More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.


Amazing grace in the Old Testament

June 1, 2017

Wednesday night’s Bible study featured a popular recurring topic: Does God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, seem different—less merciful, more violent—than the God that Jesus Christ and the apostles reveal to us in the New Testament?

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a stickler about this question: First, God doesn’t change, regardless how the Bible portrays him. But even more, I believe the Bible’s portrayal of God is consistent between the two Testaments. By all means, Jesus reveals more about who God is, and we see in Christ the full extent of God’s love, mercy, and compassion in a way that we can’t in the Old Testament. But this is not to say that Jesus contradicts the Old Testament’s portrayal of God as being committed to justice, having justifiable wrath toward sin, and punishing evildoers who won’t repent of their sins.

In fact, most of what we know about final judgment and hell, for example, we learn from the lips of Jesus himself in the four gospels. And in Revelation 19, the sword-wielding rider on the white horse, whose robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies and who avenges evil, is Jesus himself.

My point—heaven forbid!—is not that God isn’t as gracious and merciful as we think he is in the New Testament, but that he’s just as committed to justice as he is in the Old Testament. In fact, on the cross of his Son, God’s perfect justice and his perfect love meet. Far from being at odds with one another, God’s commitment to justice flows from his perfect love.

Having said that, the Old Testament bears witness to God’s profound grace and mercy. In our Bible study, we discussed many examples of this, including the Bible’s repeated affirmation that God is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).

But one of the best examples of God’s mercy, which I didn’t think about until this morning—when I read about him during my quiet time—is Manasseh, king of Judah, in 2 Chronicles 33. Manasseh, like so many kings of Judah before and after him, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chron. 33:2). The difference is the scale of his evil: he was literally the worst of a bad lot.

Child sacrifice, sorcery, idolatry—you name it, he did it. And he led his people into these sins as well. In fact, 2 Kings 21, which also recounts Manasseh’s story, tells us that Manasseh’s wickedness is the primary reason that the Southern Kingdom of Israel fell.

And yet…

Second Chronicles features one aspect of his story that the writer of 2 Kings leaves out: Manasseh repents. His change of heart occurs after the king of Assyria took him captive, binding him in chains and deporting him to Babylon. There, the author tells us,

[Manasseh] was in distress, [and] he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.

And for the rest of his reign, Manasseh’s life bore witness to his repentance, which you can read about in 2 Chronicles 33:14-20.

Let’s notice a few things about this: God dealt Manasseh what C.S. Lewis calls a “severe mercy”: God allowed Manasseh to suffer for his sin, but not merely for the sake of suffering. Rather, God used his suffering to bring him to repentance and to deeper faith in him (to say the least). This ought to remind us of something that the New Testament teaches repeatedly: that God disciplines his children (Hebrews 12:6) and uses trials and testing for our own good (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7).

Manasseh’s story reminds us that it’s never too late to get our lives right with God. As long as we have breath in our lungs, we still have the opportunity to repent. For the sake of our souls, let’s not waste it.

Finally, if God can forgive Manasseh, whom the Bible describes as the worst in a long line of bad people, well… don’t you think God can forgive you and me?

If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is!


The tape loop playing in the back of my thoughts

May 26, 2017

As I’ve already mentioned, I had a difficult conversation with a clergy acquaintance last week. He told me, in so many words, that he didn’t believe in many core doctrines and convictions of our Christian faith; that he doubted much of what the Bible teaches; and that he was perfectly O.K. with it.

At one point, I said, “Please don’t teach these things to your congregation!”—for their own sake, of course, but also for the sake of pastors like me and others who will have to come behind him and clean up the mess!

I was angry. “How dare he call himself a minister of the gospel when he doesn’t believe in much of what the gospel teaches!”

But then I thought of me…

Just last week, I was with a group of friends who were saying goodbye to our friend Steve, who was moving to the West Coast. Steve, a former Marine, gave each of us a “challenge coin” as a token of his friendship. One side of the coin was engraved with a smiling skull and these words: “Death smiles at everyone. Marines smile back.”

I’m sure there’s a sermon illustration in there somewhere, but that’s not my point. When he handed me the coin, he thanked me for my friendship and said, “Brent, you are consistently the nicest person I have ever known.”

