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“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!

“Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you…”

May 23, 2018

When I was a teenager many years ago, I had a job bagging groceries at Kroger. I worked alongside a fellow high school student named Christine. She was Pentecostal, one of the first I ever knew. One day she told me something that has stuck with me. “I admire you Baptists,” she said. (I grew up Baptist.) Why? She said, “Because you have such strong faith in Christ, yet you never get to see any miracles.”

You never get to see any miracles.

Was this true then? Is it true now? While Baptists tend to be cessationists—meaning, they deny spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and miracles—and my present tribe, the Methodists, isn’t, she could say the same about most of us as well. Even if we believe that these gifts exist, most of us don’t live as if we expect supernatural events to happen. (Please note: Even many cessationists don’t deny the possibility of miracles or a prophetic word, only that individuals aren’t gifted with these abilities. So even many Baptists might take issue with Christine’s words.)

How different, therefore, are the Christians to whom Paul is writing in Galatians 3: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (v. 2) And then this, in verse 5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”

Remember the context: False teachers have infiltrated the Galatian churches. They have been arguing that Paul’s gospel was wrong: in order to be justified, they have to not only believe in Jesus but also add certain “works of the law,” including being circumcised, following dietary laws, and observing Jewish festivals. Paul says no—emphatically. To add even one small requirement in addition to faith, Paul argues, is to lose the gospel entirely.

And in verses 1 through 5, Paul appeals to the Galatians’ experience: How did they receive the Holy Spirit when they first got converted (v. 2)? How do they continue to experience the Holy Spirit now (v. 5)? It is not by doing anything; it’s by faith.

But in order for Paul’s argument to work here, Paul knows that even the Galatians who have fallen under the sway of the false teachers would concede the fact that they’ve already received the Spirit. In other words, he knows that none of them would be able to say, “You say we’ve received the Spirit—but how do we really know? That’s a very subjective thing, Paul. Where’s the evidence that we’ve received the Spirit? Maybe we haven’t. In fact, maybe we need to start doing works of the law, after which we’ll receive the Spirit and experience the Spirit’s manifestations—including miracles.”

But no… Paul’s argument works because, from the Galatians’ perspective, there’s no question that they’ve received the Spirit! It’s beyond dispute! They’ve experienced him. They’ve witnessed his power!

Could Paul—if he were arguing today—make the same argument? Could he successfully appeal to our experience with the Holy Spirit? Or would we have to say, “How do we know we’ve received him?”—because keep in mind, cessationist or not, we all believe that we’ve received him. See Romans 8:9: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Contrary to what many Pentecostal brothers and sisters say, we receive him the moment we first believe. (Outside of Pentecostalism, this is beyond dispute, at least within evangelicalism.)

So… Have we Christians experienced the Holy Spirit? Do we experience him? How? Before I answer, I’m interested (sincerely) in what my readers have to say. Also, how important do you believe it is for Christians today to experience the Spirit to some degree—even in small, ordinary, “non-miraculous” ways?

A homily for preschool commencement: “Christ Our Greatest Treasure”

May 18, 2018

“Parable of the Hidden Treasure” by Rembrandt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I preached a shortened version of the following homily at our church’s preschool commencement service last night. I’ve said before that I always use these occasions to share the gospel. Why? Because we have a large and “captive” audience of people, many of whom have no connection to this or any church. If we won’t share the gospel with them as we have the opportunity, why bother having a church preschool?

Homily Text: Matthew 13:44-45; 19:16-22

In case you don’t know, we Methodist pastors are itinerant, meaning that each year the bishop reappoints us to our present church, or we get appointed to a new church. Well, after five years serving Hampton United Methodist as pastor, it’s my time to move. So this will be my last opportunity to address the parents, family, and friends of our preschool students. And I have an urgent message that I need to share with you before I leave.

But it’s an easy message to share, and it brings me great joy to share it, because it’s about a gift that is more valuable than any other other; it’s the greatest treasure anyone could possess; it’s completely free of charge; and it’s available to each one of you.

Jesus himself talks about this gift in Matthew 13:44-45:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Of course this “treasure” is nothing less than a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it’s eternal life; it’s our hearts’ deepest desire.

