Archive for August, 2012

You—yes, even you—can please God

August 31, 2012

Paul believed that God takes pleasure in actions that conform to God’s will.

While I was reflecting on Romans 12:1-2 for my sermon this Sunday, I had a startling realization: I don’t really believe that I can do anything to “please” God. To be sure, I’m quite convinced that I regularly disappoint God, but please him? To do something that brings God pleasure? Who can believe such a crazy thing?

After all, when we do what God wants us to do, aren’t we merely meeting God’s minimum requirement—what he already expects of us, and shame on us for failing to do it before? Isn’t that like getting an “S” for satisfactory conduct instead of an “N” for needs improvement? (When I was in elementary school, I got lots of N’s in conduct!)

So who believes that we can do something to please God? Well, St. Paul does, for one. Twice in these two verses Paul says so. In N.T. Wright’s reflection on these verses, he deals nicely with my incredulity:

Centuries of post-Augustine and post-Reformation thought have quite rightly emphasized the free, unmerited grace of God, and the response of faith alone, as the basis of the Christians’ standing in Christ, his or her membership in the family whose sins have been dealt with through Jesus’ death. But this tradition, precisely in order to avoid the impression of compromise at this central point, has often failed to give due weight to the proper and regular Pauline emphasis that those who are justified in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit can, should, and regularly do “please God,” that God is delighted with them not merely because they appear “in Christ” but because of what they are, and are becoming, and are beginning to do.[†]

N.T. Wright in “Romans,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 707.

Sermon 08-26-12: “All Things New, Part 3: New Heart”

August 31, 2012

Christians often talk as if “getting saved” were a one-time event that takes place in the past, when we first place our faith in Jesus Christ. If sin is a problem from which we need to be saved, however, then God can’t be finished saving us until we no longer sin. In this sermon, I talk about sanctification—the process by which the Holy Spirit transforms us into the people that God wants us to be. This transformation takes an ongoing miracle from God. It isn’t so much a matter of trying harder; it’s a matter of trusting harder.

Sermon Text: Psalm 51

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I’ve been using this app on my iPhone from Nike to track the success or failure of my running habit. I’m sure my Facebook friends wait with bated breath for those frequent updates it sends to my timeline—because who doesn’t want to know where I ran and how far? Nike pays celebrity athletes give me “attaboys” for my performance. One day last week Tim Tebow told me to keep up the good work.

As recently as last year, Lance Armstrong would frequently tell me how well I was doing. A cynical part of me wanted to say, “Yes, and I did it without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs!”

Last week, Armstrong  made headlines announcing that he’s giving up the fight against charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The agency says that they have evidence that Armstrong used banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone, and other drugs to win the tour. They have ten eyewitnesses, including some of Armstrong’s teammates, who will testify against him. As a result of refusing to contest the charges any longer, he’s been stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories.[1]

Refusing to contest the charges, of course, isn’t exactly the same thing as admitting guilt. Armstrong blamed the process. He called the agency’s work an “unconstitutional witch hunt,” “one-sided and unfair.” All that may be true, of course, but his words don’t exactly deny the accusation that he cheated. Read the rest of this entry »

“The absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death”

August 30, 2012

David B. Hart wrote this profoundly good meditation on suffering in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005. A friend reminded me of it in the comments section of my previous post. It applies whenever and wherever the innocent suffer. To those glib, stone-cold Calvinist answers we often hear about suffering, Hart offers this damning riposte: “It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.” He continues:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Can we have some humility about suffering, Ms. Story?

August 30, 2012

Today, for the first time, I heard (or at least paid close attention to) a popular contemporary Christian song called “Blessings,” written by a prominent contemporary Christian singer-songwriter and worship leader named Laura Story. According to Wikipedia, the song was a hit in 2011 and recently won a Grammy award. As I listened to it, I thought it was nearly a great song, bravely tackling the difficult subject of faith and suffering—not a frequent theme in the happy-clappy world of most contemporary Christian music.

Upon further reflection, however, I hate it. If people in the midst of suffering and grief find comfort in it, as apparently Story herself did when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, to God be the glory. But I couldn’t stand beside a deathbed and share these sentiments with either a dying person or the loved ones who are left behind. I hope I’d lose my credentials as a United Methodist pastor!

The first verse sounds promising:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering

That’s certainly true. But listen to the verse’s turnaround (emphasis mine): “All the while, you hear each spoken need/ Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.”

