Archive for April, 2018

Sermon 04-15-18: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives”

April 25, 2018

In today’s highly autobiographical scripture, Paul describes his life before Christ and after Christ. As I say in today’s sermon, if we’re Christians, our lives should be characterized by a B.C. (before Christ) and and A.D. (after Christ) as well. Can other people see the difference?

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:11-24

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The following was written after the fact from my sermon outline, so it will differ somewhat from the recorded sermon. Enjoy!

Believe it or not, I have never watched the show Celebrity Big Brother. Have any of you? But it made headlines recently when one of its contestants, a former White House staffer who was fired last year, had this to say about Vice President Mike Pence: She warned that we need to watch out for him. She said, “I’m Christian, I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things.” 

This was being discussed on that talk show The View. Joy Behar, one of the co-hosts, upon hearing this, said to her fellow View co-hosts, “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you!” She went on to say that hearing voices is “mental illness.”

Then the vice president accused her of “attacking Christianity,” and the whole thing got blown out of proportion—as all things political tend to do these days.

Of course, when the vice president said that he hears Jesus speak to him, he meant it the way we mean it when we talk about “hearing” the Lord tell us something: he meant that he sensed that Jesus was guiding or directing or leading him to do something. Not that he heard Jesus speak to him in an audible voice. It’s unlikely that any of us Christians would claim to have heard Jesus speak in an audible voice, even if we’re confident that Jesus has “spoken” to us.

Besides, Jesus doesn’t need to speak to us in an audible voice. Because we have God’s Word… and we believe that Jesus speaks to us in the pages of this book! This is by far the main way that Jesus speaks to us!

But the apostle Paul wants us to know in today’s scripture, by contrast, that when he heard Jesus speak to him, he meant he really heard Jesus speak to him, not merely in an audible voice, but in person—because Jesus appeared to him in his resurrected body on that Damascus road, gave him the gospel he preached, and commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Francis and the false gospel of “just be a good person”

April 21, 2018

In the sermon I posted just this week, on Galatians 1:1-10, I warned against the false gospel of “just be a good person.” While this isn’t the same false gospel that Paul is attacking in his letter to the Galatians, it is a gospel that says, in so many words, that what we do plays a role—and a rather large one—in saving us. I cited Warren Buffett, who, upon announcing that he was giving away 80 percent of his $44 billion fortune, said, “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”

Of course, Buffett’s way is no way at all. If our salvation depends on what we do—aside from confessing our helplessness to do anything—we will be damned. The apostle Paul believes this so strongly, in fact, that he said that false teachers who merely added a few human requirements to his gospel of free grace through Christ would be damned. This is literally the meaning of his words in verse 9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” “Accursed” is literally the Greek word anathema, which means to be damned.

Paul’s words are uncompromising because he believes that if his readers embrace this false gospel, they are putting their souls at risk.

I realize how unpopular this message is to most modern-day Americans. But Paul is not playing around here. And we shouldn’t be, either. If Paul is right, nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance: we will be saved by Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone or we will not saved at all. To misunderstand this is to risk losing the gospel entirely.

As if on cue, however, in a video that has since gone viral, Pope Francis challenged this gospel of free grace. Last Sunday, during a gathering of Catholics, he invited children in the audience to come forward and ask him questions. One child, named Emanuele, asked Francis, through tears, if his recently deceased father was in heaven, even though he was an atheist.

The pontiff implied rather strongly that he was. And how did Francis know? Because, he said, the child’s father was a good man, as evidenced by his son’s testimony and his willingness to have his four children baptized. Francis told the crowd:

That man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God’s heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? … A dad’s heart! God has the heart of a father.

And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?

He even told the boy to “talk to your dad,” which—even in terms of a Catholic doctrine I don’t accept—would be impossible if the man were in hell.

Let me preface the following words by saying that my heart breaks for this boy. I sympathize with Pope Francis, and any other pastor, who must answer difficult questions about the afterlife for loved ones who were unbelievers.

Pope Francis is absolutely right that “God is the One who decides” who goes to heaven. We cannot know for certain who is and isn’t there. We are not the judge—fortunately. But God is, and only God can know a person’s heart infallibly. Even this father, for instance, who (for all we know) professed atheism for most of his life, may have yet have turned to Christ, like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), and found saving grace even in the last few moments of his life.

And Francis is right about God having a father’s heart. Like the loving father in the parable (Luke 15:11-24), our heavenly Father stood ready to receive this man, without reservation, as his beloved child. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15 and many other places). God loved this man beyond measure (John 3:16) and wanted him to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And if this man repented and turned to Christ, even in his dying moments, he would have been saved: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).

So… was this man saved? I hope! Even if it’s unlikely, given the man’s professed atheism, I hope. That’s all any of us can do. It’s all that’s warranted, biblically speaking.