I realized something yesterday: When he told me this, I didn’t take it as a compliment. Why? Because, from my perspective, he couldn’t have meant it. He knows me too well. I’m a horrible person.

Not that I consciously thought these words at the time. I didn’t have to… They’re part of a tape loop that’s constantly playing in the background of my thoughts. The volume isn’t usually turned up very loud, but it’s always there, whether I notice it or not.

Yesterday, when I did happen to notice it, I thought, “Why am I feeling indignant because my fellow pastor doesn’t believe much of the gospel, when I live as if I don’t? I preach this all the time: God loves us so much that he paid an infinite price to save us: by sending his Son to die for me on a cross. He exchanged his righteousness for our unrighteousness. He forgave us through our faith in Christ. He clothed us with his Son’s righteousness.

“As a result, it’s as if God the Father were saying the same thing of me that he said of Christ: ‘You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.’ He made me part of his family. I’m God’s treasure, not his trash! Do I believe that or don’t I?”

So here’s what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to memorize several scriptures that teach the truth about myself (and each of us who name Christ as our Savior and Lord) that I outline in the above paragraph: Among them are the following: Romans 4:22-25; 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21; Galatians 3:13-14; Philippians 3:9; Psalm 103:12; and Isaiah 43:25.

This is my effort to apply the healing power of the gospel to a particular problem in my life. How can the power of the gospel heal you?


Imputation is a beautiful doctrine

May 25, 2017

Speaking of John Piper, years ago he got into a public feud with N.T. Wright (both sides were polite and respectful) over the doctrine of imputation. Wright, as he often does, said, in so many words, “Yes, but…” He didn’t disagree that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, only that the means by which the Reformers (and their ancient predecessors) arrived at this formulation was incorrect. Wright’s takeaway, as I recall from his book-length response to Piper, was that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to us believers.

I don’t remember his argument. And nothing I say here detracts from my love and affection for Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God almost single-handedly (through the Holy Spirit, of course) returned me to the evangelical fold after many years wandering in the mainline Protestant wilderness. But Wright wrote as if imputation was some kind of alien concept foisted onto the Bible by the Reformers.

In the seven or eight years since I read Wright’s book Justification, I am even more Reformed in my thinking, and more evangelical. Therefore I’m much more sympathetic with the classic Reformation emphasis on imputation—I certainly hope it’s true!

Therefore, I was delighted to read in (United Methodist) theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, that double-imputation (our sins to Christ on the cross and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith) represents the consensual teaching of the Church from the beginning. Allow me quote from his book at length. (I’m leaving out most of his citations of ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era sources. There are many.) I hope it’s helpful to my readers.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve.

The language of imputation has entered conspicuously into justification teaching as seen in Paul’s crucial phrase “faith is credited [logizetai] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our debts are charged to Christ’s account. Christ’s obedience is offered for our deficient account. “Faith may be said to be imputed to us for righteousness as it is the sole condition of our acceptance” (Wesley, NUNT at Rom. 4:9…)

The imputation metaphors are found throughout classic Christian teaching: Adam’s sin has been reckoned to flow into the history of all humanity, so Adam’s debt is “charged to our account.” Oppositely, our sin has been reckoned to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for sin, becoming a curse for us. Our own sins are mercifully not being counted against those who trust Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:19), which is reckoned to the believer.

Justification teaching employs a twofold reverse in the bookkeeping metaphor. It indicates both the discharging (nonimputation) from sin and the crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. Debt is discharged; substitutionary payment is credited. The Epistle to Diognetus called this “the sweet exchange.”

Sin is not charged against the believing sinner, for “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s righteousness is accredited to the believing sinner, who is “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9, italics added…).

The believer is treated as actually righteous in relation to God. This is why my ethical deeds are not the basis for gaining standing in God’s presence. Only in the cross of the Lord of glory is that possible, where sin is forgiven without offending God’s own righteousness.

But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial. The cross is an event in history, a sacrificial offering substituting Christ’s goodness for our sin. The burden of our sin is transferred directly from our shoulders to Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross there occurred a salvation event which constituted “a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim” (Leo I, Sermon 68.3).[†]

My favorite part is in that last paragraph: “But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial.” Amen! When too many contemporary preachers and teachers dismiss substitutionary atonement (as my clergy acquaintance did in our conversation last week), they are impugning God’s holiness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners comes at an infinitely high cost!

† Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 594-5.


Why this Methodist preacher loves John Piper

May 24, 2017

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, I talked about Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 40:6, 8, which compares the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon with the kind of “exile” that Christians experience in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Why, I wondered aloud, do we set our hearts on things that are passing away instead of the “living and abiding word of God”?

As an illustration, I quoted a famous sermon that John Piper delivered to college students at a Passion Conference in 2000. He was describing a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks earlier, he said, these two women died. They were on a bus on a steep mountain road. The bus’s brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Piper said:

I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.

No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Nearly every time I hear Piper speak, I’m reminded why he’s among his generation’s most gifted preachers. My 17-year-old daughter, who also heard this, was blown away.

I think I know why Piper is one of the best—and if you disagree that he’s one of the best, watch the video and judge for yourself!

But I think I know why—or one important reason. It’s because he preaches as if Christianity were really true—all of it.

Or is that saying too little of Piper’s gifts? After all, shouldn’t all of us preachers preach as if Christianity were really true?

You’d think so, yet so few of us do. I haven’t always, myself.

A couple of years ago, in one of the Paul Zahl’s wonderful podcasts, the theologically conservative Zahl, a retired Episcopal theologian and minister (don’t call him a “priest,” please; he’s Protestant!), was complaining about an Episcopal worship service he had recently attended. Zahl says:

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience—or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

Where’s the “like” button? Where’s the heart sign to click on? I love this so much!

Of course, Zahl is talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but he could be talking about any number of other Christian doctrines, which, if they are true, cannot leave us unaffected—to say the least. Piper is effective as a preacher in part because he lets himself be affected. How could he not?

He doesn’t preach using humorous anecdotes; he doesn’t tell jokes. He preaches as if his message is too urgent for that. Yet his sermons are never dry or cerebral; they strike the right balance between head and heart—which is to say, they lead with his heart.

I hope I’ve learned from him, or am learning, how to “lead with my heart.”


Would you follow Jesus even if he weren’t God?

May 19, 2017

I argued theology recently with a clergy acquaintance who said that he would continue to follow Jesus—and teach others to do the same—even if the classic Christian doctrines were wrong (not to mention the Bible, from which these doctrines derive) and Jesus were merely human. When I asked him why, he said that his personal experience has taught him that following Jesus is the path to joy and fulfillment.

“But you can’t really say that, can you?” I said. “Because if your personal experience is based on anything real—and you aren’t merely playing mind games—then Jesus must be God.” Because at least part of what has made following Christ so satisfying—for example, the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and the heartwarming feeling that Christ is with you—is made possible by the fact that Jesus really is God. 

I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them. And if that didn’t happen, as Paul says, we are still in our sins. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:18-19).
(Yes, I realize that Paul is talking about resurrection here, but for him the resurrection only has meaning in relation to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As he says, “I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” The cross is the center of the gospel, not the resurrection.)

When my friend talked about “following Jesus,” he mostly meant obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching. He cited the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25 and Jesus’ foot-washing in John 13: We ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, he said. We ought love others as Christ loved us. (To which I said, citing Romans 7, “Good luck with that!”)

Apart from Christ’s atoning death on the cross, however, which is made possible by the fact that God himself was dying for us, following Jesus’ ethical demands are impossible. For example, when my clergy friend reads the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, does he not first recognize, with terror, how much he’s like a goat rather than a sheep? And when he reads John 13, does he not sympathize with Peter’s objection that Jesus wash not only his feet but “also my hands and my head”?

Our primary need, as Peter rightly understands, is to be rescued from our sins, not to be given a new set of commands to follow, no matter how good these commands are! This was the angel’s message to Joseph in the annunciation of Matthew 1: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

Besides, why would a minister of the gospel even entertain the thought of following Jesus even if…?

Well, I think I know… It’s a hedge against doubt and fear. Doubt about the truth of God’s Word and fear that we’re wasting our lives—especially us pastors of all people! We had to pay for a master’s degree to do this job—not to mention the opportunity cost of failing to find more lucrative work! If Christianity isn’t true, at least “following Jesus” remains a worthwhile endeavor.

