Archive for June, 2018

“The Jesus I know…”: some ground rules for Christian disagreement, plus an invitation

June 16, 2018

In both political and ecclesial discourse these days, I have noticed this phrase popping up with increasing frequency: “The Jesus I know,” which is then followed by a controversial or at least disputed statement of what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, believe, or say in a particular circumstance.

I dislike this rhetorical tactic. For one thing, it feels like the speaker is claiming moral high ground over someone with whom he or she disagrees: “If you knew Jesus like know Jesus, then you would know that what I’m saying is true. Why don’t you know Jesus like that? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with your faith? And how can you disagree with Jesus and call yourself a Christian?”

If I disagree with the “Jesus that you know,” I hope you’ll appreciate why these words put me on the defensive. It’s hardly a constructive place to begin or continue a conversation. To say the least, it’s glib, and it fails to give me credit: Obviously, if I believed that Jesus “agreed” with you that a particular conviction that I possess is wrong, I would repent—at least I hope (I’m still a sinner, after all, or at least simul justus et peccator)! In which case, we wouldn’t be disagreeing at all.

So let’s agree, even when we otherwise disagree, that we do so in good faith, and that (if we are professing Christians) we both already know the same Jesus. Indeed, to do otherwise risks the sinful kind of judging that Jesus warns against.

More importantly, though: How do we know Jesus in the first place? Do we Christians not all have access to the same Jesus? Or do some Christians have superior access—based perhaps on their own “spiritual growth” or gifts? And if we believe that, are we not in danger of the same problems that Paul warns the Corinthians against in his first epistle, on account of which he wrote the most beautiful poem about love the world has ever seen (1 Corinthians 13)? “As for knowledge, it will pass away…”

Please don’t misunderstand: For months, as my own congregation can attest, I’ve been preaching about the need for us to “fall in love with Jesus” again, or to fall in love more deeply with him. And by all means, falling in love relates directly to our experience with Christ. The apostle Paul appeals to this experience, as opposed to mere intellectual knowledge, in Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” Moreover, given that we can “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19), our lack of faithfulness—irrespective of deeply held theological convictions—can impede the work of the Spirit, not to mention the extent to which he enables the gospel to penetrate our hearts.

Nevertheless, while we can all know Jesus better, experientially, nothing we know of Jesus in this way will contradict what Jesus—through his Spirit—has revealed in his Word. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m no “red-letter” Christian: the words of Christ aren’t more authoritative than the rest of the Bible. How can they be, when the One and same Spirit inspired everything else in scripture? Or when Paul’s most direct words about the Bible’s inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, were written before the gospels themselves, or certainly before they were part of something we now call the New Testament? I periodically explain to my congregation that when we stand for the reading of the gospel in worship, we don’t do so because the gospels—as opposed the the Old Testament, or the Psalms, or the epistles—are more inspired.

No, we stand for the reading of the gospels as a way of acknowledging the Spirit of Christ in our midst—the way we might stand for the president of the United States, were he to enter the room. We stand for Christ our King. It’s not that Christ isn’t present for the rest of the worship service, only that this is a fitting place, symbolically, to acknowledge his presence: just as, in the gospels, Jesus is present with his disciples as he is speaking.

From my perspective, then, when people appeal to the “Jesus I know,” it’s incumbent on them to justify their knowledge based on the Bible, the primary means by which any of us knows Jesus. Everything we know for sure about Jesus comes from the Bible.

If you disagree, consider this: Does anyone—even the saintliest or most mystical among us—know something about Jesus that contradicts what God has revealed about Jesus in the Bible? Not coincidentally, I believe, the holiest people I’ve known are also ones who know and love the Bible the best!

My point is, let’s please not short-circuit the Bible with an appeal to personal experience.

In a different context and for a different controversy, Paul wrote, “Does he who supplies” [present tense, i.e., in an ongoing way in the life of a believer] “the Spirit” [the means by which we experience Jesus Christ] “to you and works miracles among you do so by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith…? This “hearing” of which Paul speaks is the hearing—or, as is usually the case with us, the reading—of the gospel. For Paul this wouldn’t even mean simply the reading of the four literal gospels, even if they existed; Paul sees the gospel throughout the Bible, as evidenced by his words in v. 8—”And the Scripture… preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying…”—or 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, including v. 4: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Also, when Paul preached to the Berean Jews in Acts 17, they “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” What “things”? Things related to Paul’s message about Christ and the gospel, which he proved by the Old Testament scriptures.

