Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).

The biggest problem with good Christian books about sex… is the lack of them.

I don’t mean that Christians don’t write about sex. We have, and we do. But our writing tends to be thin and simplistic. Christian writers have mostly failed to engage the significant cultural narratives about sexuality and personhood that frame the context for modern thinking. As Jonathan Grant puts it, something about our cultural moment “makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naïve and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians.” And THAT’S the problem the church needs to tackle. Generally speaking, we do provide moral instruction. But that moral instruction is often divorced from a coherent narrative framework that makes it meaningful.

That’s the gap Grant seeks to fill with his excellent book Divine Sex (Brazos Press, 2015). It’s a thoughtful book, a meaningful book, even a compelling book (as its subtitle claims). Why? Because Grant deeply understands both the biblical vision of sexuality and the modern cultural context in which we are seeking to live out that vision.

The basic conviction of this book is that Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship. This creates both challenges and opportunities for discipleship. The first part of the book considers the following questions: what is the modern self, and how does it approach sexual relationships? How has our cultural moment shaped what we think and do in this area? Having identified the signs of the times and their influence, the second part will propose an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for a practical model of formation, one that integrates issues relating to sexuality and relationships (Grant, 25).

In other words, Grant is going to place his discussion of sexuality within the larger category of personhood. Sex is something that persons do, and so our vision of sexuality is integrally bound up with our understanding of the self. Set within that context, it becomes clear that a counter-cultural vision of selfhood is crucial to a Christian sexual ethic.

Part One of Grant’s book, titled “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” sets out to name the cultural influences that shape the modern self and therefore the modern vision of sexuality. By drawing heavily upon academic sociological research, Grant makes this part of his book almost unassailable – this is just the way things are, and the studies prove it. He focuses on five features of our cultural landscape that shape our thinking about sex:

  • Individualism: We live in a “culture of authenticity” which encourages us to create our own beliefs and express our own unique identity. Because we are shaped by individualism, we find ourselves caught between intimacy and autonomy, unable to sustain deep commitments for fear that they will keep us from being “true to ourselves.”
  • Freedom: We have been taught to understand freedom as unrestricted, unrestrained personal choice. Because of this (mistaken) thinking, we are caught in the “freedom trap,” desiring total autonomy and self-determination, but cut off from the mentorship and deep friendship that can actually help us grow into full maturity.
  • Consumerism: Modern capitalism trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse. Under the influence of consumerism, people and relationships become commodities. “What we do with things, we will inevitably do with people.”
  • Hypersexuality: Our culture has reduced sexuality to sex. This causes us to use sex as a “happiness technology,” emptying sex of its deeper meaning and losing our ability for relational intimacy. In a porn-ified world, “We become performers and consumers rather than genuine participants.”
  • The Loss of Transcendence: The naturalistic, scientific view of the world as a closed system has undercut our sense of meaning or purpose in the universe. We live with a “low horizon.” Because of this loss of transcendence, we lack a coherent vision for life and for sexuality, and we are left with the narrow utilitarian goal of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. We see relationships as transactional. “Our bodies become pleasure machines.”

This section of the book isn’t exactly encouraging. The mal-formative sexual influences around us are many and powerful, and Grant describes them cogently. After reading his bleak portrayal, readers will be ready to embrace a deeper, more thoughtful, more holistic strategy for Christian discipleship. And that’s what Grant sets out to provide in Part Two: Charting a New Course for Christian Formation. He wants us to think in terms of counter-formation: not just teaching basic doctrine, but shaping a “Christian social imaginary” that envisions a whole different kind of life.

This second section is the brilliance of Grant’s project. Rather than focusing on simple moral instruction, Grant wants Christians to embrace the thick, coherent vision of human personhood that grounds the biblical sexual ethic and gives it meaning and significance. The Bible gives us a new vision, a new story, a new community, and new practices.

