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How Martin Luther Changed the World (Part 1 of 2)

How Martin Luther Changed the World (Part 1 of 2)

Author Eric Metaxas offers a fascinating look at the life of Martin Luther, the 16th-century monk and theology professor who started the Protestant Reformation and had a direct and indelible impact on the way we practice Christianity today. (Part 1 of 2)


Jim Daly: This is Jim Daly with Focus on the Family. Our hearts go out to each of you in Las Vegas and the surrounding area. The entire country is reeling from the terrible news of Sunday night’s shooting. Please know that you are being lifted up in prayer. Your families and friends are also being lifted up. If you are facing the tragic loss of a loved one or have people in your life suffering from injuries due to this senseless act of violence, we’re there for you. We have caring Christian counselors that we want to make available to help you through this difficult time. Parents who don’t know how to talk to their kids about what’s happening, we want to be there for you. So call us at Focus on the Family at 1-800-A-FAMILY. That’s 1-800-A-FAMILY. We can’t explain all the senseless violence that’s going on other than the realization that God is a God of peace and He hates bloodshed. And for all of us right now, we need to lean into Him and understand the world we live in as evil. But He has overcome the evil one.


Eric Metaxas: I think the story of Martin Luther’s life is a very entertaining story because he was such a colorful figure. And so you’re spending time with a human being who is at some times very pious and super focused on God; other times, he’s cracking rude jokes and I think he’s a good model for us, in a way, to realize that you don’t check your humanity at the door when you run after God more zealously– in a way it makes you more human.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Eric Metaxas is our guest today on Focus on the Family and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.

Jim: John, here’s something you might not know– I didn’t know this– but this month commemorates the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day. That’s the day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany and revolutionized forever what it means to be a Christ-follower and to live that faith out in the culture. Most of us know very little or nothing at all about him, yet, because of his life, the way we read our Bible, the structure of our church services, how people of faith view marriage and how we practice our faith in relationship to politics and all other spheres of influence is really set by him– these were his thoughts and ideas, his influence. So today we’re all gonna revisit history with one of my favorite biographers, Eric Metaxas, and learn how we can all better live out our faith. Eric is one of the most knowledgeable guys I know on this subject and several others.

John: Yeah, he really is an expert in whatever he puts his hand to.

Jim: He is.

John: And he’s a prolific author and his latest book is called simply, Martin Luther. You’re gonna find that and a CD or download of our conversation at or call 800-A-FAMILY. And Jim, you and I were in a hotel room with Eric in New York City–

Jim: A noisy one! (laughter)

John: It was! There was some city noise, but also, as it would happen, we are right next to an elevator and so our listeners may hear a little bit of that noise in the background. Shouldn’t be distracting. Let’s go ahead and hear the conversation with Eric Metaxas on Focus on the Family.


Jim: Eric, it is great to have you back to Focus via New York.

Eric: Well, thank you for coming to my noisy city. (Laughter) And I just want to encourage you. First of all, the noise makes me feel at home.

Jim: You know, you get out on the plains in Colorado, it’s pretty quiet.

Eric: It’s so quiet, I go to sleep (Laughter) really.

Jim: You need to come out there more often.

Eric: Every time I get out to those plains, I … I fall asleep. I … I um … I gotta say that you said earlier that I’m, you know, one of the most knowledgeable people about Luther and I just want to correct you and say, I’m just one of the most knowledge people generally speaking (Laughter) on every subject (Laughter) just … just to let you know up front.

Jim: You know—

Eric: If you want to ask me about something besides Luther, believe me—

Jim: –that’s why—

Eric: –I’ve got the answers right here. (Laughter)

Jim: –that’s why we love to have you on Focus on the Family.

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: First of all, it’s just your humility. (Laughter)

Eric: Thank you.

Jim: I mean, it’s quite [apparent].

Eric: Thank … by the way and I don’t mind saying this, I’m probably the most humble person you’ll ever meet. (Laughter) That’s a fact.

Jim: Well—

Eric: That’s a fact.

