Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

Sermon 02-05-17: “Are We Committing Spiritual Murder?”

February 15, 2017

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Jesus’ uncompromising words against anger in today’s scripture puts us on the defensive: “Yes, in most cases, anger is sinful and unjustified, but not in my case!” We often feel perfectly justified in our anger. What if we’re wrong? What makes anger sinful? What do we need to overcome anger in our lives?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:21-26

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

Big game today. Passions are running high. Even churches are getting into the spirit. Some of you may have seen on “Fox 5” news report that the St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Carrollton posted the following message on their church sign: “Even Jesus rose up. Rise Up, Falcons.” I know the pastor there! Then, the church sign in front of First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs reads, “God has no favorites, but this sign guy does. Go Falcons!”

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

And I’m excited, too. In fact, this week I even let myself get into an online argument about the Super Bowl. It started innocently enough: A Facebook friend posted his prediction for a Falcons victory. He said he really thinks the Falcons are going to win. And I replied to his comment—voicing my agreement, and offering a few reasons why I thought it would happen. A lot of it has to do with our team’s offense. And then one of his friends—someone I don’t even know—replied to my comment: “It’s easy to have a great offense against teams that don’t have a defense.” Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Reformation Day! Luther on the “first duty” of the preacher

October 31, 2016

luther-nailed-it

The following is from Luther’s “Preface to the Book of Romans,” to which John Wesley was listening at a meeting on Aldersgate Street when he found his heart “strangely warmed.”

The first duty of the preacher of the gospel is, through his revealing of the law and of sin, to rebuke and to turn into sin everything in life that does not have the Spirit and faith in Christ as its base. Thereby, he will lead people to a recognition of their miserable condition, and thus they will become humble and yearn for help.[1]

1. Martin Luther, Preface to the Book of Romans (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2016), 18.

Happy Reformation Day! Luther on faith and works

October 31, 2016

luther-nailed-it

The following is from Luther’s “Preface to the Book of Romans,” to which John Wesley was listening at a meeting on Aldersgate Street when he found his heart “strangely warmed.”

Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire. Therefore, be on guard against your own false ideas and against the chatterers who think they are clever enough to make judgments about faith and good works but who are in reality the biggest fools. Ask God to work faith in you; otherwise you will remain eternally without faith, not matter what you try to do or fabricate.[1]

1. Martin Luther, Preface to the Book of Romans (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2016), 14-15.

Are Methodists Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, and what’s the difference?

June 1, 2016

I’ve read more than a few Methodists recently who have sought to distinguish what Methodists believe about the Bible from what Martin Luther and the other Reformers believed about the Bible. These Methodists say that we hold to the doctrine of Prima Scriptura (“scripture first”) rather than Sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”).

Is this true? And what is the difference?

First, let me apologize for not knowing these answers already. I went to Candler, after all. I’m always playing catchup.

I suspect that when a Methodist says that we are Prima Scriptura, what he means is that we also hold in high regard other authorities for guiding our Christian lives—for example, tradition, reason, and (ugh!) experience, even as these authorities mustn’t contradict what God’s Word plainly reveals. If a Methodist insists that he’s Prima Scriptura, then he is likely basing it on Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler’s misbegotten or badly misconstrued Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a formulation that he himself lived to regret.

But what Protestant doesn’t at least believe that tradition and reason aren’t important or necessary in guiding our theology and behavior?

O.K., I know there are a few, at least in theory. Congregations within the Church of Christ tradition, for example, refuse to use instruments in worship because the Bible, or at least the New Testament, makes no explicit reference to instruments in worship. The New Testament’s silence on the subject, instead of permitting us the opportunity to think it through, must mean prohibition. That represents an extreme edge of “scripture alone,” but only insofar as we disregard the Old Testament.

Another example: The Church of England had an ongoing debate with Puritan nonconformists over the issue of iconoclasm, which is why, even today, a typical Presbyterian church sanctuary is less ornate than most other churches. Puritans believed that the Bible’s silence on many traditional elements in Anglican (not to mention Roman Catholic) worship prohibited these elements. Again, while this Puritan view represents an extreme interpretation of Sola Scriptura, it’s a small minority opinion within Christendom, and it wouldn’t have been shared by most of the Reformers, all of whom (to my knowledge) affirmed Sola Scriptura.

I know for certain that Luther, who believed in Sola Scriptura, also accepted tradition and reason. So why do some Methodists insist that we are, contra the Reformers, Prima Scriptura?