  • A New Vision: The biblical sexual ethic is rooted in a comprehensive vision of life which is eschatological (focused on the future kingdom of God), metaphysical (grounded in a vision of ultimate reality that anchors our lives now), and formational (virtue-shaping, not merely rule-following). “The Christian vision of sexuality is less like putting out ‘Do Not Walk on the Grass’ signs and more like marking out the boundaries of a field so that the game of life can be played well and with conviction… Our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it, or our commitment to live in tune with it will be brittle.”
  • A New Story: Modern culture is a powerful storyteller. It offers us a steady diet of “sexual scripts” that reinforce a particular narrative of sexuality. In contrast, Christians need to practice “narrative discipleship” – immersing ourselves in the story of the gospel in a way that counteracts our culture’s sexual scripts. “The single most important thing you can do for your family and church community may be… [to] develop a strong common story.”
  • A New Community: As ground zero for Christian counter-formation, the church needs to be a thick, deep, formative context, not just a weekly social gathering. God’s family needs to nurture its spiritual children – not just by teaching truth, but by shaping virtue and forming identity. Particularly important in this process is the role of exemplars – mature living examples who embody the faith and can provide a pattern for others to follow.
  • New Practices: Evangelical Christianity tends to under-emphasize habits and rituals. Grant quotes Richard Rohr’s quip that we don’t “think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Therefore, we need Christian counter-practices that prepare us for alternative ways of imagining and living. Disciplines such as prayer, personal Bible study, immersion in small-group community, embodied worship, and solitude help to train us for life in the kingdom. Rather than just expecting these practices to happen, the church needs to become a laboratory where these habits can be built and explored together.

As helpful as Grant’s overall vision is, the real genius of this book is in the details. A sentence here or a paragraph there will stop the reader cold and provoke an awakening of new insight. The margins of my copy are filled with scribbled exclamations like “Yes!” and “Finally!” and “This is good.” Here are a few examples:

  • Whereas contemporary culture thinks about sex mainly as an experience, Scripture and Christian tradition have always thought about it in terms of virtue or character. Christian sexuality is primarily something we are becoming rather than something we do.
  • “Chastity” is a deeply misunderstood concept today. We tend to associate it with sexual celibacy, but chastity is a virtue that relates equally to singleness and marriage; it is not directly about sex at all. Chastity is… emotional sincerity or integrity, by which we express our feelings honestly.
  • The way we disciple people within the church… sets out clear moral rules, rather than thinking about how we might become the sort of people who actually live by these convictions. The flaw in this cognitive approach is its assumption that everyone is morally mature and has the power to do whatever he or she chooses to do.

Grant’s theological vision of of singleness is beautiful and compelling. His observations about “social or affective sexuality” are amazingly perceptive. And his nuanced distinction between “desire for sex” and “sexual desire” will fuel fresh hope in those seeking to live with sexual integrity.

Last week, one of my friends went to a youth event where the speaker challenged teens toward sexual purity. It was the standard “save sex for marriage” talk. Such messages, though true and necessary, will have less and less persuasive power in the modern social imaginary – which is why we need the excellent resource Jonathan Grant has given us. If you want to talk meaningfully about sex… if you need to redeem your own thinking about sex… if you long to disciple others into a vision of Christian sexuality that’s beautiful and compelling… you need Jonathan Grant’s book on your shelf.

How do I get from text to sermon? This is the question in sermon preparation. After preaching for 15 years, I’ve developed a basic pattern that might serve as a helpful resource to others. Call it “Thune’s Template for Sermon Prep.”

In building this template I’ve unapologetically applied the insights of some of my best teachers: Chapell, Keller, Robinson, Eswine, and others. These men have taught me wonderful things about preaching, but none of them have summarized their insights in 2 pages or less. That’s my unique contribution. (See the end of this post for a downloadable PDF). I’ve also included the insights of some of my peers and “preaching friends” who have made valuable contributions to my own ministry.

