The Christian, Art, and Rediscovering John the Baptist

One of the more memorable experiences I have had in an art museum occurred seven years ago. My doctoral supervisor, and then colleague, invited me and one of his soon-to-graduate PhD students [1] to the Kimbell Art Museum to view Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (1604).

As a part of a study abroad program, the three of us had toured museums in England where our mentor had shown us the merits and benefits of how to enjoy art, and the relationship of Christianity and the arts. Thus, when the invitation came to go to the Kimbell, I was glad to accept though I had not seen before anything by Caravaggio.

My professor explained that this was a painting he could spend an extended amount of time just appreciating its magnificence. While I appreciated art, I had not built up the stamina or skills to spend much more than an instructional time in observation, so I was not sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the Kimbell, my professor led us to the painting. There was a large crowd milling about as Caravaggio’s work was there on loan as a part of a larger exhibit. My professor made some helpful instructional remarks and I read the accompanied description. We positioned ourselves to observe the painting from a short distance as the crowd lilted around, before, and behind us.

And then as if trapped in a time-lapse video, we, in silence, just gazed.

The more I looked and fought off distraction and a shortening attention span, the more I began to see things I had not before seen. The more I settled in and helped my mind to realize there was “nothing next” and that I wasn’t soon leaving, the more I saw the brilliance of what was painted. I noticed choice of color, positioning of the figure, background detail, and, of course, the wonderful use of light and shadow.

This was not a mystical experience nor was there anything mysterious about the painting that revealed itself only to those who could stare the longest. No, the reward came, like in any discipline, in giving one’s mind and heart uninterrupted time to reflect and appreciate.

Through this experience and others, as a Christian viewing works of art, whether art specifically designed to illuminate truth revealed in the special revelation of the Bible or truth revealed generally in creation, I’ve come to develop a few questions to guide my reflection and observation.

  • How does this work glorify God? Whether through the gifts given to the artist or to the works or attributes of God depicted in the art itself, this is a helpful question to search for the answer. For not all art glorifies God nor is edifying to review or contemplate. And often, God-glorifying art is created by flawed artists–the artist need not always have pure motives or an impeccable life to produce God-glorifying art.
  • What is good, true, and beautiful about this work? [2] And how does this work point to truth revealed in general revelation and special revelation? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake remind that God made things beautiful, and reveals beautiful things, “to reflect his own beauty. And if God is beautiful, and if his creation is beautiful, then there is an objective measure for beauty, and we can think critically about it” [3]. To be sure, there is a subjective element to the evaluation and appreciation of art, and what one calls good, another may disagree. However, the Christian knows there is an objective standard to goodness, truth, and beauty and thus should evaluate all art by that basic standard.
  • What can I appreciate about the talents and techniques used by my fellow human being, the artist? Philip Ryken expounds on God’s giving skill and gifts in “all kinds of crafts” in Exodus 31 as evidence that God loves art and artists [4]. Just as we appreciate the skill of a spectacular soloist, or an elite athlete, or simply a brilliant coworker, we can appreciate the work of an artist.

When these questions are applied to Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” there is much to observe and much to learn.

  • Caravaggio’s work glorifies God in his portrayal of the humanity of John the Baptist, and thus his faithfulness to the biblical account. This is not iconography or an attempt at a image designed to replace the reading of the Bible. It is an instructive piece.
  • Caravaggio’s specific depiction of John the Baptist evokes thoughts of what is good, true, and beautiful about John’s life and ministry. Here one sees John as contemplative, as one living among the discomforts of the desert and his camel’s hair clothing, “crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3-4), and fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. One sees the depiction of a man bearing a cross-shaped reed, as one who is like a reed not shaken by the wind (Mt 11:7). This is a painting of a man who knows he is not worthy of untying the sandals of the Messiah (Jn 1:27). This is a “holy and righteous man” (Mk 6:20) of whom Jesus said there is “no one greater” (Mt 11:11), yet he is one who would prefer the shadow to Christ’s light. The arrival of John marked the end of the Law and the Prophets (Lk 16:16). He, filled with the Holy Spirit, came “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). The Baptist was one who aimed to decrease, not increase (Jn 3:30). This painting shows a man who will lose his head for proclaiming truth (Jn 6:27).
  • Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow is captivating as, though it is easy to forget in our digital age, this was painted long before the invention of the photograph. Further, his choice of color, his positioning of his figure, and the life-like size of the painting are all aspects of Caravaggio’s genius that make this painting “worth seeing” in person.

The wonders of my experience seeing Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist” for the first time returned to me, in a surprise rediscovery, this week. As I was making some notes for a family trip to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, I found that the permanent home of Caravaggio’s painting was, in fact, the Nelson-Atkins. The painting that my professor led me to as a special event to see in person several years ago, resides here in my town.

Thus, I can now venture out to see that “reed in the wilderness” and share with others what my professor shared with me.

———

For my visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, I made these quick notes that I am happy to share with any interested in seeing some of the collection. There is much more to see than this list.

[1] My doctoral supervisor was Malcolm B. Yarnell III. Our friend and colleague who joined us was W. Madison Grace II.

