Archive for January, 2017

Sermon 01-22-17: “The Only Bread We Need”

January 31, 2017

matthew_graphic

In the spiritual battles that every Christian fights against Satan and his minions, God has given us a little-used weapon in our aresenal: fasting. If Jesus needed to fast to prepare for his testing by Satan, what makes us think that we don’t? This sermon begins by addressing the real and present threat that Satan poses and makes the case that, in order to face that threat, we Christians should fast.

Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11

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

Did you ever see The Exorcist? I have not. But I know that this 1973 horror movie is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—and one of the scariest and most influential. The director was William Friedkin—who is still around. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, he admitted that until recently he had never witnessed a real live exorcism. He is himself an agnostic, he said. But he wanted to see an exorcism for himself, so he went to Italy and filmed one. It was an exorcism of a woman—not Linda Blair, in case you’re wondering. And then he showed the video to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California.

One of them, Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, said the following:

There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it … This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations … It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy … I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, [etc.] … and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.

The other doctor was equally baffled—saying that whatever was happening to this woman was authentic. She wasn’t faking. But he had no idea what was causing it or how to treat it.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of <em>The Exorcist</em> in 1974.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist in 1973.

Friedkin said:

I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.

Interesting! I hope that Friedkin’s experience shakes his agnostic worldview and enables him to believe in the reality of the spiritual realm—and God, and his Son Jesus.

I am a scientifically minded person—not many pastors have an engineering degree from—if you don’t mind me saying—one of the world’s best engineering schools. And in the past I’ve certainly been a naturally skeptical person. But I’m telling you: I believe in Satan. I believe in the reality of evil and personal spiritual forces at work in the world, forces which oppose God and his kingdom and are working against individuals and against the church. The best reason to believe in Satan and his fellow demons is because this is the clear teaching of scripture and because Jesus himself believed in them. One theologian, Michael Green, points out that if Jesus was mistaken

on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else?… ¶ It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[1]

So I believe in the devil. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”

There’s no question that in our United Methodist Church, we tend to fall into the first error: We tend to not believe in Satan and his minions. Or even if we say we do, this belief makes no practical difference in our lives. We fail to see the devil as a clear and present danger. We fail to heed the apostle Paul’s words that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[2]

The funny thing about Paul’s words here is that if you read the Book of Acts, you see Paul seems to “wrestle” plenty against “flesh and blood”—flesh and blood people oppose him everywhere he goes; people try to kill him; people beat him; people abuse him; people throw him in prison. How can Paul say he “wrestles not against flesh and blood”?

Because he sees a deeper, more powerful struggle underneath the surface of reality. One that’s invisible to the naked eye. Yes, people do all kinds of evil, awful, sinful things all the time—and God will hold us responsible for our role in these things. But the Bible teaches that we’re not doing sinful, evil things on our own. Unfortunately, we have a deadly spiritual enemy who is all to happy to help us. In fact, we often make it all too easy for him.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when kids in elementary schools were playing this game called “Charlie Charlie”? They would make something like a Ouija board, stack pencils on top of it, and call upon a demon named Charlie to answer questions. The Vatican issued a warning to kids and their parents not to mess around with this. And many people scoffed: “Oh, it’s just a harmless game,” people said. “It’s not real.”

Who’s to say that’s not something the devil could use? Why take the chance?

As many of you know, I’m a big music fan—I’m always looking for new bands, new artists I might enjoy. Recently, I was reading about a rock band that was getting great reviews; they sounded like something I might like. Only… The critics who reviewed their albums said that their music was great, but their lyrics were really silly—always singing about demons and witches and occult stuff. But of course they’re not serious about that! It’s all a joke. Besides, you can just disregard the words and pay attention to the music. And I started to download one of their albums off iTunes—before my conscience spoke up: “You can’t do that, Brent! The devil is hard enough to resist when you’re fighting against him. And here you are, practically inviting him into your front door! You can’t do that!”

But you know… demon possession, Ouija boards, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, devil-worshiping rock bands… These are kind of obvious examples of ways that the devil works in the world. Most of the time, he’s much more subtle, much more discreet, much more invisible.