I have my suspicions, but at least a part of me is sincerely curious: What’s the difference between Prima and Sola Scriptura?

As Christians, we struggle with sin. There is no “but”

February 17, 2016

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This little book has been a life-saver to me. Just what I needed at just the right time! Thank you, Jesus! I’m tempted to scan whole chapters and post them on my blog, but I’m sure the good people at Mockingbird Ministries would prefer for me to point you to the Amazon link and have you order it for yourself. (It’s only $10.50. Money well spent!)

Still, I would like to highlight a few ideas in the Appendix entitled, “Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel.” It begins with a Luther quote and some words about it:

“The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom.”
– Martin Luther

A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—”the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide.[1]

Here are a few points that speak to me:

  1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.
  2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.
  3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.[2]

I had to think about this for a moment. If we say we’re spiritually “A-okay,” then we’re lying or in denial. That makes sense. But what’s wrong with saying, “I’m struggling, but…”? The authors’ point is that there should be no “but”: We are struggling. We have problems. We are sinners. There’s no “but.”

The “but” comes from a desire to justify ourselves—to appeal to the Law to prove that we’re A-okay after all, or at least not as bad as we seem. As the authors say elsewhere in the book, “The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it.”[3]

big_but

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.[4]

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 85-6.

2. Ibid., 86

3. Ibid., 91.

4. Ibid., 86.

“The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it”

October 23, 2015

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The villain of the parable, of course, is the Pharisee, who turns up his nose at the pitiable tax collector, saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like him,” among other sinners. And we want to throw stones at the Pharisee. How can he be so self-righteous?

Oh, please! I’m just like the Pharisee, with one small exception: As a good Protestant, I believe that everyone, Pharisee and tax collector alike, must be saved by grace alone through faith alone. Once this happens, however—once we are justified and experience new birth through the Spirit—it’s back on the clock for you and me. It’s back to trying harder, to working harder, to proving ourselves to God all over again.

By all means, the balance sheet was zeroed out when we got saved, but every new sin puts us back in the red, and God’s patience is wearing thin. The “clean slate” that we received when we first placed our faith in Jesus is getting filthier by the minute!

We were like this tax collector at one time… But now that we know better, we are without excuse! So thank God we’re not like him anymore!

Am I exaggerating? Barely!

I think all Christians face this temptation to self-righteousness, but I wonder if it isn’t more acute within Wesleyan Christianity: We’re the ones, after all, who place a greater emphasis on sanctification, on the inward change made possible by the Holy Spirit, than other Protestant traditions. We are not monergists, unlike our Calvinist brethren; we are synergists. We believe Christians willfully participate in our sanctification—even though that participation is also only made possible by God’s grace.

My point is, Wesleyan Christianity tends toward the works righteousness of the Pharisee (not that it ought to, or that it needs to, but that it tends to). I think Wesley himself sees this tendency in his commentary on Luke 18:12. Of the Pharisee’s prayer, he writes: “the sum of this plea is, I do no harm: I use all the means of grace: I do all the good I can.”

Did you catch that? If you’re not a Methodist, you probably don’t recognize that Wesley is saying, in so many words, that the Pharisee is following Wesley’s own “General Rules”! 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Attend to the ordinances of God (another way of saying “use the means of grace”).

It’s as if Wesley recognized the danger of turning even the General Rules into “the Law”!

In my own case, this self-righteousness doesn’t hold others in contempt so much as it holds myself in contempt—for the reasons I cite above! “What’s my problem? Why aren’t I a better person? Why am I still struggling with sin?” In other words, why am I not keeping the Law successfully?

So the Law ends up condemning me all over again; it’s as if I’m back where I started without Christ! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

With this in mind, I’m so grateful for the people at Mockingbird. I’ve already sung their praises recently, but their reflections on the classic Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel is absolutely what I need to hear right now.

Already, I can anticipate the objection: Yes, but the Lutheran tendency is in the opposite direction: toward antinomianism, toward moral laxity, toward “sinning more so that grace may abound.”

I believe that’s true as a tendency. (I’m still a Wesleyan, after all.) But the Mockingbird people are unpersuaded, as they explain here. And I fully affirm their last two points, which self-righteous Methodists like me need to hear:

4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.

5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.

Oh, Methodist brothers and sisters: Let yourself be utterly condemned by the Law! Let yourself be utterly condemned by Wesley’s General Rules! Let yourself be utterly condemned by your own pathetic attempts at “measurable spiritual progress”!