[2] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011), explains that the triad classification of the true, the good, and the beautiful originated with Plato and Plotinus. Yet, Christian thinkers recognized this formula as consistent with biblical truth as well. Scruton states that Aquinas regarded these as “‘trancendentals’ — features of reality possesed by all things, since they are aspects of being, ways in which the supreme gift of being is made manifest to the understanding.” See also, John Levi Martin, “The Birth of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful: Toward and Investigation of the Structures of Social Thought,” in Reconstructing Social Theory, History, and Practice 35 (2017): 3-56; and Harry L. Poe, “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” in See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism (Kregel, 2004).

[3] Paul Munson & Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2014).

[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake (P&R, 2006). See also Jerram Barrs, “How Do We Judge the Arts?,” in Echoes of Eden (Crossway, 2013), and Clyde S. Kilby, The Arts and the Christian Imagination (Mount Tabor, 2016).

On First Looking into Spurgeon’s Sermons

In 1816, poet John Keats wrote a sonnet to describe the delight and awe he experienced when reading the works of Homer in English for the first time. While Keats knew Latin, he did not know Greek and thus had no access to Homer until a friend introduced him one night to a translation by the Elizabethan author, George Chapman.

Keats and friend spent the evening reading Homer aloud and by morning, Keats had written, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to capture the wonder he felt with what he had read. [1] Keats wrote, in part:

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;

Rare is the work that causes the reader to feel like an astronomer who discovers a new planet, but that was Keats’s experience reading Homer.

As one who reads a variety of books, papers, and articles, I, too, have had this experience from time to time while reading. Of course, it goes without saying that reading the divine, living, and active Word of God (Heb 4:12) allows the believer in Christ, filled by the Holy Spirit, to experience this awe and illumination on a supernatural level. Yet, rarely, have I experienced what Keats’s describes when reading a human author. But, when I have, it is life changing.

Over the last year, I have had such an experience whilst reading the earliest sermons of Charles Spurgeon. Written during 1851-1854 during the time of his first pastorate in Waterbeach, near Cambridge, these sermons are more than the early “trial-runs” of a young preacher. Yes, Spurgeon was 16-19 years old at the time, but even then his God-given gifts of genius and zeal were on display.

The sermons I have been reading are those he recorded in notebooks that are only recently seeing publication. Spurgeon had desired to publish these sermons himself as early as 1857, but the “pressure of rapidly-increasing work” kept them from wider reading.[2]

In 2017, B&H Academic started what will become a nine volume series to publish all 400 of Spurgeon’s “lost sermons.” I’ve been asked to edit the fourth volume of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon (due out from B&H Academic in November 2020) and through this process I’ve come to know again how Keats’s felt when reading Homer.

Waterbeach was a rural community that Spurgeon described as “a village notorious for its drunkenness and profanity.”[3] As Spurgeon continued to preach his sermons and record them in his notebooks, he discerned a significant spiritual roadblock within the congregation, Antinomianism.

He relates, “In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians,–that is, people who held that, because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked. I hope that heresy has to a great extent died out, but it was sadly prevalent in my early ministerial days.”[4]

As a result, many of the sermons in this volume address topics related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sanctification, perseverance, holiness, and hypocrisy. As one example, in his 210th sermon, Spurgeon declares:

“This will touch those who are the most moral. Religion is attended to because it is respectable and helps business. But we ought to have a single eye to God’s glory. Business, the world, are followed so hotly and religion too cooly. Surely this is God and Baal. But no. God must be our aim. His service, our delight. When we are too anxious or too elevated by our affairs, there is much danger. Hands too full make a heart too dull. May God make us wholly his.”[5]

He then continues, showing that the path to sincere and pure devotion to God is through Scripture alone:

“We must not have a creed partly founded on Scripture and part on Man. It must be wholly what the Bible says and not at all what John Calvin, John Wesley, John Gill, or any mortal man says. Not the Bible and the Prayer-book, nor the Hymn Book.

“No arguments must be allowed from tradition for infant sprinkling or believer’s immersion either. No pope, no canons, no synods, decrees, Nicene creed, or Athanasian creeds. If experience, so called, opposes Scripture, throw it away. We must not aim so much at consistency with ourselves as with the Word of God.”[6]

During his years at Waterbeach, the Baptist Church grew and many from the town came to hear Spurgeon and were converted.  As Spurgeon’s Autobiography relates, “it pleased God to turn the whole place upside down. In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing.”[7]

As I have wrapped up my editorial work of these sermons, I can only join Susannah Spurgeon in her assessment that these earliest sermons “are valuable, not only because of their intrinsic merits, but also as the first products of the mind and heart which afterwards yielded so many discourses to the Church and the world, for the glory of God and the good of men.”[8]

Indeed, like Keats, on first looking into Spurgeon’s sermons, I have found joy and awe in the work of Spurgeon, the man, but also in the work of Spurgeon’s God to whom Spurgeon’s sermons point on every page.


To learn more about The Lost Sermons project or Charles Spurgeon, see the home of The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Seminary, which houses 6,000 volumes from Spurgeon’s personal library in Kansas City, Missouri.

