Posts Tagged ‘Michael Green’

Sermon 01-22-17: “The Only Bread We Need”

January 31, 2017

matthew_graphic

In the spiritual battles that every Christian fights against Satan and his minions, God has given us a little-used weapon in our aresenal: fasting. If Jesus needed to fast to prepare for his testing by Satan, what makes us think that we don’t? This sermon begins by addressing the real and present threat that Satan poses and makes the case that, in order to face that threat, we Christians should fast.

Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11

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

Did you ever see The Exorcist? I have not. But I know that this 1973 horror movie is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—and one of the scariest and most influential. The director was William Friedkin—who is still around. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, he admitted that until recently he had never witnessed a real live exorcism. He is himself an agnostic, he said. But he wanted to see an exorcism for himself, so he went to Italy and filmed one. It was an exorcism of a woman—not Linda Blair, in case you’re wondering. And then he showed the video to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California.

One of them, Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, said the following:

There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it … This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations … It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy … I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, [etc.] … and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.

The other doctor was equally baffled—saying that whatever was happening to this woman was authentic. She wasn’t faking. But he had no idea what was causing it or how to treat it.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of <em>The Exorcist</em> in 1974.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist in 1973.

Friedkin said:

I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.

Interesting! I hope that Friedkin’s experience shakes his agnostic worldview and enables him to believe in the reality of the spiritual realm—and God, and his Son Jesus.

I am a scientifically minded person—not many pastors have an engineering degree from—if you don’t mind me saying—one of the world’s best engineering schools. And in the past I’ve certainly been a naturally skeptical person. But I’m telling you: I believe in Satan. I believe in the reality of evil and personal spiritual forces at work in the world, forces which oppose God and his kingdom and are working against individuals and against the church. The best reason to believe in Satan and his fellow demons is because this is the clear teaching of scripture and because Jesus himself believed in them. One theologian, Michael Green, points out that if Jesus was mistaken

on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else?… ¶ It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[1]

So I believe in the devil. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”

There’s no question that in our United Methodist Church, we tend to fall into the first error: We tend to not believe in Satan and his minions. Or even if we say we do, this belief makes no practical difference in our lives. We fail to see the devil as a clear and present danger. We fail to heed the apostle Paul’s words that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[2]

The funny thing about Paul’s words here is that if you read the Book of Acts, you see Paul seems to “wrestle” plenty against “flesh and blood”—flesh and blood people oppose him everywhere he goes; people try to kill him; people beat him; people abuse him; people throw him in prison. How can Paul say he “wrestles not against flesh and blood”?

Because he sees a deeper, more powerful struggle underneath the surface of reality. One that’s invisible to the naked eye. Yes, people do all kinds of evil, awful, sinful things all the time—and God will hold us responsible for our role in these things. But the Bible teaches that we’re not doing sinful, evil things on our own. Unfortunately, we have a deadly spiritual enemy who is all to happy to help us. In fact, we often make it all too easy for him.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when kids in elementary schools were playing this game called “Charlie Charlie”? They would make something like a Ouija board, stack pencils on top of it, and call upon a demon named Charlie to answer questions. The Vatican issued a warning to kids and their parents not to mess around with this. And many people scoffed: “Oh, it’s just a harmless game,” people said. “It’s not real.”

Who’s to say that’s not something the devil could use? Why take the chance?

As many of you know, I’m a big music fan—I’m always looking for new bands, new artists I might enjoy. Recently, I was reading about a rock band that was getting great reviews; they sounded like something I might like. Only… The critics who reviewed their albums said that their music was great, but their lyrics were really silly—always singing about demons and witches and occult stuff. But of course they’re not serious about that! It’s all a joke. Besides, you can just disregard the words and pay attention to the music. And I started to download one of their albums off iTunes—before my conscience spoke up: “You can’t do that, Brent! The devil is hard enough to resist when you’re fighting against him. And here you are, practically inviting him into your front door! You can’t do that!”

But you know… demon possession, Ouija boards, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, devil-worshiping rock bands… These are kind of obvious examples of ways that the devil works in the world. Most of the time, he’s much more subtle, much more discreet, much more invisible.

