Posts Tagged ‘Alvin Plantinga’

Sermon 10-29-17: “Christ Alone, Part 2”

November 2, 2017

This is the second of two sermons on this passage from Hebrews 2, and the final sermon in my “Reformation 500” series. Among other things the author of Hebrews says that on the cross, Jesus “destroye[d] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” How is this true, especially since Satan remains alive and active in our world? How did Christ win a victory for us?

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

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

Think back with me to the Exodus, when God delivered his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt. If you’ll recall, he sent a series of ten plagues as punishment against Egypt, until finally the Pharaoh relented and let Israel go free. And then the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies after the Israelites, before being drowned in the Red Sea. But the climactic and most destructive plague—you may remember—was the Passover. Remember? The Lord told the Israelites in Exodus 12 to take the blood of a lamb, without blemish, and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts. An angel would then pass through the land and kill the firstborn son of every household that didn’t have blood on the doorposts—which would mean many, many Egyptians would die. And of course, this final plague was so effective that the Pharaoh let them go… at least at first.

When we read or hear about this event, we think of God’s anger toward and judgment against Egypt. Right? “The Egyptians are getting what they deserve for their sins! God is punishing them!” But not so fast… If the Passover were all about God’s anger toward and judgment on Egypt—if it were all about punishing Egypt for their sins—why would God bother having the Israelites sprinkle this blood? Couldn’t he just have sent the angel through the land and killed all the firstborn Egyptian sons? Why did the Israelites have to do anything? They were the good guys, right? They were the heroes! They were the innocent victims!

Right?

Wrong… It’s clear that if the Israelites hadn’t obeyed God and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts, they would have fallen under the same judgment as Egypt. Their firstborn children would have died as well. To be sure, God was incredibly merciful and gracious to give Israel the opportunity to be spared this judgment. But in sparing them God was not giving them what they deserved. Like the Egyptians, they too deserved death because of their sins. And their lives were only spared by the blood of the lamb. Their deliverance from slavery and death was made possible through an act of God’s grace by the blood of the lamb.

And it should be clear to us Christians why God did it this way: to point to that future sacrifice, when God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, would shed his own blood to spare us from God’s judgment. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 53, looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he says that Christ was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”[1] John the Baptist looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he sees Jesus coming in John chapter 1 and says to his own disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus looks forward to this sacrifice when he has the Last Supper with his disciples—which was a Passover meal—and he says, “This is my body and this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[2] Jesus is telling the disciples that he will be the Passover lamb.

The Bible’s message is crystal clear: If God is going to forgive us, justify us, save us, deliver us, liberate us, give us eternal life, give us abundant life—however you want to phrase it—he is first going to have to deal with our sins by offering the bloody sacrifice of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross, Christ absorbed God’s wrath—God’s justifiable anger—toward sin.

I talked about God’s wrath two weeks ago in my sermon two weeks ago, but I realize that some of us don’t even want to consider the idea that God has wrath toward humanity because of our sins. But what’s the alternative? Some will say, “God is love. So why would he be angry at us because of our sin?” But of course, he wouldn’t be loving if he weren’t angry. N.T. Wright makes this point in the following way:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation… the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.[3]

But… if God is going to “root out” all this evil, well… he’s going to have root us out as well! What does the psalmist say? “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”[4] And the answer? None of us!

But please, please, please don’t miss this: While it’s absolutely true that every one of us who’ve ever lived—with one exception—deserve God’s judgment and God’s wrath because we’re sinners, in the same breath we also say that God so loved the world—including us—that he planned before the foundation of the world to save us from God’s judgment and God’s wrath. We know just how loving God is by his willingness to come to us, in the flesh, and absorb his Father’s wrath, suffer the penalty for our sin, and suffer hell on the cross! For us! As the Bible says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]

Now I want to look at two things that the author of Hebrews says Christ accomplished for us on the cross: First, verses 14 and 15, through his death he destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And in verse 17, he became our “faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” I talked about “propitiation” in Part 1 of this sermon: this is what Christ did to turn away God’s wrath from us—sprinkling the blood of the lamb on the doorposts during Passover, for example, was propitiation.

But the author of Hebrews wants us to know that these two events—the defeat of Satan and the turning away of God’s wrath—are related. How?

