Have we really misunderstood the gospel?

July 24, 2014

A clergy friend of mine is reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. My friend says that McKnight argues that we evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel in at least one important way: we overemphasize individual salvation through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection at the expense of the rest of the gospel, including most of the red-letter words of Jesus.

While I haven’t read this particular book by McKnight, I’ve been a daily reader of McKnight’s blog for the past five years, and I’m well familiar with his criticism of what he calls the “soterian gospel,” a gospel centered mostly on individual salvation rather than a more robust kingdom-centered approach.

Nevertheless, as I told my friend, I believe that McKnight overstates his case—in precisely the same way that N.T. Wright overstates his case about popular talk of “heaven” versus resurrection, what Wright often calls “life after life after death.” Even in the Billy Graham sermon from 1962 that I posted on my blog last week, Graham emphasizes “heaven” as an embodied existence. He says explicitly that heaven doesn’t mean the end of our world, but the beginning of a renewed world. In other words, while Graham doesn’t use the word “resurrection” to describe our lives on the other side of death or the Second Coming, the doctrine is there beneath the surface.

My point is, all of us preachers have shorthand ways of referring to deep theological truths—and there’s nothing wrong with that! What’s the alternative? My 25-minute sermons would be 45 minutes if I had to explain all the nuances of every theological statement I make. I have opportunities on this blog and in Bible studies to go deeper, which I do.

My friend goes on to say that McKnight must be onto something because, after all, Jesus proclaimed the gospel (Mark 1:15) at the beginning of his ministry. What was he proclaiming? Given what Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us, not his atoning death and resurrection.

And that’s true, although to press the point too far is to argue from silence. We know for sure that Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection in all four Gospels, and his closest disciples misunderstand him. Whatever Jesus did or didn’t say about these subjects early in his ministry would have been lost on the multitudes.

Still, I concede that Jesus was mostly proclaiming humanity’s need for repentance in response to God’s kingdom, which had drawn near to us in him, Jesus. He was proclaiming, from Isaiah, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. And more than anything, he was proclaiming that through him God’s forgiveness was available to all.

Do faithful Christian preachers somehow contradict any of this message even as they emphasize Christ’s atoning death and resurrection?

Of course not! Indeed, everything Jesus said in his gospel looks ahead to and is made possible by his atoning death and resurrection. See Jesus’ many statements in John’s Gospel about his coming “hour,” or, in several places, when he speaks of being “lifted up.” (For example, John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”)

Surely no one would argue that John’s Gospel gets Jesus’ message of good news wrong!

As for the emphasis on “personal salvation,” how could we not emphasize its personal nature when the stakes for us, individually, are so high? Doesn’t it mean the difference between heaven and hell? Even in the Gospels, Jesus is constantly calling individuals to repentance and salvation. Our decision to appropriate this good news in our life is the most important decision any of us can make in life—and continue to make throughout life.

Am I missing something? Thoughts?

Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and the “Jesus tea-strainer” in action

July 22, 2014

Years ago, when the New Atheists were still a cultural force to be reckoned with, I watched a debate on YouTube between an atheist—I can’t remember who—and a Christian apologist. They reached the point in the debate at which the Christian apologist said, quite correctly, that apart from God, objective morality can’t exist. At this point the atheist loudly protested, pointing to the many places in scripture in which God commands or condones what he believed to be immoral actions.

(As usual, the atheist misunderstood the apologist’s point: for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t considered “moral”; apart from a transcendent law-giver, the indignant atheist has no moral high horse to saddle up. He’s using God as an objection to God.)

Then the atheist took an interesting turn: with derision, he said that Jesus himself was a horrifying moral teacher by today’s standards: he pointed specifically to Jesus’ many references to hell, and his apparent comfort at the thought of God’s consigning people to it.

To say the least, I could take issue with every characterization and generalization that the atheist made. But in his small defense, he gets closer to the truth regarding one aspect of Jesus’ teaching—his words about judgment, hell, and wrath—than many theological progressives.

Take, for instance, this Rob Bell interview with one liberal theologian, Richard Rohr. In talking about the “incarnational” aspect of the Bible, by which Rohr means to say the Bible is riddled with mistakes, he says:

This is how God trusts incarnation. God allows us to see God and uses that as his word. It’s through us. Therefore the text itself is three steps forward and two steps back. It gets it, it loses it, it get it it loses it…My Jesus hermeneutic is like this: Jesus never quotes Joshua and Judges. Most of Joshua and Judges are two steps backward books. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Bible, I’m fine with that, there’s a lot in my life that’s two steps backwards. The text mirrors human development and growth and understanding.

“Jesus never quote Joshua and Judges.” Therefore what? Jesus knows that they’re… wrong? Aside from arguing from silence, this is a bizarre “Jesus hermeneutic.” It is, in fact, an example of what theologian Andrew Wilson calls the “Jesus tea-strainer” (which I referred to a couple of weeks ago).

