Life Ministry

Pastoral Environment and the Fight for Holiness

My heart was deeply saddened yesterday when I heard about another resignation of a well-known pastor of a mega-church. This time, it was Tullian Tchividjian, pastor at Coral Ridge in Miami. This came about, he said, because of ongoing marital issues. His wife admitted to adultery. He developed an “inappropriate relationship” with someone in the aftermath of the news from his wife. God is grieved by this, that church will be greatly affected, and two people (Tullian and his wife) must deal with the destructive effects of sin. It breaks my heart. But I believe God is gracious and he can bring redemption to the darkest valley. I pray he does.

I’ve pondered this story a bit more deeply than other readers perhaps. I have a different perspective. Why? Because I’m a pastor.

Reading this as a pastor, I’m looking under the surface. I’m wondering what else was going on. I’m thinking about how it might have been avoided. I’m trying to see themes and trends and triggers that are plain as day in hindsight and might have signaled something like this was coming.

Now, hear me clearly, adultery is a human problem. People sin. Pastors are not exempt. What’s more is that sinners are responsible for their sin. We can’t shift blame elsewhere. Because of the gospel, we can own up to our sin and confess it, knowing that we have an advocate before God, Jesus Christ the justifier of the unjust. So yes, we are responsible for our sin, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes responsibility for our sin on the cross.

And yet, as we learn to deal with failure, we learn that life is complicated. Sin is complicated—adultery is complicated—and there are always multiple factors and variables in play. This is a tension that, as Westerners, we would probably rather not acknowledge much less deal with.

While adultery is sin—and sinners are called to repentance—this does not mean environment is unimportant. You can’t make a plant grow but you can improve the environment, the conditions, so that the seed has everything it needs to flourish. No rain? Find a hose and a sprinkler. The same goes for people—including pastors. A quality, genuine, redemptive environment doesn’t guarantee spiritual fruit. But by God’s grace, it helps.

This leads me to ask: was there something about this particular pastoral environment that made holiness more elusive? More specifically, was there something about Tullian’s mega-church environment that was not conducive for growth? Holiness is hard because of our sin nature—the Spirit of God and the flesh oppose each other to keep us from doing what we want (Gal. 5:16). It takes work (Phil. 2:12-13). Throw us into a garden where the conditions are not optimal—or even good—and growth can be “more elusive.”

In Tullian’s case, he was in a mega-church environment that exalted him to celebrity status. Christianity Today, reflecting on what brought Tullian to the church in the first place, wrote, “[Coral Ridge] elders hoped that Tchividjian’s youth, vision, and name could revive the fortunes of the aging congregation.” This mega-church environment centered on the lead pastor’s personality, charisma, preaching ability, and energy. Sadly, this isn’t unique to this church. It’s a mega-church trend. Building around a dynamic, visionary, CEO-type. (This is what happened with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, though with a different issue and over a longer period of time.) No human can bear this burden. So the pastor grows into a celebrity and becomes isolated and beyond accountability. And when this happens, he’s vulnerable.

This is not just a mega-church trend. What about churches in different contexts that are smaller and relatively unknown? Like many mega-churches, a small church could still be centered on the pastor. Maybe not his personality or charisma or vision, but his ministry credentials, his administrative skills, his ability to be available to everyone all the time (or his sense of guilt to be so). He does all the preaching, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. He is “the minister,” the one “doing ministry.” No human can bear that burden. So the pastor becomes desperately needed yet at the same time, curiously, he’s lonely. He becomes isolated. Now, he’s vulnerable.

I don’t know all the reasons for pastoral failures when it comes to adultery or “inappropriate relationships.” The sinful nature is, of course, bent on desiring other things above Jesus. We are fighting not against flesh and blood here and I’m not making any excuses because sin is sin, sinners are responsible for their sin, and we repent and trust that Jesus has taken care of not just our sins, but us.

But in the North American church, we seem to be quite adept at centering ourselves around our leaders. We cultivate pastoral environments that make holiness elusive for pastors—the people who are to take the lead in modeling a gospel-shaped life. And anytime we center our communities of faith on a pastor—even a very good one with much to offer the church—and not the Person of Jesus Christ, that pastor is doomed to fall.