If Francis had told the child something like that—and given the child’s age and level of maturity, I understand that it would have been difficult—I would have no problem.

What he said instead, however, was nothing less than a distortion of the gospel. He said, in so many words, that the man might be saved—or likely would be saved—on the basis not of faith in Christ but of his good works. To say the least this is cheap grace. And as I’ve said on this blog and in sermons, if grace is cheap, it’s already too expensive.

The gospel isn’t good news because it’s easier than following the Law; the gospel is good news because following the Law—even the watered-down version of the law that says, “Thou shalt be a good person”—is impossible. Even accounting for important differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification by grace through faith (alone or otherwise), Pope Francis should know this, right?

Meanwhile, the popularity of Francis’s words to this boy makes the proclamation of the one true gospel all the more difficult. Who am I, after all, to contradict a pope? 🤦🏼‍♂️

Sermon 04-08-18: “No Other Gospel”

April 19, 2018

Like a former addict who suffers a dangerous relapse, the Christians to whom the apostle Paul is addressing today’s scripture are themselves facing a kind of relapse—only one that is far more dangerous than a relapse to illicit drugs. Because this “relapse” risks destroying not merely their bodies but their very souls as well… for eternity! And it’s a dangerous threat for us present-day Christians, too! What am I referring to? Listen to the sermon and find out!

As I said last week, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached.

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:1-10

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Back in 1985, when I was 15, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Omni in Atlanta. Do you remember the Omni? It was one of the first concerts I went to, and I became a lifelong Tom Petty fan. So, like many of you, I was deeply saddened when he died late last year. The initial report was that he suffered cardiac arrest. Then about a month later, a medical examiner reported that he died of an opioid overdose. He had broken his hip while on tour last year, and—because the “show must go on,” he was prescribed a powerful narcotic called fentanyl, which is, like, 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Petty confessed in a recent autobiography that he became addicted to heroin in the mid- to late-’90s. But he got clean. So his addiction to this latest opioid represented a tragic relapse.

In a way, this is what Paul is dealing with in Galatia—a relapse of a sort. Except a relapse into opioid addiction would be far less harmful, from Paul’s perspective, because it could only destroy the body. Whereas the relapse that the Galatians are facing could potentially destroy their souls!

So what do I mean when I say “relapse”?

To answer that, we need to ask ourselves: What did Paul preach to the Galatians? What ideas did he build his ministry on? What message was Paul willing to suffer and die for? He tells us in the greeting of letter, verses 3 through 5: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

This is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell! Let’s look at some of the key words and phrases.

“Grace”: The free gift of God. We can do nothing to earn it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. “Peace”: This is the end result of receiving this gift. Prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross—and our faith in it—we were not at peace; we were incapable of achieving peace; there was a state of enmity between us and God. Paul says in Romans 5:10 that we were “enemies… reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But the end result of Christ’s death is described in Romans 5:1: “[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #24: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

April 13, 2018

What’s the difference between simply believing in Christ for salvation, as John 3:16 implies, and “cheap grace”? That’s what this podcast episode attempts to answer.

Devotional Text: Mark 9:14-26

Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Thursday, April 12, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #24.

You’re listening, of course, to “Don’t Stop Believin,’” Journey’s Top 10 hit from their best-selling 1981 album, Escape. Somehow, as popular as this song was—and as popular as it has remained—it only reached number nine on the charts. Journey never had a number one hit song. It’s crazy!

This is Part 4 of my reflection on the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16: specifically, I want to focus on that part of the verse that relates to this song—“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

By the way the “whoever” or, more traditionally, “whosoever,” is not plural; it’s singular. It’s addressed to you and and me and every single, individual person—each person is eligible for eternal life on one condition and one condition only—that he or she believes. This of course means that your parents or grandparents or spouse or family can’t believe on your behalf. No one is “born” a Christian; you can only be “born again” as a Christian, and that happens when you believe… for yourself. But if you can only do that relatively small thing—if you can only meet this one small condition, Jesus says—which is to believe—you can be saved!

Isn’t that amazingly good news?

In his commentary on John’s gospel, Frederick Dale Bruner translates the verse as follows: “You see, God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son, so that every single individual, whoever! who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him would never be destroyed, oh no! but would even now have a deep, lasting life.”[1] He inserts the adverb “simply” in brackets in front of the word “believing” or “entrusting” because, while it doesn’t appear in the Greek, it is implicit. 

