Archive for September, 2017

Adam Hamilton’s unorthodox view of the inspiration of scripture

September 27, 2017

The following is Part 2 of my analysis of Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible. Click here to read Part 1.

As troubling as Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to scripture is, it follows logically from his view of the inspiration of scripture.[1] In Making Sense of the Bible, Hamilton asks what he admits are some “uncomfortable” questions in relation to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Those verses include a word that Paul invented in order to describe the uniquely powerful thing that God accomplished through scripture: theopneustos, which means, as the ESV translates it nicely, “breathed out by God.”

Some translations, following the King James Version, use the word “inspiration.” Inasmuch as that English word retains its divine connotation, however, it implies that God “breathed in” to something, whereas the Greek word implies that God breathed something out. As others have suggested, a more literal English word might be “expiration.” Regardless, if Hamilton appreciates the difference between “breathing in” and “breathing out,” he doesn’t let on. It makes a difference, as I’ll describe below.

Hamilton asks:

[D]o you think the scripture writers Moses, David, Matthew, and Paul were inspired to a greater degree or in a different way than we experience the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit as Christians today? When a pastor prays while preparing his or her messages each week, ‘Holy Spirit, guide me that I might speak the words you would have me share with the congregation,’ will the guidance he or she receives from the Spirit be less than or different from that received by scripture writers?[2]

What do you want the answer to these questions to be? I know what I want the answer to be: “Dear God, I hope so!” God forbid the words of one of my sermons, no matter how “inspiring,” be perceived as no less inspired than the words of holy scripture. Yet Hamilton asks these questions as if we’ll feel relieved to know that (according to him) inspiration is nothing more than what we Christians experience today.

Why does he feel this way? As a former “progressive” Christian myself, I have my suspicions: If we no longer have to believe that God miraculously inspired the writers of scripture and the words they wrote, then—insert a sigh of relief here—that’s one less hard-to-believe thing that we Christians have to believe.

I’ve seen this mentality at work when it comes to other doctrines that progressive Christians often reject—like the bodily resurrection of Christ, his virginal conception, the existence of angels and demons. Not that Hamilton is a progressive Christian, but he has taken steps in that direction; he’s at least a “progressive evangelical.” But give him time (cf. Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren).

Am I overreacting?

Can you imagine a traditional evangelical writing the following: “The Spirit’s inspiration of the biblical authors was consistent with the way the Spirit inspires human beings today”?[3] He goes on to say that the writings of C.S. Lewis, for example, are no less inspired than the Bible.[4]

Speaking of Lewis, I had a parishioner tell me one time that she was leaving the church. Among other things, she didn’t like my sermons. She said, “How can I put this tactfully? I don’t give a flip what C.S. Lewis says!” She apparently thought I was quoting Lewis too much in my sermons. Needless to say for those who read this blog regularly, I do give a flip what C.S. Lewis says. I love him and his books dearly. No modern writer has had a bigger impact on my life. But I wouldn’t dare suggest that his works were as inspired as the Bible! If Lewis could come back from the dead, can you imagine what he would say to Adam Hamilton?

But even Hamilton agrees that the Bible has more authority than Lewis’s writings—or any other Christian writing outside of the New Testament canon. Its authority, however, is based solely on its proximity in time to the life of Jesus. He makes the analogy to our country’s Founding Fathers: Their writings about our nation—our government, our political and legal systems—are more authoritative than anyone writing on these topics today because they were there when the nation was founded.[5]

Regardless of the Bible’s authority, Hamilton would say that God did nothing extraordinary or unique to inspire the Bible’s writers. Therefore nothing prevents the Bible from being wrong.

It’s hard to see how my argument from scripture can be anything but question-begging from his point of view. Still, let’s assume for now that Hamilton believes—however inconsistently—that Jesus’ red-letter words in the gospels are true.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

Iotas and dots were very small marks within the Hebrew text of the Old Testament: every one of them is important, Jesus says, and every one of them will be fulfilled. Needless to say, if you’re assigning some of the “least of these commandments” to Bucket #3—arguing that God never commanded them—it’s hard to see how that doesn’t count as “relaxing” them!

