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John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

March 28, 2017

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it. Read the rest of this entry »

Roger Olson: “We all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us”

March 28, 2017

Roger Olson has a thought-provoking recent post on the state of hymn-singing in contemporary evangelical churches. He says that a predominant theme of hymns that he sang growing up—and which he often heard on Christian radio stations—is “friendship with Jesus.”

When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity (and here I definitely mean “evangelical” in the spiritual-theological sense, not the contemporary media-driven political sense!) these songs and this “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) was extremely common and deeply impacted and shaped my Christian spirituality and even my theology. I still tend to identify “evangelical spirituality” with that theme, motif, language. But it’s now extremely difficult to find in contemporary evangelicalism and Baptist life.

I admit it; I struggle with the seeming loss of this theme, motif, and the “language of Zion” associated with it. This is not directly a doctrinal issue; it is an issue—for me—of evangelical spirituality. I happen to think (much to some others’ chagrin, I’m sure) that that language and theme and motif—that was so great a part of evangelical piety and worship—is part of modern evangelical Christianity’s essence. Yes, to be sure, it can be expressed in new and different ways, but to drop it away entirely seems to me to change evangelical Christianity itself with great loss.

So, for those of you who didn’t grow up with it (what I’m talking about here) let me be descriptive. In my home in the 1950s and 1960s “Christian radio” was almost always “on” except at night when we slept. It was our “background noise.” And in our church (and other evangelical churches we visited) the same “language of Zion” and theme/motif was central to everything. The theme/motif could be expressed something like this: “If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior you can enjoy a personal relationship with him that will enrich your life abundantly.” In my home and in most that I knew of (as “us”) Jesus was a real presence there. He was the unseen but truly experienced presence among us and with us.

While I didn’t grow up in a home like that, I experienced this theme/motif firsthand on church retreats and camps when I was in youth group. I probably feel as much nostalgia for first-generation “Christian rock,” which I still listen to, as he does for the Christian music of his youth. Nostalgia or not, however, I don’t think he’s wrong: I believe this theme/motif is actively discouraged in worship today.

For example, one of my seminary professors told a classroom full of pastors-in-training that we shouldn’t sing hymns that used first-person singular pronouns: our singing should always be “we,” “our,” and “us.” He made reference to the Lord’s Prayer, which is, technically, a corporate prayer. In the same way, all aspects of worship should be corporate.

Even then, when I was hardly reading the Bible—I was hardly a Christian—I wanted to say, “Yes, but what about the Psalms? That’s the church’s original hymnbook, and it’s filled with first-person singular pronouns!”

As I’ve said before, if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions!

In the comments section of Olson’s post, a reader said that he missed singing the hymn “In the Garden”—a popular example of this “friendship with Jesus” theme. (We sang it two days ago at Hampton United Methodist Church!) In response, Olson wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I have heard evangelical and Baptist worship leaders bash it [“In the Garden”] as “too individualistic.” Well, you know (I want to say to them), we all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us. Death is very individual—even if there are friends and loved ones around us. I want Jesus there with me—but not only then. Then might be too late.

Amen!

A recent example of effective witnessing

March 23, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I preached about witnessing. I shared some advice on the topic from a recent article in Christianity Today. The author, Jerry Root, a long-time associate of Billy Graham, said that when we witness, it’s not a matter of “taking Jesus to someone”; Jesus is already there. We follow Christ’s lead. But doing so still requires preparation. It’s a deliberate action.

For example, when we meet someone, he suggests asking them what he calls “public” questions—non-threatening questions like, “What’s your name?” “Are you from here?” Then we “listen to the answers and find in them the permission to go deeper. Eventually, we connect the gospel at the very point of deep felt need.”

Easy, right?

Well… I suspect for many of us this still seems intimidating—in part because we’ve seen so few examples of people who are doing it, or doing it well.

Last Friday, however, I encountered a living, breathing example of someone doing it well. I had business in Atlanta. While I was there, I went to a favorite coffee shop near Emory to work on my sermon. A couple of tables away from me, two young women were talking. I promise I wasn’t eavesdropping, but one woman’s voice carried across the room.

I overheard her telling the other woman about her experience raising an autistic child. I gathered that she was counseling this young woman, a new mother whose own child had recently been diagnosed with autism.

My ears perked up at one point when she told the young mother that she was a Christian. She volunteered this in relation to some educational choices that she and her husband had made. A few minutes later, she said the following: “I believe that God has made your child perfect, just the way she’s meant to be. And the Lord is going to take care of her—and you—and give you all the love and support and strength you need to be a great mother to her.”

I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout, “Amen!”

Nothing about this conversation felt forced. First, the woman volunteered that she was a Christian. Then, as Dr. Root described in the article I cited above, she waited for “permission to go deeper.” Having found that permission, she spoke from her heart about Jesus and connected the gospel to the young mother’s deeply felt need.

What convicts me about this conversation is how easily this Christian could have remained quiet about her faith. Doesn’t it often seem easier not bring it up?

