Archive for July, 2015

Sermon 06-21-15: “God’s Assignment for Us”

July 15, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

In this Father’s Day sermon, I begin by focusing on words about fatherhood from comedian Jim Gaffigan, who has five kids. Being a dad requires sacrifice, he says, and these “five little monsters rule [his] life.” Whether we know it or not, we parents can learn a lot about Christian discipleship from raising kids. After all, we follow a Savior who rules our lives and asks us to sacrifice. In fact, all of us Christians, the apostle Paul tells us, live our lives “under assignment” from God. This sermon explores the meaning of our assignment.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So I was at Annual Conference last week, and I went to a clergy breakfast, and they had a buffet. So naturally when I got to the tray of bacon, I began piling it on my plate—because that’s what you do with bacon—it’s awesome. And my wife pointed to a sign in front of the tray that read, “Limit two strips of bacon per plate.” And I’m like, “Two strips? That’s not enough bacon!” But, you see, bacon is so good you have to ration it.

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And I thought in that moment of my favorite comedian Jim Gaffigan, who is famous for stand-up routines about food, especially bacon: He says you feel like you never get enough of it. He said, “Whenever you’re at a lunch buffet, and you see that big metal tray filled with four-thousand pieces of bacon, don’t you almost expect to see a rainbow coming out of it?” Because you’ve found the pot of gold! And he notices that the tray of bacon is always at the end of the buffet line—at which point your plate is already full. And you look at your plate and think, “What am I doing with all this worthless fruit?” Read the rest of this entry »

“Yes, free will is an illusion,” say Dawkins and Gervais, “but don’t worry about it”

July 14, 2015

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The two most recent podcasts of Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig have analyzed a popular YouTube video in which “new atheist” author and scientist Richard Dawkins interviews fellow atheist and comedian Ricky Gervais.

I was intrigued with the atheists’ candor regarding free will: they’re happy to concede that it’s an illusion, as you see in the following exchange.

RICHARD DAWKINS: I feel as though I have free will, even if I don’t.

RICKY GERVAIS: Of course. And, you know, I’d say determinism is sound. But it is when they start making these leaps that we can’t be responsible for our own actions. Well, you’ve still got to lock someone up if they go around murdering people to protect the innocent.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes. It wasn’t me that did the murder . . . it was my neurons and my genes.

RICKY GERVAIS: Of course. Yeah, it doesn’t work. There is obviously a little bit of that creeping into everything – responsibility, being adult about things. But yeah it doesn’t change a thing. I feel that I make my own choices, and if I don’t I certainly feel like I am choosing. So yeah it is not even worth worrying about. But yeah this thing that takes the art out of something or the humanity or the beauty – why? Why does it? It is strange.

Why, from their point of view, is free will an illusion?

Because, as philosophical materialists, they’re committed to a worldview that says nothing exists beyond this material world. Obviously, this worldview rules out God—and it also rules out immaterial created things like angels and demons. But if you’re an atheist, who cares?

The problem is that it also rules out another immaterial thing that every human being, whether theist or atheist, experiences all the time: an independent mind, which stands over and above our bodies and has the power to direct our thoughts and actions.

From an atheistic point of view, however, the “mind” is nothing more than the byproduct of blind, unguided physical processes that take place in the brain. These physical processes in the brain create the “mind” at every moment—the way a movie projector projects an image on the screen. Just as an actor on-screen can’t step outside of the projected image to adjust the focus or the volume, or go to the concession stand and buy popcorn, so our “minds” have no power to control our bodies.

Everyone, including Dawkins and Gervais, grants that the mind seems to have this power, which we call “free will,” but it’s only an illusion. Who cares, Gervais says. “I feel that I make my own choices, and if I don’t I certainly feel like I am choosing. So, yeah, it is not even worth worrying about.”

He hastens to add, however, that our lack of free will doesn’t eliminate individual responsibility. (Really? Explain how.) But even it does, “you’ve still got to lock someone up if they go around murdering people to protect the innocent.”

Is he blind to the irony of that statement? His words are truer than he knows: If we have no free will, then, by all means, you’ve “got to lock someone up.” I mean, you’ve got to—because the people who are going around locking others up also have no choice! They’re only doing what blind, unguided physical processes are compelling them to do. And all the while, their brains are lying to them, making them believe that they’re choosing to do so.

