Archive for April, 2015

Isn’t there at least a sense in which “God helps those who help themselves”?

April 14, 2015

It seems like a list such as this one, “7 Unbiblical Statements Christians Believe,” makes the rounds every few months. I can affirm a couple of these with only a little qualification. Even number one, Ben Franklin’s aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t terrible, as anyone who commits to the daily practice of prayer and Bible study can attest: sleeping late certainly doesn’t help you grow closer to God! Nevertheless, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to grow closer to him—or accomplish anything good.

My point is, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. But to reject personal responsibility would put us at odds with much of scripture, including many Proverbs, not to mention many words of Jesus, including the Parable of the Talents, for instance.

Regarding number two, “God wants me to be happy,” I would say the following: God does want us to be happy—so long as we understand that biblical “happiness” or blessedness comes only through our relationship with God. After all, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the words “Happy are those who…” Paul tells us to rejoice always. Whatever else “rejoice” means, it implies a kind of deep happiness.

The Book of Acts has Peter and John feeling happy and grateful that they were considered worthy of suffering for the Lord.

Regarding number five, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” it’s hard for me to see how this isn’t true, at least for those of us who trust in the Lord: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, in the sense that through faith his grace is sufficient for whatever we’re facing (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we face the worst case scenario—martyrdom, say—won’t God give us the strength and courage to handle it? Obviously, “handling” it doesn’t always (or usually?) mean coming out of a crisis unscathed, though we can trust, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, that God is using the crisis for our good.

Speaking of providence, let me put a plug for an often-scorned aphorism that isn’t on the list—probably only because the author forgot about it. (It’s been on other, similar lists.): “Everything happens for a reason.”

By all means, terrible, evil things happen, which God certainly doesn’t cause, but which he has the power to prevent if he wants. If we believe God answers prayer, what’s the alternative? If God chooses not to grant our petition for someone’s physical healing, for example, does he have a good reason or is it arbitrary? If God allows something to happen, we can only assume that he does so for a reason—even if only to prevent something worse from happening later on.

As I’ve said before, we Wesleyan Christians, in general, are so afraid of being “Calvinist” that we miss out on having a robust belief in God’s sovereignty. I find it immensely comforting, for example, to know that whatever I’m facing in life, God is using it for his purposes: it’s happening for a reason, whether we see it or not, and God is bringing good from it.

Sometimes, when it comes to my more progressive colleagues in ministry, I want to ask, “Do you think God does anything in the world, or does he just sit around feeling awful that we have to go through all this bad stuff?” How many times have I heard or read a Methodist minister, not to mention many progressive Christian bloggers, say that we can only count on God “being present” in the midst of suffering. Well, yes, God is present in our suffering, but he’s also working through it to accomplish good! We’re going through whatever we’re going through because he wants us to. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t.

Granted, in a world without the Fall, without sin, he may not want us to suffer, but given that we live in this world, he’d rather us experience suffering than some alternative in which we’re protected from it.

This blog post gives me a sermon series idea: examine each of these popular sayings from a biblical point of view and consider what we can affirm about them and what we can reject.

Good Friday 2015 sermon: “Truly This Man Was the Son of God”

April 9, 2015


A parishioner told me after the sermon that this was the best she had heard me preach, and I don’t think she was far off. In this sermon I make the case for Christ as our substitute on the cross: truly, he lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. I challenge us to think about ways in which we are like the crowds on that Good Friday morning, yet God used even our sinful rebellion against him to accomplish the greatest good.

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.

Lisa and I were at a party once many years ago with a friend named Kathi who was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Emory. And most of her friends at the party were also Bible scholar-types and Ph.D. students. A real lively bunch! So I was trying my best to make small talk with these people. This was years before I ever thought about going to seminary, but I was a Christian, and I loved the Bible. So I said to one of Kathi’s friends, a woman who, like Kathi, was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament: “Gosh, that would be really interesting to study the Bible at that level! I wouldn’t mind doing that. Maybe I should get a Ph.D. in the Bible.” And she looked at me with contempt—like, “Who is this idiot I’m talking to?” And she said, “Are you a Christian.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then I’m guessing that you’re not interested in getting a Ph.D. in the Bible.” I’m sure I looked confused. She said, “You probably want to get a Ph.D. in the appendix to the Bible.”

