Archive for March, 2016

More on John 5: Sin is an infinitely bigger problem than any physical ailment

March 16, 2016

piper

Last Sunday, I preached on John 5:1-18, the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. In preparation, I listened to, among other things, John Piper’s sermon on this text (from 2009). Piper is characteristically excellent here. He rightly identifies sin as this man’s main problem, not his physical ailment.

What’s the issue? The issue in the healing is holiness. “I’ve made you well. Now I’ll tell you what this is about: Stop sinning!” This is really important. There’s a gospel pattern here that you need to see. “My aim in healing your body”—and the church could say, “Our aim in touching the neighborhood; our aim in every manner of ministry that touches the mind, the body, the family, is not an end in itself otherwise we would be cruel to people.” Jesus said, “I’ve given you a gift; it’s free. You didn’t do anything for this gift. It came first. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t good enough for it. I chose you freely among all those people. I healed you. Now, live in that power! Know me! Know free grace, and it’s power in your life!… In the power you’ve just experienced, fight your sin.” And yes, he warns him; he threatens him…

A lot of people think there shouldn’t be any warning or threat in gospel ministry. Just promises, promises, promises, and love, love, love, and no threats. No warnings.

Well, that’s not what happens here. Jesus says, “I warn you. If you turn away, if you mock this gift that I have given you for the power of holiness, and the grace that I have shown you—if you turn the grace of God into license, if you make an idol out of this health of yours now, and thank me until the day that you’re dead for the idol of your health, you will perish forever.

The only thing I would add to or change about these words is that there’s no evidence that the formerly disabled man has yet converted to Christ. Based on the evidence of the scripture, Jesus doesn’t warn the man not to “turn away” from Christ’s gift of grace; rather, he warns him, in so many words, that he still needs to receive it. The man has thus far been healed physically but not spiritually.

As I said on Sunday,

We ought not to hear Jesus’ words, “Sin no more,” and say, “Let me give it the old college try, Jesus.” We ought to hear these words and fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Save me, Lord Jesus! I can’t do what you’re asking me to do! I can’t ‘sin no more.’ I want to, but I can’t. Can you do it for me? Can you live the life of perfect, sinless obedience to our heavenly Father that I myself am unable to live? Can you suffer the penalty that my sins deserve? Can you face the judgment I’m unable to face? Can you die the death I deserve to die? Can you suffer the hell I deserve to suffer?”

And of course, our Lord Jesus says, “I’d be happy to… Because I love you that much.”

Unless or until this man at the pool of Bethesda asks Jesus to do that, he may be physically cured of his disease—but that’s strictly temporary. He won’t be eternally healed. We need an eternal healing!

Nevertheless, I’m on the exact same page as Piper when it comes to the relationship between grace and good works: “Changed lives,” Piper says, “are the evidence of a true relationship with Christ; it’s the evidence of repentance; it’s the evidence of being born again.” He continues:

[Jesus tells the man,] “You think this is about healing; it isn’t about healing; it’s about holiness. I came into the world the first time to deal with sin, not mainly to deal with sickness… I’m coming to attack the worst thing this world has ever known: sin. And your healing is about that. Every healing is about that. And every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day is about not sinning. Every disease you get is about not sinning. Every meal on your table is about not sinning. Whether God deals you pain or pleasure, it’s about not sinning…

Malaria is a horrible thing. H1N1 could be a horrible thing. HIV AIDS is a horrible thing. And sin is a million times more horrible than any of them because its consequences are not 38 years but 38 million ages of years. And the only reason anybody would consider helping someone with their sickness and not their soul is because they do not believe that. We will be a both/and church. We will not be forced to choose between loving people in their immediate crisis and need and caring for their souls. I’m just going to say over and over again in any way with no heart desire for their soul to be saved, you don’t love them. I don’t care if you do it for 50 years in Calcutta. You don’t love them.

Amen… with one small qualification: I would emphasize (as I did on Sunday) that “not sinning” is impossible for us. In other words, “every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day” may be about not sinning, so long as we understand that it’s only on the basis of Christ’s “not sinning” that we are saved. For our sake, Christ lived the life of perfect, sinless obedience that we ourselves are unable to live.

Not that Piper would disagree; it’s only a question of emphasis.

