Archive for May, 2017

The tape loop playing in the back of my thoughts

May 26, 2017

As I’ve already mentioned, I had a difficult conversation with a clergy acquaintance last week. He told me, in so many words, that he didn’t believe in many core doctrines and convictions of our Christian faith; that he doubted much of what the Bible teaches; and that he was perfectly O.K. with it.

At one point, I said, “Please don’t teach these things to your congregation!”—for their own sake, of course, but also for the sake of pastors like me and others who will have to come behind him and clean up the mess!

I was angry. “How dare he call himself a minister of the gospel when he doesn’t believe in much of what the gospel teaches!”

But then I thought of me…

Just last week, I was with a group of friends who were saying goodbye to our friend Steve, who was moving to the West Coast. Steve, a former Marine, gave each of us a “challenge coin” as a token of his friendship. One side of the coin was engraved with a smiling skull and these words: “Death smiles at everyone. Marines smile back.”

I’m sure there’s a sermon illustration in there somewhere, but that’s not my point. When he handed me the coin, he thanked me for my friendship and said, “Brent, you are consistently the nicest person I have ever known.”

I realized something yesterday: When he told me this, I didn’t take it as a compliment. Why? Because, from my perspective, he couldn’t have meant it. He knows me too well. I’m a horrible person.

Not that I consciously thought these words at the time. I didn’t have to… They’re part of a tape loop that’s constantly playing in the background of my thoughts. The volume isn’t usually turned up very loud, but it’s always there, whether I notice it or not.

Yesterday, when I did happen to notice it, I thought, “Why am I feeling indignant because my fellow pastor doesn’t believe much of the gospel, when I live as if I don’t? I preach this all the time: God loves us so much that he paid an infinite price to save us: by sending his Son to die for me on a cross. He exchanged his righteousness for our unrighteousness. He forgave us through our faith in Christ. He clothed us with his Son’s righteousness.

“As a result, it’s as if God the Father were saying the same thing of me that he said of Christ: ‘You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.’ He made me part of his family. I’m God’s treasure, not his trash! Do I believe that or don’t I?”

So here’s what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to memorize several scriptures that teach the truth about myself (and each of us who name Christ as our Savior and Lord) that I outline in the above paragraph: Among them are the following: Romans 4:22-25; 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21; Galatians 3:13-14; Philippians 3:9; Psalm 103:12; and Isaiah 43:25.

This is my effort to apply the healing power of the gospel to a particular problem in my life. How can the power of the gospel heal you?

Imputation is a beautiful doctrine

May 25, 2017

Speaking of John Piper, years ago he got into a public feud with N.T. Wright (both sides were polite and respectful) over the doctrine of imputation. Wright, as he often does, said, in so many words, “Yes, but…” He didn’t disagree that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, only that the means by which the Reformers (and their ancient predecessors) arrived at this formulation was incorrect. Wright’s takeaway, as I recall from his book-length response to Piper, was that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to us believers.

I don’t remember his argument. And nothing I say here detracts from my love and affection for Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God almost single-handedly (through the Holy Spirit, of course) returned me to the evangelical fold after many years wandering in the mainline Protestant wilderness. But Wright wrote as if imputation was some kind of alien concept foisted onto the Bible by the Reformers.

In the seven or eight years since I read Wright’s book Justification, I am even more Reformed in my thinking, and more evangelical. Therefore I’m much more sympathetic with the classic Reformation emphasis on imputation—I certainly hope it’s true!

Therefore, I was delighted to read in (United Methodist) theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, that double-imputation (our sins to Christ on the cross and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith) represents the consensual teaching of the Church from the beginning. Allow me quote from his book at length. (I’m leaving out most of his citations of ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era sources. There are many.) I hope it’s helpful to my readers.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve.

The language of imputation has entered conspicuously into justification teaching as seen in Paul’s crucial phrase “faith is credited [logizetai] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our debts are charged to Christ’s account. Christ’s obedience is offered for our deficient account. “Faith may be said to be imputed to us for righteousness as it is the sole condition of our acceptance” (Wesley, NUNT at Rom. 4:9…)

The imputation metaphors are found throughout classic Christian teaching: Adam’s sin has been reckoned to flow into the history of all humanity, so Adam’s debt is “charged to our account.” Oppositely, our sin has been reckoned to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for sin, becoming a curse for us. Our own sins are mercifully not being counted against those who trust Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:19), which is reckoned to the believer.

