Archive for January, 2019

Ephesians 5:20 and God’s sovereign goodness

January 29, 2019

My focus in this meditation is on Ephesians 5:20—”giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”—a participial phrase that’s part of this sentence (verses 18-21):

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

But it’s v. 20 that intrigues me: we ought to “give thanks always and for everything.” It’s not that Paul hasn’t expressed similar ideas elsewhere. For example, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

But apart from a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty, we could misinterpret Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians to mean something like this: “I’m going to give thanks and rejoice no matter what I’m going through because, as bad as my particular circumstances are, I can console myself that God has done all these other good things for me.” In other words, we think, “Things are never as bad as they seem… or at least they could be worse… or at least I don’t have it as bad as that other guy. I can always rejoice in spite of my circumstances.”

I confess that at one time in my life I would have interpreted these verses in this way. Ephesians 5:20, however doesn’t give me this option. Paul says that we should give thanks “always and for everything”—to give thanks—somehow—for the circumstances themselves, whether favorable or unfavorable.

But let’s be careful: Paul can’t be saying that we are to be thankful for evil itself. In addition to all the other God-breathed scripture about how we should hate evil, just as God hates it and will avenge it (Romans 12:19), Paul himself writes, “Abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). And he tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). While it’s true that “you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we don’t tell our grieving brothers or sisters to buck up or snap out of it—that they don’t really have a reason to weep. Heaven forbid!

Besides, sin has a way of manipulating even perfectly good things—like God’s law (see Romans 7), family and friends, food, sex, work, and leisure—and using them to harm us… to say nothing of evil things!

So, just as the problem isn’t the thing itself—be it something good or something bad—neither is the blessing.

In fact, Paul isn’t saying that we should be thankful for anything in and of itself—only for the way in which God is using that thing for our good (which, according to Romans 8:28, he promises to always do for those of us who are in Christ).

But if you’re like me, even with this qualification, something within you resists this idea; you imagine some “worst case scenario” in which “giving thanks always and for everything” would prove impossible.

But are you sure?

Consider these astonishing words from Acts 5:41, after the apostles were arrested and beaten for preaching Christ: “Then they [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Or Peter’s words from 1 Peter 4:13-14: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Or v. 16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

But you may object: the suffering that Peter and the apostles endured up to that point wasn’t the worst case scenario that we can face; the worst case, or so we usually think, is death.

If so, Paul anticipates this “worst case scenario” in Philippians 1—that he would die while in prison. Yet even this, he says, is a cause for rejoicing. Why? Because “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Indeed, Paul writes, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17). His death, in other words, would be for his personal benefit (because he will enjoy more of Christ immediately) and for God’s glory and praise (which is Paul’s reason for living in the first place).

So even the worst case scenario would be a cause for thankfulness.

Granted, I’m not saying that it’s easy to believe this. In fact, if you’re not already a believer, I wouldn’t blame you if think that these words of Paul and the apostles are utter nonsense.

But I’m not directing these words to non-Christians; I’m directing them to myself—and to all of you Christian eavesdroppers who might also benefit from them.

Psalm 20: Dear Christian, here’s what God wants to do for you!

January 26, 2019

Psalm 20:1-4:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
    May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and give you support from Zion!
May he remember all your offerings
    and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! Selah

May he grant you your heart’s desire
    and fulfill all your plans!

From the notes of my ESV Journaling Bible:

The “you” in these verses is Israel’s king, his “anointed” (v. 6). Look at what the psalmist asks the Lord to do for the king: answer his prayers, send help, give support, “remember” his acts of worship and, on that basis, show favor, grant his heart’s desire, and fulfill all his plans.

Do we read this and think, “Of course these petitions are appropriate for the king of Israel, but who am I compared to him?”

Who are you? You are God’s child, holy and blameless, highly favored (Luke 2:14), anointed by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20), loved by your Father every bit as much as the Father loves his only begotten Son (John 17:23, 26). Because of the precious blood of Jesus, our position in Christ is even more exalted than David’s, or any sinful human king! Do we dare believe this? Do I? “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b) Our Father wants the exact same good for you.

The doctrine of imputation is still on my mind, obviously, as it has been for a while. But am I wrong? Am I applying this psalm incorrectly? After all, if we believe the New Testament’s many words about our position in Christ (not apart from Christ, mind you), then so many of the Old Testament’s promises to Israel, or even Israel’s anointed, also belong to us.

