Heresies, Heretics, & Heterodox: My Interview with Justin Holcomb

Below is an interview with my friend and colleague via Docent Research Group, Justin Holcomb, on his forthcoming book Know Your Heretics (April 28th). Justin is an Episcopal priest, (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He is married to Lindsey and has two daughters. He and Lindsey wrote Rid of My Disgrace, a book on gospel hope and healing for sexual assault victims, which I highly recommend and have reviewed here. Recently they co-authored a similar book on domestic violence titled Is it My Fault?: Hope and Healing for those Suffering Domestic ViolenceYou can follow him on Twitter here

If you share this interview on some sort of social networking site and let me know in the comments I’ll draw your name out of the others who do the same and send the winner a copy of the book. 

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification.

1. First off, what makes someone a heretic?

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted ecumenical creed that encapsulates the good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It covers the basic essentials of 1) who God is, 2) what God is like, and 3) how God saves. If a believer authentically holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.

2. Why is it important for Christians to know about heresies?

There are two major reasons. The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we find this revelation distasteful and try to reshape God according to our preferences, we are beginning to drift away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn’t like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. Think of the way that you might have related to your parents when you were growing up. Even if you didn’t necessarily understand the reasons behind boundaries they set for you in childhood, they look a lot different when you are confident in your parents’ love than when you fear or resent your parents. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it.

3. If you believe a heresy, say that Jesus isn’t God, does this mean you are going to hell?

The Bible seems to presuppose a right and a wrong interpretation of Jesus’ coming and the nature and character of God, as it uses strong language against false teachers who promote doctrines that undermine the gospel.

As historical theologian Bruce Demarest notes, “the NT expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3) and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching’ (2 Tim. 1:13; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3). Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception (Mt. 24:4) and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel (1 Cor. 11:2; Gal. 1:8).” [Bruce Demarest, “Heresy,” New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 293.]

In Galatians 1:9, Paul uses the strongest words possible against those who distort the gospel, writing, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” And the apostle Peter warns against “false teachers among you [who] will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. If a teaching or practice threatened the integrity of the gospel, it was strongly condemned (as in the case of Peter and the circumcision party described in Galatians 2). However, heresy was a weighty charge that was not made lightly, nor was it used whenever there was theological inaccuracy or imprecision. (Think of the response to Apollos in Acts 18:24 – 28.)

4. What’s the difference between a heresy and a bad doctrine? For instance, between believing that Jesus was not God compared to believing that the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.

Historically both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious. There is a difference between heterodoxy (Christian belief which differs from orthodoxy) and heresy (belief that diverges from orthodoxy beyond a certain point).

When everything is central, nothing is.

There are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity. So, on this view, if someone disagrees with them about the millennium, about infant baptism, about the role of women in ministry, or about the nature of the atonement, they are quickly labeled a heretic. While such impulses can be well intentioned, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.

Though this group of heresy-hunters often say they’re motivated by concern for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, their practice of labeling every diverging belief as heresy has the opposite effect. Rather than making much of right belief, they minimize its importance by making, for example, the mode of baptism to be as important as the divinity of Christ. When everything is central, nothing is.

5. What two or three ancient heresies do you think are challenging the church right now?

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. My summary of Socinus’ heresy is “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. It is the result of the fall upon humanity (original sin), however, that Pelagius ignores, causing his theology to fall into error. First, Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Instead, as Pelagius claims, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius, and it is only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office which deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. Socinus argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

6. Is it important to call out present-day heretics? Aside from bloggers (just kidding), who in the church has the responsibility to do this?

It is very important. I think just bloggers and people who write books on heresy (and orthodoxy) should have such authority. Let’s make a committee.

Seriously, because the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry, we need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. In addition, we must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. We are saved by the grace of Jesus, not our intellectual precision.


10 Questions on the New Testament Canon with Dr. Michael Kruger

Dr. Michael Kruger is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, has a Ph. D. from the University of Edinburgh, and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He specializes in the study of the origins of the New Testament. Dr. Kruger’s book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of New Testament Books was published this last month, and he has co-authored a 2010 book titled The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and a forthcoming book titled The Early Text of the New Testament. Recently he started blogging and has an ongoing series called “10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon” that you can find here. He was kind enough to answer the following 10 questions of mine about the New Testament canon:

…redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.

