Are we sure that good works play no role in saving us?

June 2, 2018

In last Sunday’s sermon I covered Galatians 3:15-20. In this scripture Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham—that in him “shall all the nations be blessed,” which is nothing less than the gospel that scripture “preached beforehand” (v. 8)—is on the basis of faith alone, not works. In v. 15, Paul gives a “human example”: “even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.”

In my sermon, I compared Paul’s “man-made covenant” to a will—as in “last will and testament.” This is a fair comparison: the Greek word that Paul uses for “covenant” (diathēkē) can literally refer to a will. While it’s true that potential heirs can take actions before the will is ratified to influence the percentage of the estate they inherit, once the will is ratified (and the person who wrote the will dies), this covenant can’t be changed. It doesn’t depend at all on what someone does or doesn’t do.

Given that this is true even for “man-made” covenants, Paul asks, how much more true is it for a covenant between God and his people? The Law, given through Moses 430 years after God’s covenant of faith with Abraham, “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (v. 17). Therefore God’s people will continue to be justified by faith alone, and not works of the Law—or, by extension, any other human works. We are saved by faith alone!

Paul’s point is clear enough (to us traditional Protestants, at least). And yet…

What about those places in the gospels themselves in which it seems like we have to add works to faith in order to be saved? In my sermon I shared three short examples, each of which speaks of the very “inheritance” (i.e., the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham) that Paul himself refers to in v. 18.

The Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23). Notice here that the man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him, in so many words, keep the Ten Commandments. He replies, “Yes, but I’ve done that since I was a child.” But is that true? Has the man kept the Ten Commandments? Of course not! Jesus knows that this man hasn’t come to terms with the breadth and depth of his sinfulness.

Think, for example, of the way that Jesus intensifies the meaning of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount: Anger is on the same spectrum as murder; lust (and elsewhere, divorce) is on the same spectrum as adultery. The same sinful condition of one’s heart, in other words, gives rise to both sins. So we are not “keeping” the Ten Commandments by merely observing the law outwardly. What matters is not the mere outward observance, but the condition of our hearts.

As Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-19). This is also the point of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14).

So Jesus exposes the Rich Young Ruler’s “heart condition” by asking him to do what was impossible for him: to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man’s problem was not simply that he possessed lots of money—it’s likely, after all, that the man was generous in almsgiving; and I’m sure he tithed. The man’s main problem was that he had made something else his savior and lord other than Jesus: his wealth. So it’s not so much that the man couldn’t be saved; it’s that he wouldn’t be saved so long as he continued in his idolatry.

Jesus’ apparent harshness to this man—couldn’t he have asked the man for something less than 100 percent?—was a mercy in disguise: he wanted to uncover the man’s sin, thereby giving him his best shot at repentance. And none of us knows whether or not the man eventually did repent. Jesus holds out hope: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37Notice that the lawyer’s question is the same as the Rich Young Ruler’s: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, moral genius that he is, gives the world one of its greatest moral teachings… yet one of whose points can be so easily lost! What I mean is this: Many people take this parable to be moralistic and works-oriented: “Be like the Good Samaritan who stops to help; don’t be like those bad religious hypocrites. Your enemy is your neighbor; love him too.”

But remember: Jesus tells this story in response to a question about “inheriting eternal life.” Since I fail every day to live out the kind of sacrificial, Christ-like love that the Good Samaritan exemplifies, am I in trouble?

No—because notice the verse at the center of the parable: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). This compassion preceded everything else he did. Getting back to Jesus’ point above, it’s not so much that the Good Samaritan performed these good works for his injured enemy; it’s why he did so! He had compassion, which is a condition of one’s heart. You can’t fake compassion; you either have it or you don’t. And no one can know whether you have it—even if you perform the same good works that the Samaritan performed.

What we need for “inheriting eternal life,” therefore, is not good works but a transformed heart, made possible only by faith, the evidence of which will be good works.

