Posts Tagged ‘John Piper’

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…

Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 1: “The chief end of man”

November 8, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smWhile I was in Chicago last month at the inaugural Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, I browsed a vendor’s table set up by Seedbed, the publishing arm of Asbury Seminary, Methodism’s premier orthodox, evangelical seminary. An attractive series of paperbacks caught my eye: “The John Wesley Collection.” They include essential writings of John Wesley, alongside Wesley’s revisions of other writings that he believed would edify fellow Methodists.

One of these books, which I purchased, was Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, literally a revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648. As far as I knew from my unorthodox, un-evangelical mainline Protestant seminary education, the Westminster Catechism wasn’t for us Wesleyan Arminians; it was for the Reformed—Presbyterians and the like.

I never knew, prior to purchasing this book, that Wesley had any use for it.

In fact, after revising or omitting articles dealing with the “decrees of God,” sanctification, and the Calvinist understanding of predestination, Wesley recommended its use for Methodist catechumens. (Please note: in spite of his revisions, he left the vast majority of its articles unchanged.)

The book contains not only the catechism with Wesley’s revisions and scripture proof-texts, but also James A. Macdonald’s century-old commentary on it. Without this commentary, of course, the revision would hardly be book-length!

All that to say, starting today, I’m going to begin a new series of blog posts on this book. So let me begin at the beginning:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Wesley’s proof-texts in the margin are 1 Corinthians 10:31, Romans 11:36, and Psalm 73:25-28.

Out of the gate, these words challenge and convict me. Not only are we to glorify God, this is the main thing that we human beings are supposed to do. God has created us to give him glory.

We can glorify God whether we think about doing so or not, which is good because—in my experience as a Methodist—most of us spend little time thinking about it. Why?

I wonder if it’s not because of a “stumbling block” to the doctrine that C.S. Lewis discusses in his book Reflections on the Psalms:

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way—”Praise the Lord,” “O praise the Lord with me,” “Praise Him.” (And why, incidentally, did praising God so often consist in telling other people to praise Him?…)[1]

You get the idea: If God were as “virtuous” as we are, he wouldn’t need us to glorify him. And thus—as we too often do with doctrines related to God’s wrath, blood atonement, and hell—we allow ourselves to feel, however faintly, morally superior to the biblical authors.

Of course, unlike any tin-pot dictator, God is the one object that perfectly deserves all of our praise all the time. He doesn’t need it, but we need to do it—for the same reason, Lewis says, that we need to praise a great work of art, only infinitely more so:

The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is rather like this; that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it, that if paid, admiration will not be “thrown away,” and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something… He is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all…

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.[2]

Nothing brings us greater delight than to praise what we enjoy. To praise is to “complete” the enjoyment; it is, Lewis writes, “its appointed consummation.”

If this is true of everything that is less than God, how much more true is it of God? Lewis even refers to the catechism:

The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.[3]

Not being an expert on or “fanboy” of John Piper (although I admire him, Calvinist or not, as one of his generation’s most gifted preachers), I suspect this idea is at the heart of his famous maxim, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

If the first article of the Shorter Catechism is true, so is Piper’s maxim. Here’s one Methodist pastor who isn’t ashamed to say so.

James Macdonald’s commentary also relates our Wesleyan understanding of sanctification and perfection to this article. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

In the meantime, ask yourself these questions: “Do I enjoy God? If so, when? Is the enjoyment of God a priority in my life? Why or why not?”

1. C.S. Lewis, “Reflections on the Psalms” in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1986), 177.

2. Ibid., 178-9.

3. Ibid., 180.

Piper: Ultimately, scripture is the “God-ordained means of creating saving faith”

October 26, 2016

In the sermon I posted yesterday about witnessing, I argue that the proclamation of the gospel possesses its own power—through the Holy Spirit—to change lives. Therefore, if our efforts to witness never include a deliberate proclamation of the gospel, we are robbing our witness of power, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to make converts.

As I’ve said before on this blog, the vast majority of church growth—especially once you subtract confirmations or baptisms of children who already go to church—is “sheep-stealing”: already-Christian people leave one church to join another.