(Or maybe Matthew 5:18-19 also belongs in Bucket #3? Adam, you have to admit this is confusing.)

Or consider John 10:35, where Jesus is making an argument from scripture, and he says it must be true because “Scripture cannot be broken”—it can’t be shown to be false. Or consider Mark 12:36. Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, and he says that David was writing his words “in the Holy Spirit.”

Or consider Jesus’ astonishing words in Matthew 19: He’s talking about the meaning of marriage: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 1:27—God made them male and female—and Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man will leave his father and mother… and they shall become one flesh.”

But notice this: He says that the One who created them male and female—God—is the same One who said the words written in Genesis 2:24. Except when you go back and look at that verse, you see that God himself is not the one speaking in it: Literally, the narrator of Genesis says that the “two shall become one flesh.” Yet Jesus attributes these words not to the human author, who is technically doing the speaking, but to God himself.

What does this mean? It means that Jesus viewed these human words in the Bible as the very words of God.

Isn’t it likely, therefore, that Jesus viewed all of scripture the same way? If not—if he knew, preternaturally, that Genesis 2:24 was spoken by God while other scriptures weren’t—wouldn’t it have been helpful, to say the least, if he told us which was which?

Hamilton, by way of Karl Barth and others, believes that the Bible is the “Word of God” only inasmuch as it bears witness to the Word of God who is Jesus[6]. That sounds nice, but it begs the question. Can Hamilton name one thing that we know for sure about Jesus Christ that isn’t also revealed in scripture?

We’re not mystics. The answer is no. My point is, Hamilton isn’t solving any problems by saying that Christ alone is the Word of God when our only access to Christ is mediated through the Word of God that is scripture.

But let’s get back to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Hamilton describes “inspiration” in terms of what God did or didn’t do inside the biblical authors themselves when they wrote scripture. But 2 Timothy says nothing about the authors. Paul makes a much stronger claim: the words themselves are “breathed out by God.”

This doesn’t mean that God dictated the words of scripture to its authors: he let them write in their own individual style, from their own point of view, from their own unique set of life circumstances. God was working through their words to communicate his Word.

Isn’t this similar to the way God usually works through us human beings? Most of the time, we’re not even aware of how God works through us—often, we can only see God’s handiwork in retrospect.

In his book, one argument of Hamilton’s is that the Bible couldn’t be uniquely inspired because, after all, most of its writers were unaware that they were writing scripture. Paul, for example, was writing letters to different churches and individuals to address specific concerns that they were facing. Whether that’s true or not—I think Paul knew that he was writing what the Lord wanted him to write, regardless whether he imagined that his letters would later become part of an anthology we now call the New Testament—it’s beside the point.

God works providentially through people, whether they are aware of it or not.

Paul communicates this truth in 1 Corinthians 15:10: In comparing his work as an apostle to the other apostles he writes, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So Paul was doing the work, but not so fast: It wasn’t really him; it was the Holy Spirit doing it.

How can both those things be true? Because it’s not either the Holy Spirit doing the work or Paul doing the work. It’s both the Holy Spirit and Paul. And the same is true when God “breathed out” the words of scripture: the Holy Spirit was doing the work and the authors of scripture were doing the work.

In this way, the Holy Spirit ensured that the words of merely human authors could also be the very words of God.

Why is this hard to believe? The miracle of inspiration was not difficult for God.

I still have more to say. Stay tuned for Part 3.

1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 273-4.

2. Ibid., 137

3. Ibid., 173

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 138

6. Ibid., 146

Sermon 08-27-17: “Faith Alone, Part 1”

September 21, 2017

Five hundred years ago this October 31, Martin Luther inadvertently launched the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. One of his core convictions, derived from scripture, is that we are justified by faith alone. We Methodists share his conviction that we can do nothing to earn or merit God’s saving grace. It is only on the basis of what Christ has done through his life, death, and resurrection that we’re saved. Why does this doctrine remain relevant today? Why do we still need to hear this message? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Galatians 2:11-14; 3:1-6

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Nearly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed a document, now known as the Ninety-five Theses, to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t unusual to nail things to that door; it was the equivalent of a community bulletin board—a way of making announcements, or in this case inviting church officials to debate him. In this document, he took issue with a particular practice in his church—the Roman Catholic church—that he believed was unbiblical, un-Christian, and needed to be reformed. Little did he know that this action would launch what would become the Protestant Reformation.

