The Role of Persuasion in Reformed Theology

At the heart of many disagreements I have been having or have witnessed others having in Reformed circles lies a disagreement about the appropriateness of seeking to persuade people about the truth of the gospel. Even when two people agree on Reformed doctrine, you can often feel a very big difference in the way they two people speak and relate to others, particularly non-Christians. This difference also shows up in the tone of preaching.

It seems to me, that many who believe in predestination think that God’s sovereignty in bringing people to faith, or to put it differently, that God’s monergistic, gracious gift of regeneration and faith, negates and undercuts the practice of 1) seeking to persuade people to believe, 2) making arguments that appeal to people’s concerns, or 3) being careful not to unnecessarily offend non-Christians. In other words, for many people, it seems that Calvinism should lead to nothing more than a bold, confrontational, “let the Lord sort out hearts” attitude when it comes to our evangelism. Likewise, sound or solid preaching is considered to be bare explanation and proclamation of the Biblical text.

Tim Keller argues (video here & article here) that Christians and preachers ought to be persuasive, and I agree. He notes the difference between manipulating people (by playing on their fears, prejudices, or pride or by overwhelming people emotionally, intellectually, or socially) and appealing to people in such a way that their heart and mind are changed.

Reformed theology does not negate persuasion. God uses means to call his elect. We cannot manipulate people into the kingdom, but God does use wise words to call his people to Himself. We should understand the people we are evangelizing or preaching to.  We should relate the Bible to the questions, concerns, and ideas people have without compromising or altering what God has revealed in any way.

It seems to me, this is the way Jesus and Paul ministered (1 Cor. 9:19-23 & 2 Cor. 5:11).

I hope you’ll check out Keller’s fuller argument in this direction. He makes especially important comments about 1 Corinthians 2:1ff.


Diet Problems in the Church

The baristas at Starbucks know I’m a pastor. Last week, one of them, making small talk, asked me if I was pumped up for Sunday. I was caught off guard and didn’t really know what to say at first.

As I thought about it, his question made more sense. I regularly see sponsored ads on Facebook for local churches where pastors with slick promo videos pump up would be viewers about the exciting and amazing Sunday that is coming this week…every week.

Of course I look forward to Sunday but not because every Sunday is going to be amazing and exciting.

Ordinary Means of Grace, Not Constant Excitement

Central to Christian worship and therefore to Christian formation, are the Word and sacrament. The reading and preaching of the Word leads the assembled to communion at the Lord’s Table.

The church lives by the bread of heaven, the bread of life, Jesus Christ, heard in the preaching of the Word and tangibly received through physical signs around the Table.

Both the Word and the Table nourish Christians as they respond to God’s word by remembering the body and blood of Christ, enacting and embodying the kingdom through a simple and ordinary meal of bread and wine.

It is through the Word and Table that we are fed, week after week, so that we grow up into godliness, maturity, and wisdom. Just as we need food to survive and grow physically, we need regular nourishment from God’s Word and Table. And in the same way a steady, healthy diet sustains our physical survival and health, so also a consistent, sound diet of Word and Table sustains our lives in Christ.

The American church struggles with severe diet problems, probably because, in part, we expect every meal to amazing and exciting. Rather than serving consistently healthy meals, our churches offer hungry people food that satisfies our worst cravings and leaves us unable to live on mission to starving world.

Church Types

We have candy churches that offer delicious experiences that get people excited and energized but lack the nourishment needed to grow strong.

We have fast food churches built on efficiency, convenience, and predictability that will serve thousands food that tastes good at first only to leave people feeling sick and bloated with self-indulgence.

We have buffet churches that give people all the options they could want to stuff themselves with whatever they choose.

We have extreme diet pill churches where fraudsters promise miraculous results by making false promises that will only destroy.

We have franchise churches with branding and style that works everywhere, with popular dishes shipped in frozen and made to order, lacking local flavor and personal touch.

We have Cracker Barrel churches thick with nostalgia complemented by good home cooking that makes you feel all warm inside longing for a culture that no longer exists, if it ever did.

We have locally sourced vegan churches that serve ethical meals but lack the meat needed to grow.

We have cutting edge, trendy churches for those under 35 where no one knows what they’re eating.

I’m sure you can think of others.

Diet Problems

We have all sorts of churches with diet problems. Just like children who don’t know how to eat need parents consistently providing healthy food, we need churches that responsibly nourish the family of God with simple, balanced, healthy, meals that are usually unexciting. That’s hard to stick to when the neighbors constantly offer the more appealing and exciting junk food at every meal.

