Posts Tagged ‘Andy Stanley’

Sermon 01-29-17: “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

February 7, 2017

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Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20

[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]

leah-remini-cover-768x1024Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!

As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.

After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”

Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.” Read the rest of this entry »

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.

On Andy Stanley and the Virgin Birth: selling Christianity at the cheapest possible price?

January 4, 2017

In the week after Christmas, while I was enjoying vacation time with my family and mostly away from this blog, another controversy about something Andy Stanley said (see here for an earlier one) erupted, this time over whether or not the Virgin Birth is “essential” for saving faith.

He doesn’t think it is, and many United Methodist clergy colleagues agree. One of them wrote the following on Facebook:

I’ve had this discussion many times. Mark says nothing of it. John seems to know nothing about it. Paul’s letters seem to know nothing about it. Mark and Paul’s letters all predate Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke do not tell the same narrative either. To be clear, I do believe Jesus is God incarnate. How it came to be is not clear other than saying “God did it.” What is essential is that Jesus came. The particulars on how can be debated and not mean a thing to me.

See… Christmas is saved!

Spoken like a fellow victim of liberal mainline Protestant seminary. I sympathize.

But what do these words imply about his view of scripture? He says he believes that Jesus is God incarnate. Is his confidence based on something other than what the Holy Spirit has revealed in scripture? Did the Spirit err when he inspired two of its gospel writers to give accounts of a virginal conception and thus mislead two millennia of faithful Christians? How fallible does my colleague think the Bible is?

Later in the comment thread, someone defended the historicity of the Virgin Birth by appealing to Isaiah 7:14, to which this same pastor replied, “No comment.” At this point, I chimed in:

Is this really a debate (as always) over a doctrine of scripture? Of course Isaiah 7:14 prophesies the virgin birth. The debate over whether Isaiah intended to say “virgin” or “young woman” (given that the underlying word in Hebrew could mean either) was settled the instant the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to tell us in God’s Word that the Septuagint’s translation was the correct one. Case closed. Read Pope Benedict’s words on the Isaiah passage in his excellent book on Christmas. He’s no slouch in the Bible department. And he’s not exactly a raging fundamentalist.

Whether the virginal conception is essential is beside the point. Did it happen? Yes—unless we jettison any meaningful understanding of the inspiration of scripture.

You say that the two accounts [in Matthew and Luke] don’t agree. But they do agree on a virginal conception and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Their differences, which have been harmonized, for example, even by Adam Hamilton, imply that Matthew and Luke are working with independent sources. Historians would say that that makes the event itself (which both gospels agree on) more likely rather than less so.

Never mind, also, that Mark and John offer hints that Jesus’ provenance was disputed among his fellow townspeople and the Pharisees. (See NT Wright’s For Everyone commentaries for further discussion.)

By this, I was referring to Mark’s unusual “son of Mary” reference in Mark 6:3 and the words of Jesus’ opponents in John 8:41: “They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.'” It’s possible, if not likely, that the Pharisees are referring to rumors surrounding Jesus’ controversial birth.

For all we know, Paul knew nothing about the Virgin Birth when he wrote the letters we have in the New Testament. (But what about Galatians 4:4?) As my colleague says, his letters are early. Mary herself would have been the only source for much of the material in the infancy narratives, and we don’t know when she told the apostles and Luke (who surely used Mary as his source). At best, it’s an argument from silence. Assuming Paul didn’t know about it, once Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, does my colleague believe that Paul would have disputed the truthfulness of their accounts? Worse, does he think that Paul would have doubted that God could have performed this miracle on scientific grounds?

Regardless, I continue:

Also, people in the first century knew the facts of life as well as we do: women didn’t conceive children without human fathers—which is why Joseph originally decides to divorce Mary: he doesn’t believe her story. Why would he?

My point is, that Matthew (and Luke) include the Virgin Birth anyway suggests that they really believed it happened. This “pious legend” idea is a product of the modern imagination.

As NT Wright points out, prior to Jesus, no one knew that Isaiah 7:14 was a messianic prophecy that needed fulfilling. It wasn’t on anyone’s messianic radar prior to Matthew’s gospel.

Another clergy colleague steps to the defense of Andy Stanley: “He doesn’t say it didn’t happen. He only states that it isn’t essential to believe it in order to be Christian.” To which I ask:

Why is it difficult to believe in the first place? We already believe God created the universe and everything in it. That’s a rather large miracle that we have to accept right off the bat. Not to mention our belief—I assume even among most progressive UMC’ers—that Jesus was bodily resurrected.

