Archive for October, 2017

Why can’t God forgive sin without the cross?

October 28, 2017

As I’ve argued on this blog many times before, I’m a proponent of the doctrine of penal substitution, or penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I believe that it isn’t merely one way of understanding what God accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ on the cross—as if we can choose among several equally compelling alternatives: it’s the main way of understanding the Atonement.

In advocating for PSA, I’m standing on the shoulders not only of the Protestant Reformers but also Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and most of the classic Methodist theologians who followed in their wake.

But these are only men, of course. More than anything, I believe PSA is most faithful to the Bible, and its depiction of the way in which God reconciles us to himself.

PSA means that, ultimately, we sinners need to be saved from God’s wrath, which is God’s perfectly justifiable anger toward sin. (I preached on that topic last week.) Notice I say “perfectly justifiable.” I like the way N.T. Wright puts it in this essay:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

But how can we be saved from this wrath?

We need a human representative to endure it for us—one who is himself without sin. Who would be qualified to do that? Only a human being who is also (somehow) God. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it in the eleventh century, “If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”[1]

This is, of course, precisely what the God-man, Jesus Christ, has done for us. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” the “cup” is a reference, as in Isaiah 51:17 and 22, and Jeremiah 25:15, to God’s wrath being poured out. PSA means, in a way, that God saves us from God. Because of God’s perfect justice, God requires a payment. Because of God’s perfect love, God makes the payment. This payment, by the way, is what the Bible means, even in last Sunday’s scripture, when it speaks of “propitiation.” PSA does not pit God’s justice against God’s love: on the cross, they are in perfect harmony.

I like the way one commentator, quoted by N.T. Wright in his defense of PSA, puts it in a nineteenth-century commentary:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Notice the last sentence: PSA is “consistent with God’s character.”

The appeal to God’s character answers an objection we may have: If God’s justice demands propitiation (because of our sin) and God’s love offers it (through the death of God’s Son Jesus—who is also God, remember), isn’t this—to put it in human terms—like withdrawing money from one account, which belongs to you, and depositing it another account, which also belongs to you? After this transaction, you’re neither richer nor poorer. So why bother? Why can’t God merely forgive us without the cross?

Because we remember God’s character. God’s law emerges from his very nature. In a sense, then, as Stephen Wellum puts it, God is the law. Therefore all sin—which kindles God’s wrath—is against God.

Since God is the law, he cannot forgive our sin without satisfying his own holy and righteous demand. For God to forgive sin apart from the punishment of our sin or its full satisfaction is impossible. God cannot overlook our sin nor can he relax the retributive demands of his justice because he cannot deny himself. The God of the Bible is a se: self-existent, self-attesting, and self-justifying, which entails that he must punish sin because our sin is against him. Sin is not foremost against an external, impersonal order outside of God; it is against him, the triune-personal God of holy love, righteousness, and justice.[2]

This helps me.

If we would never expect or want God to do anything to compromise or contradict his love and mercy—which spring from his nature—why should we expect God to do something (or avoid doing something) that compromises or contradicts his justice? His love and justice are both part of who God is.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 157-8.

2. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 178.

We say we believe in evangelism, until someone has the courage to do it

October 24, 2017

The above quote was purportedly the Rev. Moody’s response to a woman who criticized his methods of evangelism. He said, “I agree. I don’t like my methods, either. How do you do it?” She said, “I don’t.” “Well, in that case, I like my way of doing things better than your way of not doing them.”

I hope he said it—it’s funny, plus it encourages all of us Christians to try to do something rather than nothing when it comes to witnessing.

Just today, I read on Facebook about an 87-year-old retired Methodist minister in North Carolina who handed out gospel tracts that looked like auto insurance cards—except in this case the insurance was related to the eternal life made available through Christ. Yes, it was a little corny, as these things tend to be, but the information was true. And to the man’s credit, he put his name and number on the card for people to follow up with him.

My clergy colleague posted a picture of this card approvingly, and he was criticized (naturally). We contemporary Methodists say we believe in evangelism, until someone actually has the courage to do it. One of my friend’s critics, whom I gather is also a Methodist minister, said that he believes in hell as a reality that people experience in the here and now. He neither confirmed nor denied that hell was an eternal reality. Regardless, our evangelistic efforts, he said, should be first aimed at saving people from this kind of hell. (If you didn’t go to mainline Protestant seminary, you won’t know how common this view of hell is, unfortunately.) Finally, he said that attempting to “scare people” into God’s kingdom is ineffective.

