Posts Tagged ‘N.T. Wright’

Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

Just this morning, Roger Olson has a fine post called “The ‘Judge Judged in Our Place’: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed,” which I recommend to anyone who struggles to understand or believe that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in our place on the cross. Sadly, this would include many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues—certainly those who went to seminaries like the one I went to, the Candler School of Theology,[1] where substitutionary atonement[2] is practically verboten.

But plenty of evangelicals are questioning the doctrine, too, egged on by “exvangelicals” such as Steve Chalke and Brian Zahnd, both of whose ideas I’ve criticized in the past.

So I admire the clarity with which Dr. Olson defines and defends the doctrine. Here’s how he defines it:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).

Note his emphasis on God’s righteousness, or justice. It would be unjust of God to forgive sin without at the same time paying the cost—indeed, suffering the penalty—to do so.

Forgiveness is never free. To see this, I refer you to a thought experiment that I’ve used in sermons before, based on a sermon illustration from Tim Keller:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…

Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. And I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t forgive him; I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.

And so it is for evildoing we commit against a holy God: in the interest of justice, someone must pay for it, either the perpetrator or God.

But in his recent debate on substitutionary atonement, for example, Brian Zahnd said that God doesn’t need to pay anything to forgive us: as he put it, “God forgives because God forgives.” In other words, Zahnd would say, it’s in God’s nature to forgive. While I agree that it’s in God’s nature to be merciful (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6 and many parallel verses in the Old Testament), God’s mercy is costly. Otherwise, as Olson says, “forgiveness would be indulgence.”

Suppose, by contrast—as we proponents of substitutionary atonement believe—that justice is a part of God’s loving nature—that God cannot merely overlook sin because to do so would be to deny a part of himself. (Indeed, I don’t care whether you say that justice is a part of God’s nature or, as I believe, justice proceeds necessarily from God’s love, which, as the apostle John makes explicit in 1 John 4:8, characterizes God’s nature. Same difference.) The cross of God’s Son Jesus solves the problem of God’s justice, or resolves the tension (if you want to think of it that way) between mercy and justice, or love and justice. How so? On the cross, God’s commitment to perfect justice and God’s perfect love find their fullest expression: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

This is why I can live with N.T. Wright’s—ahem—substitution of “the love of God was satisfied” in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone”—so long as I footnote it to explain that God’s love is satisfied in part because God poured out his wrath on sin through his Son Jesus. (Wright, who believes in substitutionary atonement, would accept this explanation.) Don’t get me wrong: In the context in which I minister, I would prefer to keep the song the way its songwriters wrote it and explain why it’s theologically and biblically appropriate to speak of God’s wrath. (There are, I’m sure, some preachers who speak of God’s wrath too much, but I’ve never heard a contemporary Methodist preacher who had that problem!)

Getting back to Olson, he describes the satisfaction both of God’s love and justice (righteousness, holiness) succinctly as follows:

[I]n order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.

Notice he says that “God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners.” Remembering that Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, who wants the redemption of sinners exactly as much as his Father and the Holy Spirit, and willingly does what is necessary to make it happen, guards against popular caricatures of substitutionary atonement, all of which pit a vengeful, angry father against a loving, merciful son—as if a bloodthirsty God needed to torture and kill some innocent person to satisfy his wrath, and, behold, his Son would have to do. Or God’s wrath was going to be “fired at” human beings until this “second party,” God’s Son Jesus, stepped in to “take the bullet” on our behalf.

This is ridiculous! But watch this debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown and tell me that Zahnd doesn’t caricature the doctrine in this way. It’s irresponsible and disingenuous, to say the least. Zahnd, a self-described fan of David Bentley Hart, reads some dense theology. I’m sure he’s capable of accurately describing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement even if he disagrees with it. When you’re in a debate, after all, you should always attack the best version of your opponent’s position. Otherwise, you’re guilty of committing the “straw man fallacy.”

As Olson puts it, “What many people miss when they ‘picture’ substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an ‘innocent man’ on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.”

Amen.

In a future post, pastor John Piper will help me describe the way in which an allegedly “competing” theory of atonement, Christus Victor, fits hand-in-glove with substitutionary atonement.

