Three Worlds

21 January 2022

I expect I’ll have more to say later about Aaron Renn’s very provocative think piece in First Things, but for right now, just go read it. It’s worth your time.

Free Grace and Provisionism

31 December 2021

I had a chance to guest with Drew of the Provisionist Perspective, discussing GES’s critique of provisionism. You can watch it here.


2 December 2021

A friend and I had the opportunity to start a Theopolis Conversation on proclaiming the gospel. The way Conversations work, we contribute an opening essay, other writers respond, and then we conclude the conversation with a rejoinder. It was an enormous amount of fun, and you can find it here.


Another Letter to a New Pastor

26 October 2021

I wrote this several years ago to a friend who was being promoted from deacon to priest. May it be an encouragement, especially to my bivocational brothers. As always, names, places, and such have been altered to protect identities.

Dear Walter, 

I don’t know if you recall it, but in the charge to you at your diaconal ordination, you were told that that when your time in the diaconate is through, and the time comes to engage in the ministry of the Word and prayer, it is an obsession that deserves a man’s full-time attention. So the Twelve Apostles judged it, and speaking from my 7 years of experience as a full-time laborer in the Word, I agree: this testimony is true. 

It is not, however, the whole truth.

There was another apostle, born out of due time, who—although possessed of a right to full-time support in his ministry of the Word—had a different obsession: to take the Word wherever God called him, whether that would provide him with a living or not. In that mission, he was sometimes supported; many times he made tents instead of making a living from his ministry. Paul’s bivocational life was a matter of economic necessity, but it also had a pastoral effect. Paul challenged the Thessalonians, who had a problem with laziness, to follow his example. He reminded them that when he was with them he ate no one’s food free of charge, and earned his keep with his own hands. Paul could not have made that point so solidly, had he been in “full-time ministry” (as we call it) during his stay in that city. We don’t know whether Paul’s bivocational life in Thessalonike was a deliberate pastoral choice or a providential necessity, but in either case, God used it for the good of the Thessalonians. 

And so I write to you on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood to offer you this reminder of Paul’s life, taught to us by the Scriptures and attested by my own experience. I have served as a full-time seminary professor and pastor. I have also found myself selling fabric, painting houses, installing bathtubs, driving busses, hawking curriculum like a Lebanese rug merchant, and more, in order to finance my ministry.

So I speak—from a certain perspective—-as a ministerial failure. There is an upwardly mobile, slick corps of professionals that fill the full time salaried spots in our churches. I spent 7 of the 14 years of my ministry in those exalted ranks. Of late, I have fallen from them, and do not appear to be in any danger of recovering. 

You may find yourself called to serve in that corps of polished professionals. I’ve been there, have many faithful friends there, and am happy to affirm that there’s plenty of good work to do there. If God calls you to it, then serve there without shame. But on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood, I want to remind you—for whatever my unsolicited counsel may be worth—that such a calling is by no means inevitable. 

You may be called to the “failure” that was Paul’s life, and if you are, you must leap into your calling without shame. That might be relatively easy at the beginning, but as time wears on, you will begin to see the costs of your expensive ministry hobby. I want you to know, from someone further down that path, that it is worth it. God will provide. I do not understand His ways, and I yell at Him sometimes. I have had sleepless nights when I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent, or afford a desperately needed dental operation for Kimberly. It has not been easy, not by any stretch. But it has been good. God is good; all His ways are good. He will carry you when, by every earthly calculation, you should fall down. 

What sustains me in my service now is not the memory of the “glory years” when I was a paid, full-time worker in the Word, or some hope of getting back to that station eventually. What sustains me now is the character that was formed in me long before I was ever ordained, during my years as the hands and feet of Christ serving the Body in whatever capacity was needed. 

By the time they ordained me, I knew I wasn’t getting a coveted appointment to an indoor job with no heavy lifting. I was getting a license to serve, as I had always served — only more so. It might not be fitting to leave the ministry of the Word and prayer to serve tables, but it is sometimes necessary. You might have every right to make a living from the ministry, but in God’s providence, you might not have the ability to do so. In the context of the American church, you will be made to feel like a second-class citizen for that, and you will be tempted to scratch and claw for a “better” post with better pay. 

