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Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 2: Hypocritical Christians… like me?

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.

For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[1]I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:

I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.[2]About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”

“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.

See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?

See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.

Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!

Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…[3]… as my own experience bears witness.

Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.

Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.

So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”

To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.

I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.

1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.

3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 1: Cultural Christianity is dead

August 13, 2018

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that for many years I’ve been an outspoken critic of United Methodist mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. For example, this post remains the most-read post I’ve written on my blog—by far! Rev. Hamilton himself tweeted that he would respond to this series of posts from last year. I’m still waiting, but he’s a busy pastor, and who am I to him? I wouldn’t respond to me, either.

But I haven’t only been critical of Hamilton: Way back on November 22, 2011, I gave him a rave review! Read it for yourself! (A lot of water under the bridge since then, I guess.)

Still, a men’s Bible study group at my church is reading his little book When Christians Get It Wrong. So I thought it would be helpful for me to gather my own thoughts on the book here. You might find it helpful, too.

In the book’s introduction he says that this book “was born out of a conversation” with a disillusioned young war veteran named John, recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, who talked to Hamilton about the reasons he rejected Christianity. John’s reasons, Hamilton said, correspond to those cited by Kinnaman and Lyon in their book unChristian (which I’ve also read). Hamilton’s book, he said, is written primarily for John and his fellow young adults who are abandoning Christianity in larger numbers than previous generations, for the same reasons cited by Kinnaman and Lyon.

When Christians Get It Wrong, therefore, serves an apologetic purpose: to win back these young apostates to the Christian faith. Young people have, he says, been “frustrated and turned off by what they have heard from and experienced with Christians.” So the theme of Hamilton’s book is that what they’ve experienced isn’t real Christianity, or they’ve misunderstood it. Hamilton wants to show them what real Christianity looks like, and his vision, he believes, will be so compelling that they’ll change their minds.

A worthy goal, I’m sure.

Still, we pastors, especially, should be reluctant to take at face value the reasons an unbeliever gives for moving from faith to skepticism. We are all sinners, after all—and complicated ones at that. At our best, we hardly know ourselves or the reasons for the things we do. Instead, we know our “cover stories.” Too often, we who see through a glass darkly remain oblivious to many of the underlying impulses that give rise to them.

Also, Hamilton presumes that John and all these young people are (or were) authentically Christian at some point; that they were genuine believers who have now left the faith.

But Hamilton can’t know that. None of us can. We pastors are painfully aware that, despite our best intentions, no catechism or confirmation class, no “walking the aisle” at the end of a sermon, no praying a sinner’s prayer, no baptism, can ensure that a young person who professes Christian faith is born again. Only God knows.

But if, despite appearances, young people were never born again—if the seed of the gospel fell among rocks or thorns and failed to take root—will they themselves know it? Of course not. They will instead grow up to say, “I used to be a Christian, but I’m not anymore.” And since we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, we’ll look for reasons—and any old reason will do (sometimes), especially those that make us appear more intelligent, more enlightened, or more compassionate than we otherwise might seem. (See this post for more on this topic.)

Hamilton writes:

I hope and pray that this book will help some young adults find faith once more and become followers of Jesus Christ. It is also my hope that the book might chart a path for Christians in how we can “get it right.” Churches that “get it wrong” may lose an entire generation of young adults, the future of the church.[1]

By all means, I’m all for correcting Christians who “get it wrong.” Nevertheless, it’s not our job to make the gospel something other than what it is: “folly to those who are perishing… a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). Did the apostle Paul sometimes “get it wrong”? Since he was “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), he would agree with me that he did. But he didn’t get his gospel wrong (Galatians 1:8), nor the God-breathed words that the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write.

So Paul was completely right about the gospel, yet of this gospel most of his audience would say, “That’s foolishness!” and of its messenger—the most successful who ever lived—”What an idiot!” or “You’re out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24)

Needless to say, if that was true for Paul as he sought to convert the lost people of his day, it will be true for us!

Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when most “young people”—or anyone else—tell the Church that Christianity is, in so many words, “folly” and a “stumbling block.” What else would we expect them to say? Christendom, that once-powerful cultural force that used to produce nominal Christians but no longer does, is dead. Young people today will less often identify as Christians merely because their parents or grandparents did. Those days are gone, and good riddance! “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). That’s always been true, no matter what popular opinion polls would say.

Besides, I know plenty of young people, even today, for whom Christ continues to be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). How does that still happen, if things are as bad as Hamilton fears?

Simple: Ultimately, it’s not up to us to convert people. For as often as Christians “get it wrong,” which is often, the Holy Spirit continues to “get it right,” and to do his good work: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

So, as we diagnose problems for which Hamilton’s book purports to be a solution, let’s proceed with caution… The sky may not be falling after all. More soon.

1. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 3.

Living with a “wartime mindset”

August 10, 2018

Pastor John Piper understands how high the stakes are.

In my previous podcast episode, I talked about the inadequacy of most Christians’ efforts (including my own) to witness. I said that all Christians are ministers who are called to this task, as evidenced by the Great Commission that Christ gave to his Church.

Yet I’m sure that some listeners thought, “Yes, but I’m not bold enough to witness: I couldn’t do what the woman on the subway train in Manhattan did, for instance [not that I think I could, either]; I couldn’t muster the courage to give a Bible to an unsuspecting stranger (much less a celebrity who’s openly hostile to Christianity), as in the Penn Jillette story. The very prospect fills me with fear. I’m an introvert, after all. I’m too shy! I’ll have to leave witnessing to people who have a gift for it.”

Other listeners likely fear that certain techniques for witnessing risk “turning people off” to the gospel. (One point I made in the podcast, however, is that the gospel will turn many people off, no matter how well or poorly we present it.) Other listeners disagree with any self-conscious technique or effort to evangelize. They believe that we should follow the prompting of the Spirit and let opportunities for witnessing flow organically. Any ulterior motive to share the gospel with someone, rather than enjoy a relationship on its own terms, spoils the effort.

While I would argue against these objections, that’s not my point today… My point is, even if you disagree with something I said in my podcast, I hope we can agree on this: We live in a world in which the vast majority of people (judging only by objective demographic surveys) need Jesus and the gift of eternal life that’s available through him. Moreover, we have a deadly Enemy, Satan and his demonic forces, working to thwart even our most well-intentioned efforts to convince people of the truth of the gospel. We are at war, as Paul says in Ephesians 6, the stakes of which are higher than any merely human war.

So I’ll grant that, for any number of reasons, you may feel unqualified to witness. Fine… Given that nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance, however, let’s figure out what you can do to reach lost people with the gospel: First, if you’re a parent, consider the lives of your children your most important mission field and respond accordingly: You are constantly “witnessing” to them, whether you know it or not. They are learning from you every moment about who Jesus is and how important he is to you. Your example will have a far greater influence on how they’ll spend eternity than anything they learn at church. You have an awesome responsibility! Don’t take it lightly.

What else can you do (whether you’re a parent or not)? Pray for people you know and love who aren’t yet in a saving relationship with God through Christ. Pray that God would send someone to reach them with the gospel and convert them, even if it’s not you. (Have you noticed, for example, that “prayer request” time at church focuses inordinately on loved ones who are physically sick. How often does someone ask for prayer for a loved one’s soul? Where are our priorities?)

Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower your church to be bold and successful in evangelism—not just “sheep-stealing,” which is what counts as evangelism in most churches. On that note, stop worrying about “growing the church” and worry instead about making disciples. Invite unbelieving or lightly committed Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers to church. Support and encourage your church in its evangelism efforts. Give more money and volunteer more time for the cause of Christ in your church and world. Live in such a way that people outside the faith notice that you treasure your relationship with Christ above all earthly treasures. Pray for revival in your church. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pray especially for your pastor or pastors as they seek to be faithful to their call!

In fact, you and I should live with what pastor John Piper calls a “wartime lifestyle”:

The phrase is helpful… It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46).

I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call the earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mindset that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.[1]

That second paragraph, especially, convicts me. “I drift into a peacetime mind-set… I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing.” Instead, I worry about worship attendance; I fret over the already-saved leaving for another church (and taking their tithe with them); I’m too easily satisfied with “church growth,” which relates to marketing and sales, rather than making disciples.

But no longer… Lord, help me live with a wartime mindset. Place people in my lives who will hold me accountable to live this way. Amen.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009),111-2.

What was the Old Testament sacrificial system for?

August 9, 2018

I’ve told friends and acquaintances that if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions. For instance, one question, which embarrasses me to write “out loud” because the answer seems obvious to me now, is this: If God gave Israel the sacrificial system of the tabernacle/temple as a means of forgiving sins, why did Jesus need to offer himself as a sacrifice for sins? What did Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice accomplish that ancient Israel’s sacrifices couldn’t—even assuming that Israelites carried them out perfectly?

Here’s one wrong answer we can rule out immediately: that Israel “tried” temple sacrifices, they didn’t “work,” therefore God sent his Son Jesus. This makes no sense of a God who transcends time and has foreknowledge, much less of the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 KJV). No: before God created a people, Israel, he intended to save them through a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3), not through temple sacrifices.

Also, please notice—and I never noticed this until Old Testament scholar John Goldingay pointed it out in one of his commentaries—God made no sacrificial provision for the most serious offenses: sins committed with “a high hand” (ESV), “defiant” sins (NIV, NASB, NET), “presumptuous” sins (KJV), or “deliberate” sins (GNT). About these sins, the Bible says the following:

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him (Numbers 15:30-31).

Whatever these “high-handed” sins are, they are in contrast to “unintentional” sins only (Numbers 15:22-29), for which temple sacrifices could atone.

I sometimes sin “intentionally” and “deliberately.” Don’t you? This fact alone ought to give us pause. Sin is deadly serious, and we are in trouble apart from God’s grace.

Moreover, the sacrifices in and of themselves accomplish nothing. The prophet Micah, using the voice of God’s people Judah, makes this point in Micah 6:6-7:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

With what shall I come before the Lord? As the commentator in the ESV Study Bible says, this is the right question “for all people in every age.” None of us sinners is fit, apart from God’s grace and mercy, to appear before a holy God. Also, these verses rule out the idea that Israel somehow failed to sacrifice enough, or to do so correctly. Even if they had sacrificed an exorbitant amount—”thousands of rams,” “ten thousands of rivers of oil,” “my firstborn”—it would not have sufficed. As the commentator writes:

Shall I give…? The values of the sacrifices escalate in an attempt to discern the price for entering God’s presence. The way in which the proposals increase in absurdity, ending with an outrage (ten thousands of rivers of oil… my firstborn), shows that Micah is exposing an attitude that wrongly sees sacrifice as an entry fee, rather than as an avenue for God to administer grace and forgiveness to the penitent (who will express thanks as v. 8 describes).[1]

This is insightful: Temple sacrifices were not an “entry free”; they did not pay a debt that God’s people owed for their sin. They were an avenue of God’s grace, not the foundation of that grace. If God’s people were counting on sacrifices themselves to save them, rather than God’s grace, as Micah implies here, their guilt remained.

By contrast, if one understands that forgiveness comes only through grace, then one will “express thanks as v. 8 describes”:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

God “requires” these three things for forgiveness in the same way that saving faith requires good works, as a response to prior grace. But I like the way Harold Bosley puts it in the 1956 Interpreter’s Bible:

Yet it is difficult to see why people then or now seem to breathe easier when the prophetic conception of true sacrifice is announced: To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. Or as Moffatt has translated it, “To be just and kind and live in quiet fellowship with your God.” This may sound comforting and comfortable to the man who has never tried it, but the unanimous verdict of prophetic spirits through the ages underscores its costliness. Every student of law knows how necessary yet how difficult the quest for justice has been and continues to be. Mercy and humility are surely two of the highest and holiest of virtues—and no others are more difficult of the kind of achievement God requires, i.e., incarnation. Yet Micah joins the prophetic succession of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah in demanding just this.[2]

Interpreters often speak as if Micah is pitting a religion of ritual against a religion of the heart—and of course God desires a religion of the heart. I’m sure that’s true.

But as Bosley implies, the heart of humanity’s problem is the heart! Why should that make us “breathe easier”? It should instead bring us to our knees—not to mention the foot of the cross, where Jesus, Israel’s (and humanity’s) representative, lived the life of perfect justice, kindness, and humility that we were unable to live and suffered the punishment we deserved to suffer. Nothing less than the blood of Jesus, therefore, is the price for entering God’s presence. And through Jesus we have new birth through the Spirit—by whom our heart is transformed.

Ultimately, the Old Testament sacrificial system, then, is intended to point us to Christ’s sacrifice for our sin, the costliest sacrifice imaginable—because his life is of infinite worth.

1. W. Brian Aucker and Dennis Magary, “Micah” in The ESV Study Bible, ESV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1705.

2. Harold Bosley, “The Book of Micah,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 940-1.

Devotional Podcast #28: “Fools for the Gospel”

August 7, 2018

Today’s episode tackles a difficult but important truth: There is no way to obey Christ and bear witness to him and his gospel without being perceived as foolish by many people—that is, if we’re doing it right. This was true for the apostle Paul; it’s true for us. So let’s “lean into” this truth for a change and see what happens.

Devotional Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, August 6, 2018, and this is episode number 28 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to “Words of Love,” written and recorded by Buddy Holly in 1957 in all its double-tracked, analog glory. By contrast, give people an infinite number of digital tracks today, and they can’t create something that sounds nearly this good! Just wonderful! Anyway, you may be more familiar with the Beatles’ 1964 cover version from the album Beatles for Sale or the long-forgotten American LP Beatles VI. But I recorded Holly’s version directly from his 1978 greatest-hits album Buddy Holly Lives, also known as 20 Golden Greats.

But this song is today’s theme because I’m talking about “words of love” in the context of something that many of us contemporary Christians don’t like doing: that is, witnessing or the dreaded “E-word,” evangelism—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others; telling others about Jesus and what he’s done for us, and what he means to us. We witness in many different ways, but at some point we have to do so using words. And in general Christians would rather receive a root canal than to witness with words. Yet the Lord himself has commanded us to do this important work: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

And perhaps you object: “Yes, but Jesus was directing these words to his twelve (or eleven but soon to be twelve) apostles. They followed this command, and here we are today. They no longer apply to us!” But that interpretation can’t be right: Because notice he says, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We haven’t reached the “end of the age” yet, therefore, he must have also been directing these words to his disciples up to and including those who will be alive when then end of the age happens. Right? That includes us! Moreover, when he gives the equivalent Great Commission in Acts 1—“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”—we know that even today we haven’t yet reached the “end of the earth” with the gospel. There remain in 2018 places that are yet unreached with the gospel, much less toward the end of the first century. So Jesus’ words weren’t merely for that first generation of apostles, but for all disciples until the end of the age and until the gospel message has reached the end of the earth.

As for another objection—“Yes, but the Great Commission isn’t for just anyone; it’s for ministers… like you, pastor Brent, not for me. I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” My first response to that is that we’re all ministers, whether we’re ordained or not. Philip, for example, in Acts 9, wasn’t a credentialed apostle; yet through his witness the gospel reached Ethiopia. Not to mention one of the most successful evangelists in all of scripture: the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, through whose witness an entire village was saved! The only qualification, as far as I can see, for doing successful evangelistic work is having had a life-saving, soul-saving encounter with Jesus Christ. 

So… Are you a Christian? Are you born again? Then that means you’ve been given the Holy Spirit. So of course you can be a witness! Moreover, if you happen to be a United Methodist, when you joined the church you promised God that you would be a witness for Christ.

How are you doing at that? Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #27: “Closer to the Heart”

July 29, 2018

What is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It can’t be something that we do, as so many preachers—especially Methodist preachers—believe. In this episode I explain why, and why it matters. 

Devotional Text: Mark 1:1-5; Matthew 3:7-10

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s July 28, 2018, and this is episode number 27 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to the song “Closer to the Heart,” by the Canadian rock band and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Rush. I recorded this version of the song from their 1981 live album, Exit… Stage Left. 

This song is the theme of today’s episode because of something I heard at a conference I attended last week on St. Simons Island—a conference for United Methodist pastors. One of the speakers—a clergy leader in our denomination—said something that got under my skin—and I have no interest in naming this person because, after all, what she said could have been said by hundreds or thousands of my fellow Methodist clergy, and no one would think twice because the idea is so pervasive! In fact, when she said it, there was, if I recall, applause and Amens all around this large conference room full of people—so what do I know, right?

Anyway, she said the following: “The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people.” 

The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people. 

To which I would say, “I hope not! For the sake of my own soul, if no one else’s, I hope not!” And I want to tell you why…

But before I do, please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we who are Christians—we who are members of the Body of Christ—should not try to embody… or bear witness to… or, if you insist, be the incarnation of Jesus Christ for other people, as the Spirit enables us. 

By all means, God calls us to show the world who Jesus is—by obeying him, surrendering our lives to him, submitting to his will and his Word… Indeed, what does the Westminster Shorter Catechism say is the “chief end of man”? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. I was at a meeting just this week with the principal of an elementary school at which our church does all kinds of volunteer work. And I was deeply moved listening to this principal express his gratitude for the work of our church. No school, he said, could begin to pay for all the good work that we do there. In his long career, he said he’s never seen a church be so generous with its time, talent, and resources! Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #26: “Is Jesus Enough for Us?”

July 14, 2018

Devotional Text: Mark 5:21-43

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, July 14, and after a long break, I’m back with you for Episode Number 26 in my series of podcasts. I apologize for the time away. I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and I was recently appointed to a new church. So over the past two months I’ve had to pack up and leave one town and one church move to another town and church. But now that I’m getting settled in, I hope to bring you these podcast episodes with more regularity.

You’re listening to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, his hit song from 1981. I recorded this directly from the band’s long-playing vinyl record Hard Promises. The song is a happy song, in a way, because the singer sings it on the other side of a long and difficult wait. For the singer, the waiting is finally over—at last—because, you know, he’s finally found true love or whatever. But he wants you to know that waiting for true love was very difficult. In fact, “it’s the hardest part.” “Every day,” he says, “you see one more card”—you don’t see all the cards all at once; you just see one at a time, and you trust—you “take it on faith”—that you’re going to be holding all the right cards before the game is over.

And so it is for us Christians today, and so it was for Jairus in today’s scripture, which comes from Mark 5:21-43. I need to read it because, otherwise, you may not know what I’m talking about… [Read Mark 5:21-43.] 

Jairus is a synagogue ruler in Capernaum, the town that served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry years. That means, among other things, that Jairus is a powerful, wealthy, well-respected member of his community. He is sincerely religious, as we learn in v. 23, where Mark tells us that he “implored Jesus earnestly” to heal his terminally ill daughter. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with a “Jesus Plus” kind of faith?

July 7, 2018

IMG_1453

Last Sunday’s scripture, Mark 5:21-43, is often called a “Markan sandwich.” The top piece of bread is Jairus’s meeting Jesus on the shore to ask him to heal his daughter and Jesus’ accompanying him to his house, in vv. 21-24. This plot line gets interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. Her story, in vv. 25-34, forms the middle part of the sandwich. Finally, the bottom piece of bread is the resumption and conclusion of Jairus’s story in vv. 35-43. This literary device is characteristic of Mark’s gospel: See Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:20-35; 6:6b-31, among many other examples.

Mark tells his story in this way for two reasons: Not only because this is the way these events unfolded, but also because he wants the reader to see the interconnectedness of these two plot lines. As I said last Sunday, everyone, including the hemorrhaging woman, would expect Jesus to fulfill the request of a powerful, wealthy, credentialed, and respectable leader of the community: Jairus seems like a worthy candidate for a healing miracle of Jesus, whereas this ritually unclean poor woman does not.

Jairus is, as far as his fellow Jews are concerned, an unassailably “righteous” man. Mark doesn’t imply for a moment that he’s a hypocrite; he has no ulterior motive in coming to Jesus; his faith, such as it is, is sincere, as v. 23 makes clear: he “implored him earnestly.”

And yet, is Jairus really so different from the woman—social status notwithstanding?

At first, it seems like it. While they’re both desperate for Jesus to perform a healing miracle, the woman has nothing to lose: She’s lost everything already. She’s exhausted all her options. She has nothing in her favor. And even if Jesus heals her, what credit will she deserve? She doesn’t even have the courage to ask Jesus for help. She intends to steal a miracle from him.

Jairus isn’t like her. When he meets Jesus, he still has something working in his favor: time. In other words, he hasn’t lost everything yet because his daughter is still alive. So long as he gets Jesus to his daughter’s bedside before she dies, his labor will not have been in vain. How wise, how clever, how resourceful he will have been! “Well done, Jairus! Once again, you’ve saved the day—with Jesus’ help, of course. Still… apart from your quick wits, your good reputation, and your initiative, your daughter would have died! So, good job!”

I said in my previous post that Jairus’s faith is far from perfect, and we can see why: Until the messenger delivers the fateful news in v. 35, he isn’t trusting completely in Jesus or depending on him completely. He’s also trusting in his favorable circumstances: “As long as my daughter is still alive, it’s not too late! I still have reason for hope!” Jairus’s faith was not in Jesus Alone: it was in Jesus Plus these other things.

Jesus, of course, wants Jairus—and, by extension, us—to have a Jesus Alone kind of faith, not a Jesus Plus kind of faith. He wants to bring Jairus to the same place in which the hemorrhaging woman finds herself: a place of complete dependence on Christ. And so Jesus (that is, God) “rigs” Jairus’s circumstances to make sure this happens! By taking time to heal the hemorrhaging woman, God knows that final thread of Jairus’s misplaced faith—in himself and his circumstances—will be broken: “Why trouble the Teacher any further? Your daughter is dead. There is no longer any hope, Jairus. Give up.”

To this Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, Jesus says, only believe in me! I am the Lord of all circumstances. I’m the One who looks at the storm raging all around and says, “Peace! Be still!”

Easier said than done! I prefer to have a Jesus Plus faith rather than a Jesus Alone faith. I like being able to depend on myself, my circumstances, my vain belief that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” In fact, what often passes for “Christian faith” for me is belief in my own power: the thought that I haven’t exhausted all my options; I haven’t worked all the angles; I haven’t called in all my favors—in which case my prayer isn’t that Jesus would save me—even if I mouth those pious words—so much as these favorable circumstances would save me, or these people who are well-disposed to me would save me. While Jesus often saves through circumstances and people—by all means!—I can easily forget that it is Jesus who does the saving; he is the One in whom I need to trust.

And isn’t that the hard part?

Not to worry, though: as I’ve learned from experience, Jesus will often test me until I remember that I have nothing and no one else to depend on except him. This is the “severe mercy” that Jesus shows to Jairus when he learns that his daughter has died. This is God’s discipline, and as painful as it often is, it is good for us!

The words of the author of Hebrews couldn’t be more fitting:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’ve heard no one put it better than C.S. Lewis on this subject. (He uses the word “punishment” for “discipline,” but same difference.)

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

Think of this world as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad. This is classic English understatement, perhaps, but I can only say, Amen!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Sunday sermon follow-up on Mark 5:21-43 (Part 1)

July 6, 2018

Last Sunday, I preached on Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:21-43. The following are some of my personal notes or observations that didn’t make it into my sermon. I’ll share more in a second post.

This episode likely takes place in Jesus’ adult hometown of Capernaum. (The pictures above show ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum, including the first-century synagogue of which both Jesus and Jairus would have been part.) If that’s the case, Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue,” knew Jesus personally. He has also likely witnessed Jesus’ healing power, which is why he’s desperate for Jesus to save his daughter.

If we consider Jairus’s plea a prayer, we have much to appreciate: I’m reminded, for instance, of Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on Lamentations 2:19: “[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: ‘Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.’ How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.”

Indeed, in a sermon earlier this year, I complained that we often make prayer more difficult than it should be. Every morning, each one of us likely has something that is weighing heavily on our minds. Maybe, like Jairus, it’s related to the health or welfare of our children. Maybe it’s related to our jobs, our spouse, our personal health, our school, or our relationships. Whatever it is, it’s something about which we’re tempted to be anxious.

If so, prayer should be easy. Start there… Start praying about that thing that you’re worried about. Be bold like Jairus to tell Jesus what you need! Pour your petition out like water before the Lord.

On the other hand, Jairus is hardly the model of perfect faith. Consider, by contrast, a petition by another man in Capernaum who needed Jesus to heal a sick loved one: the Roman centurion of Matthew 8:5-13 (and its parallel in Luke 7:1-10). The centurion believes two things: first, that he’s not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 8); and, second, that Jesus is so powerful he can merely say the word—from a distance, without touching his servant—and heal him. Consequently, Jesus says of him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jairus shares neither conviction. For him, there’s no question except that Jesus needs to heal his daughter in person. Mark’s readers expect this, too. We believe, like Jairus, that time is running out. The episode with the hemorrhaging woman, therefore, is a needless distraction that adds to the suspense. From the perspective of Jairus, the disciples, and Mark’s readers, Jesus the Great Physician is committing the equivalent of medical malpractice: Why spend so much time with this woman and her chronic illness? He can come back and heal her later! Jairus’s child, meanwhile, is dying!

