Pope Francis and the false gospel of “just be a good person”

April 21, 2018

In the sermon I posted just this week, on Galatians 1:1-10, I warned against the false gospel of “just be a good person.” While this isn’t the same false gospel that Paul is attacking in his letter to the Galatians, it is a gospel that says, in so many words, that what we do plays a role—and a rather large one—in saving us. I cited Warren Buffett, who, upon announcing that he was giving away 80 percent of his $44 billion fortune, said, “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”

Of course, Buffett’s way is no way at all. If our salvation depends on what we do—aside from confessing our helplessness to do anything—we will be damned. The apostle Paul believes this so strongly, in fact, that he said that false teachers who merely added a few human requirements to his gospel of free grace through Christ would be damned. This is literally the meaning of his words in verse 9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” “Accursed” is literally the Greek word anathema, which means to be damned.

Paul’s words are uncompromising because he believes that if his readers embrace this false gospel, they are putting their souls at risk.

I realize how unpopular this message is to most modern-day Americans. But Paul is not playing around here. And we shouldn’t be, either. If Paul is right, nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance: we will be saved by Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone or we will not saved at all. To misunderstand this is to risk losing the gospel entirely.

As if on cue, however, in a video that has since gone viral, Pope Francis challenged this gospel of free grace. Last Sunday, during a gathering of Catholics, he invited children in the audience to come forward and ask him questions. One child, named Emanuele, asked Francis, through tears, if his recently deceased father was in heaven, even though he was an atheist.

The pontiff implied rather strongly that he was. And how did Francis know? Because, he said, the child’s father was a good man, as evidenced by his son’s testimony and his willingness to have his four children baptized. Francis told the crowd:

That man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God’s heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? … A dad’s heart! God has the heart of a father.

And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?

He even told the boy to “talk to your dad,” which—even in terms of a Catholic doctrine I don’t accept—would be impossible if the man were in hell.

Let me preface the following words by saying that my heart breaks for this boy. I sympathize with Pope Francis, and any other pastor, who must answer difficult questions about the afterlife for loved ones who were unbelievers.

Pope Francis is absolutely right that “God is the One who decides” who goes to heaven. We cannot know for certain who is and isn’t there. We are not the judge—fortunately. But God is, and only God can know a person’s heart infallibly. Even this father, for instance, who (for all we know) professed atheism for most of his life, may have yet have turned to Christ, like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), and found saving grace even in the last few moments of his life.

And Francis is right about God having a father’s heart. Like the loving father in the parable (Luke 15:11-24), our heavenly Father stood ready to receive this man, without reservation, as his beloved child. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15 and many other places). God loved this man beyond measure (John 3:16) and wanted him to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And if this man repented and turned to Christ, even in his dying moments, he would have been saved: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).

So… was this man saved? I hope! Even if it’s unlikely, given the man’s professed atheism, I hope. That’s all any of us can do. It’s all that’s warranted, biblically speaking.

If Francis had told the child something like that—and given the child’s age and level of maturity, I understand that it would have been difficult—I would have no problem.

What he said instead, however, was nothing less than a distortion of the gospel. He said, in so many words, that the man might be saved—or likely would be saved—on the basis not of faith in Christ but of his good works. To say the least this is cheap grace. And as I’ve said on this blog and in sermons, if grace is cheap, it’s already too expensive.

The gospel isn’t good news because it’s easier than following the Law; the gospel is good news because following the Law—even the watered-down version of the law that says, “Thou shalt be a good person”—is impossible. Even accounting for important differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification by grace through faith (alone or otherwise), Pope Francis should know this, right?

