Posts Tagged ‘Ministry Matters’

Am I only preaching the “easy half” of the gospel?

March 14, 2018

Like Graham, I only preach the “easy” half of the gospel.

In yesterday’s podcast, I said that we Christians never “outgrow” John 3:16. I gave a personal example: Even though I’ve been a Christian for 34 years, I realized only recently how desperately I need my career to “save” me. Not eternally, of course: I know that I will only ultimately be saved through faith in Christ. My problem is that I live as if I need something right now—other than Christ—to make me feel good about myself. Specifically, I need to know that I’m doing good work. I need to feel as if I’m “getting ahead” and “climbing the ladder of success”—or name your own cliché.

I hear the voice of the Law (if not God’s Law, then my own): “You must prove your worth. You must live up to your standards. You must accomplish something great. You must justify yourself.”

Isn’t it strange that God has called me to a profession where many of the external measures of career success are missing? After all, few people (I hope) go into pastoral ministry for the money! And it’s hardly a “growth industry.”

So here I am—sick with sin and in need of a real Savior. What do I do? I listen to the gospel again. I remind myself that my worth does not come from any thing, any person, or any idea in this world; it comes from God alone. He has demonstrated my worth by sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross—which meant suffering hell itself—all because he wanted me to be his child. As I said in yesterday’s post, I am infinitely valuable to God because he paid an infinite price to buy my pardon. And he did so without caring about what I would accomplish in my career. God’s embrace of me is based on one condition only—faith in Christ.

Yes, this is a “simple gospel” message. I have not outgrown it. I cannot improve upon it.

I don’t listen to old Billy Graham sermons from the 1960s, for example, and think, “How naïve! If only he would have added these additional points to his message!” No… I listen and think, “This is life-saving medicine!”

This is on my mind, in part, because of a blog post I read recently on the “Ministry Matters” website, a United Methodist-affiliated blog. The author, a retired pastor, began by saying that his post “isn’t about Billy Graham,” yet he took a sideswipe at him using the words of a South African Methodist leader, Peter Storey, who helped organize a preaching rally with Graham in South Africa when the country was still under apartheid. Storey said:

[Graham’s] mandate, he claimed, was to preach the ‘plain and simple gospel.’ The problem is there is no such thing. What he really meant was that he would offer only half the gospel, the half that invited people to face their personal sins without confronting the systems that often did their sinning for them.

Is that true? Was Graham offering only half the gospel?

Where in the New Testament does Jesus or the apostles include “confronting sinful systems” as part of their gospel presentation? (It’s one-half of the gospel, after all. Surely there’s one or two references to it!) Did Philip, in Acts 8, preach only half the gospel—a message of “facing personal sins”—to the Ethiopian eunuch without confronting the sinful system that makes, well… men into eunuchs in the first place? Regardless, I’m sure the Ethiopian eunuch, having lived in Paradise for nearly two millennia, isn’t complaining.

But forget about the specifics of Storey’s criticism of Graham. His words (and the effect to which his words are put by the article’s author) demonstrate the tendency within Methodism that I mentioned in yesterday’s post: The gospel—as represented by Graham and the very personal nature of John 3:16 (note: “whosoever” is a singular pronoun meaning “any individual”)—isn’t enough (unless you redefine what the gospel is, as Storey does). Not that the gospel isn’t necessary, but the point of the Christian life is to get on with it—to go about “transforming the world.”

The scare quotes are deliberate: Many years ago the UMC changed its Book of Discipline to say that the mission of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” That was simple and to the point. Several years later, it was changed again: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Why was that added? Jesus says nothing about the “transformation of the world,” for example, in his Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. While I’m sure “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” will play a positive role in the world’s transformation (as history attests), it’s hardly the aim of evangelism, as Billy Graham understood.

Moreover, we can’t change the world. Only God can. And most of that change takes place in the eschaton. But, of course, semi-Pelagianism is also a Methodist tendency (not that proper Wesleyan-Arminian theology leads there).

My point is, this getting on with the alleged “second half” of the gospel feels like Law all over again. (Just what I need! 😑) Even if I were successfully transforming the world (which I’m sure I’m not), my left hand would certainly know what my right hand was doing—at all times! And then, like the Pharisee in the parable, I would be left in the cold while the tax collector—whose very livelihood opposed the world’s transformation—goes home justified.

But that’s Jesus, like Billy Graham, only preaching the “first half” of the gospel!

Disagreeing with a UM pastor about God’s sovereignty—surprise, surprise

May 10, 2017

Here’s a blast from the past: a blog post in which I explain my disagreement with a fellow United Methodist pastor and author named Jason Micheli. I’ve never met him, but years ago he was gracious enough to let me write a guest blog post on his blog.

Read the article that was posted on Ministry Matters, a United Methodist-affiliated website. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

I commented on a friend’s Facebook link as follows:

To his credit, Jason Micheli, the author of this piece, knows how to push my buttons. Years ago, I argued with him more than once on this topic on his blog. As he so often does, he employs scripture in very selective ways to try and bolster his point. Not that we don’t all do this, but Micheli’s omissions are glaring.

For example, here are a few scriptures to the contrary: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50 (“You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good…”); Psalm 139 and its high view of providence; Romans 8:28 (obviously); Paul’s words about his “thorn in the flesh,” which was both a “messenger from Satan” and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) to keep Paul humble; James’s words in James 1:2-4 about the purpose of trials; Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1 about the “necessity” of God’s testing us like gold being refined by fire. All these scriptures suggest that suffering, whether caused by God or merely allowed by him, happens according to God’s plan or, yes, “will.”