Not for me… I would not follow Jesus if he isn’t God. As Lewis famously said, if he isn’t God, he’s a liar or lunatic—not someone to whom we can entrust our lives. If Jesus isn’t God, I freely admit I’m wasting my life. I am “most to be pitied.”

So it’s a good thing that Jesus is God! I believe it, and I happily and passionately defend it. I pray that God will strengthen the faith of any of my fellow clergy who doubt. I pray that they’ll share my convictions about the trustworthiness of God’s Word. I pray—as I told my friend, alluding to Paul in Acts 26—that he and the rest of my fellow clergy would “become like me, except for these chains”—the chains in my case being whatever prevents me from being a more winsome, at times less angry, messenger. 😑

Help me, Jesus! Thank God for the cross!


Does James contradict Paul on justification by faith alone?

May 18, 2017

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In last night’s Bible study in Galatians, we covered Galatians 3:5-6: “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— just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” 

False teachers from the Jerusalem church known as “Judaizers” had infiltrated the Galatian churches that Paul had planted. They were teaching Gentile church members that in order to be fully Christian, they needed to observe aspects of Jewish ceremonial law—including circumcision and dietary laws. From Paul’s perspective, if you add any requirement to the gospel that he proclaimed to them—no matter how small—you lose the gospel entirely. We are justified by faith alone.

The coup de grâce to Paul’s argument is the example of Abraham. These Judaizers would consider Abraham their father in the faith; what is true of Abraham must be true of all believers. Yet, as Paul reminds his readers, Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) before God gave him any law—including circumcision, which appears two chapters later.

To have one’s faith “credited as righteousness” means to receive righteousness as an unearned gift of grace through faith. Therefore, since scripture proves that Abraham himself was justified by faith before he became “Jewish,” why would the Judaizers insist that these Gentiles become Jewish in order to be justified?

It’s a great argument!

Except

What about James, who seemingly uses the example of Abraham to make the opposite point. In James 2:21-23, he asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God.”

Is this a contradiction?

No. First, notice that James is citing a different episode in Abraham’s life than the giving of the covenant (Paul’s example) from Genesis 15. James refers to the test that God put Abraham through about 40 years later—when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God was testing the authenticity of Abraham’s faith. After all, suppose Abraham had been obeying God all these years in order to receive the blessing that God had promised him—rather than obeying God for God’s sake. If that were the case, then asking Abraham to destroy the means by which the blessing comes would surely expose this sin.

Passing the test didn’t “justify” Abraham; rather, it proved that he possessed “justifying” faith. And the apostle Paul couldn’t agree more: he also teaches that our obedience to God proves that we possess saving faith—even in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

Paul could have said that what counts is faith, period. Instead, he describes the kind of faith that he’s talking about: “faith working through love.” In other words, to quote an oft-repeated maxim, “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies doesn’t remain alone.” This statement summarizes both Paul’s and James’s teaching on justification.


My old blogging nemesis is at it again

May 18, 2017

My old blogging nemesis, Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and author, is at it again. In this recent post, he describes a conversation with a father who lost his son to a tragic accident. Then he complains about Christians who tried to comfort this father with words about God’s “having a plan” for his son’s death.

Micheli writes the following (emphasis his):

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

I don’t know what he means by a “God of absolute will.” I disagree that God uses anything for “His own self-realization,” since God is perfectly, fully realized. And I hope that God gives meaning to evil and suffering. But my point in the following comment, as I’ve said many times before, is that even if God merely allows evil and suffering—having the power to prevent it—God is ultimately responsible for it.

So here’s my comment. (Micheli recently wrote a book about his own experience with what he calls “stage serious” cancer. It’s in remission.):

Jason,

I can’t comprehend the complete lack of engagement with scripture in this post. Providence is an idea that’s writ large across the entire Bible, and one endorsed by the consensual teaching of the Church. I’ve read the DB Hart book. It doesn’t, in my opinion, satisfactorily engage the question.

Does God govern the universe and our lives within it, or doesn’t he? Does God have the power to prevent the death of a child or doesn’t he? As long as God has the power to prevent the death of a child and doesn’t use that power, God is not off the hook for suffering and evil. Even if we say, in this instance, “God lets the laws of physics run their course,” we still ought to “blame” God (if you insist on that word)—first because he created these physical laws, and second, because we believe that God answers prayer, at least sometimes.