In response, I wrote the following:

Props to this retired minister for living as if he really believes that heaven and hell hang in the balance—and not (mainly) in the here and now but for eternity. If we don’t believe that, as Jerry Walls has said, then it’s no wonder our enthusiasm for evangelism has waned. To whatever extent we experience heaven or hell in the here and now, it pales in comparison to the heaven or hell that we will experience in eternity. And all we know for sure is that we have this life to repent and believe in Christ. Time is running out. Our mission is urgent.

In Acts 20, Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all.” Who among us UMC ministers can say that? I am not innocent. I have hardly done all I can to share the gospel with people in my corner of the world. And whatever his shortcomings, this elderly minister’s method of evangelism certainly beats my (usual) method of non-evangelism.

Theologically speaking, I find the fear of “turning people off” to border on Pelagianism. We’re not in charge, ultimately, of whether or not people believe the gospel, or even how they react to it. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that grabbing a bullhorn and a stack of Jack Chick tracts is as good as other methods. But I am saying that It’s clear from scripture that many people will be turned off—no matter how sensitively and lovingly we offer the gospel to them.

Finally, as far as “scaring” people, nothing we say is scarier than Jesus’ own words about Final Judgment and hell. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Thoughts?

Are people in hell repentant?

October 19, 2017

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on the parables of Jesus in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago, we looked at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

Recently some Bible scholars and theologians have rejected the depiction of hell in this parable. The parable isn’t about hell, they say. Jesus was merely adapting a well-known (at the time) Jewish folk tale to make a theological point about something other than perdition.

That may be true for all I know, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words about hell aren’t truthful.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to describe the highway connecting Jerusalem with Jericho, but the road that he describes certainly existed! With its twists and turns, it afforded many hiding places for brigands to rob passersby, as they do in the parable. Even though the highway isn’t the point of the parable, the setting is a real place, and Jesus describes it accurately.

My point is, I believe we can learn a lot about hell from this parable.

In my Bible study, we discussed whether the rich man was truly repentant. After all, instead of begging forgiveness of the poor beggar, Lazarus, whom the rich man mistreated throughout his life, he instead wanted him to leave his place of comfort to fetch him water—even through the flames—and warn his brothers of their fate.

Even in hell, it seems, the rich man still wanted to treat Lazarus with condescension or contempt, just as he did in the world.

But there’s another clue that the rich man remained unrepentant, as Clay Jones points out in a chapter called “How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair” in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?

Further, the rich man’s suggestion that his brothers needed to be warned betrays a lack of repentance because it implies that he ended up in hell because God didn’t provide him with sufficient warning. Finally, the rich man disagreed with Abraham’s assertions hat the Law of Moses was sufficient evidence to lead his brothers into repentance. As R.C. Trench says, the rich man’s “contempt of God’s word,” which he showed on earth, follows him “beyond the grave.” Ironically, Lazarus was the name of a man who did come back from the dead [See John 11], and the chief priests responded to this resurrection by trying to kill both Jesus and the resurrected Lazarus (John 12:9-10)![1]

Why is lack of repentance important? One of the biggest fears that we Christians have about hell is that people who go there will realize immediately that they were wrong, will want to repent, but will be unable to. In at least a couple of his apologetic works, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis argues against this idea, saying that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.” In other words, in some twisted way the people who are in hell will want to be there—at least more than they’ll want the alternative, which would involve their humbling themselves before their Creator and repenting.

I’ve always hoped that Lewis was right about this. Whether he is or not, I have no doubt that God will be perfectly just. But until I read Dr. Jones’s book, I had never considered the biblical evidence for Lewis’s point of view.

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 100.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 6)

October 18, 2017

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd is no fan of John Piper!

(Click the following to see previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5.)

Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.

One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:

Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.

Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]

Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?

Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?

My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.

And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?

One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.

Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:

This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!

But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.

In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.

For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).

Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35W bridge disaster.

Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:

He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35W bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”

Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.

Boyd continues:

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity.

Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.

I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.

Sermon 10-15-17: “Christ Alone, Part 1”

October 17, 2017

This sermon, the first of two on today’s scripture, is about an unpopular subject: the wrath of God. As I explain in this sermon, if God truly loves us, then that means that he will also have wrath toward sin. At the same time, God made a gracious provision to save us from his wrath. Every sin will be punished, scripture tells us, either through Christ on the cross or through us in hell for eternity. The choice is ours.