In fact, whether Micheli likes it or not, Job’s testing by Satan also happens according to God’s will. God literally gives Satan permission to do what he does. (Also, where does Job “curse God”? That’s what his wife wants him to do, but he never does. Another problem with Micheli, in my experience—he plays fast and loose with scripture.)

But even more, Jesus commands us (in parables and other teaching) to petition God, who, we believe, responds to us in prayer, at least sometimes. When God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we can ask why: But there is no satisfactory Christian answer to that question that implies that God doesn’t have the power to intervene, or that whether or not God does is completely arbitrary. That being the case, we can rightly assume that God has good reasons for either granting our petitions or not. If he has good reasons, then how is even suffering arbitrary?

Does Micheli believe that God had the power to prevent him from getting cancer? Or—perhaps more to the point—was God responsible (even indirectly, through doctors and modern medicine) for Micheli’s remission? I’m sure that Jason has rightly thanked and praised God for sending his cancer into remission. I believe he’s said as much on his blog. If that’s the case, then that implies that God had the power to prevent his suffering in the first place—that, indeed, God had some reason for allowing it. Just as God has some reason for sending it into remission.

Our Arminian tradition agrees: We speak of God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will”: Antecedent will is what God would will in world without sin; consequent will is what God wills in this fallen world in which we live. We know that Wesley himself held a high view of God’s sovereignty, and his disagreements with Calvinism centered on one point: whether or not God decrees or foreordains the salvation or damnation of individuals.

Where I agree with Micheli is that of course our words of assurance about God’s sovereignty and providence can sound glib when someone is in the midst of pain and suffering. By all means, an emergency room, a deathbed, or a crime scene is likely not the right time to talk to victims about the meaning of pain and suffering. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to think these things through at other times.

We don’t live in world that is “in and of itself”

December 3, 2015

Tackling the subject of evil and suffering the day after yet another mass shooting in the U.S. isn’t, I know, good timing. On the other hand, people are getting murdered all the time in every place in the world—it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t affect us. We can’t wait for evil and suffering to cease before we address the topic. I’m only addressing it now because, for me, nothing less than God’s goodness is at stake in the question. How can I ignore it?

Besides, I didn’t bring it up; this blog post by Drew McIntyre over at the United Methodist-affiliated Ministry Matters website did. Drew calls the suffering of children the number one reason to be an atheist.

I was pleased that Drew’s post got some good pushback from his readers. For example, one person said that in his experience of dealing with parents who’ve lost children, “I never once saw the parents or anyone else see this as a reason for questioning God’s existence. On the contrary, the experience brought them all closer to God, driving home their need for Him.”

I agree. In reply I wrote:

My experience as a pastor confirms this as well: When I’ve seen Christian parents lose children—again, I’m only speaking from my direct experience—it has the effect of bringing them closer to God, not pushing them away from God. People who have already convinced themselves that there is no God are the ones who find this moral argument against God persuasive.

But they’re not thinking clearly. The moral argument against God turns in on itself: If God doesn’t exist, then there is no objective basis on which to say, “The death of children is wrong.” Without God, our moral intuition is a meaningless byproduct of unthinking and unguided forces. Moral intuition becomes nothing more than a matter of personal taste. Without a lawgiver, there is no law.

When we object to God’s existence on moral grounds, we are, as Tim Keller says, “relying on God to make an argument against God,” as I discuss here.

The best comment came from Mike D’Virgilio.


I replied as follows:

Exactly right, Mike. The difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing evil, while important, isn’t nearly as great as many Methodists think. God is responsible for evil, as my (Lutheran) systematic theology prof at Candler said (echoing Pannenberg). God is responsible because God made this particular world, which permits evil. And as Christians we must assume that, from God’s perspective, it was worth making this world, in spite of the fact that evil would be one consequence of doing so.

I read Hart’s book, too, and I found it evasive at times: Evil has no positive contribution to make in our world, he says again and again. In and of itself that’s true. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world that’s “in and of itself.” We live in a world infused with God’s grace. The overwhelming biblical answer is that God can and does redeem evil, as the cross itself emphatically proclaims. (Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) If God can transform the greatest evil imaginable (the cross of his Son) into the greatest good imaginable (our salvation), then surely he can transform any lesser form of evil the same way.

I hate to be sectarian, but as an Eastern Orthodox convert, Hart doesn’t have to worry nearly as much as we Protestants do (or ought to) about making sure theology accords with scripture.

And, Mike, you’re absolutely right about prayer. The idea that God has nothing whatsoever to do with intervening to stop evil in our world conflicts with Jesus’ clear teaching that our prayers make a difference in the world. Logically, if God ever does something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then we must assume that God has a good reason for not giving us what we ask for—even when what we ask for is the safety of our children.

For all we know, if God intervened to prevent children from dying in a particular instance, something far worse might happen. We can’t know what that worse thing might be. Only God can. The question is, will we trust him?

I raised this question in a Facebook comment thread, and I’ll raise it here: Drew asks: “Could there ever be a good reason that God let your child die?” All I can say is, I hope so, because God clearly does let that happen. Right?

Finally, let’s remember: There’s no balancing of the scales of justice apart from heaven. Some Methodist thinkers refuse to resort to heaven—as if it were cheating or something—but ultimately it answers every objection. In the face of evil, the hope of eternal life and future resurrection is a fire hose extinguishing a birthday candle.

Or isn’t it? Do we not believe in it, after all?

I’ve made this point in sermons before but it bears repeating: In the aftermath of Sandy Hook three years ago, one theologian posted on Facebook: “The first five seconds in heaven will compensate for any suffering that these children and their teachers endured.”

Do you disagree? Please tell me why.