For one thing, as we look around the world and scan the news headlines, it seems clear that Satan is alive and active in the world. And, as I’ve preached before, the Bible is clear that the devil has real power in the world. God’s Word says that in the beginning, Satan was an angel, created by God with free will, who chose to use his freedom to rebel against God—along with other angels. And like us, Satan can use this freedom to work great harm in the world. He has a limited power, to be sure—Satan can’t do anything in the world that God doesn’t permit him to do. And whatever Satan does, God can transform it into something good. But he does have real power to affect our world and our lives within it.

I was listening to an interview recently with Alvin Plantinga. He’s a world-renown philosopher who’s argued persuasively for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. Plantinga has taught at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He also happens to be an evangelical Christian. And just this year, he won the Templeton Prize, which is awarded to the person who’s made the greatest contribution in the area of religion and spirituality—Mother Teresa, for example, was a previous winner of the Templeton Prize. The award is presented by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. And the cash award is over $1.5 million. It’s a big deal!

But I was listening recently to an interview with Dr. Plantinga. And he was talking about the “problem of evil,” and how a good and loving God could allow it. And he talked about how important it was for God to give us free will, which helps explain human evil. But then the interviewer asked about so-called “natural evil”—hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. Or what about diseases like cancer. Why would a good and loving God allow those things? And Dr. Plantinga said, “I know this isn’t a popular answer today, but I believe those kinds of events happen in part through the power and influence of Satan.”[6]

That blew me away! But then I looked back at Job chapters 1 and 2: Satan literally has the power to affect the weather and cause all kinds of disease and pestilence. It’s right there in the Bible!

But as bad as these things are, they’re not nearly the most harmful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. What does Jesus say? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7] No disease, no pestilence, no natural disaster has the power to cause any of us ultimate harm: Because none of these things—even if they kill us—has the power to send us to hell. Only one thing can do that: our sin. And Satan is at work in the world right now doing everything he can to keep us enslaved to sin; keep us from repenting of sin; keep us from trusting in Christ and being saved. Or, if we’ve possessed saving faith in the past, he’s tempting us right now to abandon our faith.

Satan’s power to tempt us is the most destructive weapon in his arsenal. And he’s still wielding that weapon. So how is that Christ’s death has destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” as verse 14 says?

Because of what the author of Hebrews says in verse 17: Christ became our “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Through Christ’s sacrifice—offered once for all time—all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been taken away.

At Bible study last Wednesday, we were talking about the pervasiveness of sin in our lives—even after we’ve become Christians. We talked about the importance of repenting of our sins as we become aware of them. As the apostle John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[8] And someone asked, “What if, despite our best efforts to confess our sins and repent, we die with unconfessed sin? Will we still be forgiven? Will we still be saved?”

What do you think? How would you answer that question?

Before we answer that question, consider this: we can’t begin to know all the sins we’ve committed in this life—even the sins we’ve committed this morning! Even in church! We’re not just talking about the things we do. We sin with every judgmental thought; we sin with every lustful thought; we sin with every prideful thought. We sin when we lose our temper. We sin when we lose our patience. We sin every time we fail to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. We sin when our love for God and neighbor isn’t one-hundred percent pure! How often do we manage to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourself? Not often.

So… will we die with unconfessed sin? Of course we will. Will we still be forgiven?

The answer is a resounding yes! We will be forgiven, so long as we continue to trust in Christ!

How do I know? Because Christ our high priest has made propitiation for the sins of his people—all of our sins—past, present, and future! The Old Testament has a sacrificial system in which priests offered the blood of bulls and goats, but the author of Hebrews tells us that these sacrifices were just a “shadow of the good things to come… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”[9] But Christ’s sacrifice was different: as the author says in chapter 10, verse 10, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”[10]

Once for all! Did you hear that?

I’ve told you before that I was adopted. I always knew, from my earliest memory, that I was adopted. So I never thought much about it. Until around fourth grade when some of my classmates found out. And let’s just say back then schools were not a “Bully Free Zone.” As far as we knew, when you were bullied, you fought back. And so I did. I got in a fistfight. I got sent to the principal. And my parents got involved, and suddenly the fact that I was adopted became a very big deal!