1. I urge anyone interested in pursuing professional ministry to avoid the Candler School of Theology! It’s awful, and it’s caused great harm especially to the United Methodist Church. (I describe one example of harm in this post.) If you think think it’s impolite of me to say so, at least appreciate that I’ve paid for the privilege. Indeed, I continue to pay, both through student debt and in my spirit. Also, I write this as someone who graduated toward the top of my class. I’m not holding a grudge against Candler, for instance, because of my grades or its alleged academic rigor.

The alma mater that I love is the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have two undergraduate degrees from that fine institution, and I display these diplomas proudly on my office wall. Meanwhile, I literally have no idea where my Emory diploma is. I assume they keep records!

2. In this post, I’ve used used the term “substitutionary atonement” because Dr. Olson uses that term. Normally, I’m happy to say “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). Olson draws a distinction between the terms that I wouldn’t make. Whether I speak of PSA or substitutionary atonement, I want to affirm, alongside Olson, that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, apart from which none of us can be saved. On the cross, God did something objective through his Son’s suffering and death to make forgiveness of sin possible.

Devotional Day 17: “Ready for Whatever God Has in Mind”

December 17, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:5-25

I have experienced many times in my pastoral ministry when I’ve thought, “I was born to do this! Nothing makes me happier than doing this particular thing. I’m so glad I can serve the Lord in this way.” I’m not alone in this feeling: When we answer God’s call—to whatever task God calls us—God has a way of making us feel deeply happy and satisfied. 

Pastor Frederick Buechner put it well when he said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright reflects on the way in which this is true for Zechariah and Elizabeth:

This story, preparing us for the even more remarkable conception and birth of Jesus himself, reminds us of something important. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is—the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of small human concerns as well.[1]

Have you experienced the “deep gladness” that comes from “answering God’s call”—whatever that call may be? Do you believe that God wants you to find happiness in him? What could God be calling you to do right now?

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 7-8.

Advent Devotional Day 11: “How Will This Be?”

December 11, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:34

Mary, alongside other ancient people, knows the facts of life as well as any modern person: women don’t get pregnant without men—even if she lacked the more detailed scientific information that we now possess. 

English Bible scholar Tom Wright puts it like this: “The ancient world didn’t know about X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, but they knew as well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercourse—and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offense.”[1] 

What would people think if Mary, who was engaged but not yet married, said she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she was still a virgin, and there was no human father? 

They would think that she’s lying to save herself from embarrassment or shame. This is, in fact, what Joseph thinks when Mary breaks the news to him in Matthew 1:18-19.

And this is one reason that we can be confident that the virgin birth is true: because Matthew and Luke, who each include Christmas stories in their gospels, know that it’s difficult to believe. They know that, like Joseph himself, readers might imagine that Mary’s story is a cover-up for something embarrassing. 

Would Matthew and Luke risk including a potentially embarrassing and hard-to-believe story like the virgin birth if it weren’t based on solid evidence? Of course not. They include the story of the virgin birth because they also happen to believe it’s true.

Do you ever struggle to believe God’s Word? If so, you’re in good company! Pray that, as with Mary and Joseph, God will help you overcome your doubt.

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 9-10.

The best gift anyone has ever given me

June 27, 2018

Last week was an emotionally heavy week, for several reasons. I’ll talk about one of those reasons in today’s post.

I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and this year it was my turn to move. I said goodbye to beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—and friends—to whom I’ve given much of life over these past five years. After I preached my farewell sermon, on Acts 20:17-27, the church presented the following video tribute as a parting gift to me. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me!

In addition to heartfelt tributes from many of my parishioners, two of my heroes in the faith—genuine heroes—contributed to the video: N.T. Wright and Paul Zahl.

As longtime readers of the blog may guess, Wright, more than any living person, is responsible for what I’ve called my “evangelical re-conversion,” an experience that began around the time I started this blog in 2009 (even if it took another year or so to complete).

Wright, a retired bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—not to mention, for what it’s worth, the most famous. How many Bible scholars, after all, were able to match wits with Stephen Colbert on his old Comedy Central show, for instance?

