Tag Archives: gospel

Should the Church Bear Witness to the State?

There is a certain strand of Anabaptist two-kingdom theology that says church and state should be so entirely separate that the church has nothing to say to the state. The church, according to this view, has no call to “bear witness” to the state. While I don’t think a church that nags the state is helpful, neither do I think Christ’s call is for his followers to have nothing at all to say to those in government.

One confusing factor, it seems to me, is that when we hear “the government,” we tend to forget that this mysterious “other” is made up of persons. And the gospel of Christ has something to say to every person under heaven, if they will only listen–and if we will only speak.

This way of seeing “the government” as a faceless institution is oddly akin, it seems to me, to Luther’s version of two-kingdom theology, whereby a Christian who serves in government suddenly is no longer subject to Christ’s commands to his individual followers, but may do things that Christian “persons” must never do. Neither Luther nor “the quiet in the land” have quite the right version of two-kingdom theology, I suggest.

At any rate, New Testament believers have clear precedent for speaking truth to power, even if we may rightly be uncomfortable with some connotations of that phrase. When Jesus called Paul as his messenger, he said, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings…” (Acts 9:15). How did Paul respond? “I was not disobedient… I stand here testifying both to small and great…” (Acts 27:22). There may be only a few who are “great” in the world’s eyes, and perhaps only a few Christians are called as Paul was to speak to them.  But speak the church must, for the gospel speaks to all.

So, the church must speak to the state–or, to say the same thing another way, to state officials. But what must we say? Our witness must be, as Paul’s was, a declaration of the gospel of Christ. And make no mistake: the gospel is a message which affects all of life. It calls state officials to personal faith, and it also calls them to account for the public policies they have promoted.

Again, we have Paul for an example. Perhaps his witness before the Roman governor Felix is most revealing. We read that Felix “sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). More specifically, we are told that what convicted Felix was when Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25).

How might these topics have impacted governor Felix’s life, both public and private? In reverse order: “The coming judgment” would have been a reminder to a governor that he, one used to dishing out judgment, would someday face his own judgment–an after-death judgment that “was probably not a significant part of his belief system,”1. “Self-control” may have reminded Felix of the immorality of his personal life, including how “he had lusted after [his wife Drusilla] while she was still the teenage bride of Azizus the king of Emesa.”2 Talk of “righteousness,” which could equally rightly be translated “justice,” would have stung Felix, who was seeking a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26) and about to unjustly leave him in prison as a favor to the Jews (v. 27).

Notice how Paul’s witness did not shy away from how the gospel impacted Felix’s public life as a state official. Indeed, “‘justice’ and ‘self-control’ may be mentioned to indicate qualities particularly required of Felix and other rulers when they are measured in judgment.”3

More from commentator David G. Peterson:

Genuine faith in Christ involves a change of allegiance and therefore a change in behavior and priorities. Paul presented this challenge in terms that were particularly applicable to Felix and Drusilla… The gospel presentation to Felix and Drusilla involved… a rather vigorous appeal to their consciences to recognize their guilt before God, and their consequent need to respond with faith in Christ Jesus. With a few brief phrases, Luke has illustrated how the gospel was presented and applied to the specific situation of a Gentile ruler…4

Do I hear echoes of a pastor today in, say, the Oval Office? Reminding a president that he, too, will face judgment, that his adultery is a stain before God, and that he will be held accountable for the injustices he has promoted through his public office?

No, let us not nag the government officials whom God has “placed in order” (Rom. 13) over us. (That sentence deserves its own blog post, I am sure.) But neither let us imagine that the church has nothing to say to the state. For the church has the gospel and–if we will only live the gospel first to make it credible–it must witness of this gospel to every person under heaven.

So if God gives you the ear of some state official, high or low, pluck up your courage like Paul, and speak!

This post is only a glance at a big topic. Other biblical examples besides Paul before Felix deserve consideration, and many practical questions face us from our own experience. Do you have thoughts that can help the church bear a more gospel-shaped witness to those in power? Share them below.