Brothers and sisters, I want you to know Jesus more. I want you to experience Jesus more. I want God our Father to supply you with more of the Holy Spirit, which makes our experience of Christ possible. But the primary way that he does this is through the Bible, God’s written Word. Read it. Meditate on it. Pray it. Pray over it. Hear the Lord speak to you through it. Be “consumed with longing” for it (Psalm 119:20); let it be your “delight” (119:24). Let us always live according to it (Luke 1:38). Aside from the gift of salvation through Christ, and his ongoing presence with us through the Spirit, it is our life’s greatest treasure.

The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4

June 9, 2018

In Galatians 4:1-7, which I covered in my sermon last week, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Paul here describes something objective that God has done to ensure that through faith in Christ we can have forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.

The objective character of what God has done for us on the cross cannot, in my opinion, be overemphasized. I have little patience, therefore, with subjective theories of atonement such as Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, which argues that the cross isn’t so much about what God has done for us—once for all, objectively, to take care of our problem with sin—as our response to it: “See how much God loves you that he was willing to suffer death for you? Doesn’t this melt your heart? If so, what are you going to do in response? Don’t you want to give your life to Jesus now?”

If that’s what the cross means, God help me!

Because I am—apart from the work of the Holy Spirit—a hopeless and helpless sinner. If my salvation depends even an iota on what I do in response to what God has done on the cross, I am lost! There are moments, even now, having been a Christian for a few decades, when I feel the weight of my sin, when I need reassurance. And in those moments my only recourse is to the cross: here is what God has done for me—objectively—to deal with my problem with sin. Sometimes I need to convince myself of this, intellectually.

I need to tell my soul something like this: “Brent, it’s true that you continue to sin, and you sometimes feel as if God won’t forgive you. But remember the cross. Remember the great exchange that took place. Remember that your sins were imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for them in full. Every single one of them! There is no sin that you have ever committed or ever will commit that wasn’t ‘nailed to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14) with Christ. Also remember that his righteousness was imputed to you, meaning that you’re only able to have a right relationship with God because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, not your own. Now, because of this double imputation, what’s true of Jesus is true of you: You, Brent, are God’s beloved son, with whom your Father is well-pleased.”

I can tell myself words such as these even when I’m not feeling it.

Not that this is usually the case. Usually, I do feel a sense of assurance that I’m a child of God. See Romans 8:16. Where does this feeling of assurance come from? Paul tells us Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

There was a period of time—from what I’ve read, in the middle of the 20th century—when many preachers would talk about how Abba, the Aramaic word for father, was literally baby talk—the equivalent of “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s a word for “father” that’s easy for an infant to say—among a child’s first words. But we preachers aren’t supposed to say this anymore: In fact, while it’s true very young children called their fathers “Abba,” so did grown children. It just means “Father,” no more, no less. Don’t make more of it than that, scholars tell us.

But not so fast… If Abba doesn’t suggest or imply something more than simply “Father,” why does Paul distinguish it from “Father” (Greek: patēr) at all? Of course Abba means more than “Father”! It suggests a greater intimacy with God—the same intimacy that Jesus himself had with his Father; indeed, Abba is the word Jesus used. J.B. Phillips put it nicely in his translation: “Father, dear Father.”

So we enjoy this same intimacy with the Father. And this intimacy ought to penetrate our emotions. This goes beyond a faith that resides only in our heads!

So Paul is giving us something in these verses, Galatians 4:4-7, to feed both head and heart. If we are authentically Christian, we should normally feel a sense of intimacy with our Father. But when our emotions fail, we have the objective certainty that God has done everything necessary—objectively—to bring us into a right relationship.

In my sermon on this text, I also made a point that I had never previously made about Paul’s contrast between living as a slave versus living as a son and heir. I received this insight from Tim Keller. He made his point by talking about the prodigal son: Keller said that it seems very humble on his part to ask his father to “treat me as one of your hired servants,” but it isn’t; it betrays a lack of faith in his father’s love and mercy.