Here’s Wilson (my emphasis in bold):

I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.

He goes on to cite several examples of Jesus speaking about final judgment and hell.

I see the “Jesus tea-strainer” hermeneutic at work all the time. While I didn’t use the phrase, it was near the heart of my criticism of Jason Micheli in my guest post on his blog last week.

The rest of Bell’s interview is a disaster. Rohr (a Franciscan) says that we Protestants completely misunderstand the atonement. He says that it’s “actually heresy” to say that Jesus is God. Actually it isn’t.

C.S. Lewis on resisting temptation

July 17, 2014

350_C.S.Lewis.348A clergy friend on Facebook yesterday linked approvingly to this article on the United Methodist Reporter website (an independent Methodist news service, I’m relieved to report), whose author is saying, in so many words, “Can’t we just stop arguing about sex and get on with doing the Lord’s work?” I wanted to say, “As if!” As if one thing isn’t related to the other! As if failing to be faithful in our sex lives won’t have negative repercussions in other areas of our lives and ministries!

Or maybe I’m “debating trifles,” as the author says. Maybe I’m a “sex-obsessed moral scold.”

Good grief! At least the writer isn’t Methodist—he’s an Episcopal priest.

No matter where we stand in relation to our church’s doctrine on human sexuality, can’t we at least agree that sin is a very big deal? Whatever sin is, it’s something that we need to resist first of all, and something which—for the sake of our souls—we need to confess to and repent of when we fall into it.

So long as we have life and breath, we know there’s grace and mercy available for us. But making sure that we understand what sin is is never a trifling matter!

All that to say, I love this excerpt from C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, which was included in the C.S. Lewis Bible in relation to Paul’s words about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-18. He’s encouraging us to work hard to practice the Christian virtues, what we Methodists like to call the “means of grace.”

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He as the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.[†]

C.S. Lewis in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1339.

Sermon 07-13-14: “Disney Summer Drive-In, Part 2: The Lion King”

July 17, 2014

Disney Summer Drive-In Image

Using video clips from Disney’s “Lion King,” this sermon tackles subjects including spiritual warfare, answering God’s call, and being conformed to image of Christ.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

[Show Clip #1. Mufasa confronts his brother, Scar, about his absence from Sima's presentation ceremony. Scar warns him not to "turn his back" on him. Scar tempts Simba to go to the elephant graveyard.]


It’s easy to see, I hope, that Scar is a lot like Satan.

In today’s scripture, Paul writes about Satan and his evil spiritual forces: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Now why does Paul say we “do not wrestle against flesh and blood”? Because if you read the Book of Acts and read Paul’s letters, you’ll see that he wrestles constantly against “flesh and blood”: he wrestles against civic and religious authorities who have him arrested and beaten repeatedly, stoned one time and left for dead; he wrestles against others—even people in the church—who slander him and try to ruin his ministry; he wrestles against the Roman Empire, and ultimately Caesar himself will order his execution because of his faithfulness to Christ. My point is, these are flesh-and-blood people who seem to cause Paul all this trouble, yet he says that his struggle and our struggle isn’t against people at all—it’s really against the evil spiritual forces of Satan and his fellow demons. Read the rest of this entry »

He isn’t wrong about everything

July 16, 2014

He’s a Dylan fan, after all.

Still, Jason Micheli is a popular United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve strenuously disagreed over the past couple of years. He was kind enough to ask me to write a guest post for him while he’s away on a mission trip. He published it today with this title:


I love it!

Anyway, I encourage you to read it.

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 6: “The Climax of History” (1962)

July 15, 2014

The record label of an LP documenting Graham’s 1962 Crusade at McCormick Place in Chicago.

In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found in a 4-record box set called A Billy Graham Crusade from 1962 (RCA Victor Custom Record Dept. BG4314).

When I preached on the Second Coming recently, I mentioned Jeff, a Sunday school teacher I had once, who said that he didn’t believe in the Second Coming as a literal event. Rather, he said, it was a spiritual event that happens when we are born again and the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts. And it continues to happen throughout our lives as we have formative spiritual experiences. I expressed sympathy with Jeff. After all, I have had several experiences like Wesley’s in which I found my heart “strangely warmed.” In those moments, Christ seemed very present to me.

Nevertheless, as I said in my sermon, the Second Coming is something different.

Similarly, in this sermon from 1962, Dr. Graham acknowledges spiritual senses in which Christ “comes again” to us, including the one to which Jeff was referring. Graham also talked about how Christ can be seen in cataclysmic events of history including, he says, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He also believes that Christ often comes to us in death, as he did for his grandmother on her deathbed, when she smiled and said, “There’s Jesus!”