Meanwhile, the popularity of Francis’s words to this boy makes the proclamation of the one true gospel all the more difficult. Who am I, after all, to contradict a pope? 🤦🏼‍♂️


Sermon 04-08-18: “No Other Gospel”

April 19, 2018

Like a former addict who suffers a dangerous relapse, the Christians to whom the apostle Paul is addressing today’s scripture are themselves facing a kind of relapse—only one that is far more dangerous than a relapse to illicit drugs. Because this “relapse” risks destroying not merely their bodies but their very souls as well… for eternity! And it’s a dangerous threat for us present-day Christians, too! What am I referring to? Listen to the sermon and find out!

As I said last week, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached.

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:1-10

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Back in 1985, when I was 15, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Omni in Atlanta. Do you remember the Omni? It was one of the first concerts I went to, and I became a lifelong Tom Petty fan. So, like many of you, I was deeply saddened when he died late last year. The initial report was that he suffered cardiac arrest. Then about a month later, a medical examiner reported that he died of an opioid overdose. He had broken his hip while on tour last year, and—because the “show must go on,” he was prescribed a powerful narcotic called fentanyl, which is, like, 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Petty confessed in a recent autobiography that he became addicted to heroin in the mid- to late-’90s. But he got clean. So his addiction to this latest opioid represented a tragic relapse.

In a way, this is what Paul is dealing with in Galatia—a relapse of a sort. Except a relapse into opioid addiction would be far less harmful, from Paul’s perspective, because it could only destroy the body. Whereas the relapse that the Galatians are facing could potentially destroy their souls!

So what do I mean when I say “relapse”?

To answer that, we need to ask ourselves: What did Paul preach to the Galatians? What ideas did he build his ministry on? What message was Paul willing to suffer and die for? He tells us in the greeting of letter, verses 3 through 5: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

This is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell! Let’s look at some of the key words and phrases.

“Grace”: The free gift of God. We can do nothing to earn it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. “Peace”: This is the end result of receiving this gift. Prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross—and our faith in it—we were not at peace; we were incapable of achieving peace; there was a state of enmity between us and God. Paul says in Romans 5:10 that we were “enemies… reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But the end result of Christ’s death is described in Romans 5:1: “[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Read the rest of this entry »


Devotional Podcast #24: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

April 13, 2018

What’s the difference between simply believing in Christ for salvation, as John 3:16 implies, and “cheap grace”? That’s what this podcast episode attempts to answer.

Devotional Text: Mark 9:14-26

Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Thursday, April 12, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #24.

You’re listening, of course, to “Don’t Stop Believin,’” Journey’s Top 10 hit from their best-selling 1981 album, Escape. Somehow, as popular as this song was—and as popular as it has remained—it only reached number nine on the charts. Journey never had a number one hit song. It’s crazy!

This is Part 4 of my reflection on the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16: specifically, I want to focus on that part of the verse that relates to this song—“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

By the way the “whoever” or, more traditionally, “whosoever,” is not plural; it’s singular. It’s addressed to you and and me and every single, individual person—each person is eligible for eternal life on one condition and one condition only—that he or she believes. This of course means that your parents or grandparents or spouse or family can’t believe on your behalf. No one is “born” a Christian; you can only be “born again” as a Christian, and that happens when you believe… for yourself. But if you can only do that relatively small thing—if you can only meet this one small condition, Jesus says—which is to believe—you can be saved!

Isn’t that amazingly good news?

In his commentary on John’s gospel, Frederick Dale Bruner translates the verse as follows: “You see, God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son, so that every single individual, whoever! who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him would never be destroyed, oh no! but would even now have a deep, lasting life.”[1] He inserts the adverb “simply” in brackets in front of the word “believing” or “entrusting” because, while it doesn’t appear in the Greek, it is implicit. 

As Bruner writes:

I put the word “simply” between brackets because it is not in the Greek text. In fact, not one single adverb or adjective is placed before the word “entrusting,” such as “deeply” or “sincerely” or “completely.” Every such adverb turns faith into a good work the believer does. But the good work of salvation, in fact, is done by the loving and giving Father, the gifted Son, and the transforming Spirit alone. We entrust ourselves to this triune Worker; we “do” nothing but trust Another who has done everything.[2]

We do nothing but trust Another who has done everything. I like that! Read the rest of this entry »


Sermon 04-01-18 (Easter): “Whom Are You Seeking?”