But it was Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God that turned my life around. Here was Wright, an evangelical who has spent his long career within the world of mainline, critical scholarship—a world in which I was immersed for three years in seminary—offering an energetic defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the scriptures that bear witness to it. His writing gave me a greater confidence in the authority of scripture at a time in my life when I needed it. He also helped me understand how seamlessly the gospel fits within the story of Israel and the Old Testament.

His writing affirmed for me classic doctrines of faith that were minimized or neglected in seminary—such as penal substitutionary atonement, Final Judgment and hell, a literal Second Coming, and the infallibility of scripture—if not without much nuance and qualification. Still, Wright’s qualifications never come from a place of skepticism about the reliability of scripture, only his effort to be more faithful to it. How can I not respect that?

So I love Wright and owe him a debt of gratitude. God used him to make me a more faithful follower of Jesus today—which is to say, a happier, more joy-filled person. And here he is, from his home near St. Andrews in Scotland, congratulating me on my new appointment!

My other hero of faith in the video is Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopal minister and theologian. For the past four years, the Very Rev. Dr. Zahl has been “living in my head” through his preaching, his writing, and (especially) his podcasts. More than anything, Zahl helped me fall in love with Jesus again. (As you hear in the video, this has been a theme of my recent preaching—not a coincidence.) He did so by enabling me to reconnect with a part of myself I lost too many years ago: that gawky 15-year-old who once wore the cover off his 1984 NIV Study Bible. “To find God,” Zahl said—paraphrasing Meister Eckhart—“you have to go back to where you lost him.” Or, put another way, to make sense of your life, you have to go back to that point in time—for me, around age 19 or 20—at which life stopped making sense. Truer words! And his reflections on those words in one of his podcasts—drawing on both Citizen Kane and the great Burton Cummings of the Guess Who—changed my life! Only Zahl could say, without irony, that if you want to understand what God’s love is like, “You need to listen to more Journey.” Indeed!

That these two men—who’ve helped shape me into the pastor and person that I am today—were part of this tribute moved me deeply!

And for good measure, because of my abiding and long-suffering affection for my alma mater, Georgia Tech, and my beloved Yellow Jackets, head basketball coach Josh Pastner offers his well-wishes.

(Special thanks to my friend and brother Matthew Chitwood for reaching out to all these people and putting this video together.)

Why can’t God forgive sin without the cross?

October 28, 2017

As I’ve argued on this blog many times before, I’m a proponent of the doctrine of penal substitution, or penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I believe that it isn’t merely one way of understanding what God accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ on the cross—as if we can choose among several equally compelling alternatives: it’s the main way of understanding the Atonement.

In advocating for PSA, I’m standing on the shoulders not only of the Protestant Reformers but also Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and most of the classic Methodist theologians who followed in their wake.

But these are only men, of course. More than anything, I believe PSA is most faithful to the Bible, and its depiction of the way in which God reconciles us to himself.

PSA means that, ultimately, we sinners need to be saved from God’s wrath, which is God’s perfectly justifiable anger toward sin. (I preached on that topic last week.) Notice I say “perfectly justifiable.” I like the way N.T. Wright puts it in this essay:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

But how can we be saved from this wrath?

We need a human representative to endure it for us—one who is himself without sin. Who would be qualified to do that? Only a human being who is also (somehow) God. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it in the eleventh century, “If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”[1]

This is, of course, precisely what the God-man, Jesus Christ, has done for us. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” the “cup” is a reference, as in Isaiah 51:17 and 22, and Jeremiah 25:15, to God’s wrath being poured out. PSA means, in a way, that God saves us from God. Because of God’s perfect justice, God requires a payment. Because of God’s perfect love, God makes the payment. This payment, by the way, is what the Bible means, even in last Sunday’s scripture, when it speaks of “propitiation.” PSA does not pit God’s justice against God’s love: on the cross, they are in perfect harmony.

I like the way one commentator, quoted by N.T. Wright in his defense of PSA, puts it in a nineteenth-century commentary:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Notice the last sentence: PSA is “consistent with God’s character.”

The appeal to God’s character answers an objection we may have: If God’s justice demands propitiation (because of our sin) and God’s love offers it (through the death of God’s Son Jesus—who is also God, remember), isn’t this—to put it in human terms—like withdrawing money from one account, which belongs to you, and depositing it another account, which also belongs to you? After this transaction, you’re neither richer nor poorer. So why bother? Why can’t God merely forgive us without the cross?

