The Marks of the Christian

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11, NIV

The Marks of the Christian

Regularly reading the New Testament ought to remind us of the ways contemporary Christians fall far short of the vision of the Christian life found among the early Christians.

I’m convinced that this shortfall is rooted, at least in part, by our neglect of the Bible as our rule of faith and life.

Faithful friends

As the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, we note his obvious affection for them (verses 3 and 8) and his gratitude for they way they have come alongside him in his gospel ministry (verse 5). Despite the personal cost and the difficulty of the Apostolic work entrusted to Paul, the fellowship of Christians like those in Philippi have made the burden more bearable as together they have entrusted themselves to the grace of Christ.

Personal transformation

These faithful brothers and sisters in Christ Paul reminds of God’s transformative purpose. “[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (verse 6b).

Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of Christ’s promise to work in us by faith the transformation we need so that when we meet him face to face we may step into a new creation free from the curse of sin and death?

We’re not yet the people we will become, but those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus are moving–if at time haltingly–in the direction of Christ-likeness.

Paul’s prayer

Paul shares with his readers the content of his prayer for them and I suspect that Paul would pray the same for us today. This prayer shows us at least three marks of the Christian, that is characteristics of one who is a growing disciple of Christ. 

Able to discern (verse 9-10a)

Christians ought to be loving. And the love that marks our lives must be, according to Paul, a love that has some attendant qualities. Christian love is marked by growing “knowledge and insight.”

Knowledge and insight of what? It’s difficult to know precisely what Paul means here. At the very least it would seem to imply an experiential knowledge of God and of God’s revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. It is this knowledge that enables us to “discern what is best,” that is what most closely aligns with God’s revealed will.

Pure and blameless (verse 10) 

This discernment, rooted as it is in a love that is marked by knowledge and insight, produces in our lives a purity and a blamelessness. The concepts of purity and blamelessness seem to be neglected in contemporary Christianity.

All Christians are positionally pure and blameless because the obedience of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross have been credited to our account. However, what Paul is talking about here is volitional purity and blameless–it is based upon choice and upon actions that together form a way of life.

Fruit of righteousness (verse 11)

Christians are expected to produce the “fruit of righteousness” that is the product derived from the above and that is expressed inwardly before it is expressed outwardly.

It’s not difficult to see how we all have a long way to go on this. Ask God what needs to change in your life so that you’re not only willing, but able to devote yourself to Him in a way that leads to transformation.

Five questions about Christian fasting


A friend recently asked me some questions about the spiritual discipline of fasting. I’m not an expert on fasting, but I tried to give some straightforward answers to her questions based on my understanding of the Scriptures from a reformed perspective.

I’ll share a modified version of my reply to her, with her permission.

Dear A,

Fasting is certainly a powerful spiritual discipline. Since God is inviting you, it seems, to practice regular fasting and prayer, it’s right that you should look into it.

The Christian tradition provides for varying reasons for fast: repentance for sin (personal or systemic), in order to deepen prayer or the experience of God, in order to intercede for something/someone, etc. Do you sense that this call is related to missions [she spoke about a concern for mission in her letter]? Is it related to something else?

Here are some specific responses to the questions you posed, I hope they’re helpful.

  • “Here’s some things I’m pondering: is there a certain day of the week that is supposed to be used for fasting?”

Traditionally fasts were observed on Fridays and not on Sundays because Friday recalls Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death and Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day when we celebrate His resurrection.

  • “Does it include not drinking water as well?”

As far as I know, fasting never includes abstaining from water. The body needs water more than it needs food and it can be dangerous to deprive yourself of it. Typically it is food (generally), or certain type of food like red meat.

  • Is there a certain way I should be praying throughout the day, like focus on just one thing?

My counsel is that on a regular basis you devote two periods of time to prayer—one in the morning; one in the evening. This was the practice of the English Puritans. Then, throughout the day cultivate the practice of praying as you encounter people/things/impressions. This way life can become a conversation with God. I always encourage believers to pray Scripture, especially the Psalms.

You can meditate during the day as well—typically by slowly reading/praying Holy Scripture (Psalms).

  • Is there any place in the Bible that talks about how to fast? 

To my recollection, the only passage that really speaks about fasting is the admonition to keep your fast a secret. Inherent in all spiritual practices is our propensity to begin to look at these practices as things that earn us favor with God or that make us better than other believers. Both of these impulses are a type of idolatry and are not good for the soul. See Mt 6:16-18.

  • Does it make the prayers more holy/ what is the significance?

Fasting doesn’t make your prayers more holy; rather, God can use the practice to make you more holy, which is infinitely more beneficial!