Even in today’s scripture, notice that we’re not told in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. If we’re picturing the Underwood Deviled Ham figure—a red guy with cloven hooves and a pitchfork… Well, we’re certain he doesn’t look like that. Was he visible to him? If he was, I’m sure he was very beautiful to look at. Maybe he came in the guise of a person. Or maybe he came to Jesus the way he so often comes to us—through our own thoughts. By planting ideas in our minds. By sowing seeds of doubt. Lying to us. Exploiting our weaknesses.

Keep in mind: Jesus is not a superhero. He is God-made-flesh. He is fully human. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that these were real temptations. That means he had to consider each one; he had to think about it. He doesn’t just brush them away like they’re gnats. In fact, the Book of Hebrews says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The point is, these temptations are really tempting; they challenge him. And why wouldn’t they?

After all, why not turn a stone to bread? Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days—that’s about as long as anyone can go before starvation sets in. A messiah who dies before accomplishing his mission and going to the cross and dying for our sins isn’t going to do anyone any good. And notice that Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is reminding the Israelites that after God delivered them from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, they immediately started grumbling—“Did Moses bring us out here in the desert to starve to death?” So what does God do? He gives them bread from heaven, called “manna.” God feeds his people with miracle bread. So when Satan tempts Jesus, he’s really just reminding him, “Hey, you did this before, Jesus—when you were with Israel back in the wilderness. You’re God, alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit! You fed them when they were starving in the wilderness. And guess what? Now you’re in the wilderness as Israel’s representative. Are you going to let yourself starve, Jesus? Feed yourself with miracle bread, just as you fed the Israelites with miracle bread so long ago.”

Do you see how tempting that must have been? Satan is so close to being right. And he’s counting on Jesus not being able to think clearly, so he thinks, it just might work.

But this verse—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”—means not only are we not supposed to live by bread that we make by hand, it also means that we’re not supposed to live by miracle bread, either. We’re not supposed to live by anything other than God himself. Satan loves miracles because he knows that they can distract people from God. In John chapter 2 we’re told that crowds are seeing Jesus work miracles, and they’re impressed with the miracles. And they start following him because of the miracles. But what does John say? “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.”[3] He knew that the people weren’t falling in love with Jesus; they were falling in love with miracles. They didn’t have genuine faith in God; they were just captivated by the miracles that God performed.

God is telling us in Deuteronomy 8:3 that the purpose of the miracle bread was not to feed hungry Israelites; the purpose was to get hungry Israelites to fall in love with the supplier of this miracle bread—to fall in love with God; to place their faith in God; to trust in God—and not in the things that God provides, be it earthly bread or heavenly bread. The purpose of the manna wasn’t to satisfy their physical hunger but to awaken within them a hunger for God! Jesus knows the meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3. That’s why he won’t feed himself with miracle bread. He’s got everything he needs to survive in his heavenly Father.

Consider John chapter 4: When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember what happens? Jesus’ disciples leave him at this well in a Samaritan village while they go into town to buy food and bring it back to him. John tells us that Jesus is hungry. In the meantime he has this long conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the end of it, she comes to believe in Jesus as her Lord and Savior—and she rushes back to town to tell everyone about Jesus. When the disciples show up with food for Jesus, they urge Jesus to eat. But he doesn’t. They’re confused. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”[4]

Jesus somehow has so much of his heavenly Father—he finds so much pleasure in pleasing his Father and glorifying his Father and doing his Father’s will—that somehow it satisfies even his deep physical hunger. How is possible? I don’t know. But I would love to find out.

I would love to be so filled with God’s love, to be so filled with Jesus, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I don’t need anything else this world has to offer. I would have God and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t need more money. I wouldn’t need other people’s approval. I wouldn’t need recognition. I wouldn’t need trophies. I wouldn’t need popularity. I wouldn’t need to be liked. I wouldn’t need to measure up to other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t need to please other people. I wouldn’t be enslaved to the things of this world. My only “food”—my only sustenance—would be to please God, to glorify him, to do his will.

Don’t you want that? I do! How do we get it? How do we get more of God?

God is showing us one important way in today’s scripture. He’s actually showing us more than one way, but I’m going to focus on this one—because frankly, we’re failing miserably at it. Me included.

