A recent example of effective witnessing

March 23, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I preached about witnessing. I shared some advice on the topic from a recent article in Christianity Today. The author, Jerry Root, a long-time associate of Billy Graham, said that when we witness, it’s not a matter of “taking Jesus to someone”; Jesus is already there. We follow Christ’s lead. But doing so still requires preparation. It’s a deliberate action.

For example, when we meet someone, he suggests asking them what he calls “public” questions—non-threatening questions like, “What’s your name?” “Are you from here?” Then we “listen to the answers and find in them the permission to go deeper. Eventually, we connect the gospel at the very point of deep felt need.”

Easy, right?

Well… I suspect for many of us this still seems intimidating—in part because we’ve seen so few examples of people who are doing it, or doing it well.

Last Friday, however, I encountered a living, breathing example of someone doing it well. I had business in Atlanta. While I was there, I went to a favorite coffee shop near Emory to work on my sermon. A couple of tables away from me, two young women were talking. I promise I wasn’t eavesdropping, but one woman’s voice carried across the room.

I overheard her telling the other woman about her experience raising an autistic child. I gathered that she was counseling this young woman, a new mother whose own child had recently been diagnosed with autism.

My ears perked up at one point when she told the young mother that she was a Christian. She volunteered this in relation to some educational choices that she and her husband had made. A few minutes later, she said the following: “I believe that God has made your child perfect, just the way she’s meant to be. And the Lord is going to take care of her—and you—and give you all the love and support and strength you need to be a great mother to her.”

I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout, “Amen!”

Nothing about this conversation felt forced. First, the woman volunteered that she was a Christian. Then, as Dr. Root described in the article I cited above, she waited for “permission to go deeper.” Having found that permission, she spoke from her heart about Jesus and connected the gospel to the young mother’s deeply felt need.

What convicts me about this conversation is how easily this Christian could have remained quiet about her faith. Doesn’t it often seem easier not bring it up?

What would happen if we prayed regularly—daily—for opportunities to bring it up? Who knows what the Holy Spirit might do? Is it possible that this young woman was so accustomed to sharing her faith that it would be harder for her not to bring it up?


Sermon 03-12-17: “Calling All Tax Collectors and Sinners”

March 21, 2017

If you’re a Christian, witnessing should be one of your top priorities in life. If you’re like most Christians, however, it isn’t. As much as I want to say, “Try harder,” that message won’t work. As I say in this sermon, what we need to become more deliberate, more effective witnesses is to fall in love with Jesus—again or for the first time.

Sermon Text: Matthew 9:9-17

Do any of you have an ichthus or fish decal on or near the bumper of your car? I have often said that I wouldn’t have one of those because I’m not a considerate enough driver—or a careful enough driver—to have a symbol of my loyalty to Jesus on the back of my car: I don’t want to cut someone off in traffic and thereby give Jesus a bad name! I don’t want to be a bad witness.

A satirical article in the Babylon Bee purports to have just the answer for Christian drivers like me: a “retractable fish decal.” The article describes a modification kit for your car that allows you, with the press of a button, to hide the fish symbol when you do something wrong while driving. In the article, a spokesperson from LifeWay Christian Resources puts it like this:

“Want to cut someone off, but worried you’ll be a bad witness? Now you can slap the red button on your dashboard and a small panel will rotate on your bumper, hiding the fish from view… Flip people off on the freeway, [drive] down the shoulder [of the interstate] during a traffic jam, all without worrying about marring the good name of Christ.”

The article continues:

The kit ships with several options, such as the ability to instantly replace the Christian fish decal with an atheist “flying spaghetti monster” silhouette or a Coexist sticker, or else the bumper sticker from a competing church in your town or city.

[The spokesperson added:] “Not only will your terrible, aggressive driving not be a bad witness for Christ, but you can also make atheists or any other church or religion you want look bad instead!”