  1. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 715
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar Commentary), 641.
  4. Ibid.

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Thirty-Three Years: A Life [Poem by Mom]

Have you been impatiently waiting for the monthly poem from my mom? No, we have not forgotten. Here it is, just in time to help you remember the death and life of Christ.

God bless you as you read Mom’s poem and meditate on Christ.


I remember as a young girl, lying on the grass, gazing at the immense blue summer sky above me, and trying to grasp in the “grain of sand” that was my mind, the concept of eternity. As the clouds moved lazily overhead I pondered the puzzle of eternity past and eternity future, tried to envision the vast expanses of “time” implied, and wondered which would be more irrational, that God should have never begun—how could that be!—or that He should have a beginning—but then how and why could He have begun? I would try to stretch my mind across the eons of eternity from past to future until I felt my brain would explode.

G. K. Chesterton said that “poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea… the result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet desires… a world to stretch himself in… asks only to get his head into the heavens… the logician… seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head which splits.”

The Scriptures tell us it is “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God…not…of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3, NKJV, italics added).

I was nearing fifty years of age when I wrote the following poem about Christ’s time on earth, and my brain felt no more adequate then of grasping the puzzle of Christ’s work of salvation than it was earlier with the concept of eternity.

The puzzle: Did Jesus come to live or to die for us? His death was only efficacious because of His Resurrection and because of His perfect life. His life alone could not have saved us. He needed a body for the very purpose of dying for us. Remission of sin demands blood shed, a death, a sacrifice.

Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith” in Him “who was delivered up [to death] because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25, NKJV, italics added).

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom. 11: 33, NASB)

In humble faith I celebrate and trust in the life and death and resurrection of my Risen Lord and Saviour as all-sufficient for my eternal salvation!

—Elaine Gingrich, March 1, 2016


THIRTY-THREE YEARS: A LIFE

He came to die, but first He came to live.
Not as some faceless, flat protagonist
Who dies in a pale story, never missed
By readers. No, our captured minds would give
The world to know this Man. The finest sieve
Can catch no fault in Him. Go down the list
From “healed a leper” to “by traitor kissed,”
Then watch Him die unjustly, yet forgive.

Here was a man to tower above men,
With strength to calm the stormy Galilee,
With touch more tender than a baby’s sigh.
Here was a man deserves to live again,
A man to love! We turn the page to see
The script. He lives! But first He came to die.

—Elaine Gingrich, May 2, 2000


While this was not her intent, Mom’s insight about the need to connect the life and the death of Christ has been the subject of some recent discussion in scholarly circles.

N.T. Wright, for example, wrote a book called How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright argues that evangelicals and other confessional Christians, influenced by the pattern of the ancient creeds, have tended to emphasize the virgin birth and the cross of atonement while skipping over the life of Christ with his radical kingdom teachings. Liberal theologians, however, influenced by post-Enlightenment critical scholarship and embarrassed by the miraculous elements of Jesus’ birth and death, have emphasized the exemplary power of his human life.

But true Christianity needs both—the kingdom teachings and life of Jesus on the one hand, and also his miraculous, saving death and resurrection. In Wright’s words, we need both kingdom and cross. (While I have not read this book, I have listened about three times to this lecture Wright gave on the same topic. Highly recommended.)

Wright is a scholar of the first rank, but his book above is written for a general audience. Pastors have also written on this subject, such as Tim Chester in his 2015 book Crown of Thorns: Connecting Kingdom and Cross. (I have not read this book, but am familiar enough with Chester to feel confident it will be a useful read.)

I am excited to see scholars and pastors grasp this insight. But understanding exactly how Jesus’ life and death relate together to save us and shape our lives is secondary to simply trusting and following him. So it’s okay if you identify with what Mom said after I shared some of the above with her:

You can develop the deep debates and I will stick to the simpler faith foundation. 🙂

I am deeply grateful to my mother for helping to keep my faith foundation firm, both in my youth and to this day.