The main question is, can God’s Word be trusted? If it can’t be trusted when two of four gospels (each using independent sources, by the way) report a virginal conception, we have larger problems with the credibility of Christianity than the Virgin Birth.

My colleague replies:

Again, I’m not arguing the virgin birth. Stanley, in this sermon, is trying to help seekers (or those struggling with various doctrines) recognize what’s most important and to understand that something like the virgin birth doesn’t make or break your relationship with God nor your ability to be transformed by Christ. He’s talking here about a starting point. Who among you would tell a person that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and their belief in the incarnation doesn’t matter if he or she still doesn’t believe in the virgin birth?

Good question. But am I wrong to doubt that many such “seekers” exist? If people don’t want to believe that Christianity is true, they can find plenty of reasons to bolster their unbelief. If they keep an open mind, however, I doubt that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth will stand in their way. I respond:

But if someone already believes in the resurrection and the incarnation, I would ask them on what basis they would reject belief in the Virgin Birth. Then I would gently challenge them to reconsider their skepticism, in part by questioning these very harmful assumptions of modernity that underlie it. I wouldn’t teach them that’s it’s “optional” to believe what scripture clearly teaches and the historic Creeds affirm.

I’m sure Stanley’s heart is in the right place, but our goal is to make disciples, not to sell Christianity at the cheapest possible price. What kind of disciples would we be making who reject the authority of God’s Word—the only sure basis on which we know anything about Jesus Christ in the first place?

And I’ll anticipate your objection by saying that personal spiritual experience, however valuable, can teach us nothing about Christ that isn’t also revealed in scripture.

Later, I implicitly relate this controversy to the one that will likely cause a schism in our denomination in 2019. As I said earlier, the authority of scripture—as always—is at stake in the question.

If the Virgin Birth becomes optional, well… there are many more difficult things in the Bible where that doctrine came from. What will this lightly-formed disciple do with the rest of it?

Piper: Ultimately, scripture is the “God-ordained means of creating saving faith”

October 26, 2016

In the sermon I posted yesterday about witnessing, I argue that the proclamation of the gospel possesses its own power—through the Holy Spirit—to change lives. Therefore, if our efforts to witness never include a deliberate proclamation of the gospel, we are robbing our witness of power, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to make converts.

As I’ve said before on this blog, the vast majority of church growth—especially once you subtract confirmations or baptisms of children who already go to church—is “sheep-stealing”: already-Christian people leave one church to join another.

Surely, our Lord wants us to do better. As I said in my sermon,

The gospel, Paul writes in Romans 1, is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” As I said earlier, citing 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but Paul continues: “to those whom God has called,” the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Do you see the point: The gospel itself has power. God has made it to be that way. God calls people through our gospel proclamation. If we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not making disciples! [pick up smartphone] If we as a church aren’t sharing the gospel as our number one priority, it’s like we’ve spent money and resources to build this amazing device but we’ve removed the battery… or we’ve disconnected the power supply… This may be the greatest thing people would ever experience, but they’ll never know because all they have is this blank screen! It’s not working! There’s no power! They need power. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power they need!

I was heartened to read that John Piper, in his irenic yet critical assessment of Andy Stanley’s recent sermon “The Bible Told Me So,” makes a similar point. As important as it is to clear away intellectual hurdles that prevent people from believing in Christ, mere intellectual assent can’t bring someone to saving faith.

Saving faith is not the persuasion that the resurrection of Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That persuasion is essential to saving faith, but not the essence of it. The devil knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and he is not saved (see also Luke 16:31). The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the meaning of the event, and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest Treasure in the universe. Satan does not see the crucified and risen Christ as supremely beautiful, and he does not treasure him. But believers do. That is the essence of saving faith…

The gospel is more than the events of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a God-given narrative of what the events meant (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “for our sins”). It is not merely the assembly of events and evidences. It is a divine interpretation of their meaning…

What young preachers need to be clear about in deciding how they will preach is how God planned for the glory of Christ to be revealed to more and more people as the centuries pass. When Stanley says, “For the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book,” that’s not quite right. The debate centered very largely on which written witnesses provided a trustworthy interpretation of the event. The church realized immediately that everything hung not just on whether the event happened, but on what it meant: What were its roots, and accomplishments, and implications for life and eternity? Who was this man, Jesus? Whom can we trust to tell us? How then shall we live? Who can tell us this with authority? That was the issue, not just the event.

