Posts Tagged ‘John Piper’

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

August 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.

To be made in God’s image says far more about God than it says about us

August 10, 2017

I wrote a shorter version of the following for our church’s weekly email blast.

In my sermon a couple of weeks ago, I referred to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, whose text was engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, alongside the Gettysburg Address. When my family was in Washington a few weeks ago, we read aloud the text of both speeches.

As great as these speeches are, however, what impressed me most was the statue itself. For me, this image of Lincoln communicates strength, wisdom, steadiness, and faith. This memorial inspired me to spend about 20 thinking about Lincoln and the principles for which he stood.

You know what I didn’t think about? The marble out of which the sculpture was made, the biographical details of the sculptor who created it, or how difficult it must have been to do so. No, I thought about the man in whose image the sculpture was made.

Does this give us a sense, then, of what Genesis 1:27 means when it says that we are made in God’s image? Our reason for existing is to reflect the glory of God, rather than our own glory. When people encounter us, they ought to learn something about who God is, and who Jesus is. We ought to inspire others to praise the One in whose image we’re made.

Do we?

To say the least, to be made in God’s image is intended to say far more about who God is than who we are. It’s funny: I think I’ve gotten that exactly backwards for most of my life!

With characteristic eloquence, pastor John Piper puts it like this:

So our existence is about showing God’s existence or, specifically, it’s about showing God’s glory. Which I think means God’s manifold perfections—the radiance, the display, the streaming out of his many-colored, beautiful perfections. We want to think and live and act and speak in such a way that we draw attention to the manifold perfections of God. And I think the way we do that best is by being totally satisfied in the those perfections ourselves. They mean more to us than money and more to us than fame and more to us than sex or anything else that might compete for our affections. And when people see us valuing God that much and his glory being that satisfying, they see that he is our treasure. Show me more! I think that’s what it means to glorify God by being in his image.[†]

John Piper, “Question 4” in The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 30.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 1)

August 7, 2017

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. From what I’ve read, the tragedy represents a failure of engineering (I say as a former engineer myself) and public policy: tax-paying citizens and their representatives in government are unwilling to pay for needed infrastructure repairs and improvements. Until we are, tragedies like the 35W bridge will repeat themselves.

The good news for Minnesota is that this particular tragedy motivated the state to repair dozens of bridges that, like the 35W, were in danger of failing.

Be that as it may, let me pose a theological question: Despite the many human and bureaucratic misjudgments and sins that went into the 35W’s collapse, could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the bridge’s collapse, or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it (as with the famous Tacoma Narrows)?

If the answer is “yes,” then we must be prepared for the next question: Why? Why didn’t he?

Nearly everywhere I turn on social media, I’m confronted with one blog post after another telling me that, despite the cliché, everything doesn’t happen for a reason (or at least a reason that can’t be fully explained by science or free will), so we Christians are committing pastoral malpractice if we hint that God might have some deeper reason for allowing human or natural evil—and the suffering left in its wake. To ask why, we’re told, is almost sinfully presumptuous.

In one representative sermon by a popular United Methodist pastor I know, he said the following: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

At one point in my life—as late as 2010—I would have agreed: God is not the author of sin or evil, therefore, when sin or evil happens, God doesn’t cause it. I still believe that. But several years ago I would then take the next (unwarranted) step: If God doesn’t cause it, he must also not have any good reason for allowing it.

As I’ve written before in many blog posts, this idea runs roughshod over the Bible. Here are only a few examples:

After the climax of the Joseph story in Genesis 50, Joseph tells his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” In other words, God had good reasons for allowing Joseph’s brothers to carry out their evil plans against him, and these reasons were different from Joseph’s brothers.

In Job 1-2, God allows Satan to carry out his evil against Job as a test of his faith. Satan believes that Job’s faith will falter in the face of suffering. God will prove otherwise, and teach something to Job and his friends in the process. What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

The prophet Isaiah teaches in many places that foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon are his agents for judging and punishing Israel. While this judgment and punishment reflect God’s righteousness, the behavior of Assyria and Babylon is evil, for which they too will be judged and punished. (See, for example, Isaiah 10.)

The same goes for Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: Paul complains about his “thorn in the flesh,” which is both a “messenger of Satan sent to torment” Paul, and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) by God to keep Paul humble.

In each of these cases (and many more throughout the Bible), God has no compunction about using evil to accomplish good—even though God doesn’t cause evil.

Besides, we haven’t even dealt with the other part of my clergy colleague’s statement: “because God is in control.” Does he really believe that God is, in any meaningful sense, in control? If so, then how is it “just not true” that suffering isn’t God’s will?

Again, how would my clergy colleague—indeed, the many pastors and bloggers who tell us to avoid saying “everything happens for a reason”—answer the question I pose above: “Could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the collapse of the 35W bridge—or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it?”

