In this episode of Mind and Heart, host Phillip Holmes is joined by guest Dr. Michael Kruger. Dr. Kruger is the President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is also one of the leading scholars today in the origins of the New Testament, as well as the author of many books, and serves on several evangelical boards.
Their conversation begins with Phillip asking Dr. Kruger how he came to faith and his career in academia. Dr. Kruger shares that he grew up in a Christian home and professed faith his entire life, and it was in college where he experienced his formative years of fortifying his faith. He now has a book coming out, Hebrews for You. Hebrews’ message, Dr. Kruger explains that Christ is better than any other path one might choose. It also deals with a common experience Christians have to deal with – apostasy. Dr. Kruger says an apostate is not simply an unbeliever, nor are they a struggling Christian, rather this is someone inside God’s covenant community who seems to be a believer, who later consciously leaves the covenant community. Apostates have not lost their salvation he explains, rather they were never a Christian. And God uses their example to encourage believers to remain true to the faith. The book of Hebrews is calling us to examine our hearts and take a hard look at our faith.
Phillip then asks Dr. Kruger to discuss a biblical view of voting. Dr. Kruger explains that there is no party affiliation in the Bible. Rather he says, a Christian obligation is to evaluate a party’s platform and a candidate’s character against biblical values and cast votes for those that are the most aligned. He stresses that Christians will disagree on this topic, but he’s comfortable with that, as long as their conversation is faith focused. Either way, the election shakes out, Phillip and Dr. Kruger agreed the church will face persecution. Dr. Kruger expresses his belief that Christianity flourishes through Christ, not through a political party, and historically, the church has grown amidst persecution. He ends with the thought, “hold your ground, live like a Christian, and keep believing what Christians believe.”
Learn more about Reformed Theological Seminary.
Learn more about Dr. Michael Kruger.
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Check out Dr. Kruger’s book, Hebrews For You.
Phillip Holmes: Before we dive into this week’s episode of Mind and Heart, we want to take a moment to highlight a new opportunity at Reformed Theological Seminary. Getting the master’s degree can seem daunting, especially if you’re working full-time, taking care of your family, or just trying to get back to normal in the midst of a pandemic. But what if there was a way to further your education at your own pace without the commitment to a full master’s program? We recently launched a core certificates program that will help you do just that. The certificates are between 8 to 13 hours, allow you to study at your own pace, and accommodate any learning style, offering both audio and video classes, a self-directed course schedule, and regular interactions with teacher’s assistants and professors. You can learn more today at rts.edu/online.
Welcome to the Mind and Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Philip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Mike Kruger. Dr. Mike Kruger is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Dr. Kruger is one of the leading scholars today in the study of the origins of the New Testament, particularly the development of the New Testament canon and the transmission of the New Testament texts. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent, Christianity at the Crossroads, and his upcoming book, Surviving Religion 101, as well as Hebrews for You: Giving You an Anchor for the Soul. In addition, Dr. Kruger served as the president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2019 and is on the editorial board of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Dr. Kruger, welcome to the show. How are you?
Dr. Mike Kruger: Good, my friend. Thankful to be with you. That was a long list of things there. I apologize for all that.
Holmes: No, no, it was worth it. I want them to know how qualified you are to be speaking on this topic. Dr. Kruger, before we dive into the episode and our topic for this week, would you mind and can I call you Mike?
Dr. Kruger: Absolutely.
Holmes: Thank you. Well, I want the people to know that I have permission to call you Mike. Before I dive into this week’s episode, one of the things that we had discussed was how important it is for people to get to know the professors a little bit. I think that’s extremely valuable because while our professors are extremely talented, gifted teachers as well as preachers, many of them, they’re also people with stories. So would you mind giving us your origin story in a sense? Tell us where you grew up, how you became a follower of Jesus, and why did you decide to become a pastor and a seminary president?