Jim: –we’ll talk later.

Eric: Thank you.

Jim: But for now, let’s talk about Martin Luther. Many people may not even truly know—

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: –when he lived. They may know his name and some of what the Reformation meant.

Eric: When I say I’m writing a book on Martin Luther, there are many people who say, “Uh … you mean, Mar … Martin Luther King Jr.?”

Jim: Right.

Eric: And I have to say no, Martin Luther. Now people who know Luther cannot believe that’s true, but I promise you, many people, some of them blood relatives, have said to me, “Who’s Martin Luther?” They don’t know who this is and that actually made me all the happier that I’m writing this book on him, because he is such an important figure in world history that everybody should know who he is the way you know who Columbus is or Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar.

Jim: But so often, especially 500 years back—

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: –we’re not going to know details, what was the setting he lived in?

Eric: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: What were the controversies of the time? So, let’s fill—

Eric: Look at the background.

Jim: –in the blanks. It’s been 500 years. Martin Luther is so significant to the church. Who was he?

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: What was the setting and what did he do?

Eric: Well, the nutshell version is simply this. We … we know that there was a schism in Christianity in the 11thcentury. The East and the West split. So, we have the Eastern Orthodox Church and then we have the Western church.

The Western church was the Roman Catholic Church. It was in Rome or was … Rome was the center. They had the pope. And so, Western Europe, Western Christendom was monolithic. There was no variety. You had the pope. You had the Catholic church. There was zero dissent. All you had was that.

And part of the reason was because in those days– and we don’t really have this anymore– in those days, power and the church -truth- were allied. There was no daylight between the power of the church and the power of the state. They were kind of, you know, melted together as one.

So, if you had some different theological ideas in let’s say the 1300’s, uh … you would be crushed. The power of the State and the power of the Church, you would just be crushed. So, the Catholic church for all those years, for good and for ill—it wasn’t only for ill—but they maintained this, you know, hegemony.

And um … there were a number of people who tried to reform the church over the centuries. You have Saint Francis. I mean, he didn’t reform the church and break things up or get burned at the stake. I mean, he reformed the church in a way that most Catholics of that day applauded him and so on and so forth, but there were all these reformed movement because they understood that things weren’t always the way they should be.

Jim: Hmm.

Eric: So along comes a monk named Martin Luther. He was a humble Augustinian monk in Germany. He’s often … there’s a lot of myth that’s built up around this great figure, Martin Luther. So, he’s described as the son of humble peasants. His father’s a miner and all this stuff. That’s not true.

In my book, I kinda reveal a few new things. One of the things I reveal is that, that’s really not true. His father was an entrepreneur in the mining business. So, he grew up and his father had big plans for his brilliant son, Martin, his oldest son, to be a lawyer and to help in the family business.

So, uh … he goes to university. First person in his family to go to the university. He learns Latin. He’s brilliant, then he goes off to Erfurt University. And then he goes to the law school. And he just begins studying law when he has this moment.

Long story short, he’s in a thunderstorm andhe is frightened almost to death. He thinks that I’m gonna go into eternity. I’m gonna be struck by lightning and I … he doesn’t know the condition of his soul. So, at that moment he blurts out, “Saint Anne,” who was the patron saint of miners and it was Saint Anne. “Save me; I will become a monk.” He makes this vow.

And he was a man of such integrity that after he made this vow and he walked, you know, picked himself up and walked to the university, he said, I made a vow and I’m gonna keep this vow. I made the vow to God, to Saint Anne. I’m gonna become a monk. I’m leaving life as this law student.

So, he becomes a monk. His father is enraged– long story– but Luther now takes on the life of an Augustinian monk. He’s super brilliantand he starts to read the Bible and study the Bible. In those days, people didn’t think ofthe Bible. Let’s remember, printing was invented in 1453, 1454 … so, the Guttenberg Bible was this incredible, huge expensive thing. There weren’t a lot of Bibles hangin’ out in hotel room drawers or anything, right?