As I’ve written about a lot recently, we don’t want to risk turning sanctification into what Gerhard Forde calls the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Having been justified by God through grace, sanctification is not “our part of the bargain.” It’s all grace from beginning to end.

But I heartily endorse Piper’s main point about the healing ministries of churches: If they are not aimed at humanity’s central problem of sin, and the solution to that problem in Christ—the saving of souls—we are failing to love.

Paul is our best interpreter of Jesus

March 15, 2016

I’ll have more to say about Fleming Rutledge’s latest book, about the cross of Christ, when I read it—I just ordered it on Amazon. But I entirely agree with Rutledge’s words from a recent Christianity Today interview.

You think justification is the most radical of ideas. Why?

The great biblical scholar F. F. Bruce was asked what being evangelical meant. He said it means nothing more and nothing less than the justification of the ungodly. I want to make that the centerpiece of my argument wherever I go—the justification of the ungodly.

This differentiates Christian faith from religion in general, because religion in general has as its purpose to create godly people. Godliness is the goal. But twice, Paul refers to the justification of the ungodly, which is the most irreligious thing that’s ever been said. It cuts against religion. We cannot achieve our own godliness. It must be given to us, and it has been given to us in this unrepeatable, world-overturning act of invasion of this satanic-occupied territory by the Son of God himself.

So you don’t believe the Cross is just a declaration of our righteousness.

It’s not an amnesty. This is why I talk about the inadequacy of forgiveness as a theme. God is not going to just forgive sin; he is going to do something about it. The sin, the error, the evil is to be wiped out and erased from memory. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. This calls for a much stronger word than forgiveness. Reginald Fuller, an important New Testament scholar from England, said more than once in my hearing, “Forgiveness is too weak a word.”

Are we mistaken to think that New Testament writers, when they sum up the gospel, often use the word forgiveness to do so?

We have to be careful about that. Luke does that, but Paul does not.

The Gospel of Luke is justifiably beloved. We would be terribly impoverished without it. But at the same time, Paul needs to be the lens through which we read Luke and not the other way around, because Paul is more radical. Luke has, essentially, a gospel of repentance and forgiveness, but Paul conspicuously does not construe the gospel that way.

The horrible death envisioned for the Suffering Servant and the horrific death suffered by Jesus Christ respond to the gravity of sin.

It is not accidental that Paul does not speak of forgiveness or repentance in any significant way. He chooses this other word—justification—which includes within it forgiveness as a Christian quality, a Christian act. It is a Christian act to forgive. That’s clear. But the word repentance, which is definitely missing from Paul, is even more striking. The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us. The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace. I love the word prevenient, “going before.”

Paul interprets the four Gospels for us in a way that we would not have been able to do for ourselves.

The Pool of Bethesda: a video

March 15, 2016

Last Sunday, I preached on the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-18. I also showed the following video, which includes archaeological footage of the pool itself. This was a highlight of my 2011 trip to the Holy Land. Enjoy!

Sermon 03-06-16: “Believing the Word”

March 11, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic
As hard as it is to believe, when we find ourselves in a place of utter helplessness—when we’ve reach the end of our ropes and realize that there’s nothing else we can do to help ourselves—this is often, surprisingly, an amazing place to be! Because this is the place where God’s grace meets us! This sermon explores this idea and more. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: John 4:43-54

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

Growing up, my friend Andy had a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall. It identified a street near where we lived; I don’t know how he got it or where he got it. But the sign hung on his wall, right next to the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster. It was awesome—and the street sign was pretty cool too!

But I’m sure the people from the county who put the sign up originally didn’t want my friend to have it—in part because the county paid for it, and they had to replace it with a new one. And besides, the purpose of a sign isn’t to be displayed on the wall as a piece of art, as part of the decor of a teenage boy’s bedroom; the purpose of a sign is to point to something, to identify something, to give information about something. If you hang the sign on your wall because you like the way it looks, you’ve missed the point of the sign.