In a Field in Williamstown, the Wittenberg Door of American Evangelical Missions

In the summer of 1806, several dedicated young men attending the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began to gather regularly to pray and read reports of the burgeoning work of Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and the new Baptist Missionary Society in England.

On one occasion, while meeting in a field adjacent to the college campus, the students, trapped by a thunderstorm, took shelter in a haystack. Haystacks in 1806 were not the manicured and tightly bound variety that are arranged neatly as viewed from the 21st century roadside.

Rather, these were the versions piled as high as a human could assemble with only a pitchfork and a sundown deadline. Thus, like a quickly assembled snow fort, the young men of Williams dove into and carved out a hay-lined shelter to continue their meeting. What they found, though, was far more rewarding than had they discovered a missing needle.

The “Haystack Prayer Meeting” resulted in the dedication of these young men to personal participation in the global missions task, and the ensuing years led to the entry of a formal American participation with the sending of Adoniram and Ann Judson along with several others to the East.

Herein, we can see a dotted line from 1806 to the present, for the Haystack Prayer event is, in many ways, the Wittenberg Door of American evangelicalism’s awakening to the need and universal call for all believers to support, organize, and send many for global gospel proclamation.

Famously, the Judsons would change from Congregationalists to Baptists en route to Burma, and through them and the aid of Luther Rice, the Baptist Board for Foreign Missions was formed. Now mobilized toward sending and supporting world evangelism, Baptists in America saw and had a need to form a national denomination, and did so in 1814, in what would become known as the Triennial Convention.

This is no small point for our denominationally averse age to miss: the reason why Baptist churches sought to cooperate at a national level, with all of its necessary machinery, politics, stresses and strains, was for the purpose of uniting to send the gospel to those who have never heard (Rom 15:21).

Three decades later, due to the tragedy of many Baptists in the South defending the practice of slavery, this national denomination divided in two, and the Southern Baptist Convention began and, eventually, also the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). But, even through tragedy, the connection to the Haystack remained.

Likewise, many other evangelical denominations can trace their entree into global mission advocacy back to that meeting in the fields behind Williams College, and that is what makes that location and that moment in 1806 so meaningful. For, in that sense, it is right to connect the sending today of any American evangelical missionary to those college students praying during a thunderstorm 213 years ago.

Recognizing the significance of that 1806 prayer meeting, later missions supporters dedicated in 1867 The Haystack Prayer Monument on the grounds of Williams College, where it still resides in the College’s Mission Park. [1]

And this week, the Midwestern New England Study Tour convened in Williamstown to see the monument and to reflect on the 1806 event and to consider the idea of the Haystack Prayer Meeting as the Wittenberg Door for Amercian Great Commission engagement.

In recent years, we have rightly remembered the 500th anniversary of the actual Reformation events the door in Wittenberg helped to launch, events that would encourage the later formation of Williams College and many Protestant churches in New England.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Reformation’s gospel recovery, it is good and right also to consider the impact of a group of praying students, heirs of Wittenberg themselves, on the modern missions movement of global gospel proclamation.

Here we stand (and pray) with them.

The Midwestern Seminary & Spurgeon College New England Study Tour gathered at Williams College, May 14, 2019.

Photos: Ronni Kurtz.

[1] The monument reads, “The Field is the World. The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” The selection of the phrase, “The Field is the World,” is an intriguing one, but not unique given the time and missionary context. Taken from Matthew 13:38 and the Lord Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, the correlation of the harvest field to the world appears first as merely background information, a description of the stage on which the parable would take place. However, as many would rightly note, the acknowledgement that the boundaries for the proclamation of the gospel are global is good and significant news for all dwellers in time and space distant from the land of Israel in the era of the New Testament. An example of how a missionary minded preacher interpreted and applied Matthew 13 in the mid-nineteenth century is Gardiner Spring (1785-1873), and his sermon “The Extent of the Missionary Enterprise” (1840).

The Particular Baptists’ Most Important Convert

Henry Jessey (1601-1663) rose to prominence as pastor of the “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church” [JLJ] in Southwark in early seventeenth-century London during the time when Baptists in England were undergoing their initial formalization.[1]

Jessey never married, wrote extensively, played key political roles during the Interregnum, and preserved the early history of the English Particular Baptist movement, which would grow to shape Baptists around the world.

Further, as the pastor of the church out of which the early English Particular Baptist movement would form, Jessey was a late adopter of the Baptists’ practice of believer’s baptism by immersion.

This immersion came better-late-than-never given his growing prominence and influence as the sustainer of these early Baptists. So much so, many have dubbed Jessey “the most important convert won by the Particular Baptists” in the seventeenth century. [2]

Yet, rarely has Henry Jessey been the subject of dedicated study, despite his mention in almost every text devoted to Baptist history.[3]

This need is why I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to contribute a chapter on Jessey in the revised edition of the recently released first volume of The British Particular Baptists.

My chapter examines one aspect of the life and thought of Henry Jessey for the purpose of  providing further understanding of the historical and theological development among seventeenth-century English Baptists.

