Archive for May, 2015

“If it’s unjust for God to take 32,000 lives, it’s also unjust for God to take two”

May 28, 2015

Fellow UMC pastor John Meunier tries to make sense of Adam Hamilton’s “Bucket Three,” about which I preached a couple of weeks ago, and is no more successful than I’ve been. To refresh your memory, Hamilton has designated certain scriptures as “never fully reflecting the timeless will of God.” These are what he calls “Bucket Three” scriptures.

Meunier got into a Twitter discussion with Hamilton on the subject recently. One of the scriptures that Hamilton says belongs in Bucket Three is Numbers 31, in which Israel exacts God’s judgment against the Midianites. God commands widespread killing. (Hamilton says 32,000 women and children were killed, although I’m not sure how he arrives at that figure. Unless I’m mistaken, the 32,000 in v. 35 refers to people who were taken captive—not that it affects my point.)

Meunier argues that we can’t separate Jesus from the God of the Old Testament because God is a Trinity: what God the Father wants, God the Son also wants.

I agree. As I posted on Facebook:

Excellent post, John. I’m sure Hamilton would say that the Third Person of the Trinity failed to properly inspire or guide the writers of the Old Testament for those Bucket 3 scriptures. Very unsatisfying answer, to say the least. Moreover, applying the “Jesus filter” (or, as Andrew Wilson put it recently, the “Jesus tea-strainer”) fails to appreciate Jesus’ many endorsements of God’s violent judgment both in the OT and in future judgment. Most of what we know of hell comes from the lips of Jesus, after all—take, for example, the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25, for one example. Is that Bucket 3? Does much of the Book of Revelation get filtered out, too?

And what about God striking poor Ananias and Sapphira dead in Acts 5? Is that Bucket 3? Logically, whether God strikes down 32,000 (through human agents) or 2, the principle is the same: God has the right to take life (or command life to be taken), even when we don’t in most cases. That’s why his ISIS analogy is wrong. Surely Hamilton can see the difference. 

Or, to put it another way, if it’s unjust for God to take 32,000 lives, it’s also unjust for God to take 2. Beware of “sum of suffering” arguments, as C.S. Lewis rights warns: no one suffers 32,000 deaths. One person suffers only their own death. The worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most. Everyone else experiences some fraction of that suffering. 

Besides, when I read these passages about God’s judgment against sin, I usually think, “That’s what I deserve! That’s what my sins deserve! Thank God that God loved us so much to come to us in Jesus and take away my sins on the cross!” 

If it’s unfair for God to judge and punish sin, then what’s left of the gospel? I’m not saying that Hamilton believes this, but I don’t think he’s thought it through.

Sermon 05-17-15: “Honor God with Your Bodies, Part 1”

May 27, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

This is the first of two sermons in which I look at the issue that threatens to split our denomination in two: homosexuality, or same-sex sexual behavior. In this sermon I begin examining some popular, though tragically misguided, arguments for changing our church’s doctrine in light of Paul’s words on the subject in 1 Corinthians 6.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

No video this week, but click the playhead below to listen to the audio. To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

“Deflate-gate” was back in the news last week. An NFL commission determined that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knew that the footballs he used in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts last January were inflated below the league minimum for air pressure: he knew they were under-inflated. So, the commission determined, Brady cheated—and he lied about about cheating. For one thing, in his smartphone contacts, the assistant equipment manager who deflated the footballs was nicknamed the “Deflator.” The NFL didn’t buy Brady’s explanation that he nicknamed him that because the man was trying to lose weight!

brady01

In the minds of many, however, the NFL came down with a surprisingly steep penalty: a four game suspension of Brady without pay; a fine; and a loss of future draft picks for the team.

