Archive for January, 2015

Christians are “dead to sin,” and, no, it isn’t wishful thinking!

January 15, 2015

Roman Road series

If you’ve ever invested time in watching a soap opera, then you know that virtually nothing happens from day to day. You can watch an episode, take a couple of months off and watch another episode, and it’s, like, two days later on the show. The plot has advanced very little in your absence.

My Romans Bible study on Wednesday night seems like that! We’ve been at it for fourteen weeks now, and we’ve only gotten through the middle of chapter 6. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve certainly learned a lot, and I believe my students have as well.

Even last night, when we covered Romans 6:1-14, I learned something new, and I’m excited to share it with you.

In 6:1 Paul asks a question that Jewish opponents to the gospel had undoubtedly asked him as he debated them in synagogues around the Mediterranean: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” This question follows on the heels of Paul’s words in 5:20: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

It’s easy to see, therefore, the devilish logic in Paul’s question in verse 1: Grace is good. More grace is better. Since the consequence of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that sin, abundant though it was and is, has been overwhelmed by an even more abundant amount of grace, let there be even more grace by first letting there be more sin.

In verses 2 and following, Paul explains why this logic doesn’t hold: We believers are now “dead to sin”: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

I’ll be honest: I have at times read these words with skepticism—almost as if it were wishful thinking on Paul’s part. “Yeah, right! We’re dead to sin! Our old sinful self was crucified with Christ! Maybe on the other side of eternity that will be true, but not in the here and now. In the here and now, my struggle with sin bears witness to the fact that sin is alive and well in my life!”

Or I imagined that Paul were saying that we ought to be dead to sin—if we really, truly understood what Christ has done for us. I didn’t doubt that Paul was dead to sin, but I was sure that wasn’t. Therefore, the fact that I’m obviously not dead to sin means that I’m a failure, and our enemy, the devil, takes yet another opportunity to make me feel guilty.

Or, finally, I’ve read these words as if our “death to sin” were a gradual process, which takes place only as we’ve been sanctified and perfected in love (as our Wesleyan tradition emphasizes). This death takes place, but only over time as we try really hard to make it a reality. (Please note that this is the point at which our Calvinist brethren accuse us Wesleyan Arminians of being “semi-Pelagian.”)

While it’s true that we ought to sin less and less over time—indeed, to become holier—Paul is not saying anything here about holiness. Nor is he saying anything about the extent to which believers continue to fall victim to sin—except it’s clear from Paul’s words here that they do, otherwise why bother raising the issue in the first place? Clearly, Christians continue to face temptation and continue to sin.

No, Paul says, in spite of whether or to what extent we’ve been sanctified, we are still, at this present moment, “dead to sin.” This is, Paul says, an objective fact that is true of all Christian believers.

Why? Because of what Christ has done for us! “For the death [Christ] died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). In other words, we are dead to sin not because of anything we’ve done, or do, but because of what Christ did, “once for all” (all includes all humanity) on the cross!

Christ, please remember, represents us—sinful human beings though we are—throughout his life, death, and resurrection. He substitutes for us. I often say the following—and even though it’s a cliché, I love it because it’s true—”Jesus lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die.”

But Christ doesn’t merely die on the cross for our sins (although that’s saying quite a lot), he dies to our sins. Since we die with him, as represented by our baptism (as Paul says in Romans 6:4), we also die to sin. His death to sin has become our death to sin. And this is true, regardless of the fact that we remain sinners.

What does that mean for our present sinfulness? As N.T. Wright says in his For Everyone commentary, Paul wants us to view our baptism the way we view Israel crossing the Red Sea. We are now set free from our slavery to sin on the other side of baptism, just as Israel was set free from slavery to Pharaoh on the other side of the Red Sea. We’re in a new world now. We haven’t yet arrived in the Promised Land (which happens in our future resurrection), but we’re on our way. When we believers sin today, it’s almost as if we’re the Israelites in the wilderness, grumbling to Moses about how good life was back in Egypt.