Even in today’s scripture, notice that we’re not told in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. If we’re picturing the Underwood Deviled Ham figure—a red guy with cloven hooves and a pitchfork… Well, we’re certain he doesn’t look like that. Was he visible to him? If he was, I’m sure he was very beautiful to look at. Maybe he came in the guise of a person. Or maybe he came to Jesus the way he so often comes to us—through our own thoughts. By planting ideas in our minds. By sowing seeds of doubt. Lying to us. Exploiting our weaknesses.

Keep in mind: Jesus is not a superhero. He is God-made-flesh. He is fully human. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that these were real temptations. That means he had to consider each one; he had to think about it. He doesn’t just brush them away like they’re gnats. In fact, the Book of Hebrews says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The point is, these temptations are really tempting; they challenge him. And why wouldn’t they?

After all, why not turn a stone to bread? Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days—that’s about as long as anyone can go before starvation sets in. A messiah who dies before accomplishing his mission and going to the cross and dying for our sins isn’t going to do anyone any good. And notice that Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is reminding the Israelites that after God delivered them from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, they immediately started grumbling—“Did Moses bring us out here in the desert to starve to death?” So what does God do? He gives them bread from heaven, called “manna.” God feeds his people with miracle bread. So when Satan tempts Jesus, he’s really just reminding him, “Hey, you did this before, Jesus—when you were with Israel back in the wilderness. You’re God, alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit! You fed them when they were starving in the wilderness. And guess what? Now you’re in the wilderness as Israel’s representative. Are you going to let yourself starve, Jesus? Feed yourself with miracle bread, just as you fed the Israelites with miracle bread so long ago.”

Do you see how tempting that must have been? Satan is so close to being right. And he’s counting on Jesus not being able to think clearly, so he thinks, it just might work.

But this verse—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”—means not only are we not supposed to live by bread that we make by hand, it also means that we’re not supposed to live by miracle bread, either. We’re not supposed to live by anything other than God himself. Satan loves miracles because he knows that they can distract people from God. In John chapter 2 we’re told that crowds are seeing Jesus work miracles, and they’re impressed with the miracles. And they start following him because of the miracles. But what does John say? “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.”[3] He knew that the people weren’t falling in love with Jesus; they were falling in love with miracles. They didn’t have genuine faith in God; they were just captivated by the miracles that God performed.

God is telling us in Deuteronomy 8:3 that the purpose of the miracle bread was not to feed hungry Israelites; the purpose was to get hungry Israelites to fall in love with the supplier of this miracle bread—to fall in love with God; to place their faith in God; to trust in God—and not in the things that God provides, be it earthly bread or heavenly bread. The purpose of the manna wasn’t to satisfy their physical hunger but to awaken within them a hunger for God! Jesus knows the meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3. That’s why he won’t feed himself with miracle bread. He’s got everything he needs to survive in his heavenly Father.

Consider John chapter 4: When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember what happens? Jesus’ disciples leave him at this well in a Samaritan village while they go into town to buy food and bring it back to him. John tells us that Jesus is hungry. In the meantime he has this long conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the end of it, she comes to believe in Jesus as her Lord and Savior—and she rushes back to town to tell everyone about Jesus. When the disciples show up with food for Jesus, they urge Jesus to eat. But he doesn’t. They’re confused. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”[4]

Jesus somehow has so much of his heavenly Father—he finds so much pleasure in pleasing his Father and glorifying his Father and doing his Father’s will—that somehow it satisfies even his deep physical hunger. How is possible? I don’t know. But I would love to find out.

I would love to be so filled with God’s love, to be so filled with Jesus, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I don’t need anything else this world has to offer. I would have God and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t need more money. I wouldn’t need other people’s approval. I wouldn’t need recognition. I wouldn’t need trophies. I wouldn’t need popularity. I wouldn’t need to be liked. I wouldn’t need to measure up to other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t need to please other people. I wouldn’t be enslaved to the things of this world. My only “food”—my only sustenance—would be to please God, to glorify him, to do his will.

Don’t you want that? I do! How do we get it? How do we get more of God?

God is showing us one important way in today’s scripture. He’s actually showing us more than one way, but I’m going to focus on this one—because frankly, we’re failing miserably at it. Me included.

I’m talking about fasting. 