Surely, our Lord wants us to do better. As I said in my sermon,

The gospel, Paul writes in Romans 1, is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” As I said earlier, citing 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but Paul continues: “to those whom God has called,” the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Do you see the point: The gospel itself has power. God has made it to be that way. God calls people through our gospel proclamation. If we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not making disciples! [pick up smartphone] If we as a church aren’t sharing the gospel as our number one priority, it’s like we’ve spent money and resources to build this amazing device but we’ve removed the battery… or we’ve disconnected the power supply… This may be the greatest thing people would ever experience, but they’ll never know because all they have is this blank screen! It’s not working! There’s no power! They need power. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power they need!

I was heartened to read that John Piper, in his irenic yet critical assessment of Andy Stanley’s recent sermon “The Bible Told Me So,” makes a similar point. As important as it is to clear away intellectual hurdles that prevent people from believing in Christ, mere intellectual assent can’t bring someone to saving faith.

Saving faith is not the persuasion that the resurrection of Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That persuasion is essential to saving faith, but not the essence of it. The devil knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and he is not saved (see also Luke 16:31). The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the meaning of the event, and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest Treasure in the universe. Satan does not see the crucified and risen Christ as supremely beautiful, and he does not treasure him. But believers do. That is the essence of saving faith…

The gospel is more than the events of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a God-given narrative of what the events meant (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “for our sins”). It is not merely the assembly of events and evidences. It is a divine interpretation of their meaning…

What young preachers need to be clear about in deciding how they will preach is how God planned for the glory of Christ to be revealed to more and more people as the centuries pass. When Stanley says, “For the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book,” that’s not quite right. The debate centered very largely on which written witnesses provided a trustworthy interpretation of the event. The church realized immediately that everything hung not just on whether the event happened, but on what it meant: What were its roots, and accomplishments, and implications for life and eternity? Who was this man, Jesus? Whom can we trust to tell us? How then shall we live? Who can tell us this with authority? That was the issue, not just the event.

God was kind enough to bring those authentic, long-trusted Gospels and Epistles together in the New Testament in due time. But their trustworthiness and authority were functioning from the middle of the first century onward. And the most significant reason God provided these Gospels and Epistles from the beginning was so that the compelling beauty and worth of Christ would shine through these God-given writings. That is how people came to faith. They saw the glory of Christ shining through the writings God had given — or the oral heralding or reading of them.

Therefore, what I am suggesting is that in our present New Testament we have the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life.

Piper says that this truth has several implications. Chief among them is that the

testimony of God in Scripture to the truth and beauty and worth of Christ is self-authenticating. That is, the decisive cause of saving faith is not human argument (as crucial as that is). The decisive cause is described in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God creates a real illumination of our hearts by lifting the veil so that we can see the glory of what is really there in Scripture.”

Another implication is that “God’s portrait of Christ, as he is presented in the inspired Book, is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith.”

Finally, lest you doubt that Piper is one of his generation’s most gifted preachers, he concludes his essay with this:

So my concluding suggestion is this: join Andy Stanley in caring deeply about winning “post-Christians”; join him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. And then spend eight years blowing your people’s post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains.

When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching.

Do you believe this? I do—although I confess I haven’t always acted like I do.

But that changes now: My invitation at the end of the sermon I quoted earlier was to invite members of our church to join me in creating a “witness team.” In fact, we’re having our first meeting tonight. I don’t know who or how many will show up. But we’re going to discuss ways in which our church can share the gospel in a more deliberate way with people outside of our church—starting this weekend, when literally hundreds of people from our community will be on our church property for our annual “Trunk or Treat” festival.

For starters, I’ve ordered a couple hundred tracts from Crossway. I’ve also ordered some pocket-sized New Testaments to give away to visitors.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights.

John Piper: What are the commands of Jesus?

October 15, 2016

johnpiperIn his sermon “This Man Went Down to His House Justified,” from August 6, 2006, John Piper spurns the emphasis that secular people often place on Jesus as a great moral teacher. Not because he isn’t that; rather, it’s because apart from the salvation that Christ came into the world to offer us, his moral genius is beside the point. The moral commands of Jesus, Piper implies, are not useful guidelines for people in general; they are instead

descriptions of the way new human beings behave who have been born again; who have therefore been enabled supernaturally to see the glory of Jesus; who have recognized the incredible outrage of their sin; who have ceased to trust in anything about themselves; and who have cast themselves entirely on Jesus for mercy, for righteousness, and for forgiveness.

