The Spirit always works through the Word

Highlighted Bible

Whenever I read or hear words like “resist the Spirit’s leading,” my first instinct is to cringe.[1. Unless I’m reading something like them in the Bible.]

This special appeal to the Spirit’s leading is most often used when espousing views contrary to those found in the words he inspired to be written on a host of issues like views of marriage and sexuality, the work of Christ, or the nature of God himself. And the question I find myself asking whenever I see the appeal made is a simple one: “How do you know?”

After all, if we can’t use the words the Spirit inspired to be our norming-norm, what do we use to determine whether or not we’re resisting him? Shifts in culture? Personal feelings and preference? (And as an aside, if you’re reading this and don’t believe Scripture is inspired and perfectly accurate in all it teaches, this really is a legitimate question. I want to know how you would determine this.)

I’m not sure we can do that. I’m not sure it’s possible to truly make the case. After all, the Spirit doesn’t work apart from the word he inspired. He always works through it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well when he wrote,

The Holy Spirit always works through the word of God. Now there are many people who claim that He works directly. That was what caused the Quakers to wander off from the main party of the Puritans. They said that the word was not necessary, that the Holy Spirit spoke directly to each person, in some secret mystical manner, by some ‘inner light’. Not at all! The Holy Spirit always uses the word: ‘This is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you,’ says Peter (1 Pet. 1:25). ‘Being born again,’ says Peter, ‘not by corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever’ (1 Pet. 1:23).[1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible Volume II: God the Holy Spirit, Logos edition]

It’s important that we wrestle with what’s going on in our culture, the shifts in beliefs and behaviors especially. But if anyone is going to make a convincing argument on why Christians need to change their views on a number of key controversial issues, it’s not going to be pitting the Spirit against Scripture. Our understanding of the word might genuinely be wrong, and he if so, he will inevitably correct that. But the Spirit always works through the word, and he is never going to run contrary to it.

What’s the first step?


I’m tired of evil. That sounds a little silly, I’m sure. But here’s what I mean. I’m tired of seeing news stories about events like what happened in Charlottesville. I’m tired of violence and death. Of people being dehumanized again and again. I’m tired of people excusing it.

It’s mind-boggling to me that anyone could, especially if they’re a Christian.

Regardless of what we believe about politics, secondary theological issues, and everything else we wind up butting heads over, we should agree on this. We should be able to agree that every human is one made in the image of God, and racism is fundamentally opposed to the gospel. We don’t get to pretend this is something we can agree to disagree on. We should be able to condemn these things wholeheartedly as I have seen so many this weekend, including James Merritt, who said,

We should be able to do this, not just in theory, but in practice. After all, Revelation 7:9 says “there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Every tribe. Every nation. Every people group. Every language.

People from every ethnicity and background will be there, worshiping the Lord alongside one another.

So what does that first step look like, practically? It’s not tweets expressing our outrage,[1. Which, at worst, appears as virtue signaling, whether we intend it to be or not.] or an announcement from the pastor during the morning’s worship gathering (although this isn’t unnecessary). I think that practical action needs to begin with a conversation about culture. Specifically, what is the culture we’re creating in our churches, and our homes as Christians?

What is the foundation we’re building upon? Where have we let pain linger or given room for ungodliness to fester? How is the gospel we say we believe expressing itself in our love for one another, and then for our community? How are we walking “in the light as he himself is in the light” (1 John 1:7)?

Before we address this, I’m not sure there’s much we can do that won’t appear disingenuous. The answers will be difficult. They will be unexpected, including some asking if this is really a problem at all. But if we believe our churches, and our homes, need a culture shaped by the gospel, it is a first step worth taking.

The gospel presents a powerful answer to every sin, including racism. The defamation of human dignity cannot stand against it, and by God’s grace, it will not stand among God’s people.

