Archive for January, 2014

Sermon 01-12-14: “This Means War!”

January 21, 2014
Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus' three temptations.

Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus’ three temptations.

Do you believe in the devil? Jesus did—which is our best for believing in him as well. That we face an Adversary who is constantly working against the good that we try to do certainly makes better sense of our struggles in life. This sermon is about the deadly threat that Satan poses to us. I also talk about the parallel that the evangelist Luke draws between the temptation of Jesus, the second Adam, and the temptation of the first Adam. The nature of the temptation was the same: the outcome couldn’t have been more different. We Christians share in the victory Christ won over Satan.

Sermon Text: Luke 4:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of us watched the BCS national championship game last Monday, and whether or not our team won, it was a great game! One of the story lines in the game was that Florida State had won all of its games this year so easily, and by such a wide margin, that they had never really faced adversity. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in the first 13 games they played, they were always so far ahead that they could rest their starters and put in their second- and third-string players. So all the sports analysts were saying that FSU had never been tested.

By contrast, their opponent, Auburn, had been tested repeatedly. They had faced adversity. They knew how to come from behind to beat heavily favored teams, and they knew how to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This kind of experience would give them an advantage.

What if Auburn could force FSU to play a full four quarters of football? Would FSU be able handle the adversity? Would they be able to rise to the challenge? Would they be able to pass the test?

And I guess the answer is yesBut just barely!

My point is, being tested helps us. Facing adversity helps us. These things can toughen us up and instill within us the confidence we need to overcome greater challenges later on. That’s the main thing going on in today’s scripture. God was preparing Jesus for what he would face later on. Read the rest of this entry »

Can you believe I do this for a living?

January 19, 2014

This weekend I’m on a retreat with our church’s youth group. We’re in the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I prepared this video to highlight some of the experiences we had. Enjoy!

Looking for love in a world filled with “ifs”

January 17, 2014
Nouwen's book examines Jesus' parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Nouwen’s book examines Jesus’ parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In preparation for a sermon I’ll deliver on a youth retreat this weekend, I’m re-reading one of my favorite books: Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, a deeply personal reflection on both the parable of Jesus and Rembrandt’s painted depiction of it.

Nouwen says that we become “prodigals” ourselves when we stop listening to the voice of our Father, who loves unconditionally, who calls us his Beloved, “on whom my favor rests.” Instead, we listen to other voices, who promise us love—except with strings attached.

This is a lengthy excerpt. When I read it, I feel as if Nouwen can see into my own heart. I know these voices well. They are, as Nouwen says, always there.

These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful. Those same voices are not unfamiliar to me. They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire…

[These voices] have come to me through my parents, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues, but, most of all, they have come and still come through the mass media that surround me. And they say: “Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend. How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own!… These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used!… When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”

At issue is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?”… As long as I keep running about asking, “Do you love me? Do you really love me?” I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with “ifs.” The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will always remain “hooked” to the world—trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.[†]

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1992), 40-2.

Tim Keller’s well-deserved five-star review

January 16, 2014

keller_bookAs you probably know, I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog reflecting on Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. I’m gratified that this month’s Christianity Today agrees with my assessment, awarding the book five out of five stars. The reviewer, theologian Gerald Sittser, summarizes the book’s most important themes with the following:

It is only in the past 200 years, Keller argues, that Westerners have used evil and suffering as an argument against the existence (or goodness) of God. He is especially critical of the modern and secular view of suffering, which places all confidence in human reason and assumes that God, if he exists at all, exists solely to make us happy. This view helps explain why so many people avoid suffering at all costs, do their best to manage and minimize it once it interrupts their lives, and often yield to utter hopelessness when it persists. In the end, a secular view leaves us empty and alone, stripped of answers, devoid of all comfort and confidence.

The Christian answer to suffering, on the other hand, is more consistent, complete, and humane than any of the alternatives. It is attentive to human emotions. It views God as both sovereign and suffering. It alone satisfies the human longing for meaning and significance. And it is by far the most hopeful. Keller sums up the Christian perspective with the metaphor of a furnace. The flames of suffering consume our sinful inclinations, and yes, this is painful. But this purification process makes us holy, provided we turn to the God who reveals himself as both transcendent and present, Victor and Victim, Lord and Servant.

Is primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? If not, why be Protestant?

January 15, 2014

In a recent sermon, I criticized our United Methodist Church’s slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s the middle term I don’t like. For one thing, the catchphrase reinforces the popular but misguided stereotype that Methodists don’t have strong theological convictions. For another, open-mindedness is strictly a temporary virtue. As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” When it comes to the most important questions of Christian faith, our minds should already be closed by now. Right?