And then make your way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Remind yourself that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Remind yourself that Christ was perfect on your behalf! Remind yourself that it’s only through his righteousness, and not your own, that you’re saved, and that even sanctification is by grace alone.

Tim Tennent on the need for “gospel clarity”

April 1, 2014

Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, doesn’t blog often enough, but when he does he usually makes it worth our while. In this post, he points out the potentially dangerous fact that most of our fellow Methodists possess at least a vague understanding of John Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738.

I say “potentially dangerous” because if that’s all they possess then they risk divorcing Wesley’s experience from its scriptural foundation:

I don’t know of too many Methodists who have actually read Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. The fact that the heart-felt experience of Wesley is far more known than the textual source of that experience is significant. We can all too easily forget that our experience of God’s work does not come untethered from the truth of God’s word. When Christian “experience” becomes disconnected from God’s Word it drifts into mere emotionalism.

It’s easy to imagine that we’ve succumbed to “mere emotionalism” when our marketing tagline is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

The phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” says absolutely nothing about Jesus Christ or the glorious gospel. It only speaks of our hearts, our minds and our buildings. Is that really the best we can do? As I have said before, if there were public relations consultants in the 19th century, the phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” could have just as easily emerged as a great tagline for a 19th century brothel.

This reminds of something a professor at UMC-affiliated (and theologically orthodox) United Theological Seminary said about the UMC’s website. If it’s true, as we say, that the UMC’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” then doesn’t it follow that our church’s official website ought to reflect that priority?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Nevertheless, Tennent’s words in this next-to-last paragraph seem exactly right:

Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or “non-denominational” means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ.

“To live outside the law you must be honest”

January 9, 2014

platingaOr so said Bob Dylan in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, in his book about sin, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, offers reasons why this is true.

Reflecting classic Christian teaching, Plantinga writes that sin and evil are a privation: they represent the absence of something, namely the good. Like a parasite feeding on its host, they require the good in order to survive.

Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities. “Goodness,” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.” God is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.[1]

Therefore, “good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”[2] He writes that biographers “make themselves students of this phenomenon,” especially in relation to towering religious or moral leaders in history.

Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables. Other ironies appear in other characters including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves. The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.[3]

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the “smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.”[4]

1. Conelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995),89.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Ibid., 80-1.

4. Ibid., 89.

God’s grace from beginning to end

July 16, 2012

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

In my sermon on Noah a couple of Sundays ago, I concluded the sermon, as I usually do, with a word about God’s grace. I wanted to make the point—already made beautifully well by John Goldingay in his Genesis for Everyone commentary—that God’s choice of Noah to carry forward the human project after the flood was a powerful example of God’s grace. Noah “found favor” (i.e., received God’s grace) and this finding of favor is always undeserved. The nature of grace didn’t change between the Old and New Testaments.

In the sermon, I said the following:

God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.

I thought this was uncontroversial, at least in the Protestant waters in which I swim. I borrowed the phrase, “offered without condition or price,” from United Methodist baptism liturgy, which (without bothering to look it up) is probably also in the liturgies of other Christian traditions.

My friend Tom, a Southern Baptist, very helpfully challenged my assertion about God’s grace and love. I mean this sincerely: I simply take for granted my understanding of God’s grace and love. Tom forced me to think through its implications when he wrote the following:

With respect to “grace is free, not earned,” what I would say is that grace is God’s willingness to accept less than perfection to receive a relationship with him (since Jesus “paid the difference”). I am not sure I can go so far as to say, “grace is free.” We have no claim to have God’s love or relationship extended to us, but that does not mean God requires nothing from us to receive that. In the first instance, we have to have faith to be saved. And James says that faith without works is dead. Also, we have to repent. Neither of these “merits” God’s favor, but they are still indispensable to receiving it. We cannot be saved by “works” because that would require perfection. But we cannot be saved without faith and repentance either, and those are not “nothing.” God’s grace is “freely given,” without compulsion to do so, but it, like (or as a manifestation of) love, is still conditional.

If I’m reading Tom right, he’s saying, among other things, that faith and repentance are prerequisites for receiving God’s justifying grace. They are two necessary conditions by which we are saved. As he says, faith and repentance are “not nothing” (I love that phrase!). Therefore, we can’t assert God’s unconditional love or grace.

Hmm Read the rest of this entry »