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Reading the Psalms with the doctrine of imputation in mind

January 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s prayers for us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

January 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But who knows…?

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

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

God help me, I am a man of unclean lips!

December 31, 2018

In Psalm 12, David writes the following in verses 1-4:

Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
    for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
    our lips are with us; who is master over us?”

To say that the “faithful have vanished from among the children of man” paints a bleak picture. And what are the tell-tale signs of this absence of godliness? The words people utter, “flattering lips,” the “double heart” with which people speak, the “tongue that makes great boasts”—in other words, the things that people say.

This is a recurring theme in the Book of Proverbs, not to mention James 3:1-12, which couldn’t offer a more dire warning against the danger of the tongue.

But here’s what I now realize: The biblical authors don’t quite say what I want them to say, or what I expect them to say, about our speech. I want them to say that the words we speak are, at worst, a symptom of the problem in our hearts.

Not that they aren’t a symptom: Jesus himself tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). David makes the same point here when he refers to the “double heart.”

One problem with “flattering lips,” for instance, which Proverbs also warns against, is that they don’t tell the truth. They don’t come from a place of integrity, in which thoughts, words, and deeds align perfectly.

All this makes sense to me.

But the biblical writers go beyond that. In the scripture above, for instance, the problem is not merely the sinful pride in one’s heart that gives rise to “great boasts,” but the boasting itself. The words are a problem. From the perspective of the biblical authors, speech is something far worse than the outward manifestation of what’s in our hearts. In other words, while it’s one (sinful) thing to have the impulse to boast, it’s something worsedare I say far worse—to give voice to this impulse.

Again, this is not the way I want to see it. I want to believe that words—like cursing and gossip—are superficial. “Solve the problem in your heart, Brent, and your angry cursing and gossip will cease.” (Most of my sinful speech relates to my anger.)

This perspective simply doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s teaching. Words have more power than that. Perhaps we can’t “solve the problem in our hearts” without, at the same time, solving the “problem in our words.”

So I need to change. I tend to be very forgiving of myself when it comes to sinful speech (and often very unforgiving when it comes to other ways in which I fall short!). When I confess my sins in prayer, for example, I rarely even think of sinful words I’ve spoken. They are, at worst, “breadcrumb sins” (Dylan, “Gates of Eden”). I see now that I’m wrong.

Merciful God, I am “a man of unclean lips” who has tolerated this sin for too long. Give me the grace and the power to rein in sinful words. Amen.

Advent Devotional Day 31: “To Thy Pleasure and Disposal”

December 31, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:38; Philippians 2:5-11

United Methodists have a liturgy for the new year called the Covenant Renewal or Watch Night service. I’ve never been part of a Methodist church that observed it (frankly, it would be a tough sell against our culture’s traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations), but we often include a prayer from the service on or around New Year’s Day. Wesley didn’t write it, but he adapted it for this service:

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.

The prayer emphasizes God’s sovereignty to a possibly uncomfortable degree. What would it mean, after all, for us to “have nothing” or to be “laid aside” or “brought low” for God? Do you really want to find out? If we did, we might be tempted to imagine that God were punishing us. Not necessarily, this prayer says. 

It also challenges us to resist the temptation to imagine God as a sleepy, grandfatherly figure, who may not like what’s going on in the world but isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. It assumes that what God wants will not be frustrated by human sin or naturally occurring events.

This prayer challenges us to place our lives at God’s disposal, trust that we’ll be O.K. one way or another, and learn to say, “So be it.” Just like Mary in Luke 1:38.

In fact, the prayer puts into words a prayerful response to Paul’s words in Philippians 2, when he urges us to have the “same mind” among us as is in Christ. When we pray, “Let me be empty” and “I heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal,” it’s hard not to think of the self-emptying love of God in Jesus Christ, “who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”

Just think: Christ emptied himself so much that he let himself become the size of a single cell in Mary’s womb. And he let himself be born not in an opulent palace but a lowly cattle stall.

Would you be content to be “laid aside” for God’s sake? Would you be happy if God let you have nothing? Why or why not?

Advent Devotional Day 30: “Hope for Dark Moments”

December 30, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Daniel 3:8-30; Luke 1:38

When we read in Daniel 3 about God’s miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often think of it as God’s sparing these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God made the three friends endure the worst part of the furnace.

Allow me to explain: First, they had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

By all means, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them. They knew that God had the power to do so. But this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict XVI, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[1]

Notice the last sentence: Ratzinger implies that God uses Mary’s suffering—this struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

Think of times in your life when God intervened to save you from something that your feared. Did the experience help you in any way? Did you learn something from it? Can you see how God was working through that experience to “mature your inner closeness to God”?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

Advent Devotional Day 29: “The Light Shines in Darkness”

December 29, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-5

In the movie Back to the Future, Doc Brown, the inventor of a time-traveling DeLorean, asks Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty, if he wants to travel back in time and witness the birth of Christ. We then see him set the clock on the DeLorean’s dashboard to December 25 of the year “0000.” 

This is wrong for two reasons: First, there wasn’t a year “0000.” (The calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1) Second, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or, more accurately, he had about a 1 in 365 chance of being born on December 25.

But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. For the next six months following the winter solstice, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

Some Christians are bothered by the fact that Christmas falls on (or near) what was traditionally a pagan holiday. Ancient people celebrated the solstice because it meant “the end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over darkness.”[1]

As Adam Hamilton points out, however, the solstice is a fitting symbol of Christmas:

Many believe that when Christians in the fourth century settled on a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they chose the date not because it was a pagan holiday, but because the heavens themselves declared at this time the truth of the gospel. The winter solstice represented astronomically what John’s Gospel proclaimed was happening spiritually in the birth of Jesus Christ. Just as darkness was defeated by light, so in Jesus, God’s light would defeat the darkness of sin and death.

This meaning is captured in John’s telling of the story. John doesn’t mention angels or shepherds or wise men; he speaks only of light and life and the defeat of darkness. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with  God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).[2]

Describe in your own words ways in which the “light of Christ” has driven out darkness in your own life. In what areas of your life do you still need Christ’s life to shine? Pray that God will make that happen through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 126.

2. Ibid.

Advent Devotional Day 28: “Life Is Like That”

December 28, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Romans 8:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

In the holiday classic movie A Christmas Story, the family’s Christmas turkey dinner is ruined when the neighbors’ dogs steal the bird from the kitchen counter. The narrator, a grown-up Ralphie, says, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

This was a minor disaster, to be sure. But I love the way the father responds: Despite the fact that Christmas turkey was his favorite part of the holiday, when it was taken away from him, he controls his anger, forces a smile, and tells his family, “Go upstairs. Get dressed. We’re going out to eat.”

If you’re a parent—if you’re a human being in general—you are constantly called upon to rise to the occasion, to deal with adversity, and to handle disasters with equanimity.

So how are you doing at it? 

I have a friend who teaches psychology at a university in town. He said that most of our suffering in life comes not from the disaster itself, but how we respond to it. In my experience, I know that’s true.

But my friend is speaking only from a secular perspective. We believers have God’s Word. In it, we’re told things like “Rejoice always… give thanks in all things.” We’re told that God has “hemmed us in, behind and before,” and that we are held securely in God’s hand. We’re told that in all things God works for good of those who love him. We’re told that the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient in every circumstance. We’re told that nothing separates us from God’s love.

This means that God has a plan for our lives, and he’s working that plan “when our joy is at its zenith, when all is right with the world, and when disasters, large and small, happen”—and they will. But when they happen, we can say, “Well, this isn’t what I planned or wanted—but I’m not in charge here. I wonder what the Lord is up to? He must have something better for me than I planned.” 

God must have something better for me than I planned!

Do we have the faith to stare a disaster in the face and say that?

In my own experience, and in the experience of any number of people I’ve ministered to over the years who’ve survived disasters, God has a way of taking the bad stuff and transforming it into something good. Have you experienced God this way? If so, how can this experience help you the next time disaster strikes?