Stephen Altrogge


Stephen Altrogge

Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, where his main duties include leading worship, preaching, and working with youth. He also has written a number of worship songs that have been included on Sovereign Grace Music albums. Stephen is the author of the book Game Day For the Glory of God: A Guide For Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes, published by Crossway Books in September 2008, and The Greener Grass Conspiracy: Finding Contentment on Your Side of the Fence, published by Crossway Books in April 2011. When not shining his dad’s shoes, you can find Stephen drinking coffee or playing video games.

Find out more when you visit his blog, The Blazing Center.

I’m Judging You

I can inflict a lot of damage at times.

I’m interacting with someone when, suddenly, I notice it. I lean in for a closer look, just to make sure that I’m not mistaken. Is that? Yep, it sure is.

They’ve got a speck in their eye. It may be a tiny speck, but it’s significant. Really significant.

How can they not notice that speck? Are they so blind? Yeah, I may be judging them a bit, but come on, look at that thing just sitting in their eye? It’s nasty, and it bothers me. And they’re not even going to do anything about it!

I need to get others involved, maybe some sort of prayer chain. Or maybe I just need to begin a little corrective action. I’ll pull them aside and tell them how much the speck is bothering me and others. I’ll tell them the truth in love.

Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.

As I turn toward them, eager to help them be rid of the speck, I smash them in the head with the massive log sticking out of my own eye. In my self-righteousness, I end up doing more damage than help. I end up clocking them with my own sin while trying to help them deal with their sins.

Turns out that if I see a speck in someone else, it’s a pretty sure bet that I’ve got a big plank of timber sticking out of my eye. I need to remove the timber first before I even think about helping someone else. If I’m ever going to help someone else overcome sin, I’ve got to do some serious overcoming first.

This should give me pause before I launch into correcting someone else. Have I done any log removing myself?

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Mt. 7:3–5)


Is Mental Illness Actually Biblical?

I recently read two articles by a well known Christian author who is also closely connected to a Christian counseling foundation. The articles essentially argued that mental illness was a social construct created by secular doctors and psychiatrists, and therefore, is not biblical. So, when a person is depressed, he is really just experiencing sadness, and to try to treat it medically is to short circuit the power of God. When a person is anxious, she is really just experiencing worry, and to treat it medically is a secular answer to a spiritual problem. You get the idea.

The desire behind the article was good: the author was trying to demonstrate that Jesus is sufficient for every facet of life. However, I believe that treating mental illness as only (or even primarily) a spiritual problem is both profoundly unbiblical and incredibly hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY REALLY MEANS TOTAL DEPRAVITY

The Bible teaches that every human being is totally depraved. This doesn’t mean that every person is as absolutely wicked and evil as they could possibly be. That would be utter depravity. Total depravity simply means that sin has affected every facet of my being, including both my soul and my body. Total depravity means that nothing works as God originally intended. My spiritual desires are affected and distorted by sin. My intellect is distorted by and affected by sin. And, most importantly (for this discussion), my body has been affected and distorted by sin.

Why do I get colds and headaches and backaches and indigestion and infections? Why do you have migraines and heart problems and kidney stones and glaucoma? We experience these things because we inhabit bodies which have been marked and marred by sin. Paul spoke directly to this when he said:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

Our outer self is wasting away. Our bodies don’t work correctly. They fall apart and fail us at the worst times. While we live in this fallen world, we live in bodies that are wasting away.

In Romans 8:22–23, Paul wrote:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Along with the rest of creation, we eagerly await for the day when Christ will return and we will receive our new, redeemed, resurrection bodies.

Until the day Jesus returns, I will live in a body which does not function as God originally intended. My brain, which is a key, central, integral part of my body, will not function correctly. Chemicals will become imbalanced. Serotonin will not be properly absorbed. Norepinephrine will be unevenly distributed. Synapses won’t fire correctly. My brain, just like every other part of my body, is prone to illness.

I would argue that if we truly believe in total depravity, then we must accept mental illness as a biblical category. If I believe that sin has affected every part of my body, including my brain, then it shouldn’t surprise me when my brain doesn’t work correctly. I’m not surprised when I get a cold; why should I be surprised if I experience mental illness? To say that depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, and every other disorder, are purely spiritual disorders is to ignore the fact that we are both body and soul.

Mental illness is not something invented by secular psychiatrists. Rather, it is part and parcel with living in fallen, sinful world.

MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE CHURCH

Treating mental illness as purely a spiritual disorder is very hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness because it points them to the wrong solution. Let me explain. For many years I’ve dealt with chronic physical anxiety. I regularly experience a clutching sensation in my chest, shortness of breath, adrenaline surges, and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. On rare occasions, the anxiety is tied to something I’m worried about, but 90% of the time the physical symptoms I experience aren’t at all connected to worry. I’ll be working away on my computer, not thinking about anything, when a feeling of anxiety suddenly descends upon me.

In those moments, I don’t need to be told not to worry. I don’t need to be told to exercise more faith in the promises of God. I don’t need to be told to snap out of it. What I need is encouragement to persevere. I need to be reminded that, even in the midst of suffering, Jesus is near. I need to be reminded that my light and momentary afflictions are producing an eternal weight of glory. I need to be encouraged to press into Jesus.

And… I need to be connected to someone who can help me deal with the physical aspects of anxiety.

Here’s the unfortunate reality: even if my thinking is biblical, faith-filled, and God-honoring, my physical symptoms of anxiety probably won’t go away. Why? Because most of the time the problem is primarily physical. Something isn’t working correctly in my brain, which in turn causes me to experience the physical symptoms of anxiety.

When interacting with Christians who experience anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other form of mental illness, we need to treat them as whole people. We need to treat people as both body and soul. Do they need to exercise faith in the wonderful promises of God? Sure. But they also need to deal with the physical aspects of mental illness as well. Doctors are a wonderful gift from God who can offer help to those who struggle with mental illness.

We need to place mental illness in the same category as every other form of illness. When a person experiences chronic migraines, they most certainly will be tempted to doubt the goodness of God. We can serve them by encouraging them that God is good, and that he cares for them. But we also can serve them by taking them to the best migraine specialists in the country.

If we’re going to effectively care for fellow Christians who struggle with mental illness, we need to recognize that mental illness is a real thing. We aren’t only souls. Rather, we are a complex composition of soul and body. Let’s make sure we address both the soul and the body.


Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


6 Ways the Bible Tells Us What Church Should Look Like

Donald Miller ruffled quite a few feathers when he recently wrote on his blog that he doesn’t regularly attend church.

While I disagree with much of what he said, I won’t parse through every point. Others have already done that. But Miller said one thing that bothered me very much. Actually he said two things, but they were part of the same point. His point was that the Bible does not give us specific instructions as to what church should look like, which therefore means that no one can really claim to attend a “biblical” church.

The reason this statement bothered me so much is that it is so blatantly false. To claim that the Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like is to ignore many, many very clear scriptures. To claim that the Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like also allows a person to substitute his own preferences for the clear teaching of scripture, which Don Miller seems to do at numerous points in his blog post.

So what does the Bible have to say about church?

1. A biblical church involves at least two people gathering together in the name of Jesus. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Working with a client on a team building exercise, while valuable, is not church. Church consists of believers coming together, in the same physical space, in the name of Jesus Christ. To gather together in the name of Jesus means gathering together to publicly worship Jesus, serve Jesus, and help others love Jesus. If you’re not gathering together with other believers in the name of Jesus, don’t call yourself a church.

2. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper together. 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Jesus commanded his followers to regularly come together to remember and celebrate his death. This is a command, not an optional add-on for the Christian life. This isn’t about preference or opinion or “connecting with God” (a phrase Miller likes to use). The Lord’s supper is a communal event in which the church publicly proclaims the death of Christ. While not expressly forbidden, there isn’t a single place in scripture where a person celebrates the Lord’s supper by themselves. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper. If you’re not celebrating the Lord’s supper with other believers, don’t call yourself a church.

3. A biblical church is led by qualified elders. In Titus 1:5–9, Paul said to Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Paul insisted that the churches he founded be led by qualified elders. This was so important to Paul that he left Titus behind in Crete for the express purpose of finding and appointing qualified elders for each church. In our post-modern, democratic society, the idea of eldership isn’t especially popular, but it is especially biblical. If you’re not being led by qualified elders, don’t call yourself a church.

4. A biblical church worships in song together. Ephesians 5:18–21 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Notice that this passage has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to it. We are to be filled with the Spirit, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. We are also to address one another with our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Singing isn’t just about you connecting to God or experiencing a particular emotional response. When the church gathers to sing we are also proclaiming truth to one another. Honestly, God isn’t primarily concerned with whether or not we like singing or emote when we worship. He is concerned that we proclaim his goodness and glory to Him and to one another through song. If you’re not singing to the Lord and to one another, don’t call yourself a church.

5. A biblical church maintains corporate holiness through church discipline. Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The church really is a place of spiritual protection. Jesus expects his followers to help one another pursue holiness. If a Christian begins to engage in serious sin, Jesus expects the members of his Christian community to lovingly rebuke him. If the person refuses to repent of his sin, the entire church is expected to get involved.