Newbigin and the Cruciform Church

Over the last month, I have been slowly reading through Lesslie Newbigin’s famous book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It’s a treasure, and I regret not having read this book earlier in my education and ministry.

For years now, I have been reflecting on and wrestling with the nature and mission of the church. I have been thrilled to see the emergence of a gospel-centered movement, a recapturing of the gospel for the whole of the Christian life and not just for conversion. However, as the movement has grown, I have been disappointed that this has not produced cruciform churches. In other words, gospel-centered preaching has not, in large part, changed the form or shape of ministry in the American Church. Churches that identify with the gospel-centered movement still tend to be triumphalistic churches of “glory” rather than churches in the shadow of the cross.

I thought this passage from Newbigin (chapter 9, point 7) rightly explains what the character of the church’s ministry should look like:

I have said that it is clear from the New Testament that early the Church saw itself as living in the time between the times, the time when Jesus, having exposed and disarmed the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15), is seated at the right hand of God until the time when his reign shall be unveiled in all its glory among all the nations. The character of this time is given to it by the character of the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is marked by suffering, and by the presence of signs of the kingdom. That is why the Fourth Gospel, in its portrayal of the missionary commission, says that when Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them his hands and his side—the scars of his passion—and he breathed into them the Spirit who is the foretaste of the kingdom (John 20:19-23). The Church in its journey through history will therefore have this double character insofar as it is faithful to its commission. On the one hand it will be a suffering church, because the powers of darkness, though disarmed and robbed of final authority, are still powerful. As Jesus in his earthly ministry unmasked the powers and so drew their hostility on himself, so the Spirit working through the life and witness of the missionary Church will overturn the world’s most fundamental beliefs, proving the world wrong in respect of sin, of righteousness, of judgment (John 16:8). Consequently the world will hate the Church as it hated its Lord. But, on the other hand, just as the ministry of Jesus was marked by mighty works, which for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, were signs of the presence of the kingdom of God in power, so in the life of the Church there will be mighty works which have the same function. They are not—so to say—steps on the way to the kingdom, but unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality, but a reality known only to those who have been converted, have been turned from false gods to the living God. These negative and positive elements in the life of the Church will be related to each other in the ministry of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10). The cross was a public execution visible to all—believers and unbelievers alike. The resurrection was as much a fact of history as the crucifixion, but it was made known only to the chosen few who were called to be the witnesses of the hidden kingdom.

When the church fails to unmask the powers of the age overturning its most fundamental beliefs (i.e. consumerism, nationalism, etc.) and chooses instead to utilize the powers of the age in order to attract crowds of congregants, it fails to live into its own identity and actually acts in cooperation with the same powers that crucified the Lord whom the Church claims to serve and proclaim! Furthermore, when a church’s “mighty works” serve to point to the glory and importance of itself, or when the “mighty works” are thought to be steps toward transforming the world into the kingdom, she participates in the worship of false gods and shows herself not to have turned to the living God at all.

I long for a gospel-centered movement that produces gospel-shaped (cruciform) churches.

On the Necessity and Importance of Church Membership

Recently, I observed many of my fellow Christians expressing serious frustration and embarrassment on social media regarding a number of public figures (one in particular trumps them all) who self-identify as Christians. To many of my friends, the words and actions of these famous persons who claim a Christian identity not only seem out of step with the Christian faith but bring ridicule and shame upon the Church. My fellow Christians did all they could to signal to others that these people don’t represent Christianity.

This frustration and embarrassment is understandable, but it’s a necessary symptom of ignoring the importance of church membership as most American churches, pastors, and Christians have done. In other words, if we deny the importance of church membership and if we accept the claim that a person can be a Christian and part of the “invisible church” without covenanting with a local body of believers under proper biblical government, then there will always be individuals out there who claim to represent the Christian faith who will deny core doctrines and embrace behaviors out of step with Christ’s kingdom, and we won’t have any basis to deny it.

My point here is this: If you are embarrassed by people who refuse to live repentantly and yet still claim to be Christians, then become a member of a church where church discipline and real membership is practiced. If you float from church to church, if you attend a huge church where there is no possible way pastors can know the sheep and watch over them in any meaningful way, if you are a member of a church that keeps people on its rolls that haven’t been around in years, if your church doesn’t practice restorative discipline, then you are part of the problem and the reason why we will continue to be embarrassed by famous people claiming to represent Christ who will be believed by the world. However, if all of us start taking church membership and discipline seriously, we’ll simply be able to ask such persons, “To which church do you belong? To whom are you accountable?”