Justification teaching employs a twofold reverse in the bookkeeping metaphor. It indicates both the discharging (nonimputation) from sin and the crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. Debt is discharged; substitutionary payment is credited. The Epistle to Diognetus called this “the sweet exchange.”

Sin is not charged against the believing sinner, for “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s righteousness is accredited to the believing sinner, who is “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9, italics added…).

The believer is treated as actually righteous in relation to God. This is why my ethical deeds are not the basis for gaining standing in God’s presence. Only in the cross of the Lord of glory is that possible, where sin is forgiven without offending God’s own righteousness.

But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial. The cross is an event in history, a sacrificial offering substituting Christ’s goodness for our sin. The burden of our sin is transferred directly from our shoulders to Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross there occurred a salvation event which constituted “a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim” (Leo I, Sermon 68.3).[†]

My favorite part is in that last paragraph: “But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial.” Amen! When too many contemporary preachers and teachers dismiss substitutionary atonement (as my clergy acquaintance did in our conversation last week), they are impugning God’s holiness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners comes at an infinitely high cost!

† Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 594-5.

Why this Methodist preacher loves John Piper

May 24, 2017

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, I talked about Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 40:6, 8, which compares the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon with the kind of “exile” that Christians experience in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Why, I wondered aloud, do we set our hearts on things that are passing away instead of the “living and abiding word of God”?

As an illustration, I quoted a famous sermon that John Piper delivered to college students at a Passion Conference in 2000. He was describing a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks earlier, he said, these two women died. They were on a bus on a steep mountain road. The bus’s brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Piper said:

I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.

No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Nearly every time I hear Piper speak, I’m reminded why he’s among his generation’s most gifted preachers. My 17-year-old daughter, who also heard this, was blown away.

I think I know why Piper is one of the best—and if you disagree that he’s one of the best, watch the video and judge for yourself!

But I think I know why—or one important reason. It’s because he preaches as if Christianity were really true—all of it.

Or is that saying too little of Piper’s gifts? After all, shouldn’t all of us preachers preach as if Christianity were really true?

You’d think so, yet so few of us do. I haven’t always, myself.

A couple of years ago, in one of the Paul Zahl’s wonderful podcasts, the theologically conservative Zahl, a retired Episcopal theologian and minister (don’t call him a “priest,” please; he’s Protestant!), was complaining about an Episcopal worship service he had recently attended. Zahl says:

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience—or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

Where’s the “like” button? Where’s the heart sign to click on? I love this so much!

Of course, Zahl is talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but he could be talking about any number of other Christian doctrines, which, if they are true, cannot leave us unaffected—to say the least. Piper is effective as a preacher in part because he lets himself be affected. How could he not?

He doesn’t preach using humorous anecdotes; he doesn’t tell jokes. He preaches as if his message is too urgent for that. Yet his sermons are never dry or cerebral; they strike the right balance between head and heart—which is to say, they lead with his heart.

I hope I’ve learned from him, or am learning, how to “lead with my heart.”

Would you follow Jesus even if he weren’t God?

May 19, 2017

I argued theology recently with a clergy acquaintance who said that he would continue to follow Jesus—and teach others to do the same—even if the classic Christian doctrines were wrong (not to mention the Bible, from which these doctrines derive) and Jesus were merely human. When I asked him why, he said that his personal experience has taught him that following Jesus is the path to joy and fulfillment.

“But you can’t really say that, can you?” I said. “Because if your personal experience is based on anything real—and you aren’t merely playing mind games—then Jesus must be God.” Because at least part of what has made following Christ so satisfying—for example, the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and the heartwarming feeling that Christ is with you—is made possible by the fact that Jesus really is God. 

I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them. And if that didn’t happen, as Paul says, we are still in our sins. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:18-19).
(Yes, I realize that Paul is talking about resurrection here, but for him the resurrection only has meaning in relation to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As he says, “I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” The cross is the center of the gospel, not the resurrection.)

When my friend talked about “following Jesus,” he mostly meant obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching. He cited the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25 and Jesus’ foot-washing in John 13: We ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, he said. We ought love others as Christ loved us. (To which I said, citing Romans 7, “Good luck with that!”)