This process presupposes that a Christian will be vitally connected to other Christians. The reality is, the process of discipline can’t happen apart from a local church. If you’re not maintaining holiness through church discipline, don’t call yourself a church.

6. A biblical church is a place where Christians can use their spiritual gifts to bless one another. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

In writing this verse, Paul was clearly assuming that the Corinthians would be gathering together on a regular basis in the name of Jesus for the purpose of worshiping together. When they gathered together, they were to use their spiritual gifts to build one another up. It is impossible to build other Christians up if you’re not regularly gathering together with other Christians in the context of corporate worship. If you’re not using your spiritual gifts to build other Christians up, don’t call yourself a church.

Contrary to what Donald Miller says, attending church is not about tribalism, or learning styles, or opinion, or preference. Attending church is a matter of obedience.

And there really is such a thing as a biblical church.


Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Can We Really Preach Too Much Grace?

We Christians are a funny bunch. We love to talk about how we are saved by grace, only grace, by faith alone, not by works. We passionately belt out the words to “Amazing Grace,” joining our voices to proclaim that grace has brought us thus far, and grace will lead us home. When we share the gospel with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims, we use various tactics and strategies to pin them down on whether salvation is by works or grace.

But when it comes to actually living the Christian life, we tend to muddy the clear waters of grace.

I see this most clearly in the way many Christians respond to teaching that places a heavy emphasis on God’s grace and less emphasis on our efforts. Without fail, some people will cry “foul,” complaining that proclaiming grace without equally talking about effort leads to spiritual laziness. They protest that a message of pure grace does not lead to sanctification.

For example, in a review of Barbara Duguid’s book Extravagant Grace, one reader wrote:

… her view in the book of sanctification is sadly lacking in understanding. There is no way to divorce biblical forgiveness (God’s gift through faith in Christ giving us the POSITION of right-standing before God—i.e. justification) and the process of sanctification which comes through the Spirit, the Word of God, prayer, focus on the eternal, not the fleshly, living carefully in the biblical fear of God, continually submitting to His authority and rightful rule over us.

I understand where that objection comes from. After all, in Romans 6, Paul makes it clear that receiving God’s grace doesn’t mean we get to throw a sin party, and James says that faith without works is no faith at all (James 2:17).

But the longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m convinced that a true understanding of grace always leads to deeper sanctification.

I’ve tried doing the holiness by focusing on holiness thing. You know what I mean. I think that if I can focus enough on my sin and stir up enough resolve in my heart, I can change. I can become more patient, more loving, more committed to Christ. If I can read my Bible enough and pray enough, the number of sins in my life will be less. If I put forth the effort, sin will by necessity go down.

But it doesn’t work this way in God’s kingdom.

Sanctification is not an equation. More prayer does not equal less lust. More Bible doesn’t mean less pride. Fellowship doesn’t automatically create forgiveness. Though I am born again, I am still completely dependent on Jesus to change me. I can’t be the change I want to see. Jesus must work that change in me.

That’s why Jesus said in John 15:5, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Here is where grace comes into the mix. The more I understand the depths of God’s grace, the more I want to press into Jesus. The more I comprehend the astounding forgiveness I have in Christ, the more time I want to spend with Christ. The more I feel God’s gospel pleasure in me, the more I want to spend time with Jesus. Condemnation drives me away from Christ; grace draws me to Christ.

And here’s the kicker: the more I’m with Jesus, the more I change. Apart from Christ I can’t change, but when I’m near to Christ, he works divine change in me.

Paul touched on this divine equation when he said:

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

The gospel of grace allows me to behold the Lord without fear or dread. Grace allows me to see and savor the glory of Christ without the terror of being consumed by the holiness of Christ. Isaiah called prophetic curses on himself when he beheld the glory of Christ (Isaiah 6). I behold the glory of Christ, and the more I see Christ, the more I become like Christ.

I’m not saying that we should stop calling people to put forth spiritual effort. Scripture makes it clear that we should pursue holiness with all our strength. But we can’t preach too much grace. Grace is the lifeblood of the Christian. It is the greatest motivator for the Christian, the greatest producer of change.

As Charles Spurgeon said:

Spurgeon Quote


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


The Unexpected Perks of Being Thrown Into the Fire

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12 ESV)

Trials stink. Running out of money stinks. Suffering from chronic migraines stink. Being slandered by coworkers stinks. All trials stink, right?