I’m talking about fasting. 

When I was ordained as a United Methodist elder-in-full-connection six-and-a-half years ago, I lied. Because one of the promises I made to God, to my bishop, and to the North Georgia Annual Conference is that I would teach my people to fast. I’m serious. It was a question: “Will you teach your people to fast.” And I said “yes.” If I said “no,” I wouldn’t get ordained, so I said “yes,” like everyone else.

Have I said a word about it to you? Nope. That’s got to change.

Before beginning his ministry on earth—before facing and overcoming these three temptations and many more besides—Jesus prepared for it by fasting. This means he went without food for a period of time. He drank water, but ate nothing. Now, forty days is really extreme. On the other hand, Jesus had to accomplish by far the most difficult task that anyone has ever had to accomplish. So in order to get ready for it, what did he do? He fasted. Of course he prayed, too—prayer and fasting should always go together. But his spiritual preparation included fasting.

Here’s my question: Why doesn’t ours? If the Son of God—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed to fast in order to overcome the trials and temptations that he would face, what on earth makes us think we don’t?

Jesus fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll get to soon, he teaches about fasting and says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face.” He doesn’t say “if” you do it; he says “when” you do it. In Luke 2, we’re told that Anna, the prophetess who blesses the baby Jesus in the temple, prays and fasts. The apostle Paul fasts for three days after his conversion in Acts 9. Later in Acts 13 he and the rest of the church at Antioch fast just before the Holy Spirit anoints Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles. In 2 Corinthians, he says he fasts often. And of course, the roll call of people who fast in the Old Testament is a Who’s Who of heroes of the faith.

Fasting is a means of grace. From at least the late first century, many churches instituted a twice weekly fast. John Wesley fasted twice a week for most of his adult life. When he grew old, he only fasted once a week.

In 1756, King George II called the people of England to a national day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by France. On February 6, 1756, the day of the fast, John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hearted prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote, he added: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”[5]

Fasting teaches us the kind of “bread” that we live by. [Richard Foster, unmasking what’s already there in our hearts—like anger.]

[Talk about the “130” goal. Good plans to accomplish it. But you know what we need? We need power. By not fasting, it’s as if we’ve taken an arrow out of our quiver and thrown it on the ground—“we don’t need that one.” Without fasting, we could be missing a weapon in our arsenal that we need to fight the devil and wage successful spiritual warfare.

We need all the power we can get. Because as our church turns the corner and marshals it resources to reach 130, we can expect that the devil will fight back hard.

Will we be ready for that fight?]

1. Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

2. Ephesians 6:12 KJV

3. John 2:24

4. John 4:32, 34 ESV

5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 50.

Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!

January 26, 2017

A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook last week:

pope_francis_quote

I hated to be an ecumenical wet blanket, but I thought the last part of Pope Francis’s quote was overly optimistic. If there’s something about our “alliance” with Christ that “makes” us live without sin—indeed, to be “far away from” it—I haven’t discovered it. So I quoted Luther’s maxim concerning our nature as Christians: In Christ, we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”

My friend, a Methodist pastor, demurred:

Is your assumption that the pope is referring to some before justification or after? I take his meaning to be at the moment of or after. At the point of justification one would then be simultaneously progressing in a state of sanctifying grace. That would be most Wesleyan. Otherwise it’s purely Lutheran and therefore holiness or justification has little if nothing to do with your progress in holiness since it doesn’t require your participation, i.e., it’s all imputed.

To which I replied:

But suppose you die moments after being justified and born again. On what basis are you fit for heaven other than Christ’s righteousness—imputed or not? Certainly not your own “holiness,” such as it is. I don’t think the imputed righteousness of Christ negates personal responsibility. But I also don’t think that sanctification is ever more than our saying “yes” to God’s grace, just as we do when we are justified. Grace is still grace. Our participation, whatever it is, isn’t something of which we get to be proud. Sanctification isn’t “we do a little, then God does a little,” although I agree that’s how it’s popularly understood.