There is a sense in which Christ comes at death. But there’s another sense taught throughout scriptures that he’s coming back at the end of the age. Notice I didn’t say at the end of the world. Oh, the end of the world system, yes, but not the end of the earth. The end of the age. Christ is coming back again.

Notice something here: While Graham, like C.S. Lewis and many Christian thinkers of earlier generations, talks about the afterlife almost exclusively in terms of “heaven,” he clearly understands heaven—at least in its second stage, after the Second Coming—as a place on a renewed and transformed earth. In other words, he doesn’t believe heaven is a place up there somewhere: it’s here. Which goes to show, to Graham’s great credit, that there is some robust biblical theology going on underneath his simple words.

Graham refers to “wild speculations” about the Second Coming that happened about “30 years ago” (in the 1920s or ’30s), which “cause a reaction to set in within the church, so that in order to be intellectually respectable, the average clergyman just didn’t talk about it. Because he didn’t want to be identified with fanatics and extremists.”

Isn’t the same true today? We don’t want to be associated with Hal Lindsey. We don’t want to be associated with Pat Robertson. We don’t want to be associated with Tim LaHaye. So we clergy don’t talk about the Second Coming. In fact, for the sake of “intellectual respectability” we don’t talk about a host of other doctrines, including Satan, final judgment, and hell.


Graham’s primary scripture for this sermon is the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 and Ezekiel’s reflections on Sodom’s sin in chapter 16. Graham says that the sins of Sodom characterize America in 1962, and I’m sure he’d agree about America in 2014, too. Judgment is coming, he says, and we can see God’s warnings about it through current events in the world.

But for those of us who have placed our faith in Christ, our judgment is in the past: Jesus was judged in our place, which means we can face the future without fear.

Toward the end of the sermon, he says:

What should you do about it? In view of the fact that Christ is coming, in view of the fact that the world is moving toward judgment, what should be your attitude? What should you do? Jesus tells us that, too. He says in Matthew 24:42, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know the hour that your Lord comes.” The scripture tells us we’re to look for that blessed hope. Paul said, “Comfort one another with these words.”

Are you tired, discouraged, disappointed? Comfort one another with these words: Christ is coming.

When you die, that’s not the end of it all. Some of you have suffered. Many of you have suffered persecution for Christ’s sake. You’ve been almost alone in your community and in your home for Christ. “The sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be ours yonder.” All the way through scripture he says, “Hold on a little while longer. He that endureth to the end, it’s not long before our glory shall be revealed, Christ shall come, and we shall be in the glory with him.” And then in 1 John 3:3, he said, “Secondly, purify yourself, and every man that hath this hope in himself purifies himself even as he is pure.”

In other words, this is the greatest incentive to Christian living I know anything about. One of the answers to the church problem today is to start emphasizing the fact that Christ may come, and we’ll start living as though he were coming. What an incentive to purify ourselves to live for Christ! This is no pie-in-the-sky hope. This is no pie-in-the-sky religion. It affects our daily life here. It affects our attitude in every phase of life. When we live with hope and expectancy that there is a future. This is not the end.

When Eichmann died the other night on the gallows in Israel, his body was cremated and put in the waters of the blue Mediterranean, you said, “Eichmann is finished.” No, Eichmann is not finished. Eichmann still has to appear before a holy God!

Likewise, we will have all have to give an account before God, Graham warns.

Graham concludes the sermon the same way I concluded mine recently, by saying that even if the Second Coming doesn’t happen in our lifetime: “the end of the age will happen for you the moment you die. That’s the end for you. As far as this life is concerned. And then you face God. Are you prepared?”

This is simply a masterful sermon. I’m impressed by how easily Graham relates the problems of the world to the solution found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What an inspiration to those of us who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ for a living!

Please note that in Part 2 of my series, Graham preached a sermon from 1964 by the same title, “The Climax of History,” but it was a substantially different sermon. It placed relatively greater emphasis on making the case for the Second Coming.

To listen to sermon, click on play button above, or right-click here to download as a separate .mp3 file.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Click here for Part 4.

Click here for Part 5.

To be Methodist is to be Arminian

July 14, 2014

Roger Olson, a Baptist theologian at Baylor who has greatly influenced my thinking over the past five years, just finished a useful series of blog posts (starting here) on Arminianism, that school of Protestant thought that Wesley himself loudly affirmed. Olson is an Arminian and is probably Calvinism’s loudest contemporary critic. (In his day, John Wesley might have held that title.)

