Posts Tagged ‘John Piper’

Living with a “wartime mindset”

August 10, 2018

Pastor John Piper understands how high the stakes are.

In my previous podcast episode, I talked about the inadequacy of most Christians’ efforts (including my own) to witness. I said that all Christians are ministers who are called to this task, as evidenced by the Great Commission that Christ gave to his Church.

Yet I’m sure that some listeners thought, “Yes, but I’m not bold enough to witness: I couldn’t do what the woman on the subway train in Manhattan did, for instance [not that I think I could, either]; I couldn’t muster the courage to give a Bible to an unsuspecting stranger (much less a celebrity who’s openly hostile to Christianity), as in the Penn Jillette story. The very prospect fills me with fear. I’m an introvert, after all. I’m too shy! I’ll have to leave witnessing to people who have a gift for it.”

Other listeners likely fear that certain techniques for witnessing risk “turning people off” to the gospel. (One point I made in the podcast, however, is that the gospel will turn many people off, no matter how well or poorly we present it.) Other listeners disagree with any self-conscious technique or effort to evangelize. They believe that we should follow the prompting of the Spirit and let opportunities for witnessing flow organically. Any ulterior motive to share the gospel with someone, rather than enjoy a relationship on its own terms, spoils the effort.

While I would argue against these objections, that’s not my point today… My point is, even if you disagree with something I said in my podcast, I hope we can agree on this: We live in a world in which the vast majority of people (judging only by objective demographic surveys) need Jesus and the gift of eternal life that’s available through him. Moreover, we have a deadly Enemy, Satan and his demonic forces, working to thwart even our most well-intentioned efforts to convince people of the truth of the gospel. We are at war, as Paul says in Ephesians 6, the stakes of which are higher than any merely human war.

So I’ll grant that, for any number of reasons, you may feel unqualified to witness. Fine… Given that nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance, however, let’s figure out what you can do to reach lost people with the gospel: First, if you’re a parent, consider the lives of your children your most important mission field and respond accordingly: You are constantly “witnessing” to them, whether you know it or not. They are learning from you every moment about who Jesus is and how important he is to you. Your example will have a far greater influence on how they’ll spend eternity than anything they learn at church. You have an awesome responsibility! Don’t take it lightly.

What else can you do (whether you’re a parent or not)? Pray for people you know and love who aren’t yet in a saving relationship with God through Christ. Pray that God would send someone to reach them with the gospel and convert them, even if it’s not you. (Have you noticed, for example, that “prayer request” time at church focuses inordinately on loved ones who are physically sick. How often does someone ask for prayer for a loved one’s soul? Where are our priorities?)

Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower your church to be bold and successful in evangelism—not just “sheep-stealing,” which is what counts as evangelism in most churches. On that note, stop worrying about “growing the church” and worry instead about making disciples. Invite unbelieving or lightly committed Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers to church. Support and encourage your church in its evangelism efforts. Give more money and volunteer more time for the cause of Christ in your church and world. Live in such a way that people outside the faith notice that you treasure your relationship with Christ above all earthly treasures. Pray for revival in your church. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pray especially for your pastor or pastors as they seek to be faithful to their call!

In fact, you and I should live with what pastor John Piper calls a “wartime lifestyle”:

The phrase is helpful… It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46).

I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call the earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mindset that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.[1]

That second paragraph, especially, convicts me. “I drift into a peacetime mind-set… I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing.” Instead, I worry about worship attendance; I fret over the already-saved leaving for another church (and taking their tithe with them); I’m too easily satisfied with “church growth,” which relates to marketing and sales, rather than making disciples.

But no longer… Lord, help me live with a wartime mindset. Place people in my lives who will hold me accountable to live this way. Amen.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009),111-2.

Devotional Podcast #18: “Don’t Settle for Christian Mediocrity”

March 2, 2018

In this podcast, I talk about, among other things, Billy Graham. What we admired most about Graham was not his ability to fill stadiums, to convert thousands in one fell swoop, and to be a chaplain to presidents and royalty. No—what we admired most was his integrity… his character. In Graham, what you saw was what you got: a man who sincerely loved the Lord, who trusted in his Word, and who wanted everyone else in the world to do the same.

Does this describe us? If not, why not? Do we doubt that God has a plan for our lives? Do we doubt that we have the same Holy Spirit working through us that Graham had?

