Humbly Handling the Reality That the Christian Gospel Can Be ‘Offensive’ to Non-Christians   

Taken from an interview with John Piper (This is really good 😊) 

Non-believers sometimes feel the gospel is offensive or extreme because we say Jesus is the truth and only way to heaven. I have had people reply by saying, ‘So are you saying my religion is fake or I will go to hell when I die? All religions teach “good” things. We should respect all religions.’ So how should we handle such a reply, especially the latter comment about ‘respecting all religions.’ 

I think the first thing to say is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Bible presents it, is offensive, and it is extreme until God opens the eyes of the heart and calls people out of darkness of rebellion into the light of faith. 

Age-Old Responses 

For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

The words stumbling block and foolishness are very similar to the accusation that the gospel is offensive and extreme, and it is true — until the calling of God opens their eyes to see the good news. We need to settle it in our hearts that we are willing to be criticized and even persecuted by bringing the best news in all the world, and having it characterized as foolishness. That has happened everywhere the gospel has been preached for two thousand years. Some believe and rejoice in the gospel as the greatest news in the world. Others do not see it, and regard it as the height of arrogance. 

So we must understand and accept that that some people stumble over the claim that Jesus is the truth and the only way to heaven. And I think one helpful way to relate to this criticism, before you hear it and after you hear it, is to communicate the amazement that God would supply any way of salvation — not that he didn’t supply ten, but that he would supply any way of salvation to be reconciled with him. 

In other words, Christians should shift the amazement away from the fact that there is only one, to the fact that there is one. There is one! This should stun the Christian if it doesn’t stun the unbeliever. And that sense of amazement might affect the conversation, because I think often they feel we are coming with this smug sense that we have got only one thing. Are you kidding me? God Almighty stepped into the world to save sinners. 

The apostle Paul was unashamed to walk into Athens, with all of its deities and all of its competing religious allegiances, and preach like this in Acts 17:30–32

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 

So the response he got is the kind of response we can expect everywhere: some mock, and some are interested. 

Responding with the Greatest News 

When people pose objections with Christianity as offensive and extreme because it claims Jesus is the only way to God…it makes me think that perhaps the most helpful thing to draw attention to would be that Christianity is a different kind of thing than religion. Christianity is news. It is news about a historical event, just like you would say, “Did you hear what happened last week?” That is not a religion; namely, the incarnation of the Son of God, his life, his death for sins, his removal of the wrath of God, his dying, his resurrection. It includes his triumph over death and hell and sin and Satan. 

And so the provision for reconciliation and salvation and eternal life with God was brought about by this great work of Jesus Christ in history. Jesus is alive, ruling in heaven today. He will come back unexpectedly to earth and judge the living and the dead. This is not a religion. This is news of God’s action in history to save rebellious human beings who do not glorify God by trusting and loving and worshiping and obeying him. 

‘Is My Religion Fake?’ 

So how should we respond if somebody says, So you are saying my religion is fake? Well, one response would be to use the analogy of someone who comes to the hospital with a book of sayings and someone who comes with an antibiotic to help the person who is dying of pneumonia. 

Now the little book of sayings is not a fake medicine. It is not a medicine at all. It is another kind of thing. But another person comes with an antibiotic. This is a medicine. The aim is to save the patient from death. One person has a book of sayings to help the person live well until they die. Another person has a medicine to save the person from death. It is not a matter of what is fake. They are two different kinds of things. That is the way it is with Christianity and all world religions. It is another kind of thing. 

‘Am I Going to Hell?’ 

What about responding to the statement, Are you saying I will go to hell when I die? You might respond by saying that he whole point of the Christian religion is that all people are going to hell when we die. We are all going to hell. We all deserve God’s judgment because of our sin. You will not go to hell because of your religion. If you go to hell, it would be the same reason I would go to hell: We are both sinners. We have both offended God. We have both failed to love him and trust him and honor him and glorify him and obey him. And therefore, our sin is infinite because his honor is infinite. You and I are in the same condition. Hell is not about religion; it is about God’s justice and his response in justice to all of us who have failed to glorify and thank him. And then, against that backdrop, you declare that, nevertheless, God, in great love and at great cost, has entered into our misery in order to rescue anyone who believes in his Son. 

‘Isn’t Religion Good?’ 

And then if someone says, Doesn’t all religion teach good things?* the response is certainly yes. But this, again, is a confusion of categories. Christianity does not offer itself to the world mainly as a superior set of teachings. It offers itself to the world as a message, as news about a redemption and a resurrection and an eternal life in history through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. 