Reading the Psalms with the doctrine of imputation in mind

January 21, 2019

Psalm 118 was written by David, who, according to the God-breathed words of its preface (i.e., the preface is part of the original Hebrew text), “addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”

It’s a psalm that ought to greatly encourage those of us who are united by faith with Christ. David affirms that God is our protector, defender, and place of refuge. He rescues us when we cry out to him in fear. In fact, God becomes angry on our behalf, when we are mistreated. He will avenge us; he will vindicate us.

Why does God do this for us? Because, as verse 19 says, he “delights in us.” In my Christmas Eve sermon this year, I connected the angel’s words to the shepherds, “and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) to the Father’s words to his Son Jesus during his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Greek root underneath the English words “pleased”  and “well pleased” is the same: Therefore, if we are in Christ, our Father is as pleased with us as he is with his own Son, not on the basis of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.

So when David describes what God has done to rescue him from his enemies, and all the trouble that his enemies caused, everything he says about God’s actions toward him are at least as true for us. He’ll do the same for us but even more so—because God has imputed to us the gift of Christ’s righteousness.

Apart from our understanding the doctrine of imputation, the words that David writes in verses 20-24 ought to depress us:

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Why should these words depress us? I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible:

These could be among the most discouraging words in scripture, when we consider our sin. Indeed, the psalmist in Psam 130:3 recognizes the universal problem of sin: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Not to mention Paul’s words about the war within us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). So if God’s protection, defense, and vindication of us depend on “my righteousness” or “the cleanness of my hands,” then we’re all in trouble!

But here’s where we need the good news of the gospel: the favor that we enjoy in God’s eyes is based not on our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ. For all of David’s words about his personal righteousness, we can substitute “Christ’s righteousness on our behalf”: For us, in other words, Christ has perfectly “kept the ways of the Lord”; Christ has not “wickedly departed from my God”; Christ did not “put away” God’s rules and statutes; Christ was “blameless” and “kept [himself] from guilt”; God has “rewarded [us] according to [Christ’s] righteousness, according to the cleanness of [his] hands in his sight.”

So for those of us who are united with Christ through faith, all of the positive outcomes that David describes are now ours—only better!

Do you see the logic of imputation? There are few doctrines more glorious, more reassuring, than this one.

With this in mind, how can I not heartily endorse a tweet like this from Joel Osteen, with only a small qualification?

We can be confident that what God ordains for us is good. How could it be otherwise, given our new identity in Christ?

The logic of Romans 8:28: God always answers God’s prayers for us

January 16, 2019

I helped to chaperone a ski retreat to West Virginia last weekend with our church’s youth group. The scripture that we discussed throughout the weekend was Romans 8, among the Bible’s highest and most glorious summits.

Since I haven’t preached on or studied Romans in years, the retreat gave me a new opportunity to reflect more deeply on the letter, on this chapter within it, and on my life’s theme verse, Romans 8:28. Allow me to share the following insight:

In the two verses preceding Romans 8:28, Paul writes,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

To begin with, Paul is offering practical pastoral guidance related to prayer. For instance, when my father was dying of terminal cancer many years ago, and suffering the side effects of aggressive chemotherapy, he confided in me that he was having trouble concentrating in prayer. I told him, of course, that we don’t need chemotherapy to have that problem! Then I quoted these verses: the good news about prayer is that the Holy Spirit helps us where we fall short, “interced[ing] for us with groanings too deep for words.”

This means, as I’ve said before in sermons, that God answers the prayer underneath our prayer—or, as Tim Keller memorably puts it: “God will either give us what we ask for, or what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.” (Please note, however, that Keller isn’t saying that God will give us what we would have asked for… if only we had bothered to ask. Paul’s promise here applies to actual, not hypothetical, prayers.)

But here’s my main point: God does not always give us human beings what we ask for in prayer—because we are finite and fallible; we can’t begin to imagine the impact that God’s answering our prayer will have on everyone else in the world—indeed, how our answered prayer would affect the “greater good” that God is always bringing about. Only God can know all these things. (I’ve blogged before about how the “butterfly effect” applies to our relationship with God.)

So God won’t always answer our prayers. But do you know whose prayers God will answer every single time?

God’s prayers for us!