Devotional Text: Genesis 28:10-22

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 2, and this is podcast number 18.

You’re listening to the band Blondie and their 1979 hit “Dreaming,” from their album Eat to the Beat.

I’m playing this song because today’s scripture, Genesis 28:10-22, is all about dreaming—specifically, a dream that Jacob had when he was on the run from his murderous brother, Esau. He was on the run from him he tricked Esau out of his inheritance and, a little later, his father’s blessing. So Esau is understandably angry. He vows to kill Jacob as soon as his father dies and the period of grieving is over. Rebecca learns of Esau’s intentions and sends Jacob, her favorite son, to live with her brother Laban, in whom—as you’ll see if you read the next several chapters—Jacob fully meets his match, at least in terms of cheating and deceiving.

What a family! You’ve got to admire the way the Bible tells the unvarnished truth about its heroes!
Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #16: “Will Our Father Take Care of Us?”

February 23, 2018

One of the most important questions we face as Christians is this: Do we believe that our heavenly Father will take care of us? Jesus promises that he will, for example, in Matthew 6:25-34. But Jesus and the New Testament writers warn us that we’ll face sickness, violence, suffering, and death. How is that taking care of us? This podcast episode explores these questions.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:25-34

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 22, and this is Devotional Podcast number 16. It’s a long one, so stick with me.

You’re listening to the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which I recorded from their 1967 album Smiley Smile—the album the band released in place of their unfinished masterpiece Smile. This album, a hastily assembled consolation prize, is actually quite charming in its own right. Anyway, in addition to being a #1 hit for the band, this song was also the most expensive pop single ever recorded! Brian Wilson worked on it for months!

Last week, after another national tragedy, many people—apparently—urged us to send out our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families.

Not that I saw or heard anyone calling for “thoughts and prayers” this time, but I certainly saw the backlash against people calling for “thoughts and prayers.” “It’s not enough to send ‘thoughts and prayers.’” these people said in various ways. “No more ‘thoughts and prayers’! Do something real instead!”

And I get it: When someone asks for thoughts and prayers—or says that they’re sending out thoughts and prayers—it often sounds glib and empty. And believe me, I also get that the subtext of these complaints is as much about politics as theology. These critics are talking more about what politicians have or haven’t done than they are  about God. I know that. But they’re talking enough about God to bother me a little. Which is why I’m talking about it.

Let me begin by agreeing, in part, with these critics: from a Christian point of view, no amount of positive thinking, or sympathetic thinking, or compassionate thinking—by itself—can accomplish anything.

We don’t really believe in “good vibrations,” right—as much as we love the song? (And I love that song!)

God doesn’t respond to “good vibrations”; he responds to prayer!

Or… doesn’t he? For those of us who are his children—who have been adopted into his family through faith in his Son and for whom God is our Father—can we trust our Father to take care of us?

This is surely one of the most important questions of our time… And I’m not mostly speaking of this question as an apologetic concern—so that we can give a defense of our faith to skeptical people who don’t believe in God and might use last week’s tragedy as an excuse to say, “See? How can you believe in a good, loving, merciful God who lets children and their teachers and coaches get murdered like that?”

Those are important questions, and I’ve blogged a lot about them over the years.

But today I’m talking to those of us who already believe in the God revealed in the Christian scriptures—I’m talking to my people, to fellow Christians: Do we believe that our heavenly Father will take care of us? Do we believe that he’ll supply all of our needs… so that we can be truly happy… so that we can know true joy?

Listen to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34. I’ll read an excerpt.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

If there’s any scripture that promises that God will take care of his children, surely it’s this one. Is is true? Is Jesus telling the truth? Especially in light of some words of the apostle Paul in Romans 8:35-39. There, before promising that nothing—no amount of suffering can separate us from the love of  God—he says that he and his fellow apostles have experienced and are experiencing tribulation, distress, persecution, danger, sword, famine, and nakedness. Notice famine and nakedness.

But didn’t Jesus say that our Father will provide us with food and clothing?

So which is it? Will Christians suffer “famine and nakedness” or will our Father “supply all things”?

I love what John Piper says on this subject. Let me read the following, which comes from his book Don’t Waste Your Life:

What, then, does Jesus mean, “All these things—all your food and clothing—will be added to you when you seek the kingdom of God first”? He means the same thing he meant when he said, “Some of you they will put to death… But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:16-18). He meant that you will have everything you need to do his will an be eternally and supremely happy in him.

