Posts Tagged ‘Adam Hamilton’

Podcast Episode #30: “Listen to What the Man Said”

September 18, 2018

In this lengthy podcast episode, the first of two on the subject, I tackle the question of the authority of scripture. We hear many authorities in our culture—even within today’s Church—telling us, in so many words, “The Bible can’t be trusted.” As I argue in this episode, you may as well say, “God can’t be trusted,” because it’s clear from Jesus’ own teaching that the Bible is God’s Word.

I want us instead to “listen to what the man said” and regard scripture the same way Jesus himself did. I want this episode, along with the next one, to serve as an antidote to the skepticism about the Bible that is rampant in our culture and is harming our fellow believers—especially Christian young people.

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, September 17, 2018, and this is episode number 30 in my ongoing series of podcasts. You’re listening right now to a #1 hit song from 1975 called “Listen to What the Man Said” by Wings—written and sung, of course, by Paul McCartney from the album Venus and Mars.

And the reason I wanted to play this song is that I have discerned a troubling trend among my fellow Christians, not least of which my fellow United Methodist clergy: And that is, they often say that when it comes to the Bible, we need to “listen to what the man said”—the “man” in this case being Jesus—and not necessarily pay close attention to what the rest of the Bible says. Especially the Old Testament! They often speak as if the God revealed in the Old Testament isn’t quite the same as the God revealed in “the man,” Jesus. Therefore we can’t quite trust what the Old Testament has to say.

So one of the purposes of this week’s podcast, and next week’s, is to say, “Yes, by all means, let’s listen to what the man said. But we can’t even know who the man is, or make sense of what he said… apart from the whole counsel of God, which includes the Old Testament.”

If you don’t believe me, consider Luke chapter 24. This is Easter Sunday. Two disciples of Jesus were on their way from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus—about a seven-mile journey. The resurrected Jesus appears to them on the road, but, Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about. They explain to him the shocking events of Good Friday and how, today, on Sunday, they heard the reports from the women who went to the tomb: that it was empty, and that angels appeared to them and said that Jesus had been raised. These two disciples were confused; they didn’t know what to make of any of this.

Jesus said, in verses 25 and 26, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then in verse 27, Luke writes, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he”—that is, Jesus—“interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Did you hear that? “Beginning with Moses and the Prophets”—which is shorthand for the entire Bible—Jesus interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” So: they were walking on the road for about two-and-a-half hours. Assuming Jesus was with them for most of the way, then he must have spoken to them for a long time about what the entire Old Testament had to say about him. Right? There must be a great deal of information in the Old Testament about who Jesus is, why he came, what he accomplished, what his gospel means!

In spite of this, I have actually had United Methodist pastors tell me, “I don’t like preaching from the Old Testament.” Why? “Because I like preaching Jesus.” Aye-yai-yai… I like preaching Jesus, too. And I like preaching the gospel. And I do so in every sermon I preach—whether my sermon text is from the New Testament—be it the four gospels, or Acts, or the Epistles, or Revelation—or from the Old Testament. Because, as I’ve said before, I find Jesus—and I find his gospel message—on nearly every page of the Old Testament! In fact, I would venture to say that if you don’t find Jesus and his gospel there, you’re probably not reading it right!

But I know, I know… There are challenging passages in the Old Testament. What do you do with the ones that seem… at odds… with Jesus’ example and teaching? For example, the Passover story in Exodus 12… In that story, God himself passes through Egypt and strikes down the firstborn male in every family whose house wasn’t covered by the blood of the lamb. Hold on… The blood of the lamb as protection against God’s judgment and wrath? That sounds familiar… That sounds like what Jesus did… on the cross… Jesus, the very one of whom John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 3: Jesus was hard on us ordinary sinners, too!

August 30, 2018

While this is Part 3 of this series of posts, it’s the second part of my examination of the first chapter of Adam Hamilton’s book When Christians Get It Wrong. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

In this chapter, Hamilton is mostly concerned with religious hypocrisy. Christians “get it wrong” when they act in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. Who could disagree?

But then Hamilton writes something like this (emphasis mine):

If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary “sinners.” Nor did his actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew “sinners” to himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy, and their failure to love.[1]Where to begin? First, a quibble about the word “anger.” Is it accurate to say that Jesus got angry with anyone—at least in the sense of losing one’s temper? (How else do we use the word today?) If getting beaten, whipped, spat upon, and nailed to a cross failed to make Jesus angry, why would he get angry with mere Pharisees and other opponents?

