Archive for June, 2013

Sermon 06-09-13: “Devil in the Details, Part 2”

June 14, 2013

Devil In the Details_1_600

In Part 1 of this sermon, I talked about the skepticism we usually have about Satan’s literal existence. In this sermon, I talk about the ways that Satan and the other “principalities and powers” often attack us. This sermon is both a warning and an encouragement for Christians: a warning because we need to take seriously the deadly Enemy that we face and an encouragement because we have all the power necessary to defeat this Enemy.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-17

The following is my original sermon text with footnotes.

I met a man recently named Bob, who goes to Hampton UMC, the church that I will soon be pastoring. Bob retired from Delta Airlines. But before that, he was in the Air Force. He flew U-2 spy planes 70,000 feet up in the air, at the edge of outer space, over enemy territory, at the height of the Cold War—probably while being fired upon by enemy missiles! I didn’t ask him where he flew U-2s, but I know U-2s routinely flew top secret missions over the Soviet Union, and China, and Cuba, and North Korea. They were used for surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering.

Today, in Part 2 of our sermon “Devil in the Details,” I want us to fly over enemy territory ourselves and gather intelligence on our Enemy, which we identified last week as Satan and the “principalities and powers” that Paul talks about in today’s text. I talked about the challenge we modern people often face in believing in a literal Satan—even though Jesus himself certainly did. I also said that if Satan did exist—and he does—he would undoubtedly want us not to believe in him—then he could do so much of his work unimpeded.

Read the rest of this entry »

Screwtape on marriage

June 12, 2013

Last Sunday, during the second part of my sermon on spiritual warfare, I shared a few insights from The Screwtape Letters about ways in which Satan attacks us. There were many more insights I would have liked to have shared—but that’s what this blog is for!

In the following passage Screwtape discusses with Wormwood the Satanic lie of being “in love” as the basis for marriage. I could have used these thoughts in my recent sermon on marriage. (Remember that “the Enemy” is God and “our Father” is Satan.)

The Enemy’s demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father’s first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing up as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy…

In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love’, and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.[†]

Let me highlight that last line: They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 236, 238.

Stephanie Newton on spiritual warfare

June 10, 2013

Here’s a video I created for yesterday’s Vinebranch service. I preached again on Satan and spiritual warfare. Enjoy!


Writing Satan out of the human story changes the story

June 7, 2013

Since Methodists rarely offer any defense of the Arminianism that’s a part of their doctrinal DNA—even in the face of scornful criticism from our Calvinist brothers and sisters—I greatly appreciate theologian and blogger Roger Olson—a Baptist!—for fighting the good fight on our behalf.

A couple of Olson’s recent blog posts (here and here) were one inspiration for this current sermon series on Satan and spiritual warfare. (We Methodists don’t talk about those things, either!)

In this first post, Olson offers reasons why many modern Christians shy away from the topic of Satan. One reason that spoke to my own experience is our desire for cultural respectability: believing in Satan is uncool, unsophisticated—childish even—and don’t we know better now? I’ve already blogged about that.

Another reason, however, which I hadn’t previously considered is the following:

A third reason may be the influence of philosophical reasoning, channeled through rational apologetics, among evangelicals (including many who consider themselves moderate, centrist). A big part of such apologetics is theodicy—the explanation of evil in light of the existence of God. Theodicy rarely finds place for Satan or demons in explaining the existence of evil in God’s universe.

Think about this: He’s saying that Christian apologists themselves often argue for God’s goodness in a world filled with evil without resorting to Satan or the demonic. Having read some apologetics myself, I happen to know that he’s right. My systematic theology professor at Emory, who otherwise believed strongly in defending the faith, never said a word about Satan when he was giving an account of evil in an otherwise good Creation.

At the very least, without Satan, theodicy becomes more difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but theologian Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, would.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Strong words! Keep in mind: I don’t entirely agree with Green here. I think he overstates the case. But it’s undeniably true that if we reassert Satan’s important role in Christian theology and doctrine, we avoid or better explain many problems with theodicy. And remember: we had no good reason to “write him out of the human story” in the first place.

