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Jesus Calling, "PCA, lament & repent!"

Updated: Jan 31

Jesus Calling is a problematic book. It came from the Presbyterian Church in America.


The title of this essay is provocative, especially styled as a quote from Jesus speaking today. The trope is not uncommon, often used for a poignant paraphrase of a Scripture passage, or for an urgent distillation of an application of Scripture. It is not necessarily equivalent to the hackneyed, "the Lord told me," as a short-hand for God given wisdom. It is not the hubris of uttering prophetic claims as God's instruction and direction. If a minister employs this trope in a sermon, the authority is not objectionable. If all else is in order, per ordinary means, this kind of "red letter" is in keeping with Westminster Shorter Catechism #89.


Question: How is the word made effectual to salvation?
Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

What if the preacher impersonated the incarnate Christ, start to finish? This is a thought experiment. What if it was all red letters? If he spoke not as a herald but as the one sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, with the verisimilitude of a method actor? If he said, "I know your thoughts, your fears, your inward stumbles and most hidden doubts, for I made your heart and cherish it with divine covenantal attention"-- then, what would you make of his 30 minute sermon?


Would theological accuracy at the bottom be sufficient to place you at ease? Perhaps you would be at ease, if he was modest and forthright outside the pulpit, saying: "Of course I am not Jesus, that is blasphemous; but I am speaking Jesus' words which have been given to me for the church." What if his congregation expressed great satisfaction, if they credited this preaching with restoring hope and transforming lives?


A great deal of discussion would surely ensue. On the face of it, the man should be admonished to cut it out. Our order is patient, and there might be a series of admonitions. Apart from fundamentally changing his preaching, I hope there would be a trial and conviction and defrocking. I assume a lot in these expectations. Would it be more significant if millions were downloading his sermons like fan-fiction for "The Chosen" series?


"Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence," by Sarah Young is a wicked book. It is an influential book. The influence of this wickedness must be laid at the feet of the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA must lament and repent. It may be rejoined that I assume too much in these assertions, and my subsequent exposition may be set aside as shallow, narrow and censorious. I earnestly hope not.


Wicked

The book provides 365 unbroken days of direct speech from Jesus. It impersonates. It counterfeits. It does not claim to be the inerrant and infallible words of the canon, merely the words of Jesus by which one can enjoy the pacific benefits of communing with Him.

"Jesus Calling resonates with men and women. Written as if Jesus Himself is speaking directly to you, Jesus Calling invites you to experience peace in the presence of the Savior who is always with you."

Despite the meek and modest buttressing of the book's advertising, that is profound arrogance. It dishonors Jesus by presuming to speak, not only for, but as him-- in the single most intimate setting on earth, private worship. To express the outrage and stray near the disgust it deserves: it is cuckolding. Jesus' evil, fraternal twin-- not identical-- stole his phone and is intimately texting with His bride. It's like Esau alienating the affections of Rachel.


Warming Up to "Wicked"

My conscience was pricked in December, when by happenstance I encountered a 2012 negative review of the book by Kathy Keller from "The Redeemer Report." Justin Taylor posted a long quote from it without elaboration at The Gospel Coalition. Six months earlier he had similarly posted a quote from Michael Horton's negative evaluation. (The entire Horton piece is available here.) Both Keller and Horton anchor their multi-faceted criticisms in the doctrine of Scripture's Sufficiency. While that is significant, that doctrine is not what provokes my distress with the book.


You likely know some warm Christians who delight in Jesus Calling. Imagine their acute graciousness if they actually met that legalistic man from the internet. My conclusion about the book is harsh, and arises from attention which I have not yet seen given to the book. Imagine those warm Christians, over coffee, hearing middle-of-the-PCA-road Kathy Keller say what she wrote (my emphasis):

. . . those words are attributed directly to Jesus (and they don’t sound like anything else he has ever said), then they have to be received on the same level as Scripture, or she has put her own thoughts into the mouth Jesus.

The She is Sarah Young. The thoughts are her own. The mouth is (not) Jesus. Earnest believers might respond protectively for the good name and inspiring example of She. Piety enriched by her own thoughts might take offense at denigration of a transforming book-- like Sproul or Packer, but of uncommon practical value. Fans of the book likely are satisfied with Young's clear denial: it's not Scripture. They consider the this-is-Jesus format as just very effective red-lettering. The mouth Jesus likely just sounds uncharitable to them.