The appendix to the Bible. She was referring, of course, to that part of the Bible that we call the New Testament. And, you know… She had a point. We have this much Bible that’s part of the Old Testament, and this relatively tiny part of the Bible that’s the New Testament. And yet we spend by far the bulk of our time in the tiny part. You know? But I do hope that you are reading and studying the big part of the Bible and not just the small part because—oh my goodness—when you do, you begin to see Jesus in that part too—on nearly every page.

Let me give you three examples of places in the Old Testament that I see Jesus. In Genesis 18, three angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah, and they tell them that in a year’s time they’re going to have a baby—the long-promised son Isaac. But after giving them the good news, the angels tell Abraham, “Oh by the way, while we’re in the area, we’re going to check out what’s happening in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to see if there’s as much injustice and wickedness there as we’ve heard.” And if there is, they tell Abraham, God will wipe them off the face of the earth. And the angels leave for Sodom. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing Jesus in the Psalms

April 9, 2015

In my Good Friday sermon, which I plan on posting later today, I used a few examples from the Old Testament to show that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross needed to happen in order for us to be saved. I also said that if we read the Old Testament well and often, we learn to see Jesus on nearly every page. This is sometimes referred to as a “Christocentric” reading, an approach I enthusiastically embrace.

Tim Keller, more than anyone, has taught me through his own sermons to read the Old Testament in this way. This doesn’t mean I think that the original authors of the Old Testament always or often understood that they were saying something about the Messiah. It only means that Author behind the authors of scripture was often pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What’s the alternative? While the authors of the Old Testament may not always have imagined the kind of Messiah and Savior that God was going to send, the Holy Spirit imagined him completely and perfectly!

This week, in my private devotional reading, I read Psalm 7. This is one of those psalms in which David puts his righteousness on the line and potentially calls a curse down upon himself:

Lord my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
    and let him trample my life to the ground
    and lay my glory in the dust…

The Lord judges the peoples;
    judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
    and according to the integrity that is in me.

When I read words like this, I think, “I could never pray that way! I would never pray that way!” If the Lord judges me according to my righteousness, my integrity, I’m doomed! I much prefer those psalms, like Psalm 103, in which David asks, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Certainly not me!

But suppose we read Psalm 7 with Christ in mind? We’re reminded, first of all, that God is a righteous judge who will judge and punish evil. Moreover, we’re reminded that our own sins deserve judgment and punishment: truly, if the Lord judges me according to my righteousness, I’m lost.

Then we remember Jesus: “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We’re reminded that we don’t have a righteousness of our own that comes from keeping God’s law, which nones us can do apart from Christ, but a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9). Indeed, we’re reminded that Christ lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die.

And by the time we’re finished reflecting on this psalm, our hearts are filled not with guilt, but with gratitude.

Sermon 03-29-15: “King, Crown & Cross, Part 6: Cup of Wrath”

April 8, 2015


In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gets a foretaste of the suffering he will endure on the cross for you and me. Christ’s suffering includes not merely the pain of the scourging and nails, but separation from his Father, hell itself. No one has ever suffered anything more. Yet, when he prays, “Not my will but thine,” he chooses that suffering anyway. What amazing love!

Sermon Text: Mark 14:32-52

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.

Like everyone, I was deeply disturbed by the news last week of that German co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who committed suicide—by locking the pilot out of the cockpit and flying his Airbus A320 into an Alpine mountainside—killing 149 passengers alongside him. When I hear about evil on that scale, I find that it really does help to believe in the devil—that this man is more than merely “mentally ill” or even just a bad person; he’s possessed. Satan’s existence helps me make sense of evil like that.

I wish people like Lubitz, who have a death wish, would keep it to themselves and not involve other people in it—not impose their death wish on other people!

In today’s scripture, by contrast, it’s clear that Jesus does not have a death wish. He wants, if possible, to avoid his appointment with the cross. Mark tells us that Jesus was “greatly distressed and troubled.” Jesus himself says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death.” Read the rest of this entry »

A bad analogy in the cake-baking controversy

April 7, 2015
Why bother with logic when you can post a glib meme?

Why bother with logic when you can post a glib meme?

This blog post by Jessica Kantrowitz received approval from at least a few clergy acquaintances on social media today. Glutton for punishment that I am, I posted the following in the comments section of a couple of them:

I don’t believe that this blogger’s analogy is on point. As Paul makes clear in Romans 13, government, including even Rome’s government (especially Rome’s government, given the context) is ordained by God for any number of good reasons. Even the soldiers played a legitimate role in maintaining law and order—however much they might have abused that role. Merely carrying a load for the soldiers (versus actively assisting them in murdering innocent people, for instance) isn’t immoral. 