Dr. Kruger: Yeah, great questions, and I’m happy to give the background. I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home to two parents who love Christ and a brother that loved Christ and became a Christian at a very young age. As far back as I can remember, I would have professed faith in Christ. We grew up in a way that was trying to live faithful to the gospel. Really the formative time in my life was when I went off to the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, where I entered that world as a Christian but met all kinds of intellectual challenges that shaped my faith and challenged my faith. That led me to pursue an academic career where I ended up going to master’s work and PhD overseas to the University of Edinburgh with Larry Hurtado to study New Testament and then eventually back to North Carolina at RTS.
I’m in my 19th year now at RTS as a professor of New Testament, and in addition to that, I’ve been the president of the Charlotte campus for about eight years. As far as how that all unfolded, just one step at a time, by God’s grace. My joke with people is they just keep giving me jobs until they find one I can’t do, and they might have just found it, so who knows?
Holmes: No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. You know how we talk all the time, and I think you’re doing a great job at the Charlotte campus. That shows itself in multiple ways from the results and how the campus is thriving, as well as how people perceive you, how the people who work for you talk about you. I get the chance to talk to several people who work on your campus quite a bit, and they always talk about how great of a leader you are, and I think that says a lot.
Dr. Kruger: I’m encouraged to hear that. Thank you.
Holmes: Given all that’s going on these days, which is loosely related to our topic for today, I won’t say it’s rare, but we’re also realizing that people in power, it’s not necessarily always given that they actually have the character to lead, not just the job description, but also the character as well.
The book of Hebrews is about the superiority of Christ over every other thing we might substitute for him.Dr. Kruger: That’s absolutely the case. That’s true for the world. It’s also true for the church. Oftentimes we think that what makes someone qualified for ministry is either degrees or a certain sort of ambitions. But God puts the character of the pastor way up the list: gentle, kind, and a wise, careful leader. I wholeheartedly agree.
Holmes: Absolutely. I think this is a helpful segue way into our topic. Talk to us a little bit about the book of Hebrews. This is one that you’ve become well known for. You would think that you did your PhD research in Hebrews just because it’s something that now you’ve written on. If somebody played a game with me and says, “All right, Dr. Krueger, book of the Bible.” “Hebrews” would be the first thing that came up for me. That’s because the women’s Bible study that you did on Hebrews was extremely popular, not just locally, but it’s also getting wider attention as a result of us making it available in the resource library. If you guys are interested in that, you can go to rts.edu/hebrews. Even the fact that he gets that domain name kind of proves my point. You also have a book coming out as we mentioned earlier with The Good Book Company called Hebrews for You. What inspired that book? And tell us a little bit about the book of Hebrews and how it’s impacted your life.
Dr. Kruger: The book of Hebrews is so wonderful. People, I think, know it’s wonderful, and they know it’s there. I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves. One of the things I think that makes it so great, and this is true at one level of every book in the Bible, but exceptionally true of the book of Hebrews is it’s just so glorifying to the person of Christ. The book of Hebrews is about the superiority of Christ over every other thing we might substitute for him. In the particular context of the of the book’s original audience, the audience was a group thinking about going back to their old ways. They were Jewish Christians who were thinking, “I don’t know. This Christian thing may not be working out. Maybe I should go back to the old animal sacrifices in the temple and these sorts of things.” Our author is saying, “No, no, no, Christ is better than everything else.”
Everyone needs to be reminded why Christ is better than anything else they might choose.That’s just such a wonderful message. Christ is superior to the old covenant. He’s superior to anything else we could replace him with. That’s a message we all need to hear. The reason the book, I think, is so popular and the reason I think that the Bible study is getting listens isn’t really so much about me but is about the book. It’s just such a great, encouraging message. Everyone needs to be reminded why Christ is better than anything else they might choose.
Holmes: Amen. That’s extremely helpful. I appreciate you sharing that. One of the major and most debated topics in the book of Hebrews is apostasy, which is the word that we’re going to be exploring in this week’s episode. In 2019, Mike answered the question, “What is an apostate?” It was a Wisdom Wednesday, our weekly Q&A video series.
So before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Mike’s response to the question: “What is an apostate?”