To accomplish this, I provide:

  • A survey of Jessey’s conversion and his later adoption of believer’s baptism.
  • An exploration of how Jessey’s understanding of baptism affected the rest of his ecclesiology, or what I call his “mixed” ecclesiology, which would influence John Bunyan and then, even, C. H. Spurgeon.
  • An evaluation of Jessey’s mixed ecclesiology and those it influenced.

Here is more information about this new book:

The British Particular Baptists, Vol 1, Revised Edition

Edited by Michael A. G. Hayin & Terry Wolever
Particular Baptist Press, 2019.


  • British Particular Baptist Biography by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Thomas Patient (1591-1666) by Dennis Bustin
  • John Spilsbury (1593-ca.1662/668) by James M. Renihan
  • Benjamin Coxe (1595-ca.1676) by Samuel Renihan
  • Hanserd Knollys (ca.1599-1691) by Barry H. Howson
  • Henry Jessey (1601-1663) by Jason G. Duesing
  • Christopher Blackwood (1605-1670) by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III
  • William Kiffen (1616-1701) by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Edward Harrison (ca.1618-ca.1673) by Jeremy Walker
  • Henry Danvers (ca.1619-1687/88) by Tom James
  • Thomas Delaune (ca.1635-1645-1685) by Andy Compton
  • John Bunyan (1628-1688) by Ben Rogers
  • Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) by Tom J. Nettles
  • Andrew Gifford, Sr. (1641-1721) by Robert Strivens
  • Hercules Collins (a.1647-1702) by Steve Weaver
  • David Crosley (1669-1744) by Jonathan Arnold
  • John Piggott (ca.1670-1713) by Steve Weaver

[1] The JLJ church is common designation for London’s first congregational church established in 1616. It received this name after the first initial of its first three pastors, Henry Jacob (1562-1624), John Lathrop (1584-1653), and Henry Jessey.

[2] Murray Tolmie, The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Church of London 1616-1649 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 59.

[3] In the centuries following Jessey’s death, many have labored to preserve his legacy, in part, as various accounts of his life were recorded soon after his death. For an analysis of these works see Jason G. Duesing, ed., Counted Worthy: Readings from the Life and Writings of that Ancient Servant Henry Jessey (Memphis, TN: Borderstone Press, 2012) and Jason G. Duesing, Henry Jessey: Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet (Mountain Home, AR: Borderstone Press, 2016).

Christian Living–In Our Heads, In Our World

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time with faculty, students and friends at the great Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In addition to meeting with students to talk about what it would look like for them to continue their education at Midwestern Seminary #forthechurch, I spoke twice in chapel.

In two messages, I aimed to help students think through (1) how to live the Christian life when we face internal challenges and temptations in our minds and then (2) how to live when we face external challenges and temptations in the surrounding culture.

The answers to these questions are ones I first learned, in part, as a new believer in my undergraduate years, but, candidly, am still learning. In part, these were two messages I needed to revisit and review this week, and I am glad Cedarville gave me the opportunity to do that.

Here is the first message, “The Most Important Discipline I Learned in My 20s: Conquering Sin by Remembering and Reminding” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Here is the second message, “Is this a dream? No, It’s far worse … and better” (Psalm 73)

I’ve been thinking through these themes for a few years and, thus, you can read some earlier thoughts in article form on each message here and here.

Cedarville University has risen to the top as one of the best schools in Christian Higher Education in their theological commitments, integration of the Bible throughout the curriculum, and overall campus community and campus life. In addition, they have a near 100% job placement rate for graduates to career employment. Cedarville University is a wonderful place for future students to consider for their undergraduate studies.

The Most Important Discovery I Learned in Seminary

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is one of the greatest novels, and for good reason. Melville writes in such a way that you have to stop just to marvel at the way he crafts a sentence.  Even Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Marylinne Robinson, is left without many words when describing Melville,

“What can we say? He had a gift.” [1]

Yet, to read Moby-Dick is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters that cover biology, geography, nautical intricacies, and more information about whales and the use of whales in the 19th century than you might imagine.

It is said, if you want to learn about 19th century sewer systems, read Les Misérables, if you want to know all there is to know about whales, read Moby-Dick. [2]

Yet, while in the middle of reading, it may seem tangential, the details all serve a purpose—Melville is driving you toward a final battle with the White Whale, and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of that battle, in full, without first going on his instructional journey. 

In the same, yet even more majestic and glorious way, is the use and value of the Old Testament.

When one reads through the Old Testament, inspired as it is by God Himself, one often needs to stop just to marvel at the words and the One they describe—his might, his mercy, his mystifying patience—his character.

What can we say, He is a gift. 

Yet, to read the Old Testament is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that might appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters on genealogy, indices of laws, detailed descriptions of movements of people, lengthy poetry and prophecy—instructions we may not fully understand. 

Yet, when “reading through the Bible,” while some parts may seem tangential, they do serve an ultimate purpose.  God, through his authors, is driving you toward His Christ—and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of His life, death, and resurrection, in full, without first going on this instructional journey.

This journey is one I started while in seminary and it is where I learned my most important discovery: I absolutely love and treasure the Old Testament.  

