Posts Tagged ‘Francis Chan’

Methodists believe in the doctrine of election, too

January 9, 2013

I recently referred to Francis Chan’s “nearly Pelagian”—what I could rightly call semi-Pelagian—”disregard of the role of God’s grace in sanctification.” As if on cue, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger Olson has an evenhanded article about different evangelical perspectives on election (full article behind subscription firewall) in the most recent Christianity Today, which includes a discussion of semi-Pelagianism.

He helpfully describes it with an illustration:

Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God’s service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to “reach up to God as far as you can, and then he’ll reach down and take you the rest of the way.” I call that “Touched by an Angel theology.” By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.

Moreover, he calls semi-Pelagianism “arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.”

Did you read that? All branches of Christianity condemn semi-Pelagianism, including us Methodists. I emphasize this because, as Arminians, Methodists are sometimes accused of being semi-Pelagian by our Reformed brothers and sisters because we affirm a limited but (we believe) necessary role for free will in the process of salvation. As Olson writes,

According to Wesley’s essay “On Predestination,” faithfully following Arminius, election (predestination) means that “God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.” He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise, “[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions.”

Free will, enabled by grace. Olson goes on to emphasize a point that can hardly be made loudly enough: “[W]hatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God’s work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.”

Wright on reading the Old Testament

January 7, 2013

Before I knew which direction yesterday’s sermon would take, I thought I might spend time dealing with the inspiration of scripture and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”) Two-thirds of Chan and Beuving’s book Multiply is about the Bible—what it is, why we read it, how we read it. And the truth is, that part was perfectly good. (Did Chan delegate the Bible stuff to his coauthor? Multiply feels like two books. The tone of the second part is more grace-filled and less Francis-Chan-ish than the first.)

While preaching about the inspiration of scripture will make a good sermon some day, I decided the problems raised by the first third of the book—specifically, Chan and Beuving’s nearly Pelagian disregard of the role of God’s grace in sanctification—were too large to ignore.

While I was thinking about the inspiration of scripture, I revisited N.T. Wright’s wonderful little book on the authority of scripture, The Last Word. Wright deals nicely with the persistent problem of how Christians handle the Old Testament. We can neither embrace it as a normative guide for Christian living nor reject it by that reductive reasoning that ends every argument with, “Yes, but it also says we can’t eat shellfish! You don’t get to pick and choose!”

Well, yes, in fact we do get to pick and choose—or at least the Church does. And the reason we do so, Wright explains, is that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the two testaments. Here’s his rationale, which I find helpful:

It is not hard to imagine illustrations of how this continuity and discontinuity function. When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travelers remain—and in this illustration must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship.

Perhaps the best example of this line of thought anywhere in the New Testament is one of the earliest: Galatians 3:22-29, where Paul argues that God gave the Mosaic law for a specific purpose which has now come to fruition, whereupon that law must be put aside, in terms of its task of defining the community, not because it was a bad thing but because it was a good thing whose task is now accomplished. But, as the whole letter indicates, the people of God renewed through Jesus and the Spirit can never and must never forget the road by which they had traveled.[†]

N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God—Getting Beyond the Bible Wars (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 57.

Chan’s new book saves the best for last (to say the least)

January 3, 2013

chan_multiplyOne of my most popular recent blog posts was about something Francis Chan talked about in an interview. How fortuitous, then, that the second part of our “Vinebranch Book Club” sermon series concerns his new book, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples. My blog stats are about go through the roof!

The title of the book and its opening chapters are misleading. He (and his coauthor Mark Beuving) don’t talk much about how to make disciples. Instead, the book’s main theme is this: if you’re going to be a disciples-maker—and he emphasizes that all Christians should be—you need to have your life transformed by God’s Word.

In my earlier blog post, I criticized the following statement from the book: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life… It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.”[1]

I went on to say that it’s not nearly that simple: How often do we follow Jesus with wholehearted devotion? How many of us give everything for the sake of the gospel? How confident are we that if someone placed a gun to our head we would be ready to lay down our lives for the sake of our faith?

We are disciples in progress. Most of us haven’t arrived yet. I certainly haven’t. I’m getting there. And when I arrive (most likely not in this lifetime) it will only be by God’s grace.

