Every now and then, I’m accused of having my head in the clouds. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
That’s why I was surprised and refreshed when a South African podcaster approached me a few months ago asking to interview me on a fairly simple topic: Jesus. Who he is, what he has done in my life. (How does one say no to that?)
Although the podcast itself never made it to the proverbial airwaves, the recording was saved and made available to me. Below is an edited transcript of that interview. I pray it’s a blessing to you.
Q.: How did you become a believer? How did you encounter Jesus?
Wonderful question. I don’t have one of these testimonies that is flashy with lots of highs and lows, and dips and turns, and cliffhangers along the way. Mine is a pretty typical story, but one for which I thank God, because he chose in his grace to save me in, I think, what is probably the most normal way throughout the world, throughout places where the gospel has been, in countries and contacts that are evangelized where the church is established.
I grew up in a believing home to Bible-believing parents. My father is a former Roman Catholic. My mother had Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran backgrounds in her family, and they had landed on Baptist convictions by the time that I came around. I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and attended church and Christian school throughout my upbringing. I think I first made a profession of faith in Christ at about age three—so, very early on. And from a young age, I had experiences in church and in school where I was sharing my faith, defending the faith, becoming interested in theology, apologetics, and Scripture. I was always surrounding myself with those sorts of things.
I was that kid that was arguing with any unsuspecting passerby. Sort of buttonholing everybody with Jesus. And in my teen years, of course, I followed a trajectory that a lot of young men follow and was given over to lust, to sins of anger, and bitterness that were expressing themselves in some pretty destructive ways in my family. The Lord challenged me in regard to those things. My grandfather that I looked up to, I was named after. He passed away. I found myself a little bit aimless after that. God put me in a church where I was challenged to love other people, even with whom I disagreed. He used that to smooth out some of the rough edges that were there. Although those that know me would say no, there are still plenty of rough edges. But after that point, I think really the first time I began to see that fruit of repentance in my life. I begin to maturate and grow.
Looking back, I think I was converted from a young age. But the Lord really brought me into a serious walk with him marked by repentance, not just knowledge in my teen years. After that, I went to college for biblical studies and pursued ministry after that point. So, by the grace of God, I am what I am.
Q.: What do you think of Jesus from both an intellectual and emotional perspective?
I love that question. When I think back on my childhood and experience in church, in Sunday School, in a Christian School, hearing all the stories, all the lessons, there was probably a period of my childhood in which Jesus was just another Bible character. Obviously, he stands apart in some key ways, but I don’t know that every Christian child growing up really fully senses that. There’s Moses. There’s Peter. There’s Paul. There’s Joshua. There’s Jesus. He can sort of look like just one in this long cast of characters.
I think that when you’re young and you’re approaching Scripture from the outside and you’re beginning to become immersed in this world, you look at the Old Testament, and it’s these epic stories that span ages and cultures. And then you get to the New Testament and the stories feel smaller because it’s all just about one guy and the stories surrounding him in these three years of life. The pacing is different. I don’t know if, of course, a child would be able to identify that different dynamic, but it’s there.
But as I look back, I do remember a point where the person of Jesus Christ meant less to me than he does by the grace of God to me now. Of course, I’m a believer in Christ. I’m Protestant. I believe what all the creeds and confessions tell us about Christ. His virgin birth, his deity, his humanity, his penal substitutionary death, burial, resurrection, enthronement in heaven, and his return to rule and reign bodily to put all of his enemies under his feet and to consummate the new heavens and the new earth. And so, those are creedal statements that I hold to vigorously and firmly.
But there was a turning point in my life when the statements of our Lord—such as “if you’re going to love me and claim to love me, then follow my commands”—began to mean more to me than they had before. And so, Christ is Savior, and he is Lord. It’s a package deal. He is both the tender nurturing shepherd of his people who lays down his life for the sheep, for the flock of God, the children of God, to give them the right to be born of God. He’s also the Lord who directs their way, who rules, who governs over this world, but also in a special way over his church that visible assembly of people called by his name.