Dr. Kruger: All of us as Christians share a common experience that’s rather difficult, that we don’t often talk about, and that experience is that we often know people that we thought were believers, that we thought were Christians, that later turned out not to be. In fact, most of us, if we were to think through our life, probably know several people like this, and some may even hit close to home and be rather heartbreaking. That was true in my own life. I grew up with a youth pastor in my church that seemed to love the Lord Jesus and teach us the Bible. Then later he left the faith, renounced Christianity, and went off in a completely different direction. That was a very heartbreaking experience for me as a young man. I know we all could share stories like that.
There’s a category for that in the Bible. When someone who seems to be a Christian and who is part of the church ends up leaving the church, that person is what we call an apostate. And apostasy is a real problem out there in the world today, and that has been true for God’s people for generations. Christians often struggle: “What exactly is an apostate? How do I think about this? What categories do I put it in?” What I often tell people is you want to begin first by saying what an apostate is not.
An apostate is not just a struggling Christian.First thing to realize about an apostate is they’re not just a non-Christian. The world is filled with non-Christians, people who don’t know Jesus and who aren’t saved. That’s not an apostate. An apostate isn’t just an unbeliever out there.
Also, an apostate is not just a struggling Christian. We have many people who are Christians who love Jesus that have periods of backsliding and periods of struggle and even periods of disobedience. Think about King David in the Bible, but no one would call him an apostate.
So then what is an apostate? Well, an apostate is someone who is inside God’s covenant community, is part of the visible church, who has professed faith in Christ and seems to be a believer, probably partakes of the Lord’s Supper, and is a member of that congregation, and then later consciously, intentionally repudiates their belief in Christ and leaves the covenant community. That is what an apostate is. People get confused by that because they think, “Does this mean you can lose your salvation?” The answer is no. Apostates are not people who were Christians and then stop being Christians. Apostates were never Christians to begin with, and only later did it become apparent that they weren’t Christians.
But here’s the upshot of the whole thing for us: God uses the stories of apostates to warn his people. Time and time again, he says, “Don’t end up like that person. Don’t prove later to find yourself to be a non-Christian. Stay the course, persevere.” That doesn’t mean people can actually lose their salvation, but God uses those warnings, and he uses the examples of apostates to encourage his people to stay true to the faith. This is something that we’re always going to face in the church, but thankfully, we can trust that we’re in God’s hands. And when we’re in God’s hands, no one can be plucked out of the hands of the Father.
Holmes: In our clip, you concluded your answer by answering another question about whether we can lose our salvation. Would you expound on that in the context of Hebrews 6:4–6?
Dr. Kruger: Yeah, it’s a great question. Anytime you bring up apostasy, lingering in the background is: “Wait a second. If someone proves to be a non-Christian and falls away from the faith, does that mean people can lose their faith? That doesn’t sit well and makes me a little nervous.” They might even lose sleep at night thinking, “I don’t want to be one of those people that loses my salvation.” As I just said in the video, we believe wholeheartedly in the preservation of the saints, that when God saves a person he regenerates their heart and they can’t be plucked out of his hand.
However, there are passages that seem like that’s the case and Hebrews 6 is one of those. When people read Hebrew 6, particularly verses 4–6, they read it and they think to themselves, “Man, that sounds a lot like a Christian.” They might get a little nervous thinking, “Well, maybe we were wrong. Maybe a person can really lose their salvation after all.”
But what I tell my students, and I mentioned this also in my Bible study, is that we should expect that passage to describe what seems like a Christian, even though in the end it proves not to be because that’s exactly what an apostate is. An apostate isn’t someone who is obviously not a Christian. No, an apostate is someone who seemed very close to being a Christian, had a lot of the external markers of being a Christian, at first glance, might look like a Christian, and who probably many other people thought were Christians, but yet turned out not to be.
What we realize in that passage then is that there is nothing to be uncomfortable about. If it sounds like a person who was very close to being a Christian, I would say, “Yes, that’s exactly what an apostate is, someone who seemed like a Christian, but in the end, turns out actually not to be one.” So it doesn’t really threaten the security of our salvation, but does remind us that apostasy is real, and it’s a problem we need to take seriously.