What I read in July

What I read in July 2017

I am always consuming books, whether they’re physical, digital or audio. Every month, I like to share a breakdown of everything I read, including the books I abandoned. I do this because it gives me an opportunity to introduce you to books you might not have had an opportunity to read while practicing the art of writing concise book reviews.

In July, I read 8 books to completion and started a couple of others that have yet to complete. Here’s what I read:

  1. Teen Titans Vol. 1: Damian Knows Best by Benjamin Pearcey
  2. Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Brick by Brick by Gerard Way
  3. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
  4. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad by Joshua Williamson
  5. Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David P. Murray
  6. God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker
  7. Subscription Marketing: Strategies for Nurturing Customers in a World of Churn by Anne H. Janzer
  8. The Content Trap by Bharat Anand

Thoughts in other places

I reviewed Reset a couple weeks back, describing it as one of the most personally convicting book I’ve read in ages. So if you want more thoughts on that, do check out the review. I also shared a few thoughts related to The Warmth of Other Suns the other day, so I’m not sure there’s more I can say about it right now. (Incidentally, this book is one of the reasons there are so few books on the list this time around—it’s very long, but very compelling.) I’m also gearing up for a more thorough review of God and the Transgender Debate, so I don’t want to give too much away on that, except to say this book is as close as it gets to required reading for those serious about ministering to individuals in the LGBT community, especially those identifying as transgender.

Books with pictures: short, snarky, and kind of trippy

This month’s books with pictures were an interesting mix. Teen Titans was one of the books that suffered the worst in DC’s “New 52” era. The first volume of the Rebirth era is definitely off to a good start with kinetic art, a costume that resembles actual clothing for Starfire, and just enough of Damian Wayne’s (Robin) jerkstore-iness, that comes together in a story I’m comfortable having my eldest daughter read. Which she has. Multiple times. In a week.

Justice League vs. Suicide Squad was the first major event book of Rebirth, building off events in the Batman books. The story is fast paced, and the art works well, with Jay Fabok’s being the highlight for me. Sadly, this one isn’t one I can share with my daughter anytime soon as it’s way too intense, but it’s still a fun read.

And then there’s Doom Patrol, which is part of Gerard Way’s Young Animal line at DC. As strange as it sounds, it reads like a satisfying pop song—it’s catchy, creative, and fun. I really don’t want to share too much lest I give it away, but if you were a fan of Grant Morrison’s run on the series back in the 1990s, you’ll be thrilled with this one.

Marketing and marketers

My work-reading pile is growing, largely because I want to keep getting better at my job. Subscription Marketing is a fast-paced and practical read, with a number of helpful tactics for organizations that use some kind of recurring revenue model (think Netflix, your magazine subscription, and even your Compassion sponsorship). The major emphasis in the book is reminding marketers who the experience is really about: the customer. (This is not a new revelation, but it is always a helpful reminder).

The Content Trap, on the other hand, is a necessary corrective for all of us who are prone to latch onto whatever the next big idea is (think all the people trying to make a viral video happen). The author reminds his readers that, fundamentally, marketing doesn’t really change that much, regardless of the latest innovations. Our job is to know the customers and offer up a solution that meets their needs, and that wild success, virality, or whatever isn’t about figuring out a secret formula, but about understanding the network connections within your audience. (Note: this book is crazy long. Before deciding if you really want to read it, check out the Ted Talk.)

That’s it for this month’s round-up. Do you find these posts helpful? Do you have a suggestion for a book for me or someone else to read or want to share what you’ve read? Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook and let me know!

Here’s a look at what I read in:

The secret of cultural change

field of wheat

I am continuing my slow (very slow) trek through John Frame’s Systematic Theology. I can rarely get through more than a couple of pages at a time because I just have to stop and think. To carefully consider each section as I go, because there’s so much.