April 4, 2018

The theme of many Easter sermons is, in so many words, “Easter means heaven when you die.” While this is a great and important truth for those who are in Christ, “heaven when you die” is hardly the main message. The main message is this: Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday—and the resurrection proves it.

As I said yesterday, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached. 

Technical note: For the last five minutes of this sermon, I stepped away from the mic through which the recording was made, so the audio quality isn’t up to my usual standards. Still very audible, though!

Sermon Text: John 20:1-18

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Twenty-eight years ago, I had a philosophy professor at Georgia Tech who told us students, as he was passing out course evaluations, that he would often get feedback from students that indicated that he was “anti-Christian.” He said, “I’m always surprised by this because I couldn’t be more sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe in it in any literal sort of way. But for you Christians out there… Do any of you believe that Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead?”

This was a class of 35, 40 students. There were bound to be at least a handful of Christians. Yet no one raised their hand—including yours truly. So in a very small way, I can relate to Peter’s denial of Christ, except in my case, the stakes couldn’t be smaller: whereas Peter feared for his life, I feared a little embarrassment!

I don’t feel guilty about it. I’ve confessed that sin, and I know I’m forgiven. But if I had a time machine, I would go back in time to that class and do things differently. I have since learned that there is good historical evidence for believing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened—reasons that even modern historians should be able to accept. I’m not interested in going deeply into it here, but I do want to point out a couple of reasons from today’s scripture.

First, in today’s scripture, who was the first eyewitness to the resurrection? Mary Magdalene. In fact, all four gospels are in agreement that the first eyewitnesses are women—and all four accounts include Mary Magdalene in them.

This is a deeply inconvenient fact for the apostles and early church. Why? Because in the ancient world the testimony of women wasn’t admissible in a court of law. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. This became an issue, for instance, as early as the second century, when an early Roman opponent of Christianity, Celsus, argued that we can’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus happened because, after all, it was a tale told by “hysterical women”! Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Bible enough? (Or: how my preaching has changed recently)

April 3, 2018

Back in late January, I was preaching a sermon in my series on the Lord’s Prayer. Attendance that morning was down—for whatever reason, but one of which was stormy weather that morning. Moreover, it was warm in the sanctuary. The thermostat read “74,” hardly a temperature conducive to giving one’s full attention even to the most engaging sermon, much less the one I had prepared for that morning. More than a few people were nodding off.

As I was delivering it, I had a thought running on a parallel track in my mind: “This sermon is a disaster! You’ve lost your audience.”

It wasn’t that bad—I listened to the recording to make sure. But this experience drove me over the edge: Literally for years I’ve had a sense that my preaching wasn’t congruent with one of my deepest convictions: that the Bible is enough for me—and for all of us.

So, for example, nearly every week when I prepare a sermon, I find an insight into the scripture that speaks to me—excites me, even—and I want to share this with my congregation. It resonates with my heart. But in the back of my mind, I tell myself, “No, no… A sermon isn’t a Bible study. That point, however much it speaks to you, would bore people. That’s too much Bible. You have to be relevant, after all.”

As if God’s Word alone isn’t relevant?

Meanwhile, every week I listen to contemporary preachers who are far better than I am whose sermons are also far more Bible-oriented than mine! One of them, a prominent megachurch pastor (now retired), preaching to multiple campuses, is rarely funny, believe it or not! He doesn’t even seem to care that he isn’t! Shouldn’t that tell me something?

Two more recent experiences have changed my outlook on preaching: First, our church has added a monthly Sunday evening service, in a small chapel that holds no more than 50 people, comfortably. I preach a separate sermon from the one I preach on Sunday morning. In the interest of time—since I can’t devote as much of it to sermon prep—I don’t prepare a manuscript. I preach a familiar text from an outline. And I hold my Bible in my hand the whole time, referring to verses mostly in sequential order. My sermons are far more extemporaneous and conversational. And they are among the best I’ve ever preached. (Sadly, I have no document of them; I haven’t recorded them.)

