Archive for March, 2018

Devotional Podcast #23: “John 3:16 and the Atonement”

March 30, 2018

In this Good Friday episode, I discuss the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in light of John 3:16. I promise it’s more interesting than it sounds! In fact, this doctrine melts my heart when I think about what it says about God’s love for me!

Devotional Text: Romans 5:8

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 30, and this is devotional podcast number 23. This message is very much related to Good Friday, so I hope you enjoy it.

You’re listening to the song “You Are Loved” by the Christian rock band the Altar Boys from their 1986 debut album, Gut Level Music.

And I need to emphasize love because that’s the main reason for the cross of God’s Son Jesus. I say that because we are still reflecting on Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16, which, from the ESV, reads as follows: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

If you’ll recall, however, in this series so far—this is Part 3—we’ve only looked at the very first word of the verse: the word “for.”

Why? Because that word indicates that everything that Jesus—or John, the narrator, we’re not 100 percent sure who’s speaking here—but everything that is said here in verse 16 is connected back to what Jesus said before—that is, in verse 14 and 15. So we’ve been looking at verses 14 and 15 in the previous two episodes. In those verses, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

I’ve already talked about the context of these verses: they point back to Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year trek through the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land, and the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt are now grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

As I discussed last time, what happens next is a reflection of God’s wrath: he sends poisonous snakes to kill these blasphemous, idolatrous Israelites. Until they repent and go to Moses and ask him to intercede with God on their behalf—and God does. God’s solution is not to merely take away the snakes, or ensure that the snakes don’t bite, or neutralize the snakes’ venom once they do bite. No, God’s solution is for Moses to forge a bronze snake and place it on top of a tall pole. So that when one of God’s people gets bitten by a poisonous snake, he or she can look to the snake on the pole and find healing from the poison.

It may seem like a strange solution, unless we believe that God was giving ancient Israel a sign pointing them to the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, thousands of years before he sent his Son into the world. And God the Holy Spirit ensured that this sign would be written down in God’s Word for us. And, brothers and sisters, once you start searching the Old Testament for gospel signs such as this one, you start seeing them on nearly every page! Please… learn to read the Old Testament and see the many signs pointing to Jesus!

So in John 3:16, Jesus is saying that the lifting up of this bronze snake is like his being lifted up on the cross. We look to Jesus on the cross—and believe in everything that that cross represents—and what happens? We find salvation from the deadly venom of sin.

But how does God effect our salvation from sin through the cross? That’s the question I want to deal with today.

To help us answer it, let’s look again at the analogy that Jesus is making between what happened to him on the cross and what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Follow the analogy through: If Jesus being lifted up on the cross is like the snake being lifted up in the wilderness, who is the snake in this analogy?

That’s right: shocking as it is, Jesus himself is the snake.

What does that mean? Remember: for Israel, the snake was a symbol of the very thing that was killing them—the deadly poisonous venom. So, in the same way, on the cross, Jesus becomes a symbol of the very thing that is killing us—which is our sin.

What does the apostle Paul say in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

What is this “curse of the law” that Paul is talking about? It’s the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:15 and following: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you”—and then what follows is a long and frightening list of curses—which we deserve because of our sin.

But because “God so loved the world,” he has done something about it to rescue us: on the cross, he has transferred our sins—including the punishment, the judgment, the condemnation, the god-forsakenness, the hell that our sins deserve—over to his Son Jesus. In theological words, our sins are imputed to Christ. And he suffers the penalty for them—that we otherwise would have to suffer.

This imputation is also seen famously in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he”—God the Father—“made him”—Jesus, God the Son—“to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So again, think of the snake: On the cross, Paul says, Christ becomes the symbol of the thing that’s killing us.

Christ becomes our substitute, in other words. And of course the Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s substitutionary death in a hundred different ways: But think, for example, of God delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He sent a series of ten plagues—the last and most severe of which is that an angel would go through each household in Egypt and kill the firstborn son. This death angel’s work was God’s judgment for sin. The only means of rescue from this judgment—or “passing over” a household—was what? That the blood of a lamb would be sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of each door. This sacrificial lamb would take the place of, or substitute for, the firstborn.

And it’s not for nothing that John the Baptist, when he sees Jesus for the first time in John’s gospel, says to his own disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” How does Jesus take away our sins? By becoming our perfect substitute.