Sin is something that belongs back in the old world. It no longer fits who we are today.

Wright gives an illustration to help us make sense of Paul’s words, which I would quote directly if I had the his book with me. He asks us to imagine living on the property of a bad landlord, who mistreats his tenants, extorting rent from them, making outrageous demands, and failing to live up to his end of the lease agreement. Later, we find a new place to live under a good landlord who settles our debts with the previous landlord. We have a new lease. Our old lease is null and void.

Suppose, however, after moving into our new place, the old landlord comes back. He barges in and starts ordering us around again. Old habits die hard, of course. We might still obey him, even though we don’t have to. But we have piece of paper—a contract with a new landlord—that proves that the old landlord has no authority over us whatsoever.

Instead, we should ask him to leave—and call the cops if he doesn’t!

Being dead to sin, therefore, is like this new lease. It doesn’t necessarily change our behavior right away. But it’s objectively real. And with practice—availing ourselves of the means of grace, submitting to the life-changing work of the Holy Spirit—our behavior will change.

I find Paul’s words deeply reassuring. I hope you do, too.

To call God “Father” is to become God’s apprentice children

January 13, 2015


In Sunday’s sermon, the first in my new series on the Lord’s Prayer, I talked at length about what it means to call God “Our Father.” One point in my sermon outline that, in the interest of time, didn’t make it to my final sermon manuscript was the reason we say our Father and not my Father: Jesus directs us away from ourselves and our own needs and interests and toward others. To say “Our Father” means that Jesus isn’t giving us access to a private kind of spirituality. It means that God wants to be Father to others who don’t yet know him as their Father. In other words, to say “Our Father” rather than “My Father” reminds us of our mission.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, N.T. Wright makes the same point but in a different way. In Jesus’ culture, a father apprenticed his son in a trade, just as Joseph undoubtedly apprenticed Jesus in carpentry.

[The son] learns his trade by watching what the father is doing. When he runs into a problem, he checks back to see how his father tackles it. That’s what Jesus is doing in Gethsemane, when everything suddenly goes dark on him. Father, is this the way? Is this really the right path? Do I really have to drink this cup? The letter to the Hebrews says, with considerable daring, that the Son ‘learned obedience by what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5.7-9; compare 2.10-18). What we see in Gethsemane is the apprentice son, checking back one more time to see how the Father is doing it.[1]

Consequently, in inviting us to share in his relationship with his Father, Jesus is inviting us to share in his mission.

We, too, need to learn what it means to call God ‘Father’, and we mustn’t be surprised when we find ourselves startled by what it means. The one thing you can be sure of with God is that you can’t predict what he’s going to do next. That’s why calling God ‘Father’ is the great act of faith, of holy boldness, of risk. Saying ‘our father’ isn’t just the boldness, the sheer cheek, of walking into the presence of the living and almighty God and saying ‘Hi, Dad.’ It is the boldness, the sheer total risk, of saying quietly ‘Please may I, too, be considered an apprentice son.’ It means signing on for the Kingdom of God.[2]

1. N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 18.

2. Ibid., 19-20.

Sermon 01-04-15: “He Will Make Straight Your Paths”

January 9, 2015


Today’s scripture is relevant for today because it speaks of acquiring things like health, prosperity, money, relationships, love—areas of our lives that we often resolve to improve every new year. More than anything, today’s scripture promises us God’s peace—shalom—if only we can live it out. This sermon focuses on three things necessary to realize this promise: priorities, practice, and persistence.

Sermon Text: Proverbs 3:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I’m so glad that 2015 is here. Because it means, of course, that the future depicted in Back to the Future II will be arriving before the end of the year. Which means flying cars, skateboards that hover above the ground, and the nineteenth sequel to the movie Jaws. As someone said on Twitter, that doesn’t give filmmakers much time to make Jaws 5 through 18, but still… flying cars and hover boards. I’m all over that!