Someone might object, “Yes, but even by assisting these soldiers you’re indirectly facilitating them in their oppression!” To which I would say, “Yes, and we pay taxes and contribute in other ways to our own government, some of whose policies or actions will kill or oppress innocent people.” By the same principle, Jews could at least assist Romans in doing something that wasn’t immoral, per se.

So, using one’s gifts to “go the extra mile” is promoting something ordained by God. Some Christian cake-bakers—who would gladly sell their services to the LGBT for any number of other occasions—rightly (in my opinion, but it’s not crucial to my argument) believe that in using their skill and artistry to design a wedding cake they are promoting something quite literally sinful—both the wedding service itself and the relationship that it honors and seeks to legitimize.

If I’m wrong about the analogy—not whether I’m wrong to be bothered by gay marriage—please tell me why.

“Oh, you sweet little simpletons, people don’t rise from the dead!”

April 7, 2015
Richard Dawkins explains why Jesus' resurrection couldn't have happened.

Richard Dawkins explains why Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t have happened.

Lutheran Pastor Hans Fiene has blessed us with another Lutheran Satire video. This one relates to the circularity that often emerges in atheists’ arguments against miracles, particularly the miracle at the center of our Christian faith: The resurrection couldn’t have happened because we know miracles don’t happen. We know miracles don’t happen because we have no evidence of miracles happening. But doesn’t the resurrection itself offer evidence of at least one miracle happening?

My boys—13 and 10—thought this was funny.


Resurrection means that God redeems this ordinary life

April 4, 2015

kellerThis comes from Tim Keller’s book on Mark’s gospel, Jesus the King. He’s writing about the meaning of resurrection:

If you can’t dance and you long to dance, in the resurrection you’ll dance perfectly. If you’re lonely, in the resurrection you will have perfect love. If you’re empty, in the resurrection you will be fully satisfied. Ordinary life is what’s going to be redeemed. There’s nothing better than ordinary life, except that it’s always going away and always falling apart. Ordinary life is food and work and chairs by the fire and hugs and dancing and mountains—this world. God loves it so much that he gave his only Son so we—and the rest of this ordinary world—could be redeemed and made perfect. And that’s what is in store for us.

Timothy Keller, Jesus the King (New York: Riverhead, 2011), 245.

Garden of Gethsemane

April 2, 2015

During tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, after our youth performed their drama about the Last Supper, I referred to Jesus’ prayer, shortly after supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he asked his Father to “take this cup away,” meaning the cup of God’s wrath that would otherwise be poured out on us humans in final judgment.

kellerObviously, the Father said “no” to Jesus’ request. In his new book on prayer, pastor Tim Keller invites us to think about Jesus’ unanswered prayer.

Sinners deserve to have their prayers go unanswered. Jesus was the only human being in history who deserved to have all his prayers answered because of his perfect life. Yet he was turned down as if he cherished iniquity in his heart [Psalm 66:18]. Why?

The answer, of course, is in the gospel. God treated Jesus as we deserve-he took our penalty-so that, when we believe in him, God can then treat us as Jesus deserved (2 Cor 5:21). More specifically, Jesus’ prayers were given the rejection that we sinners merit so that our prayers could have the reception that he merits.[†]

As I said last night, the Father said “no” to his Son so that he could later say “yes” to those of us who believe in his Son. Even in the midst of the gloom and sadness of these dark days leading up to Easter Sunday, this is very good news for us!

The short movie above is from my trip to the Holy Land in 2011. The pictures and video are from the Garden of Gethsemane.

Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 237-8.

“Unbelievable?” podcast unbelievably good

April 1, 2015


I’m sure way behind the times on this, but I want to plug a podcast/radio show from the U.K. I only just discovered last week: “Unbelievable?” with host Justin Brierly, from Premiere Christian Radio. The show’s producers are interested in the same questions I am, and they approach them, as I do, from an evangelical perspective.

If I’ve blogged about an issue pertaining to Christian faith, their show has gathered leading Christian thinkers (of a variety of confessional and ideological perspectives) and non-Christian thinkers on all sides of the issue and debated it. For example, just a few weeks ago, I debated some of my readers over questions related to Christian pacifism. Here is an insightful recent discussion between Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas and just-war proponent Nigel Biggar.

If you think you’d be interested, you will be. Check it out! You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and other podcast services.

I will be blogging about some episodes in the upcoming weeks, including the Hauerwas-Biggar debate.