Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Dale Bruner’

The “calisthenic” of the Sermon on the Mount: why Paul doesn’t contradict Jesus

November 26, 2018

I preached a sermon yesterday called “Do Not Be Anxious” on Matthew 6:25-34. Since I no longer preach from a manuscript, I’ll transcribe and post the sermon later this week, God willing.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read the following words from Frederick Dale Bruner on the relationship between faith and works implicit within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Bruner is a kindred spirit; whenever I get to preach Matthew (or John), I reach first for his very helpful “theological commentary” on this gospel. Bruner’s insights help alleviate the nagging fear of a convinced Protestant like myself that I might be in danger of—say it isn’t so!—overemphasizing the doctrine of Sola Fide—that we are justified entirely by faith in Christ, and our good works play no role in saving us beyond confirming the authenticity of our faith.

The Jesus revealed in Matthew’s gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasizes doing. So are we sure that we’re justified by faith alone?

Obviously, Bruner feels this tension as well:

For the Christian who comes to the Sermon on the Mount from the literature of Paul (as I, in my Christian history, do) there is a difficulty with this emphasis on doing. Paul’s theology of grace has shaken the foundations of all confidence in deeds (or “doings”), even in the best of deeds, namely, the deeds done in obedience to God’s teaching, called “the works of the law” (erga nomou). Paul contrasts trust in our “doing” with trust in Jesus Christ and his doing, for example, in the great third chapter of Galatians (Gal 3:2 and 5 especially). Paul’s gospel of salvation by Christ’s faith-eliciting work alone, received apart from even our best human doing, has more than once reformed and blessed the church and seems to be what the Christian gospel at its core is all about. What then are we to do with the Sermon on the Mount that asks us above all to do the good works of the commands of Jesus if we wish to be safe?[1]

Bruner reminds his readers of what he’s said about the Inaugural Beatitudes, with their emphasis on spiritual poverty before God (“blessed are the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Jesus begins his sermon, in other words, addressing people who recognize their need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness before anything else. We must remember, Bruner says, that these Beatitudes, “which can best be interpreted as Jesus’ gifts of grace,” precede the Commands and enable them.

Then the Commands themselves are so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help. No one who has tried to keep Jesus’ demands can, I think, deny this flight. Then the Commands are followed and backed up by the sixth chapter’s long call to faith. (Faith is especially the point of the Lord’s Prayer at the heart of Matt. 6).

This is all to say that the Commands to do in the Sermon on the Mount are preceded (in the Beatitudes) and followed (in the Lord’s Prayer) by gifts (especially the gifts of forgiveness: “forgive us our failures”; the following “as” does not cancel, it confirms). The fifth chapter’s Beatitudes and You Ares and the sixth chapter’s faith and prayer are all gifts to the seeking, yes, the trying people of God. I do not see how a single line of the sermon can be read without feeling summoned to one’s knees before God—that is, to what Paul calls faith. And yet the summons to our knees is never an end in itself; the calisthenic of this sermon is to move repeatedly from kneeling to walking. The direction of the Sermon on the Mount is to the deed—but it is equally from the gift. It is toward the neighbor through the Father.

Where Paul carefully separates faith from deeds in order to give all glory to God’s mercy, Matthew’s Jesus commands such high-quality deeds that we are driven to faith in God’s mercy. The dynamics are different but complementary. The height of the deeds to which Jesus calls in this sermon can only be approached by people walking on their knees.[2]

I can heartily say “Amen” to this, but not before saying more about how the Commands are “so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help.” This is, perhaps, an understatement.

At the risk of being a full-on Lutheran, I like the way the Very Rev. Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopalian minister, puts it a series of talks he gave on the Sermon on the Mount called “The Merciful Impasse”:

This is the power of the Sermon on the Mount: Christ pitches it high. People think because I talk about grace that I’m lowering the demand of the Law – quite to the contrary. I’m increasing the bar; I’m lifting the bar of the demand so you can earlier begin to say, “I cannot do it” …I’m telling you that the demand actually is higher than you know, and that allows you to go on your knees more quickly.