All the great teachers of preaching focus on two basic disciplines: exegesis and homiletics. EXEGESIS seeks an accurate understanding and interpretation of the biblical text as received by the original audience; HOMILETICS seeks to craft an orderly, coherent, and compelling sermon for delivery.

In order to ensure Christ-centered preaching, I suggest adding gospel-centrality as a third and distinct discipline. GOSPEL-CENTRALITY seeks to anchor the text within the broader canon of Scripture, connect the sermon to God’s redeeming grace, and ensure faith in the good news as the means of transformation.


Commune with God. Enjoy personal communion with God through Bible reading and prayer. Otherwise, preaching prep becomes toilsome instead of worshipful.

Identify the Genre. Prophecy is not the same as poetry. “Every novel is a book – but not every book is a novel.” Know the genre, and know the rules for reading each biblical genre well.

Break Down the Text. Study it. Analyze its structure. Get down into its words and phrases. Identify its key sections and themes. Outline the text to ensure that your sermon is faithful to the intent of the original author.

Summarize the Big Idea. Ask: what is this passage about? Then ask: what is it saying about that topic? Bring these 2 answers together to summarize the exegetical main point or big idea of the text in one sentence.

Identify the Redemptive Need (FCF). Ask: what condition do modern hearers share with the original audience that requires the grace of this passage? How, in this text, is God addressing our:

  • Fallen Condition (our inner tendency toward temptation & evil)
  • Finite Condition (the limits of our knowledge, emotional capacity, & physical ability)
  • Fragile Condition (the effects of living in a fallen world)
  • Faltering Condition (the inconsistency between what I profess & what I embody)

Identify the Worship Themes. The goal of preaching is worship. So, how is God after our glad-hearted worship in this text? What does he reveal about himself, about us, or about redemption that should move us to worship and adoration?


What does it mean to preach a “gospel-centered” sermon? It means to relate every text to 1) our human need for redemption and 2) God’s provision of redemption through Jesus.

Here are some ways of doing this:

  • God as a Redeeming God: In texts that don’t explicitly mention Jesus, how is God revealing his plan, his purposes, and/or his reasons for redemption? How is God the hero of the story?
  • Ministry of Jesus: How does this text predict, prepare for, reflect, or result from the ministry of Jesus? Is there an obvious connection to Jesus’ person and work in the text?
  • Indicative/Imperative: What commands (imperatives) are given in the text? What keeps us from obeying those commands (be specific and nuanced here, not general)? How has Jesus obeyed in our place AND set us free from our sin & disobedience? How does resting in his work (indicative) & walking in the Holy Spirit enable us now to obey these commands with joy?
  • Resurrection Joy & Power: The gospel includes not only the crucifixion, but the resurrection & ascension. How does Jesus’ victory over Satan, sin, and death – and his sending of the Holy Spirit – bring the joy and power we need to live as his faithful people?
  • Jesus as Satisfaction: What core human need does the text raise? How can I get the audience to FEEL that need, and then show how Jesus satisfies it?
  • Greatness of Christ: How does this text reveal the wonder & excellence of Jesus? How can I help my hearers experience the greatness of Christ so that they are changed on the spot and moved to worship?
  • A gospel-centered sermon should expound Christ (tell about him), adore Christ (show why he is worthy of love, allegiance, worship), and apply Christ (show people how their problems result from idolatry and unbelief, and how worship is the answer).

The biggest mistake novice preachers make is to reduce the gospel to “justification by grace through faith.” The gospel is not less than that; but it is much more than that. Bryan Chapell is helpful: “So long as the preacher explains ways in which God uses a text to reveal his own plan, purposes, and/or reasons for redemption, the sermon leads listeners away from human-centered religiosity… God [must be] the hero of every text.”


Answer the “So What?” Question. Imagine a skeptic sitting in the audience and asking, “So what? What difference does this make?” A clear answer to that question is the key to a powerful sermon.

Establish a Thesis for the Sermon. There are two ways to go about this.