Well, yes and no. From a human perspective, trials are painful and sad. But from God’s perspective, trials are sad, but also wonderfully productive. In James 1:2-4 it says:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Humanly speaking, this is crazy talk. Count it all joy whenever I meet a trial? James sounds like some sort of sadistic masochist who loves pain. Like those guys who lie on beds of nails, or swallow glass, or watch made-for-TV movies on the Hallmark Channel. Insane. Perhaps a bit unstable. In need of psychiatric help.

But James sees things from God’s perspective. He knows that God uses trials to produce steadfast faith in us. Steadfast faith is faith that isn’t easily shaken. Steadfast faith is faith that holds fast to God even when it is buffeted and beaten. Steadfast faith says, “Blessed be your name,” on the road marked with blessing and the road marked with suffering. If we’re going to make it to the end, we need steadfast faith.

But steadfast faith doesn’t just happen. It’s not like you can take a blue steadfast pill and suddenly be a faith ninja. Steadfast, unshakeable faith only comes through the pressure of trials. Trials press us in to God. They force us to lean on God, and trust him when we can’t see the outcome. They knock our legs out from underneath us so that we’ll cling to God.

God never wastes our suffering. He doesn’t play games with our suffering. Every trial has a divine purpose behind it. We can rejoice in our trials, and even count them all joy because we know that God is producing steadfast faith in us.

Rejoice in your trials. Count them all joy. Wait patiently in the midst of them. God is at work, even if you can’t see it.


4 Words That Change Every Situation

Have you ever had one of those, “Woah, wait a minute!” times when reading the Bible? You’re slowly meandering your way through a chapter, trying to clear your sleep-fogged head, when suddenly a verse jumps out and slaps you in the face. I had one of those moments this morning.

I was making my way through Psalms 54, trying to shake off a slight headache, when I read Psalms 54:4:

“Behold, God is my helper…”

Bam! Bible verse to the face (in a good, sweet way). The words “God is my helper” are astonishing. Think about them for a moment. They literally change every situation. God, the God of the universe, the omnipotent, all-wise, all-loving, righteous, true, angel terrifying, sinner saving, God is MY HELPER. Woah. Woah!

  • I am really not feeling well, and I’m really tempted to complain… but God is my helper! He can heal me, or give me the power not complain, or both.
  • My child is not doing well spiritually, and I’m at my wits end… but God is my helper! He can melt my child’s hard heart and give me wisdom to navigate the every sticky situation.
  • My partner on this school project is doing nothing, and I want to punch him in the face… but God is my helper! He can give me diligence, patience, and love.
  • My kids are running around the house, peeing on the floor, and generally driving me insane… but God is my helper! He can give me an otherworldly love for these high speed children.
  • I’ve sinned in the same way again and again and again…but God is my helper! He promises that sin will not have dominion over me. He will give me power to overcome this sin.

There is no situation too great for God. There is no heart too hard for God. There is no budget too tight for God. There is no boss too difficult for God. God is your helper! He is my helper! Those four words change every situation.

Do you need wisdom today? God is your helper. Do you need strength today? God is your helper. Do you need patience today? God is your helper. If God is your helper, that changes everything.


6 Ways to Kickstart Your Devotional Life

There are times when, for whatever reason, our devotional life goes stale. Bible reading seems like a colossal chore, our prayers feel tepid and weak, and our love for God ebbs. We feel like we are stuck in a spiritual rut, like we don’t have any soul traction, like we’re just spinning our spiritual wheels. These times of staleness can be incredible frustrating and discouraging.

Are you in a spiritual rut? Here are a few practical tips to breathe new life and vigor back into your devotional life.

PRAY! PRAY! PRAY!

All the practical tips in the world won’t make a lick of difference unless God moves mightily on your heart. God cannot be controlled. He is not a personal genie who can be summoned on command. He cannot be summarized or contained in a neat formula. But he promises to respond to our humble requests. He is a good father who loves to give good gifts to his children. In Luke 11:13 Jesus said:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

God loves to give the Holy Spirit to us, but we have to ask! If your devotional life is in a rut, humbly confess your cold heart to God and ask him to breathe white hot affection back into you.

READ A BOOK

Seeing the splendors of God through the undimmed eyes of another person can be tremendously helpful. One of the ways to see God through the eyes of someone else is to read a book. Often times our view of God is cluttered and clogged by the circumstances of life. Reading a book allows us to stand on the shoulders of someone else and see over all the clutter. If your devotional life is dim and blurry, take a short break from your regular Bible reading and spend some time savoring a good book. I recommend any of the books on my list of thirty books every Christian should read.