So, Luther becomes a student of the Bible and over time he discovers a number of things. I’ll save it for later, but the … but here’s the bottom line. In 1517, there’s this thing happening called “indulgences.” And I can just talk about that a little bit more later, but the bottom line is that Luther saw that something was happening in the church where people would really say, if you pay some money, the church will forgive your sins. And it’s a little complicated, but that’s the bottom line and it was leading the faithful astray.

And Luther, as a theologian and as a monk said, the church needs to face this problem and I, as a humble, loving son of the church, want to bring this information to the attention of the pope. We’ve got to fix this. The church needs to be … we have to fix this.

So, he puts these theses—95 theses—on the door of the Wittenberg Church, Castle Church to instigate a debate. He’s not looking to make history. He just wants to have an—

Jim: Discussion.

Eric: –academic debate and a discussion on this issue. And it leads to this explosion, because instead of getting this amicable, “Hey, thanks for lettin’ us know about this, Brother Martin,” he instead is effectively told, “Shut up; we don’t want to hear it.” That’s … again, that’s a longer story.

But this leads him to dig in his heels more and more and more and finally, at the infamously named Diet of Worms, it’s a city called Worms and the “diet” is this really, the imperial gathering where the emperor and all the nobles gather in 1521. He is hauled before them to recant what he has … these terrible things he’s been saying and he says, “Unless you show me from the Scriptures, I cannot recant.” And then the famous line, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me, amen.”

And so, this is this moment in history where he has defied the pope and Rome. He has defied the emperor, the Holy Roman emperor, so he becomes an outlaw and what follows from there is crazy, because you now have all of Europe up in arms over this issue. Do you side with Luther or do you side with the pope?

Some princes uh … and some dukes sided with Luther, so it becomes political. It … I mean, it absolutely changed Europe and over the course of the next 10, 20, 30 years, Europe was completely shattered. It used to be this monolith of Roman Catholicism and now it was this patchwork quilt and there were other dissents that grew out of the Lutheran dissent.

So, instead of now having two churches—the Catholic church and Lutheran church—before you know it, you have a Swiss church under Calvin and then you have an English church, you know. It really …

Jim: Denominationalism.

Eric: Different denominations.

Jim: Right.

Eric: So, this just blew things into the future. So, everything we take for granted today came from this really unwitting, benign moment when this man really tacked up a memo on the bulletin board. That’s basically what he was doing in … on October 31st, 1517. It’s the day that opened the door to the future.

Jim: Eric, let me ask you this. Those theses, uh … it was more than just the indulgences.

Eric: Yeah.

Jim: That was part of it, but then once things broke loose and he was excommunicated, there were other elements of service that he reordered, restructured.

Eric: Oh, I mean—

Jim: Describe some of that—

Eric: –it … it—

Jim: –because …

Eric: –it’s hilarious. Well, what happened, that’s the whole point is that, you know, he … he comes in because he couldn’t remain silent on the indulgences. The indulgences was [sic] so foul and corrupt to him.

Jim: That was the core problem.

Eric: And it was the core problem. Well, it … it’s not even that it was the core problem. It was like, it was the … the most important manifestation of this deep problem.

So, in the mess, all this stuff comes out. So by the time you get to 1521, Luther has in subsequent debate over these four years, brought up other things that he kind of, in the heat of debate, was forced to bring up. In other words, let’s say the church would say to him, “Hey, you know, big mouth, did you not notice that if the pope says something, that’s papal law? That’s church law.”

And Luther [said], “Oh, no, no, no, no. The church has councils and the church has the papal decrees. And over the centuries we have examples where they have been in error.” Now he’s just looking at history so he’s saying, “It’s okay for a … a humble member of the church to bring this up. I’m not saying anything new.” And they’re saying, “Oh, yes, you are. You better shut up. If you say something against the pope or against the papal decrees or whatever.”

So, this led to him saying things, as I said, in the heat of debate like, “We have had church councils that have been in error.” This was like, “What!?” They said, “You …”, now he’s a heretic. As soon as he said we have had church councils with all the cardinals and everybody and … and you’re saying that they have been in error? All of the faithful will lose their faith. You can’t make a statement– you’re undermining the authority of the church. You’re undermining the authority of the pope.