To illustrate this point, he writes the following:

Alexander the Great had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see–by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”

So, when our hearts convict us and we’re tempted to doubt that God loves or forgives us—or that he does so only grudgingly—the problem may be a lack of faith on our part, not excessive humility! So we need to repent.

“What do you mean, you sleeper?”

June 6, 2018

In previous blog posts, I have sung the praises of the prophet Jonah. In terms of the sheer numbers of converts who heeded his words, he’s likely the most successful prophet in the Old Testament. His offer to sacrifice himself to save unbelievers foreshadows Christ’s own sacrifice. And even his attempt to run away from God betrayed enormous faith in a God who is “gracious… and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). (Recall that Jonah ran away because he didn’t want God to show mercy on the hated Ninevites, as he believed God would ultimately do—because that’s exactly the sort of God that God is!)

Alas, in today’s post I must offer mostly criticism (with compassion). After God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4), whose resulting tempest threatens the lives of the ship’s crew, the Bible says, in v. 5, “Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.”

This reminds us of another sleeper, in another boat, in the midst of another life-threatening storm—see Mark 4:35-41—yet how different are Jesus and Jonah! Jesus sleeps because of his confidence in his Father’s abiding care; Jonah because he’s depressed, he’s hopeless, and he’s given up on life.

Enter the captain, a pagan whose righteousness, in its own way, outshines Jonah’s: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Again, the captain doesn’t yet know Yahweh, the God of Israel. He doesn’t yet know that Jonah’s God is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). But since Yahweh is the God in whom Jonah believes, why on earth isn’t Jonah praying to him? Why isn’t he asking God to rescue him and the ship’s passengers and crew from this storm? Does Jonah not believe that God will “give a thought” to them—the same God of whom David asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)

“What do you mean?” indeed! 

Jonah has a responsibility to pray—on his own behalf but also on behalf of people whose own gods are powerless. They need Jonah to save their lives and, more importantly, their souls. Ultimately, Jonah’s witness and example would accomplish exactly that. (See v. 16.) But in the meantime, how dare he sleep when he could be praying!

Years ago, a former pastor and theology professor named Ryan Bell made headlines by announcing that he was taking a year off from being a Christian; that he would live self-consciously as an atheist for one year—no prayer, no church, no Bible-reading. Well—surprise, surprise—one year later he was an atheist… with a book deal. I blogged about it at the time. But I appreciated Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s words from his Reasonable Faith podcast:

This is madness spiritually speaking, to think that you can sincerely embark on disbelieving in God and living out consistently the consequences of atheism. What about all these people that God would have had him pray for during that year? What about the people in the church community of which he is supposed to be a member that he should have been serving and helping during that year? What this means is that he will not be exercising his spiritual gifts in the context of the local body of believers. So it will be impaired by the improper functioning of that body. This is spiritually disastrous.

Do you hear that? Dr. Craig’s concern, like the captain in Jonah’s story, is first for the welfare of the people with whom Bell is living. He owes them his prayers and the use of his spiritual gifts. His “living as an atheist” for a year doesn’t just affect him, after all; it affects his brothers and sisters in Christ—not to mention the people in his community who don’t yet know Christ.

Or doesn’t it? Do we really believe that things like prayer and spiritual gifts make a difference in our lives and the lives of others?

If so, perhaps the captain’s words apply to us: “What do you mean, you sleeper?”

My hope is in God’s promises, not that “things aren’t as bad as they appear”

June 4, 2018

I’ll blog more about this treasure: It’s called an “interleaved” journaling Bible—from Crossway.

In Psalm 119:41-2, the psalmist writes,

Remember your word to your servant,

in which you have made me hope.

This is my comfort in my affliction,

that your promise gives me life

Nine years ago, I experienced what I’ve called on this blog my “evangelical re-conversion.” During those days, weeks, or months, the Lord convicted me: for too many years, I had neglected God’s Word—even as I was attending seminary in large part to study it; even as I was (supposedly) preaching it every week. I had failed, repeatedly, to put myself under its authority—which is to say, God’s own authority. So I repented.