  1. What is the canon of Scripture?

There has been a long and extensive debate between scholars about the best way to define the term “canon.”  I cover this topic rather extensively in my recent article in the Tyndale Bulletin.  But, for our purposes here, the canon can be defined simply as “the collection of scriptural books that God has given his corporate church.”

  1. Why is there a canon of Scripture?

God’s revelational deposits are typically designed to announce and apply his great redemptive activities.  Thus, when God accomplished his great redemptive work in Christ Jesus, he gave the canonical books as a permanent and abiding means by which that redemption could be announced to the world and applied to the hearts of his people.  Thus, redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.

  1. Who decided what books made up the canon of Scripture?

Well, simply put, God decided what books make up the canon of Scripture!  The canon always consists of the books God gave his church, no more, no less.  Of course, I realize that this question is really asking about what role humans (i.e., the church) played in the development of the canon.  The church played a very important role.  There role was to recognize, receive, and submit to the books that God had given.   And we see the church doing this from a very early time period.  They reached a general consensus around all these books by the time of the 4th century.

  1. Roughly, how much time did it take for all 27 books of the New Testament to be included in the canon?

Although a final consensus on all the books was not achieved until about the fourth century, that is not the whole story.  In fact, to only discuss the final consensus is to leave out an important fact, namely that the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century.   The “core” canon consisted of the 4 gospels, Paul’s epistles, and a few other books like 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.   Since there was a core canon from very early in the life of the church, then that means that (a) all of the so-called disagreements were only over a handful of books, and (b) the theological trajectory of early Christianity was already decided long before the fourth century.

…the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century.

  1. Do the books that were “accepted” later have less value then books accepted earlier? In other words, should we spend more time in Matthew or Galatians over that of 2 Peter and Jude?

The books that were accepted later are as fully inspired, and fully scriptural, as all the other books of the NT.   The “delay” in the consensus around these books largely has to do with their small size.   Books like Jude, James, 2 & 3 John were simply not used as often as other books, and therefore the knowledge of these books was not as widespread in the earliest stages of the church.  Thus, it took longer for a full consensus to be reached regarding them.

  1. How would it help a Christian man working a “regular job” or a Christian mom working at home with kids to have an understanding of the formation of the canon?

It all goes back to the authority of Scripture.   Every believer needs to have a level of assurance about the authority of God’s word so that they can (a) faithfully live their lives in obedience to Him, and (b) confidently share their faith with non-Christians.   A core part of establishing the authority of God’s word is to be able to answer objections and questions about where the Bible came from.  In fact, this is one of the most common questions that non-Christians ask about the Bible.  Every Christian, even those with a “regular job,” will need to have at least some answer to that question.

  1. Will there ever be additions to the canon? If so, why? If not, why not?

One of the most common questions I get is, “If we found a lost epistle of Paul in the sand today, would we add it to the canon?”  That is a difficult question, but I come out on the “no” side of that debate.  I argue in my book, Canon Revisited, that we have good reasons to think that God would providentially preserve those books that he intended to be part of the church’s foundational documents.  Thus, if a book was lost, and therefore not providentially preserved, it is reasonable to conclude that God did not intend for it to be part of the church’s canon.  Even if we found an epistle of Paul, it makes little sense to add a book to the canon now when that book was clearly never part of the foundational documents of the church.

  1. With the recent discussion on the canon and the nature of the gospels brought up by scholars like Bart Ehrman or even in pop culture phenomenon like The DaVinci Code, what two or three main misconceptions do you think people have about the canon?

There are many misconceptions about canon.  So many, in fact, that I have started a new blog series on my website on this very topic (I just completed misconception #4).   I think the most common misconception is that early Christianity was wildly diverse with no clear theological or doctrinal direction, and therefore no sense of which books were Scripture.   People have this idea that the development of the canon was sort of like an ancient writing contest—if you wrote something good enough it may have a chance of getting in!  But, things were not quite this way.  Sure, there was some diversity and disagreement, but, as a whole, there was a remarkable amount of uniformity from a very early time period.