Apart from Christ’s atoning death on the cross, however, which is made possible by the fact that God himself was dying for us, following Jesus’ ethical demands are impossible. For example, when my clergy friend reads the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, does he not first recognize, with terror, how much he’s like a goat rather than a sheep? And when he reads John 13, does he not sympathize with Peter’s objection that Jesus wash not only his feet but “also my hands and my head”?

Our primary need, as Peter rightly understands, is to be rescued from our sins, not to be given a new set of commands to follow, no matter how good these commands are! This was the angel’s message to Joseph in the annunciation of Matthew 1: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

Besides, why would a minister of the gospel even entertain the thought of following Jesus even if…?

Well, I think I know… It’s a hedge against doubt and fear. Doubt about the truth of God’s Word and fear that we’re wasting our lives—especially us pastors of all people! We had to pay for a master’s degree to do this job—not to mention the opportunity cost of failing to find more lucrative work! If Christianity isn’t true, at least “following Jesus” remains a worthwhile endeavor.

Not for me… I would not follow Jesus if he isn’t God. As Lewis famously said, if he isn’t God, he’s a liar or lunatic—not someone to whom we can entrust our lives. If Jesus isn’t God, I freely admit I’m wasting my life. I am “most to be pitied.”

So it’s a good thing that Jesus is God! I believe it, and I happily and passionately defend it. I pray that God will strengthen the faith of any of my fellow clergy who doubt. I pray that they’ll share my convictions about the trustworthiness of God’s Word. I pray—as I told my friend, alluding to Paul in Acts 26—that he and the rest of my fellow clergy would “become like me, except for these chains”—the chains in my case being whatever prevents me from being a more winsome, at times less angry, messenger. 😑

Help me, Jesus! Thank God for the cross!

Does James contradict Paul on justification by faith alone?

May 18, 2017

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In last night’s Bible study in Galatians, we covered Galatians 3:5-6: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” 

False teachers from the Jerusalem church known as “Judaizers” had infiltrated the Galatian churches that Paul had planted. They were teaching Gentile church members that in order to be fully Christian, they needed to observe aspects of Jewish ceremonial law—including circumcision and dietary laws. From Paul’s perspective, if you add any requirement to the gospel that he proclaimed to them—no matter how small—you lose the gospel entirely. We are justified by faith alone.

The coup de grâce to Paul’s argument is the example of Abraham. These Judaizers would consider Abraham their father in the faith; what is true of Abraham must be true of all believers. Yet, as Paul reminds his readers, Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) before God gave him any law—including circumcision, which appears two chapters later.

To have one’s faith “credited as righteousness” means to receive righteousness as an unearned gift of grace through faith. Therefore, since scripture proves that Abraham himself was justified by faith before he became “Jewish,” why would the Judaizers insist that these Gentiles become Jewish in order to be justified?

It’s a great argument!

Except

What about James, who seemingly uses the example of Abraham to make the opposite point. In James 2:21-23, he asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God.”

Is this a contradiction?

No. First, notice that James is citing a different episode in Abraham’s life than the giving of the covenant (Paul’s example) from Genesis 15. James refers to the test that God put Abraham through about 40 years later—when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God was testing the authenticity of Abraham’s faith. After all, suppose Abraham had been obeying God all these years in order to receive the blessing that God had promised him—rather than obeying God for God’s sake. If that were the case, then asking Abraham to destroy the means by which the blessing comes would surely expose this sin.

Passing the test didn’t “justify” Abraham; rather, it proved that he possessed “justifying” faith. And the apostle Paul couldn’t agree more: he also teaches that our obedience to God proves that we possess saving faith—even in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

Paul could have said that what counts is faith, period. Instead, he describes the kind of faith that he’s talking about: “faith working through love.” In other words, to quote an oft-repeated maxim, “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies doesn’t remain alone.” This statement summarizes both Paul’s and James’s teaching on justification.

My old blogging nemesis is at it again

May 18, 2017

My old blogging nemesis, Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and author, is at it again. In this recent post, he describes a conversation with a father who lost his son to a tragic accident. Then he complains about Christians who tried to comfort this father with words about God’s “having a plan” for his son’s death.

Micheli writes the following (emphasis his):

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

I don’t know what he means by a “God of absolute will.” I disagree that God uses anything for “His own self-realization,” since God is perfectly, fully realized. And I hope that God gives meaning to evil and suffering. But my point in the following comment, as I’ve said many times before, is that even if God merely allows evil and suffering—having the power to prevent it—God is ultimately responsible for it.