Also, while Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet out of sincere respect for him (v. 23), he has no qualms about his personal “worthiness” to ask Jesus for a healing.

Consider, by contrast, Peter in Luke 5:1-11: Jesus enables him to have a miraculous catch of fish, so much so that his nets are bursting. Is Peter happy that he’s just had the largest catch of fish in his life? Hardly! He’s terrified! “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (v. 8). Why does Peter respond this way? Because he realizes he’s in the very presence of God, and that sinful people like him can’t easily survive unmediated encounters with God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5).

So what’s Jairus’s problem? Either he doesn’t believe, like Peter, that (as he far as he knows) he’s dangerously close to God or, if he does believe it, that he’s an unworthy sinner. Far from saying, “Depart from me, Lord,” he says, in so many words, “Come closer to me, Lord—come to my house, do what I tell you.”

This is why I said on Sunday that it’s likely that Jairus feels entitled to a miracle. Feeling entitled to anything from the Lord is not a prescription for joy and contentment, to say the least! We will inevitably be disappointed. Christ doesn’t live for us, after all; we live for him and his glory. Paul makes this point beautifully well in Philippians 1:19-20:

[F]or I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Paul is in prison as he writes these words. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be set free or executed. Yet he says, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” My deliverance… While it sounds at first like his “deliverance” is having his life spared and being set free from prison, Paul doesn’t mean it that way. He means that he will be delivered from the “shame” of dishonoring Christ in his suffering—even if that suffering leads to his death. In other words, inasmuch as Paul is concerned about himself at all, he wants to make sure that, no matter what happens to him, he glorifies Jesus Christ.

This indifference to our own welfare characterizes the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which we Methodists often pray:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

This prayer makes me a liar. I don’t want to be “put to suffering,” “laid aside for thee,” or “brought low for thee.” I don’t want to be empty or “have nothing.” Do you? But if this is God’s will for us, and by doing so we can glorify Christ, why wouldn’t we?

One final thought (for now): One important difference between the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus is that the woman understands that she isn’t worthy to have Jesus to do anything for her. She’s a sinner who deserves God’s judgment, death, and hell. This is the first half of the gospel: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But please note: the woman’s status before God changes. In v. 34, Jesus calls her “daughter”: In other words, because of her faith in Christ, she is now a child of God!

How does this happen?

On the cross a great exchange takes place: Christ takes upon himself all of our unrighteousness and suffers the penalty for it; in return, he gives us his righteousness. And this exchange becomes effective for us through faith. Apart from faith, we are unworthy. Through faith, however, Christ makes us worthy. Far from being sinners separated from God, we become beloved children of God, from whose love nothing can separate us (Romans 8:38-39).

A parent-child relationship is unlike any other: children are never presumptuous to ask their parents for what they want and to believe that they will receive it. Having become children of God through faith, we can do what the author of Hebrews tells us: We can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Reflections on Micah 1:3-4: “Tread upon the high places”

July 4, 2018

From Micah 1:3-4:

For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
like waters poured down a steep place.

This morning, I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition. 

These “mountains” and “valleys,” and the ease with which God destroys them, ought to remind us of the importance of living our lives with the proper perspective: I’m, in general, a coward. I’m afraid of other people’s opinions of me, what people say about me, how they regard me. I’m afraid that I’m not being properly “recognized” or “appreciated” or “loved”—because I keep trying to satisfy my soul with “created things” rather than my Creator. I’m afraid for my physical health, because if I die before what I perceive to be “my time,” then I’m afraid I’ll miss out. (But miss out on what? My death will only mean greater life for me! I’ll have everything because I’ll have Christ! Isn’t he enough?) This verse, by contrast, reminds me that at Final Judgment, all of these “lesser things” that inspire fear will be exposed for what they truly are: IDOLS!

Dear Lord, please “tread upon” these “high places” now, before I face your judgment, so that I will be spared the pain that I otherwise deserve. Amen.