Yet somehow Dawkins and Gervais have no problem with this? I say that they are “of all men most to be pitied.”

After all, in the very next breath they complain about Christians who insist on a worldview that fails to see the world as they do. But why complain? By their own reasoning, Dawkins and Gervais aren’t atheists because they’ve thought it through, and they’ve chosen the worldview that makes the most sense of the world; they’re atheists because—again—blind, unguided physical processes have made them this way.

And those same blind, unguided physical processes have made Christians like me the way I am.

They should simply have compassion on less enlightened people like me. Of course, whether they do or don’t isn’t up to them.

Video: Dominican Republic youth mission trip 2015

July 13, 2015

We showed the following movie in this morning’s worship service at Hampton UMC. It includes photos and video footage from our recent youth mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Enjoy!

We need an “intellectual conversion” concerning the truthfulness of scripture

July 11, 2015

wright_resurrectionJust yesterday, I was telling a friend about what I describe as my “re-conversion” experience—an evangelical re-conversion—that took place some time between my commissioning as a “probationary elder” in the United Methodist Church in 2007—when I was a theological liberal—and my ordination three years later.

I say “evangelical” because I became convicted once again about the complete truthfulness of the Bible. Over time, I came to believe in the infallibility of scripture. Today, I don’t even mind identifying as an inerrantist, since I don’t believe that God’s Word, when rightly interpreted in its context, contains errors.

One thing is for sure: this re-conversion began around the time I started this blog in 2009.

One of several formative events in my re-conversion was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s dense academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which loudly affirms, on historical, linguistic, and theological grounds, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. One question I asked myself at the time was this: If the Bible can be fully trusted in this most important matter, then why shouldn’t it be trusted in other matters?

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Given my personal history, I was convicted by the following words from Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician John Lennox on last week’s Unbelievable? podcast. He was giving a lecture about his new book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism. I especially resonate with his words about being “intellectually converted” concerning scripture’s truthfulness—because this happened to me! These are not “nice little stories” detached from the “real stuff of life.”

We’re playing religion, ladies and gentlemen, if we think that five minutes looking at scripture is going to get us through life when we’re spending hours and hours developing a professional career. I know there are times of pressure at different times in life, but I do believe we have to wake up and be serious. You cannot influence the world if you’re not inwardly convinced of the truth of these things. And the only offensive weapon we’ve got is the Word of God that we don’t know it; we can’t use it.

And I think we really need, some of us, to be—and I mean this seriously—intellectually converted. Because we have scripture and it’s over here. Nice little stories: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. That’s not the real stuff of life.

And so many Christians… have marginalized scripture and marginalized a daily relationship with God. I mean, can we be utterly blunt? Many people in this audience are probably involved in one kind of Christian work or another. And I start talking to them, and things aren’t too good, and I discover that husbands are not praying and reading with their wives—haven’t done it for years. And if there’s no reality of God in our family life, how can we expect to be attractive to the world? We can’t!

Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?

July 9, 2015

I hate to let good writing go to waste…

A colleague preached a sermon on suffering last Sunday. (Read it and see what you think.) While I could take issue with many of his points, I made the following comment on Facebook. It summarizes many things I’ve discussed on this blog. Is my response adequate? Would you add or correct anything? Am I missing something?

You write: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

I understand the impulse behind saying this, because God is not the author of evil. But I disagree for two reasons. First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.

But I’m sure you’re not convinced, so consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?

There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:

1) God heard our request but doesn’t have the power grant our petition.
2) God heard our request and has the power, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons that may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.

Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense.

And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening that we can’t foresee.

I would also challenge you to consider the difference between God’s “allowing” something to happen and God’s “causing” something to happen. We often draw a sharp distinction between the two—perhaps in an effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!

Or what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

Besides, in your own experience, isn’t suffering often good for you? In my experience it certainly is! This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s soul, but not always. And he argues that it never needs to—for anyone.

In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when he tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.

So I’d recommend your reading Frankl’s book. But also Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

All that to say, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?” In fact, far from the ivory tower of mainline Protestant seminary, most people I know do as well.

Yesterday’s message to a group of kids at youth camp

July 9, 2015

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering a sermon to a group of enthusiastic teenagers at the “Summer Games Georgia 2015” youth camp in Covington, Georgia. Mostly this is a testimony about my coming to faith in Christ. It includes a straightforward presentation of the plan of salvation. During the actual address, I also spoke extemporaneously about the “zombies” from The Walking Dead that invaded our church last week.