As strange as it seems, this is what Paul is saying in this text: The Holy Spirit—who is God himself, the Third Person of the Trinity—is praying for us, and the Holy Spirit’s prayers for us—to our Father—will always be answered… affirmatively, perfectly, unfailingly! The Father will always grant the Spirit’s petitions on our behalf.

Does God desire only what’s good for his children? Yes. And so, when the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” (“prays for us,” NLT), he is praying only for what is in our best interest—at every moment, in every circumstance.

Doesn’t this make logical sense, therefore, of the great promise in Romans 8:28—that in all things God works for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose?

This means, among other things, that no matter what potentially difficult trial we’re enduring at the moment, we are enduring it only because God wills it for us… and God only wills it for our good… because the Holy Spirit is always praying for our good… and the Father always answers the Spirit’s prayers with a resounding “yes.”

By all means, we may be enduring a difficult trial because of sinful choices that we’ve made—or others have made—which harm us. And if those choices had been otherwise, our life would be easier than it is at the moment. God’s “best” for us may be very painful at times. As Paul also says in Romans 8, “we ourselves… groan inwardly,” and “we are being killed all the day long” (vv. 23, 36). But on the other side of every trial is a blessing.

How can it be otherwise, if God’s promises in this passage are true—and the underlying logic holds.

We are blessed not only in spite of the pain we experience but also through the pain. If we are in Christ, we can be sure that the pain is necessary for whatever blessing God wants to give us.

I know we often to struggle with this—for two reasons. First, we believe we are blessed only to the extent that we feel blessed. Feelings are good, of course, but they are an unreliable measure of our blessedness. The life-saving vaccine is incredibly good for us, after all, even though the needle by which it’s administered hurts in the short run.

Not long ago, I was talking to a parishioner who was facing a severe health challenge. After describing the problem, she assured me, “But I’m doing O.K. I’m blessed.” And I thought, “What a mature Christian attitude! That’s exactly right! She is blessed. At this very moment, she may not be experiencing this trial as a blessing—she may not be feeling the blessing—but she can be confident that God is using the experience, ultimately, to bless her.”

But then she said the following: “I mean, I look around and see others who have it so much worse than I do.

My heart sank. We are not blessed only to the extent that other people “have it so much worse” than us! If we are in Christ, we are blessed, period. Full stop.

But this is the second mistake we make when it comes to our blessings: we tend to measure them in comparison to the blessings of others: “I know I’m blessed because I have something that these other people don’t have.”

I struggle with this. I often want someone else’s blessings—in my case, usually some other pastor’s blessings. But why should I expect God to give me—and I’m dreaming big here—the blessings of Joel Osteen (of money, power, prestige, and popularity)? Yet I think, If only I had his blessings, then I would know that I’m successful; then I would know that I’m making a difference; then I would know that people loved me. If I had Joel Osteen’s blessings, then I wouldn’t feel so insecure all the time!

But what do I know? The blessings with which God has blessed Osteen may become curses if they happened to me. In fact, with my ego… I’m sure they would! They would destroy me!

No, I can trust that God has designed my blessings especially for me and for my good, which includes learning that I don’t need worldly measures of success to know that I’m a “highly favored” son of God through adoption into God’s family by faith in Christ.

So what will God’s blessings in my life accomplish? They will enable me, as Paul also says in Romans 8:29, “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” which will inevitably lead to loving Jesus more, enjoying him more, being more satisfied in him, experiencing more of his presence and power.

Granted, I have to want more of Jesus in order for God’s blessings to feel like blessings. I have to want more of Jesus in order to find any lasting happiness in life.

Is that what I want? Because ultimately that’s all God wants to give me.

I’ll leave you with this passage from C.S. Lewis, which continues to haunt me with its truth and beauty:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[1]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

Just this morning, Roger Olson has a fine post called “The ‘Judge Judged in Our Place’: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed,” which I recommend to anyone who struggles to understand or believe that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in our place on the cross. Sadly, this would include many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues—certainly those who went to seminaries like the one I went to, the Candler School of Theology,[1] where substitutionary atonement[2] is practically verboten.

But plenty of evangelicals are questioning the doctrine, too, egged on by “exvangelicals” such as Steve Chalke and Brian Zahnd, both of whose ideas I’ve criticized in the past.

So I admire the clarity with which Dr. Olson defines and defends the doctrine. Here’s how he defines it:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).