But no. Labor in the calling God has given you, secure in the knowledge that if you have to pay your own way, you are not the first. God will care for you, and your treasure is invested in heaven, which holds up surprisingly well when the bottom falls out of the earthly markets.

I wish you every success in your ministry. May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path, and may the blessing of God Almighty—-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—abide in you and rest upon you always. 


Tim Nichols

No One Dared Join Them

2 October 2021

You can find my latest essay “No One Dared Join Them” over at Theopolis.

We’re the Weird Ones (Part 2)

10 August 2021

In the first “We’re the Weird Ones” post, we looked at the way we tend to assume something is normal because our culture does it, and how we often think that what is “normal” is right.  As we broaden our view beyond the provincial culture of our historical moment and begin to look at other places and other times, there are some temptations waiting for us.

When we realize that our culture is out of step with pretty much everybody, everywhere on an issue, most of us are easy prey for one of two temptations.  Either we assume that we must be wrong, or we assume that everybody who came before us is an idiot, we got it right, and the people who are still doing it the old way are backward and behind the times.  To put labels on these, the first one is simple peer pressure applied on a grand scale, and the second one is modernism.

The peer pressure temptation is familiar to all of us.  We want to fit in, to do what everybody else is doing.  To apply it on a grand scale, all we need is a stack of anthropological studies telling us what most of the human race does, and then follow the crowd.

On the surface, the modernist temptation resembles a proper Christian response to peer pressure.  Rather than caving in, the modernist seeks not to conform, but to transform himself.  We are not made to undertake transformation without divine help, and without that help the modernist finds himself unable to simply grow from the past into the future in a natural way.  Instead, the modernist must resort to a paroxysm, a violent break with the past.  He wants to make all things new, in his own image — and quickly.  The modernist says that there’s a better way, that those who have come before are benighted and backward.  He throws out the past without a second glance.

The modernist seeks a new world, but not the same new world as the Christian.  The Christian seeks a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  The modernist seeks a city of his own making, where he can make a name for himself — which is to say he is building Babel, not the New Jerusalem.  Although we associate the modernist impulse with with relatively recent times — hence the name — there is nothing new under the sun.  Modernists are in fact succumbing to a very old temptation: the ancient sin of father-hatred.  

As a society, we have lived with modernism for enough generations to see a third temptation arise.  Some people would call it a feature of postmodernism; others would call it an “ancient future” approach.  By either name, what we are seeing is a recognition that our modernist fathers destroyed and abandoned many good things in their war on the past.  Sadly, when we attempt to address this issue without divine help, we revisit the habits of our pre-modern grandfathers as a way of rebelling against our modernist fathers.  We end up exactly like our fathers: they rejected their fathers, and we in turn commit the same sin.  The problem with rebellion is that you can’t compartmentalize it; once you let it in, it leaks all over everything.  Consequently, we don’t really submit to the ways of our earlier forebears any more than we submit to our fathers.  Rather, we walk down the anthropological and archaeological smorgasbord and take a little of this, a little of that, and bit more of a third thing — whatever happens to suit us at the time.  The modernist tries to build the world in his own image by rejecting the past, and the postmodernist tries to custom-build his own life as a collage of bits and pieces of the past, but both of them place themselves in rebellious judgment over their fathers.

But we are Christians; we are citizens of a kingdom whose capital city is in heaven.  In that future city, the New Jerusalem, Jesus will perfectly honor His Father, and so we too are called to honor the fathers that God has providentially given to us.  At our moment in history, we are inheriting several generations of father-hatred, so there is no way out of this without repentance.  We must repent of our culture’s endemic father-hatred, and we must return to proper honor of our fathers — all our fathers.  They are imperfect to be sure, but in God’s providence they are a repository of wisdom that we are called to heed.  We may not simply cut ourselves free, modernist-fashion, and reject everything that came before us.  Nor may we treat the wisdom of the ages as if we are above it all, and it is just a smorgasbord from which we may pick and choose, as the postmodern or ancient-future folks would do.  We must submit to the wisdom of our fathers, at the same time testing what they tell us against the counsel of God, because “There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against Yahweh.” 