Piper continues:

How much food and clothing are necessary? Necessary for what? we must ask. Necessary to be comfortable? No, Jesus did not promise comfort. Necessary to avoid shame? No, Jesus called us to bear shame for his name with joy. Necessary to stay alive? No, he did not promise to spare us death—of any kind. Persecution and plague consume the saints. Christians die on the scaffold, and Christians die of disease. [And editor’s note here: Christians die from rounds fired from an AR-15. Piper continues:] That’s why Paul wrote, “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).

What Jesus meant was that our Father in heaven would never let us be tested beyond what we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). If there is one scrap of bread that you need, as God’s child, in order to keep your faith in the dungeon of starvation, you will have it. God does not promise enough food for comfort or life—he promises enough so that you can trust him and do his will.[1]

So… we’ll get enough of what we need to do his will—no matter what his will is for us; no matter how painful or scary his will for us might be.

The question is, Do we want to do his will—above all else? Do we believe, along with the Westminster catechism, that our “chief end” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”?

Do we want what God wants for us? Or do we want something else?

Let me speak for myself: I am someone who has always had ambition—and I’m not talking here about, you know, godly ambition—the desire to share the gospel with millions. I’m speaking about career ambition. Even though it has not served me well; even though it has taken a toll on me; it has always been part of me. Long before I went into ministry I have been an ambitious person. I want people to notice my good work, to appreciate me… to love me, not so much for who I am but what I achieve. This sin is deeply embedded within me!

Back in the late-’90s I was nearly finished getting my electrical engineering degree from Georgia Tech. This was my second degree from there—for a second career. (So yes, pastoral ministry was my third career.) Anyway, I had a friend—I’ll call him Andrew—who graduated from Tech with a different degree many years earlier. He went on to get a law degree from Emory and became a consultant with a large consultant. And from my perspective he was… well, he was the kind of success that I wanted to be. Not that I wanted to be him, exactly—his job seemed deadly dull—but if I could achieve his level of success in my career—well, then I would know that I had arrived. I would know I was somebody. I would stop this anxious striving and be content.

If I could just be like Andrew!

Anyway, Andrew was in Atlanta on business and we met for dinner. After a couple of beers he told me something that surprised me. He said, “You know, I majored in electrical engineering at Tech. At first. And I couldn’t handle it. My grades were terrible. I went on academic probation. I had to change majors… Not getting that degree is my life’s biggest regret. The truth is, I’m a little jealous of you.”

Jealous of me! What on earth is there to be jealous of? From my perspective, my friend had everything! If you can have everything and still feel jealousy or resentment, what’s the good of having everything? Which goes to show how badly distorted our self-image often is!

So this is what it comes down to: If worldly success is your goal, you’re never get enough of it to be happy. If any worldly thing is your goal, you’ll never get enough of it!

Years ago before he died—by suicide—actor Robin Williams gave an interview in which he was talking about the elusiveness of happiness. And here’s a talented actor and comedian who won an Academy Award, multiple Golden Globes, Grammys, Emmys; had a number one prime-time TV show; starred in some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies ever made; lived in mansions; dated supermodels; was beloved by millions. And what did he say about all this success? No matter what dizzying heights of fame and fortune you achieve, he said, “You bottom out… People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week, then one week later people are going, ‘Hey, Mork.’”

You bottom out, he said. It’s certainly true for me! I have bottomed out—many times. God has allowed or caused me to bottom out. He’s very good at that! I think he does it so that that I can learn this one thing: I will never get what I want until I learn to want what God wants for me.

Let me repeat: I will never get what I want until I learn to want what God wants for me. None of us will.

Lord, please… help me to learn this truth. Amen.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 94.

Sermon 12-10-17: “Treasuring God and His Word”

January 3, 2018

In this sermon, for the Second Sunday in Advent, I contrast Mary’s response to Gabriel with Zechariah’s response. When it comes to treasuring God and his Word, are we more like Mary or Zechariah?

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

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Recall last week that after Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are going to have a child, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”[1] He doubts Gabriel’s message. And what happens next? The angel zaps him! He makes him mute—and as we can infer from verse 62 later in the chapter, deaf as well. For the next nine months, until his son is born, Zechariah is unable to hear or speak.