Yes, I know that Jesus’ overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and drove out the merchants and their livestock. If that’s “anger,” however, it’s a righteous kind of anger of which most of us are incapable. But our Lord is not guilty of the anger he describes in Matthew 5:21-22, which he says is on the same spectrum as murder. His prohibition against it is broad and severe: “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” We like to qualify our anger: “Yes, I agree with Jesus that most of the time anger is unwarranted, but in this particular case it’s justified. Let me explain why.” Instead, Jesus says, Don’t get angry. Ever! So we can assume that he didn’t, either.

More importantly, though—even with a nuanced understanding of the word “anger”—is it fair to say that Jesus “never” got angry with “prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary ‘sinners,'” that he “drew ‘sinners’ by the thousands” and “made such people feel at ease”? What about Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes, who, far from feeling “at ease,” “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). In fact, Luke tells us that when the townspeople heard his sermon, “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29). Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6) and said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). Was Jesus not “angry” with these “ordinary ‘sinners'”?

And while Jesus drew ordinary sinners “by the thousands,” the apostle John reports that when “many of his disciples”—at least a portion of the 5,000 who were miraculously fed by Jesus—heard Jesus’ preaching the Bread of Life discourse, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) Consequently, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Jesus’ teaching, in other words, repelled not merely ordinary sinners, but disciples as well. They did not feel “at ease.”

Jesus’ own family also failed to feel “at ease” with him. They believed he had literally lost his mind (Mark 3:21). Jesus spoke “words of judgment” against them when he said, “Who are my mother are my brothers?… Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was implying that his own immediate family were not doing God’s will, whereas the disciples gathered round him, who unlike his family believed in him, were his true family.

Jesus spoke words of judgment against the Rich Young Ruler (not one of the “religious folks” to whom Hamilton refers above) in Mark 10:17-31 (and parallels), against several Galilean towns and villages filled with ordinary sinners (Matthew 11:20-24)—indeed, against the entire city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44), the vast majority of whose citizens were ordinary sinners.

And what about the would-be disciples he risked chasing away with his startling demands (Luke 9:57-62):

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

There’s no indication here that he was talking to “religious folks” in this passage, yet who doubts that Jesus did the opposite of making his hearers feel “at ease”?

Was Jesus speaking of merely “religious folks” when he spoke the “words of judgment” found in Matthew 7:21-23,

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

And what about the parables of Jesus, whose judgments were often against both religious leaders and ordinary sinners. Is the man not wearing proper wedding attire in the frightening postscript to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (see Matthew 22:1-14only supposed to be a religious leader? What about the five unprepared virgins of Matthew 25:1-13, or the poor servant who buried his talent in Matthew 25:14-30, or—for that matter—any member of the human race identified as “goats” in Matthew 25:31-46.

You can probably think of other examples of Jesus getting “angry” or at least making ordinary sinners uncomfortable. These are enough to make my point.

While it’s true, as Jesus says, that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of” the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 21:31), that’s only because these ordinary sinners recognized the extent of their sinfulness and need for repentance. As Jesus elsewhere says, “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The sinners to whom Hamilton refers knew they had been forgiven much.

If Jesus came down hard on religious leaders’ “judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and failure to love,” he did so because these sins, especially, had a way of insulating their practitioners from the gospel. After all, if your prayer begins, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are,” you won’t believe you need a Savior—that you are as other men are—helpless sinners in need of God’s rescue plan through his Son Jesus. This the necessary starting point, the sine qua non, of the gospel.

But as I’ve said before, our United Methodist tradition often fails to preach the first half of the gospel; we head straight for grace and forgiveness without first dealing with sin, God’s judgment, wrath, and hell. We tell our fellow sinners, “There, there… It’s not so bad” when, actually, it is that bad. In fact, apart from our faith in Christ and his atoning death on the cross, it’s much, much worse!