Tim Challies might pull up a chair to that coffee conversation. He reviewed the book in 2011, concluding: "I see no reason that I would ever recommend this book." In 2015 he thought it wise to revisit it with "Ten Serious Problems with Jesus Calling." Imagine him chiming in to the conversation with the final words of his second post:

The point is clear: Jesus Calling is a book built upon a faulty premise and in that way a book that is dangerous and unworthy of our attention or affirmation. The great tragedy is that it is leading people away from God’s means of grace that are so sweet and so satisfying, if only we will accept and embrace them.
Kindling Up a Burning Fire

I doubt my thought-experiment conversation would even get heated, so much as murky and frustrating. I don't think advocates of the book understand-- nor has Keller or Horton or Challies actually substantiated-- why "red-lettering" in this instance ought to be anathema. The critics reject Jesus Calling, because Scripture is sufficient for communion, spiritual experience and intimate fellowship with God. They hammer with sufficiency, but this is not about the Bible. Challies strikes most truly at the tragedy by invoking the means of grace.


The book mimics the means of grace. It is used for worship. Jesus Calling is an idol. That is the topic of conversation. Yes, these dear folks are Christians. Yes, they are idolaters. They are not just psychological, disordered-affections, every-christian-an-idol factory idolaters. They are 2nd Commandment, God-hates-what-you-are-doing-with-that-thing idolaters. He hates your lover, and he hates your tristing with it. Stop. Hard. You need to throw it in the fire and seek him as he promises. Hot coffee, hot conversation, hot mess.


Having mentioned the good name of Sarah Young above, an ugly line of reflection ought to be squelched emphatically. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10). Sarah Young passed in 2023. She is beyond our censure, and ought to receive no personal dishonor or rubber-necking scrutiny. No memes. She endeavored for the glory of Christ, trying to match the grace she knew. Her repentance is done. Leave her alone.


The book, however, has not passed away, quite the contrary.


Influential

Other than Kathy Keller, the cited critics hold no responsible roll in the PCA. In terse form, unlike the author Sarah Young, they have never taken vows as members or officers. While they share Reformed convictions with the PCA, they did not publish warnings because of any direct connection to Jesus Calling. They are active in conservative evangelicalism beyond the PCA. They responded to the book's influence. Challies' return to warn more strongly 4 years later is striking. What more could he do, as he is only an observer of that growing influence?


Another 8 years of influence have waxed. Sales of Jesus Calling have surpassed 45 million copies. Even leaning back from a press release, that is 10% of the U.S. population. That is more than 100 times the membership of the PCA. As things happen with mission and marketing and money, the book has been expanded into a brand. There is a children's version, and other iterations. There is a television series. And, yes, there is an app.


But these are numbers and infrastructure. What is the influence that draws the word "tragedy" from even-handed Tim Challies? What is the content flowing from all this industry? It is well epitomized by the host of the T.V. series' second season:

“I know how much Jesus Calling has meant to me in my own faith walk, and I’m thrilled to share stories from others who have seen their lives changed and hope restored through this book.”

I don't know the aggregate of Tim Keller's book sales. D. James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion had enormous reach, but 45 million? Numbers this large exceed any scale of familiarity. I doubted that any other religious publication from within the PCA could have similar publication numbers. My imagination was meager. According to how the publication industry sorts and counts, Jesus Calling made Sarah Young "the bestselling Christian author of all time." It is incontrovertible: Jesus Calling is the most influential PCA book in our first 50 years.


The significant influence is not numbers but people. I'm an optimist-- it's a resurrection thing. I suspect that there are many, many true Christians believing gruel and eating folly. Didn't it ever occur to you that there is something a lot like the Prosperity Gospel that savy and discerning people (like us) would swallow hook, line and comfort? Or, optimism errs and predominately the lost are being deceived about Jesus by Jesus Calling. It's influential on the scale of double digit millions-- millions of people.