A couple of centuries later, in England, it would even enable the establishment of our own Methodist church.

As Methodists, we are Protestants. And I know that’s just a label, and we probably haven’t thought much about what it means aside from knowing that it means, “Not Catholic.” But in this new sermon series, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Protestantism, I want to talk about the five core convictions that nearly all of us Protestants have in common. Because I believe they’re still relevant today. And I believe if we take each of them to heart they will help us fall in love with and glorify our Lord Jesus more and become more faithful followers of him.

So let’s begin today with the Protestant conviction that in Latin is known as Sola Fide: that we are justified by faith alone. Read the rest of this entry »

God is not “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit”

September 20, 2017

In Monday’s blog post, I complained about this effort by a United Methodist writer to say something meaningful about hurricanes—and disasters in general. I wrote,

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

I now see that Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde beat me to the punch years ago, when he wrote the following (h/t David Zahl and Mockingbird Ministries):

Contemporary theologians talk much about the problem of evil. Some think it is the most difficult problem for theology today and one of the most persistent causes of unbelief. … Since suffering is itself classified as evil, it is of course simply lumped together with disaster, crime, misfortune of every sort, abuse, holocaust, and all manner of notorious wrong as one and the same problem. So it is almost universally the case that theologians and philosophers include suffering without further qualification among those things they call evil. … Evil does cause suffering — but not always. Indeed, the usual complaint is that the evil don’t seem to suffer. However, the causes of suffering may not always be evil — perhaps not even most of the time. Love can cause suffering. Beauty can be the occasion for suffering. Children with their demands and impetuous cries can cause suffering. Just the toil and trouble of daily life can cause suffering, and so on. Yet these are surely not to be termed evil. The problem of suffering should not just be rolled up with the problem of evil…

Identification of suffering with evil has the further result that God must be absolved from all blame. Thus, the theologian of glory adds to the perfidy of false speech by trying to assure us that God, of course, has nothing to do with suffering and evil. God is “good,” the rewarder of all our “good” works, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit. …Meanwhile, suffering goes on unabated. If God has nothing to do with suffering, what is he involved with? Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering, Luther asserts in his proof, does not know God at all.

I made the following comment on the Mockingbird site:

Most of life is suffering to some extent—or at least my life is. (What am I doing wrong?) To conflate suffering with evil, and say that God has nothing to do with either of them, is to assume that suffering represents an interruption to the life that God wants for us. Therefore, as Forde implies, God must be displeased with me because I’m not living “according to his plan”!

Wait… Do I live most of my life feeling as if God is disappointed with me?

I’m serious! That last question is not rhetorical! If God has nothing to do with suffering and evil, what does he have to do with me?

Despite what you’ve heard, faithful Methodists believe in “sola scriptura”

September 19, 2017

I’ve been preaching a series on the five core convictions of the Protestant Reformation (often called the “Five Solas”), and describing why they remain relevant for us today. Last Sunday I preached the first of two sermons on 2 Timothy 3:14-17, and the doctrine of sola scriptura (“scripture alone”). In a nutshell, this means that the Bible is our ultimate authority guiding Christian belief and practice.

Notice I said “ultimate.” Many United Methodist thinkers want to distinguish sola scriptura from something called prima scriptura (“scripture first”). We Methodists, they say, affirm prima, not sola, scriptura. Frankly, when I hear this, I wonder if they don’t understand the doctrine of sola scriptura. Do they imagine that Martin Luther himself denied that there are other recognized authorities to guide faith and practice besides scripture? Compare a typical Lutheran worship service with a typical Methodist one: Lutherans are far more tradition bound! Most Lutherans invest traditions associated with Holy Communion, baptism, liturgy, creeds, and catechisms with far greater authority than Methodists. Yet orthodox Lutherans would be the last Christians to deny sola scriptura.