The truth is, I have become slightly more Lutheran and more Reformed in my theological perspective. (Of course, I had already been indoctrinated in Augustine by Candler’s only conservative professor [at the time], Lewis Ayres, so I wasn’t far from this perspective—at least as soon as I started believing the Bible again). If that makes me less comfortably Wesleyan, so be it. But Wesley wasn’t too far from this. Didn’t he compare sanctification to respiration: God breathes in, we breathe out? What we do is very small compared to what Christ did and the Holy Spirit does.

So twice my friend referred to our “progress” in holiness and implies that it’s something that we do, or something for which we’re (mostly? 50-50?) responsible. From my own experience, talk of “progress” in the Christian life makes me nervous. We are not sanctified by what we do! God is going to have to do the sanctifying in our relationship with him, or it won’t happen at all! 

While I don’t think my friend accurately represents John Wesley’s thinking on the subject, who cares what Wesley says? We have to contend, as always, with the Bible. Like Wesley, “I am a man of one book”—or I strive to be. We are saved by grace from first to last. Our cooperation in this salvific process, while not nothing, is minimal—certainly in comparison to what God does. It’s never something about which we get to boast and say, “Look what I’ve done!”

All that to say, I embrace the Reformation affirmation of imputed righteousness. As a result, these words by Matt Johnson from the Mockingbird Devotional are sweet music to my ears:

In reflecting on the temptations we’ve faced and the the sufferings we’ve undergone, no doubt we’ve been faithless amidst life’s domestic complexities. Juggling home, career and family; coming to terms with illness, debt, death—it hasn’t gone too well. We’ve not laid our burdens down like we should have. And with this failure comes shame…

We often have similar experiences where we feel this close. We had great plans, and we almost got there, but now the hope of deliverance seems too good to be true—and now it’s back to the old life.

In those moments of regress or failure, nothing quite pegs our identity like shame does. It becomes the way we self-describe. The “Who am I?” framework only shows us what we aren’t: an ineffective employee. A failed father. A basket case. A pervert. Your shame has the power to terminally name you. Sure, Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know and all that—but what about here and now? What about this sea of shame?[1]

Let me interject here to say that my clergy friend’s notion of “progress” as something we accomplish, even in part, does nothing but contribute to this “sea of shame”—at least in my experience. (His mileage may vary.) I need to be reminded again and again of God’s grace.

Johnson continues:

In Christ, you are God’s treasured possession. As part of His family, you are the beloved first-born son. Rather than receiving the wrath of Pharaoh, the chaos of the sea is the moment of His salvation. Naturally you’ve forgotten that and have placed an old shame back onto your shoulders again, but it was never yours to lug around in the first place. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In Christ, you are clothed in righteousness and when God sees you, there is nothing more to be ashamed of. He sees the perfection of Jesus.[2]

1. Matt Johnson, “January 24” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 53.

2. Ibid.

Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?

January 24, 2017

A regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who calls herself “RJS,” wrote a post that further illustrates the problem with the way that many evangelicals discuss issues related to God’s sovereignty and providence. If you didn’t read my post on the subject last week, please do so. Then read RJS’s most recent post.

I wrote the following comment, to which I hope RJS responds.

You say Genesis 50:19-20 shouldn’t be a “catch-all propositional truth thrown at people in times of pain.” For that matter, what propositional truth should be “thrown at” anyone in the midst of their pain. Pastoral sensitivity is necessary no matter what. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t propositional truths. I wouldn’t necessarily quote James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, my brother and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…”) when someone is in pain, even though someone’s pain would usually qualify as a “trial.” Right?

Regardless, if God can work “even through the evil actions of humans,” as you say in your last paragraph, I fail to see the distinction between what counts for “God’s plans” and what doesn’t. You seem to imply that God’s plans only use “good events.” But if God foreknows what sinful humans will do, and he’s at work, a la Romans 8:28, through everything, how can “every evil and tragic occurrence” also not be part of his plans—unless you accept some form of open theism and believe that these events take God by surprise. (Not judging here, just trying to understand your point of view.)

I’m speaking as a Wesleyan-Arminian, by the way. I’m not a Calvinist troll. But in my way of thinking, if God has plans at all, how can those plans not take into consideration the evil and sinful things that humans do—or even so-called “acts of God” that harm people?