Laid at the feet of the Presbyterian Church in America

Thomas Nelson publishes the book, manages the brand and reaps the profits, but it is the PCA that failed. Having received pastoral responsibility for Sarah Young, any private spiritual maladies and public religious transgressions were the responsibility of the PCA. The wicked influence upon the church and world-- far greater than one woman could stumble into-- is to be blamed on the PCA.


We failed to care sufficiently for her soul, and to exercise authority within our delineated jurisdiction for the preservation and promulgation of the true gospel and true religion. It cannot be underlined too boldly: criticism of Sarah Young or commiseration because of her actual aims and intentions-- all of it bundled together pales to the guilt of the PCA. We are 45 million copies in, and the math adds up against our vows, our fidelity and our titular orthodoxy.


Our Vows

The PCA is a church governed according to the Book of Church Order, and adults only come under our jurisdiction by taking vows. However uncommon the practice may or may not be in American churches, the PCA is quite formal and forthright about it; in fact, our Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter "Of Lawful Oaths and Vows." While there may be irregular and significant circumstances unknown to me in the actual pastoral care of Sarah Young, the following assumes our good order.


Sara Young lived under the fifth vow for PCA membership. "Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?" Her book is a tragic corruption of true religion in our populace, and it is dangerous for the purity and peace of the PCA. Leaving room for the frailty common to men and mindful that she may well have been under extreme influences, we ought to recognize that assessing her fidelity to that vow after the industrialization of Jesus Calling exceeds the scrutiny of anyone but her intimates, particularly her pastors.


Her pastors lived under the sixth vow required of PCA Teaching Elders, and they ought not appeal to any mitigation matching the lesser expectations of non-officers in the PCA. While Ruling Elders do not take the same vow, they do vow to carry out the stipulated duties of the session, of which active interest in and betterment of members' piety and life is one (BCO 12-5a). The session labors together with a Teaching Elder under his sixth vow:

Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?

In the book's introduction, Young narrates the motivations, events and practices which after several years culminated in her manuscript. There is no guile, no surreptitious tone or hint of concealing her progress. She lived with her Teaching Elder husband. For decades she was under the authority of the PCA's Mission to the World. When she was or was not under the care of an actual session remains opaque to me; nonetheless, her deviant private disciplines ought to have received pastoral correction and admonition.


Her private convictions and practices might well have been too fine-grained or convoluted to appropriate significant intervention. Sometimes you can't help people, but you know that they aren't setting the house on fire. You visit, pray, watch and keep trying to be of use. When she went through several years seeking publication-- that was an open flame, and those were other people's houses.


In the most literal connotation of censorious, that is when Teaching Elders and courts in her life should have blown out her candle. One of the stipulated powers of presbytery reads (BCO 13-9f):

To condemn erroneous opinions which injure the peace or purity of the church.

Christian Liberty was not a legitimate limitation. She should have been forbidden to publish in keeping with the fourth paragraph of Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 20, "Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience."

. . . for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness . . . they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church.

If the Teaching Elders and court(s) with jurisdiction did not deal with her faithfully in this way, then any other Teaching Elder or PCA court without jurisdiction held a duty. When informed that a PCA member was the fount of Jesus Calling, they should have inquired for resolution of the abundant appearance of evil.


The PCA failed Sara Young and failed the Lord Jesus in allowing him to be so influentially misrepresented contrary to both our duty and authority. I failed. In 2015. I successfully dissuaded a number of staff at an independent Christian school from using the book with our students. At that time I learned that the book came from the PCA, but I cynically, arrogantly and callously ignored my responsibility. This article is a pittance of restitution.

Our Fidelity

The failure to cherish and so correct and train a pious woman engaged in devotional aberrations was infidelity. The failure to protect the PCA, the evangelical church at large and the public honor of Christ from the publication of Jesus Calling was infidelity.


I realize that some will think my entire complaint is legalism and obscurantism, a lack of faith that grasps for control over the Spirit's work in the world. In listening, I have noticed how inarticulate is the objection by my peers in the PCA. Most seem to reject the book, yet they fall short of a strong rationale for their "nope." The book is just not right. Don't want it on my patch. It's not theologically legit, though some find it useful.


With real temerity, yet also the confidence that the obvious can be seen when named, I will specify our infidelity in giving Jesus Calling a pass (so long as it passes out of our field of vision). The book is a violation of the Second Commandment per Larger Catechism 109.


