Thursday, December 29, 2016

Andy Stanley: Why people leave the faith

Highly recommended reading!

The January/February 2017 issue of Outreach magazine features an in-depth (4,766-w0rd) interview with Andy Stanley titled, “The Agile Apologetic.”

Some notable quotables:

“People don’t simply leave faith; they leave a version of faith.”

“[T]hey have a skewed version or vision of God that they are leaving.”

They are “leaving versions of Christianity that most Christians would completely be against, as well. When I hear some of these stories, I think, Heck. I would have left that too!”

“We all think our version of Christianity is the right one. But we can’t all be correct. So to address people who have left the faith or are considering doing so, it’s important to understand what specifically about the faith they’re leaving.”

“Often, I might say to a person that what they left needed to be left, because it wasn’t real Christianity to begin with.”

“Nothing could be clearer in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Jesus invited people to follow before they believed. In our messaging, are we inviting people who are outsiders to follow?”
“Follow precedes believe.”

“People get methodology and theology confused all the time, and then get upset when you start changing methodology. They’re two different things. Theology should inform ministry, but if it limits whom you minister to, then you have the wrong theology. Just ask Jesus.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

You and I will celebrate Thanksgiving together

After more than a week in San Antonio, yesterday I was so happy to see Renée again!

Over the years, the two of us have read through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures scores of times. 

This autumn, however, I have been doing something different. I have been reading the New Testament through twice, two or three chapters at a time. 

Today in my reading of Revelation chapters 4 and 5, I came across one of my favorite verses in the last book of the New Testament. There we read:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.
Revelation 4:11

Somehow until today, however, I had failed to connect the dots. 

In the immediate context of verse 10, we read that the 24 elders fall down before God, lay their crowns before His throne, and sing this beautiful worship song. But who are the 24 elders?

Because there are 12 sons of Jacob and 12 apostles, some have speculated they must be the 24 elders. That’s good math, but not a widely accepted interpretation. Many see the 24 elders representing not just Christian believers, but all of God’s family around the world and down through the millennia.

Indeed, just a chapter over, John makes the provocative statement that “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” begins worshiping God. They sing:

To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!
Revelation 5:13

While the apostle John may not have seen himself as one of the 24 elders, “in the spirit” (4:2) he saw and heard himself, and you and me, worshiping God.

What an amazing thought!

Thanks to Renée’s encouragement, I memorized Revelation 4:11 years ago. I still deeply cherish this wonderful affirmation of worship to God.

Today, however, I realized I also should memorize Revelation 5:13. After all, you and I will sing this song of worship to God with “every creature” someday!

Will you join me? If so, here is the verse again, broken into short units with memory aids in brackets: 

To him who sits on the throne [God the Father] | and to the Lamb [Jesus Christ]
be praise and honor [think PhD] | and glory and power [think GDP]
for ever and ever!
Revelation 5:13

Monday, November 7, 2016

Francis Chan, Erasing Hell, and Two Major Disappointments

Nobody who loves God deeply, and loves others well, wants to talk about hell. Yet, talk about it we must. So, I strongly applaud Francis Chan for writing about hell with deep humility, reverence for God’s character, and a steadfast commitment to the teachings of Scripture. In Erasing Hell, I found echoes of my own key writing and teaching points. Yet...

It breaks my heart that, by making two major category errors in this book, Francis Chan and his coauthor, Preston Sprinkle, have brought untold needless grief to many. 

First, Francis Chan tells a heartbreaking story based on his 100% certainty that his mother went to hell. I believe we should not presume to say with certainty that a specific individual went to hell. Only God knows that for sure. 

Therefore, I believe Francis Chan is making a serious category error. Instead, we should pray that God may reveal to us whether or not they turned to Him in their final minutes, hours, days (knowing that in this life we very well may not know, though God has answered that prayer with certainty a week after the death of a patriarch in my wife’s family). 

The second major disappointment with this book? Francis Chan says that a person who dies without hearing about Jesus Christ goes to hell. I believe that’s an even more serious category error. There are degrees of divine revelation. Even Scripture teaches that. Those degrees of revelation bear directly on the question of who does and doesn’t go to heaven—and who does and doesn’t go to hell. 

