Why didn’t God simply declare sinners forgiven?

Why didn’t God simply declare sinners forgiven?

As we consider the cross this Good Friday, here’s a blog post I wrote over at the Seedbed on a frequently asked question.

“Jesus’ saving work is about more than simply uttering a fatherly “I forgive you” over disobedient children.”

If you’re hoping to explore the meaning of Christ’s saving work this Holy Week, I’d be honored if you’d check out my latest book, How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People.

If you’ve already read or listened to it, would you consider writing a short review on Amazon–or wherever you purchased it.

Grace+Peace this Holy Week,


“This is my body, commodified and mass-produced for you”: On Communion and Campbell’s Soup

“This is my body, commodified and mass-produced for you”: On Communion and Campbell’s Soup

When Andy Warhol unveiled his Campbell’s Soup Cans art exhibit in 1962, reactions were closer to befuddlement than praise.

Was this art? Where was the beauty, drama, grandeur, sacredness, or seduction that had previously marked great paintings? And who would pay the exorbitant sticker price of $100 for something that could be purchased at the grocery for ten cents?

Of course, Warhol’s cans now fetch massive sums. One reason was that they offered an ironic critique of modern life. For good and ill, we are now drowning in cheap, mass-produced, pre-packaged, disposable, easily accessible, low quality but quickly replaceable “stuff.” (I originally opted for a different word to end that sentence.)

It’s Campbell’s soup—brought to us by Chinese sweatshops and two-day shipping.

I’ve thought about those Warhol paintings several times of late as I have received Holy Communion.

Out of noble health concerns starting with the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches moved away from traditional Communion methods in favor of individually packaged, disposable, mass-produced, plastic “blister packs” (actual description) like the one seen here.

I agreed with this move and gave thanks for it.

The tiny packages encase a single crumb of bread on one side, and—when you flip them over to remove another “blister” coating—approximately the same amount of liquid as contained within a single teardrop.

In evangelical congregations, I am used to Communion being spoken of as a mere symbol that helps us remember Christ’s sacrifice. “It’s not about the elements,” the pastor may be heard to say. So instead of the Gospel line, “This is my body”—many a minister feels compelled to amend the text to avoid misunderstanding: “This bread represents my body,” etc., etc. “This wine—I mean grape juice…—represents my blood.” I’ve grown accustomed to these things. And truth be told, I am not a believer in something like Catholic transubstantiation.

But I’ve also tired of Communion “blister packs.”

Despite understandable concerns for germs (with which I sympathize), I’ve begun to wonder what the “Oscar Mayer lunchable” approach to the Eucharist says about the modern church—not just on the Lord’s Supper, but on how we value symbols, sacraments, and physicality.

At the risk of overreaction, it sometimes feels as if we have set out to take the most beautiful and sensory-laden sacrament and turn it into something that has the aesthetic value of a roll of bubble wrap.

Even if it doesn’t burst like a juice box in my kid’s backpack, one looks around the sanctuary to see some churchgoers struggling with their teeth and fingernails—like racoons trying to unlock iPhones. By the end of the process, the elements usually find their way into digestive tracts—but something is lost from the meal that Jesus gave us. It has been commodified, sanitized, mass-produced, and individually packaged—like much of modern life.

What, then, is the solution?

My goal is not to add one more curmudgeonly complaint to the endless pile that pastors face. (It has not been easy to lead anything these past few years.) Nor is it to shame one or two churches to switch back to more traditional Communion practices. That too might be a malady of modern ecclesiology: (1) Someone complained. (2) So we stopped.

Instead, what we need is a more holistic way of noticing how unexamined modern values of convenience and commodification have caused us to do strange things in the realm of the sacred.

The French philosopher and theologian, Jacques Ellul, is helpful here. Ellul’s most important work, published back in 1964, is called The Technological Society. He sets forth two key concepts for diagnosing the side-effects that come with mind-blowing technology, inexpensive factory production, frazzled busyness, and consumer competition. He calls them (1) technique and (2) efficiency.

For Ellul, technique is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity.” Technique aids efficiency; and as we know, being more efficient can save time and money.