In the video that accompanies this chapter, Hamilton urges us Christians to be like Jesus. While that would be wonderful, of course, I wonder if it’s pastorally helpful advice. Do any of you have much success “being like Jesus” for any length of time? I don’t. Here’s a better idea: Read Luke 7:36-49. Identify with the “woman of the city, who was a sinner.” She is who we are or ought to be—sinners who have been “forgiven much” and who, therefore, delight in loving and serving Jesus.

1. When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 11.

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 2: Hypocritical Christians… like me?

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.

For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[1]

I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:

I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.[2]About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”

“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.

See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?

See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.

Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!

Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…[3]… as my own experience bears witness.

Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.

Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.

So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”

To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.

I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.

1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.

3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 1: Cultural Christianity is dead

August 13, 2018

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that for many years I’ve been an outspoken critic of United Methodist mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. For example, this post remains the most-read post I’ve written on my blog—by far! Rev. Hamilton himself tweeted that he would respond to this series of posts from last year. I’m still waiting, but he’s a busy pastor, and who am I to him? I wouldn’t respond to me, either.

But I haven’t only been critical of Hamilton: Way back on November 22, 2011, I gave him a rave review! Read it for yourself! (A lot of water under the bridge since then, I guess.)

Still, a men’s Bible study group at my church is reading his little book When Christians Get It Wrong. So I thought it would be helpful for me to gather my own thoughts on the book here. You might find it helpful, too.

In the book’s introduction he says that this book “was born out of a conversation” with a disillusioned young war veteran named John, recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, who talked to Hamilton about the reasons he rejected Christianity. John’s reasons, Hamilton said, correspond to those cited by Kinnaman and Lyon in their book unChristian (which I’ve also read). Hamilton’s book, he said, is written primarily for John and his fellow young adults who are abandoning Christianity in larger numbers than previous generations, for the same reasons cited by Kinnaman and Lyon.

When Christians Get It Wrong, therefore, serves an apologetic purpose: to win back these young apostates to the Christian faith. Young people have, he says, been “frustrated and turned off by what they have heard from and experienced with Christians.” So the theme of Hamilton’s book is that what they’ve experienced isn’t real Christianity, or they’ve misunderstood it. Hamilton wants to show them what real Christianity looks like, and his vision, he believes, will be so compelling that they’ll change their minds.

A worthy goal, I’m sure.

Still, we pastors, especially, should be reluctant to take at face value the reasons an unbeliever gives for moving from faith to skepticism. We are all sinners, after all—and complicated ones at that. At our best, we hardly know ourselves or the reasons for the things we do. Instead, we know our “cover stories.” Too often, we who see through a glass darkly remain oblivious to many of the underlying impulses that give rise to them.

Also, Hamilton presumes that John and all these young people are (or were) authentically Christian at some point; that they were genuine believers who have now left the faith.

But Hamilton can’t know that. None of us can. We pastors are painfully aware that, despite our best intentions, no catechism or confirmation class, no “walking the aisle” at the end of a sermon, no praying a sinner’s prayer, no baptism, can ensure that a young person who professes Christian faith is born again. Only God knows.

But if, despite appearances, young people were never born again—if the seed of the gospel fell among rocks or thorns and failed to take root—will they themselves know it? Of course not. They will instead grow up to say, “I used to be a Christian, but I’m not anymore.” And since we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, we’ll look for reasons—and any old reason will do (sometimes), especially those that make us appear more intelligent, more enlightened, or more compassionate than we otherwise might seem. (See this post for more on this topic.)

Hamilton writes:

I hope and pray that this book will help some young adults find faith once more and become followers of Jesus Christ. It is also my hope that the book might chart a path for Christians in how we can “get it right.” Churches that “get it wrong” may lose an entire generation of young adults, the future of the church.[1]

By all means, I’m all for correcting Christians who “get it wrong.” Nevertheless, it’s not our job to make the gospel something other than what it is: “folly to those who are perishing… a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). Did the apostle Paul sometimes “get it wrong”? Since he was “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), he would agree with me that he did. But he didn’t get his gospel wrong (Galatians 1:8), nor the God-breathed words that the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write.

So Paul was completely right about the gospel, yet of this gospel most of his audience would say, “That’s foolishness!” and of its messenger—the most successful who ever lived—”What an idiot!” or “You’re out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24)

Needless to say, if that was true for Paul as he sought to convert the lost people of his day, it will be true for us!

Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when most “young people”—or anyone else—tell the Church that Christianity is, in so many words, “folly” and a “stumbling block.” What else would we expect them to say? Christendom, that once-powerful cultural force that used to produce nominal Christians but no longer does, is dead. Young people today will less often identify as Christians merely because their parents or grandparents did. Those days are gone, and good riddance! “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). That’s always been true, no matter what popular opinion polls would say.

Besides, I know plenty of young people, even today, for whom Christ continues to be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). How does that still happen, if things are as bad as Hamilton fears?

Simple: Ultimately, it’s not up to us to convert people. For as often as Christians “get it wrong,” which is often, the Holy Spirit continues to “get it right,” and to do his good work: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

So, as we diagnose problems for which Hamilton’s book purports to be a solution, let’s proceed with caution… The sky may not be falling after all. More soon.

1. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 3.

Advent Podcast Day 19: “The Light Shines in Darkness”

December 21, 2017

From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-5

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 21, 2017, and this is Day 19 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the band Jethro Tull, and a song they wrote and recorded about—well… this very day: December 21, the winter solstice. This song, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells,” comes from the band’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood.

My scripture today is John 1:1-5, which I’ll read now:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Do you remember that scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown is introducing Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox’s character, to the wonders of his time-traveling DeLorean? Brown shows McFly an LED-based instrument built into the car’s dashboard and explains that you simply enter any date in the past that you want to travel back to and—voila!—that’s where you’ll end up. 

At one point he tells Marty, “We can go back and witness the birth of Jesus Christ.” And then you see Doc Brown punch in the date December 25 of the year “0000.”

And at this point, many people in the audience groaned. For two reasons. First, there wasn’t a year “0.” According to the calendar that the church created, which divides history between the time before Christ and the time after Christ was born, the calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.

And the second reason some people watching Back to the Future groaned is because Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or I should say, there’s about a 1 in 365 chance that he was born on December 25! If you’ll recall a podcast I did last week, my amateur astronomer friend believed that Jesus was born some time in April.

But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the so-called “longest night of the year”—or, put the other way, the day with the least amount of sunlight. Just think: for the next six months, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

And in ancient times long before the birth of Christ, people attached religious significance to this day—thanking their god or gods that the solstice marked the “end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over the darkness.”[1] Because of this pagan association with the solstice, even some Christians today have misgivings about celebrating Christmas.

I certainly don’t share these misgivings. Even if under the old calendar December 25 was a pagan holiday, I would say that the day has been redeemed—like so many other things, including our very lives—by Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-24-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 2”

October 11, 2017

This sermon is the second of two on Sola Scriptura, the classic Protestant (and ancient church) doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding Christian faith and practice. I contrast this doctrine with ideas put forward by Adam Hamilton in his recent book Making Sense of the Bible. From my perspective, Hamilton is misguided—dangerously so. As with my previous sermon, I hope to inspire confidence that the Bible is, as Wesley said, “infallibly true”—every word of it—and that we can built our lives on it.

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

[Read Psalm 1 as an opening prayer.]

Paul begins today’s scripture with these words: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.” And what Timothy has learned, and what he has firmly believed, Paul says, is found in the “sacred writings,” our holy Bible. Remain there, Paul says. Remain in God’s Word. Don’t stray from its teaching. Don’t stop reading it, studying it, treasuring it. Don’t stop putting it at the center of your life.

Aside from the gift of eternal life in his Son Jesus Christ, God has not given us a greater gift than the holy Bible. And of course, everything we know about Jesus Christ and God’s great love for us, and God’s plan to save us through faith in his Son comes from this book. Don’t leave it! Don’t think that you can progress beyond it. Or find something better. There’s enough in here for you, every day, to last a lifetime.

Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

My second-favorite movie about Christian faith is a movie called The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. It came out about twenty years ago. My first favorite is Chariots of Fire. You should see both of them. But The Apostle is wonderful: It’s about a deeply flawed but sincerely Christian pastor in the deep south. Someone gives him the deed to this tiny church in the middle of nowhere. And he starts preaching there, and slowly but surely more and more people start coming. But the they’re not the “right” kind of people—because most people in his congregation are black or Hispanic, and poor. And at least one person in town—a white supremacist played by Billy Bob Thornton—doesn’t like it at all. One Sunday, while the people at this church are worshiping, he shows up in a bulldozer. And he intends to literally tear the church down.