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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What Jesus Wished He Could Say before He Died (John 16:12)

If you died today, what might you regret you’d left unsaid? Such death-bed regrets are common. Many dying people regret that they didn’t say “I love you” more often. Others conclude they should have spoken their mind more, expressing their feelings courageously instead of holding back and resenting things. (For some common death-bed regrets, see here and here.)

Though Jesus had no such regrets at his death, he did have things that he wanted to say, but couldn’t, before he died. Rightly understood, we could even say that Jesus didn’t say everything he wanted to say before he died.

In Sunday school right now we are studying John 14-16, which record Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples before he died. Jesus shared profound things in these final hours. We are deeply grateful for these last words. They are a deep reservoir of truth and hope.

But Jesus had still deeper things in his heart, things he simply could not share prior to his death:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12)

This cryptic statement invites questions:

  • What was it that Jesus left unsaid?
  • What did he mean that the hearers would need to “bear” them?
  • Why were the disciples unable to bear them at that moment?
  • What did they need first, in order to be able to bear them?

To begin answering these questions, I direct you to Jesus’ next words:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)

Whatever else Jesus means by these words, this much is clear: The red letters of Scripture are not enough. Our Sunday school quarterlies1 state this well:

The teachings Jesus left for us include more than just His words in the four Gospels. This refutes those who say that they go by only what Jesus taught but not what Paul or the other New Testament writers taught. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. He does it through the New Testament especially, but also through the Old Testament…

The disciples could not understand or bear all that Jesus would teach, and so He would teach more through the inspired writings of the New Testament.

Notice, that sentence at the end of the first paragraph does not say “though the red letters especially,” but “through the New Testament especially.” That is correct. If the Holy Spirit indeed took what was Jesus’ and declared it to the apostles (John 16:14), then the apostolic writings—the black letters of the NT—are Jesus’ words, too.

I wrote about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism.” Here is part of what I wrote:

The “raw data” of Jesus’ perfect revelation of the Father is most clearly and fully understood when we interpret it through the lens of the Old Testament passages that he most often cited and through the writings of the apostles he commissioned. Many of the Bible’s most prominent landmark mountains are found outside the red letters…

Apart from the events of Passion Week through Pentecost and on to the final return of Christ, the teachings and example of Jesus’ earthly ministry are an insufficient gospel and cannot save.

Please don’t preach a red letter reductionism, and please don’t be a prepentacostal disciple… There are “many things” from Jesus that you will miss if you value only what is found in red letters. How do we know? Jesus himself told us—in red letters, no less.

If you want to wrestle with this topic more deeply, I invite you to read my whole essay. It’s not perfect (I list some weaknesses up front), but it’s better than when I first wrote it, thanks to feedback.

Here are other things I discuss in the essay:

  • What is red letter Christianity?
  • Is red letter Christianity harmless?
  • Did Jesus say John 3:16, and does it matter?
  • Are the words of the apostles authoritative?
  • Did Jesus and Paul preach the same gospel?
  • Is the Sermon on the Mount the gospel?
  • Are Anabaptists truly excited about the gospel?

We should also recognize that Jesus still speaks by his Spirit today. This is a contended topic, but consider this commentary by Gary Burge2:

[In John 14:26] Jesus describes a different function of the Paraclete, namely, recalling and preserving the historic words of Jesus. Here in 16:12–13 Jesus speaks of a future time when new things will be disclosed. Both of these passages work together. The historical Jesus and his ministry stand alongside the ongoing living Jesus-in-Spirit, who is continuously experienced in the church…

“What is yet to come” in 16:13b… likely refers to a genuine prophetic gift that will disclose the future—a gift like that exercised in the book of Revelation and described in 1 Corinthians 12:29–30. The Spirit’s “making known” is not of Jesus’ previous historic teachings nor is it confined to the eyewitnesses of the apostolic era, whose prophetic work will close with the canon. (pp. 406-407, bold added).