We don’t need to get bogged down in arguing which religion has better teachings. The issue is: Who has a historical intervention of God into this world to bear the sins of man, so that salvation can come to undeserving people? That is the question. And only Christianity has that message. 

‘Shouldn’t We Respect All Religions?’ 

And it is the same with our response to the last statement: We should respect all religion. Well, one could say it depends on what a religion claims to be. If it claims to have a better remedy for man’s greatest problem, we want to hear it and respect it. Christianity is not first a set of religious practices and ethical teachings that demands respect. It is news, the best news in the world about the coming of the Son of God into the world to bear the sins of man and absorb the wrath of God and reconcile rebels to their Creator. 

So the sum of the matter in relating to people of other religions is: Keep bringing the conversation back to the biggest problem humans face: the wrath of God because of our sin. The greatest question is: Has God done something in history so that our sins can be forgiven and his wrath can be averted and undeserving people like us Christians can have eternal life? So it is not about a superior religious set of practices or teachings. It is about: Has God acted to reconcile rebels to himself? 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

What’s the Center of Christian Growth? 

(Taken from an interview provided by John Piper)

Scripture gives us a constellation of ways to think of the Christian life as to our ‘walk of faith’ in the objective to be faithful and please God with our life as relates to our ‘maturation process’ and what we refer to as our personal ‘sanctification’ process.  So the question posed is this:  Is the key to personal sanctification more about ‘looking to Jesus,’ as Hebrews 12:2 says? Or is it more about being united ‘to him who has been raised from the dead,’ as Romans 7:4 puts it? Or is it mostly about ‘beholding’ Christ’s glory, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it? Or is it more about just obeying and doing the ‘work of faith,’ as 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says? 

Taking these different parts of Scripture — they use very different language — and asking, “Are there deep, common, unified, coherent realities here?”  

So let’s see if I can weave these four strands together into some kind of cord that God might use to bring us along in our pursuit of sanctification. That’s what they’re designed for, and I think that God our Father is very pleased when we try to put the different parts of his word together in order to see the common realities behind them, even when different words are used to describe those realities. 

One Great Work of God 

The realities in these four passages of Scripture would include these (I just made a list of them as I read these passages): 

  • God 
  • word of God 
  • Christ 
  • death of Christ 
  • glory of Christ 
  • law of God 
  • faith in Christ 
  • faith in his word 
  • hope 
  • joy 
  • Christian freedom 
  • the Holy Spirit 
  • human resolve 

All of those are realities, and they are all at work in these passages, and they are not doing contradictory things. 

There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy, making us sanctified, more Christlike. Different texts focus on different ones of these realities, but none of them leads us in a direction that would in any way contradict the other passages. We’ve misunderstood the text if one text is sending us off in a direction that flies in the face of the other passages. So, let me take them one at a time and just see if I can draw out some of the common connections. 

Looking to Jesus 

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2

So in this text, “looking to Jesus” is given as the means by which we run our race with endurance. That race, of course, includes becoming holy, staying on the narrow racetrack to the end. And when we look to Jesus, we see three things that affect our running. 

First, he’s called “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” which means he has done the decisive work in dying and rising and sitting down at the right hand of God. Because of Christ, our faith is well-founded and well-finished. It’s as good as done. In other words, because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith. 

“Because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.” 

Second, we look to Christ as inspiring our endurance because of his endurance — enduring the cross. He ran his race successfully through suffering. This emboldens us to run our race through suffering. 

And third, when we look to Jesus, he shows us how he ran his race. He says he ran it “for the joy that was set before him.” Therefore, the key to our endurance is to stand on that finished work of Christ and be confident that all-satisfying joy is just over the horizon. He’s going to finish it. He’s going to bring us great joy. That’s how we keep going, because that’s how he kept going. 

So this confidence in the joy that is set before us is called, in Hebrews, faith. In the chapter just before, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the joy hoped for. Faith is the foretaste, the substance (Hebrews 11:1). Right now you can taste it — the foretaste of the joy of the promise of God, over and over. In Hebrews 11, the saints obey by faith — that is, this faith, this confident hope of a joyful future, is the key to their obedience, just like it was the key to Jesus’s obedience. So that’s the picture, and that’s the reality of how we are sanctified, in Hebrews 12. 

New Way of the Spirit 

Now here’s Romans 7:46

You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. 

Now, the new reality that Paul introduces here that wasn’t in Hebrews 12 is the fact that when Christ died, we died. Specifically, we died to the law. We were released from law-keeping as the way of getting right with God, as the way of ongoing fellowship with God. 