I like that! While Piper doesn’t let us disciples off the hook for living up to Jesus’ many commands, he rightly recognizes that apart from God’s saving grace, made possible by Christ’s atoning death, we are helpless to carry them out. God must first perform a supernatural action, which he does through justification and new birth.

Moreover, he emphasizes that our obedience isn’t something we perform in order to be saved; rather, we obey in response to the salvation that he has already given us.

I would only add one thing: even after we have been born again, we will still fail (unless or until we are perfected in love, this Methodist pastor hastens to add) to cast ourselves “entirely” (superlatives make me nervous) on Jesus for mercy, righteousness, and forgiveness. As Paul writes in Romans 7, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”

But Piper’s right: Inasmuch as we do cast ourselves on Jesus, our obedience, along with many good works, will result.

How John Piper cures insomnia

August 10, 2016

No, it’s not what you think!

I’m generally a good sleeper except on Saturday nights, when I often feel restless thinking about my sermon the next day.

As has been my custom for twelve years, I wake up at 4:00 on Sunday mornings. After stopping to pick up doughnuts (for the congregation), I arrive at the church around 5:30. I rehearse and revise my sermon manuscript and do whatever else needs to be done to get ready for worship.

The trouble is, unless I’m in bed early on Saturday nights—which rarely happens any night of the week—I’m often struck with that sinking feeling: “Now you’ve only got four hours of sleep available… Now you’ve only got three-and-a-half,” etc. You probably know that feeling.

It happened again last Saturday night. I was on the verge of panic.

But then I told myself—in all seriousness—”Brent, if the Lord wants you to sleep these next few hours, you’ll sleep. If not, you’ll just lie here and rest. Maybe he has something to tell you while you lie here. But either way, he’ll make sure you’ll have what you need to preach his Word tomorrow.” And then I prayed words to that effect and felt relieved. Almost immediately I drifted off.

My point is not to prescribe a new “faith-based” treatment for insomnia; it’s to say that this was an all-too-rare moment of practicing what I preach. I believe in God’s sovereignty and providential care—even over little things, like sleep. God is in control. God is looking out for me. The weight of the world is not on my shoulders.

C.S. Lewis, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me see the light about this doctrine. But I thought of John Piper because, you know, he’s famous for preaching that message.

(By the way, my fellow Methodists, you don’t have to be among the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” to appreciate that Piper is an excellent preacher.)

What is going on with Jesus’ grave-clothes in John 20?

March 30, 2016
Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, John 20:1-18 sounds like authentic eyewitness testimony. (Keep in mind: critical scholars often speak as if the author of the Fourth Gospel, who isn’t John, they insist, has little interest in historical truth.) This scripture includes oddly specific details, like the footrace between John, the “beloved disciple,” and Peter, for instance, which serve no purpose other than to describe what happened as accurately as possible.

The details about the order in which the two disciples enter the tomb and see the grave-clothes strike me this way, too.

In fact, I read something last week about these grave-clothes that I had never considered before. Don Carson puts it like this in his commentary:

The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Clearly, John perceives these details to be important, but their exact meaning is disputed. Some have thought that the burial cloth still retained the shape of Jesus’ head, and was separated from the strips of linen by a distance equivalent to the length of Jesus’ neck. Others have suggested that owing to the mix of spices separating the layers, even the strips of linen retained the shape they had when Jesus’ body filled them out. Both of these suggestions say more than the text requires. What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26).[1]

Jesus passed through the grave-clothes! That makes perfect sense! John would have remembered Lazarus staggering out of the tomb, struggling to remove his linen cloths—and only able to with help. Jesus, by contrast, who has conquered death in a way that Lazarus didn’t (he lived only to die again some day), can miraculously leave them behind.

At least a few scholars I read last week, along with preacher John Piper, all endorse this idea.

As excited as I was to consider this, the study notes in the ESV Study Bible shot it down:

Though it is sometimes suggested otherwise, nothing in the text indicates that Jesus’ body passed through the cloths or that the cloths were lying in the shape of Jesus’ body. The NT elsewhere affirms the real physical materiality of Jesus’ resurrection body (see Matt. 28:9Luke 24:30, 39, 42John 20:17, 20, 27Acts 10:41). Most likely Jesus unwrapped these cloths from his body when he awakened from death and left them behind.