This is why this view of what happens on the cross is often referred to as “substitutionary atonement” or “penal substitutionary atonement.” Call it whatever you like: the good news is that God has done something—objectively—to deal with the guilt of all of our sins, once and for all. Our debt before God has been paid. Our punishment has been borne by Jesus. The guilt for our sin has been wiped out. God no longer has wrath toward us because of our sin. We are no longer enemies of God because of our sin—but we become God’s children!

There are many motifs that the Bible uses to describe how atonement—that is, reconciliation between God and humanity—takes place on the cross. And there are other motifs besides substitution. But substitutionary atonement is, I would argue, by far the most important way of understanding what happens on the cross.

But over the past hundred years or so, it has become deeply unpopular, even among some Christians. I’ve heard Christians refer to this beautiful doctrine as “cosmic child abuse.” According to this caricature, an angry father has to torture someone, so he uses his son—as a reluctant or unwilling victim.

I can’t see how this is anything other than a willful—and, frankly, offensive—distortion of the doctrine. First, we remember our theme verse: “For God so loved the world…” It’s not “for God so hated the world that he sent his Son”; it’s “for God so loved the world.” Everything he does by sending his Son, he does, first and foremost, out of love for us. His love—and his desire to save us—precedes his wrath, or his justifiable anger toward sin, his resolute opposition to sin and evil.

This is clear from Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us before his Son died on the cross. So God’s disposition toward us human beings didn’t change as a result of Christ’s death—as if God was angry at us and hated us and needed his Son to die in order to love us. No, God didn’t need his Son to die in order to love us; he already loved us, and that’s why he sent his Son.

But not only that… Look again at Romans 5:8: How does Christ’s death on the cross prove God’s love for us, when Jesus was the One who did the dying? I mean, sure, Jesus proves he loves us by dying on the cross, but how does God prove his love?

Easy! Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is God—fully God. God in the flesh. Opponents of penal substitutionary atonement try to split the Trinity and pit an “angry” Father against his “loving” Son. As if the Father and the Son don’t want the same thing: which is, the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord! But the Father and the Son do want the same thing! They have the same will!

If the death of God’s Son Jesus on the cross is what it takes to save these sinful human beings that God loves from their sins, then of course that’s what God the Son will do—willingly, out of love. What does Jesus say in John 10:18? “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Of my own accord. And Jesus’ will accords perfectly with his Father’s will.

One more thing: When “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” this did not represent a change of plans on God’s part. As if God were surprised when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, and surprised again when Noah and his descendants messed up, and surprised again when his people Israel failed to obey his Law. So finally he had to take matter into his own hands and send his Son—to do for the people what they were unable to do for themselves. This is not at all what the Bible teaches.

No, the Bible says that Jesus was the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” In other words, before God even began creating the world, he knew that he would have to redeem it—by coming in the flesh into the world and suffering and dying on the cross through his Son Jesus. But because God foreknew us—and loved us—he decided that was totally worth it. Amen?

I hope that helps. I’ll say more soon! Love you!

Sermon 03-25-18: “Jesus Is the Resurrection and the Life”

March 26, 2018

The “chief end of man”—which is to say the reason we human beings exist—is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and that’s exactly right. It takes a certain kind of God-centeredness, as I say in this sermon on the raising of Lazarus, to appreciate the fact that Jesus was willing to disappoint Martha and Mary in such a profound way. What can we learn about our own “disappointments” with God? That’s what the first part of this sermon is about. But the second part of the sermon is more important: what does the raising of Lazarus have to do with the cross, the Atonement, and God’s love?

Sermon Text: John 11:17-44

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My family and I are big fans of the TV sitcom The Office. We have watched the series many times. If you’re like me, you may remember the episode in which Dwight Schrute’s grandmother died. There was a funeral. And to say the least, Dwight’s very traditional Pennsylvania Dutch family, had some unique funeral customs. Dwight described one of them as follows:

We Schrutes don’t need some Harvard doctor to tell us who’s alive and who’s dead. But there was an unlucky streak of burying some heavy sleepers. And when grave robbers discovered some scratch marks on the inside of some of the coffins, we decided to make sure our dead are completely dead—out of kindness.

And so, after the coffin is lowered into the ground, they fire a shotgun three times into the coffin.

