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 »


Are there “false prophets” in the UMC?

March 6, 2017

In a podcast I listened to this morning, a Bible scholar and professor said that one of his students recently told him that the Old Testament portrays God as having “anger issues,” whereas the New Testament portrays God as loving, compassionate, and merciful.

This characterization of the Bible makes me want to facepalm—not simply because the so-called “God of the Old Testament” is loving, compassionate, and merciful, but also because the “God of the New Testament” (if you’ll allow a distinction for a moment) is a God of judgment and wrath. Indeed, he is a God who sends people to hell. Jesus says so. The epistles say so. Revelation says so.

The reason that many Christians believe that the “God of the New Testament” is different, I suspect, is because they believe that Jesus’ many frightening words about judgment, hell, and wrath don’t apply to them. In my sermon yesterday on Matthew 7:13-29, the series of warnings at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I asked myself and my congregation to imagine that they did. (Because they do!)

And lo and behold: without even trying, I preached a pretty good Lenten sermon on the first Sunday of Lent!

Among other things, my sermon included some words about the LGBTQ issue, which threatens to split our denomination (literally) in the next two years: by 2019, a specially called General Conference will decide once and for all how to move forward—together or separately. I said the following:

Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road that leads to life? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell?

I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead—and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s difficult to follow.

And why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!

But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because this “narrow gate” and “difficult road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to in verses 15 to 20 is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.

As has been the case throughout my present sermon series in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary inspired and convicted me. Concerning the “false prophets” of vv. 15-20, he writes the following:

If we are not to enter the Broad Way to destruction we will need to be continually liberated from those who beckon us to it. Moreover, “[t]he difficulty that there is even in finding this [Narrow Gate], requires that right guides should point it out to us” (Tholuck, 417). Jesus now tells us how to defend ourselves from false prophets. First of all, recognize their traits. False prophets almost always wear sheep’s clothing, that is, they have seemingly Christian ways. “Sheep” in Matthew are symbols of present or future believers… This presents us with a difficulty: what is the difference between a Christian appearance (sheep’s clothing) and a Christian effect (good fruit)?

It is the first subtlety of false prophets that they appear Christian. False prophets rarely wear wolves’ clothing. They are often (though not always) sheep-like, Christian-seeming, in earnest, and apparently the real item. This is why Jesus has to warn us about them at all.

Betz, 527, notices that the greatest danger facing disciples is not persecution but false prophets, luring us on to the easy road. His observation is corroborated by the multiple appearances of false prophets (from within the church) in Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the End of the World (see 24:4-5, 11, 24). Henry, 94, observes that “Every ‘hypocrite’ is a ‘goat’ in sheep’s clothing; but a ‘false prophet’ is a ‘wolf’ in sheep’s clothing, not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.”[1]

Many people, including colleagues and even friends in ministry, would strongly disagree with me (and Bruner, I’m guessing) that the effort to revise the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage represents the work of “false prophets.” But if Bruner is right that false prophets are people in the church—our church, any church—who seek to “lure us on to the easy road,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility? To ignore it, after all, is to put our souls at risk—again, if Bruner’s interpretation of Jesus is correct.

For my progressive colleagues who tend to give extra weight to the red-letter words of Jesus, please consider his words here, too. Please heed these warnings!

As always, I write this as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 352-3.


Ash Wednesday 2017: “The Reason for Lent”

March 2, 2017
170227-jordan-horowitz-0629_958fc7c8e7500c2444bb0f4cf2ef20d0-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Jordan Horowitz handing over his trophy.

The following manuscript is adapted from last night’s Ash Wednesday sermon. For the complete sermon, listen to the audio file below.

Even if you didn’t watch the Academy Awards, you likely heard about the terrible mix-up that occurred last Sunday night when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty—otherwise known as “Bonnie and Clyde”—announced the year’s Best Picture Oscar. They announced the wrong movie: They said that La La Land won best picture, when in reality the movie Moonlight won the award.