Note his emphasis on God’s righteousness, or justice. It would be unjust of God to forgive sin without at the same time paying the cost—indeed, suffering the penalty—to do so.

Forgiveness is never free. To see this, I refer you to a thought experiment that I’ve used in sermons before, based on a sermon illustration from Tim Keller:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…

Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. And I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t forgive him; I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.

And so it is for evildoing we commit against a holy God: in the interest of justice, someone must pay for it, either the perpetrator or God.

But in his recent debate on substitutionary atonement, for example, Brian Zahnd said that God doesn’t need to pay anything to forgive us: as he put it, “God forgives because God forgives.” In other words, Zahnd would say, it’s in God’s nature to forgive. While I agree that it’s in God’s nature to be merciful (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6 and many parallel verses in the Old Testament), God’s mercy is costly. Otherwise, as Olson says, “forgiveness would be indulgence.”

Suppose, by contrast—as we proponents of substitutionary atonement believe—that justice is a part of God’s loving nature—that God cannot merely overlook sin because to do so would be to deny a part of himself. (Indeed, I don’t care whether you say that justice is a part of God’s nature or, as I believe, justice proceeds necessarily from God’s love, which, as the apostle John makes explicit in 1 John 4:8, characterizes God’s nature. Same difference.) The cross of God’s Son Jesus solves the problem of God’s justice, or resolves the tension (if you want to think of it that way) between mercy and justice, or love and justice. How so? On the cross, God’s commitment to perfect justice and God’s perfect love find their fullest expression: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

This is why I can live with N.T. Wright’s—ahem—substitution of “the love of God was satisfied” in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone”—so long as I footnote it to explain that God’s love is satisfied in part because God poured out his wrath on sin through his Son Jesus. (Wright, who believes in substitutionary atonement, would accept this explanation.) Don’t get me wrong: In the context in which I minister, I would prefer to keep the song the way its songwriters wrote it and explain why it’s theologically and biblically appropriate to speak of God’s wrath. (There are, I’m sure, some preachers who speak of God’s wrath too much, but I’ve never heard a contemporary Methodist preacher who had that problem!)

Getting back to Olson, he describes the satisfaction both of God’s love and justice (righteousness, holiness) succinctly as follows:

[I]n order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.

Notice he says that “God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners.” Remembering that Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, who wants the redemption of sinners exactly as much as his Father and the Holy Spirit, and willingly does what is necessary to make it happen, guards against popular caricatures of substitutionary atonement, all of which pit a vengeful, angry father against a loving, merciful son—as if a bloodthirsty God needed to torture and kill some innocent person to satisfy his wrath, and, behold, his Son would have to do. Or God’s wrath was going to be “fired at” human beings until this “second party,” God’s Son Jesus, stepped in to “take the bullet” on our behalf.

This is ridiculous! But watch this debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown and tell me that Zahnd doesn’t caricature the doctrine in this way. It’s irresponsible and disingenuous, to say the least. Zahnd, a self-described fan of David Bentley Hart, reads some dense theology. I’m sure he’s capable of accurately describing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement even if he disagrees with it. When you’re in a debate, after all, you should always attack the best version of your opponent’s position. Otherwise, you’re guilty of committing the “straw man fallacy.”

As Olson puts it, “What many people miss when they ‘picture’ substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an ‘innocent man’ on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.”


In a future post, pastor John Piper will help me describe the way in which an allegedly “competing” theory of atonement, Christus Victor, fits hand-in-glove with substitutionary atonement.

1. I urge anyone interested in pursuing professional ministry to avoid the Candler School of Theology! It’s awful, and it’s caused great harm especially to the United Methodist Church. (I describe one example of harm in this post.) If you think think it’s impolite of me to say so, at least appreciate that I’ve paid for the privilege. Indeed, I continue to pay, both through student debt and in my spirit. Also, I write this as someone who graduated toward the top of my class. I’m not holding a grudge against Candler, for instance, because of my grades or its alleged academic rigor.

The alma mater that I love is the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have two undergraduate degrees from that fine institution, and I display these diplomas proudly on my office wall. Meanwhile, I literally have no idea where my Emory diploma is. I assume they keep records!

2. In this post, I’ve used used the term “substitutionary atonement” because Dr. Olson uses that term. Normally, I’m happy to say “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). Olson draws a distinction between the terms that I wouldn’t make. Whether I speak of PSA or substitutionary atonement, I want to affirm, alongside Olson, that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, apart from which none of us can be saved. On the cross, God did something objective through his Son’s suffering and death to make forgiveness of sin possible.

Sermon 12-30-18: “My Father’s Business”

January 6, 2019

I preached the following sermon on Luke 2:41-52, “My Father’s Business,” on December 30, 2018, at Cannon United Methodist in Snellville, Georgia. In the sermon I voice agreement with commentators who believe that during this Passover festival, Jesus’ heavenly Father revealed to him the means by which he would save the world from sin: the cross. I argue that Passover is a sign that points to Jesus, the “true Passover Lamb.” Finally, I invite the church, whose mission is the same as Jesus, to also “be about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49 KJV) in 2019.

I preached from an outline, so I don’t have a manuscript. But I’ve transcribed a few minutes of the sermon below. It reflects my conviction, about which I’ve blogged recently, that God intends for us to enjoy him, indeed to be happy in him. Radical thought, I know, but for some reason I didn’t discover this truth until the last few years! John Piper’s maxim applies here: “God is most satisfied in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Enjoy!

Jesus’ Father’s business is also our Father’s business. So shouldn’t we also be about our Father’s business? In 2019, when you think about your New Year’s resolutions, will you resolve to be about our Father’s business? But the moment I say this, I am aware that this sounds like a lot of work. Right? “Ugh! One more thing I have to do. And here’s Pastor Brent telling us we need to work harderwe need to try harder, we need to do better.”

But I promise you I’m not inviting you or me to work harder in 2019. I’m inviting you to enjoy a relationship in 2019! I’m inviting you to receive one blessing after another! I’m inviting you to partake of this abundant life that our Lord Jesus freely makes available to you! I’m inviting you to drink of that living water that springs up within us to eternal life! I’m inviting you to find your heart’s deepest satisfaction in Jesus the Bread of Life—he makes that available to us. I’m inviting you to enjoy life in 2019 more than you’ve ever enjoyed it before!

But here’s the difficult and somewhat uncomfortable truth: We don’t know how to do that… we don’t know how to enjoy life. We usually make ourselves miserable in the attempt. But you know who does? Our Lord Jesus! He wants us to enjoy life… by glorifying him… by loving him. It sounds like work but it’s not. One pastor says that living a Christian life is not a “help wanted sign.” Rather, living a Christian life is a “help offered” sign. Our Lord wants to give us an abundant life; he wants to give us a better life. It’s just that the only way to receive it is by being about our Father’s business.

And we know from scripture that that does not imply an easy life. In fact it was very difficult for Joseph and Mary in today’s scripture—wouldn’t you say?

“Angels unawares”: my gratitude for a stranger who helped to rescue my soul

January 5, 2019

I’m currently enjoying a Christmas gift: Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series album, a collection of outtakes from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, perhaps his best album—which is to say, it’s among the best collection of songs ever committed to tape. These sparsely arranged, previously unreleased “alternate” versions—featuring only Dylan, his guitar, and, occasionally, a sympathetic bass guitar played by Tony Brown—may even be better.

It’s about as good as music gets, in my opinion.

But that’s not the point of this post. I’m merely pointing this out to say that this album has put me in an introspective mood. If you know the album, you know it has the power to do that.

For the past few weeks, I have felt profound gratitude for someone whose name I can’t even remember. If you recall, he was the retired NASA engineer and amateur astronomer whom I referred to in this recent Advent devotional. (Please read it to refresh your memory.) I don’t know if he’s still alive. He wasn’t a member of the church I was serving at the time, Alpharetta First United Methodist. But he called our church looking specifically for a pastor who could visit him during a long convalescence from an illness. There were two other pastors on staff at the church, but I happened to get the call, thank God!

I ended up visiting him several times, including at least a couple of times at Emory University Hospital, after he had surgery. But the visit I described in my Advent devotional was one of the most formative events of my life, which I’ve only recently come to appreciate.

Why was it so important? Because I was living at the time through a long season of doubt and despair in my Christian faith. I had recently graduated from a mainline Protestant seminary, the Candler School of Theology, and was commissioned as a “probationary elder.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been very critical of my education and experience at Candler: By all means, most of my trouble was self-inflicted. I was ill-prepared to fight the spiritual warfare that inevitably comes the way of anyone who answers God’s call into pastoral ministry. That’s my fault, not Candler’s.

But Candler didn’t help, to say the least.