READ THE PSALMS

The Psalms are an intensely devotional section of scripture. The authors of the Psalms experienced the highs and lows of life, and they met God in the midst of those highs and lows. They experienced the faithfulness of God in the dry times and in the seasons of fruitfulness. If your devotional life is lacking oomph try spending some time in the Psalms.

START A BIBLE READING PLAN

Many times our devotions lack substance because we don’t appropriately plan them out. We meander from verse to verse, reading a bit here, a snatch there, yet never making any real progress through God’s word. If this describes your devotions, maybe you need a Bible reading plan to get you on track. The ESV Bible website has a bunch of different Bible reading plans to get you started. If your devotional life is lacking direction trying starting a Bible reading plan.

ABANDON YOUR PLAN

Some of us like plans a little bit too much. We like to make lists and then cross things off those lists. We like the feeling of progress, of moving forward, of gettin’ her done. We apply our love for plans to our Bible reading and thus read through the Bible every year like clockwork. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But there are times when we need to abandon our plan and simply slow down our Bible reading. To delight in and savor a chapter, or a section, or just one verse. If your devotional life is feeling too rigid and stiff try abandoning your plan for a while.

CHANGE UP YOUR METHODS

Most of us read the Bible. After all, the Bible is a book and books are meant to be read. No argument from me. But remember, significant portions of the scriptures were originally intended to be heard. The apostolic letters were read aloud in the churches. The Psalms were read aloud in the synagogues. Scripture was meant to be both and read and heard. The ESV Bible site allows you to listen to the Bible instead of reading it. If your devotional life is feeling repetitive try listening to God’s word. Take notes as you listen.

Out of all these tips, the first is the most important. You can do all the right things and yet if God doesn’t work powerfully in your life nothing will happen. However, I know that God wants your devotions to be meaningful. He wants you to have a vibrant, joyful devotional life. In light of that truth I would encourage you to prayerfully try these different suggestions.

Don’t be content with a mediocre spiritual life. Press into God. He wants to meet you.


3 Crucial Truths that Keep Me from Going Crazy

The Bible is full of verses about change. Put off the old and put on the new! Put to death the sin that wages war within you! Speak the truth in love so that everyone may grow up in godliness. Become more like Christ. Pursue the spiritual disciplines, give to the poor, forgive one another, love one another, show hospitality, extend grace and mercy. Stop being so selfish and start giving a rip about other people!

Change is a good and God-glorifying thing. I don’t want to remain as I am. I want to become more and more like Jesus, and I want those around me to become more and more like Jesus. This article is not one of those “just let go and let God,” articles.

But when it comes to change, there are three crucial, biblical truths that I must remember in order to keep my sanity.

ONLY GOD CAN DO THE CHANGING

I often have this strange notion in my head that the key to change is found somewhere within myself. If I memorize enough Bible verses, pursue enough accountability, and pray enough, I’ll automatically become godly. I’ll walk in the triumphant, glorious, victorious life, easily slaying one sin after another, like Aragorn plowing through the Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep.

This, of course, is absolute insanity. In John 15:5, Jesus put it bluntly when he said, “…for apart from me you can do nothing.” When Jesus said “nothing,” he really meant nothing. Apart from Jesus working mightily within me, I absolutely cannot and will not change. I can’t make myself overcome my sinful worry. Only Jesus can do that. I can memorize Scriptures, pray hard, and ask for accountability, but those things can’t cause my heart to trust God. Only Jesus can cause me to trust God.

Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:12–13, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I can and should do all the right things, yet God must work the change within me.

The reality that God does the changing brings me great freedom. I don’t have to constantly obsess and punish myself over my failure to obey God. I don’t have to perpetually operate in navel gazing mode. Lately, I’ve been fighting a sometimes-winning-sometimes-losing battle with worry. I’ve been praying, memorizing, and all the other things the Bible tells me to do to fight worry, but I know that God is the one who is going to have to actually change me. I know that slowly, over time God will do what he needs to do in me. I don’t have to freak out about my lack of total victory over worry.

Knowing that God does the changing also frees me from feeling like I must change other people. It frees me from acting as as a sin spy, constantly snooping out and reporting sins in other’s lives. In the past, I’ve operated under the assumption that if I could speak the truth clearly enough, a person would change. He would see the error of his ways, repent, and instantaneously change. When a person didn’t change, I assumed it was either because I wasn’t clear enough or because he wasn’t repentant enough. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the fact that unless God himself moved upon that person, he simply would not change.

Only God can change me, and only God can change others. Coming to terms with that truth will help me keep my sanity.

TRUE CHANGE IS REALLY, REALLY SLOW

For some reason, I tend to assume that Christians should be generally trending upwards in godliness at all times, like a stock that is constantly outperforming the market. Again, this is false, Pharisaical insanity. True change is usually very slow, taking place over months and years, not days and weeks.

