Providence is God’s invisible hand that He uses to guide all things to His predetermined conclusion. By definition, physical eyes cannot see Providence at work. And, as we’ve already said (Seeing God’s Providence, May 21, 2012), even the eyes of faith must rely on hindsight to see God’s Providence.

But there is still more to say about seeing God’s Providence. Here it is in a tweetable, bottom line:

Providence and Piety Go Hand in Hand.

Said another way, without piety as a developing character trait we will never see God’s Providence—hindsight or no hindsight.

Piety is an extravagant church word that I would never use except that it begins with “p,” which makes it easier to remember in a conversation about Providence.

Piety is our reverent, faithful, humble obedience to God. It is our self-emptying devotion to God, our self-denying submission to God, our unconditional compliance with His claim on us and on all of His creation. Piety expresses itself in a life of love for God above all else and a love for others.

Without piety, the Providence of God remains invisible. Without piety, life becomes raw survival. Without piety, I become the center of my universe.

As we navigate life’s curves and bumps and consistently refuse to look for Providence, much less trust it, our self-absorption and overpowering urge to survive  gradually edge God out of the picture. Too often, the self-directed person never thinks about God. And when she does, she concludes that God is either an absentee landlord at best or a vindictive tyrant at worst.

Bitterness, anger, and even hatred toward God rule the day.

But when piety is maturing within us, God’s goodness—His loving nature and compassionate character—become evident to us. As we trust Him we learn to trust Him more. As we love Him we learn to love Him more. In the end, He becomes the reason for our existence, the glorious end for which we strive.

And life becomes a thing of beauty as piety and Providence learn to flow together, hand in hand.


The parables that Jesus told are deceptively charming. At first blush they appear to be quaint little stories with a heavenly—highly moralistic—message. We most commonly use them to teach children.

Upon further reflection, however, we realize that these stories are power-packed. They change the world—they confront the world, challenge the world, subvert the world. Why is that?

Many of the parables come in response to questions from followers. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is in response to the lawyer’s questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable of the Unmerciful Servant is in answer to Peter’s question, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

These stories subvert my world because they are stories about another world, God’s world—the kingdom. They teach me how things would be if I would get down off the throne of my world and allow God to run the show as He desires. These stories reveal a cosmic clash between the values of my world and Kingdom Values.

Take the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as an example (Matthew 20:1-15). Some were hired at 6:00 AM and promised a denarius—a normal day’s wage. Some were hired at 9:00 AM and promised that they would receive “whatever is right.” More were hired at 12:00 PM, another batch at 3:00 PM, and one final group at 5:00 PM. These final three groups were not told anything about their wages. They were simply hired and sent to work.

At quitting time the boss gathered all five groups together and began distributing their wages for the day. Shockingly, he began with those who were hired last—at 5:00 PM. Even more surprisingly, the boss handed these men a full day’s wage—a denarius. When those hired first saw this they expected to receive more. But, when they received a day’s wage they were outraged and grumbled against the owner of the vineyard.

Why did they grumble? Why were they so upset? Because from their perspective they had been cheated. “What’s in it for me” is the governing question (Matthew 19:27 puts this very question on the lips of Peter). My world is centered around me, myself, and I and for me, “What’s in it for me” rules the day.

But for God, His desire to give generously to all who choose to serve Him governs His world. He says, “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I give you” (Matthew 20:14). In God’s world when quitting time comes He will not be distributing wages based on justice. He can’t. Why? Because He wants to be good to all of us who have chosen to serve Him. And if He were limited by principles of justice, none of us would get all that God wants to give us.

And so God has dealt with the requirements of justice in His Son, Jesus Christ. Once that was accomplished, God is now able to do as He desires—to distribute blessings to His children according to His goodness.

“What’s in it for me?” It all depends. If I come to God as I would a profane business transaction—demanding that I receive what I have earned—then what’s in it for me is disappointment. Why? Because even if I could earn God’s blessing (even if I were one of the ones hired at 6:00 AM, which I am not) I would receive only what every other person in God’s Kingdom receives, regardless of when he or she was brought in.

But, if I come to God on His terms, allowing God to deal with justice at the cross so that He can distribute blessings according to His grace, then what’s in it for me is God’s goodness. And since I was not hired at 6:00 AM, I have received God’s goodness as an undeserving recipient.

What difference does it make whether I was hired at 9:00 AM, 12:00, 3:00 or 5:00 PM? The fact is that none of us deserve a day’s wage; but we all receive a day’s wage because that’s just the way God rolls. What’s in it for me? Pure goodness, that’s what.

As fallen human beings, we have “turned in on ourselves” (a phrase used by St Augustine to describe the human heart). We are unable to fully and consistently love God because the affection of our heart is relentlessly drawn toward the wounded self. In a complicated blend of willful arrogance and instinctive (subconscious?) self-preservation, much of our spiritual energy is directed inward rather than outward. The result is a human being tragically out of touch with its Creator and often hopelessly self-absorbed.