One of those hit me recently while reading through Frame’s chapter on the Kingdom of God. There, he discusses Jesus’ command to go into all the nations, and addresses the fact that the word in the Great Commission for teaching is one that focuses on actions. Discipleship is the process of learning how to be a Christian, rather than just learning what we believe as Christians.[1. After all, they go hand in hand.] But shortly after that, there one particularly standout paragraph—an “aha” moment if you will:

So the Great Commission is a program for cultural change. As individuals bow the knee to Christ, they discover that worshiping Jesus must lead to action, bringing Jesus’ teachings to bear on everything. So the kingdom brings individuals to Christ and also brings those individuals to exalt him in every area of life. It is both individual and social change, until God consummates the kingdom as the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead. (93)

I’ve been discussing church culture with a few folks for the last while—that is, what is the result of what we say we believe lived out. Specifically, I’ve been focusing on what happens as our commitment to the gospel spreads and transforms others. And in that, Frame’s words bring home an important truth: changing a culture necessarily means changing people—what they think, what they believe, and what they do. This is something that social progressives understand well, and are very effective at. But we have something better. We have the gospel and the best news of all to tell. So let’s get to telling it. Let’s get to living in light of it. If we are serious about cultural change, that’s where we need to start.

What I read in June

I am always consuming books, whether they’re physical, digital or audio. Every month, I like to share a breakdown of everything I read, including the books I abandoned. I do this because it gives me an opportunity to introduce you to books you might not have had an opportunity to read while practicing the art of writing concise book reviews.

In June, I read 11 books to completion and started a couple of others that have yet to complete. Here’s what I read:

  1. Aquaman, Vol. 1: The Drowning by Dan Abnett
  2. Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus Into the Everyday Stuff of Life by Jeff Vanderstelt
  3. The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Steven J. Lawson
  4. Aquaman, Vol. 2: Black Manta Rising by Dan Abnett
  5. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse
  6. Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown
  7. Growth Hacking: Silicon Valley’s Best Kept Secret by Raymond Fong and Chad Riddersen
  8. Leadership and the One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard, Patricia Zigarmi, and Drea Zigarmi
  9. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
  10. The Flash, Vol. 1: Lightning Strikes Twice by Joshua Williamson

Why adults aren’t ready to be adults, and life in South Africa

Ben Sasse is an interesting and thoughtful guy, and if his book, The Vanishing American Adult, does one thing, it reminds readers of that. This book explores the possible reasons why millennials seem less prepared for adulthood than the previous several generations, without the cliché “These kids today/get offa my lawn” condescension. Sasse raises some valid questions about the role our education system plays in this lack of preparedness, especially, as he comes around to his conclusion that much of it has to do with kids being protected from the difficult aspects of life—including hard work. I listened to this in audiobook form, so it was particularly interesting to hear it with the author’s intended tone.

In Born a Crime, Trevor Noah (the host of The Daily Show) shares his story of growing up in South Africa as a half-white, half-black child born in the latter days of Apartheid. He does a great job of peppering some much-needed levity throughout the book (usually at his own expense), honoring his mother even as he admits that their relationship is incredibly complicated, and addressing the reality of systemic racism and poverty. This is not a feel-good book, per se, but it is not one that leads you to despair, either. What it will do is make you think, and Lord knows we need more books that do this.

Getting my business books on

This month, I had a surprising amount of work-related reading: Two books dealt with the concept and practical application of “growth hacking,” which is a term used to describe a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to grow a business or brand. Hacking Growth by Ellis and Brown is the “big idea” book, attempting to lay out the vision of taking this approach to marketing with a larger organization, where Growth Hacking by Fong and Ridderson is the nitty-gritty “how to” guide. Both had some interesting concepts and sparked some good ideas for me, but I don’t know that I would call any of them game-changers or earth-shattering. If you’ve read books by Seth Godin, or Chip and Dan Heath, you’ve got a decent foundation for this thinking, and there’s undoubtedly a Ted Talk or two that you could find online to help flesh out some concepts. Leadership and the One Minute Manager is another one that has some good principles, especially for those who are trying to figure out how to lead laterally (that is, you’re leading via influence rather than authority), but nothing that should be shockingly different from any of the other leadership books out there. Plus, it takes about an hour to read, so there’s that.