So long as he would answer “yes” (which is the clear orthodox Christian, not to mention biblical, answer), then he has contradicted himself.

In the new book from the Gospel Coalition, The New City Catechism, which updates classic Protestant catechisms for our modern era, Question 2 asks, “What is God?” The answer:

God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.

Nothing happens except through him and by his will. Granted, in the Methodist circles in which I run, I can anticipate the objection: “But the Gospel Coalition is Reformed! Of course they believe that!”

To which I would say, “Yes, but we Wesleyan-Arminians believe it, too! Or at least we’re supposed to!”

Only recently have some of my Methodist colleagues boarded a lifeboat called “Process Theology,” or its friendlier “evangelical” form, “Open Theism,” to escape the orthodox conviction that nothing happens except through God and by God’s will.

Open theism, whose most popular contemporary proponent is Greg Boyd, says that God is time-bound rather than timeless. God’s time-boundedness (from an open-theist perspective) is usually construed as a “decision” on God’s part: God doesn’t want to “determine” the future by knowing it[*]; therefore he limits himself to being a participant in history alongside us creatures.

Therefore, God doesn’t know the future.

(By the way, if memory serves, the current version of the United Methodist Disciple I Bible study advocates for open theism in one of its weekly video lectures. 🙄)

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!”

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?

I ask because no one would think up “open theism” without an eye toward theodicy: how can I reconcile God’s goodness with the fact that there’s unjust suffering in the world? Greg Boyd, for one, is always talking about theodicy. If this theological system can’t do the one thing it was created to do—given how badly it already fails on biblical grounds—why bother with it?

(Theologian Andrew Wilson has an excellent post on the subject of open theism here.)

That’s enough for now. In Part 2, I’ll look at a controversial blog post from 2007, written by John Piper, whose church was located near the bridge, and a critical response from Greg Boyd.

* Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not conceding for a moment that God’s foreknowledge of an event determines that event. The content of God’s foreknowledge is based in part on what human beings freely do (with the understanding that human freedom is badly compromised by sin). I like the way William Lane Craig puts it: Future events are logically, though not temporally, prior to God’s knowledge of them.

Sermon 05-21-17: “Craving the Pure Milk of God’s Word”

June 20, 2017

In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…” We Christians are often distracted by things in our lives that don’t last. Yet Peter is calling us to build our lives on a foundation that which lasts for eternity: the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s Word. How do we do this? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:3

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks & Recreation, which features a character named Ron Swanson. In one episode, Ron gets taken to court. A couple of his friends who are called to testify on his behalf lie under oath—in order to protect their friend. Ron says, “Tom and April were excellent witnesses in my defense. Unfortunately every single word out of their mouths was a lie. There is only one thing I hate more than lying—skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.


When did we all switch to skim milk? For my family, it was back in the early-’80s, when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember how, when I poured it over my Rice Krispies, it looked blue. Do you know what I’m talking about. I did not want to drink blue milk. Well, eventually I got used to it; and I bet many of you did, too. We got used to it because skim milk was supposed to be good for us.

Well, I read an article not long ago that said that we were sold a bill of goods. That long-term studies show that whole milk—milk that stays white when you pour it over cereal—might actually be better for you than skim milk, and help you lose weight more effectively than skim milk. For one thing, the article said, it helps you feel full, so you eat less.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m not recommending that you make the switch without consulting with your doctor, but that was just the excuse that I needed. So I switched back to whole milk. And I’m much happier. And my cat, too. He’s always at my feet at the breakfast table when I eat cereal. Because he loves whole milk and expects me to put the bowl on the floor when I finish up.

So, accept no substitutes: I don’t want water that’s lying about being milk; I won’t settle for watered-down milk; I want milk. Pure whole milk.

And in today’s scripture, Peter makes a similar point: Accept no substitutes, he says. “Long for,” or crave, “pure spiritual milk.” Don’t settle for anything less than that. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 05-14-17: “The Christian and Final Judgment”

June 8, 2017

I suspect many Christians are confused about Final Judgment: They think that they won’t have to face it because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. But the Bible is clear: when Christ returns at the end of the age, we will all be resurrected and face judgment. How does this doctrine square with our belief that we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? How will our judgment be different from non-believers? This sermon answers these questions.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:17-19

Sometimes I think that the world of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—exists to judge us. Seriously. We compare ourselves to our friends and, worse, our “frenemies,” and we feel judged by them. Someone has a wedding anniversary, and they post this mushy, gushy statement about how wonderful their wife or husband is, and we feel judged: “What am I doing wrong in my marriage?” Someone posts some amazing accomplishment of one of their kids, and we think: “I have obviously failed as a parent, because my kids can’t do that!” Someone posts vacation pictures from some exotic paradise, and we think, “Where did they get the money to go there? What am I doing wrong?”