We pray for our children’s safety. God grants that petition or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, how do we interpret it: Did God not hear our petition? Does he not have the power to grant it? Does he act arbitrarily? Or does he have a reason for either granting it or not? Is there some alternative I’m leaving out? Surely I don’t need to cite proof-texts to back up my position, because there are plenty—whereas, on your side, you have David Bentley Hart and the “God of the philosophers.”

In your case, haven’t you thanked God for sending your cancer into remission? Or did God not have anything to do with it?

Anyway, I’d recommend this father read Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. And you too! You may disagree with Keller, but it won’t be because Keller hasn’t thought it through. Nor is he some kind of demon from hell because he disagrees with you.


Sermon 05-07-17: “Against ‘Easy-Believism'”

May 16, 2017

“Easy-believism,” the idea that being a Christian is easy and requires very little of us, is a crisis in the local church, in the United Methodist denomination, and in the culture at large. Yet today’s scripture speaks against easy-believism in a few important ways. I talk about two of those ways in this sermon.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:13-21

Many of you have used Uber. I never have. I know it’s very popular. In case you don’t know, it’s like a taxi service, except the drivers aren’t taxi drivers; they’re just regular people in their regular cars. You have an app on your phone when you need a ride somewhere.

Uber recently released its “Lost and Found Index,” a humorous report on the forgetfulness of its passengers—i.e., the items that passengers forgot about and left behind in Uber vehicles. For example, the most frequently forgotten item, unsurprisingly, is the cell phone. The second most frequently forgotten item is a ring. That’s surprising… although as someone who tends to take off my wedding band and fiddle around with it—including spinning it like a top on tables—I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising. It spins really well! Keys, wallets, and glasses round out the Top 5.[1]

A surprising number of wedding dresses are forgotten in Uber vehicles.

As an absent-minded person who tends to forget things, I can relate. But all of us know that panicky feeling we get when we lose or forget or leave behind something valuable. “This is so important!” we say. “How could I have forgotten that?”

Brothers and sisters, if, when we read today’s scripture, we get that same panicky feeling—and we say, “This is so important! How could we as a church have forgotten that?”—well, we’re probably reading this passage correctly. Because today’s scripture reminds us of some very important truths that we tend to forget in our Christian lives. Read the rest of this entry »


Is there wiggle room for God’s violence in the Bible?

May 15, 2017

In my sermon yesterday, in which Peter reminds his readers that all of us—including us Christians—will face Final Judgment, I said the following: “Now, when I read a passage like this, I immediately want to find wiggle room: Hmm… How can I interpret this passage so that it’s not saying what it clearly seems to be saying.”

Although in this case I’m speaking of the doctrine of Final Judgment, I could say the same about the many instances in the Bible in which God acts with violence or commands his people Israel to do so. Finding wiggle room is impossible—at least if we believe in the inspiration of scripture. Greg Boyd is another so-called “evangelical” who likely no longer believes in the inspiration of scripture. While I’m sure he wouldn’t put it that way, what sort of exegetical or hermeneutical gymnastics must we do in order to make the Bible say what it clearly doesn’t say, yet still believe that the Holy Spirit guided the Bible’s authors to write what they wrote?

So I’m sympathetic with this commenter, who said the following in response to the above post:

So basically [if Boyd is right] God becomes guilty of either standing by idly while [genocide] happens or delegating it to someone else. Once we agree with the secular critics that it would indeed be evil for God to cause these events, removing him a step in the causal chain, or having him step aside completely, doesnt seem to help one bit, particularly when many of these events are explicitly his expressed will towards judgment being enacted.

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

As I said in response to this comment, here are my presuppositions when dealing with the so-called “texts of terror”:

God is the author of life and death. Every moment of life is nothing but sheer gift. We are not entitled to a moment of it. Therefore, when God takes our life (and he will, unless the Second Coming happens first), we have no right to complain that he’s not being fair. We all deserve God’s wrath and hell. Heaven, or our life in the resurrection, more than compensates for our suffering in this life.

I hope that doesn’t sound glib, but (assuming you’re an evangelical Christian like me) how is this not true?