What would happen if we prayed regularly—daily—for opportunities to bring it up? Who knows what the Holy Spirit might do? Is it possible that this young woman was so accustomed to sharing her faith that it would be harder for her not to bring it up?

Sermon 03-12-17: “Calling All Tax Collectors and Sinners”

March 21, 2017

If you’re a Christian, witnessing should be one of your top priorities in life. If you’re like most Christians, however, it isn’t. As much as I want to say, “Try harder,” that message won’t work. As I say in this sermon, what we need to become more deliberate, more effective witnesses is to fall in love with Jesus—again or for the first time.

Sermon Text: Matthew 9:9-17

Do any of you have an ichthus or fish decal on or near the bumper of your car? I have often said that I wouldn’t have one of those because I’m not a considerate enough driver—or a careful enough driver—to have a symbol of my loyalty to Jesus on the back of my car: I don’t want to cut someone off in traffic and thereby give Jesus a bad name! I don’t want to be a bad witness.

A satirical article in the Babylon Bee purports to have just the answer for Christian drivers like me: a “retractable fish decal.” The article describes a modification kit for your car that allows you, with the press of a button, to hide the fish symbol when you do something wrong while driving. In the article, a spokesperson from LifeWay Christian Resources puts it like this:

“Want to cut someone off, but worried you’ll be a bad witness? Now you can slap the red button on your dashboard and a small panel will rotate on your bumper, hiding the fish from view… Flip people off on the freeway, [drive] down the shoulder [of the interstate] during a traffic jam, all without worrying about marring the good name of Christ.”

The article continues:

The kit ships with several options, such as the ability to instantly replace the Christian fish decal with an atheist “flying spaghetti monster” silhouette or a Coexist sticker, or else the bumper sticker from a competing church in your town or city.

[The spokesperson added:] “Not only will your terrible, aggressive driving not be a bad witness for Christ, but you can also make atheists or any other church or religion you want look bad instead!”

If only that were real! Read the rest of this entry »

Pastoral words from Jesus about doubt

March 17, 2017

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 11:1-15, which includes Jesus’ short “sermon” to a John the Baptist who now doubts that he is the Messiah. Jesus’ concludes his sermon with this beatitude: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I like this eloquence from Bruner:

Now for the end of his sermon to John, Jesus saves these words, tailor-made for John (and for all of us who are tempted to wonder if Jesus really is It): “And—blessings on the person who is not offended by me!” These are kind words. Jesus does not shame John by saying something like, “And blessed is the person who never doubts if I am the Messiah”—words like that would have hurt John because doubt was exactly John’s experience. Nor does Jesus here bless those who in discouraging situations glow with vital faith. All such triumphal words would have been the worst possible pastoral counsel for John in this state. Instead Jesus pitches his tune low, puts the cookies on a shelf John can reach, and promises, in so many words, “And God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am a different kind of Messiah than you were expecting.”[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 509.

Church Council Homily 03-16-17: “And Then They Will Fast”

March 16, 2017

I preached the following homily this evening at Church Council. 

Homily Text: Matthew 9:15

My sermon last Sunday, if you recall, was about witnessing. I made the case, based on Jesus’ call of Matthew in Matthew 9, for the importance and priority of witnessing. I also discussed how, in spite of this, we so often fail to do it. I said: “I’m tempted to say, ‘We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to follow this plan, apply these principles, use these techniques to become better witnesses.’”

The problem with saying that is that it won’t work. We don’t need to witness more; we need to fall in love with Jesus more. If only we could, I said, witnessing would take care of itself.

As my family was only too happy to remind me, my sermon was already 32 minutes long. So I didn’t have time to talk about how to fall in love with Jesus. We already know many of the ways: prayer, Bible study, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Christian service—these are what we Methodists call the “means of grace.”

But alongside these is the most neglected means of grace by far.

I’m talking about fasting. I preached on fasting a couple of months ago when I preached on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But in last Sunday’s scripture it came up again: the disciples of John the Baptist asked why Jesus and his disciples—unlike themselves and the Pharisees—weren’t doing it. And Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”  Read the rest of this entry »

“The only thing you can do anything about is your past”

March 13, 2017

I just started reading Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. The following excerpt may help explain why, in my own teaching and preaching ministry over the past few years, I’ve emphasized themes of sin, Law, judgment, repentance, the Cross, and substitutionary atonement more than sanctification—or the strategies for self-improvement that disguise themselves as such.

In my own life, I need healing for my ever-present past more than help for my future (which is mostly out of my hands). Don’t you? Fortunately, more than anything else, that’s what Christ came to heal. “The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.”

In light of the law, all that men and women can do, declares Christ, is to repent (Matthew 3:2, concerning John the Baptist; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Repentance is not the same thing as restitution or a changed hart. Repentance is felt sorrow, sorrow in your very marrow, for what you have been and done. Repentance not only covers shame at what you have done but also includes shame at who you are, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Repentance is not a disposition in relation to the future. It is disposition in relation to your personal past.

Not long ago I read a newspaper article about an executive at Boeing. The reporter asked him to name the secret of his success, and he said, “There is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do anything about is the future.” Christ saw life differently. For Christ, the only thing you can do anything about is your past. God alone can deal with your future. If you have repented of your past, if you have taken an inventory of the full extent of hurt, victimhood, malice, and self-service that describe your achieved life, if you have said the one single needful word, “sorry,” then that is all. There is nothing more. The future, which Paul would later call the “fruit of the Spirit,” flows totally from the “sorry.” The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.[†]

Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.

Two ways we can be assured of salvation

March 10, 2017

On this blog I have wrestled, alongside some of you, with the following question: “If I have truly been justified by God, is it possible for me to lose this gift, such that unless I repent and seek God’s forgiveness and grace—literally become re-justified—I will go to hell?” Wesleyan Christians believe the answer is “yes.” We believe backsliding (for that is what we call it when it happens) is a real and present danger, even though we also preach assurance: for those who are (presently) justified, they can know they’re justified through the witness of the Holy Spirit within them. (See Romans 8:12-17 for one classic proof-text.)

Indeed, in a post a couple of months ago on infant baptism, I said that only a belief in the reality of backsliding can sustain the sacramental view of baptism that many Protestants, including Methodists, hold.

As I’ve said before, the issue of backsliding is purely a secondary doctrine: Whether we lose our justification through persistent, unrepentant sinfulness, or persistent, unrepentant sinfulness proves that we never had it to begin with, the result is the same. Consequently, all of us—believers in backsliding or in eternal security—need to seek assurance.

For this reason, I fully endorse this video from John Piper. Reflecting on the Romans 8 passage, he offers two reasons for assurance: hatred of our sin and childlike dependence on our heavenly Father. (This clip also demonstrates in small measure why Piper is among his generation’s most gifted preachers! What a show-off! 😉 )

What are the “gate” and the “road” in Matthew 7:13-14?

March 8, 2017


I like Frederick Dale Bruner’s words about the meaning of the narrow gate and hard road in Matthew 7:13-14. The “gate” is, first and foremost, conversion. The “road” is sanctification. But he points out that Jesus uses the present-tense verb in verse 14: “and how few are finding this way.” This emphasizes what he calls the “daily decisions to find this gate and walk this way.”[1]

He continues:

In summary, the two great facts about Jesus are what we may call his “Gate” and his “Road”: (1) the theological Gate of his gracious substitutionary death and resurrection and (2) the ethical Road of his just as gracious commands to follow him in rugged daily discipleship. Paul majors in the former without neglecting the latter; Matthew majors in the latter without neglecting the former. These two great facts about Jesus have been faithfully preserved in the great liturgies of the church, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer (where I will highlight the saving “two facts”): “Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and all an example of his godly life: Give me grace that I may always [!] most thankfully receive his inestimable benefit [at the Gate] and also daily [!] endeavor myself to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life [on the Road]; through [which in the liturgy means, correctly, “by the power of”] the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.[2]

My own preaching over the past several years emphasizes “the Gate” because, first, I always want unsaved people to become saved people. The stakes are heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation; they literally couldn’t be higher. Every time I preach, there are people who hear me who haven’t been converted and need to be.

Second, nothing inspires us on our journey of sanctification like being reminded, often, of what God has done for us, once and for all, through the cross of his Son Jesus. For this reason, I like the way the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it: “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.”

A future post will talk about how the doctrine of assurance fits in with all of this.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 351.

2. Ibid.

Sermon 03-05-17: “Will Jesus Say That He Knows Us?”

March 7, 2017

This sermon is about the series of warnings with which Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount. I pay particular attention to his frightening words in verses 21-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” 

What will our Lord say to us on Judgment Day? How can we know that we’ve entered the narrow gate, or walk on the narrow road, or bear good fruit, or build our house on the solid foundation? Can we be assured of salvation? How?

Sermon Text: Matthew 7:13-29

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Friends, it is my sad duty to report to you that, as of last month, the thimble is no more. The thimble… I’m referring to that classic game piece, or token, in the board game Monopoly. Parker Brothers has “retired” the thimble in response to a recent online poll. They asked the public to vote on which piece to get rid of, and apparently the poor thimble was the latest victim of modernization. Parker Brothers explained that while a thimble was a part of everyday life when the game was introduced back during the Depression, it’s no longer “relevant”—and that they’re going to replace it with something more relevant, like a cell phone.

The thimble will be no more in new versions of Monopoly.

Did you know that the iron and the horse-and-rider have already been replaced? Unbelievable! When I was a kid, the horse and rider was my favorite!

Well… I suspect that if, heaven forbid, we submitted all the sayings of Jesus to a popular vote, and excised from our Bibles the least popular sayings of Jesus, many of the the words from today’s scripture would surely be voted out. Last week, when I was on vacation, I let my friend Sonny preach on some of the most popular words. But I’m stuck with the least popular. I’m guessing that many people in our culture would say that Jesus’ strong words about judgment and hell, about the exclusivity of the way of Christ, and about how difficult it is to be saved, are no longer “relevant.” Read the rest of this entry »