We (pastors), too, are great sinners in need of a great Redeemer and we need help. Surely there is something churches (including the pastors) can do to help pastors fight for holiness, see fruit, and finish the good fight of faith. In my next post, I’ll look to the Scriptures to find out just how we can do this.

Life Reviews Theology

The Utter Relief of Holiness Review

John Eldredge. The Utter Relief of Holiness: How God’s Goodness Frees Us from Everything that Plagues Us. New York: Faith Works 2013. 208 pp. $19.99.

Reviewer’s Note: At the outset, let me say that this is the first John Eldredge book I have read. I am not unfamiliar with the claims that Eldredge is a bad Bible teacher at best and a heretic at worst. The point of this review isn’t to put those kinds of labels on him, but to simply examine his take on holiness as presented in his recent book. At the same time, I have read excerpts of other works from Eldredge and, as a discerning reviewer should do, I advise you to exercise extreme caution with Eldredge’s teachings. I hope my review will reveal why I feel this way.

In The Utter Relief of Holiness, John Eldredge attempts to convince Christians of the necessity of holiness and aid them in the practice of holiness. His goal is to “recover a vision of what holiness actually is,” trusting that a true vision would “absolutely captivate” Christians and be “an utter relief” (18-19). Why an utter relief? Because when we are holy, we will live the way we were made to live.

The book’s greatest strength is the focus on motive and heart idols. Holiness is not about faking it; legalism isn’t the road to holiness (50). “Holiness…is a matter of the heart” (52). Repentance is a key to holiness, and Eldredge says we must not focus on external repentance, but on what our heart desires (63). For example, at the end of a long day, the box of donuts calls your name. You long for comfort, and that is a good desire. Donuts aren’t the problem; the direction of your heart is. Holiness is recognizing your need to repent that you long for a false comfort rather than Christ, the only one who can really comfort you (121). In the end, to be holy we must honestly ask if we are looking to something for comfort, assurance, validation, pleasure, etc. over and above what God is for us (173).

Eldredge also rightly tells us that before conversion, the Christian had no choice but to sin. Because of the cross, however, we now can fight in the battle against sin. “Without the cross, sin would simply rule in us and over us unchallenged” (104). Christ purchased holiness for us: “Because of the work of Christ for us and in us, we now have the possibility of living a life filled with the captivating goodness of Jesus” (104). The cross must be the springboard for personal holiness, and Eldredge leaps off of this foundation well.

Finally, I commend Eldredge because he makes it clear that we can actually advance in holiness. Meditating on what Christ has accomplished in the gospel should lead to Spirit-empowered work and transformation. In other words, we need to put forth some effort in pursuing holiness and we should see progress. We need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and we can do so because it is God who works in us (112).

The shortcomings, however, severely outweigh these positives. In order to keep this review of manageable length, I’ll mention three of them.

First, Eldredge ignores imputed righteousness as the foundation for holiness in favor of imparted righteousness. In chapter 8, “What God Did for You in Jesus,” Eldredge rightly states that “in order to begin experience [holiness]…we need a basic understanding of what has been accomplished on our behalf” (99). After listing five truths of what Christ purchased for us in his death and resurrection, he then writes that the greatest news in heaven or on earth is that “the life of Jesus Christ has been imparted into your being” (103). Earlier in the book, Eldredge said, “The hope of Christianity is that we get to live life like Jesus…The way he does this is to give us his goodness; impart it to us” (42-43). Again, “His beautiful goodness can be ours…He does this by giving us his goodness; he imparts it to us” (179). Imparted righteousness (a Wesleyan doctrine) states that when God regenerates people, there is a righteous principle given to them to strive for holiness. Peter does state that Christians have partaken of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Christ is in believers by the Spirit who empowers Christians to progressively grow in holiness.

Yet Eldredge unhelpfully ignores the biblical and true foundation for holiness: the imputed righteousness of Christ. If a believer’s hope is in the fact that he gets to live the life of Jesus, he will be severely frustrated and disappointed. Biblically, however, the Christian’s hope is on the grace of God supremely revealed in the gospel, namely that God no longer counts his sins against him but has “made [Jesus] to be sin” so that sinners might “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is not a righteousness we must to “live” each day. It is a righteousness revealed by faith—which is our only true hope (Rom. 1:17). Imputed righteousness is not a righteousness that fluctuates in daily practice. It is one that is given as a gift and received by faith and cannot be taken away. It is a perfect righteousness and one that hides the believer with Christ before the Father (Col. 3:3). This must be the foundation and fuel for holiness.