Grace and peace,


Concerning the true church


No visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.

J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches

My perspective on children and Holy Communion

One of the things I most enjoy about pastoring is leading the congregation to the Lord’s Table. Holy Communion is a vital part of the Christian life, given to us as spiritual food for the journey. Ideally, I’d like to celebrate Holy Communion weekly in at least one worship service.


From time to time people ask me about children’s participation in the sacramental life of the church. Should children receive communion? If so, when? 

There are a variety of ways to answer this question. Some presbyterians do not allow children to receive the sacrament until they are in 9th grade and meet with the Session for confirmation. This is related to Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 11–those receiving must be able, they suggest, to examine themselves. Others insist that children be admitted to the Table from their infancy since they are children of the covenant and heirs of the promises of the covenant. Our congregation has chosen–as a general rubric–that kids ordinarily begin receiving Holy Communion in second grade after our Bible brunch and communion lesson.

So, what’s the right answer? What we (that is, the Gissings) have chosen to do is wait until the kids ask to receive communion. If they never did, we would likely have waited till 2nd grade. Nathan, however, asked to begin receiving communion when he was six. We spent several times talking to him about the meaning and mode of Holy Communion so that he was able to explain why he wanted to receive it and something of the meaning of the sacrament. Eliza, who is five, recently asked and we’re in the process of working with her to prepare her to receive it.

In choosing this course, we have kept in mind several principles:

  1. Holy Communion is serious, but not somber. Tellingly, we celebrate the Eucharist. It is an encounter with the living Christ where we feed on him in our hearts by faith. As such it is both serious, but a joyful thing.  
  2. 2 Corinthians 11 may not be entirely normative. Some conservative Presbyterians (mis)read 2 Corinthians 11 to make it seem that God is waiting to smite those who do not worthily receive the body and blood of Christ. Paul warns that there is a wrong way to receive communion. Generally, however, I think most of the improper ways of receiving communion apply to adults more than to children who typically come to meet Jesus.
  3. Children should be instructed, but not intimidated. We explained to Nathan and Eliza what Communion means and why it’s important. We did our best to emphasize that it’s an important rite, but not something they should be scared of.
  4. Honor your congregation’s structure and practices. As important as it if for your child to receive the sacrament, it’s also important to honor the decisions and practices of your church body.
  5. Err in the direction of grace. With children, it’s safe to err in the direction of grace. In other words, it seems to me that God will not turn a little one away who comes to him in the simple, innocent manner of a child.

What do you think?

The five marks of an elder

The ministry of elders–both teaching and ruling elders–is crucial to maintaining a healthy congregation that follows the biblical pattern of leadership. We often take elders for granted and shape the office around secular leadership positions that we’re familiar with. Some see elders as board members and others see them as heads of a family. Neither is fully true to the New Testament’s description of elder, which has seven marks:


1. Elders watch over the people as a shepherd watches over his sheep. The office is one of oversight designed to maintain the faithfulness of a congregations life and ministry in reliance on the Holy Spirit. See Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4.

2. Elders lead by example. They should not be domineering but should be examples to the flock, people they can emulate. 1 Peter 5:3.

3. Elders must lead the congregation away from error and into truth. Eldership is spiritual leadership and those who entrusted with this sort of leadership must guide the congregation to right belief and practice that accords with the Bible rather than, “every wind of doctrine.” Ephesians 4:11. 

4. Some elders will teach. The New Testament assumed that some elders have a teaching function and others simply have a spiritual leadership or ruling function. In modern parlance we talk about teaching elders as “pastors” and ruling elders simply as “elders.” 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9.

5. Eldership is a heavy responsibility and it demans mature faith and character. The New Testament advises that we not cavalierly wish for spiritual leadership. Being placed in a position of spiritual leadership too early can be the undoing of a young believer. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.

For these reasons and more, every believer should make it a priority to pray for those in leadership of the congregation. When they make decisions, trust them. And always make sure to root your faith and participation in the life of the congregaiton in the Word of God.

Do you worship the Bible?

Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.


John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.

Sola scriptura…for dummies

At First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem <www.fpc-bethlehem,org/sermons>, we’ve begun a five-part sermon series on the great “solas” of the Reformation. “Sola” is simply Latin for “alone.” And the solas serve as a simple way to distill the main emphasis of the reformation teaching on the nature and source of Christian faith.

The first of these is “sola scriptura” or “scripture alone.” As we explore this topic, it’s important to really wrap out hearts and minds about what this principle of scripture alone means (and doesn’t mean). So in today’s post we’ll take a non-scholarly look at this pillar of reformed belief.

Sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is a sufficient source and authority for how we understand Christian belief and how we practice the Christian faith.


Another way of stating this is that should a person have no other source of knowledge about God, the Bible is enough. It contains all that we need to know who God is, what God thinks of us, and how we can be reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Sola scriptura doesn’t mean that the Bible tells us everything there is to know about God. In fact the Bible itself tells us, “Now there were many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the whole world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The Reformation insistence on “Scripture alone” was a response to the Medieval Catholic Church, which had derived beliefs/doctrines from the Bible and reason that the Reformers (rightly) declared not to be justified on the basis of the text of Scripture. An example is the doctrine of purgatory. There is no clear reference in scripture to an intermediate place of purification that changes the nature of souls so that they are fit for heaven. However, at the same time, it is a reasonable (if unbiblical) answer to the question: how do imperfect people get into heaven? That belief can, however, only gain hold when a source other than the Bible is allowed to augment the witness of scripture.


Sola scriptura is simply a boundary fence that helps us to know with some degree of certainty what the church ought to focus on in its proclamation. N.T. Wright defines the contours of the doctrine like this:

 [Sola scriptura] provided, on the one hand, a statute of limitations: nothing beyond Scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. One the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those instructed with the teaching office in the church have no right to use that office to teach anything else.

(Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 72-3).

It’s also a boundary line for the individual Christian in order for us to settle for ourselves the answer to the questions: Who is God? What must I believe to be saved? Is there meaning to my life? It’s a way of placing the Bible where it ought to be: front and center in the belief and practice of the Christian community:


When expounded faithfully, with proper attention given to the central New Testament emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the turning point of all history…God’s word [will] once again do a fresh work in the hearts and lives of ordinary people. (Wright, 73).

If we do this, are we susceptible to the charge that we are worshipping the Bible? We ought to bare this in mind. It is possible to allow the Bible to become an idol. As Christians we follow God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship the Scriptures. We appropriately value and esteem the Scriptures as communication or revelation from God. They are, if you will, an extension or God’s authority into our midst. They are given to us so that God may speak to us through them and that using them we may respond to God in worship. To borrow a familiar word, they are “the message” to us from God and so the authority of the Scriptures is one derived from their origin in the mind of God mysteriously expressed through the minds and pens of human authors.

The ultimate purpose of sola scriptura in my life and yours is to assure us that there is not some other authority that we must discover to find other secrets to the Christian life. There is not other source for discerning God’s will. We know all that we need to know about God and how we can be restored to him through the Bible. In this sense then, sola scriptura is one of the most practice doctrines imaginable.

A Christian response to same sex attraction

If you haven’t read about the student protest at Wheaton College in response to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s appearance on campus, do. It’s available here. Butterfield is author of “My Train Wreck Conversion,” the second most popular Christianity Today article of 2013. The article describes how “a leftist lesbian professor” who “despised Christians” eventually became one.

Butterfield’s appearance, the protest, and subsequent reporting on it all demonstrate an increasingly nuanced understanding of human sexuality in the evangelical world. Like most intellectual developments the changing understanding of sexual identity is sort of jerking forward like a teenager trying to drive a manual transmission car. It is possible that out of our collective confusion–by a sort of cultural dialectic–a better understanding of sexuality is emerging. I’m not convinced that this new understanding will remove all distinctions between Christian ethics and those of the broader culture, far from it. What I hope will emerge is both a Christian ethics and pastoral theology that better serves those who experience same sex attraction.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

On either side of our conversations about sexuality are two poles, both equally erroneous.

The first is the “lifestyle” understanding of human sexuality. This belief posits that everyone who identifies as gay has simply chosen to be so–like choosing to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. With appropriate “taste tests” this preference can be altered.

The second is the belief that sexual identity is always and everywhere simply fixed: once gay, always gay. In this view, the individual is simply a victim of a predisposition that is unalterable and, as a result, ought to be able to give full expression to this identity.

The Wheaton student protest leaders feared that Butterfield would come to campus espousing the former belief (“pray away the gay,” if you will). I worry that they affirm the latter:

We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen…

A more nuanced understanding of sexual identity means that it’s possible to navigate a way between these two poles. And it’s possible to affirm things that the evangelical community has been remiss in doing. As Butterfield herself put it,

Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview.

A Christian response to same-sex attraction should avoid either simply explaining away attraction as a choice. It should also avoid taking our appetites and attractions–as essential as they may seem–as inevitable.

Butterfield continues,

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It’s listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn’t causal, it’s consequential. From God’s point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It’s so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin.