Was this penalty too harsh? Many people thought so, including Donald Trump, who tweeted: “People are so jealous of Tom Brady and the Patriots… They can’t beat him on the field, so this!”

trump_tweet

A few, like basketball commentator Dick Vitale, however, thought the penalty was too lenient. Vitale said that since Brady flat-out cheated, he should get a six-game suspension. And besides, if being suspended means spending more time with his supermodel wife Gisele, how bad can the punishment be? Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t understand the “Methodist middle” and other thoughts

May 26, 2015

deyoung_homosexuality_Last week, in the wake of the Connectional Table’s proposal to liberalize the United Methodist Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality, a clergy colleague in the infamous “Methodist middle” posted on Facebook that he was, in so many words, too busy doing the work of God’s kingdom to worry about the church’s stance toward same-sex sexual practice.

I responded sharply to this person, was rightly criticized by his friends, and apologized. I need to watch my tone if I want to be a constructive voice on this issue. Ugh. I was having a bad day.

After some give and take with my colleague, though, I realized that he sincerely believed that this was a matter of theological indifference. I confess I don’t understand being in the middle on this issue. For the sake of argument, let’s say the other side is right and the church’s nearly two-thousand-year unanimous opinion is wrong (which I don’t believe for a moment), then, by all means, our present doctrine does hurt people who experience same-sex attraction. That pastor in Alabama is right: we’re all drinking from the “colored water fountains” if we don’t stand up for change.

In other words, I stand alongside the left-wing of the church in believing that this can’t be a matter of indifference. Even my liberal acquaintances who accuse me of being “obsessed” with this issue should appreciate that we have this in common: neither side thinks we should be indifferent about it.

I read Kevin DeYoung’s new book on the subject, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, and he nicely explains why people like me can’t be in the Methodist middle on this subject.

It cannot be overstated how seriously the Bible treats the sin of sexual immorality. Sexual sin is never considered adiaphora, a matter of indifference, an agree-to-disagree issue like food laws or holy days (Rom. 14:1-15:7). To the contrary, sexual immorality is precisely the sort of sin that characterizes those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. There are at least eight vice lists in the New Testament (Mark 7:21-22; Rom. 1:24-31; 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5-9; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; Rev. 21:8), and sexual immorality is included in every one of these. In fact, in seven of the eight lists there are multiple references to sexual immorality (e.g., impurity, sensuality, orgies, men who practice homosexuality), and in most of the passages some kind of sexual immorality heads the lists. You would be hard-pressed to find a sin more frequently, more uniformly, and more seriously condemned in the New Testament than sexual sin.[†]

In the comments section of last week’s post on the subject, a progressive United Methodist pastor (whom I haven’t met, but who is a frequent contributor to the UMC Clergy Facebook page) said the following:

I think gay Christians are owed an explanation why their marriages are sinful. Where is the harm in their marriages? All sin harms somebody. Saying it is somehow against a concept of natural order doesn’t cut it. Where is the harm?

I’ve heard this before, even on this blog. If you agree with me on this issue, how would you respond to his comment?

Here are some of my thoughts: As for the first sentence, “because the Bible tells me so” is a perfectly sufficient answer for me.

If that sounds glib, what I mean is this: If, after we’ve done our best exegetical and hermeneutical work and come to the conclusion that the Bible rules out same-sex sexual behavior per se, and that it doesn’t depend on any quality or virtue of the relationship (i.e., that it is loving, covenantal, lifelong, monogamous, etc.), then in submission to God’s Word, we obey.

And we obey because we believe that God the Holy Spirit guided the writers of scripture to teach us the same-sex sexual behavior is wrong.

Nevertheless, as I pointed out to him, there is logic behind, for example, Jesus’ words prohibiting divorce and remarriage, which also rules out homosexual practice. It’s the same logic that guides Paul’s words about these relationships being “against nature” in Romans 1:24-27. Gay marriage doesn’t exist (regardless what the state says) because two men or two women can’t become “one flesh” in sexual union. Genesis 1 and 2 require as a prerequisite two sexually different human beings in order to create this bond.

I preached about this last Sunday when I talked about 1 Corinthians 6.

Moreover, Paul dismisses as irrelevant the “quality of relationship” argument when he explains why Corinthian Christians can’t sleep with prostitutes, even though from their perspective this is a meaningless physical act: the mere physical, bodily act of a sexually complementary union makes the two “one flesh.”