  1. State the thesis as a proposition, containing a subject and a predicate. The best propositions “implicate the hearer” (that is, they demand a response): “Here’s what is true; therefore, here’s what we must do.” For example: “Because Jesus is Lord, we must obey him.”
  2. State the thesis as a memorable catch-phrase that has “sticking power.” For example: “Dead people don’t choose.”

Identify Defeater Beliefs. What might keep people from embracing this biblical truth? Are there cultural assumptions I need to confront? Are there existential questions I need to address? Are there confusing statements in the passage that I need to unpack?

Create a Preaching Outline. Start with a broad skeleton: an introduction that states the thesis, 2 or 3 main points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Then add content under each point to fill out the outline. Always keep your audience in mind here. What will help them most? What do they need in order to be convinced of your thesis? What needs to be left out?

Add Color. What illustrations, stories, or personal self-disclosure would make each point more memorable? How could I use humor to further the goal of this sermon?

Rethink Your Application. Go back to the “so what” question. Why are you preaching this? What does the Holy Spirit want us to think/feel/do as a result? Application is not a part of your sermon; it is your sermon. So: Does your sermon challenge the mind (lie vs. truth)? Does it provoke the heart (unbelief vs. belief)? Does it move hands to action (disobedience vs. faithful obedience)? (Some sermons tap all 3 of these categories; others focus primarily on one).

Cut Some Stuff. Less is more. Dr. Richard Pratt says: “You can’t say everything every time you say something, or you’ll say nothing anytime you say anything.”

Signpost. As you transition from one point to the next, make clear statements of transition. These can be as obvious as: “That’s point one; moving on now to point 2…” The listening ear needs to know when to mentally shift from one part of the sermon to the next.

Remember the Three Keys to a Good Sermon. Will Walker suggests that every memorable sermon leverages three key elements:

  • Tension (you pulled me in and kept my interest); this generally belongs in the introduction, because tension seeks resolution and therefore creates anticipation.
  • Insight (you helped me see something I hadn’t seen before); this generally belongs in the body of the sermon, showing how the text helps explain or resolve the tension.
  • Emotion (you made me feel something); this generally belongs in the illustrations & application within each main point, causing the audience to think/feel/do something in the moment.

Here’s a 2-page downloadable PDF of this template which you’ll find more visually appealing and compact than a blog post.

failure_of_nerveOne of the most insightful leadership books I’ve read in the past few years is Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve. Recently I created a short summary of the book’s insights to share with some emerging leaders in Coram Deo.

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman (New York: Church Publishing, 2007)


Edwin Friedman (d. 1996) served for 20 years as a pulpit rabbi and for 25 years as an organizational consultant & family therapist in the Washington DC area. He also served in the Lyndon Johnson administration. His unique experience allowed him to observe leadership – and its problems – in the family, the church, and the political sphere.


The real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.


Friedman’s understanding of leadership hinges on the idea of emotional process. Every family and every institution has an implicit emotional/relational environment, and a way of operating within that environment. Good leadership has less to do with skill, data, technique, or knowledge, and more to do with a leader’s ability to discern and navigate the emotional and relational climate of a family or organization.


The key variable in leadership is a leader’s presence. Rather than focusing on technique or know-how, we need to focus on the leader’s own presence and being. Throughout his work Friedman speaks of the importance of a “well-differentiated leader.” Here’s what he means:

  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realizes that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.

These characteristics of unhealthy emotional systems are easily seen in families; but Friedman suggests that this sort of chronic anxiety is a defining characteristic of our whole culture. “The climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership… This kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.”

Friedman asserts that a leader’s job is to be “the strength in the system.” Families, groups, and institutions have “emotional fields” (like magnetic fields or gravitational fields). The leader’s self-differentiation, or lack thereof, has an effect on the emotional field. Leaders will either take on the chronic anxiety of the system, or they will transform that anxiety by their calm, steady, well-defined presence.