And my parents wanted me to know that I was one-hundred percent a full-fledged member of their family. In fact, they said I was extra special because, after all, unlike a natural born baby, I was chosen. They “chose” me. I’ll be honest: even as a ten-year-old I didn’t quite believe I was chosen: I didn’t imagine that they rolled out a bunch of basinets in the maternity ward at the hospital and told my parents, “Take your pick.” I figured my parents would have been happy with any baby they got. But still… I got their point.

I was a one-hundred percent, full-fledged member of the family. In a sense, I was chosen. And everything that belonged to my parents and my older sister Susan, who wasn’t adopted, now belonged to me: including their name and everything else. And one thing is for sure: my adoptive parents would have sacrificed their lives for me if they had to—just as I would for my own children.

The same is true of the One who adopted us and made us part of his family. Look at verse 11 of today’s scripture: “For he who sanctifies”—that is, Jesus—“and those who are sanctified”—that is, those of us who’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord—“all have one source”—or as the NIV and other translations put it, we all have the same Father. Now listen to this: “That is why he”—Jesus—“is not ashamed to call them brothers” and sisters.

Everything that belongs to our big brother Jesus now belongs to us—including his very righteousness. It’s not that we Christians don’t sin, but from God’s perspective, we are as holy as his Son Jesus.

So… what can Satan do to us now? He can accuse us. His name means “Accuser,” after all. He can say, “When you die, God’s not going to save you. Look at all these sins you’ve committed!” He can remind you, again and again, of your past sins and try to make you afraid of meeting God in Final Judgment after death. But if you’re in Christ, you’re in his family now. And your adoption papers are signed in the blood of the Lamb.

So Satan’s power over you is destroyed. Amen?

Tim Keller in the New York Times

December 23, 2016

kellerIn today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviews my favorite contemporary preacher, Tim Keller. You can read the interview here. While I would have pushed back harder on the resurrection and the Bible’s alleged “fuzziness” (Luke’s virgin birth story was “written in a different kind of Greek”? Huh?)  the interview was edited, as Kristoff indicates, so we can’t know what else Keller had to say.

Still, these are not softball questions. As a useful exercise, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, you might try formulating your own answers to these questions.

I want to highlight a couple of Keller’s responses. First, when asked about the alleged inconsistency between faith and science, I liked his answer. I’m including it here mostly because I want to remember that Plantinga quote, which I’ve highlighted:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Next, when asked about Christianity’s exclusivity (Is Gandhi in hell?), Keller gets to the heart of the matter: Who can be saved by being good? Who is good? And if being good were the criterion, wouldn’t that also be exclusive? The alternative to a works-based salvation, as Keller notes, is universalism: everyone will be saved in the end. But where does that leave justice? Should evil go unpunished?

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell? 

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

File under “ontological argument for God’s existence”

November 24, 2015

We discussed St. Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence way back in Philosophy 1001 at the Georgia Institute of Technology 25 years ago. The argument has proven to be surprisingly resilient—and even my prof expressed admiration for it. At the same time, like most people, I fear that we’re playing with words more than saying anything about God.

Nevertheless, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga updated it recently. I’m posting it here not because I necessarily buy into it, but because I want to remember what it is, and this puts it rather plainly.

Premise #4 is the trickiest for me, but, as Wilson says, it follows from the meaning of “necessary.” Christian theology teaches that God is a necessary, rather than contingent, being; he doesn’t depend on anything else for his existence. You can substitute “maximally great being” for “necessary divine being.”

Anyway, for what it’s worth… From Andrew Wilson:

Here’s a quick, and surprisingly robust, argument for the existence of God. It amounts to a late twentieth century Plantingan rehash of Anselm’s ontological argument, and it goes like this:

1. It is possible that a necessary divine being exists.
2. If a being possibly exists, then it exists in some possible world.
3. Therefore a necessary divine being exists in some possible world (from #1, #2).
4. If a necessary being exists in some possible world, then it exists in all possible worlds.
5. Therefore a necessary divine being exists in all possible worlds (from #3, #4).
6. Therefore a necessary divine being exists (from #5).

The conclusion obviously follows from the premises, so the only question is whether the premises are probably correct. Both #2 and #4, in effect, are simply ways of stating what the words “possible” and “necessary” actually mean, and as such are not as controversial as they might appear. So the real debate is over #1 – but this, to most people, sounds intuitively correct. I’m not saying it will compel people to repent of their sins and follow Jesus, but it’s a good one to pull out at parties, isn’t it? (Presumably it depends on the parties.)

Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? 😉

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?