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Theological Foundations of Software Development

HT: Special thanks to my teammates at Crossway, who have made significant contributions to my thoughts on this topic and who model these principles for me on a daily basis, and to Andy Geers at PrayerMate who pointed me to John Dyer’s book and helped me think through a lot of these issues.


Software development is one of the newest and fastest growing forms of work, with no sign of that growth slowing down. As a generation of Christians enter this field, I want to help them – and all of us – to think theologically about how this role fits within God’s purposes in the world and what it means to be a software developer as a Christian. Here are seven principles that can serve as a theological foundation for software development.

1. Creation Mandate

When God created humanity He created us in His image and commanded us to “fill the earth and subdue it.” God rules over His creation, and we engage with the world as sub-creators (fill it) and vice-rulers (subdue it). J. R. R. Tolkien said that it is as if the single white light of God is refracted through each of us into a myriad other colors in our many “sub-creations.” This perspective requires that we view the Christian life through a wide-angle lens. It is not only pastors and missionaries who do God’s work in the world but also those who build and develop, extending God’s creation in obedience to His creation mandate.

Every morning my wife and I recite something we call the Children’s Creed with our daughter. One line in the creed says that God “made my hands to build, create, and help others.” This is the foundation for all of a Christian software developer’s work. The biblical worldview sees most actions as morally neutral in and of themselves, placing the emphasis on the motivations behind them. Is it right to speak? It depends on the words, the context, and our motivations. Is it right to give money? Again it depends on the context and our motivations. Similarly software development is not good or bad in and of itself, but our motivations for doing software development are extremely important. A key first step is to view software development as an extension of God’s work in creation, performed in obedience to our command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” This perspective frames everything that follows.

2. Bringing Order to Chaos

One of the first truths that the Bible teaches about God is that God is a God of order. An ancient creation story known as the Enuma Elish presents creation as an accidental event where one god viciously rips another god in two, and the blood of the defeated god rains down to create the world as we know it. By contrast, the Bible presents God as following a clear and orderly plan of creation – step by step, day by day. God’s creation is creation ex nihilo (creating something out of nothing) turning the chaos of nothingness into an orderly something. When creation falls apart into chaotic evil, God sends a flood to wipe out His creation and start anew (software developers call this a ground-up rewrite!). God gives Israel the Law, and He gives the Church orderly guidelines on church government, mission, ministry, and worship. The Bible teaches that behind the apparent whirlwind of events throughout human history, God is providentially working all things for good and for a single purpose, like a chess master planning and ordering each move. God is a God of order.

A significant amount of time spent in software development involves bringing order to chaos. To begin with, software development may be the closest that humans can come to creation ex nihilo. In the beginning of a project there is nothing but an idea. No raw materials to be formed or reworked—merely the chaotic nothingness of an idea. Then the developer creates something out of the nothingness. But every developer who has worked on a mature project, often referred to as “legacy code,” knows that chaos creeps into code, and the developer must continually “refactor” existing code, reworking it to fit with new requirements or updated conventions. The Boy Scouts have a well-known rule that you should always leave a campsite cleaner than you found it. In the book Clean Code Robert Martin says that developers should follow the Boy Scouts rule, always leaving the code cleaner than they found it. This is a wise principle for any developer, but for Christians specifically this flows from the very nature of our God who brings order from chaos. Clean code and good software architecture reflect the God in whose image we are made.

3. Beauty

On April 15, 2019 the world watched in horror as the Notre-Dame cathedral burned. I remember sitting with my eyes fixed on the screen, feeling an overwhelming sense of loss for a building I had never seen and had never really cared about before. Why did I and so many others experience such sadness over the cathedral fire? Because human beings are made in the image of the God who embodies and appreciates beauty, and we are deeply affected by beauty. One of our deepest longings is “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps 27:4). But even earthly beauties strike us at our core—the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Ancient philosophers spoke of the three “transcendentals” of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Each of these is perfectly embodied by God, and each is of the utmost importance to us. But of the three it is beauty that affects us most deeply. We simply are not moved by something that is true or good in quite the same way that we are moved by something that is beautiful.

For software developers this has important implications for the centrality of good UI/UX design. An app that is true (functions reliably) and morally good but is not beautiful will not capture or engage its audience as it could. More importantly there seems to be an intrinsic deficiency with this sort of app. When the Lord created the universe He designed the Pinwheel Galaxy, the Medusa Nebula, and the rings of Saturn. When He created the earth He crafted the Swiss Alps, the Grand Canyon, the Redwood tree, and the colors of a sunset. When He arranged for the construction of the tabernacle He called the skilled craftsman Bezalel and filled him “with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs” (Exod 31:1-5). Beautiful design is intrinsic to the Lord’s creations, and we should seek to the best of our ability to incorporate it into ours as well.

4. Writing Fallen Code

The fourth principle may seem obvious, but it is crucial that we admit and embrace it: we write fallen code. The Fall corrupted everything, including our ability to write code and the very code that we write. If you are a software developer, take a moment to imagine what it would be like to write perfect code in a perfect world. We would never have bugs. We would never write tests. We would never request code reviews. Just type it and ship it and forget about it. But this is not the world we live in. When people ask what I do for a living, I often like to joke that I make software bugs. That’s the reality of being a software developer. There are a lot of bugs out there, and some of them are yours.

Since we write fallen code, this means that we must have code reviews. If we know from the outset that our code is going to contain bugs, why would we send it straight to our users without having another developer review it first? Code reviews are necessary in a fallen world. So are unit tests. We write fallen code now, and we will write fallen code in the future. Unit tests provide some means of correcting the errors within our current code and preventing against errors in future code. Still some errors will make it to the user, as every software developer knows all too well. Admittedly many app developers find a sort of dark amusement in reading some of the more colorful negative reviews of the apps we work on. Although we take these reports seriously and seek to correct them, we also have to approach them with a humor and humility that admits our own imperfections. One of my favorite reviews I’ve seen is for a Bible app that I worked on which referred to the developers as the “daughter of Satan!” While this may be a bit extreme, we do write fallen code. Admit it, embrace it, and toil against it by whatever means possible.