Deep down, we’re so incredibly consumed with anxieties and fears. And so the point of the Sermon on the Mount is simply to express the truth of human life – that the truth of human life is an inward conflict between what I ought to be and what I am, and this causes enormous anxiety, fear, trouble, guilt, and anger, just to name a few. When I talk about this, people think I’m saying that He’s attacking you. But all He’s doing is exposing the fact that before the Law, or the standard of God, the only possible response is humility…

The moment that I recognize that I, by my own efforts to atone, or to expiate, or to do better, or to fly right, or to do more, or to work harder, or to be nicer, are doomed to perdition – at that moment there is a release. And the release spells joy, power, significance, exuberance, happiness, creativity, love, and – come to find out – holiness.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 368.

2. Ibid., 368-9.

Can we retire the phrase “cheap grace”?

March 10, 2018

A few days ago, I posted a lengthy devotional podcast that was motivated by Washington Post columnist George F. Will’s sharply critical words about the late Billy Graham. Will, an atheist, seems to believe that religious faith is good only to the extent that it accomplishes something practical in the world. (He’s hardly alone in believing this, I’m sure.)

In his column, he said the following, almost as an aside: “His audiences were exhorted to make a “decision” for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in ‘cheap grace.’”

As I’ve said on this blog before, if grace is “cheap,” then it’s already too expensive for us! It must be free, or else we’re all bound for hell!

A popular misconception of God’s plan of salvation (shared by too many Christians, I’m afraid) goes something like this: God created us to live in a perfect relationship with him in the Garden of Eden. So long as Adam and Eve didn’t break this one simple rule—”Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”—they would be fine. That was Plan A. It failed miserably. So he tried Plan B: He would create a people Israel, who would live under the Ten Commandments and other, related laws. This time, however, he would give them a remedy for sin in the sacrificial system. So long as they didn’t mess up too badly, they would be O.K.

The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, however, describe how badly that plan failed.

So what’s God going to do now? Plan C: Since we human beings have demonstrated that we are incapable of obeying laws, God sent his Son Jesus to obey the Law on our behalf—because we can’t do it for ourselves. It’s on the basis of his righteousness rather than our own that we’re saved.

Even as I read this, I confess it’s dangerously close to the truth. I can see why many people believe that this is what the Bible teaches.

So what’s wrong with it? First, what I describe above isn’t a single plan; it’s multiple plans. Yet scripture teaches us that Christ was the “lamb who was slain” before the foundation of the world, according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8). In other words, God is not surprised by our sin. God knew, before he created our world, that one consequence of his creation is that he would have to redeem it from its sin through the sending of his Son. In other words, there was only a Plan A: that God would be in Christ reconciling the world to him (2 Corinthians 5:19). Everything God does before Christ—through the giving of Law and the sacrificial system—is to prepare the world for Christ’s coming.

Among other things, the Law teaches us that we are helpless sinners who need to be redeemed by God alone, through his Son Jesus. The sacrificial system teaches us that forgiveness is costly, that it comes only through the shedding of blood. Ultimately, only the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross can purchase for us the forgiveness of our sins (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Cor. 7:23; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 9:12).

To be clear, God did not send his Son Jesus because earlier plans of salvation proved too difficult; that salvation through faith in Christ was easy, whereas salvation through works was difficult. No: faith in Christ makes salvation possible; any other scheme makes salvation impossible!

By all means, if we fail to grasp these truths, then we may fall victim to “cheap grace.” But it won’t be because—as I suspect Will believes—we haven’t worked hard enough for our salvation. If we have to work at all as a means of securing even the tiniest fraction of salvation, we will be damned. (The necessary work that we do will demonstrate that our faith is genuine. This is why Paul says we must “examine ourselves,” not to see if we’ve finally done enough to earn salvation, but to see if we are “in the faith” [2 Corinthians 13:5].)

What I failed to consider in this week’s podcast is how offensive free grace must be to someone like Will—and so many others. Man-made religion is all about what human beings must do in order to be saved. The cross of Christ is scandalous because it tells us that we can do nothing—that we are powerless—to merit the salvation that God makes available to us.