Books with pictures, gospel culture, and gospel preachers

Abigail’s and my journey into DC’s Rebirth titles continues, with a first go around with the new Aquaman series, as well as The Flash. Both of these characters are hit-and-miss for me, but I really enjoyed both of these series, as did Abigail. I appreciated the tension Dan Abnett is trying to bring to Aquaman’s world, balancing the tense relationship between Atlantis and America (and who says politics isn’t fun?), trying to bring peace between the surface world and his people, when neither is too sure they really want it. The Flash is probably the most new-reader-friendly of all the titles I’ve read so far. I can tell that Joshua Williamson is trying to win the trust of readers with this book, injecting some personality into the Barry Allen character while also doing some pretty heavy lifting in terms of moving along the big “Rebirth” storyline along. Definitely looking forward to keeping up with this book for a while.

The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones is another breezy read, one you can probably power through in a couple of hours. Steven Lawson does his usual bang-up job with this very focused biography on Lloyd-Jones the preacher. Because the chapters are more or less stand-alone essays, there are points of repetition, but nothing that negatively impacts the book. This is a great teaser for a larger biography, such as Iain Murray’s opus.

Finally, Jeff Vanderstelt’s Gospel Fluency is officially one of my favorite books on church culture. This was another audiobook for me (though I have the physical book, too), and it was great to hear Vanderstelt read this book. It has a great conversational feel, which is exactly what the content needs. Like Ray Ortlund’s Gospel, this is a book about orienting the culture of our churches around the gospel. Of being the kind of people who actually live like we believe it’s true, and who handle both good and bad news in light of the gospel. Some of it, in all honesty, sounded kind of strange—but in a really good kind of way. The kind of strange that reminds you that the church’s culture should be unlike anything else in all the world.

That’s it for this month’s round-up. Do you find these posts helpful? Do you have a suggestion for a book for me or someone else to read or want to share what you’ve read? Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook and let me know!

Here’s a look at what I read in:

What do you need to know before reading (or writing) a play?

Reading Writers-Max Mclean on C.S. Lewis

I remember dreading the moment when we’d have to start reading Shakespeare during my seventh grade English class. I could understand what I was reading, but never really knew why I was doing it at all, beyond it being part of the curriculum. So is there a good reason for us to read plays, and not simply watch them? Actor and playwright Max McLean and I discuss this and more on today’s episode of Reading Writers.

Also in this episode, we discuss:

  • How McLean feels about the proliferation of Bible translations;
  • What he finds fascinating about C.S. Lewis; and
  • His advice for prospective playwrights and screenwriters.

Be sure to check out these recommended biographies of C.S. Lewis. And, if you’re in the New York area, be sure to check out McLean’s production of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It looks like a phenomenal show.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Reading Writers. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving a rating and review on iTunes. Your feedback really does help more people find the show. Tune in next time as I’m joined by Barnabas Piper for a new conversation on curiosity and the Christian life.

Five random thoughts on things I’m reading right now


Well, it finally happened: production issues caused the first-ever delay on Reading Writers. (Look for that tomorrow.) Instead, today, I’m going to go a little listicle on y’all, and give you a glimpse at my nightstand.

Now, as longtime readers know, I usually have multiple books on the go. In fact, if you look at my Goodreads page, there are a bunch on there (though a few haven’t been touched in a little while). Some of what I read is not terribly profound. Much of it is fun and goofy. A few are pretty heavy—the sort where you read a few pages and then set it down for a while (hence the not being touched).

But whatever I’m reading almost always provokes some kind of reaction—be it a burning question surrounding the content, something legitimately profound (which happens every once in a while), or something that barely relates to whatever I’ve just read. This is a good thing, of course, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be very good, now would they?