Don’t misunderstand: In one sense, we need good works to be saved: On Judgment Day, our good works will be offered as evidence of the authenticity of our faith in Christ. But these good works play no role in saving us. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43, for example, did nothing prior to Jesus pronouncing his salvation. Justification—being made right with God—precedes our good works, which are made possible only by a Spirit-transformed heart (by which we have compassion) that comes through faith. Before Jesus told the thief that he was going to be with him in Paradise, he would have known—hypothetically—that if the thief had been able to come down off the cross, and survive his many injuries, he would have had good works to show for himself. Why? Because the thief’s heart was transformed, irrespective of anything that he did.

This is why the apostle Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) What are we examining ourselves to see? That our lives show evidence that we are “in the faith.” And this evidence is good works.

Finally, I concluded my sermon with the most difficult test case—a quasi-parable about Final Judgment that most emphatically seems to tell us that good works play a role in saving us: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Again, like the Good Samaritan, is Jesus’ point to say, “You must do the good works that the righteous people do—those designated as ‘sheep’—in order to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'” (v. 34)? If so, am I in trouble—because I fail to be righteous all the time! 

No. Jesus can’t merely be saying, “Be like a sheep and not a goat,” because notice v. 37 and following: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?…” The “sheep,” please notice, were completely unaware that they were doing these good works for Christ, or to Christ, or on Christ’s behalf: “Lord, when did we see you…?”

The righteous, in other words, are unself-conscious about their good works. They are not doing these works because they know they ought to—because they’re really doing it for Jesus, after all, and they want to inherit eternal life.

And so it is with us. Indeed, the moment the thought crosses our minds, “I need to serve ‘the least of these’ because I’m really serving Jesus,” we are—in that moment—failing to be like the righteous in the parable.

Does this make sense?

Being a “sheep” is like being a Good Samaritan: It springs from compassion—a condition of the heart—which is made possible by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as we believe in Jesus Christ. Faith must come first. Faith justifies us, after which these good actions follow.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been trying to make this point about the relationship between faith and works in a dozen different ways over the years. This is my latest attempt. I hope this helps you!


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

May 23, 2018

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

You never get to see any miracles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

May 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The latest Andy Stanley controversy

May 11, 2018

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

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

Matthew 5:17-20

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

Or, Luke 16:17

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

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

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

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

To this comment, Tom Harkins and I heartily agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2

May 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ’70s were awesome!

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

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

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

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


National Day of Prayer Homily 2018: “Prayer Is Supposed to Be Easy”

May 5, 2018

I know I’m way behind on my blog! Forgive me! As an itinerant United Methodist pastor, I’m preparing for a transition this June to a new appointment in our North Georgia Conference. So while I still have important work to do at my current appointment, I’m also busy getting ready for a big move. I’ll catch up on the blog, I promise!

In the meantime, here is the homily I shared at this week’s National Day of Prayer service at my church, which was attended by Hampton Mayor Steve Hutchison and his wife, Linda, many city officials, and local pastors in the area—among others. Enjoy! 

Homily Text: Luke 11:5-13

Until about a year ago, I thought of myself as a pretty tough guy. What changed? I started taking Tae Kwon Do with one of my sons. I thought it would be good exercise… As it turns out, it was a good exercise in humility. Not only did learn that I was terrible at Tae Kwon Do, I also realized that I did not like getting hit, especially in the face, which often happened to me when I sparred.

After a couple of minutes of sparring, I would be like… [imitate breathing very heavily]. What was wrong with me? Why am I so bad at this? The Tae Kwon Do instructor, Master Joaquin, told me: “You’re not breathing… You’re holding your breath. You must breathe.” “But I’m holding my breath because I’m about to get punched in the face!” So that was my problem…

Tae Kwon Do is hard. Breathing ought to be easy. And prayer, according to today’s scripture, ought to be more like breathing than Tae Kwon Do—if you know what I mean. Prayer ought to be easy!

But we often make it hard. We worry, for instance, that we’re doing it wrong. So I want to set your mind at ease: If you don’t pray as often as you should because you’re worried that you’re doing it wrong, I want to set your mind at ease: You are doing it wrong! We all do prayer wrong! Listen: If no less a saint than the apostle Paul was “doing it wrong” then we all are. Listen to what Paul said in Romans 8:26-27:

We don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.[1]

But this is good news, because the Bible tells us that our prayers are effective, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what he does. In other words, our prayers are effective—even when we do it wrong—because of God’s grace!