When I was ordained as a United Methodist elder-in-full-connection six-and-a-half years ago, I lied. Because one of the promises I made to God, to my bishop, and to the North Georgia Annual Conference is that I would teach my people to fast. I’m serious. It was a question: “Will you teach your people to fast.” And I said “yes.” If I said “no,” I wouldn’t get ordained, so I said “yes,” like everyone else.

Have I said a word about it to you? Nope. That’s got to change.

Before beginning his ministry on earth—before facing and overcoming these three temptations and many more besides—Jesus prepared for it by fasting. This means he went without food for a period of time. He drank water, but ate nothing. Now, forty days is really extreme. On the other hand, Jesus had to accomplish by far the most difficult task that anyone has ever had to accomplish. So in order to get ready for it, what did he do? He fasted. Of course he prayed, too—prayer and fasting should always go together. But his spiritual preparation included fasting.

Here’s my question: Why doesn’t ours? If the Son of God—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed to fast in order to overcome the trials and temptations that he would face, what on earth makes us think we don’t?

Jesus fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll get to soon, he teaches about fasting and says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face.” He doesn’t say “if” you do it; he says “when” you do it. In Luke 2, we’re told that Anna, the prophetess who blesses the baby Jesus in the temple, prays and fasts. The apostle Paul fasts for three days after his conversion in Acts 9. Later in Acts 13 he and the rest of the church at Antioch fast just before the Holy Spirit anoints Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles. In 2 Corinthians, he says he fasts often. And of course, the roll call of people who fast in the Old Testament is a Who’s Who of heroes of the faith.

Fasting is a means of grace. From at least the late first century, many churches instituted a twice weekly fast. John Wesley fasted twice a week for most of his adult life. When he grew old, he only fasted once a week.

In 1756, King George II called the people of England to a national day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by France. On February 6, 1756, the day of the fast, John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hearted prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote, he added: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”[5]

Fasting teaches us the kind of “bread” that we live by. [Richard Foster, unmasking what’s already there in our hearts—like anger.]

[Talk about the “130” goal. Good plans to accomplish it. But you know what we need? We need power. By not fasting, it’s as if we’ve taken an arrow out of our quiver and thrown it on the ground—“we don’t need that one.” Without fasting, we could be missing a weapon in our arsenal that we need to fight the devil and wage successful spiritual warfare.

We need all the power we can get. Because as our church turns the corner and marshals it resources to reach 130, we can expect that the devil will fight back hard.

Will we be ready for that fight?]

1. Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

2. Ephesians 6:12 KJV

3. John 2:24

4. John 4:32, 34 ESV

5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 50.

Even the Washington Post takes up subject of exorcism

July 6, 2016

On the heels of my recent blog post, “If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?” comes this Washington Post op-ed from a well-credentialed psychiatrist, describing his consulting work with churches on the subject of exorcisms. He helps clergy distinguish between mental illness and what he believes to be paranormal phenomena caused by the demonic realm.

Among other interesting things, he writes:

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Gallagher, give him credit: He’s no crackpot. He believes that demonic activity of this sort is “extremely rare” and “extremely uncommon.” Moreover, he’s well aware of risks posed to vulnerable patients from diagnosing “false positives.”

Regardless, he no doubt harms his professional reputation by telling the world that he does this work. Which is brave. Only slightly less brave than psychiatrist M. Scott Peck following up his mega-best-selling The Road Less Traveled with a book affirming evil, Satan, and the legitimacy of exorcism (at least in some cases) called People of the Lie.

Also give credit to the Washington Post for giving over its high-end op-ed real estate to a deeply controversial opinion—although at 2,600 comments and counting, it doesn’t seem to be hurting its business.

I’ve said before that I believe in the power of Satan and the demonic realm to exert a supernatural influence on our physical world—including the people within it. For me, it just makes better sense of our world, especially the evil within it. In Christian theology, this opinion isn’t exactly controversial. For one thing, anyone who takes seriously the authority of scripture must concede that this kind of demonic activity was common in Jesus’ day. But it’s also not a topic that many theologians tackle.

