Book Review: “The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright,” by John Piper

Get the book here, if you’re interested. The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, by John Piper.

Martin Luther once said “This doctrine [justification by faith] is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” This is the doctrine upon which the history of the church turned, loosing the church from the bonds of Roman Catholic works righteousness. It has been held firmly by evangelicals for the past five centuries. It is considered by many, following Luther, to be the core of the gospel without which there is no gospel. And today, it is being reconsidered.

Though there are others involved in the debate, perhaps the biggest names representing both sides are John Piper and N.T. Wright. John Piper stands to protect the traditional understanding of justification—that God declares righteous those who by faith trust Jesus for salvation. Wright thinks this understanding is wrong—or as he likes to put it: “saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong wBay.” He, rather, proposes that the church has been on the wrong foot “certainly since Augustine” (p. 61). Those in Piper’s camp are uneasy about Wright. Many in Wright’s camp claim that the traditionalists either don’t understand the “New Perspective” or are simply too buried in their theological system to see it.

The reason why John Piper stands in as the representative of the “Old Perspective” is because of his book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Already a leading voice in American evangelicalism, this book landed him smack in the center of the debate. He has the credentials for the task: not only a pastor for three decades but an accomplished scholar and an established exegete. Before penning this rejoinder, he had already written and preached extensively on the topic of justification, along with scholarly book-length treatises on important sections of Romans that deal with the pertinent issues. Before stepping down from the pastorate, Piper was also the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

The book begins with two introductions. The first, which is actually titled Introduction, lays out the issues at hand. He introduces eight problems with Wright’s view and shares his initial concerns. The second is titled On Controversy and he begins it with the sentence: “I am a pastor first.” In it he lays the ground rules for conducting the argument. These two opening segments build trust with the reader.

The following chapters (there are eleven in all) proceed through various issues Piper has with Wright’s portrayal of Paul. Chapter one cautions against doing biblical theology through certain historical lenses. Chapters two through four address the issue of the “law-court” imagery; chapters five and six discuss the inner workings of justification and Piper’s problems with Wright’s views; in chapter seven he attempts to nail down Wright’s teachings on the role of works in the final justification; chapter eight wrestles through Wright’s teachings on imputed righteousness. Since much of Wright’s perspectives come from his understanding of certain first century documents, especially 4QMMT, Piper examines the document and asks whether Paul would have actually subscribed to such teaching. Chapter nine deals with Wright’s understanding of typical Jews in Second Temple Judaism, especially the “agitators” in Galatians. Chapter ten identifies implications of his teaching and compares it with Scripture. In the last chapter Piper presents his case that certain texts are clear in their teaching about justification and imputed righteousness. The work ends with a conclusion and six appendices for further study.

There are multiple levels of disagreement between Piper and Wright, and to navigate them and provide a defense of the traditional view is difficult. Piper says it’s “almost impossible” (pg. 17). But there are a few reasons I think that Piper did well.

First, Piper offered the soft answer that turns away wrath. His charity toward Wright earns himself a listening ear. Piper didn’t let his strong love for the traditional doctrine turn his tone to anger or condescension. He treated Wright honorably. Some critics forget about winning person while they’re winning the argument. Piper has both in mind. In several places, Piper gives Wright the benefit of the doubt, asking Wright for further explanation. Charity flavors every chapter.

Second, he offered his best understanding of Wright’s view. Rather than setting up the typical straw man just to smack him down, Piper did his best to let Wright speak for himself. This gives the reader greater insight into Wright. There are several instances where Piper quotes Wright at length to provide context for the citation he’s using. This makes the book seem fair and trustworthy– Piper is dealing with the real N.T. Wright, not a caricature.

Thirdly, and most substantially, Piper’s meticulous attention to the text is convincing. Many of Piper’s points are exegetical, drawn straight from the text. On the other hand, it seems that many of Wright’s views are drawn from the system of biblical theology that he uses to interpret Scripture. There are several passages of Scripture that, as Piper convinced me, do not fit with Wright’s views.

To critique a system like Wright’s is a difficult task because disagreement is found on several levels. First, there are hermeneutical and historical disagreements. These presuppositions are carried into the text are utterly foundational. There are lexical issues. Word-meanings. Arguments approach absurdity when old terms are loaded with new meanings, and to navigate through these things is an immense task. Finally there are exegetical issues, where there is disagreement as to how particular verses should be understood. These are the least foundational but are still important.