This is, in other words, a “Bible first” approach. I spend little time worrying about clever introductions and humorous anecdotes, for example. I feel far less pressure. And I enjoy them more, frankly. Do you suppose that my enjoyment comes through in the delivery?

Finally, let me mention my Bible studies. I do one on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. Again, like the Sunday evening sermons, these are conversational and mostly extemporaneous. And people have responded very positively to them.

I’m not bad at teaching! It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if my sermons veered in that direction, right?

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with me these days. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


Devotional Podcast #23: “John 3:16 and the Atonement”

March 30, 2018

In this Good Friday episode, I discuss the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in light of John 3:16. I promise it’s more interesting than it sounds! In fact, this doctrine melts my heart when I think about what it says about God’s love for me!

Devotional Text: Romans 5:8

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 30, and this is devotional podcast number 23. This message is very much related to Good Friday, so I hope you enjoy it.

You’re listening to the song “You Are Loved” by the Christian rock band the Altar Boys from their 1986 debut album, Gut Level Music.

And I need to emphasize love because that’s the main reason for the cross of God’s Son Jesus. I say that because we are still reflecting on Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16, which, from the ESV, reads as follows: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

If you’ll recall, however, in this series so far—this is Part 3—we’ve only looked at the very first word of the verse: the word “for.”

Why? Because that word indicates that everything that Jesus—or John, the narrator, we’re not 100 percent sure who’s speaking here—but everything that is said here in verse 16 is connected back to what Jesus said before—that is, in verse 14 and 15. So we’ve been looking at verses 14 and 15 in the previous two episodes. In those verses, Jesus says, “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.”

I’ve already talked about the context of these verses: they point back to Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year trek through the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land, and the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt are now grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

As I discussed last time, what happens next is a reflection of God’s wrath: he sends poisonous snakes to kill these blasphemous, idolatrous Israelites. Until they repent and go to Moses and ask him to intercede with God on their behalf—and God does. God’s solution is not to merely take away the snakes, or ensure that the snakes don’t bite, or neutralize the snakes’ venom once they do bite. No, God’s solution is for Moses to forge a bronze snake and place it on top of a tall pole. So that when one of God’s people gets bitten by a poisonous snake, he or she can look to the snake on the pole and find healing from the poison.

It may seem like a strange solution, unless we believe that God was giving ancient Israel a sign pointing them to the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, thousands of years before he sent his Son into the world. And God the Holy Spirit ensured that this sign would be written down in God’s Word for us. And, brothers and sisters, once you start searching the Old Testament for gospel signs such as this one, you start seeing them on nearly every page! Please… learn to read the Old Testament and see the many signs pointing to Jesus!

So in John 3:16, Jesus is saying that the lifting up of this bronze snake is like his being lifted up on the cross. We look to Jesus on the cross—and believe in everything that that cross represents—and what happens? We find salvation from the deadly venom of sin.

But how does God effect our salvation from sin through the cross? That’s the question I want to deal with today.

To help us answer it, let’s look again at the analogy that Jesus is making between what happened to him on the cross and what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Follow the analogy through: If Jesus being lifted up on the cross is like the snake being lifted up in the wilderness, who is the snake in this analogy?

That’s right: shocking as it is, Jesus himself is the snake.

What does that mean? Remember: for Israel, the snake was a symbol of the very thing that was killing them—the deadly poisonous venom. So, in the same way, on the cross, Jesus becomes a symbol of the very thing that is killing us—which is our sin.

What does the apostle Paul say in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

What is this “curse of the law” that Paul is talking about? It’s the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:15 and following: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you”—and then what follows is a long and frightening list of curses—which we deserve because of our sin.