  1. In what way does understanding the formation of the canon give particular glory to God and adorn his gospel?

Studying the origins of the canon can be very encouraging spiritually.  It reminds us that God very much desires a relationship with his people; i.e., he desires to speak with them.  And it reminds us that God has not left that speaking to chance.  By his providential hand, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, God has made sure that his people hear his voice.

  1. What is the best lecture online and the best book to read to get started in understanding the NT canon?

If people want to learn more about the NT canon, I recommend they listen to the recent lectures I gave at RTS/Orland for the Kistemaker Lecture series, or pick up a copy of my book, Canon Revisited.

Interview with Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is the Senior Editor in Bible Division at Crossway. He holds an M.Div. and Th.M. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Wheaton College Graduate School. He blogs regularly at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology and is featured at The Gospel Coalition and the Resurgence. He has also written a book titled A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards. Dane will be teaching at the Immanuel Theology Group put on by Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where his dad, Ray Ortlund, serves as lead pastor. The following interview with Dane revolves around the theme “The Gospel in All of the Bible” which he will take up at the Immanuel Theology Group on August 13 of this year.

1. What is the gospel of Jesus?

The gospel is the startling proclamation that anyone can be right with God—acquitted, forgiven, restored, adopted—through trusting faith in Jesus, who lived the life we cannot live and died the death we deserve to die.

If I had to pick one place in Scripture where the gospel is laid out, I’d go with 1 Corinthians 15: “Christ died for our sins . . . was buried, and was raised” (vv. 3-4). The opening verses of Romans 1 give another helpful summary of the gospel message, though there in more story-like terms.

2. Why is it important to see the gospel of Jesus in all of Scripture?

For at least two reasons, one about the Bible and one about us.

First, the gospel is the main message of the Bible. When the last verse of the Bible says “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Rev. 22:21), that is an effective summary of the entire Bible—the grace of God in the Son of God for the people of God.

The gospel is the startling proclamation that anyone can be right with God.

Second, about us. We will be healthy, obedient Christians to the degree that we understand the Bible in all its many contours and flavors, including understanding the Bible’s main message. For example, if we view the Bible as mainly instruction, we will become either depressed when we fail to follow it or proud when we succeed. Both are self-focused. Neither is healthy. When we view the Bible as mainly—not only, but mainly—a message of grace, we will be freed from the emotional cowering before God that is so natural to us and will find fresh freedom to love God with real love, love that pours itself out in sacrifice and obedience to him.

3. Since this is so important, can you give a short summary of the gospel in the following books of the Bible:

  • Where is the gospel in Proverbs?

Proverbs and James are the two easiest books to screw up. They are both heavy on advice/imperatives/instruction/exhortation. Divorced from God’s electing love in the gospel, Proverbs (or James, or any of the imperatives of the Bible) breeds self-despairing failure or self-exalting arrogance. Left in neutral, our hearts tend to slide into law-oxygenated living (tense, stuffy, despairing, burdened, relationally alienating) and away from grace-oxygenated living (relaxed, happy, calm, self-forgetful, liberated, relationally healing).

So—what is Proverbs? Wise help from an outside voice. Not all that different from the gospel! Proverbs is God coming to us and saying: ‘I love you so much, dear ones—here, let me help you live as the truly human being I wish you to be…’

There is no magic formula to ‘find’ the gospel in Proverbs. Rather, if we read Proverbs as wise words from a father who loves his children too much to let them ruin their lives through ignorant folly, we will receive it as God means us to, and be strengthened in a way that is grace-flavored.

And remember, from a macro-perspective, Jesus is the ultimate wise man. Paul said that Jesus ‘became for us wisdom’ (1 Cor. 1:30). Jesus is the wise man, and we fools, united to him by faith, share in that wisdom.

  • Where is the gospel in Leviticus?

All over the place. Leviticus is an elaborate accounting of the sacrificial system that God mercifully instituted for Israel, to atone for their sins. It is virtually impossible to plunk down into a random place in Leviticus and not see God’s gracious provision of a way out for filthy people.

And Jesus himself brought that entire sacrificial system to fulfillment. The New Testament tells us Jesus was not only the priest who offered the sacrifice, he was also the sacrifice itself, the lamb—and he was even the temple in which the priest offered the sacrifice. As we read Leviticus as Christians, then, we can be ever mindful of what all those bloody sacrifices were anticipating.