A family member with Downs Syndrome doesn’t know the difference between an Elvis impersonator and the real Elvis who died decades ago. He also doesn’t know who the real Jesus is, let alone know the Gospel, let alone believe it, let alone follow Jesus Christ. So, this family member is going to hell? No, of course not. The Judge of all the earth will do what is right. Whether genetically or geographically, many can’t opt into faith in Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to hell any more than my first grandchild who died twelve years ago. 

Again, it breaks my heart that, by making these two major category errors, Francis Chan has caused untold needless grief to countless thousands of readers.

That said, allow me to affirm seven (7) beliefs that Francis Chan and I share in common. 
  1. Hell is one of the thorniest theological questions of all time. 
  2. Hell is real.
  3. Hell is not what we think.
  4. God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell (except the Devil and his demons). Yes, some people go to hell, but they have to climb over the love of God to get there. 
  5. We need to think and feel as Jesus did about the subject, with tears in our eyes.
  6. We can trust God’s sovereignty, providence, holiness, love, and mystery.
  7. Nothing we mistakenly think, believe, or do will change God’s eternal purposes and plans. 

Bottom line: Don’t take my word for it. Instead, see what others say here

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What Is God's Providence?

Where do we draw the lines on what God's providence is and what it isn't?

Unlike God's sovereignty, holiness, love and mystery, God's providence has something of a PR branding problem. It lacks a clear, compelling, and widely known and accepted definition. 

That doesn't mean, however, that down through the centuries biblical scholars and theologians haven't given clear definitions. On a popular level, the closest terms I've identified so far are goodness and guidance. 

Many scholars prefer to focus on the macro level of God's providence, even though many believers want to know and experience God's providence in personal, specific and tangible ways. 

So, again, Where do you draw the lines? I hope to have a much better answer in coming weeks!

I've posted a quick snapshot of my preliminary research results here:

Monday, September 26, 2016

Personal Libraries--Past, Present, and Future

Until age 52, I enjoyed a house full of bookshelves and untold thousands of books. This was true despite living in a variety of homes over the years. 

Before moving to home #11, though, a wild and almost exuberant question unexpectedly slipped from behind the curtains and took center stage in my mind.

Even today, I hesitate to write the question, let alone publish it: “Do I really want to keep lugging all of these books with me wherever I go for the next 52 years?”

This was no small question! Of course, the answer was obvious. Especially for someone who has spent his entire adult life in the book publishing world. First, as the conceptual designer and executive editor for study and specialty Bibles published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Nelson, and others. Second, as the author, co-author, editor, or executive editor for a number of Bible-related books. Third, as the editor of 100+ books. Fourth, as the literary agent for 300+ books. Fifth, as a contributor to or endorser of dozens of books. Sixth, as a judge for several regional and national book awards. Seventh, as an avid reader who writes notes in his favorite books and can’t stand to part with any.

Still, I was haunted: “Do I really want to keep lugging a ton of books wherever I go for the next 52 years?”

In the end, I gave away more than 95% of my personal library. Many of the books now reside at Africa College of Theology in Rwanda. Many more reside in other libraries, in the offices of pastors and youth pastors, and in the homes of many friends and family.

Fast-forward to a few days ago. I installed Accordance 11 and now have more books than ever--instantly accessible, instantly searchable, instantly informing me more accurately and thoroughly than any huge stack of printed books ever could.

This, I realized, is the amazing library I will take with me, wherever I go, for the rest of my life!

(I originally posted this at 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is Anybody Out There?

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. By ESO/M. Kornmesser -, CC BY 4.0,

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, once said: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Fifty years ago, in 1966, Carl Sagan and Iosef Shklovskii estimated that 0.001 percent of all known stars might have planets capable of sustaining advanced life forms. They made this estimate by extrapolating the likelihood that two variables (the right kind of star with a planet exactly the right distance away) might be repeated elsewhere in the universe.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, the media had a heyday speculating whether extraterrestrial life may indeed exist, either on Mars or on planets around 47 Ursa Major, 51 Pegasi, 70 Virginis, and other stars. More planets were discovered that year than in the past two millennia. By then, however, the necessary variables had multiplied greatly, to more than 40.

Fast-forward to 2016. 

We’re now speculating whether life may exist on a planet circling Proxima Centauri. 

In his autobiography, celebrated early 20th century attorney Clarence Darrow remarked, “I cannot help feeling sorry for [its residents] when I think what a great deprivation they must suffer through living so far away from our glorious planet.”