We don’t like being judged… I don’t like being judged. Every once in a while, my wife, Lisa, will say to me—perfectly innocently—“Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad are dropping by in a little while,” and I’ll be like, “What? Why didn’t you warn me? I’ve got to cut the grass! Clean up the yard! Blow off the walkway!” Why? Because I don’t want to be judged—especially by my father-in-law! Because if the yard is unkempt, that’s a direct reflection on me!

We don’t like being judged. We’re afraid of being judged—at least by other human beings. But here’s my question: Are we more afraid of being judged by people than we are by God? Why aren’t we more afraid of being judged by God? Read the rest of this entry »

Imputation is a beautiful doctrine

May 25, 2017

Speaking of John Piper, years ago he got into a public feud with N.T. Wright (both sides were polite and respectful) over the doctrine of imputation. Wright, as he often does, said, in so many words, “Yes, but…” He didn’t disagree that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, only that the means by which the Reformers (and their ancient predecessors) arrived at this formulation was incorrect. Wright’s takeaway, as I recall from his book-length response to Piper, was that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to us believers.

I don’t remember his argument. And nothing I say here detracts from my love and affection for Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God almost single-handedly (through the Holy Spirit, of course) returned me to the evangelical fold after many years wandering in the mainline Protestant wilderness. But Wright wrote as if imputation was some kind of alien concept foisted onto the Bible by the Reformers.

In the seven or eight years since I read Wright’s book Justification, I am even more Reformed in my thinking, and more evangelical. Therefore I’m much more sympathetic with the classic Reformation emphasis on imputation—I certainly hope it’s true!

Therefore, I was delighted to read in (United Methodist) theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, that double-imputation (our sins to Christ on the cross and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith) represents the consensual teaching of the Church from the beginning. Allow me quote from his book at length. (I’m leaving out most of his citations of ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era sources. There are many.) I hope it’s helpful to my readers.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve.

The language of imputation has entered conspicuously into justification teaching as seen in Paul’s crucial phrase “faith is credited [logizetai] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our debts are charged to Christ’s account. Christ’s obedience is offered for our deficient account. “Faith may be said to be imputed to us for righteousness as it is the sole condition of our acceptance” (Wesley, NUNT at Rom. 4:9…)

The imputation metaphors are found throughout classic Christian teaching: Adam’s sin has been reckoned to flow into the history of all humanity, so Adam’s debt is “charged to our account.” Oppositely, our sin has been reckoned to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for sin, becoming a curse for us. Our own sins are mercifully not being counted against those who trust Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:19), which is reckoned to the believer.

Justification teaching employs a twofold reverse in the bookkeeping metaphor. It indicates both the discharging (nonimputation) from sin and the crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. Debt is discharged; substitutionary payment is credited. The Epistle to Diognetus called this “the sweet exchange.”

Sin is not charged against the believing sinner, for “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s righteousness is accredited to the believing sinner, who is “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9, italics added…).

The believer is treated as actually righteous in relation to God. This is why my ethical deeds are not the basis for gaining standing in God’s presence. Only in the cross of the Lord of glory is that possible, where sin is forgiven without offending God’s own righteousness.

But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial. The cross is an event in history, a sacrificial offering substituting Christ’s goodness for our sin. The burden of our sin is transferred directly from our shoulders to Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross there occurred a salvation event which constituted “a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim” (Leo I, Sermon 68.3).[†]

My favorite part is in that last paragraph: “But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial.” Amen! When too many contemporary preachers and teachers dismiss substitutionary atonement (as my clergy acquaintance did in our conversation last week), they are impugning God’s holiness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners comes at an infinitely high cost!

† Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 594-5.

Why this Methodist preacher loves John Piper

May 24, 2017

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, I talked about Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 40:6, 8, which compares the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon with the kind of “exile” that Christians experience in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Why, I wondered aloud, do we set our hearts on things that are passing away instead of the “living and abiding word of God”?

As an illustration, I quoted a famous sermon that John Piper delivered to college students at a Passion Conference in 2000. He was describing a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks earlier, he said, these two women died. They were on a bus on a steep mountain road. The bus’s brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Piper said:

I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.

No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Nearly every time I hear Piper speak, I’m reminded why he’s among his generation’s most gifted preachers. My 17-year-old daughter, who also heard this, was blown away.

I think I know why Piper is one of the best—and if you disagree that he’s one of the best, watch the video and judge for yourself!

But I think I know why—or one important reason. It’s because he preaches as if Christianity were really true—all of it.