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 5:17

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My son Townshend and I in the Dominican Republic, resting briefly from the hardest physical labor of our lives!

So last week, two of my three kids and myself traveled to the Dominican Republic for a very hard week of work. We helped to build a large, earthquake-proof building that will house a plastics-recycling center. This center will be used to help support a missionary’s efforts to provide clean water to local residents. Because more people in impoverished countries die every day from drinking dirty water than from anything else, including malaria.

Anyway, the four days that we worked on this building were the four hardest days I’ve ever worked in my life, physically speaking. This was not vacation! The work kicked our tails!

But it wasn’t all work. We did have one day in which we went to a local beach. And while we were there, there were a couple of guys who were selling rides in a “banana boat.” Do you know what a banana boat is? It’s literally an inflatable banana-shaped raft that is tethered to a speed boat. Six people straddle the raft and try desperately to maintain their balance while going very fast and making very sharp turns and bouncing around on waves. If anyone on the boat leans too far in one direction or another, the thing tips over. And you have to pull yourself back up on this thing. And you have to have three people on each side pulling up on the raft at the same time, otherwise the stupid thing flips over again!

Does that sound like fun? It was not fun; it was frightening. And, you know, this was not the U.S.A., which has very high safety standards. We received a safety lecture from the guy piloting the boat, which consisted of these words: “You’re going to want to hold on tight and don’t fall off.” Then I promise he said this: “You’re not going to die or get injured, right?” And I’m like, “I don’t know! You’re asking me? Read the rest of this entry »

Penal substitution and 2 Corinthians 5:21

July 8, 2015

esv_study_bibleMy workaday Bible is the ESV Study Bible, which I recommend to all serious students of the Bible. As I was reading 2 Corinthians 5 this morning, I came upon this helpful exposition of verse 21. The author refers to it as “substitutionary atonement.” I prefer penal substitution because one of the missions of this blog is to reclaim and rehabilitate that classic term from its cultural despisers:

2 Cor. 5:21 This verse is one of the most important in all of Scripture for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Here we see that the one who knew no sin is Jesus Christ (v. 20) and that he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin (Gk. hamartia, “sin”). This means that God the Father made Christ to be regarded and treatedas “sin” even though Christ himself never sinned (Heb. 4:15; cf. Gal. 3:13). Further, we see that God did this for our sake—that is, God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us but to Christ himself. Thus Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14) and, as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In becoming sin “for our sake,” Christ became our substitute—that is, Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”). Thus the technical term for this foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is the substitutionary atonement—that Christ has provided the atoning sacrifice as “our” substitute, for the sins of all who believe (cf. Rom. 3:23–25). The background for this is Isaiah 53 from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew OT, which includes the most lengthy and detailed OT prophecy of Christ’s death and which contains numerous parallels to 2 Cor. 5:21. Isaiah’s prophecy specifically uses the Greek word for “sin” (Gk. hamartia) five times (as indicated below in italics) with reference to the coming Savior (the suffering servant) in just a few verses—e.g., “surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). In a precise fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ became “sin” for those who believe in him, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This means that just as God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ (“he made him to be sin”) so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ—a righteousness that is not our own—to all who believe in Christ. Because Christ bore the sins of those who believe, God regards and treatsbelievers as having the legal status of “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosynē). This righteousness belongs to believers because they are “in him,” that is, “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 3:22; 5:181 Cor. 1:302 Cor. 5:17, 19Phil. 3:9). Therefore “the righteousness of God” (which is imputed to believers) is also the righteousness of Christ—that is, the righteousness and the legal status that belongs to Christ as a result of Christ having lived as one who “knew no sin.” This then is the heart of the doctrine of justification: God regards (or counts) believers as forgiven and God declaresand treats them as forgiven, because God the Father has imputed the believer’s sin to Christ and because God the Father likewise imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer. (See further notes on Rom. 4:6–85:1810:310:6–8; see also Isa. 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous”).

Should evangelicals respond to homosexuality as they do divorce? Yes

July 6, 2015

Finally, a helpful insight about the analogy between divorce/remarriage and homosexual practice. Also, see the embedded link to Russell Moore’s fine post.