The reason I delineate these layers is because they give a way forward for dealing with the issue. It makes no sense to quibble over the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21 until we’ve established what righteousness means. And yet we cannot understand righteousness until we see what the flow of Scripture teaches about it. And yet we cannot discuss Scripture’s teachings about it until we understand our foundational and hermeneutical disagreements, which are often very hard to pin down. So, like building a house, it makes sense to begins by digging a deep hole and developing foundations.

My one critique for Piper has nothing to do with the content but more for the arrangement of the content. Piper would have been more effective in his debate by starting with the foundation and moving toward the specifics. Perhaps setting chapters nine and ten earlier in the book, right there with chapter one warning against misleading biblical-theological categories would have been helpful. Piper’s arguments against Wright’s understanding of justification, though convincing, could have proved more weighty had they followed a thorough critique of the lens Wright had been using to read Scripture.

As much as Piper works hard to present Wright’s case fairly, he cannot and does not present Wright like Wright would present Wright. This is the difficult nature of a book-length response—it lacks context. It’s like walking into an argument among friends as one is finishing and the other is beginning. Everything you hear will be from one perspective. But for someone who is immersed in the debate and has been present for the points and counterpoints, this rejoinder is a great resource and help.

To summarize, Piper was the right person to write this book, not only because of his academic credentials but also for his gentle approach and his charity. His honesty in presenting Wright made the book more accessible—Piper did as well as anyone would have done describing Wright’s complex views. It would have been much easier to misunderstand and condemn, but he did well communicating the opposing side. My only critique would have been to rearrange the information, but this is not so big a deal as to denounce the book.

Who should read this book? Those embroiled in the justification debate need to read it; it’s an important voice in the conversation. Those who are interested in the New Perspective and what it teaches about justification, righteousness, and imputation should could start elsewhere (articles, blogs, etc) and make their way to Piper if they’re determined to go deeper. Pastors who don’t have time to read Wright but want an overview of his doctrine and a helpful critique would benefit from this book as well. I don’t think this would be a good place to start for someone who has no context, no idea who Wright is, or who has never come into contact with the “New Perspective.”

What kind of “belief” saves you?

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Great thinkers in the past have divided biblical faith into three categories which are helpful for us to determine what it means to really believe: noticia, assensus, and fiducia. This is helpful– especially in light of James 2, which indicates that there is a kind of faith that cannot save.

Noticia refers to the idea of “knowing”. This is knowledge of the right doctrine. This is understanding the right truths. If an unbeliever visits a church long enough, and begins reading his Bible, he may get the facts right but not believe it.  I’ve known atheists and agnostics who understand Christian doctrine better than some Christians I’ve known. Obviously, this kind of knowledge doesn’t save you.

Assensus refers to the idea of “agreeing”. This is agreeing with the right doctrine. It means assenting to the truth of Scripture. This would be the kind of belief that agrees with the gospel but isn’t actually changed by it. James would call this kind of faith “dead” (James 2:14). A person could have all the right content (noticia) and agree with all the right facts (assensus) and yet still be unsaved– for true faith always results in real life change.

Fidutia refers to personal confidence and trust. This is the idea of “trusting”. This is not only knowing the right doctrine and agreeing that it’s true, but personally responding to the gospel by turning from known sin, taking a posture of surrender and submission to Christ, and believing with confidence that all God’s promises are yours in Christ. This kind of faith results in life-change, where the believer constantly strives to put Christ on the throne of his life.

Where do you stand?

Is your “faith” simply knowing all the right doctrine?

Is your “faith” agreeing to the truths of the gospel?

If your faith is merely knowing and agreeing, it’s time for you to take another step, because only a fidutia kind of faith saves. Personally trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord, surrender to him as your master, turn from your sin, pursue righteousness, and believe that his work on the cross has delivered you from the power and penalty of sin.

What is our relationship to Adam’s sin?