I disagree: First, Jesus’ “real physical materiality” isn’t in question here. Jesus is physical, but he’s more than physical as we understand it. That’s why, as Carson says, Jesus can seemingly walk through locked doors in John 20 and—I would add—vanish from sight, as in the Emmaus story in Luke 24.

Also, the idea that Jesus would miraculously pass through the cloths makes better sense of the fact that John comes to faith, not after seeing that the tomb was empty, but after seeing the grave-clothes inside the empty tomb. Something about what he saw inside was remarkable. If John had merely seen that Jesus had unwrapped the cloths, would it have had the same effect?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MD: Eerdmans, 1991), 637.

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

March 16, 2016

piper

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

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

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

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

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

As I said on Sunday,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do Christians live with guilt?

January 29, 2016

Iron_eagleI shared this homily at last night’s church council meeting—on January 28, 2016.

Homily Text: Psalm 103:12

For my generation, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger thirty years ago today was one of those “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” kind of moments. Those of you who, like me, were in the metro Atlanta area may remember that it was a snow day—not because it actually snowed, but because it was unusually cold. The buses wouldn’t start or something. So they closed school.

So we teenagers needed something to do. And I remember what I was doing: my friend Brian and I went to see a movie at a place next to Northlake Mall, where the WSB tower is. And the movie we saw was called Iron Eagle, starring Lou Gossett Jr. This was not the greatest movie ever made, and there’s no good reason that I should remember that on this date thirty years ago I saw this otherwise forgettable movie. But it’s forever etched into my brain because I saw it the same day that the Challenger exploded.

You don’t forget stuff like that. In fact, we have a problem with remembering events that we’d just as soon forget!

I’m thinking of a radio interview I heard today with a retired engineer with Morton-Thiokol, the company that manufactured the solid rocket booster’s O-ring seals for the space shuttles. This engineer, Bob Ebeling, wrote a famous memo, months before the Challenger disaster, warning NASA that they shouldn’t launch the shuttle below freezing—that these O-rings seals would fail. And on that morning 30 years ago, the temperature was 18 degrees at Cape Canaveral. His warning, along with a briefing he gave to NASA officials on the morning of the launch, proved prescient.

In this interview today, Ebeling blames himself. He said he should have done more to warn NASA. Ebeling, whom the interviewer described as a deeply religious man, said: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job.” He said he’s going to tell God, “You picked a loser.”

You picked a loser… Isn’t that heartbreaking? Especially considering that Ebeling was one of the good guys! He tried to do the right thing! Could he have done more? I’m sure he could… but hindsight is 20/20.

But I want to say a few things about this: First of all, in a way, Ebeling is right: God did pick a loser when he picked him for the job! In fact, God always picks losers when he chooses to work with us human beings. God even picked a loser when he picked a man named Saul of Tarsus to be the apostle to the Gentiles. As Paul himself said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”[1] This same man said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”[2]

What a loser Paul was!

God always picks losers. Because he picks people like you and me!

I would also say that Ebeling is right when he says that God picked him to do this work. God chose him. Absolutely he did! Paul says in Colossians 3:24 that the work we do—and he’s speaking in this instance to people who are literally slaves, the most humble kinds of servants—Paul says that even they are doing this humble work for the Lord. So if Paul is right that Jesus is our boss, then that means he’s in charge. We can do our work and leave the results up to him. As pastor John Piper said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”

So Ebeling can’t begin to comprehend how God was using him and the work that he did! But that’s up to God, not him.

Finally, and most importantly, I would say this: For thirty years Ebeling has been haunted by memories… He remembers mistakes he made.

And don’t we all! Don’t we all remember mistakes? Don’t we all remember sins? Don’t we all have a hard time letting go of the past? And don’t we, like Ebeling, feel guilty?

And so here is the most important thing I would tell Bob Ebeling if I had a chance to counsel him. God doesn’t remember his mistakes… his sins.