And I’m sure that many of you have received this gift already. But it’s also likely that some of you have gone through the motions of churchgoing—perhaps you’ve been baptized; you’ve joined a church; you’ve gone through confirmation; you’ve walked down an aisle at a pastor’s invitation; you’ve prayed a sinner’s prayer; you’ve signed a card. Needless to say, I hope, this is not what I’m talking about; I’m talking about treasuring Jesus above every other possible worldly treasure!

If we don’t do that, it’s very possible that we’re not saved!

Consider Jesus’ encounter in Matthew 19 with the man that we traditionally call the “Rich Young Ruler.” He asks Jesus what “good deed” he must do in order to have eternal life. Jesus tells him, in so many words, to obey the Ten Commandments. The man reassures Jesus that he’s been doing that his entire life. “Okay,” Jesus says, “There’s just one more thing: Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor—then you can be my disciple and have eternal life.”

And years ago I struggled with this: Wasn’t Jesus being a little… well, harsh… overly demandingunreasonable… After all, suppose he didn’t have to give everything away: suppose Jesus only commanded him to give 50 percent of his wealth away. Wouldn’t that be enough? Most church people I know, after all, struggle to tithe!

But I now see that Jesus wasn’t being unreasonable… he was being realistic; he was even being compassionate. Why? Because if the Rich Young Ruler didn’t believe and understand that what he would gain by following Jesus was worth far more than every penny that was in his bank account, then Jesus would be giving the man false hope if he had responded to him in any other way! It’s not so much that the Rich Young Ruler couldn’t be saved and hold on to all his money; it’s that he wouldn’t. His heart wasn’t in it. By refusing to obey Jesus and walking away, he proved that he treasured something more than Jesus. He was not like the man who stumbled upon the buried treasure or the merchant who found the priceless pearl.

What about you? Do you treasure Jesus above everything and everyone else? Unless or until you do, you know you won’t be happy, right?

You’ll remember that the actor and comedian Robin Williams died by suicide a few years ago. He had every treasure that our culture tells us is important: wealth, fame, romantic love, the adoration of others, success at the highest levels of his industry. He dated supermodels! He lived in mansions! He had the highest-rated TV show and some of the most commercially and critically successful movies! He had Golden Globes! He had an Academy Award!

A few years before he died, he was talking about his Academy Award. He said that you think, as an actor, before you win an Oscar, that winning this award will fill you up… you’ll be satisfied… you’ll be content… He said, “The Oscar lasted about a week, then everyone was like, ‘Hey, Mork!'”

The greatest treasure our world can offer will never satisfy our souls! Only Jesus can!

Perhaps Robin Williams never learned this, but you know who did? The apostle Paul… For an ambitious and religious young man living in the first century, Paul had every treasure that his particular culture said was important. These would have included the best education, wealth, fame, the respect of his colleagues, a reputation for being righteous, a good name… Yet this same Paul was able to say, “Whatever gain I had”—in my former life before I knew Christ—”I counted as loss… I count everything [besides Christ] as loss… For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things”—including every treasure that the world tells me will satisfy my soul—”and I count them as rubbish” compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

And not only did Paul lose everything that he had… he also received something from following Christ that he didn’t want: a lot of pain and suffering! Listen to just a few of the things that he endured for being a disciple of Christ, which he describes in 2 Corinthians 11: Five times he received 40 lashes minus one; three times he was beaten with rods; once he was stoned and left for dead; three times he was shipwrecked; once he was adrift at sea for a night and a day; he was in constant danger from his enemies; he was hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked. He was imprisoned on multiple occasions.

So… Paul lost every treasure he had in his life before Christ; he received a world of pain and suffering in return; and he still could manage to say, “It has been completely worth it for the sake of what I’ve gained in Christ! Totally worth it! A small price to pay!”

Why did he say that? Because he found that knowing Jesus Christ was of surpassing worth! He found that it was worth everything he could give and more! He found that it satisfied his soul’s deepest longing!

And don’t you want that, too? God wants to give you this gift!

Here’s how you can receive it: First, understand that we’re all sinners. The Bible says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. And this is a problem. “For the wages of sin is death”—which isn’t merely physical death, but spiritual death, too, which means eternal separation from God in hell—but the Bible goes on to say that the “free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23. God wants to save us; he wants us to spend eternity with him because he loves us: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8. In other words, on the cross, God in Christ willingly took upon himself our sins, and he suffered the penalty for them that we would otherwise have to suffer—including hell itself! He did that because he loves us. The Bible says, “For our sake, [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So on the cross a glorious transfer takes place: we give Christ our sins; he gives us his righteousness. So that now we can have a relationship with God; we become God’s children; and we can experience a new and better and deeply satisfying kind of life—both now and forever. Jesus said, “My purpose is to give [us] a rich and satisfying life.” John 10:10 (NLT).