Romans 5:12 is one of the harder passages of Scripture to understand. It comes in a context where Paul is describing justification by faith and reconciliation to God. Then, drawing parallels between Adam and Christ, he makes this statement:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”

The main question revolves around the final clause of the sentence: “because all sinned.” The question is this: how is Paul describing our relationship with Adam? What does Adam’s first sin have to do with our current sinfulness? Here are a few possible views:

  1. Arminian view. This is the view that we didn’t sin in Adam, but rather simply inherited Adam’s corrupted nature. This view would say that because of Adam’s sin we’re all born with a defect that makes us prone to sin, though we are not actually guilty because of Adam’s sin. In this view, the “because all sinned” in verse 5:12 means that all sinned because we were made corrupt, not because we actually sinned in Adam.
  2. Federal headship view. This is the view that when Adam was the representative head of the human race, and when he sinned, we were all represented in his sin. Like a commander in chief who declares that his country is going to war and the citizens have no choice but to be represented by him, so when Adam chose to go into sin, he made all humanity sinners by representing them.
  3. Augustinian view. This view states that all humanity was actually in Adam when he sinned, and thus sinned with him. In the same way that Levi while in the loins of Abraham was said to have paid tithes to Melchizidek, so we, in the loins of Adam, actually participated in his sin.

From my perspective, the Federal headship view makes the most sense. Adam, the federal head representing humanity, sinned and thus made all humanity guilty. I would also include the aspect of the Arminian view that emphasizes the transference of the corrupt nature. Thus, all sinned in Adam because they were represented by him, and all sinned because Adam passed on the pollution of his sin to his children.

Are all sins the same before God?

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There is a legal guilt that puts every sinner in the same standing with God as one condemned. As sinners by nature and by choice, we are all under the same condemnation. Thus, there is a sense in which every sin has the same ultimate judgment: condemnation.

But there are enough passages to prove that not all sins are equal before God. Our first hint is the Mosaic law, where some sins are punishable by death and other sins only require cleansing. Some sins are described as being unintentional and others are high-handed, and the high-handed ones merit a more serious punishment. This is compelling, but the clearer evidence comes straight from the mouth of Christ.

In Luke 12:47-48 there are differing degrees of punishment. For the “servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will” there will be a “severe beating.” On the other hand, “the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.” In other words, though the deed be the same, the punishment is more serious for the one who had more knowledge. Those who know more will be judged more strictly, which is exactly the point James makes about teachers: “Those who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

Matthew 11:20-24 describes the fate of Chorazin and Bethsaida, cities that rejected the message of Christ. In verse 24, Jesus says, “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” In other words, the sin of Chorazin and Bethsaida was worse than the sin of Sodom because the former were privileged to witness “mighty works” (v. 21), whereas Sodom had no such opportunity.

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Matt. 23:15 describes Pharisees who travel across land and sea to make a single proselyte. His evaluation is that when they do that “they make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” The only clear understanding of this statement is that the Pharisee’s proselytes are more an offense to God than themselves. Their sin is worse.

 

But, after saying this, we must understand that there are not degrees of separation from God. All sin makes us equally damnable, equally condemned, equally separated, and equally in need of salvation. There are none who are “closer to God” in their natural, unregenerate state. All have sinned; all need salvation.

So we must say in short, the answer is no. Not all sins are equal before God.  All sin, big and small, separates us from God and earns our eternal condemnation. And yet all sin, big and small, is forgivable faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. There is no sin so small that it doesn’t earn us hell; there is no sin so big that it can’t be forgiven.

Understanding the Image of God

Historically, theologians have had a lot of confusion regarding the image of God. Since Scripture doesn’t ever define it in certain terms, those interested in the study have tried to understanding it by piecing together the passages in Scripture that discuss it. Throughout the years, there have been three main ways to look at the image of God.

The image of God is defined Substantially. This is the idea that every human is a person like God; with similar traits and qualities. In the same way a son bears the image of his father, so we bear the image of our Creator. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). We are persons that bear resemblance to God.

The image of God is defined Relationally. Tied into the passages that speak of the image of God is the idea of male and female. In other words, integral to understanding the imago dei is understanding that humans were made to be in relationship. “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27). The image of God is displayed in plurality–male and female. Though it is true that individual males and a females bear the image of God, this passage shows us that the image of God is more fully displayed in two genders rather than one. To be in the image of God means being in relationship.

The image of God is defined Functionally. The first command given to Adam and Eve after God’s declaration of their image-bearing duty is to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (Gen. 1:28). God, the great King of all things mediates his rule through his image bearers. Image bearers play out their roles of authority and thus reflect the glory of the Creator. As Adam and Eve were to play out their roles as vice-regents over creation, they would effectively image God. In this way, there is a functional aspect of the image of God.

How should we understand the doctrine of the imago dei?

It is best to say the image of God exists in man substantially, and manifests itself in relational and functional ways. In this understanding we don’t deny the relational and functional aspects of our likeness to God, but we say that they flow from the spring of our substantial likeness to God. We are relational because God is relational. We function like God because we are like God.