From another angle: in Leviticus we see time and again that when the unclean touches the clean, both become unclean (see also Hag. 2:13). Jesus showed up and reversed this. He frequently touched lepers and others who were ‘unclean’ and in doing so both became clean (e.g., Mark 1:40-42). With Jesus we no longer see ourselves as basically clean in danger of defilement, but basically defiled in need of cleansing. And we can have it freely, because the one person who ever lived who was truly ‘clean’ went to a cross and was condemned as an ‘unclean’ person so that we unclean sinners can be freely treated as clean.

  • Where is the gospel in Ecclesiastes?

Ecclesiastes insists that the good things of life—food, work, sex, wealth, honor—cannot serve as the ultimate things in life, and that if we make this mistake (as Solomon did) we will come to the end of life exhausted, frustrated, and disillusioned. Only God satisfies. And we human beings are so screwy that we will not believe God supremely satisfies unless God gets up in our face, through the voice of someone who actually had it all (Solomon), and tells us so.

As you look out on a congregation filled with broken marriages, hardened teens, bitterness, immorality, dishonesty, laziness, apathy, ask yourself: what has it been that has enabled you to conquer sin in your own life?

When Ecclesiastes speaks time and again of ‘fearing’ God, it does not mean being frightened of him but making him supremely central in your life so that everything funnels into that great loyalty. In telling us to fear God, we are given the key to contentment, to joy, to a meaningful life ‘under the sun.’ This is God’s kindness to us, is it not?

From another perspective: Jesus really had it all, even more than Solomon. He had unbounded wealth, honor, etc., in heaven. He had everything Solomon chased after. To an infinite degree. And he emptied himself and gave it all up and came to earth and suffered and died. Why? So that you and I, wayward sinners, can have real wealth, real riches, real honor, in the new earth, forever.

4. What are some tools/practical tips you’d give to a person to help them see the gospel in their daily devotions?

1. Reflect deeply, in an unhurried way, on your own sin. Not misanthropic introspection, but healthy self-assessment, in the spirit of 2 Cor. 13:5. One reason the gospel does not feel real to us is that our sin does not feel real to us.

2. Get married, then have kids, adopting if need be. Nothing exposes your sins and need of the gospel like living with other people who see what you’re like when you’re not out in public, wearing various masks, trying your hardest to come across a certain way.

3. Discipline yourself to read Scripture every day. It’s hard to get in a spiritual rhythm of communing with the God of all grace if you only have fellowship with him sporadically.

4. Sing. Print out your favorite hymns and worship songs and sing amid your Bible reading. We are whole people, not brains only.

5. Belong to a church that loves the gospel and preaches the gospel so that you can learn from a wise pastor how to see the gospel all over the Bible.

6. Read every passage mindful of what Jesus himself says in John 5:39-46 and Luke 24:25-27, 44-47, and what Paul says in 2 Cor. 1:19-20. If that’s how Jesus and Paul read their Bibles, shouldn’t we?

7. Read books by Jerry Bridges, Bryan Chapell, C.J. Mahaney, and Mark Driscoll.

5. What are some tools/practical tips you’d give to a pastor to help them study and preach in such a way that they tether the gospel to every sermon?

1. At Covenant Seminary, Bryan Chapell taught us to ask of every passage you read: What do I learn here about (1) the God who provides redemption, or (2) people who need redemption? Every passage contributes something toward at least one of those two questions. These questions prevent us from reading the Bible in a moralistic, ‘be-like-David-cuz-he-was-so-brave’ kind of way.

2. If you do not feel yourself—not just know yourself, but feel yourself—to be a great sinner in need of a great Savior, then you will not be eager to preach such a Savior’s gospel.

3. Read stuff by Zack Eswine, Edmund Clowney, Tim Keller, Dennis Johnson, Graeme Goldsworthy, and T. Desmond Alexander. Follow the guys who blog at The Gospel Coalition. Get commentaries by Derek Kidner, Dale Ralph Davis, Don Carson, Doug Moo, and Peter O’Brien.