So we require a discerning vision of the past and a sanctified imagination of the future.  “What is everybody else doing?” is the wrong question; the question is “What is God doing, and how can I be part of it?”  The answer to that question starts with the story of a coming new world whose capital is the New Jerusalem, a city that is literally heaven on earth. God is bringing heaven to earth, and He calls us to pray for it (“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) and to be the present reflection of it, the sign that it is coming — and to reflect both the newness of the New Jerusalem and its culture of father-honor.  Frankly, this is an impossible task; the flesh simply cannot do it. But in living relationship with God, all things are possible for those who believe.


Prayer Exercises

  1. It’s easy to talk about trends of whole societies without bringing it down to personal practice.  We cannot repent of societal father-hatred if we do not first repent of personal father-hatred; this is a case where the personal really is political.  Ask God if there are personal sins for you to repent of before you try to go any further.  If He brings something to mind, deal with it.
  2. Having addressed personal sins, you’re ready to ask God about the sins of the society you live in.  Don’t ask about “the sins of our culture” in the abstract.  Ask God to show you places in your own life where you have assimilated the sins of the culture.  As God reveals these areas to you, accept your cultural identity, confess the sins of your culture, renounce the sin, and ask God to heal the damage that you have done to yourself through the sin.  Ask Him to guide and guard you as you learn to live differently.

We’re the Weird Ones

3 August 2021

In Kissimmee, Florida, in 1993, I took my first college counseling class.  On the very first day, the instructor stood up and said, “We are going to talk about how families work in this class, and at some point we will be talking about some dysfunction, and you will want to say, ‘That’s totally normal.  My family did it.’  You have to understand, that is not an argument.  It seems normal to you because that’s how you grew up, but that doesn’t make it right, or healthy, or even normal.”

Considered in the abstract, I thought that was an insightful point.  About three weeks later when I caught myself in the middle of an argument with those very words on the tip of my tongue, it seemed like some kind of a trick.  Of course what I grew up with was normal!

But no.  It is possible that other people are normal and I am the weird one.

As with individuals and families, so with cultures.  A culture can be weird in some respects, and we should expect that in some respects, we are the weird ones.

For example, through the history of the world, standards of physical attractiveness trend toward wide hips in women and a certain amount of fat in both genders.  Why?  Because the wide hips indicate a good capacity for bearing children, and the extra fat indicates prosperity.  In the West today, our standards of feminine attractiveness run to rib-counting skinny, and even our standard of masculine beauty involves almost no body fat.  Let’s not get into arguing about who is right; the point is just that virtually no culture in the history of humanity agrees with us about this — we are the weird ones.

Similarly, how we find a mate is plainly out of step with the mainstream of human society.  In the West, we see our way of finding and choosing a mate as better, because it gives people the freedom to choose their own mate.  In most cultures through most of history, it was understood that kids of marriageable age were morons who knew nothing about picking a mate, and matches were made by the parents and extended family.  Viewed from that perspective, the Western way amounts to familial neglect at a critical moment when the child needs the family’s support.  They would no more let an 18-year-old pick his own wife than they would set a 2-year-old loose in the jungle to find his own food — they would say neither one is equipped to make an intelligent choice.  Again, the point is not to argue who is right or wrong, but just to notice that what we find ‘normal’ is in fact highly unusual — we are the weird ones.

In an earlier post, we talked about the isolation that is so common in our society now.  Just a few decades ago most people knew their neighbors, and could rely on them for small things like a cup of sugar or help raking the leaves.  Today, it’s often considered normal not to know the names of the people who live across the street or two houses down.  This isolation is new even for us, and is practically unheard of in the history of humanity.  Showing up at your neighbor’s door unannounced, asking for a half-cup of flour, is socially awkward today — but that kind of community support is the norm in human history.  Again, we’re the weird ones.

In fact, we are the weird ones in a whole series of instances.  We are the only slaveholding culture in the world ever to willingly give up slavery on the grounds of the golden rule.  (“As I would not want to be a slave, so I would not be a master,” as Lincoln put it.)  We are nearly the only culture in the world to punish wife-beating or spousal rape as crimes in themselves.  We have criminalized polygamy, which again puts us in the minority.  (For a book-length description of our weirdness, see Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.)