But because “God so loved the world,” he has done something about it to rescue us: on the cross, he has transferred our sins—including the punishment, the judgment, the condemnation, the god-forsakenness, the hell that our sins deserve—over to his Son Jesus. In theological words, our sins are imputed to Christ. And he suffers the penalty for them—that we otherwise would have to suffer.

This imputation is also seen famously in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he”—God the Father—“made him”—Jesus, God the Son—“to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So again, think of the snake: On the cross, Paul says, Christ becomes the symbol of the thing that’s killing us.

Christ becomes our substitute, in other words. And of course the Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s substitutionary death in a hundred different ways: But think, for example, of God delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He sent a series of ten plagues—the last and most severe of which is that an angel would go through each household in Egypt and kill the firstborn son. This death angel’s work was God’s judgment for sin. The only means of rescue from this judgment—or “passing over” a household—was what? That the blood of a lamb would be sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of each door. This sacrificial lamb would take the place of, or substitute for, the firstborn.

And it’s not for nothing that John the Baptist, when he sees Jesus for the first time in John’s gospel, says to his own disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” How does Jesus take away our sins? By becoming our perfect substitute.

This is why this view of what happens on the cross is often referred to as “substitutionary atonement” or “penal substitutionary atonement.” Call it whatever you like: the good news is that God has done something—objectively—to deal with the guilt of all of our sins, once and for all. Our debt before God has been paid. Our punishment has been borne by Jesus. The guilt for our sin has been wiped out. God no longer has wrath toward us because of our sin. We are no longer enemies of God because of our sin—but we become God’s children!

There are many motifs that the Bible uses to describe how atonement—that is, reconciliation between God and humanity—takes place on the cross. And there are other motifs besides substitution. But substitutionary atonement is, I would argue, by far the most important way of understanding what happens on the cross.

But over the past hundred years or so, it has become deeply unpopular, even among some Christians. I’ve heard Christians refer to this beautiful doctrine as “cosmic child abuse.” According to this caricature, an angry father has to torture someone, so he uses his son—as a reluctant or unwilling victim.

I can’t see how this is anything other than a willful—and, frankly, offensive—distortion of the doctrine. First, we remember our theme verse: “For God so loved the world…” It’s not “for God so hated the world that he sent his Son”; it’s “for God so loved the world.” Everything he does by sending his Son, he does, first and foremost, out of love for us. His love—and his desire to save us—precedes his wrath, or his justifiable anger toward sin, his resolute opposition to sin and evil.

This is clear from Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us before his Son died on the cross. So God’s disposition toward us human beings didn’t change as a result of Christ’s death—as if God was angry at us and hated us and needed his Son to die in order to love us. No, God didn’t need his Son to die in order to love us; he already loved us, and that’s why he sent his Son.

But not only that… Look again at Romans 5:8: How does Christ’s death on the cross prove God’s love for us, when Jesus was the One who did the dying? I mean, sure, Jesus proves he loves us by dying on the cross, but how does God prove his love?

Easy! Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is God—fully God. God in the flesh. Opponents of penal substitutionary atonement try to split the Trinity and pit an “angry” Father against his “loving” Son. As if the Father and the Son don’t want the same thing: which is, the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord! But the Father and the Son do want the same thing! They have the same will!

If the death of God’s Son Jesus on the cross is what it takes to save these sinful human beings that God loves from their sins, then of course that’s what God the Son will do—willingly, out of love. What does Jesus say in John 10:18? “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Of my own accord. And Jesus’ will accords perfectly with his Father’s will.

One more thing: When “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” this did not represent a change of plans on God’s part. As if God were surprised when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, and surprised again when Noah and his descendants messed up, and surprised again when his people Israel failed to obey his Law. So finally he had to take matter into his own hands and send his Son—to do for the people what they were unable to do for themselves. This is not at all what the Bible teaches.