In fact, I would tell him that God gives us the most amazing promise in his Word: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”[3] Or as Isaiah tells God: “you have cast all my sins behind your back.” And he has God tell us, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”[4] Or as the prophet Micah says, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”[5]

It’s as if God forgets. Once we confess our sins, we should let go and move on. Why? Because God has let go! One theologian rightly refers to this as divine amnesia. No, this doesn’t necessarily, or even usually, mean that God shields us from all the consequences of our sin—this can be a form of necessary discipline for us—but it does mean there’s no longer any guilt.

Why?

Because in God’s eyes we are perfect. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, an exchange has taken place once and for all. On the cross, it’s as if we have given Christ our unrighteousness and he has clothed us in his righteousness.

Maybe it’s too easy to simply say, “Once you confess your sins, you should forget it, let go of it, and move on” confident that Christ nailed these and all your other sins to the cross. That sounds good, but it’s hard to forget!

So instead of forgetting, I’m going to urge you to remember something… Something which is said very well in the recent book Law and Gospel:

The Gospel announces that we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. Our guilt has been atoned for, the Law fulfilled. In Christ, the ultimate demand has been met, and the deepest judgment satisfied. In his death and resurrection, our sin was imputed to him, his righteousness to us. Note the past tense: This not up for grabs. Something has been accomplished, and that something is real. Remember, Christ’s dying words from the cross are “It is finished.” Which means that as far as God is concerned, the performance is at an end—gold stars all around. This leads to reconciliation with God, and even eternal life. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will be saved by his life” (Rm 5:10).[6]

Amen.

By the way, although I didn’t say this in my homily, this Romans 5 verse is an amazing statement about something that we Methodists don’t often emphasize: the perseverance of the saints—what is popularly referred to in evangelical circles as “once saved, always saved.” To be fair, Wesleyan theology might say, “once saved, nearly always saved,” but I struggle to accept this Wesleyan doctrine of backsliding.

Regardless, in the context of his argument in Romans, Paul is saying that God accomplished the “hard part” by dying for us through his Son Jesus “while we were enemies.” Having now been reconciled to God through faith—having been transformed from “enemies” to “friends,” indeed, children—the “easy part”—by which he means enduring until the end, arriving safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of death and resurrection—will surely happen!

If you’re someone who is prone to worry about your salvation, who feels guilty over the persistence of sin in your life, I invite you to spend a few moments reflecting on this verse.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15 NIV

[2] Romans 7:19

[3] Psalm 103:12

[4] Isaiah 43:25

[5] Micah 7:19

[6] William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 61-2.

Sermon 12-24-15: “Peace among Those with Whom He Is Pleased”

December 25, 2015

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According to the angels in Luke 2, the gospel of Jesus Christ promises peace to those who receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ. This Christmas Eve sermon explores reasons why we often fail to experience more of this peace right now.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Talk about having a bad day at work, did you hear about Steve Harvey’s “bad day at work” last Saturday night hosting the Miss Universe pageant? Let me preface this by saying that as someone who makes a living, in part, by standing in front of people talking, I am nothing but sympathetic with Harvey, who is otherwise a very gifted speaker and entertainer. Mistakes happen. But oh my goodness…

In case you didn’t hear, after Harvey announced the second runner-up, Miss USA, it came down to the final two contestants—Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines. And the winner, he said, was Miss Colombia. So the music started playing, the crown was placed on her head, she walked around the stage, waving at the cheering crowd. Then, suddenly, after what seemed like at least two or three minutes, Harvey comes back out, and says he messed up. He read the wrong name… It turns out Miss Colombia was the first runner-up. The true winner, the true Miss Universe, was Miss Philippines. Read the rest of this entry »

Can we trust that God knows what he’s doing?

December 15, 2015

I was reading a Christian blog recently—whose theological orientation is evangelical and left-of-center. I don’t remember the details of this particular post, but the subject of gratitude for answered prayer came up. A skeptic in the comments section complained that we Christians are illogical when it comes to thanking God for answered prayer. “After all,” he said, “do you blame God when something doesn’t go your way? You can’t have it both ways: If God gets the credit when he causes things to go your way, then God must get the blame when things don’t go your way.”

I wouldn’t quite put it that way. Talk of “blame” is inappropriate because God knows best, and what God allows or causes is for the best, whether we see it that way or not.