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An article in the Los Angeles Times, written by Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, argued this past weekend that since evangelicals have conceded with divorce and remarriage that it’s high time they do the same with homosexuality.    It’s not a new argument, and from time to time it gets trotted out as evidence of evangelical hypocrisy.  Why, the left asks, do you extend grace and mercy to those who are divorced and yet refuse to do the same to those who are homosexual?   After all, they continue, Jesus was very clear about the sinfulness of divorce while saying nothing about homosexuality.  

Laying aside, at least here, that at the foundation of this sort of reasoning is this idea that since we excuse one sin we should excuse another, I want to share one way in which I hope Balmer is right, and that those of…

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On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 8: Acts 15 is not the LGBT-affirming pastor’s friend

July 6, 2015

This is the eighth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” Click here for my previous post on this topic. I will put the links to all previous posts together in one forthcoming blog post.

As Rev. Purdue winds down his blog post arguing for changing our United Methodist doctrine on sexuality, he appeals to the example of the early church in Acts 15, which ruled that Gentile believers do not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian. He writes:

No matter where we stand on issues of homosexuality, the Acts of the Apostles offers our church a way forward!… Core Christian ideas like forgiveness, kindness, love of God, and love for neighbor wove two very different lifestyles and practices together. More than ideas, the very presence of the Risen Christ united diverse theological camps into one church…

The Jerusalem Council does not ask the Mother Church to serve pork at their pot-luck, but makes room for an experimental new branch within the mother vine. Paul calls the Gentiles “a wild olive shoot” and an “engrafted branch” (Romans 11). The new Gentile-inclusive church was a challenge. The Gentile-inclusive church dragged the Jewish Mother Church to uncomfortable new places where the Gospel was preached. Issues like sorcery, shrines, meat offered to idols, weird non-kosher food, un-circumcision, Sunday worship and other struggles bubbled up. The Jewish Mother Church welcomed this engrafted theologically diverse expression of Christian faith. No doubt, many old guard Christians shook their never shaven sideburns (Leviticus 21:5) and wondered what was happening to their church. Yet, a church united in diverse theology presented a witness that people who disagreed could stay together…

Some may see the inclusion of an “engrafted wild olive shoot” as a division in the body of Christ. The Apostolic church saw culturally-Jewish and Gentile-inclusive congregations as different expressions of the same Christian faith—two branches of the same Christian tree.

Notice his emphasis on theological diversity: “diverse theological camps,” “theologically diverse expression of Christian faith,” “diverse theology.”

Is Purdue right about this? Does Acts 15 affirm theological diversity in the early church?

In fact, it utterly rejects theological diversity. For Purdue’s analogy to hold, we would see the Jerusalem Council ruling that it’s O.K. for the Jerusalem mother church to teach that Gentiles must be circumcised and follow other aspects of Jewish ceremonial law, while it’s also O.K. for Paul and his fellow missionaries teach Gentile converts that they don’t need to follow these laws. These are as theologically incompatible ideas as the UMC’s both endorsing and forbidding gay marriage and clergy rights.

Instead, it asserts that the one “theological camp” in which all orthodox Christians must live is the one that teaches that Jewish ceremonial law is irrelevant to the gospel. Whether or not Jewish Christians continued to follow it was a matter of adiaphora (theological indifference), but they must not think that by doing so they are being faithful to God.

Besides, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, LGBT-affirming Christians, like Luke Timothy Johnson, who use Acts 15 as an example for the church as it debates homosexual practice, rarely mention or analyze one aspect of Old Testament law that was still binding on Gentiles: their avoidance of porneia, “sexual immorality.” In the comments section of a previous post, I wrote the following about Johnson’s argument:

As for Dr. Johnson’s argument, what can I say? I’m classically Protestant. No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, will persuade me. It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 (without quoting it) as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

Finally, it’s worth considering how we know for sure that Gentiles no longer have to follow Jewish ceremonial law. We don’t have to resort to a vague “sweep of scripture” argument, or a “Jesus tea-strainer,” or arguments from silence, or unprincipled picking-and-choosing to arrive at this conclusion: we have the plain words and meaning of scripture. That’s why this theological position involves no guesswork and isn’t controversial at all.

If the Holy Spirit wanted to tell us, though God’s inscripturated Word, that homosexual practice was permissible in the same way as uncircumcised Gentile inclusion, why didn’t the Spirit do so?

Thoughts?