Last year around this time, I preached a message in Midwestern Chapel I called “The Most Important Discipline I Learned in Seminary,” which followed from my 2017 message The Most Important Doctrine I Learned in Seminary.”

This year, I returned to this theme with “The Most Important Discovery I Learned in Seminary.” For this discovery of my love for the Old Testament proved (and still proves) to be one of the greatest sources of joy, comfort, correction, and illumination I have found in living the Christian life.

Using the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:11, I aimed to show:

  1. The Old Testament was written for us to see God’s character
  2. The Old Testament was written for us to read God’s instructions
  3. The Old Testament was written for us to see God’s Christ

To hear the entire message with further explanation along with my suggestions for how to put this discovery into practice, you can watch this recording from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary & Spurgeon College:

[1] Drew Bratcher, “Reading Moby-Dick with Marylinne Robinson,”  The Gospel Coalition May 1, 2018.

[2] For more introduction to the reading of Moby-Dick see Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (Penguin Books, 2013); R. C. Sproul, “The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby-Dick,” Tabletalk, August 1, 2011; James Hamilton, “Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,’” For His Renown, June 14, 2011; Connor Grubaugh, “James and Melville, Two American Minds,” First Things, February 2, 2018.

The Silver Chair and the Solas

C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair begins just like the three preceding Narnia books.[1] Following a suspenseful event, children in England find themselves transported to the magical land through an extraordinary doorway. Yet what makes the story of The Silver Chair unique is what happens when they arrive.

In this story, the cousin of the children in the earlier tales, Eustace Scrubb, and his friend, Jill Pole, are talking at school and Eustace tells her about this land to which he has traveled and together they start calling Aslan, the Lion lord of Narnia, to ask if they can return. As they are talking, they are chased by some other schoolmates and they run to a door and open it only to find they are in Narnia.

There they find they are in a forest at the edge of a cliff and, long story short, after a moment, Eustace falls off the cliff, and before Jill knows what happened, the lion Aslan appears and doesn’t roar or speak, but rather breathes—and he, in effect, breathes wind strong enough to capture Eustace and send him further and safely into Narnia. Bewildered, Jill turns and encounters the Lion, who gives her a task and then explains that he will send her into Narnia via his breath, just as he sent Eustace.

Aslan commands, “Walk before me to the edge of the cliff.” So the girl walks to the edge with nothing between her and the depths but a powerful Lion. “But long before she had got anywhere near the edge, the voice behind her said, “Stand still.” And Aslan reminded her of his instructions.

Lewis then explains that as the Lion’s voice grew softer, “To [Jill’s] astonishment she saw the cliff already more than a hundred yards behind her, and the Lion himself a speck of bright gold on the edge of it. She had been setting her teeth and clenching her fists for a terrible blast of lion’s breath; but the breath had really been so gentle that she had not even noticed the moment at which she left the earth [and] floating on the breath of the lion was so extremely comfortable. She found she could lie on her back or on her face and twist anyway she pleased, just as you can in water.”

Jill Pole was passive, along for the ride on the vessel or bridge of the breath of a Lion. She was delivered by word-speaking-breath alone to Narnia. She would never think of boasting that she crossed that cavern of air on her own strength, yet she traveled in responsive obedience to the Lion’s command. Further, she was sent to do good works, but her good tasks were the fruit of what she would do after she was transported by breath alone, not the cause.

Aside from acknowledging the journey across the divide, she did not conclude that she had nothing more to do once she arrived—far from it. She didn’t set off following her own desires or sit and do nothing. Rather, it was clear she was transported for a purpose. Further, she could receive no praise for delivering herself to Narnia, all credit clearly had to go to the Lion.

Aslan’s delivery of Jill to Narnia is a helpful picture of what the Bible articulates as saving faith and what the Protestant Reformers called sola fide or faith alone. What is more, for those of us living in the twenty-first century, how one understands the relationship of their faith in Christ and their obedience to Christ makes all the difference for living a life of joy and God-glorifying freedom.

Thinking through this idea of “Faith Alone” was my assignment for a chapter in the new book edited by Jason K. Allen, Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church (Moody Press, 2019).

In that chapter, I explore first what the Bible says in Romans 1:16–17. Next, to provide historical context and illustration, I examine how faith alone played an instrumental role in the conversion of a Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther. Finally, I summarize how faith alone serves the believer well for all that God asks of us in the present day.


Here is more information about this new book:

Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church

Jason K. Allen, General Editor
Moody Press, 2019.

Available from Amazon & Moody.


  • Foreword – Tony Merida
  • Introduction – Jason K. Allen
  • Scripture Alone – Jason K. Allen
  • Grace Alone – Jared C. Wilson
  • Faith Alone – Jason G. Duesing
  • Christ Alone – Matthew Barrett
  • Glory to God Alone – Owen Strachan
  • Conclusion – Jason K. Allen

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (MacMillian, 1953).

Mr. President, Can You Tell Us About Your Relationship With Jesus Christ?

I’ve spoken only to one U.S. President. 22 years ago this week, I asked George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) a question. 22 years later, during the week of his passing, I find myself still thinking about the kind and gentle answer he gave.