God was kind enough to bring those authentic, long-trusted Gospels and Epistles together in the New Testament in due time. But their trustworthiness and authority were functioning from the middle of the first century onward. And the most significant reason God provided these Gospels and Epistles from the beginning was so that the compelling beauty and worth of Christ would shine through these God-given writings. That is how people came to faith. They saw the glory of Christ shining through the writings God had given — or the oral heralding or reading of them.

Therefore, what I am suggesting is that in our present New Testament we have the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life.

Piper says that this truth has several implications. Chief among them is that the

testimony of God in Scripture to the truth and beauty and worth of Christ is self-authenticating. That is, the decisive cause of saving faith is not human argument (as crucial as that is). The decisive cause is described in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God creates a real illumination of our hearts by lifting the veil so that we can see the glory of what is really there in Scripture.”

Another implication is that “God’s portrait of Christ, as he is presented in the inspired Book, is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith.”

Finally, lest you doubt that Piper is one of his generation’s most gifted preachers, he concludes his essay with this:

So my concluding suggestion is this: join Andy Stanley in caring deeply about winning “post-Christians”; join him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. And then spend eight years blowing your people’s post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains.

When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching.

Do you believe this? I do—although I confess I haven’t always acted like I do.

But that changes now: My invitation at the end of the sermon I quoted earlier was to invite members of our church to join me in creating a “witness team.” In fact, we’re having our first meeting tonight. I don’t know who or how many will show up. But we’re going to discuss ways in which our church can share the gospel in a more deliberate way with people outside of our church—starting this weekend, when literally hundreds of people from our community will be on our church property for our annual “Trunk or Treat” festival.

For starters, I’ve ordered a couple hundred tracts from Crossway. I’ve also ordered some pocket-sized New Testaments to give away to visitors.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights.

More on Andy Stanley and the role of scripture in the early church

October 4, 2016

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I wrote a blog post a month ago criticizing this meme, taken from a recent Andy Stanley sermon aimed at unbelieving millennials who reject the authority of scripture. My little post was a drop in the ocean: many prominent pastors and theologians have also weighed in. In fact, the overwhelming negative reaction compelled Stanley himself to respond here. His response defends his preaching methodology against critics and assures us that he is an inerrantist.

From my perspective, the issue has never been his personal view of the authority of scripture. A friend of mine directed me to this post. As I told him at the time:

I’m sympathetic with what this writer says, but read the first comment: Stanley was wrong about what the earliest Christians believed about the Bible. This seems to me beyond question. If he wanted to argue (as I know he has in the past) that the historicity of the resurrection proves that Jesus was right about the Bible and therefore the Bible is true, then he can make that argument. But his words about the early Christian view of scripture (which he either misunderstands or misrepresents) don’t bolster that argument. While there are good historical reasons to believe in the resurrection independent of belief in the inspiration of scripture, the apostles rarely if ever proclaimed the resurrection apart from how it fits in the Bible’s grand narrative.

That’s why, for instance, the Nicene Creed says that Jesus was resurrected “in accordance with the scriptures.”

It was never one or the other.

If Stanley wants to teach college kids apologetics, more power to him. But I don’t think the best strategy is to minimize the authority of God’s Word. He’s getting flak right now because that’s what he’s done—whether he intended to or not. If he’s as prone to misinterpretation as you suggested earlier, then he ought to work on speaking clearly.

He hopes that people will follow Jesus first and believe the Bible later. What I fear will happen instead is that, like my particular tribe of mainliners, they’ll follow a “Jesus” who often bears little resemblance to the Jesus of scripture. After all, I’m often told, Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible.

Stanley only sees the problem through the lens of disaffected former evangelicals or fundamentalists who’ve left the faith or rejected many of its traditional doctrines. (I’m looking at you, Rachel Held Evans.) I guess he knows from whence he speaks. But for what it’s worth, I’m part of a Christian tradition that, generally speaking, hasn’t held to a high view of scripture in its recent history. To say the least, it hasn’t helped us reach the lost for Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, my mainline Protestant experience suggests that when we unmoor Jesus from the Old and New Testaments, we’ll come to believe that there really are no lost people, anyway—or, if there are, the condition is strictly temporary. God will save them in the end. (Sadly, this doesn’t help our churches pay their bills.)

Stanley says in his response that he’s been called a heretic by people who misunderstand his view of scripture. They’re wrong, obviously. But while we’re hunting for heresies, why not start with old-fashioned Pelagianism? No millennial, despite how clever we preachers address their doubts, will come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ apart from God’s grace (see, for instance, John 6:44).