While English evangelical theologian Michael Green, in his 1981 book, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, states the case more strongly that I would, I mostly affirm these words:

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

Sermon 05-08-16: “Jesus Defeats Satan”

May 11, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Sermon Text: Genesis 3:1-15

In the first part of my new sermon series, “Opening the Scriptures,” I talk about the nature of sin and temptation: “At the heart of temptation—any temptation—is the belief that we can’t really trust God: we doubt his Word; we doubt his promises; we doubt that he knows what’s best for us. So we take matters into our own hands. We place ourselves at the center of the universe instead of God.” Is all hope lost? No… because in the midst of this story of humanity’s first sin is a glimpse of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

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

In Luke 24:13-35, two disciples of Jesus are returning from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus, about eight miles away. It’s Easter Sunday. Although some of their fellow disciples told them that they found the tomb of Jesus empty, they don’t know what to make of it. As of yet, alongside most of their fellow disciples, they don’t believe that their Lord has been resurrected.

So they head for home, discouraged and confused.

Jesus meets them on the road, but, as Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At Jesus’ prompting, they tell him about the events of Good Friday as well as the reports of the empty tomb.

Jesus tells them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then Luke writes: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

To say “Moses and all the prophets” is shorthand for, well, the entire Old Testament. And when Luke says that Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” he’s implying that all the scriptures—which at that time meant the Old Testament—have something to say about Jesus Christ and his gospel. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 02-15-15: “Basic Training, Part 6: Deliver Us”

February 26, 2015

Basic Training Series

This sermon is part warning and part encouragement about the biggest challenge facing us: the reality that both our lives and God’s work in the world is opposed by an Enemy who wants to destroy us. Are you prepared for the fight?

The good news is that Satan is no match for our Lord. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Like many of you, when I was growing up we had a “rec room”—sometimes called a “rumpus room”—in our basement. At one time, the rec room had a pool table, a pinball machine, a Pong-like video game attached to a TV on the wall, a stereo, a bar—which was never stocked—and a sauna—which never worked. But still… We kids loved playing in the basement, as you can imagine! And one of my favorite games to play there was a game we called “hot lava.” The object of the game was to get from the bottom of the stairs, which was on one side of the basement, all the way to the bathroom, which was in the other side, without letting your feet touch the floor.

Because the floor, of course, was hot lava, and if you touched it you’d die. So the object was to climb or jump on furniture, chairs, the pool table, the pinball machine—various objects scattered across the floor—in order to get from Point A to Point B. It was difficult to get from Point A to Point B without falling in hot lava.

In so many words, that’s the message of this final part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The prayer ends with a warning from Jesus that there’s spiritual hot lava everywhere in our lives and in our world, and if we’re going to get through this life successfully, we’re going to have to be very careful. And to trust in the Lord every step of the way. Read the rest of this entry »

What does “as it is in heaven” mean?

January 28, 2015

brunerWhile I didn’t have the opportunity to work it into last Sunday’s sermon, the following insight of Frederick Dale Bruner about the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” was helpful to me:

The expression “as in the heavens” teaches us that God has some kind of lively enterprise going on with angels and spirits and that the earth is not all there is to history (cf. 2 Kings 6). There is some kind of exciting invisible world at work in perfect obedience to God, where God’s name, kingdom, and will are treated with the respect they deserve. Moreover, this phrase asks us to believe that something like heavenly worship and obedience can also touch earth—the bold “as” permits us to think so. We are not to inquire too curiously about the nature of the heavenly activities; we are simply to pray that the name, kingdom, and will of the Father shall come to rights here on earth.

Do you believe in this “lively enterprise” of an angelic realm as he describes here? I do (although I confess to my shame a time in my life when I didn’t)! And I believe in the flip side of this realm—one in which angelic beings who, like human beings, rebelled against God are exerting a destructive influence in our world. (I don’t see how it’s possible to believe in one and not the other.)

In my sermon on Sunday, I dealt briefly with the age-old question, “Why does an all-good God allow evil and suffering?” In the interview I cited in my sermon, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to grant that God’s desire for human beings to have free will answers the question of human-made evil (which, indeed, accounts for most suffering in the world). But what about so-called “natural evil”—like natural disasters, pestilence, and disease—which seems to have little to do with human freedom?

I say “little” because in a world free of sin, in which human beings are living in perfect harmony with God, with others, and with their own bodies, who knows how differently we could respond to these threats, granting that, in a pre-fallen world, they existed at all. Remember that humanity in the Garden of Evil wasn’t inherently immortal—at least according to most scholars. There was, rather, a tree of life of which they could avail themselves to enable them to live. Could it heal them of disease and injury? It seems likely.

