastic about the idea, and even invited several friends to attend.

Every Friday night, Allan would go over to Ross’s and Chad’s house to study the Bible, pray some, and then engage in cardboard warfare. Often several people participated, including Ross and his daughter, Ria. At first, things went very well: Allan was getting to know the family better; Chad was open to change in his life; and everyone seemed to have a good time. However, Allan began to notice a change in Ross’ demeanor. As the winter got closer and closer, Ross’ mood got more and more dreary, and he seemed to Allan to be particularly burdened and tired. The house seemed to be getting dingier and dingier as well, but maybe that was just the fading autumn sun, Allan rationalized to himself.

The group began a new game called Diplomacy, which was supposed to reenact the political maneuverings in Europe which led to the First World War. The group decided that they would take only one turn each Friday, so that the whole week was available for negotiations with other players in accord with the game’s name. Ross was hoping to use the game to teach Ria about World War I, and when it happened that Ross ended up playing Germany and Ria ended up playing Austria-Hungary, Ross got a bright idea. He approached Allan, who happened to be playing Turkey, to form the historical Triple Alliance between these three empires that truly existed in 1914. It sounded interesting to Allan, so he agreed to give it a try, at least for as long it was to his advantage. After all, history is one thing; winning is another.

Meanwhile, Ross began showing up at worship and other church activities less and less. He seemed to be heading into a real slump and nothing could seem to stop it. Ross confided to Allan that at times he got so discouraged, he would just drive off to some cafe, and sit there all day and eat fish and chips and beer, food he knew was terrible for his diabetic condition. In addition, Allan had joined the missions committee that December, and learned that Ross had volunteered to head up the Angel Tree project that year, but had not yet done a thing about it. Eventually, someone else on the committee had to wing it at the last moment.

Strangely, the only thing that seemed to keep Ross going were the Friday game nights, as they learned how his historical rewrite would go each week as the Diplomacy game unfolded. At first, things for the Triple Alliance went very well. A surprise attack on Russia left that player reeling, and joint advances into the Balkans went unchallenged. But as the weeks wore on, things began to go sour. England hooked up with Russia in the north and was harassing Ross’ Germany. Italy was not cooperating at all, and France’s vacillation was just plain embarrassing to all involved. Finally, Allan had enough and decided that Turkey’s greater future lay somewhere else than the faltering Triple Alliance. So he opened channels with Russia, and decided to launch a sneak attack on Austria-Hungary, played by his Sunday School student, Ria. Allan’s first target would be Greece, left undefended by a trusting Ria. When the cardboard dust settled, and it dawned on Ross that his former ally, Allan, had betrayed him at the expense of his daughter, he did not get angry. Instead, he mumbled something and walked away.

Ross lost all interest in the game, and at the same time, he lost all interest in life. With Germany inactive, none of the rest wanted to play, and so while Italy was busy claiming victory by default, the rest of the Friday night game group faded away, almost as if it were a metaphor for Ross himself. And winter set in. And the days were short and cold; the nights windy and wet. And Christmas came and went, as usual never quite delivering the cheer that it promises. And winter went on. And Ross was not to be seen in church or city.

Of course, this concerned Allan, and so during the next several months, he phoned Ross to see how he was doing. When he could get Ross to the phone, all he could procure in return were half-hearted non-answers. “Fine. OK. I don’t much feel like it, that’s why. OK. Bye.” Allan talked to several of the church elders about the situation, and they were all concerned but didn’t know what they could do. Some suggested going over there and repairing his leaky roof, but others pointed out that a lack of labor was not the fundamental problem. Still others pointed out that Ross had been depressed before, and that he had always snapped out of it sooner or later. But he’d never been like this, others said. But one thing they all agreed to do was pray for Ross, and they prayed a lot.

Finally, in April, Allan approached the pastor about the situation, who was likewise concerned about Ross. He had in fact visited him two weeks previously, and simply told him that he was missed and welcome back anytime. The pastor also told Allan that there wasn’t really anything Allan could tell Ross that he didn’t already know, and that the best thing he could do for him was pray.

The next month Allan once again called Ross to see if he wanted a ride to the missions meeting. He had been asking for months, and he didn’t expect this time would be any different, but to his surprise, Ross said he would go. Allan wasn’t quite sure about what he thought of using the missions meeting as a seeker service, but at this point, he would take any opening he could get. In the car, he asked Ross many different questions, all pertaining to his well-being, but Ross was an expert at talking about every other important thing except his own spiritual health. Some people avoid the real issues in their life with a barrage of small talk; Ross did it with big talk. Finally, after hearing more than he could bear about the rest of the world’s problems, Allan blurted out, “But Ross, how about you? How is your relationship with Jesus?”

