Posts Tagged ‘Gerhard Forde’

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

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is not “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit”

September 20, 2017

In Monday’s blog post, I complained about this effort by a United Methodist writer to say something meaningful about hurricanes—and disasters in general. I wrote,

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

I now see that Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde beat me to the punch years ago, when he wrote the following (h/t David Zahl and Mockingbird Ministries):

Contemporary theologians talk much about the problem of evil. Some think it is the most difficult problem for theology today and one of the most persistent causes of unbelief. … Since suffering is itself classified as evil, it is of course simply lumped together with disaster, crime, misfortune of every sort, abuse, holocaust, and all manner of notorious wrong as one and the same problem. So it is almost universally the case that theologians and philosophers include suffering without further qualification among those things they call evil. … Evil does cause suffering — but not always. Indeed, the usual complaint is that the evil don’t seem to suffer. However, the causes of suffering may not always be evil — perhaps not even most of the time. Love can cause suffering. Beauty can be the occasion for suffering. Children with their demands and impetuous cries can cause suffering. Just the toil and trouble of daily life can cause suffering, and so on. Yet these are surely not to be termed evil. The problem of suffering should not just be rolled up with the problem of evil…

Identification of suffering with evil has the further result that God must be absolved from all blame. Thus, the theologian of glory adds to the perfidy of false speech by trying to assure us that God, of course, has nothing to do with suffering and evil. God is “good,” the rewarder of all our “good” works, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit. …Meanwhile, suffering goes on unabated. If God has nothing to do with suffering, what is he involved with? Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering, Luther asserts in his proof, does not know God at all.

I made the following comment on the Mockingbird site:

Most of life is suffering to some extent—or at least my life is. (What am I doing wrong?) To conflate suffering with evil, and say that God has nothing to do with either of them, is to assume that suffering represents an interruption to the life that God wants for us. Therefore, as Forde implies, God must be displeased with me because I’m not living “according to his plan”!

Wait… Do I live most of my life feeling as if God is disappointed with me?

I’m serious! That last question is not rhetorical! If God has nothing to do with suffering and evil, what does he have to do with me?

More on John 5: Sin is an infinitely bigger problem than any physical ailment

March 16, 2016


Last Sunday, I preached on John 5:1-18, the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. In preparation, I listened to, among other things, John Piper’s sermon on this text (from 2009). Piper is characteristically excellent here. He rightly identifies sin as this man’s main problem, not his physical ailment.

What’s the issue? The issue in the healing is holiness. “I’ve made you well. Now I’ll tell you what this is about: Stop sinning!” This is really important. There’s a gospel pattern here that you need to see. “My aim in healing your body”—and the church could say, “Our aim in touching the neighborhood; our aim in every manner of ministry that touches the mind, the body, the family, is not an end in itself otherwise we would be cruel to people.” Jesus said, “I’ve given you a gift; it’s free. You didn’t do anything for this gift. It came first. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t good enough for it. I chose you freely among all those people. I healed you. Now, live in that power! Know me! Know free grace, and it’s power in your life!… In the power you’ve just experienced, fight your sin.” And yes, he warns him; he threatens him…

A lot of people think there shouldn’t be any warning or threat in gospel ministry. Just promises, promises, promises, and love, love, love, and no threats. No warnings.

Well, that’s not what happens here. Jesus says, “I warn you. If you turn away, if you mock this gift that I have given you for the power of holiness, and the grace that I have shown you—if you turn the grace of God into license, if you make an idol out of this health of yours now, and thank me until the day that you’re dead for the idol of your health, you will perish forever.

The only thing I would add to or change about these words is that there’s no evidence that the formerly disabled man has yet converted to Christ. Based on the evidence of the scripture, Jesus doesn’t warn the man not to “turn away” from Christ’s gift of grace; rather, he warns him, in so many words, that he still needs to receive it. The man has thus far been healed physically but not spiritually.

As I said on Sunday,

We ought not to hear Jesus’ words, “Sin no more,” and say, “Let me give it the old college try, Jesus.” We ought to hear these words and fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Save me, Lord Jesus! I can’t do what you’re asking me to do! I can’t ‘sin no more.’ I want to, but I can’t. Can you do it for me? Can you live the life of perfect, sinless obedience to our heavenly Father that I myself am unable to live? Can you suffer the penalty that my sins deserve? Can you face the judgment I’m unable to face? Can you die the death I deserve to die? Can you suffer the hell I deserve to suffer?”

And of course, our Lord Jesus says, “I’d be happy to… Because I love you that much.”

Unless or until this man at the pool of Bethesda asks Jesus to do that, he may be physically cured of his disease—but that’s strictly temporary. He won’t be eternally healed. We need an eternal healing!