What we do with our bodies matters a great deal to God, Paul argues throughout that chapter. God has the right to tell us how we use our bodies sexually. We don’t have to “agree” or even understand it; we just have to obey.

Nevertheless, I offered this brief reply to his comment:

As far as the sin of homosexual practice harming someone, we should first approach the question with some humility. Remember Judges? “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes”? Besides, to ask where the harm is, as Andrew Wilson says in the linked video, is begging the question, isn’t it? Doesn’t God get to say what is and isn’t sinful and therefore harmful? Why do you resist the idea that God gets to say how we use our bodies, sexually? If God doesn’t want us to use our bodies in this way, then the harm is in our relationship with God—irrespective of any harm on the horizontal plane of human relationships.

Nevertheless, given the vast difference in life expectancies, the transference of diseases (not only HIV), mental illness, suicide rates, and drug abuse between gay and straight men, for example, an unbiased observer might very well say that there is obvious harm that results from doing something that is against our natures.

As to love, if unrepentant homosexual behavior potentially excludes someone from God’s kingdom, then it would be unloving to say or teach otherwise.

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 74.

Sermon 05-10-15: “Who Is Our Judge?”

May 26, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court,” said the apostle Paul. How many of us could say the same thing? We usually think it’s a very large thing to be judged by others. And we often make ourselves miserable because of what others think of us. This sermon is all about the sin of pride and how our “puffed up” egos can be healed.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-13

To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

worcesters

Worcester’s National League team once played before a hometown crowd of six people. Unsurprisingly, their franchise license was sold the next year to Philadelphia, where the team that eventually became the Phillies was started.

 

A couple of weeks ago, in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles set a new major league record, which had previously stood for 123 years. In 1882, there was a National League team from Worcester, Massachusetts, called the Worcester Ruby Legs—I’m not making this up. And the Ruby Legs played another National League team from Troy, New York, called the Trojans. On September 28, 1882, these two National League teams played in Massachusetts before a crowd of six fans. Read the rest of this entry »

Who has standing to bring a charge against God?

May 23, 2015

My friend Tom, a lawyer in Dallas, made a point about suffering in my previous post that reminds me of something I read in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, wrote an op-ed in an English newspaper saying that whenever a natural disaster like this tsunami strikes, it shakes our faith, causing us to question our faith in God.

One popular British columnist wrote a response to the archbishop: “Who is he kidding? Churches were full the Sunday following the tsunami!” We Americans saw the same phenomenon in the weeks following 9/11.

In my own experience ministering to sufferers and the people who love them, I more often see people’s faith in God strengthened during these times. Yet, when it comes to questions of theodicy, skeptics often become indignant toward God, not on their own behalf, but on behalf of others.

As Tom observes, the indignant skeptics don’t have proper standing to do so:

Also, another point you make, i.e., that we have to ask, “Is this unfair to ME?”, as opposed to, “Is this unfair to somebody else?”, is similar to the legal doctrine of “standing.” Generally speaking, you can’t bring a challenge to a law that does not affect YOU in some way. It is up to some other person who is affected by the law to bring up the challenge, if any. Too many people who bring charges against God look at “the people in Africa.” Let those in Africa make such charges. From their perspective, they may not believe they have any more grounds to charge God with “unfairness” than we do based on our own experiences. Especially if they are Christians to begin with, i.e., to have any God to challenge in the first instance.

Assessing the “problem of pain” with Dallas Willard

May 22, 2015

I’ve talked and blogged a lot recently about theodicy and the problem of evil—I even enjoyed a lunch conversation yesterday with a clergy colleague on that very subject. As if on cue, on his blog this morning, Scot McKnight summarizes the late Dallas Willard’s argument from The Allure of Gentleness. Willard is addressing the David Hume argument that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow people to suffer.

Willard answers this argument, in part, by appealing to freedom—as everyone must. But his words about the necessity of freedom are powerful. They include:

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

This seems exactly right to me.

Here’s a thought I’ve been playing around with: At the risk of being self-centered, suppose that God wanted me to exist and to become this person that I am—understanding, of course, that I haven’t fully arrived as the person God wants me to be, nor will I until resurrection.