Of course, Gabriel is only acting on God’s behalf. So it’s not that the angel did it so much as God did it. God punished or disciplined Zechariah.

What do we make of this?

Just last week, in the New York Times, Billy Bush wrote a personal essay about his experience being fired by NBC News this time last year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can google Billy Bush. I’m not getting into it! All you need to know is that Bush—a member of the political dynasty—was a rising star at NBC News before he got in trouble. And he got fired.

But I bring it up because I found the last two paragraphs of his essay deeply moving. He wrote:

On a personal note, this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again: anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish but, I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying.

I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters—far from perfect, but better.[2]

As a fellow sinner saved by God’s grace alone, I can only say a hearty “Amen.” What I hear in Bush’s words, first, is an acknowledgment of the destructive, insidious power of sin—but in the same breath I hear the grace of repentance and the mercy of God’s discipline.

That’s right… I said “mercy.” God’s discipline of Billy Bush was merciful. Read the rest of this entry »

Advent Podcast Day 23: “Forgiveness Is the Hardest Part”

December 25, 2017

From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.

Devotional Text: Luke 2:13-14

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

Merry Christmas! This is Brent White. It’s December 25, 2017, and this is Day 23 of my series of Advent podcasts—the last one for this season. You’re listening to the Brian Wilson song “Love and Mercy.” It’s not a Christmas song, but in addition to being a beautiful song, the sentiment is perfect for our topic. This song comes from Wilson’s 1988 self-titled solo album. Our scripture is Luke 2:10-11, which I’ll read now:

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

In Matthew chapter 2, the wise men likely lived in Babylon, in the Persian Gulf region—about 700 miles east of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. How did God get these men to travel such a great distance to find Jesus? If the star was a miraculous astronomical event, God created it out of nothing for the benefit of these stargazers. If it was a natural event, God designed the universe in such a way that at just the right moment in history this natural astronomical event would appear in the night sky, get the attention of the magi, and inspire them to travel those 700 miles to see the newborn king of the Jews.

Just think: For the sake of saving a few lost, superstitious, idolatrous, pagan, polytheistic men, God literally moved heaven and earth to guide these men to salvation through Christ! Like it was nothing at all! Isn’t that amazing! God is amazing!

Similarly, in Luke chapter 2, God does something equally powerful, equally amazing: You see, Micah chapter 5, verse 2, tells us that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

One small problem… The Messiah’s mother, Mary, was going to be having a her child very soon, and she’s 80 miles north of Bethlehem in Nazareth. If you’re God, how will you get her from point A to point B? You will put it in the mind of the most powerful ruler the world had ever seen to take a census of his empire—and require that everyone must return to their ancestral homeland. And voila! Problem solved. Crisis averted. The Messiah was born in Bethlehem, just as the Old Testament said he would be.

Pastor John Piper points out that God doesn’t do things “efficiently”—whether it’s moving heaven and earth for the sake of a few astrologers, or moving tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people around an empire like pieces on a chessboard—all for the sake of moving two seemingly “insignificant” people—Mary and Joseph—from Nazareth to Bethlehem, so that prophecy can be fulfilled.

As Piper says, It’s almost like God is showing off—the way he accomplishes things in the world!

The point is, these spectacular miracles are not hard for God. Likewise, it’s not hard for this same God to make a paralytic walk, or a blind man to see, or a hemorrhaging woman to stop bleeding. It’s not even hard for for this same God to bring someone back to life. That’s simply not hard for God.

But in this podcast I want to talk about the one thing that is hard for God: the forgiveness of sins—the very reason Jesus came into the world. What do I mean when I say it was hard? Well…

Was it not hard when Jesus sweated drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed for his Father, if possible, to take away this cup of God’s wrath away from him—a cup that Jesus would drink down to the bitter dregs? Was it not hard when Christ endured the beatings, the mockings, the crown of thorns thrust on his head, the nails driven through his hands and feet? Was it not hard when, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us on the cross, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God? Was it not hard when Jesus experienced the God-forsaken death, the suffering, the separation from his Father, the hell, that we deserved to suffer on the cross? Was it not hard when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is what forgiveness of our sins cost God. God purchased our forgiveness with the shedding of his own blood, the only way forgiveness of sin is possible. And how does God have blood in the first place? How does he have a body that can bear the punishment for our sin? How does God become a perfect substitute for us human beings? How does God die in order save us?