Now there is an implausible argument for rallying unity on an issue in the PCA! Larger Catechism 109 is one of our ubiquitous and we-believe-the-Bible-not-tradition exceptions. Nothing I am about to put forward will threaten the pedagogical value of stickmen, or muppets; however, there is another rote line that might get bent.


The enlightened exception is often buffed up with a comment like, "how can I read the gospels and NOT get images in my mind of Jesus doing stuff?" Somehow beyond the grasp of 17th century divines, the Larger Catechism forgets our humanity when it stipulates the sins forbidden by the Second Commandment (my emphasis):

. . . making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it;

Jesus Calling is a representation of Jesus made by Sarah Young. It is crafted, static and suitable for use by any literate person. It is not an image per line and shade and canvas, or stone, tooling and proportion. It is a mental image, much like Roman Catholic devotional books contemporaneous with the Westminster Assembly. In reading Jesus Calling, to quote the promotional copy (see above), it is "as if Jesus Himself is speaking directly to you." That is a mental image of Jesus-- with extensive psychological detail, interpersonal posturing and sustained verisimilitude.


Use of the book is "inwardly in the mind" creating "[a] kind of image or likeness" of whatever version of Jesus which Young assembled from her experience. To again quote the ad copy, using the book is a way "to experience peace in the presence of the Savior," and that seems to fit somewhere in the forbidden spectrum of "worshiping of [Jesus Calling] or God in it or by it."


It is a tool for private worship of/by an idol, as even appears in the shallow defense by Christianity Today: "Many, many believers, however, have found comfort, peace, encouragement, and inspiration in Young’s Jesus’ words." Young's Jesus's words: this was written for the representation of Jesus inwardly in the likeness of a creature. This is wicked, and this is corrupting.


Those who make them

become like them;

so do all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:8


The PCA's infidelity regarding Jesus Calling was our inability to see a clear instance of what we said was too persnickety a sin to commonly detect or usefully discipline-- mental images of Jesus. It sounded like some Freudian thought-police obsession to many of us. We all affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, noting sagaciously that application differs-- which is part of not being fundamentalists. Sadly, to some of us, it sounded like another intractable reason to think badly of some other PCA people.


We did not submit to the Second Commandment, even when our inherited subordinate standards offered us words of warning. Did we not notice? Did we not care? Were we busy? If you want to ponder our busy-ness in an earnestly celebratory fashion, there is no better opportunity than ByFaith's hardcopy 50th Anniversary Edition. If you can get hold of one, it is our fitting echo of Hebrews 11. Before you read about James Montgomery Boice (aptly cited by Kathy Keller to nail her appeal to the sufficiency of Scripture), you will read about Sarah Young. The enormous success (?!) of Jesus Calling is the first line. Can we call the laissez-faire history of the book with the PCA anything other than a corporate, denominational toleration of the best-selling Second Commandment violation of all time?


Are there weighty reasons to be undone by our sin here-- to lament and repent? Yes, per Larger Catechism 110, for which I have never heard an exception: "What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it?"


. . . besides God’s sovereignty over us, and propriety in us,
his fervent zeal for his own worship,
and his revengeful indignation against all false worship,
as being a spiritual whoredom;
accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him,
and threatening to punish them unto divers generations . . .

We knew the Jesus Calling thing was whack, but we also knew the Second Commandment isn't really a problem for discerning (i.e., Reformed) people like us. How we managed to act so stupidly without active consultation and coordination-- that deserves pondering. For the moment, and to orient ourselves for anything next and wholesome: let's own it. We, the PCA, sent into evangelicalism and the world at large the most influential and popular evangelical graven image in our lifetime. We were not faithful.


Our Titular Orthodoxy

Full disclosure, up to this point, everything I have written gushed from a conscience pricked a couple weeks ago. The next thing, the Titular Orthodoxy thing, has been growing on my mind for the last five years. It might glint like an edge that doesn't need grinding again. Friends who know my pop culture heritage will whisper, "Careful with that axe, Eugene."