To be fair, we can all name aspects of our businesses and bureaucracies that badly need to be streamlined. The trouble, Ellul argues, is that the values of technique and efficiency easily move out of their rightful domains, and they begin to corrupt and commodify the way we relate to people, food, art—and God.

How do you find a mate? Swipe right.
How do I form a nuanced view of Shakespeare’s Othello? ChatGPT.
How do I eat, given that I’m frazzled and rushed? McDonalds.
How do I check “Communion” off my to-do list? Blister packs.

In all these areas, there are costs to maximally efficient solutions.

Moving back to Communion, note how our modern ways of approaching the Eucharist make it difficult to “feel” and “see” what Paul alludes to when he writes to the Corinthians:

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

In the end, I remain grateful for a necessary safety measure in a time of emergency. What’s more, we should probably keep some “blister packs” on hand to love and serve our brothers and sisters who have health concerns.

And as usual, my attempts to be pointed or humorous run the risk of oversimplifying—and overreacting. That too is a byproduct of the marriage of technology and efficiency: What are blog posts if not a maximally efficient form of publishing.

Enjoy your soup. I slaved for minutes over it.

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Christmas Anyway: Why Incarnation matters for How Jesus Saves

Christmas Anyway: Why Incarnation matters for How Jesus Saves

I’m excited to say that my next book now has its own page on Amazon, and is available for pre-order (see here).

Unlike my last two projects, this one isn’t academic. It’s accessible for all audiences (not just theologians). And as the title suggests, it aims to unpack How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People.

We’ve shot video curriculum to go with it for small groups or individuals, and it includes discussion questions at the end of every chapter.

Essentially, it’s like Long Story Short, but for the doctrine of atonement.

I’d love it if you’d consider pre-ordering it since that can help a lot in the run-up to our release date in early March.

In the meantime, here is a blog post that has just been released today over at my publisher’s website: Seedbed.com.

Christmas Anyway: Why Incarnation matters for the Doctrine of Atonement.”

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Two quick stories:

Last week I began reading a new book from a scholar I have long admired. We’ve only met in passing and I’m almost certain he would not remember me. Nonetheless, I’ve appreciated his work for years and learned much from it. So in a brief fit of thoughtfulness, I took approximately twenty seconds to drop him an email:

Dear X,

We don’t know each other, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your work.

I just grabbed your new volume on [x] and began working through it this morning.

I learn things each time I read your stuff and I just wanted to pass along a word of thanks!

All the best, Josh

Now, scholars are busy, and as a species we’re not known for always being “prompt” with email correspondence. But I was surprised to see that—despite being on completely different continents—he responded to say how much my note meant.

Story two: A few days ago, after worship in our university chapel, I overheard our campus pastor telling a student how grateful she was for this student’s ministry through music and in other ways. The student is truly gifted, and I know she has overcome real challenges—as many of our students have—to finish her degree.

The comment from our pastor jogged my memory that I had meant to drop this student a note of thanks a few weeks back just as I had done for this senior scholar. But of course, I had forgotten. Like I said: We’re not known for always being “prompt” with email correspondence.

In any case, I remembered then. I told her specifically what I had appreciated about her leadership. In response, she started crying and said—much like the senior scholar—how much it meant.

I pass along these two stories not because I am the walking spiritual embodiment of a Hallmark Card. (I’m not. And on the same day as these two stories, I also sent a rather grumpy email to my superiors on something that had irked me.) I note these two occurrences only because I was struck by how little time and effort was required to tell someone a simple, and sincere word of “thanks.”

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and still it is not full: on epigraphs

and still it is not full: on epigraphs

As a reader, I’m a sucker for intruiging epigraphs.

These are the short quotations, usually from another writer, placed at the start of a book or chapter. Since I’m working on a new writing project now, I’ve already started a Word doc with a list of possibilities.

For my last book, the overarching epigraph was a single line from N. T. Wright:

“Sometimes, believing in providence means learning to say perhaps.”

N. T. Wright

Here are a few of my favorites from books other than mine.