Finally, if you believe all of that, here’s how you receive it: the Bible says, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.” Romans 10:9-10 (NLT).

Are you ready to make Jesus your life’s greatest treasure? I would love to talk with you further about it!

Devotional Podcast #25: “When God Disrupts Our Lives”

May 15, 2018

There’s a little word at the beginning of the first sentence of the Book of Jonah—”and” or “now”—that most modern Bible translations ignore: “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” That little word not only has great significance for Jonah, but for us as well. I’ll tell you why in this episode.

Devotional Text: Jonah 1:1-3; Psalm 115:1

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

Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Wednesday, May 16, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #25.

You’re also listening to the band Stryper, and a song called “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here” from their brand new album—recorded, as always, directly from vinyl. The singer says that he’s “sold out with no fear… only for Jesus.” I want to be sold with no fear only for Jesus. How about you? That’s what I want to talk about. 

To do that, let’s look at the first verse of the Book of Jonah. In the NIV and most other contemporary translations, it reads, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai.” That’s O.K., I guess, but the translations that are descended from the King James6—such as the ESV and NRSV—they’re somewhat more faithful to the Hebrew with this verse. Because there’s a word at the beginning of this sentence: and. “And the word of the Lord”—or “now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.”

At least one commentator I read—Phillip Cary, in his profoundly good commentary on Jonah, published by Brazos Press, the absolute best of its kind! If you’re interested in learning more about this little four-chapter book of the Bible, read Phillip Cary’s commentary on Jonah! I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. Anyway, my point is, he sees great significance in this little word “and”… and who am I to disagree. “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” About this little word and he writes [emphasis mine]:

Finally, before we proceed let us go back for a moment to the first word, that unobtrusive little particle “and” (often translated “now” or “but”) whose force depends so much on drawing no attention to itself. It is over before we notice it, so that we can get on with thinking about weightier words such as “the word of the Lord.” But now is the time to look back at the service it has performed. It got us into the story before we knew it, getting us thinking about the events to come as if they belonged to some larger series of events already under way, as if somehow we had just turned the page to begin a new chapter in a much larger book. And of course that is exactly what has happened. Not only does the book of Jonah belong to the much larger book called the Bible, the book of books, but the story of Jonah is a chapter in the much larger story of the dealings of the Lord God with Israel and the nations. So we begin by getting into the middle of things… For this is how we always begin. Even our birth is always in the middle of an ongoing family history. Only the word of the Lord can begin at the very beginning. We follow.[1]

Hmm… We follow. Or we don’t follow. Or we don’t want to follow. The choice is ours. Jonah’s problem was not that he failed to recognize that the events of his life “belonged to some larger series of events already under way,” as Cary says; his problem was that he knew this full well—he knew that God, the author of the story of which Jonah was one minor character—this God—desired to use Jonah’s prophetic witness to preach to the hated citizens of the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria—and Jonah wanted no part of it; he didn’t want to follow this plot line to God’s foreordained conclusion. 

At least not at first! Instead, Jonah ran away in the opposite direction of Nineveh. In fact, he went as far in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go as he possibly could—which for him meant sailing to a place called Tarshish, clear across the Mediterranean Sea. The other side of the world, as far as he knew! To Europe! Barbarians lived in Europe! 

But that’s fine… Going to the other side of the world to live with barbarians is far better than going to hideous Nineveh and preaching to those awful Ninevites! Read the rest of this entry »

The latest Andy Stanley controversy

May 11, 2018

Wasn’t it just this past Monday when my friend and brother Grant Essex wrote the following in the comments section of this post? (I’ve italicized the part that pertains to today’s post.)

This is difficult doctrine but, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Law is no longer relevant. Jesus held the Law in great regard. After all, it came from God.

Matthew 5:17-20

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Or, Luke 16:17

17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

I believe that what Jesus did was nail the condemnation, or curse, of the Law to the cross. He saw that the Jews had created a theocracy, under which the Law became not just a way to live, but also a system of judgement. No one could fulfill it all, so He did, thereby satisfying it in the true sense it was intended.