As Bruner writes:

I put the word “simply” between brackets because it is not in the Greek text. In fact, not one single adverb or adjective is placed before the word “entrusting,” such as “deeply” or “sincerely” or “completely.” Every such adverb turns faith into a good work the believer does. But the good work of salvation, in fact, is done by the loving and giving Father, the gifted Son, and the transforming Spirit alone. We entrust ourselves to this triune Worker; we “do” nothing but trust Another who has done everything.[2]

We do nothing but trust Another who has done everything. I like that! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-01-18 (Easter): “Whom Are You Seeking?”

April 4, 2018

The theme of many Easter sermons is, in so many words, “Easter means heaven when you die.” While this is a great and important truth for those who are in Christ, “heaven when you die” is hardly the main message. The main message is this: Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday—and the resurrection proves it.

As I said yesterday, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached. 

Technical note: For the last five minutes of this sermon, I stepped away from the mic through which the recording was made, so the audio quality isn’t up to my usual standards. Still very audible, though!

Sermon Text: John 20:1-18

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Twenty-eight years ago, I had a philosophy professor at Georgia Tech who told us students, as he was passing out course evaluations, that he would often get feedback from students that indicated that he was “anti-Christian.” He said, “I’m always surprised by this because I couldn’t be more sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe in it in any literal sort of way. But for you Christians out there… Do any of you believe that Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead?”

This was a class of 35, 40 students. There were bound to be at least a handful of Christians. Yet no one raised their hand—including yours truly. So in a very small way, I can relate to Peter’s denial of Christ, except in my case, the stakes couldn’t be smaller: whereas Peter feared for his life, I feared a little embarrassment!

I don’t feel guilty about it. I’ve confessed that sin, and I know I’m forgiven. But if I had a time machine, I would go back in time to that class and do things differently. I have since learned that there is good historical evidence for believing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened—reasons that even modern historians should be able to accept. I’m not interested in going deeply into it here, but I do want to point out a couple of reasons from today’s scripture.

First, in today’s scripture, who was the first eyewitness to the resurrection? Mary Magdalene. In fact, all four gospels are in agreement that the first eyewitnesses are women—and all four accounts include Mary Magdalene in them.

This is a deeply inconvenient fact for the apostles and early church. Why? Because in the ancient world the testimony of women wasn’t admissible in a court of law. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. This became an issue, for instance, as early as the second century, when an early Roman opponent of Christianity, Celsus, argued that we can’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus happened because, after all, it was a tale told by “hysterical women”! Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Bible enough? (Or: how my preaching has changed recently)

April 3, 2018

Back in late January, I was preaching a sermon in my series on the Lord’s Prayer. Attendance that morning was down—for whatever reason, but one of which was stormy weather that morning. Moreover, it was warm in the sanctuary. The thermostat read “74,” hardly a temperature conducive to giving one’s full attention even to the most engaging sermon, much less the one I had prepared for that morning. More than a few people were nodding off.

As I was delivering it, I had a thought running on a parallel track in my mind: “This sermon is a disaster! You’ve lost your audience.”

It wasn’t that bad—I listened to the recording to make sure. But this experience drove me over the edge: Literally for years I’ve had a sense that my preaching wasn’t congruent with one of my deepest convictions: that the Bible is enough for me—and for all of us.

So, for example, nearly every week when I prepare a sermon, I find an insight into the scripture that speaks to me—excites me, even—and I want to share this with my congregation. It resonates with my heart. But in the back of my mind, I tell myself, “No, no… A sermon isn’t a Bible study. That point, however much it speaks to you, would bore people. That’s too much Bible. You have to be relevant, after all.”

As if God’s Word alone isn’t relevant?

Meanwhile, every week I listen to contemporary preachers who are far better than I am whose sermons are also far more Bible-oriented than mine! One of them, a prominent megachurch pastor (now retired), preaching to multiple campuses, is rarely funny, believe it or not! He doesn’t even seem to care that he isn’t! Shouldn’t that tell me something?

Two more recent experiences have changed my outlook on preaching: First, our church has added a monthly Sunday evening service, in a small chapel that holds no more than 50 people, comfortably. I preach a separate sermon from the one I preach on Sunday morning. In the interest of time—since I can’t devote as much of it to sermon prep—I don’t prepare a manuscript. I preach a familiar text from an outline. And I hold my Bible in my hand the whole time, referring to verses mostly in sequential order. My sermons are far more extemporaneous and conversational. And they are among the best I’ve ever preached. (Sadly, I have no document of them; I haven’t recorded them.)

This is, in other words, a “Bible first” approach. I spend little time worrying about clever introductions and humorous anecdotes, for example. I feel far less pressure. And I enjoy them more, frankly. Do you suppose that my enjoyment comes through in the delivery?

Finally, let me mention my Bible studies. I do one on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. Again, like the Sunday evening sermons, these are conversational and mostly extemporaneous. And people have responded very positively to them.

I’m not bad at teaching! It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if my sermons veered in that direction, right?

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with me these days. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?