That’s new, right? Nothing was said about the law in Hebrews 12:1–2. So Paul is coming at sanctification with a different problem in view: not the need for endurance through suffering — that’s the issue in Hebrews; that’s not the issue here — but the need for liberation from law-keeping. That’s the issue here. How do we relate to God? How do we become holy without law-keeping as the foundation for our lives (because that we died to)? 

And the other new reality that Paul introduces in Romans 7:4 is the Holy Spirit. He says that we “have died to the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6) And that wasn’t in Hebrews. 

And I would say that this new way of the Spirit is precisely the way of Hebrews 12, describing the Christian life — namely, the life of faith in the promises of God to fulfill us, to fill us with hope for future joy. That’s the new way of the Spirit in Romans 7. That’s the alternative to law-keeping as a way of walking with God. So, they are complementary texts, coming at sanctification from two very different angles. 

Beholding the Glory of Christ 

Third, 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this text, Paul combines the reality of the Holy Spirit (mentioned in Romans 7) and the reality of looking to Jesus (mentioned in Hebrews 12). And he adds the realities of glory and freedom, neither of which had been mentioned explicitly in those other two texts, but are mentioned here. So he says, 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18

What this text adds to the “new way of the Spirit,” described in Hebrews 12 and Romans 7, is that looking to Jesus in Hebrews 12 means not only seeing him as enduring the cross, but seeing him as glorious in all that he’s done. 

The focus is on how beautiful and glorious and magnificent he is — and finding that glory so riveting, so satisfying, that it has the effect of transforming us. We tend to take on the traits of those we most admire. This is freedom, because it happens by the Spirit as a natural process. 

This is what Paul called “bearing fruit for God” in Romans 7. Faith and hope and joy are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, but I would say that they are implied in the phrase “beholding the glory of the Lord.” I think that transforming “beholding” is the sight of faith. That’s the way faith sees Christ. Faith beholds the beauty of Christ. Faith finds joy in him when it looks at him and all that God promises to be for us in him. And by beholding him that way, faith transforms. And that’s sanctification. 

Work of Faith 

One more, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where Paul says, “May [God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” So in the process of sanctification, we do make resolves. Yes, we do. We intend things. We will things. We exercise our will. But Paul says that all of these volitional actions are works of faith by God’s power. In other words, we are back in the realm of God’s empowering Spirit. We work by trusting God’s promise that he is at work in us. 

I think if you bore into the actual reality of these four descriptions of sanctification, you will find they are deeply unified and mutually illuminating. It’s a thrilling thing to meditate on the realities of Scripture until we see how beautifully they cohere. 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

Your Darkness Is Not Dark to Him 

Article by Jon Bloom, staff writer, 

When my daughter Eliana was 6 years old, I wrote her a lullaby that included these words: 

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me. 

These four lines are packed with profound meaning for me. I rarely can sing them without tears. They refer to an extended season of what Christians call spiritual darkness, or a dark night of the soul, or a faith crisis, which I experienced the year before Eliana was born. 

Since I told this story in some detail a number of years ago, I won’t recount it all here. I do, however, want to recount the moment God brought light into my night, because it was a transformational moment when I experienced the biblical truth David describes in Psalm 139: 

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:11–12

I say it was a transformational moment, not merely because light pierced my darkness, but because it drove home David’s poetic point: that just because “the light about [us] be night” and we, for various reasons, lose sight of God, it does not mean the Light is gone. In this moment, I experienced that God really is faithful to keep his promise to be with us when we walk through the valley of deep darkness (Psalm 23:4) — whether we perceive him or not. 

Though the Night Falls 

One spring day in 1997, for reasons too complex and distracting to describe now, God, who had been the Sun of my world since my youth, suddenly became eclipsed in the sky of my spiritual sight. I couldn’t perceive him at all. Existential darkness covered me; the light about me was night (Psalm 139:11). And my faith was in a full-fledged crisis. 

This terrifying experience was foreign to me. But as I desperately ransacked the Bible and books searching for answers, it quickly became clear that this experience wasn’t foreign to saints in Scripture. 

In one sense, this should have been clear to me prior to this crisis, given how often I had read the descriptions of dark nights like mine in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and so on. But in another sense, it’s understandable why it wasn’t. When we haven’t personally experienced such disorienting blackouts (and the disturbing doubts that typically accompany them), it’s almost impossible to imagine what “darkness without any light” is really like (Lamentations 3:2). 

Now, I found myself walking through a “valley of deep darkness” (Psalm 23:4). I found myself praying with Heman the Ezrahite, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (Psalm 88:6). I found myself crying out with David in desperation, 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2

And I found myself wondering what incomprehensible darkness covered Jesus when he made this desperate cry. 

“God sometimes ordains dismayingly dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes.” 