Nevertheless, I’m on the exact same page as Piper when it comes to the relationship between grace and good works: “Changed lives,” Piper says, “are the evidence of a true relationship with Christ; it’s the evidence of repentance; it’s the evidence of being born again.” He continues:

[Jesus tells the man,] “You think this is about healing; it isn’t about healing; it’s about holiness. I came into the world the first time to deal with sin, not mainly to deal with sickness… I’m coming to attack the worst thing this world has ever known: sin. And your healing is about that. Every healing is about that. And every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day is about not sinning. Every disease you get is about not sinning. Every meal on your table is about not sinning. Whether God deals you pain or pleasure, it’s about not sinning…

Malaria is a horrible thing. H1N1 could be a horrible thing. HIV AIDS is a horrible thing. And sin is a million times more horrible than any of them because its consequences are not 38 years but 38 million ages of years. And the only reason anybody would consider helping someone with their sickness and not their soul is because they do not believe that. We will be a both/and church. We will not be forced to choose between loving people in their immediate crisis and need and caring for their souls. I’m just going to say over and over again in any way with no heart desire for their soul to be saved, you don’t love them. I don’t care if you do it for 50 years in Calcutta. You don’t love them.

Amen… with one small qualification: I would emphasize (as I did on Sunday) that “not sinning” is impossible for us. In other words, “every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day” may be about not sinning, so long as we understand that it’s only on the basis of Christ’s “not sinning” that we are saved. For our sake, Christ lived the life of perfect, sinless obedience that we ourselves are unable to live.

Not that Piper would disagree; it’s only a question of emphasis.

As I’ve written about a lot recently, we don’t want to risk turning sanctification into what Gerhard Forde calls the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Having been justified by God through grace, sanctification is not “our part of the bargain.” It’s all grace from beginning to end.

But I heartily endorse Piper’s main point about the healing ministries of churches: If they are not aimed at humanity’s central problem of sin, and the solution to that problem in Christ—the saving of souls—we are failing to love.

Self-improvement is killing me

December 4, 2015

The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. – St. Paul

We Methodists talk a lot about sanctification. Our emphasis on this doctrine distinguishes Methodism from other Protestant traditions more than anything. Heaven knows, no other Christian tradition besides the Wesleyan movement (of which our Holiness brethren are part) has routinely spoken of “perfection,” the completion of the process of sanctification, as a real-live possibility on this side of heaven.

But we are also children of the Reformation. Even sanctification, we say, is as much a free gift as justification. As with justification, the only thing we offer is our consent, which itself is made possible only by the Holy Spirit.

That sounds nice, I guess. But I think I’m finally able to articulate something that I’ve been sensing within myself for a while: I have twisted this doctrine of grace into something it was never supposed to be: a list of rules, a means of self-justification, a program for self-improvement.

And it is killing my spirit.

I have turned sanctification into the Law all over again. As the apostle Paul describes, the “old man” within me keeps thinking this Law will bring life, but it only condemns me and brings death.

Hence, when I read these words, courtesy of Mockingbird Ministries and the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, about my corrupted view of sanctification, I literally cried:

Sanctification is thus simply the art of getting used to justification. It is not something added to justification. It is not the final defense against a justification too liberally granted. It is the justified life. It is what happens when the old being comes up against the end of its self-justifying and self-gratifying ways, however pious. It is life lived in anticipation of the resurrection.

Sanctification, at least my mistaken view of it, is the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Yes! “Cheap grace” and “easy-believe-ism,” I say, can easily sneak in the door if we’re not careful! Let’s put a hedge of good works around God’s grace, so we can charge more for it!

Forde continues:

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

… as my experience bears witness.

So I’m done with it. God must do the sanctifying or it won’t happen at all. I can’t do it myself. I’m not even sure I can safely talk about sanctification anymore. As Forde says, even talking about it is dangerous and seductive to the “old man” of Romans 6.

But not just Forde… Listen to what John Piper says, in this post entitled “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?” (I assumed the question was rhetorical before I read the article, since we have to contend with the Book of James.) But it isn’t for Piper:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level. You may settle it in a group with some sentences that are biblically grounded, but the reason it won’t be settled experientially is because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…

So it’s not that it isn’t true, Piper says. James is right: faith without works is dead. It’s just that the moment we hear that—that the “faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone”—it awakens the legalist within. So now, having been born again, we climb back on the hamster wheel of works righteousness and try to earn salvation all over again. It’s true: we begin the process of sanctification “in the black” on God’s ledger, but we very quickly find ourselves in the red; then comes guilt; then comes self-condemnation. Satan, who—remember—is literally “the Accuser,” says to us: “You call yourself a Christian? You’re not good enough! You’re too big a sinner!”

Maybe that shouldn’t happen, but it did to me—as it has to many others. Otherwise, why are Forde and Piper and many others talking about it?

I took a class on the theology of Augustine, taught by a conservative English Catholic scholar named Lewis Ayres. Augustine was the chief opponent of the fifth century heresy of Pelagianism. At least a few times during the semester, Dr. Ayres complained about the sermons that his priest preached: “It’s just one Pelagian message after another! Do this! Do that!”

Are we Methodist pastors guilty of the same thing?

Even as I write this, the “old man” within me is protesting: “James chapter 2! Don’t forget about James chapter 2!” I promise I’m not. But the guilt-ridden message of “sanctification by self-improvement” isn’t more likely to motivate anyone to good works than the life-giving gospel of free grace! In fact, even if it could, this very motivation would nullify the good work before it started. Love is freely given, never compelled.