Or is that saying too little of Piper’s gifts? After all, shouldn’t all of us preachers preach as if Christianity were really true?

You’d think so, yet so few of us do. I haven’t always, myself.

A couple of years ago, in one of the Paul Zahl’s wonderful podcasts, the theologically conservative Zahl, a retired Episcopal theologian and minister (don’t call him a “priest,” please; he’s Protestant!), was complaining about an Episcopal worship service he had recently attended. Zahl says:

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience—or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

Where’s the “like” button? Where’s the heart sign to click on? I love this so much!

Of course, Zahl is talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but he could be talking about any number of other Christian doctrines, which, if they are true, cannot leave us unaffected—to say the least. Piper is effective as a preacher in part because he lets himself be affected. How could he not?

He doesn’t preach using humorous anecdotes; he doesn’t tell jokes. He preaches as if his message is too urgent for that. Yet his sermons are never dry or cerebral; they strike the right balance between head and heart—which is to say, they lead with his heart.

I hope I’ve learned from him, or am learning, how to “lead with my heart.”

John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

March 28, 2017

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it. Read the rest of this entry »

Two ways we can be assured of salvation

March 10, 2017

On this blog I have wrestled, alongside some of you, with the following question: “If I have truly been justified by God, is it possible for me to lose this gift, such that unless I repent and seek God’s forgiveness and grace—literally become re-justified—I will go to hell?” Wesleyan Christians believe the answer is “yes.” We believe backsliding (for that is what we call it when it happens) is a real and present danger, even though we also preach assurance: for those who are (presently) justified, they can know they’re justified through the witness of the Holy Spirit within them. (See Romans 8:12-17 for one classic proof-text.)

Indeed, in a post a couple of months ago on infant baptism, I said that only a belief in the reality of backsliding can sustain the sacramental view of baptism that many Protestants, including Methodists, hold.

As I’ve said before, the issue of backsliding is purely a secondary doctrine: Whether we lose our justification through persistent, unrepentant sinfulness, or persistent, unrepentant sinfulness proves that we never had it to begin with, the result is the same. Consequently, all of us—believers in backsliding or in eternal security—need to seek assurance.

For this reason, I fully endorse this video from John Piper. Reflecting on the Romans 8 passage, he offers two reasons for assurance: hatred of our sin and childlike dependence on our heavenly Father. (This clip also demonstrates in small measure why Piper is among his generation’s most gifted preachers! What a show-off! 😉 )

When the apostle Paul steps on my toes

February 9, 2017

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. At last night’s study, we looked at Galatians 1:6-9.

Paul’s main concern here is that false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, which Paul established on his first missionary journey, and were distorting the gospel he preached to them. These teachers, often called “Judaizers,” insisted that the Galatian Christians, many of whom were Gentiles, needed to observe Jewish ceremonial law in order to be fully Christian.

Keep in mind: the Judaizers’ error was subtle. As one Reformation-era theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, put it, they could affirm everything in the Apostles’ Creed. “What they denied,” however, “was that everything related to salvation was given by Christ alone.”

As you can see in Paul’s response, this seemingly small error was spiritually deadly.

In his Galatians for You commentary, Tim Keller asks us to consider ways in which contemporary Christians and churches make the same mistake. As I told the class, I see in my own preaching a tendency toward this error when I emphasize the necessity of “surrendering” our lives to Christ. While I like the language of surrender, the problem, as Keller describes it, is that we can overemphasize our human action at the expense of God’s grace.

Surrendering to Christ, in other words, can become more about us than Jesus ChristIt can become a measure of the strength and purity of our faith, or the thoroughness of our repentance. We can turn “faith” itself into a kind of meritorious work that we must perform for God before he saves us the “rest of the way.”

In which case, what we do is very small, but it’s hardly nothing. And contrary to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9, our efforts would be something about which we could boast.

No. Paul would remind us that saving faith and repentance are not something that we muster on our own, apart from the prevenient grace of God. The biblical kind of surrender that we need to make to God is one that says, “I give up! I am helpless. I can do nothing to earn this gift of salvation. If I’m going to be saved, it’s going to be through Christ’s merit alone. Enable me depend on him completely for my salvation.”

Are you already a Christian? That means that you’re “in the process” of being saved—i.e., you’re being sanctified. God is enabling you to become more Christlike. Paul’s warning still applies: Sanctification is not self-improvement. It is God alone who sanctifies. Surrendering in this case would mean, just as before, trusting in Christ completely to do this good work within us.

But do we have to do anything? Well, yes—if you insist on looking at it from the human side of the equation. But, but, but… I can hardly say that without the legalist within puffing his chest out—or, depending on the day of the week, hanging his head in shame. 

I’ll leave it to John Piper to say the rest. This comes from his post, “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?”:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level… 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…