Frederick Dale Bruner

All of this is prelude to the following words—which move me deeply—from theologian Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on John 3:14-15. He has already said that the condition for salvation (“simply trusting” in Christ, otherwise known as justification by faith alone) “puts the bar breathtakingly low.” (I have told you before how much I appreciate Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. Now, as part of my current sermon series, I’m working through his commentary on John.) I hope you enjoy it! (Emphasis is his.)

The simplicity of trust is not at all an insignificant part of the joy of the Good News. No merit, deserving, struggling, steps, conditions, techniques, disciplines, or inward or outward “doings” (“works”); no emptying or yieldings; no adverbs of “utterly, totally, completely, truly” are placed on our back. Rather, and let us hear the promise one more time: “Every single individual who is [simplytrusting has, by his means, deep, lasting Life.” May this simple gospel never be made more complex. Dear Nicodemus, if you are still listening: You asked, “How in the world can these things ever happen?” They happen by Jesus, the Son of Man, being hoisted up and, then, by (you and all the rest of us) simply trusting that this Man and his hoisting brings us into the entirely new, free, and happy relation with God called Life. Trust him, Nicodemus. That’s “how.”[1]

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 194.

Devotional Podcast #17: “Healing Our Past”

February 27, 2018

Another jumbo-sized podcast episode!

This one is all about the necessity of healing our past, without which our future won’t be as good as we want it to be. Why? Because the past has a way of continuing to exert a harmful influence over our present and future. To help us find healing from our past, I reflect on some helpful resources related to forgiveness and providence from God’s Word.

Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8b-14

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, February 27, and this is Devotional Podcast number 17.

You’re listening to Pete Townshend’s song “Somebody Saved Me,” from his 1982 album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. In the song, the singer is looking back on his life. And he sees that there were times in his life when he was rescued from decisions that he made—decisions that, ultimately, would have brought him great harm—if not killed him outright. Not that he saw it that way at the time—when he didn’t get what he wanted, when his plans fell through. No, he was often dragged kicking and screaming away from paths that would have led to his destruction. “But somebody saved me,” he sings. “It happened again/ Somebody saved me/ I thank you, my friend.”

He doesn’t know who this mysterious “friend” is. A guardian angel, perhaps? But notice it’s somebody, not some thing; it’s not an impersonal force; it’s not fate; it’s not luck; it’s a person. And of course we know that person’s name, even if Townshend doesn’t: his name is Jesus.

Townshend sings, “All I know is that I’ve been making it/ And there’ve been times that I didn’t deserve to.”

Who hasn’t been there? Who can’t relate to that?

For the last several weeks, I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve benefited greatly from reading Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. In fact, every time I teach or preach anything from Matthew’s gospel, I benefit greatly from reading Bruner. Here’s what he had to say about the final three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer—what he calls the “Second Table” of the prayer. He writes:

In the Second Table of the Lord’s Prayer, we may say in summary so far, the petition for bread was a prayer for the present (“give us this day”), the petition for forgiveness was a prayer for the removal of a bad past, and now the prayer for leading is a prayer for the future. This petition follows naturally from the preceding prayer for forgiveness. For when we ask for forgiveness we almost instinctively ask also to be kept from the temptations and evil that made our prayer for forgiveness necessary at all. So the Sixth Petition follows the Fifth like wanting to be good follows sorrow for failing to be.[1]

I like that! I’ve never thought of these petitions in terms of past, present, and future.

In today’s podcast, I want to focus on the fifth petition: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I’m reluctant to say that any of these three petitions is more or less important or necessary. But I will say this: the “prayer for the removal of a bad past,” as Bruner puts it, must be granted by God before the “prayer for the future” has any hope of coming to pass.

Why do I say that? Because the past has a way of haunting the present—and influencing the future. And if we haven’t made peace with the past, its influence can be harmful.