Because we remember God’s character. God’s law emerges from his very nature. In a sense, then, as Stephen Wellum puts it, God is the law. Therefore all sin—which kindles God’s wrath—is against God.

Since God is the law, he cannot forgive our sin without satisfying his own holy and righteous demand. For God to forgive sin apart from the punishment of our sin or its full satisfaction is impossible. God cannot overlook our sin nor can he relax the retributive demands of his justice because he cannot deny himself. The God of the Bible is a se: self-existent, self-attesting, and self-justifying, which entails that he must punish sin because our sin is against him. Sin is not foremost against an external, impersonal order outside of God; it is against him, the triune-personal God of holy love, righteousness, and justice.[2]

This helps me.

If we would never expect or want God to do anything to compromise or contradict his love and mercy—which spring from his nature—why should we expect God to do something (or avoid doing something) that compromises or contradicts his justice? His love and justice are both part of who God is.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 157-8.

2. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 178.

Sermon 10-01-17: “Grace Alone”

October 12, 2017

Today’s sermon examines the Protestant (and biblical) doctrine of Sola Gratia—that we are saved by God’s grace alone. I begin the sermon looking at two Old Testament portrayals of grace and how they relate to the cross of God’s Son Jesus. These will give us a sense of how costly grace is. Understanding the costliness of grace will help us fall in love with Jesus Christ more and more.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

I want to begin with two pictures of grace from holy scripture. I could find dozens of more that would illustrate my point, but I only have time for two. The first comes from Genesis 15: God has just promised Abraham that he will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. That will take a miracle, but God will do it. These descendants will be God’s chosen people Israel, and through Israel God would save the world by sending his Son Jesus. So Abraham will enter the convent with God on Israel’s behalf.

How he enters this covenant will sound strange to our ears, but this is what ancient people did: At the Lord’s command, Abraham cut in half a heifer, a female goat, and a ram. When night fell, God appeared to Abraham in the form of a fire pot and a flaming torch. And this fiery vision—representing God—passed in between the two halves of each animal carcass. What does that symbolize? It’s as if God were saying, “May I become just like these animals—may I die like these animals—may my blood be shed like these animals—if I fail to live up to this covenant and keep my promises.” And next, we would expect the other party to the covenant to walk between the animal carcasses. But guess what? Abraham doesn’t do that. Only God does. God, in other words, was assuming responsibility for both sides of the covenant: If Israel breaks the covenant, God will suffer the penalty. That’s grace.

Here’s my second picture of grace, from Genesis 22: God commands Abraham to sacrifice the most precious thing Abraham had ever known: his beloved son. Or perhaps I should say the second most precious thing Abraham had known, because, as Abraham demonstrates, God is more precious to him than even his beloved son. How do we know? Because he’s willing to obey God, even though God was asking him to do the most difficult thing imaginable: sacrificing his own son! And of course, as Abraham raises the knife to slay his son, God stops him. And what does God provide for Abraham instead: a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. Abraham took the ram and slaughtered it and offered it as a burnt offering instead. God enables Abraham to offer a lamb as a sacrifice in place of his child. That’s grace. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-24-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 2”

October 11, 2017

This sermon is the second of two on Sola Scriptura, the classic Protestant (and ancient church) doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding Christian faith and practice. I contrast this doctrine with ideas put forward by Adam Hamilton in his recent book Making Sense of the Bible. From my perspective, Hamilton is misguided—dangerously so. As with my previous sermon, I hope to inspire confidence that the Bible is, as Wesley said, “infallibly true”—every word of it—and that we can built our lives on it.

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

[Read Psalm 1 as an opening prayer.]

Paul begins today’s scripture with these words: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.” And what Timothy has learned, and what he has firmly believed, Paul says, is found in the “sacred writings,” our holy Bible. Remain there, Paul says. Remain in God’s Word. Don’t stray from its teaching. Don’t stop reading it, studying it, treasuring it. Don’t stop putting it at the center of your life.