What I can’t get over is that back in 1964, at the 1964 World’s Fair, there was a guy flying around in a rocket pack, and here we are—50 years later—and still we don’t have one. Now I get that the one back in ’64 was far too dangerous for the average consumer, but they could have kept innovating, right? By now we should all have one! I want my rocket pack! Or my flying car! Or my hover-board!


The truth is, we are always looking for faster, easier ways to enable us to travel from Point A to Point B. We’re always looking for shortcuts, and if technology can help us out with that, we’re all for it. This is that time of year, after all, when we make our New Year’s resolutions, when gym memberships and gym attendance skyrockets, and we become very optimistic about finally getting in shape. The gym I go to has recently invested in all kinds of new equipment, which supposedly makes it easier to get in shape. But regardless of all the equipment, I’ll bet that come March or April, gym attendance will drop back down to pre-New Year’s levels. Read the rest of this entry »

A New Testament scholar takes on “News Weak”

January 8, 2015

newsweekAs a follow-up to my earlier post on that terrible recent Newsweek cover story about the Bible, I invite you to read this post by Asbury New Testament professor and fellow United Methodist Ben Witherington III. As I pointed out earlier, the author, Kurt Eichenwald, argues that it’s impossible to recover what the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible—the “autographs”—actually say. Therefore, he says, no one today has actually read the real Bible. About this, Witherington writes:

This is not merely misleading, it’s historically incorrect! It is not true that the original manuscripts are hopelessly remote from us and cannot hope to be recovered. Nor is it the case that the vast majority of modern preachers are oblivious to the actual state of the Biblical text that stands behind various modern translations. This is not only a caricature of the majority of America’s clergy, it is an even worse caricature of the state of play in regard to the text criticism of the Bible. As Dan Wallace, one of the real experts in text criticism of the NT, says in his own critique of Eichenwald’s article, “we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data. The New Testament has more manuscripts that are within a century or two of the original than anything else from the Greco-Roman world too.”

Witherington finds that Eichenwald is hoisted by his own petard when he argues—alongside the wide consensus of New Testament scholars of all ideological stripes—that John 7.53-8.11 and Mark 16:9-20 were not a part of the original gospels in which they appear:

Eichenwald goes some lengths to point this out, and he is actually likely right about this, but sadly for him it simply refutes his own previous argument that ‘we can’t really know what was in the original text of the Bible’. If we can’t know that, then of course, we can’t know these two passages were not part of the original text of the Greek NT. So which is it Mr. Eichenwald, because you can’t have it both ways? Can we establish with a high degree of probability what the NT originally said, such that we could conclude that because these two passages are not part of our earliest and best Greek manuscripts, then they are likely later additions, or not? Or are we simply ‘lost in translation’ in regard to such matters? It is amazing to me that an article with so many self-contradictory statements and obvious errors of fact could even have been published in a major news periodical. This is not journalism, this is shoddy, yellow journalism, rightly so-called.

My work-a-day Bible is the ESV Study Bible (which I heartily recommend to any serious Bible reader). To my surprise (since the editorial slant of its commentary is conservative evangelical), because of the questionable provenance of the John passage, a margin note actually recommends that we preachers neither preach from nor formulate doctrine based on the story of the woman caught in adultery.

I’m not willing to go there—since I have preached the story, and will again. I assume the story is in our New Testament, first, because it’s historically true and, second, because the Holy Spirit saw fit to include it. I don’t, however, believe it belongs in John.

How often are my prayers are merely “worrying in God’s direction”?

January 7, 2015

kellerIn Timothy Keller’s new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he discusses an essay on prayer that Augustine wrote. I find these words helpful:

Augustine’s first principle is that before you know what to pray for and how to pray for it, you must become a particular kind of person. “You must account yourself ‘desolate’ in this world, however great the prosperity of your lot may be.” The scales must have fallen from your eyes and you must see clearly that no matter how great your earthly circumstances become, they can never bring you the lasting peace, happiness, and consolation that are found in Christ. Unless you have that in view, your prayers may go wrong.[1]

Do I really believe I’m “desolate” in this world apart from God? What does my heart think it needs more than God?