Having now read the book, Chan’s words about “wholeheartedness” weren’t the only troublesome, less-than-grace-filled ones. Chan is obsessively concerned about our motives. Say you want to be a disciple-maker (which, again if you’re a Christian, you’re supposed to be). “If you look at your heart and find even a trace of desire for the glory and prestige that come through teaching and leading other people, take some time to let James’s warning [about unloving speech in James 3:6] sink in… As a disciple maker, you could make a huge impact for the kingdom of God. Or you could lead people horribly astray.”[2]

If even a trace of the wrong motives can do us in, heaven knows I’m ruined. You longtime readers know me well enough to know that I want at least a little “glory and prestige”—and money and popularity, and would a little fame be such a bad thing? Worse: if we’re not nearly perfect when it comes to loving others, we’re also in trouble. When you’re in a group of people, for example,

Are you overly aware of the ones who are wealthy, attractive, or have something they can offer you? Do you worry about what people think of you? Or do you look for ways to love and opportunities to give?[3]

If this were a quiz, I would have to answer yes, yes, and yes. See, I’m all three of those things at once! Chan doesn’t allow for that possibility: it’s either/or with him. Yet I find that I am a bundle of mixed motives most of the time. Most of us sinners are, right?

Not according to Chan: “As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be focused on making disciples. But if we don’t do it with the right motives, we are wasting our time.”[4] As you might imagine, since the most important part of being a disciple-maker is being a Bible study-er, we frequently bring our wrong motives to bear on reading the Bible. Did you know this, for example? “The fact of the matter is that most Christians study the Bible for the wrong reasons.” [5]

It’s wrong, he says, to read the Bible out of guilt (never mind how guilty he’s making me feel at this point in the book!), a desire for status, or only to offer something for a sermon or a Bible study.

Who knew we had all this errant Bible reading going on? Who knew that reading and studying the Bible—not failing to do so—was such a major problem in our Christian lives?

After all, when we read the Bible, we’re not simply hearing the Word of God in a metaphorical way (as orthodox Christianity teaches), we are hearing God’s direct, unmediated words. “Think of how you would respond to hearing a voice from heaven speaking directly to you. We should approach the Bible with the same reverence.”[6]

Sorry, Francis, I call foul here. I can tolerate a little hyperbole, but this is beyond the pale. Do you really believe that we should approach the Bible the way Moses approached the burning bush? Do you approach it that way? Of course you don’t! And if you did, that would be a form of bibliolatry. As you well know, it’s not the words on the page that make the Bible the Word of God; it’s the Holy Spirit who speaks God’s Word through the reading of it. You say as much later on in the book!

In fact, later on—after Chan lays this pretty heavy guilt-trip on us for failing to be sufficiently transformed as disciples—the book features a more than half-way decent overview of the Old and New Testaments. The authors describe the grand narrative arc of the Bible, emphasizing God’s saving plan from Adam and Eve to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to Exile, and, lastly, to Jesus. The authors make the case for the continuity between the two testaments. They have a good discussion of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament and its relationship to Jesus’ sacrifice. Their eschatology, including their emphasis on the resurrection of the dead and a renewed Creation, is perfectly orthodox.

I’m also pleased (and surprised) that the authors come back around (finally) to the Holy Spirit: They say it’s only through the Spirit that we’re able to be transformed. It’s through the Spirit that we hear and respond to God’s Word. It’s through the Spirit that we are successful in making disciples. In other words, living a Christian life—and being sanctified—really is a matter of God’s grace, after all. What a relief!

Why didn’t they say this earlier in the book?

The contrast between the first and second part of the book is a little jarring. It feels like the work of two authors and a poor editor. I suspect that Chan delegated most of this good Bible stuff to Beuving, his coauthor. It’s as if the latter part of the book is written in a different voice, with a very different tone.

In fact, I would happily recommend this latter part of the book—from pages 139 to the end. As for the first 138 pages, I’m reminded of a scene from Dead Poet’s Society

1. Francis Chan and Mark Beuving, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012), 47.

2. Ibid., 42.

3. Ibid., 43.

4. Ibid., 39.

5. Ibid., 93.

6. Ibid., 92.

Francis Chan sets the bar way too high

December 11, 2012

Mark Galli interviews best-selling author and pastor Francis Chan about his new book on discipleship in this month’s Christianity Today. Galli zeroes in on a passage in the book that—as it happens—makes my Methodist blood boil. Maybe it will bother you, too. Who knows? (I’ve underlined the offensive part.)

GALLI: Your writing has what I’d call a “relentless intensity” to get readers to do more for Christ. One example among many in this book: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life …. It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.” Where does your intensity come from? Is that a family trait? Something you learned as a Christian?

CHAN: (Laughter.) A family trait. Oh, that’s funny. It could be. I don’t know. When I read the statements of Christ, there seems to be this urgency and intensity. I guess that’s what I get out of it when I read the tone of the Scriptures, which is very different from the tone of our culture.