Aside from the gift of eternal life in his Son Jesus Christ, God has not given us a greater gift than the holy Bible. And of course, everything we know about Jesus Christ and God’s great love for us, and God’s plan to save us through faith in his Son comes from this book. Don’t leave it! Don’t think that you can progress beyond it. Or find something better. There’s enough in here for you, every day, to last a lifetime.

Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

My second-favorite movie about Christian faith is a movie called The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. It came out about twenty years ago. My first favorite is Chariots of Fire. You should see both of them. But The Apostle is wonderful: It’s about a deeply flawed but sincerely Christian pastor in the deep south. Someone gives him the deed to this tiny church in the middle of nowhere. And he starts preaching there, and slowly but surely more and more people start coming. But the they’re not the “right” kind of people—because most people in his congregation are black or Hispanic, and poor. And at least one person in town—a white supremacist played by Billy Bob Thornton—doesn’t like it at all. One Sunday, while the people at this church are worshiping, he shows up in a bulldozer. And he intends to literally tear the church down.

And Robert Duvall comes outside and places his black leather-bound Bible in front of caterpillar tracks of the bulldozer—daring the man to run over it on his way to destroying this church. And Thornton is like, “Move the Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” “Move that Bible.” “I’m not going to move it.” The two men are at an impasse. Is Thornton going to run over the preacher’s Bible? Then, after several tense moments, Thornton gets out of the cab of the vehicle in tears. Duvall embraces him. This sinner repents. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-17-17: “God’s Word Alone, Part 1”

October 10, 2017

As we look forward to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, this sermon is about the classic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone”—which means that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding our Christian faith and practice. Of course, in our culture today, the Bible’s authority is under constant attack. It’s even under attack in the church, including the United Methodist Church!

With that mind, I pray that these next two sermons on Sola Scriptura will give you confidence in God’s Word. We can trust it! Every word of it! We can build our lives on it!

Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

To make sense of what I’m about to say, let me define a term with which most of us Protestants will be unfamiliar: purgatory. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine that says that when a Christian dies, they will likely have to be cleansed of their sins—or punished for their sins—prior to going to heaven. How long this period of cleansing or punishment lasts, well, depends on how sinful a person was.

And before you ask, no, the doctrine of purgatory is not found in scripture.

To make matters worse, church officials back in the 16th century were going around and telling mostly poor people that if they were willing to pay enough money—money which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the church had the power to take time off their sentence in purgatory. Or even to take time off the sentences of their loved ones who were suffering in purgatory. And who wouldn’t want that for their loved ones?

Many thoughtful Christians believed that this church practice was corrupt, exploitative, greedy, and unbiblical. One of these critics was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther put his objections in writing, by posting his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints Church 500 years ago this October 31st. And this bold action launched the Protestant Reformation. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary”

September 15, 2017

The following sermon is the last in my sermon series on 1 Peter. It’s mostly about our adversary, the devil, who, Peter tells us, “prowls around (J)like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I begin my making the case for the reality of Satan and demons before talking about a couple of ways—through seemingly “small” sins (!) of pride and anxiety—that he gets a foothold in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 5:5-11

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I have a friend from college. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a committed Christian and a Methodist. Many years ago, one of Steve’s good friends encouraged him to join a very secretive fraternal organization. Please note: I’m not talking about the Masons. My own father was a Shriner and a Mason. In fact, Dad was the Grand Poo-Bah, if you remember Happy Days—he was the “Potentate” of Shrine organization in North Georgia. So nothing I say should be interpreted as my being opposed to Masons or other fraternal organizations. But as Steve soon learned, the one that he joined was not benign.

So he joined this secret organization; he learned their rituals; and one day, he was “practicing” them, as he was taught to do, shortly before going on a hike in the woods. Now, Steve is a smart guy. Scientifically minded. An engineer. And he told me that shortly after performing these rituals, while he was on his hike, he saw an apparition of a demon, which chased him through the woods. He knew it was a demon. He was terrified. And get this: when he told his friend about what happened—the friend who persuaded him to join this organization in the first place—his friend said, “Oh, yeah. That’s happened to me, too. But that’s just some psychological phenomenon. There’s nothing to it. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? Well, Steve immediately quit this organization and these obviously occult rituals. All I can say is my friend is not a crackpot. Read the rest of this entry »

Making sense of the Second Coming and Jesus’ words in Matthew 24

August 17, 2017

In preparing to preach on the Second Coming in last Sunday’s sermon (based on Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is at hand”), I read the most helpful book on the subject that I’ve ever read: Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

His book cleared up confusion on my part concerning the so-called Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” delivered to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 24-25 and its parallels.