Keller connects this first principle to an important theme in Augustine’s theology: the disordered desires of the heart. We tend to love people and things more than we love God—even though, as Augustine famously prayed, “our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

Unless at the very least we recognize this heart disorder and realize how much it distorts our lives, our prayers will be part of the problem, not an agent of our healing. For example, if we look to our financial prosperity as our main source of safety and confidence in life, then when our wealth is in grave jeopardy, we will cry out to God for help, but our prayers will be little more than “worrying in God’s direction.” When our prayers are finished we will be more upset and anxious than before. Prayer will not be strengthening. It won’t heal our hearts by reorienting our vision and helping us put things in perspective and bringing us to rest in God as our true security.[2]

In other words, our prayers are requests for God to facilitate our idolatry: “God, would you please enable this other god I worship to meet my deepest needs?” God is obviously not interested in doing that!

1. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 84.

2. Ibid., 85.

Preaching from that “practically discarded” book

January 6, 2015

Waltke - Proverbs vol 1I had to go back and check, but last Sunday’s sermon, “He Will Make Straight Your Paths,” on Proverbs 3:1-12, marks the first time in my ten years of pastoring that I’ve preached on Proverbs. Isn’t that unbelievable?

Maybe not. After all, how many sermons have you heard on Proverbs? If you’re in a mainline church like mine, I’m guessing not many. As Old Testament professor Bruce Waltke says in the preface to his commentary on Proverbs:

As the course and bulk of biblical wisdom, the book of Proverbs remains the model of curriculum for humanity to learn how to live under God and before humankind. As a result, it beckons the church to diligent study and application. To uncommitted you it serves as a stumbling stone, but to committed youth it is a foundation stone.

But, tragically, the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs, which was written for young people as a compass by which to steer their ship of life (see 1:2-6). Of its 930 ancient sayings many Christians know three—to fear the Lord (1:7), to trust him (3:5-6), and to “train their children in the way they should go” (22:6)—and possibly something about the “virtuous wife” (31:10-31).

He says that even the little we know of Proverbs is often misunderstood.

He goes on to point out reasons that we disregard this book—and in my view he hits on nearly all of them: “Proverbs seems banal or wrong.” Some proverbs seem to contradict one another. They’re a hodgepodge: “How does one preach and teach such a mishmash?” Proverbs “puts a high priority on tradition and age” in a modern era that prizes neither. For some, considering the lessons of Ecclesiastes and Job, Proverbs is seen to “teach a single false doctrine”—that we reap what we sow.

For Christians, if Jesus is greater than Solomon, why bother with Solomon? “Besides,” we might think, “if Solomon was so smart, how come he died such a fool?” (Waltke accepts Solomonic authorship of many proverbs, which he believes were compiled by later editors.)[†]

The only thing I would add to this list is that we also tend to think that Proverbs is hopelessly chauvinistic, as discussed at length in Rachel Held Evans’s book The Year of Biblical Womanhood. (But don’t we tend to feel that way about all of scripture?)

Obviously, Waltke—poor guy’s probably devoted his life’s work to this one disregarded and maligned book—wants to set the record straight.

I’m happy to let him. As I argued in Sunday’s sermon (which, based on feedback alone, was one of my best), that “single false doctrine” isn’t really false. We do, in general, reap what we sow. Not perfectly. Not in each and every case—as even Proverbs itself recognizes. But it’s generally true. We ought to hope it is!

But even if Proverbs is more about “probabilities” than promises, it does promise something that’s like a guarantee: If we could only take its words to heart, we could have shalom—God’s own peace—which is the same thing Jesus promises when he tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all the things that we would otherwise worry about will be given to us as well.

If we believe Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, let’s also believe the inscripturated Word.

Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1–15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), xxi-xxii.

Sermon 12-28-14: “They Rejoiced Exceedingly”

January 2, 2015
Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Star of Bethlehem, which God graciously gave to the magi in order to bring them to Jesus, can teach us a great deal about the gospel of Jesus Christ and our church’s mission.

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Years ago, the senior pastor at the church where I was serving as an associate pastor got a call from a man who was not a member of our church, but who said he was sick and in desperate need of a pastoral visit. So Don, the senior pastor, called me in his office and said, “Brent, I got this weird call from this man—and just so you know, he might be crazy. I’d send Larisa”—the other associate pastor—“but frankly, I’d be worried about her safety. So I want you to go…”

I promise he said that! So I made an appointment to see him. And over the course of the next couple of years, we struck up a bit of a friendship. Turns out he was a deeply eccentric man—not crazy. More like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. He had a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was an engineer who retired with NASA. And he was an amateur astronomer. Once when I visited him, he was excited to tell me about a discovery he had made. He said, “I know the date on which Jesus was born.”

Let me preface this by saying that the church has never known Jesus’ actual birthdate. They chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25 because of its proximity to the winter solstice—the solstice marks the point at which the darkness recedes and the days get longer and longer. Symbolically, the solstice represents the light of Christ—the “light that enlightens everyone,” as John says—coming into the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Eve sermon: “Not a Silent Night”

January 2, 2015

The Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the truth of “all things working together for good.”

In this Christmas Eve message, I challenge us Christians to start “acting like royalty,” by which I mean to follow the self-sacrificial example of the world’s one true king, Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

I spent much of 2001 working in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa. I was working on a special project at the Tropicana orange juice plant. Lisa was pregnant with our second child, Townshend, and by the summer I had finished up my share of the work down there. And now I was getting ready to be a daddy for the second time. Lisa’s due date was only a couple of weeks away. Then I got a phone call from Scott, the project manager. It was an emergency. “Would you mind coming down here, just for one night, and helping us out with this one little problem we’re having?” I was mindful that Lisa’s due date was just a couple of weeks away, but what were the odds that she would have the baby the one night I was out of town? Pretty good, in retrospect—but I didn’t see it that way back then! I was so focused on my career back then, and I figured this would look really good to my bosses if they saw me go above and beyond the call of duty like this! So I answered the call and went down to Bradenton for just one night. Besides, while I was down there, I had to receive my “husband of the year” trophy!

You can already see where this is headed: I got a call on my cell phone at 3:00 in the morning. Lisa’s water broke. She was having contractions. “Well, how far apart are they?” “There’s no time between them at all!” Uh-oh. I headed to the airport to catch the earliest flight home. My mom only lived five minutes away. Her mother only lived 25 minutes. So she called both of them. Lisa’s mom would take her to Piedmont Hospital while my mom stayed at the house with our 20-month old daughter, Elisa.

By the time our mothers got there, it was clear that Lisa was not going to make it for the 25 minutes it would take to get to the hospital. They called 9-1-1. The first to arrive were Tucker’s Bravest, about seven or eight firefighters who wanted nothing to do with delivering a baby. They were hugging the wall on the far side of the room from Lisa. But they told Lisa to hold on, the paramedics would be here soon. And when they arrived, Lisa asked them two questions: First, have you done this before? “Yes, ma’am, we’ve done this before.” Second, can I have an epidural? “No, ma’am, we don’t time for that! You’re having this baby now”—on the living room floor!

The paramedics told our mothers that they needed to bring them lots of towels. The only problem was that all our cabinets were “child-proofed” with those magnetic kind of locks. You had to put the magnet in the right place on the cabinet door in order to activate the latch… Well, our mothers struggled with just opening the cabinets to get the towels!

As you can see, this was so far from ideal: No hospital room, no OB/GYN, no epidural, no towels because our mothers couldn’t open the child-proof cabinets! This was not at all what Lisa and I had planned! Read the rest of this entry »