In any given case, the fact that our culture is weird does not mean that we are wrong.  Arguably, the New Jerusalem will be the ultimate outlier culture, at many points radically different from anything that has preceded it in the history of humanity — but of course, the New Jerusalem’s culture will be designed and implemented by God Himself and His perfected saints.  No Christian would argue that because the New Jerusalem is weird, it is therefore wrong.

All this to say that what our culture does, is simply what our culture does.  It is not necessarily right or wrong, normal or abnormal — it just happens to be the way we do it.  This is important because like neophyte counseling students that assume their family of origin was right and normal, we tend to assume that our culture is right and normal, and then use our culture’s way of doing things as the measure of what is reasonable and attainable.  That will not do.  God often calls us to be countercultural.  “That’s weird” does not mean “We can’t do it.”  Maybe we can.  Maybe we should.  And maybe it’s not even really that weird — maybe it’s normal and we’re the weird ones.


Discussion Questions

  1. This post discussed several ways in which our culture is weird.  Can you think of three more ways we are weird?  Are those things right or wrong?
  2. Have you ever traveled outside your own culture or country?  What were some things that seemed normal to them but very strange to you?
  3. Is God calling you to do something that would seem weird in our culture?  What could you do this week to begin obeying God’s call?

Of Pink Hair and Yoga

27 July 2021

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a kerfluffle caused by a seminary professor issuing blanket condemnations of yoga practice from the pulpit. A few years later, I had the opportunity to observe another kerfluffle in another group caused by a pastor issuing a blanket condemnation of pink hair based on 1 Timothy. (For your amusement and edification, links to the latter are below. We’ve had the discussion of yoga elsewhere.)

I teach my students to pay careful attention to such controversies, including some that are well outside your own community and in which you have no particular stake. There’s a lot to learn from observing the conversations, both in terms of thinking through the positions and from noticing how people interact with one another. These situations give rise to a near-universal set of temptations, and it’s easier to notice how the temptations work when you are not particularly tempted. If you pay careful attention, you greatly improve your chances of correctly diagnosing your own temptations later on, when it’s your controversy.

There is always someone who wants to claim that Scripture simply doesn’t apply to these situations. That’s silly — Scripture applies to everything. Arguing that someone has misapplied a Bible passage is one thing; arguing that the passage ought never be applied is something else entirely. There’s a wide difference between the two.

That said, establishing that this verse makes that particular point is hard work, and we should come having done that work, and prepared to demonstrate it to everyone’s satisfaction. On the negative of the debate, it’s entirely permissible to argue “This text doesn’t say that!” but it is not permissible to stop there. We should want to know what it does say, and how to apply it properly. The goal is always a faithful, obedient response.

Making a claim like “1 Timothy forbids pink hair” or “1 Corinthians 8 forbids practicing yoga” is not just a matter of exegeting the text of Scripture. It’s also a matter of correctly exegeting the culture. Cultural exegesis is tricky business. It can be hard for us to see our own culture clearly; doubly so when the speaker may be immersed in a subcultural bubble that his hearers are not part of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle the job — exegeting the culture is absolutely necessary. It just meant that cultural exegesis calls for the same kind of careful validation that biblical exegesis does — and that is not something they teach well in seminary.

The whole conversation goes better if you can correctly identify where you actually agree, and exactly where the disagreement lies. It’s entirely possible to agree on the biblical exegesis, and still have well-founded differences in the way you read the culture.

Some of those differences may be highly context-dependent. A particular act or way of speaking may send a very different message on the Jersey Shore than it would send in Charleston or Birmingham, and different again in Denver or Los Angeles…to say nothing of Dubai, Jakarta, or Shanghai. There’s a temptation to provincialism wherein we think that what an action means is what it would mean to me, right here, in my setting. This is particularly an issue when you’re having an online discussion.

Because we are seeking to stir one another up to love and good works, there is a certain kind of ad hominem that is not a fallacy. Someone really can object to a valid biblical application because of their own sin and/or spiritual cluelessness, and it is not out of order to say so. Jesus did, regularly.