And Robert Duvall comes outside and places his black leather-bound Bible in front of caterpillar tracks of the bulldozer—daring the man to run over it on his way to destroying this church. And Thornton is like, “Move the Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” “Move that Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” The two men are at an impasse. Is Thornton going to run over the preacher’s Bible? Then, after several tense moments, Thornton gets out of the cab of the vehicle in tears. Duvall embraces him. This sinner repents. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-17-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 1”

October 10, 2017

As we look forward to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, this sermon is about the classic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone”—which means that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding our Christian faith and practice. Of course, in our culture today, the Bible’s authority is under constant attack. It’s even under attack in the church, including the United Methodist Church!

With that mind, I pray that these next two sermons on Sola Scriptura will give you confidence in God’s Word. We can trust it! Every word of it! We can build our lives on it!

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

To make sense of what I’m about to say, let me define a term with which most of us Protestants will be unfamiliar: purgatory. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine that says that when a Christian dies, they will likely have to be cleansed of their sins—or punished for their sins—prior to going to heaven. How long this period of cleansing or punishment lasts, well, depends on how sinful a person was.

And before you ask, no, the doctrine of purgatory is not found in scripture.

To make matters worse, church officials back in the 16th century were going around and telling mostly poor people that if they were willing to pay enough money—money which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the church had the power to take time off their sentence in purgatory. Or even to take time off the sentences of their loved ones who were suffering in purgatory. And who wouldn’t want that for their loved ones?

Many thoughtful Christians believed that this church practice was corrupt, exploitative, greedy, and unbiblical. One of these critics was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther put his objections in writing, by posting his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints Church 500 years ago this October 31st. And this bold action launched the Protestant Reformation. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Hamilton’s self-refuting “Jesus colander”

September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached my home south of Atlanta on Monday, but it was powerful enough to knock out our power. So, in preparation for my upcoming sermon on Sunday on sola scriptura, I spent the day reading a book by an author whose viewpoint I knew I wouldn’t share, United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.

It was from this book that he articulated his “three buckets” approach to scripture, which caused great controversy a few years ago. Most of scripture, he says, belongs in Bucket #1: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket #2: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, and purity laws—would fit within this bucket.

I would only qualify this by saying that there’s a sense in which none of us Christians is bound by any part of God’s law: Christ has fulfilled it all on our behalf. We are free from the law, although, as the Spirit writes the law on our hearts through sanctification (Heb. 10:16), we will naturally do works of the law out of love for God and neighbor. We are not antinomians.

Still, so far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket #3: There is scripture, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

He offers a few predictable examples of Bucket #3 scriptures, including the conquest of Canaan in Joshua.

In the last chapter [in which he discussed Noah’s Ark], we learned that God was “grieved to his heart” by the violence human beings were committing against one another, and for this reason he decides to bring an end to the human race. Now God is commanding the Israelites to slaughter entire towns, tribes, and nations, showing them no mercy and providing them with no escape. How can this be?[1]

When he was young, Hamilton was untroubled by these passages of scripture, but when he got older, he

began to think about the humanity of the Canaanites. These were human beings who lived, loved, and had families. Among them were babies and toddlers, mothers and fathers. Yet they were all put to the sword by “the Lord’s army.” Thirty-one cities slaughtered with not terms of surrender offered and no chance to relocate to another land. I came to see the moral and theological dilemmas posed by these stories.[2]

His solution to these dilemmas? The Israelites, he says, were mistaken about what they believed God told them. While there’s still value in reading the Book of Joshua (he especially likes the last chapter), here’s “the most important reason” (emphasis his): “to remind us of how easy it is for people of faith to invoke God’s name in pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war.[3]

Hamilton says that we should filter everything in the Bible through the “words and great commandments” of Jesus Christ, who alone is the true Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus is not merely a “lens” by which we read the Bible; he is a “colander,”[4] through which we can filter the rest of scripture to determine what scriptures belong in Bucket #3.