In Scripture, spiritual growth is often compared to the growth of trees and plants. Psalm 1:3 says that the man who meditates on God’s word is, “…like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” These verses don’t describe explosive, overnight, constantly upward growth. These verses don’t describe a spiritual experience in which sin is suddenly expunged from the soul, like some sort of spiritual detox. Spiritual growth is slow, and the fruit comes “in season,” not right away.

This truth again frees me from feeling miserable over my perceived slow growth or even lack of growth. As I pursue God, he will cause me to grow. I probably won’t be able to see my growth, just like I can’t observe the growth of a tree. There will be times when my growth will appear to be stunted, just as a tree can appear temporarily stunted. But as I continue to press into God, he will cause the growth.

God will also cause other believers to grow. They probably won’t grow as fast as my impatient heart wants them to grow, but they will grow. I don’t have to be constantly monitoring other believers, ensuring that they are growing. That’s God’s job, and I can let him deal with it.

Knowing that change is slow keeps me sane.

GOD WILL FINISH WHAT HE STARTED

Philippians 1:6 puts it this way: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” That is such sweet, sanity-giving news. God will do it. He will finish the good work he started in me, and he will finish what he started in my fellow believers. Life is not like a marathon, where finishing depends on how much strength I’ve got. God will be the one who carries me across the finish line.

I may be running when he carries me, or I may just barely be hanging on, but either way, God will make sure that I finish.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


The Rumors of the Church’s Death Have been Greatly Overstated

These days, it’s kinda cool to criticize the church. About once a week, a new, angsty memoir is released by someone who grew up in the church, had a series of bad experiences, left the church, and is now finding healing and/or catharsis in some different version of the church (Catholic, Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, etc.). In their memoir, they inevitably talk about all the shortcomings of the church and all the things the church needs to be. The church needs to be less flashy, more welcoming, more community centered, more Bible-centered, more inviting to those who are LGBTQI.

And, of course, a doomsday study is released every few months, indicating that the church is on the verge of being swallowed up by irrelevance.

  • A New Study Indicates that 98% of Americans are Raging Atheists
  • 77% of Christians Support Gay Marriage
  • 68% Of Evangelicals are Secretly Catholic

You get the point.

If the church doesn’t adapt, it will die! The Millennials are leaving the church in droves! The church is falling apart! Marriage is on the rocks, the Bible is becoming irrelevant, and the family unit is being torn asunder! Doom! Angst! Fear-mongering! 

Does the church need to adapt and change in necessary and biblical ways? Sure. Does the church need to think carefully about cultural issues? Of course. But no matter how much you rant and rave and criticize the church, it’s not going anywhere. No matter how many studies Barna and his boys release, the church will continue to stand.

Since it’s inception, the church has always been falling apart and God has always been breathing life into it.

The Corinthian church was rife with division (1 Corinthians 3:3), sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1), lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1), and idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14). The bloggers and memoir writers would have had a field day with the Corinthian church! The church was an absolute carnival of dysfunction.

And yet God continued to preserve his church.

The Galatian church was deserting the true gospel for a false gospel (Galatians 1:6). The Barna group would have released a study indicating that 75% of the Galatians preferred the false gospel to the true gospel.

And yet God continued to preserve his church.

The Colossians were getting hoodwinked by philosophy and empty deceit (Colossians 2:8). The Hebrews were in danger of drifting back to the old ways of Judaism (Hebrews 2:1). The churches in Asia Minor were being swayed by teachers who denied the divinity of Christ (1 John 2:22).

And yet God continued to preserve his church.

The gospel essentially disappeared for several hundred years while the Catholic church filled its treasuries with money gained from the sale of indulgences.

And yet God continued to preserve his church.

The church has survived the likes of Apollonius, Arius, Nestorius, Noetus, Marcion, Monatus, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, Robert Shuler, and Benny Hinn.

Will Millennials continue to leave the church at an “alarming” rate? Probably. Will various denominations continue to abandon sound doctrine and make concessions to the culture? Sure. Will prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar continue to sucker people in with their message of “Everything is Awesome”? Yes. Will the Barna group release more surveys indicating that everything is going to pieces and the end is nigh? I suppose.

But the church will continue. Not because of its innovative new models or awesome new leaders. The church will survive because Jesus is firmly committed to the church. The church is his bride, and he will not let his bride slip away.

Jesus said:

I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it…

I’m pretty sure he intends to make good on those words.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


Why is God So Slow to Change Me?