Dwight Schrute on The Office

You may laugh, but before modern funeral practices like embalming were introduced, around the turn of the 20th century, the fear that you might get buried alive was very real. Some people had strings inside coffins attached to bells on the outside. So they could ring the bell if they woke up. Some wealthy people put telephones inside of mausoleums just in case.

I mention this because we’re told in verse 17 that Lazarus had “already been in the tomb four days.” According to a Jewish superstition, which is not found in the Bible, the soul of a person hung around the grave for three days—waiting to see if the body would come back to life. After three days, the soul departed once and for all. The point is that by the fourth day, people believed that there was no hope that anyone could ever come back to life. And this was likely true for Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. By all means, they believed that Jesus could have saved their brother if Jesus had gotten there before Lazarus died; maybe Jesus could have performed a miracle and saved him if he had gotten there within hours of his death. In fact, other accounts of Jesus raising dead people to life in the gospels take place sooner after death. But now that it’s been four days… well, we can hardly blame these sisters for thinking that all hope was lost—no matter how much they believed in Jesus. Read the rest of this entry »

Imputation: God’s Word has the “power to create what it requires”

March 22, 2018

In yesterday’s blog post, I talked about the Protestant doctrine of imputation and the the way in which the idea is found in the Greek word logizomai, translated “reckoned,” “counted,” and “credited,” as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

In her book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge prefers a more literal translation of logizomai: “worded.” (You can see the Greek root logos in the word.) God’s Word alone, she writes, has the power to create what is lacking in us:

The way that “wording” works can easily be illustrated. We tend to become what we are “regarded as.” Here, for example, are two scenes. One is a first-grade schoolroom in East Tennessee in the mid-1960s, recently integrated. Three small black boys, looking miserable, are separated from the others (all white) for special remedial attention from the white teacher. After working with them for a while, she rises from the table and says to an observer, in a  stage whisper that the children surely hear, “How does anyone think they can ever learn anything?” The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” was invented for a situation such as that. The second scene occurs two decades later, in a  supermarket in a suburban New York town. A mother is bending over a stroller containing her child, no more than two years old. With great intensity she is saying, over and over, “You’re bad! You’re bad!” What can the child have done, at that age? What grave sin had he committed? Spilled his drink? Snatched candy off the shelf? Cried from frustration? Who can doubt that the child will grow up with those words ingrained in his psyche? “You’re bad!” Words have great power. Imagine, then, the power of the Word of God saying Shamed! Condemned! Rejected!

But those words are not the Word spoken against us, for indeed the Word is not spoken against us but for us. “He has not reckoned our sins against us” (II Cor. 5:19)… When we understand the words “not reckoned” or “not counted” are from the root logizomai, however, we can fill in the rest of the picture. The “not reckoned” is the other face of “reckoned as righteousness.” Again, God’s Word is performative; it has the power to create what it requires. When God regards one as righteous, a true metamorphosis is occurring.[1]

To illustrate this metamorphosis, she offers the example of Gideon in Judges 6. When the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12), he is threshing wheat in a winepress—for fear of being seen by the Midianites.

This is really quite amusing; Gideon is not even remotely a “mighty man of valor” at this point. Nor does he flex his muscles and step into his role as an “alpha male” would; indeed, his behavior immediately following the appearance of the angel is timid and cautious. The Lord, however, keeps on “wording” him: “The Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?'” (v. 14). Again, this makes us smile; the Lord is even willing to suggest that it actually is Gideon’s own might; but the reminder comes quickly enough: “Do I not send you?” Gideon continues to protest: “Pray, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (v. 15). His protestations are swept aside by the empowering Word: “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as [though they were] one man'” (v. 16). Thus God creates valor where there was no valor.[2]

To say the least, I am no better than Gideon. Because of my own insecurities (which only years of therapy have helped me untangle—thank you, Jesus!), I often wake up feeling like a beaten man—as if a voice in my head were saying words like, “Hypocrite!” “Worthless!” “Sinner!

If I understand the doctrine of imputation, however, I find in it the power to change this script. I am not the man I used to be. The “old man” was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). God is “wording” a new man into existence, and he is doing so with sweet words like, “Beloved child!” “Apple of my eye!” (Psalm 17:8) “Righteous!

Listen to that voice, Brent!

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333-4.

2. Ibid., 334-5.

Imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous—we really are!