Lesser things”—you know, like healing, comfort, protection, and peace. Apparently, for Story, the greater things God would rather give us—for our own good, mind you—may include terminal illnesses, war, genocide—pick any evil, natural or human. We may pray against evil, as our Lord himself taught us to do, but if we receive evil in spite of our prayers, we should thank God because even these bad things—as Story implies in the song’s chorus—”are your mercies in disguise.” In other words, they aren’t really evil at all.

Didn’t I just complain yesterday about how John Piper’s hyper-Calvinist vision of God’s sovereignty attributes human sin and evil to God’s authorship—because even sin and evil serve his (at times) inscrutable purposes. How is Laura Story not saying the same thing?

Does your spouse, for example, have a brain tumor? According to the song’s theology, God gave it to him or her. Remember: If God wanted to give someone a “lesser” thing like a healthy brain, he would do so. God’s motives for giving someone cancer are blameless: “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?” In other words, you needed this bad thing to happen; therefore, our merciful God obliged by giving it to you. God will do “what it takes.”

To make matters worse, if the suffering person to whom Story directs these words doubts the hard truth of what she’s saying—and isn’t completely comfortable with the idea that God constantly sends evil-disguised “mercies” our way—we can be sure that God himself “longs” that “we’d have faith to believe.” Here, she says, doubt isn’t faith’s necessary correlate, as classic Christianity teaches, but is instead the opposite of faith. I should throw out every sermon I’ve preached on “doubting Thomas,” that’s for sure!

Am I being too hard on the song? After all, she asks, “What if?” As if she’s wondering aloud. But listen to the song and tell me that she means it as an open question. The most charitable reading is that Story got a bit sloppy with her words and meant to say, simply, that God takes all these bad things—including sin and evil—and uses them for his good purposes; or that God is continually bringing good out of suffering; or that God is incredibly merciful in the midst of suffering. That’s what I would like the song to say. In which case I would agree wholeheartedly! In C.S. Lewis’s masterful book The Problem of Pain, he writes that God is “mercenary” about using suffering for our good. But using suffering isn’t the same as causing it, especially when doing so makes God complicit in sin or evil.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not even arguing that God never sends suffering our way. That wouldn’t be biblical. I haven’t changed my mind since last week, when I wrote the following:

The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.

What I’m arguing is that when it comes to human suffering, there are things we can say with theological certainty—based on the Bible and two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject. But there is also a great deal of mystery, especially as it relates to God’s involvement and agency in suffering. We owe it to those who suffer to speak with circumspection and humility. Unfortunately, this song fails to do that.

“Dog bites man,” or “Methodist pastor opposes John Piper’s theology”

August 29, 2012

Some of my longtime blog readers noticed this a long time ago, and for them I hate to state the obvious: I am an evangelical Christian. I wasn’t sure I was when I graduated from a mainline Protestant seminary five years ago—in fact, I was sure I wasn’t—but I’ve been convinced of it for a while.

I credit especially the writings of N.T. Wright, a retired Anglican bishop and prominent New Testament scholar. He taught me how to be an evangelical, or helped convince me that I already was. In doing so, he taught me how to be properly Methodist. Being Methodist, historically speaking, implies being evangelical—although the church easily loses the plot.

So, I’m evangelical. Big deal. As Wesley himself said,

A man may be orthodox at every point, he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God. He may assent to all the three Creeds…. He may be almost as orthodox as the devil… and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.[†]

May I be an evangelical who is also well-acquainted with religion of the heart! I’m working on it, I promise.

All this is to say that, by identifying as evangelical, I recognize the theological kinship I share, not merely with most of my fellow Methodists, but also with plenty of other Christians who self-identify this way. While I believe that the American evangelical subculture would greatly benefit from a few more Methodist voices, I can no longer listen to the Christian radio station (see, I didn’t even put “Christian” in scare quotes) or browse the local Christian bookstore (that isn’t Cokesbury, I mean), turn up my nose, and think, “These people are the enemy!” Or “These people are so misguided!”

I am one of these people! I’m trying to love Jesus just like them. I’m trying to read and believe the Bible just like them. I’m trying to convince people of the truth of the gospel just like them. We have so much in common! These are my brothers and sisters! I shouldn’t have needed to become an evangelical Christian to discover this truth, of course… So shame on me.