Still, I agree with his logic. If anything happens in the universe, it happens according to God’s will. As I’ve shown many times on this blog, this is a logical consequence of our belief, first, in the authority of scripture, which strongly affirms God’s sovereignty over the world, but also in power of prayer: God allows our prayers, in part, to shape the world.

I used to resist this logic, throw up my hands, and say, along with many clergy colleagues, “It’s all a mystery!” until I read C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles—specifically, the appendix of his book.

In it, he argues that in order for God to answer our prayers, God will often already have had to set in motion the series of events that leads to our petitions being granted—before we even ask. (Unless, as an alternative, you believe that God must literally work a miracle—by suspending the laws of physics or overriding free will—every time God answers our prayers.)

Since God foreknows what we will pray for not only before we pray but also “before all worlds,” he has already factored our prayers in, along with human free will, before he creates the world and as he governs it. Lewis’s point is that we’re often praying for things that have, in one sense, already happened (because, even if the event hasn’t yet come to pass, the necessary sequence of events leading up to it is already set in motion).

With this in mind, you can see why this paragraph, especially the last sentence, changed my life:

The following question may be asked: If we can reasonably pray for an event which must in fact have happened or failed to happen several hours ago, why can we not pray for an event which we know not to have happened? e.g. pray for the safety of someone who, as we know, was killed yesterday. What makes the difference is precisely our knowledge. The known event states God’s will. It is psychologically impossible to pray for what we know to be unobtainable; and if it were possible the prayer would sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.

Sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.

Is C.S. Lewis, surely one of the greatest Christian minds of the twentieth or any other century, really saying that if something happens at all, it happens according to God’s will?

Yes, he is. And that last sentence alone caused me to rethink my understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence. Maybe I should have re-thought it before then (this was only four years ago), but there you are.

One objection, which some of my readers have already formulated, is the necessary relationship this implies between God’s will and evil. God is good. God doesn’t cause evil. God hates evil. In the cross of his Son, God has defeated evil, and on the other side of the Second Coming, he will destroy it entirely. Yet, if Lewis is right, then God wills even evil to happen. Surely that’s not right, is it?

No, it is right! God isn’t causing evil, but he is allowing it. And if he’s allowing it, he’s allowing it for a good reason.

To understand why, we have to understand the difference between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. God’s antecedent will is what God wants in a world without sin and evil—before the Fall. God’s consequent will is what God wants in the world in which we live—in a fallen world.

For someone who objects to the idea that God wills evil events, I must ask: What choice does God have? Do we or don’t we like our creaturely freedom? If we think creaturely freedom is a good thing (and I certainly do) then we have to accept its consequences: freedom for us means the freedom to sin—the freedom to choose evil. God didn’t force humanity to rebel against him. Given that we have, however, what would you have God do?

I would have God work within this new context to bring good out of evil events in order to accomplish his purposes.

By all means, God wanted humanity not to sin, but not at any expense: not at the expense of freedom. He wanted humanity not to sin, but he wanted us to be free to choose sin more than he wanted to create a world in which that choice was impossible.

All that to say, I loudly affirm this recent blog post from the Desiring God website. The author writes that she thought for years that if she knew the reasons why she suffered, she would be satisfied. But she was wrong. What she needed instead was the assurance that God had a good reason, and that she should trust him.

She points out, rightly, that this is the main message of the Book of Job.

I liked this:

While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.

He has a reason for my pain. Many reasons. Even when I am at a complete loss to name even one. John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” We may see a few things God is doing, one or two ways he is redeeming our pain, but we will never see the full picture on earth. Often all we can see is our loss.

I’ve said this before: We are finite. God is infinite. Why should we always (or usually) expect to know the reasons that some bad thing is happening?

When I was a young child, I would often ask my mom why I couldn’t get what I wanted. In exasperation, she would often say, “Because I said so.” I tried my best not to play that particular hand when my own children were young. But I’m sympathetic with mom. What she was really saying was, “You’re too immature to understand the reason. Regardless, you should trust that I know what’s best for you.”

Why should God’s reasons not be like that? The only difference is that our heavenly Father, unlike a human parent, is all-knowing and perfectly loving, and the difference between what God knows and what we humans know is infinitely greater than the difference between human parents and children.

Again, the answer is to trust that God knows what he’s doing!