There are certain sins I’ve struggled with for a long time. I mean, like, “surely I’m not still struggling with this,” long. I’ve been a proud, arrogant punk for quite a few years now. When someone disagrees with me, I’m tempted to either arrogantly dismiss them or passionately argue with them.

Could I be wrong about a particular issue? I suppose it’s possible that, somewhere in some world, like Narnia, I could be wrong. But certainly not in this world. I’m usually convinced that the difference between my opinions and absolute truth is very small, if there’s any difference at all. Maybe it’s a firstborn kind of thing. Maybe it’s just that I have some deep pockets of sin in my heart.

Can you relate? Are there any areas of sin you’ve struggled with for a long time? Anger? Impatience? Anorexia? Lust? Same-sex attraction? Gluttony? A sin that has plagued you for years and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon?

Why is God so slow in making us holy? Think about it for a second. If God wanted to, he could have made us instantly perfect the moment we believed in Jesus Christ. Or he could completely deliver us from our clinging sins in the blink of an eye. Why doesn’t God do this? I mean, isn’t the entire goal of the Christian life to be more and more free from sin?

I like how Barbara Duguid puts it in her book Extravagant Grace:

Let’s be honest: if the chief work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is to make Christians more sin-free, then he isn’t doing a very good job. The church throughout the ages and throughout the world has not usually been known for its purity and goodness. Instead, it is wracked by a constant history of strife, violence, and hypocrisy. (Page 30)

So what is God up to? Why doesn’t he just obliterate my pride and transform me into Gentle Stephen Meek and Mild? Maybe, just maybe, God’s goal in my sanctification isn’t simply that I would be better person. Don’t get me wrong; holiness matters very much to God. But if my holiness is all that matters to God, he has a strange way of making that happen.

Again, I really appreciate how Barbara Duguid puts it:

God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin. This makes sense out of our experience as Christians. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to make you more humble and dependent on Christ, more grateful for his sacrifice and more adoring of him as a wonderful Savior, then he might be doing a very, very good job even though you still sin every day. (Pages 30–31)

Satan wants my repeated struggle with pride to send me into a downward spiral of despair and condemnation. God wants my struggle with pride to remind me that I’m a desperate sinner who has a glorious Savior. Satan wants me to believe that God couldn’t love someone who sins as much as I do. God wants me to believe that he loves me in spite of all my sin. God allows me to sin in order that I might reject any hope I have in myself and trust only in the righteousness of Christ. That I would give up on the fool’s errand of trying to justify myself and trust only in the justification God provides in Christ.

When you sin in the same way again and again, how do you respond? Do you sink into a swamp of self-loathing, or do you gratefully run to Jesus? When you sin, do you shrink in fear from God or do you humbly confess your dependence on God?

God wants me to be holy, but that’s not his only goal for my life. He wants me to learn to treasure my Savior and humbly depend on Him for everything in my life.

And if you disagree with me, you absolutely must be wrong.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


God Doesn’t Want a Podcast to be Your Pastor

These days, you can pop in your ear buds and instantly listen to some of the best preachers out there. If you want some passionate preaching, you dip into Chandler or Piper. If you want loads of grace you listen to Tullian Tchividjian. If you want a Scottish accent mixed with beautiful Biblical exegesis, you listen to Alistair Begg. If you’re feeling really wild and crazy, you listen to old Mark Driscoll sermons. I’m a big fan of podcasts, and I’m grateful for the glut of wonderful resources available to me.

But the massive availability of fantastic preaching presents a problem as well. It can tempt us to be discontent with our own pastors. We can think, If only my pastor could preach like Matt Chandler. If only my pastor was as grace-centered as Tullian. If only my pastor could bring the Bible heat like John Piper. We wish that our pastors were as gifted as another pastor.

But God doesn’t want Matt Chandler to be your pastor (unless you happen to be in his church). God has placed your pastor in your church to care specifically for you. When your pastor is preparing his sermon, he’s preparing it for you, and God is specifically empowering him to prepare a sermon for you.

Your pastor knows you (at least he should). He knows about your struggles with worry. He knows about your eating disorder. He knows about your battle with greed. He knows about your ongoing chronic illness. Both God and your pastor are shaping the sermon with you, as well as other members of the church, in mind. For your encouragement. For your conviction. For your refreshment. And God intends to use your pastor’s sermon to help sustain your faith.

Tullian isn’t preparing his sermon with you in mind; he has Coral Ridge Church in mind. God primarily intends to use Tullian’s sermon for the benefit of Tullian’s church. Your pastor is better than your podcast.