Ross looked down, rubbed his hands across his face, and murmured, “I’m beginning to wonder if I’m really one of the elect…. you see, God gives us tests that the elect are supposed to pass, right? I failed. I failed my test. Last fall, so many things fell apart…. Chad was still living at home without a job…. important parts of Ria’s home schooling fell through…. my wife still wouldn’t come to church with us…. and I was supposed to persevere and make all this work, so that we could have a strong Christian home… but I failed. So I must not be one of the elect.” Allan was somewhat shocked by the logic, but relieved that they were finally talking about the spiritual issues in Ross’s life. He offered some thoughts and some scripture as counsel to Ross, but soon they were at the home where the meeting was being held. On the trip home, Ross retreated to his refuge of big talk.

The next day, Allan spoke to the associate pastor, Abe, about what Ross had told him. Abe was very alarmed, and agreed with Allan that much more than just Ross’ moods were at stake, but possibly his very salvation. Abe suggested that Allan call Ross and arrange a time when both of them could come by for a very intentional visit to talk about these things. Ross agreed for a time in the morning two days later.

Abe and Allan trudged past the cars and the dogs and entered into Ross’ kitchen. They took seats around the table, while Ross fixed macro-biotic tea. When he sat down, Abe and Allan got right to the point. They wanted to know why Ross felt and believed as he did. Ross began to tell them, but he didn’t know himself. Like William Graham Sumner, he never deliberately discarded his beliefs, he just stuck them in a drawer for awhile, and when he went to fetch them, he found that they were gone. He could not outline in a reasoned fashion how he entered into his depression. All he knew was that he was tired, and tired of thinking. Ross told them how, during the winter, he would sit in the dark for hours at a time, doing nothing but thinking. And he was tired of trying to figure out how it all worked.

Ross told them also of his past, how he had been involved in mainstream denominations for much of his life, and how much he appreciated their genuine concern for the oppressed of the world. He told them about how important it is to have strong morals in the household and in society. Ross told them about his decision to come back to church ten years ago, and how he hoped it would lead to a strong and peaceful home life. He related his disappointment that after ten years, things had not worked out that way. He told them how he could not understand why God has not gotten Greta to go to church yet, so that the family could be united. And he reiterated his own sense of failure, how he had let God down in his role of husband and father. So he didn’t see any point in going on with church.

Abe and Allan began to answer Ross with scripture, trying to provide him with answers to some of the questions he asked. Allan was beginning a small discourse on Romans when Ross looked up from his macro-biotic tea with a look Allan had not seen since that first Saturday morning men’s group two years before. And, like a discarded scrap of meat gone bad — forgotten about until it begins to smell — the Greece issue was back on the table, and Ross looked accusingly at Allan. Now what should Allan say?


And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing (Mark 12:42)

A few years back, my friend, Ken Pierce, and I were asked to speak at a small conference at Christ Presbyterian Church in Katy, Texas, pastored by another dear friend, Fred Greco, who invited us.  The subject of the conference was the role of the Church in engaging culture.  Ken is a capable scholar and follower of Abraham Kuyper, who famously advocated Christ’s lordship over every square inch of creation, the so called “transformationalist” approach to the question.  I tend towards the “two kingdom” approach which emphasizes the church’s primary responsibility to “gather and perfect the saints” (Westminster Confession 25.3), awaiting our final hope in heaven as pilgrims and aliens here.

We entitled the conference, “Transformers vs. Aliens.”  So who won?  Well, I think both sides did.  By the end of the weekend, we all realized that we were closer to one another than we first thought.  Of course, I affirmed a Christian’s responsibility to be salt and light in this world.  And, of course, Ken affirmed that the Church’s primary responsibility is to preach the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the salvation of souls.  Disagreements remained, but they were far less than the unity we had in Christ and our common adherence to the Reformed faith.

But not all have been able to bridge the divide this way.  For some reason, the issue of how the Church is to relate to culture evokes stronger opinions and emotions than almost any other subject we are now discussing across the Reformed church.  Deep divisions, disagreements, and misunderstandings on both sides appear to remain.

Personally, I think the discussion needs to continue as some of the disagreements are real and fairly major.  They greatly affect what is preached and emphasized from our pulpits.  But there is one area where I think we might find some common agreement – a truce if you will, on at least one front of this little war.  But such a truce will require that we unite together in common cause against a greater enemy.  Let me try to explain.

A few months back I was listening to a sermon by someone clearly on the transformationalist side of the question and his concerns struck me in a new way.  He was bemoaning the pressure that some young Christians feel to go into full time gospel ministry in order for their lives to be meaningful.  I did not find his solution convincing, which in my view was an unhelpful conflation of the secular and the sacred, of creation and redemption (which begs the whole question).  But what I certainly agreed with was that the undervaluing of worthy secular callings is a gross violation of Christian freedom.  Secular callings are from God just as much as calls to the Gospel ministry.  They are worthy simply because they serve society and help people, period.

And so we must reject this kind of “evangelical” legalism which causes plumbers and painters and police officers to doubt their value and worth simply because they are not vocationally involved in teaching God’s Word.  And certainly, this kind of legalism is more likely to be found in churches with a “two kingdom” mindset than those more actively concerned with transforming culture.  It stands to reason.  But it does not stand to reason that every “two kingdom” church violates Christian freedom in such a way.  There is another approach.