Christian discipleship calls us out of this condition and back into an open, intentional, disciplined, self-denying relationship with our Father. In the beauty of this relationship, and by the graceful power of God’s Holy Spirit, our hearts are healed and our minds are restored. It is here that we learn to think theologically.

To think theologically is to go beyond the popular question, “What would Jesus do?” Thinking theologically requires us to ask, “What is God asking me to do in this situation?” The challenge is that the disciple is not looking for spiritual principles that might apply to modern circumstance; she is looking for a specific revelation from God that directs her actions in her present situation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with this distinction. “[Bonhoeffer believed] that Christians cannot be governed by mere principles. Principles could carry one only so far. At some point every person must hear from God, must know what God was calling him to do, apart from others.” (Metaxas, 323). Of course, Bonhoeffer did hear from God—through prayer, meditation, Scripture, and fasting. His obedience to the word he heard from God led him to leave the safety of America (after only 26 days), return to Nazi Germany, and to his ultimate death.

Metaxas summarizes this astounding ability of Bonhoeffer with this:

All his life, Bonhoeffer had applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied to scientific issues. There was only one reality, and Christ was Lord over all of it or none. A major theme for Bonhoeffer was that every Christian must be “fully human” by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some “spiritual” realm. To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology. Through Christ, God had shown that he meant us to be in this world and to obey him with our actions in this world. So Bonhoeffer would get his hands dirty … because God was speaking to him about further steps of obedience (361).

By the end of his life, Bonhoeffer had very few friends, family, or colleagues who did not think he was taking his discipleship too far. Most of them had found subtle ways to compromise and survive. He refused to do so—and paid the ultimate price.

There is a great tension within Christian discipleship. Eternal life is a free gift that costs us everything. Nothing we do can earn it; yet once we have freely received it, we ought to relinquish everything in reaction to it.

It is to revealing and clarifying this paradoxical balance that the gospel preacher must devote his energy. There are dangers on both sides of the equation:

  • Too much stress on the required human response and legalistic Pharisees are formed. Moralism, legalism, and sectarianism are just a few of the dangers.
  • Too much emphasis on divine grace and shallow, self-indulgent Christians are formed. Nominalism, cheap grace, and a fuzzy “we accept everyone and everything” attitude are often the result.

Perhaps no one navigated this delicate balance better than Martin Luther; perhaps no one experienced its absence as acutely as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

How could the church of Martin Luther align itself with Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany? By forsaking the true gospel, that’s how. By allowing the mainstream church to become polarized on the extremes of legalism and cheap grace nominalism.

Eric Metaxas has written a profound biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Timothy Keller wrote the Foreword and it says some things worth repeating:

We are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.

[Many people understand] grace only as abstract acceptance—“God forgives; that’s his job.”  But we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God’s grace comes to us will have a changed life. That’s the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace, but by costly grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God’s love and acceptance. They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it “divine child abuse.” Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in “cheap grace”—a non-costly love from a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us where we are. That will never change anyone’s life.[1]

Of course the warning is to every generation: forsake the True Gospel and disaster is predictable. May God grant us the ability to see how we are allowing the true gospel to become out of balance in our generation. May God grant us the grace we need to navigate the paradoxical balance that is Christian discipleship.

[1] Timothy J. Keller, Foreword to Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011).

What do people in the pews want from a sermon?[1] It seems like a no-brainer, yet most of the preachers I know never ask the question. I know I certainly don’t.

A few years ago, a group of preaching professors set out to discover what they could learn about preaching from the people who listen to sermons. This brave group invited people from the pews to explain how they listen to sermons.

The detailed findings were reported in four books published by Chalice Press.[2] Here are the highlights that I found interesting:

  • Listeners place a high value on sermons. Almost every one of the 263 interviewees said that preaching is meaningful to them. They look to sermons to help them make sense of life by helping them identify God’s presence and purposes, and helping them figure out how to respond faithfully. In today’s congregation, when so many responsibilities lay claim to a minister’s time, members encourage ministers to give the best of themselves to sermon preparation.
  • Many listeners stress that they want the sermon to connect with their living experience today. They want to know the implications of what they most deeply believe for their work places, homes, schools, civic affairs, and leisure activities. Along this line, they yearn to know that preachers understand what their worlds feel like. They are willing to be challenged (see the next point) but they want to know that the preacher understands the complexity of their lives.
  • Listeners want preachers to bring controversial issues into the pulpit. Yes. You read that correctly. Many of the listeners want ministers to help them wrestle with God’s purposes in connection with issues such as war with other nations, abortion, and same-gender relationships. As someone said, “Who else is going to help us think about these things from God’s point of view?” The respondents do not want preachers to tell them how to vote or what to think, but they do want help interpreting issues from a theological point of view and considering possibilities for faithful responses.

After more than a decade of preaching full time, I just now feel as if I am a member of the freshman class. Preaching is a divine mystery, a sacred moment, a powerful event in the lives of so many people. May God strengthen those who perform the task and may He bless those who listen.

[1] Adapted from Ron Allen, “Study Confirms and Challenges Preachers,” [accessed April 9, 2012].