4. As you look out on a congregation filled with broken marriages, hardened teens, bitterness, immorality, dishonesty, laziness, apathy, ask yourself: what has it been that has enabled you to conquer sin in your own life? Not behavior alteration, but true transformation, way down deep at the core of who you are? Is not the answer—in a word—love? Grace? Kindness? And if so, then what can we expect will change our people? There is certainly a place for exhortation. The Bible makes that inescapable. Let’s preach the whole counsel of God. But must we not tell people, not only unbelievers but also believers, of God’s undeserved kindness to sinners in the gospel? Isn’t this what not only saves unbelievers but also changes believers? Didn’t Paul, in the very place where he spoke of preaching ‘the whole counsel of God,’ sum this up as ‘the gospel of the grace of God’? (Acts 20:24, 27).


Thank you Dane for not only taking the time to answer each question, but the way in which you answered each question so that they drip with the grace of Jesus!

A Conversation with Biblical Theologian Dr. Greg Beale

Dr. Greg (G.K.) Beale is a Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and the author of the forthcoming A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (set to be published by Baker Book House in November of 2011). Some of my personal favorites of his works are the book he edited with Dr. D.A. Carson Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, his biblical theology of the temple and the Church’s mission, his biblical theology of idolatry, and his massive and important commentary on the book of Revelation. Recently he spoke a few times on the topic of Scripture at Clarus 2011–a conference held at Desert Springs Church in New Mexico. He graciously agreed to do the following interview with me this morning primarily on the topic of biblical theology. The conversation features themes like connecting the Old Testament to the New Testament, finding Jesus in the Old Testament, preaching the gospel to yourself, and be sure to hang around for the last question regarding the highly publicized prediction of judgment day and the rapture being May 21, 2011 (tomorrow, gasp!). The interview is approximately 43 minutes long, so grab a cup of coffee and take a listen or download it and listen to it on your iPod later.

Click HERE to listen.

Interview with Author & Pastor Jared Wilson

Jared Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Vermont. His sermons are available for download here. He is also the author of Your Jesus is Too SafeAbide: Practicing Kingdom Rhythms in a Consumer Culture, and the forthcoming Gospel Wakefulness (expected October 31, 2011). He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Grace Upon Grace: The Many Glories of the One Gospel, and is assisting Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas, with a book tentatively titled The Explicit Gospel. In his spare time he blogs at Gospel Driven Church and does research for pastors around the nation through Docent Research Group–a group of which I also am a part. His life’s passion is “for the spread of gospel wakefulness in the evangelical church.” What follows is my interview with Jared which he graciously agreed to do:

What is gospel wakefulness?

Gospel wakefulness means treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring him more sweetly, and it results from beholding Christ powerfully in the gospel in a moment of utmost brokenness. It is, simply put, being astonished by the gospel and then living with that astonishment enduring.

How do you cultivate gospel wakefulness in your personal life?

The only way to be astonished is to, in some way, see the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus. Many of us look at Jesus but don’t see this glory. (My friend Ray Ortlund says, “Stare at the glory of God until you see it.”) We can look without seeing, but we can’t see without looking, so the thing to do is to keep looking and don’t stop. We must fix our eyes on Christ. Some days in a variety of ways, brokenness will find us, and we want to be holding hands with Jesus when it does.

How do you cultivate gospel wakefulness in your marriage and family?

We have to keep our own eyes fixed on Christ and we have to help each other do that too. So as husbands, we want to love our wives like Christ loved the church —  sacrificially, graciously, redemptively, with a heart to honor and sanctify her — so when her sins or failures or brokenness become manifest, she is seeing the gospel of Jesus in our love for her. Wives will submit joyfully to their husbands, so that husbands can see — if they have the eyes to do so — the sacrificial servanthood of Jesus in the face of their undeserving ways. As parents we want to keep pointing our children to the gospel when they disobey or make mistakes. We want to help them see Jesus in our words and actions. And in our discipleship of them, we want them to see him too, so gospel-centered family devotions or reading from The Jesus Storybook Bible are great things to do.

As a pastor, how do you cultivate gospel wakefulness in the church you shepherd?

By refusing to give them anything but the gospel. The gospel of Jesus will be the main point of every sermon, and it will be the theme of my counseling and discipleship. And we will measure everything we do, from music to programs and other ministry efforts, against how well it commends the gospel. We will be purpose-driven that way!