This is the main point of this parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture: a man who has company goes to a friend’s house—at midnight—and asks him for bread. Because he has nothing to feed his company. According to the rules of first-century near Eastern hospitality, this is deeply shameful; this is a crisis! Read the rest of this entry »


Sermon 04-15-18: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives”

April 25, 2018

In today’s highly autobiographical scripture, Paul describes his life before Christ and after Christ. As I say in today’s sermon, if we’re Christians, our lives should be characterized by a B.C. (before Christ) and and A.D. (after Christ) as well. Can other people see the difference?

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:11-24

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The following was written after the fact from my sermon outline, so it will differ somewhat from the recorded sermon. Enjoy!

Believe it or not, I have never watched the show Celebrity Big Brother. Have any of you? But it made headlines recently when one of its contestants, a former White House staffer who was fired last year, had this to say about Vice President Mike Pence: She warned that we need to watch out for him. She said, “I’m Christian, I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things.” 

This was being discussed on that talk show The View. Joy Behar, one of the co-hosts, upon hearing this, said to her fellow View co-hosts, “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you!” She went on to say that hearing voices is “mental illness.”

Then the vice president accused her of “attacking Christianity,” and the whole thing got blown out of proportion—as all things political tend to do these days.

Of course, when the vice president said that he hears Jesus speak to him, he meant it the way we mean it when we talk about “hearing” the Lord tell us something: he meant that he sensed that Jesus was guiding or directing or leading him to do something. Not that he heard Jesus speak to him in an audible voice. It’s unlikely that any of us Christians would claim to have heard Jesus speak in an audible voice, even if we’re confident that Jesus has “spoken” to us.

Besides, Jesus doesn’t need to speak to us in an audible voice. Because we have God’s Word… and we believe that Jesus speaks to us in the pages of this book! This is by far the main way that Jesus speaks to us!

But the apostle Paul wants us to know in today’s scripture, by contrast, that when he heard Jesus speak to him, he meant he really heard Jesus speak to him, not merely in an audible voice, but in person—because Jesus appeared to him in his resurrected body on that Damascus road, gave him the gospel he preached, and commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Read the rest of this entry »


Pope Francis and the false gospel of “just be a good person”

April 21, 2018

In the sermon I posted just this week, on Galatians 1:1-10, I warned against the false gospel of “just be a good person.” While this isn’t the same false gospel that Paul is attacking in his letter to the Galatians, it is a gospel that says, in so many words, that what we do plays a role—and a rather large one—in saving us. I cited Warren Buffett, who, upon announcing that he was giving away 80 percent of his $44 billion fortune, said, “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”

Of course, Buffett’s way is no way at all. If our salvation depends on what we do—aside from confessing our helplessness to do anything—we will be damned. The apostle Paul believes this so strongly, in fact, that he said that false teachers who merely added a few human requirements to his gospel of free grace through Christ would be damned. This is literally the meaning of his words in verse 9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” “Accursed” is literally the Greek word anathema, which means to be damned.

Paul’s words are uncompromising because he believes that if his readers embrace this false gospel, they are putting their souls at risk.

I realize how unpopular this message is to most modern-day Americans. But Paul is not playing around here. And we shouldn’t be, either. If Paul is right, nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance: we will be saved by Christ’s atoning work on the cross alone or we will not saved at all. To misunderstand this is to risk losing the gospel entirely.

As if on cue, however, in a video that has since gone viral, Pope Francis challenged this gospel of free grace. Last Sunday, during a gathering of Catholics, he invited children in the audience to come forward and ask him questions. One child, named Emanuele, asked Francis, through tears, if his recently deceased father was in heaven, even though he was an atheist.

The pontiff implied rather strongly that he was. And how did Francis know? Because, he said, the child’s father was a good man, as evidenced by his son’s testimony and his willingness to have his four children baptized. Francis told the crowd:

That man didn’t have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God’s heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? … A dad’s heart! God has the heart of a father.