Here we have to ask an important question: what is meant by “homosexuality”? Is this term equivalent to “having same sex attraction? Does it mean homosexual practice? Or is it some combination of both?

At this point some biblical principles related to sin are helpful. Jesus tells us that infidelity can occur outside of a physical encounter: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). So while we can say for certain that homosexual practice is sinful in that it violates God’s moral law, we can also say that dwelled-upon, nurtured attraction may turn into desire which in turn may itself eventually become sinful.

The church has generally been lax in guiding its members to experience Christ in the Scriptures. As a result our ways of thinking have been formed by our culture and, in many ways, simply (and perhaps exclusively) adopt the intellectual categories constructed by scholars of society, sexuality, etc., or some reaction against them. As a church we should be moving deeper into a Jesus-centered, Bible-shaped Christian experience that is values the difficulties of following Christ sufficiently to provide spiritual leadership and pastoral care that intends to lead to greater holiness, as long and as hard as that road might be.

A Hindu monk and a Baptist preacher got married

About one in four Americans (27%) is intentionally sharing their married life with someone whose religious belief system is different from their own.[1] If difference within traditions like Protestantism is included, the number jumps to 37%.[2] This emerging trend is consistent with the generally agreed-upon trajectory of our culture. We are moving into a period of intense plurality. Difference—in all its forms—is pushing its way into the lives, churches, schools, and neighborhoods of Americans.


As people face these new experiences they often look for resources to help them navigate their new reality. This has produced what the Huffington Post calls a “mini-boom of guides to interfaith marriage and family.” A case in point is J. Dana Trent’s recently released book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.

Trent’s book describes how she—a Baptist minister—met and fell in love with Fred Eaker, a practicing Hindu. The rapid increase in interfaith marriage poses a significant pastoral challenge for the Christian church. It’s important to remember that this is not the first time in which the Christian church has had to engage in pastoral and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and of marriage to those who are outside the household of faith.

The early church developed in the context of a pluralistic culture where, much like today, the cardinal virtue was theistic inclusivity. Greco-Roman culture was willing to welcome new gods as long as they could be incorporated into the already recognized deities. We see from St. Paul’s interaction with the people of Athens that the Greeks were eager to learn of this “foreign deity” and this “new teaching” (Acts 17: 18, 19). Early Christianity was quite comfortable in communicating the message of Christ to those who had yet to experience it.

As Paul addressed problems that arose in the churches under his apostolic care, he found it necessary to give the following counsel to the church at Corinth, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity?” (2 Co. 6:14ff.).

This verse is often used to warn against the dangers of marrying someone of another faith. And the warning is likely well heeded. Yet, it’s also likely that Paul here is speaking more broadly than simply of matrimony.

Read the rest here.

[1] U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 34. Available online at:

[2] Ibid.


Inerrancy: an Augustinian view

One of the interesting things about my life is that I have the pleasure of inhabiting a number of intellectual worlds that, by and large, don’t often come together. As an employee of a moderately evangelical campus ministry, a teaching elder in a mainline presbyterian denomination, a chaplain at a university, and someone who lives in the South I regularly interact with people right across the theological spectrum. It’s invigorating and, sometimes, frustrating.

Take the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible, for example. In its simplest form the doctrine holds: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1994). This assertion, simple though it might appear, is actually quite a difficult proposition to establish. It has at least three constituent elements: (1) establishing the original manuscripts, (2) establishing the affirmation, and (3) establishing fact. These three elements bring in textual criticism, hermeneutics, and historiography. What seems, on its face, a simple affirmation has turned into a complex interdisciplinary exercise largely beyond the scope of the average Christian. Of course, this complexity certainly doesn’t negate the importance or the validity of the doctrine. It does, or at least it ought, to give us pause before using the term.

In my denomination and on the university campus the term “inerrancy” is closely associated with fundamentalism of the Jerry Falwell variety. In my campus ministry the term is rarely mentioned. Among evangelical in the south the term is widely used and often closely associated with fidelity to the gospel.

The recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society featured a panel discussion featuring several theologians and biblical scholars. Of the several who participated, the presenter whose views fall closest to my own at are those of Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve enjoyed his writing for a while now and had the privilege to have his daughter Emma, herself a scholar and also a poet, as a student in Graduate Christian Fellowship.

His views are presented in this video. His proposal is a form of inerrancy that he refers to as Augustinian. At the end of the day it is difficult to establish whether or not the Bible is demonstrably inerrant. Perhaps the wiser choice is to follow the lead of Gerald Bray. In his systematic theology God is Love (Crossway, 2012) he argues that the Bible ought to be treated as “functionally inerrant.”