At the same time, as a working pastor, I have learned to be extraordinarily suspicious of myself when I begin to feel that anyone who disagrees with me on a particular issue is simply revealing their own cluelessness or sin. There are many cases where that approach is a demonstration of pastoral autonomy and pride, and as the old sage said, that goeth before something unpleasant.

These are high-stakes conversations. On the one hand, a certain amount of suspicion of established authorities is required: “let no one subject you to regulations.” On the other hand, there really are cases where — however hubristic it might appear to say so — it is actually the case that anyone who disagrees is demonstrating their own sin or cluelessness. For example, I think it is vile to dismember a baby in utero for the convenience of the mother. It is viler yet to hawk the murdered child’s organs and exploit them; that’s effectively necromancy. I you disagree, I am prepared to insist that you are demonstrating your own sin and/or cluelessness. Accuse me of hubris all you like; I’m not backing off this one.

In the discussion below, Sumpter and Wilson are concerned to resist the human drive toward total autonomy, and one of the central places that drive expresses itself in our age is in gender confusions of various kinds. God made His image male and female, but we have sought out many schemes. Sumpter and Wilson are — as good pastors — interested not just in opposing sin in principle, but opposing it in practice where it matters. That means that they are not just going to fight the sin when it has become so obvious that anyone (you know, outside a major Christian publishing house) can see it. They are correctly concerned to fight the sin at the edges, in the little compromises that lull the faithful into bigger compromises down the road. Littlejohn is concerned that Sumpter and Wilson have over-exegeted innocuous actions as implying some larger sin, and are unlawfully binding the consciences of their congregants.

All these folks are concerned to obey God and love their fellow believers. All of this is holy and just and good…but who is right?

That, dear reader, I leave for you to mull over on your own. Here are the posts (all from 2017):

Pink Hair and Boys Wearing Girls’ Underwear – Toby Sumpter – April 18

Pink Hair and the Love of Christ – Toby Sumpter – April 21

The Coronation of the Infantile – Doug Wilson – April 21

When You Paint the Barn – Doug Wilson – April 22

On Binding Consciences – Brad Littlejohn – April 24

How Liberty of Conscience Looks in Yoga Pants – Doug Wilson – April 25

The Perilous Business of Pastoring – Brad Littlejohn – April 25

Poodle Skirts as Ruination – Doug Wilson – April 26

Music Under the Sun

24 July 2021


When your friends talk, listen.

It’s amazing what you can hear.

We sometimes labor under the “you gotta get ’em lost before you can get ’em saved” mentality. We think of “getting ’em lost” as this enormously tricky task. It’s not.


You know what the real problem is, far more often than not? We listen a little, hear things we don’t want to hear, and stop listening. And yeah, if you’re unwilling to keep listening, caring for your friends is gonna be tricky.

Diamante just came out with a new album called American Dream not too long ago. I’m going to stop short of recommending it, but I will say this: if you listen, and listen well, you’re not just going to hear a bunch of things you don’t want to (although there is that). You’ll also hear the kinds of things that lost people say when they know they’re lost.

You’ll also hear the vacuous thrills of American Dream, the title cut, crash and burn into Obvious. As the angry refrain “Do you want me to leave you?” collapses into the plaintive “Do you want me?” — if that doesn’t break your heart, you’re made of stone. When she follows up with Unlovable…well, I ask you.

Listen. When you can hear what’s there, when you can hear it all and not move away, then you’re ready to care for your friends. And trust me, they need your help.

Like the Other Nations

20 July 2021

Toward the end of Samuel’s life, Israel asked for a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5).  “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” they said.  We typically pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else — makes an easy Sunday school lesson on peer pressure, or a good sermon on “keeping up with the Joneses.”  But there’s a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss.  Israel had good legal support for their request, and there was a certain amount of wisdom in it.  