Though it’s more a dedication than an epigraph, I’ve always loved the inscription that precedes my all-time favorite novel, East of Eden. According to legend, when John Steinbeck finished the 250,000-word manuscript, he placed it into a mahogany box that he had carved. Then he sent it to his friend, Pascal “Pat” Covici. When you open East of Eden, these words greet you:

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still, the box is not full.

East of Eden

Then there is this thought-provoking verse from Mark’s Gospel that James K. A. Smith chose as the epigraph for his book on Christian public witness and political philosophy (Awaiting the King):

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body”

Mark 15:43

I love it because it seems so purposeful and yet so unexpected. It made me stop and ask, Now why the heck did he choose that!? Is this a Christian attitude toward cynical leaders and corrupt governments? …to ask not for prayer in public schools or Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn, but for a corpse to bury in strange anticipation of a kingdom still to come? …and to do so “boldly”?

It’s perfect—precisely because it raises questions more than answers them. You’ve got to keep read on. And in this case, you should.

Then there’s this from Søren Kierkegaard’s masterpiece Fear and Trembling—a book that probes the nature of faith in the frightening story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard chooses this:

“What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.”

Fear and Trembling

Who’s Tarquinius? And why the cryptic message sent by way of flowers? Once again, the quotation is just strange enough to make me care. It plays upon the universal human impulse that drives attention to ancient oracles, true crime podcasts, and ridiculous Q-drops—a mystery to be figured out.

Finally, I’ve long loved the epigraph that opens Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth:

“What is past is prologue”
–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum

The phrase is a well-worn line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Smith messes with it. Shakespeare’s “What’s” is changed to the rather clunky “What is”; and the origin of the phrase is deliberately mis-cited: “–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum.”

For careful readers—and it took me auditing a college Brit Lit class to have it pointed out—these small but deliberate changes illustrate the theme of Smith’s sprawling, multi-generational epic on what it’s like to be an immigrant, or the child of one, in modern Britain. Her novel plays upon the complex ways in which the past influences the present, even while the present tweaks and misremembers the received tradition. It’s brilliant. And on the novel’s final page, Smith gives one last nod to the lesson from her epigraph:

“To tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. … It’s never been like that.”

Zadie Smith, White Teeth


Over time, I’ve formed opinions on what makes for an arresting epigraph: (1) Short beats long; (2) one beats many; (3) cryptic beats obvious or preachy. But like most writing rules, these may be broken under the right circumstances.

The true constant, and the real magic of a perfect epigraph is that it functions exactly like Steinbeck’s little hand-carved box: As the writer, all you have is there—the whole book–though the words are not your own:

—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

and still it is not full.

***If you have a favorite epigraph, post it in the comments. I’d love to see it.

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public library preaching

public library preaching

This past week, I preached – and I spent chunk of my Sunday sermon prep time in our local public library. One motive was mercenary: It’s summertime, the kids are home, and Teddy had been asking to go there.

Normally, I’d be doing that work in my university office, surrounded by commentaries and a trove of books I own and draw from regularly. I’m comfortable there, and the university library has even more commentaries just a few steps from my office.

But increasingly, I’ve wondered if that routine isn’t hurting my preaching.

One danger for speakers is that our illustrations start to come from all same places, over and over, for years on end, until we die or stop talking—which is basically the same thing. I’m guilty of that as much as anyone.

But last week, sitting there near the kids area during library story time, I sensed several benefits of what one might call “public library sermon prep.”

First, the folks seated around me came from a wider range of demographics than I would encounter in my usual prep spaces. And writing my sermon in their presence was a reminder to include them as my intended audience: the elderly couple reading the morning paper, the ESL group learning English, the kids and moms at story time, the homeless man by the magazines, a group of firemen and city employees meeting in the conference room, the grad student huddled over the DSM 5, and even the suspicious teenager googling “how to build a pipe bomb” on the library computer. If the bane of many sermons is that we speak to only one or two types of people, maybe crafting messages in such a diverse setting could help that. (On a related point, see here.)

Second, the library has a trove of magazines and periodicals that speak to our cultural moment—even if I wouldn’t want (and couldn’t afford) to subscribe to them myself. What’s more, these sources come from a variety of perspectives and biases—so you’re less prone to fall into the echo chamber of your choice. This is particularly important in a day and age in which it quickly becomes apparent which “silo” into which your preacher has algorithmically fallen.