No, the Bible says that Jesus was the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” In other words, before God even began creating the world, he knew that he would have to redeem it—by coming in the flesh into the world and suffering and dying on the cross through his Son Jesus. But because God foreknew us—and loved us—he decided that was totally worth it. Amen?

I hope that helps. I’ll say more soon! Love you!


Sermon 03-25-18: “Jesus Is the Resurrection and the Life”

March 26, 2018

The “chief end of man”—which is to say the reason we human beings exist—is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and that’s exactly right. It takes a certain kind of God-centeredness, as I say in this sermon on the raising of Lazarus, to appreciate the fact that Jesus was willing to disappoint Martha and Mary in such a profound way. What can we learn about our own “disappointments” with God? That’s what the first part of this sermon is about. But the second part of the sermon is more important: what does the raising of Lazarus have to do with the cross, the Atonement, and God’s love?

Sermon Text: John 11:17-44

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

My family and I are big fans of the TV sitcom The Office. We have watched the series many times. If you’re like me, you may remember the episode in which Dwight Schrute’s grandmother died. There was a funeral. And to say the least, Dwight’s very traditional Pennsylvania Dutch family, had some unique funeral customs. Dwight described one of them as follows:

We Schrutes don’t need some Harvard doctor to tell us who’s alive and who’s dead. But there was an unlucky streak of burying some heavy sleepers. And when grave robbers discovered some scratch marks on the inside of some of the coffins, we decided to make sure our dead are completely dead—out of kindness.

And so, after the coffin is lowered into the ground, they fire a shotgun three times into the coffin.

Dwight Schrute on The Office

You may laugh, but before modern funeral practices like embalming were introduced, around the turn of the 20th century, the fear that you might get buried alive was very real. Some people had strings inside coffins attached to bells on the outside. So they could ring the bell if they woke up. Some wealthy people put telephones inside of mausoleums just in case.

I mention this because we’re told in verse 17 that Lazarus had “already been in the tomb four days.” According to a Jewish superstition, which is not found in the Bible, the soul of a person hung around the grave for three days—waiting to see if the body would come back to life. After three days, the soul departed once and for all. The point is that by the fourth day, people believed that there was no hope that anyone could ever come back to life. And this was likely true for Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. By all means, they believed that Jesus could have saved their brother if Jesus had gotten there before Lazarus died; maybe Jesus could have performed a miracle and saved him if he had gotten there within hours of his death. In fact, other accounts of Jesus raising dead people to life in the gospels take place sooner after death. But now that it’s been four days… well, we can hardly blame these sisters for thinking that all hope was lost—no matter how much they believed in Jesus. Read the rest of this entry »


Imputation: God’s Word has the “power to create what it requires”

March 22, 2018

In yesterday’s blog post, I talked about the Protestant doctrine of imputation and the the way in which the idea is found in the Greek word logizomai, translated “reckoned,” “counted,” and “credited,” as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

In her book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge prefers a more literal translation of logizomai: “worded.” (You can see the Greek root logos in the word.) God’s Word alone, she writes, has the power to create what is lacking in us:

The way that “wording” works can easily be illustrated. We tend to become what we are “regarded as.” Here, for example, are two scenes. One is a first-grade schoolroom in East Tennessee in the mid-1960s, recently integrated. Three small black boys, looking miserable, are separated from the others (all white) for special remedial attention from the white teacher. After working with them for a while, she rises from the table and says to an observer, in a  stage whisper that the children surely hear, “How does anyone think they can ever learn anything?” The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” was invented for a situation such as that. The second scene occurs two decades later, in a  supermarket in a suburban New York town. A mother is bending over a stroller containing her child, no more than two years old. With great intensity she is saying, over and over, “You’re bad! You’re bad!” What can the child have done, at that age? What grave sin had he committed? Spilled his drink? Snatched candy off the shelf? Cried from frustration? Who can doubt that the child will grow up with those words ingrained in his psyche? “You’re bad!” Words have great power. Imagine, then, the power of the Word of God saying Shamed! Condemned! Rejected!