Holmes: Yeah, absolutely. Apostasy, in that sense, when you have a proper understanding of it, can be a bit nerve-wracking for some Christians. Satan can really use it not as a warning, which is what I think it properly should be taken as, but he can use it as a way to discourage and to cause fear, which is not of God. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of former pastors and preachers who were extremely gifted in the preaching and teaching of the Word, nationally recognized. Then they walked away from the faith. How does someone know that they’ve become an apostate? Or maybe another way to ask, because this is ultimately what an apostate does not do, how would someone know if their repentance is genuine?
Dr. Kruger: You’re certainly right that there’s a lot of public cases out there. In recent years, it just seems like there’s a whole slate of them, of people renouncing their faith and starting off on a whole new trajectory and saying, “I don’t believe that anymore.” Of course, I remind people it’s always been that way. There’s always been apostates, it’s just that you hear about them a lot more in our modern world with social media and everybody wanting to share their story. It comes up a good bit. But people can get a little anxious about it, and one thing I would say is that when people are anxious, that sometimes we’re anxious because we’re not used to the whole concept of self-reflection and the whole concept of analyzing our hearts. I think one of the things the book of Hebrews does and the theme of apostasy does is that it says it’s appropriate and right to take a hard look at your heart and to ask whether you have a believing or an unbelieving heart, to do some self-analysis.
It’s appropriate and right to take a hard look at your heart and to ask whether you have a believing or an unbelieving heart.I think our culture is the kind, particularly in the American West, where we just assume, “Well, I guess I grew up in a Christian home, and I have Christian parents. No reason to do any real self-analysis.” But when you look at the history of the church, particularly in the era of the Puritans, they’re always calling people to do some real hard diagnostics of your heart. The book of Hebrews is basically calling us to do that. That’s not calling us to despair, it’s not calling us to be unreasonably afraid, but it is calling us to be honest with ourselves.
You ask the question, “How does someone know they’re an apostate?” Part of the apostasy is ultimately rejecting Christ and leaving the church. If someone has done that, then obviously they would be in the category of an apostate. If they haven’t, then they’re still in the game, so to speak, and the book of Hebrews would say, “Keep running the race, stay in the fight, don’t give up. It can be hard, but the key is just to not stop.”
Holmes: That’s super helpful. My next question is related to the great apostasy. You just mentioned that it seems like it’s happening a lot these days, and with all that is going on in the world (and this happens again all the time, like we always think that now is when Jesus is coming back), but a lot of people could draw the line and say this means that Jesus is about to return. My question for you is, biblically, will there be a great apostasy during the end time? Will we see a higher number of apostates, and is that a sign that Jesus is returning soon, according to Scripture?
Dr. Kruger: I think that’s a difficult question to answer. I think I would say several l things, though. I think there’s good reason to think there’s going to be significant heightened trials, heightened challenges the church faces right before Christ returns. I think there’s reasons to think in the book of Revelation and other places that part of those heightened trials and challenges will be a massive persecution, which usually leads to apostasy. There’s a relationship between persecution and apostasy, and we see that historically and we see it in the modern day. When people suffer for lots of reasons, and they end up leaving the faith. You add that persecution, and it’s a winnowing of the church, it’s a purifying of the church.
It’s going to look very discouraging for believers, and this is a good reminder to the believers out there. You see these people leaving, leaving, leaving, and you think, “Wow, we’re losing, losing, losing.” But you have to realize from God’s perspective, these people were never actually part of this invisible church, so to speak. They were never actually Christians in the first place. The winnowing you’re seeing, the purifying you’re seeing, is actually just taking out the inauthentic Christians and leaving behind the true Christians. That actually can be healthy for the church. She needs a purging, so to speak.
In the Bible Belt American West that particularly probably is the case because you just can’t sometimes tell the difference between Christian and non-Christian anymore because it’s all blurred together. Whereas once persecution hits, then it’s not so easy to do anymore, just to be a social Christian. The difference is going to be much more obvious. So, yeah, it’s going to sting. it’s going to hurt, but I think that kind of purging is going to be in the end a blessing.