Sadly, not everyone agrees. But they should. (What can I say? I’m closed-minded.)

Still, as Protestants, not to mention Methodists, one idea that we should happily close our mind around is the primacy of scripture in guiding our theological thinking—often called sola scriptura.  Yes, I know that we Methodists talk about a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as our authoritative guides, but the quadrilateral isn’t a four-legged stool: neither tradition, reason, nor experience gets to have veto power over the Bible. Any time that our best understanding of scripture comes into conflict with one of the other three, we side with God’s Word.

I thought of this Protestant conviction in an online conversation I had yesterday with evangelical converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was part of this blog post from Scot McKnight. Like me, McKnight is an evangelical Protestant. I assume most of his readers are, too. The comments section, however, became an Orthodox love-fest—not simply because of several Orthodox converts who commented, but also sympathetic evangelicals.

I know it’s cool to be Eastern Orthodox these days. And why not? After all, “eastern” is cooler than “western.” Plus, it’s exotic, unfamiliar, and weird—while still being Christian.

McKnight points out that while the EOC tends to be more communal in nature than most of Western Christianity, the spike in conversions among American evangelicals is an ironic expression of American individualism. I’m sure he’s right.

Honestly: If you’re an American Protestant who wants to become Orthodox, why not become Roman Catholic? Wouldn’t that make more sense? We don’t live in Turkey or Greece, after all. Wouldn’t it be much easier and more convenient? You get all the pedigree, all the tradition, all the liturgy… Plus there’s a Catholic church nearby! Or have these new converts chosen Orthodoxy because they’re convinced that the addition of “et filioque” to the Nicene Creed was a tragic mistake? Please!

No, they can’t become Catholic for the simple reason that there are too many Catholics.

(For some reason, I just thought of the Seinfeld episode in which George decides to convert to Latvian Orthodox for the sake of impressing a new love interest.)

What bothered me about the conversation in the comments section is that few people seemed committed to the best reason to be Protestant, which is the primacy of scripture.

It would be one thing if Orthodox Christians simply disagreed with our understanding of scripture on these key points, but nevertheless held scripture to be their primary authority. Instead, as in Roman Catholicism, they make an appeal to that other authority, capital-T Tradition: they are guided not simply by scripture, but by the teachings of the Apostles themselves, which didn’t always find their way into scripture but are equally authoritative.

It is through this tradition that we know, say Catholics, that Mary was sinless, bodily assumed into heaven, and perpetually a virgin; or that the elements of Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ, such that it’s even appropriate to worship the Host; or that asking saints in heaven to pray for you, even though we have the same access to the throne room of God, is A-OK; or that Jesus sacrifices himself all over again every time Communion is celebrated. Not to mention differences related to justification and the afterlife.

So, assuming you’re Protestant, how does that strike you—that your interpretation of scripture must be wrong if it conflicts with any dogmatic teaching of the Catholic churches, either Roman or Orthodox—because, after all, their interpretations derive directly from the apostles themselves? That our reading of scripture, no matter how well-informed and guided by tradition, is insufficient apart from the teachings of these churches?

Is the primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? Since many Protestants have died on that hill, I hope so for their sake. If it is, then “crossing the Tiber” or “crossing whatever large river lies in Istanbul” is out of the question.

I’ve written about these issues before: here, here, and here. Also, read this post from Glenn Peoples.

The problem of fairness: “What about those who’ve never heard?” etc.

January 13, 2014

I like theologian Glenn Peoples, a Calvinist (he’s a fiercely intelligent Christian apologist; I only wish he would blog more often), and I like theologian Jerry Walls, an Arminian (who is also United Methodist—yay, team!).

In this post, Glenn critiques Walls’s unusual concept of Protestant purgatory. Walls wrote a book on the subject, which I haven’t read. Apparently, Walls argues that since everyone doesn’t receive a fair, equal, or “optimal” level of grace sufficient to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life, God “balances the scales” after death in a state of being that Walls calls purgatory.

This solves the problem of unfairness (assuming, against Calvinism, that it is a problem): no one will go to hell without having had a fair chance to accept God’s gift of eternal life through Christ.