There’s so much that could be said. We’ll spend eternity exhausting this topic. And for me, my love often grows cold. I would be the first to admit. And so, we pray to the Lord daily that he would sharpen our affections towards him. In his grace and his sovereignty, he does that.
Q.: What emotional reactions do you have to Jesus when you think of Jesus? Or is your approach to Jesus more intellectual? And how does that look?
I’m wired more intellectually. But one thought that the Lord has used time and again—a thought that humbles me, and I ought to call it mind more—is the fact, I think, that if I were standing face to face with Jesus during his humiliation, not now in his glory, that he would appear to be a rather unassuming man. The Book of Isaiah makes clear that he had no form or comeliness that we would desire him (53:2). He grew up and was despised in the world’s eyes in many ways. He wasn’t the Brad Pitt type of figure with flowing hair, as he has been depicted in film and photography.
I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from recognizing that in his humiliation, he would have appeared like any other itinerant Jewish preacher on the outside. That humbles me. We live in a visual society. I’m a visual person. And I think we all want to be composed, put together, and be loved by others. That humbles me. At the same time, while there’s that emotional reaction, I also have an emotional reaction to who Christ is now in his glorified resurrected body and in his nature as God.
My son is eight. We’ve been reading through the Book of Revelation together each night. He just finished chapter 19. We’re reading about Christ on this white horse, and he’s got this tattoo on his thigh and his robe is soaked in the blood of his enemies. He’s treading down the winepress of the wrath of God. The sword of the word of God, the gospel, is coming out of his mouth. And of course, he’s cutting down nations with the sword of his word—the gospel proclamation conquering kingdoms and cultures. It’s a striking image. I don’t see how we could help but be affected by that emotionally.
Jonathan Edwards commented that the excellencies of God consist most in the contrasts between aspects of his attributes in the way that they’re displayed to us creatures. Not that there’s complexity in God. God is not composed of parts. God is a simple being. But we really see his glory refracted and diffused to our sense of perception in the striking, compelling ways in these contrasts—such as when we see that God is the God of both love and wrath.
One of those contrasts, when it comes to Christ, has to do with his humility. He won’t even break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoking flax, and he will not tire until he brings forth justice to the nations (see Isaiah 42:1-4). Contrast these statements of Christ’s humility in Isaiah in the servant songs with Revelation 19—that he’s brighter than the sun and he’s coming in all of his glory, defeating his foes. That he’s both a Lion and a Lamb. You can’t choose one or the other. And I think some of our errors are because we tend to gravitate to one or the other. We only want a God who will defeat our enemies for us, or we only want a picture of Christ who is meek, tender, and mild, and perhaps we don’t know how to hold the two together. But, of course, Scripture has given us both of these images to us for our good, so that we would know him, as he is and not as we want him to be. Those are the things that I think of when I meditate on Christ.
Q.: Let’s turn our attention to the local church. What do you believe the role of Jesus is in the church?
God’s covenant people extends throughout all of redemptive history. The church was promised and existed in a form as God’s people as early as when that first gospel promise was made in Genesis 3:15, that the snake crasher would crash the snake, and the seed of the woman would defeat Satan and fix and undo what Adam did.
At the same time, the New Testament church was distinctly instituted on the day of Pentecost. What makes that institution distinct in redemptive history is that they are now, in this age, the particular people of Christ who now know him by name—not just in types and shadows—who consciously identify themselves as followers of Christ, the Messiah.
I encountered somebody in my neighborhood a while back during a yard sale. We got to talk, and he was selling some DVDs. I bought some $2 DVDs from him that I didn’t really need, but it was an excuse to make some spiritual conversation with him. I found out he considered himself a follower of Christ and reads his Bible often. But because of that, he didn’t feel the need to be a part of organized religion on Sunday mornings. His attitude was: “If I’m following Jesus and if I’m reading my Bible, then why do I need that?”