Still, if God wanted me to exist, this world, through which God has shaped me (and is shaping me), would also have to exist as it is. Otherwise, I would either not exist, or I would be an entirely different person. Therefore, if the world were any different, I wouldn’t be in it. Since I’m grateful to be here, how loudly should I complain?

Maybe somebody smarter than me can properly frame and defend that argument.

McKnight concludes Willard’s argument as follows:

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

Predictably, some commenters on McKnight’s blog dislike even attempting a justification for suffering and evil. We should remain silent, they say, and concede that it’s a mystery. I’ve blogged against that idea plenty of times. One commenter put the objection like this:

This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

My response? I would first ask this person if, in his own experience, suffering has “somehow” been good for him. If he’s honest, he would say, “Of course it has,” at least in many cases. We are often shaped in beneficial ways by our suffering. If his suffering had been any different—remember—he would be a different person (and remember, God wanted him to exist). It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that if his suffering were any different, someone else besides him would be experiencing it.

He then says, “tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will.” While I’m not sure how to quantify “tons,” especially relative to the rest of the suffering that happens in our world, I would first say we can’t know to what extent that child’s cancer is related to free will—and I’m not speaking of the child’s free will (to which he wants to limit the conversation) or even necessarily the parents. For example, we probably can’t say with certainty what causes someone’s cancer, but there are often environmental factors that likely contribute to it. Some of these factors are caused by the free choices of human beings, aren’t they? Air and water pollution, diet, pharmaceuticals, radiation… you name it.

Moreover, since I’m a Satanic realist, I don’t discount the role of demonic beings who have some measure of freedom to influence our world and cause great harm. God gave these angelic beings freedom, which they in turn abused, just as we have.

Finally, the Bible describes Creation, in general, getting out of joint because of initial human sin, and giving rise to pestilence, for instance. Again, this initial sin was freely chosen.

He asks how suffering could be good for the child or her family. Let’s first be humble and admit that we can’t know. For one thing, we can’t foresee the consequences on the world if the child hadn’t gotten cancer. I’ve been close to enough to people who have suffered and died with cancer—including my father—to know that God can and does bring good from it.

And as for our loved one who is suffering and dying, there is nothing that they’re going through in this life that won’t instantly be redeemed by heaven.

When we talked about theodicy in seminary, we tended to leave heaven out of it—as if it were “cheating” to smuggle that consolation into the discussion. Without heaven, I completely agree that the problem of evil can’t be solved. But since our hope for resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith, why would we justify suffering on any other basis?

He goes on to ask: “What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative ‘benefit’ of that suffering?”

Whether we undergo the same kind of pain as someone else, does any of us make it through life without a considerable amount of it? If so, I’m unaware of it. There are all kinds of pain, after all, and physical pain isn’t always or usually the worst, right? Regardless, I’ve experienced enough pain to know that God can redeem it.

Finally, every one of us will face our own death sooner or later. No one escapes it. Death is ultimately the worst kind of democrat. Is there potentially any crisis more potentially painful than that?

The early Christians used to be deeply concerned about “dying well.” Our generation would do well to recover their concern.

God bless you, David Letterman

May 21, 2015

letterman

A couple of nights ago, I caught up with David Letterman’s show for the first time since he announced his retirement, near the end of the victory lap he’s been running for the past few weeks. How could I not watch? Bill Murray, my favorite comedic actor, was his guest, and Bob Dylan, my favorite… um, person I’ve never met, performed. Last night, of course, was Letterman’s last show. It awaits me on my DVR.

I haven’t watched Letterman regularly in years. But for about 15 years, up until the time I started having kids, his show was an important part of my life. Even after I stopped watching regularly, I continued to root for him in his perennially losing campaign to dethrone rival Jay Leno in the ratings. While I preferred the quirkier edge of NBC’s 12:30 Letterman to CBS’s more mainstream 11:30 version, he was still a million times better than Leno. In fact, people like me who watched Letterman’s NBC show in the early days remember that Leno, then a young and hungry stand-up comic, would come on Letterman’s show and kill—which made us wonder how he became so bland and innocuous once he started guest-hosting for Carson in the late-’80s. Leno was a people-pleaser who fawned over his celebrity guests.