Whoops! The producers of La La Land were nearly finished with their acceptance speeches before they found out what happened. My son Townshend was watching the show with me, and he said, “You know who the happiest man in America is right now? Steve Harvey!” And I’m sure he was right. In 2015, Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, but the Academy Awards are a much bigger deal than Miss Universe.

But… It was almost worth the mix-up in order to see how at least one of the producers of La La Land responded. And for that reason, Jordan Horowitz is a hero to me. Shortly after giving his acceptance speech—while he was holding the Oscar in his hand—he went to the microphone and said, “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you won best picture. This is not a joke.” And then, as the producers of Moonlight were taking the stage, he said, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” And he handed over his trophy. And to his great credit, he didn’t even seem disappointed. He seemed perfectly O.K. with it.

And I thought, “This is a fitting symbol for this season of Lent, which begins today.” Lent is about learning to give trophies that don’t belong to us to their rightful owner. Lent is about learning to step away from the spotlight that’s shining on us so that it can shine on the One who deserves the spotlight. Lent is about learning to be O.K. with the idea that we’re not entitled to a single iota of glory for ourselves; rather, the glory belongs entirely to God alone.

Lent is about learning to say with John the Baptist, “[Christ] must become greater; I must become less.” Read the rest of this entry »


Sermon 02-19-17: “Forgive Others or You Won’t Be Forgiven”

March 2, 2017

matthew_graphic

Consider this a “do-over” sermon. I’ve preached on the Lord’s Prayer at least a few times before, yet I’ve never come to grips with Jesus’ difficult words about forgiveness in v. 12 or the “postscript” to his prayer in vv. 14-15. To put it bluntly, Jesus means exactly what he says: if we don’t forgive other people, we won’t be forgiven. What does that mean? This sermon explores that question.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-15

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

Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of Tipping Point and Outliers. His most recent book, also a bestseller, examines the biblical story of David and Goliath. He identifies some principles that the overmatched shepherd boy used to vanquish his foe, and then looks at how those same principles work out in our world today.

While he was researching the book, he met a woman from Winnipeg named Wilma Derksen. Thirty years ago, the Derksens experienced every parent’s worst nightmare—their daughter, Candace, was abducted and murdered.

malcolmgladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell was amazed by something that Wilma said at the time: “We would like to know who the person or persons (who murdered Candace) are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.” She continued, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but as Gladwell noticed, “the stress was on the phrase at this point.” As he writes, “I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say these things … Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?”

The answer, Gladwell discovered, was their Christian faith. And the experience helped Gladwell himself rediscover his own Christian faith.[1]

But notice how important it was to Wilma Derksen, a Christian, to meet her daughter’s killer or killers, to “share… a love that seems to be missing” from their lives. Notice how important it was that she find a way to forgive them—even though she admitted that she hadn’t done so yet. Read the rest of this entry »


The problem of God’s “hiddenness”

February 28, 2017

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

In his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation (great title, by the way), Jerry Walls, a United Methodist theologian, makes a case for perdition in the face of modern objections. One of these objections is this: “What about those who’ve never heard the gospel, or who’ve heard only a deficient version of it? Would God send them to hell, even though they had no fair opportunity to hear and respond to God’s message of salvation through Christ?”

It’s a good question, and one which the Bible doesn’t address directly. Walls’s answer, which he acknowledges is speculative, is that God gives everyone a sufficient amount of grace—either in this life or shortly thereafter—to accept or reject the gospel. In other words, in the liminal space between time and eternity, during the moment of a person’s death, God may yet reveal himself to an unsaved person and enable him or her to say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life.

Yes, you might say, but if someone were facing a choice of salvation or damnation right away—as opposed to in some hypothetical future, where most of us keep the prospect of our own death—who wouldn’t choose salvation?