Third, walking through the stacks filled with different genres and perspectives made me feel more creative—and it gave me ideas I wouldn’t have had before. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a steady diet of C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright (two of my favorites), but this week I also ended up with quotes or stories from Molly Shannon (yep, that Molly Shannon), Atul Gawande, and Paul Kalanthi.

All that to say, I’ve decided to take a big step in my vocation as a longtime academic / preacher: I’m getting a public library card. Teddy says I can’t use his anymore.

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psychic numbness

psychic numbness

This summer I slogged through the 25th anniversary edition of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

The work was recommended by my brother-in-law, and was made more relevant by renewed concern over nuclear war after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy to see why Rhodes won accolades, though the 800+ pages contained more scientific minutia than this theologian could digest.

One of the more thought-provoking passages includes an observation on how civilized and ostensibly Christian allied powers got to the point of indiscriminately fire-bombing enemy cities—and eventually dropping atomic bombs on civilians.

After harrowing first-person accounts of the Feuersturm in Hamburg, where at least 45,000 people (mostly old people, women, and children) were killed in a single night, Rhodes writes:

“Civilians had the misfortune to be the only victims left available. […] No great philosophical effort was required to discover acceptable rationales. War begot psychic numbing in combatants and civilians alike; psychic numbing prepared the way for increasing escalation” (475; emphasis added).

Summation: War begets numbness. Numbness abets escalation.

My point here is not to say anything about the bombing campaigns of WW2. I’m well aware of the complexities that surrounded those decisions—and of the calculus of possible lives saved by avoiding invasion of the Japanese home islands. None of that is my direct concern.

Instead, Rhodes’ claim strikes me as insightful insofar as it may apply to other “escalations”— beyond firestorms, incendiary bombs, and even nuclear war.

His point is that cultures don’t transgress certain self-imposed / ethical “red lines” because smart people devise sufficient rational arguments. To the extent that such arguments exist they are more likely post facto rationalizations. In times of “war” (read: trauma, fear, and intense conflict), drivers of human behavior are more concussive than cerebral. And in this way, they are exacerbated by “psychic numbing.”

In both Old and New Testaments, the language of no longer having “ears to hear” and “hands to feel” sounds a bit like anesthetic state described by Rhodes. Thus, when Walter Brueggemann describes the function of prophetic witness, he often sets it in contrast not merely with error or idolatry, but with a kind of apathetic numbness.

In this sense, prophetic speech is not primarily concerned with making people feel badly—but with helping people feel rightly—in the midst of a culture that has numbed them to that which should strike them as unhealthy and destructive. “Worldliness,” in the words of my old professor, David Wells, “is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.”

If that’s true, then one of the chief goals of preaching is not simply to point people to Jesus or to make valid observations about Scripture; it is also to break through “psychic numbness.”

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prophets and scribes

prophets and scribes

Here’s a delightful passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

“How do you tell a scribe from a prophet…? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.”

I wrote a fair bit on the distinction between prophets and demagogues in Perhaps; but I don’t think I included this insightful snippet.

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On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

Uvalde did it.

I’ve felt for awhile that I’d be wise to step away from social media. But of course, I have excuses. For instance:

I write books. And publishers care about your online following. Will they still grant me contracts if I ditch socials?

What about my friends who live far away? How will I keep up with them?

And most germanely, what if I miss the world’s greatest meme?

But in the wake of so much political and cultural bickering, I’ve finally reached a tipping point—at least for the foreseeable future.

In the inimitable words of Alan Jacobs:

“I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on there get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. So after some reflection, I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider.”

Same—but Facebook.

The danger in that comment is it may sound self-righteous—as if everyone doing the thing I stopped doing five seconds ago is foolish and immoral. I don’t feel that way. And this post isn’t a legalistic humble brag.

As I said, the digital aftermath of Uvalde (and a dozen other issues) pushed me to a breaking point. As a dad with four small kids in public school, my nation’s bi-monthly mass casualty events hit differently. It feels sometimes like it’s just a matter of time before I get a text—like the one I received a few years back—that reads: “Active shooter on campus. Shelter in place; this is not a drill!” Thankfully, that potential gunman was arrested before he made it to the school where I work. But the security alert remains as a reminder.