[2] John McClure, et. al. Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies (2004); Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon (2004); Mary Alice Mulligan, et. al., Believing in Preaching: What Listeners Hear in Sermons (2005); Mary Alice Mulligan and Ronald Allen, Make the Word Come Alive: Lessons from Laity (2006).

God is real. He is alive. And he is constantly speaking to the human family. In fact, God reveals himself—his power, compassion, and nature—in various ways:

  • Through nature
  • Through powerful works (miracles)
  • Through Scripture
  • Through the church

But each of these manifestations of God is not the “main event.” Take the case of Peter and John in Acts 3 as an example. The miraculous healing of the man born lame was not an end in and of itself. The miracle got the crowd’s attention (3:9-10) but it was the story of salvation history that convicted their hearts (3:11-26) and, in the end, it was God who saved them and added them to his church.

There are many manifestations of God within our experience. But these manifestations must be kept in perspective, lest they become idols. The channels of revelation must not become the focus of our attention. These avenues of communication all point to something higher, something larger, something beyond themselves. They all point to God.

Within churches claiming to follow “nothing but the Bible,” perhaps the greatest threat in this regard is Scripture itself. While the text is normative to our existence, we must always remember that the words written on the pages of the Bible were never intended to take the place of the spiritual realities that they reveal. The Bible was written as a permanent record (a testimony to every generation) so that our faith might reach forward to something else—to something that is NOT recorded in writing, indeed, to something that CANNOT be recorded on the pages of any book.

In other words, our trust, our obedience, and our worship must be directed toward God, not the book that teaches us about him nor anything else that points us to him.

The same is true of the church. As the church of God on earth, we are both a sign and a foretaste of God’s sovereignty. As a sign, we point to a supernatural presence in a natural world. As a foretaste we offer a small sample of what is yet to come. Oh, we admit that the sample we offer is inadequate perhaps and often imperfect. But what happens in our midst is a sample of something much more supernaturally glorious than anything this natural world has to offer. Our existence points to a reality that is far above anything seen with natural eyes.

God is real. He is alive. He is speaking to the human family. The question is, “are we listening?”

Our world is rapidly approaching a population 7 Billion inhabitants.[1] Of those 7 billion, 2.2 billion claim to be Christians.[2] That makes Christianity the largest religion in the world.

Given its humble beginnings, this raises at least three questions in my mind:

  1. How did a small, penniless, powerless, seemingly insignificant movement become the world’s largest religion?
  2. How did a failed and arguably false messiah (from a strict Jewish perspective) become the most influential human being to ever live?
  3. How has a movement filled with apparent paradoxes and contradictions had such a profound effect on our world?

During Jesus’s earthly ministry, his core of followers numbered 12 men, none of whom appear to have been men of wealth, power, or influence. On the Day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that the followers of Jesus numbered 120 (Acts 1:15). They were scared, confused, and all huddled in an upper room waiting for their next move. From this small, penniless, insignificant beginning Christianity became the world’s largest religion. How do we explain such an unlikely event?

Jesus was a peasant. An itinerant preacher with no political regime, no economic program, no military apparatus, and no means of developing these required resources. At the end of his public life he was crucified as a wretched criminal. He was hung on a tree. By all accounts his claim to be Israel’s messiah had failed. From a Jewish perspective he was more than a failed messiah, he was a false messiah—under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Those closest to Christ claim that he was more than a mere human being—he is God-in-the-flesh (See John 1:1-18). He bridges the gap between humanity and divinity; he merges the spiritual with the material worlds. This paradox—a metaphysical impossibility for many—forms the paradoxical foundation of Christianity. It has been and remains a major stumbling block to belief for much of the world’s population.

No world religion places more of an emphasis on unity than does Christianity. And yet, this movement has been plagued by division and faction from its inception. Today there are some 35,000 sects within Christianity, many of them exclusive and sectarian. Some of them at war with others—killing one another in the name of the Prince of Peace. This contradiction and others like it (e.g., Christianity’s claim to be a religion dedicated to holiness and purity) make Christianity a very unlikely movement to become the world’s largest religion.

And so how do we explain the reality? Christianity, in spite of its unlikely prospects for doing much more than fizzling out in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, is the world’s largest religion. How did that happen? What explains such an improbable event?

The key to Christianity’s success has little to do with what Jesus said or did during his lifetime. The key to understanding Christianity’s massive influence lies in what happened after Jesus’s death.

  • You can question the plausibility of his so-called regime for all eternity.
  • You can doubt the effectiveness of his so-called movement all you want.
  • You can criticize the contradictions in the lives of his followers in every generation.

But one thing you cannot do. You cannot refute an empty tomb! And not simply a resuscitated human being but a resurrected Lord—not merely a new way of looking at this material world but an entirely New Creation inaugurated right smack dab in the middle of the old one.

This is the key experience that changed the world then and it is the same resurrection experience that can change our world today.

[1] There are various sources for world population and each one provides different numbers. My source is the U.S. Census Bureau as interpreted and reported at, [accessed January 5, 2012]. The Census Bureau’s page is

[2] Again, various sources are available, each giving slightly varying numbers. Here are a couple of sources that I found:;