The Holy Spirit used my darkness to illuminate for me the Bible’s clear witness that, for various and deeply good reasons, God sometimes ordains dismaying dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes. And God had provided these scriptural witnesses to help people like me “not be surprised at the fiery trial . . . as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Their experiences gave me a frame of reference as I sought to navigate my way in the dark. 

And We Cannot See 

Navigation, in fact, became a helpful metaphor to me during this time. To explain what I mean, let’s look at David’s description of spiritual darkness with more context: 

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
     Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
     If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
     and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
     and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7–12

In beautiful poetry, David says that it doesn’t matter where he goes — whether to the dwelling of God or the dwelling of the dead, whether to the place where the sun rises or where it sets — God is there with him. And if we widen the lens to include Psalm 139:1–6, we’d hear David say God isn’t merely with him, but God fully knows him. God is acquainted with all of David’s ways, even his thoughts. When David is in such a dark place that God seems absent, God is fully present with him and fully cognizant of him. For there is no such thing as darkness to God. 

‘Various Trials’ Theological Seminary 

Why was David able to make such profound theological assertions? Because he received his theological education in the seminary of “various trials” (James 1:2), where his courses were “many dangers, toils, and snares” — and spiritual darkness. He practiced theology as if his life depended on it. 

So, when David exulted in God’s continual knowing and guiding presence, even when deep darkness descended, he wasn’t waxing poetic over some romantic ideal; he was speaking of a reality he had experienced. Hard-won experience had taught him to navigate life by trusting God’s reliable promises, not his unreliable perceptions and emotions — especially in the darkness. 

I remember when the thought “fly by the instruments” hit me while trying to figure out how to navigate my stormy darkness. When pilots fly planes into dense, dark clouds, they lose all points of perceptual reference. Their normally reliable perceptions suddenly can’t be trusted anymore, since they can feel like they’re flying horizontal and straight when they’re actually spiraling gradually toward the ground. Survival in this situation depends on trusting what the plane’s navigational instruments tell them over what their perceptions and emotions tell them. They must fly by the instruments. 

That’s what David learned in the realm of faith — and so must we. One of the hardest and most valuable lessons we learn during our stormy, cloudy, spiritual nights is to trust what the instruments of God’s promises tell us over what our perceptions and emotions tell us. Such seasons force us to exercise faith. Which is why so many faithful biblical saints learned to “walk by faith and not by sight” during seasons of great desperation (2 Corinthians 5:7). 

Why We Long for Light 

As necessary and valuable as it is for us to learn to trust God in the dark — that he’s with us and fully knows us when we cannot see — we still deeply and rightly desire to experience that truth. We long for God to “lighten [our] darkness” (Psalm 18:28) because “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We long for light because we long for God. 

“We long for light because we long for God.” 

And so, on Saturday, August 23, 1997, while alone in the house, I threw myself on the living-room floor and pleaded with God (again) for light and deliverance. I prayed something very specific: “Lord, if you just somehow whisper to me that you’re still there, and I’m your son, and this whole dark season is something you’re allowing for your good purposes, I think I can endure anything. All I need is for you to whisper to me that I’m your son!” 

And God answered. He answered in such way that all the attempts my inner skeptic has made to explain it as something other than an answered prayer seem so improbable as to be incredible. (If you’d like to know specifically how, I describe it here; in short, God spoke not through an audible whisper but through a friend directing me, unaware, to a specific passage of Scripture.) And when God answered, he brought light into my night. In his light I again saw light (Psalm 36:9). 

Then, quite unexpectedly, one more aspect to this story occurred, which only made it harder to explain away. 

When the Time Is Right 

Several months after these events, my wife and I joyfully discovered we were expecting our second child. When we found out we were expecting a girl, we began searching for the right name. We ended up choosing Eliana, which in Hebrew means my God answers. We chose it as a memorial to that moment of answered prayer. 

Eliana was born on Saturday, August 22, 1998. The day after her birth, I got to thinking, “It was somewhere around this time last year that God answered my prayer.” So, I got out my journal and realized Eliana had been born exactly 365 days after that answered prayer, on the corresponding Saturday one year later. A shiver of awe passed through me, and grateful praise filled my mouth. 

God had been faithful, not only to his promise to cause “light [to] dawn in [my] darkness” (Psalm 112:4), but also to his promise to be fully and attentively present in my darkness, even when I couldn’t perceive him. And that’s why, even 25 years later, it brings me to tears almost every time I sing, 

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me. 

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) serves as teacher and cofounder of Desiring God. He is author of three books, Not by SightThings Not Seen, and Don’t Follow Your Heart. He and his wife have five children and make their home in the Twin Cities.