5. Love Your Neighbor

In Dan Doriani’s excellent book Work he shares a story of an interior designer who loves most of her work with the exception of one aspect. She says that she does that part of her job not because she enjoys it but because her clients need her to do it, and so she does it as a means of loving her neighbor. When I read that story I immediately closed the book and wrote a note on an index card that sits on my desk to this day – “Love your neighbor: fix some bugs.” I love almost every aspect of software development, but I do not enjoy the process of finding and fixing bugs. I joke with my coworkers that I get paid to fix bugs – everything else I would do for free! But as a Christian I have a more important reason to fix bugs. The people who use the apps that I work on are negatively affected by bugs in those apps, and so fixing these bugs is a tangible way for me to love my neighbor as myself. I hate bugs in the apps I use too. Shouldn’t I do unto others as I would have them do unto me?

I know many software developers who find bug fixing to be the most enjoyable aspect of their work. But there is almost certainly some aspect of software development that every developer finds less enjoyable than others. Maybe it is meeting accessibility standards for those with visual or other impairments. Maybe it is optimization to make sure your app doesn’t drain a user’s battery. Maybe it is writing detailed documentation around an API endpoint. Maybe it is a significant amount of refactoring needed to deliver quality features in the future. Maybe it is creating acceptance tests. Maybe it is polishing off a screen design, or doing the user research required to really improve UX (user experience). Whatever the specific aspect may be for you, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that we are called to a higher standard. Everyone is our neighbor, and we are called to help even at significant inconvenience to ourselves. So if you are a software developer, love your neighbor and fix some bugs.

6. My Brother’s Keeper

In Genesis 4 when God asks Cain where his brother Abel is, Abel responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Although the reply is sarcastic the question is a valuable one, and the biblical response is, “Yes.” Old Testament Law required anyone building a house to build a short wall called a parapet around the perimeter of the roof to prevent neighbors from falling off and injuring themselves (Deut 22:8). The New Testament says that although we are free to eat meat from pagan temples, we should not do so if it causes our brother to stumble (1 Cor 8). An extension of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is to actively seek to avoid harming your neighbor in any way.

John Dyer makes an important point in From the Garden to the City that applies this principle to the work of software developers. He notes that when we use technology it is not only the content that forms us but the technology itself. I have come to refer to this as the “Twitter Effect” after an example that Dyer provides. He contrasts two Twitter users, one whose feed is filled with theologically rich content and another whose feed is filled with moral trash. We all know that the different content will form these users in different ways. But after months of using Twitter extensively, both users may find that they have a shorter attention span, that they are more attracted to provocative headlines than to thought-provoking content, and that they have developed “restless thumb syndrome,” constantly scrolling in moments of boredom. Although the content has shaped the users differently, the technology itself has shaped them in the same way.

As a software developer this is an important and sobering realization. Even if I am developing a Bible app – the highest possible content – I still have to ask how the technology itself is affecting the people who use it. What parapets do I need to build within my app? How might some proposed feature cause a user to stumble? As an example, suppose I am developing a prayer app and am considering adding a “prayer streak” feature to track how many days in a row the user has prayed. This could be a great incentive to nudge people to pray daily. But it could also subtly turn prayer into a sort of game where the user prays daily for the same reason she plays Candy Crush daily. If this happens then my prayer app could actually be harmful to her relationship with the Lord. As a developer I have a moral obligation to consider these weighty implications of the products I develop. James writes that not many of us should become teachers since teachers will be judged by a higher standard (James 3:1). Ultimately this is not about teaching per se but about influence. And software developers have a tremendous amount of influence on people through the technologies we develop. We should not take this responsibility lightly.

7. Glorify God

“What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Software developers have many goals. We aim to create beautiful, useful software that makes a positive contribution to the lives of the people who use it. We aim to develop exciting new features that our users aren’t even aware they wanted until they see them. We aim to make our software efficient, stable, and easy to work with. But as Christian software developers our overarching goal — our “chief end” — is to glorify and enjoy God. This is not something that we do in addition to software development but through software development. Our work is one of the many avenues by which we glorify God.

One practical way to keep this front of mind is to bathe your software development in prayer. Facing ambiguous design decisions? Complex architectural choices? Hiring decisions? Roadmap planning? Debugging difficulties? “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Refuse to buy into the world’s lie that you are enough. Remind yourself daily that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). Christian software developers, admit your dependence on the Lord, and write your code to the glory of God.

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Family Worship

Our family added a new daily routine at the beginning of 2021: family worship time! If you don’t have this as a daily routine in your home already, I cannot recommend it highly enough. We’ve wanted to do this for a while but weren’t sure what to actually do. And to be honest it just seemed like it would be awkward. But it has come to be our absolute favorite part of each day. I hope that this post will encourage you to add this routine in your own home and provides some tips to get started.

The What

What do I mean by “family worship?” Worship in general refers to the way that we praise and encounter God. We do this on Sunday mornings in church, which we call corporate worship. We do this in daily quiet times, which could be called “private worship.” Family worship is simply praising and encountering God as a family, in a time that we have intentionally set aside for this purpose. For much of Christian history it has been a core piece of Christian family life.