So, here’s a glimpse at what’s on the go:

Grayson Vol. 4: A Ghost in the Tomb by Tom King & Tim Seeley, and Mikel Janin (DC Comics). I can only imagine that DC’s take on the original Robin turned superspy was painful to read in the single issue format. The storytelling is definitely slowburn, as I’ve read, the more compelling it’s become.

Conscience by Andy Naselli and JD Crowley (Crossway). This right here is gold:

In regard to looking down on others, we must also be careful not to assume that Christians who abstain from a particular activity are doing so out of a weak conscience.… Some people . . . have strong consciences on many issues but intentionally refrain from exercising their liberty in order to edify those around them. They contextualize in order to serve others. (100)

That sounds positively biblical, doesn’t it?[1. It should: Philippians 2:3b-4 speaks to this well. “…in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”] Looking forward to processing the rest of this book (and talking to Andy on Reading Writers soon).

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (Rabbit Room Press). I just finished this one. If I were the “crying at books” type, I’d have been more than a little misty by the end of this one. It will make you feel feelings!

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin (Crossway). I love writers like Jen Wilkin who remind us that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that complementarian convictions prevent women from exercising their spiritual gifts.

This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall by John Semley (ECW Press). I just finished this one, too. I grew up watching “The Kids in The Hall” on the CBC, so I have a soft spot for them. It’s often funny and fairly crass in places, alongwith this deep sense of sadness that runs through the book. But man, the author definitely proves the futility of his brand of “progressivism” as a worldview, flabbergasted by the idea that life might actually require us to develop thicker skins, instead of demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings and whatnot. And this might be the saddest thing of all.

Photo credit: Daniel Glo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

[Reading Writers] Dan Darling on reading to engage the culture

Dan Darling joins me on this week's episode of Reading Writers

Jesus is more popular than ever—but which Jesus? Today, I’m joined by Dan Darling, author of The Original Jesus, to discuss the Jesuses of our own imagining, and how reading helps us as we seek to show the real Jesus to the culture around us on Reading Writers.

Books and resources mentioned in this episode

And be sure to follow Dan on Twitter at @DanDarling.

Who will be on the next episode of Reading Writers?

Next week, Gloria Furman, author of Missional Motherhood, joins me to discuss how busy mothers can find time to read, a broader meaning of motherhood, and what beverage goes best with Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.

Can I sponsor Reading Writers?

Want to sponsor a future episode of Reading Writers? Send me a note and let’s talk.

Subscribing, sharing, and your feedback

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You can also connect with me on Twitter at @aaronstrongarm, on Facebook or via email to share your feedback.

Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Reading Writers!


A review of Renaissance by Os Guinness

I’ll admit: there are times when I’m a bit jaded about cultural renewal, at least in how it’s presented to us so often today. Too often, the literature and lectures from the popular leadership gurus promises a magic bullet that will help us reach the world, whether it’s reaching “the city”, creating safe places for questions and uncertainty, or how to make church enjoyable for people who aren’t into church. Everyone’s looking for the magic bullet, but no one can find it.

And then I read Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times by Os Guinness.

Our magic bullets aren’t loaded

In this book, Guinness contends that there is no magic bullet to cultural engagement. At least not how we think of it. We’re not going to put the power of the gospel on display through stunt shows on the stage on Sundays, any more than we will with dancing girls and half-naked cowboys.

Instead, our focus should be less on trying to engage the culture (which often means becoming like it), and instead set our eyes on being distinctly Christian. Or, as he writes:

[We] must go deeper than a shallow, purely intellectual understanding of worldviews. What changes the world is not a fully developed Christian worldview, but a worldview actually lived—in other words, in Christian lives that are the Word made flesh again. (86)

Simply, if our focus is on living out our worldview—and if true change comes as a result of that—then we should probably take our best, savviest thinking with a hefty helping of salt. After all, “compared with the strategic leadership of the Spirit of God, it is puny to the point of absurdity” (104).