Besides, every event that happens in the world—for good or evil—has a ripple effect on history, affecting the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more. At what point will God start enfolding these myriad consequences into his “plans”?

With that in mind, I still find Timothy Keller’s words about providence and the “butterfly effect” persuasive. As I wrote in an earlier blog post:

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?

Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.[2]

1. Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

Sermon 01-15-17: “To Fulfill All Righteousness”

January 19, 2017

matthew_graphic

Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel are puzzling: What does Jesus mean when he says that it’s proper for John to baptize him in order to “fulfill all righteousness”? In this sermon, I explore that question and show how these words and actions of Jesus point to the Cross.

Sermon Text: Matthew 3:13-17

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

On Saturdays in the fall, when I go to Georgia Tech football games in midtown Atlanta, there are sometimes people on the corner of North Avenue and Techwood Drive. They have P.A. systems and microphones. They have an urgent message that they want passersby to hear! And their message, in so many words, is “Repent… or else.” I confess these people make me feel uncomfortable. When I see them, I want to cross to the other side of the street. I want to get away from them as quickly as possible. I want them to go away. They’re spoiling my fun, after all. I don’t want to think about my sins, or God’s holiness, or God’s wrath, or my need to repent and turn to Jesus in order to avoid hell. After all, I’m just trying to enjoy a college football game! This is the deep South, after all. Let’s not mix one religion with another! Sunday is for one kind of church, but Saturday is for another kind!

Look, we may quibble with the in-your-face method of evangelism that these people use. But give them credit: At least they understand what’s at stake. They understand that unless or until people do repent and turn to Jesus, and believe in him, and entrust their lives to him, they will face an eternity separated from God in hell.

Do we understand what’s at stake?

Over the course of his life, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, rode 250,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons because he understood what was at stake—because of his firm conviction that people risked being eternally lost unless they repented and believed in Jesus.[1]

The ministry of the apostle Paul was fueled by this same conviction: In Acts 20, Paul is preaching a farewell sermon to some people that he knows and loves—the elders at the church in Ephesus, a church he started and where he ministered for three years. And he says something very interesting: He says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”[2]

Innocent of the blood of all. What does he mean by that? He means that as a pastor, as a preacher, as a missionary, as a leader in the church, Paul can leave that place knowing that he’s done everything he could do, that he’s told as many people as he could tell, that he’s taken every opportunity to share with his community the full gospel of Jesus Christ. So that if they die—and face God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and hell because of their sins—their blood won’t be on Paul’s hands. Because he’s done all that he can do save them. Read the rest of this entry »

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

unbelievable_banner

A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

Bruner on infant baptism

January 14, 2017

brunerIn his masterful theological commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner reflects on infant baptism, as part of his discussion of Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3:13-17 (my text for this Sunday). As a Presbyterian, he, like me and my fellow Methodists, is part of a tradition that practices infant baptism. And like me, he was “converted” to the practice later in life: he didn’t grow up believing in it.

Was he Baptist? He doesn’t say. But I was. As I tell former Baptists who join my church: “Like you, I was baptized by immersion. So at least we’re saved!”

To Bruner’s credit, he gives good arguments on both sides and admits that he is “of two minds” on the subject. Truthfully, I am as well. But it’s not as if I’m more evangelical or evangelistic than my Reformation ancestors Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley; I’m not more of a champion of “justification by faith alone” than they were. Yet each of them still believed in infant baptism. (It was those darn Anabaptists who were the weirdos!) For that reason alone, I’m willing to set aside my doubts and accept the consensual teaching of the universal church, which—as far as we can tell—practiced infant baptism (without controversy) from nearly the beginning.

Bruner marshals plenty of scripture from Old and New Testaments to support the practice (I might blog about this later), even as he acknowledges that the explicit order in the Book of Acts shows repentance and faith preceding baptism. (Like me, however, he believes that we can infer that infants—or at least children too young to “comprehend” the gospel—are baptized, for example, in Acts 16:14-15, 31-33.)

Regardless, he believes, along with me, that our view of baptism is a secondary matter; it need not affect our essential unity. And I’m not aware that it does—except among some “restorationists” of the Stone-Campbell tradition. (Some within the Churches of Christ, for example, wouldn’t recognize most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, as authentically Christian—not to mention Catholics!)