By becoming human. Which is what God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, does for us when he became incarnate—out of a love that we can hardly comprehend.

And that is the meaning of Christmas. This is what we’re celebrating today.

And maybe some of you are thinking, “Pastor Brent, I think you’ve got the wrong holiday: You’ve mostly talked about Jesus dying on the cross. And today is Christmas, not Good Friday… not Easter.”

But brothers and sisters, you don’t understand: the meaning of Christmas is Easter.

Advent Podcast Day 19: “The Light Shines in Darkness”

December 21, 2017

From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-5

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 21, 2017, and this is Day 19 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the band Jethro Tull, and a song they wrote and recorded about—well… this very day: December 21, the winter solstice. This song, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells,” comes from the band’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood.

My scripture today is John 1:1-5, which I’ll read now:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Do you remember that scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown is introducing Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox’s character, to the wonders of his time-traveling DeLorean? Brown shows McFly an LED-based instrument built into the car’s dashboard and explains that you simply enter any date in the past that you want to travel back to and—voila!—that’s where you’ll end up. 

At one point he tells Marty, “We can go back and witness the birth of Jesus Christ.” And then you see Doc Brown punch in the date December 25 of the year “0000.”

And at this point, many people in the audience groaned. For two reasons. First, there wasn’t a year “0.” According to the calendar that the church created, which divides history between the time before Christ and the time after Christ was born, the calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.

And the second reason some people watching Back to the Future groaned is because Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or I should say, there’s about a 1 in 365 chance that he was born on December 25! If you’ll recall a podcast I did last week, my amateur astronomer friend believed that Jesus was born some time in April.

But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the so-called “longest night of the year”—or, put the other way, the day with the least amount of sunlight. Just think: for the next six months, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

And in ancient times long before the birth of Christ, people attached religious significance to this day—thanking their god or gods that the solstice marked the “end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over the darkness.”[1] Because of this pagan association with the solstice, even some Christians today have misgivings about celebrating Christmas.

I certainly don’t share these misgivings. Even if under the old calendar December 25 was a pagan holiday, I would say that the day has been redeemed—like so many other things, including our very lives—by Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Read the rest of this entry »

Whatever we’re thankful for is paid for by the blood of Christ

November 17, 2017

I wrote the following for my church’s weekly electronic newsletter. This insight comes from John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 51-54.

Paul writes the following, in Romans 2:4-5:

[D]o you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

One of the things that we’ll be celebrating on Thanksgiving next week is what Paul calls the “riches of [God’s] kindness.” But consider Paul’s words above: We are living right now in a season of mercy, the purpose of which is to lead us to repentance.

Paul’s point is something like this: God gives us one amazing gift after another–our lives, our families, our friends, our health, our possessions. And God does so in spite of the fact that we’re sinners who, according to God’s Word, deserve only death, judgment, and hell. When we consider how kind and merciful God is to us, our hearts should melt. As a result, we should repent and be saved.

But notice what happens if we don’t repent: We are “presuming on” God’s riches and “storing up wrath” for ourselves on Judgment Day.

The only thing that saves us from this wrath is the blood of God’s Son Jesus.

Therefore, those of us who are Christians ought to remind ourselves that every gift that God gives us is paid for by the precious blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The gift of my wife or husband is paid for by the blood of Jesus. The gift of my children is paid for by the blood of Jesus. The gift of this warm, safe home is paid for by the blood of Jesus. The gift of this delicious meal is paid for by the blood of Jesus. The gifts of love, laughter, and friendship are paid for by the blood of Jesus.

Remind yourself of this truth next Thursday. Let it melt your heart. And be thankful!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sermon 11-12-17: “Being Thankful in a World of Evil”

November 15, 2017

Last week, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, more than a few tweets called into question the effectiveness of prayer. What good is prayer when these kinds of massacres become routine? After all, the victims were already praying when they were shot. What good is faith if God doesn’t seem to intervene? This sermon is, I hope, a Christian response to these kinds of questions.

Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-11

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

Last Sunday, around the time that we were gathered here at 11:00 for worship, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman, armed with a Ruger military style rifle, walked into the church and fired his weapon. Within minutes, 26 of our brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 5 to 72, including eight children, were dead. Another child, by the way, named Carlin Brite Holcombe, hadn’t yet been born when he and his mother, Crystal Holcombe, were killed.