Beware of someone saying, “It’s that simple.” It never is.

Of course disciple-making doesn’t “require everything.” It doesn’t require “following Jesus in every aspect of your life.” It doesn’t require “pursuing [Jesus] with a wholehearted devotion.” Thank God it doesn’t require that! Otherwise, who could possibly do it?

Could Chan? How convinced is he of his own “wholehearted devotion”? Is he currently giving everything for the sake of the gospel? Yet I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s made and is making disciples.

Look, I get it… Whether Chan knows it or not, he’s an old-fashioned Pietist. We non-Pietists need them to challenge us in our own piety. They keep us honest. They hold us to a high standard—or I should say that they remind us of the high standard to which Jesus holds us when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And that’s good.

But…

Forgive me for being Methodist guy, but where’s the grace? Does Chan not realize that as we are making disciples, we are also being made into disciples? I’m reminded of that famous definition of evangelism: It’s one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. We’re all beggars. We’re all constantly in need of God’s grace at every moment. We’re all on a journey toward perfection. Although we Methodists hold out hope, we know the vast majority of us won’t arrive at perfection—what we Methodists call “entire sanctification”—in this lifetime.

When I say “grace,” I don’t mostly mean—as it’s popularly understood—”forgiveness for falling short.” That’s only a small part of it. I mostly mean grace as “the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.” Disciple-making is a Spirit-filled, and therefore grace-filled, process. Disciple-making doesn’t happen apart from the Holy Spirit—again, thank God.

Believe me, I’m striving to be wholehearted in my devotion. I’m striving to be ready to “lay down [my] life.” I’m striving to follow Jesus in “every aspect of [my] life.” I’m not there yet. Are you?

When I read stuff like this from Chan I wonder if he underestimates the power of sin—how insidious it is. I’d recommend he read some Kierkegaard. Maybe—I don’t know—The Sickness Unto Death? I bet he wouldn’t speak so glibly about wholeheartedness after that!

Theologically questionable Facebook posts, Part 1

October 5, 2012

Francis Chan inspires fierce loyalty among his readers, viewers, and congregants—and strong reactions from his detractors. Me, I only know him by reputation. I never read Crazy Love when it came out. In retrospect, I should have read it for the same reason I read Heaven Is for Real—because so many church people were reading it. Maybe I’d love it, but when Chan says things like this—as he did, apparently, at last night’s “Catalyst” conference—it makes me wonder.

I understand Chan’s sentiment. By all means, our credibility as disciple-makers hinges, in large part, on the extent to which we ourselves are being made into disciples. I’ve preached the same myself. But Chan doesn’t leave much room for the Holy Spirit. The good news is that ultimately it isn’t up to us to “multiply” God’s kingdom; that job belongs to the Spirit. The Body of Christ doesn’t grow like a human body: Christians don’t duplicate in the same way that cells do, such that if a cell has defective DNA code, that code will get passed on to the next one.

Chan seems to be saying that we need to get our act together before we can begin doing the work of the kingdom. To which I would say that doing the work of God’s kingdom, by God’s grace, often helps us to get our act together. Besides, how sufficiently does Chan believe that he has his act together? Apart from grace, we’re all hopeless sinners. And we’re all in need of God’s grace at every moment.

Picky, picky, I know. But what can I say? This blog exists in part to be picky about theology, because it matters a great deal to me.

Someone might accuse me of taking Chan’s words out of context. To which I say, of course I’m taking them out of context! It’s Facebook! The words were posted without context. Were the many people who chimed in their agreement with his words sitting in the conference, hearing Chan speak them in context? Who knows? All I have to go on is this Facebook post. A pastor friend who was there, however, tells me that I fairly represented what Chan was saying.

A hopeful universalism?

June 30, 2012

When I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, from which critics unfairly inferred that he was a universalist, I said on this blog and to others that this book wasn’t written for me. It was written for people who lean in a fundamentalist direction on the question of hell—who haven’t allowed themselves to consider the difficult questions that the doctrine raises.

As for me and my tribe, we need a book written from the opposite perspective: We need to be re-convinced that God could actually send someone to hell. We emphasize God’s grace to the point that we easily forget what it is about which God has proven himself gracious—namely, our sin.

With these issues in mind, you might imagine how I responded to the cover of a recent Christian Century magazine. (Note: the article hides behind the subscription firewall, but you can purchase the individual article.) I groaned. Here we go: as if the typical reader of the Christian Century needs more reason to doubt the doctrine of hell.