Your pastor also is with you week in and week out. He’s the one who will be there when your dad finds out that his body is riddled with cancer. He’s the one who will pray for you when your marriage is held together by only a thread. He’s the one who sits next to you when you find out that your pregnancy is going to end in grief. He’s the one who carries you on his heart week after week.

A podcast preacher can’t do that. He carries his own congregation on his heart. Your pastor is better than your podcast.

Don’t tell your pastor that he should try to be more like [insert pastor]. God has put your pastor in your church so that he might care for your soul. In Acts 20:28, Paul gave the following instructions to the Ephesian elders:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Pastoral ministry is serious business. Your pastor is charged with caring for your church. He is charged by God to care for people bought with the blood of Christ. Is there any more serious job description?

Chandler cares for his church.

Begg cares for his church.

MacArthur cares for his church.

And your pastor cares for your church.

Your pastor is better than your podcast.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.


How to Make Your Church a Safe Place for Sinners

In recent years, there has been an explosion of websites which allow people to anonymously confess their deepest, darkest secrets. The website “Post Secret” allows people to send in anonymous post cards with dark secrets written on them, which are then posted publicly on the website. Recently, a slew of “confessional” apps have been released, all with the same purpose in mind: allowing people to get stuff off their chest. The app “Whisper” lets folks anonymously unburden themselves and then receive the support of the Whisper community. Some of these secrets are humorous. Most of them are sad and even disturbing.

Why are these websites and apps so popular? Because every person is overwhelmed by living in a fallen world. Everyone is crushed by the sinful baggage they’re carrying around.

A guy is struggling with his sexual orientation but doesn’t want to tell anyone, so he shares it anonymously. A woman is being destroyed by bulimia but can’t bear the thought of letting the secret out into the open, so she puts it up on Whisper in hope of some support. A guy doesn’t know how to handle his recent breakup, so he goes looking for help online. Everyone is living in quiet desperation. Desperate for hope. Desperate for encouragement. Desperate for light in a dark world.

If there is one place where it should be safe to tell secrets, it should be the church. Apps like Whisper can offer only the slightest, fleeting consolation. We can offer Christ, the one who forgives our darkest sins and gives us power to overcome them. Anonymous apps can only offer anonymous comfort. We can offer real shoulders to cry upon, a real community to receive support from, and real help in desperate times. Post Secret offers the temporary Novocain of anonymous confession. We can offer the forgiveness of God, which comes through true confession.

Of course, this raises the question: Are our churches safe places for confession?

Would a homosexual or bulimic or cutter or high-functioning pain-killer addict feel comfortable talking about their battles in our churches? I suspect that in many cases, the answer is “no.” This shouldn’t be the case.

The church is not a fitness center where people come to improve themselves. It’s a hospital where deathly ill people meet with the Great Physician. The church isn’t an advanced placement class for all the smart kids. It’s “Remedial Life” for those who don’t have it together. The church is where battered, beaten, broken-down, helpless sinners come to receive grace and strength. I love how Steve Brown puts it:

I’m just a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.

So how do we make our churches safe? Two simple suggestions.

1) Pastors, talk about specific sins from the pulpit.

One of the primary tasks of pastoral ministry is helping people see how the gospel connects to and is the answer to particular struggles and sins. When you prepare your sermon, do the work of connecting the dots between the gospel and a variety of sins. And when I say “variety,” I really do mean a large variety. Don’t limit yourself to the normal sins of anger, impatience, or fear. Also connect the gospel to sexual desires, eating disorders, drug addiction, cutting, embezzlement, and the many other sins Jesus died for on the cross. There are people in your congregation who struggle with these things, and if you don’t help them see the hope of the gospel, they’ll be overwhelmed with discouragement.

2) Church members, talk about your specific sins in your small groups.

Obviously this needs to be done with kid gloves, discernment, and a big dose of wisdom. There are some things that are only appropriate to share with a close friend. You get my point.

But when possible, open up about your own struggles. Let people see that you’re a messed up person who desperately needs Jesus. Let people see that even though you’re a jacked-up sinner, you don’t despair because you have Jesus. When the opportunity presents itself, open up about how Jesus has helped you in the midst of your struggles and messiness. In doing so, you’ll give hope to those who are burdened by their secrets.

When Jesus informed the woman at the well that she was a serial adulterer, she didn’t shut him down or run away from him. Instead, she brought the entire town to meet him. Why? Because Jesus offered her eternal life. He offered himself to her as the solution for her inability to keep a marriage together. He gave her hope where she had no hope.

Let’s offer people the same hope, week after week. Let’s turn our churches into restful havens for weary, broken-down sinners.


Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.