Centuries before, the book of Deuteronomy had already set forth the laws for a king (Deut. 17:14-20).  We pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else, but Deuteronomy plainly says that Israel can have a king “like all the nations.”  Moreover, Deuteronomy stipulated that God Himself would choose the king, but Israel was fine with that.  They didn’t appoint a king for themselves and then ask God to rubber-stamp their choice after the fact.  No, they came to Samuel the priest/judge, God’s living representative, and asked for a king.  On paper, Israel’s request was completely legal.

That said, Israel had been without a king for centuries.  In fact, they had never had a king, although God clearly expected that they one day would.  So why now?  How could they argue that this was a good time?  Easy.  With Samuel growing older, and his sons unfit to follow in his footsteps, they needed another ruler.  If Samuel died without appointing a successor, his wicked sons would wind up in power by default.  How would that be good for anyone?  “When a wicked man rules, the people groan.”  It was the elders’ responsibility to see trouble coming and avert it if possible — “The prudent man foresees evil and hides himself; the simple pass on and are punished.”  If Samuel appointed a king, the problem would be neatly solved.  Not only was it legal, it also seemed a wise course of action in those circumstances.

On paper, Israel was covered all the way around.  What’s to criticize?

Seriously, stop for a minute and think about it.  Is there anything wrong with what they asked for?


God thought so.  “They have not rejected you,” God said to Samuel.  “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

On what grounds was God able to say that?  He continues with an explanation: “According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.”  It would be one thing if Israel were faithfully worshipping God, forsaking all idols, and in the course of seeking God, asked for a king like Deuteronomy talked about.  

This was something else entirely.  Israel was bowing down to idols left and right, serving the gods of all the other nations, violating God’s commandments all over the place.  Then, under those circumstances, she was also seeking a king like all the other nations.  Even though on paper the request was neatly covered by the law and the circumstances, her heart was absolutely wrong.   Israel was more than willing to be covered by the Law when it suited her purposes, but her real attitude toward God was revealed by her continual idolatry.

God gave Israel exactly what she asked for — a king like the other nations.  The son of a powerful man, Saul was the handsomest man in Israel, and head and shoulders taller than everybody else to boot.  No doubt he cut a fine figure as Israel’s king.

How did that all work out?  Not too well — once you got past the exterior, there wasn’t much to Saul.  He was cowardly, petty and jealous, and it cost him heavily.  As Israel wasn’t walking with God when she asked for a king, she got a king that didn’t walk with God either.  

So it turns out this is a lesson on peer pressure and “keeping up with the Joneses” after all, but there’s more depth to it than first appears.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the request for a king — God never intended to rule Israel through judges forever.  But everything was wrong with their hearts.  So the question is not whether an inventory of our property and our habits will reveal similarities with our pagan neighbors.  Of course it will, and that’s not necessarily bad.

The question is whether an inventory of our worship will reveal that we share the idolatries of our pagan neighbors.  Do we worship what they worship?  In our society, gross idolatry of the sort Israel fell into is rare.  Even in the post-Christian West, almost nobody makes little statues and bows down to them anymore. But do we seek life and comfort from our insurance policies, our savings and retirement accounts, our homes and possessions?  Do we seek status based on the perceived prestige of our careers?  Do we covet a certain car, certain clothes, annual vacations in a certain place, a certain kind of house in a certain school district?  These things are all subtler forms of idolatry, and they poison us spiritually just as surely as if we were bringing baskets of fruit to a little statue.

When we go to God in prayer, we can feel that what we are asking for is proper and biblical, just as Israel’s request for a king was proper and biblical — on paper.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, have we listened to what God is saying to us?  Have we obeyed in the things we know to do?  Are we seeking to know God and follow His priorities, or are we simply hiding our own desire to “keep up with the Joneses” under cover of a Bible verse?


Prayer Exercise

  1. Take some time apart to pray.  Ask God if there is an area of your life where you are following an idol rather than seeking after Him.  Wait in silence for an answer.
  2. If God shows you an area of idolatry in your life, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Rather, face it squarely and name the issue.  “Father, I confess that I believe this [house, car, vacation, business success, whatever] will give me life and comfort that You can’t or won’t give me.  Of course I know I’m not supposed to say things like this out loud, but if I’m honest, that’s how I really behave, and it’s what I really think.  Please reveal the truth about this to me.”    Remain alert for God’s answer.