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is. He’s anonymous. But we know why he’s writing this letter. He tells us at the beginning of chapter 2: He’s concerned that these Christians, who have undergone great persecution and suffering for their faith, are in danger of “drifting away from it.” Later, in chapter 6, verses 4 through 6, he issues the following warning:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

These people don’t sound so different from us: like us, they had “once been enlightened”; like us, they had “tasted the heavenly gift” of salvation; like us, they had “shared in the Holy Spirit.” Like most of us, they were genuine Christian believers. But they drifted away—they fell away—from the faith. And now they’re lost; it sounds like they’ve passed a point of no return and are beyond hope.

Could this happen to us… If we drift away?
Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 5)

October 16, 2017

An earthquake disrupted Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

[To read earlier posts in this series, click here.]

“If you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.”

I told you a couple of years ago how this quote from a medieval theologian named Meister Eckhart, alongside Paul Zahl’s incisive podcast about it, shook me up. Zahl put into words something that I had experienced myself: I lost God! It happened in the late-’80s, some time during my sophomore year of college. I told you a little about my experience in this blog post.

At that point in my life, in 1989, the Baptist church of which I was a member had recently called a new pastor. I’ll call him Steve. He had been a New Testament professor at a Southern Baptist seminary. He was an intellectual, which appealed to me. He was evangelistic, like me. In fact, I took the Baptist equivalent of the Evangelism Explosion course with him.

But Steve was also a self-identified “moderate” in the so-called “holy war” within the Southern Baptist Convention. The “moderates,” like my pastor, lost. Theological conservatives, whom Steve always disparaged as “fundamentalists,” took over the denomination’s institutions and leadership posts. Out of this conflict a relatively small new Baptist denomination, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was born. My church joined it, and until I became United Methodist several years later I was a member of CBF churches.

I loved Steve. He was a good preacher whose preaching style has surely influenced my own to this day. He was kind, funny, and down to earth. He brought a jolt of new energy to the church, and for a while the church was growing under his leadership. On balance, however, his influence in my life, as I see now, was harmful: Most importantly, he sowed seeds of doubt within me about the authority and  trustworthiness of scripture. He helped form within me an “us versus them” mentality toward many of my fellow Christians—”God, I thank you that I am not like other men… even like this theologically conservative evangelical.” (Please note: Now I am a theologically conservative evangelical.)

Not coincidentally, it was around this time that I started becoming the “angry young man” whose anger dominated and defined the next 20 years of my life. I’m not exactly blaming Steve for this—God knows that there were many deep-seated reasons for my anger, which I’ve spent years sorting out (with the help of paid professionals!). But Steve, a Christian leader whom I greatly admired, was angry, too. He had been hurt, professionally and personally, by fellow Christians. And he had a chip on his shoulder about it.

Through his influence, in part, I came to believe that anger is a justifiable emotion—rather than a deeply destructive one.

Also around this time, I fell in love with the music of The Clash. In one of their songs, they sang the following: “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power/ You know that we can use it.” Maybe they can use that anger; I can’t, as I now realize. It overpowers me. I end up hurting myself and others.

I recount my experience, I hope, without anger. Along with the apostle Paul, I say, “By his grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)—itself a statement of God’s sovereignty and providence the 19-year-old version of myself would have denied.

My point is, it was within this context that I heard a news report on a Christian radio station about Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. This was the “World Series earthquake,” which interrupted Game 3 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. During this news report, the drive-time morning host said, “I have friends in the Bay Area. I just got in touch with them, and I thank God that they’re safe!”

I thought, “Hold on a minute! You don’t get to thank God for sparing the lives of your friends if you don’t, at the same time, blame God for failing to keep hundreds of others safe.”

This seemed to me like the most obvious fact imaginable. Why didn’t anyone else point this out to him?

Those dumb evangelical Christians, I thought. Thank God I’m not like them!

It was around this time—if not this very moment—that I lost God.

When I say I “lost” him, I only mean it figuratively. God never lost me. I don’t believe that I lost my salvation during this time. And it’s not like I completely abandoned God. I remained a faithful churchgoer, if not a faithful Bible reader, pray-er, or Christian witness for many years to come.

But something changed within me. I fell out of love with God. I stopped trusting him. I couldn’t see how God was in control of the world, and our lives within it. I stopped believing God had a “plan” for my life. I was angry at God.

How desperately I needed a hard-nosed, credible, intellectual Christian pastor to knock some sense into me!