The Why

Why should you add family worship time to your daily routine? Let me give three reasons. First, regular family worship time provides a way to model your faith by worshipping in front of your kids. This is especially true if your church, like ours, has children’s classes during your Sunday morning worship. If your kids are not with you during Sunday morning worship then they may never see you publicly worship God during their childhood. Family worship provides a time for your children to watch you worship and learn what it means to pause to praise God.

Second, family worship provides an intentional time to make worship part of your family life. Deuteronomy 6:7 says that parents are to “teach [the words of God] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Our faith cannot be confined to Sunday worship and midweek church activities. We are to constantly be seeking to form our children in the ways of faith. As a parent, this is the highest calling in your life. Family worship helps us to steward this responsibility well.

Third, a daily routine of family worship provides accountability for you and your spouse to worship the Lord. I have to confess, I miss my daily devotional times more often than my family misses family worship. Because making time for family worship doesn’t depend only on me. Most days I announce that it is family worship time. Many days it is my wife. Some days our three year old daughter Lydia is the first to remind us. We’re in it together, and even on the days when I’m tempted to skip it, I’m always glad when we make time for family worship.

The How

So how do you actually go about doing family worship? It’s Tuesday evening, you’ve eaten dinner, and it’s time for family worship… now what? First, keep it short. Our family worship time is typically 5-10 minutes. The benefit you gain from family worship is not to be found in any one evening but in the habit itself. Not in this Tuesday evening’s worship but in doing family worship every Tuesday evening. We are formed not just by the content but by the habit itself.

So what do you do during family worship? Read, sing, and pray. First, read a story from an age-appropriate Bible. For older children this may be an actual Bible, but for younger children it may be a children’s Bible. (I recommend the Jesus Storybook Bible, or for toddlers we’ve used The Beginner’s Bible Bedtime Collection). We end our reading time with a short prayer response to the story (“Thank you God for sending David to be Israel’s hero and save them from Goliath. And thank you for sending Jesus to be our hero and save us from sin. Amen.”)

Next, sing. Pick a song that everyone knows. For us this has usually been Jesus Loves Me, or sometimes Jesus Thank You. If you have a piano or guitar to play along with, fantastic. If not then you can play a YouTube video of the song and sing along with it together. We’ve done both. Most nights Lydia “plays the piano” while we sing together. It’s not a production, it’s family worship, so do whatever works for your family. But please don’t skip it. Singing is a great way to worship, and singing in family worship is a great way to model this for your kids.

After you sing, pray. For our family worship prayers we all hold hands while I pray. In my prayer I thank God for a few things from our day (our family, church teachers, sunny days to play) and for something related to our Bible reading (“Thank you for forgiving the people in Nineveh after you sent Jonah to them”) and ask him for our daily needs. Depending on how the day has been, this may be a prayer for good sleep or for help being kind to each other tomorrow.

But What About…

Won’t it be awkward? This was my concern. It just seemed weird, and I was positive that singing as a family would be awkward. My encouragement is that it feels more awkward for you than it will for your kids. Your kids don’t know any better. It’s awkward for you because it’s not your “normal.” But whatever you do in your home will become the “normal” for your kids.

I don’t have enough time. If you don’t have time for a daily family worship time then aim for 5 days a week or 3 days a week or 1 day each week. Even one day a week adds up to hundreds of formative family worship times over the span of a childhood.

My kids won’t sit still that long. We have a three year old with two modes: Go and Sleep. We get it. Three thoughts here. First, expect some wiggling. It’s going to happen. Second, set boundaries. We have a “family worship blanket” that we are required to stay on during family worship time. A few times a week we have to enforce this rule, but having a physical boundary makes this easier. Third, remember that the main goal is the habit, not tonight’s worship time. If your kids are so wiggly that you aren’t sure they heard a word you said, it’s OK. They’ll be there again tomorrow.

I’ll end with a line from Donald Whitney’s book on Family Worship: Isn’t this what you really want to do? It might feel a little awkward at first, it might require sacrificing some time, and it might be frustrating some days to get your kids to sit still that long. But don’t you really want to have a regular routine of intentionally worshiping God as a family? For your kids to learn from you each night what it looks like to worship God? What a fantastic way to steward the high calling of parenting that God has given to us as the primary disciplers of our children. It is my hope and prayer that you would add this rhythm to your family life and find it as richly rewarding as we have.

What is Your Family’s Normal?

In his book Habits of the Household Justin Whitmel Earley notes, “One of the most significant things about any household is what is considered to be normal.”

I would encourage you to set aside some time to reflect on three questions.

1. What is considered to be normal in our household?

How would you honestly answer this question? How would your spouse or your kids? Is it hurry? A TV always on in the background? Saying a prayer before meals? A messy house? A clean house? A steady stream of bickering? Laughter? Reading books? Daily exercise? Dessert every night? Bedtime prayers?

2. What do I want to be considered normal in our household?

When we started family worship times last year, it was a little awkward for me and for my wife. It felt weird to sing together in our living room. We both grew up in wonderful Christian families, but neither of our families had a routine family worship time. But do you know who it has never been awkward for? Our daughter Lydia. She doesn’t know any better—this is just what our family does. So take some time to dream. In a perfect world, what would you want to be considered normal in your household?

3. What small habits could we add that would help us move from the first picture to the second?

This is the hard part, and the fun part. Imagine that you are planning a backpacking trip around Europe. You can’t just step out your front door and go. It takes planning. Which cities will you stop in? Which sights do you want to see? Will you sleep in hotels or hostels or AirBnBs? Will you rent a car or take the train? The dream of backpacking around Europe is an achievable one, but only if you plan out the small steps in advance. That is what our habits are. They are the small steps that take us from where we are to where we want to be. So look at where you are, think about where you want to be, and ask yourself what small habits you can start incorporating into your family’s life to get there.