If only that were real! Read the rest of this entry »


Pastoral words from Jesus about doubt

March 17, 2017

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 11:1-15, which includes Jesus’ short “sermon” to a John the Baptist who now doubts that he is the Messiah. Jesus’ concludes his sermon with this beatitude: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I like this eloquence from Bruner:

Now for the end of his sermon to John, Jesus saves these words, tailor-made for John (and for all of us who are tempted to wonder if Jesus really is It): “And—blessings on the person who is not offended by me!” These are kind words. Jesus does not shame John by saying something like, “And blessed is the person who never doubts if I am the Messiah”—words like that would have hurt John because doubt was exactly John’s experience. Nor does Jesus here bless those who in discouraging situations glow with vital faith. All such triumphal words would have been the worst possible pastoral counsel for John in this state. Instead Jesus pitches his tune low, puts the cookies on a shelf John can reach, and promises, in so many words, “And God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am a different kind of Messiah than you were expecting.”[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 509.


Church Council Homily 03-16-17: “And Then They Will Fast”

March 16, 2017

I preached the following homily this evening at Church Council. 

Homily Text: Matthew 9:15

My sermon last Sunday, if you recall, was about witnessing. I made the case, based on Jesus’ call of Matthew in Matthew 9, for the importance and priority of witnessing. I also discussed how, in spite of this, we so often fail to do it. I said: “I’m tempted to say, ‘We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to follow this plan, apply these principles, use these techniques to become better witnesses.’”

The problem with saying that is that it won’t work. We don’t need to witness more; we need to fall in love with Jesus more. If only we could, I said, witnessing would take care of itself.

As my family was only too happy to remind me, my sermon was already 32 minutes long. So I didn’t have time to talk about how to fall in love with Jesus. We already know many of the ways: prayer, Bible study, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Christian service—these are what we Methodists call the “means of grace.”

But alongside these is the most neglected means of grace by far.

I’m talking about fasting. I preached on fasting a couple of months ago when I preached on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But in last Sunday’s scripture it came up again: the disciples of John the Baptist asked why Jesus and his disciples—unlike themselves and the Pharisees—weren’t doing it. And Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”  Read the rest of this entry »


“The only thing you can do anything about is your past”

March 13, 2017

I just started reading Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. The following excerpt may help explain why, in my own teaching and preaching ministry over the past few years, I’ve emphasized themes of sin, Law, judgment, repentance, the Cross, and substitutionary atonement more than sanctification—or the strategies for self-improvement that disguise themselves as such.

In my own life, I need healing for my ever-present past more than help for my future (which is mostly out of my hands). Don’t you? Fortunately, more than anything else, that’s what Christ came to heal. “The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.”

In light of the law, all that men and women can do, declares Christ, is to repent (Matthew 3:2, concerning John the Baptist; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Repentance is not the same thing as restitution or a changed hart. Repentance is felt sorrow, sorrow in your very marrow, for what you have been and done. Repentance not only covers shame at what you have done but also includes shame at who you are, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Repentance is not a disposition in relation to the future. It is disposition in relation to your personal past.

Not long ago I read a newspaper article about an executive at Boeing. The reporter asked him to name the secret of his success, and he said, “There is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do anything about is the future.” Christ saw life differently. For Christ, the only thing you can do anything about is your past. God alone can deal with your future. If you have repented of your past, if you have taken an inventory of the full extent of hurt, victimhood, malice, and self-service that describe your achieved life, if you have said the one single needful word, “sorry,” then that is all. There is nothing more. The future, which Paul would later call the “fruit of the Spirit,” flows totally from the “sorry.” The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.[†]

Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.


Two ways we can be assured of salvation

March 10, 2017

On this blog I have wrestled, alongside some of you, with the following question: “If I have truly been justified by God, is it possible for me to lose this gift, such that unless I repent and seek God’s forgiveness and grace—literally become re-justified—I will go to hell?” Wesleyan Christians believe the answer is “yes.” We believe backsliding (for that is what we call it when it happens) is a real and present danger, even though we also preach assurance: for those who are (presently) justified, they can know they’re justified through the witness of the Holy Spirit within them. (See Romans 8:12-17 for one classic proof-text.)

Indeed, in a post a couple of months ago on infant baptism, I said that only a belief in the reality of backsliding can sustain the sacramental view of baptism that many Protestants, including Methodists, hold.

As I’ve said before, the issue of backsliding is purely a secondary doctrine: Whether we lose our justification through persistent, unrepentant sinfulness, or persistent, unrepentant sinfulness proves that we never had it to begin with, the result is the same. Consequently, all of us—believers in backsliding or in eternal security—need to seek assurance.