In your book Your Jesus is Too Safe, you talk about false Jesuses. What do you mean by that?

We are incredible at making Jesus in our own image. So we have all these caricatures of Jesus that we propose as “the real Jesus” when really they are just projections of our own personalities, platforms, or priorities. The Jesus of the Scriptures is big and multi-faceted. He’s a real Person! And really God. We have trouble finding the real Jesus conducive to our motives and desires, so we shave off the inconvenient parts and sculpt our own. We want Aslan to be a tame lion.

What are some false Jesuses you find in broader evangelicalism? How does the real Jesus deconstruct the false one?

There are all kinds. There is the ATM Jesus of the prosperity gospelists, who just wants you to be successful financially and in other ways, but you just have to learn the right buttons to push. There is the Hippie-Guru Jesus of the more emergent tribes. There is the Postcard Jesus of the superficially religious. There is the Motivational Speaker Jesus of the moral therapeutic deists.

The real Jesus deconstructs these caricatures when we see him in the composite picture of the entirety of the Scriptures. To get to the caricature you have to exaggerate or inflate some characteristics or sayings while ignoring or downplaying others. The real Jesus is much more complex, and if we could factor in the wholeness of Scripture — like good biblical theologians — the caricatures would start to dissipate. The caricature would start to look more like a portrait. And the portrait should start to look like a living, breathing person. (Of course, I assume even the best theologians will still only see him dimly until he comes again and we see him face to face.)

Any false Jesuses that the “new Calvinism” may be prone to? How does the real Jesus deconstruct the false one?

Goodness, yes. There are two big ones. The first might be called the Doctrinaire Jesus. He treats Calvinism like the gospel and inflates Jesus’ hard words to the downplay of his soft ones. I think the real Jesus deconstructs this false Jesus when we see how he responded to the chief doctrinaires of his day, the Pharisees. And in the bigness of Jesus, there is room for those covered in his righteousness, not just those carrying “The Institutes.”

The other false Jesus somewhat popular among “new Calvinism” is the one fairly common in my tribe. I call him Ultimate Fighter Jesus. We have got it in our heads that Jesus looked like The Rock or a Jewish Kimbo Slice. I understand the drive to do this, to rescue the strong Jesus from the clutches of the effeminate, chai latte-drinking Jesus. But I think we are in danger of the pendulum swing. We have zero evidence that Jesus was a quote-unquote “tough guy” in the sense we tend to favor culturally. What if he looked like Woody Allen? I think we ought to be careful we aren’t placing idolatrous demands on Jesus. “You must look like somebody who could beat me up or I won’t worship you.”

Rid of My Disgrace: Interview with Justin Holcomb

Rid of My Disgrace is a gospel-saturated book written for the victims of sexual assault. My friend and colleague at Docent Research Group Justin Holcomb and his wife Lindsey wrote this book to apply the good news of Jesus Christ to those sexually assaulted. I have mentioned it a few times on my blog in the past and reviewed it here. What follows is my interview with Justin on this rare and important book:

1. Quickly, what is sexual assault? How widespread is it?

Sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.

The number of occurrences of sexual assaults is staggering. It is much more common than most people know. At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. And these statistics are probably underestimates.

According to the most recent statistics, every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and approximately 80 percent of them are assaulted by someone they know (a relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, doctor, etc.). Researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10% of all marriages and that incest is experienced by 10 to 20 percent of children.

Regarding the age breakdown of sexual assault, 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age twelve, 29 percent are ages twelve to seventeen, and 80 percent are under age thirty. The highest-risk years are ages twelve to thirty-four, and girls ages sixteen to nineteen are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.

2. What practical advice do you have for the husband or wife who are walking their spouse through dealing with the effects of past sexual assault?