March 21, 2018

The doctrine of imputation, a preoccupation of Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, receives little attention among Wesley scholars. My Wesleyan theology prof in seminary never used the word or discussed the concept, if memory serves. As best I can tell, Wesley didn’t like the word, in part because it wasn’t found in the Bible. (Of course, this objection reminds me of a Jehovah’s Witness I met last week who, with rhetorical flourish, asked me to find the word Trinity in “my” Bible.)

The question is not whether the word is in scripture: Is the concept there?

Indeed, it is—in Romans 4:3-8, perhaps most prominently. The Greek word logizomai, rendered “reckoned,” “counted as,” or “credited” in English (as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”) may as easily be rendered “imputed.” Just as our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross—such that he really did pay the penalty for our sins even though he, in himself, was without sin—so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us when we believe in Christ, even though we, in ourselves, are not righteous.

From the book’s inside dust jacket

In her magisterial recent book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal minister, agrees. In a footnote, she writes the following:

For Protestants of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the translation “it was imputed to him” has tremendous resonance, with its implication that the righteousness “worded” [the literal translation of logizomai] to us is always an “alien righteousness” (Martin Luther’s term) that never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift. “Imputed righteousness” and “alien righteousness” are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou (“all things [are] from God” – II Cor. 5:18), and they guard against works-righteousness—provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically “counted as.” The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ.[1]

Imputation is not, therefore, as some detractors say, a “legal fiction”—something only technically true because God has erased a few marks in his heavenly ledger. No: this righteousness is really ours through faith.

In other words, imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous: through our faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we really are righteous. Do you see the difference? If anything, when we Christians sin, we do so as if we are still sinners.

Years ago I had a parishioner whose knowledge of the Bible—chapter and verse—put mine to shame. Once, in conversation, I referred to myself in passing as “a sinner.” She corrected me: “You sin, but you’re not a sinner. The old man was crucified with Christ,” she said, referring to Romans 6:6. And I remember thinking, “She’s nuts!”

But not so fast!

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:11

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14

[P]ut off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires… – Ephesians 4:22

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices… – Colossians 3:9

(Notice Paul’s insistence that the “crucifixion” of our old self happened in the past.)

But even as I reflect on these verses, the inner legalist is protesting: “But you are a sinner, Brent! Isn’t that the most obvious fact in the world?”

But think of the prodigal son: He could hardly get out the first words of his faltering apology before the father was ordering his servants to bring the “best robe” and put it on him, along with his signet ring and shoes (Luke 15:21-22).

That’s imputation—or call it whatever you want. We have a new identity! “Sinner” is no longer part of it!

“But you sin!”

Yes, I do. But consider the prodigal: he wasn’t an appreciably different person after his father put the best robe on him than he was before. The difference (aside from the son’s gratitude, I imagine) was his father’s gift. To say the least, he is no longer “prodigal,” even though he’s the same person (for now) on the inside.

I say “for now” because of course I’m not denying the power of sanctification: God can and will change us from within. But this change is not the basis on which we’re made acceptable by God. That change has already happened: we are already righteous because of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians sinned in spectacular ways, as Paul points out over the course of the letter. Yet at the beginning of the letter, in verse 2, he writes the following: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” We are being sanctified, yet in a sense we are already sanctified.

I apologize for writing about something that I should have learned years ago. In my small defense, however, we Methodists tend to speak as if the imperative in sanctification is, “Work harder” and “Do better.”

But that’s exactly wrong. The imperative in sanctification, as Rutledge says, is, “Become the person you already are.”

Become the person you already are.

These are words I can live off of—without guilt or shame.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333.

God is no “mere spectator to events”

March 17, 2018

In my never-ending quest to own every study Bible on the market (I’m kidding… maybe), Lisa gave me the Spurgeon Study Bible from Holman last Christmas. I have used it nearly every day since. While the ESV Study Bible remains my work-a-day Bible, I cross-reference what I read there with the Spurgeon Study Bible to see if “the prince of preachers” offers any insights into that day’s scripture. (Or I should say, if the publishers include Spurgeon’s commentary on the text, it will be insightful; but in the interest of space, they can’t include his commentary on every chapter and verse!)

The following commentary is an excerpt from Spurgeon’s words on Daniel 4:34-35, which I read this morning.