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

Keith Green’s “No One Believes in Me Anymore”

June 6, 2013

I’ve posted this before, but here’s the song I referred to in last Sunday’s sermon. It’s by a first-generation Christian-rocker named Keith Green, who’s obviously great. It relates to our topic of Satan and spiritual warfare. Enjoy!

Sermon 06-02-13: “Devil in the Details, Part 1”

June 6, 2013

Devil In the Details_1_600

If we are Christians, we are at war. We face an Enemy who constantly works against our health and well-being, our family and friends, our success, our happiness, and—not least—the work that we do on behalf of God’s kingdom in this world. As if this struggle weren’t bad enough, many of us modern Christians also struggle to believe that the Enemy even exists. If Satan were real, wouldn’t he want to keep us in the dark about his existence? 

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes and graphics.

When Stephanie and I were planning out my last few worship services here in Vinebranch, she asked me, “Is there something that you’ve been wanting to preach over these past several years that you haven’t gotten to? If so, you’ve only got a few weeks left.” I said, “No. Nothing I can think of. Although there are probably several things I’d like to re-preach—preach over again—because I messed it up or didn’t do it well the first time.” Then I half-jokingly said, “How about a do-over sermon series?” Do-over! Remember those days on the playground or ball field? I call do-over on some scriptures and topics that I’ve gotten wrong or haven’t done justice to in the past. Stephanie thought that this was a great idea. In fact, she was a little over-enthusiastic about it, if you ask me! Read the rest of this entry »

“My time is my own”

June 5, 2013

lewisI lost an argument last week in the comments section of my Angelina Jolie post. I couldn’t explain why Jolie’s mastectomy was theologically significant when I don’t think twice about other “-ectomies,” like tonsillectomies or wisdom-teeth extractions. I disagree that it’s because I’m a male chauvinist pig, but who knows? I have plenty of prejudice.

That being said, my point remains: Our lives and our bodies are not ours to do with as we please. They belong to God. I’m sure of that.

C.S. Lewis makes this point in powerful ways throughout his writing. In Chapter 21 of The Screwtape Letters, for instance, the demon Screwtape describes a problem with which I frequently struggle: my sense that time belongs to me rather than to God. Referring to his nephew Wormwood’s Christian “patient,” he writes:

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him… You must zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

The assumption that time belongs to human beings, Screwtape says, is absurd: time comes to us, like every good thing we experience, as “pure gift.” This would be clear to Wormwood’s man if he only thought about it. He’s a Christian, after all. He is, in theory,

committed to a total service of the Enemy [i.e., God]; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and hw would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said ‘Now you may go and amuse yourself’. Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day…

The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!1

† C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 245-6.

“The Word Is Love” complete sermon series

June 5, 2013


I believe the seven sermons of this series are among the best I’ve preached. To be sure, they were outside of my comfort zone—but isn’t that often where we do our best work?

Here they are, all in one place:

Date Title Scripture Beatles songs
04/14/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 1” 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“The Word,” “I Will”
04/21/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 2” Matthew 19:16-30 “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “All You Need Is Love”
04/28/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 3” Ephesians 5:21-33 “When I’m 64,” “We Can Work It Out”
05/05/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 4” Acts 20:17-27 “In My Life,” “Getting Better”
05/12/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 5” Mark 7:24-30 “Lady Madonna,” “Your Mother Should Know”
05/19/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 6” Romans 8:28;
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “The Long and Winding Road”
05/26/13 “The Word Is Love, Part 7” Revelation 21:1-8 “Revolution 1,” “Let It Be”


Andy Stanley and the authority of scripture

June 3, 2013

Scot McKnight, whose blog I read daily, highlights a dispute between Andy Stanley and a Southern Baptist professor named Denny Burk (about whom I know nothing, but that’s not Burk’s fault). Recently, Stanley preached about the authority of scripture and said,

The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history. And the issue is always – Who is Jesus? That’s always the issue. The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story…

Stanley went on to say that he believes Adam and Eve were a literal couple, not because the “Bible says so” but because Jesus does. As Stanley said, “[A]nybody that can predict their own death and resurrection and pull it off – I just believe anything they say.” (Unless I’m mistaken, Stanley makes this same point in Deep & Wide.)