Ushering golden ages and letting go of our kingdoms

Yet it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? In my first years as a believer I was a member at a church that started a building campaign. Before long the congregation became known in our community as “the church that’s building a new church building”. The desire for a new facility (which not a bad thing!) became the ultimate thing in the eyes of some. And unfortunately, this may have hindered its ministry to our city (at least for a time).

I saw a similar line of thought appear more recently as my current church prepared to move into our first permanent facility. Certainly for me, there was a temptation to see the new building as the magic bullet. The building will be the answer to our problems. Despite what we’re tempted to believe, a new golden age of Christianity won’t be ushered in the day we take possession of our new property, anymore than our attempts to be relatable, engaging, take for ourselves political power, or whatever.

A worldview lived out is what is called for. And it’s the point that we struggle to grasp. It’s easier to pursue the silly things. It’s easier to give away cars, cruises, and couches than it is to live out our calling as Christians. To be seen as weird to those around us. To be called hateful or bigoted. But if our confidence is in Christ—if our worldview is being lived out as it should—we will be able to whether the storm, despite the pain it may cause.

Do divisions matter?

Lest the reader think I am merely gushing about this book (which I did find very helpful), there are a couple of things that should be addressed. First, there is a tendency to minimize the distinction between Protestants and Roman Catholics at certain points. Notably, when it comes to the historical efforts of the western church, Guinness writes, that through both Roman Catholics and Protestants, “the gospel has now reached the furthest ends of the entire world, and the Christian faith is the first truly global religion” (142).

Though it is beyond the scope of this article to address all the distinctions between these two branches of Christianity (and likewise between these and Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy), it does raise a question: has the gospel truly spread as far as he claims, given the sharp disagreement on the gospel among these groups?

This is one of the larger issues in our time, knowing what barriers and divisions are necessary vs the ones we need to maintain. A number of years ago, I was at a leadership event where a speaker was encouraging Canadian pastors specifically that if we want to reach Canada, Protestants and Catholics need focus on our points of agreement, since we do agree on much (the majority in fact) of our doctrine. But we need to realize the differences between us are actually incredibly important, and on the most central aspects of Christianity—justification by faith alone, the sacraments, and the authority of Scripture, tradition and human teachers.

I’m not saying Guinness suggests we abandon our distinctiveness, by any means. But this undercurrent that exists in his writing adds a layer of fuzziness to these questions (as does some of the language of the included Evangelical Manifesto, which has been criticized by many for being too broad in its statements to be distinctly evangelical). And this sort of fuzziness does not help us as we seek to live out our worldview (to continue to use Guinness’ language), as our worldviews necessarily requires clarity on these points. They change how we live, and we should be careful to defend this thoughtfully, winsomely but uncompromisingly.

What encourages me about Renaissance (and renaissance)

Even so, I was greatly encouraged by what I’ve read in Renaissance, in part because it reminded me of what I saw on a trip to Managua, Nicaragua, in 2015. While in the country, I spent several days at a church in an outlying neighborhood, one that is serving hundreds of children and families in partnership with the ministry I work for. But they’re not doing anything particularly fancy They’re contributing to the sort of cultural renewal we all want to see by helping young people see themselves differently, as people of dignity and value, as having something to contribute, and ultimately as people loved by God in Christ. They’re changing their culture by changing the people in it (in the best sense possible). They don’t seem terribly concerned with trying to usher in golden ages or build kingdoms. They’re living out their worldview. They’re living as light in a dark place.

And this, I think is what I needed to be reminded of most: Cultural change happens not so much through reaching a certain demographic or whether or not my church meets in a school or in a church building, but in the “simple” practice of loving my neighbors and telling them the good news about Jesus. My role is not to try to build Jesus’ kingdom for him, but to wait for Christ to do it himself, and to do the work he’s called me to while I wait. And to me, this isn’t just encouraging, it’s downright liberating.

Title: Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times
Author: Os Guinness
Publisher: IVP Books (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon