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Our only hope in life and death

June 22, 2017

Recently, I’ve become interested in catechesis, the instructions that the church gives to people who are going to be baptized or confirmed. Our church’s confirmation class, for example, is one form of catechesis: “Here are the essentials of the Christian faith and our Wesleyan movement. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. Here’s what it means to be a Methodist Christian.”

A couple of centuries ago, churches often expected confirmands and converts to memorize catechisms, a series of questions-and-answers about the doctrines of the faith, along with scripture references. Some churches still use these. Earlier this year, I began studying one famous catechism, which John Wesley adapted for us Methodists, the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The well-known first question and answer is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Drawing upon classic Protestant catechisms of the past—like the Westminster Shorter and Heidelberg Catechisms—Crossway, publisher of the ESV Bible, recently produced The New City Catechism. Pastor Tim Keller, one of my favorite contemporary preachers, helped to put it together.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the version that included devotionals—one historical and one contemporary—for each entry. John Wesley is one source for the historical devotionals. I’ve been reflecting on the first question and answer, which you can see in the photo above:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.[1]

The scripture reference is Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

I’ve written and preached before about my sinful tendency to compare myself to others. Even last Sunday, describing my experience the week before, I said the following:

I can hardly enjoy Annual Conference without looking over my shoulder at what my fellow clergy have—how prestigious their appointment is; how high their church’s steeple is; what awards and recognition they’ve received. And I compare myself to them, and I’m miserable because I worry that I’m falling behind.

Why do I do this? In part, it’s because I don’t believe that my only hope in life and death is that I belong to God and his Son Jesus. I place my hope in many other things: in career success, in other people’s opinions of me, in physical fitness, in my enjoyment of leisure time and hobbies. How do I know I do this? Because if something threatens any of these things, I fall apart. I’m filled with resentment.

Even last week in Athens, tendinitis in my left Achilles tendon (which is itself an “overuse” injury from trying to get in shape for an upcoming beach trip) prevented me from running in a 5K with my son Townshend. And I was so angry about it! Why? Because I derive some measure of my self-esteem from being able to compete (and beat) other people in 5K races. I place some measure of hope in this kind of success. And now—suddenly—my body tells me I can’t do that? Then what good am I? How will others know I’m valuable?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous.

By contrast, suppose I believed—really believed—that my life was not my own; it belonged solely to the Lord. Suppose I believed that every moment of every day was his to do with as he pleases. Suppose my chief concern in life was pleasing the Lord and not myself?

“What a wonderful world this would be,” as the song says.

Are you like me? Are you placing your hope or hopes in something or someone other than Christ? Where are you placing them?

Here’s the prayer that accompanies the New City Catechism’s first devotional:

Christ Our Hope, in life and in death, we cast ourselves on your merciful, fatherly care. You love us because we are your own. We have no good apart from you, and we could ask for no greater gift than to belong to you. Amen.[2]

1. The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 17.

2. Ibid., 19.

Sermon 05-28-17: “What Is Jesus Worth to You?”

June 22, 2017

“Long for the pure spiritual milk,” Peter writes—by which he means the “milk of the word,” as the King James puts it. In other words, as God’s children, we should long for the gospel, for God’s Word, and for God’s kingdom. As I discuss in this sermon, we can’t fake “longing for” something. Either we do or we don’t. And if we don’t, then that’s a symptom of a spiritual problem. See, when Peter tells us to “put away” these various sins in verse 1, my temptation is to preach a “try harder”-type sermon: “Try harder to be a better Christian. Work harder on the ‘spiritual disciplines.’ Pray more. Study the Bible more.” But as I make clear in this sermon, our problem isn’t that we’re not trying hard enough; our problem is that we’re not believing the gospel wholeheartedly enough. We need to learn to apply the gospel to the problems in our lives. This sermon talks about how to do that.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:1-10

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

There was a lot of heartbreaking news last week: First, there was the terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England—an attack designed to kill children, and  teenagers, and their parents. Twenty-two people died. Many more were injured. President Trump referred to the terrorists as “evil losers,” and I couldn’t agree more! Evil losers. I like that. When we hear about this sort of thing, it is perfectly good and even Christian for us to remind ourselves of Paul’s words in Romans 12: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”[1] We can thank God for that.

We can also thank God, especially on this Memorial Day weekend, that God has called men and women in our armed forces to be what Paul describes in Romans 13 as “God’s servants”—avengers, he says—who carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers.[2] And on this weekend especially we thank God for those who gave “the last full measure of devotion.”

By all means, we Christians are supposed to live our lives as peace-loving and peace-making, inasmuch as it depends on us, but we do so with the certain knowledge that in the end, God will ensure that no sin, no evil, will ultimately go unpunished. There will be a Day when justice will be done—completely and perfectly. God will see to it! And for those of us who have trusted in Christ, we are thankful that on the cross, God in Christ has taken the punishment that we deserve for our sin and our evil. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 05-21-17: “Craving the Pure Milk of God’s Word”

June 20, 2017

In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…” We Christians are often distracted by things in our lives that don’t last. Yet Peter is calling us to build our lives on a foundation that which lasts for eternity: the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s Word. How do we do this? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:3

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks & Recreation, which features a character named Ron Swanson. In one episode, Ron gets taken to court. A couple of his friends who are called to testify on his behalf lie under oath—in order to protect their friend. Ron says, “Tom and April were excellent witnesses in my defense. Unfortunately every single word out of their mouths was a lie. There is only one thing I hate more than lying—skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.

When did we all switch to skim milk? For my family, it was back in the early-’80s, when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember how, when I poured it over my Rice Krispies, it looked blue. Do you know what I’m talking about. I did not want to drink blue milk. Well, eventually I got used to it; and I bet many of you did, too. We got used to it because skim milk was supposed to be good for us.

Well, I read an article not long ago that said that we were sold a bill of goods. That long-term studies show that whole milk—milk that stays white when you pour it over cereal—might actually be better for you than skim milk, and help you lose weight more effectively than skim milk. For one thing, the article said, it helps you feel full, so you eat less.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m not recommending that you make the switch without consulting with your doctor, but that was just the excuse that I needed. So I switched back to whole milk. And I’m much happier. And my cat, too. He’s always at my feet at the breakfast table when I eat cereal. Because he loves whole milk and expects me to put the bowl on the floor when I finish up.

So, accept no substitutes: I don’t want water that’s lying about being milk; I won’t settle for watered-down milk; I want milk. Pure whole milk.

And in today’s scripture, Peter makes a similar point: Accept no substitutes, he says. “Long for,” or crave, “pure spiritual milk.” Don’t settle for anything less than that. Read the rest of this entry »

Should we say, “The Lord told me”?

June 19, 2017

I recently discovered a podcast produced by serious students of Wesleyan-Arminianism called “Remonstrance.” (For some reason, I’m unable to copy and paste a link to the podcast URL. You can search for it in the iTunes store or wherever fine podcasts are distributed.) It’s been a godsend for me: I’ve been slightly concerned over the past few years that my theological convictions have moved too far in a Reformed direction, especially as it relates to God’s providence and sovereignty. Also, it doesn’t help that my two favorite contemporary preachers are Calvinists.

Still, I’m only “slightly concerned” because, like Wesley, I’m a “man of one book”: I don’t invest anyone’s theology with any authority that doesn’t derive from its concordance with what God has revealed in scripture.

So what’s a Methodist pastor like me to do?

How about digging more deeply into my Wesleyan-Arminian roots and seeing if my current convictions are in line with what Arminius and Wesley actually believed (rather than what modern-day descendants of their tradition believe)? If you’re a layperson, you might wonder why I should need a podcast to help me with this. Didn’t I learn this stuff at my Methodist-affiliated seminary?

And the answer is “no.” While I knew that Wesley was an outspoken Arminian, we studied no original writings of Arminius himself. Moreover, while we read about the disputes that Wesley had with Calvinists like George Whitefield, we didn’t dig deeply into the theological ideas that undergirded those disputes—beyond shallow discussions about free will and double predestination.

And, no, none of us read Calvin’s Institutes, so who among us even knew what we were supposed to be rejecting and why?

Mostly, what we Methodists learned from mainline seminary is that theology isn’t something to get hung up about. (And we wonder why our United Methodist Church is on the brink of schism?)

All that to say, the purpose of the Remonstrance podcast is to dig deeply into the primary sources (and trusted secondary sources) to recover true Wesleyan-Arminian thought. I was relieved to learn, through a series of podcasts, that both Arminius and Wesley embraced meticulous providence and penal substitution. (Neither, by the way, believed in the “governmental theory” of atonement, which is popular in some Methodist circles today.)

So, with that in mind, I want to draw your attention to this blog post from fellow Arminian Roger Olson. He shares a personal experience that (he believes) was supernatural. He worries that too many of us evangelicals (maybe himself included) too quickly reject the supernatural.

I wrote the following comment (now awaiting moderation).

As for the apparent “coincidence” of thinking about your friend, I have no problem whatsoever believing that it’s supernatural. If we believe in the providence of external events (which I most assuredly do)—that God is constantly working through events in the world for his purposes—why wouldn’t we also believe in the “providence of our thoughts”? This is why, by the way, I don’t have a problem (with a few qualifications) with people who say, “The Lord told me…” or “The Lord showed me…” What they usually mean is, “I have an intuition, which I believe comes from God, that I should do this particular thing.”

Here are my qualifications: that we don’t elevate these intuitions to the same status as God’s revelation in scripture; that the intuition doesn’t contradict scripture; and that we recognize that we may be wrong or misinterpreting what the Lord is telling us.

What about you? How comfortable are you with Christians saying, “The Lord told me…” or “The Lord showed me…”?

The temptation to “go from house to house”

June 15, 2017

My friend Leslie got ordained last night. I met her on my first day of class at Emory in 2004. She often elbowed me awake in John Hayes’s 8:00 a.m. OT class.

Last night at Annual Conference, our bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, preached a message to our conference’s newly ordained, commissioned, and licensed pastors and deacons. Her text was Luke 10:1-12, where Jesus commissions 72 disciples to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick in the towns around Galilee. The bishop related Jesus’ instructions to these disciples to our role as clergy.

Prior to her sermon, I’d never thought about the meaning of verse 7: “And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.”

Do not go from house to house.

In other words, Jesus says, when the disciples come into a town, and someone offers them a place stay, they should avoid the temptation to seek more comfortable, more spacious lodging in someone else’s home, even if it’s offered to them. Stay where you are and be content, Jesus says. Don’t look for something better.

It’s easy to see how this applies to us United Methodist pastors, who are itinerant. Each year the bishop either reappoints us to our present church or sends us to a new church (or churches). In theory, we go where we’re sent; it isn’t up to us. Whether we “like” our appointment is beside the point.

The danger, the bishop said, is restlessness: we clergy will be so anxious for our next appointment that we’ll fail to appreciate, enjoy, or learn from our present one. This restlessness becomes worse, of course, when we look over our shoulders at our clergy colleagues and compare ourselves to them and their appointments. “How do I rate? Am I falling behind? Am I moving ahead?”

As a naturally ambitious person, I can relate—and maybe you can, too. My temptation to compare myself to others has brought me nothing but misery.

Besides, we should avoid “going from house to house” for a deeper reason: Ultimately we’re appointed not by any bishop or district superintendent; we’re appointed by God.

In fact, wherever you are, whoever you are, you are there because God wants you to be there. You have an appointment. 

But what if you say, “I don’t like where God has appointed me”? Or, as the Talking Heads sang:

You may ask yourself, “Where is that large automobile?”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife”

Okay… As pastor and theologian Paul Zahl says: Blame God. He can take it.

But as you do so, remember this: We are “slaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Our life doesn’t belong to us. Our personal happiness isn’t the point of life. We are owned by the One who paid for us by the precious blood of his beloved Son. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, we live for one reason only: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Wherever God has appointed us, he has done so for his glory. The question all of us must ask is this: “Is living for God’s glory enough for me?”

What Galatians reveals about the authority of scripture

June 14, 2017

Last week, in my Galatians Bible study, we covered scripture that includes Galatians 3:16. Scholars call this a parenthetical aside on Paul’s part: while making the case that justification by faith alone was God’s plan from the beginning, Paul briefly argues that God’s promise to Abraham explicitly pointed to Christ:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

There are many scriptures to which Paul might be referring here, but he seems to have Genesis 15:18 and 17:8 in mind.

Here’s my question: Is there a problem with Paul’s argument?

Potentially, yes. The Greek word translated “offspring,” sperma, can function either as singular, meaning one, or as a collective singular, meaning more than one. Paul himself uses “offspring” in this plural sense in Romans 4:18. While many readers of Genesis might assume that the author intends it in the plural sense, Paul disagrees: in this case, “offspring” means one, and that one is Jesus.

What do we make of this?

Here’s my perspective: The word is ambiguous in Genesis 15:8 and 17:8. It could be plural or singular. But as soon as Paul, writing God’s inspired Word in Galatians, says that it is singular and it refers to Christ, the ambiguity is resolved. I feel the same, by the way, about arguments over the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14b: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In Hebrew, the word for “virgin,” almah, can also mean “young woman.” (The translators of the Septuagint understood it as “virgin.”) But when Matthew uses the word “virgin” in Matthew 1:23, the ambiguity—again—is resolved.

That issue aside, I like this insight from the ESV Study Bible commentary on Galatians 3:16 (emphasis theirs):

And to your offspring Paul knows that the singular (Hb. zera‘) can be used a collective singular that has a plural sense (he interprets it in a plural sense in Rom. 4:18). But it also can have a singular meaning, and here Paul, knowing that only in Christ would the promised blessings come to the Gentiles, sees that the most true and ultimate fulfillment of these OT promises comes to one “offspring,” namely, Christ. Paul’s willingness to make an argument using a singular noun in distinction from its plural form (which occurs in other OT verses) indicates a high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text.[†]

A high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text. I like that!

Why don’t more of us let the apostle’s view of the authority of scripture shape our own?

I’m at Annual Conference this week in Athens, Georgia. This is a yearly meeting of United Methodists from the northern half of Georgia. In a sermon, one of my fellow pastors quoted a scholar who said, “God is a trustworthy maker of promises.” Of course that’s true. But given the convictions of the many progressive clergy who were in attendance, I wanted to say, “Yes, but how can God be a ‘trustworthy maker of promises’ if you don’t trust the only means by which those promises are revealed (i.e., the Bible)?”

How would progressives answer that question?

1. The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2250.

My defense of the second least popular Christian doctrine

June 9, 2017

Next to the orthodox Christian belief that God intends marriage and sex to be between one man and one woman, the least popular Christian belief in our culture is that salvation is found through Christ alone. In a recent sermon, I described a difficult argument that I had with a fellow United Methodist pastor on this very topic. As with sex and marriage, there’s no ambiguity on this question in scripture: If we’re wrong about the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ, God’s Word is unreliable, to say the least. Even if there were still a gospel, we would no longer know what it is. We would be unable to say anything for certain about God and our relationship to him.

Even a few decades ago, this belief in the exclusivity of Christ was widely embraced and uncontroversial. As of this past Wednesday, however, when a presidential nominee for deputy budget director stood for a senate confirmation hearing, this belief is now so offensive that it might disqualify someone from serving in government.

Although I’m not sure how the religious convictions of the nominee, Russell Vought, impinge on his ability to be an effective deputy budget director, I’m not interested here in political and constitutional questions. (That’s not what my blog is for.) Let me simply defend the nominee on theological grounds. Mr. Vought is one-hundred percent correct that Muslims “stand condemned” for their sins, and, ultimately, for rejecting the only means by which anyone can be saved: God’s Son Jesus. All of humanity, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, stand condemned. Even nominal Christians who profess Christian faith but whose lives show no evidence of repentance are in grave danger.

The good news is that God loves every one of these unbelievers or nominal believers and is at work, right now, to bring them into a saving relationship with him. In fact, he’s calling people like Vought, me, and anyone else who follows Christ to play a role in this missionary effort. God’s plan of salvation includes using us Christians to save others.

In last week’s sermon (which I’ll post here soon, I promise), I said the following:

In Acts 20, when Paul was saying goodbye to the church at Ephesus, a church that he started and a church at which he ministered for over three years, he discussed his ministry there, his boldness in proclaiming the gospel to everyone he possibly could, and said, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”

Do you know what he’s saying there? He’s saying that if he failed to proclaim the gospel to someone that God put in his path while he was there in Ephesus; and that person never otherwise had an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel; and that person died and as a result went to hell; then that person’s blood would be on Paul’s hands. Why? Because the Holy Spirit put that person in Paul’s life for a reason—so that Paul could share the gospel with him or her. That might have been that person’s only chance at salvation. Paul understood, as we so often fail to understand, that what we do here—what we do as ministers of the gospel at Hampton United Methodist Church—has eternal consequences!

I went on to say that I’m not like Paul. I can’t say for sure that I’m “innocent of the blood of all,” because I have often failed to share the gospel as I should. Moreover, I worry that my personal conduct might have turned people away from the gospel entirely!

Needless to say, I’ve repented.

I only hope that, upon close inspection of my life today, these offended senators would find my beliefs equally “indefensible,” “hateful,” and “Islamophobic.”

Sermon 05-14-17: “The Christian and Final Judgment”

June 8, 2017

I suspect many Christians are confused about Final Judgment: They think that they won’t have to face it because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. But the Bible is clear: when Christ returns at the end of the age, we will all be resurrected and face judgment. How does this doctrine square with our belief that we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? How will our judgment be different from non-believers? This sermon answers these questions.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:17-19

Sometimes I think that the world of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—exists to judge us. Seriously. We compare ourselves to our friends and, worse, our “frenemies,” and we feel judged by them. Someone has a wedding anniversary, and they post this mushy, gushy statement about how wonderful their wife or husband is, and we feel judged: “What am I doing wrong in my marriage?” Someone posts some amazing accomplishment of one of their kids, and we think: “I have obviously failed as a parent, because my kids can’t do that!” Someone posts vacation pictures from some exotic paradise, and we think, “Where did they get the money to go there? What am I doing wrong?”

We don’t like being judged… I don’t like being judged. Every once in a while, my wife, Lisa, will say to me—perfectly innocently—“Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad are dropping by in a little while,” and I’ll be like, “What? Why didn’t you warn me? I’ve got to cut the grass! Clean up the yard! Blow off the walkway!” Why? Because I don’t want to be judged—especially by my father-in-law! Because if the yard is unkempt, that’s a direct reflection on me!

We don’t like being judged. We’re afraid of being judged—at least by other human beings. But here’s my question: Are we more afraid of being judged by people than we are by God? Why aren’t we more afraid of being judged by God? Read the rest of this entry »

More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.

Amazing grace in the Old Testament

June 1, 2017

Wednesday night’s Bible study featured a popular recurring topic: Does God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, seem different—less merciful, more violent—than the God that Jesus Christ and the apostles reveal to us in the New Testament?

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a stickler about this question: First, God doesn’t change, regardless how the Bible portrays him. But even more, I believe the Bible’s portrayal of God is consistent between the two Testaments. By all means, Jesus reveals more about who God is, and we see in Christ the full extent of God’s love, mercy, and compassion in a way that we can’t in the Old Testament. But this is not to say that Jesus contradicts the Old Testament’s portrayal of God as being committed to justice, having justifiable wrath toward sin, and punishing evildoers who won’t repent of their sins.

In fact, most of what we know about final judgment and hell, for example, we learn from the lips of Jesus himself in the four gospels. And in Revelation 19, the sword-wielding rider on the white horse, whose robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies and who avenges evil, is Jesus himself.

My point—heaven forbid!—is not that God isn’t as gracious and merciful as we think he is in the New Testament, but that he’s just as committed to justice as he is in the Old Testament. In fact, on the cross of his Son, God’s perfect justice and his perfect love meet. Far from being at odds with one another, God’s commitment to justice flows from his perfect love.

Having said that, the Old Testament bears witness to God’s profound grace and mercy. In our Bible study, we discussed many examples of this, including the Bible’s repeated affirmation that God is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).

But one of the best examples of God’s mercy, which I didn’t think about until this morning—when I read about him during my quiet time—is Manasseh, king of Judah, in 2 Chronicles 33. Manasseh, like so many kings of Judah before and after him, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chron. 33:2). The difference is the scale of his evil: he was literally the worst of a bad lot.

Child sacrifice, sorcery, idolatry—you name it, he did it. And he led his people into these sins as well. In fact, 2 Kings 21, which also recounts Manasseh’s story, tells us that Manasseh’s wickedness is the primary reason that the Southern Kingdom of Israel fell.

And yet…

Second Chronicles features one aspect of his story that the writer of 2 Kings leaves out: Manasseh repents. His change of heart occurs after the king of Assyria took him captive, binding him in chains and deporting him to Babylon. There, the author tells us,

[Manasseh] was in distress, [and] he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.

And for the rest of his reign, Manasseh’s life bore witness to his repentance, which you can read about in 2 Chronicles 33:14-20.

Let’s notice a few things about this: God dealt Manasseh what C.S. Lewis calls a “severe mercy”: God allowed Manasseh to suffer for his sin, but not merely for the sake of suffering. Rather, God used his suffering to bring him to repentance and to deeper faith in him (to say the least). This ought to remind us of something that the New Testament teaches repeatedly: that God disciplines his children (Hebrews 12:6) and uses trials and testing for our own good (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7).

Manasseh’s story reminds us that it’s never too late to get our lives right with God. As long as we have breath in our lungs, we still have the opportunity to repent. For the sake of our souls, let’s not waste it.

Finally, if God can forgive Manasseh, whom the Bible describes as the worst in a long line of bad people, well… don’t you think God can forgive you and me?

If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is!