The Lord’s place is on the throne, and our place is to obey; it is his to govern, ours to serve; his to do as he will, and ours, without questioning, to make that will our constant delight. Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events. It is not so. The Lord reigns even now. Glory be to the omnipresent and invisible Lord of all!

Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events.

There is, of course, nothing to these words that should be controversial to my regular blog readers—or to any Christian for the first, say, 1,900 years of Christian history. Recently, however, there has been a devilish idea (I use that adjective advisedly—I believe Satan is behind it) among many Christian preachers and teachers that says, in so many words, “God is a mere spectator to events.”

This is in part a well-intentioned effort to “protect” or insulate God from evil, catastrophic events in the world, which skeptics might use to tarnish God’s name. If God has no power (or desire) to intervene in our world, the reasoning goes, then at least we can tell our fellow sufferers, “There, there… God has nothing to do with this. God hates that you’re suffering, but what’s he supposed to do about it? God is suffering alongside you; he is with you.” (This message was communicated in a hundred different ways through my mainline Protestant seminary education.)

Does that make us feel better? How can it? By that same logic, we should also tell them, “Don’t expect God to grant any of your prayer petitions—especially those related to protection and safety.” Because if God has nothing to do with suffering, he has nothing to do with anything in our world. He is a “mere spectator,” as Spurgeon says.

Of course, the Bible contradicts this idea on every page. Try listening to this recent Unbelievable? episode with “open theist” Greg Boyd, for example, and see if the authority of scripture doesn’t die a death by a thousand cuts.

Thank God that the God in whom we entrust our lives isn’t like that! Thank God for the “all” in Romans 8:28:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Devotional Podcast #22: “God’s Wrath and the Gospel”

March 16, 2018

This is Part 2 of my reflection on the Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16. Today I tackle an unpopular subject: God’s wrath. Why does a God of perfect love have wrath? I hope my words help make sense of it. Scripture is Numbers 21:4-9.

Devotional Text: Numbers 21:4-9

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Thursday, March 15, and this is devotional podcast number 22.

And it is a jungle out there—at least if this 1974 hit song, written by Ian Anderson and performed by the band Jethro Tull, is true. I recorded this from their album WarChild. “He who made kittens,” Anderson tells us, referring to God, “put snakes in the grass.” And that’s literally true when it comes to today’s scripture in Numbers 21:4-9.

Remember, this is the second podcast related to John 3:16. To hear the first in the series, go back and listen to devotional podcast number 21.

As I said last time, to understand the Bible’s most famous verse, we have to look at this short passage from Numbers 21—because Jesus refers to it in John 3:14-15 when he says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In Numbers 21, the Israelites are nearing the Promised Land after almost 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And now, a new generation of Israelites is complaining to Moses about his leadership and God’s providential care. Verse 5: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” And what does God do in response to their ingratitude, their blasphemy, and their lack of faith? He sends poisonous snakes in their midst… to kill them.

Why? Because, as uncomfortable as it makes modern people feel, God has wrath toward sin. God is giving us a small picture of his wrath in Numbers 21. Wrath is God’s justifiable anger toward sin and evil. When we think of the word “wrath,” we probably think of losing one’s temper and being out of control with anger—flying off the handle. Needless to say, I hope, God does not lose his temper, nor is he out of control or flying off the handle. In fact, God’s wrath is a consequence of his love: Because God loves this world, and especially his image-bearing creatures within it, he is angry at all the sin and evil that harm it. I hope that makes sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Am I only preaching the “easy half” of the gospel?

March 14, 2018

Like Graham, I only preach the “easy” half of the gospel.

In yesterday’s podcast, I said that we Christians never “outgrow” John 3:16. I gave a personal example: Even though I’ve been a Christian for 34 years, I realized only recently how desperately I need my career to “save” me. Not eternally, of course: I know that I will only ultimately be saved through faith in Christ. My problem is that I live as if I need something right now—other than Christ—to make me feel good about myself. Specifically, I need to know that I’m doing good work. I need to feel as if I’m “getting ahead” and “climbing the ladder of success”—or name your own cliché.

I hear the voice of the Law (if not God’s Law, then my own): “You must prove your worth. You must live up to your standards. You must accomplish something great. You must justify yourself.”

Isn’t it strange that God has called me to a profession where many of the external measures of career success are missing? After all, few people (I hope) go into pastoral ministry for the money! And it’s hardly a “growth industry.”

So here I am—sick with sin and in need of a real Savior. What do I do? I listen to the gospel again. I remind myself that my worth does not come from any thing, any person, or any idea in this world; it comes from God alone. He has demonstrated my worth by sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross—which meant suffering hell itself—all because he wanted me to be his child. As I said in yesterday’s post, I am infinitely valuable to God because he paid an infinite price to buy my pardon. And he did so without caring about what I would accomplish in my career. God’s embrace of me is based on one condition only—faith in Christ.

Yes, this is a “simple gospel” message. I have not outgrown it. I cannot improve upon it.

I don’t listen to old Billy Graham sermons from the 1960s, for example, and think, “How naïve! If only he would have added these additional points to his message!” No… I listen and think, “This is life-saving medicine!”

This is on my mind, in part, because of a blog post I read recently on the “Ministry Matters” website, a United Methodist-affiliated blog. The author, a retired pastor, began by saying that his post “isn’t about Billy Graham,” yet he took a sideswipe at him using the words of a South African Methodist leader, Peter Storey, who helped organize a preaching rally with Graham in South Africa when the country was still under apartheid. Storey said:

[Graham’s] mandate, he claimed, was to preach the ‘plain and simple gospel.’ The problem is there is no such thing. What he really meant was that he would offer only half the gospel, the half that invited people to face their personal sins without confronting the systems that often did their sinning for them.

Is that true? Was Graham offering only half the gospel?

Where in the New Testament does Jesus or the apostles include “confronting sinful systems” as part of their gospel presentation? (It’s one-half of the gospel, after all. Surely there’s one or two references to it!) Did Philip, in Acts 8, preach only half the gospel—a message of “facing personal sins”—to the Ethiopian eunuch without confronting the sinful system that makes, well… men into eunuchs in the first place? Regardless, I’m sure the Ethiopian eunuch, having lived in Paradise for nearly two millennia, isn’t complaining.

But forget about the specifics of Storey’s criticism of Graham. His words (and the effect to which his words are put by the article’s author) demonstrate the tendency within Methodism that I mentioned in yesterday’s post: The gospel—as represented by Graham and the very personal nature of John 3:16 (note: “whosoever” is a singular pronoun meaning “any individual”)—isn’t enough (unless you redefine what the gospel is, as Storey does). Not that the gospel isn’t necessary, but the point of the Christian life is to get on with it—to go about “transforming the world.”

The scare quotes are deliberate: Many years ago the UMC changed its Book of Discipline to say that the mission of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” That was simple and to the point. Several years later, it was changed again: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Why was that added? Jesus says nothing about the “transformation of the world,” for example, in his Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. While I’m sure “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” will play a positive role in the world’s transformation (as history attests), it’s hardly the aim of evangelism, as Billy Graham understood.

Moreover, we can’t change the world. Only God can. And most of that change takes place in the eschaton. But, of course, semi-Pelagianism is also a Methodist tendency (not that proper Wesleyan-Arminian theology leads there).

My point is, this getting on with the alleged “second half” of the gospel feels like Law all over again. (Just what I need! 😑) Even if I were successfully transforming the world (which I’m sure I’m not), my left hand would certainly know what my right hand was doing—at all times! And then, like the Pharisee in the parable, I would be left in the cold while the tax collector—whose very livelihood opposed the world’s transformation—goes home justified.

But that’s Jesus, like Billy Graham, only preaching the “first half” of the gospel!

Devotional Podcast #21: “Don’t Bring Me Down”

March 13, 2018

I’m going to spend a few podcast episodes talking about the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16. In this episode I only scratch the surface! But I talk about why this verse isn’t just for “beginners” or “baby Christians” or people who haven’t yet become Christians. It’s for all of us!

Devotional Text: John 3:14-16

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Tuesday, March 13, and this is devotional podcast number 21.

You’re listening to “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a Top 5 hit song for the Electric Light Orchestra in 1979. I recorded this from their 1979 album, Discovery. And I thought of this song because I’m going to be talking about a subject that is considered to be a downer, at least among most people: It is a downer that we are helpless sinners, that we deserve God’s wrath, and that, apart from a miraculous intervention of God, we are bound for hell.