Luther was doing that, but he wasn’t doing it to cause trouble. He was doing it to say, it … it’s as if we said that the President has to abide by these laws and by Congress and whatever. He’s not a dictator. The pope had kind of become like a dictator, but the rules said, no, that the pope in his own way is under the authority of the Scriptures and all these kinds of … so, Luther—

Jim: Right.

Eric: –is forcing them to deal with this and the more he forces them to deal with it, the more they tell him, “Shut up; we’re gonna burn you at the stake.” And the more they say that to him, the more outspoken he is about denouncing the church and denouncing it. So, it leads to all kinds of other problems, including in 1521 when they basically excommunicated him.

Jim: Right.

Eric: He said … he took the … the Papal Bull, which is this document. The “bull” is … it’s a “bulla.” It means a document. And he burned the Papal Bull. I mean, you want to talk about in your face actions. But he said over four years he felt that the pope had become a vessel of the Antichrist. In other words, he said,”I know what the church has taught. I know what the Scriptures say. The pope and Rome are so deeply involved in protecting their power that if I do not speak against them, God will hold me accountable.”

So, he was much more afraid of God holding him accountable than the pope sending him to be burned at the stake.

Jim: Right and that raises a questions for me, is how did this change Martin Luther, going through this process, incredible scrutiny? And you know, to be fair, we have both, mostly Protestant folks listening, but we do have some Catholic friends that listen to the program.

Eric: Well, listen; I’m a very pro-Catholic non-Catholic. I always say that. I’m the most pro-Catholic non-Catholic you’ll meet. So, this book, uh … I will probably, you know, you can read the dedication of the book to see how I feel about the Catholics, because I really feel that it’s important to understand that Luther was trying to be a good Catholic. He was not trying to go against the church.

And so, when the church came after him, he felt that the church was going after the church. He didn’t think that they … they … it wasn’t about Rome. It was about God and the truth and the church.

Jim: Well, and they weren’t taking his claims seriously enough to say, “Let’s look first at our own situation. Where are we erring?” which is a … a wonderful Christian principle.

Eric: And by the way, in the last 500 years, guess what? The Catholic church has adopted many, many of the reforms that Luther brought about. So, they have over time acknowledged that he was on to some things, even though many uh … hard core Catholics hate Luther, they still have acknowledged that he has brought about some great changes over time.

Jim: And … and in the end of the process, Martin Luther again, specifically to the question, how did it change him?

Eric: Well, his … his intensity changed. I mean, in the beginning, his intensity was focused on piety, right. In fact, we have to go back before 1517 when he was just a monk doing his, you know, “monkery.” He was obsessed with salvation. How can I be holy? How can I pray harder? How can I confess every single sin? Because I don’t want to go to hell. I want to be holy. I want to … so, he became so obsessed with, in a sense, ‘achieving’ salvation through piety and prayer and confession, that he more than anyone else, saw that it was impossible.

He lived out, what we always talk about, how you know, the gospel and the Decalogue, the … the rules of the Law, not the gospels. The rules of the Law, the Old Testament law exist primarily to show you, you cannot fulfill them.

Jim: Right.

Eric: To drive you to God, right? Luther lived that out. He was a monk. I mean, imagine. He didn’t have to become a monk. He said, “I want … I fear for my salvation. I know what I’ll do. I must become a monk. I become a monk.” Then he’s a monk and he realizes, I have only crossed the starting line. I’m not done. Now …

Jim: Was that because he was at law school? (Laughter)

Eric: Ha! Well, you know, I do think that there were many issues. First of all I think that it’s the same with Bonhoeffer. You … if you look back at their life, you realize that they had a kind of a sensitivity to the things of God all the way back and that in a way, he was trying to please his father. One major way you please God is by honoring your mother and your father. And so, he thought, I have to honor my father.