Why should my neighbor go to church? Many of us who do faithfully attend church would respond with instrumental reasons. In other words, attend church because it will help you grow deeper, it will sharpen your love for Christ, it will help you get the accountability and the leadership that you need from pastors and fellow believers—those sorts of things.
Those are all instrumental reasons—tools that you use to your own ends. In each of those reasons, who’s the subject? Who’s the center of all those things? It’s me. The church is a tool for my sanctification. The church is a resource for me to enrich myself spiritually. I think that that’s fundamentally backwards. We think of ourselves and our consumeristic context as being at the center of Christ’s purpose for the church.
But Christ is at the center of the church. The church is his bride, but he is its head. He’s the reason we gather. We gather around him. I think we’ve got to think of the church that way instead of thinking of the church as something optional that we can tag onto our otherwise personal, individualistic faith. We need to realize that the church is the aim of the gospel. It’s the product of the work of redemption. It’s the focus of Christ in redemption.
Colossians 1 says that we have been transferred out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s beloved son. So, we can’t be saved out of the realm of sin, death, and hell without being placed into another sphere. And that alternative community that we are brought into is the community of saints, the community of believers. Cyprian said that no one has God as his father who does not have the church as his mother. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but I don’t particularly think it is. As we come union with Christ, it’s impossible to be unified with Christ as one’s Lord and one’s Savior—to experience the benefits of redemption—without in some way also being drawn into a relationship with the people that are also in union with him.
Following Christ is a team sport. Unfortunately, what we tend to do is to argue from exception. We think, “What about a pioneering missionary context where there is no access to a church?” We think of all the potential reasonable exceptions to that rule. And we use that to overthrow what is the clear testimony of Scripture, which is that there’s really no such thing as relating personally to Christ apart from his church. And that universal, invisible church, all his believers and saints, through time and history and that universal were invisible church, must find expression locally in a visible assembly of saints—which, as imperfect as it is, is critical.
Part of the reason that we’ve devalued the church today is because we have separated it from who Christ is and what he came to build. He said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He doesn’t say, “I’ll build my movement.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll build my social reform effort.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll build my organization,” or “my nonprofit,” or “my NGO.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll build my empire” in a geopolitical sense. He says, “I will build my church.” That touches all of life, not just what we do on Sundays. And if we truly love Christ, we will of necessity love and gather with His church.
Q.: If you look at the church over America and across the world, is Jesus truly represented in the church? What do you think of Jesus’ role in most of the church today?
We’ve got to be so careful because people build entire platforms of ministry on critiquing the church. How many books can you pick up on the shelf that are all about what the church has gotten wrong? Maybe it’s a friendly critique from within or a condemnation from outside the church, but I want to be really slow to bring an accusation against the church. It’s the bride of Christ. Those of us who are married men, there’s one thing you don’t do, and that’s to talk disparagingly of our wives. So, I never want to be found guilty of that.
But speaking to some church experiences locally that I’ve had where we are in the US, what I’ve seen is often times with, I think, the best of evangelistic intentions, what we do, especially in the attractional and seeker-driven movements, is that we bring people into church show them that we can be friendly, that we can be approachable, that Christianity is for you. Give us a try. The way that I’ve seen that fleshed out is actually what I would call a form of soft legalism. A lot of us are accustomed to reject legalism—we want to reject some of the high church forms that Americans, for whatever reason, have reacted so harshly against. That’s in our cultural DNA here. But we actually swing the pendulum to a different form of soft legalism, friendly legalism with a smile.
So, we reject the Roman Sacramental System that presupposes that there are all these rites and rituals that can dispense grace automatically as they engage in those sacraments. We reject that, and we believe that we connect with Christ through faith. And yet, when we build these attractional, seeker-driven types of churches, oftentimes we’re saying “come to us, and we’ll show you the best way to live your marriage.” We will spend two or three months doing “ten steps to a better marriage” or “how to live a happier life that work.”