  1. Listen to their experience and do not ask probing questions about the assault. Let them divulge what they want to when they want to. Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest that blaming victims is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others
  2. Challenge the myths and misconceptions that promote self-blame. Self-blaming is a common behavior among victims. As a coping technique and to make sense of the assault, victims make attributions for why the assault occurred.  Self-blame is associated with more distress and poorer adjustment. Unchallenged sexual assault myths perpetuate feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blaming tendencies for victims. Refusal to accept these myths may help victims to assign different meaning to the experience instead of society’s stereotypical ideas regarding sexual assault.
  3. Learn what to say and what not to say. Reflect theologically when they are ready. Connect the grace of the gospel to the disgrace of sexual assault and the specific effects connected to it (denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair). It is important to address the effects of sexual assault with the biblical message of grace and redemption. Jesus responds to victims’ pain and past. The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace
  4. Fight against the lies for them.  Communicate frequently this message: “What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope” (Rid of My Disgrace, page 15).
  5. Be sure to take care of yourself as a support person, so you can be healthy in your care-giving role.
  6. Encourage them to tell a friend or friends they trust.  It is a good idea for victims to have a broad support base as it can be exhausting for the supporting spouse if they are the only ones involved. The supporting spouse wont always be available to talk and at times it can be easier for a victim to talk to someone of the same sex about certain dimensions of an assault.
  7. Don’t ever pressure or whine for sex or physical intimacy.

3. Is there any additional practical advice for parents who are walking with a child through dealing with the effects of sexual assault?

#1-5 also apply directly to parents who are caring for their child.  Here are additional things to consider:

  1. Don’t minimize or deny or blame them for happened to them.
  2. Advocate for your child. This means pursuing justice by calling the police and finding a good counselor who know show to deal with sexual abuse of children.
  3. If the assault occurred because of your negligence, ask your child to forgive you.

4. For those who have been sexual assaulted and have not yet told anyone what is your advice to them?

  • Tell a spouse, family member, or friends you trust.
  • Find a trust and informed pastor or counselor to support you through dealing with this.
  • Contact your local sexual assault crisis center for legal advocacy, practical advice, and support groups.
  • Read Rid of My Disgrace, which is our book on hope and healing for sexual assault victims.

5. As a pastor, how do you counsel victims of sexual assault regarding the sovereignty of God over the event(s) of their assault?

First, we have no idea why God let it happen. Any attempt to answer why usually end up in spiritual platitudes or bad theology.

Second, we learn from the Bible and Jesus that God understands the pain you experienced, that he mourns and grieves for the sins done against you, and that he is angrier than you are for the sins done against you.

Third, I can tell you from personal experience in this issue that God is so creative and sovereign that he bends the evil intended for you destruction and uses it for your good (Gen 50:20 and Romans 8:28).

Fourth, God can handle your emotions. Don’t run from him in anger but toward him. The intent of the evil done against you is to create distance between you and God, the only one who can bring real healing to you.  Please realize this and bring your emotions and thoughts to God. The psalms are filled with a wide spectrum of emotions related to God: shame, fear, sadness, reverence, anger, love, joy, and doubt.  The psalms provide release, rationality, and relief for our emotions. You won’t find yourself blamed, laughed at, mocked, or punished. You’ll find yourself embraced by the love of a God who meets you in your pain.

6. As a pastor, how would you counsel the perpetrators of sexual assault in how they too can receive God’s redeeming grace? Any comments on the rehabilitation of sex-offenders?

I’ve said something like this before:

“Sexual assault is a sin and a crime.  You have committed a serious sin and crime.

First, for your sin, you need forgiveness.  Trust in Jesus because he died in your place and for your sin of sexual assault and all other sins.  On the cross, he was treated like a perpetrator so you could place your trust in him and be declared righteous and forgiven and innocent before God.  There is no sin beyond the grace of Jesus. You can’t out sin his abounding grace.

Second, for your crime you deserve justice and need to make restitution. This means you will need to turn yourself in to the proper authorities.  You should also repent and apologize to the person or people you sinned against. Offer to pay for the counseling they endured because of your crime.

Third, God makes sinners new creatures. If you trust in Christ, you are forgiven, but the consequences of your sin could last for a lifetime (having to register as a sex-offender, divorce, not being able to see your grand-children alone, etc).”

7. Most importantly, what does the gospel have to say to victims and the perpetrators of sexual assault?

Victims of sexual assault experience many devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The most prevalent responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. If this is you (or someone you love), you need to understand that the gospel of Jesus applies to each of these.

1. Denial

Sexual assault makes you feel alone, unimportant, and unworthy of sympathy. It tempts you to deny and minimize what happened to you to cope with the pain and trauma. It might initially help to create a buffer while you start dealing with the difficult emotions, but eventually denial and minimization will actually increase the pain, because it keeps you from dealing with the psychological destruction and trauma of the assault.