In fact, I would have benefited from a pastor like John Piper, who described putting his daughter to bed on the same evening that the 35W Bridge collapsed near his church in Minneapolis:

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Piper’s words are true! We don’t “blame” God for earthquakes and other natural disasters because blame implies that God has done something wrong. God would only have done something wrong if the people who died in the 35W Bridge disaster or the Loma Prieta earthquake were entitled to more life in this world. They are not. None of us is. Every moment of time we have is a gift from God. Every heartbeat is a gift. Every breath is a gift. Each one of us will die some day—assuming the Lord doesn’t return first. And this will happen not merely through illness, or accident, or an act of violence—but through God’s will: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

All death is ultimately God’s judgment against sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). When God decides to bring our life to its appointed end, we sinners will have no right to complain. Yet because God loves us, and he is perfectly good, we can trust that he will have done so according to his good purposes.

Until then, we can praise him that he graciously lets us continue to live—for however long he does so.

I made a similar point in my sermon on October 8, preached in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre:

Honestly, every time there’s a national tragedy like Las Vegas, some people will use that as an excuse to shake their fist at God and say, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these people die like this?” But this question gets it exactly backwards: The question is not “How could a loving God let these people die,” the question is “How could a just God let the rest of us sinners continue to live? How could a just God allow us sinners to live day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, in open rebellion against him and his loving rule?” When we hear about someone committing treason against the United States, many of us say, “They ought to still be brought before a firing squad and shot!” We heard that kind of thing about Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was suspected of being a traitor. “He should be shot!” some say. But what about us? Who do we think we are? When we hear about a tragedy like Las Vegas, why not fall on our knees and thank God that he has let us live for another day—because none of us deserves this life! How merciful God must be—that he keeps on giving us one opportunity after another to repent. Yet most of the time, most people, in most parts of the world, say no.

Why then does God let us continue to live? So that we will be saved. We are living in a season of mercy. But it won’t last forever.

The words of Piper’s daughter point to this truth: “Maybe he let [the bridge] fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

God wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.

Undoubtedly true. This is one reason—one of a hundred, one of a thousand, one of a million reasons—that God let this bridge collapse. Does that seem harsh?

It’s not nearly as harsh as an eternity in hell! And if God used this bridge’s collapse to wake people up to the reality of heaven and hell, and the opportunity that they have right now to repent of their sins and receive God’s gift of saving grace, then God was only merciful to do so.

If you think I’m wrong, or that I’ve misrepresented God’s Word, please tell me how in the comments section. Thanks!

Sermon 10-08-17: “God and Tragedies”

October 12, 2017

I preached the following sermon one week after the tragic events in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed at least 58 people. How do we make sense of this kind of evil and suffering light of our Christian faith? Jesus shows us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

A couple of days ago, Gary Chitwood nearly electrocuted himself—through no fault of his own—so what I’m about to say may hit too close to home for him. I don’t mean to be insensitive.

But back in the early-’60s, a psychologist from Yale named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments involving shock treatment—or at least that’s what his test subjects thought. Back then, the world was still recovering from the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and the purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to see just what kind of person would commit the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany—what kind of person would participate in genocide—and under what circumstances.

So, in this experiment, Milgram told his test subjects that he was conducting an experiment related to learning. A “student” was in the other room, strapped to a chair, with electrodes attached to him. The test subjects, meanwhile, were told that they were to be the “teacher.” The person in the other room was asked specific questions, and every time he got an answer wrong, the so-called “teacher,” the test subject, was supposed to administer a shock to the person. The test subject had in front of him a shock generator with thirty switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts—with words ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger—Severe Shock.” The 450V switch was simply labeled “XXX.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 10-01-17: “Grace Alone”

October 12, 2017

Today’s sermon examines the Protestant (and biblical) doctrine of Sola Gratia—that we are saved by God’s grace alone. I begin the sermon looking at two Old Testament portrayals of grace and how they relate to the cross of God’s Son Jesus. These will give us a sense of how costly grace is. Understanding the costliness of grace will help us fall in love with Jesus Christ more and more.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

I want to begin with two pictures of grace from holy scripture. I could find dozens of more that would illustrate my point, but I only have time for two. The first comes from Genesis 15: God has just promised Abraham that he will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. That will take a miracle, but God will do it. These descendants will be God’s chosen people Israel, and through Israel God would save the world by sending his Son Jesus. So Abraham will enter the convent with God on Israel’s behalf.

How he enters this covenant will sound strange to our ears, but this is what ancient people did: At the Lord’s command, Abraham cut in half a heifer, a female goat, and a ram. When night fell, God appeared to Abraham in the form of a fire pot and a flaming torch. And this fiery vision—representing God—passed in between the two halves of each animal carcass. What does that symbolize? It’s as if God were saying, “May I become just like these animals—may I die like these animals—may my blood be shed like these animals—if I fail to live up to this covenant and keep my promises.” And next, we would expect the other party to the covenant to walk between the animal carcasses. But guess what? Abraham doesn’t do that. Only God does. God, in other words, was assuming responsibility for both sides of the covenant: If Israel breaks the covenant, God will suffer the penalty. That’s grace.