The Law cannot save us. We are no longer slaves to the Law. But, if we are saved in Christ, then a great deal of the true meaning of the Law will be reflected in our behavior.

I do agree that the “ceremonial” aspects of the Law are no longer applicable to us. We are saved by the blood of Jesus, and by nothing else.

To this comment, Tom Harkins and I heartily agreed.

As if on cue, however, a new controversy has arisen this week over something that pastor Andy Stanley preached concerning the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament. You can read all about it here. Here are some Twitter comments I re-tweeted or liked:

This was a reference to United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton’s infamous “three buckets” approach to the authority of scripture.

Finally, below are some words I wrote in reply to a Facebook friend—a defender of Andy Stanley’s sermon—who said the following: “I’ve yet to hear why what he said is wrong, or anything different from what anyone here would probably say or actually believe.”

Off the top of my head, I would say that he misunderstands the purpose of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. He fails to distinguish ceremonial from moral law, the latter of which remains binding on Christians, even as it plays no role in justifying us. He’s wrong in saying that belief in the bare fact of the resurrection, divorced from its context within the biblical narrative, is sufficient for Christian faith or discipleship. To wit, in perhaps the church’s earliest creed (as relayed in 1 Corinthians 15:3), the resurrection was proclaimed “in accordance with the scriptures.” He’s wrong in saying that Gentile Christians didn’t have a Bible—they did: it was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Paul’s letters, written mostly to Gentiles, are replete with direct references and allusions to the Old Testament; and it was this same Old Testament that Paul called “God-breathed,” among other things (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—a principle we can rightly apply to the New. Or see Paul’s warning (using the analogy about Israel in the wilderness) in 1 Corinthians 10:6: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”

Also, it’s incomprehensible to me that Jesus, who warned that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” would agree with Stanley that the Old Testament can collapse like a house of cards and we would still have Christianity. We simply don’t know who Jesus is, why he came, what he accomplished, and what’s at stake in believing in him apart from God’s revelation of himself in the Old Testament. Consider Jesus’ words to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” It would have taken at least a couple of hours to walk that distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus: the Old Testament has a lot to say concerning Jesus.

Moreover, while I know that Stanley’s ultimate goal is apologetic—here’s why you don’t have to believe all those scary, strange, violent things in the Old Testament in order to be saved—what problem has he really solved by pitting the New Testament against the Old Testament anyway? As I’m sure you know, Jesus talks about final judgment and hell more than anyone. Andrew Wilson deals with this question nicely in this short blog post: http://thinktheology.co.uk/…/the_jesus_lens_or_the…

I can anticipate the pushback: Yes, but Stanley isn’t saying that the Old Testament ought to collapse like a house of cards, only that it can in order for people to become Christians in the first place. Indeed, I know Stanley has affirmed inerrancy in the recent past, and he believes in scripture’s inspiration. But what would he tell his new converts about the Old Testament as soon as they became authentic disciples? “Actually, guys, this is a really great book! You should check it out! Let me exegete and interpret those difficult passages to help you understand why they don’t mean what you think they mean. Let me show you why, despite what you think, the God revealed in the Old Testament is really the same God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

That seems like bait-and-switch to me. It seems like something less than the full truth. It seems like a dubious way to make disciples—sowing seeds of doubt about the authority of God’s Word before these would-be disciples have even started being disciples! It feels like he’s selling the gospel to the lowest bidder, doesn’t it?

It’s understandable, perhaps, that from Stanley’s Christian tradition, which tends toward legalism and self-righteousness (whereas mine tends toward Pelagianism; all traditions tend toward something bad), he doesn’t perceive this problem. But speaking as an evangelical in a Mainline tradition, which often lightly regards the authority of scripture, I certainly do perceive the problem!

Moreover, while I love Christian apologetics and believe they can play a useful and necessary role in conversion, ultimately it isn’t Stanley’s job to argue anyone into God’s kingdom. The gospel itself has its own power, through the Holy Spirit, to convict, convince, and convert God’s elect (cf. Romans 1:16). I would encourage Stanley to be committed to telling the whole truth and let God do the heavy lifting.

Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2

May 8, 2018

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’ve been preaching a sermon series on Galatians, and last Sunday I tackled Galatians 2:15-21. It includes Paul’s first use of the verb “to justify” in the letter (four times in vv. 16-17, plus the noun form of the verb in v. 21). Justification by faith alone is the letter’s most important theme. Paul is dealing with false teachers who’ve infiltrated the churches in Galatia and are teaching that Gentile believers have to add circumcision and observance of Jewish dietary laws and festivals in order to be fully acceptable to God. It’s not that they deny that faith in Jesus is necessary for justification—but just add these few additional things.