Second, Eldredge ignores the cosmic scope of holiness. He rightly emphasizes that God is restoring all of creation (17), but incredibly he neglects the fact that at the center of God’s cosmic restoration program is the church: God’s community of people called to live together and love each other. Holiness is a community project: the local church must be essential if holiness is to be a reality in an individual’s life. Eldredge ignores the church’s role and plugs his Wild at Heart retreats multiple times (53, 133, 158, 167). He fails to mention any corporate means of grace (public worship, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, small group fellowship/accountability, etc), and actually equates “the Church” with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (154).

Third, the picture Eldredge paints of holiness is almost entirely drawn from Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels. Of course, this is a fine place to examine holiness par excellence! Yet Eldredge fails to expound on the majestic and glorious pictures of God’s holiness in the Old Testament. At best, Eldredge limits the revelation of God’s holiness, implying that the picture of God in the Old Testament is not as compelling as Jesus in the New Testament. Indeed, this could insinuate that the Old Testament is irrelevant or even unnecessary as we seek to understand God’s holiness.

Eldredge does many good things in this book. He paints a compelling picture of holiness. He emphasizes the importance of motive, walking the tight line of legalism and license. He is also clear that holiness means making God our treasure (see 171). When I analyze a book, though, I try to ask, “Would I hand this book to another person who’s dealing with this issue?” Unfortunately, Eldredge is unclear, unhelpful, or incomplete in too many areas for me to give this book to another Christian, particularly one who is a recent convert.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Life Theology

Monday Miscellanies: Rewards

A guest post by Jonathan Edwards

168. Rewards

How is it said that our happiness is the reward of holiness and good works, and yet that we are made happy wholly and solely for the sake of Christ? I answer, ’tis not solely by Christ that we have holiness and good works given us, but ’tis only by him that our holiness and good works are capable of a reward. He purchased holiness for us, which is indeed not different from happiness; and he purchased that they should be capable of a reward, and should be rewarded, yea that their good works should be worthy of a reward. So that properly, now, the good works of saints are worthy of being rewarded; the saints are worthy to walk in white [Revelation 3:4].


Interview With Kevin DeYoung on Holiness

Here’s an 8-minute interview with Kevin DeYoung about his new(ish) book The Hole in Our HolinessDesiring God will post other short videos in the next week from the rest of the interview.



Don’t Be Trite with the Gospel

Here are a couple of good posts warning us to beware of using “the gospel” as some sort of catch-all spiritual pill we drop on people without any context or specifics:

Thabiti Anyabwile: I’m Tired of Hearing “The Gospel” (Warning: Mild Rant)
Kevin DeYoung: The Hole In Our Holiness: A Friendly Rejoinder to Gavin Ortlund

The gist of these articles is that when someone has a problem, struggles with a sin, is tempted by sin, or faces a trial, etc. we cannot just say, “Believe the gospel!” or “Remember the gospel!” Thabiti and Kevin both argue (rightly, in my opinion) that we must be specific with people and use Scripture. Thabiti gives this example:

My husband of 50 years just died? Can you not tell me at length something about the resurrection—Jesus’ and ours—and the adoption the entire creation awaits to be fulfilled? Can you not reduce the entire scope and swoop of Christ’s redemptive work to the mere facts of the gospel, but along with those facts sketch and paint something of the goodness of this news? I know I need Jesus. I know the news is good. I need reminders specifically enumerating the reasons why. That’s what plants, roots, and grows enduring faith. That’s how we actually get to know Jesus more personally—by finding out what He’s like in the crucible of life.

So let us not be trite with the gospel. If we are to be truly “gospel-centered,” then we will get to specifics and be ruthlessly committed to using God’s word in every situation. As DeYoung writes in his post, let us not fail to “employ the full arsenal of Scriptural threats, warnings, promises, examples, and commands for fear that unless we explicitly say something about our deep down gospel issues we aren’t really dealing with the ultimate problem and we aren’t emphasizing grace as clearly as we ought.”

When you are pointing people to the glory of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and all that goes along with this (promises and warnings included) as revealed in Scripture, trust me, you will be gospel-centered.