(In saying this, I’m not insisting that we treat the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 strictly literally. But even if you say the tree of life is figurative, it still has a literal, concrete meaning in the physical world with which we must contend, right?)

All that to say, given that spiritual warfare is our gravest threat in the world, I believe that the demonic realm can and does play an important and underappreciated (as in, hardly appreciated at all) role in creating or fostering natural evil. Even when Christian apologists tackle the question, I’ve rarely seen them resort to the devil as one explanation for evil. But why not? If we believe in Satan, evil, both human and natural, makes so much more sense!

Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, makes this point emphatically.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilization history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1

You can’t write Satan out of the story and leave the story unchanged

August 5, 2014
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

A fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger named Morgan Guyton, who blogs on Patheos’s “Progressive Christian Channel,” wrote the first post of his that I’ve read with which I can mostly agree! He defends his belief in Satan as a supernatural being, rather than a literary symbol or metaphor.

Among other helpful things, he writes:

To be honest, I’d be more scared of the world if I didn’t believe there was a devil. Because we have had some hideous things happen in our world. During the dirty wars in Latin America in the eighties, military torturers did incredibly horrendous things to other peoples’ bodies. Now, in Iraq, the ISIS terrorist group is literally crucifying its political opponents. If that kind of behavior is natural to humanity, then our world is an incredibly scary place. I have to believe that it isn’t natural, that there’s an evil one who possesses people, and that most importantly, they can be delivered from this possession and have their humanity restored.

I warned him, half-jokingly, that my own journey away from the progressive Christianity of my seminary days began, in part, after I embraced what Roger Olson calls “Satanic realism.”

What Guyton says above, however, is echoed by theologian Michael Green in his excellent book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall. With uncharacteristically strong words, Green writes:

I believe the Christian doctrines of God of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilization history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

Around the blogosphere

February 4, 2014

Or at least the small corner of which I happen to read…

satans_downfallLast year, Roger Olson’s writing on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare helped convince me that I had shirked my pastoral responsibility to educate and warn people about the dangers we face from the principalities and powers. In earlier posts, he recommended Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, which I’d also recommend to anyone. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy through Amazon.

This week, Olson wrote another post on the topic, “Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?” He writes:

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Lettersyears ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!…

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

keller_bookScot McKnight’s blog includes an interview with Tim Keller about his most recent masterpiece, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. If I haven’t convinced you to read this book by now, you’ll never be convinced.

Here, Keller discusses one of the book’s prominent themes.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pointed his readers to this post by Andrew Comiskey on the problem of gay marriage:

It shows no dignity to our fellow humanity to ‘high five’ bad moral decisions. We can still love others while disagreeing with their choices. In fact, disagreeing with ‘gay marriage’ is much more costly today than blessing it. Young people who applaud gay weddings are not lampooned as haters and bigots. Rather, they are extolled as loving and tolerant, on the ‘right side of history.’

The core issue, however, is not ‘gay marriage.’ What has been lost in this debate is the truth that something is wrong with homosexuality. We no longer understand moral disorder in the context of same-sex attraction. Power brokers of all sorts have successfully brainwashed a generation into believing that being gay is natural and good, not disordered in the least.

Of course, our gut reaction is a bit different. Most wonder if an intense longing for one’s own gender isn’t a little off, and if the ‘wedding’ of same-gender friends is really a marriage at all. Still we stifle that hunch for the sake of being ‘nice’ to gay people. Perhaps it is not so much that we are loving as we are cowardly.

Finally, on the same subject, I listened to last Sunday’s sermon by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, who attempts to analyze homosexuality from a Wesleyan Quadrilateral perspective. Micheli supports changing our church’s traditional stance. I credit him for talking about the issue (as part of a sermon series he’s been preaching on marriage). Nevertheless, while he purports to stand above the fray in this sermon, the game is rigged. Here was my initial comment that I posted on his blog, to which he replied. (Click on image to expand.)

micheli2

To which I wrote the following:

“Fairly fair”? By your score, it was 3.5 to 0.5 against the traditional position. That’s a laugh. You wrote as if the only reason we have our traditional position is because of a few stray verses here and there, mostly in Leviticus (as if just because it’s in Leviticus it no longer applies). Isn’t the Great Commandment also in Leviticus? Is that no longer binding?