What was I confused about? Something that N.T. Wright advocates in his commentaries on the subject: everything that Jesus says in this passage (and elsewhere in the gospels), which has traditionally been understood as pertaining to his Second Coming, isn’t about the Second Coming at all. Rather, it’s about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

Now, before the “Wright Is Wrong” crowd start piling on, let me say this: Wright doesn’t for a moment deny the Second Coming. In fact, he affirms it loudly from the rest of the New Testament. He just doesn’t think that Jesus taught it prior to his resurrection. In one of his commentaries, he writes that the disciples couldn’t understand his predictions about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Why would Jesus further confuse them with words about his Second Coming?

So this makes Wright a “partial Preterist”: Jesus’ apocalyptic language has already been fulfilled.

While I see the appeal of this position, and it’s clear that much of what Jesus says pertains to the events of A.D. 70, I certainly don’t believe that this is all Jesus is talking about. In order to buy into the Preterism of Matthew 24, you have to interpret Jesus’ words in v. 30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heavens” in a wildly figurative way: Wright says that when the Temple is destroyed, Christians will “see” Jesus and his glory in the sense of vindication: his warnings about Jerusalem, for example, in Matthew 23:37-38, and Israel’s failure to embrace his way of peace, will be fulfilled, and Christ will be glorified. Something like that…

So Jesus, in Wright’s view, “returns” in this figurative sort of way in A.D. 70, before he returns in a more literal way at the end of the age. In a sense, Wright teaches that there are two “returns” of Christ. And don’t most of us Christians—including Wright himself—fault our dispensationalist brothers and sisters for teaching that Christ returns twice—once for Christians and a second time after the Great Tribulation? Is Wright’s position really so different?

Regardless, as much as I respect Wright—and as much as I fear disagreeing with so fierce an intellect—his argument about Jesus’ “little apocalypse” sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like he’s trying to solve an apologetic problem—namely, Is the Bible, or Jesus, wrong about the Second Coming?

Granted, his “solution” isn’t the worst I’ve heard. C.S. Lewis—speaking of Christian thinkers I admire—happily admits that Jesus was wrong. But that’s O.K., he says, because Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So this is where Hoekema comes in: From his perspective, there is no problem. Not if we understand the way prophetic language works.

For example, I’ve struggled with two aspects of Jesus’ “little apocalypse.” First, if Jesus is talking about the end of the age and his Second Coming, why does his language focus so sharply on events in and around ancient Palestine?

On this point, Hoekema writes the following:

In this discourse Jesus seems to be describing events associated with his Second Coming in terms of the people of Israel and of life in Judea. These details, however, should not be interpreted with strict literalness. Herman Ridderbos has some helpful things to say about this:

… The prophet paints the future in the colors and with the lines that he borrows from the world known to him, i.e., from his own environment…. We see the prophets paint the future with the palette of their own experience and project the picture within their own geographical horizon. This appears in the Old Testament prophets in all kinds of ways. And in our opinion, this is also the explanation of Jesus’ description of the future. He follows the Old Testament most closely, and not only is the temporal perspective lacking at the end, but the geographical horizon within which the eschatological events take place is also restricted in some places to the country of Judaea or to the cities of Israel.

In other words, Hoekema writes,

Jesus was describing future events in terms which would be understandable to his hearers, in terms which had local ethnic and geographic color. We are not warranted, however, in applying these predictions only to the Jews, or in restricting their occurrence only to Palestine.[†]

My second problem with Jesus’ words about the Second Coming in Matthew 24 is how they blur so easily with his prediction about the fall of Jerusalem. Why does it seem so unclear, so confusing? But here, too, according to Hoekema, Jesus is following the pattern of Old Testament prophecies. He is employing “prophetic foreshortening.” I explained this idea in last Sunday’s sermon. I hope you find it helpful:

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns have you had about the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.