Archive for May, 2017

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.

Sermon 04-30-17: “The Great ‘Therefore'”

May 7, 2017

The following is mostly a sermon about one word, “Therefore.” It appears at the beginning of verse 13. It means that everything that Peter commands us to do—and there are four commands in this passage—is in response to what God has already done for us. I conclude by reflecting on Peter’s emphasis on the mind: living a Christian life must involve thinking rather than just feeling. The main way that we “prepare our minds for action” is by devoting ourselves to God’s Word, the Bible.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:10-21

Much to my parents’ horror, my best friend in eighth and ninth grade was a guy named Jason. My parents were horrified because over the course of those two years, Jason became a punk-rocker—during a brief period of time when punk and punk-rock fashions were popular among a small subsection of my high school. Not only did Jason listen to punk rock, he shaved his head into a mohawk—not a “faux”-hawk, a real mohawk—and dyed it orange. He wore safety pins in his ears. He wore ridiculous punk-rock clothes, including a fashionably torn blue-jean jacket with these words painted on back: “Non-conformists unite!”

Non-conformists unite! He became famous, or infamous, around high school for this slogan, which he eventually spray-painted on an outside wall of the high school, an action for which he got suspended. But everyone knew him as that “non-conformists unite” kid—and I was known as the friend of the “non-conformists unite” kid. Regardless, Jason apparently failed to see the irony of the slogan “Non-conformists unite!” “Hey, all of you non-conformists out there!” he seemed to say. “Why don’t we all get together and form a social club?” It was as if he were saying, “Non-conformists conform!”

Which just goes to prove just how difficult it is to be a non-conformist. Going along to get along, by contrast, is much less lonely than being a non-conformist. All the kids listening to Prince and wearing polo shirts with their collars turned up had more friends!

In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter gives four imperatives—four commands—in these verses. One of them is “do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” There are three other commands. Verse 13: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” That’s number two. Verse 15: “Be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” That’s three. Then verse 17: “Conduct yourself with fear throughout the time of your exile.” Four commands. Why are these commands important for us to follow? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-23-17: “More Precious Than Gold”

May 5, 2017

Today marks the beginning of a new sermon series in 1 Peter. Its message couldn’t be more relevant for us today: the apostle Peter wants us to know deep and lasting happiness in Jesus Christ, which we can experience no matter what is happening in our lives. Even the suffering we experience and the trials we endure, Peter says, are for our good.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:1-9

This week’s New Yorker magazine features an article on a recent phenomenon known as the hashtag #vanlife and a young couple, Emily King and Corey Smith, who helped to popularize it. A few years ago, this couple bought a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon, which is now their home. They live out of their van. And they spend their time traveling to different beaches in California and surf to their hearts’ content. Or they go hiking, or camping, or skiing—or whatever else their heart desires. All the while documenting their adventures on Instagram. For income, Emily got a job as a web designer, which didn’t require her to be in an office. All she needed was a good cell signal. She did that for a year or two. Eventually, the couple gained so many Instagram followers that they decided they could support themselves through advertising—by getting sponsors and pitching their sponsors’ products through social media.[1]

#Vanlife advocate Emily King

Emily and Corey’s message is, “Live like us! Enjoy your life to the fullest! Don’t let the stresses of work or career prevent you from realizing your dream. Your dream isn’t found in a big paycheck or high-status career; it’s found in living a #vanlife of total freedom!”

This message is catching on, and I totally get the appeal. They make it seem like their lives are one long vacation—that they don’t really need to work. And they’ve inspired thousands of their Instagram followers to give the #vanlife a try. In fact, a used Volkswagen van dealer in California says business is booming. 

But—and I admit this could be sour grapes on my part—but the article does point out how hard the couple has to work to give the appearance of not working: For instance, it often takes many hours to take and edit even one perfect, idyllic picture of them and their van in Paradise. Plus, they have to constantly worry over whether they’re getting enough “likes” on social media—because that’s what their sponsors care about. And let’s notice how much of “living the #vanlife” depends on external circumstances, many of which are beyond Emily and Corey’s control. What if they get pregnant and have a baby? Or two. Suddenly that Vanagon won’t be quite big enough. Can they afford the additional expenses? What if one of them gets sick or injured—which requires frequent doctors’ visits, or hospital stays, or surgery. Will they be able to travel? And do they even have health insurance? What if one of their parents gets sick and needs to move in with them?  That van won’t do. And part of the couple’s appeal, let’s face it, is that they’re young and good-looking. Youth and beauty fade, in case any of us haven’t noticed. How long can anyone stay in the business of taking pictures of themselves and getting other people to pay for it?

Obviously, only a tiny percentage of Americans—not to mention most other people in the world—could begin to enjoy the #vanlife!

But… suppose the happiness promised by living the #vanlife were available to everyone—not just to the young, the beautiful, the lucky, or the wealthy? Suppose it didn’t require living in a van or being on the road? Suppose everyone in the world could afford it?