Burk objects that “our only knowledge of what Jesus says comes to us from the Bible. There can be no bifurcation between ‘what the Bible says’ and ‘what Jesus says.’ The former gives us the latter.”

Burk isn’t completely wrong. Stanley’s argument is weak. We can’t know, based on “something that happened in history,” that Jesus said what the Bible says he said about Adam and Eve. As N.T. Wright and others (including me), have argued, history (by which I mean, history alone, apart from scripture and faith) can tell us that Jesus was very likely raised from the dead. The resurrection, based on historical evidence alone, is at least as likely as many other historical events that we take for granted as fact. The reason many historians don’t say the resurrection happened is not because they’ve scrupulously followed the evidence and have reached this conclusion; rather, they say the resurrection didn’t happen because of course resurrections don’t happen.

Nevertheless, if history alone can tell us that the resurrection probably happened, then history tells us a lot. Moreover, to Stanley’s point, if the resurrection didn’t happen, no one would know or care what Jesus had to say about Adam and Eve or anything else for that matter.

But even if the resurrection happened (which of course I believe strongly that it did), who’s to say that Jesus predicted it? Many Bible scholars, even some who believe in the resurrection, argue that the historical Jesus didn’t predict it, that his death caught him by surprise—that the apostles or their followers wrote the gospels in light of Easter, and Easter transformed how they viewed the historical events leading up to it. Jesus’ predictions, in other words, were a post-Easter innovation.

Ugh! Even as I describe this argument, it strikes me as ridiculous. But I’m not wrong: this is the kind of stuff you read and hear about in mainline Protestant seminaries. And it is a counterargument to what Stanley says.

My point is, the resurrection doesn’t prove that Jesus said and did the things attributed to him in the gospels. But we may rightly ask, “Since we believe on good historical evidence outside the Bible that Jesus was resurrected, is it also reasonable to believe that the gospels paint an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did?”

Maybe this is what Stanley meant, but he didn’t say it clearly enough.

Another problem with Stanley’s argument is this: If Jesus had never spoken about Adam and Eve in the gospels, we would still have to reach some conclusion about the historicity of the first couple, right? Is everything in the Old Testament that Jesus didn’t speak about up for grabs?

Some of my fellow United Methodists who disagree with our church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality make that argument: “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore who’s to say that homosexual behavior is sinful?” Aren’t they following Stanley’s logic? Do the red-letter words of Jesus carry more weight, theologically, than Paul’s letters or the rest of the New Testament? I don’t think so.

The missing ingredient in Stanley’s and Burk’s arguments is the Holy Spirit. Why do we have the Bible we have? Why do we believe that it’s a trustworthy revelation from God? It’s because of the Holy Spirit. We have the Bible we have today because God wants us to have it. God is the ultimate authority behind the authority of scripture. This authority can’t be proven from historical events or the extent to which the Bible accurately reflects history; it takes faith, which is itself a gift of the Spirit.

I disagree with Stanley when he says, “The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story.” Beware of someone using the word “simply”: it’s rarely that simple. The Bible isn’t simply anything: It is the Holy Spirit’s actively speaking to us through the words on paper. When we read scripture through the eyes of faith, something supernatural happens: We are in conversation with the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself. It isn’t only that God spoke a long time ago through the writers of scripture and we have their words to guide our lives; it’s also that God continues to speak to us through these words today. I think my belief accurately reflects our Wesleyan understanding of scripture—it at least passed muster with the Board of Ordained Ministry! 😉

I think Scot McKnight would agree with me, too. He describes a doctrine of scripture based on Jesus as the Word of God. I recommend the whole post to you, but I’ll leave you with this:

So any articulation of our faith that is not first God in his authority before Scripture’s authority makes a fundamental mistake.

To be sure, we know Jesus because of the Word but we have the Word because God spoke the Word and the Word God speaks has a name, Jesus. So first the Word, the Living Word, and then the Word, the Written Word. And it is really a silly game to think we need to argue about which one is most important: both.