So here’s my comment. (Micheli recently wrote a book about his own experience with what he calls “stage serious” cancer. It’s in remission.):

Jason,

I can’t comprehend the complete lack of engagement with scripture in this post. Providence is an idea that’s writ large across the entire Bible, and one endorsed by the consensual teaching of the Church. I’ve read the DB Hart book. It doesn’t, in my opinion, satisfactorily engage the question.

Does God govern the universe and our lives within it, or doesn’t he? Does God have the power to prevent the death of a child or doesn’t he? As long as God has the power to prevent the death of a child and doesn’t use that power, God is not off the hook for suffering and evil. Even if we say, in this instance, “God lets the laws of physics run their course,” we still ought to “blame” God (if you insist on that word)—first because he created these physical laws, and second, because we believe that God answers prayer, at least sometimes.

We pray for our children’s safety. God grants that petition or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, how do we interpret it: Did God not hear our petition? Does he not have the power to grant it? Does he act arbitrarily? Or does he have a reason for either granting it or not? Is there some alternative I’m leaving out? Surely I don’t need to cite proof-texts to back up my position, because there are plenty—whereas, on your side, you have David Bentley Hart and the “God of the philosophers.”

In your case, haven’t you thanked God for sending your cancer into remission? Or did God not have anything to do with it?

Anyway, I’d recommend this father read Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. And you too! You may disagree with Keller, but it won’t be because Keller hasn’t thought it through. Nor is he some kind of demon from hell because he disagrees with you.

Sermon 05-07-17: “Against ‘Easy-Believism'”

May 16, 2017

“Easy-believism,” the idea that being a Christian is easy and requires very little of us, is a crisis in the local church, in the United Methodist denomination, and in the culture at large. Yet today’s scripture speaks against easy-believism in a few important ways. I talk about two of those ways in this sermon.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:13-21

Many of you have used Uber. I never have. I know it’s very popular. In case you don’t know, it’s like a taxi service, except the drivers aren’t taxi drivers; they’re just regular people in their regular cars. You have an app on your phone when you need a ride somewhere.

Uber recently released its “Lost and Found Index,” a humorous report on the forgetfulness of its passengers—i.e., the items that passengers forgot about and left behind in Uber vehicles. For example, the most frequently forgotten item, unsurprisingly, is the cell phone. The second most frequently forgotten item is a ring. That’s surprising… although as someone who tends to take off my wedding band and fiddle around with it—including spinning it like a top on tables—I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising. It spins really well! Keys, wallets, and glasses round out the Top 5.[1]

A surprising number of wedding dresses are forgotten in Uber vehicles.

As an absent-minded person who tends to forget things, I can relate. But all of us know that panicky feeling we get when we lose or forget or leave behind something valuable. “This is so important!” we say. “How could I have forgotten that?”

Brothers and sisters, if, when we read today’s scripture, we get that same panicky feeling—and we say, “This is so important! How could we as a church have forgotten that?”—well, we’re probably reading this passage correctly. Because today’s scripture reminds us of some very important truths that we tend to forget in our Christian lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Is there wiggle room for God’s violence in the Bible?

May 15, 2017

In my sermon yesterday, in which Peter reminds his readers that all of us—including us Christians—will face Final Judgment, I said the following: “Now, when I read a passage like this, I immediately want to find wiggle room: Hmm… How can I interpret this passage so that it’s not saying what it clearly seems to be saying.”

Although in this case I’m speaking of the doctrine of Final Judgment, I could say the same about the many instances in the Bible in which God acts with violence or commands his people Israel to do so. Finding wiggle room is impossible—at least if we believe in the inspiration of scripture. Greg Boyd is another so-called “evangelical” who likely no longer believes in the inspiration of scripture. While I’m sure he wouldn’t put it that way, what sort of exegetical or hermeneutical gymnastics must we do in order to make the Bible say what it clearly doesn’t say, yet still believe that the Holy Spirit guided the Bible’s authors to write what they wrote?

So I’m sympathetic with this commenter, who said the following in response to the above post:

So basically [if Boyd is right] God becomes guilty of either standing by idly while [genocide] happens or delegating it to someone else. Once we agree with the secular critics that it would indeed be evil for God to cause these events, removing him a step in the causal chain, or having him step aside completely, doesnt seem to help one bit, particularly when many of these events are explicitly his expressed will towards judgment being enacted.