It’s been said this way: “The image of God involves both structural and functional aspects. In our structure [or substance] as human beings we possess the image of God. This structural capacity should lead to proper functioning in the realms of relationships and ruling and subduing the creation.”

There are other implications. If we understand the image of God to be primarily relational or primary functional, then we are defining the image of God in terms of what people do rather than what people are. This would mean that those who aren’t able to act relationally or functionally (unborn babies, mentally handicapped, elderly), they either lack the image of God or they bear the image of God in a lesser degree. But it seems that God created all humans in his image–that the mere fact of being a human person means one bears the image of God. Thus, we hold all human life in high esteem not because of certain functions they can do but because of the fact that they bear God’s image.

So when we’re speaking of the image of God in man, we’re speaking of the ways in which man is made like God (substantial aspect), and the ways in which humans act out this likeness: relationships of male and female (relational aspect), and their ruling and reigning over creation (functional aspect).

 

If you could see God’s secret counsel

“If you could see how God in his secret counsel has exactly laid the whole plan of your salvation, even to the smallest means and circumstances; could you but discern the admirable harmony of divine dispensations, their mutual relations, together with the general respect they all have to the last end; had you liberty to make your own choice, you would, of all conditions in the world, choose that in which you now are.”

John Flavel, Keeping the Heart.

The Elephant Room extravaganza

James MacDonald.

I really love the guy, I really do. I’ve benefited from him and his ministry. But I think he’s dropped the ball here. Here’s why I think James MacDonald should not have invited Bishop T.D. Jakes to the 2012 Elephant Room.

If you’re not familiar with the whole issue here, let me be as succinct as possible:

Jakes is associated with Oneness Pentecostals, who deny the trinity uphold a belief in a modalistic god. Though he has never outrightly denied the trinity, he is a slippery fish when it comes to getting answers. It’s not hard to admit that you belief in the orthodox trinity. He hasn’t earned his reputation as a modalist for nothing.

Oh, and by the way, as that weren’t enough, Jakes preaches the despicable prosperity gospel. Bilking the poor and desperate out of their money by telling them if they give to his ministry they’ll be rewarded materially in this life. He’s cut from the same cloth as his co-health, wealth, and prosperity preacher Joel Osteen. Modalism has been considered a damnable heresy since the 2nd century– those who buy it are not Christian.

Anyway, that’s who James MacDonald invited to his “evangelical” conference.

While many are saying that the event will be a great time to hash out some details and perhaps even straighten out Jakes, it doesn’t seem likely. First of all, MacDonald denies Jakes’ modalism, and his prosperity preaching seems to be a non-issue. As far as MacDonald is concerned, they’re on the same team. What’s especially revealing is the Elephant Room website’s description of TD Jakes. Not a peep about the issues:

We are thrilled to announce that T.D. Jakes will be joining us at Elephant Room 2.

T. D. Jakes is a charismatic leader, visionary, provocative thinker, and entrepreneur who serves as Senior Pastor of The Potter’s House, a global humanitarian organization and 30,000-member church located in Dallas, Texas.

Named “America’s Best Preacher” by Time Magazine, Jakes’ voice reverberates from the world’s most prominent stages. Through a nexus of charitable works, T.D. Jakes extends a hand of help to the needy, heart of compassion to the hurting, and message of empowerment to the oppressed and disenfranchised.

We are looking forward to some candid conversation with Bishop Jakes at The Elephant Room 2

For those holding on to the last threads of hope that the Elephant Room won’t legitimize Jakes’ ministry, thinking that the other guys in the room will be man enough to call out the issues and confront them face-to-face, too late. He has already been legitimized. Just read the above paragraphs. Change a few names and they could be talking about C.J. Mahaney.

But isn’t it right to talk everything out? Talk face-to-face instead of blog-to-blog? Maybe Luther should have had called for a public, sit-down conversation with the pope, a few priests, and the treasurer who handled the indulgences before he nailed those 95 theses to the door. Maybe he should have never condemned them– conversation is more effective that confrontation, right? Maybe, unless Scripture has a better word. And it does:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 10-11).

I think in The Message it reads something like “do not let him speak at your conference” or something like that. How about this one:

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17)

Avoid them. Don’t give them a microphone and an audience. That’s not wise.