Holmes: One of the other episodes that you’ve done for us (I don’t know how you’re going to answer this, but I think it is relevant because of the season that we’re in) is when we asked you the last time four years ago: is it biblical to be a Democrat or a Republican? Does a Christian have to choose a particular party? The reason why I ask that in this context is because it seems to me that how you vote has become even more intertwined when it comes to whether or not you are a believer. Do you remember what you said in that original video?
Dr. Kruger: I think I could dust off my memory a little bit and recall it. One of the things I say about voting, and certainly this is a big year that we’re all thinking about that, is there’s nothing in the Bible that says you’re you’re obligated to vote for party X or party Y, obviously. But I think we do have obligations in the Bible to be wise in who we vote for and to pick either a candidate or a party. It’s very confusing to people whether you’re voting for a candidate or a platform. I’m not going to try to get into that right now, but we have to realize individuals may see things differently. Some people think they’re voting for a person. Some people, they’re voting for policies.
Our obligation as Christians is to look for candidates, platforms, or policies that are as close to the biblical worldview as we can get.Regardless, I think our obligation as Christians is to look for candidates, platforms, or policies that are as close to the biblical worldview as we can get. We want to be choosing a path that we think is as consistent with Scripture as we can we can find. Now, that said, there is no party that’s perfectly consistent with Scripture because we have fallen, broken parties. So I think where the debate should lie is we need to seek as much of a biblical candidate and platform as we can. And you know what? There’s going to be disagreement on that. People do disagree on that. But what I always encourage people to do is to not so much get stressed out about disagreeing who’s closer, but to realize that at least you’re in the right place when that’s the nature of the discussion. The nature of discussion ought to be: what does the Bible’s teaching suggest is the course of action we should take here? Rather than this “take the Bible out of the equation” move where no one wants to pretend like it’s relevant. I think it is relevant. I’m happy to have people in different places; I just think we just need to continue to strive as best we can under God’s wisdom to try to pursue something as close to Scripture as we can get.
Holmes: I think that’s super helpful, and I think that’s a great answer because a lot of what I’m observing is concerning, and it’s a lot more extreme than what we’ve seen in the past. Part of me wonders—because I’m tying this back in as well, because you just talked about persecution—part of me wonders if Christians are so afraid of persecution that I think this is a helpful question: can we be so afraid of persecution that it causes us to compromise to avoid persecution?
Dr. Kruger: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s exactly the case. I think the history of the church bears that out. I think our own personal lives bear that out. I mean, it’s unfortunate how much our fear of opposition guides our life, guides what we do and say and even guides what we believe. As I said a minute ago, severe opposition can even lead people to abandon the faith entirely. As we head into a very uncertain waters in 2020, election year and beyond, I think that the lesson for all of us is—and the book of Hebrews picks up on this—we’ve got to keep our eye on the finish line and keep running the race. You know, Hebrews 12, let the great cloud of witnesses around us cheer us on as we run the race towards Jesus and not get distracted by all these things that can entangle us and keep us from running the race well, whether it be persecutions or anything else. It’s a time to, in old King James, gird up our loins, so to speak and run the race faithfully.
It’s going to be harder and harder to do that regardless of what happens in this election. I don’t really know, of course, no one knows what’s going to happen in this election, but I’m convinced that regardless of what happens in this election, it’s going to be a very hard year for Christians.
Holmes: Absolutely. Because the reality is, from what I’m noticing in the culture, this is in a lot of ways a lose-lose situation for us. One of the things that you just mentioned, and I didn’t plan on talking about or bringing up politics at all, but I know that one of the big things that is motivating a lot of Christians in how they process each candidate is which candidate is going to benefit the Christian church. I think in a lot of ways they’re thinking about that on a very surface level.