Stop and consider how many times even today you’ve ruminated over something in your past. Maybe it’s from your recent past: like some offhanded comment that someone made about you yesterday—“What did he mean by that? Was he criticizing me?” Or that witty riposte you wish you had said to your boss last week when she challenged the quality of your work. Read the rest of this entry »

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

Pastoral words from Jesus about doubt

March 17, 2017

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 11:1-15, which includes Jesus’ short “sermon” to a John the Baptist who now doubts that he is the Messiah. Jesus’ concludes his sermon with this beatitude: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I like this eloquence from Bruner:

Now for the end of his sermon to John, Jesus saves these words, tailor-made for John (and for all of us who are tempted to wonder if Jesus really is It): “And—blessings on the person who is not offended by me!” These are kind words. Jesus does not shame John by saying something like, “And blessed is the person who never doubts if I am the Messiah”—words like that would have hurt John because doubt was exactly John’s experience. Nor does Jesus here bless those who in discouraging situations glow with vital faith. All such triumphal words would have been the worst possible pastoral counsel for John in this state. Instead Jesus pitches his tune low, puts the cookies on a shelf John can reach, and promises, in so many words, “And God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am a different kind of Messiah than you were expecting.”[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 509.

What are the “gate” and the “road” in Matthew 7:13-14?

March 8, 2017


I like Frederick Dale Bruner’s words about the meaning of the narrow gate and hard road in Matthew 7:13-14. The “gate” is, first and foremost, conversion. The “road” is sanctification. But he points out that Jesus uses the present-tense verb in verse 14: “and how few are finding this way.” This emphasizes what he calls the “daily decisions to find this gate and walk this way.”[1]

He continues:

In summary, the two great facts about Jesus are what we may call his “Gate” and his “Road”: (1) the theological Gate of his gracious substitutionary death and resurrection and (2) the ethical Road of his just as gracious commands to follow him in rugged daily discipleship. Paul majors in the former without neglecting the latter; Matthew majors in the latter without neglecting the former. These two great facts about Jesus have been faithfully preserved in the great liturgies of the church, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer (where I will highlight the saving “two facts”): “Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and all an example of his godly life: Give me grace that I may always [!] most thankfully receive his inestimable benefit [at the Gate] and also daily [!] endeavor myself to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life [on the Road]; through [which in the liturgy means, correctly, “by the power of”] the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.[2]

My own preaching over the past several years emphasizes “the Gate” because, first, I always want unsaved people to become saved people. The stakes are heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation; they literally couldn’t be higher. Every time I preach, there are people who hear me who haven’t been converted and need to be.

Second, nothing inspires us on our journey of sanctification like being reminded, often, of what God has done for us, once and for all, through the cross of his Son Jesus. For this reason, I like the way the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it: “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.”

A future post will talk about how the doctrine of assurance fits in with all of this.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 351.

2. Ibid.

Are there “false prophets” in the UMC?

March 6, 2017

In a podcast I listened to this morning, a Bible scholar and professor said that one of his students recently told him that the Old Testament portrays God as having “anger issues,” whereas the New Testament portrays God as loving, compassionate, and merciful.

This characterization of the Bible makes me want to facepalm—not simply because the so-called “God of the Old Testament” is loving, compassionate, and merciful, but also because the “God of the New Testament” (if you’ll allow a distinction for a moment) is a God of judgment and wrath. Indeed, he is a God who sends people to hell. Jesus says so. The epistles say so. Revelation says so.

The reason that many Christians believe that the “God of the New Testament” is different, I suspect, is because they believe that Jesus’ many frightening words about judgment, hell, and wrath don’t apply to them. In my sermon yesterday on Matthew 7:13-29, the series of warnings at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I asked myself and my congregation to imagine that they did. (Because they do!)

And lo and behold: without even trying, I preached a pretty good Lenten sermon on the first Sunday of Lent!

Among other things, my sermon included some words about the LGBTQ issue, which threatens to split our denomination (literally) in the next two years: by 2019, a specially called General Conference will decide once and for all how to move forward—together or separately. I said the following:

Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road that leads to life? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell?

I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead—and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s difficult to follow.

And why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!

But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because this “narrow gate” and “difficult road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to in verses 15 to 20 is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.

As has been the case throughout my present sermon series in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary inspired and convicted me. Concerning the “false prophets” of vv. 15-20, he writes the following:

If we are not to enter the Broad Way to destruction we will need to be continually liberated from those who beckon us to it. Moreover, “[t]he difficulty that there is even in finding this [Narrow Gate], requires that right guides should point it out to us” (Tholuck, 417). Jesus now tells us how to defend ourselves from false prophets. First of all, recognize their traits. False prophets almost always wear sheep’s clothing, that is, they have seemingly Christian ways. “Sheep” in Matthew are symbols of present or future believers… This presents us with a difficulty: what is the difference between a Christian appearance (sheep’s clothing) and a Christian effect (good fruit)?