Here are some reflection questions to help apply Friedman’s insights:

  1. Describe the emotional climate of a) your family of origin; b) your workplace; c) your gospel community.
  2. In what ways are you a well-differentiated leader? In what ways are you NOT a well-differentiated leader?
  3. If you saw leadership as primarily about your presence, not about skill or technique or know-how – what would change?
  4. If leadership is primarily about presence, how does that change the sort of growth or transformation you seek as a leader?
  5. How would a gospel perspective (idolatry, identity, worship, repentance-and-faith) add even deeper nuance to Friedman’s insights?

Last week the Obama administration handed down from on high a transgender bathroom decree directing schools to allow transgendered students unrestrained access to restrooms (and locker rooms) of their choice. Last night the Omaha school board voted to approve a sweeping new sex education curriculum that adds gender identity, abortion, and emergency contraception to the list of topics students will learn about. In my opinion, these mandates place a crucial fork-in-the-road before Christian parents, Christian administrators, and Christian teachers.

Broadly speaking, education is a place where Christians have freedom of conscience. Parents are responsible before God to fulfill their God-given duty of training up a child in the way that he should go, and the Bible leaves them free to choose from various means of education. I’m thankful that within Coram Deo Church, we have families pursuing public school, private school, and homeschool options. We also have members who are educators and administrators in schools throughout the city.

However, the massive falsehoods being forced upon us in the area of human sexuality require us to ask some hard questions and to engage in some important debates about education. And that’s easier said than done. Education is an issue that many people have deep convictions about, and emotions run high. But because of the dramatic importance of the spiritual and moral formation of the next generation, I think it’s a conversation we need to wade into as graciously and courageously as possible. I have three questions I wish to put before my readers.

First, for Christian teachers and administrators: how will you steward your influence at this moment in history? If you’re a Christian teacher or administrator in the public school system, I know that mission is a driving motivation for you. You work against the grain in a system committed to secularism because you know the value of Christians serving in hard places, and you want to be “salt and light” as Jesus taught. My question is: will you see this moment as a chance for a different sort of mission? Will you see this as your Esther moment, your Daniel moment, your Moses moment? Will you use the platform, influence, and position God has given you to stand up against this dramatic, immoral, ungodly government overreach?

Second, for Christian parents who currently send their children to public schools: what is your tipping point? This is a question very helpfully posed by Andrew T Walker in an online editorial posted on May 13. Walker writes:

What actions taken by your local school will be sufficient for you to re-evaluate public education? Is having a teacher reprimand your child for his or her belief about marriage, sex, and gender acceptable? Will you allow them to be in schools where bathroom policies are based on gender identity rather than biological sex? Are you uncomfortable with a biological male having access to the restroom and locker room that your daughter uses? Not establishing a tipping point could leave your child over-exposed to environments they shouldn’t be in. Not thinking about a tipping point is irresponsible and will communicate carelessness about a child’s education and Christian formation. It is advisable that spouses have a candid conversation and establish a line in the sand.

Third, for all Christian parents: are you practicing wise financial stewardship? Christian families need to maintain freedom to change schools if necessary. As Andrew Walker points out, there may come a “tipping point” where Christians cannot in good conscience continue to send their children to local schools (and discerning that tipping point will be specific to family and school district). I fear that for many Christian parents, financial pragmatism is a driving force in educational decisions. “Well,” the logic goes, “I could spend thousands of dollars to send my kids to a Christian school, or I could send them to the local public school for free. In light of the financial strains I already have, I’ll send them to public school.” I understand the thinking. We all have limited financial resources, and private education isn’t cheap. But the education of our children is more important than the neighborhood we live in, the car we drive, and the retirement savings we accrue. Every Christian family needs to create the financial margin to make a different schooling decision if (or when) it comes to that. I have seen Christian parents skimp and save to buy a new house. I have seen Christian men start companies or switch industries to increase their earning potential. I have seen Christian moms start home-based businesses to provide additional income so they can stay home with their kids. Whatever solution you brainstorm… now, not later, is the time to figure it out. Kill debt. Increase earning. Trim expenses. Get yourself in a place of financial freedom so that your schooling decision can truly be a decision rather than a default.