But…

Having said that, I also recognize the theological kinship I share with many evangelical weirdos. One of these is John Piper. I’ve written about him before. Piper is the spiritual head of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” neo-Calvinist movement. He has many, many fans—”Piper cubs” they’re sometimes called—especially among young Christians in America. He is a often a featured speaker at Passion Conferences for college students.

It’s not exactly headline news that a Methodist pastor opposes John Piper’s theological opinions, but I do. I think they’re genuinely harmful.

But you tell me… Read this Christian Post article, “John Piper on Man’s Sin and God’s Sovereignty,” and then read this response from my fellow Arminian (so many labels!) Roger Olson. One of Olson’s points is that Piper is out on the fringe, even for a five-point Calvinist. Olson writes:

John Piper has been at it again. But there’s nothing new in the sermon reported on there. He has been saying this and writing it for decades. According to him, God foreordains sin. He “ordains and governs” it. He stops short of saying God causes it. But the effect is the same: sin is God’s will, even if it grieves him. And he’s talking about about every specific sin, not just “sin in general.”

Most Calvinists blush at such statements. And there’s the line for me between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” Calvinism. I cannot accept, even with chagrin, Calvinism that says God foreordains and renders certain specific sins. That inexorably, ineluctably, inescapably makes God the author of sin and evil. That sullies God’s character OR makes sin not really sin. You have to choose. There’s no way around it.

Arminius was absolutely right when he addressed this Calvinist idea (which he associated especially with supralapsarianism but which is not held only by supras). He said that in that view, then, sin is not sin, or God sins and is really the only sinner.

Again, as I have said so many times before, whatever Scripture passages used to support this view mean, they cannot mean that. (Wesley said that about the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9.) Why? Because if that’s what Scripture means, then the God of the Bible is not good in any meaningful sense. Then, if that’s what the Bible means (which it cannot mean), then the God of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sinner or sin is not really sin. The logic is inescapable.

Does Olson get Piper right? Do you see Piper’s theology as harmful?

John Wesley in William Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs (Louisville: WJK, 2007), xii.

Willimon’s book on Wesleyan theology is a masterpiece

August 28, 2012

Will Willimon’s book United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction is nothing less than a masterpiece. It distills Wesleyan theology into one brief, highly accessible volume—and I’m not even getting paid to say that. (I’m not above getting paid, mind you, if the fine folks at Westminster John Knox happen to be reading this!)

Our church has been selling copies of this book on Sunday mornings, along with a couple other Wesley resources. You’re not going to get a better, more readable introduction to Wesleyan thought. If you know Bishop Willimon, you know his writing style isn’t dry. He has more than a few opinions on the subject of Methodism that he doesn’t mind sharing along the way. His subjectivity, however, is never distracting to me.

Last Sunday I preached on sanctification, which Willimon identifies as the central emphasis of Wesleyan thought. This doctrine, with its robust understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life, is Methodism’s best gift to the universal Church. Willimon rightly identifies Pentecostalism as a “grandchild” of Methodism.

On the subject of sanctification, he addresses the central challenge facing Methodist theology, the point at which Wesley loudly parted company with Luther and Calvin, and the challenge we’ve been dealing with on this blog for the past month or so: Given our Wesleyan emphasis on human responsibility (including the free choice to accept God’s justifying grace in the first place), how do we, at the same time, claim that we’re saved by grace alone, through no merit of our own?

Willimon writes:

One of Wesley’s great achievements in soteriology was to keep a vital tension between God’s grace and our grace-driven but never-forced involvement…

A word of theological caution: When we Wesleyans speak of this triumph of prevenient grace, there is the danger that such talk will overshadow our truthful and orthodox assertion of the pervasiveness of human sin. How do we affirm with the Western theological tradition (thanks to Augustine against the Pelagians) that we are indeed sinners utterly unable to save ourselves from our sin? How do we avoid hedging on the historic affirmation that salvation from sin belongs only to God in Christ, working through the Holy Spirit without our help or encouragement, and (with Wesley) assert that God has given us the freedom to take some real responsibility for our situation?

We do it through prevenient grace.

Our sin, while obvious and undeniable, is not the last word on the human condition. God didn’t stop creating after the first six days of creation. God continues to get involved in each life, giving grace that enables all of us, despite our sin, to say—when confronted by the presence and work of Christ—”yes.”[†]

I recommend reading the book for the complete answer, but he’s right on: prevenient grace is the key.

William Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Louisville: WJK, 2007), 78.