I’m reminded of Andrew Wilson’s blog post on what he calls the “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” As Wilson argues, this colander or tea-strainer approach is self-refuting:

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. Here’s a few examples of things Jesus said that wouldn’t fit through the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)

“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)

“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)

He offers six more examples in his blog post, but you get the idea: to say the least, hell, about which we learn more from the red-letter words of Jesus than any apostle or Old Testament writer, is infinitely more violent than violence perpetrated by human beings. How would Christ’s own words pass through Hamilton’s colander? In which case, Hamilton’s “canon within the canon” wouldn’t even include all the red-letter words of Jesus himself!

Throughout the book, Hamilton argues that we can’t reconcile scripture’s depiction of God’s violence with the “forgiveness and mercy” demonstrated by Christ. In doing so, however, he underestimates the problem of sin—the way it makes us “enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10) who deserve God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18)—and the effects of Christ’s atoning death, through which forgiveness and mercy are made possible. By all means, throughout the gospels, Jesus tells people, “Your sins are forgiven,” the only condition of which is faith and repentance. But theologians would say (as the rest of the New Testament makes clear) that Christ’s forgiveness isn’t free: even before Good Friday, it looks forward to and is made possible by his substitutionary death on the cross, on which he suffered the penalty of our sins for us. The effects of the cross are applied retroactively to the people Jesus forgave in the gospels.

By the way, this is also the basis of forgiveness for Old Testament saints. Abraham, for example, was justified by faith alone, as Paul says in Romans and Galatians, but it was a faith that looked forward to the cross, however incomplete Abraham’s understanding was.

Hamilton fails to wrestle with the debt that we human beings owe God. The Bible’s clear teaching is that we all deserve God’s judgment, death, and hell because of our sins. And forgiveness is infinitely costly, because it requires the death of God’s Son Jesus.

I feel like these are the A-B-C’s of the gospel, about which a self-identified evangelical like Hamilton shouldn’t need a refresher. Yet, in his book, he doesn’t deal with the cruciform shape of God’s love—at all! Why? What a glaring omission from someone who is purporting to “make sense” of the Bible!

In a future blog post, I’ll talk about Hamilton’s view of scripture’s “inspiration” and the way in which it’s also self-refuting.

1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 211

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 216

4. Ibid., 213

Is your view of scripture’s inspiration consistent with Jesus’ and Paul’s view?

February 1, 2017

My sermon last Sunday (which I’ll post soon) was on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20. This passage includes these words from verse 18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In my sermon, I reflected on the meaning of the inspiration of scripture. I said the following:

Now, when Jesus refers to the “Law and the Prophets” in verse 17, or even “the Law” in verse 18, Bible scholars tells us that this is shorthand for saying, “the entire Bible”—which at the time was what we would call the Old Testament.

And he’s saying two very important things about the Bible.

First, he’s saying that the Bible—every word of it—is given to us by God. And every word of it matters. That’s what Jesus believed. Why do I say that? Well, notice Jesus refers to “an iota” and a “dot.” Jesus would have been referring to tiny strokes in letters of the Hebrew alphabet. But for us that “iota or dot” would be similar to the crossing of a “t” or the dotting of “i” in our own alphabet—or putting an apostrophe or a punctuation mark in the right place. Or distinguishing a lowercase “q” from a lowercase “g” by adding a curl to the end of the stem. That’s the level of detail that Jesus is talking about. And he’s saying, in so many words, that God cared about each of those details in the Word that he gave us.

The end result of all this, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, is that God ensured that we the Church have exactly the Bible that God wanted us to have.

From here, I talked about recent controversies surrounding Andy Stanley’s words about the Virgin Birth and Adam Hamilton’s “three bucket” approach to scripture. In my view, neither of their viewpoints is compatible with Jesus’ own view of the inspiration of scripture.

Or Paul’s…

I’m starting a Bible study tonight on Galatians, and I was reminded that Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:15-18 depends on a close reading of two verses in Genesis. Unless we believe that Paul was wrong, and such a reading was unwarranted, then what does that say about our view of inspiration?

The ESV Study Bible commentary on v. 16 puts it like this:

Gal. 3:16 God spoke promises to Abraham on several occasions, but probably Gen. 13:15 and 17:8 are particularly in view. And to your offspring. Paul knows that the singular (Hb. zera‘) can be used as a collective singular that has a plural sense (he interprets it in a plural sense in Rom. 4:18). But it also can have a singular meaning, and here Paul, knowing that only in Christ would the promised blessings come to the Gentiles, sees that the most true and ultimate fulfillment of these OT promises comes to one “offspring,” namely, Christ. Paul’s willingness to make an argument using a singular noun in distinction from its plural form (which occurs in other OT verses) indicates a high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text.