A Simple Morning Liturgy with Small Children

At the beginning of 2021 we added a new daily family routine of family worship. Every evening (well, most evenings) we sit down as a family to read the Bible, sing, and pray.

At the beginning of 2022 we have added another daily routine that we call “morning liturgy.” A liturgy is simply a structured form of worship. In church worship services this may look like a time of “responsive reading” or reciting the Apostles Creed together. Many “liturgical” churches have their entire worship service structured in this way.

Our family morning liturgy is extremely simple. With a four year old and a seven month old, it has to be! There are only two parts. First we recite the Children’s Creed together, and then I say a simple memorized prayer over our family.

Children’s Creed

The Children’s Creed is a fantastic resource that was given to us by our children’s ministry. (I believe they said that it originally came from The Village Church, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere online).

My name is _____ and I am a (boy/girl) made in God’s image for his glory.

He made my mind to know and learn more about Him and all that He created.

He made my eyes to be fixed on him, the author and perfecter of our faith.

He made my ears to listen and obey.

He made my mouth to praise Him and build others up.

He made my heart to love Him

He made my hands to build, create, and help others.

He made my feet to walk, run, and tell the whole world about Jesus.

He made the whole world, and everything in it belongs to Him.

Prayer

Then I say this simple prayer.

Heavenly Father, please let us glorify you and enjoy you today. Help us to be kind, creative, and courageous. Help us to love you and love other people. Amen.

That’s all there is to it. Never underestimate the power of simple but consistent practices.

Quotes from “Family Discipleship”

The Family That Disciples

“Your family is the primary instrument and environment for discipleship in the life of your child, and your calling in this life is to give the discipleship of your home your unique best” (29)

“Family discipleship is the important and mostly ordinary spiritual leadership of your home” (30)

“Family discipleship is indoctrination, teaching the doctrines and worldview of God as laid out in his word without yielding to the contrary opinions of the world or apologizing for the potential offensiveness of that truth” (31)

Modeling

“Caring for your own soul is the first step. Your spiritual health is imperative to the health of your family” (65)

“A major factor of your integrity will be your ability to repent quickly, easily, and thoroughly” (69)

“Praying with, for, and in front of your kids are all important parts of family discipleship modeling” (75)

Time

“Whatever you teach your children should be backed up by and saturated in the word of God” (89)

“Make family discipleship time normal. Doing your unique best at making these times happen regularly will be an important part of your faith legacy. Be relentlessly consistent” (95)

“Singing is one of the easiest ways to leave scriptural truth echoing in the life of your children” (101)

Moments

“Forgiveness can make a potentially scary parent/child moment spiritually significant” (117)

“All of our spontaneous gospel interactions are attempts to communicate and teach these two things—the characteristics of God and godly character” (117)

“A great way to be prepared for family discipleship moments in your household is to have a unified, precrafted language. Deciding on family language, values, and goals with your spouse or close community will help you be on the same page when opportunities arise” (122)

Milestones

“What all family discipleship milestones have in common is that they are all experiences that bear witness to God’s faithfulness” (136)

“The goal of a milestone is, in large part, remembrance—that you would not forget God’s rightful place in your life and all that he is doing in and through you” (137)

“Milestones are not always celebratory. How you mark the darkest and most difficult milestones will have a profound impact on your family” (141)

“Some of the most meaningful collective memories for your family may be around the hardest days you’ve faced together… Leverage those dark times to remind each other of all you have in Christ, who conquered death” (141)

Parting Encouragement

“Family discipleship does not have to be intricate or complicated. You just need a willingness to focus on the child who is in front of you, and together focus on the God who is everywhere” (155)

“Only a fool plants an acorn in the evening and comes back in the morning looking for an oak. Your work to cultivate that change will be painstaking and gradual, unfolding over a lifetime” (157)

Theology Basics Books

I would love to convince every Christian that theology is for you. Theology is not an academic subject. It stirs the heart and sharpens the mind. It helps us to better know the God we worship and better worship the God we know. But where do you start? If you are intimidated by the word theology, much less an entire book on it, this post is for you.

Below I give the top book I recommend on several important areas in theology for someone who has never read a book on the topic. Each of these books is short, easy to read, and will leave you with a deeper love for God and his Word. None of these books requires a seminary education or a brilliant mind. These are books written for the ordinary Christian in the pew, and I guarantee you will benefit from reading any one of them.

I’ve broken the list into two parts: Systematic Theology and Practical Theology. By “systematic theology” I mean the core categories of our faith like Christ, sin, the cross, or the Bible. By “practical theology” I mean issues of daily life for most of us, like prayer, marriage, parenting, or work. I hope you find these lists helpful, and I hope you will read some of the books you find here! If any of these books grabs your interest, click on the cover photo to go to the Amazon page where you can buy it.

Systematic Theology


The Bible

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

110 pages

This book is very short, extremely clear, and easy to read. Kevin DeYoung has a remarkable gift for taking huge topics and explaining them briefly, clearly, and with a bit of wit and humor thrown in. In this book he shows why God’s word is Enough, Clear, Final, and Necessary, and what that means for you as you read it.

Sin

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga

220 pages

This book will change the way you think about Sin. It shows that Sin is a vandalism of God’s good world, a corrupting cocktail of Perversion (turning away from God), Pollution (introducing a harmful foreign element), and Disintegration (the breakdown of personal and social integrity). The book also walks through issues like abuse, addiction, and the “masquerade” we all find ourselves in, trying to convince everyone that we have it all together.

Christ

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund

224 pages

This book has been extremely popular since it was released, and for good reason. It is a fantastic look at how Christ feels about you. The book is theologically precise and thoroughly biblical—each chapter is a reflection on a single Bible verse about Christ. Although it is not intended as a one-shop-stop on the doctrine of the person of Christ, Ortlund’s biblical and theological care make it my first recommendation on the topic.

The Cross

In My Place Condemned He Stood by J. I. Packer and Mark Dever

150 pages

This book is actually a collection of shorter writings on the cross by J. I. Packer and Mark Dever. Packer and Dever both have a gift for writing concisely while penetrating the heart. There are fuller and more organized books on the cross, but no book will make you appreciate the cross more than this one.

Missing Categories I Plan to Add
  • God
  • Humanity
  • The Church

Practical Theology


Prayer

A Praying Life by Paul Miller

304 pages

This is a remarkably simple book with profound impact. The main premise of the book is that God wants us to relate to him as children and that this is particularly true in prayer. One blurb on the book calls it “a book on prayer that actually makes you want to pray!” This was my experience reading it as well.

Marriage

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller

352 pages

We’re all familiar with the concept of marriage. Maybe you are even married. But what’s it all about? What is the purpose of marriage? What is my role as a husband or a wife? What is our role as a married couple? What does the Bible mean when it says that marriage is a mystery about Christ and the church? The Kellers answer all of these questions and more in this rich and helpful book on the topic.

Parenting

Parenting by Paul David Tripp

224 pages

This is my favorite book on the list. If you are a parent, you have to read this book. Most parenting books are purely practical—should I spank? how do I handle rebellion? how do we approach chores? Parenting is the missing book that tells you why you are doing any of this at all, what God calls you to as a parent, and explains the big picture of parenting. Most importantly this book reminds us that ultimately we want our children to have changed hearts, not merely good behavior, and that we cannot change our children’s hearts. So how do you parent based on that? Please read this book to find out!

Ministry

How People Change by Paul David Tripp

230 pages

All Christians should be involved in some sort of ministry to other Christians. Whether it is in small groups, kids ministry, local or short term missions, or somewhere else, we are called to serve other Christians and help one another grow in Christ. As we do this we inevitably wonder, “What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t this person responding to what I’m sharing with them?” This book is extremely helpful in answering that question.

Spiritual Disciplines

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley

204 pages

This isn’t technically a book on spiritual disciplines. But it is a book that will teach you to be disciplined, and it is written from a thoroughly Christian perspective with the goal that our discipline would glorify God. Earley walks through cornerstone habits like a weekly sabbath, eating meals together, limiting screen time, and “Scripture before phone” that aim to steady us in a restless world. This book will change your life if you let it.

Work

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller

336 pages

What is the purpose of work? Is it just a necessary evil to put food on the table or is there some larger meaning? What does God think of your work? Does He value some types of work more than others? Keller answers these questions and more in this book, placing work within the larger context of God’s work in the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration of the world.

How to Choose a Bible for Your Preschooler

Our daughter Lydia was able to follow along with Bible stories around the time she turned two. We owned several children’s bibles, but we quickly learned that not all children’s bibles are created equally. There are some great bibles available today for young children, but there are a lot more that are not worth your time. So how do you choose one? Here are four easy tests to help you choose a good children’s bible to read with your preschooler.

Test 1: Does Jesus Die?

You would be shocked by the number of children’s bibles in which the answer to this question is “no.” If Jesus is just a good man who helps and teaches people and then the bible ends, you don’t want it. You may not actually read the crucifixion story itself for a while—we jumped around and read stories from our toddler bible for months before we thought Lydia was old enough to read the crucifixion story (sometime when she was three). But whether or not a children’s bible includes Jesus’ death is a good litmus test for the book as a whole. The crucifixion is the climax and center of the entire story of redemption that God is working in the world. A children’s bible that is comfortable leaving out the death of Jesus cannot be trusted to handle any other story well either.

A children’s bible that is comfortable leaving out the death of Jesus cannot be trusted to handle any other story well either.

Test 2: Is God the main character?

God is the main character of the Bible. It’s all about Him. But in many children’s bibles, people are the main characters. A good test for this is the story of David and Goliath. Is the story told as if it were mainly about how brave David was? Or is it about how Goliath was ridiculing God himself and so God used David to put an end to it? Contrary to what many children’s bibles would have you believe, the message of the story of David and Goliath is not that you should “be brave like David when facing your own giants.” The message of the story is that God is so powerful that he can use an unarmored boy with a slingshot to defeat his enemies’ greatest warriors. That is the message of David and Goliath, and that is the lesson you want your kids to learn from a young age. Is God the main character of your child’s bible?

Test 3: Is Sin present and problematic?

The Bible teaches that Sin is the ultimate problem with our world. It is sin that separates us from God (Isa. 59:2), sin that corrupted God’s good creation (Rom. 8:22), sin that brought death into the world (Rom. 5:12), sin that Christ died for on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), sin that that he defeated in his resurrection (Rom. 6:6), and sin that Christians struggle with daily in this life (Rom. 7:19-20). Does your child’s bible take sin seriously?

A great litmus test for this is to look at the story of Noah. Is it presented as a story about how God was so sad over the sin and evil in the world that he decided to start over? Or is it a cute story about Noah bringing a bunch of animals onto his boat? If Sin is not present and problematic in a children’s bible, it is not a bible you want to use.

Test 4: Are the stories short enough to read?

The first three were theological tests. This one is a practical test. There are some fantastic children’s bibles out there that we would love to use in our home, but the stories are simply too long to hold the attention of our three year old daughter. At the moment we are using a toddler bible that I don’t love, rather than using one of a handful of children’s bibles that I think are really fantastic. But if the stories are too long then the lesson I’m teaching her will be that the Bible is long and boring but we have to read it anyway. I don’t believe that could be further from the truth, and I don’t want her to believe that either. Be sure to choose a children’s Bible that your child can actually read.

Recommendations

I hope you find these tests helpful in choosing a children’s bible! Based on all of these tests, here are the bibles that I would recommend for reading with your preschooler.

The Beginner’s Bible Bedtime Collection

This is the toddler bible we have used with our three year old. It doesn’t always pass tests #2 and #3 as well as I would like, but it’s better than most, and the stories are short enough to read during our family worship time. It also includes a very short prayer at the end of each story as application.

The Jesus Storybook Bible

This is my favorite children’s bible on the market. It passes the first three tests with flying colors and unapologetically points to Jesus from cover to cover. We’ve found that the stories are usually a little too wordy for our three-year-old, but we still try to read from this bible whenever she’s able to focus long enough.

The Biggest Story

This isn’t technically a children’s bible. It’s a storybook that tells the entire story of the bible in about 30 minutes. It passes my three tests with even better marks than the Jesus Storybook Bible, but if you are looking for a true children’s bible where you can open to a specific story from Scripture, this isn’t it. But please don’t miss this fantastic resource! Lydia loves watching the animated version.

The Biggest Story: Storybook Bible

Kevin DeYoung, the author of The Biggest Story, recently announced that he will be releasing a children’s bible soon that is based on The Biggest Story. It will have 52 stories from the Old Testament and 52 from the New Testament. I am really excited for it to release and expect it to replace the Jesus Storybook Bible as our first choice for a children’s bible.

Robertson Family Children’s Catechism

When we decided to use a catechism with our three year old daughter, my first thought was to use The Children’s Catechism. Some of the questions are perfect for this (“Who made you? God”) but many use archaic language or just seem beyond the grasp of a three year old (“What is sin? Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God.”). I believe that precision has its place, but not at the expense of understanding.

So I went through the Children’s Catechism with an aim to modernize the language, simplify the wording, simplify the concepts, and shorten the responses. I have very intentionally kept some words and concepts that are beyond the grasp of a three year old but that will create theological “buckets” in her mind for the future. So this catechism teaches the meanings of the words salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and adoption, as well as teaching that Christ is our prophet, priest, and king. These are concepts a three year old can understand (God forgives me, God is my Father, Jesus teaches me, Jesus protects me). My hope is that introducing the vocabulary at a young age will (a) provide a label for the theological bucket, (b) make theological vocabulary less intimidating as she grows up, and (c) clarify sound doctrine (most Americans believe “God forgives me” and “God is our father” but how many believe in the doctrines of justification by faith alone or adoption?)

This is the best, flawed, attempt of one father to use a catechism to teach his three year old girl about God, life, and the Bible. If it is helpful to another parent as well, I praise God for it.

Introduction

Q 1. Who made you?
A. God.

Q 2. What else did God make?
A. God made everything.

Q 3. Why did God make you and everything?
A. For his glory.

Q 4. How can you glorify God?
A. By loving him and doing what he says.

Q 5. Why should you glorify God?
A. Because he made me and takes care of me.

God

Q 6. Does God have a body?
A. No, God does not have a body.

Q 7. Where is God?
A. Everywhere.

Q 8. Can you see God?
A. No, but he always sees me.

Q 9. Does God know everything?
A. Yes.

Q 10. Can God do all things?
A. Yes, God can do whatever he wants.

The Bible

Q 11. Where do you learn how to love and obey God?
A. The Bible.

Q 12. Who gave us the Bible?
A. God.

Q 13. Can we trust the Bible?
A 13. Yes. It is God’s Word.

Humanity

Q 14. Who were our first parents?
A. Adam and Eve.

Q 15. What did God give Adam and Eve besides bodies?
A. He gave them souls that could never die.

Q 16. Do you have a body and a soul?
A. Yes, I have a soul that can never die.

Q 17. How do you know that you have a soul?
A. The Bible tells me so.

Q 18. What were Adam and Eve like when God made them?
A. They were holy and happy.

Sin

Q 19. What is Sin?
A. Sin is disobeying God.

Q 20. What was our first parents’ sin?
A. They ate the fruit that God said not to eat.

Q 21. Who tempted them to sin?
A. The devil.

Q 22. What happened to our first parents when they sinned?
A. They became sinful and sad.

Q 23. What does every sin deserve?
A. God’s wrath.

Q 24. Can people go to heaven with a sinful heart?
A. No, our heart has to be changed.

Q 25. Who can change our heart?
A. The Holy Spirit.

Q 26. What is it called when the Holy Spirit changes hearts?
A. Regeneration.

Jesus

Q 27. Who is Jesus?
A. God’s son.

Q 28. What else do we call Jesus?
A. Christ.

Q 29. Why do we call Jesus “Christ”?
A. Because God chose him to save us.

Q 30. Was Jesus rich or poor?
A. Jesus was poor.

Q 31. Did Jesus ever sin?
A. No, he was holy and perfect.

Q 32. How did Jesus die?
A. Jesus died on the cross.

Q 33. What happened after Jesus died?
A. He rose from the grave.

Atonement

Q 34. Why did Jesus have to die?
A. To save his people from Sin.

Q 35. Who will be saved?
A. People who repent and believe in Jesus.

Q 36. What does it mean to repent?
A. To be sorry for sin and want to stop sinning.

Q 37. What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
A. To trust Jesus to save me.

Q 38. Can you repent and believe in Jesus by yourself?
A. No, I need God’s Holy Spirit to help me.

Q 39. How can you get the Holy Spirit to help you?
A. I can ask God for his help.

Q 40. What is it called when Jesus saves us?
A. Salvation.

Q 41. What are the parts of salvation?
A. Justification, sanctification, and adoption.

Q 42. What is justification?
A. When God forgives us for our sin.

Q 43. What is sanctification?
A. When God makes us holy.