What about Genesis 2 and Paul’s echo of that in Romans 1? What about Jesus’ affirmation of marriage between man and woman in Matthew 19? Reason itself seems to affirm that given complementary nature of our sex organs, God intends for sex to be a gift shared between man and woman only. (And before you bring it up, anal sex is physiologically harmful.)

It’s unlikely (and science certainly doesn’t prove) that people are “born gay,” but what of it? People are born with all sorts of congenital illnesses, many of which are fatal. You hardly prove your point that because people are born a certain way, that’s the way God intends.

Regardless, you don’t contend with the New Testament’s affirmation of celibacy as a viable and blessed way to live.

You’ve surely heard or read people like N.T. Wright demolish the idea that “Paul couldn’t have imagined lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships.” In fact, they existed in Paul’s day, philosophers wrote about them, and Paul was a smart guy.

But not just Paul… What about every other Christian thinker until about 1971? See, that’s the weight of tradition that you haven’t contended with. Why did all these otherwise smart, compassionate Christian saints fail to imagine that homosexuals could live together in lifelong, monogamous relationships? Why did none of them question the biblical teaching?

And would you really have us believe that prior to the 20th century, no one imagined that some people had a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation—even if they didn’t use the word “homosexual”? That seems incomprehensible to me.

You know that arguments from silence (“Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”) are spurious. First, we have no idea what Jesus did or didn’t say about it. It’s not recorded in the Gospels. Second, given that we know for sure that first-century Judaism outlawed homosexual behavior, we could as easily interpret Jesus’ “silence” as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

You also know that while Jesus loved and accepted the marginalized, he didn’t do so without the demand for repentance of sin.

You talk a lot about love, but you never concede that if homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be unloving not to warn people against it—to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially with lesbians) or celibacy.

All that to say, you haven’t been close to “fairly fair.”

In case you’re not Methodist, the Quadrilateral says that scripture is our primary authority guiding Christian belief and practice. We properly read and understand scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

By the way, Wesley himself never talked about a Quadrilateral. Some Wesleyan scholars in the 20th century argued that it was implicit in the way he did theology. Seems reasonable enough, although it doesn’t say all that much, and it’s nothing unique to Methodism: the Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part speaks of a trilateral source of authority, leaving out experience.

Regardless, contrary to the way Micheli speaks of it, the Quadrilateral is not a four-legged stool (which will always wobble). It’s a three-legged stool. The “seat” is scripture, which is supported by these other things. So, even if Micheli made a slam-dunk case using tradition, reason, and experience (which he didn’t), none of these three sources of authority get a veto over the Bible.

Sermon 01-12-14: “This Means War!”

January 21, 2014
Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus' three temptations.

Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus’ three temptations.

Do you believe in the devil? Jesus did—which is our best for believing in him as well. That we face an Adversary who is constantly working against the good that we try to do certainly makes better sense of our struggles in life. This sermon is about the deadly threat that Satan poses to us. I also talk about the parallel that the evangelist Luke draws between the temptation of Jesus, the second Adam, and the temptation of the first Adam. The nature of the temptation was the same: the outcome couldn’t have been more different. We Christians share in the victory Christ won over Satan.

Sermon Text: Luke 4:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of us watched the BCS national championship game last Monday, and whether or not our team won, it was a great game! One of the story lines in the game was that Florida State had won all of its games this year so easily, and by such a wide margin, that they had never really faced adversity. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in the first 13 games they played, they were always so far ahead that they could rest their starters and put in their second- and third-string players. So all the sports analysts were saying that FSU had never been tested.

By contrast, their opponent, Auburn, had been tested repeatedly. They had faced adversity. They knew how to come from behind to beat heavily favored teams, and they knew how to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This kind of experience would give them an advantage.

What if Auburn could force FSU to play a full four quarters of football? Would FSU be able handle the adversity? Would they be able to rise to the challenge? Would they be able to pass the test?

And I guess the answer is yesBut just barely!

My point is, being tested helps us. Facing adversity helps us. These things can toughen us up and instill within us the confidence we need to overcome greater challenges later on. That’s the main thing going on in today’s scripture. God was preparing Jesus for what he would face later on. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing Satan out of the human story changes the story

June 7, 2013

Since Methodists rarely offer any defense of the Arminianism that’s a part of their doctrinal DNA—even in the face of scornful criticism from our Calvinist brothers and sisters—I greatly appreciate theologian and blogger Roger Olson—a Baptist!—for fighting the good fight on our behalf.