As a Speech Communications major at Texas A&M University, I was invited to hear President Bush give a lecture on presidential rhetoric December 2, 1996 titled “Presidential Leadership and the Management of International Crises.” A well-attended event, this presentation was a part of the lead up to the forthcoming 1997 dedication of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Center and the Bush School of Government & Public Service.

Those were heady days in College Station, Texas. Jersey Street, one of the main and well-known thoroughfares in town, at least since the time my father and sisters went to school there, was renamed in honor of Bush.  The small regional airport now welcomed dignitaries and other former presidents. Thus, to get to hear this president on the eve of so much of the world coming to our college town was special, hard to take in, and comprehend.

Bush gave his lecture in a stadium-seating auditorium and a classmate of mine and I sat half-way up, behind the faculty and other noted guests, in a crowd totaling nearly a thousand. I remember marveling at the dignity and grace of President Bush, something we all know well now and have recounted this week in a myriad of tributes.

At the time, Bush was popular in College Station, but the books on his presidency had yet to be written and an assessment of his life had not yet come into full view for the world, and certainly not for me. He spoke of the challenges of leadership and, true to form, used self-deprecating humor, even playing clips of the comedian Dana Carvey’s caricatures. It was a great event and a great day.

At the conclusion of Bush’s lecture, there was time for students to ask questions. My heart started beating faster as I was not known as an “asker of questions,” but I had come prepared. To the surprise of my friend, I got up and asked George Herbert Walker Bush, “Given all you have seen and the crises you have managed, can you tell us about your relationship with Jesus Christ?”

At one level this was a sincere question—no aim at snark or gotcha. I was given the opportunity to ask a question, and I wanted to know what he thought. At another level, this was a test.  Not for President Bush, but for me.  A test of my new faith and my trust in God.

I had only been a believer in Christ Jesus for eighteen months at that time and would, in the next few days, receive baptism from the local Southern Baptist church I was attending.

Perhaps it was preparation for baptism that had me thinking about the public profession of my faith, I am not sure. But I remember thinking and praying before the event started and concluded that if there were time for questions, I wanted to ask President Bush about his faith and the role it played in his presidency. The test for me was whether I was willing to stand in public and ask such a question. Was I willing to run the risk of running the gauntlet of the crowd’s opinions and critique? Was I willing to stand and declare Christ openly?

Once I asked my question, the hundreds of people sitting between me and President Bush, including my professors, all turned and stared, and some glared, at me. There was a silence in that loud auditorium that seemed to last for five minutes, though I am sure it was only seconds.

In response, President Bush smiled. He then gave a gracious, self-deprecating explanation of his faith and, as a part of that, did affirm his faith in Christ.  There was an Episcopalian joke in there, too, and as someone reared in that tradition, I felt a connection, a bond, instantly with this man.

I now know Bush’s answer to my question was a response he gave elsewhere and to others.  His biographer, Jon Meacham, reported that the former president once was asked if he was “born again.” Bush replied, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clean-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.”[1]

But to me, in that auditorium, as someone trying to work out my newfound faith, it was quite inspiring.

After the event concluded, I remember leaving and my friend saying “I. can. not. believe. you just asked that question!”  I don’t recall what I said, but I remember smiling and trembling.

I went back to my apartment also stunned that I had just asked a former President of the United States any question at all. I kneeled by a chair where I had started a new practice of reading the Bible daily and I read this from Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)

I prayed and wondered who am I that God is mindful of me? I wondered at God’s helping me to even ask President Bush that question in public, and I wondered at President Bush’s kind, gentle answer.

Seeing President Bush laid to rest in College Station, Texas has stirred my mind and heart to remember that day 22 years ago.

Looking back now, I see a new believer still working out the questions of life and his place in the world. I also see a kind, gentle President giving a gracious response and testifying in public to his faith in Christ.

 

Jason G. Duesing is the author of Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism (B&H Books, 2018) and serves in academic leadership at Midwestern Seminay & Spurgeon College.

[1] Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, 2015), 298.

Don’t You Stir A Step: The First Californian Believer’s Baptism

This week, I am traveling to California for some meetings related to my work at Midwestern Seminary. As I was born in the Golden State, I always enjoy returning there.

In particular, I’ve been interested in the history of Christianity in California, and especially the development of my own Baptist tradition—for such history is not that old.

As I was traveling today, I recalled this short overview I wrote a few years ago that gives a brief account of the start of the Baptists in California and a reflection on how this history can give us hope for the present and future.

In November 1848, Osgood Church Wheeler, serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jersey City, New Jersey attending the regular Minister’s Meeting at the First Baptist Church of New York. While there a messenger from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society pulled him aside and asked him to meet with the Secretary who promptly stated, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.” Wheeler immediately declined having only served in Jersey City for less than a year and despite repeated requests in the coming weeks, maintained his belief that he was not to go.

The Society continued their requests making daily contact for sixteen days. The president of the Society, and current pastor of FBC New York, S. H. Cone, spoke at length to Wheeler attempting to convince him of the greatness of the work and the need for Wheeler to see this as an assignment of personal duty. But then Cone turned and said, “But do you know where you are going my brother? I would rather go as a missionary to China or Cochin-China, than San Francisco. Don’t you stir a step, my brother, unless you are prepared to go to the darkest spot on earth.”