The failure of our vows is lamentable. The failure of our officers and courts is lamentable. It is the failure of our orthodoxy that most needs to be lamented. I do not mean our failure in this singular instance on one of the ten commandments, on liberty of conscience or on the means of grace. These are in fact fundamental theological points. Men can quickly adduce local evidence and anecdotes as arguments that Jesus Calling is an anomaly in the PCA.


Jesus Calling is a litmus test of our functional orthodoxy as a denomination-- not what we say, not what we advertise, not what we require in exams, not what we coach weak candidates into professing on the floor of presbytery so we pass them as "teachable" and "ready to get depth in practice." Functional orthodoxy is not PR, or words that mimic unity.


Jesus Calling demonstrates the kind of theology that can thrive among us. It surely has been met with parochial rejection, but this scandal has not provoked anything more (my own particular failure). Our functional orthodoxy is what we actually send out into the world. It is not what we carefully demonstrate and annotate, as we articulate how our convictions are the best-er-est ideas held by people who take Scripture as their standard. Our titular orthodoxy deserves our distrust. Our theological culture, our collaboration for ministry according to the Word of God, our pride in together upholding the Reformed tradition-- we should be doing a double take on all of this.


Jesus Calling was written and published and celebrated out of our ferment, not in some corner. In point of fact, the book has a stellar PCA Curriculum Vitae, except for the freaky stuff in the bullet points about encountering and adopting and taming the occult practice of automatic writing. I strongly recommend that you read the obituary in Christianity Today, rather than that online from ByFaith. It does not entirely conceal the spooky stuff, while it lionizes Young in a way that is plausible. The narrative is there.


She came to faith in Christ after exhausting the possibilities of Philosophy in her elite undergraduate education at Wellesley College. We respect that. It is a kind of empiricism, but similar to systematic theology-- sorting, testing, finding insufficient the big ideas. She went to L'Abri, the most respected L'Abri, before Francis Schaeffer died. She earned a Masters in Counseling from the PCA's denominational seminary. She was trained under our orthodoxy.


She served as a missionary with the denominational mission agency, Mission To The World. That means she was vetted, looked up and down for practice and theology as a worker for the gospel in Japan. It was not a good-faith assumption of soundness but a credential. Like all the PCA's career missionaries, she benefited from regular enrichment under the care of MTW. Her husband was a PCA Teaching Elder, Missionary and Church Planter.


Jesus Calling did not come from an isolated heart that merely attended worship in the PCA week to week. She was theologically trained by the PCA. She exercised the counseling ministry for which she trained and received ongoing investment and nurture under the attention of MTW. This wicked book was nurtured by the PCA's orthodoxy.


Again, that should make us suspicious-- not of our subordinate standards, not of some individuals, but of our actual shared theological conscience and conversation. When we repent in keeping with our responsibility for Jesus Calling, we will then need to seek repentance from the functional orthodoxy that made us 25 years too late. We must take seriously how the living and true God works grace in his church.


But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined

so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

1 Corinthians 11:3


Lament and Repent!

The PCA in the recent past has confessed the sins of our great-grandfathers in the 1860s and our fathers in the 1960s. We have redoubled our attention to remedy callousness, particularly towards the second table of the law, under the heinous cover of racism. Can the same be done for the first table of the law? Although retaining the pedagogical exception to the Second Commandment and the recreations exception to the Fourth Commandment, can we confess the sin of our fathers and brothers and ourselves over the last 25 years?


Can we take action to repudiate Jesus Calling, and confess our sin as a denomination? Are we willing to be despised, because our self-accusation will likely draw the ire and consternation of the many who cleave to the book and the practices of piety it fosters? Are we willing to encourage the watching world, the other communions and ourselves to question our theological wholesomeness? Can we seek from God correction-- not on several important points but something more pervasive and not yet understood by us?


Someone should write an overture. That action is to be commended. We put forward overtures regularly. We pass some. What is an overture without a symphony?


It is proof that the composer has good ideas and skill, but can't hear the music which makes an orchestra live up to its reputation. Can the PCA make grand music, or are our overtures actually just high-brow three and half minute pop songs? Do we have the shared love of music that transforms sheet notation into the living unity of so many different instruments?







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Guest
Feb 01

May God bless this man for writing these words of truth.

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