And that’s what these Galileans in today’s scripture have done. They’ve missed the point of Jesus’ “signs,” which is John’s name for the miracles that Jesus performs. So of course, as verse 45 says, the Galileans “welcome” Jesus; they roll out the red carpet for him; throw a parade for him when he returns home to Galilee. Why wouldn’t they welcome him like this? The local boy has made them proud; he’s done well. After all, did you see what he did a couple of weeks ago at the Passover festival in Jerusalem? Unbelievable… All those miracles he performed! And the way he drove away those merchants and money changers in the Temple! But especially the miracles! Everyone’s talking about the miracles! And he’s one of us! He’s a hometown boy!

Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 02-28-16: “The Fields Are White for Harvest”

March 10, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

I say the following in this sermon: “The message of the gospel, in a nutshell, is this: we human beings are in much worse shape than we would dare to imagine; yet God loves us more than we could ever dare to hope or dream!” Because of that love, God solves our problem through his atoning death on the cross. People need to hear and receive this message. If we ourselves have received it, are we willing to do all we can so that others may as well? If not, why not?

Sermon Text: John 4:31-42

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

Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college near Chicago, made unwelcome national headlines recently for suspending a history professor. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, said that for Lent, even though she’s a Christian, she is going to wear the the hijab, the traditional Muslim head and shoulder covering for women, in solidarity with Muslims who feel persecuted by Western countries like ours. “After all,” she said, “we all worship the same God.”

hawkins01

And that was the statement that got her in trouble. We all worship the same God. Since this idea violated the college’s statement of faith, which Dr. Hawkins signed, the administration suspended her. And based on the overwhelming criticism that Wheaton’s administration received, it must be the case that many people in the U.S. and around the world agree with Dr. Hawkins that we Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.

And why should that surprise us? Read the rest of this entry »

Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

March 8, 2016

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

My visit to Capernaum, the setting for part of this Sunday’s scripture

March 4, 2016

This Sunday I’m preaching on John 4:43-54, which narrates Jesus’ return to Galilee, after his successful stay in Samaria. A royal official—who likely worked for Herod Antipas—came from Capernaum to Cana to ask Jesus to heal his son. His son was dying, 16 miles away in Capernaum, when the official met Jesus.

Capernaum was Jesus’ home base during most of his three-year ministry. Peter’s house was there, and its ruins are preserved underneath a Roman Catholic church. The house is the place where Jesus heals many, including Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34 and parallels).

We also see Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37; John 6:59). The ruins of the 4th-century synagogue, built on top of the synagogue where Jesus taught and worshiped, have been restored as much as possible. The ruins of original synagogue, however, are located underneath these ruins.

In the photos below, the original synagogue’s walls are distinguished by darker stones underneath the lighter-colored stones of the more recent walls.

Bad ideas we accept uncritically in mainline Protestant seminary

March 3, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnOr at least I did, until too recently… I’m referring today to the idea that when Jesus questions the Samaritan woman at the well about her husband in John 4—and exposes the fact that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage—he isn’t speaking literally; and the woman herself understands this. Or if he is speaking literally at one level, he isn’t judging the woman for her sexual sin; rather, he’s using her sexual history to make a point about Samaritan idolatry: her five husbands represent the five deities worshiped by the nations that settled Samaria after the Assyrian conquest. Again, this very perceptive woman understands what Jesus is up to.

Of course, since “John” (whoever he is) often doesn’t bother to narrate historical events, the Samaritan woman is probably only a literary character anyway.

Sandra Schneiders teaches this in her commentary on John. Gail O’Day does the same in hers. My professor at the time made the same point.

In fact, these and other scholars say, the “Johannine Jesus” never cares about any sin other than failing to believe in him. This is why he doesn’t tell the woman to repent. Instead he commends her for her honest answer in v. 18. (It’s easy to see how comfortably this viewpoint fits in with today’s cultural preoccupations.)

I’m not making this up. Think for a moment about the doctrine of scripture implied by this understanding of John’s Gospel. Ugh! And you wonder why United Methodist preachers don’t preach the Bible anymore! We’re being brainwashed in seminary! Only Christians with more spiritual maturity than I possessed at the time can escape unharmed. (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!)

Be that as it may, in his commentary on John, D.A. Carson attacks this allegorical reading head on:

The most common allegorical interpretation of John 4 holds that the five husbands represent five pagan deities introduced to the residents of Samaria by the settlers who were transported there (cf. notes on 4:4) from five cities in Mesopotamia and Syria (2 Ki. 17:24); the Samaritan woman represents the mixed and religiously tainted Samaritan race; and the sixth man, to whom the woman was not legally married, represents either another false god or, more commonly, the true God to whom the Samaritans are connected only by an illicit union. In fact, the details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five… and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways…, his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests.[1]

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 232-3.

