Jesus Calling and the PCA 

Source of Evangelicalism’s Greatest Actual Idol?

Evangelical books have their moments. Some outlast their own trendiness. The Purpose Driven Life still sells, but the buzz is gone. Few today remember The Prayer of Jabez. I Kissed Dating Goodbye resurfaced again as an object of criticism by its now adult-first audience. Few receive the kind of historic notice given to Jesus Calling by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young was first published in 2004. Twenty years later, the book’s influence only increases; in fact, Jesus Calling has surpassed all other Christian books. Recently, it has become a brand: merchandise and kitsch for sale, sequels, versions for children, podcasts, an app and even a television series in its third season. At her death in 2023, the obituary in the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) began with this summation: “Young’s ‘Jesus Calling’ books sold more than 45 million copies in 35 languages, making her the bestselling Christian author of all time.” 

45 million– even rounding opposite of a public relations consultant– exceeds 10% of the American population. “Bestselling Christian author of all time” would be too audacious for the publicist of some other possible contender to leave undisputed. How the publishing industry haggles such a claim is a good question, but there it stands. One might wonder about the PCA’s own Tim Keller– his number of units sold, but 45 million does sound large enough for “bestselling . . . of all time.”

Idol– like the Golden Statue in Isaiah or Jeremiah?

As happens with Evangelical books, Jesus Calling has received criticism. Much has come from Reformed voices resonant with the PCA. Kathy Keller of Redeemer Church in NYC wrote a review explaining why it is excluded from their resources. Michael Horton at The Whitehorse Inn provided similar criticism. Tim Challies has returned to the book at least three times over the years to argue that it is dangerous and its popularity a tragedy. Such negative assessments were reproduced on The Gospel Coalition website. An overview of both the book’s far-flung popularity and its sketchy evangelical credentials can be found at The Daily Beast. Or, a subscriber might search for the piece in the New York Times

Criticism from the PCA’s fellow travelers centers on the sufficiency of the Bible, claiming that Jesus Calling attempts an alternative to the Bible’s devotional purpose. This produces a bit of inelegant wrangling over Biblicism. The book’s Introduction is explicit: despite obvious appearances, the book’s content does not claim to be on par with Scripture. Still, these critics are not satisfied. Something of a she-said-they-said ensues at that point. 

Pungent, if passing, mention is made of the author’s inspiration by an earlier quasi-Christian book of “automatic writing.” Automatic writing claims verbal communication from entities other than the person holding the pen or demonstrably present in the same room. It’s a parlor trick; or not. The last is so acute a claim, that the interested reader should refer to the post at The Daily Beast. It documents the publisher’s revision of the original Introduction and removal from subsequent editions of this stark faux pas in an evangelical book. (A copy of the original Introduction can be found here.)

The sufficiency of Scripture is both a high-level idea and an essential rubber-meets-the-road part of Reformed, and erstwhile evangelical, doctrine. It is part of the hard “no” given to the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. It is also a doctrinal claim challenged by the Charismatic movement and the erudition of continuationism. 

Honesty, however, requires repetition: the Introduction to Jesus Calling is quite clear: the contents are not offered as on par with God’s inerrant word. One side might be 100% correct and the other 100% ignoring them, but it can still sound like nothing more than a passionate squabble between the mostly-like-minded. With all that hubbub, then what are the contents? 

Mechanically, they are shocking. The book consists of 365 daily readings cast as the direct utterance of the Lord Jesus Christ. He speaks. He comforts. He counsels. He calls for devotion. These readings are not about Jesus, rather they are pithy paragraphs spoken by Jesus. It is a devotional book, written for use in private worship. Imagine the same procedure shifted into public worship: the preacher pretends to be Jesus, from start to finish for 30 minutes like a method actor, never breaking character. 

That would be a memorable sermon, and quite the sermon series. “You have heard it said, but I say to you . . . Verily, verily, I say to you . . . Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden . . .Let me tell you how I think of you when you are good or bad or tired or irritable . . . feel the peace streaming off my presence, dripping like light from my sometimes mesmerizingly long but carefully constructed sentences. And. Then. The short ones.” 

Theologically, the contents are a carefully crafted abomination. To speak in the most straightforward and old-fashioned manner, Jesus Calling is an idol. It is a humanly contrived facsimile of God, offered for the purported purpose of communing with the living and true God. Although that characterization strains the theological minimalism of lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism, the Reformed and Evangelical tradition before 1950 would not have been disoriented by so drastic an assertion. 