A majority African UMC? I can’t wait

May 25, 2016

Aside from contributing my “thumbs up” to a few friends’ Facebook posts over the past couple of weeks—the lowest form of social media slacktivism—I surprised myself at how silent I remained throughout the ten days of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland.

In case you haven’t heard, no resolution related to sexuality and marriage made it to the conference floor for a vote. As it stands today, therefore, UMC doctrine remains unchanged. Meanwhile, legislation that emerged from committees indicated a theologically rightward tilt, as our denomination is on the verge of becoming majority African.

I, for one, can’t wait! I hope they send missionaries over here to teach us how to be Christians again!

The reason no legislation came to a vote is because the Council of Bishops headed it off with a  plan of their own: Sometime before 2020, a specially called General Conference, whose membership will be identical to the group that met in Portland last week, will vote on proposals made by a CoB-appointed commission. The commission’s membership will supposedly reflect the global membership of the church.

In other words, as thousands of others have already pointed out, the bishops’ plan amounts to “kicking the can down the road.”

I’m disappointed. I was rooting for one piece of legislation that passed committee known as the CUP Plan. It would have strengthened accountability (in the form of minimum sentences) for clergy who break covenant with the church by performing “gay weddings” (the “stick”). At the same time, however, it would have offered progressive congregations a gracious path to exit the denomination while retaining their church property (the “carrot”).

It stood a reasonable chance of passing from what I’ve read. Now we’ll never know.

Regardless, I hope that this soon-to-be-appointed commission will make a similar proposal—or if not, at least have the courage to propose splitting the church up. The differences between traditionalists like me and revisionists are irreconcilable. As I’ve often blogged here, there is no middle way. Methodist “centrists” are either those who haven’t thought it through or (more likely) are progressives who are willing to bide their time until, they believe, cultural pressures will force the church’s hand. Adam Hamilton, for one, wrote that within ten years—after the older generation dies off, presumably—homosexuality will no longer be an issue for us Methodists.

As I blogged at the time, what do young people know about scripture that older generations don’t know? Because as always, as always, as always, the issue that divides us comes down to the authority of scripture.

Besides, what credibility has Western culture earned such that it should dictate what the church does and believes?

Nevertheless, this professor, from the UMC-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, rightly questions whether biding one’s time is a realistic option for progressives in light of shifting demographics in our church:

By the next General Conference, since the UMC is growing only in areas with a more traditionalist viewpoint on LGBTQ inclusion, the church’s position as a whole is almost guaranteed to become more conservative, not less in the coming yearsSome progressives I talk to acknowledge that bringing about a change in the current rules will now take at least 16 years, with some predicting 30-year struggleAre we willing to live with our current divide for another generation? In light of our denominations plunging membership, does the church even have time to wait sixteen years, much less thirty or more?

In other words, if the progressives couldn’t get what they wanted this year, they’re far less likely in years to come.

To his credit, whether he agrees with “my” side or not, the author seems to understand the stakes for theological conservatives like me.

I often don’t see this same understanding of the stakes among many progressive clergy I know. For example, one of them posted a link to his blog post on social media yesterday. He was complaining about how we conservatives often (rightly) frame the issue in terms of Christian orthodoxy. He disagrees, writing, “When I hear [orthodoxy] used in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

To which I replied:

No. What revisionists on this issue ask us to believe is that the Holy Spirit is “showing us something new,” which contradicts what the Spirit has already shown us.

Arguments about truth outside of scripture are beside the point. Quantum mechanics is beyond the scope of the Bible. Sex and marriage are not.

Again, no one has to agree with theological conservatives in order to fairly represent what we believe.

General Conference wasn’t a total wash: Conservatives won a clean sweep of five new members of the Judicial Council—our church’s Supreme Court. And, by a wide margin, they withdrew our church from a pro-abortion ecumenical organization that the UMC helped create back in the early-’70s (those were the days!). They also removed language in our Discipline that explicitly affirms Roe v. Wade.

All that to say, I hope our bishops can see the writing on the wall and do the right thing.