These posts are in the form of FAQs (frequently asked questions). Here’s a nice summary question:

FAQ: Can an Arminian explain the few crucial ideas that distinguish Arminianism from Calvinism for non-scholars? A: Yes. There are three of them. First, God is absolutely, unconditionally good in a way that we can understand as good. (In other words, God’s goodness does not violate our basic divinely-given intuitions about goodness.) Second, God’s consequent will is not God’s antecedent will except that God antecedently (to the fall) decides to permit human rebellion and its consequences. All specific sins and evils are permitted by God according to his consequent will and are not designed or ordained or rendered certain according to God’s antecedent will. Third, salvation of individuals is not determined by God but is provided for (atonement and prevenient grace) and accomplished by God (regeneration and justification by grace through faith).

Two new songs in contemporary worship yesterday morning

July 14, 2014

Here’s a lovely new song I had never heard before last week. We did it in our contemporary service. It’s called “Love Comes Down.”

And I introduced the band to this “oldie” from the Lost Dogs. It’s a classic list song (like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”) that calls on everyone—literally everyone—to breathe deep the breath of God.


Sermon 07-06-14: “Disney Summer Drive-In, Part 1: Frozen”

July 10, 2014

Disney Summer Drive-In Image

The first film I look at in this summer series is Disney’s Frozen. In this movie, Elsa longs to be free of the fears that control her. Despite her best efforts, however, she remains enslaved—at least until her sister, Anna, shows her the true meaning of love.

Sermon Text: Matthew 11:25-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.


After healing Anna, the chief troll warns the family of Elsa’s increasing powers.

[Show Clip #1. Elsa accidentally strikes Anna with her ice magic. Their parents take them to the chief troll, who heals Anna but warns Elsa and her parents about Elsa’s growing power.]

The chief troll asks Elsa’s father, the king, about Elsa’s power to create snow and ice. He asks, “Born with the powers or cursed?” The father responds, “Born.” But the truth is, for most of the movie we’re left wondering whether these powers with which Elsa is born are also, in fact, a curse. It certainly feels like a curse to Elsa as she’s growing up. Granted, her parents don’t help the situation by locking her away in her room—isolating her from everyone, including her beloved sister Anna. But it’s clear that for most of her early life, Elsa experienced this potentially great gift—this great blessingas a curse.

The truth is, so many things that happen to us in life—things we’re born with, or things over which we have little or no control—can be experienced by us as either blessings or curses. Contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Laura Story wrote her most popular song, “Blessings,” about this truth. It includes these lyrics in the chorus: “What if your blessings come through rain drops/ What if your healing comes through tears/ What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near/ What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?” Read the rest of this entry »

Reading the Bible with a “Jesus tea-strainer”

July 10, 2014

I recommend this first episode of the Mere Fidelity podcast, which in this case is a conversation between three young evangelical theologians about capital punishment. The three are responding to a recent blog post by pastor and writer Brian Zahnd, who not only argues that we Christians should oppose capital punishment based on the teachings of Jesus, but that because of what Jesus reveals to us about God, God never condoned capital punishment in the first place—even though he certainly seemed to do so in the Old Testament.

Andrew Wilson, an English theologian who writes for Christianity Today, argues that Zahnd is guilty of applying a “Jesus tea-strainer” to the Old Testament—an increasingly popular way of reading the Bible. He explains:

So I’ve used the analogy [of the "Jesus tea-strainer"] quite often when people talk about the “Jesus lens.” By which they say, “We’re reading the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens,’ and it’s coloring what we’re doing.” I say I don’t think it’s so much a lens in some cases—it’s more of a tea-strainer: Instead of looking at things from a particular angle and then coloring your view through Jesus, instead you use a particular version of Jesus you’ve cobbled together from bits of the Gospels. And then you turn that into a fine-mesh tea-strainer, which you then try to push the Old Testament through. And only a few bits make it through and the rest of it gets stuck and left on the saucer. And actually even the Jesus in the Synoptics doesn’t fit through the tea-strainer you’ve formed because he doesn’t… he says, as I’ve already said, you read Luke 17 or something and think, “That is very hard to cohere with a progressive-y red-letter Jesus.”

By Luke 17, he means these red-letter words of judgment and divine retribution:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17:26-30).

As Wilson’s blog post on the “Jesus tea-strainer” makes clear, there are many more such passages from Jesus in the Gospels. Given these passages, it’s hard to explain the image of Jesus so beloved by our culture—as some kind of first-century proto-hippie who went around preaching peace, love, and tolerance!

Nevertheless, the three men go on to make the case that we should approach scripture, especially those troublesome passages that prick our consciences, with great humility. As Derek Rishmawy says, around the 27:00 minute mark, before we say that the Bible writer got it wrong, let’s first assume that we’re the ones who are wrong—that we’re failing to understand what’s going on in the passage.

This is, in my opinion, a helpful approach to scripture. We give God’s Word the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Holy Spirit has inspired the biblical writers to include these difficult passages for a good reason, even when we can’t understand what it is.


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