September 11, 2001, was the day before my twenty-first birthday. I was leaving my first collegiate Classical Greek class when I heard someone say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He didn’t sound shocked; just intrigued. I assumed it must have been a small plane, surely an accident, perhaps even no fatalities. I walked back to the dorms, enjoying a few more minutes of peace.
That peace ended on my hall. Doors were open, televisions on. Shock and horror were plain. Now another plane — passenger jets? — had hit the other tower. This was coordinated terrorism, and the nation seemed under attack. We waited to learn whether more planes had been highjacked, whether more assaults would come.
As we come to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I suspect many readers have those first horrific moments emblazoned in their memory — where you were, how you heard, what you did for the next several hours. Most, like me, were tucked safely away from America’s largest cities. I can only imagine the experience of those hours, and days, in New York and DC.
Doubtless we remember the day far more than the ensuing weeks, but much was changing in those days. News was changing. Air travel was changing. New and deeper fears were stirring. And many of the changes are still felt and seen today, two decades later. As others pay tribute, and tell of those who died, of how it profoundly affected a nation, and the world, and the ripple effects that followed, my particular interest is theological. What mark did 9/11 leave on our faith?
God Without Christ
In those days, many Christians, churches, and ministries asked fresh questions with deeper interest — about the sovereignty of God, and the problem of evil, and the reality of Islam, the world’s second largest religion. But at the ministry of Desiring God specifically, the enduring theological legacy of 9/11 has been a deeper and more deliberate Christ-centeredness.
“The enduring theological legacy of 9/11 for us has been a deeper and more deliberate Christ-centeredness.”
A year and a half after the attacks, I was in my final month of college when I read a copy of Don’t Waste Your Life, which released that year. I can still picture the top of page 38, the words now emblazoned in my mind like images from 9/11.
I was familiar with John Piper’s own story in chapters 1 and 2 of becoming a “Christian Hedonist” and discovering the life-transforming truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Now what I found on page 38 was new — at least new clarity, new precision, new explicitness. I had not heard Piper zero in so particularly before, at least in this way, with a seriousness about Christ-centeredness. Writing a little over a year after 9/11, he said,
Since September 11, 2001, I have seen more clearly than ever how essential it is to exult explicitly in the excellence of Christ crucified for sinners and risen from the dead. Christ must be explicit in all our God-talk. It will not do, in this day of pluralism, to talk about the glory of God in vague ways. God without Christ is no God. And a no-God cannot save or satisfy the soul. Following a no-God — whatever his name or whatever his religion — will be a wasted life. God-in-Christ is the only true God and the only path to joy. Everything I have said so far must now be related to Christ.
As Christians living in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we often took “God” for granted as the Christian God — the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even in cities like Minneapolis, and all the more in rural areas, God was assumed to be the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But 9/11 struck us right between the eyes — with terror inflicted by professing monotheists. To many of us, Islam had seemed so distant. Now, all of a sudden, it felt so close, and threatening. And theologically, the question that churches and ministries and Christian publications wrestled with in those days was, Is the God of Islam the Father of Jesus?
Bracing clarity awaited us. The New Testament was not birthed in the presumptions of increasingly post-Christian times. Rather, the early church was at the margins. The first-century world was flagrantly pluralistic. Now, in the harsh wake of the attacks, we began to see explicit, even shocking, Christ-centeredness from the Gospels to Revelation — and its profound relevance to the pluralism of our days.
The One Who Rejects Me
Jesus himself made it stark: “The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). To reject Jesus on his own terms, as Islam does, is to reject the one, true God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“To reject Jesus on his own terms, as Islam does, is to reject the one, true God.”
Again and again, the events of Acts turn not on mere monotheism, or the name of Yahweh, but on the name of Jesus. We also were awakened, Desiring God included, to the striking Christ-centeredness we often overlooked in the Epistles. Amazingly, not only did “God the Father” now appear alongside “our Lord Jesus Christ” (more than fifteen times), but he was defined as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 11:31; Ephesians 1:3, 17; Colossians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3).
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly explicit about Christ, and his supremacy, in its God-talk. In perhaps the most stunningly Christ-centered six consecutive verses in all the Bible, Paul celebrates Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” and the one in whom, and through whom, and for whom, all things were made and exist — “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15–17). And not just this exhaustively in creation, but also in redemption — all salvation is in him, and through him, and for him (Colossians 1:18–20).
Later, Paul goes as far as to say, sweepingly, “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11), and the apostle takes the all-encompassing charge of “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and makes it explicitly Christ-centered: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Litmus Test for All
It was not just Colossians that we turned to afresh in those post-9/11 days. It was the magisterial opening verses of Hebrews (1:1–4) and the Gospel of John (1:1–18), as well as John’s final apocalyptic vision at the end — with Christ, the Lamb, lighting the celestial city in the glory of God as its singular lamp (Revelation 21:23).
The implications were freshly clear for us: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). “Everyone who . . . does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9). So, as Piper went on to say,
Jesus is the litmus test of reality for all persons and all religions. . . . People and religions who reject Christ reject God. Do other religions know the true God? Here is the test: Do they reject Jesus as the only Savior for sinners who was crucified and raised by God from the dead? If they do, they do not know God in a saving way. . . . There is no point in romanticizing other religions that reject the deity and saving work of Christ. They do not know God. And those who follow them tragically waste their lives.
If we would see and savor the glory of God, we must see and savor Christ. For Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). To put it another way, if we would embrace the glory of God, we must embrace the gospel of Christ. The reason for this is not only because we are sinners and need a Savior to die for us, but also because this Savior is himself the fullest and most beautiful manifestation of the glory of God. He purchases our undeserved and everlasting pleasure, and he becomes for us our all-deserving, everlasting Treasure. (38–39)
‘Through Jesus Christ’
In the months that followed 9/11, we realized at Desiring God, and at Bethlehem Baptist Church, that our beloved mission statement needed at least three more precious and clarifying words:
We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples, through Jesus Christ.
To be sure, Christ is not just the means. We not only do all we do as Christians through him but also, as Colossians 1:15–20 makes plain, in him and for him. He is not just the way, but also the life. He is not just the means, but knowing and enjoying him is also the great end. As Piper had said, It will not do, in this day of pluralism, to talk about God in vague ways. Everything must now relate to Christ.
Blazing Center of the Glory
For Christians desiring God — and the ministry called Desiring God — this has been a great legacy of 9/11.
We don’t say that lightly. We don’t say that without acknowledging the pain, and profound terror, experienced by many in those hours, or the casualties and their friends and family. As Christians, however, neither do we minimize the preciousness of fresh explicitness, and awareness, and appreciation, and worship of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for sinners like us. Perhaps you were among the number newly awakened to the treasure of Christ in the darkness of 9/11. Or maybe here twenty years later, at its remembrance, God would be pleased to stir you to the explicit glories of his Son that set the Christian faith apart from Islam, secularism, and every other confession on earth.
With that, perhaps Piper should have the last word:
Ever since the incarnate, redeeming work of Jesus, God is gladly glorified by sinners only through the glorification of the risen God-man, Jesus Christ. His bloody death is the blazing center of the glory of God. There is no way to the glory of the Father but through the Son. All the promises of joy in God’s presence, and pleasures at his right hand, come to us only through faith in Jesus Christ. (38)