God does not deny, minimize, or ignore what happened to you. Through Jesus he identifies with you, and he has compassion. He knows your suffering. He does not want you to stay silent or deny, but to feel and express your emotions, to grieve the destruction you experienced. The cross shows that God understands pain and does not judge you for feeling grief. The resurrection shows that God conquered sin—that he is reversing sin’s destruction and restoring peace.

Because of Jesus, you have the privilege to confidently go to God and receive grace and mercy. Your need and your cries don’t make God shun you. He has compassion on you (Hebrew 4:14-16).

2. Identity

Sexual assault attacks your sense of identity and tells you that you are filthy, foolish, defiled, and worthless. It makes you feel that you are nothing.

The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family. You are given the most amazing identity: child of God (1 John 3:1–2). God adopted you and accepted you because he loves you. You didn’t do anything to deserve his love. He loved you when you were unlovable.

The gospel also tells you that through faith in Christ, his righteousness, blamelessness, and holiness is attributed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). If you are in Christ, your identity is deeper than any of your wounds. You can be secure in this new identity because it was achieved for you by God—you are his, and he cannot disown himself.

3. Shame

Sexual assault is shameful and burdens you with feelings of nakedness, rejection, and dirtiness. Shame is a painfully confusing experience—it makes you acutely aware of inadequacy, shortcoming, and failure.

Jesus reveals God’s love for his people by covering their nakedness, identifying with those who are rejected, cleansing their defilement, and conquering their enemy who shames them. God extends his compassion and his mighty, rescuing arm to take away your shame. Jesus both experienced shame and took your shame on himself. Yet Jesus, of all people, did not deserve to be shamed. Still, he took on your shame, so it no longer defines you nor has power over you.

Because of the cross, we can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies us by what we have done or by what has been done to us. In Jesus, you are made completely new.

4. Guilt

Sexual assault attacks you with guilt that leads to feelings of condemnation, judgment, and self-blame.

You are not guilty for the sin that was committed against you—and this realization alone can bring great freedom. Yet the reality is that your sense of guilt goes deeper than what was done to you. You know that you have sinned against God and others—both before your assault and in response to what happened to you.

The shocking message of grace is that Jesus was forsaken for us so we could be forgiven. God turned his wrath away from you and toward Christ on the cross. If you trust in Christ, all your sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. All of them. All threat of punishment, or sense of judgment, is canceled. Through faith in Christ you are loved, accepted, and declared innocent.

5. Anger

Sexual assault creates anger at what has been done to you. While anger can be a natural and healthy response to the unquestionable evil of sexual assault, most victims express it poorly or feel they have to suppress it. You have probably been discouraged from expressing your anger, but suppressed anger holds you hostage and leaves you vindictive, addicted, embittered, immoral, and unbelieving.

God is angrier over the sin committed against you than you are. He is angry because what happened to you was evil and it harmed you. Godly anger is participating in God’s anger against injustice and sin, crying out to him to do what he promised: destroy evil and demolish everything that harms others and defames God’s name.

Anger expressed to God is the cry of the weak one who trusts the strong One, the hurting person who trusts the One who will make it all better. Because vengeance is God’s, you can be free from the exhaustive cycle of vindictive anger.

6. Despair

Sexual assault can fill you with despair. Feeling that you’ve lost something, whether it’s your innocence, youth, health, trust, confidence, or security, can deepen into hopelessness and despair. And then depression can add seemingly inescapable weight to the experience of despair.

The gospel gives you hope. Biblical hope is sure because God is behind his promise of a future for you. The hope you need right now is grounded in God’s faithfulness in the past and anticipation of it in the future.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, all threats against you are tamed if you trust in Christ. Jesus conquered death and evil, so evil done to you is not the end of the story and you can have hope. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended to heaven and is “making all things new.” Your God is strong, and he, not the evil done to you, will have the final say about you. That hope animates the “groans within ourselves” that everything will someday be renewed. We will be delivered from all sin and misery. Every tear will be wiped away when evil is no more.


Thanks Justin for taking the time to answer these questions so thoroughly!

For more on hope and healing for sexual assault victims: