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.
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.
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.
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.