It is the first subtlety of false prophets that they appear Christian. False prophets rarely wear wolves’ clothing. They are often (though not always) sheep-like, Christian-seeming, in earnest, and apparently the real item. This is why Jesus has to warn us about them at all.

Betz, 527, notices that the greatest danger facing disciples is not persecution but false prophets, luring us on to the easy road. His observation is corroborated by the multiple appearances of false prophets (from within the church) in Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the End of the World (see 24:4-5, 11, 24). Henry, 94, observes that “Every ‘hypocrite’ is a ‘goat’ in sheep’s clothing; but a ‘false prophet’ is a ‘wolf’ in sheep’s clothing, not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.”[1]

Many people, including colleagues and even friends in ministry, would strongly disagree with me (and Bruner, I’m guessing) that the effort to revise the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage represents the work of “false prophets.” But if Bruner is right that false prophets are people in the church—our church, any church—who seek to “lure us on to the easy road,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility? To ignore it, after all, is to put our souls at risk—again, if Bruner’s interpretation of Jesus is correct.

For my progressive colleagues who tend to give extra weight to the red-letter words of Jesus, please consider his words here, too. Please heed these warnings!

As always, I write this as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 352-3.

Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.

Bruner on infant baptism

January 14, 2017

brunerIn his masterful theological commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner reflects on infant baptism, as part of his discussion of Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3:13-17 (my text for this Sunday). As a Presbyterian, he, like me and my fellow Methodists, is part of a tradition that practices infant baptism. And like me, he was “converted” to the practice later in life: he didn’t grow up believing in it.

Was he Baptist? He doesn’t say. But I was. As I tell former Baptists who join my church: “Like you, I was baptized by immersion. So at least we’re saved!”

To Bruner’s credit, he gives good arguments on both sides and admits that he is “of two minds” on the subject. Truthfully, I am as well. But it’s not as if I’m more evangelical or evangelistic than my Reformation ancestors Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley; I’m not more of a champion of “justification by faith alone” than they were. Yet each of them still believed in infant baptism. (It was those darn Anabaptists who were the weirdos!) For that reason alone, I’m willing to set aside my doubts and accept the consensual teaching of the universal church, which—as far as we can tell—practiced infant baptism (without controversy) from nearly the beginning.

Bruner marshals plenty of scripture from Old and New Testaments to support the practice (I might blog about this later), even as he acknowledges that the explicit order in the Book of Acts shows repentance and faith preceding baptism. (Like me, however, he believes that we can infer that infants—or at least children too young to “comprehend” the gospel—are baptized, for example, in Acts 16:14-15, 31-33.)

Regardless, he believes, along with me, that our view of baptism is a secondary matter; it need not affect our essential unity. And I’m not aware that it does—except among some “restorationists” of the Stone-Campbell tradition. (Some within the Churches of Christ, for example, wouldn’t recognize most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, as authentically Christian—not to mention Catholics!)

For those of us who practice infant baptism, however, let’s face facts: It often seems to make no difference in the lives of people who were so baptized. There’s often little evidence of conversion in the person’s life, aside from the most nominal kind of faith. And plenty of people who were baptized as infants later reject the faith. What do we make of this?

I find these words of Bruner helpful (emphasis his):

Where faith is not sustained in the hearts of baptized children, the gifts really given by God in baptism are left unused in an unopened section of the human heart. The gifts can even be rejected, and apparently they are by most (see the important discussion of this sad fact of “most” in 1 Cor 10). And then there is only judgment, as John’s Fire Sermon makes clear—and makes clear to believers. But when the faith given in baptism is maintained and confirmed, when baptized persons turn to Christ in fresh decisions of faith, they find that Christ has always turned earlier to them, as early as their baptism.