From the far-flung influence of writers like Tim Keller, we all now know what idols really are. Idols are the profound truth behind the integration of naturalistic psychology and evangelical theology. Evangelicals can’t be idolaters like Aaron in the wilderness; they can only have idols in their hearts– just like everybody else, but with Jesus too, and so with the constant struggle of sanctification. Aaron might mistake a golden calf for the God of the Exodus (Exodus 32:4-5), but believers in the risen Christ could never be so foolish as to think that other Christians do something so concretely ridiculous. 

Nobody wants to be old-fashioned– except in their doctrine. The truth for all time hasn’t changed since the invention of electric lighting. At the very least, the historically grounded churches like the PCA in NAPARC– and any congregations claiming to be Reformed in more than their restless disposition– must acknowledge the obvious appearance of evil. In the conscientious circles of the PCA, this is referred to as a Second Commandment Violation. It should also be a concern to people who don’t want Jesus misrepresented as a boomer, white evangelical with a late 20th-century counseling degree from the University of Georgia.

Is the PCA the source of this Abomination? 

The PCA is committed to upholding the 10 commandments, stodgy as that may seem. The second commandment, in fact, is one of the ten; moreover, the PCA’s doctrinal commitments require rejection of any representation of God or any person of the Trinity. Any suggestion that such a representation has devotional value exceeds even the PCA’s well-considered wiggle room on images. The devotional purpose requires the egregious word– idol. Per the vows taken by every minister in the PCA, Jesus Calling appears to be an abomination. 

Other Christians have not taken such a vow, but the ministry of the PCA has vowed to God that they will uphold the second commandment as part of calling all sinners to reconciliation with the living and true God. The gospel actually makes sinners obey– more and more– God’s law. That’s the PCA’s thumbnail of discipleship– the high-resolution details don’t change it. The PCA isn’t smart; they learned it from the Protestant Reformation. 

The PCA’s failure is not conceptual but organic and procedural. Jesus Calling was not written by someone who just happened to be a member of the PCA. The author received her theological training from the PCA’s denominational seminary. That educational credential was only the beginning. The author served for decades as a missionary in Japan and Australia under the PCA’s Mission to the World (MTW). MTW first vetted and received her as a gospel worker, then oversaw her counseling ministry in Australia. Her husband was a PCA minister. 

Jesus Calling not only came from the author’s training and nurture in the PCA– the book was conceived, written, published and bloomed to 45 million units sold all while under MTW’s oversight. Jesus Calling is an organic outgrowth of the PCA’s ambition to fulfill the great commission. Of course, it has been translated into 35 languages.

The PCA’s failure is not just organic but also procedural. In contrast to some churches and denominations, the PCA has a refined and documented set of procedural standards. Church leaders are responsible for squashing harmful teaching or publishing by members. Members take vows of submission to such oversight. The PCA’s constitution is explicit: members promulgating or publishing practices and opinions harmful to true religion should be disciplined by the church. In such cases, censorship is virtuous. The Presbyterian Church in America is the only ecclesiastical authority that had the authority and opportunity to stop the publication and proliferation of the bestselling Christian idol of all time. The PCA did not.

The PCA regards so highly the particulars of its doctrinal statement, that at ordination any exception must be divulged and examined. Ordination depends on whether an exception is merely semantic or vitiates the system of doctrine and wholesome piety. Jesus Calling came from the PCA. In addition to all the other fulsome criticism it has garnered, the book appears to be evil when measured by the PCA’s standards. For the public integrity of the PCA, at the very least the appearance of evil must be addressed and debunked. If the appearance is just the ugliness of the obvious, then the PCA must drop its theological privilege as the largest conservative and evangelical denomination, own its fault and failure, and undertake whatever repentance requires. 

Only necessary citations have not been given above, but they are available on two other posts. For a more developed and detailed account of the condemnation for Jesus Calling go here. For a suggested course forward by the PCA, go here

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Benjamin T. Inman Ph.D. is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He was the founding Campus Minister of Reformed University Fellowship at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has served as a pastor and continues as a member in Eastern Carolina Presbytery (PCA), and he has also taught middle and high school Latin in Cary, NC. He is presently establishing a small holding agricultural concern as a vocation for his adult special needs daughter near Chalybeate, NC. He and Anna are members of First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. He posts essays and poetry

2 thoughts on “Jesus Calling and the PCA 

  1. I agree with the author’s condemnation of Jesus Calling, but I’m curious how the same standard would be applied to hymns like How Firm a Foundation. It’s a beloved hymn for many, myself included, yet I wonder if it commits the same error as Jesus Calling does.

    1. I’m not sure how “How Firm a Foundation” could be fitted into the same category as “Jesus Calling.” The first verse of the hymn declares that the foundation for our faith is found in God’s Word, and that He does not say more than what He has already said there. The following four verses go on to lay out direct promises that God has given His people in His Word – reminding us that we can rely on Him. I do not have the references handy but would be happy to supply them if requested.

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