As a Calvinist, Peoples naturally rejects Walls’s ideas. But he’s right about one thing: Arminianism’s concept of “prevenient grace,” which we Arminians offer as an alternative to the rigid determinism of “irresistible grace,” doesn’t completely solve the unfairness problem—as Walls well knows, otherwise he wouldn’t be proposing a Protestant purgatory. Peoples writes:

So actually, given Walls’ view that not everybody has had a chance to be saved in this life, Arminianism is in the same boat and subject to the same objection as Calvinism here: The distribution of grace isn’t fair! Of course, a Calvinist just bites this bullet hard: Nobody deserves eternal life, and God chooses to give it to some. If you don’t like it, talk to the hand. Now, Walls can say, of course, the Arminian who doesn’t believe in a second chance after death has a widerbase of people who can be saved: namely all those who have heard the Gospel in this life. But still, there are some who, as Walls puts it, have not “had such grace in this life.” Based on what has happened in this life, Walls thinks, they can’t be saved. So Arminians have a problem that is surely only better in degree than the problem had by Calvinists, but which is the same in principle (assuming there’s a problem here, as Walls does).

Lest you think I’m becoming a Calvinist, I would say that while prevenient grace doesn’t solve this particular problem, it also doesn’t introduce new ones: like how to square double-predestination and irresistible grace with the obvious (from my perspective) biblical truth that we human beings are ultimately responsible for choosing God’s gift of salvation.

I’ve heard Calvinists complaining about the misleading language of popular evangelicalism, which stresses the importance of “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord”—the good old-fashioned Billy Graham-style invitation. This, they say, places an emphasis on the wrong side of the equation: human response rather than God’s initiative.

Theologically, I understand the concern, but I dismiss it: any language we use will ultimately fail to capture all the mystery and nuance of salvation. To speak of “accepting Christ” is good enough for me.

Besides, call Arminians like me “semi-Pelagian” all you want, nothing in the Gospels and nothing in Paul’s letters convinces me that we don’t ultimately get to choose to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ—at some level, in whatever qualified way we wish to explain it. God doesn’t override our will, even if, through grace, God helps it along.

In the comments section of Peoples’s post, Peoples and his commenters discuss Molinism, another attempt to solve the problem of unfairness. Molinism says that since God knows whether or not an individual would accept Christ under the most favorable circumstances, he places that person in the right place—geographically and historically—so that they either will or won’t make that choice. In other words, no unsaved individual will die and face judgment who would have been saved under other circumstances. If, for example, an unsaved person dies having never heard or responded to the gospel—because they lived in North Korea or an Islamist country where the church is underground and Christian evangelism is illegal—it doesn’t matter: even if they’d been born in the buckle of the Bible Belt a hundred years ago, they still wouldn’t have accepted Christ.

I personally find Molinism less appealing than Walls’s purgatory. And Peoples raises an interesting proof-text against it:

In Luke 10:13 Jesus didn’t say “everyone who did not get the opportunity would have rejected the opportunity anyway.” In fact he seems to be saying the opposite: That some people who didn’t get a chance to hear are actually people who would have accepted the opportunity, and repented. So if we think about grace and our response to it in Arminian terms (as Bill does), it would appear that the contention that everyone who would have repented gets the chance to do before they die is not a biblical contention.

I confess I’m not as bothered by this question of “fairness” as I’m supposed to be. First, because I trust God to be perfectly fair in Final Judgment, so I don’t have to worry about it. Second, as far as I can tell, most people I know—at least in my little Bible-Belt corner of the American South—have already received a sufficient amount of grace to respond to the gospel. If they haven’t already accepted Christ, maybe they never will. Or maybe they need us Christians to work harder to persuade them!

I’m mostly uninterested in any theological proposal—post-mortem “optimal grace,” Calvinistic determinism, and difference-splitting Molinism—that diminishes the urgency of our evangelistic task.

Of course, even as I write this, I recognize my hypocrisy. What’s my problem when it comes to evangelism? It’s not like I’m beating down people’s doors to share the gospel with them! Am I living and ministering with a sufficient sense of urgency?

Well, I promise I’m getting better about evangelism. But I have plenty more work to do in that area!

What we know for sure is this: God has given us this time on earth to hear and respond to the gospel. Those of us who’ve already repented and said “yes” to God’s offer of salvation through Christ have our work cut out for us.

Sermon 01-05-14: “My Father’s Business”

January 13, 2014
Here I am on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem back in 2011. The Holy Family made an annual pilgrimage here during Passover, as we see in today's scripture.

Here I am on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem back in 2011. The Holy Family made an annual pilgrimage here during Passover, as we see in today’s scripture.

In today’s scripture, Jesus does something unexpected, causes a lot of stress in the lives of people who love him, and tells them something that they don’t understand. When it comes to following Jesus, what else is new?