For this reason, I fully endorse this video from John Piper. Reflecting on the Romans 8 passage, he offers two reasons for assurance: hatred of our sin and childlike dependence on our heavenly Father. (This clip also demonstrates in small measure why Piper is among his generation’s most gifted preachers! What a show-off! 😉 )


What are the “gate” and the “road” in Matthew 7:13-14?

March 8, 2017


I like Frederick Dale Bruner’s words about the meaning of the narrow gate and hard road in Matthew 7:13-14. The “gate” is, first and foremost, conversion. The “road” is sanctification. But he points out that Jesus uses the present-tense verb in verse 14: “and how few are finding this way.” This emphasizes what he calls the “daily decisions to find this gate and walk this way.”[1]

He continues:

In summary, the two great facts about Jesus are what we may call his “Gate” and his “Road”: (1) the theological Gate of his gracious substitutionary death and resurrection and (2) the ethical Road of his just as gracious commands to follow him in rugged daily discipleship. Paul majors in the former without neglecting the latter; Matthew majors in the latter without neglecting the former. These two great facts about Jesus have been faithfully preserved in the great liturgies of the church, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer (where I will highlight the saving “two facts”): “Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and all an example of his godly life: Give me grace that I may always [!] most thankfully receive his inestimable benefit [at the Gate] and also daily [!] endeavor myself to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life [on the Road]; through [which in the liturgy means, correctly, “by the power of”] the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.[2]

My own preaching over the past several years emphasizes “the Gate” because, first, I always want unsaved people to become saved people. The stakes are heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation; they literally couldn’t be higher. Every time I preach, there are people who hear me who haven’t been converted and need to be.

Second, nothing inspires us on our journey of sanctification like being reminded, often, of what God has done for us, once and for all, through the cross of his Son Jesus. For this reason, I like the way the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it: “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.”

A future post will talk about how the doctrine of assurance fits in with all of this.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 351.

2. Ibid.


Sermon 03-05-17: “Will Jesus Say That He Knows Us?”

March 7, 2017

This sermon is about the series of warnings with which Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount. I pay particular attention to his frightening words in verses 21-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” 

What will our Lord say to us on Judgment Day? How can we know that we’ve entered the narrow gate, or walk on the narrow road, or bear good fruit, or build our house on the solid foundation? Can we be assured of salvation? How?

Sermon Text: Matthew 7:13-29

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Friends, it is my sad duty to report to you that, as of last month, the thimble is no more. The thimble… I’m referring to that classic game piece, or token, in the board game Monopoly. Parker Brothers has “retired” the thimble in response to a recent online poll. They asked the public to vote on which piece to get rid of, and apparently the poor thimble was the latest victim of modernization. Parker Brothers explained that while a thimble was a part of everyday life when the game was introduced back during the Depression, it’s no longer “relevant”—and that they’re going to replace it with something more relevant, like a cell phone.

The thimble will be no more in new versions of Monopoly.

Did you know that the iron and the horse-and-rider have already been replaced? Unbelievable! When I was a kid, the horse and rider was my favorite!

Well… I suspect that if, heaven forbid, we submitted all the sayings of Jesus to a popular vote, and excised from our Bibles the least popular sayings of Jesus, many of the the words from today’s scripture would surely be voted out. Last week, when I was on vacation, I let my friend Sonny preach on some of the most popular words. But I’m stuck with the least popular. I’m guessing that many people in our culture would say that Jesus’ strong words about judgment and hell, about the exclusivity of the way of Christ, and about how difficult it is to be saved, are no longer “relevant.” Read the rest of this entry »


Are there “false prophets” in the UMC?

March 6, 2017

In a podcast I listened to this morning, a Bible scholar and professor said that one of his students recently told him that the Old Testament portrays God as having “anger issues,” whereas the New Testament portrays God as loving, compassionate, and merciful.

This characterization of the Bible makes me want to facepalm—not simply because the so-called “God of the Old Testament” is loving, compassionate, and merciful, but also because the “God of the New Testament” (if you’ll allow a distinction for a moment) is a God of judgment and wrath. Indeed, he is a God who sends people to hell. Jesus says so. The epistles say so. Revelation says so.

The reason that many Christians believe that the “God of the New Testament” is different, I suspect, is because they believe that Jesus’ many frightening words about judgment, hell, and wrath don’t apply to them. In my sermon yesterday on Matthew 7:13-29, the series of warnings at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I asked myself and my congregation to imagine that they did. (Because they do!)