Maybe no one, in which case, Walls would say, the “choice” wouldn’t be free. The dying person wouldn’t choose God out of a sincere desire and love for God; the person would choose God out of fear alone. Therefore, his or her choice would be coerced.

Walls responds to this objection as follows:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such  reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.[†]

Whether you agree with the idea of postmortem conversion or not—and let me say that I hope it’s possible (the rich man and his brothers in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 apparently already had a sufficient amount of grace in their lifetimes)—Walls’s handling of the “free response” objection helps me make sense of a question that has nagged me over the years: If God wants us to know him, why doesn’t he do more to reveal himself to us? Why does he often seem hidden, even from sincere atheists who, unlike virulent New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, would like for God to exist? (This question was debated in the most recent Unbelievable? episode.)

In “The Idea,” a punk song that I first head in 1983, Adam Ant pointed to the problem: “I could be religious if/ A god would say ‘hello.’/ I could be religious if/ An angel touched my shoulder.”

Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth remembering that God doesn’t want mere belief in his existence—or even the intellectual assent to facts about his Son Jesus and his atoning death. Otherwise, we might say—perish the thought—that Satan himself could be an orthodox Christian! “You believe that there is one God,” writes the apostle, with sarcasm, “Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Also, as is clear in John 3 (Nicodemus) and John 6 (the miraculous feeding), among other places in the gospels, plenty of people have a kind of faith in Jesus based on his miracles, but Jesus warns that this faith is insufficient. This gives the lie to the idea that if only people saw miracles today, they would repent and be saved.

Still, what would be the harm in God’s making his reality clearer to more people?

Here’s where Walls helps: Sure, if God made his presence more obvious, more people would seem to choose God and his way of salvation through Christ. But would it really be a choice? Or would it be coerced? If circumstances forced more unbelievers to acknowledge the reality of God and his gospel, their relationship with God might be based on something other than faith, hope, and love.

Remember: Paul says that faith and hope, alongside love, “remain” even after we know “fully, even as we are fully known.” They are permanent features of our relationship with God, both now and in eternity, not something we’re stuck with until we no longer see through the “glass darkly.” Whereas I might wish that I didn’t need faith, God doesn’t. And in his hiddenness, he’s forcing me to put it into practice.

All that to say, even in our finitude and sin, we have enough evidence to suggest that God knew what he was doing when he enacted his rescue plan for humanity.

But what do you think? Is God’s “hiddenness” a problem for you?

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992), 100.


The most frightening words Wesley ever preached

February 18, 2017

wesley01In my sermon tomorrow, I’m preaching on forgiveness—namely the petition from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and Jesus’ commentary on it in vv. 14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” And no sermon on these words would be complete without at least glancing over to the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:23-35.

I feel like tomorrow’s sermon needs to be a do-over. While I’ve preached on forgiveness before, I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’ plain words: If we are unwilling or unable to forgive others, our souls are in jeopardy. The connection between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive is unmistakable.

Could it be clearer?

Yes, I know that we interpret scripture with scripture—and believe me, I want to flee to Romans and Galatians to find reassuring words about justification by faith alone. But Jesus’ words in the gospels are hardly less inspired than Paul’s! (While I sympathize with our Dispensationalist brothers and sisters who teach that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really apply to the time in which we currently live, I know they’re wrong.)

But if I can’t find refuge in Paul, maybe my commentaries will offer me wiggle room? No luck. Modern commentaries only underscore how difficult Jesus’ words are. Worse, in one of John Wesley’s “Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount,” I may have found the most frightening words he ever wrote or preached:

“As we forgive them that trespass against us.” In these words our Lord clearly declares both on what condition, and in what degree or manner, we may look to be forgiven of God. All our trespasses and sins are forgiven us, if we forgive, and as we forgive, others. First, God forgives us if we forgive others. This is a point of the utmost importance. And our blessed Lord is so jealous lest at any time we should let it slip out of our thoughts, that he not only inserts it in the body of his prayer, but presently after repeats it twice over. “If,” saith he, “ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14, 15.) Secondly, God forgives us as we forgive others. So that if any malice or bitterness, if any taint of unkindness or anger remains, if we do not clearly, fully, and from the heart, forgive all men their trespasses, we far cut short the forgiveness of our own: God cannot clearly and fully forgive us: He may show us some degree of mercy; but we will not suffer him to blot out all our sins, and forgive all our iniquities.