But those words are not the Word spoken against us, for indeed the Word is not spoken against us but for us. “He has not reckoned our sins against us” (II Cor. 5:19)… When we understand the words “not reckoned” or “not counted” are from the root logizomai, however, we can fill in the rest of the picture. The “not reckoned” is the other face of “reckoned as righteousness.” Again, God’s Word is performative; it has the power to create what it requires. When God regards one as righteous, a true metamorphosis is occurring.[1]

To illustrate this metamorphosis, she offers the example of Gideon in Judges 6. When the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12), he is threshing wheat in a winepress—for fear of being seen by the Midianites.

This is really quite amusing; Gideon is not even remotely a “mighty man of valor” at this point. Nor does he flex his muscles and step into his role as an “alpha male” would; indeed, his behavior immediately following the appearance of the angel is timid and cautious. The Lord, however, keeps on “wording” him: “The Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?'” (v. 14). Again, this makes us smile; the Lord is even willing to suggest that it actually is Gideon’s own might; but the reminder comes quickly enough: “Do I not send you?” Gideon continues to protest: “Pray, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (v. 15). His protestations are swept aside by the empowering Word: “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as [though they were] one man'” (v. 16). Thus God creates valor where there was no valor.[2]

To say the least, I am no better than Gideon. Because of my own insecurities (which only years of therapy have helped me untangle—thank you, Jesus!), I often wake up feeling like a beaten man—as if a voice in my head were saying words like, “Hypocrite!” “Worthless!” “Sinner!

If I understand the doctrine of imputation, however, I find in it the power to change this script. I am not the man I used to be. The “old man” was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). God is “wording” a new man into existence, and he is doing so with sweet words like, “Beloved child!” “Apple of my eye!” (Psalm 17:8) “Righteous!

Listen to that voice, Brent!

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333-4.

2. Ibid., 334-5.


Imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous—we really are!

March 21, 2018

The doctrine of imputation, a preoccupation of Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, receives little attention among Wesley scholars. My Wesleyan theology prof in seminary never used the word or discussed the concept, if memory serves. As best I can tell, Wesley didn’t like the word, in part because it wasn’t found in the Bible. (Of course, this objection reminds me of a Jehovah’s Witness I met last week who, with rhetorical flourish, asked me to find the word Trinity in “my” Bible.)

The question is not whether the word is in scripture: Is the concept there?

Indeed, it is—in Romans 4:3-8, perhaps most prominently. The Greek word logizomai, rendered “reckoned,” “counted as,” or “credited” in English (as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”) may as easily be rendered “imputed.” Just as our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross—such that he really did pay the penalty for our sins even though he, in himself, was without sin—so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us when we believe in Christ, even though we, in ourselves, are not righteous.

From the book’s inside dust jacket

In her magisterial recent book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal minister, agrees. In a footnote, she writes the following:

For Protestants of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the translation “it was imputed to him” has tremendous resonance, with its implication that the righteousness “worded” [the literal translation of logizomai] to us is always an “alien righteousness” (Martin Luther’s term) that never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift. “Imputed righteousness” and “alien righteousness” are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou (“all things [are] from God” – II Cor. 5:18), and they guard against works-righteousness—provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically “counted as.” The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ.[1]

Imputation is not, therefore, as some detractors say, a “legal fiction”—something only technically true because God has erased a few marks in his heavenly ledger. No: this righteousness is really ours through faith.

In other words, imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous: through our faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we really are righteous. Do you see the difference? If anything, when we Christians sin, we do so as if we are still sinners.

Years ago I had a parishioner whose knowledge of the Bible—chapter and verse—put mine to shame. Once, in conversation, I referred to myself in passing as “a sinner.” She corrected me: “You sin, but you’re not a sinner. The old man was crucified with Christ,” she said, referring to Romans 6:6. And I remember thinking, “She’s nuts!”

But not so fast!