Wouldn’t you want that? I would. Read the rest of this entry »

“Easy-believism” versus “faith alone”

May 4, 2017

My friend and regular contributor to this blog, Tom Harkins, and I have had a long and productive conversation (with Grant) in the comments section of my previous blog post. It’s about the relationship between faith and works. In fact, I mentioned this debate in last Sunday’s sermon.

Tom and I agree that “easy-believism” in the contemporary church is a deadly-serious problem. (And not just us!) As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, on 1 Peter 1:10-21, I came across this incisive, if depressing, observation from R.C. Sproul:

When Justin Martyr addressed his apologia, his defense of Christianity, to Emperor Antoninus Pius, he sought to defend the truth claims of Christianity, but he also challenged the emperor to examine the lives of Christians and to observe their purity. No apologist would use that as an argument for Christianity in our culture today. We cannot.[1]

Indeed. In what way would most present-day Christians in the industrialized West match Peter’s description of Christians as non-conformists and “exiles” in a world that is not their home? Don’t we often feel very much at home here? “Easy-believism,” which marches under the flag of “justification by faith alone,” contributes to the problem. It teaches that Christian faith is mere assent to an increasingly small number of propositional truths—not a commitment to Christ that demands the transformation of our lives.

In my United Methodist context, the tendency toward easy-believism is among the devil’s craftiest wiles, alongside universalism and the rejection of biblical authority.

God help me, I hope the gospel I preach resists each of these tendencies. On the other hand, if no less a gospel preacher than the apostle Paul was accused by his critics of antinomianism (Romans 3:8; 6:1, 15), perhaps the gospel of free grace, in the hearts of sinful humanity, will always be prone to misunderstanding.

In the comments section of the previous post, Tom was arguing that our good works, alongside faith, play a small but necessary role in salvation. At one point in the argument, he asked: “Guys, let me ask you this—what is the real problem with thinking that there may be some ‘human contribution’ to salvation? Or the ‘Christian walk’ thereafter?” After citing scripture to support his position, he wrote: “So, CONCEPTUALLY, what is the problem? Could not God want to (and be able to) create moral agents independent of himself, whom he could interact with and respond to based on their own morality? I don’t see what is supposed to be ‘wrong’ with that, as a conceptual or philosophical or theological matter.” (See the comments for the full discussion.)

I responded as follows:

Speaking for myself, the real problem is that I know myself to be a sinner who is helpless to keep God’s law and desperately in need of God’s grace at every moment. Romans 7 rings deeply true to me. Keep in mind: for all your biblical justification for semi-Pelagianism (literally that’s what you are advocating), Jesus teaches us not to “try harder” or to “do your best” but to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Are we not utterly condemned by God’s Law? Jesus himself amplifies the Law in his Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere: It’s not simply doing these things and avoiding other things; the purity of our hearts matters even more to God. Still, you would say that, because of the atonement, it’s O.K. that we can’t be (anywhere close to) perfect (or even “do our best” for more than a few seconds at a time)—Christ makes up the difference.

But on what basis does Christ do that? You would say the cross: Christ died as a once-for-all sacrifice, upon whom God laid all of our sins—past, present, and future. When we believe in Jesus, our debt of sin is utterly wiped out. Just as our unrighteousness is imputed to him on the cross, so his righteousness is imputed to us. And we are united with him by the Holy Spirit when we believe, such that just as Christ was resurrected, so (we can be confident) we will be resurrected.

That being the case, on what basis would God still condemn us—after we’ve placed our faith in Christ? Is the cross not good enough? Did Christ’s death not fully atone for our sins, such that there are still others for which we’re responsible. Because make no mistake: You’re arguing that’s it’s possible for God to condemn us for at least some sins—specifically, those sins that prevent us from “doing enough” to be completely forgiven. And God help us, according to your argument, none of us quite knows what those sins are, so let’s hope we don’t commit them!

So what’s at stake for me is the meaning of the Christ’s atoning death on the cross, whose benefits we receive through faith alone. I would challenge you to think in broader theological terms, rather than isolating verses here and there. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, among others, knew their Bibles at least as well as we do, yet they affirmed justification by faith alone. So do I.

Besides, all of your well-founded concerns about “easy-believism” can come down to a question of whether someone is “in the faith” or “out of the faith,” not whether they’re “doing enough” or not. The danger, as I see it, is that many people think they’re Christians when they’re not—and the fact that they’re living unregenerate lives gives evidence of this. “Examine yourselves.” By all means. Even in that verse, Paul points to the authenticity of faith, not the extent to which we work.

After further argument, Tom clarified his position: the initial act of placing our faith in Christ—which Tom refers to as a “pledge of allegiance”—implies these kinds of works, without which it’s clear that true conversion hasn’t taken place. I nearly agree: I would say, however, as Billy Graham often said, that repentance represents the desire to change. We bring to God our desire, and let him give us the power to make it happen. This, of course, represents another point of contention with Tom: whether or to what extent we are able, apart from the prevenient work of the Spirit, to change.

I would say, alongside most orthodox Protestants, that we’re not at all able—apart from God’s grace.

Anyway, it was a thoughtful discussion. Thanks to my brothers in Christ, Tom and Grant.

1. R.C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 46.