To Letterman’s great credit, no one could accuse him of doing that! In a recent interview, Howard Stern got it right when he said that playing second-fiddle to Leno “freed him up in some way. He probably could have dumbed it down and done a long meaningless monologue that would have made for better ratings, but he stayed true to himself. That takes an unusual strength.”

I began watching Letterman around the age of 14, when his 12:30 show was the hippest thing on television. The sole virtue of the snowy little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom is that it had a earphone jack. I could plug in the earphone (in one ear, remember?) and my parents, unable to hear that 17- or 18-kHz buzz emitted by cathode-ray TVs, were none the wiser.

Everyone knows about Stupid Pet Tricks and Top Ten Lists, but I remember the early days being surreal at times. For instance, Chris Elliott’s “Guy Under the Seats”:

Or—perhaps my first Letterman-show memory—Andy Kaufman’s announcement that he had recently adopted three underprivileged kids?

Or who could forget the utterly bizarre appearance by Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover, which prompted Letterman to abruptly walk off the set and break to a commercial?

You can read about many other highlights of Letterman’s 33 years in late night all over the internet this week. Two more highlights I’ll mention: His post-9/11 show was surely one of the best moments in television history. Even his on-air confession several years ago that a blackmailer was threatening to reveal that he had slept with staffers—which thereby disarmed the blackmailer—made for gripping television.

These moments and many others reflected a kind of honesty that we don’t often see from celebrities—which is surprising given how famously he guards his privacy. With Letterman, the distance between person and persona never seemed very wide.

But here’s why I mention him on this church-related blog: I owe Letterman a debt of gratitude, and not merely for the good times over the years. Years ago, my best friend from high school—like me a huge Letterman fan from back in the day—visited the worship service I was leading. He said, “Don’t think I didn’t pick up on your Letterman-esque mannerisms! The way you talked to your congregation… When you turned and spoke to your worship leader—it was like Letterman talking to Paul Shaffer!”

Was it that obvious?

In my defense, there is an emcee quality, at times, to being a pastor in worship and at other public events. You have to keep things running smoothly! Often, when I speak extemporaneously, make a timely quip or joke at my expense, apologize when something goes wrong—that’s when my Letterman shows through.

I’m proud to say so! He was a good teacher!

Even more, since Letterman is likely as insecure a person as I often am, I’m impressed, as Stern is, by his “unusual strength” to be true to himself. To his credit, he was about as authentic as the medium of television allows.

Like television but on a much smaller scale, the pulpit presents a potentially powerful barrier to authenticity. After all, will my people still love and respect me if they know their pastor is a sinner just like everyone else?

So that’s my struggle. I don’t want to be phony. I want the man in the pulpit to align as closely as possible with the man outside of the pulpit. I want people to say, “With Brent, what you see is what you get.”

I’ve got a long way to go, I’m sure. But inasmuch as I achieve authenticity in my public life, I owe at least small debt to David Letterman, whose own struggle in this area inspired me.

So, thank you, Dave, and God bless you!

Here’s Bob Dylan’s Letterman performance of a Frank Sinatra standard, “The Night We Called It a Day.”

Wilson on homosexuality and the church: “Which way have you gotten to that conclusion?”

May 19, 2015

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

“This is part of… sort of the bullshit that really pushes people away,” said Rob Bell, toward the end of a debate with Andrew Wilson on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? podcast a couple of years ago.

Bell became indignant after Wilson and host Justin Brierley began pressing him to clarify his view of homosexual practice. After an hour-long discussion in which he and Wilson agreed on many other matters related to Christian faith—including the bodily resurrection of Jesus—why is Bell’s view on homosexuality a litmus test for Christian or evangelical orthodoxy? Why hasn’t Brierley pressed Wilson to clarify his views on matters of faith over which they disagree?