And lo and behold: without even trying, I preached a pretty good Lenten sermon on the first Sunday of Lent!

Among other things, my sermon included some words about the LGBTQ issue, which threatens to split our denomination (literally) in the next two years: by 2019, a specially called General Conference will decide once and for all how to move forward—together or separately. I said the following:

Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road that leads to life? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell?

I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead—and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s difficult to follow.

And why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!

But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because this “narrow gate” and “difficult road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to in verses 15 to 20 is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.

As has been the case throughout my present sermon series in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary inspired and convicted me. Concerning the “false prophets” of vv. 15-20, he writes the following:

If we are not to enter the Broad Way to destruction we will need to be continually liberated from those who beckon us to it. Moreover, “[t]he difficulty that there is even in finding this [Narrow Gate], requires that right guides should point it out to us” (Tholuck, 417). Jesus now tells us how to defend ourselves from false prophets. First of all, recognize their traits. False prophets almost always wear sheep’s clothing, that is, they have seemingly Christian ways. “Sheep” in Matthew are symbols of present or future believers… This presents us with a difficulty: what is the difference between a Christian appearance (sheep’s clothing) and a Christian effect (good fruit)?

It is the first subtlety of false prophets that they appear Christian. False prophets rarely wear wolves’ clothing. They are often (though not always) sheep-like, Christian-seeming, in earnest, and apparently the real item. This is why Jesus has to warn us about them at all.

Betz, 527, notices that the greatest danger facing disciples is not persecution but false prophets, luring us on to the easy road. His observation is corroborated by the multiple appearances of false prophets (from within the church) in Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the End of the World (see 24:4-5, 11, 24). Henry, 94, observes that “Every ‘hypocrite’ is a ‘goat’ in sheep’s clothing; but a ‘false prophet’ is a ‘wolf’ in sheep’s clothing, not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.”[1]

Many people, including colleagues and even friends in ministry, would strongly disagree with me (and Bruner, I’m guessing) that the effort to revise the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage represents the work of “false prophets.” But if Bruner is right that false prophets are people in the church—our church, any church—who seek to “lure us on to the easy road,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility? To ignore it, after all, is to put our souls at risk—again, if Bruner’s interpretation of Jesus is correct.

For my progressive colleagues who tend to give extra weight to the red-letter words of Jesus, please consider his words here, too. Please heed these warnings!

As always, I write this as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 352-3.


Ash Wednesday 2017: “The Reason for Lent”

March 2, 2017
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Jordan Horowitz handing over his trophy.

The following manuscript is adapted from last night’s Ash Wednesday sermon. For the complete sermon, listen to the audio file below.

Even if you didn’t watch the Academy Awards, you likely heard about the terrible mix-up that occurred last Sunday night when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty—otherwise known as “Bonnie and Clyde”—announced the year’s Best Picture Oscar. They announced the wrong movie: They said that La La Land won best picture, when in reality the movie Moonlight won the award.

Whoops! The producers of La La Land were nearly finished with their acceptance speeches before they found out what happened. My son Townshend was watching the show with me, and he said, “You know who the happiest man in America is right now? Steve Harvey!” And I’m sure he was right. In 2015, Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, but the Academy Awards are a much bigger deal than Miss Universe.

But… It was almost worth the mix-up in order to see how at least one of the producers of La La Land responded. And for that reason, Jordan Horowitz is a hero to me. Shortly after giving his acceptance speech—while he was holding the Oscar in his hand—he went to the microphone and said, “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you won best picture. This is not a joke.” And then, as the producers of Moonlight were taking the stage, he said, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” And he handed over his trophy. And to his great credit, he didn’t even seem disappointed. He seemed perfectly O.K. with it.

And I thought, “This is a fitting symbol for this season of Lent, which begins today.” Lent is about learning to give trophies that don’t belong to us to their rightful owner. Lent is about learning to step away from the spotlight that’s shining on us so that it can shine on the One who deserves the spotlight. Lent is about learning to be O.K. with the idea that we’re not entitled to a single iota of glory for ourselves; rather, the glory belongs entirely to God alone.

Lent is about learning to say with John the Baptist, “[Christ] must become greater; I must become less.” Read the rest of this entry »