Q 44. What is adoption?
A. When God becomes our Father and makes us his children.

Offices of Christ

Q 45. What are the offices of Christ?
A. Prophet, priest, and king.

Q 46. How is Christ a prophet?
A. He teaches us God’s will.

Q 47. How is Christ a priest?
A. He died for our sins and prays for us.

Q 46. How is Christ a king?
A. He rules over us and defends us.

Q 48. Why do we need Christ as a prophet?
A. Because we are ignorant.

Q 49. Why do we need Christ as a priest?
A. Because we are guilty.

Q 50. Why do we need Christ as a king?
A. Because we are weak and helpless.

To Be Continued…

If you are familiar with existing catechisms you may know that from here they will typically move to cover the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the church ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and the return of Christ. Our catechism ends here, since it is just our attempt to bridge the gap of catechisms for toddlers. Once our children are older and have completed these questions, our family will move to the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the New City Catechism.

Why We’re Using a Catechism

My wife and I have started going through a catechism with our three year old daughter Lydia. When we’ve told people this, we’ve usually been met with one of two reactions. People who have used a catechism are excited and encouraging. People who haven’t used a catechism are confused and maybe concerned. Since most of the Christians in our church contexts aren’t familiar with what a catechism is or why it would be useful, I’d like to share why we’ve decided to use one and how we’ve found it helpful so far.

A catechism is a list of questions-and-answers that summarize what we believe as Christians. One famous catechism begins: “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Another begins: “Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? A. That I am not my own, but belong, with body and soul, in life and death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” Most catechisms walk through questions on major categories like God, the Bible, humanity, sin, Jesus, and salvation, and then many will walk through the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.

We are using a simplified catechism for toddlers and have found it to be extremely helpful for two reasons.

1. A catechism helps you to weave biblical truth into daily life.

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7

I pray for Lydia every morning. I have a list of things I pray for her, and one of these is that she would be formed by a biblical worldview. An important part of our growth as the people of God is to grow in our ability to see the world the way that God sees the world. As Lydia’s parents, Amanda and I try to weave biblical truth into her daily life in the way that we are commanded to do In Deuteronomy 6:6-7. When Lydia scrapes her knee we tell her that God will make it better. When someone knocks on our door to ask for food, we share with them and explain to Lydia that we help them because God takes care of us and wants us to help others. We hope that our home will be one that is rich with biblical, gospel truth.

A catechism has been incredibly helpful as part of this process. It provides content for God-centered discussions throughout the day—during dinner, while getting dressed in the morning, during family worship. Because Lydia has the first ten questions memorized, we can ask her about them at any time without needing to “ramp up” to the discussion. She just fires them off as easily as she knows that she is three years old or that Ariel is a mermaid.

More importantly, we build on the catechism as a way of weaving biblical truth into her real life. One of our questions is “Q. Why should you glorify God? A. Because he made me and takes care of me.” When she hurts herself and is scared, we have always comforted her and told her that God will make it better. But now that we have begun using this catechism we can tell her, “Remember, God made you and He takes care of you. He’s going to take care of you and make it better.” This comforts her in the moment and then also enriches the catechism question the next time. Today when she says, “he made me and takes care of me!” she will have a dozen past experiences of being reassured that God will take care of her and then actually watching her body heal as God takes care of her. She runs up to us occasionally to announce, “Mama, Daddy, look! God is making my arm better!”

We hope to weave biblical truth into her daily life so that these truths shape the way that she sees the world. A catechism has been really helpful to us in this regard.

2. Knowing Bible verses is important, but knowing sound doctrine is more important.

“so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” – Ephesians 4:14

The Bible is the Word of God and the foundation for all that we believe. Everything that we need to know about God and for faith, life, and salvation is either clearly written in the Bible or can be clearly determined from the Bible. So in a way, no knowledge we could have could be more important than our knowledge of the Bible. But there is a difference between knowing the Bible and understanding the Bible. The prosperity gospel preacher who says that Jesus came to give you “life more abundant” and promises financial riches if you’ll just give money to his ministry—he has knowledge of the Bible, but his knowledge does more harm than good. Knowing Bible verses is important, but knowing sound doctrine is more important.

This is one of the biggest advantages of using a catechism. Trusted catechisms have been carefully constructed by wise and godly believers to summarize the most important truths of the entire Bible. Many of these truths do not exist within any single Bible verse, and so even Bible verse memorization would fail to teach them. The most obvious example of this would be the doctrine of the Trinity—that there is one God who exists within three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a clear biblical truth, but no single verse alone contains this truth. But even the Children’s Catechism teaches this in three simple questions:

Q. Are there more gods than one? A. There is only one God.
Q. In how many persons does this one God exist? A. In three persons.
Q. What are they? A. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Catechisms help us (1) to focus on the most important truths from the whole of Scripture, (2) to avoid taking verses out of context, and (3) to recognize false teaching when we hear it. At three years old, there will be concepts in even a basic catechism that Lydia will not understand. But as Tim Keller says, catechisms create “buckets” in the minds of children, which help them to understand future verses in context. For example, Lydia knows that God made her “for his glory.” She doesn’t understand what God’s glory is, but she knows it’s important because we talk about it every day, and when she hears about it one day in a church class or sermon she will immediately have a “bucket” to put that teaching in.

A lot more could be said, but I will leave it to the resources I’ve linked below. We have found a catechism to be extremely helpful in our role of discipling Lydia even at three years old. I hope some of you will find it helpful in your parenting as well.

Helpful Resources
  1. Someone Will Catechize Your Kids in 2021. Don’t Outsource It. by Colin Hansen, editor-in-chief at The Gospel Coalition
  2. Why We Should Catechize Our Children interview with Tim Keller
  3. Should We Memorize Catechisms or Scripture? by John Piper
Catechisms to Consider
  1. Westminster Shorter Catechism – incredibly rich and precise, packing a lot of truth into short answers
  2. Heidelberg Catechism – warmer and more personal than Westminster, focusing more on the application of the teaching to the answerer than on general truths
  3. New City Catechism – Produced by Tim Keller as a more modern catechism. Based heavily on the Westminster and Heidelberg but much shorter than they are. Also provides mobile apps, children’s songs for easier memorization, and a curriculum for further learning.
  4. Children’s Catechism – adapted for young children from the Westminster Shorter Catechism
  5. Robertson Family Children’s Catechism – adapted for toddlers from the Children’s Catechism

Gentle and Lowly: A Modern Puritan Classic

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund has been extremely popular since its release last year, and for good reason. The book is fantastic. Plenty of reviews have been written on its merits and drawbacks, but I want to reflect on an aspect of the book that was striking to me: Gentle and Lowly reads like a classic Puritan work. I don’t mean that it reminds me of any particular Puritan work but rather that Ortlund has written his book in the style of the Puritans. I believe this is one of the chief qualities of the book that has made it so cherished so quickly.

1. Deep reflection on a single verse

At one point in the book Ortlund describes the way that Puritans would write books. “The way the Puritans would write books is to take a single Bible verse, wring it dry for all the heart-affecting theology they could find, and, two or three hundred pages later, send their findings to a publisher.” To some extent Ortlund takes this approach in his book as he reflects deeply on the significance of Jesus being “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29). More accurately this is the approach that he takes in each chapter of his book. You can see this in the chapter titles: “Able to Sympathize” (Heb 4:15), “He Can Deal Gently” (Heb 5:2), “I Will Never Cast Out” (John 6:37), “To the Uttermost” (Heb 7:25), “An Advocate” (1 John 2:1). In each chapter of Gentle and Lowly Ortlund would “take a single Bible verse [and] wring it dry for all the heart-affecting theology [he] could find.”

2. Theologically rigorous but accessible

If you’ve read a book by any of the Puritans then you know that it can be daunting. Even once you get past the archaic language (or perhaps you have a modernized version) the pages are simply dripping with theological ideas and vocabulary. Rather than the more easily understood topics we find in most Christian books today (grace, mercy, perseverance, forgiveness) we find in the Puritans categories like justification, sanctification, intercession, and high priestly mediation. These are intimidating to modern ears. Yet as we begin to read we find that the same pages that are steeped in theological vocabulary are also highly accessible. This explains why The Pilgrim’s Progress, which introduces characters like Evangelist and Piety and Apollyon, is one of the best-selling books of all time, after the Bible. Most Puritan writings were theologically rigorous but accessible to most Christians. Gentle and Lowly again fits the Puritan mould. I read Gentle and Lowly a few months after it gained international recognition, and I was surprised by how theologically rich it is. This was not the book I expected to encounter after seeing how widely received it had been, but I am thankful for it.

3. Solidly biblical but imaginative

As the puritans were theologically rigorous but accessible, so were they solidly biblical but imaginative. If you are going to write 300 pages on a single Bible verse and be faithful to the meaning of the verse while doing so, biblical imagination is required. This was the stock-in-trade for many Puritans and is one of the primary reasons that their books are still so relevant today. The Bible doesn’t change, and the human heart doesn’t change, so a book that wrings heart-affecting theology out of a single Bible verse is timeless. Many modern books err on one side or the other. They are either rigidly biblical with little imagination or else they let their imagination float free, untethered by any biblical anchoring. While the second is certainly worse, the first is often dry. In Gentle and Lowly we find a book that is not “new for the times” but timeless. There is nothing in this book that could not have been written 400 years ago. Rather than making the book immediately outdated, this is a gleaming quality to be cherished. And it is a quality that will quite possibly make Gentle and Lowly a Christian classic to be read for decades to come.

The Gospel is for Christians

The gospel is for Christians, and we should preach the gospel to ourselves daily. There are countless ways that this plays out in our lives. Here are a few.

1. Identity

I am fundamentally a blood-bought child of God and beloved member of Christ’s bride, the Church. I do not need to prove myself to anyone, including myself. I do not need to fear failing anyone, including myself. My identity is firmly secure in Christ. This truth is not changed a single shade on my best days or my worst.

2. Prayer

I have full access to our Father in heaven – the infinite wisdom, power, and being of our Creator. I do not need to be afraid to approach my heavenly Father in prayer. The Father has redeemed me to be with Him. The Son gave his life for this purpose and continually prays at the Father’s side for me. The Spirit brings me to the Father in prayer and intercedes when I have no words to speak. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

3. Holiness

I have been justified by God’s sovereign grace. Nothing I do can earn more grace, but nothing could be more important than becoming who He created me to be. These are equally true. So I pursue Christ, seeking to be conformed to his image and likeness, not in order to earn his favor but out of freedom from the grace that he has freely given me. When I fail, I look to Christ alone. When I succeed, I give glory to God alone.

4. Ministry and Parenting

I cannot change hearts. I am not responsible for changing hearts. My metric for success is not changed hearts but faithfulness. My worth is not in my success at changing hearts. Easy to say, hard to believe. When my kids are perfectly behaved and I receive compliments on my parenting, I look to the gospel and remember that God alone changes hearts, and I give glory to God. When my kids absolutely refuse to behave, I am not crushed with failure. God alone changes hearts. The gospel-centered response is to pray for this heart change and for the wisdom to play some small role in it. God alone changed my heart, and God alone will change the hearts of my children.

The gospel is not just our starting point, but also our endpoint and the entire path. Everything we do as Christians we are to do through the lens of the gospel. We never graduate from the gospel.