When asked if he is a Christian, the famous Neo-Anabaptist theologian from Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, has said many times something like this in response: “My friends tell me that I am.” His point in answering this way is to refuse to claim authority as an individual to self-identify with Christ. Hauerwas is getting at the idea that Jesus has given authority to the church to recognize who belongs to him. There is a sense in which none of us has the right to claim to be a Christian apart from baptism and membership in a particular body under biblical lawful government.

With that in mind, here are 6 basic biblical arguments borrowed and summarized from How Jesus Runs the Church by Guy Waters on why Christians must join a church.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) requires that we baptize people into communities where they continue to learn to obey all Jesus commanded.
  2. Many New Testament commands assume and require membership in a particular and defined church body in order to be obeyed, particularly those “one another commands” and those calling Christians to respect, submit to, and esteem those “over you.”
  3. The teaching of Jesus and Paul on church discipline in which the unrepentant are set outside the community assumes church membership.
  4. The practice of the Lord’s Table requires a concrete and particular fellowship to be a meaningful practice where those who have professed Christ are welcomed.
  5. Many passages in the New Testament, like Ephesians 4, speak collectively of spiritual growth. The body of Christ is to grow up together as members are joined to one another.
  6. Elders are given responsibility before God for a particular group of Christians under their care.


How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

Disappointing Sufferers as a Pastor

Culture is ubiquitous, or so says James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. I expect he means that culture, being present everywhere, shapes the way I experience the world and understand my own identity apart from any conscious decision I make to go with the flow. In our context, even though I am a Christian and reject secularism, I am more secular than I realize or like to believe (see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age).

One of the reasons I love to study history, sociology, and philosophy is that it helps me to see what I unconsciously assume. This is also why I love pastor Tim Keller. He regularly gives insights into the modern context that explain the world and me in remarkably clear ways. I had such an experience reading the beginning of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I only just started but already had several “Aha!” moments. This one relates to my calling as a pastor, and it came from his discussion on suffering and the meaning of life. Let me outline his discussion and then show you how this helped me understand my calling and experience as a pastor in the modern world.

Suffering and the Meaning of Life

Keller argues that traditional cultures and religions all, in different ways, regard suffering as a necessary part of life that can be experienced in such a way that it helps the sufferer achieve the purpose of life. In other words, suffering will happen in life, and it requires a particular response on the part of the individual so that a “redemptive” outcome can occur. So, for example, in the pagan cultures of northern Europe, sufferers could face pain and difficulty with nobility and endurance so as to receive honor and glory. Or in some Eastern religions, suffering must be met with the abandonment of desire so one can achieve enlightenment. Suffering is awful, but it can be faced in such a way that life’s purpose is achieved.

Not so with secularism, says Keller. Secularism is uniquely ill equipped to address suffering (which, by the way, should make us suspicious of it as a worldview given the universal nature of suffering). Here’s my outline of his exploration of the role of suffering in secularism:

  1. According to secularism, life is objectively meaningless. There is no built in meaning to the universe since it came about through random chance.
  2. Meaning can only be invented subjectively by individuals. Life for any individual, at best, involves the freedom to live in a way that brings the most personal happiness.
  3. Suffering, by definition, hinders happiness and thus has no meaningful role in the achievement of the invented purpose of the individual’s life.
  4. Therefore, suffering can only be managed or eliminated, but it cannot be meaningful.

Keller supplies the arguments of secularists to demonstrate this logic. He isn’t imposing this on secularists. It’s something many honestly acknowledge. I think this is brilliant and insightful, but it’s what he said about dealing with suffering in a secular culture that helped me understand some of my experiences as a pastor.

Dealing with Pain in a Secular Age

Given the meaninglessness of suffering in a secular age, Keller observes that Western culture has become obsessed with managing or eliminating suffering and pain, and practically every academic field approaches this differently. Psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, political science, race theory, gender studies, medical doctors, essentially every field of study tends to reduce suffering to one material cause relevant to their area of expertise and then offers the appropriate external remedy.

This plurality of specialists has caused massive confusion in our culture as to what to do with pain. And since every expert reduces the causes of suffering to one fundamental cause external to us, a culture of victimhood has developed. Sufferers are now victims to material misfortune or social injustice in need of experts or social activists that can help sufferers manage or eliminate the cause. So the one thing an expert should never do is address suffering in such a way that the sufferer is blamed for or told they have contributed to their suffering. This is the culture in which we live and breathe.

Here’s my “Aha!” moment: Pastors have become just another specialist in the business of pain management and elimination. I never consciously thought of myself this way, and I doubt many of my congregants would describe my job in this way. But my experience tells me our cultural context has (wrongly) shaped expectations I have had for myself and others have had of me.