Finally, for any jaded cynic out there who thinks this bathroom decree is “no big deal:” check your spiritual pulse. Maleness and femaleness are foundational to the image of God in humanity. Willful disregard of sex and gender distinctions is a massive offense against God and good sense. And a civilization that willingly misleads and confuses its children on these matters is committing cultural suicide (if you doubt that, check out this video of college students unable to explain the difference between male and female). Christian mission in these new dark ages will require a moral conviction and clarity that many of us seem reticent to display. May God awaken us from our moral slumber.

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith Brazos Press, 2016
You Are What You Love
by James K.A. Smith
Brazos Press, 2016

“I now feel that almost everything I have written about liturgy in the past amounts to reinventing the wheel.” So wrote Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff after reading, late in his career, a work by Abraham Kuyper on worship.

Such are my own sentiments about James K.A. Smith’s newest book You Are What You Love. This book isn’t new content; it’s a re-working (at a much more accessible and popular level) of the theological ideas Smith put forward in Desiring the Kingdom (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (2013). For over a decade I’ve been writing, preaching, and speaking about spiritual formation, liturgy, and discipleship – and I now realize I’ve largely been reinventing the wheel. Or maybe, to be slightly more generous, I’ve been intuitively sensing gaps and longings that Smith quite deftly elucidates, clarifies, and synthesizes.

James K.A. Smith is a scholarly academic who writes like a pastor. Like Peter Kreeft or J.I. Packer or Tom Wright, his mind clips along comfortably in the world of high-level academic philosophy, but his soul resonates with the ordinary church member. He possesses a unique skill in bringing these two worlds together. This book is perhaps his most successful attempt yet to land his insights about worship, culture, and spiritual formation in the living room of the average church member.

It’s not often that a book will change your next trip to the mall. This book will. It will also change your next college football game, your next PTA meeting, and your next family meal. I can’t say much more than that without a spoiler alert. But you’ll find a clue to the book’s argument in the subtitle: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Smith wants his readers to see that “liturgy” is not confined to the walls of the church. We are shaped by what we repeatedly do – and the culture around us is seeking to form us every day through “secular liturgies” that seep into our bones and shape our ultimate concerns without us even knowing it. Once our eyes are opened to the formative nature of these practices, we begin to see how idolatry is more caught than taught. And we begin to see more fully what it means for us to live in light of the gospel story. We are not “brains on a stick” who just need to embrace a Christian worldview; we are loving, desiring, worshiping beings who need our loves reoriented.

In a sense, You Are What You Love is an introduction to the Smithian corpus. Most of the insights in this book are worked out in greater detail in one of Smith’s other works. At a very basic level, Smith is seeking to change how the Christian church in America understands its task. You Are What You Love is a populist manifesto toward that end. This book begs to be read and discussed by every Christian and every church leader. It’s probably too much to say that the renewal of the church in America depends on these insights; but it’s certainly true that if we ignore them, renewal will be that much more elusive.

Consider these compelling chapter titles:

  • You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
  • You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read “Secular” Liturgies
  • The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic Worship for a Postmodern Age
  • What Story Are You In? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
  • Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
  • Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
  • You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies

If you’re looking for robust criticism of this work, you’ll have to look elsewhere; I resonate too deeply with the book’s premise to focus on its possible flaws. As Smith’s work gains traction and readership among American Christians, I imagine others will build upon the foundation he’s laying (or more accurately, the foundation Augustine laid). The book does leave some gaps; for instance, it fails to consider the formative nature of small-group discipleship. Smith focuses so strongly on the gathered worship of the church that he tends to blunt the importance of gospel-formation in smaller communities within the church. This and other weaknesses are forgivable, however, because this book succeeds so well at its primary purpose: returning us to a discipleship that shapes what we love, not just what we think.