I suspect many of my fellow United Methodist clergy wonder the same thing about people like me, who support our church’s traditional stance on sexuality.

Why is this issue such a big deal when we agree on so many other things? Why are we theologically conservative Methodists willing to die on this particular hill?

Good question!

Andrew Wilson offers an answer that I wish all my colleagues on the left-wing of our denomination or in the “Methodist middle” could hear. Wilson gets it exactly right, as far as I’m concerned.

For anyone who wants to know why I’ve become a stick in the mud on this issue—why I’ve proven to be a disappointment to erstwhile friends and supporters over this issue—here it is. I can’t improve upon what Wilson says. I can’t say it any better or more succinctly. (Wilson’s response begins around the 19:00 minute mark in the video below.)

The question is why is the issue there, isn’t it?… It’s how you got to that position? In some ways, what I’m trying to establish is, if you got to the position of saying, “I affirm this because I genuinely don’t believe that anything in the Bible indicates that it’s sinful, and therefore I think we should celebrate it because God does, because Jesus does, because the apostles did, because the prophets did. This is just a great thing. And two thousand years of church history have been wrong—they’ve been reading it wrong. And here’s a whole bunch of scholarship to support that position.

If that’s how you got there, I’d say, “Well, I disagree, but I’d love to see the evidence. I’d love to work through it.”

If you’re saying, “The world’s moved on. God’s going to get left behind if we don’t change it, even though, to be honest, I’ve got a sneaking feeling that there might be a lot in scripture that speaks against this. But I just don’t think we can afford to keep sticking with that because it looks boring and retrograde and backward and intolerant. So we will drop what Jesus or Paul or the apostles or anyone else were saying in order to make ourselves more adaptable to the age.

That doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian—of course it doesn’t… But it does mean that there’s something quite fundamental that might be switching, which is saying, “I don’t think I can hold this text as being the high standard for behavior and morality, and that’s a big enough deal to people like me… And I think if you shared my view on those texts you’d probably feel similarly. So it’s really, which way have you gotten to that conclusion?

You may watch the video below:

The tense relationship between grace and good behavior

May 15, 2015

"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.


In the comments section of my previously posted sermon, my friend Tom wondered whether I had gone too far in emphasizing that we do nothing in order to be saved—that even after we’re saved, it’s all grace and no works.

I admit this is tricky. 

I certainly don’t mean to say that since we’re saved by grace, works don’t matter. In fact, if we have no works to show for ourselves—if our lives bear no evidence of God’s saving grace—I’d say we were in danger of hell! 

I am saying, however, that our works are always a response to a prior grace. And our works play no role in saving us.

Tom also wondered if I wasn’t affirming “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I hope not—I am a Wesleyan, after all. He’s Baptist, so he’d probably be happy if I were! 

No, while I don’t affirm eternal security, I believe it must surely be difficult for a believer to backslide and forfeit a gift of salvation that they have at one time sincerely received.

But let’s not get too comfortable: this Sunday I’m preaching a text that includes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which is a warning that believers who engage in sinful behavior persistently, without repentance, risk being excluded from God’s kingdom. Why would Paul warn us in such strong language if he were speaking only hypothetically? “Of course you would exclude yourself from God’s kingdom if you persistently committed these sins without repentance, but since you’ve been saved, that’s not really possible, so don’t worry about it.”

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee tackles this question briefly:

For Paul there is to be the closest possible relationship between the experience of grace and one’s behavior that evidences that experience of grace. Paul himself is as concerned as anyone that the latter (right behavior) should not be perceived as coming first or as leading to the former (the experience of grace). But those who concern themselves with grace without equal concern for behavior have missed Paul’s own theological urgencies by several furlongs. It is precisely for these reasons that the warning texts in Paul must be taken with real seriousness. Security in Christ there is, to be sure, but it is a false security that would justify sinners who have never taken seriously “but such were some of you.” That is to whitewash the sinner without regeneration or transformation; Paul simply would not understand such theology.[†]

I’m sure Tom would agree, whether eternal security exists or not, that we should live our lives as if it didn’t!

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 273-4.