And I’m going to talk about this downer of a subject as it relates to the most popular verse in the Bible, which is John 3:16. And this may surprise you, because it doesn’t seem like a downer at all. People love this verse! If you go to a major sporting event, you might see a sign or banner hanging from upper deck guard rails that reads “John 3:16.” Quarterback and Heisman winner Tim Tebow famously wrote “John 3:16” in his eye black when he and his team won the 2009 National Championship. Professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and his fans often wore apparel emblazoned with the slogan “Austin 3:16.” (I’m not sure why, come to think of it, but he’s referring to this verse.) If you go to the famous West Coast fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, and look at the bottom of their soft drink cups, you will see “John 3:16” printed in small letters on the inside rim.

When Christians display the words “John 3:16,” it’s as if they’re saying, “This is all you need to know.” And I hardly disagree with them! If John 3:16 isn’t the most important verse in the Bible, it is at least, in my opinion, the one verse that best summarizes the gospel message—if not the entire Bible. The verse’s fame is well-earned.

I have so much I want to say about this one verse! So I’m going to spend the next few podcasts talking about it—reflecting on some of the key words in verse.

But before I get into it, I want to clear up a misunderstanding about this verse, which is this: that John 3:16 is a Bible verse for beginners—for baby Christians or, especially, for those who aren’t yet Christians at all; that John 3:16 is something that we need to hear before we’re converted, before we believe in Jesus as a our Savior and Lord.

And then after we’re converted, after we are justified—that is, after God forgives us of all our sins, after God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, and after God gives us new birth by the Holy Spirit—then John 3:16 is something we can sort of leave in our past. Sure, it becomes a pleasant reminder of what God has done for us in the past. But we ourselves—having understood already how much God loves us and what he did for us through Jesus to give us eternal life—we don’t really need it anymore.
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Can we retire the phrase “cheap grace”?

March 10, 2018

A few days ago, I posted a lengthy devotional podcast that was motivated by Washington Post columnist George F. Will’s sharply critical words about the late Billy Graham. Will, an atheist, seems to believe that religious faith is good only to the extent that it accomplishes something practical in the world. (He’s hardly alone in believing this, I’m sure.)

In his column, he said the following, almost as an aside: “His audiences were exhorted to make a “decision” for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in ‘cheap grace.’”

As I’ve said on this blog before, if grace is “cheap,” then it’s already too expensive for us! It must be free, or else we’re all bound for hell!

A popular misconception of God’s plan of salvation (shared by too many Christians, I’m afraid) goes something like this: God created us to live in a perfect relationship with him in the Garden of Eden. So long as Adam and Eve didn’t break this one simple rule—”Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”—they would be fine. That was Plan A. It failed miserably. So he tried Plan B: He would create a people Israel, who would live under the Ten Commandments and other, related laws. This time, however, he would give them a remedy for sin in the sacrificial system. So long as they didn’t mess up too badly, they would be O.K.

The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, however, describe how badly that plan failed.

So what’s God going to do now? Plan C: Since we human beings have demonstrated that we are incapable of obeying laws, God sent his Son Jesus to obey the Law on our behalf—because we can’t do it for ourselves. It’s on the basis of his righteousness rather than our own that we’re saved.

Even as I read this, I confess it’s dangerously close to the truth. I can see why many people believe that this is what the Bible teaches.

So what’s wrong with it? First, what I describe above isn’t a single plan; it’s multiple plans. Yet scripture teaches us that Christ was the “lamb who was slain” before the foundation of the world, according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8). In other words, God is not surprised by our sin. God knew, before he created our world, that one consequence of his creation is that he would have to redeem it from its sin through the sending of his Son. In other words, there was only a Plan A: that God would be in Christ reconciling the world to him (2 Corinthians 5:19). Everything God does before Christ—through the giving of Law and the sacrificial system—is to prepare the world for Christ’s coming.

Among other things, the Law teaches us that we are helpless sinners who need to be redeemed by God alone, through his Son Jesus. The sacrificial system teaches us that forgiveness is costly, that it comes only through the shedding of blood. Ultimately, only the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross can purchase for us the forgiveness of our sins (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Cor. 7:23; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 9:12).

To be clear, God did not send his Son Jesus because earlier plans of salvation proved too difficult; that salvation through faith in Christ was easy, whereas salvation through works was difficult. No: faith in Christ makes salvation possible; any other scheme makes salvation impossible!