(I say “re-conversion” because my change of heart represented a return to a part of my identity that I had left behind around my sophomore year of college. Note that “sophomore” is derived from roots literally meaning “wise fool.” Truer words…)

I also repented of the harmful idea, which I learned in seminary, that somehow the Bible isn’t God’s Word at all, or is only God’s Word in a secondary sense. (This idea comes courtesy of Karl Barth, “a dreadful man”—C.S. Lewis.) The Bible, we were told, at best “bears witness to” God’s Word, who is Jesus. Indeed, I’m sure that a sentence like this one showed up in my commissioning papers before the Board of Ordained Ministry. (Sorry, guys!) In the past, I’ve dealt with this question-begging fallacy: there is literally nothing we know for sure about the “Word of God who is Jesus” apart from the Word of God that is written down, the Bible. Moreover, since the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, inspired the writers of the Old and New Testaments to write what they wrote, I have little patience for pitting the “red-letter words” of Jesus in the gospels against the rest of scripture.

Regardless, this blog has in part been the fruit of this re-conversion. “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Yay, me!

But then I encounter scripture such as the verses quoted above, and I’m humbled: My one and only source of comfort and hope when I’m “afflicted,” the psalmist says, is “your word” and “your promise”—which he elsewhere describes with synonyms such as “commandments,” “precepts,” “rules,” “testimonies,” and “statutes.” He is referring to all of scripture—the Bible itself. Psalm 119 is in fact a psalm of praise for God’s Word.

I’m humbled, I say, because I realize how unlike the psalmist I am! When I am “afflicted,” I don’t usually place my hope in the promises of God’s Word—for example, that in all things God is working for my good, that I shouldn’t despise the Lord’s discipline, and that what others, including Satan, mean for evil, God means for good. Instead, when I face trouble, my “hope” and “comfort” is this: after assessing the circumstances in which I find myself—after reviewing a list of possible outcomes as best as I can determine them—things aren’t as bad as they appear. After all, I can work this angle; I can talk to this person; that person owes me a favor.

Having consoled myself with my own power to make things work out all right, then I’ll ask God to console me.

Isn’t that hilarious? No wonder I get stressed out so easily! No wonder I often get angry!

What would happen, Brent, if you actually tried believing this Bible in which you take pride in believing?

I repent.

Are we sure that good works play no role in saving us?

June 2, 2018

In last Sunday’s sermon I covered Galatians 3:15-20. In this scripture Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham—that in him “shall all the nations be blessed,” which is nothing less than the gospel that scripture “preached beforehand” (v. 8)—is on the basis of faith alone, not works. In v. 15, Paul gives a “human example”: “even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.”

In my sermon, I compared Paul’s “man-made covenant” to a will—as in “last will and testament.” This is a fair comparison: the Greek word that Paul uses for “covenant” (diathēkē) can literally refer to a will. While it’s true that potential heirs can take actions before the will is ratified to influence the percentage of the estate they inherit, once the will is ratified (and the person who wrote the will dies), this covenant can’t be changed. It doesn’t depend at all on what someone does or doesn’t do.

Given that this is true even for “man-made” covenants, Paul asks, how much more true is it for a covenant between God and his people? The Law, given through Moses 430 years after God’s covenant of faith with Abraham, “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (v. 17). Therefore God’s people will continue to be justified by faith alone, and not works of the Law—or, by extension, any other human works. We are saved by faith alone!

Paul’s point is clear enough (to us traditional Protestants, at least). And yet…

What about those places in the gospels themselves in which it seems like we have to add works to faith in order to be saved? In my sermon I shared three short examples, each of which speaks of the very “inheritance” (i.e., the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham) that Paul himself refers to in v. 18.

The Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23). Notice here that the man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him, in so many words, keep the Ten Commandments. He replies, “Yes, but I’ve done that since I was a child.” But is that true? Has the man kept the Ten Commandments? Of course not! Jesus knows that this man hasn’t come to terms with the breadth and depth of his sinfulness.