For those of us who practice infant baptism, however, let’s face facts: It often seems to make no difference in the lives of people who were so baptized. There’s often little evidence of conversion in the person’s life, aside from the most nominal kind of faith. And plenty of people who were baptized as infants later reject the faith. What do we make of this?

I find these words of Bruner helpful (emphasis his):

Where faith is not sustained in the hearts of baptized children, the gifts really given by God in baptism are left unused in an unopened section of the human heart. The gifts can even be rejected, and apparently they are by most (see the important discussion of this sad fact of “most” in 1 Cor 10). And then there is only judgment, as John’s Fire Sermon makes clear—and makes clear to believers. But when the faith given in baptism is maintained and confirmed, when baptized persons turn to Christ in fresh decisions of faith, they find that Christ has always turned earlier to them, as early as their baptism.

The earliest delivery of the passion in our own lives occurs ordinarily in baptism. And for all we know (and Luther liked this view…; cf. Calvin’s only slightly different understanding…) a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism. (Therefore infant baptism can be believer baptism.) No one should laugh (Gen 17-18). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14 RSV). Then the weekly invitations to re-receive the gifts previously given to the people of God at baptism happens again and again in the preached Word and Supper with their fresh gospel messages of faith and repentance.

Why did the Reformers, and especially Luther and Calvin, the great champions of justification by faith alone, so stubbornly fight for the retention of infant baptism for believers’ children? The Reformers knew that infant baptism celebrated and communicated the one reality that is more important than anything we do—the prevenient grace of God, of a God who does saving things for people before they can do saving things for themselves, even when they are very young. If appearances do not deceive, we seem as infants to be rather bewildered by what is going on when we are baptized. But God is superior to all appearances; inwardly God gives faith (or, in Calvin’s expression, “the seed of future faith and repentance”). This ambience in infant baptism is so much like the rest of the gospel that it helps us to believe that this seemingly common event is God’s way in the church of arriving in human lives. Infant baptism looks very much like the lowly feed-bin manger in which Jesus arrived. Infant baptism has been cherished in the historic church, I suspect, because it is shaped like the gospel.[†]

In this view, saving faith is really given to a child through baptism. God makes it possible for even an infant to receive it (“a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism”). Therefore, we can be confident a baptized child will go to heaven, for example, if he or she dies before professing faith for himself or herself. But this same person can also later reject this same faith—and it’s hard to argue with Bruner that “most” will. (Wesley certainly wouldn’t!)

Bruner’s view, please note, is more congruent with the Wesleyan tradition, which doesn’t hold to eternal security; which believes that backsliding is possible.

Thoughts? Are Bruner’s words persuasive?

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 112-3.

Do people still believe that the “wages of sin” deserves death?

January 11, 2017
zahl

Paul Zahl

As I wrote yesterday, God rescued me from the precipice of hell not too many years ago—long after I was a professing Christian. I have wondered myself if I had died during that time of temporary “lostness,” would I still have been saved? I think I would have been—maybe—but God’s judgment would have been severe. I can only speculate.

Here’s what I do know, based on my experience and the teaching of scripture: I deserve hell. And so do you. That sounds so ugly to say, doesn’t it? Yet it is without a doubt the unanimous teaching of classic Christianity.

I wonder, however, when I preach this message—as I did even last Sunday—if it still communicates to other, more virtuous, people than I am. In my defense, our cultural imperative to accept everyone just as they are, without moral judgment, kicks against the goads of this core Christian conviction.

In his short systematic theology, Paul Zahl, who—as my family knows—has become a hero to me, responds to the objection that penal substitution, with its requirement for Christ’s atoning death in place of our own, is more than our problem with sin requires. In other words, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This means that the judgment of God is capital. That is not too extreme a statement of the case. If you were to take the sum of any one person’s life—her or his thoughts, conscious and unconscious; the dreams, both day dreams and night dreams; the sum of his or her concrete actions, both covert and open to public scrutiny; the motives and intentions; the “body language”—if you were to take the whole sum of a person’s life and show it to that person within a moment in time, the person would have a heart attack or a stroke, right on the spot. There are no exceptions to this postulate, certainly not in the Bible. Our inner fears of exposure confirm it absolutely.[†]

† Paul F.M. Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 65.

“Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”

January 10, 2017

brunerIn his commentary on last Sunday’s scripture, Matthew 3:1-12, Frederick Dale Bruner, a Presbyterian, argues that John the Baptist’s “Fire Sermon” is a “sustained attack on a false eternal security (‘once saved, always saved’), an attack my own Calvinist tradition needs to hear.” One scholar he quotes puts it this way: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.'”

Is that true? While my Protestant tradition doesn’t hold to the doctrine of eternal security, I’ve at least been inching in that direction for many years now (as my friend and blog reader Tom, who himself holds loosely to the doctrine, and I have discussed). So Bruner’s words are a challenge to me, too.

But maybe they should challenge us all. While I laughed out loud at this recent Babylon Bee article (headline: “Arminian Feeling Pretty Saved Today”), I’m not sure it reflects reality. After all, I’ve known few Methodists who’ve worried about the state of their soul. Why? What is the source of their confidence? Perhaps all of us need to reevaluate our security in Christ—be it “eternal” or, for many of us Wesleyan-Arminians, a shade or two more provisional.

Bruner continues:

Whenever I teach this verse and the sense of privilege that Israel felt in belonging to Abraham, I think of my own relation to the Reformation and my heritage in the theologies of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. And I squirm. Do I stand in an advanced relationship with God because I stand in this heritage? John the Baptist wants to disabuse me of this conviction for a moment. My relationship with God does not depend on the heritage to which I belong, but on something deeper. It is a great privilege to be an heir of Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. I believe that to imbibe Luther is to imbibe catholic theology at its best. And yet if I advance my Lutheran, Calvinist, or Reformation heritage before God as a kind of shield behind which to hide the reality (or unreality) of my faith in Christ, then the Baptist point his long, bony finger in my face and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks!”[†]

In my current situation in the United Methodist Church, I know the spiritual pride of identifying as a “theologically conservative evangelical.” It can easily become my way of saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other Methodists are—progressives, open theists, ‘red-letter Christians,’ or even those United Methodist ‘centrists.'”

Not too many years ago, God rescued me from the precipice of hell by convicting me of my sin and pointing me once again to the cross of his Son. While the theological liberalism of the Candler School of Theology played a harmful role, the main problem was in my heart, not my head. In other words, plenty of evangelicals whose hearts are in the right place make it through Candler just fine.

So if I’m going to be proud of anything, let me be proud of what Christ did to save me, not the theological camp in which I now stand as a result.

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-4.

Sermon 01-08-17: “The Gospel According to John the Baptist”

January 9, 2017

baptism

I preached this sermon, the first of a new series in Matthew, in the context of grief and deep sadness in the life of our church. The series begins, appropriately, where the gospel begins: with God’s law and its condemnation of sin. The good news is that, like John the Baptist himself, the law points us to Christ, the only means of escaping God’s wrath. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 3:1-12

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

Last Thursday night, I drove home from Atlanta Medical Center, having ministered to Hettie and her family as best I could. It was rush hour, and traffic was bumper-to-bumper for most of the way home—imagine that. But I was nearly home when I got a call from Lisa: She was out running an errand, and did I want to meet her and the kids for dinner?

Truthfully, I didn’t want to at first: I was tired. I was hoping to steal a short nap before dinner. Besides, I was behind on work. It was going to be a late night.

Then I thought, “Brent, there’s nothing more important that you can do right now than meet your family for dinner. The time you have with them is a gift from God. Don’t take it for granted.”

As I said in my eNews article Friday morning, if you had heard the news about the traffic accident that took our brother Bill’s life on Thursday morning, and seriously injured our sister Hettie, you might have had a similar thought. If you hugged your children a little tighter when tucking them into bed, or remembered to say “I love you” to your spouse, or prayed an extra prayer of safety for your teenage driver as they left the house, I completely understand: Our lives on this earth, as the events of last Thursday reminded us, are incredibly precious… and incredibly fragile. Read the rest of this entry »