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

As I said in response to this comment, here are my presuppositions when dealing with the so-called “texts of terror”:

God is the author of life and death. Every moment of life is nothing but sheer gift. We are not entitled to a moment of it. Therefore, when God takes our life (and he will, unless the Second Coming happens first), we have no right to complain that he’s not being fair. We all deserve God’s wrath and hell. Heaven, or our life in the resurrection, more than compensates for our suffering in this life.

I hope that doesn’t sound glib, but (assuming you’re an evangelical Christian like me) how is this not true?

Disagreeing with a UM pastor about God’s sovereignty—surprise, surprise

May 10, 2017

Here’s a blast from the past: a blog post in which I explain my disagreement with a fellow United Methodist pastor and author named Jason Micheli. I’ve never met him, but years ago he was gracious enough to let me write a guest blog post on his blog.

Read the article that was posted on Ministry Matters, a United Methodist-affiliated website. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

I commented on a friend’s Facebook link as follows:

To his credit, Jason Micheli, the author of this piece, knows how to push my buttons. Years ago, I argued with him more than once on this topic on his blog. As he so often does, he employs scripture in very selective ways to try and bolster his point. Not that we don’t all do this, but Micheli’s omissions are glaring.

For example, here are a few scriptures to the contrary: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50 (“You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good…”); Psalm 139 and its high view of providence; Romans 8:28 (obviously); Paul’s words about his “thorn in the flesh,” which was both a “messenger from Satan” and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) to keep Paul humble; James’s words in James 1:2-4 about the purpose of trials; Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1 about the “necessity” of God’s testing us like gold being refined by fire. All these scriptures suggest that suffering, whether caused by God or merely allowed by him, happens according to God’s plan or, yes, “will.”

In fact, whether Micheli likes it or not, Job’s testing by Satan also happens according to God’s will. God literally gives Satan permission to do what he does. (Also, where does Job “curse God”? That’s what his wife wants him to do, but he never does. Another problem with Micheli, in my experience—he plays fast and loose with scripture.)

But even more, Jesus commands us (in parables and other teaching) to petition God, who, we believe, responds to us in prayer, at least sometimes. When God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we can ask why: But there is no satisfactory Christian answer to that question that implies that God doesn’t have the power to intervene, or that whether or not God does is completely arbitrary. That being the case, we can rightly assume that God has good reasons for either granting our petitions or not. If he has good reasons, then how is even suffering arbitrary?

Does Micheli believe that God had the power to prevent him from getting cancer? Or—perhaps more to the point—was God responsible (even indirectly, through doctors and modern medicine) for Micheli’s remission? I’m sure that Jason has rightly thanked and praised God for sending his cancer into remission. I believe he’s said as much on his blog. If that’s the case, then that implies that God had the power to prevent his suffering in the first place—that, indeed, God had some reason for allowing it. Just as God has some reason for sending it into remission.

Our Arminian tradition agrees: We speak of God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will”: Antecedent will is what God would will in world without sin; consequent will is what God wills in this fallen world in which we live. We know that Wesley himself held a high view of God’s sovereignty, and his disagreements with Calvinism centered on one point: whether or not God decrees or foreordains the salvation or damnation of individuals.

Where I agree with Micheli is that of course our words of assurance about God’s sovereignty and providence can sound glib when someone is in the midst of pain and suffering. By all means, an emergency room, a deathbed, or a crime scene is likely not the right time to talk to victims about the meaning of pain and suffering. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to think these things through at other times.

Andrew Wilson makes the revisionist case for idolatry

May 9, 2017

I see you, Gospel Coalition—going all Babylon Bee on us.

Andrew Wilson applies nearly every argument made by sex-and-marriage revisionists to idolatry. Here’s what he has to say about how we “traditionalists” have misused Paul:

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who’s sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage” (Romans 1), the problem isn’t really idol worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, isn’t that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He’s talking about people who were naturally worshipers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references applies to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities—statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone—and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions. (Some see an exception in the way he talks about coveting as idolatry in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, but these obviously reflect his desire, as a first-century Jew, to honor the Ten Commandments.)

In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he’s not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves and women), and it’s about time we recognized that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.