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:11

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14

[P]ut off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires… – Ephesians 4:22

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices… – Colossians 3:9

(Notice Paul’s insistence that the “crucifixion” of our old self happened in the past.)

But even as I reflect on these verses, the inner legalist is protesting: “But you are a sinner, Brent! Isn’t that the most obvious fact in the world?”

But think of the prodigal son: He could hardly get out the first words of his faltering apology before the father was ordering his servants to bring the “best robe” and put it on him, along with his signet ring and shoes (Luke 15:21-22).

That’s imputation—or call it whatever you want. We have a new identity! “Sinner” is no longer part of it!

“But you sin!”

Yes, I do. But consider the prodigal: he wasn’t an appreciably different person after his father put the best robe on him than he was before. The difference (aside from the son’s gratitude, I imagine) was his father’s gift. To say the least, he is no longer “prodigal,” even though he’s the same person (for now) on the inside.

I say “for now” because of course I’m not denying the power of sanctification: God can and will change us from within. But this change is not the basis on which we’re made acceptable by God. That change has already happened: we are already righteous because of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians sinned in spectacular ways, as Paul points out over the course of the letter. Yet at the beginning of the letter, in verse 2, he writes the following: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” We are being sanctified, yet in a sense we are already sanctified.

I apologize for writing about something that I should have learned years ago. In my small defense, however, we Methodists tend to speak as if the imperative in sanctification is, “Work harder” and “Do better.”

But that’s exactly wrong. The imperative in sanctification, as Rutledge says, is, “Become the person you already are.”

Become the person you already are.

These are words I can live off of—without guilt or shame.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333.


God is no “mere spectator to events”

March 17, 2018

In my never-ending quest to own every study Bible on the market (I’m kidding… maybe), Lisa gave me the Spurgeon Study Bible from Holman last Christmas. I have used it nearly every day since. While the ESV Study Bible remains my work-a-day Bible, I cross-reference what I read there with the Spurgeon Study Bible to see if “the prince of preachers” offers any insights into that day’s scripture. (Or I should say, if the publishers include Spurgeon’s commentary on the text, it will be insightful; but in the interest of space, they can’t include his commentary on every chapter and verse!)

The following commentary is an excerpt from Spurgeon’s words on Daniel 4:34-35, which I read this morning.

The Lord’s place is on the throne, and our place is to obey; it is his to govern, ours to serve; his to do as he will, and ours, without questioning, to make that will our constant delight. Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events. It is not so. The Lord reigns even now. Glory be to the omnipresent and invisible Lord of all!

Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events.

There is, of course, nothing to these words that should be controversial to my regular blog readers—or to any Christian for the first, say, 1,900 years of Christian history. Recently, however, there has been a devilish idea (I use that adjective advisedly—I believe Satan is behind it) among many Christian preachers and teachers that says, in so many words, “God is a mere spectator to events.”

This is in part a well-intentioned effort to “protect” or insulate God from evil, catastrophic events in the world, which skeptics might use to tarnish God’s name. If God has no power (or desire) to intervene in our world, the reasoning goes, then at least we can tell our fellow sufferers, “There, there… God has nothing to do with this. God hates that you’re suffering, but what’s he supposed to do about it? God is suffering alongside you; he is with you.” (This message was communicated in a hundred different ways through my mainline Protestant seminary education.)

Does that make us feel better? How can it? By that same logic, we should also tell them, “Don’t expect God to grant any of your prayer petitions—especially those related to protection and safety.” Because if God has nothing to do with suffering, he has nothing to do with anything in our world. He is a “mere spectator,” as Spurgeon says.

Of course, the Bible contradicts this idea on every page. Try listening to this recent Unbelievable? episode with “open theist” Greg Boyd, for example, and see if the authority of scripture doesn’t die a death by a thousand cuts.

Thank God that the God in whom we entrust our lives isn’t like that! Thank God for the “all” in Romans 8:28:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.