Because here is the thing.  This same sort of legalism can be found in transformationalist circles as well.  What do I mean?  I mean that if one defines the Gospel as more than just saving souls, but as including the redemption of all of culture in this era, then our work in this world better be really, really good and influential, or we are just not doing much for the kingdom.  In the same way, Christians in two kingdom circles can be made to feel they are unworthy if they don’t go into full time ministry, so Christians in transformationalist circles can be made to feel unworthy if their work is anything less than excellent and making real changes in their field.

You can see how this works, can’t you?  I have met artists, engineers and others who have been part of such Christian circles who have felt a constant pressure to live up to some culture-impacting standard which they just could not reach.  They were too busy trying to pass their classes, and love their wives, and not be too grumpy when their kids kept them up all night.  And so they too feel a pressure to be something other than they are; and if they don’t, made to feel that they are not doing their part to advance God’s kingdom in this world.

But it does not have to be this way either.  There is another approach.  Both my daughters are likely to enter the arts.  One is pursuing graduate studies in collaborative piano, while the other is a budding young photographer with her own small business.  What am I to tell them?  Well, it is certainly not that they need to go into campus ministry or marry a youth pastor; or only play “Christian” music or take “Christian” photos if their lives are to have worth.  But nor am I to tell them that must have great impact upon their fields, for fear of failing to be part of God’s great redemptive work in this world.  Either of those expectations would be a form of legalism.

No, I am to tell them to enjoy their lives; and whatever their hand finds to do, to do it with all their heart (Ecclesiastes 9:10).  I will tell them to live quietly, to mind their own affairs and to work with their hands (I Thessalonians 4:11). I will tell them to love God and neighbor, to remember the Ten Commandments, and to seek the fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above (Galatians 5:22-23; James 3:13ff).  And in terms of evangelism, I will tell them to walk in wisdom toward outsiders; and for their speech to always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that they may know how to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6; cf. I Peter 3:15).  And in terms of the culture, they are to pursue the welfare of the city in which they dwell, just because that is part of what it means to love their neighbor, all the while knowing that those cities are not ends unto themselves (cf. Jeremiah 29:7; cf. Hebrews 13:14).

That is what God requires of them and nothing more.  They are to walk in the good works which God has prepared for them and no others, no matter what preacher tells them otherwise (Ephesians 2:10).

And so here is the truce that I propose: that we may remember the Widow’s mite.  That we realize that somehow, in God’s economy, those two mites were worth more than the abundance which the wealthy contributed:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:42-47).

Now, how is this possible?   Instinctively, we realize that Jesus is talking about spiritual truths, that man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at the heart.  But concretely, surely the wealthier contributions did more practical good.  How could they not?  Unless.  Unless, somehow in God’s economy, He was able to multiply those two copper coins into something far greater, even as He once did with five loaves and two fish.  That somehow, great wealth can build ministries and visible structures that look like they are doing great good, but actually are not.  And that a small offering, but given with great love and prayer, will somehow do far more in the end.

And if we can come to see that – by faith, since eyes will avail not here – then do you see what that does to both sides of this debate?  It causes us to, well, give our people a break. To give them grace.  To stop putting pressure on them to produce as if God or the Kingdom somehow needed them.  It allows us to remind them of their justification; that God has already approved of them through Christ, and granted them peace (Romans 5:1).  Oh, their work may suck eggs at times.  Their evangelistic skills may be utterly lacking.  But God loves them anyway.  They will never be failures in his sight, no matter what they do or don’t do for the Church or for society.   He looks at them and He sees His perfect Son.

That is the truce that I propose.  That all sides preach Grace, Grace, Grace.  That we take our boots off the necks of our people, and stop pressuring them to join the armies of whatever our particular cause may be.  That we not replace legalistic missionary pressure with transformationalist legalistic pressure, or vice versa.  And that we not allow the pressing need for ongoing sanctification to obscure the blessed peace which justification brings.   (Of course, this can be true only if we maintain a clear distinction between the two, but that is for another essay.)

But you see what this must mean?   If two-kingdomers and transformationalists are to unite on the side of Grace, then we must make common cause against the subtle legalisms of our own sides. We must declare war against all religions of works, including those found within our own churches and our own hearts.

Then if we do that, our discussions and debates can themselves be held with more grace because neither side will be conflating our churchly or social agendas into the Gospel itself.  We will remember that God justifies by faith alone in Christ alone and not by what we bring to the table.  So we are free to get some of these matters about culture wrong, and yet still be justified; still loved of God.  My peace with God does not depend upon me getting my politics or cultural responsibilities just right.  Nor does it depend on my devotion to ministry.

I must give Christ all my heart as He enables, but it still does not feel like very much, like it will make much difference in this world.  But perhaps my two mites are all that I can muster, and all that God asks for.  What grace to remember such a thing.  And so if that is true for me, so it is for all to whom I minister.  If they have trusted in Christ, they are saved no matter what vocation they pursue or how well they pursue it.  What they need is not more law – whatever form that may take – but more Christ and His free grace.  Let’s call this truce, and see what happens.

First published on The Aquila Report on December 24, 2013.