A couple of Olson’s recent blog posts (here and here) were one inspiration for this current sermon series on Satan and spiritual warfare. (We Methodists don’t talk about those things, either!)

In this first post, Olson offers reasons why many modern Christians shy away from the topic of Satan. One reason that spoke to my own experience is our desire for cultural respectability: believing in Satan is uncool, unsophisticated—childish even—and don’t we know better now? I’ve already blogged about that.

Another reason, however, which I hadn’t previously considered is the following:

A third reason may be the influence of philosophical reasoning, channeled through rational apologetics, among evangelicals (including many who consider themselves moderate, centrist). A big part of such apologetics is theodicy—the explanation of evil in light of the existence of God. Theodicy rarely finds place for Satan or demons in explaining the existence of evil in God’s universe.

Think about this: He’s saying that Christian apologists themselves often argue for God’s goodness in a world filled with evil without resorting to Satan or the demonic. Having read some apologetics myself, I happen to know that he’s right. My systematic theology professor at Emory, who otherwise believed strongly in defending the faith, never said a word about Satan when he was giving an account of evil in an otherwise good Creation.

At the very least, without Satan, theodicy becomes more difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but theologian Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, would.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Strong words! Keep in mind: I don’t entirely agree with Green here. I think he overstates the case. But it’s undeniably true that if we reassert Satan’s important role in Christian theology and doctrine, we avoid or better explain many problems with theodicy. And remember: we had no good reason to “write him out of the human story” in the first place.

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

Was Jesus mistaken about Satan and demons?

May 31, 2013

Re-reading The Screwtape Letters last night and today has been like holding up a deeply unflattering mirror to my soul. I didn’t like what I saw, but I’m glad I saw it. I can learn from it. Earlier this week, I saw a reflection of an earlier version of myself in another book on spiritual warfare, Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall.

Five or six years ago, I either didn’t believe in or was extremely skeptical of the existence of a literal Satan. (It depended on which day you asked me.) He (or it) was probably just a symbol of evil, a literary personification of it. Perhaps “Satan” was the sum total of all evil to which each of us contributes. Human beings are “bad enough,” I believed, without demonic forces also working against us. I was a little embarrassed by those quaint gospel accounts describing demonic possession and exorcisms.

Needless to say, I have long repented of my skepticism. As I’ve indicated on my blog and in a few sermons since then, I believe strongly in the existence of Satan, a spiritual realm of angels and demons, and literal spiritual warfare.

In his book, however, Green parroted back an argument that I used to make (in my head, at least) against the apparent problem of Jesus’ belief in Satan: Of course Jesus believed in Satan and devils; he was limited in knowledge by his incarnation, having emptied himself of, among other things, omniscience; therefore, as a product of a culture that accepted uncritically the reality of angels and demons, Jesus did as well. All mental illness was understood as demon possession in Jesus’ day. Therefore when Jesus was healing these illnesses, he—along with disciples and onlookers—believed he was exorcising demons. He was mistaken, but being mistaken is no sin.

See how neatly it all fits together? You don’t? Well, neither do I—at least not now!

While I have an amazing tolerance for cognitive dissonance, even I had to finally admit defeat: not believing in Satan and demons is incompatible with orthodox Christian faith. If we accept the Bible as authoritative in any sense, we ought to believe what it says about the spiritual realm. As I said in a post last week, it’s really not so hard. In fact, it makes better sense of the world, in my opinion, to believe in the demonic.

To be clear, I still believe Jesus’ incarnation meant he wasn’t omniscient: that’s a condition of being human. As Luke 2:52 indicates, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” When he was an infant, Jesus didn’t think, “I’ll bide my time and pretend to be like any other human child until I get old enough to reveal who I really am.” No—he was fully human. He had to mature, learn, and grow just like the rest of us. Inasmuch as he appears at times clairvoyant in the gospels, I believe this is based on revelation from his Father or a hyper-intuition that comes from the closeness of his relationship with God.

Regardless, Green points out the biggest problem with the “kenotic theory”—that Jesus was mistaken about Satan because he was a product of his culture.

If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?

This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.