Paul, by contrast, argues that if Christians add anything to the gospel of free grace through faith in Christ, they lose the gospel entirely. In fact, they do so at the risk of their very souls: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The stakes for getting the gospel right couldn’t be higher.

But Paul’s opponents in Galatia, the “Judaizers,” were saying that it was Paul, not they, who had the gospel wrong. Paul is, at best, a second-hand apostle, having learned the gospel—or, rather, not learned it properly, or misunderstood it—from the “real” apostles in Jerusalem before “going rogue” and starting churches independently of the Mother Church and apostolic authority.

So Paul spends 1:11-2:21 arguing for his own authority. He is an authentic apostle, every bit the equal of Peter, James, John and the rest (vv. 1:11-24). In fact, when he presented his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem—after 14 years of preaching and teaching it—they agreed completely with Paul and endorsed his mission to the Gentiles (vv. 2:1-10). On the basis of Paul’s own authority, he even confronted Peter “to his face” for failing to live up to the gospel (vv. 2:11-16).

Which brings us to the very difficult verses 17 and 18. In the ESV, as literal as English translations get, it reads:

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

There is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of these verses. One possible interpretation relates to antinomianism: If we misconstrue the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying “let us continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), that’s on us, not Jesus. Jesus will not be a “servant of sin” (or Christ has not therefore “led us into sin,” NLT). The “rebuilding what I tore down” would represent a reversion to the kind of sinful lifestyle from which Christ came to rescue us; living this way would not only be unbecoming of the gospel, it might even signal the kind of backsliding that, if left unrepented, would lead us back to condemnation.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded by the interpretation that Douglas Moo, among others, favors:

Peter, Paul, and other Jewish Christians are seeking to find ultimate justification in their union with Christ and, in doing so, have recognized the implications that Paul states in verse 16: they have abandoned the law as a means of finding that justification. They therefore “find themselves” to be in the same category as the Gentiles (v. 15): “sinners” who do not live by God’s law. But this does not make Christ the servant of sin (in the ultimate sense of that word). This would be the case only if Jewish Christians would “rebuild” the law as a fundamental authority; they would then truly be “transgressors.”[1]

For me, this interpretation makes far better sense of Paul’s ironic use of the word “sinners” in verse 15. I say “ironic” because his point in verse 16 is that “Jews by birth” who possess the law of Moses and seek to follow it are also sinners in need of redemption through faith in Christ. As John Piper said in a sermon on this text, Paul’s use of the word “sinners” in verse 15 ought to have scare quotes around it, as indeed the CSB, NLT, and GNT have it. Paul’s point is not that Gentiles who disregard Jewish ceremonial law are truly sinful as a result (as Moo says, in the “ultimate sense”), only that they would be considered “sinners” under the old covenant—not the new.

In verse 17, therefore, Paul concedes for the sake of argument that Jewish Christians who’ve abandoned the law as a means of justification may now be considered “sinners” under that law—but not in a way that matters. Why? Because Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. We can no longer come under the curse of the law; Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Ironically, these Judaizers who attempt to place themselves back under the authority of the law (who “build up what I tore down”) are the ones who are in trouble: because the law can only condemn them: they will be shown to be “transgressors.” Remember James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” There’s no middle ground: we live by faith in Christ or according to the law. The rest of the letter goes to great lengths to make this point.

The ’70s were awesome!

Let me now say a word of praise for the New Living Translation. Given its dubious heritage—as the successor to the hippie-dippy Living Bible paraphrase (not that this child of the ’70s doesn’t love it)—I’m amazed at how solid the NLT is in its interpretive decisions. (Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t technically a paraphrase; it’s a “dynamic equivalence,” thought-for-thought translation, made by a translation committee rather than one individual.) Note how well the NLT captures the preceding discussion in its (loose) translation of verses 17-18:

But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.

The phrases “because we have abandoned the law” and “the old system of law” are interpretive glosses, but they illuminate the meaning of these verses nicely. In fact, although I wouldn’t recommend the NLT as your first Bible, it’s an excellent second Bible. And I heartily recommend it as a Bible study tool!

1. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 164.