Traveling at the fantastic velocity of 1.1 million miles an hour, one six-hundredth of the speed of light, it would take nearly 5,000 years to travel to Proxima Centauri.           

Regardless of distance, is it safe to conclude anybody is out there?

Ready for a surprise?

The Judeo-Christian scriptures are emphatic: yes, most definitely. God is out there—and here. Celestial beings, good and evil, are out there—and here. And for well over a century, Christian writers such as George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and others have welcomed the idea that other mortal forms of extraterrestrial life very well may exist.

If God is God, of course it is conceivable and possible. It is no threat to classic Christian belief. Nowhere does the Bible say God created life on this planet alone. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Writing honest song lyrics

HOW ARE YOU? Fine? Just fine? Not so fine? Really not so fine? It's hard to be honest, isn't it? 

Thankfully, we can be completely honest with God, who invites us to be truefaced each and every single day of our lives. 

I learned this as a teenager and it probably saved my life. Here's the backstory: If I "own" any part of the Hebrew & Christian Scriptures, I own the middle. It's there we find the book of Psalms. It's actually a collection of 5 books full of ancient song lyrics that rhyme thoughts, not words. That's why so many of the songs still are relevant today and have been each generation for nearly 3,000 years. 

As a young follower of Jesus Christ, I read 5 psalms each day and memorized 1 psalm each week. I also wrote deeply honest "song lyrics that rhyme thoughts" to express my own ups and downs as a teenager. 

So, how are you? You can write your own psalm(s) too...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

NICOLE CLIFFE: I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.

As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"When God Is Strange and Awful"

QUOTE: Many of us begin doubting God’s goodness in the face of nightmarish loss. Sometimes we accuse him of evil. But this perspective is quite at home in Scripture. Between Job’s anguished cries, the prophets’ lamentations, and Christ’s screams at Golgotha, there is no retreating into a theological comfort zone where “God would never” allow atrocity.


Friday, April 29, 2016

I'm getting ready!

I'm getting ready to submit my new book manuscript tomorrow. For some reason, I've had more joy writing it than I ever expected. I hope that translates into more joy than readers expect! We'll see when Kregel releases it next year. The working title is Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It's Not What You Think. I have had the opportunity to present an interactive workshop by the same title in Portland (twice) and San Francisco. Now that the book manuscript is written, I'm ready to hit the road again. Next up? Flying to LA May 18-19. After that ... :-)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Word "Neighbor"

What comes to your mind when you think of the word "neighbor"? Maybe a block party. Maybe an especially helpful or elderly neighbor. Maybe Good Samaritan comes to mind. Maybe the second half of the Great Commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

The past few months, I keep wondering: If Jesus urges us to love our neighbors well, and if Jesus isn't a hypocrite, and if the Jesus stories that make us wince have a purpose, is it possible I have a few counter-intuitive lessons to learn?

Wow, I had no idea. The Jesus stories in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have come alive to me in a whole new way. The result is a new book manuscript titled Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It's Not What You Think. Clearly, clearly, the hero is Jesus!

If you'd like to read a sampling, give me a call, send me a text, or drop me a quick line at sanforddr]at[gmail]dot[com. Believe me, I need all the constructive criticism I can get before the manuscript is due May 1.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

IN THE NEWS: Doubts? Welcome!

“Nobody in America 
   gets listened to.”
 —Eugene Peterson

SUMMARY: Evangelicals are learning to actively listen to others, to consider their multiple points of view, and to honestly admit they don’t have pat answers for life’s toughest questions.  

QUOTE: Frank Ying, 33, works for a technology start-up. Brought up in the Dallas area by immigrant parents who had been raised amid the official atheism of the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Ying tried exploring Christianity with his high school classmates, even accompanying them to megachurches, only to be put off by their fundamentalism.

“You have all these questions,” he recalled. “And you have all these long, drawn-out conversations. ‘What do you believe? How much of the Bible do you take literally?’ And these people stop short and say, ‘You’ve just got to have faith.’ But I’ve always been more pragmatic, so that wasn’t good enough.”

Mr. Ying heard about Redeemer Presbyterian from a few acquaintances after moving to Manhattan several years ago. He dipped his toe slowly, watching a YouTube video of Dr. Keller in conversation with a journalist and a historian, emissaries of the secular world. By now, Mr. Ying is a regular at the WS Café, not because he believes, but because his doubts get heard.