My point is, sola scriptura, properly understood, does not mean nuda scriptura—that scripture by itself is the only authority: that any Christian tradition or practice not derived from scripture alone must be rejected. For example, the so-called Restoration (or Stone-Campbell) Movement of the 19th-century is nuda scriptura. Today, this tradition is represented by the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and their various offshoots.

While I wouldn’t deny for a moment that many of these churches are within the realm of Christian orthodoxy, some of them don’t allow musical instruments in worship. All singing (which is usually quite good in comparison to typical Protestant church singing) is a cappella. Why? Because in the New Testament (not even in the Old), there’s no mention of instruments in worship. Therefore, since the Bible doesn’t mention it in relation to Christian churches, these churches are prohibited from using them.

Also, many of these churches don’t use the word “Trinity” to describe the doctrine of God’s being three-in-one. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t use the term. Their theologians use the word “Godhead” instead—because that word is found in the Bible.

For most us Protestants, these are deeply eccentric practices, however much we agree on essentials of the faith. But for many Methodists, these eccentricities emerge from the doctrine of sola scriptura. They don’t.

Sola scriptura allows for traditions and practices so long as they are consistent with and not contradicted by scripture: For this reason, the vast majority of Protestants reject the worship of icons, statues, and the consecrated “host” of Communion as idolatry, while we accept iconography present within stained-glass windows and church architecture. Symbolism, we believe, can aid worship—even when scripture doesn’t specify it.

From my perspective, then—and I’m happy to be corrected—sola scriptura and prima scriptura, properly understood, mean the same thing. When most people refer to “scripture first,” they still mean that scripture gets the last word on any element of faith or practice. It has veto power.

But please note: I will never use the term prima scriptura if doing so might imply that I view scripture as less than the final authority in my Christian faith and practice. And since most Methodists I know who insist on prima scriptura will also speak of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral like a wobbly four-legged stool—with tradition, reason, and experience nearly equal in authority (or worse) to the Bible—maybe it’s best not to use the term at all. This is just my opinion; we can agree to disagree.

Soon, I’ll tackle a concept that’s even more fraught (in Methodist circles), although I affirm it wholeheartedly: the infallibility of scripture.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 4)

September 18, 2017

This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.

I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.

Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)

Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.

The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:

[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.

Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.

While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.

Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.

Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.

I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”

God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.

By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.

In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.

If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.

Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”

Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.

Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.

But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.

Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.

The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!

If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?

When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.

Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!

Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:

He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):

Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:

Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

What can I say to this but Amen?

Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary”

September 15, 2017

The following sermon is the last in my sermon series on 1 Peter. It’s mostly about our adversary, the devil, who, Peter tells us, “prowls around (J)like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I begin my making the case for the reality of Satan and demons before talking about a couple of ways—through seemingly “small” sins (!) of pride and anxiety—that he gets a foothold in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 5:5-11

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I have a friend from college. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a committed Christian and a Methodist. Many years ago, one of Steve’s good friends encouraged him to join a very secretive fraternal organization. Please note: I’m not talking about the Masons. My own father was a Shriner and a Mason. In fact, Dad was the Grand Poo-Bah, if you remember Happy Days—he was the “Potentate” of Shrine organization in North Georgia. So nothing I say should be interpreted as my being opposed to Masons or other fraternal organizations. But as Steve soon learned, the one that he joined was not benign.

So he joined this secret organization; he learned their rituals; and one day, he was “practicing” them, as he was taught to do, shortly before going on a hike in the woods. Now, Steve is a smart guy. Scientifically minded. An engineer. And he told me that shortly after performing these rituals, while he was on his hike, he saw an apparition of a demon, which chased him through the woods. He knew it was a demon. He was terrified. And get this: when he told his friend about what happened—the friend who persuaded him to join this organization in the first place—his friend said, “Oh, yeah. That’s happened to me, too. But that’s just some psychological phenomenon. There’s nothing to it. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? Well, Steve immediately quit this organization and these obviously occult rituals. All I can say is my friend is not a crackpot. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Hamilton’s self-refuting “Jesus colander”

September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached my home south of Atlanta on Monday, but it was powerful enough to knock out our power. So, in preparation for my upcoming sermon on Sunday on sola scriptura, I spent the day reading a book by an author whose viewpoint I knew I wouldn’t share, United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.