The earliest delivery of the passion in our own lives occurs ordinarily in baptism. And for all we know (and Luther liked this view…; cf. Calvin’s only slightly different understanding…) a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism. (Therefore infant baptism can be believer baptism.) No one should laugh (Gen 17-18). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14 RSV). Then the weekly invitations to re-receive the gifts previously given to the people of God at baptism happens again and again in the preached Word and Supper with their fresh gospel messages of faith and repentance.

Why did the Reformers, and especially Luther and Calvin, the great champions of justification by faith alone, so stubbornly fight for the retention of infant baptism for believers’ children? The Reformers knew that infant baptism celebrated and communicated the one reality that is more important than anything we do—the prevenient grace of God, of a God who does saving things for people before they can do saving things for themselves, even when they are very young. If appearances do not deceive, we seem as infants to be rather bewildered by what is going on when we are baptized. But God is superior to all appearances; inwardly God gives faith (or, in Calvin’s expression, “the seed of future faith and repentance”). This ambience in infant baptism is so much like the rest of the gospel that it helps us to believe that this seemingly common event is God’s way in the church of arriving in human lives. Infant baptism looks very much like the lowly feed-bin manger in which Jesus arrived. Infant baptism has been cherished in the historic church, I suspect, because it is shaped like the gospel.[†]

In this view, saving faith is really given to a child through baptism. God makes it possible for even an infant to receive it (“a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism”). Therefore, we can be confident a baptized child will go to heaven, for example, if he or she dies before professing faith for himself or herself. But this same person can also later reject this same faith—and it’s hard to argue with Bruner that “most” will. (Wesley certainly wouldn’t!)

Bruner’s view, please note, is more congruent with the Wesleyan tradition, which doesn’t hold to eternal security; which believes that backsliding is possible.

Thoughts? Are Bruner’s words persuasive?

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 112-3.

“Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”

January 10, 2017

brunerIn his commentary on last Sunday’s scripture, Matthew 3:1-12, Frederick Dale Bruner, a Presbyterian, argues that John the Baptist’s “Fire Sermon” is a “sustained attack on a false eternal security (‘once saved, always saved’), an attack my own Calvinist tradition needs to hear.” One scholar he quotes puts it this way: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.'”

Is that true? While my Protestant tradition doesn’t hold to the doctrine of eternal security, I’ve at least been inching in that direction for many years now (as my friend and blog reader Tom, who himself holds loosely to the doctrine, and I have discussed). So Bruner’s words are a challenge to me, too.

But maybe they should challenge us all. While I laughed out loud at this recent Babylon Bee article (headline: “Arminian Feeling Pretty Saved Today”), I’m not sure it reflects reality. After all, I’ve known few Methodists who’ve worried about the state of their soul. Why? What is the source of their confidence? Perhaps all of us need to reevaluate our security in Christ—be it “eternal” or, for many of us Wesleyan-Arminians, a shade or two more provisional.

Bruner continues:

Whenever I teach this verse and the sense of privilege that Israel felt in belonging to Abraham, I think of my own relation to the Reformation and my heritage in the theologies of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. And I squirm. Do I stand in an advanced relationship with God because I stand in this heritage? John the Baptist wants to disabuse me of this conviction for a moment. My relationship with God does not depend on the heritage to which I belong, but on something deeper. It is a great privilege to be an heir of Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. I believe that to imbibe Luther is to imbibe catholic theology at its best. And yet if I advance my Lutheran, Calvinist, or Reformation heritage before God as a kind of shield behind which to hide the reality (or unreality) of my faith in Christ, then the Baptist point his long, bony finger in my face and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks!”[†]

In my current situation in the United Methodist Church, I know the spiritual pride of identifying as a “theologically conservative evangelical.” It can easily become my way of saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other Methodists are—progressives, open theists, ‘red-letter Christians,’ or even those United Methodist ‘centrists.'”

Not too many years ago, God rescued me from the precipice of hell by convicting me of my sin and pointing me once again to the cross of his Son. While the theological liberalism of the Candler School of Theology played a harmful role, the main problem was in my heart, not my head. In other words, plenty of evangelicals whose hearts are in the right place make it through Candler just fine.

So if I’m going to be proud of anything, let me be proud of what Christ did to save me, not the theological camp in which I now stand as a result.

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-4.