If the real-life tragedies are not enough, there are the invariable (and entirely predictable) “encores” on social media: laments, followed by outrage, followed by hot takes, followed by arguments, followed by memes. Repeat that process over a thousand contentious topics and you can sell a lot of ad revenue, mine a lot of data, and change nothing but your anxiety level.


That’s why Uvalde did it.

If it were five years ago, I would have (1) thought about it for a day or two, (2) crafted a blog post, (3) had Brianna read it to ensure I wouldn’t get fired, and then (4) shared the post on social media. If my writing happened to be punchy or provocative enough, dozens of people would share it, a few thousand might read it, and if everything went just right I might have the privilege of adding to the very social media firestorm I’ve come to loathe.

When that happens—and it’s happened a few times for me—you realize what Kurt Cobain must have felt like to stand inside an elevator and hear an instrumental version of Smells like Teen Spirit wafting through the tiny speakers–played by Kenny G. It’s the sense that your work has been co-opted to contribute to the very thing it tried to demolish.

Hence, if you haven’t noticed, I don’t do that much anymore.


I’ve been wondering, in fact, if I should shut down the blog. Or perhaps just write on topics that are less combustible—like books that only a tiny fraction of society will care about. But recently, I’ve considered another possibility:

What if I dedicated a year to rebuilding the blog and simply got off Facebook?

Because I like writing. I just hate “the encore” on social media.

(I won’t pretend that this approach is perfect. Maybe it’s no different from Cobain selling songs to Kenny G and then refusing to ride elevators.)

In any case, I’ve been off Facebook for about a month and I feel better.

There are a few hundred of you out there who subscribe to these posts and receive them via email. I appreciate that little group, and I wonder if I could develop it apart from the digital hellscape that is Zuckerberg’s outrage-boosting algorithm.

At some level, I need to write—for the simple reason that I need to think.

On that point, I relate to Saint Augustine who remarked later in life that people would never understand how much he changed his mind by writing. Composition doesn’t just convey one’s thoughts, it crystalizes and confounds them. Something emerges in the process. Writing is thinking. And thinking is sorely needed in an age that has become—in the words of Jonathan Haidt—uniquely stupid.

So here’s what I’m thinking:
• I’m ditching Facebook for the foreseeable future.
• I’m going to try to invest regularly in this blog.
• My posts will likely be shorter and less polished (not that they were ever particularly long and shiny), partly because I have two books in the works—and they take precedence.
• If you enjoy these posts, I invite you to subscribe by way of that green button on the homepage.
• They’re all free, and worth every penny.

Peace, ~Josh

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How (not) to affirm penal substitution

How (not) to affirm penal substitution

“What is modern life if not an endless argument over acronyms? CRT, MAGA, BLM, LGBTQIA—and in some theological circles—PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).”

~The London Lyceum

The good folks over at The London Lyceum asked me to write a response to the 2017 Southern Baptist resolution on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

My piece comes as the first installment (here) in what promises to be a fantastic series that the Lyceum is doing on Christ’s saving work. Future posts by other scholars will come out every couple days for the next week or two.

For newcomers, it’s safe to say that fights over PSA have often generated more heat than light in recent decades–with one camp crowing loudly that PSA simply is the gospel (full stop), and another likening the doctrine to pagan notions of “divine child abuse.”

I wrote on the topic at length in The Mosaic of Atonement.

In a nutshell, I do think Scripture teaches that Christ willingly endured a judgment for sin on our behalf–both “in our place” and “instead of us.” So I’m a “Yes!” on a properly nuanced form of penal substitution.

Unfortunately, not all expressions of the doctrine are nuanced, biblical, or charitable.

That brings us to the 2017 SBC resolution.

The goal in posting my response is not to throw stones at the SBC (there are many fine folks within that tribe), but to make some headway in how Christians ought to affirm the biblical claim that Christ bore the judgment for human sin on our behalf, so that we might be redeemed.

You can read my piece over at The London Lyceum (here).

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