Wheeler recounted, “on the morning of the sixteenth day, after a night of prayer, without sleep, and at the close of an unusually earnest and agonizing season at family devotions, a burden as distinct as that which rolled from the shoulders of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, at the foot of the cross, was removed from my shoulders, and my wife and I arose simultaneously, and without the interchange of a word, both broke out in the song:

To God I am reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child,
I will no longer fear.

An hour later, Wheeler sent word to the Secretary and despite doubts of ability and schedule, found he and his wife on a steamer departing for San Francisco on December 1, 1848.

After enduring great hardship and trials both in the westward journey and in the early months in California, Wheeler managed to establish a place of ministry and worked steadily among the many people who had taken the same path to the west in search of gold. One such individual was Col. Thomas H. Kellam, of Virginia, who arrived in March 1849. As the Religious Herald reported, Kellam, like the prodigal had traveled “in pursuit of the shining dust of the earth,” but in the course of his journey “found the gold tried in the fire, the pearl of great price.” Kellam, in a letter home wrote, “It is my privilege to communicate the intelligence that will be pleasing to you and to all my friends who love the Savior. I now thank my Heavenly Father I am able to inform you I have found peace in Jesus, and have all confidence in Him, that he is able to save me.”

Wheeler recounted that Kellam’s first task upon arrival in San Francisco was to find the missionary and request baptism and membership with the church—as he was well acquainted with the Baptists and desired to identify with them. Wheeler brought him before the church and after hearing his experience, the church voted to bring him as a candidate for baptism.

Wheeler presented the events of Kellam’s baptism:

“On the following Sabbath morning—it was the 21st of October, 1849, one of those lovely mornings that characterize San Francisco climate in autumn; clear, still, warm and cheerful to the fullest extent, we assembled at our humble sanctuary, on the north side of Washington street, one door east of Stockton.

“We had such a congregation as perhaps never assembled at any other time or place. The other churches in the city suspended their morning service. Their pastors with their officers and the body of their congregations were present and joined in the procession […]

“We formed with due deference to the rank and standing of our guests, and marched down Stockton street to Union, to Powell, to North Beach, where the water was shallow with sandy bottom. There was no wind that morning, and the water was clear and calm as a pond in the country.

“The whole train, from the church to the beach (about three quarters of a mile), marched with decorum and precision you would expect to see in a platoon of the regular army or nave on dress parade. At the water each department of the long and numerous procession took its assigned position in silence, and gave to all the exercises the most undivided attention.

“Rev. S.H. Willey, of the Presbyterian mission at Monterrey, who had been a fellow passenger with me from New York to that place, was on my left and, at my request, read portions of Scripture and announced they hymn. He was deeply moved, having never before witnessed the ordinance of baptism in the Bible mode, though born, reared and educated in New England and New York. Rev. Mr. Hunt of the Congregational Church was on my right and offered the baptismal prayer […]

When all was ready, the candidate, a noble specimen of man, 6 feet 2 inches tall and finely proportioned, took my hand, and we walked about 100 yards before reaching a depth of water sufficient for the ordinance. While we were thus going ‘down into the water,’ according to previous arrangement, the hymn was announced and the first two stanzas sung by the whole concourse; the last two were ‘coming up out of the water,’ (after the baptism in the scriptural form).

“And such singing I never elsewhere heard. It seemed as though every professional and every layman, every soldier and every marine, every officer and every subordinate, every citizen and every foreigner of the vast throng was suddenly and specially inspired by the holy grandeur and the spiritual significance of the divine ordinance which we were administering, to sing for that once, if never again on this side of heaven, with the fullness of both his spirit and his voice.

“And as we neared the shore and the song rang out the mighty paean of the last stanza, it seemed to evoke responsive strains from before the ‘great white throne,’ which, as they rolled over the battlements of the New Jerusalem, came down to mingle with and sanctify our best efforts to ‘Magnify the Lord’ in songs and praise to the Great Jehovah.

“The hymn was that inimitable effusion, written by Dr. Adoniram Judson, to be sung at the first baptism in the Burman Empire, at the beautiful pond on the bank of the Irrawaddi, at Rangoon, June 27, 1819, reading as follows:

“Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine
On these baptismal waters shine,
And teach our hearts, in highest strain
To praise the Lamb for sinners slain

“We love Thy name, we love Thy laws
And joyfully embrace Thy cause;
We love Thy cross, the shame, the pain
Oh, Lamb of God, for sinners slain.

“We plunge beneath Thy mystic flood,
Oh, plunge us in Thy cleansing blood;
We die to sin, and seek a grave
With Thee, beneath the yielding waves.

“And as we rise, with Thee to live,
O, let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The breath of life, the first of love.”

Thus, on October 21, 1849, in the bay of San Francisco, Thomas H. Kellam was the first to undergo believer’s baptism on that coast of the Pacific.

Since that day, testimonies arising from scores of churches all over the Golden State represent the Kingdom fruit of the gospel sown over the last 170 years. And yet, like a small pebble thrown into a large lake, this legacy began when O. C. Wheeler responded to the call of, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.”