Make no mistake: I believe that Jesus changes everything. I believe in all of Christ for all of life. But I also think that Christian Smith, the sociologist of religion, in his identification of moralistic, therapeutic deism, is on point. That’s exactly what we have here in the United States. It’s moralistic because it’s about life lessons. It’s therapeutic in that it’s about me feeling better, self-actualizing, and solving my felt needs. And it’s deism because it’s a God who created the world but who’s not really active in providence, and I can put him back up on that shelf when I’m done with him. That’s essentially what we see in the church in the US, and it, in effect, replaces Christ and the gospel with law. It’s good advice, not good news.
One of the things that I love about our particular church is that we simply preach the word. We talk about Jesus a lot. We make Christ and the gospel and the call to faith and repentance in Christ the center. At the end of every service, we partake of the supper regularly to remind ourselves of Christ. And what I love is seeing how God has grown his church naturally through that. Because what’s funny about the bait-and-switch logic, which says, “Let’s bring them in with programs and with practical life application and hope that they absorb Jesus by osmosis along the way,” is that is it subverts the expectations of believers and unbelievers alike. Believers end up not being fed, because they, with renewed hearts, just want Jesus. And we’ve seen the church growth through that, by the way. People are coming and they’re just saying, “Hey, there’re no thrills. There’re no frills. There’s just Christ, and we just want more of him. We want to hear his word. We want to experience him as his spirit is present among his people.”
But even the unbeliever that comes into a church would expect to find Jesus there, would he not? It would be strange if I went to a local mosque, and I found them talking about pop culture and not really talking about Islam. I would be thrown off. I would expect Muslims to be about their god, their religion. And for Christianity and for the church, I’m going to expect, whether I personally believe or not, that they’re about Jesus.
We must make sure our churches are faithful in that regard and that we’re spreading the table, week in and week out, feeding people with Christ. Just as Jesus instructed Peter to “feed my sheep,” we’ve got to feed people on Christ. That’s what the Lord’s table is all about. We need to feast on Christ—not in the sense of transubstantiation, as in the Roman Catholic mass—but in terms of who he is and feasting on him spiritually. He’s our source of life.
Q.: How does that sort of focus on Jesus look at your church? How does the worship look? How do the sermons look?
Great question. So, in our church, our standard liturgy (everyone has a liturgy, whether you call it that or not. Liturgy is your order of worship, the rudiments that you follow) is very much centered on Christ and particularly on his word. Worshiping him through his word—by singing it to him, in corporate prayer, and then hearing it. The worship, the singing, the prayer, partaking of the Lord’s supper—and our sitting and hearing the word preached, that’s also part of the worship. Everything is worship, not just the singing.
For us, we typically begin with a call to worship. That is a psalm or a section of Scripture. We stand and respond to that together. Then we sing. And then, beyond that, we go into a pastoral prayer that’s a lot longer than I think what the American attention span would be. It’s usually at least five minutes, and it’s usually prepared in advance. But that pastoral prayer is doctrinally rich, and it’s mostly focused on extolling God for who he is.
Of course, we don’t only want to be Christ-centered but also Trinitarian. So, in a few series of these pastoral prayers, we will focus on one Person of the Trinity or another. We believe that all our worship is Trinitarian. We are approaching the Father through Christ, through the work of Christ in the power and application of that work afforded by the Spirit of God. Through the Father, through the Son, and the Spirit is how we approach worship.
And then our entire liturgy follows. We approach God. We prepare. Sometimes there’s prayer. Sometimes there’s a confessional element, at least in the pastoral prayer. We acknowledge our failure. And then as we sing, and as we respond, we want to make sure that as much as possible that the arc of those songs, those prayers, the Scripture readings—we do public reading of Scripture—follow some sort of arc. Just as in the Old Testament you’re approaching the holy place, so in the New Testament as well, as we gather, we are approaching God, and there is a sense of preparing ourselves.
Finally, we get to the feast where Christ is made present with us through his word. The Lord’s table is also the climax in a sense—that as we experience Christ in his word, we also just want to delight ourselves and remember what he’s done for us in his death, burial, and resurrection. And then a closing song and benediction. So, we believe that the corporate worship experience should tell that gospel story. And we also believe that all our worship is not only Christ-centered but Trinitarian.
Q.: As you focus on Jesus, do you feel the Holy Spirit moving in your church in a tangible way? Do you believe that the Holy Spirit is blessing your church? In what ways do you think that’s happening?
Yeah. It’s a great question. Probably open to interpretation, right? What does it mean to feel the Holy Spirit? So, cards on the table. I’m not much of a mystic. I’m not one for extreme emotional ecstatic experiences. I believe that can be a legitimate part of people’s walk with the Lord. I’ve had a few of those experiences myself. But I also believe—and I think it holds true biblically that most of the time the ordinary Christian life is not lived from one emotional high to another emotional high, and that very oftentimes, God allows us to live daily life in the valley where we are not always feeling those thrills, and we walk by faith and not by sight—and so, with that said, I would say that the Holy Spirit is absolutely blessing our church through those ordinary means of grace. They are ordinary in the sense that preaching the word, administering the Lord’s table, baptism, these means of grace prayer that God has given to us—they aren’t flashy. They aren’t visibly, manifestly supernatural. And yet we believe that there’s real grace that’s administered there.
We believe the Holy Spirit is as much present when there is a surprising answer to prayer as he’s present when our pastor is in his study reading his commentaries, preparing a manuscript of his sermon. We believe the Holy Spirit just as much present in sermon preparation as he might happen to be if someone had a sudden sense that they should say something other than what was planned. We believe the Holy Spirit is superintending that entire process and that God has promised to make himself present in those ordinances and in all the means of grace that are given to the church. Our church has gone through difficulty over the last several years, yet God has blessed us in a rich, wonderful way over the last year as we come out of the pandemic and have been able to add many new members.
One of the things that I love about our church is the multi-generational aspect of it. I would encourage anyone listening: if you don’t have kids in your service, there’s something humbling and God-glorifying about the seriousness of the word preached juxtaposed against crying babies or babbling kids or coloring sheets being rustled at the same time. It’s a glorious thing when the family can gather together in that way. The Lord’s kindness has been shown to us in that regard.
Q.: Could you pray for us that Jesus would have his way in the church throughout the globe, and that he would be raised up and glorified?
Our merciful and gracious Heavenly Father, we come before you in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the power of your Spirit, to thank you for the work of Christ in redemption. We confess so often our hearts grow cold towards you, and like the church in Ephesus, we’re tempted to leave our first love, or to replace love with its counterfeit, which is an empty emotion of sentiment devoid of sound doctrine concerning you and your Son, and who you are in truth as you’ve revealed yourself to be in your word. Forgive us, Lord, for our coldness towards you at times. We pray that you would renew in us a sense of not only seriousness about the things of God but also seriousness about you. Help us not merely to believe in Jesus, but to believe Jesus. Let our devotion to you be intensely personal.
Lord, we pray for anyone here that may not be a part of a church right now. Maybe their church closed through COVID, maybe they’ve been between churches. Lord, would you draw them into intimate, close personal fellowship with the body of believers and let them see Christ at work in the fellowship of the saints, as you’ve called us to worship you each week on the Lord’s day and to receive the means of grace with which you’ve set the table in the local church, from the preaching of the word down to everything else that you’ve ordained for us, that you’ve done for our good? And Lord, we pray that the name of Jesus would be glorified, would advance, would become famous in Pennsylvania, in South Africa, and everywhere in between, even through strife and racial tension and all the sorts of things in which we see the nations raging and the kingdoms plotting in vain. Lord, be glorified, and use this to sharpen our affections and to make us more zealous for you as we carry out your mission. We love you and thank you. In Christ’s name, amen.