In the mean time, while we do not from our hearts forgive our neighbour his trespasses, what manner of prayer are we offering to God whenever we utter these words? We are indeed setting God at open defiance: we are daring him to do his worst. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us!” That is, in plain terms, “Do not thou forgive us at all; we desire no favour at thy hands. We pray that thou wilt keep our sins in remembrance, and that thy wrath may abide upon us.” But can you seriously offer such a prayer to God? And hath he not yet cast you quick into hell? O tempt him no longer! Now, even now, by his grace, forgive as you would be forgiven! Now have compassion on thy fellow-servant, as God hath had and will have pity on thee!

What do we make of this challenge? How do we reconcile it with the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

[†] John Wesley, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2014), 129-30.


Sermon 02-12-17: “What Reward Do You Have?”

February 16, 2017

matthew_graphic

If last week’s sermon was about the sinfulness of anger, this week’s sermon is about its ultimate cause—which is implicit in Jesus’ question in verse 46: “What reward do you have?” Not counting “righteous anger,” which we don’t often feel, we usually get angry when someone messes with our “reward,” or our “treasure.” This sermon, therefore, explores that seldom mentioned motive for serving the Lord: that we will receive a reward. Is there something wrong in working for Christ’s reward?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:38-48

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

If it’s true that there are five stages of grief, this past week I got hung up on the second stage—anger. I’m referring, of course, to the anger that arose within me around 10:15 or so last Sunday night, when the Patriots broke an NFL playoff record and overcame a 25-point deficit to tie up the Super Bowl at the last minute. The anger I felt wasn’t kick-the-couch kind of anger. I’ve shared with you before how, back in the mid-2000s, when my children were very young, I got so angry when the Georgia Bulldogs took a last-second lead in the annual rivalry game with my Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and I responded by kicking the couch in frustration. Deeply shameful incident, which I had hoped my kids were too young to remember… but they enjoy reminding me—it’s hysterical to them—of that time when they saw their father kick the couch in frustration. Because of a football game.

ryan

No, the anger I felt last Sunday night wasn’t that kind of anger. It was an anger that expressed itself as disgust… Resentment… I felt an urge to disown this team, which, mere minutes earlier, I was cheering for. “Who are these losers?” I thought. I didn’t want to be associated with their city!

I know some of you felt the same way. The difference is, no one in this room besides me preached a sermon about anger a mere twelve hours earlier! Seriously, I was sharing my frustration about the game with one of you on Wednesday night, and you rightly pointed out—in a joking sort of way—what a hypocrite I was. And you’re right!

Anger! Where does it come from? Why is it so pervasive? Why is it so hard to overcome?

In today’s scripture, which has to do with not retaliating against enemies but loving them instead, our Lord has given me an opportunity to take a second bite at that apple concerning this emotion of anger. Because let’s face it, if someone insults us, or physically assaults us, or persecutes us, or takes advantage of us, or steals from us, or exploits us, or mistreats us in any way—as Jesus describes in this text—what is our natural emotional response? Anger! And we retaliate against them, and we fail to love them, because we’re acting out of this anger.

So what is it that makes us angry? Why did I get angry at the Falcons last Sunday night—instead of feeling great compassion and pity and sorrow for them. While it’s true that they lost that game through any one of about two-dozen different mistakes, it’s not like I haven’t made plenty of mistakes that have cost me victories in my life. And it’s not like the Patriots had nothing to do with it! They are a great team!  Read the rest of this entry »


Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.