It was from this book that he articulated his “three buckets” approach to scripture, which caused great controversy a few years ago. Most of scripture, he says, belongs in Bucket #1: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket #2: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, and purity laws—would fit within this bucket.

I would only qualify this by saying that there’s a sense in which none of us Christians is bound by any part of God’s law: Christ has fulfilled it all on our behalf. We are free from the law, although, as the Spirit writes the law on our hearts through sanctification (Heb. 10:16), we will naturally do works of the law out of love for God and neighbor. We are not antinomians.

Still, so far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket #3: There is scripture, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

He offers a few predictable examples of Bucket #3 scriptures, including the conquest of Canaan in Joshua.

In the last chapter [in which he discussed Noah’s Ark], we learned that God was “grieved to his heart” by the violence human beings were committing against one another, and for this reason he decides to bring an end to the human race. Now God is commanding the Israelites to slaughter entire towns, tribes, and nations, showing them no mercy and providing them with no escape. How can this be?[1]

When he was young, Hamilton was untroubled by these passages of scripture, but when he got older, he

began to think about the humanity of the Canaanites. These were human beings who lived, loved, and had families. Among them were babies and toddlers, mothers and fathers. Yet they were all put to the sword by “the Lord’s army.” Thirty-one cities slaughtered with not terms of surrender offered and no chance to relocate to another land. I came to see the moral and theological dilemmas posed by these stories.[2]

His solution to these dilemmas? The Israelites, he says, were mistaken about what they believed God told them. While there’s still value in reading the Book of Joshua (he especially likes the last chapter), here’s “the most important reason” (emphasis his): “to remind us of how easy it is for people of faith to invoke God’s name in pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war.[3]

Hamilton says that we should filter everything in the Bible through the “words and great commandments” of Jesus Christ, who alone is the true Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus is not merely a “lens” by which we read the Bible; he is a “colander,”[4] through which we can filter the rest of scripture to determine what scriptures belong in Bucket #3.

I’m reminded of Andrew Wilson’s blog post on what he calls the “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” As Wilson argues, this colander or tea-strainer approach is self-refuting:

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. Here’s a few examples of things Jesus said that wouldn’t fit through the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)

“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)

“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)

He offers six more examples in his blog post, but you get the idea: to say the least, hell, about which we learn more from the red-letter words of Jesus than any apostle or Old Testament writer, is infinitely more violent than violence perpetrated by human beings. How would Christ’s own words pass through Hamilton’s colander? In which case, Hamilton’s “canon within the canon” wouldn’t even include all the red-letter words of Jesus himself!

Throughout the book, Hamilton argues that we can’t reconcile scripture’s depiction of God’s violence with the “forgiveness and mercy” demonstrated by Christ. In doing so, however, he underestimates the problem of sin—the way it makes us “enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10) who deserve God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18)—and the effects of Christ’s atoning death, through which forgiveness and mercy are made possible. By all means, throughout the gospels, Jesus tells people, “Your sins are forgiven,” the only condition of which is faith and repentance. But theologians would say (as the rest of the New Testament makes clear) that Christ’s forgiveness isn’t free: even before Good Friday, it looks forward to and is made possible by his substitutionary death on the cross, on which he suffered the penalty of our sins for us. The effects of the cross are applied retroactively to the people Jesus forgave in the gospels.

By the way, this is also the basis of forgiveness for Old Testament saints. Abraham, for example, was justified by faith alone, as Paul says in Romans and Galatians, but it was a faith that looked forward to the cross, however incomplete Abraham’s understanding was.