But the story itself—as opposed to the cover—wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was quite good! The author of the cover story, Paul Dafydd Jones, nails my tribe perfectly when he describes mainline Protestant reaction to Bell’s book:

On the other side [of the theological spectrum], little more than a bored, smug shrug emanated from mainstream academics and mainline Protestants—so bored it hardly amounted to a shrug, so smug it implied that those still opposing universalism were no more than reactionary Neanderthals. This (non)reaction barely registered, but that’s all the more telling. In certain circles, universalism is no longer the preserve of theological radicals. It’s gone mainstream.

The author reviews a few books on the subject of hell, including Erasing Hell, a critical response to Bell’s book by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. He liked it more than you might think. He writes that it’s a “respectful critique of different kinds of universalism, some decent exegetical work and a laudable resolve to connect faith and social justice.”

I haven’t read the Chan and Sprinkle book. (I read another response to the Bell book, this one written by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called God Wins, as I’ve mentioned before.) But I’m completely sympathetic with this critique from Jones, who, in discussing surprising parallels he finds between Chan and Sprinkle and Karl Barth, writes:

Chan and Sprinkle’s commitment to thinking with Barth doesn’t go far enough… A good example of this comes late in the book, when the authors write that “Jesus satisfied the wrath of God . . . the same wrath that ultimately will be satisfied, either in hell or on the cross” (my emphasis). Why the either/or? Primarily because Chan and Sprinkle balk at one of Barth’s most profound intuitions: that Christ’s death is the death of sin as such; that, by way of the cross, God rejects and overcomes all wrongdoing. On this reckoning, the cross is a decisive articulation of God’s wrath—a decisive no against sin that ensures that the positive yes of grace sweeps slowly but surely and savingly toward each and every one of us. Indeed, isn’t this what Paul meant when he wrote that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21–22)?

In other words, if God’s wrath were only satisfied through Christ for those who place their faith in him—and all the leftover wrath, if you will, were satisfied through those in hell—then we’re back to Calvinism, with its vision of limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for all humanity. No, I’m with Jones: if you go for penal substitution, go for it all the way. As he says later:

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

I preached a couple of years ago that, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, the problem in the God-human relationship now resides only on the human side. Through the cross, God has taken care of the problem on God’s side—namely, the barrier of sin. I’m still, in other words, with C.S. Lewis’s camp: ultimately, hell is God’s giving human beings want they most desire, and that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. (See “Hell,” from Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like some kind of squishy near-universalism on my part. I believe people’s sinful choices on this side of death have eternal consequences. A person’s active cooperation with sin in this life can cause them, as Jesus warned, to commit the unpardonable sin. As my man Wesley preached, if a person continually fails to respond to God’s grace, he or she may lose the ability to respond entirely, at which point what can only follow is hell. As Lewis would say, this amounts to God’s giving people what they want.

Again, speaking to my tribe, many of whom don’t want to imagine that God would endorse or approve of hell, Jones nicely points out the logical necessity of it: If God is not going to force himself on us—and you can’t coerce love, after all—then God will respect our wishes.

It follows, too, that while damnation is difficult to imagine, it cannot be ruled out. God will not bully us into the kingdom; God waits, patiently, for us to receive and embrace God’s grace. And that allows the possibility—an absurd, baffling, but conceivable possibility—that some will forever resist God’s gracious advance.

Universalists who fail to appreciate this point aren’t so different from Calvinists: God, they would say, simply runs roughshod over human free will and saves everyone, regardless.

I respect any hopeful universalist who, like Jones, correctly grasps the fundamental problem of human sin.

While we mustn’t ever lose sight of God’s grace, we are obliged also to acknowledge the gravity of sin. We cannot suppose that God’s love is permissive, that God overlooks or condones our myriad failings. Just as sin matters in human life, sin matters to God. It is an abrogation of the covenant. It is the very reason that God’s saving grace passes through the horror of Calvary. And since the Bible posits some connection between sin and postmortem existence, theologians should take note. In so doing, one faces a truth that Calvin, Luther and others never let slip from view. No one deserves to be saved, given a refusal of right relationship with God. That God favors anyone bespeaks a love of unimaginable intensity and power.

Don’t misunderstand: Bell might be a universalist, although there’s no way of knowing from this book alone. As many others have said, Bell doesn’t say anything about heaven or hell that hasn’t been said—better, I would argue—by great thinkers like C.S. Lewis. More than anything else, I fault Bell for often writing as if great Christian thinkers throughout two millennia of Church history haven’t asked (and answered) these same questions or objections.