Today, I pray and wonder whether God might continue to expand his Kingdom through a similar call to many other willing missionaries like Wheeler. For cities like Toyko and Dhaka, or for nations like North Korea or Somalia, men and women are needed who won’t “stir a step” unless they are prepared to go to the spiritually darkest spots on earth.

If our Lord delays his return, perhaps in 170 years there will be another O. C. Wheeler seeing the first baptism from the unreached peoples coming to Christ in some of these cities and nations.

While to our minds and hearts that might seem like an insurmountable task, as I walk daily among some of the brightest gospel-minded college and seminary students this nation has seen in generations, I can joyfully say this is my eager expectation and hope (Phil 1:20).

Adapted from O. C. Wheeler, The Story of the Early Baptist History in California (California Baptist Historical Society, 1888)

The Picture of Hope in Suffering

The year 2016 marked the centennial anniversary of America’s National Park Service. In celebration of the anniversary, a particular issue of National Geographic contained some amazing photos of several parks—as only National Geographic can capture.

Now, I pride myself on having a Jed Bartlet-like appreciation for the national parks, so when I looked at these photos, I was captivated. They were unlike anything I had seen. In a single image, you could see both day and night, shadow and light, sun and moon. The photographer, for hours at time, took thousands of pictures, and with the aid of technology, “compressed the best parts into a single photograph.” The result is a massive and sweeping image comprised of thousands of smaller photos.[i]

Yet, the more I looked, the less certain I was that I liked it. For these photos are attempts at seeing what is not meant to be seen—a full day all at once. The scenery was beautiful, yet odd. It was unnatural. Frankly, it wasn’t real.

When we face trials for which we don’t know the outcome or don’t understand the purpose, and struggle with wanting to know all the answers at once, it is like we are wanting to see a full photo of the end and the beginning, in one frame.

But were we to see such, I think we would be disappointed. It likely wouldn’t make sense, for it is neither real nor what God intends. God, in his kindness and wisdom and mercy, uses trials and hidden things to draw us closer to himself, and even when we can’t understand the outcome or the purpose, joy is revealed in the process.

In his first letter to his exiled and suffering readers undergoing trials, the Apostle Peter reminds that these trials are only “for a little while” (1 Peter 1:6-9). This is not Peter’s attempt to minimize them or belittle the pain and challenges they produce, but to offer another bolster of hope that even the longest of trials will, in fact, end.

Trials and sufferings are a part of a post-Genesis 3 world. They were not what God intended when he created the world. Whether the result of sin, physical malady, or material loss, trials and sufferings do not escape the believer in Christ (Jn 16:33) and, indeed, can serve as painful instruments of the evil one.

As we behold and experience the trials that are a shared burden in this world, believers often understandably question why God allows such to happen. Even though God, in his faithfulness and wisdom, may never allow his children to have the full understanding of why he permits suffering, Peter’s words here give a great deal of insight and help.

Trials, of all kinds, test our faith in crucible-like ways—ways that will show the greatness and goodness of God and result in our greater praise to him. This is, in part, because he endures the trials with us. The living hope we have of Christ himself within us is even better than the appearance of an additional man alongside Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace (Dan 3:25).

Through Christ, in every trial we have a shield of faith “with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). When we are tempted, God is faithful and “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” but will provide a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13).

Often the way to rejoicing is the way of weakness through suffering, and a powerful New Testament portrait of this is the life of the Apostle Paul revealed in 2 Corinthians. As J. I. Packer explains in is marvelous book, Weakness is the Way, the testimony Paul gives shows “Pain and exhaustion, with ridicule and contempt, all to the nth degree; a tortured state that would drive any ordinary person to long for death, when it would all be over. But, says Paul, Christ’s messengers are sustained, energized, and empowered, despite these external weakening factors, by a process of daily renewal within.”[ii]

Paul begins 2 Corinthians declaring that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). From this reliance comes “good courage” (2 Cor 5:6) and the ultimate lesson that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Packer writes Weakness is the Way from personal experience. He has lived a life of “physical and cognitive weakness” due to a head injury as a child. Yet, Packer’s early learning to rely on divine strength has sustained him. Writing in his eighth decade, after recovering from hip replacement surgery, he shares of his growing “acquaintance with Satan’s skill in generating gloom and discouragement.” Yet, in these years, he reveals, “[m]y appreciation of 2 Corinthians has also grown as I have brooded on the fact that Paul had been there before me …. The whole letter is an awesome display of unquenchable love and unconquerable hope.”

Even if we could see a National Geographic photo of our lives that shows the end and purpose of our suffering, I don’t think we would understand or like what we saw. Instead, by looking at the true Picture, Christ Jesus, while undergoing trials, both Paul and Packer show us the better way of endurance and the source of hope.

——

This article is an adaption from Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism now available from B&H Books.

Mere Hope
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and LifeWay from B&H Books. 

 

[i] Patricia Edmonds, “Photography That Layers Time,” National Geographic 229:1 (Jan 2016): 144.

[ii] J. I. Packer, Weakness is the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 99-101.