They were not so different from us… Small town, like Hampton. In church worshiping, singing hymns. Praying. The pastor of the church and some of his family happened to be out of town that day. A guest preacher was filling in. This guest preacher and his family died. But one of the poignant details that stood out to me was this: the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter—who didn’t go out of town with her father—chose to go to church. Because, after all, that’s what Christians do on Sundays; that’s what her mother and father raised her to do; that’s what she wanted to do; because she loved Jesus, and people who love Jesus go to worship on Sunday. So that’s where she was when she was killed.

A day or two after the shooting, we Americans were arguing, as we always do in the wake of these tragedies, about gun control on the one hand and second amendment rights on the other—and I promise I have no interest in discussing these questions. But it was in this political context that Michael McKean, a talented actor and comedian whom I admire, tweeted a controversial message. He was apparently disappointed that so many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for the victims of Sutherland Springs—while taking no further action. So he tweeted, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”

They had the prayers shot right out of them. A lot of people found these words insensitive, to say the least. He later retracted it, saying he didn’t at all mean to attack people’s faith. Read the rest of this entry »

“If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread”

November 14, 2017

I’ve never been tempted to believe the prosperity gospel. I suspect that if I did believe it (and to be clear: I don’t!), I would hold fast to Jesus’ promise in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s faithful provision in Matthew 6:31-33:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Of course, the moment I write this, I’m reminded that Jesus has just said that we should not lay up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

But still… Matthew 6:31-33 is the word of our Lord Jesus. It’s true. At the same time, however, we have Jesus warning his disciples that they will face persecution and even death on account of their faithfulness to him (e.g., Matthew 5:11-12; Luke 6:22; Luke 21:16-18; John 16:33, among others). We see in the Book of Acts and throughout the apostles’ letters examples of great suffering and death among the saints. Paul himself writes, in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”

Presumably, each of these troubles will come to Christians at least sometimes. Paul himself describes ways in which he experienced nearly every one of them in 2 Corinthians 12:16-33.

So how do we reconcile Jesus’ promises in Matthew 6 about the Father always providing for us with the expectation that disciples will experience trouble—even to the point of hunger, nakedness, and death?

John Piper explains this with eloquence in his book Don’t Waste Your Life.

What, then, does Jesus mean, “All these things—all your food and clothing—will be added to you when you seek the kingdom of God first”? He means the same thing he meant when he said, “Some of you they will put to death… But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 16:16-18). He meant that you will have everything you need to do his will and be eternally and supremely happy in him.

How much food and clothing are necessary? Necessary for what? we must ask. Necessary to be comfortable? No, Jesus did not promise comfort. Necessary to avoid shame? No, Jesus called us to bear shame for his name with joy. Necessary to stay alive? No, he did not promise to spare us death—of any kind. Persecution and plague consume the saints. Christians die on the scaffold, and Christians die of disease. That’s why Paul wrote, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).

What Jesus meant was that our Father in heaven would never let us be tested beyond what we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). If there is one scrap of bread that you need, as God’s child, in order to keep your faith in the dungeon of starvation, you will have it. God does not promise enough food for comfort or life—he promises enough so that you can trust him and do his will.

When Paul promised, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” he had just said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13, 19).

“All things” means “I can suffer hunger through him who strengthens me. I can be destitute of food and clothing through him who strengthens me.” That is what Jesus promises. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread. If we are shamed with nakedness, he will be our perfect, all-righteous apparel. If we are tortured and made to scream in our dying pain, he will keep us from cursing his name and will restore our beaten body to everlasting beauty.[1]

Do you see the radical God-centeredness of this perspective? I never encountered this in any seminary class or United Methodist-oriented Bible study. Why not? What’s wrong with us? Don’t we believe this is true?

Jesus’ great promise of the Father’s provision in Matthew 6:31-33 isn’t mostly about us; it’s about us in relation to our Father: our Father will give us whatever we need in order to continue to glorify him in whatever circumstance in which he places us. That’s all Jesus promises—yet that’s everything we need.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 94-5.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 6)

October 18, 2017

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd is no fan of John Piper!

(Click the following to see previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5.)

Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.

One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:

Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.

Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]

Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?

Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?

My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.

And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?

One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.

Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:

This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!

But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.

In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.

For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).

Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35W bridge disaster.

Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:

He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35W bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”

Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.

Boyd continues:

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity.

Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.

I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.