Hamilton fails to wrestle with the debt that we human beings owe God. The Bible’s clear teaching is that we all deserve God’s judgment, death, and hell because of our sins. And forgiveness is infinitely costly, because it requires the death of God’s Son Jesus.

I feel like these are the A-B-C’s of the gospel, about which a self-identified evangelical like Hamilton shouldn’t need a refresher. Yet, in his book, he doesn’t deal with the cruciform shape of God’s love—at all! Why? What a glaring omission from someone who is purporting to “make sense” of the Bible!

In a future blog post, I’ll talk about Hamilton’s view of scripture’s “inspiration” and the way in which it’s also self-refuting.

1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 211

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 216

4. Ibid., 213

A prayer in the face of threatening storms

September 11, 2017

I prayed the following prayer in yesterday’s worship service.

Merciful God,

As we sang in the hymn a few moments ago, “All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea.” Indeed, scripture teaches us that at least one reason—one reason—you have given us storms—even the hurricanes that have devastated the east coast of Texas and have now wrought destruction across the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, and, as I speak these words, Tampa—is to remind us of you and your awesome power. In fact, your Son Jesus tells us that when we witness events like this—and are either unaffected by them or escape them without harm—we ought to be reminded of the brevity of our lives and the vulnerability of our lives; we ought to remember our need to repent of our sins and be saved.[†] Because each of us one day could potentially face a disaster eternally, infinitely greater than any storm on this earth: when we face you on Judgment Day. And our only means of rescue is faith in your Son Jesus, who has made us righteous through his righteous life, his substitutionary death, and his resurrection: You promise we will be made ready for that Day because of your Son, for whom we give you thanks and praise this morning.

The weather, like all of your Creation,  glorifies you, and most of the time the same predictable physical forces that create devastating hurricanes are the same physical forces that give us mild, sunny, warm days. You have given us a world that—the vast majority of the time—sustains our lives remarkably well. And often when it fails to do so, it’s because of our human choices and our own human sin.

But we recognize that there’s another way that these storms can glorify you: through your miraculous intervention to save lives of people in harm’s way. We pray for that now: Work a miracle to save people’s lives! And let these storms glorify you as you send compassionate servants—like the good people who work for UMCOR, our United Methodist relief organization—into the lives of the storms’ victims. Enable these servants to show your love, care, and comfort. Keep them safe as they do your kingdom work.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who has rescued us from our sins.

Amen.

Luke 13:1-15

Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

September 7, 2017

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

Sermon 08-13-17: “Living at the End of the Age”

September 7, 2017

This sermon is about Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I chose to preach this doctrine because of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:7a: “The end of all things is at hand.” Does this mean that Peter expected that the Second Coming would happen at any moment? Probably not. He knew, based on the teaching of Jesus, that there were signs in history that must occur before that happened. I explore these signs and talk about the most important thing we Christians should do while we wait.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11

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Last Christmas, in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviewed one of my favorite contemporary preachers, Tim Keller, who, until his retirement a couple of months ago, pastored a large, multi-campus church in Manhattan. Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on.”

So Kristoff wanted to know if he could still be a Christian if he didn’t believe “the miracles and so on.” And Keller told him, politely, no—it’s not possible. And of course that’s right. In many ways, Kristoff wanted to do what Thomas Jefferson did: remove all the supernatural stuff from the gospels and focus on Jesus’ teaching. His teaching is great, after all. Or as Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message.”

But I wonder if Kristoff really understands what Jesus’ message is. Now, he likely has in mind Jesus’ great moral teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount and in many of his parables. You don’t have to be a Christian, after all, to appreciate that Jesus is the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. But what about the rest of Jesus’ teaching? One scholar I read estimates that fully 20 percent of Jesus’ teaching has to do with events associated with his Second Coming.

If Kristoff and many others think Jesus was onto something when he taught about morality, maybe they should hear what he has to say about this other important doctrine.

So that’s what I want to do in today’s sermon: talk about the Second Coming. The reason it comes up is because of what Peter says in verse 7: “The end of all things is at hand”—and this fact ought to dictate how we live. Read the rest of this entry »