C.S. Lewis on forgiveness

August 27, 2012

Here is a reflection by C.S. Lewis on forgiveness that accompanies Psalm 51, which I preached on yesterday, in the C.S. Lewis Bible. 

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all is horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “My Sin Is Ever Before Me,” from The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 606.

Sermon 08-19-12: “All Things New, Part 2: New Birth”

August 24, 2012

In today’s scripture, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be “born again” to enter God’s kingdom. It used to be popular to talk about being a “born-again Christian.” The truth is, being born again isn’t merely something that the super-saints among us have experienced. If we’re authentically Christians, we have experienced new birth.

Have you been born again? What does it mean and why is it necessary? How can you know whether you’ve experienced new birth? This sermon will explore those questions.

Sermon Text: John 3:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last week, I went to an Emory clinic to get my shots and prescriptions for my upcoming trip to Kenya. One of those shots was for yellow fever. Kenya doesn’t currently have any cases of yellow fever, but some neighboring countries do. So, just to be safe, the doctor recommended that I get the shot. “Are there any possible drawbacks to getting the vaccination?” “Oh, sure,” he said. “It’s a live-virus vaccination, so we’re going to inject a small bit of the virus into you. Your immune system should kick in and develop immunity to it. But if it doesn’t, there’s a small chance you could contract yellow fever.” Just what I needed to hear! I’m slightly, slightly a hypochondriac, soI’m thinking, “Should I call the hospital and reserve my bed now?” because I’m already convinced I’m going to get yellow fever!

I’m happy to report that I didn’t get yellow fever.  Read the rest of this entry »

Making perfect the enemy of the good as a disciple of Christ

August 23, 2012

“This time you’ll stick with it,” the back cover tells me.

I’ve confessed to you before that I’m a sucker for buying Bibles. Sadly, I like buying them more than reading them. When I say “reading,” let’s be clear (in case my bishop is reading this): I’m excluding the necessary reading that I do as part of my job—to prepare sermons and such. I do a lot of that kind of reading. Although I thoroughly enjoy this kind of Bible-reading, I’m getting paid to do it, so that doesn’t count.

I’m talking about the Bible reading that I do when no one else is looking. Like dragging myself out of bed earlier than normal or carving out space in the evening in order to read for no other purpose than simply to hear God speak to me. That’s the hard kind of reading, which I fail to do every day (so far).

Even when I was a layperson taking Disciple Bible study, I didn’t read every day. I read every second or third day, and a lot the night before our small-group meeting. Some of you know what I’m talking about.

In fact, one theme of my Bible-purchasing habit is that I’m constantly looking for the Bible that will make this hard kind of reading easier.

My most recent Bible purchase in this regard was the new Daily Companion Bible, from the Common English Bible people. I only bought it, or so I told myself, because I left my earlier edition of the CEB in Panama City on the youth beach retreat earlier this summer and needed to replace it. For almost the same price, I got the CEB plus some devotional material that makes reading the Bible every day a breeze, or so it says. In fact, the tagline on the back cover says, “This time you’ll stick with it.”

How does it know me so well? It’s like the publisher was clairvoyant or something.

It’s only been a month and already I haven’t stuck with it, of course. Daily Bible reading is a great goal, but I haven’t attained it. On the bright side, however, I am reading the Bible more frequently now than before. That’s something, right?

I may be unable to read the Bible every day, but I’ll bet I can read it today. And if I read it today, that ain’t bad. And if I fail to read it tomorrow, that won’t be the end of the world.

I’m reflecting on this personal struggle of mine because of something I read just now from Rachel Evans’s blog that you might find very helpful.

Does it ring true to your experience as a disciple of Jesus?

We Methodists ought to “enjoy the act of thinking”

August 22, 2012

From the introduction to Will Willimon’s United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction:

To be truthful, many of our fellow Christians regard the phrase “Methodist beliefs” as an oxymoron. We Methodists, as heirs of Protestant pietism, are not well known nor widely admired for our theology. Presbyterians and Lutherans are notorious for enjoying the act of thinking. We Wesleyans are better known for our feelings and our busyness, our allegedly “warm hearts” and active hands rather than our clear heads and sound doctrines. Well, if you are thinking that about Methodist thinking, I intend to disabuse you of that thought. United Methodist theology is something quite beautiful in its own way—our special contribution to the liveliness of the body of Christ.[†]

William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Louisville: WJK, 2007), xi.