Here’s my second picture of grace, from Genesis 22: God commands Abraham to sacrifice the most precious thing Abraham had ever known: his beloved son. Or perhaps I should say the second most precious thing Abraham had known, because, as Abraham demonstrates, God is more precious to him than even his beloved son. How do we know? Because he’s willing to obey God, even though God was asking him to do the most difficult thing imaginable: sacrificing his own son! And of course, as Abraham raises the knife to slay his son, God stops him. And what does God provide for Abraham instead: a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. Abraham took the ram and slaughtered it and offered it as a burnt offering instead. God enables Abraham to offer a lamb as a sacrifice in place of his child. That’s grace. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-24-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 2”

October 11, 2017

This sermon is the second of two on Sola Scriptura, the classic Protestant (and ancient church) doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding Christian faith and practice. I contrast this doctrine with ideas put forward by Adam Hamilton in his recent book Making Sense of the Bible. From my perspective, Hamilton is misguided—dangerously so. As with my previous sermon, I hope to inspire confidence that the Bible is, as Wesley said, “infallibly true”—every word of it—and that we can built our lives on it.

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

[Read Psalm 1 as an opening prayer.]

Paul begins today’s scripture with these words: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.” And what Timothy has learned, and what he has firmly believed, Paul says, is found in the “sacred writings,” our holy Bible. Remain there, Paul says. Remain in God’s Word. Don’t stray from its teaching. Don’t stop reading it, studying it, treasuring it. Don’t stop putting it at the center of your life.

Aside from the gift of eternal life in his Son Jesus Christ, God has not given us a greater gift than the holy Bible. And of course, everything we know about Jesus Christ and God’s great love for us, and God’s plan to save us through faith in his Son comes from this book. Don’t leave it! Don’t think that you can progress beyond it. Or find something better. There’s enough in here for you, every day, to last a lifetime.

Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

My second-favorite movie about Christian faith is a movie called The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. It came out about twenty years ago. My first favorite is Chariots of Fire. You should see both of them. But The Apostle is wonderful: It’s about a deeply flawed but sincerely Christian pastor in the deep south. Someone gives him the deed to this tiny church in the middle of nowhere. And he starts preaching there, and slowly but surely more and more people start coming. But the they’re not the “right” kind of people—because most people in his congregation are black or Hispanic, and poor. And at least one person in town—a white supremacist played by Billy Bob Thornton—doesn’t like it at all. One Sunday, while the people at this church are worshiping, he shows up in a bulldozer. And he intends to literally tear the church down.

And Robert Duvall comes outside and places his black leather-bound Bible in front of caterpillar tracks of the bulldozer—daring the man to run over it on his way to destroying this church. And Thornton is like, “Move the Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” “Move that Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” The two men are at an impasse. Is Thornton going to run over the preacher’s Bible? Then, after several tense moments, Thornton gets out of the cab of the vehicle in tears. Duvall embraces him. This sinner repents. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-17-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 1”

October 10, 2017

As we look forward to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, this sermon is about the classic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone”—which means that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding our Christian faith and practice. Of course, in our culture today, the Bible’s authority is under constant attack. It’s even under attack in the church, including the United Methodist Church!

With that mind, I pray that these next two sermons on Sola Scriptura will give you confidence in God’s Word. We can trust it! Every word of it! We can build our lives on it!

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

To make sense of what I’m about to say, let me define a term with which most of us Protestants will be unfamiliar: purgatory. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine that says that when a Christian dies, they will likely have to be cleansed of their sins—or punished for their sins—prior to going to heaven. How long this period of cleansing or punishment lasts, well, depends on how sinful a person was.

And before you ask, no, the doctrine of purgatory is not found in scripture.

To make matters worse, church officials back in the 16th century were going around and telling mostly poor people that if they were willing to pay enough money—money which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the church had the power to take time off their sentence in purgatory. Or even to take time off the sentences of their loved ones who were suffering in purgatory. And who wouldn’t want that for their loved ones?

Many thoughtful Christians believed that this church practice was corrupt, exploitative, greedy, and unbiblical. One of these critics was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther put his objections in writing, by posting his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints Church 500 years ago this October 31st. And this bold action launched the Protestant Reformation. Read the rest of this entry »