But it became untenable. At some point he realized, I think he had a … I mention all this in my book, but a … a colleague of his died. Then two other members in the law school, two law professors died young. He’s really thinking, “Wow! What if I die tomorrow? Did I waste my life? Am I thinking about the most important thing in the world, which is my salvation?” I mean, it was haunting him.

So, when he becomes a monk in 1505, he goes into the monastery and he goes crazy, literally and figuratively, trying to fulfill the Law, praying harder than anybody else, praying that the … what they call the Daily Office. It’s seven times a day, praying and praying and praying and praying.

So, he redoubles his efforts; he redoubles his efforts and at the same time, he’s studying the Scriptures. And then in the Scriptures, because imagine if you feel … if I studied the Scriptures, maybe I’ll find the key, the golden key to my salvation. What am I missing? Why am I failing?

And he does. One day, it really wasn’t ‘one’ day, but over some time he comes to that passage in Romans and a few other passages where he realizes it is byfaiththat we please God. It is by faith, by faith, by faith. And he realizes all I have to do is believe in Christ. That’s it. It’s not about me uh–

Jim: After all this.

Eric: –doing, but it took him not only living it, but then searching the Scriptures. And keep in mind, very few people, if any, were searching the Scriptures with the rigor of Martin Luther. He was a genius and he studied the Scriptures more than anyone in his era. That’s a fact.

So, he is digging and digging and digging and teaching the Scriptures every day. He was teaching theology, teaching every day, every day. And he came up with these things and he finally realizes, here it is. The theology of the Bible says, it is by faith.

And over time, it … he didn’t kinda blurt it out all at once, but over time, starting in 1517, he worked out these issues of what does it mean if it’s by faith we’re saved? What does it mean for this? What does it mean for this? What does it mean for this?

Eventually, it led him to believe that the whole world of monasteries and the nunneries was leading people astray. And so, it … it led him to kinda blow that up. It led him to say priests should … should be able to be married.

Jim: And he married.

Eric: And … and he ma … he married a runaway nun..

Jim: I mean, that … that’s fascinating that, that shift—

Eric: Well, it’s funny.

Jim: –is for him.

Eric: It’s even more fascinating when you recognize that he masterminded her escape from the nunnery. A lot of the … it’s funny, ‘cause I didn’t set out writing this book to find out new things, but in the course of going over stuff, I did find out some new things or some things that aren’t in a lot of theother biographies and one of ‘em is that he masterminded the escape of these 12 nuns from the Nimbschen monastery because he actually felt—it’s fascinating—he actually felt that it’s as if they’re being imprisoned against their will.

They were brought to the nunnery maybe when they were 5 or 8. They had no choice in the matter. And he felt it was the natural outworking of your humanity under God to have sex, to marry, to have children. He said, “If you’re denying people this and it wasn’t their free will, you’re sinning against God. That these women should get married, should have families. You’re keeping them under lock and key. It was a crime, a capital crime to let a nun escape from a … I mean, it’s an amazing thing.

Jim: Yeah.

Eric: So … so he said, this is against God and I want to free these nuns. And so, the Nimbschen monastery, which was not very, very far away, but he had a hand in working with somebody to let them … for those who wanted to escape, to escape.

But they were genuinely being held against their will. If you said, “I want to leave the monastery. I’m 25 years old and I’ve come to believe that when I was brought here at age 7, this was a mistake and I don’t believe any of this,” they would not let you out for your life.

I mean, so … so he masterminded the freedom of these 12 nuns and where did they go? Of course, they came to Wittenberg. Where do you go? You go to the center of, you know, this … where this all started. And all these people are pouring in.Monksare escaping and pouring into Wittenberg. What do you do with them? Nuns are pouring in.

Well, the nuns, they tried to get them all married off, but there was one stubborn nun, Katharina von Bora, who refused uh … to marry the person they kind of set her up with, because they thought of him as kind of a … kind of an old miser, a skin flint, not somebody that was very attractive to her.