By all means, if we fail to grasp these truths, then we may fall victim to “cheap grace.” But it won’t be because—as I suspect Will believes—we haven’t worked hard enough for our salvation. If we have to work at all as a means of securing even the tiniest fraction of salvation, we will be damned. (The necessary work that we do will demonstrate that our faith is genuine. This is why Paul says we must “examine ourselves,” not to see if we’ve finally done enough to earn salvation, but to see if we are “in the faith” [2 Corinthians 13:5].)

What I failed to consider in this week’s podcast is how offensive free grace must be to someone like Will—and so many others. Man-made religion is all about what human beings must do in order to be saved. The cross of Christ is scandalous because it tells us that we can do nothing—that we are powerless—to merit the salvation that God makes available to us.

Frederick Dale Bruner

All of this is prelude to the following words—which move me deeply—from theologian Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on John 3:14-15. He has already said that the condition for salvation (“simply trusting” in Christ, otherwise known as justification by faith alone) “puts the bar breathtakingly low.” (I have told you before how much I appreciate Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. Now, as part of my current sermon series, I’m working through his commentary on John.) I hope you enjoy it! (Emphasis is his.)

The simplicity of trust is not at all an insignificant part of the joy of the Good News. No merit, deserving, struggling, steps, conditions, techniques, disciplines, or inward or outward “doings” (“works”); no emptying or yieldings; no adverbs of “utterly, totally, completely, truly” are placed on our back. Rather, and let us hear the promise one more time: “Every single individual who is [simplytrusting has, by his means, deep, lasting Life.” May this simple gospel never be made more complex. Dear Nicodemus, if you are still listening: You asked, “How in the world can these things ever happen?” They happen by Jesus, the Son of Man, being hoisted up and, then, by (you and all the rest of us) simply trusting that this Man and his hoisting brings us into the entirely new, free, and happy relation with God called Life. Trust him, Nicodemus. That’s “how.”[1]

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 194.

How Methodists deal with questions of science and the Bible

March 9, 2018

I’m a member of a theologically conservative United Methodist group on Facebook. Yesterday, a member of the group, perhaps a student in seminary, said he was uncomfortable with the idea that Genesis 1–11 should be viewed as a “true myth.” Everyone in the group shared his discomfort, although there was little consensus on the extent to which these chapters report literal history. Notice I said “the extent to which”: no one denied that they were historical to some extent.

One frustrated member, a layperson, asked the following:

So, what’s an impressionable, non-seminary educated lay person and new Christian like myself to do? How do I explain this to non-believers?

I replied as follows (emphasis added):

You should hold fast to the complete truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 and be open to ways in which Christians of good faith interpret these events (i.e., “Does the text itself allow for a more figurative interpretation of some or all of these events?”), yet utterly reject any interpretation that says, in so many words, “The Bible got it wrong.”

Be charitable toward brothers and sisters who disagree with your position, wherever you land on the question.

Don’t be overly impressed with the latest scientific theory, whatever it may be. It will be overturned by some later theory. This happens all the time in science. When it comes to questions of origins, there is often a lot speculation and guesswork based on little hard evidence. I believe, by contrast, that the Spirit inspired the Bible’s authors to write in such a way that the Bible’s truthful accounts could be understood by people of all times and in all places. That’s part of its genius.

An abstract thing called “science” doesn’t “say” anything, despite what’s usually reported in the media. Nearly everything we think we know within the realm of science is contested by specialists all the time.

Most of what most people know about evolution and cosmology they learned in a ninth- or tenth-grade textbook: which is to say, they know next to nothing, personally, about these things—including the most stridently skeptical voices speaking against the historicity of the Bible’s early chapters. Nearly everyone “takes on faith” that evolution, for example, happened in a particular way. Ken Ham, to his credit, the most stubbornly “young earth” of young earth creationists, knows far more about evolution and cosmology than the vast majority of people who disagree with and vilify him.

Also, for people who do interpret these chapters more figuratively, please concede that there’s no harm whatsoever in interpreting them more literally.

I should have known that even mentioning a polarizing “young earth creationist” like Ken Ham would distract people from my point. Someone said Ham was “uncredentialed,” as was Billy Nye (“the Science Guy”), the engineer and TV personality who debated him several years ago. Neither person, according to a commenter, was qualified to debate scientific issues pertaining to the origins of the universe or human beings. I disagreed, saying, Read the rest of this entry »