Think, for example, of the way that Jesus intensifies the meaning of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount: Anger is on the same spectrum as murder; lust (and elsewhere, divorce) is on the same spectrum as adultery. The same sinful condition of one’s heart, in other words, gives rise to both sins. So we are not “keeping” the Ten Commandments by merely observing the law outwardly. What matters is not the mere outward observance, but the condition of our hearts.

As Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-19). This is also the point of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14).

So Jesus exposes the Rich Young Ruler’s “heart condition” by asking him to do what was impossible for him: to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man’s problem was not simply that he possessed lots of money—it’s likely, after all, that the man was generous in almsgiving; and I’m sure he tithed. The man’s main problem was that he had made something else his savior and lord other than Jesus: his wealth. So it’s not so much that the man couldn’t be saved; it’s that he wouldn’t be saved so long as he continued in his idolatry.

Jesus’ apparent harshness to this man—couldn’t he have asked the man for something less than 100 percent?—was a mercy in disguise: he wanted to uncover the man’s sin, thereby giving him his best shot at repentance. And none of us knows whether or not the man eventually did repent. Jesus holds out hope: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37Notice that the lawyer’s question is the same as the Rich Young Ruler’s: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, moral genius that he is, gives the world one of its greatest moral teachings… yet one of whose points can be so easily lost! What I mean is this: Many people take this parable to be moralistic and works-oriented: “Be like the Good Samaritan who stops to help; don’t be like those bad religious hypocrites. Your enemy is your neighbor; love him too.”

But remember: Jesus tells this story in response to a question about “inheriting eternal life.” Since I fail every day to live out the kind of sacrificial, Christ-like love that the Good Samaritan exemplifies, am I in trouble?

No—because notice the verse at the center of the parable: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). This compassion preceded everything else he did. Getting back to Jesus’ point above, it’s not so much that the Good Samaritan performed these good works for his injured enemy; it’s why he did so! He had compassion, which is a condition of one’s heart. You can’t fake compassion; you either have it or you don’t. And no one can know whether you have it—even if you perform the same good works that the Samaritan performed.

What we need for “inheriting eternal life,” therefore, is not good works but a transformed heart, made possible only by faith, the evidence of which will be good works.

Don’t misunderstand: In one sense, we need good works to be saved: On Judgment Day, our good works will be offered as evidence of the authenticity of our faith in Christ. But these good works play no role in saving us. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43, for example, did nothing prior to Jesus pronouncing his salvation. Justification—being made right with God—precedes our good works, which are made possible only by a Spirit-transformed heart (by which we have compassion) that comes through faith. Before Jesus told the thief that he was going to be with him in Paradise, he would have known—hypothetically—that if the thief had been able to come down off the cross, and survive his many injuries, he would have had good works to show for himself. Why? Because the thief’s heart was transformed, irrespective of anything that he did.

This is why the apostle Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) What are we examining ourselves to see? That our lives show evidence that we are “in the faith.” And this evidence is good works.

Finally, I concluded my sermon with the most difficult test case—a quasi-parable about Final Judgment that most emphatically seems to tell us that good works play a role in saving us: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Again, like the Good Samaritan, is Jesus’ point to say, “You must do the good works that the righteous people do—those designated as ‘sheep’—in order to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'” (v. 34)? If so, am I in trouble—because I fail to be righteous all the time! 

No. Jesus can’t merely be saying, “Be like a sheep and not a goat,” because notice v. 37 and following: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?…” The “sheep,” please notice, were completely unaware that they were doing these good works for Christ, or to Christ, or on Christ’s behalf: “Lord, when did we see you…?”

The righteous, in other words, are unself-conscious about their good works. They are not doing these works because they know they ought to—because they’re really doing it for Jesus, after all, and they want to inherit eternal life.

And so it is with us. Indeed, the moment the thought crosses our minds, “I need to serve ‘the least of these’ because I’m really serving Jesus,” we are—in that moment—failing to be like the righteous in the parable.

Does this make sense?

Being a “sheep” is like being a Good Samaritan: It springs from compassion—a condition of the heart—which is made possible by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as we believe in Jesus Christ. Faith must come first. Faith justifies us, after which these good actions follow.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been trying to make this point about the relationship between faith and works in a dozen different ways over the years. This is my latest attempt. I hope this helps you!