Keller goes on to explain how traditional cultures (and Christianity) understand suffering to be the result of conflict between the external and our internal world, which means that, rather than raging against the world, those suffering were to take responsibility to address their pain and use it to achieve a redemptive outcome.

Pastoring Sufferers in a Secular Age

Now I wouldn’t have put it that way when you asked me to describe how to pastor people who are suffering, but that is essentially what pastors are called to do. We must love people with our presence, help, and the Word of God, and we are called to love sufferers in that way so as to help them on the road of faith. And often, though not always, this means we have to help people face the ways they have caused or contributed to their pain. Pastors must help their flock understand and know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” (Romans 5:3-5). We are not simply victims.

But in a culture that fosters a victim mentality, we all naturally want experts to take away the pain or help us manage it so it doesn’t hurt so badly. While pastors should aim to help in that way, that isn’t all we are supposed to do. And when we call people to examine their lives and consider how God might use their pain to transform them or how they might be causing some of their own suffering, it makes sense, given our context, that people will lash out in anger and accuse us of making things worse! It makes sense that I have been such a disappointment to some who have suffered greatly. We are more secular than we realize.

I must admit, I’ve been surprised in my pastoral ministry at how some who have suffered have lashed out at me and caused me to suffer! That has led me to self-examination, submitting myself to others for evaluation, and some needed repentance. But I have also come to see that sometimes those who are suffering lash out at me as a pastor because we have different ideas of what I am supposed to do. Consciously or not, some have looked to me to manage or eliminate their pain, and at this, I have completely failed. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer has been offended or outraged that I would suggest they might be responsible for some of their pain. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer thinks I haven’t done a good job at relieving their pain or doing the things they believed would help them manage or relieve their pain.

In either case, I need to remember my calling, and I must self-consciously reject the idea that I am just another specialist there to manage people’s pain. My job is to offer people the hope of the gospel in the midst of a broken world. No doubt, many will be disappointed. But I cannot let the disappointment and anger of some alter my job description.

My Top 50 Books

I have read and re-read some great books recently. Some have solidified or synthesized theological and pastoral concerns I have been wrestling with for years. Others have given me whole new insights to myself, our cultural context, and/or my pastoral calling. A few have been incredibly challenging, causing me to rethink a particular part of my life.

All of these great books (and the fact that my study has moved from upstairs down to my basement where my bookshelves stare at me when I sit at my desk) have got me thinking about my spiritual and theological journey. For the past 4 years, I believe I have been discovering and getting comfortable in my theological and ecclesiological home. I am now at a point where I want to think about how I should be directing younger men seeking to be pastors regarding what they should read. I am thankful for the path I have traveled and the books that got me here, but I hope that those who follow me can take a shorter journey.

So here are my top 50 books I recommend to anyone seeking a rich theological and pastoral foundation in the Reformed theological tradition. I have organized them by various categories that begin with the foundational topics and flow toward more practical life related issues.

Considering Christianity

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller
  2. King’s Cross by Tim Keller
  3. Three Essential Books in One Volume: Trilogy – The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer
  4. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation by William Placher
  5. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
  6. The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire
  7. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen


  1. Letters to a Young Calvinist by James Smith
  2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1 by John Calvin
  4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2 by John Calvin
  5. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformed Worldview by Albert Wolters
  6. Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper
  7. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
  8. Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  9. Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings
  10. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama by Michael Horton
  11. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis

Ecclesiology, Ministry, Christian Formation, and Mission

  1. Center Church by Tim Keller
  2. Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell
  3. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
  4. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder
  5. Grounded in the Gospel by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett
  6. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James Smith

Biblical Studies

  1. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy
  2. From Paradise to Promised Land by T.D. Alexander
  3. Kingdom Prologue by Meredith Kline
  4. The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andraes Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
  5. An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III and Raymond Dillard
  6. An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
  7. A Biblical History of Israel by Ian Proven, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III
  8. Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy
  9. Is There Meaning In This Text by Kevin Vanhoozer

Culture and the Public Sphere

  1. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter
  2. How (Not) To Be Secular by James Smith
  3. Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller
  4. A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf
  5. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller

The Christian Life and Ethics

  1. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics by Micahel Hill
  2. Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O’Donovan
  3. The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame
  4. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
  5. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
  6. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power , and the Only Hope that Matters by Tim Keller
  7. Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill
  8. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill
  9. Real Sex by Lauren Winner
  10. The Christian Family by Herman Bavinck
  11. Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller
  12. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp

I do not agree with everything written in these books, but they certainly contain the theology and practice of which I am most convinced and hope to embody. I hope you all find this list helpful.