Because policies do matter, absolutely. My personal political convictions are—and I’m pretty vocal about this—pretty conservative, like probably more conservative than most people are comfortable with. As an African American, people are surprised by that. But at the same time, I also care about issues of justice as well. I associate and talk to and engage people in politics who are passionate about justice as well. But then as a Christian, not only am I passionate about issues of justice, I’m passionate about seeing the church thrive in a free society. I’m also passionate about leadership and character. I think all of those things have to come to bear when we’re thinking about, as you just mentioned, we have to think about the candidate because the person matters. We also have to think about the policy because the policy matters. I think when we take all of those factors into play, there is essentially no room to, especially because the Bible doesn’t do it, bind the conscience. Only if you have someone who was violating them all.
Even then you want to have discussions, you want to have dialogue, but we have to be very careful not to go too far. We also need to make sure that we’re thinking deeply about these things so that we’re not picking a side in order to preserve Christianity because the reality is Jesus preserves Christianity, not a political candidate.
Dr. Kruger: To build on that, in my book, Christianity at the Crossroads, which was mentioned in the intro, I do quite a bit of work on the relationship between Christians and the state in the second century, and it’s fascinating to watch. I think everybody knows intuitively that Christians were vastly in the minority, vastly out of power. They were persecuted and marginalized group. If you think about whether political power is necessary for the church to thrive, the early centuries of the church thwart that idea pretty rapidly because they show that even in the midst of all that lack of any sort of worldly power, the church grew, grew, grew, and grew in remarkable ways.
God can be growing the church in the midst of lack of political influence and arguably sometimes even grows it better in the midst of lack of political influence.Now I’m not suggesting, therefore, that we don’t want to see government change in biblical ways. That’s not suggesting that we don’t care who the leaders are. I’m only pointing out merely that if we lack political influence, that that does not necessarily mean that God is not growing the church. God can be growing the church in the midst of lack of political influence and arguably sometimes even grows it better in the midst of lack of political influence. Those are very complicated things, but for those who want to read more about it, my book covers a good bit of that on the second century.
Holmes: That’s perfect, and I really appreciate that. I want to check that out. IVP tends to put out some really good books, especially when they’re dealing with cultural issues, so I’m looking forward to specifically reading that one. Especially I love reading the ones by the people that I trust and respect already. So I’m looking forward to checking that out because I’m really interested in analyzing what is going on right now and what can church history or how can church history inform what we’re seeing in the culture today? Because I think, as you just mentioned, there are interesting times ahead. I think prayer is going to be extremely important. I think self-examination is going to be extremely important because I fear that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of apostates that are among us. I plan to examine my heart and examine my motives with Scripture as much as I can in hopes that I’m not one of them, and I hope that all of our listeners would do the same.
Any final thoughts, Dr. Kruger? I want to make sure you have the last word.
Dr. Kruger: Circling back around to that apostasy theme, obviously we mentioned it’s a theme of the book of Hebrews, it could be a cultural theme, has been a cultural theme. And back to the point I made about the lessons of the early church, the way they stayed the course wasn’t so much about trying to acquire political power, but their number one thing is: we’re just not going to compromise what we believe. This was their number one thing. We are going to stay true to what we believe in terms of doctrine, but also what they believe about how to live. They were going to live like a Christian, and they were going to believe like a Christian, regardless of how high the waters were rising.
It’s a very simple goal really, and a lot more simple than the goal most people set for people. Sometimes you feel like as a Christian in the modern world that you’re not doing enough to save the world and change the world and affect the culture. That can become debilitating for people because they’re like, “I’m just one person. Is it really my job to do all that? What is my job exactly?” I’m not suggesting it’s incorrect to want to see those things happen, but for the average Christian, sometimes I just need to be told, “Look, hold your ground, live like a Christian, and keep believing what Christians believe, and that is more significant than you think it is.” That probably would be a good final word from me.
Holmes: Thank you, Dr. Kruger. Thank you guys so much for tuning in this week, and we hope that you enjoyed this episode featuring Dr. Mike Kruger. I would also like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, donors, and many, many others for the many ways you guys make the work that we do at Reformed Theological Seminary possible.
The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind and Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.