The biblical case for marriage goes beyond “thou shalt not”

March 2, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, a United Methodist theologian named Donald Haynes published an article, “A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality,” in the United Methodist Reporter, an independent denominational news source. As we United Methodists move closer to General Conference in May, expect more pastors and theologians to publish articles and blog posts such as these, in support changing our church’s doctrine on human sexuality.

Meanwhile, the evangelical United Methodist lobby Good News posted a fine two-part response to Dr. Haynes’s article here and here. This response was written by Rev. Thomas Lambrecht.

Of course, I’ve also responded over the years to the objections that Haynes raises. (Type in “homosexuality” in the search field in the upper left of this page.) But one glaring oversight in Haynes’s argument is that he examines only verses that condemn homosexual behavior; he disregards the positive case that scripture makes for heterosexual-only marriage.

Lambrecht notices Haynes’s failure, too:

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complementary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

To reinforce Lambrecht’s point, I would underline the complementarity of male and female as a prerequisite for sexual activity. In the Garden of Eden, God takes the “rib” (or better, “side”) of the man and forms the woman. Adam, therefore, finds his “missing part” not in a sexual union with another man (who is, after all, missing the same part) but only in a sexual union with a woman. As Kevin DeYoung writes in his recent book on the subject, “The ish [man] and ishah [woman] can become one flesh because theirs is not just a sexual union but a reunion, the bringing together of two differentiated beings, with one made from and both made for the other.”[1]

At this point, theologically progressive United Methodists will often object that Genesis 1 and 2 are not meant to be taken “literally.” I disagree to the extent that they these chapters, alongside the rest of the Bible, are meant to be “taken” the way that the author intends for them to be taken. When the author speaks literally, we take these words literally; when he speaks figuratively, we take them figuratively.

Be that as it may, this progressive Christian objection begs the question: O.K., what do they mean non-literally? Because inasmuch as they are non-literal, they still communicate some metaphorical, figurative, or poetic truth. What is it?

As Robert Gagnon, a mainline Protestant New Testament professor and ordained PCUSA minister at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts it in his classic book on the subject: “Even though evaluation of same-sex intercourse is not the point of the text, legitimation for homosexuality requires an entirely different kind of creation story… Male and female are ‘perfect fits’ from the standpoint of divine design and blessing. Male and male, or female and female, are not.”[2]

1. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 28.

2. Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 61-2.

Sermon 02-21-16: “In Spirit and Truth”

March 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus exposes the woman’s sexual sin—an uncomfortable topic that she would rather avoid. So she changes the subject: Where is the correct place to worship God? Why does Jesus let her do this? In this sermon, I argue that it’s because Jesus recognizes the connection between worship and sin: In a way, sin is “worshiping wrongly.” Straightening out our “worship problem,” therefore, helps us straighten our our “sin problem.”

Sermon Text: John 4:16-30

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

I’ll never forget my first day on Emory’s campus when I started seminary. One of the main things I had to do on that first day on campus was go to the Financial Aid department and check on the status of my scholarships and loans. Now, I know from my experience at a large public university like Georgia Tech that dealing with the bureaucracy of Financial Aid means waiting in long lines, putting up with employees who don’t seem happy with their jobs, and who seem to enjoy telling people “no”—all of which is enough to make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst when I went to the Financial Aid office at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

But Emory is not a large public university. I walked into the Financial Aid office of the theology school. I looked around. There was no line. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, I was ushered into the office of the director, who said, “Hello, Mr. White, how may I help you?” And I looked at my shirt to see if I was wearing a name tag or something. I wasn’t. And I’m thinking, “How does she know me?” And all I can figure is that she had names and photos of new theology students who were financial aid recipients. And she had been studying it to match faces with names. I had no other explanation… How did she know me?

And of course, the Samaritan woman at the well must have wondered the same thing after she tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” And she’s never met Jesus before in her life! How does he know me? she must have thought. Read the rest of this entry »