For example, consider this experience from 2006: I took a popular elective taught by a theology professor who was himself an ordained Anglican minister from India. (His name is unimportant for this post; if you went to Candler, you’ll know whom I’m talking about. He’s retired now.) Like many professors at Candler, he embraced universalism and syncretism of different religions—because, in his mind, they all (or many of them, at least) ultimately reveal the same God.

As troubling as you may find this teaching, which is commonplace in liberal mainline seminaries, I’m far more troubled by an event in which I, alongside dozens of my future fellow UMC ordinands, participated. The professor took our class on a field trip to a Hindu temple, located south of the Atlanta airport in Riverdale, where he had us take turns—I’m not making this up—offering a “sacrifice” (of bananas and grapes, as I recall) to a literal idol, which stood above an altar in the sanctuary of this temple.

We handed our offering to a HIndu priest who then rang a bell (or something like that) as a way of indicating that the god accepted our sacrifice.

From the professor’s point of view, our behavior wasn’t sinful because the god to whom we were sacrificing was the same God in which Christians believe.

I’ll let you be the judge. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and share my convictions about scripture, you know better. What did Martin Luther say? “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it”—or, I would add, even a popular and highly credentialed doctor of the church! Not to mention fools like me who should have known better, yet blindly followed.

Am I wrong? Did we not commit literal idolatry in a pagan temple as part of our coursework at an allegedly Christian and United Methodist-affiliated seminary?

Moreover, how many thousands of future UMC clergy (like myself) took part in this same idolatrous exercise? And what kind of spiritual or demonic harm can come from this behavior?

Am I overstating the case? Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 that while idols are nothing, we must avoid them because demons work through them to our great harm. “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

I have repented. I cling to the promise of 1 John 1:9, concerning this and all other sins I’ve committed and commit: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I know our Lord has forgiven me of all my sins through his precious blood shed on the cross. Moreover, I know that my “old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). I know that on the cross an exchange took place: “For our sake”—including for my sake—God “made him”—Jesus—”to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we”—including even me—”might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We Protestants rightly say that Christ imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift, whereby we already stand before God as holy and perfect—even as the Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome sin in our lives.

Nevertheless, I urge my fellow United Methodist clergy who participated in this idolatry to likewise repent. Because make no mistake: You and I committed the gravest sin of all: we broke the first two of the ten commandments like it was nothing at all… without giving it a second thought. How is that possible? How did we have so little fear of God?

Now, the following is strictly hypothetical, because God knew, even as I was wandering in a wilderness of sin and waywardness, how he would transform experiences like these and use them for my good. (Thank you, Jesus!) But consider this: Wesleyan Christians, including even we watered-down United Methodists, are supposed to believe in the possibility of backsliding—literally losing our salvation, which can happen through willful, unrepentant sinning.

Suppose, around the time I bent my knee to that idol, without remorse, on that terrible spring afternoon so long ago—suppose I had died in a car crash on my way home to Forsyth, Georgia, where I was (poorly) serving a church as a licensed lay pastor? Would I have even been saved?

I don’t know. I can’t say with any confidence I would have been. I didn’t fear God. I disdained his holy word. I was lost. But thank God he had mercy on me! Thank God he let me live long enough to repent!

Thank God he appointed me to visit that wonderful amateur astronomer in the fall of 2008, who had been studying the Bible, astronomy journals, and star charts, trying to discern what it was the magi saw when they stared into the Babylonian night sky around 6 or 5 B.C.

It doesn’t matter whether this man was correct in his conclusions. What matters is that this brilliant man with a Ph.D. from Harvard believed that God did something, either supernaturally or providentially, to move these pagan astrologers seven hundred miles southwest to see the newborn king of the Jews. Did this man know my heart? Did he know that I had come to believe, alongside many of my professors at Candler, that the story of the magi—along with the Virgin Birth—wasn’t historical fact but “pious fiction,” meant only to communicate something theological about Jesus?

Did he imagine that he was planting a small seed of faith within me, which would help bring me back to my senses (Luke 15:17 NIV)?

When I left his house that day, this thought crossed my mind: “What if he’s right? He’s smarter than I am, after all… What if he’s right?

God used other people and events to bring me to repentance, but thank God he used that man! He was an angel—at least figuratively.

But who knows…?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

I love you, Jesus! Use me to save others the way you used this man to save me. Amen.