Uh … the person she fell in love with, his parents didn’t want him to marry a runaway nun. He would lose his, you know, status in society. So, at some point she said, “Well, I … there are really only two people I would marry; you—she’s talking to Bugenhagen, I think; he’s a colleague of Luther’s—or, uh … Dr. Luther.

She actually kind of made the proposal. And she had that kind of a character. She was sort of outspoken. And so, Luther, uh … he kept saying, “I’ll never marry; I’ll never marry. You’re not gonna suck me into that, no way.”

And ultimately, he decided to marry her, but it wasn’t because he was madly in love. It wasn’t because he had lust. He really felt he would honor God through marriage and through having a family and that the best way to kick the devil in the teeth and at this point, to kick the pope in the teeth, is to marry and have a family. And if he married a nun, all the better.

Jim: Uh … it’s an amazing thing to think of these people as normal human beings in so many ways. But at the same time, their humanity is coming out in this book that you’ve done.

Eric: That’s … you know what?

Jim: And that’s a beautiful thing.

Eric: It’s funny, because if you think about it, that’s … if you want to sum up Luther’s theology, that is the summation of his theology, is that God came to redeem humanity, not to make us angels, not to replace us with holy uh … ghosts, but to redeem our humanity, in our filth, in our sexuality and with our blood and with our … I mean, we … all of this, God came to redeem it. He came into a filthy stable.

Luther realized that something had happened over the centuries, where the church was trying to replace our humanity with something holy. And he said, “No, no, no, God … Jesus came to redeem our humanity, to redeem family, to redeem sexuality, to redeem everything, not to push it away.”

And … and he saw this division. Look, you see this in the Protestant church in different sects and some more fundamentalist sects or more separatist sects, the … you realize that there’s a fine line between saying, “I want to live for God; I want to be … live holy unto God. I want to be separated from the world.” There’s a fine line between that and going so far away from the world that you are really becoming the kind ofasceticwho is refusing to deal with your humanity.

Jim: Right.

Eric: And Luther saw that this had reached a high pitch of heresy in his mind in the Roman Catholic Church. I mean, to require priests to be celibate, he said, “Why? This was … this doesn’t make sense. Why would you require nuns to be celibate?”

In other words, what have you done with your theology that you’re making two categories of citizens holy people who deny everything. They’re called “priests” and “monks” and “nuns.” And then everybody else who basically live like slobs and bums and they … we don’t treat them as though we expect anything out of them except ‘do as you’re told.’ Go to the church. Say your confession.

But he said something’s wrong here. We have to make the priests and the nuns and whatever become more human. And we have to make the people in the pews understand they need to be more holy. And so, he really was … his theology was all about re … God came to redeem humanity.

Jim: Yeah. Eric, I think it’d be good uh … to come back next time. Let’s … let’s, if we can, let’s spend a little more time on this, come back and talk about the impact Luther had on people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You wrote that brilliant biography and I’d love to know those connections and to really suss out how Martin Luther’s impact still is with us today and how we need to notice it and to take notice of it and apply it. Can we do that?

Eric: I would be delighted.


John: Certainly a lively, informative conversation with Eric Metaxas about his book, Martin Luther, on Focus on the Family. You’ll find that book and a CD or download of this conversation at or call for details, 800-A-FAMILY. And we rely on your financial support. If you’ve benefitted from our work here, let us know by making a generous gift to the work of Focus on the Family to bring to light these kinds of great historical figures of the faith and to help families with everyday common concerns. Make a generous contribution of any amount today and we’ll send a copy of Eric’s book, Martin Luther, and we’ll also include a CD of this two-part conversation. It’s our way of saying thank you for joining the support team and enabling us to continue on with our mission.

And, you know, we’ve been talking about living out our faith in the culture boldly and we want to empower you and your children to do something this week– it’s not too late to sign up for and participate in Bring Your Bible to School Day. That’s on Thursday, the 5th and it’s a really easy way for your children to express their religious beliefs in the school setting. You can find out more at

On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller inviting you back next time as we once again continue the conversation with Eric Metaxas and help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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