Notice that Burge is pushing beyond the interpretation I emphasized above. He is saying that John 16:12-14 foretells not only the inspiration of the New Testament writings (as I stated), but also the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church yet today. I think he is right. But not everyone agrees:

Evangelicals have traditionally preferred to see this work of the Spirit [described in John 16:12-13] as closely tied to the development of Scripture and its use. This is in part an exegetical decision that believes that the promises of this section belong not to the church universal but to the apostles only. “I have much more to say to you” (16:12, italics added) points to Jesus’ immediate audience. Hendriksen’s well-known commentary on John thus sees this ongoing revelation in 16:12 as fulfilled in the writing of the book of Acts and Paul’s letters.

But if the Spirit’s work goes beyond the production of the Scriptures—that is, if we have here a genuine prophetic gift that provides ongoing revelation—we then have to discern the guidelines and limitations for such revelation. Is this promise (like so many biblical promises) extended to every Christian? I would argue that it is…

Interpreters who refuse to apply this promise of the Spirit to the postapostolic church must then justify how they can apply other spiritual promises to the church. Who owns the promise, “I will come again and take you to myself” (14:3) when it was addressed to the Twelve? These promises, just like the command to “love one another,” belong both to the circle of apostles and to the later church. (pp. 413 and 423, bold added)

Later Burge suggests some biblical guidelines for identifying this ongoing work of the Spirit:

Jesus says that the Spirit will unveil things they have not heard. Such an understanding, of course, has led to countless abuses over the centuries as self-appointed teachers and new-age prophets have laid claim to the Spirit’s authority as they unveiled new, unbiblical teachings. These abuses have made modern exegetes understandably cautious about such ongoing revelation…

The best evidence for the view that John’s followers understood the Spirit to have ongoing revelatory power can be seen in the abuses John had to combat in his first letter. Since many false prophets have gone out into the world, John’s followers need to start testing the spirits to see if they belong to God (1 John 4:1). John does not disqualify the spiritual endowment in his argument with these teachers; he calls for the testing of the gift… Here John gives strict guidelines: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2–3). This is the same test Jesus outlines in John 16:14–15. The Spirit will glorify Jesus and not depart from what he has revealed already. To refuse to glorify Jesus is to invalidate one’s prophetic voice.

Therefore, as we look at the work of the Spirit today, we see that not only does the Spirit recall, authenticate, and enliven the teaching of Jesus for each generation, but also the Spirit works creatively in the church, bringing a new prophetic word. This word never contradicts the historic word of Jesus and never deflects glory away from Jesus, but it may faithfully bring the church to see its message and mission in a new way…

To restrict the Spirit’s voice to the work of historic recitation, that is, to the application of the biblical text, is to restrict the Spirit’s effort to speak to contemporary issues. It is interesting that in Paul’s writing, he lists prophets and teachers in the second and third places of authority after apostles (1 Cor. 13:28) [sic: 1 Cor. 12:28]. In Acts 13:1 prophets and teachers led the church at Antioch where there were no apostles. The Spirit both equips those who guide the church into the deeper meaning of Scripture (teachers) and those who have a contemporary word, a dynamic word for the church in its world today (prophets).  (pp. 418-419, bold added)

Again, this second way of interpreting John 16:12-14—as foretelling not only the inspiration of the NT but also the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church today—is debated among Christians. This is a debate that goes beyond the “red letter reductionism” debate above, although it is related. In both cases, it is a question of how Jesus continued or continues to speak after his own death.

I think Burge is right. I think I need to listen to his explanation in the same way that I think “red letter Christians” need to listen to the sort of explanation that I make in my essay.

Whatever you make of these matters, may we each purpose to honor Christ by listening to the words given through his Spirit.

If you have feedback on this post or on my essay, send me an email or leave a comment below. Thank you, and God bless your church gatherings this week as you discuss his word—both the red and the black letters!

  1. Roger L. Berry and Shawn Schmidt, The Word Dwelt Among Us, Christian Light Publications adult Sunday school pupil book, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Dec. 2015, Jan./Feb. 2016), 53-54.
  2. Gary M. Burge, John, NIV Application Commentary, Kindle edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

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