Thabiti Anyabwile has a different and very important perspective. In this article he makes the case that Jakes’ should not have been invited even more compelling. In 2007 he published a book titled The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (IVP). In the book, he has a section that digs into Jakes’ theology from his own books. What Anyabwile found was disheartening– a modalistic understanding of the Godhead.

Anyabwile writes from the perspective of a faithful African-American who has seen his “brothers according to the flesh” abandon sound doctrine:

That’s why it’s difficult to see larger-than-life heretics given a platform in circles of pastors and leaders we respect and we regard as co-laborers in defense and confirmation of the truth.  I’m breaking no stories here.  The news of T.D. Jakes’ invitation to the Elephant Room is widespread and rightly lamented by many.  I’m just adding a perspective that hasn’t yet been stated: This kind of invitation undermines that long, hard battle many of us have been waging in a community often neglected by many of our peers. And because we’ve often been attempting to introduce African-American Christians to the wider Evangelical and Reformed world as an alternative to the heresy and blasphemy so commonplace in some African-American churches and on popular television outlets, the invitation of Jakes to perform in “our circles” simply feels like a swift tug of the rug from beneath our feet and our efforts to bring health to a sick church. (bold added)

To Anyabwile, this is a big deal. His life work (which is mine, and every of Christian’s too) is being undermined. It’s true that when Christians attack Christians the mission is distracted. But it’s equally true that when Christians affirm heretics that the mission is undermined. I can hear the world saying, wait, what’s a Christian again? Oh yeah– they’re the guys on TV scamming the needy.

At the end of the article, he shares his conflicted heart– what to do with ol’ MacDonald:

Can I really endorse or remain quiet on an event that features a heretic I’m committed to opposing in writing?  I don’t think so.  That decision is easy for me.  More difficult: Can I really endorse or support a brother who willingly associates with such a heretic and extends them a platform?  Painful.  Sobering. It’s a brother in Christ (MacDonald) making a bad decision affecting a mass of people.

Challies is right, MacDonald has the right to do whatever he wants at his event.  I am just baffled that anyone who want to give a platform to a guy who can’t ascribe to a simple trinitarian doctrinal statement.

Having a discussion among Christian leaders is great– even Christian leaders who think differently and believe differently on certain periphery biblical doctrines. This has been done well in the past. But if you market your event as something for brothers in Christ to sharpen each other and then turn around and invite someone outside the bounds of orthodoxy, you’re setting up a fool’s court. The wolf is going to don his wool and answer all the questions with perfect soundness. Of course he is. That’s what wolves do.

All that to say, I am saddened by this misstep. I hope the damage is minimal. And I hope James MacDonald, a brother whom I am grateful for, changes his mind quickly. And I hope that this Elephant Room extravaganza heightens an awareness for the need to protect sound doctrine.

 

But mostly, read the Bible

I wrote a longer post on this subject just a little while ago, but I wanted to sum us this point in a little shorter post so it would be read.

Why we read theology books:

  • A theology book is easier to read.
  • Someone has done the thinking for you.
  • Someone has arranged it all for you.
  • We (falsely) think that we already know the Bible enough, and that now we just need theology books to explain it.

Why we should use the Bible to develop our theology:

  • You’ll have your own convictions.
  • You’ll be able to teach with more authority.
  • You’ll be able to teach better– mostly because you can share your thought process that brought you to the conclusion you arrived at.

Why we should read theology books:

  • A theology book is easier to read.
  • Someone who thinks differently than you has thought through the same issues you’re thinking through.
  • Someone has arranged it for you.
  • They help us articulate our beliefs better.

Read theology books. But mostly, read the Bible.

How to develop your theology

Read your Bible. Read it constantly. Over and over again. Read it until you know where everything is on the page. Write down big questions. And then read it again. And again.

This is my point: reading theology books doesn’t teach me theology. Reading the Bible does.

What’s wrong with theology books, you ask? The author has done the dirty work; he’s compiled the verses and explained the hard texts. He’s connected the dots and has put together a nice, understandable outline. He’s searched far and wide throughout the Scriptures, spending years traversing back and forth, and, in time, he returns as from a faraway land, bringing precious and exotic delicacies from his travel. Of course we should avail ourselves of the privilege of sitting under such a trailblazer. Right?

Right.

But we must be careful about depending on their work. I’m all for convenience, don’t get me wrong, but, as I’ll explain later, sometimes it’s better to do the work yourself. This is one of those cases.

By all means, read theology, but remember the title of this post—I’m talking about developing your own theology. And I’m contending that the best way to do that is by reading and re-reading (and re-reading) the Bible.

If you turn it upside and try to develop your theology by reading theology books primarily, as opposed to developing your theology as you read the Bible, you will not be able to teach authoritatively. Here are some reasons why:

First, if the ideas aren’t yours, the convictions won’t be yours. Second-hand theology enables you to never take a firm stance, and never have real conviction. You’ll always be saying things like, “Well Edwards believes this,” and “Macarthur said that” and “Piper wrote this.” You will maintain for yourself a convenient cop-out when tough topics come up—“Well, I’m just saying what Driscoll said.” It’s easier to read theology books, and it’s easier to stand on other people’s convictions. But know that if you let them develop your theology for you, you’ll end up hiding behind your hard-working theologian big brother. And you won’t be able to say anything with God’s authority behind it.

You won’t be willing to make bold statements unless they’ve been affirmed by (insert favorite theologian). In time, Piper trumps Paul and Macarthur trumps Moses.  And if you truly believe in the authority and sufficiency of scripture, you will always find yourself asking the lurking question—is he right? And though that question should drive us to the scriptures, it often leaves us generalizing, never willing to make bold claims. Unless you do the homework yourself, you will stand on the surface begging for pearls from the deep sea divers. Of course, they won’t give them to you. They’ll show them off, and you’ll be able to describe them, but they won’t be yours. You’ll stay dry and safe. And your congregation will know it.

Those you teach will sense the authority behind your lessons. If you plunge yourself into the cavernous deeps of God’s revealed Word, and wrestle with the balrogs from this glorious netherworld, when you come up with bloodstains and bruises, your congregation will know that you’ve found something worth fighting for. Use the treasure maps, but more importantly, go spelunking. And bring your pick-axe.

I think that’s enough metaphors to get my point across. Develop your theology by doing your Bible homework. It’s takes a lifetime, so start now.

Do You Have a Theology of Suffering?

I’m preaching at my church this Sunday.We are going through a series titled after David Jeremiah’s book, “Living with Confidence in a Chaotic World” and I have been assigned the sectioned called, “Stay Confident.” My approach will be to show why we should be confident in trials and how we should be joyful amidst suffering and pain. I’ll be using James 1:1-8.

Reading these two paragraphs might help give you a little context.

A while back Tim Keller wrote an article title, “5 Big Issues Facing the Western Church.” Here is his fifth big issue:

The end of prosperity?

With the economic meltdown, the question is, will housing values, endowments, profits, salaries, and investments go back to growing at the same rates as they have for the last twenty-five years, or will growth be relatively flat for many years to come? If so, how does the Western church, which has become habituated to giving out of fast-increasing assets, adjust in the way it carries out ministry? For example, American ministry is now highly professionalized—church staffs are far larger than they were two generations ago, when a church of 1,000 was only expected to have, perhaps, two pastors and a couple of other part-time staff. Today such a church would have probably eight to ten full-time staff members.

Also, how should the stewardship message adjust? If discretionary assets are one-half of what they were, more risky, sacrificial giving will be necessary to do even less ministry than we have been doing.

On top of this, if we experience even one significant act of nuclear or bio-terrorism in the U.S. or Europe, we may have to throw out all the basic assumptions about social and economic progress we have been working off for the last 65 years. In the first half of the 20th century, we had two World Wars and a Depression. Is the church ready for that? How could it be? What does that mean?

Later on he provided a follow-up article providing some proposed answers to the problems. His answer for problem number five has stayed with me– and has shaped to a degree how I preach. We must prepare our people to suffer.

We must develop a far better theology of suffering.

Members of churches in the West are caught absolutely flat-footed by suffering and difficulty. This is a major problem, especially if we are facing greater ‘liminality’—social marginalization—and maybe more economic and social instability. There are a great number of books on ‘why does God allow evil?’ but they mainly are aimed at getting God off the hook with impatient Western people who believe God’s job is to give them a safe life. The church in the West must mount a great new project—of producing a people who are prepared to endure in the face of suffering and persecution.

Here, too, is one of the ways we in the West can connect to the new, growing world Christianity. We tend to think about ‘what we can do for them.’ But here’s how we let them do something for us. Many or most of the church in the rest of the world is used to suffering and persecution. They have a kind of faith that does not wilt, but rather grows stronger under threat. We need to become students of theirs in this area.