What role, I wonder, does Stanley believe the Holy Spirit plays in his efforts to reach millennials? When Stanley writes about reaching the lost in his book Deep & Wide, as in his recent article, does he ever discuss the work of the Spirit?

Regardless, here’s a more thorough response to Stanley’s controversial sermon, by Michael Kruger. I like this part a lot:

Stanley states, “Christianity made its greatest strides during the 282 years before the Bible even existed.”  In other words, between 30 and 312 AD (when Constantine became emperor), Christians did not really have a Bible they could use and quote from.

Thus, Stanley adds the following, “Christianity was not born on the back of the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says.”

This entire reconstruction is deeply problematic on a number of levels.  For one, Christians did build the Christian faith on the back of the “the Bible says, the Bible says.”  They did this because they already had the Old Testament Scriptures from the very start.  As observed above, the apostles in the early church repeatedly cited the Old Testament Scriptures as a basis for their beliefs.

As for the New Testament, these books were also functioning as Scripture very early.  Even in his own day, Paul’s letters were read and copied as authoritative apostolic documents that the church was supposed to obey and follow (e.g., 1 Cor 14:371 Thess 2:132 Thess 2:15).  Even other New Testament letters viewed Pauls’ books as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

This pattern continued in the second century where we see a “core” collection of New Testament Scriptures—four Gospels, Paul’s thirteen letters, Acts, and a handful of other books—functioning as the Word of God in local congregations. They were being read, copied, and cited as Scripture alongside the Old Testament.  These New Testament books were even used as the basis for preaching.

So, when Stanley says there was no “Bible” during this time period, and that Christians were not using the Bible, that is simply not the case.  On the contrary, the early church was very textually centered and scripturally oriented (for more, see my The Question of Canon).

Perhaps Stanley could respond by saying that there was no “Bible” in the sense that all the Old and New Testament books were bound in a single volume you could pick up and hold.  He is technically correct that we do not have a single volume like that until the fourth century.

But, it is unclear why that matters. Just because all these books were not bound in a single volume did not mean they were not known and used as Scripture.  After all, in Jesus’ day the Old Testament books were not bound together in a single volume.  And yet it was clear that there was an Old Testament canon during that time which both Jesus and the apostles regularly used.

Did Christians really believe that Jesus loved them before the Bible told them so?

August 31, 2016

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Can someone tell me what this quote means in context? My guess is that Andy Stanley is trying to vouch for the historicity of events and teaching later compiled in the books of the New Testament.

Out of context, however—which is the way the vast majority of people will read it—it sounds as if Stanley is denigrating the authority of scripture. I’m sure he would say that old-fashioned Bible preachers like me are bound to misunderstand him. We’re part of the problem. We’ve been preaching and teaching wrong for decades, at least.

But seriously, how is this quote even true?

First, Christians in the first three centuries had the Old Testament, which they believed did tell them that Jesus loved them—even if it didn’t use his name. Indeed, the Christian movement wouldn’t have gotten off the ground to begin with if the apostles didn’t believe wholeheartedly that Christ was the fulfillment of scripture. Read Peter’s sermons in Acts: they are all about the Bible.

Second, churches had copies of at least some gospels and epistles. Third, even if they didn’t, they had apostolic teaching, which the Holy Spirit ensured would be written down and compiled in our New Testament.

If his point is that Christians didn’t have a book in their hands called “The Holy Bible,” well, that’s true, but only trivially so. Absent anyone teaching people that Jesus loved them—and what that means and why it matters—who would know it, or care?

Sermon 02-07-16: “He Must Increase”

February 16, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is not like most of us: Instead of being unhappy that his own work is declining in popularity, he’s happier than he’s ever been. Why? Because he understands that what matters most isn’t his own personal glory, but Christ’s glory. He understands that in spite of this apparent setback, God is in control and God is working his plan for him and the world. If this is true for John, it’s true for us as well. God is always working his plan for our lives, even in the face of mistakes, failures, and setbacks.

Sermon Text: John 3:22-36

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

Show of hands… How many in here are rooting for the Broncos? How many are rooting for the Panthers? How many are rooting for the commercials? I am 45, so I’m cheering for the guy who’s very close to my age, Peyton Manning. I’m sentimental; I would love to see him get his long-sought-after second Super Bowl ring before retiring riding and off into the sunset. It would be a storybook ending to his career; it would seal his legacy as one of the best who ever played the game; it would silence all the skeptics who wonder why he wasn’t more effective in the playoffs.

manning

But what if he doesn’t get the storybook ending? What if the Broncos lose? How will Peyton live with the disappointment, the sorrow, the heartbreak, the failure?