And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?

He even told the boy to “talk to your dad,” which—even in terms of a Catholic doctrine I don’t accept—would be impossible if the man were in hell.

Let me preface the following words by saying that my heart breaks for this boy. I sympathize with Pope Francis, and any other pastor, who must answer difficult questions about the afterlife for loved ones who were unbelievers.

Pope Francis is absolutely right that “God is the One who decides” who goes to heaven. We cannot know for certain who is and isn’t there. We are not the judge—fortunately. But God is, and only God can know a person’s heart infallibly. Even this father, for instance, who (for all we know) professed atheism for most of his life, may have yet have turned to Christ, like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), and found saving grace even in the last few moments of his life.

And Francis is right about God having a father’s heart. Like the loving father in the parable (Luke 15:11-24), our heavenly Father stood ready to receive this man, without reservation, as his beloved child. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15 and many other places). God loved this man beyond measure (John 3:16) and wanted him to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And if this man repented and turned to Christ, even in his dying moments, he would have been saved: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13).

So… was this man saved? I hope! Even if it’s unlikely, given the man’s professed atheism, I hope. That’s all any of us can do. It’s all that’s warranted, biblically speaking.

If Francis had told the child something like that—and given the child’s age and level of maturity, I understand that it would have been difficult—I would have no problem.

What he said instead, however, was nothing less than a distortion of the gospel. He said, in so many words, that the man might be saved—or likely would be saved—on the basis not of faith in Christ but of his good works. To say the least this is cheap grace. And as I’ve said on this blog and in sermons, if grace is cheap, it’s already too expensive.

The gospel isn’t good news because it’s easier than following the Law; the gospel is good news because following the Law—even the watered-down version of the law that says, “Thou shalt be a good person”—is impossible. Even accounting for important differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification by grace through faith (alone or otherwise), Pope Francis should know this, right?

Meanwhile, the popularity of Francis’s words to this boy makes the proclamation of the one true gospel all the more difficult. Who am I, after all, to contradict a pope? 🤦🏼‍♂️


Sermon 04-08-18: “No Other Gospel”

April 19, 2018

Like a former addict who suffers a dangerous relapse, the Christians to whom the apostle Paul is addressing today’s scripture are themselves facing a kind of relapse—only one that is far more dangerous than a relapse to illicit drugs. Because this “relapse” risks destroying not merely their bodies but their very souls as well… for eternity! And it’s a dangerous threat for us present-day Christians, too! What am I referring to? Listen to the sermon and find out!

As I said last week, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached.

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:1-10

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Back in 1985, when I was 15, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Omni in Atlanta. Do you remember the Omni? It was one of the first concerts I went to, and I became a lifelong Tom Petty fan. So, like many of you, I was deeply saddened when he died late last year. The initial report was that he suffered cardiac arrest. Then about a month later, a medical examiner reported that he died of an opioid overdose. He had broken his hip while on tour last year, and—because the “show must go on,” he was prescribed a powerful narcotic called fentanyl, which is, like, 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Petty confessed in a recent autobiography that he became addicted to heroin in the mid- to late-’90s. But he got clean. So his addiction to this latest opioid represented a tragic relapse.

In a way, this is what Paul is dealing with in Galatia—a relapse of a sort. Except a relapse into opioid addiction would be far less harmful, from Paul’s perspective, because it could only destroy the body. Whereas the relapse that the Galatians are facing could potentially destroy their souls!

So what do I mean when I say “relapse”?

To answer that, we need to ask ourselves: What did Paul preach to the Galatians? What ideas did he build his ministry on? What message was Paul willing to suffer and die for? He tells us in the greeting of letter, verses 3 through 5: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

This is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell! Let’s look at some of the key words and phrases.

“Grace”: The free gift of God. We can do nothing to earn it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. “Peace”: This is the end result of receiving this gift. Prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross—and our faith in it—we were not at peace; we were incapable of achieving peace; there was a state of enmity between us and God. Paul says in Romans 5:10 that we were “enemies… reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But the end result of Christ’s death is described in Romans 5:1: “[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Read the rest of this entry »