We want the Lord to fit into our plans, to operate according to our calendars, and to follow us. Fortunately for us, the Lord gives us what we need, not what we want. His way is always much better!

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Back in 2008, a newspaper columnist in New York made national headlines after telling her readers that she left her nine-year-old son alone at the original Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City. She gave him nothing but a subway map, a transit card, a twenty dollar bill, and some quarters in case he needed to use a pay phone. She didn’t even give him a cellphone. And she said, “Have fun. See you later.” And she went home and left him there. The child wanted to be left alone. He’d made this same trip across town with his mom dozens of times, and he assured her that he knew his way home.

Besides, if he got lost, she said she trusted him to ask a stranger for help. “And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.’”

Long story short, she said, he got home safely, “ecstatic with independence.”

Parents, how does that make you feel? Uneasy? Nervous? Angry? She said some of her critics wanted to turn her in for child abuse!

I can relate to their concerns. Is there anything more frightening than having your child get lost? Not being able to find your child? I’ve only had fleeting moments when I was separated from one of my children in a public place and it was scary! My heart dropped.

So we can probably all relate to the panic and fear that Mary and Joseph felt when they realized, at the end of the first day of a three-day journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, that Jesus wasn’t with them! Imagine how they felt for the next couple of days, frantically retracing their steps searching for him. Read the rest of this entry »

“To live outside the law you must be honest”

January 9, 2014

platingaOr so said Bob Dylan in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, in his book about sin, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, offers reasons why this is true.

Reflecting classic Christian teaching, Plantinga writes that sin and evil are a privation: they represent the absence of something, namely the good. Like a parasite feeding on its host, they require the good in order to survive.

Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities. “Goodness,” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.” God is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.[1]

Therefore, “good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”[2] He writes that biographers “make themselves students of this phenomenon,” especially in relation to towering religious or moral leaders in history.

Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables. Other ironies appear in other characters including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves. The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.[3]

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the “smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.”[4]

1. Conelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995),89.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Ibid., 80-1.

4. Ibid., 89.

Who knew? A good dad is indispensable

January 8, 2014

Who knew?

Men and women are different. Mothers and fathers have different and important roles to play in the lives of their children. A family that produces optimal outcomes for children is an intact family of a mother and a father, working hard to keep their marriages together and to be good mothers and fathers.

Well, I suppose nearly everyone knew this until a generation ago.

The conclusions of research like this should be obvious, except they no longer are in our day: when men are often perceived as defective women, or when sociologists and their ideological champions want to minimize differences between the sexes.

Pruett’s argument is that fathers often engage their children in ways that differ from the ways in which mothers engage their children. Yes, there are exceptions, and, yes, parents also engage their children in ways that are not specifically gendered. But there are at least four ways, spelled out in my new book, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (co-edited with Kathleen Kovner Kline), that today’s dads tend to make distinctive contributions to their children’s lives…

Please note that the author isn’t making an argument for bad fathers. In that case, a child does about as well being raised by a single mother. He’s talking about the positive difference made by good dads—or even “good enough” dads (meaning, the bar isn’t necessarily very high). He argues that good dads are indispensable in the following ways: the way they play with children; the way they encourage children to take risks; the way they discipline children; and the way they protect their children’s safety and welfare.

The result of good fathering is that their children have lower rates of delinquency, teen pregnancy, and depression.

Meanwhile, on a related note, theologian Roger Olson continues to confront the crisis of masculinity in our culture in this new blog post.

Sermon 12-29-13: “My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation”

January 6, 2014

simeon_anna

In today’s scripture, Simeon and Anna have spent their lives waiting for the first Advent: the coming of the Messiah and Savior. We present-day Christians are also waiting—both for the Second Coming and for God to answer our prayers—but we’re probably not nearly as good at it as these two heroes of faith! What else can Anna and Simeon teach us?

Sermon Text: Luke 2:21-40

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

This Christmas, I only had to buy two gifts that I didn’t purchase online. For one of these gifts, I had to drive far from home, and wait in a long, slow line, at a retail establishment that is notoriously bad in customer service. While I waiting in line, I posted on Facebook that I was enduring this long wait all for the sake of my wife, Lisa, who was going to love this gift. Someone said, “Oh, you must be at Jerrod’s, buying your wife fine jewelry.” I was happy to let the world think that’s what I was doing. And then, our church’s very own Gary Chitwood posted this: “I saw you in line. Couldn’t get to you to say hello. Dollar Tree is packed, though.” Read the rest of this entry »