Preschool commencement homily: “Let the Children Come to Me”

May 14, 2015

I did something this week I’ve never done before: I preached the gospel at a church preschool commencement ceremony. 

Since 2007, I’ve been asked to pray and offer a word of welcome at more than a dozen preschool events—but until this week I had never used the event to do the main thing I’m supposed to do: to share the gospel. 

Why? Most parents, grandparents, and friends who attend these events are not connected to our church. Many of them, I’m sure, haven’t yet made a decision to receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ. Moreover, they are a captive audience. What better opportunity? They’ve enrolled their children in a church preschool, for heaven’s sake! It’s hardly inappropriate for me, a pastor, to take advantage of that! Don’t most churches say they have preschools for the sake of outreach or evangelism? If we never speak evangelistic words, what are we doing?

So… shame on me for being derelict for all these years! I repent. The following is the homily I preached on Tuesday night:

Homily Text: Mark 10:13-16

Jesus was a very popular teacher, preacher, and healer. Wherever he went, he drew large crowds, and people in the crowds would bring their children to Jesus, so that Jesus would bless them. And Jesus’ disciples didn’t like this: It says they “rebuked” these parents. They did not approve of having all these kids around. It would be much easier, the disciples figured, to do ministry without worrying about kids!

And before we come down too hard on these disciples, let’s sympathize with them for a moment: Kids are incredibly difficult. Aren’t they? Parents, do you agree with me? Kids make everything you do so much more complicated!

We’re fast approaching summer, which means summer vacation… Going to the beach. Do you remember vacations B.C. Before Children. You would do wild and crazy things on vacation Before Children… Like sleeping until you wake up. Parents of young children, let me ask you: When was the last time you slept until you woke up? But Vacations Before Children, you used to do that! Or… Now this is really crazy… You would take naps on vacation! Or read books. Or work on your tan while drinking those drinks with the little umbrellas in them… without a care in the world! You didn’t have to worry about anyone drowning, or eating sand, or asking you to help them build a sand castle. And you could go anywhere you wanted to eat and stay out as late as you wanted. Now it’s like, “We gotta find a place with chicken fingers on the menu!”

Kids are hard, let’s face it! They require us parents to basically put our lives on hold for 20 years. We sacrifice in so many ways. For instance, financial priorities change: You don’t have discretionary income anymore. You have to pay for diapers, for piano lessons, for braces, for Little League, for smartphones, for prom dresses…

Then there’s the time, the energy, the worry you invest in your children… We exchange our interests for our children’s interests. We also talk on our children’s illnesses and problems and burdens upon ourselves…

Someone said a parent can never be happier than their least happy child. Isn’t that true? We suffer when our children suffer. But we do so gladly, if doing so means their health and welfare and happiness.

When my first child was born, I knew immediately what it meant to want to lay down my life for someone—to step in front of a bullet, jump in front of a speeding locomotive, to fight off a hungry lion if necessary.

I certainly don’t want to be in a situation where I have to do that, but if I were, you better believe I’d do it. And if I did so it would be totally worth it! 

What wouldn’t we do to save our kids? Because we love them that much!

And if it’s true that even we fallible, imperfect, sinful human parents love our children with this kind of self-sacrificial love, how much more true is it for our heavenly Father, who, unlike us, loves his children perfectly, completely.

Talk about sacrifice! God came to us in the flesh, in his Son Jesus, and he lived and suffered and died the most excruciating death on the cross—suffered hell for us—so we wouldn’t have to. God the Son was scourged, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross for us, on our behalf, so that our sins would be forgiven, our debts would be paid, and we could have eternal life and live with God forever.

That’s the greatest sacrifice anyone could ever make. But from God’s perspective, guess what? It was totally worth it! Because he loves you and me that much.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Receive the kingdom like a child. That means, just as our children depend on us parents for everything in order to survive and be safe, so we trust in our heavenly Father for everything—including trusting in his Son Jesus for our salvation.

My prayer for the children in our preschool—and all of the parents, grandparents, and friends who love and support them—is that we would all learn to trust in the Lord in this way. Amen?