How do we handle these things in our own lives? We all want to be happy, after all, yet doesn’t life often seem to put obstacles to happiness in our way? How do we deal with them, while at the same time rejoicing in the Lord always, the way Christians are supposed to? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-19-15: “Warts and All, Part 2: Foolishness of the Cross”

April 22, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

While we often romanticize the early church, the proof from 1 Corinthians is that the church was as messed up in the first century as it is today. And like the Corinthian church, we also struggle with what Paul calls the “foolishness” of the cross. This sermon explores how and why that’s true.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-31

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I am “grumpy old man” in a middle-aged man’s body. My family is like, “Yes you are!

But I know I am. Because unlike most people I talked to about it, I didn’t want 21-year-old golfing sensation Jordan Spieth to win the Masters last Sunday. I wanted, well… one of the old guys, second-place finisher Phil Mickelson to win. Mickelson was born the same year I was! Heck, even when Tiger Woods was in his prime, before scandal and injury put an end to his dominance as the world’s best golfer, I would root for anyone but Tiger. Why? Because I didn’t want some young whippersnapper to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record for majors victories. What can I say? I’m a grumpy old man. Someone said that Jordan Spieth might be the man to do it, and I’m like, “No-o-o-o!

Jordan Spieth winning the coveted green jacket.

Jordan Spieth winning the coveted green jacket.

So last Sunday I was rooting for the old guy. Mickelson is my guy. Many people were rooting for the new guy. Spieth is their guy.

In the church in Corinth, there was something kind of similar going on between different pastors in the church. You see, Paul had started the church at Corinth. He preached and taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ to begin with. He had lived and ministered alongside them for a year and a half. After he left, though, another leader came to the church, Apollos. And the Book of Acts tells us that Apollos was very gifted, forceful, charismatic preacher and teacher. And what happened in Corinth was the same thing that happens, well… in a lot Methodist churches and other churches when there’s a pastoral change: One faction couldn’t stand the guy who just left and fall in love with the new guy. Another faction loved the guy who just left, and aren’t very receptive to the new guy’s leadership. Fortunately, in most churches, the vast majority of people keep an open mind. Read the rest of this entry »

“For it is by works that you have succeeded, not by gifts”

September 11, 2014
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There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our giftedness.

Last night I began a new Bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was a lively discussion, with much laughter. After it was over, a parishioner asked me, “How do you know all that stuff?” After pausing for a moment, I said, “It’s a gift, I guess.”

Just saying those words, “It’s a gift,” didn’t feel right, and we both laughed it off. But I would be a hypocrite to answer any other way.

Why? Because I had made reference, just the night before at church council, to this brilliant new Christianity Today column from my favorite young theologian (and pastor), Andrew Wilson. He writes:

Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?

Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”

For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.

Why does believing that we’re gifted seem conceited when, technically, it’s exactly opposite of conceited? When we say we possess a gift, we acknowledge that credit doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to the Gift-Giver. And it’s not like we did anything to earn it because, again, it’s a gift.

I suspect one reason we’re reluctant to say that we’re gifted is because we don’t want to be misunderstood: to say we’re gifted is not to say that we’re more gifted than someone else. When I was ministering in Alpharetta, I would think twice about saying (or even believing) that I’m a gifted preacher because, after all, I’m no Andy Stanley.

But that isn’t the point: to whatever extent we possess a gift, we do so because of God. On this point, Wilson’s words resonate with me. I know what it’s like to play that potentially deadly game of comparing my success to other people’s success—and worrying that I don’t measure up.

I’m preaching to myself here. For years I’ve struggled with envying a friend who is more gifted than I am. He’s a better leader, a more prolific writer, a superior linguist, and a more effective preacher. When I think like a meritocrat, I feel dispirited: He’s a better Christian. He deserves success. When I think like a charismatic, I experience freedom: He’s been given a different gift and doesn’t deserve it any more than I do. Grace—gloriously—brings liberty. What do you have that you did not receive?

I’m anticipating an objection: “Sure, our talents, to some extent, come from God, but don’t we have to do something to develop them?”

When I think of Jesus’ parable of the talents, for instance, I can’t help but answer yes. But mostly what we do is to allow God to do through us. God offers us grace. We receive it. God offers us grace. We receive it. Et cetera.

Regardless, our role in the process, when compared to God’s role, is very small—which is why we acknowledge that it’s a gift.

“If the church has changed its view of divorce…”

March 27, 2014

I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?

The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”

And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.

But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?

Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”

Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?

My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.

Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.

(Gagnonwriting mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)

For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.

There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.